“Ow. My hair hurts,” Catherine murmured as she opened her eyes to the dimness of their bedroom. Turning over was an impossibility; muscles jumped and twisted and screamed in protest at the very idea. She tried to decide if she could bear the discomfort long enough to reach out and take the painkillers resting on her bedside table. But then she'd have to leave the bed to get water from the bathroom to swallow the pills and...she sank back onto the mattress.
From the other side of the bed, she heard a low, amused rumble. “How is that even possible?” Vincent asked. His hands came to rest at the junction of her neck and shoulders where the pain was the worst.
“No idea,” she replied. The tight muscles began to uncoil under his touch. “I don't understand this. I wasn't stiff at all yesterday.”
“Mmm-hmmm,” Vincent said. “When I fell off the ladder just before Winterfest  I was fine the day after it, but then very sore two or three days following the accident. Sometimes it takes a while.”
She was able---barely---to turn her head. “What did you do?”
“I spent a lot of time in the hot pools of the bathing chamber, which was its own challenge since my cast had to be wrapped first, but it was worth it.”
Catherine breathed out, feeling the slow release of pain. “I wish I'd been here.”
She couldn't see him but knew, somehow, that he smiled. “Looking back, I wish you had been too.”
There was a dry tone to his words that made her chuckle. “Why?”
“The ladder I fell from was rickety; Father was almost as annoyed with Mouse for letting Arthur into the Great Hall as he was that I'd used the ladder without someone else bracing it. Had you been here...I'm sure he would have been diverted somewhat from his lectures.”
Catherine chuckled. She had come Below as soon as the message had arrived from Father that Vincent had been injured in an accident, and she vividly remembered Vincent's beleaguered air. “Oh, no wonder you looked so harried.”
Vincent laughed. “Indeed. When Father gets into full rant, he can be quite formidable.” His hands pressed deep into a kink in her lower back. “You're not due back at work today, are you?”
“No. Thursday, if Peter agrees. Joe told me he doesn't want either of us in the office until we're both feeling better.” She relaxed further into his embrace. “Which classes are you teaching today?”
“The beginning readers' class later on this morning, then Composition. After lunch, there's a meeting with Kanin and the others to create a schedule for the bridge repair.”
“Sounds like a full day,” Catherine said.
“Yes, it will be. But Catherine---”
“Vincent. You have work to do. I'll be fine, honest.”
His hair brushed the side of her face as he kissed her. “I know you will. Forgive me, I…”
“Worry too much? Yes, you do.” She cupped his chin, the tendrils of hair tickling. “But I understand. And I think it’s sweet.”
There was a renewed lightness to his expression that told Catherine he knew full well he was being teased. “What are you planning to do today?”
“Other than moving very slowly? Not much.”
“It’s early yet and my class won’t begin for an hour or two. Would you like to go to the bathing pools?”
“I can walk,” Catherine insisted.
“I know,” Vincent agreed but didn't release her.
They were just a few minutes away from the bathing chamber and had been walking without incident until a fierce jolting spasm in her lower back caused Catherine to halt suddenly. Vincent felt her pain at almost the same instant and had swept her into his arms. “Vincent, really, I’m fine.” Their faces were very close and the stubborn glint in her eyes was unmistakable.
“No, you’re not.” He stopped outside the domed brick entrance and pushed the hidden latch on the door. “I’ll have to put you down now; there’s not enough room for us both to walk through there.”
Vincent lowered her gently to the ground and Catherine stood up slowly, dusting off her jeans. He watched as she preceded him down the long corridor, feeling the throb of her pain through their bond. “You’re a long way from ‘fine.,’ even though you weren't seriously injured.”
She stopped and turned, leaning her head against the rough red brick. “You’re right. At the moment I feel like a giant walking pretzel.” It was nearly dark in the passageway, though his eyes had no difficulty making out the stiffness of Catherine’s movements. “I’m sorry, love. I know you only wanted to help.”
He tilted his head. “And it's not easy for you, asking for help. I should have remembered that.”
Catherine touched his arm. “I fought too long for my strength, my independence. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you were trying to do.” She darted a glance towards the entryway and her slow wry smile emerged. “Come on, love. Let’s get naked.”
They sat for a time in the heated waters of the largest bathing pool, the only sound that of their breathing. “How do you feel now?” Vincent asked, though some part of him already knew. The haze of pain that had flooded their bond had been replaced by a calm lassitude.
Tendrils of her hair stirred as Catherine rested her head on his shoulder. “Like cooked spaghetti.”
He laughed. “And this is a good thing?”
“Mmm...hmmm,” she replied. “The very best. All weightless and boneless and limp...you know.” Her hand brushed him under the water and he jumped a little, startled. “Well, I see you don't.”
The scent of her, mixed with the mineral salts of the water, was warm and inviting, but Vincent fought the instinctive pull towards his mate. “Catherine, you've been injured---”
“I have,” she told him. “But I need this. You need this.” She held out her hand. “Come home, love.”
Sometime later, Catherine watched as her husband finished preparing for his classes, bundling his notes and the children’s books into a neat pile. “I’ll be right outside the curtain if you need anything,” he murmured.
Catherine smiled, seeing the happy, dazed expression on his face. Only the most oblivious would fail to deduce exactly how they’d spent their morning. “Don't worry, love. Now that we've eaten, I'll just catch up on some of my reading.”
