LITTLE BOY LOST

by Becky Bain

(Originally published in the fanzine Within the Crystal Rose, Vol. 7.)

 

"Cathy?" Rita Escobar peered around a rank of filing cabinets. "Call for you on line three."

"Thanks, Rita." Catherine picked up the phone. "Catherine Chandler."

"Hi, Cathy," said a familiar voice.

"Peter! How are you?"

"I'm fine, but I understand you haven't been feeling well."

"What?" Catherine ran a quick assessment on her current state of health. "No, I'm..."

"Sore throat, fever, swollen glands," he continued, as if he hadn't heard.

"No, Peter, I'm..."

"I know you probably don't have time to come by the office, but I'm stuck in surgery all day anyway, so why don't I just call in a prescription for you?"

She thought she saw a glimmer of purpose in this bewildering conversation. "An antibiotic," she guessed.

"I think so. And your brother, he's not feeling well either, is he?"

Peter knew perfectly well she had no brother. Now she was sure there was a hidden message here. "No, he isn't," she agreed.

"I'll call in a prescription for him, too, then," Peter suggested. "A different antibiotic than the one I'm prescribing for you."

"All right," she agreed. "Peter, are you someplace where you can't talk freely?"

To her astonishment, he laughed. "No, actually, I'm in the doctor's lounge at the hospital, and no one's paying the slightest attention."

She frowned at the phone. "Then why all the subterfuge?"

"The truth? In my deepest fantasies, I've always wanted to be a secret agent, and I figure this is as close as I'm likely to get."

His boyish admission brought a smile. "I see. All right, 007, message received. I assume my brother and I should start taking these antibiotics as soon as possible?"

"This evening should be soon enough," Peter said. "There's been an outbreak of strep throat. Jacob has enough antibiotics on hand to get him through the day and I'll get some more to him tomorrow; these prescriptions are just to bridge the gap between evening and morning. I'd deliver them myself, but I have a social engagement I can't get out of. What's the name of your pharmacy?"

She gave it to him. "By the way, Peter, I've been having a little trouble with my memory lately. What's my brother's name?"

"Ah, good question. Why don't we call him Vincent?"

She smiled. "What last name do I ask for?"

"Oh, the same as yours," he said cheerfully. "He's your brother, after all."

That remark was so absurd that she hung up laughing.

 

After work, she stopped by the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions and went straight to the park to deliver them. Peter probably imagined he was doing her a favor by giving her a legitimate excuse to visit the tunnel world and she hadn't wanted to disillusion him, but the truth was, she already knew Vincent wasn't there.

Mouse had come up with a plan by which the stifling heat of areas below the catacombs could be piped to the living chambers. The world below kept a constant temperature, but was often too cool for small infants or the elderly. Mouse's project, if successful, could eliminate the need for smoky braziers and hearthfires.

Vincent wasn't enthusiastic about the project's likelihood for success but had nevertheless accompanied Mouse on a fact-finding trip to their world's nether regions. They weren't expected back for another day or two.

Dusk was falling, so she hurried across the grassy swale toward the drainage tunnel; after a swift survey of the surrounding area to be sure she wasn't observed, she ducked her head and stepped into its mouth.

There had been rain this afternoon so the floor of the tunnel was muddy and a small rivulet ran down the center, making her stride awkward. Inside, she avoided the water, moving to the handle that would trip the massive steel door. She was reaching for the grate that covered it when she heard a soft scuffling sound.

She spun around, searching for the source of the noise. It seemed to have come from the left-hand pipe, the one that actually served the drainage system. She squinted into the darkness and wished for a flashlight.

Silence. She had just about decided that she'd imagined the noise and was turning again to the trip-handle when it came again. This time there was no mistake.

"Who's there?" Her voice sounded loud, echoing faintly in the stillness. She eased her gun from the side pocket of her briefcase and let the case slide to the tunnel floor. She waited, gun poised, but the only reply was a repeat of the soft scuffling.

She didn't dare trigger the door to the tunnels without knowing who or what was watching her, and it was too dark outside now to safely risk the park. She edged forward, painfully conscious of the target she made.

She glided into the open mouth of the other pipe, straining for the slightest sound. The dimness of the tunnels was greater here, the shadows deep and concealing. She moved slowly, picking her way among the debris strewn across the muddy floor -- plastic food wrappers, half-rotted fruit peelings, aluminum beer and soda cans, a partly dismantled packing crate, the tattered remnants of an old blanket -- searching for the source of the noise.

She was about to give up when she caught a glimpse of movement from something she had noticed but dismissed as a pile of old rags. She whirled to face it, whipping her gun down into firing position. The bundle of rags whimpered and scuttled backwards along the tunnel wall until it reached a corner. There, trapped, it stopped.

Catherine slid the gun into her coat pocket. Whatever this was, it was far too small to pose a threat. Cautiously, she moved nearer, until she could make out the pale outline of bare arms, legs, a face.

It was a child. A boy, she thought, though how she knew this, she wasn't sure. His hair was overgrown and matted into long, filthy ropes; the rags that passed for his clothing were encrusted with filth.

He squatted against the tunnel wall, curled small, his arms raised to protect his head. When she moved toward him, he flinched and let out a small, terrified cry.

Instinctively, Catherine stepped back. "It's all right," she soothed him. "I'm not going to hurt you."

His only reaction, whether to her words or her action she couldn't tell, was to draw himself in even more tightly; it was plain to see he was bracing for a blow.

"Oh, sweetheart," she breathed, taking another step back. "I wouldn't hurt you."

He didn't move, didn't give any indication he heard.

When Vincent spoke to a child, she remembered, he always bent down, making himself smaller, less threatening. She wondered if the principle would work here, on this child. Carefully she crouched.

"It's all right," she said, pitching her voice to carry across the small space between them. "I won't try to come any closer. What's your name?"

He didn't answer, but she thought -- just possibly -- she saw his arms move and his head come up.

"Do you live here?" she persisted, trying to generate a response. "Is there someone who takes care of you?"

There was no reaction, and her legs were beginning to ache. Squatting in heels, she was finding out, was virtually impossible. "What's your name?" she tried again. At the same time, she shifted her weight, trying to ease the cramping in her legs.

The boy recoiled, pressing himself against the wall. She froze. "It's okay," she reassured him. "It's all right." It wasn't all right, though. She was going to have to either stand up or sit down. The tunnel floor beneath her was sticky with foul-smelling mud, but the hem of her coat was already dragging in the muck, and if she stood, she'd frighten the boy more than she already had. The choice seemed simple. She pulled the hem of her coat down and sat on it, wrapping her arms around her raised knees.

Wet, cold mud oozed around her and already she could feel the effect of its creeping chill. She wondered how the boy, in his tattered t-shirt and torn jeans, stood it.

"I won't hurt you," she said clearly to the hunched, frightened figure. "But I can't leave you here with no one to take care of you, either. You're too little. So we'll both just wait until you can trust me."

There was no movement from the boy. Her voice softened. "You can trust me. I would never, ever do anything bad to you. I'm just going to sit here and wait for you, okay?"

The boy was so absolutely still that she wondered if he heard her, and that made her remember Laura, and how she'd been found in the park. Abandoned, because she was deaf.

A protective swell of tenderness welled up inside her. "Oh, little boy," she said softly. "Can you hear me? Do you know what I'm saying?"

She'd asked the question rhetorically, not expecting an answer, but to her surprise, his head, bowed between hunched shoulders, bobbed almost imperceptibly.

She struggled to control her excitement. "You can hear me?"

He nodded again, more decisively.

"Good. That's good. Can you tell me your name?"

He lowered his arms one cautious inch at a time, and peered at her in the gloom of the tunnel.

"My name is Catherine," she said. "I'm your friend. What's your name?"

His voice was hoarse and barely audible as he mumbled something indistinct.

"I'm sorry," Catherine said clearly. "I didn't understand you. Could you tell me again, please?"

This time he lifted his head and his voice was stronger. "Ross."

"Ross," she repeated. "Is that your name?"

He nodded.

"It's a nice name. Mine's Catherine. Can you say that?"

He nodded again. "Cath'rine."

"That's right. I'm glad we're friends, Ross."

He was sitting up now, no longer cowering, but still he eyed her warily.

"Do you mind if I ask you some questions?"

He didn't respond, and after a moment she went on.

"Where do you live, Ross?"

His gaze darted around the dank tunnel.

"Here? Do you live here?"

Slowly he nodded.

"Alone? Or does someone live with you?"

The paired questions seemed to confuse him. She tried again. "Ross, do you live here all by yourself?"

He nodded.

"No one else lives here?"

His eyes darted uncertainly. It was surprising how quickly she was learning to interpret those swift, expressive glances.

"No one lives here, but sometimes other people come here?"

The question seemed to worry him, but after a moment, he nodded.

"Do the other people scare you, Ross?"

He didn't need to think about that one. His affirming nod was swift and vigorous.

"Do they hurt you?"

This time, the answer was an unassuming shrug. Catherine wasn't sure how to interpret it.

"Ross, do you have a mommy? Or a daddy?"

He gave a low cry and threw his arms over his head.

Sitting still, when she longed to gather the frightened child into her arms and comfort him, was one of the hardest things Catherine had ever done, but she feared what might happen if she moved toward him. He might bolt down the darkened tunnel and lose his way. Even with the help of her friends below, it could take days to find him again. She couldn't risk that. So instead, she soothed him with her voice. "Ross, it's okay. Listen to me. No one will hurt you now. You're safe. I'll take care of you."

