KEYS TO THE KINGDOM

Ginny Shearin

CATHERINE

It was the early hours of the morning when Catherine watched Elliot Burch leave the Central Park threshold. She knew he must be emotionally and physically drained, thoroughly confused as to why she knew her way through those underground passages so well and disappointed to realize that she loved someone else.

Catherine was worried about him, but she was more worried about Vincent. She closed and latched the gate and tripped the lever that closed the door behind Elliot before she turned back to walk to the home tunnels. She had to see Vincent before she went home. Tonight she had hurt two men who cared about her. All the way back she thought of that night’s trials and how they had probably affected Vincent, kicking herself for some of it and wondering what she could say to him to make him understand. How could she explain that kiss to Vincent when she didn’t entirely understand it herself? She knew he must have felt terribly alone when she left him behind to take Elliot to safety. He had to know about the kiss – or at least that something had happened – before he attacked the gunmen on the docks, and he had to confront all of it without her – the betrayal he was bound to feel…the aftermath of the killing…. Vincent had said that both of them should help Elliot, but neither of them had expected…. Whatever they both thought they owed Elliot, Catherine was sure it had been paid in full that night.

Vincent was sitting in the large chair near his desk and looking dispirited when Catherine entered his chamber, still wearing the oversized but dry clothes Elliot had found for her a couple of hours earlier.

"Vincent?" She walked to him, and saw the gauze that Father had used to cover the wound to his hand. "You’re hurt," she said, gently taking his hand to look at it, more for the comfort of the touch than because she expected to see anything but bandage.

"The kind of hurt that heals easily," Vincent answered, obviously distressed, but still responding to her touch with his injured hand. With the other hand he picked up the king from the chess set on his desk and looked down at it.

She knew they had to talk, and knelt beside him, still holding his hand, to encourage him to say more. "Tell me what you’re feeling."

"Elliot…is a king in your world."

"Yes…in a way."

He placed the king back on the chess board and slid it deliberately next to the queen, looking at them as he spoke. "He can offer you so much…the power to do great good…beauties undreamed of." He looked back at Catherine meaningfully. "He can walk beside you in the daylight." He leaned his head back against his chair, looked up and took a deep, resigned breath, releasing it sharply before he continued. "Last night I…felt your fear for him…the sorrows you shared…your joy…when you knew he was alive. When death was nearest…when he…."

"When he kissed me."

"Yes." There was a short pause. "I felt…that, too."

She tried to decide how to interpret what he was saying. She knew how much it must have hurt him when she returned Elliot’s kiss, and was glad that he hadn’t tried to hide that from her, but what now? Why the talk of what Elliot could offer her? Was she on the edge of another battle to stay in Vincent’s life? Was he trying to be noble and planning to send her away again, or was he testing the waters to see if she might be having second thoughts – about what? – about her relationship with him? – about her feelings for Elliot? It had nearly destroyed both of them a year ago when she intended to marry Elliot to stop Burch Towers. Surely Vincent couldn’t send her away now…or think she would want to go. Well, if that was what he was thinking, he would have his work cut out for him. He would have to shove her out of the tunnels kicking and screaming this time...and lock the gates behind her until she ran out of gates to re-enter. They had been making slow progress, and she would not be sent back "to find happiness with someone else" now. There wouldn’t be happiness with someone else. How could he possibly not understand that?

She let go of his hand, looked away sadly and chose her words judiciously. She needed to be sure that he understood…that he knew he would always be the only man in her heart. She looked up again.

"I’ve never felt…closer to Elliot than I did last night. I saw so much of what he’s always kept hidden…the boy he once was…the man he could be. We almost died together. And when he kissed me…just for an instant…some small part of me responded. Then I wished…I wished that it was…you." She needed to know that he believed her. She was sure he knew the guilt and sadness she felt at having hurt him.

Vincent looked at her, seeming surprised.

She wasn’t sure what he had expected to hear…or perhaps to feel from her, but he seemed at a loss for words. What did that look mean? It would be so much easier if he would berate her for that kiss, but she knew he wouldn’t, and she knew she couldn’t leave until this was resolved.

