JoAnn Baca

Catherine hugged herself in anticipation.  It was one of those very rare Fridays when her workload did not require her attention past 5:00 p.m., and she decided on the spur of the moment to rush home and surprise Vincent Below before he came Above to visit her.   He was always more relaxed in his own surroundings, and truthfully, so was she.  Although she would likely go Below during the weekend, a weeknight visit would be a change of pace for them, and she hoped he would enjoy it as much as she would.  Perhaps she could even wrangle an invitation to stay the night?  Well, one step at a time, Chandler, she thought ruefully.

The ride home during rush hour wasn’t too bad so, after a quick shower and a bowl of soup, Catherine was at the basement threshold by 7:00 p.m.  This is great, she thought.  Vincent should be finished with his duties and have eaten his dinner, so we might have several uninterrupted hours.  She shivered slightly in excitement as she walked the well-worn path to his chamber.

*    *    *

Vincent had let his last class out early on this Friday evening, and instead of taking his evening meal with the community as usual, he had eaten alone, determined to spend some time writing before going up to see Catherine.  He could feel through their Bond that she was in a good mood, and he wanted badly to be with her; he hoped she wouldn’t mind if he visited her a little early.  But for now he was compelled to write, and he sat absorbed in his thoughts.

Lately, so many conflicts had arisen within him.  Since his last illness, when he’d had those terrible dreams about Catherine’s death, he had been unable to recover the serenity of mind he used to find whenever he thought of her.  The chaos of love irretrievably lost, of rage and unutterable despair, lay upon him as palpably as a shroud, smothering his peace of mind, no less real for all that it had existed only in his nightmares.  Catherine was now more precious to him than ever before, yet his love for her these days held a kind of awe which made her unapproachable somehow, at least as far as being able to share his deepest thoughts with her.  How could she understand what he was feeling?  How could he burden her with the knowledge of his turmoil?  In his fevered dreams, she had been ripped from him forever by a man from Above, and he had been powerless to prevent it, to save her.  He had despised himself for his weakness, for breaking faith with the woman he loved.  Even now, hopelessness threatened to overwhelm him -- it could all be snatched away in a heartbeat, and he knew very well how it would destroy him.

He shook himself from his haunted reverie, determined to put these reflections on paper.  Since he’d met Catherine, he had found a private comfort in writing letters to her, in sharing his true soul with her, if only in secret.  For he never gave these letters to her, only kept them with his journals.  They contained his most profound self-discoveries, they revealed the most intensely personal part of his nature, they laid bare his inmost desires for her.   And since his illness, after the nightmare journey they had traveled, they reflected the painful emotional tailspin he was in.  No, these letters were never meant for anyone’s eyes, least of all hers.  Still, just writing the words was a temporary relief from his private hell.  He put pen to paper and began anew.

 *    *    *

Catherine was surprised that Vincent had not come to meet her along the way.  He must have felt her nearness through their Bond, and unless he was busy with a work detail or teaching a class, he usually dropped whatever he was doing to come for her.  Well, maybe this is my chance to surprise him, she thought, smiling to herself.

She decided to look for him first in his chamber, before visiting her friends Below to ask after him.  Perhaps he’s in his bath, in which case he couldn’t come for me.  The picture that evoked quickened her step, and she was nearly running by the time she entered his chamber.

Vincent started in surprise.  He hadn’t felt her coming.  Or, more accurately, she had been with him in his mind so closely as he wrote that he hadn’t realized exactly when her actual proximity felt through their Bond had superimposed itself on his mental image of her.

Catherine continued running until she was at his side, then she threw her arms about his shoulders and gave him a fierce hug.  He was strangely unresponsive, so she pulled away, a questioning frown on her brow.

“Vincent?  What’s the matter?  Are you well?”  She noticed he had been writing a letter, and she apologized with a smile.  “Oh!  I’m sorry.  I was disturbing you.  I was so anxious to see you I guess I just burst in without even announcing myself.  Forgive me?”  Her eyes glanced down as he hastily turned the sheet of paper over, but before the writing disappeared from sight she caught three words:

 My Dearest Catherine.

Astonished that the letter appeared to be addressed to her, she shyly asked, “You’re writing a me?”

He hesitated, then nodded once, keeping his head down so that his face was hidden beneath the fall of his golden hair.

She was curious about his odd reaction...and about the contents of the mysterious letter. Slightly ashamed that she was being so persistent, nonetheless she asked, “When are you going to give it to me?”

Vincent shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then rose and began to pace the room.  As he reached the far side of the chamber, he stopped suddenly and, with his back still to her, mumbled in a low voice, “I...hadn’t give it to you, Catherine.  It’ outlet for me...a way voice to thoughts...feelings...which lie too deep to share with another.”

