By Cindy Rae
For Miranda, who always reminds me of excellent things.
All quotes in purple belong to Mary Shelley’s wonderful novel, Frankenstein.
A bit of a “Trick or Treat” for Halloween 2014, a venture into “‘What if Vincent was raised reading Mary Shelley, rather than reading Shakespeare?’” And of course, if that happened, it would be Paracelsus doing the raising, so…
It’s AU in that respect, but since it’s also the week of Samhain, well. The walls between the worlds grow thin…
A Bargain with a Beast
“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
"Save her. Now."
"Here, when we want something, we say 'please,' Vincent." Jacob nonetheless moved to the table where the bleeding woman lay.
Vincent’s temper was not to be tested. "'Please,' then. Jacob, there is no time for this!"
The giant before him was a forbidding presence. And a forbidden one.
"Vincent, if you get your way, nothing of my world may exist; and you expect me to quibble with you over the life of one woman?" Still, his hands began to work.
Help me... The voice was so faint. Vincent swore he could hear it inside his head. And inside hers.
"Help her. Save her life, and you'll never hear from me again. Is that what you want?" Vincent asked. He knew it was.
"You or those... things you live with." Jacob pushed an unexpected advantage. Unexpected and very sudden. The damp April night had not given portents of such an event.
"I do not control John's minions any more than I could control John. I can only tell you that I will not bother you.” The deep voice was firm.
Jacob eyed him, then inspected the damage to the young woman. Someone had taken a razor to her face.
Vincent did not like the time he was taking. Perhaps this man Paracelsus had hated wanted more concessions. After all, it’s what Vincent would do, if their positions were reversed and it was Jacob come to his door, groveling for help.
“And... they fear bright light. They stay to reaches far darker than your people ever go. John had to whip them to get them to climb," Vincent tacked on.
There. The weakness in Paracelsus’ troops, and why he'd not attacked in force, so far. It was valuable information, for Jacob. Very valuable.
The elderly physician was content with the bargain the big beast had just struck. He wondered if Vincent knew how much he'd given up, for the sake of this woman. Was she known to him, then? Was she dear?
"Where did you find her?" Jacob asked, inspecting. In spite of the blood on her neck, they’d not cut her there. Good.
"The park. What in hell does that have to do with anything?" Vincent was agitated, and it showed. As it always did.
Jacob spoke as he moved. "She's cold, and it's April. She's wet, and she's lost a lot of blood." Jacob's hands were working, readying silk. He called for Mary. She entered the chamber, clearly uneasy with its largest occupant.
"Mary, I need alcohol and bandages, and extra hands. These cuts are deep. She'll need to be sewn together. Wrapped, covering the wounds and her eyes. No one must know about this place." The last was for Vincent. Who really didn't need to be told.
The older woman complied, and brought a tray of supplies.
Impatient, however, it was Vincent who insisted on holding the woman’s face while Jacob worked.
"Help her. Save her." It was a dictatorial voice. One accustomed to being obeyed. Vincent did not look up from her shredded face.
Mary brought more disinfectant as Jacob began to sew.
"We are trying, Vincent." Jacob's able hands worked.
Vincent hated being here, on instinct. But he’d had no choice. He'd had to bring her here. There was no way he could bring her to his own ... "home," for lack of a better word, below the pipes. And there was no time to dump her at a hospital.
But there was more to it than that. He felt her, felt this woman. Felt her inside his mind. Vincent was certain of very few things at this moment. But one of them was that he desperately wanted this woman to live, and that he could feel her anguish.
Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.
He recalled the words as he leaned over her, knowing Jacob would think of him as anything but a “defender.” Jacob was right. He often wasn’t. And it didn’t matter. Only Jacob’s help did.
Vincent felt her inside herself, struggling.
They hurt me. God, he took a knife to my face! It was both an impression and actual words, some. Vincent clearly understood the instinct of fear, and the vague impression of the word “knife.” Being cut. Being held, while it happened. He understood both sensations, intimately.
Her voice was nearly clear and startling, inside Vincent's fiery brain. Or at least, the impressions were. He untied his cape and let it drop where it would, keeping his arms free of the folds, so he could work. His huge hands returned to hold her face steady. He wanted to help her. He wanted to save her. It was the only sensation he was sure still belonged to him, as Jacob continued the surgery.
Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.
He tried to wrap his brain around how she felt, without it causing him to want to annihilate whoever had done this to her. It was difficult, but he managed it.
"Shhhhhhhhh," the big man crooned over the unconscious woman. "Shhhhhhhhh," he repeated, as though she'd been speaking. Her gown had been cut. There was a bruise on the top of her breast, the part above her bra. Finger marks.
“Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict," Vincent quoted bitterly, holding her shattered cheek.
"Is that Dante?" Father asked, sewing with able care.
"Mary Shelley. Everything is Mary Shelley. Work faster, damn you."
Ah. Frankenstein. Of course. Naturally, Paracelsus would have raised Vincent thinking he was a monster. Jacob glanced at his own Mary, who was glancing right back. Understanding passed between them.
