A Kingdom By The Sea

By Terry Pepe

Vincent felt Catherine's approach, his thoughts sinking deeper within the well of despair that had begun to surround him ever since yesterday, when Elliot Burch had first reappeared in her life after a year's absence. Elliot had come to her for help, and she, in turn, had come Below, seeking his counsel. Never before had doing the right thing been so hard for him, but turning away from that debt had not been an option, and Catherine had ultimately agreed, as he had known she would. They had made their plans quickly then, and within hours Stanley Kasmaric had been safely whisked from his hospital room, right from under the noses of the ever-suspicious yet unsuspecting federal agents.

It had been the right thing to do, given what they'd known, but now that decision and their actions weighed heavily upon him. Kasmaric was dead, killed in the helicopter explosion meant for his son, Elliot. Vincent had been on his way Below when their bond rang out with Catherine's fierce emotions; a chaotic mix of shock, anger and fear. Though he hadn't seen the blast itself, he was witness to the aftermath of that terrorist act, hidden in shadows upon a roof overlooking pier 204 as the armed crew searched the dark waters for some sign of Catherine and Elliot. Shards of glass and metal had reigned down over the area, some lying just feet from where he stood. By the size of the debris he had known there wasn't the smallest chance that anyone could have survived that deadly blast.

But Catherine still lived, and that was all he could think of as he slipped quietly back into the dark recesses of the cluttered roof to the fire escape at the back of the building, his presence unseen and unsuspected by the men below. The feel of her within their bond was strong and true, and he followed it unerringly, gliding like a shadow among the pallets and machinery littering the wharf. When she finally emerged from the river, he was there, a silent, watchful figure. He didn't go to her though, his position such that he could see both her and any approaching threat, ever wary of the undiminished danger surrounding them.

He heard the footsteps long before Catherine did, and within moments had seen the dim outline in the foggy mist and identified the familiar figure as Elliot Burch. And so he stood motionless, watching as Elliot moved towards Catherine's hiding spot behind a load of stacked crates. For a moment he thought she wouldn't recognize him, letting the danger pass within six feet of her as she stayed low and still. But of course that didn't happen. He expelled a heavy sigh when he heard her voice whisper out Elliot's name. Her relief flooded through him and his own heart pounded with a painful confusion of emotions as they hugged and turned toward a small shack, disappearing into its waiting darkness. He still stood in the same spot when they finally emerged from the building thirty minutes later, in what looked to be a pose of quiet patience. No one would know from looking him how hard he had fought to keep from pacing furiously in the dark shadows of the roof several buildings down from their own.

For indeed the danger wasn't yet past, the sudden presence of a quiet assassin on the next roof over almost catching him unawares. First him, then the others, and when it was over he found himself alone, in a dimly lit alley, surrounded by blood and carnage. Oh, how he had needed her then, needed her with him to dispel the darkness inside, the burning rage that swept everything from his path and left him adrift in blood, the red haze behind his eyes slowly retreating to leave him the merciless witness of his own actions. When he'd finally come to his senses he had been aghast at the temerity of his wishes, intensely grateful that she hadn't seen him like that yet again, though he knew that she had heard the frenzied sounds as the deadly drama played out just over her head. He shuddered at that thought, but resolutely put it aside, determined not to consider it now, during the devastating aftermath of his fury. At least she was safe, safe Below...with Elliot.

He sighed once more, and flexed his left hand gingerly, waiting with a resigned trepidation for her to walk through the chamber entrance. His gaze was locked upon that dark opening, ever watchful for her, though their bond told him she was still a few minutes away at least. In that small space of time he relived his encounter with Father upon his return to this safe, quiet place.

His emotions had been so easy to read; concern for his son's physical well-being quickly replaced by a fearful dread of the emotional impact of yet another encounter with that dark passion, and all it implied. And yet there had been something else, something new. Upon hearing his approach, Vincent had fervently wished that he could hide all evidence of this night's horror, but knew in an instant it was impossible. Father had immediately seen the bloody basin, and Vincent didn't try to withhold his hand when he reached for it, a part of him ever grateful for the steady presence that always came out when his father's skills as a physician were required.

They hadn't said much. What was there to say, after all? Vincent would protect Catherine with his dying breath, and both of them knew that, knew it as an immutable law that could be neither challenged nor changed. His quiet, two word reply to Father's fearful question about her had said it all; 'Alive. Safe.' As long as she lived, so did he, and in that instant he had felt his father's ragged relief, surprise filling him at the degree of emotion there. They had come to some new understanding then, unspoken but plain. He knew he would have to seek him out later, to talk about it rationally, perhaps even at length, but not now. Now he waited...waited for her.

Everything was quiet, and utterly still. Father was long since gone, and the only message heard across the pipes was the hourly tapping of the time, a sound so familiar as to be almost unheard in any but the most subliminal, unconscious way. Only minutes had passed, but it felt like an eternity before she finally appeared. He stared at her for a moment, his attention inexplicably centered on her clothing, of all things. She wore the baggy, shapeless trousers, shirt and vest of a dock worker, taken from a locker in that small building. They had belonged to someone much larger than she, making her appear smaller yet, and oh-so-fragile. That thought bumped headlong against his more rational knowledge of her. She was small, but she wasn't fragile, either emotionally or physically. He had made that mistaken assumption in the past, much to his dismay.

"You're hurt!"

