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from ECHOES OF THE HEART

A Beauty and the Beast novel
by Rhonda Collins
based on the episodes "Terrible Savior" and "Siege"


ECHO

poem by Rhonda Collins

For years I walked the city streets
seeking answers to my questions--
Like a stone into still waters
my heart alone was cast.
The ripples finally found a shore
You--my heart's echo.


CHAPTER ONE: ECHO

Vincent pulled himself over the edge of the roof and swung his legs over. Once standing, he took a quick look over the edge of the building to judge distance, then dropped quickly to the balcony below. Settling against the wall Vincent merged with the shadows to wait for Catherine to get home from work. Pushing his hood back, Vincent glanced up at the sky, shaking his head as the long hair blew across his face. The night was lovely, the air crisp and cool and he felt marvelous. He took a deep breath and smiled, thinking of how his life had changed since last spring. Because last April 12th he'd found Catherine. I never could have imagined feeling the way I do now, he thought.

Vincent knew Catherine cared for him, trusted him, and that fact still amazed him. People who had not grown up around him or lived with him were never easy around him. His strange, fearsome appearance brought visceral, instinctive fears to the surface. It took most people a long while to grow accustomed to him. With Catherine it hadn't been that way, and for that, Vincent was grateful. But it still astounded him that she could touch him, be near to him...and feel only safe and secure. And loved. Her friendship was precious to him. And her trust.

Vincent was drawn from his reverie by the increasing nearness of the bond. He could sense Catherine's weariness and frustration. She's coming home, he thought with a profound happiness. He waited anxiously as the light came on in her apartment. Waited to allow her time to settle and simply to "be home" for a short time. Through the long minutes he could sense a gradual quieting, felt a sense of peace settle on her as she moved through her routine. He realized she was fixing her supper and he crouched, back against the wall, waiting for her to finish. Unwilling to interrupt. He knew that once she was finished eating she would want to relax and would come to the balcony. He would wait. And while waiting, his thoughts turned back toward his own evening and his discussion with Father.

*****

Vincent hesitated at the threshold of Father's study and waited for the older man to notice him. Peering over his reading glasses and putting away his book, Father asked his son gently, "Going Above?"

"Yes. The children tell me the day has been pleasant. The night should be clear."

"I suppose you'll also be seeing Catherine Chandler."

Vincent descended the stairs and walked over to the small table where Father's chess men were set out, a game in progress. Without answering Father's question, Vincent studied the board, then moved his knight. When he looked up, Father was examining him with a disconcerting intentness. Vincent wasn't entirely sure why Father disliked his continuing visits with Catherine, but he could sense the disapproval acutely. He supposed Father only wished to spare him pain, having made it plain to Vincent that nothing could come of the relationship. Yet even Father's disapproval was ambivalent. It was confusing. Vincent sighed. He wished Father knew Catherine better, but knowing Father's resentment of her, he'd been reluctant to bring her Below. "Most likely," Vincent replied in answer to Father's question. "We've both been very busy this week. I thought perhaps Catherine might enjoy a quiet evening as much as I. If the night is warm enough, that is."

The expected dissertation on the pain of dreaming impossible dreams was not forthcoming, much to Vincent's relief. He'd heard that one all too often recently: as though dreaming itself could be dangerous to him. Instead, Father merely sighed, then asked: "How is Catherine, Vincent? How is she coping after her attack?"

"She's healing. Her decision to change herself--her career--to one where she could help others has helped her, I think. She has channeled her anger and fear into something positive. Taking charge of her own life has given control back to her." Vincent thought of the night he'd found Catherine, slashed and bleeding in the park where she'd been thrown and left to die. He understood that assault or rape victims need to regain control of their lives. He'd seen it time and time again in the refuge that was his home as they came here to heal.

Father seemed skeptical. "A trauma such as the one Catherine endured can have long-lasting results. But perhaps you're right." Father's attention seemed to wander for a moment, then he said quietly, almost more to himself than to Vincent: "It must be very difficult for her. Changing worlds. Exchanging protection and privilege to work for others in a position that leaves her defenseless at times in a hard world." Father blinked, then cleared his throat and looked away, his embarrassment clear to Vincent. "Go on, then. Enjoy yourself, but do be cautious, and remember the council meeting in the morning."

