Atalanta Left Behind


"I love the park at night." Catherine sighed that evening, as she and Vincent strolled along a crisscrossing path. "Especially this part. It's so much like a fairytale."

They were nearing the destination of their moonlight jaunt. Before them lay a bridge, and on the other side, the path sloped gently upward toward Belvedere Castle.

"My father used to bring me here," she continued, reminiscing over the intricate Victorian folly. While small in size, it was as imposing as any ancient castle in style and stature, evoking images of old Europe, knights, and Holy Grails. "He used to take me up to the highest turret ... when it was still open back then ... and declare me a princess. Princess of fairytale land." She chuckled briefly, remembering the words as if her father had uttered them only yesterday. "Or at least Princess of New York."

She glanced up, only to find Vincent's gaze fixed steadily upon her. And the expression on his face was that of enchanted bemusement ... one he'd been known to sport when one of the children below would do something especially endearing. It had a certain focus though. A focus of attention that none of the children had ever earned. Strong enough to lower Catherine's eyes again.

"Kind of silly, huh." she added.

He halted her bashful reaction, his thumb and forefinger gently V'ing against the tip of her chin.. "Not silly." he assured. "There's nothing silly about fairytales, nor the blessing of a little girl by her father." The pad of his thumb drifted a slow inch. "And you know as well as I do, there's no shame in fairytales. They're loved best by those with open hearts."

Catherine's response, after a moment, was another bashful nod, silently wondering how her father had managed to foretell her magical future. "So, how are we going to get into it?" she asked, looking once more at the moonlit castle. "They lock the doors overnight I think."

The question finally helped him drag his eyes away, as well as his thoughts and fingers too. "I've scaled its walls before. Little challenge, compared to your 18th floor balcony. It shouldn't take me long to ..."

Voices drifted out of the darkness, coming from a path that wound through a grove of trees. Nothing suspicious ... two people laughing together, presumably a pair of male and female ... but enough to pose an instant problem.

On well-honed instinct, Vincent twisted around, searching for a hiding place. The lower corner of the upcoming bridge presented a viable option, or another set of trees on the other side of the path. But before he could even take that first step, Catherine's hands had gripped his cloak, her eyes pinning him still just as vigorously. And before he could even register it, he was yanked down into a kiss.

Funny how fast this endearment had risen on his list of joys in life. Sky-rocketed, actually, beyond the speed of light if he were to be honest. And his beloved knew it too, her hands relaxing as she held him close with her lips alone. She would further help his cause ... her fingers following the seams of his cloak upward, pulling the hood securely around his head, shielding them both from the passersby.

The voices approached, then laughed and hushed each other upon noticing the involved couple, so predisposed along the path's edge. The time for escape was past, if, indeed, Vincent was still thinking of such plans. He wasn't though, as he next proved. His hands landed on Catherine's sides ... initially searching for a hiding place behind the shadow of his cloak ... then drifted lower to the flair of her hips ... simply because he couldn’t help it.

Running to hide -- even if possible -- would have meant losing the touch, both given and received. It would have meant forbidding the flick of her tongue against his upper canines -- a sensation that shot electricity through every nerve in his body. It would have meant retrieving his hands and arms, when it was already all he could do not to snake them tighter and pull her eagerly beneath the curve of his body. It would have meant losing the feather-light brush of her nose against his. It would have meant distance ... and that, he mused headily, might have killed him far more quickly than even discovery.

Fortunately, the passersby managed to create their own distraction. "Hey, you used to be like that! Where'd the magic go?!" the female half was heard to laugh, followed by the light thunk of a playful slap and a facetious 'ooph' from the male. "Out the door when your mother-in-law moved in," was his jovial answer, followed by still more laughter. It was becoming apparent that these wanderers might have been a bit inebriated ... ... a fact that Vincent and Catherine both counted to their benefit, relaxing Vincent's tension a fraction, while raising Catherine's courage.

