Heedless of the cold concrete floor, Vincent sagged to the ground under the weight of the pain washing over him. He fought to close his mind against it, but there was no denying the truth. Catherine had left to marry Elliot Burch. He couldn't shake off the memory of her silhouette in the blue shaft of light from above as she had turned to go. Vincent pressed both fists against his ribs, knowing the pain would never go away. Never. The silence, after the door to her basement had fallen shut behind her, was devastating, and he sat for a long time, listening only to the ragged ebb and flow of his own breathing. Gradually, he felt his pulse slow down to a more normal pace as he cowered on the floor, his back braced against the rough tunnel wall. He swallowed hard, his aching throat testimony to his roars of helpless despair. A sob wrenched from his chest as Catherine's words came back to him.
'I'm going to marry him. I have to. It's the only way.'
"No," he gasped, startled by the sound of his own voice. Again her words replayed in his mind.
'He loves me. At least as much as a man like Elliot can love.'
Vincent's heart felt as if a fist was slowly closing around it, crushing it completely. He knew that Catherine didn't love Elliot, but that didn't make her decision any easier to accept. It had been unbearable for him to look at her as she walked away. Now he wished he had taken more than just that one brief glimpse. He wished he'd been able to make memories to last him through the rest of his life, a life which had grown dark and cold without her gentle light. He had heard her stop and turn and felt her eyes on him before she tore herself away and ascended the ladder at last.
Vincent dropped his head again, heedless of the falling tears that caused dark stains on the denim of his faded jeans.
Hugging her arms around herself, Catherine took a deep, shaky breath. She had often heard the word heartache in her life, but nothing had ever come close to this soul-shattering feeling of loss she was experiencing now. She had become aware of her love for Vincent a long time ago, yet she had always accepted the distance he was so determined to maintain between them. Now she was almost grateful that they had kept their relationship chaste. She didn't think she'd been able to leave him if things were different. It was hardly any comfort that Vincent knew she didn't love Elliot. He had even voiced that knowledge, a fact that surprised her a little and secretly warmed her heart, because it gave her hope that Vincent might be aware after all of how deeply she loved him. But now it was too late. An awareness like that would only increase his pain.
Doubts at the rightness and inevitability of her decision invaded her mind. There had to be another solution. There had to be. If only...
At first she thought she had imagined the sound outside on her terrace, but then she heard it more clearly -- a soft tapping against the glass panes, so quiet that it easily might have gone unnoticed. Her heart skipped a beat as she leapt to her feet and rushed to the door, pushing it open.
The sight of his tall familiar frame as he stood silhouetted against the city skyline, brought tears to her eyes.
"Catherine," he rasped, and the light from inside the apartment caught in his eyes, revealing a fragility of spirit, a vulnerability of soul so deep that it took her breath away. She went to him and enfolded him in her arms. Those wide, powerful shoulders trembled under her touch, and her heart turned over in her chest as she gratefully breathed in his scent. She knew him well enough to realize what it had cost him to come to her after what she had told him. Vincent had always shown great respect for her decisions and usually accepted them without further discussion. Suddenly Catherine had to know what had led to his decision to come to her after all.
He must have sensed the question in her, because he pulled back slowly. "I know that I shouldn't have come," he said hoarsely, "but, Catherine, I can't stand by and watch you throwing away your life."
She stilled him by cupping her hand around his cheek. "It's my decision, Vincent," she replied softly.
"But it's my fault," he insisted, escaping her touch with a turn of his head as he looked out over the city.
"It's not your fault that your world is threatened by Elliot's tower," she contradicted. "And it's not your fault that marrying Elliot seems to be the only way to save it -- and you."
He turned back to her and searched her eyes intently before whispering, "But it is my fault that we never talked openly about...what we really feel for each other."
Catherine's heart skipped a beat. For so long she had waited to hear him say words like that. Why now? she thought desperately. Why now, Vincent?
