Catherine had often been late in coming Below, but never this late. The pipes were almost eerily silent, and half of the torches along her path had been extinguished already. Although it had been a particularly trying day, her need to see Vincent was greater than her fatigue, and without stopping by her apartment, sheíd headed for the Tunnels.
When Catherine entered Vincentís chamber, the scene that presented itself to her took her breath away. He was standing in the middle of the room, motionless, his head thrown back in total oblivion. She thought that she had never seen anything more beautiful. The light filtering in through the stained glass window bathed his face and throat in an amber glow and glistened magically in his hair. Wondering what he might be thinking of, she experienced a brief stab of jealousy when she realized that, at that moment, he was not thinking about her. In fact, he was so engrossed in whatever was happening within himself that he hadnít even noticed her arrival. She stood in the entrance, transfixed and enchanted by the peace that surrounded him. The silence about him was so intense that it all but vibrated in the air.
His large hands hung loosely at his sides, completely relaxed and vulnerable, and their sight filled her with a rush of tenderness. She wanted to seize these hands, brush their furred backs across her cheeks, and press soft kisses on their palms.
He turned toward her then, and in his eyes, as he focused them on her face, she could see his slow return from however far away he had been.
She took a step into the chamber, at a loss as to what to say, when she heard him whisper her name.
"Iím sorry," she began hesitantly. "I didnít mean to disturb you. I know itís rather late. Someone kept me at my office, but I couldnít bear to stay away tonight."
He gave her one of his precious half-smiles and held out his hand in invitation. She closed the gap between them and took it, feeling her own small hand engulfed by his gentle strength. Realizing that she was still staring at him questioningly, she quickly dropped her eyes.
"I was praying," he explained simply, leading her over to the table and indicating for her to take a seat. When he lowered himself into a chair opposite her, relinquishing his hold on her hand in the process, she felt strangely bereft. Wondering fleetingly, why she was suddenly feeling a little uneasy, she suspected it may be because she couldnít recall talking with anybody about praying, except maybe with her father confessor back at school. Those were no fond memories, though. But then she remembered how beautiful Vincent had looked standing there and, deciding that his prayer must have been something wonderful, she cast him a wistful smile.
"I did not mean to confuse you with words," Vincent added softly. "Maybe I should rather say I was... listening." He scanned her face intently before he went on, "I didnít mean to make you uncomfortable either."
"Iím not uncomfortable," she said. "Perhaps just a little stunned by the sight you presented."
His unique mouth curved in a gentle smile. "I did?"
She nodded. "I would have loved to know what put that expression of contentedness and peace on your face."
Silence settled between them, and she could see that he was searching for words to explain himself. Finally, splaying the fingers of his left hand over his heart, he began, "Within me there is a level of existence, a state of mind and soul, from which I am able to lift my inner eye toward the Spirit. I know these are only words and everybody has their own language where internal things are concerned." His hand left his chest to cover her own where it rested between them on the table. "Catherine, I do not mean to sound as if I knew a lot about these things. We need not discuss this here and now."
Quickly turning her hand under his, so that their palms touched, she wound her fingers around his wrist. "Please go on," she begged, already captivated by the topic.
With a slow intake of breath he continued, "That state of mind and soul I talked about is not easy to be reached. It takes quite some effort to go there. It is probably what some may call praying, others perhaps meditation. Anyway, once I am there I am able to do what I would call listening." He paused, waiting for her to digest his words.
"Usually people would say that praying means rather talking than listening," she said. "At least thatís what I remember from my own childhood. I was taught to talk, to say prayers."
At that he smiled. "That is what I was taught as well. And that was why I found it increasingly difficult to pray at all. I realized that there was nothing I could say to a divine being without repeating myself over and over again which would only leave me feeling empty and alone. So, one day, I started listening and found that this was the right way for me."
"What do you hear?" she asked with awe.
"Nothing," he answered with a slight shrug, studying their still joined hands. "What I mean is that it is not hearing that matters, but the act of listening itself, which opens the shell that everyday life builds around our souls. While I listen, there are no struggles, no doubts, no pains. Whatever it is that is happening, it helps me keep my balance and my perspective."
They did not speak for a while, they just stood looking at each other in silence. Once again Catherine found herself wishing she knew more about the mystery that was Vincent. Finally, he resumed, "The problem is, at least for me, that reaching the state of mind and soul, which is the starting point for listening, already requires some measure of inner peace and balance. Something I am not always able to provide."
Dropping his eyes, he added softly, "The reason why Iím telling you this is that..." He paused and, releasing her hand, he rose from the chair. She watched him take a few steps toward the half circle of stained glass above his bed where he stopped, heaving a deep sigh.
"The love I feel for you," he said without turning to look at her, "fills every part of my soul. But only when the different parts of what I am are at perfect peace with one another, dare I think of allowing this love into my... body... as well."
His words caused her heartbeat to quicken, but before she could think of a reply, he turned to meet her wide-eyed gaze with his pleading one. "Catherine," he said hoarsely, "your love is the most beautiful prayer within me, its song as elusive as a rainbow after a storm. I must be very still to be able to listen, and I dare not even lift my hand to reach out and touch it, lest the storm return and swallow the light..." His voice dropped to a whisper as he added," ...and all of its colors and sounds."
