The path to heaven passes through a teapot
~ Ancient Proverb
~ * ~
Well, that's the second time in a year he's saved your life. Might not want to make it a habit, Catherine thought, safely ensconced inside her apartment, as the men responsible for savaging her face were now ensconced inside the morgue.
He. Vincent. The name that was never far from her thoughts now all but overwhelmed it. The name she couldn’t speak aloud, above the ground, but could think of with deafening clarity. His name. His.
He'd come to her. He'd saved her. Again.
Catherine pulled the wide-toothed comb through her wet hair, the motion a soothing one even as it was a bit unnerving, thanks to what she knew she’d see in any reflective surface, right now.
Her freshly showered image was blurred by the steam which clung to the bathroom mirror, her reflection a hazy blur swathed in misty camouflage.
Still, Catherine knew what was there, on the left side of her face.
Would she ever grow accustomed to seeing the scar that rode her cheek? She wasn't sure if she would.
She removed the white towel from around her shoulders, and wiped at the obscured (and obscuring) glass.
With dry hair, the soft fall of her bangs swept downward, and the salon cut framed her face in gentle waves, hiding the damage to the area in front of her ear.
But straight from the shower, with her hair still damp and scraped back by the comb, the dark gash which persistently reminded her that none of her attack had been a nightmare (as she’d once begged Vincent to tell her it was), was plain for anyone to see. Including its owner.
Catherine turned her head to the side, inspecting the deep, ugly mark more closely. Hot water had heightened its color to a deep primrose.
The man who’d given it to her was now dead.
And the one who had saved her was now Below, safe in the mazes and caverns that sheltered him.
She remembered his initial reaction to her (mostly) restored features, the night he’d come to her balcony. (Had that really been only a few days ago? After so long a separation, between them?)
"Your face," he'd said.
"They fixed it," she'd replied.
Well, not quite, Catherine thought, keeping her head turned so her eye could inspect the now-familiar destruction.
This particular line of brutality was prone to infection, and it had given her world-class surgeon fits. "Come back in a few weeks and we'll see. But I have to tell you, Cathy, it may be closer to a year before we can do anything."
Catherine turned her face to the front, the scar less apparent from this view, but still there. Still… noticeable. Especially with her wet hair scraped behind her ears.
Dr. Sanderle was nothing if not an honest illusionist, Catherine realized. Such an oxymoron, that.
She ran the comb through her hair again, taking out the tangles, liking the massaging sensation of the stiff plastic against her scalp. It felt good. It felt calming. Like a glass of wine, or...
No. Not wine. Tea. Tea was what he'd brought her.
The thought came unbidden, and from out of nowhere. Her mind searched for a memory. Tea. Yes. Tea by the potful, and a special blend, at that. One brought clean from Chinatown, and just for her.
At first, when her broken ribs had ached abominably and her stomach had been clenched with fear, tea was all she could manage. It was herbal, and sweet. It had a strong under taste, and she recalled that she felt a little better, every time she drank some. Her side hurt less. Her stomach, too. It tasted good. He’d kept the pot of hot water nearby where she could reach it, and often filled her mug himself, telling her it was good to breathe in the steam.
He was right. It had been.
For the first time, an odd thought crossed Catherine’s mind: How had he paid for it?
It wasn't like he had access to cash. Or even to a store, for that matter. It wasn't like he could just go shopping, after all.
Had some stranger, some helpful soul just... donated it to him because he'd asked? Had he traded something for the jasmine infused beverage? She remembered the scattered, cluttered contents of his room. Had he parted with something precious, so she could have a warm drink?
Catherine searched her nimble mind again, knowing somewhere inside her brain that the answer, or at least a piece of it, lay unacknowledged, by her.
She closed her eyes, shutting out her reflection, duplicating the soft, gauzy blindness that had marked most of her days while she’d been in Vincent’s care. Vaguely, very vaguely, Catherine remembered hearing a young boy's voice from above where she lay.
"This one’s gonna cost you..."
And so it had, of course. You couldn’t get something for nothing.
But... what? What had it cost him?
Catherine set the comb down, realizing she was obsessing over trifles. It was just a box of tea. It wasn't like he'd given her something valuable.
Except, of course, that he had, she argued with herself. Very valuable. Maybe. Depending on what he’d had to part with.
Aside from saving her life (Twice, now? Was it really twice? For that was another fact which occupied her able mind), he'd sat with her as she drank the fragrant brew, and realized she liked it. He’d stirred sugar into it for her, since she couldn’t see to do it. He’d dunked the bag, then set it to the side on the saucer, using it again, as needed. He’d guided the cup into her hand, and made sure she knew where the saucer was, and which way the handle was facing. He’d helped. He’d cared for her.
The soup, the feel of the bed linens, the sound of his voice, reading to her, the warm tea... she'd liked them all.
But it was the tea she knew he'd had to barter for, and the tea which now concerned her.
He saved your life today, and now you're obsessing over something completely minor, she scolded mirror image. Stop it.
But of course she couldn't just “stop it.” Adrenaline was still trickling through her system thanks to what had happened earlier that day. The afternoon had been far from an ordinary one. As had the time she’d met him before that, on her balcony.
"I can feel what you're feeling. Almost as if we are one."
They were words he’d given to her on her nighttime terrace, back when he’d re-entered her life. Was that how he'd known I liked the tea? Could he sense me, even then?
Or was it just that she’d asked for more of it, several times?
She realized she had no idea, and wasn't about to be dissuaded from exploring the original query. How much had it cost him? And the almost inevitable follow-up question: Should I offer to pay him for it?