"Vincent?" she questioned softly, still looking up at him.

He dropped his head, appearing uncomfortable with an answer.

Catherine stood slowly, touching his arm for support, and when she was standing, she moved her hand gently up his arm, never losing contact. She slid her fingers down to his wrist, lifted his injured hand carefully and held it where it wouldn’t be bumped as she turned and eased herself into his lap – an unheard of breach of his normal boundaries. Moving slowly enough to allow him to protest if he felt the need, but quickly enough not to give him an excessive amount of time to think it through, she rested his arm across her knees and settled herself lovingly against him.

Vincent didn’t protest, instead he hesitantly slipped his other arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. There was nothing sexual in her action. It spoke of nothing beyond love and concern, and she thought Vincent seemed to need the reassurance of this new closeness as much as she did.

"You know there’s no one but you…don’t you?"

"Yes," he answered softly.

Catherine took a breath and released it quickly in a little puff of air and looked up at him. "Vincent, I’ll probably always care about Elliot – especially after what I learned about him tonight. There was a vulnerability there that people don’t usually see. He told me things about himself that I don’t think he’s told anyone else." She stopped briefly, looking down as she rested her head on his shoulder, absent-mindedly playing with the leather laces on his vest. "The man we arranged to take from the hospital was his father. I was with him when he had someone put Mr. Kasmareck in a helicopter to take him to safety, but it exploded when it had barely left the dock. His father was killed…in an explosion meant for Elliot. He was devastated, but there was no time to mourn before our lives were in danger. The kiss came out of a moment later on…and it happened so fast…. I didn’t expect it. He took it, Vincent. It wasn’t offered."

"Catherine, you don’t have to.…"

"Yes, I do. I need you to know. He needed the comfort of that contact." She leaned closer to Vincent and lowered her head, no longer looking at him. "Maybe I was sympathizing…maybe I needed to be kissed, too. It’s been a long time…and it was a desperate moment. Whatever it was, it was only a moment…and it was wrong…and I’m sorry. It wasn’t his kiss I wanted, Vincent. I wanted yours…I imagined yours." There. It was out in the open…said in plain English. The raw need for the truth of that had been on both their faces on her balcony the night before. "I kissed you once – just a little thank you kiss – but I liked the feel of your lips. Like a dream…but better," she said, still playing with his vest to relieve some of the tension of the moment. There was a little pause as she looked up again to gauge his reaction. "I dream of it often."

"And I relive it daily," he admitted as softly as he had answered before, looking directly at her when he answered.

More truth. Catherine was relieved. The tension seemed to be easing.

"The only thing that would be better would be remembering that you returned it." She knew she was pushing her luck, but while they were being honest.…

"I’m afraid…if I allow myself…." His voice trailed off, and he looked away again.

Without a word, Catherine reached up and touched his cheek softly with her fingertips, giving him the time to respond in whatever way he needed…but he didn’t back away. His words stopped and his eyes closed, and she heard a quiet intake of his breath as she stroked her fingers over his cheek and then back to trail them along the furred ridge of his nose, across one eyebrow to his temple and back down to his cheek. She slid her hand down to the soft stubble at his jaw line and cupped her palm around it, lifting his chin to have him look at her again…pulling his head slowly toward hers. She would have been disappointed if he had stopped her, but she wouldn’t have pushed him any farther if he had. When he was close enough, she stretched up to touch her lips to his, and after she lingered long enough to know that he had offered his silent permission, she felt a soft and tentative, but definite, return of her kiss. She sighed quietly when their lips parted, her eyes still closed, and then she felt him initiate another gentle kiss. It wasn’t the experienced kind of kiss she would have had from Elliot, but it was the one she had waited for for so long…the one Vincent offered of his own accord. They had the rest of their lives to experiment enough to develop perfection.

"That was nice," she breathed softly. "That’s what I want to remember." She opened her eyes and looked up at him, finding a slightly darker-than-usual shade of blue looking back at her.

