A Sweet and Potent Voice

Michelle K

Part I: Music in the Soul

He awoke to silence, a light breeze brushing across his skin. He shivered in the cool night air, moisture tickling his face as a slight drizzle began to fall. Snuggling deeper, he reached his arm protectively over the fragile form beside him. A small whimper reached him through the fog of sleep, and instinctively he pulled her closer, enveloping her small frame in his own. Nuzzling the back of her neck, he inhaled the sweet fragrance of her hair. Heaven, he thought drowsily. The smell of wet rain and grass permeated his senses, mingling with old leather and the faint remnant candle smoke that permanently scented his clothing. He pulled his cloak tighter around them.

The drizzle became heavier, mist swelling into full droplets. Vincent blinked his eyes, willing himself to stay asleep, even as his mind wakened to the damp cold. Sitting up, he glanced down at Catherine, spooned tightly against him. His hand swept lightly across her forehead, brushing hair clear of her eyes, then came to rest on her shoulder. He started to speak her name, but faltered.

His eyes darted about and he turned his head, trying to establish where they were. Unacceptable, he chided himself. Always cautious, always alert, he certainly was not accustomed to waking up in strange places. Then again, I’m not used to waking with Catherine in my arms either.

As the tunnel came into focus, Vincent sighed. They were in the culvert below Summerstage in Central Park. When had they fallen asleep? He started to rise, full awareness returning as the sky opened wider and cold water slammed against his face.

***

The music surrounded them with haunting intensity, washing over them as they sat closely together, barely touching. Vincent sighed, the passionate tones of the piano thrilling through him. Catherine watched him from beneath lowered lids, a small smile tugging at her lips.

Taking his hand, she brushed her fingers across his palm before lacing them through his. "It’s breathtaking, isn’t it?" she breathed, her hand tingling where they touched.

Vincent met her gaze, heat rushing beneath tawny cheeks as he beheld the pleasure alight in her eyes. Her cheeks flushed in response to his scrutiny. "Yes," he answered. "It’s one of my favourites."

Catherine raised her brows. "Vincent, you say that every time we come here. No matter what they’re playing."

He cocked his head to one side, his eyes thoughtful. "Perhaps." He squeezed her hand gently, then let it go, only to recapture it with his other hand as his arm stole around her shoulders. "I suppose I never tire of the great masterpieces …"

He pulled her closer, the scent of her hair infusing him with longing. God how he loved her! Without thinking, he lifted their clasped hands to rest her knuckles against his cheek. The softness of her skin was almost unbearable. His heart raced, but he didn’t let her go, allowing their hands to fall to his chest, holding her tenderly against him.

Catherine didn’t speak, but he felt her exhilaration. Since his devastating illness several months before, he had learned to welcome these touches, enjoying the greater intimacy between them. Yet their relationship had not progressed any further.

She wanted more, he knew. She tried to shield him from her growing desire, had tried since before she came below more than six months earlier – after her father died. There were times when her eyes became clouded, their grey-green clarity shadowed by some hidden torment he could not quite reach. He recognized it, though … felt the same pull, the same yearning within himself. He had felt it from the beginning. But he knew, especially after that terrifying madness had nearly cost him his life, that he couldn’t take any chances. Such feelings would not be assuaged. Not for him.

Forcing his hand to remain lax against her shoulder, Vincent concentrated on the Moonlight Sonata, allowing the soothing notes to seep into him, their touch infusing a blanket of calm as the sound wafted through the tunnel. A tear glistened against his cheek.

Catherine pulled back and brushed her hand lightly over his quilted vest. "Are you thinking of Rolley?"

Vincent nodded. "You still miss him," she whispered.

He nodded again. "I miss the music, the promise he held within his heart. I weep for the loss of that promise." Catherine gripped his vest tightly for a moment, then loosened her hand and leaned her head against his shoulder.

"Don’t lose hope, Vincent."

He didn’t answer, and she allowed him his silence. He read the message in her words, the underlying hint that he might also hope for something greater, the fulfillment of the dream that seemed ever elusive. A happy life. Vincent let his emotions float with the melody as it pulled him into a purifying catharsis. His sadness swept over him, then dissipated as the sonata came to a quiet end. He opened his eyes and looked up at the night sky, the barest hint of stars just visible beyond the treetops.

"Is that the end?" Catherine’s voice broke through his thoughtful haze. "Surely they won’t finish with the Adagio. It’s so sad."

"I believe it’s the perfect ending. Didn’t you tell me this concert was for a children’s charity?"

Catherine nodded. "Leukemia."

He turned his face and nuzzled her hair. "A sombre piece might help to rouse the feelings of the audience …"

Catherine sighed in his embrace. "No, Vincent. They always end these things with something faster, louder … like a symphony. They should at least finish the Sonata … with something uplifting."

He drew away from her. "You don’t find the Adagio uplifting?" He watched the confusion play across her face until she caught the humour in his eyes. Her mouth opened, ready with some witty retort. She gasped as the tunnel vibrated with the opening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Vincent flinched, then relaxed against the wall, pulling Catherine back to his side.

She grinned. I told you, he read in her eyes, though she graciously resisted the urge to say it aloud. Vincent laughed, the sound no more than a whisper of a chuckle upon his lips.

Later, after the music had ended and the crowds dispersed, they remained. The soothing blanket of silence engulfed them, and for awhile, neither spoke. Then Vincent’s voice drifted into her thoughts, a shiver tickling down Catherine’s spine as she emerged from her reverie. "Music is done with silence, and silence is full of music ..."

The words thrilled through them both, the poignancy lost on neither. "Who said that?" Catherine asked.

"Marcel Marceau. He had a lot to say about silence."

"Vincent, I had no idea you had an interest in mimes!"

Vincent chuckled. "On the contrary, I once wanted to be one."

Catherine stared, open mouthed, into his twinkling eyes. "You’re kidding!"

"No ... I was quite young at the time."

Catherine shook her head, disbelief plain in her expression. "When?"

"I was about nine or ten years old. Sebastian had come down to do magic for us - I think it was around Halloween …"

"All Hallows Eve … Samhain …" she breathed. Vincent shot her a questioning look. She shook her head. "When the walls between the worlds grow thin … Vincent, I don’t think Bridget said anything about mimes being spirits of the underworld!" Her shoulders shook with laughter beneath his arm.

Vincent smiled. "For a child such as myself, the idea of silence was … well, intriguing. I always enjoyed a challenge. Back then, as you know, Devin and I were constantly getting into some sort of trouble. Father encouraged me a great deal. I think he saw the miming as a relatively harmless venture, in light of our other escapades."