She picked up the comb again, and tapped it against her palm, turning the questions over in her mind as she moved from the steamy bathroom in to the calm of her living room. The space was full of mementos of her life. An étagère held collectible treasure. There were pictures on the walls and other things she held dear, some more than others.
Had he traded something he held dear, to pay for the tea?
Catherine forced herself to concentrate, trying to remember what she’d heard. Something about Chinatown. And again, the child’s boisterous, confident voice.
This one’s gonna cost you.
Words she’d not bothered to remember now sounded clear, in her mind. Her father’s voice was the next one she ‘heard,’ internally.
“A debt is incurred. A debt should be repaid. In business, and in life. That’s just the right thing to do, honey. It’s a measure of who you are.”
It was one of the principal tenets of her father's teachings. Indeed, his firm was founded on it. Money was about recompense, about paying people back for something they’d done. So was the law. Both contract law and criminal law.
These were things Catherine had been raised to understand, abundantly. No matter what part of the law she currently practiced.
Would Vincent be insulted if I offered him money? she wondered, afraid she already knew the answer.
She knew what her father would say to that, too.
Perhaps. But that doesn’t release you from offering to repay a debt you know you owe.
She knew that was correct. It was a stricture she’d been raised with. And more, she knew she’d taken things that could not be easily replaced, by the people she’d seen living Below.
After all, she'd stretched the resources of people who had very little. And then there was the question of the antibiotics they'd given her, and she’d stayed there for ten days, using up things they probably needed for themselves...
Catherine sighed, not sure what to do. She sat on the edge of her small, neutral-toned sofa and uncharacteristically chewed a manicured nail.
None of these questions had really mattered before Vincent had come to her balcony, re-establishing the contact between them. She’d considered the two of them "separated" until then, thanks to the exceptional circumstances which ruled his tunnel home, and the exceptional man, himself.
Staying apart seemed to be what he wanted, (and what other choice was there, really, she’d thought,) so it seemed to be enough that she could give that to him, as she tried to put the pieces of her own life back together.
Back together, but in a different way.
Now, with questions swirling through her mind, she wasn't so sure of her course. The “old” Cathy would have just smiled, written a check, and left a large tip, for good measure. She knew it was true.
Was that how “new” Cathy handled things?
Catherine, still unaccustomed to thinking of herself in terms of “old” and “new,” wasn't quite sure.
I owe him, surely. But how to begin to repay the debt? It wasn't as if she could simply write him a check and drop it in the mail. He had no mailbox. And no way to cash a check, regardless of the amount.
Stop it, she ordered. It’s been a terrible day. You’re focusing on this so you won’t have to think about anything else.
Was she? Even as she scolded herself, she wasn’t sure.
She rose and went into the kitchen to rummage in her cupboard for a box of tea, checking the nominal price. Even if "her special tea" had cost double that, a five dollar bill should more than cover it.
Or perhaps it was easier for him to spend loose change?
She had no idea, and she was annoyed with herself that she was stumbling with such minutiae. And that everything seemed to be “minutiae” right now. How long she’d stayed. What she’d eaten. What medicine’s she’d used, the latter difficult to replace, she was certain.
But for some reason, it was the tea that seemed to represent all of that, because it was the tea that she knew he’d had to pay for.
I owe you, Vincent. I do. At the very least, I should pay you for what I used. I can never hope to repay you for the rest of it, for saving me. Then, or today.
They'd parted company down in the tunnels, hours ago.
And even as she'd said it, she'd not taken more than a few steps away before they'd both turned, both knowing that they would indeed see each other again.
But how? And when?
She couldn't simply descend the long spiral staircase that led to his world. Once past the first hallway the entire area was a maze of intersecting passages and tunnels. Getting lost was almost a given, and besides that, she hadn't been invited. It was beyond rude to simply “drop in,” considering that doing so potentially exposed the people who lived there to discovery.
But that understanding left her waiting for him to come to her, and she found she had little love for that idea, either.
And over all of her considerations was the notion that she now owed him. Distinctly. In a real way. One that both could, and couldn’t be quantified by a dollar figure.
If you would dance the dance, you must pay the piper. She remembered the old saw. Her father had raised her to respect its meaning. What you used, what you did, where you lived, what you wore… it all had to be paid for.
Catherine realized how much living a life of wealth made her very uneasy with owing a rightful debt, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized how very much she wanted to repay, actually repay - some part of Vincent’s kindness.
"There's that herb tea you like." His voice had been so amazingly soft, and reassuring. An anchoring line in a world adrift, and swathed in sterile cotton.
Yes. Yes there had been. And the little boy who'd fetched it for her had said it would cost him.
Catherine rubbed her arms as she paced a little, aware she was burning off nervous energy. It hadn't been long since she'd seen Vincent last, and already she was starting to pace, worrying about when the next time might be.
Surely she didn't have to wait to be in mortal peril for him to come to her? Surely the meeting on her balcony had meant something? Something... wonderful, if ephemeral, just yet? Surely the parting look they’d exchanged had meant something, too?
An hour later, no clear answer came, to any of her questions.
An exhausted Catherine gave up wondering, and went to bed.
~ * ~
"Edie, what do you know about tea?" she asked her new friend the next afternoon at lunch.
"That it's better when it's for two," the beautiful black woman answered. "Why? You fixing to have a tea party?" She sipped a soda through the straw of her drink cup.
Catherine shook her head, slightly. "No. More like trying to track something down. See how much it costs."
"A cup of tea?" Edie was a bit incredulous.
"This was... special. Not a common blend. I don't think you could get it in a regular supermarket. It came from Chinatown."
"Oh. There.” Edie wiped her mouth with her napkin, as she considered. “Do you have a sample? I bet the boys downstairs could run it through the lab and maybe--"
"No. No sample.” Catherine shook her head, and her honey hair swung, softly. Her scar was now covered by it. “Just a memory. It had a jasmine flavor, among other things."
