“It’s me,” Winslow said, his big booming voice as distinctive as the winds of the Abyss. “It’s too dark in here. The bird lady forgets that just because she can see in the dark doesn’t mean everyone else can.”
The shadows in the room dissolved under the returning light. “That’s better,” Winslow said, sitting with unexpected grace on the floor. “I’m sure you want to know why I’m here,” he continued.
“I do,” Vincent said. “Are you…well?”
“That ain’t what you want to know, Vincent. You want to know if I’m a ghost or if I’m real or some conjuring of Paracelsus. Ain’t that so?”
Vincent nodded. “I’m not real, not as you understand it. More than that is Narcissa's thing, not mine,” Winslow continued. “And I’m no ghost that Paracelsus conjured up. The bird lady—Ma’at---she asked me to come, me and Phillip.” Winslow flashed a grin. “And I thought you looked strange.”
Vincent smiled in return, remembering. It was the quick, indiscriminate teasing he’d missed most, along with Winslow’s friendship. “So I do,” he said, chuckling a bit and wincing as the movement jostled his ribs. “Why are you here?”
“Paracelsus,” Winslow spat, with the all the venom of a long-time tunnel dweller, “he gets to write the script but he can’t cast the actors. Ma’at sent me because she figured we had a score to settle, you and I, and it’s something she’d rather we handle before Paracelsus gets the chance to write his next scene and tries to use it against you..”
Vincent tilted his head. “I’m not angry with you, Winslow.”
“I know you’re not, but I did wrong by you. I never got the chance to tell you how sorry I was…so, I’m getting that chance, if you’ll let me.” Winslow tensed slightly and his gaze grew distant. “The bird lady says I'm to let you rest first. I'll keep watch, don't you worry. You're in no shape to watch over yourself, let alone the both of you.”
“Thank you, Winslow,” Catherine said. “It's...good to see you again. I wish I'd known you better before...well...”
Winslow smiled. “I knew when I went that I might not come back. It was worth going, for what I went for. Rest now. Paracelsus won't disturb you while I'm here.” He handed Vincent his cloak. “Thought you might need this.”
Catherine fell asleep almost instantly as the cloak settled around her. “I didn't mean just she should sleep,” Winslow said. “Rest. You'll be awake soon enough.”
A thought tugged at him, breaking through several layers of fatigue and the pain in his ribs and knee. “So Ma'at...is helping us?”
“Not precisely,” Winslow said. “More like she's trying to keep things even on your journey. Paracelsus, he takes advantage, but Ma'at wants things fair and decent.”
Vincent nodded. “Phillip said I'd have to destroy Paracelsus.”
Winslow nodded. “I don't see any way around it myself. Only way to make sure he stays gone this time.” He shifted, grunted a little. “This sitting on rock floors is for younger types. Sleep, will you? I don't have all night.”
Almost against his will, Vincent felt his eyes closing. Shifting to rest his ribs more comfortably, he fell asleep under Winslow's watchful gaze.
“I can't wake her. Either of them, really. ”
“Since breakfast, at least. Mary came to relieve Catherine and called me when she didn't respond. I don't understand it. She was fine last night. Peter, what can we do?”
An old woman's voice, the crone, the voice of age and eternity and wisdom. “She is where she needs to be. Let them both rest. It's not yet time.”
He awoke to the firm touch of Winslow's hand on his shoulder. “It's time,” Winslow said.
Catherine stirred beside him, the scent, the warmth of her an anchor of reality in a place so profoundly unreal. “How long were we asleep?” she asked, rubbing her eyes.
“Long enough,” Winslow said. “You know, time don't work the same here as it does elsewhere.”
“So I've gathered,” Catherine replied, smiling. “Thank you for keeping watch.”
Winslow sketched a sloppy salute, grinning. “All part of our friendly service here in Elysium.”
Vincent shifted as Catherine sat up. The movement sent an arc of pain through his ribs that left him gasping. He felt Winslow's strong hands help him into a more upright position. “You're hurt,” Winslow said. “Paracelsus?”
He nodded. “One of his...lessons,” Vincent replied. “I'm supposed to conclude that Catherine is dangerous for me to love.”
Winslow chuckled. “Paracelsus ain't that bright, is he?” His dark gaze grew distant, seeing into a different time. “Of course, neither was I, once.”
Vincent knew what Winslow was talking about; Catherine, bemused, did not. “Winslow,” he said. “It's over. I forgave our...argument...long ago.”
“Sure you did. 'Cause that's you. Even that damn fool Cullen, you could forgive when all of us wanted to take him out behind the woodshed for what he'd done to Mouse, what he'd said to you. But some of us ain't the forgetting or forgiving sort.”
Vincent touched him on the arm. “You were always too hard on yourself.”
Winslow chuckled, but there was a dry rasp of old pain under his words. “Pot, meet kettle.”
Catherine looked from one to the other. “I don't understand.”
Winslow sighed. “You will.”
The world dissolved before them.