He shook off that strange reverie and focused upon her still presence once more. She knelt beside him now and held his hand in her own, inspecting the bandaging there as if she could see directly through it. Her hand was so small in his, the contrast severe and startling, as it always was, but no longer shocking, as it once had been. He closed his fingers upon hers, holding her hand gently and stroking the soft skin there with the pad of his thumb. He shook his head dismissively over her comment, trying to ease her concerns, though he knew that would be no small task.

"It's the kind of hurt that heals easily."

He hadn't planned it, but his words provided the distraction he had been looking for. The duality inherent in them and in his voice was instantly caught by her and her luminous eyes searched his face for some clue to the deeper meaning there. Along their bond he felt a ripple as she tried to probe his emotions, but it was very slight, her strength not yet anywhere equal to his own in this area. Finally she simply asked the question.

"Tell me what you're feeling."

She stared imploringly at him with an intensity that demanded the complete truth, and he found that he could offer her nothing less, though his thoughts were such a jumbled confusion that he wasn't sure himself of his real feelings. A chess board sat before him, the pieces still in play from a recently interrupted lesson with Samantha. She had left her King in a vulnerable position, with no protection. It would be checkmate in three moves, the pattern easily read in the familiar grid before him. He idly picked up the piece, his thoughts suddenly gelling at the solid weight of it in his hand.

"Elliot...is a king in your world."

"Yes, in a way."

He heard the hesitation in her voice, the silent question that filled their bond. He replaced the piece, then slid it forward to the best position of strength, next to the Queen.

"He can offer you so much, power to do great good, beauties undreamed of... He can walk beside you in the daylight."

He heard the catch in her breath and knew her gaze was pinned upon him, but he couldn't meet her eyes, not if he wanted to finish saying what needed to be said.

"Last night I felt your fear for him; the sorrows you shared, your joy when you knew he was alive, and when death was nearest, when he..."

"When he kissed me."

A shudder rippled through him and he winced. Though he tried to contain his response, it was impossible, and he knew from the sudden stillness beside him and over their bond, that she had seen it, that knowledge filling him with shame and dismay.

"Yes. I felt...that, too."

The silence drew on for a long moment, and still he couldn't face her, his anxiety dulled to a throbbing ache centered about his heart. Finally she spoke, her words soft but clear, her need for him to understand instantly communicated to him.

"I've never felt closer to Elliot than I did last night. I saw so much of what he's always kept hidden, the boy he once was, the man he could be..."

His heart contracted painfully, but he was a little better prepared now, and was almost certain she hadn't felt his response to those words.

"We almost died together, and when he kissed me, just for an instant, some small part of me responded, and I wished..."

He had to see her eyes now, even though his deepest fears filled him; the fear that it was all about to end. He'd always known that she would have to leave him one day, to find her happiness in her own world Above, with a man who could offer her all the things he couldn't. And so he waited with the solemn stillness of a man condemned, all but the sentencing left to be heard.

"I wished that it was you."

* * *

It had been late, almost five o'clock, when Catherine had finally gone back Above to her own apartment. He had tried to persuade her to stay, to rest here Below in the guest chamber, but she couldn't. She knew that Joe and the CIA agents would be anxiously waiting for her at the DA's office in a few hours, might even be waiting for her now. There would be a lot of explaining to do, and she still wasn't quite sure how it was all to be accomplished, though they both suspected that Elliot would somehow manage to tie up the loose ends, as he always did. Vincent had insisted upon walking her back to the threshold beneath her apartment building, and as he returned, he again went over the discussion that had taken place in his chamber this evening.

'I wished that it was you.' It was unbelievable to him that she could really mean it, but he knew that it was true nonetheless. The despair and sorrow that had filled him had drained away instantly, replaced with an electrifying hope rife with possibilities. He saw it in her eyes then, and felt it through their bond; she was waiting for him to kiss her, urging him with her luminous gaze in a way that was unmistakable, just as she had on her balcony two nights ago.

He had't been able to then, nor had he been able to this night, though he thought now that there was nothing he wanted more -- nothing.

His chaotic musings were interrupted by the sudden appearance of a sentry crossing his path, and Vincent looked about him in surprise as he realized he had reached the hub. He paused near the side tunnel which led to his chamber, then instead turned down another a few yards beyond it. This one led to Father's rooms, and once there he regretfully woke him to request something for the pain. The pills he took would also help him sleep, he was assured, and he gratefully accepted Father's offer to take over his next day's classes, feeling drained, both physically and emotionally.

He was yawning by the time he reached his chamber a few minutes later and could barely keep his eyes open as he pulled off his clothes, letting them drop haphazardly to the floor. The fresh sheets and fluffy quilts looked tremendously inviting, and he crawled within them completely naked, the novelty of that action not quite making it through the thick fog swirling about him. The cool sheets felt wonderful against his skin, he thought drowsily, just before sleep claimed him completely.

His slumber was deep but fitful, full of a dull, throbbing pain in his hand and cloudy, disturbing images in his brain. The slight fever he had escalated until sweat poured off him, everything he saw and did colored by that fearful heat. Nothing was as it should be, and his anxiety grew as the terrifying events unfolded about him.

It began innocently enough, with yet another threat to the security of their world, a threat particular to him and to Catherine, from a reporter named Spirko. Though they had faced such dangers before, indeed ones far worse, his response wasn't at all characteristic, the illness building within him affecting his perceptions and judgment. His friends and family Below all appeared in this growing monstrosity, each one behaving stranger than the one before, until he couldn't keep it all straight. Paracelsus wove his way among them, hidden, yet not. Deeper and deeper he sank into that dream, the dizzying weakness enveloping him until nothing made sense, except the terror of it all. Then the true nightmare began.

