However Long Forever Lasts

by Janet Rivenbark

 

“So what can I do for you today?” asked Peter as he settled onto the stool next to the exam table.

“Headaches. Really bad ones,” she said with a weak smile. “They start as a slightly nagging pain and build to excruciating. They make me sick to my stomach, the light hurts my eyes. Nothing seems to work for the pain, about all I can do is go to bed until it goes away. Once I’ve thrown up and slept a while I feel better.

“When did you start having them, and how often are they happening?” Peter asked as he rose and took a small penlight flashlight out of his pocket. He looked in her eyes, her ears, even up her nose.

“They started last spring, and I only had them once in a while, but they’ve been getting worse. I’ve had two in the last three weeks.”

Peter took out a tongue depressor and looked down her throat.

“Sounds like classic migraines,” he observed. “We just need to find out what is triggering them. It’s most likely stress, but it could be something you eat or drink or even something in the environment.”

“And?” she prompted when he paused.

“I think we should start with the stress theory, but as I mentioned, it could be something else. Start tracking them to see if they coincide with your cycle or with a particular food you eat; things like aged cheese, excess salt, but then also they can be triggered by low blood sugar from skipping meals. Some people find that alcohol, especially red wine or brown liquors are the culprits, or caffeine. It could be the fluorescent lights in your office. Migraines are a bear to figure out. We’ll tackle the possible triggers one at a time. I’ll give you a prescription for something for the pain. Take them at the first hint of a headache.” He wrote something on a pad and handed her the paper. “As far as stress is concerned, all I can say is try to keep it to a minimum. I know it’s difficult in your job. I’d suggest a vacation. If that’s not possible, maybe meditation, or exercise, or both.”

“I can’t take a vacation right now,” she said with a sigh. “I’m in the middle of a big case. It doesn’t go to trial until next month. I might be able to take some time after the trial is over.”

“Have you been exercising?” he asked.

“I haven’t even had time for that,” she told him with another sigh. “I’m in the office by seven and not home until well after dark.

“Do the best you can,” he said with a pat on her shoulder. “Maybe relief from the pain will help with the stress. Try to talk Joe into letting you work a normal work week for a change.”

She slipped off the exam table and hugged him.

“Thanks, Peter. I feel better already.” She picked up her suit jacket and purse.

“I know what you are thinking, Honey, and don’t worry about it,” he said. “Things like that are not hereditary. A lot of women your age in high stress jobs have migraines.”

“You know me too well,” she said with a laugh. “The first thing I thought about when I started having these headaches was Mom. She started with headaches too.”

“And my initial diagnosis was sinus headaches, then migraines, as I remember. The last thing any of us expected was a brain tumor. If the pills don’t work, let me know and we’ll run some tests.”

Catherine stopped at the drugstore on her way back to work. She got through the rest of that day and the next two without any pain, then on the fourth day, she woke with a headache. She took one of the pills with her morning coffee and got ready for work. She took one every four hours for the rest of the day. They kept the headache from getting any worse, but it didn’t go away completely. The next few times she had a headache, she did the same thing with the same outcome. She decided to call Peter.

“OK, maybe you should see a specialist. Anthony Vargas works at Lang. He’s a neurologist. I met him when I was working in the ER there a few months ago. I’ll have Shelley call him and make you an appointment.”

“Thanks, Peter.”  

*****

“Is something wrong, Cath?” asked Joe when Catherine came back to the office after her meeting with Dr. Vargas. He followed her to her office.

“I’m not sure,” Catherine told him. “I’ve been having headaches and Peter sent me to a specialist.”

“Specialist?”

“A neurologist. Peter thinks it’s just migraines, but my mother died of a brain tumor, and he didn’t want to take any chances. Back then there wasn’t much they could do for her,” she told him.

“I hope everything is OK,” he said with a worried look.

“Dr. Vargas assured me that the chance that it’s anything more than ordinary migraines is very low. They’ve been responding to the migraine medication Peter gave me, just not as well as they should.”

Joe surprised her by crossing the room and giving her a brief hug. “You need anything, Radcliffe, just let me know.”

*****

The next day was Saturday, the first Saturday she’d had off in weeks. She planned to go Below right after breakfast. She opened the door on her way out and was surprised to see Peter standing there, his hand raised to knock.

She jumped back and then laughed.

“Oh my! You startled me, Peter. Come in, please.” She stepped back and held the door. Peter walked in and she closed the door behind him. “Would you like some coffee? It’s still hot.”

“No thank you, Cathy. I need to talk to you.”

She waved him to the sofa. “Have as seat. What is it? Is something wrong Below?” Her first thought was for Vincent. Father had been concerned about a possible relapse ever since his recovery a few months before.

“No! No, everything is fine Below, as far as I know. I talked to Dr. Vargas yesterday evening and I’m afraid I have some unexpected bad news.”

Her legs suddenly went weak, she sat down abruptly on the couch. Her hand covered her mouth, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“What is it?”

Peter sat down on the end of the same couch. “Dr. Vargas said that he’s been over the radiologist’s reports of the scans and x-rays, and he is sorry to say that it is a tumor.”

Catherine collapsed against the back of the couch.

“Can they do anything?” she asked with trepidation.

“That’s the problem. The tumor is in a place where they can’t operate. They can’t remove it without causing brain damage or even death. There are therapies, but he said that all they would do is extend your life for a few months, and make those last months pretty miserable with sickness from the chemotherapy and radiation. He faxed over the results, and I went over them. As much as I’d like to tell you to go with aggressive treatment, I have to agree with him. Of course, the decision is up to you.”

Catherine was stunned. It felt surreal.

“How long?” she asked.

“Without treatment, six to nine good months then another three or four of decline.”

“So I have, maybe a year?” She swallowed. “And if I choose aggressive treatment?”

“I looked at what Dr. Vargas faxed over then did some checking of my own; I was at it all night. The way it usually goes is several months of therapy. The therapy causes extreme nausea, weight loss, hair loss, weakness. Sometimes there is a remission of maybe six months, then a relapse. If the patient chooses to undergo therapy again, there may or may not be another remission. Treatment seldom adds more than about nine months to the patient’s life, and very little of the time is pleasant.”

“And without?”

“You can expect at least six months of things pretty much as they are now with occasional headaches that will get more frequent and intense. At some point, other neurological symptoms will start to manifest. And they could be anything . . . numbness, paralysis, convulsions, vision problems, dizziness, digestive problems, stroke . . . it depends a lot on what parts of the brain the tumor affects.”

Catherine vividly remembered the last time she’d seen her mother. She’d been setting a plate of scrambled eggs on the table, when her leg had suddenly given out and she’d collapsed on the floor. Charles had helped her to the sofa in the living room and then called an ambulance. Catherine hadn’t even known that her mother was sick until that day.

While they waited for the ambulance to arrive, her parents had given her a little bit of an explanation of what was going on, but they never let on how serious it was. She was sent to a neighbor, and her parents left expecting to be home later in the day. Four days later, her mother was dead. For her it had been a quick decline, she could only hope that her own illness went the same way.

“Or it could happen like it did to Mom. She was diagnosed in June, collapsed the following spring and died a few days later,” she said in a flat voice.

“She was lucky. The tumor was fast growing, but except for the headaches which we were able to medicate for, she showed very few symptoms until the very end.”

“Are there any statistics on cures?” she asked.

“Less than one percent survive more than eighteen months with or without any kind of treatment.”

She’d been staring out the French doors at what she could see of the skyline, and she finally dragged her eyes back to look at Peter. He was showing the effects of the long night he’d put in, and of the news he’d had to deliver.

“I’m so sorry you had to be the one to deliver this news, Peter,” she said as she moved closer and hugged him.

“I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I asked Dr. Vargas to let me do it. I didn’t want you hearing it from a stranger. What are you going to do?” He hugged her tightly.

She pushed away and looked at him. “I don’t know. I’m going to have to think, but the idea of trying therapy that will only add a short time, and with no guarantee that it will be good time, isn’t very appealing. I’m going to have to talk to Vincent. I’ll let you know.”

She rose and walked to the door and looked out at the rosebush that was blooming on the balcony.

“Do you want me to stay, Honey?” he asked.

“No, I think I need to be alone right now. You’ve had a long night; you need to go get some rest.”

“Do you want me to go tell Vincent and Father?” he asked as he stood.

“No, I’ll tell them, but thank you.”

She walked to the door with Peter. They stopped, and she hugged him. He kissed her on the cheek.

“If you need anything, call me!” he told her as he opened the door and stepped out.

“I will, and thank you for coming and doing this personally. Nothing could make it good, but I think it was better coming from someone I know.”

She hugged him again, then watched him walk to the elevator before she closed the door.

She was numb. She was sure that the tears would come later, but she decided to take advantage of this lull to make some decisions. She sat down at her desk with a yellow legal pad and began making a list. 

*****

Vincent had been getting the strangest feelings through the Bond all day. He had no idea what was going on with Catherine, and it was very distracting. The Bond had disappeared briefly after his illness. He’d worried that it wouldn’t come back; but it had, although it had changed. He could no longer use it to find her, and her feelings were sometimes muddled. He could tell when she was sleeping or if she was awake, but not much more unless she was standing right in front of him. All he knew now was that something was going on and it made him uneasy.

He’d thought that she was coming Below earlier, but then she hadn’t arrived. Several times during that morning’s council meeting Father had poked him in the ribs with his cane to get his attention.

“Is something wrong, Vincent?” asked Father after everyone else had left the study.

“No . . . well actually, I don’t know. Something is going on with Catherine, and I don’t know what it is. I thought she might be on her way down earlier today; but when she didn’t show up, I decided that I must have been wrong. The changes in the Bond are exasperating. I used to know what was happening by the way she felt, now I don’t even know where she is most of the time.”

“Perhaps it’s only temporary,” Father suggested.

“It’s already been months, and there haven’t been any changes in it since just a few days after it returned.” Vincent sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of him. Father turned and went to the other side of the desk to his chair.

“How about when you are with her?”

“If I’m touching her, then it’s all the way it used to be, but if I’m not . . . well, at least I have her facial expressions and body language to help me.”

“I suppose it will all turn out as it is supposed to,” Father suggested.

“You’re probably right, but it’s frustrating. I’d come to depend on the Bond to let me know that she was all right.”

“Perhaps you should go up and check on her.”

The suggestion came as a surprise. Father didn’t often suggest that he go Above, especially since his illness; he seemed reluctant to let Vincent out of his sight. But Vincent knew that he’d worry until he knew what was happening. 

“Perhaps I will. Now, I believe it’s lunchtime. Shall we?”

*****

Vincent was dressing after his bath when the heard the announcement on the pipes that Catherine was on her way. He hastily pulled on jeans, a work shirt and his boots. He was buttoning the shirt when Catherine entered the chamber. He could see that she’d been crying.

“Catherine, what is it?”

She threw herself into his arms and sobbed inconsolably for a long time. He was able to use the physical contact to try to decipher her feelings.

He picked her up and carried her to his chair where he sat and held her like a child as she cried. He could tell that she was extremely distraught over something. He hadn’t felt her like this since her father’s death. All he could do was hold her and wait out the torrent of tears.

She finally subsided to sniffles. He handed her a handkerchief and sat back trying to see her face.

“What is it, Catherine?” he asked again.

She sniffled again and mopped at her face.

“I’m sorry, I thought I had that out of my system, or at least under control.”

He smoothed her hair out of her eyes and cupped the side of her head in his hand.

“Tell me, Catherine,” he said, this time a little more forcefully.

“I don’t know where to begin,” she said, suddenly unsure about sharing this with him. How would he take the news?

