Several of the smaller children crawled around the bottom of the tree, peering into the branches with the concentration of Sherlock Holmes looking for a telltale speck of ash. One of the smallest was hoisted onto Vincent's shoulders to examine the top, which almost touched the high ceiling of Catherine's townhouse. Satisfied that every last ornament had been retrieved and packed away, Catherine, with Samantha's help, began to unroll a sheet on the floor while Kipper began loosening the screws that held the still-fragrant evergreen upright in its stand.
"Wow," Samantha exclaimed, "I've never seen a sheet this big!"
"It's a king-size", Catherine explained. "All the beds Below are smaller, I think, because they're older."
Devin grinned as he and Vincent began to lower the tree onto the sheet. "Fortunately our Cathy can get king-size beds Above, suitable for king-size husbands." In response to Vincent's warning glare, Devin gave his brother a wide-eyed "Who, me?" look that would have fooled anyone who didn't know him.
"It's so pretty." Samantha looked at Catherine with concern. "Aren't you afraid the tree will get some of that sticky stuff on it?"
"It won't matter," Catherine assured her. "After this, its destiny is to go into some of Mary's quilts."
Samantha looked surprised. "But it looks almost new ... wait a minute. I see, it's all ripped on this side! Gosh, that's too bad."
"I wonder how that could have happ--ow!"
"Devin, are you OK?" Charles asked worriedly.
"Yeah, it's nothing," Devin answered, rubbing his calf. "Sudden cramp in my leg." He glared pointedly at Vincent's boot before raising accusing eyes to his brother's face. Had Sherlock Holmes been watching the tableau, the Great Detective might have taken notice of the way Vincent stood, the picture of innocence, but with his fingers curled carefully inward, their tips hidden by the palms of his hands. Catherine seemed suspiciously pink from a task no more strenuous than wrapping a sheet around a tree. Mr. Holmes certainly would have noticed Jenny's sudden fit of--coughing?--which immediately diverted attention from talk of sheets.
"What's wrong, Jenny?" Charles moved toward her. "Want some water?"
Jenny patted his arm reassuringly. "I'll be fine in a minute. What's a nice Jewish girl like me doing taking down a Christmas tree, anyway? I'm probably allergic. But I think some water would be a great idea--I'll just help myself in the kitchen." Devin stumbled a little as she took his arm and yanked him kitchenward. "Why don't you come too, Devin? You can sit down and give your leg a rest--maybe I'll massage it for you." Looking like he'd prefer being mauled by a grizzly, Devin took in Charles' eager nod, Jenny's iron grip on his shirt, and realized he'd been outmaneuvered. "All right, I'll go quietly."
"How novel," Vincent remarked as his irrepressible brother was led off to his fate.
"Well," Catherine said brightly, "we've still got work to do. Who's going to help me get this tree outside?" Jamie, Kipper and Eric had remembered to bring warm jackets, which they began to put on as Vincent and Mouse carefully guided the wrapped tree out the double doors of the living room and into the hallway. Catherine slipped into her own jacket and gloves as she led the expedition. As she unlocked the back door and turned to supervise her crew, she saw that Vincent had relinquished his place and hung behind in the shadows. Her eyes locked with his for a moment, and she ached at the familiar look of resignation that briefly shadowed the beloved face. Silently he shook his head and smiled at her as he waved her forward.
Blinking rapidly, Catherine cleared her throat a couple of times and held the door open as she guided her young helpers in maneuvering a very large tree through the relatively small opening. That accomplished, Eric looked around the small garden. It seemed bigger now than in summer, when the bare branches of the trees were covered by leaves. "Where should we put it? What are you going to do with it now?"
Catherine smiled at the question. After only a few years in the Tunnels, Eric had so completely absorbed the community's principles that it never occurred to him that the old tree would simply be discarded. "Well, for now we'll just prop it up in that corner." She pointed to a spot near the shed which protected tools and supplies from the rigors of a Manhattan winter. "When there's a break in the weather Cullen's going to cut it up and take any wood he thinks he can use; the rest will be firewood or kindling. Then Miyoko's going to grind up the smaller branches for compost."
