After the Ashes

by Ginny Shearin

From the 2005 conzine

A "What-if" story: Suppose Catherine's father had lived.


An impeccably dressed Dr. Peter Alcott stood, looking rather out of place, in an alley near his office. He was watching Catherine Chandler drive off with the medicines he had managed to gather for the tunnels. He didn't dare go himself. There were too many patients depending on him Above, and this disease was not something to take chances with.

 

He was shocked. His goddaughter, Cathy, debutante daughter of one of his two best friends, had somehow become a helper. As he started to walk back to his office he thought about the last few minutes. No wonder she had been so secretive lately. He knew it had worried Charles Chandler that Cathy had withdrawn from so much in the past year or so, but he had joined Charles in being inordinately proud of what she had accomplished with her life during that time. She seemed to have recovered well from that traumatic attack a couple of years ago and had thrown herself enthusiastically and successfully into her new job. Now, Peter realized, there were things he and Cathy couldn't share with Charles.

 

Pulling his collar up against the sudden gust of cold, early December wind, he turned and looked back to where she had just been, remembering the look on her face as she left. That brought up more questions than answers. He had seen genuine concern…maybe more concern than he felt he should have expected. There was also the determination to help, to actually be there to help. She wasn't just concerned. She seemed afraid for these people. On the walk back to his office he mulled that over. How in the world could she have become involved with the tunnels in the first place, let alone in such a personal way?

 

Had he ever heard her name mentioned while he was there? No. He decided he hadn't. Of course, he hadn't been in the tunnels too often in the past year, but when he had been there, there had been no mention of a Cathy. Jacob, Peter's other close friend since medical school, had mentioned a woman named Catherine. It seemed that Vincent was in love. Jacob was about to say more, but their conversation had been cut short by a minor medical emergency. After the two doctors had worked together to set the little boy's broken arm, Peter had to return home, and the conversation had been left unfinished.

 

This Catherine was someone Jacob was convinced would break Vincent's heart, in one way or another, and then carelessly return to her old life. Jacob seemed to believe that she loved Vincent, but he thought there were simply too many problems to overcome. "Vincent's Catherine" Mouse had called her, as he typically appeared and disappeared on a quick errand in the midst of the conversation.

 

Smiling at the thought of Vincent in love, Peter hoped Jacob was wrong. Vincent deserved someone to love him. He had been a precious and precocious little boy, and despite the difficulties life had dealt him, he had grown into a fine man &endash; though he knew some would dispute the term "man".

 

Mouse didn't seem to harbor any doubts about Vincent's Catherine. Mouse was an odd sort, but he often had good instincts about who could be trusted &endash; instincts probably developed in his early days of fending entirely for himself.

 

Catherine? No. Cathy very rarely called herself Catherine. When she did, it was usually for business purposes or in situations where she was uncomfortable with sounding too casual. It couldn't be the same person. Still, after this medical emergency was over, he would have to ask some questions of Cathy and his old friend, Jacob.

 

All those thoughts raced through his mind in a matter of seconds before another gust of cold wind helped him shake off the surprise of seeing Cathy there…and turn his thoughts back to the serious medical problem in the tunnels. Turning to resume the walk back to his office, he shoved his hands deep in his coat pockets for warmth. Plague. How? He hoped the supplies he had sent would arrive in time to stave off the worst possibilities. Jacob would certainly tell him later how this awful disease had reached the tunnels, but when Peter got the message, there was no time for anything but action. Jacob was not a man given to wholesale panic in a medical emergency. He would have been quite sure of his facts before sending such a message. Peter knew Jacob would handle the situation as efficiently as anyone could, but people were in such close contact in the tunnels that it would be hard to keep this from becoming a devastating disaster.

 

***

 

After days of worrying about his friends in the tunnels and calling Cathy in vain both at work and at home, Peter knew she had ignored his concerns and gone Below to help. What could he possibly tell Charles if she didn't return? Communications from a couple of helpers with pipe access gave basic details that included several deaths, but mentioned that Jacob was still treating others who were in serious condition. At least he knew that at the time of the message Jacob had survived and a doctor was still available.

 

***

In the tunnels, after the crisis was over, there was a pervading sadness for those lost, accompanied by a lot of activity. There were still people caring for those who were recovering, while others were cleaning up the hospital area and anywhere else exposed to the infection. Things were scrubbed, disinfected, boiled...and an exhausted and emotionally drained Father insisted on directing the clean-up activities.

 

When Catherine finally returned to her apartment, she called Peter and gave him enough details to relieve his mind about the state of the tunnel community in general. Before he could question her further, though, she claimed a great need for sleep and left him with his other questions still unanswered.

***

 

Knowing Jacob as he did, Peter went Below the following weekend to examine him and take over long enough to give his friend time for some much-needed rest. As he expected, Jacob was not the model patient.

 

"I'm fine!" Father had blustered as Peter insisted on an exam. "If I needed a doctor, I would have let you know."

 

"Jacob, you know a physician with himself for a patient is as big a fool as a lawyer who represents himself in court. This has taken a serious toll on the entire community, and they depend on you. Now cooperate."

 

Vincent stood near Peter, looking amused at the end of the heated exchange that had been bandied back and forth between the two old friends, one just as stubborn as the other.

 

"Peter is right, Father." Turning to Peter, he asked with a small, teasing smile, "Do I need to hold him down for you?"

 

"Hold me down?" Fathered sputtered. "You wouldn't dare!"

 

"You can pick him up and strap him to the examining table as far as I'm concerned, but I'm not leaving until I know your father is healthy," Peter answered, as if Father weren't even in the room.

 

"Have it your way!" Father consented testily. "If the two of you are that determined to confiscate my dignity…. But I'm sitting right here. I'm not going to the hospital chamber."

 

"We can grant you that," Peter conceded, opening his bag with an air of victory and leaving Vincent stifling a smile. "But don't go too far, Vincent...in case he decides to be uncooperative again."

 

Father grudgingly submitted to being the patient long enough to satisfy Peter's concerns and couldn't resist an "I told you so" after his blood showed no sign of a problem. By that time Vincent had left to take care of his own duties.

 

"Better safe than sorry," Peter answered. "Now...we're going to have some that tea Mary brought, and you're going to get some sleep. If anyone needs a doctor, I'll be here for the rest of the day. It's time for you to slow down."

 

Peter poured the tea, and finally his patient didn't argue. He knew Jacob was exhausted, and in spite of the grumpy response to the examination, he knew that both his presence and his concern were appreciated.

 

"Thank you, Peter. You've always been a good friend to us. If it hadn't been for you, the entire community could have been gone. Even with the medicine you sent, it was bad enough."

 

"How did it happen? How did this disease get here?"

 

"A young Russian sailor, merchant marine…seemed to be a fine young man. He had spent some time in the river before Vincent rescued him. I thought he was suffering from the effects of exposure. When he died unexpectedly, I did more checking and...."

 

The faraway look in Father's eyes and the way his voice trailed away told Peter that it would take a long time for his friend to recover from these recent losses. Jacob would blame himself for not being able to do enough to save them. Vincent would blame himself for having brought the young man to the tunnels. The truth was, even if they had gone through an emergency approval process, it was likely that there would have been nothing obvious to indicate such an unusual problem, and the community might have accepted him anyway.

 

"Finish the tea and get some rest, Jacob. We can talk later. I'll see Pascal and have him put out a message that I'm on call until further notice...and that you aren't to be disturbed."

 

Father took another sip of his tea and stood, unfolding his stiff joints slowly. The last two weeks had taken their toll, and it appeared that the thought of uninterrupted sleep was gaining more appeal by the minute.

 

"Thank you, Peter," Father chortled. "I don't always make it easy to notice, but I deeply value your friendship and concern. I believe I shall go now and reap some of its rewards." Clapping his old friend on the shoulder, he turned and hobbled toward his bedchamber.

 

"Sleep well, Jacob," Peter chuckled behind him and went to find Pascal.

 

As luck had it, Pascal was about to take a short break and was just turning his duties over to someone else, so he and Peter were able to leave the pipe chamber and talk in quieter tones after Peter's message had been relayed on the pipes.

 

"I hear there's a woman in Vincent's life now. Catherine, I believe? Tell me about her. I need to catch up on the good news as well as the bad."

"Catch up on the gossip, you mean?" Pascal teased. "She's a good woman…warm and thoughtful. You should have seen how she worked when there were so many sick people to care for. She's smart…gorgeous...rich.... You'd think she'd run from a place like this, but she seems happy when she visits, and she fits right in when she's here."

 

"How did they meet?"

 

"I don't know if you could really say they met. Vincent found her in the park one night a couple of years ago. She was nearly dead. Somebody had beaten her and slashed her face, and she'd lost a lot of blood. He brought her here, and he and Mary and Father took care of her until she could go back." Pascal grinned, looking up at Peter. "You can imagine, Father wasn't too happy about it - couldn't get her out of here fast enough. When she left, we thought it was forever, but she did come back…and…when she and Vincent are together.... No. There's no way to describe it. You'd have to see them together to understand. It's like nothing could have kept them apart. Gives you a warm feeling to watch it. Gotta go, Peter. I don't have much time before I have to get back to the pipes. Good to see you."

 

Peter stood there stunned. Catherine was apparently his Cathy. So that's why she "couldn't remember anything" about that ten days when she was missing. She was protecting the tunnels…and Vincent.

 

***

 

It was Saturday, and by all rights it should have been a day off for Catherine. The medicine had been delivered to the tunnels on an evening before she was taking a long weekend, but she had still missed a couple of days of work that week and was determined to catch up. Doing her best to achieve that goal, she had spent her entire Saturday with an unfriendly stack of folders piled on her dining table. However, folders or no folders, she fully intended to be Below by nightfall...with Vincent. There was always tomorrow. That stack of folders would undoubtedly sit right there and wait for her.

 

After showering and changing clothes, she grabbed her jacket and keys and made her way to the basement. As she hoped, Vincent was waiting at the threshold to walk her to the main hub. That walk was often their only completely uninterrupted time alone, so they strolled slowly, savoring the time to hold hands and talk quietly.

 

Sure enough, as soon as they reached the hub, they met Geoffrey and Eric, excitedly lying in wait for them near Vincent's chamber. Some of the boys had found a book of science projects and had insisted on building the standard erupting volcano. They had gathered their audience in the dining hall where it had been built, and they were finally ready for the grand unveiling...or grand erupting...or whatever it should be called - and a little earlier than Vincent had expected. The only thing holding up the big event was Vincent and Catherine's arrival, so the boys practically dragged the couple along the passageway.

 

When she and Vincent reached the dining hall, Catherine saw that Peter was there. He was sitting among several of the children and telling Kipper about building one of those volcanoes with his daughter when she was about Kipper's age. Someone shouted, "There they are. Let's get started," and she and Vincent entered the room, smiling good-naturedly as the boys hurried them in.

 

Attention turned to the volcano, which spewed "lava" exactly as planned. A congratulatory cheer went up around the room and the boys began to consult on the possibility of making it do it again, boys of all ages contributing to the discussion.

 

During the ensuing commotion and conversation, Peter lurked in the background and managed to watch as Vincent and Catherine talked to the children and other members of the community. He couldn't remember ever seeing her look happier. Something about Vincent was different, too - a different kind of confidence, maybe, and a sense of joy?...contentment? Whatever the difference was, it was good. As he watched, he realized that even as they spoke to others, there seemed to be an almost visible connection between them. It didn't exclude anyone around them, it just…. Hmmm...Pascal was right. There was no way to describe it, but it was a warm, wonderful thing to see.

 

How would Charles Chandler feel about this? Peter loved Vincent every bit as much as he loved Cathy, but he had known him since he was an infant. Charles certainly wouldn't be able to take one initial look at Vincent, especially in this stark environment, and come to the immediate conclusion that this could be good for his daughter. The beginnings of a plan were forming in Peter's mind. He just had to figure out how to present it to Jacob…and Vincent and Catherine.