“I won’t use the obvious cliché,” he said with a slight smile.

“At the beginning, I know . . . .” She took a shaky breath and dove right in. “You know I’ve been having headaches.”

“Yes, you told me that Peter had diagnosed them as migraines, probably caused by stress. You said the medication he prescribed was working.”

“It was working somewhat,” she corrected. “It dulled the pain, made it easier to put up with, but it didn’t go away completely. I told him that a few days ago, and he referred me to a neurologist, who did all kinds of tests.”

“And what did he find?” he asked, bracing himself. He had a bad feeling about this.

Tears welled up in her eyes again as she looked at him. “I have a brain tumor. Similar to the one that killed my mother.”

Vincent closed his eyes for a moment, trying to absorb what she had said. “So are you going to have surgery, chemotherapy, radiation?”

“None of the above,” she said quietly. “It’s inoperable. The surgery would probably kill me or at the very least, cause brain damage and there is no guarantee that they could remove it all. Radiation or chemotherapy would only prolong my life by a few months and would just make the time I have left miserable. If I want to do it, the doctors will; but both the neurologist and Peter advised against it. The cure rate is less than 1% anyway.”

They stared into each other’s eyes for several minutes. Vincent was absorbing her feelings about what she’d just said, and Catherine was trying to figure out what was going through his head.

“So you’ve chosen to do nothing?” he asked, quietly.

“Pretty much,” she agreed. “Peter says that I probably have six to nine good months left. Months where things will be pretty much like they are right now. He can prescribe stronger medication for the headaches. Then there will be a few months of decline with symptoms that could include anything from numbness to paralysis or convulsions, or I could just have a stroke and die. He sent over some information, but I didn’t bring it with me.”

Vincent didn’t know what to say. He pulled her close and held her tight as if that could ward off the inevitable.

After a time Catherine’s muffled voice reached his ears.

“Vincent, I want to come Below and live with you for the rest of the time I have. Will you let me? Will you make my dreams come true?”

Vincent didn’t hesitate. None of the arguments against a life with Catherine were valid any longer. She needed him, and she needed him to be strong.

“Yes, Catherine,” he whispered. “When do you want to move?”

She breathed a sigh of relief.” Thank you!” She hugged him tightly. “I have some things to do. I have to quit my job and tell Joe what’s going on. I have some legal stuff to take care of, friends I need to talk to. I think all that should take about a week.”

“What will you tell your friends?” he asked, finally pulling back and looking at her.

“The truth, to a point. But I think I’ll tell them that I’m going away for treatment. I’ll prepare them and tell them that it’s not likely to help, but that I have to try. That way they won’t lecture about giving up, but they won’t be looking for me. I’ll tell them that they can reach me through Peter.”

“So you will come Below next Saturday?” he asked.

“Or Sunday,” she said with a nod.

“Are you going to tell anyone here Below?”

“I’d rather not. Father will have to know, of course, but I’d rather not tell anyone else. I just want them all to think that I’ve finally worn you down and talked you into it.” She gave him a wan smile. “I should be happy about this, I’m finally getting my dream, or at least part of it, but none of it feels real.”

“It is a lot to take in,” he agreed. Outwardly he was calm, inside he was wailing Why? Why? Why my love? When I’ve only just found her, why is she being snatched away like this? He knew it sounded selfish, and that is why he didn’t actually say it. He needed to be strong for her, be what she needed to lean on.

She leaned heavily against him. “Oh God, I’m so tired. I wish I could just go to sleep and wake up to find it was all just a bad dream.”

“You should rest,” he said, rising with her in his arms.

He carried her to the bed where he stood her on her feet. He pulled down the blankets then helped her out of her jacket. She sat down and pulled off her shoes, then after a few seconds she also pulled off her jeans.

“My jeans are new. They’re stiff and uncomfortable,” she said in explanation.

He nodded and pulled the covers up. When she was settled he put out all the lights except for the candle on his table. She tossed and turned for a little while then finally settled down and fell asleep. He sat in his chair and watched her. That was when his tears started to flow. They were silent, hot and bitter. Why? was the only word that was in his mind.

When he was finally all cried out, he went in search of Father.

Father was reading when Vincent entered the study. He didn’t look up right away as Vincent crossed to the chair he’d occupied earlier in the day.

“I heard the sentries announce that Catherine was on her way. Has she left already?” He marked his place in the book and looked up. As soon as he laid eyes on Vincent he knew something was wrong. “What is it?”

“It’s Catherine,” was all Vincent could manage before the tears started again.

“She’s gone?” asked Father, fearing that what he’d once predicted had happened.

“No, Father, nothing like that. She’s asleep in my chamber. She’s ill.”

Father knew that Vincent wouldn’t be this upset over a simple cold, so it must be serious.

“Tell me, Vincent,” he said.

Vincent took a deep breath. “I don’t know all the details; I don’t even think Catherine has taken them all in yet, but she’s been suffering from headaches…” he went on to tell Father everything that Catherine had told him. “If you want the full details, I suggest that you talk to Peter.”

“So she’s not going to seek treatment?” At Vincent’s nod he continued. “Then who will be her doctor? Peter?”

“And you. She’s moving Below.” Vincent was regaining his composure, and he anticipated that Father might try to stonewall the move.

“Shouldn’t she be in a medical facility?” Father kept his tone neutral.

“Peter told her that she will be all right for quite a while. I know she wouldn’t want to be in some cold clinical setting, and I don’t want her to be anywhere else. I want to be with her when it happens. I can’t keep it from happening, but I can make sure she knows she is loved right up until she draws her last breath.”

“I suppose we can set up the guest chamber closest to your chamber and keep her comfortable there,” Father mused.

“Talk to Peter,” Vincent suggested, “and Catherine is not staying in the guest chamber; she’s staying with me. I’ll clear out and furnish that small chamber off the tunnel to my bathing chamber in case she needs or wants more privacy, but she wants to come Below to be with me, and that is what I want.”

“You’re sure of this?” Father asked dubiously.

“Absolutely positive. We’ve already wasted too much time. We don’t have much left and I want it to be everything Catherine wants.”

“You’re prepared to give her everything she wants?” Father looked at Vincent over his reading glasses.

“If it doesn’t jeopardize her health, yes.”

“It may very well do that. With all the physiological changes in the body during sex it could very well kill her,” warned father. “And if it was to happen that way, could you live with it?”

“We will talk to Peter and ask his opinion,” said Vincent. “He’s talked to the specialist.”

“I’ll talk to Peter, too” said Father. “I’ll take a look at her chart and all the test results. I’ll need to know what to expect anyway, since I’ll be her attending physician; although I expect that Peter will visit regularly.”

They sat quietly for a while before Father broke the silence. “Are you all right, Vincent?”

“Not really. How can I be? How will I do this, Father? How can I be strong for her when this is ripping my heart out? How will I survive this?”

“You will. You won’t feel as if you want to at times, but I’ve never known you not to rise to the occasion. You take it as it comes, Vincent. Store up the good times to help you get through the bad ones.”

Vincent nodded then rose.

“She’s waking, I should be there. When you’ve talked to Peter, let me know what he says.”

Vincent hurried back to his chamber and was just entering when she opened her eyes.

“You talked to Father?” she asked, knowing that he would.

“I did, and he knows that you are moving Below.”

“Did he give you any flack over it?”

“No, not when he heard your reasons. He’s going to talk to Peter.”

Catherine reached for her jeans, pulled them on then slipped into her shoes.

“As much as I’d like to stay and hide out here for the next few days, I can’t. I have a lot to do.” She stood, stretched and walked into his arms. “If I don’t see you before, I’ll see you next weekend. I’ll let you know when.”

He held her tightly, not wanting to let her go. They finally parted and he helped her with her coat.

“I’ll walk you back to your threshold,” he told her.

*****

Catherine spent the next couple days making lists, she had a whole legal pad of them, and deciding what to take Below.

She was at her desk at the DA’s office early on Monday, and as soon as she was able, she called Jay Coolidge and made an appointment to see him. She’d already written a will not long after her Dad died, but she needed to update it and let Jay know what was going on.

When she saw Joe enter his office she followed him in.

“Got a minute, Joe?” she asked, closing his office door behind her.

“For you Radcliffe, I might be able to find two,” he said jokingly as he hung up his jacket. He turned and looked at her as she took the chair in front of his desk. “You look like you could use a good night’s sleep. Did you spend the whole weekend partying?”

“Not exactly, Joe.” She put the paper she held in her hand on his desk and sat back in the chair.

He sat down and skimmed the letter then leaned back and read it more closely.

“You’re resigning for health reasons?” he asked, quoting her letter.

“Yes.” She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I have a brain tumor. It’s inoperable and will probably kill me within a year.”

“No!” Joe looked like someone had punched him in the gut.

“Yes, but you know me, Joe. I’m not going down without a fight,” she lied. “There is a treatment that might possibly help, but the FDA hasn’t approved it here in the States yet, so I’m going to Europe. The sooner I leave, the sooner it can be started and the better chance I’ll have.”

“When do you leave?” he asked, his face a mask.

“The weekend.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“As long as it takes.”

“You could ask for a leave of absence,” he suggested. “You don’t have to resign.”

“I don’t know how long it will take, or if it will even work. If I ask for a leave of absence, it will leave you shorthanded; but if I resign, you can hire someone.”

“You’re right, as usual,” he conceded. “Hell, Cathy, what am I going to do around here without you?”

“What did you do before I came?” she asked with a smile. “You’ll find some other poor devil to browbeat into doing your dirty work.”

“It wasn’t that bad, was it?” he asked.

“Not really. I’ve enjoyed working with you. I’ve learned a lot.”

He pointed at the letter. “It says effective immediately?”

“As soon as I can get out of here. I’ve got a lot to do before I leave. I have to plan for every possibility, just in case it doesn’t work. You know how it is.”

He nodded. “What about that boyfriend you told me about a few months ago?”

“He’ll be with me.” She didn’t have to lie about that part. “And I’ll stay in touch. If I can’t write or call, I’ll make sure someone does.”

She stood and started toward the door.

“You aren’t getting out of here without a hug,” he told her as he rose and came around the desk.

She walked into his arms and hugged him. “You’ve been such a good friend, Joe. I’ll miss you and I hope to see you again.”

*****

She knew she wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to Connecticut to talk to Nancy in person, so she’d written a letter that she planned to mail just before going Below. She also knew she couldn’t get away with doing that with Jenny, so she called and invited her over to her place on Friday night.

She was going Below first thing Saturday morning, and she planned to tell Jenny that she was flying out of JFK on Sunday. She didn’t want to lie to her, but she knew that Jenny would want to go to the airport with her and see her off.

“You’re leaving on Sunday?” asked Jenny after she managed to stop crying.

“Very early on Sunday.”

“I could go with you,” Jenny suggested.

“There is no need. I’m only taking one small bag and I won’t need any help . . . .”

“No, I mean with you to Europe. I could take some time off; a leave of absence. You shouldn’t be doing this alone.” Jenny blotted her eyes and blew her nose.

“It’s too short notice,” Catherine protested. “And I hear that trying to find a place to stay in the town with the clinic is difficult at best. Maybe you can visit once I get settled.”

“Are you sure?” Jenny asked.

“Yes, I am. This is something I want to do by myself. Once I get there and find out what to expect, I’ll be in touch. I’ll let you know if I need you.”

“How long to you expect to be gone?” she asked.

“I have no idea. I might not come back. I’ve made arrangements for that, just in case.”

That set Jenny off on another torrent of tears and it was Catherine who wound up comforting her.

