It's All Relative

by Becky Bain

Catherine was happy.

That pleased him; he could bask in her happiness even at this distance. His own day had been filled with petty annoyances - broken steam pipes, a minor flood on the north side, and the loss of an entire cartful of fresh vegetables when Mouse tried to take it down the stairs of the Serpentine.

He'd spent the early part of the evening adjudicating a dispute between Geoffrey and Eric, then listened patiently while Father worried about how to replace the helper who came down on weekends to tutor the older children in mathematics, since the helper was moving out of state.

Now he was tired, but too restless to sleep. Warming himself in the glow of Catherine's happiness from a distance brought some measure of satisfaction, but suddenly he wanted more. Swinging his cloak over his shoulders, he left his chamber, bound for Catherine's balcony.

He wouldn't stay long. It was late, and he knew she was tired. He wanted just a few moments, long enough to look into her eyes and hear her whisper his name. Her scent, the feel of her cradled in his arms, would fortify him for another day.

He'd made this journey so many times, he could probably do it in his sleep. Tonight, lost in anticipation, he was on the last leg, about to cross the low brick parapet when he realized he was too late.

She was asleep. Her slumber touched him, moved through him. It was soothing and tranquil, but not what he'd longed for. He hesitated. He'd never set foot on the balcony when she was sleeping, except with the intent of waking her. Once, when Father was lost Above. Another time after he'd witnessed a gruesome murder in the park. And again when he needed her help to find Rolley, and Lena. But not otherwise.

The thought of watching her sleep was seductive, but he resisted it. To spy on her when she was so vulnerable would be an invasion of the worst kind.

He closed his eyes and searched his sense of her. She wasn't deeply asleep - had probably been sleeping only a few minutes. Maybe she was only drowsing and would wake if she knew he was here.

He ought to go and leave her in peace. But perhaps he could find solace in simply being near her for a moment or two.

Silently he slipped over the wall. The night was cool, with a soft breeze washed clean by an afternoon rain. He leaned on the brick parapet, looking out at the lights, and wondered if he loved this view for its beauty, or simply because he most frequently saw it with her beside him.

He wished he'd thought to go by Louis the florist's shop and barter for a rose. He knew how much it pleased her to find tangible evidence of his presence here.

He turned his head.

Through the glass of her doors, he could see the headboard of her bed. If he moved just a little, he could see her hair, disarranged on the pillow, the soft curve of her cheek. Her hand, curled on the blanket.

Awareness of what he was doing rose in him suddenly, hot and shameful. He had no business here. He took a swift step back and paused.

Catherine wasn't alone.

He'd been so caught up in his own thoughts and wishes, he hadn't sensed the presence of another. Alarmed, he edged forward, senses straining, until he could see clearly into the room.

In the shadows at the foot of the bed was a man. He wore only a pair of dark trousers.

A soft, instinctive growl broke from Vincent's throat.

The man's head jerked in response to the sound and for a horrifying instant, he stared into Vincent's eyes.

Catherine slept on, oblivious to the danger.

Vincent growled again, this time deliberately. He would use what he had to protect her.

The man reacted by hurling himself toward the bed. Toward Catherine.

Vincent felt the jolt as she woke, startled and disoriented. It fed the rage building within him. A savage snarl curled his lip; he moved forward.

The intruder shouted something unintelligible as he wrenched open a drawer of Catherine's nightstand and scrabbled inside. Catherine was shouting, too, and there was fear in her voice. Fear in her heart.

Vincent's hands curled for attack.

The man whirled toward him, something dark and ugly clasped in his hands.

Vincent yanked open the door.

Catherine's fear escalated into pure terror as she pushed herself between them, hammering at the man's rigid arms with her fists.

"Don't!" she cried, sounding close to hysteria. "Don't shoot him!"

The gun's barrel wavered and dropped. "Cathy?" the man said, sounding astonished.

Catherine whirled away without reply, barrelling into Vincent and shoving at him. Her touch broke through his mindless fury and he stepped back. Her hands went to his wrists, grasping strongly. "My God," she said. He could feel how shaken she was. "He would have shot you."

"Cathy?" The man had stepped up to the doorway. The gun -

Catherine's gun, Vincent realized now - was still in his hand.

Vincent instinctively turned his face away.

"I'll have to talk to him," Catherine said hurriedly. "Wait here. Please?"

And because it was not in him to deny her anything, he nodded.

Her grip on his wrists tightened briefly before she dropped them and went inside.

Vincent spun away from the open door, away from the apartment where Catherine was. Where the man, only partially clad, was. Away from Catherine's bedroom.

He slid sideways, seeking the darkest part of the balcony. Seeking to drown the agony now blazing through him.

