VANISHED HOURS

 


 

"Catherine. Catherine!"

 

Vincent's raspy whisper cut through the fog of sleep which enveloped her, and she woke to find the worried face of her beloved hovering over hers. She wondered what catastrophe could have caused him to cross the inviolate line of her apartment's threshold. Immediately concerned, she would have sat up except for the restraining hand which suddenly appeared at her shoulder.

 

Groggily, she asked, "What's happened? Is everyone Below alright?"

 

Vincent sat back on the bed and regarded his Bondmate with a worried expression. "You have sustained a serious blow to the head, my love. Father allowed me to bring you back to our chamber, but on the condition that I not allow you to fall asleep. He is afraid you have a concussion. I'm sorry I startled you, but you appeared to have dropped off."

 

Catherine's expression grew pained as she tried to come to terms with the hideous headache she had suddenly acquired. What was he talking about? "I'm...I'm Below?" The last thing she remembered was climbing into her own bed in her apartment Above, dragging mounds of case files with her. She thought she might have fallen asleep while reading. What could have caused a concussion? Shaking her head in a vain attempt to clear it, and succeeding only in driving fresh stabs of pain through her skull, she tried to sort things out. "Tell me...what...happened, please. I remember being in my bed, but nothing after that...."

 

Vincent gently took her hands in his, tenderly kissed them -- a gesture which thrilled and shocked Catherine for its unexpected boldness -- and began to relate the incidents of the past few hours. "You were not in our...in your bed, my love. You were returning to the tunnels with our son...with Geoffrey, after taking him and the rest of his English Literature class to a matinee performance of The Scottish Play. The Royal Shakespeare Company is in town, and you were so happy to be able to secure good seats for the children -- remember?" It was clear she didn't, which puzzled him. He continued his narrative, assuming she would stop him at the point at which her memory caught up with him.

 

"The others had run on ahead, vying to be the first to relate their impressions of their wonderful adventure Above. You and Geoffrey lagged behind. I imagine that you were enjoying some one-on-one time together. We believe that an accident Above caused a water main breakage, which in turn led to the collapse of the part of the tunnel in which you were walking. Geoffrey escaped with only scrapes and bruises. You had been walking with your arms linked together, and he says the last thing he remembers before the ceiling collapsed was you shoving him hard. Apparently, you pushed him clear of the worst of the collapse.

 

"He said that when he turned to look for you, you were lying half covered in debris. You were not moving, and he feared the worst. He summoned help on the pipes, and by the time we arrived he had almost dug you free."

 

Vincent's face reflected his paternal satisfaction. "I am so proud of our son, Catherine. He kept his head and reacted exactly as he should have. He did not move you until medical assistance arrived. Father checked you over thoroughly -- you have several broken ribs, and your legs are badly scraped and bruised, but overall you were extremely lucky. Large chunks of concrete apparently missed you by inches, although something caused trauma to your head.

"Father insisted that you be taken to the hospital chamber for observation. But I prevailed upon him to allow you to come home, knowing you would prefer the comfort of your own bed to one in the hospital chamber."

 

Catherine's face took on an increasingly baffled expression as Vincent related the story of her accident and rescue. His heart sank when he realized that none of what he had said clarified matters in the least for her.

 

She confirmed that impression when she haltingly asked, "So...let me get this straight. You're telling me...I live Below? And...we...have a son? When did all this happen?"

 

Vincent tried to act as if these questions did not pierce him to the core, understanding immediately that she must be suffering from some type of temporary amnesia. Gently he continued his explanations. "You came Below over three years ago, Catherine. You and I were Joined before our family here on the fourth anniversary of ...on the following twelfth of April. On that day, we also adopted Geoffrey as our son. We have lived as husband and wife here, in this chamber, since that time. Do you recall none of this?"

 

Catherine was stunned. She thought for a brief moment that he was playing some sort of elaborate joke on her, except that Vincent never did things like that. And he was looking at her so earnestly, gripping her hands as if afraid she would float away....

 

She tried to focus her thoughts, her memories, to find something, anything that would bring back the past few years that he described. But her struggle was in vain. There was nothing -- not even a ghostly tendril of remembrance slipped through the fog. Had he really said she'd lived Below for over three years?

 

Even the past -- her remembered past -- was hazy. Flashes of moments came to her, but even some of those were confused, muddled. Why could some things seem so clear and others seem just out of reach, and why were some gone as if never lived? Tears sprang to her eyes as, frustrated and frightened, she choked out, "I...can't...remember! I want to, Vincent! But...I...can't!" Sobbing, she turned her head from him, ashamed at her weakness.

 

Offering a reassurance he did not feel, Vincent said, "Hush, beloved. Don't worry. It will all come back to you in time. Lie quietly now, and let me read to you. I'm sorry that I cannot let you sleep."

