What I Hear
"Oh you have got to be kidding me!"
Catherine Chandler stood beside a bubbling fountain in Central Park's Conservatory Gardens. An average bystander would have assumed that her statement of frustration -- her eyes rolling and her head tossed back as she spoke -- was made for no one other than herself. In truth, there was another who heard her. One who watched from the shadows of nearby trees and foliage. One who guarded vigilantly as always.
Meanwhile, the cause of her frustration, was still a third person ... a man dressed in black, striding purposefully toward her. In the 4:00am darkness, with only a few assorted streetlamps illuminating the garden paths, it had taken her a good few seconds of squinting to determine the man's identity. And when she did, she almost wanted to vomit.
Her first thought was to simply turn and leave. In the first place, he'd lured her here under false pretenses. The message at her office had said this was a potential witness in a mob trial. Someone who feared their identity being made public. It had caused her enough heartburn just collecting the courage to actually come here tonight, not to mention two solid hours of convincing Vincent it was the correct thing to do. Finding *this* man's presence instead, only reduced her noble efforts to a pathetic joke.
And even if she had known who she was to meet ... still ... there was nothing she wanted to say to -- or hear from -- one, Elliot Burch.
Yes, turning and leaving would have probably been the wisest thing. It would have been completely safe. Even if Elliot would have given chase, Vincent was watching over her from the surrounding shadows. It was the only way he had allowed her to come here tonight, and for nearly twenty minutes, she'd heard the occasional rustle of his cloak among the bushes. Vincent, she knew, would have had no qualms at all about stopping Burch. He might have even enjoyed being given the excuse.
Most of all, though, she was just highly annoyed. And her decision to stay was made primarily in the hope of giving this man ... this ridiculously perpetual suitor ... a stern piece of her mind.
"Cathy!" he called, waving his arm as he drew near. "It's me! Elliot!"
Catherine's tone lowered to a sarcastic hiss. "Yes. I know."
If he registered her very inhospitable greeting, he certainly didn't show it. "I'm so glad you came, Cathy. I've been dying to see you again." His pace slowed not one bit as he walked right up to her, his arms already opening for a hug.
She backed away instinctually, raising her hands to block his advance. "You lied to get me here." she accused angrily.
Physically, Elliot relented, at least having the good sense not to force himself upon her. His sales-pitch, however, continued at full speed. "A compliment. That should show you how anxious I am to talk to you."
Again Catherine rolled her eyes. "So let me guess. There is no frightened mob turncoat lurking in the underbrush. Is that it?"
Elliot clasped his hands together with a clap, then leaned forward in a patronizing plea for forgiveness. "I'm sorry, I just needed to see you. And it wasn't a complete lie. I am trying to avoid detection. The CIA is hellbent to have my head on a stick, and I'm relatively certain they've gotten to the NYPD. Let's just say I'm not exactly their golden child at the moment."
"Elliot," she whined, not particularly wanting to hear this. Not really even caring. Turning, she began walking back the way she'd come.
"Cathy." he called, chasing after her. "I'm leaving the country, and I was hoping you'd come with me."
Well that certainly stopped her, and she spun around. "Leave with you?!" she shot back, clearly offended by the idea. "Why on Earth would you even suggest such a thing?! What could possibly give you the right to ..."
"Just say yes." he begged, interrupting her tirade. "I have a string of islands in the Caribbean, another one near Fiji, and the most beautiful beachfront estate in Argentina. And if you don't like any of them, just pick a country." Laughing proudly, he assured her, "The fortunes have been very good to me lately. When I say I can give you the world, I mean it."
With a huff of disbelief, Catherine shrugged her shoulders. "You just don't listen, do you?! Do you even have ears?! For God's sake, Elliot. We've been through all this before!"
"Catherine." he stated, using her full name as an attempted lure. "Whatever is keeping you here ... whoever is keeping you here ... ... ... it's not worth this. Coming to Central Park in the middle of the night to meet a mob thug? This is what you do for your job?"
