A Book, A
A few months later…
I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart. I am going to unexplored regions.
He sat on her roof as autumn’s chill nipped at him like an unwelcome dog. It was a windy night, and she'd been dropped off in a limo, looking gorgeous.
She'd dismissed the aristocratic buck who thought himself her lover. Vincent didn't need to be near to read that body language. The man had been sent away. Good, though it changed nothing between them.
What was he going to do? Drag her back to his lair?
It was a measure of his desperation that he considered it, for a minute.
But, no. That wasn't an option, and being part of her life up here damn sure wasn't.
...if I see but one smile on your lips when we meet, occasioned by this or any other exertion of mine, I shall need no other happiness.
So what was he here for? To bring her a book?
It was a stupid idea, and the apex predator in him railed against it, as he accepted both the weakness of the ploy and the sincerity of the desire to see her again.
He'd brought her the book. The one he'd read to her in her convalescence, the one that had sat by her bedside, by chance. Great Expectations. He’d left Jacob’s tunnels the same hour she had, the book tucked into the folds of his cape. Accidental theft? Maybe. Maybe not.
It was the closest thing he had to a courting gift, aside from saving her life for her.
It had felt so... intimate down there, with her. So intimate, inside her beautiful mind.
A mind he'd touched far too often, since.
She liked poetry and art. The kind of music old Jacob liked, and soft things. Her mind was feminine and complicated, and she'd spent months finding her way, while he'd spent months lost in his.
Hell's dark reaches were peopled with John's failures, and life's. People who were subhuman either in their creation or the bend of their minds. Savage. Brutal. Inhuman, often, and ugly, regularly.
He fit right in. For a while, he'd even tried to claim it again. There was no other choice. It was an ugly home, but it was his.
And then, there was her.
Her waking up, and her going to sleep. Her enduring rounds of surgeries, swathed in bandages again. Weeks of healing, weeks of… changing.
She was nervous, one day, and stiff-necked. Interview. The sensation of being judged. He could almost feel the steel frame of a chair she’d sat upright in. Some kind of fight. Something to prove. Then… she had won, and the feeling had passed.
He more readily understood the rush of her mind when she was with Isaac Stubbs, learning to defend herself. Fight. Jab, hit, go, roll, punch, aim… these were feelings he well related to, and the adrenaline inside of her flowed inside of him, as well. She was flushed with victory, while he was just… he wasn’t sure. Content for her, perhaps, but miserable for himself.
Finally, he could no longer endure not being able to see her.
He sat on her roof and waited, waited until he felt her settle some, inside the apartment. She was busy with something. The buzz in his brain told him she was concentrating. Something for her work. Something that would keep her occupied.
He could just leave the book and go.
She'd know who it was from.
Carefully, he climbed down the fire escape ladder to her terrace, making sure the cape he used to hide his features stayed out of the way. He rarely wore it, below. John's deep reaches were very warm, and he often wore the vest with no shirt, or even no vest at all.
Like the rest of them.
He was, wasn't he?
I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
It felt so good to be closer to her.
He looked longingly at the light cast from her bedroom doorway, knowing she was on the other side.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature.
It was a thought he feared. What if, in her changes, she had forgotten him? Learned to fear him again, even?
John's voice taunted him. Women are to be taken. They are tools. Use one, then discard it.
John's lesson had been brutal, and harsh.
In puberty, John had brought him a prostitute, for his education.
She'd been scarred, but accepting. And acceptable.
Then she'd been given to Erlik, and that was that.
Vincent had never expressed interest in having a woman again.
He set the book on the stones and turned to go. This was madness.
Unused to wearing the cape, it swung a little wide on the turn, and caught the chair leg near the table, moving it as he tried to walk by.
Then, fear. Her fear, and he could taste it. She was getting a gun.
He stood on the balcony, not sure if he should flee, or if he was hoping she'd just use it on him, and get this over with.
Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision.
It hurt. It hurt to love her. It hurt so much he had no idea what to do, other than twist with it, internally.
He shrank back into the shadows, trying to become like a part of the wall, knowing it was no use. He hadn’t meant to frighten her.
She came out of the bedroom, gun in hand.
You’re afraid. Turn. See me. Shoot.
But she didn't. She saw the book first, then looked up, looked for him.
"Vincent?" Her voice was full of amazement.
"I didn't mean to come here. I just..." He slid down the wall and clasped his arms around his knees. She wasn't going to kill him. Damn.
The human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.
"Vincent? I... I can't believe you’re here!" She set the gun down and came toward him, the book in hand. "I can't believe I'm seeing you! I thought I'd never..." There was almost… joy in her voice. Wonderment. She grabbed his hands, the hands that had given her pause once, and tugged on them, bringing him up.