"She really loves that machine, and being able to work in your garden," Jamie volunteered. "She even got Mouse to promise he'd never touch it without her there to supervise. He was ready to grind up everything in sight just to see what happened."
Catherine shuddered. "Remind me to thank her next time I'm Below. I'm just glad to have someone willing to take care of all this. Small as it is, it's way beyond my horticultural abilities. I don't quite have a brown thumb, but close."
"You do not." One of the symptoms of Jamie's increasing friendship with Catherine was the ability to recognize one of her self-deprecating exaggerations and nip it in the bud. "You just have more important things to do with your time, like working, or spending it with Vincent. Besides, you take pretty good care of that rosebush, I've noticed."
The well-pruned and winterized bush didn't look like much right now, but Catherine knew that in late Spring it would bloom in red-and-white profusion, just as it had the first Spring in this garden. Somehow it seemed to know that it had come to a place where it could dig in its roots permanently and flourish. Catherine smiled as she touched one bare branch. "This one's special." She lifted her head, still smiling, to face Jamie. "One bush I can handle; a whole garden's something else. Besides, Miyoko's forgotten more about gardening than most of us will ever know. I'm amazed at what she's been able to accomplish Below."
Kipper poked around under the decorative rocks, hoping that something interesting might crawl out despite the cold. "Yeah, but she's never been able to do as much as she likes with that hydrawatchamacallit."
"Hydroponics," Eric supplied eagerly. "She lets me help her, it's really neat. But she's done about as much as she can without using too much electricity. Especially now that gas for the generators costs so much."
Catherine nodded, making a mental note to find a way to ensure a regular supply of gasoline without being too obvious. "And you have to be careful about diverting electricity. Even Con Ed would notice eventually." They all picked up the tree and headed toward the back corner, then hoisted it against the fence. Catherine touched its branches in grateful farewell. It had been a beautiful tree, and she would treasure the memory of Vincent's face when he saw it decorated for the first time. It was their first Christmas in this house, after all. Vincent still hadn't quite gotten used to the idea of having a house to celebrate Christmas in, not to mention a wife to celebrate it with.
Kipper's voice broke into her reverie. "Did you really bring it all the way from Connecticut?" He made "Connecticut" and "Mars" sound about equidistant. "And the one for Below?"
"Yes, with a lot of assistance from friends and Helpers. They're from my family's summer place--there are a lot of trees like this on the property. Too many, in fact; nobody's thinned them out for years. I'll plant new ones to replace them, so we'll have trees year after year."
Kipper looked at her like maybe there was a Santa Claus after all. "That's terrific! We hardly ever get a real Christmas tree Below, and if we do it's usually some scrawny leftover. They cost so much in New York ..."
"Well, there are lots of them in Connecticut. Maybe you'll be able to see for yourself pretty soon, if I can convince Father to let me take a bunch of you out there this summer."
"Is Vincent gonna come too?"
Catherine winced, but steeled herself to smile at Kipper. "I don't think that would be a good idea; it's too much of a risk."
"I thought maybe after you went there on your honeymoon ..."
"That was in April, Kipper, when there weren't many people around. It would be much more crowded in the summer. Even in April, I was nervous--and Father was probably having conniption fits the whole time we were gone."
"You got that right," Jamie grinned, "although he tried to hide it."
"Well, I can't be giving my father-in-law fits too often, can I? Maybe we'll go together again someday ... I just wish I could find some Helpers who'd like to live in the country, so someone would be there all the time. We could grow lots more food there than in this tiny garden."
"William loves having all the herbs from your garden," Jamie said. "And Miyoko sure seems to make every square inch count ... we got tons of vegetables last summer ..."
Catherine laughed. "It's hard not to get tons of zucchini." "But you're right, Miyoko's a miracle worker. Wait until this summer--she's convinced me we can put in a roof garden, with some dwarf fruit trees." Catherine turned and began walking toward the house, as Eric regaled them all with a lecture on how a roof garden would help reduce the greenhouse effect.