"And I’m sure I shall never forget." Vincent left his bandaged hand where it was, but with the other hand he drew her closer and kissed her forehead before resting his cheek on her hair.

"Catherine, he could give you so much. I limit your life…in so many ways. I would understand…if you chose to return to the life you were born to…but letting you go…would be.…"

"…something neither of us could bear," Catherine finished for him. She gathered every ounce of determination she could muster up, knowing that it would flow to him through their bond. Grabbing a fistful of his vest with one hand she looked up at him again. "Promise me right now that you’ll never try to send me away again…that you’ll never make another decision ‘for my own good’ without including me in the decision." Not hearing an immediate answer, she emphasized her demand by pounding the handful of vest against his chest. "Promise me…now!" That point would be settled before she left.

"You have my word."

Finally. She had his promise. He must have finally understood that she would settle for no one else.

Looking down as she snuggled closer to him, Catherine again noticed the bandage on Vincent’s hand and was brought back to being concerned about his physical well-being. "Your hand, Vincent. You’re hurt. You should rest. Is it very bad?"

"A cut. It isn’t important."

"It is important, but we can discuss it another time, if you’d rather," she answered, leaving his lap and breaking the spell they had woven around themselves in the previous few minutes. She held her hand out insistently to encourage him to stand. "You should be in bed."

"Not yet," Vincent answered, not moving from the spot. He appeared to be arguing with himself over his words. "I need…you…more than I need sleep."

Another astonishing display of truth. Catherine was both surprised and elated.

"You could have both." There was no answer. He looked down silently. Now it was Catherine who hesitated over her words. She had already pushed him beyond his usual limits. Did she dare push one step more?

"Let me stay?"

"Catherine…"

"How many times have you cared for me when I was hurt, Vincent - from the first time you saw me in the park? You saw that I had medical attention, fed me, read to me…watched over me in my apartment the night I was beaten…comforted me when my father died…." She stopped briefly and smiled. "You even kissed my pricked finger to make it better," she added for good measure. "Please let me stay for you. I need to do that as much as you need to take care of me."

To allow him time to argue that thought with himself, she turned her attention to his bed. The pillows were quickly gathered and arranged on top of the covers in a way that would allow the two of them to lean back rather than lie down. She wanted to make it clear that there was no seduction intended in her offer.

"Here. We can just pull the quilt up to ward off the chill."

In another moment of silent acceptance, Vincent moved from his chair and sat down on the side of his bed to remove his boots, but the injury to his hand was slowing progress.

"Let me," Catherine offered, happy for the opportunity to help, and not quite believing the permission he had apparently granted. She removed his boots and then her "borrowed" shoes and placed them side by side next to the bed, and then she turned her attention back to Vincent. "Go ahead. I’ll get the quilt."

While Vincent settled himself on the pillows with his injured hand resting across his hip, Catherine unfolded the heavy quilt from the foot of his bed. She spread it across him and lifted the corner to slip under it herself. They were facing one another now, somewhere between sitting and reclining, but comfortable. He stretched out his arm and pulled her closer with his uninjured hand, tucking her head on his shoulder under his chin, and she nestled there happily.

"I’m sorry you were hurt tonight. I’m sorry I left you alone on the docks, especially to leave with Elliot. I…."

"You couldn’t have helped if you had stayed."

"But you would have known there was someone close by…who was on your side."

"I know your heart, Catherine. You did what was necessary."

"I love you," she answered, still feeling guilty, but accepting his assurances. "Does it hurt much?" she asked, indicating his hand.

"Not so much when I have you close."

"Shouldn’t it be elevated?" she asked, her practical side taking over again.

"Now you’re a nurse?" Vincent teased.

"If necessary," she smiled back at him, her eyes twinkling.

"I believe Father did mention something of that sort."

She lifted his arm and carefully placed his bandaged hand on her shoulder, adjusting herself to support his arm. When she glanced up at him and asked "Is that comfortable?" her answer was a warm, lingering good-night kiss before they both settled close to one another and slept.

