By Avril Bowles
Snowflakes were beginning to fall softly all over New York and Catherine quickened her pace as she approached the drainage culvert.
He was waiting for her, knowing always, whenever she was near. "Your hands are like ice Catherine," he murmured as he covered them with his own warm ones.
"My feet too," she grinned. "It's freezing out there. I hope it's warm inside."
They walked through the maze of tunnels until they eventually reached Vincent's chamber. She removed her coat and Vincent folded it carefully over a chair together with his cloak. Then he poured a rich red liquid from an old ship's decanter into two goblets and handed one to her. "To warm you, Catherine," he said.
She took a sip and curled up in one of his huge, winged chairs. "Mmm, mulled wine ... it's wonderful. Does someone down here make it?"
He sat down opposite her and stretched out his long legs. "William decided we should have something festive to celebrate the New Year."
"Well I'm glad he did. It's much nicer than the stuff you buy in the store."
Vincent turned on his antique phonograph and put on a 78 rpm recording of a Beethoven symphony. As the delicate strains of music filtered softly throughout the chamber, he leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
"Catherine, do you remember the dream we had, of taking a trip to that lake in Connecticut which you loved so much as a child?"
She looked up in surprise. She had once suggested, no begged, Vincent to go away with her if she could find a safe way for them to travel. She had all but convinced him it was possible; had hired a van, booked time off from work, arrived to pick him up and then, at the last moment he had changed his mind. She had been heartbroken, yet she understood. Father had been furious at the idea and it seemed many of the others too had feared for Vincent's safety if they attempted such a daring plan. Catherine knew what it had cost him to deny her, and she knew she had been wrong ever to have put him in such a position.
"Yes of course I remember. But it was just a foolish dream, all forgotten now."
"Not so foolish. And not forgotten ... not by me."
Catherine put down her glass and took his hands in hers, rubbing her fingers over the fine layer of golden hair. "No Vincent, Father was right. We'd be crazy to jeopardize what we have together ... what you have here," she waved an arm around the chamber, "to satisfy the thoughtless whim of a woman too much in love to appreciate the risk to you."
He rose, and paced around the chamber, not exactly angry, Catherine decided, but overflowing with frustration. "And do my feelings come into it at all ... with anyone around here?"
She went to him then, taking his upper arm in one hand and running the other soothingly over his back. "What is it, Vincent? What has made you think of all that again? You know everyone's just thinking of your safety."
"I realise that, but am I to think only of others until the day I die? Am I never to be allowed to do something just because I want it? No man should have to bear that much responsibility Catherine."
"So what are you saying?"
He whirled around and gripped her shoulders. "Get that van again, Catherine ... let us go into the mountains to celebrate New Year, far away from here and from everyone. Let us spend a few days ... just you and I. Please Catherine! Please do it ... it would mean so much to me."
His eyes told her of his desperation even more than the tone of his voice. That despite the danger, he was determined to escape for a short time, the confines of the tunnels which had been and would continue to be ... home ... for Vincent's whole life. Catherine knew she could not deny him, didn't want to deny him this one pleasure which, to any other couple, would be so simple.
"Okay, Vincent. I know the perfect place, if that's really what you want."
"It'll be tough telling Father."
He sighed, "I know. But I won't be persuaded otherwise this time, Catherine. This time we really will go."
She looked at the intensity in the deep set zircon blue eyes and smiled, although her heart was filled, as she knew his must be, with excitement and apprehension in equal measure.
Predictably, Father ranted and raved for what, to Vincent, seemed like hours. "I cannot believe you would do this to us all!" he shouted. "If even just one person sees you up there, it's the end. You know that, yet you persist in this - this incredibly selfish ... game!"
It took a great deal of control for Vincent to remain calm when he spoke. "Father, everyone takes risks every day of their lives. Just crossing the street in the world Above is a risk. People go out of their apartments in the morning unable to be completely certain that they will return. A hundred things can happen during the day. It doesn't stop them going out!"
Father made a frustrated noise and slammed his hand down on the table. "But you don't have to take this kind of risk! You're safe down here!"
"Smothered, you mean."
Father's head jerked up and his expression was one of hurt and anger. "Is that really how you feel?"
