THE BOND

Valerie

Catherine looked in on Vincent’s sleeping form and was relieved to see he was peaceful. He had turned onto his side and his head was pillowed on his hand.

These last two weeks had been frightening – no, the last month had been, as Vincent slowly lost his battle with the Other and had finally retreated far below the home tunnels to conceal himself from his friends and family in the catacombs. When she had approached him there, he hadn’t even known her at first. He hadn’t known her.

Even once he had been brought back, unconscious, and had remained so for too many days, when he awoke he had not remembered her name. His memory even now was spotty; and she tried to hide from him how that frightened her.

It wasn’t so difficult to hide things from Vincent as it had once been, she reflected sadly, leaving Vincent to his much-needed rest and turning away. He had finally told her only yesterday that the bond was no longer there. He couldn’t feel her at all.

She had been stricken. Though she seldom was aware of the bond consciously, she had learned to recognize a quiet presence in her heart if she concentrated. She had not noticed its absence because she had been so concerned with Vincent. When he told her that, she had realized she no longer felt it, either, and if she felt the absence now so keenly, how must he feel?

"Catherine."

She turned back instantly. He was awake.

"I didn’t disturb you, did I?" she asked as she entered the chamber.

"No," he said. "I … heard your step in the passageway."

She briefly bit her lip but forced a smile. "And I thought I was being so quiet."

"It’s early for you to be Below," he said. "Isn’t it?"

"Just a little," she said. There it was again – he didn’t really know if it was too early for her to be off work and here with him. She had finally returned to work, but the moment she could escape each day, she did. William had taken to laying a place for her at the evening meal with all the others, and that allowed her to come Below as soon as she left the office and spend the evening here, near Vincent. Every evening. That was something he would have objected to, before, not because he did not want her near, but because he wanted it too much, and refused to lay any claim to her time.

That, too, was changed. He seemed pleased when she was near and did not urge her not to come, but the restraint that had always been there was even more evident now that he did not fully remember the details of their relationship. He only knew that he loved her, seemed to accept that she loved him, but all else was foggy and unformed in his exhausted mind. The one thing he remembered most clearly was the bond that he did not feel any longer.

She wanted to sit next to him on the bed, to touch him and assure herself he was solid and well, but she knew he would draw back uncomfortably, so instead she sat in the oak chair at his study table.

His eyes were on his hands. He had scooted up to sit upright in his bed, the blankets still across his lap. The worn sleep shirt molded itself to the outline of his torso and he seemed unaware that he had almost never let her see him with only one layer of clothing covering him before. She might have been happy about that except that it was yet another thing about him that was changed and reminded her of his ordeal – not yet over.

He sighed, and she returned her attention to the here and now.

"Is something wrong?" she asked anxiously.

He shook his head. "I am only weary of searching my mind for memories that are not there," he said quietly. "I know it disturbs the people I love, this blankness, but know that it disturbs me more."

"I know," she said gently. "Please don’t try too hard. It will come back. Father is certain it will."

"If it does not," he said, "I must ask you something."

For some reason, that soft question frightened her. "What is it?" she asked when she could be sure her voice would not betray her.

"The bond," he said. "Without it, I cannot come to you if you’re in danger. I … could not bear it if something happened to you as a result."

"Nothing’s going to happen to me, Vincent."

"You can’t know that."

"I didn’t tell you before, but I asked Joe – my boss," she added, thinking that might be another thing he did not remember, "to take me off the investigations division. Any witnesses I interview will come to the office or I’ll talk to them at the police station. I had already decided that maybe …" Suddenly, she thought better of what she’d been about to say.

"Decided what?" he prompted when she didn’t finish.

"That it was time I had a safer job," she said, hoping he would accept that without asking why she had finally chosen to do something she knew the old Vincent had wished she would do for a very long time.

He met her eyes for a moment and she knew he realized she had done this for him, without perhaps realizing why. She didn’t want to cause him pain by explaining her theory – and Father agreed, they had discussed it out of Vincent’s hearing – that his constant worry about her safety and the many times he had had to come to her aid might have helped bring him to this point. Enough that she should live with the guilt and shame that she was part, if not all, of the cause; he didn’t need to think he was restricting her activities in any way.

"That does not guarantee your safety," he said.

"No, not in a city like New York," she said. "But it will go a long way toward it."

"Catherine, I know you often think I am an interfering old man," Father said during the time that Vincent was so ill. "And, frankly, you have just cause for thinking it. But it’s done out of love. You know that, too, don’t you?"

"Yes, Father," she said, squeezing his hand. They had become much closer during the last few days. "I do know that."

He smiled, rather sadly. "I am afraid I’m going to interfere again, and again, it’s done with love – for both you and Vincent."

She braced herself, but what he said next was not what she expected at all.

"Cathy, I want you to do whatever you have to do to take yourself out of danger," Father said. "We love you, all of us, and I worry about you constantly. But it’s more than that. I know that … well, that the bond has somehow been broken. I do not blame you, my dear, but perhaps you have taken more chances than you would have otherwise, knowing that Vincent could come if you needed him."

She flushed. It was true. She’d faced that already in her own mind, cringing at the idea but forcing herself to confront it, nonetheless.

Father squeezed her hand again. "If you should be in danger now, Vincent could not come, and if anything happened to you –"

Almost exactly the same words Vincent had just said. Catherine would never forgive herself for causing both of them such anguish.