 

She smiled tremulously up at him and said, "I know you're taking good care of me, Vincent. Thank you."

 

Through their Bond, he could almost feel the swirling mists that clouded her mind. She was lost, adrift. His love must be her anchor. And there was only one thing he could do to ease her spirit right now -- shut down their Bond. Much as it pained him to do this -- to lose the sweet contact of her soul brushing against his -- he knew that during this confusing time she would only be further burdened by having to deal with his own uneasiness and fears. Better, for now, if she could truly be alone with her thoughts, her emotions, her reflections. Quietly, regretfully, he withdrew his consciousness from hers, leaving only the weakest of links in place -- enough to tell if she was well or ill, awake or asleep, nothing more.

 

He left her bedside to retrieve a book and to tap out a message to Father -- F - come to C. V. He hoped that Father would know what to do.

 

But there was nothing Father could do.

 

_ _ _

 

Three weeks had passed since the tunnel collapse -- three weeks of explaining, filling Catherine in on events, people and memories which had been wiped from her mind. And still no glimmer of remembrance brightened her senses. She took on faith everything she was told, but the stress on her and her family was growing greatly.

 

Geoffrey was desperate for some sign of more than friendly recognition from his Mom. They had grown so devoted to each other these past few years. She was his best buddy, his closest confidant, and -- unbeknownst even to Father and Vincent -- his co-conspirator on several grand schemes about which their Tunnel family still spoke in awed tones. How did that fully decorated evergreen tree make its way unnoticed into Father's library on Christmas Eve? What was the origin of those odd, spooky sounds which emanated from the Abyss on All Hallow's Eve? She took a perverse delight in encouraging his harmless pranks, but insisted she never be revealed as one of the instigators. However, Geoffrey considered the two of them a team. If she wouldn't take credit, then neither would he. And so the pranks entered into the folklore of the Tunnel community unclaimed.

 

He remembered the moment of the accident. They had been walking slowly back to the Home Tunnels after the play Above. He had confessed that he had once again misplaced the pocket watch she'd given him for his thirteenth birthday. It was his most prized possession -- an heirloom passed down to Catherine from her Father's side of the family for generations. He had a habit of taking the precious object off whenever he was doing something which might cause it damage -- when he was on kitchen detail, for instance, or helping during emergency digging. He also had a habit of forgetting exactly where he had placed the watch for safekeeping. It had become something of a wry joke between them: he would -- eventually and reluctantly -- ask for her help in locating the missing item, she'd give him "that look," then help him mentally retrace his steps, but inevitably they'd end up overturning everything in their path until it was found, as his Mom always said, "in the last place you look." That terrible day, just as him Mom was giving him "that look," laughing with him even as she did so, the ceiling had begun to fall in on them. More than that -- his life had fallen in on him.

 

How he treasured his Mom's patience, her delight in his intrigues, her understanding without words of what he was thinking, feeling. All that had changed since the accident. His Mom was still very nice and kind, but she wasn't...Mom anymore. His dismay and apprehension had grown over the past weeks, as his Mother's amnesia seemed unabated. Their conversations had been halting and difficult, as neither seemed to know exactly what to say to the other. It seemed as if they would have to start again...from the beginning. After all the years of aloneness, he had finally belonged to someone again. And she had only been his for a few precious years -- it wasn't fair that those years would be so cruelly snatched from them now.

 

If anyone noticed that he smiled less than before...well, he had always been a quiet child, and confided in few. So Geoffrey kept his grief to himself. When his Dad had tried to speak to him about the strange situation they were unexpectedly thrust into, Geoffrey had told him he wasn't ready to talk. His Dad, he knew, could sense he was troubled, but he had insisted that his Dad not worry about him. He rebuffed every offer of consolation, until Vincent retreated within the walls of his own heartache, hoping that Geoffrey would seek him out when he was ready. But Geoffrey would not do that. He didn't want to burden his Dad with the pain of this odd kind of abandonment, and so he held it close, held it deep. After all, his Dad had enough troubles of his own.

 

Geoffrey had always been a sensitive boy, turned now into a compassionate young man. The tension apparent to him between his Mom and Dad made his own problems seem puny in comparison. But still he ached, and wept silently in his bed at night, and prayed to whatever gods would listen for his Mom to come back to him.

 

Vincent had not shared Catherine's bed since the night of the tunnel collapse. She was in pain and mending, of course, but beyond that -- she could not remember. All the joy they had given each other, the confidences exchanged, the delights explored, the passion expressed in that bed -- all was lost as if it had never been.