 

When the great volcano experiment had concluded, Peter went back to check on Father, who had been awake for only a few minutes. As Peter entered the room, Father was walking past his desk in a slightly disheveled state, running his fingers through his hair to put it back in reasonable order.

 

"I hope you feel better than you look," Peter joked as he came down the steps toward Father.

 

"I hope so, too," Father answered with a wry smile.

 

"Are you well rested?"

 

"I suppose. I haven't had enough rest lately to recognize the feeling."

 

"You missed the volcano."

 

"The what?" Father's hand went to his forehead. "The volcano.... How could I have forgotten? And the boys were so excited."

 

"They had plenty of company...and it was a roaring success. I'm sure all of them would be glad to relive it for you at a moment's notice."

 

"I'm sure they will. I was drifting in and out of sleep for a while. Did I hear on the pipes that Vincent was bringing Catherine here? She enjoys the children. I doubt she would have missed anything they had worked so hard to produce. Did you meet her?"

 

"She was there with Vincent. The boys refused to start until she and Vincent arrived. And yes, I have met Catherine."

 

"Well?" Father asked pointedly.

 

"She's a fine young woman. Why do you worry so much about her?"

 

"Because sooner or later she's going to tire of all this, of all the problems she and Vincent have to overcome. Where will Vincent be then?"

 

"Jacob, I watched Cathy and Vincent tonight before they noticed me. I've never seen her look so happy. For that matter, I've never seen your son look so happy."

 

"What do you mean you've never seen her look so happy? You've met her before?"

 

"I've known her since the day she was born. That's Cathy, my godchild."

 

"So your friend Charles...is Charles Chandler?"

 

Peter nodded and sat down in the closest chair.

 

"Dear God...and you didn't know...." Father answered in shock and sat down in the chair next to Peter.

 

"I had no idea."

 

"Then you can see the problem."

 

"Not yet."

 

"Surely you can't mean that. You know what she comes from... Wealth, luxury…high society, travel...."

 

"And I've seen her enjoy all of those things; but I'm telling you, Jacob, I've never seen her look as happy as she did tonight. Have you actually watched them together?"

 

"Of course I have," Father blustered. "I've even come to believe that she loves him, but do you really think she could endure a life like this for very long? Half her life has to be lived in secret. The only place they can move freely is here. We have no luxuries here, and it certainly isn't an easy journey from her world to ours. What happens to Vincent when she can't take it anymore?"

 

"Has she done anything to indicate that all this is wearing thin?

 

"No, but...."

 

"So you just assume she can't be trusted?"

 

"I didn't say that."

 

"But you implied it."

 

"Peter, I'm not the enemy."

 

"Well, apparently you've decided Cathy is."

 

"I didn't say that either," Father protested. "I have great respect for her. I've learned to care about her…even to love her…but Vincent is my son. I have to keep his best interests at heart."

 

"And it's in his best interest to have him avoid love at all costs rather than experience it as long as possible? Would you give up the time you had with Margaret, even knowing the pain it cost you later?"

 

Father slumped in his chair and lifted one hand to his forehead, his elbow resting on the chair arm.

 

"No," he admitted grudgingly. "I would live through it all again to have that time back."

 

"And don't you imagine Vincent would feel the same way?"

 

"I just don't want him to have to experience it."

 

"You can't protect him forever…and I doubt that your worrying over it will make any difference, anyway. You might as well be easier on yourself and accept it. For God's sake, Jacob, just let them be happy while they can. Either they will make it work or they won't. It's their business and their responsibility. There isn't a thing either of us can do except support them."

"Sometimes...after our conversations...I feel as if I've been beaten about the head and shoulders with a large truth stick. I thought this visit was supposed to help me relax." Father looked toward Peter accusingly from beneath the hand at his forehead, and Peter laughed.

 

"I'm going home, my friend," he said as he stood up. "But I'll come back to haunt you. I haven't been here nearly often enough lately."

 

"No, you haven't," Father agreed. "Goodnight, then. Thank you for your help...and your perspective."

 

"I'll be back for Winterfest…that is, if you're still having it. You've had a lot going on here in the last few weeks. No one would be surprised if it were cancelled."

 

"If we ever needed Winterfest, we need it this year. We've put a few of the older children in charge of organizing some of the plans. It's given them something useful and entertaining to occupy their minds and left the adults free for other necessary duties. Rebecca has started working on the candles, and now that the clean-up is complete, she should have plenty of help."

 

"Then I'll see you at Winterfest."

 

As Peter walked back to the threshold at his brownstone, his plan was slowly taking shape. It would take some thought, but he was Cathy's link between her two worlds. In talking to her that evening and watching Vincent with her, he could see something in each of them that he had never seen in either of them before.

 

Two weeks later at Winterfest, in spite of the tragic loss and injury caused by Paracelsus, Peter had another chance to observe Vincent and Catherine together, and he left with an even stronger sense that they were deeply in love. Nobody could miss it.

 

They were both important to him. He was one of the few people in their lives who could help them bring their worlds together, and he intended to do just that.

 

 

***

 

As he promised, Peter began to visit the tunnels more often. The first visit after Winterfest was for a recital given by some of the children &endash; a New Year's concert &endash; the end of the holiday season. They had told him about it at Winterfest and insisted that he attend.

 

The children's recital went very well. Musical selections ranged from things as simple as nursery rhyme tunes to classical pieces that would fall into the realm of intermediate level performances. There were a few minor glitches, but the children handled them with finesse. Parents were understandably proud of their children, and the children who had no parents were surrounded with enough love and praise from others to make them feel just as special. Vincent and Catherine spread their share of encouragement among the children before excusing themselves from the room to have a little time alone before Catherine had to return to her world Above.

When the room cleared after the concert, Peter stayed behind with Father, hoping for an opening to bring up his idea, and the opportunity presented itself conveniently with the conversation that followed.

 

"The children have improved since the last time I heard them," Peter observed.

 

"Yes, they have," Father answered with pride. "Did you see Toby? When he came here last spring, he was so shy that he hardly spoke. Tonight he stood in front of the entire population of the tunnels and played his violin. Quite a breakthrough, don't you think?"

 

"I've never heard 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' sound better," Peter agreed with an easy, indulgent grin."

 

Father chortled. "I do love them all, you know. I suppose I become a bit overly enthusiastic when I see such progress."

 

"That enthusiasm may have something to do with their success. You've built a wonderful community here, Jacob. You have a right to be proud. You're right about Cathy. She does seem to enjoy the children, and they follow her around like the Pied Piper, don't they? She's always loved music…not always the kind Charles approved of, but Susan went through that stage with her, and we all survived it. Charles enjoys children and music, too. He would have enjoyed this evening as much as his daughter did."

 

"So Catherine's natural bent toward such things may be genetic?"

 

Having decided earlier in the evening to grasp any small opening he could find or create to broach his intended conversation, Peter ventured out on the proverbial limb.

 

"I have a proposal."

 

"Dare I ask what it could be?"

 

"Let me introduce Charles to the tunnels. He's always been a generous man. He would make a good helper, and…."

 

"Have you taken leave of your senses?" Father exclaimed. "Last weekend you told me to support Vincent and Catherine's relationship. Now you're suggesting that I help destroy it?"

 

"How many people do you know who have been here and haven't been fascinated…wanted to help - or have met Vincent…gotten to know him…and didn't respect him and enjoy his friendship?"

 

"Precious few…but I don't recall asking any of them to hand a daughter over to him. One look at his daughter here…in this place…with Vincent… Her father would take her home, lock her in and post guards."

 

"We might need to give him time to adjust to the tunnels gradually - ease him into meeting Vincent and getting to know him...but you're judging the man too harshly. Charles is a good man. If we go about it the right way...."

 

"Hmph! He would more likely behave the same way as...."

 

"As Margaret's father! I knew it!" Peter exclaimed, pointing a chastising and accusing finger at Father. "You're painting Cathy and her father with the same brush, and it isn't fair, you know. Cathy knows her own mind. If you haven't seen her determination by now, you must be blind. If Vincent wants her and she wants him, you might as well get used to the idea. I've never known two more stubborn people in my life - present company excluded, of course. Besides, they're both competent adults. Jacob, I love them both as if they were my own children. I want to see them happy, and what I saw tonight…it was beyond happy. The love between them is almost visible. I'll bet Charles would understand that if he saw them together."

 

"And I'd wager that you're dreaming."

 

"Then let me invite him, and we'll see. We need a plan, though. We can't let him see those two together right away."

 

"And you think Vincent and Catherine would go along with such deception?"

 

"We'll just have to go about talking to them the right way, too," Peter grinned. "If I'm right, it will make Cathy happy to know she can talk to her father freely. If you're right.… Well, I just don't think you're right."

***

 

It took several visits and some intense and persuasive efforts on Peter's part, but he finally wore Father down and convinced him to allow Charles Chandler to visit the tunnels. Knowing Vincent and Cathy as he did, Peter had decided they shouldn't be told of the visit until after it was a fait accompli. He would accept all the blame for any appearance of dishonesty that his plan required. Once Charles knew of the tunnels, the die would be cast.

 

After a few innocent-sounding conversations with Vincent, Father determined which evening the following week Vincent planned to be Above with Catherine. Rather than calling a council meeting, which Vincent would expect to attend, he visited each individual member of the council and asked them to discuss the matter of Charles Chandler quietly among themselves. They were to stop by his chamber and leave their votes with him the following evening. Knowing Vincent as they did, they understood that, no matter what the consequences to himself, anything other than a straightforward, honest approach would not set well with him. Several council members, Mary in particular, voiced concern about Vincent and Catherine not being included in the decision, but in the end, they reluctantly decided to trust Peter's judgment, as they always had. He did, after all, know both the Chandlers and the tunnel community well.

 

On Thursday of the following week, Father nervously waited for Peter to bring their guest. Vincent was Above with Catherine, and they didn't expect him home for several hours. Father was looking forward to meeting Catherine's father, but hesitant at the same time. It was hard to believe that Peter could be right about this, but his judgment had always been good before. He couldn't remember once that Peter had done anything to lead him astray &endash; well, there were a couple of incidents from medical school, but never anything to do with the tunnels. Peter would certainly never do anything he thought would hurt Vincent. Vincent. There was another concern. Father dreaded the look he knew he would see on Vincent's face when he learned of this visit. He caught himself holding his breath as Peter arrived on the steps of his chamber with Charles.

 

Charles entered the chamber with Peter, looking around at everything in amazement as they descended the steps.

 

Peter immediately started making introductions. "Charles, you've heard me mention my friend Jacob."

 

"The one who lives out of town…but not too far away?" Charles asked sarcastically, but obviously with no ill-will.

 

Father relaxed a little and finally exhaled when he heard a Catherine-like sense of humor emerge from her father. "Yes, I expect that would be me," he answered good-naturedly, extending his hand to Charles in greeting.

 

As he spoke, Charles shook Father's hand. "I hope you don't mind a lot of questions."

 

Father smiled. "I suspected you would have questions. Fire when ready. Would you like some tea?"

 

Charles accepted, and Father poured tea for the three of them. As he motioned for the other two men to sit in the chairs near him, he seated himself behind the desk and waited for the questions, which came rapidly.

 

"Peter says you've built an entire community. How many people live here?" Charles began.

 

As Father and his guest talked, a request for medical attention sounded over the pipes. Peter pointedly told Father that he would see to it, and he left the other two men deep in conversation about the community, their governing system, their needs and concerns, the arrangements for the children's care and education, the constant clanging of pipes… They were still in animated conversation when Peter returned.