"I know," she said. "I have already spoken to Joe. It’s already done."

Father relaxed. "Thank you, my dear. I will sleep easier, knowing you’re safe. You are important to us. You are family now."

She smiled, with tears in her eyes, and kissed him. "Hearing you say that means more than you know."

He raised a hand to stroke her cheek. "Forgive a foolish old man for being stubborn and blind. I have made your life and Vincent’s more difficult than they had to be."

"But you did it out of love."

He laughed shortly. "That’s what I told myself."

"Father," she leaned closer than she already was, "I blame myself for this. Perhaps it has driven Vincent to the breaking point, having to face his darkness so often for my sake." Her voice broke. "I don’t know if I can live with that knowledge."

He had told her, then, what she had never fully known before. He told her about the time with Lisa, details that Vincent had kept from her. And another such episode, that he had never seen coming, a year or so before Vincent had found her in the park.

"He struggles," Father said, his own voice trembling. "He sometimes loses. It is not your fault, dear Catherine. Yes, your presence in his life makes the struggle more obvious. But it would be there even if you were not. My fear for him since you and he have been acquainted has been nearer the surface, because I was afraid that his love for you would make it harder for him, and each time, I am more afraid – that he will lose. Permanently."

She gasped. "You think he won’t get better?"

"No, no. He already is better," Father assured her. "I can see that, though I know it seems bleak to you."

"But I am partly responsible."

"No," Father said, taking her by both shoulders. "No, Catherine. It simply is. We cannot protect him, either of us. We can only love him and stand by him and help him. If you had not gone to him in the catacombs, I don’t know what would have happened. You brought him back. You are his anchor."

His anchor. Catherine was responsible for this crisis, even if she were also responsible for bringing him back from the brink. He might not have needed an anchor if she hadn’t been so careless with his peace of mind. What had she been thinking?

The bond, which she had never fully understood and had experienced only peripherally, had drawn Vincent to her time and again when she had needed protection, and many of those times had been unnecessary. She walked into danger with the ever-present feeling that she need never worry; Vincent would always be there. And with no thought for what it cost him to be there.

She didn’t deserve his love.

Vincent remained silent, watching the play of emotion on her face and, even in the absence of the bond, seeing her internal struggle from her face, without knowing its cause.

She came back to the present and realized he was gazing at her with sadness.

"You’re troubled," he said, when he knew she was with him again. "Tell me."

She gasped and tried to hide the gasp. That was her Vincent, the one who knew her heart, who urged her to "tell me" everything. But she couldn’t. His peace was fragile, his own troubles so much more important than hers. He had not regained his strength nor his memories and she wouldn’t burden him with her pain now. She shook her head and smiled. "I’m fine. Really," she added when his look told her he knew better.

He let it go, too weary in body and mind after his ordeal to pursue it when she resisted. And soon his eyes grew heavy again and she left him to sleep, while she wandered restlessly through the Tunnels, in need of solitude but unwilling to return to the empty and lonely apartment Above.

At last, she found herself in the Whispering Gallery and sank down on the ground. Usually, she would prefer to move in this place, because various voices came in and out mysteriously depending on where one stood, but today she simply wanted to be alone with her thoughts.

Perhaps it would be better, now while Vincent’s memory was impaired anyway, to leave him to his life here Below. She could do it gradually, visiting less often – he didn’t come to her any longer, lacking the strength for the journey – and maybe, bit by bit, she could ease her way out of his life. Even the thought of leaving Vincent brought tears to her eyes, but should she remain, knowing that she was at least partly to blame for his condition? What if Father was right, and someday he would not recover from one of these episodes? She didn’t know if she could live with the knowledge of this one lying at her door; if he were to have another, and never recover …

She not only couldn’t live with that, she couldn’t live at all.

Vincent awoke alone, with the one remaining candle on the verge of sputtering out. He rose and found another, lighting it with the dying flame, and placed it in the holder on his study table. He sank down in the chair and sat there, watching the flame, feeling for the bond by instinct, and was stung afresh that it was not there. He had grown so used to it – that memory was unimpaired – and he did not know if he would ever become used to its absence. Without it, he could not tell if Catherine was happy or sad, safe or in danger, and the only role in her life that he could fully accept was that of protector. Without the bond, he could not even do that.

Father was confident the bond would return when Vincent’s strength did, and with it, his memory. But he was growing stronger every day and still did not remember everything. He suspected no one was telling him exactly how much he had forgotten.

When he concentrated on Catherine, he could recall bits and pieces of conversations, occasional events such as their first Winterfest, and for some reason, he could remember very clearly taking care of her after he had found her in the park. He thought he remembered all of that.

What he could not recall was specifics. Had she ever said she loved him? Had he ever told her?

His desperate love for her was something else he could remember, but she kept her distance from him, with only an occasional touch to his hand or arm. He sometimes surprised a wistful expression on her face, which she composed as soon as she realized he was looking at her. He didn’t know what the expression meant. Did she know somehow how he loved her, and regretted her inability to return that love? Or did she return the love and was trying to give him distance to heal?

He didn’t know, and he was too afraid of guessing wrong to do anything about it.

Over the next few days, while Catherine was away during the day, Vincent feverishly searched his journals for an answer. In them, he had poured out his heart, declaring his love for her again and again, and the hopelessness of it. He re-read the entries during the time that Elliot was in her life and the bleak entries after she’d told him she was going to marry Elliot to stop his tower from being built. Reading it brought back, as usual, snatches of conversation, but no whole memory.

