How Could I Forget Thee?

 

By Lea

 

"Father! Thank you for coming!" Catherine closed the door of her apartment and gestured her visitor, unfamiliarly dressed in his out-of-style dark suit, into her living room. "I know you don't like coming above, but I had to talk to you. Still no change?"

With a sigh, Jacob Wells wearily sat down on the white couch and shook his head. "No. I'm sorry, my dear, I wish I had better news to bring you! Vincent's physical condition is back to normal now, but his memory hasn't shown the slightest sign of improvement. The last years are still lost to him."

Catherine sat down in front of him and hid her face in her hands. It hurt so much! Once more, as it had over and over again for the last two months, the scene played back in her mind. After they'd brought him back, unconscious, from the cavern below the catacombs, she hadn't left Vincent's side for two weeks, anxiously waiting while, as Father had explained, he "slept himself back to health".

 Then, at last, he had awakened, and she was there, holding his hand, watching his face...but as he opened his eyes his gaze had glided over her with faint puzzlement, before settling on Father's face. Her frantic attempts to talk to Vincent, make him acknowledge her presence, had only caused agitation and distress, and Father had finally made her leave the chamber. It had soon become evident that Vincent suffered from partial amnesia, having forgotten her and everything that had happened ever since he'd found her, and there was no way to tell if that state would or not be permanent. All they could do was wait.

Heartbroken, she'd gone back Above. At first she would come Below every few days for fresh news, until Father had gently, but firmly made her understand that her presence there was distressing Vincent. So she had remained Above, apparently going on with her life, but slowly dying inside, as a bitter, nagging voice inside her kept repeating that she had deserved what happened to her. That her carelessness had caused Vincent to lose his sanity, and he could only regain it by forgetting her...

Father's voice startled her out of her painful thoughts.

"Why did you need to see me so urgently?"

"I know I agreed to remain Above, and wait, but something happened and I have to change my plans." She straightened her shoulders and looked right into Father's eyes. "I'm claiming shelter Below."

He started. "You're...what? Catherine, we've discussed it already, I don't think your presence Below could benefit either you or Vincent. As long as he doesn't remember you, it would do more harm than good, especially to you!"

She shook her head. "Father, I have to go and live Below. I have no other choice."

"No other choice? What happened? Are you in danger?"

Catherine took a deep breath before answering. "I'm pregnant. With Vincent's child."

The old man took the blow and remained a few seconds with his mouth agape, gasping for air. "You are...Oh dear God! Catherine, are you sure? I mean about the pregnancy." he hastily added. He may have been suspicious of her in the past, but the days and nights they had spent worrying for Vincent together had brought a better understanding between them. Catherine's love for his son was deep and strong, and if she was indeed pregnant, there was no doubt in Jacob Wells' heart that the child was Vincent's, however impossible it might seem.

Catherine nodded. "Yes, very sure. I had it double-checked by a second doctor, and she did an ultrasound. Everything seems perfectly normal, so far."

"How? When? I didn't know that you and Vincent..."

"Down in that cavern, before you found us." Father seemed shocked by the revelation and she went on. "Father, he... died. I felt him go!" Her eyes filled with anguish as she relived the terrible moment. "I just couldn't let him go! I screamed at him and took him in my arms, and... kissed him, and just as I was beginning to lose hope he came back to me. It happened then."

Father moved to sit down close to her and take her in his arms. He held her a long time, rocking her gently as she sobbed helplessly on his shoulder, his own tears running down his cheeks. Not until that moment had he been able to fully measure the depth of Catherine's loss, and aloneness. She had fought with all the strength of her love to bring Vincent back from the verge of death, maybe even from death itself, and he had come back to his family and friends, but still was lost to her. How unfair and terrible! Father chastised himself for having felt relief when she'd agreed not to come Below until Vincent himself asked for her, for having harbored the selfish, short-sighted thought that maybe things were better that way, that both Vincent and Catherine would now be able to go on with their separate lives...how wrong he'd been! Yet the problem remained. When Catherine finally calmed down and pulled away from him, he looked into her tear-filled eyes.

"Catherine, have you thought of Vincent's reaction? He's much better now, and doesn't have any more nightmares, so I'm reasonably sure no violence is to be feared, but there still might be some distress, and at best you'll be a stranger to him. Living Below might be... terribly difficult for you."

She shook her head. "I know. But it's not about me anymore, Father. It's not even about Vincent. I have to do what's best for my baby, now." She squared her shoulders. "No one Above must know about my pregnancy, and my child has to be born Below. In case..."

"I understand." She was right, of course, given the possibility that the child would take after its father. "When do you want to come Below?"

"Day after tomorrow, if possible."

"So soon?" Father objected. "You're only" he did rapid math in his head "twelve weeks pregnant. It will be a few more weeks until it begins to show, maybe you could..."

"Father, the problem will be the same in a few weeks..."

"And what about your life Above. Won't you be... missed?"

"Everything is arranged. I took an indefinite leave of absence from my job, and told my friends I'd be travelling for some time, and I'd keep in touch with Peter."

Father nodded with a sigh. "Very well. I'll call a Council meeting tonight and submit your request. Merely a formality, as I don't think anyone Below would dream of opposing your coming. They miss you."

"And I miss them too, Father. I miss them so much!"

Father lowered his eyes, realizing that by forbidding Catherine to come Below he'd deprived her of the only family she had left, leaving her to face the trial alone. Even without Vincent she had friends Below, people she could talk to freely and share her sorrow with, and he'd denied her access to the only place where she could find understanding, and some measure of comfort. She was a member of their family, and he had badly let her down!

"They'll all be glad to see you, my dear. What shall I tell the Council?"

Catherine thought that over for a moment. "Is Vincent still a Council member?" she inquired.

"Yes. As he got better, he progressively resumed all his community duties."

"Then I suppose you had to help him catch up with all those months he's lost. What does he know about me?"

Father shook his head, looking somewhat embarrassed. "Nothing. I didn't know how he'd react to the mention of your name. Of course we've had to tell him of some things that happened in the past years, if only to explain for the new people in the community... and the missing ones as well, but we remained rather vague, and strangely enough he didn't insist, as if he knew the full truth might be painful."

Catherine nodded, thinking they must have been very vague indeed, considering that all the important events that had occurred Below in that period had included her, but she understood Father's need to protect Vincent... and Vincent's unconscious need to protect himself.

"If you announce that 'a Helper named Catherine' claims shelter Below for serious reasons of her own, no questions asked, do you think it will be enough?"

"Certainly." he reassured her. "And what about...?"

"My pregnancy?" She shrugged. "They will know soon enough, so you may just as well tell them that too."

"I will, requesting that no questions be asked."

"No questions asked." Catherine agreed. "But they'll wonder."

Father smiled wryly. "No, they won't. They'll know. Everyone will know... except Vincent. What do you intend to...?" he cautiously inquired.