Without taking his eyes from hers, he brushed an errant strand of hair from her forehead. "I love you," he confessed huskily, "with all my heart, with everything I am. I never talked about it, because I wanted you to be free to make your own choices and to find someone in your world, someone you can be part of..." He paused and she saw him swallow uneasily. "Someone you will be able to love."
Catherine felt a sob building in her throat. "Oh, Vincent," she moaned helplessly, burying her face in the folds of his cloak. "It seems you've always been prepared to let me go, so why don't you now -- when your life and the existence of your world depend on it?"
His hands came up to seize her shoulders and she felt herself being held slightly away from him. "Yes," he said quietly, "I've always known the day would come when you would leave me, but I never deceived myself to believe that I could ever be ready for it. Yet I was determined to endure everything -- if only..."
"Yes?" she coaxed softly, afraid that he wouldn't finish his thought.
"...if only Elliot made you happy," he continued. "Only then I'd be able to go on. But as things are now..." His voice broke, but he made an effort to continue. "Catherine, please don't do this. Please..." With a strangled sob, he released her and abruptly turned away. She knew he was trying to hide his emotions from her as he braced his hands on the balcony rail, dropping his head. Catherine didn't have to see his face to know that he was fighting back tears.
"Vincent," she said, and it cost her every ounce of self-control to remain where she was, to respect the distance he had put between them. "The tunnels are the only place where you can live. Don't you see? If you don't let me do this, it will kill us both, for without you..." She paused for a moment, uncertain if it was wise to go on, if he really wanted to hear what she was going to say. She didn't want to make things any harder on him.
Suddenly he raised his head and straightened, still keeping his distance as he slowly turned around to look at her. There was a hunger in his eyes, a yearning to hear the words even though she knew he dreaded them at the same time.
"Without you," she continued at last, "there's no life for me, Vincent. No life at all."
He said nothing, he just stood staring at her with a look that made her heart ache with a tenderness she knew she mustn't express. She wanted so much to hold him, to show him her love without restraint, without barriers, and it broke her heart that making love to him was the one thing he would never allow her to do.
"Don't you see?" she said. "Even though I won't be happy with Elliot, at least I will know that YOU live, that you are safe in your world. That will carry me through it all. It will..."
He pushed himself from the wall and crossed the space between them with slow, swaying strides. Reaching for her hands, he brought them up and kissed first one, then the other. "It won't work," he said, "because the truth is that I wouldn't be able to live on. I wouldn't survive. Even if I wanted to, it would kill me to feel your unhappiness, your despair. I know you, Catherine. You would try to make Elliot happy and that would mean to lie every minute of your life."
He fell silent, but Catherine sensed that he hadn't said all he wanted to say, that there was something else. "Tell me," she urged.
Vincent dropped his eyes briefly. "Have you ever thought about how it will be when he touches you?" he asked hesitantly. Catherine felt her eyes widen with dawning comprehension. Truth to tell, she hadn't had much time yet to really think it all through. All she'd had in mind was keeping Vincent and his family safe.
"Maybe I can learn to love him," she whispered half-heartedly. "Then I won't have to lie all the time."
Vincent slowly shook his head, and she knew he was right. She would never be able to love Elliot. Her heart belonged to Vincent, and nothing would ever change that.
"Hold me," she pleaded, casting all reason to the wind. Slowly his arms came up to enfold her, and then there was no more space for words. Tears spilled from her eyes, and he kissed them away, his lips soon replaced by the tip of his tongue as he licked the salty liquid from her lashes. A jolt of desire burned its way through her veins and she felt her knees go weak. Instantly he gathered her close, holding her even more tightly against his tense body. His breath caught as she pressed into him, and his short labored gasps quickly eroded the last shreds of her self-control.
