A Third World

Sigyn

 There was a fog at the airport. The green and red lights of the air tower cut through the sky as a pair of warring lightsabers, first good then evil prevailing. Catherine frowned at her passenger. "So, this is goodbye?" There was both warning and hope in her voice.

Devon shifted in his seat and lifted a briefcase from between his knees, confirming her question more with actions than with reply. He hesitated with his hand on the handle of the car door. "You still donít like me, do you?" he asked, a mischievous grin crinkling the parallel scars across his cheek.

Catherine looked down at the steering wheel. She had agreed to drive Devon to the airport more to be sure he was going than because she wished him well. "I know Vincent cares about you very much," Catherine said. "Itís not a question of like, itís a question of trust."

"Well, I am a very convincing liar," Devon said candidly. "But then so are most of us who ever go Below."

"I donít lie."

"You never tell the whole truth, either," Devon said. "But it doesnít matter. Of all the things Iíve done wrong, truth to tell, Iíve never done anything bad."

"How am I to know youíre telling the truth now?" Catherine asked.

"You arenít. Look, I asked you to drive me here because I wanted to talk with you... about Vincent."

Catherine stared at the lights of the taxi-cab ahead of her. "Youíve had this whole drive."

"And youíve been ever so open and welcoming to my advances," Devon laughed. "I know you donít understand me. Iím not always sure I understand myself. But I do understand Vincent." He looked Catherine up and down, more appraising than appreciative, a woman clearly considered off-limits. "What has Vincent told you about me?"

Catherine looked into Devonís brown eyes. She did see something of Fatherís perverse wisdom, the kind of reckless wisdom which would base an entire community on secrecy and refuse, the kind of wise tenacity which could turn a wild, violent city urchin into a loving, dedicated friend, or turn a bestial child into a tender, cultured man. "He told me you were the best of friends as children. That you would play and dream together, that you dared to plan adventures that included him."

Devon nodded. "Exactly." He stared out at the fog touched windscreen. The occasional bead of moisture ran rivulets down the glass, met up with others, formed veins and streams amidst the dew. "Thatís the only lie that bothers me. Of all the things Iíve said I am, said I could do... But my window for adventure has passed, for Vincent," he said. "There is nothing I could give him, nowhere I could take him now that he would accept. Hardship and the Old Man have had too long to work on his fears... and another has supplanted me." He turned to her. "I have been places, desert valleys where there is nothing but sage and scrub brush for miles, the tops of glaciers where the only sound is the howling of the wind. I have been in swamps and forests where there was no other human soul for dayís travel." He looked back out at the befogged world. "There are places like that, Cathy. But itís too late for me ... to take him." He took one last, long look at her. "Think about that. Isnít that sad?" Then he opened the door and stepped out.

He hadnít said anything, hadnít told her to do anything, but the seed was planted. She knew that was his intention. Before Devon had a chance to close the door, she called out, "Youíre right, it is sad." Devon hesitated, bending his head to peer in at her under the door frame. "I will think about it."

Devon nodded silently, retrieved his suitcase from the back seat of her car, and vanished into the airport.

***

"No." Vincent pulled away again, to step behind his table. Catherine sat on his bed, inviting, welcoming, all but begging, but the firm and unshakable conviction was hard again in his face. Catherine almost screamed with frustration.

Rather than let herself fall into anger, she settled back into her usual pattern of resignation. "Why do you keep denying it?" she asked. "Wasnít it wonderful?"

"Itís always wonderful," Vincent said, his black velvet voice sending shivers up her spine. "And itís always dangerous."

Again and again they had come so close. Only for him to pull away at the last minute. And again and again they had both lost control, or rather channeled control, and fallen, desperately or hesitantly or as if destiny had pulled them, into each otherís arms. And for an hour, a night, a day, once or twice even a week, all would be well. She could touch him as she wished and he would not pull away. They would make love and fall out of the endless pattern of repetitive, empty words. But then he would start to lose control, or think he was losing control. And then, the pull away. The no. The distracting, "Catherine," as he would draw her away from her intended kiss into another warm, enveloping, unbreakable embrace. Then it was back to the embrace, the touch of the hand, possibly the feel of his face brushing the top of her head. For weeks. Months. Nothing more passionate.

In a way it was exciting. It always seemed the first time, the final crack of the rock hard veneer of constraint. To build up desire until it burst like a volcano, immersing both of them into a burning, writhing fire. But there was a part of Catherine which always felt the rejection when the fear rose in him and the "no" came back again.

Stung, even though the rejection was not new, Catherine stood. It had been six weeks since their last real tryst. She was beginning to feel desperate again. But in a way it didnít matter. "Iím leaving in two hours," she said.

"Any idea how long youíll be gone?" Vincent asked. There was tension in his voice. Even though they could spend days apart while she was Above and he Below, whenever obligations pulled her away, he felt torn. While their Bond knew no distance, his heart did. He always knew where she was. When she was far away, she felt far away. He could always feel her, far far away from him, far beyond his reach. It made his nerves raw and his muscles twitch, and the entire community Below mildly dreaded those times when Catherine was away.

"No one knows, plans change," Catherine said. Vincent sighed. So there would be no end in sight. "But Iíll be at the station in two days time. You will meet me there?"

Theyíd discussed this. It was the farthest edge of the subway system, the last stop Vincent could make safely. But to feel Catherine not so far away even for an hour was worth the trip. "Of course, if you wish."

"I wish," she said. She stood up and went to him. No kisses. Not today. But he enfolded her in his arms and held her, gently but firmly, for a long time. He let his breath caress her ear, the only intimacy he would allow. Finally he released her. "I love you," she whispered up at him, still silently begging for that kiss.

He couldnít. Not before she left. The wordless part of him never wanted her to go, and it always came too close when she kissed him, made love to him. "Godspeed, my love," he replied. Then he turned away.

Catherine was too happy to be disappointed. Her hand lingered for a moment on his arm, but she left smiling.

"Okay, okay, Catherine," Mouse said, catching her at the next bend in the tunnels. He thrust a large black cloth bag at her. "I got it, Mouse got it."

"Great!" she hissed, too low to hear. "You cling to him like a limpet tomorrow, and make sure he takes it with him before he leaves." She pressed at him. in payment for his help, a small bag of items Mouse had requested from the hardware store .

"Okay. Okay, good. Okay, fine," Mouse said, stuffing the paper bag in one of his myriad pockets. He frowned. "He wonít be angry?"

"Why would he? Trust me Mouse. Itís a surprise."

"Okay, fine. Surprise. Surprises are good."

Catherine smiled. "They are. Surprises can be very good."

***

By six AM the dawn was still only touching the sky. Vincent found Catherine in the stationís sub-basement parking garage, leaning against a nondescript grey rental van, dressed in jeans and a light brown leather jacket against the morning chill. She was dipping now and again into much battered paperback book, obviously kept for the purpose of being cheap enough to batter on trips. He lingered for a moment in the shadows, content to be an unseen watcher, but he could never bear it for long. "Catherine," he called softly.

Catherine looked up from her book. He caught the title as she let it fall. Collected works of Jane Austin. Her face lit up, and she joined him in the shadows. "There you are," she said.

"The trains were slow." His hair was more windswept than usual, and Catherine felt a little ashamed that she couldnít have simply driven him the whole trip. Gripping the back of a roving subway train canít be the most comfortable method of travel "But I am here." He held out the bag from his shoulder. "What is in this bag Mouse had me bring? He insisted I not open it, which always makes me nervous with Mouse. I hope he didnít steal it."

"Only in a way. I asked him to get it for me." Catherine took the sturdy, patchwork bag from his arm. She stashed it in the back of the van and held her hand out to Vincent. "Come."

Vincent balked, more in his mind than anywhere else. He did not have any pleasant memories of vehicles. He, or others, had been struck down by them, trapped in them, thrown from them. To step willingly into one of the roaring death machines of Above did not come naturally to him. "Catherine, what are you planning?"