Catherine closed her eyes to fight the threatening tears. "I don't know. I... I want my child to know its father, and I want Vincent to know his child, too, but from what you tell me he's not ready for that kind of revelation. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens in the next months. One day at a time, Father. It's the only way I can live right now. One day at a time."

 She leaned back on the cushions, looking exhausted, and Father suddenly noticed, with a pang of guilt, how thin and frail she had become, how big her reddened, dark-rimmed eyes looked in her pale face. Pregnancy was adding it's own toll to an already fragile physical condition caused by months of pain and worry, and as a physician he found her state alarming. It was high time he got her safely Below, where her family would take care of her. He only hoped the love and warmth she would find there would be enough to counterbalance the stress of Vincent's estrangement to her. Knowing his son, he even thought it likely that Vincent himself would do his best to make Catherine feel welcome Below. Would that comfort her, or pain her? Probably both...

He rose. "I'll go now, Catherine. You need to rest. Around what time can we expect you on Thursday?"

"In the afternoon. Say 3 PM? I'll arrange for Jeff to pick me up with his cab, and take me to Mrs Long's shop."

Father nodded his approval. Jeff was a long-time helper, and the entrance she'd chosen was the closest one to the hub. "Very well. I'll send people to meet you there and carry your things."

She hugged him tight. "Thank you, Father!"

"It's only normal, Catherine. Our family must take care of its own. I apologize for not remembering about that sooner. I'm the one who must thank you, for the gift of your presence...and for the precious, tiny miracle you're bringing to our community!" He was pleased to see her eyes brighten a little at the thought, and noticed that she put her hand on her abdomen in an unconscious, protective move. "And now, dear mother-to-be," he added in an almost cheerful voice "your doctor orders that you eat something and go to bed!"

That even got him a smile. "Yes sir, I will."

After Father had gone, Catherine leaned back on the door, letting out a sigh of relief. She had expected things to be much harder. She hadn't hoped Father might be as readily acceptant and supportive. Maybe she'd been prejudiced. Father was very protective of Vincent, but he did love her, just as she loved him. And he trusted her, too. It warmed her to the heart that he hadn't questioned Vincent's part in her pregnancy for a single second.

Deep inside her, something that had remained tightly wound for weeks began to soften, loosening its painful grip on her heart. She wasn't alone anymore. Father was taking charge. Her family Below was going to take care of her!

Along with relief came exhaustion, and she was tempted to go straight to bed, yet obediently heeded Father's admonition and heated a bowl of soup first. She didn't feel hungry at all, and had to force herself to swallow the first spoonfuls, but the well-being that started spreading throughout her as the nourishing warmth reached her empty stomach made her realize how much she'd neglected her own health. She must think of her child now... no doubt Father would make sure of that! Smiling fondly at the thought, she finished her soup and completed her meal with some yoghurt and fruit, before heading to her bed. She undressed quickly and slipped under the covers, feeling more relaxed and comfortable that she had in weeks as a blissful drowsiness overcame her. Soon she would be Below...and she would see Vincent! For a second the nagging pain came back to bite at her. Vincent had forgotten her, how could she stand to face him? Yet those sad feelings weren't strong enough to dampen the joy that invaded her at the prospect of seeing him again at last...

Catherine was smiling as she went to sleep.

 

****

 

 

"I was Above, an hour ago." The Council members stared at Father, knowing it took a very serious event to make him leave the tunnels. "Catherine asked to see me and I have a request to make on her behalf."

He watched his son as he spoke, and was relieved to find only mild curiosity in his eyes. Now that Vincent had recovered that name didn't seem to distress him as it once had. "Catherine..." he explained "...is a Helper."

Vincent nodded, thinking it had to be a comparatively recent helper, since he didn't remember her, but a very special one indeed. He'd never known Father to go Above before!

Father continued. "In the months past, Catherine has proven more than once how attached she is to our community. More than once she's been there for us in times of great need. Now she's the one in need of our help. Due to unexpected circumstances, which she wishes to keep to herself, she asks to be allowed to come and live Below.

That caused some surprise. "Catherine wants to come here?" Pascal asked. "But I thought that..."

"Yes, but things have changed." Father cut in. He waited for a second, and then dropped his bombshell "Catherine is pregnant. AND..." he raised his voice over the tumult of exclamations and waited for silence to come back before going on "...it would be best that no questions be asked, nor speculations be made, on that matter." He saw comprehension dawn on the first stunned faces, and noticed that they carefully avoided looking at Vincent as they swallowed back their questions and silently digested all the implications of the news. One by one, they nodded their understanding.

"How is she, Father?" Mary inquired.

"Not very well, I'm afraid."

"I bet she isn't eating right!" William boomed. "When is she coming?"

"The day after tomorrow."

"Then I must start planning my special pregnancy diet for her!" He stormed out of the chamber.

"Shall I make a special announcement on the pipes?" Pascal asked.

Father thought that over for a second. "Yes, but only about her coming, and her request for privacy. The rest can be handled more privately."

Pascal nodded and left.

"What chamber are we going to give her?" Mary wondered. "The one where she slept last time is much too far away for a future mother! She needs to be close in case there's an emergency... Oh, I know! Joshua and Kevin have been pestering me for months to let them join the boys' dormitory. I think they're big enough, now, and their chamber would be just perfect!"

"Then she'll need a real bed instead of those little cots the kids sleep in." Cullen broke in. "I'm currently repairing a beautiful one I found in a storage chamber. I think I can have it finished in time, if I hurry." He rose.

Mary, on her way to the door, turned to him. "Good! You remind me I must think of the bedding, too! She'll need a good mattress. I have a quilt that I never used and..." Her voice faded when they exited the chamber, which quickly emptied as the other Council members thought of urgent things to do and left, leaving Vincent and Father alone.

"It would seem that the ayes have it...." Vincent softly said.

"Definitely!" Father answered, grinning.

Vincent shook his head, bewildered. It was the strangest Council Meeting he'd ever attended. They were usually rather formal (he'd even overheard some people use the word 'pompous', though never when Father could hear) and important matters, like admitting a topsider in their midst, were always submitted to a vote. Well, he reflected, people had voted, in a fashion, by rushing out of the chamber to start preparing for the new-comer's arrival, as if it were evident to them that the answer could only be "Aye!"...Almost more puzzling was the way Father seemed to condone that breach of rules. Had things changed so much in his world during the time that was now lost to him?

"Father?"

"Yes, Vincent?" The tunnel leader restrained a smile at his son's bemused expression. He hadn't quite expected the Council members to be that enthusiastic, but it was a good thing. First because Catherine could certainly use all the warm welcomes and pampering she could get. And also because it would be hard for her to face Vincent's rather solemn, if kind, politeness. Now she had him intrigued, and interested, which was confirmed by Vincent's request.

"Please, could you tell me more about....Catherine?" Father noted the hesitation and slight frown as his son said the name he hadn't pronounced for so long. "You said she's a Helper, but I can see there's more to it. She seems to be... dearly thought of by the people Below..."

