" Hold me but safe again within the bond Of one immortal look. "
R. Browning (Eurydice to Orpheus)
What a day! Catherine's afternoon deposition had borne real fruit for the DA's office when about midway through it Tommy DiAngelo suddenly decided to change his story. The result was one that pleased her, Joe, and the trial attorney immensely, his case now air tight. But for Catherine it had also meant a late night confirming the story and helping to set up a safe house. Greg Hughs and his partner were with DiAngelo in hiding now, and would remain so until after the trial, when he would disappear from their lives into the witness protection program. It was past midnight when Catherine finally made it home, weary and worn with the day's events. She dropped her coat, purse and briefcase on the floor and headed straight for the bathroom, a hot shower uppermost in her thoughts, grateful that the week was over -- she was actually toying with the idea of doing absolutely no work at all this weekend. She never noticed the dark shadow on her balcony, and Vincent made no sound or motion to draw her attention. He paced the small area restlessly, periodically glancing into the darkened apartment; the only light there a thin strip barely visible under the bathroom door. But that changed as the door opened and her bedroom flared into temporary illumination, the sudden contrast abrupt and severe. The door closed partially behind her and it took only a fraction of a second for his eyes to adjust to that new lighting, his gaze drawn inexorably to Catherine as she moved to her closet and stood with her back to him inspecting its contents. She wore a thin cotton robe and had a towel wrapped around her hair. He almost thought he could see the pearled beads of water along the back of her neck, and was suddenly overcome with a parched dryness that urged him yearningly to her. He was filled with a terrible thirst which craved a quenching he knew must be both denied and endured, forever.
Vincent's emotions had teetered on the edge all day, and this thought was all it took to send them plummeting, grief and confusion blending and coalescing within him. He was helpless to control that sudden strong surge and knew a second before she whirled to face him that Catherine had felt it as well. Embarrassment and regret joined those other emotions and he turned from her shocked gaze to lean against the balustrade and stare out over the city, a chilly spring breeze adding to the numbness he had felt building in him throughout the day.
The doors opened behind him and Vincent felt Catherine's silent presence at his back. He waited for her inevitable question, uncertain even now why he had come here tonight. What could he tell her when his own thoughts were such a jumbled confusion? He had expected the low tones of her voice, but instead felt her tender touch, her hands coming to rest against his back. Through his cloak, sweater, and thermal shirt, he felt inexplicably warmed where she touched him, as if the heat of her body was being shared with him through the slight contact of her palms and fingers.
He was usually so perceptive to emotions, both his own and others', especially Catherine's, but today he had felt a paralysis creeping over him, dulling his response to sensations both internal and external. That dullness began to recede at her touch, the warmth it inspired blending with the pain that grew out of the release of that benumbed state. A groan was torn from him as he turned and wrapped his arms about her, burying his face in the damp curve of her throat. The cotton fabric was thin beneath his hands and despite his layers, he felt the softness of her body against him. Normally he would have pulled away, distancing himself from her warmth, but instead he drew her closer and held her tighter, seeking that warmth with a feverish intensity.
Catherine's hold tightened upon him, stunned amazement, fear and a hazy pleasure at war within her at his fierce response. He was cold, as if he'd been waiting for her a long time. Suddenly she felt the soft silkiness of his lips press against her throat, though she couldn't tell if that contact was intentional or not. Not that it mattered. She was incapable of withholding her response to that touch, her body shuddering uncontrollably in his arms.
Vincent did pull away from her then, shame filling him at the inexplicably seductive intent his body pursued despite the emotional turmoil raging within him. He turned back to the balustrade, leaning heavily against it and focusing all his energy upon regaining the control that had been lost in the past few minutes. Suddenly her hands were upon him again and his concentration scattered on the cold winds. This time they were not content to stay still, instead sliding about him to circle the tensed muscles of his abdomen and chest. A second later she rested fully along his length, leaning her head upon his back and holding him tightly to her.
"Tell me, Vincent."
A shudder coursed down him in a fluid wave as Catherine's soft voice and tender touch joined within him to form a billowing sensation of love and need. It had shape and form now, this need, drawn into sharp focus by her very presence. He needed her comforting touch, her healing words, her understanding heart. All of her...he needed all of her.