"Itís a surprise," she said, her voice turning more childlike with mischief. He loved her voice, particularly when it did that. He closed his eyes for a moment, considering. "Do you remember the fourth of July?" she asked, cutting through his qualms.

Vincent, smiled, remembering. It was one of the flowers he held in the bouquet of his memories with Catherine. He had arranged the evening. He met her below and led her through the city, to a nondescript ally. "Come with me," he had told her softly, and guided her hands around his neck. Once she was firmly on his back, he said, "Hold to me tightly. I will not let you fall." And he began to climb.

At first Catherine clung to him, her eyes closed just as tightly as her arms around his body. He could feel her fear, wearing away at her strength. But Vincent climbed so steadily and smoothly that when he whispered to her, "Open your eyes!" she obeyed.

They were high above the city. She did not release her iron grip on his back, but she looked about at the bright lights and the brilliant towers of New York. Her fear turned to awe. Within a few moments he arrived at his destination, and high above the city he held her as the Fourth of July fireworks burst at eye level. Far away, perhaps, but Catherine stared at them as if they were the colors of Vincentís own soul. She held his hand and he held her shoulders. He could barely look at the bursting flowers of flame, distracted by the planes of brilliant color that flashed over her face. "I wanted to show you what no one else could."

"You already have," she replied, and stared at him. Time held its breath for a moment. It was one of those moments when he felt their souls touch, mingle, become one. They nearly kissed then, an incendiary counterpoint to the multi-hued pyrotechnics which celebrated a memory of either freedom or war. But he wasnít ready, and she had submitted to snuggling against his chest, returning her attention reluctantly to the rocketís red glare.

"Yes," Vincent replied.

Catherine smiled. "My turn."

With a deep breath, Vincent raised his hood and stepped into the van.

He had not slept in a long while, and the dawn was breaking. "I think youíd better get in the back," Catherine suggested, and Vincent complied without complaint. The rear windows were shielded with black curtains. Vincent wondered if Catherine had put them up, or if they came with the van. In any case, it mattered little. At first he leaned against the juddering wall, watching Catherine drive. Her emotions were a steady flow of anticipation and joy, with a little distraction of concentration as she drove. She had turned on a tape of Chopin, which was not one of Vincentís favorites. He preferred the more structured measure of the Baroque or even the light whimsy of Classical to the wandering self-indulgence of most of the Romantics. The combination of the mildly uninteresting music and Catherineís comfortable thoughts and the rocking of the van lulled Vincent into a steady doze.

He was awakened by a heavy jolt as the van passed over a dip in the road, followed by another and another. Catherine had drawn a curtain between the back of the van and the cab, and Vincent was in near darkness. But not too dark to see that he had slept for some hours. The light that shone round the edges of the curtains was bright. Another jolt, and Vincent realized they were driving on gravel. But Catherineís thoughts were calm. Everything was still according to plan, then. He sighed, ambivalent. The car eased to a stop and Catherine got out. Vincent waited. He had no idea what her intentions were, stopping the van in broad daylight. They would have to find a parking garage, or... but it wouldnít matter, because he could tell they were far from New York, far from the safety of the tunnels. He wanted to pace, but there wasnít room to stand. He perched, wary, and made sure the hood of his cloak was up, shrouding his face.

Catherine opened the back of the van, a bright shock of sunlight streaming around her supple form. She had shed the jacket and was now in a short sleeved shirt. "Come," she said.

Vincent looked askance at the gleaming light. "Here?" He glanced around him. "Now?"

Catherine stepped up into the van, kneeling before him. She held her hand out, a perfect invitation. "Itís just afternoon. Thereís no one to hide from," she promised. "Come with me."

The light made him wary. Fatherís repeated warnings and his tunnel-raised background made him unprepared for this kind of exposure. He hesitated. "Where are we?"

"Last stop on a dead end road, branching from another dead end road. Over a mountain. Through a valley. Up a hill, around a bend. There is no human soul for over a mile. Come." Catherine said, her voice so gentle and cajoling that he could not refuse. He trusted Catherine above all others. He held out his furry hand and placed it in her warm, pale one. She closed her fingers around him and led him slowly into the light.

He blinked from the brightness, and before he knew it Catherine had pulled his hood down around his shoulders. Part of him was glad of it, as he was far too warm. The chill of the night and the dampness of the tunnels had not prepared his body for a warm afternoon in late spring. He was ill dressed for it, in layers of knit fabric. But there was little of his mind which dwelled on this.

At first he felt only pain, saw only a green blur as his night-sighted eyes were assaulted by the sun. Then he blinked away the tears, narrowed his eyelids, steeled himself against the brightness, and finally saw where he was.

He stood on a gravel drive which led to a quiet cedar home, nestled amongst the trees at the edge of a shallow valley. The only sight of anything man made was of the homestead itself. Across the valley were endless acres of young trees, no more than ten or twenty years. Older trees towered above him, rustling in the wind. Birds shouted in song from the forest about the rights of ownership. A gentle bleating from his right was testimony to a flock of sheep and goats. A rooster, mistaking the noon for the dawn, crowed his mastery over his hens. And the sky... oh, the sky. Pieced through the leaves of the trees above him, the sky was a jagged puzzle of glowing cerulean, dusted with high wisps of cirrus. The sun turned the leaves to stained glass of jade, and gilded them with points of gold. His breath caught, and it took him a full minute to realize Catherineís hand was still in his.

He turned to her, prepared to ask questions, but was staggered again by the sight of his Catherine in sunlight.

Part of it was the expression on her face, a kind of rapt joy and pity, that her gift was received so well, and needed so badly. But the sunlight turned her hair to pure spun gold, and her eyes no longer glittered, they outright shone. "Come on," Catherine said, and she led him toward the house. She seemed to realize she couldnít leave him alone out here, not yet. "I hate to be indelicate, but Iíve been driving for six hours, and I need to use the facilities."

***

Fifteen minutes later, she was refreshed by a brief shower and changed into a simple sundress. The bag which had been pressed on Vincent had revealed a complete second set of clothes, and two comparatively light ruffled shirts. "Mouse wonít get in trouble, will he? I asked him to steal these for you from your room while you were out, and prepare them."

"I donít think itís really stealing if he was just packing for me," Vincent said. They were in the kitchen of the farmhouse. Catherine pulled two glasses out of the cupboard and a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator. "I brewed this last night before I drove to get you, it should be cold now," she said.

"Catherine, where are we?"

"This is the house of the parents of a friend of mine from college," Catherine said. "Sheís getting married this weekend, but her parents couldnít make it because they have a farm to maintain. I was up here, once, during a vacation, when I couldnít make it back to New York. I knew how isolated it was. When I found out her parents couldnít make it, I offered to watch the place while they went to the wedding. I came up yesterday while they were still here, to make sure I knew how to do all the chores." She pushed a glass of iced tea at Vincent. "We have three days."

"Three days?" Vincent asked slowly. He glanced about the room. The walls of the kitchen were tiled with blue Italian tile, and the counter was a solid butcherís block of sanded oak. The rest of the house was paneled in cedar, a warm, welcoming continuation of the forest surrounding them. "Three days, here?"

Catherine nodded. "I was afraid you wouldnít come, if I told you."

"They expect me back..." Vincent said, but it was a half-hearted warning.

"No they donít. I gave Mouse a message to give to Father after you left."

Vincent grunted at how well that message would be received. "Father wonít be pleased."

"We arenít children," Catherine said. Her relationship with Father had warmed recently, but she still didnít like that kind of statement.

"No, with Mouse," Vincent said. "You should have chosen Jamie, or..."

"Mouse is the only one I know Below who keeps secrets as well as you and Father," Catherine said. "Other than the obvious," she added, meaning the tunnels themselves.

"But what made you bring me here?" Vincent asked. "Why...?"

"It was Devon," Catherine admitted. "He said he regretted never getting around to giving you... any of the adventures he promised."

Vincent laughed, as though he should have known.

"And I thought... maybe.... Well." She stopped. "I just wanted you to see it."