When they returned to the house Catherine discovered that a somewhat chastened Devin had been freed from his confinement in the kitchen, and the indoor portion of the party had made swift work of putting the furniture back into its pre-Christmas configuration. Taking down the tree always made Catherine a little sad--she so loved the whole wonderful month from Thanksgiving to Christmas. She often visited Jenny's family during Chanukkah, and now she had Winterfest besides. Twelfth Night always felt like the coach was turning back into a pumpkin, and there wasn't a thing she could do to stop it. Oh, well, there was always Vincent's birthday to look forward to, and Valentine's Day ... now that had some interesting possibilities.
"Well, the intrepid explorers have returned from the back yard," Jenny announced. "That's my cue to make an exit."
"Do you have to leave so soon?" Catherine asked in surprise. "I was hoping you could stay for lunch."
"Only if I want to look for some new parents," Jenny laughed. "I promised I'd be in Brooklyn ten minutes ago."
"Well, I owe you one," Catherine insisted as she accompanied Jenny to the front door. Once they were out of earshot of the others, Catherine tucked her arm in Jenny's and gave it a grateful squeeze. "And I don't just mean lunch."
"No problem. I didn't grow up with bratty older brothers for nothing, you know. Devin occasionally forgets Vincent's not twelve years old anymore, and he's not fourteen--although sometimes he acts it."
"I know it's a little thing, but--"
"But Vincent still gets uncomfortable at faintly suggestive remarks in front of the children. Frankly, I think the children can figure things out on their own, but they're too mature to let on. Everybody Below is so careful to respect one another's privacy ... Devin's lived Above so much, I guess he tends to forget that sometimes. A little reminder now and then couldn't hurt."
Catherine grinned as she helped Jenny on with her coat. "I'm not sure it's accurate to call Vincent's foot a little reminder."
Jenny looked smug as she tugged on her boots. "Maybe not, but it's darned effective. Between him and me we'll civilize Devin yet."
Catherine handed Jenny her gloves and scarf. "I always thought what Devin needed to civilize him was a wife."
"And you're disappointed that I'm not it."
Catherine raised her hands in admission. "Good grief, between you and Vincent I can't hide anything. I don't know ... I thought you'd be good for him, but I wasn't sure I really wanted to wish him on my best friend."
"Friends is exactly what Devin and I are. We hit it off from the very beginning of the Great Honeymoon Caper. We make a great team, just not a romantic one. Besides ..." Jenny hesitated.
"Besides what? C'mon Jenny, give."
"Well, have you noticed how much he's talked about that new doctor? The one that just joined her father up in the boondocks where Devin and Charles are living?"
"Spoken like a born-and-raised New Yorker. You think something's going on?"
"I sure do. He talked about her last spring when we were providing Honeymoon Escort to you and the groom. I got the impression that even if I'd wanted to make a play for Devin, the good doctor had vaccinated him against other women, even though he'd only met her a few times back then. He was cool about it, but you know me ... I've got a feeling." With a last fling, Jenny got her scarf properly wound around her neck. "Poor Cathy, you must be frustated. You've been trying to be such a matchmaker lately. You must be happily married or something."
Catherine's smile was so wide Jenny was afraid she'd dislocate her jaw. "Or something." She gave Jenny one last hug before sending her off on her journey to the wilds of Brooklyn.
The rest of the group needed no urging to stay for lunch. A still-contrite Devin volunteered to prepare most of it, regaling them with anecdotes (some of them probably true) of his days as a chef. The flow of talk and laughter continued through the meal and the subsequent clean-up, until the Tunnel contingent reluctantly departed. Devin and Charles were leaving the next morning for their home in the Adirondacks. Between packing for their trip and preparing for tonight's farewell dinner, they'd have plenty to occupy them for the rest of the day.
Only Eric lagged behind. "Catherine ... I was wondering ... could I stay for a while?"
Catherine regarded the boy with benevolent affection. "I suppose you want to see some of those videos I taped for you."
"Yeah! There's one of a real operation! Father won't let me watch him, and besides, nobody's been hurt bad enough to need one lately." Catherine raised her eyebrows at his obvious disappointment. "And there's a whole bunch about how the brain works and ..."
"Whoa! Are you sure you don't have things to do Below? I don't want you playing hooky from your chores."
