“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, Erlick, 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 Erlick 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 Erlick battle once again.
Erlick 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 Erlick 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 Erlick'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?”
Click here for Chapter 13....