"I want to, Catherine. I need to..." His words trailed off, uncertainty filling him. Her hands and body left him then and he felt bereft, wanting her back, needing her back.
He turned to look at her, confusion evident in his expression. He reached out to her, intending to pull her back to him, then froze, amazement washing through him at the aggressiveness of his behavior this night. He knew then that he had to leave, that his emotions were too raw and too close to the surface tonight; he couldn't trust himself with her, not now.
That grim introspection was interrupted by the sound of her voice and the feel of her hands grasping his own.
"You're cold. Come inside, Vincent, and we'll talk."
Catherine didn't wait for his response, instead turning for the bedroom doors and drawing him after her. Despite his decision of a moment ago, Vincent followed instantly, some part of him standing back in stunned astonishment at that action. He cast a glance filled with both fearful apprehension and yearning towards her bed, but they passed it by, stopping only to shut off the bathroom light before she led him into the living room. Once there she tugged at the leather laces holding his cloak closed at the throat. The ties were hidden in folds of leather and wool, and her fingers fumbled there for several long moments before his hands rose to help her. She drew the loosened garment away from him and pushed him down onto one of the small loveseats.
Vincent watched her silently as she moved about the room. She laid his cloak across the back of the couch facing him then turned to kneel in front of the fireplace. The moonlight lowly illuminated the room and he could easily see the wood and kindling stacked there -- though it was mid-May, they'd had a late spring, and the nights were still unusually cool. She lit a long match and ignited the shredded paper and kindling resting under the larger pieces and a fire instantly sprang into life, warm and beckoning. He stared into it for a moment, lost in the images brought forth by the flickering flames. He saw Catherine there, as she appeared in his dreams.
He shook off those visions hastily and turned his attention back to her. She still knelt by the fireplace, adding a few more pieces of wood to the stack in mute concentration. He drew in a gasping breath at the image she presented. She sat in profile to him, and the fire cast an amber glow upon her, its radiant heat reflected along the smooth line of her cheek and the slim pulsing column of her throat. It burned through the thinness of her robe, the outline of her body beneath it plain to him now, the soft curve of her breast, waist and hip drawing his avid gaze.
His hands clenched into fists and he felt the tightness in his chest spread quickly outward until it consumed his body entirely. He shut his eyes tight, willing the tension from him with all the strength of their bond. A moment later he felt a slight but welcome lessening of that tension and opened his eyes. Catherine was gone. He started in surprise, his gaze drawn apprehensively towards her bedroom door. A second later she emerged, the towel gone and her damp hair now combed and falling in a soft wave above her shoulders. She settled at his side and drew him into her arms, pulling him to her insistently. He resisted momentarily, but her will was strong, her intent firm. He felt that strength and gave in, resting against her heavily, his face pressed once more into the curve of her throat.
Finally, Catherine wrapped her arms around him tightly and rocked her body almost imperceptibly against him, crooning lowly in his ear.
"It's all right. Everything will be all right. You're with me now, Vincent. I'll take care of you. Always...I'll always be here for you."
Her words were soft, almost inaudible, but fierce in their intensity, her commitment sure and uncompromising. He felt it all and gave in to her urgings, his arms wrapping about her to nestle closer yet to her heat.
The words were a soft, aching whisper, shuddering through her with the force of his love. She felt a myriad of emotions from him, the bond opened wider to her than she had ever before experienced it. Beneath the overwhelming love he felt for her, she found sorrow, desire, shame and an anguished confusion all jumbled together.
"What is it, Vincent? You can tell me. It's not Father is it...or Mary?"
She held her growing fear under a tight leash, determined not to add to the tumult filling him. He hurried to assure her and she felt some of the tightness around her heart lessen at his words.
"No. Everyone Below is fine."
He was silent for several long minutes and she wondered if he would indeed be able to tell her about the confusion filling him now. She had never seen him so vulnerable before, except perhaps during those times which inevitably followed the release of that other nature. That upset in the tight control Vincent maintained, that shift in the balance, always drew his deepest fears and insecurities to the surface. Yet he never let her care for him during those times, shielding her from his naked need in an attempt to distance her from the terror he saw and felt within himself then. But not tonight. Tonight he had sought her out, despite the fears and uncertainties washing through him.
