SEVERED SELVES


The break-up, when it came, stunned Catherine. She hadn't seen it coming.

 

When Catherine held her fears in check to go to Vincent, savage in his pain, full of mindless fury, she thought she had faced the worst that could happen. The Vincent she knew was so submerged in nightmare visions, she almost couldn't reach him. Through force of will alone, she had calmed him enough to allow Father and the others to lead him to a nearby chamber where he could be looked after, watched over until his rages and fever passed. Father's strength was limited, for all he loved his son, so it fell to Catherine to tend him, there, far below the home tunnels. Catherine didn't know of the terrors Vincent's wounded mind had conceived for him, and with their Bond suddenly and completely gone, she had no way to send her gentle love and calming assurance to him. When he awoke from the nightmare to find her tenderly cooling his face with a damp towel, he had needed almost more reassurance than she could give him -- that she was alive, well, and with him. He had at first imagined this another layer of his fevered dream, and clung to her desperately, afraid that if he broke physical contact with her, if he let her out of his sight, she would disappear and be lost to him...again.

 

All through the long days and nights of his painfully slow recovery, Catherine was by his side. The terrors that had rent Vincent mentally had also left him physically drained and emotionally vulnerable. On the day when he finally felt the faint stirrings of their Bond reasserting itself, he was so overjoyed that he allowed their Bond to open wide, flooding her with the full force of his own feelings for her, and he clutched at the tendrils of hers as if he were a drowning man. This opening of their Bond was unlike anything Catherine had experienced before, and she realized how much Vincent had blocked her in the past from reading his emotions. She was overwhelmed by the love and desire she felt within him, and sent all of hers back to him through their renewed connection. The vibrance, the warmth generated through their Bond enfolded and healed Vincent in a way that medicines never could. Slowly, slowly, he regained his emotional and mental equilibrium, but his body, ravaged as it had been by the torment he had suffered, was slower to recover.

 

As she nursed Vincent through the worst of his emotional collapse, Catherine had thought they had forged a new understanding. Yet, looking back, she realized that, as Vincent recovered physically, it was the beginning of the end for them.

 

As his strength returned, Vincent could not face her, knowing she held within her all the secrets he had concealed so successfully from her during their years together. Knowing all that, how could he add to that knowledge, how could he ever tell her about the strange, troubling, frightening, and ultimately devastating nightmare which had seemed so real. And so had begun his gradual withdrawal from her.

Vincent's withdrawal had happened so quietly, she had not even noticed at first. When she finally did, she thought he had relapsed into the black mood which had begun his long descent into madness. But when she asked him about it, he retreated even further from her emotionally. She began to lose her new-found connection to him through their Bond, and realized sadly that it was Vincent who was erecting new, stronger barriers. Still, she'd hoped he would gradually return to her. Instead, in the few weeks since he had returned to the home tunnels, he had insisted that she spend less and less time with him, citing her need to return to her work and friends Above, so long neglected because of him. He had made a very logical argument, and she had acquiesced to it. After their last such discussion, she had stayed away for a week, but she couldn't bear the separation any longer. So last night she had gone Below.

 

At first, everything had gone well. She had engaged Mary and Father in quiet conversation, and had spent some time with young Geoffrey.

 

Since she had stayed Below to come to terms with her father's death, Geoffrey had become very attached to her, often sitting beside her at meals, and seeking her out to show her schoolwork of which he was especially proud. He looked upon her as an adored big sister, and reveled in the attention she showed him. She had to admit that, although she loved all the children Below, Geoffrey held a tiny corner of her heart all to himself. He had come to be her Vincent-surrogate -- any time Vincent couldn't come to accompany her from her basement threshold, Geoffrey would volunteer for the job; when Vincent was working late, it was Geoffrey who saw to it that Catherine was informed so she wouldn't worry. She was touched by how considerate and thoughtful he was, evidence of the man he would become, and she envied the young woman who would capture his heart in a few years.

 

In the aftermath of Vincent's collapse, Geoffrey had assumed a larger role for Catherine, often appearing to bring her clean bedding, food, medicine, or even just news from Above, to lighten her load as she looked after her patient. He would sit and talk with her, and spell her for short whiles so she could walk, or bathe, or read. Even after her return to her life Above, he continued to share more of his life with her whenever he saw her -- his dreams, his plans for when he grew up. Last night, he had shyly asked if he could have the honor of her company at a concert planned for the end of the following week. He knew that she enjoyed the concerts Below, but that Vincent might not be up to a long appearance in public yet, and he hoped she'd let him be her "date" for the evening in his stead. She was so moved by his concern for her happiness, that she had readily agreed. From the wreath of smiles and the proud tilt of the head which Geoffrey wore as he left her, she knew that she was giving him more than a simple "date" -- in his mind, when she appeared with him at the concert, she would, in effect, validate him before the entire community. Everyone would be forced to acknowledge that although Geoffrey was still a child, he was growing into a dependable, valued member of their community. It was the least she could do for him -- he was a true friend.