What a fool he'd been. Daring to imagine that her loving looks, her soft touches, her ready embraces were meant to show passion for him. It was obvious now that all she had ever offered was friendship. His own foolish dreams had embellished her simple affection, twisting it into something it was not.

And never could be.

He understood that now. The man in her bedroom... he wasn't moving toward the bed - her bed - with intent to harm. Perhaps he'd meant to caress her. To wake her gently...

His imagination stalled and refused to go on.

He tried hard to be happy for her. To rejoice that she had found someone.

His hands clenched painfully, his claws scoring his palms, as he struggled to quell the agonizing grief that swept him. He must be calm when she returned.

He must be unselfish. He must step out of her life now and allow her the happiness she deserved.

Behind him came the scuff of her feet on the tiled terrace, the soft click of the doors being fastened. He drew a long, trembling breath and turned to face her.

She came to him without hesitation and pressed herself against his chest. Slowly he allowed his arms to close about her, clasping her to him. What harm could it do, this one last time?

Her scent, sweet and painfully familiar, filled his nostrils. He breathed deeply, letting her essence fill him.

"I thought you were going to kill each other." Her voice was muffled against his shirt.

"I thought you were in danger," he answered. "I'm sorry."

Her arms tightened around him. "Don't be sorry, Vincent. What else were you to think?"

He drew a long, fortifying breath. It was time. "The truth," he answered quietly. "That he was your guest, in your home at your invitation."

She lifted her head. "In my bedroom, with his shirt off," she countered.

Her matter-of-fact statement hurt. He released her and stepped away. "Yes."

"I don't usually have half-dressed men in my bedroom, Vincent," she said softly. "It was an understandable error. I appreciate what you tried to do for me."

"I should have known," he answered. He fixed his gaze on a cluster of bright lights across the park and thought of the happiness he'd sensed in her earlier. "I always knew it would come, Catherine. I should have been more prepared..."

"More prepared for what?" she asked. Her confusion reached him clearly.

"For you to find someone..."

"Someone..." Understanding broke over her with an intensity that rocked him. "No!" She seized his arm, pulling him toward her. "It isn't like that, Vincent. I love you. You know that."

From somewhere came a strength he didn't know he had. He met her gaze. "It's all right, Catherine," he said softly. "I wanted you to find this. I did."

"No, you didn't," she argued fiercely. "You only think you did. And anyway, you're mistaken about David."

"David." He repeated the name. "He is a good man?"

"Vincent." She shook him in what could only be exasperation. "He's my cousin."

That froze him. "Your cousin..." he repeated. "Not..."

"My cousin David from Ohio. Here in town for a meeting. He was my favorite cousin when we were growing up. We used to spend our summers together. It's been years since we've seen each other, so he's staying with me so we can have more time together."

He glanced over her shoulder to the spot where the man - David - had been standing when he'd arrived. "But partially clothed... and in your bedroom."

Catherine made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort. "Vincent. You haven't been in my apartment very often, so perhaps you never noticed there's only one bathroom."

He stared at her.

"And you have to go through the bedroom to reach it. I suppose he was tiptoeing in to use it, and didn't want to wake me." She shook his arm. "You didn't really think we were... I mean, that I would..."

He looked down. "Yes. I did."

"Why?" There was pain in her voice now. "How could you?"

"Because it is what you deserve," he said quietly. "A good man who loves you. Who will care for you."

"I have that now," she said fiercely. "A good man - a wonderful man - who loves me and cares for me more than I ever thought possible. And it hurts me, Vincent, that you think I would betray that."

"I never thought of it as betrayal," he faltered. "Only as what you deserved..."

"If I'm that wonderful, then I deserve you," she answered. She sounded exasperated.

So frank a declaration left him momentarily speechless; she took advantage of his silence to loop her arm through his and tug him forward.

Alarmed, he resisted and tried to free himself.

"Come on," she urged, not letting go. "He's already seen you, you know. I'm sure he has a million questions."

That was enough to give him back his voice. "Most of which I cannot answer."

"True." She smiled. "But you have me to help you not answer them."

That was just nonsensical enough for him to relax his resistance; she pulled him forward a step before he could stop her.

"Come on, Vincent."

He hated to disappoint her, but everything he'd ever been taught, every unpleasant meeting he'd ever experienced, cried out against this. "I must not. Catherine..."

"Please." Her voice softened. "It's a chance to do something I've never done before."

So heartfelt a plea was difficult to resist. His opposition wavered, on the verge of collapse. "What is that?"

Happy anticipation sparkled in her eyes as she recognized his surrender and pulled him across the threshold. "I get to introduce you to a member of my family!"

The End