"Are you cold?"
Catherine stopped, mid shiver, and turned towards the general direction of her host's voice. With her face still wrapped in its gauzy cocoon, his voice was all she had to know him by. A voice, and a name.
"No, Vincent, I'm fine." she said, clearing her throat a little "But thank you for offering."
"It really isn't any trouble. Father has already sent someone to fetch extra blankets, but I can just as easily put another log on the fire. There's more than enough wood."
The hollow tones of logs being moved, followed by the disgruntled crackling of a fire settling back in after being moved told Catherine that Vincent hadn't bothered to wait for an answer. In the true way of any good doctor, Vincent tended to Catherine's needs without even having to be asked. It didn't matter if she was hungry, hurting, or cold, somehow Vincent just knew.
"The tunnels are damp this time of year, the snowmelt from the world above seeps into our walls and floors. It can be uncomfortable until spring comes, but the summers here are very pleasant."
"Do you really think I'll be here that long?"
The question settled between them, heavier and more distressing than the chill air itself. Avoiding difficult questions had been a small courtesy Catherine provided in return for Vincent's kindness, but each day she spent with him was a day closer to an ever uncertain future, and the idea filled her with dread.
"You're getting stronger every day. The antibiotics have been helping, but it's best not to rush these things and undo the progress you've made. Shall we keep reading Jane Eyre today? Or is there something else you'd like to try?"
With a small huff, Catherine crossed her arms, and reluctantly settled back against the mound of pillows stacked about her shoulders. Even if he hadn't said it outright, she knew she would get no more from Vincent on the matter today.
That was different. Catherine tilted her head slightly, searching for any hint in her host's voice as to why, on an afternoon as ordinary as any other, he'd deviated from their usual pattern of conversation.
"I'm fine, Vincent. Please, let's start the next chapter."
"Catherine, I can feel that you're troubled. Please let me help you."
"Vincent, I said I was fine. You've done all you can for me. This isn't a problem you'd be able to help with."
"How can you be sure, if you don't let me at least try?"
"Because I'm tired of being cooped up here with you and all these things you're keeping a secret! How can I trust someone who hides from me?"
If that first, momentary silence had been awkward, this one was devastating. Catherine's words seemed to reverberate around the small room with surprising gusto. The echo taunted her, made her ears burn and her eyes prickled beneath the bandages. Why had she said that?
Whatever apology she might have tried and salvaged was cut off by the sound of Vincent's chair scraping against the floor, the definitive tap of a book being closed and finally, Vincent's boots against stone as he began to head for the stairs
"Cathrine, I promise that you are and will always be safe with me. However, your body is working twice as hard to make you well again, and it would be irresponsible of me to let you leave so soon. Rest now, and I will wake you in a few hours with dinner."
"Okay. Thank you." Catherine said, unable to keep the guilty flutter from her voice. When met with nothing but the receding thump of Vincent's footsteps, she did have to wonder if things would be, in fact, okay.
"I told you, my name's not Carol!"
Darkness, pain. Claws of ice ripping at her face, her throat. Holding her down, holding her back. She had to get out of here.
"Someone, please, help me!"
If there was help, it didn't hear her or was too afraid to come. Alone, staggering, and with her face ablaze with pain, Catherine tried to find her way through the endless murk. Where was she? There was someone she was looking for, someone she'd needed. They'd help her, she knew they would. If only she could remember-
"Vincent!" her voice flew up, into the blackness like a ragged flag of surrender. It was met with cruel laughter, and more pain. The claws, attached to some unseen foe, tugged at her again. She took a step, but the effort nearly brought her to her knees. There was no escape.
"Vincent, please! I need you! Help me, Vincent! Don't leave me alone!"
Catherine watched in horror as the darkness began to take shape. What was once a faceless void was now a pack of wolves. Black wolves, with eyes like red fire and gaping, snarling maws of razor teeth.