"And was it?" she asked.

"For a while," he nodded. "I absorbed everything I could find on the subject, which of course included Marceau."

"Why did you stop?"

"I’m not certain exactly … I suppose the next great adventure was a sufficient distraction. I believe that was around the time Devin and I read Huckleberry Finn."

"Huck and Jim on the Mississippi …" she answered, her voice lilting with amusement. "Did Devin like miming, too?"

"No," he smiled. "Devin could never be silent for very long. But I learned a great concentration in the exercise."

Catherine studied him for a moment, a nostalgic smile playing delicately at her mouth. Her eyes became hazy as she lost herself in images of a little Vincent, locked in an imaginary box. The symbolism was not lost on her, and her heart seized with her desire to protect that little boy from the fate that would keep him forever trapped beneath the earth, never to feel the sunlight on his face. She blinked and the vision disappeared.

"When I was a little girl, my parents took me to the planetarium. I still remember the stars and planets swirling around me in that dark theatre …"

"But Catherine … I thought you were afraid of the dark."

"I was … but there was something so magical about space. For a long time I wanted to touch the stars…" Wistful longing filled her voice and she leaned her head back, her eyes gazing at the vast night sky above them. "You know, now you can buy stickers to put on your ceiling, little glow-in-the-dark stars to scatter the night sky above your bed. Maybe if they’d had those when I was little, the dark wouldn’t have been so scary."

Vincent smiled. "Perhaps. But then you would not have needed your mother’s rose …"

Catherine felt the direction of his thoughts, and pressed more closely to his side. "… and I would not have been able to share it with you …" Light waves of desire flowed between them. Vincent tensed, breathing deeply, his eyes darting about the tunnel walls until they fluttered closed. Instinct told him to run, but he fought both it and the passion swelling within him. Catherine stilled.

Minutes passed, and his calm returned, though his stiff muscles only slightly relaxed against her.

Sensing his need for distraction, Catherine chuckled. "Can you imagine me in one of those giant space suits?" Drawn by the sound of her voice, Vincent relaxed and dropped his arm, leaving her unencumbered as she lifted herself to her knees.

"When I was in college we took a trip down to Florida … did you know that at NASA you can actually try one on … helmet and everything?"

Vincent’s eyes lit immediately. "I’ve read about it."

"Just picture it, Vincent. The helmet was this big!" She held her hands a foot from each ear, gesturing the curved shape of the large sphere with exaggerated motion. The tunnel filled with their unrestrained laughter.

"Well, it’s just a silly childhood fantasy, after all," Catherine gasped.

***

Catherine huddled closer. Rain hit her face and neck, and she shivered. Sensing her discomfort, Vincent dropped to his knees beside her, shielding her from the downpour. Quickly wrapping her in his cloak, he gathered her into his arms and stood. Catherine’s eyes opened as she felt herself lifted, then fluttered closed, a sigh upon her lips. Vincent glanced at the cushions where they’d been resting. They would be damp, but if he moved quickly, he might be able to salvage them for the next concert. With a sweep of his foot, he moved them away from the grate until he felt satisfied they would be protected.

Outside the rain had already caused a temperature drop. It was dry in the tunnels, but still chilly. Should he take her home? She slept so peacefully, her hand resting on his sweater. It was such a small hand, he realized. Like a child’s hand. Catherine buried her face in his vest. Vincent’s heart beat uncertainly, racing and leaping at her touch. She felt so right in his arms. He sighed. I should take her home. He knew that she would go, dutifully, if he woke her at her basement entrance. She would go, but with disappointment. And he would walk away feeling empty, as he always did.

He was not empty now, he reflected. She was warm and content in the fold of his arms. He loathed waking her, loathed letting her go. Vincent groaned, a low growl vibrating in his chest. It wasn’t usually this difficult – he did not usually question. He knew what he should do, and always did it, despite the sorrow he inevitably felt in leaving her. As he absorbed the sight of her, the feel of her against him, her scent washed over him. He realized, balking at his own weakness, that he just couldn’t do it tonight. Taking a deep breath, he bypassed the entrance to Catherine’s building and headed towards the inner chambers.

Vincent glanced down at the woman in his arms. The idea of Catherine dwarfed by a giant space suit brought another smile, this one almost wistful as he imagined her floating against the backdrop of space. So beautiful … and so vulnerable. Sadness gripped him. She is a creature of light. That darkness would destroy her.

Even as the thought formed, he shook it away. He had by now given up driving her from the darkness of his beloved home. No sense dwelling on what could not be changed. She had made her choice long ago. Our love is all that matters. It’s worth everything, she had told him. And he knew she was right. He glanced down at her sleeping form. I cannot live without her.

Catherine rubbed her face against his vest. His cloak had fallen away, providing a clear view of her features, startlingly beautiful and strong. Her skin glistened in the warm golden light that glowed through the tunnels. A small droplet of water traveled down her cheek from her hair, and he paused, shifting to catch it with his hand. Like water on silk. He shivered. Her lips were full – enticing – and seemed to call out to him as they fell open. Her breath escaped in a contented sigh.

Vincent’s muscles tensed, his body betraying him as her warm scent carried to his nostrils. Staggering, he forced deep breaths into his lungs, seeking some measure of control. He hesitated only a moment before resuming his pace, his legs moving quickly as he tore his eyes from Catherine to focus on the path before him – a path he could easily traverse with his eyes closed.

She was so animated tonight, much like that night a year ago when he brought her to their music chamber for the first time. It had rained then, too. Her joy and laughter then were infectious, heightening his senses and filling him with a carefree restlessness that left him reeling for hours after they’d said goodnight. He was feeling that same restlessness now. Perhaps this was a mistake. I should take her back.

As he neared the central chambers, his legs slowed, his mind taking him back to that night. His usual cautious reserve had melted then. How she had delighted him! So like a child she’d been, allowing the cold rain to pour over her … then collapsing into his arms to feel the warmth of him against her as water soaked through their clothing. Vincent shivered as he remembered her spontaneous joy. Her presence infected him with light. Even now, she seemed more an ethereal vision than flesh and blood.

He couldn’t tear his eyes from her, picturing her as she had appeared after their first concert together, damp at the threshold … wet hair falling about her face, her eyes large and expressive, her hands almost trembling as she hugged him close to her one last time … pure, delightful torture it had all been!

Vincent sighed. For so many nights he’d endured fitful sleep, often waking from dreams of her, filled with frustration and wanting ….

