The notes from A Midsummer Night's Dream wafted down through the grate as they listened in silence. Though Vincent normally felt very much at peace in Catherine's presence, he was restless, constantly changing positions and sighing heavily. Finally, she spoke up.
"Is something wrong?" she asked him quietly. "Are you not enjoying the music?"
"I apologize, Catherine," he replied. "I was going to tell you after the show, but ..."
"Is something wrong?" she asked again, pulling away from him slightly so she could see his face.
"No ... yes ..." he told her.
"Which is it? You're worrying me."
"Two days ago, I was walking in the tunnels, very far down, and I came across an injured girl."
"In the tunnels? How did she get there?"
"She was lying on the ground and wouldn't speak to me at first. Finally, she began talking to me and then turned over to face me. She had been stabbed, Catherine, in her ribcage."
"Oh, that's terrible, Vincent. What do you know of this girl?"
"Her name is Ray. She is from South Carolina, a teenager. She is malnourished and has lost a lot of blood. Father and Peter have tended to her injury. She is still in a great deal of pain, but is surviving."
"Who hurt her?"
"A man she did some work for who then refused to pay. When she confronted him, he stabbed her."
He paused then, so angry and disappointed in a world that would permit that to happen. Swallowing hard, he continued. "She stumbled upon an entrance to the tunnels and had been lying there for quite a while before I found her."
"Have you talked with her?"
"Briefly. She is still in a lot of pain and has been sedated for most of the time."
He paused after that, looking down.
"What is it?" she prodded gently.
"I'm not quite sure," he said, after a moment. "I feel a connection with her."
To her surprise, he grinned.
"Catherine, when she first saw me, it was like ... it was like she was seeing any other man. She wasn't scared—she actually smiled at me!"
She nodded and dropped her eyes. If only she had reacted to Vincent that way. He seemed to read her thoughts.
"Please, don't be upset. You were startled; I never faulted you for that ..."
She nodded, solemnly. "I'm sorry, Vincent, please continue ..."
"Catherine, it was the most amazing thing. She told me that she had dreamed of me. She reached out to touch me, like I was a vision she needed to know was real. She told me she dreamed I would rescue her!"
Catherine smiled brightly. "That is amazing, Vincent. How that must have made you feel—to be instantly accepted."
"Yes," he nodded. His face darkened.
"What is it?"
He sighed and pulled her closer.
"Two things weigh heavily on me ..." he trailed off.
"Catherine, she has cuts, on her wrist, they seem to be ..." he paused again, not wanting to say it.
"Self-inflicted?" she replied, quietly.
"Yes," he whispered.
"And the other thing?"
"I went through her belongings. I regret having to violate her privacy, but under the circumstances, I felt it necessary. What I found ..."
She waited for him to continue.
"I found a letter, from a woman named Allison."
He told her what the letter said and waited for her reply.
"Hmmm ..." Catherine considered. "What do you think it means?"
"I think they were in love. I think Ray left and wanted Allison to come with her, but Allison couldn't ..."
"Wouldn't …" Catherine replied.
Vincent's heart constricted—the meaning of her response not lost on him.
"Yes, I suppose," he finished quietly. "You would like her, Catherine. She has fire; in the few hours she has been awake, she persuaded Father to tell her about how he came to be called Father."
"Really?" she laughed. "I don't even know that story. She must have guts ..."
"Yes," he agreed. "Her will is strong and she is very stubborn. She reminds me of someone ..."
She hugged him tighter. "You really have a talent for finding injured, stubborn women, don't you?"
"It would seem that way," he replied, as they both laughed softly.
"She writes, Catherine," he continued. "Songs, beautiful songs. They are all about love. They must be about Allison. Nothing else makes sense. Ray had very little with her, only items of great importance or necessity. The note is significant; I am sure of it."
From nowhere, some lines from one of Ray's songs came to him:
I knew it then—this will never end
We will stand on the edge forever and never think to just jump in
We know it's ours to take, but we never even reach ...