The entries made right before his most recent breakdown were sporadic and incoherent, and he winced to read them. Catherine must never, never see these. He almost tore the pages out so he wouldn’t have to see them, but something stayed his hand. No, he needed to remember this, painful as it was, and if he could only remember it through his own tortured words, so be it.

He turned to earlier journals and read of her father’s death and his realization that she had wanted him to stay with her that night. He had all but fled before her need, he had written, and though that had shamed him, he had been certain it was necessary. He could not love her physically and she did not know what she was asking; if she had, she would not have asked it.

He paused there and read it again, a frown creasing his brow. Catherine had asked for his love and he had refused? Again he concentrated and finally a memory did come.

He had gone into the guest chamber to say goodnight. She had been seated on the edge of the bed, miserable in her grief, and as he had turned to go, she had called him back with one word: his name. He had stopped, sensing through the bond and hearing in her voice how she needed him near. When he turned to face her again, her struggle had been clear on her expressive face. Yet she had only said, "Goodnight."

Why? Why could he not give her what she asked?

Some dim recollection rose then, a teenage boy’s uncontrolled response to the teasing of a pretty girl, and scratches bleeding and staining her pure skin, scratches he had put there.

But he hadn’t meant to. He hadn’t even done it on purpose. It had only been that his hand was on her shoulder and she turned too sharply to pull away. An accident …

That accident had colored the boy’s perception of himself ever since. Vincent sat back and contemplated that. He was looking at his own life as if it belonged to someone else – and with his memory so unreliable, in many ways it did belong to someone else.

Yes, he could kill. He faced that unflinchingly. He could and he had, with no weapons other than his own body. But never without someone he loved in mortal danger. He did not get angry and lose control and lash out. His anger was like anyone else’s – he raised his voice, he might even occasionally throw or hit an inanimate object. But he did not harm living things in anger. He did it only to protect and only when he had no other choice.

He read more entries, looking for those written after such an occasion. The self-loathing he had felt had spilled into the pages of his journal, and reading it now, he understood. How awful to feel a part of him was separate, uncontrolled, even feral.

I feel as though I stand apart, watching, but unable to stop the raging beast. At the same time, I feel every slash and take a certain unholy pleasure in the blood and the pain of those who would harm people I love. And when it is over, and I see what I have wrought, and I am again in my own body – I am horrified.

His heart twisted in sympathy before his mind recoiled and the horror became his own, not an emotion belonging to someone else. It was his own. These were his words, written in his own hand. Somehow this, as none of the other entries, penetrated his soul and clung there. He did remember this feeling.

Vincent took a ragged breath and gazed down at his own hands holding the journal as if he’d never seen them before.

These hands have killed.

But another voice – hers – came into his mind on the heels of that thought.

"These are my hands."

And another memory flickered to life. Her balcony. Dozens of dancing candles. These hands that so horrified him, gently lifting a crystal necklace over her head, his gift to her on their anniversary. Her delight in it.

"Vincent, it’s beautiful!"

The power in his hands and arms had saved her life. He remembered a chilly night, feeling her weakness increase even as she fought the water that nearly claimed her, finding the car sinking in the water of a small lake, and wrenching the lid of the trunk away as if it were cardboard so that he could snatch her from the cold arms of death.

Without these hands, he could not have saved her.

He heard her step in the corridor and hastily put the journal aside. There was no time to hide the stack of old journals or to put them away before her voice called out, "Vincent? May I come in?"

Standard Tunnel courtesy, to call out before entering a private chamber, which she had learned early on but had never used with Vincent’s chamber before this crisis. Catherine sighed to herself, and when she heard his voice, she pinned on a smile and went in.

She stopped just inside the doorway at the sight of him, his hair rumpled and eyes shadowed with weariness, his study table covered with his old journals. "What are you doing?"

"Remembering. Trying to." He stacked the journals together into a neater pile and shoved them away.

"Father said not to try so hard…"

"I know," he answered. "But I must. I thought these would help."

"And have they?"

One shoulder lifted in a half-hearted shrug. "Yes and no."

"It doesn’t look to me as if reading those has given you any peace," she said, her brow creased with concern.

"Peace is not what I sought," he said, turning in his chair to face her squarely. "Information is what I wanted from the journals."

"Information?" She was confused, and sat down, keeping some distance between them, but close enough to study his expression. "About what? Maybe I can answer your questions."

"Perhaps you can." He drew a deep breath. He did not know how to handle this except clumsily, but he had to know. "Catherine, do you know that I love you?"

She gasped and covered her mouth with her hand, taken completely by surprise. She couldn’t stop the mist that came to her eyes, though she made an effort to control her reaction. It was no use.

Vincent watched her face and still did not know whether the words had pleased or disturbed her. She seemed close to tears often when he spoke to her these last few days.

Finally, she said, "Yes. I know." After another moment, she wet her lips. "And I love you, Vincent."

The tears trembled on her lashes now, and he could see she meant it. He sighed. His heart was beating very fast. "Have I told you? I can’t remember. I’ve told you, haven’t I?"

Her eyes dropped. "You don’t have to tell me."

"Then I haven’t."

Another pause. "Once. Just before you … lost yourself."

"Once?" He was appalled.

"But I knew," she said. "I always knew. You’ve shown me, many times. I can feel it, Vincent. You don’t have to say the words."

