This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine Within the Crystal Rose III, in 1991. It takes place in the aftermath of The Outsiders, and it won't make much sense if you haven't seen that episode. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.

 

Siege of Flowers

by BeeDrew


The first to be found was a blue iris.

An unseen messenger left it at the foot of his bed, sometime after he had finally lain down to sleep, driven by eyes of sandpaper and an unutterable weariness. And even then, lying in the cool dark with only his breathing for company, quilts tucked up to his chin, beaten down by exhaustion--even then, he could not rest until he reached out to her.

In his waking hours he shut out the bond, knowing that any real danger would punch through his defenses, and determined that his melancholy should not affect her. But at night.... Like an addict, ashamed of his need yet unable to resist, he traced the invisible pathway until he touched her where she lay Above, just drowsing to sleep. She was whole and quiet and peaceful--and for once, untouched by the faint sadness she'd suffered since their parting. He let his mind hover near hers, savoring the warm contentment. There was a tinge of pleasurable excitement to her thoughts that made him wonder, but he had no way of knowing the cause. No way, because he had not seen her in weeks.

He felt guilty stealing peace from her, when all this time he'd refused to see her. He'd sent others to meet her tappings at the threshold, and to turn her gently homeward; he'd saved her letters between the pages of his journal, but left them unopened. He couldn't let her be tainted by him, nor could he accept the healing of her love on his wounds, because he needed the wounds. He needed them to tell him, finally, what he really was.

He'd asked for the knowledge; he'd rushed to meet it, demanding that Father let him go and do "whatever must be done." His words jeered at him now, and he could see the shadow of hubris in his actions. He'd as much as said to Father, and to himself, Let me. This is my task; I am made for it, I can accomplish it better than any man among you.

Yet, when the time had come, it was not a man who'd driven off the threat, but a beast--mindless, ravening, without conscience or reason. And knowing this was the worst thing, the very worst thing, because it menaced him as surely as the outsiders' cudgels. His life--the familiar tasks, the teaching, the people who passed through his hours; even the memories of her--they were like a pattern vaguely glimpsed through a fog. He could no longer grasp it, or fill it, or even care that he could not, because the man who had lived that life was a sham.

The nightmares were the final torture. Since childhood, he had dreamed cinematically--sometimes in snatches of replayed reality, sometimes in finely chiseled symbolism; but always with complete recall, and these dreams.... In them he struggled, over and over, through the deaths he'd given to the outsider family, as if his mind were determined to force down the bitter lesson, though it was already well learned: Here is what you are. Claws carving through skin and sinew; roars openthroated; smell of rich, red entrails opened to the air....

Tonight was no different.

He woke himself by crying out, shuddering, covered in icy pinpoints of sweat and bathed in darkness, so that there was nothing to drive out the vision of the woman Lizzie. She leaped onto his back, her hate as hard and blunt as her pummeling fists, her body like wood in his grip until he brained her against an outcrop of rock, and she went soft and blank-eyed and dead....

Vincent retched, and then choked on the bile that spurted into his throat. Thrashing against his covers, he swung his legs over the side of the bed until his feet smacked against stone. Soft whimpers reached his ears, and he thought, One of the children is crying, until he realized the sounds were his own. He swallowed, and coughed, and swallowed some more, until he could draw in a deep breath, and let it out again, without fear of sobbing.

He got to his feet, and groped for a candle and matches. His mouth tasted foul, and his limbs were twice their normal weight. He wondered, despairing, how he could bear to sleep again. And how he could stand not to.

As the match flared, the flower's blueness snatched his eyes to itself.

The iris lay at the foot of his bed, like the very breath of spring against the rumpled, homespun blankets. He smiled a little, and brought it to his nose, inhaling its hint of fresh wetness. Probably from one of his students, hoping to sweeten his mood; he had not been the most forbearing of instructors in recent days. There was no more telling sign of his weariness than that the flower bearer had come and gone without rousing him.