They swarmed around Catherine's body, overpowering her and pushing her down into the dirt. In desperation, she lashed out but it was no use. There were just too many, and they were hungry. The biggest wolf, their leader, sprung forward with wide jaws that tore into Catherine's throat.
With a primal shriek, she kicked out at the animal but it did not yield. It's body was hard as stone, and cold as ice. Blood poured, Catherine screamed and the two of them went, kicking and thrashing, down, down, deeper into the nightmare.
With one last, heartbroken sob, Catherine tried to grab on to something, anything that might save her, but her hands closed around air. This was it. She was going to die.
Vincent had been in Father's library, sorting through their collection of medical textbooks when he felt it. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and he froze in place, unable to shake the chill finger of apprehension that ran down his spine. Catherine was in danger.
"Vincent, what's the matter? You look like you've seen a ghost."
There would be time to answer Father's question later. Without a word, Vincent bolted from the library, and took off down the hall in an all out sprint. The logical side of his mind knew there was nowhere safer for Catherine to be, but it was not the logical side of his mind that was telling him to run, run!
He was moments away from his rooms, when he heard it. Screaming. Catherine was screaming. The sound caused Vincent's stomach to turn to water, and he nearly tore the door off its hinges as he pulled it open and rushed inside.
If Vincent had been frightened before, the sight that greeted him upon entering his rooms nearly sent him into hysterics. Kathrine had somehow managed to pull herself from bed and was now lying on the floor, curled on her side and tearing frantically at her bandages with ragged fingernails.
He was beside her in an instant, on his knees and gathering her into his arms. She fought him like a wildcat, shrieking and thrashing in a last ditch effort to get away but Vincent held fast.
"Catherine, stop, please! You're going to hurt yourself!"
This seemed of no concern to Catherine, as she took her hands from her face and began to beat against Vincent's chest with indignant fists.
"Let me go! Let me go!"
"You're safe, Catherine. I won't hurt you. Please, be still."
"Yes, I'm here."
The blows that had rained down on Vincent stopped as quickly as they began. Catherine's body went limp as her rage ebbed away and she threw her arms around Vincent's neck, clinging to him for dear life.
"I'm sorry" she whispered, her voice now ragged with fresh tears "I hope I didn't hurt you."
"Never." Vincent said, bringing up a hand to cradle the back of her neck. "I was only worried about you. Did you have a nightmare?"
Catherine nodded "It was awful, and it seemed so real."
"I'm afraid while your body is mending, your mind is still fractured." Vincent murmured "The brain is far more complex than any other organ, and for all we've learned about it, there's still so much we don't know."
"I feel like I'm going crazy."
"You've been through a terrible ordeal. I'd actually be far more concerned if you were calm. As awful as these nightmares can be, it means your mind is still trying to confront your fear instead of hiding from it."
In response, Catherine let out a sigh that seemed to come from the very depths of her being. It was in that sigh that Vincent heard, and felt, all the things that had been weighing in her heart since he'd found her. The force of it made her body tremble, and it was all Vincent could do to keep from pressing her closer, close enough so that nothing would ever be able to harm her again.
"You're holding me pretty tight."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"It's alright." Catherine said, with a shaky but hopeful laugh "I probably gave you quite a scare just now."
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned." Vincent said, shifting his weight as he prepared to rise "But that's the one pleasant thing about nightmares. Sooner or later, they must come to an end."
The ease with which Vincent lifted her from the floor made Catherine's head spin. She'd never been a particularly substantial person, but she was a full grown adult all the same and yet Vincent carried her with no more effort than someone would a kitten.
Thankfully, the trip back into bed was a short one, and no sooner had Kathrine been picked up than Vincent was tucking her back under the covers. His hands worked with a practiced sort of speed, deftly folding over corners that made the blankets snug but not uncomfortable.
"You've done this before." Kathrine said, and was surprised when Vincent responded with a soft chuckle. The sound was dry, and a little raspy, not unlike when he added kindling to their fire. Clearly, Vincent didn't laugh much.
"More than once. My father, he's our resident doctor. He's had me rolling bandages and helping with patients since I could walk."
