The Rest of Their Lives

by Ginny Shearin


Catherine had been there for a little more than three weeks - ever since they had brought Vincent back from that distant cavern. He had obviously been self destructive, though none of them could know exactly what had happened. His clothes were torn, his hands and chest were cut and bruised, his face was scratched, his hair was wild and matted...The roaring and snarling had been truly frightening, leaving Father and the others torn between their fear for Vincent and their fear for themselves. They had sent for Catherine and Peter, and they had come.

As always, trusting him completely, Catherine had gone into the cave with Vincent to try to reach him; but for the first time since she had known him, he didn't respond to her. Just as it looked as if he might actually hurt her, he stopped, seemed to have a short moment of lucidity, then collapsed. She had screamed his name and then screamed for Father to help him. That was how the others had found him, Catherine holding his head in her lap and crying. He didn't appear to be alive at first. She looked up at Father frantic and afraid; but she didn't feel completely disconnected from Vincent, so she refused to give up hope.

Father and Peter took over, seeing that he was transported back to his chamber as gently as possible and providing all the medical attention they knew how to provide for his unusual physiology. They had finally found faint signs of life, but he hadn't moved at all for several days; so all that remained to do was to wait and hope. Mary had come to help; and they had carefully cleaned his wounds, bathed him, and dressed him in a soft loose nightshirt. There was an IV pumping minimal sustenance into his nearly lifeless form, and a catheter ushering away its remains. His bed had been moved to allow easy access from either side, the IV stand and other tools of the medical trade on the side near the wall under the stained glass window.

Since he was old enough to fully realize the differences between himself and others, Vincent had conscientiously refrained from exposing any more of his physical differences than necessary. They had brought him to his own bed rather than the hospital chamber to offer him the dignity of privacy, and to offer the others the comfort of safety in the unlikely event of another violent episode.

While Father and Peter and Mary did their best for Vincent, Catherine had stayed out of the way; but she wasn't about to be left out when it came to waiting and hoping.

She stubbornly refused to leave except when they examined him or bathed him. As many times as she had wished to see those massive shoulders and more uncovered, she knew he had no intention of allowing it yet; and she wouldn't compromise his wishes when he had no say in the matter. During those times she would take care of some of the few needs she had for herself, other than being with Vincent.

Some of the tunnel dwellers would periodically gather near Vincent's door, hoping for a word of encouragement about his condition; and they often saw the need for concern about Catherine as well. One of them might insist that she eat, or that she go to her virtually unused guest chamber for a change of clothes or a short rest. Sometimes she would search Father's library for reading material. For the other approximately twenty-three hours of the day she was next to Vincent's bed. She read to him, talked to him, held his hand - carefully at first, because of his wounds - stroked his cheek and forehead... When she fell asleep, it was in the chair with her head on the bed beside him or sitting on the side of the bed with her head on his chest, always with one arm stretched across him. If he moved or woke, she wanted to be there to know.

For nearly a week there was no movement at all, then the restlessness began. He thrashed around in his sleep, muttered unintelligible, argumentative, anguished sounds, appearing to suffer through endless nightmares. He seemed almost constantly tormented. Catherine's touch and her voice soothed him temporarily; but even with that, he was restless. During the most frightful times she simply stretched out on the quilt beside him and held him as she had during his illness in her apartment, whispering soothingly to him until the worst of the attack had passed. Father said nothing, because even he could see that she gave his son at least temporary relief from his continual suffering. Almost two weeks passed this way; then as suddenly as it had started, the restless torment subsided and the frightening stillness returned. For several days the only movement they detected was the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest. The slight sound of his breathing was their only source of comfort and hope.

Peter had begun to worry nearly as much about Catherine as he did about Vincent.

Father was too worried about Vincent to be quite as aware of her exhaustion. On the third day of that frightening stillness, Father hesitantly asked if she could feel anything through their bond, any suggestion of a change in Vincent's condition, any hint of a return to consciousness.

She considered her answer carefully, both of them knowing that her side of their connection wasn't nearly as strong as Vincent's.

"No change, Father," she answered wearily. "He isn't really with us; but he doesn't seem to be leaving us, either. I don't know why it feels this way, but it's as if he has a decision to make and hasn't made it yet."

"Dear God," Father breathed, as much to himself as to anyone else, "Please let him make the right decision."

Catherine again picked up Great Expectations, opened it to the marked page, and began to read. It had made a difference in her recovery. Maybe it would help him, too.

Peter tried to talk his old friend into getting some rest, but Jacob was as stubborn as Catherine.

Father found a small chest to prop his feet on and sat down in the large chair at Vincent's writing desk. He hung his cane on the arm of the chair and alternately watched Vincent, dozed, and listened to Catherine read. He silently reprimanded himself for his earlier opinions of Catherine's intentions and suitability for his son. She was unmistakably devoted to Vincent, and Father had come to love her, too. There was no doubt about Vincent's feelings for her. Despite his continuing misgivings about the wisdom of their relationship, he had to admit to a great respect and a certain degree of awe at the kind of love they shared. He had never seen Vincent so happy, nor sometimes, so distressed; and his suspicions were that this illness, madness, whatever it was, might, at least in part, have something to do with their relationship.

Catherine was reading and holding Vincent's hand when she felt a subtle stirring as he shifted almost imperceptibly in the bed. She stopped reading, waiting for some other indication that it hadn't been her imagination, hoping that there might be...There it was again. His hand had moved very slightly in hers.

"Vincent!" She whispered excitedly. Her hand reached for his cheek as she stood and leaned closer over the bed, repeating his name a little louder and looking for any kind of response to her voice.

Peter returned just as Catherine stood and leaned toward Vincent. He nearly dropped the dinner tray he had brought for them when Father fairly flew from the chair, brushing past Peter to reach his son. Peter deposited the tray on the desk and quickly joined them. This time Catherine couldn't make herself leave. She just stood back hopefully, seeing that she wasn't interfering with their efforts.

"Well?" asked Catherine impatiently after the two doctors had looked and listened for what seemed to her an eternity.

"Not much to tell," Peter answered, "but his breathing isn't quite as shallow and his heartbeat seems a little stronger."

"That's a good sign, isn't it?" she nearly pleaded.

Father put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her forehead, finally seeing that she was as spent as he. He had to admit she was a remarkable young woman.

"At this point, Catherine," he answered, "anything is a good sign; but this, I'm afraid, is a small one. His physical wounds are healing quite nicely, amazingly well under the circumstances; but I think you and I both suspect that the state he's in has little to do with physical wounds."

Catherine looked down, not able to meet the older man's eyes right now. She knew he blamed her. She blamed herself.

Father instantly regretted his remark. It had been said very matter-of-factly, a statement of his thoughts. It had not been meant to be unkind, especially spoken when she was obviously so tired and frightened. He stroked her hair as he would to comfort one of the children and used his best parental tone on her.

"You look exhausted, dear. Perhaps you should take a break and have some dinner."

"No, Father," she responded. "Maybe later."

With a deep sigh she sat down and picked up the book, slipped her hand under Vincent's, squeezed it firmly and began to read.

Father shook his head in resignation, sat back down, and poured himself a cup of the warm tea.

"Catherine?" he called, holding the cup up to offer it to her.

She glanced out of the corner of her eye and shook her head, never looking up and never missing a word.

Peter was sleeping in Father's chamber next door. Several times during the night Catherine detected other vague feelings that Vincent had stirred slightly. When it happened, she would kiss his hand or hold it a little tighter, and keep reading. She wasn't going to say anything to Father. He had finally fallen into a real sleep in the chair, and she didn't want to disturb him unless there was something a little more substantial to report. If anything important happened she wanted him to be alert enough to give his son the best of care. For that he needed rest, a luxury he hadn't allowed himself much of lately. She was grateful that Peter was there for back up.

Catherine had read to Vincent all night, so tired that, until the last few pages, she was barely aware that she was about to finish the book. When she read the last line, she closed the book and placed it on the small table beside his bed.

"Vincent?" she called softly, pulling the chair nearer to the bed.

Leaning closer to him she took his hand in one of hers and placed her other hand on his chest.

"Please come back to me, Vincent. I need you."

No response. Tears rolling quietly down her cheeks, she released his hand and moved into a now familiar position, her head resting on the bed and her arm sliding across his chest. Eventually she fell asleep.

She woke with a start. Had she been dreaming, or did he really make a sound? She looked at Father. Surely he would have heard. No, he was still dozing in the chair. She had seen Vincent injured or drugged or ill before, but he had always retained enough of his strength to point to belief in his recovery. Seeing him this still and lifeless for so long had made hope more difficult.

Then she heard it - a small groan accompanied by a very slight shifting of position.

"Vincent!" Can you hear me?" she called.

Father was almost immediately at her side, fighting the sleep from his eyes and asking what had happened.

"A sound, Father...sort of a groan... and he moved a little."

Father checked Vincent's eyes and pulse, then he reached for his stethoscope and listened. For the first time since Vincent's illness he looked a little hopeful.

"His heart sounds stronger and his breathing is nearly normal; but that, I fear, is about all I can offer."

"But that must be good," she insisted, trying to coax some words of encouragement out of him.

"Yes, I think that's good," he agreed. "We just can't know how good for the time being."

Vincent voiced another small groan and moved again. Catherine stroked his cheek with the backs of her fingers and looked up at Father. They both smiled for the first time in days.

Again, in his best parental tone, Father suggested that Catherine have something to eat. Again she refused, afraid Vincent would wake without her presence. She needed a break, and the food still on the tray from last night indicated to Father that she hadn't bothered with dinner. Well rested at last, he braced himself for the inevitable argument that would likely follow and insisted that Catherine have some breakfast and take at least a few minutes for her own needs.

"I don't know where you find your strength, Catherine. We are all truly impressed by your stamina, but everyone has limits. What will you do if..." He stopped and corrected his terminology. "What will you do when he does awake? Say his name and immediately collapse across him so he can begin to worry about you? Waking to find you in such a state would concern him more than his own health." With a heavy sigh, he continued, "Then he would undoubtedly blame Peter and me for not taking better care of you..." Lifting her chin with his hand and looking at her with a pretense of seriousness, he went on. "You know, don't you, that this could easily take an ugly turn if you aren't in better condition than this when he sees you."

She smiled, knowing he was right, but reluctant to let Vincent out of her sight. The fact that Father had inserted some levity into his argument meant that he must feel more hopeful about Vincent's recovery.

"On a more serious note," Father persisted, lowering his hand to her shoulder, "Some of Vincent's recovery could very well depend on your support, and right now you look as if you can barely support yourself. Peter and I will take this time to attend to his needs. We'll dress his wounds and have him examined and in clean clothes by the time you return."

With a slight twinkle in his eye, he added, "And how do I say this delicately...? You could do with a little sprucing up yourself. Everyone knows that Vincent wouldn't care how you look, but is this the image you would have him wake to?"

There it was - argument complete. He smiled and congratulated himself on his success when Catherine threw her untidy self at him, hugged him, and kissed his cheek.

"Alright Father, you win. Vincent and vanity...strong arguments."

She walked to the bed and brushed a kiss on Vincent's forehead. Father wondered if she would have allowed herself that kiss if he had been awake.

She lingered for one more look, touched his shoulder gently, and then pulled herself away. It would be easier to face the others in the dining hall with even this thin sliver of hope.

Catherine managed to hold on to her composure and eat breakfast while answering the numerous concerned inhabitants of Vincent's world. When Mary had the opportunity, she managed to spirit a grateful Catherine away to a warm bath, the first one she'd had in days where she could completely submerge in the water. Mary had left her alone with instructions to relax and take her time, promising that she wouldn't be interrupted. She knew she had some time before she would be allowed back in Vincent's chamber, so she granted herself a few extra minutes of indulgence. It was heavenly. Between a real meal and a real bath, she felt rejuvenated, and much closer to presentable. She changed into clean clothes, used the soft, well worn towels to dry her hair, and brushed it into the best semblance of order she could manage without a hair dryer. After a quick trip to thank Mary for being so thoughtful, she returned impatiently to be with Vincent.

"Has there been any change, Father?" she asked.

"Nothing to speak of."

"Well, I am now well fed and clean; and I should warn you that getting rid of me again will take much more effort than the last time."

With that announcement she gave him another appreciative kiss on the cheek, plopped down in the chair next to Vincent, and returned to her vigil.

Father smiled indulgently, shook his head, and returned to his own.

During the day Vincent's movements gradually increased, and finally, early in the afternoon, he opened his eyes. Father had been close by and saw him first.

"Vincent, do you hear me?" he asked.

"Catherine?" Vincent whispered.

"Nice to see you, too, Son," Father chuckled, patting his cheek. Turning to Catherine, who was already at his side, he said, "I'll get Peter. I'm sure Vincent will be content with your company for a few moments."

"I'm here, Vincent. I've been waiting for weeks to see those beautiful blue eyes again," she said tenderly, tears of relief falling as she spoke. She sat on the edge of the bed and rested her hand on his shoulder. "It was as if a part of me was fighting for life, too."

Father and Peter returned to the chamber quickly and moved into action around Vincent's bed. Catherine again moved out of the way, but not out of the room. She had no intention of missing any new developments.

"Can you understand what we're saying?" Father asked him, checking his vital signs as he spoke.

"Yes."

"How many fingers do you see?" Peter asked, smiling.

"Two," Vincent whispered.

"Do you feel pain anywhere?" Father questioned.

"No."

"Can you move?" Father continued.

"Not sure."

Seeing very slight movement of hands and feet while they spoke, Father decided not to worry about that for the time being. He and Peter continued to check all the signs they needed to monitor while Catherine waited impatiently. Meanwhile Vincent closed his eyes and fell asleep again. Frightened, Catherine rushed to the bed.

"Father. Is he still..."

"He just fell asleep, dear. Don't worry too much. He seems to be gaining some strength."

He put his arm around her, and she gratefully rested her head on his shoulder, accepting the comfort.

For the rest of the afternoon Vincent drifted in and out of sleep. When he finally seemed to be awake, he was obviously too weak to expect much in the way of communication. They carefully phrased questions to allow him to answer in very few syllables. Both times he woke later in the evening, he seemed more aware of his surroundings and a little more able to communicate.

Early in the morning he was able to string a few words together, but it was obviously difficult. Catherine still sat next to him, quiet while he slept, talking to him when he was responsive, but continually touching his hand or his arm to comfort him and reassure herself. By the middle of the day he was much more responsive, but still very weak. Mary had brought lunch for Catherine and broth for Vincent, and Catherine insisted on feeding him. Father and Peter propped him on the pillows to make it easier for her, then left the room and moved next door to Father's chamber to give Catherine some time alone with a now awake Vincent. They would be close enough to be back on a moment's notice if needed, but far enough away to allow the two younger people a little privacy.

As she fed him the broth she was remembering her own recovery after he found her in the park. She hoped her presence was providing him the same comfort he had given her, even under those bleak circumstances. When the broth was finished, Catherine put the empty bowl on a small table close by and sat down on the bed beside Vincent, resting her hand beside him.

He placed his hand over hers.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

Catherine lifted Vincent's hand, softly kissed the back of his fingers, and asked if he would like her to read to him. Hearing a quiet "Yes," she held up a book and asked, "Sonnets?"

When Vincent showed approval with a slight nod, she made herself comfortable on the side of the bed, opened the book and started to read Shakespeare's sonnets at random. Eventually turning to Sonnet 71, she continued to read, slowing and hesitating at the end.

 

Tired with all these for restless death I cry,

As to behold desert a beggar born,

And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,

And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,

And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

And strength by limping sway disabled,

And art made tongue-tied by authority,

And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,

And simple truth miscalled simplicity,

And captive good attending captain ill.

Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,

Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

That last line had hit a little too close to home, and before she could stop them, tears were again rolling down her cheeks. She hadn't meant to do that. He was more aware now, and she wanted him calm and healing. She didn't want to do anything to upset him, but it was too late. She put the book down, covered his hand with both of her own, and tried to talk through her tears.

"I was so afraid. You were so still and lifeless. I was really afraid I would lose you."

Vincent squeezed her hand very slightly, looking past her as he spoke. "Perhaps it would have been better for you if you had..." he barely more than whispered. Obviously laboring to say it, he added to that statement. "Then your conscience...would allow you a normal life...with a man... who can give you what you deserve."

Catherine stared at him in disbelief and stood suddenly, snatching her hand away from his, then exploded at him.

"Vincent, I have never been so angry with you! Where does this obsession to send me off to find another man come from?!"

Peter and Father came rushing in from the passageway. "Catherine!" Father called as he hobbled rapidly toward her.

"For the love of God, he's been conscious less than a full day! What hap..."

"That's right, Father!" she retorted in his direction, her eyes flaring. "He's been conscious less than a full day. We've been here for weeks, out of our minds with worry that you might not be able to save him; and the first complete sentence I hear from his lips is to tell me that I would be better off if he had died - that it would leave me free to find another man and a normal life. He's going to hear this before he comes up with any other equally stupid ideas."

Peter grabbed Father's arm when he started to protest.

"Let her go, Jacob. She'll know if she's causing him any harm, and she'll stop. Let her get this out. She's earned it."

Jacob unwillingly backed up, but not too far, as Catherine turned her anger back to Vincent.

Vincent rested stoically against the pillows with his eyes closed.

"How dare you suggest it might be better for me if you just drift off into the afterlife and leave me here to go on without you. That would be a lot easier for you than staying and facing our problems, wouldn't it? How could a man as intelligent as you..."

"Catherine," he opened his eyes and strained to interrupt, "If I were a man...we would have no problems."

"Fine!" she shot back, "A beast as intelligent as you. However you choose to see yourself." Immediately regretting her words, she calmed slightly, but without compromising her anger. Tears were pooling in her eyes again and beginning to slip down her cheeks. "I don't know how a being as intelligent as you could think such a thing. I know plenty of good men who would be fine husbands and fathers, but I don't want them. Can't you see that it wouldn't be fair to either of us? He would expect me to love him completely, which I could never do; and I would be looking for the kind of love you give me, and a bond between us. No one else can give me those things. I can live without my world or parties and theaters, I can live without money or travel, I can live without sunlight, I can certainly live without the DA's office, I can live without children ...or without making love to you if that's a deciding factor in your mind. What I can't live without, Vincent, is you."

She thought Father was probably nearing apoplexy at this point, but she couldn't stop now.

Peter and Father looked at each other, both feeling like intruders into this particular communication...wishing they could leave the room, but not daring to go.

Her mood softened a little more and she reached for him again, stroking the back of his hand.

"All of us know that you could still will yourself to live or die. But know this, Vincent. If you choose to die, I will be here in your life until one of us draws a final breath. And if you choose to live... I will still be here in your life until one of us draws a final breath. Know this, too, Vincent. If you die, you won't be leaving me available for someone else and a normal life. You will only be leaving me alone. You said once that we're on a journey that no one has made before, that we must go with courage and with care."

She sat on the bed beside him, raised his hand to her lips and kissed it, all the emotional upheaval of the last weeks finally taking its toll. She fell across his chest and threw her arms around his neck, sobbing.

"I can't make that journey by myself, Vincent. Please don't leave me alone. I love you." Her voice drifted off into her tears. " I love you... I love you so much..."

With immense effort, Vincent lifted one arm to his shoulder, taking Catherine's forearm in his hand.

"You won't be alone, Catherine...You have my promise."

Father and Peter had tears in their own eyes as well. Peter checked Vincent briefly, and he seemed stable for the time being, in spite of being thoroughly berated by his beloved. Vincent and Catherine each clearly needed the comfort of the other right now. Peter all but dragged Jacob to his study for some tea to calm him down, the thought crossing his mind that something stronger might be in order.

"She meant what she said, Jacob. I doubt that she could have made a stronger commitment if there had been a church and a preacher. She's never leaving Vincent's life voluntarily; so you might as well accept that she's going to be a part of yours, too - and a formidable opponent if the two of you disagree on what may be in Vincent's best interest."

Father sat at his desk, his forehead resting on his hands in resignation.

"I know," he answered wearily. "I know."

 

********************

 

By the time the two older men had returned to Vincent's chamber, Catherine had made a decision she knew Father would hate; but she had every intention of simply stating that it would happen and implementing her plans.

She waited another several days to be sure that Vincent's condition was stable enough that the doctors felt confident about his eventual recovery. She braced herself for resistance and announced to them that she would require a cot to be brought to Vincent's chamber for her and that her things should be brought from the guest chamber, because she would be taking over the mundane parts of Vincent's care. The doctors would be given hours for regular rounds and visits; and barring some medical emergency, of which she would apprise them immediately, they were to stick to those hours. They would help Vincent bathe and dress and take care of similar personal necessities. She would gladly do those things, but Vincent would not be comfortable allowing her to do those things now. She would see to any other needs.

She completed her demands by saying, "I promised Vincent I would always be in his life. If I'm really going to be a part of his life, he has to learn to accept my care when he needs it. As much as it pains me to think it, there will come a time when you can't care for him any longer. I need to be able to do that, and he needs to come to terms with allowing it."

It was abundantly clear that Vincent would have no say in the matter either, and he was still much too weak to do anything about it.

Father, as expected, had launched into what threatened to be an endless list of reasons that this would be a very undesirable idea.

Peter took Jacob's elbow and turned him slightly away from Catherine.

"Jacob, you've watched her for weeks never leaving his side, any change in his condition even waking her from sleep. She hasn't just been observing. She's been sending him her love, sharing her strength until she barely has any of her own. Why would her awareness change now? Vincent has always been his own physician to a certain extent. You know we can't do much more than monitor now. His wounds are nearly healed, and you said yourself you suspected that his illness had little to do with physical damage. She risked her own life going into that cave with him in the condition he was in. Her intervention could very well be the only reason you still have him at all. Maybe this is what he needs... Besides that," he pointed out with some amusement; "she's recently talked your son back through the doors of death. Do you really want to take her on?"

Catherine simply stood by with arms folded and an air of determination that could have rivaled Moses at the Red Sea.

Out flanked and out argued, Father turned and gruffly waved his hand at them as he left. "I'll see to the cot and have Jamie move things from the guest chamber. No doubt she'd love the excuse to see Vincent for a minute."

Jacob was not a happy man.

Catherine was given orders that any more "discussions" such as the tirade she threw at Vincent earlier would be grounds for banishment to the guest chamber and only short, supervised visits - otherwise, her demands would be met.