More shushing from the passersby and the voices began to die away. Catherine, however, was not about to let this man go, despite the receding danger. It had been nearly a month since her worst nightmare in that cave, and she still fell easily into the mode of proving to herself that it was over. ... That all was well. ... That he was well. And at this moment, he was proving it all on his own.

She pressed closer, pushing herself into his kiss, using it to draw him down upon herself. Her hands released his hood, her palms sliding slowly down his arms -- coaxing his grip further around herself. He obeyed ... how could he not? ... until his fingers landed quite inadvertently on the rise of her bottom.

The indentation of his claws into her flesh was so ardent, she couldn't possibly mistake it. -- -- The split second when his most authentic self found that which he truly wanted, and acknowledged his buried wish to accept it as his own. Five heavy, pointed nails making the most natural, unencumbered statement imaginable.

But then came the freeze, as Catherine knew it would. The flinch of his hands, accompanied by the stunned -- even shy -- halt of his kiss. His eyes, searching hers in both panic and apology.

She let him go, trying to fake a small, understanding smile. Or at least trying to pretend it didn't hurt. As always, she would consciously remind herself that this man she loved was still recovering from the turmoil of emotional collapse. Her subconscious, however, knew the much less complicated truth -- -- that she simply had not yet found the courage to insist he accept what had long since been given him, nor even the courage to properly broach the subject.

"I'm ... ... I'm sorry," he rasped as he stepped back, putting hasty inches of space between them. Such a predicted move, especially tragic in its instinctiveness.

It was an apology she accepted with a nod, although in her opinion he was apologizing for entirely the wrong reason. "They're gone." she replied, her eyes focusing on the other couple, strolling away down a crossroad. At least it hid her face from her beau's, until she could rid herself of the mournful expression. "Shall we visit the castle?"

His momentary hesitation was telling. ...He knew. He understood the cause behind her stilted reaction. And there was so much he should say, but not one word that would form. Sadly, his head bowed and his hand extended for hers. The last steps to the castle would be taken in silence.


As he'd predicted, gaining entrance to the imposing stone structure was easily accomplished. In less than a minute, Vincent had scaled the thirty foot wall, then a flash of black cloak as he dropped down into a courtyard. Catherine stood at a small side door, waiting patiently to be let in.

It was moments like this that Catherine noted how different the park had come to appear. Years ago, she would never have wandered some of these areas so late at night. But now, even with her protector two solid walls away, she felt no need to glance over her shoulder for lurking dangers. She could pause and indulge in her own thoughts. ... ... Somber thoughts. Ironically, about that same protector on the other side of these walls.

The opening of a metal latch jarred her back to reality, the door swinging in to present a proudly smiling Vincent. Opening the castle to his lady? It seemed to come straight from another fairytale, didn't it. And it was in that spirit that he offered his bent elbow. "Shall we visit the balcony, my Catherine?"


The view of the park, from the castle's towering height, had changed little since her childhood years. The Swedish Cottage still sat beneath its quaintly thatched roof. The flowered lanes of Shakespeare's Garden still meandered pleasantly away toward Delacorte Theater. And even Delacorte had not changed much. The stage upgraded and modernized a few times perhaps, but that was it. Now it was a landmark, given its rise in popularity for Shakespeare in the Park.

She took it in, recalling her father's voice from long ago and trying to feel like the princess he'd always claimed she was. If she could remember that feeling, maybe it could overpower the other, more sorrowful thoughts ... instilled in her mind only minutes earlier with Vincent's sudden retreat on a moonlit path. It was difficult to get past the idea that simple, physical closeness with her could put such a shocked and regretful expression on his face. Such images tended to burn into one's memory.

"The stars are so clear tonight," her beau commented. "Even the smog and city lights cannot blanket them out." His voice carried a hint of trepidation. The only thing more unnerving than the silence of the woman beside him, was the knowledge that he himself was the cause.