 

He had vowed that he would not make her feel in any way uncomfortable. She was confused and upset enough, knowing she had lost so much, without being expected to engage in intimacies her conscious mind could not recollect. And so he struggled to hold himself back from the little things he was accustomed to doing which might now startle her -- his tendency to reach out to caress her face when he passed her within their chambers or in the tunnels, the urge to stroke her back as they sat beside each other reading their books, his habit of bending to kiss her neck if he caught her standing at the mirror to fix her hair -- all of these and a dozen other little expressions of affection would surprise and disconcert her now. He focused his attention on these. Doing so masked his apprehension about the deeper issues he could not think of now. He needed her so....

 

During the first years of their relationship, Vincent had waged a terrible battle within himself to refrain from showing any overt physical affection to Catherine which might be misinterpreted -- or worse, interpreted correctly. He had occasional lapses when he reached for her or held her in ways which let her know a small part of what he tried so to hide. But most of the time he was successful in not allowing their friendship to be transformed from a deeply romantic but chaste companionship into...something more. He had always believed she must have the freedom to move beyond him, back to her own world and life, to find a suitable man who could give her everything he never could. To be a part of Catherine, a true part of her, and she of him, was beyond the scope of his vision -- it remained an unspoken, unexplored aspect of their shared dream.

 

But when Catherine had told him she would adopt Geoffrey, that all had changed.

 

Geoffrey had come to mean so much to her in the months after Vincent's terrible illness which brought with it the nightmare vision of her death. The boy had been company and assistance to her as she took on the role of chief nurse during his convalescence. When he had recovered, Vincent had determined finally to set Catherine free, to spare her from fulfilling the omen he believed his nightmare to be. Geoffrey had helped him to see that the pain he was causing to both Catherine and himself would not prevent a future which could not, in any event, be seen or predicted, that love was the only and the truest guide. Vincent found himself drawn even closer to the young boy after that, charmed anew by his quiet tenacity and fervent loyalty to Catherine.

 

Still, he had been stunned when Catherine had explained her plans to make the young orphan her son. The idea of Catherine being willing to change her life in such a way, even to be willing to move Below if that was what was best for Geoffrey, had unsettled him. Glad as he was for both Catherine and Geoffrey, he felt he had left the possibility of a life of his own with Catherine too long unexplored -- and he had lost his chance. But he had found the courage from Geoffrey's example to reach for the life which was always within his grasp -- with Catherine by his side. When the boy had shyly confessed to Catherine that he had wanted to ask her to adopt him, and she had made him promise never to withhold his thoughts and feelings from her again, Vincent began to understand that wishing would not make things so -- action and faith were required. Inspired, he had finally spoken to Catherine of all that was contained in the depths of his heart.

 

Action and faith had carried the day. Catherine had moved Below soon after Winterfest, several months before their Joining and Geoffrey's formal Tunnel adoption. They had agreed that the only date possible for the Joining ceremony was April 12. Planning for the event, which would turn out to be the largest assembly of Tunnelfolk and Helpers ever brought together at one time, meant sufficient lead time was required. New quarters had to be carved out, and so many details of life had to be discussed and settled upon. The one thing which they had not truly discussed before she moved Below was...that first night.

 

In fact, their expectations of a "first night" were not even mutual. He had been anticipating it as the night of their Joining, while she...in her need and wisdom...had fastened upon the night, months before the Joining, when she moved Below. At first he had balked at her suggestion, made at the exact moment she'd stepped beneath her threshold, suitcases in hand, to begin her new life. But as he'd walked with her in silence to the guest chamber which had been prepared for her, he had come to realize that her suggestion, impulsive though it was, was for the best. Without the pressure of the formal occasion upon them, they could relax and ease into this new aspect of their relationship. The more he had thought about it, the more the idea had appealed to him...despite his nervousness and his concerns. And what if their attempt to make love ended in disaster? Wasn't it better to know that before they Joined, saving them a lifetime of frustration and despair? By the time they had reached the guest chamber, Vincent had decided. He would trust Catherine's instincts -- if he could follow her to the brink of death, surely following her into his own chamber would not be so daunting a task?

 

Looking back upon Catherine's first night...with him...always caused a wave of delicate shivers to ripple through his body. In the end, it had been so perfect...so right. When they had withdrawn into his chamber on the day she moved Below, they had turned so naturally into each other's arms, it had surprised them both. Vincent's initial fears had melted beneath the heat of Catherine's ardor. They had loved each other tenderly and gently, but with a fierce intensity, as if in a kind of trance. Each kiss, each caress, each embrace had led instinctively to the next. It was as if they had been lovers throughout all eternity, waking into this existence with an innate understanding of all that was most pleasing, most tantalizing, most fulfilling to the other. Catherine's cries of delight and his groans of ecstasy had filled the night. They had made love until the dawn, yet the hours had flown by as if minutes. When the first stirrings of others in the tunnels made them aware that a new day had begun, they had come back to themselves as if from a dream -- a sweet, intoxicating, joyous, blissful dream.