His gaze traveled over her face, resting on her eyes. They fluttered, moving in response to some invisible image behind her lids. She had learned to practice restraint with such perfect precision; he rarely felt the tiniest fluttering of her desire. Even now, he wondered how much of her control was a result of conscious effort versus instinct. Is she even aware of the war waging within her, within us? He shook his head, his long coarse hair rustling against her cheek.

Of course she knows. She feels it. But she’ll never push … she’ll never ask for more than I can give. Water still clung to her lashes, and her hair, damp from its brief encounter with the rain, curled in light waves against her cheeks. Vincent winced as a pang of longing filled him. Catherine ….

He had come to a stop near the entrance to his private chamber. Now he half turned on his heel, pushing away his desire. He should take her to the guest chambers. What would she do if she woke there, alone? Would she be surprised? Hurt? Confused? Would she seek him out, desperate for the contact he seemed unable to deny her – or himself – tonight? How do you sleep so soundly Catherine, when I am in such turmoil? As if she heard his thoughts, she tightened her grip on his sweater, his name upon her lips.

He leaned against the solid wall, breathing deeply to calm the thunder in his heart, limbs trembling with the exertion. Closing his eyes, he looked inward, seeking that safe place inside where he could rein in his emotions, where he could dam the rising tide before it overwhelmed him. Eventually, the chaos abated. He drew himself up, starting back the way he’d come, towards those other, safer chambers. But another glance at her peaceful countenance weakened his resolve. What time is it? Surely late. Too late.

Having almost convinced himself, though inwardly cringing at his lack of fortitude, Vincent turned again towards his chamber. His lantern flickered with the last of its oil and went dark, seeming to confirm his choice. He smiled. Making his way through the shades of grey barely discernible in the dark chamber, he laid Catherine gently on his bed and half covered her with a blanket. Then, turning to his desk, he fumbled for a box of matches and illuminated a corner of the room with warm candle glow.

Vincent turned towards the bed and collapsed in his chair, gazing at Catherine’s lithe figure curled on his bed. She was still wrapped in his cloak. She seems so frail, lying there. So small. How does someone so small wield so much strength?

The candles cast shadow and light upon her face, flickering across her cheeks with a steady pulse. She stirred, and he reached over to smooth her hair away from her forehead. Then, pulling his chair closer to the desk, he turned his back and opened his journal. His pen rested just above the paper. A moan whispered lightly in the back of his throat as he scanned the stack of journals piled on a shelf across from him. So many nights … so many nights dreaming of Catherine. But she is here now – no need for dreaming … and yet … still I cannot find peace ….

Part 2: Hence, Viper Thoughts!

Ten minutes later, he stared blankly at the empty page, its plain white face sneering back at him. It was relentless, the distraction. He could not concentrate. He fought the urge to turn to her, to watch her, to gather her into his arms and feel her petite form nestle against him while she slept. She mumbled quietly – barely audible across the space that separated them. He stared up at the ceiling, searching himself for that connection to her, embracing her in her dreamy state as a breezy contentment soothed, comforted the ache in his limbs. Realizing he was a part of that contentment, his heart swelled. It would never cease to amaze him that she loved him.

She had asked him once, after his illness finally began to loosen its grip, what he was feeling. Blessed, he had answered.

Momentarily losing himself in her peace, he realized that blessed only barely grazed the surface of what he felt. She was his guardian, his touchstone. A fierce angel that both terrified and tamed him with equal grace.

Vincent groaned.

He need only stand and walk the few feet to his bed, and he could touch her. It would be so easy. He knew she would burrow into him, gathering his warmth around her with comfort and ease. She had become so adept at concealing her deepest desires … with the exception of those few days after her father’s death, he had never been able to penetrate her wall of restraint. Even as she slept, she wore control like a mask. He reached out for her with his heart and mind, but felt only the faint stirrings within her heart. He lowered his eyes, shame pouring through him as his own desire shot through his veins, a radiant burst of energy rushing over his limbs. Though the response was not wholly unexpected, he jolted upright, gasping. He wanted so desperately to wrap his arms around her, to hold her fully against him, to ease the suffering as his body strained against the flood that threatened to drown him. He knew she would cling to him with feverish intensity, her heart open. And, forbidden though it was, he also knew that he would revel in the sweet pain that followed, aware of her heartbeat so close to his own as their astonishing connection merged those beats into one.

A knot rose from the pit of his stomach to his throat. He stood, nearly knocking over the chair as he pushed away from it. I must fight this! He turned abruptly and grabbed a candle, spilling wax across the page and onto the table. Without a second look at Catherine, he strode out of his chamber towards Father’s library. He would get no rest tonight.

Part 3: Upon a Lonesome Wild

Half an hour later, engrossed in his book, Vincent still struggled to pacify the storm within. Engrossed as he was, he only half heard the rustle of Father’s feet as they met the floor.

"Vincent?" Father stammered, pulling himself from his bed in a small, concealed corner of the chamber. He struggled to find his son in the dark recesses of the room. Locating the source of light, he pulled on his robe and staggered towards the stairs, still groggy. "It’s late. What are you doing up?"

Vincent raised his eyes from his book. "I’m sorry I woke you, Father."

Father raised his eyebrows at the contrition that passed over his son’s face.

Vincent released a small exhale and dropped his eyes. "I couldn’t sleep. I thought a little poetry …"

"Oh?" Father squinted at the book and Vincent held up the spine. "Embracing your old friends I see."

Vincent shook his head, his eyes troubled. "It never ceases to amaze me how such beauty could have been born from such torment, such suffering."

Father frowned. "Yes … indeed. Suffering …"

Vincent didn’t answer right away. Father stepped closer and rested his hand on his son’s shoulder. "You know, I always wondered about that … the Romantics were all addicted to opium, as you know. How much of that suffering, as you call it, was real?"

Vincent’s eyes shot up and met his with almost angry intensity.

"Don’t misunderstand. You know how much I appreciate them …" Vincent half nodded.

"Yes, well … sometimes I think they indulged in their addictions to create their own suffering … it’s been a long-held belief that an artist is not quite an artist without angst to drive the creative process. But as you say …" he waved his hand at the idea. "Well. In any case, what more can be said? Whether real or imagined, they … suffered."

Vincent sighed. "They did suffer, Father. They turned to the drug to free their minds. They struggled for self expression … they suffered … for more than their art … they suffered for … for … love." His voice forced this last word, almost painfully, barely more than a whisper.

Father considered him for a moment. Concern flashed across his face and was gone. "It’s Catherine, isn’t it?"