Suddenly, Vincent jumped up and stood facing the tunnel's entrance, his back to Catherine. His mind was spinning. How had this lost and broken teenage girl managed to capture the very essence of the impossible dream he and Catherine shared? It was like that night they had been reading Dante all over again. He couldn't shake this feeling of treachery. Every time he pushed her away was another lie. Catherine wanted honesty, wanted open expression; it was he who denied them.
I guess you could say—it's better this way
Better safe than sorry and safer to remain
In a space where hope is always stronger than the pain ...
Did Catherine even have hope anymore? Had his endless rejection of her finally worn her down? All the times he had left her without saying a word of goodbye, all the hopeful glances he had turned away from, all the times he had stepped away from her arms when that was the only place he wanted to be ...
He felt her hand on his shoulder. "Are you alright, Vincent?"
All these thoughts were overwhelming and confusing. He loved her and wanted her more than anything in this world, but when she was near him, his only impulse was to run. Whenever he felt the most for her, the furthest he wanted to be from her. Whenever his hands wanted to touch her, his mind begged for solitude ... to think. It was maddening. And most maddening of all was the knowledge that even given years to think and ruminate on the subject, he knew he would never find the answer, never feel certain about what to do.
Were their obstacles really so insurmountable? Were their differences so irreconcilable? Was their dream impossible? And if so, was it anyone's fault but his own?
He slowly turned to face her and gently put his arms around her.
"Can I help?" she whispered. He could feel her concern through the Bond.
To her surprise, he pulled her closer and laid a kiss on the top of her head. She pulled back and looked at him.
"This girl's plight has moved you ..."
"Yes," he agreed softly.
She reached for his hands and held them lightly.
"Do you need some time to think?" she tried.
He looked at her. She was so selfless and understanding. She deserved every happiness in the world. She deserved a man who could tell her how much she was loved. She deserved better.
Would he be that man, in time? Should he finally let her go? And even if he decided to ... could he really do it? Sometimes he barely managed to get through a night without her ... could he really live a lifetime without her?
"Yes, Catherine. I need some time. Thank you for understanding."
She smiled at him warmly. "Of course," she replied.
She made to move away, but he held her hands tighter. He wanted to show her something, give her something that exemplified the depth of his feelings for her. He let go of her hand and reached toward her face. Then catching himself, he dropped his hand and began to turn away.
She gripped the edges of his cloak, confused. "What is it, Vincent?"
He turned back and found the courage to lift his hand once more. For the briefest moment, and so lightly, Catherine wasn't entirely sure if he had or not, he ran his fingers lightly down the side of her face.
"I only wish you could know my heart," he whispered.
Catherine was stunned; she didn't know what to say. Her skin was burning where he had touched her; she couldn't imagine what it would feel like if he ever touched her for real. She wanted to tell him that she understood, that she wanted to know his heart and have him know hers as well.
But Vincent immediately shut down after revealing that to her; the air between them changed. He turned away and the moment was over. He took her hand; by then, the music had concluded, so they began the journey to the threshold.
Father was dozing by Ray's bedside when Vincent reached the hospital chamber. Exhausted, Father headed off to bed. Vincent took his place beside Ray.
She looked better, he discovered, to his relief. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully and more color had returned to her face.
Satisfied with her condition, his thoughts turned to Catherine.
They had not spoken again. They had reached the threshold, embraced, and Catherine had ascended without another glance. Every fiber of his being had wanted to cry out to her to come back, to tell her of his heart—but he had done nothing. Would he really let his whole life slip away due to inaction and silence? Would the words always go unsaid until the day she herself slipped out of his life?
He sighed, shaking his head. When he looked at Ray again, he was surprised to find her eyes open. She smiled at him.
"Hi, Vincent," she whispered.
"Hi, Ray," replied. "Are you in pain? Can I get you anything?"
"How are you?" he asked.
"Better," she yawned. "Everyone here has been so wonderful, so ... nice."
"Is that uncommon for you?"
"Pretty loaded question, Vincent, don't you think?"