 

 

VINCENT

Vincent had once again protected Catherine, but this time she wasn’t there to help him back from the darkness. She was with Elliot…taking him to safety. Vincent was wounded, both physically and emotionally, and he was feeling the shame and remorse that always accompanied the killing. Backing away from where the bodies of the two men he had just decimated were lying on the dock, he stopped and leaned against the nearby wall to gather his senses before he returned home. He wanted to roar his pain into the night and run as fast and as far as he could…until he had exhausted himself enough to sleep, but either of those actions would have brought him unwanted and probably dangerous attention. As he followed the path Catherine and Elliot had taken, he was becoming less numb to his feelings and more aware of the pain throbbing through his left hand. Descending the ladder below the manhole cover and pulling the cover back into place above him, he thought of home. He was certain that the wound was a deep cut and needed attention, but he dreaded having to ask Father for help. He wanted to be alone…to think. To stem some of the blood loss he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it tightly around his hand before moving any farther.

It was the early hours of the morning when Vincent reached his chamber and dropped his cloak just inside the doorway. He quickly crossed the room to pour water in the basin, hoping to clean the wound and assess the damage before Father saw it; but that hope was dashed when Father entered his chamber, having heard on the pipes that Vincent had returned.

Vincent turned away as Father approached, much the way he might have when he and Devin had been up to some sort of mischief as children, but he knew Father saw the evidence of blood in the basin’s water. Knowing there was no way to hide it, and that he would soon have to ask for help anyway, Vincent turned back to Father, whose "Dear God!" reaction was a father’s appraisal of the cut. The doctor in him, however, had his medical responses at work even as he voiced his concern and love for both Vincent and Catherine. For once Father didn’t chastise him, or them, for carelessness, and Vincent was grateful for that. After all, Elliot’s help had saved Father’s life as well as his own. With a resigned attitude he told Father that love can wound, too…that "The grave is a fine, safe place to be…but if you live…you bleed."

Blessedly Father didn’t argue or ask questions. He simply brought his medical bag, cleaned the cut more thoroughly and sutured the wound – an ugly gash on the fleshy side of Vincent’s palm – and left his son sitting beside his desk brooding.

Knowing that Catherine was on her way to him left Vincent wondering what the rest of the evening would bring. He had felt so many emotions in her earlier that night. He was certain that she was alone now, that she had guided Elliot to one of the thresholds…that she had felt deep sadness when he left. He wasn’t sure exactly what had happened between Catherine and Elliot earlier, but he knew how she had felt then, too, and it was ripping at his heart. What would she say if he asked? Did he really want to hear it? Whatever she said, he had no doubt that it would be the truth. She had always been open and honest with him. He couldn’t say that he had always been open with her – scrupulously honest about what he told her, but not always telling her everything he probably should.

Most of the time their bond was a comfort to him...a personal joy. It was as if he lived with Catherine and her love nestled gently around his heart. He wasn’t perpetually conscious of her feelings, only of her presence. He couldn’t read what caused her emotions. He could only know that they existed. Except when he consciously tuned in, he wasn’t even acutely aware of that unless her emotions spiked strongly…extreme happiness or sadness…joy…pain…fear.… Tonight her feelings tormented him…filled him with dread, because he didn’t know how to interpret them. She loved him. He knew that. She hadn’t left with Elliot. She was returning to the tunnels…to him. That much was a comfort, but there was so much more to sort out. By the time Catherine appeared at his door, Vincent had prepared himself to face whatever she told him.

"Vincent?" She walked to him slowly, but he didn’t look up. "You’re hurt," she said, gently taking his hand to look at it.

"The kind of hurt that heals easily," Vincent answered. She was touching his hand tenderly. Her love for him at that moment seemed as strong as ever, but there was also guilt, worry, concern.... He didn’t look at her, but he couldn’t help responding to her touch. It was instinctive…closing his hand lovingly around her fingers. Even that small gesture was more of a response than his injured hand appreciated. With the other hand he picked up the king from the chess set on his desk and looked down at it.