"No, honest, I've done all--" His face fell. "Unless you and Vincent want to be alone. Father says it's not polite to invite yourself someplace. I don't want to get in your way." Eric looked at the floor dejectedly.
Catherine wondered what Eric imagined he'd be getting in the way of, then decided not to pursue the thought for her own peace of mind. "Eric, of course you can stay, but don't forget the dinner tonight. We'll be going Below in a few hours. Why don't you go uptairs and use the TV in the big guest room?"
A transformed Eric nodded eagerly as he turned toward the stairs, only Vincent's voice stopping his headlong rush. "Go to the basement first and tap out a message for Pascal, so he knows where you are. We don't want anyone to think you got lost when the others return without you." Before Vincent stopped speaking, Eric was disappearing into the kitchen, headed toward the basement stairs.
Vincent shook his head in amazement at all that childish energy, while Catherine slipped an arm around his waist. "If only someone could bottle that, they could make a fortune with the DA's office concession. Especially Monday mornings and Friday afternoons."
As Vincent put his arm around Catherine, they headed toward the library by unspoken agreement. After adding wood to the waning fire, Vincent settled gratefully beside Catherine on the large sofa that faced the flames. Nestling against him, she sighed contentedly. "Mmmm. You know, I think this is my second favorite room in the house."
"I'm sure Devin would be eager to suggest which is our favorite."
Catherine pulled away enough to search Vincent's face. "He didn't really mean anything by it. Sometimes he just opens his mouth before his brain is completely in gear. He'd never hurt you on purpose--"
"Catherine--" Vincent shook his head. "I'm not hurt. In fact, I realize Devin only behaves that way with people he loves and trusts. For twenty years, his survival depended upon just the opposite--never speaking without thinking, in case the mask might slip. Never really trusting anyone completely. The way he acts with us is a testament to his love for us, and his trust in us."
Before Catherine could reply, an indignant kitten bounded into the room, full of feline complaints about being excluded from the tree-removal party. Bulwer's "help" during its decoration had destroyed a number of ornaments and almost brought the tree down on Mouse's head. This had resulted in his permanent banishment from the living room for the duration of the holidays. In the privacy of her own thoughts, Catherine considered that being on the receiving end of some other creature's mayhem might be a salutary experience for Mouse, although probably not for long. Having delivered his diatribe, Bulwer apparently decided to forgive his adoptive parents. Jumping onto Vincent's lap with a last loud meow, he kneaded and circled energetically for a moment, then curled up and promptly went to sleep.
This comedy relief did nothing to derail Catherine's train of thought. "Perhaps it doesn't exactly hurt you, but it does make you uncomfortable sometimes."
"Sometimes," Vincent agreed. "I have always been ... inhibited, I suppose you would say, about those things which emphasized my differences. Swimming together as children, going at times when no one else was there. And after Lisa ... even though Father told as few people as possible, I always wondered how many knew or guessed. Anything ... sexual became a source of pain for me. Either it tantalized me with longings for something I was sure I could never have, or it reminded me of the differences that set me apart. It took me years to reach a point where I resigned myself to a life of study and service to the others Below. I would be friend, protector, confidante, surrogate brother or uncle. I buried the need for physical pleasure, for passion, under carefully assembled armor."
"Until I came along and it fell to pieces."
Vincent nodded. "For which I shall be forever grateful. But that's one of the reasons Father was so hostile to you at first; that and his memories of Margaret. He saw how difficult my task had been over all those years, and how delicate the balance that I finally reached."
Catherine watched Vincent's hand as it stoked the sleeping kitten. "You are getting used to love and marriage, though. For instance, you don't wear quite as many layers of clothes as you used to. It's hard to believe now that a little over a year ago, I'd never even seen you with your shirt off. Talk about hiding your light under a bushel ..."
Vincent laughed softly. "Unimagined pleasure does take a little getting used to. In the privacy of conjugal conversation I'll even admit that most of the time I rather like the kind of remarks that Devin and his ilk direct our way. It makes me feel ..."
"Smug?" Catherine suggested, smugly.