 

So, when her visit to Vincent had turned so horribly wrong, Catherine was caught completely off guard.

 

As she entered his chamber, Vincent had not looked up from the book he was reading. She hadn't expected him to come to the threshold for her, of course -- she assumed that he was still much too weak for that. But since she had not seen him for so long, she had expected a greeting, at least. She walked over to where Vincent was sitting to give him her customary hug, but he surprised her by rising suddenly and stepping behind the chair so she could not reach him. As she looked up at him quizzically, he did not meet her eyes, but said in a controlled, measured voice, "Sit down, please, Catherine."

 

Catherine complied, but her first faint misgivings after entering the room were rapidly escalating, and she realized her heart was beating quite fast and her palms were becoming damp. Vincent did not speak again, and his silence wore on her. She felt compelled to break the silence between them. "Vincent, have you been well? I've missed you so much. I'm sorry, but I couldn't stay away any longer. How are you feeling?"

 

He walked around the chair to face her, and when he did, her heart lurched. His eyes sparkled with brittle blue fire, but they were totally devoid of affection. What looked out at her from those eyes was a stranger. She shuddered involuntarily, and pressed her clenched fists into her stomach to ease the sudden attack of butterflies there.

 

Vincent began in a formal manner, and it sounded stilted, unnatural, practiced. "Catherine, I am...pleased...you came tonight. I have something I must say to you."

 

He paused, shifting from foot to foot, and Catherine could tell he desperately wanted to pace, but was restraining himself with great effort.

 

"I have been thinking about our...relationship...and how it has changed over the years. I have been trying to find the words to express how I feel now, but it is difficult. We had a wonderful friendship for so long, Catherine. It meant the world to me, as you did. But...that is all...in the past."

 

Clearly discomfited by her stupefaction at his words, he looked away as he said, "Catherine, this must end. There is no future for us. We want...different things. I think we both know what you want, but trust me, Catherine, it is not what I want. Had we been able to...curb...the emotional level to some extent, perhaps we could have continued as friends. But we have gone beyond that point...and we cannot retreat. You would always be...yearning...for what I do not have within me to give. You must understand, Catherine. And...you must go."

 

Crystals of hard blue ice looked deeply into her wide green eyes, and he raised his hand abruptly to forestall her protest. "Please, Catherine, you must. I know you will...miss...us all, especially at first. But you must persevere. Know that this is best...for both of us. But if you cannot accept it for yourself, at least understand that this is best for me. If you love me, you will allow me to go my own way, to find my own happiness, for believe me when I tell you that I cannot find it with you."

 

Vincent raised his right hand stiffly and yanked at the leather pouch in which Catherine's china rose had nestled for so long. The strap snapped, and he held the pouch out to Catherine. When she did not move to take it, he tossed it carelessly into her lap.

 

Catherine was speechless. She had come Below full of excitement and expectation, only to find that her world was shattered, and the shards were piercing her heart. She could almost not believe this was Vincent before her, so strange were his words. Even his movements were odd -- jerky, with none of his usual grace and power. She clutched the pouch in her hand as she tried to compose herself.

 

"Vincent...I..don't know how to respond to you." Looking up into those frigid, unrelenting eyes unnerved her, but she forced herself not to look away. "Could you tell me what happened to make you...change your mind about...everything we have...had...between us? Please, Vincent, make me understand?" She knew she was stalling for time. His words had been completely clear and utterly simple: he didn't love her, he didn't want her in his life. What more was there to understand? Still, there was always hope....

 

She sensed more than saw the increased tension in his shoulders, his hands. Perhaps he grasped the back of the chair before him with slightly greater force. There was a shifting in him, deep inside, and he seemed to draw himself taller, more stiffly.

 

His next words were spat more than spoken. "Nothing...specific...happened, Catherine. My illness forced me to reassess...what is important to me. I realized that you...no longer have a place in my life. I do not want you in my life, Catherine. Please, must I be cruel to you? I do not wish you to come to see me again, and I shall not be visiting you Above." The barest hint of pleading entered his voice as he said, "Can you not just accept what I have said, and let this parting be as painless as possible?"

 

The word jolted through her. "Painless, Vincent? How can that be? Perhaps you don't love me any longer -- I can't control that. But you have to understand...until this moment, I had thought our love was strong and enduring, that nothing and no one could ever drive us apart. To hear you say these words drives a knife through my heart!"