He blushed, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry ..."
"Yes, you did," she said, smiling. "It's okay. I know I can trust you. I know you have questions, but I have questions, too. Are you up for it? You can go first ..." she teased.
He laughed. Her familiarity and ease with him was a bit disconcerting, but also refreshing.
"Okay," he agreed. "Where are you from? How did you get here? Are you in trouble?"
"That's three questions, but whatever. I'm from South Carolina. I wanted to get out. I always wanted to get out, always ..." she trailed off. "It was just time. I finished high school, but couldn't find a job and couldn't afford school. I was staying with my mom, but her new boyfriend ... well, he just doesn't like me. He's a jerk—racist, super religious, violent, drinks a lot. We don't get each other, him and me, so he made my mom choose and, well, it's pretty obvious who she chose ..."
"Ray," Vincent began.
"No, it's okay. Like I said, it was time for me to leave. I thought I had enough money to get to New York and find a job and a place to live, but it's way more expensive up here. I ran out of money a while ago, so I've just been scavenging, you know, just trying to scrape by and I ran into some bad luck. But I'm not in trouble. I'll be okay ..."
Vincent's heart went out to her. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. Seriously. Anyway, my turn ... how did you get here? What's your story? Where are you from?"
"I was found as a baby, outside St. Vincent's Hospital. I was brought here and raised by Father. I know nothing of my parents or where I came from. But this is my home. I am safe here, and loved."
Ray nodded. "Okay, your turn ..."
He sighed and looked at Ray seriously.
"Ray, when I found you, you were very insistent about being left alone. Do you remember what you said to me?"
"Yeah," she said, softly. "I told you I wanted to die ..."
"You were very convincing, Ray. And then, we found ..."
"Yes, Ray. We saw the cuts on your arms," Vincent said, gently.
Ray sighed and looked away for a moment before continuing. "Not something I'm proud of, Vincent. I'm ... I'm a sensitive person, emotional ... I struggle with things. I got really hurt when I was still back home ... got my heart broken, you know. I had to keep going, but I just couldn't find my way through the pain and then all I felt was numb. I needed to feel something again. It's not something I do all the time and I know it's not a healthy way to deal with my problems, but I was lost and I needed to be strong and move on. It's like it wakes me up or something. Like some people punch a wall when they are hurting ... this is my way."
Vincent never expected to understand why Ray had done this to herself, but he was surprised to find that he did. Hadn't he inflicted pain upon himself in his darkest moments?
"Can you promise me something, Ray?"
"I won't do it again, Vincent," she said, quickly. "I promise."
"Good," he replied.
"My turn. Did you look in my bag?"
Vincent was taken aback, then resigned. He knew this moment would come.
He nodded and looked away. "Are you angry with me?"
She sighed. "I know you feel guilty for invading my privacy, Vincent, but I know why you did it. I'm not angry at you. I think I would be at most anyone else, but I know you did it because you were worried ..."
"What did you see?" she asked.
"Ray ..." he began.
"Yes," he told her.
The silence was longer this time.
"She was my best friend ..." Ray whispered.
"We have known each other since we were kids. And then one day, everything just ... changed. I fought it ... I actually stopped talking to her, started avoiding her, but she wouldn't let me. She had the patience of a saint. I pushed her away, wouldn't listen to her, didn't want to know how she felt ..."
"Because you felt it, too ..."
"Yeah ... I was scared. I didn't want things to change because I was afraid of losing her, because ... I ..."
"Because you loved her."
"Yeah. I was such an idiot. Who pushes away the person they love? It doesn't make sense. And the more I realized I loved her, the more I ran from it."
"She wouldn't give up. The more I pushed, the more she pushed back. The more I hurt her, the more she loved me. I am so ashamed of that ..."
She paused before continuing.