*****

Vincent shifted restlessly against the brick wall of Catherine's balcony. He knew how much Father resented Catherine, and his relationship with her, but he couldn't really understand why. For Father wasn't even aware of what had happened two months ago....

It was almost immediately after I'd returned to see her after so long....

Vincent had tried so hard to stay away after returning Catherine to her world, but their connection drew him, a silvery thread of emotion that wound itself more tightly day by day. He couldn't ignore the pull and it had been making him miserable to try. Eventually--against Father's advice--he'd gone to her. To see her one last time and take her the volume of Great Expectations he'd read to her. So she could finish it. At least that's what I told myself, he thought, smiling a little. When I saw her again...her face so lovely...flawless...I knew I didn't belong here. Yet...still I come, drawn by her beauty and acceptance...by the current of her emotions.

There had been a time immediately after that night when Vincent questioned his own reaction to Catherine's flawless face, wondering if he'd subconsciously been dismayed to find her face a reflection of her heart--perfect and unblemished--instead of how she'd been when he'd last seen her. As though my feelings for her had been more acceptable when she was no longer beautiful, he told himself. But as time went on, the feeling passed and he no longer questioned the tie that drew him to her.

Vincent realized he'd allowed his thoughts to drift away from what had happened that night and forced his mind back to that time not so long past. She never told me she was searching for the men who'd attacked her. Never mentioned it. Not until later, after it was over.

It had been one evening, only a few days after he'd seen Catherine again, when it happened. He'd been playing chess with Father when Catherine's mood changed rapidly from satisfaction to concern to full-blown terror. The surge of that terror washed over him and he'd dropped everything, rushing to her aid--offering no explanation to Father. Vincent shuddered a little and stared off into space. He'd killed before--only once--in defense of his home and the people he loved. His family. That time, he'd been a soldier of a sort. But this had been different. He could barely remember what happened from the time he'd first felt the lash of Catherine's panic and the sharp edge of her terror. He couldn't even remember how he'd gotten there. All he could remember was feeling Catherine's incredible burst of relief and joy at seeing him, his satisfaction of the kill--then her compassion afterwards. He couldn't remember the actual killing. But he could remember his shame and horror afterwards. When he'd killed before, it had been quick and clean--and that had been bad enough. This had been butchery. It sickened and shamed him to think of it.

Vincent shoved himself to his feet and moved to the edge of the balcony. He gripped the iron balcony railing tightly. Shaking back his mane, he lifted his face to the cool evening breeze, hoping to clear his head. Catherine came to me afterward and took my bloody hands in her own and drew me away...more frightened it seemed for my safety should I be discovered than of me or what I had done.

Vincent had carefully avoided telling Father about the incident, and eventually Father stopped questioning him about his sudden disappearance.

The clink of dishes again brought Vincent back to the present. Catherine had finished her meal and was clearing the table. Vincent turned, brushing at his pants, self-consciously adjusting his vest and cloak. Soon, he thought. He could hear Catherine humming tunelessly, and walking to the balcony door, tapped gently on the glass.

Immediately, he could sense her attention and anticipation. The door opened and he stepped back.

"Vincent," she said gently, sounding pleasantly surprised.

"Catherine."

"How do you do it? You always seem to know when I want to talk with you."

Vincent turned away from the radiance of her smile. His heart ached with an exquisite pain. He didn't understand the feeling, but he knew it for what it was. It was love. Gazing at the stars, he murmured gently: "It seemed a perfect night for a visit...."

Catherine slipped a companionable arm through his. Comfortable. Completely at ease. Laying her head against his shoulder, she drew him to the edge of the balcony. At once he, too, was comfortable--because she felt that way--though her nearness took his breath away.

"It is lovely tonight," Catherine said with a sigh. "I've been restless today, though."

Vincent waited patiently for her to continue. He could have waited all night, content merely to be with her. With the air still holding a hint of chill, he had ample excuse to continue with his arm around her. Her presence was overwhelmingly sweet.

"Spring is coming before long," Catherine offered.

