This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine The Memory Flame II, in 1990. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.
One to Watch
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, The bed be blest that I lie on.
Four angels to my bed
Four angels round my head,
One to watch, and one to pray,
And two to bear my soul away.
--Thomas Ady, A Candle in the Dark
"Da! Da!" Jacob crowed. He banged energetically on a colorful xylophone, plinking out tunes only he could make sense of.
"You called, my son?"
Vincent's eyes crinkled at the corners and he allowed himself a small smile as he watched his young son play. At six rambunctious months of age, Jacob was already the darling and the terror of the Tunnels. He rarely cried, but Father swore he could move faster on all fours than a tumbleweed in high wind.
Vincent started as Jacob randomly struck a few notes that brought to mind Catherine's lullaby. "Well done, Jacob," he murmured.
After ignoring his father's comment and failing to fit the xylophone's hammer into his mouth, Jacob let it fall and looked around for new amusement. His eyes lit on the statue of Justice--one of the few things not packed away when Vincent had baby-proofed his chamber--and in an instant the little boy was crawling as fast as his busy limbs could carry him.
At the base of the stone lady, Jacob reached out a chubby hand to grasp the statue. He hitched his behind closer and pulled himself up, swaying as he found his balance. Vincent held his breath and stifled the almost irresistible urge to leap across the room and steady the child.
Slowly, Jacob let his hand fall away from the statue. For one heady moment he stood alone, wobbling on his feet, a delighted grin on his face. But his balance couldn't match Justice's, and after a few seconds he fell backward to land firmly on his padded backside.
Big, frustrated tears gathered in the hazel eyes, and the lower lip started to creep out. His shoulders caught once, and Vincent prepared to offer comfort. But after one almost-sob, Jacob laboriously positioned himself for another try, aiming a baby glare at Justice, as if to say, You better not drop me again, lady.
Vincent gave a snort of amusement, even as a well of sweet pain rose to press at his throat. So like Catherine, this son of theirs. Jacob had her fearlessness, her willingness to be hurt in pursuit of a goal. And her smile. Oh yes, the baby had her smile, one that wrung his heart with equal parts joy and pain.
"He does not, so far, share your taste in music, Catherine," Vincent announced quietly, eying the abandoned xylophone. His brows drew together as he recalled the lullaby. "Then again, perhaps he does."
He snapped closed his book, feeling with an inner sense that it must be close to mealtime for his son. Padding across the room, he knelt and held out his arms to the child, who had once again pulled himself to his feet with a hand braced on the statue. Jacob turned those wide eyes on his father.
"Come on, Jacob. One step," Vincent encouraged him softly. "Ravioli for lunch...your favorite!"
Whether it was the promised meal or the look of hope in his father's eyes, Jacob gave it a valiant try. He let go of Justice and lifted one small foot, his arms waving madly as he lunged at Vincent. He was confident of being caught before he could hit that unforgiving floor, and he was. He laughed as his father scooped him up and kissed his stomach. "D~a!" he squeaked.
"Indeed," Vincent replied, and bore him off to be changed and fed.
Vincent strode along the stone passages on his way to the nursery, Jacob kicking happily in a carrier against his chest. He passed Pascal at work replacing a cracked length of pipe in the hall, and was unsurprised to receive a wide grin and a sound that was something like a waterlogged motorboat. By now, he was used to the truly astounding variety of silly faces and noises people made when Jacob was about. Father, hurrying briskly past them on his way to see a patient, contented himself with a chuckle and a poke at his grandson's tummy.
Jacob gurgled and churned his legs excitedly at all the attention, but Vincent secretly wondered how babies ever grew up to be sane and intelligent, considering the bizarre form of communication they were subjected to as infants. Reading Dr. Seuss was about as far as Vincent could bring himself to go into the realm of babytalk.
At the nursery, he found Mary and Brooke presiding over a number of infants whose parents were busy with all-day work details.
