Little Silver Bell
Context note: This is the next night after Vincent's breakdown in the cave.
"Yes, Father. I will be fine." Vincent assured yet one more time. He sat wearily on the edge of his bed while the paternal doctor felt the leonine forehead.
"Your fever is finally down." the older man concluded in solemn concentration. "I'm quite relieved. Had it gone beyond twenty-four hours ..."
Vincent bowed his head silently. Had it really been only that long? It seemed like he'd lived a lifetime in one day ... these last twenty-some hours since his emergence from the cave. He'd experienced chills in that time; intermittent moments of light-headedness; and other spans of perfect lucidity. People he did recognize -- and many more that he didn't -- had come and gone shyly through his chamber doorway, expressing their best wishes for his recovery. Truth be told, he still wasn't quite certain exactly what he was recovering from -- -- one of his missing memories, that, he pondered, might just be best left missing.
Either Father or Catherine had remained with him nearly the entire time, even while he'd napped. If one would leave, it would go only minutes until the other returned. At the moment, Catherine was somewhere out there in the tunnels, returning his dinner plate to the kitchen.
It was a level of dependence to which he was unaccustomed. Not merely his physical infirmity, but mental as well. Tunnels? The kitchen? Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he held a blueprint of the labyrinth that stretched out beyond his chamber's entrance. At the moment though, it was well buried, and if he ventured out there this evening he knew he'd be lost within ten yards.
Catherine, however ... ... the memory of her was most definitely sticking. Earlier, when she'd reminded him of her name, it had flickered into his mind like a candle flame. And it was the only one that continued to burn with unyielding steadiness.
"Will I remember, Father?" he asked, as the doctor packed away his stethoscope.
Only Father's eyes raised, the concerned expression still pinching his lips. While his reply remained as un-sugar-coated as ever, it was honest ... and in that there was comfort. "I believe so. Yes, I do. A few of the more inconsequential details might be lost, especially those from the last few days. But the rest," ... ... he gave Vincent’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze ... ... "I think they'll return with time. Perhaps hours. Perhaps days. ... Just rest, son. It's truly your best route to recovery."
Thoughtfully, Vincent nodded. "Catherine will be back soon. Then I'll sleep for the night."
... ... "Good. I'll be nearby."
Another squeeze of his son's shoulder, then a kiss pressed to that poor, confused head, and the patriarch headed for the chamber door. While this night would at least be calmer, it would probably feel just as long as the previous.
When his father was gone, and Catherine didn't walk magically in to take the patriarch's place, Vincent rose and made his way to a shelf of knick-knacks. Carefully, he fingered them, just as he had done earlier in the day, willing some memory ... any memory ... to come through.
In one way, he did believe Father was right. The recognition wasn't entirely gone. He could still feel the sentimental pull of these objects, smiling impishly from the side-stage of his mind. Too embarrassed to come out and perform, but present nonetheless. Yes, perhaps sleep would help cure their stage-fright.
One knick-knack in particular though, had caught his attention earlier. He returned to it now, picking it up delicately ... a small, shiny metal bell. The name of what was probably a foreign city was engraved upon it -- somewhere Vincent doubted he'd ever been, but wouldn't have remembered at the moment anyway. Regardless, that's not why it had caught his attention. Earlier in the day, on his first trip around this room, this little bell had shown him a glimpse of himself.
His reflection had jumped out at him in a way that it hadn't for such a very long time. The curvature of the bell obviously bent the image it presented, but no optical illusion could account for the unique face that stared back at him.
He had, of course, remembered that he was different. But with so much of his memory temporarily missing, that differentness struck him anew. He could remember his face ... and yet he couldn't. He could remember the claws that held the bell ... and yet he couldn't. A bizarre haze diffusing everything.
And there was an animal -- somewhere out there in the world -- that resembled him. Wasn't there? He couldn't remember the species' name though. Maybe he didn't want to.
"It's from Florence, Italy," came Catherine's small voice, speaking up suddenly from behind him. He turned, instantly glad at her presence. That, he realized, was the growing warmth he'd been feeling for the last minute or so -- -- her return. Even when so much of him was faltering, their bond still held.
"I gave it to you last Christmas." she explained. "You had been studying Elizabeth Barrett-Browning at the time, and I'd told you I'd once seen her grave in Florence. Does that," ... she paused, smiling at the pun she'd almost made.
