The subway car rumbled down the track. It was almost empty -- he stood at one end, clutching a strap. At the other end, a woman sat. She was nervous, and all alone; he could sense the fear rolling off her in waves. Much of it was directed his way, so he pretended to ignore her.
I may no longer look like a monster to her eyes, but I am still frightening to many women.
He was over six and a half feet tall, and powerfully muscular -- now that people weren't reacting, Eeek! Fangs!, he'd discovered that a small but significant portion of women were intimidated simply because of his size. It was if they expected him to act like a gorilla because he was as big as one.
My father would have punished me rather severely if I failed to behave like a gentleman. Vincent considered this particular problem for a moment, then decided to sit. It made him uneasy himself to be in a vulnerable position in public. Still, he told himself that the he was being foolish. Hundreds of thousands of people rode the subways every day in New York City and, as long as he acted like he belonged, nobody would notice anything unusual.
He had been rather inordinately proud of himself the first time he had ridden a subway alone, without doing so on the outside of the car. He'd dropped his coins in the slot, pushed through the gate, regarded the schedule calmly, and stepped aboard the right car. It had been all very simple and mundane and he had managed to avoid both a phobic reaction to the crowd and gawking like a tourist.
He'd been watching things from the shadows for most of his life and, really, Father was being irrational -- again -- about any danger he might face.
The woman kept shooting worried glances his way. He met her eyes and gave her a slight smile, attempting to look harmless and reassuring. Hastily, she looked away, and stared straight ahead, pretending to be fascinated by the graffiti drawn in lipstick on a window. Occasionally, she turned her attention to her white Keds, scuffing the shoes on subway car floor. Vincent, watching her from the corner of his eye, noted she decorated her sneakers with beaded safety pins. Had she been one of the children Below, he would have complimented her on her shoes in an attempt to put her at ease -- but he suspected if he said a word to her, she'd react badly.
The people Above, as a rule, did not look at strangers. They're as afraid of each other as I am of them, Vincent thought. Then, ruefully, he mentally added, And still, I think as if I am an outsider. If I wanted to, now, I could join them.
He didn't want to. The woman's reaction was so typical of the world Above. Oh, it was entertaining to visit Above for a bit -- and there was much he wanted to do, including visiting museums, and perhaps even a bit of traveling, to see the sights he'd only ever read about -- but he wasn't sure he wanted to be part of a world where the friendly smile of a stranger made a woman jump and avert her eyes.
The car stopped at a platform, and four young men entered. They sat down next to the woman, and she started to rise, then realized he was at the other end of the car.
He smiled encouragingly, hoping she'd chose him over the kids. He didn't like the look of the boys: they were older teenagers, tough, wearing dirty clothes and smelling of alcohol. She looked away again, and sat primly back down in her seat, clutching her purse.
"Hey, lady," the boy next to her purred. "Don't be so unfriendly."
"Let me alone. My stop's coming up," she said, in a high, thin voice.
They weren't going to let her alone. And Vincent judged the next stop was five minutes away -- more than enough time for there to be serious trouble.
One of the boys reached for her purse. "Whatcha got in there?"
"Let me alone!" She tried to stand up.
Another teenager, on the other side of her, grabbed her by the waist and yanked her down into his lap. "Where are you going, sweetheart? We're just being friendly!"
Vincent was already halfway across the car. He'd risen as soon as he realized there was going to be trouble, without conscious thought. "Release her," he said, with a low growl in his voice.
"Hey, man, don't be a hero," the boys stood up together. He was reminded of a pack of dogs.
Individually, he could have taken any of them; they were skinny adolescents, each half his size. Together, however, he found he had his hands full. He didn't want to hurt them; they were just children.
And he didn't have his claws. Or fangs. Or an intimidating roar. He was just a big guy, muscle bound, but with no real idea how to throw a punch.
"Get out of here!" he snarled.
