FAIRY TIME

by Becky Bain 

(This story originally appeared in the 1993 conzine for Great Expectations.)

 

Vincent woke slowly and stretched, stiff from lying on the chamber floor with only his cloak to cushion the unyielding stone. Rolling over, he came to his feet in one smooth movement and stretched again.

The dying embers of his fire glowed dully among hot ashes. He eyed the meager supply of fuel beside it and turned away. There was no need to kindle a new blaze. He was only a two hour walk from home. His inner sense of time told him it was early yet; if he hurried, he'd be in time for one of William's hearty breakfasts.

Moving rapidly, he gathered up the few items he'd brought with him on this visit to his world's deeper, unexplored chambers and thrust them into the small canvas sack he used as a carrier. The cloth-wrapped bundle of food - cheese, fruit, and hard rolls - went in first. It was followed by the book he'd read by firelight last evening - a new novel by Jonathan Carroll, lent to him by Catherine, who thought he would enjoy the writer's peculiar and sometimes startling outlook.

A shallow tin bowl went in next, along with a plastic peanut butter jar scavenged from the world above; the jar had held last night's dinner - some of William's thick chicken stew, and the bowl had been set into a bed of glowing coals to heat the stew. He paused with a tin cup in his hand, filling it from a plastic bottle and drinking deeply of the tepid water he'd brought with him. Shaking the cup to rid it of the last, clinging drops, he packed it beside the water bottle and closed the sack.

He'd leave what remained of his firewood - someone might need it someday. No need to extinguish the fire. There was nothing here it could spread to; the firewood was a safe distance away. Shouldering the sack, he took one last look around.

This chamber was lovely; the walls were streaked in pastel pinks, blues, oranges and greens, highlighted with sparkling crusts of lime and quartz crystals. The upper reaches of the chamber were strangely misty and the entire chamber was bathed in a milky glow.

Catherine would appreciate the beauty of this place, he thought, and it wasn't as far as the crystal cavern. The trip could easily be made in a day. Perhaps he'd ask her to accompany him sometime soon.

The cavern's single egress was behind him and regretfully he turned to go. The opening was narrow, the lintel low, and he ducked his head, entering a short, twisting passage. Halfway through he felt an odd tingling, as if a chill wind was blowing across the back of his neck. He paused, startled by the sensation, but the air was still and the feeling did not come again. After a moment he went on, emerging moments later into a wider tunnel that would take him, eventually, to the Chamber of the Winds.

Once on the more familiar paths, his tireless stride lengthened as he found himself suddenly anxious to be home. He always enjoyed his solitary excursions, but no matter how much he valued his privacy, it was always good to come back.

He turned a corner and saw, at the far end of the passage, a boy, perhaps nine years old, coming toward him. His step faltered. The boy was clearly a member of the tunnel community - his clothing, his casual manner and his proximity to the living chambers all attested to that - but Vincent didn't recognize him.Odd. He knew all the tunnel residents as well as all the helpers. Was it possible that somehow this boy had been admitted to the community literally overnight?

He reached for his hood.

It was too late.

The boy, open-mouthed in astonishment, was frozen into place at the end of the passage. Vincent advanced slowly, hands held out in a gesture of peace. "Please don't be afraid," he said, his standard greeting to newcomers. "I mean you no harm."

The boy watched his approach, his expression changing to one of wonder. "I know who you are," he said suddenly. "You're Vincent."

"That's right. Who are you?"

"My name's Luke."

"Luke." Vincent offered his hand in greeting. "You must be new here. The only Luke I know is Kanin and Olivia's son."

The boy nodded. "Yes. That's me."

Vincent stiffened. "That isn't possible. Luke is only a baby."

"You've been gone a long time," the boy observed candidly. "I grew up."

Baffled by the boy's calm statement, Vincent felt only relief when a familiar figure appeared in the passage beyond Luke's shoulder. "Jamie."

"Vincent?" Her eyes were wide, her voice uncertain. "Is it really you?"

Her reaction was puzzling. Only yesterday they had spoken together about sealing an entrance where security had been breached; now she was staring at him as if she'd forgotten what he looked like.