Edie shrugged. "Doesn't sound all that hard to find to me," she commented, the shrug of her shoulders sending her overlarge earrings to swinging. “You can get jasmine tea anywhere.”
“I know. But this was… particular. I’d like to be able to track it down.”
"Well, if you know it came from Chinatown, it sounds like that's where you need to go." Edie’s logic was inescapable.
Catherine’s companion checked her watch and rose from the table, indicating her lunch break was over. The vending machine's leftovers landed in the trash, as Edie picked up her Styrofoam cup. "Why not go down and see what you can find out?" she suggested, sauntering toward the doors.
"That would be like looking for a needle in a haystack," Catherine called to her retreating back.
Edie turned as she shouldered her way through the heavy glass door. "Yeah. But it's your needle," she replied.
~ * ~
A world inside the world.
Make that yet another world inside the world, Catherine thought. Between the tunnels and this place, she was becoming aware of just how often that was true, she realized.
It wasn't that she'd never been to New York’s Chinatown area before. It was that now, she saw it with new eyes. Eyes that were trying to find a certain needle in a particular haystack.
Chinese symbols were everywhere. Designs which meant absolutely nothing to her, but clearly imparted information to others. Bright colors abounded. Brilliant yellows and vivid reds splashed across storefronts, and vied for customers’ attention. Crowded window displays shimmered, full of silk, jade carvings, gilt, and bamboo.
And tea sets. Every time Catherine saw one in a shop, she went in, vainly hoping.
As impossible as the journey to find the “needle in the haystack” was, Catherine realized that she actually did have a few things going for her. By the time she entered yet another shop, some things began to come clear.
"I'm looking for a certain brand of tea," she began, by what was now the sixth time. An elderly woman stood behind the counter.
Heavily accented English greeted Catherine’s ears. "We have many fine teas on aisle two--" the woman began. A particular memory niggled at Catherine.
"This wasn't in a bag, I don't think. At least, not a regular one."
"Ah... something in an infuser?" The older woman smiled a knowing smile. "We sell those as well." She produced both a metal tea ball and a spoon that was built for holding loose tea. Her hand swept to a section of mugs that had a ceramic infusion area built into the cup.
"No, not that either. Madame..."
"Yin. My name is Yin. If I can be of help to you...?" she let the sentence trail. Catherine looked around the eclectic shop. It was empty, but for the two of them. Catherine was content that she wasn't costing the woman business, at least.
"Madame Yin. Several months ago, I was very sick... well, no, not sick. Injured. And a friend of mine gave me tea. My... my eyes were covered, thanks to my... injuries, but I know the tea was from Chinatown. And it was steeped in a bag, but the bag didn't seem rectangular. It was round, and heavy. Like a small sack. And the string felt thick. It tasted like jasmine, and maybe bergamot?"
The older woman smiled again, revealing a half-toothless grin.
"Ah, you were well cared for, indeed. That was not just tea. It was medicine. Strong herbs wrapped in cheesecloth and tied tight, to keep from losing." She made a tying motion with her hands, in the air.
"Would something like that be imported? Do you sell it?" Catherine’s eyes were hopeful.
"Imported? Bah. No, not imported! Made fresh! Made just for you! Made by someone who perhaps knew of your injuries, and gave you just what you needed to make you feel better! Made by someone who knows how." The pronouncement was delivered with certitude.
"Would it be possible to find someone who does this? Are there people you know?" Catherine asked, feeling herself closer to finding her needle.
Madame Yin bowed her head, politely. "You did not say how badly you were injured," she questioned, as tactfully as she could.
"Very,” Catherine admitted. “I was… beaten. Badly. My face was cut with a knife. My ribs were broken."
Madame Yin took in the information, her face remaining carefully neutral.
"You say you tasted jasmine? And a little mint, perhaps?"
"Yes!" Catherine just remembered it. And more. "And something else. Cardamom, maybe. Or cinnamon. Something..."
"Something to cut the bitterness, yet help with the digestion. Something to take the sting from your skin, and to promote the healing when you slept, so you could breathe,” Madame Yin nodded wisely.
"Yes.” Catherine felt relieved that she was finally talking to someone who understood. “My own doctor said I was well cared for. That my injuries were healing, and farther along with that than they should be."
The old woman bowed slightly. "You do not seek a tea merchant, young lady. You seek an apothecary. A very skilled one, if you are remembering correctly. It would be a help if you had the bag. Some of the merchants tag their wares with a signature, so they are remembered."
Catherine’s heart sank. "This tea had no tag. Of that much, I'm certain. I dropped the string once, in the cup, and had to fish it out with the spoon."
The gap-toothed grin was there, again. "There are few who are so humble. The best is Master Wong. He is a good man, and a skilled herbalist. Hunan was his home, near the six mountains. They brew very special tea there. It is stored in the dark for over a year, sometimes, to build up the medicinal properties. Very expensive. Very... sought after."
Catherine's opinion that five dollars might cover the cost went up several notches.
"Master Wong. Can you tell me where he is? Oh, please tell me he is still there!" It had been months since Catherine had tasted the special tea. Months, and what sometimes felt like a lifetime, ago.
The old woman smiled at the young one's impatience. "Wong never moves. The Hin Yuen Hong Chinese Herb Company is where he does his business. His tea house is on Mulberry Street near Canal, and he makes tinctures and remedies for those who need it. You may have been one of his clients."
"Thank you. Thank you very much." Catherine fished a bill out of her purse. "For your time," she offered.
Madame Yin shook her head, and took a pretty brooch out of a glass case. "You do not even know if he is the man you seek. I will not just take your money. But I will sell you this pin."
