The strains of Mozart that had filled the cool, New York City evening ebbed slowly away, left to haunt the memories of those who had been fortunate enough to enjoy this evening's concert.
In the park, audience members strolled quietly away -- -- Lovers softly discussing their plans. Dreamers looking skyward to the blanket of twinkling stars. Future musicians swelling at the idea of some day playing such masterpieces on that very same stage.
Below, in tunnels the city rarely gave second thought to, another couple wandered off into the distance. Hand in hand, they weren't terribly anxious to part for the night. But it was time for the woman to go above ... back up through the shaft of light from her apartment building's basement ... back to her work-a-day world.
As was so often the case, they discussed the evening's symphony and made plans for their next interlude. It would be the next evening, when she would join her beloved for dinner. Then perhaps a visit to the underground waterfalls -- if he was up to it. If not, they would find a more relaxed diversion. As long as they were together, neither really cared as to the activity.
He was nearly back to his usual self. Surprising, really. A testament to his internal strength. Catherine had spent the last three nights below. ... Helping Vincent recover the memories that his delirium had tried so viciously to steal. ... Aiding his healing. ... Reassuring him as he re-established his inner peace. ... Reminding him that she loved him. Every evening she would arrive after a distracted attempt at work, then stay with him until he fell asleep. The guest chamber was then her room for the night -- near enough in case a nightmare would creep into his dreams.
Tonight's concert was his attempt at regaining some normalcy. They'd planned it weeks earlier based on the Central Park concert schedule, and he was determined that his illness not interfere. He did seem pensive though. More so than usual.
She'd prompted him a few times as to his thoughts or his condition -- both mind and body. The answers were always loving. Always accompanied by an embrace, a caress, a brush of his face into her hair. But they were also short. Cryptic.
'Blessed', he'd said. That did provide some comfort. It mirrored her own feelings exactly ... ... blessed to have kept him alive and by her side, despite the counter-attempts of his inner nightmares.
"You're sure you'll be all right tonight?" she asked when they reached the exit to her apartment building.
Vincent turned as they left the main tunnel's threshold, taking her other hand into his as well. "I will be fine." he reassured. "Please try not to worry. You need your rest too."
Reluctantly, she nodded. "You'll send for me if ... if anything changes?"
"With the speed of a child." he smiled. "One of the older children will come for you. But please try not to worry ... you've healed me well."
She nodded solemnly, trying to convince herself not to fret although she knew it was a futile battle. "You really scared me."
"I know." he answered, the sadness in his voice matching hers so empathetically. "I feel that fear in you too. And I love you even more for it."
He paused ... searching for adequate words while he allowed himself to slip into the depths of her eyes. "Words could never express how grateful I am. That you were there. That you're still here now ... despite what you must have seen."
Her fingers tightened into his with urgency, emphasizing her response -- -- "There is nothing I could see that would drive me away from you. You must believe that, Vincent. Nothing."
Gently, he pulled her into his embrace, anxious for the closeness he always craved. Anxious to remind them both that the most important truth remained ... they had survived and endured yet again. And with this comfort ... with her warmth in his arms and her breath wisping softly at his neck, perhaps he could truly express the thoughts that had been weighing on his mind for hours.
"I must tell you, Catherine ... when you arrived tonight ... when you found Father and me at the culvert ... ... ... I asked him for the truth of what happened that night, down in the lower caverns. The darkness that I have yet to remember."
"No matter what picture he painted, Vincent," she soothed, "it's ..."
"No Catherine." he interrupted gently, one of his hands rising to wrap lovingly around her head. She was already springing in to rescue him from any statements that may have caused him pain -- -- statements made inadvertently or not, and regardless of who had spoken them. Protecting and reassuring him as only she could. "No. There was only one thing Father told me. ... ... That you came after me. Alone."
The tone in Vincent's voice -- nearly faltering on the last word -- drove her eyes up to meet his. Yes, she had kept that knowledge from him, but only because she knew how he was likely to react. He didn't need to be engulfed in irrational worries over her, while his own spirit was still struggling to recover.
"I did what I had to do." she defended.
His head was already shaking. "I could have hurt you, Catherine. You know this."
"No!" She shot the word out surprisingly fast, even wrestling herself back out of his arms. "I will not accept that anymore." It was a demand made not in anger, but with solid, concrete determination. "I will not accept that. You wouldn't hurt me, and I don't fear you. You know that in your heart. You know it as well as you know me."
Vincent continued to shake his head, staring down at the furred hands she had just vacated. He knew what those claws could do ... and so did she. "I didn't even know myself, Catherine. No one was safe. Not even those I love."
Her expression remained more defiant than he'd ever seen, to the point that he could actually feel her emotions welling up in their bond. Spilling over to him in an unusually rare surge. Her lower lip was quivering ... he was about to make the woman he loved weep ... but he couldn't stop himself. This was too important ... this was her life he spoke of.
"Did I not threaten you?" he challenged, striving desperately to be gentle, but anxious to make her see his truth.
She blinked. Repeatedly. Fighting the tears as she remembered that horrible cave.
"Do you really want to know what happened?" she whispered, so broken and hitched she was barely audible. He was hurting ... there was no longer any point in trying to prevent that which had already come. The few kernels he knew, had taken root, growing rapidly into an even worse scenario in his mind.
He gave no answer ... frozen at the precipice ... bracing to hear confirmation of the one thing that terrified him the most.
"You told my father that you'd protect me until your last breath." she began haltingly. "Do you remember?"
He didn't answer, still pinned motionless to the very air around him. His eyes were quite clear though ... ... yes, he remembered.
