They had never bid each other a proper goodbye, neither believing he would be gone for long. How he had missed her, how he had feared all those years that one day he might not be able to recall the sound of her voice, her face, her eyes on him and the very texture of her skin. Everything, everything he had repeated endlessly in his mind, going over the smallest of details and committing them to memory with the greatest of care. The very thought of her had been his solitary comfort during that long, unexpected exile, the only thing that could lay his weary mind to rest and encourage him to keep trying over and over again even when his attempts had proved themselves futile.
The very echo of his footsteps was painful in his ears. Almost forgotten yet all too familiar, all these halls, these rooms, even the reflections on the walls quite unchanged by his long, long absence. Alexander's eyes swept over the surroundings. He ran his skeletal fingers gingerly over the surface of a nearby table, hands starting to tremble. He spun around, taking in the room, the furniture, details big and small, feeling the fabric of curtains and tablecloth almost hungrily with his hands and his eyes were beginning to water. He knew this room, this building, this place he had long since started to believe only existed in his dreams.
His legs shook slightly as he walked towards the parlour, overcome with nervousness that was most of uncharacteristic of him. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, wanted to ask of her, centuries worth of longing to be expressed through words and touches and long, lingering gazes. Where should he begin? He hesitated and came to a standstill on the long corridor.
He looked at his own reflection in the mirror, much older than he had been the last time he had wandered these halls. Surely, she would be taken aback by his sudden appearance, that would be understandable. What would she think of him now? Would she still want to hold and comfort him as she had always done, though he had aged since their parting?
And surely there would be a time he would ask her to recount everything that had happened during his absence. What if she asked the same of him? Could he ever tell her of the long, excruciatingly painful years in Brennenburg without having to fear rejection? He had to turn away from the mirror, unable to look at himself any more. He knew he couldn't expect her to accept without question what he had done, what he had become in that world. Would he ever be able to redeem himself in her eyes? He sighed, resting his forehead against the cooling glass of a window pane. Telling her that he had lowered himself to the level of a cold-blooded murderer was unthinkable, even more so when he had done it, more than willingly, over and over again only to be reunited with her once more. She would blame herself should she ever find out, he knew that all too well. Yes. This was a pain he couldn't ask her to ease.
He slowly opened his eyes and stepped towards the door, lingering behind it before he could bring himself to knock. His hands shook violently when a soft voice answered and told him to enter.
Alexander closed the door quietly behind him, his eyes drawn towards the bed where an all-too familiar figure was sitting, her back facing the door. He inhaled sharply, something tightening in his chest at the sight of her. Light hair falling in the softest of waves down her back, streaked with hints of silver now. How slight her shoulders were, how frail her figure! Had she always looked so vulnerable, so precious that he feared she would shatter into millions of pieces at touch? His eyes wandered restlessly over her features. The curve of her hips, the tip of her nose, and those eyes that had drawn him in since their very first meeting what felt like an eternity ago, all of her, breathing, alive, much more beautiful and real than any pitiful image his imagination could ever have hoped to produce for his comfort.
She laid down the book she had been reading and Alexander watched every small movement she made with longing. Her hands were slender, and how vividly he now remembered those warm fingers combing through his hair and caressing the line of his jaw, entwining with his before falling asleep beside him. The way her hair rippled as she moved, the grace of her, he remembered it all, overwhelming and overflowing with memories, and Alexander closed the distance between them and pulled her in his arms.
" My love," he breathed and her scent engulfed him, milk and honey and the faintest touch of rose lingering to her just like before. It filled the room as it filled his nostrils, and he swore he'd never let her out of his sight again-
" Let go of me!"
She pushed him away with force, eyes wide and fearful like those of a captured animal's.
" Who are you and what are you doing in my house?" She asked and her voice trembled as she backed away from him, almost overturning a vase in her haste. Alexander started as though she had slapped him.
" Do you not know me, love?" he asked disbelievingly and took a step closer, something he regretted immediately as she reverted from him even faster.
"Don't come closer!"
"It is I, Alexander-"
"I know of no one with that name!"
The light in the laboratory was merely a green, ghoulish gloom, illuminating the man sitting hunched on one of the chairs. He bore the appearance of a man defeated over and over again. An endless number of lonely sundowns in that far off world... and for what purpose?
The letter clutched in his hands was nothing more but a wrinkled white ball, its resemblance to the sheet of paper it had once been quite forgotten. Alexander rolled it open and read it once more, though he could already recite it word to word in his head. He had recognized the handwriting to belong to a man who had once been a close friend and colleague of his; the date on the top right corner was from so long ago that he had lost count, trying to make sense to the years that had passed since his exile.
