CHAPTER 17 – THE HEART OF THE SUN

~SOUNDTRACK: Birdy – Terrible love~

Vladimir made his way to the Circus with a sprint in his step that took him by surprise. He didn't look forward to things too often and yet, he constantly kept seeking excuses to go back to that Circus again to see her. Catherine. It was as though her name alone managed to make something in his chest bloom as cherry trees do in spring. Most times he withheld just a small piece of information from her just so he could come back the next day and offer it. There was only so much stalling he could do.

It had been a good few weeks since the first time he'd seen her and lately, he'd visited her nearly every day. She'd given up trying to get him to stop coming on account of how dangerous it was. He was well aware. But he couldn't stand the thought of her being a slave to the whims of those pathetic humans. He pitied the rest of the Wicked as well, but it felt personal with her. He could not fool himself by thinking Catherine Blackthorn was some damsel in distress – on the contrary, she was an all too powerful dragon – but there was this need within him he could not quell, the need to protect her. There may have been scales beneath her skin, but upon gazing at her, how could one think such delicate creature could be anything but fragile? Vladimir was utterly fascinated with her. He often found himself completely forgetting about Kira's presence in the palace, such was he undone by that girl's charms.

Vladimir didn't find Cathy in her tent. It was rather odd. She was always holed up in her tent, reading, hiding behind a book as if daring Vladimir to push past it and reach her. And he loved the challenge. He'd never had this kind of energy with anyone before. Mutual energy, not just some one-sided illusion of pining over someone who had him live on breadcrumbs.

He found Cathy far away from the tents, on a remote pathway that led to the small portion of woods nearby. She was sitting with her back against a tree, submerged so deeply in a book she didn't even hear him coming. Vladimir nourished the hope that he could somehow lose himself like this into something he loved. Up until now, he'd always loved wrong things only. He prayed he would learn to love the right ones.

"Sticking to the classics, I see," he commented at her choice of another book by the Bronte sisters and she finally raised her head, meeting his gaze.

And when their eyes met, Vladimir stopped breathing. Her presence was refreshing as a splash of cold water on your face. It could shock you and awake your senses. And the way she always looked at him had Vladimir troubled like nothing else. He was so used to being overlooked, to eyes always moving past him and not paying him any attention, that it took him aback to have Cathy look at him so directly. Like she saw him.

"You're rather vocal about my literary choices later, captain," she shut her book, smiling up at him and knocking the breath right out of his lungs.

He simply laughed at her without answering, then walked over to her and extended his hand. She took it without a single shred of question or doubt in her eyes, like she had no second thoughts at all about trusting him. Yet another thing Vladimir wasn't used to. Trust wasn't something that had come easily to him, ever since he was a kid. It had always been something for him to earn. And here was his girl, taking his hand so softly and confidently as though there was no space in her heart for distrust. She was an endless mystery.

"Let's take a walk, shall we?" he offered, squeezing her fingers once softly before letting go despite his instincts screaming at him not to.

"Where to?" she asked, but she was already following him.

"There's a small river and a most lovely bridge just past these woods. You'll love it."

"Oh," Catherine exclaimed in what could have been a cheerful voice, had it not been for a lifelessness to it Vladimir just could not place. "How nice. Inspiration for my painting."

Vladimir smiled widely at her. "I thought so, too."

Catherine returned the smile accompanied by a small blush, so Vladimir knew she was delighted by his words and company. And yet, the smile did not quite reach her eyes. She was trying hard to keep her high spirits about, but it was clear there was something that bothered her. He wondered if something had happened during those few days when he hadn't been able to come to the Circus because of his father's fittings.

"So how has your week been, Catherine?" he inquired, hoping he'd managed to be subtle about his worry. "How is the situation within the Circus?"

She let out a long sigh before replying, confirming Vladimir's suspicions. "It's been… eventful. I fear they're onto us, captain. I don't know for how long we can keep the Circus in Allymea."

"Ah," Vladimir walked slowly with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "About that. We may have something in the works about that."

"Oh?" Catherine frowned at him.

"Nothing for you to worry about yet. The matter is rather sensitive so it's best that I don't get your hopes up. But this much I promise you. This Circus will not leave Allymea with you and your family in it."

