Chapter 11: When the Evening Falls
Vincent found himself in Central Park with Catherine by his side, under a full moon. He breathed out once, relieved; his greatest fear, once he was reunited with her, was that they would be separated as part of Paracelsus' plan. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Catherine dusted off the knees of her jeans. "Yes. A little startled, though...Vincent, does this happen often here?"
Vincent couldn't repress a quick grin. "What, popping in and out of places without warning? Yes. Frequently."
She looked up at him. "You don't seem...bothered."
Strangely, he wasn't. Before accepting the Other, he would have been petrified that some occurrence would cause his inner beast to surface, but now...See, I told you this would be easier on you, the mental presence he recognized as the Other said.
You were right, Vincent agreed.
Don't get too cocky, though, the Other said. When Paracelsus calls the shots, you know things get ugly.
I do, Vincent said. But he didn't expect that I would accept you.
No, the Other replied, and gave him a mental shove. Catherine's waiting for a response, you dolt.
"I'm sorry," Vincent said aloud. "I was...."
"A bit preoccupied?" Catherine said in her gentle, amused way. "I'm not surprised. This has been quite a journey for you, hasn't it?"
"Yes," Vincent said.
She took his hands in her own, the hands she had long ago claimed as hers, and he marveled again at her courage. "Vincent...no matter what...you'll still be you. And I'll love you, no matter what."
"It was never you I doubted," Vincent replied. "Only myself."
"But not as much anymore," Catherine said, smiling. "I can tell. You don't seem as burdened."
"No," he replied, not realizing how right she was until he'd said the words. The constant strain, the fear and worry, were largely gone. "I'm as surprised by it as you are."
"I'm not all that surprised," she replied, tugging him towards their favorite wooded path. "Looking back, I know this struggle has been a long time coming. Something had to give." She bit her lip. "I always thought if you were really in trouble, I would sense it through our bond, like I did when you and Father were caught in that cave in. But I had no idea you were in such pain."
Vincent stopped her. Moonlight glinted silver in her hair through the tree branches. "Catherine. There was nothing you could have done to prevent this."
"Oh, wasn't there?" Catherine said. "I should have realized what protecting me was doing to you."
"It was my choice," Vincent said.
"I know. But I could have done something to reduce the risk that you'd have to kill."
"Did you go into danger deliberately, Catherine?"
"No, of course not," she replied, her horror at the thought echoing through their bond.
"Then why do you assume you could have prevented this? When I had to kill to protect you, it wasn't your doing. Even that night when I was caught above...it was my choice to watch over you and my choice to try to rescue that man." Vincent drew her close, for the first time fully acknowledging how much he loved the feel of her body against his. "We are what we are, Catherine. And my choice, always and forever, has been to protect you."
"But at such a cost? Vincent, you were being torn apart!"
Vincent rested his cheek against the top of her head, breathing in the scent of her hair. "Yes, I was, Catherine, but that process began long before I ever met you." He drew back a little to gaze at her. "Did Father tell you of my illness after Lisa?"
Catherine nodded. Vincent continued, "That was when I became convinced I'd have to cage the Other. I believed he'd hurt Lisa and would harm anyone else I loved. I feared him, but when I had to kill---to protect the tunnels, to protect you---I had to draw on what I perceived as his strength, his instincts. And the more I did it, the more the wall between us fell. And the more I hated myself."
She was silent for a time, absently playing with the fringe on his cloak. There was nothing coming through their bond but the quick running river of her thoughts and Vincent pulled back a bit mentally, allowing her privacy. At length, Catherine spoke. "I sensed that, when I was going to see you in that cave. Our bond was flooded with your self-loathing, with your pain and anguish. It...hurt, Vincent. Don't you know how much you're loved? Didn't you know that then?"
How do I explain this to her? Vincent wondered.
You're doing fine, the Other said. This isn't easy to say, but she needs to know this.
"I knew," Vincent said aloud. He remembered the picture the Other had drawn beside Winslow's cairn and releasing her and kneeling, he drew the same one on the ground. "I felt like my family loved this part of me," he said, gesturing to one side of the square. "This was what they wanted to see---their teacher, the scholar, the guardian. This other side...it terrified them. And I couldn't blame them, when it horrified me to know such a creature lived inside me." Vincent paused. "I've always had to hide among them, to be what they expected of me…only that and nothing more. I tamed my steps so they couldn't see how fast I could run, hid that I could hear or see or smell better than they could and hoped they'd never notice a monster lived inside me."
"You're no monster," Catherine said, fierce as always.