One of the boys produced a switchblade -- the knife was rusty, and he had to thump the heel end against one of the metal poles to make the knife pop out. He snarled a curse as he did so, and Vincent saw the steel, and he grew more desperate.
The woman had fled to the next car.
It was just him and the boys.
He threw one of them into some seats. The kid yelled and didn't rise. "My leg's broken!"
Two tackled him, holding him down for the third, with the knife.
The short blade flashed downward. He ripped an arm free from their grasp, deflected the steel with his wrist. There was no pain, just heat and pressure. He kicked out with his legs, throwing the boy back. Somehow, he twisted free of one of the teens grappling with him, and bodily grabbed the kid hanging off his good arm and slammed him into one of the closed doors.
He heard the boy's ribs break.
Memories, seared to his soul, of other fights rose up: skin, muscle, ripping and shredding under his claws. The smell of blood and viscera and shit. Screams. His vision was dimming.
The kid he'd just body-slammed was screaming. "Don't hurt me! Don't hurt me!"
Vincent stood, shoulders shaking, in the middle of the car. He wanted to vomit. He wanted to run, but the whole fight had only taken moments. Until they reached the next stop, there was nowhere to flee to. He couldn't catch his breath, and his heartbeat was loud in his own ears.
The door opened.
He bolted for the tunnels.
"I told you it was dangerous Above!"
Vincent sat stoically, and wordlessly, as Father stitched his arm up. The cut had already taken fifteen stitches; a quick glance at it told him to expect four or five more. It burned, and he'd turned down an offer of lidocaine because he wanted to save it for when it was truly needed. The Helpers, Above, funneled medication and supplies to them, but the quantities were always limited.
While the thought of stitches was gruesome, his experience was that the actual pain involved in getting them was fairly minor. They were only a little worse than getting a vaccination.
If I had not been there, the woman would have been mugged, or worse. A few stitches for saving her from that fate is a small price to pay.
"You could have been killed."
"Please give me some credit, Father," Vincent said, finally. "I am aware of that."
Then he winced, as Father jostled his arm. His arm hurt so bad he saw stars, and he hissed.
"Vincent?" Father said, sounding worried. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"No, this injury is simply more painful than usual."
"Than usual." Father's precise, British, dictation made the words sound scathing. "I would dearly love to do without your 'usual,' Vincent." He tied a knot in a stitch, then added, "We know nothing of how this change has affected you. I wish you would show more caution, Vincent. It is not like you, to be so reckless."
Vincent held his tongue. Arguing with Father would do no good; there would be no swaying his opinion. Besides, he felt miserable. He wondered if he was coming down with something; there was a vicious pressure behind his eyes, and the cool air of the Tunnels was uncomfortable against the bare skin of his chest. He felt feverish.
In silence, Father completed the last stitch, and then taped a gauze pad over the cut. Over the top of that he wound an ace bandage. "I want you to keep that arm in a sling for a few days, Vincent."
"Catherine's coming ..." Vincent looked up, suddenly, sensing her approach. He forgot about the hot burn in the wound and turned his attention to the entrance to Father's chamber.
"Your powers are remarkable," Father said.
"Vincent!" She cried, entering the library in a rush. "I felt ... you were hurt ..."
"I am fine," he assured her. She dove into his arms, instinctively careful of the injured one; he wrapped his good arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. "I'm fine, Catherine. I did not realize you had sensed me get injured."
It felt so very good to hold her close. He buried his face in her hair and just stood there, feeling his anxiety and anger and fear of the morning flow away. She was the center of his world; he couldn't imagine not being able to hold her, like this.
"What happened?" She leaned back against his hand, and looked up at him. Vincent marveled at
"Twenty-two stitches," Father grumbled.
"And how did you get twenty-two stitches?" Catherine said, chidingly. "Vincent, I was terrified for you. I knew you were in a fight, but not why, or where."