"There's a boy!" Brooke cooed, holding out her arms to Jacob. She made a sound like a bird trill, which delighted the baby and sent Vincent's eyes rolling heavenward.
Mary smiled her peaceful smile at him and gestured him over to the tray full of infant-sized dishes that William had just brought from the kitchen. "Let you know it's time for lunch, has he? Today we've got--"
"Ravioli," Vincent supplied, smiling slightly. "William made sure to inform me earlier, since it was so popular with my son on his first try."
"Now, Vincent, he was making a fashion statement," Brooke scolded, laughing. She nudged Vincent into a chair and plopped a bibbed Jacob into his lap. "Just you make sure he eats more than he wears, this time."
Vincent dutifully plied Jacob with spoonfuls of mashed ravioli, applesauce, and something green that advertised itself as a vegetable. Brooke went off into gales of laughter when he finally had to resort to "choo-choo" and "airplane" to assure Jacob of adequate nutrition, and Vincent wore a proud smear of tomato sauce across his vest before the process was complete.
Jacob's eyes drooped sleepily as Vincent laid him down to put on a clean diaper and shirt. The baby still found enough energy to tangle tiny fingers in his father's mane and grin an endearing, single-toothed grin.
"Da," he murmured contentedly, and burped.
"Does that mean it was good, little one?" Vincent whispered, caressing the silky, corn-colored curls. He had to bite his tongue to interrupt an alarming flood of gibberish that rose to his lips. He tucked Jacob into a crib and covered him with a light blanket.
Mary stepped up beside him to look down at the baby, who was quite outrageously adorable, sleeping with one small thumb tucked into his mouth. "He's beautiful, Vincent," she told him, for perhaps the thousandth time. He never got tired of hearing it.
"I know," he said softly. "Just like his mother." He smiled at Mary. "May I leave him here to nap? Mouse is expecting my help with the generator this afternoon."
"Of course. You go on along, he'll be fine." Mary shooed him out with many reassurances, and Vincent went, but not without a pang of regret. Despite his certainty that Jacob was in the best of hands, he felt vaguely uneasy when his son was not within easy reach.
Another likeness to his mother, Vincent thought, as he traveled the busy corridors on his way to the Falls. He caught himself before the wave of pain could quite submerge him.
In the months since her death, he had learned that there was hardly a moment, day or night, when Catherine was not in his thoughts. The pain came and went. Sometimes it was a delicate, trembling sort of hurt, when some hint of her would catch him unawares; sometimes it was a black, smothering depression that put worry in Father's eyes. But to Vincent, his pain was as precious as his memories. The pain did not excuse him for losing her, as his loved ones did. It remained. It connected him to her.
I love you, Catherine, he whispered to the pain, and pushed it gently to the back of his mind.
The companionable sounds of the community at work--laughter, a loud clatter and a curse as something was dropped, faint thumps from Cullen's workshop--gave way to the basso roar of the Falls as Vincent's long stride took him down and down. He began to feel the refreshing tingle of mist in the air, and as he rounded the last bend in the corridor, a bedraggled figure appeared before him.
"Vincent!" Mouse waved his wrench enthusiastically. "Glad you came. Work to do." He grinned, and dashed water-soaked bangs from his eyes. "Wet work."
"So I see," said Vincent, and began to shrug out of his cloak and vest.
Hours later, the weary warriors returned from their labors, damp, filthy, and triumphant. The water-powered generator--held together, as William put it, with "spit, bubble gum, and a few Hail Marys"--was Mouse's pride and joy, and Father's abiding terror. He looked up from Finnegan's Wake wearing a curious mix of welcome and apprehension, as Vincent and Mouse squelched into his study.
"There you are, back safe. Did the repairs go well?"
"Runs fine. Fixed this part, got little thing from Diana, good as new!" Mouse answered. He wound up with a terrific sneeze and a shiver, as the cool of the rock around them inserted itself between his wet clothing and skin.
