I stare at you for a while.

The world around us disappears.

It's just you and me

On my island of hope.

A breath between us could be miles....

Sarah McLachlan: 'I Love You'

From the album: 'Surfacing'

 

CHAPTER SIX


Carefully Catherine shifted, unbent, and extended her right leg, flexing her ankle upwards. The painful cramp faded with the satisfying stretch. The left leg soon mirrored that action. Sitting so long in the same position had taken its toll and she arched her lower back to alleviate the ache. Before her, Vincent lay in a light slumber, the diffuse light from the stained glass window behind the bed gilding his features. Comfortingly, she lifted his head to place it on her thigh and resumed her slow, soothing strokes through his thick mane. Fingers tangled willingly in the golden locks as Catherine concentrated on her inner sense of him. It still amazed her, to feel him so clearly. Vincent's emotions were becoming stronger as the influences of medication wore off and awareness returned. Feelings of horror. Wrenching sorrow. And... resolve? As she had for the last few hours, Catherine tried to focus a stream of reassurance and love through the delicate threads of their bond

Catherine glanced over at her watch, propped up on the nightstand beside the bed. It was almost six o'clock. Abruptly, as if being set off by her realization of the time, Catherine's stomach let out a protesting whine of hunger. No wonder she was hungry. Casting her mind back, she realized that besides a slice of toast at nine o'clock this morning, she hadn't eaten a thing today. Still, she felt a twinge of guilt for feeling hungry at a time like this.

The morning seemed a lifetime ago. Following Joe's orders, she had slept in until half past seven. What luxury! After awakening, she had gone to her apartment to shower and dress, and reported to the Lord Maxwell at ten sharp for paperwork detail. Paperwork! More like the inquisition. Every time a gun was fired, a report had to be filled out, with five copies and more signatures than she could count. Really, she wouldn't be at all surprised if beside the signature line was a box for a drop of blood. Then the injury reports, statements...

As soon as she had arrived, Joe had taken her aside. The scratches on his neck had to be included in his own injury report, since he had received treatment at the hospital for them. Catherine had winced inwardly at the sight of the dark scabs. Joe had wanted her to know he had listed them as having resulted from striking a rough patch of concrete while diving for cover. "The paper-pushers don't need to know what really happened, it's not relevant to the case and none of their business," he had explained. Thank God for friends like Joe.

A couple of hours later everything was done and she was free for the afternoon. While at the office, however, she had taken the time to inquire if the van's license plates had been traced. Turned out that they had been reported stolen from upstate New York, which wasn't a big surprise really. The van itself had been discovered, abandoned, in a strip mall parking lot. Traced by its vehicle identification number, the van had also been reported stolen a few weeks ago and had been repainted from its original green. Probably all fingerprints had been wiped off, since none were evident on dusting. Hair samples had been found, but without a person to match them with, at present they were useless.

The hospital had yielded no clues either. According to the schedule, the loading dock and receiving closed at six p.m. Several hospital employees had been contacted, but no one remembered seeing anyone strange or noting any unusual activity. Besides shipping and receiving, that level of the hospital contained only the morgue and storage. Catherine's contact, Sandra, had upon inquiry confirmed that a transplant operation had been performed that morning, but the organ was acquired completely legally from a victim of a car crash. Joe was convinced, however, that what they had seen was indeed the delivery of a stolen organ. True to expectations, this morning a report had been made of yet another attack. The victim was lucky; they only took one of his kidneys.

The familiar tap of a cane heralding the approach of Father broke Catherine's reverie. He had been checking in on them frequently, his features clouded with worry. This time as he rounded the corner Catherine noted Mary, who bore a covered tray, following him. The smells of garlic and tomatoes coming from the tray smelled heavenly, and Catherine's stomach issued a growl that could rival Vincent.

"There, see! I told you the poor girl was probably hungry," Mary chided Father gently. "You should eat some of this, too, falling down in a faint from lack of nourishment will do no good to anyone. Catherine, dear, you come here and sit down. William's sent some of his meatball soup and bread."