He continued kissing away the tears from her cheeks and followed their path down to the corners of her mouth. His voice was almost a growl as he whispered, "To think that he will hold you like this...oh, Catherine!" Suddenly his lips covered hers, caressing her with a sweet urgency that left her trembling with need. At that moment she wanted him so much that she was beyond caring whether or not this was right. Slipping her hands under his cloak, she encircled his waist, pulling him closer still. She half-expected him to resist, but he didn't. He moved against her with the same fervor that drove her own rhythmic motions.
Through the soft fabric of her robe and gown she could feel clearly that he was every bit as aroused as she, a fact that made her heart sing with joy. The pressure of his mouth on hers increased, and as he parted her lips with his tongue, she released a helpless groan of ecstasy. He dropped to his knees, pulling her down beside him, and before she knew it, they were lying on the floor, desperately clinging to each other. His weight drove the air from her lungs, but she welcomed it gladly, parting her thighs to cradle him more securely against her. And then all she knew was that she was moaning his name over and over again as spasms of a totally unexpected climax left her shaken and disoriented in Vincent's trembling arms.
He rolled himself on his back, bringing her with him so that she lay atop him, pillowed by his warm, large body. Languidly she noted the rapid thundering of his heart beneath her ear. His breathing was shallow and raw, and when he finally shifted his weight, it seemed to her that he was suddenly eager to put some distance between their bodies. She looked down at him inquiringly, but he met her gaze calmly, although his eyes were still dark with passion.
She didn't know how, but suddenly she realized that their desire had overwhelmed him, too, that the intense orgasm she had just experienced had been a mutual one. Afraid that he might withdraw, that he might be ashamed, she reached for his hand and wove her fingers through his, squeezing them gently. She wished she were able to say something, but words eluded her. All she could do was bathe in his nearness and cherish the warmth of his other hand which still rested at the small of her back to hold her against him.
Wishing the moment would never pass, she breathed his name and saw tears pool in his eyes. "I love you," she whispered, and he briefly tightened his embrace before he gently rolled her off his body and rose to his feet. He reached down to help her up, steadying her when she was momentarily overcome by dizziness. She caught the concern in his gaze, and something else -- a distance that vaguely disconcerted her.
"Vincent," she whispered, reaching up to touch his face, but he pulled away and stared out into the night once again.
"I must go," he murmured but didn't move.
"Vincent, please," she said, "don't turn away from me." Slowly he half-turned to face her again. One of his large hands came up and cupped the back of her head as he pulled her close and touched his forehead to hers. The gesture appeared apologetic, and Catherine's heart sank.
"Forgive me," he said hoarsely, "I had no right to come here -- to do this to you." She wanted to contradict, but he gently held her in place as he continued in a whispered voice, "This is so much stronger than I am, Catherine. Much stronger than I ever thought it could be."
He fell silent, and Catherine made another effort to escape his firm grip. She needed so much to see his eyes, and this time he released her. He endured her puzzled stare for a few seconds before he averted his face, murmuring, "I thought I could be strong for both of us, but in the end all I managed to accomplish was to burden you even more." His gaze came back to hers as he added, "One day you will despise me for coming to you like this, at a time when you needed my support in a very difficult decision -- and I..."
His voice broke, and she went to him, wanting to pull him back into her arms, but he resisted gently. Bending forward, he placed a kiss on her forehead, and when she reopened her eyes, he was already turning to leave.
She wanted to call after him, to beg him to stay, but something in the set of his shoulders held her back. All she could do was watch helplessly as he disappeared into the darkness.
Dawn was close, so Vincent headed for home, although his body craved the exertion running always brought him. How he yearned for the fresh night air and the open sky above him. With the practice of a lifetime he clamped down a lid on his longings and just hurried to get back to the safety of the tunnels. On entering the outer passageways he reduced his speed, not wanting to draw unwelcome attention to himself. The mere thought of having to talk to anybody right now was unbearable.
Back in his chamber, Vincent discarded his cloak and settled in the chair at his writing table. His eyes were blinded by tears as he reached for the journal lying before him and covered it with his hand. The leather binding felt soft under his palm, and he cherished the fleeting comfort of something familiar at a time when his whole world had shifted and things he thought he had banished for good threatened to sweep him away. Feelings of self-loathing and guilt alternated with the tingling sensations the memory of Catherine's soft and warm nearness brought about.