Vincent nodded, not raising his eyes from the book. "She is Below."

Father leaned against his desk, resting his cane between his knees. "Where?"

"In my chamber, sleeping."

"Vincent … " He hugged his cane, resting his chin on the handle. "I seem to recall another time, not that long ago …"

Vincent shook his head and stood. He paced across the chamber and back again. "She didn’t ask to come, though I could not have refused her if she had. But it wasn’t like that, Father. We went to a concert tonight in the park. Beethoven. It was so beautiful. Magical. We talked for hours. And … and we just listened. Even after the concert ended, we listened … to the silence …and revelled in the moon, and the night, and …"

"And each other." Father interrupted. Vincent’s eyes roamed the darkness, wildly.

"No, Father! It was not like that!"

"Yes, Vincent." His hand reached for Vincent’s shoulder, stopping his son’s ferocious pacing. "I think it was. That’s not a criticism," he added hastily, assuaging the sense of a scolding he knew Vincent was already rebelling against. Father lowered his voice. "At least this time you were both concealed, in the tunnels. Not out in the open … like before."

Vincent glared at him, eyes like steel glittering from beneath a swell of golden hair.

Father tilted his head to one side, reading Vincent’s face with the same intensity Vincent might read words on a page. "At least you were in the tunnels," he repeated. "Away from prying eyes. Certainly in a safe place … you can afford to let your guard down, even a little …" he trailed off, surprising himself with the direction of his own thoughts.

Vincent’s eyes didn’t register the surprise, or the doubt, Father expected. He stared past Father at some invisible apparition beyond. "I don’t know how or when it happened, but we fell asleep. And when I awoke … she was there, in my arms. I – I didn’t want to wake her. It was so late …"

Father took his hand. "It wasn’t too late," his voice was gentle. "It’s still hours before dawn. You could have wakened her. You could have taken her back …"

"I couldn’t," Vincent whispered, shaking his head. Coarse blond hair fell across his face and he hid behind it, his eyes in shadow. His shoulders slumped, his knees buckling as he collapsed into his chair. He opened his book with shaking hands.

Father watched, brows furrowed, his mind playing over their conversation, which seemed to have occurred, in different variations, many times. Vincent ignored the scrutiny, though he felt the heat of his father’s gaze.

"Vincent?"

Vincent’s raspy voice answered with a poem:

"Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth –
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!"

The words were music on his lips, his voice hushed and gentle. It was an instrument designed to sing such a melody, perfectly suited to the passionate language that so easily touched his heart. Father stared at him in wonder, bewildered as always by the sweetness of Vincent’s voice as the words rolled off his tongue like a delicate caress.

"Coleridge, I believe?" Vincent nodded. Father rolled his eyes upward, seeking. "Yes, I believe I know that one. Dejection … am I right?"

Vincent nodded again. His eyes traveled down the page, restless, returning over and over to the same passage. "Dejection: An Ode. I hadn’t read this one before … I – I don’t know how I missed it."

Father chuckled. "Well it’s not as if you haven’t had enough to read over the years. And with such wonders as Christabel and Ancient Mariner before you, why would you settle on this one? It’s not one of his greatest, after all." He studied his son, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "You may be a voracious reader, Vincent, but surely you didn’t think you had exhausted every book in my library!"

Vincent raised his eyes, catching the humour in Father’s voice. He chuckled lightly. "No … no, of course not. How could I, when I can’t find half of them?"

"Yes well, I really must get Mouse … no, Cullen … to build me some shelves."

"I believe you’ve said that before … but, Father, shelves are not all you need in here!" With a sweep of his finger, he pulled up a thick collection of dust on its tip. Though dust was, of course, a natural nuisance of life Below with all the rock and sand prevalent in the carved tunnels and chambers, Father’s study was particularly troubled by it. It wasn’t entirely the man’s fault … the number of people coming in and out of the chamber, tramping in dirt on their boots and consistently knocking about the place with rolls of old maps, antiques found Above, and of course the books themselves … it was a miracle it could be kept as clean as it was.

Father sputtered at the evidence on Vincent’s finger. "Now you’re only going to make it worse by swirling all that up!"

Vincent’s shoulders shook as he struggled to contain his laughter, his lips pursed tightly. Father released a sigh and laughed with him. Vincent wiped the corner of one eye and inhaled a final chuckle. For awhile, neither man spoke. Finally, Vincent returned his eyes to his book. "You know, Father … it seemed as though I was called to this book tonight … to these words, specifically."

Father blinked back his amused reverie. "And you thought of Catherine."

Vincent nodded. "Catherine is that ‘fair luminous cloud’ … that sweet voice … calling me out of the darkness …"

Father gripped his cane and studied his son. With his face partially in shadow, the leonine cut of his jaw seemed less dramatic, softer … vulnerable. Their amusement had been only a brief respite. Vincent was inherently serious – tonight even more so than usual. Father reached his fingers to the hair that fell in waves over his shoulders and down his back. Coarse as it was, Father was always amazed by its softness. Now it felt slightly damp. He wondered at that.

Vincent turned towards him, and the candlelight illuminated a cerulean sea. In those eyes, pain mingled with desire in what seemed an epic battle … and yet, despite all his turmoil, Father noted the glimmer of hope, of peace, that penetrated the conflict … all with one thought of Catherine.

Vincent’s voice pierced the silence:

"O pure of heart ! thou need'st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady!"

"One might say, Vincent, that you are that voice. With or without Catherine and the connection you share. Surely you must realize that … you don’t need Catherine to give you such a voice. It’s your voice that draws her to you … draws us all."

Father moved closer, reaching his hand higher to rest on the back of Vincent’s head. "It’s your soul … your voice that Catherine loves."

"But … joy, Father," he whispered. "Catherine is the joy." He trembled, desire rolling through him. Catherine stirred in his subconscious. Did she know what she was feeling? Did she recognize the difference between his turmoil and her own?

"Father, sometimes this connection, this bond, is … like a string, pulling me to her – an invisible thread that tugs at my heart, my soul … urging me to … to touch her … hold her …" He drew a ragged breath. "I don’t know how to stop myself. There are moments … " he sighed and dropped his head. When he continued, his voice was soft and low, barely audible despite the late-night silence of the pipes. "I don’t know how much longer I can … I don’t know how to protect her … from …"

"… yourself?"

Vincent nodded, aware of the tears that threatened to spill forth from his lower lids. He willed them away, fiercely clenching his jaw, every muscle tight as he sought control.