She knelt on the carpet beside him, still holding his hand. "Tell me what you’re feeling."

There it was…his opening to speak what was on his mind. He needed to know that she had no doubts about them, but couldn’t blame her if she did. He knew that their relationship made her life more difficult.

"Elliot…is a king in your world."

"Yes…in a way."

He placed the king back on the chess board and slid it next to the queen, looking at them as he spoke. "He can offer you so much…the power to do great good…beauties undreamed of." He looked back at Catherine meaningfully. "He can walk beside you in the daylight." Leaning his head back against his chair, he looked up and took a deep, resigned breath, releasing it quickly before he continued. "Last night I…felt your fear for him…the sorrows you shared…your joy…when you knew he was alive. When death was nearest…when he…."

"When he kissed me."

"Yes." There was a short pause. So that was what had happened. That was what he had suspected. "I felt…that, too."

She let go of his hand and looked away sadly, and he felt her guilt and sorrow. The better part of his nature wanted to assure her that she needn’t feel guilty, but the part of him that loved her so desperately felt betrayed…was happy that she felt guilt…that she suffered, too. Now he felt guilty. This would get them nowhere.

She looked up at him again. "I’ve never felt…closer to Elliot than I did last night. I saw so much of what he’s always kept hidden…the boy he once was…the man he could be. We almost died together. And when he kissed me…just for an instant…some small part of me responded. Then I wished…I wished that it was…you."

Vincent looked at her, surprised. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to hear…or perhaps to feel from her, but he was at a loss for words.

"Vincent?" she questioned softly, still looking up at him.

He dropped his head, not certain how to answer. In truth he had no answer at the moment…only more questions. Questions he couldn’t ask Catherine…questions he could hardly face himself.

Catherine stood slowly, touching his arm for support. and when she was standing, she moved her hand gently up his arm, never losing contact. She slid her fingers down to his wrist, lifted his injured hand carefully and held it where it wouldn’t be bumped as she turned and eased herself into his lap – an unheard of breach of his normal boundaries.

Vincent knew she was giving him time to stop her, but he couldn’t. It crossed his mind that he should, but the strength to refuse her loving gesture simply wasn’t there. She rested his arm across her knees and settled herself against him, and instead of protesting, he found himself hesitantly slipping his other arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. He closed his eyes briefly to savor the moment…the joy of holding her that way. He had dreamt of it, and the reality was more than he had imagined. It felt so…right. He knew she needed the reassurance that he still trusted her…still loved her, and he needed the same kind of reassurance from her. This new closeness felt comforting and warm…and surprisingly safe. He felt nothing from her beyond love and concern…and her pleasure in it as well. He somehow managed to open his eyes and look down at her...feeling several emotions jostling for priority inside her.

Catherine took a breath, released it quickly in a little puff of air and looked up at him. "Vincent, I’ll probably always care about Elliot – especially after what I learned about him tonight. There was a vulnerability there that people don’t usually see. He told me things about himself that I don’t think he’s told anyone else." She stopped briefly, looking down as she rested her head on his shoulder, absent-mindedly playing with the leather laces on his vest. "The man we arranged to take from the hospital was his father. I was with him when he had someone put Mr. Kasmareck in a helicopter to take him to safety, but it exploded when it had barely left the dock. His father was killed…in an explosion meant for Elliot. He was devastated, but there was no time to mourn before our lives were in danger. The kiss came out of a moment later on…and it happened so fast…. I didn’t expect it. He took it, Vincent. It wasn’t offered."

"Catherine, you don’t have to.…" He answered softly. Now he didn’t want her to feel guilt…didn’t want her to worry.

"Yes, I do. I need you to know. He needed the comfort of that contact." She leaned closer to him and lowered her head, no longer looking at him. "Maybe I was sympathizing…maybe I needed to be kissed, too. It’s been a long time…and it was a desperate moment. Whatever it was…it was wrong…and I’m sorry. It wasn’t his kiss I wanted, Vincent. I wanted yours. I imagined yours."