The things that happened there were horrifying, beyond words. A future unfolded before him that left him bereft of all warmth, all comfort, all love. Catherine was gone and he was forever cast adrift, beyond the reach of Father and all his friends and family Below. There would be no consolation for him, he knew that in the deepest part of who he was. Even the child...Catherine's child...could bring him no solace. The years would pass and he would endure them, for their son's sake, but for no other. He saw that long, barren future with a terror that filled him with an agonizing pain, and knew that those were the emotions which would characterize the rest of his remaining days. All his hopes and all his yearnings were directed out there, down that stream of time, until the day when he could at last join her in that long sleep where all trials ended.

Yet how could he endure it? How?! Catherine...Catherine! His mind cried out for her in pain and longing, everything in him needing to be with her always, always. No! This was a future that couldn't be -- he wouldn't let it!

The sensation of those torturous years fell away in an instant and another reality swept over him. The new dream unfolded gently, untainted by the horror which had preceded it.

He stood with Catherine on her balcony and the cool air was drenched with the heady scent of roses. Her hand rose to cup his cheek and her soulful gaze held him as surely as the tender touch of her fingers. She leaned toward him and he could easily read her intent, but he didn't pull away, not this time. Her lips touched his and his eyes drifted shut, all his senses now tuned to that one place of warm contact between them. Her lips were silky and warm, resting softly against him in utter stillness, waiting for him to accept this move forward. He knew that she wouldn't protest if he once again retreated, but there was no chance of that, not now. Instead his hands rose to hold her arms and urge her closer...closer, until her body was pressed tight along his. Yes...oh, yes. This was what they searched for, this was what they needed. He recognized it instantly.

Cold air swept over him as the contact was broken. His eyes flew open and met hers, a hesitant confusion there that he couldn't voice. The gray stillness of her eyes was locked upon him and he gazed into their incandescent depths until he thought he might drown in the tender beauty he found there. He didn't know how long they stood thus, but suddenly he became aware of a shivery vibration through their bond. It tingled down his spine, jolting a breath of air from between his lips, and his mouth fell open in a helpless gasp. His attention was instinctively drawn to her own lips then, and he trembled at their lush fullness. Like him, she was breathing hard, almost panting, her lips parted slightly, a glistening sheen beckoning him to her.

"Catherine."

He groaned her name a second before his mouth covered hers. He didn't know what he wanted, only that he wanted more. The gentle touch of her lips against his was no longer enough. He drew her closer and moved feverishly across her silky flesh, nuzzling and nipping at her luscious curves. He tasted a dewy sweetness there, and his tongue flicked out to draw it in more fully, tracing along the curves and valleys of her lips with a barely restrained hunger. At that moment he felt their bond flood with an urgent desire and her lips parted beneath his, their tongues meeting in a touch that shocked him back to reality.

He jerked away with a gasp, his startled eyes seeking out her own. The gray was almost entirely gone now, a stormy green residing there, beneath the half-closed lids. Her look was sultry and seductive. With a strength that amazed him, she pulled him back, kissing him with a yearning hunger that was now completely unleashed. He shook at the intensity of her kiss, their passion escalating to an electrifying, dizzying height. His arms tightened about her and she wriggled closer yet, rubbing her body shamelessly along his aroused length, her actions blatantly sexual and beyond misunderstanding.

The kiss seemed to go on forever, until air became a blazing necessity and she pulled her mouth from his with a gasp, her head thrown back to bare her pulsing throat to him. He buried his face against that tantalizing length, kissing and licking upward until he reached the throbbing pulse just beneath her ear. Her heated blood drew him and he held her tighter still, the silky wetness of his open mouth moving upon her with a stunningly erotic force. She cried out and arched against him, and his hands slid down her back to cup the soft curves of her buttocks, pulling her up and into the hard heat of his arousal. Catherine burrowed beneath his hair to find his ear, licking the fleshy skin of his lobe before nipping him with a tender love bite. Her whispered words were husky and urgent and almost buried within the mewling moans filling her throat.

"Please, Vincent, please!"

He shuddered at her imploring plea, his muscles throbbing with heat and passion. Time stood still, a moment taut with tension. All motion stopped between them and he stared into her stormy eyes with a confused intensity that held her still and waiting. Suddenly the moment ended and his breath expelled with a shuddering growl. He swung her up into his arms and pushed the french doors to her bedroom open wide. Without further hesitation he stepped across the threshold, his precious burden nestled close and tight to his heart.

* * *

The dream ended and he woke, gasping for air, alone in his bed. He searched frantically for the elusive details, but they were drifting away in a haze. Likewise, the minutiae of that first nightmare were no longer clear, and for that he was extremely grateful. There was no forgetting the emotions those dreams inspired though, the one characterized by endless pain, suffering and lost hope, the other by pleasure, ecstatic joy and eternal love. He trembled as the contrast of those sensations washed over him, everything in him utterly rejecting and denying the first and wishing with a fervent hope for the endless possibilities of the second.

The sound of the pipes intruded, their tapping drawing him from his introspection, and from the content there he knew it was late in the afternoon, just before four o'clock perhaps. He had slept for almost ten hours, and physically he felt quite well, all things considered, the throbbing in his hand almost entirely gone. But there was a restiveness of his spirit that he couldn't shake, the powerful emotions generated by those dreams still holding him in their tight grasp. He slipped from the bed and for the first time realized that he was naked, his shocked gaze scanning the length of his long body in stunned amazement. He never slept without some sort of covering, never! He quickly pulled on a pair of fleecy sweatpants and a long thermal shirt, slid his bare feet into slippers and pulled a robe on, belting it tightly, just for good measure. He picked up the clothing strewn about the chamber floor and deposited them near the door in a heap. in a few minutes he would leave them in the wicker basket in the bathing chamber he shared with Father, but not yet. He felt an urgent need in him now to focus his thoughts and emotions, to try and make sense of all that had happened in the last two days.