Slowly he raised his head to look at her.

"Are you hungry?"

After a brief hesitation, he nodded.

"And I'll bet you're cold." She put out her hand. "If you come with me, I'll take you someplace warm, where there's plenty to eat, and no one will ever hurt you."

He stared at her, his eyes dull and apathetic in his grimy little face.

"Come with me, Ross. It's a good place. You'll like it there. Please."

"Cath'rine go too?"

She hadn't realized she was holding her breath until she released it in a long sigh. "Yes. I'll go too."

Slowly, tentatively, he reached for her outstretched hand. The distance between them was too great, however, and their hands didn't meet. Afraid that moving would destroy the fragile rapport she'd built, she remained motionless, waiting for him. Her arm was aching with the effort of holding it out when he finally moved toward her. Slowly his cold, grubby fingers slipped into hers. She closed her hand gently and smiled.

She got to her feet carefully, not wanting to frighten him, but now that he had rendered his trust he waited stolidly, not flinching even when she scraped the mud from her coat.

He followed her willingly to the junction, where she picked up her briefcase and slung it over her shoulder. He showed no surprise when she activated the sliding door; perhaps he'd huddled in the shadows and watched as others used it.

She walked slowly so he could keep up, but even so he stumbled often and at last she paused. "Ross, will you let me carry you?"

In answer, he lifted his arms. She dropped her briefcase and scooped him up.

He was alarmingly light, the sharp bones of his hips and buttocks biting into her side and she could feel his ribs prominent beneath her hand. The arms wound trustingly around her neck were painfully thin.

He smelled, too. His greasy, tangled mat of hair had a sharp, sour odor and the fabric of his pants was stiff with muck and dried urine. He shivered and she noticed again how little of his frail body was covered by the tatters he wore. She shifted him, tucking him under her open coat, sharing the heat of her own body.

Her progress to the heart of the tunnel world was necessarily slow, but at last she reached its outskirts and saw someone she knew. "Geoffrey!" she called. "Eric!"

The boys stopped what looked like a friendly tussle and turned, smiling a greeting. "Hi, Catherine," Geoffrey called. "Vincent's not here."

"I know that. Will you boys do something for me?"

They nodded eagerly.

"Run to Father's chamber and tell him I'm bringing him a patient."

Only then did they seem to notice the child half-hidden by her coat. They exchanged glances. "Who is he?" Eric inquired. "Did you find him somewhere?"

"Yes. His name's Ross and I found him near the junction in the park. Now run to Father, please!"

"Sure, Catherine," they agreed in unison, and darted off.

Ross's grip on her neck had tightened during the encounter, but he relaxed as she carried him more slowly toward Father's chamber.

When she got there, Father was waiting in the passage with Mary behind him. "What is it, Catherine?" he called as she drew near. "Are you well?"

"I'm fine, Father," she answered, but the question reminded her of Peter's call this morning, and the two plastic bottles of antibiotic tablets in her coat pocket. Ross had a stranglehold on her neck but she managed to free a hand and fish out the small paper bag of medicine. "Here. This is for you."

He accepted them absently. He'd noticed the boy under her coat and all his attention was focused there.

"I found him in the tunnel in the park," she explained. "He says he has no one to take care of him."

"Poor child," Mary said compassionately. "Let me see..."

At her movement, Ross gave an inarticulate little yelp and literally tried to scramble up Catherine's side; with a muffled grunt she turned away and stepped back, giving him the space he seemed to require. His sharp little knee was in her midriff, his elbow dug painfully into her shoulder, and he was using a handful of her hair to pull himself up.

Mary retreated, apologizing profusely. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to frighten him..."

Ross's small body was rigid with terror; Catherine couldn't see his face because he had it pressed hard against her neck. Little whimpers came from his throat.

"Why, he's terrified," Mary said, wondering.

Catherine nodded. "Yes, he is," she confirmed, and pried his fingers from her hair. "Father, could we go in and sit down...?"

"Yes, of course. This way..."

In Father's chamber, Catherine chose a chair a little distance from the big desk. Father and Mary were careful not to come too close and Ross relaxed, just a little, sitting in her lap and leaning back against her. She kept her arms around him, trying to provide him with a sense of security.

"Now, Catherine," Father said. "Tell us how you found this child."

She repeated the whole story. "He's dirty and cold and hungry," she finished, "and I don't think he has anyplace to go. So I brought him here."

"Well, of course you did," Mary said gently. "He needs a bath and a hot meal, and a nice, soft bed to sleep in. There's room in the chamber that Andrew and Douglas share..."

"Yes, of course, Mary," Father interrupted. "We'll certainly find a place for him. Catherine, do you suppose he'll allow a physical examination?"

"I don't know," she said doubtfully. "We could try."

"Yes. Well, he should be examined, just to be certain there are no problems. Perhaps, if he's in your lap, he'll feel more secure."

"Maybe." Catherine bent her head to whisper in Ross's ear. "This man's name is Father. He's a doctor, and he wants to look at you to be sure you're all right. You can sit right here in my lap, and I'll..." She didn't get to finish the sentence. Father rose and started around his desk and with the movement, Ross panicked. Arms and legs churned frantically as he tried to get away.

Catherine held onto him with difficulty, finally pinning his flailing arms and legs with her own. She held him tightly, rocking. "Shhh. It's all right. See? Father's gone back to his chair. No one will hurt you. Shhh."

"Well," Father observed, when the boy was quiet again, "there's certainly nothing wrong with his panic reflex."

"Or his fingernails," Catherine said dryly, touching a cautious fingertip to her stinging cheek. It came away flecked with blood.

"It appears to be a minor scratch," Father told her from the safety of his desk. "Put a little disinfectant on it before you go to sleep."

She nodded and glanced down at Ross, who huddled in her lap.

Father followed the look. "It seems you've made a conquest, Catherine," he remarked.

"It looks that way," she agreed.

"Perhaps, Catherine, if you don't have to be back right away..." Mary began hesitantly.

"I don't."

"Then could you stay a while? Maybe if you helped me get him bathed and fed..."

"Of course. I'd be glad to."

Mary showed the way to one of the communal bathing chambers. Inside stood a big, old-fashioned claw-footed tub. A narrow pipe hung over it, spouting a steady stream of cold water.

"Just put the plug in, like this," Mary demonstrated, "and run in a few inches of cold water."

"How do I turn it off?"

"You can't. Mouse designed it. The pipe brings water from a nearby underground river. The drainage system allows the used water to flow back into the river. When the tub's as full as you want it, just push the pipe aside and let the water run down the wall." She showed Catherine how a trench gouged out of the stone floor channelled the water away.

"If you'll get him undressed, I'll bring him some clean clothes." Mary eyed the boy critically -- for size, Catherine guessed.

"All right."

Only when she was sure Mary was gone did Catherine put Ross down; she didn't want to take a chance on him bolting in fear. She removed her mudstained coat, tossing it in a corner, and rolled up her sleeves.

Ross watched silently. She knelt beside him. "Let's get your clothes off, Ross," she suggested, reaching for his shirt. He squirmed backwards and pushed her hands away.

She sank back on her heels, watching him. "You have to take your clothes off to take a bath, Ross. Don't you want a bath?"

He shook his head vigorously.

"Well, maybe you don't, but you're going to have one anyway. You're filthy."

She caught his arm and reached again for his shirt. He twisted, trying to escape her grip, uttering a high, keening protest. It drowned out the rattling of the steam pipes, the rush of water into the tub. Catherine couldn't even hear her own voice soothing him. She set her teeth against the shrill sound and had his shirt up around his neck when suddenly he stopped struggling and bounded into her arms.

She clutched him, sensing his need to be protected, and turned to see what had frightened him.

Two of the community's young men, Nathan and Adam, had entered and were standing near the door. Each carried a large, steaming copper ewer.

"William sent us," Nathan explained, keeping a wary eye on Ross, who had a death grip on Catherine's neck. "With hot water for the bath?"

Mary must have stopped by the kitchen on her way to find clothes. Catherine nodded toward the filling tub; Adam pushed the pipe aside and drained a little from the tub before dumping in the contents of his ewer. He tested the water before turning to Nathan.

"Pour in about half of yours," he advised, with a glance toward Ross. "He won't want it too hot."

Nathan complied cheerfully, and set the half-full ewer down against the wall. "In case you need to warm it up a little," he explained. "Or for fresh rinse water."

Ross was a little more cooperative after they left and it didn't take long for Catherine to get him undressed.

His condition was worse than she'd expected. She'd known he would look undernourished; what she hadn't anticipated was the dull, grayish cast of his skin, or the dark, mottled bruises he bore on arms, legs, and torso. The skin on the back of his thighs and buttocks was unnaturally pink and veined with small cracks, like old leather.

Mary came in, calling first so she wouldn't startle Ross. She gave a little gasp when she saw the bruises and scars. "Here are some clothes," she said carefully, putting them on a low wooden bench. "And a towel and washcloth." She paused. "Will you need help with his bath?"

"I don't know yet. Maybe, if you could wait in the doorway..."

"Of course," Mary agreed swiftly, and retreated to stand in the opening.

Catherine kept a firm grip on Ross's wrist and drew him toward the waiting tub. He followed docilely, but when she lifted him and tried to put him in the water, he shrieked and kicked.

Startled, Catherine let go and he scuttled into a far corner and huddled there.