She led him outside and across a narrow pathway to a smaller house. The guest house, she called it. It was only one room, outside of the bathroom and closet. There was no kitchen, and only a small bathroom. The guest house had a bed, but there was also a couch. For a moment she considered drawing attention to the sleeping arrangements, but decided against it. Should Vincent decide now was not the time, he could sleep on the couch, or in the living room of the main house, or anywhere. She would let him decide when the time came.

She had prepared a picnic, which they ate on the lawn in the shadow of a large maple. Vincent could hardly keep his eyes still. His wariness slowly faded to pure wonder, and he hardly touched the food. The sky and the wind carried wild scents to him, and a feral joy sang in his blood.

After their picnic they went for a walk. Catherine introduced him to the flock of goats and sheep, and walked him down the hill to where a small duck pond glittered in the sun. Vincent stared at daisies, marveled at dragonflies, closed his eyes in wonder at the sound of a bird. They paused beneath an oak tree, shaded from the direct sun. A squirrel chattered at them in territorial mockery. He gazed up at it, half laughing. "How did you find this place?" he whispered.

"It took me a long time to remember it," Catherine said, "longer to arrange to be here alone. It was the best I could do. I should have liked to have taken you to the ocean, or the mountains capped with silver snow, to see the endless sweeping of the great plains, or..."

"Catherine," Vincent said, stopping her. "You might as well offer to walk me down the avenues of Avalon, into the halls of Asgard, or fly me to the spires of the moon as even offer me... this." He gestured to the sunlit meadow, the pond sparkling with radiant ripples of light. This was so deeply beyond even his fondest dreams.

"You like it, then?" Catherine said.

Vincent shook his head, a curious smile on his face. "No," he said quietly. He more than liked it. His eyes soft, he reached deftly out and took Catherine by the arm. There was barely a moment when their eyes met. As always, Catherine was ready to defer, to submit to the warm embrace she was sure was coming. But without a moment of indecision, without a hesitation or a flash of fear across his face, Vincent bent and kissed her, tenderly, thoroughly.

A thrill passed through Catherine, both the elation of his kiss and a kind of pure relief. For once, for once, she had not had to initiate. For once he had desired her, without any specific encouragement. For once, it seemed to her, she was the one being seduced, not the one having to. His arms were strong and determined on her shoulders, holding her firmly against him. It was a good thing, too, because within a few moments she was no longer sure she could have stood without his support.

For a moment their lips parted, a catch of breath, and a whisper passed between them. "Yes." Neither was sure if the other had said it. Without a pause, Vincent bent her backwards, and they fell upon the mossy earth. His weight pressed her deliberately to the ground, and she gasped.

Of all the sounds her ears had focused on during their love making Ė distant music, city streets, the constant knocking of the pipes Ė never had she expected sweet piercing birdsong, the buzz of summer insects, or the rush of the wind through branches. Vincentís knee was between her legs, pushing her gently apart. He pulled away from her mouth and gently covered her face with kisses, inching slowly up one cheek, across her eyelids, along her hairline. This was Vincent still, but a free Vincent, with no binds or fears or cares. "Why?" she whispered.

He understood what she was asking. Why now? Why this gentle abandon? He did not stop peppering her with little kisses, but his voice whispered between them. "Because right nowĖ there is nothing inside me ó but wonder Ė and peace ó" he pulled away a little bit and whispered into her mouth, "and love for you." He continued his kisses down her throat, and she couldnít suppress a small moan. His velvety skin and supple lips caressed down her collar bone to the small indentation between her breasts, where a line of buttons held her treasures secret.

Before she even had a chance to question his intentions, Vincent had begun to slowly work each button through until the sundress revealed her flesh. As each button fell away, Vincent followed with his lips. Catherine reached her hand up to tangle into his wild golden mane. She heard something she had rarely heard before. From Vincentís throat came a chuckling purr. She was glad she had decided against the restricting bra. She wondered if she had suspected what the day and the sky would do to Vincentís restraint.

One clawed hand gently gripped her breast, and Vincent rolled off her to follow the line of buttons. His nose circled her navel, and before three more buttons had fallen away, he was nuzzling the gentle nest of hair which hid beneath her silken panties. The hand left her breast, his claws tracing gentle lines down her tight belly, while his other hand continued working her buttons. Sliding his fingers under the elastic, he slid the scrap of silk down. Catherine obligingly lifted her buttocks to assist in this delicate operation.

Once her core was revealed in all its glory, Vincent growled once, almost a sigh, before he plunged his tongue against her, claiming it for his own. Catherine cried out, a sound of relief more than pleasure. The dress, now a spread cloth protecting her skin from the rude earth, no longer clung to her legs. The warm moist pressure of Vincentís mouth on her swollen bud sent waves of pure pleasure through her. They radiated from that point of contact up through her arms and down to her toes, swirling through every part of her until they finally culminated into an aching, beautiful pressure in her chest, a kind of golden sun, an almost painful physical presence of love. When the orgasm rocked her, her hands clenched on his mane, pulling him almost forcibly away from her over-stimulated center.

Vincent growled, a surprisingly gentle sound, and tore at the lacings which bound his trousers. They broke in his hand, and he wrestled them off without urgency, but with a tenacity that brooked no argument. Catherine released him in a kind of wonder. She knew this face. It was a different expression, a softer set to the eyes, but this was not Vincent. Or rather, this was the heart of Vincent, what he called the Other, the beast which took over, over which he had little mental control. The hunter. The killer.

The lover.

The realization shook Catherine more than their first kiss had, more than his first submission to their first tryst. But before she had a chance to work out the implications of her realization, he had pushed his way toward her. His pulsing erection, in proportion large as the rest of him, slid easily inside her slippery folds, and the length of him skewered her as deeply as her shock had, temporarily banishing all thought. There was only sensation now, and emotion. The painful golden sun in her chest burned with a desire to take him inside, every part of him. When they made love her link to their Bond grew stronger, and she could almost see his own sun, slightly higher on him, pulsing along with their thrusts. His love. His soul. She raised her legs and gripped him, pulling him deeper inside her, though he didnít need the encouragement.

He had no words, but his intentions were not selfish, or rather she wouldnít have considered them so. He thrust inside her, anxious for the culmination, but not for himself. He wanted to hear her scream.

It didnít take long before the warmth of his love and the weight of his body and the force of his thrusts into and against her most sensitive corners resulted in the fulfillment of this desire. First she began to whimper, as if what she wanted was beyond reach. Then her breath grew faster, and in the clear sunlight, he could see the flush on her face, the sparkle of perspiration on her brow. He could see, for the first time, the beautiful shadows which passion had painted around her eyes, the bright blood inside her staining her lips as red as if she had tasted it. He bent down to lick that blood red mouth, to taste Her scent, the scent of his mate, sweeter than blood or honey.

With that change of angles, she groaned, and ceased her own thrusts, her legs gripping his buttocks in an iron vice. But he was relentless, and she had not the strength to prevent him. He thrust harder, deeper, faster, until white lines highlighted the outside of her lips, until the shadows beneath her eyes had turned black, until the cords on her neck rippled with the shocks of agonized pleasure. She could not stop him, she had to stop him, she was going to break apart, and she did not want to stop him!

Finally her climatic screams subsided in pure exhaustion. He was past mercy, but that was all he wanted. He pulled away, his shaft glittering with her juices. She sighed with relief and regret, but she neednít have worried. He wasnít through with her yet.

Without any glance of question or warning, he firmly gripped her shoulders and lifted her. The straps of the sundress fell to the ground as she was lifted as easily as a rag doll. Deliberately, Vincent turned her around, bringing her buttocks to his stomach. Oh, yes. This was it. He found her core again easily, but her juices were flowing so freely he had trouble finding purchase. Once, twice, three times he overshot his mark, and his hard, slick member mercilessly raked her swollen, spent bud. She grunted each time, but willing to submit to whatever he wanted to do with her. If Vincent wanted to eat her still beating heart, she was at a point where sheíd let him without complaint. Anything. Anything.