That final leg of their stroll to the castle had been so sullen, as too had been the look on her face when he'd opened the old, wooden door. He'd tried to reverse it with forced lightheartedness, playing the role of queen's knight -- or princess' knight, as the case may be -- on their ascent to the balcony. The best it had earned him was her feigned smile, twitching with sadness at the edges. He'd tried to soothe it with his arm around her waist when they'd stepped back out into the nighttime breeze. And even that, she had removed herself from ... slipping away as to appear casual -- even accidental -- but hurting him so deeply in the process.

Worst of all though, he could feel it. Dark grey melancholia, moving like haze through their bond.

It was little surprise, therefore, when he received no direct answer to his verbal observation of the glittering sky. Instead, she just nodded, her eyes remaining on the horizon of skyscrapers.

Another minute passed, then two, as he tried to find a new approach. That was when he noticed the movement of her lips. A whisper, mouthed into the night, obviously not meant for him as there was virtually no accompanying sound.

"Catherine?" he questioned. "What are you saying?"

She blinked -- multiple times -- as she tried to clear her head. If she told the truth, she could only imagine the directions it could lead. "There was a shooting star up there. I was making my wish. ... ... Or maybe praying would be a better word."

His attention had fixed onto her, although she continued to stare into the distance. "Praying?" he repeated in mild surprise. It's not that he questioned her spirituality. It's just that he'd never seen her practice it like this before.

That was when Catherine's back seemed to straighten, her head rising as she forced some self-confidence into her stance. Vincent would never inquire as to such personal things on his own. If he was to know, she would have to offer the invitation. And at this point, maybe she was finally frustrated enough to muster the courage. ... ... "Are you curious?" she asked. "What I wished for?"

It seemed to meeken him, and his one word answer was given with a voice small in comparison to his physical stature. ... ... "Yes."

"Be sure. You may not like it," was her ironic smirk.

A pause. "If it matters to you, Catherine, then yes, I do want to know."

... ...

"Atalanta." she pronounced melodiously. "Do you know the name?"

He shook his head, continuing to watch her, just as she continued to watch the sky. "The lost city?" he questioned.

"At-a-lanta," she repeated, emphasizing the second syllable. "Not Atlanta. You must not have read Bulfinch's Mythology. I would have thought Father would have it in his library."

"The title sounds familiar," he offered before she cut him off decisively.

"You'd know." she assured. "Believe me, if you'd read Atalanta's story, you would remember it. I even remembered it, and looked it up soon after we met. ... ... She was a princess too. Greek, supposedly. ... A huntress and sprinter. She married a prince named Hippomenes. ... ... And then ..."

She trailed off, suddenly realizing that the words really were going to come out of her mouth.

"And then what?" her beau prompted quietly.

... ...

"Atalanta and Hippomenes were ... changed ... by the gods." Catherine's attention finally left the stars, her eyes returning to Vincent's as if to help brace him. "They were changed into lions. Now, together, they pull Cybele's chariot across the heavens."

... ...

The wave that went through Vincent was clearly visible, his respiration halting for a moment, then reclaimed in a conscious puff. That word -- -- 'lion' -- -- had never been shared between them. It was a silent, unwritten, unspoken, yet very conscious agreement. But it was out there now, hanging in the air. And as far as Catherine was concerned, she had just pushed herself beyond the point of no return.

"If I really were a princess," she continued. "If I could convince those gods to make me Atalanta, then maybe you'd let me in. ... ... Maybe we could finally be together ... really and truly together."

By now she had begun to weep ... as too did he. To hear her wish such a thing. To hear her wish for Atalanta's fate. Indeed, for his fate. It was like hearing that gravity had failed and the sky was falling, all at the same time.

"Oh Catherine." he breathed. "Please don't ever wish such a thing upon yourself. Please, love."

"Why?" she shot back. "Because you think it's terrible?" Giving his chest a dismissive tap with the back of her hand, she clarified her point. -- -- "Because you think this is terrible? How can you hate so much, the same thing I love? Probably doesn't matter though." Her eyes returned to stars, and the fickle gods therein. "They won't listen to me any more than you will."