"Proud," Vincent corrected, although Catherine's description was at least as accurate as his own. "But the inhibitions of a lifetime do not die easily, especially when the children are present."
"Children who are probably a lot more astute than we give them credit for." Catherine gave Vincent a wifely kiss. "What shall we do with the rest of the afternoon that won't shock Eric's less-than-delicate sensibilities?"
With a warm kitten on his lap and a warm wife curled up beside him, Vincent was almost comatose with contentment, but he roused himself enough to speak. "We could begin another chess game."
Catherine frowned. "I don't know about that. If I keep playing with you pretty soon I'll be good enough to beat Father on a regular basis. That would break his heart. Besides, I'm too comfortable to move all the way to the other side of the room. Why don't we finish Tehanu?" At Vincent's nod of agreement, she turned far enough to reach the book where it lay on the table behind them.
The afternoon melted imperceptibly into evening as they read to each other, alternating chapters. The flow of words was punctuated now and then by feeding the fire, or wandering to the kitchen for tea, or watching Bulwer's antics when he abandoned one of their laps to dissipate his constantly renewed supply of kitten-energy.
"But it did not seem to matter. There were new things to be learned, no doubt. And she could send somebody for the books, if Ged wanted them. And for her spinning wheel ... They would have to replant Ogion's garden right away if they wanted any vegetables of their own this summer. She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west. 'I think we can live there,' she said."
As the last echoes of Vincent's voice faded into the faint whisper of the dying fire, Catherine held the moment to herself like a perfect flower in her hand. Summer would come again to them as well, summer upon summer. She and Vincent could sit in their garden again, in the fragrant darkness, while the canopy of leaves protected them from curious eyes. No life without limits, indeed; but with care and imagination limits could be stretched. Like Miyoko's small miracle of a garden in the bowels of the earth...
Opening her eyes, Catherine stretched in unconscious imitation of Bulwer as she brought herself back to more immediate concerns. "I suppose it's about time we went Below." Rising from the sofa, she kissed Vincent and Bulwer on their furry noses. "Why don't you two entertain each other while I change into something a little more festive. It'll only take a few minutes." As she climbed the stairs, Catherine mentally reviewed her wardrobe. The blue jumpsuit--dressy, but comfortable enough for the Tunnels--and Vincent particularly liked the way it ... about to open the door to their bedroom, she was startled to hear faint sounds coming from her office across the hall. Changing her direction abruptly, she poked her head in the door. "Eric! Are you still here?"
Absorbed in the figures that filled the screen, Eric almost jumped out of his chair at the sound of Catherine's voice. "It's OK, isn't it? You said I could use it whenever--"
"Whenever you want. Of course it's OK," Catherine reassured him. "I'm just surprised to see you're still here. It's almost time for dinner, you know."
"It is? I was just trying to figure out a way to help Miyoko keep track of things easier. You know, like plant breeding records, and nutrient mixes, and ... well, I guess I just don't know enough yet--"
"And you're not going to learn it in the next five minutes, so why don't you shut down and get ready to come with us?"
"Yeah," Eric sighed. "There's so much to learn." He turned to Catherine. "It's really neat, though. How come you never had one before?"
"Never really needed one, I guess. In my old job I spent more time on the streets and less in my office--it was faster and easier to get Edie or someone else to do it. Gosh, I miss her ... anyway, I spend more time in the office now and I've learned how to do more of that sort of thing myself."
"And I bet you can do a lot of the same things from home, too. That way you don't have to stay at the office so late, and Vincent won't worry so much."
Catherine gave Eric a quick hug. "You're one smart kid, you know that? That's one real big reason. Besides, I'd rather be at home with Vincent even if I'm working and he's doing something else. I just like being in the same house with him. Speaking of which, this house is so much bigger than my old place, I've got room for things like this."
Eric was quiet for a moment as he carefully shut down the computer and shrouded the equipment in its protective coverings. "Catherine--" he began hesitantly.
Eric took a breath. "I think your new job is great. I know you changed mostly because it was safer, but Jamie told me you spend a lot of your time helping kids who've been hurt. I'll bet you're real good at it, too. I'll never forget how you helped me and Ellie." His voice cracked a little at the last word, and he stared at the shrouded computer, avoiding Catherine's eyes.