Her statement was like cold water thrown in his face. It was what they both wanted…a truth they had both desperately wanted to confront on her balcony the night before. She was right to place it in the open. It had to be faced, but what could he say? She was kissing Elliot, but thinking about him? Is that the way she would have sustained herself if she had married Elliot the year before…if he insisted she return to a normal life…forced her to find someone else? She deserved so much better than that, but she also deserved more than he could offer her.

Still playing with the fabric at the opening of his vest, she said tentatively, "I kissed you once – just a little thank you kiss – but I liked the feel of your lips. Like a dream…but better." There was a little pause as she looked up again.

He knew she was gauging his reaction.

"I dream of it often," she added.

"And I relive it daily," he admitted as gently as he had answered before, looking directly at her when he responded. It was liberating. He had finally told her the kind of truth she needed to hear, and he felt the happiness that flowed through her.

"The only thing that would make it better would be remembering that you returned it," she added tentatively.

He knew it was far overdue, and he wanted to be truthful, but right now he didn’t need her to hear of the times he had imagined pinning her to the wall and kissing her until they could barely breathe…or of taking her to a distant cavern and… Enough of that! Those were fantasies. He needed to take care of the moment at hand.

"I’m afraid…if I allow myself…" he started, looking away again. It sounded so weak…and hopeless. Why did she stay with him? Because she loved him, he admitted to himself, and would tolerate whatever she had to, as long as she had his love in return.

Without a word, Catherine reached up and touched his cheek softly with her fingertips, and he saw her again giving him time to make his own decision…but again the strength to refuse her didn’t appear. He found that he couldn’t back away. His eyes once more closed in pleasure, and he was no longer capable of words. She stroked her fingers over his cheek and then back to trail along the furred ridge of his nose, across one eyebrow to his temple and back down to his cheek. Her touch was like a small piece of heaven. She slid her hand down to the soft stubble at his jaw line and cupped her palm around his face, lifting his chin to have him look at her again…pulling his head slowly toward hers.

What was wrong with him? Why was he allowing this? Suppose he lost control? Suppose he frightened her? Frightened her? Not likely. He realized that nothing about him frightened her. He could frighten everyone else, but Catherine would not run from him. She had trusted him through everything they had faced, and so far she had been right. He knew she would be disappointed if he stopped her, but he also knew she would allow him to set the boundaries.

When she had pulled him close enough, she stretched up to touch her lips to his and let them linger there hopefully. Vincent was gradually absorbing the fact that she didn’t want to kiss Elliot…a normal man, with normal lips, who could give her anything she wanted in her world. She wanted to kiss only the lips that set Vincent apart from the other men she knew…the lips he had despised because he couldn’t imagine her accepting them…so he hesitantly returned her kiss. Her lips were soft and warm and eagerly answering the second brief kiss…the one he had now begun.

Where had he found the courage to kiss her? He was acutely conscious…and more than a little embarrassed, about his lack of experience in such things…self-conscious about his odd mouth and teeth. It occurred to him to wonder how it had felt to her…whether it was what she had expected…whether it had made her happy…but he knew. There was the same joy in Catherine that he had felt in himself. She was content. Without realizing it, he had the same thought she was having...that they had forever to perfect such things. She was more patient than he felt he deserved, but he had always been a fast learner, and practice was something he would look forward to.

"That was nice," she breathed softly. "That’s what I want to remember."

"And I’m sure I shall never forget," he answered with an intensity he hadn’t intended.

What did she see when she looked at him? Did she see an unusual man, or did she actually see his inhuman features? It didn’t matter. Whatever she saw, she loved him. Vincent left his bandaged hand where it was, but with the other hand he drew her close and kissed her forehead before resting his cheek on her hair. He didn’t want to remind her, but he had to give her one more chance to regain her senses.

"Catherine, he could give you so much. I limit your life…in so many ways. I would understand…if you chose to return to the life you were born to…but letting you go…would be.…"

"…something neither of us could bear," Catherine finished for him.

Vincent felt such a determination in her that he knew she must be consciously encouraging it.