"She's having trouble breathing," Jacob observed. That was to Mary, as much as to Vincent.
"Her ribs. Broken, I think," Mary pronounced, inspecting the damage to her torso while Jacob worked.
"One. The right."
"How bad?" Jacob asked.
Vincent watched them act as a team. The two of them communicated quickly, and almost effortlessly. She'd been his helper for a long time, Vincent knew. And they contrasted mightily with what he had to work with, beneath the pipes. Jacob’s hands never stopped moving.
"It's localized. Like she was kneed, or kicked."
"Any danger to the lungs?"
"Shouldn't be. I'll get the tape. Do you need a brace, for her neck?"
"It couldn't hurt. And gauze. Her eyes were not damaged, by they’ll need to be covered. Vincent here has brought us quite the present." Jacob's canny eyes looked up at his fur-covered opponent.
He was bloody from handling her and his eyes hadn't left her destroyed face. Shirtless, owing to the heat of his domain, he wore a tan leather vest over his bare chest. The dark cape was for anonymity, when he travelled Above. His knee-high boots had a knife tucked in, as did a back sheath on his wide brown belt. A leather band encircled his left bicep, and rugged-looking tan pants were tucked into the boots.
Had he not brought the woman to Jacob for help, Jacob would have assumed her face was his handiwork. Which would have been odd, since usually Paracelsus’ people rarely left their victims alive.
"We do need to be faster," Jacob pronounced.
Vincent nodded, aware he was working with the man he'd been bred to destroy.
Jacob’s voice never lost its steady tone. "More blankets, Mary. We need to get her warm. She's lost far too much blood."
"Can't you give her blood?" Vincent was furious, and trying to control it. He felt her slipping.
"Do you know her blood type?"
Of course he didn't. Damn it. God damn it.
"She's dying," Vincent said.
"She's in shock. And we have no way of knowing if they drugged her, or if she's an addict."
Vincent's derision was palpable. "In that gown? Or what's left of it? She's Park Avenue."
"Oh. And there are no addicts on Park Avenue." Jacob finished with one set of stitches, then moved on to the next.
"She isn't drugged." Vincent was positive of that.
"Vincent. John used to say you had amazing abilities," Jacob said, while he began closing the next gash in her face. "If you can keep her here with us, I suggest you use those." Jacob didn't need a hospital to know her heart and breathing were slowing. She was close to arresting.
"You mean... go down, go in... after her?" It was a thing Vincent had clearly never done.
With how many things are we on the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.
Father wasn't sure what Vincent meant by that. Except that he was.
"It may help. It surely can't hurt."
Vincent was not so sure of that. And he'd already felt her struggle. Already knew where to “find” her, mentally. Hell, he couldn't avoid it. He could feel her ever since he was drawn to her discarded body in the park.
Vincent kept his huge hands on either side of her face, and willed her to hear him.
You have to stay with me, he thought to her, inside the odd link that was forming between them.
An impression, more than a word, for a reply: Cold.
"She's cold," Vincent told Jacob. "And she's afraid." He couldn't "hear" that word, but he could sense it from her.
"Did she… hear you?"
"I don't know. I know I heard her, though it wasn't in words."
"Extraordinary." It was Mary's assessment, as Jacob continued stitching, and Mary piled on extra blankets.
Jacob's order was brisk. "Vincent, rub her hands and feet while we work. We need to get what blood she still has moving. And… keep doing whatever else it is you’re doing."
Listen to me. You have to stay with me. Stay. Vincent rubbed her bloodied hand as he spoke to her through the bond.
Sensations bombarded him. Fear. Cold. Sorrow. A hopeless kind of terror, and a will to fight. He ignored the others, and tried to focus on the latter.
Fight. That's it. Fight, damn you. Fight to live. Fight to be with me.
He wasn’t sure if she understood the words, but he hoped she understood the instinct, and followed it.
Who? It was a faint impression.
Vincent. He sent her his name. More, he sent her his presence, his impression of himself. Strength. Cunning. Speed. A warrior, fit for battle and bred for war. Decisive. Firm.
I am strong. Hold on to me. Hold on to me, woman. I have the strength of ten; I have the strength for you. She may have stirred, a little, but if she did, it was inside her mind, not with her body.
“Hold on to me hard, woman.” He said it out loud. Trying to “think” to her was tiring.
To you? The vaguest sensation that she sensed him, as he sensed her. Weakly. But there.
Yes. Stay with me. I will help you. He tried hard to consolidate that down into the instinct for “stay,” and “help.” He chafed her hand harder, and went around to her feet as Mary brought warm water for her wounds and towels to wipe her dry so cleaning the blood in search of other injuries would not make her colder.
Vincent could feel the feminine presence in their bond, more strongly now, seeking.
No. No. No. The denial was firm and repeated. Living. Living to fight. With me. Do it.
He didn’t like that, and the impression frightened him. He stared at her, hard.