 

She shook her head, trying to focus her thoughts on the incredible words he had just spoken. Was there some clue she had missed? No. In fact, she had thought the entire experience of the past weeks had brought them closer. "I had no inkling your affections for me were dying, Vincent. Just a few weeks ago, through our Bond, I felt such love from you, and now you are telling me that love has turned to...indifference? Help me to understand, please! I don't want to make this harder for you, but I can't leave without some idea of why you are sending me away!"

 

Catherine couldn't believe what happened next. Vincent's eyes changed, and what she saw in them was...pity. Oh, God, she thought, this can't really be happening! He made no move and did not speak again, and finally Catherine rose from the chair and walked from the room on legs which could hardly support her. She made it into the corridor before they failed her and she collapsed against the wall and dropped her head into her hands. She couldn't cry -- not yet. It would come, she knew, but she must get out of here first. She couldn't bear to face any of her Tunnel family now. Not now. Gulping air into tortured lungs, Catherine managed to pull herself erect and, using smaller side tunnels, she avoided any human contact until she was again in her basement. As she entered the elevator to take her up to her lonely apartment, the hot despairing tears started to come. And they didn't stop for two days.

 

_ _ _

 

A week had not served to dull the throbbing pain in Catherine's heart. She had managed to get through a few days of work without tears constantly tracing down her cheeks, but it was difficult. Joe knew she was feeling low, but his tentative forays into the nature of her sadness had not allowed her relief. All she could tell him was that a very important relationship in her life had concluded suddenly and painfully. She wouldn't tell him more, and he finally gave up asking. She was grateful that he seemed to be lightening her workload a bit, which helped, since her concentration was shot and what she was doing wasn't being done with her normal efficiency and accuracy. She knew she had to pull herself together, but she had no idea how. The only people she might talk to about this were a few Helpers Above, and those who lived Below, and somehow she knew she couldn't involve them in this. Their first loyalty, rightly, would be to Vincent, and to seek them out would be to put them in an uncomfortable position. Plus, the implication in Vincent's dismissal was that she should remove herself completely from life Below. That certainly included having conversations with people who undoubtedly knew that she and Vincent were no longer...together.

 

Catherine's anguish was compounded by the dilemma of what to do about Geoffrey. She had promised he could escort her to the concert tonight, but surely he must realize that was no longer possible. Her heart cracked a little more as she thought of the special friendship they had forged, and which was now no longer possible. It was so sad that she was losing so many people who had become like family to her...Jamie, Mary, Mouse...but especially Geoffrey. She wished she could tell him that her failure to come did not have anything to do with him. At that thought, Catherine was moved to write a short note.

Dear Geoffrey,

 

I am so sorry that I won't be able to come to the concert tonight. I guess you all know by now that I won't be coming Below anymore. Please know that I will always treasure the gift of your friendship, Geoffrey. You are a wonderful young man, and I shall miss you terribly.

 

Be Well,

 

Catherine

 

Catherine folded the note, addressed it, and ran downstairs to catch Bennie the bicycle messenger, who she knew always bought his lunchtime hot dog from the vendor on the street in front of her building. She only had to wait about 10 minutes for him to come by. They chatted for a few minutes as he devoured his lunch, then he took her note and promised a quick delivery. Catherine looked after him for a moment as he pedaled into traffic, then returned to her office.

 

A few hours later, deep in a file on a particularly gruesome murder case, Catherine felt a small hand on her shoulder. As she looked up, she was startled to see Geoffrey standing there. "Geoffrey! What a nice surprise! Did you get my note?"

 

Geoffrey's normally sunny face held nothing but clouds. "That's why I came to see you, Catherine. I don't understand -- why can't you come to the concert? You promised. And why aren't you coming Below anymore?"

 

Catherine regarded him sadly. Apparently no one had thought to inform him when Vincent let the adults know of his decision to part from her, and of his request that she not return to the tunnels. "Well, Geoffrey, I guess you didn't hear. Vincent and I...well...we aren't...seeing each other anymore. And he thought it best if I didn't...visit...again. Perhaps they forgot to tell you? I'm so sorry you had to find out in a note."

 

Geoffrey was firm in his response. "No, Catherine. Nobody knows that. I asked around after I got your note. Nobody knows. They were all as surprised as me when I showed them what you wrote -- Mary, Jamie, even Father."

 

Catherine couldn't help but show her surprise. "Even Father?"

 

"Especially Father. He read your note, then got a funny look in his eyes and said, 'Thank you for sharing this news with me, Geoffrey.' So you see, he couldn't have known, or he wouldn't have thanked me for the news."