"Ring a bell?" he finished her thought playfully. While his bemused smile was always welcome, the best news came in this proof that his wit and intelligence were still flowing. "No. I'm afraid it doesn't," he continued. His eyes returned to the bell for just a moment, searching for one last glimpse of his image even though he had no intention of telling her so. "I wish it did. I wish my life would return a bit faster."
"Don't force yourself, Vincent." she encouraged, stepping further into the room. "Just let things come naturally. Your mind will find its own best path to healing. Don't fight it along the way."
Silently, he nodded and replaced the bell, the faintest tinkling noise heard as it returned happily to its position of honor on the shelf. He moved back to his bed, sitting down and smiling politely at his lady love. She approached, taking her rightful seat beside him.
"Father wants you asleep." she teased lightly. "And I think I agree."
Again he nodded, letting his eyes drift across the quilt. "Which side do I normally take?"
At first, she almost laughed. Partially at the idea of this man's bulk taking simply 'a side', and partially at what sounded like wildly unnecessary attention to detail. Then she realized what he might mean -- -- which side was his, as opposed to which side was hers.
On the sliver-thin chance that she was wrong -- and she vigorously hoped she was -- she phrased her answer as ambiguously as she could. ... "It's up to you, Vincent, really. ... I want to make sure you're as comfortable as possible before I head to the guest chambers."
His brow furrowed briefly as his brain tried to decipher exactly what she meant. And comprehension was aided further by the look on her face. -- -- She was trying to sound so very gentle, but he'd noticed the sudden, veiled tension in her demeanor. His voice came softly, then trailed away. "You mean, we're not ... ..."
Catherine shook her head sadly, trying harder than ever not to divulge exactly how deep that sorrow ran, then took his hand and sat a little closer. -- -- A reminder that, even so, he should never shy away from her physical expressions of comfort. She owed him a verbal answer, she knew. But she wasn't sure she could form it at this precise moment.
"Well," he continued, trying to work through the wave of disappointment, and instead ponder the next point of confusion. "Why then do you say you're staying in a guest residence? Is your own chamber far away?"
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she tried to provide a genuine answer to that one. "My own chamber is above. In the world above the tunnels." Earnestly, she leaned forward to add, "But I'm staying right here. Right down here every night until you're better. And if I run above, I'll always be back soon. I promise. I'll be close."
Vincent glanced away, surveying around his room again, then settled his attention on the image of their fingers. They had twined together and now rested on his leg. -- -- A clear contrast between soft, pale, female skin, and his own roughened, claw-tipped, furred hand.
He didn't know how well he could trust his own perceptions at the moment. And he didn't know how much sadness would be creeping into his eyes by now. ... ... If she lived above, maybe they were far more distant than he'd originally thought. Far more distant then merely separate beds. And that thought truly hurt.
In the strongest, broken voice he could muster, he offered a confused apology. "I'm sorry. Perhaps I mistook our relationship. ... ... I feel the bond. It was one of the first things I sensed as we left that dark cavern. But I may have misinterpreted it. ... ... I may be misinterpreting it even now."
"No, Vincent," Catherine countered. "You're not misinterpreting it." She leaned closer, forcing him to meet her eyes. Forcing him to listen, and prepared to spell it out in excruciating detail if she had to. "I love you. Deeply and completely. You're the man I love, and I'm the woman you love. You're not wrong about that, and do not doubt it." Relaxing a bit, even having impressed herself that she'd put the truth forward so strongly, she added, "I may live above, but I spend much time here. With you. And my heart," ... her free hand rose to her breastbone ... "My heart is always wherever you are."
Once more, Vincent's mind was churning things over, trying to recreate reality from both what he was hearing, and what he felt. And naturally, she thought it was progress when a look of understanding began to form in his eyes. Not happiness, unfortunately. Not even relief. But some sort of understanding. When his response came though, she realized how bad that could be.
His hand departed from hers ... gently and carefully, but still expediently ... as if perhaps he thought the touch was wrong. Instead, one finger pointed upward, and he asked, "Is this it?"
Catherine shook her head in befuddlement. "Is this what?"
This time his hand rose higher, and she watched in horror as he passed his fingers briefly in front of his face. Doing his best to mask his sadness -- and failing miserably -- he clarified, "Is my appearance why we remain apart?"
