ALLíS OVER, THEN

Joan Stephens


Catherine paused just outside of Vincentís chamber to catch her breath. She had hurried through the tunnels to see him before her courage ran out. The fact that he still wasnít waiting for her at the bottom of the rungsĖsomething she just couldnít get used toĖwas only one sign of the trouble their relationship was in. In fact, since his recent illness, the course of their love had come up against a brick wall. Of her making or his, she didnít know. It was as if his illness had not only burned away their bond but had cast a pall over their love that she was unable to penetrate. Vincent seemed unwilling or incapable of discussing it with her. Whatever was unsettling him was disturbing her also. The love was still there, but it wasnít the same. There was a tentativeness to their embraces that hadnít been there before his illness.

Together they had struggled to defeat his demons, and now that the battle was over there was a curious emptiness in her. The loss of the bond had upset her more than she had told him. She had never thought that she was as involved in the bond to the extent that he was, but when he had told her of its loss, she had searched her heart and discovered that there was an empty place where his warmth had once resided. Even her passions seemed to have been dulled. As the days progressed and Vincent healed, the emptiness grew until it was all she could think about.

It was time to take a step back and evaluate where this relationship was going. Right now it seemed that instead of moving toward love they were standing paralyzed on either side of a raging river unable to move. So she had come Below tonight to talk with him about it.

He was slouching in his large, ornate chair deeply engrossed in the book he was reading. At one time the first sight of him would have taken her breath away but not tonight. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with her mission: not his desire to protect her nor her wish not to hurt him. "Vincent," she called out to let him know that she was there.

"Catherine," he gave her a tight, uneasy smile. He sat up straighter and waved her into his chamber.

"How are you?" No matter how confused she was she still worried about him and was glad to see that he looked so much better than he had the last time she had seen him. Not waiting for him to answer, she asked, "What are you reading?" indicating the book in his hands, curious to know why he looked so guilty and uncomfortable.

Hastily, he laid the closed book, front cover down, on the table. "Oh, nothing really. Something about relationships," he said in a nonchalant manner, waving away her question.

His answer was a little too cavalier, and it confirmed her feelings: he was as perplexed as she was about the state of their affair. "We need to talk," she said, moving to sit, dejected and puzzled, on the edge of his bed.

"Yes," he agreed, equally as saddened as she but relieved that she had been the one to bring up the problem.

Deciding to get to the crux of the matter right away, she asked, "Do you love me?"

"Yes," he answered unequivocally.

"I love you too," she stated with absolute certainty. "But itís not the same, is it?"

"No." He shook his head glumly. "Itís changed."

"Itís there; I can feel it. But . . . there is something: a fog, a mist . . . a shadow that stands between my heart and yours. Iíve tried to fight it, but itís like battling with a cloud, and I canít break through. I love you as much as I ever did, but it doesnít seem to be enough." Frustrated, she held her hands at shoulder level then dropped them in despair into her lap. "I canít explain it any better."

"I know; itís a terrible emptiness that nothing can fill."

She released an explosive breath. "You feel the emptiness too," she murmured, tears choking her voice. He nodded slowly. "But itís more than that," she continued in baffled despair. "I feel as if Iíve lost something very precious, and I donít know how to find it."

"I know, and Iím at a loss to explain it. Itís as if Iím dead inside."

She nodded her head vigorously. "Exactly."

"What do we do about it?" he asked, plaintively.

She had thought about this exclusively for the last week and had come to a difficult decision: one she was sure would shock him. "I think we must separate for a while."

"No," he gasped; he hadnít thought of that. "Do you really think so?"

She nodded soberly. "Vincent, Iíve been wondering. Did the bond make us fall in love? We are so different, you and I, and we come from such different worlds. Would we have loved each other without the bond?"

"I honestly donít know, Catherine. But I do remember when Father warned me against loving you that I said, ĎMaybe I have no choice.í Iíve never thought about it since them. Perhaps, you are right."

"I think we need to find out. I think we need to be apart from each other . . . to find ourselves, I think, to find out what we both really want out of a loving relationship."

"Yes, I suppose that would be best," he agreed almost too quickly. But it would be a relief not to have her come Below for a while as he had come to dread the times that she did. Without the bond, he didnít know what she expected of him; it had always been there telling him how she felt and what she needed. So, without it, every meeting rapidly became uncomfortable for him, and he could see that it was the same for her. The uncertainty, the questions that had arisen unbidden between them that they couldnít seem to talk about, all contributed to the discomfort they felt in each otherís company.