"So that's what you did." she stated with solemn simplicity. Then she looked away, glancing at her hands, the walls ... any type of distraction to stop the potential flood from pouring free. "Yes ... Vincent ... you threatened me ... ..."
He flinched at the words ... a reaction neither of them missed, and both expected.
"But you knew who I was." she continued, in the clearest voice she could muster. "Just like Dylan Thomas predicted. ... 'Though they go mad they shall be sane.' ... Through all that madness, you still recognized me. And to stop yourself, you did exactly what you had promised." ... ... Her hand came up, half-shielding her face as she began to weep. ... ... "You tried to draw your last breath."
The last few days had seen many tears shed and many tears shared. Nothing that hurt like this, though. For either of them.
Catherine's hand continued in its fruitless attempt to hide water-logged eyes, her face flushing pink. Her other arm had wrapped itself around her midriff, perhaps trying to replace the embrace from which she usually drew her courage. And she continued. -- -- "You tried to leave, to protect me. ... So I came after you. ... ... I kissed you. ... And you came back."
Her entire body seemed to be trembling, and for a moment, a hint of anger even bubbled to the surface. -- -- "You tried to will yourself away from me. ... ... Don't you ever do that to me again."
This poor man of hers. ... ... He stood motionless. ... ... Stunned. ... ... Relieved. ... ... Could this be true?
In his heart, he had somberly accepted death as a very possible conclusion to the spiral in which he'd been trapped. And if it came to it, he had prayed it would be his own death, rather than hers. His own death, if need be, to prevent hers. Never in his wildest dreams, however, had he believed that his own subconscious ... the sleeping beast within him ... would be prepared to take that very step.
And she'd called him back. -- -- The one voice his soul knew and would truly respond to. She'd restored his life, with such a simple -- but immense -- gesture.
"You ... ... kissed me?" he finally croaked out.
Slowly, Catherine nodded. She sniffed, swiping at her eyes, then crossed both of her arms tightly, as if trying to gain a quite literal grip on herself. "And the world didn't end." she assured. "Not even your world. -- -- That's what brought you back. ... ... ... And I know now. It's not us that has to end, Vincent. It never was. ... It's this artificial barrier between us. ... It will kill us both in the end."
The disbelief, so deeply ingrained in him, lured him as always -- whispering like a siren that this woman couldn't possibly mean what she was saying. He had to be misinterpreting. Misconstruing. Misunderstanding.
But the story she told, and the way she told it. ... ... It was true. ... ... She wasn't lying -- -- a fact he knew instantly and instinctually.
It was almost an out-of-body experience, as he watched his furred hands -- pale claws illuminated in the passageway's dim light -- reach to carefully unfold her arms, then pull her into the eternal safety of his own.
She gave up her hopeless fight for control, and just let herself cling to him. Even with what he'd been through, that immutable strength at his core was still there, and she was hanging on for dear life.
Words and truths began pouring out of her, whispered urgently at his ear -- -- his name mingled with such beautiful endearments of love. He lifted her higher and closer until her feet left the floor ... determined not to miss one word of those blessed whispers.
A minute passed ... nearly two ... before her desperate grip began to relax, her rush of words diminishing. So many things that should have been said in the prior months had now been set free. -- -- How she loved him. Longed for him. Would change nothing of her life, nor survive an existence without him. That the happy future he always claimed as his wish for her, was only possible if it was he himself who gave it. Happiness had but one source.
She heard his deep gasp. Felt it, her own body raised and lowered by his chest's dramatic exhalation. Then the burrowing of his face into her neck, seeking physical solace.
He fought so hard ... possibly harder than he'd ever fought any other foe -- animate, inanimate, living, dead, or otherwise inclined. Battling those things he had always believed of himself. Struggling to replace the whispers from the darkness, with the whispers from his beloved.
And then, just as days ago in that cave when he had found his reason to fight his way back to life ... now it was a similar touch that showed him the path to victory. At his ear, the warm press of her lips. Not even a true kiss, nor any words in accompaniment. Just a touch, that somehow opened the door to the reality of what they had actually become.
"Are you certain that's the future you want, Catherine?" he finally ask, his face still buried into her warmth.
"Yes." came her answer, with quick and unerring confidence. Then she offered one final entreaty ... the same warning she had issued earlier, but this time it came murmured as a far simpler, far quieter plea ... "Don't will yourself away from me, Vincent. Please."
He squeezed her even tighter, a physical expression she recognized, meant to convey his understanding ... his empathy ... his love ... ... and most probably, his need to retreat and think. Life must certainly still be spinning for him, his peaceful center elusive. He would return her to her feet, and time would go on as before. After all this, she would probably cry herself to sleep tonight.
But that's not what happened.
Before the wave of sadness could wash over her, his head began nudging hers ... his stubbly cheek coaxing at her smoothness. Strands of her hair still clung across her face, held fast by drying tears and catching on his nose to tickle like a feather, as he gently moved her head.
He met her eyes one last time -- reassuring himself of her truth -- before tentative feline lips pressed carefully onto hers.
Such an amazing experience ... such an amazing touch ... not only for their union, but for the man who had spent his entire life believing such things impossible. Now he would spend the rest of his life remembering this moment.
And Catherine ... his savior, his angel ... not once did she try to pull away. Not once did she even hesitate, as the ghostly Catherine of his sorrowful nightmares had so often done. Instead, she squirmed closer into his arms, silently begging for the most simple thing on Earth ... that he continue.
... ... He did. And he would.
He had come back to her ... indeed he had, in so many ways. And this time, it was to stay.