The silence in the chamber was almost palpable as Catherine watched Father minister to Vincent's wound. Closing his medical bag, the tunnel patriarch turned to nod worriedly at her, and even in the dim candlelight she could see the look of helplessness that clouded his eyes. His last conversation with Vincent regarding the vicious outsiders flashed through his mind, and Father reluctantly accepted his share of the responsibility in the tragic outcome of the situation. Knowing the deep seated regret and guilt Vincent was feeling, he only hoped Catherine could help him overcome this latest attack of senseless violence that had once again put their world in peril.
Leaning heavily on his cane, Father turned to leave. He paused a moment at Vincent's side, as if wanting to say something, anything that would help, but was unable to find the right words. Catching Catherine's gaze, he nodded, his eyes imploring her to help his son, and left without a single word of reproach.
Catherine gazed down at Vincent, waiting for a reaction. Any reaction. She could feel his despondency, his shame, and wanted desperately to help him overcome the myriad of emotions battling within his tired mind. But Vincent would not, or could not, look at her.
"Talk to me, Vincent."
"Nothing to say."
"What you did . . . was necessary." She could tell he did not believe her, or perhaps could not believe her.
"Let me share your pain." Her soft voice pleaded, finally reaching him through the foggy haze that had engulfed him since the attack.
Shaking his head slowly, Vincent reluctantly looked up into the eyes he had been desperately trying to avoid. In their tear-filled depths, he saw sadness and a small trace of the fear she had experienced, and once again he felt a sharp pang of remorse for what had happened. He tried to look away, but could not. Because in those eyes he also saw something that surprised and confused him, but also gave him hope. Expecting to find condemnation and disgust, he found instead only love and understanding -- a look he desperately needed and wanted, but could not readily accept.
"How can you look at me?"
"Because I know you. I know who you are."
His heart fluttered with a small glint of hope, but the
look he gave her was filled with
sadness and utter disillusion. Painfully, he once again tore his gaze from hers, unable to accept her words.
"You don't know me."
"Vincent . . . there are dark places in all of us."
"Yes . . . but part of me feeds in that darkness, and I am lost in it." He could feel the sudden concern she experienced and knew it wasn't because of his words, as much as the way he said them. She was still a little frightened, and Vincent wasn't absolutely certain it was only the night's events making her feel that way. His words had frightened her, his tone even more so, but he couldn't help but wonder if the fear he sensed in her now was due to the part he had played in this night's violent end.
"Leave me now . . ."
Her hesitation sparked a sense of desperation within him. If she didn't leave now, he would not be able to let her go at all. Reluctantly, he looked at her again, his eyes pleading for her understanding.
"Please . . ."
"I love you." Her soft whisper floated across the chamber, followed closely through their bond by her fervent need that he let her stay. The look of hope he saw in her eyes was too painful to bear and once again he looked away, unable to meet her gaze.
She waited a moment longer, hoping . . . Vincent knew what she wanted, needed, but was too wrapped up in his own painful emotions at the moment to give her the response she hoped for. Sadly, and with great trepidation, Catherine turned to leave.
He sensed the slight pause she made at the foot of the stairs. Part of him wanted more than anything else in the world for her to ignore his request and return to his side, but he knew she wouldn't -- the love and respect she had for him would not let her, and though he was disappointed, he was also relieved.
There could be no conversation tonight, of that he was certain. All the pain and horror of the past few hours collided within his head, only to land in a torturous heap in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't possibly think straight enough to talk about anything, least of all what had just happened in the tunnels -- in his home. He wanted only to clear his mind of everything and let the emptiness soothe his troubled mind and fractured soul.
He knew that would be impossible. Since the night he had found her in the park, Vincent had carried Catherine's essence deep within his heart. Her every waking moment, her every sleeping moment was indelibly ingrained within the almost magical connection that had developed between them right from their first meeting. Catherine would forever be on his mind . . . would forever be the most important part of his heart.
Leaning back in the large chair, Vincent stared up miserably at the chamber ceiling. He could sense Catherine's sadness as she slowly made her way through the tunnels alone. He reigned in slightly on their bond to avoid inadvertently sending her any message that would instantly draw her back to his side, at the same time wishing with all his heart he could go to her, comfort her and let her comfort him.