Vincent smiled. "I know that, now. But it was easier to deny the Other’s existence than it was to try to understand him. Me." He chuckled a bit ruefully. "We were never separate beings, but it was just easier to believe that we were…that I was…divided in two."
He stood, and they began walking again towards the tunnel entrance as they had so many times before. "Of course it was easier," Catherine said. "You were always so alone. Even Father couldn’t help you to understand."
"It was hard for him too," Vincent replied. "There was no manual for raising a child as different as I was. He did the best he could."
"I know he did," Catherine said. "But it’s no wonder you couldn’t accept yourself if pretty much everyone around you was ignoring your differences as if they were something to be ashamed of."
Vincent stopped, rocked again by her acceptance of all that he was and wasn’t. "You never tried to make be anything other than what I am. How could you do that so easily?"
"Because I love you, Vincent." She tugged on a lock of his hair that had fallen over his shoulder and her gamin smile was lovely. "Don’t overanalyze it. Just accept it."
She’s beautiful in the moonlight, the Other spoke up, jabbing him sharply in the ribs.
I’ve noticed, Vincent replied. But then, he thought, she’d be beautiful in sackcloth and ashes.
Then do something about it, the Other said.
The heady nearness of her was like the fizzing bubbles he’d seen once in one of Mouse’s more dubious concoctions, all twisting and turning and fighting to escape to the surface. He fell into the joy of loving her, of being loved, and bent his mouth to touch hers. When finally they stepped apart, Catherine's delight echoing through their bond and the taste of her still on his lips, Vincent felt as if his heart would leap out of his chest for sheer happiness.
Catherine smiled up at him. "You're getting...quite good at that."
He couldn't help it. He grinned back, showing all his fangs and for the first time, not worrying what it might look like. "I've been told that practice makes perfect."
She laughed and they began to walk again. A light breeze was blowing and just as the wind began to turn, Vincent smelled it---a familiar scent that had been as common in his boyhood as Father's tea-disinfectant-old book smell. "I don't believe it," he muttered.
He knelt behind a sheltering bush and tugged Catherine down beside him. "What is it?" she asked.
Vincent gestured towards the figures at the mouth of the tunnel opening. "Watch."
Two boys, one younger, one older, were standing in the shadows. "It's Devin," Catherine said, amazed as the moonlight lit his features. "And is that...?"
"Me. Yes," Vincent replied. "This is the first time I saw the moon, Catherine."
"Come out a bit further, Fuzz," Devin said.
"What if Father finds out?" Vincent asked. He was six years old and convinced that Devin could do anything...but he'd also seen how Devin and Father fought.
"He won't. He's asleep. Winslow pulled sentry duty for this, so he's covering for us. Now come on." Devin stepped out of the shadows into the full light of the moon and hesitantly, Vincent followed.
"Look up, Fuzz," Devin cajoled, holding onto Vincent's hand tightly.
Vincent tilted his head up to look, and the hood of the concealing cloak fell back. "Devin, it's so big!"
And it was---a huge silver orb that seemed to take up half the sky. It was close enough to touch, but when Vincent reached up his hands, it was still too far away. "Can I hold it?"
Devin laughed, ruffling his hair. He was nine and very proud that he'd been able to sneak them both out after curfew. "You can't hold the moon, Fuzz," he laughed. "But you can see it better if we get closer."
His fear of being outside, of being seen, forgotten, Vincent followed Devin out further, bare-headed under the moon.
"You thought you could hold the moon?" Catherine asked.
Vincent chuckled. "I was six. I didn't make sense until I was oh, seven or so."
She laughed and leaned against him. "I'm glad I got to see this." Catherine paused. "Vincent, why are we seeing this?"
"Things do not happen here without reason," Vincent replied. "If we are reliving this experience, it's because there is some larger point that Paracelsus---or his spirit---wants to make."
"Do you know what it is?" Catherine asked.
"I have a theory," Vincent replied. "If this memory ends where I expect, then I'll know if I'm correct."
Vincent walked further, Devin holding his hand. He scrambled through trees and branches and the moon was large and bright above him. "Hey, Fuzz, don’t go too close to the road," Devin said, but Vincent didn’t hear him.
It wasn’t until his feet touched the strange firmness of asphalt that Vincent realized he was nearly out of the sheltering branches. A car passed by and the driver slowed, perhaps thinking they were preparing to cross the street. It was then that he saw the little girl’s face in the back seat of the car, her face as clear as his own must be, under the light of the moon. Her eyes were large with wonder and what he thought was terror and as Vincent stood frozen, unable to move, her face crumpled and she began to cry. The pain of that was icy needles in his heart as the car passed them.
Devin tugged on his hand. "Come on, Fuzz," he said. "It’s time to go home."