When she could trust her own voice, Catherine answered him gently. "Thank you, Eric. I'll remember what you said when things get rough."
Suddenly a golden streak shot in the door and bounced off the desk to land on Eric's shoulder. The solemn mood was broken as Vincent followed Bulwer at a more sedate pace. Catherine turned to him, contrite. "I'm really going to get dressed now, I promise. Would you two gentlemen be so good as to feed Master Bulwer while I do that?" Eric nodded eagerly. Animal behavior was even more interesting than computers.
Catherine thoroughly enjoyed the communal dinner Below. Devin was in a more subdued mood, now that his departure from the Tunnels was near at hand. Both he and Catherine found themselves on the dishwashing detail, while Vincent was taken away for Reading-to-Sleep duty as the younger children were put to bed. For a while, Devin concentrated on providing a steady stream of dishes for Catherine to dry. When a slowdown in the dirty dish delivery system caused a temporary lull, Devin fidgeted for a while, then spoke in a rush. "You're not too ticked off at me, are you Cath?"
Catherine exchanged her towel for a dryer one, letting him stew for a moment, then shook her head. "Not really. I think part of Vincent enjoys being teased about our marriage--it reinforces the reality of it." She folded and unfolded the towel before speaking again. "You know, just last week he told me that sometimes, before he's completely awake, he gets the sudden conviction that he's dreamed it all, and he'll wake up alone."
Devin stared at the soapy water. "God, to think he still ... you've been married almost nine months, and ... uh ... where the hell are those dishes, anyway?"
Catherine laughed and snapped her towel at Devin. "And sleeping together longer than that, you were about to say. Over a year, as you and probably everybody else around here knows by now." She became serious again. "In some ways I'm grateful to you for constantly reminding Vincent that his dreams really have come true. He did an awfully good job convincing himself they never would--or even worse, convincing himself there were dreams he didn't deserve to have. It'll take more than a year of loving to make up for the doubts of a lifetime, but I'm working on it, and I'll take all the help I can get. Just go easy when the kids are around, OK? Vincent may be a wonderful teacher, but I don't think he'd be thrilled at the prospect of answering a 'What does Devin mean?' kind of question."
Devin's reply was delayed by the arrival of another pile of dirty dishes. "I promise--or at least I promise to try. I have to keep reminding myself how much I missed in those twenty years away from here. When I left the Tunnels Vincent was a kid; when I came back he was a grown man and in love--although it took him a while to do something about it. I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself for running out on him. I know I could have made those years a lot less painful."
"Hey," Catherine reminded him, "things turned out pretty well in the end. Don't you start blaming yourself for everything, Vincent does enough of that for both of you." She began drying dishes with renewed vigor. "C'mon, let's change the subject. Charles looks wonderful--he must be getting excellent medical care."
Devin threw up his hands, forgetting for the moment they were immersed in dishwater. Soapy drops flew in all directions. "I knew it. You've been talking to Jenny."
"Why Devin, whatever do you mean?"
"Hey, Chandler, that innocent routine may work with a jury, but I'm immune--I was a lawyer for a while, remember? Yes, Charles is getting terrific care from the doctors Corbeau, both father and daughter. Yes, Doctor Amanda Corbeau is a terrific woman, and we've been getting closer. That's all I'm going to say for now--I don't want to jinx anything. I promise, if there's any important developments you and your hubby will be the first to know--presuming Jenny doesn't dream about it and tell you first."
Catherine beamed at Devin. It was about time he settled down, and events were beginning to look extremely promising. Squirming under her implacably benevolent gaze, Devin tried to distract her. "Just as well for Vincent. Otherwise you'd eventually come to realize that I'm the more appealing brother by far--"
"In your dreams, Wells," Catherine countered.
"Oh yeah? Give me two good reasons why I'm not more attractive than Vincent." The silk-and-gravel voice that suddenly rumbled behind Devin almost caused him to drop William's favorite serving platter. "One, you're much too scrawny. Two--" Vincent looked his brother up and down, shaking his head in disappointment. "Much too naked."