Cathy smiled a shallow smile and nodded once and, at the mention of her family, her features darkened a little. Since the subtle approach hadn't worked and he doubted she would offer any information on her own, Vladimir decided to just ask her directly. He caught her elbow and turned her to face him.

"Catherine. What happened really?"

At his serious tone, Cathy met his eyes but she averted them quickly, putting on that brave face that looked so close to breaking it was painful.

"We're all doing our part, captain," she replied softly. "It's just so painfully unbearable at times. And they know just how to break you."

Vladimir loosened a breath as he thought her words through and realized what she was implying.

"Your sister," he whispered. "They used your sister against you, did they not?"

She just nodded once and let her eyes skim the crown of the trees meeting the skyline, then following the trail of the river and stopping over the bridge in front of them now. A small structure of paved stone, nothing particularly special, but against the late spring décor, it gave the place an aura that seemed fallen out of a painting.

"So they did," she sighed all too sadly. "But they will pay. Is there anything you would not do for family, Vladimir?"

Vladimir felt her words as a spear through his heart. He remembered his grandfather who had passed a few years back, always judging him and his life choices, always beating him to a pulp for even slightly diverging from his communist teachings. And he remembered his father, always standing idly by and approving. His father who always scowled at him in the morning when he left for his job as a Queen's Guard. Working under a Wicked queen, he'd spat at his feet the day kind Gabryell had fallen. No. He had little to no love for his family.

"Quite a lot," he admitted out loud for a reason he did not understand; Cathy had offered him a piece of herself. Perhaps he thought it sensible to do the same. "Should that day come, I shan't weep at any grave. What's left of my family is better off dead."

Cathy turned to him abruptly, her eyes the most alive he'd seen them today. "What a terrible way to speak of your blood."

Vladimir felt like smiling at her. How naïve and innocent she was. Cathy had been blessed with a family she loved and who loved her back. How would he ever dare to shatter that illusion by telling her how blood had been his greatest curse on earth?

"Oh, Catherine," he mused sadly. "My only blood who ever cared for me is buried deep beneath the ocean. My father's cruelty put her there."

Cathy said nothing, simply listening to him. Looking at him. Paying attention to him like no one ever had, in his long 28 years. And it occurred to him that no one had ever listened to his story, had he ever bothered to offer it. But she wanted to hear it. She wanted him to let her in. And by the time he realized it, Vladimir's doors were already wide open before her.

He sighed. "I had a sister, too, you see. A most pure soul. Quite like yours. Her, I would've done anything for. But that very candid spirit of hers, my father wanted to smother. We come from a very proud family of Russian communists and he was raised with their beliefs, never quite forgiving the Russians for allowing the Wicked to walk freely amongst the people. I was raised the same, me and my sister both. But she loved the world too much to be able to bear such hatred within her heart. And since all my father has to offer is hatred and venom, she couldn't bear it. She walked into the waves and didn't look back."

Cathy stayed silent and waited for him to finish. The whole time, Vladimir kept a straight face, not allowing himself to show how very terribly she missed his sister. How very violently he loathed his father. How very fierce this fight was within him, between what he thought and what he'd been taught. He knew Cathy would not judge an ounce of it. But he didn't want to take that chance. He doubted he could bear her putting a barrier between them just because of the cross to bear that was his family, his legacy. That family had already taken too much from him.

"What about you?" she asked anyway, and he should've known. Cathy wasn't his sister. Cathy was powerful despite her apparent naïveté, strong despite her apparent innocence. And Cathy paid attention. He'd always thought he was rather well guarded. Now he knew that wasn't the case. He wasn't a book held under lock and key. It was just that no one had bothered to pick him up and flip through the pages up until now.

"What about me?" he played dumb, because he wanted to stall the moment when he would have to tell her he was still caught in his father's shackles.

"How much has your father taken from you?" she asked an entirely different question than he'd expected. It never ceased to faze him, how she could set the focus on him so sharply.

"Everything," he answered simply, without the need to give it too much thought. "And I, from him. As far as he can see, my sister left him. I did worse. I disappointed him."

"How so?"