... ...

Truly, he was left helpless.

He should hold her. Comfort her. It was screamed by every nerve in his body. But he was just too shell-shocked. The stupefication of the 'L' word's taboo appearance. The horror of hearing Catherine make such terrible requests of the fates. The sadness in her voice. It was too much to digest, and hurt far too much.

"Catherine." he husked, making the same realization she had ... ... that the inevitable confrontation had been reached. Answers would have to be forthcoming, whether either party was prepared or not. "What if I can't let you go?"

That forced her attention, and she fixed her water-logged gaze to his. "Lisa?" she asked, finding the word difficult to get out. Two little syllables that had caused so much damage over the years.

Silently, Vincent shook his head. "No. ... ... I mean ever."

If the truth were told, it was no longer merely his claws that frightened him. No matter what had happened to the ballerina who once teased his teenage self, this was different. He understood that now. Catherine's assertions that even his subconscious had chosen death over laying his claws violently upon her, had gone far to assuage those particular fears. But there were other dangers, beyond those at his fingertips.

"I remember the day you chose to leave for Rhode Island." he continued. "I remember the night," ... he released another puff, knowing how painful the next phrase would be ... "the night you insisted you would marry Elliot Burch. And I remember the reporter who nearly drove us apart. They were knives that already held the power to kill me. If we were to come together ... as one ... and to then lose you ... ..."

The train of thought ended, nearly stealing his breath with its inherent agony, now that it was finally bestowed the power of verbalization. He found himself frantically blinking back the tears before making another attempt. -- -- "Your father was right, my love. A life awaits you ... here, in your kingdom above. It always will, with infinite opportunities. And someday, circumstances may drive you to reclaim it. If I can barely let you go now, how would I ever manage to do so then? Once I knew the thrill of loving you in so complete a way? How would I give you your freedom? How would I even hold onto myself? ... ... I could destroy us both."

Finally, his hand reached out to touch her arm. ... "I know I would never physically harm you, Catherine. I know that now, because I know how deeply this love runs. But I don't know if I could survive such a loss. ... I don't know if I could truly let you go."

... ...

That was not what Catherine had expected. On the contrary, she was preparing for another debate over his hands ... his teeth ... any other signs of his 'differentness' that he could dredge up and use to blame and torment himself. This, was different. And the answer could be nothing more than the simple truth.

"I've already given up my life above," she stated sincerely, stepping closer and demanding the focus of his gaze. "In every way that really matters." Her hands landed on the edges of his cloak, tugging gently. Physical emphasis of how virulently she meant these words. "I don't want the life of a city princess -- I want the peace and happiness of a life with you. I don't want the loneliness of the world above -- I want your arms and your touch. Don't you see? ... ... It's you. It has been for so long, and always will be. ... ... Just you."

His head was already beginning to bow, age-old disbelief returning as he whispered her name. She had no choice but to present the flip-side of his arguments. The one thing she knew he would have to listen to: the pain he was already causing.

"You're leaving me in the cold." she pleaded, strengthening her grip and forcing herself back into his line of sight. "Don't you see that? I've already given up the life I used to lead, so long ago. And I did it of my own choice. Because I love you. Because you're the only one I want -- or ever will. But you won't let me in. You say you can't let me go, but what you're actually doing is leaving me behind." ... ... The thought hurt even more once she heard it in her own voice, and two tears escaped beyond her control. Straining closer against him, she was prepared to beg. "I'm Atalanta left behind."

The resultant shake of his head was less about disagreement, and more about instinctual denial. Little news could be worse than that of pain he'd caused this woman. Little else could squeeze his heart so tightly, or make him want to collapse in apology.

"I could never leave you behind." he whispered so beseechingly. "Don't say such things. I beg you, Catherine, don't say such things. It kills my heart."

"Then let me in. Let me have the life I need. With you!" Again she shook the balled fistfuls of black cloak she pinched in her hands. "Truly with you. Please! It kills me too!"