He padded off to the communal lavatory to brush his teeth, somehow steadied and comforted by the small gift, knowing he would sleep peacefully for the rest of the night. Perhaps Mary would have a vase for his iris.

*****

The morning, barely two hours old, was not going well. First there'd been breakfast with Father, whose starched-and-ironed cheerfulness couldn't hide the sick worry in his eyes. Then, a literature class--and he had arrived in the study to find he'd forgotten his text.

Vincent whirled into his chamber in search of the errant Henry IV, growling soft, unintelligible words under his breath. He scanned the desk, sweeping aside blueprints, a subway schedule, and a hapless, crayoned blob that little José had assured him was a collie. Scrabble as he might, there was no evidence of the Bard's work, and he had waiting a class of restless adolescents who would soon decide they'd been patient enough. Where was that dratted book? He'd been so absorbed, so sunk in his own dark thoughts, since--since...that night...that the book might be anywhere. He turned toward the stone shelf above his bed.

There was Henry IV, exactly where he'd left it after preparing for class last evening. And atop it, bound with a thin white ribbon, lay a yellow bundle of marigolds.

Vincent's brow wrinkled, even as he lifted this newest offering to his nose. Flowers again. He was absurdly touched, wondering if Catherine....No. He winced away from the thought. He'd sent her away. Leave me now. Please. She had said she loved him, but still she had taken him at his word.

He picked up his Shakespeare with a sigh, and left the chamber to rejoin the class. He took one of the marigolds with him.

*****

His charges waited with varying degrees of patience and decorum, though Samantha had wandered to the spiral stair and buried her nose in Anne of Green Gables, and the floor bore evidence of a fierce spitball war. Justin whispered something in Eric's ear and got a sock on the arm, to which he responded with a sharp elbow in the younger boy's ribs. Vincent pinned them with a stern look as he crossed to the bald red splendor of Father's old, high-backed chair.

"I'm sorry for the delay. Gather around me, please, and we'll find out what Prince Hal has been up to since we last met." With a glance he pulled them all in--all except Samantha, who came reluctantly, with a longing look at the forsaken Anne. Vincent tapped her nose with the yellow flower he still held.

"Perhaps you would read first, Samantha."

*****

An hour later, Vincent wrapped up the class with profound relief. He'd gotten through the whole of Act III, injected a smattering of English history, and corralled the children's enthusiasm with a mock sword fight. Two of Father's less-favorite canes had taken a few dents--a small conspiracy entered into with willing mischief--but he was confident that his students had a little more Shakespeare at their command than when they'd awakened this morning.

"I can call spirits from the vasty deep!" Kipper yelled, pelting out the door after Eric and Justin.

Vincent smiled after the boys, as he replaced the "swords" and stacked the motley editions Henry IV left in the children's wake. "Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?" he quoted softly.

"Vincent? Who are you talking to?"

Vincent turned. Father limped in, wearing a characteristic frown and carrying a very uncharacteristic potted plant. Without waiting for an answer to his question, he offered the plant to Vincent. "William found this in the common room this morning, when he was cleaning up from breakfast. It has your name on it."

Vincent ran a curious finger over the shiny green leaves and small, soft-petaled red flowers. His name was written on the back of the cardboard triangle speared in the soil, which identified the plant as a spring-forced begonia. The neat capital letters did not betray the sender.

"It's the third," he murmured.

"The third what?" demanded Father.

"Vincent, look! I have flowers for you."

Mary had appeared in the stone archway. One arm was laden with heavy black ledgers, while the other held a more delicate burden. "I see I'm not the first. What's that there, a begonia? And blooming so early. That's unusual."

Father threw his hands in the air and retreated behind his desk, as Mary extended the newest bouquet to Vincent. "Aren't these beautiful? Jonathan found them on his morning patrol near the Falls. The pink ones are peonies, I'm not sure what the white are. I'll have to find you a large vase."