 

Immediately turning to Peter when he entered, Father raised a questioning eyebrow that Peter knew was meant as a request for information about his patient.

 

"A touch of tonsillitis," he answered. "Nothing to worry about. They have instructions and antibiotics, and they'll expect to see you late tomorrow morning."

 

"Thank you, Peter."

 

"Jacob has just offered to show me a few of the community…chambers? Was that what you called them?" he asked, looking back toward Father.

 

"Yes. Why don't we start with the dining hall," Father answered, rising from his chair, "and the hospital chamber."

 

With Peter following along, Charles was given a tour of the dining area and kitchen, the chambers that served as bathrooms, the hospital chamber, and one of the bathing chambers. As they met other members of the community in the passages, Catherine's father was carefully introduced only as Charles, a friend of Peter's. Father and Peter were feeling guiltier by the minute, but it was too late to turn back now.

 

By the time Vincent returned, Peter and Charles Chandler were long gone, but the next day he heard several people mention someone Peter had brought with him &endash; someone named Charles. Father said he thought their visitor would become a helper, and everyone who encountered him seemed to have enjoyed meeting him.

 

***

 

During his second visit Charles was treated to dinner in the tunnels and found himself solidly in William's good graces when he compared the cooking favorably to some of the restaurants he frequented.

 

In the course of that same visit he was also told that his daughter had been found in the park by Jacob's son, Vincent, and brought to the tunnels for medical attention. After realizing that he was speaking to the man who had saved his daughter's life, Charles promised himself he would become not only a helper, but a very generous one.

 

Naturally, he was curious as to why Peter hadn't mentioned that important piece of information before, and he wanted to meet Vincent immediately to thank him, but Vincent wasn't at home that night.

 

Vincent or no Vincent, Charles now knew why his daughter had conveniently forgotten everything about the ten days she was missing. She was protecting the tunnels. He surprised her the day after his second visit by calling her at work and offering to take her to dinner that evening.

 

Since she was working late again, he picked Catherine up at the DA's office at 7:00. Joe was still there, too, so she took her father to meet him.

 

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Maxwell," her father said, holding his hand out across Joe's desk.

 

Joe stood, smiled and shook his hand. "I'm glad to finally meet you, sir. And it's Joe, please."

 

"I've heard a lot about you."

 

"Uh-oh. Am I looking at a lawsuit?" Joe grinned at Catherine, retrieving his hand.

 

"I gave her an office with a view," Charles scowled at him in jest.

 

"She has a view," Joe answered with a complete lack of contrition.

 

"Right…" Catherine chimed in. "A view of your office door, the water cooler, other overworked employees…but that's only when I can see over the stack of files on my desk. Come on, Dad. Let's go. G'night, Joe."

 

"'Night." Joe smiled and returned to the stack of files on his own desk as they left.

 

It was the middle of the week and not busy at the restaurant that evening. Catherine and her father were seated in an area that allowed them some privacy as they talked. When he had finished his meal, Charles folded his hands on the table and dropped some new information on his daughter.

 

Catherine choked on her last bite of chicken when Charles quietly told her that he knew why she had been so evasive lately…because he had visited the tunnels. The waiter started toward them to see if they needed help, but Catherine waved him away. Her heart pounded as she caught her breath. At least the fit of coughing gave her an excuse for seeming to fall apart temporarily. When she recovered sufficient breath and composure to speak again, she asked enough questions to discover that Peter had arranged the visits &endash; and not a word to warn her it was coming. That wasn't like Peter. Homicide briefly crossed her mind before she settled down again.

 

"Who did you meet while you were there?" she squeaked, hoping that the less than "confident attorney" sound of her voice would be attributed to the choking incident.

 

"Jacob…I couldn't bring myself to call him Father," Charles answered, thinking through all the new names. "And Mary, William…he's quite a cook…Pascal, Jamie…she reminds me a little of you…Kanin and Olivia.… There were a few others, but their names escape me right now. I wanted to meet Vincent and thank him for saving my little girl's life, but he wasn't there either time."

 

So he hadn't met Vincent yet… An unsettling thought suddenly occurred to Catherine.

 

"When were you there? What dates?" When she heard the dates, there was little doubt in her mind that it was no oversight on Peter's part that she didn't know about her father's tunnel visits. Furthermore, she doubted that Vincent knew either. If Vincent hadn't been told, it would have to include Father's complicity…and probably the council's…and maybe the entire community's. She felt betrayed…and manipulated. Why would they do such a thing? Vincent. She needed to see Vincent. She needed to talk to him. Right then.

 

"Dad, would you mind if we leave now? I'm really exhausted, and I think I've caused enough excitement here for tonight."

 

"Are you alright?" he asked, fatherly concern showing in his expression.

 

"I'm fine. I'm just tired. It's been a long day."

 

Charles caught the waiter's attention, took care of the check and took his daughter home. He talked nearly non-stop about the tunnels during the drive back to Catherine's apartment.

 

As much as Catherine had hated keeping secrets from her father and welcomed the new possibilities of talking to him about them, this felt uncomfortable. She needed to know what was going on…how much to say. How dare Peter make such a decision without including the two people it would affect most! Her emotional response had gone from shock to questioning to surprise to relief to discomfort and concern, had passed through anger and was now reaching frustration. She wanted to run straight to Vincent, but her Father insisted on walking her to her apartment. She endured that with grace, hugged him warmly and told him, in all sincerity, that she was glad there were secrets she didn't have to keep from him any longer. She failed to mention that there were more.

 

When she was certain her father was gone, Catherine left her apartment and headed straight for the storage room in the basement, descending the ladder as quickly as she could. As she expected, Vincent was waiting, and she threw herself into his arms in relief.

 

"Tell me," he said, concerned at the roller coaster emotions he had felt in her over the past half hour.

 

"Did you know about this?" she demanded, feeling certain that he didn't.

 

"Know about what?"

 

"My father has been taken to visit the tunnels. He's been there twice already. He knows you found me and Father took care of me, and he's met some of your family."

 

Vincent moved away from Catherine and leaned back against the brick wall in shock. "Your father has been Below? When? I wasn't told of this."

 

"I'm relieved that I can talk to him about it now, but Vincent, I think this was planned to intentionally exclude us. I can't believe Peter and Father would do such a thing, but it looks like they did. We shouldn't have been surprised with something like this. We should have been part of arranging it."

 

"Are you sure?" he asked in disbelief.

 

"Oh, I'm sure. Both visits were on evenings when Father knew you would be Above with me."

 

"Charles…. The new helper…I didn't meet him. They only referred to him as Charles." There was a short, silent pause as the reality struck him. "Charles Chandler." He took a deep breath and released it sharply. "Why?"

 

"I don't know," Catherine answered, her eyes flaring, "but I certainly intend to find out."

 

"Catherine.…What did they tell him about me…about us?"

 

"Apparently nothing."

 

"I don't understand this."

 

"I don't either, but I'm furious that they chose to set it in motion behind our backs."

 

"There is nothing I could want more than to see you with no secrets from those you love, but when he meets me.… I'll have to meet him sometime soon. Our dreams, Catherine…. I don't want to lose you…nor do I want you to be estranged from your father because of me."

 

"You won't lose me. Not ever. No matter what his response might be," Catherine assured him and stepped closer to wrap her arms around his waist. "I've wanted to tell him about you…about how you helped me grow, how strong you make me feel…how you complete me…how much I love you. Maybe now I can. I just resent the method of getting there."

 

"How can he possibly accept this? How can he accept me?" He held Catherine close, closing his eyes against his rising dread as he rested his cheek on the top of her head. "I fear this meeting."

 

"I don't fear it. My father is a reasonable man, but he's a father, and I've kept some important things from him. It does make me a little nervous. Later on he may feel as manipulated as we do, and that can't be a good place to start."

 

They held each other for a while and talked. When they parted, it was with the understanding that a certain Father and a certain godparent were in for some decidedly uncomfortable moments.

 

***

 

Not long after Vincent left Catherine, Father was confronted with the look that he had expected, but dreaded, for the past several weeks. The look was worn by an angry son who almost literally snarled the question, "When did you plan to tell me about our new helper, Charles? What were you thinking, Father? How could you invite such disaster upon me with no warning?"

 

"We'll discuss this when you calm down," Father answered in the same tone he had used when Vincent was small.

 

"We'll discuss this now," Vincent demanded. "I am no longer a child." The familiar pacing and gesturing had already begun. "Why do you continue to think you should make decisions about my life without my consent? Do you still mistrust Catherine enough that you hope to bring her father to take her from me?" The more he talked, the angrier he became.

 

"On the contrary, my boy. Our intentions are of the best. If you'll sit down, I'll explain."

 

***

 

The scene waiting for Peter in his office the next morning was very much the same. Both Father and Peter made their explanations to a reluctant Vincent and Catherine. The couple understood the intent behind the plan but complained heartily at the feeling of dishonesty that went with it. In the end they agreed to gradually having Charles see each of them in the tunnels, but not together yet. The initial decision had been made without them. Their choices were limited.

 

***

 

During Charles' visit in February, Vincent was still not visible, but Peter assured him that he would arrange a meeting with Vincent soon. This time Charles began to hear subtle comments that indicated there might be something unusual about Vincent, but he decided it couldn't be anything bad. Vincent seemed to be well-loved and respected in the community &endash; a teacher, they said, and a member of the council.

 

He was introduced to more of the tunnel community, including some of the older children, and he enjoyed the open innocence in their manner &endash; the kind he remembered from his childhood. He took time to talk to them and was impressed with their manners and awareness of events Above, in spite of the fact that they didn't live there. He was also impressed that they all had community responsibilities that they seemed to handle well. It was nice to see that there was still a place, even a small one, without the kind of pressures children Above had to face. Simply being a teen-ager had always presented enough pressure in itself.

 

***

 

It was time for Vincent to meet Catherine's father, but Peter wanted to assure that they would have uninterrupted time to talk. That might not happen in the tunnels, so he invited Charles for dinner and convinced Vincent to come to his brownstone. Vincent had visited there since he was a boy, but this visit wouldn't be nearly as comfortable as usual.

 

Charles Chandler appeared at Peter's door at 7:30. Peter's housekeeper, a woman who had grown up in the tunnels, had dinner almost ready, and he offered Charles a drink while they waited. The men settled into the comfortable conversation and banter of old friends until dinner was served, and they sat at the table talking for a while after the meal. Not long after the housekeeper had cleaned up the kitchen and left for the day, Peter seemed to hear something. It appeared to Charles that he might have been waiting to hear it.

 

"There's someone I want you to meet, Charles," Peter said, looking at the clock.

 

"You're not trying to introduce me to a woman too, are you?" Charles asked in mock accusation. "Everywhere I go…."

 

"Nothing like that," Peter laughed. "He's another friend. The way you're going to meet him is a little out of the ordinary, but he's a little out of the ordinary himself."

 

"What do you mean 'out of the ordinary'?"

 

"His appearance is unusual, and he's very sensitive about allowing someone to see him at first, but I think you'll like him. He's a very intelligent man - enjoys a lot of the things that you do."

 

"And when do I meet your 'out of the ordinary' friend?"

 

"Now, if you'd like."

 

"He's here? Why didn't he have dinner with us?"

 

"Long story. He's in the study."

 

"Well, you certainly have my curiosity up." Charles stood, dropped his napkin on the table, and moved toward the study with Peter. He expected something unusual, but he wasn't prepared for the size of Peter's mysterious guest. The man towered above him and was massively built, but a long black cape with a large hood obscured his face and most of his body, and he stood facing away from the other two men. The lights in the room were dimmed to the point that Charles wouldn't have been able to see much anyway.

 

"Charles, this is Vincent, the friend I mentioned. He's Jacob's son."

 

"Please forgive my greeting," Vincent said quietly. "My appearance can be…disconcerting, and I don't wish to make you uncomfortable."