*****

Catherine had been sending things Below all week, so that when it came time for her to leave on Saturday, all she had with her was a backpack. She stopped at the security desk in the lobby on her way out to tell them that she’d be away for an extended period of time and that she’d given keys to a couple friends so they could come over and check on the place and water her plants. She gave him Peter and Jenny’s names and then left the building.

It was a beautiful late summer day. It was warm but not uncomfortably so. She soaked up as much sun as she could as she crossed the street and headed into the park for the threshold there.

Vincent met her and immediately enveloped her. She melted into his embrace.

“I could stay here like this all day,” she told him when they’d finally pulled apart a little. “I always feel so safe, as if nothing bad could ever happen, when I’m in your arms.”

“If I could keep you safe in my arms forever, I would,” he whispered.

Before they turned and started walking, she opened the backpack and took out a jacket. He helped her with it, then took the pack. He kept his arm around her as they walked.

“Everything you’ve sent down has been taken care of,” he told her. “I hope you don’t mind, but Father told Mary what is going on. She unpacked for you.”

They reached his chamber, and he led her through it, a little way down the tunnel that led to his bathing chamber and into the small chamber he’d set up for her.

She was disappointed, and it showed on her face.

“I’d rather thought that I’d be staying with you,” she said in a small voice.

Vincent turned her to face him. “You will be,” he assured her. “This is just a place for you to have a little more privacy when you want it. My chamber is very busy during the day. My classes meet there, and people are in and out. If you want to nap, or just need some quiet, you’ll be able to retreat to here.” He pointed out the furniture. “You can use it as a dressing room. All your things are in the armoire and the chest of drawers. There was plenty of room for your mother’s dressing table and I found a small desk and chair for you.”

“It’s lovely Vincent,” she said with a smile, “and you’re probably right, I might need a little more privacy . . . later.”

“Would you like to unpack?” he asked.

“Mary seems to have taken care of all that for me,” she said. “The backpack was only for the jacket I knew I’d need once I got here, my toothbrush, and the few essentials I didn’t send down earlier.

Would you like to rest or…” he hesitated, not sure what she might like to do.

She glanced at her watch. It wasn’t even ten yet.

“Could we talk?” she asked. “I don’t want to disrupt your schedule . . . if you have something else planned.”

“Nothing. I’ve freed up the entire weekend to help you get settled, and I’ve requested that I not be scheduled for anything that will take me on long trips or away overnight until further notice.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” she protested.

“Catherine, we don’t have that much time left. I want to pack as much living as possible into whatever time we have. If that means that I pass a few duties off to someone else for a change, then so be it, but I’m not going to miss anything. I will still pull sentry duty, but only during the day or early evenings. I won’t be doing patrol, it’s not really necessary. I only did it because I had to have something fill up the hours of the night, since I never sleep more than six hours or so.”

“You’re sure that will be OK with Father?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter if it is or not. It’s what I’m going to do. It’s the same courtesy that would be extended to anyone here Below who was in the same position. There is no reason why I should be treated any differently.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his vest. “I’ve only been trying to convince you of that for the last two and a half years.”

“I can sometimes be very hardheaded, as Father would attest to,” he said as he returned the hug. He pushed back from her and looked into her face. “You look tired.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night . . . in fact, I haven’t slept well all week. I’ve been so busy that when I went to bed at night, I had a hard time shutting down to sleep. All that is done now, I shouldn’t have any trouble sleeping tonight.”

“Do you want to rest now?” he asked.

“No. I’ve been busy all week, but I haven’t moved much. Can we walk?”

He took her hand and they walked to the Chamber of the Falls. They were seated on a blanket when Vincent encouraged her to talk.

“I can feel that you have something you want to talk about,” he told her.

“I do . . . .” she turned and stared out across the cavern at the falls, then she looked back at Vincent and smiled. “I know that this is going to be a lot to ask, but I don’t want my . . .  condition . . . to color everything we do or say for however long it takes. I want us to live life to the fullest, and take it one day at a time. I know that was a mouthful of clichés, but it is exactly how I feel. If everyone knows what is happening and they all start to treat me like a piece of fragile bone china, I will be constantly reminded; and I don’t want that. I want to be able to put it out of my mind. This tumor will make its presence known soon enough; but until that time, I don’t want to dwell on it.”

“You don’t want anyone to know?” he asked.

“You’ve told Father and Mary, but please, don’t tell anyone else. As I said before, I just want everyone to think that I’m here because you and I have finally decided to take the next step in our relationship.”

“That can be arranged. Father told Mary, but only because she is his nurse. I asked her to keep it to herself, and Father would never discuss a patient with anyone without their consent,” he agreed. “And what about our relationship? Where is it going?” He tilted his head to one side and looked at her.

“Personally, I’d like to move forward, but I can understand that you might not want to. I talked to Peter and he seems to think that at this stage, there wouldn’t be any danger in us . . . ah . . . becoming intimate. Maybe later, but he suggested we just make those decisions when the time comes.”

“Do you plan to sleep in my bed?” he asked.

“If you will allow it. I feel that I need that comfort right now, but if it would be uncomfortable for you, I can sleep in the bed in the chamber you prepared for me.”

Vincent pulled her into his arms. “I will not only allow it, I will welcome you,” he whispered. “When I’m touching you like this, I know that the Bond would not allow any harm to come to you. I want to love you, my only fear is that I will disappoint you.”

“How can you disappoint me?” she asked as she snuggled closer. “I love you, I want to give myself to you, and I want you to give yourself to me. I have no expectations beyond that, and if you really must know, I haven’t had all that many lovers and none of them have been anything all that exceptional.”

“But I’ve never . . . .” he began.

“And that is not important. We will learn about each other together. We love each other.”

Vincent suddenly felt as if a weight had been lifted off him. She had no expectations. None of her other lovers had been that exceptional. The bar wasn’t that high after all. Maybe he could be what she needed.

They spent the day together. They didn’t tell anyone anything, but people noticed. Vincent was very attentive. He stayed at Catherine’s side, he held her hand and later that evening when everyone gathered in Father’s study to listen to a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he guided her to a loveseat in the corner and sat there with his arm around her. There were plenty of smiles and raised eyebrows exchanged among the adult members of the community. Even some of the older teens noticed.

“You’re a lot more relaxed now than you were when you came Below this morning,” Vincent commented when they went back to his chamber later.

“I am. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s only temporary, but I feel somehow safe here. As if the real world can’t find me. I imagine that it will eventually catch up with me.” She smiled at him and shrugged. “But right now, I feel safe.”

He took her into his arms. “You are safe, at least as safe as I can make you. If I could hold the real world at bay, I would… I will, as much as I can!”

“For now we can pretend,” she whispered. “I feel good, better than I have in weeks.”

“Why don’t you go get ready for bed,” he suggested. “A soak in the bathing pool will feel good, I’ve sensed that you have been a little chilly all day. I have a couple things I need to take care of. I’ll be back in a little while.”

Catherine did as Vincent suggested and was back in his chamber drying her hair by the brazier when he came back.

“Where did you go?” she asked as he hung his cloak by the door.

“We have a new sentry on tonight. Zach has never had sentry duty before. When our boys turn sixteen they are put on the posts closest to the hub on weekends. Once they turn eighteen they are scheduled at the outer posts.”

Vincent went to his armoire and took out a stack of clothing.

“I’m going to bathe,” he told her. “I won’t be long.”

Catherine had been surprised at the addition of a full length mirror to Vincent’s chamber. He’d put it on the outside of the screen that shielded the entrance to the tunnel that led to the bathing chamber. She stood in front of it now, assessing her appearance.

She didn’t look sick, she decided. Her color was good, she did look a little tired, but that had actually been the norm since she’d started working in the DA’s office. She’d chosen a cream colored silk nightgown and robe. Maybe not the most practical nightwear for Below, but she had a lot of beautiful nightgown and robe sets, and she planned to wear them all . . . for Vincent, and for herself. She felt good in them, and she loved the feel of the fabric against her skin.

She circled the chamber and blew out all the candles and turned out the one electric light he had. The light from the stained glass window behind the bed gave the chamber a golden glow. She looked up at it as she took off her robe and folded it over the back of a chair.

She’d dreamed of making love under that window more times that she cared to count. Maybe now, her dream would finally come true. 

*****

Her dream didn’t come true that night. And in retrospect, she understood. Until that night, Vincent hadn’t even kissed her, at least not on the mouth.

They began slowly, each night they snuggled and cuddled and kissed. They woke each morning in each other’s arms. During the day, Vincent touched her often. He held her hand, put his arm around her. They ate every meal together, Catherine sat in on several of his classes.

She was alone in Vincent’s chamber on Wednesday afternoon when she looked up and saw Father standing in the entrance.

“Father?”

“I don’t want to intrude,” he said hesitantly.

“It’s no intrusion. Have you had a chance to talk to Peter yet?”

Father entered and took a seat in Vincent’s chair.

“Not yet, he’s at a medical conference until tomorrow. He’s coming for dinner on Friday.”

“Did you want to talk to me?”

“I just wanted to ask you how you are feeling.”

“I feel fine. Much better than I did. I haven’t had a headache since I came down,” she said with a smile.

“I don’t what to sound like a nosey old man, but I was wondering if you and Vincent had . . .  well . . . .” he stopped and looked helpless.

“Father, you’re a doctor, and you can’t talk about sex?” she asked trying not to smile.

“I talk about it all the time with patients, other people, even when one of the boys comes and asks questions; but I’ve never really thought about Vincent in those terms.”

“I know that you always told him that it would never happen, and I can understand that it was because you didn’t want him to be disappointed.”

“I’m glad you understand,” he said.

“I understand; but that doesn’t mean that I think it was right, even though I know you did it because you love him.”

Father looked away for a moment then looked back at her. “Have you . . . .”

“No, not yet,” she told him. “I’m sure we will soon.”

“May I say something?” he asked.

“You can always speak, Father. I’ll always listen to your advice.”

“But you won’t always take it,” he said knowingly.

“That’s my prerogative,” she said with a grin.

“Would it do any good for me to tell you that I don’t think it would be a good idea for you and Vincent to become intimate?”

“Not likely,” she admitted, “but why?”

“I’m concerned that if anything were to happen to you, because of your illness, while you were making love, that Vincent would never get over it. He would feel responsible.”

“I’m concerned about that too, but I talked to Peter and he seems to think that it won’t be a problem, at least not for a while. He seems to think that we will have plenty of warning.” She stopped and took a deep breath. She didn’t want to make Father angry, but she had to let him know how she felt. “Father, we love each other. I know that this is going to be hard on Vincent. For a moment after Peter told me, I considered just going away. I thought it might be easier for Vincent if I told him that I was leaving, and didn’t tell him anything about being sick. But he would know anyway. This is going to be hard on him; but I think that in the long run, my being here will make it much easier on him.”

“How can watching the woman he loves die ever be easy?” Father exclaimed.

“I didn’t say it would be easy, but that it could be easier. We will be able to take care of each other . . . .” she brushed tears away. “Maybe it’s selfish of me but I need to be with him now.”

They were both startled when Vincent spoke from behind them.

“It’s not selfish,” he said as she stepped forward. “I felt your agitation. Is everything all right?”

“We were just talking,” she said as she reached up to take his hand.

*****

She’d been Below almost a week when Vincent finally succumbed. Catherine was sitting in the chair next to the table, and Vincent had just finished his bath and was sitting on the side of the bed. Catherine decided she wanted to read for a while, and she rose to go get her book from the bedside table. She stepped on the hem of her gown and tripped. He reached out and caught her, keeping her from falling to the floor. Her momentum pushed him onto his back on the bed with her body draped across his, pelvis to pelvis, chest to chest. He was startled when he realized his left hand gripped her bottom securely. He started to pull it way, but Catherine grabbed his arm, holding it in place.