Grabbing a fistful of his vest with one hand she demanded, "Promise me right now that you’ll never try to send me away again…that you’ll never make another decision ‘for my own good’ without including me in the decision." Not hearing an immediate answer, she emphasized her demand by pounding the handful of vest against his chest. "Promise me…now!"

So that was it. She was determined to be in his life. She felt that strongly for him…not for Elliot. He doubted he could muster up the nobility to send her away now, anyway.

"You have my word." He had finally found the courage to accept that they would somehow make a life together. It wouldn’t be easy, but they would find a way. He felt another surge of concern from Catherine.

"Your hand, Vincent. You’re hurt. You should rest. Is it very bad?"

His hand? He had forgotten it momentarily, but now that she mentioned it, it did hurt. "A cut," he answered as nonchalantly as he could. "It isn’t important." He didn’t want her to worry.

"It is important, but we can discuss it another time, if you’d rather," she answered, leaving his lap and breaking the spell they had woven around themselves in the previous few minutes.

No! He didn’t want it to end. They had built a cocoon around themselves, and it had been so warm and comfortable…so peaceful. It had seemed that the world wouldn’t dare to intrude.

She held her hand out insistently to encourage him to stand. "You should be in bed."

If he slept, she would leave. She had to be at work tomorrow. He mentally corrected himself…she had to be at work in several hours, but he didn’t want her to leave. He wanted to hold her…wanted her back in his lap…curled up close to him. As unaccustomed as he was to uttering such things out loud, he caught himself saying, "Not yet." He didn’t move from his chair, hesitating with his words. "I need…you…more than I need sleep."

That was obviously another truth Catherine needed to hear. He felt the satisfaction in her when she heard that admission. He should have said such things before.

"You could have both."

He didn’t answer. The way he was giving in tonight, it probably wasn’t wise to have her stay that close for that long. The elation he felt in her a moment before was gone…replaced by resigned disappointment. He looked down silently.

Now it was Catherine who hesitated over her words. "Let me stay?" He felt a cautious hope in her…something he probably shouldn’t encourage.

"Catherine…."

"How many times have you cared for me when I was hurt, Vincent - from the first time you saw me in the park? You saw that I had medical attention, fed me, read to me…watched over me in my apartment the night I was beaten, comforted me when my father died…." She stopped briefly and smiled. "You even kissed my pricked finger to make it better," she added for good measure. "Please let me stay for you. I need to do that as much as you need to take care of me."

She turned her attention to his bed, and he knew it was probably to allow him time to think. He watched as she quickly gathered the pillows and arranged them on top of the covers. He could see that she was making things look as innocent as possible. She truly wanted to stay only to be close to him, and he understood the need to be close.

"Here. We can just pull the quilt up to ward off the chill."

In another moment of silent acceptance, Vincent moved from his chair and sat down on the side of his bed to remove his boots, but it was painful to put that much pressure on his hand.

"Let me," Catherine offered.

He allowed it, wondering how such a small thing could make her so happy. He watched her kneel next to his bed to help him with his boots. Then she removed her "borrowed" shoes and placed them near the bed beside the boots. That was a pleasant thought – her shoes next to his bed for the night…Catherine in his bed for the night.… As Mouse might say, "Better than good. Better than best."

"Go ahead. I’ll get the quilt," she smiled.

While Vincent settled himself on the pillows with his injured hand resting across his hip, Catherine unfolded the heavy quilt from the foot of his bed. She spread it across him and lifted the corner to slip under it herself. They were facing one another now, somewhere between sitting and reclining, but comfortable. He stretched out his arm and drew her close with his uninjured hand, tucking her head on his shoulder under his chin, and she nestled there happily. Her scent tonight wasn’t entirely her own. She smelled of river and someone else’s clothes, but he didn’t mind at all. She was there in his arms…soft and warm…alive.

"I’m sorry you were hurt tonight. I’m sorry I left you alone on the docks, especially to leave with Elliot. I…."

"You couldn’t have helped if you had stayed."

"But you would have known there was someone close by…who was on your side."