"Yes." she barked. "This is what I do for my job. I'm trying to do some good. Something you obviously know nothing about."
"Cathy," he bargained, always skilled at knowing when to change his tactics. "You could do your good in so many other ways. With me, you could do whatever you wanted. Help the poor, heal the sick. Even take in strays. Start a charity in your own name!"
"No, Elliot." she delivered with a flat voice punctuated by a glare. "No." Again she resumed her journey, her footfalls purposeful. Her evening pest, however, wasn't finished.
"Whoever he is," Elliot called, risking discovery as his volume rose with frustration, "you know I can give you more. I doubt he's a celebrity, or I'd have seen him by now. And if he had money, he'd have you plastered all over the society pages. ... ... Look, what's the deal here? Is he just really good in bed or something?"
The look on Catherine Chandler's face was one of pure, unadulterated fury. Turning around again, she walked briskly back in Burch's direction. He even took a step back, so angry did she appear. And when she was close enough, she gave him the heartiest slap across the face.
"If you ever come near me again," she vowed, "I'll have a restraining order on you so fast your head will spin right off your filthy little throat."
Elliot's eyes grew wide, his nostrils flaring. At his side, his hand balled into a fist. But when his arm began to rise, an even angrier growl rumbled out from the darkness.
It worked, and Elliot's eyes flitted around. "What was that?"
Try as she might, Catherine simply could not suppress the entirety of her smirk. So she explained it away with a vicious joke. ... "Probably a dirty dog. I hear they recognize their own kind."
Elliot didn't seem too certain though, and he continued to glance around nervously.
Catherine accepted the respite. She'd clearly won, thanks to her mate amidst the shadows. "You said you were leaving the country." she stated with blunt finality. "Now go."
And this time, when she turned and stalked off, Elliot Burch did not attempt to follow.
"Oooooooooooh." she groaned bitterly, stomping into a culvert on the northern end of the park. It had been a long, long time since she'd been quite this angry.
Vincent was there, as she knew he would be, gathering her into his arms as soon as she was beyond the light of the breaking dawn.
"I heard it all." he comforted into her hair. "I was with you throughout."
Catherine nodded against his shoulder, giving him a squeeze of appreciation. "I know. ... ... And I think he knew it too." With the slightest hint of ironic amusement, she pulled back to catch her husband's eyes. "You gave him a good scare. I shouldn't have provoked him like that, but I just couldn't hold my temper any longer. ... Thank you." That too was accompanied by an equally thankful kiss.
Then she stepped away, unable to remain in one spot. She had been so nervous when she'd first arrived at the Conservatory Gardens. Even under Vincent's watchful eye, it was a scary time of night, with an unknown, equally scary potential meeting. Her nerves did *not* need the jolt of finding out it was merely a ruse at her expense. Nor did she need to hear what that bastard had said.
"He is so determined." Vincent stated, watching his mate pace to and fro. What else could he do if she did not currently need his embrace? "He would offer you anything he can find, or retrieve anything you requested."
Briefly, Catherine detected a hint of sympathy in Vincent's voice. Pity for Elliot? She was in no mood for it. ... ... "Oh don't you fall for that." she assured sarcastically. "He'd just as soon buy a woman as love one."
"But yet he chooses you, Catherine. Over and over. ... ... He cannot free himself. He would give you anything. Everything. But he cannot free himself."
A pause, while she gave her mate a confused and suspicious look. "Am I hearing you correctly? After everything we've been through, you're feeling sorry for him? Why does he, of all people, hold so much weight with you? ... ... ... You're so strong, Vincent. In every way. How could you crumble to him?"
Vincent could only shrug helplessly. ... Sorrowfully. ... "He's the reminder that won't go away. The one reminder of what I cannot be."
Nearly any other time, Catherine would very likely have found herself in Vincent's arms. Soothing balm for them both ... calming his fears ... erasing Elliot's words from her own reality ... reminding both of them where, and to whom, she truly belonged.
Not this time, however.
She was tired, she was royally angry, and she was unusually low on patience. The truth, this time, would have to suffice. And she would state it bluntly and clearly.