Vladimir gazed at her curious expression. He wondered if he should tell her. About Kira. About the past months and about her return. He wondered when had Kira Atkinson become a heavier burden than his family. But he found the decision already clearly made. He wanted Cathy to know. He wanted her to know everything. He wanted to offer her all the broken pieces so she could decide which of them she liked best. There was an undeniable connection between the two of them. A bond of sorts. Perhaps they were alike in many ways, more than they could tell yet. All Vladimir knew was that he was inexplicably drawn to her as a moth to a flame. He thought perhaps he was doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again, falling for Wicked women to spite his father, but he knew that wasn't it. Catherine Blackthorn could have been anyone, worn any face, any blood could've flown through her veins, as long as she would've still had those eyes that had had the misfortune of landing on an unfortunate soul such as his.

"I made the gravest mistake he could fathom," Vladimir spoke eventually. "I fell for one of those he hates the most."

"Ah," Cathy pursed her lips, finally averting her gaze. "A Wicked woman."

"Yes," Vladimir nodded. "A Wicked woman."

Cathy must have noticed the shift in his tone because she narrowed her eyes at him. "One who broke your heart, did she not?"

Vladimir chuckled softly. "Nothing gets past you. Yes. She did."

She died, he thought. She did not love me, and then she died. And then she came back, still not loving me. Then she left again. And she came back again. Always coming back and never to me.

And somewhere along those thoughts, Vladimir found the sharp pain in chest that usually accompanied them gone. Kira's presence was gone from his bones and the empty space she'd left no longer ached. He felt free, even though new chains shackled him. He wondered why he didn't mind those. He wondered why they didn't hurt, but soothed.

"What happened?" Cathy asked, but he didn't think there was any point in telling her a long and complicated story about life and love lost and death that doesn't stay dead. Instead, he just shrugged.

"What always happens. I loved her and she did not."

Cathy looked away at the steady stream flowing by them and sighed. "What a fool."

"Me or her?" Vladimir inquired.

"I can't tell. You for entrusting yourself so blindly to love or her for not loving you back."

At the last part, Vladimir could simply stand there like a fool indeed and blink. With so little words, she could undo him just like that. In those words only she'd managed to summarize all of that foolish, hopeless unrequited love of his.

He sighed. "I regret nothing, Catherine. Kira was a force of nature, and she still is. One cannot help but be taken by storm with her. I was just one of many fools. And like a storm in itself, she passed just as fast as she came. And she took it all with her. I used to think she took a part of me, too, when she… left."

"And now?" she looked back at him again, not knowing this in itself was already the answer to her question.

"Now I know she didn't. I just thought she did. But one must trust one's self blindly to love, as you put it, because only by losing yourself so deeply within someone can you find yourself. Is it not what we live for?"

Her eyes grew a shade darker again, and Vladimir wondered how it was even possible for two green eyes to change shades so swiftly along with the gentle afternoon light. He found himself wanting nothing more than two smooth away that crease between her brows and pull her smile from these clouds she was surrounding herself with.

"I tried that once, captain," she offered back. "That kind of blind trust in love. Surely I cared for many people in my life, yet as for love, I can say I loved but one."

"And he didn't love you back?" he tried to guess, but she laughed humorlessly.

"Bloody right he didn't. The difference is I didn't know it. I thought he did. He acted like he did. And perhaps some twisted side of that man loved a part of me, too, at some point." She met his eyes boldly, fiercely. "But I am not what I look like, Vladimir. People seem to forget. I am, in truthfulness, a beast."

He knew all too well the truth she spoke and he tried to let it sink in, to find somewhere inside him the disgust towards the Wicked his father had planted. But wicked or not, beast or not, when Cathy looked up with him with her quivering lip and her sparkling emerald eyes and her radiant smile, he found nothing inside but pure fascination.

"And because I was growing tired of living on his breadcrumbs," she continued, "I kept thinking he'd stay if I gave more. More of me. More of anything. So I showed him the truth. Of what I am. Foolish me thought the truth would keep him by my side. As if the truth ever does anything but stain. He spat at my feet, called me a monster and never looked back. So no, captain, that is not what we live for. It cannot be. Ever since, I chose to live for my family and my family only. And for myself. And I thought it was enough."