Fight. Fight, damn you!
She recoiled at his anger. He sensed fear, again. Fear of his rage? Idiot. Of course she was afraid of masculine rage. She'd just been assaulted. Viciously.
"Stay with me. Please." He spoke the words aloud, but softer, as he felt them in his mind. "Be with me. Don't go. Stay with me." He decided to tell her the truth. Mary Shelley’s monster had just the right words for him, as always: “Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone,” he quoted.
It will be lonely without you, he thought.
He felt her sympathy at the words. Then the question: Help… me? She wasn’t as good at this as he was. But he could feel the question. Perhaps it was what she would be thinking, anyway. That made sense.
"Yes. Yes, of course I will help you. I am helping you. Feel my hands." He laid the furred, clawed appendages on her arm, rubbing it, willing her to acknowledge him.
Her breathing steadied, and her skin began to warm. It was working.
"That's it. Stay with me. Stay here with me. It's not so bad. There's rock and stone. A warm fire. There's even an old man, sewing you together."
Jacob raised an eyebrow as he finished with the longest cut, and proceeded to a shorter one.
Mary, the cannier or the two when it came to relationships, realized it was not so much what he said, but how he said it. Gently. At least, “gently” for him.
It was not the brusque tone he used when issuing an order or a threat. He was talking to this woman. Talking to her unconscious form on the table. Mary had watched his blue eyes while Vincent had "spoken" to Catherine inside the bond. He'd looked fierce at first, then... calmer. Coaxing.
Mary set the bloodied towels aside, aware he was half in love with the woman before Vincent was, himself.
Catherine's breathing became even deeper. More regular.
They may have just all found their salvation. Or at least, a reprieve.
"She'll need antibiotics and more disinfectant," Mary observed.
"Do you have those?" Vincent asked, trying not to raise his voice. She didn't like it. Not Mary. Her.
"Some,” Mary gave the only answer she could.
"Will it be enough?" His voice raised a notch, and began to take on that "insistent" tone Jacob knew so well.
"It should be," Jacob answered. "One step at a time, Vincent. First, we have to get her through the surgery."
Vincent worked and talked to her, and stood. And for the deep gash over her ear, he worried. It was hard to close, and the skin was “torn” as much as it was cut.
"The blade grew dull," Vincent commented, helping Jacob while holding her face.
"Yes. Thank you for letting me know the particulars."
"The sharper cuts were the first ones."
"Vincent, there are some things I really don't need to know."
There was skin beneath her nails. She'd scratched one of them, or tried to. Good for her.
Finishing the last of the grisly work, Jacob began to bandage her face, carefully. Mary left the chamber to ready a room they could keep her in once they were finished. The “crisis” part of the evening was over, at least.
"She'll need to rest. Be kept warm. Returned to the world Above as soon as we can. She can't see us. Especially not you,” Jacob advised.
"Concerned for my safety?" There was derision in the tone. Almost.
Jacob said nothing to that.
"You've brought us all quite the problem, Vincent. Do you intend to leave us with it?"
Well that was blunt, at least.
"No. I will stay with her. When it's time, I'll take her to an exit. Make sure she gets lost, first."
"Or we can care for her, and you can simply --"
"I said I will do it,” he snapped.
Ah, there was that imperious tone. The one he so regularly used when they’d had dealings with each other, when John had sent him up with a warning, or a demand. Such occurrences had been blessedly rare. Especially lately.
"Very well,” Jacob answered. “There is a chamber we can take her to. Warmer than here, with a bed she can recover in. Can I at least assume your people will not attack us while you're here?"
"I have no..." Vincent sighed, and took the knife from his boot, then another from the sheath at his back. He clattered both onto the table. "Satisfied?"
Jacob wasn't sure he was. Vincent's claws looked more formidable than any knife.
"I will take you at your word. And I will help this... woman you've seen fit to saddle me with. When she is better, perhaps we can... co-exist, in some way. If we can't, I ask only that you let me get the children out of the way, first."
God. Did Paracelsus really have them all that afraid, to think he'd slaughter children?
"I do not know what you think you know about me. But I do not murder children. Or women. Or even men... if I can help it."
Father gave the man who had once been a tunnel baby a long look. No trace of that infant remained in the behemoth before him.
"No, but you're very good at it." That fact was indisputable. Jacob's people had tossed bodies he'd left behind into the abyss lest leaving them above attract the attention of the police, at the very least.
"It's what I was bred for. Father." The last word was delivered in a cutting tone.
"The Window Chamber is ready," Mary interrupted them, holding the drape aside.
Vincent nodded, and carefully picked up the woman's sleeping form, as Mary led the way.
"Unless I miss my guess, that is the first time he's ever reached out to another human being in his life," Mary said, as the two of them sipped tea later, in Father’s chambers.
Jacob’s voice held a tired warning. "Mary… Don't make too much of it."
"Jacob, I wouldn't make too little of it, if I were you. The boy just told us we could beat John's army with a few well-placed torches and lamps. That is no small thing."