"It is a lovely bird," Catherine agreed, not wanting the jewelry but admiring the figural wings, just the same.
"Not a bird. A phoenix. That which rises to heaven.” She tucked the tiny memento into a soft silk bag, and pulled the strings tight. She took Catherine's proffered bill, and the old sound of a museum-worthy cash register accompanied the trade.
"You were injured, but then made whole. Renewed. A woman of strength. You are the phoenix,” Madame Yin stated. “When you find your mysterious dragon, you must get married," she concluded, eyeing the bare third finger of Catherine's left hand as she made change from the drawer.
"Find my dragon?" Catherine asked, noting several depictions of the dragon and the phoenix, in the shop. The two symbols looked like they belong together, Catherine thought.
"A man. But more than a man, for you. A person of mystery, and strength. All dragons are thus.” The drawer slammed closed. “One who will draw you to him, incomplete without you. Honest, yet... enigmatic. Noble. You will see." The old woman said wisely.
More than a man. Honest, yet enigmatic. Noble. The description so suited Vincent, that Catherine couldn't help but smile.
“Mulberry Street off Canal. Anything else I should know?" she asked.
"Only that Wong is a good man, and a good friend. Please tell him Yin bids him good day." She held out Catherine’s money.
"I will,” Catherine said, letting the helpful woman keep the change.
~ * ~
Madame Yin was right, Catherine realized as she entered the beautiful shop on Third Street. Master Wong’s establishment was indeed "different" from the other eclectic shops Catherine had visited.
Whereas many shops which sold tea might also offer an assortment of other imported goods from China, Wong's shop was indeed an apothecary's business in the front, with a drawn curtain separating it from the back area, where tea and other delicacies were served.
It's a place to get medicine, Catherine realized, looking at the row of boxes behind the counter, in the front area. And then a place to take it, she tacked on mentally, peeking through the beaded curtain to the oasis of serenity behind it.
Traditional tables for westerners were there, but also several low tables, with cushions strewn about them. The tables took up the richly carpeted space. Silk paintings hung on the walls. Catherine saw the dragon and phoenix images again, along with those of other animals. Tigers, serpents, rabbits, oxen… The Chinese zodiac seemed on parade. Bamboo stood in huge pots, and soft music played over the speakers.
An aproned man hurried forward, having heard the bell over the door.
"Something for you, Miss?" Wong asked, clearly not recognizing her, but happy to be of service.
"I... I think so. I know this is going to sound odd, but... could we speak at the counter? A friend of mine gave me some tea, and I think it may have come from here. Madame Yin sends her regards."
Wong smiled, and Catherine was glad to be able to set the man at ease with the familiar sounding opening.
"Yin is a good friend. Her letters to her cousin helped prompt my decision to come to your beautiful country. You say you were given my tea? Do you know which blend?"
Wong walked to the area behind the counter. Behind him, a wealth of wooden boxes painted with Chinese symbols sat, expectantly. It reminded Catherine of an old-fashioned library catalogue.
"Actually, I was hoping you'd remember so I wouldn't need to describe it. It would have been several months ago, back in April. I was badly injured, and a friend sent a child to get the tea for me. Madame Yin says it was probably medicinal, and I do know it helped."
Wong simply nodded. "I am pleased to see that you are so well recovered. The nature of your injury?" he inquired politely.
"I was... attacked. My ribs were broken, and my face was... slashed." She lifted the hair on one side of her face so he could see the rivening mark she still bore there. Wong's face showed his concern.
"I am very sorry for what you suffered. I would have given you several different things for your... afflictions." He inclined his head, and began to pull certain herbs from certain boxes.
"Madame Yin says the tea is actually medicine?" Her tone of voice indicated her curiosity.
His smile was subtle. "All herbs are medicine, as is most food. Calling them “tea” or 'tincture' does not change that. All have an effect. From healing to pain relief." He produced a very black, dried leaf from a box. Catherine could tell by the way he handled it that it was very special.
“What is that?” she asked. It did not look like the tea grounds she was used to seeing when a bag split.
"In Hunan, this tea is greatly prized,” he intoned. “In some towns, even the individual tea tree which make it are known, one from the other."
“Like a vintage of wine?” Catherine asked, as he carefully scooped out a small portion.
“Very much like,” he answered, pleased at her ability to understand.
Catherine watched, fascinated as he measured a particular amount of the leaf from the box. "This is known to promote healing. But it is very bitter, and must be taken with other herbs."
"Jasmine. I remember jasmine. And oranges. Bergamot?"
"Ah. To cleanse your system of toxins and to soften the flavor. Yes. I often put a touch of jasmine and bergamot in my tea."
"Master Wong, I don't mean to be indelicate, but how much would something like this cost? For a box?"
He eyed her expensive clothing and watch. She was the kind of woman for whom price was usually no object.
"A bottle of pills will cost you more, and perhaps not have so keen an effect. If you wish me to make a box of it for you? Or perhaps you would like just a nice cup of chamomile, now that you are well?"
Catherine stayed his hand, as it poised with a measuring spoon.
"What I was really hoping was... Master Wong, the person who brought this tea for me... it would have been a child. A young boy." A particular sound jogged Catherine's memory. "I think he rode a skateboard. Did he pay you? With money? Or perhaps... something else?"
Wong's expression grew just a touch more guarded. "I'm sorry. You did not say your name. This boy. He is in... trouble of some kind?"
"No! No, no trouble. I just... if you know the people I speak of... you know how difficult their life is, financially. I wanted to know how much I owed for the care they gave me. Or to buy something back, if it was traded."
Wong expression became inscrutable. And very Chinese.