Only slowly did he notice changes in her appearance. She seemed older, more mature. Her hair was no longer scraped into a tomboyish ponytail; instead, it was pulled back with carved wooden combs and curled to fall prettily to her shoulders. She was wearing, in place of her usual jeans, a softly patterned skirt. Her crossbow was nowhere to be seen.

"Where have you been?" she demanded, and he resisted the urge to smile. Underneath the changes lurked the old, familiar Jamie.

He shook his head in bewilderment. "Below the catacombs. I told Father I might be away overnight..."

"Overnight! Vincent..." Her expression alarmed him. "You'd better come with me," she decided, turning swiftly. "This way."

 

Father's study hadn't changed; it was still piled high with books and cluttered with what Mouse would call 'stuff'. A man was seated at the desk, going rapidly through a stack of papers. The candles in the chamber flickered in the currents of air stirred up as Jamie and Vincent entered and the man lifted his head.

It wasn't Father.

There was a moment's stunned silence as the man's dark-eyed gaze met Vincent's blue one; a heavy fountain pen fell and went rolling across the uneven stone floor.

Vincent recovered first. "Devin?" he asked, uncertainly. Something was different. As with Jamie, something had changed. This Devin was not the reckless, devil-may-care brother he knew. With gray liberally streaking his dark hair and beard, this Devin, dressed comfortably in traditional tunnel garb, looked remarkably like a younger version of Father, with the same lines of care and worry etched across his face.

"Vincent!" Devin was on his feet, rounding the desk and bounding up the steps to offer a fervent fraternal hug. He was beside himself. "Where did you come from? Where have you been? You look well. You haven't changed..."

"But you have," Vincent interrupted. "You look positively..." he hesitated, but it was really the only word to properly describe his brother's new demeanor. "Responsible," he finished.

Devin grinned. "That's the old man coming out in me," he proclaimed cheerfully. "I couldn't help it." He glanced past Vincent to where Jamie waited in the chamber entrance. "What is it, Jamie?"

"I'm sorry, Devin. I was wondering if we should spread the word, about Vincent, I mean."

Devin required only a moment's thought. "Yes, we'd better, before rumors get started. Have Zach put out the news on the pipes. Just say that Vincent's back, we don't know yet where he's been, and..."

"Everyone will want to see him," Jamie reminded him.

"Yes, of course," Devin agreed, sounding just like Father. "Say there'll be a welcome-home party here, tonight... no, better make it tomorrow afternoon. That'll give Vincent time to catch his breath. Ask William and Marcy to prepare something special." He glanced at Vincent. "That's okay, isn't it?"

Thoroughly perplexed by the easy authority in Devin's voice and the way Jamie deferred to him, Vincent nodded. "Of course."

Jamie hurried out.

Vincent was starting to feel overwhelmed; he turned to Devin, seeking something familiar, something substantial to steady himself. "Where's Father?"

Devin gestured back over his shoulder, towards Father's sleeping alcove. "He's still asleep," he said.

Father? Asleep at this hour of the morning? With a skeptical glance at Devin, Vincent crossed to the sleeping chamber and peered in.

Father lay in his bed, propped up by pillows. His hair had gone completely gray; his face was gaunt, with deep lines of unbearable grief etched upon it. His hand, where it lay on top of the quilt, was thin, frail and deeply veined. He looked... old. Much older than when Vincent had seen him last.

Yesterday morning.

He tried to step forward, but Devin caught his arm. "Don't," he cautioned in a bare whisper. "The shock... besides, he needs to rest."

Silently, Vincent let Devin lead him back into the main chamber. "I don't understand. What's happened? How long has he been this way?"

"He's been ill, Vincent."

"Ill?" Yes, of course, it was the only explanation for the way Father looked, but he'd been so well when Vincent had last seen him.

Yesterday morning. Only yesterday.

"A series of small strokes," Devin went on. "He had the first one three years ago. He never completely recovered..."

Vincent stared in horror. "*Three years*? Devin, that's not possible. I was gone overnight. Only overnight..."

The expression on Devin's face was one of compassion. "No, Vincent," he said, very gently. "You've been gone for six years."

There was an odd buzzing sound and the very earth seemed to shift; Vincent reached out, gripping the back of a chair as he strained to keep his balance. Six years! It was, quite plainly, impossible.