"Our? Are there more people down here than just the three of us?"
It wasn't that Catherine heard, so much as felt the onset of Vincent's discomfort. If one listened closely, they could hear the creak of leather as he shifted back and forth on his boots, and the soft rustle of fabric as he reached to tug at his clothes.
These were subtle hints, however, when compared to the change in the air. The usual warmth that Catherine had come to expect with Vincent's presence, his gentle caretaking and eagerness to please, was notably absent. Once again, they had come full circle to where they had been earlier this afternoon, but this time Catherine wasn't letting go so easily.
"Vincent-" she said, reaching out and managing to grab hold of her host's arm before he could pull away "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you earlier the way I did, but I want you to understand. I'm frightened, and in a position where I'm so vulnerable to you. Surely you could see why you keeping secrets like this makes me so nervous?"
Vincent, who was more concerned with where Catherine's fingers had entangled in his shirt sleeve, managed to tear his eyes away and bring them back to her face. While the bandages betrayed nothing to her expression, it only took a little probing for Vincent to come up against the acrid cloud of Catherine's unease. If there was anything beyond that dense fog of anxiety, Vincent was unable to feel it.
"I can feel that you're frightened." He said, speaking through what felt like a blob of glue on his tongue "Unfortunately, the people who live here with me rely on secrets to keep them safe. So I'm afraid I am not in a position to disclose anything of that nature to you, for you see, not all the secrets are mine to share."
Whatever Catherine planned to say next was cut off with a long, and unmistakable yawn. Like it or not, her need for survival had won out over her desire for answers, and it left her with no choice but to sink back against the pillows with a frustrated groan. Loathe as she was to admit it, Catherine knew all the medicine in the world wouldn't help unless she got some decent sleep.
"Don't think we're done here just yet" she said, as she let go of Vincent's sleeve and started to burrow back underneath the covers "When I wake up, you still owe me some kind of explanation"
"Of course" Vincent replied, reaching down to pull the blankets over Catherine's shoulders "I wouldn't expect anything less."
"Mmmm-hmmmm" Catherine said, barely awake. She had done nothing but eat, nap, and be read to for the past few days and yet somehow, she was still so exhausted. The familiar tendrils of sleep were already tugging at her mind, and she wanted nothing more than to follow them into blissful stupor. As the world around her began to fade into a fog, the solace of oblivion felt very much within Catherine's reach. Or rather, it was, until one of those damn wolves darted across her mind's eye.
Vincent had barely made his way to the door, when Catherine shot bolt upright, and nearly startled him out of his wits. Panic stricken, he gripped the doorframe to steady himself and moved his gaze onto the blank stone wall where Catherine's own face had turned. If there was some enemy within the shadows, it was invisible to his eyes, but clearly not to Catherine's.
"What is it?" he asked, trying to keep his voice level enough so as not to further frighten her.
"I-" Catherine gasped "I'm sorry. It's the nightmares. I don't think I can-"
The defeated slump in the young woman's shoulders nearly broke Vincent's heart, but he still could not bring himself to yet return to her bedside. Short of drugging her, he felt that there was little else he could do to help. Sure, he could read to her until she felt lulled enough to close her eyes, or fetch her a cup of herbal tea, but that would only work for a few hours before he would be called back when the dreams woke her in terror.
"Is there something that could help you feel safer?" Vincent implored, hoping he didn't sound as desperate as he felt "Something that perhaps your parents did for you, when you felt frightened as a child?"
"Maybe?" Catherine said, and bit her lip. The thought was there, pushing at the space behind her teeth and rolling around the tip of her tongue, aching to come out. She wasn't sure why she was hesitating. This was Vincent. He'd made it abundantly clear he wanted nothing more than to help her, and yet she couldn't shake the feeling that, for whatever reason, he'd reject her.
"Tell me." Even through the bandages, Catherine could feel the man's eyes alight to her face. He stared at her, in rapt anticipation. No matter what came next, even if she asked him to walk into the depths of Hell, he'd do so gladly.
