Chapter 54: The Door There is Devastation 
Catherine had seen the tunnels mobilize in times of trouble before---during the Tong invasion, the outbreak of plague, the onslaught of the outsiders, and most recently, in the aftermath of Vincent’s near fatal illness. Nothing she had seen in that organized chaos quite prepared her for this. People ran all around her towards Sector F, dropping whatever they held as they rushed past her. Even Mouse, lugging a large knapsack which clanked with his movements, seemed to have discovered an inner swiftness of movement she wouldn’t have associated with his usual ambling. “My fault,” he muttered as she neared. “Mine.”
“It’s a pipe rupture,” Catherine said. “How could that possibly be your fault?”
“Was supposed to work tonight. Switched with Rhys.”
She remembered Vincent’s guilt over Cullen’s injuries only a few months before. “I’m glad you’re here,” she told him. “They’re going to need you. It sounds bad.”
There was none of his usual genial charm as he spoke. “Vincent worried. It is bad.”
Mud sloshed over the edge of her tennis shoes, staining the bottom of her jeans. Catherine had eyes for none of it as they neared Sector F. Warren---bruised but apparently unharmed---took Mouse’s bag from him and vaulted up one of the rickety ladders as Cullen braced it. “Damn pipes,” Warren gasped as the water continued to pour.
“How many?” Mouse asked, handing a large wrench up to him.
“All of them in this section,” Warren answered over the noise. “Too damned many.”
Catherine looked around. “Where’s Vincent?”
Warren gestured over his shoulder. “Over there. But I wouldn’t---”
Catherine ignored him. Vincent was still, too still. A hand grasped her elbow and she turned, breaking the contact. He was...hers and she would not be prevented from going to him. Her gaze narrowed with focus. “Catherine. Go to him,” Father said under the noise of harried voices, of hissing, leaking pipes. “Go. I’ll see to the others. It’s you he needs right now. He’ll likely be…disoriented when he awakes. You remember?”
“Yes,” she replied, not having any more words to spare. Vincent’s recovery from his illness had taught them both many lessons---not the least of which was that a disoriented Vincent was frequently a very unpredictable Vincent. She ignored the cold water which soaked her hair, ignored too the confusion of noise and the stickiness of the mud. Catherine knelt beside him, seeking and finding the slow pulse in his neck. She breathed out once, relieved; his posture---slumped against the wall---had been too eerily reminiscent of Vincent’s account of Winslow’s death.
Catherine brushed aside the wet, muddy bangs, revealing what looked like a hot water scald on one side of his face---as he turned away from the rupturing pipes, she thought---and wondered why he was unconscious. Had the force of the water been enough to injure him? On the other side of the cavern, Kanin waved Father off. “I’m all right. Vincent got the worst of it.”
She looked up at Kanin as he hobbled over. “What happened?”
“These pipes link up to a junction over in Sector E,” he explained, rubbing his neck. “There was too much pressure; the auxiliaries must have failed and once the pressure built up enough…Vincent got hit with cold water from one pipe and hot water from another. Shot him clear off his ladder. I’ve never seen them rupture so badly before.” He knelt beside her. “Will he be all right?”
Vincent began to stir, the painful rumble under his breathing an alert of greater problems. “I’m not a doctor,” she told Kanin gently.
“But I am,” Father said, as he finished wrapping a bandage around Rhys’s wrist. “Don’t use that wrist for anything until I can get a proper splint on it. You hear me?” Rhys nodded.
Father hobbled over, dodging the crews which were attempting to close off the ruptured pipes. Water continued to spray over them and the torches flickered in fitful protest. “Be careful of the hot water!” Father called over his shoulder.
“Not much of that left,” Angus grunted from another ladder, all his weight on the wrench. “Most of it must have gone in the first blast.”
Father bent down low next to Catherine and pulled out his stethoscope from his bag. “Stay in physical contact with him, if you will,” he said.
Catherine nodded. It was a rhythm they’d established in the early days of Vincent’s convalescence and although she hated to see him ill, there was a certain joy in Father’s acceptance. How far we’ve come from where we started. Her hand intertwined with Vincent’s, the metal of his wedding band bright among the ruddy fur of his hand. Come back to me.
Father pulled the earpieces out of his ears. “His heart sounds good but there’s a sound to his breathing I don’t like. He might have cracked a rib from the impact. Or two.”
Vincent’s eyelids began to flutter; a small bit of blue appeared. “Cath...” he said, then broke off.
“I’m here,” she told him, blinking the tears away. “Don’t try to talk. You may have some cracked ribs.”
Incredibly, he dredged up a smile from somewhere. “You should…see the other guy.” He squinted against the light from Father's torch. “Light...hurts.”
Father immediately returned the torch to its hook. “I'm sorry. You may have a concussion. Try not to move; we'll get you out of here as soon as we can.”
Looking back, Catherine was never certain how long it took for the maintenance crews to finally shut off the leaking pipes, for the exhausted, bedraggled group to finally stagger out of the muddy corridor towards their homes. She had seen two or three groups---relief crews---come and go but her total attention was focused on Vincent. He had been able to walk unsteadily towards a waiting stretcher, not even protesting Father's dictate that he be carried rather than try to walk to the hospital chamber, which alarmed Catherine far more than his actual injuries. Anytime Vincent acquiesced so easily, he had to be in an enormous amount of pain.