Grasping for rational explanations, he remembered Devin's boyhood fondness for practical jokes. A wave of hopeful relief swept over him. Of course! Surely this was one of his brother's devious schemes. He started to smile, but one glance at Devin's face, with its new look of care and responsibility, was enough to freeze his face into what he felt must be utter shock.

Trembling, he sank into a nearby chair. This was too complex, too complete. There was Jamie, and Luke. There was Father. He knew his parent. Father would never have agreed to such an elaborate joke, and besides, he'd just seen Father looking frail and ill. Far too frail and ill for a practical joke. No, this was terribly, horrifyingly real. Somehow, he'd lost six years. Six years!

Devin bent over him. "Can I get you something, Vincent? Some tea?"

Vincent shook his head; tea held no attraction for him in the face of this devastating, impossible truth. And then, his mind still spinning, his heart leaped to the one person he loved above all others.

Catherine.

He searched quickly for his sense of her; it was there, but faded somehow. There was no indication of what she was doing, how she might be feeling. He turned to Devin. "Where is Catherine? How is she?"

Devin shrugged. "I don't know, Vincent. I haven't seen her in a year or more. She doesn't come below anymore. Not since before I came back to stay. That was right after the old man got so sick."

Three years then. Impossible, when he'd been with her only two nights ago. "But you've heard from her? Of her? She's well?"

Devin spread his hands. "She's still a helper. She sends us things - toys, books, medicines. Clothes her daughter's outgrown, stuff like that."

"Daughter?" Vincent repeated the devastating word slowly. Catherine had a daughter. Surely it also meant she had a husband, and he tried valiantly to rejoice that she seemed to have found happiness in a life without him. "She's married, then?" he asked, voicing the question with difficulty.

Devin looked startled. "No, not that I know of. At least, I haven't heard..." Comprehension caught up with him. "No, Vincent. Her daughter's adopted."

Vincent sank back into his chair. "Catherine has a daughter..." He glanced sharply at Devin. "She thinks I'm dead?"

Devin nodded slowly, his face etched with sorrow. "We all did. We looked for you - Father got word to me and I came right away - but there was nothing. No sign. Catherine was frantic - she took responsibility for searching above, even though Father was sure you'd said you were going to explore below. She contacted research facilities, circuses, carnivals - anyplace that might have gotten hold of you... Weeks passed, and then months - and finally, there was nothing else to believe. I think Catherine went back to her job. Father... Father was older and grayer by the time I left; I remember wondering if he suffered that much when I disappeared..."

A sound from the alcove where Father slept interrupted and Devin broke off.

"Devin?" It was an old man's voice, thin and querulous.

Devin rose smoothly and went into the alcove. Vincent followed slowly, pausing just out of sight. After a moment, Devin looked around the corner and beckoned. "I've told him you're back," he said in a low voice. "I'm not sure he believes me. Come on in."

 

Much later, Vincent sat beside Father's bed, watching him sleep. Despite Devin's promise of a welcoming celebration later, the morning had brought an influx of well-wishers as Vincent's friends were unable to wait to confirm Jamie's happy news. Mary, William, Pascal, Rebecca, Mouse, and a whole handful of children, now grown to young adulthood, had 'stopped by' Father's chamber on one pretext or another.

"Shall we send word to the helpers, Devin?" Pascal had asked.

Devin had looked at Vincent questioningly, and Vincent had solemnly shaken his head. Catherine was still numbered among their world's helpers, and this was not news she should learn through a message from Pascal. Indeed, he had not yet decided if she should be told at all.

It was this he pondered as he watched his father sleep. If he had truly been gone for six years, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe he hadn't, then things had certainly changed. Catherine would be changed. Perhaps she wouldn't want to see him. Perhaps she'd put him so far behind her that the reminder of what they had once shared would hurt. Whatever happened, he didn't want to upset her life. He didn't want to cause her any more pain.

"Vincent."

The sound of his name brought him sharply out of his thoughts. He bent forward anxiously. "Yes, Father?"

The old man was staring at him with only a little less of the wonder that had lighted his face this morning. "You're really here."

"Yes." Vincent reached for the heavy mug of water that stood on the table, but Father waved it away.

"No water." His body might be failing, but Father's mind was still sharp. "What's troubling you, Vincent?" he asked now.

"Nothing, Father." Vincent suspected he'd already caused his parent enough distress.