 

Catherine was perplexed. She had imagined them all "tut-tutting" about the situation a week ago, then putting it behind them and getting on with their lives. It hadn't occurred to her that they might not know, and that they would assume it was she who didn't want to come Below anymore, that she had abandoned them. How could Vincent allow them to think that about her?

Catherine was pulled back from her contemplation by Geoffrey's voice.

 

"Catherine? Catherine? Father gave me a note for you and asked me to give it to Bennie, but I wanted to deliver it in person. Here."

 

Catherine couldn't think what Father would have to say to her. No matter that they had become closer, even friends, over the past year, she thought ruefully that he was probably, deep down, relieved that she was no longer in his son's life. She opened the note and read Father's missive:

 

Catherine,

 

You must realize by now that none of us had any idea that Vincent had asked you to discontinue your visits to us. I have spoken with him and assured him that you are still a valued member of our family, and that you are as welcome here as any of our Helpers. You have a place in our hearts and at our table any time you can grace us with your presence. Whatever is...or is not... between you and my son cannot change that. Please, Catherine, I urge you to reconsider and come to the concert tonight. Geoffrey would be most pleased to escort you from your threshold, and we will all be expecting you.

 

Fondly,

 

Father

 

Catherine re-read the note, certain she had not understood its contents the first time. Yes, it still said the same thing. She could feel Father's gruff brand of affection reaching through the note to embrace her fragile heart. Her eyes filled and threatened to spill over. She looked at Geoffrey and said, "Well, it looks like you've still got a date for the concert tonight."

 

Geoffrey's face lit up, and on impulse he threw his arms around her and yelled, "Great!" Several co-workers nearby turned sharply at the exclamation, and Catherine reluctantly disengaged herself from her little friend and told him she would meet him at her threshold at 8:00 that evening. "I'll be there, Catherine, don't worry!" Another quick hug, and he was gone.

 

Catherine sat staring at Father's note for a long moment. For the first time since Vincent had uttered those fateful words, she felt some warmth creep into her heart. It would be very hard to be Below tonight, but it would have been immeasurably harder if she still believed she could never go again.

 

_ _ _

 

At 7:58, Catherine climbed down the rungs of the ladder at her threshold to the tunnels. She had thought very carefully about what to wear tonight, and she decided it would be the lace dress she wore on the night she and Vincent had celebrated their first anniversary. Tonight was a celebration for her, if only one she hugged close to her heart -- she was celebrating the acknowledgment of her place in her family Below. She knew now that she still had somewhere she could go, where there were people who loved her and cared about what happened to her. It could never make up for the loss of Vincent's love, but it was so much more than she had even hoped for in its place. Through the long lonely years to come, at least she would have them.

 

Geoffrey was already waiting as she stepped off the ladder and turned. He was brushed and scrubbed to within an inch of his life, and he was wearing his best breeches and a lovely white shirt which she noted, with a fluttering heart, was an exact miniature of the one Vincent had worn on their first anniversary. I wonder who added that touch? she thought wryly. Geoffrey offered her his hand, and as she took it, he brought the other from behind his back and gave her a white rose.

 

"Oh, Geoffrey, how lovely!" Catherine exclaimed. "Thank you so much." Geoffrey ducked his head in embarrassment as they turned to begin their walk to the Home Tunnels, and said, "Well, I knew you were feeling kind of bad...about Vincent and all...so I thought the flower might cheer you up."

 

"You were right. I am feeling very bad about Vincent. And yes -- the rose does cheer me up. You are very thoughtful, Geoffrey. I'm lucky to have such a good friend." Catherine squeezed his hand, and they continued on in silence.

 

As Catherine and Geoffrey approached the concert space, she noticed that all the seating areas were already filled. But at one side, near the spiral stairs, there was a large armchair standing empty. Geoffrey approached it with a proprietary air; it was obvious to Catherine that he had informed everyone that the chair was "his" tonight. He handed her down to sit very formally, then made to sit at her feet. Although carpets covered the rock floor, Catherine couldn't imagine it being a very comfortable place to perch during a concert. She leaned down and whispered to Geoffrey, "Why don't you come up here and sit by me? If you don't mind being a little scrunched, I'm sure it will be more comfortable than the floor."

 

Geoffrey scrambled up and into the chair without any further prodding. It was a bit tight, but Catherine draped an arm around his shoulders, hugging him close to her. He sighed happily and snuggled against her, his own arms encircling her waist. As the concert started, Catherine began to stroke Geoffrey's hair, immensely grateful for the little bundle of love and warmth at her side. She had desperately needed some physical comfort this week, and Geoffrey was the only person who had offered it to her. He really is a great kid, Catherine thought fondly.