Father looked at Catherine inquiringly. Her back propped up with pillows, she had not moved from his son's bed since her arrival several hours ago. Unsurprisingly, she was shaking her head, refusing to leave Vincent's side.

"In a minute. Thank you though. It was very thoughtful."

Mary smiled warmly at the young woman who looked so dwarfed by her surroundings, and her eyes slid naturally to the other object of her concern. Vincent still lay unmoving. Everyone in the tunnels was concerned for them both. Catherine held a special place in the hearts of so many Below; she was considered one of their own, in spirit if not in actuality.

As Mary left, Father approached to examine his son. Automatically, his physician's training noted the slightly increased respiration, the occasional twitch of muscles as functionality was regained. "Have you noticed any change? Can your... connection tell you anything?"

"He's getting more upset, agitated. He'll be awake soon, I think. I don't understand all of it; this is still pretty new to me. In the last few days I've been picking up more from him, though. He's... calmer than I expected."

"I'd better warn you, that might change. Sometimes there can be unusual reactions while coming out of anesthesia. He might behave strangely for a hour or so, while his system clears out the last of the drug." Both of them started as Vincent's arm unsteadily rose to rub at his mouth. Catherine watched to make sure he would not unintentionally hurt himself with his sharp claws, but rather than trying to scratch himself, he seemed almost trying to remove something. Taking his hands, she tried to still them, but he soon returned to his task.

"Don't worry Catherine, it's alright. I've been told this could be a side effect. For some reason, coming out of this particular anesthetic seems to produce a feeling that there's something in the mouth. It will pass quickly, I've been told." True to prediction, about ten minutes later Vincent's efforts stilled.

"Thank you for warning me. He'll be awake soon I think-"

"Caa...." The softest of whispers reached her ear as Vincent shifted, rubbing his head against her leg minutely. Immediately Catherine focused all her attention back to Vincent.

"Are you sure you won't reconsider this? Being alone when he awakens might not be the wisest course, if..."

Without lifting her absorption on any and all information coming through the bond, she answered distractedly, "I'm sure."

"Well, then, I'll leave you. If you need me, I won't be far. Just call out." Reluctantly, Father made his way from the chamber. Pausing just outside, he listened intently, but could hear no additional sounds from the room. A rustle of cloth from nearby did catch his ear, and he raised his head to see Mary only a few feet away. Despite himself, he had to smile. As much as he considered himself to be Vincent's father, Mary felt she was 'mother.'  They shared a glance of mutual understanding as both redirected their attentions, listening for any sound that would indicate their assistance was required.

* * * * *

Scent. Soft and sweet, it flooded his being. Familiar, it spoke of love and comfort and yet there were subtle differences. New notes were present. Richer, wilder tones that made that blanket of sensation even more Catherine, and even more evocative, if such were possible. A rumble of contentment shuddered through his chest as he rubbed his head against the warm flesh beneath him, causing fresh swirls of that intoxicating scent to rise. It was even better than...

Before. Memory crashed through the contentment, proving the lie of all he was feeling. There could be no place for him here. He had no right! He had hurt her! Her blood, staining his hands! Vincent attempted to force his body to rise, but a strange lethargy gripped him still and his body ignored his commands.

"I'm here, my love. Everything's all right now. We're safe." Catherine softly repeated the reassuring words of comfort in response to the slight movements she felt. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on radiating these through the bond as well. Gently, she stroked his deeply lined brow and temples, cradling his head against her. Focused on projecting, she did not sense his slow return to consciousness for some time. It was not until her fingers encountered wetness that she looked down to meet the soft blue of Vincent's grief-filled eyes. Shining with tears, they slid away from her gaze to focus hazily on her neck.

"Sorry& I'm so sorry," he whispered brokenly.

Bending over to surround him, Catherine cradled his great head in her arms. "I know, love. I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have pushed, not then, it's mostly my fault." Her voice hitched as his pain rushed through her.