He pulled his journal from a stack of books resting on the bedside table and sat down at the circular table in the center of the room, lighting a candle cluster waiting there. The book fell open to the last entry, a deep blue, silk scrap from one of Catherine's gowns marking the spot. She had given it to him after he had shyly told her how beautiful she looked one night, that the color and texture of her dress reminded him of the rippling waters of the mirror pool. He stroked that scrap now, the sensation instantly sweeping over him of how she had felt within that gown as they'd hugged goodnight. Even now he could feel how the silky softness of the dress had lain over her round curves, the feel of her solid and real against his hands. He shuddered as the vivid memory filled him, then shook himself out of it, reaching for his heavy fountain pen. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, and his fingers unconsciously stroked along the warm, worn barrel of the pen, the weight and texture familiar and comfortable to him. Finally he began to put words to paper.

My Dearest Catherine,

So often my mind is filled with thoughts which can only be voiced here, in these private pages, closed off from you, who most deserve to hear them...to know them. More than anything I wish I could share my deepest hopes and dreams with you, but always my fears hold me back. These last two days have filled me with such sorrow, and such joy, almost beyond description.

When Elliot Burch reentered your life, I felt your response, and my own shames me, even now. It wasn't love I felt, but it was something we have never shared; a deep familiarity on a level that I've denied you...denied us. I want that between us, yet I have no one to blame but myself for its absence.

The envy I felt, the jealousy... It raged within me, a sickness that destroys everything it touches. And yet, in a strange way, I begin to see some similarities between us and think that, in another life, in a different world, we might be friends, Elliot and I.

Even as I write those words a churning nausea stirs in the pit of my stomach. I don't want to like him. I want him gone, far from you. These thoughts eat at me with their ugliness, but time after time they come to me, whenever I think of you with him.

When he kissed you last night, the sensations I felt almost two years ago came back again, so strong it was as if I was reliving them for the first time. We were only beginning then, our relationship so new, so fragile. But even then I felt the pull between us, much as I tried to fight it. I felt the possibilities for a life I had always thought could never be, and I wanted it so...wanted you.

When you came to me last night, I thought it was for the last time. I was sure you would finally see the necessity of leaving me and seeking out a new destiny, Above, with someone who could be all the things for you which I cannot. When he kissed you, it all came back again...just as it did with Michael.

I know how I've disappointed you, Catherine, with my inability to give you what others consider such a simple thing. I have known kisses, from Father and Mary, from the children and many of my friends here Below, but though you are the brightest light in my life and my best friend, you are yet so much more. A kiss between us is no simple thing, I think we both know that.

And yet, in my dreams we share such kisses that I wish never to wake from them. Kisses that leave me weak with desire and ever hungry for more, always more. My deepest fears spring from this insatiable hunger. How can I know what will come of it? How can I be sure that side of me which responds with violence when the need arises will know the difference between the fiery passion of rage and love? And not knowing the answer, how can I take that chance?

I dreamt of you last night...of us. Two dreams that filled me with such terror, and such hope. The first was a nightmare beyond comprehension, the second a dream of love beyond belief. It was as if I had reached a crossroads in this path we travel, one where I had to choose the ultimate fate of our destiny. I've fought against making that choice for so long, but never, never would I let that dark dream take you from me. Never!

And yet you must be free to make your own choice, to pursue your own destiny, apart from me if that is meant to be. But know this; I will protect you always and love you always, no matter your choice. I know you think our destinies are intertwined, I feel it in you so strongly, especially lately. With all my heart I wish to accept the promises of that second dream, to accept from you the love and passion that burns all else away in its purifying flames. I want that more than anything, and yet there is also that within me which stubbornly resists that course. It's too big a sacrifice for you. I'm too afraid.

I don't know what to do anymore. I only know that I grow weary of the struggle. I want you so, Catherine. There will never be anyone else for me but you, my love. You have my heart always.

Vincent

"Vincent?"

Catherine's voice startled him out of the trance-like state which had immersed him ever since he'd begun writing. He looked up in astonishment to find her standing within the dark outline of his chamber door. He was stunned that he hadn't been aware of her approach, and could only assume that his thoughts of her had been so strong while writing that journal entry as to be indistinguishable from her physical presence now. He jumped up and went to her and she immediately held out her arms to him, pulling him close.

"Catherine! I...I'm sorry, I was distracted", he finished lamely.

"There's no need to be sorry, Vincent. In fact I thought you might still be sleeping. I stopped to talk to Father first and he said you often sleep for a long time after an injury like this one, that it's your body's way of healing."

One hand had slipped down his arm to lightly cup his bandaged hand, gently stroking it. He closed his fingers about her own, that action instinctive and irresistible to him.

"I woke up a little while ago."

He flushed suddenly at the recollection of what he wore, but there was no way to gracefully move out of her embrace, and truth to tell, more than anything else he wanted to stay right where he was. After a short struggle with himself, he gave up. He was decently enough covered, after all, with at least two layers of thick cotton and wool.

She tugged her hand out of his to brush it lightly across his brow, and he refocused his attention upon her, wryly aware that she was surreptitiously checking his temperature. It was difficult to hold onto that comforting thought though, as another warmer one was vying for his attention. A husky voice whispered within him that she had chosen to drop his hand rather than remove the arm that circled his waist and held his body close to hers, that knowledge both thrilling and frightening to him. Once again her voice drew him back to the solid reality of his chamber.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine. Please don't worry, Catherine, the cut will heal quickly. The pain is already gone."