With those two simple words, the dam of Catherine's uncertainty seemed to break and a heady flood of relief washed over Vincent in turn. For a brief moment, he could see past the cloud of her anxiety and saw, like the last sliver of a waning moon, a flash of hope.
Trust me he begged, willing his thoughts to reach across the expanse of the room and into Catherine's mind. Please. Otherwise this will never work.
"When I was young" Catherine said, as though by some miracle she'd heard him "I had a bad habit of staying up late and reading scary stories. It drove my father crazy, especially when I did it on school nights. My mother, though, had the patience of a saint and she'd take me back to bed, lay my head in her lap and stroke my hair until I fell asleep. Sometimes, it was the only thing that worked."
"Are you suggesting I do this for you?" Vincent asked, his heart skipping a beat.
"If that's something you'd be alright with" Catherine said, with an uncertain laugh "I know it goes beyond the scope of your usual duties as a doctor."
There was no response, but rather the firm thud of Vincent's footfalls as he made his way across the room, and then seated himself on the end of Catherine's bed. She could feel the dip near her feet, reminding her that once again, Vincent was not a small man. The thought of it made her breath catch in her throat, and for a moment something akin to common sense prevailed. Like it or not, Vincent was still little more than a stranger. Was she really going to do this?
"Here, lie down."
Moments later, a rather large hand came and cupped the back of Catherine's head, drawing her closer. She followed it, obligingly, and was soon met with the feeling of firm muscle beneath her cheek. The bandages provided somewhat of a barrier, which she was grateful for, but that still didn't keep her from feeling the warmth radiating from Vincent's body.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked, his voice a soft rumble coming from above her head. They had never been this close before, and Catherine could feel his breath brushing against the back of her neck. It made her shiver involuntarily.
"I'm fine." she said, nestling further against Vincent's thigh to try and hide....whatever this feeling was. Thankfully, she was drawn away from facing the new and unwelcome places her mind was trying to go by the feeling of Vincent's fingers stroking the back of her head. He was being very gentle, almost unnecessarily so, and the effort of it was making his hand tremble. Catherine turned her face once more and crushed a smile against the soft linen of Vincent's pants. In spite of his size and obvious strength, he was nervous. Somehow, this idea made her feel a little more at ease, and she let out a sigh, allowing it to draw out the tension she'd been holding in her body.
Vincent must have felt her relax, because his hand moved a little more confidently and a little more firmly, but not uncomfortably so.
"Will you let me know if you need anything else?" he asked, his voice hardly more than a raspy whisper.
In return, Catherine nodded. Already, she could feel the call of sleep whispering in her ear. Beneath the bandages, her eyelids flickered and she breathed deeply, enveloping herself in Vincent's scent, which was a combination of mildly fragranced soap and aged books. She knew that this time, when it came time to slip the bonds of her waking mind, it wouldn't be difficult in the least.
Above her, Vincent sat on guard, awestruck by what he would later come to think of as a miracle. Catherine's weight was featherlight in his lap, and it had been hardly more than a moment but already she was going limp in slumber. He knew by now Father would be worried, and most likely would want to send someone to come looking, but damned if Vincent was going anywhere else tonight. He had a duty, and only death itself would tear him away from it.
Since she was almost nearly asleep, the tumult of Catherine's emotions had gone fairly still. Vincent, however, wanted to be absolutely certain that she felt comfortable with him and was not merely saying so for the sake of his feelings. However, it was much harder to reach Catherine's mind when she was asleep, rather than when she was awake. The shroud created by dreams often made everything too muddled for Vincent to make much sense of it, and he knew he had to act quickly.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and tried to relax. At first, all he could hear was the familiar background noise of the tunnels, the clanging pipes and clattering train. Vincent inhaled again, and tried to push beyond these distractions. Soon, the pipes became as distant as the church bells in the world above, and the train was nothing more than a hushed murmur. Then, for a moment, there was silence, as Vincent began to focus more intently, searching for one sound in particular.