Finally he found his goal, and with a low growl of contentment he hunched over her. Evenly, he pushed farther inside her than heíd ever gone before. She couldnít even be sure it was still Vincent inside her. She was so swollen and moist it could have been an eel, or a baseball bat. It seemed to pass through her deeper than any organ could ever reach, up through her stomach and into the heart of that golden sun of love, which pulsed in response. But it was definitely Vincentís strong arms around her, holding her arms to her sides and gripping her breasts with clawed, furred hands. It was definitely Vincentís breath in her ear, his velvet voice reduced to a gentle, purring growl of contentment and, yes, ownership.

As he began to grow even harder, his own pleasure mounting to the end, he reached down and bit her on the back of the neck. He got mostly her hair, but he didnít bother trying for a firmer grip. Something was wrong with his instinct here, he had expected a scruff of loose skin. But it felt right, her hair in his mouth, this groan from her lips. He pushed faster, knowing he couldnít let go until he was finished. With a roar he released himself inside her, filling her with all that he was. She cried out too, and that also felt right. With a final growl, a final push, he finally released her.

But he wasnít finished quite yet. She lay spent, her head on her hands, her knees tucked beneath her, waiting his next desire. It was a simple one. He gripped her arms and turned her around. Catherineís eyes were half closed, hooded with spent desire. Catherine. Yes, that was her name. Names meant so little when there were no words.

He let her lay back on the wrinkled sun dress, and nuzzled her neck. Yes, that was her scent, there, the most sensual scent of pheromones around the throat. Then he curled himself beside her and nestled his head between her soft breasts, drawing his energy back.

***

Catherine wasnít sure she hadnít passed out. It might have been simple sleep, but she suspected her body Ė and everything else Ė had been overstimulated. She opened her eyes to the sight of Vincentís head still settled comfortably between her breasts, but the sun seemed to have jumped. It was nearly sunset, the light was beginning to turn strange and golden and magical. She reached her hand down to stroke his head.

He turned, slightly, resting his chin on his hand so as not to dig into her. Their Bond still felt open to her, and she sensed nothing but contentment from him, so she was surprised to find droplets of tears on his cheeks. She brushed them gently with her fingertips. "Tell me," she whispered.

"Pure joy," he whispered back, and then closed his blue eyes, listening to the birdsong, and her even breathing. For a moment he considered. Should he tell her what had happened to him? His deep, ancient fear of rejection said no, but he was mostly past that now. But how to say it? "It... it wasnít... me...."

"Yes, it was," Catherine replied, a smile in her voice. "But I know what you mean."

He opened his eyes again to gaze at her, puzzled.

Her eyes were bright with love. "I know you, Vincent. Of all people, I have seen you in every possible state. I know... what happened to you."

"I lost control," he whispered. There was no feeling of shame to it, though. He knew he would. He had let himself. He had felt so... feral. But there was no violence in his heart. He had left it behind, in the city of ten million desperate souls.

"I knew you wouldnít hurt me," Catherine answered. "It was inevitable, Vincent. I never realized that before. I never realized how hard your road was. All the time I was begging you to touch me, to let it happen. I was certain you could maintain control, that you... the scholar, the teacher, the poet. I was certain you wouldnít lose yourself. I told you so. That was so unfair to even ask you." She ran a finger over his hooded brows, around his eyes, gently brushing the velvety fur on his cheeks. "Love has no words, Vincent. Despite poetry, despite the very word, ĎLoveí. Any rational thought would have abandoned this dream long ago."

She paused, trying to figure out if saying this would hurt him. But he knew what he was, as well as she did. He couldnít be hurt here, now, in the magic golden light of the setting sun, outside with wind breathing peacefully beneath a clear sky. "Itís the beast in you that loves me, Vincent. The scholar, the poet, he revels in the courtly chivalry of the word, ĎLoveí. But heís also the one who keeps pushing me away, telling me to go. Itís the beast that rages in you whenever I do. Donít say it isnít true."

Vincent looked down, surprised by his own small smile. She did know him. Whenever he let her go, whenever he thought she might not return, it was as if the beast was inside him, raking claws through his heart and leaving him to bleed. The beast hated that scholar, all that honor and chivalry. "He wants to possess you," he whispered, almost hoping she wouldnít hear.

Either she did, or she knew without hearing what he was saying. "I belong to you, Vincent. As surely as you belong to me. So freely do you use the word, our ĎBondí. Bonded, bound. Only that which is not free is bound."

"I donít want to be free," Vincent said.

"Neither do I. Not of you." She worked through his mane until she found one of his fur touched ears. "But I never realized before that telling you that you could fight the beast, remain in control, was wrong. To fight the beast is to fight our love. Itís to fight the very thing that binds us together in the first place. Forcing you to make love and fight love at the same time... must have been agony for you. Donít fight the beast anymore, Vincent. He wonít hurt me any more than you would."

Vincent remembered that possessing bite, could still remember the feel of her flesh between his teeth. The scholar would never have done that. "How can you know that?"

Catherine lifted his hand from off her breast, where it was idly stroking the areola. She gently held it to her lips. "Most sane creatures donít hurt their mates. Not enough to damage them, anyway." And deliberately, she bit his hand, hard enough to leave a mark. A chill of pleasure passed through him at the mild pain, and he suddenly understood why she wasnít afraid. He gasped, either from the sensation or the realization, he couldnít be sure. "It is only man who ever turns that ugly," Catherine whispered against his palm.

He pulled his hand from hers, closing it on her chin. He shifted higher, so he was breathing into her mouth. "My mate?" he whispered, an amused smile on his face. For a moment, Catherine was ashamed at her choice of words. It did seem to cheapen the concept. He ran his nose down her chin, across her cheek, sending shivers down her spine. "My love," he corrected her, and kissed her soundly.

They stood, and Catherine redonned her sundress, which needed to be thrown in the washing machine, quickly.

***

They sat on the porch to watch the sunset, as the distant hills were fired with red and gold. "This place is like a dream," Vincent whispered.

"Our dream," Catherine said. "You see it isnít impossible." Sheíd been thinking about it a lot recently. She wanted a life, and she wanted a life with Vincent.

Vincent caught the weight to her words. This wasnít simply a vacation, or rather, it might not be. "You think this world would welcome us?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I donít have any plans or..." She didnít want to prevaricate. "It could work," she finished instead. "A place like this, isolated, where we could hear anyone coming long before we could see them... or they could see us. You could stay... here... or a place like here. Thereís so much to be done on a place like this, always. Hay to move, wood to split. I could open an office in town. Here itís about ten miles away. I could drive that. Sort out child-custody and minor rural claims. A local lawyer can do a great deal of good." She shook her head. "Itís just a thought, I donít have any real plans."

"Yet you have put a good deal of thought into it," Vincent said.

Catherine shrugged and looked down. "I get desperate sometimes, Vincent," she said.

He knew it. He had never thought to leave the tunnels. Not in anything more than brief, wishful fantasies had he even considered walking in the sun. To be presented with the idea that a life, a perfectly ordinary human life, was possible for him was staggering. But doubt nagged at him. Truly, he knew nothing about this country world. "Iíll consider it," he said.

"Thereís nothing to consider right now," Catherine said. "This is just for you and me to enjoy ourselves."

The sun was gone and the shadows were closing in, so they retreated indoors to wash up.

***

There was no question about where Vincent would sleep that night. Catherine brought it up, rather hesitantly, but Vincent stopped her. "If Iím living a dream, Catherine, I intend to live it."

An hour later they stepped into the night toward the guest house.

Vincent glanced around him, and breath caught, as stunned as he had been the first time Catherine kissed him. He froze in his tracks.

Catherine continued on for a few steps until she realized he was no longer beside her. "Vincent?" she said.

Vincent stared into the sky.

"Vincent?" He did not move, not even when she sidled back up to him and slid her hand into his.

His hand closed on hers slowly, gently, distracted. He did not look at her. His voice, when he found it, was husky. "The stars, Catherine. The stars !"