Immediately regretting his words, Vincent grasped the old man in a fierce embrace. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. You know how much this place ... my home ... means to me. It's just that I feel the need to breathe some clean air ... see snow on the mountains ... even if that is the only time I will ever see them. Please Father, be happy for me. I'll take the greatest possible care and so will Catherine."
Father's shoulders sank in a gesture of defeat, but he patted Vincent's shoulder. "I can see your mind is made up. I'll say no more. Just come back to me, Vincent. You and Catherine."
"Three days later, Catherine again brought the hired van, filled with provisions, to the quietest entrance to Central Park, and kept watch while Vincent said his goodbyes to Father and the others. He eventually emerged from the drainage culvert and, at her given signal, sprinted to the van, threw a battered leather valise into the back and dived in after it. Catherine closed the doors, climbed into the driver's seat and sped away through the dark streets towards the city limits.
Once they were on the open road Catherine stopped and Vincent climbed into the passenger seat beside her. She looked at him happily, her eyes sparkling in the darkness. "I can't believe we're actually doing this Vincent."
"Nor I. Everything that happens from now on is a new experience for me. It would seem I'm really going to see the mountains."
"And the snow. I hope you've brought some warm clothes. Perhaps I'll teach you to ski!"
Vincent smiled one of his gentle smiles of amusement. "Can you imagine the look on Father's face if I tell him I took a skiing trip? You haven't told me yet where we're going."
Catherine threw back her head and laughed happily, her light brown hair falling off her face. "It's a surprise, Vincent. And who knows; perhaps I'll even teach you to drive!"
They drove for two and a half hours, broke for coffee on the side of the road and then continued their journey. Just as dawn was breaking Catherine pulled over, waking Vincent, who had been dozing on and off for the last hour.
"I need gas, Vincent. I can see a sign up ahead. You'd better get in back until we're on the road again."
Although the van had tinted windows Catherine wasn't about to take any chances on Vincent being spotted by the pump attendant.
He inclined his head slightly and sighed. "Have I been asleep again? I'm sorry, Catherine. You have to do all the driving; you'd think at least I could keep you company on the journey. Can you forgive me?"
She smiled a tired smile and yawned. "Nothing to forgive Vincent. It's the movement; you're not used to it. I always fell asleep in cars when I was little. In any case, we haven't too much further to go now."
Vincent climbed out and stretched his limbs. It was almost four in the morning and when he looked around he could just about make out the snowy capped mountains in the distance. Birds darted around chirping indignantly as they searched for breakfast. No other car or human being was in sight and Vincent experienced an elation and lightheartedness he'd never felt before. "I wish we could walk for a while, Catherine," he said.
"We will. Be patient. Soon we'll be able to walk, run, sing and shout on our very own mountain."
The remainder of the journey was slow going as the snow thickened. Twice Vincent had to get out and use his considerable weight and strength to get the van moving again after its wheels spun in defiance of the task they were being asked to perform.
Finally Catherine brought the vehicle to a halt in front of a log cabin nestled in the side of a mountain. It was picture-book perfect with a stack of logs piled high under an lean-to at the side.
As they climbed out Vincent stooped to collect a handful of snow and Catherine ran round to watch his reaction. "Well, what do you think?" she breathed, some of her tiredness evaporating as she saw the wonder in his eyes.
"It's incredible. Like nothing I ever imagined. I know this sounds foolish but I never realised it would feel so cold."
Catherine laughed as he shook it off his hand. "Look, this is what we do with it." She ran a few steps, gathered up a handful of snow, compressed it into a ball and hurled it at Vincent. It exploded on contact with his head, leaving particles melting in his mane as it met his body warmth. Laughing, Catherine ran to him and brushed them away.
"Oh Vincent, I'm so happy," she cried. "Three whole days together ... just you and I ... and the snow. There's so many things I want to show you."
He looked down at her and brushed his lips against her forehead. "You'll be my teacher just as Father was for so many years," he murmured. "And whatever happens, Catherine, know that you have brought more happiness into my life than I could ever have imagined."
They held each other for a moment and then Catherine pulled out a key. "Come on, we'll freeze out here. Let's get the stuff inside."
Soon they had unpacked the van, and while Vincent brought logs inside to start a fire, Catherine stowed their provisions inside, filling the pine kitchen cupboards with biscuits, bread, hot chocolate, coffee, wine, tinned meat, soup and potatoes. She switched on the refrigerator and crammed it with milk, butter, eggs bacon, sausages and steak.