"You're right, Vincent. Catherine is more than a Helper. She's a dear friend, and though she's never really lived here, we consider her as one of us. She's a friend of Peter's, and works  for the District Attorney's office."

"You said she helped our world in times of dire need?"

Father took a few moments to recall what Vincent did and didn't know about what had happened in those years he couldn't remember.

"Catherine is the one who brought Eric to us, after rescuing him from a bad children's home. She also brought Lena Below, and persuaded her to stay here after she gave birth to little Cathy. The child was named after her."

Vincent nodded, waiting for more.

"When the plague struck us, not only did she help Peter bring down medicines, she also stayed Below to care for the sick. Little Ellie, Eric's sister, died in her arms." Father went on. He hesitated for a second, looking into his son's still expectant eyes. His next revelation might be pushing things a bit, but...oh, well, a little nudge in the right direction couldn't hurt! "You remember I told you about that cave-in in the Maze, where you and I were trapped? Well, it was Catherine who managed to obtain, in a very short time, the explosives and other things Mouse needed to set us free."

Vincent looked struck. "She... saved our lives?" He remained silent for a moment, concentrating, but his efforts brought nothing else than the now familiar headache and uneasy, faintly nauseous feeling. He sat down in Father's big armchair, breathing deeply to fight a sudden dizziness.

"Vincent? Are you all right?"

Vincent looked up to his parent's worried face, utterly discouraged. "Oh, Father! I owe Catherine my life, and I can't even remember her!"

Father patted his son's arms reassuringly. "Don't worry about that, and please don't make yourself sick again by trying to force things. I understand how frustrating it can be, but you know what Peter said: you must be patient! I'm sure that, with time, you'll have your memory back!"

Vincent reluctantly nodded, wishing he was sure of that, too, then a thought struck him.

"Father, how come I haven't heard about Catherine before today?"

Father restrained a smile again. His son's curiosity seemed to be sufficiently aroused to even chase away self-pity. Good. "She hasn't visited us for a while. Events in her life were taking her on a different path..."

"Did she change her mind because of her...condition?"

"Catherine..." Father answered in a stern tone "...would not claim shelter Below without serious reasons. However, those reasons are only hers to reveal, if and when she so chooses."

Vincent took the mild rebuke with a nod, and rose. " Perhaps I should go and see if Mary or Cullen need some help."

"Good idea!" Father agreed.

 

***

 

Catherine carefully descended the narrow stairs to the sub-basement of Mrs Long's shop, while Jeff and the grocer's son went to get the rest of her luggage. It took her eyes some time to get accustomed to the dim light. Then walking to the wooden door in front of her, she tapped her name code on it. It opened instantly, and the small room quickly filled with people. She felt herself caught in a bear hug.

"Catherine! Nice to see you! It's been so long!"

She hugged back. "Nice to see you too, William!"

He held her at arms' length to examine her. "My God! Look at yourself!" he scolded. "I wonder how you still stand on your feet. But we'll take care of that!"

"I know you will." She answered with a smile.

"Hey William, give us a chance to say hello, too, will you?"

Catherine turned to see Jamie waiting, a wide smile on her face. Behind her stood Pascal and Rebecca, Mouse, Cullen and Kanin. Her family Below had come to welcome her! She exchanged a warm hug and a few words with every one of them. How she'd missed them all!

Suddenly her heart missed a beat as she discerned a tall, cloaked silhouette, half-hidden in the shadows behind the others.

"Catherine." The sound of the beloved voice pronouncing her name sent a shiver down her spine. The room fell silent, and Catherine felt the gentle, comforting pressure of Rebecca's hand on hers as the others unobtrusively moved out of the way, leaving them to face each other.

Catherine stepped toward Vincent, ready to throw herself in his arms. The joy of seeing him again almost caused her to forget he wasn't her Vincent any more, but something in his eyes stopped her. Something missing. The tender, passionate light wasn't there any more. His blue gaze only held a friendly but neutral interest, and it was almost more than she could bear. But that was the way things were, and she'd known what to expect, hadn't she? Forcing herself to stifle her disappointment, she smiled warmly at him. "Oh hello Vincent! I'm glad to see you're better! It's nice of you to have come!"

He looked at her for a moment, then lowered his eyes to the boxes, bags and suitcases neatly piled up in a corner of the room. "I thought my help might be needed."

Catherine did her best not to stare, yet she shamelessly filled her eyes with the sight of him, taking in the familiar features, now a little more deeply etched, she noticed. In spite of everything, it was good to see him! "You thought right!" she cheerfully answered. "That big box over there is full of books, and I'm afraid it's terribly heavy." That was the signal for everyone to pick up the luggage and boxes, Vincent effortlessly lifting the book-filled crate to his shoulder and taking the biggest suitcase with his other hand. Catherine tried to take a bag, but Cullen snatched it from her hand.

"Out of question! Father would throw us down the Abyss if he learned we've let you carry something."

Catherine surrendered with a smile. "I wouldn't want to be the cause of such a tragedy! Seems the price for disobeying Father's orders has come up, though! I won't dare do it anymore."

"Oh, come on, Catherine!" Jamie giggled, gesturing her through the door. "You know that you and Vincent are the only ones who can do just that, and get away with it!"

"Mouse get away too! Don't get caught!"

To her own surprise Catherine found herself laughing along with everyone, and it felt so good! It seemed to her she hadn't laughed for an eternity...

The little column set on its way and Vincent followed a few steps behind, listening distractedly to the happy chatter ahead. So this tiny slip of a woman was the famous Catherine, whose arrival was causing such an upheaval in his usually quiet world!

He smiled to himself. 'Upheaval' was almost too feeble a word, as he rather felt as if he'd been caught in a whirlwind! On the previous day he'd been required to help two very proud little boys to move their beds and few possessions to the boys' dormitory, then been shooed out of the chamber by Olivia and her friends armed with brooms and pails, only to find himself instantly enrolled by Mary. He'd spent most of the day roaming through various storage chambers under her exacting direction, in search of a suitable mattress and various pieces of furniture which all had to be cleaned, repaired if needed and polished to a beautiful shine. The older children, excused from class for the day by Father, had all volunteered to help with that, and they'd done beautifully. Rebecca had made a special batch of 'those red scented candles Catherine loves', and William hadn't left his kitchen of all day, sending Geoffrey and Kipper on various, urgent errands. Even Father had searched the library for 'Catherine's favorite books'...

Early this morning the tunnels had again turned into a buzzing hive. He'd helped Cullen bring and assemble the beautiful bed, with it's honey-colored wood panes carved with roses, in the thoroughly scrubbed chamber, and then it seemed that every single tunnel dweller had wanted to participate by bringing in one thing or another... and offering advice! After a few heated discussions every piece of furniture had finally found its place, and had been completed with lots of other thoughtful and generally beautiful items. Brooke had taken the younger children to the park to pick the last wild flowers of the season, and Father had added the final touch by bringing an armful of books he'd set on the shelf. Vincent had inconspicuously stolen a glance at some titles. 'Great Expectations', 'Pride and Prejudice', Shakespeare's Sonnets, Shelley... The intriguing newcomer was apparently a woman of taste.