"He's been scalded in a hot tub," Mary said, from the doorway. "Those scars..."

Catherine felt sick. Poor little boy. She moved toward him slowly. "I'm sorry, Ross. I didn't mean to scare you."

He lifted his head and gave her a reproachful look.

"I wouldn't hurt you, Ross. Remember? I promised. Come, and I'll show you. The water isn't hot."

"Smoking," he said sullenly.

Catherine glanced toward the tub. "Yes, it's steaming a little, but that's because it's cool in here. I promise the water won't burn you."

His eyes were wary, but he let her approach and take his hand. She led him back to the tub and bent to swish her fingers through the water. "See? It isn't hot. You try it."

With a skeptical glance at her face, Ross leaned over and imitated her gesture, running his hand through the waiting water. He examined his wet fingers curiously. "Not hot," he announced.

"So will you get in now?"

He didn't look eager, but he nodded. Catherine helped him in and steadied him while he stood in the ankle deep water.

"You could sit down," she suggested mildly, and, after a moment, he did. "Is it all right if Mary comes close enough to hand me the washcloth and the soap?" she inquired.

Ross seemed startled to be asked, but he nodded warily, keeping a vigilant eye on Mary as she came closer. Mary understood his fear and came no closer than necessary, handing Catherine the things she needed and retreating.

Ross relaxed perceptibly but it didn't last long. He didn't mind sitting in the warm water, but he had no enthusiasm for being washed. He howled no matter how gently Catherine plied the soapy cloth, so finally she just held him down and washed him. The once-clear water was a cloudy gray by the time she finished, and Ross was still shrieking when she lifted him from the tub.

Mary waited with a soft towel. Catherine took it and wrapped it around the boy before sinking down on the wet stone floor and drawing him into her lap.

"I'm sorry, Ross, but you needed a bath." Even with the towel, he was dripping wet, but it didn't really matter -- his thrashing in the tub had soaked her anyway. What mattered was regaining his trust, and it didn't take long. Once out of the water Ross was content to snuggle in her lap, and she was pleased to see that, with the layers of grime and dead skin scrubbed away, his skin now glowed a rosy pink.

She glanced at Mary, expecting an approving smile; instead, she hovered in the doorway, looking uncomfortable.

"What is it, Mary?"

Mary made a small, despairing gesture with her hands. "Catherine, I don't think he's going to allow anyone else near him. Not tonight, anyway."

Catherine glanced at the damp head pillowed on her breast. "I don't think so, either," she confessed.

"I know how busy your life is, but... would you be willing to stay, just tonight? To help him accustom himself to us?"

Catherine had been thinking along those same lines herself, and it was almost a relief to be asked. "It's no trouble, Mary. I'll be glad to."

"I'm so glad. Will you be comfortable in the guest chamber you used last time?"

Catherine nodded.

"Good. I'll have a cot put in there for Ross. His nightclothes are here," she reminded. "I'll find some dry things for you and put them in your chamber. And I'll have William send you both some dinner. I don't think Ross is ready for the dining chamber."

Catherine had visions of a panic-stricken Ross fleeing frantically through the kitchen, sending pots and pans flying. "No," she agreed. "Not just yet, anyway."

"Well. I'll meet you in your chamber in a few minutes."

"Thank you, Mary."

Ross allowed Catherine to pat him dry and dress him in the long, warm nightshirt Mary had brought. He fingered the soft fabric as she helped him step into thick trousers that reminded her of sweatpants, and pulled heavy hand-knit socks over his feet.

"Ready?" she asked him brightly.

He nodded and took her hand, pressing close to her side as they walked the short distance to the guest chamber.

Mary was already there, fussing with bedclothes for the cot. "William made chili tonight," she said, pointing to the table, where two deep bowls steamed softly. "It's not very spicy because of the children, but there's some hot sauce in a little dish there, if you want it, Catherine. And fresh baked cornbread."

Catherine looked at Ross. "Does that sound good? Chili and cornbread?"

She helped him up in a chair and tucked a napkin into his collar. He stared at the food silently, but didn't try to touch it.

"Be careful," Mary cautioned from the far side of the room. "The chili might be hot."

"Here," Catherine said, putting a wedge of cornbread in his hand. "Eat."

He glanced at her uncertainly and she nodded encouragement. "It's okay. It's good. Eat it."

Reassured, he bent his head and tore out a great mouthful of the warm bread. Catherine doubted he took time to chew it; in seconds he'd devoured the entire wedge.

Silently she handed him another, and another. By the time they were gone, the chili was cool enough to eat. He forbore to use a spoon; instead, he scooped up handfuls of the rich, meaty concoction and stuffed them in his mouth. When he emptied his own dish, he stared longingly at the untouched bowl in front of Catherine. She pushed it in front of him, and he wolfed that, too.

"I'll be very surprised if he isn't sick tonight," Mary commented. "All that food, so quickly."

"He was starving," Catherine said softly, watching Ross gulp the fourth and final piece of cornbread. He finished his meal by draining the glass of milk that stood by his place.

"I'll bring you another tray, Catherine," Mary offered.

Catherine glanced at Ross, who, fed and bathed, was drooping sleepily. "Could you wait a while, Mary? He should be asleep soon..."

"Of course," Mary agreed, and went out.

Catherine helped Ross wash his hands and face and used a damp washcloth to dab traces of his dinner from his pajamas. "Next time," she told him wryly, "we'll get you a coverall."

He blinked at her drowsily and with a small laugh, she picked him up and carried him to the cot. He allowed her to tuck him beneath the blankets, but held fast to her hand when she tried to stand up.

"No," he said, clearly. "Cath'rine stay."

"Yes, I will," she assured him. "Right here. I'll be sleeping right there." She pointed to the bed and smiled encouragement.

"Stay," he urged her again, still clinging to her hand.

"I will. I promise." She disentangled her hand and sat down on the edge of the cot. "Would you like a story before you go to sleep?"

He frowned in gentle bewilderment.

"A story? A book?"

There was no spark of excitement, of recognition in his face.

"Ross, hasn't anyone ever read you a story?"

His blank looked saddened her; as a child, she had loved to be read to -- it was a time of closeness, of love and sharing, as well as an adventure waiting between the covers of a book. The thought that Ross might never have experienced that warmth broke her heart.

She forced a smile. "You're in for a treat," she told him cheerily.

A short pile of picture books was on the bedside table; Mary must have put them there. Catherine ran her finger along the spines and finally stopped at the familiar orange and green cover of Margaret Wise Brown's *Goodnight, Moon*, one of her own childhood favorites. She drew it from the pile, turned, and nearly tripped over Ross. He'd climbed out of bed and followed her.

"I said I would stay," she chided gently, and led him back to the cot. She tucked him in and perched on the side of the cot before opening the book.

"'In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon...'"

A glance showed Ross listening, his gaze fixed on her face, but a later one showed his eyelids losing a battle with gravity.

"'...Goodnight, stars. Goodnight, air. Goodnight, noises everywhere.'"

Catherine closed the book. Ross was fast asleep and she brushed his forehead with a fond kiss.

He'd soaked her during his bath. In the interim her clothes had almost dried, but she was still grateful for the warm, dry comfort of the nightclothes Mary had left on the bed. She changed swiftly into a gown of soft cotton flannel that laced at throat and wrists with delicate ribbon. She was reaching for its companion, a long, fleecy sleeveless robe, when Mary returned with her dinner.

"He's asleep?" she whispered, glancing toward the cot.

Catherine nodded. "He was exhausted."

"I'm not surprised," Mary said. "He had a busy day." She set the tray down and glanced at Catherine gratefully. "It's kind of you to stay, Catherine."

"It's no trouble. I don't have to be back at work until Monday. And I can arrange time off, if he really needs me."

Mary gave Ross an anxious glance. "Oh, I hope it won't take that long for him to become acclimated," she said. "But it's good to know you can be here. Well." She looked around. "I think you have everything you need, and you know how to call on the pipes..."

"Yes."

"Goodnight, then."

"Goodnight, Mary."

After Mary left, Catherine ate her dinner and tucked herself into bed with a copy of Jane Austen's *Pride and Prejudice* that she'd found on a shelf. It seemed odd, being here in Vincent's world when Vincent himself was so far away, but there was still the sense of peace and contentment that always seemed to find her here. Presently, she blew out the bedside candles and went to sleep.

She woke sometime later to find that Ross had wakened in the night, and crawled in bed with her. She could see him in the dim golden glow of the fat night-candle across the room, curled warmly against her side, fast asleep. Carrying him back to his cot seemed like too much effort; surely it wouldn't hurt to let him stay, just this once. With that drowsy rationalization made, she tucked the blankets up around his shoulders, snuggled down beside him, and went back to sleep.

Morning was heralded by an increase in messages on the pipes and Catherine came slowly out of slumber and lay for a moment, eyes closed, listening to the muted clamor. Ross was still beside her; she could feel the spreading warmth of his body.

Spreading?

Startled, she sat up. Ross's pajamas, her nightgown, and the sheets were all dripping with urine. Ross had wet the bed.

"Oh, Ross," she said in involuntary dismay.

His eyes flew open, his reaction prompt and disturbing; only half-awake, he scrambled wildly off the bed and dived into a corner, arms raised to protect his head. Catherine ignored her drenched gown and followed.

"I'm sorry, Ross. I didn't mean to frighten you. It's all right. I'm not mad. It was an accident, and accidents happen sometimes."