Vincent took the tissue-wrapped flowers in a careful grip, looking from the riot of peonies and star-shaped white blossoms to the homely little begonia in his other hand. The new flowers bore an unadorned white card, with his name typed in capital letters. "It's a siege," he said wonderingly. "A siege of flowers."

"Will someone please tell me what is going on?" This from Father, in plaintive tones. Vincent turned toward him.

"First, last night, I found an iris on my bed. This morning, it was marigolds. Now these."

"Marigolds, too?" Mary beamed. "They're a favorite of mine."

Sketching a slight bow, Vincent presented her with the fat yellow marigold. Mary's gently lined face softened into a wistful smile as she accepted it. "How lovely. Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble--neither begonias nor marigolds ought to be blooming yet. They must have come from a nursery."

Vincent's eyes lifted from the sheaf of pink and white he held, but Mary rattled on. "You've no idea whose been sending them? Marigolds are such cheerful flowers, I've always thought, to have so woeful a meaning."

Catherine. Vincent felt a spark of excitement as he took a step toward Mary. "The flowers have a meaning beyond their own beauty? How is that?"

The woman shook her head in mock reproof. "A history scholar like you, Vincent--surely you've heard of it before, the Language of Flowers? It's an oriental tradition, but it became popular in England in the Eighteenth century. Each flower is associated with a particular thought or feeling, so that you can send a message without uttering a word."

"Devious woman, is Catherine," Father put in, with an approving glint in his eye. He'd reached the same conclusion Vincent had. "She's outsmarted you."

Vincent waved this jibe aside. "The marigolds, Mary. What do they mean?"

The woman touched the heavy-headed flower to her cheek. "I've never understood why, but marigolds are for grief."

"Grief," Vincent repeated. His look had sharpened, his whole pose one of taut anticipation. "Then the iris, and begonia, and peonies--what do they represent?"

"Heavens, Vincent, I've no idea. There are books that give the meanings, and I know we have one Below. It has a green cover with stains on it, and onionskin pages."

Vincent turned and focused the considerable intensity of his gaze on the older man behind the desk. "Father--?"

*****

An hour later, the library was a wilderness of ransacked books, and Vincent was wild with frustration. He stood on the second level, yanking mismatched titles from the shelves and stacking them in uneven, teetering piles. His growls had reduced Father to helpless blustering.

"Come now, Vincent, you can't hold me wholly responsible for the condition of the library? I know it's deplorable, but with new volumes arriving all the time, and the children trooping through, not to mention your depredations--and without proper shelving--how could I possibly be expected to--"

"Vincent!" Mary rushed in, puffing, her grey hair fallen from its sober bun to trail in attractive wisps around her face. She clutched a thin volume to her breast and smiled at him triumphantly. "Here it is. I knew we had one. Rebecca used it the last time she made scented candles--oh, my goodness!"

Mary's voice failed her as Vincent vaulted over the rail and dropped the eight feet to the floor, landing just in front of her with hardly a sound. Round-eyed, Mary offered him the book.

"There, you see! I had nothing to do with it!" sputtered Father, but Vincent ignored him as he spread open the book in his palm. Its binding had cracked, and the leaves were nearly transparent with age. Impatience warred with ingrained respect for an old volume as Vincent carefully turned the delicate pages.

He found the entry for the blue iris. It meant message. Trust Catherine to begin with that one. Marigolds, he knew. Peonies signified bashfulness or shame. He frowned as he flipped back, looking for the begonia's meaning. Dark thoughts. There remained only the unidentified white flowers that had come with the peonies, but the pattern was clear.

He shut the book gently. "Oh, Catherine."

"What? What do they mean?" Father demanded. When Vincent did not answer, but only stared abstractedly over Father's shoulder, the older man reached out imperiously. "Here, give me that. I'll look them up myself."