"Off with you then. Get into some dry clothes," Father said, gesturing with his glasses. "William has your supper in the kitchen."
Mouse, abruptly discovering a huge hole where his stomach ought to be, vanished with alacrity. Father glanced at Vincent, who had fetched a towel and begun to rub his hair dry. "Is that boy going to blow us all to Kingdom Come?"
"Not for several months, at least," Vincent replied, straight-faced. Father chuckled.
"I shall trust in your judgment, my son. Your supper is over there, along with something else that belongs to you." Father looked toward a corner occupied by a low table and a playpen.
Still towelling his hair, Vincent crossed the room to peer down at Jacob, who was busy swatting--with his left hand, Vincent noted absently--at the whirling figures of a mobile attached to the playpen. Vincent blinked as Mickey Mouse took a high-speed spin near his nose.
"You're getting big and strong, aren't you?" he said softly. Jacob smiled, and offered him an odd-shaped ball of faded pink yarn.
Vincent felt a chill race up his spine--one not caused by his soggy shirt and jeans. Gently he tugged the object away from Jacob, who was agreeable.
Strands of pink yarn had been tied together at the middle to form the ball, and its face--comprised of knotted blue yarn for the eyes and cheerful red for the mouth--stared up at him blandly.
"Where did he get this?" Vincent whispered.
"What's that?" Father asked, looking up from his book.
Vincent turned slowly, and held up the bit of fuzz. "Who gave this to Jacob?"
"I've no idea. Mary or Brooke, I suppose." Father waved a hand dismissively and bent over his book, though he wasn't certain that uninterrupted concentration could help him parse the intricacies of Joyce. Vincent's next words put Finnegan to bed for the evening.
"This was Catherine's. She made it."
The look in his blue eyes had Father stiffening in his chair. "What do you mean? How could it be?"
"It was hers," Vincent insisted, carrying it toward the light cast by Father's Tiffany lamp. He peered at it closely.
"She told me it was the one arts-and-crafts project that came home intact from summer camp, the year she was eight. She showed it to me."
Father abruptly relaxed, and his eyes cleared of perplexity. "Diana must have brought it. You know she said she had some of Catherine's things that she took during the...the investigation."
He tried for a natural tone, but despite himself he could never speak comfortably of the manner of Catherine's death, or anything connected with it. He felt as though he were driving splinters into Vincent's skin every time the subject came up.
He looked anxiously at his son, wary of any shadow of grief he might see. But Vincent's brows were drawn together in thought, and his frown was nothing more than that.
Vincent nodded finally, accepting the possibility. "Perhaps. Though I had thought she'd brought everything down...."
"She must have overlooked it, and given it to Mary last time she was here. Eat your dinner, do, before it gets any colder."
"After I've changed," Vincent said, still distracted. Jacob let out a sudden squeal, deprived of both his toy and his father's attention, and Vincent hurriedly returned the fuzz-ball to its new owner.
Jacob took it, and patted the soft warmth against his face. "Ma-ma," he said clearly.
Vincent shivered again. He knew better than to mention his unease to Father.
Music...a clear voice singing amid the moans of illness and rough, guttural coughing...the sound of water wrung from cloths...the worried cadence of Father's voice....
Vincent pulled himself reluctantly from the warm arms of sleep. Jacob?
The baby's angry sobs floated from the adjoining chamber, and Vincent groggily swung his legs to the floor. The grueling day's labor had left him weary to his bones, and he was clumsier than usual as he groped on a robe. He hissed at the icy touch of the floor on the warm soles of his feet, fumbling for a candle and matches.
All in all, by the time he padded to the door of Jacob's chamber, the baby had quieted somewhat. Vincent held his candle high as he drew near the crib. Jacob had kicked off his blankets, and he still held the fuzzy pink ball close against him. Tears pooled and ran down the sides of his face as he whimpered and chewed fretfully on the fingers of his other hand. He was probably teething, Vincent thought with a sigh.