'To my good friend Alexander,'it read. His eyes wandered down line by line, paragraph by paragraph, skimming through explanations of the events that had transpired after his departure and after it had become clear they had lost contact with him. A month had passed, then another, then a full year. Three years, finally, and his wife had been mad with grief and broken into pitiable sobs at the very mention of his name. They had been forced to take down all pictures of him when it was clear than she could not even leave her room without becoming hysterical. The others had grieved too, but where her pain had burst out in uncontrollable fits of emotion, theirs had been of the quiet, private type. All their distress for his disappearance was meaningless to him; it had all lost its meaning and become nothing but uninteresting bit in a story that only vaguely touched him after he had reached the end of the letter.
'She gave up crying one day, and we all hoped that this was, at last, a sign of recovery. She was quiet for weeks, not once mentioning your name, and none of us wanted to disturb her quiet mourning. I then had the servants bring back the photographs and portraits one by one. I believed she had come to terms with your disappearance at last. Until one day she picked up your picture from the bedside and asked "who is this?".'
Here the ink had become smudgy and unclear, impossible to read from the tears that had stained the page many an hour ago. Another large drop landed on the paper, taking more words with it.
'... could not handle the loss, resulting in psychological breakdown... The doctors believe... Defence mechanism of the mind or perhaps a mental illness...'
He could make out only disconnected words from here and there, all blurring into confused humming that seemed to fill his ears and make thinking impossible. Where was he and what was he doing here? The words were all meaningless, a futile effort to give empty explanations and delay the inevitable.
'My friend, she does not remember you.'
He buried his face in his hands and let out an agonized howl, like that of an animal in excruciating pain. He had clung to her fleeting memory with the last shreds of his sanity all those years, centuries even, believing she would do the same. He was standing in a void where no light could reach, and all there was left for him was a silence that stretched towards eternity. He did not care how it had happened, if it had been self-inflicted or her mind had shut him out in its last desperate attempt to protect her from madness. She had purged the very memory of him from her mind as though he had never existed.
The remains of the letter lay abandoned on the floor, torn into pieces. Alexander had left long ago and opened one of the cabinets, untouched for years and coated in dust just like all his other worldly possessions. He examined the concoctions stored in the security of glass vials and wondered if he could still recognize any of them.
She was sleeping so peacefully. The wrinkles of fear and worry from earlier now only reduced into soft lines, her expression calm, without a care in the world. Alexander hoped that her dreams were those of happiness, warmth and safety, untouched and untroubled by his pain. He climbed into the bed quietly, settling himself next to her sleeping figure and smiled sadly, taking in her features in the dim light of the night lamp. The glass on the table beside her bed was empty, the print left by her lips against the transparent surface still visible. He wondered if it still held her taste.
"You are beautiful," he whispered to her, knowing she could not hear him. He took her hand and grasped those cool fingers, caressing each one of them until feeling for the slow beating of her heart on her slender wrist.
He turned and reached for the glass he had brought for himself, watching as a small white capsule on the bottom evaporated into nothingness, leaving behind only water and innocent-looking bubbles. He held it against the light, examining it quietly before emptying it without a second thought. Strange, this feeling of familiarity. He remembered with warmth how he had always had a glass of water before turning in for the night and curling up against her to dream of distant worlds and unimaginable discoveries that would yet bring him honour. How young and foolish he had been back then, never realizing he had been chasing after the wrong dream all along.
He placed himself as close to her as he could, caressing the curve of her cheek with one shaking hand, the other one tangling itself gently in her hair. A small kiss on her forehead, one finger trailing the arch of her lips before claiming them for one long, lingering kiss. How he wished to feel her warm breath against his mouth once more. Tears were blurring his vision when he finally pulled back, knowing it would never happen again. He had seen to it.
He remained bent over her in silence, taking in the very details of her being until he felt weariness taking over him. He knew sleep would claim him soon, sluggish, treacherous, making each movement feel like it would take every ounce of strength remaining in his body, which it did. His thoughts were becoming heavy, unfocused. Resting his head against her shoulder he sighed and closed his eyes. So soon. He believed he could almost feel her breathing steadily beside him, though her hand no longer felt cold in his.
"I will never leave you alone again, my love." His voice was so soft and tender, something he had not believed himself capable of any more. At the look of her form cradled in the safety of his arms like so long ago he almost believed those centuries had never even existed. Perhaps, if he truly willed himself to do so, he could take them for nothing but a bad dream.
There was only the slightest of quivers in his voice when he spoke once more. "Wait for me."
After all, it was time for the dream to come to a close.
It's just another journey, he thought as he felt the fight going out of him, his eyelids becoming heavier and heavier. Just another leap through the gate. But this journey he would not take alone. He let his eyes close as though on their own, his fingers forever entwined with hers.
He would be home at last.