“Don’t, Vincent,” she admonished. “I like your hands on me.”  

He reached up and caressed her cheek. She turned her head, kissed his finger then drew it into her mouth. She watched with satisfaction as his eyes drifted closed and she felt as much as heard the groan.

Vincent rolled her off him and lifted her tenderly to put her head on the pillow. Catherine captured his hand again and trailed a line of soft kisses from his fingers to his wrist. He pulled her closer until their lips were bare inches apart. 



"I love sleeping in your arms and waking up with you," she whispered, “but I had envisioned more.” It had never been like that before. She didn’t like sharing a bed, but with Vincent it was different.



"And I love falling asleep with you," he said evenly.

His blue eyes were hypnotic. She often lost herself in them, and this time was no different. She snuggled closer and relaxed as he let his hands wander. He finally kissed her and she pushed everything else from her mind. She rolled to her back and pulled him with her. There was hunger in his touch. She tugged at his clothes until his t-shirt and sweat pants were tossed to the floor. Her nightgown followed. “Vincent," she whimpered as he bent to kiss her breasts. "I want you inside me."

Suddenly she couldn’t wait, and she managed to slip under him.

“But I thought . . . .” he began, then stopped.

“What?” she asked looking up at him.

“Foreplay. I read that it was essential,” he said with embarrassment.

She pulled his head down and kissed him. “Usually, yes, but right now I want you so badly that I’m ready, and I can feel that you are too.”

She reached down and caressed him lightly, watching almost smugly as he gasped and closed his eyes. She guided him, and he entered her slowly. She closed her eyes and sighed.

He stopped and leaned down to kiss her. Only then did she open her eyes and look into his again. "Make love to me, Vincent," she whispered.

Their lips met again, and he began to move slowly. They made love long and slow. His hands and mouth roamed her body. Teasing her breasts. Caressing her bottom. Sucking her nipples. He cupped her face and kissed her. His lips were soft and warm. He started with soft pecks, followed by deep, soul-cleansing kisses that made her whole body tingle. All the while, he moved inside her, hitting all the right places. Her hands went to his bottom and pulled him as deep inside she could.

When they could take it no more, they both climaxed. She could feel his warmth filling her. His eyes fluttered, and he collapsed on top of her. With every ounce of her being, she tried to hold on to that feeling. The bliss. Life couldn’t get any better. She was finally as close to Vincent as she’d always dreamed of being.

*****

She rested her head on Vincent's shoulder. His arm was still draped around her. It was late, they hadn’t made love again. They lay in each other’s arms, occasionally talking, more often just savoring each other’s warmth and the closeness. "Will you tell Father?” she asked.

“I doubt I will have to. After what we both told him, he probably expects it.”

“What are you feeling?” She kissed his chest and snuggled closer.

He was very quiet, and she knew he was thinking and choosing his words carefully. She waited patiently.

“You asked me that once before, and I said I felt blessed. I could say the same thing now, but words are just so inadequate. I love you, Catherine. The words are so simple, too simple to convey everything. I wish the Bond went both ways so you could feel what I feel, as I’m feeling what you are feeling.

She waited few seconds before she levered herself up to look into his eyes. He didn't look embarrassed or uncomfortable. His heart was out there for all to see. There was no pretense about him. No games.

Vincent took a deep breath. "I've been in love with you since that night I found you. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. I’m so lucky to have you, and I’m sorry I made us wait so long. I thought about you all the time, especially just before I slept," he continued. "I wanted you, but I wouldn’t admit it, not even to myself. I'm thirty-five years old. I've spent my whole life waiting for you; and when you arrived, I refused to recognize you. I have now, and I don't want to let you go." 



"Oh, Vincent," she gasped and choked back tears. It took her a second to gather her thoughts. When her breathing was under control, she tried to speak. After a couple of false starts, she managed to get it out.

"I need you, too, so badly; but sometimes I feel like I'm using you."



"Why, Catherine?" Vincent whispered, wondering where this was coming from all of a sudden. "You're not using me. I love you and you love me. We are doing what we both need."



"You deserve better." Her voice started to quiver, and he pulled her close. She wiped her eyes. "Vincent, I feel guilty that just when we’ve found this happiness, we both know it won’t last. It just doesn’t seem fair to you." She stopped and took a deep breath. 



He smiled as if he knew something she didn't. He caressed her face and kissed her forehead. "Catherine, you always want things to be fair, a balanced give and take, but life isn’t like that. Sometimes one person in a relationship needs more and the other person has to give more. For the last two and a half years, I’ve been the one who needed more from you, more understanding, more patience. Now it’s my turn to give to you. It’s only fair."



She nodded but he could sense a slight fear.



"You’ve always been in control of your life. You’ve always had a plan and if your plan failed, you came up with a new one," he said softly. "Now things are not under your control, and you are going to have to learn to hand the reins over to someone else. We both will." Vincent paused for a second.

She lifted her head off his shoulder and lay on the pillow next to him. Their eyes met.



"That's how I feel about us," he continued. "I don't know how to explain it. But something put us in the park that night at the same time. Fate, karma, the Bond . . . . It was bigger than us. We were meant to be together, Catherine; I can feel it now. I know you're not in the best place right now . . . . neither of us are; but maybe it means we need to look deeper for our answers."



She lay quietly for a long time. He was right. At least about the control. She’d been very dependent on her Father before she’d gone off to college. He had wanted her to remain that way, to go to Columbia or NYU, something closer so she could continue to live at home; but she’d been determined. She wanted to be in control of her life for a change. And she had achieved that, but when she went to work for Chandler and Coolidge things started moving back in the other direction. Maybe that was one of the reasons she’d been so dissatisfied working there. The assault had actually set her back on the right road. 



“You’re right,” she finally conceded. “I’m going to have to learn to lean on someone again."

He pulled her close again. They kissed.



"I'm sorry for bringing you down, Vincent," she said.



"Don't be," he replied with a sigh. "I am happy, and what you said that first day about living one day at a time was very good advice."



"It’s probably the only way to go right now."



He laughed nervously and kissed her again. She could tell that he wanted to say something more. His touch was suddenly tentative. It was as if he were holding back. She pulled his face to her chest.

"I love how you fill me," she whispered. “I love how your body feels against me . . . ."

And suddenly he wasn’t tentative, and he was filling her again. They quickly found their rhythm. It seemed so familiar. Every time he thrust, a shiver ran through her body. He suckled her nipples, and every time he nipped her areola it sent a jolt right down to her toes. She lost herself in the pleasure Vincent brought her. She lost herself in the feeling of safety she had when she was in his arms. They made love into the night, over and over.



The next morning, she woke in Vincent's arms. He was spooned behind her. One arm was draped around her waist, holding her tight. She could feel his warm breath against the back of her neck. For a long time, she listened to his slow, rhythmic breathing. His arms felt so strong, even in sleep. She felt him stir and looked over at the clock. It was still early. Rolling over, she rested her head on his shoulder. 



"Good morning," he said softly.



"Yes, it is," she replied, following it with a kiss.



They lay there for a long time. Not speaking. Just content to hold one another. They made love one more time before they decided to get up and make an appearance in the dining chamber for breakfast.

*****

Fall turned into winter. Catherine enjoyed seeing the preparations for Winterfest and Christmas from a different perspective. The last day of school Below was the last day of November. Vincent only gave one assignment for the holidays. He wanted everyone to write a paper on what it all meant to them. The papers were due the first day back in class in January.

Catherine made surreptitious trips Above to do some shopping. She made appointments with Peter for checkups then used the rest of the day to shop. She stopped at several Helpers and put in orders for extra food to be sent down, anonymously. She shopped for gifts for those Below she’d grown closest to. Vincent was the hardest. She wondered if she should visit a photographer and have photos made before her illness started to make an outward appearance. At the very least she knew that Peter would want a picture to use at a memorial service.

She told the female photographer why she wanted the pictures taken, and the woman was very thoughtful for a few moments.

“I don’t think you should do glamor shots,” she finally said. “I think you should do something that looks normal. Just like everyone would remember seeing you. Pick clothing that you’re comfortable in, something that everyone has seen you in a lot. Wear your ordinary makeup, and I’ll do the rest. When can you come back?”

She made an appointment for the same day the following week. She spent that week going through the clothing she’d brought Below, trying to find something like the photographer had suggested. When the day arrived, she’d decided on a dark teal, cashmere turtleneck, her crystal and plain gold stud earrings. She wore her hair down, and applied some light make up. She put on a pair of plain black slacks, her black wool coat, kissed Vincent, and headed for the threshold in Peter’s basement. After her appointment with Peter, she headed for the photographer’s.

The session lasted an hour. The photographer took several dozen shots, all in natural light, and promised that she’d have proofs ready for Catherine to look at and decide on the next week.

The following week she chose one for an 8 x 10 that she planned to give to Peter for later, but the one she wanted for Vincent was more difficult. Finally the photographer held up one and said that she thought it was the best of the whole lot. Catherine remembered that shot vividly. The photographer had told her to change position and had snapped a candid shot as Catherine had complied. She was looking up into the light and there was a dreamy, expectant look on her face. Catherine agreed that it was the one she wanted. The photographer suggested that she get a very large print of it, but Catherine decided that a 9 ½ x 12 was the right size.

Catherine left the address of a frame shop where she’d already picked out frames for both pictures and asked the photographer to send the prints there when they were done. From there they were to be delivered to Peter’s.

All the gifts Catherine ordered were stored in a spare bedroom at Peter’s and she was making trips up there to wrap them.

*****

Winterfest was on a Thursday and the whole week before it was constantly busy. Even Catherine got in on the work, in spite of Vincent’s protests.

The Winterfest candles that were used as invitations had been made in November and distributed on December first.

Rebecca took a few days off, then she started making the candles that were to be used at the celebration.

“In one night we use more candles than we normally do in a month,” she told Catherine.

“You don’t get any help?” Catherine asked.

“The chamber where I make the candles is small, and having too many people in it would be dangerous. With all that hot wax, someone could get hurt.”

“But surely there’s more than enough work for you and at least one or two assistants,” Catherine said.

“Are you volunteering?” asked Rebecca, with a mischievous grin.

“As a matter of fact, I think I am,” Catherine answered. “That is if you have a little time to show me how.”

“Even if you only stir the wax and keep it from boiling, it will be a help. We start tomorrow, right after breakfast.”

Catherine caught on quickly, and with the help of the racks that Mouse had built so that multiple candles could be dipped at one time, they quickly had all the candles for Winterfest done and they started on the ordinary candles that were used every day.

Vincent was a little upset when he learned that Catherine was working, but she convinced him she as all right.

“I’m feeling fine, Vincent,” she assured him. “I haven’t even had a headache since I’ve been Below. Both Peter and Father have said that I seem to be fine physically, and I’ve been bored stiff sitting around your chamber all day doing nothing. I’ve read until my eyes hurt. I was planning to go to Father and ask him to give me something to do anyway. Helping Rebecca is just what I need. I’ll talk to Father after Christmas about putting me on the regular work roster.”

“I suggest that you make direct arrangements with whomever you’d like to work with,” he suggested. “That way, if you don’t feel well, you won’t have to find a replacement. You can help me with my classes. Mary would always appreciate some help in the nursery. I’m sure that William can find something for you to do.”