"'What you cannot be'?" she repeated incredulously. "What you are, Vincent, is my husband. That counts for something. That counts for everything. And always will, no matter how pitifully someone like Elliot may whine and pine. He is singularly irrelevant."
Vincent shook his head sadly, slipping into an old melancholia ... so tempting in how easily it still fit. He attempted a smile, but failed miserably. That was the best he could do, until his arm stretched out toward the maze of tunnels that expanded behind them -- and just as much so, the darkness that lay therein. "I love you, my Catherine. My wife, and my light. But even I cannot deny ... you don't deserve this."
Seconds passed as Catherine stared him down. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, and at the words he'd chosen ... for the first time in her life ... she felt the urge to slap Vincent too.
She could not though. And not due to fear. She just couldn't bring herself to strike that face she adored, no matter how tautly stretched her nerves were, and no matter how offensive she currently perceived his words to be. So she just glared at him, much as she'd glared at Elliot. And her voice ... it dropped low and stone cold as she issued a warning. -- --"Don't you ever ... ever ... say that to me again."
Vincent's head rose with shock, and he took a step toward her ... immediately intent on apologizing for anything he'd said incorrectly or any pain he'd inadvertently caused.
But, alas, in a twisted, disturbing replay of the events from the garden above, Catherine raised her hands to keep him at bay, issuing a low, sad, "Don't."
"Catherine." he begged. Pleading.
It had no effect. And he could do nothing. ... ... Turning on her heel, she ran back out of the culvert.
This time he shouted -- -- "Catherine!" -- -- and began to chase after her. But it was too late. The sun was up, glinting down through the trees. Morning joggers could be heard outside.
Just like Elliot, only a short time earlier, Vincent could not follow.
"It was my words, Father." Vincent moaned, practically on the verge of tears. He sat in Father's study, his head bowed as he stared at his own hands. "After everything she's seen. Everything I've done." -- -- He curled his fingers to force upon himself the image of sharp, deadly claws. -- -- "Everything she has learned to love. It was my words that drove her away."
Jacob Wells pressed a hand to his son's shoulder. "You have not driven her away. I know that as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow."
Vincent flinched, reminded how that same sun had kept him from following her. Kept him from apologizing and collecting her back into the safety of his arms.
"I don't know where she is." he murmured quietly, a tear traversing his cheek at the admission. He turned his head in an attempt to conceal it. "I can barely feel her. It's so faint."
Father looked searchingly at Vincent, perhaps not having realized the seriousness of the situation. He would be optimistic though.
"Could she be blocking your connection?" the older man suggested. "You said, once, that she had that ability. When Paracelsus had her, I believe."
Vincent nodded, then finally looked up into his Father's sympathetic face. There was no point in trying to hide. If the situation turned bad, he would probably embarrass himself far more thoroughly than mere tears. "It's possible." he agreed, although the tone in his voice proved that he didn't believe it to be the correct explanation. There was something far worse that he feared, and it ended with a quiet sob. -- -- "Or it is distance. ... And she has left."
Much of the collective effort that day was spent on the search above. Helpers were notified. Children were sent to run errands. Teens ... those who could blend in the easiest ... did footwork at those locations Catherine tended to frequent. And throughout the tunnels, the pipes were alive with messages, Pascal in top form as he orchestrated the flow of information.
Vincent paced. Father fretted. Other community elders consoled ... or at least tried to.
Little seemed to calm their friend though. It was he whose heart was on the line. He who had the most to lose. He who wanted the most desperately to be up there looking. He who probably had the best chance of finding her. But it was also he for whom searching was the most impossible.
It was the cloak of evening darkness that finally provided Vincent his familiar, old protection, and he set out as soon as the streets were dim. He had planned his entire night's trip, strategically stopping at any place she might be. At least, any place he could slip in undetected.
The first choice was obvious, and a familiar, dark shadow jumped over the wall of Catherine's apartment balcony.