Catherine had brought books with her, too, and quite a large quantity of them, it would seem, Vincent thought, shifting the weight of the heavy box on his shoulder. He had to admit to himself that curiosity, more than the wish to help, had made him join the welcome party, and now he had seen her he was even more intrigued.

For one he hadn't expected her to be so beautiful. Despite her excessive thinness and her pallor, her natural beauty shone like a crystal. She was evidently facing difficult times, and there was pain in her green eyes, but her body language told of poise, and courage. She was strong, an inner strength which belied her frail, almost sickly appearance. And the warmth of her smile could illuminate the darkest tunnel!

Catherine obviously was very familiar with everyone Below, and it seemed that included himself. Vincent wasn't used to having unknown, beautiful women greet him so warmly.Yet she hadn't hugged him, as she had the others. Maybe she hadn't dared, probably with some reason, Vincent reflected, wondering how he would have reacted if she had. Had they been friends, before? Had they hugged?

Vincent shook his head to chase away the troubling image the thought evoked. Whatever might have existed before was irrelevant. To him, Catherine was a stranger, coming to live in their community, and he'd have to get acquainted with her, as he had done for other 'new' tunnel dwellers. He'd also have to investigate Jamie's puzzling statement. Catherine had disobeyed Father's orders in the past? And 'gotten away' with it? He'd always thought he was the only one who could do that!

As she walked beside Jamie, listening with a smile to the latest tunnel news, Catherine was also acutely aware of Vincent's silent presence behind the group. She wondered if he might feel somewhat left out by the warmth of the welcome his friends had offered her. Strange as it felt to her, Vincent had just seen her 'for the first time', shortly after learning that someone he couldn't remember having ever heard of was going to come and live in his world. It had to be a little difficult for him. She'd seen curiosity in his eyes as he greeted her. What did he think of her? Did he... like her?

Her musings were interrupted as the group stopped in front of a pile of debris blocking the tunnel.

"What happened here?" Catherine inquired. "Has there been a cave-in?"

"Yes and no..." Jamie answered with a mysterious grin. Pascal tapped a code on the pipes, and one of the walls opened, revealing a side tunnel which by-passed the blockage. Soon they found themselves on the other side, where a young sentry, in charge of the mechanism, greeted them.

"The first one of our new security barriers." Kanin explained. "It took some time to make, but it was worth it!"

"Mouse make!" the young tunnel inventor proudly broke in.

"You did that, Mouse? Wonderful job!" Catherine said. "It really looks like a cave in!"

"Hey!" Kanin protested. "Are you forgetting who did the digging, Mouse?"

"OK, fine!" Mouse good-naturedly admitted. "I make plans, you dig. Work together. Good work!"

Kanin couldn't help laughing. "Yes, you're right, Mouse, we did a great job together. That fake dead-end spares us at least three sentries!"

"Only this one finished, but make others, too!" Mouse smugly told Catherine.

She nodded, smiling to the proud young face. Father seemed at last to have taken in consideration some of Mouse's ideas for the defense of the tunnel world. Of course! With Vincent ill, the tunnels were vulnerable, and the Council had had to consider other ways. She felt glad about it. The less outsiders would find their way into the tunnels, the less Vincent would have to use violence in the future. And her job would cause no more of it, either, she thought with a pang of guilt. Instinctively, she looked at Vincent, and found that he was watching her. A bit embarrassed, she smiled at him, and he answered timidly, before averting his eyes, as the group resumed its progression toward the hub.

As they approached they passed the chamber Catherine had occupied after her father's death, and she was surprised when they did not stop. Maybe someone else had it, now? People were coming out of every tunnel to greet her, and she got a number of welcome hugs, until finally they stopped in a tunnel she knew well, as it led to Father's study... and to Vincent's chamber. There stood Father and Mary, warm smiles on their faces.

"Catherine! It's so good to see you again!"

Catherine warmly responded to Mary's motherly embrace, then greeted Father. Behind them, more people were waiting, eager to welcome her, too, but Mary only needed one look at Catherine to see the trip down had exhausted her, and she took command.

"Not now, please! Everyone will be able to welcome Catherine later, but first she needs to rest."

She looked at the baggage-laden group. "Shall they put it all in your chamber, dear?"

"Only the bags and suitcases." Catherine indicated. "The big box goes to the library, and the other ones are for the kitchen." She saw Father frown and smiled apologetically. "I couldn't arrive empty-handed, could I?"

Mary didn't leave Father time to answer, and took Catherine's arm. "I'm sure you've been very generous! Now come and see your chamber. You have the time for a good nap before dinner!"

Vincent was exiting the chamber as they came to the entrance. "I put your suitcase on the table so you don't have to lift it, Catherine."

"Thank you very much, Vincent."

"You're welcome. You should try and get some rest, now, the walk seems to have tired you."

She nodded with a smile and he left to carry the books to the library. She watched him go with longing eyes before following Mary into the chamber. The sight of it made her forget her wistful mood.

"Oh, Mary, it's lovely!" She looked around the chamber, admiring once more how the people Below could create beauty with the cast-offs from Above... and a lot of love and care. The simple, somewhat heteroclite furniture shone in the soft candlelight and a once precious and expensive carpet, now threadbare in places but meticulously clean, covered the stone floor.  The big bed looked deliciously inviting with its beautiful quilt and thick cushions, and little touches everywhere gave the place a warm, homey feel. Flowers in a vase, books on the shelf, and a fluffy shawl waiting on the big armchair. "Everything is so beautiful!"

"I'm glad you like it!" the older woman replied with just a touch of smugness in her smile.

"You did that for me? But who used to live here?" Catherine inquired "I don't want to chase someone out!"

"It's your chamber! Don't worry, dear. The former occupants got a long-awaited promotion, and they were glad to leave!" Mary took a steaming cup waiting on the bedside table and handed it to her. "Now you drink this and get into bed!"

Catherine obediently took a sip. "Hmm, it's nice!"

"It's William's special herbal tea for future mothers. It does wonders for morning sickness, and it will help you rest".

A minute later Catherine was in bed and Mary gently tucked the quilt around her shoulders. "Now sleep, dear. I'll wake you up for dinner." Catherine closed her eyes with a grateful smile, and Mary silently put out most of the candles before exiting the chamber.

Catherine relaxed on the pillow, breathing in deeply the familiar scent of earth and candle smoke, listening to the muted hum of tunnel activity and the continuous tapping on the pipes. As drowsiness overcame her, she almost could hear Vincent's first words to her, so many months before. You're safe. You're safe, now.  Just before she drifted into sleep her hand slipped down to her stomach, close to the tiny heartbeat which had both awed her and moved her to tears when she'd been able to see it on the ultrasound screen. You're safe, now, darling. We're home.