Father sighed. Had his own fears for his son, his own self-righteous belief that he knew what was best for Vincent, ultimately betrayed him? He couldn’t deny it. He had known for some time that it was his own fear and overzealous need to protect Vincent that had led to this predicament … no matter what Vincent believed about that event so long in the past, no matter how he blamed himself for Lisa … Father knew better.

"Vincent, perhaps there’s no need to protect her at all. A few months ago, at the height of your delirium, she went to you. You didn’t hurt her then. You couldn’t. If you feel you’re being pulled towards Catherine … especially now …" How do I help him? Help them both? Is there anything I can say that he will hear? "Is it truly necessary to resist it?"

Vincent narrowed his eyes and heaved himself from his chair. "How can you even ask that? You, of all people?" He growled, and began pacing again like a caged tiger, a wild look in his eyes.

Father shuddered. "Vincent … Vincent … perhaps … perhaps you should follow your heart and …"

Vincent gasped, stopping. "What are you saying?"

"I’m saying that I have, as a result of my own disenchantment, and out of love for you, been a bit … enthusiastic … in my attempt to protect you."

Vincent shook his head and resumed his pacing.

Father held up his hand. "Vincent, stop." Vincent stopped, his chest heaving. He didn’t speak. Deep inside he could feel the rage building … then dissipating as Catherine reached out to him from the depths of sleep.

"Listen to me." The authority in Father’s voice was undeniable, and Vincent suddenly felt as he knew Mouse and the children felt when they got into trouble. He hadn’t escaped that feeling even in his adulthood. Though he encountered it less frequently these days, he still felt deeply that stern voice, the disappointment, the anger boiling beneath the surface as Father reprimanded him for some carelessness or misdeed.

"It’s my fault you have feared the worst for so long, that you’ve struggled against your desire for Catherine." Vincent opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. "I have long regretted the conflicts between us, between Catherine and myself. I feel responsible … "He paused and watched his son carefully. Vincent’s confusion reached his eyes, but he didn’t answer. "I was wrong before. I – I warned you against Catherine, yet she has proven herself beyond anything I could have imagined. She’s a remarkable woman. She’s willing to sacrifice everything to keep you … and our world … safe. I’ve grown to care for her a great deal."

Vincent blinked, recognizing the subtle apology but unable to accept it. Father, his confidence bolstered, continued. "I think my certainties all crumbled – for good – when I watched her walk into the shadows to pursue you. In your greatest need, Vincent, she was there. I guess I’ve finally realized that …" he shuddered at the direction of his own thoughts. "That Catherine is not Margaret. She is stronger. Her love is stronger." Vincent stared at him wide-eyed, unmoving. "It has to be your decision, certainly. And I can’t tell you what to do. But … don’t allow your past to destroy you."

"I seem to recall a time, Father, when you told me my act of kindness, my love for Catherine, would destroy me. For as long as I can remember you’ve reminded me … of my differences, of all the things I can never have."

The accusation was sharp, biting. Father flinched. "I was wrong. Surely you know that I accepted your relationship, and Catherine, long ago! What you and Catherine share is … beyond words. Surely you can see that … after all you’ve been through together. I know I can’t change a lifetime of habitual thinking, or my own guilty part in that thinking, with a few words. But consider, Vincent … if the event with Lisa is what torments you, Catherine has already proven herself far superior to the teenager Lisa was. What happened was tragic, but it happened because you were children. You didn’t understand your adolescent desires. It was no different for you than for Devin or any other teenage boy."

"It was different, Father! I hurt her!"

"Yes, but so could any boy of that age." Vincent opened his mouth in protest, but Father, sensing the self accusation, held up his hand to silence it. "No Vincent, listen to me. I won’t deny that the way you hurt Lisa was different, but any boy could have harmed her. The scars would have been significantly deeper, and more difficult for Lisa to overcome. As it was, she healed quite rapidly, and forgot the incident more quickly than you did, I dare say. Thought I suppose I hold the blame for that, as well."

Vincent’s cheeks were wet. He didn’t know when he had begun crying, but he felt the tears now, treading fine lines down his face, pooling in the crevices near his nose and mouth. Tasting salt on his lips, he turned away. "It was child’s play, she told me. Child’s play …" Shame formed a lump in his throat and he struggled to breathe.

"Perhaps it was. You were both very young. I know you don’t blame Lisa …" Vincent looked up sharply, his eyes aflame. "Yes, I know you don’t … but she was to blame, at least partially. Neither of you is guiltless Vincent, but neither of you is truly at fault either. It was an accident of innocence. Lisa has moved on, in her way. You must as well. You can’t keep punishing yourself for what happened. Especially in light of everything that has happened since."

Father watched Vincent’s shoulders, tense and tight, and noticed the barest hint of a tremor in the muscles there. He moved closer and placed a firm, comforting hand on Vincent’s back. "You’re no longer that child. You’re a man. You know your own heart. How long do you think you can fight this connection between you and Catherine? I don’t pretend to know how it will play out … and of course I do recognize the need for some caution … but surely, with Catherine … "

Vincent struggled to make sense of his father’s words. Father watched the chaos flicker across his face, tension playing across his shoulders and down the length of his body. "Vincent, don’t allow your fear of the past destroy your future."

"Father, losing Lisa was … terrible. Devastating even, for a time. But losing Catherine … if I hurt her, lost her … it would kill me, Father. She is everything." His voice shook. Fear and nausea squeezed his stomach, his chest. His hand rose to his heart, wrapping around the small leather pouch that hung from his neck. His fingers played against the leather, seeking the delicate edges of the ceramic rose inside. Catherine’s rose.

"Do you remember the day you came to me, prepared to risk all to visit that cabin in Connecticut, the one from Catherine’s childhood?" Vincent raised his eyes to Father’s, the pain evident even now – so many months later – as he relived the disappointment of the dream which had collapsed to dust.

"Do you remember what you said to me, angry and determined, as you argued your case? You asked whether you and Catherine would be ‘forever bound to accept a poem for a sunset.’ You so fervently believed in the possibility, Vincent. You were so impassioned. I have never forgotten it, for all I did to dissuade you. In that regard, I still believe the risks were simply too great. But you, Vincent. You did not, at that moment, share my fear. You believed whole heartedly that such a dream would be worth the risk, to share that experience with Catherine."

He paused, waiting as the memory washed over Vincent, the pain so clearly near the surface, yet quickly suppressed as he tried to make sense of Father’s words. "That was only part of the dream you two share. You have argued with me many times in defence of Catherine, of your relationship. You have maintained your hope, and Catherine’s, that one day your dream might become a reality – a shared life. Did you really believe it, Vincent? Or was it something you told yourself … to shield you both from the alternative?"