"There was a woman." Vincent tugged Catherine close again. He was aware of Father's tut-tut noise of disapproval at the public display of affection, but it felt so very good to hold her close. He knew he'd frightened her badly; he felt horrible about it. Given it was barely three PM, he suspected she'd left work early and in a rush, too. "I rode the subway. Some boys were going to mug her, and molest her, and perhaps worse. I stopped it."
"Vincent, you should have called the police," Catherine said, after a moment of silence. "You're not ..."
"Not what, a monster?" He held a hand up, staring at his blunt fingertips. "Had I been myself, I could have put an end to things quickly. They would have run when they saw me. But I am still large, and strong, and I cannot stand by if someone will be hurt."
"He's right, Father," Catherine said. He wasn't very surprised by this. She knew the truth in his heart; she understood him. She might think that there were better ways to resolve things, but she understood his need to defend. "He couldn't simply stand by."
"He should not have been ..."
"Father," Catherine said, very seriously, "do you know how Vincent gets around?"
Father fell silent. He knew.
"If he wasn't riding in the subway cars, he'd be riding on them. Personally, I think riding in them is safer." She added, with a bit of dark humor, "Marginally."
Vincent wondered if Catherine had ever been alone in a subway car except for a large, strange man at the other end. Had she eyed that stranger with careful, indirect glances, the same way the young woman he'd rescued had watched him?
"I understand your point," Father said, carefully, "but he should not have been out ..."
"I was twelve the first time I rode the subway alone," Catherine said, mildly. "I think that Vincent can handle a subway ride."
"But he should not have been Above at all. We could have sent a Helper on the errand he ran. He's needed here!"
Vincent shook his head. "Father, I beg you -- please stop this."
"You need to stop this madness, Vincent. You do not begin to understand what the world Above is like. This ... foolishness ... of yours, it is not healthy for you. You want what you cannot have."
Vincent hesitated a long moment. Father was building up to quite an angry fever pitch. He didn't want an argument with him. He glanced at Catherine, who met his eyes; she looked very troubled by the argument. He could sense roiling waves of turmoil from her -- was she blaming herself, he wondered, for this argument?
Father continued to glare.
Vincent finally snapped. "I believe I need some time apart from you, Father. Before I say things which would be unforgivable."
He turned about swiftly, took the steps up out of Father's library in two strides, and hurried out before Father could do something to trigger the words which he was biting back with stubborn determination. Catherine hurried after him. He slowed his pace down to let her catch up, and she put a hand on his arm. "Are you okay?"
"I am sorry that you had to witness that."
"I think I triggered it, actually." She rested her head against his upper arm. "Was I wrong in coming here?"
He hugged her, suddenly. "Never. And thank you for coming."
"He's being a bit hard on you, isn't he?"
"He's scared." Vincent had said it before, but it bore repeating. "He is frightened that I will leave. He's scared for me; he does not believe it is safe for me, above."
"Vincent," she looked up at him, and then she said seriously, "The Tunnels are a remarkable place, and Father is correct in that the world Above can be a terrible place, but ... have you ever considered that he's only acknowledging half of the truth?"
"Above isn't as terrible as he claims. There is good, and beauty, Above. Yes. I know." He started walking again, a hand spread wide across the small of her back. "He is somewhat nearsighted about this. Perhaps he needs to be, to keep us safe -- we must be so careful not to attract attention, not to bring the world Above down on us. But, yes, I know things are not as black and white as he often presents."
He sighed. "Now, there are far more shades of grey. For me."
"Come home with me tonight?" She asked. She was asking for more than that.
Suddenly, he swept her into a tight hug with his good arm. "Catherine, I love you."
He'd never said that, in so many words, before. His declaration sent a fierce thrill through her. Oh, she knew he loved her -- she could sense it, and he had told her so with his actions and behavior. But never before had he actually said so. He'd always held back, reticent and shy. She had been the one to make bold and sweeping declarations of her feelings; he had never been so bold before.
She pushed back a bit, and stood on her tiptoes and put her arms around his neck and kissed him. He didn't pull away.