Geoffrey, far from concentrating on the music, enjoyed this rare chance to be in such close proximity to Catherine. She was so nice to him, always taking time to ask him about his schoolwork and what he was interested in. And she was so easy to talk to -- he could tell her anything, and she wouldn't laugh. He couldn't imagine why Vincent wouldn't want her around anymore, but he was awfully glad that he and Father had persuaded her to return to them. She was the greatest, and he was proud that everyone could see how fond she was of him. She smelled real nice, and she was so soft and warm. Geoffrey felt happier at that moment than he could ever remember being. When he looked up at Catherine, he noted with some surprise that tears were trickling down her face. It couldn't be because of him; she was holding him so tight. Tentatively, he reached up and brushed the tears from her chin. She looked down at him and smiled, and whispered to him that the music was so sad. But he didn't think that was why she was crying. Instead of dropping his hand back to her waist, Geoffrey captured Catherine's free hand from the chair arm and held it close, stroking it with his fingers in an attempt to soothe her distress. Soon he noticed that her tears had stopped falling and she was hugging him even tighter than before. That made him happier still.

 

_ _ _

 

Vincent had been outraged when Father had entered his chamber that afternoon, demanding to know what had happened between Catherine and him. He had told Father that what happened was between the two of them, and of concern to no one else. Father had replied that it certainly was of concern to others, when he tried to force Catherine to cut herself off from everyone who loved her. He then informed Vincent that he, as leader of this community, would personally insist that Catherine continue to be made welcome Below, as the honored and loved Helper she was, irrespective of Vincent's wishes.

 

"We do not banish a Helper merely because one member of the community has a disagreement with that person, or decides he no longer wants a relationship with her, Vincent. You know that very well. I am surprised that you would take it upon yourself to impose your will above the will of the entire community."

 

Vincent was taken aback at the virulence of Father's attack. He had assumed that Father would support his decision, especially considering that the alliance between Father and Catherine had been shaky even at the best of times. "I merely assumed that, if our relationship ended, she would not have any reason to come Below."

 

"No reason? Have you lost yours, Vincent? She is a friend to everyone Below, and many of us care for her as if she were our own flesh and blood. Young Geoffrey, for instance. And Mary. And Olivia. And me. I will not abandon her, especially now, when she obviously needs the comfort and support of her family here Below."

"And what of me, Father? Am I not your family? Do I not need your comfort and support?"

 

"Of course you do, Vincent. But you cannot expect us to read your mind! When were you planning to tell us that you and Catherine had ceased your...relationship? Were we to gradually notice that you never spoke of her, that she never visited Below anymore, and shrug dismissively?

 

"I have no idea what prompted this separation, but I strongly doubt that it was Catherine's idea. Anyone who saw her during your illness -- the way she cared for you, nursed you, wouldn't leave your side -- would know that her devotion to you is complete and profound. I will tell you this, Vincent -- it humbled me. I thought I understood her feelings for you, but I had not the slightest idea how deep they are.

 

"And now, suddenly, she wants nothing more to do with you? No, Vincent, that is not possible. It is you who have decided that the love you shared is somehow...ended. Since it is obvious that her love continues unabated, we here Below -- her family -- must make ourselves available to her, to help through this sad time in her life. You, Vincent, have your good reasons, I'm sure. But you must forgive me if I say that, while you always have our love, you do not need the kind of support which Catherine does right now. You made your decision, so you must feel...comfortable...with it. Catherine had the decision imposed upon her. She needs time to heal, and I, for one, intend to be here for her to help her in any way I can. She has been a part of our lives for years, Vincent. I will not forsake her now. And she is expected tonight for the concert!"

 

Father turned and hobbled away as fast as his bad hip would let him. Vincent stood still until Father was out of the room, then allowed himself to slip bonelessly into his chair. How could he make them understand? He had to let her go. There was no other way.

 

_ _ _

 

As the concert ended, Vincent snuck to the edge of the room and glanced inside. He saw Catherine rise from an armchair and lean down to hug Geoffrey. She placed a soft kiss on his forehead and whispered something to him. He was blushing furiously, so Vincent assumed it was a compliment he was pleased about. The members of the community crowded around Catherine. She was engulfed in warm embraces and greetings from everyone. As he watched Catherine accept the love of her Tunnel family, he noted with a start that she was wearing the dress she had worn just for him for their first anniversary. As she turned, he also saw the crystal pendant dangling from the gold chain which he had given her that night. Oh, Catherine! Please understand, I did what was best for us, what had to be done.