 

Never having known the delights of the flesh, Vincent at first assumed his consuming, nearly overwhelming reaction to his lover was the result of his long years of sublimation and denial. He desired her constantly. He was in a persistent state of arousal whenever Catherine was near -- making love to her once rarely cooled his blood. Each time they came together, it was as if for the first time, and many nights he moved from one loving to the next almost without pause. His body's response to hers was unflagging, unrelenting, uncontrollable. He began to worry that the intensity of his need would soon repel her -- when would enough ever be enough? He asked her often, begging her not to be afraid to tell him if his cravings were in any way...unnatural, but her reassurances -- always expressed nonverbally -- amazed and gratified him.

 

He had understood from snatches of conversation between other men over the years that the "honeymoon" phase of a marriage eventually gave way to a still fulfilling but less passionate -- less frequent -- physical relationship. Yet, in the years since their Joining -- except for a brief period when his guilt over her abandonment of her life Above had paralyzed his natural response to her -- his desire for Catherine had grown rather than lessened. He ached for her, craved her touch, the mere nearness of her, her body's reactions to his -- everything within him reached for her, always. He could never get enough of her, of her loving him.

 

He had found to his joy (and, sometimes, consternation) that Catherine's hunger matched his own. Far from becoming exasperated by his constant, irrepressible need for her, she had gloried in it, always as anxious as he for any stolen moment of pleasure or long night of love which they might carve from their busy lives. Her yearning for him, so clear through their Bond, was so great that sometimes his concentration on other tasks was lost in the distraction of her desire flowing to him. And she stoked that passion nearly every night, greedy for the taste of him, the feel of him beside her, inside her, surrounding her. He knew this because she whispered these things to him when they were alone in the dark...and sometimes when they were in a crowd of people, or at a concert, or at dinner.

 

The physical expression of their love was a metaphor for the way they lived their lives -- completely and totally committed to each other, single-minded in pursuit of their destiny, admitting no advantage and taking none. Theirs was an all-encompassing passion, a true merging of like minds, a marriage of heart, body and soul which defined all that was best, all that could be between a man and a woman.

 

All that had changed since Catherine's accident. Her only memories of their love were from a time when little physical expression existed between them, when the path of their shared destiny was still unexplored. The deeper understanding they had come to in the years since their Joining was splintered, the shards pricking them both, causing pain and frustration. Everything was...different. How could he now go to her for the comfort he so badly needed, which only she could give? How could he...impose on her an intimacy she did not remember initiating? He longed for her with an almost palpable desire, in silence and in misery.

 

_ _ _

 

Catherine's physical wounds were almost healed, but she suffered still from headaches and the ever-present knowledge that she had lost the most important years of her life. Everyone around her assured her that they had been happy years -- surely, they must have been, since she and Vincent had been together, and since she had taken into her heart the orphan boy who had been such a special friend to her during Vincent's illness. She saw in those two faces -- Vincent's and Geoffrey's -- the yearning for her to come back to them, and she desperately wished she could give back to them the woman they had known and loved for so long. She wanted that woman's life -- her dream life -- back with a fierce urgency.

 

Father had reassured her that she was likely to regain most, if not all, of her memories in time. "In time" -- he meant to be comforting, yet her impatience was not assuaged by that prognosis. Her family needed her now, she could feel it. She had tried to pick up the pieces of her life, but it was so difficult when she didn't even know what those pieces were. Now that the greatest part of her physical healing was done, she was determined to find the missing pieces and fit them back together again -- with or without her memory as an aid.

 

_ _ _

 

"Geoffrey? May I come in?"

 

He had been lying on his bed, one arm thrown across his face. He made a swiping motion against his eyes before he rose and bid her enter. Uncomfortable at having disturbed him in a private moment, she nevertheless plunged ahead. She had to try to break through the wall of glass he had erected these past weeks. All their conversations since her accident had been so strained, so stilted. Was he deliberately shutting her out? Or did he recoil from her seeming strangeness, her awkwardness after the casual intimacy they must have developed in the intervening years? Gingerly, she walked over to where he sat and dropped down next to him, close enough to touch him, although she made no move to do so.

 

Her eyes were filled with warmth and concern as she gazed at his familiar, though now astoundingly grown-up, face. Could even three years have made such a difference in him? He seemed almost a stranger -- no longer the boy she could still cuddle, but a teenager -- a young man who might resent her own need to reach out to him.

 

She looked at his red-rimmed eyes and, in her nervousness, asked the first thing that occurred to her. "Have you been crying?"