"I just... I have so much to tell you. I've been changing,"
She was talking, but he couldn't stop staring.
"Your face." Somehow, something in him had known it would be repaired, but he'd never seen her without the dark lines of cruelty that had bisected her features. She was more than just lovely. She was beautiful.
The human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union. He thought it again. She was a beauty in her world. He was a monster in his. Barriers to their union, indeed.
"I know... They ... they fixed it." Her expression held a world of sympathy for him. They would never "fix" his face.
She seemed even farther away from him, farther above him, now.
"I have so much to tell you,” she repeated. I've been...Everything is so different, and I'm trying. It's been so hard."
"I know. I can feel you struggle, Catherine. Can feel the strength inside you." He was talking to her. On a wind-blessed balcony as the park sprawled out before him, and the city sprawled out, after that. It all felt like a miracle. Amazing.
"I'm not sure I can, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s hard to find it.” Then I think of you. She thought it, but didn’t say it.
"It is there." He looked around her moon-swept terrace. This was too open a space for him. Too… human a place. "I never should have come."
"I'm so glad you did." Her voice rang with sincerity. "But...why did you?"
"I came because..." He searched for words, for explanation. But how could he tell her? "Because... because I wanted to see that you were well. You are. I have to go..."
"No, wait!" She tugged on him some more. "It's still dark.” She knew they’d need its cover. “We have time yet." She pulled him away from the corner.
"You don't understand." His voice held a world of sorrow. "I have to... to begin to forget." He closed his eyes on a pain that was so sharp he was amazed he was still standing.
I am alone and miserable. Only someone as ugly as I am could love me.
"Forget me?" Her words were tinged with confusion. And... sorrow? Was that sorrow he sensed, at the thought of him leaving, of him forgetting her?
"Forget you? No," the words were whispered. "Never. Never forget you. But I have to forget... the dream of being a part of you."
Satan has his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; I am solitary and detested. Long ago lessons thrummed in his brain.
The blue eyes stared, and Catherine looked into the loveless abyss that had been his upbringing. His past was a vacant place.
His future seemed no less... barren.
"Catherine, I have seen your world. You and I both know there is no place for me in it."
She did. Still...
"Can I read to you? Please?" She pulled down as she sat, taking him with her, so that he sat with his back to the wall. And so the figurative becomes the literal, he thought, feeling the hard smooth brick against his back. It was so different than the rough stones of his... "home."
She read to him. She did. More smoothly than he could read, and in a stronger, clearer voice. He “saw” the story in his mind's eye when she read it, and knew he would read the book again and again, until he had huge passages of it committed to memory, all in her beautiful voice. It was a little husky, and low. Not the harsh tones Tamara had, and certainly not the tittering ones of some of John's “female” creations, who were incapable of speech.
Catherine's voice was full of... soft sounds. Educated. Articulate. Rare.
She filled his ear as she filled his mind, and he knew his heart was following. She finished the last chapter, and there was "no shadow of another parting from her."
Would that he could say the same.
"It will be dawn soon," he said. "I need to go, and you need to sleep." He felt her move inside him, and felt its wonder as he felt its sorrow. This was futile. But it was a futility he couldn't give up, yet.
"Will I ever see you again?" she asked.
Yes. Yes she would. But not like this. He was too exposed here. He was accustomed to much deeper places. More sheltered.
"Meet me tomorrow, below. The place your basement leads to. I will be there."
He knew he was about to break his word to Jacob.
"What time? Do you even tell time, on a watch?"
The look he gave her was chiding. "They keep time on the pipes, and if that fails, all of Time's Square is over my head, Catherine."
Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid.
She descended tentatively, and Vincent watched, hope filling his breast. She had come. For long minutes, he wasn't sure she would.
When she turned, her repaired face still startled him a little with its beauty.
A creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks…
He wondered if he would ever become accustomed to seeing her standing there, and realized it was impossible that he could. She was too beautiful, and she could not be his. But for a while, he could hold her nearby. For a while, he could pretend.
They sat, and talked. The evening passed much as the one on her balcony had. She brought down another book. A selection of poetry. Byron, some, and even Shelley, though it was Percy Bysshe, not Mary. He asked her to read "She Walks in Beauty" more than once. He wanted to commit it to memory. She offered to hand him the volume, but he preferred looking over her shoulder. He read “Ozymandias,” and it seemed to ring in his heart.
Look upon my works ye Mighty, and despair…
They shared the pages a long time, before she had to go.
He felt something hard inside him giving way. Felt... her inside him, making room.
She came to meet him the next night. And the next.