All his life, Vincent had lived in the night. All his life he had studied the heavens. Father had taught him the stars, the constellations. They had studied their movements, read the stories of their names, even, briefly, dabbled in the supposed precepts behind astrology, more for historical purposes than anything else. He knew the stars as he knew the Tunnels. If anyone had asked him, he would have sworn he knew the face of the stars better even than the face of his own Father.

But nothing had prepared him for this. The distant glimmers he had seen, even in the darkest corners at the darkest hour of the night, from the highest city tower, in mocking mirror image in the reflection pool Below, had been a pale joke to compare with the sparkling brilliance which scintillated from the heavens above him. The black velvet cloak of night was no longer husky with smog, and the quiet glittering of those celestial orbs was unmuted by a sea of electric light. Every star he had searched through his life to find, every tiny glint which he had finally only found with telescopes, shone boldly from the sky, and a thousand more. And arching over his head, a glittering dust of something he had only ever seen depicted in two-dimensions in drawings and photographs. "The milky way..."

"Can be seen with the naked eye out here, Vincent," Catherine said. She glanced up at the stars for a moment with him, but then turned to stare at his face. "Would you care to watch them for a while?"

Vincent did not speak. He didnít seem capable of it. Finally Catherine led him from the narrow slit between the houses to the comparatively manicured grass of the lawn. It was rough and weedy compared to the tame grasses of New York City, and Catherine suspected it was mown sporadically by a tethered goat, but it was soft and green, and made a good spot to view the sky.

Vincent stumbled once as she led him. That alone shook Catherine. That Vincent, with his catlike, inhuman grace, could stumble. She pulled on him and settled him into the grass, and she sat beside him. She gazed up as well, but her eyes were more often drawn to the rapt expression on his face. She had seen that look on his face so rarely. When he would hold a newborn infant, and sometimes, sometimes, when he gazed into her eyes.

After a little time Vincent grew more used to the sight. He sighed and put his arm around her, though his eyes were still riveted. "If you had asked me yesterday," he said, "What is the most beauty youíve ever seen, I could have answered simply with three things. The crystal cavern, the jeweled towers of light of the city from Above... and your face in the moonlight. Today I must add your eyes..." he glanced back down at her, "your hair in the sun..." he looked back up to the stars. "And this."

"Look!" said Catherine, pointing to his left. "A shooting star."

A gleaming line of silver arched across the sky and finally faded into darkness. Vincent had seen five shooting stars even since he sat down, but this was brighter than the others, and he knew Catherine hadnít been as riveted as he.

"Make a wish," she whispered.

Vincent sighed. "I canít," he said. He squeezed her shoulders and pressed his lips against her hair. "Theyíve all come true."

***

For an hour Vincent held her beneath the stars. She shifted a few times, unable to get as comfortable on the ground as he. He could have stared in rapt silence all that time, but instead he told her stories. The stories of Hercules, whose constellation hung above their head, of Taurus the bull, and why the seven sisters cowered on his back. She knew most of them, but she wanted to hear his voice. She was perfectly willing to ignore the chill and the discomfort, not to mention the mosquitoes, who ignored Vincent. But she was also growing very tired. He had napped in the car, but other than a brief rest under the tree, she had only had about three hours of sleep in the last twenty-four.

"Come," he finally said, reluctantly turning his head from the sky. "You must to bed."

"That sounds like a good idea," Catherine said, her head lolling on his shoulder.

They stood and she walked a few steps, but she stumbled once. She could make it to the bed, he knew, but he scooped her up anyway. He had the strength, he wanted to use it. She smiled sleepily and nuzzled against his shoulder.

He helped her to change into a sleek satin nightgown and tucked her into bed. For half an hour he lay beside her, listening to her breathing, and the silence of this country night. The constant echo of the pipes, which had long been his lullaby, was absent. The city was far away. There were no cars, no cries, no breaths of thousands of people. There was a constant white noise in the city, of vehicles, air-conditioners, power-lines, computers humming. Here the silence seemed loud, and inside it echoed sounds one would never have heard outside in the city. Of course crickets chirped, and the occasional night bird would make a sound. Vincentís keen ears could also hear bats echoing to each other around the trees. But the sound of the house powerbox, inaudible in the myriad noises of the city, seemed loud here. He could hear the electricity running through the walls, to the radio, which was turned off! Finally he disengaged himself from Catherineís sleeping form to unplug it.

Then he was forced to face another change. For the first time Vincent did not feel the weight of the city around him, the pulsing emotions of ten-thousand ready souls, bearing down on his empathic sense. There was only Catherine, who sounded loud as the rush of the falls, loud as the roar of the wind on the back of a subway train. In the city the sound/feeling was comforting, the only thing which was potent enough to break through the white noise of the population of the metropolis. Within her emotions was a kind of peace, a sound the block out all the others if he wished. Now she was a heavy sink of distraction, a bright light in an otherwise empty room, harsh as an interrogation lamp. It did not bother him, but the imagery which was coming to him disturbed him. He went to the open window.

And he knew he was lost. The gibbous moon had risen over the edge of the forest, casting silver shadows over the earth. A fox barked somewhere in the forest, and over the sound of the powerbox he thought he could hear the trickle of water from out in the darkness. The moon and the forest and the night called to him, and his blood surged. Pausing only for his cloak, Vincent fled to become part of the night.

***

Catherine awoke at the first greying of the sky. Unconsciously, she had been aware that Vincent had left last night. Now she knew he had not yet returned. She glanced at the clock. It was only five-AM. The cockerels thought it might be dawn and crowed repeatedly for five minutes until they realized the lightness was a false messenger and lapsed back into silence. "Donít worry," she told herself. Vincent can look after himself. She lay back down and struggled back into sleep.

Two hours later, when the cockerels again decided to trumpet, she awoke fully. There was movement in the main house. Vincent making coffee. She slipped on her robe and crossed the threshold into the kitchen.

"Good morning," he said.

There was a pensiveness to his bearing, as if he bore new secrets. Catherine sipped her coffee in silence.

She changed into work clothes, and they performed the morning chores together, feeding the chickens, watering the garden. Catherine even made a stab at milking the goat, though the owners had stressed that it wasnít overly important, as the kid was nursing it. The most important thing was that the creature got the extra grain as she stood in her stanchion. Catherine laughed as the milk ran down her wrist, and Vincent held fresh leaves from the lilac tree for the goat to nibble. It took some time for the goat to realize Vincent was not about to try and eat her, and both Catherine and Vincent were pretty surely convinced that the sheep would never figure it out. But the goats warmed to him after an hour, and the kid jumped at his fingers.

But after two hours in the sunlight, Vincent began to feel uncomfortable again. It was not the silence, or lack of it. It wasnít the barren desert of souls. A perfectly mundane pressure began to grow behind his eyes.

At first he tried to ignore it. The pressure was slight, and would easily pass. It was probably lack of sleep, or the strangeness of new surroundings. But before an hour had passed the pressure had turned into pain, and then a throbbing ache he could no longer ignore. He was ashamed to tell Catherine, ashamed to admit that her gift, this magical place in the sun, was... beyond him.

Catherine saw a bird of prey, a kestrel, swooping across the meadow like a crazy jackrabbit, with its crooked flight. She turned to point it out to Vincent... and couldnít find him. "Vincent?" she called. "Vincent?"

He was gone. For a brief moment, she wondered if he had returned to the forest, as she knew he had last night. She bit her lip, unsure what to do. Finally she returned to the house.

She waited a while, but he did not return. She wasnít exactly worried. She refused to worry. Vincent would feel it and it would bother him, and she did not want to distract him even one minute from this one experience in the sun which he would never have again. To distract herself, she took a bath in the ancient, clawfoot tub. She smiled. Vincent should like this. Sheíd tell him to try it.

Sheíd forgotten her robe, so she wrapped a fresh towel around herself and retreated to the guest house. Her robe lay across her suitcase, so she slipped it on. And as she did a small noise made her pause. There was something... something in the guest house with her. She heard nothing else, but she felt a presence.... She seized the first thing which came to hand, which happened to be a cane from the umbrella stand by the door. She had enemies, she knew, and while she didnít think any of them would follow her here... Holding the cane ready she opened the closet door.