Vincent looked at it in amazement. "I was under the impression we were staying three days, Catherine, not three weeks."
She laughed, "Yeah. But I like to be prepared for emergencies."
Soon Vincent had a fire roaring in the grate and Catherine had fried eggs and hash browns for their breakfast. They ate their meal from plates balanced on their knees by the fireside and afterwards Catherine slept for a while, her head in Vincent's lap.
They spent the rest of the day exploring the mountainside around the cabin and chasing each other in snowball fights. A couple of times they heard voices and Vincent braced himself to take refuge in a tree if necessary, but each time the people were some distance away. In any case he had discarded his heavy black hooded cloak and instead was wearing a hop length jacket made of tick sheepskin patches sewn together. He had tucked most of his hair into the generous collar and, in a pair of 'Moon Boots' Catherine had bought for him, wouldn't from a distance, have attracted any attention at all.
At dusk they returned to the cabin, where Vincent resuscitated the embers of the fire and Catherine brushed the snow off their boots before starting dinner.
Once the steaks were sizzling in the pan, she left Vincent searching for a bottle opener for the wine while she took a bath in the tiny bathroom. Although Catherine normally showered, it was good to sink into a hot tub and dream of the evening to come. In the bedroom she brushed her hair until it shone, secured it on one side with a silver comb and dressed in a white, oversized fluffy cashmere sweater and tight black velvet pants. A touch of mascara and lipstick completed her appearance. She looked in the mirror as she sprayed on her favourite perfume. It was important she looked her most appealing tonight.
When she returned to the living room-cum-kitchen she gasped at the pains Vincent, too, had taken with his appearance. He stood, resplendent in a white, loose fitting collarless shirt,laced almost to the waist with dark brown strips of leather and full sleeves which ended in a deep cuff. This was worn, belted, over chocolate brown, velvet cord pants which clung to his thighs and tucked into high, brown leather boots she'd never seen before. As she stepped in front of him she noticed his hair was damp and smelled faintly of the shampoo she'd brought with her. With a smile, she closed her eyes and, standing on tiptoe, inhaled the scent of him.
"I apologise Catherine," he said. "I'm afraid I'm not used to going away and I forgot some of my things."
"Don't be silly Vincent," she smiled. "Everything I have is yours."
"Including your heart?"
"Especially my heart."
"You're very beautiful tonight Catherine."
"So are you. May I comb your hair for you by the fire."
"If you wish." He disappeared and returned with the silver comb she had given him for his birthday. (* See story 'The gift' by Avril Bowles)
They knelt by the fire and Catherine slowly combed the golden tresses, lifting them until they fell, dried by the warmth of the fire, onto his shoulders again.
Dinner was intimate and romantic. Catherine had brought along two candles, a red one and a white one, and these she placed in the centre of the table as they ate, one-handed, their free fingers linked on top.
"To you, Catherine," Vincent toasted, his glass held aloft. "May you be as happy for the rest of your life as you have made me tonight."
"To us," she corrected. "And may you know only safety, peace and love from this moment on." They drank from each other's glasses and when they'd finished eating, Catherine selected a recording of Strauss waltzes from the limited supply of record albums provided. Vincent held out his arms and they began to dance, so closely that they could feel the beat of each other's hearts.
"I've wanted to dance with you like this for such a long time," she whispered.
"Another small part of our dream has come true," he replied. "I wonder how much more we can hope for. It is beginning to frighten me, this incredible joy and peace that I feel."
Catherine shifted her head slightly and found her eyes level with the base of his throat. Placing both hands on the broad width of his chest, she began, very slowly, to unlace his shirt. She felt the powerful muscles tense under her fingers and heard his sharp intake of breath against her hair. Slowly she pushed back the soft cotton and slipped one hand inside, moving it slowly over the warm silkiness of his skin.
"Catherine I ..." he began, when suddenly a noise outside the cabin startled them.
"What was that!" whispered Catherine. "There isn't another cabin around here for miles. That's why I rented it."
Vincent pressed a finger to his lips. "You must remain here. Lock the door after me."
"No! Vincent, don't ..." But he'd gone.