 

******

 

"Catherine?" She awoke to see Jamie standing near her bed. "I'm sorry to wake you up, but it will soon be dinnertime. How are you feeling? Mary said if you're still tired you can stay in bed and she'll bring you a tray."

Catherine sat up. "Oh, no, please tell her not to go to that trouble! Thank you, Jamie, I'm feeling much better and I'll be right there. I want to see everyone!" Jamie smiled and left, and soon after Catherine was on her way, feeling indeed rested and refreshed by her two-hour nap, and more hungry than she had felt for weeks as succulent smells of food reached her. There weren't many people yet in the big chamber when she entered it, but Father and Mary were there and beckoned her to come and sit with them.

"Did you sleep well? You look rested." Mary said with a smile.

"Yes, thank you. I feel much better!"

People were arriving, many of them stopping near their table to say hello and exchange a few words, but Vincent wasn't there yet, and Catherine's eyes kept coming back to the chamber's entrance. At last he appeared, but she was shocked to see he wasn't alone. Vincent was carrying little Cathy in his arms, and Lena was beside him. They were talking with animation, a sparkle in Vincent's eyes as he looked a the pretty blonde woman, and Lena was literally beaming up at him. Catherine felt a pang of distress, and her throat suddenly tightened. They looked so... intimate! What if... Noooo! It couldn't be! She did her best to reassure herself, surely Father would have told her if...

She was immensely relieved, a second later, when Vincent handed Cathy back to her mother and came to sit down next to Father, acknowledging her presence with a nod.

"Catherine! I'm glad you are feeling well enough to join us."

In her relief she smiled back a little more widely than his rather solemn greeting deserved. "Thank you Vincent! I'm feeling much better now." She met Father's knowing eyes and felt herself blush.

"Catherine! I haven't had a chance to see you, yet. We would have joined the welcome party but William needed us to tend the kitchen while he was away!"

Lena was standing near the table, a big smile on her face, and Catherine rose to hug her.

"I don't think you know N'Guma. He's only been with us for two months." Lena said, and only then did Catherine notice the tall black man standing beside her, holding little Cathy in his arms. "N'Guma is from Burkina Faso. He came hiding on a ship. The children found him sick and nearly starved in the park and Father sent people to bring him here." Lena explained, smiling fondly at her companion, who answered with an adoring look. "He doesn't know much English yet, but he's learning... and I'm learning his language, too!" she proudly added.

Catherine warmly greeted the shy young man, and caressed Cathy's rounded cheek, getting a happy dimpled grin in answer. "You're more beautiful every time I see you, darling!"

"Isn't she just!" Lena beamed. "But don't tell her so too often. N'Guma is already spoiling her to death." She looked at Catherine. "I heard that you, too...?" Catherine nodded and Lena took her hand. "It's wonderful news! Hang tough, Catherine! I'm sure everything will be all right!"

Catherine thanked her with a smile, and they left to sit at another table.

"It would seem I've missed quite a lot!" Catherine said, sitting back down. "A new couple Below?"

"Not officially so, not yet..." Father answered with a grin. "... but I think it's in good way."

"Iím happy for Lena. She deserved to find someone!"

"She's really found her place here, now." Mary said. "Ever since she came back she's been a great help for me with the younger children. She showed interest for nursing, too, and she's a very apt student. She took care of N'Guma when he was brought to the hospital chamber, that's how they got to know each other."

"N'Guma is a fine young man!" Father added "As soon as he got better he found ways to help even without speaking the language. He's almost as ingenious as Mouse...and a lot more practical-minded! When we encountered problems making the mechanism for that new security device, he managed to set up a small forge almost out of the blue, and made the parts we lacked out of scraps of iron!"

"The country he comes from is very poor." Vincent quietly broke in. "People there have to be ingenious to make the best out of what little they have... just as we do Below."

"How did he get here?" Catherine inquired. "Lena said he hid aboard a ship?"

"He speaks French quite well, so we've been able to communicate some, but he didn't say much about what made him leave his country. Maybe he will, later but it must have been very dramatic." Vincent answered  "Enough to make him take the risk of dying on the journey."

"Which he almost did!" Father added. "He was in a pitiful state when he arrived here."

While they were talking Pascal, Zach and Rebecca had joined them, food had been passed around, and Catherine began digging heartily into her plate, under Father's approving eyes.

"I hope N'Guma will tell us more about his country!" Vincent said wistfully. "Africa seems to be such a beautiful and fascinating place."

"It is!" Catherine said between two mouthfuls. "The landscapes there take your breath away!"

She'd talked without thinking, but it got her Vincent's immediate attention. "You...  went to Africa, Catherine?"

The stunning blue eyes were gazing at her in wonder. She was suddenly very aware of his imposing presence right across the table, and her heartbeats quickened. She took her time to swallow and steady her breath before answering.

"Yes, a long time ago, with my father. He took me to Kenya after I graduated, and it's a wonderful memory. Everything is so beautiful there! I don't know about Burkina Faso, though. I must admit I don't even know where that is."

"It's in Western Africa, at the south most end of the Sahara desert, and it's only been called Burkina Faso for a few years. Before that it used to be the Republic of Upper Volta, a former French possession like many countries in that part of Africa."

Catherine smiled, with a twinge of sadness. One could trust Vincent to know that kind of things. He was fascinated by the history and geography of all those places he'd never have a chance to see...

"Will you tell me about Kenya one day?" Vincent asked eagerly.

Catherine had to make a tremendous effort not to show her dismay. She already had told him about Kenya months ago, a few weeks after her father's death. He'd made exactly the same request, and she'd dug into her closets to find old photographs they'd looked at together on her balcony, while she recounted the trip. She knew he had done it partly to encourage her to talk about her father, and remember the good moments she'd spent with him, but Vincent's interest had been genuine, as much for the landscapes and wild animals as for the teenage, suntanned Catherine who smiled at him on many of the photos. It had been a warm, sweet moment... and it was now lost to him, along with so many other ones. She got hold of herself and answered with a smile. "Of course, Vincent. Any time you want!"

She was grateful when Father then directed the conversation toward the new security projects and she listened with interest, finishing her plate with a surprisingly unabated appetite. William's cooking was delicious as always, and her starved body wouldn't allow itself to be deprived any more, whatever her state of mind.

The noisy chamber became gradually silent, and she turned her head to see William standing in the middle, clearing his throat.

"I find myself in charge once more. Probably because I'm the loudest mouth down here!" the burly cook announced in his booming voice, eliciting a few chuckles. "But for once I'm really glad about it! Tonight is no ordinary night. Tonight we have a new dweller in our world. Not a stranger, but a friend who's been sorely missed while she was away. A friend who's always been there when we needed her, and all of us here know how much we owe Catherine!" There were murmurs of assent in the chamber and William turned to Catherine. "I'm not very good at these things so I'll make it short. In the name of everyone here, I bid you welcome, Catherine! You and the child you carry are part of us. I want you to know that we're all sorry that you're facing such hard times, and everyone Below will do their best to make you feel at home. My own personal task will be to fatten both of you up!" he concluded, triggering laughter that lightened the solemn atmosphere as Samantha, Kipper, Geoffrey and Eric carefully brought in a huge tray. It held a big chocolate cake, with "Welcome Catherine!" written on it with icing.

