II. Between the Shadow and the Soul 
The first time Catherine felt it, she was taking a hot shower in the bathing chamber just adjacent to Vincent's. Father had come in with his chessboard, and it had seemed a good a time as any to take a shower. Had it only been her imagination or had Vincent's eyes looked somewhat....predatory when Father entered? Rinsing the shampoo out of her hair, she smiled a bit at the memory.
She had just stepped out of the shower and was reaching for her towel when she felt the rush of feeling through the bond. Vincent was...satisfied. Deeply so. Father probably lost the game again, Catherine thought, amused. Then it occurred to her---she was sensing him. Not as a glimmer or a shout in times of need or danger, but she could feel what he was feeling, more strongly than she ever had in any place except Elysium.
Toweling off and dressing in a patched tunnel sweater and jeans, Catherine closed her eyes and focused on the heart-string of their connection. And it was much like Vincent had described it all those months ago, when she was trying to fathom what this bond they shared meant---a filament that bound them beyond friendship or love. What would this mean for them, now? The connection on her part had always been largely one-sided, save for the times he had been in danger or afraid. But now the filament was different, stronger, a braided coil linking their souls.
Pulling on her shoes and hanging up the towels to dry, she walked back towards Vincent's chamber. The sound of voices---Father's, mainly---made her smile. “I think I'll return to the hospital chamber where I can take care of patients who are actually sick,” he was saying, and there was a cheerfulness in his voice she'd not heard for far too long.
He saw her at the chamber entrance and beckoned her inside. “Ah, Catherine. You'll be happy to note that Vincent is very much on the mend.”
She gazed at the chessboard and smiled. “Let me guess. He beat you?”
Father briefly raised his eyes to the rock ceiling, and Vincent's soft, raspy laugh echoed in the chamber as Father left. There was light in Vincent’s eyes as he watched his parent depart, a light that had also been absent for weeks. “You do look better,” Catherine said, and indeed he did. The purple shadows of exhaustion and strain had largely disappeared from under his eyes and the last of the bandages had been removed from his hands. Only the gauntness from his weight loss remained and even that would soon be gone if William’s cooking had anything to do with it, she reflected.
He stood and opened his arms and she rushed into his embrace. “You smell good,” Vincent murmured against her damp hair.
“I…what? I do?” She pulled back to look at him. “I don’t think you’ve ever said that before.”
A wry smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “I haven’t? I’ve clearly been remiss, then. You do smell good.”
Catherine chuckled, clutching the worn fabric of his vest. Abruptly, she noticed that he wasn’t wearing his usual assortment of layers, just a vest over a patched shirt and jeans. His hair, golden red in the candlelight, flowed over his shoulder and the soft tendrils of it brushed her hands. She could feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. “What do I smell like, then?”
“Sunshine,” Vincent answered. “Also shampoo and soap and toothpaste. But sunshine mostly.”
Catherine swatted his arm with one hand and laughed, leaning against him again. His own scent was something completely different---candle smoke, earth and some spicy smell all his own. She breathed it in now, feeling the soft worn linen of his shirt against her face and the slight roughness of the fur underneath it. The slow thunder of his heartbeat was a rumble under her ear. “You were startled in the bathroom,” Vincent said, his voice reverberating through his chest. “Why?”
Lifting her head, she met his crystal blue eyes, darker now with concern. “I...sensed what you were feeling during your chess match with Father,” Catherine said. “It startled me. I've only been able to do that when you were in danger or afraid or...”
“In Elysium,” Vincent finished. “Yes. Does it bother you?” The current of worry in their bond was mixed with something else...nervousness, she thought.
Catherine grasped the front of his vest more tightly and stared into his eyes. “It doesn't bother me, Vincent. But it was...surprising.”
“I'm sure,” Vincent replied. “I remember the first time I noticed that I could sense you strongly. I'm sure Father thought I'd gone---what is the medical term?---loony.”
Catherine chuckled at the dryness in his voice. “When was that?”
“When you returned above that first time and you'd had your surgery.”
She thought of what the anesthetic must have felt like to him. “Oh, Vincent, you felt that?”
He nodded. “I did.”