"I know your heart, Catherine. You did what was necessary."

"I love you," she answered.

He knew she would feel guilty for a while, that her words were trying to make up for hurting him, and he felt her relief at his assurance that he understood.

"Does it hurt much?" she asked, indicating his hand.

"Not so much when I have you close." The truth seemed to be getting easier.

"Shouldn’t it be elevated?" she asked, her practical side taking over again.

"Now you’re a nurse?" Vincent teased. He recognized that she really did intend to see that he was well-cared for, and he couldn’t have loved her more at that moment.

"If necessary," she smiled back at him, her eyes twinkling.

"I believe Father did mention something of that sort."

She lifted his arm and carefully placed his bandaged hand on her shoulder, adjusting herself to support it. When she glanced up at him and asked "Is that comfortable?" her answer was a warm, lingering good-night kiss. At that moment he didn’t care about his hand. He had Catherine, and they would have their life together one way or another…and they would both sleep well until morning.

 

EPILOGUE - Catherine’s balcony several nights later

Catherine was looking out at the city lights, her hands folded and her arms resting on the wall of her balcony. She knew to expect Vincent. There had been another note in her sandwich at lunch. She smiled to herself at the thought that she was no longer surprised at such an unorthodox means of communication – and at the realization that she now generally checked the sandwich wrappers hopefully as soon as she got them. She had long ago realized that to Vincent it was perfectly normal…part of ordinary, everyday life. It still held her in awe that such things could have been happening around her all her life and she never knew. Just as that thought occurred to her, she heard the soft swish of his cloak and turned to take in the sight of him.

"Catherine."

She stayed where she was at the balcony wall and smiled at him as he lowered his hood. "I’ve missed you."

Vincent didn’t move at first either, then suddenly, in two long, purposeful strides, he reached her side and took her into his arms, pulling her into his embrace. After a moment of closing the distance the last few days had placed between them, he moved back just far enough to lift her chin and place a soft, loving kiss on her lips.

When they parted, Catherine released a long slow breath and looked up into the blue of his eyes. "I was so afraid.…"

"That the moment had passed when you left the tunnels?" he finished for her, touching her face with the palm of one hand…brushing his thumb slowly across her cheek. "That I might retreat into my old habits?"

"Yes."

"I don’t believe…that I have the strength to go backward again," he answered. There was a pause and a small smile. "I believe this could become something of…an addiction."

"I never thought I’d be so glad to see you lose strength or become addicted," she grinned and stood on tiptoe to plant another kiss happily on his lips.

Vincent laughed quietly at her enthusiasm and hugged her close, sharing her happiness. They held each other, savoring the simple fact that they were together, then stood at the balcony wall and talked for a while…of Elliot, the government agents, the tunnels, her job.… It was Friday, and neither of them had pressing responsibilities the next day. They had already talked well into the night, but neither of them was ready to part.

"I’m going to make some tea," Catherine said over her shoulder as she turned to enter the bedroom. "And I’ll see what I can find to go with it. You take care of the reading corner," she added as she mischievously tossed pillows and a small blanket at him through the open door.

Vincent, busily catching pillows, smiled at her lighthearted approach to asking his help, and by the time she returned with a book under one arm and a tray of tea, fruit and cheese, he had arranged a comfortable corner for them. He sat down, took the tray from her and placed it to one side, inviting her to join him on the soft pillows on the floor of the balcony. She intended to sit beside him, but he pulled her into his lap instead.

"Mmmm…. Something else I was afraid might not happen again for a long time," she sighed as she snuggled herself against his chest. "I like this." She melted into him, obviously pleased, sliding her hand up to his shoulder as she felt his arms and his cloak being wrapped around her against the cool that had developed as the night wore on.

"I fear this may become another addiction," Vincent answered softly but playfully as he nuzzled her hair.

Catherine looked up with a delighted smile, and he pleased her further with small kisses starting at her forehead and trailing down to her lips…the book and tea tray temporarily forgotten in favor of contently indulging Vincent’s new addictions.