 

He thought about lying, but he didn't like to do that -- and especially not to her. In fact, he couldn't remember ever lying to her in all the years he'd known her. He lowered his head as he admitted, "Yeah. I'm sorry."

 

Ashamed that he may have read accusation in her voice, she softened her tone. "Don't be. There's no need. We're all going through a very disturbing, unsettling time. And what happened to me...it's no one's fault."

 

He shook his head fiercely, still looking down. "If I had pulled you away from the falling concrete, maybe....."

 

She grabbed his shoulders and shook him gently to make him look at her. "No, Geoffrey. No! You couldn't have done anything to change what happened. In fact, from what Vin...your Dad told me, you did everything right -- you probably saved my life. If you hadn't cleared the rubble from off of me right away, one of my broken ribs might have pierced a lung and...."

 

"Don't say it! Don't even think it! If I had lost you...." Tears fell down his freckled cheeks and he began to rub them away roughly.

 

"Hush, now, honey. You didn't lose me. I'm right here." Tenderly, she began to brush his remaining tears away with her thumbs, then caressed his cheeks softly with her fingertips, gentling and quieting him. His tears ceased, but his eyes stared in anguish at the woman who meant the world to him. In his face she read all the anxiety and terror which a young heart like his could hold when his world has been turned upside down. He'd had a mother, and now all he had was this woman who looked just like her, but didn't really know him anymore.

 

Empathy filled her voice as she vowed, "I may not remember everything that's happened in the last few years, but there's one thing I hold in my heart which can never be erased, and that's my love for you and your Dad. You are my son, my special boy. That can never change."

 

His eyes again welled with tears, and his lower lip began to tremble. She was filled with a depthless compassion for the pain of this innocent young man who was so bravely trying to take the burden of his loss into himself. She could not let him suffer in silence any longer.

 

"Geoffrey, I...don't really know how you'd feel about it...but I could sure use a hug right now. Would that be OK?"

 

Without a word, he threw himself into her arms, clinging to her so desperately that her newly healed ribs began to throb. But that didn't matter now -- nothing mattered but comforting and loving her son. She held him tightly and rocked him gently, whispering assurances of her love and commitment to him, kissing his mop of tousled curls. A long while passed as they held each other, giving each other strength. Finally, he loosened his hold upon her. She raised his face to hers and kissed his tear-swollen eyes, then kissed his cheeks, and finally, pulling away from him, kissed both of his hands before holding them on her lap.

 

With an earnest plea, she revealed her need. "You must help me, Geoffrey. I need your love to guide me, until I find my way back to you -- all the way back."

 

He smiled then, a grateful, shy smile, just like the ones he'd bestowed as a child. "Sure, Mom. Whatever you need. I'm always here for you. I love you."

 

She hugged him again, quickly, then rose to leave. At his chamber entrance she stopped and turned to him again. "I love you, Geoffrey. I always will."

 

"I know," he said simply. But his heart soared.

 

_ _ _

 

She came upon him in the chamber which functioned as their common room, but which he had used as his sleeping quarters since her accident. His cot lay made up in a corner. It was very late, yet still he was up, writing in his journal. Some things never change, she thought wryly.

 

As she walked in, he looked up with such an expression of longing that her heart leapt to her throat. What am I putting this dear man through? How can I ever make things right for him? She noticed that he quickly replaced his first, unguarded look with a carefully bland one, and the pain in her heart increased immeasurably. She had suspected almost since she had recovered consciousness after her accident that he was withholding his emotional turmoil from their Bond, anxious not to intrude his own confusion into her chaotic, turbulent thoughts and feelings. By doing so, she knew he was allowing her the privacy to sort through her disorientation and agitation. But did he realize that he was also leaving her adrift? Without his comforting presence anchoring her within their Bond, she was more alone than ever, more frightened, less sure that her responses and actions were the right ones. She had never felt more...apart from him than she did right now. She hoped it didn't show.

 

"Would you like some company, Vincent?" She smiled hopefully at him.

 

He nodded and indicated a seat. "Of course, Catherine. You never have to ask."

 

She smiled her gratitude and moved to sit on the loveseat opposite his writing table.

 

Feeling uncertain, he hid behind formalities. "May I pour you some herbal tea? It might help you sleep."

 

"That would be nice. Although it hasn't seemed to do you much good!" It felt nice to joke with him, and she noted that his face relaxed a bit when he smiled shyly in response.

 

"That's true. Still...it's warm and comforting." He rose and brought her a hand-thrown pottery mug filled with the fragrant brew. Mary had told her this was her favorite mug -- it was covered with twined red and white roses. She didn't remember how she got it, but could understand how it had become her special favorite.

Shyly, she looked up at him as she accepted the tea. She allowed her fingers to trail across his as she took the mug from his hands. That simple action caused him to tremble, she saw. Her heart lurched again at the poignancy of the strain he betrayed by that uncontrollable shiver.