It had been a bare two weeks after Catherine had left him, for what he’d thought was the last time. The glimmers of emotion he sensed from her---fear, despair---had gradually given way to the beginnings of the inner strength Vincent knew she possessed. He had thought of her often, as he taught the children, or patched the pipes, and come to the conclusion that when she was fully healed, the thread of their connection would gradually fade as she returned to her old life.
He was playing chess with Father one afternoon when the contact, that slender filament which bound them, changed suddenly. Catherine was there, in the back of his thoughts. Then she was fading…was gone. He had not been able to halt the groan that rose from his throat and Father had looked at him, askance. “Vincent? Are you all right?”
“It’s Catherine,” he managed to say.
And then Father’s hand was on his forehead, on his wrist, checking for illness. “You don’t look well. You have to be ill---hallucinating.”
Vincent barely managed to restrain the snarl that wanted to emerge at this denial. “No, she’s gone, Father, don’t you understand?”
“Well, of course she’s gone, Vincent. She has a life above. Really, you’re making no sense at all.”
Vincent watched numbly as Father urged him into bed, to a rest he did not need. What he needed, wanted with a strength that surprised him, was the feel of Catherine through their bond. Only then did he acknowledge how deep in him his need for her went, how much their bond---far from being a slender thread that would weaken in time---had become a part of his soul.
Despite himself, he had dozed, only to be awakened by the jolt as the bond returned. Catherine was there, and needed him. She was there.
“Oh, Vincent, I never knew,” Catherine said when he’d finished. “If I had...” Her voice trailed off. Remembering that other Catherine, half-crippled with fear, only dimly beginning to sense the outlines of a life forever changed, she didn't know what she would have done if Vincent had reappeared so soon.
“You see,” he said, his voice gentle and low, “why I did not come. I wanted to, as I've wanted nothing else in my life...but....”
“But,” Catherine finished, “you had to let me find my own path, make of my life what I could. I don't blame you, Vincent. If you had come...it would have been too easy to rely on your strength instead of finding my own.”
“Yes,” Vincent replied, clearly glad she'd understood. “It was hard to leave you, Catherine,” he whispered. “Almost past bearing.”
She grasped the collar of his shirt and pulled him down for a kiss. “I'm here now,” she said, just before the softness of his lips touched hers. “And I'm not leaving.”
“I'm glad,” Vincent murmured. He nuzzled the galloping pulse at her neck, his hands warm on her back as he pulled her closer.
The faint growl---a hungry, needy sound---that emerged from Vincent's throat echoed in the chamber. He jumped back, startled, his eyes wide and blue. “I am...sorry,” he gasped, fists clenching. He sat on the bed, his entire posture a line of dejection.
For a moment, Catherine feared the return of their old agonized dance of “two steps forward, three steps back” that had characterized so much of their relationship, but as she listened to the sensations flooding their bond, she knew it was not that at all. “You're not afraid,” Catherine murmured, “not of yourself, not anymore. What is it?”
Vincent was uncomfortable but at least he looked her straight in the eye. “I didn't...that sound....I growled at you...like an animal,” he said, fists clenching and unclenching.
She knelt before him, taking his clenched fists in her hands, making his hands cease their tortured motions. “No, not like an animal, Vincent. What did you feel right before you made that sound?”
A faint smile crossed his face. “You have to ask?”
“No, I don't,” Catherine said, returning his smile, “but I need to hear you say it as much as you need to hear it aloud. What did you feel?”
His eyes darkened, returning to the color they had been just before he ended their embrace, a fathomless blue, the endless blue of night. “Passion. Love. Need,” Vincent replied.
“Doesn't that tell you something?” Catherine said, standing. His head fell forward to rest on her belly and she rubbed the tense muscles of his shoulders. “Those sounds are normal, Vincent.” Gently, she cupped her hand under his chin and raised his head. “And I liked hearing them.”
He blushed then, a faint copper rose color. “Forgive me, Catherine. So much of...this...is new to me.”
“We are something that has never been,” she murmured. “And we'll learn together.”
Vincent looked up at her and smiled, a genuine smile untainted by guilt or shame or fear. “So...where were we?”
And his words were a promise, new and entire, from his heart to hers. It might not be now...but it would be soon.
Click here for part 3 of the Epilogue....
 from “I do not love you as if you were brine-rose, topaz,” by Pablo Neruda