Vincent surrendered the book, only half-aware of Mary's concerned hand upon his arm. "I must go to her," he murmured. "She will not have reached home, yet, but--"

Running footsteps gave a half second's warning before Mouse hurtled into the library, waving a thick bundle wrapped in the now-familiar green tissue. "Vincent! For you. Found it Uptop--"

Mouse's foot caught on the one of the wrought-iron spiral stairs, and he would have pitched headlong to the stone floor had not Vincent leapt forward and caught him, bundle and all. This offering had woody branches to it, which whipped smartly across Vincent's face as he halted Mouse's plunge. His eyes stung and watered as he set the boy on his feet.

"Thanks," Mouse panted, grinning. "Brought you this. Ran all the way. Was walking in the park. Found it--"

"Mouse," Vincent interrupted gently. "Let me have it, please." Mouse shut his mouth and sheepishly gave the flowers to him. Pulling aside the tissue paper, Vincent beheld the long, thin boughs that had rapped his nose, studded all up and down their length with tiny pink buds.

"Mary?"

But she was shaking her head. "I don't know what those are, Vincent. I'm sorry."

Vincent swung his eyes to Father. "Do you know what's become of the horticultural encyclopedia? We used to have one, I'm sure; it was a very large book..."

Father, much put upon, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, as though praying for strength. "Vincent, you've manhandled every text in the library today!"

But his complaints stood no chance against the mute, little-boy appeal in Vincent's eyes. Father sighed noisily. "Oh all right, I'll look for it. Heaven only knows the last time I laid eyes on it. Perhaps it would be altogether easier to send Kipper to the city library for one."

By the time the encyclopedia was located some time later, in ignominious service as a doorstop in William's pantry--"F'r cryin' out loud, what do you need that thing for? Ain't nothing growing down here except the kids!"--there were more specimens to be identified than Mouse's branches and the white flowers that had come with the peonies. The children, courtesy of Mouse, had been alerted that there was a surprise afoot, and had undertaken the project with all the zeal of an Easter egg hunt. The flowers poured in from all points Below, and Vincent found himself truly amazed at Catherine's industry and ingenuity.

"I've found the white ones," Father announced, rubbing absently at his back as he unbent from perusing the encyclopedia. His grey eyes gleamed with quiet excitement; he was into the spirit of the thing, now. "With those double coronas, they've got to be columbine. There are many varieties, but those would appear to be Snow Queen. They bloom in late spring--"

"Columbine," Vincent repeated. He, and only he, looked up the meanings of the various flowers, while Father strove to identify them and Mary to find containers and fetch water for what was fast becoming a subterranean bower. "Columbine are for folly. That would fit with grief, and shame, and dark thoughts."

Vincent was not so despondent at this discovery as he might have been, for the pink-budded boughs had been identified as flowering almond, which meant hope. After that had come a great mass of campanula--tiny, droop-headed violet bellflowers that meant gratitude--and a fragrant green plant with heart-shaped leaves that Father had finally named Molucca balm, or Bells-of-Ireland. Balm was for sympathy.

Then there appeared a cheery potted geranium, found on the Great Stair--that was for comfort--and Livvy had just brought from the Mirror Pool a bed of pansies, purple and white and yellow, ready for planting. Pansies were also known as heartsease; they meant thinking of you.

Vincent's eyes flicked up as the clatter of feet sounded in the outer passage. Jamie appeared, breathless and holding in careful hands a bouquet of bright, lemon-colored flowers on tall stalks. Without a word, she offered them to Vincent.

"Thank you, Jamie," he said, accepting them, inhaling their sweet fragrance.

Over their yellow heads he glanced inquiringly at Father, who grimaced as he bent again over the overworked volume on his desk. "Here we go again," the patriarch muttered, settling his glasses firmly on his nose.

Mary looked up from arranging the almond boughs artfully in a heavy vase of blue glass. She hurried forward, drying her hands on her apron. "No need, Jacob. I know those. They're jonquils."

Vincent consulted the small green book once again, as the others hung tensely on his words. "Jonquils...they mean--" He stopped abruptly.