She hugged him and thanked him for the suggestion.

~~~~~

On Winterfest, Catherine decided early in the afternoon that she’d probably be better off if she just got out of everyone’s way. She headed back to Vincent’s chamber where she spent the next hour dusting and straightening.

She was using the small bedchamber as a dressing room; and when she was done in Vincent’s chamber, she went to her chamber to lay out her clothes. She’d found a dress that looked a lot like the one in Kristopher Gentian’s painting. It was a dark garnet colored velvet that left her shoulders bare. The long sleeves came down past her wrists, the velvet draped perfectly. In the painting, the fabric gave the impression of almost pooling around her feet, but she’d made sure that this one barely skimmed the floor, she wanted to be able to walk and navigate the stairs in it. She’d had a black velvet opera cape made to cover up for the trip down to the Great Hall.

After a soak in the pool she went back to her chamber to dress. She wanted to do something special with her hair; but after trying a few different things, she had to admit that Kristopher had it right. The simple style in the picture suited the dress.

She was in Vincent’s chamber comparing the way she looked to the painting that hung on the wall when he came in.

He stopped just inside the door and looked from her to the painting then back at her.

“You are beautiful,” he declared, “and if I wasn’t dusty and sweaty I’d kiss you right now.”

“I don’t care,” she said as she turned with a smile. “You can kiss me anytime.”

“No, I want to hold you when I kiss you, so I’ll wait until I’m clean.”

He whisked past her to the bathing chamber.

Just before they left his chamber an hour later, they both stood in front of the mirror and compared their appearances to the painting.

“We look as if we just stepped off the canvas,” she commented, as he helped her with her cape. “I hate to put the cape on and spoil the illusion.”

“It’s only while you are going down to the Great Hall,” he told her. “It’s too cold to go without.

*****

After the opening ceremony the men moved all the tables so that the center of the chamber was cleared for dancing. Catherine sat on a bench with her back to the wall behind one of the tables, and while Vincent went to get them something to eat she looked out over the crowd and smiled.

“Is it my imagination, or does it seem that there are more people here this year?” she asked Mary, who joined her after a few minutes.

“It’s not your imagination,” Mary said with a smile. “We added several new Helpers over the last year, mostly people who lived Below at one time, and most of our Helpers brought their families this year.”

“I hope there is room for dancing after everyone finishes eating,” Catherine commented. “I was hoping to get Vincent out on the floor.”

“That will be a first,” said Mary. “He hasn’t danced at Winterfest since he was a child.”

“He danced with me last year,” Catherine confided in Mary, “but it was after everyone was gone, including the cleanup crew. It would be nice to try it with real music.”

Vincent showed up carrying two plates, with Geoffrey trailing behind with a third.

“I saw you over here,” he told Mary as Geoffrey put the plate in front of her and scampered off, “and drafted Geoffrey to help me get enough for all of us. He’s supposed to come back in a few minutes with cake.”

Before they were done eating, Geoffrey showed up with a tray containing three plates of cake and ice cream, a pot of tea and three cups. He smiled shyly at Catherine as he set it down. She reached out and hugged him then watched in alarm as he turned beet red and ran off.

“Oh my, I didn’t mean to embarrass him. I didn’t realize that eleven was too old for hugs,” she said as she sat back down.

“It is when you have a monumental crush on the hugger,” said Vincent. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll get over it.”

“The crush or the hug?” she asked.

“Both. He’ll soon discover Samantha, Lana, or one of the other girls and realize that they are much more attainable.”

“I remember how painful those early crushes could be. I hope he’s OK.”

*****

The music started a little while later. There were two bands taking turns this year. The one from Below was a guitar, a fiddle, a banjo and a mandolin, and the first few pieces were very energetic jigs. The other band was a small rock band that had been formed by some children of Helpers. They had a drummer, an electric guitar, a bass guitar, a keyboard and a girl who sang. Catherine was surprised at how good they were, and had to laugh when she saw Father wincing at the volume of the amplified music.

Halfway through their first set they played a slow romantic ballad and Vincent surprised Catherine by holding out his hand and asking her if she’d like to dance. She was on her feet before he had time to back out.

The floor was crowded, and he had to hold her close, nothing like the waltz they’d shared the year before. Her hand was on his shoulder, and he tucked her snugly against him holding her other hand close to his chest.

“I’ve never seen this many people dancing at Winterfest before,” he commented as they managed to weave their way around the floor without colliding with the other dancers. “It’s almost too congested to move.”

“I’m not complaining,” she told him as she looked up at him and smiled. “It gives me an excuse to get close to you when I thought I’d have to settle for holding hands all evening.”

He surprised her by raising her hand and kissing her fingers. Then he astounded her by leaning down and kissing her lips in front of everyone, and it wasn’t just a little peck; he lingered and savored before he pulled away and smiled down at her.

“You’re surprised,” he said, with a mischievous twinkle.

“Surprised isn’t the word for it,” she agreed with a laugh. “I’m sure I heard a collective gasp.”

“I thought it was more like a collective sigh with a bit of an ‘awww’ at the end,” he said. “The gasp was probably Father. Take warning, we are getting close to where he’s standing on the edge of the dance floor, and he doesn’t look pleased.”

The song ended as they approached Father, and they turned, hand in hand, to face a different kind of music.

“Vincent, do you think that kind of behavior is appropriate in public?” Father asked, sounding like he was reprimanding one of the teens.

“Of course it is, Father,” said Vincent as he and Catherine passed. “You’ve never had a problem with it when anyone else indulges.”

“But Vincent. You are a role model. The children look to you to set a certain standard. They try to emulate you.”

Vincent closed his eyes and sighed. Catherine felt his hand tighten on hers. He turned back to Father.

“I realize that, Father, but I see nothing wrong with anyone seeing how much I love Catherine. Emulating that would not be a bad thing, in my opinion.”

Peter walked up behind Father and put his hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Jacob,” he said in a hearty tone. “The chess board it set up. Come let me beat you.” He forcibly turned Jacob and propelled him to the table on the other side of the dance floor. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Vincent and Catherine turn back toward the table they’d occupied earlier.

“What’s gotten into you, Jacob?” he asked when they were seated on opposite sides of the chess board. “I thought you were OK with what was going on between those two.”

“I’m just worried for him, Peter,” said Father with a shake of his head. “He’s so immersed in her now. What is he going to do when she’s gone? I almost wish she hadn’t asked to come Below. He’s going to be devastated when the inevitable happens.”

“What would you have had her do, Jacob? Go off to some cold institution to die by herself, without those she loves and who love her around her?” Peter was angry but he was trying to keep his voice down. “Vincent would have eventually known. Would you have him just wake up one morning and find her gone from the Bond and know that she’s dead? He would have been even more devastated. I doubt he would have survived that. At least this way, he will be with her, and when she’s gone he’ll have all these months of good memories to sustain him. When Janine died, that was the only thing that got me through it; the memories and Susan.”

“No Peter, I’m not advocating that. I agreed with Vincent that she should be here. It’s just that I worry. It’s been less than a year since his illness, and the last time that happened, it took months before Vincent was fully recovered. He may look like he’s fine, but I wonder . . . .”

“I’ve examined him,” Peter assured Father. “He seems back to normal to me. He says that his stamina and strength are back to what they were before his illness, and he assures me that the nightmares have completely stopped. I’ve talked to him about Catherine, and he’s in as good a frame of mind as possible. Personally, I’ve never seen him smiling and laughing as much as I’ve seen him in the last couple of months. They both seem very happy.”

“I only wish it could last, Peter. I don’t wish either of them ill, but I only wish it could last.”

*****

Christmas was always a quieter holiday Below. There was a Christmas tree in the dining chamber and all the children found gifts under it. This year, thanks to Catherine, there were a lot more than usual.

After breakfast, family units had their own celebrations. Mary, Catherine, Vincent and Father went back to the study, where they were met by Peter. He’d come down earlier, and with the help of a couple of the older boys, had brought the rest of Catherine’s gifts.

“I felt like Santa Claus, sneaking in while everyone was out,” he whispered to Catherine as he hugged her.

“Did you get your gift?” she asked, hoping that the delivery had been made the day before.

“I did and it’s beautiful. But are you sure you want to part with it?”

Catherine had taken the desk her Dad had used out of storage and had it delivered to Peter’s.

“I’m not going to need it where I’m going,” she assured him. “And even if I wasn’t sick, I think Dad would have liked you to have it. It’s too beautiful to sit in storage and collect dust.”

Peter hugged her again, to hide the tears that suddenly flooded his eyes.

The table that was used for council meetings was now piled with gifts. The children and some of the adults had been dropping off gifts since the previous afternoon. Vincent seemed to be the recipient of most of them.

Catherine laughed as she helped him pass the gifts out and added another one to his pile.

“It looks to me like someone has received more than his fair share of gifts.” She sat on the settee next to her modest stack of gifts.

Vincent actually looked embarrassed. “It’s like this every year. I ask them not to do it, but each child always wants to give me something. Then I have to make sure that I use or wear each item equally; I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Catherine watched him as she opened her own gifts. The framed photograph that she’d given Vincent was near the bottom of his stack.

She opened one small package from Vincent and found miniature crystals that had been made into earrings that matched her crystal necklace. She immediately took off the small gold hoops she wore and put on the new earrings. She leaned forward and kissed Vincent on the cheek.

“I love them!” she whispered.

The second package from Vincent contained a beautiful leather bound journal, an antique fountain pen and several bottles of ink. Vincent didn’t say anything as he watched her open it, but the look he gave her told her that he wanted her to write for him.

Vincent’s stack was almost gone when he finally came to Catherine’s.

“This one doesn’t have a tag saying who it’s from,” he said as he carefully removed the paper.

When he pulled the paper away he knew who it was from. The candid photo took his breath away. He leaned over and kissed Catherine.

“Thank you, my love,” he whispered. “I know exactly where I’ll hang it.”

The next one was also from Catherine. He opened it to find another leather bound journal.

“Great minds think alike,” she commented when he thanked her.

*****

“It wasn’t conceited of me to give you a photograph of myself, was it?” she asked later when they were in his chamber. “When I got the idea it just seemed so perfect; but the more I thought about it after I ordered it, the more I started to doubt my choice.”

“No, Catherine,” he assured her, taking her in his arms. “I have the painting, but it’s just that, a painting of something that never really happened. It was Kristopher’s fantasy. But this is a photo of you and it captures one instant of your life. The way you looked just as the photographer snapped the shutter. And it’s the way I see you; in the sunlight. It is the perfect gift.” He pointed to a bare spot on the chamber wall across from his writing desk. “I’ll put it up there where I can see it when I write.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tight. “Thank you Vincent, I love my earrings and the journal. Every word I write in it will be for you. I promise.”

“I have one more gift for you,” he said. He gently nudged her to sit in the chair, then the pulled out the drawer in his writing desk and pulled out a small box. He opened it and held it out to her.

“Marry me?” he asked.

She was truly surprised. She gasped and put her hands over her mouth as she nodded vigorously. The box held two rings, one large and one small, each a plain gold band.

“We have many traditions Below, but one of the earliest ones is a marriage tradition. Of course, it’s always up to the couple involved, they can do it any way they please. Some go Above and go to a minister or have a civil ceremony so it will be legal Above. Those who live Below and never go Above sometimes opt for a ceremony performed by Father, but the earliest tunnel marriages were just the two people pledging their love to each other.”

“I like that idea,” said Catherine. “No fuss, no waiting. We just show up at breakfast tomorrow morning, married.”

“I’ve been married to you, in my heart, for a very long time,” he told her. “Maybe even before this life, and we will remain married forever.”