She was still crouched down, coaxing Ross from his corner, when Mary came in and gave a startled exclamation at sight of the bed.

Catherine straightened. "I'm sorry, Mary. He crawled in with me in the night, and I let him stay. I didn't know he'd..."

"It's perfectly all right," Mary reassured her. "The bedding can easily be washed and the mattress cleaned. No harm done."

"You're sure?"

"Oh, of course. You don't think this is the first time something like this has happened down here, do you? I'll take care of the bed, Catherine, while you and Ross get washed up."

Their conversation seemed to have soothed Ross's terror and while they talked, he crept to Catherine's side. She patted his shoulder absently as she looked down at herself, plucking the soaked fabric of her gown away from her body. "I'll need something to wear," she said apologetically. "My own things got wet when I bathed Ross last night..."

"Of course," Mary agreed instantly. "I'll have someone bring something for you, and for Ross, too. Now run along, quickly, before someone else gets to the bathing chamber first."

"Hot water..." Catherine said, trying to be tactful.

"There's always hot water in the mornings," Mary told her. "Because so many people bathe then."

"Thank you, Mary." Catherine pulled her robe on over her wet gown and took Ross's hand to lead him to the bathing chamber.

As Mary had promised, a row of steaming copper ewers stood along the wall. Catherine covered the entrance with the drape that would tell others the chamber was in use and started filling the tub.

After last night's experience, she decided it would be best to bathe Ross first, but today he was cooperative and let her wash him without a struggle. Afterward, she wrapped him snugly in a towel and placed him firmly on a low wooden bench. "Stay right here," she instructed.

She drained the tub, filled it again for herself, and hesitated. Ross sat obediently on the bench, his sorrowful gaze fixed on her, as if he feared she might disappear if he looked away. Her friend Nancy Tucker joked about not having been to the bathroom by herself since before her kids were born, but despite that, Catherine was a little uncertain about the propriety of undressing in front of Ross. On the other hand, she badly needed a bath, and there was nowhere else for him to go. Resolutely she turned her back, pulled the soggy gown over her head, and stepped into the tub.

When she glanced at him, Ross had shifted his attention to his bare, swinging feet and was ignoring her entirely. She bathed quickly and had just wet her hair to wash it when Brooke's voice called her name from the other side of the curtain.

"Yes?" she answered, shooting an anxious glance at Ross.

"May I come in? I have some clean clothes for you and the little boy."

Catherine hesitated. The last thing she needed was for Ross to panic while she was in the tub. "Just a minute." She leaned toward Ross and called his name. It took a couple of tries to gain his attention. "Come here," she instructed, once she got him to look at her. He dropped his towel and trotted, naked, to the tub. She looked at the discarded towel and sighed. "Someone is going to come in," she told him. "You can stay here with me and hold my hand."

She offered him her wet fingers and he grasped them, edging warily around the tub until it stood between him and the draped entrance. Probably just as well, considering his state of undress. "Ready?" she whispered to him.

He nodded.

"Come in!" she called, and Brooke brushed the drape aside and ducked inside.

Mary must have explained about Ross, because, after a swift, furtive glance, Brooke studiously ignored him. She placed the bundles of clothing on the bench and turned to go.

"Wait, Brooke," Catherine said. She squeezed Ross's hand in encouragement. "I want you to meet Ross. Ross," she said carefully, "this is Brooke. She lives here and sometimes she helps take care of the children. She's very nice, and I'll bet you'll like her."

Brooke maintained her distance and bestowed on Ross a dazzling smile. "Hello, Ross," she said. "I hope you'll like it here."

Ross ducked his head and said nothing.

Brooke nodded briskly. "Well," she said to Catherine, "I'll let you finish your bath. It was nice to meet you, Ross," she called, and left the chamber.

"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Catherine asked Ross.

He didn't look up and when she released his hand, he snatched it away.

"I'm sorry if you're angry with me, Ross, but you're going to have to get used to other people. I don't live here, so I won't be around all the time. No one here will hurt you."

He glared at her, and she wondered, not for the first time, how much he really understood of what she said. She touched his hair gently, consoled when he allowed the caress. "Go back and sit on the bench," she encouraged. "Wrap your towel around you if you're cold. I'll be finished here in a minute, and then we can get dressed."

It took only moments to wash her hair. She dressed first, donning a long, patched cotton skirt and soft, leather-fringed sweater over a long-sleeved t-shirt and then helped Ross put on patched corduroy trousers and a much-mended sweatshirt.

Hand in hand they returned to the guest chamber; Ross noticed first that it was already occupied, and shrank back against Catherine's legs.

Mary and Jamie had stripped the bed and were scrubbing the stained mattress; Geoffrey and Samantha were arranging dishes on the little table. All looked up when Catherine and Ross came in.

"I'm sorry," Mary apologized. "We wanted to be out of here by the time you came back."

"It's perfectly all right, Mary," Catherine answered easily. "Thank you for taking care of the bed for us." She had her hand on Ross's shoulder, exerting gentle pressure to keep him beside her. "Ross, that's Jamie helping Mary with the bed, and the children over there are Geoffrey and Samantha."

"Hi, Ross," all three chorused.

Unable to flee, Ross hid his face in Catherine's skirt; faintly, beneath the homely clatter of dishes and the rustle of the mattress, she could hear him whimpering. She patted his back with her free hand, still holding him in place with the other.

"All done," Mary announced. "We'll let the mattress air today, and turn it this evening before we make it. Your breakfast is on the table," she added, pointing. She herded the others out.

Mary must have told William about Ross's appetite of the evening before, because he'd provided mass quantities of food. There was a large covered dish of oatmeal and another of scrambled eggs. A bowl held overripe oranges and bananas just past their prime -- salvaged, Catherine was sure, from Long's grocery -- and a basket was filled with crisp slices of toast. A tray held dishes of brown sugar, butter, honey, two kinds of jam and a small pitcher of milk, and next to it, a teapot steamed gently.

Catherine helped Ross into his chair and tied a towel she'd brought from the bathing chamber around his neck, draping it across his lap, before she filled his bowl with oatmeal. "Do you want some brown sugar in it?"

He looked blank, so she gave him a dab of sugar to taste. His eyes widened as it melted on his tongue, and then he smiled.

"I'll take that as a yes," she said, and sweetened his cereal for him. Deciding honey was too messy, she spread a piece of toast with grape jam and put it on his plate. "Eat all that and you can have some eggs," she told him, taking her own seat.

After a cautious glance, as if to be sure all this bounty was truly for him, he snatched up the toast and gobbled it down. He was reaching for the oatmeal when Catherine caught his wrist.

"Today we use a spoon," she said firmly, and placed one in his hand.

As soon as she let go, the spoon dropped to the floor. Patiently she picked it up, wiped it on her napkin, and gave it back to him. This time, she held his fist and guided the spoon for him, scooping up a bite of oatmeal.

"See? Now put it in your mouth."

He glanced at her, and let go of the spoon. It clattered to the floor, bits of oatmeal flying, while Ross tried to scoop up a mouthful with his hand.

"No." Again she restrained him, and handed him her own spoon. "This way."

His brow was puckered in bewilderment and she wondered if anyone had ever shown him how to use utensils before. She picked up his spoon and cleaned it off.

"Look." She demonstrated, dipping up a bit of his oatmeal and bringing it to her mouth. "See?" she said, letting her face show enjoyment. "It's good. Now you try."

He seemed to want desperately to please her; clumsily he shoveled up a heaping spoonful of cereal. Half of it dripped from the spoon en route, but some of it made it into his mouth and he looked at her anxiously.

"Good boy," she praised him, and he beamed with pleasure. "Not so much in the spoon next time."

He tried it again and met with a little more success; she smiled her approval as she poured herself a cup of tea.

Breakfast took a while; after he finished his oatmeal, Ross needed help using a fork for his eggs, and when he finished them, he wanted seconds on everything. Occupied with helping him, Catherine ate only lightly, but even so there was little food left when they were done.

Afterwards, she cleaned him up and let him help her stack the breakfast dishes on the tray so they could be easily removed. She wondered if she should try to carry them to the kitchen herself, letting Ross follow closely, or if she should just tap on the pipes for someone to fetch them. The latter seemed a bit imperious -- like calling for room service -- and yet she really didn't know what else to do.

She was saved from the decision when Brooke entered. "Hi," she greeted quietly, taking care to stay away from Ross. "I came for the dishes. And Mary thought you might need these." She placed a folded cloth, along with a comb and a shiny pair of scissors, on the bedside table.

Catherine nudged Ross away from the big table so Brooke could get the tray. After she was gone, Catherine set Ross up on the edge of the table. "Now, young man," she informed him, "you are getting a haircut."

The cloth turned out to be a sort of barber's apron, complete with ties at the neck, and Ross sat quietly while she draped it around him.

"Now," she began, standing in front of him so he could see, "I'm going to cut your hair." She showed him the scissors, taking a few random snips at the air so he could see how they worked. "They won't hurt you, Ross," she assured him, but when she tried to bring them close to his head, he ducked away.

Patiently she showed him the scissors again. "It doesn't hurt, Ross." She touched the matted lock that hung near his cheek. "This is all tangled, and it's too long. I'm just going to cut it."

He made a faint sound of protest and ducked again.

Catherine sighed and bent down, fixing him with a firm stare. "I have to cut your hair, Ross. I can't even wash it properly when it's like this." She tipped her head and drew a long strand from the nape of her neck. "Look." She snipped an inch of hair from the end and showed it to him. "See? It's just hair. It doesn't hurt."