"Whaddya mean, naked? Standard Adirondacks winter issue-- turtleneck, flannel shirt--"
"He means," Catherine explained while hugging her decidedly unscrawny husband, "that despite the return of the beard, you're insufficiently furry."
Devin looked at his soapy arms and shrugged. "Humph. Guess I'll just have to find someone who appreciates my type."
"Anything is possible," Vincent replied, smiling down at Catherine.
Catherine smiled back. "I'm surprised to see you so soon. I was sure we'd have the dishes finished long before all the little ones got to sleep."
"My voice," Vincent admitted, "seems to have quite a soporific effect on young children."
"Mmmm." Catherine almost purred. "That's not the effect it has on me."
"Hey you two, break it up," Devin commanded as he flicked dishwater on them. "We still have dishes to wash." The few that remained were finished in short order, and Vincent helped with the final cleanup of the kitchen.
Many hours later, Catherine and Vincent crawled gratefully into bed. The bon voyage party had lasted much longer than anyone anticipated. Devin had become quite a favorite of the Tunnel community, especially after his lengthy visit at the time of their wedding. The children were especially loath to see him leave, since he was an apparently inexhaustible source of wonderful stories. Devin clearly had mixed feelings; an obvious desire to make up for the lost years warred with an equally obvious desire to return to the mountains where he'd made a life for himself and Charles. A life that was definitely getting much more interesting, Catherine mused. Vincent settled back after turning out the light, and slipped his arm under Catherine's head as she curled up beside him.
"Vincent?" Catherine asked tentatively. "Are you too tired to talk?"
"No," Vincent replied, "but you should be. You have work tomorrow, and it's already past midnight."
"Dear heart, in our early days together we got by on a lot less sleep. I wanted to ask you something about Eric."
"Is something wrong? Did he say--"
"No, no--don't worry. There's nothing really wrong, but I've noticed lately than he's developed quite an interest in science. He devours anything Jenny or I can get in the way of books or videos."
Catherine felt Vincent relax against her when he realized there was no serious problem. He was particularly fond of Eric, as he had been of Ellie. Only lately had he begun to examine those feelings deeply enough to wonder if they stemmed from the fact that they were children Catherine brought him, at a time when the idea of Catherine giving him children any other way had seemed as impossible as sprouting wings and flying over the Abyss. Reaching out his other arm, he gathered Catherine even closer.
"You're not the only one who's noticed. Father mentioned it not too long ago. Eric's been trying to wade through Father's medical books and journals, and asking him questions until he feels thoroughly wrung out."
"Vincent, you're the best teacher any child could hope to have ..."
"But my background in science is limited. Father's is better, of course, although he has so many demands on his time little is left for teaching. Do you think Eric needs more than we can provide?"
Catherine didn't answer at first, as she made little circles on Vincent's chest with her fingers. "Well ... "
Her fingers felt the chest under them shake with soft laughter. "Catherine, your reluctance to admit there's anything I can't do is quite flattering, but unnecessary. Father is well aware of our lack in this area, but it's only temporary and in fact is about to end."
"What do you mean?"
"One of our long-time Helpers, a second-generation one in fact, is a high school science teacher."
Catherine was intrigued. "I've never met him, have I?"
"No ... when he used to come Below often, you didn't. By the time you began to visit regularly, he was gone."
"Where was he? Wherever it was, it sounds like he's coming back."
"His parents were both teachers also, and valued Helpers ... but the weather in New York began to bother them a great deal when they got older, and they moved to Florida after they retired. About two years ago, Benjamin's father became quite ill, and his mother was unable to cope alone. Benjamin moved down there to help, since he is the only one of the children without a family of his own. His father died last Fall, and now that his mother feels able to be alone, Benjamin has returned. He didn't quite make it in time for Winterfest, unfortunately."
"Yes, I'd very much like to meet him. He doesn't have a wife or children?"
In response, Vincent held Catherine more tightly for a moment, almost in reflex. "No ... he was engaged once, quite a few years ago. His fiancée was killed, run down by a drunk driver. He's never found anyone else." Catherine raised her face to Vincent's and gave him a reassuring kiss. Vincent kissed her back in gratitude. "Benjamin is such a good man ... I never would have believed the day would come that I would have a wife, and he would not."