 

********************

 

A large dressing screen was placed at the door of Vincent's chamber both to ward off well-meaning visitors and to remind Father of his appointed hours. Catherine was taking better care of herself now. Sometimes when Vincent slept, she slept, too. She pulled the cot up close to his bed and slept with one hand on Vincent's arm. That small contact made her feel more connected. For some reason her side of their bond had seemed slightly stronger through his illness; and she knew, as small as her side of it might be, it would tell her if anything were wrong. Vincent was still too weak to take care of himself and still slept a large part of the day. When he was awake Catherine brought him books, helped him prop himself on the pillows to listen as she read them, fed him his meals... His ability to heal was amazing. The wounds he had created in the cave were nearly invisible already. She noticed that the knife wound on his palm from a couple of months ago no longer showed a scar, not even a red mark; and she found herself wishing he could manage to heal his spirit as efficiently.

Each time Vincent slept, she could see him wake a little stronger. For the first few days she had touched him as she helped him move, having him lean on her for support. She enjoyed the feel of touching him with only the one soft layer of shirt between them; but she prudently didn't allow herself to dwell on that aspect of her assistance. Father and Peter, knowing that Vincent would eventually be acutely aware of Catherine's presence, saw that he was clean and dressed in fresh night clothes every day, but they didn't think too much about his hair. She could see that it needed attention; so she found his brush, started at the ends where the touch wouldn't feel quite as intimate, and gradually progressed to the rest. To her amazement, he allowed it without protest. Too weak to argue, she thought. She decided she must have been controlling her less than altruistic thoughts pretty well. She had wanted for so long to explore that glorious mass of gold that it took all her powers of self-control to confine her hands to just brushing and smoothing and detangling. When the hairbrush moved the right way, she did allow her curiosity a peek at his ears, though. She couldn't help smiling. They were very human ears; but, like nearly everything else about him, trimmed with extra hair - just around the upper edges. When she stopped brushing, he settled on the pillows and relaxed into a restful sleep.

After helping him with dinner that evening, she sat curled up next to him and read. They shared stories about the children and she gave him messages from friends she had seen while "medical rounds" were in progress, all the while enjoying that he was allowing her to be so close. He eventually asked for his journal; and while Catherine was returning the dinner dishes to the kitchen, he made the first entry since his illness began.

The following morning Vincent allowed Catherine to pour the hot tea, but he insisted on managing the rest of his breakfast himself. When he spoke, his voice sounded stronger. After breakfast she stacked the dishes on the tray William had supplied and put them aside to return while Father was with Vincent. She straightened her bed, moved it aside, and came back to him to straighten his.

"Father should be here soon," she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed and put her hand on his chest near his shoulder, the same way she had in the days before. "Is there anything you'd like me to bring you while I'm near the kitchen or Father's library? - Anything you need?"

At the touch of her hand he seemed uncomfortable this time. He took her hand from his chest and held it in both of his.

"You could see if William has more of those apple muffins," he answered, smiling slightly, "and I trust your taste in reading material. Choose something you would enjoy."

Catherine didn't understand the sudden impression of discomfort at something he had accepted so easily since she had been caring for him; and when he took her hand in his, it was done in such a loving manner that she began to think she had imagined it. Before she could mention it, Father was calling.

"Good morning, children!" came from the other side of the screen.

She stood, squeezed Vincent's hand, and moved toward the door.

"Come in, Father," she called. It warmed her heart to hear him include her as one of his children.

"He must be better this morning," she told Father. "I have orders to see if I can score a couple of extra muffins while I'm out." Turning toward Vincent and picking up the pitcher on the table next to the bed, she added, "I'll bring a fresh pitcher of water, too." Back toward Father she continued, "And I might stop and rummage through your library, if you don't mind."

"Of course not," he answered. "You know the library is always open to you. Take whatever you like."

She tucked a change of clothes under one arm, added the pitcher to the tray, and left for the kitchen.

She walked through the passages smiling and greeting the people she passed in the halls, enjoying the sense of belonging that she had finally begun to feel when she was Below. This had become the most comforting place in her life. Nothing Above brought her this kind of contentment anymore. That thought had surfaced more and more lately.

William made it clear that mealtime hours were to be respected. The dining area was empty; but the kitchen was bustling, as usual. Those who had been scheduled for kitchen duty that day were in various stages of dish washing and food preparation, anticipating the next meal. She knew there were a few things that had to be kept as staples; but it still amazed Catherine that William could manage to feed so many so well on supplies that he might not be sure he has until one of the helpers delivers them. She made a mental note to see what she could do about inconspicuously helping some of the helpers.

As expected, William grumbled in his gruff fashion about the muffins. He loved Vincent like a son, though; and Catherine knew if William had it, he would send Vincent anything he wanted. He found a few extra muffins and wrapped them in a napkin for her. He also found a few pieces of fruit and put them all in a small basket with the muffins.

"If that boy is getting his appetite back, you'd better take these, too," he told her.

"I don't remember seeing Vincent eat all that much at a time," she laughed. "You must be exaggerating."

"That's because when you're here he's too busy mooning over you to remember he's hungry," he answered with one of his rare real smiles. Wiping his hands on his apron, he added, "Better move along now, before I add you to the dishwashing detail."

She left the kitchen smiling and went to see if Mary had time to help her arrange for another sit-down-and-soak bath.

Mary was busy sorting laundry, and Catherine volunteered to help in return for bathing arrangements. Some of it was Vincent's - the soft, often washed knit shirts and drawstring pants he slept in and a few pairs of heavy socks. No underwear? So there was nothing under that sleeping gear but Vincent?

"Watch it, Chandler!" she thought to herself. "You certainly can't let him catch you thinking those thoughts."

To distract herself as she folded clothes, she asked Mary to tell her about Vincent's childhood. She had picked up a few stories here and there; but according to Mary, he and Devin apparently got into a lot more mischief than one would expect from seeing Vincent now. Catherine wanted to know small things like his favorite toys and desserts and what he liked to eat, what worried him when he was small; and Mary was more than glad to share her memories.

 

********************

 

Father was pleased with what he found. Vincent hadn't needed help with his morning meal, and he seemed stronger and more himself today. His wounds were healed, and his appetite seemed to be nearly normal.

"When Catherine returns, we should try to help you out of bed," Father told him. "Could you manage alone before she returns?" Vincent asked him.

"We could try." Father answered, "But it would be easier with two of us to lean on. I'm sure Catherine would consider it part of her nursing duties," he smiled.

Vincent hesitated briefly.

"If I am to be out of bed dressed in as little as this, I would prefer it to be before Catherine returns."

"I see," Father answered, taking a deep breath. "You aren't comfortable having Catherine see you in your night clothes."

"No," Vincent answered, looking down.

"I'll find your dressing gown for you. You had been so weak...It hadn't occurred to either Peter or me that you might need it."

Father left his chair and found Vincent's robe. It was made of blanket like fabric, soft from frequent use and frequent washings. He was sure it wouldn't entirely assuage Vincent's present modesty dilemma, but it would provide another layer between him and Catherine's comforting touch. It would also provide a little more cover when he worked up the nerve to get out of bed in her presence. He placed it on the foot of the bed and put his hand on Vincent's shoulder.

"I'll leave your dressing gown close. Maybe this will help you feel a little more covered."

"I would still like you help me stand now... please," Vincent nearly begged.

"Alright, but we'll need to take things slowly. Let me move the chair closer to you. You can use it for support and use me for balance."

Vincent pushed the covers back and, with great effort, pulled himself up on his feet.

"Don't try to do too much this time. Wait until you have someone stronger than your old father to help you walk a little."

Vincent took a few steps, bracing himself on the chair; but he was willingly back in bed rather quickly. It was frustrating being that weak. He refused Father's suggestion that he sit in the chair for a while.

It was obvious that something was bothering his son.

"Vincent, is there a problem between you and Catherine?"

"Not exactly," Vincent answered, quietly.

"Then exactly what? Is something lacking in your care, something she isn't doing suitably?" Father questioned. "Something is bothering you. Is there anything I can do? Would you like to talk about it?"

"I couldn't ask for better care, or for it to be given more lovingly; and until today I had no difficulty accepting it. Last evening after dinner she even brushed my hair. She sat close to me, and we read together and talked for a while before sleeping. She sleeps in her own bed, but moves it next to mine; and her hand is touching my arm any time I wake. I have trouble imagining that I accepted it so easily. It was all very comforting. That was the spirit in which her touch was given and in which it was received. But this morning..." he took a deep breath. "This morning she put her hand on my chest, offering only the same comfort and concern; but it felt different. I was suddenly aware of how I am dressed... or not dressed... and how close her hand was..."

"I see," Father answered, running his hand across his hair as he often did when he was perplexed, or maybe a little uncomfortable. "My suspicion is that your feelings have changed because you're stronger this morning and more aware of them. Your body is recovering and responding more to...your surroundings," he smiled. "I can certainly commiserate with you;" he said, shaking his head, "but this... This, I'm afraid, is something you and Catherine will have to work out between you. I don't know how much you remember of the last few weeks, but it was all Peter and I could do to pull her away from you to take care of even the most basic of her own needs. As for her touch, it was with you most of the day. When the nightmares were at their worst, she would lie down behind you to hold you and whisper to you until you were calm again. That was the only thing that seemed to help. She slept in the chair beside you or sitting on the side of the bed with her arm draped across you. It was as if she thought you might slip away if she let go. That may be a difficult habit to break at this point."

"It's difficult enough that I have these feelings for her;" Vincent answered, "but when it seems that she might want me as well... and she's so close... She tries to hide those feelings from me, but now and then they surface just for a moment... And she can't control her dreams for me. Even as far away as her apartment, when she has those dreams, I...I don't sleep. Looking down, he said softly, "If she should have those dreams...here in this room..."

"She shouldn't have to hide those feelings from someone she loves!" Vincent said bitterly, leaning his head back against the pillows. "She deserves better than that! She should have someone..."

Father cut him off in mid-sentence, a mischievous smile twitching at the corners of his lips in spite of himself.

"My boy, I would not broach that particular subject to Catherine right now if I were you!"

"Yes, Father," Vincent replied wryly. "I do remember that part of the last few weeks rather clearly."

Father responded with a knowing chuckle, then became more serious.

"Now and then we all have to reevaluate our perceptions. My visible discontent with your Catherine has been one of my greatest regrets, especially lately. Peter is well aware that he is the only person Catherine really has 'on her side of the river,' and he takes that obligation to her very seriously. At times when I might doubt her or even blame her, he points out things I have temporarily forgotten to consider. He reminds me of things like the sacrifices she willingly makes to be a part of your life, a part of our lives, and the risks and inconveniences she has been willing to accept in her life Above to protect you and our community. I have to admit that I've been wrong. My perceptions have changed. Perhaps it's time you changed some of yours. As surprised as I am to hear myself say this, both of you want a life together; and it's time you have some long and very honest discussions about it. Catherine certainly seems committed to your future, and futures can last for a long time. The two of you need to come to some understandings."

"I know. It's long overdue." Vincent was looking down again, reluctant to admit the stark truth of his father's statement. "I think we avoid it because the obstacles sometimes seem larger than the possibilities; and we're afraid of losing the dream."

"Are you sure it isn't you who is afraid?" Father asked kindly, placing his hand on Vincent's arm. "After watching Catherine for the last weeks, I believe her to be willing to reach any compromise it takes to hold on to your dream. She promised you that she would be with you for the rest of her life. You promised that she would not be alone. Where do you go from there? It may be time for you to put more of your thoughts into words for her. You have the advantage of the strong side of your bond. She has no such vantage point into your mind. Tell her how you feel. Make her understand."

He took a deep breath. "Use the time you have with her wisely." Picking up his medical bag to leave, he added with a smile, "Don't let her get away from us. It's nice to have two sons, but I'm finding that a daughter is also a great joy."

"Catherine enjoyed hearing you greet both of us as your children. I felt it," Vincent told him.

"It warms my heart as well," Father smiled. He kissed the top of Vincent's head. "I'll check on you this afternoon. I need to see two of the children who seemed to be on the verge of the flu yesterday." He left feeling rather helpless and very sympathetic toward his son.

 

********************

 

Catherine had the basket from the kitchen stacked atop the laundry she had folded for Vincent; her dirty clothes were under one arm, and the pitcher of water was in the other hand. She left the pitcher just inside Vincent's chamber door, and she was now approaching Father's library to find a few more books to keep Vincent occupied. He was beginning to sleep a little less each day, and she knew it wouldn't be long before he would be restless being confined to his chamber. She found a book of art prints and a book on the British Isles with color photographs of places she had seen; and deciding that something romantic at this close range might not be the best of ideas, she took a Dickens novel and a couple of mysteries. She should be able to find reasonable distraction there. Balancing everything carefully, she went back to Vincent's chamber.

She triumphantly announced the arrival of the muffins and the added bonus of the fruit and enlisted Vincent's help in unstacking her treasures. She placed the books she had chosen on the bedside table for his approval and left the basket on the bed. Seeing the robe on the chair, she immediately understood his response to her touch that morning. He was now well enough to remember to be uncomfortable without the armor of his normal several layers between them. She tried not to let him feel her disappointment.

"Father found your robe for you. Were you cold? I can help you put it on if you'd like."

Knowing that she was trying to make the situation easier for him; Vincent appreciatively accepted her help. He felt much better knowing that her hand would encounter a little more shielding when offering its loving comfort.

"Mary was finishing some laundry when I found her," she told him, picking up his night clothes, "so I folded these for you. If you'll tell me where you keep them, I'll put them away."

"Catherine," he sort of stammered, " There was no need for you to do that. Mary would have brought those things to me later."

Again, she realized she had stepped beyond his barriers. To her these were socks, knit shirts, and something akin to sweatpants. To Vincent they were pajamas. She had been folding the things he wore in bed, things that touched parts of him that...well, a thought too intimate to be acceptable to him, especially when they were in such close quarters.

"Do you intend to allow me in your life as long as I intend to stay there?" she asked him softly.

"Could you really doubt that I do?" he asked, a hint of reprimand in his voice. "Then we have to be comfortable together," she answered firmly. "You have to accept that I intend to take care of you. That includes folding your clothes and a host of other little things you aren't used to having me do. If I spend my life with you, I don't expect to be relegated to a guest chamber forever, either. Sooner or later you may need to get used to the idea that you could find some of my things in your chamber, maybe even things like these." She dropped her other clothes on the quilt at the foot of his bed, seeing that the wispy, silky underthings were clearly visible.

Vincent tried not to look at them.

"The fact that they touched me doesn't change the fact that they're just clothes. Your night clothes are just clothes. I'll wash them and fold them when I can, and take pleasure in the fact that I've done something for you; and you will have to learn to allow it. And..." she took a deep breath and smiled charmingly. "I will put them away for you if you will simply tell me where to put them."

"The bottom drawer of the chest behind me," he murmured, taken a little aback by her determination. He heard the drawer open and close, and she was back.

"There. That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Catherine, could you..." he pointed vaguely at the clothes at the foot of his bed.

"Certainly," she answered, and picked them up, putting them out of sight in her large gym bag. She imagined that Vincent finally exhaled, and felt simultaneously guilty and amused.

"Why don't we look at this book about the British Isles?" she suggested. "I can tell you about the places I've visited - things that aren't in the book." The poor man definitely needed some distraction of a different sort.

"I would enjoy that," he answered with no small degree of relief at the new turn in the conversation.

"I'd like to sit with you if you don't mind. I'll sit in the chair if you'd rather."

He wondered what was wrong with him. She had only been trying to take care of him - for weeks, he had been told. She had given up everything of importance in her world to be with him; and here he sat making her feel uncomfortable about it. How could he refuse her anything so simple? Feeling a little less unclothed now, he held out his arm, inviting her to sit with him.

She smiled and climbed up on the quilt beside him. Leaning against his shoulder, she opened the book to the picture of Buckingham Palace and began to tell him about two trips to the British Isles - one she had taken with her father during a Christmas break not long after her mother died, and another during a summer when she was in college.

He felt her contentment when his arm went around her shoulders and was again amazed that such a small response from him could provide her such serenity. He relaxed then and drifted into the pleasure of her stories and bits of trivia that accompanied the pictures of the familiar landmarks.

She had a wealth of stories - side trips into the countryside, visits to local pubs for meals, people they met, sheep stopping traffic, miles of green, castles...and he had as many questions. He related some of the scenery to books and poetry, rousing more information from her memory. They nibbled at the muffins and fruit, and Catherine retrieved the pitcher of water and made them more tea. Before they realized it, the afternoon had disappeared and Father was back for his late afternoon rounds. They invited him in when he called.

After the morning's conversation with Vincent, Father was surprised to find Catherine curled up next to him with a book. They both looked quite comfortable. Smiling, he decided not to try to figure it out. He supposed the robe must have helped Vincent's sense of security.

"What has the two of you so entranced?" he asked.

"Catherine has been sharing stories that make the pictures in this book infinitely more entertaining," Vincent answered and handed Father the book.

"Well," said Father, looking at the book with renewed interest, "Perhaps you would be willing to share some of your stories with me sometime, and maybe with a class one day. The children would be fascinated to hear from someone who has actually visited these places. Of course they are all fascinated with you anyway."

"I'll be glad to talk to them any time you'd like," she smiled. It felt good to be asked to take a role in some of the everyday activities of the tunnels.

Father sat and talked with them a while, leafing through the pages of the book, and relating a few stories of his own. He watched the way Catherine looked at Vincent, alert to any need she might sense in him that might add to his discomfort, and he wondered again how he could have been so blind. The atmosphere was so relaxed right then that he couldn't resist a little teasing.

"But, Catherine, I'm afraid I'm a little disappointed in your caregiving."

She and Vincent answered him nearly in unison.

"Why?"

"Father?"

Vincent was immediately coming to her defense when they both realized that Father was smiling.

"William tells me no one came to bring Vincent lunch - and one of the stipulations of your caregiving status, young lady, was that you would take care of yourself as well as your..." He hesitated there, not certain what term to use. "...patient." He decided that term was safe. The hesitation wasn't lost on any of them, though, bringing back another wave of discomfort.

Catherine thought it might be a good idea to relieve the tension by removing herself from the room. It was nearly dinner time after all, and neither of them had realized they missed lunch. She dreaded the expected reprimand about the missed meal; but catching a whiff of the aroma coming from the kitchen, she thought it would be worth any tirade William could muster up. She stopped to speak to a few people who were asking about Vincent, then resignedly made her way to the kitchen and the inevitable lecture.

Sure enough, there was a strong reminder that meals were necessary, especially for those who have been dangerously ill. Apparently William felt he was a large factor in Vincent's recovery and took the job very seriously. She would have to remember that. She could barely carry the large tray he had loaded with a small tureen of hearty stew, homemade bread, fresh fruit, and apple pie. Seeing Geoffrey, she enlisted a little help. She was sure the added bonus of seeing Vincent for a few minutes wasn't far from the boy's mind. He grabbed a smaller tray and dishes and silverware and took the smaller items from Catherine's tray. Now that things were more manageable, they started toward Vincent's chamber, Geoffrey filling her in on what the children were working on in class. They missed having Vincent to do the teaching.

 

********************

 

Father pronounced Vincent's improvement and sat down to spend a little time with him while Catherine was out.

"I take it that the dressing gown helped. The atmosphere when I came in seemed nothing like what you described this morning," Father observed.

"It was a pleasant afternoon," Vincent answered.

"I'm sorry if I made things uncomfortable again," Father responded.

"It isn't your fault, Father. It's mine," Vincent sighed. "Catherine is so determined to make our life together work, and I..."

"Can't justify confining her to it?"

"Yes," Vincent admitted.

"Maybe it's time to let Catherine decide," Father suggested. "Give her the truth and let her make her decisions. You have to come to terms with your own."

"Catherine, in a manner of speaking, suggested something similar this morning after you left," Vincent answered.

"So the whole day wasn't as comfortable as the picture I walked into?" Father chuckled.

"The book was a welcome diversion," Vincent smiled. Father suspected that was something of an understatement.

When Catherine and Geoffrey returned with dinner, Vincent greeted the young man warmly, making sure he was thanked properly for coming to Catherine's aid. He asked questions about his class and asked Geoffrey to give his regards to the other students.

Catherine and Father smiled, thinking Geoffrey would certainly be the envy of the other children tomorrow. None of the children had been allowed to see Vincent yet, and they could see Geoffrey's pride in the look on his face. Catherine reminded him that Vincent wasn't nearly as strong as he looked, and should eat his dinner and rest. Geoffrey took the hint quickly, turning back briefly at the door.

"I'm really glad you're getting better, Vincent. We all miss you," he said sincerely. Turning to Catherine, he added, "If you want to leave the trays outside the door, I'll come back and pick them up after dinner. They won't be so heavy when they're empty."

"Thank you, Geoffrey," Vincent answered with a smile. "I'm sure Catherine would appreciate that."

"Yes, Catherine would," she agreed, flashing Geoffrey a smile that set his youthful hormones in a spin. He then bounded out of the room - undoubtedly, Catherine thought, to tell his news to anyone he met in the passageway.

Father was offered some of the feast Catherine had placed on Vincent's desk, but opted for going to the dining hall. As she was filling the dishes, Vincent mentioned that Father had helped him stand for a few minutes that morning.

"Why didn't you wait for me?" she scolded, "It would have been easier with two of us." Seeing the slightly self-conscious look Vincent tried to hide and remembering the appearance of the robe, she understood, but offered anyway. "Would you like to try to sit at the desk to eat dinner?" I could help you stand.

"Not yet," he answered, "but if you move that small table closer, I can probably sit on the side of the bed." Catherine offered to help, but he insisted on trying to sit up alone while she moved the table."

Vincent laboriously moved his legs over the side of the bed and carefully pulled his robe around him.

Catherine filled a bowl with a big helping of the stew and a plate with the homemade bread and sliced pears and served it to Vincent. She filled dishes for herself and sat in the chair near the bed in case he needed anything else. After watching Vincent down the second big bowl of stew and accept the large serving of apple pie, she began to think William may not have been exaggerating about the appetite - and that it was a good thing Father decided not to stay.

It was quite a relief to see him recovering. The last few weeks had been frightening. It was debilitating to both of them. He had lost weight, his hair had lost some of its luster, and his eyes didn't have quite the depth of expression she was used to seeing; but he was improving steadily. Gathering the dishes for Geoffrey to pick up, she thought it wouldn't take long to gain the weight back if he kept eating like this.