Vladimir itched to reach out and touch her, but how could he after all she'd told him? Rather than a fierce dragon, he thought she resembled a kitten more. Scared and distrustful until she reaches out by her own choice. If she wanted to reach out, he'd be there. And it terrified him how much he wanted her to reach out. The last time he'd wanted something so much, he'd ended up alone and in pain. Was this thing worth hurting for? One look into her eyes and he decided it was. Should it cost him the rest of his breaths and rip the skin off his bones, this kind of feeling and the warmth in his chest was worth all of it.

"And now?" he returned her own question in a hushed voice and she somehow rewarded him with one of those smiles of hers that reminded him why it was worth the risk of entrusting another Wicked woman with his all too frailly human heart.

"I wonder," she said cryptically.

Vladimir frowned and he was just about to ask her what she meant by that when, out of nowhere, a few drops of rain landed on his eyelashes. He blinked against it and, by the time he looked up, it was already pouring.

"Bloody hell," he cussed softly, his hair already drenched. What a fitting time he'd chosen for a walk in the woods. He looked around for shelter for he and Catherine, since there was no chance for them to make it back to the Circus until the rain stopped, not unless they wanted to end up soaked to the bones. Since staying under trees didn't seem like a good idea, he figured they could wait it out under the bridge.

"Come on," he called to Cathy over his shoulder and already started making his way down, assuming she'd follow.

She hadn't.

When he got under the bridge, Vladimir looked behind him with the intention to comment on the unfriendly weather and to apologize for having dragged her out into the woods right in the midst of it. But when he turned around, Cathy was not there. He frowned, looking around, only to find her standing in the same place where he'd left her only moments ago.

Vladimir opened out his mouth to call to her and ask her to take shelter, but he changed his mind at the last moment. Cathy's back was at him and her head was tilted slightly upwards and something in her posture gave away the smile he couldn't see. She looked like a painting rather that a painter. Vladimir felt like an intruder between her and the storm.

A thunder rippled through the air and the soft sunlight still caressed the crown of the trees. Cathy looked like she was bearing spring within her and she was the one letting it explode so violently. Vladimir could've stood there watching her for days. He wondered what this feeling rippling in the midst of his chest meant. It was delicate and oh so terrible and dangerous.

"Catherine," he dared call out to her. "It's pouring. Come take shelter."

Cathy didn't answer. Instead, she turned and looked over her shoulder and in that moment, Vladimir swore that every path in his life, every sorrow, every tear he'd shed, every heartache, every moment of happiness or misery had led to this. He thought he'd felt love before. He thought he'd loved Kira, he thought he'd loved many things in his life where love felt like a form of rebellion. But never before had he felt like this. It was a feeling all too fragile that had snuck up on him like a spider, crawling under his skin and taking shelter in the space between these fingers that itched to touch her. In the space between his eyelids as they fluttered closed at night, before he fell asleep, with her as the last thought on his mind. In the space between his ribs where his heart raced, trying to keep up with his longing for her.

And he wondered how he hadn't been able to tell until now.

"What's the matter, captain?"

All those excuses to come see her.

"It's just a little rain."

All those days counting seconds until he could see her again.

"Hiding under bridges seems hardly your style."

All that pain caused by Kira, taken away by a mere smile.

"Did you not seek freedom?"

All he was, brighter with her.

"This is the closest you'll ever come to that."

Everything. Soaked in rain. Illuminated.

"Vladimir."

His name on her lips and the look in her eyes and the rain on her lashes and the smile over her shoulder and he was undone. All be damned. He walked out from under that bridge and strode to her in less than five heartbeats. Whatever that rain had brought down, he wanted to taste it. And he wanted to take it directly off her lips.

His mind was off, his heart was racing, his thoughts were blank and his feet were moving and before he knew it, his hands were cupping her face and tilting her chin and drawing his mouth to his until their lips were pressed together and the rain sealed the kiss like a promise. She let out a soft gasp that resonated through Vladimir's bones and the cascade of feelings flowing from both of them exploded in a kaleidoscope of colors when her hands went up and her fingers tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck. Her mouth moved softly against his and her smell flooded his lungs and he could swear the rain between them was starting to turn into warm steam.

Small human as he was, Vladimir suspected this was what magic felt like.