 

"I understand," Charles lied. He didn't understand at all, but the soothing voice that emanated from the large, black hood held no hint of anything but a considerate, well-spoken man. "Shall we sit down?"

 

When Vincent sat in Peter's large leather armchair, Charles caught a glimpse of what appeared to be blond hair - apparently quite a lot of it. He could also see that Vincent was holding a book. Having understood that Vincent didn't want his face to be seen, Charles sat in a chair beside him, rather than across from him, to make him more comfortable and make conversation easier.

 

"I need to thank you for my daughter. I understand I owe her life to your finding her and getting her help in time. I'll never be able to repay you for that."

 

"Having Catherine among us is all the reward I need."

 

"Still…you will always have my gratitude. If I can ever do anything for you…."

 

"You've become a helper. What you do for my community…my family…is also for me."

 

Realizing that Vincent seemed reluctant to accept praise and gratitude easily, Charles changed the subject. "What were you reading?"

 

"It's foolish," Vincent answered, looking down at the book in his hand. "I used to visit here when I was a child and scour Peter's bookshelves for something to read. When I was small, my favorites were the fairy tales. Before we could read, Peter would read to us, Susan and me. This collection had impressive illustrations - castles, dragons, far-away places...."

 

"May I see?" Charles asked, and Vincent handed him the book. Charles noticed that he wore gloves and thought that unusual, but said nothing. Although his eyes were adjusting to the dimness of the room, he could still see only enough to know that it was a book he recognized. "Ah. I know this book. My daughter, Cathy, scoured Peter's bookshelves when she was here, too. I can't count the number of times Peter and I read from this book for our daughters. Cathy and Susan would sit and listen as long as they could coerce us into reading to them."

 

"Vincent did some coercing of his own," Peter accused.

 

"Guilty," Vincent answered good-naturedly.

 

"I knew it. Already something in common," Peter smiled, seeming quite pleased with himself.

 

Charles couldn't know how nervous Peter had been about this meeting. Peter knew that Vincent had been whole-heartedly against meeting Charles this way, seeing it as dishonest, and the wrong way to go about meeting someone as important to Catherine's life as her father. He had pointed out that Charles could easily see Peter's plan as blatant manipulation, and the ensuing resentment could backfire. Stating the same reasons, Catherine hadn't been much more help than Vincent; but Peter had finally convinced them, and they had agreed to Vincent's meeting with Charles. Although Vincent hadn't been happy about the inherent dishonesty, he seemed to be relaxing a little. Charles was carefully respecting his boundaries, and a feeling of goodwill between them gradually relieved the tension.

 

"And what else do you read besides fairy tales?" Charles asked with a smile, placing the book on the table between them.

 

"A little of everything."

 

From there they moved into a discussion of books and found that they had similar tastes in their reading. After about half an hour of pleasant conversation meandering between the three men in the room, Charles rose and said he regretted it, but he had to leave. He had an early conference the next morning with some important clients, and he needed to be alert.

 

"Vincent, I've enjoyed this. I hope to see you again."

Vincent stood, too. "That is my hope as well."

 

Charles didn't reach to shake hands because Vincent, without seeming at all unfriendly, still maintained that invisible, but very defined distance. In spite of that, his answer was warm enough to convince Charles that he was sincere.

 

Peter walked Charles to the front door.

 

"I have some questions for you, Peter," Charles warned.

 

"I'm sure you do, but I may not be able to give you all the answers yet. Lunch on Friday?" Peter asked mischievously.

 

"I wouldn't miss it. I'll call you tomorrow after I check my schedule."

 

"Goodnight."

 

Charles waved his hand over his shoulder briefly without looking back as he walked down the steps of the brownstone, and Peter locked up and returned to Vincent, increasing the light in the study as he entered.

 

"I thought that went rather well. Didn't you?" he asked Vincent.

 

"It was a pleasant conversation, but I still feel this is wrong. The man has a right to know what affects his daughter. Meeting him…it should be more open. If he resents this approach and begins to suspect that his daughter's best interests are involved, he has the resources to investigate things that could threaten our community. I'm not certain that Catherine and I have been wise in agreeing to this plan of yours."

 

"Vincent, I know all of you. Charles, Jacob, you and Cathy.… I've known all of you for years. I understand your concerns, but I believe I'm right. Try to trust me. We just have to do this slowly. Introduce him to everything gradually until he sees you and Cathy together. When he sees that, he won't be able to deny that you belong together any more than I could. He wants her to be happy. When she's with you, she's happy. He can't argue that."

 

Vincent left with his thanks for Peter's interest, but another mention of doubt about his methods.

 

Peter went to bed satisfied that his plan would work. The evening had run very smoothly, after all. He knew he was the one link between Catherine's real family and her adopted family, and he intended to meld them into one. He was sure he was right, but he had to admit to some feelings of guilt.

 

***

 

Vincent could visualize Catherine pacing, checking the balcony every few minutes to see if he was there. He went straight to her apartment, and as he had expected, was accosted almost as soon as he dropped to the balcony.

"Well…. What happened?" she asked nervously.

 

"Your father and I had a pleasant conversation, just as Peter planned. He mentioned you several times. It seems you and Susan and I all begged for stories from the same book of fairy tales when we were small."

 

"How can you be so calm?" Catherine asked vehemently, playfully grabbing his vest with both hands. "Wait a minute. Susan knew you when you were a boy? She was my best friend when we were children. How could she keep a secret like you from her best friend?"

 

"Would you have believed her?" Vincent asked with one of his small smiles.

 

Catherine wondered if he realized how flirtatious those little smiles seemed, and whether he knew how they affected her. Well of course he knew. She didn't hide her delight in them very well. Come to think of it, she was seeing them more often lately. She took a deep breath and slipped her arms around Vincent's waist.

 

"Do you think we did the right thing…agreeing to what Peter wanted?" Catherine asked, resting her head against his chest. He leaned his cheek against the top of her head as he held her.

 

"I don't know. We have to hope so."

***

 

A few days later Catherine had just finished a light dinner when she heard a knock at the door. Looking through the peephole, she found it was her father.

 

"Dad? This is a nice surprise," she said as she opened the door and gave him a hug.

 

"I can't stay long. I need to pick Kay up for a concert in about an hour. This afternoon I found gloves you left at my apartment last week. It's February…still pretty chilly, and I thought you might miss them."

 

"I have other gloves," she answered, closing the door behind him. "You didn't have to go to this much trouble."

 

"But I noticed that these matched your coat, and I know how you are." Her father smiled as he took the gloves from his pocket, gently bopped her on the nose with them, then dropped them on a table. "And besides, it isn't that much trouble to see my best girl for a few minutes."

 

"I was just making some tea. It should be ready. Would you like some?"

 

Charles looked at his watch, gauged his schedule, and answered, "I think I have time." He deposited his coat and hat on the back of a sofa while his daughter went to check on the tea.

 

Catherine brought the teapot and a couple of mugs to the dining table, and they sipped tea and talked about work. When Charles finished his tea, he sat appearing to contemplate the mug he was holding.

 

"What?" Catherine chuckled. "I never thought these mugs were all that interesting."

 

"They drink a lot of tea down there, don't they?"

 

"Yeah. Father's British roots, maybe…and it isn't too expensive."

 

"Considering how you discovered the tunnels, you must know Vincent."

 

"Yes."

 

"Do you know him well?"

 

"Yes." Catherine stood and busied herself clearing the table, avoiding looking at her father. She returned the dishes to the nearby kitchen, carrying on the conversation from there.

 

"He said his appearance can be…disconcerting I think is how he phrased it. Is he badly deformed?"

 

"No. I don't see him as deformed. He's beautiful in his own way, Dad, but he's different. He's very different. You'll understand when you see him...and it won't take long to get used to his appearance and just see Vincent. It changes nothing about who he is."

 

"I did a pretty good job with you, didn't I?" Charles smiled, joining Catherine in the tiny kitchen. He put one arm around his daughter's shoulders and squeezed playfully.

 

"Yes," she answered, turning to face him and returning his playful mood. "I believe you did."

 

"It sounds like you and Vincent might be good friends," Charles observed, walking back into the living room and putting on his coat.

 

"We are…and I want the two of you to become good friends," she answered, handing him his hat.

 

"If our meeting at Peter's place is any indication, I'd like that, too. Vincent was very pleasant company. I look forward to meeting him again &endash; and I have to admit to a lot of curiosity about seeing him face to face."

 

"He enjoyed meeting you, too." Feeling the urge to tell him much more, she changed the subject abruptly. "You look great tonight, Dad. Kay's going to be proud to be your date."

 

"Well! Tea…conversation…compliments…and knowing my little girl's hands will be warm &endash; a trip well worth taking," Charles smiled as he gave Catherine another hug. "Goodnight, Cathy."

 

After he left, Catherine closed the door and locked it, leaning her forehead against it and sighing. Good friends… She hadn't really lied. Vincent was the best friend she could ask for, but she had wanted so badly to tell her father that Vincent was much more to her than a good friend. She wanted to tell him everything. Soon, she promised herself. Maybe Peter was right. Let him get to know Vincent a little better first. Then she would tell her dad all the things she had wanted to tell him tonight.

 

***

 

In the next three months, Charles was invited to visit the tunnels twice and found reasons to visit another time or two. He, like his daughter, quickly learned to listen for hints of what might be needed there, and he arranged to provide it. He rarely came empty-handed &endash; bringing new books, new toys for the nursery, school supplies, a small gift for one or another of the community members &endash; something that reminded him of someone in particular.… On one trip he went to take toys to the nursery and encountered the charming picture of his daughter enthusiastically reading a bedtime story to a group of children. He stood at the door watching her finish the story and seeing her beset by a group of young children hugging her and kissing her goodnight. She helped Sarah get them all tucked in before she turned and saw him at the door. This was a side of her he hadn't seen, and he couldn't resist smiling and thinking of grandchildren.

 

"I'm impressed, honey. Your patience…"

 

"I love them, Dad. They're great kids. Each one is different. There's something special to love about each one."

 

Looking down into the sparkling green eyes he had loved since the day she was born, Charles said, "Hmph! I really did do a good job with you, didn't I?"

 

From there, Catherine and Charles went to visit Father for a few minutes before returning home, comparing notes on the way about what they had heard that translated to needs in the tunnels. Catherine told him that Father seemed reluctant to accept too much from her, and they laughed about some of the methods she had found to avoid having Father know she was behind the help. When they reached the lobby of her apartment building, Charles shook his head.

 

"I wonder if all this will ever cease to amaze me," he said to no one in particular. Looking at Catherine, he added, "And I wonder if I'm not getting too old for all the hiking and climbing."

 

"But think what good shape you'll be in if you keep visiting," Catherine teased.

 

Charles laughed, kissed his daughter on the cheek and went outside to hail a cab.

 

***

 

Charles' next foray into the tunnels finally garnered a face-to-face meeting with Jacob's elusive son. He had brought two of the books he had mentioned to Vincent at their first meeting, and Father had sent Charles to Vincent's chamber to deliver them.

 

Knowing that Charles would be in the tunnels that night, Vincent had resigned himself to the idea that Catherine's father would see him...in all his beastly glory, so he wasn't particularly surprised when he heard Charles Chandler's voice calling at the door of his chamber.

 

Vincent's distinctive voice invited him in, but his back was turned when Charles entered. There was no cloak this time, just Vincent. His clothes looked very much like those of the others, but a little more…what?...romantic?...swashbuckling? Charles couldn't think of a word that described it accurately. It didn't matter anyway. His curiosity wasn't about the clothes.