"Did something happen tonight, Vincent?"
She couldn't go on, loathe to bring up this issue more directly if it wasn't the cause of his confusion. But Vincent immediately understood and responded quietly.
"No. Not that."
"What then? Please, Vincent, tell me."
Silence filled the room once again. Catherine had almost given up hope when his low whisper rumbled through her, the sound vibrating against her skin.
"Devin's been gone a month now."
Devin? This was about Devin? Catherine cast her mind back to that night at the carousel. Father and Devin had finally talked and come to an understanding. Vincent had appeared relaxed, even happy with that resolution. He had told her he didn't think Devin would stay, not for long, but that now he knew he had a place to come home to. And he had been right. Devin had stayed for only a few days more, but they had been days filled with lazy conversation and renewal. Catherine had seen that directly and indirectly, through Vincent's happiness during that time. Father's response had been precious, his typical patriarchal air of authority slipping away at times, to be replaced with a stunned disbelief in the presence of his two sons, together again at last. She couldn't recall any problems at all during those days, nor during the weeks that followed.
She hadn't seen Vincent in the last four days, but couldn't imagine what could have occurred to cause this turmoil within him now. Her next question was spoken cautiously, tentatively.
"Have you heard from him?"
"Yes. He's in Alaska. Father and I have both received letters."
"Is everything going well for him there?"
"Yes, fine. He's working on a new oil delivery system and although he didn't say it in so many words, I suspect Devin's new career is in the field of petroleum engineering."
The wry humor suddenly evident in Vincent's voice brought forth an unladylike snort, his own chuckle following inevitably. She felt the tension ease in the muscles of his shoulders and back, and loosened her hold somewhat when he pulled gently away from her to straighten up at her side. He still cuddled close though, and Catherine kept one arm about his back, the other hand upon his chest. She rested against him now, waiting for the cadence of his heartbeat to slow to a strong, even pulse before continuing their discussion.
"Does Father know?"
"He suspects, but says little. I think this is an area he has decided not to inquire after, as long as Devin makes no more forays into the medical field."
The last words were spoken lightly, but she had felt his tension increase again at the mention of the tunnel leader, and knew that somehow they had reached the crux of Vincent's dilemma. Catherine hesitated a moment, then went on. "Father and Devin seem to be working things out now. At the farewell party both of them seemed quite content."
Vincent's response was uttered softly, but he added nothing to it, though Catherine waited several minutes. Finally she pressed the point.
"Vincent, have you and Father had an argument concerning Devin?"
He stared into the flames intently, a tightness about his face that belied the simple answer he had given. She reached up to cup his chin in her hand, turning him to face her.
"Tell me, Vincent."
The stiffness of his features vanished, sorrow and pain evident in every line and muscle.
"Father and Devin have worked things out, Catherine. I think everything will be all right between them now. It's not them...it's me."
He was breathing harshly now, and suddenly his eyes filled with tears. They spilled over to trace in wet furrows along his silky cheeks. He made no move to wipe them away and Catherine found herself responding deeply. The combination of his virile strength and naked vulnerability was profoundly masculine and intensely appealing. She wanted to hold him close, to comfort and protect him from anyone who would ever offer him hurt. She wanted to kiss him and never stop. She swallowed against the dryness of her throat, dragging her thoughts away from that last, compelling image. Her thumb brushed along his cheekbone, easing the tears away. It took a massive effort not to taste the salty wetness upon her hand. She focused on him intently, urging him through the bond and with her words.
"What is it, Vincent? You know you can tell me anything."
Her words whispered out to him, the underlying request unmistakable: 'Trust me.'
He stared deeply into her eyes, seeing the promise and acceptance there. He still found it hard to believe, but he couldn't question her commitment. Catherine's loyalty to him and to his world had been proven over and over again. She had said that she would never betray him, and he knew that it was true. Still, how could he tell her this? How could he explain what he himself did not understand? He didn't know how he would do it, only that he had to try.