"Yes," Vincent agreed quietly, knowing what spring must mean to her. To him--as he'd been remembering--it now meant the time he'd found her. But he knew that for her, spring had darker connotations now.

"I feel as though I've been climbing mountains. It's been so hard."

Vincent tightened his embrace a little in sympathy. "I know it has been."

"Today Edie was joking with me, like she always does. You know...calling me Princess?"

She glanced questioningly at him as though to see if he remembered her telling him about her friend's wry sense of humor. He simply smiled and replied, "Edie has grown to care for you."

"Yeah. She has. And I like her. That's what struck me today. It used to bother me when she or Joe Maxwell would tease me about being a princess or debutante...like I wasn't...tough enough, or fit to do the job. As though I was only playing at it."

"And now it doesn't?"

"No." She smiled a little ruefully, looking away. "Well, yes. It does bother me when Joe does it. Or someone else. But not Edie." Her eyes questioned him as she turned to him. "What do you think that means? Am I just getting used to it or is it because I know she likes me?"

Vincent stared off across the city. He found it difficult to answer for a moment. To him, Catherine was a princess. He could understand Edie's and Joe's reservations. And Father's comment tonight became a little clearer to him. Catherine had moved from one world into another: from a world of luxury, privilege and protection into a harder world where no excuses were tolerated for inability or laxness. Catherine had the ability, but she'd never before had to dig deep within herself for the strength or endurance she needed now. And he knew that deep down she always would be "Daddy's little girl," expecting life to grant her what she desired. He immediately resolved himself to do his best to make sure she wasn't disappointed ...despite life's capriciousness. But right now, she needed reassurance that although she and her life were changing, that it was a good change. A positive one. He finally answered carefully. "I believe you are beginning to see below the surface in a way you never did before, Catherine. It is you who are changing as well as the way others perceive you."

Catherine was silent as she thought about that. Then she nodded. "Yes."

Strains of music drifted on the wind. A saxophone played from one of the street corners. They listened until it stopped. Then Vincent asked hesitantly: "In the spring, they begin the concerts in the park...do you ever attend?"

"Oh, yes. Daddy and I often go. Or I go with Jenny. Tom never liked to go, but I've always loved them."

"I attend them whenever I can. Since I was a boy...."

Catherine was delighted, and the shiver of that delight ran through the bond. "Really? But how, Vincent? Surely that would be difficult for you."

Embarrassed now, wishing he hadn't brought up the subject, Vincent looked away. "I have a special place. Below the concert shell."

"Below...? Oh! But how wonderful, Vincent! How clever!"

Since he could sense no change in her emotion--no disgust at the idea of attending a concert in a sewer-- Vincent was encouraged. "When...when the concerts begin again...," he asked hesitantly, "perhaps you would care to attend one with me?"

Catherine smiled and slipped her arm around him again. "I'd like that. To share the music with you."

Vincent's heart was thudding crazily. It felt like a frightened bird trying to escape the captivity of his ribcage. The pounding was so loud to him he was certain she would hear. Needing a little distance to help him regain his composure, he moved away. "I would enjoy your company. I must go, Catherine. It's late and you have an early morning."

He sensed a tinge of disappointment and hesitated, but a glance at her tired face encouraged him.

When he met her eyes, she nodded. "Yes. I suppose you're right." She came to him and hugged him briefly again--lightly, barely touching--then stepped back. "Thank you for coming. For being here when I needed you."

With a voice hoarse with emotion, Vincent promised: "I will always be here for you, Catherine. Whenever you need me."

*****

After leaving Catherine, Vincent detoured to the roof of her building, where he stood, trembling a little. Once more lifting his head into the cool breeze, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. One thought kept running impatiently through his mind: Catherine will come with me to the concert. With me! He couldn't quite believe he'd had the temerity to ask, but he had asked. And she'd accepted his invitation. And now, it took all the control he could manage to force himself to descend the building with care instead of leaping crazily from balcony to balcony...heedless of discovery. After several moments his common sense came to his rescue. After all, I can hardly escort Catherine to the concert if I foolishly allow myself to be caught Above. He sighed and began his usual careful descent.