Father gave a derisive snort and struggled to sit up; rising quickly, Vincent helped him into a comfortable upright position, bolstering him with pillows. "Can I get you anything?"

"No." Father fixed him with a commanding eye. "Sit down, Vincent, and tell me what you're thinking."

Sheepishly, Vincent did as he was told. "It's Catherine," he admitted.

"Of course," Father agreed. "It always was. Does she know you're back?"

Vincent shook his head. "I've been trying to decide if I should tell her."

Father raised a frail, trembling hand to his forehead. "Dear Catherine," he murmured. "She suffered so. She insisted on going out with search parties, different ones every day."

"Devin said she searched for me in her world," Vincent objected automatically.

Father nodded. "Oh, she did. She did both. She was determined to find you. She wouldn't sleep, wouldn't eat. I was afraid she would make herself ill. And then, one day, we had to admit that you weren't to be found. She fought against the decision, railed at the council about it. She'd have continued to search herself if I hadn't forbidden it, but of course I couldn't let her wander about in the uncharted tunnels alone. Mouse volunteered to go with her, and I think they did, in fact, make a few forays into the deeper, unexplored sections, but by then it had been half a year since you'd disappeared and eventually even Mouse lost hope. Finally Catherine just stopped coming.

"I went to see her once. She'd missed Winterfest, you see, so I was worried about her. She told me then that she wanted to remain a helper, but she just couldn't come here anymore. It hurt her too much to come down and not find you waiting for her, I think.

"I didn't see her again until I became ill, though of course Peter kept me informed about how she was doing. I knew when she moved to her new apartment..."

"She's moved?" Vincent interrupted.

"What? Oh, yes, several years ago. When she adopted the little girl... you knew about that?"

"Yes, Devin told me. Go on, Father."

"Yes, well, Catherine came to see me when I suffered the first stroke - very kind of her, really, to make that long trip down - and Devin's seen her once or twice, I believe."

"Yes." Vincent studied his clasped hands. "What should I do, Father? Shall I allow her to live out her life never knowing I've returned? If I go to her, will it upset the new life she's made for herself? Devin tells me she's never married, but perhaps there's someone close to her, someone she loves. I don't want to interfere..."

"Go to her, Vincent," Father advised kindly. "She'll be glad to see you, I know. It isn't fair to let her go on wondering. Grieving."

"After six years, Father?"

"I still mourned you, Vincent," Father said simply. "Devin did, and Mouse. What makes you think that Catherine, who loved you perhaps better than any of us, has forgotten?"

 

The night wind was cool on his face, stirring the ends of his hair. Somewhere nearby, music played. Moving with his usual grace, Vincent traversed a sheer concrete wall and scaled down a narrow aluminum drainage pipe, dropping finally onto a high balcony overlooking Central Park. He paused, getting his bearings.

Devin had needed to give him the address; his sense of Catherine had been so thoroughly blunted by his night in the cavern that he could no longer find her. He paused, thinking of that sweet, clear connection and wondered, for just an instant, if he would ever feel the full depth of it again. A careful search of what remained brought him no sense of her being near.

He moved cautiously, remembering how he had frightened her the first time he visited that other balcony. Lights glowed behind the glass doors and he approached slowly, peering inside. Some of the furniture, visible through the glass, was familiar, but there was no sign of Catherine.

Brushing back his hood, he turned to look out at the city. The view here was similar to the one from Catherine's other balcony and he wondered if she'd noticed that when choosing this apartment. He even dared to wonder if she'd deliberately tried to imitate the feeling of that other place.

The wrought iron table and chairs were the same, and the plants looked familiar. On the balcony's far side, carefully placed to receive sun and rain but sheltered from violent storms, stood an enormous clay pot. Vincent crossed to it and knelt down. The pot contained a rosebush.

A single, creamy white bloom glowed softly in the moonlight. Near it was a bud just starting to open; the petals of the opening bud were red. He touched it reverently. If she'd kept the rosebush all these years, surely it meant she still cared about him? The very thought brought all his doubts churning to the surface.

During the long wait for darkness to fall, he'd had time to agonize over the six years since Catherine had seen him, and to imagine the worst. What if she wasn't glad to see him? What if the love that had burned so brightly between them had died away? What if it had cooled to the warmth of friendship, and she looked on him merely with kindness? Worse, what if nothing was left but cold, unfeeling ash? What if she turned away from him, asked him to go?