Vincent stood and pulled Catherine to her feet. He took the rings from the box and put the larger one into her hand and folded her fingers over it.

“For thousands of years,” he began, “lovers have exchanged rings as a token of their vows. Let these rings be a sign that our love has a past, a present, and a future, through us and within us.”

He held his left hand out to her and she slipped the ring onto his finger.

“Vincent, I’ve never been extremely eloquent, but I want you to know that with this ring I give you my heart. I promise from this day you will not walk alone; that even after I’m gone, I will be beside you.”

Vincent took her left hand and slipped the ring onto her finger.

“Catherine, I gave you my heart long ago, but this ring is an outward symbol of that for all to see. I promise from this day you will not walk alone; I will be at your side through all that is before us. My arms will be your shelter, and my heart will be your home through all eternity. The ring is a symbol of that eternity, with no beginning and no end. We always were and always will be.”

He gathered her close. “I love you Catherine,” he whispered. “And I’m honored to call you . . . wife.”

Catherine clung to him as she burst into tears. “I can’t believe it,” she said when she regained her composure. “Not long ago, I thought I’d lost everything; but right now I’m the happiest woman on the planet. Vincent, you’ve made all my dreams come true.”

*****

The next morning at breakfast it was a little while before anyone noticed the rings on their fingers.

Mary was the first.

“Mary, I love the shawl you gave me for Christmas,” said Catherine as she turned to model it for Mary. It’s nice and warm and long enough to loop over so I can keep my hands free.”

When she said the word ‘hands’ Mary happened to glance at Catherine’s hands. She looked from Catherine’s left hand to Vincent’s, then she nudged Father, who had his nose buried in a medical journal.

She reached out and patted Catherine’s hand then she did the same thing to Vincent. Both rings were visible although the hair on Vincent’s hand partially hid his.

“Congratulations, you two,” she said with a warm smile.

Father looked at her for a moment in confusion. “Congrat…?” He followed Mary’s gaze and started to splutter.

“What have you done?” he exclaimed.

“Only what many other tunnel dwellers have done over the years, Father. We’ve pledged ourselves to each other.”

*****

Catherine was blissfully happy for the next few weeks. The high point of January was Vincent’s birthday, and Catherine was determined to make it memorable. She ordered a birthday cake from a bakery owned by a Helper, and she gave him a pair of black leather pants.

“Just where does one wear leather pants, and with what?” he asked later when they were alone in their chamber.

“Anywhere you want to,” she told him. “They are very comfortable, they breathe just like your own skin, but if you’d like to you can just wear them for me in the privacy of our chamber . . . and as far as what you wear them with? Well, I think I’d prefer nothing.”

Vincent laughed at the expression on her face. “Then, in all actuality, the leather pants are for you, not just me.”

“Now you’ve got it,” she said as she started to giggle and hugged him.

*****

In February, Vincent planned a romantic Valentine’s dinner in a private dining room at Henry Pei’s restaurant. All he told her was that they were going Above to dinner. She was pleasantly surprised.

Lin had decorated the small room with red hearts and candles, and Henry served them himself. They had all Catherine’s favorites, including a decidedly un-Chinese dessert: chocolate cake.

*****

When March arrived, Catherine had been putting in regular hours helping out where she could. She worked several hours every morning in the nursery, then she joined Vincent and helped with his literature class. She occasionally spent time in the kitchen with William and even went back to the candle shop a few times.

But in early March she noticed that she wasn’t feeling as well as she’d been feeling since coming Below. The headaches didn’t return, but she began to feel tired. Instead of helping Vincent with his class, more often than not she went to the small chamber he’d prepared for her and napped. She’d wake refreshed, so she didn’t try to think about it much.

One morning she didn’t make it to the nursery to help Mary. They’d finished breakfast and Vincent had left. She finished dressing and was making the bed when a sudden wave of nausea hit her and sent her running for the toilet in the bathing chamber.

She was on her knees in front of it catching her breath after a bout of violent retching when Vincent arrived. He’d felt it and dropped what he was doing to come to her.

He wet a washcloth and wrung it out and dropped to his knees next to her.

“Catherine, are you all right?” he asked as he put his arm around her and wiped her face with the cool cloth.

“I’m better now,” she said unsteadily. “I knew that nausea could be one of the symptoms, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be in my case. I hate throwing up!”

Vincent helped her to her feet and steadied her.

“You should lie down,” he urged.

“I want to brush my teeth first,” she said.

He let her go, but hovered until she was done. Then he swept her up into his arms and carried her to the small chamber. When he had her tucked in, he sat on the bed next to her and smoothed her hair off her face.

“Rest a little. I’ll stay right here.”

She smiled gratefully and rolled onto her side. She was asleep almost before she shut her eyes.

And so it begins, he thought with resignation. Will I survive this? he wondered. He lay down on the bed on top of the covers and curled his body around hers.

The nausea and tiredness persisted, striking at odd times. She still napped every afternoon, and was grateful that the nausea only struck occasionally.

She told Peter at her next checkup, and he suggested another visit with the specialist, but she vetoed that idea.

“What is he going to tell me that I don’t already know?” she protested. “And frankly, I don’t care how large the tumor has grown, or what part of the brain it appears to be affecting. So far, it hasn’t been bad. For more than six months things have been great. So far, we are pretty much following the timetable that you gave me. Maybe I’ll see him again later, but not right now.”

Peter tried to talk her into going, but she refused. 

*****

Almost a month later Catherine volunteered to help Mary count Band-Aids in the hospital chamber. At least that is how the children described it. Father was very meticulous with his medical supply inventory, and they did count the Band-Aids; but they also counted everything else.

“And what about the plaster for casts?” asked Mary from desk.

Catherine rose from her seat on the floor to move to the next cabinet. As she straightened up, a wave of dizziness hit her and she sat abruptly on one of the beds and lowered her head to her knees.

Mary saw, jumped to her feet and hastened to her side.

“What is it Catherine?” she asked with concern.

“Just a little dizzy,” said Catherine, as she raised her head. “It passes quickly.”

“How long has this been happening?” Mary asked as she put her hand on Catherine’s clammy forehead.

“Not long, about a week,” answered Catherine.

Mary rose and went to the sink that Mouse had installed. She turned on the water and wet a cloth. She wrung it out and handed it to Catherine who took it gratefully and pressed it to her face.

“Any other symptoms?”

“Tiredness, queasiness. I’ve thrown up a few times.”

“Any vision, or balance problems?” asked Mary. Peter and Father had briefed her on what to look for.

“No, nothing like that, and no numbness or even headaches. I haven’t had a headache in months. I was feeling so good.” Tears formed in Catherine’s eyes and threatened to fall.

Mary was thinking. “Tired and queasy?” she mused. “Have you had any changes in your breasts?”

“Come to think of it, I have. My bras seem to be a bit small, but I’ve gained a little weight since I came Below.”

“Any tenderness?”

“A little, but I blamed that on Vincent’s . . . well, he’s rather attentive to my breasts,” Catherine blushed.

Mary chuckled. “Most men are. How long have you and Vincent been intimate . . . I’m not being nosy, this is a professional question.”

“Since about a week after I came Below, why?”

“When was the last time you had a period?”

Catherine glanced over at the three month calendar on the wall. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I’ve never been extremely regular… maybe it was the beginning of February? Good grief… It’s almost the middle of April; I haven’t had a period in almost two and a half months.”

Mary gestured for Catherine to lay back on the bed. She sat on the side of the bed and gently palpated Catherine’s abdomen.

“I can’t be sure until I do a pregnancy test, but I don’t think you are having symptoms of your tumor. I think you may be pregnant.”

A surge of joy went through Catherine like a bolt of lightning, but it was quickly followed by doubt.

“Will I live long enough to have it?” she questioned.

“That’s impossible to know, but you’ve been doing so well that I would be optimistic and say that I see no reason why you shouldn’t. Come on, let’s use one of those pregnancy tests that we just counted and see what we are dealing with.”

Mary went over to the cabinet and got a specimen cup that she handed to Catherine. “I need some urine.”

Catherine went behind a curtain to comply while Mary moved around getting the test ready.

“Father prefers an older type of test,” she said as Catherine handed her the cup. “It takes a little longer, but it’s much more accurate. The only thing that could throw it off would be if the tumor in your brain has metastasized to your ovaries or uterus.”

“Peter told me that the probability of it spreading was low. The tumor itself might not even be malignant. They were pretty sure that my mother’s wasn’t.”

Mary nodded as she concentrated on what she was doing.

“Why don’t you go back to your chamber and lay down,” she suggested. “I’ll let you know the results as soon as this is done.”

Catherine hugged the older woman. “Thank you, Mary,” she whispered.

The walk back to the chamber she shared with Vincent was a short one, and she was glad she didn’t see anyone. She was sure that her feelings would show in her face.

What if she was pregnant? The question she’d asked Mary had been a legitimate one. Would she live long enough to give birth? She did a quick calculation and figured that if she was pregnant the baby would arrive in October. She had been feeling remarkably well for someone who was supposedly terminal. Father has suggested that the tumor wasn’t as fast growing as they had originally thought, or that it was in spontaneous remission. Both he and Peter wanted her to undergo some additional testing, but Catherine had given them both the same answer: “No!” 

Then there was the heartbreak of finally having all of her dream: Vincent and his child, and not being able to be there to see that child grow. But maybe it was what it should be. A child would give Vincent a reason to live after she was gone.

When she got to their chamber she didn’t bother with candles, she just crawled into their bed and wrapped her arms around Vincent’s pillow and took a deep breath. She was determined not to cry, she would rest, as Mary had suggested.

*****

Vincent was several miles from the main hub when he felt the wave of dizziness from Catherine. It had happened several times over the last week or so.

He sighed and continued with his work. They still had at least another hour before they would be done.

He was driving the wedge into the gap between two rocks not long afterward when he felt the sudden surge of joy, which Catherine quickly quelled.

When they were done for the day at the work site, Vincent and the other men headed back home at a quick pace. Most of them were headed to their chambers, but Vincent wanted to stop at the hospital chamber for some first aid supplies first. He’d scraped his knee and wanted a bandage he could put on it after his bath. He was surprised to find Mary there, putting some things away.

“Can I help you with something?” she asked as she dropped some items into the trash bin.

“Just some antiseptic and some gauze,” the told her. “I scraped my knee while I was working today.”

Mary bent to look at it, prodding through the hole in his pants. She turned and went to the cabinet and took out a small tube of antibiotic ointment and some bandages that she handed to him.

“I thought Catherine was helping you with the inventory this afternoon,” he said.

“She was, but she was tired, so I sent her back to your chamber to rest.”

“Is she all right, Mary?” he asked with concern. “I felt her dizziness and fatigue.”

“She will be,” Mary assured him. “She just needs a little rest.”

Vincent was sure that Mary was being over optimistic, but he nodded.

“Would you give her a message for me when you see her?” she asked as he turned to leave.

“Of course. What is it?”

“Tell her that I was right, that’s all. She’ll understand.”

Vincent left puzzling over the message. Mary wasn’t one to crow over being right in an argument so he wasn’t at all sure what the message meant.

Catherine was asleep with he entered the chamber so he quietly gathered a change of clothes and went to bathe.

She was sitting on the side of the bed when he returned.  

“Are you feeling better?” he asked as he sat on the bed beside her.

“Yes, I am,” she said with a smile. “Did you finish the project?”

“Not completely, but they won’t need me tomorrow. I’ll stay close to home.”

“That will be nice.”

She stretched then leaned over and put her shoes on before she stood.

“I stopped in the hospital chamber on my way back. Mary asked me to give you a message.”

“Yes?” She looked up at him and was plainly uneasy.

“She said she was right. What did she mean by that?”

Catherine turned her back to him and tried to keep her composure.

“Are you all right?” he asked, anxiously.

She went back and sat down next to him.

“Mary had a theory this afternoon and it looks like she was right. She thinks that my symptoms aren’t caused by my tumor, but by something else.”