 

He was again struck by the man's size, and he could sense the aura of strength and command that became more pronounced as Vincent turned slowly toward him. The mass of golden hair he had glimpsed at their first meeting hid Vincent's face at first, then as Vincent lifted his head to look at his visitor directly, Charles encountered the most unusual face he had ever seen in the real world.

 

Where had Vincent come from? This was the stuff of fairy tales. He seemed to belong to the realm of the book he and Cathy had loved as children &endash; with the knights and dragons, castles and spells and magic. He couldn't stop looking. Cathy was right. He did possess his own kind of beauty. It was both frightening and fascinating to see, but the very human look in the blue eyes watching him drew him back to find his manners. His bearing told Charles that Vincent would survive a rejection, but those eyes told him it would hurt.

 

Using all his attorney's presentation skills, he found his voice and asked politely, "You're Vincent?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I'm sorry," Charles apologized, looking down briefly. "I didn't mean to stare."

 

"It isn't an uncommon response," Vincent answered kindly.

 

"Still…it was rude." Deciding that Vincent seemed inclined to tackle an issue honestly, Charles said sympathetically, "You must dread meeting new people."

 

"On the contrary. I enjoy meeting new people. Having them meet me…is more difficult," Vincent answered. He offered Charles a slight smile that was intended to make him more comfortable and motioned to a chair near the writing desk, inviting him to sit.

 

"I brought you something," Charles said, moving away from the subject of Vincent's disconcerting appearance and placing two books on the desk. "Those two books we talked about…. I thought you might like to read them. Keep them as long as you'd like."

 

Vincent sat down in his chair and picked up the books briefly to glance at the titles. "I know several others here who would enjoy reading them as well."

 

"Then feel free to pass them around." Looking around the chamber at the eclectic mix of objects, Charles wondered if a story lurked within each of them. He enjoyed imagining that such an interesting and unusual person as Vincent would have some interesting and unusual tales and perspectives connected to each of those things.

 

"This place amazes me, Vincent. Each time I've been here I've left more interested than when I arrived. Tell me what you do here. I've been told that you're a teacher…and a member of the council…sometimes a medic…and several other things. Quite a resume," Charles smiled, settling himself in the chair &endash; and trying as hard as he could not to stare at Vincent's face and hands.

 

"Everyone here has multiple skills," Vincent answered. "Our circumstances demand it."

 

"I suppose so. What do you teach? What ages?"

 

Charles was paying attention to Vincent's answers, but as he listened, his thoughts wandered. When Vincent had reached for the books, it had given Charles an excellent view of the reason for the gloves at their original meeting. The fur-like hair and the lethal-looking nails became evident. There were obviously animal traits about him, but having spoken to Vincent once before, and seeing him now…. In spite of the evidence clearly before him, he had trouble not thinking of him as a man. He decided it didn't matter. He liked Vincent, and attributed the fact that he still had a daughter to Vincent's compassion and concern for a stranger &endash; very human responses. The rest he would work out eventually.

 

Suddenly Charles realized that Vincent had asked him a question, and he turned his thoughts to making himself a better participant in the conversation.

 

***

 

A few weeks later, on a rare day off, Charles had an opportunity to visit in some classes &endash; one taught by Father, and one taught by Vincent - and to meet some of the younger children. He had by then adopted the habit of using only a first name, as the others in the tunnels did, and was introduced to the children only as Charles.

 

Vincent was relieved that the children didn't know Charles was Catherine's father. The last thing he wanted was to have one of them blurt out something about his relationship with Catherine before he and Catherine had talked to her father themselves.

 

The thin ice he felt he was treading during this visit pushed Vincent's guilt to it's limits. He would talk to Catherine that night, and together they would decide how to present things to her father. It was past time to be honest with him.

 

***

 

Vincent arrived on the balcony about the same time Catherine came out to enjoy the pleasant spring evening.

 

"Catherine."

 

"Vincent, I was just thinking about you," she answered, turning toward him and slipping her arms around his waist. He gladly returned her embrace. "I wasn't expecting you until the weekend. Is anything wrong?"

 

"Not at the moment, but we do need to set something right."

 

"What?" She sounded concerned.

 

"Your father…we need to speak to him honestly…and it should be soon."

 

"I agree."

 

"Would you like me to be with you?"

 

"Yes."

 

"When?"

 

"I don't know," she answered, stepping back to look at him. "Do you have a time in mind?"

 

"Before his next visit."

 

"Has something happened? You seem.…"

 

"We were pushed to do this. It feels wrong, and… No nothing has happened," he reassured her as he walked to the balcony wall. He took a deep breath and looked back at her. "But it could. He is your father. He loves you. He should know."

 

"Dad leaves tomorrow on a business trip. He'll be gone for a couple of weeks." Catherine touched Vincent's arm. "When he gets home, I'll invite him to dinner and we can meet you Below afterward. Does that sound alright?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Then I'll speak to him as soon as he's back."

 

Vincent nodded slightly in agreement, but Catherine caught a look in his eyes that concerned her.

 

"Something else is on your mind. Talk to me, Vincent."

 

He took a step back from Catherine and looked directly into her eyes to make his point clear. Holding his hands in front of him, he swept them briefly in front of his chest. "Look at me, Catherine. Really look at me. See me as your father sees me. How could any father accept this for his child?"

 

"He's already accepted you as his friend. Wasn't that how Peter talked us into this &endash; taking it one step at a time?"

 

Turning toward the balcony wall to face away from her, he asked softly, "Does it shame you…to tell your father that you love such a creature?"

 

"No! Don't ever think that." She went to him, turned him back to face her and reached to touch his cheek tenderly. "You are the most important part of my life, and I want my father to know that. I'm anxious for him to know."

 

"Anxious?" he repeated doubtfully.

 

"Yes. I want him to know that I'm happy…that I'm not alone…that I love someone as wonderful as you."

 

"Sooner or later he needs to know everything, Catherine. He has met only one side of me. I hope he never sees the other, but he deserves the truth &endash; all of it. There is a side of me that he may never be able to accept."

 

"And there is a side of me that has allowed me to call on it. He may never be able to accept that, either. We both have things to answer for, Vincent. Telling him about that.… I'm not anxious for that conversation. Very little about us has been easy, but we've managed this far, and I know we can have a life together &endash; somehow…on our own terms…whatever that turns out to be."

 

"You have such faith in us."

 

"Enough for both of us…if that's what you need right now."

 

Vincent pulled her close to him, overwhelmed by the depth of her love and her determination that their lives could be bound.

 

***

 

Catherine was handling a case involving two wealthy young men who were killing for the sheer sport of it. Convinced that Catherine was behind Vincent's vigilant presence, they arranged a trap and intended to kill her. Vincent, of course, managed to save her, killing both young men in the process &endash; neither of them quite as old as Michael, he realized. These killings seemed to affect him much more than the earlier ones.

 

Looking back later, Catherine realized that was the first sign she had seen of his impending illness, breakdown, whatever it was. Right then all she knew was that he was in agony and needed her.

 

Vincent's mental state gradually deteriorated through the next month, Paracelsus and his manipulations playing no small part.

 

As Vincent's illness and disorientation progressed, Catherine began to realize the probability of her part in it. Thoughts of what her father knew and whether he would ever approve were suspended in favor of how to help Vincent.

 

***

 

Peter answered the phone in his office, having been told it was a personal call from Charles Chandler. "Hello, Charles. What can I do for you?"

 

"Can you help me stop worrying about my daughter? She left me a note over a week ago saying that she was fine but would be away a little while. I called her office and Joe said she'd had a relapse of the flu. I didn't know she'd had the flu at all, much less a relapse. I've called her apartment several times, even used the key she gave me for emergencies to go in and check on her, but it didn't look like she'd been there. Did you treat her for the flu? Is she staying with someone?"

 

Peter knew exactly where he had left Catherine…right beside Vincent's bed. They could hardly pry her away, even after Vincent regained consciousness and seemed to be recovering. "She is staying somewhere else. She's Below…and she's fine. Vincent has been extremely ill. We were all afraid for a while. She's helping."

 

"Well, at least I know she's safe. What's wrong with Vincent? Is it still serious? How is he? Why is she helping?"

 

"Neither Jacob nor I could be entirely certain about what was wrong; but he seems to be recovering well. I'll tell him you asked about him."

 

"I'm glad to hear it. If you're going to see him any time soon, I'd like to visit. I like Vincent. I've developed a great respect for him. Too bad Cathy can't find someone like him up here."

 

Peter smiled a slow, self-satisfied smile. "Yes it is," he agreed.

 

***

 

Two days later Peter called Charles to let him know he would be visiting Vincent the next evening, and Charles agreed to go with him. When the men arrived in the living quarters of the tunnels, they separated, Peter intending to check in with Father, and Charles hoping to visit Vincent. Both were thwarted in their initial efforts.

 

No one was in Father's chamber when Peter called because Vincent had finally been allowed a bath on his own in the bathing chamber…almost. He was allowed the bath, but Father had insisted on being there "just in case", in spite of Vincent's insistent arguments for privacy. In the past day or two it had become evident to everyone that he was heartily tired of being treated as an invalid, in spite of the fact that he recognized an unaccustomed lack of strength. However, even in the face of the annoyance, Vincent had sunk down into the bubbling water of the bathing chamber's natural spring and appeared to luxuriate in the soothing warmth.

 

While Vincent was bathing, Catherine had gone to find clean linens for his bed, and she was on her way back to his chamber to surprise him with clean sheets after after his bath. She was obviously tired, her exhaustion stemming partly from the constant worry of the past week and partly from a lack of sleep. At first she had wanted to be awake if there was any change in Vincent's condition or if he needed anything. Now, for no good reason, she couldn't seem to sleep.

 

Charles had just rounded the relatively short, curved passage between Father's chamber and Vincent's when he literally ran into his daughter moving quickly from the other direction.

 

"I'm so sorry," he apologized as the sheets tumbled to the ground, and he bent to pick them up for the young woman he had bumped into.

 

As she reached to accept the bed linens, Catherine realized who she had collided with.

 

"Dad?"

 

"Cathy?" he replied, surprised. "You look awful…exhausted. Are you alright?"

 

"I'm fine. Just tired."

 

"Peter said Vincent had been ill. How is he? I was planning to visit if he's up to it." The look on her face prompted him to ask if Vincent had taken a turn for the worse, when suddenly Catherine flung herself into his arms and wept. The sheets again tumbled to the floor as Charles wrapped his arms around her.

 

It felt so good to Catherine to have someone there who thought of her first and would want to take care of her. It felt so good to be able to tell her father she had been afraid for Vincent. He held her in a comforting, fatherly embrace, stroking her hair as he had done when she was a child, until she calmed enough to talk to him through her tears, her breath catching now and then as she spoke.

 

"Oh, Daddy. He was so sick. I thought.… At first I thought I might lose him."

 

"Lose who, honey?" He continued stroking her hair soothingly. "Lose Vincent? He was that sick? I'm sure his family and all his other friends were just as worried."

 

Catherine knew her father didn't understand why she was so distressed, why she was burrowing her face into his shoulder the way she did when she was desperately upset as a child.

 

"He was so weak. I've never seen him that weak. I was so scared," she answered. "I was so afraid he wouldn't get better. I don't know what I'd have done if I'd lost him."

 

"What you would do if you lost…Vincent?" he asked again, this time in disbelief. He took her shoulders and held her at arm's length from him as if she were in grade school again and he had to get to the bottom of a problem.

 

Catherine just sniffed and nodded, confirming what Charles had apparently just realized.

 

"My God, Cathy. You're in love with him, aren't you?"

 

Another nod.

 

"Does he love you?"

 

She nodded again and wrapped her arms around her father before he knew what was happening.