The standoff lasted for seconds -- -- deeply running fear, pure need, and sheer willpower, all engaged in the great battle. His strength turning to weakness, her weakness to strength.

When he moved at last, finally responding to her plea, it was to lean closer, kissing the plain of her cheek where one tear had left its damp, salty trail. "You must know, and understand, what you're asking, Catherine," he murmured against that same skin. His eyes remained closed, just inches from hers, unable even to watch as he made the statement. "You must be more certain than ever before in your life. For both of our sakes."

Between their torsos, her hands released their grip, reaching instead to catch the strong arms that had already begun snaking around her. She would encourage them further. But more than that, she would coax his hand back to its prized position of earlier ... back to the swell of her bottom. This time it was her own fingers that pressed his claws into the softness. And if he needed the words, he would have them too. ... "I am certain." she whispered. "I love you."

His breath rushed across her cheek in a gasp, accompanied by his own purposeful flex of his fingers. How easily her flesh gave way. Almost as if it had been awaiting that touch for ... well, dare he fancy ... her entire life?

A dam, built strong and reinforced repeatedly for years, breaks with a trickle rather than a flood. Thus came the trickle of his kisses, following the remnants of the tear's sad path. Beyond the ridge of her jaw, onto the neck he had always consciously kept so distant from his teeth. There would be no more of that, however. Her arms were around his shoulders, and she hoisted herself upward with an abrupt moan. The resultant catch of skin between sharply pointed teeth took them both by surprise. But the fire it set in her blood became the final trigger.

An oath was sworn ... possibly to her Creator -- she wasn't even sure what she was saying ... and her hands began yanking and pulling at his cloak. Then the most anxious "Please!" implored behind his ear.

Years of self-restraint calmly and rationally suggested that he at least consider waiting until they were back in the tunnels. Or her apartment. Or anywhere except the balcony of Belvedere Castle. But this place was safe. He knew that. He would never have brought her here if it weren't. And it was early, not even midnight yet. More importantly though: God above, he had just tasted the skin of her neck. Salty and sweet, a strong pulse beating eagerly toward him. All accentuated by the frantic pitching and wiggling of her body against his. ... ... Find another place? He could barely breathe, let alone go walk-about. His prophecy -- his difficulty in releasing her -- was coming true already.

So the kisses continued ... down her throat, as far as he could reach beneath the seam of her blouse ... while she defeated his cloak, prying his arms from it one by one.

They had no plan. Didn't need one. She was following the same path as he, grasping desperately to reach this promised new mate. And to that end, she let herself begin to drop to the balcony floor. She could never push him down, and fear still remained that such an action might drive him into retreat. But somehow, simply, she knew he would willingly follow her. ... ... And he did.

It stopped his kisses, and he took the moment of distraction to push and prod at the crumpled cloak, haphazardly spreading it out as a smoother place for her to sit. She accepted, then reached to retrieve him the very second he landed beside her.

The kiss she gifted him with then, proved -- beyond all doubt -- that this was neither a concession on her part, nor a hasty decision made of heady impulse. It was ... ... 'thorough', was the only word his mind could muster. ... ... Reassuring and familiar. Desirous and anxious. Filled with love, and in its fervency -- in a way he could not even consciously decipher -- filled also with permanence.

His hands gravitated to her hips, trying to tug her closer. She gave him one better, swinging a leg across to straddle his thigh, her arms looped around his neck as she rested her torso to his. ... An interesting height inversion that she had to admit enjoying.

It left him with a dilemma though. Beneath his arms ... beneath the stretch of her blouse across her back ... lay expanses of smooth skin. A delight he'd touched only briefly before, when her choice of clothing had been especially fortunate. On his chest, almost cradling the base of his neck, pressed two of the world's softest pillows ... begging, it seemed, to be cradled equally in return. And pinching around his leg, covered in the taut denim of her jeans, were surprisingly strong thighs, that ... may the fates help him ... he could almost imagine gripping his hips. So many sensations and images that mirrored things he'd heard and read in the past. Now they were all playing out ... in real life ... right there for him. A simultaneous, joyous, deluge.