"Will you take me to where you grew up, then?" she asked, when he finally told her he'd not been raised by Jacob.
"No." His voice was firm beyond negotiation. "It is ... ugly there, Catherine. Beyond ugly. I live there because I must. But nothing there is for you."
He turned his head to the side. She knew what he was thinking, that more than just his home was “ugly.” And more than just his face.
"Vincent... there are dark places... in all of us."
Her voice sounded so sure. But she had no way to know. She'd never seen his dark side. Not like he'd seen it. Not like he'd... reveled in it, sometimes.
"Catherine... in that darkness... a part of me... feeds." He struggled to explain. "And I am lost in it."
She accepted the words, and what they meant for him. "You've seen so much that is dark, that is ugly in my world. I just wish you could know that there is beauty in it, as well."
"Oh, I knew that," he assured her. "I knew that the first night I met you."
He felt her heart, and felt all it was becoming. And astonishingly, felt it turning toward him. No. Not “felt it turning.” Felt that it had already turned. A part of her had been waiting for him since before he’d come to the balcony. She still held confusion about that inside her. But the emotion was there. She was... moving toward him. Toward... something? Love? Was that what it was? Vincent had no idea. He could barely define the word.
He only knew the need to be near her was almost a constant, now.
And he was very aware he was breaking his bargain with Jacob by meeting her here.
"There is a beautiful waterfall past the hub. If you are not too tired after your work tomorrow, I will take you there. And a chamber open to the music they play in the park. And a bridge, where you can hear voices, and pieces of lives. If you want, I will show it to you, Catherine." Carefully.
"I'd like that," she said, smiling. Though he got the feeling she would be just as content with him here, on her balcony, or anywhere else.
He bid her goodnight, and began planning for tomorrow.
What a scene has just taken place! I am yet dizzy with the remembrance of it.
She'd barely gone back Above when he heard the old man's voice, behind him.
"I thought we had an agreement."
He must have been truly distracted to not hear the sound of Jacob's walking stick. Vincent detested being snuck up on, more so because he knew his own lack of vigilance was to blame.
Jacob stood in the tumbledown entranceway. The long walk must have been hell on his hip.
"We had a bargain," Jacob stated.
"I swore to you they would not attack, and they haven't." Not exactly the arrangement they’d made, but…
"That was not our deal, Vincent. If I asked you to go now, and never return, would you?" Jacob had not seen Vincent since the day Catherine had left. As the months passed, he considered the matter closed. Until a few days ago, that is, when the sentries informed him of the latest.
Vincent's face was stricken. Anger roiled inside him, and a threat simmered in his brain.
Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth.
Jacob saw the turmoil in Vincent’s features, saw him struggling for the “right” answer.
Rather than answer with either a positive or a negative, he answered with a plea. Jacob could tell it cost him, and was not his first instinct.
"Please don't forbid this. I need to see her, Jacob. I need to. Please. This is the only way. Let me have this. This little piece of your kingdom. I need it in a way you can't possibly, and I'll be honest about that, so you have the advantage. Let me bargain for it. I will kill your enemies for you. Just don't close me off from this. Please. The hell I must return to is only bearable because of this patch of ground. Please, Jacob."
"You called me Father once."
"If I call you that again, can I stay?" It was both a challenge and a plea.
"Vincent." It was all Jacob said, as he weighed the being in front of him.
Vincent was tall, immensely strong, and ragged. He'd lost weight in the months since Catherine's return to Above, and it gave his leonine cheekbones an absolutely chiseled look.
And he still thought of the world Below in terms of “kingdoms,” having no better way to think of it.
"I never make decisions on an empty stomach,” Jacob stated. “There's some leftover cake in my chambers. Won't you join me? ‘I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine, ‘” Jacob quoted. If Vincent was comfortable with Mary Shelley, then it was Mary Shelley they should have.
And with that, Jacob turned and began the long walk back to his rooms.
Cake. If the old man thought he was going to change Vincent's life with a slice of lemon cake, he was sorely mistaken. But at least he was talking, and Vincent took that as a better sign than a war.
"There's tea," Jacob offered.
"No... thank you,” Vincent tacked on, as an afterthought.
"You brought that young woman down here. To our world." Jacob said it without preamble, but he tried to keep the sound of accusation out of his voice.
"She already knew the way. She returned through the passage from her basement."
"Yes, but she would never have used it again, I don't think. Oh, perhaps someday. Some year. Out of curiosity."
"She won't betray the secret." Vincent’s voice was firm.
"Why not, do you think?" Jacob sipped tea from an old china cup, and carefully watched the huge being in front of him.
"What?" Vincent was confused by the question.