Without thought his hand reached up to cup the pouch which contained her rose. Catherine had given it to him last month, on their first anniversary. She'd told him to hold the rose and think of her, and know that she was thinking of him, always. He had done that today, at the Great Falls, while trying to make sense of his tumultuous emotions. Through the swirling maelstrom, one thought rang pure and true; he needed to see Catherine, to be with her now. Only she could soothe his troubled heart. That memory gave him the strength to go on.
"I went to speak to Father this morning, but he wasn't in his study. His journal was open on his desk, and Devin's letter rested across it. I leaned over it to study the postage. I never intended to read anything in the journal, Catherine. I've never done such a thing before in my life. The letter covered all but the last words. He'd written 'At last I have my son back.'"
Vincent stared into the fire, sorrow and guilt radiating off him. He swallowed hard, but continued.
"I grew up with many children Below... Pascal, Winslow, and Rebecca; we were more than friends. But it was different with Devin...is different. We fought and played together, dreamed dreams together. We told each other ghost stories in our chamber late at night when we were supposed to be asleep. When I was little, I always trailed along after him. When the others said I was too young to play with them, Devin always spoke up for me, always included me. He was truly my big brother. He still is."
Catherine smiled tremulously through her tears, the image of the brothers standing together in Father's study a month ago a marked contrast to his words. Vincent exceeded Devin both in height and breadth now, yet she could plainly hear Devin's teasing comments, the phrase 'little brother' rolling fondly and easily off his tongue without thought. "And he always will be, Vincent. Anyone who saw and heard you two together would know that.
Vincent was silent. She knew where his thoughts had once again turned. She could hear his voice speaking the words clearly, just as she'd heard them a moment ago; 'At last I have my son back.'
"Vincent, it's only natural that you should have mixed feelings about this news. It's only human..."
He interrupted her, his voice harsh.
"I love Devin. And I hate how I feel now. How could I feel this way? How?!"
He left her side and began to pace furiously about the small enclosed space of her living room, the sight of him incongruous in that setting. Catherine concentrated fiercely on the bond, attempting to 'feel' him as he always did her. Suddenly understanding flared within her, flooding her being. She felt what he felt, and she knew its source. That flash of insight had also told her clearly that Vincent did not yet see this, was too close to see it, that he had buried those memories deeply, for his own protection, years ago. She spoke softly, gently, certainty filling her.
"You were alone, Vincent, abandoned. Then they found you and you brought them hope...hope that dreams can come true. They loved you, Vincent, all of them, but especially Father. Still, you were alone. No one else was like you, and you had to see that, to feel that. You didn't have your mother to nourish and nurture you. There were so many that were there for you in her place, but I know it wasn't the same."
He had stopped his pacing now and stared down at her, astonishment clear in his gaze. Catherine continued on, sure that this was the right thing to do. "Jacob Wells was 'Father' to everyone, but to you he was more. He is truly your father, you know that, Vincent. You are the child of his heart as surely as Devin is the child of his body. It's obvious in his care and concern for you...especially in his protective zeal."
These last words were uttered wryly and Vincent blushed as her meaning made itself plain along their bond. A sudden image flared before him of he and Catherine reading together in his chamber several days after Devin had left. He had been curled up in his usual spot upon the bed while Catherine sat in his large chair, a favorite book nestled in her small hands. She had pulled her chair close to the bed to rest her feet upon the edge of the mattress and without thought he had picked up one stocking-clad foot and begun to knead and massage the tired muscles he'd felt from her throughout the day. Father had come in, and seeing them thus had somehow, despite their best intentions, managed to end their evening early. Vincent was chagrined to realize that Catherine had seen beyond his father's reasoned request for assistance. He clearly felt her thoughts now concerning that incident, as he hadn't then; meddling...interfering... Catherine knew Father had intentionally separated them that evening.
"He worries, Catherine, as any father would, considering the special circumstances surrounding my existence."
Her mouth softened at his words, her eyes gazing up at him in adoration. He couldn't resist their silent appeal and sat back at her side, pulling her close once again. "Yes, Vincent, as any father would. Though perhaps another time we might discuss this particular topic in a little more detail. After all, Vincent, you're no longer a child."