"Catherine." he rasped when she came up for air. Strands of her hair floated on his escalating breath as she hovered closely. "I don't" ... ... his hands left her side in conjunction with what he was about to admit ... ... "What do I do? ... Where do I begin?"

For a moment -- a sharp but fleeting moment -- she almost wished her own experiences were as naive. "If I had known, Vincent," she found herself saying, "that you were right below me ... all those years ... I wouldn't have ... ... I mean, no other ..."

He nodded, the beginning of a smile threatening. "I know," he assured in honest belief. "I know."

Her own smile rose in return, hands reaching for his. "Just keep touching me," was her simplest answer, as she placed his palms on her hips. Truly she meant it. Even encouraged it, blatantly stripping her blouse away while he sat mesmerized. And as she hoped, his hands did exactly as she'd instructed, inching up onto the bared skin of her midriff, pausing while he tried to catch his breath. Brassiere went next, disposed of quickly and smoothly by her own practiced hands.

And then ... she waited.

Furred fingers rose slowly. One by one. Creeping upward. The claws barely felt until their gentle scrape -- almost a tickle -- along the undersides of her breasts.

"Are you all right?" she asked gently, when his eyes went from wide, to glazed, to closed.

"I've had ... dreams ... Catherine, over which I had no control," he admitted bashfully, before his eyes opened to hers. "Dreams are supposed to be flights of fancy. The unimaginable, imagined. I never expected them to be so woefully inferior to reality."

It sent a spark of delight into her expression, and she would have had him pinned in seconds with another kiss if he weren't already leaning forward, pressing his lips to her breastbone while his fingertips reverently held each feminine, fleshy pillow. She shook ... actually shook at such an unexpected action from her beau ... and let herself rest harder against him, sprinkling kisses into his mane of hair, her hands moving of their own accord to grasp and pinch at his double layer of shirting. Quite clearly, she wanted them gone too.

"Don't be dismayed by what you find," came his whisper at her chest, the quietest entreaty between gentle caresses from the tip of his tongue. She paused, probably more surprised than she should be, even a little saddened. Then it came again. -- -- "Please, don't be dismayed."

"By what?" she asked soothingly, straightening up to meet his eyes. "By this?" ... her hand moved to where he cupped her breast, her palm purposefully rubbing the fur on the back of his fingers. "Or by this?" ... she gave him the softest kiss to the fuzz-covered bridge of his nose. Then, slowly, she draped herself onto him again, her arms fanning across his back, one hand traveling up beneath the shirts she'd already loosened. She found exactly the bristly fur she'd expected, and it prefixed her final question. -- -- "Or by this?"

Here was such blatant acceptance that he almost laughed with relief. It took a moment of decision, and then he did something he never believed he'd do with this wonderful woman sitting in his lap. Catching his shirts' laces, he untied them quickly, then lifted both garments over his head.

... ... How much that must have taken him, she realized, in the context of their last two years together. How many fears must have required slaying to reach this point. Somehow, far beyond the intimate touch of his claws, or even the soft, sandpapery scratch of his tongue in valleys and curves newly discovered, this struck her as his final confirmation that wishes were at last coming true.

"We're actually doing this." she breathed in pure wonder. "We really are."

His nod was solemn. "There's still time to stop. If you wish." He took a deep inhalation, trying to hide his desire while the offer was given. "You needn't fear my reaction."

Her head shook in the negative, and her reply became a playful chastisement. "Aren't you forgetting something, Vincent? You stopped touching me."

This time he did laugh ... a giddy puff of joy as he wrapped his bare arms around her torso -- absolutely overwhelmed by the sensation -- and burrowed a kiss into her neck. The scrape of his teeth was both intentional and unbelievably gentle, exclaiming in loud silence how desperately he wanted her.