Vincent pulled himself back into the bed. In spite of his obvious enjoyment of the meal, it had taken a lot out of him to sit up unsupported for that long. The pillows behind him were a pleasant relief.

"Please give William my compliments tomorrow," Vincent smiled after he was settled on the pillows.

"I will," Catherine responded, "but I suspect the empty dishes will speak volumes. Did I tell you I had to endure a lecture on the necessity of regular meals, especially for those recovering from an illness?"

Vincent chuckled sympathetically, having been on the receiving end of a few of William's lectures himself.

"But the stew made it all worthwhile," she said over her shoulder as she took the trays to the door for pick-up.

When the dishes were cleared and the table was back in place, she asked,

"What would you like to do? If you're tired, I could read for a while and leave you alone."

"I'm tired, but not ready for sleep yet," he answered, sinking slightly lower into his pillows. "Just sit and talk to me for a while." She sat down in the chair beside the bed and tucked her feet under her.

"I realized today how long you've ignored your job to be here with me. How have you managed this much time away?" Vincent asked.

"I told Joe I needed an indefinite leave of absence or I'd resign," she answered with a small chortle.

"Would you have done that? ...Resigned from a job you love just to be here to care for me?" he asked, an edge of concern in his voice. "Others here could have done that."

"Vincent, that part of my life is only a job. You're a necessity." she assured him. "One day I'll figure out how to convince you of that truth. Don't worry, though. My job will be waiting when I go back. I don't think Joe wanted to lose someone who works the hours I do for as little as they pay me," she laughed." A little more seriously she added, "I told him there was someone in my life and that he was very ill. I was even tired and worried enough at that point that I told him your name. Joe won't say anything. I told him I couldn't talk about it, and he tried to understand. I trust him completely."

"I know you do," Vincent answered, taking her hand in his, "and I'm grateful that he's there. I'm sorry that I make your life so complicated. You shouldn't have to hide our love from people who care about you. You deserve..."

"Stop right there!" she answered harshly, retrieving her hand and lowering both her voice and her brows. "Don't even start down that path again! I'm a big girl now. I can decide what's good for me, and I've decided that you are. You didn't ask me to be here. I chose to be..." She then turned her anger on herself. "...And I'm not the only one whose life has been complicated. You work all day here and still find time for me. You put yourself in danger every time you come to my balcony... And look what loving me and protecting me has done to you. I'm the reason you're in this condition. The least I can do is take care of you."

"Catherine..." he began.

"Don't try to make me feel less responsible," she answered. "If I hadn't put myself in danger so often, you wouldn't have so much blood on your conscience. Sometimes I was probably too reckless because, in the back of my mind, I knew you'd come to save me."

"Catherine, don't." He hesitated to go on; but remembering Father's advice that morning, he decided it might be time for truth. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Maybe we're both to blame. Sometimes you might have put yourself in danger that others could have handled. Other times you couldn't have planned for it. My response is the problem. The rage I feel when someone tries to hurt you is something I haven't experienced before, and it frightens even me. If you hadn't stopped me, there might have been nothing left of some of those men but small pieces of flesh and bone. When it was happening I felt so triumphant, so exultant...just for a moment - right before I recognized the carnage I'd created...and that I had made you a part of it."

"I've had to protect my family, my community, before; but it was a soldier's duty that had to be done, and not often. I have the strength and skill to accomplish the same thing without such gore. There was always a feeling of the thrill of the hunt, but it was always tempered with absolute control and efficiency... and a sadness that it was necessary. The rages are something new and foreign. When it involves your safety, I'm lost. I have no control at all." He looked away from her, looking down and speaking quietly. "The worst part is that I know I've drawn you into the killing. I have no right to pull you into that kind of darkness." He said this with a profound sense of shame.

Catherine knew how he suffered in telling her that. Now she looked away, unable to bear the look she would undoubtedly see on his face.

"You know about that," she said, looking down with the admission. "I had hoped you would have missed it in your loss of control. You were always worried that I wouldn't understand about the darkness. You realized that I felt it with you the last couple of times you lost control so completely, didn't you? I could feel the rage in you, and the victory and the exuberance, then the agonizing remorse, and then it was gone; but I knew it was only gone from me. I could see how it tortured you. I could feel it. I began to understand Father's resentment of me. He could see it, too."

She stopped briefly to be sure she phrased things correctly. This wasn't a subject she could afford to approach without great care, and probably best approached with this small distance between them. He often avoided being too close to her when his loss of control was the subject.

"I've had a lot of time in the past couple of months to think about this, Vincent; and I think I understand why you lose control." He finally looked up as if hoping for an answer he didn't have. She looked directly at him now. "You love me. You're protecting your mate, showing her that you have that kind of strength...and, in spite of my better instincts, I respond to it with pride that you can protect me so well. That probably adds to your feeling of victory. It's something between the two of us - something in both of us that isn't an unusual feeling. You just have strength and natural weapons that other men don't. I think I feel pride in that, too. It isn't that I love you in spite of that part of you. I love you including that part of you." She looked down and finished a little more softly. "Maybe just a tiny little bit because of that part of you."

He shook his head in disbelief. "No..."

"We both have to deal with our shame," she told him quietly. "When I saw you lose control and attack the first time, it was appalling; but when it ended and I pulled myself out of the shock, I didn't stop to consider what you had done. My first concern was your safety and what cover story to tell. You didn't make me do that. I remember thinking later that something must be wrong with me, but I did it again and again." She stopped momentarily to pull the rest of her argument together.

"Some of those so-called normal men killed for money. Others killed just as easily for the convenience of avoiding responsibility or just for the sheer pleasure of the brutality...and they felt no remorse. That isn't who you are. You've only killed to protect the ones you love, never anyone who wasn't a real threat to someone else, and never without regret. You didn't even try to hurt that slimy reporter who threatened to expose you Above.

"Soldiers who never wanted to kill can lose control protecting their homes or friends...and the ones they protect can feel the glory of it with them in the heat of the moment. Given your strength and built-in weapons, they would probably do the same things you did. I would, to protect you."

"Catherine..." Vincent said, a slight reprimand in his voice.

"You know it's true," she insisted. "I would use a gun to protect myself and shoot only enough to stop the danger, no more. But if it meant your safety, I would empty the gun to be sure nothing could hurt you. I would be vicious, too, with whatever weapons I could find...gun, baseball bat..."

"I hate that I could bring you to such a place," Vincent answered, his anguish unmistakable.

"No more than I despise what I've brought you to," she replied, equally remorseful.

"You shouldn't accept so much blame for this illness. There were other factors," Vincent said softly. There was a bitterness in his voice as he looked toward Catherine. "I lived my life knowing nothing of Paracelsus until he invaded your world with his drugs, then he couldn't be ignored. He needed revenge.

"He played mind games with all of us, but he seemed to especially enjoy what he could do to me. He seemed to see me as a property that should have been his to train for his own warped purposes - a lost opportunity. He knew the best way to destroy Father would be to destroy me, and I think he wanted to see me corrupted simply to know that he could accomplish it." Vincent pulled his knees up close to him and rested his arms on them.

"He seemed determined to push me into fulfilling his twisted expectations, and I played right into his hands. He even engineered his own death in my father's form to see that I could have no peace, and I allowed myself to be manipulated. When I realized Father would never have had the thoughts I was hearing and that he might have harmed Father to get to me...that he had insinuated himself into living with us, interacting with the children, posing as someone they trust completely... Right then I was as crazed as he intended me to be...just as he had planned."

He took in a shuddering breath and his forehead fell to his arms briefly. He raised his head and looked at Catherine as if nothing could heal his wounded spirit.

"In the end I killed him to stop his words, Catherine. How could I have let him control me that way?"

"He was deranged... and brilliant, and manipulative," Catherine insisted, reaching to touch Vincent's arm for comfort. "Most minds would have given up long before yours did. You did what had to be done in the interest of your home, Vincent. The threats to the people you love were real and coming more often. He invaded Winterfest with his threats - not just your family, but all the helpers were in danger.

"If he had lived longer, the terror would have continued longer. What would you have done then? Banishment is the strongest punishment the council allows. Eventually he would have become dangerous enough for them to 'allow' you to do the dirty work again," she said resentfully. "Then you would have had to track him down and put yourself back in danger. You know his death after one of his schemes was inevitable. It was a necessity to your world. Don't give him the power to persecute you even from the grave."

She couldn't keep the distance between them any longer. Catherine left the chair and put her arms around him almost fiercely, knowing how difficult it had been for him to put all those thoughts into words. Resting her head on Vincent's shoulder and holding him tight, Catherine couldn't have despised Paracelsus more if he were standing there leering in front of her. What he had done to Vincent... She just sat and held him for a few minutes, relieved when she felt him return the embrace; and she felt his head rest on hers. She leaned back to look at him, tenderly brushed several wisps of hair from his face and spoke to him quietly.

"Thank you for being honest with me, Vincent. It makes me feel more that you trust me to understand your thoughts."

"You have thought that I didn't trust you?" he answered, surprise evident in his voice.

"Not that you didn't trust me," she said, moving back to give him a reassuring look, "just that you didn't want to burden me with the things that torment you or set you apart. I need to be able to talk to you, to understand what hurts you. Sometimes I feel like a child who everyone assumes is too young to understand something that affects her life, so she's sent from the room before it's discussed."

"Was that what Father was trying to tell me this morning?" Vincent thought. He asked himself if he knew she felt that way. Of course he did, he realized. He had simply chosen to ignore it, making the decision for her that she would be better off not knowing. He pulled her to him and she fell gladly into his arms, leaning across him, again resting her head on his shoulder. He nuzzled his cheek against the top of her head, his breath ruffling her hair slightly.

"I'm sorry. I've always kept my personal concerns to myself. It may take me a while to break that habit. It was never my intention to..."

"I know, Vincent. I never meant to cause you concern, either," she murmured against his soft robe.

They held each other, each of them drawing comfort from the closeness; then Catherine leaned back to face him.

"You and Father seem to have you divided firmly into Vincent and the dark side." Catherine said quietly. "Which of you do you think comes to protect me...? The Vincent who leaves a rose and a book of poetry on my balcony? Probably not. Most of us aren't proud of our dark sides; but the dark side is there, and it's always a part of us. Trying to be two separate people leaves you with only half a life, Vincent - one half for each of them - and a constant struggle for who has control of life that day.

"All of what you are is just Vincent to me. No matter what you do or what you are, it doesn't change the fact that I love you completely and unconditionally. I know that you - all the parts of you - offer me nothing less in spite of my imperfections." She leaned back against his chest and told him firmly, "You need to learn to accept yourself the same way you accept others."

He held her closer, unable to put anything else into words, hoping his love would find it's way to her heart through his arms. Half a life... This was a perspective he hadn't encountered.

That had been a draining conversation for both of them. It was getting late, and Vincent hadn't really rested at all that day. She stood, thinking she should insist he sleep now, before Father could find any real faults with her caregiving.

"You need sleep. I'm going to say 'good-night' to Father and get a fresh pitcher of water. Is there anything you'd like me to bring while I'm out?" she asked, picking up the pitcher.

He shook his head and smiled, enjoying the domestic picture she presented.

She stopped before she left and smiled back at him. "I love you, Vincent, exactly the way you are."

 

********************

 

"Hello," she called before entering the chamber next door.

"Come in. Is anything wrong?" Father asked, sounding a little anxious.

"No, Father. I'm going to run a couple of quick errands and thought you might like to check in with Vincent. I've told him to have me call you if there's anything he needs and doesn't feel comfortable asking me for, but he never asks. He had a big dinner and we drank a lot of tea this afternoon. I don't know how he manages. I have to run to the little girl's room now and then, but he either has a bladder of iron or has just decided to suffer until your next visit. I don't think he remembers too much of his illness in my apartment, so that hasn't been much help."

Father chortled in response to her observation. "I think for now Vincent would rather explode than admit in your presence that his bodily functions exist at all. We've all accepted now that you aren't going to disappear from his life, so logic would point to that changing gradually as time passes. Until then, I'll see that he's comfortable before we tuck him in for the night. Thank you, Catherine. I know I don't always let you know, but I'm truly grateful for your devotion to my son."

"I'll be back in about twenty minutes," she smiled, and blew him a kiss.

When Catherine returned Father was sitting in the chair near Vincent suggesting a chess game during his visit the next morning.

"A glutton for punishment," she thought with some amusement.

"I think it's time Vincent had some sleep, Father. Today is the first day he hasn't had a nap."

"You sound as if I should be in the nursery," Vincent grumbled good-naturedly. Father laughed, kissed them both, and said his goodnights. Catherine insisted on helping Vincent out of his robe.

"You can't sleep in this," she told him. "It's bound to get all tangled and uncomfortable. I'll put it at the foot of the bed so you can reach it if you want it tomorrow."

Vincent slid down under the covers thinking that sleep would be welcome. Catherine smoothed the covers around his shoulders as she had been doing for most of the week. Then, also as she had been doing for most of the week, she pulled the cot up next to Vincent's bed. Vincent rose slightly on one elbow, suddenly feeling wide-awake.

"Do you think this is a good idea? I'm stronger now. You don't need to be as concerned about me."

"Have I been taking good care of you?" she asked.

"Of course you have," he responded, wondering where this line of questioning was going.

"Do you love me?" she asked.

"You can't doubt that, can you?" he questioned.

"No, but it would be nice to hear it a little more often," she answered, following the statement with the flirtatious little smile that always melted his heart. "This is for me," she said more seriously. "It hasn't been that long since we thought we were losing you. It helps me to be this close."

He didn't argue, just began to wonder how he would manage to sleep. She took off only her shoes and crawled under the covers. She turned to face his bed, slid her left arm under the pillow, and reached out for his arm with her right hand.

"Catherine..." he said. A slight sound of pleading tinged his voice. He knew she understood this time. "Can you settle for just being close?"

"No," she answered, softly but firmly, and without moving her hand. She usually cooperated when she understood his hesitance, and "No" was not the answer he had expected. She propped herself up on her other elbow, her hand still on his arm.

"This is a very innocent touch," she said.

He wondered if she was aware of the very uninnocent thoughts her slightest touch could trigger. "Of course not," he reminded himself. Had he ever allowed himself to let her know?

"I'm being a good girl," she said lightly but insistently. "I'm fully clothed and sleeping in my own bed. This one touch lets me fall asleep knowing you're all right. Everything else is for you. This takes care of me. You'll have to get used to it."

How could he argue?

"Then perhaps I should help," he replied, quietly relenting, and slipped his hand under her arm and around her elbow. She slid back down to the pillow and closed her eyes. He felt her quiet pleasure when he took her arm. He stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, wondering how long it would take to fall asleep with her so close, actually touching him; then, in a few minutes...

"Catherine?"

"Hmmm?" she answered drowsily from somewhere close to her pillow.

"I love you," he said.

He suddenly realized that, as much as he loved her, it was only the second time he had spoken it. Knowing how she felt about him, it had always seemed so final, so much like the last nail in the coffin of her freedom. He knew his admission of love would cement her determination to stay with him. That now seemed a foregone conclusion.

Her eyes remained closed and she said nothing, but her smile and the warm joy he felt in her was all the reward he needed. Perhaps Father was becoming wiser in his old age.

For a while he thought about the pleasant, unthreatening afternoon they had spent together, and finally drifted into sleep.

 

********************

 

Early in the night he became uneasy, his nightmares seeming to return. He moved around restlessly in the bed, again mumbling things Catherine couldn't understand, as if he were arguing with someone. Catherine would hold his arm a little more firmly and talk to him soothingly when it woke her; and he would gradually calm. Eventually the restlessness passed, and they both fell wearily into a deep sleep.

Vincent woke up slowly, feeling surprisingly well rested and more at peace than the day before. He looked for Catherine and realized it was the first time in days that he didn't wake to see her moving around his chamber and smiling when his eyes opened. He had begun to wonder if it had all been a dream when he became aware of the warmth under his hand. Turning to look at her without disturbing their linked arms, he tried to avoid waking her; but she woke anyway.

"Are you okay? Is anything wrong? Do you need something?" she mumbled, raising slightly on her elbow. He placed his other hand over hers and soothingly encouraged her back to her pillow.

"No. Nothing. Rest a little longer."

She let her head fall back to the pillow and smiled, her eyes still closed.

"Is it morning?"

"Yes," he answered with a slight chuckle. "We've both slept a little late. Father will be here soon."

"Thank you, Vincent," she murmured, squeezing his arm lightly before letting it go to sit up.

"For what?" he asked, feeling a small sense of loss where the warmth of her arm had been.

"For helping," she smiled.

Catherine sat up on the cot, trying to pull herself into orderly thought.

Vincent just watched quietly, enjoying the picture and committing it to memory for times when she wouldn't be there.

Realizing she was the center of his attention, she laughed lightly and ran her hands through her hair to fluff it a little.

"I must look a mess!" she said self-consciously.

"You're beautiful," Vincent answered, smiling.

"You are obviously still ill;" she replied, going directly to her hair brush, "but still entirely a gentleman."

The easy exchange between them continued while Catherine found clean clothes for herself, moved the cot out of the way and straightened its covers, and put water in the teapot to heat while she was gone. By the time those tasks were accomplished, Father was calling them; and Catherine excused herself to clean up and bring breakfast.

Watching Vincent watch Catherine leave, Father smiled. "You're looking quite content this morning," he observed, starting their morning routine.

"I like waking to her smile, Father," Vincent admitted.

"Have you told her that?" Father asked, taking out his stethoscope.

"Not in words," Vincent answered, "but I'm sure she knows."

"Have you learned nothing about women?" Father quipped.

"No," Vincent reminded him pointedly, "I don't believe either of us thought it would become an issue."

Vincent decided to keep his restless dreams between himself and Catherine. He had recovered from the dreams rather well this time, and there was nothing Father could do except worry.

Catherine returned with the breakfast tray, and Father stayed for tea and a little more of a visit.

"After breakfast why don't we try to help Vincent walk a few steps?" Father suggested. "He can't stay in that bed forever. He might even be ready for a few short visitations."

"That would be good for him," she replied. "He's probably getting a little tired of only my company."

"Somehow," Father remarked, "I don't think that has been a significant problem."

Vincent's smile acknowledged the truth in Father's comment, and Catherine's heart smiled with him.

She held out Vincent's robe. "Here," she said, "Put this on before you sit up for breakfast. I don't want you to catch cold before you have time to recover."

Knowing what she was doing made Father love her all the more.

When the breakfast dishes were out of the way, the three of them worked out a balancing act that would help Vincent start moving his long unused muscles. With their help he managed to walk around his desk, farther than Father had expected for the first trip. They were all relieved to get Vincent back in the bed. He was exhausted, and holding up someone as large as Vincent was no minor task. Father began to make mental note of which large, muscular visitors he could schedule. Still, they had given Vincent a sense of mobility, something he had been without for too long.

The movement seemed to trigger a desire in Vincent to be back on his feet. He asked Catherine to call Father that afternoon so they could try again, and wanted to walk again before dinner that evening. Each time he moved a little farther.

Catherine had the feeling that Father had probably done a little physical therapy with Vincent while she wasn't around to watch; but they never mentioned it, and she didn't ask. Whatever he was doing was alright with her as long as it worked. She just wished that Vincent would feel comfortable enough with her to let her be a part of it.

Father sat a short while to share some of the news he thought they might have missed.

"Kanin will be coming home tomorrow," he told them with a slight air of amusement. He's been given early release, but the prison authorities apparently let him go reluctantly. It seems he was given the nickname 'The Peacemaker'. They moved him several times after finding that wherever he was seemed to take on an atmosphere of calm and cooperation. The accident victim's mother seemed to have accepted that Kanin had paid enough of a price to allow her closure, and she offered no protest to the early release. She also seemed to appreciate that his gift for stilling conflict might save another mother the loss of a child. In the hope of holding on to some of the spell he seemed to cast, the prison staff insisted that he return periodically to visit. Some of our helpers have promised their assistance in the visits. We'll give him a day or two of quiet time with his family, then maybe he can help with some physical therapy."

Catherine knew about the early release, having had a small quiet involvement in it. She had also visited him during his incarceration, her guilt gradually easing with his assurances that this had been for the best. It gave him the release both from his own guilt and from a life of constantly looking over his shoulder.

"Has he worked out the details of his parole situation?" Catherine asked.

"We've made arrangements with a helper to provide a room and an address and messages to let him know when he needs to appear to live there," Father told her. "Helpers do this periodically for our people making a transition to or from jobs and lives above. Some of them have been in the same situation."

During the morning Catherine and Father let it be known that, starting the next day, Vincent could have a few visitors for a short time in the afternoons. Vincent and Catherine spent a quiet day reading to one another, playing cards, playing chess, and talking. The book of art prints provided another opportunity for Catherine to tell Vincent about trips and museums where she saw the original works. That night when Catherine started to move the cot, she stopped next to his bed.

"Are we going to argue about this tonight?"

"No," he answered.

She settled into bed; and, in an unspoken agreement, he linked their arms and they slept peacefully.

 

********************

 

The following morning Vincent was far more anxious for exercise than breakfast. Father and Catherine helped him, and found that it was easier this time. He was visibly stronger. When they helped him back to bed, he was tired from the exertion; but he had enjoyed it as well. He was accustomed to a lot of physical activity. He was now missing it, and willing to endure whatever it took to regain it. Determination was taking over.

To Father, who had watched him over the years recover from various accidents and illnesses, that was a welcome development. Peter's observation that, to a certain extent, Vincent had always been his own physician had been true. There would be a period of rest followed by a period of determination and then the real healing would begin, usually rapidly. He smiled, feeling that his son was finally on the road to complete recovery. He would have to share that thought with Catherine sometime soon.

Vincent had insisted on breakfast at the desk, and wanted to sit there for a while afterward. Catherine had cleared the dishes and he was writing in his journal. She took the opportunity to change the sheets while he wasn't in them. She stood with her back to him, smoothing the top sheet. When she bent to tuck in the last corner, she realized she was being watched. She stood and looked over her shoulder with a mischievous smile.

"Enjoying the view?" she asked.

Surprised and a little flustered, Vincent started to answer with an apology.

"Catherine, I..."