Vincent could see as well in the dark as others could see in the daylight, so as soon as his eyes had adjusted, he had no trouble in making out the shape of a mountain lion a few feet from the cabin. At first the animal remained motionless. Vincent sensed it was assessing him, deciding on the best form of attack. All at once it began to advance, growling deep in its throat and Vincent did the same. The lion paused, confused and wary. Suddenly, it leapt at Vincent, knocking him on to his back in the deep snow, and the two wrestled, snarling and growling with Catherine watching, shivering helplessly in the doorway. She estimated the temperature outside to be at least twelve degrees below zero.
Just as she was about to make a bolt for the van to find the small handgun she's stashed in the glove compartment, Vincent shouted at her to get back inside. Catherine chewed her fingers in distress. Even if she'd had the gun she wouldn't have trusted herself not to shoot Vincent in the dark. Normally resourceful, she had no idea what to do, so when the snarling and growling suddenly stopped and she could just make out a four legged shape loping off towards the trees, her legs nearly buckled with relief and fear at what she would find outside. To her utter amazement, as she ran to help him, Vincent was picking himself up from the snow, completely unmarked.
"My God, Vincent are you all right!" she sobbed, throwing her arms around him.
"I'm fine. Do you know, Catherine, he was playing with me! When he first leapt at me I thought he was going to attack, but he wasn't! His claws remained sheathed the entire time. It's unbelievable!" Suddenly he shivered and Catherine realised he was wet through.
"Vincent you're freezing! Quickly, come inside and get dry!" Together they returned to the cabin and Vincent stripped off his lovely shirt and boots, drawing the line at removing his pants and insisting the fire would dry them soon enough. Naked to the waist he was just as beautiful as she knew he'd be. Catherine brought a huge fluffy towel from the bathroom which she wrapped round him and rubbed at his hair with another. Vincent continued to shiver long after he was dry, and eventually Catherine dragged in a duvet and they fell asleep in each other's arms before the dying fire.
When Catherine awoke at seven the following morning she was surprised to find herself alone. Discovering he was nowhere inside the cabin she peeped through the window and saw him sitting outside on the porch. Smiling, she washed quickly, pulled on green and white salopettes and matching jacket and joined him outside.
"Good morning. Happy New Years Eve." He looked up and smiled. Catherine thought his face looked a little flushed, but put this down to the invigorating mountain air. "Catherine. I hope I didn't wake you?"
"No. I wish you had. What are you doing out here?"
"Just enjoying the sunlight ... the daylight ... everything, while I can."
Catherine's heart turned over for him. It was so unfair that someone of Vincent's sensitive and academically inclined nature should have to live the way he did. She squeezed his arm. "How about some coffee while we plan what we're going to do today?"
He nodded and followed her inside.
"I'd love to have a go at skiing again," she said excitedly. "Will you join me Vincent? I brought my father's skis for you."
He tilted his head slightly. "I have heard it is one of the most exhilarating sports in the world," he replied. "I believe I should size the opportunity to try it."
Catherine clapped her hands and ran out to the van. "Put on as many layers of clothing as you can, Vincent!" she yelled. "You'll probably spend as much time on your back in the snow as on the skis!"
He tilted his head to one side. "Thank you, Catherine. Your confidence in my ability to learn is overwhelming," he remarked.
"I'm sorry!" she laughed. "I guess I was just remembering my own pathetic attempts when I first learned."
As it turned out he proved to be a model pupil, his natural athleticism and balance serving him well on the slopes. Soon he was flying past Catherine with a graceful cat-like motion, slewing the skis after half a mile in order to wait for her.
As they retraced their steps for what must have been the sixth time she noticed Vincent appeared to have developed a cough, although it certainly didn't affect his prowess in any way.
"This time, Vincent, count to twelve before you come after me," she called. "Let's go in a different direction, okay?"
He nodded and pulled down Charles Chandler's goggles.
Catherine set off, counting to herself as she zigzagged, cutting new tracks in the virgin snow. When she reached twelve she turned her head to see Vincent just beginning his descent. He shouted something to her but his voice was lost on the biting wind and when she looked ahead of her again she was horrified to see a tree looming towards her, beyond which was a frozen lake. In the split second she had available she thrust out her sticks and managed to push herself away from the tree, but the force of the movement broke the sticks and pitched her forward onto her face and she saw the icy surface of the lake approaching with dizzying speed. She heard one ski crack and felt the other wrenched from her foot as, screaming, she slid across the lake for a good twenty feet before spinning around and coming to a halt. Shocked and dazed she tried to rise, when suddenly the ice beneath her cracked, divided and plunged her, screaming in terror , into the icy waters below.