Slowly, his arms came up to surround her waist and his head turned toward her stomach. His body heaved with great gasping sobs as his head shook in hopeless negation. Burrowing in as if to hide, disjointed and almost unintelligible snatches of phrases, rough and ragged, broke free. "No. Didn't mean...I hurt you...couldn't... can't ever..." For a long while they clung together in desperation.

"Please, Vincent." Catherine spoke with difficulty through the clutching grief that tightened her throat. Gently she stroked his shoulders and back, while desperately fighting her own tears. She knew it was essential she keep a clear head now and not allow his feelings to overwhelm her own conviction. "You've been unconscious for a while and I've had time to think. Laying blame is not going to change anything. It doesn't matter whose fault it was; it probably wasn't anyone's, really. It happened. We just need to find out why, so it doesn't happen again, that's all."

Vincent shook his head roughly. Lurching, he tried to sit up, but his faculties had not yet fully returned and he fell sideways.

"Vincent!" Catherine leaned forward, to help as much as she could.

Finally, he managed to sit up on the edge of the bed, half supported by Catherine. Swaying slightly, he felt a threat of nausea as he strove to return to himself. Everything seemed distant, blurred, like seeing it through eyes just awakened from a deep and dreamless sleep. But far from dreamless had been his slumber. Vincent felt the world tilt on its axis before righting itself again as his sense of balance returned. Dreams. Gradually, stealing into his mind through his overwhelming emotions, the memories of fighting his dark self, of the knowledge gained from him, re-emerged. Were they only dreams? "How long-?"

"It's been a week. You were so weak, hurt. Father gave you something to make you sleep, so you could heal."

"Yes... I remember." A long silence fell as the two gazed at the floor, not knowing quite what to say or even how to begin. Vincent felt the fog coating his senses and muscular control beginning to clear.

Catherine raised her eyes to the bowed figure beside her. Gently she smoothed the curtain of blond mane away, revealing his face. Taking his chin lightly, she turned him to meet her eyes. "Whatever is needed, Vincent, I will give. I know you will want time to work this through. But promise me something. Last time I asked you this, you didn't directly answer. Vincent, whatever happens, whatever comes, you must promise that you won't shut me out. I need you. We need each other. We are strong and, together, we can come through this. Don't let it defeat our dream."

Silence fell as the two searched each other's eyes. Hesitantly, fearing what he might find yet needing to know the truth, Vincent extended his sense of the bond and drew in a sharp breath in response. She was there! Not passively as before, but actively reaching for him, sensing him! Wonderingly, he sent a tendril of inquiry towards her and gasped again as he not only saw her smile in response, but felt her answering spear of confirming devotion deliberately sent to his deepest being. There was no fear there, no revulsion at what he had done, only calm acceptance. "Catherine? How can this be?"

Catherine's hand stole across the rumpled quilts to take and twine with his. A shy smile quirked her lips momentarily. "Then I wasn't just imagining it. My sense of our bond is getting stronger. I can feel you now, much like the way you have described the bond feels from your perspective. It's so wonderful..."

Vincent's hand squeezed her own gently, briefly sharing her hesitant joy, before the memory of their last meeting swept through him again. Bending his head, Vincent once again saw the images play through his mind, culminating in his sudden realization of the blood on his hands and what he had done. Horror blanketed his thoughts, until a persistent shaking pulled him from that memory.

Catherine shook Vincent by the shoulder desperately, drawing him from the morass of black anguish. "Vincent, don't do this!"

Blinking, Vincent refocused on the slight figure, which ceased her assault. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she pleaded. "Please, don't do this. We can't change what happened. But I'm not going anywhere, especially with our bond strengthening so. There's got to be a reason it's getting so strong. Maybe there are things we have to understand better about each other before... before we can be truly together."

Struggling to his feet, Vincent began a shaky but familiar pacing. Something about her words rang true, someone had said something similar recently. Unbidden, a rough remembered voice shuddered into his conscious mind: "there are things you do not yet comprehend...be what you truly are, then you will understand... trust... learn... know." Memory of his dreams of the Dark One slowly resurfaced, along with the assurances of the future he had felt within them. Meticulously, Vincent turned the dream-memories over in his mind, examining their content. Yes. This was what needed doing.