 

Vincent turned reluctantly from what would be a rare sight of Catherine -- surely he could never be in the same room with her again -- and returned to his chamber. He did not really begrudge her the comfort of her family Below. The pain of seeing her like this occasionally would just have to be borne. He tried to comprehend what a lifetime without Catherine's love would be like. All he could see before him was darkness, unrelieved and utter darkness.

 

_ _ _

 

Catherine was warmed by the love surrounding her. When the concert was over, and she had risen to congratulate the orchestra, she found herself enveloped by the whole community. Each offered a word, a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek -- something to show her she was welcome and she was cherished. She was nearly speechless with gratitude for the generosity of spirit revealed to her. Finally, the crowd around her thinned and only Geoffrey, Father and Mary remained by her side. Mary took Geoffrey's hand and asked him to help her get some tea and cookies for the four of them. Father watched them walk away for a moment, then turned to Catherine and gestured for her to resume her seat. He himself leaned against the back of a couch, and he fixed her with a penetrating stare. "How are you doing, my dear?"

 

She swallowed hard. She hadn't expected Father to inquire so directly about her. She tried a shrug and an "OK, I guess." She should have known she couldn't pacify him so easily.

 

Incredulous, he retorted, "Really, Catherine? I would have thought words like 'utterly devastated' would have more fit the bill. Try again, please."

 

She flashed a small, tight smile and bowed her head in acquiescence to his command. "Father...what can I say? You know how much I care for Vincent. He is everything to me. Without him, I feel as if I've fallen into a deep well of hopelessness, and I can't find my way out. I love him so much!" She paused, considering her next words. They would shock the older man, but she had to tell him. "I would do anything for him. And if what he wants from me is to let him go, then I must. He doesn't want me, Father. He was very clear about that. He doesn't love me anymore, and he doesn't want me in his life. I have to respect his wishes. If that's all he wants from me, then that is what I must do."

 

He was shocked, and made no attempt to hide his feelings. "Even if in respecting his wishes, you are destroying your own chance for happiness?" He shook his head ruefully. "I thought you had more spunk, my dear! You always struck me as a woman who does not give up without a fight. I have seen you in full battle cry, occasionally when the battle was taken to me, so I know what I'm talking about. Why won't you fight for what you want now?"

 

The pain in her heart was reflected in the harsh whisper with which she uttered her next words. "Because I have no one to fight. Vincent doesn't love me. There is no offensive I can mount which could overcome that simple fact."

 

Catherine shrugged her shoulders as she looked up at Father. "I honestly don't know what happened, Father. As recently as two weeks ago, I would have sworn that Vincent's love for me was deep and abiding. Through our Bond, I felt...everything -- his heart was full, Father, and it beat for me. But now...I don't know. Something changed. But I don't have any idea what."

 

In a low, confiding voice, Father acknowledged, "He is still very...fragile, Catherine. His emotional state is...unsteady... at best. His recovery is far from complete. I cannot believe that he truly knows what he wants right now."

 

Wryly, she responded, "He seemed very much in control when last we spoke, Father." But her brief show of bleak amusement vanished as she asked, "Has he spoken to you about it? Did he give you any insight?"

 

Father shook his head regretfully. "Not really, Catherine. He didn't tell anyone that he had ended his relationship with you. I only found out about it when Geoffrey showed me your note. If you hadn't sent it...God knows when we'd have realized what had happened. Vincent would not speak of it to me. When I confronted him this afternoon, his only thoughts were about your presence here tonight." He leaned forward, squeezing her forearm with one hand, as he said, "I told him in no uncertain terms that he cannot banish you from our home or our hearts, and that you are welcome...and expected...here always."

 

Catherine stood and embraced the old man. "You have no idea how glad I was to receive your note today telling me that. I was so...lost, thinking I'd never be able to see you all again, share in your lives, be healed by your love. You have no reason to want me here, but I appreciate it, more than you can know, that you do."

 

Father cleared his throat and returned her embrace with a rough one of his own. "Every reason in the world. You are a part of us. You are our family, as we are yours. Family is forever, Catherine. You will always have a place here, with us." He pulled away but kept his hands on her shoulders as he gazed deeply into her eyes. "But I plead with you, do not let this state of affairs between you and Vincent last. I cannot believe that he truly meant it when he said he no longer loved you. There is some reason he is pushing you away, some rational explanation for his actions. You cannot allow him to prevail in this, please, Catherine."

 

Sensing her distress at his words and assuming it was merely tiredness that prevented her from engaging his son in further discussion, he said, "If you do not feel up to speaking with him tonight, then perhaps you should return another time...but soon... and have it out with him. Confront him, Catherine. Force him to explain himself. This separation is causing too much pain. Although he won't admit it, Vincent feels it as strongly as you."