The lights were on inside, which he expected. Since this residence was now merely a cover to retain her 'legal' presence above, efforts were made to make it at least appear lived-in. Those lights were on electronic timers, signifying nothing more. Regardless, he jimmied the lock on her balcony doors ... strong fingers that could get him past most obstacles, when the need was dire enough.
Inside, he traversed both living room and bedroom, pausing briefly to determine if the bed had been slept in recently.
No, it had not been.
Nothing. He could feel her presence nowhere.
On a table near her front door, an answering machine blinked at him. Further proof that she probably had not even been here that day. And the messages ... they certainly weren't for him. Had she wanted to contact him, she would have used the pipes. Or the helpers.
Or come back herself.
A breeze blew in from the balcony, and he inhaled deeply. His travels would be long and draining, and he would need his strength if he had even a prayer of locating her. The realization sank through him like lead.
Although he tried not to admit it to himself, this was where he had held out the most hope of finding her. The other destinations were merely second guesses. This was the one place above where he felt her presence the most, even if only peripherally.
And then, as he searched inside himself for that very sensation, he suddenly found it. -- --
It had grown. It *was* growing. Even moreso than when he'd first dropped to her balcony floor. In mere minutes, it had grown. She was returning.
Wearing his first hopeful expression in hours, he looked toward her balcony -- even though he knew better than to expect her to follow his own entrance route. ... ... ... The door? He glanced at her front door.
No. Somehow he knew ... ... she wasn't returning here.
She was coming home. Her true home ... he could feel her joy in that fact. She was returning below.
In a flash, without even closing the doors behind him, he was once again over her balcony wall and back into the night.
Catherine had to admit, her entrance into Father's study could have been much worse.
After the last few years ... the waves in her relationship with the community patriarch ... it could most definitely have been worse. But he was unabashedly relieved to see her, the moment that she descended the stairs into the large chamber.
He had ordered that tea be brought. Muffins too, given how tired she looked.
"He's above." Father stated solemnly, sitting across the table from her.
"Looking for me." she concluded sadly. "I'm so sorry, Father. I needed ... I needed to clear my head. ... I needed to get something. To show Vincent. ... Something that has to get straightened out, once and for all."
She paused, mildly surprised to catch herself pouring such thoughts out to the patriarch, let alone such jumbled, raw thoughts. As was so often the case, part of her was waiting to be chastised. Another part though, was perhaps beginning to accept that they were finally all on the same side.
"I'm sorry, Father." she repeated. "I guess I didn't think he'd react so strongly. Or maybe I didn't think at all."
Slowly, Father nodded, smiling with genuine care and reassurance. "Don't worry, Catherine." Leaning forward, he gave her hand a comforting squeeze. "He'll return soon. The pipes have already sent out notice of your return. He'll know. If he doesn't already."
Father's timing was oddly synchronous. They both heard Vincent's footfalls at the same time, and caught the black flash as he tossed his cloak to the floor upon running into the chamber.
"Catherine!" he exclaimed, taking the short stairway in one leap.
Father had to practically catch her tea cup as Catherine sprang to her feet, and he was still smiling and steadying the hot liquid by the time she was at the other end of the room.
She landed on her mate with enough force to make him grunt. Or maybe it was just a sigh of relief. She didn't know and she didn't care. She was already busy, whispering her apologies into the hollow of his neck.
"I'm so sorry, Vincent. I'm so sorry."
"I know." he hushed, holding her tighter, his hand cradling the back of her head. "I know. As too am I." ... ... Whatever he'd done, he was more than ready to accept the blame -- even if he didn't understand it. As long as she was home.
Across the room, a throat was cleared, and Father did his best to restrain a small chuckle. It was easy to forgive the girl, when he was privy to such moments as this. But still ... ... "Perhaps you two should have a bit of a talk?"
The couple agreed, and began peeling themselves away. Vincent took a kiss, then settled simply for his wife's hand.
"Thank you, Father." Catherine spoke, sincerity filling her words.
The older man nodded, raising his hand in understanding acknowledgement as the two headed for their chamber.