"But I do worry, Vincent. This was my fault."

"No. I'm the one who insisted we help Elliot, and I don't regret that decision, only that you were put in such danger. If anything were to happen to you..."

He couldn't finish that sentence, the sensation of last evening's nightmare sweeping over him with a violent shudder. She felt the tremor of his muscles and her hold tightened upon him. Her response drew his gaze outward again, away from that horrifying dream, and he quickly changed the subject, desperate not to let those terrible images taint their time together.

"You've hardly slept at all since last night", he said reprovingly. "You need to rest. Come, the guest chamber is empty."

He turned to guide her out of his chamber, but she tugged him back.

"I can't. We spent the day in debriefing and all that's left now is the last of the paperwork. I agreed to meet with Greg Hughs this evening to close it out. I have to go back Above within the hour. I just needed to make sure that you were all right."

He stared at her for a long moment and thought about trying to convince her that it could wait until tomorrow, but finally decided that was useless. Someone else's time was involved, and she wouldn't change her mind. He knew her well enough to know that and gave in gracefully.

"Then at least stay for tea and something to eat. You need some nourishment."

She smiled up at him and he instantly knew that she would stay for as long as she possibly could.

"All right. I am hungry", she admitted ruefully.

"Wait here."

He left for the kitchen, the thought of food reminding him suddenly of his own hunger. It took less than ten minutes for him to accomplish his task. William loaded up a tray with enough food to feed five people, and the steaming teapot was a constant enticement during the short walk back to his chamber. When he entered, he found her standing with her back to him, in front of Kristopher's painting of them. It hung at the far wall across from the foot of his bed, and he flushed suddenly at what she might think of that placement. He cautiously searched their bond, but could feel nothing from her, nothing at all but a quiet stillness.

He shook off that unnerving thought and moved to set the tray upon the table, his gaze immediately falling upon his journal. He had left it sitting there, open, and for a moment he froze in fear. Was it possible?! No, it couldn't be. He hadn't noticed anything in particular from her over their bond during those few minutes he'd been gone, and surely he would have, if she'd read his most recent entry. He stood staring down at it in horror, frantically trying to decide what to do.

"Mmmm. That smells delicious. And it looks like William sent his usual hearty servings too -- not that I'm complaining, mind you!"

He glanced up quickly to find her moving toward him, a small smile upon her face. He expelled a silent sigh, deftly closing the book and setting it aside. She couldn't have seen it, not with that mild response. He felt weak with the aftershock of relief and quickly pulled out a chair for her then joined her at the table. A comforting closeness surrounded them, as it always did when they were alone together, and he let it soothe the chaotic emotions that still swirled within him. All too soon it was time for her to leave. He exchanged his slippers for boots and pulled on his cloak, ignoring her protests, and they left together for the threshold entrance to her apartment.

* * *

Catherine's mind spun dizzily, though she held tightly to her emotional control, desperate that Vincent feel none of it. He mustn't suspect that she knew, it would be unbearable to him now, in this vulnerable state. But oh, god, how she wanted to let her emotions float free, to sing and dance with the joy that filled her. He loved her, he wanted her, just as she loved and wanted him! She'd always thought that it had to be so, but now she knew, and that knowledge left her dazed with a glorious exultation that was overwhelming. She was amazed that she had been able to hold those feelings in check, but at the first sight of her name on that page something within her had gone still and silent, an unconscious certainty of what she would find there sweeping over her with a swiftness that brooked no argument. She had read his personal thoughts for her, as shameful as that was, but could summon no regret, now, in the aftermath of that stunningly revealing interval Below. When they'd reached the sub-basement of her apartment, she had asked him to come Above, later that night, afraid that he might be suspicious if she didn't make that request as she usually would. He had declined, saying that she needed her sleep, and she didn't push it. The truth was that she didn't think she was prepared to face him with this new knowledge yet. She needed time to gain a stronger level of control over her feelings before she could safely be alone with him again. Tomorrow he would come to her, she was certain of that. She had to be ready by then, all her concentration focused on burying the electrifying sense of hope and expectation that now filled her.

* * *

"Catherine."

She turned, a startled flush sweeping over her. He frequently surprised her with his presence, even here, on her own balcony. It wasn't his unsuspected appearance that caused her blushing response, but the growing emotions that had almost escaped her as she stood lost in thought. She had struggled so hard during the last twenty-four hours to contain them, and she thought she had been successful until all had almost been lost just a few short minutes ago.

Five feet separated them, but he made no move to close the distance. She suspected that he hadn't completely recovered from the fear that had been so palpable in him last night, when he'd first thought that she might have read his journal. Still, she was quite sure that he was now convinced she hadn't read it, despite the anxiety that yet lingered on. That certainty settled within her, and she drew her hard-fought control about her, moving to enfold him in a welcoming hug, the need to hold him too strong to resist.

"It's only been a day, Vincent, but I've missed you so."

"And I you, Catherine. Did everything go well last night? Are they gone?"

He clearly referred to the federal agents, but underneath that inquiry she sensed another question, one he couldn't ask. She thought for a moment, looking for a response which would seem uncontrived. When she finally spoke, her tone was light, a carefully measured bit of humor there that struck just the right balance.