Suddenly feeling guilty, she laughed and went to give him a quick, reassuring hug.

"It was a joke. I'm flirting with you, Vincent. Something else you might as well get used to. And you might as well enjoy the view," she continued, placing a hand on each arm of the chair and leaning closer to glower at him with feigned severity, "because I don't ever expect to catch you with that look on your face over anyone else."

"Never!" was his immediate response, and he even managed a charming smile.

Catherine laughed and seemed pleased with that answer, leaving him still smiling.

He continually had trouble accepting that a woman who was a confident, independent, wealthy, well-respected attorney in her world seemed so content to be in his - changing sheets and taking care of his smallest needs... Of course, typically, he was trying not to admit to himself just how much he had been enjoying the view.

She was back at her task now, smoothing the quilt and gathering the sheets she had just removed from the bed. Going to place them at the doorway to attend to later, she nearly ran over Father as she rounded the screen.

"I'm sorry to break your visiting hours dear; but I thought the two of you should know that the first visitors will be a small contingent of the younger children who insisted strongly that they needed to see Vincent first. Knowing the whirlwind of energy that accompanies small children, I thought you should be forewarned."

They all laughed knowingly, and Father was thanked for his thoughtful warning.

"Mary has enlisted some of the older children to help and has promised to keep the visit short."

"It's time for lunch, Father. Why don't you stay and visit while I go and bring it back. Shall I bring something for you, too?"

"No thank you, dear," he answered. "Let Vincent eat and rest a little after lunch so this visit won't take too much of a toll. Go ahead. I'll get my visit in now, before he's too tired to care that I'm here."

She chuckled as she left. Physical therapy was one stress. Small children were quite another.

 

********************

 

Catherine was quickly learning where everything happened in the tunnels, how responsibilities were handled, how the jobs were done. The government bureaucracy she worked for would have this world turned upside down in a couple of weeks, she thought; yet these people had things running like clockwork. If they were scheduled for a job, it was done - None of the "This isn't my job." or "My union won't let me handle this." that her world dealt with all too often. In spite of some obvious inconveniences, this was definitely a much more pleasant way of life. She delivered the sheets to be washed, stopped to talk to some of the community members she met in the hall, and stopped in the kitchen to pick up a lunch tray.

"Unless you're helping out more than it looks like you are, young lady, I guess you're finding out about that boy's appetite," William pointed out as he filled the tray.

"I don't know, William," she answered with a grin, "maybe I was just too busy mooning over him to notice before."

"Then he's a lucky man," William responded with a gruff sort of smile. "You make sure he lets you have your share."

"Yes, sir," she smiled over her shoulder as she left.

 

********************

 

The children appeared at the door at mid-afternoon, bringing books, notes from some of the older children, and pictures they had drawn as get-well gifts. There were about eight four, five, and six year olds of various sizes and ethnic origins, all looking at Vincent as if he might break. They had obviously been told that he was sick and they were to be on their best behavior. Kipper and Samantha had come along to help Mary if they got out of hand - and to have a few minutes of their own with Vincent.

"What are all those things in your hands?" Vincent asked them.

"They're for you, Vincent," answered the youngest girl, Teresa, looking up shyly with big brown eyes. "These are from the big kids." She handed him the notes.

That was all it took for the others to lose all semblance of decorum. They all started talking at once.

"Yeah, that's 'cause we get to see you before they do." "I have stuff, too." We made you some pictures." "Will you hang them up somewhere?" "We miss you." "Are you better yet?"

"Wait," Vincent smiled, as patient with them as ever, "You should take turns so I won't miss anything. Now, may I see those pictures?"

The tallest boy, Tommy, handed him the pictures; and Vincent looked at each of them, finding something to praise in each one. "Since the notes are from the 'big kids', I'll read them after your visit." He took a moment to hand the notes to Catherine. "What else do you have there?" Vincent asked. "It looks like you brought books."

"We're going to read you a story to make you feel better," answered Jennifer, who had one of the books. She was nearly jumping up and down in anticipation.

"Well, since I can't come down there today, I guess you'll have to come up here with me so I can see all the pictures," Vincent told them quite seriously.

His bed was immediately full of excited children, all clamoring for the best spot. Catherine, Kipper and Samantha held a couple of them back briefly in regard for Vincent's safety, and helped arrange them in some reasonable fashion. He pretended to be afraid at first and chuckled as they gradually settled down around him. They had chosen The Little Engine That Could, one of the books Catherine had brought at Christmas the year before. Mary thought the reading might go a little easier for all concerned since the younger children had most of it memorized. Catherine and Mary sat in the chairs near the bed, spoke quietly now and then, and enjoyed the scene. Kipper and Samantha settled on the foot of the bed and watched. The children took turns reading. They all chimed in on "I think I can..." and conscientiously showed Vincent all the pictures.

Looking at the second book and imagining how slow some of the "reading" might be, Vincent offered to read to them. They had a book of children's poems, so each child was allowed to chose a favorite. After the poems were read, Mary and her assistants announced the end of visiting hours. The children climbed all over Vincent giving him hugs and kisses before scrambling down from the bed, then the chaperones gathered their small charges to go. Teresa, no longer feeling shy, ran back to the side of the bed.

"Can you get better now, Vincent?" she asked.

He leaned over toward her with a twinkle in his eyes.

"I think I can, I think I can," he said in a stage whisper, playing to his appreciative, giggling pint-sized audience. As Mary led them out, Catherine accepted hugs from each of them. Their laughter and chattering voices drifted back into the room from the passageway.

Kipper and Samantha had asked permission to stay for a few more minutes since their jobs here had been accomplished.

"Do the two of you plan to read to me, too?" Vincent asked them with a smile.

"No!" Kipper shot back immediately. "You'll have to get Catherine to do that. You make me do enough of that in class."

"I'd read to you if you wanted me to, Vincent," Samantha told him, "but Catherine is much better at it."

"If everyone is leaving the reading to Catherine, then perhaps you would tell me what you've been doing," Vincent suggested. "I've missed most of the news lately."

They talked about their classes. Olivia had taken some of them swimming, bribing them with cookies to take Luke in the water so she didn't have to get wet. Kipper teased Samantha about being in love while Samantha denied it vigorously and threatened revenge at the earliest opportunity. Then Kipper finished by saying, "and I went above to do some errands for Catherine." Kipper was suddenly very quiet and Catherine said nothing; so Vincent, in spite of his curiosity, simply thanked him.

"I'm sure that Catherine appreciated your help."

Sensing that Kipper might have fallen into uncomfortable territory, Samantha put her need for revenge on hold and reminded him that Vincent needed his rest.

"I enjoyed our visit," Vincent told them, Thank you for your help with the younger ones.

"Sure, Vincent," Kipper answered.

"Any time you need us, let us know," said Samantha as they stood to leave.

"You have the patience of Job," Catherine chuckled, standing next to the bed when the two children were gone. "You must be exhausted."

She was amazed to see that, rather than exhausted, Vincent seemed energized. It was clear how much he had missed seeing the children. Catherine smiled down at him, squeezed one of his shoulders and left her hand resting there. He smiled and shook his head, remembering the wiggling, giggling mass of miniature humanity who had just bounced into his bed and back out of his chamber.

"Something like a summer storm, weren't they?" he said with a small chuckle, "Blowing in, roaring a little while, and blowing out again." He looked up at Catherine and placed his hand over hers.

"They love you, you know. You're wonderful with them. You always know what to say to make each one feel special. That's a rare gift. You think of them almost as your own, don't you?"

"I suppose I do," he answered. "I used to feel like an older brother; but since Laura left us the lines have gradually begun to blur. It was difficult to let her go."

"They couldn't ask for a better big brother - or a better father figure," she said, intending nothing beyond a compliment.

Vincent's hand slid away from Catherine's, and he lost the buoyant bearing he had just moments before. Even though he understood her intent quite clearly, he thought maybe this was the right opening to face another truth head on. Catherine needed to understand this clearly, too.

"That's all I can ever allow myself to be, Catherine - a father figure." He emphasized the last word. "Even if I knew it possible for me to father a child, I couldn't allow it. I couldn't be so unfair as to intentionally create a child who might be confined to a life like mine. I know that child would have me for guidance; but I've lived this, and guidance isn't enough. Even if the first child didn't look like me, the next ones might... or their children. Regardless of their appearance, I would have contributed genetically. The consequences of that selfishness on my part would leave generations in its wake - young people afraid to have children for fear they might look like this.

"Those children would be loved and respected in this community. I know that. They would be safe in my world; but if anything happened to this community, there would be no safe place for them. All it would take is another Burch Towers in the right place, and our community could be destroyed. The thought that one of my children or grandchildren could be captured or caged the way I have been, or confined for medical experiments, or used the way Paracelsus would have used me, is something I am not willing to risk. I have to accept that I will be the only one of my kind, that I will leave no trace of myself when I go."

"I know all that," Catherine said softly, sitting on the side of the bed to face him, "and I will agree to it."

He took her hands in his.

"I know you want children. I can feel it when you're with them. I've felt the longing in you when you see one of the women here announce her pregnancy. It pains me to know that I can't give you that." He took in a breath and released a deep, sad sigh. "I know you would want my children and love them as unconditionally as you love me, but I can't give them to you. I won't. You have to understand. There can be no compromise in this. To have a life with me you have to accept that, and you shouldn't be confined to such a promise."

She touched his arm gently.

"But I have chosen to be confined to that promise. If I did have children, Vincent, whose would they be? When accepting one kiss from Elliott hurt you so deeply, how could I possibly allow myself to create a child with someone else? I could never do that to you. I could never do that to us. I make decisions for myself, remember? This is my choice, too; and you have to accept that."

She moved her hand to touch his face, stroking her hand across his cheek, pleased that he allowed it so easily.

"The fact that you exist at all is a miracle. The fact that I'm alive to appreciate your existence is a miracle. The fact that you found me and saved me, that this bond exists between us, that we share this kind of love, that either of us have lived through the dangers of the past couple of years...all of those things are miracles. The birth of a child... How many miracles can two people expect in one lifetime? Maybe we've simply used up our share. To ask for that much more would surely be tempting fate." She rested her hand on his shoulder again.

"As for leaving no trace of yourself when you go... You already have traces of yourself all over New York. Laura and Michael are just two. Laura's strength and signing and Michael's scholarship to college are because of your teaching and your encouragement. They take you with them, even when they aren't thinking about you. I live a life that makes a difference because of your influence on me. I've seen that a lot of others do, too." Trying to sound a little more cheerful, she added, "Besides, you've already given me more children that I know what to do with. Remember the 'summer storm' that just blew through? The nursery is full of children who need both of us. We could always adopt a baby the way Father adopted you if we feel the overwhelming need to wake up for two o'clock feedings." Without a word, Vincent gathered her into his arms and they held each other quietly for a long time.

That night Vincent's nightmares returned. Catherine woke to find him thrashing back and forth, moaning, "No!... No!..." His voice was getting louder, and she suddenly felt the overwhelming torment of his dreams. There was a roar building in him that would not only wake Father, but frighten half the tunnels as well; and she intended to take care of him herself. She scrambled into his bed and grabbed his shoulder, shaking him and calling his name.

"Vincent, it's all right. You're just dreaming." He began to calm a little, and she shook him again. "Wake up. It's only a dream. I'm here." She knew it must have been frightening. His face was damp with perspiration and she could feel his heart racing.

Vincent opened his eyes, looked around and sat up. He put his hands to his face, and took in a long breath, trying to collect himself. When he released the breath, it transformed into the word, "Catherine." To her surprise, he pulled her tightly into his arms, repeating her name.

"What frightened you so?" she asked, returning his embrace just as strongly.

"The dreams," he answered, still feeling their full effects, "Like the ones I was having before.

"Tell me," she whispered.

"There's no need to concern you." he answered shakily.

"Talk to me. Don't close me out," she pleaded. He hesitated, then the words poured out through unsteady breaths.

"I had lost you...You were gone. Our bond was gone, and I couldn't find you...You died...because of me."

"Did you think you had hurt me?" she asked, stroking his hair.

"No. They hurt you because of me," He shook his head slightly. "...The unspeakable things you endured because you dared to love me..." She pulled away to look at him.

"There's more to it, isn't there?"

"Yes," he answered, but he hesitated again.

"Tell me," she insisted. "We'll face our fears together from now on. Promise me that."

"Catherine..." he began, trying to dissuade her.

"All our fears, all our concerns...together," she insisted. There was another hesitation, then with another rush of words he answered her, his head down, unable to look at her.

"They took you because you carried my child...They killed you and took our son. I had lost you, and I couldn't find our child." He took her in his arms again, almost as desperately as he had the night she nearly drowned. "Hold me, Catherine."

She wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could. He had finally asked for her care instead of just accepting it when it was offered. She wondered if, in his present state, he could realize how much that meant to her - to them.

She woke sitting propped against his pillows, his head on her shoulder and his arms still around her waist. Her cheek rested on his hair. One of her arms was protectively around his shoulders, and the other rested on his upper arm. She smiled and nuzzled his hair, imitating the habit she loved in him. Thinking back to the agony he was in during the night, she wondered how many times he might have had such dreams while he was ill. Their conversation after the children left had apparently dredged up other reasons to worry about her safety and for not allowing himself the joy of being a father. After the dangers they had both endured in the past two years, she had to admit they were valid concerns. She pulled her arm around him more tightly and softly kissed the top of his head. She didn't want to wake him, just to know he felt safe and loved.

When Vincent finally opened his eyes, his first words were an apology, concerned for the burden his weight must have been.

"I'm the caregiver right now," she smiled down at him, not willing to let him go quite yet. "It's all part of the job - and one of the more pleasant aspects of the job, I might add."

"I can't imagine that pulling me out of a violent nightmare could have been all that pleasant," he answered, sitting up slowly and feeling a little self-conscious about his response to his dreams.

"Not the nightmares," she agreed, "but I like that you talked to me instead of keeping it locked in. You can tell me the rest later when it doesn't seem quite so close...And holding you under any circumstances..." she smiled, "...the pleasure was all mine."

"No it wasn't," he answered, glancing at her with a slightly self-conscious smile, still looking a little uncomfortable with all this truth. "Thank you," he added, reaching to cover her hand with his.

She decided getting out of his bed would be wise. It was getting more difficult not to think of pinning him to the bed and ravishing him right then and there.

 

********************

 

During the next few days Vincent showed amazing improvement. He wasn't ready to run any races or even to venture away from his chamber, but he was moving around a bit on his own and sitting up away from the bed much more often. The screen disappeared from the doorway to indicate visiting hours, which were now twice a day; and with the number of various visitors, he thought he must now know every scrap of news and gossip available in the tunnels. Father had apparently put a stop on any pipe messages that might cause Vincent concern while he recovered. Only messages of dire emergency were to be allowed, and there had blessedly been none of those. Vincent insisted that all messages be reinstated. He promised not to go rushing off to help before he was strong enough; but knowing his son as well as he did, Jacob prayed for an extreme lack of trouble for a few more weeks.

Catherine seemed to be taking on more and more the acceptance of a resident in the community rather than just a helper; and the community seemed to love her now simply for herself. At first there had been some distrust, but she soon proved herself a staunchly loyal and valuable helper; and, of course, they loved her for her devotion to Vincent.

Father brought Peter with him that morning to see the progress Vincent had made. Peter was both astonished and overjoyed to see Vincent on his feet and looking so much healthier.

"What do you suppose could have accomplished such wonders?" he asked Father jokingly.

"Being waited on hand and foot hasn't hurt, I'm sure. I've noticed that the nursing care has been excellent," Father answered, both of them looking at Vincent with an air of amusement. Vincent stood and looked at the two older men in mock disgust.

"If the two of you have had enough entertainment at my expense, I shall excuse myself to bathe and dress before Catherine returns. I believe I've lived in night clothes far too long."

He made a short formal bow and went in search of comfortable clothing while the two older men talked. After he had dressed, he asked Peter to be sure to stop to see him before going back above.

When Catherine returned with breakfast, she was taken by surprise. She had become so used to seeing Vincent in his night clothes she had forgotten how good he looked in the real ones. She wondered if he had chosen those clothes because they were comfortable or because he knew they were some of her favorites - maybe both. As he sat down to eat breakfast, Vincent consciously allowed himself to bask in her pleasure at his appearance, and he wondered why he had suddenly permitted himself such a vanity. It was certainly unlike him to willingly give in to such feelings.

Finishing sausage, milk and a large stack of pancakes, he mentioned to Catherine that William seemed to be feeding everyone all of his favorite foods lately.

"You and Kipper wouldn't be responsible for the sudden acquisition of ingredients, would you?" he asked. "And how did you know what to arrange for?" Knowing she couldn't hide it from him, she laughed.

"I talked to Mary a lot. She's forgiven me for usurping her place in your recovery, and we've both enjoyed conversations about you. You're in love with a woman who has more money than she knows what to do with, and you deserve to be spoiled now and then. Indulge me a little and at least pretend to enjoy it."

"The entire community is undoubtedly enjoying it," he answered, smiling appreciatively. "You spoil us all. We can't allow this to go on too long, though. Reality will be too hard to accept, and they may wish me to be ill again."

"Then I would have to cut them out of the indulgence loop," she answered quickly, as she stacked dishes on a large tray, "and only spoil you." Vincent stood to help her, showing signs of regaining the strength and grace of movement everyone was accustomed to seeing in him.

"I'm more spoiled by having you here for so long," he answered. "I'm becoming much too dependent on seeing your face at the beginning of my day."

"Good," she answered lightly, not ready to think about having to leave him again. "Because you aren't doing without me yet. I can't give up taking care of you cold turkey. It's become addictive."

Catherine picked up the tray to return it and Vincent's old instincts took over.

"I should be helping you with that," he said.

"Not yet," she answered. "Give yourself another day or two. Father says if you keep improving at this rate, we can start taking some short walks. Then I'll let you help," she promised.

"I look forward to that," he answered.

 

********************

 

When Catherine returned, Vincent was writing in his journal. Trying her best to hide her curiosity, she straightened the bed and leaned back on the pillows with a book.

"Most of it is about you," he said, not even looking up. "When you brought it to me at first, it was more about the illness; but since then the entries have been about you."

"Maybe it's time I should move back to the guest chamber," she answered, feeling a little embarrassed about not being able to hide her curiosity. "You're enough better now that you probably need more time to yourself. I didn't mean to intrude into your thoughts."

"It wasn't an intrusion, just an agreeable presence," he answered.

"You're writing only about me?" Catherine couldn't help asking.

"About us," he admitted. "Father has insisted that we need to speak honestly and make decisions about our future. I know he was right, and the journal helps me think." He still hadn't faced her. She thought that probably made it easier to say things he wasn't entirely comfortable saying yet.

"Father has actually said such a thing?!" Catherine exclaimed, and Vincent chuckled.

"Yes. Apparently you won him over quite thoroughly while I was ill."

"Well, that's one more bridge we don't have to cross on our journey," Catherine laughed, with evident relief.

Vincent still didn't look up. He closed the journal and sat a little sideways in the chair, his head still down, shifting the pen back and forth between his hands for a few seconds.

"Catherine?"

"Yes?" she answered, looking up.

"Don't move back to the guest chamber," he said softly.

She went to him immediately, putting her arms around him from behind and nestling her face in his hair. He reached up to hold her arms in his hands.

"I was hoping you'd say that," she answered happily. Then, to add to her happiness, he leaned his head back against her shoulder and turned so his forehead rested against her cheek. She pressed her face a little closer to his and smiled.

"I know you have to go back to work soon," he told her with a resigned sigh, "but this time it will be more difficult to see you go." She held him a little tighter.

"It will be harder for me, too."

"Do you know how much I love you?" he asked.

"I think so," she answered. "Do you know how much I love you?"

He leaned his face closer against hers and indulged in a brief, self-deprecating little chortle. "I don't pretend to understand your reasons, but yes, I know," he answered, and he tightened his hold on her arms.

"Thank you, Father," she thought, "for whatever you said to point Vincent in this direction."

 

********************

Toward the end of the evening visits Kanin stopped by. When the last of the other visitors had gone, Catherine pulled the screen across the door again. She stayed for a little while and talked with them, then she went to do some visiting of her own to allow them time to talk alone. She knew Vincent enjoyed Kanin's company. He seemed to be able to speak more freely with him than with most of the others, and she knew he had missed that while Kanin was gone. She enjoyed spending time with Olivia as well, and they both enjoyed Luke. This was about as close as she and Vincent came to having another couple to spend time with. She hadn't realized that she had missed that, too.

She went to the nursery to see if she could help with the bedtime stories - or bedtime wrangling. Extra hands were usually welcome for the bedtime tasks. That job accomplished, at least for the time being, she walked Mary back to her chamber. "Vincent finally noticed that he was being indulged, and I had to admit to your role in the conspiracy," she laughed.

"Does he know about tomorrow's indulgence?" Mary asked.

"No," Catherine smiled. "He might suspect something. He can't actually read my mind, but it's hard to keep secrets. It can be a little inconvenient when I want something to be a surprise; but this is so small and silly, maybe he won't notice. I hope his childhood tastes haven't changed too much to enjoy something so foolish. At least I can be sure the children will enjoy it."

She hugged Mary and took her time walking back to Vincent's chamber, thinking how much she didn't want to go back to the District Attorney's office on Monday. She knew Joe didn't feel he could spare anybody when she had demanded leave time, and he had allowed her this time off only because it was Catherine asking...and threatening to resign. It was Wednesday. She could send Joe a message that she would be back on Monday, and she would still have a few more days with Vincent.

Vincent was much better now; and there was no real reason he needed twenty-four hour care - no reason for her to still be living in his chamber at all now - except that he had asked her to stay. He was learning to accept from her, even to ask. In the midst of the smile that accompanied that thought, she nearly bumped into Kanin leaving Vincent's chamber.

"Better not wear that smile too much in public," Kanin teased. "Somebody might get the feeling there's more than nursing duties going on behind that screen," he grinned.

"Behave yourself!" she laughed, and swatted him on the arm.

"Vincent looks much better than I expected after the stories I'd heard this summer," he said.

"He's come a long way, Kanin," she told him. "For a while we thought he might not make it. I've never been so afraid."

"From what I understand, folks were pretty worried about you, too. For what it's worth, Vincent knows what a lucky man he is."