"If we speak of the same people, there was no price for your care." He began to put the tea things away. Abruptly.
"I just wanted to make sure that something precious wasn't bartered--"
"I find the urge to close my shop early, today. You must forgive an old man. One who suddenly does not feel well."
Catherine realized she was about to be thrown out. "Mr. Wong--"
"Good day Miss...?"
"Chandler. Catherine Chandler." She didn't dare say the name "Vincent" above the ground, to try and convince him of her sincerity. And perhaps this man didn't even know Vincent. Perhaps it was only the boy he knew. Not everyone who knew of the tunnels necessarily had to know of their most exceptional occupant.
"Miss Chandler." He went around the counter and opened the door for her, flipping the "Open" sign to "Closed."
"Good day, Miss Chandler. Perhaps we will meet another time."
Catherine was more than a tad put out at being summarily dismissed. And she was not to be put off, completely. "You can be sure of it," she said in her best debutante voice, while trying to make it not sound like a threat.
The door closed behind her with a jangling sound, and Catherine stood on the street, watching as he pulled down the shades over the windows. As several people on the street observed this, they cut Catherine a wide swath. She had clearly annoyed the shopkeeper.
"Well of all the..." Catherine let the sentence trail, surprised at the speed with which she'd been dismissed.
Perhaps Vincent or someone else from the tunnels had indeed given up something precious to get the tea for her. Perhaps that was why he wanted her gone. He didn’t want to give the item back, even for money.
It’s gonna cost you.
Apparently, it had done just that.
Content that she had discovered the right place, at least, Catherine wrote a note on the back of one of her business cards and tucked it in the door frame of the now "closed" shop.
She was several steps away from the curb when she realized that for all their brief exchange, she still had no idea how much the tea cost, even in money, much less in what Vincent may have traded for it.
~ * ~
Two hours later, multiple phone calls and a trip to the library hadn't really settled that.
The tea Mr. Wong spoke of was indeed prized. But like the metaphorical bottle of wine, different “vintages” drove up the cost, markedly. Potency, age, how well the tea had been stored in the dark, how carefully dried, where from... all played into the price.
Leaves must be picked and sun dried for many days, allowing no moisture into the leaf. They are then pan fried to kill any green remaining, a slow roasting process which halts oxidation. Pu-ehr is then hand rubbed, an additional step unique to this kind of tea. The bruising of the leaf releases…
"I thought I was just trying to pay for a box of tea," Catherine said aloud, putting down her pen. And of course, she was. But as with all things having to do with Vincent, there was more to it than met the eye.
In China, traditional processing of the leaf may take up to fifteen years…
Deciding that the only way to settle the price once and for all was to simply return to Wong's and buy a box of it directly, (with no questions from her and accepting no nonsense from him), Catherine shelved the books she’d been using and returned to Chinatown that evening, Madame Yin’s pin on the lapel of her coat, her checkbook in her purse, and her determination in her eyes.
The shop was open again. She yanked the door wide and started talking without preamble.
"Mr. Wong, I'd like to--"
But it wasn't the apothecary that stepped out from behind the beaded curtain. It was Vincent.
"Vincent!" Her voice was a stage whisper as she looked fearfully toward the door she’d just barged in through. She flipped the sign closed, yanked the shade down, and shot the bolt on the lock.
"Wong sent a message that he needed to see me. I gather you were trying to discern something?" Vincent asked. Their bond had been fairly shouting at him, all day.
"So he does know you," Catherine confirmed.
"For many years," Vincent replied. "His remedies have often helped my people, in times of need."
"I didn't say anything about you.” Catherine hastened to reassure him that she was trustworthy, in that regard. “I wouldn't. I just... I wanted to find out how much I owed you for taking care of me. I got it in my head that you might have bartered something away, for my sake. Something precious."
Vincent cocked his head to one side. "And you wanted to..."
"I wanted to pay for what had been used on me. Find out if you'd traded something, and buy it back. Or at least repay you for the money you might have spent, the next time we saw each other.”
He stepped back, and she looked around the elaborate, and nearly empty tea room. A low table sat at the center, set to receive someone. A pot of tea sat in the middle, with two cups on opposite sides of the table. Mr. Wong stood nearby.
“I guess that would be 'now,' actually," she said.
"I imagine it would." Vincent held the beaded curtain aside with his huge hand, indicating she was to precede him.
Wong fussed over the table setting a moment, then stood to one side. Vincent inclined his head, in thanks, and Wong did the same. In a moment, the elderly gentleman had disappeared through a curtained doorway in the back.
"I just... have you been all right, Vincent? Have you been well?" she asked as they both sat. He poured water into cups, the bags already sitting inside. A fragrant steam began to rise. A well-remembered one, for Catherine.
"I have been well,” Vincent answered. “I was more concerned for you, considering the... situation you were left with." He glanced away as he said it, not liking to recall the violence that had occurred in the townhouse where Carol Stabler had been killed - and her attackers, afterwards.
"I'm fine. Just fine,” she hastened to reassure him. “I... I didn't know when I would see you again. I just... this is my tea, isn't it?" She inhaled over the cup.
"It needs sugar to cut the bitterness, though Wong recommends honey. But, yes. This is yours."
He eyed the lapel pin she wore. A phoenix. It suits her, he thought.
"Vincent, I really feel that I must--"
"You are not comfortable being in debt to another," he interrupted, stirring the contents of the jade green handle-less cup with a small, earthenware spoon. "Do you mind if I ask 'why?'"
The question surprised her. Of course she did not like taking from others without paying for it. Especially from people like Vincent, who had so little. She knew her expression said as much.