 

He instinctively held and comforted his daughter as his thoughts ran rampant. She was in love with Vincent? Vincent? He had told Peter he wished she could find someone like Vincent Above…but exactly like Vincent wasn't quite what he'd had in mind. In the space of less than thirty seconds of holding his daughter, his shocked senses had taken his mind from Vincent's physical traits to those clawed hands holding his daughter, through the possibility of his daughter living here and giving up everything Above…and even the thought of grandchildren with fur.

 

The picture of a tearful daughter and a dazed Charles greeted Peter as he joined them just before Catherine left her father's arms. "What's wrong, honey? Is Vincent alright? " he asked as he helped her collect the sheets.

 

"He's much better. He's taking a bath. I'm just tired. I haven't slept much lately. Dad asked me the right question at the right time to set me off. That's all," she answered, dusting off the linens and clutching them to her chest.

 

Charles was staggered by another realization. He looked at Peter in anger and astonishment. "You knew. All this time, you knew, and you told me nothing," Charles said accusingly to Peter. "This is my daughter's life &endash; her future we're talking about, and you didn't feel I had a right to be included?" He turned to Catherine with the same betrayed look. "And neither you nor Vincent thought to mention this to me? Good Lord, Cathy, I've never even seen the two of you together."

 

"Dad, I'm sorry. We were about to tell you, but then Vincent was getting sick…it didn't seem like the right time…and…"

 

"What kind of ogre must I seem, if my own child can't tell me she's in love, and my oldest friend doesn't trust me?"

 

"Don't blame them, Charles. This is my doing, and I talked them into agreeing to it… against their wills. I thought if you knew him before you knew she loved him.… Look…if I didn't trust you to keep an open mind and to think of her happiness first, I would never have brought you here in the first place. This isn't Park Avenue, but you know it's full of good people and good old-fashioned values…and it's a lot safer than New York City. And there's no one you can trust to take better care of her than Vincent."

 

"That isn't the problem. You know that," Charles answered angrily. "Find someone to guide me back."

 

"Don't do this, Charles. Let me explain."

 

"Explain what? How you manipulated everyone into keeping me in the dark? How you kept my daughter from telling me something this important to her? How you didn't trust me to understand?"

 

"Will you come with me and see Vincent before you leave?" Catherine interrupted, obviously distressed by her father's response.

 

"Another time. Right now is not the best time for me to see Vincent."

 

"Okay," Peter answered, holding his hands up in temporary defeat. "I'll get one of the boys to guide you back…but I intend to explain everything after you cool off."

 

After Peter went in search of a guide, Catherine tried to talk to her father.

 

"Daddy, I'm so sorry. We wanted to tell you, but…"

 

"Cathy, what did you think I'd do? Were you afraid to tell me that you love Vincent? Embarrassed to tell me?"

 

"No!" she answered emphatically. "If his safety weren't involved, I'd be perfectly willing to shout it from the rooftops to anyone listening."

 

"Then why didn't you talk to me? Both of you are adults. Either of you could have come to me at any time &endash; regardless of what Peter had you agree to."

 

"Then talk to us now. Please."

 

"Not now, honey. Any more secrets will have to wait. First rule of family discussions &endash; get over the anger first, remember? We'll talk later. Go and take care of Vincent. I'll always love you…but I reserve the right to be angry."

 

Peter reappeared with Geoffrey, who led Charles off toward home, leaving Catherine to finish the work she had intended to do before she and her father had crossed paths.

 

***

 

This wasn't the way Catherine had imagined telling her father about Vincent's place in her life. Tears rolled down her cheeks and her lower lip quivered as she changed Vincent's sheets and gathered the dirty ones for the laundry. She knew her father would listen later, and probably understand, but she also knew they had hurt him, and that hurt her as well. She knew, too, that Vincent would have felt her distress during her exchange with her father in the passageway and that he would be concerned. Even without a bond, it was easy for anyone to see how tired she had been and to know it was on Vincent's account. She hated to worry him with this when he hadn't entirely recovered, but he would undoubtedly insist on knowing what was wrong.

 

As she expected, Vincent returned hurriedly to his chamber, arriving as Catherine was smoothing the last pillow case. He was dressed, but not as neatly as usual. His hair was damp, his shirt was hanging loose over his denims, and he had no belt, vest or boots.

 

"Catherine?"

 

"I'm alright," she answered. Normally she would have been delighted at her first sight of him straight from his bath and slightly disheveled…in his sock feet, but she couldn't find the joy in it right then.

 

"Tell me," he insisted, taking her in his arms.

 

Catherine leaned against him, hands against his chest, and accepted his concern and the warmth and comfort of his arms &endash; a few tears still straying down her.

 

"My father was here. He was told that you were sick, and he came with Peter to see you. He caught me off guard, and I said enough that he realized how we feel about each other. He was hurt and angry…and the things we feared would happen happened. He's gone back Above."

 

Vincent took a deep breath, and as he released it slowly, he brought one hand to the back of her neck. "Catherine…I wish I could make our lives normal, but I can't."

 

"What's normal?" she asked, hugging him tightly. "Would either of us recognize it if it moved in with us? Neither of us have ever lived a normal life. Your life has been confined…secret. I lived the life of a rich girl without a mother &endash; never having to worry about how to pay the bills &endash; given special treatment because people knew how much money my father had. There were even periodic bouts of having to dodge the tabloids. My job takes me from that to dealing with the ugliness caused by people without conscience &endash; some of the dregs of humanity. With or without you, there's no 'normal'. Just know that you make 'abnormal' feel happy. And I don't want 'normal' if it doesn't include you."

 

"I love you."

 

"See? That makes me happy."

 

Vincent rested his cheek against her head as love flooded through their bond. For that small moment, it was enough for both of them.

 

***

 

After their ill-fated encounter Below, Catherine had given her father a few days to call her. When she didn't hear from him, she called his office. His secretary, Marilyn, told her the merger he was working on had become a nearly twenty-four hour a day project that week. They finally had everything in order that morning. Negotiations started the next day, so he had left early to get some rest before facing the other company's attorneys.

 

Feeling better that there was a good reason she hadn't heard from him, she went to his apartment. She knew her father always needed a few hours to unwind after a marathon preparation like the one Marilyn had described, and she suspected he would be awake for a while longer.

 

She started to ring the bell, hesitated, then quickly pushed the button before she lost her nerve. When her father came to the door, he looked as exhausted as she had felt at their last meeting.

 

"Am I forgiven yet?"

 

"I'm working on it." He motioned her into the apartment.

 

Catherine didn't take her coat off. This obviously wasn't the right time for them to talk. He was too tired, and he didn't need to be distracted by more secrets in the middle of a big meeting the next morning.

 

"Will you talk to me after the negotiations are complete? You can come and have dinner at my apartment."

 

"So now you're trying to poison me?" Charles responded. His manner still held some of the hurt she had seen in the tunnels, but his answer held enough humor to give her hope. Her cooking skills &endash; or lack thereof &endash; had often been fodder for her father's jokes; and when he teased her, he wasn't too angry.

 

"I could have it catered," she answered with a little smile.

 

"In that case, I might agree."

 

"I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't want it to be this way. Neither of us did."

 

"I know that, honey."

 

He held out his arms and Catherine rushed into them, wrapping hers around his neck in relief. She knew she was forgiven.

 

"There are things you should know," she said, her voice slightly muffled at his shoulder, "but I don't want to distract you from the negotiations. It's waited this long. Another few days won't matter. Call me when you have time to spend an evening with me."

 

"Catered?" Charles kidded.

 

"I promise," she grinned, extricating herself from her father's arms. "I'll let you get some rest now. You look like you need it." She stopped in the doorway as she was leaving and turned toward him. "I love you, Dad."

 

"I love you, too, Princess."

 

***

 

It had been more that a week since that little exchange, and Catherine was nervously waiting for her father, hoping he was still ready to listen. He had promised to be at her apartment at 8:00 that evening. It was summer, and Vincent couldn't chance being there until later. Hearing a knock at the door, she took a deep breath and opened the door for her father to come in.

 

"It smells good," he said with a teasing smile.

 

"And it's ready."

 

Well, they were at least off to a pleasant start.

 

Charles followed her to the kitchen door, where Catherine was taking something from the oven.

 

"Did you make it yourself?"

 

Catherine rolled her eyes dramatically in her father's direction, knowing how likely it was that he believed such a thing. "It came from a little Italian place owned by a helper. I hope you like it. He sent enough for a small army. Sit down. Everything else is on the table."

 

By mutual, unspoken agreement, they postponed "the talk" until after their meal, but then Charles expected to have some questions answered.

 

Catherine broke the ice by saying, "Dad, we intended to tell you everything right after you got back from D.C., but Vincent was getting sick. He wasn't himself. It wasn't that we intended to keep you in the dark for so long. It just didn't seem to be the right time."

 

"I've talked to Peter. You made your own choices, but he assures me that it was under pressure."

 

"I love Vincent more than I know how to tell you. I've never known anyone who makes me feel more that I can be exactly who I am. He only wants me &endash; no specters of social climbing or interest in my money. No demands, no pretensions, no expectations that I'll change. We accept each other as is &endash; the good and the bad."

 

"Seems to me you have to do most of the accepting. Do you honestly understand the extent of what you're giving up if you commit yourself to him?"

 

"After a more than two years? Yes. I think I do. It's been hard for us &endash; for both of us. He's sent me away before, trying to offer me a normal life, but, Dad, I don't want it &endash; not if he can't be a part of it. After he was feeling better, we faced some things we hadn't faced before. He finally accepted that I need him as much as he needs me."

 

"This has nothing to do with gratitude for saving your life?"

 

"No. Nothing to do with that at all," she answered, looking down with a dreamy smile, which wasn't lost on her father.

 

"Do you intend to live with him &endash; closed in the earth for the rest of your life?"

 

"I thought you enjoyed the tunnels," she said, her head snapping back up to look at him.

 

"I do &endash; to visit. I don't know that I could live there permanently…and I hate to think of you living there permanently. What does Vincent say about having you confine yourself to that?"

 

"We haven't exactly talked about it yet."

 

"More than two years, you're both as in love as you and Peter make it seem, and you haven't exactly talked about it yet?!" Charles was losing patience.

 

"It's complicated."

 

"I should think so. I can't imagine that being in love with someone whose existence can't be explained…someone who doesn't even legally exist, would be anything other than complicated."

 

"He doesn't want to confine me, doesn't want to…"

 

"Will you have children? I know how you love them. Can the two of you have children? What kind of children would they be?"

 

"We haven't talked about that, either…not really."

 

"What exactly have you talked about? Don't you think you should talk about these things? They're important," he fired back.

 

"I know you don't understand. There are a lot of important things Vincent and I haven't talked about. Things we're just now able to discuss. We do know that they're important. We know.…" She stopped to take a deep breath and exhale quickly. She was looking and sounding a little testy, too. "We don't exactly have role models or handy references for this relationship, you know. We just know we need to find a way to make it work."

 

From the open door in the dark bedroom, they heard a tapping that was very familiar to Catherine.

 

"Vincent," Catherine said suddenly as if she expected to see him any second.

 

"Vincent is here? Has he been here all this time? Why.…"

 

"He just got here. Come out to the balcony with me," she said, pulling him along with her.

 

"Just got here? How?"

 

"You don't want to know," she answered, guiding him through the dark bedroom to the balcony doors.

 

Charles took in the incongruous picture of Vincent standing on his daughter's balcony, right there in the middle of the city, and tried to imagine how he must have gotten there. Eighteen stories up…and the front door definitely wasn't involved. Amazing. He wanted to ask, but there were more important things to talk about tonight. Another time.

 

"Vincent." The word was a greeting. It sounded a bit cool, but not exactly angry.

 

"It's good to see you, Charles. I need to apologize."

 

"Accepted."

 

He still sounded less open than usual, but Vincent understood. This was his daughter's life Vincent was complicating. Charles was establishing his territory, his negotiating space. He needed to be firm and protective. At least he wasn't openly hostile, railing against the very thought of Catherine with such a being.