"That 'boy' is thirty years old. And was raised by John Pater, not us."
"He was John's son. John's and Anna's. When they left, so did he."
"He was not 'John's son,'" Jacob disagreed.
Mary was not in a mood to split hairs. Even Vincent’s. "You tried to find him, Jacob," Mary said gently. He had. They all had. But Paracelsus had been far too clever to be found when he didn't want to be.
"Mary, you know what he is. What John turned him into."
"I know he's a man who was willing to fight the world to save a woman he barely knows." Mary rose. The arthritis in her knees bothered her, and she’d been standing too much, today. But Vincent’s amazing arrival was exceptional.
“That means something, Jacob. You didn't see the way he looked at her, while you were working. Something was... happening, between them."
"As a baby, you thought he was very ... sensitive to the moods of other people."
"He was. I'll swear to that. I saw it."
"And then we let him go to John. God help him if you're right, if that's the case." Jacob rubbed his beard tiredly. His people stayed in the upper tunnels, thanks to having Paracelsus below. The middle ground was a dangerous place where anything could happen, from cave-ins to unexpected encounters with some of Paracelsus’… things.
"We didn't have a choice, then. Anna was his wife, and she was the one who found Vincent, and took most of the care of him. John took them both, when he left. When Anna came back... dying…” Mary shook her head. “We had no way to find him and... well. That is old history.” She was through with the tea, but she wasn’t through with Jacob. Not yet.
“What do you plan to do now…Father?" She used the appellation gently, to remind him that he was that to every child here; he had been that to Vincent, once. Briefly.
"Do? What is there to do? Pray the girl heals, and leaves as quickly as possible. Then he will, as well. And if we're lucky, he'll keep his word to us." Jacob did not see how a mauled woman could save them from anything, much less from Vincent.
"Do you think he will? Keep his word?"
"Frankenstein was an honest monster. That’s as much comfort as I can take from him, at this point. I think he might. That is more than I had two hours ago," Jacob said tiredly.
“Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the monster,” Mary reminded him. “Paracelsus may have raised him, but it wasn’t his home he took the girl to. That has to count for something, Jacob.”
“We can only hope,” Jacob responded glumly.
Still, Mary had a very particular type of wisdom about her, and she was seldom wrong. The fact that she stood unmoving meant she was asking for something. It was her quiet way of giving him a nudge.
Considering how maternal she was, Jacob didn’t have to think hard to figure out what the nudge was for.
"You think there's the soul of some... misbegotten warrior-poet underneath it all, Mary?" Jacob asked. She had long been Father's closest advisor.
Mary smoothed her homespun skirt. "I think he has the soul of a doctor. And not the kind who makes monsters. And you see it too, even if you don’t want to face it. And the proof of it is in how he risked himself to save that girl, and didn’t turn from the grisliest of the work."
Jacob simply nodded. It was all he could do, to indicate he’d heard her, though not necessarily that he agreed.
The being who had risked himself to save "that girl" sat in a wobbly chair next to a huge bed they'd put her in, watching her sleep. Watching her breathe.
I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, he thought, watching her chest rise and fall.
Her face utterly swathed by bandages, one hand lay tucked under the blankets, the other laying on top of a thick, layered quilt. A half circle of stained glass was backlit, set in one wall over her head. The room was barren except for the bed, a small brazier, a side table, and the chair. A small stack of books sat on the table, a pillar candle offering some of the room's illumination. He occupied the chair uncomfortably, staring at her delicate, slight hand.
Short nails. White. Clear lacquer. Pretty, once cleaned of the blood. A manicure. Vincent didn't know very much about such things, but he knew they existed. He'd seen print ads in magazines and newspapers, when Paracelsus had sent him foraging for supplies. He'd seen other things, too. Dark things, sometimes. One thing Jacob and John agreed on: very ugly things often happened on the streets Above.
But he was not a creature of the streets. He was a creature of the low places. Even these rooms felt too "high," to him. Too close to the surface. He wrapped himself inside his cloak, needing it against the chill. It was cool here, but not unpleasant. Nothing like the hot domain he now ruled. And hated.
He’d gone Above, simply because he’d felt the need. And stumbled onto her.
Where are you? he asked the nearly blank void she inhabited. She was sleeping, and no longer in shock as she was before. For some reason, that meant he could no longer "sense" her as well, other than to know she was now resting.
He mulled the odd sensation over in his mind. Resting. Her feminine mind was relaxing itself, struggling to heal her body after its terrible ordeal. She needed the depth of sleep.
He propped his booted foot up on the edge of the bed, determined to be nearby if she woke up, needing anything.
He never for one second questioned, "Why?”
One day trickled into the next, and the next. He steadily watched her for signs of fever, signs the antibiotics, more precious than gold, down here, weren’t doing their job.