They talked for a few more minutes, then Kanin excused himself to return to Olivia. He wanted to be sure she understood how lucky he considered himself.

Using her best tunnel manners, Catherine called Vincent's name to let him know she was back before she entered his chamber. At his response she went in and found him at his desk in his night clothes, again writing in his journal. She just smiled and said "Hello" and left him to his writing. As she began to move the cot in what had now become an accepted nightly ritual, he offered his help; but she sent him back to his journal entries. If that journal helped him think about working out their future together, that was certainly where she wanted his mind to be.

Completing her task, she realized his robe was still hanging on the hook; another sign of his becoming more comfortable with her constant presence - another smile all the way to her soul. She was, she thought, in serious danger of having her face freeze in this position if anything else good happened.

"I've felt a joy in you all evening," Vincent observed, closing his journal and looking at her. "What is it that makes you so happy?" he asked with a smile.

"The pleasure of your company," she answered, their bond sending him a feeling of deep contentment. He didn't question her further, just shared her joy. They both slept well that night, dreaming very pleasant and well-behaved dreams.

 

********************

 

When Catherine woke, Vincent was already dressed. His hair was still damp, indicating that he had probably been up early and bathed.

"You're getting pretty independent," she mumbled. He had learned that she needed a few minutes to organize her thoughts, so he just smiled and allowed her some time. He had water heating for tea and had already been to the kitchen and successfully talked William into an early breakfast tray - an unheard of concession. She took all this in as she ran her fingers through her hair to straighten it a little.

"Who's taking care of whom?" she asked. "If you do too much of this, rumors will start flying. It doesn't take long down here, you know."

"I told William you weren't feeling well and it was your turn to be cared for." "Vincent!" she exclaimed with a grin. "You told a lie?"

"Just a little one," he smiled. "It was too early in the morning for one of William's lectures; and after the recent influx of groceries, I knew he couldn't refuse you anything."

"Shameless manipulation? A side of you I haven't met," she laughed.

"A side infrequently used and only with the best of intentions," he assured her with one of those endearing half smiles, as he arranged breakfast plates at the desk and moved another chair across from his. He served the plates while she tried to make herself more presentable. Sleeping in her clothes was becoming an annoyance, but well worth it to be able to spend so much time this close to him. They had a long way to go toward a future together, but there had definitely been progress.

They had a leisurely breakfast and were finishing just as Father called. He was surprised to see the depleted breakfast tray.

"How did you manage that so early in the day?" he asked, amused as well as amazed.

"He woke up before I did and lied to William," Catherine laughed. "Apparently I'll need to call on my acting abilities and appear to be ill at least for the morning."

"Did I miss a visit from Devin?" Father quipped, a little chortle escaping. Turning toward Catherine, he added, "This sounds like something the two of them might have tried as youngsters."

"Would you like some tea, Father?" Vincent asked innocently, ignoring them both.

"That response looks very much like the two of them as children as well," Father said with a smile. Then toward Vincent, who was still looking quite innocent, he answered, "Tea would be nice, Son. Thank you." Picking up the last muffin, he added, "And if you don't mind, I'll help you enjoy your ill-gotten gains."

They visited for a while, all of them enjoying the conspiratorial tone of the meeting. Father suggested that they leave the tray outside the door and allow one of the children to pick it up later. He would let William know that he had looked in on Catherine and that she would be fine. He even suggested that they leave the screen at the door during morning visiting times so Catherine could "get some rest" - that is if they could stand to be alone for that much longer. Having been assured that alone would not be a problem, Father hobbled off for a more complete and properly obtained breakfast.

Both delighted and surprised by Father's willing participation in Vincent's little subterfuge, she turned to Vincent and smiled.

"Sometimes I wish I could talk to someone about Father's childhood behavior. It intrigues me that yours doesn't seem to fit the same standards of dignity you insist on now."

Leaving the breakfast tray at the door, Vincent smiled at her observation.

"Would you like to visit some remnants of my childhood?" he asked, adding rather mischievously, "...since we will have ample time alone this morning."

"I would be honored," she answered with a little curtsy, enjoying the playful side of him that surfaced now and then.

He went to a shelf and took down a dusty wooden chest with a curved lid and dusted off the top before opening it. She had seen the larger chest with the carousel.

"The chest itself often held pirate treasure," he told her. "Eventually the treasures were just the memories." He opened the chest and took out two small wooden swords elaborately painted in childish renderings of royal markings, a few glued on jewels still remaining.

"Devin and I fought off many a villain with these swords, he smiled. A few too many for Father's peace of mind, I'm sure."

He provided a few of the more exciting stories concerning the small swords.

Catherine had heard a couple of pirate stories from Father and Mary, but Vincent shared a few new ones that she suspected the two most important adults in his life probably still didn't know about - a couple that might still have the capacity to give Father and Mary a few new gray hairs. One story was even punctuated with a little impromptu swordplay. She couldn't help but laugh out loud at the unexpected sight of a usually quite dignified Vincent briefly becoming a pirate for her entertainment. There was also a small cape, similar to the cloak he still wore.

"And what was the cape for?" she ventured.

"It had miscellaneous purposes," he said, obviously enjoying the memories. "One day it might belong to one of the three musketeers, on another it might be Sherlock Holmes' coat or belong to one of a large variety of villains, and we weren't entirely unaware of Superman and Batman. Children of our helpers found their way into the tunnels, along with their comic books. Sometimes it belonged to Dracula," he pronounced the last word with the appropriate accent. "At that time, I thought built-in fangs were rather impressive."

At other times that last remark might have brought the light-hearted atmosphere to a close; but this conversation seemed to be centered entirely in his childhood, and he looked deeper into the chest. There were a few picture books - obviously well used by small hands, one showing castles similar to the ones in the book they had spent so much time with recently. He showed her pictures he had drawn when he was small - pictures that someone older, probably Mary, she thought, had lovingly preserved in an envelope with a cardboard lining. His artistic talent showed even then. There was a small battalion of toy soldiers and their cannons and banners, and typical little boy collections of marbles and rocks. There were a few shiny rocks that would obviously have caught a child's fancy, a small geode with amethyst crystals, and several others that seemed to have nothing special about them. Vincent had a story to explain the importance of each of them, though; and he kept her spellbound with one story after another, again one or two that would probably still curl Father's hair. Catherine would occasionally comment, insert a similar story from her own childhood, or ask a question; but mostly she listened.

She absorbed not only the stories but the little hints she found in them of what had formed the man she now loved. She enjoyed imagining him just playing and being free, not having to think about who or what he was. She especially loved that he wanted to share his memories with her.

"It was fun visiting your childhood for a little while," she smiled, helping him put his treasures back in the chest.

He left the books on the bed before closing the chest, thinking it seemed selfish to hide those books away. If he had enjoyed them as much as he did, the present tunnel children would surely enjoy them, too.

"I enjoyed the visit much more for having you there," he answered, placing the chest back on the shelf. By the time they returned the chest to its resting place, most of the morning was gone.

"Do you suppose I've been 'ill' long enough to cover your story?" Catherine asked. "You obviously have enough strength to get to the kitchen. Maybe we could have lunch in the dining hall today."

"Are you already tired of being alone?" he teased.

"Never," she smiled, and wrapped her arms around his waist. He laughed and put his arms around her the same way.

"Before we leave here again," he suggested, looking down at her, "one of us should probably ask Father what your symptoms were."

She chuckled against his chest.

"Next time you invent a story that involves me, let me in on the planning."

Hearing the sound of Father's cane in the passageway, Catherine hurried to wait at the door and surprised him by reaching out and catching his arm to pull him into Vincent's chamber.

"We plan to have lunch in the dining hall today; and before we go near him, we need to know what you told William," she insisted, snickering.

"You had a debilitating headache, dear. Don't you remember?" he chuckled. "It seemed to be a sinus problem. A decongestant was all you needed. You did take your medication, didn't you?" he asked with mock seriousness.

"Of course, Father. I always follow my doctor's orders." She had to laugh. Two of the most dignified men she knew were being as playful as children but still looked dignified. How did they manage that?

"Now, if the two of you have completed your cloak and dagger snatching of innocent old men from hallways, I shall continue to my own chamber," Father stated, and left shaking his head, the sound of a soft laugh trailing behind him.

Vincent picked up a book from the shelf near the chest and handed it to Catherine. "If you want insight into my sense of humor as a child, you might want to look at this," he told her with a little twinkle in his eye.

She took the book from him and read the title. It was a book of silly poems.

"Devin and I would read these to each other and laugh uncontrollably."

Catherine read the first poem aloud and chuckled, imagining Vincent and Devin stretched across the bed in gales of foolish laughter. Vincent read the next one and looked for the ones he and Devin had particularly enjoyed. They both laughed at the image of two little boys indulging themselves in silliness; and, before they knew it, it was time for lunch.

Armed with the correct "medical information", they walked hand in hand to the dining hall.

Seeing Vincent out of his chamber for the first time in weeks, the lunch goers broke into applause and welcoming remarks. The tunnel grapevine also had them asking about Catherine's health.

She managed to keep herself under control while sticking to her decongestant story and changing the subject as quickly as possible. Catherine insisted Vincent's reprieve would be short and left him talking to friends while she collected their lunches. He was beset by nearly every child in the tunnels, the smaller ones wanting to be held or to sit close. The older ones wanted to tell him what they had been doing or pin him down about when he would be teaching their classes again, voicing the same complaints about his lengthy absence that one might have heard from their counterparts Above.

Mary finally shooed them away so Vincent could finish his lunch, then she stayed to have some time with him. She was the closest to a mother Vincent had known, and he loved her as he would a mother. She was now holding the same place in Catherine's life. Like some of the others, she first loved Catherine for loving Vincent. She now just loved her as if she had always been there.

As they walked back to Vincent's chamber, Catherine stopped suddenly. "Wait here. I'll be right back."

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"The little girl's room," she answered, smiling as she scurried off. When she returned, Vincent wasn't there, but he reappeared quickly from the same direction she had just come from.

"Where were you?" she asked.

"The little boy's room," he said with an amused smile, still wondering where topsiders found some of their terminology.

Catherine grinned at hearing such an unfamiliar term from his voice. "Another small barrier breached," she thought.

On their way back they stopped to talk to well-wishers they passed in the halls. Now and then they would encounter a comment about being confined for so long or going stir-crazy. When they finally reached his chamber, Catherine pulled the screen back across the doorway.

"You should rest a while," she said.

"I'm not tired."

"I want you to rest anyway," she insisted, knowing that, since there was now a third visiting period in the evening, this extra trip might take at least a small toll on his energy. "People will expect to visit this afternoon and this evening. At least lie down and I'll read to you for a while."

He sighed in resignation and stretched out on the bed. "It seems to me we've used this technique on wayward children at bedtime," he mumbled.

"The way you've been behaving today... If the shoe fits..." she answered with amusement as she looked for the book they were last reading from.

"Catherine, have you felt confined having to spend so much time in this room?"

"No," she answered. "Sleeping in my clothes is getting a little old; but other than that, no."

"Neither have I," he told her.

"Father says you've never been such a good patient, that you would normally be trying to escape."

"I've never been in love with Father," Vincent responded playfully.

She offered him a look that left no doubt his last remark pleased her; then he heard, "Aha!" as she found the book, a mystery; and she read a few chapters before the first visitors were calling.

 

********************

 

The last visitors were Kanin, Olivia, and Luke. Vincent and Catherine walked them to the door and pulled the screen over it after they left.

"They seem so happy," she remarked, smiling as she turned toward Vincent. "A year is a long time to be apart. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Luke weren't a big brother before long."

Vincent was suddenly very quiet, and she was afraid she had inadvertently broken the easy-going mood of the day.

"I want us to have what they have, Catherine," he said quietly. "Until I met you I had come to terms with what I am...with being alone. After I found you... " He hesitated, pulled in a deep, slightly noisy breath, and leaned his head back in frustration. "I don't even know if it's right for us to be together that way." He lowered his head and looked directly forward, rather than at her. "In so many ways I am a man. I walk in the form of a man. I have the speech and intelligence of a man. I have the soul and emotions of a man, the needs of a man; but I am always aware of the other part of me that loses itself in raw instinct - and when I see myself..." He looked back down and took her hands in his. "Our love feels so right...so natural; but then I see my hands touch yours and they look so inhuman..." His voice trailed off uncertainly.

"I've asked myself the same questions, but the answer is always the same. We don't choose who we love, Vincent. It just happens. Peter doesn't seem to have any doubts. You and Nancy have said to follow my heart, and my heart always leads me to you. We know you can never live in my world, but we have the tunnels. We can have a life together."

"There may even be those here who wouldn't accept..."

"Let them not accept," she shot back. "Our love feels right to us, and we're the ones who have to live it. We've both proven what we're willing to sacrifice for one another. That alone gives us a better chance of a long life together than half the couples in my world. I want to spend my life trying to make you happy. You don't have to be alone anymore. I intend to be part of your life in any way you allow me to share it."

"I know that you love me. I believe now that you won't accept anyone else. I can change my understandings, but there are things that I can never change...things that aren't human. You think you've accepted them, but you haven't seen all of what you think you want."

"Then show me," she challenged.

To her surprise, he pushed the sleeve of his sweater up to his shoulder.

"This is what you would promise yourself to - claws and fangs, a face with a shape that can neither be called a mouth nor a muzzle, and enough hair to be more like an animal than a man. I can't even bathe and simply dry myself the way everyone else can. Really look at me, Catherine. Be certain you can accept this.

The hair on his arm wasn't quite as thick as what would normally be called fur, but there was entirely too much to simply call it hairy. It was longer and straighter and heavier on his forearm and shorter, lighter and slightly curled on the upper arm where it had been pressed down under his sleeves, tapering off to very little on his upper shoulder where it met his neck. She remembered the look of his strong, gentle hands as he had given her the crystal on their first anniversary. He had to understand that he should hate nothing about himself because of her. She took his hand and turned his arm over to touch the inside of his wrist, moving her hand gently on the much less hairy side of his forearm up to the elbow.

"These are the only arms I want to feel holding me. I see nothing here that I wasn't sure I'd find. What I find, though is much more like a man than an animal..."

She turned his arm over to reveal the soft hair that covered all of this side of his arm and slid her fingers experimentally into the hair. She closed her eyes and allowed her feelings free reign. Feelings of desire that she usually kept in check surfaced as she increased the pressure from her fingertips and moved her hand up his arm and past his elbow around the muscles in his upper arm - all the while clearly enjoying the delicious feel of her fingers furrowing through the tawny hair.

Vincent hardly breathed at the sudden, unexpected rush of sensation.

Catherine's hand finally reached his again, and she turned his arm and kissed the inside of his wrist. With that she reined in her feelings and eased the shirtsleeve back down.

"May I assume that we can now move past your fur fetish?" she asked firmly. With a mischievous little twinkle in her eye, she added, "I already have one of my own. And while this subject is open, let me tell you what else I find attractive," she said, stepping a little closer. "We could start with the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen. Feeling your unusual mouth against mine is one of my favorite daydreams. I like your eyebrows and the way the hair grows in a different direction than I'd expect it to toward the bridge of your nose. I love that wonderful mass of golden hair and the way the tips of those long teeth... Okay, fangs... peek out when you smile. I like the way the hair on your hands and your chin feels against my face, and I can't imagine ever wanting anyone else's hands to touch me. Other men's faces have become a little boring. Yours is the one I want to wake up to. Now, unless you have other differences," the mischief in her manner returned, "...like two of something that might cause me concern... then you should understand there is nothing about you that I would not find pleasing."

Realizing the meaning of her last remark, he looked away, smiling in spite of a measure of embarrassment, and assured her that all his parts existed in the correct quantity.

"What about me?" she asked, peeking around to be in his line of vision again. "I don't have enough fur to mention. My teeth are all the same length. I sometimes paint my nails to make them more interesting, but they break because they aren't strong like yours. My face is too normal to be exciting. How could you possibly find that attractive? It's all so different from you."

He turned to look at her, a brief look of surprise on his face; then he smiled and conceded with a slight formal nod.

"Point well made, counselor."

"One more bridge we don't have to cross," she smiled.

He put his arms around her waist and rested his forehead against hers, and she put her hands on his chest.

"Your patience staggers me, Catherine. These insecurities have been with me since I was a boy. They've colored my thinking for so many years..."

"I know," she answered, snuggling closer.

He rested his cheek against her hair. "I'm so afraid of hurting you. I would rather die than hurt you."

She wrapped her arms around his waist and held him a little tighter. "I believe you proved that a few weeks ago. That should tell you something," she answered. "There were times you didn't recognize anyone else, but my voice or my touch could reach you. I've seen the beast, Vincent. I met him in that cavern, and even then he refused to hurt me. I can almost guarantee that if you didn't hurt me then, it will never happen. Do you remember any of that day?"

"I remember most of it as if it were a dream...more like a nightmare. I actually raised my hand to strike you." When he said that, his hands came up to hold her closer, as if trying to protect her from even the memory.

"But you stopped. You didn't strike me. Is that any part of what you were dreaming before you began to recover? You were in such agony and there was nothing we could do."

"Some of the dreams forced me to face things I've struggled with all my life. Others brought me to the one you woke me from. But you did help, Catherine. Through all of it I could feel your love. I was vaguely aware of your voice and your touch. That was my only connection to sanity, maybe to life."

"Doesn't that tell you something, too?" she asked. "How could you hurt someone that important to you? If Lisa is still part of your concern, you didn't have this bond with her. There was a sixteen-year-old boy who left me with bruises when I wanted to get away. He didn't mean to do that either; but if he'd had claws, I would have had the same marks Lisa did. You were fifteen years old then and full of hormones you didn't understand. I'm not a little girl who flirted her way into something she didn't expect and frightened herself." She lifted her head from his chest to look directly into his eyes. "And I won't try to run away. I promise."

Catherine hesitated briefly to consider her next question.

"Did you enjoy it when I touched your arm?"

"Yes," he admitted quietly.

"If my hands were loving you and I scratched you by accident or somehow caused you some other brief discomfort, would you think less of me or want me to stop touching you?"

"You know it isn't the same..." he began, but he found himself desperately wanting to accept that new perspective.

He pulled her head back to his chest and brushed a small kiss against her hair. That was a gesture he used on others in his family - the only way he allowed himself to kiss her, and he knew Catherine relished those brief moments. For a few seconds he just held her, seeming to want to say something.

"I spoke to Peter when he was here," Vincent said, a little hesitantly.

"About what?" she asked, pulling away to look at him and sounding concerned. "You aren't..."

"No, no," he reassured her dropping his hands to rest on her arms. "I'm fine. I spoke to him...about us. He's been doctor to both of us, and..." He seemed to be trying to decide where to go from that statement.

"I spoke to him too, a couple of months ago," Catherine interrupted, sensing his discomfort. "Probably the same conversation," she smiled. "The poor man will be afraid to come near us before long."

Vincent chuckled softly and let his hands fall to his sides.

"He sees no barriers. He thinks I worry too much about the fur, fangs, and claws. He says he can't think of any other way we aren't meant for one another...that the only two people who know us and ever believed I could hurt you are Father and me. Peter has loved us both since our births and sees no reason we shouldn't be together." He took her hands in his, looking at the stark contrast between them. "But there are no guarantees, Catherine. I've begun to think I've been wrong. I want to believe that I'm wrong...but there are no guarantees."

Catherine's heart soared at that admission, even knowing he still had doubts... and she could scarcely fathom that they were having this conversation with no distance between them. She looked up at him, her hand reaching to lightly touch his cheek as she spoke.

"We have to work out this part of our lives one way or another," she told him. "Either way, it won't separate us. There's no way to replace the rest of what we share. We just need to know. If we find it's something we can't have...well... there are other ways to relieve those tensions."

Vincent leaned his face slightly against her hand, gratefully accepting her words of assurance.

"However," she said flirtatiously, stepping closer and grabbing his vest with both hands, "if it's something we can have; we should be enjoying it while we're still young enough for it to matter."

Vincent actually returned her smile, a little self-consciously, but seeming more accepting of the idea than usual and leaving her with a feeling of hope. He pulled her closer again, feeling more hope for their future himself.

"I know you're strong enough to have no real need for me to be here so much," Catherine said, "but do you suppose we could pretend through the weekend? I should go back to work on Monday, and I don't want to share you more than I have to."

He moved her away to arm's length and looked at her with a pretense of complete seriousness.

"I shall fall into a full faint in a public place if necessary," he answered good-naturedly, bringing back the mischievous mood.

"Today I believe you might," she laughed.

 

********************

 

They had dinner in the dining hall that evening, taking care of all the visits at once. With so little time left before she had to leave, her mind was already planning that tomorrow he would need rest because he had insisted on exerting himself too much today. That would give them more time together. She looked at the number of people who automatically gathered around him and wondered if they would ever have time alone again after this week. Vincent usually didn't tell anyone but Father where to find them when he and Catherine walked to the falls or anywhere away from the living areas of the tunnels. Although his family and friends intended to give him time alone with Catherine, his chamber seemed to escape some of the general tunnel manners. They had come to expect him to be available at all times, and appeared at his door that way. There had been times he and Catherine were forced to find another place to talk because of the number of interruptions. It was going to be hard to get used to that again.

They stayed late, much longer than necessary, talking to the others in the dining hall so there would be no need for visits in his chamber later. Finally, according to plan, Catherine suggested he should rest, and Vincent agreed that he was tired and probably should sleep. This admission was so out of character for Vincent that no one questioned his need for rest. He excused himself to go, and left everyone there complimenting Catherine's attention to his health.

Vincent took her hand and started toward his chamber, but Catherine stopped.

"Why don't you go ahead and change for bed." she suggested. "There's an errand I forgot, and you need me out of the way for a few minutes, anyhow."

"Don't be too long." He squeezed her hand and added with a playful smile. "It would be disappointing to see my acting talents go to waste." She laughed and turned to go in the opposite direction.

 

********************

 

He had just turned back the covers and was sitting on the side of the bed when Catherine returned with a small bag.

"Was this your errand?" Vincent asked.

"Yes," she answered, "and it couldn't fit better into today's mood. The children already have theirs."

"Am I again being compared to the children?" he teased.

"No, just included in their treats," she answered as she opened the bag and took out two popsicles. He laughed, a deep-throated chuckle she loved but rarely heard.

