Vincent stood alone in their chamber, staring silently and solemnly at a large, rectangular, cardboard box. It sat unobtrusively beside the entranceway, as if waiting to be transported to distant lands.
It wasn't going anywhere though. It had arrived earlier in the day, delivered by a helper but requested by Catherine.
Catherine. ... ...
She would be back soon, returning from work above. And she'd want to see her newest prize.
Would she laugh, he wondered, if she knew how steady of an eye he was keeping on that box? How leery he appeared? As if waiting for something to spring out and attack him?
Or would she take it away again? Taking pity on her poor husband and giving the box to another lucky tunnel dweller?
Either way, he'd find out soon enough. He could feel her first steps of return to his world.
"Give and take." Catherine soothed, a short time later as she stood beside her mate, sharing his vigil. "That's what we agreed. To make this work. Give and take, and we meet in the middle."
Vincent nodded, reaching his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer in solidarity. Yes, indeed. That was the agreement as they'd begun their new life together.
"Vincent." ... She spoke his name softly and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I don't just want you to give this to me, I want you to give it to yourself too."
He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Catherine." ... He shook his head helplessly.
"Are you frightened?" she asked curiously, the thought having only struck her now.
"No." he answered honestly. "Not frightened. ... I know what I will find. ... There's a difference between fear, and the sorrow of remembrance."
"I don't want to bring you sorrow." she replied hesitantly. "I just wish you could see things as I do."
Her hand crept up to his chest, her fingertips pressing fast in comfort. In a moment, as if forcing himself into a decision, he took her fingers into his.
"I will try, my Catherine. I will try."
Five minutes later, the deed was done. Empty cardboard and tissue remnants lay discarded on the bed, and atop one of Vincent's antique chest of drawers -- propped lightly against the chamber wall -- was a large, shining mirror.
The most obvious effect was a beautiful scattering of candlelight. The room was no brighter, but the flickering seemed to come from every direction. Had Catherine expected such a lovely casting of light, she might have pushed for this addition earlier.
Vincent, however, was not nearly so enchanted. He set to work at the bed, obviously in search of distraction, collecting the wrappings into a garbage bag.
"It's lovely." she stated happily. "It looks like the room is filled with flickering candles." Her hands were clasped beneath her chin as she smiled at her own reflection like a child. "This'll make my mornings easier too. Shave at least fifteen minutes off my beauty ritual. That's fifteen more minutes we could spend snuggling in bed."
With a mischievous grin, she turned around. A promise like that should have received a chuckle from her husband. Or at least an amorous glint in his eye. Instead, she was presented only with his back -- his head hung low. The image of a man silently performing his duty, even if it was tearing his heart out.
"Vincent." she whispered, stepping beside him and tentatively touching his back. He wasn't always willing to let her in ... ... bid her entrance to his pains and sorrows. Even now yet, there were things he still hesitated to share.
"It's all right, Catherine." he answered, although he still wouldn't reveal his face. "It makes you happy. So it will stay."
Her counter was immediate and sincere -- "I canít be happy if it hurts you." Drawing closer, she pressed a hug to his side. "I'll have Jason carry it above tomorrow. For tonight, we can just turn it to the wall."
With soft steps, she began to move away, readying to do exactly as she'd said. That's when Vincent's hand shot out, catching her elbow.
"Please, Catherine." he urged. "I'll grow accustomed to it. ... ... Please let it stay."
The words were spoken with little conviction. -- -- Inadvertent admission that the decision was being made solely for the benefit of his beloved. The truth was more easily found on his face, now that he'd turned to her at last. Glassy blue eyes shimmered far too brightly in the candlelight. Sadness pooling physically.
Shaking her head, her own sorrow tripling, she slipped herself into his arms. A mutual exchange of comfort against unspoken thoughts. "I wish I could see what you see." she mumbled into his vest. "See what pains you so much in a simple reflection."
"No, you don't." he rumbled. "There are some things I'm still desperate to spare your eyes. Even if you've already chosen to be blind to them."
At that, she withdrew back out of his arms, giving him an ineffectual push of defiance. "I don't 'choose' to see, or not see, anything." she disagreed adamantly. "I see what I see. And I know what I know. ... ... And you have to stop trying to tell me I'm wrong."
Vincent sighed, at a loss, and lowered his head again.
Catherine's fingers laced and unlaced nervously at her midriff, as she searched for a solution. Or even an understanding.
"Even when I'm here?" she implored softly. "Even now that I'm truly by your side? You still can't rid yourself of visions that just aren't there?"
He held her gaze, steeling himself for confession. "You dampen them." he acquiesced. "Your light chases them to hide in the corners, especially when you're in my arms. Or even when we're simply in the same room. But in a mirror ... they spring out from everywhere. ... ... I can't even prepare to fight them. I no more than turn around, and they leap out from my reflection. ... ... There is no escape."