After checking Jacob's diaper, he lifted the baby, blanket and all, from his crib and headed for the rocking chair in the corner. It was battered and scarred--its deepest gouges placed by his own childish claws--and had served Father well in years past. Now, it was a tight fit for Vincent's long frame, but it still worked wonders with a crying child.
Vincent settled into the chair and lifted Jacob to his shoulder. He began to rock back and forth, patting the baby's back and murmuring nonsense words of comfort. He let his head tilt back and his eyes close, and wondered if he would fall asleep before his son did.
Sleep, my pretty one. Rest now, my pretty one.... Without thought, he began to hum the melody that had haunted him all day. The spaces between Jacob's sobs lengthened gradually, and his breathing grew more even. Vincent shifted him to the crook of his arm and stroked his cheek, watching his eyes blink, and then slowly close.
Even after the baby slept, Vincent hummed the tune to himself, and this time it brought no ache. Only a warm, comforting peace. She is close to us, he thought, staring wide-eyed into the dark.
"Good morning," Father said, as he served himself tea from a fragrant pot. "Would you like a cup?"
Vincent grunted a noncommittal reply. He dropped his boots, carried between chest and elbow, and laid Jacob in the playpen. Father ran shrewd eyes over him.
"I know that look," he said. "A kind of shell-shock known to parents of infants cutting teeth. Up late, were you?"
"Early. Too early," Vincent rasped, and reached for the cup Father offered. He spied a bottle warming in a steaming pot of water. "Father, would you mind...?"
Father chuckled. "I can't deny a man in need of his tea."
He crossed the room and lifted his squirming grandson into his arms. "Ready for breakfast, Master Jacob?"
The baby's bright eyes and dimpled smile belied his nocturnal awakenings. He loosed a babble at Father that sounded conversational.
"Well, is that so! And what else have you to say for yourself?" Father questioned, smiling. He sat down in the worn, high-backed chair behind his desk and nudged the nipple of the bottle between Jacob's lips. "There we are. A fellow never forgets the knack, did you know that?"
Vincent smiled a little over his tea. The Tunnel patriarch was thoroughly besotted with his grandson, and rarely bothered to hide the fact. "I'll spoil him if you don't watch out, Vincent," Father often told him smugly.
"I thought I'd help Cullen with the new railing after morning classes," Vincent said. He reached for a corn muffin and poured a second cup of tea. "Unless you have something else in mind for me?"
Some of the Tunnel residents had standing jobs, like William in his kitchen and Mary with the little ones, but Vincent, among others, was a jack-of-all-trades, and worked at different tasks all over the subterranean world. It was a part of his morning ritual to receive his marching orders from Father.
"Oh, I think that can wait, if Cullen doesn't mind. Eliza sent down a note early this morning. She'd like to see this youngster of yours."
Vincent looked up from the task of pulling on his boots. "She's returned from Arizona so early?"
Father nodded. "She says Anne fought to get her to stay until the end of winter, but Eliza'd rather put up with a little joint pain than with the `monotony' of the weather out there."
"I can imagine Anne's reaction," Vincent smiled. The mother and daughter, once residents Below, had moved Above when Eliza's rheumatism had become too severe for her to navigate the Tunnels easily. They had lived in New York before Anne's career had taken them west, and Eliza still returned periodically to visit her old friends.
"She's staying with Lin and Toby Kwan. Their shop is a good distance away, but you could have a nice visit this afternoon and return before dinner."
Vincent nodded. Time with Eliza, a cherished teacher from his childhood, was a rare treat; and Jacob would enjoy the walk.
"The capital of Peru, Vincent! Surely you haven't forgotten everything I taught you?"
Vincent smiled, not bothering to conceal his fangs. Few knew him as well and as long as Eliza had. In his childish eyes, only Father had surpassed her as a font of wisdom and knowledge. She had taught history and social studies to the children Below, her best student the one among them who would never see the splendors she described. Even so, she had taken him from the Devil's Triangle to the banks of the Rubicon; from Galapagos to Easter Island, and the wonder of it was with him still.