"Mary did dredge up childhood memories for you, didn't she? We usually had baked desserts or puddings here, but very little that was frozen. Now and then we made ice cream or one of the helpers would send something packed in dry ice. Those were rare treats, and these were my favorites. Devin and I liked the green ones."

"Mary said these were your favorites. "Green..." she announced as she unwrapped one and handed it to him. "I was hoping you might still enjoy them."

"You ask me to sit here in my night clothes and eat this in your presence?" he chuckled. "Have you no concern at all for my dignity?" He swung his legs up on the bed crossed his feet and leaned back against the pillows.

"It does you good to be undignified now and then. I particularly enjoyed the swordplay this morning," she teased. She pushed her shoes off and climbed up beside him, leaning against the pillows and unwrapping the other popsicle for herself.

Catherine gave him a curious look.

"Mary tells me you and Devin harassed her every time you got your hands on popsicles. She said you called it a bi-lateral attack. Care to explain?" she challenged.

"We would wait until the last bite," he explained, "sneak up and surround her when our mouths were really cold, and kiss her under the chin as many times as we could before she could get away. She always squealed and let us think we surprised her. Later we realized she was waiting for us and was probably disappointed when we finally outgrew it. We never thought how sticky we probably left her." He smiled broadly at the memory.

"Why under her neck?" she asked.

"That was about the only place to find exposed skin down here;" he answered. Looking down at Catherine with one of those endearing half smiles, he added, "and because, at that time in my life, I couldn't reach her face...so Devin joined me because it created a better effect."

"I have trouble imagining you shorter than Mary," she grinned.

Reaching the last bite and seeing that he obviously enjoyed remembering this foolishness from his childhood, she decided to take a chance.

"So the game went something like this?" she asked, and attacked the side of his neck with very cold lips. He actually laughed out loud and pushed her away, and she leaned back beside him laughing.

The mischievous mood of the day and the childhood memories had conspired to distract him from his normal restraints, and he forgot himself momentarily. Reaching the last bite, he took his time with it.

"It was more like this," he said. He followed his words with a line of tiny, quick, cold kisses from the upper part of Catherine's neck to the edge of her chin, accompanied by her squealing laughter as she tried to push him away. That morning he had played for her entertainment. Now he was actually playing with her. She was thrilled that he had finally opened up to her this way.

Twisting to get away from him, she moved just slightly and the last tiny kiss brushed past her chin and close to her lips. With no thought from either of them, another brought their lips together. The mood changed entirely. They looked at one another briefly; then there was another kiss, tentative at first, then intensifying. Catherine felt a nearly forgotten response explode between them. He put his hands on her shoulders, pushed her away slowly and leaned back against the pillows, still holding her shoulders. Neither of them was breathing too steadily.

"Catherine, I..." She put her hand over his mouth to stop him.

"Don't you dare even think of apologizing for something we've both wanted so much." Trying to catch her breath, she said, "But you could apologize for lying to me."

Still reeling from the kiss, Vincent now had to figure out the unexpected accusation. His hands fell from her shoulders and began to slide down her arms.

"Lied to you? What do you?..."

"Our bond," she said, still catching her breath. "Maybe you didn't lie, but you didn't tell the truth, either. All this time you've let me think that my side of our bond was just weaker. The truth is that you've been closing me out, probably deciding what was good for me again. When you kissed me it surprised you, and you let your guard down. I've never felt so loved or so desired...but then I felt the fear, and it was gone - just like the rages. You realized that I knew your feelings, too; and you closed me out again."

He would have to deal with that subject later.

"Does a kiss always give you that much pleasure?" Now he had her off guard. She looked away, a little puff of breath escaping and a slight blush creeping over her cheeks.

"No... All the desire and pleasure I felt from you, as well as my own..." Another little puff of breath, and she looked down and hesitated. "...That pleasure usually takes a little more effort."

Recovering slightly, Vincent lifted her chin with his hand, turned her face toward him, and scolded her softly. "If I can't apologize, you can't be self-conscious."

She stood on her knees and straddled his legs, putting herself in a position looking slightly down at him, and placed her hands on his shoulders.

"Let me in, Vincent," she pleaded "You know when you give me pleasure. Please let me enjoy what I give you."

She lowered one hand to the side of his neck, just below his chin, then bent and kissed him again. In spite of his hesitance, he couldn't keep himself from responding. At first all Catherine felt was the enjoyment of touching his lips, of his lips moving against hers, of exploring the ways to adjust their kiss to best advantage for his unusual mouth and teeth; then there was more. He was allowing the bond to flow in her direction, too.

The strength of that new connection took them both by surprise. Their responses spiraled from one to the other, intensifying what was already there. Vincent's body was rapidly betraying him; and he knew that Catherine, in her present position, was bound to be aware. Out of habit, and through ragged breath, he began to apologize; but again she stopped him.

"No apologies for something we both want," she reminded him, her voice a little huskier than usual. Emphasizing her words, she allowed her leg to touch him and linger longer than necessary as she moved to sit beside him, pulling him toward her to kiss him again. Using all of his self control, Vincent exhaled and moved her gently away.

"We can't let this happen now," he insisted, frustration showing in his voice. "There can't be a child..."

"There won't be," she assured him. "...Part of my visit with Peter."

"You were that sure of us?"

"Yes."

His hands were on her back now, but she could still feel his uncertainty.

"We have to know, Vincent. Why not now? You don't have to trust only yourself. Trust us. If you frighten me even a little bit, I'll call for Father, I promise...but one way or another, we'll know...and we'll adjust to whatever the outcome.

Fighting for control, he still hesitated. "I have your word?" he insisted.

"Will you trust me to know the difference between real pain and a little discomfort?" she asked, trying to hold on to her own self-control.

Vincent still seemed doubtful. She felt his reluctance to let go of the tight control he always maintained...or was now valiantly trying to maintain.

"I won't let you hurt me. I promise." She emphasized her assurance by cupping his face in her hands and stroking her thumbs across his cheeks. "I wouldn't do that to you. If I need Father's help, I'll call him. Otherwise," she smiled, a little breathlessly, "I'll be very quiet so he'll mind his own business." She followed her promise with a trail of small kisses down the side of his neck and reveled in the pleasure it gave him.

That seemed to make Vincent's decision. His hands moved to her waist and under the back of her shirt, and he took a deep breath as the pleasure of touching her skin washed through them. She took her hands from his shoulders and the shirt was gone, almost in one movement.

"Catherine..." his voice growled softly as he buried his face against her neck, leaving a gentle rain of kisses burning across her shoulders and following her chain to where the crystal rested. He paused slightly; and, along with the crystal, he saw the one flimsy barrier between them disappear as quickly as the sweatshirt. She leaned against him, sliding her hands under his shirt, touching the skin of his back, loving the mingled feel of soft hair and firm muscle.

Catherine pulled at the shirt to help him remove it; and, to her delight, he removed it himself and pulled her close, pressing her to his chest. Hands moved over backs and shoulders as they enjoyed the delicious feel of bare skin against bare skin. He allowed his hands to touch her the way he had wanted for so long - stunned that she seemed nearly lost in the pleasure that his hands - the hands he had hated so - were bringing to her smooth, warm skin. She was lost in the pleasure of touching him - touching him... something he used to fear would turn her away in disgust. By the time his lips took over the exploration, they were both lost. With no one leading, they found themselves lying down, the full length of their bodies against one another. They had wanted this for so long, waited for so long, exploration was rapidly being replaced by impatience, and they moved quickly toward satisfying their need.

At the last burst of sensation Vincent released a sound something between a contained roar and a groan of pleasure.

Even in the breathless state they were in, Catherine could feel the apology forming in him. She simply put one finger over his lips.

"Are you sure you've never done this before?" she asked very appreciatively.

"I'm certain I would have remembered," he answered, his breath a little shaky, but his sense of humor still intact. "Catherine, there are no words to tell you how I love you..."

They heard the sound of a cane nearing the door.

"Just remember who called Father," she whispered, smiling.

"Vincent?... Catherine?..." Father called. Catherine answered, forcing her voice to sound steadier than it was.

"Father, stay where you are. We have an agreement, remember? Vincent is fine. All you heard was the end of a nightmare." She added with a smile for Vincent, "I'm taking very good care of him."

"Vincent?" Father prodded.

"Nothing is wrong, Father. I'm sorry if I caused you concern."

"Alright... well... good-night, then," he answered, not sounding entirely convinced. Then, with great satisfaction, they heard him walk away.

"Catherine," Vincent laughed softly, "You just misled my father completely without ever stating a single untruth."

"You've just made love to an attorney," she answered, clasping her hands behind his neck, and in mock seriousness she told him, "I'll understand any feelings of shame."

"Made love..." he answered in a tone tinged with awe, followed by a small smile. "Shame is not my most prominent thought. Love... pleasure... joy... gratitude..." he said, lovingly brushing a stray lock of hair away from her face.

"Relief?" she teased quietly, moving a finger affectionately over his lips. "There isn't a scratch on me. You're welcome to inspect if you'd like."

"I've never been so happy to be wrong," he smiled, leaning forward to kiss her neck and exulting in the delight he felt it give her. "After what I've just done to you, it's difficult to imagine that you feel nothing but pleasure."

"Not what you've done, Vincent. What we've done together. I was a very willing participant, if you recall."

"Yes. I recall," he responded. "I will recall until my dying breath," he added, smiling enough that those long teeth showed again.

She pulled him back down to her, wrapping her arms around his neck, enjoying the feel of his hair tickling against her face and shoulders.

"I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you," she breathed in a rapid whisper, ending with a kiss against his cheek.

He felt the small gust of her breath move his hair slightly when she spoke, felt it against his neck near his ear, felt the love and joy and contentment in her, and heard the sounds assuring him of her love. He knew he would always remember that as the moment he finally came to his senses and fully believed in their future together, fully believed that she accepted everything he was - all of his differences. He felt as if he had been reborn.

Catherine felt the awe and delight that accompanied his realization and treasured that he shared it with her.

Vincent rose to his elbows and kissed her forehead.

Twirling a lock of his hair around one finger, she said quietly, "Now we know that you won't hurt me, and you know that I won't hurt you."

"I never thought..."

"You were still afraid I might hurt you. In spite of everything you could feel in me to tell you otherwise, you still thought I might see all of you and run away."

"Yes," he reluctantly admitted. He moved to lie beside her, and she curled against him, resting her head on his chest near his shoulder, stretching one arm over him and draping one leg across his. He wrapped his arm around her back and rested his hand on her hip.

"Other men have those same fears. Did you know that?

"But I am not other men. I'm something no one can explain."

"How do you think I see you?"

"I know how you see me," he answered appreciatively.

"Say it, Vincent."

"Catherine..." he protested.

"I want to hear you say it," she insisted.

"You like looking at me," he said softly, and Catherine smiled in triumph.

"Yes, I do." To illustrate her point, she watched her hand as it began to roam across wide expanses of him. "And now that I'm sure every inch of you is as appealing as I thought, can we put those insecurities behind us?"

"Yes," he smiled contentedly, and turned to close his other arm around her.

"Do you suppose it's possible to die of pleasure?" she asked with a satisfied sigh.

"No," was his immediate answer, accompanied by one of his small, teasing smiles.

"Why do you sound so certain?" she laughed.

"Because if it were, both of us would have expired about ten minutes ago, and tomorrow morning Father would come in to find our cold, hard, tangled, naked bodies." He added with a look she hadn't seen before, but hoped to see again...soon, "Neither of us seems cold."

In spite of that statement, knowing the chill of the tunnels, he pulled the covers around them. They snuggled closer and soon drifted into sleep.

 

********************

 

Vincent woke first, realizing it was morning and finding that the softness and warmth beside him was real. He propped himself on one elbow, left the other arm around her, and contentedly watched her sleep.

Catherine woke curled up next to him. She found herself making a quiet sound of pleasure as she nuzzled her face into the soft hair on his chest, planting small kisses here and there; but she kept her eyes closed, luxuriating in the delicious, soft movement of his hand on her back and shoulders.

"Do you plan to open your eyes today?" she heard from her favorite voice.

"No," she answered. "I'm afraid if I do it might be a dream again." There was movement as he leaned to kiss her cheek. Her eyes finally opened to find him watching her with a smile and a look of love that melted her completely.

"It wasn't a dream?" she asked.

"We weren't dreaming," he answered softly.

"Do I remember that we weren't dreaming more than once?" she grinned.

He chuckled softly, gracing her with a look that left it unnecessary to repeat the question. He loved watching her wake up.

"What?" she asked, looking up at him. "That look?"

"I'm trying to believe reality," he answered, his hand unable to stop moving over her back and shoulder. "Every time I woke during the night, you were here, your soft, warm skin against mine, wanting my touch..."

"I plan to want your touch for a long time." Running her fingers through the hair on his back upward toward his shoulders, she asked with a teasing smile, "Does it bother you when I move your hair in that direction?"

"When your fingers touch my skin, Catherine, my fur cares very little what you've done to reach it," he assured her, bringing a giggle and another grin from her.

"Can we keep this between the two of us for a while?" Catherine asked. "We've waited so long to be this close...We deserve some time to savor it just for ourselves."

"That was my intention. I had no thought of sharing this with anyone else. Did you think me dishonorable enough to kiss and tell?" he teased. "It's certainly no one else's concern...but the way I look at you might give us away."

His hand moved slowly up and down her arm and traced small circles on her back. "I heard Father moving around. As much as I hate to suggest it, we should probably dress before he decides to check on me," he told her, and he heard Catherine's resigned groan.

"If we have to..." then she added with the grin she couldn't seem to control, "and if I can just remember where to find my clothes. I think I put them away rather indiscriminately last night."

He looked on with amusement as she leaned across him to retrieve her shirt, which was clinging precariously to the upper edge of the bed, and leaned down from the other side of the bed to find her jeans and Vincent's shirt. She playfully threw his shirt at him before putting her jeans on. She pulled her shirt into place, and going to the other side of the bed, found her shoes and socks and the other two wayward garments. She held up Vincent's pants and threatened to make him leave the bed to get them before finally dropping them across the covers. He could find his own socks. She brushed her hair quickly and found soap, towels, and clean clothes.

"I'm going to bathe, change clothes and bring breakfast," she said, still unable to wipe the smile from her face. I don't think I can look at you and Father in the same room right now and retain any of my composure...and I hope you can stand to wait for breakfast, because I plan to take my time. Maybe he'll be gone by the time I get back."

Vincent sat quietly, chuckling at her flurry of activity. "Come here," he said, amazing even himself at his assertiveness, holding his arms out to her. Unable to refuse that invitation/command, she threw herself back into his arms and heard him whisper, "Don't go yet."

"Not a chance, big boy! He's your father. You're on your own," she exclaimed quietly, pushing herself away in spite of her instinct to never leave that spot. Picking up the shirt she had thrown at him and handing it to him again, she commanded in a near whisper, "Put your clothes on. You look much too satisfied sitting there naked. Father will know."

"Yes, ma'am," he smiled in amusement, dutifully pulling the shirt over his head. She left just in time. Vincent was barely dressed when Father entered his chamber, and Catherine quickly made her escape.

"Good morning, Father," she called over her shoulder as she hurried away.

Father was concerned that Vincent had seemed tired at dinner last night; so he brought his medical bag, insisting on a brief check-up. He was also concerned that the nightmares might be returning. Vincent assured Father that he had just tried to do a little more than he should have, but his mind strayed badly as he did his best to keep the conversation running smoothly. Father suggested that Vincent forego morning visits and lunch in the dining hall in favor of rest.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Father finally asked him as he put his medical paraphernalia back in his bag. "You seem distracted this morning."

"Catherine has to return to work on Monday. I'm having difficulty imagining being without her again," he answered, moving to sit at his desk.

"I'm sure it will be difficult for both of you," Father answered sympathetically. "The love you share and the obstacles you've had to face to retain it inspires all of us. It's an almost palpable presence around the two of you when you're together."

Vincent smiled, thinking of Catherine's very palpable presence in his bed last night. Under this morning's circumstances, maybe her flight instincts were right. Father took Vincent's smile as simply a sign of appreciation for his understanding.

 

********************

 

Catherine had gone straight to the bathing chamber, avoiding as many people as possible. She was afraid the look she probably wore on her face would be hard to explain...or worse, need no explanation at all; and she wanted to keep this new joy between the two of them for now.

There were a few of the original bathing chambers like the one Father and Vincent shared. When the tunnels were first occupied, those were created from the chambers where there were warm natural springs. Bathing pools were hewn from the natural rock to allow the water to roll in one end of the bathing area and out the other. They were like hot tubs - the water bubbling in and rolling past tired muscles. Those were now outfitted with rails to make it easier for the elderly to soak their arthritic joints or for those with injuries to use for therapy. Occasionally couples slipped in after everyone else was asleep and had a warm, soothing, romantic bath together. Vincent and Father weren't begrudged their own private chamber. Father was the head of the community, as well as in need of the soothing spring for his hip; and everyone understood Vincent's aversion to allowing anyone else to see his physical differences.

Most of the present bathing chambers were like the one Catherine now intended to use. As the community grew, it had become a necessity to create more bathing areas, and the living areas had no more natural springs. These newer chambers had pitchers and buckets constantly warming on grates above a low fire. That allowed bathers both comfortable bath water and a little more warmth for the small chamber. It was extremely bad tunnel manners not to refill whatever you used and return it to the grate to warm while you bathed. There was an in pipe from one stream to fill the old-fashioned tub. An out hose took the used water into a second small stream that emptied into the abyss and served as drainage for several bathing chambers, necessary rooms and the kitchen.

Catherine filled the tub partially with cold water and used several pitchers of warm water to make it comfortable. After refilling the pitchers and returning them to the grate, she undressed and lowered herself into the water. Leaning back she closed her eyes and allowed herself to think about the night before - probably adding to Vincent's distraction as he tried to talk to Father. Their first lovemaking had taken them by surprise. It moved more quickly than her dreams had imagined, but it was still extraordinary. It had quickly taken the character of impatience and need. Even in that state, Vincent had been gentle and careful not to hurt her. She had always known he would. They woke later to the freedom of knowing they no longer had to worry, neither knowing nor caring which of them had initiated the contact. That time the loving was slow and patient, experimental, tender...and feeling his responses as well as her own... Mmmmm... Then toward morning...Her reveries broke when she suddenly realized how long she had been there. Breakfast hour was quickly ticking away, and she certainly didn't want to cross William this morning.

"Come on, Chandler," she said to herself. "Pull yourself together."

She quickly finished her bath, dressed, toweled the water from her hair, emptied and wiped the tub, and took a deep breath to steel herself to meet the world with a straight face. She gathered breakfast as quickly as possible. With a concerted effort she managed not to grin as she reassured those who were concerned about Vincent after dinner the previous night; then she hurried off as quickly as manners would allow.

To her distress, Father was still with Vincent when she returned. He was about to leave, but stopped long enough to let her know that Vincent was to have no visitors that morning and was to have lunch in his chamber.

"Do your best to see that he rests this morning. No sense in taking chances," he said. He let Catherine know he intended to check on Vincent in the afternoon and would decide then whether he should be out again in the evening. "He seemed a little distracted this morning. Let me know if you notice anything unusual," he ordered in a very medical manner as he picked up his bag to go.

"I will, Father," she said, turning her back to him to hide the smile she couldn't smother as she placed the breakfast tray on the desk.

"Alone again," Vincent joked in a tone of disappointment.

"What a shame," Catherine chuckled and leaned down to kiss him.

"I missed you," he told her, enjoying the new freedom of pulling her close to return her kiss.

"You should eat your breakfast," she grinned. "If you persist in this behavior and you're going to be stuck here alone with me until this afternoon, you may need your strength."

He smiled and held out his plate.

Walking past Vincent's chair after the dishes were cleared, Catherine was surprised to be caught around the waist by a large, hairy arm and pulled into his lap.

"Do you know how many times I've wanted to do this?" he asked with a smile.

"As many times as I've wanted you to?" she answered, smiling back and slipping her arms around his neck.

He laughed lightly, leaning his head back against the chair.

"I feel as if a weight has lifted from me and I could nearly fly."

"So do I," she answered, burying her face against his neck and leaving a small kiss there.

"I'm sorry I made Father a part of last night." He said, looking back down at her. He paused, as if he wanted to say something else. She searched through their bond for any hints of what might be bothering him, then she knew.

"Are you thinking that your response wasn't human enough?" she asked from the warmth of his neck and shoulder.

"Yes," he admitted, quietly. The truth was gradually becoming easier to voice, at least to Catherine, even though it still left him feeling uncomfortable. He had kept it within himself for so many years.

"The sound was different, but wanting to make it was perfectly normal. It made me happy," she reassured him. As an afterthought she added in a teasing, childish, sing-songy sort of chant near his neck, "Made you want to growl." She followed it with a girlish laugh and a kiss under his chin.

Feeling the truth in her assurances, he felt confident enough to again answer honestly.

"Yes, you did," he agreed, kissing the side of her neck and growling softly against it. He found that she liked that - something he would remember.

"Don't ever hesitate to do what pleases you when you're with me, Vincent," she said, sitting up slightly to look at him. "I know there are things about you that are different, and you should have someone to share those things with you. If something frightens me or displeases me, you would know; and I trust you completely. I've seen things the most of the others haven't. I've shared the worst of your rages, and I've seen you at your most vulnerable; and you know those things haven't changed anything between us. Trust me with the rest. I want you to be yourself when you're with me."

She snuggled back against him.

"What do you need to do that you can't do around the rest of your family? What do you need that you think they can't allow you?"

He looked down at this small woman snuggled lovingly against his shoulder, realizing that no one else had ever understood him enough to even ask that question. She was really willing to accept, and even share everything about him. She was right. He needed to not be alone in his differences anymore, and those differences didn't frighten her or turn her away.

"Sometimes I need to use my full strength," he answered quietly, still a little uncomfortable about putting such thoughts into words, "for something free, something spontaneous - not just construction projects. In my adult life no one here had seen me in a full run until the first time I felt you were in danger, and it frightened them. Sometimes my voice needs the same freedom - I need to growl or roar, openly enough that I stand among its echoes."

"I'll bet you have a place to go where you can do those things, don't you?" she asked.

"Yes," he admitted, kissing the top of her head.

"May I go along sometime...and stand among the echoes with you?" she asked, and smiled up at him.

"Catherine, I can't begin to tell you what a miracle you have created in my life," he breathed against her hair and pulled her tightly to him.