The hand upon his chest stroked him lightly and he felt his muscles tighten in response, his body tingling deliciously at her tender touch. Yet the words spoken a moment before still reverberated in his head, holding him captive to the tumultuous emotions within him. Sorrow filled him, heavy and deep, as the truth of all that was said and unsaid this night surrounded him. "Devin is Father's real son, Catherine. He didn't know that when he most needed it. Father lavished attention and care on me, often at Devin's expense. I was angry with Father for that, we discussed it when Devin first returned. That's when I learned the truth. I was angry at Father for his treatment of Devin then, and yet now..."
She felt a twisting pain through the bond, flinching in response. Vincent immediately felt her reaction and his distress increased, knowing that her anguish was a reflection of his own, but unable to end it.
"I'm ashamed, Catherine. Devin was older than I, he saw that difference, and yet he always took care of me. He always loved me."
Tears welled up and spilled over again, his sorrow overwhelming.
"How can I possibly begrudge Devin what he lacked as a boy? I loved him then and I love him now, yet I envy him, and I'm ashamed."
Vincent leaned back against the couch, his hands rubbing the tears away, though they would not be stopped.
"Fathers and sons."
Catherine murmured lowly, almost inaudibly, then rose to her knees beside him. She gently pulled his hands away and without thought covered his face with warm kisses, the salty taste she had earlier craved a balm to her aching heart. She felt a motion beneath her and knew he was gathering his strength to pull away from her, from her intimate touch, but she reacted first, stopping that retreat. She wrapped her arms around him and tugged him forward until his cheek rested against the soft swell of her bosom. She felt his denial and resistance, but held him there tightly, determined to give him this comfort.
"Please, Vincent. Please."
Catherine's soft words wove their way through his turmoil and he froze against her, the fluttering of her heart plain to him. He could clearly feel the soft curves and firm peak of her breast beneath the thin cotton of her robe, the sensation tantalizing and seductive. His anxiety and grief were still there, but so too was his need for this comfort. They warred within him, but her pleading words tipped the scale. A shudder swept down his length and he collapsed against her, his arms circling her and holding her tight. His face turned in to the softness of her breasts, brushing against their satiny curves. He drew in the sweetly seductive scent coming from the warm hollow between them and gasped at the response it roused in him. Still, his sorrow overwhelmed all else, his thoughts and words naked in their stark grief.
"I know Father loves me, that Devin and all the others Below love me too. But I am alone. I'll never know what came before me, and I'll leave nothing behind when I'm gone."
Catherine couldn't stop her own tears then as waves of fatigued distress rolled through him to her. She concentrated fiercely on the bond, willing his pain to her and releasing it in turn until she felt a path clearing between them, his hurt and sorrow easing. Finally she could sense his growing relaxation through the bond. She hummed to him lowly, an almost imperceptible rhythmic motion between them. His weight grew heavier against her, the bond growing still and calm. When she was certain that he was asleep she leaned back to rest against the padded arm of the couch, pulling him along with her. His body half reclined along hers, his cheek still pressed against her breasts. She unfolded her legs and slipped them over the curve of his lap, turning toward him until they cuddled close, their limbs entwined. The luxury of holding him thus overwhelmed her, all her senses focused on the touch of him along her length and the warmly relaxed waves now vibrating through their bond.
"You're wrong, Vincent." Her words were a low whisper, the thought meant for his heart alone. "I love you too, and I promise you this; you'll never be alone again. Never."
She gave in to the lethargy swirling about the bond then, sinking into its welcoming depths. In the midst of that hazy pleasure a vision appeared before her; an infant Vincent suckling at his mother's breast, her image Madonna-like in Catherine's mind. That picture changed abruptly to match hers and Vincent's pose on the couch, only in this fantasy her breasts were bared to him and he suckled upon her hungrily, greedily, his desire clear to them both. She felt the dizzying clutch of her muscles, the tightening of her womb at that sensuous image, holding him tighter yet against her and wishing he would take all that she offered But she knew that now was not the time. The image before her changed yet again, the infant back once more, only this time Catherine remained, and she knew instinctively that this was not Vincent, but his child...their child. The vision of their son at her breast lingered on and she felt herself drawn within it. They sat in a rocking chair in Vincent's chamber, candlelight glowing softly about them. She wore a soft tunnel gown, with a hand-embroidered shawl around her shoulders which draped over her other breast. Somehow Catherine knew that Mary had made the shawl especially for her.