"I asked, why do you think it is that she won't tell everyone what is down here?” Jacob asked.
Vincent blinked. "She owes us. Owes for her life. She is grateful."
"Is that all?"
Temper prickled. "What are you driving at old m-- Father." He was trying.
"Vincent, a young woman with considerable means just agreed to meet you in an isolated place, not much more than a hole in the ground. Do you have any idea what level of trust that must have taken?"
He hadn't. Or at least, he hadn't thought about it in those terms. Vincent was not accustomed to thinking about things from the perspective of the thing that was smaller and weaker. Not since the first time he'd bloodied Erlik in a fight had he even remembered that viewpoint, and that had been years ago.
"I can sense her. What she's feeling. She isn't afraid of me."
"Don't you think that rather odd, considering the circumstances?"
"Meaning if I was as beautiful as you, it would be understandable?" His riven lip curled in obvious scorn. And a little envy.
Jacob deftly changed the subject.
"Vincent, when John... Paracelsus... took you from us, we tried to find you. We did try. I promise you that. Do you remember being here at all?"
It was a lie, but he wasn't sure if Jacob knew it. At first, he had very much remembered, and even as barely more than an infant, Vincent did remember some things. The warm glow of candlelight, rather than the oil lanterns and braziers John had used, and the ultraviolet lights, later, for the drugs. He remembered soft hands and soft clothes. Gentle touches. Barely.
They were memories he knew he had to banish if he was to survive. So he had, as much as he could.
No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing.
"Mary used to sing to you. Rebecca, too, though she was little. You loved listening to me read stories, even before you knew the words very well."
He remembered. Jacob's words were designed to bring the memories back, and they did, or at least, they did as much as they could. Singing. Women's voices. Lullabies and pat-a-cake with his startling hands.
He'd shut the memories in a box and buried it so deep, nothing could reach it, not even him. He'd had to. He couldn't stay sane, otherwise.
"Are you going to read me Hans Christian Andersen again?" Vincent asked. There was a note of derision in his voice. And it told Jacob that he did indeed remember.
"What did John read to you?" Jacob asked.
"The Prince. Paradise Lost. Frankenstein. Several times. I think it was his favorite."
Jacob took that in. "Mary Shelley had a very romantic husband." He snagged a book from a shelf. "Have you ever..."
"I don't read for pleasure, Jacob. I can, but I don't have patience for it. And there aren’t many books down there, anyway. None he let me have, but those."
The words gave Jacob pause. Vincent did not like the look of sympathy the older man was giving him.
I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable.
Vincent's voice held scorn. "I can quote Mary Shelley and Machiavelli and John Pater. I don't need to know much else, other than how to sharpen a knife." There was pain in the defiance.
Jacob’s voice was careful. "Vincent... if I let you use the patch of ground, the one you want... if I let you have even more... will you let me teach you to read better? Show you the books John denied you?"
Vincent cocked his head, folding his bare arms across his vested chest.
"Why would you give me such an advantage?"
"Call it the whim of a foolish old man."
"I can continue to see her? Continue to use the entrance to her basement?"
"I would agree to that."
Vincent leaned over the table and pinned Jacob with eyes that had not known any tenderness for far, far too long a time.
"What makes you think I won't take all this... book learning, and cut your throat, after? ‘Tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?’”
Jacob rose, and leaned right back, so the two were nearly nose to nose. Nose to muzzle.
"I think if you were going to tear out my throat, I'd be bleeding on this chamber floor already," he replied, then stood as erect as the bad hip would allow him to.
Vincent watched him. Jacob had guts. Vincent would give him that. They disengaged from the staring contest, and Vincent watched the old man sit, again.
"Lessons start tomorrow after breakfast. Which you're welcome to come for, if you like. Seven."
"You know I'm only doing this because you're giving me something I want."
"I might just agree so that I can scout your position, and movements. Use the knowledge to attack you, later."
"You might. But you aren't going to."
He sounded so damn sure. "How do you know? How can you even pretend you know that, Jacob?" Vincent was incredulous. And perhaps a little furious. This flew in the face of everything Paracelsus had ever told him.
"Because I know you, just as I knew John. Paracelsus was an evil, egotistical man, Vincent, and he tried his best to make a monster out of you."
"So?" Vincent demanded.
"So, I think he failed. See you at seven?"
"You may find me… 'too ardent in execution and too impatient with difficulties. It is a great evil that I am self-educated.'” Vincent quoted.
"Perhaps that is better than you having been completely educated by John. We'll start with this one," Jacob pulled Huckleberry Finn off the shelf. The story of a young boy escaping an abusive father with a runaway slave as a companion might serve them both well.