Upon reaching the ground, Vincent detoured through the park for a long walk. He suspected Father would still be awake awaiting his return, although of late, Father often gave up long before Vincent made his appearance. He knew Father worried about his safety Above, but Vincent wished he could make Father realize he was an adult and that he was well aware of the dangers that awaited him in the city. Vincent's forays into the park and the dark city streets had become longer and his sleep periods shorter. He didn't know why, but it almost seemed he needed less sleep now. Perhaps I'm dreaming my dreams while I'm awake, he thought happily. It began to rain softly, and the fine mist soon coated Vincent's cloak and hood. Fine droplets clung to his face and hair. Still he walked, despite the chill. Too pleased with the night to give it up just yet.

*****

After Vincent disappeared over the side of her building and into the darkness, Catherine stood a moment in the stillness thinking of how strange her life had become in the past eleven months. But despite the strangeness, she was pleased that Vincent had chosen to make himself a part of that life. There was a part of her that had been empty after her attack...and after Vincent had brought her home to face all the problems of rebuilding her life. For eight months he hadn't returned, and there hadn't been a day when she hadn't wondered where he was, what he was doing. If he ever thought of her. She would have loved to talk to him during that time and discuss everything--all the changes she was going through--but she'd had no way of contacting him. When he'd shown up suddenly on her balcony with a gift--the book, Great Expectations, that he'd read to her as she was healing--it was as if a piece had fallen back into place.He belonged in this new life she was beginning. He's my inspiration. Without him, I forget who I am. Who I want to be.

It began to mist, and Catherine reluctantly went inside, pulling the doors closed after her.

As Catherine drew her bath, she sat brushing her shoulder length honey blonde hair and thinking of Vincent. He is so endearing. So unusually kind and gentle. She smiled, thinking of the concert. To think for years we've both been attending the same concerts. He could've been sitting right under my feet and I never would have known. She wondered a little uneasily what it would be like--listening to the concert from a drainage tunnel--a sewer. But she'd said she'd go, and she would. I wouldn't want to disappoint him.

She rose, cut the water off and slipped into the hot water. Luxuriating in the tub, she let the rest of her worries go. Work would wait until tomorrow, though she'd brought several files home. As she soaked--playing with the bubbles--she thought further about what she'd told Vincent. It wasn't the whole truth, she decided. The reaction of people in the D.A.'s office was really not so different from that of her co-workers in her father's offices. Except for one major thing: At her father's office, she'd deserved the names. Daddy's little girl, Charles Chandler's daughter. She squirmed inwardly as she remembered. They never said anything outright, but I knew they thought I was a flake. And I was. But I'm not, now. I work hard--as hard as the rest of them--I may not be as good, yet, but I damn sure try!

Tired muscles and nerves relaxed in the hot water, and as it cooled, Catherine climbed out of the tub to pat herself dry. In the mirror she caught a glimpse of the scar in front of her ear and touched it gently. Even now, it was pink and a little tender. The doctor said she could have it removed when all the deep healing was finished.

Catherine hummed a little to herself, thinking again about the concert in...no...under the park. Just thinking of him is a comfort.

*****

The following evening, Vincent rushed to the showers, anxious to rid himself of the caked, crusty mud that covered him practically from head to toe. A water main had burst in the upper tunnels on the east side, and the resultant flood (before the city had managed to repair the damage) had caused major problems Below. Vincent, Mouse, Cullen, Winslow and Kanin had spent most of the day diverting water to the uninhabited tunnels. Overall, they'd been successful, though Mouse was furious that it had taken the city so long to fix the damage. The young man was next-to-last to use the shower and waited with Vincent, complaining about the city's inefficiency. "Could've done it faster, Vincent. By myself."

The boy's blue-eyed gaze amused Vincent. Mouse was always so certain he could come up with a "new" way to do things. Usually he was right. "I'm certain you could have, Mouse."

Mouse pulled off a wet, muddy boot and stared at it forlornly. "Wish Father would'a listened. Could'a fixed it quicker. By myself."