Not even trying to check her tears, Catherine rose and went to hug William, before addressing the tunnel dwellers.

"Thank you! All of you! It means so much to me to feel so welcome here!" Her voice broke and she couldn't say more. William led her gently back to her place, and Mary held her as she cried her heart out, crooning soft words of comfort.

Catherine finally lifted her head from Mary's shoulder, looking around. "I'm sorry!"

"Don't worry, dear, they all understand."

Catherine sniffled, her face drenched with tears, and was searching her pockets without success when a big, hairy hand suddenly appeared in her sight, holding a clean, neatly folded handkerchief. "Maybe you could use this?"  Vincent's voice was gently comforting, and his eyes, when she raised her own to meet them, held sympathy and concern. She thanked him with a teary smile and buried her face in the soft, worn material. It still held the warmth of his body and a hint of his scent, and it brought her a heart-warming, if bittersweet, comfort.

"Would you like some cake, Catherine? We made it for you!" Eric was standing near her, his eyes full of worry behind his big glasses, and she took the plate he was handing her, smiling to reassure him.

"Yes, of course! It looks absolutely delicious! You made it?"

"Not completely, but we helped William a lot!" the boy proudly stated. "And we all wanted to do the writing, so we shared the letters. I got to do the W, and the A!"

Catherine couldn't help laughing and heard Vincent's soft chuckle.

"See, Vincent, I told you she'd love it!"

"I never doubted it, Eric." Vincent answered gravely.

"Catherine likes chocolate almost as much as you do!"

"Oh? That is indeed quite a lot! But you shouldn't be revealing my secrets!" Vincent chided, a sparkle in his eyes.

The child grinned. "What secrets? Everybody here knows that, and Catherine does, too!" He scurried away to get other plates and Vincent and Catherine exchanged an amused glance, before Vincent suddenly averted his eyes, a pained look on his face.

"I'm sorry." He said softly.

"What for?" she inquired, puzzled.

"For not being able to welcome you with the same joy and... familiarity as everyone here..."

"Vincent..." she began to protest, but he went on.

"I want you to know that I am glad that you are coming to live in this world. But I..."

"I know! Don't worry, Vincent, I understand. It must be so difficult for you, sometimes! Know that I value your welcome all the more."

He nodded with a little grateful smile, and dug into his chocolate cake with relish. Catherine watched him inconspicuously as she ate her own, both moved and amused by the pleasure he seemed to take in it, fascinated by that yet unseen aspect of him. The Vincent she knew, the one who idealized her, would probably never have allowed himself to display such worldly behaviour in front of her, and for the first time the thought struck her that there might be some unexpected, interesting sides to being only Catherine the Helper...

When she was through eating she felt full and drowsy, and couldn't help a yawn, which didn't escape Mary's watchful eyes.

"You're tired, Catherine! Time for you to go to bed, now. I'll walk you back to your chamber."

Reluctant as she was to leave Vincent, Catherine knew better than to resist. Besides, she really was tired, and she said goodnight to everyone before leaving with Mary. As she exited the big chamber, she was sure, somehow, that Vincent's eyes were following her.

Mary showed Catherine the bathing chamber she now would share with her, Jamie and Rebecca, and volunteered to help her unpack, which Catherine accepted gratefully. When she came back from her bath, Catherine found all her things neatly tucked away in the wardrobe. Mary had vanished, leaving two nightgowns waiting on the bed for her to choose from. Without hesitation, Catherine slipped on the warm, soft tunnel gown, and put the one she'd brought into a drawer. She felt weary to the bones, yet when she was beneath the thick quilt, it took her some time to find sleep. Images of Vincent kept coming back to her mind. The way he had looked at her, the gentle way he had talked to her. It was really hard to keep reminding herself that the man she loved beyond reason, and who had loved her the same way, was now a kind, friendly stranger.

She realized that she'd unconsciously hoped that he would recognize her, once he'd be confronted with her. She still wanted to hope that he would, with time. Hadn't Peter said that Vincent's buried memories could come back anytime? How would he react to her presence Below...to her pregnancy? And what if he didn't recover until the birth? Would she tell him, then? If the child looked like him, then he would know. What would that do to him? Would Vincent bond with his child? That might even happen before the birth...

Catherine rolled over with a sigh, and pulled the covers over her head. What good was it to torture herself with those questions? She'd cross those bridges if and when! With love, all things were possible, and she would have support from Father and the whole community. Everything would be all right in the end, she vowed.

And in the meantime? It wasn't in Catherine's nature to just sit and wait. She suddenly remembered how Vincent had acted toward Lena, and Eric. Obviously they'd both built a new relationship with him, and seemed as close to him as they had been before. Why couldn't she do the same? An impish smile came to her lips at the idea of 'seducing' Vincent. She had all the time and opportunities she needed, now that they didn't live in separate worlds anymore. It might be not be easy for her to start again from the beginning, and there was the fact that she was pregnant, but she felt confident. After all, Vincent had already fallen in love with her once...

On that comforting thought, Catherine went to sleep.

 

******

 

We have a newcomer in our midst. Her name is Catherine.

Vincent, pen in hand, stared down at the single sentence he'd managed to write. The words that usually came so easily seemed to escape him tonight, and he knew it had to do with the young woman who would now be part of his world's life. There was something... special about her, and his analytical mind was at work, trying to define what that could be.

Catherine was undoubtedly special to the community Below. Vincent had always been very sensitive to emotions, and the atmosphere of his world had been filled with them ever since her arrival had been announced. His community was a warm-hearted one. All its members had endured their own share of suffering, and were generally sympathetic and willing to help others, but he couldn't remember having ever sensed such a simultaneous rush of feelings from everyone, including Father. It had culminated at dinner, when Catherine had responded to William's speech. Collective emotion had been so strong then that he'd almost been able to see it shimmering in the air, thick enough to be nearly palpable. He had to admit he had felt left out at that moment, sharing the emotion without sharing its causes. Someone so important to his world had certainly been important to him, too, but no matter how hard he tried, he could find no trace of her in his memory. Even though he was learning to live with the gaping hole in his life, there were times when he found it particularly difficult to bear.

Strangely enough, of all the people there Catherine was the one he'd chosen to confide in. She had comforted him, finding the words he needed to hear, even overcome as she was by her own grief... for it hadn't been only emotion and gratitude that had made her cry on Mary's shoulder. The pain inside her was deep and raw, and Vincent felt that even when she smiled or laughed tears were never far away, ready to overflow at any occasion.