She held his hand the entire way back and only released him once Angus and the others had settled him into his bed. “I'm not going anywhere,” she assured him as she pulled up a chair next to his bed.
He coughed slightly. “I...didn't think you were. I'm going to...”
“No, you're not,” Father said sharply as he finished washing his hands. “I'm sorry, but I need you to stay awake for a time. Can you do that?”
Vincent nodded and Catherine sank down onto the chair, conscious of a growing ache in her own ribs, the throbbing press of a headache. She ignored it as best she could; it wasn't the first time she'd sensed Vincent's pain. “Father,” she asked, trying to distract herself, “where did the hot water in those pipes come from?”
He pulled some bandages and ointment out of a supply cabinet. “We've been channeling the hot water from geothermal pools for years for our heating. We may now have to rethink that practice.”
Vincent gingerly opened his eyes. “Don't. It works well...usually.”
“Except when it doesn't,” Father replied shortly. “You could have been badly hurt.”
“Yes, yes, I know, the cold water from the other pipes is supposed to cool it off so it doesn’t stay at boiling point, but it didn't tonight.” Father pressed his lips together. “We'll not argue it right this second. Now let me take a look at those ribs...”
Father’s next few words were lost in a spate of medical-ese Catherine only barely understood. “Well?” she asked when it seemed he was done.
“A very mild concussion, no doubt thanks to his thick skull. Three cracked ribs and a lot of bruising, plus a burn from the hot water. The burn itself wasn't severe and should heal quickly but I’m going to want to keep him overnight. You’ll stay with him, I assume?”
Catherine nodded. “If you can set up the cot yourself,” Father went on, “I’d greatly appreciate it. I’m expecting to be very busy soon even with Mary’s help---between the injuries from the ruptured pipe and everyone who fell in the mud, it's going to be a hectic few hours.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Catherine asked.
“Yes. Keep an eye on him and don’t let him wheedle his way out of here until tomorrow.”
“ ‘He’ is awake and can hear you,” Vincent said wryly.
Father raised his eyebrows, obviously amused but unmoved. “Don’t let him charm his way out of here either.” There was a tentative knock outside the chamber and Father sighed. “Looks like we’re open for business.” He rubbed his neck. “Vincent, I’m going to give you a mild sedative to help you sleep---it’s all I dare do. Try to get some rest, the both of you.”
Vincent opened his eyes. Noise in the hospital chamber had long since ceased and even the messages on the pipes had gone soft and distant. His head ached and his ribs felt sore and tight---Father must have taped them, he realized. His left hand rested on something soft; as awareness slowly returned, he realized he was touching Catherine’s hair. She had fallen asleep with her head slumped onto his bed. “Catherine,” he murmured.
She stirred, muttered something unintelligible. “Catherine,” he tried again.
Catherine lifted her head, bleary-eyed. “Vincent?” she asked softly. “Are you all right?”
“I will be,” he said. “But your neck is going to ache if you keep sleeping like that.”
She yawned and winced. “Too late. What time is it?”
“Too early for either of us to be awake,” Vincent replied ruefully.
“Are you hungry at all?”
He shook his head then immediately regretted the action. “No. The sedative...”
“Oh, right,” Catherine replied. “I should have remembered.”
“I'm sorry,” he said.
“For what, love?”
“I know how much you dislike seeing me injured.”
Catherine clasped his hand. “Don't be silly; it's not like you could control a couple of pipes deciding to rupture.” She tilted her head. “Are you sure you won't try to eat something? It might settle your stomach some.”
Vincent nodded. “Very well. Father keeps some crackers in the cabinet just behind you.”
She grinned. “Your private stash, eh? I'm not sure whether I should be surprised or worried you've been here enough to have one.”
“It's actually Father's box of crackers, but he'll be happy it's being put to good use.”
Catherine opened the box and handed him some of the saltines. She was still pale, he noticed. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I'm not the one in the hospital bed, love. I'm fine.” Catherine narrowed her eyes. “In fact...Vincent, are you controlling our bond so I won't feel your pain now?”
“Yes,” he answered after he finished the last cracker. “My own pain I can bear, but yours...”
She sighed. “When you were hurt...”
Her voice grew very soft. “I treasured that pain, Vincent, because I knew you were alive. Hurt, but alive.”
That pain---his pain---could be such a reassurance to her was startling; truly, Catherine was far stronger than she looked. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made the decision for you.”
She shook her head and smiled. “I'll chalk it up to your concussion, love. Why don't you try to get some rest?”
“I will,” he agreed, “but first, how was your meeting with Joe?”
“I think it went well. Angus and Cullen make good bodyguards,” Catherine replied with a wink. “The short version of the story is this: yes, Moreno's dead but it's looking like it wasn't an accident.”
“You're still in danger, then, you and Rita both,” Vincent concluded.