Ross put out a tentative hand and touched the side of her head. "Hair?" he asked.

"Yes. Hair. Yours is too long, Ross. I need to cut it."

"Cut hair."

"That's right. Will you sit very still and let me do that?"

He didn't answer, but he seemed less apprehensive, so she slowly brought the scissors up by his head. His eyes followed her every movement but he didn't flinch when she lifted the first tangled, matted rope of hair and clipped it off close to his scalp. He held out his hand and she put the long clump of hair into it. It held his interest long enough for her to hack off the rest of the mats.

Making his hair look presentable took longer, and Ross was beginning to squirm restlessly by the time she finished. "There," she said in satisfaction.She'd had to cut it very short to get rid of all the mats and it wasn't quite even in places, but it was certainly an improvement.

"Want to see?" she asked him, and carried him to the far corner, where a small mirror hung above a stand holding a china pitcher and bowl.

He examined his reflection carefully, turning his head from side to side, as if he wasn't quite sure who he was seeing. Catherine's head was close to his and he glanced at her reflected image uncertainly and reached out to touch it.

"I'm not there, Ross," she said softly, seeing his surprise at finding only cold glass beneath his fingers. "That's a mirror."

"Mirror," he repeated. He touched it again. "Mirror."

"That's right. There's Ross," she pointed to his likeness, "and there's me."

"Cath'rine," he said firmly.

"That's right," she said, delighted with his response. She kissed his cheek and set him down.

"You've been very good this morning, Ross. Would you like me to read you a story?"

He glanced up at her, and this time there was a small glimmer of anticipation on his face. "Story?"

She nodded and he darted across the room to the bright stack of children's books, selecting one at random and scooting back, obviously worried that if he didn't hurry, she'd change her mind.

The big, shabby easy chair had plenty of room for them both and Catherine curled her arm around Ross's thin shoulders as they bent over the open book. They were engrossed in the story when, with a furious scurry of running feet, Geoffrey burst into the chamber.

Ross exploded in panic, struggling wildly to scramble out of the deep, soft confines of the chair. Catherine tried first to contain him, but one flailing fist struck her hard across the face and she flinched, bringing her hands up instinctively. Oblivious, Ross wrestled himself free of the chair and hurtled across the room.

Geoffrey stood just inside the entrance, staring in open-mouthed horror. "Catherine, I'm sorry!" he blurted. "I forgot... you're hurt," he interrupted himself, and his look of horror increased. "I'll get Father!" he offered, and dashed from the chamber.

Ross's inadvertent blow had connected most solidly with her cheek directly below her right eye, but some part of his hand or wrist had caught her nose as well. It hurt, and made her eyes water, and it was a moment before she recovered enough to look for Ross.

She found him on the far side of the bed, cowering, and knelt beside him. At her touch on his shoulder, he hurled himself against her. The impact knocked her back, upsetting her balance, and she sat down quickly to avoid an awkward fall. Ross ended up in her lap and she gathered him in, soothing him with her touch and her voice.

They were still there on the carpet when she heard Father's voice calling her name from the passage.

"Come in!" she answered, looking toward the door.

Father entered slowly, leaning on his cane. He paused just inside the entrance. "Catherine? Geoffrey said you were injured..."

Ross had stiffened when Father came in, but he didn't panic this time. Carefully she helped him from her lap and stood up, keeping one hand on his shoulder for reassurance. Her other hand went involuntarily to her face, touching the tender place beneath her eye.

"It isn't serious," she said. "Geoffrey burst in without warning and frightened Ross."

"I'm afraid that's my fault," Father confessed. "There was a message on the pipes that I thought you'd be interested in. I sent Geoffrey to tell you."

"Vincent?"

He nodded. "He and Mouse expect to complete their exploration this afternoon. It's quite possible they'll be home sometime tomorrow morning."

She couldn't keep herself from smiling. "Good."

"Yes, I thought you'd like that. But it seems my good intentions have resulted in harm to you. Let me take a look..." He limped toward her slowly, keeping a wary eye on Ross. With Catherine's hand to bolster him, the boy held his ground for a few seconds, but at last his nerve broke and he ducked behind her, peering out around her hip. Father immediately transferred his overt attention to Catherine, stopping in front of her and tipping her face toward the candelabra on the table.

"Hmmm, yes, you're right about this," he murmured, brushing a careful thumb across her cheek. "It's swelling a bit; you might send to William for some ice to put on it, but it's minor. This scratch is healing well. Did Mary give you anything to put on it?"

Catherine brought a self-conscious hand to her cheek. "I'd forgotten about the scratch," she admitted. "Mary must have, too, but it isn't bothering me."

"No? Well, that's good."

For the first time, he turned his full attention on Ross, who still hovered at Catherine's hip. He stooped a little and smiled. "Good morning, Ross."

Ross squeaked and ducked back.

Father straightened. "I've frightened him again," he observed with regret.

"He's all right," Catherine answered. "He needs to learn." By now, the assurances were becoming automatic, and she put a hand behind her to touch Ross's shoulder.

Father observed the gesture and smiled. "He trusts you completely."

"Yes. I think he does." Abruptly she remembered her manners. This was nominally her chamber; that made her the hostess here. "Please, Father, sit down." She gestured toward the easy chair.

With a brief, watchful glance toward Ross, he complied. Catherine pulled one of the straight chairs around from the table and seated herself in it, facing him.

"How much does he understand of what's being said?" he asked.

"I've wondered that," she confessed. "Not very much, I don't think. I have to speak simply, and repeat myself, sometimes."

"Does he speak at all?"

"A little. He says my name, and told me his. He's said a few other things, but mostly it's those little, wordless cries and body language."

Father nodded sagely. "And his physical condition -- Mary's told me of the bruising, the scars, but you've examined him more thoroughly. Is there anything that requires attention?"

She shook her head. "No. The scars look healed, and even the bruises are turning yellow and green. He's thin, but if he continues to eat as he has been, that won't last long."

"And what of his mental condition?"

"You've seen that for yourself. He's still frightened of everyone but me. Beyond that... I really don't know, Father. I haven't been around children very much. I'm not sure what's normal for his age, or even what his age is."

"I should put him somewhere between four and six," Father said, giving Ross an analytical glance. "Depending on heredity and nutrition, of course. But even a four year old should be talking more than you say he does."

"Maybe the abuse he's suffered has affected his development," Catherine suggested.

"Oh, very likely," Father agreed. "But still he seems a trifle backward. Well, we'll give him a more thorough assessment after he's been with us a while. What are your plans for today?"

Catherine gave Ross a quick smile. "Well, we were reading a story when Geoffrey came in, so we'll have to finish that. And maybe this afternoon, we'll take a walk and meet some of the people."

Ross evidently understood that, because he gave a low moan and ducked back behind her chair.

"That doesn't seem to meet with much approval," Father observed.

"No," Catherine agreed. "Not yet. We'll work on it."

"Yes," said Father. "Catherine, I want you to know how much I... we all... appreciate your willingness to stay and take on this task. You have your own work above, and to give up your private time..."

"He's just a child, Father. How could I not?"

"Indeed." Father levered himself to his feet. "Well, I must say, he's vastly improved over last night. Perhaps he can continue to progress at the same rate."

"I hope so," said Catherine, and rose to see him out. Ross seemed torn between staying beside her and keeping his distance from Father and compromised by following a few feet behind, whimpering anxiously.

"It's all right, Ross. I'm only saying goodbye to Father," Catherine said, without looking at him. "I won't leave you."

Father paused in the doorway. "I'll have William send you some ice for your cheek. And of course, if you should need something..."

"I know. Thank you, Father."

He limped out and Catherine sat down and drew Ross into her lap. "There's no need for you to be afraid," she whispered, low in his ear. "No one here will hurt you." That particular statement was becoming overused, but perhaps if she repeated it often enough, he would believe it.

Brooke brought their midday meal -- tuna salad sandwiches and applesauce, with a handful of chocolate chip cookies for dessert -- and afterward, Catherine took Ross's hand firmly in hers and set out to show him his new home.

First they visited the candle shop, and spent a few minutes talking with Rebecca -- that is, Catherine talked while Ross clung to her skirt, whimpering softly and hiding his face in its soft folds.

After that, they visited the sewing chamber, and the nursery. In the kitchen, one of William's helpers sneaked them a slice of spice cake, which Ross wolfed in short order, and when they visited the pipe chamber, Pascal let him put his hand on one of the main pipes, to feel the vibrations. Everyone greeted them cheerfully, but no one tried to approach Ross, and by the time they returned to the guest chamber, he was no longer clinging helplessly to Catherine's skirt. Instead, his stride was confident, his hold on her hand firm.

Once safely inside their chamber, she let go his hand and ruffled his hair. "I'm very proud of you, Ross," she told him carefully. "You were very good."

He beamed with pleasure and pointed to the books. "Story?" he said hopefully.

Catherine was exhausted from the constant vigilance necessary during their excursion, but she couldn't bear to disappoint him, so they settled together in the big chair. Long before the book was finished, though, he'd fallen asleep and she lifted him carefully and laid him on the cot.

His nap didn't last long, but the respite was enough to give her the energy to see him through dinner -- chicken stew, whole wheat rolls, and spice cake -- and to help Mary and Brooke turn the now cleaned and aired mattress and make it up with fresh bedding.

Ross huddled quietly in the corner throughout, and Catherine wondered if his silence was a sign of progress.