“What?” he asked.

“I’m pregnant.”

Vincent just stared at her for a moment before speaking.

“Pregnant? How far along? But…?”

“Oh, please… don’t ask how. You are a doctor’s son, and I know that you are very familiar with the process.” She smiled weakly. “And I think I’m probably close to three months.”

He reached out and pulled her into his lap.

“I wasn’t going to ask how. I was going to say… but Father always said that I was probably sterile. I didn’t even think to take precautions because of that.”

“I guess ‘probably’ was the key word there. He obviously never ran any tests.”

“No he didn’t, and I think he never considered the possibility of me ever marrying; so he never pressed it.”

He held her tenderly for several minutes before she spoke again.

“I only have two concerns.”

“I have many, but what are yours?” he asked.

“Will I live long enough to have this baby, and will my body be able to provide a healthy environment so it can develop normally?”

“You’re considering going through with the pregnancy?” he asked, clearly surprised.

She leaned back and looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.

“You’re considering me not?” she asked.

“Of course.” He picked her up and set her on the bed then started to pace as he talked. “Aside from your own concerns, what about what it will do to your body? It could take things from you that you need to survive. What if it shortens your life? Hormones just feed some kinds of cancer. What if the pregnancy hormones cause the tumor to grow out of control? Not only might you not live to see the pregnancy through, but it could kill you.”

“You’re not considering asking me to terminate the pregnancy are you?” she asked, plainly horrified at the thought.

“But if it will allow you to live longer; as long as expected without the pregnancy, then yes. I love you, Catherine, I want you here with me for as long as possible.”

Catherine stood and went to stand in front of him.

“I’ve never known you to be this selfish, Vincent,” she told him. “I’ve never known you to put yourself or your feelings before anyone else’s, especially a child. I want this child.” She placed her hand protectively over her still flat stomach. “I will do anything and everything in my power to see to it that it’s born. I hope I live through it and am able to hold it in my arms and love it for at least a little while, but if I’m not, well, then so be it. But I will give it life if it is at all possible… Excuse me!” She brushed by him and headed down the short corridor to her chamber.

She was in tears before she reached the chamber and threw herself on the bed sobbing. She couldn’t believe what Vincent had said. The shock was devastating. On one hand she could understand him wanting her to be there as long as possible; she wanted to be with him as long as she could, but this was their child. A child created out of their love. How could he be so callous toward it? Treating it like a parasite she needed to be rid of. 

*****

Vincent dropped into his chair and covered his face with his hands. He’d handled that badly, he decided. It had been his knee-jerk reaction to automatically put Catherine first, never even considering the child she carried. Now he was thinking about that. Her concerns were very legitimate. He remembered Father once quoting statistics about just how many pregnancies terminated naturally, very early on, sometimes even before the woman realized that she was pregnant. Just the fact that she was almost through her first trimester attested to the fact that the fetus was probably healthy and her body thought it could sustain the pregnancy.

He stood and left the chamber. He had to talk to someone who knew more about this than he did. Mary would be in the dining chamber, and she’d be a better choice than Father.

Mary was sitting by herself reading a book as she ate her dinner.

“Can I join you, Mary?” he asked when he reached her table.

She looked up and smiled.

“Did Catherine explain my cryptic message?” she asked, nodding at the seat across from her.

“Yes she did, and I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me.”

“Of course, what do you want to know?”

“She’s determined to go through with this,” he began, and at Mary’s shocked expression, he just shook his head. “I’m concerned about what it might do to her.”

Mary’s expression softened and she reached out and patted his hand. “I’m not a doctor,” she told him. “I suggest you talk to Jacob or Peter, but I can tell you that if a woman eats properly and takes good care of herself while she’s pregnant, it doesn’t have to make a huge impact on her health.”

“But that is what I mean. She isn’t healthy right now. She has a brain tumor that is going to kill her eventually. Will this pregnancy speed up that process?”

“I worked as a nurse mid-wife before I came Below,” she told Vincent. “I had other patients who had health issues, some terminal illnesses, who made it through their pregnancies and produced healthy babies. Sometimes it’s more than just the physical, Vincent. Sometimes it’s the sense of purpose that goes with being pregnant. The happiness that it brings a woman. Catherine loves children. You should see her in the nursery with the babies. She is a natural. I have no doubts that she will see this through and might even live longer as a result; just because she wants to be there for her child.” She cocked her head and looked at him. “You didn’t argue because of this, did you?”

“Yes. The first time we’ve argued since she’d been Below, and it had to have been over something this important. Something that means this much to her. I’m ashamed, and I’m a selfish idiot.” He slapped the table with his open hand, the dishes jumped and rattled.

“No you’re not. You are just a man in love who is facing something awful… the probable early death of the woman he loves. You’re just trying to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.” She reached out and touched his face, making him look at her. “Believe me, Vincent, I know what you are going through. If I could have delayed or prevented what happened to my family, I would have too. Even if it had cost my life.” 

He was immediately contrite.

“I’m sorry, Mary. I shouldn’t have burdened you with this…”

“No, you were right to come to me with it. I’m probably one of the few people here who would understand. Now, I suggest that you go to Catherine and tell her what you told me about being an ashamed, selfish idiot. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”

When he reached Catherine’s chamber she was asleep. She was still in her clothes, lying on top of the covers, huddled into a ball because of the chill in the chamber. The Bond told him she was sleeping soundly. He crossed to the bed, gently removed her shoes, and then pulled the quilt from the bottom of the bed over her. He laid a fire in the brazier and lit it. When it was burning well and the small chamber was starting to warm up he went back to the bed, where he took off his boots and laid down beside her, fitting his body to her back and pulling the quilt over them both. He hoped she wouldn’t push him out onto the floor when she woke in the morning and found him there.

Catherine woke in the dark. The only light in the chamber came from the coals glowing in the brazier on the other side of the room. For a moment she was disoriented, wondering where she was. Then she remembered the argument and that she was in her chamber. She had to go to the bathroom and tried to sit up. That was when she realized that Vincent was in the bed with her. His arm was around her waist and he was breathing softly in her ear. She gingerly lifted his arm and slid out from under it. On her way out she picked up her nightgown and while she was in the bathing chamber she changed, then brushed her teeth and washed her face.

When she returned to her chamber, she carried one of the candles from the bathing chamber and could see that Vincent had rolled over onto his back and was staring at the ceiling.

As soon as she walked into the chamber, he spoke.

“I’m sorry, Catherine,” he said softly.

“So am I.” She put the candle down and stood at the end of the bed. “Are you going to the other bed or am I?”

Vincent could tell that the hurt from earlier had turned to anger. He sat up and swung his legs off the bed.

“Catherine, I spoke without thinking and you are right; I spoke out of pure selfishness. My only defense is that I spoke as I did because I love you. I know I’m going to lose you, but I’m finding that a very hard thing to face and I was just worried that a pregnancy would speed it along. But I wasn’t thinking. I know how you love children, and how you want to be a mother. I never considered the possibility of being a father. I thought that I’d always have to settle for fulfilling that role for the orphans here Below. Please forgive me and give me a chance to make it up to you.”

There were tears in his eyes when she finally made herself look at him. She pulled the chair out from the small desk near the brazier and sat down.

“I don’t know, Vincent…you hurt me; but more than that, you disappointed me. I thought that I would always be able to count on you to be there for me. I know we didn’t plan this, but now that it’s reality I can’t help but feel that it’s right. It is what is supposed to happen.” She leaned forward and looked into his eyes. “I don’t want to leave you any more than you want me to leave; but it’s going to happen, sooner rather than later, and I really want to cram as much living into the time I have left as I can. This is one of the things that I thought I wouldn’t get to experience, and now I have that chance. I don’t want to give it up. Please Vincent, I love you, and I want to share this with you, but if I have to, I will choose this child over you. I have to choose my child over you . . . .” her voice trailed off as her tears began to fall again.

“Our child, Catherine,” said Vincent with conviction. He rose and crossed the chamber where he picked her up and started down the corridor back to his chamber. “I’m sorry Catherine. Not long ago I gave you a ring as a symbol of my love. I promised that you would not walk alone and that I would be at your side through all that is before us. I said that my arms would be your shelter and my heart would be your home through all eternity. I was not honoring those promises earlier this evening, and I promise that I will never do anything like that again.” He leaned down to set her on the bed, then he captured her left hand and kissed the ring he’d just been speaking of. “Please forgive me,” he said as he dropped to his knees in front of her.

She stifled a sob and opened her arms welcoming him into them. He leaned against her chest and wrapped his arms around her.

“I love you so much,” she whispered. “I’m going to have your baby; I’m carrying a part of you inside me. I just can’t tell you how deliriously happy that makes me.”

*****

First thing the next morning Vincent went to Mary and asked her not to tell anyone about the baby, especially not Father, until Catherine had a chance to go Above and see Peter. They had agreed that she needed to do that, and get a better idea of what to expect before they told anyone. Catherine had an appointment in two days, so they knew they wouldn’t have to wait long.

*****

Catherine sat on the examining table in a white paper gown and swung her feet back and forth like a little girl. Peter sat at the desk in the corner writing.

“And what was the date of your last period?” he asked.

Catherine gave him the date and he wrote it on the form.

“And Mary used one of the test kits that Jacob uses…”

She nodded and he continued.

“Those are reliable. I’d like to do an ultrasound. The fetus is only about two inches long, but that’s big enough to see on an ultrasound.”

“Are you thinking that I’m not really pregnant?” she asked.

“It’s possible,” he explained. “The tumor could be affecting a part of the brain that regulates hormone production. I just want to make sure. You lay down on the table and I’ll get everything ready.

She followed instructions and adjusted the sheet and the gown. Peter squeezed some warm gel on her stomach and started passing the transducer probe back and forth. He finally seemed to see something on the monitor in front of him. He leaned closer for a better look as he passed the probe over the spot again. He smiled and turned the monitor so Catherine could see it.

“Watch,” he said as he applied a little pressure to the area of her abdomen next to where he had the probe resting. The little blob on the screen moved, turned, and suddenly it looked like more than a blob. She could make out the head, body and even legs and arms. “It’s a little larger than an ordinary twelve week fetus, but with Vincent for a father, I’m not surprised. As small as you are, you will probably be showing in the next few weeks.

“Is there a way to get a copy of that picture?” she asked.

Peter pressed a button on the front of the ultrasound machine several times.

“I just saved it. I’ll print one for your file and give you a copy of it. Go ahead and get dressed and come down the hall to my office, I want to talk to you before you leave.”

Catherine cleaned off the gel and dressed. She wasn’t sure how she felt. She was happy, and Peter had said that the baby was bigger than he’d expected. Seemed like maybe it was in a hurry too. She smiled and put her hand over her stomach.

“Don’t you worry, little one,” she said quietly. “Even if I’m not around to help your daddy raise you, you’ll know that I loved you and that your daddy loves you.”

When she walked into Peter’s office a few minutes later he was sitting at his desk writing on a pad. He picked up several prescriptions and handed them to her after she sat down.

“These are all for vitamins. There’s a prenatal, an iron supplement and a calcium supplement. You’re a little anemic and your blood calcium was a little lower than normal. I know you’ve never been a big milk drinker so I thought it would just be easier to give you a supplement. And I’d like you to go back to Dr. Vargas and have another round of testing and images,” he held up his hand when she started to protest. “I know that you didn’t want any more tests, but I think this is necessary.”