With a small, angry growl, he pushed to his feet. Tormenting himself this way was useless; no one could answer his questions but Catherine. There was nothing to do but wait for her.

Restlessness, fueled by something within, wouldn't let him wait peacefully. Instead, he paced. Four long strides covered the length of the balcony; four more brought him back.

The music he'd heard on his descent was clearer here; some form of rock music, he guessed, but not the jarring, discordant sounds he sometimes heard when he went above. This was softer, more lyrical. He regretted being unable to give it his full attention; another time, he might have enjoyed listening.

No more than five minutes passed before he sensed movement from inside the apartment. He stopped pacing and looked to see a girl come through a door on the far side of the living room. She was Asian, about ten or eleven years old, he judged, with waist-length, glossy black hair. She was neatly dressed in jeans, oversized sweatshirt, and sneakers.

Catherine's daughter.

Silently, Vincent eased into the shadows and watched. The girl moved slowly, her eyes fixed on the open book in her hands. Limping slightly, she crossed to an area out of his sight. Moments later, the clink of glassware and the sound of liquid being poured told him she was in the kitchen. She soon emerged carrying a glass of milk and a package of Oreo cookies and settled at the small dining table to enjoy her snack. He never once saw her look up from her book.

After a while, though, she closed the book and rose to her feet, stretching. Vincent expected her to clear away the remnants of her snack; it surprised him when she turned and opened the door leading to the balcony. He had time only to melt more deeply into the shadows and raise his hood before she came out.

She went directly to the railing and leaned on it, looking out at the lights. The motion was poignantly reminiscent of Catherine, and he felt a stirring of fondness for this child he had not yet met.

Suddenly the girl straightened, turning back toward the open door, and Vincent. An errant breeze caught the edge of his cloak, making it flutter in the moonlight; swiftly, silently, he caught at it, but not swiftly enough. She'd seen it.

"Is someone there?" The cadence of her speech was musical, with just a trace of an accent to tell the listener that English was not her first language. She poised warily, peering into the darkness.

The distant music had turned sweetly nostalgic, the notes floating on the same breeze that had betrayed his presence. Vincent reviewed his options. Silence would frighten her; so would an abrupt departure. He sighed inwardly. It seemed he had no choice. "Yes," he answered, keeping his voice low.

She tensed, shifting her stance defensively as she watched his shadow. "Who are you?"

He eased forward, letting the light fall across his body; his face was still shadowed by the hood, and his hands were hidden by the folds of his cloak. "Please don't be afraid," he said gently. "I am a friend of your mother's."

The skepticism in her voice told him she wasn't convinced. "How did you get up here?" Her eyes left him just long enough to glance around as if looking for ropes or ladders.

Vincent offered the only truthful answer he could safely give. "'With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls.'"

"'For stony limits cannot hold love out,'" she answered promptly, completing the quote.

"You know those words?" he asked, surprised. She was very young to be memorizing Shakespeare.

"They're written in a book my mother has," she explained. Her vigilant stance didn't waver.

Vincent nodded, finding hope in the news that, as with the rosebush, Catherine still kept the book close.

"My name is Vincent," he said softly. "The book is a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets."

His knowledge was enough to dissipate her fear; the wariness disappeared as she straightened, her bearing suddenly formal and very Oriental. She made a small bow. "I am pleased to meet you, friend of my mother," she pronounced solemnly. "I am called Cassie."

"I am pleased to meet you, daughter of my friend," he answered with the same air of ceremony, making a small bow in return. The movement brought his face into the light, and she jumped, stifling a small gasp.

Vincent hesitated, then reached up and slowly pushed back his hood. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

She edged closer, staring. "You are... very different," she said at last.

The child was a master of understatement, Vincent thought wryly, but she had a generous heart. "Yes."

"Like a fairy tale."

He couldn't help a small smile. "Perhaps."

She inched closer. "May I..." she broke off, blushing profusely.

"May you...?" Vincent prompted, bending a little to minimize his imposing height.

She swallowed. "I mean... would it be rude to... could I touch you?"

Vincent allowed himself a small smile. It was a common request from children. "Of course," he said graciously, and bent even lower, holding perfectly still as her fingers, delicate as a butterfly's wings, traced the contours of his face.