"Yes?" prodded Father. Vincent shifted somewhat uncomfortably, and brought the flowers to his nose again, as though to hide his face in them.

"They mean I desire a return of affection." Despite himself, Vincent's odd mouth quirked in a smile. He could just imagine Catherine, with a little of the Victorian Miss in her voice, speaking the words and daring him to laugh.

"Well that's direct enough, I'm sure," Father said gruffly. But he had to turn his attention immediately to the papers on his desk, smoothing and sorting them, to hide his own grin.

"I think that's the last of them," Jamie blurted out, sending a quick, nervous look in Vincent's direction. He met her eyes, his own gleaming with fun, in no doubt now as to the identity of Catherine's helper. She must have had one, to have visited so many spots Below with her gifts of flowers.

Jamie flushed, sure she had revealed too much. "I'd better be getting back to work--" she mumbled, and fled.

For a few moments the study was quiet. Mary had gone back to her flower arranging, and Father had shuffled away to put the horticultural encyclopedia on a high shelf, hopefully safe from William's nefarious devices. So there were only his own ears to listen as Vincent murmured again, "I desire a return of affection."

He paused, feeling his eyes sting a little as he thought of her. "My Catherine, you shall have it."

*****

The day crawled by on a tired man's legs, achingly slow. Vincent made not even a pretense of doing his normal work, knowing his crewmates, this once, would excuse him. Instead, he made one necessary errand to a Helper's floral shop.

Annabel, and her parents before her, had owned and operated the shop for as long as Vincent could remember. Twenty-three, she looked much younger, with her brown braids and freckled pixie's face. She was enthralled by his siege of flowers, and gazed up at him raptly from the four-foot height of her wheelchair, demanding every detail of the flowers' discovery, and appearance, and what he'd thought, and what everyone had said.

Vincent had known Annabel long enough to not notice the spastic little twitches that cerebral palsy often inflicted on his friend, and he visited often, because stories were Annabel's special delight, and she never tired of tales from Below. Besides, he had a strong back and willing strength, both necessary to running the shop. She often needed more things lifted than her spirits.

"Vincent, that's absolutely divine!" she sighed, when he'd finished. "I hope I can meet your Catherine sometime. How sweet, to think of using the Language of Flowers. Of course, I thought you knew all about it, what with all the roses. No pink or white for you, oh no--"

"What do you mean? Are the red special?"

Annabel laughed. "You should have looked that up first thing, Vincent. Pink roses are for love hopeful or expectant. White are for love dead or forsaken. And the red are for passion."

Vincent started at that, and wondered if there were any hope at all that Catherine did not know the finer points of roses' meanings. He didn't think so.

Annabel had twisted to look up at him, with the light of mischief in her face. He gave her a mock frown, and she laughed again. "Of course, I thought you knew, Vincent. I think it's terribly romantic."

He smiled down at the glossy head as he pushed her wheelchair slowly down the wide center aisle of the nursery behind the shop. Annabel had locked it from the inside, so that the clerk on duty could not interrupt them. Sunlight filtered in though the green gauze of plantlife that abounded everywhere, and the room had a rich, heady scent compounded of soil, blossoms, and a tang of mint, that was wonderfully soothing.

"To have that kind of love in your life--it must be extraordinary," Annabel said, with a wistful catch in her voice. "What does it feel like?"

Vincent set the safety brake on the chair and then came around to face his friend, kneeling so she could see his face. "Sometimes it is very hard," he confided. "I've wronged her. I've been selfish--that's why she had to speak to me with flowers. I would not hear her, before."

"But why?" Annabel's wide grey eyes were filled with distress; her fairy tale had gone awry. Her visitor smiled, a little sadly.

"She will ask me the same question," he mused. "And I have no easy answer--only that I wanted to protect her, to keep her from pain. And all I've done is compound it. Annabel, will you help me?"