“I’m not so concerned about that,” she said, “but what about the possible effect on the baby?”

“That is a reasonable concern, but they will shield that part of your body. An MRI doesn’t use radiation. It uses a very strong magnetic field and radio waves. There hasn’t been any research done on what kinds of affects it might have on a fetus; but when it must be used during pregnancy, if it’s not being used to actually look at the fetus, the pelvic area of your body will be shielded. Since we only need to look at your head, that should be easy.”

“You’re sure?” she asked.

“As sure as I can be. I had Shelley call over to Lang, and they can fit you in this afternoon; in about an hour and a half. Can you make it then?”

“Thank you for setting it up so quickly,” she told him. “I won’t have to wait a week and worry about it the whole time.”

“You can kill time by going and having those prescriptions filled,” he told her. “Vargas isn’t in today, but I left a message with his service to call me as soon as he has a chance to look at everything. I’ll come down and tell you what he finds as soon as I can tomorrow evening.”

She rose and hugged Peter. “Thank you Peter.”

He hugged her back. “You okay, Honey?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” she said with a slight laugh. “I’m just kind of in shock. I mean, Mary told me I was pregnant, and I believed her; but seeing the baby on the screen just kind of knocked me for a loop. Made it more real, I guess.”

“That reminds me.” He picked a manila envelope up off the desk and handed it to her. “Your baby's first pictures.”

*****

She did as Peter suggested and had the prescriptions filled, but she still arrived at the hospital thirty minutes early. She checked in, then sat in the waiting room and leafed through an old magazine.

By 4:00PM, she was on her way back to Peter’s. Vincent met her in Peter’s kitchen.

“What are you doing here?” she asked as she returned his hug.

“I felt your unease; I couldn’t wait Below. Is something wrong?” he asked with concern.

“No, everything is fine. Can we talk when we get back home?”

“Of course. Are you hungry; did you eat lunch?”

“I ate breakfast late,” she told him. “My appointment with Peter was at 1:00PM, so I grabbed an apple on my way up.”

When they got back to their chamber, Vincent took her coat and hung it up before he put some more wood on the brazier.

She was sitting on the bed clutching a manila envelope when he turned back.

“Now tell me,” he directed as he sat down across from her.

“First of all, Peter verified that I am pregnant. He gave me a bunch of vitamins.” She pointed to the bag on the table. He picked it up, took the bottles out, and read the labels as she continued. “He insisted that I go over to Lang for another MRI. He just wants to know how the tumor has progressed. Dr. Vargas wasn’t in today, so Peter won’t have anything for us until tomorrow. He said he’d be down after he leaves the office.”

“You need all these?” he asked, indicating the vitamins.

“Peter seems to think so. He said I was a little anemic, and my blood calcium was down.” She could see the concern in his eyes. “It’s not that unusual,” she tried to reassure him. “Ask Father. Prenatal vitamins are just a given these days, and most pregnant women need extra iron. I don’t drink a lot of milk or eat a lot of cheese, so I’m not surprised that my calcium is lower than normal.” She stood. “I’m going to go change, and then I thought we’d join Father at dinner and tell him our news.”

Vincent followed her to her chamber and watched as she pulled clothing out of the chest and armoire and tossed them on the bed.

“I just want to warn you that Father might react badly,” he said as she sat down and pulled off the boots she’d worn above.

“Anything like your initial reaction?” she asked.

“Probably. Maybe worse, since he will have all kinds of scientific data to use. I don’t want you to get upset.”

Catherine stepped out of her skirt and hung it in the armoire then took off her blouse. She pulled a sweater on over her head and then pulled on her jeans. As she was zipping and buttoning them she started to giggle.

“What is it?” he asked as she crossed the chamber to where he sat.

“Look, my jeans are too tight, I can’t get the zipper all the way up or button the button. I think I’m going to have to get some maternity clothes.”

Vincent examined the zipper and the button, then looked up at her and smiled. “I’m sure Mary can help you in that.” He put his hand over her stomach. “It’s hard to believe that it’s real.”

She picked the manila envelope up off the table where she’d dropped it and handed it to him.

“Maybe this will help,” she suggested.

She backed away and sat down to put on her shoes as he opened the envelope and pulled out the paper inside. He stared at it for almost a minute before he looked up at her.

“This is our child?” he asked.

“Yes, and I saw it move. Peter held the probe over where it was and he pressed on my abdomen right next to it and the baby moved. I couldn’t feel it. The nurse said it will be another month or so before I do, but I saw it move. By the way, Peter says that I’m about twelve weeks but that the baby is a little larger than most twelve week fetuses; but he’s not really surprised, knowing who his father is.”

“Or her father,” Vincent pointed out.

“Or her.”

*****

When they got to the dining chamber, Father and Mary were already there. Catherine and Vincent got their food and joined them at their table.

“How are you feeling?” Mary asked, as Catherine sat down next to her.

“Pretty good today,” Catherine told her. “There was no nausea.” She reached into her pocket and took out three tablets, which she popped into her mouth and washed down with water.

“Vitamins?” asked Mary.

“And iron and calcium,” Catherine added.

“What are you two talking about?” asked Father looking back and forth between the two women.

Vincent slid the manila envelope out from under his tray and handed it to Father. He opened it and pulled out the picture which he studied. Color drained out of his face before he looked up at Vincent.

“Will you explain this?” he asked.

“Catherine is pregnant, that is an ultrasound of the baby that Peter did this afternoon.”

“Have the two of you taken leave of your senses?” As quickly as his face had gone pale, it now turned red. “Catherine is in no condition for this!”

“Father . . . please . . . quietly,” admonished Vincent. “We don’t want everyone in the dining chamber let in on this just yet.” He glanced over at Catherine, who just rolled her eyes. At least she wasn’t upset at Father’s reaction.

“Father, Peter sent me for some additional testing after my appointment with him this afternoon. He’ll be down tomorrow evening with the update. I know I was pretty adamant about no more testing; but since there is another life in the balance now, I agreed. Please try to be happy for us.”

“How can I be happy, my dear? How is this going to affect your health? Will you even be able to carry to term?”

“I’ve already had this conversation with Vincent, and I don’t really want to talk about it until after I’ve talked to Peter tomorrow. Anything we say now is meaningless without all the information. All I’m asking is that we keep it just among us four until after Vincent and I have talked to Peter.”

Father took another look at the ultrasound picture, then he slid it back into the envelope and handed it to Vincent.

“How far along are you?” he asked.

“Peter says that I’m about twelve weeks.” She looked at Mary, and grinned. “I couldn’t get my pants zipped all the way up or buttoned. I’m going to need to get some maternity clothes.”

“I’m sure there are some in the storage room, and we can always put those stretch panels in some of the pants you already have, you won’t have to shop for a lot.”

The two women started talking about clothing, baby clothes and nursing bras, and it might as well have been in a foreign language for all that Vincent and Father understood.

*****

The next evening Catherine and Vincent were in their chamber when they heard the sentries announce that Peter was on his way to Father’s study. They met him in the corridor outside the study. He was carrying a brief case and had a stern expression on his face. Catherine assumed that he had bad news and grabbed Vincent’s hand as they followed Peter.

Peter greeted Father, dropped the briefcase, and took off his coat; then he went over to the large table in the middle of the chamber and started to clear it. Vincent helped him then pulled chairs up to it for everyone.

Peter pulled some folders and a stack of papers out of the brief case and spread them all out over the table.

“I don’t know whether to be angry or start dancing for joy,” he said cryptically as he opened one file and pulled out an MRI image. He held it up in front of everyone and pointed to a spot on it. “This is a tumor. A rather large one, but does anyone notice anything odd about this?”

“Is that my MRI?” asked Catherine.

Peter moved his fingers and uncovered the name in the corner: “Chandler – 0143576”

Father leaned closer and pulled his reading glasses down off the top of his head. “Are you sure that’s Catherine. The shape of the skull looks very masculine to me.” He pointed to the profile view. “The brow is much more prominent than Catherine’s.”

Peter pointed to the date under the name. It was the day the previous summer when Catherine had gone for her original MRI. Then he pulled out a second image and pointed to the date on it, then to the name and number: “Chandler – 1136897”

“The patient number is different,” observed Catherine.

“There’s no tumor on that one,” said Vincent.

“That’s a woman,” said Father as he traced the brow on the profile with his finger.

“What’s going on?” asked Catherine.

“There was a mistake made last summer. It was a coincidence that you and someone else by the name of Chandler went in for MRI’s on the same day. Both of you were complaining of headaches and had been referred to the neurology department at Lang. I referred you to Vargas, and the other Chandler was referred to Dr. Norton.

“They really aren’t sure what happened, but they seem to think that when the technician or a clerk made two copies of Mr. Chandler’s MRI instead of one of his and one of yours. One of those copies somehow made it into your file. Vargas didn’t see the image, they are kept in separate files in the radiology department. A radiologist looked at the image and wrote the report, and all Vargas saw was that report.

“When Vargas got the report on the new images from yesterday, it didn’t add up, so he went down to the lab and pulled both the images. That was when he found the discrepancy. I’m afraid that he just about pulled the ceiling down on the place, he was so angry. He called me immediately and explained it, then had all this delivered by messenger.”

Catherine had stopped listening when Peter had said, There was a mistake made last summer... About the same time Vincent had reached out and taken her hand. She picked up the newest image and scrutinized it closely.

“I don’t have a brain tumor?” she finally asked.

“No, you are perfectly healthy. My original diagnosis of migraines caused by stress was probably correct, since you haven’t had a headache since you come Below.”

Vincent reached out, hauled Catherine off her chair and into his lap where he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her chest. She wrapped her arms around him and they clung to each other, rocking slightly. Catherine finally raised and turned her head to look at the other two men. She rested her cheek on Vincent’s head.

“They’re sure this time?” she asked.

“Absolutely. Whoever looked at the original image never looked any farther than the name. They obviously never checked the patient number or the doctor’s name. Vargas said that when I referred you, he checked hospital records and found your file from when you were there when you were shot. The numbers on the second scan match that number. The file in the radiology department contained the x-rays that were taken before your surgery when you were shot, the images from yesterday and the incorrect image from last summer. He doesn’t know what happened to your original images. Vargas is usually a very quiet, easy going kind of guy. I’ve worked with him in the ER at Lang quite a few times. I’ve never seen him as angry as he was today. He even said that he wouldn’t be surprised if you sued.”

“The other Chandler, the one who really had a tumor, did he get the correct diagnosis?” she asked.

“Vargas said he checked that file and the correct image was in it, so I assume he did.”

“So no one was really harmed,” she stated.                                  

Both Father and Peter looked startled.

“You just lost almost eight months out of your life, you quit your job… that wasn’t harmful?” asked Peter.

Catherine stroked Vincent’s head, and he finally turned his head, nuzzling her neck. He brushed away tears.

“Not really. It might have been a mistake, and I realize that it really could have been harmful if the images had been mixed and Mr. Chandler had been told there was nothing wrong with him, but it didn’t happen that way. It might be the wake-up call they need there to make them more careful, but I can’t really be angry. That mistake gave me everything I ever really wanted. I’m married to the love of my life, I’m pregnant with his child. And now I know that I’m going to live long enough to see that child grow up, and maybe see other children of ours do the same. If I hadn’t thought that I was sick, I would have never asked Vincent to let me come Below and live with him.”

“And I don’t think I would have even been able to come up with the courage to kiss Catherine, much less love her.” Vincent finally raised his head and looked at the others.

“I can’t really be angry,” Catherine added. “Not when I’m as happy as I am right now… I mean, I imagine that once the baby is born, I might want to resume some presence Above, but I know that my life is here now.”

 

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