"Peru," he repeated, blue eyes narrowing in concentration. "Bordered by Columbia, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, and the Pacific Ocean. Once Incan, conquered in the sixteenth century by Spain. Current President of the Republic, Alan Garcia Perez. Chief exports are minerals, fish products, cotton, sugar, and coffee. And the capital--" he paused, with a sly grin--"is Lima."
Eliza laughed and clapped her hands. Her bright black eyes were more sunken now, the messy black hair silvered, but her rich, crusty laugh brought back the swish of the schoolroom maps and the cheerful scents of chalkdust and peppermint. "Bravo! You have not forgotten, after all. Perhaps this coffee we drink is from Peru--and the sugar, too. Let's have another cup, shall we?"
She poured for both of them, as Vincent craned his neck to see what Jacob was up to. There was much to tempt him in the Kwans' cozy parlor. Vincent spotted him behind and to the right of Eliza's chair, investigating Toby Kwan's prized ficus tree.
"Jacob, no." Vincent nailed his son with a father's daunting frown just as the baby pulled a leaf toward his mouth.
Jacob pouted for a moment, but forgot the plant as the Kwans' beagle puppy, Charlotte, sidled out from under the couch. Jacob's previous enthusiasm for the animal had sent her into hiding, but the pup's curiosity had drawn her forth again. She sniffed at Jacob, who instantly grabbed for a tantalizingly long ear. Charlotte ducked under Eliza's chair.
With difficulty, the old woman bent down and coaxed Charlotte out with a cookie. Then, taking Jacob's sticky fingers in her own gnarled hand, she guided him as he patted the puppy's head. "Gently, my little one. Gently."
Jacob squealed happily as Charlotte thoroughly scrubbed his face with a pink tongue.
"A good job, that," Eliza said, her eyes on Jacob. "He must give you much happiness."
Vincent did not look up from the milky mug of coffee in his hands. He felt Eliza's shrewd eyes taking his measure.
"But your joy in him is tempered by your grief for his mother."
Her words were not a question; rather a blunt statement that dragged his pain, quivering, out into the open. Were she anyone else, Vincent would have evaded an answer. But this was Eliza, the oracle of his childhood; the one person, before Catherine, who had set him free. He nodded.
"I keep thinking...of her joy, in him. Joy she was denied. The man who--who took her from me, he told me he let her hold him. I knew he lied."
A silence stretched out between them, and Vincent finally raised his head. As soon as he met his teacher's gaze, he knew he was in trouble.
"Vincent, I'm disappointed in you," Eliza said crisply. Her tone spelled homework left undone, set aside for hijinks with Devin. "Your loss was a terrible one, Jacob's more so. But do you truly think Catherine takes no joy in this child, and took none while she carried him? Where she is, she is with him every moment. You may hold to that."
Vincent's eyes widened as events suddenly collided in his mind--the lullaby, the mysterious toy, his weird sense that Catherine was close in the night. But before he could comment, a yelp from Charlotte distracted him as Jacob accidentally poked her in the eye. He bent to rescue the puppy, and the conversation was laid to rest.
Nightfall beyond the Kwans' windows had set Vincent and a fractious Jacob on their homeward path. Damp silence pressed close around them, broken only by the baby's occasional squalls and the soft scuff of Vincent's boots.
Jacob had cried inconsolably when separated from Charlotte, and had not stopped sniffling since. Vincent knew he was hungry and overtired, and that a warm bottle and crib were required without delay. He decided to take a shorter route home than the one he had used on the outward journey. It was a dark, two-mile corridor that the children were forbidden to use because of the trench that ran down its center, but Vincent had navigated it many times.
As he walked he bounced Jacob gently and recited bits of verse, anything that came to mind. "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe. Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!"