Vincent swiped at his tears with the back of his hand. "I’m never coming back here, Dev. Not ever."
Devin seemed a loss for words. "Sure, Fuzz. Whatever you want." Whatever else he might have said was lost in the rush of air as Vincent ran home, sobbing.
The scene stilled and froze before them. Vincent stared off into the night, surprised at the power this memory still held over him, nearly thirty years later.
Why are you surprised? the Other asked. This was when we first realized that being different meant we could scare people. And it hurt. It still does.
"Vincent," Catherine said, breaking into his ruminations. "I don't think she was scared."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
She opened her mouth to reply but the sudden chill of a wind that hadn't been there before brought him up short, a frisson that skittered across his soul. Remember Narcissa's warning, the Other said. " Some who walk in death are fearful. Cold. Bitter as the wind that roars up from the Abyss. Evil." It was the last of the things she said to us before we pushed aside the moss on Anna's tomb. Narcissa knew more than we realized. She knew who the real monster was.
A figure was materializing out of the shadows, a creature of night and a cold gnawing evil that Vincent had only sensed from one person before. There was nothing human about that figure, not anymore; it had no eyes or face or distinguishing features, nothing except its evil. And it wanted.
Vincent drew Catherine close as they stood. "Paracelsus," Vincent snarled.
The creature had no mouth, but the words it uttered were in Paracelsus' voice, those cultured tones that once must have made he and Father sound very much alike. "Vincent. How do you like our little theater?"
"As productions go, I've seen better," Vincent said. Once before Paracelsus had found his weakest point; he would not yield the advantage again. "What’s this all about?"
"Surely you know," the darkness said. "This was when you began to see yourself for who you really are. A monster, despite what Jacob would have you believe."
Catherine’s hand tightened on his own and Vincent had to wonder at her composure. She, too, had been harmed by Paracelsus, yet she faced his spirit---or whatever this was---without any outward signs of fear. "I only see one monster here," she said.
"Ah, how touching," the creature sneered. "She defends you even though she’s seen what you’re capable of doing. Is she perhaps….excited by the danger?"
That rotten, foul…Catherine’s thoughts were as loud in their bond as if she had been shouting. Taking advantage of his rare ability to actually hear her thoughts, Vincent sent back. Catherine. Don’t. What we are, he could never understand.
She was startled at his voice in her mind but the firestorm of her fury simmered down just a bit. You know it’s not true.
It was never a question, Vincent thought back to her. Not once. Not ever.
Her mental smile was dazzling. Good. But I still want to throttle him.
Stand in line, Vincent growled, and Catherine tightened her hold on his hand, anchoring him. "What do you want?" he ground out.
"You were my son first. You were mine," the apparition said. "Jacob may have trained you to be human but only I can show you what you truly are. I am your mirror."
"You are not," Vincent said, fighting the urge to strike at this shade. "I know who I am. I am not…will not…ever be yours."
"Ah, I recognize Jacob’s arrogance. He has taught you well."
The faint smell of smoke and sulfur was all the warning they received as the night dissolved around them.
Chapter 12: At the Crossroads I Am Standing
Given Paracelsus' penchant for overly dramatic scenes, Catherine knew she shouldn't have been surprised at her location. This place had appeared in a good many of her nightmares and---she suspected---quite a few of Vincent's as well. She stood as the smell of sulfur and the heat curled over her in a wave. "Vincent?" she called.
"Up here," he said from the plinth above her. He reached down and lifted her up. "You're not hurt?" Vincent asked, settling her next to him.
"No, but I sure am glad to see you." Vincent had taken off his cloak, she was glad to see, though he was still greatly overdressed for this heat. "How are you doing?"
Vincent rubbed his right kneecap. It was the same one, Catherine remembered, that had been injured when he'd been trapped above a few years back. She'd wondered many times if those old injuries still pained him, but with his characteristic reticence, he'd never quite given her an answer. "I hit the ground wrong," Vincent said, noticing her gaze. "Don't worry."
She nodded, knowing she had to control her fear as she'd done once before in this place. "Vincent, what was that thing?"
"Paracelsus," Vincent said. "As he is now...though I think he was always like that, and what we saw when he was alive was merely a shell. Evil...devours all good, eventually." His mouth quirked. "Marley's chains were not literal ones, but the chains of his actions forged while he was alive. I'd say Dickens wasn't wrong."
"No," Catherine replied, remembering the apparition they'd so recently seen, the grasping, bottomless want she'd sensed.
There were no shadows in this place, no places to hide and yet, the apparition's appearance startled them both. "You've arrived for Act One of our production," it said. "And in seats in the Mezzanine. That will not do, not at all."