*****

He hadn't felt so horribly nervous since that first night, he realized, as he dropped lightly to her balcony. The light that spilled in precise, oblong shapes from her closed doors told him she was home. Waiting.

He swallowed to moisten a parched throat, and laid the fragile burden he carried on the low, wrought-iron table to his right. He lifted a hand to tap on the glass. Before he could do so, the doors rattled open, and she stood there, looking up at him.

There was no smile, no softening for him; only a hunger slaked in her eyes as she took him in. Her hair was longer, heavy against her cheek, and her body more slight than he remembered.

"Catherine," he began, before his throat closed. He had forgotten what an impact the sight of her could have; how her nearness brought boiling to the surface all chaotic, impossible emotions he strove so hard to check. There was love, and yearning, and desperate need, so strong that he was afraid to reach out.

She still looked at him steadily. "If you'll wait a moment, I'll get a sweater, and come out to join you." Her voice alone, pitched in the uninflected tone reserved for strangers, accused him of the distance between them. She started to turn, until he touched the sleeve of her green silk kimono.

"I could--I could come inside," he offered, awkwardly. Their eyes met. And suddenly Catherine's reserve cracked wide open, and she flung herself against him, arms trembling and tight around him. She stood on the half-step above the balcony, he on its surface, so that her face was pressed to his neck, and not his chest. He could feel her ragged breathing, alternately hot and cool, just below his ear. Skin on skin. Contact.

He gasped silently, scorched by the white flare of the bond. Pain tinged with anger; fear only now easing at the feel of him in her grasp; love that was the other half of his own--all these crashed through the connection made by her touch, like volts of electricity finding a common ground. They mingled with his own emotions, and fed back into her, and became something indefinable, something blinding in its power. Something he knew he would die rather than ever live without. My soul? he wondered, gathering her even closer against him. Our...soul?

The minutes drifted, like slow clouds across the moon, until finally Catherine leaned back in his arms. It was odd, and a little disconcerting, to meet her eyes nearly on a level.

"I'm sorry, Catherine," he said quickly, before she could speak. Somehow, that was important.

She nodded. "I am too. More than I can say. But don't you ever--ever--" she punctuated each word with a squeeze around his waist-- "shut me out again. No matter what either one of us has done." She shivered, and dropped her forehead back against him. "I...I can't bear it."

"Nor can I."

When he felt her shiver again, he draped a fold of his cloak around her and looked down at her feet, bare and cringing from the cold metal of the doorframe.

"Catherine, you're going to--"

"--catch your death," she chimed in, and they both laughed foolishly, and stood looking at each other, until she stepped back, onto the carpet, and tugged on his arm.

He turned back for a moment and gathered up the gift he'd brought, before he followed her.

Leaving him to shut the balcony doors, Catherine crossed to one of the low couches before the fireplace, lit against the chill of early spring. Small blue jets of gas danced over the surface of imitation wood.

"It's not the real thing, but it'll do when your feet are cold," Catherine said. The words seemed to tumble out involuntarily to fill the hovering silence, and she bit her lip to still them. She reached up a hand to him. He took it, and settled beside her. But as soon as he was seated, she pulled out of his grip, and twisted her fingers into a nervous little knot in her lap. He sensed her struggle for words.

"You weren't...upset about the flowers?" she ventured, at length. "It was such a...public way to get your attention. I thought you might be angry."

He shook his head, a tiny smile creasing his mouth. "I wasn't angry. Baffled, perhaps, until I realized you were the giver."

"And you guessed, about the meanings?"

"Mary knew of the Language of Flowers. She and most of the other women Below think it is very romantic. Father, however, chose a different word."

"Oh?" Catherine's eyebrows arched a question.

"Devious," Vincent replied, and was rewarded with the rich little laugh that was Catherine's alone.

"I had to do something to distract you from all that brooding," she said, with a hint of exasperation. "Vincent, it's not fair to shut me completely out of your life when something goes wrong. I need--"

She paused, and suddenly looked straight into his eyes, as though testing the effect of these two words on him. He met her look steadily.