He paged through one of the books, looking at the pictures, while she readied herself for bed, and let her tuck him under the blankets on the cot and sing him a lullaby, but when she left him to seek her own bed, he crawled out from beneath the covers to follow her.

Six times she put him back in his own bed, and six times he followed her to hers. At last, with the uneasy thought that she was setting a precedent that would be hard to change, she relented, letting him curl up beside her, where he dropped almost instantly into a peaceful sleep.

She consoled herself with the memory of the plastic sheet Mary had placed on the mattress before making the bed, and the careful instructions about restricting Ross's intake of liquids and taking him to the bathroom right before bed. She'd done all that, and surely the plastic sheet meant Mary expected Ross to sleep with her? It didn't matter, though, because she was too tired to contest it with him.

Instead, she curled up, with Ross nestled warmly against her side, to read another chapter of *Pride and Prejudice* before she went to sleep.

She was engrossed in the story when thought she heard her name. She listened and when the soft call came again, she recognized the voice.

Vincent! Her heart responded with a swift surge of delight.

She wanted to call to him to come in, but, in the split-second between intention and action, changed her mind. The sight of her tucked cozily into bed might make him uncomfortable, and she didn't want that. He called once more and this time she answered. "Just a minute."

She disentangled herself from Ross, careful not to wake him, and smoothed the quilts over him. She pulled on the long flannel robe Mary had left for her and went to the chamber entrance.

Vincent waited just beyond the opening. He had obviously just gotten back; his clothing was travel-stained and he looked tired. Part of her wanted to rush into his arms to welcome him, but another, more decorous little voice reminded her this was a public place, so instead, she caught his hand and drew him into the chamber.

Only when they were safely out of sight of any casual passersby did she drop his hand and slip her arms around his neck for an eager embrace.

It was good to be in his arms again and for a few moments, she simply luxuriated in the sensation. "I'm glad you're back," she murmured. "I missed you."

"I missed you, as well," he answered. "But, Catherine... is something wrong?"

She stepped back and he let his hands glide down her arms to grasp her fingers. His first clear sight of her made him catch his breath. "What happened to your face? Did someone hurt you?"

Self-consciously she touched the mouse under her eye; she'd nearly forgotten it, and the long scratch just below, and wondered what he must think.

"Only minor injuries," she assured him. "Father isn't worried."

His look of concern eased and he tilted his head uncertainly. Clearly, he found her presence here puzzling and, perhaps, a bit unsettling.

She wondered at her own nervousness. This wasn't the first time he'd summoned her from her bed, nor seen her in her nightclothes, but she suddenly felt almost shy, meeting him this way in his world.

"Why are you here?" he prodded, still bewildered. "Waiting for me?"

"Always," she assured him softly, and turned him toward the bed. "But I'm here because of him. His name's Ross," she continued, in answer to his questioning look. "He was in the drainage tunnel, in the park. He's been abused and might have been living on his own for a while. He was terrified when I found him and now I'm the only person he trusts. No one else can get near him."

He brushed his fingers across the tender place beneath her eye. "He did this to you?"

"Inadvertently. He was frightened and I got in the way."

Almost imperceptibly, he relaxed. "You should learn to duck."

The gentle dig was so unexpected that for a moment she simply stared at him; then she laughed softly, leaning against him as his arm came around her shoulders.

"Next time, I will," she promised. "He isn't very big, but he packs quite a punch." She frowned. "I don't know if he should be sleeping with me like that, but he won't stay in his own bed."

"He's afraid to be alone," Vincent suggested.

"Yes. He clings to me all the time."

"You represent security for him."

She glanced up. "You don't think it's wrong to let him sleep there?"

"Not if it gives him the reassurance he needs."

Vincent's approval was all she needed to lift her last remaining doubts. She put her arms around him and pressed herself against his side. "Thank you."

His answering embrace was warm but brief. "It's late, and we're both tired," he said softly. "I should go."

She stepped back reluctantly. "Goodnight, Vincent."

"Goodnight."

He left the chamber and she turned back to the bed. Ross had rolled in his sleep and now occupied her space, but instead of moving him, she got him out of bed and guided him, sleepy and stumbling, to the chamber pot across the room. There, with a little coaxing, he used it; afterward, she guided him back and put him to bed. That had been Mary's idea and although Catherine wasn't enthusiastic about her role in assisting him, she was less so about waking up in a wet bed again. She climbed in beside him and blew out the candles.

 

When she woke, Ross was sitting up, watching her. She smiled a greeting and put out a cautious hand to check the sheets. Dry.

Impulsively, she sat up and kissed him. He squirmed away, but he was smiling, and looked as happy as she'd seen him.

They had finished dressing and Catherine was combing Ross's hair when Brooke came with their breakfast tray. Catherine stared at it in dismay.

"Oh, Brooke, I'm sorry. I forgot to tell anyone. Ross and I are going to try the dining chamber this morning."

"Really?" Brooke didn't seem upset by her wasted trip with the heavy tray. Instead, she seemed intrigued. She nodded once, briefly. "I'll go tell everyone," she decided. "So they won't be surprised."

"That would be wonderful, Brooke," Catherine agreed. "Thank you."

Brooke paused on her way out. "I almost forgot... Father asked me to tell you Vincent and Mouse are back."

Catherine bent her head to hide her smile. "I know."

 

They met no one on the way to the dining chamber and as they approached the capacious chamber, Catherine guessed why. From the volume of sound washing down the tunnel toward them, the entire community was inside. She took a firmer grip on Ross's hand and led him through the opening.

As she'd surmised, the chamber was crowded with those enjoying their breakfasts. Many looked up when they entered, but Brooke had obviously instructed them well, and, after a brief glance, they went back to their meals. She spotted Father at a table with Mary and Pascal; he nodded a greeting, but didn't speak. There was no sign of Vincent.

Ross shrank back, pressing against her side, but he didn't try to bolt and with his hand in hers and her other hand gripping his shoulder, she led him through the crowded eating area to the buffet-style table set up across the chamber.

As they reached it, William turned from the massive black stove and set a big bowl of fluffy yellow scrambled eggs next to a basket of muffins. "Good morning, Catherine," he greeted her.

"Good morning, William. This is Ross." She bent down and held Ross firm when he would have ducked behind her. "Ross, this is William. He's the one who cooks all the food here."

"Glad to meet you, Ross," William said. "I heard you came by yesterday and had some of my cake."

Ross only stared.

"He's a little shy," Catherine explained. "Ross, what would you like for breakfast? Oatmeal?"

"Wi' brow' sugar," he agreed swiftly. It surprised her that he remembered the name when yesterday he hadn't known what brown sugar was.

"Of course, with brown sugar," she agreed, glancing at William, who had already filled a bowl with steaming cereal. "What else?"

"Scrambled eggs, hot from the pan," William suggested. "Blueberry muffins, baked this morning. And fresh cantaloupe, too."

"Really?" Catherine straightened and looked where William was pointing. "That looks good. I'll have cantaloupe and a muffin, please, William. And tea?"

She knew the custom was for diners to serve themselves, but she didn't dare let go of Ross's hand, and William didn't seem to mind.

"Scrambled eggs for Ross," she continued. "And a muffin... and a slice of cantaloupe to see if he likes it."

"Milk to drink?" William asked, filling her order.

"Please."

William set the dishes on a tray. "We fixed a table for you," he said, nodding toward a corner of the chamber.

Catherine followed his gesture to a place near the wall, where a small table stood a little apart from the others. "Thank you, William."

She turned at the sound of childish voices. Geoffrey, Kipper, and Eric gathered a small distance away. "Can we help you carry that, Catherine?" Geoffrey asked. From his expression, she guessed he was trying to atone for bursting into her chamber yesterday, but she was simply glad of the help. She'd wondered how she was going to convey all those dishes safely without letting go of Ross.

"Yes, please." She stood back to let them gather up plates and bowls. The boys carried everything to the little table and stepped back. Catherine took the opportunity to introduce Ross, who seemed glued to her leg, to Kipper and Eric, before they scampered back to their own meals.

She positioned Ross with his back against the wall so he could see the others and sat next to him, with only the corner of the small, square table between them. Only when he seemed secure did she let go of his hand and nod toward his food.

"Eat your breakfast, Ross."

"Brow' sugar," he reminded her indignantly and she reached for the dish of it and stirred some into his oatmeal.

"There. Now, eat."

He had his muffin in hand, about to take a bite, when he looked up. His eyes widened and he dropped the muffin and scrambled from his chair. Catherine caught his wrist, restraining him, before looking up herself.

Vincent stood there with a plate in one hand and a steaming mug in the other. "May I join you?"

Ross stood close beside her; now he squeaked and buried his face in the soft folds of her sweater. She stroked his head with her free hand and smiled up at Vincent, who waited patiently.

"Please do," she answered him, thinking it was time Ross let someone besides her close to him.

She tightened her grip on the small wrist as Vincent put down his plate and took the chair across from Ross's. "Ross," she said firmly, "This is my friend Vincent. He's going to sit with us this morning."

Ross gave Vincent one quick glance and looked away. He didn't budge from his position at her shoulder.

"Good morning, Ross," Vincent said pleasantly, pretending not to notice. "I am always glad to meet one of Catherine's friends."

For some reason, the mild statement actually provoked a response. Ross lifted his head. "Ross friend," he proclaimed defiantly.