She gave him a light push ... more of an encouragement than an actual propulsion ... tipping him onto his back. Not that it lasted long. With surprising impulse he rolled himself atop her, sliding his lips to the rise of a breast. The flicks of scratchy, feline tongue still showed some hesitancy, but even that barrier was crumbling. Her fingers wove into his mane, holding him tight as her shallow pants for air rose and receded against him.

Minutes passed ... his weight gradually resting harder down upon her ... his nips and nuzzles smoothing from nervous to relaxed ... his hands learning to wander more freely, memorizing paths he hoped to repeat over and over for years to come, if the fates were good to him. And the pull of her fingers, twining in to find his scalp, removing the reservations one by one.

He couldn't even lift his head when he finally made a request. ... ... "May I," he breathed across her skin. "May I ... have the rest?"

Her resultant sigh was one of flagrant happiness over the words, and she set to work fulfilling them. To and fro she wiggled beneath him, her hands skimming through the fur of his midriff to find the button of her jeans. He gave her as much room as he could, loathe to lose that flitting of her fingers as they worked, and even more loathe to abandon the seductive feeling of every twist and turn her body made. The effect it was having on him was positively mind-altering.

When her legs started kicking their way to freedom though, he had little choice. He moved as quickly as he could, rising up to wrestle away his own jeans too.

Admittedly, as soon as possible he laid back down atop her ... conveniently blocking her view of certain things. Not every doubt could be disposed of in one night. It was a fact she accepted in silent understanding -- or at least acceptance -- and she welcomed his hasty return to her embrace.

She did gain a tactile hint, however, when his arousal bounced with such solid heat against her thigh. Gingerly, her hand slid down, repositioning herself while she reached for a most intimate touch. His eyes locked nervously to hers ... his blink and gasp coming suddenly when her fingers wrapped around his surprising girth.

"Are you worried?" he asked apprehensively. Helplessly. "I don't want to hurt you."

Slowly she shook her head in the negative. "You'd hurt me more, Vincent, if you'd stop."

It was all he needed to hear, after an evening of so many miraculous words. With great care, he pressed down onto her, pillowing her head with his hands while she guided him home.

As expected as her gasp was ... the pinch on her face; the bite of her lip; the muffled exclamation ... it pained him to witness such things, and he bowed his cheek to hers. "I'm sorry, my love." he whispered, pre-emptive to an instinctive, but most gentle thrust against her. "I'm sorry."

Anxiously, her hands landed on the back of his neck, insisting that he look at her. "Don't do that," she demanded. "Don't ever apologize for touching me. In any way."

He would have agreed. Would have verbally acquiesced, if it weren't for the fact that she was already kissing him, eagerly retrieving every touch they'd so long denied each other. So his show of agreement was left to the physical, beginning a slow, rocking cadence against her ... as old as time, and completely indifferent to their differences.

She was so warm. So pliant and yielding beneath him. Far beyond any dreams -- sleeping or waking -- that he'd cautiously allowed himself during long nights spent alone in his chamber. And she was clinging with a tenacity barely hoped for ... her arms holding him tight, legs gripping his hips, thighs pinching in encouragement with every propulsion he made. It was difficult to resist. Impossible, actually, when he'd been secretly craving it for so long.

But what he really didn't expect ... or perhaps, simply didn't want to expect ... was the growl that suddenly began. It rumbled up from his lungs, bursting into existence as a sudden snarl against her neck, then settled into a guttural vibration with every shallow breath. It was obvious that it surprised her too ... how could it not? But her response showed no genuine concern, and more importantly, he sensed no fear in her at all.

It grew, resonating off the balcony's walls, declaring their presence into the dark night. And for that reason, it was probably for the best that it didn't last very much longer. He could barely hold out, from the moment he'd first sunk into her warmth.

Another rumble as his fingers struggled to gently brace her. Another kiss from her as she anxiously sought a way to catch and share those beautiful reverberations. Another shove against her ... and the sound became a roar as he blissfully emptied into her.