He had come halfway through the passage before the first finger of foreboding touched him. As he paused and sniffed the air, he caught the wet, sharp tang of mud and rotten wood. He shushed Jacob and lifted his lantern to study the tunnel around them.
More dirt than stone, this passage was close to the surface, and not natural. It had been dug out and then abandoned, an ambitious arm of the subway system that had veered off in another direction. Thick, aged wooden beams held the tunnel's shape. To Vincent's right, beyond the six-foot width of the path, lay a trench in which track would have been placed, had the excavators proceeded that far. Now, the trench held perhaps a foot of water--seepage from the unseasonable March snows that plagued the city above. Beyond the trench, another narrow path abutted the far wall of the tunnel, which glistened with moisture.
Danger whispered from the prickles that surged beneath Vincent's skin; in the low growl that shook his throat. The lantern illuminated walls that ran with water and mud, and there were but two questions to be answered: How soon would the walls bulge inward, and should he go forward, or turn back?
Two quick swipes of his claws--one of which drew blood--cut Jacob's carrier from Vincent's chest. He let it fall and wrapped the child in his cloak, for all the meager protection it could offer. Forward, or back?
Vincent's own muscles answered the dilemma, igniting him into a run. The lantern's light yawed crazily as it swung, glancing off rivulets of water and dark ooze. His sense of impending danger heightened, a high-pitched mental whine above Jacob's outraged sobs, and home was still miles ahead when he heard a percussive crack and a splintering above. Vincent jerked his head up to see the ceiling and left wall reaching for them.
He leapt for the far side of the trench, even as the first of the debris struck him. Something heavy slammed into his legs, throwing him off target, and his chest hit the edge of the trench. Instinctively, he let go of Jacob, shoving the child toward safety. As he fell he sensed the huge motion of the mudslide behind and above him--
It was Catherine's laugh, husky and larger than it should have been in the echoing tunnel, that brought Vincent out of inky blackness and into painful awareness of how much he hurt. He opened his eyes.
"No, no, Jacob. Mustn't. You stay up here, where it's dry, sort of. Would you like to play pat-a-cake?"
"Catherine?" Vincent said. Or tried to. He ejected mud and brackish water from his mouth, and pushed himself up to his elbows. He lay half-in and half-out of the trench, buried to the waist in mud and loose rock.
"Look, Jacob, your father's awake."
Vincent wiped dirt-crusted hair out of his eyes. She was about four feet away from him, sitting Indian-style on his cloak with one hand curved protectively around Jacob.
He drew in his breath in a sharp gasp. There was a soft glow about her which did not seem to emanate from the feeble lantern, lying on its side nearby. Her grey-green eyes collected all the light there was and spilled it back to him, and she smiled as though sharing a delicious secret. She was just as he remembered, even to the soft, brown bangs that insisted on drooping over one eye. The fragile lines of her were solid; she cast a shadow, and he feared to move, lest she vanish.
"You...you were watching," he breathed. His heart skipped oddly in his chest, even as he noted with one part of himself that Jacob seemed unharmed.
She laughed. Her eyes were luminous with all the love he remembered, and more. "Of course, I watch," she chided him gently. "Couldn't you feel it?"
"I...I hoped, but I thought it was only my wishing that I felt," he whispered. Trying to go to her, he twisted in his prison of earth. His back screamed, but did not refuse to move.
"Careful," she cautioned. "You took quite a pounding."
Mere pain was not going to keep him from her. He dug his claws into a spar that had fallen longwise into the trench and strained against the pull of the quagmire. It gave him up reluctantly, with a hollow sucking sound, and then he was climbing onto the ledge beside her. He might have touched her. He reached out, then drew back. His hand was filthy.
"You've come back."
It was a prayer, a supplication, but Catherine shook her head. "No, Vincent. I can't. I can never come back."
A half-sob caught his stomach. "You're here," he begged. "I can see you, hear you--" Even the scent of her shampoo, spicy and well-remembered, crossed the space between them.