"Yes. Elliot was able to concoct quite an elaborate story -- one they were too afraid to question since it leaves their own actions open to scrutiny. I think they were more than happy enough to lift the hold on his passport, though I would be willing to bet that even Hong Kong isn't far enough away to suit them. Still, they can't have expected that he would return to the Cayman islands now, despite their continual insistence that the death squads are only 'a myth'."

He nodded, but his expression was inscrutable as he moved away from her to lean on the balcony wall and stare out over the city. She felt the chaos within him and wondered if he would speak of it, standing quietly behind him as unobtrusively as possible. Finally he did, his low tones almost inaudible, as if he hadn't meant to say the words aloud.

"Elliot. Once I thought I could never understand this man. Now, sometimes I understand him all too well. He has his own kind of nobility."

She moved to his side, but was careful not to touch him, sensing the fragility of his mood this night.

"And his own kind of tragedy."

Vincent shook his head, his look a mixture of stunned bemusement and apprehension.

"So many contradictions; light, darkness, good and evil, pain and joy. How can these things live side by side in one man?...in one world?"

She saw his conflict then, the correlation of Elliot's state and his own clear. He saw the dichotomies in Elliot, yet still thought him a fit mate for her, while denying his own worthiness in that role. When would he see it all?

"How doesn't matter, Vincent, they do. It's life."

She stressed her words, hoping he would accept them...accept them from her. He stared at her intently, his expression still unreadable. She sighed and looked beyond him to the rosebush she'd planted just three short days ago, distracted suddenly by the unexpected sight there.

"Look!"

He turned in surprise, unconsciously moving to her side and pulling her close. Her smile widened at his instinctive response, and she took advantage of that lapse by immediately circling his torso with her arms and leaning into his muscled warmth. They stared at the new buds, barely in the first stages of bloom. There were two of them, one white, one red, and they twined together, as if each sought the presence of the other with a conscious intent. His words were spoken in a low whisper, almost without thought.

"The red rose whispers of passion

And the white rose breathes of love,

O, the red rose is a falcon,

And the white rose is a dove..."

She felt the shiver which rushed through him at the conclusion, and easily read his thoughts. The falcon was a bird of prey. He didn't go on, but both heard the words of O'Reilly's next verse nonetheless, a shared image of a kiss, somehow both passionate and pure, flooding their bond.

"Vincent."

Her voice implored him, and he turned to face her, a tremulous foreboding filling him. That anxiety was borne out when she spoke aloud of his deepest fears.

"You've never done anything but protect me...and love me. Surely you must know by now that you could never hurt me."

He trembled at her words, unable to move or respond. When she lifted her hand to cup his cheek, he stood frozen, the scent of roses drifting over him. She leaned toward him and his mind screamed out for him to pull away, but he didn't...he couldn't. Despite those telling signs, he couldn't quite believe it when she kissed him. She rested there, the barest contact between them, with a feathery softness that was meant to soothe the tumultuous emotions within him. But it was impossible; the feel of her lips upon his was wildly arousing to him. Oh, how he wanted this touch between them, needed it... His arms rose to circle her without his conscious volition, drawing her in close and tight to the heat of his own body. Yes...oh, yes.

When she pulled back he was stunned, but released her immediately, everything in him attuned to her wishes. His breath was a rasping pant as he stared at her in shocked dismay. How could he have let go of his restraint so easily? How? He had to regain it again, and quickly. But her gaze was locked to his, and he saw a beseeching yearning there. He drew in a shuddering breath, instantly understanding her recent behavior, and the urgent message in her eyes. She had pulled away, and he had released her, despite his overwhelming desire and need. And now she wanted him to kiss her again, to take that initiative himself and prove that this was something he could accept between them. An electrifying shiver tingled down his spine. It settled and grew, and his body responded instantly, urgently. Leave her. Go. Now! The words whispered out, but another force stronger yet held him still, trapped by her yearning gaze and the dizzying sensations of his body and their bond. His eyes were irresistibly drawn to her tender lips, and he wanted nothing more than to drown in their honeyed sweetness.

"Oh, Catherine."

His voice was husky and low, a deep groan in this chest that rumbled through the night with a fierce virility that could not be denied. He pulled her to him and kissed her with a feverish intensity, exploring her lush lips with a wild abandon that astonished him. He tasted a sudden warmth not there before and paused for a moment, concentrating intently on that sweet sensation. When next he moved, it was with an aggressiveness that shocked them both. His tongue traced demandingly across her lush curves, seeking out that irresistible, tangy scent and drawing it into himself with a driving passion that instantly communicated itself to her, across their pulsing bond. When her tongue met his in a fervent caress, he was stunned, reality flooding back around him once more.

He pulled away, his breath a harsh panting that sounded feral and threatening to his own ears. What was he doing?! He tried to back away from her, but she stopped his retreat with a surprising strength. He met her eyes and gasped, the brilliant gray replaced completely with the complex shades of a turbulent, lightening-besieged sea, the stormy hues and tones of the greens and grays there too numerous to count. The kiss they shared then was beyond passion, beyond thought, shaking him to the very core. His body throbbed with a burning need and a growl burst from his throat when she pressed intimately against him, her intent unmistakable.