He exhaled, pushing the air out from the pit of his stomach, and tilted his head slightly to the side. A moment or two passed, but eventually, without any further struggle, it came to him. The sound of Catherine's heartbeat. Vincent inhaled again, and felt his heart slow, matching speed with hers.
What happened next was something Vincent would spend the rest of his life struggling to explain. One second, he was aware of himself, the feeling of the sofa cushions underneath his legs and the rise and fall of Catherine's breathing beneath his hand. The next, he was gone.
Well, not gone exactly, but not where he had been before, either. It was rather somewhere in between, he could still feel the sofa supporting him, but the movement of Catherine's breath had gone, because he was breathing with her. Or perhaps she was breathing for the both of them. Vincent was never entirely certain. What he did know is that within this space, the place where his connection with Catherine was joined, he encountered what could only be truly described as the undiluted essence of Catherine's emotion.
The first time Vincent had done this, it had been completely by accident. He had fallen asleep by Catherine's bedside, on her first night in his care when things had been still touch and go. His mind, unburdened by sleep, was able to reach out to hers in a way his waking mind couldn't. He had only been able to sustain that connection for a moment, before the sheer force of Catherine's feelings had jolted him awake. He knew now that he had to be more careful, and approach her slowly, like easing into a cold pool of water.
What he found tonight, however, was far from cold. Instead of writhing discomfort, or worse disgust, Vincent found himself overcome with an almost glowing sense of warmth. The feeling was soft, and inviting, and sent golden ribbons of light floating across his field of vision. It was all Vincent could do not to become completely dazzled. He wanted so badly to surrender to this feeling and float, beyond the confines of his body and into whatever paradise this promised somewhere beyond.
As though she sensed he was letting himself draw too close, Catherine stirred in her sleep. The motion, small as it was, made Vincent jump, which in turn caused his breathing to come out of sync with Catherine's. He knew it wouldn't be long before the connection, at least at this intensity, would be severed. If he could only hang on for a moment or two longer, then perhaps he could discover where it was coming from.
This was deeper, and stronger than anything Vincent had ever felt before, through Catherine or even from his own heart. It seemed to span well beyond Catherine's mind, down into the very core of her being where he knew he had no right to tread. To press any further would only do harm to Catherine and himself, and whatever bond they had. So, with great reluctance, Vincent opened his eyes.
At first, he wasn't sure he had awoken properly, because the first thing he saw was a gleaming heap of rubies and onyx on the floor, just by his feet. Baffled, Vincent shook his head, blinked, and then took another look. What had formerly been precious stones became nothing more than the fireplace, stuffed to the brim with coals and doing its best not to go out. For a moment, Vincent thought of getting up to add a couple more logs to the fire. However, all it took was a quick glance into his lap and the sight of Catherine's mouth, content and lax in sleep, to tell him that wasn't a good idea.
Instead, he chose to close his own eyes again, and lean back against the sofa to get as comfortable as he could. He had no plans to seek out Catherine's mind again for the night, but rather he was going to turn his thoughts inward and concern himself with his own slumber. The truth of the matter was, Vincent had not been getting much rest the past few days either. When the nightmares had awoken Catherine, he'd also jolted awake in his bed down the hall.
It seemed, however, that tonight was going to be different. Sure, sleeping on the sofa meant his back would ache terribly in the morning, but if there was even a chance that he could chase that delicious, golden feeling into his dreams? It would be well worth it.
"Good night, Catherine" Vincent whispered, his voice as soft and earnest as a prayer in the otherwise silent room. If Catherine heard him, she gave no indication. The two of them, did not in fact, move a muscle until morning when Father came looking to see what had become of Vincent. Instead, they slept, the true, peaceful slumber of those who have much needed a long rest, and finally found it.
Tonight, there were no nightmares. There were not even dreams. There was only the trust, and the promise of things to come, the prologue between a woman who had been broken and the man who sought to make her whole again. They slept, safe in each other's arms as the embers of the fire, burned long into the night.