"Twain?" Vincent asked.
"He had a certain gift. And wrote about a world you know nothing about."
"You're still a fool for doing this," Vincent asserted.
Jacob pulled on his reading spectacles, and smiled a little.
"Twain once said if you have all the fools in town on your side, you'll have the majority." He opened the cover and pretended to read, preparing himself for tomorrow.
Vincent knew he'd been dismissed.
A few weeks later, he thought he must be going mad.
Words filled Vincent’s head. Words and letters and phrases and ideas, during the day. Catherine, more often than not, at night.
Sometimes, he went to see her on her balcony. Sometimes, she came down, often meeting him in the alcove near her ladder. Often, they stayed apart.
She was changing her life, just as he was changing his. She was working for the district attorney's office now, full time. She’d severed the ties with her father’s firm, and cast herself into uncharted waters.
Vincent felt her inside his mind, increasingly.
Jacob was relentless in his teaching, and dauntless in his purpose. Vincent knew what the old man's game was, a week in. Jacob was force-feeding him pap.
Children's stories. Something about an owl woman written by an Irish rebel. Love poems and philosophy. King Arthur. Plato. Epic tales of courage and trials overcome. It was obvious strategy, even for the doddering fool everyone down here unwaveringly called "Father."
"Is there no military history in all this drivel?" Vincent said scornfully one day, as he tossed Lewis Carrol aside, disgusted. What did he have to do with a little girl who stepped through a looking glass?
"There's a biography about Alexander the Great, and the war tactics of Sun Tzu. Perhaps we can try Henry V. There's Agincourt."
The words meant nothing to Vincent, but he recognized the volume Jacob reached for.
"Not Shakespeare. Not again. I'm not ready for it."
"Not ready? Your reading skills have vastly improved, Vincent."
They had. And at an almost frighteningly quick pace. Vincent had an amazing, almost eidetic memory. John may have given him very little in the way of a formal education, but there was no doubt he was educable. For that matter, there was no doubt he was brilliant.
"Let's take a break." Jacob eyed the chess board. "This game is a bit like military strategy. Do you play?"
Vincent eyed the board. "John used to have such a ... set up. Now and then I would watch him move a piece. It made no sense to me."
"Each piece is limited in how it can move, save for the queen, who can go in any direction, any number of spaces. The idea is to position the pieces so you control the most territory on the board. Cut off your opponent. Decimate his... army."
Vincent's eyes flickered with interest. "Show me."
Ah, there was the old Vincent. The voice of command, rather than request. And not an ounce of manners to go with the demand.
"Perhaps tomorrow," Jacob replied, putting away the books.
Vincent realized his error, and didn't like being brought to heel. They were back to “say ‘please,’” like Jacob had made him do the night he’d brought Catherine down.
Temper flared, and it felt good to let it run.
"Go to hell, then." He cleared the board with a swipe of his arm.
Jacob watched the pieces scatter, unconcerned. They had been at this for several weeks. Vincent was due for a meltdown. Jacob could feel his student’s frustration like a pot on low boil.
"You haven't seen Catherine for a few days. Is she well?" Jacob asked, as if his chess set was not now scattered around the room.
"I need more territory. More than just that hole in the ground you allotted me." Vincent's frustration, that is, his frustrations, were evident.
"No." Terse. To the point.
"You couldn't stop me, if I wanted to take it."
No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine.
"Vincent, if you want something from me, pick up the chess pieces and behave as if you have an ounce of sense to go with your temper," Jacob said evenly, ignoring the mess on the floor as he shelved Lewis Carrol.
"Good day, Vincent."
The roar split the room, and probably shook the Tiffany lamp. There was a world of anger in it, and pain. It was the sound those in the deep reaches knew to fear, and the one that had Mary and Cullen very cautiously poking their heads in Father's chamber door.
Vincent leaned over the now empty table, his fists on the wood.
"I want something! Give it to me!" Vincent snarled.
Jacob matched him. "Earn... it!" Jacob purposefully spaced the words.
"God damn you! I am not your pet! Not yours, not John's, and not hers!" Vincent shoved himself away from the table so hard the legs rattled. Jacob could see the pain in his face.
Before he could say more, Vincent hurled himself from the room, nearly knocking Cullen over, on the way out.
Mary's brown eyes were wide, as she looked at Jacob.
"What was that about?" Mary asked.
"Growing pains," Jacob replied, sitting in a chair.
"Father, you are playing a very dangerous game with him, I think," Cullen supplied, coming in to survey the slight damage. He began to pick up the pieces of the chess set.
Jacob rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I am. But it's the only kind he knows how to play yet, Cullen."