He took her hand and it was cold. Even though she allowed it, she kept the rest of her body away, leaning against the chair back. So he leaned forward. "Are you afraid of me, Catherine?"

"No!" She shook her head and her hair fell across her eyes with the vehemence of the movement. "No, never. I have never been afraid of you."

She meant that, too. "I have been reading," he indicated the journals, "of the times I have killed."

Oh, God, no. She glanced at the journals, the tears spilling onto her cheeks now. Why did he have to do that? What if it brings on another … what if he loses himself again?

But Vincent had no intention of that. He focused upon her face, and lifted his free hand to brush away the tears. "You have witnessed some of these."

She nodded, unable to speak.

"And still you do not fear me?"

She swallowed. "No."

"Yet you pull away from me," he said.

"I – I don’t want to – to crowd you. Or make you uncomfortable."

He nodded thoughtfully, dropping his eyes this time to their hands, clasped on his knee. "And you do not think touching me will help me heal." It wasn’t a question.

"Always before …" How on earth could she say this? They had never really spoken of it except in carefully neutral terms. "You discouraged too much of that."

He looked up. "I did? Not you?"

"I respected the … boundaries you set," she said at last. "Or tried, anyway."

"Catherine, I must ask again. Do you understand that I love you? How much? That this love is … of a man for a woman?" He felt his cheeks flush and his heart sped up another notch.

She met his eyes this time. "Yes."

There was more. Why did she always seem to be holding back tears? Today she had not even been able to hold them back.

"Why won’t you tell me what troubles you so?" he said, gently stroking the back of her hand, still clasped in his. "You know of my love. You must know also that you can tell me anything."

"Not this," she said, then bit her lip. She had not meant to say that.

"Because you think I am not strong enough to hear it? Or …" he shook his head wearily. "Have you never felt free to share your heart with me? I cannot remember, Catherine, I am sorry."

"Before, you often knew without my telling you." Another tear fell on her downcast face.

He winced. Another thing the bond’s absence had robbed them of. "Now I have to ask," he said, keeping his voice steady. "Please, Catherine, tell me. Let me help. You should not have to carry your worries alone – and mine besides."

"We’ve had many long talks, about … everything." Her hesitation on that last word told him more than she had meant to.

"I think perhaps not ‘everything,’" he said. "What have you wanted to tell me that you couldn’t? I am ready to hear it, whatever it is."

She shook her head again.

His heart ached at the sight of the tears. "Why do you cry? What have I said or done? Let me help. Please."

"You haven’t done anything, Vincent," she said. "I have."

"What?" There were tears in his eyes now, too.

She shook her head, more violently, and snatched her hand away, jumping out of her chair and running away, through the chamber door and down the corridor. He rose to follow her, but by the time he’d reached the outer tunnel, she was out of sight and he didn’t know where she’d gone. Even that burst of activity had winded him, and he leaned against the tunnel wall, dizzy and heartsore.

He could tap a message on the pipes, asking for others to find her for him and tell him where she’d gone. But should he? Should he intrude when she so clearly wanted to be away from him?

Catherine ran, blinded by tears, until she was out of breath. She found herself at the music chamber. It was remote enough that she could be alone, and she sank onto the scattered cushions left there. She couldn’t do this, to him or to herself. He was too dear, and too helpless right now. Remembering only snatches of their relationship, he couldn’t know how she loved him and she couldn’t tell him, and bind him to her even more. She couldn’t possibly tell him she felt responsible for his breakdown – that would make him feel guilty for her pain and she would not do that, either.

What was she to do?

Vincent caught his breath and tapped the message on the pipe to the sentries. Vincent. Where is Catherine?

Several moments later:

Jamie. Music chamber.

The music chamber? Can you see her?

No. Hear her. Crying.

Vincent swallowed the lump in his own throat. Crying. He’d suspected as much, but to think of her alone, far from everyone, crying … and he had no idea what had upset her so. He had to go to her.

But he had taken only a few steps when another message came.

Gone Above. Park entrance.

She was gone. She’d left without saying goodbye. Vincent returned to his chamber and sank onto his bed.

Catherine didn’t remember the walk to her apartment, but once she was there, she had no energy even to change into nightclothes. She lay down on her bed, in the dark, burying her face in the pillow, and let sleep come.

She trudged to work the next day, as tired as if she hadn’t slept at all, and found her desk buried under files left there by Joe. The rash of gang murders over the last few weeks, one in retaliation for another, and another in retaliation for that one, had kept all of them working hard. No witnesses and, so far, eleven dead kids, the youngest only thirteen. For the first time, she was glad to see such a lot of work waiting for her. It would keep her mind occupied and she needed that now.

And that night, for the first time since Vincent’s illness, she stayed Above. She took work home with her and concentrated on it until her eyes were scratchy with fatigue, and went to bed.

After the first night, it was easier to stay away the second. She was so tired and was working so hard to keep her mind filled with anything but Vincent. By the third day, she convinced herself this was for the best, and that he would be better off without her.

She had not counted on Vincent’s feelings in the matter.

When she didn’t come Below the next night, he realized she needed the time away and tried not to worry. But when the second and third and a fourth came and went without her, he made ready to go Above to her. He had to see for himself that she was all right.

Father pleaded with him not to go.

"You’re not strong enough!"

"I must know," Vincent said, immovable.

"Then send someone else. I’ll contact Peter. Please, Vincent. You aren’t well enough to make the trip."