She stood in silence, trying to comprehend what he was admitting to her.  Finally, she asked, “So, what you’re telling is’ve written other letters to me?  Letters in which you have been able to say things you couldn’t tell me in person?”

He nodded.  “Many letters...over several years.”

She felt her heart plummet in her chest, becoming a hard, cold knot in her stomach.  Hurt and surprise vied for primacy within her; a surging, roiling anxiety poisoned her thoughts.  With a kind of baffled anger she demanded, “What have we got between us, Vincent?  Is it real, this dream we share?  Or is it a game we play?”

He turned and stared at her.  “It’s real, Catherine.  It’s the most real thing in my life.”

Unable to reconcile his words with what she had discovered this night, she persisted. “How can you say that? How can you believe it?  You can share your true feelings with an idealized fantasy of me, but when it comes to the flesh-and-blood me, you can’t trust that ‘me’ enough to do it?  Why?   Because it’s safer?  Because an idealized Catherine can’t react to you?  Because you think I might reject you if I knew what you really felt? Well, neither can I comfort you, rejoice with you, or offer any human response, since you haven’t even given me the chance.  My God, Vincent!  What must you think of me?”

Distressed, tormented, his emotions raw and bleeding from the sudden, intense anger pulsating through their Bond, he pleaded, “Catherine, I love you!  You are the most important person in my life!  Because of you I have experienced such joy, such happiness as I have never known!”

Hot shards of agony lanced her soul as she thought of what knowing her had meant to him; a hollow guilt rose up to join the fury inside her. “Yes, but be truthful, Vincent.  You have also experienced more pain, more anguish than you have ever known.  Loving me has not been easy.  Yet you only speak of the good things to me.”

“Of course, Catherine.  Why speak of the other?  When I’m with you, I know no pain, only your warmth.  You are my light through the darkness.  I cannot think dark thoughts when I am with you.”  How could he make her understand?  His soul trembled under the onslaught of the emotional firestorm which was Catherine within their Bond.

“And when you’re not with me, Vincent?  When the dark thoughts come...when the pain rises in your chest...what then?  Why must you suffer those alone?  Why won’t you trust me with your pain?  You’ve always sent me away when you’ve been in distress, or tried to.  On the few occasions when you’ve allowed me to stay, I thought you found some...solace with me.”  A sudden fear pierced her coldly, shuddering its way through her outrage.  “Please, Vincent, I have to know -- did you find any comfort, or did you...endure my presence, and did that make it harder for you in the end?”

He shook his head and his shoulders rose in a rough, frustrated shrug; his fists were clenched so tightly the sharp claws tore the flesh of his palms, unnoticed. “Catherine...what can I say to you?  Yes, your consolation...helped. But I would rather not have burdened you with my pain.  It...distresses you.”

Shock replaced the anger, and a horrible foreboding seized her.  “Burden me?  Vincent, I love you -- you’re no burden to me, you’re my reason for existence!  But to find out that I am not the person you turn to when the world torments you... I suddenly feel as if my whole world has shifted beneath my feet.  What I thought was so solid is actually illusion!”

“No, Catherine!  You cannot know...I love you too much...I....”

She took a deep breath to steady the shakiness she knew was revealed in her voice.  Her legs would barely support her.  She had to leave now, or she would collapse in tears.  She needed time and space to consider what had been revealed tonight. God, I thought this was going to be such a lovely evening.  Sometimes fate can play cruel tricks.

Quietly, she cut Vincent off.  Her voice became icy, strangely steady. “I’m going to leave now.  Perhaps we have both said too much.  I know I have a lot to think about.”

As Vincent moved to grab his cloak, she stopped him with a look.  “Please, no.  I never thought I’d say this, but...I don’t want your company right now.  I really think it’s best if I just leave.”  She turned to go, then paused at the door and spoke to him over her shoulder.  “I just need a little time.  I...just...need some time.”  Then she was gone.

Vincent stood swaying, dazed, clenched fists raised to his chest, anguished eyes pinned to the door through which the light of his life had retreated.  He couldn’t breathe.  Finally, he was able to drag air into his tortured lungs.  His gasps for air became sobs which would not stop.  He dropped to his knees and let out a wild cry of frustration and pain, a sound which reverberated through the halls and carried to where Catherine was hurrying away.  She staggered against the wall at the sound, tears cascading down her face, as she clutched at her heart - was it her pain or his?  She couldn’t be certain.  At that moment Mary came upon her, but Catherine, blinded by her tears, rushed down the hall and was gone in a moment.

Mary was confused and frightened.  What could have happened between them?  Oh, my goodness, poor Vincent!  She ran down the corridor until she was at the entrance to Vincent’s chamber.

“Vincent?  May I come in?  Please, dear, I know something is wrong.  Please let me help?”