The sight of Catherine's purse, flung to the far end of the bed, was yet another source of reassurance to Vincent as they entered their room. She must have come here first in her search for him, the toss of her purse being just a sign of her speed. Much like his own speed had been above.
Next to it, on the old quilt, lay a book. One that Vincent had never seen before. It was nothing to dwell on though. There was far more important repair work to be done.
"Whatever I said this morning," he began, taking her hand between both of his. "Whatever I said to offend you, you have my deepest ..."
"No," she interrupted quietly, using a kiss to still his lips. It had only been hours that day, and she'd missed that endearment already. "I need to show you something." Motioning toward an ornate chair beside their little round table, she prompted, "Please, sit."
Vincent nodded apprehensively, but did as he was asked. He sat in the chair, his hands holding the front corners of the chair-arms in an unconscious state of readiness.
Cathereine reached across the bed, retrieving the book he didn't recognize, then took her own seat in the other chair. Carefully, she placed the book on the table beside them.
"I was in Connecticut." she stated gently. "Upstate Connecticut. I rented a car."
Vincent's expression was one of complete confusion. "Connecticut?" One thing, though ... it explained the distance he'd felt in their bond. Ironically, earlier that day, he'd prayed that geographic distance was *not* the cause ... fearful on some shameful level that she may have taken Mr. Burch up on his invitation to flee the country. Her simply shutting her mate out emotionally had originally seemed a much more preferable explanation. But now that she had returned, he found himself relieved. Whatever was in Connecticut, her heart had remained here.
"My grandmother lives there." she elaborated. "And an uncle and aunt. Three second-cousins."
"I didn't know your grandmother was still alive," Vincent commented, a momentary hint of lightness in his voice.
"Don't get excited." Catherine chuckled lightly. "She's my mother's mother, and we've never been very close. She's ... well ... a difficult woman to deal with."
Vincent nodded, trying to find an understanding. "You were seeking comfort? From your family of origin?"
Catherine shook her head. "No. I was seeking this." Lightly, her hands rubbed across the top of the large, leather scrapbook. She knew how tempting books were to Vincent, and she successfully attracted attention. Slowly, his own hands came up to stroke a finger lightly along the book's gold-embossed edge.
"This was at Daddy's Connecticut house." she explained. "I'm afraid I never got to the point that I could handle cleaning the place out. So they did it. My grandmother, aunt and uncle."
Again Vincent nodded. Yes, it had been nearly a year since her father's death, but that year had been unusually rough. The cases she'd had. ... So many problems below. ... Then his episode of delirium only a matter of months ago.
"I knew they had this." she continued. "They'd told me what they planned on keeping and what they didn't. Asked for my input. And this ... ... it's probably more mine than Daddy's, and I couldn't let it go."
Vincent's gaze scanned the book's cover, obviously very curious as to its contents. She answered his expression by turning to the first page.
"It's a collection of some of my best papers from school. Kindergarten through twelfth grade. I have to admit I wasn't necessarily the best student, but I did have my moments."
Vincent offered a small smile and took her hand for a momentary squeeze. "You are good at everything you do, Catherine. Of that, I'm certain."
She laughed modestly and began turning the pages. "Well, some of these I did win awards for." Four more pages were turned before she finally halted her search. "Like this one ... .. this one was always one of my favorites. Third grade. We were learning about definitions, and how to define something without using the word itself. Sort of 'abstract thought for children'." Her eyes flitted toward his, and she clarified the situation the young Catherine Chandler had been in. "I picked 'love'. Far from the easiest choice."
And at last, those feline eyes began losing some of their trepidation. Such a choice may have surprised the rest of the world. But to Vincent ... yes ... that most definitely sounded like his Catherine.
"Want to hear it?" she offered.
Slowly, he nodded. "You know I do."
Clearing her throat, she collected her voice and began.
"Love is when the boy you like, likes you back. Love is someone who says your name and then stops, because your name is all they want. Love is when you see the boy, and even if you're old and married, you still get sick to your stomach."