He buried the sound into the crook of her neck, actually surprised in some small way that he no longer feared an inadvertent bite, or other moment of damage. Nothing but the earthy sound of his satisfaction, echoing into her throat.

And here, best of all, he found a joy even beyond the physical. She'd wanted his love ... his devotion ... his passion. His everything. And now, finally, he knew the pride of fulfilling that wish.


"We should leave soon." he suggested some time later, his arm strengthening to pull her closer.

Catherine's cheek rose from the spot she'd been warming on his chest, and she glanced down across the furred body lying beside her. Well ... the parts that hadn't been covered by a cloak pulled hastily about themselves. Her own moonlit skin, pale against ebbing and flowing patches of tawny bristle.

... ... And she smiled, trying to constrain the inevitable giddiness.

"I guess Park Services wouldn't be terribly amused to find us in the morning," she chuckled.

One set of claws skimmed carefully into her hair, coaxing her back down for a kiss to her head. "No," he whispered with a secret smile.

Gradually, she settled against him, returning her ear to the strong, reliable heartbeat she'd been listening to. It had finally retreated to its extraordinarily slow, melodic rhythm, lulling her so peacefully.

"Things have changed." she stated simply. It was the obvious truth, but she never knew exactly what 'the truth' meant to him. "A lot has changed."

Beside her, he nodded, glancing back up at the stars. Not long ago, the woman in his arms had been begging them to transform her into his image. He was, of course, not surprised that she had remained her normal, lovely self. The extent of her utter happiness though, coursing at amazing volume through their bond ... that did impress him a bit.

"Come below for the rest of the night," he suggested, the invitation showing his obvious agreement. -- -- Yes indeed, much had changed.

Catherine thought for a moment, amused by the possibilities it presented. "Do you mean in the guest chamber?" she asked. "Where people can then ask me if something's wrong? Or worse yet, if something's wrong with you? ... ... Or do you mean in your chamber, where we can shock rather than confuse?"

Vincent laughed, a delightful sound that echoed into her ear. "Perhaps not too shocked. Most of our friends at least. ... ... Father ... maybe. But I even question that anymore. You affected him, Catherine. That night in the caverns. He may find some things difficult to express, but it's true. ... ... I would no longer try to second-guess his reaction."

Now that surprised her, and her eyes went to his. "Are you seriously suggesting this? That I come back to your chamber?" ... ... ... Nope -- hearing it in her own voice still did not make it sound any more believable.

"It is what I am requesting," he clarified, humbly emphasizing the last word and punctuating it with a squeeze of his beloved. "There aren't that many hours remaining until morning, but ... I do believe we would both sleep well."

... ...

A few more seconds ticked away, while she digested the proposed image. It almost made her weep with joy ... how far things had come. Certainly not planned, as they'd set out on their evening journey to this castle. But heavens, how wonderful it was. And the fires they'd both walked through to arrive here.

"All right." she nodded sincerely, a small smile growing. "If you promise me something."

His fingers stroked into her hair, and he grinned in return. She probably already knew the obvious truth ... there was little he would not promise at this point. Anything and everything, for Catherine. "Your wish is my command," he teased subtly. "Princess."

Happily, she rested back down, insinuating her arms around his waist and burrowing her face into his chest. She would take his biggest fear ... disarm it ... re-wrap it ... and present it right back to him as the best gift of all. "That you'll never let go," she murmured. "That you'll never, ever let go."


A couple of footnotes: Belvedere Castle, Shakespeare's Garden, Delacorte Theater, and The Swedish Cottage are all supposedly together in Central Park, although I've never been there. By utter dumb luck, while proofing this story with "A Gentle Rain" in the VCR, I believe I actually saw Belvedere Castle and its balconies, near the end of that episode's opening montage of images.

Also, the legend of Atalanta and Hippomenes is indeed in Bulfinch’s Mythology. Cybele is also known as Rhea, wife of Cronos, mother of Zeus.