Crisscross lines of hate marred her face beneath the bandages, and her ribs were cracked, but healing. Whoever she'd pissed off had done quite the number on her, Vincent concluded, as she drifted in and out of awareness over the next few days. Her wrist was swollen, but not as bad as it had been. Her breathing was steady, but her face was always half-covered in gauze.
Sometimes she dreamed. Sometimes it was of her attack, and she whimpered. When they were both asleep once, he saw it. Or at least, he saw what she saw, when she dreamed. Hazy images, and nothing he could hold onto. A van. Men, inside it, one with a knife. The name Carol.
He startled awake as he sat beside the bed in the dining room cast-off chair. He tried to soothe her with his voice. It wasn't something he was accustomed to using it for.
“Safe. You’re safe, now,” he said.
Then, finally, consciousness. He could feel the difference, even though he couldn’t see her eyes.
"Where... where am I?" The first words she'd spoken. She touched the bandages, with her beautiful fingers.
"You're safe. Safe here. Easy..."
That voice. The deep, rumbling baritone. She barely remembered it, and she knew she'd been hearing it all along. But how could that be?
"Am I in a hospital?"
"A hospital. No. There was no time." He fought to maintain the low tones in his voice. Though she was agitated, he could sense she drew comfort from his words, from his voice.
Her fingers continued touching her bandaged face. “My eyes!”
“Your eyes were not hurt. We checked. The bandages are for the … other wounds.” It was a little lie, but she needed one. “You are in no danger. I swear you will come to no harm, here.”
Something about the way he said it made her believe. Something in her realized she’d been “listening” to him for longer than just this conversation.
"Where, are we?"
"A secret place. They live here. They try to live as best they can."
They. Not I. What in the name of heaven…?
Catherine struggled with what she was trying to understand, and couldn't. "Do you have a name?"
"My name? Vincent."
The blanket was tucked warmly around her, and she sensed his huge presence, near. She felt herself tiring, after just this small effort at being awake. Vincent. Did she remember that name? Had he told her before? She struggled to remember, but it only increased her fatigue.
"What is yours?" the low voice asked.
"Catherine. My name is Catherine. I'm afraid, Vincent."
"Catherine." He rolled each syllable across his tongue, and said it like the word "salvation." He moved the sound around in his mind, feeling it search, and feeling it settle. Catherine. Yes. There was a world in her name.
"I know you’re afraid.” He could sense it from her. “Try not to be. Try not to be afraid, Catherine." It was weak comfort, and he knew it. Still, he felt her respond to it, respond to him. She began to relax, and she felt herself begin to drift. So did he.
As the "darkness" behind the bandages and her closed eyelids gave way to the deeper darkness of sleep, she "felt" him inside the darkness with her, comfortingly. Shepherding her down. Eyes an almost impossible shade of blue watched over her, in her last remembered vision.
How could she possibly know the color of his eyes?
Sleep. The word shimmered in her brain, more a feeling than an act of speech. Still, the feeling was in “his voice,” though that made no sense. And she hadn’t heard it with her ears. Sleep, Catherine.
She felt a soft slumber claim her. So did Vincent.
She would recover. And Vincent knew he had a bargain to keep.
Watching the healing magic of sleep take her, Vincent understood what was to come.
She would have to go back to her World. He would have to go back and reign in Hell. But not yet. Not quite yet. Let me get her well enough to leave. A few days, a week, perhaps. A little more. Just that.
Just that, before he sentenced himself to reaches so deep that even torchlight looked dim.
The council table was a battered piece of furniture. Like much else here, Vincent thought, eyeing the nearly empty room and its only other occupant.
Yet, also like much else, Vincent sensed this place was one of some significance. That the table was more than a table. Just like the half-lame doctor standing near the entrance was more than an old man with a walking stick.
Blue eyes that could pierce the deepest black because they'd had to looked very comfortable in the tabled room with a half dozen candles, a lantern and a brazier, Jacob thought. Like he owned the space around him, or he could. The being everyone sought to avoid sat at the empty council table. It was time they had a chat, and they both knew it.
Jacob’s cane tapped the ground as he came forward. It was a wrapped piece of tree branch, leather thongs tying fabric and fur to the “handle.”
Vincent eyed it as he would assess any potential weapon brought into his presence, then dismissed it as negligible. It was marginal as a weapon and unimpressive as a scepter. The cane Paracelsus regularly used was far deadlier, far sleeker a thing. Jacob’s cane was useless as a means of either offense or defense unless a knife was fixing to come out of the bottom of Jacob’s twisted piece of oak, something Vincent highly doubted.
"John Pater sat there, once,” Jacob commented. “That very chair, if I'm not mistaken.”
"The one he favored below was much... grander." Vincent referred to the throne on which John had often sat.
"Favored? Past tense?" Jacob asked.
Vincent reached a decision about his next revelation. "He's dead. I killed him. That should please you." There. His last ace. A gesture of good will, to reveal that. Perhaps it would buy him a few more days here. With her.
Jacob sat across from him, gingerly.
"You have to know it doesn't. Though I won't pretend I'm not relieved."