 

********************

 

When Father returned that afternoon, he walked into a delightfully domestic scene. Catherine was straightening the covers on the bed, looking very relaxed. Vincent was bathed, dressed and writing in his journal, looking as well rested and content as Father could ever remember seeing him.

"Let's have a look," Father insisted, in spite of Vincent's protests. "Well," he announced, after a brief exam, "you seem fine. Catherine, has he seemed distracted? Has anything in his manner seemed unusual?"

"No, Father," she answered, standing beside Vincent and resting a hand on his shoulder, "He seemed quite well focused on everything since you were here this morning." Vincent reached up and placed his hand over hers, and smiled.

"Catherine has been very attentive, Father. You said I should rest, and she insisted I spend a good bit of time in bed."

Before he left, Father pronounced Vincent well enough to be allowed dinner with everyone else. Catherine looked at Vincent in surprise after he walked his father to the door.

"Vincent, you just completely misled your Father without ever stating a single untruth," Catherine teased, turning his own words on him.

"There's an attorney I keep finding in my bed," he said, offering one of his half smiles; then he growled softly against her neck.

Before dinner the two of them walked to the nursery to visit the children, who were delighted with their surprise visit. They played a few games, listened to some childish chatter and read a few stories; then they went to the dining hall for dinner and visited with the adults, again staying longer than necessary to discourage any visits in his chamber later. They were determined to have as much time to themselves as they could before Catherine had to leave.

 

********************

 

Sunday arrived faster than they thought possible. Catherine's heart gave thought to staying Sunday night and going straight to work from the tunnels. However, knowing how much work was likely to be waiting for her on Monday, her common sense insisted it would be best to leave after dinner and have a good night's sleep (something she was pretty sure she wouldn't get if she stayed) and a shorter commute to face the week. Besides, if the truth were told, she and Vincent both knew her body could use a break from the last three days activity between them. That wasn't likely to happen if she stayed, either, she thought with a quiet smile as she finished packing the few things she had brought with her.

"Do you have more of those things at home?" Vincent asked, watching as she started to pack the little basket of soap, shampoo, hairbrush, etc. she had kept on the chest in his chamber.

"Probably. Most of them, anyway," she answered, sounding puzzled.

"Would you leave them here? - And a change of clothes?" Vincent suggested. "I've come to enjoy finding your things in my chamber. I'll put them away and you'll have them any time you want to stay." She smiled, then pulled some clean clothes from her bag and handed them to him.

"I would be honored to have a place in your chamber," she answered, with an accompanying kiss.

"May I come in, children?" they heard Father call from the other side of the screen.

"Come in, Father. I was about to come to you to say 'Good-bye'."

"I shall miss you, Catherine," he said, hobbling toward her, "and I shall be forever in your debt for your part in my son's recovery."

"No thanks are necessary, Father." she told him, giving him a warm hug. "I wouldn't have been anywhere else."

"No, I don't believe you would," he answered, lovingly patting her arm.

Vincent watched this exchange between two of the people he loved most in the world with a deep feeling of warmth. It hadn't been so long ago that they had been at odds with one another and he had been caught in the middle. Now it seemed he was temporarily on the outside. His father had really learned to love and appreciate Catherine.

"I know you aren't happy at the idea," he said, turning toward Vincent, "but Kanin should be here shortly to see Catherine back to her threshold."

He wasn't happy about it, but both Father and Catherine had insisted he shouldn't try to travel that far yet. Father argued that Catherine would probably worry about him until she heard from someone that he had returned safely, and that if anything happened to him, she would never forgive herself. He said she would have a busy week ahead of her and didn't need the added stress of worrying about Vincent. As always, Catherine's best interests came first; and Vincent gave in to their demands, but not without a feeling of exasperation. He was now tired of being treated like an invalid, and it was his place to see Catherine safely home. With Catherine's departure, he was about to become the difficult patient Father had expected to see before now.

Father gave Catherine a hug and kissed her cheek.

"I'll go now. The two of you don't need an old man hanging about while you say 'Good-bye.' "

Catherine took Vincent's hands in hers and kissed them.

"I'll be back on Friday...probably very late on Friday night. I'll be counting the minutes until I can be in your arms again."

"I shall count as well," he smiled sadly.

"Hey, you two. Can I come in?" Kanin called from the passage.

"Come in Kanin," Vincent answered in resignation.

"Hey," Kanin said, entering with hands held up in front of him, "Don't shoot the messenger. I didn't apply for the job. I was drafted. We both know she'd rather have you."

"I do appreciate your help. I understand there have been some minor changes made near Catherine's building, and I'll rest easier knowing that someone will be with her. I just find it very frustrating to be this confined."

"Are you ready, Catherine? Is this one bag all you have?" Kanin asked.

"That's all," she answered. "Would you mind giving us a minute or two alone before we go?"

"Sure," he answered, smiling sympathetically as he picked up her bag. "Take your time. I'll wait outside."

Catherine turned to Vincent, tears threatening to spill down her cheeks at the slightest provocation. He gathered her into his arms and held her tight, then kissed her as if he might never see her again and pulled her back against him.

"I already miss you," he told her.

"Friday night." she promised, holding him just as tightly. "Only five days."

She backed away reluctantly, still holding his hand. He held her hand to his face and kissed the palm, unwilling to let go.

"I shouldn't keep Kanin waiting too long," she said softly, gently sliding her hand away. "I love you."

"Only five days," he thought. After having her with him every day for several weeks, it might as well have been eternity.

Kanin was waiting patiently, and Catherine unnecessarily apologized for keeping him waiting. He understood. They walked for a while in silence, giving Catherine time to salvage her spirit.

"So, with all that time together did you get him to talk about some of the things that clutter his mind?" Kanin asked when he thought she was ready to talk.

"Yes," she answered, "We talked a lot. How do you know about his cluttered mind?" she smiled.

"He talks to me sometimes," Kanin answered. "He never says too much, just enough to give me a little insight. I've never seen a man so in love...or so tormented about it," he smiled.

"I think I left him less tormented," Catherine grinned back. "He's finally accepted a few things I was beginning to think we might never resolve. We have a few more hurdles, but we'll get past them."

"I'm glad to hear that," he answered.

"Kanin, will you keep an eye on him? Don't let him over exert himself."

"Don't worry," he answered. The whole community loves him. He'll be fine. We'll all gang up on him if necessary."

"As stubborn as he can be, it may be necessary," she laughed.

A few more minutes of small talk brought them to the threshold below her building. She thanked Kanin, took her bag, gave him a quick hug and reluctantly climbed the ladder back into her world.

 

********************

 

Starting on Monday, Vincent was allowed to return to teaching his classes in the morning. Because he insisted on other duties, he was assigned to the wood shop for the afternoons. Cullen had a couple of pieces of furniture to repair, one to refinish, and a small table to build. He was glad to have Vincent to assist because he knew the work would be done to his exacting standards. The work wasn't particularly demanding physically, but Vincent enjoyed feeling active and productive again. He was under orders to stop work by 4 o'clock and return to his chamber to rest a couple of hours before dinner, not an easy task for a love obsessed Vincent without a Catherine. To work off some of the untapped energy, he would take walks in the evenings. The walks grew a little longer each day, and he could feel his strength building steadily.

By Thursday afternoon Cullen had noticed the quiet, spontaneous smiles that appeared periodically on Vincent's face.

"Catherine will be back tomorrow night. I've missed being with her," was all Vincent would say.

Cullen, by nature, still had to tease mercilessly. Friday afternoon came to a close just in time to avoid a confrontation Cullen wouldn't have wanted.

 

********************

 

Joe was nearly beside himself when Catherine appeared on Monday morning.

"In my office, Radcliffe," he ordered after a big hug. "Let's get you up to speed on what's goin' on. Geez, am I glad to see you."

"Nice to feel appreciated," she grinned.

"I take it he's better?" Joe asked after he closed the door.

"Much better, Joe. Thanks for asking - and thanks for letting me have the time."

"You didn't give me much of a choice, did you? Is that all I get? 'He's much better,'" he asked.

"He's much better and so am I. He appreciates your understanding, too, and your concern for me. He was really sick, Joe. I thought I might lose him, and I was too worried about him to have been any good here, anyway. I wish I could tell you more, but I can't. So, yeah. That's about all you get, other than my undying gratitude," she answered.

"Do I ever get to meet him?" Joe asked.

"I hope so. Maybe some day," she answered. "I think the two of you would like each other. Now, about that mountain of paper on my desk..."

"Okay, I can take a hint," he responded, picking up a small page from a memo pad. Joe handed her a very short list of their most important cases with a few quick notes on each one, made a few brief explanations, and reluctantly allowed her to leave to dig in and catch up. The sound of his voice stopped her as she reached the open doorway.

"It's really good to have you back," he told her with heartfelt sincerity. He was rewarded with an equally sincere smile of appreciation from Catherine.

Catherine spent the first couple of days figuring out what had and hadn't been done and what was new since she left; then she created a plan of action, no small undertaking. By the end of the week she had consulted with several others who had contributed to the information in her files, had a good understanding of the most important cases on Joe's list, a few loose ends tied up so information on them was pretty well under control, one brief completed, and interviews with several witnesses for another case lined up for Monday and Tuesday of the following week. She had accomplished this through some hard work and a lot of overtime. She ate at the office, went home at night, showered and fell into her bed, taking time to be sure Vincent knew she was thinking about him before she fell asleep. The next morning she would get up and start the cycle all over again.

During the days at work Catherine's mind occasionally wandered to Vincent; but with the exception of Wednesday, she managed pretty admirably to keep her mind on her work. There was so much of it. Wednesday was more difficult because she kept imagining the twinkle in Vincent's eyes as he wrote. Shakespeare's Sonnet 61 had arrived with her sandwich at lunch -no opening or closing, just the sonnet and the bold flowing "V" at the bottom of the page.

Is it thy will, thy image should keep open

My heavy eyelids to the weary night?

Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,

While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?

Is it thy spirit that you send'st from thee

So far from home into my deeds to pry,

To find out shames and idle hours in me,

The scope and tenure of thy jealousy?

O no, thy love though much, is not so great,

It is my love that keeps mine eye awake,

Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,

To play the watchman ever for thy sake.

For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,

From me far off, with others all too near.

By Thursday afternoon Joe had noticed the quiet, spontaneous smiles that periodically appeared on Catherine's face. Her explanation was very much like Vincent's, and Joe teased as badly as Cullen. By Friday afternoon Catherine finally stopped him by threatening to leave precisely at the end of the workday and let him finish that evening's project entirely alone. They ordered pizza around nine o'clock, finished their work around eleven, and Joe dropped Catherine off at her apartment about eleven-thirty. She hurried into her apartment, showered and changed, packed a few things, and finally allowed her mind to think of nothing but Vincent.

 

********************

 

When she reached the bottom of the ladder the sight she had longed for all week was waiting. In spite of Father's repeated recommendations to the contrary, Vincent had insisted on meeting her. He was allowing her to share their bond now, so she knew his wants matched hers; but she also felt a hint of the doubt she had feared might return. She threw herself into his arms, giving him no time to revert to being shy about anything. She decided putting his hormones in charge might be the best approach; and, sure enough, he kissed her as thoroughly as she had wanted. She stood on tiptoe and returned his kiss with just as much enthusiasm.

"We should probably go, now," he said as he picked up her bag. "We have to pass several sentries on the way; and if we stay here any longer you're likely to look a little man-handled."

"Then let's go," she answered. "I've been dreaming all week about being man-handled."

He took her bag from her and his arm went around her waist, pulling her closer, enjoying the warmth of her against him. She laughed gently, leaned against him, wrapped her arm around his waist, and they walked that way until they neared the first sentry post. There they separated, held hands and talked about the trials of their weeks, including Joe and Cullen.

When they reached Vincent's chamber, he pulled her toward the front of the room, well out of sight of the entrance and kissed her. There were several short, teasing kisses - then he bit her lower lip playfully, catching it carefully between his long canines, and followed it with a longer, soft, loving kiss. As she was reaching to put her arms more firmly around his neck to return his kiss and encourage the manhandling, he suddenly stiffened.

"What's wrong?" she asked in surprise, then realized he was looking past her. Turning to see what had upset him, she saw Father standing just inside the door looking dumbfounded.

"Do you find the entertainment suitable?" Vincent asked in an icy tone they rarely heard from him.

"Vincent... Catherine..." Father stammered, trying to regain some composure, I'm truly sorry...I had no intention of intruding...I had no idea..."

"Did you need something, Father?" Vincent asked in a tone only slightly warmer than the one he used before.

"I couldn't sleep..." Father answered, still stumbling over his words. "I heard you come in and only came to see if you'd like some tea... I didn't mean to stare. Catherine... I'm sorry...Vincent... It's something I've always wanted for you... It was so unexpected..." Running his hand across his hair, he added, "I never thought..."

"This should be between only Catherine and me," Vincent interrupted firmly.

"I'm very sorry, children," Father said again. "I'll go now. Go back to... whatever you were doing..." With that he managed an awkward and hasty retreat.

Vincent pulled the screen across the door and returned to Catherine. She waited until she was sure Father was back in his chamber before bursting into quiet laughter. "Do you suppose he can sleep now?" she chuckled.

"There are two possibilities," Vincent smiled. "One is that he will sleep well knowing that his son is happy," he said, lifting Catherine in his arms and walking toward the bed.

"And the other?" she asked, grinning.

"He may never sleep again," Vincent answered, smiling broadly and dropping her unceremoniously in the middle of his bed.

"Do you think we should go and talk to him?" she asked, propping herself on her elbows, obviously feeling a little sorry for the older man.

"No," Vincent answered firmly, sitting down on the side of the bed to take off his boots.

"You could have been a little easier on him, you know. He was just surprised," Catherine scolded.

"I wanted to give him no reason to consider staying," Vincent answered with an uncharacteristically, roguish smile.

"You and Devin must have bedeviled that poor man terribly. I see no sign of mercy," she laughed.

"Ah, but I distinctly remember, you said that you love me unconditionally," he teased, taking off the second boot.

Pulling his shirt tail out from behind him and caressing his back beneath it, she smiled with him.

"Let me count the ways."

He turned toward Catherine and spoke to her in an exaggerated whisper.

"You know Father isn't likely to be sleeping any time soon. We'll have to be very quiet" Vincent told her with a smile that showed the tips of those long teeth.

"I can be very quiet," she whispered, giggling softly as they tumbled back into the covers.

Later they held each other, sharing gentle caresses.

"I should go," Catherine sighed. "We've been here long enough to pique Father's curiosity, but not long enough for him to be certain of anything." She hated the thought of leaving the warmth of Vincent's body and his bed to spend the rest of the night alone. "Am I being silly wanting to keep this just between us? Aside from the fact that it's no one else's business and we don't want to tolerate the stares, whispers, and knowing looks, it somehow feels like the right thing to do."

"All of the girls here idolize you, Catherine. I overhear them talking about us now and then, and they see our love as romantic and responsible. We should probably encourage that."

"And the boys idolize you," she answered, then followed with a mischievous smile. "Everyone here knows you as a man of moral principal. I've already robbed you of your innocence..."

"A deed for which I shall be forever in your debt," Vincent interrupted with one of his appealing half smiles.

"I'd hate to sully your reputation as well," Catherine continued with a grin. With another little chuckle she looked away and added, "Somehow I never expected to be on this end of this conversation."

She gathered her clothes and dressed, then sounded more serious.

"But how long can we keep up this deception before we have to admit to it? I've pushed you to get to where we are now, sometimes a little too hard, maybe; so you're going to have to choose where we go from here. I love you. I'll accept whatever you decide; but, whatever you decide, I want the freedom to come here and share your life and your bed without restrictions."

"I want that, too, Catherine...and you never pushed too hard. I was stubborn and insecure, and I... and we... needed you to be as determined as you were." He was half dressed. His chest was still bare when he pulled her into his arms. "I'm still in awe of how much you willingly give up for me."

"For us, Vincent... and for me. You have to get past the idea that you're getting more from this relationship than I am. It just isn't true."

 

********************

 

As they walked to the guest chamber, making just enough noise that Father would surely notice, Catherine broached a new subject.

"Vincent, you once said that I'm a woman of both worlds. With the resources I have, I feel a responsibility to give my world as much of the spirit of yours as I'm able to. If I can find a way to make it safer and easier for us to be together more often, how would you feel about being a man of a world and a half?"

"What do you have in mind?" he asked, intrigued.

"Let me do a little research before we talk about it," she responded. "I want to be sure my ideas are realistic before I get our hopes up."

"Anything that allows us to be together more often will have my full cooperation," he assured her as they reached her chamber door.

"Then I'll start gathering information tomorrow," she answered, standing on tiptoe to kiss him once more.

Looking back into the chamber, Catherine said suggestively,

"Look at that bed. It's so neat and perfect."

"We could correct that," he chuckled, and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, nipping at her neck. "This is the only guest chamber in use tonight. We're completely alone."

"Look at us, Vincent." she laughed. "We're behaving like rabbits."

"The price you pay for loving a man with fur," he teased.

"You called yourself a man," she said, pleased with the sound of it.

"A man with fur." he reminded her, taking her hand and falling into the bed.

"This new self-confidence is very attractive," she told him, standing next to the bed and smiling flirtatiously.

"I'm glad you think so," he answered mischievously, pulling her in beside him, "because in a few seconds you're going to need to find me very attractive." With that his arms went around her with an undisguised confidence she rejoiced that he had finally found.

 

********************

 

During the weekend Catherine took time to talk to Father about lists of helpers and their particular skills and asked if he had a master list she could see. When he produced the handwritten list, she was amazed at how long it was and how many different jobs and businesses and social strata were represented.

"Of course, there are others since that list was revised," Father told her. "There are children of helpers who have grown up and become helpers themselves, family members of helpers we found we could trust and add to the list. Most of our newer helpers are people who were here for a while or those who have family connections to them. "There may come a time when the Great Hall isn't big enough for all the helpers to attend Winterfest," he smiled. She again marveled at the system that kept the tunnels thriving. She always felt honored to be a part of it.

 

********************

 

Catherine consulted with Cullen and Kanin while Vincent was busy with a small, brief emergency. She had promises from them to do a little research of their own before she returned. She put off talking to Mouse because he would want to start right away, and she needed to do some scouting Above before she was ready for that. Mouse would have to wait. She didn't want to get Vincent's hopes up until she had more information, so she didn't say any more to him about her ideas.

By Saturday evening Vincent and Catherine were again able to spend some time alone. They walked to the mirror pool for the first time in several months and enjoyed the stars, and each other. Vincent had not missed that Catherine was formulating some kind of plan; but she wasn't talking to him about it, and he could feel that she would share it with him eventually. For now he was content to have her with him and staying Below - a luxury he could not have imagined being so comfortable with a few weeks before.

He stayed a while in her chamber when he walked her back. They sat leaning against the pillows on the bed, Catherine snuggling in the warmth of his arms with her head on his shoulder.

"It's going to be longer before I can return this time," she said softly. "One of our most important cases goes to court a week from Monday, and Joe insists that I handle it. It's going to take a lot of extra hours to be well prepared. I've taken so much time off, I don't feel I can refuse him."

"How much longer?" he asked, groaning a little as he spoke and holding her closer.

She luxuriated in the thought that he would now so freely let her know how much he wanted her here.

"Two weeks if everything goes well," she answered.

"Do your best to see that everything goes well," he pleaded.

"Can you stay?" Catherine asked.

"The chamber next to us is being used tonight. These chambers aren't separated as well as the ones meant for living quarters," he answered with disappointment. "If I should stay much longer, the rumors would start, he smiled. She walked him to the door, but pulled him back inside for a long, satisfying good-night kiss before she let him go."

********************

 

Seeing a light in Father's chamber when he passed it, Vincent stopped to say "good-night".

"You must have tucked Catherine in for the night," Father smiled, "Otherwise, I'm sure I wouldn't have the pleasure of your company."

Vincent just smiled and lowered his head.

"I'm truly sorry for intruding last night, but truly happy for you that there was something to intrude upon," he smiled, still looking a little uncomfortable.

"Catherine and I have come to some of those understandings you mentioned," Vincent answered, sitting down in the chair opposite Father's desk and seeming inordinately interested in the chair arm where his fingers traced patterns as he spoke.

"And how far have these...understandings advanced?" Father ventured.

"What we have or have not done or what we do or do not intend to do is between Catherine and me. I have resolved some things within myself that were standing in the way of our life together. We have a few more obstacles to clear, but I know now that we can resolve them...And if you have not mentioned this to anyone else, we would appreciate it if you didn't. Having so little time together is difficult enough. We don't need to add whispers and speculation."

"I'm sorry. I seem to be intruding again," Father responded. "One would think an old man would learn more quickly." He suddenly laughed - a short little snort. "But I might suggest that the two of you keep your 'understandings' confined to private places. The electricity in your chamber last night could have powered the tunnels."

"Privacy was what we had in mind when we moved away from the doorway at nearly one o'clock in the morning," Vincent answered, dryly. "What we hadn't planned on was a voyeur sneaking in to watch."

"Voyeur!" Father sputtered. "Isn't that a little harsh, Vincent? Will I ever be able to apologize sufficiently to be forgiven?"

"Your first apology was sufficient for forgiveness," Vincent answered, rising from his chair. "You just haven't been sufficiently harassed," he added with a smile that resembled those of his childhood, and he kissed his father's head. "Good-night, Father. Sleep well."

Father laughed and shook his head in resignation as he watched his son leave.

Vincent turned at the top of the stairs at Father's door.

"Catherine won't be back for two weeks. I intend to spend next weekend travelling to the crystal caverns. I've been feeling confined in the main tunnels lately, and I need a gift for Catherine. Mr. Shelby was here last week, and he needs help in remodeling the storage and work areas at the jewelry store. I think I may arrange a little help from him in return."

"You obviously want to do this right away. Do you think you're up to that?" Father asked, looking a little concerned.

"I've promised to take Mouse with me to the caverns, Vincent answered with a short chuckle. "That seems to be about the only place in the tunnels he hasn't been able to find for himself. You know he can find his way back for help if the need arises...And the work for Mr. Shelby shouldn't be more strenuous for me than what I've already done here. I'm quite well now. It's time to stop worrying about me."

"That's a tall order for a father," Jacob smiled indulgently.