It was late fall, Vincent remembered, on the rare occasions when he thought of their disagreement, just a day after he'd gone above and saved Catherine for the first time. He'd expected that his journey above would cause little comment, and it hadn't---save for Father---and he'd cherished some hope that the details of Catherine's rescue from Belmont's men would remain a secret from the larger community. Having been the subject of gossip before, in the dark days after Lisa left, he had no desire to repeat the experience.
The following morning, he'd made the long trip to Winslow's forge to help him repair an old iron gate. Winslow had taught him metal-working as a teenager, in the long, anguished months after his recovery from his illness. There were no pipes that far down, no chattering gossip to reach them, and Vincent had often wondered if that had played some role in Father's decision to send him to Winslow for training.
Winslow was already stripped down to his customary forging garb---thin shirt, heavy jeans and a scarred leather apron over it all. Vincent removed three of his outer layers and tucked the thick bulk of his hair down the back of his shirt collar; he'd learned, through painful experience, that long hair and sparks from the forge did not mix. He was reaching for the other leather apron and trying to decide whether to roll up his shirt sleeves when Winslow's voice stopped him. “We got to talk.”
Vincent turned to see Winslow standing with his hands on his hips. The coals in the furnace were already glowing red, but no hotter than the force of his anger. “What is it, Winslow?” he asked calmly. He'd had long experience with the other man's temper; it was always something to be viewed with respect.
“I hear you saved that topsider last night,” Winslow said.
For a blank moment, Vincent wondered who “that topsider” was. To him, she was just...Catherine. “Yes,” Vincent replied, realizing that the sentries would have seen them both come below and that his own appearance---soaked in blood---must have been telling.
“When you gonna learn, Vincent? Women from up there, they only cause trouble.”
So, it was true, then, Vincent thought. He'd heard rumors, but Winslow had been keeping largely to himself and he'd been unable to find out if Mouse's description of “a big fight” between Winslow and Helen was true. “Helen left you?” Vincent asked, feeling the force of Winslow's dark, ragged pain shuddering in the air between them.
Winslow's large fist slammed down on the wooden workbench, rattling the tools ominously. “This ain't about Helen and me, Vincent! You saved her last night. You killed for her. Don't you think that's gonna bring trouble to our door?”
“She was being attacked, Winslow.” He spread his hands, the claws glinting in the red light from the forge. “What would you have had me do?”
“I'd have had you leave her be! She belongs in her world...and nothing you do for her is gonna change that, you damned fool!”
Vincent thought of the bond that had knit their souls together even as he'd tried so hard to ignore it over the eight months of their separation, and a dangerous anger began to grow. “You don't know anything,” he snarled back.
“Don't I? Love ain't for the likes of us, Vincent.” His mouth twisted. “It's for poets and playwrights, but not for us.” All at once, his anger seemed to fold in on itself. “Yeah. Helen left me last week. Said she was tired of living this life, tired of me. I don't know any other life but this, Vincent. I don't know any other way to be. She needed...wanted...things I couldn't give her. So I let her go.” His eyes met Vincent's. “Just like you'll have to do for that topsider. You have to know that.”
He closed his eyes. The pain of that was too new---even as he acknowledged that the wise, safe thing to do was to let Catherine go, some ancient, primal part of him howled at the very idea. “I know.”
“I was wrong,” Winslow said, looking at them both now. “I was wrong and a fool and I'm sorry.”
“Is that...why you came?” Catherine asked, wiping her face dry.
“Yeah,” Winslow replied. “Once I saw you together, I knew. You can call it self-sacrifice if you want, say I died for my friends---and I did. But I also went because I knew you loved Vincent as much as he loved you. That's something I've...never known. And it was worth defending, worth protecting.” He smiled then, gentle and open as he'd rarely been in life. “And yes, even worth dying for.”
Winslow stood then. “It's nearly time for me to go. I'll talk to Ma'at and see if she can prevent Paracelsus from hurting you further---last thing you need is to go blind now like you did then.” He walked towards the door, then stopped. “Just one thing, both of you. I don't regret my sacrifice. Don't you go regretting it either.”
And with that, he was gone.
Catherine leaned against Vincent in the gathering dark. There was a rasp to his breathing she didn't like to hear. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
He coughed slightly and she winced at the pain she felt through their bond. “I've been better,” Vincent said.
She smiled at the dryness in his tone. “I bet you have. Are you injured anywhere else besides your knee and your ribs?”
“No,” he said. “That's...interesting.”
Catherine nodded. “I know. I was expecting you to get a concussion next, or a broken arm or go blind or....” She felt her eyes fill again and blinked the tears away; they didn't have time for her guilt or pain now, not in this place where everything and nothing was real.
She started when she felt the touch of a clawed hand on her shoulder. “Catherine. It was my choice to go above that night, to follow you.”
“I know,” she replied. “But it was my stupidity that got you nearly killed. I didn't have to go alone that night, Vincent. I could have asked for backup---Joe would have sent another investigator to go with me if I'd asked. But I was trying to prove myself, trying to prove I could handle the danger just like everyone else. And I caused you to be hurt. I'm never going to stop feeling terrible about that.” A dark thought occurred to her. “Do you think that's where we're going next?”