Vincent glanced up at her from his position on the floor, but shut his eyes quickly against the light. "Iím sorry I frightened you," he said.

He was leaning against the wall of the large guest closet, the few coats pushed aside to give him room. He was curled against himself, his head cupped in his hand. It was a posture of utter defeat. "Vincent!" Catherine gasped, more bemused than anything else. She let the cane fall. "What is it?"

Vincent lowered his hand, but he did not look at her. His eyes were closed. "It is nothing. Iím sorry."

Catherine knelt before him, and lightly touched his furred hand with her own, still slightly damp one. "Tell me," she said softly.

"My... eyes hurt," Vincent said, as if ashamed, struggling with the words. "My head hurts." He lowered his head with a defeated sigh.

Catherine understood, or thought she did. All his life Vincent had lived Below in the tunnels, never venturing above in the daylight. All his life, Vincent had kept to the shadows, able to keep to the darker places those with lesser eyes could not traverse. Even places with electric light rarely grew so bright as a late spring day in the country. His eyes, able to see the most minute detail in near pitch blackness, were assaulted by too long in the daylight.

Vincent felt her understanding and acceptance, but still felt ashamed of himself. He had meant to simply lie down until the pounding in his head eased, but the light from the windows was invasive, and even with the curtains drawn his eyes felt burned by the light. Like a hunted animal, he had gone to earth, finding the darkest place he could.

With a small, accepting smile, Catherine asked, "Would you like me to get you an aspirin?"

"Medications rarely work well with me," Vincent said simply.

Catherine nodded once, and then left without comment, closing the closet door. Vincent sighed. At least she was willing to let him suffer his failure in private. That he was unable to endure his fondest dream was a crushing blow.

A minute later, the door opened again, and Catherine returned laden with an armload. She took the coats down from the rack and stuffed them all anyhow on the top shelf. She had taken the pillows and a comforter from off the bed and proceeded to make a little nest on the floor of the closet. She disappeared one more time only to return with a small oil lamp Vincent had noticed on a shelf by the windowsill. She lit the lamp, set it in a corner, and closed the closet door with finality. She curled up on the pillows on the floor beside him. "Come to me," she said, pulling inexorably on his arm.

With a sigh Vincent acquiesced, laying his aching head on her soft lap. He was aware that she was naked under the silken robe, and that he was in no position to respond. She didnít seem to want him to, though. She placed a damp cloth scented lightly with lavender across his aching blue eyes. He didnít even care where she had gotten the lavender scent. The house and the little guest house were filled with all manner of magical little treasures.

With one hand she gently stroked his brows until the tension eased. The little room quickly filled with the scent of lavender and lamp oil. As soon as she felt him relax, Catherine opened her paperback. "It is a well known fact that a single gentleman in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife," she began.

After ten chapters of Pride and Prejudice, Vincent succumbed to the comfort of the dark nest and the hypnotic quality of Catherineís childlike voice, and fell asleep in her arms.

He awoke to darkness and warmth. Either Catherine had blown out the lamp, or it had run out of oil. She was asleep herself, curled delicately amongst the pillows, her hands cupped before her as innocent as a child. Vincent could tell by the light under the door that the harsh brightness of noon had passed, and the shadows were closing in. His headache was gone. Catherineís robe had come open, and the corner of one breast peeked coquettishly out from between its silky folds. Vincent ignored this tantalizing tidbit in favor of her face, and he reached up from his position on her lap to run his fingers down her cheek.

Catherine made a small noise and then gasped. "Oh," she said, as she remembered where she was. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better, thank you," Vincent said. He sat up and gathered her into his arms. He nestled his face into the softness at the side of her throat. "Iím so sorry."

The heartfelt words touched her. "Donít be," she said. "I understand."

"I know you do. But I didnít want to..."

"Dreams donít always turn out how we expect them to," Catherine said.

"I know," Vincent said. "But this is a rather harsh reality to awaken to. I noticed it yesterday, but by that time the sun was setting..." He paused. "Such beauty. I was glad I got to see it..."

"And the stars," Catherine said. "Itís all right. What is that saying from India? ĎOnly mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.í"

Vincent smiled, knowing she couldnít see it. "I think I could bear it now. The sunís gone behind the hills."

It was nearly dusk again, in fact. They left the dark sanctuary and returned to the main house, where Catherine made dinner as Vincent read aloud. Vincent didnít feel like eating, though. He was restless after his sleep. Catherine put a load of laundry in the washing machine, and then asked if he wanted to go for a walk before night. He agreed, but before Catherine had a chance to change into something other than a robe, the phone rang.

Catherine hesitated, then picked it up. "Hello?"

"Hey, Mary, itís Ellen from down the road... This is Mary, isnít it?"

"No, Bob and Mary are at their daughterís wedding. Iím housesitting."

"Stock sitting, more like," said the unknown voice on the other end. "That explains why they cancelled the milk. Look, our dairy cow ran away this evening. She knocked down a fence. Sheís been known to end up in Maryís pasture, and I wanted to warn her, as sheís had problems with the goats before."

"What sort of problems?"

"Well, Bossy isnít exactly a mean cow, but sheís a lot bigger than a goat," Ellen said. "If you see her there, just bring her to the front gate, Iíll send my eldest to pick her up. Probably wonít be a problem, sheíll most likely be back by morning. Just a heads up."

"All right," Catherine said. "Iíll keep a look out." She hung up the phone.

"What was that about?"

"A neighbor lost a cow," Catherine said. "She wanted to warn me to keep it from the goats, or there might be casualties."

"You mean they might come here?" Vincent asked.

"I wouldnít worry," Catherine said. "You can hear a car coming from a quarter mile over that hill. I checked. Youíd have plenty of time to slip away before anyone could see you."

Vincent nodded, but he wasnít really worried. They walked outside and down to the lower pasture. A neighbor kept horses. While they were curious about these strangers, they wouldnít approach Catherine until Vincent stepped back. She fed them fresh grass from her side of the fence. "I havenít ridden since I was a child," Catherine said absently.

"I should have liked to have seen that," Vincent said.

"I think I have a photograph somewhere, at home," Catherine said. She looked from the white horse nuzzling her grass stained palm to Vincent, her beautiful Vincent, in his ruffled patched renaissance shirt and his mediaeval boots.

After a moment Vincent raised his eyebrows. "What? What is your fond mischief."

"Nothing. I donít think we have time to get them used to you," Catherine said.

"What?"

"I should have liked to see you on a horse yourself, Vincent," she said. She turned back to the horse at her fingertips. "Something out of a fairytale."

Vincent paused for a moment and then took a step forward. The horse snorted and pulled back a bit, but Vincent made a small sound. "Now, what do you fear?" he asked, so low that Catherine scarcely heard it.

Within twenty minutes, as the shadows turned from blue to grey around them, Vincent muttered softly to the horse. And when he finally held his hand out, the soft white muzzle dropped gently into his hand. He patted the horseís neck and turned to Catherine. "Weíd have to ask permission," he said.

She shook her head. "You never cease to amaze me," she said.

"Thereís a zoo in the park, Catherine," Vincent said. "It only takes a little time. With any animal with any intelligence, I can usually sort my way through their feelings. Much simpler than human emotions. Rabbits donít listen, the chickens havenít noticed, and I donít think the sheep will ever retain any work I do on them. But I can... sort of... tame most animals."

"As you tame most people," Catherine said quietly. "As you tamed me."

"I never tamed you, Catherine," Vincent said.

She smiled softly, and slid her hand into his. "Youíre right. You freed me instead." They left the horse behind and returned to the house.

Catherine offered to wash the dishes. "Is there anything you want of me?" Vincent asked.

"No," Catherine said. "Go enjoy yourself." She could see his frequent glances toward the shadowy forest.

Vincent kissed her briefly. "Thank you," he whispered. And then he was gone, so quickly she felt she could have imagined him standing before her in the first place.