And with a muted snap, they were on the ground, level with the dark form of the apparition. Now that Catherine could see it clearly, she noted how the light illuminated nothing of its form. It was vaguely human-shaped, but there all resemblance ended. "Surely you remember how our little play began," it said.
"I remember," Vincent snarled and Catherine cast a quick glance at him in concern and understanding. She could feel the hate and anger running through him and knew that Winslow's death and her own near-immolation must be in the forefront of his mind again. Then she watched as his expression changed, as he fought back the rage and assumed a pose of calm. He’s channeling the anger until he can unleash it, Catherine realized. The changes in his expression were minute, and probably too subtle for Paracelsus to notice, but they were telling of all that Vincent had learned since accepting the Other.
He wasn't afraid of himself, not anymore. Catherine touched his hand lightly by way of reassurance and his eyes smiled a bit, then returned to gaze at Paracelsus. "What do you want?" Catherine asked, feeling the coiled strength in Vincent’s hands.
"In the last scene of our play, Vincent fought to rescue the fair maiden. Perhaps I might have done better in casting the role where you’re concerned since you're no maiden," the apparition said, with what was unmistakably a snide leer despite the lack of both eyes and a face, "but no matter. You then returned above, believing it was all over. How touching."
The creature turned its gaze to Vincent. "Did you ever tell her?"
Catherine felt a wash of feeling through their bond—guilt, anguish, fear. She’d long suspected that at least some of the pain he’d felt from this night had to do with how the giant, Erlich, had died. "I see you didn’t," the apparition continued. "No matter. Tonight, in the last act of our production, she’ll see what you are."
She lifted her chin. "I’ve always known what he is."
"Ah, yes, the Beast, from which fair Beauty shall rescue him with a kiss. Is that how the story goes?"
"It's your play," Catherine said, not wanting to try and explain anything about their relationship to this creature. "Why don't you tell us?"
"Oh, I shall, my dear," it crooned. "I shall."
Vincent watched as the scene unfolded, the giant Erlich and himself, battling in the final act of a production without reason. He'd seen it a thousand times in nightmares which still occasionally woke him with the taste of the giant's blood in his mouth and the inner painful tightening of his ribs as the giant's arms pinned his own. "Catherine, I---" he began, but the creature cut him short.
"No talking in the theater," it said, and Vincent had to settle for a warning growl at the apparition as he watched himself and Erlich battle once again.
Erlich had been near to his own strength, Vincent remembered, and that had been shocking enough, but the fear that Catherine would die before he could defeat Erlich had increased his desperation ten-fold. He had not been able to free his hands and when the giant's neck had come within reach, it had seemed the quickest route to ending their battle. His fangs had torn the giant's throat open and he'd nearly choked on the hot welter of the giant's blood.
Catherine's emotions through their bond were an instant soothing balm. He remembered, in a haze of fever and despair, telling her, "Whatever happens, whatever comes, know that I love you." What a wonder she was. She...accepted everything. What Vincent sensed through their bond was not horror or shame or pity, but a sorrow that seemed to fill the world, and sadness that he'd not only had to experience this the first time but was being forced to relive it again.
The scene should have ended as it had before: Vincent spitting out the worst of the blood and wiping his mouth before jumping up to free Catherine from her prison of flame, but this time, it ended in a way it hadn't before. The other Vincent roared his victory, and turned to face Catherine with blood dripping from his mouth....
And that Catherine screamed in terror at the beast in front of her.
"That's not what happened," Catherine said, firm and resolute as always.
"Ah, but it could have," the apparition said, taunting. "You felt it, did you not, Vincent? The sweet triumph of victory over your enemy, the taste of blood like copper and fire on your tongue."
"Enough," Vincent snarled. The true horror roiled in his stomach: it could have happened this way, because he had felt triumph in Erlich's death---shamed triumph, to be sure, but a triumph nonetheless. Perhaps that was the greatest of the horrors from that night. No, he mused, it shows only my greatest fear: that she would leave me because of what a part of me is.
Catherine's gaze, clear and steady and loving, calmed him. "What is your point, Paracelsus?" Vincent said, gathering the rage back into himself.
"I should think it would be obvious," the apparition said. "But since life with Father has apparently dulled your thinking, I'll make it clear. The woman loves only a part of you. She doesn't know the beast and would be revolted by it if she did."
"Is that the best you can come up with?" Vincent asked, feeling the inner quake of derisive laughter threatening to explode.
Now you get it, the Other said, chuckling. Paracelsus as boogeyman is much less fearful when he comes up with inane scenarios like this.