She felt the solid weight of the child in her arms, his tiny, clefted mouth suckling upon her. His small fingers grasped and kneaded her breast and she saw the beginnings of what would someday be sharp-tipped nails. The strength of his suction surprised her, and though she had never experienced it before, she could swear she felt the milk flowing from her to him, his pleasure and her own a palpable wave between them. He blinked up at her sleepily and Catherine saw Vincent's eyes, blue and deep. She sighed in joy, a contentment filling her that she had never before imagined.
Suddenly a shadow fell across her. She looked up and Vincent was there, in the chamber with them. He filled the entrance, an imposing figure in work clothes and a warm vest, his cloak nowhere in sight. The look in his eyes made her heart melt, his emotions plain for all to see; pride, desire and a fierce protectiveness, all overlaid by a deep and abiding love, and yes, perhaps yet a touch of disbelief that the treasures before him were indeed his. She gazed up at him in adoration, her eyes limpid pools that spoke directly to him through their bond.
Long minutes passed in still silence, their bond humming sweetly between them. Finally he entered the chamber. He moved slowly, his eyes never leaving hers, until he stood at her side. He reached to gently stroke the baby's silky curls, his fingers drifting down to softly caress the downy cheek. The tips of his sharp nails brushed tantalizingly along the rounded curve of her breast in passing, the caress hers as well. His hand stilled upon them as he leaned down to her, his intent plain. His lips met hers in a sweet kiss that filled her with both satisfaction and longing. An eternity passed as they shared that delight, then finally, regretfully, he left her lips to press a tender benediction upon their son's head, sinking to his knees before her. Catherine sighed softly at that compelling image, but it turned into a low moan as his lips moved from there to rest warmly against the soft curve of her breast near the fragrant hollow. He nuzzled sweetly there for a few moments before his left hand slipped beneath the shawl to tenderly caress her right breast, the silken globe taut and full with milk, the nipple puckered and firm
Vincent paused then, but his hesitation lasted only for a moment. He pushed the shawl aside to bare her flesh to the cool tunnel air and her nipple tightened even more in response. His hand cupped her gently, the sharp nails kneading lightly, sensuously against her. With that slight pressure, her milk let down and they both watched as a thin rivulet traced its way down her breast until it was caught by the curve of his hand upon her. His gaze fixed upon that erotic sight and he shifted his position toward that beckoning flesh. Their son still suckled contentedly at her left breast, and she saw that Vincent had moved his right hand down to firmly hold him against her body.
Her concerns thus satisfied, Catherine turned her attention back to where he was inexorably drawn.
She held her breath as his tongue flicked out to lap against the curve of his hand, where her milk had caught and held. He moved upward slowly, tracing the wet line and drawing in her sweetness with a sensuous thoroughness that left her panting. Finally he reached her straining nipple and his mouth enclosed her. The slightest pressure of his mouth drew her milk and he drank thirstily, his motions blending with those of the babe to fill her completely with love and longing.
A minute later she cried out when he drew away. But he would not be stopped. He looked up at her, his eyes filled with an equal measure of desire and regret. He leaned forward once more to tenderly kiss her turgid nipple, murmuring against her sensitized flesh.
"For our son."
He moved to kiss the child once more, and Catherine giggled in delight when she heard his soft whisper.
"But remember, Jacob, whatever you don't finish is for daddy."
He looked up at her and all teasing was suddenly gone, his eyes alight with a tender yet fierce glow.
"I love you, Catherine."
The image began to fade then, his last words echoing through her clearly.
Suddenly she woke and found herself once again in her apartment, Vincent still asleep against her. The dream would not leave her though, their position on the couch a dramatic reminder of it. Her robe had pulled open somewhat, the inner curves of her breasts now bared. Vincent nuzzled against the soft hollow and Catherine had an almost irresistible urge to turn toward him just a little more so that his mouth could find her nipple. But of course she didn't.