Suddenly he couldn't breathe, their escalating passion pushing his body beyond its normal controls. His heart pounded within him and he pulled away, drawing in shuddering draughts of air in a furious attempt to stop the dizzying hunger building in him. But Catherine's own breath panted loudly in a primal display of lost inhibitions, and the sight and sound of that wild response held him entirely. Her hands gripped his arms tightly as she leaned back to draw in the sustaining air. Through the bond he felt her hot blood pulse through her veins, then felt the answering response in him as well. His eyes traced the delectable curve of her throat until he reached the throbbing spot just beneath her ear. It was bared now to his avid gaze, and he found it quickly with his hot mouth. She arched against him, a moaning cry torn from deep within, and he groaned at the touch of her against his swelling flesh. He needed that touch, needed her closer... His exploring hands found the luscious curves of her hips and pressed her tighter against his pulsing arousal, pulling her up on tiptoe to gain the most intimate contact possible. The sensation of that touch was unbelievable, the pleasure so intense he thought he might faint. A low growl rumbled through him, erupting suddenly as she bit down on the sensitive lobe of his ear, her tongue quickly licking and nuzzling that tender flesh a moment later. Oh, god! He needed her so...wanted her... His feverish thoughts were interrupted by the sound of her voice, passionately imploring him;

"Please, Vincent, please!"

Her words mirrored his own need, and he shuddered at the intimacy that quivered there. He wanted to lose himself within her, to let their bond spin them out of control. More than that, he wanted to let their bodies follow the urgent demand inherent there. He felt the power, the strength within him, and knew that it was the effect of their passion, his inevitable response to her. His muscles were almost painfully taut, everything in him focused on her. A dizzying scent filled him, a spicy heat that came from her. He couldn't stop the instinctive growl filling him, and pulled away to meet her eyes, determined that she see all that he was, now, in the midst of his passion. She met his gaze without a pause, the stormy hunger there undiminished by his primal response. On the contrary, it seemed to grow before his very eyes. The breath he held was released with a harsh, explosive burst and he lifted her into his trembling arms. The doors behind them had been left slightly ajar, and he pushed them open and passed through, into her bedroom, without hesitation.

* * *

Their bodies trembled in the aftermath of that all encompassing passion, and they held each other tight, waiting for their breathing and heartbeats to calm. Their first joining had been raw and cataclysmic, a fierce need burning through them which could be satisfied by only one thing. They had sought that out with a single-minded focus that left room for nothing else.

This last time, though, had been different. The urgency of their desires had been lessened somewhat, and their most recent lovemaking had been characterized by a fragile sense of wonder and astonishment as they shyly explored each others bodies, learning of all the ways they could bring pleasure to each other. Vincent was stunned by the discoveries he made, of how she responded to his simplest, seemingly most innocent touches, how she craved the power and aggression that he tried so hard to hold in check, urging him to let it loose. Finally he had, and the ecstasy they both felt from that release was beyond belief.

The delirious delight he felt when he touched her was only, amazingly enough, part of it, for the joy he felt from her when she touched him was almost past bearing. Her tender hands, fingers and lips traced every inch of his body as he lay still before her, allowing that intimate exploration. The pleasure she found in his body left him dazed with disbelief until he could no longer deny the emotions he sensed from her over their bond. She loved touching him and she loved having him touch her. That realization had finally settled consciously within him, and when that happened he found he couldn't wait a moment longer. His body sought out hers then for that final, ecstatic joining, a blissful rapture building in him that found its ultimate expression in their passionate release. He knew then that nothing else would ever be the same again. He pulled her closer yet, if that were possible, and snuggled against her silky warmth, her body still drawing him despite that recent, explosive release.

"Oh, Vincent, Vincent. I've waited so long for this...for you. Tell me what you're feeling now, my love, please."

He was exhausted, but he knew he couldn't sleep. Like Catherine, the evolution of their relationship to include this intimate sharing consumed his thoughts. In the past, nothing could make him discuss this topic with her. Now, he found himself anxious to let those chaotic thoughts out, to share them with her fully.

"What I'm thinking? There are so many thoughts in my head, Catherine, I'm not sure how to untangle them all. One, though, stands out beyond all the others, and it will never change, and that is how much I love you. I love you so. Even when I thought this could never be, I knew my love for you was eternal, but having this... It seems unbelievable to me that such pleasures exist. I've dreamed of us together like this so often, but never did I envision the truth of the sensations I've experienced with you tonight. Tell me this isn't a dream. Tell me this is real, that I won't wake up alone. It would break my heart if this were a dream, Catherine."

Indeed there was a deep catch in his voice, and the poignant sorrow there told her more than his words ever could. She hurried to reassure him, searching for some way to convince him that this was indeed their new reality. She took his hand and guided it to the center of her chest, pressing down and sliding it over a little to the left.

"Here, Vincent. Feel my heart beat. It beats for you, and it's real."

He stared at her intently, a worried frown creasing his brow.

"I've felt your heartbeat in my dreams before, felt the glistening heat of your body as we made love."

His hand slipped from beneath hers at those words and caressed downward along her slender torso and from there along her silky thigh.

"I've even felt the arousal of your body", his hand moved back to caress her breasts, then slipped lower again to slide between her thighs, stroking the creamy softness there, "though never with such excrutiating detail as I've felt tonight."

She couldn't contain the moan his touch elicited, but despite her growing arousal, she needed to somehow assure him, beyond all doubt, that this was no dream.

"Vincent, does this feel like your other dreams, really? What about two nights ago, when you dreamt of us? Does it feel like either of those?"

"What?!"

"I read your journal entry. I know I shouldn't have, I don't know what possessed me, but I did, and I'm not sorry now. I only glanced at it idly, but when I saw my name... I knew, Vincent. I needed to hear those words, just as you needed to tell them to me. You said you had two dreams, one of them a nightmare, the other... Was it like this?"

He gasped as the detailed images of those dreams swept over him, fierce and true. The horror of the first overwhelmed him and he instinctively curled into a fetal position, holding himself as if against a great pain.