What had happened to her? From what he'd seen and heard, Catherine certainly didn't come from the lower parts of the society Above. Her accent, her manners told of a very good education, and she obviously had been raised in a wealthy family, people who could afford a trip to Africa. She had a job, too, according to Father, and money didn't seem to be a problem for her. Her luggage, he'd noticed, was made of the finest leather, and was probably expensive.

What could have caused a young, wealthy, beautiful woman made for the lights of Above to seek refuge in his dark, barren world? Vincent had the feeling that Father, and probably some other people Below, knew more about that than they would tell. Of course Catherine's desire for privacy must be respected, but he couldn't help wondering. Somehow he was sure it had to do with her pregnancy. Did she want to hide it? Why? And what had happened to her child's father? Had he left her? Had he died? Was he married to someone else? Had he been violent to her? Or, even worse, did her pregnancy result from... a rape?

Vincent was shocked by the wave of dark, primal anger rising from deep inside him at that thought, and had to fight back the menacing snarl swelling in his throat. The idea of someone doing such a thing to any woman was unbearable, but to think it might have happened to her... He was surprised to feel such a strong, almost irrational need to protect Catherine, but reassured himself that there was nothing strange about that. Everyone else Below also seemed very protective of her, even the children, and it was understandable. Pregnant women generally arose that kind of feeling; and she looked both so fragile and so brave, fighting against overwhelming grief, and still finding the strength to care for others and offer the warmth of her beautiful smile.

He would protect her, of course. Wasn't he the protector of this world she now was a part of? And he would do his best to offer her warmth and friendship, to help her pain heal, or at least be more bearable. It might be a little awkward at the beginning, as it had been with Lena. Things had been much easier with Eric, as the child had a way of his own to go straight to people's heart! He and Catherine seemed to share a very special relationship, and Vincent remembered the way she had instantly chased away her sadness on seeing it distressed the boy, to give him her whole attention. She would be a wonderful mother...

With an impatient sigh, Vincent recapped his pen and closed his journal. He would write no more tonight. He was feeling uneasy, restless and finally rose to don his cloak, deciding that a walk in the park was what he needed. On the way he listened, as usual, to the quiet noises of his sleeping world, the distant rumble of the subway, the rustling of air in the empty corridors, and the faint pipe tapping from sentries announcing that all was well. William could be heard snoring loudly several tunnels away, Geoffrey was once more mumbling in his sleep, and Vincent made a mental note to tell Father that little Amanda was coughing again.

As if of their own will, his feet slowed down to a stop as he passed the entrance of Catherine's chamber. From behind the curtain, the sound of a deep, quiet breathing came to his sharp ears, and he listened to it for a while, finding it strangely soothing, before continuing his solitary walk. Sleep well, Catherine. You're safe, now.

 

****

 

Vincent lifted his eyes from his book.

"Good morning, Catherine. Can we help you in any way?"

Catherine stopped at the entrance of Father's study, and nodded apologetically to him and the children. "Hello, everyone! Sorry for disturbing the class, but Father said he wanted to see me, and..."

"You'll find him in the hospital chamber. He's waiting for you."

She gave him a dazzling smile.

"Thank you Vincent. See you later!"

He remained for a long time staring at where she had been. Her smile was like sunshine, staying imprinted in his eyes....

"Vincent?"

He came back on earth. "Yes Kipper? Where were we?"

A strange noise came from Samantha, like a muffled sneeze, and the gazes plunged back into the books.

 

****

 

"Catherine! How are you feeling this morning?"

"Fine, thank you Father!"

He examined her with a sharp physician eye. "You do look better. Any morning sickness?"

"Yes, a little, when I woke up, but Samantha brought me a cup of that special tea, and it did a lot of good. By the time I got to the kitchen I was even hungry enough to eat that monster of a breakfast William put in front of me!"

Father chuckled. "So it's Samantha who won? She and Eric had an argument about who would bring your tea."

"I feel a little uneasy to be waited upon like that, Father. I could have gone to the kitchen!"

"No, it's important that you drink it right on waking up. And I'm glad to know that you ate everything. William, Mary and I established that diet together long ago. It conciliates the limited resources we have here with the needs of a pregnant body, and must be followed exactly to ensure you and your child all the necessary nutrients and vitamins."

"Speaking of resources..."Catherine began.

"Yes, William told me of your generosity, but, Catherine, you need not..."

"I must tell you that I arranged with Mrs Long for deliveries to be made every week..." she cut in  ".... and it's not subject to discussion!"

Father sustained her determined eyes for a few seconds, then gracefully capitulated.

"Very well. Thank you, Catherine. I only hope you haven't been too... extravagant."

"It depends on what you call 'extravagant'!" she answered with an impish grin. "But mostly I've stuck to basics. Winter will soon be here, and I don't want my family to lack anything vital! So I asked Mrs Long what she'd send to you if she had the means to do more than she already does."

Father nodded his approval, silently admiring the wise and tactful way in which Catherine had handled a matter she had reasons to consider as possibly thorny. Mrs Long had been helping the community for many years, she knew what their needs were, and she had surely been delighted to be asked for advice.

Catherine let out an imperceptible sigh of relief. Father might frown some in the future, on seeing what she and Mrs Long had planned for some special occasions, but he wouldn't prevent her from being a little generous. Money was nothing...

"And now let's take care of you, young lady!" Father said. "I'll examine you, but we might have to ask Peter to come down and do some tests when he comes back. This pregnancy... is something of a miracle, but it might encounter some problems. Frankly, my dear, I would never have thought it possible at all..."

"Vincent taught me that with love, all things are possible." Catherine answered with a smile. "And there don't seem to be any problems so far." She handed him a folder. "I brought down the results of my blood tests, and the ultrasound."

He looked at her. "Catherine, forgive me for asking, but... were you... hurt, in any way when it... happened?"

"Not at all. Not even a scratch!" she answered fiercely. She could see incredulity in his eyes and went on. "It wasn't some kind of a rape, Father! We made love! Vincent was... very gentle."

Father shook his head, remembering the wild, terrifying roars coming from that dark cavern which he'd been too frightened to enter. Yet Catherine had not been afraid, not for herself, and not only had Vincent spared her, but he'd been...gentle! He sighed. Logic and science reached their limits there. What had happened could only be explained by another truth... a truth beyond knowledge. The bond between them, the love they shared, had protected them both, and created a miracle, his grandchild-to-be!

He came back on a more professional ground to ask Catherine several questions about her symptoms, before making her undress. It was a somewhat awkward moment for both of them at first but finally the embarrassment receded, and they were only doctor and patient.

Father performed a very thorough clinical examination, then carefully studied the papers Catherine had brought, while she put her clothes back on. Finally, he looked at her.

"Well, your child seems to be in perfect health, Catherine..." his eyes became stern "...but I can't say the same for you! You are at least five pounds under your minimum health weight, your blood pressure is much too low, and you show signs of anaemia."