***

Four hours later, Catherine threw on a sweater and went outside. There had been no sign of Vincent. She wasnít exactly out looking for him, but she wanted to know what he was doing. Rather than try to find him, she tried to find out what this night forest was like.

The moon had not yet risen. Catherine quickly figured out the difference between night in the city and night in the forest. It was blacker than pitch. Only in the darkest Tunnels where no lights were set did Catherine have any comparison. When she glanced up she could see the stars through the leaves of the trees, but they did not shed enough light to guide her path. When she realized this she turned back on the path, ready to go back to the farmhouse.

She wasnít on the path. She figured that out when she ran into low branches. And somehow she had gone over the hill and the lights from the house were invisible. She could see nothing but blackness, black shadows, grey black images which might have been pale tree trunks or low bushes or the ghosts of murdered children.

Catherine was not easily frightened. She easily walked alone through Central Park in the dead of night to speak to Vincent at the drainage ditch. She wandered the Tunnels, with unknown creatures skittering in the shadows, sometimes getting lost, but always kept calm until she found her way again. She walked unarmed into the dens of drug dealers and wandered unaccompanied through the most evil streets of her city. But something about this blackness frightened her.

She squashed her fear the moment it rose in her throat. She would not drag Vincent from his freedom, pull him as though with a leash. She kept walking what she thought was back the way sheíd come. Sheíd either reach the road, or see the lights of the house. But there were sounds in the undergrowth, and twiglike hands grabbed her, and the blackness was unceasing.

Something large moved past her in the darkness, and that was the end of it. No more wandering in the forest. She would not cry out for Vincent Ė she wasnít entirely sure her voice would work, anyway Ė but she could go no farther. She sat down where she stood, unwilling to try and find someplace better. She curled into the smallest ball she could with her back to a tree (and hoped there wasnít a mountain lion up it!) and she stared into the blackness, her fear gripping her in a vice.

Shapes moved before her eyes. Willowy, writhing shapes, small flitting shapes, all in different shades of black. She thought the forest full of noises before, but now they were all around her, punctuated by sudden, empty silences. Vincentís image came unbidden to her mind. How could he be enjoying this?

Her eyes had just focused on one shape near the base of what she thought was a tree trunk. She thought she could see a little figure there, human in shape but far too small. Just standing there. Regarding her. Her eyes were riveted on it. She had to be imagining it. It was just a stick or a branch. She sometimes thought she saw it move, but then her eyes were jumpy, and her nerves were raw.

There was no sound to warn her before his hand touched her shoulder. She did not scream. Instead she froze, and the scream fought at her lungs. "Catherine."

The scream drowned in a flood of relief as she knew the hand on her shoulder was Vincentís. He barely spoke in a whisper, and knew how he felt. She did not want to disturb the stillness of the night. "Iím sorry," she whispered back.

The hulking shape which crouched beside her moved, and she thought he was shaking his head. "You should not have come here by night," he whispered back. "I donít think thereís any danger... not by violence. And yet..."

Catherineís eyes shot to the space where that dark, diminutive humanoid figure had stood. But either it had never been there in the first place, or her eyes had adjusted more, for she saw nothing remotely like it.

"Iíll wait with you here," Vincent whispered. "The moon should rise soon."

"Really?" Catherine whispered. "Why am I so scared, Vincent? It doesnít make sense!"

"It does," he replied. "This is not your world, nor mine."

"Youíre content enough in it," she pointed out.

"Not by day," he reminded her. "But this is not a place you were bred to. And the night has its own eyes. Its own voice. And the forest, even planted by man, is its own world."

"What do you mean?"

"You and I live on the border of two worlds, Catherine. Is it so outrageous to believe that other places have their own borders? The night forest has secrets which are not mine to tell."

She could feel his easy strength around her. He seemed at one with this forest. "Yet it welcomes you."

"Like a seductress," he said finally. "Though it has no love for me."

"What can you tell me?"

Vincent sighed lightly. "The marvelous, the impossible of the city tends to sink downwards, to my world. You know that. Paracelsus... Narcissa... Mouse... and myself." Catherine thought it odd that Vincent should list Mouse amongst the others. But now that she came to think of it, a creature such as Mouse could exist nowhere but Below. Above, you could be either impaired or competent, but not both, and most certainly not at the same time. "Like us, our world Below is inexplicable. The cavern of the winds, the falls, the crystal caves. There are echoing cathedrals, replete with buttresses and stairways, which we never carved. In the lower caverns there are things which are... more impossible than myself. If perhaps less material. Here the impossible does not sink below. It drifts aside, into the forests. And it... they... welcome me as kindred."

"You mean there are people out here?" Catherine asked. Shivers were running up and down her spine.

"People, yes... but Iím not sure what kind." Vincent chuckled, but it sounded nervous. "Possibly they are no more than shadows of my own imagination," he said. "But even if they are... especially if they are... I should take you back to the farm house and I should not wander again. I do not wish to lose you... or myself."

The moon did rise within a few moments. Vincent led her amongst the patches of silver light until a yellow glare peeped through the trees. The farm. They retreated to the guest house, and Vincent washed the dirt from Catherineís hands and face. As she prepared for bed, Vincent tested the door. "Would I could lock it," he said. "And give you the key."

"I wouldnít lock you up any more than you would me," she retorted.

He sighed. She was right. "Than I shall simply promise you..." he began.

"Promise me you will do what you must, Vincent," Catherine said. "Whatever that may be."

He lay beside her for a moment, but the moon shone though the windows of the guest house, and he felt too restless to sleep. He stood and paced. He tingled with desire for the whisper of the forest, the cool wind across his fur. He could run in this forest. He had spied animals, deer, even a cougar who had regarded him with a kindred gaze before padding gently into the shadows. And what he had told Catherine was true. There were secrets in the forest, secrets which would willingly draw him among them. His empathic sense gave him a feeling of surprise, curiosity about him. It did not seem surprised that he existed, but that he had never before been part of that world.

He wanted the night, could feel it in his veins... but he feared losing himself. Losing everything.

"Come on," Catherine said suddenly from the bed.

He turned to her, startled to see her eyes open. "I didnít mean to wake you," he said.

"I havenít slept," she said, sitting up. "How could I?"

He hung his head.

"Come." Catherine slid from the bed and slipped on her robe. She took his unresisting hand and led him back outside, with the ubiquitous oil lamp in her hand.

Ten minutes later, they were seated on the porch, reading more from Jane Austin, each with a cup of tea in hand. The call of the night was muted by Catherineís childlike voice, her warm presence, and the feel of the air on his skin eased the tingle. He was more than a little ashamed of himself. This gift of Catherineís was turning more and more sour.

Suddenly the silence was cut through by an uncanny echo of myriad screams, ranging from a deep contralto to an all too human cry, like that of a child. It came from over the valley, bouncing back and forth between the hills. The fur rose on the back of his neck as he jerked to his feet. Catherine was startled too, but her fear faded as she realized the source. "Coyotes," she said. "With pups. I think they made a kill."

The cry continued unabated, and Vincent was ashamed at the reaction it caused in him. He wanted to roar back, to announce to these predators that they were encroaching on his territory. He was so busy fighting the impulse that he did not realize at first that the howls had been joined by another voice.

Catherineís.

Both hands were firmly on the porch rail, her head thrown back to the pregnant moon. "Ayo000ooah!"

He stared at her in wonder for a moment before joining in the animal howl. Within seconds their cries had startled the coyotes into meek silence. Again Catherine howled, and Vincent roared in full throated battle cry. The only sounds now were their own echos. The animal cries dissolved into laughter. "That should keep them away from the goats for a night or two," Catherine said amidst her chuckles.

Vincent gathered her into his arms. "What great good have I done... that has countered all evil... and left me blessed with you," he whispered.

"You are , Vincent," Catherine replied. "Thatís all thatís ever needed."

He chuckled. "You sound like Father."

Catherine smiled and squeezed him tightly. "I sound like you, Vincent. Or I try to."