"I am the thing he trained to kill you. To take this place from you. It was his home. He said you stole it." Vincent’s voice was uncompromising.
Yet even the beast in him could not quite reconcile this erudite, quiet man with a thief. There were some other things he could not reconcile, either.
He'd been here only a few days, and slept in the chair for all of them. His back was stiff. He’d wondered if they would try to attack him, try to take him while he’d slept, yet they hadn’t.
Instead, they’d brought him food, as they’d brought it to her. A thin soup made with potatoes and other vegetables. It was good, and for all the hardness of the chair, he was… comfortable. It was the most comfortable he'd been in a long while, and he knew the man across from him was responsible for at least some of it.
"John and I had a ... a difference of opinion on how this world should be formed,” Jacob said. “He did not like being... crossed.”
That, Vincent thought, must be the mother of all understatements.
“He was effective, as a leader.” Vincent’s assessment of Paracelsus’ talents was simple.
“What he did to you, to others … it was a sin, Vincent.”
“Weakness is the only sin.” Vincent stood, certain of his philosophy.
Jacob could all but hear Paracelsus in the words.
“We are trying to make a community where that isn’t true. Where every person’s strengths are valued, and their rights protected.”
“You have what rights the strong give you.”
Again, that was John.
“Here, it’s a sin to not help someone when they need it,” Jacob countered with deceptive calm.
Like you helped that woman. Jacob and Vincent both thought it, together.
“In my world, it’s a sin not to take advantage of it,” Vincent replied, but the voice was not so… adamant, this time.
He doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying. He knows he helped someone else. He’s seeing how we live. Maybe Mary is…
Vincent came around the table abruptly, interrupting Jacob’s thought. He paced the room, and his long legs chewed up the ground.
“The deaf girl. The old woman who paints. Why do you let them stay here?”
That was what he wanted to know? Very well.
Jacob’s voice was steady. “They need this place. I need it.” Jacob made the explanation sound simple.
“John said you were a despot.”
“Is that what you’ve seen?”
“You rule here.” There was no mistaking Vincent’s tone on that one. He understood the wielding of power like he understood little else.
“I am one who helps make decisions here, yes. There are others. Other voices. Mary, for one.”
An arthritic old woman? Why? Yet he did not doubt the words.
“She is wise, then?”
“Wiser than you?” Vincent asked. There was a challenge in the question.
“Sometimes,” Jacob allowed, not wanting to set Mary in harm’s way, if there was any.
“And Paracelsus was part of it, for a while,” Vincent affirmed.
“For a while, yes. He was a brilliant man, Vincent.” Jacob said the words cautiously, trying to give credit where it was due.
“Was he?” The words were almost whispered, and every line in his body was tense. John’s name, his pseudonym, and almost anything else about him clearly made Vincent a mix of determined and uneasy.
One of the first lines of Frankenstein Vincent had ever heard John utter thrummed inside his mind.
You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains -- revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food!
Vincent stared at the council table. Half a dozen chairs were pulled around it. More sat against the wall.
Jacob almost felt sorry for the fierce, yet confused spirit before him. He could sense that Vincent wanted to know more, wanted to know what Jacob knew, wanted to know more about John, and had no way to ask without making himself appear vulnerable, a sin in Vincent’s eyes. And surely in John’s, as well.
"I think we need tea for this conversation. Come to my chambers, Vincent. We'll both be more comfortable there."
Jacob told Vincent of John's history. It seemed to be the subject he was interested in, and Jacob could readily understand why. The only person Vincent had ever truly known had been an enigma. A severe one, at that.
They had barely begun talking, however, when they were interrupted by Mouse.
"Girl's awake. Needs a bath. Stinks."
"Her name is Catherine." Vincent eyed the very odd boy.
"Catherine's awake. Needs a bath. Stinks."
Vincent thought he'd leave that chore to Mary, since she’d been taking care of Catherine’s bathroom needs, for the most part. The odd youth was twisting some sort of wire in his fingers as he stood in the doorway.
"What is that?" Vincent asked.
"Gizmo. Just a thing. Doesn't work. Not yet." His brown eyes looked sure. "It will, though."
His nails were bitten to the quick and his intelligence was questionable. Paracelsus would either have had him killed or pressed him into hard service. Probably the former. The problem with people like Mouse was their unpredictability. John Pater was not known for tolerating the unpredictable.
Just the murderously effective.
Jacob spoke up. "Mouse, please ask Mary if she can--"
"Nana's sick. Throwing up. Mary asked if one of you could do it."
And with that message delivered, Mouse bounded out of the chamber.
Which was how Vincent ended up taking Catherine to the bathing chamber, with Jacob standing close by.
The room itself was just off the one she now occupied; a dark stone tub served as a bathing receptacle while Vincent stayed near, helping her. Jacob could not lift Catherine in and out of the water, and she was still too unsteady on her feet to do it by touch. Her face was still bandaged. For that matter, she remained dressed.