Catherine's face fell. Her head spun. And her hands shook. ... ... The fingers she had been holding at her chest fluttered away. There was no point in maintaining their guard -- that heart she'd spoken of was now cracked.
"Nooo." she breathed -- practically begging. "Nooooooooo." Her hands took his, kissing each in turn. Then a row of kisses for his nails with a few more whispers of 'no' sprinkled between. "That has never had anything to do with it," she pleaded. "It's because ... ..."
... ... How ironic. How very, utterly ironic. For months now, she would so freely have given herself to him, had he only asked. Months of sadness and quiet frustration for them both, while this gentle man battled his fears. Battled his distrust of himself. And now, in the midst of his confusion, when his true wishes and desires were able to bubble to the surface, it was up to her to explain and justify the very distance she herself had fought so long against. -- -- How very, utterly ironic.
"It's because we've been learning to know each other. And to know ourselves," she finally answered. It was a basic truth, in many ways, even it was unintentionally cryptic. More importantly, it brought the responsibility equally onto herself. She would not lie to him, but she also would not let him shoulder blame when he was already so fragile. "Don't worry yourself over it, Vincent. Or over me. I love you more than ever, and I'll always be here. Just ... let yourself heal."
Finally, she shifted both furred hands to one of her own, and reached to caress her fingers along his cheek ... the line of his jaw ... the tip of his chin. She would make this clear, and emphasize it with complete sincerity. "And never, ever think that this isn't the most beautiful face I've ever laid eyes upon."
At long last, a light that had been missing from his eyes returned as a wonderful gleam. And he smiled, nodding, then tilted his head to rub his cheek into her palm. The memory of her touch was returning. That glorious feel of her hands. Yes, she spoke the truth. The face that had confronted him in that little silver bell was indeed one she loved ... even adored, as she giggled faintly at the tickle of his stubble in her palm's sensitive center.
"Thank you," he whispered, his breath floating across her wrist. "I will try not to worry. Instead, I shall pray that by the morning, I'll have regained even more memories of my Catherine."
Her agreement was silent ... another kiss to his hands, then a nuzzle of the cheek still held in her palm.
Then she rose. "You should try to sleep. You really should." Her voice lightened to add, "Before Father lectures us both."
He nodded, taking her hands again as he lifted his tired muscles from the bed. She slid so naturally into his arms, until they stood together, encircled in each other's embrace. "I love you." she murmured into his mane, to receive his most solemn, "And I love you." A moment both clung to as long as possible, before the inevitable parting had to come.
She helped him open the covers, then waited patiently as he crawled beneath. His eyes were already growing heavy, easily discernable no matter how hard he tried to hide it.
"You'll be in the guest chambers?" he asked, repeating her prior statement primarily for self-reassurance. Wearily, he hoisted himself a few inches farther across the mattress, providing extra room as a silent invitation for her to sit.
She accepted, perching beside him and tucking the covers around his shoulders. "Only three tunnels away. I can be here in minutes if you need me," she smiled. Her hand gravitated back to his cheek, sliding across his stubble just as lovingly as it had done earlier. It would probably be quite some time before she could shake off those sorrowful speculations he'd made about his appearance. In the meantime, this was comfort for them both.
"Sleep well, Vincent." she whispered, then leaned to press a kiss to his forehead.
"And you." He too replied with the touch of his lips ... in his case, to the palm of her hand.
Did she consider offering a more proper goodnight kiss? Of course. Nearly twenty-four hours ago, she'd used that very endearment to cheat death and return this man to her side. It held nothing but rejuvenating power ... that had been proven, and proven wondrously. But he clearly had no memory of those moments, and in his current condition, shocking him was the last thing she wanted to do. It would have to remain up to him, at least until he had truly come back to himself. And in the meantime, she would settle for a second kiss to his forehead before she finally rose from the bed.
She made it nearly to the chamber door, when she turned around to find his eyes already closed. Nearly asleep, if not under already. And -- she prayed -- healing.
As for herself, she would return quietly to the guest chamber Father had arranged ... try to sleep ... probably spend more time thinking than anything else. They would have to talk soon. Really talk. It was becoming unavoidable. Sleep would repair his brain as well as it could. And then, she would do everything in her power to do the same for his heart.