Catherine was too moved to speak, and all she wanted to do was go to him and hold him. But after all sheíd just learned, this was the one thing she must not do, lest she destroy the stillness he needed to remain within the relative safety of the eye of a storm whose force she couldnít even begin to imagine.
"Do you think I could reach for that rainbow?" she asked. "Iím not afraid of the storm."
Vincentís hands fell to his sides in a gesture of helplessness. "Catherine, what Iím trying to tell you is very difficult. So I was using pictures in the hope that they convey to you things that are actually too deep for words. Perhaps I should have taken a more direct approach." With a few steps he closed the distance between them and gripped her shoulders. His touch was powerful, but still gentle, and she met his emotion-filled gaze unflinchingly. "The storm is my passion, Catherine, and the song of desire in my blood may unleash it when you are least prepared for it, and drown the fragile beauty of your love."
"My love is not that fragile, Vincent," she interrupted him defiantly.
Relinquishing his hold on her shoulders, he groaned and retreated a step. "My fault, because I was using a picture again. Let me try once more." He stepped up to her, thus forcing her to tilt back her head in order to look up at his face. "Your love may not be fragile," he pointed out, "but your body is in comparison to mine. I neednít give you any pictures to make that clear. And yet this body of mine longs for the feel of yours, yearns to accept everything you offer by trusting me, wanting me, calling out to me..." His voice trailed off, but his gaze remained riveted to hers, and she knew she must do something to meet the challenge displayed in his eyes.
"Are you saying that I am torturing you?" she inquired carefully.
Instantly his eyes softened. "Yes," he breathed, "Oh, yes. But I would not want to live without it. Not a single day. I need you, Catherine. If I refused to listen to your love, I might just as well be dead."
"Do you believe in God?" she asked all of a sudden, feeling a little bit foolish for it.
Several long seconds passed before he responded, "I do not believe in names. Names are too small to contain the Nameless."
"There must be something you believe in," she insisted and reached out to grasp his sleeve when it seemed that he would turn away.
"I believe that there is a time for everything," he said, capturing her hand with his and squeezing it reassuringly. "And I think that now is not the time for solving mysteries as profound as this one."
"There is also a time for us," she whispered, her hand all but burning under his touch. "A time for being together and living our love."
Slowly he lifted his gaze to meet hers. "If we are very careful," he breathed, "we may get a chance to find out what is possible between us."
Her heart skipped a beat as she pondered the implications of his statement. "Then we will be careful," she whispered throatily.
"A nearly impossible task when we are this close," he husked, pressing the softest of kisses on the inside of her wrist. An involuntary moan escaped her at the feel of his lips against her skin. If such a small gesture was able to excite her so, they would have to be very careful, indeed. Yet, she couldnít resist running her free hand through the hair on his temple, stroking her thumb caressingly across his brow.
He encircled her waist and let go of her other hand which found its way beneath his hair, tenderly kneading the nape of his neck. Trembling, he drew her closer, and the feel of his body against hers made her tremble, too. Standing on tiptoes, she kissed his throat, her lips lingering in the smooth indentation at its base. She felt him swallow and the movement of his Adamís apple sent a wave of arousal through her veins.
"Kiss me, Vincent," she whispered, but he stiffened, deliberately resisting her pull.
"No," he gasped, and her heart sank. But she fought back her disappointment for his sake, also knowing that he would withdraw from her immediately the moment he sensed her frustration.
"Oh, Catherine, I donít know how to do it," he said, despair tingeing his voice. His head came down to rest heavily on her shoulder and she savored its weight.
"What is it, Vincent?" she asked softly, stroking his back.
"I donít know how to balance the passion rising within me with the tenderness I feel for you," he confessed huskily.
The beauty of his admission brought tears to her eyes. "Maybe these things will take care of themselves once we allow them to happen," she suggested tentatively.
He straightened abruptly, and the sudden distance between them went through her heart like a knife.
"This is a risk I cannot -- must not -- take," he tossed out, and she felt his hands clench into fists against her waist, before they fell to his sides.
"No, of course not," she murmured, more to herself than to him. She hadnít meant for it to sound so hopeless, so lost.
One of his hands came up and, gently touching her chin with his index finger, he raised her gaze to his. His eyes were of an even deeper shade of blue than usual. The haunted look of only moments before was gone, replaced by a new calmness and certainty. Slowly he lowered his head, his breath grazing her flushed face like a soft breeze, and his lips, when they found hers, were surprisingly supple and smooth. She closed her eyes and everything became pure sensation. Heedless of her own need to press into him and deepen the kiss, she remained utterly still beneath his touch. The leathery feel of his palm against her throat and the side of her neck was sweetly intoxicating, and she inhaled deeply, savoring the familiar scent that was unmistakably his.
When he finally broke the kiss, she opened her eyes slowly, reluctantly, and found him staring at her with a strange expression on his face, a mixture of confusion and wonderment and utter vulnerability.
"I love you, Vincent," she whispered, burying her face in the folds of his shirt as he drew her against his chest. He pressed small kisses into her hair before he finally rested his head on top of hers. They stood in silence, just holding on to one another, bathing in the afterglow of their tender union, and Catherine thought, fleetingly, that any possible passerby might see in the two of them what she had seen in Vincent when sheíd arrived at his chamber entrance earlier and found him praying.