 

Catherine's hesitant nod betrayed her lack of conviction. Vincent had been quite clear...and quite adamant. But this man who knew him so well was urging her to disregard her better judgment -- well, perhaps she should listen to him. "If you think it might do some good, Father, of course I'll try." Her trepidation at the thought of confronting Vincent caused her voice to quaver as she explained. "I'm just afraid...one of the last things he said to me was that he did not wish to be cruel to me. I shudder to think what that means." She smiled ruefully. "I'm...not in such great shape emotionally either, Father. Seeing the way he looked at me --so coldly, without any affection in his eyes -- it was like a knife twisting in my heart. It takes more courage than I can muster right now to defy his express wishes and face those eyes again. "

 

The patriarch of the Tunnels noted her pale, drawn face and her bleak expression. The thought crossed his mind that tonight he might have done more harm than good by pressing her so hard to resolve things with his son. Catherine seemed on the verge of tears, and he hadn't meant to distress her at all, but to offer encouragement. She'd come Below tonight for comfort, and he had obviously made her feel worse. He sighed. Sometimes he thought he understood human nature, and at other times, he seemed to stumble blindly when the people he loved most needed him.

 

Hovering in the doorway, Geoffrey heard most of the exchange between Father and Catherine. He hadn't meant to, but he was so concerned about Catherine, and he knew she was unhappy. He was glad Father was being so nice to her, but he shouldn't force her to stand up to Vincent when Vincent is angry. Geoffrey determined to do something about all this, for his dear friend Catherine. He stepped further into the room.

 

Glad of the interruption, hoping it would allow Catherine time to regain her equilibrium, Father greeted the youngster. "Ah, here is Geoffrey with our cookies. Is Mary coming with the tea?"

 

He nodded. "She'll be here soon."

 

Beckoning him closer, Father instructed, "Well, come here, boy, by me, and let's try one of those cookies."

 

Geoffrey set the plate down on a nearby table. "I'd...I'd love to, Father. But...I have something...really important...I've gotta do first."

 

"More important than cookies?" Father looked dubious. "Well, all right, if it's that important, but hurry back."

 

"I will, I promise." And with that, Geoffrey dashed from the room. He hurried to Vincent's chamber and called to him.

 

"Vincent? It's me, Geoffrey. Can I come in?"

 

Vincent bade him enter, and Geoffrey walked in.

 

Without preamble, he advised the imposing older man, "Vincent, I have something I have to talk to you about."

 

Vincent nodded encouragingly at him. Geoffrey strode up to him, fists clenched. He took a deep breath and began to speak. "I'm really mad at you right now. The way you treated Catherine was terrible. She was crying during the concert. She told me it was 'cause the music was sad, but I know it was because of you. She's so nice, Vincent, how could you make her cry?"

 

He was shaking inside at the thought of lecturing his teacher, but what he had to say was important, so he braced himself to continue. "Father's in there right now trying to convince her to come here and talk to you, and you know what she's doing? She's defending you, trying to explain what you did, when she doesn't understand it herself. But she loves you so much that she thinks you know what's best." His face reddened and he yelled, "Well, you don't. If you think what's best is making Catherine cry, then you don't know what's best." Catching himself, he forced his voice lower as he said, "I'm not so young that I don't remember what you were like before Catherine -- you were always sad. Catherine makes you smile, Vincent, more than anyone else can. And you haven't been smiling lately, since you made her leave you. Why did you do it? Why?"

 

Vincent was shocked at this outburst from such an unexpected source. He knew that Geoffrey was a sensitive boy, but he never knew he had such courage. To stand up to what must be the most formidable presence he had known in his young life, to defend the happiness of an adored friend, was courage beyond words. Vincent knelt to respond to him.

 

"Geoffrey, I know Catherine would thank you for your concern if she knew you were here. You have a great and valorous heart. I admire that. But how can I make you understand why I had to send her away? It is very complicated."

 

"Try me, Vincent." The boy put a small hand on one broad, heavily muscled shoulder and patted it encouragingly.

 

A rare smile broke across Vincent's face at the youngster's comment, but was wiped away almost immediately by a cloudy look. He began to speak as if from a distance, his eyes focused over the young boy's shoulder, somewhere beyond the room. "Geoffrey, when I was...sick, I had...horrible...awful dreams. More like nightmares. They seemed so real, as if I was living them. I had no idea I was only dreaming. And in those dreams...I somehow lost my...connection...my Bond...with Catherine. And worse, much worse."