"I have to go. I have to see her."

Father sighed and sat down. "I’ll go, then. I’ll go and ask her to come here. Vincent, you simply can’t risk it yet."

Vincent considered that. He knew, deep down, that he wasn’t yet equal to the arduous trip to her balcony. Father, in contrast, could walk through the streets and straight to her door. Finally, he nodded. "Tell her … I love her."

Father rose to draw Vincent’s head down for a kiss. "I will."

Catherine sat on her divan, listlessly stirring a microwaved frozen meal with no appetite, while a sitcom played on her TV. She almost never watched television anymore, and she didn’t recognize any of the characters or find them funny at all, but it gave the illusion of company. She gave up and pushed the plastic tray away just as a knock sounded on her door. She closed her eyes. The illusion of company was all she wanted tonight, not real people who would expect her to answer when she was spoken to and show some vestige of interest in whatever they had to say.

"Catherine?"

Father? Father never came Above if he could help it … what if something had happened to Vincent?

Catherine hurried to the door and undid the locks, opening it with wide, frightened eyes. "Father? Is Vincent all right?"

"Yes, my dear, he’s fine. May I come in?"

Catherine stood back and let him in, closing the door behind him. He took in the untouched meal, the television, her shadowed eyes, all in a glance, and wordlessly held out his open arms. With a choked-back sob, she went to him. He held her close in a fatherly embrace, stroking her hair and murmuring soothingly, until she drew back, a little embarrassed. "Would you … like a cup of tea?"

He regarded her soberly for a moment. "You look as if you haven’t slept in days. Perhaps a cup of tea for both of us?"

She tried to smile and turned away to go to the kitchen. Father sat down and looked at the television. He had not seen television since its very early days and had not been impressed even then. This program, with its sexual innuendo and disrespectful children, made him glad he did not have to watch such things.

Catherine returned a few moments later with two cups of tea on a tray. He accepted one with a smile and she sat down across from him, using a small device to turn the television off with a click.

"Vincent said to tell you he loves you," Father said without preamble. Her face paled so suddenly that he set the tea down, afraid she would faint. But she did not. She dropped her eyes to her own cup and he could see the tears trembling on her lashes. "Why haven’t you been Below for so long?"

"I – I can’t, Father. It’s too hard."

"Why is it too hard?"

"He wants me to tell him things I can’t tell him."

"Like what?" Father leaned forward and reached for her hand.

"Why I feel guilty, for one," she said. "I can’t tell him that. He doesn’t need to hear that. And there’s so much he doesn’t remember, and I can’t tell him that, either. I’ve become a burden to him and I can’t bear that."

Father gazed at her in stunned surprise for several moments before he could speak. "Surely you’re not suggesting that you should never come back?"

"That’s exactly what I mean," she said, her voice breaking. "He’s better off. He can return to his life … with -- without me."

"Don’t you know he needs you? That he loves you?"

She laughed bitterly. "I can’t believe you’re saying that."

"I was wrong." Father said it without any hesitation. "Catherine, do you know who you sound like now? Vincent."

She raised her eyes in shock.

"Much of that was my doing," he admitted. "I convinced him he should not love you, but he couldn’t help loving you, any more than you can help loving him. Come home, Catherine. Vincent needs you."

She shook her head. "I think maybe you were right the first time."

"I wasn’t."

"Look what loving me has done to him!" Tears fell fast now, filling her eyes and choking her voice. "What if you were right about something else, Father? What if one of these times he doesn’t come back? It would be my fault! I can’t live with that!"

"Loving you did not do this to him, Catherine, you must know that. I told you about the time with Lisa, about the time before he even knew you –"

"This one was my fault."

"Catherine, please, just come Below with me, talk to Vincent. He misses you desperately."

"No, Father, I can’t."

She would not be moved, and after a half hour of fruitless effort, he finally had to give in. "Do you have a message for Vincent?" he asked as he stood at the door, ready to leave.

"No," she said. "Any message I sent with you would only keep his hope alive. He must be left in peace."

"You think this absence will give him peace?" Father shook his head sorrowfully. "You are mistaken."

"Not at first, I know," she said, her heart twisting painfully. "But eventually, perhaps."

Father sighed, dreading having to face Vincent with this in a little while. He kissed Catherine’s cheek. "Think this over carefully, daughter," he said, not realizing what he had called her. It had slipped out unconsciously. "Don’t make any final decisions yet. Let this time apart give you a chance to heal, too."

Her eyes were swimming as she closed the door behind him and leaned against it for a moment before sliding to the floor.

Vincent was waiting, tension in every line of his body, when Father returned. Their eyes met.

"She … isn’t coming," Father said as gently as he could.

Vincent stared at him blankly. "She won’t come?"

Father came close and stroked his hair, unable to say anything.

"But why?"

Father hesitated. She had not asked him to keep it a secret, but if he told Vincent – it would feel as though he were breaking a confidence. And Vincent would probably immediately go Above to talk to her himself.

"Father, tell me."

"She has decided," Father said at last, "that she is a burden to you."

Vincent dropped into the chair behind him as if his legs had given way. He couldn’t speak, but his eyes beseeched Father to keep talking.

"Your – your illness," Father said after another pause. "She thinks she was the cause of it. The times you have gone to her aid. She believes they brought this on, forcing you to …" He couldn’t finish.