Vincent glanced at the cover of her book. “Local Prosecution of Organized Crime? I don’t think you’ll need those sleeping pills Peter gave you.”
“No, you’re right,” she agreed, laughing. “But if you find me asleep, at least you’ll know why.”
There was the sound of young voices coming from the antechamber: students arriving for the beginning readers’ class. “What are you reading today?” Catherine asked.
“One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish,” Vincent told her. “And maybe The Cat in the Hat if I can keep their attention long enough. If not, we'll read it in the next class.”
“I’ll trade you,” Catherine replied.
Vincent shook his head, and a dry raspy chuckle escaped him. “Thank you but…no. I want them to enjoy reading, not be scarred by it.” He turned with his hand on the curtain separating their living areas. “I love you.”
She smiled. They were ordinary words, said a thousand times by other people, but so completely unordinary when said by him. “I love you too.”
Catherine placed a bookmark in her book and folded it closed next to her notebook and pen. She stretched, enjoying the movement without pain. I'd really like to take a walk, she thought, but if go through the classroom, it'll distract the kids. Then she remembered the upstairs alcove to their chamber, largely hidden and so far, unused. Vincent had constructed it in much the same spirit as he and the others had carved the third bedroom; as insurance against the day when the space would be needed—and as he had explained when he'd showed it to her, it could one day be joined with the other alcove above the antechamber if they needed more room.
Right now, though, it was a bare narrow space located above their office, the entrance obscured by the tall bookshelf just under it. The bookshelf rotated on a pivot; if she pressed it correctly, it would swing out just enough for the rope ladder to descend. Catherine had chuckled when Vincent had demonstrated the mechanism; clearly, Devin wasn't the only one with a little bit of pirate still in him.
Now, Catherine pressed the small depression on the top shelf and it swung open. The rope ladder uncoiled gently and she studied it, considering. It was not a steep climb; Vincent had purposely made it so it would be easier for someone with her shorter strides (though he had, she thought with some amusement, been very careful not to call her “short.”) And the muscle pain that had so plagued her earlier in the morning had faded to a mild ache.
She climbed up and pulled the ladder behind her. Scooting over to the narrow opening, she was able to view Vincent with his students. He surely knew she watching---he was difficult to distract or surprise--- but his attention never wavered from the boys and girls clustered around him. There was a range of age and ability, but the more advanced readers led the younger ones through their readings.
A glint of bright hair caught Catherine's attention: Vincent, his head bent to answer the question of one of the younger children, a girl named Daisy. Her hair was a lighter blonde than his and her face was turned up to his, trusting him---as all the children did---completely. She smiled at the resemblance. One day... “Do you think you can read the last paragraph for us?” he asked and Daisy nodded, blonde curls bobbing.
“'Today is gone. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one. Every day, from here to there, funny things are everywhere,'” the girl read in a high, clear voice and Vincent smiled down at her. “That's very good, Daisy,” he told her, resting a large hand on the girl's head. “I think we're done for today.”
Groans of “Aw, Vincent!” rang out around the room and he laughed. “There will be another book tomorrow, you know,” he told them. “Now go and wash up; it's almost time for lunch.”
After the others left, Daisy held back. “Can I borrow this?”
Vincent nodded. “Yes. Just return it when you're done, all right?”
Daisy grinned and scampered off. Vincent looked up into the alcove. “I see you decided to go exploring.”
Catherine chuckled. “It was either that or fall asleep with my book in one hand and my highlighter in the other.”
“Definitely a wise choice,” he agreed. “Lunch will be ready soon. Are you hungry?”
“Starved,” Catherine said. “Give me a few and I'll come down there.”
“It's good to see you,” Marisol greeted them as they sat down. “We were pretty worried when we'd heard you were in a car accident.”
For a change, they were ahead of the lunch crowd; the commons was nearly empty, though Catherine fully expected it would fill up soon enough. “Thanks,” she said. “It's good to be back home.”
“I bet,” Marisol replied. “When we heard Corey had found you, it was such a relief. Not that we wouldn't have figured out where you were eventually—a few of us were going to start calling the hospitals if you hadn't been located---but I'm glad a helper discovered you.” She winked at Vincent. “Makes you feel better, doesn't it?”
His hand clasped hers under the table, the claws a gentle roughness against her skin. “Yes. It does.”
Catherine smiled at him, seeing the lines of care and worry around his eyes, now eased since her return. She returned the pressure on his hand and sent as much reassurance as she could through their bond. I'm here. I'm safe. Aloud, she asked, “Marisol, how are you doing?”
“Better, thank you,” Marisol said. “A little rough in the mornings but it's worth it. What about you?”
“Just a mild concussion and some muscle soreness. I go to see Peter in a couple of days to get cleared to return to work.”
Marisol's eyes widened. “That kind of accident, you were lucky.”
Catherine thought of the man sitting next to her, of a community prepared to martial itself to find her, of people and places she would never have known, never guessed to exist, had things gone differently on an April night almost three years before. She leaned against her husband and felt his arm enfold her. “Yes, yes I was.”
Click here for Chapter 32....
 “The Dark Night of the Soul,” by Loreena McKennitt
 “Impediments,” written for Winterfest Online 2011. http://www.beautyandthebeast-tv.com/winterfest2011/fansubs/Fic/alisetimpediments.html
 One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, by Dr. Seuss