"While I slept, I dreamed. I think I dreamed true. I think... perhaps you are right. There are things I must discover. About who I am. What I am. Things that I've never allowed myself to really examine before, that I was frightened of. But, I can no longer allow my fears to keep me from this any longer, not when the result‑" Carefully, Vincent continued to pace through the room.

To Catherine's eyes, each slow circuit seemed to bring more muscular control back. The exertion helped his body shake off the clinging haze of anesthesia; jerky unsteadiness resolved itself gradually as the natural grace so inherent to him returned.

Excusing himself, Vincent made his way to the bathing chamber he shared with Father. A cold water wash further helped in clearing the remnants of drugs from his system.

Returning to his chamber, Vincent approached the bed and came to a hesitant stop before Catherine. She looked so beautiful... Sinking to his knees, he bent his head and took her two hands in his own. "I am so sorry for hurting you. Something in me understood that it was dangerous, but it felt so‑"

"I'm all right. Really. The cuts healed in just a few days, it wasn't as bad as you thought." Reassuringly, Catherine reached forward to smooth the still damp mane from his face. "I know it was an accident, that you would never deliberately hurt me."

"I have to know that for sure. That's why I must ask you this." Raising his head, from beneath unkempt bangs Vincent's eyes caressed her face. "Through my dreams, if they speak truly, I have felt that I must reconcile all that I am. That refusing to acknowledge a thing does not make it disappear. The opposite is true; it then has more power. Do you understand?"

Slowly, Catherine nodded her head.

Gathering his courage, Vincent continued. "I need... to go away for awhile. And I need you to give me this space, this time. There are things I must discover for myself, and for us, alone. Please, can you grant me this?"

Catherine once again focused her perception on Vincent's emotions, and hope shivered into her heart. For in his heart an inexplicable hope for their future fluttered unsteadily alongside his fear. Hope for them, and determination to do all he could to realize their dream. She also found no resigned intent to cause himself harm. "Yes, I can, gladly. I think you've needed this for a long time."

With a final light squeeze of her hands, Vincent rose and walked to a trunk tucked against the wall. Opening it, he retrieved a large backpack and slowly began to fill it. A change of clothes, a blanket, a towel, some soap and his journal disappeared into the leather depths. Vincent chose several books and began to place them into the pack, but paused. His head tilted as if listening to an unheard voice. Slowly, he withdrew the majority of the books and placed them back on the shelf, caressing their spines as he did so.

The familiar tap once again preceded Father's slow entrance into the chamber as he made his way to stand by Catherine next to the bed. "So, you're leaving us, then?"

"Only for a while. I anticipate a return, when the time is right. Catherine understands."

"You have just recovered from a head injury. This isn't the time to go haring off on some godforsaken‑" Father halted the impending lecture when Catherine took and squeezed his hand. Turning to regard her, he acknowledged her warning shake of the head with typical reluctance.

"Please understand, Father. This is something I must do. I'll be fine, try not to worry." Vincent finished packing in the ensuing silence, and swung the leather bag to the floor beside the chamber exit.

"Humph. And when have I ever obeyed that particular request, I ask you? Of course I'll worry. I'm your father; thirty years of worry about you has evolved into an art form. But please... be careful, and go safely."

"Vincent, wait!" Mary called as the three heard her rushing footsteps approaching down the tunnel. Slightly out of breath, Mary bustled into the chamber. "You can't go without taking some food and water. Here." She hurriedly pressed a wrapped parcel into Vincent's hands. Puzzlement was evident on his face, and she flushed with embarrassment. "We're sorry for eavesdropping, but we had to make sure you were all right. You'll be careful, won't you?"

Vincent looked down on this frail-seeming but tough woman who had been like a mother to him for as far back as he could remember. Reassuringly, he placed his hand on her shoulder. "I will. Thank you for the food, I would have forgotten." Eyes glistening, she pulled him down and placed a kiss on his cheek, before gathering her dignity and turning to leave the three to their privacy.

