PRELUDE (part 2)

Debbie Ristick

Anytime you need a friend, I will be here,
never be alone again, so don't you fear
Even if I'm miles away, I'm by your side;
don't ever be lonely, it's all right.

The night surrounded her like an old friend as she stood on her balcony, her eyes looking past the sparkling stars. The temperature had been mild all day, but the chill that suddenly swept through her body made Catherine shiver from the unexpected cold. She had been standing here for hours, lost in thought, and when she turned away from the magnificent view, her mind was still filled with jumbled emotions and uncertainties. Knowing that no matter what she decided to do, it was going to be difficult, didn't make it any easier for her. She slowly walked into her bedroom and changed into her joggers and a sweat suit before slipping out her front door and heading down to the sub-basement.

There was no choice, she told herself; she would have to tell him. He deserved to know, she reminded herself. It was his right...

But how to do it, she asked herself. She had rehearsed the words over and over in her mind, but now those carefully practiced words eluded her. She had, once, thought she could tell him anything...everything. How could she tell him this?

So much had occurred in the past month...so much pain, fear and distress for not only them, but the entire tunnel community. Now, as she made her way down the stairs leading to the underground parking area and to the door leading to that magic world, her mind wandered back over it all, all the pain...all the fear...and all the joy that led her to this time of indecision. Entering the tunnels at a run, Catherine had not bothered to stop and tap out her usual message - she was expected. The note from Father had said two words - "Come quickly" - and without hesitation, she'd relocked her apartment and headed Below, ready to give whatever assistance she could. She had, as had everyone Below, hoped the worst was finally over, had prayed that Vincent was on the road to recovery. Now, as she made her way through these well-known tunnels toward the man she loved, she couldn't resist a shudder.

Something was wrong - she sensed it strongly through the mangled remnants of the bond she shared with Vincent - the bond she could feel was fading away from her. This by itself frightened her, but the very idea that the suffering they had all witnessed in this extraordinary man might not yet be over was enough to make her stop in her tracks to fight back the tears falling unchecked from her eyes.

What more could she and the entire tunnel community do to help him? She loved him so much - everyone in this special place loved him. What more would he be put through before he could be well? How much more of this insanity and torture could he endure?

That had been the night she and Father had discovered that Vincent had left the hub to suffer through his illness alone. That the people who had converged in Father's chamber had allowed him to go made her angry, but she pulled herself together and shelved those feelings.

She turned and looked into their familiar faces and saw the worry there, the concern. She asked if anyone knew where he had gone...and Pascal answered that he had gone to the catacombs. Without allowing more than a heartbeat to pass, she asked to be taken there. "You're the woman that I love," Vincent had assured her when she had come down to see him, but he didn't remember her name until she told him. He had smiled shyly, and nodded. "Catherine" he'd whispered. "Of course..."

The strength in his body had returned within days, and Vincent had fought, using that building energy to regain his memory.

"It's just like the time when he was an adolescent," Father had told her one afternoon when Vincent was asleep and they sat together for a cup of tea. He couldn't hide the hint of amazement in his voice as he allowed himself to recall those dark days from the past. "I didn't understand the illness then, what caused it or how I could have prevented it. I didn't understand how he survived it, or what prompted it to pass. And," he added, a hint of helplessness in his voice, "I certainly don't understand it any better now. I can only thank God that he has been spared to us once again..."

Coming back to the present, Catherine sighed. Climbing down into the sub-basement, she felt a sense of peace and welcome envelop her. She rested against the tunnel wall and couldn't resist a smile.

Last night, she and Vincent had listened to Beethoven in their secret place. The orchestra had played one of the great composer's most famous symphonies, and the melody had been hauntingly beautiful. As she listened to the music, transfixed, she had been acutely aware of everything around her, mostly of the man sitting so close to her, holding her so intimately. She had reveled in the magic of that intimacy. For whatever reason, Vincent seemed more sure of them, less afraid of himself. His touches lingered on her skin...his eyes caressed her. He held her hand tightly when they walked back to her apartment at the end of the concert, and their good-byes had been heartfelt and lengthy; neither of them wanting to let go of the other.

When, finally, she had turned away from him to return to her world of chaos and danger, she had felt his eyes on her, had almost felt his longing. She had wanted to tell him what had happened between them right then and there. Instead, she turned around to meet his eyes and had seen her smile reflected in them. "I love you, Vincent," she'd whispered, hearing her words echo through the tunnel. "I really do..."

"I know," he had answered, his voice edged with emotion. "And I love you as well."

Then he'd come to her and held her tightly against him; she'd melted into him eagerly...happily...

As she stood in the tunnel, she closed her eyes, still unsure of what to do about her news. His memory had certainly returned to him with great speed. Over the past few days alone there had been a lot of progress - much to everyone's relief. But to her, only one thing mattered now: did he remember what had happened between them in that dark place below the catacombs? Did he know that for all intents and purposes he had died, had left her behind, all alone? Could he recall what she'd done? Did he realize to what lengths she had gone, what she had done to save what they had between them, had done to save his life? For her it had been nothing less than an act of desperation, a last-ditch effort to hold on to something she loved more than life. And for him (she smiled softly, remembering), it had been much more than her desperation, it had been the gift of life.

Lowering her head, Catherine couldn't help but wipe away a tear. The gift of life it had been. It had been almost a month since that night and so much had happened to her since then. She had been so worried about Joe Maxwell, about how he had barely survived the car bombing of Patrick Hanlon. She knew that she hadn't really been feeling like herself for the past few days; she should have known what was happening to her before the lab technician had told her. How could she not have suspected what was happening inside her before then?

With a sigh, she leaned against the tunnel wall once more. If Vincent had not yet recalled what happened between them in that dark cavern, then no matter how much she practiced, explaining it to him would prove to be difficult. Running her hands over the flatness of her abdomen, she sighed again. But she must find a way...find a way to tell him of this miracle they had created in love...

And it had been love, intense, passionate love, she assured herself, beginning the lengthy walk through the tunnels. Whatever she told him, she must make sure he realized that, must be certain he understood. Now, thinking of those hours together in that place made her face glow with remembered pleasure, made her body ache with renewed hunger for him. He had to recognize the truth of it...

Getting closer and closer to the hub, Catherine finally realized how quiet the tunnels were, how quiet the pipes were. There had been only one greeting as she had made her way down, and one signal on the pipes. She had assumed that it had been to tell the hub she was on her way. But where was Vincent? Why was he not coming to meet her as he usually did? Without conscious thought, her pace quickened, her insides feeling suddenly empty.

The bond was gone, she realized, that beautiful connection that drew them together as one was gone. The pain of that truth made her cringe helplessly, knowing Vincent must know of its loss by now...

Perhaps her news would have to wait. He needed her strength during this period, needed her...