Vincent shuddered and staggered to the chair. His legs weak, he collapsed into it, burying his face in his hands. He sat for some time, working silently to recollect his cloak of calm. Finally, he breathed deeply, truth dawning within him. "I want it to be true," he whispered.

Father nodded. "Then trust in that. Trust in your love for one another."

Vincent didn’t answer, but his shoulders relaxed. Father considered him for a moment. "You said earlier that this connection between you and Catherine is like a thread, pulling you together. I, too, have felt that … have witnessed it hovering between you like some sort of otherworldly entity, protecting you both. But, for all that protection, and despite all the love you feel for one another, I sometimes fear that your resistance, Vincent, your determined denial, will cause the string that binds you, heart to heart, to eventually snap."

Vincent stared at him. As realization slowly came into focus, Vincent slumped even further under the weight of the responsibility he had placed on himself.

It wasn’t the first time Father had felt the chaotic contradictions in his son. At one time, he had been a part of Vincent’s internal war, fuelling those internal arguments against love, against hope. He had fought Vincent at every turn in vehement protest of Vincent’s growing attachment to the "outsider".

But that was then.

Now he understood the nature of their love. He admired their constancy, their resilience, their unwavering devotion. He had learned to see these as good things – powerful, dangerous … but inherently good. The pain made their love that much sweeter. Father had felt it – the new closeness that had developed, the rapt attention, the blissful togetherness they too infrequently shared. He had seen them lose themselves in one another, completely oblivious to their surroundings, only to tear themselves apart when reality once again forced them their separate ways. He knew, as well, that their pain would end … eventually.

Father watched Vincent, unmoving. Minutes passed. Vincent, only subconsciously aware he was being observed, played the pages of his book between his fingers. He could feel Catherine in his chamber, beginning to wake. He stood to go, one hand clutching the book tightly to his side, the other gingerly – though absently – caressing the leather pouch.

"Vincent." Father put his hand on Vincent’s arm. Vincent met his eyes. "I know how difficult it is for you to be apart from her. I know how you pace the lower tunnels, trying to find release in solitude. She’s here now, and still you push her away. Don’t you see? That string connecting you rib to rib … it’s tattering, fraying. Every time you pull away from her, it tears. Eventually, that thread is going to break, and you’re both going to bleed …" Father’s voice trailed off, his own heartbreak evident

He gripped Vincent’s arm tightly, his thumb digging into Vincent’s flesh beneath his clothing. "I worry for you … for both of you."

Vincent absorbed the pain in his father’s eyes, then dropped his gaze to stare at his book. Was Father right? Of course Catherine struggled … he had known this for many months. She continued to bury her feelings, protecting him from the onslaught of emotions she believed would shatter the delicate balance they had worked so hard to achieve. Or was she afraid to destroy his delicate balance?

"Vincent," Father called, drawing him from his pensive silence. "We all face trials. You and Catherine have had enough. Have faith. In Catherine. In yourself. It’s time to let go of the past, to move forward. No one deserves to be happy more than you." He took Vincent’s face in his hands and kissed his forehead. "Especially you."

Vincent stared at him a moment, then turned and headed back to his chamber, just as Catherine woke up and said his name.

Part 4: A Fair Luminous Cloud

Everything was warm and fuzzy. Without opening her eyes, Catherine felt a touch of light upon her face, and stretched towards it, her arm reaching for the solidity of … "Vincent?" she murmured, her eyes startling open when her hand hit the empty space next to her.

She sat up, fully conscious, and rubbed her face, sweeping the hair from her eyes. She took in every detail of the chamber with a sweeping glance: the large black wool cloak draped around her, the candles flickering on the desk, Vincent’s open journal, the large king chair slightly askew pushed near the foot of the bed. The pipes were quiet, and beyond the chamber entrance, all was dark.

Catherine searched her memory, trying to recall how she’d ended up here. Not that I’m complaining, she thought, with a wry smile. Somewhere nearby Vincent was in turmoil. She rarely felt him very strongly, although since that moment when she had walked into darkness to face his madness, she’d been feeling him more and more. It was like a gentle whisper in her heart, a voice calling to her from across a great distance.

It had wakened her from her dreams, and she reached out to him, drawing him back to her with the strength of her love. Standing, she wrapped his cloak around her and pulled the chair closer to the desk. Whisking a book from a nearby shelf, she settled into the chair and pulled her knees to her chest, wrapping the cloak under her feet. She dropped her head back, resting it against the top of the chair, and opened the book on one knee. She could only partially read the words in the dim lighting, but saw enough to recognize how her thoughts and feelings had betrayed her. Jane Eyre. How ironic. Resisting the urge to light more candles, she stared instead at the shadows pulsing across the page. Like a heartbeat.

Suddenly, Vincent was there. She could feel his eyes on her, burning into her, willing her to turn and meet his gaze. Her heart beat wildly, and she distracted herself with thoughts of the heavy caseload piled on her desk at work. A small smile reached the corners of her mouth as she felt her heart steady. Never fails. She loosened her hand and let the book drop over her knees. Slowly, shyly, she shifted and raised her eyes to meet his.

He was leaning in the doorway, his head resting sideways against the carved rock. Though relaxed against the stone wall, his body remained alert, the muscles tense beneath his many layers. He was so powerful, so massive, and yet he held himself and moved with such elegance and grace. His wild hair hung down his shoulders, shadowing most of his face, but his eyes, usually serene – the colour of a clear summer sky – were intensely brilliant in the candlelight. They glowed back at her with such electricity, she almost gasped. Her mouth went dry. He is so beautiful.

She chanced a smile in his direction before allowing her eyes to settle on the book in his hand. He had marked a page with his finger, the book closing around it to hide the beloved, clawed tip that contradicted his gentle nature. She couldn’t read the title. Unable to speak, Catherine shifted in her seat and tried to look nonchalant. She knew it wouldn’t matter, that he could read her as clearly as that book in his hand. But somehow, knowing this was more comforting than disconcerting. Why am I so nervous?

Vincent strolled into the chamber and held out his hand to her. "Catherine," he breathed.

Goosebumps traveled down her arms as he spoke. The sound of her name on his lips was one she could never quite get used to … seductive, tremulous, confident, uncertain. The layers of emotion captured in that one word were thrilling. She shivered, pulling his cloak more tightly around her. When he was close enough to touch, she took his hand.