Blinking tiredly, Vincent carefully rubbed an eye with a moderately clean portion on the back of his hand, then tried to explain to Mouse why Father had insisted they leave the repairs to the inefficient city crews. "Mouse, the break was on the topmost level. Since it was such a huge pipe that broke, the city had to have been aware of the leak almost as soon as we were. If it had been miraculously fixed, they would have been suspicious."

Vincent glanced up to see Mouse unceremoniously shedding his clothes to get into the shower. He almost laughed at the calico patches of mud and white skin on the boy's bare torso, though he knew he probably looked even more bizarre. He glanced down at his fur-covered hands--now heavily matted with dark, clay-like mud, and with the fur sticking out in sharp, stiff points. He did smile, then. "Mouse...if the aqueduct was finished, all this would have been unnecessary...."

The words were no sooner said than Vincent wished he hadn't spoken. Mouse's mood turned surly--something rare in the cheerful teenager.

"Don't want to talk about it! Want to get clean." Mouse turned away and headed for the shower.

"Mouse...." Vincent sighed in frustration. The proposed council meeting that morning had been postponed due to the emergency, but Mouse was already adamant in defense of his "Mouse-hole"--the large chamber he had appropriated as his own--which was below the rest of the living chambers and directly in the path of the large aqueduct that was being proposed. Once built, flood waters from Above would be funneled through that cavern--and others--below to the river.

Kanin came out of the shower, vigorously drying his hair and humming a tune. Vincent decided that now was, perhaps, not the best time to talk to Mouse about the turn the aqueduct project had taken.

The boy had disappeared into the shower when Kanin settled beside Vincent. "So why's Mouse so grim?"

Vincent shrugged and brushed at a clump of mud decorating the back of his hand. "The aqueduct. The Mousehole."

"Oh." Kanin lifted his eyes to the showers. "He'll come around, Vincent. Wait 'til after council tomorrow. Father'll convince him."

Kanin sounded so sure that Vincent thought perhaps he might be being overly pessimistic. By the time Mouse came back out, the boy seemed in a better mood and Vincent felt free to think about removing the mud from his own body and getting into some clean clothes.

*****

Catherine saw Vincent's shadow behind the curtains and put away the file she was reading. Quickly slipping on her robe and tying it, she walked to the door, opened it and peered out. Vincent's dark form stood silhouetted against the glow from the city lights. Pulling her robe around her a little closer, Catherine sighed. I wish he'd come inside... just once. It would be so much more comfortable. But she knew he wouldn't. She'd asked several times, and the withdrawal she'd sensed then had told her there was no point in asking again. Nor was there any point in asking why. For all his honesty and determination to have Catherine pour out her heart to him, Vincent was frustratingly obscure when it came to saying anything about himself. He'd talk about Father and other people she didn't know--tell her about things that happened in his world--but almost never about himself.

"Vincent?"

"Catherine. I didn't disturb you?"

Catherine joined him at the balcony railing. "I was working, but I'm always glad for a break." At his concerned look, she smiled. "It wasn't anything important ...and I'm always glad to see you."

He turned and looked out over the city, and when he did, Catherine saw a darker spot of something on his jaw. She reached up and touched it. It was crusty.

Vincent startled and caught her hand. "What is it, Catherine?"

"Something...here."

Brushing at his chin, Vincent smiled. "Mud. I must have missed a spot."

Catherine laughed at the look on his face: a combination of embarrassment and humor. "What on earth have you been doing?"

"A pipe broke. We spent most of the day diverting water. There was...a great deal of mud."

Catherine could only imagine what problems Vincent dealt with daily in his world. She'd seen so little of it when she'd been healing. She felt left out, at times, when he spoke of people she didn't know and places she'd never seen, but he seemed reluctant to take her Below. He always said perhaps...or another time. I've never even had a chance to properly thank Father for helping to save my life.

"Are you cold?" Vincent asked gently as she shivered and wrapped the robe tighter.

"A little. It was warm today, but it's cooled down quite a bit."

"Since I spent a good part of the day covered in water and mud, tonight seems a vast improvement." He offered her the circle of his arm and the warmth of his cloak, and she snuggled against his warmth.

"Tell me about the pipe," she asked, feeling wistful. "And about fixing it."