"I just... it's the way I was raised, I suppose.” She searched her memories for a way to explain that to him. “My father was a consummate businessman. He was... is a corporate attorney. He helps to make contracts that tell others how much they owe, or how much they'll get, if they do business. So that everything is fair." She hoped her explanation helped him understand.
Apparently, it didn't, as he simply sat across from her, still listening.
"It's a debt I incurred,” she clarified. “Something I was always aware of, I suppose, but wasn't sure how to address... before."
Ah. Before what happened with Carol Stabler indicated I would be in your life when you need me, he realized. Before the night I came to your balcony, re-establishing the contact between us.
As much as Vincent wanted that contact with her, craved it, even, he continued to question the wisdom of it, inside. Now Mr. Wong had come down to the tunnels, agitated, and with an urgent message for him. One he admitted he didn’t understand, entirely. Payment. Catherine had come to Wong’s to discuss payment.
He wasn't entirely certain what he should say to her. Where to begin? He sweetened the contents of his cup as he continued to stir it, thoughtfully.
Catherine, when I told you there is no place for me in your world, you have no idea how true it is, and some of that is about this very thing. Your world is full of frightened people. People who feel as you do, a need to settle debts. It’s why banks exist. It's also why wars exist, as scores are settled. The notion that both blessings and injuries must be repaid…
He looked up, and into her beautiful green eyes. They looked expectant. Vulnerable, even.
Vincent’s internal monologue continued.
Gang wars tear your streets to pieces. People are terrified that they'll die either owing, or owed. Just giving for the sake of giving is difficult. As is accepting the gift. Everyone is suspect. Everyone is… lost.
But what he said was: "Catherine... in my world... the world that nursed you… we have many guidelines we follow, strictures we must obey if we are to keep that world safe.”
He lifted the spoon from the cup and let the hot tea cool, before tasting it. Catherine hadn’t touched either her spoon or her cup, and had simply kept her eyes glued to his face.
“But we really have only two rules everyone is taught, and two rules everyone must follow,” he continued. “Would you like to know what they are?"
"Please," Catherine answered, hoping she wasn't asking him to betray a confidence.
He settled his hands comfortably, on the table, threading his fingers together. "The first is that you must give help, when help is asked of you. That you cannot refuse another in need. It's our first principle, and one of the reasons why our community must be kept small.”
Catherine nodded her understanding as he explained further.
“If your need is comfort, someone will comfort you. If it is medicine, all will search until medicine is found. Aid, education, the strength of your arm… If it is in another's power to provide it, it will be gotten for you. It will be done. Or in the very least, it will be attempted, by every able hand.” He paused to let his words sink in.
“It will be done for you. And you will do for others, when they are in need. As I told you when you first awoke, we help each other. And we live as best we can. This seemed the best way to do that. Perhaps the only way, living as we do."
The words washed through Catherine, and some overcame her, with their poignancy.
How much better the world would be if we all did that, she thought.
"And you did help me. You didn't even know me, but you did," she returned.
"Your need was great. And I could do no less."
He made it sound so simple, when she knew it had to be so much more complicated for him. Especially for him.
"But Vincent, your people have so little as it is," she pressed.
His smile was a subtle one. "Do we? In many ways, I think that isn't true, Catherine. Though I've always been what your world would consider a very poor man, I've never felt as such." He unlaced his fingers and picked up his spoon again, stirring his cup.
She didn’t doubt it he meant every word he said.
"But the things I used can be replaced,” she pointed out. “Someone else might need them.”
"And if that day comes, perhaps you, or someone like you will be able to get what we need,” he said smoothly. “If not, we will do without. It is a thing to which we are accustomed." He took a sip of the tea, letting the scent of jasmine and bergamot smell fill his nose. It was a rare treat.
"I can pay for my care,” she pressed. “Not for all of it, of course. Nothing could ever repay you for saving me.” She wanted to make sure he understood that much. “But for what I used. What I ate. The antibiotics you gave me, the tea. All of it was expensive." She would not be put off.
Vincent sat back, taking in the nearly mutinous line of her brow. Her profession agrees with her temperament, he realized. She liked to stick to one point, and make it, clearly.
She has a stubborn streak, he realized, falling in love with her a little more for it. She was going to have to, if they had a chance at all. He glanced at the pin again. Taken by itself, it was a lovely representation of a mythical bird. It was also half of a marriage couple. He wondered if she knew.
"You are not quite correct. It was not 'expensive',” he corrected gently. “All of it was priceless."
She blinked at his statement, and tried to discern exactly what he was trying to say.
"Which brings me to our only other rule: That when help is offered, it must be accepted. Accepted, Catherine,” he emphasized the word softly. “Not necessarily ‘repaid'."
Catherine shook her head, bewildered. “But Vincent, money can replace some of what was used on me, at least! Please let me—”
"The gown you wore when you recovered was made by a woman with arthritis in her fingers,” he interrupted carefully. “There are times when it hurts her to sew, yet it is her talent, and her gift, to the community. Even if you could pay her for the fabric, how much would you pay her for her pain?" he asked.
Catherine blinked again, taking in his words, remembering the warm, slightly shabby gown they'd wrapped her in. It looked less than worthless, to any but tunnel eyes. But it had been lined against the chill, and against the itch of the wool. A large section had been patched, a loop of mismatched cloth sewn with yarn, to the gown. Catherine had no idea how many stitches were in it. But she appreciated it anew, owing to what she’d just learned.
"I wouldn't know how to begin," she whispered, seeing the size of her obligation with fresh eyes.
Vincent’s voice remained low. "Catherine, the man who made your soup struggles with bad knees and the man who gave up the tea…” he indicated Wong with a nod toward the curtained doorway, “hopes mightily to one day be able to bring his family here from Tai Pei.” He let her take in the size of Wong’s gift, and the generosity with which it had been given.