"Good night, Father," Vincent smiled, equally indulgent.

That Sunday nothing could have stopped Vincent from seeing Catherine back to her building. Nothing could have made it easier for them to part again, either. As she was turning to climb the ladder back into her apartment Catherine suddenly felt Vincent struggling with several strong emotions and realized the most prominent one seemed to be jealousy.

"Vincent, what's wrong?"

Vincent didn't answer.

"Are you angry? You're jealous, aren't you?"

He still didn't answer, just lowered his head; but his look didn't deny it, either.

"What could you possibly be jealous of?" she smiled. "You've never been more certain of my love."

"Joe, Jenny... Anything near you... Anyone who can see your smile when I can't... Anyone or anything close enough to touch you...Your apartment... your pillow... the sun..." he answered, letting his head fall back in frustration. Catherine laughed at the picture.

"You realize you're being completely irrational, don't you?"

"Yes," he answered, laughing at himself lightly and looking back down at her. "I'm obsessed lately," he said with a resigned smile. "There are times, too many times, when all I can think of is holding you, touching you, keeping you to myself, sharing you with no one, and making love to you until neither of us can move."

"And you're actually admitting to it," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "We've definitely made progress." She smiled mischievously. "I have those obsessions, too. You have me all to yourself right now. Hold me and kiss me and touch me before I go. I promise to make this case go away as fast as I can and come back to you."

Vincent followed her instructions well before she left, and for the following two weeks they each did their best to find ways to cope with the demands of their separate lives, each feeling incomplete without the other.

 

********************

 

Two weeks had seemed forever. Catherine had completed the case she tried in record time. The trial started on Monday of the second week. On Wednesday a witness for the defense had made an unexpected statement during his initial testimony that Catherine had been able to use to their advantage during her cross-examination, and things came to a close rather quickly. The particulars of a plea agreement had been worked out and the paperwork had been prepared and submitted. On Friday she had interviewed a witness for another case that right now was precarious at best, and tried, through constant interruptions during the day, to complete everything they would need for Monday. The workday had been long and difficult, but she wanted nothing to distract her from her weekend with Vincent. She had worked past ten o'clock that evening, finally leaving everything in neat stacks on her desk about quarter to eleven. She smiled to herself, thinking Joe could find it there on Monday morning if she followed her present inclinations and never returned. Her thoughts could now turn to much more pleasant things.

Catherine had decided after the beginnings of Vincent's illness in her apartment that she would alter her life style to consider her own safety, and thereby help to insure his. Following this plan, she always took a cab home when she worked late. He was certainly better, seemingly back to his full strength; but she didn't want him worrying about her. Obsessing about what they would do when they were together again was distracting enough for both of them.

She paid the cab driver, took the elevator to her apartment, and put the Chinese take out leftovers in the microwave to warm as she took a quick shower. The clothes she intended to take with her had been left on the bed that morning, so she ate sporadically as she quickly packed a large gym bag and dried her hair. She could feel that Vincent was as anxious to be together as she was, and the warmth of that connection made her accelerate her preparations. She locked the apartment door, breathing a sigh of relief that Joe hadn't called with some new problem before she had made her escape. In the basement she locked the door of the storage room behind her, maneuvered her way through the hidden door, and swung herself down the ladder. Reaching the bottom, she was a little disappointed that Vincent wasn't waiting for her. An emergency, she supposed, because she could still feel his impatience to be with her. She would just put her things in the guest quarters and wait for him in his chamber.

The thought of being with him again, of touching him... Not knowing exactly where the sentries were hidden, she tried to appear unhurried as she approached the main hub of the tunnels, but as she neared his chamber, the strength of her fantasies was overwhelming. It was becoming more difficult to tell which were his and which ones she was creating on her own. Two years ago she would never have believed she could imagine herself into such a state. She started to head for the guest chamber, but her sense of Vincent drew her to his chamber instead.

When she arrived at his door, the room was nearly dark, lit only by the torch glow through the stained glass window; but she knew he was there. She put her bag down near the door.

"Vincent?" she called softly.

"I'm here." he answered. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she realized he was in bed, propped on one elbow, apparently wearing only his tawny, furry splendor.

"Have my thoughts been that obvious?" she chuckled. "...Apparently your self-confidence is no longer a problem."

"Are you about to tell me that I've misread your intent?" he asked smoothly. "The closer you came to my chamber, the less I could afford to be seen in public places, so I waited for you here," he smiled.

Illustrating the accuracy of his understanding, she pulled the screen across the doorway, left her clothing in a forgotten heap, and slipped under the covers he held up in invitation. She moved close enough to give him a kiss then wriggled into a position to pull him above her, enjoying his weight on her and the caress of soft hair against her skin. "Now?" he asked.

"Now," she answered.

Catherine took in a deep breath of pleasure as he moved slowly, gently, deliberately, until he was very completely where she had imagined him from the time she left work. Nothing was hurried. Their last weekend had been lust and passion. This was simply love - wanting to be as close as they could be. Their movements against one another were subtle and sometimes teasing, accompanied by small, quiet, creatively placed kisses, soft touches, smiles, and short, nearly whispered bits of conversation. They held each other that way for a long time, allowing the pleasure of that intimacy to wash through the bond between them. Finally one kiss ignited the passion that always seemed to be just below the surface and took them to the inevitable end of their lovemaking. Vincent rested on his elbows above her, both of them recovering in its aftermath.

"Mmmmm..." she sort of growled, "do you have any idea what a disappointment one of those normal men would be after you?"

His answer was a quite thorough kiss of appreciation. She snuggled against him, hating to think of being anywhere else. His arms closed around her echoing her feelings; and they held each other and talked softly about nothing in particular - just finding excuses not to part.

Catherine eventually yielded to reality.

"Some of the others will be up soon. If we intend to keep this between the two of us, I'd better move into the guest chamber," she said, already feeling the sting of having to leave him. They reluctantly left the warmth of the covers and dressed; then they made their way to the guest chamber, checking the passage and moving quietly, like two teenagers sneaking in late.

"You could stay here," Catherine suggested playfully. "We could say you came early to go for a walk before breakfast."

"You need rest, Catherine. I'll tuck you in and place enough distance between us to allow it," he answered with a smile. He helped her into her nightgown, momentarily weakening his resolve, and she climbed into bed with a pout. When he pulled the covers up around her shoulders and kissed her forehead, her arms circled his neck and pulled him down for a more gratifying kiss before she let him go.

"I'll wake you for breakfast," he said, forcing himself to leave.

 

********************

 

Vincent had felt Catherine's exhaustion and allowed her to sleep later than usual on Saturday. When she opened her eyes, he was standing in the doorway with his arms folded, looking amused.

"I thought you might sleep until tomorrow," he teased. She picked up her watch from the bedside table and checked the time.

"It's almost noon! Why didn't you wake me?" she scolded.

"You needed sleep, and I've been busy," he answered. "But apparently I have no duties between now and tomorrow night. The work load is rather light, and it seems that no one thinks I would be worth working with while you're here anyway; so I thought you might like to walk to the falls. William packed a lunch for us if you're hungry."

"Give me about twenty minutes to pull myself together. Lunch at the falls sounds wonderful," she answered, sitting up. "I'll meet you in your chamber. You won't need our bond to let you know I'm on the way. You'll hear my stomach growling."

He smiled broadly at her enthusiasm and left her to her preparations.

She realized suddenly that he was wearing the clothes he wore to her balcony for their anniversary - and enjoyed the freedom of thinking openly about how good he looked in them. For some reason she didn't understand, Catherine had brought a nice pants outfit with her this trip - dressy pants, a soft, warm sweater and a turtle neck, and dressy but comfortable walking shoes. She smiled to herself, realizing how she had begun to stock her closet with tunnel clothes that still allowed her to dress up for Vincent. Today she wanted to do that.

Arriving at Vincent's chamber and seeing the basket, she was surprised that her stomach wasn't really growling.

"Is there something in there I could nibble on while we walk?" she asked. Then, with a grin, she added, "Last night food wasn't a priority." She planted a kiss on his cheek.

"No, it wasn't," Vincent smiled in agreement as he opened the basket. "Here," he said, holding up a bunch of grapes. "Will this help you reach the falls?"

"Yes," she answered, accepting the grapes immediately. "Lead the way."

They took their time walking and talking, Catherine working her way through the grapes, occasionally popping one into Vincent's mouth. They spent a long, pleasant afternoon enjoying the scenery, exploring a little, reading, talking, and just being close to one another. A couple of times others wandered in, but considerately left them to themselves before too long. There had been enough food in the basket that they felt no rush to get back to the main tunnels before dinner, so they made a day of it. On the way back Vincent stopped briefly to "let Kanin know they were back," he said - just in case he had been needed.

Catherine sensed that there was more to the visit than that; but nothing seemed to be wrong, so she didn't mention it. She sneaked a glance at him now and then, and more and more she sensed he was up to something. This was intriguing.

 

********************

 

His chamber was dark when they reached it. Remembering the night before, Catherine thought he couldn't have planned anything better than that. Vincent had her wait at the door while he went in to light the candles, and she watched in growing fascination as he continued to light candles - all over the chamber. Each candle illuminated another vase of flowers and a beautifully scripted note defining another reason for loving her. The arrangements were relatively small, but varied - tall slender ones, wide fluffy ones, mixed bouquets, some including candles, some sitting next to candles... He ended with the candle next to the roses on his writing desk. She picked up the note next to the roses and read that she brought light to all the dark places in his life. She walked around gathering the notes and admiring the flowers.

"Vincent. I've never seen anything so romantic," she declared lovingly as he pulled the screen across the door. "How did you manage all this? None of this was here this morning when we left." Then she realized... "Kanin?"

"He and Olivia returned our favor," Vincent smiled. "They did all this while we were away this afternoon."

"And I didn't think today could have been any better," Catherine answered, wrapping her arms around his waist.

He held her close and brushed a kiss on her hair.

"I owed you something special for all you've done the last few months. You've become so much a part of my life that I can no longer imagine myself without you. Losing you would be like losing my soul. Your love, your acceptance of all of my faults and differences, your patience, your warmth, your understanding, your determination to make our dreams work...I have no words to tell you..."

"You need no words, Vincent," she said placing her hands gently on his chest - still holding her cherished notes. She looked up at him, her eyes sparkling. "I see it when you look at me. I feel it through our bond. The only gift I've ever needed is your love and to know that you accept mine."

"No, you need one more gift. We need one more gift. Come and sit here."

After leading her to the chair at his desk, he knelt before her and put the notes on his desk to be read later. He took both of her hands in his and looked up at her.

"I love you, Catherine. You don't have to be here in the tunnels to be with me. Wherever you are, our hearts are together. Know that if you need to live and work Above, I will never ask you to abandon that and confine yourself to my world...but we share a love we have struggled to preserve. I know that most of the struggle was my responsibility, and yet you never gave up on us. You promised to spend your life as a part of mine. Would you do me the honor of spending it as my wife?"

"Yes!" was her immediate response. "Oh, Vincent, yes."

Tears of happiness welled in her eyes as she threw her arms around him. He held her for a moment, then pulled away to kiss her and reach for a small box hidden behind the roses on his desk. He opened the small velvet box to reveal a ring, radiantly reflecting the light from the flickering candles - an oval aquamarine, faceted at the edges and delicately set in gold.

"It's beautiful," she whispered when she regained her voice.

He slipped it on her finger, and it fit perfectly. He had obviously done his homework.

"I've never seen anything more beautiful...except you," she told him, pulling her eyes away from her ring to look up at him. "Vincent, it's the color of your eyes. I'll have that with me wherever I am," she smiled.

"Then when we are married you may take my arms as well," he answered, showing her the wedding bands, fashioned in two parts to encircle the ring on both sides.

"They surround the ring the way my love surrounds you."

The setting for the stone was cantilevered to sit just over the edge of the bands, looking very much like one ring. He showed her the tiny, beautifully crafted clips that would connect the three - exactly the kind of setting she could wear in her world without causing too much speculation.

Catherine stood. "Sit down," she ordered. He took her place in the chair and she happily placed herself in his lap, leaning against him and holding her hand out where both of them could see the ring.

"How..." she began, and stopped. "I love it, Vincent, but I feel a little guilty. How can your family...our family...understand such an extravagance?

"I think they will understand," he answered. "The only extravagance was my time. Mouse and I visited the crystal caverns, and I took this stone and several others to Mr. Shelby. This one was for the ring, and the profit from the others will return to the community.

"They needed some remodeling and I needed a ring. I saw the estimates from the carpenters, and I think they regarded your ring as a bargain. Their only other demand was an invitation to the wedding. They are both sworn to secrecy for now," he chuckled. "I sketched the setting I wanted, and Mr. Shelby created it after we turned the stone over to his son. Matthew is a fine stone cutter. They work well together."

"You designed this?" Catherine interrupted, still looking at the ring from varying angles and again feeling amazed by his talents. Her answer was his appreciative smile.

"I hoped it would make you this happy," he said, tenderly stroking the backs of his furred fingers on her cheek and pressing a kiss on her forehead.

"Vincent, I would have been happy with only the proposal. You do believe that, don't you? I don't need 'things' anymore. Not as long as I have you."

"I know that," he assured her "It was something that I needed to do. I needed to give you something to show my commitment - something you could wear in your world where you could see it and be reminded of my love. I would like you to wear a wedding band that looks like my world; but it needed to be a setting and a stone that people in your world wouldn't question, something of a quality they would expect to see you wear."

She could see that he had put a great deal more thought into this than just the design of the ring. He wanted to allow her all the freedom that she wanted in her world, but with a mark of himself to claim her as his own.

"And these gorgeous flowers?" she asked, looking around the chamber.

"A helper who was returning a favor," he answered.

"I'll have to visit all of them next week to thank them." She sighed contentedly, and snuggled closer, softly telling him, "I love you."

He held her as she read all the notes, a tear of joy trickling down her cheek now and then.

"I'll treasure these as long as I live," she whispered.

They sat for a while, sharing the contentment of the most important step so far in their future together, softly kissing and touching, gradually kindling the passion that would follow before Vincent took her back to her chamber. She found her chamber dark as well. There weren't as many candles to light, but flowers and notes accompanied those as they had in his chamber.

"You spoil me," Catherine said in obvious appreciation, reading the first note.

"It was your turn," he answered.

"When would you like to marry me?" Catherine suddenly asked firmly, but with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

"As soon as possible. Is that the correct answer?" he teased.

"You know, when it takes a girl this long to catch the guy, she doesn't want to wait too long to pin down the details," she grinned. "Shall we tell everyone tomorrow? And how do we make the announcement? Post marriage bans in the passageways? Send messages on the pipes?"

Vincent was openly enjoying her excitement at being tied to him for life.

"I think an announcement in the dining hall at breakfast would probably work well. Within seconds I'm sure the pipes will tell anyone who may have missed the news." "Then please don't let me sleep through breakfast again," she pleaded. "It's all I can do right now not to run through the tunnels like the town crier, shouting 'Ten o'clock and Vincent asked me to marry him.' Vincent, I've never been so happy."

He pulled her into his arms, still smiling at her excitement.

"I want to keep you this happy forever," he answered.

"How does the day after Thanksgiving sound for a wedding?" she asked, her voice coming from somewhere against his chest. "I can't think of anything I'd be more thankful for - and before Winterfest we could be together any time we want - for the rest of our lives." Her arms tightened around his waist.

"Tomorrow would be fine with me, but next week is September," he reminded her. "Will that be enough time to plan what you want for a ceremony? The women here would never forgive me if I don't allow you enough time for a proper celebration."

"The women here also suspect that I would accept an impromptu ceremony in the passage outside your chamber if necessary. I've worked under deadlines before," she grinned. "I'll start tomorrow. Do you think I could find some help down here?"

Vincent laughed, knowing she had no doubts on that score.

"Probably more than you want," he answered. "Mentioning help in public tomorrow would probably be foolhardy."

Catherine leaned back, took his face in her hands, said, "I love you!" and kissed him so joyfully he had to respond.

"I've never been happier either," he laughed, lifting her off the floor and swinging her in a circle. His spontaneous responses were happening more often, and she loved it.

 

********************

 

Vincent met Catherine early, before breakfast, because they had decided that Father and Mary should know before they told the others. They agreed that Vincent would tell Father, Catherine would tell Mary, he would meet her at Mary's chamber, and they would go to breakfast together. He left Catherine with an enthusiastic kiss tingling on her lips and they went on their separate missions.

 

Father was awake, reading a newspaper a helper had sent the evening before.

"Father. I have some news that might be more uplifting than what you're reading," Vincent said casually, glancing at the headlines from over Father's shoulder.

"Anything would be more uplifting than what I'm reading," Father answered, with resignation, closing the newspaper. "Murders, floods, old people cheated out of their retirement income..." He took off his spectacles as he looked up at Vincent. "What is it, Son? Brighten your old Father's morning."

Vincent smiled, looking as if his world was at peace.

"Catherine has agreed to be my wife. If the council approves the date, we would like to be married the day after Thanksgiving."

Jacob rose from his chair and threw his arms around his son, feeling an overwhelming rush of emotion. His son had found the joy he deserved in spite of Father's best intentions. All the impossible dreams he'd had for Vincent, his initial anger and distrust of Catherine, the restrictions he had taught Vincent to put on himself, the insecurities he had unwittingly helped Vincent create, the contentment he could finally see in him... All of it came crashing into his heart at once. Tears filled his eyes as he held Vincent tight and gave his blessings without reservation. Vincent hugged Jacob just as closely; feeling the joy in his father's heart and feeling elated at that response.

"We wanted to tell you before we announced it to everyone else at breakfast."

"Mary?..." Father started.

"Catherine is with her now."

"I couldn't be happier for you, Vincent. We'll have to contact Devin. He would never forgive himself if he missed this." Father was already making plans.

 

********************

 

Catherine reached Mary's door and called before she entered the chamber.

"Come in, dear," Mary answered. She was dressed but still putting her hair up. "What can I do for you?" She continued working on her hair and watching Catherine in the mirror.

"Just listen and be happy with me," Catherine answered with a smile. "I have something to tell you."

"From the look on your face, I'd say it must be something good," Mary smiled back.

"Vincent and I are going to be married..."

Before Catherine could say anything else Mary had her in a bear hug that hardly allowed her to breathe, the hair arranging forgotten.

"Catherine, I'm so happy for both of you. I thought the boy would never come to his senses and ask you. When will you be married?"

"The day after Thanksgiving, if that date is acceptable to everyone. We wanted to announce it at breakfast this morning, but we wanted you and Father to know first. Vincent is talking to him now. He said he would meet me here."

"That isn't a lot of time, Catherine. There are so many people who have loved Vincent for so long...and have come to love and respect you...So many people who will be happy for both of you... This will be a big event. Please let me help with anything you need."

"Would you make my dress, Mary...and something new for Vincent? And I need to find out who makes his boots and get some measurements for other things and... Don't volunteer too fast," she grinned. "I could work you to death."

"Please do your best," she told Catherine with a good-natured smile. "I'm an old woman, and seeing you and Vincent so happy would make it a pleasant passing. Goodness. I'd better get back to my hair. I have no intention of missing the response to this announcement at breakfast."

Vincent and Father called from the passageway.

"Come in. Come in," Mary answered, grabbing Vincent in a breathtaking hug similar to the one she had bestowed on Catherine, the hair tumbling again. "It's wonderful to see you both so happy, Vincent. Catherine has already begun to feel like one of our children." Vincent returned her hug, actually lifting her off the floor in his enthusiasm.

"Careful of these elderly bones, young man." She laughed as he eased her back to the floor. "Look at that smile, Jacob," she said, patting Vincent's cheek. "I don't think I've seen that one since he was a boy."

"Smile is apparently all the two of them are able to do today," Father answered. He gave Catherine a hug very much like the one from Mary. "I look forward to having a daughter," he told her. "My son could give me nothing that would please me more." Vincent thought Catherine's heart might explode with the joy she felt at those words from Father.

"Perhaps we should go and get this announcement made so everyone else can smile with us," Father added as he turned toward Mary

Mary quickly finished pinning her hair in place, and they all left together.

Paying very little attention to what was on their plates, the four of them gathered what they needed and sat down, waiting impatiently for the best opportunity to speak to their friends in the dining hall. Finally, when the majority of the group was seated and the influx of breakfast gatherers had slowed to a trickle, Father tapped a spoon on his teacup, and Vincent stood.

"May I have your attention," Vincent more stated than requested.

Seeing Vincent, rather than Father, stand to make the announcement immediately created enough curiosity to command everyone's attention. He reached for Catherine's hand and took it to help her stand beside him, giving a few of those in their audience an inkling of what they would hear.

"If the time is suitable to the council, Catherine and I would like to invite you to a gathering in the Great Hall the day after Thanksgiving." At this point in his announcement he placed his arm around Catherine's shoulder and looked down at her briefly, a gesture of affection and possession no one had seen before. "We plan to be married and would like all of you to help us celebrate."

There was an instant outpouring of cheers and applause, and a rush of well-wishers leaving their breakfasts behind to greet the couple with hugs and handshakes and warm congratulations.

The quartet leaving Mary's chamber had stopped to tell Pascal and asked him to hold the message until Father sent him an okay. As soon as he heard from Father he had the pipes virtually singing, spreading the news to anyone who hadn't heard.

By the time they left the dining hall, Vincent and Catherine were nearly exhausted from the congratulatory responses of their friends. Vincent had been right. Any request for help with the wedding would certainly have been foolhardy. They had so many spontaneous offers and suggestions for their wedding that they couldn't begin to remember them all, much less consider using them.

Eventually everyone had to turn to their respective duties, and the crowd dispersed enough to allow them an escape back to Vincent's chamber. He quickly pulled the screen across the door, and they both laughed at the relief they felt at escaping their friends and family for a few minutes.

"Well, I don't think we need to worry that they might disapprove," Catherine grinned, flopping down on the bed to recover.

"No, I don't think we do," Vincent laughed, stretching out beside her.

"That was the easy part," Catherine told him with a knowing smile.

"And what do you consider the hard part?" he chuckled.

"Now we have to plan a wedding," she said, snuggling close to him. "You have noooooo idea..."

He smiled. Pulling her closer, lying beside her, holding her, feeling the joy he knew he had given her, he was sure that anything he had to endure to reach this marriage would be worth it.