He bent and kissed her, tenderly, deliberately. Afraid his passion would drive him again into the forest, he maintained strict control as he let his lips and tongue and teeth explore her mouth, her face, her throat. She was rendered trembling and breathless by his kisses by the time the sun rose in the sky.

Chores interrupted their idyll, then. Before it grew too bright and Vincentís endurance to the light failed, they hauled hay and watered the chickens. Vincent collected the eggs with all the delight of a child at Easter. But then the lowing of a cow drew their attention.

It was as the neighbor, Ellen, had predicted. In the goatís pasture a red brown Jersey cow with a silver white muzzle was in amongst the goats. Her angry, pointed horns with distinctive black tips were lowered in offence.

Catherine rushed inside to call the neighbor while Vincent tried to separate the animals. To no avail. None of the animals knew Vincent well enough, and his appearance on the scene only increased their aggression. The cow charged, and Vincent spun out of her way like a matador, a growl rising in his throat. This was not a battle he knew how to fight!

"Vincent! Vincent, it wonít work!" Catherine cried out, climbing the gate.

"Stay back!" Vincent said. His blood was up, and he could feel Catherineís fear as well as the animalís stark angered terror, the cow toward him, the goats toward the cow. It made him brusque.

"They donít know you," Catherine said, taking hold of his arm. She pulled him back toward the gate, and it was only when they were further from the cow that Vincent noticed the lead in Catherineís hand. "There isnít time. You know what has to be done."

Vincent glanced from the cow to Catherine. She was so slight, barely over a hundred pounds, and the cow was an angry half ton of sharp-edged menace. "Catherine, no."

"You open the gate," she said, her voice steel. Before he had decided to stop her, she had pulled away from him, insinuating herself between the goats and their huge horned devil. "Okay, Boss," she muttered, in something akin to Vincentís voice as he calmed the horse. "You know where youíre supposed to be."

The cowís udder was distended from missing her morning milking, and anger and fear radiated from every line of her.

It took all of Catherineís courage to approach that huge head with the pointed horns. Twice the cow shook her head as Catherine tried to attach the lead to her halter. Once the horns nearly bruised her arm, once it nearly caught her in the face. But she refused to succumb to fear of this animal who was so much larger than herself. She knew it was domesticated. More people died from lightning strikes than cattle murders. She didnít know if that was true or not, and debating the merits of that statistic distracted her long enough to clip the lead onto the halter.

Then there was nothing for it but to walk. Ellen had told her quite distinctly, lead the cow to the front gate of the farm. She had to get it out of the meadow with the goats. It had been years since she walked a horse, but she remembered the pace and how far to hold her hands. Vincent opened the gate as they approached, and the cow coughed nervously. He backed slowly away, and Catherine led her through.

Twenty minutes later a car was heard climbing the gravel road over the hill. Vincent deftly slid behind the trees, and Catherine was left to face the neighbors.

The neighbors took the form of a twelve year old girl and a shadowy face that waved at her before it drove away. "You Catherine?" the girl asked. Without waiting for reply the girl rounded on the cow. "You stupid heifer. You should know better than to run away, you can hardly walk! Was she any trouble?"

"Only a little," Catherine admitted.

"Yeah, theyíve had trouble with her before. She doesnít like goats. Say, you want any milk? Sheís got nearly a mile to walk on a full bag."

Catherine was about to say no when she realized sheíd never had fresh milk straight from the cow, and Vincent never had either. While she might one day get another chance, it was quite likely that he never would. "Yes, please. Thereís a bucket for milking to goat into, will that do?"

"Yeah, you should have strainers then too," the girl replied.

They supplied the cow with hay to keep her quiet while milking, and the twelve year old girl without a single sign of fear squatted down to milk. "How do you like the farm?" the girl asked.

Her efficiency and deftness in her element reminded Catherine of Jamie. She seemed like the perfect person to talk to, a creature wholly of this world. "Iím not sure," she said. "There are things I didnít expect about it."

"The country isnít for everyone," the girl said. "Half my friends canít wait to get out."

"The cityís an entire other world," Catherine warned her.

"I know that," the girls said. "From what I hear, itís both harder and easier. Thereís no where to go out here but everywhere, thatís the way my cousin puts it. Thereís no movies, no theater, and the electricity goes out constantly. But thereís space. Too much for some. You have to prepare for a grocery trip into town, and factor gas money into everywhere you go. And you have to be the kind of person..." the girl hesitated.

"Yes?" Catherine asked, as the only sound was that of the milk steadily flowing into the pail.

"You canít want too many people around," she finally finished. "Or, rather, only the right people." She pulled the milk bucket from off the ground and handed it to Catherine. A froth bubbled over the top. "You and your friend should enjoy that."

That took Catherine aback. "My friend?"

"Someone, whoever he is," the girl said with a grin. "My dad felt him out here."

Catherine would have dismissed it, were it not that it sounded a lot like the sort of thing Vincent could do. Vincent was uncanny, but that didnít mean his gift was entirely unique. The girl laughed. "Youíll learn something. No one can keep a secret out here. But everyone will keep it for you. Our neighborís mother hasnít been seen outside the house in six years." She untied the cow from the tree and pulled on the lead. "If thereís one thing we know how to do itís to carefully do nothing."

Half the size of Catherine, the young girl set off for a long walk home, with her massive, behorned cow in tow.

Vincent slipped into sight in the shadow of the forest. "That was interesting," he said. He came forward and took the frothing milk bucket from her hand. He touched her cheek. "I felt your fear," he said. "And there was nothing to be done about it."

"I wasnít going to be cowed to death," said Catherine with a slight laugh.

Vincent bowed his head. The pressure was building behind his eyes again. "I suppose there is danger everywhere," he muttered.

Catherine shook her head. "Iím beginning to think you cheated fate when you pulled me from the park, and danger has been stalking me ever since. Fear no longer frightens me."

"It does me," he said. The undercurrent of emotion in those three words shook her. This place frightened him. The open sky, the unfamiliar landscape, the very concept of an ordinary home. There was also a longing. While wariness abounded, there was no fear in the Tunnels. This was not Vincentís world.

Catherine surprised herself by not feeling disappointed. She took him inside away from the light, and with a little fuss Catherine figured out how the milk strainer worked. She strained the milk into a pitcher from the cupboard and poured Vincent a large, warm mug full.

Over the thick, creamy warm milk, Catherine and Vincent sat at the kitchen table. Vincent closed his eyes at the taste and then paused. A single purr carried to Catherine over the table. A rush of warmth stole over Catherine. He was such a big kitty with his milk. Fondly, she reached out to touch his hand. "This isnít going to work, is it?" she said. "This isnít our world."

Vincent opened his eyes, pensive. "It could become so," he said doubtfully. "It would take adjustment. Hard work."

Catherine shook her head. "I think it was just a dream after all," she said. "The idea that we could live a life together... a normal life."

"What is normal?" Vincent asked.

Catherine shrugged. "I suppose youíre right," she said. "But is this really what you want? And donít," she cut him off before he could open his mouth, "return the question. Iím asking you."

Vincent hesitated, and then sighed. "Iíd miss my family," he said. "I suppose thereís nothing says we couldnít visit... or they could. But..."

"It wouldnít be the same," Catherine said. She smiled. "I feel the same way. We need to go home."

"But we canít be together... at home."

Catherine shrugged. "Your world and my world. I thought, maybe, a completely different one might solve the problem. But it just makes new ones. Two worlds is difficult enough, adding another just complicates the issue." She looked around. "I miss the city myself. There arenít enough people here."

Vincent shook his head. "Donít."

"Donít what?"

"I feel your disappointment, let it go." She looked back at him. "This... gift... I always said you gave me the world. For these three days, you have . The world, the sun, moon and stars."

"I wouldnít mind coming back here some time," Catherine said with a sly grin. "For a visit."

Vincent abandoned the milk and swept around the table to embrace her. A minute later her knees gave way as his lips caressed the area behind her ear, and his hot breath made her shudder. "You know..." she whispered, "between your schedule and mine, we havenít actually had much chance to try that bed out."

Vincent chuckled. "Iíll go and draw the curtains."