With a low moan Vincent squeezed his eyes shut to drive those thoughts from his mind. He pushed the journal away and rose abruptly, starting a restless pacing. How could he ever regain his inner peace after what he had done? How could he have been so selfish?
'Maybe I could learn to love him.' Catherine's voice echoed through his mind, and he spun around, flexing his claws as if being confronted by an invisible enemy.
'Hold me,' her voice within him continued, and his hands closed into fists as they dropped to his sides.
Suddenly the salty taste of her tears was on his tongue, and with a low moan he went down on his knees as every cell in his body remembered her touch, the yielding softness of her body, her passionate longing to feel him against her. His breath came in short, ragged gasps as he relived the inconceivable sensation of being swept away by their shared passion when he had surrendered his control to her irresistible desire to love him.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Vincent sat back on his heels and hung his head dejectedly. His heart was still racing frantically, and he pressed his fists against his chest as if to calm it. After a few moments of struggling to control his breathing, he rose and returned to his writing table. Hesitating briefly, he settled himself in his chair and opened his journal. Normally, writing down his thoughts and emotions helped him regain his perspective and his equilibrium, but this time, Vincent knew it wouldn't work. Too much had happened, too many limits had been ignored. There was no way to go back to the peace of past days. If he wanted peace, he had to find a new one, one that lay beyond the frightening possessiveness and the passionate desire he had experienced with Catherine tonight. Closing his eyes, Vincent prayed that after what he'd done, what he had allowed to happen, peace was still possible for him at all.
On entering Vincent's chamber, Catherine wondered if she'd ever cease to be awed by the atmosphere Vincent had created here within these rocky walls. She wasn't surprised to find he wasn't there. On her way down, Father had told her that Vincent wasn't in his chamber. She had politely declined the cup of tea the old man offered. Of course, she knew that he meant well, that he probably was aware of Vincent's turmoil and worried about him, but there wasn't much she could have told him. Catherine badly needed some answers herself, and as she ran her eyes fondly across the vast collection of objects on the shelves, she hoped that the familiarity of Vincent's private quarters would help her understand him a little better.
For so long he had avoided talking about intimate matters such as their true feelings for each other, but tonight the realization that they might lose one another for good, had drawn him to her balcony and into her arms. Absentmindedly hugging herself, Catherine shivered as she remembered Vincent's body against hers, his hot breath close to her ear. If only he hadn't fled afterwards. If only they'd had a chance to talk.
Catherine wandered about the chamber, trailing her hands lovingly across Vincent's possessions as she wondered where he might be and when he might come back. Suddenly a thought made her freeze in her tracks. What if he didn't return? What if he sensed her presence and didn't want to see her? A dozen what ifs whirled through her mind and made her head spin. As she braced her hands on the table to steady herself, her eyes fell on Vincent's journal. It was closed, the pen marking the page he had last been writing on. Tentatively Catherine reached out and touched the smooth binding of the book. She knew that Vincent confided his deepest and most private thoughts to the pages of his journal. Maybe if...
"No," she told herself firmly, shocked at herself that she had even considered such a thing, but several agonizing minutes later -- minutes that seemed like hours -- she decided that a peek at his very last entry might be the only way to find out where he had gone. Reverently, she turned the cover and opened the book. The pen marked a new page which held nothing more than a poem, and her heart raced with apprehension as she read the lines.
How fading are the joys we dote upon!
Like apparitions seen and gone.
But those that soonest take their flight
Are the most exquisite and strong --
Like Angels' visits, short and bright;
Mortality's too weak to bear them long. *
Slowly she sat back in the chair behind her as tears ran down her face. Now she knew that he wouldn't come back anytime soon.
*--JOHN NORRIS, The Parting