A pause, and she nodded at last. Yes, she was beginning to understand. But certainly not agree. This man -- this mate of hers -- was not one who should have to look for escape. He was strong. Fearlessly strong. Even in ways he himself didn't always believe.
So she would believe for the both of them.
"I'm here now." she pointed out, wrapping her hands around his arm. "And not just today, but every day. All of my days, for the rest of my life." Gently, she gave him a tug. "So let me chase them away. Let me try to banish them for good."
That tug she gave was in the direction of the mirror -- -- a fact he caught instantly. "Catherine." he sighed, shaking his head.
But she would not accept his resistance. Again she pulled on his arm, and again she spoke his name, this time with the tone of a woman who had already won the argument.
He really had no choice, did he. Saying 'no' to her was always difficult, even in his more resolved moments. He gave up, and let her take the lead.
"There he is." Catherine hushed adoringly, scant minutes later. She'd coaxed Vincent into a chair, facing his nemesis in the mirror. She stood behind him, her hands rooted to his shoulders in a show of determination. Together, they watched their shared reflection.
"He's the same as ever." she continued with a shy smile. "The man I love. The one I'll always love."
His eyes held hers in the reflection, searching for his own strength and instinctually suspecting he would find it somewhere in her. It fed her optimism that they were at least on the right path. At the same time though, if he was watching her, he was also avoiding himself.
Bending down, she wrapped her arms around his neck and chest, propping her head alongside his. Cheek to cheek, reflection to reflection. His face was blessedly framed by his beloved.
"You once demanded to know what I see." she spoke quietly. "Now you tell me. What do you see?"
It didn't surprise her when he took a deep, preparatory breath, raising and lowering her with the swell. It also didn't surprise her when a sadness crept across his face.
His answer, though. -- -- That surprised her.
As he exhaled, he consciously forced his jaw to relax, his lips parting slightly. And thus, in the saddest voice, began his reply. -- -- "I see teeth that can tear flesh. I see eyes that can hunt with dangerous precision. ... ... I see what many would call a demon. I see what children flee from in their darkest nightmares. ... ... I see so much that I never wanted to be."
She was stunned. ... ... Absolutely stunned.
His words -- his self-accusations -- had collected in her head. Coagulating like a bitter poison. And if that horribleness dwelt in his head too. ... ...
Her arms tightened, squeezing and squeezing as her cheek pressed to his. He felt it, certainly, but didn't see it. His gaze was transfixed on his own reflection. Caught like prey and trying to escape.
Adamantly, vehemently, she voiced her disagreement. -- -- "Yes. I see those teeth too. And they've aided in my protection more times than I can count. Not once though, not one time, have they ever hurt a single inch of my body. And those eyes are the same ones that watch over me while I sleep. Did so even before I came below."
She paused, turning to kiss away a tear that had begun trailing down his cheek. Maybe, for once, that meant he was listening.
"The children," she continued. "The children love you. Don't bother acting modest ... you know you're their favorite. And I promise you, Vincent ... if anyone calls you a demon," ... she grimaced as she forced out the vile word ... "stand back, because I will personally tear them limb from limb."
At that, he smiled. Almost laughed, in fact, as his respiration seemed to jump-start. The sudden image of Catherine -- his sweet little Catherine -- tearing into a detractor, was truly an image to remember.
"So go ahead." she challenged at last. "Tell me that I'm wrong. Because everything you're seeing, is still everything I love."
Slowly his hands rose, fingers curling around her wrists. And his attention returned to his mate's reflection, giving up the obsession with his own. ... ... "Thank you, Catherine."
Her smile was so loving -- so reassuring in its affection -- and she pressed a kiss to his brow. To his cheek. To his lips. He watched the scene silently. Long, soothing minutes, reveling as the woman he loved, loved him back.
"You look beautiful, bathed in flickering candlelight." he finally whispered, recalling her earlier comment. She was right. The room did look different. Indeed, many things were beginning to look different. Tilting his face he nuzzled his nose to her cheek, then claimed another tender kiss.
She nuzzled him back, whispering the most honest, "So do you."
This new image also played out in the mirror, visible out of the corner of Vincent's eye. An image he had never seen like this before. The man in the mirror ... the gentle giant, as he knew she thought of him ... giving affection to his mate.
In the end, it didn't appear so wrong after all. Surprisingly right, actually, if he was prepared to admit it. In that mirror was everything he'd ever wanted, and the heart of all he believed to be good in this world.
"You'll remain in the reflection with me, Catherine?" he asked. "To keep those fears away?"
Her grip tightened, and he watched as she slid her cheek along his ... smooth skin over masculine stubble. Two reflections, so close they almost appeared to be one. "All of my days," she smiled. "For the rest of my life."