She sighed heavily and let the dream replay before her eyes, joy radiating through her in vibrant waves as the certainty of that vision filled her. Oh, how she wanted him; wanted to be by his side forever, wanted to wake with him in the morning, wanted his hard, muscled strength each night. She wanted his children with an aching need that was irresistible to her, though she kept that wish tightly hidden from him, knowing he was not yet ready to accept such a foreign concept.
But he would. Someday he would take all that she offered, and give everything in return. She was certain of that in the deepest part of herself. She held that certainty tightly to her heart, keeping the joy buried deep within until it was ready to come forth in full, glorious bloom. Soon, she vowed, the child's image clear in her mind's eye...soon.
Suddenly Catherine noticed a taut stillness in the muscled shoulders beneath her hands and she knew Vincent was awake. He drew in a shuddering breath and pulled away from her to sit up in the center of the small couch. The fire was still lit, but barely, flickering tongues flaring occasionally amidst the remaining embers. He gazed into those flames for a few minutes, then finally turned to face her.
She still reclined languidly against the padded arm of the couch, her legs over his lap, but had pulled the edges of her robe together for the sake of his modesty. Their eyes met and she saw hesitation and confusion within those blue depths, yet somehow it was different than what had been there before he fell asleep.
A moment later he reached to help her into a sitting position. Catherine sighed resignedly and began to swing her legs down to the floor, but he stopped her, instead lifting her onto his lap entirely. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close and buried his face against her neck. This time, when she felt the tentative press of his lips there, she knew it was no accident. A shiver flowed through her in response and she hugged him tightly to her.
"How do you feel now, Vincent?"
He paused before answering, as if searching within himself.
"Better. I always feel better when I'm with you, Catherine."
His quiet words rippled through her and she tightened her arms about him at their poignancy. In came upon her suddenly, and she accepted it without question: Vincent knew of the dream, had shared it with her! Something in his words, in the tone of his voice and expression in his eyes, in the way he reacted upon waking, told her it was so. All little things, nothing in and off itself, but taken in total the meaning became greater than the sum of its parts. She had no real proof, yet somehow she knew that it was true. That knowledge held her in stunned silence for several minutes, and he made no move to break that stillness. And just as the truth had flared within her a moment ago, she knew too that he was not yet ready to discuss that vision with her. She knew that simple dream would not be enough to banish the fears of a lifetime, yet maybe, just maybe it would begin the process.
Vincent needed her comfort and healing tonight. He had come to her and stayed, when but days before that same level of intimacy would have driven him away. Perhaps the dream, despite the anxiety it would no doubt inspire, might also bring hope to his aching heart. She needed to give him that, needed to give him some assurance without bringing forth those images directly.
"Vincent...did you hear me, just before you fell asleep?"
He shook his head, a wary question in his eyes.
"You told me that you know everyone Below loves you, but that you're still alone. Do you remember?"
He nodded slowly, the sorrow that had been there before not yet entirely gone. She leaned to whisper her next words in his ear.
"Never forget that I love you too. I won't let you be alone again, Vincent. I promise."
Catherine pulled back to look in his eyes, and they were aglow with the same fierce tenderness she had seen at the end of their dream. She blinked rapidly at the sudden resurgence of emotion that look inspired, desperate to calm the frantic beating of her heart. A surge of power flowed over her, instilling a deep peace within her and she drew in a ragged breath in response. It had come from Vincent. He sat quietly before her, neither acknowledging nor denying his action. His gaze was pinned inexorably upon her, as if he knew she wasn't yet finished. She drew in a deep breath, needing to give him the hope of their dream, without the fear she knew went inevitably with it for him.
"You are many things to your family Below, Vincent; brother, son, friend, teacher and protector. For that alone your memory will live on. But you mean more than that to them. When you were a child, you represented hope for their survival, for the existence of their dream in all its newness and fragility. Now you stand for the deepening of that dream, for the endurance of love."
She paused, needed to put into words his place in her life...their place together. "What you are to them, you are to me, and yet so much more. Don't you see? Now, together, we stand for them, for this new dream...for love. For all the hope and potential it represents. Our dream will endure, Vincent. It will fill the world Below and light the way for many who falter or doubt. We will be remembered for our love, long after we are gone. Believe me, my love, I know it's true."