* * *
Catherine turned, gazing sadly down the empty passageway toward the chamber she had just left. She had hoped he would change his mind and come after her. She'd hoped, but somehow knew he wouldn't. He would go out of his way to give her, give anyone he loved, whatever they needed or wanted, but Vincent could also be very determined about protecting them, especially her, from anything or anyone he deemed harmful. And right now, the one thing he thought most harmful to her was himself.
Why did he have to be so stubborn? Why hadn't he listened to her when she begged him to let her share his pain? Instead, he had sent her away because he could not bear to have her near, a painful reminder of his shame.
Catherine suddenly wondered. Did Vincent truly blame only himself for the outcome of the situation? He had refused her offer of help in handling the outsiders, had all but ordered her to stay away. He had been adamant that she not involve herself, yet she had not listened. Did he secretively blame her for that?
Did he know that she fully accepted her part of the blame for the carnage? She should have followed Father's advice and waited for someone to escort her Below. He had warned her that it was unsafe to wander the tunnels alone, and for him to ask her to bring a gun into the tunnels . . . She should have realized just how desperate the problem was. She should never have tried to find her way to the home tunnels alone.
Vincent had immediately sensed her fear. Once more he had saved her life, but was her rescue at a cost he might not be able to afford this time. Catherine had never seen him like this, so withdrawn and she was certain she knew the reason. The killing alone was disturbing enough to him -- that she had witnessed it disturbed him even more.
She could sense the severe depression he was slipping into and it frightened her. He had shamed himself before her, shown the dark side he was so determined to keep hidden, had dishonored her by losing control before her eyes. That the outsiders were violent, unmerciful monsters who would have eventually taken great joy in murdering her was a fact Vincent seemed unable to grasp.
Catherine had seen Vincent kill before and always it was in self defense or to protect his family and friends. Or her. Tonight was really no different, but she knew he might never believe it. Because tonight he had lost all control and she had been desperately afraid for him; even worse, she had been afraid of him. It was only a moment, but she knew he had sensed it and knew with undaunted certainty the pain it had caused him. That one brief, fleeting moment had hurt him more than anything else he had ever before experienced.
His visible wounds would heel in no time, but what of the wounds that ran far deeper than any physical pain possibly could? Father's medicines could heal the damage the bullet had inflicted, but Catherine was certain she was the only one who could help Vincent weather this latest emotional storm.
Catherine took several deep calming breaths and instead of heading into the stream of light that led to her world Above, turned and headed back toward the one place she knew she would find him. The one place he could truly call his. His chamber -- his sanctuary. He'd asked her to leave him, almost begged her to leave, but she knew he truly wanted her to stay . . . needed her to stay.
Opening their bond fully, she was bombarded with the full extent of his emotional upheaval. He needed her calming, loving presence to soothe him. He needed her near to assure himself his actions had not terrified and disturbed her so much she might be forever lost to him.
Catherine could sense all of these emotions and more. He needed her to stay, but he would never ask it of her. The rage she had seen in him tonight had frightened her, desperately so, and yet she knew in her heart that Vincent was not entirely at fault. What happened had been the culmination of a series of unforeseeable events, the ending for which she shared the blame as much as he. It was a fact that shamed her, but it was one she would have to come to terms with. Just as Vincent would.
She couldn't leave him to battle his demons alone. He had led her through many emotional upheavals of her own since their first meeting and now it was her turn. Vincent needed her, she needed him, and Catherine refused to leave him alone in his self-imposed exile. They would weather this latest storm together, and in so doing, would give one another the strength they would need to endure.
Steeling herself against the strong objection she was sure he would offer, she hurried back to his chamber -- back to Vincent where she belonged.
* * *
Vincent sat in the big chair in the center of his chamber, surrounded by the soothing flicker of candlelight. His hands were clasped together, his chin resting tiredly upon them. The tragic events of the past evening played themselves over and over in his mind until they were so jumbled he couldn't make sense of them. He had felt Catherine's stark terror from the moment one of the outsiders had grabbed her, and for an instant he couldn't breathe, couldn't think. During the race through the tunnels, he could sense her fear growing stronger with each passing moment.