Jacob watched as Vincent sank her carefully into the warm water.
"Easy," he told her, guiding her hand down to the edge of the tub. He'd put on a pair of gloves, knowing they would get soaked. It was either that, or let her feel his bare hands...bare claws, on her body.
"Is it warm enough?" he asked.
She nodded, her hand searching for soap. He pressed a cake of it into her palm.
"If you want, we will leave, while you take off your gown." It was floating around her except for the parts that were so sodden they were sinking.
She shook her head, a little frightened. "No. I ... I'm not sure enough of myself yet. I... you won't leave me, will you?"
"I am right here," the low baritone rumbled, handing her a wash cloth. Clearly, she trusted him.
"The water will be good for your ribs. And the sprain of your wrist. I will unwrap it for you, Catherine." He unwound the bandage surrounding her wrist, so she could soak it. As gently as if she were the most fragile porcelain, he lowered her arm into the warm water.
"Could you stand it warmer? It might help."
Catherine nodded. "I think I could."
Vincent nodded to Jacob, who brought a tea kettle.
"There," Vincent coaxed, pouring the warm water in. "This will make you feel better. When you are done, we'll get you some more of that tea you like."
She was scared, and trying not to be. Trying to come to grips with everything that was happening, with no touchstone save the unique being before her.
"The water feels good," she confessed, applying soap and water to everyplace she could reach. She soaked her wrist while Vincent gently washed the back of her neck, and her arm. There was a clean, warm gown waiting for her, when she emerged.
"Mary will be here in a moment, to help you change, when you're ready. She had to deal with one of the children."
"There are children here?" Catherine asked.
Jacob winced. This unknown woman was already learning too much about them. Then he sighed. It was inevitable, he supposed.
"Some. One is sick. Mary helps them. Like she helped you."
"Like you helped me," she said.
Vincent nodded. "You're getting stronger. I can feel it."
Jacob had no doubt that he could.
Vincent also felt her tiring. "Time to get out. I'll lift you, and take you over near the brazier."
He knew he was about to get the front of his clothing soaked, so Vincent undid the buckles on the front of his vest, and shouldered out of it, dropping the leather fabric to the floor with a jangling thwop.
His back was... horrific. A pattern of scars and whip marks. A burned area (a brand? Lord, was that really what that was?) near his right shoulder blade. Lines of brutality even Catherine's face couldn't match.
Oh, god. Oh my god. No wonder he quoted Mary Shelley. John had... John had done this to him?
He'd said nothing about it. And he hadn't asked for pity.
The physician in Jacob tried to assess. The marks looked quite old, but for one raised welt across his ribs. His hirsute body covered much of the damage, but that was precisely why some of the marks were visible. The hair wouldn't grow where he had been so badly marred nothing was there save raised scars and pink flesh.
Jacob wondered if he bore similar marks elsewhere on his body, and shuddered at the thought. Vincent's arms had a few scars, yes, but those were old, long healed, and not numerous. One near the band on his bicep looked like a knife wound. The others were smaller, and anybody's guess. Jacob just assumed he'd gotten them from fighting.
Vincent turned with the dripping wet girl, setting her down near the brazier just as Mary entered the chamber.
Jacob left the room as Vincent did, the latter shouldering his way back into his vest as he walked. Mary didn't see. Jacob would never forget.
“That sound. That tapping sound. It never stops. What is it?” she asked.
Vincent put down the book he’d been reading to her. Great Expectations. Dickens was definitely not his cup of tea, a thing they seemed to drink here, copiously. But she seemed to like it, both the book and the beverage, and his reading to her seemed to soothe her.
“People are talking. Delivering messages to each other.”
“Messages. What about?”
“Anything. Everything. Greetings. Time of day. Sentry change. Request for tools to be brought… somewhere.” He missed the last. John Pater had developed tunnel code with Pascal’s father. Vincent knew it as well as anyone could.
“These are good people, aren’t they?” Catherine asked.
“They help each other. Live as best they can.” He’d told her that before. A long pause. “They are not my people, Catherine.”
“Where are your people?” she asked, confused. She thought him a part of this community.
Vincent thought of the milky pale skittering humanoid creatures that had been one of John’s failed experiments. To call them “people” was a stretch even Vincent wasn’t willing to make.
“I have no people,” the huge man replied, as honestly as he could. Nor am I one.
God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance.
“Oh.” Her voice held her confusion. Then: “I have too many, sometimes,” Catherine said. “But they aren’t really mine.”
That sounded like an apt description of the both of them.
“I’m afraid to go back,” she confessed.
So am I.
“So am I.” He decided to say it aloud. Then he continued with the reading.
The day she threw the reflector at him should have been a better one. She was stronger. She'd been there for ten days. She was up, moving around some, and feeding herself. And, the surest sign she was well enough to leave, her temper was growing short.
Vincent went to get her something, when she unwound the bandages that covered her face. Later, he'd replay her words. Words that tried to assure him she'd thrown the makeshift mirror at him because she was horrified at her own reflection, more than his she was horrified at his.