Pausing for a moment, she steeled herself. The tears were going to come. She could feel them already. Four times she'd read this today, leaving herself crying at stoplights and in traffic jams. She knew how this mini-essay ended.
"Love is when you don't care who's watching you, or what they're thinking, because the boy is there. Love is wanting to be with someone, just because of who they are."
A tear slipped down her cheek, and she carefully closed the book. The last thing she needed was to cover her masterpieces in tears.
"Catherine." her mate breathed. "For a child," ... ... he shook his head, trying to accurately describe his amazement ... ... "You displayed wisdom beyond your years. ... ... You never told me of such things in your past."
She sniffed and swiped her hand to her eyes. "I didn't think I had to. I thought you knew me better than that."
Vincent breathed her name as though it were a verbal caress ... trying to form a reply that would convey all of the wonderful things he needed to ... when she raised her face and made the point that had been haunting her all day.
"When you say that I don't deserve this," ... she opened one arm toward the rest of their chamber, denoting their world just as he had denoted the tunnels, earlier that morning during his reaction to Elliot ... "do you know what I hear?" Her nail tapped on the scrapbook, and she leaned forward earnestly, despite the tears. "That the little girl who wrote these words, doesn't deserve them. Doesn't deserve what she always wanted, even before she really understood it." She paused, then sniffed. "And that's you."
Truly and honestly, Vincent had had no idea. Not that the woman he loved had produced such profound hopes and dreams, even before she knew what life was. Nor that in his fears and worries over her life below, he had encroached in such a painful way on that child within.
Sliding from his chair, he dropped to his knees before her. His arms slid to her waist, and he buried his face in her abdomen.
"Oh Catherine." he husked. "My dearest Catherine. I could never deny you anything. ... The world above. ... This world. ... Even myself. ... ... ... My words of fear and self-blame ... they're exactly that. My own."
Looking up, he at least found relief that the tears had slowed. Perhaps because so much of her truth had finally flowed out of her. Light was returning to her eyes, and they drew him forward.
"You, Catherine ... you deserve anything and everything your heart desires."
And then, she smiled. At long last. Gently, her hands slid around his face, coaxing him still closer, finishing what her eyes had begun. "That's you." she murmured. "So please stop saying, or even thinking, otherwise."
Solemnly, he watched her. Watched as she stared right into his soul, willing peace to live there. "You have my word." he whispered, then buried himself into her embrace.
"Come. You're tired." he coaxed, some time later when he finally rose. "I can feel it in you." Reaching down, he took her hand.
In all honesty, he could have stayed wrapped up with her like that forever. After the jolt of her departure that day, there was no greater salve than simply pressing his ear to her chest and listening to her heart. But he did feel her exhaustion. No wonder ... she'd been awake since 2:00am the night before.
Her agreement was silent, but she took his hand and let him lead her to the bed.
"Can you hand me that?" she requested as she settled down against the pillows. She pointed toward the scrapbook, still sitting patiently on their little table.
Vincent obeyed, retrieving it for her. "Would you like some food? Tea? You must regain your strength."
"That would be good." she nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
Bending down, he pressed a kiss to her forehead, then another to her lips. "I'll see to it. I'll bring some of William's best."
She smiled, her eyes growing lazy as she leaned back further into the pillows. This bed had never felt so good. "You can read this too." she offered, her words dodging a yawn. "If you want."
Her mate turned, having just released the heavy curtain he'd hung above their door. He would assure their peace and quiet this evening.
Weakly, she raised her scrapbook by way of explanation.
"I would be honored." he stated sincerely. "I'll return as quickly as possible."
They exchanged one more look ... her silent assurance that she would be waiting anxiously for him. In all honesty, he expected her to be fast asleep by the time he came back. But even that would be a delight.
And once he'd left, the curtain falling closed behind, she opened her book and tried to focus her eyes. She wanted to at least re-read a few of her papers, if only the shorter, rougher musings of her younger self. A trip down memory lane. And an opportunity to appreciate just how right and correct her life had finally become.