Startled, Catherine looked at him. Was it possible that, in his childish simplicity, he sensed something deeper between her and Vincent? Was it possible he was... jealous? She glanced at Vincent, who seemed occupied with his eggs. No help there.

"Yes, Ross," she told him. "You are my friend, but Vincent is my friend, too."

She coaxed him back into his chair. "I'm going to let go of you now," she told him. "I want you to stay here. Do you understand?"

He nodded sullenly and she released his arm. She bent to pick up his muffin from the floor and he reached for it. "No, Ross, it's dirty now. You can have mine." She put his on the table, out of his reach.

He needed a reminder to use a spoon for his oatmeal and help with his slice of melon, but his table manners were vastly improved over yesterday, Catherine noticed. He seemed absorbed now in his meal, and she turned to Vincent.

"What did you find on your trip? Will Mouse's idea work?"

Clang! Ross's spoon hit the floor. She passed him hers and picked his up, placing it beside his muffin, before turning back to Vincent. But before she could speak, Ross overturned his milk.

"Oh, Ross." She couldn't help the brief exclamation of dismay and Ross shrank back in his chair. Vincent silently offered his napkin to sop up the mess and fetched a damp cloth so Catherine could wipe the table clean.

"I'm sorry," she said to Vincent, when they were seated again.

"For what?" he asked mildly. "Accidents happen. Right, Ross?"

Ross glared and let a forkful of scrambled eggs drop into his lap.

Catherine bit back exasperation and cleaned him up. "Be more careful," she advised him, and pushed his plate a little closer.Her own melon was scarcely touched, and she picked up her fork and turned to Vincent.

Ross tugged at her arm. "Hungry," he announced.

She looked at his empty dishes. "Did you eat all that?"

He nodded. "Hungry." He pointed to the blueberry muffin on the table.

"No, Ross. That one's dirty, remember? It fell on the floor."

"Hungry!" he insisted. "Muffin!"

She glanced at Vincent who was studiously examining the tines of his fork. He seemed quite amenable to letting her deal with Ross on her own.

She looked back at Ross, who was regarding her plaintively. His behavior so far this morning, except for the accidents, which she suspected were ploys to divert her attention from Vincent, had been exemplary; perhaps it was time to trust him a little further.

She took his arm and turned him gently toward the buffet table. "The muffins are on the table, Ross," she told him. "Can you get one for you and one for me, and come straight back?"

He hesitated and for a moment she thought he was going to balk.

"Please?"

He glanced at her and she saw once again his desperate desire to please her. He seemed to be sizing up the distance he would have to travel.

"I'll watch you, all the way," she promised, and that was enough to sway him.

"Muffins," he said, and pointed.

"That's right. Two muffins." She held up the appropriate number of fingers for him to see. "One for you and one for me."

He started toward the table, his timid step reminding her of a wary deer. Across the chamber, someone rose and started toward the table too, and Catherine held her breath, but relaxed when she recognized Rebecca and realized the candle-maker had seen Ross and was waiting, giving him room.

Ross reached the table and stopped in front of the basket of muffins. He seemed to take an inordinately long time to select two, but finally he picked up one in each hand and started back.

Catherine glanced at Vincent and realized he was regarding her with an expression she couldn't quite pin down.

"You're very good with him," he said softly, and she realized he was proud of her.

"It isn't hard," she answered, pleased. "He's a good boy, anxious to please. He's just frightened. He's been through a great deal, and I was kind to him. He would respond the same way to Mary, or to you, if you had found him first."

The corners of his eyes tilted and his mouth quirked, just a little. "Catherine," he said, too carefully. "Perhaps you haven't noticed. Ross doesn't like me."

She bristled, but whether in defense of Ross or Vincent, she wasn't sure. She had no chance to frame a reply. Ross was returning, making a wide arc around Vincent, circling to stand on her other side. Solemnly he proffered one of the muffins.

She accepted it with equal gravity. "Thank you, Ross." It had a hole in the top, just the right size for one of his small fingers; apparently he'd tested it in some way. She hoped he hadn't subjected all the muffins in the basket to the same test.

She glanced at Vincent, who had finished his meal. He appeared very comfortable, leaning back in his chair, watching Ross pick the blueberries out of his muffin in order, apparently, to eat them first. She turned her attention to her own breakfast.

When the meal was finished, they cleared their small table. Ross timidly carried his own dishes to the small chamber where Zach and Maria were pulling dish-washing duty. He hesitated in the entrance, but, like everyone else they'd encountered, Zach and Maria diligently ignored him. There was a wide, low table just inside, already stacked with soiled dishes. Catherine nudged Ross and pointed. "Put them right there," she whispered.

He seemed to poise on the threshold a moment, gathering his nerve, and then rushed to push the dishes onto the nearest corner. He didn't seem to notice that Catherine had followed him with her own plate and mug. He spun to dart back to the entrance and came face to thigh with Vincent.

Catherine thought later that it could have been disastrous; if Vincent had moved, even a little, Ross might have panicked. But Vincent froze in the doorway, so motionless he seemed even to have stopped breathing. Ross teetered a moment and Catherine dared to hope he was overcoming some of his fear. But his bravado failed and, with a small squeal, he whirled and flung himself at her, hiding his face in her skirt.

She managed a small smile and patted Ross's back reassuringly; Vincent solemnly, and very carefully, moved past them with his dishes, and returned to stand beside her.

"We can avoid the dining chamber and go out this way," he suggested tranquilly, pointing out a narrow entrance on the far side of the little chamber.

She glanced at Ross. He had edged around her, placing her between himself and Vincent, and was clinging to her skirt, uttering small sounds of incipient panic. Another trip through the crowded dining chamber might be more than his stressed nerves could handle.

"I think that's a good idea," she agreed, and disentangled Ross from her skirt so she could take his hand. The passage beyond was unfamiliar, but wide and well-lit with the usual torches and candles. Ross seemed unhappy with Vincent as their guide and lagged behind, uttering small, fretful sounds.

The unfamiliar passage soon opened onto one Catherine recognized, and that one joined with the tunnel leading to the guest chamber. Vincent guided them silently, maintaining a respectful distance and paused outside the entrance.

"Will you be here all morning?" he asked.

"I don't know yet." She gazed at him wistfully. They'd just spent the best part of an hour together, and yet it seemed they'd scarcely spoken. "Do you have to go? You could come in for a few minutes."

He glanced warily at Ross. "I'm not certain that's wise."

Ross tugged at her hand, trying to draw her into the chamber, away from Vincent. She resisted his silent urging, refusing to be rushed. "Ross is going to have to learn that other people won't hurt him, either," she pointed out. "Only being around others will teach him that."

Vincent hesitated. "Just for a moment," he agreed, finally, and Catherine smiled.

She allowed Ross to pull her into the chamber. Once inside, he dropped her hand and raced across the chamber to the pile of picture books. "Story?" he said, turning with one in his hand. His glance moved past her, to Vincent, and his eager air faltered.

"In a few minutes," she promised. "I want to talk with Vincent first."

An expression of incomprehensible hurt crossed his face and the book dropped from his hands. Catherine threw Vincent an apologetic glance and went to crouch at Ross's side.

"I'll only be a few minutes," she said, coaxing. "I haven't seen Vincent in a long time, Ross. Let me talk to him, and then we'll sit together and read a story, okay?"

His nod was one of reluctance rather than understanding, and she pressed a quick kiss to his forehead. "Come over here," she said, and picked up the book he'd dropped and led him to the easy chair. "Sit here and look at the pictures, and I'll be with you soon."

He nodded again, miserably, and she patted his hand.

"He isn't happy," Vincent observed quietly, when she returned to his side.

"No. But he does have to learn, doesn't he, Vincent?"

He nodded. "Yes, he does. I meant what I said, in the dining chamber," he added. "You are very good with him."

"That's not the only thing you said in the dining chamber," she reminded him.

"No. It isn't," he agreed.

"I wouldn't take it personally. He doesn't like anyone yet, except me."

Vincent spared a quick glance for Ross. "But I do mean me, personally," he said quietly.

"Vincent, he doesn't even know you. How could he not like you?"

"Because of you."

Apparently Vincent had noticed Ross's behavior at breakfast, too. She managed a wry smile. "You're his rival for my affections?"

He made the barest gesture of assent. "Perhaps he believes there is only a finite measure of affection to be given," he suggested.

It was Catherine's turn to glance at Ross. He sat forlornly, fingering the pages of his picture book, watching her and Vincent from the corner of his eye.

"Maybe he does," she agreed. "What can I do to teach him that's not so?"

"I'm not certain," Vincent admitted. "Except, perhaps, to continue to show him that you care for him. I can ask Father and Mary."

She nodded. "Please. I want to know. I want to help him."

He stepped close, towering above her in a way that might seem menacing in anyone else. "Oh, Catherine," he murmured, warmth and love and amusement all evident in his voice. "You've already done that. Just by being here."

His hand came up to touch her cheek and she closed her eyes and leaned into the tender caress. And suddenly Ross was between them, shrieking incoherently and flailing at Vincent with clenched fists.

Startled, Catherine stepped back and saw that Vincent had done the same. Ross aimed a flurry of frantic blows at Vincent's hips and stomach, and Vincent retreated another step, hands down to protect himself.

Catherine reached for Ross to pull him away, but before she could catch hold of those wildly swinging little fists, Vincent stiffened; when she glanced up, his face had lost color and his eyes were glazed.