Vincent looked up at the older woman’s voice, but didn’t answer.  Undeterred, Mary entered the room, took in his state at a glance, and hurried to his side.  “What’s happened?  I just saw Catherine running down the hall. She was crying so hard she didn’t see me.  Tell me, please!”

He collapsed into Mary’s familiar and comforting arms, and gave himself up to his tears. Months of agonized silence had rent his soul until he was teetering on the edge; the misunderstanding with Catherine had been more than he could endure.  He couldn’t hold the pain in any longer.  His tears were hot and bitter, choking him.  And there were so many to be shed.

Mary couldn’t remember the last time Vincent had cried in her presence, truly cried.  Perhaps twenty years.  As she held him, rocked him, she worried. She was afraid of what the problem might be, but finally, as she sensed the onslaught easing, she repeated grimly, “Tell me.”

Vincent slowly pulled himself together and sat back, his back against the wall.  He held onto Mary’s hands as he spoke.  “I have hurt Catherine terribly.  I was trying to spare her pain, yet it seems I am the cause of it.”

The tunnel matriarch frowned at the admission. “I can’t believe you deliberately caused her pain, my dear. What happened?”

Vincent took a deep, shuddering breath. “She came upon me while I was...writing a letter and...noticed that the letter was addressed to her.” Pain and shame flickered in his anguished eyes as he went on.  “It was a letter to her, Mary, but not the kind one sends.  In times of...great distress...I find it relieves me to reveal my fears, my desires, my confusion, my a kind of her.  But these letters are not meant for her eyes!  They contain too much ugliness.  I could never burden her with those thoughts.”  He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping in defeat.  “When she asked me about the letter, I told her as much.  She became quite...upset.  She misunderstood the nature of the letters, and now she feels that I’m not sharing my feelings with her.  She feels that I’ve betrayed  She told me...she told me that she did not want my company.”  Vincent sobbed again, as fresh tears threatened.

Mary sighed.  “Catherine didn’t mean she didn’t want to be with you anymore, did she, Vincent?  She meant she just needed some time apart from you right now?”

“Yes.”  He nodded.  “But once she thinks it over, I’m afraid she may decide that too great to be forgiven.  Oh, Mary, I never meant to hurt her!  I meant to spare her from hurt!”

Shaking her head in sympathy, she replied, “Vincent, you can’t spare the people you love from hurt.  It’s part of life, especially if you wish to share a life, as you and Catherine do.”  She paused a moment, unsure of how much more to say, then decided to plunge in with unsolicited advice.  God knows, he needs some right now, she sighed to herself.

Squeezing his hands, she began, “May I offer you a woman’s perspective on this?”  At his nod, she continued. “You and Catherine have been through many crises in your time together.  Right from the first, when you found her dying in the park, you weathered troubles which most people never share.  Through it all -- your capture Above, her near-fatal shooting, her father’s death, Paracelsus’ plots -- you have been there for each other, helped each other through.

“I know you, Vincent.  You want to keep the worst to yourself, you suffer in silence.  You feel you have to be a tower of strength for everyone else, so no sign of weakness is allowed to show.”

She extricated one hand from his grasp and raised it to his face, stroking his softly bristled cheek soothingly to soften the criticism in her next words.  “With Catherine it should be different.  She has given you her heart, as you have given yours to her.  This gives each of you certain rights, but also certain responsibilities.  You owe her your complete honesty, Vincent.  I know you are a truthful, honorable man.  But by failing to share what you put in those letters with her, you have been dishonest to your love for her -- you have failed her.  She feels as if her faith has been misplaced right now, as if she is not as important to you as you are to her.”

Taking his chin in her hand, she gave him a gentle shake to emphasize her point. “She’s right to feel that way, Vincent.  You should think long and hard about what that might cost you in the long run, even if she decides to stay with you.  Is your pride worth the rift, the gulf which now lies between you?  Will it fracture and destroy everything between you?  Perhaps not.  But are you willing to take that chance?”

Mary sat back.  That must have been the longest speech I’ve ever given in my life, she thought.  But if it helps, it will have been worth it.  She rose from the floor and, giving Vincent a warm kiss on the forehead, she walked out of the room, leaving him to consider her words.

 *    *    *

Catherine lay on her bed, on top of the covers.  She knew it was no use trying to sleep tonight.  She just couldn’t get her mind to stop spinning.  She had to reconsider everything she’d believed true about her relationship with Vincent.

How could he have been shutting me out like that?  I had thought he was telling me everything, but now I suspect he has systematically edited what he’s revealed to me.  Do I really know him at all?  Does he really love me at all?  Why would he continue a relationship with a woman he didn’t trust?  Maybe all those times he’s told me to find someone else, when I’ve insisted there could be no one else -- maybe he has been trying to disengage himself from me, but I’ve been misinterpreting his signals.  Oh, God, this is so confusing.