"Totally cool," she pronounced finally, stepping back. She eyed him candidly. "Why haven't I met you before? Are you a secret?"

Vincent spread his hands, inviting her to see all there was to see. "It is true I cannot be introduced to many people," he said slowly, "but that is not why we have not met. I've been... away."

"Far away?" she asked, intrigued.

"I'm... not certain," he admitted. "It's an odd story."

"I like stories," she said and sank comfortably into one of the wrought iron chairs, waiting expectantly.

Vincent hesitated, but there was really no reason why he should not try out his explanation on this charming, inquisitive child. Indeed, the practice might help later on, when he had to repeat the story to Catherine.

"Earlier, you mentioned fairy tales," he began. "Have you read stories where someone visits a special place, and when they return home, they find that, while they've been gone only a week, a year has passed in the outside world? Or no time at all?"

"Like in Narnia," she said promptly, referring to the series of books by C.S. Lewis.

"Yes," Vincent agreed, remembering the tales. "Like in Narnia. What would you say if I told you I had visited such a place?"

"Really? Where?"

"It is a place, a beautiful place, near my home."

She leaned forward, her eyes sparkling with interest. "How long did you stay there?"

"One night."

"And how long..." she broke off, her eyes widening. "All this time? You've been gone ever since before I came to live here?"

He nodded. "In this world, it is six years since I went into that place."

"Wow." Her eager expression said clearly that the thought of doubting him never entered her mind. "What was it like?"

He began to describe the enchanted cavern, letting the image of that beautiful place flow back into his mind. For a while, caught up in the memory, the child's avid attention, and in finding the right words to build a picture in her mind, he actually forgot why he had come. "Then I came here," he finished.

"To see me?" she asked breathlessly, still lost in the magic.

The innocent question brought him back to reality with a solid thump. "No," he confessed, half-turning away. "To see your mother."

"She doesn't know you're coming, does she?" Cassie asked astutely.

Vincent gave a barely perceptible shake of the head.

Cassie glanced at her watch. "She should be home soon."

"Good."

He could see her leaning forward, peering at him. "Are you nervous?"

"Perhaps a little."

"I was like that," she said kindly. "When I came to this country."

He turned back, meeting her gaze once more. "Tell me about that time," he suggested. Hearing her story would help pass the time until Catherine came home and besides, he was genuinely interested in this engaging child. "You are from China?" He asked the question in careful Mandarin dialect.

Her expression brightened and she sat up straight in her chair. "Yes," she said quickly in the same tongue. "You speak my language!"

"A little bit," he said, still in Chinese. "I have a friend who was born in Taiwan. She taught me your language long ago."

Cassie's grin widened. "I do not often have an opportunity to speak Chinese," she said. "But I try not to forget. My mother says it is a good thing to have more than one language."

Vincent nodded gravely. "Yes. Your mother is right." He relaxed a little, resting against the brick wall at his back as he struggled with the effort of speaking and understanding the difficult cadences of Mandarin Chinese. "How did you come to New York?"

"Female children are not always valued in China," she confided in a low voice. "Though there are laws against it, daughters are still sometimes left to die, so that parents may try again to have a son who will care for them in their old age."

"Your parents abandoned you?" Vincent tried to conceal his horror.

She shrugged. "I was fortunate. I was found, and taken to an orphanage."

It was an experience not unlike his own. He knelt beside the girl. "What happened then?"

"Soon, it was discovered there was something wrong with my hip. I could not walk except with crutches, but I was cared for, and when I was older, I learned to read and write."

"Using Chinese characters?" Vincent asked, intrigued. The lovely style of writing had always fascinated him, but he had never learned to read the complex characters.

She nodded. "A little, and in English, too. Would you like me to show you?"

"Perhaps later. What happened next?" he prompted.

"I grew older, and when I was seven years old, my mother came. Of course, she was not my mother, then," she added hastily.

"How did she become your mother?" Vincent asked.