"You need to know why I kept you away."

She swallowed, and nodded. "Was it because I came into the Tunnels, when you'd told me not to--I was just so worried, when Pascal and the children didn't come, and I know I should have come down another way, or signaled, or--"

He cut her off with a finger to her lips. "Hush, Catherine." Her eyes widened a little in surprise, but she subsided obediently.

"You could have done nothing but what you did, and still be yourself. And I..." He sighed heavily, and his shoulders rounded beneath the weight of the admission he was about to make. "I, too, could do nothing but what I did, because of who I am." He raised a hand to ward off the protest he sensed she was gathering. "That is why I sent you away. I could not bear to have you close, when that other self was also so near. It...it shames me."

"Vincent." Catherine leaned forward, grasped his hand tightly in both of hers. "I know that maybe you can't accept this now, but I need you to know how I feel about--about that other self." She floundered for a moment, then continued, earnestness written in every tense line of her face. "I told you, when it happened, that there are dark places in all of us. And the dark places aren't bad, they just are."

"Not like mine." A whisper, only. It was all he could manage.

"Exactly like yours!" Her voice had risen, and he felt her bite back the hectic emotion before she spoke again. "It's just that the rest of us aren't equipped to enforce our rage, the way you are. And you're so much more sensitive to the hurts done to others--it follows that your rage, too, would be greater."

He had turned his face away, as though he could shut out her words if he didn't watch her mouth form them. From the corner of his eye he saw her bend her head, trying to see beyond the curve of his hair, fallen forward off his shoulders. She let go of his hand and reached for the wire-taut muscles of his back. When he offered no protest, she began to knead them firmly, coaxing some of the stiffness away.

"Can't you even try to see that part of you in a different way, Vincent?" she pressed.

He was silent for a long time, surrendering to the soothing feel of her hands, trying to sort out his jostling thoughts. The bond told him indisputably that this was Catherine's truth. There was pain in her when she spoke of his darkness--but it was only the reflection of his own pain. The existence of the beast in him--even the sight of its deeds--did not trouble her, except in that they wounded him. This disturbed him, somehow, rather than being the comfort she intended.

When he could, he turned to her, gathering her hands in his. "I cannot promise you, Catherine, to accept your words. But I can promise to try. And never to shut you away from me again, unless it is what we both wish."

Because he was touching her, he felt clearly the tiny struggle--the prosecutor's drive to push the argument further; the woman's instinct that told her she would not move him on this. Finally, she nodded, and tried to smile. "So. Where does that leave us?" she asked lightly.

But her hands in his were trying to make fists, and her voice was too tight for levity.

"Together," he replied. "It leaves us together." Stroking the backs of her hands with his callused thumbs, he made her absorb this. Together.

"Words are sometimes too cumbersome, or shaped too oddly to bear our feelings well," he went on. "I believe that...flowers...might carry your answer more fittingly."

And he laid in her lap the carefully chosen blooms he'd brought from Annabel's. Catherine opened the package, the tissue rustling a little with the trembling of her fingers.

On top lay the battered, stained little book that had unlocked for him the mystery of the flowers, and beneath it, a wealth of red roses, a half dozen, dressed in greenery with waxy, sweet-scented leaves, and woven with tiny sprays of purple.

Catherine smiled, and he watched her eyes mist. "Roses," she murmured. "I don't need the book to tell me what those mean. The others?"

Vincent pointed with a claw tip. "These are myrtle. They mean love. And these, forget-me-nots. True love."

Catherine took a breath, lips parted, but didn't speak. Instead, she buried her face among the blossoms and breathed deeply, as though she took in love itself along with the flowers' fragrance. "Love, and love, and love," she murmured, lifting her face. She turned, wordless, and looked into Vincent's eyes, and right down into his soul.

There were flowers there.

 

The End