Vincent could. He’d been reading more of his old journals. "Face that side of myself."

Father nodded.

"But I face that every day," Vincent ground out, his voice so low Father almost missed the words. "I have faced it every day for years, long before Catherine came into my life. Did you tell her that?"

"Yes."

"Then how can she blame herself?" His voice rose and he shot out of his chair again, pacing back and forth as his cloak swirled about him.

"It’s not the facing of it so much as the number of times you have done so since you’ve known her," Father said, deciding he must be completely candid. "For love of her – in her mind – you have drawn on it so often that it caused this crisis and she will not allow that to happen again."

"Dear God, Father, how can I convince her otherwise?"

Father shook his head. "I tried, son. I told her you love her and need her and want her to come home."

Vincent froze mid-stride. "You called this ‘home’ to her?"

"Yes, I did. And what’s more," Father remembered now, "I called her ‘daughter.’"

Vincent sat down again. "And nothing changed her mind."

"No."

Vincent dropped his face into his hands. "Dear God," he repeated, his voice muffled. "What should I do, Father? How can I reach her?" He raised his head. "How does she look? How is she?"

"Tormented," Father said with a sigh. No point now in hiding any of it from Vincent’s searching blue eyes.

"Then she does not want to be apart from me?"

"Not in the least, Vincent."

"She’s doing it for me," Vincent said softly. "Then she can be moved. I must go to her myself. I must talk to her."

"Vincent, you can’t –"

"Not tonight, Father," Vincent said, resolve in his tone. He rose. "I will give her time, for now. I will prepare myself to convince her that she belongs with me. I won’t go until I am ready and until I am sure I have the words to touch her heart." He turned to leave the chamber, but came back and kissed the top of Father’s head. "Thank you for going to her for me, Father." He left.

Now the study of his journals took on urgency. Vincent spent hours alone in his chamber, sometimes forgetting to eat, in his fierce resolve to understand their relationship and find a way to reach Catherine that she could not and would not resist. He went back to the very first entry, written in the hours after he had brought her below and he and Father had treated her wounds. He had written that entry while she lay sleeping in his bed, with him nearby to be ready to respond to her slightest need or want. At that point, they had not even spoken to each other. She had been unconscious when he found her, and Father had given her a shot to make her sleep while they stitched the awful slashes in her face.

From there, he read of the solitary eight months they had spent apart, when he had thought never to see her again, though every moment of every day of those eight months she had lived in his heart. Little by little, he had felt the bond growing then, until it was a steady flame, always present, and he had finally admitted to himself that he had to see her again.

"There is no place for me in your world," he told her the night he had finally gone to her, and while it was still true in many ways, he had found a place there, with her.

He read of the man Jason and how she had briefly thought the vigilante was Vincent. He winced with pain when he read what he had written about her reaction to him when she came to ask him outright.

She cringed away from me. I could see the fear on her face. She was afraid of me, the one who loves her more than his own life! If ever I were foolish enough to believe she could love me, too, that fear in her eyes convinced me. It is hopeless. I know that now.

He felt tears spring to his eyes and remembered – his own memory now, not a secondhand one drawn from his written words – that hopelessness, as he had sat in this room writing the words.

Little by little, as he read, bits of memory returned as clearly as that one had, pleasant ones as well as painful ones.

The night she returned from her friend Nancy’s home. He smiled. He had felt her approach long before she had even entered the park. He had been deep in the tunnels, brooding alone, when he had realized she was coming. Her happiness spread through him in an instant – she was coming back! He had run every step of the way and had burst out of the park drainage tunnel a few moments before she came into sight, running, her hair flying behind her, a wonderful smile on her face that lit up her eyes so that he could see it even from a distance.

She ran straight to him, into him in fact, not breaking stride as she reached him so it was more like her slender form careened into his arms full speed, nearly knocking him over in its intensity. Luckily, he had sensed that in time to brace himself for the impact. He smiled, remembering. She had clutched him to her with surprising strength, and he had held her just as tightly.

"Forgive me! Forgive me for doubting! What we have is worth everything!" She was breathless from running and emotion and he let her love wash over him, too relieved and happy to try to mute the rush of feeling as he might have otherwise.

"Everything!" he agreed fervently.

He read again what he had written that night, after a long talk where they had shared their deepest feelings, and – he flushed – their first kiss, saved for when they were Below where they belonged, in the music chamber where they had known they would be undisturbed. She had just finished telling him about her dream of them together in the daylight, and how he had changed into Buddy. She had not been able to meet his eyes while relating that dream, but they had agreed that they would not hide anything from each other, even the painful things, if they were to be "everything" to each other.

When she finished telling him the dream, ashamed of herself, he had put his hand under her chin and raised her face so he could see her eyes – and so she could see his.

"That dream brought you home to me," he said. "For that, I owe your friend Buddy my gratitude."

At the look of wonder and love in her eyes, he had lowered his head and gently brushed her lips with his, and afterward pulled her close, both of them near tears.

He would not let her go without a fight.

A week passed, the longest week Catherine could ever remember. She was so … alone. True, she saw her friends at work every day. One evening Jenny had asked her to come to dinner with her and an author, someone Jenny had gaily said would "bore her to death" if Catherine didn’t come along and help keep up the conversation. Somehow she had gotten through that dinner and had even conversed with the author, who was actually sort of interesting, but she had known Jenny guessed something was very wrong and had only kept her peace because of that same author’s presence. Catherine had pleaded an early appointment and taken a cab home from the restaurant so that Jenny couldn’t get rid of the author and start asking questions. She fully expected a phone call later that evening and had turned off the ringer and unplugged the machine.