“Yes,” she replied. “We will be until the Feds are able to get a conviction against the Rotolos or until we can put Max Avery away. Even then...”
“We knew there might be danger with this case,” Vincent said.
She balled her fists. “I know. I just...dammit, I'd hoped we were done with this.”
Vincent touched her hands and felt them relax. “ 'So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide; all we have do decide is what to do with the time that is given us.' “ 
“Quoting Tolkien,” Catherine said with a fond smile. “Now I know you can't be all that sick. Rest now.”
Vincent was sent to recuperate in his chamber the following morning. Father's discharge instructions had been specific: no climbing, no construction, and plenty of rest. “After a few days, I'll want to check those ribs. You can resume your classes then, but only if you've sufficiently healed.”
Catherine had glanced at her husband, saw his jaw set into a stubborn expression she remembered only too well. Convalescence did not come easy to Vincent. “Don't worry, he'll get rest if I have to sit on him.”
Father chuckled. “Well, be gentle when you do.”
They took the quickest path back to their chamber, past a couple of sentry posts and muddy footprints all over the sand floor, a visible reminder of the flooding in Sector F. “How long will it take to clean the mess up?” Catherine asked as they walked.
Vincent's left hand braced his ribs and there was a faint harshness to his breathing she didn't like to hear, a focused distance to his eyes she had seen only a few times before. He was in pain, controlling it by some method she didn't understand but it was taking a toll on him; she could feel the echo of it in her own bones. Not long now, love, she tapped against his hand. He nodded. Aloud, he said, “It depends. With everyone pitching in, it shouldn't take long to clean the mud out. Of greater concern is the loss of hot water. We're...going to be in for some cold nights until the pipes can be fixed. We can heat water on the braziers, of course, but there won't be much heat otherwise.”
“Mmm...snuggling,” Catherine said lightly.
“Yes,” Vincent said. “And rather a lot of it. I trust...you won't mind?”
“Well, I have to say...this was a drastic way to get you to stay in bed with me, but I guess I'll take it,” Catherine replied and wasn't surprised at all to feel him gather her close, the gentle chuff of his amusement lifting the fine hairs on her forehead.
A message rang out on the pipes: Father, calling for an all-community meeting in an hour. “I wonder what he wants to discuss?” Catherine asked.
“Likely the heating situation,” Vincent said as they began to walk again.
“Well, regardless,” Catherine said, taking his free hand, “you're not going. I can take notes; besides, Father would have my hide for breakfast if I let you walk down those steps.”
That hadn't occurred to him, she could tell; if the even path to their chamber was wearying, the steps leading into Father's chamber would surely jostle his bandaged ribs. He opened his mouth as if to argue, then closed it. Instead he said, “Very well.”
“What? No argument?” she said, teasing.
Vincent smiled. “I'd like to think I've learned something since we wed.”
It was the first community meeting Catherine had ever attended without Vincent beside her, she thought as she took what she hoped was an unobtrusive seat on the bottom step of the wrought-iron staircase. She watched as the other tunnel-dwellers entered the chamber and took their seats; many of them were bruised and bandaged, others simply worn and muddy. Valerie entered with Cullen beside her and gestured to an empty seat near them. Catherine smiled and walked over to her. “You all right, Cullen?” she asked as she sat down on Valerie's other side.
He stretched and winced. “Been better, but thanks for asking. How's Vincent?”
“Resting. I hope,” Catherine replied.
“You got him to skip this meeting,” Valerie said. “Good for you. He doesn't...always...have to be here for these things.”
“Father likes to call meetings,” Cullen put in with tired grin. “Any chance for a speech.”
They watched as the tunnel patriarch rose by his desk. “My apologies for the short notice on this meeting; I know how tired everyone is tonight so I'll do my best to keep this brief. The pipe ruptures in Sector F mean that the chambers furthest away from the hub---the ones which rely on heating from the pipes the most---are going to be without heat. Additionally, all of us will be without hot water until such time as repairs can be made.”
Mary spoke from her seat at one of the side tables. “There are four guest chambers in the hub; two of those are equipped with bunk beds and would be ideal for families. Beth and Jeremy; Rhys and Bronwyn; you and your children are certainly welcome to move closer.”
Catherine had only met the raven-haired Bronwyn once, and she had seemed unnaturally quiet even during the festivities of Winterfest. Now, she looked up. “What's the ETA on repairs?”
Father folded his hands. “It may take...some time, Bronwyn. A message has been sent to Matthew so we might have some sort of estimate by tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, we'll have to make do.”
There was no grumbling, as Catherine would have expected had this been, say, a meeting of her building's co-op board. These people were used to the adversity of life in the tunnels. “We may have to double up in our chambers until this passes,” Father continued. “Mary has advised me that the nursery is quite cold without the additional warmth from the pipes. Is there anyone who would volunteer to have some of the children stay with them?”
Catherine thought of their chamber, with the antechamber, the one unused room and the large---and still empty---storage space above it, and knew what Vincent would say. “We will, Father.”
Click here for Chapter 55...
 “Sky-Circles,” by Rumi
 “The Fellowship of the Ring,” by JRR Tolkien