How did this happen?
I don’t know. I was born. I survived. I did. You will.
It didn't help.
Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change
For ten days he'd existed inside a terrible fantasy. A wonderful, terrible fantasy. One where he could sense a growing kinship with a marred woman. A kinship he could neither understand, nor deny. He had no plans, and he surely had no illusions about what he was. He didn't even have a very good idea of how he was going to face going back to his... "home," beneath the pipes.
Still, her reaction, when it came, was unexpected.
He'd walked back into the chamber, knowing something was amiss simply because, for the first time, he could see more than just wisps of her hair. She'd unwound the bandage.
Then she'd seen her reflection, and his, in the piece of headlamp.
Catherine had screamed, and threw it, as much in surprise as in fear.
He would never forget the look in her eyes as she beheld the bloody cut on his forehead. Or the rest of him.
Mary Shelley’s monster screamed in his brain. This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone.
But what came out of his mouth was a roar. An animal's sound, showing fang, showing fearsomeness. He could not have looked more beastly if he'd tried.
Numb shock overtook her features, and she didn't scream again. She didn't move. She just put her hands to her marred face, and stared, aghast.
Paradise Lost. He couldn't remember any of the quotes from it at the moment, quotes Paracelsus had favored. But he remembered the title.
He'd just lost her. His heart shattered with the desolation of it.
Pulling up his hood, he staggered back into the shadows and leaned against a wall, his legs not wanting to hold up his weight. Alone. He was alone, again. And still too much with her.
He felt her pain more than he felt his own. Vincent? Her mind kept asking the question, and grappling with the answer. He wiped the blood away. It was a deep cut, nothing more. He'd had far worse.
But now she knew.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid. What did you think would happen? That she would accept you? That she would... love you?
I remembered that I was forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow and that she whose resemblance I contemplated would, in regarding me, have changed that air of divine benignity to one expressive of disgust and affright.
He stayed outside the doorway, far enough back it to give her room.
His voice, when it came from inside the drawn hood, held the sorrow of a lost wish.
"I never regretted what I was… until now."
She wept a little, and he hated the feeling. Like something was twisting in his chest. He'd rather have her fear than her sorrow. Her despair was fearsomely hard to take.
And then... something else. Something different. Something… happened.
The strength he'd been sensing inside her rose up, and she composed herself, at least a little. She pushed away the fear, and then the sorrow. Something else came into her, and it was a moment before Vincent could decipher the emotion.
He reeled from it, and sat hard, on a nearby stool. Compassion? Is that what this was? This feeling of … conquering, of pushing forward through an obstacle, of reaching out to another? It wasn’t just bravery. That feeling he understood. This was something more. This had a softness to it. A softness wrapped around the steel of her determination.
He stayed on the stool outside the chamber, and she walked toward him in a way that was both hesitant, yet sure. He pulled the hood lower, to hide his face.
She knelt before him, and he could feel her reaching in with her mind, before she did it with her delicate fingers.
Don't! Catherine, don't. Don't look at me. Don't be afraid. Don't be...
The hands came closer, and he wanted so badly to reach for them. But whether it was to push them away or hold on to them for the sake of saving his life and his soul, he couldn't say. He just knew he wanted them.
He fought the urge to reach up for her hands, and fought it hard. Her hands. One of the things that had fascinated him about her since the night he'd found her. Someone had savaged her face, yes. But her hands were still beautiful.
Nothing about him was.
I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.
Those hands carefully, gently pushed back the folds of his hood. His eyes darted left and right. Was he about to terrify her, again, with his looks?
They sat staring at each other, two creatures life had mauled and fate had cast to the winds. Damaged. Marred. Monsters.
I bitterly feel the want of a friend. He felt the words inside the bond from him, the impression from her.
She tried to smile at him, tentatively. Accepting. Accepting his face. Accepting what he was. Accepting him.
I bitterly feel the want of a friend.
He thought it, but she felt it. Distinctly. They held each other with nothing more than a gaze, for a long moment.
You don't know me, Catherine. He did not say it. But he thought it. Hard.
In a way, she answered him, as the impression came from her:
Later, he guided her back up to her world. A world utterly apart from his.
As he had promised Jacob, he took her down winding paths and up staircases that twisted. Unavoidably, he also went past Jacob's people, the tunnel folk who inhabited this... sanctuary from her world.
Vincent saw them as she did. Only a fool would conclude they were anything other than good.
When she laid her hand on his shoulder, his knees nearly buckled. He had to lean against the wall for support. Her exit lay before her.
It was time for this to end. Both for her, and for him.
His soul felt desolate. Yet he knew all of this had to be. If this was painful for him, it was not an unexpected pain. And he'd dealt with different levels of agony for a lifetime.
"I won't betray your secret," she'd told him.
"I know you won't,” he said. “I knew that... from the first."
He had. And she'd left, stepping into her world and her fate, swallowed in a pool of light.