"And then one day, I just couldn't do it anymore. We were out in a field near her house; it was covered with wildflowers—yellow, blue, pink ... it was windy, so it looked like an ocean. It was so beautiful ... and she was crying. I had made her cry. I told her I was in love with someone else. But I wasn't. It was a lie. She was so sad, Vincent. She told me to go to hell, that she was done, that she never wanted to see me again. I looked at her and something inside me just broke. She started to run away and I ran after her. She wouldn't stop, so I pulled her to the ground. She ..."
Ray sighed and turned away from Vincent. She was silent for so long, Vincent had begun to think that she had fallen back asleep.
"Her eyes were puffy and red, her sundress was torn, her knee was cut up and bleeding. I ... I was scared and didn't know what was going to happen, but I'm not a monster. I loved her; I couldn't hurt her anymore. She was glaring at me, so angry; she looked like she wanted to kill me. So I closed my eyes and kissed her. We stayed until dark, just lying in the field, crying and ... holding each other. I've never been so happy ..."
"Ray, where is Allison now?"
He watched her entire body stiffen at that question and was sorry he had asked. She wasn't here now—that's probably all he needed to know.
"Things were great for six months ..." she began quietly. "And then we got caught, by her mother. Her parents locked her in her room, wouldn't let her out, wouldn't let us see each other. Her family's wealthy. They planned to send her to some college out in California. I panicked. Things were awful at home; I had lost her. I had lost everything. I packed all my things and went to her house in the middle of the night. I wanted us to run away together ..."
Ray rolled back over to look at Vincent.
"But she wouldn't come with me. She was afraid of ... the unknown, having no money ... I understand now, of course. But then ... I just thought she didn't love me enough, you know?"
"She did, Ray. She loved you very much. Look how she fought for you all that time."
"Yeah, well, it doesn't matter now. I left that night. I don't know whether she went to California or if she's still home. All I have is that note ... and the keychain. That was hers. We always wanted to go to Africa and look at the lions ..." she smiled, dropping her eyes.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Ray."
"It's okay, Vincent. Really ... anyway, it's my turn to ask you a question."
"Of course, anything," he readily agreed.
"Who is Catherine?"
Vincent felt as if a thousand stones had landed on his chest. "How? How did you ..."
"Mary told me about her, only a little. Is she your ..."
"She is my friend," he interrupted.
Ray looked at him, surprised by his sudden change in demeanor.
"She lives Above; she works for the District Attorney's office," he said, quickly.
"How did you meet?"
Vincent suddenly stood up and walked away from Ray. He put his hands down onto the examining table and leaned over them, silent.
"I have obviously touched on a sensitive topic for you, Vincent, but you can trust me. I trusted you. I feel connected to you."
"There is nothing to talk about. She's a helper and my friend."
Ray sighed. "Look, I have told you more about me in five minutes than I have ever told anyone in my whole life. I know she is more than a friend, and I know you probably never get a chance to talk to anyone about her ... just come over here and sit back down and tell me about her."
Vincent's anger waned; disarmed, he slowly returned to Ray's side.
"Trust me," she repeated. "What do you think I am here for? Don't you remember?"
"The dream ..." he whispered.
"Yeah," she replied. "You save me, I save you. Can we get to it already?"
Vincent's eyes were wide in shock. "This was in your dream?"
"Yes," she told him. "We were meant to be here ... you're supposed to tell me. You saved me ... let me do my part, okay?"
"But I don't understand ..."
"Yes, you do, Vincent. You feel it too; you just didn't understand why ... but this is why."
Vincent collapsed back into his seat.
"I found her one night in the park. She had been attacked, left to die. I brought her here, to Father. We tended to her wounds ..."
He looked at Ray, who nodded at him.
"She had bandages over her face; she didn't know about ... the way I am. I tried to stop my feelings, but I couldn't. When she was well again, I took her home and tried to forget being a part of her. But I couldn't. I was changed. I went to her one night—to say goodbye. That was almost two years ago ..."
"Why isn't she down here with you?"
Vincent sighed. "She has a life Above—her work, her friends ... she does not belong in the darkness."
"She said that to you?" Ray asked, incredulous.
Vincent shook his head.
"What did she say when you asked her to move down here with you?"