 

A bit nervous, even though she'd determined to pursue this conversation, she asked, "Vincent...would you sit beside me for a while? We haven't had much of a chance to just...be alone together...since my accident."

 

Nodding in acquiescence, he lowered himself to the overstuffed loveseat upon which she was sitting. His massive frame and the close confines of the furniture did not allow him to maintain any physical distance from her.

 

When they had commandeered this couch from the chamber where excess furniture was stored, the reason they had chosen it was because it was so cozy, perfect for sitting close while reading together. His mind drifted for a moment to those evenings after Geoffrey was in bed, evenings spent in almost total but companionable silence, each of them buried in a book. Catherine would either lean against one arm of the loveseat and arch her legs across Vincent's thighs, or, more often, lean against his chest, hanging her legs over the arm of the couch. Many nights, their loving began here -- he would nuzzle against her hair, finding her ear and capturing the lobe between his teeth, worrying and sucking upon it until she began to whimper. She would retaliate -- sliding her hand down until she could trace the outline of his manhood pressed against his jeans, then running her nails lightly up and down its length until he almost squirmed from the sensation. They would drop their books then and....

 

Catherine knew none of the turmoil raging through him as he sat, stiff and uncomfortable beside her, his right thigh pressed tightly to her left one. She took a sip of her tea, then placed the mug on the small table beside her. She turned to regard Vincent as he sat, staring at his hands. She shook him from his reverie with her question.

 

"Would you...would you hold me, please?"

 

A soft sigh escaped his lips before he replied. She almost didn't hear his whispered "Yes." He lifted his right arm in invitation, and she slipped beneath it, leaning into his solid warm presence. His arm draped lightly across her shoulders, and she burrowed more tightly against him, hoping he would clasp her more firmly in response. Ever so slightly, he did.

 

With her arms wrapped around his waist, Catherine relaxed fully into his embrace, pressing her face into the soft ribbing of the heavy robe he wore. Beneath it, she could feel his steely strength, muscles tensed against her gentle assault. Her heart nearly broke at that. So much distance lay between them. From her perspective, this embrace was far more than he'd ever allowed before. From his, it was far less than he was used to. Without her memories to aid her, was that chasm too deep to cross?

 

She sighed. "This has been so hard, Vincent."

 

In a strained voice, he replied, "Be patient with yourself, Catherine. It will get easier in time."

 

"No...I meant for you..and for Geoffrey."

 

Again, just one whispered word came in response. "Yes."

 

Taking a shuddering breath, she willed herself to begin this most difficult part of their discussion. "Won't you teach me, Vincent? Until my memory returns...if it returns...I'm so lost. I don't mean about the big things -- everyone has been more than helpful in catching me up on Tunnel happenings, filling me in about things I did, people I've met. But there are gaps in my memory that...that only you can fill. I need you to guide me...on the little things, the...private things...between us. Please? I love you so much. It's so strange to know in my heart that you and I are now one -- but in my mind, just as surely, right now I know that you have never even told me you love me."

 

Against her ear, the silk-and-gravel voice avowed, "I have, Catherine. A million times. More. I...I love you with everything I am. Believe it."

 

Her heart thrilled at the sound of those precious words. "I do! Oh, I do, Vincent!" Suddenly, a surge of empathy poured from within her. "I can only imagine what you've been through these past weeks, living with a...a stranger."

 

Gently, he disputed her assertion. "You are no stranger to me, Catherine, nor I to you."

 

"On many levels we are. In our...physical relationship, for instance." She felt his increased tension at the words. The Vincent she remembered would not have allowed her to continue, but this Vincent, the one holding her now, still held his peace. That gave her the courage to go on. Yet, as she spoke, her voice betrayed the apprehension she felt in delving into this sensitive topic with the part of this man she did not know. "You understand, don't you, that I've wanted to love you...in every way...for almost as long as we've known each other?" She felt his hesitant nod against her cheek. In a hushed voice, she went on. "I still do. Do...do you...want me?"

 

Vincent couldn't suppress the groan that was torn from his throat at the question. The arm which held her tightened in reply, and his left arm moved to complete the embrace. Pressing her as close as he'd dared since her accident, he murmured in her ear, "Always, my love."

 

Catherine was stunned by this swift declaration. Yet, she reminded herself, for him it was an affirmation borne of years of living and loving together. What she contemplated, while so new to her, was a decision long ago made by him. How odd, she thought. In the blink of an eye -- to me, at least -- we've switched places. Now I'm the one who's shy and unsure, and he's the confident, experienced one.

 

Sitting up so she could look into his eyes, she asked the question which had been on the tip of her tongue for days. "Then...will you take me to...our bed, Vincent? I...want to be with you tonight."