He stared deep into her eyes, the certainty she felt within herself suddenly reflected in his azure depths, the color darkening inexplicably as she watched.
It was only one word, but it rumbled through her, sending a languorous shiver down to her very toes, his voice seductive and low. He pulled her close and held her tight, his embrace telling her what he could not say.
He was a man comfortable with his emotions for others, constantly showing his affections with a warm touch or hug, with the filial kisses he so often pressed upon his father's brow.
She had heard him tell the children often of his love for them, no hesitancy evidenced in his words or actions. Yet for her, whom he loved with a love beyond all others, it was altogether different. Catherine knew how he dreaded the thought that he might bind her to him, to a life of shadow and earth, the brilliance of her sun replaced by the pale flicker of candlelight. She knew he loved her; it was in his every touch, word and glance. and yet he would not say the words to her, not directly, determined that she be given every opportunity to make her own choice, away from him if that was her destiny. She knew that, and so took what he could offer, holding him close, assuring him with her words, her touch and the strength of their bond that she loved him, that she always would, knowing that someday he would finally believe and accept her choice.
They held tight to each other for what seemed like an eternity, their emotions blending together through the bond to surround and fortify them with the strength they would need for when once again they were parted. Finally Vincent pulled away from her, their eyes instantly meeting, their connection unbroken. It was several long minutes before he broke their gaze, glancing out over the balcony to appraise the darkness there. His words whispered out, borne on a sigh.
"It will be light soon, Catherine. I must go."
His regret was plain, yet even she could see the lifting of the dark, and knew it must be very late indeed, much later than he would normally risk Above. She sighed with resignation. "I know."
She began to rise from his lap, but instead his hold upon her tightened, surprising her with that action. He stood then, lifting her in his arms as if her weight were nothing, and held her for several minutes more, loathe to let her go. Finally he set her on her feet and reached for his cloak. He drew it on and they moved towards the balcony doors, his arm once more about her waist.
Once outside they stared out over the city, the artificial lights growing dim before them with the approaching dawn. Vincent sighed and pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head, hiding his face in deep shadows. He turned as if to leave her, then paused.
"Catherine, what will you be doing today?"
The question was spoken softly, tentatively, as if he'd never meant to ask.
"Nothing special. It's been a long week, I don't feel like doing any work at all."
"Come Below then. Spend the day with us...with me. Please?"
She felt tears spring up and blinked them away rapidly. Vincent almost always phrased his invitations Below in terms of the others; how the children wanted to see her, that William had baked a special treat and mentioned that he thought she would like it, anything rather than the simple truth that he wanted her there, by his side in his world. And this invitation was especially significant given the events of the last few hours. She smiled tremulously, happiness coursing through her. "I can be ready in half an hour. Will you wait for me at the threshold?"
"It's early yet, Catherine. You should get some more sleep."
"I'm not tired. What I really want is to be with you. Please, Vincent?"
"All right. You can always take a nap in the afternoon if you like -- it will be a quiet day Below."
At his last words the stillness encompassing her disappeared and she threw herself into his arms, hugging him tight. And though they would be separated for less than an hour, Vincent found himself unable to let her go for several long minutes. Finally he began to loosen his hold on her, then stopped, pulling her close once more. She felt a stillness in him and waited expectantly, wondering what he could be thinking of. When he spoke his voice was a husky rasp against her ear, quivering with emotion.
"I love you, Catherine."
He didn't wait for her response, but quickly left her. She didn't know how long she stood on the balcony, her eyes closed, his words reverberating through her. The dream...with the speaking of those words he told her clearly that he had seen that vision with her. Her heart soared and finally her stillness ended as she spun around gleefully, hugging her arms tightly about herself. She stopped suddenly and sent a message out through the growing dawn. The words were a mere whisper in the night, but they rang through their bond pure and true.
"I love you, Vincent...I love you."
In a darkened alley, hidden among shadows, Vincent paused and turned towards her, silent and still. Love and light filled his entire being, a sunrise more spectacular than the one now making its presence known to the east. Finally he turned and headed Below. He had an appointment with destiny, and he had no intention of missing it.
~~~~~ The End ~~~~~