“There is no price. There can't be. To begin to keep such a ledger Below... or anywhere, would be madness. We all live in obligation to each other. We all live as help to each other. In my world, there is no debt. It isn't even an idea we hold."
Catherine bowed her head, humbled.
"You saved my life." It was said quietly, with the beginnings of simple acceptance.
"And perhaps, one day, you will save mine," he returned.
Perhaps you already have, he thought, hoping against all reason that it was so.
"I just... It occurred to me that I'd taken from you. All of you. And not even offered to repay you."
"And this concerned you?"
She nodded. "It did. Enough so that I came here. And likely bothered Mr. Wong."
"Mr. Wong was not… ‘bothered,’ as you say. Neither was I.” He took another sip from his cup. “Neither was the man who fixed your soup, the woman who sewed your dress, or the young boy who brought your tea." He wanted to make sure she understood.
Vincent carefully considered his own words, well aware he was leaving one person’s opinion out of them. While it was true that there was a man in the tunnels who was openly opposed to Catherine’s time Below… well. On the subject of his Father, Vincent wisely elected to remain silent, for the moment.
"We... do things for each other. Take care of each other,” he explained. “And live as well as we can.”
He’d said that before. She remembered it.
“Not just... to get by, as it were,” he explained. “But to thrive. To each feel our uses and our value in how much we can give, each to the other. We never know where our talents might lay, until we explore them. Haven't you found the same thing to be true?" He asked cannily. "Aren't you finding it... now?"
Green eyes met blue. "As I change you mean." She watched him take another sip from his cup as she considered the question.
"You're asking me if my life doesn't have greater value, now that I'm giving back more. About how what happened to me caused me to re-evaluate what was important to me. What I could do, rather than what I was just… doing. Is that it?" she asked.
He lifted his huge shoulders in a soft shrug. "That is surely a part of it, yes. You are the only one who can truly determine the value of your gifts, of your life. Of whether or not any of it has value at all. To you, or to anyone.”
She nodded her acceptance of his words.
“It is not for another to assign ‘value’ to you any more than it is for them to try and take it way,” he tacked on.
His voice dropped lower still, the tone of one sharing a confidence. “No one knows that more than I do, Catherine. I survive because of the rules we live by. If I set out to repay each person for their kindness to me, my life would be consumed by my debts. Utterly. Consumed by all I owed. Rather than by… other things,” he picked up the teapot and reached across to warm her cup, though she’d barely touched it. She watched him pour the hot liquid.
"So the tea came because..."
"Because the man who makes it was willing to give it.” He set the pot back down on a bamboo mat. “Nothing more. And surely nothing less."
She set her fingers to the sides of the cup, feeling them warm, thanks to contact with the clay.
"May I ask what you had to give up in return? The boy said it would cost you."
Stubborn indeed, he thought.
Vincent considered her question. "If I told you it was something precious, something rare, something I cannot replace, would it bother you?" he asked.
Catherine nodded, immediately. "I confess that it would."
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or in this case, Beijing, he realized.
"And if I told you it was only a little time spent helping a boy learn to appreciate the vagaries of Charles Dickens, would that make it better?" he asked.
"Great Expectations?" she queried. It was the book she knew him by.
"A Tale of Two Cities, actually. Kipper tends to get lost in matters of politics, but he adores a good rebellion. The French Revolution qualifies."
Kipper. So that was his name. Catherine filed the information.
She shook her head and stirred sugar into her tea cup, mostly just for something to do with her hands.
"It's all so strange to me. Still,” she admitted. “Measuring... value in something other than dollars and cents. It’s not that I can’t. But I admit I’m not used to it."
"That is just the metric you were raised with. The one your world uses,” he replied.
“It is. It makes things easier.”
Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be easy. Perhaps that’s the problem, he thought, but didn’t say.
“Perhaps it's simply that you must learn to measure 'value' another way, then," he supplied, watching her fingers as she held the spoon. Her nails were even, white, and manicured. Much like other things in her life, he realized. Like her apartment, or her…expectations for her own life. Even. Tidy. Orderly.
Vincent knew that he and his life were anything but those. But he stowed the thought in a separate place, for later consideration.
“I was afraid you’d parted with something precious, for my sake,” she admitted.
And so I did, the day I sent you back to your world, he thought.
“If I did…” he began, carefully turning the cup on the table with his unusual fingers, while he tried to frame the rest of his reply.
Catherine realized he was at least a little nervous, for all his calm demeanor.
He tried again. “If I did, it was something I found again, the night we read together on your balcony.”
He knew the statement to be a revealing one. But he felt he had no choice but to say it. In a way, it was too soon to say such things. And in a way, they begged to be said.
If not now, when? he reasoned. He had the distinct feeling that time with her would be a very measured thing.
Catherine blushed at the soft compliment he’d just paid her. Did he know how rare he was, himself? How priceless? Could he possibly understand? she thought. His revealing bit of honesty reminded her of the description of the dragon Madame Yin had spoken of.
“You’re not drinking your tea,” Vincent observed, both deflecting his comment and interrupting her train of thought.
He took another sip from his cup. Catherine followed suit. It was strong. Stronger than she remembered. She spooned in more sugar.
"Will you tell me why Mr. Wong is attached to your world at least? Why he did you the favor? If it betrays no confidences, or course," she tacked on.
Vincent tilted his head in a gesture she would one day come to recognize as familiar.
"A long time ago, we traded,” he answered. “I helped him learn English, and some literature. He returned the favor, with Chinese."
"You speak Chinese?" She was openly amazed. And Vincent was secretly pleased, to have impressed her.
"One dialect only,” he said modestly. “Let us just say I understand more than most people might, and I can read some. Their mythology is full of many great stories. It's beautifully intricate.”