"Vincent." She smiled more broadly now, all hesitation fleeing as his fingers closed around hers. Stillness stole over her. "Where were you?"

He held up the book, his finger still marking the page. "Father’s library … I – I couldn’t sleep …"

Catherine pulled her eyes from his to the spine of the book. Romantic Poetry and Prose. She met his gaze, her eyes questioning. He glanced down at the book, his attention quickly returning to her face. "There’s a poem in here I wanted to share with you …"

She studied him, trying to pierce his enigmatic veil.

"What is it?" she asked softly.

His eyes flickered with appreciation. "You looked like an angel just now, in the candlelight."

She blushed and smiled, her eyes dropping to her lap. The man was an absolute conundrum. Tortured as he so often seemed to be these days, he was completely unaffected now. She shifted under his gaze, shy with the knowledge that he could still reduce her to jelly with a few words. I love you.

Vincent’s fingers slid from hers, caressing the tips of her nails as he dropped her hand. He perched on the edge of the bed, legs wide, and leaned an elbow on one knee as he opened the book to the right page. He glanced up at her, immediately enraptured by the vulnerability that met his eyes. She gazed at him unseeing, her face – for a moment – unreadable. Even more unnerving were the feelings in her heart, flowing to him through their connection with such a fury of chaotic discord, he could not identify them.

"Catherine?" he asked.

She shook her head and smiled. "Please," she murmured, motioning towards the book. Vincent’s eyes narrowed, studying every unspoken word in the voice of her eyes. Catherine swallowed under his scrutiny and clenched her feelings inward, as though pulling them into the farthest reaches of her soul and locking them tightly away. He sighed.

Did he sense that? Does he know how desperately I hide from him? Am I so painfully obvious?

Vincent looked down at the book, then, changing his mind, closed it completely. "Catherine," he said, standing and taking her hand. "Shall we walk?"

Her brows furrowed, lines lightly creasing her forehead. She stood slowly, urged by his gentle tug on her arm. He guided her towards the chamber entrance, then stopped as she tripped over the edges of his cloak. "I’m sorry, Catherine." He pointed to her feet. "Shall I find you something else?"

Catherine’s eyes darted to her feet, noting how the cloak dragged on the floor. She shrugged, allowing it to drop from her shoulders into his waiting hand. "It’s okay, Vincent." She grabbed the blanket from the bed and folded it over her shoulders. "This will do."

His lips curled into a half smile as he again took her hand in his. Draping the cloak over his arm, he led her out of the chamber and into the dim and quiet tunnels.

 

Part 5: Wings of Healing

Seated at their favourite spot near the falls, Catherine tilted her head back, eyes closed. "I love it here," she whispered, inhaling the fresh fragrance of minerals in the air.

Feeling his eyes on her, she faced him, taking both his hands in her own. "Vincent, this has been a magical night."

Vincent trembled almost imperceptibly and dropped his eyes, resting them on the crystal just visible above the deep V of her neckline. It shimmered, mist and light playing over its facets in a fiery duet. Tingling traveled down his chest and stomach and settled in his groin. He swallowed.

She brought her hand to his cheek, cupping his jaw lightly in her palm. "What is it?"

He captured her hand in his own, but did not draw it from his face. Relishing the sensation of her smooth skin against his roughly calloused hand, he twitched his lips. "It was a magical night," he agreed.

Catherine’s eyes flickered. She rubbed her thumb gently against his cheek, encouraging him to meet her gaze.

Vincent answered her appeal. He tightened his grip on her hand, pulling it down to rest on his heart. His other hand still clasped hers in the space between them, and he tugged it closer. Catherine rose to her knees and scooted towards him, leaning sideways against his chest, her head coming to rest just below his chin. Vincent sighed.

"Catherine …" he whispered.

"Mmmm?" She snuggled her face deeper into his vest, concentrating on the familiar heartbeat just below it. Heaven.

"I …" Words failed him and he trailed off, uncertain. She didn’t answer, relaxing against him. In her mind, she laughed. Patience had never been her strong suit. And yet, when it came to Vincent, she always seemed to find a limitless supply. Perhaps that’s what love is, she thought.

Vincent closed his eyes and absorbed the rhythm of her breathing. She was quiet, and he thanked her silently for not pushing. She reached her arm around his waist, her other still resting against his heart. His traveled, undirected, to her hair, carefully pulling clawed fingers through a few tangles her sleep had wrought. Satisfaction flowed through him at the delicate dance of touch they played at … always so innocent, yet masking a much greater passion. How did they maintain this fragile balance? It amazed him that beneath the calm of their chaste caresses lay a deeper need for greater intimacy. And still they sat satisfied, contented, each inwardly raising blockades to protect the other.

Vincent shuddered. Catherine lifted her head, worry etched into her forehead and the corners of her eyes. Her lips pursed in a frown. "Tell me," she said.

Vincent shook his head, his eyes not daring to open to her scrutiny.

"Vincent," she pleaded. His hand, which had fallen to her shoulder, returned to her cheek, nudging it gently back to its place against him. Soft resistance met his command, then surrendered. She sighed against his neck, her face tilted upwards, and her warm breath pierced his resolve, a flaming arrow shocking heat through his body in mere seconds. He dropped his head back against the cool rock, strengthened by its solid support, fighting with all his strength as blood coursed haphazardly through him, twisting and turning, searing his flesh. It was happening quickly – too quickly. The current of panic rose and he struggled to destroy it, to protect her from its onslaught.

Catherine felt the tremors beneath her hands. He was shaking. She pulled back and studied his face, noticing the gleam of sweat on his brow. She reached up and smoothed it away. His eyes opened at her touch, and she gasped as they burned into hers with an intensity she’d never seen.

His entire body tensed, and Catherine saw the fear taking hold. Tears filled her eyes and spilled past her lids. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close. His arms circled her slight frame, hands tremulous against her back. "Let it go, Vincent. Just let it go. Stop fighting it," she whispered. "It’s okay."

Vincent clung to her reassurance desperately, pushing her away with his mind even as his arms tightened, refusing to obey. It was different this time – the darkness. He felt no rage. But the restraint he wrapped around himself at all times was eroding. Had his conversation with Father completely destroyed any semblance of control? No, the whole evening had been an exercise in self indulgence, he couldn’t deny it. It was as though every part of his being rebelled against the tight discipline he usually enforced.

He sobbed with this realization, his cries rasping against her, his chest constricting as he fought for breath. Catherine’s lips met his chin – a nurturing, almost mothering kiss that was meant to calm, to encourage, to comfort. Resting her cheek against his, their tears mingling between them, Catherine felt his control slowly begin to return. She sighed and tightened her grip around his neck, not daring to pull away.