"No...No! Catherine! Catherine!"

She grabbed his shoulders and shook him strongly.

"I'm here, Vincent, I'm here! It's not real, it isn't, and it never will be. I proimse you that, my love."

At the sound of her voice his arms reached out and pulled her down, like a drowning man grasping at his only hope for salvation.

"Don't leave me, Catherine, never leave me!"

"Never, Vincent, I'll never leave you!"

She spoke fiercely, her hold upon him tight as she rocked against him, desperate to soothe the tumultuous emotions within him, to drive out that nightmare vision once and for all.

"The second dream, concentrate on it. That's what we've chosen, that's what we'll live. Can you see it, Vincent? It's there, it always has been. It was always waiting for us to take it and make it real, and that's what we've done, tonight. That's the reality we've chosen, Vincent, and now we're living it, together, you and I. This is real -- you and I and this...this dream we've chosen. Trust me, my love, believe me."

He shuddered in her arms, and hot tears trickled down her neck and shoulder where he nestled tight against her.

"I want to believe it. More than anything, I want to live this dream with you."

"Then take it and make it real. It's yours, just as I am yours."

Her voice lowered to a husky, seductive whisper."

"Take the dream, Vincent...take me."

"Yes. I want you, Catherine, I need you. Come to me, my love. Live the dream with me."

His mouth found hers and they kissed with a desperate passion that consumed all fears and horrors, leaving nothing but the burning bliss of their love, reflected with a shining purity through the ever-expanding ecstasy that was their bond.

* * *

A pale light began to steal across the sky, the shimmering herald of dawn. Vincent stared out at the retreating darkness, but could find no energy within him to leave Catherine's bed, to leave her. Her slim body curved against him and her ams held him tight, even in the midst of her deep slumber. She was silky and warm, and even now, as she slept, he couldn't resist touching her, his hands stroking caressingly along the smooth planes of her back and hips. Her soft breasts nestled against the broad expanse of his chest, and suddenly he felt a change there, her tender nipples hardening to tease him with their seductive promise. He felt a rush of sensation fill their bond at that same moment, and she stirred, rubbing her aroused peaks against his hard muscles and downy curls, a groaning sigh of delight pulled from her as she woke.

"Oh, Vincent."

His arms tightened about her and he nuzzled into the silky hair at the crown of her head, a floral, woodsy scent there that had always drawn him strongly.

"Good morning, Catherine."

He strove mightily for a light tone, and the humor of that attempt elicited a girlish giggle from her.

"I'll say it is."

She leaned back to look at him and their eyes met, satiated contentment plain to see, though his were still tinged with a bit of shy astonishment. She sighed in blissful joy, then drew him down until their lips met. Their kiss spoke of the culmination of all their desires; love, warmth and a tender satisfaction imparted to them both by that gentle blending. When it ended he pulled her close, tucking her along his body in an embrace that was both sensual and fiercely protective. An image filled her of their pose in Kristopher's painting, and she knew, without looking, that the expressions there were worn by them now. Oh, yes. She didn't know how, but Kristopher had definitely seen this future for them, even a skeptic like herself could no longer question that.

"What time is it?", she murmurmered happily, unwilling to move herself even slightly from him to check for herself.

"Almost six o'clock."

He spoke mildy, as if there were nothing unusual in his presence here, Above at that hour, but at his words, Catherine was shocked out of her calm complacency.

"What?!"

She tore herself out of his arms and sat upright, scanning the growing light filling the sky beyond her french doors.

"Oh my god, Vincent, it's past dawn!"

She was almost frantic, wondering what they would do, when his quiet voice and strong arms drew her back to rest against his solid strength.

"Shhh, Catherine. It's all right. I'll just stay here until later tonight. We can send Father a message through Sam or Maria -- they both have pipe access nearby."

His unruffled tone calmed her at once, and she drew in a deep breath and let go of the anxiety that had almost overwhelmed her. She was stunned that it had been her and not him who had reacted so strongly.

"I'm sorry, Vincent. I should have set the alarm."

"And when would you have thought to do that?"

The humor in his voice now was unmistakable.

"What?"

"Just before we made love the first time? Certainly not right after that, I hope, as I don't recall there being any time at all for such thoughts. Perhaps sometime between the second and third time? You could have, I suppose, though I think I might have been a little dismayed to find you thinking of alarm clocks just then. Of course you might have done it later, before we finally fell asleep. I certainly don't remember much then, but perhaps you weren't as tired as I."

His teasing words astonished her and she stared at him in disbelief. She was especially shocked that he could speak so lightly of that interval of time last night when they had discussed his nightmare. It almost seemed as if he had put that vision completely behind him, that he had now accepted, as fully as she, that their true destiny, their only destiny, lay down that second path, the one that had led them here. Merriment suddenly flooded her being and she found her voice again.

"Vincent, are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"I can safely say, Catherine, that I've never felt better in my life. And you?"

"Well... I feel pretty good myself. In fact, I can only think of one thing that might make me feel better just now."

She held his gaze teasingly, waiting for him to provide her with her straight line, and he didn't disappoint her.

"What is that? Tell me, and perhaps I can help you."

"Oh, I'm sure you can."

She cuddled closer to him and held his gaze, watching the change in his eyes as her hand tenderly caressed his muscled chest before sliding lower. She saw them darken and felt his body tense a moment before her hand found him. His response was immediate, a throbbing, silky strength pressing hotly against her palm, a low groan and shiver drawn from him at her intimate touch. He pulled her closer, and she could see that he was through with teasing.

"Oh, Catherine..."