And now it was Friday night, and her long hours of work all week, coupled with the bulging briefcase she brought home every night, meant that she had nothing at all to do for two days and three nights. Joe had been ecstatic with the amount of work she had completed this week and had told her so, before taking a good long look at her exhausted face and the dark circles under her eyes.

"Holy crap, Radcliffe, look at you."

She’d frowned at him. "What?"

"You look like hell," he’d said. "You need a coupla days off." He took the briefcase, opened it, and removed the files she’d stuffed into it a moment earlier. "No work this weekend. I appreciate your dedication, but I won’t have you making yourself sick. Go do whatever you do for fun and I don’t want to see your face before nine o’clock Monday, okay?"

"Joe—"

"Don’t ‘Joe’ me," he’d said with an affectionate grin. "Go on. Scat. Don’t make me carry you."

With no choice, she’d forced a grin of her own. "Okay, okay. I’m leaving. Night, Joe."

And here she was, with Chinese carryout getting cold on the kitchen counter, an equally cold cup of tea in front of her at the dining room table, and hour upon hour of emptiness stretching before her.

Finally she rose and took the tea to the kitchen, put the Chinese in the fridge, and went to draw a warm bath. She was so tired tonight she might be able to sleep more than a couple of hours at a stretch.

The bath felt wonderful, warm and comforting, and she almost dozed off in it. Forcing herself to stand and dry off, she chose a soft cotton gown and pulled back the covers. It was early for bed, but what else did she have to do tonight? She turned on the radio to the easy listening station, the volume low, and reached for the book on her nightstand.

In moments, the book slipped from her hand and she slept.

Vincent stood in the shadows of the terrace, watching her through the sheer curtains. He would not disturb her slumber. Looking at her face and the inexpressible weariness there, his heart ached. The door was slightly ajar and he could hear the radio playing, something sad and sweet. She had fallen asleep with the light on and he crept through the open door, moving softly, to turn it off. He settled down in the same corner where he had sat to watch over her when she’d been beaten up, and pulled his knees up to wrap his arms around them, wishing he could hold her instead.

An hour or two later – in spite of his keen sense of time, Vincent’s mind had been otherwise occupied and he had lost track – Catherine stirred and turned over, her eyes opening and focusing hazily on him. "Vincent?" She sat up, drinking in the sight of him, and opened her arms. He was there in a moment, gathering her up to his heart, holding her close and kissing her hair and then her lips. She gave a quiet moan, and he felt her tears wetting the front of his shirt.

"My love," he whispered brokenly. "I have missed you so."

She shook her head, her face hidden against him. "No, don’t say it. Please. Put me down. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have …"

He didn’t put her down, but he sat on her rumpled bed and settled her on his lap. "The only thing you shouldn’t have done," he breathed into her ear, "is to feel that you had to stay away from me. I love you, Catherine. I want to help. Share your pain with me. Tell me."

"I can’t."

"Then I will tell you," he said, letting her continue to hide her face. He rested his cheek on her hair and felt her go still at his words. "You are not the cause of my struggles, dearest. I have always struggled and probably always will. You are, instead, the steady rock I came back to, the one constant shelter I can run to when all others fail me, the reason I breathe, the reason my heart beats, and the woman I love more than life itself. I did not really live until I found you, Catherine, and now I cannot live without you. I know you love me and I will not rest and I will not give up and I will not cease trying to convince you how I need you, even if you resist me from now on."

Her arms tightened around him and her body shook with her silent sobs. It made tears come to his eyes, too, but he pressed on.

"In the last two weeks, I have reread everything in my journals," he said. "I remember it all now, every word, every touch, every experience, and I would not trade one moment of these last three years. What we have," he paused to make sure he had her full attention, "is worth everything."

She recognized that phrase and it made her, at last, look up at him. "Everything?"

"Everything," he whispered, bending to brush her lips with his.

With a muffled cry, she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face against him, shaking. He held her close and waited for the storm to pass, gently stroking her hair and unconsciously rocking, as one would to soothe a child.

"But …" she raised her head, her eyes full. "The bond."

"Either it will return, or we will learn to live without it," he said calmly. "As you told me yourself, it was a blessing. Perhaps we no longer need it."

"It was so important to you."

"No," he corrected, "you are important to me." He wrapped his arms around her more tightly and was appalled at the amount of weight she had lost since he’d seen her last. She wasn’t eating and she wasn’t sleeping and he would not allow this to continue. "You are coming home with me and we’re going to get some of William’s excellent food into you and then you are going to sleep until you are rested, even if that takes days."

"I don’t want to sleep," she said, her face snuggled against his neck. "I want to be with you. I’ve missed you so."

"You will be with me," he said, stroking his hand under her tumbled hair to smooth the back of her neck soothingly. "I will be within arm’s reach at all times. In fact," he smiled and looked down at her, "I will probably be rather tiresome."

That got a wan smile out of her and he wondered how long it had been since she’d smiled. It looked to him as if she’d almost forgotten how.

"Oh, Catherine," he said softly, "my love, what torture you put yourself through. I will never forgive myself, but I will make it up to you. I promise."