He could barely remember what had happened after he had burst through the last barrier separating him from Catherine. He could barely remember seeing the look of sheer terror in the eyes of the intruders, or the sense of relief she had felt at the sight of him in spite of the situation. He vaguely remembered her calming voice reassuring him it was over and the terrified child shakily pointing the gun at them. There was one thing, however, Vincent knew he would never forget, and that was the sounds; the screams, the roars as he lost all control of himself and, with a rage that seemed to thoroughly overpower him, went after the men who had terrorized his family and were now threatening to harm to woman he loved beyond life itself.
And somewhere, in the deep recesses of his soul, he could remember the fleeting moment of fear Catherine had felt -- a fear of him. That one, brief moment had cut through him as swiftly and painfully as the bullet fired from the gun the child had wielded. For the first time since their encounter with Jason, Vincent had felt something he hoped he would never again have to face. Catherine had been afraid . . . afraid of him!
Could they possibly survive this latest attack on their relationship? How could Catherine possibly ever feel the same way toward him, ever again look at him in a way that made him feel truly special and more human than anything he had ever before experienced? Yet, the look in her eyes when she had whispered, I love you, was sincere. Of that, he was absolutely sure.
Another emotion quickly added to the already overwhelming onslaught buffeting his mind. Uncertainty. Maybe he was wrong in sending her away. The sorrow and pain Catherine had felt when he had told her, Leave me . . . please, had grown stronger and stronger with every step she had taken down that long, empty tunnel. He'd felt every pain, every sorrow, in spite of the fact that he had closed himself slightly to their bond in order to shield her from the overpowering need he had for her presence. Sighing deeply, Vincent leaned his head back against the chair to stare sadly up at the chamber ceiling. Never before had he felt so hopeless, so alone.
* * *
Catherine paused just inside the entrance of Vincent's chamber, watching him. The fact that he did not seem aware of her was just further proof of his tumultuous state of mind. She would never have been able to get this close to him under normal circumstances without him sensing it. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and walked quietly toward him, ready to handle any resistance he might make. She felt his sudden awareness of her through the gentle pulsating of their ever-present bond, and watched him slowly move to sit up straight. She was startled to realize that he had been keeping a tight control over their connection.
Vincent remained silent, wanting desperately to keep her with him, knowing he should surely send her away again. Knowing he could not. Her own emotions hummed gently through their bond, surprising him with their calm, soothing him with their certainty. She knew what he needed, what they both needed, and she knew that together they would endure even this.
Catherine drew strength from his silence, and gathered the courage to continue. Her hand reached out tentatively to stroke the back of his head. Her fingers trailed slowly down the length of his hair, brushing gently against his neck. She heard the soft sigh that escaped his lips, saw his shoulders sag in defeat and felt his surrender as he finally allowed their bond to open fully. The rush of emotions she felt within him caught her off guard, but she hurriedly pushed them aside for the time being. They could be dealt with later. There were a lot of things they would have to deal with later. For now there was only this -- she was with Vincent, and she knew he would not ask her to leave him again. He couldn't. He would let her stay gladly, knowing she wanted, needed, nothing more.
Catherine gave his silken hair one last stroke before coming to stand in front of him. Vincent stared straight ahead, as though looking right through her. She wanted him to look at her, but somehow knew he wasn't yet ready for that. No more than he was ready to talk to her. He would accept her presence, but the rest would take time.
Silently, she sat on the floor next to him, leaning against his sturdy leg for support. Resting her head against his thigh, she curled her arms around the calf of his leg, hugging it against her body. She found a comfortable position, determined to stay there with him like this for as long as it took.
After a few minutes, Vincent moved slightly. She felt his strong hand gently cover her head. His long fingers brushed against the side of her face as he stroked her soft hair. Catherine rubbed her cheek against his thigh, hugging him a little more tightly. The heat of his flesh filtered through his pants, warming her to the very core of her being. The numbing cold that had consumed her at the moment of the attack finally thawed, and she began to feel warm again. Her heart and mind slowly began to find peace. Catherine was home.
THEY WILL ENDURE