 

"We should have spoken to you sooner. I should have spoken to you sooner." He looked down at Catherine, who stood next to him now. "I am the problem, not Catherine."

 

It was the first time Charles had seen the two of them together. When Catherine looked back up at Vincent, Charles saw what Peter had tried to describe to him. The connection between his Cathy and this man/beast/whatever-he-was seemed to hang in the air around them like an aura. The look on both their faces…. Each of them seemed to be more alive than they were the moment before.

 

"Dad, I'm happy when I'm with him," she stated simply, willing herself to look back at her father, rather than at Vincent. "I feel more than love. I feel whole. I feel confident. I feel I'm where I belong. I intend to be in his life in whatever way he allows it…unless I'm sure he doesn't want me there anymore."

 

"That day will never come," Vincent answered softly to Catherine. He looked up at Charles, not issuing a challenge, simply stating a truth. "Catherine and I…still have much to decide. A life together will be difficult, especially for Catherine, but.…" he hesitated, his carefully prepared words failing him.

 

"It won't be easy for either of us," Catherine interrupted, moving closer to Vincent and taking his hand in both of hers. "We still have as many questions as answers, but there's a bond between us that binds us…as if we were meant to be together. It won't be ignored. Right now we don't even ask for your blessings &endash; just your acceptance that we intend to have a life together…somehow…however we can."

 

"I have no choice than to accept the truth, but I don't have to accept that it's wise." Charles was becoming angry at the prospect of what Catherine was willing to relinquish. Giving Vincent a challenging look, he asked, "How can you take her from a world that offers her so much and confine her to a world that never even sees the sun, take her from her friends into your secrets, take the possibilities of a normal family...." He paused to collect himself before his anger took complete control. "She has the means to do anything she wants, travel the world when she wants…but she doesn't even want to leave the city now. In the past two years, her life has become more and more limited…for you, apparently. She.…"

 

"Stop!" Catherine raised her voice to her father, something she hadn't done often since her teenaged rebellious streak. "He hasn't taken me from my world. He's finally accepted me into his. I'm not confined. In case you haven't noticed, I still go to work every day. I'm wearing a new outfit. I went shopping with Jenny to find it. I went to a benefit concert last week.… And I won't have you.…"

 

"Catherine," Vincent said calmly, "your father is only concerned about your best interests…as mine has been for me. I understand his anger."

 

All of them could see that any progress that would be made that night had probably already happened. Charles backed away from his accusing manner toward Vincent. Catherine leaned against Vincent, and he instinctively put his arm around her shoulders to calm her. She rested her head against his shoulder, one hand against his chest, and his hand squeezed her upper arm lightly.

 

Vincent suddenly realized that he was standing in front of Charles Chandler with one arm around his daughter. It would be a small thing for any other man, but for Vincent it was a major, and quite unexpected, step. He automatically started to remove his arm from her shoulder, but he reconsidered. He had accepted that Catherine would share his life, and this small show of comfort would be a part of that life. Somehow it seemed important that her father know that.

 

As angry as he was, her father didn't miss the gentle, loving gesture or the concern that showed in Vincent's eyes. Nor could he miss the immediate change in Catherine. It was as if the woman who lashed out so sharply no more than a moment ago had simply disappeared, replaced by this quiet woman cradled in Vincent's arm. On top of those observations he had to admit the reality of the connection Peter had talked about...the bond between them. Another fact to deal with.

 

"I should go. I know when negotiations are at a standstill. We can talk another time."

 

"Charles.…" Vincent started.

 

"I haven't dismissed this, Vincent. I just.… We'll talk another time."

 

Catherine left the comfort of Vincent's closeness and hugged her father. "Daddy, I love you," she said, tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.

 

"I know that, honey," he answered, returning her embrace reassuringly. "I'll let myself out." Looking back at Vincent before he left, he added, with a hint of apology, "I'm her father. I have to think of her first. I have to think of...." His voice trailed away at that point and he kissed Catherine's cheek before he left them on the balcony.

 

When she heard the door close, she went back to the comfort of Vincent's arms.

 

Vincent held her close. It was all he could do for now.

 

***

 

Catherine dreaded the next conversation with her father.

 

Vincent insisted that her father know everything, including the worst of what had happened in the past two years, as well as what he could see for himself or glean from others. Under no circumstances did Vincent want Catherine's father to think he and Catherine had kept anything else from him &endash; especially information as potentially devastating as his methods of protecting Catherine. It wasn't a subject Vincent relished discussing on any terms, especially with the father of the woman he loved, but he believed it necessary.

 

The last thing Catherine wanted was for her father to see Vincent as some kind of monster, and considering the mood Charles was in lately, he might jump at the chance to find another argument against him. It had to be done, though. Vincent was adamant about honesty. He intended to speak to Charles himself, but Catherine insisted that she would talk to him first.

 

She was there in her father's apartment again. After the initial part of their exchange, which was going better at that point than the last one had, Catherine took a deep breath and exhaled sharply &endash; a clear indication to the father who knew most of her habits well that she had something important to say, and was determined to get it said.

 

"What?" Charles asked.

 

"There are other things you need to know."

 

"Good God, Cathy. More secrets? Will they ever end?"

 

"They'll end here. I promise…but these secrets are more like nightmares. I don't know if you'll ever be able to even look at either of us again without...." She lowered her head, obviously ashamed of something. "Please don't stop me until I finish. I don't know if I can tell you everything if I have to hear your response before I've finished."

 

"Is it really that bad?"

 

"Yes." She intended to speak clearly, but her answer came in a hoarse whisper. Gathering her strength again before she continued, she asked, "Do you remember one of my first cases…the man who was behind the attack after Tom's party?"

 

Do you think I could forget how hard you worked to build the case against your attackers? I was so proud of you. Your witness was killed, wasn't she? But not the same way as her killers. Didn't they find them downstairs? Something else had killed them. You were lucky not to be there."

 

"No more now, Dad. Okay? Just let me talk."

 

Catherine saw her father's expression change suddenly. He had apparently remembered the details of how the men had been killed, and she could imagine that Charles' blood ran cold…that he suspected what was coming."

"Somebody had followed when Carol was escorted to the brownstone. When I went to take her some groceries later, I found her. She was dead, and the killers were still in the house."

 

"None of the reports mentioned that you were there."

 

"No interruptions…remember? No one knows I was there after she died. I ran from those men, tried to hide, used everything Isaac had taught me…and I had almost gotten past them, when one of them caught me. Vincent had felt my fear when I first realized they were there. He knew I was in danger. That hole in the basement wall…he knocked it down coming to help me. I was fighting as hard as I knew how, but there were three of them. The same men who had attacked me before were there…attacking me again. Vincent killed them all...no weapons...just his strength…and his hands. It was over in a couple of minutes. I was in shock…and so was he. He's protected his family Below, but he'd never done anything quite like that before. He was so ashamed.… I looked around at all the bodies, the carnage in our path… I knew what he'd done, but all I could think of was Vincent. I couldn't let him be caught there."

 

Catherine glanced up at her father through the hair that had fallen toward her face.

 

He looked pale and shaken. She need not worry about more interruptions. He was speechless. He couldn't have interrupted her right then if he had tried.

 

Feeling consuming shame, she immediately looked down again before going on. "It wasn't the only time it happened. He's so connected to me… When he knows someone is threatening my life, rage takes over...and he's so strong…it doesn't take long for him to do a lot of damage. Vincent is what happened to Stephen, too. He didn't kill Stephen because…." She took a deep, resigned breath before she continued. "…because I stopped him."

 

Charles turned and found a chair. He dropped into it as if all his bones had disintegrated.

 

"I'm a part of it, too. I don't know what possessed me. First I felt I had to prove to the DA's office that I could handle anything they gave me. There were some cases that were so important…we had worked so hard and were so close that I couldn't back down. A lot of it was that I had to prove to myself that I could face fear. I put myself into some bad situations a couple of times and it drew Vincent to protect me. Even knowing the consequences, I still put myself in those situations. Most of the time I couldn't have predicted that there would be danger, but the results were the same. It was all because of me…done to protect me…and I think it had a lot to do with his illness. I had to be there to take care of him. It was all my fault."

 

"Are you finished? Is that all?" her father asked softly, his face drained of most of its color.

 

"I could list dates and places, but it would be redundant."

 

"My God. All those newspaper articles about maulings…? None of them mentioned you. The subway killings?"

 

"Not the subway killings…but all the others." She was still looking down, fiddling with her fingernails. "And most of the others…I was there. I just left with Vincent before anyone knew. Daddy, I'm sorry. I never wanted you to know. I didn't want you involved, but Vincent insisted that you know everything. He didn't want you to feel we had hidden anything else from you."

 

The tone of her father's voice told Catherine that anger was beginning to rise from the shock.

 

"So he sent you to do the dirty work instead of telling me this himself?"

 

"No. He wanted to talk to you, but I couldn't bear the thought of the way you'd look at him. I insisted on telling you alone. I'm not sure I can bear the thought of the way you'll look at me." There was a short pause. "Besides that, I knew he'd accept all of the responsibility…wouldn't even hint that any of the blame could be mine. You needed to hear that, too."

 

"How do you live with all this, Cathy. It's…"

 

"Don't say it…please," she begged, finally looking up. "I know what it is. I've seen it. I don't need to hear the words."

 

"What do you expect from me? How am I…"

 

"Just know that I'm guilty, too…that I drew him to it. All of those people were in the act of trying to kill someone…usually me…but that doesn't make it right. I know that."

 

"How can you be sure what would happen if he were angry with you &endash; or if you were in his path when he's angry with someone else? My God, he could rip you to pieces."

 

"The same thing that draws him to me keeps him from hurting me. I've seen him in some pretty bad conditions, and if I touch him or say his name, he knows me…and he knows not to hurt me - no matter how he relates to anyone else."

 

"That bond thing?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"You saw all those killings?"

 

"Yes."

 

"And you still love him?"

 

"With everything I am."

 

"How could you love that?"

 

"You've been around him, Dad. What you've seen is who he is unless someone he cares about is in danger. Your friend Darrell just retired from the army. You only know him as a friend…a former neighbor...a family man. He's been in wars…in battle. Have you ever imagined him actually shooting people &endash; maybe having to stalk them like prey and fire a gun at them before they can do the same thing to his soldiers? You weren't there to see the mangled bodies their grenades may have left behind when he and his troops were defending their unit. Is he any less a good man…any less a friend when you have to think about it?"

 

He knew she had made a valid point…and he understood that she was alive to make it only because Vincent had seen to it that she was safe. But the way he did it… Charles' stomach churned at the thought. Five minutes ago he would have unflinchingly described the perpetrator of those killings as a monster. Now he had to reconcile that with the gentle man he had visited in the tunnels…the one who so tenderly responded to his daughter on her balcony the first time he saw them together. To add to the confusion, he had to reconcile himself to the idea that his own daughter had seen most of it happen…had been the reason it happened…had helped the killer escape. And she was in love with the "monster"… who didn't seem like a monster. She said this was the last of the secrets. Good Lord, he hoped so. If he heard any more secrets of this magnitude, they'd have to lock him away somewhere.

 

Catherine looked at her father, who was sitting with his head turned away, staring blankly across the room. She was beginning to understand a little of how Vincent felt when he asked her to leave after those attacks. Maybe she could talk him into taking her to that nameless river for a few days to regroup.

 

"Do you want me to leave?"

 

"I do need some time to absorb all this."

 

"Is it okay to kiss you good-bye?"

 

Catherine saw Charles look up in surprise at that question. Tears were glistening in her eyes. She felt transported to childhood…times when she had done something wrong and was afraid he'd be angry with her. She thought she must have been wearing the same look, too, because he rose from the chair and had his arms around her almost in one move.