She remembered back to the time Lisa had returned to the tunnels.  At one point, she’d had to remind Vincent that they had always told each other the truth.  What had been his response?  Something about how he used to think that was right.  But he hadn’t told her everything...all the truth, had he?  She’d had to force him to reveal what he felt to be a shameful secret about hurting Lisa all those years ago.

That memory brought her up short, and she half-rose from the bed as the realization hit her.  Oh, Vincent!  He had been so sure that secret, once revealed, would destroy her faith in him, her belief in his humanity. Catherine’s heart lurched painfully in her chest as she thought of Vincent and his beautiful hands -- her hands. With a flash of insight, she understood that he had not concealed that secret because of his lack of trust in her, but because he did not dare to believe he deserved her trust.

Oh, how dense can you be, Chandler!  You’ve put that gentle, loving, hopeful man through hell tonight because you were too blind to understand what he was trying to tell you!

Suddenly Catherine saw a shadow bending low outside her balcony doors.  Her heart sang out to him: Vincent! She jumped off the bed to catch him, but in the brief instant it took her to pull the doors wide, he was already disappearing over the wall.

“Vincent!  Please stay!  I have to talk to you, please!”  She didn’t know if he had heard her, but she noted grimly that he didn’t want to stay, either way.  As she turned to go back inside, she noticed what he had left her -- a packet of envelopes, all inscribed “To Catherine.”

The letters!  My God, he’s giving me all the letters!  Oh, Vincent!  Catherine’s heart went out to him.  I don’t deserve him, she thought.  He believes that I’ll leave him if he doesn’t share his secrets with me, and he would rather take the chance of losing me because of what’s in the letters than lose me because he won’t share them.

She rose, letters in hand, and walked out onto the balcony.  She turned to the roof and called to him again. “Vincent!  I know you haven’t left.  Please, please come back to me!  I need you, my love.  I’m sorry...I’m so sorry for everything I said to you tonight.  I understand why you couldn’t tell me about the letters...about what’s in the letters.  I know I have your complete trust.  I was so wrong to doubt you.  I love you...I will always love mean everything to me!  Please, come back!”

The last few words dissolved in her throat with the tears which filled her eyes.  Because of the tears, she did not see the form which materialized out of the shadows and closed the space between them.  Only when she felt his arms come up hesitantly around her did she realize he had returned to her.  She dropped the letters to the ground as she clutched him to her with a desperate hug.  “Vincent!  Thank you for returning to me.  I’m so sorry. You have never given me reason to doubt your love.  Please forgive me!”

The tension in Vincent’s body eased with each word she spoke, and his hesitant embrace became stronger, surer.  She would not leave him!  She still loved him!  Immensely grateful for this gift, he lowered his lips to press a devout kiss on Catherine’s head as she burrowed deeper within the folds of his cloak to pull him closer still.

They held each other in silent communion for long minutes.  Then, reluctantly, Catherine disengaged from their embrace.  She bent to retrieve the letters and offered them to Vincent.  “I don’t need to read these.  They were never meant to be read.  I don’t need to know what’s in them right now.  You’ll tell me when you feel ready, and I’ll be here for you then, as now.  I trust you completely.  And please know that, no matter what’s in these letters, it won’t change one bit how I feel about you.  Nothing you could tell me would change that.”

Her lower lip quivered violently, but Catherine was determined to finish her apology.  Tears would have to wait. “I hope you’ll forgive me, Vincent.   You deserve everything, so much more than I can ever give you.  My trust is the least of what I owe to you.  Please, take these back, and forgive me for doubting your love?”

Vincent looked at her in amazement.  He did not move to take the letters from her.  “Catherine, you have no need to ask for forgiveness.  You were right.  I did conceal many things from you, out of fear.  I’ve been afraid for so long, especially since my illness, that I would awaken from find I have been dreaming alone.  If I drove you away before I awoke, that would be the most terrible nightmare of all.” A deep shudder coursed through him at the thought.

“But this isn’t a dream.  You were right.  A fantasy cannot comfort me, cannot rejoice with me.  You have done those things, Catherine.  You are real, you are my reality.  I can no longer deny it.  I want to awaken finally from the dream.  It’s an empty shell without you.” With resolution shining in his eyes, he added, “That’s why I brought the letters to you.  To show you that the dream is gone, but a more beautiful reality awaits.  There is no need to keep secrets, to fear in the dark.  I need your light to surround me, always, Catherine.”

She looked up into the face of the man she loved more than life, the man who destroyed a dream for her and reached through the shattered remnants to grasp her hand and walk with her...into the light.  “Yes, my love. Dreams belong to the darkness.  We will turn away from dreams, and we will light the way for each other.”

The End.