"People came sometimes to look at the children - American people, European people. Sometimes they would choose a child but I could not walk without the crutches, so no one ever chose me. Until one day an American lady came. My English was not so good then, so a man spoke for her. He asked if I would like to live in America and be an American child. I tried to make him tell the American lady that I was flawed, but he said that did not matter. This lady wanted to be my mother, whether I could walk or not." Cassie's eyes were shining with the memory. They had been speaking in Chinese, but as Cassie reached America in her narrative, the rhythm and inflection of her speech changed, and she continued in English. "She brought me here, and took me for an operation to fix my hip so now I no longer need crutches to walk. She loves me and cares for me, no matter what. She tells me I can do anything I want to do. I can be anything I want to be."

"You can." Following her lead, he answered in English. "You are valued here. What do you think you might like to do?"

"I think, when I am grown, I may be a translator at the United Nations. Unless I decide to become an attorney - like my mother."

Vincent nodded gravely. "Both are fine ambitions," he agreed."My Chinese name is Su-Moy," she confided. "Would you like to see the written character?"

"Very much," Vincent answered, and she slid off her chair and hurried inside. She was back a moment later with a sheet of thick paper, a bottle of ink, and a fine-point brush. He watched as she uncapped the bottle, dipped the brush into the sooty ink, and began to carefully draw the graceful Chinese characters, one above the other. It took her a long time.

"It means Snow Prune," she said when she finished. "It sounds silly in English."

"It sounds lovely," Vincent corrected, admiring her work. "It suits you."

"When I came here, my mother said I could keep my old name, or choose an American one."

"And you chose to select a new one."

She nodded vigorously. "My Chinese name is fine, but it is not who I am anymore. Now I am Cassie Chandler."

"That also is a lovely name." Vincent was captivated by this bright and charming child and so engaged in their conversation that, for a few minutes, he had forgotten Catherine and the six years that now stood between them. He was actually startled when he heard the sound of a key turning in the front door. Cassie heard it, too, and they froze together, watching through the glass door.

Catherine came in alone. She was dressed as Vincent had seen her in the past, in a long, lovely gown, her hair swept up in elegant style. She hadn't changed much - new lines around her eyes and mouth, a little gray in her hair. He realized, with a small start, that now she was actually older than he. For she had aged those six years, while he had not. It made no difference, though. To him, she was always and quite simply, perfect.

"Cassie?" she called, dropping her slim evening purse and light wrap on a chair.

"I'm out here!" Cassie called back, rising to her feet.

Catherine crossed toward the balcony. "You should be in bed," she scolded lightly, pulling at her gloves. "It's a school night."

"There's someone here to see you," Cassie answered. "We were talking."

A look of disquiet crossed Catherine's face; she dropped the gloves beside the remnants of Cassie's snack and moved quickly, protectively to the balcony door. Her reprimand was almost automatic. "Cassie, I've asked you not to let people in when I'm not..." She stopped, catching her breath sharply.

Vincent knew she had seen him, recognized him, and moved slowly into the light. "Hello, Catherine."

She looked dazed, immobile. She didn't answer.

Cassie glanced perceptively from one adult to the other. "It is late," she said quickly. "I will go to bed now." She paused beside Catherine and, after a brief, awkward hesitation, kissed her cheek. "Goodnight, Mother."

Only then did Catherine take her eyes from Vincent's face. Her smile looked forced. "Goodnight, Cassie. Sleep well." Already her gaze was being drawn back.

Cassie turned, facing Vincent, and repeated her earlier, dignified little bow. "Goodnight, friend of my mother," she said in formal Mandarin.

Vincent looked away from Catherine long enough to reply in the same language. "Goodnight, daughter of my friend. I hope we shall meet again."

"Me, too," she said in English. She flashed a quick, thoroughly American grin, and went inside.

Catherine still stared at him, her expression frozen. He could find no trace of any emotion at all through their bond. "Is that what you've been doing for the past six years? Learning Chinese?" Her voice was quite controlled, almost icy. It was almost as if she was guarding herself with a hurt anger. He couldn't blame her if she was.

"No," he answered, softly. "I learned Mandarin Chinese long ago, from Lin Wong."

"I see." She stepped onto the balcony, careful not to close the space between them, and moved to the railing, looking out at the lights. "What did she say?"

He translated, watching her face.

"'Friend of my mother,'" she repeated bitterly. "Are we still friends, Vincent?"

"I hope so," he said cautiously. "I want to be."

"After six years. Without a word. Without a sign."

He understood there would be no easy explanation here, so he simply stated the truth. "Catherine, for me, there were no six years."