 

He tore his gaze from the remembrance and turned anguished eyes to the youngster. His voice was only a harsh, hoarse whisper. "I...oh, Geoffrey, I hate to tell you this...I...lost her. She...died. And I could do nothing to save her. She was held captive by terrible men, and by the time I got to her...all I could do was...watch her die." A deep shudder shook his massive frame, then he went on. "I awoke from my nightmare, only to find that our Bond was, indeed, broken. Yet Catherine was there...and still warm and alive."

 

The big man stood and turned to lean with both arms against his writing table. His head was lowered so that his hair hid his face, and he seemed to be controlling his voice only with great effort. "I...have thought about this...for a long time, Geoffrey...and I have concluded that the nightmare was a...warning. It was sent to me to show me what would happen if I continued to let Catherine love me. I let her go...I sent her away...because I cannot bear to relive that nightmare. She is too precious to me." He turned back to the boy and leaned down, grasping him by his thin shoulders. " I cannot allow her to fulfill that dark omen. She must be free. So I had to do it. I had to. Do you understand now?"

 

Geoffrey was frighten by the intensity in the older man's voice, and in the deeply grieving eyes that bore into his. This was just awful! Poor Vincent! No wonder he was so sad.

 

He realized that Vincent was waiting for his reply. But first, he tried to convey his sympathy by patting the older man's cheek with one hand. He noted in a small corner of his mind that what he'd always thought would be rough stubble was actually soft and nubby, like velvet. "I think I understand, Vincent. You're afraid something might happen to her. But she's really hurt. She doesn't understand. Why can't you tell her what you just told me?"

 

Vincent's face hardened, and his voice rasped harshly as he replied, "I cannot, Geoffrey, and neither must you. She must believe that I no longer care for her. That is the only way she would agree to leave me. She must learn to live another life, one without me."

 

The youngster thought hard and fast. He had to find a way to help Catherine be happy again. "Vincent, how do you know that's what your nightmare really meant? Narcissa told me once that dreams have many meanings. You think your dream was about Catherine dying because she loves you. But what if it wasn't? What if what it meant was, because you weren't with her anymore, she died? See? It could mean other things, too. Like...maybe...she got sick, or something, and the terrible men were like...cancer, you know? I'd feel just awful if someone didn't like me anymore, and I found out it was 'cause of a dream!"

 

Vincent's face drained of color as he spoke, and Geoffrey became frightened at the effect of his words on the older man. He grabbed Vincent's shoulders and started to shake him. "Vincent, are you OK? Vincent? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. Are you OK?"

 

Vincent grasped the young boy's hands and rose. "Yes, Geoffrey, I'm fine. Thank you for coming to see me. You cannot know how much your...advice...has helped me. I must think now, but...you have shown yourself a true friend tonight, not just to Catherine...but to me as well. Go now."

 

Geoffrey smiled at Vincent, then backed a step, turned, and ran out of the room, and he didn't stop until he got to the concert chamber.

 

Catherine turned as she saw the boy rush in and said, "Where have you been? The tea is all gone, but I managed to save a few cookies for you from Father's ravenous jaws!"

 

Father harrumphed, then stood and pronounced the evening officially over. He placed a kiss on Catherine's forehead, then on Geoffrey's, and went off to his bed. Mary told Catherine not to worry about the tea things, and then remarked pointedly that it was time young men took their "dates" home and then got themselves to bed.

 

Geoffrey took the hint and, munching the last of the cookies, clasped Catherine's hand and started for the tunnels. As they walked, his companion hummed a strain of the music from the concert. Suddenly, from around a corner, Vincent stepped into view. Catherine froze, the tune dying in her throat. She squeezed Geoffrey's hand convulsively.

 

Geoffrey looked at Vincent, then at Catherine. Determinedly he tugged at Catherine's hand, pulling her reluctantly along until she and Vincent were face to face. Geoffrey looked up at his teacher and said, "Vincent, I'm kinda tired. You suppose you could walk Catherine back to her basement for me?" Catherine stared down at him in shock and surprise. "Geoffrey, I don't think..."

 

"It's OK, Catherine," he replied. "It'll be OK, won't it, Vincent?"

 

Vincent gazed into Catherine's eyes, and she was mesmerized by all that she saw in his. Whatever dark cloud had passed over them was gone now, and they shone with a familiar loving light. Vincent held his hand out for Catherine's, and Geoffrey relinquished it. Tearing her eyes from Vincent's beloved face, Catherine turned to Geoffrey and placed her other hand on his head, fondly tousling his curls. "Thank you, Geoffrey. It was a wonderful evening."

 

As Geoffrey ducked and started back down the corridor, he called out to Catherine, "It'll get better. I promise!"