"Sometimes it is permitted. I'm able to be here now, for him." She lowered her eyes to Jacob, who had rolled onto his back, pillowed by the cloak. Catherine ran a hand over his downy head, and Vincent ached at the sight.
"You can return for our son--but not for me?"
She smiled, sadly. "In the beginning, when it was a raw wound for both of us, I came for you. Remember?"
He did. In the entrance below her building; in the cavern where he'd fought his own darkness; in the Great Hall, he had felt her presence.
"It has to do with need," she went on quietly. "Our son needs me, will need me until he is grown enough to understand why I'm not with him."
She sighed, and a shadow stole over her face. "He won't remember me--and that's probably for the best. But in his heart he'll know the safety of having his mother close. You needed me when you felt there was no hope--when the grief was so enormous that you couldn't begin to heal--and so I was close to you then. You don't need me now."
"I do! I love you!" Vincent cried. His voice was half-roar in his anguish. "Catherine, there's so much I want to say--I'm sorry, so sorry--I was too late to save you--"
"Hush. I know."
She leaned toward him and took one of his hands in hers, ignoring the mud. He shuddered at the contact. She felt so good--so warm.
"It was a whole tangle of choices that brought us to that rooftop, and dictated what happened there. Neither of us could have changed it," she argued.
Vincent's other hand clenched in his lap. "It was me he wanted," he whispered fiercely. "Me, or the part of me that lives in Jacob. It...It should have been me who died."
He had hurt her. He felt it not through the bond, long dead, but in her convulsive grip on his hand.
"Vincent, stop this!" she insisted. "You must not trap yourself in guilt, or might-have-beens. Gabriel might have killed me all the sooner if not for our child; he might never have kidnapped me if not for Moreno.... It happened. We cannot go back."
His shoulders hunched with the effort not to sob aloud. The only sound was his harsh breathing and the wet plop of dripping water. Even Jacob was quiet, watching his parents with wide, solemn eyes.
"Don't leave, Catherine," Vincent said at last. He raised his eyes, bleak with pain, to hers. "I will always need you."
She slowly shook her head. Her gaze did not falter before the torment in his as she let go of his hand. "You're stronger than that. You must hold on to all that we are, not just the pain of our parting. You will go on, and where you go, you take my love. Always."
She was fading. The misty light died gradually, and he stared until the shape of her bled away into the darkness of the tunnel. He reached out, but his fingers traced empty air.
"Catherine," he whispered. New grief welled up, blade-sharp. It was almost welcome in place of the leaden sorrow he had carried for so long. He felt a lick of anger at the fate that snatched her beyond him a second time, until a small voice caught his attention.
He looked down. Jacob had crawled into his lap, shivering with cold and fright. Large tears made dusty tracks down his cheeks. He was picking up his father's desolate emotions.
For a long moment Vincent sat frozen, unable to bring up from within the strength to tend his son. To go on, again, without her. Yet he must, for the sake of the small, precious life in his hands, who trusted him implicitly--and for Catherine.
"There now, little one," Vincent murmured. He reached for the cloak, still relatively clean, and wrapped Jacob in it before he hugged the baby against his grimy, but warm, body. He felt shaken, but basically sound, as he gained his feet.
He made his weary way home, mentally cataloguing his various aches and abrasions and trying to brace himself for Father's predictable reaction to this misadventure. He decided, sometime during the last mile, not to tell of Catherine's presence. Father would argue that it had been a dream, born of concussion and the need of Vincent's heart.
Need. You don't need me now.
He acknowledged, with a painful sort of tearing inside, that it was true. He had found a way to continue, a life to belong to and create, that did not contain Catherine. And she wished him to live it. She did not blame him for living, when she had died.
He would always love her, and she him. With that strength, he could go on.
"Thank you, Catherine," he whispered into the blackness. He knew that somewhere, a watcher smiled.
Vincent recites verses from Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll.