"I guess I'm too late for breakfast," Catherine observed with polite chagrin, as she wandered into William's kitchens. Children scurried around her, washing dishes, drying, stacking them on shelves. Others were already finishing their morning chores, making their exit for the tunnel schoolrooms.
The chef turned, pausing in his task of scooping leftovers from pans on Mouse's jury-rigged stoves. "Good morning there, Catherine!" he greeted with his usual jovialness. "There's plenty left. Wouldn't take long to re-heat." Winking his affection for one of his favorite tunnel residents, he leaned toward her to add, "I'll even take special requests, if you have one."
"No, thank you," she laughed. "I really do need to get to my office. I have a pretty gruesome case to plow through. That's why I missed everyone for dinner last night ... I'm sorry. I can't seem to shake it from my head. No, I was mostly just looking for Vincent. He was gone when I woke up, and Father seems to be missing too. I thought maybe they were still eating."
"Ah. Vincent I can't help with. Father was here though. I think he's teaching this morning ... history class for the older children, maybe?"
Folding her arms across herself, she nodded her thanks and turned to go.
"Are you sure I can't pack you a breakfast for the trail?" William quickly offered, drawing her repeated laugh.
"No thanks, William. But make plenty for dinner tonight. I suspect I'll be back for seconds."
Ten minutes later, she stood anxiously outside of a small classroom, glancing worriedly at her watch. Time was ticking away, and she really did need to get above.
She'd spent the entire previous evening fighting her way through a stack of witness statements, and there were probably half a dozen new ones waiting on her office desk. The victim: a man, murdered by his girlfriend outside of a downtown deli. So many patrons, sitting at a street-side cafe for a relaxing lunch, had been changed into traumatized witnesses in the blink of an eye. -- -- Or rather, in the crack of a gun. And some of those witnesses had appointments with Joe that afternoon. He would be relying on her to help soothe the situation, at a time when she was rapidly losing her own sense of perspective on the issue. There were ... extenuating circumstances.
Again her eyes went to her watch -- this time with an accompanying sigh -- when a hand landed on her shoulder. She jumped ... ... well, she would have jumped had she had more energy at the moment ... ... and turned to find Father.
"I'm due in there in a moment." he said, nodding toward the group of students currently being prepared. "Do you need something, Catherine?"
"I was just looking for Vincent." she replied, stepping out of his way.
A look crossed Father's face ... ... only briefly, and only in the form of a shadow. She couldn't quite make it out, but her best guess as to its meaning was, 'veiled worry'. "He might be in the western tunnels, where the new family is settling in," Father answered. "I suspect he'll be quite busy though. There was still much to be done for their arrival. I'm certain he's hard at work. Why, do you need him?"
Catherine shook her head. Why did she get the strange feeling that Father was trying to dissuade her from searching out her mate? ... The almost plastic dismissiveness with which he was speaking. "Not really." she replied, nearly as stiffly. "I just wanted to say goodbye before I went up ..." ... ... She hesitated, perplexed by the look on Father's face. Something wasn't right. This conversation was making him unusually nervous.
"It's ok." she began anew, trying to smile congenially. "If you see him later, just tell him I'm sorry I missed him, and I'm not sure how late I'll be home tonight."
Politely, Father nodded ... ... and again, Catherine found herself wondering what was going through his mind. He looked faintly but inexplicably relieved. As luck would have it though, she had no opportunity to question him further, even if she could have figured out what to ask. The eyes of the children had turned toward the doorway, waiting for their day's guest lecturer.
Catherine smiled her goodbye, and turned to leave. -- -- Out from the doorway, away from the schoolroom tunnels ... and, she'd now decided, onward to those western tunnels father had mentioned.
Father's choice of words -- 'much to be done' -- was apparently an understatement. Tables, chairs, trunks, linens and more, all lined the final pathway to the location where the new family had arrived. Very few people were around at the moment, but these items all sat piled away, patiently awaiting their transport. Helpfully, Catherine picked up a stack of toweling, figuring she could at least be useful.
She had yet to meet this family, being as busy as she was with her work above. But she'd heard good things. Personal tragedy had taken the father, the rest of the family losing nearly everything in the process. They were relatives of a helper, she'd gathered, and therefore trusted more readily by all. It made Father's strange reactions all the more baffling. Had he suddenly become suspicious of these new arrivals?
Two teenage children -- a girl and a boy -- approached from around a bend in the passageway, greeting Catherine in a most friendly manner.
"I'm sorry," Catherine replied. "I'm afraid I wasn't able to welcome you earlier. You're with the new family?"
The teens nodded. "Yeah," the boy smiled. "I'm Samuel, this is Jackie."
"Catherine." she nodded, shaking their hands each in turn.
Was that another odd look, crossing the face of the girl? It was fleeting ... as fleeting as Father's reactions ... but it was there.
"Are you ... Vincent's wife?" the girl asked hesitantly. "The man with the ..." Her open hand passed innocently in front of her face, signifying Vincent's unique facial features.
Catherine smiled and nodded, pleased whenever she found such acceptance of her husband. Perhaps these new community members were surprised by him, but at least they weren't frightened.
"He's ... uh ... down the way." the boy directed, showing even more hesitation than his sister.
At this point, Catherine had finally achieved genuine worry. What in the *world* was going on? "I thought I'd bring these on my way," she replied with trepidation, holding forward the stack of toweling. "I hope that's all right."
A pause, while the teens exchanged more concerned glances. Then the boy shrugged, seeming to snap out of it. "Yeah, sure. Mom's not here at the moment, but put them wherever."
His turn-about was a little odd, but Catherine said nothing of it. She'd get to the bottom of it soon, she was certain. In the meantime she exchanged her goodbyes, and continued on her way.
Two more turns and Catherine finally reached her destination. The correct chamber was easily distinguished ... clothing was folded neatly on a table just outside the entranceway, a few precious family knick-knacks sat beside, and a basket of toiletries was on the floor beneath. And an even better beacon was the crumple of black hanging off that table -- -- Vincent's cloak, tossed haphazardly as he'd begun his work.
So at least he was somewhere around here, although she was surprised not to have seen him yet. He could usually sense her arrival, even amidst all of this rock and stone. *Especially* amidst all of this rock and stone ... the comfort of his life-long home world. Stepping to the doorway, she smiled warmly and peeked inside, expecting to find him distracted by the relocation of some heavy piece of furniture or something.
Well, he was there. And he was distracted. But he wasn't moving any furniture.
He sat on a bench seat, turned slightly toward a young girl beside him. Presumably this was Chrissie ... the eldest daughter whose name Catherine had also heard mentioned over the last few days. She was in her early twenties, maybe. A pixie-ish face -- almost resembling Catherine's mother a bit -- with long, wavy strawberry-blonde hair. The underlying similarity was obvious at first glance ... how the drape of the girl's hair mimicked Vincent's mane.
When he didn't rise, Catherine was concerned. When he hesitated to even look at her, the first flutter of panic began. ... ... But when she saw the look on her husband's face, that was when the bottom fell out.
He was whispering something ... smiling ... leaning forward in a way he usually avoided with strangers, or with those he was not terribly familiar with. And the affectionate expression in his eyes, visible even from this distance, was one Catherine recognized all too well. It was, quite simply, traditionally reserved only for her -- his mate. And now, another was receiving it.
Slowly, his head turned to greet her, the calm, smoothness of the movement implying that he'd been aware of her presence for quite some time already. Yes indeed, probably felt her approach from yards distant. Maybe even felt her conversations with Father, or the teens just outside.
"I ..." Catherine stammered, trying to find her breath. Her fingers tensed to a vice grip on the towels she carried, clinging to anything to fight the rising fear.
"Catherine," Vincent stated sternly.
She couldn't answer, although she hoped desperately his use of her name would be followed by a most rational explanation.
"Catherine." he repeated again.
She jumped, her hand's death grip on the blanket jerking it violently, sending a wave across the bed. Papers that had been stacked neatly around her, flew in all directions. ... Witness transcripts, a court schedule, a list of addresses and phone numbers.
In their chamber doorway stood Vincent, issuing his statement yet a fourth time. -- -- "Catherine!"
He'd left her peacefully sleeping when he'd gone off to breakfast. A move he never would have made if she hadn't been so very tired. Her work had gone late into the night, well past their normal bedtime. And in the morning, he'd awoken to find her sitting beside him, frantically scribbling notes, still more papers spread out across their blanket. A few sheets had even been distributed atop *him*.
In theory, he could have chastised her if he'd wanted to. It wasn't good for her health, he knew that. He could feel her exhaustion beginning a physical creep -- across their bond and right into his own muscles. Solid proof of how very worn-down she actually was. But this case was important. He knew that. She had become emotionally involved ... a quality that he admired in this crusader he loved. He couldn't force her to stop. He simply couldn't.
What he *could* do, however, was ensure that if her body flat-out demanded rest, it would gain it. So when she'd passed out again, sometime between his dressing and a brief trip to the lavatory, he'd decided quite purposefully to let her sleep.
In fact, he'd gone so far as to leave the room, fearful that any small noise might wake her. And so, foregoing even a kiss to her cheek or the touch of her hand, he'd tiptoed quietly back out of their chamber, deciding to get some breakfast. And he would have brought some back for her as well, in the hopes of preventing total muscle collapse -- for either of them. But he never got that far.
William had barely handed him a plate of food when the images began. Visions of people he knew. People he didn't know. Places he'd been and places he hadn't.
When Catherine's emotions were as inflamed as they were recently, it tended to cause an increase in the empathic signals he received. Most times the effect was more frustrating than not, because the images were always so erratic. Spinning as if having been plucked from a whirlwind.
This morning, however, it had gone beyond that, becoming a virtual cry for help. -- -- And he really did not like what he saw. Nearly every face that had flashed into his mind's eye had been shaded with a sinister secrecy. Even Father's.
And even more disturbing were the sensations. As her sleeping brain had spun its tale, it was her subconscious in control. He, however, had the benefit of waking, cognitive thought. He recognized the emotions that her imagination was about to pull from a sheath and stab to her heart. And when he'd seen it coming, he had made his way back to their chamber as quickly as possible.
"Did I ... ?" she stammered, glancing around the bed. It was a blur ... last night, this morning ... everything. "I must have ..."
"You were dreaming." he answered, finally freeing himself from his stance of readiness. He approached carefully, waiting while her mind re-oriented itself.
Catherine shook her head, pressing two fingers to her temple. Memories of the dream were coming back, and she could barely believe them herself. "It was unreal." she muttered. "I think you were ..."
"Yes," he interrupted immediately, quite decisively and bluntly cutting off her words. Moving some papers, he sat down beside her, his hand landing on her bared calf. "I know, Catherine."
At this proximity, she could see the glaze in his eyes, proving that he wasn't kidding. He did know, even if she didn't understand it. "But how ... ?"
"I saw it. Flashes of it. ... ... I know what you imagined. I assure you, it was sufficiently painful enough ... please don't add a narrative."
Embarrassed, her eyes lowered and she reached to hold his fingers. "I'm sorry."
"No one can control their nightmares," he replied, defending her against herself with a truth he'd learned well over the years. "Though I wish such impossible fears would never gain entry to your mind ... even in sleep." Then he leaned closer to anxiously ask, "But what prompted this? What could plant such horrible seeds?"
She tapped some of the papers with her free hand. "It's this. This insane case. What I probably didn't tell you is that the man who was shot left a family behind. Maybe that was even the family I imagined. I don't know." Her eyes returned to his in implication. "But the point is that he had a family. Think about that, when I say it was his girlfriend who killed him. That's one of the reasons it's going to become a circus once it starts trial."
Vincent's expression focused pensively for a moment while he made the connection. "You know, my love, that I would *never* ..."
"I know." she interrupted, unable to bear hearing such awful words formed in his miraculous voice -- *and* knowing that she alone had put them there. Leaning forward, she propped her tired head to his in an affectionate display, nuzzling his face and shoring herself up with a moment of intimacy. "I know, Vincent. You don't have to say it. I know."
"Then perhaps if you would separate yourself from this case." he suggested. "I've tried not to say anything, but it can't be good for you. You're exhausted."
She was already shaking her head in the negative. "I told Joe I'd give it my best, and I don't want to break my word. Besides, even if I could get myself removed, I don't think I want to. ... ... I need to see this through to the end. Part of me craves justice, and not just for the deceased."
Silently, Vincent nodded. Yes, he understood. Especially having felt what went through his wife ... even himself ... at the images her dreams had conjured. So she would continue the task, and he would continue his support.
"Then do so." he replied resolutely. "Gather your strength. Gather even mine, if you wish. Then fight your way through. But don't let it harm you -- body or spirit. And," ... ... He leaned forward, skimming his fingers onto her cheek and drawing her closer. ... ... "Carry this with you as a reminder."
His kiss was earnest and reverent; expressive and meaningful; mindful of the past and promissory of the future. It left her smiling ... her first genuine smile in hours.
"I will." she murmured, then pulled him back to retrieve a second such endearment. Another weapon against the day.
Thankfully, those mental flashes in Vincent's mind had stopped ... a small thing, but for which he was immensely grateful. The exhaustion still sank through her though, just as weighty as ever. "Will you at least come and eat some breakfast?" he coaxed. Returning to his feet, he maintained his grip on her fingers. As usual, he wouldn't demand, but he would make his preference for her welfare most obvious.
Her eyes flitted back to the clock and she let out a sigh ... she was already later than she'd wanted to be. On the other hand though, she had to maintain her perspective -- -- a point her nightmare was probably trying to drive home. Breakfast ... and more importantly, breakfast with the family ... would probably do her some good. "Yes," she smiled, rising beside him. "I do think that's a good idea."