"Itís the only way. We have to find out who we are and what we want before we can be someone elseís reality." She stared at her tightly clasped hands for a few, unquiet minutes, blinking back the tears, then said, "I - Iíve been offered a job in Boston with the DAís office there as an ADA; I think Iíll take it."

"What? And leave New York? But you love the city. If you think we shouldnít see each other for a while, we can certainly arrange that." He didnít want to lose her; she was his best friend. And then it came home to him: best friend! Had their love been only that? Yet, he knew that she loved him, but was it only the love of a friend?

She interrupted his thoughts. "I think it would be better if one of us moved away and since you canít, I will. Please donít feel guilty about this. Itís something I want to do. I want to get away from all the reminders and memories of the two of us together. I think we both need to start anew. It will be more difficult for you, I know. I wish there was someway that I could help."

At first, he did feel a little guilty about her leaving the city but soon realized that she would not do anything that she didnít want to do. He also knew that she had decided to leave before coming to see him. All he could say was, "Youíll be a great asset to them, Catherine. I wish you all the good fortune in the world."

"Thank you." Rising, she smiled a little sadly at him. "Well, I guess thatís it. Thereís nothing more to say," she added, a forlorn note creeping into her voice.

"No, nothing more," he agreed, feeling as despondent as she sounded.

Stopping halfway to the doorway, she turned back to him. "Be happy, Vincent. Say goodbye to everyone for me and give my love to Father."

"I will. Goodbye, Catherine."

"Goodbye." And with that, she walked out of the chamber without a backward look.

And in less than thirty minutes, the happiest and saddest chapter of Vincentís life was over. He wasnít saddened or pleased; he just felt numb. He wondered if she felt the same way.

************

Catherineís move to Boston was a great success. She achieved a reputation as a hard-nosed, dedicated officer of the court. She could be counted on to take the toughest and nastiest cases on the docket. If she seemed to be driven, no one commented on it . . . anyway not to her. She dated often and had the cream of society fighting for her attention. Yet every man was compared to a certain standard and didnít measure up. Although, there was one young judge that came close to filling the emptiness in her, and she tried, she really tried, to love Darrell Mansfield. If she had thought about it, she would have noticed that Darrell closely resembled Vincent as he would look if he was wholly human. Darrell was tall, blond, blue-eyed and strikingly handsome. She was the envy of all the female ADAs and not a few of the male ADAs also. They dated each other exclusively for six months, but when he asked her to marry him, she put him off for a week. She needed that week to see if she felt that she could spend the rest of her life with him. And she discovered that no matter how she pictured her life with him, the emptiness in her never went away.

At this time fate seemed to step in with an offer from Joe, who was now the elected District Attorney not just the acting DA of Manhattan. He wanted her to come back and work for him as a Deputy DA. She decided that she could return without stirring up all the old ghosts and memories of her years with Vincent. The probability of meeting him was nil at best, and she still hadnít decided if or when she wanted to see him again. She owned the apartment still, and it was vacant again; so, there was no trouble in finding a place to live.

It hurt her deeply to crush Darrellís dream of a life with her, but she finally convinced him that it was for the best as she did not love him as much as he loved her. A one-sided love never ended in anything but unhappiness and pain. So two years after leaving New York, she returned. She resumed her old friendships and began to date, even consenting to date Elliot Burch again.

**************

Vincent soon regained all his old strengths and abilities, but not the bond with Catherine. He had settled into a quiet and routine, if somewhat humdrum, life. It was what he wanted. Heíd had enough excitement the preceding two or more years to last him a lifetime. Contentedly, he lived from day to day teaching, laboring, and playing chess with Father until Dayle Ewing came Below. She had fled from an abusive boyfriend and had been directed Below by old Eli who was a friend of her deceased parents. She and Vincent hit it off right away. She was a small woman, about 5' 4", with honey blond hair that she wore in a bob, sparkling green eyes, and a superbly slim and athletic body. She loved Shakespeare and all the classics. Her favorite composer was Mozart, which gave Vincent a start as he realized that the rash and complex composer was Catherineís favorite too, but he never seemed to notice Dayleís similarity to Catherine. They began to spend a lot of time together, and Vincent soon thought he was falling in love. Seriously thinking about asking Dayle to join with him, he found to his dismay that the emptiness that he had thought she had filled was still there. He knew that she loved him deeply, but he realized that he didnít love her as she deserved. She was his dear and close friend. With his inherent honesty, he told her that he loved her as a friend but that was all.

"Iím not surprised," she said. "Youíre running from a ghost, someone you canít forget. I hope you find her."

In three days Dayle was gone, returning Above to begin a new life, and Vincentís life returned to the calm and quiet of that of an unattached man.