"I ... I haven't ..." he stammered.
"You haven't asked her?" Ray asked.
Vincent shook his head.
"Ray, I ..."
"Have you kissed her?"
Vincent flushed visibly. "No, I ..."
"Have you even told her how you feel about her?"
Vincent looked up at her, begging her with his eyes to stop.
"So, let me get this straight ... you love her, right?"
"She loves you, right?"
"I don't know ... I ..."
"Oh, I see ..." Ray replied. "You know she loves you and that scares you, so you push her away. Am I warm?"
Vincent felt miserable. Having it laid out before him by a teenager who obviously understood love infinitely better than he did was disconcerting at the least.
"It's complicated," he began.
"No, it's not. It's actually quite simple. You love each other. You should be together."
"We're too different ... she deserves better."
"I'll say. She deserves the truth."
"She must know ..."
"You can't take that chance! What if something happened and you lost her? What if she leaves because she thinks you don't love her?"
"I have nearly lost her ... many times ..." he explained.
"Jesus, Vincent, you're worse than me!"
He looked at her, and sighed.
"Don't you see? You are doing exactly what I did to Allie. You are pushing her away. Do you want to turn out like we did?"
"It's different," he started.
"How? How is it different?"
Vincent didn't know how to answer. He was starting to believe that she had been sent here to make him face his feelings for Catherine. No one had ever spoken to him in this way before; he felt exposed and raw, turned inside out.
"You have to tell her, Vincent, before you don't have a choice."
"I know," he whispered.
They heard voices down the tunnel. Within moments, Father and Mary came into the room.
"How are you feeling, my dear?" Mary asked, going to Ray's side as Father began examining her vitals.
"Better, Mary. Thanks," Ray replied. Vincent made to leave, but stopped when he saw Ray glaring at him.
"I would say you are doing a lot better, Ray," Father told her. "You are getting stronger. How is your wound?"
"It's itching," she replied.
Ray looked at Mary, confused.
"That means it's healing," she told her, smiling.
"Oh, okay. Great."
"I would still like to give you something to help you sleep. I don't want you waking up in the middle of the night in pain. You need your rest."
"I understand," Ray sighed. "Go ahead and break out the needle ..."
Mary gave her the injection as Father gathered his things.
"You will stay with her tonight, Vincent?"
"Okay then, we will send breakfast in early. Is it okay if we send Kipper again?"
Ray and Mary laughed. Vincent looked at them, a question in his eyes.
"Kipper has a ... well, how do you say it?" Father asked.
"A crush, Father," Mary finished. "Kipper has a not-so-secret crush on Ray. He read her half of Frankenstein this evening!"
Ray laughed. "He's a sweet kid."
"Okay, Mary, we're finished here," Father said.
They said their goodbyes and were gone.
"Vincent," Ray said, quietly, reaching for him. He went over to her and laid his hand on hers.
"In the dream ..." she started, before yawning.
"Shhh ... you need your rest. We'll talk tomorrow."
"In the dream, you go to her now."
"Now? This is in the dream?"
"Yes," she replied, her eyes getting heavy.
"I can't. Someone should be with you."
"I'm fine. I am going to conk out in a minute. You really don't need to watch me sleep all night. Go!"
"Look, you can come back after you go see her, that is, if you don't end up staying ... but the longer you're gone, the happier you'll make me," she smiled.
Vincent's cheeks turned crimson.
"You're hilarious ..." she said, before getting serious again. "Go; go now. Tell her."
"Ray, I ..."
"The dream is real, Vincent. Please believe me."
"But what do I say?"
"You'll know ... please, promise me you'll go ..."
Vincent was paralyzed with doubt.
"The dream has a happy ending, Vincent. Please, go ..." she managed, before her eyes closed.
He looked down at her. He couldn't disappoint her.
Just then, her hand turned over and he felt her push something into his.
"Trust me," she whispered.
Vincent looked down and found the keychain in his palm. Without a pause, he grabbed his cloak and ran out of the chamber.