Cotton shirts, a warm sweater, clean corduroy pants, and the gray ribbed vest disappeared behind the dressing screen, as Vincent divested himself of the thermal shirt and sweat pants that were his normal sleeping attire. Soon Vincent stepped out and swung his warm wool cloak over his broad shoulders. Pausing only momentarily to look at Father and Catherine, still hand in hand, he smiled a silent reassurance. With a dark swirl he turned and swept out of the chamber, picking up the backpack as he went. Silence descended, leaving both Catherine and Father strangely unwilling to move, as if movement acknowledged the fact that Vincent had truly gone.

"Father, look," Catherine breathed quietly after several moments. Glancing up, Father followed the direction of her gaze toward the floor at the foot of the bed. There, slumped over , lay both pairs of Vincent's leather boots.

* * * * *

"Where are you? I know you're in here you little ‑ ah hah! Gotcha." Backing up, Catherine closed the freezer door and turned, a box of frozen Laudiso's single serve pizzas gripped in her hands. Opening one, she dropped it on a plate, shoved it in the microwave and dialed up four minutes on high. The bottom half of the refrigerator yielded a carton of milk. The best-before date indicated it was at the end of its life after tonight, so she chose and filled her largest glass. Her poor abused stomach rumbled its impatient discontent as the smells of cooking pizza filled the kitchen. Glancing at the timer, she took a large swallow of milk to appease the hunger pangs. The cold refreshing liquid tasted so marvelous, she polished off the whole glass while waiting and poured another. Finally, the microwave pinged, and she hauled out the plate and dug in.

Father had asked if she wanted to stay for supper in the tunnels, but she had politely declined. She felt Vincent's absence much more keenly while she was there. In her apartment she could pretend that he was just busy Below. Besides, it hurt to continually have to answer everyone's concerned questions about Vincent, when she didn't really know all the answers herself.

It seemed only a few bites and her plate was empty. Still ravenous, she decided to have another while going through the mail she had picked up on her way. Bill. Bill. Junk. Bill. Nothing interesting. Rationalizing that if she didn't want it she could take it for lunch, she started a third pizza cooking while wolfing down the one that was ready. The third pizza soon followed its predecessors. Briefly considering a fourth, she stopped. No way could Catherine Chandler ever think of eating four pizzas in one sitting. That was disgusting. Resolutely, she shoved the remainder of the box back in the freezer, when her eye caught the Hagen Daz carton. Triple Chocolate Brownie Overload, purchased for serious bouts of depression or PMS. Mmmmm. Nothing wrong with a little dessert. Not bothering with a bowl, Catherine dug into the caloric treat with relish, rationalizing that after the last week, she deserved a little indulgence. All too soon, her spoon hit bottom. Disappointed, she scraped the last of the sticky sweetness off the sides before admitting defeat and tossing the empty carton in the trash, followed by the now empty milk carton.

Hunger satisfied, Catherine felt a wave of fatigue. She turned out the kitchen light and crossed through the living area to her bedroom and began to undress. "Ohhh, yes,' she moaned as she unfastened and removed her bra and pantyhose. Nothing felt better at the end of the day than getting those damned things off. Well... there were better things; not that she'd felt them in the last few years. Stripping the hose off her legs, her hands encountered the roughness of hair. Absently, she noted her legs badly needed a shave. Well, life had been a bit too hectic lately for such niceties, but that would change. Feeling as if exhaustion were dragging her down into a pit, she decided against the planned hot bath. Instead, Catherine resolved to spend Saturday taking care of all the things she had let slide in the last few weeks. A haircut and manicure, maybe a leg wax. On second thought, maybe she'd better pass on the leg wax. With the new strength of the bond Vincent would probably think she was being flayed alive, she thought with a chuckle. Not taking the time to bother with the delicate nightgowns she favored, Catherine crawled nude between the sheets, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.


Continued in Chapter 7