Her understanding was instantaneous, and she caught Ross more roughly than she'd intended and yanked him away. Obviously, he'd landed at least one telling blow, and she remembered an old boyfriend explaining about that particular, and uniquely masculine, pain.

"Ross, what are you doing? You hurt Vincent! Why did you do that?"

He was sobbing and struggling in her grip and she realized she had hold of his shoulders and was shaking him, just a little, with each half-shouted question. She forced her fingers to loosen their grip, forced herself to check her own agitation.

Ross wouldn't look at her; unchecked tears streamed down his face. She dragged a deep, calming breath into her lungs. "Ross, I'm sorry," she said, and touched his cheek. "You upset me, but I'm sorry I got angry."

He was still crying, but he stopped resisting her efforts to hold him in place, and she drew him to her, tucking his head under her chin and holding him tight. "It's okay," she murmured, rocking him. "Everything will be okay."

He leaned against her, trusting once more, and she held him, crooning. A diminishing series of long, shuddering breaths told her he was getting hold of himself.

"Ross," she murmured, when he was quiet. "Why did you do that? Why did you hit Vincent?"

He twisted in her arms, but she held him fast, hugging him close. "It's okay, Ross. You can tell me. Why did you hit him?"

He started crying again. "Hurt you," he managed, between sobs.

"Hurt me?" Suddenly, she saw a glimmer of reason in his action. She moved him away, far enough so she could look into his wide, frightened eyes. "Ross, did you think Vincent was going to hurt me?"

Ross turned a fearful gaze in Vincent's direction. Jerkily, he nodded. "Hurt you."

Catherine melted. "Oh, Ross," she said, and gathered him against her heart. "You don't need to cry," she soothed him. "No one is angry with you."

When he stopped sobbing, she moved him away, holding his shoulders. She had carefully refrained from looking at Vincent, wanting to let him recover without embarrassment, but now she couldn't resist a swift glance in his direction.

He met her look with one of compassion and understanding and came closer, crouching a bit gingerly beside her. Ross flinched but didn't wail or try to flee.

"What you did was a very brave thing, Ross," Catherine began firmly. "I am proud of you for being so brave."

Vincent placed a hand on her shoulder and she covered it with her own.

"But Vincent is my friend," she continued. "He loves me, and he would never, ever hurt me."

Ross gave Vincent a surprisingly fierce glare. "Ross love you," he said defiantly.

"Of course you do," she answered, touched. "I love you very much, Ross, but I love Vincent, too. I love both of you."

Ross's resolve broke, and he glanced at Vincent uneasily. Catherine drew Vincent's hand from her shoulder and turned it palm up. She slid her other hand down Ross's arm and took his wrist.

"It would make me very happy if you and Vincent could be friends," she said softly. She brought Ross's hand forward, ready to release him at the least sign of resistance, but though his eyes looked wild and terrified, he didn't falter.

Vincent seemed to understand and kept his own hand carefully flat, even when Catherine laid Ross's smaller one on his palm. Only when Ross found the courage to slide his hand forward and curl his fingers around the edge of the larger hand did Vincent close his grip.

"Thank you for taking care of Catherine for me," he said solemnly. "For protecting her. I would be proud to be your friend, Ross."

Ross seemed intent on examining his hand, effectively swallowed in Vincent's larger one.

"Friend," he announced finally, and Catherine let out her breath.

His small supply of courage exhausted, he withdrew his hand from Vincent's and collapsed into Catherine's arms. She held him close, rocking him and murmuring small, nearly incoherent phrases of pride and happiness.

Presently he lifted his head and pushed away from her. "Story?" he reminded.

Catherine couldn't resist a wide, joyful smile. "Tell you what, Ross," she suggested happily. "Sit with me in the big chair, and maybe we can get Vincent to read us both a story."

He agreed readily and Vincent settled on the side of the bed with a copy of Robin McKinley's adaptation of Anna Sewell's *Black Beauty* in his hands. This version was much shorter than the original, but still the reading of it took the rest of the morning. Catherine found pure pleasure in cuddling with Ross while listening to the melodious sound of Vincent's voice.

Afterward, they went to lunch together, and Catherine smiled at the murmurs of surprise that rippled through the dining hall when Ross came in between them, holding their hands.

'Friend' seemed to be a password of sorts and after lunch, Father and Mary were reintroduced with that designation. Ross accepted them with reservations, and even suffered Father to examine him.

Father fixed Ross's age at about five and confirmed that the widespread, pinkish scars on Ross's legs and buttocks were from a scald.

"Someone placed him in a tub of hot water," Mary said, her face rigid with fury. "I thought so when I saw him that night in the bathing chamber."

"As punishment for wetting the bed," Catherine guessed, remembering Ross's frantic reaction the morning before.

"Perhaps," agreed Father. "Well, nothing like that will happen to him here." He patted Ross's head and nodded for Vincent to help the little boy down from the examining table.

"He shows definite signs of mental impairment, as well," Father observed.

"No," Catherine denied, but already she was remembering his limited vocabulary, his slowness in grasping new concepts.

"I thought so, as well." Vincent responded to Father as if Catherine had not spoken even as she felt the warmth of his reassuring hand on her back.

"It's too soon to determine the level of impairment, of course," Father went on, "or even guess at a cause."

"Brain damage?" Vincent suggested. "Abuse?"

Father shook his head. "I saw no sign of a head injury that severe," he said, "but my examination was limited. It's possible, of course, but I believe it's far more likely he was born this way."

"And his parents just couldn't cope with him," Catherine said softly.

"Possibly not," Father agreed.

"Well, he won't find any of that here," Mary said stoutly. "We'll love him and take care of him and teach him everything he's able to learn."

"Of course we will," Vincent agreed. "Ross," he said, turning to the boy. "Would you like to go with me to see a remarkable place?"

Ross was no longer afraid, but still, apparently, had his loyalties. "Cath'rine go too?" he asked.

"If she likes," Vincent agreed readily. "She might prefer to stay here and rest."

Caring for Ross the past two days had been wearing, but Catherine had no intention of passing up time with Vincent. "Of course I'll go."

The remarkable place turned out to be the waterfall. Vincent knew of a path that led to the waterfall's base and he and Ross ventured close, returning with wet faces and hair glistening with tiny droplets of the fine, cold spray.

Catherine watched from a safe distance, laughing at Ross's enthusiasm.

"Water! Fall!" he shouted over and over, pronouncing the words separately and trying vainly to compete with the thunderous volume of the falls.

He let Vincent bathe him that evening and even permitted himself to be tucked into the cot, rather than Catherine's bed. He fell asleep while Catherine sat quietly talking with Vincent on the far side of the chamber.

"I'll have to check, tomorrow, to see if he's been reported missing," she admitted, sliding her hand into his. "But I don't want to."

"There may be someone who loves him, looking for him," Vincent reminded her gently.

"I know. I just can't bear the thought of him being returned to whoever hurt him so badly," she confessed. "But I know how our system works, and sometimes that happens. Part of me is arguing fiercely that if I don't look for his family, I won't have to deal with it."

"You won't let him be harmed, Catherine," Vincent said, with the quiet confidence he always demonstrated when discussing her work. "You'll find a way."

She nodded. "I hope so," she whispered, and leaned toward him, resting her head against his chest. His certainty gave her courage, and she knew she would do whatever might be necessary to keep Ross safe. Vincent's arm around her shoulder strengthened her resolve, and it was late when he said goodnight and returned to his own chamber.

He woke her early the next morning, with the gentle reminder that it was Monday. Her own clothes had been cleaned and returned and she dressed quickly. She had to be at the office by eight.

Vincent brought breakfast and afterward, he and Ross walked with her to the surface. At the threshold below her building, she paused. Vincent silently handed over her briefcase, which had been rescued from the passage where she'd left it, and she absently pulled its strap up over her shoulder as she knelt to say goodbye.

She and Vincent had both explained the necessity of this parting to Ross and he'd seemed to understand, but now, faced with actuality, his eyes filled with tears.

Catherine's throat tightened and she gathered him into her arms. "I love you, Ross," she whispered. "I'll come this evening, after supper, to see you, and I'll stay to tuck you into your new bed in Mary's chamber."

He nodded, sniffling noisily, and she carefully extricated herself from his desperate embrace.

Vincent came forward and took his hand.

"See?" she said, hoping her cheerfulness didn't sound too forced. "Vincent's here. He'll take care of you until I come back."

"Come back?" Ross asked forlornly.

"Of course. I told you I will."

Vincent bent and put an arm around Ross's thin shoulders. "Catherine has to go now," he said gently.

Ross let out an anguished wail, and Catherine wondered how she could possibly turn her back and climb the ladder to her own world. Vincent was holding Ross, though, and nodding for her to go on.

"Goodbye, Ross," she said helplessly. "Vincent."

"Goodbye, Catherine," Vincent answered easily. "We'll see you this evening."

"Yes," she echoed faintly. "This evening."

Ross was still wailing, but Vincent was speaking to him, his hands offering warm reassurance. There seemed nothing for her to do; her continued presence would only prolong Ross' misery, so she turned and stepped through the light.

Blinded by its brilliance, Catherine could nonetheless hear very well. Ross's cries died away to a muted whimper, and in the sudden hush, Vincent's voice sounded very clearly.

"I know how you feel, Ross," he said gently. "It makes me sad when she goes away, too."

Catherine paused with her hand on the ladder.

"But," Vincent continued, his voice stronger, "she always keeps her promises. And she always comes back."

THE END