 

Tears forming in his eyes betrayed the depth of the emotion Vincent tried to hold in check. His gaze burned into hers as he demanded, "Are you sure, Catherine? Do not do this just for me."

 

She smiled as she said, "Of course I'm doing this for you...and for me. It's for us, Vincent. I love you and I want to share myself with you. I need you so."

 

She stroked his face, tracing its curves with her fingers, astonished that he would allow such an intimacy, then remembering that, of course, she would have done this many times before. But it was an extraordinary and exciting experience nonetheless, undiminished by the fact that to him it would seem unremarkable.

 

Shaking her head in wonder, she admitted, "In a funny way, I feel like I'm taking advantage of you. I...can only remember your reticence. The only kiss I can recall between us is the one I gave you...after my Father died. To ask that man to make love to me -- it's beyond belief that he would consent so readily."

 

Taking her hand, he leaned down to kiss it -- from fingertips to palm to wrist. "That man, Catherine, is no more. You banished him with your gentle perseverance, your quiet persuasion. You gave me a new life, a new purpose, a beautiful reality to replace my barren dreams. Let me prove it to you."

 

Vincent gathered her up in his arms and strode into their bedchamber, pulling the privacy curtain down as he went. Reverently, he laid her upon the bed, then stood to remove his robe. He did it casually, instinctively at ease with the woman he had lived with for so long -- a woman he forgot had never seen him as he appeared before her now.

 

The effect of the sudden revelation of his unconscious splendor pierced Catherine deeply, driving her physical response to a height she would not have believed possible in the space of just a breath. His beauty was overpowering, his muscled strength magnificently displayed, his masculine glory impressive and forthright. And there was one thing more, one thing which overcame her more completely than the visual feast that was before her -- for the first time since her accident, she felt him open their Bond to her. Like a great breath suddenly expelled after long being held, relief and joy flooded through her to mingle with her burgeoning desire. And ...she knew he felt it all.

 

He sat beside her and asked her once more, "Are you sure?" For an answer, she took his face in her hands, drawing him down to kiss him softly, delicately, on the lips which had tempted her for so long.

 

The feeling was one of angels' wings fluttering against his skin -- such sweetness, such promise that it took his breath, starving as he was for the taste of her. His need and hers merged in an instant, flame feeding flame, coiling and twining as the conflagration reached through and became one in their Bond. He reached for her blindly then, crushing her against his chest, inhaling the fragrance of her hair, reacquainting himself with the familiar planes and curves of her -- coming home.

 

When he could speak, he begged for her understanding. "I need you so much, my love." He began to lavish kisses upon her -- covering her face, her neck, her shoulders with the moist, hot traces of his ardor. "I will...try to make this...special for you...but...." Releasing her for a moment, his hands shook as he unknotted her robe and pulled it away from her warm, pliant form. "It is so strange, to be loving you again...for the first time." He lowered himself slowly until he pressed his full length against her, holding himself back from full contact by balancing on his toes and forearms.

 

Catherine reached out to him and urged him down to her, making it clear that she did not want him to withhold any part of himself from her...not any longer. His embrace...the shatteringly exquisite feel of his hands on her bare skin, fondling her, stroking her...was beyond anything her imagination had conjured in her secret fantasies. She reveled in the fascinating textures beneath her fingers -- the rough silk of his fur, the hard ripple of muscle, the fevered flesh -- and her caresses were as much for herself as for him. He was real, and beyond the rational explanation of her memory loss was the irrational but wholly exhilarating belief that here, now, finally...he would love her as she'd always hoped he would.

 

Her response to his touch, to the pressure of his weight upon her, to the bliss of his mouth upon her breast, was instantaneous and compelling. Her world condensed until it contained only his body and hers. She was quivering, trembling with the onslaught of a passion she have never before felt for any man.

 

The unmistakable evidence of her fierce arousal set Vincent further aflame. His nostrils twitched as the intoxicating aroma of her liquid essence issued its siren call. Growls were torn from his throat as he fought to keep himself from claiming her utterly with one thrust, knowing she deserved more consideration, but wild with an unbridled bloodsong of need.

 

A deep flush spread across her chest and face as she arched against him, boldly proclaiming her own need. She wrapped her arms and legs around him then, and took his mouth with a single-minded fervor which reminded him that, although she might not remember the past, she was the same woman who had lived it with him. He gave up his struggle then. She did not want him to hold back. She wanted -- demanded -- all of him, everything, the totality of his being. Their first coupling was thus -- a frenzy of uninhibited rapture, wild and urgent, as forceful an encounter as they'd ever experienced.