"That's what the first doctor told me. She had about the same look in her eyes as you have now." Catherine answered with a smile. "She said I had to eat and rest, and, if possible, go and stay with friends or family for a while, because she didn't like the idea of my living alone. You see, I did follow her prescription!"

"And you did well! Your doctor was right. You were sinking into depression... and we didn't know it. I'm sorry, Catherine, for not keeping closer contact. Especially as I knew Peter was not there to watch over you!"

She smiled sadly. "You had good reasons..."

Father shook his head. "No, I hadn't. Keeping you away was both unjust and useless, I've had the proof of that ever since I announced your arrival. You're one of us just as Vincent is, and we certainly could have taken care of both of you. We would have found ways. I've been over-protective of him...as usual.

"Not without reasons either! My presence did trouble him!"

"While he was sick, lying on his bed, yes, it did. Even your image distressed him, and I had to put away that portrait of you both which was in his chamber, because he kept growling at it. I did have reasons to keep you away from his chamber... certainly not entirely away from the whole tunnels! I know it would have been difficult for you, but at least you wouldn't have had to face it all on your own. And then when Vincent got better I just... stayed on the safe side. I didn't want to take the smallest risk for him, and I didn't consider what you might be enduring alone Above."

Catherine smiled fondly at Father and patted his arm. "Don't put all the blame on yourself. I know I could have forced my way down here, if I'd really wanted to, but I was afraid, too, and feeling guilty. I'm glad to be here, now, even if Vincent..." She sighed.

Father looked at her intently. "Won't it be too... difficult? Too much stress could have bad effects on your pregnancy."

She shook her head. "It won't. I won't let it. I thought about it all yesterday night, and I hope, no, I know that everything will be all right!"

"All right?" Father inquired, intrigued.

"Maybe my presence here will help Vincent recover his memories. Our bond seems to be lost, but I'm carrying his child, and it's not impossible that he will feel it."

"Not impossible." Father acquiesced. "Vincent's perceptive abilities have always been special, and if this child is anything like him..."

"I know that if he gets his memory back there will be some hard moments, for all the pain he went through will come back too, but we'll all be there to help and support him. He'll know he didn't harm me, and even if he's shocked about my pregnancy at first, he'll be happy about it, too!"

Father smiled at the animated, hopeful face. "I believe he will! But what if his memory doesn't come back?"

"We might have to start again on a new basis." Catherine answered with a small, lopsided grin. "But I'm not giving up on him, Father!" There was a touch of defiance in her voice, and Father hastened to reassure her.

"I'm not asking you to. Never more. Just be careful, my dear."

"I will." she promised. "He's been...very nice to me, and I'm sure we'll soon be good friends...for a start."

"For a start..." Father nodded, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Catherine suddenly thought of something. "Father, what shall I do if Vincent asks any direct questions about those months he doesn't remember? I don't want to hurt him, but I don't think I could lie to him!"

"I don't think you will have to." he reassured her. "We asked ourselves the same question, but the problem never arose so far. As I told you, Vincent doesn't seem very... eager to find out. There may be some unconscious protection mechanism involved, as if he knew deep inside that some answers might be too painful for him to bear. You know, I put away those of his journals which concern that period." He saw Catherine's shocked look and  explained. "When he started writing again he was still weak, and had nightmares almost every night, so I... couldn't take that risk! Well, he didn't ask about them then, and hasn't asked since. He, too, is staying on the safe side, it would seem. At least for now. So, don't worry, Catherine. It's best not to volunteer any unrequeited information, but you can answer his questions, if any. If and when he does ask, I think it will mean he's ready for the answers..."

She nodded her understanding. "Thank you, Father."

"Now I suggest that you go and rest a little."

"Father, I wanted to talk to you about that, too. Everyone's done so much to welcome me here! I don't want to be a useless burden on this community. Surely there are things I could do to help. I want to do my share!"

The tunnel patriarch shook his head. "I understand, and that thought honors you, but it's out of question for the moment." He raised a hand to hush her protest. "Not until you regain some weight and your blood pressure is back to normal. I'll see you again in two weeks and if your state has improved I promise you we'll consider it. Until then you are to do absolutely nothing but take care of yourself. Sleep, read, visit with your friends. Short walks will do you good, but don't exert yourself. And you must eat everything William gives you!" He chuckled at her wary expression and put his hand on her arm. "Your presence among us is not a burden, Catherine, and you're already bringing us the most precious gift imaginable. Please let us take care of both of you!"

She surrendered with a smile and rose to leave, but he held her back. "I have something to give you!" Walking to his desk he retrieved a small item from a drawer and handed it to her.

Catherine gasped on recognizing the leather pouch she'd sewn for Vincent many months before. She looked at Father with questioning eyes.

"I had to put this away, too." He explained. "After taking care of Vincent's wounds I put it back on him, but once he regained consciousness, he went through very violent episodes, and in one of those rages he ripped it off his neck as if it burned him, and threw it at the portrait with a roar. I'm sorry."

Catherine nodded, fighting back her tears.

"Open it," Father prompted.

Catherine's eyes widened as, along with the small ivory rose, something else fell into her hand, softly sparkling in the candlelight.

"My crystal! I thought it was lost!"

"Mouse and Jamie found it in the dust, on the floor of that cavern, only a few days ago. Nobody had gone there since...that day, and they decided to go and 'explore' down there. Without telling anyone, of course..." he scolded with a frown "... but when they found your crystal they brought it to me. If you hadn't decided to come I would have sent it back to you..."

This time Catherine didn't even try to check her tears. "Thank you, Father! You don't know what this means to me! I must thank Mouse and Jamie, too, as soon as I can find them!" She put the rose and crystal back in the pouch, then tied the ripped ends of the leather thong together. She put it around her neck, and after a small hesitation, slipped it under her clothes. "It's best that I wear it this way...for now."

"Yes...for now." Father couldn't help a smile. At that moment, he almost felt as confident as she did that, one day, she would put the pouch herself back around Vincent's neck.

 

****

 

Later that day, Catherine peeked into Father's study again.

"Father, I just wanted to tell you that I'm going for a walk, to the Chamber of the Falls."

He frowned slightly. "Isn't it a little too far away?"

"I'll go slowly!" she reassured him "And I'm taking something to read, so I'll rest there a little before coming back." As a proof, she exhibited the copy of 'Great Expectations' he'd put in her chamber. "I've listened to Mary and taken a nap after lunch, but now I need some exercise!"

"Catherine?"

She started on realizing Father was not alone in the library. Vincent was emerging from behind a bookshelf.

"Do you mind if I... walk with you?" he asked almost shyly. "I haven't been to the Falls for a while."

She beamed up at him. "I don't mind at all, Vincent! It will be a pleasure to have company!"

He gently took the book from her hands. "Please let me carry this. Oh, 'Great Expectations'! A wise choice. Shall we go?"

Father watched them walk away, a twinkle in his eyes. Good luck, Catherine!

 

 

Part 2