"Catherine loves me," Vincent said, feeling the stunning freedom of accepting her love, of being able to say the words out loud. "This...scene you've created. It's not real."
"Don't be so sure," the creature snarled, and the dark resonance of its endless hate rolled out to cover them both.
"Vincent?" Catherine whispered. They were once again in the walled room where they'd encountered Phillip and Ma'at. At least, that was where she thought they were; without light or distinctive sounds, it was impossible to be sure.
"I'm here," he replied.
His voice sounded strained, Catherine thought...strained and weary beyond belief. "Are you all right?"
Vincent breathed out once, a short sharp breath that she'd heard before, when he was in pain. "My ribs hurt," he said, sounding more than a bit perplexed. "Catherine, the last time they hurt like this was...."
"The Silks," Catherine said, feeling the harsh taste of that failure in her mouth again. Her fault, no matter what anyone had said before or since. Hers. Only hers. "But how can that be? Your injuries healed years ago."
She could almost hear him smile. "We've encountered an Egyptian goddess, not only one but two ghosts, and you ask how this could happen?"
Catherine nodded, though she wasn't sure if even his night vision could see her. "Right." She scrambled over to the location of his voice and recoiled when she collided with something hard. "Ouch," she said, rubbing her head. "Did I hurt you?"
"I should be asking you that," Vincent said. "My head is hard, or so Father tells me."
That he could make a joke, even in the middle of all the uncertainty and the new mystery of his returning injuries made her chuckle, just a bit. "I could have told you that years ago," she said. "So, let's see. Does your right knee still ache?"
"Yes," Vincent said. "And my ribs on my left side."
"From where you were hit by the car," Catherine said, the grim catalog of wounds making a sort of sadistic sense. Everything is a lesson here, she thought. And with Paracelsus as the teacher this time...
"You're worried," Vincent said. "Why?"
She snorted. "You have to ask?"
"I'll rephrase the question, Counselor," Vincent said dryly. "What bothers you right now?"
Catherine bit her lip, the nebulous threads of a theory beginning to take shape. "Paracelsus seems hell bent on trying to convince you that you're really just a monster. And now your injuries from the time you were trapped above have begun to return."
"So if he can't convince me that I'm a monster, maybe he can convince me that you're dangerous for me? That I shouldn't love you?" Vincent asked.
Put like that, it did make sense. "Divide and conquer does seem to be the way Paracelsus does things," Catherine replied.
"It's a chess master's strategy," Vincent agreed, the light rasp of his clothing shifting against the rock loud in the silence. He reached up to touch her face, those dangerous, lethal claws so gentle against her skin. "And it's also greatly flawed. Nothing and no one can divide us, Catherine. You are mine as I am yours."
"Yes," Catherine said, and kissed him.
For a time, the only sound was their breathing, Vincent's a bit shallower than usual. Catherine remembered something she'd been about to say before Paracelsus' apparition had shown up. "Vincent, that girl in the park? I don't think she was scared."
"She was crying, Catherine," Vincent replied, a ghost of an old and ragged pain riding just under his words.
"Maybe she was crying because she wanted to stay."
"Stay...with me?" The doubt in Vincent's voice was clear and it wrung her heart.
"I think you must have been magical, even then." She felt for his free hand in the darkness; the other, she knew, was bracing his ribs. "The children Below, do they run from you? Have they ever run from you?"
"No," he admitted, and Catherine felt his astonishment at the realization.
"Then think about it. If those children---who have been abandoned or seen things that no child should ever see—weren't frightened of you, maybe that little girl wasn't either."
He was silent for a time, mulling that over. "I never thought..." Vincent said.
"Of course you didn't. You've never seen yourself as beautiful as the rest of us do."
Vincent breathed out, and the image of a mirror flashed through their bond. A mirror? Catherine wondered. "No, I never have," he replied. "But I'm trying to...accept myself more."
Catherine smiled. "I know you are. Believe me, Vincent. You never have been 'disgraced in my eyes.' Far from it."
Gingerly, Vincent pulled her closer. "I've been...trying to you at times, haven't I?"
Catherine laughed. "Oh, just a bit. But you were—and are---worth it." Unexpectedly, she yawned, her fatigue suddenly heavy on her shoulders..
"Rest now," Vincent said. "I'm sure we'll need our rest to deal with whatever's coming next."
"Vincent, isn't this whole thing taking place while we're asleep?" she wondered.
"I believe so," he said, "but wherever we are, whatever is really going on...we'll need our rest."
"That's right," said a voice out of the darkness. "I always told you, when in doubt, sleep. Good to know you listened."
They both knew that voice. "Winslow?"