The shock to her body drove her breath away and she was unable to cry out or even move her lips. She knew that more than a few minutes in these temperatures could be fatal and frantically trod water, praying all the while that Vincent would reach her in time.
He had seen the danger before she had and tried to warn her, but he was too late. He felt her fear slice through him like a knife and reached the edge of the lake in seconds. Wrenching off his skis he dropped on his stomach and inched his way towards her. He knew she couldn't survive long in the icy waters and moved as quickly as possible. By the time he reached her, Catherine's lips had turned blue and her eyes had begun to glaze over. Swiftly he immersed his arms and lifted her from the water, wrapping her in his own sheepskin jacket. Not daring to stand up and carry her, for fear the ice was too weak to bear their combined weight,he very gingerly pushed her inert form ahead of him across the ice back to the edge. The twenty feet seemed like a hundred and the few minutes it took him, like an hour, but eventually they were both on firm ground and Vincent stood up.
The sun had disappeared behind a cloud and the bitter northerly wind cut through his woollen sweater and patchwork suede jerkin as if he were naked. Lifting a semi-conscious Catherine in his arms he began the almost two mile trek back.
By the time they were halfway, Vincent's arms were completely devoid of feeling and he was afraid he would drop her. Not daring to stop and rest, despite the fact he found himself unusually short of breath, he trudged on until eventually they reached the cabin.
Once inside he laid Catherine on the couch, wrapped her in the duvet and went outside for logs. Soon he had a roaring fire burning and he knelt beside Catherine rubbing her hands and feet. She came round almost immediately they were inside, and was concerned to find she was wearing his coat.
"Vincent, you'll catch your death of cold; come under here with me," she said, lifting the duvet to accommodate him, but he shook his head.
"I'm fine Catherine. It is your health that concerns me. I'm not cold any more." It was true he realised suddenly; since coming inside he was unnaturally and uncomfortably hot, perspiring in fact.
"I'll prepare you some soup," he said, and moments later carried a steaming bowl over to her which he fed her spoonful by spoonful. She sat up, smiling.
"I'm not an invalid, Vincent. I can feed myself. But I love you for doing it. You saved my life again you know." He opened his mouth to reply but was sized by a fit of coughing. Catherine laid her hand on his forehead and frowned.
"You're burning up, Vincent. Why didn't you tell me this morning you were sick?"
"It is nothing," he replied. "It will pass." He didn't tell her that he was finding it more and more difficult to breath, and that every time he coughed it felt like his chest was being ripped apart.
By one o'clock in the morning it was obvious to Catherine that Vincent was very ill indeed and that what she had hoped was probably no more than a touch of flu, was more likely to be pneumonia. Around eight o'clock she had finally persuaded him to go to bed, insisting that she was totally recovered from her own ordeal. He was reluctant to sacrifice even a minute of his precious time together, but when he had tried to stand and found himself too dizzy to walk without Catherine's assistance, he was forced to admit defeat and collapsed onto the bed in exasperation.
Throughout the night Catherine sat with him, holding cold cloths to his head as his condition deteriorated. At times he was delirious, incoherent as he thrashed back and forth; hair, damp with perspiration, framing his fever-flushed face, and Catherine feared for both of them if he became violent. Then suddenly he would quieten and lay still, when the only sound in the room was his laboured breathing. Sometimes he would open his eyes and say something to indicate that he knew where he was, but the zircon blue eyes were unnaturally bright and remained unfocused.
By morning Catherine knew she would have to take some urgent action, but the problem was, what? She could leave him and drive back down the mountain for help, but that was unthinkable since it would mean exposing him to strangers. In desperation she even considered sheathing Vincent's hands in gloves, covering his face and trusting in doctor-patient confidentially, but she knew in her heart she couldn't trust anyone with Vincent's secret, however honourable. Eventually she decided there was only one solution ... she would have to get Vincent into the van and drive hell for leather back to the city and contact Father immediately.