"Vincent …" Her voice was a lullaby. His heart rate slowed to a normal rhythm, his trembling ceasing in the soothing calm of her embrace. Drawing a deep and ragged breath, he allowed his arms to slacken, holding her loosely against him. It had been brief, but the struggle had drained him of all energy. And yet, something new was building within him. He could feel it, but didn’t have the power to stop the tide as it began to swell.

Catherine sensed the change, but did not move away from him. Somewhere inside her she felt like a bud just coming to bloom … warmed by a burst of sunshine from the inside out. She started as she realized that the feeling was not her own. Smiling softly against his cheek, she closed her eyes. It felt like floating.

"Catherine …" he whispered, his hands on her arms. Light pressure on her biceps urged her arms downwards, away from his neck, pulling her back to earth.

"No …" Refusing his entreaty, she clung to him. Vincent sagged against her and dropped his hands, recognizing her need to remain in the sun, in the warmth of the love that surged through them both. It had abated so quickly, he realized, and with her still in his arms. How is that possible? His muscles twitched with a new excitement. Something is happening. His hands rested on either side of her waist, then once again moved around her back. He tightened his arms around her and buried his face in her shoulder.

"Vincent," she said, the calm certainty in her voice lilting through him. He didn’t answer. One hand found the back of his head as she cradled him in her arms, and his breathing grew ragged. "Vincent, what is it?"

He didn’t trust his own voice, and shook his head. She shifted to her knees and drew him closer, and Vincent found his head resting against the softness of her abdomen. She bent and kissed the top of his head, hearing his silent pleas and answering them with equanimity. Breathing deeply, she found her body responding to his rhythm, and soon they were breathing in unison, each breath, each heartbeat answering the other with perfect harmony.

Slowly, Vincent pulled away, and Catherine relinquished her hold as he gazed up at her. A small smile tinged her lips, her eyes glowing with love and concern. Even behind that vision he could see the passion smouldering within her, could feel it in himself. He tensed himself against it, but was too tired, too spent to struggle. A moment of panic filled him, then dissipated. He lost himself in the calm reassurance of beautiful green eyes … and suddenly, he wasn’t afraid. As he had always been so sure when to pull away, when to say goodbye, this time, he knew to pull her closer. He took her shoulders gently in his hands and pulled her down beside him, enveloping her in the warmth of his arms as she leaned her face against his chest. "Catherine," he breathed.

She raised her chin to meet his eyes, surprise filling her own as, without hesitation, he brought his mouth to hers. His touch was gentle, a flutter of butterfly wings as he lingered, his lips trembling, his breath warming her skin. Slowly, he kissed her again, his bottom lip softly kneading against hers. Catherine sighed, her breath ragged as he pulled away. His face only inches from hers, he opened his eyes, drinking in the flush that rose across her cheeks. Her eyes were still closed, and he pressed a light kiss to each lid, relishing the smile that painted her lips as his stubble tickled her flesh.

There was no loss of control, no rage swelling within, threatening to rip through him with fear and loathing. With shuddering surprise the realization hit, and he blinked at the truth as it stung his flesh inside and out. Is this what Father had been trying to tell him? Is this what Catherine herself had tried to communicate so many times with a simple look, a glancing touch?

All the resistance, is it the cause? Have I created my own torment? Have I, like those dearest of poets, fed myself a drug that only enhanced my struggle? His heart fluttered. He had tried for so long to keep Catherine at a safe distance, to protect her – and himself – from the rage that tore him asunder. But here, with Catherine in his arms, he felt so light, as though soaring through the sky with Icarus’s wings. Here with her, there was no risk of moving too close to the sun. Her warmth only made him soar higher, freer. Nothing but his own fear could melt his wings and send him crashing back to earth. A new Earth and new Heaven he thought, Coleridge’s words trickling back into his mind.

She was there – against him, holding him tightly with her small arms, her hands gripping his sweater in tiny fists at his back. Forehead to forehead they rested, the rhapsody thrilling through them with a simplicity they’d never known.

"So this is what it means," she said then.

Vincent pulled away just far enough to look into her eyes. They were wide with wonder, joy emanating from their depths with a fervour that brought a smile to his lips. He raised his eyebrows in question, but didn’t speak. She laughed softly, a hand withdrawing from his waist to trace the worried lines at the corner of his eye. He relaxed into her touch and she brushed his cheek with the back of her hand. "So this is what it means …" she repeated. "… to be happy."

Tears swelled in her lower lids and her lips trembled, but there was no sorrow in her heart. Vincent lowered his lips to hers once again, and she whimpered as the electricity building between them surged through her. Her fingers found their way into the mass of hair at his neck, sweeping through it with a tenderness that stole his breath away. "Catherine …" he could not get enough of her name upon his lips, and repeated it over and over as he settled his cheek against hers. His passion for her was there, a flame burning brightly within him, but he felt no need to rush things, taking each touch, each caress into his heart with delicate reverence. His heart thundered against her, and he noticed again how her rhythm adjusted to his with such ease.

After an eternity, they pulled away and sat back, face to face, eyes bewildered and beautiful, hands clasped tightly in front of them. Words were forgotten as they lost themselves, each within the eyes of the other. Tears glistened against Catherine’s cheeks, and Vincent was startled when he realized his own were wet, as well. Shyly, he averted his eyes and stared in wonder at their hands, furred claws intertwined with smooth, delicate fingers. The differences amazed him, and he found himself smiling as, for the first time, those differences became more intriguing than terrifying – strangely beguiling.

Catherine raised his hands to her lips, a reflection of his silent discovery … and acceptance. Using his strength as leverage, she collapsed into his arms, cuddling into his chest as though she’d spent her entire life perfectly fitted in the fold of his embrace. Indeed, it felt to him as though she belonged there, safe and protected … safely protecting. He lowered his chin and rested his lips against her hair. "I love you," he said simply.

She smiled and closed her eyes, serenity bathing her with deft, nimble fingers. "I think I’ve found my happy life," she whispered, as his arms tightened around her.

"I think we both have, Catherine," he answered. "We both have."

Their love permeated every crevice, every drop of water in the falls, every particle of mist that settled around them. And as sleep finally took him, Vincent felt himself safe within that warmth … dreaming a new dream … a future filled with promise.

***

Chapter titles and quotes from Dejection: An Ode, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The concept of the thread that connects them rib to rib, heart to heart graciously borrowed from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.