 

Their second loving was a mixture of exploration and wonder on Catherine's part, and affirmation and promise on Vincent's. He marveled at her acceptance of all that he was, with none of what had come before clear in her mind to aid her. She opened herself wholeheartedly and ardently to him, and their joining was as intense and impassioned as any love they had made in all their years together. It was as if her body remembered him...intimately...although her mind still could not bring forth the missing years. He lost himself in her, abandoned himself with relief and joy to her mouth, her hands, her sweet, intoxicating elixir.

 

For Catherine, the miracle of Vincent's love was all the more profound for the loss of those years. It was as if he had suddenly been transformed from the modest, reserved companion of her heart into this intense, masterful, demanding, giving lover. The pride she felt that she had played some part in releasing his sensual nature was tempered by the sting of having lost the memory of all the -- she was sure! -- delightful steps which had led to its full expression. The enormity of her loss took her breath away for a moment, until she forced herself to focus on the here and now. She had lost nothing, gained everything -- hours ago, she was bereft and alone. Now she was secure within Vincent's loving embrace, floating in the serenity of their Bond. She relaxed for the first time in weeks, suddenly sure that Father was right -- everything would come back to her...in time.

 

Vincent's heart was full to bursting. The agony of withholding himself from Catherine was over. Reveling in their renewed Bond, grounded by her loving comfort and knowing he had given her the same, he thanked whatever gods looked down upon them for this blessing within his arms. He couldn't resist nuzzling her ear as she pressed close. "I love you, Catherine."

 

"I bet that's what you always say!" she teased, then hugged him tightly as she laughed against his mouth, drawing a kiss from his willing lips. Captured by the moment, he responded enthusiastically. Another kiss, then another, then they were again lost in a whirlwind of rapture. It lifted them, buffeted them, propelled them, until...at long last...it deposited them gently on the shores of their own little world...the world that was contained within the circumference of their arms.

 

_ _ _

 

Catherine hadn't had any headaches for days. Since the night she had taken her world back -- the night her son and her lover had, in different ways, become hers once again -- she had left behind her anxieties about her loss of the past. A future stretched out before them, and she resolved to run toward it at full speed. She had re-entered the life which had been disrupted by the accident with resolute good cheer, laughing over missteps caused by her failure of memory. Her attitude, forced at first, had gradually taken hold within her, and it was with genuine energy, anticipation and enthusiasm that she looked forward to all her life offered. Now, weeks since the night she considered the turning point in her recovery, she felt whole and well again.

 

As she awoke, her mind was filled with plans. She had an Advanced Civics class with the older children scheduled for an hour earlier than usual, then she had promised to help William set up for the special luncheon he'd been planning to celebrate Father's birthday, then she planned to sit in on Vincent's English Literature class -- they were going to discuss the research papers they had written about The Scottish Play, and she wanted to hear their considered opinions of the performance they had all seen. She had been particularly struck by one aspect of the production, and she wanted to know whether it had made an impression on any of the class. She remembered that during the intermission, Samantha had made a remark that had set off a chain of...of...of...OH, MY GOD!

 

"I remember! Vincent, wake up! I remember!"

 

He came awake immediately, almost before she spoke, from the burst of light which had emanated from their Bond, piercing his unconscious mind and electrifying him with the one thought which Catherine now expressed so joyously. "You remember?" He clasped the woman he loved more than life to his chest, laughing with her, almost weak with relief. "Tell me!"

 

"What shall I tell you?" Catherine pulled away slightly to look at him, her smile turning quizzical at his unexpected request.

 

"Everything!" He held her shoulders tightly while he stared deeply into her eyes, willing her to tell him of the things his heart ached to hear. Beaming with joy, she began to tell him...of their first night together, of their Joining, of Geoffrey's bedtime ritual, of anything and nothing much, just to confirm for him that, indeed, she was...back.

 

After a while, he stopped her mouth with grateful kisses.

 

Much later, Catherine, arriving slightly flushed and out of breath, had to apologize to her class for being late.

 

She asked Geoffrey to stay behind when class was over. Quietly, as they sat together, she recalled for him moments from the past three years, starting every sentence with, "I remember...." His face, the one which now was achingly familiar to her, a face which never could conceal its emotions from her knowing eyes, was filled with a happiness so profound it made Catherine's eyes brim with tears. After a few minutes, Geoffrey interrupted her. "Since when...?"

 

Gleefully, she replied, "When I woke up this morning -- it was all...just...there!"

Geoffrey's puckish sense of humor returned then with a vengeance. "Right where you left it, huh, Mom?" he asked, mimicking her predictable refrain whenever he temporarily lost his pocket watch and she found it for him.

 

Catherine laughed, a carefree and joyous laugh. "Apparently! It's always..." and they finished the sentence together, giggling like children, "...in the last place you look!"