 

"Honey, it's always okay to kiss your father. As hard as it was for me to hear all this, I know how much courage it must have taken for you to come here and tell me."

 

Catherine still looked as if she might be afraid he couldn't love her now that he knew.

 

"I'll always love you…no matter what," he assured her and kissed her forehead.

 

"This was a lot more 'what' than anybody ought to have to love me through," she answered through tears of relief as she snuggled against him.

 

"I said I'd always love you. I didn't say that I won't need a stiff drink after you leave," Charles answered wryly, hugging her close to reassure her.

 

***

 

No matter how much progress they seemed to make, subsequent conversations always ended in the same place.

 

"Cathy, you're a child of sunlight and spring breezes. I can't bear to think of you locking yourself away in the bowels of the earth - even for love. And the secrets.… How will you live with that for decades? Your friends will tell you about their husbands and children, and you can't tell them anything about…"

 

"I've lived that way for nearly three years. I'm becoming very good at it. And I wouldn't be locked away. It isn't some possessive cult down there. You know that by now. Everyone is free to come and go as they please. Vincent and I will figure it out. We don't know how yet, but we'll make it work. If I continue to live Above, I need to find a safer way for Vincent to reach me, anyway. It's too dangerous for him to keep coming to my balcony. He's been caught Above before, and barely escaped with his life." She realized she had been pacing, a habit she had, no doubt, picked up from Vincent.

 

"Are you at least talking about it now?"

 

"Yes."

 

After several of these frustrating conversations with her father during the past month, Catherine had a revelation. In spite of all his objections, her father wasn't voicing much in the way of objections to Vincent himself &endash; her double life, her sacrifices, her disappearing into the underground society, the thought of children - but nothing specifically about Vincent himself or the killings. How strange.

 

In truth, Charles had had that revelation himself, and it had taken him by surprise as well. He'd had a brief, but revealing conversation with Vincent about the rages he felt in protecting Catherine. He had thought about it often and had spoken to Father(who, after watching her return unscathed from that cavern, had finally come around to Catherine's point of view) about the possibility that Vincent could hurt her. Charles thought a lot of things through, taking several into consideration &endash; not the least of which was the fact that he still had a living daughter. He wondered exactly when it was that he had taken leave of his senses. His daughter had fallen in love with someone who had traits of a different species and had admitted to killing with his bare hands for her protection, yet with the exception of his thoughts of grandchildren, his overall objections were of an entirely different nature. He decided he and Cathy must both be daft.

 

One night in early December, he answered his door to find Kipper, candle in hand, inviting him to Winterfest. He shook the young man's hand and thanked him, promising to attend.

 

In the two weeks before Winterfest, Charles did a lot of soul searching about Vincent and his daughter. He began to reexamine his position. Catherine had made some bad choices in the man department in the past. Those men were social climbers, interested as much or more in his money and social position as they were in his daughter. He had finally realized that Tom Gunther belonged in that category. Then there was Stephen Bass…Elliot Burch… Those men could give her a life in a normal world, but at what cost to her? Not one of them gave her as much of himself as Vincent. Not one of them gave her the look he saw on her face when she was near Vincent. Not one of them was willing to give her the freedom to make her own choices or was willing to put her needs before his own. He had to admit, in spite of himself, that he couldn't really see Vincent insisting that Cathy limit her life in any way she didn't choose of her own volition. Being painfully honest with himself, he couldn't even see Vincent allowing her to limit some parts of her life based on decisions she had already seemed to make. From what Cathy said, Vincent seemed to want what was best for her, no matter what he wanted for himself. It was hard to find fault with that when it came to his little girl. So where did his objections stand?

 

***

 

Winterfest was in full swing, and Charles was still fascinated at the things he found in the tunnels. Where in the world had those stairs come from…and this hall? The tapestries seemed to be a mystery, too. And the picture of Vincent lifting the bar from the door, the strength that required &endash; that was hard to get out of his mind.

 

The things Cathy had told him about how Vincent had protected her went through his mind, too. He had now seen the kind of strength that accompanied the rage she described. It was hard to reconcile that picture with the only one he had seen - a gentle man who loves his family and has infinite patience with their frailties…and very little patience with his own - a man who would always put Cathy before his own life. The two images were difficult to square with one another. He could only justify it, as Cathy had pointed out, as he would see soldiers, who had a similar dilemma to overcome. The difference was that their dilemma was a legal one.

 

Having completed several serious discussions with himself before he arrived, and having come to the conclusions he felt he could accept, Charles found Vincent briefly standing alone. Taking advantage of that rare moment, he took Vincent's arm and guided him away from the crowd where they could talk privately.

 

"You've been seeing my daughter for three years, now, Vincent. What are your intentions?"

 

Vincent didn't know how to answer. He knew that Charles had accepted him as his close friend, but he still wasn't sure Charles could bear the thought of his daughter spending her life with someone not entirely human.

 

"I intend to love her and watch over her until my last breath, to protect her and care for her as long as I live."

 

"And…? Is that it? Do you intend to make a public commitment to her? If she's willing to severely complicate her life to keep you in it, don't you think she deserves that?"

 

"You can accept this for your daughter?" Vincent asked in surprise, motioning toward himself as he looked around the hall. When he looked back at Catherine's father, he dared to feel hopeful.

 

"Do you think I have a choice? I'm sure you've encountered Cathy's iron will and determination at one time or another yourself." The two men shared an understanding smile at that remark.

 

"Catherine belongs to both of our worlds. I don't want to confine her…to force her to choose."

 

"From what she tells me, you've been making all the choices for her…deciding what's best for her… She's had enough of that from me. She doesn't need another father. Before she can make a choice, young man, the choices have to be offered." At this point in the conversation Charles caught himself poking a finger into Vincent's very solid chest to make his point more clearly. "Allow her to decide for herself."

 

"You can accept me as a partner for your daughter?"

 

Charles looked down before he answered, trying to put aside images he would rather not have to think of. "The two of you have told me things that were disturbing…things she takes equal responsibility for…things I have trouble coming to terms with. But those things saved her from death again. I have to be grateful for that." He paused for a few seconds before going on. "Vincent, how could I deny her the kind of love the two of you share. When she talks about you, it's as if a light comes on in her soul. She hasn't chosen an easy life, but she's chosen a happy one. That's what her mother and I wanted for her." Looking around the room he added, "I'm not sure her mother could have imagined this in her wildest dreams, but I think it would have her approval. It looks like Jacob has already accepted Cathy as a daughter. It seems only fair that he ante up that son I never had. You know it took me some time to come to this, but please understand that it had very little to do with accepting you. It was anger and pride holding me back, and concern that my child had chosen a double life...that the two of you had hidden it from me…even after I knew you. I couldn't ask her to find a man Above who would have more of my respect…who I would trust more with her heart."

 

Vincent looked at Charles in disbelief. Son? Could he mean what it seemed? "I don't know what to say. Your words…"

 

"Well, decide on something…and say it to Cathy if you intend to." Charles reached in his pocket, pulled out a small box and placed it in Vincent's hand. "I know what you can give her. I also know what you can't give her, so I brought you something. These are yours, to do with as you see fit. They come with my blessings.

 

Vincent opened the box and found three rings.

 

"Those belonged to my wife and me. I kept them for Cathy &endash; for her to have something of her parents when I was gone."

 

"I can't accept such a gift. These should be with you..." Vincent protested, offering the box back to him, but Charles interrupted.

 

"Of course you can," he insisted, taking Vincent's hand and folding the clawed fingers around the box. "These rings hold memories of a strong love and a happy marriage. I want that for my little girl…and I want that for you. I don't need these rings to remember my wife. Those memories will always be with me. Make these rings a part of something alive and vibrant again."

 

"I have no words…" Vincent answered quietly.

 

"Better to find them for Cathy, anyway," Charles smiled, and Vincent folded him into a filial embrace.

 

If Catherine and her father could accept such a union &endash; expect such a union, why couldn't he? And what her father said was true. When had she ever been offered a real choice?

 

"Thank you…for the gift of your acceptance…and your memories," Vincent said, moving from the warm hug Charles had returned.

 

Charles simply smiled and pointed out that Catherine seemed to have found a free moment.

 

Stopping at the buffet table, Charles watched as Vincent found Catherine and asked to steal her away for a few minutes. The small tunnel orchestra was taking a break, the children were all gathered around Sebastian, and the adults who had been dancing were migrating toward the buffet table. It was a perfect time for them to find a quiet corner away from the crowd.

 

Vincent seated Catherine on a bench and knelt beside her, resting one arm on the small table beside it, his back to the crowd.

 

"I had hoped we could have a few minutes to ourselves. It looks like Dad has forgiven us," she smiled.

 

"He brought me a gift. I believe he expects me to give it to you, but that requires your consent."

 

"What is it? What do I need to consent to?"

 

Vincent held the small velvet box closed in his large hand. "Catherine I don't want to confine you to my life. I don't want to limit your life any more than I already have. I can't give you material things…not the ring that most men could give you…not even the freedom to speak of us to your acquaintances. I can only offer you myself…and my love. If that is truly enough for you, I would be honored if you would consent to be my wife."

 

"It's more than enough, Vincent…and the honor would be mine." Catherine placed her hand on Vincent's cheek, joy pouring through their bond, and gently placed a kiss on his lips.

 

And he responded…reveling in the touch of her lips on his…feeling that he might expire on the spot from more happiness than anyone had a right to feel.

 

"Mmmm…. That was nice. Can we explore that further when we're alone?" Catherine asked mischievously.

 

His answer was one of his small smiles.

 

Vincent was still kneeling next to Catherine's chair between her and the party goers, and even kneeling, he was tall enough that she was nearly hidden behind him. So far their exchange hadn't attracted much attention from the crowd, but one Winterfest guest was watching carefully. Vincent opened his hand, then opened the box.

 

"My parents' rings? He gave you their rings?" Catherine whispered in surprise.

 

"A gift I will always cherish," Vincent answered as he took one ring from the box, and slipped it on the ring finger of the hand she automatically held out to accept it. He took her hand in his. "Your father told me of the love and happiness these rings represent. He said he wanted that for me…as well as for you. He spoke of me as a son. I find it quite humbling…and a great honor. I'll do my best to never disappoint either of you." He rested his forehead against hers and kissed her hand near the ring.

 

"Then we have his blessings?"

 

"It seems so," Vincent smiled. "He questioned my intentions. I was beginning to expect a shotgun. I thought it wise to ask you now…before he had time to change his mind."

 

Catherine laughed and hugged him enthusiastically.

 

Looking down at her hand again, she repeated softly, "He gave you their rings." She looked back up at Vincent. "In my world I can wear the rings on the chain with my crystal. No one will question that. Here I'll wear them as they're intended…proudly…so everyone can see that I'm yours."

 

Seeing her already making plans for keeping the symbols of their union close to her, Vincent smiled, his heart filled with love for this small woman who had brought such wonderful changes to his life.

 

He saw Catherine looking over his shoulder, searching the room, and he turned to follow her gaze. They found her father watching as she smiled jubilantly and held her hand up where the diamond could twinkle at him in the bright candlelight.

 

Charles returned the smile, lifting his glass toward them and bowing slightly in their direction. He then returned to the punch bowl and picked up three drinks before walking a short distance to join Father and Peter. Handing Father one of the drinks and Peter another, he nodded toward Vincent, who was now seated on the bench next to Catherine. The young couple looked very happy.

"Well, my friends, I think we may have an announcement to make," he smiled.

 

The other two men looked at Vincent and Catherine and understood immediately.

 

There they stood &endash; three aging Cupids, inordinately proud of themselves. The three of them raised their glasses and clicked them together in a toast to their children's future.

 

~The End~