She turned her head to stare at him, incredulous.

"For me, it was only two nights ago we stood together on your balcony, that other balcony, and read to one another. For me, it was only yesterday I travelled below the catacombs, seeking solitude. I spent the night in a beautiful, magical chamber and this morning I emerged to find six years had passed. Yet for me, it was only twelve hours. Only yesterday my father was well and strong; today he lies in a bed he cannot leave and speaks with difficulty because of a stroke he suffered three years ago. I woke this morning thinking about meeting you tonight at our place beneath the park to hear the orchestra play. And yet, for you, that night was six years ago." He spread his hands helplessly. "I ache to think how many hours you must have waited for me, hearing the music to which we hoped to dance."

Speaking of music made him aware, yet again, of the sounds drifting on the night air - a party? he wondered distractedly. The music had changed again, sounding softer, sweeter, and a little sad.

Catherine turned suddenly away; he could no longer see her face. Without their bond, he had no inkling of her feelings. When she finally spoke, her voice was filled with bitterness. "Am I supposed to believe this, Vincent? Am I supposed to be so gullible that any story, no matter how preposterous, will do to placate me?" She moved, turning far enough for him to distinguish the delicate lines of her profile, but she still would not look at him.

"I'm sorry, Catherine. I never meant to hurt you."

Her stillness cut painfully; somehow, despite his noble intentions, he hadn't, after all, been able to believe that the six years could be an impossible barrier. He hadn't believed she would turn her back on him. But she did. She had.

Stiffly, his heart aching, he moved away, toward the path that would take him away from her... forever. Her voice, a thready whisper across the night, stopped him.

"I never believed you were dead," she said hoarsely. "Father tried to convince me, but I never believed it. I would have known." Her voice trembled and broke and he knew she was weeping.

"Catherine, if you believe nothing else, believe that I never meant to hurt you."

She was crying harder, hugging herself as sobs shook her still-slender frame. He longed to hold her close, offer her comfort and strength, but somehow he knew that right now, stepping closer was the worst thing he could do. It was hard to stand by and watch her tears. Harder still was the knowledge that he was the direct cause of her pain.

"Catherine, forgive me," he whispered, more for himself than for her. He didn't really expect, now, for her to understand.

But, incredibly, she nodded. Her sobs were abating, punctuated by the long, shuddering breaths she drew in a deliberate effort to steady herself. "I do," she managed, after a while. "I have to."

He hesitated, afraid to believe. "Catherine, I know how incredible it sounds..."

She shook her head, cutting him off. "It doesn't matter. I have to believe you. It's the only thing that makes any sense. You would never have left me."

"No," he agreed.

He wondered what would happen now if he reached for her. Would she come to him, rest her head just there, on his shoulder, as she always had? Or would she, despite the words she'd just spoken, turn away? Knowing he couldn't bear it if she turned from him, knowing he had to try, he opened his arms.

She came to him swiftly, naturally, as if there had never been a separation at all; as they touched, their connection, so silent since this morning, flowed back to life.

"I love you, Catherine," he whispered into her hair. He'd always been hesitant to voice his love, fearful she would think the words bound her to him somehow when she deserved only freedom, but now it seemed crucial to assure her of his devotion.

Her arms tightened around him. "Oh, Vincent," she murmured, her voice muffled by his cloak. "I missed you so much. I never stopped thinking about you. I never stopped hoping." She pressed against him, hard. "Hold me tighter," she pleaded, her voice low. Her need flowed through him like a wild river and obediently he tightened his grip, holding her hard against him. She'd been through so much because of him, and still she had faith. Still she loved.

It humbled him.

The music had changed, and soft notes floated through the still night air. Suddenly, despite the difficulties that still lay ahead, all things seemed possible. Vincent bent his head. "I won't leave you again, Catherine," he murmured, his voice low. "Not ever."

"You'll be here always?" she asked, a trifle wistfully.

He understood the question perfectly, and for the first time, had no qualms about answering. "Always," he confirmed. He lifted his head. "Listen," he whispered. Someone had turned up the volume and for the first time, the music was perfectly clear.

"Strauss," Catherine said after a moment. "The Schatz Waltz, I think."

"Yes," he agreed softly. "Dance with me, Catherine."

THE END