Like you, he thought, but didn't say it aloud, feeling he’d revealed enough about how he felt for one evening.
“I’m sure it is,” she replied, drinking a little more.
They sat in a kind of companionable silence, each taking a quiet measure of the other.
Catherine realized he both seemed at home, here, and far out of his element. Like he was comfortable where he sat, and had been there before, yet that he would likely be more at ease in the stone kingdom that usually contained him.
“Sadly, my time here grows short. There are things I must attend to,” he confessed, draining the cup.
He clearly had places he needed to be. Catherine realized that her visit to Wong’s had interrupted whatever it was he normally did this time of evening. She couldn’t help but wonder but that was. When she’d been Below, convalescing, he’d regularly been by her side. But he’d also been gone, sometimes.
She realized that she’d never asked him what he did when he wasn’t with her. She would have to, at some point. If they found each other again. When they found each other again, her mind corrected. There was so much they still didn’t know about each other.
"Perhaps one day you'll tell me one of those great stories from Chinese mythology," she invited purposely, noting he rose as she said it.
Lord, he was tall. It was a thing she was still struck by, even now.
She followed his lead, and set her napkin aside, rising also.
"Perhaps I will." he replied, aware they'd just consented to meet again, however obliquely. He pulled up the hood of his cape as she brushed at her slacks.
They were both drawing out the moment, he realized, reluctant to part. The low table stood between them.
Perhaps I'll do more than just tell you a story, he thought. Perhaps I’ll live a great story, with you at its heart. Perhaps, in your rebirth, there will be a place for me. Perhaps many things. Be well, Catherine. Please be well.
"I take it there's no point in asking whether or not I owe for the tea.” Her tone was self-deprecating, and her expression was a wry one, for all its subtle humor. “Either this cup or the other ones I drank." She looked down at their leavings, on the table.
He liked that she could laugh at herself, even slightly. The slight smile he gave her was an approving one. "You are learning, I see."
Catherine slid her purse strap up her shoulder, preparing to go. She didn’t attempt to dig out her wallet.
"Some of my law professors would tell you that I'm slow, but I'm teachable." Actually, some of them would tell you that I was a spoiled rich girl, and I'd be a disaster for my clients, and likely get them jailed. I think I'm going to prove a lot of people wrong. I think I better. I think I have to.
He felt the odd thought cross her mind, though he had no idea as to its contents.
Resolve. The sensation for that flitted across their bond. She’d just decided something. He had no idea what.
"A teachable person is the best kind," Vincent returned, escorting her toward the beaded curtain. They both knew he wouldn't see her out the door to the street.
"Be well, Catherine," he said, giving voice to the earlier thought.
"And you be well, Vincent," she said, knowing she would see him again, happy at the prospect.
The bell over the shop door jangled, as she made her exit. She knew his blue eyes were no longer on her, thanks to the drawn shade. Yet if what he’d told her about their bond was true, she knew he could still sense her mood. She hugged happiness to herself, and hoped he felt it.
As Catherine Chandler, Attorney at Law and newest addition to the District Attorney's Office, stepped out into the Chinatown night, she realized a few things: One, that in spite of her newfound feeling of contentment, it would be difficult to hail a taxi cab in this particular part of town without walking a ways. That was all right. She felt like walking. And thinking, while she did it.
Chinatown bustled all around her. A language she didn’t speak filled her ears. People with dark hair and exotic eyes walked by, mixed with occasional others. She could help them. All of them, if they needed it. Knowing that felt… wonderful.
Which led to her second realization, that the clients who depended on her in that same District Attorney's office would get the best, the absolute best effort she could give them. That she was through with doing anything by half-measures, the way she’d done law school, and time at her father’s firm. She was still fairly new at the DA’s office. She was still learning the ropes, still adjusting to the work load. Joe Maxwell was still trying to decide if hiring her had been worth the trouble.
She would show him that it had been.
She wasn’t through with wearing pretty clothes, or keeping her hair and nails nicely done. But she was finished with being defined by that.
She quickened her stride, knowing there were a few briefs back at her apartment that could stand to be looked over again, and one deposition that needed a critical eye. Time to buckle down, really buckle down, and give this job her all.
And she knew a third thing: That from now on, the things she did and said (rather than the checks she wrote or the money she paid) were a way to repay the kindness and generosity of the people who had helped to save her life.
Perhaps it’s the only way to do that, she thought. The only way to repay people like Vincent. And others she'd never even met, yet.
No. Not 'repay.' You have to stop thinking like that, she corrected herself, mentally.
Not to repay. To honor what Vincent and the people like Mr. Wong had done for me. To honor what they gave up, what they risked, and make sure it wasn’t for nothing.
Humanity pulsed all around her, down a street that looked like it had come from a different part of the world. Perhaps someone near her right now, needed her. Or perhaps they would, in the future. The reality of that lingered, and made a further impression.
Joe had said this was a tough part of town for the DA’s office to do business in. Tougher than most, and that was saying something.
What kind of person did she need to become, so that the needs of these people, and others like them, would be met, would be served? What talents did she possess? And which ones did she need to hone, so that they, and she, would be of use? She worried the question as she strolled.
I need to be brave. To be strong. Really strong, she concluded. To give the people I’m trying to help all I can, and give everything its due.
Content with that resolution, Catherine Chandler cemented the notion that she would indeed learn to measure “value” – her own and that of almost everything else - in another way.
Because, as it turned out, it was impossible, absolutely impossible, to calculate the simplest things, sometimes.
Things like the price of a cup of tea, in Chinatown.
No matter where you are in your own fairy-tale, I wish you love.~ Cindy
Illustration supplied by the author