Throwing their things into the bags they'd brought, Catherine loaded the van and spread all the spare bedding she could find across the floor in the back, making a mental note to reimburse the owners with the cost. Since time was of the essence she left all the provisions she'd brought, and merely doused the remains of the fire with some water until it was completely extinguished. Then she returned to the bedroom. Vincent was beginning to stir again and she decided to make use of his fevered energy. Shaking him gently and talking to him all the time, she managed to get him on his feet. Her sense of urgency seemed to penetrate and, with her arm around his waist and one of his around her shoulders, she half carried him outside. It took several minutes since Vincent was twice her size and she was hot and exhausted when, finally, he lay on his impromptu bed on the floor of the van. She returned to the cabin one more time to collect the duvet, although she suspected this was a waste of time since Vincent had kicked it off every time she tried to cover him.
Eventually, her head spinning, she was driving back down the mountain the way they'd come only two days previously, full of joy and anticipation. It was so unfair. She blamed herself entirely and knew Father would too.She should never have taken Vincent out of his own protected environment.
With only one stop for gas and to use the bathroom at the gas station, Catherine made it back to the city in less than three hours. Fortunately, being New Year's Day there were less people around than usual and she was able to park close to her apartment building. Switching off the engine and locking the door, she ran inside to make sure the elevators were working and that no one was in sight. Old Mr Benson from the floor below was just coming out and he nodded and smiled at Cathy.
"A very Happy New Year to you, my dear," he beamed, and Catherine forced herself to pause and return his greeting with an enthusiasm she didn't feel. Satisfying herself that the coast was clear, she ran back and opened up the van.
"Vincent! You must help me, I can't do this alone!" she hissed as she used all her strength to pull him from the van. He seemed to understand and together they staggered inside the building and into the elevator. Catherine pressed the button for her floor and prayed no one would intercept it on its journey. She had a nasty moment when, as they reached the door to her apartment and Vincent slumped against the wall while she fished around for her key one of her neighbours appeared at the end of the hall. Reaching up quickly, Catherine pulled Vincent's head down and his hair fell forward, shielding his face. As the key turned and she yanked him inside she heard the woman mutter something to her husband about 'young women today and their drunken hippie boyfriends'.
Once inside she helped Vincent to the bedroom and again tried to cover him as he collapsed on to the bed, shivering and sweating. Catherine shook his shoulder gently, hoping his fevered brain would absorb her explanation of why she had to leave him alone for a short while.
"Vincent, listen ... can you hear me? I have to fetch Father. We'll be back as soon as we can ... okay?" He muttered something and she wasn't sure whether he understood or not.
Catherine ran from the apartment, locking the door behind her, and raced back to the elevators. Sooner than she thought possible, she was tapping on the pipes inside the tunnel entrance and when Samantha appeared she almost cried with relief.
"Samantha I must see Father! It's urgent!" The child led the way to Father's chamber.
"Where's Vincent?" she asked accusingly. "I thought he was with you."
"I'll explain later," Catherine replied, and at that moment Father appeared, a frown creasing his brow.
"I heard running footsteps," he said, looking past Catherine for Vincent. Turning to Samantha he patted her shoulder. "Thank you Samantha. Go now, back to what you were doing. It's all right," he added as the child looked frightened.
Once Samantha had gone, Father hustled Catherine inside his chamber.
"It's Vincent, isn't it?" he hissed. "Something has happened to him!"
"Oh Father, come quickly," she cried. "Vincent is sick; I think he has pneumonia ... he's in my apartment!" The old man slammed his cane on the desk in anger and grabbed his overcoat and the slouch hat he wore whenever he went Above.
"I knew no good would come of this foolishness," he rasped. "Can he be moved?" Catherine shook her head miserably. "No, he's delirious a lot of the time, and it's hard for him to breathe." Father checked the contents of his medical bag and rummaged about in a cupboard, finding various items and flinging them on the floor in his attempts to find what he was looking for.
He'll need oxygen ... I pray I still have some left."
Eventually he managed to locate the cylinder and threw it into the bag as they both heaved a sigh of relief.
On their way back to the entrance they encountered William and Father explained the situation briefly.
"Tell the others what has happened and that I'll be back as soon as I know Vincent is out of danger. If I need any of you to help me I'll send Catherine." With a worried look, the big man nodded and disappeared into the maze of tunnels.
When they reached Catherine's apartment Father took one look at Vincent and clapped the oxygen mask over his face, connecting it to the cylinder.