One morning, Father and Vincent were reading the Sunday Times when the old man said, "Well, who would have thought?"

"What?" Vincent enquired, looking up from the sports section. One of the children who had returned Above was a champion swimmer, and he was reading about her latest record breaking win.

"Catherine is back in town,"

"Really? Let me see." Father handed him the society section of the paper. Catherine was pictured on the front page with one of her many admirers. "She looks happy," Vincent said.

"Yes, she does," Father agreed, closely monitoring his sonís reaction.

"Well, Iím glad sheís happy," his son commented, handing the paper back to him. But from that time on Vincent avidly followed her career: both legal and social. He felt a slight tinge of jealously when he saw a picture of Catherine with Elliot Burch. It set him to thinking. He and Catherine were still friends. They hadnít parted in anger, only in unhappiness. They had just drifted apart. He decided that he wanted to see her, to see if she really was as happy as she looked in the pictures in the papers. He hoped she was.

***********

Six months after moving back to the city, Catherine was leaning against the brick balustrade when she heard the familiar soft thud of boots dropping onto her balcony and the soft rustle of a cloak falling back into place. He had been in her thoughts often this last week as the anniversary of their first meeting was approaching. With a delighted smile, she whirled around. "Vincent! Itís so good to see you." Stepping from the shadows, he clasped her outstretched hands in his. "You look wonderful," she bubbled. "How have you been?"

"I am well," he answered. Spreading her arms out, he appraised her. "Youíre still the most beautiful woman Iíve ever had the privilege of knowing."

"Well, thank you, kind sir," she dimpled. "Youíre not so bad yourself." She laughed delightedly when she saw that compliments still embarrassed him. "Sit down. Would you like something to drink?"

"Iced tea, if you have it."

"Ah, you still remember."

"Your affection for iced tea?" The lightness left his voice, as he said, "Yes, I remember . . . everything."

"I do too. Everything," she said, soberly. Smiling suddenly, she said, "Well, let me get the tea then we can talk."

He watched her silk clad figure hurry into her apartment, pleased that she still favored silken nightwear. Heíd had his doubts about this meeting, afraid that it would make both of them uncomfortable. But with her usual grace, she had set the tone of a loving friendship.

In her kitchen, Catherine leaned in relief against the counter top. Well, that had gone better than she expected. She had thought that they might be stiff and constrained with each other if they ever met again. But that wasnít the case at all. They were merely two old friends getting reacquainted after a long separation. Filling two tall glasses with ice and tea, she swept back onto the balcony, delighted to find him seated sedately in one of the garden chairs. "Iíve thought of you often," she said, handing him a glass.

He raised a doubtful eyebrow as he commented, "I would have thought that you were much to busy to think about me."

"No, really, I have missed you," she said as she sank into the chair beside him.

Looking away from her into the friendly dark night, he confessed, "And I have missed you."

Waiting for him to continue, she finally asked, "How are Father and all the rest?"

"As well as can be expected, getting older by the day."

"And the children?"

"Fine. We have thirty with us now."

"Wow! That keeps you hopping."

He chuckled as he nodded. "They do make life interesting." After a short silence, he took her left hand in his. "No ring. I thought by now . . ."

"No, no ring," she interrupted, pulling her hand from his grasp. "I met some very nice and interesting men, one in particular, but none of them filled that empty space."

"When I read that you were back, I thought that you might come Below to visit us?" It was a mild complaint, almost a rebuke.

"I didnít want to intrude."

"Intrude? You never intrude and are always welcome."

She laughed a little self-consciously. "Well, I didnít want to cause any trouble between you and your lady-friend."

"Lady-friend?" He reared back, staring back at her in astonishment. "I have no lady-friend."

Confused, she searched her memory. "Ah . . . Peter told me about someone . . . Dayle, I think is her name."

He took a long drink of the tea to delay his answer, not really understanding why he felt so uncomfortable. "I loved her, Catherine, but not as much as she wanted. I tried; I really did, but no one has filled the empty space in me either."

"What a pair we are," she quipped. "We separate and go our own way, and where does it lead us? Right back here." Shaking her head with a puzzled grin, she said, "I donít know about us, Vincent. I really donít. What do we do now?"

He grasped her hand once more and, very seriously, said, "Be friends, Catherine. That is what we have always been: best friends."

"Yes, we have." She embraced him as she always had before his illness with joy and affection. With a deep sigh of thankfulness, he returned her hug. They were, and would always remain, friends.

Easily they slipped back into their old camaraderie: speaking of many things, disagreeing and arguing their opposing positions, laughing and joking, teasing, and always reading to the other. Friday night became their night. Nothing was allowed to interfere.