Vincent nodded. “Most likely. It would seem to prove Paracelsus' point nicely, though I don't believe he understands the rest of it.”
The rest. That he had followed her above, gone into a burning building to rescue her informant, and been tortured and nearly killed by a vicious gang...all because he loved her and worried for her. No, Paracelsus would never understand that kind of love. “I don't ever want you to be in that kind of pain again, not ever,” Catherine whispered, clutching his hand where it rested on the stone floor.
“I know. But...it's worth it, Catherine. No matter what, having you in my life has been all of my greatest joys.”
Just as she pressed her lips to his, a leering voice emerged from the shadows. “How touching. Fair Beauty kissing her Beast. Tell me, do you have to close your eyes so that you don't have to see the ugliness in front of you?”
There was no explaining that either, Catherine knew. No explaining that kissing Vincent was a joy in itself, no explaining that after Vincent, all other men looked too smooth, too ordinary, that while there had been others before Vincent, there could never be anyone after him. Vincent stared into her eyes and the love and passion in his eyes was more than enough to drench the anger she felt at the creature's words. “My eyes are open,” she replied, astonished at how level her voice was. “They always have been.”
“Ah, yes,” the creature crooned. “But what of the others he loves? His precious Father, for instance? Has he known what your love means for Vincent? The constant danger, the...injuries, the risk that his paradise will be discovered?”
And time as they knew it stopped.
Catherine was sitting in the hospital chamber, drinking a cup of lemon tea gone long cold and watching as Father made hasty notes on an old clipboard. Vincent lay on a bed, his broad chest swathed in bandages, his broken arm set in plaster, the bruises and burns on his face startling against the white of the sheets. He might have looked to be sleeping comfortably, were it not for the harsh rasp of his breathing.
The first time she'd heard it, she'd asked if he could be given something for the pain. Father had glared at her. “I don't want him to be in pain,” she'd said, flustered.
“Then you shouldn't have taken him above!” he'd whispered, furious.
“Stop it,” Mary had said, placing a restraining hand on his arm. “She didn't take him anywhere, Father, and you know it. Vincent left of his own accord. Don't beat the girl up just because you're furious at the people who really caused his injuries.”
He relented then and breathed out, once. “Right,” Father said. “I'm...sorry, Catherine. I can't give him any sort of strong pain medication; his system doesn't tolerate them well. The strongest thing I can give him is Tylenol and that won't be nearly enough.”
The clanking of the pipes, muted in the hospital chamber, brought conversation to a temporary standstill. “That'll be Darcy---I should go check on her,” Mary said, and left.
“Chicken pox,” Father said by way of explanation. “Darcy and two of the other children.”
“Oh,” Catherine said. It seemed such a mundane illness in a world like this. “Will they be okay?”
Father nodded. “With Mary's help, yes. Vincent's never had it; for all I know, he might be immune.” He touched her arm. “We need to talk.”
She met his eyes. “I won't leave him.”
Father sighed. “I gave him a very mild sedative to help him sleep. He won't know you're there.”
“I'll know,” Catherine returned, folding her arms, bracing herself. If he banished her from the tunnels, she'd have considered it no more than her just due for what Vincent had endured on her behalf.
“Very well, then,” Father replied, gesturing to a nearby alcove well within sight of the still figure on the bed. “I'm not here to fight with you, Catherine. For one thing, I don't have the time; Vincent's medical needs are critical and will remain so for some time. For another, I don't fool myself: you were the one thing that kept him going long enough to find his way home.” His grey falcon's eyes met hers. “And for that, I am thankful. He might have given up without knowing you were looking.” He touched her arm gently. “So...a truce? We can talk about what he was doing up there later.”
She nodded, blinking back the tears of relief and worry and stress. “All right. Is there anything you need?”
That was the way the conversation had ended in the reality Catherine remembered. Reality unwound as Father turned away from his patient to look at her. Father had been angry with her---furious even---but the hate in his eyes was new. “What I need,” Father said, fury roughening his words, “is for you to leave us. Don't you think you've caused enough damage? Vincent could have been killed and that man Isaac---you let a topsider see him! I knew you were trouble from the moment Vincent brought you to us!” The grey eyes were cold as steel. “And if he dies, I'll hold you responsible.”
Catherine opened her eyes. “That's not what happened,” she said, feeling Vincent's hand tightening on her own.
“No,” the apparition said. “But it could have. Your...fascination with Vincent has put him at great risk. Jacob knows this and will never trust you.”
The brief raspy laugh from Vincent startled her. “Father trusts her more than you can imagine, Paracelsus. He's trusted her with my life, time and again, and believed she could pull me from madness and despair when there was nothing he could do. You don't understand....anything.”
Vincent clambered to his feet; even with one hand on the wall to steady himself, he was a figure of power and strength. “I love her,” he said, “as she loves me. That's what you could never understand.”
“Monsters don't love,” the apparition snarled, and reality faded again.
Click here for Chapter 14....