"It's pneumonia all right," he muttered, and administered a shot of antibiotic.
"I don't know whether that will do any good in Vincent's case, we'll just have to hope," he added, shaking his head. When he pulled a stethoscope from his bag Catherine preempted him, unlacing the shirt she had managed to get Vincent into earlier. The old man glared at this gesture of intimacy but made no comment, as he listened to Vincent's chest.
"Well," he pronounced, "lungs are not as congested as I would have expected. That's something anyway."
"Is he going to be okay Father?" asked Catherine in a small voice.
"I rather think he is. Thank God the oxygen seems to be helping ... look, he's breathing a little easier already. The fever will probably break quite soon now. Vincent's rapid powers of recovery never cease to amaze me."
Catherine sank into a chair, her head in her hands. All the tension, worry and fear of the past twelve hours finally caught up with her and she sobbed in Father's arms.
"I'm so sorry Father," she cried. "I realise now I should never have agreed to go on this trip. I know you must blame me for this."
The old man sighed and patted her shoulder. "Apportioning blame is unproductive. I know how much Vincent wanted to go away with you to sample a little of the life he can never have. The problem is, Catherine, that while the danger of discovery is the most important factor in his life, there are others. You see he's lived Below his whole life, never being exposed to the extremes of weather, temperature and diseases of your world. In some ways, despite his superior strength, he is extremely vulnerable."
Catherine dried her eyes. "Yes, I can see that now. He got soaking wet in the snow and then, yesterday, I had an accident ... fell into a frozen lake while we were skiing ..."
Father's eyebrows lifted at this particular piece of information.
"Well you know,Vincent," she continued. "Not only did he save my life but while I was out, he gave me his own coat and then carried me for about two miles in a biting wind and temperatures that must have been twelve below zero."
"Of course. What else would he have done?"
They exchanged a smile.
"Do you forgive me Father?"
"Of course my dear. I know you would never knowingly do anything to hurt my son."
"Father he is my life. Without him there would be no point in my living. "
He gave a weary smile. "In that case I'm sure you won't mind if he rests here until he is well enough to return home."
"Of course. Of course he can stay ... for as long as necessary or ... as long as he wants. I wish it could be for ever," she added in small, sad voice.
At a sound from Vincent they both jumped to their feet. Catherine remained at the end of the bed as Father bent over him. His eyes were open and he looked agitated as he tugged away the oxygen mask. Father laid a hand on his forehead and spoke gently.
"It's all right Vincent. That was just to help you breathe. How are you feeling now?"
Vincent tried to sit up, but Father laid a restraining hand on his chest. "Don't rush it Vincent. You've been very ill you know, but I think your fever's broken now and you're going to be fine."
Vincent looked around him. "I remember ... Catherine and I were in the mountains. I was very hot. After that ... I'm not sure."
"Everything's all right now. Catherine brought you home and you're going to stay here until you feel well enough to return Below. Rest now Vincent. I'll see you soon."
Reaching for Father's hand, Vincent squeezed it affectionately. "Thank you Father."
After he'd left, Catherine removed Vincent's boots in order to make him more comfortable. Then she fetched a bowl of lukewarm water and a sponge and set it down beside the bed.
He turned his head away slightly. "I'm sorry I ruined our time together Catherine," he murmured. Dipping the sponge in the water, she turned his face towards her again and pressed the cooling water gently onto his face and neck.
"Vincent, don't. I'm the one who should be sorry. I underestimated the dangers up there on the mountain ... for both of us."
He smiled slightly and reached for her hand. "It was wonderful ... what we had. I'll never forget it. That's the best thing about memories. No one can ever take them away from you."
Again, Catherine immersed the sponge in the fresh scented water and squeezed it. "You and I have so many memories already locked away in our hearts Vincent. Do you think there is room for all of those yet to come?"
"Yes. Hearts are like sponges. They absorb everything we experience, good and bad."
Without taking her eyes from his, she slowly moved the sponge down to his chest, working in a gentle, circular motion over the softly furred muscles. He took a long, shuddering breath and covered her hand lightly with his own, unsure which of the sensation that her action evoked was the most pleasurable; soothing comfort or tingling stimulation.
"How are you feeling now Vincent?"
"You tell me Catherine," he whispered...