**************

When the change in their feelings came, neither one knew, and it took them by surprise when it manifested itself. It began innocently enough during a gentle disagreement over a line in an obscure Chinese poem by the Countess Tzu Yeh: ĎMidnight Songs #5.í Catherine had memorized itĖit was only eight linesĖto recite to Vincent.

So soon. Today, love, we
Part. And our re-
Union-when
Will that time come?
A bright lamp
Shines on an empty place,
In sorrow and longing:
Yet, not yet, not
Yet.

Vincent thought the word was space, but she was certain that it was place. They were standing by the half-wall, gazing at the city lights, while they were discussing their differences.

"No, Iím sure I said it right. Let me get the book." As she turned, her slipper caught in the hem of her robe and she stumbled. His hands shot out, and grabbing her by the upper arms, he steadied her. Everything stopped, the poem forgotten. They stood in shocked silence, staring into each otherís eyes. She found a look in his eyes she had seen before, one he had always quickly hidden: longing, amazement, yearning, desire, love, and a little fear: feelings that he had never acted upon. But this time. Ah, this time he didnít keep it from her.

The look in his eyes had opened the floodgates to her repressed feelings, and he found unwavering passion in her eyes. His eyes drifted to her partly open, full, luscious lips. Unconsciously she had been holding her breath and released a soft flowing sigh as she watched him lower his lips to hers. When his mouth settled gently on hers, she blissfully closed her eyes and gave herself up to the wonder and glory of their first kiss. Releasing her arms, he crushed her warm and willing body tightly against him. Catherineís arms snaked around his neck and deepened the kiss by pulling him down to her. The kiss soon became intensely passionate, and they broke apart only when they needed to breathe. Whispering the otherís name at the same time, they gazed rapturously into each otherís eyes.

"Vincent? What just happened?" she asked in delighted wonder.

"I donít know, but it felt so right." He caressed a lock of hair from her upturned face and kissed her lightly again. "Oh, Catherine, how I love you."

Snuggling into his vest, she said, "I love you too. So much." Then leaning back in his arms, she smiled dreamily. "Do you feel it? The emptiness is gone, and I can feel you again. Is it our connection?"

"I donít think so; this is completely different. Itís nothing like the bond. It is a union, a merging. I canít tell where you begin and I end."

With a look of sheer joy, she grinned up at him. "I feel it too. When, Vincent?"

Knowing what she was asking, he replied, "I donít know; it was so gradual."

"For me, too. But Iím so glad it happened." She snuggled back into his arms. "I was so afraid that our love was tied to the bond and, with it gone, that our love was gone too. I think that we needed to prove to ourselves that the two were separate. And now we know that whatever happens, our love will last forever." Resting his cheek on the top of her head, he breathed in her beloved scent of lavender and roses and her own unique fragrance.

They stayed locked in each otherís arms, finding the comfort that they had missed for two years, until he recalled what she had said on the night they parted. Then he asked with a teasing smile in his voice, "Did you find yourself, my love?"

"No," she replied petulantly then a wide grin blossomed on her lovely face as she raised her twinkling green eyes to his. "Not until tonight when I found myself here." She placed her hand over his heart.

The happiness that had, all unknowingly, been lacking was bubbling once more through his veins, setting his heart to singing. Smiling down into her mischievous eyes, he said, "And I found myself here." Vincent placed his hand over her heart.

Suddenly sober, she hugged him tightly. "We almost lost what was most precious to us, Vincent. I think someone was trying to teach us a lesson. But, thankfully, we found each other again, and Iíll never let you go again."

"Never!" he fervently agreed, kissing her passionately. There would be no holding back for him this time; he knew that he wanted what Catherine wanted: a life of their own, lived on their own terms.

It had taken a long time, and the near loss of the most valuable thing in their lives, but they had finally found their way across the raging river to rest securely in peace and love in the sanctuary of the otherís heart.

Fini

 

The Lost Mistress

Allís over, then: does truth sound bitter

As one at first believes?

Hark, Ďtis the sparrowsí good-night twitter

About your cottage eaves!

Tomorrow we meet the same then, dearest?

May I take your hand in mine?

Mere friends are we,ówell, friends the merest

Keep much that I resign:

For each glance of the eye so bright and black,

Though I keep with heartís endeavor,---

Your voice, when you wish the snowdrops back,

Though it stay in my soul for ever!---

Yet I will but say what mere friends say,

Or only a thought stronger;

I will hold your hand but as long as all may,

Or so very little longer!

Robert Browning