Vincent hesitated, but he must have sensed her sincere desire to know more. "There isn't much to tell. A pipe broke...too close to the upper levels and too large for us to fix. The city would have known. So we diverted the water--mostly with sandbags--and waited for the city crews to fix it."

"No one was hurt, were they?" Catherine always worried a little about what happened, Below, in emergencies.

"No. It wasn't dangerous...only inconvenient."

"Does that happen often? Floods like that?"

He nodded. "Fairly regularly, in fact. Hopefully, before long things will be better. We have an aqueduct planned to funnel floodwaters away from the living areas."

"Oh." Try as she might, Catherine still couldn't visualize it fully. Another entire world. People--families--with lives. All of it going on below her. She wanted to be more a part of it. Know more about it.

"You're quiet tonight," Vincent offered, obviously hoping she'd tell him what she was thinking.

She felt a flash of irritation, but then it was gone. Vincent was... Vincent. It's just the way he was. But just because getting him to talk was impossible was no reason for her to stay silent. "I'd like to see more of your world. I've seen so little...just the parts when you were bringing me home. You tell me bits and pieces...about people I have no faces for. Places I can't imagine." She turned to him and searched his face, looking for signs that he was receptive, this time. "All these people are in your life. I'd like to know them."

He sighed. "I know. Perhaps someday soon."

Catherine turned away and repressed a frustrated sigh.

*****

The next day, Vincent stood with his head bowed over Father's desk staring at an issue of The New York Times. The headline screamed at him. He glanced around at Father and handed the paper back to him. Vincent had been hearing rumors for days of a killer on the subways. Someone who killed like an animal. The man was alternately hailed as hero or a monster, since he killed to protect people from subway violence. A few of the helpers had begun looking at Vincent oddly.

Father cleared his throat. "Mario is a new helper, Vincent. He needed to know."

Vincent stalked to the other side of the room, remaining facing away from his father. "And does he know now?" he asked bitterly.

"I...believe...so," Father said hesitantly.

Vincent turned to face Father. "I wish you'd told me sooner."

Mario had brought the paper down to Father two days before, hesitantly asking if there was any chance that Vincent could be the Subway Slasher. Father had reassured the man that, of course, Vincent was not responsible, but parent-like had hidden the incident from Vincent, seeking to save him embarrassment.

"I only wanted...." Father began, his words helplessly trailing away.

"To spare me. I know. It doesn't matter." Vincent stalked from the room, for once unconcerned that Father was unhappy. He was tired of always being looked at with suspicion. I should be accustomed to it by now. He passed people in the tunnels and barely acknowledged their presence. He knew this latest incident shouldn't bother him, but it did. All his life, Vincent had walked a narrow line, trying desperately to fit into the niche that Father had created for him in this precarious world of theirs. With everything he did, he used restraint. He moved as gently, as quietly as he could. He modulated his speech to a gentleness he didn't always feel. Because he knew that no matter how hard he tried, the first instinctive reaction of anyone upon seeing him was stark fear. Even those who knew him well had their moments of doubt. Vincent knew this because he could sense it through his empathy. Yet, whenever danger threatened, the first place his friends turned to was to him.

Vincent had no illusions about his place in his world. He was loved and he never doubted that, for he could feel the love every bit as strongly as the fear. His family loved him and depended upon him. He was their protector. And he wondered about the man Above, the man who was called the Subway Slasher. What is he thinking of, when he kills? Did he mean for it to come to this, or was he pushed into it? He is protecting people, as well....

The similarities made Vincent uneasy. It was wrong, what both of them were doing...yet...he could see no alternative. Not for himself, in any case. Above, they had police and prisons. Below, they have only me.

Late into the night, Vincent padded quietly through the upper tunnels, making his rounds. Checking weak points in their security. He found himself lingering near the subway stations longer than usual, though the stink of places disturbed him. The reek of garbage, cigarette smoke, oil, and the streetwalkers' perfumes was oppressing. From his hidden place in the shadows, Vincent watched the rumbling trains and the straggling mass of humanity and sighed. And thought of Catherine. The gentle thread of her peace as she slept wound through his consciousness. Without her, I would truly be in a foul mood tonight. But somehow, as long as Catherine trusted him, nothing else mattered very much.


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