He had to let go of her long enough to pack a bag for her – he wouldn’t let her do it, but she directed him what to put in it and where to find things – and he was the one who turned off lights and put things away for her to be gone all weekend. She insisted she could get Below on her own and would meet him at the basement entrance and she did, emerging through the doorway only a moment after he arrived to meet her there. The first stop was the dining chamber, where Vincent found and warmed up food for her and left here there with loving orders to eat it all while he dropped her bag in his chamber. He intended to keep his promise and remain near at all times, and there would be no guest chamber for her this time. He was back in moments and found her eating as if she hadn’t tasted food for days. He suspected she hadn’t. He sat down near her, and when she finished, he offered to get more.

"No, I couldn’t." She leaned back in her chair and looked a little ashamed of herself. "That’s more than I thought I could eat already, but I feel so much better now."

"Good." He took the plate away, rinsed it and added it to the others waiting to be washed. "Now you should sleep."

"I’m not tired," she protested.

"Then you will rest and I will read to you," he said, "and maybe then you will be able to sleep."

She was somewhat surprised when he led her to his own chamber, where fresh bedding was on his bed, and he gently pushed her down on it, urging her to stretch out. He unfolded a crocheted afghan and laid it across her legs. She started to protest – he was the one supposed to be recovering, after all – but he wouldn’t hear of it.

"No, Catherine, I am fine," he said, smiling down on her before reaching behind him to drag a chair close to the bed. "I am fully recovered, I assure you. Even Father says so. Let me take care of you. I want to."

He opened her bag and retrieved the book she had started to read before falling asleep earlier and opened it to where she’d left off.

"I think I’d rather talk to you than have you read," she ventured very softly.

At once, Vincent closed the book and put it aside. "As you wish," he answered, with a caress to her hair.

"Vincent, I –" she flushed and stopped and tried again. "I meant well," she finished lamely, knowing he would understand.

"I know," he said quietly.

"I’m sorry."

"You are forgiven," he said, continuing to stroke her hair. "There is nothing to forgive. You did what you thought was best. It is behind us. Let’s forget it and begin again."

"I missed you so much!" she burst out, tears coming to her eyes. "I thought I would die without you."

"Yet you were willing to suffer rather than cause me pain," he said. "Oh, Catherine, why didn’t you just tell me what you were feeling? I would have told you. Father says he did tell you. There should be no secrets between us. There have been too many already."

"I didn’t want to be more of a burden than I already am."

"Catherine!" Although Father had told him this, he had somehow thought the word "burden" was Father’s, not hers. He came off the chair and onto the bed, gathering her up in his arms and clasping her to his heart. "You are my greatest blessing, not a burden. Never a burden. Dear God." He buried his face in her hair, inhaling its sweet fragrance and holding back the tears that threatened.

"It’s how I felt," she said, emphasizing the past tense ever so slightly. "I don’t know what I was thinking, Vincent. Probably …" she paused, thinking, finally adding, "I was just so shaken by what happened to you. I talked about it with Father and he reassured me." She drew back and brought his chin up with one hand. "Still, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been the cause, even if it was unconscious."

"You weren’t," he insisted. "Did Father tell you of the other time? The one a few years ago? Neither of us knows what brought that one on, but Catherine," he put his hands on either side of her face, "it could not possibly have been you. I didn’t know you then, though now I can’t remember how bleak my existence must have been before you."

She rested her cheek in his hand and closed her eyes and again he was struck by the weariness in her face.

"You must sleep now," he said. "We can talk tomorrow."

She nodded, eyes still closed, but opened them with an effort and made a movement as if to rise.

"What are you doing?"

"I was going to go to bed," she said, eyebrows lifting.

"You are in bed," he told her.

"I can’t –"

"You can and you will," he said. "I will stay and watch over you."

"I’m not going to let you sit in that chair all night missing your own sleep," she said. "You may feel ‘fine,’ but you were very ill not long ago and I won’t have it."

He smiled, and then chuckled. "Far be it from me to disobey you, my love. I did not intend to sit in the chair."

She froze. "You … you didn’t?"

"I promised to be within arm’s reach," he reminded her. "There is room for two, unless you’d rather I didn’t."

For answer, she scooted over and patted the empty place. He rose, pushed the chair back to the table, blew out all but one candle, and kicked off his boots. He also removed his vest, outer sweater and belt, and lay down beside her. She immediately curled up against him, her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes again.

Vincent kissed the top of her head and let his own eyes drift closed.

Sometime in the night, he woke to find her snuggled against him, clinging to him in fact. Unconsciously, he sought her presence in the bond and found her peaceful there, resting …

He went still. He could feel her.

He tested it again to be sure. Yes, it was faint, much like it had been when he first became aware of it so many months ago, a mere flickering of awareness, but it was there.

She stirred, mumbled in her sleep, and opened her eyes. For a moment, she seemed confused, and then looked up at him with wonder. "Vincent?"

"Shhh," he said softly. "Go back to sleep."

She looked around blankly. She was in Vincent’s chamber, in his – his bed, with him. It took several moments for memory to fill in the blanks. Then she smiled and stretched up for a kiss, which he gave gladly. She snuggled against him again and closed her eyes. "Why are you awake?"

"Making sure you are all right," he whispered. "Catherine, I can feel you again. The bond has returned."

"Of course it has," she murmured, almost asleep again and probably not really aware of what she was saying.

Vincent didn’t mind. Time enough tomorrow to tell her, to savor it. Now they had nothing but time.