Sleep was beginning to overtake Catherine at last, but she roused herself for one last time before giving in. "And you're going to have one for a good long time, love--so get used to it."
The afterglow of the weekend lasted about ten minutes once Catherine returned to work the next morning. It seemed like every gremlin that could bedevil her day had been lying in wait, ready to spring on her Monday morning. Witnesses whose memories began to fail them, women who decided to give their husbands one more chance and dropped charges despite bruised faces and broken bones ... a pile of new child abuse cases seemed to have spontaneously generated in Catherine's IN basket, any one of them capable of breaking her heart if she let it. Despite reminding herself regularly of Eric's supportive words, by mid-afternoon Catherine was nursing a king-sized headache--and it was about to get worse.
"Well, my adorable Cathy, you look like you're having a bad day. What you need is to go out for a drink after work with a handsome young attorney--me, for instance. There's this intimate little place--"
"Whoa, Fred!" Catherine groaned, rummaging in her drawer for aspirin. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't I mentioned before that I wasn't interested? Several times?"
The obnoxious Frederick Cabot, Esq., waved his hand dismissively. "You're just playing hard to get. You're not married or even engaged, I've been checking. So why not? C'mon, Cathy, we'll be great together, you're just my type. I'll bet ..."
"Fred! Just the person I need." Joe loomed up behind Catherine's would-be suitor, who quickly scrambled off the corner of her desk. "Jack was supposed to take this deposition, but I just found out he's been in a car accident. Get over to the Tombs right away and fill in. Good thing you were here."
Fred looked at the paperwork and blanched. "You want me to take a deposition from Mad Dog Kaminsky?"
"That's what it says. He got picked up for aggravated assault--beat up three guys in a bar. He's probably a little tired after that, but make sure the guard stays close. We don't want him attacking one of our ADAs again."
"Again?" Fred croaked.
"C'mon, Cabot, you haven't got much time, so get moving." Joe spun around, all business, and headed back to his office. "Ms. Chandler, I'd like to see you in my office immediately."
Catherine rose smartly and followed, not even sparing a backward glance for the hapless Fred. She closed the door behind her and slipped into a chair opposite the desk where Joe Maxwell sat, looking every inch the stern boss. Catherine regarded him silently for a few seconds. "Ms. Chandler? I almost said, 'who's she?' You haven't called me that since the day I was hired."
Joe's face crumpled with laughter. "Sounded impressive, though, didn't it?"
Catherine joined him. Poor Fred. "Just as soon as I stop laughing, remind me to give you a stern lecture about overprotective meddling. I'm a m--a grown woman, for Pete's sake."
"And Fred's an arrogant little pain in the butt who should be keeping his mind on his job and not hassling one of my best people. You don't have to put up with that kind of crap, it's practically sexual harassment."
Catherine stopped laughing. "It's hardly that, Joe. Believe me, if it were I'd do something about it. He's just ruder than most."
"Most? How many guys around here are hitting on you, anyway?"
"Probably more than there would be if my ADA salary were my only source of income." Catherine shrugged. "What do you expect? I'm well off, I'm not about to break any mirrors, and they assume I'm available."
"But you're not, are you?"
Catherine squirmed. "Not to them."
Joe noted her discomfort, her averted gaze. "Not to anybody, if you ask me. You've been different ever since you came back to work after last Christmas. This new job of yours must be depressing as hell, working mostly with abused women and kids-- but I've never seen you so happy. More than that. There's something so settled about you."
Catherine stared at her shoes. "I'm a homeowner now, remember."
"Kid, if buying a house could make a person look like you have this past year, the real estate market would be better than it is." Joe sighed. "Look, if I'd been splashed over the tabloids the way you've been, I'd want to keep my private life pretty quiet, too. Just don't forget I'm here if you need me."
Catherine raised her eyes to Joe's face. "Believe me, I never forget that. It means a lot to me, and always has. I couldn't have a better boss, or a better friend."
Joe got up from behind his desk, gathering up his darts on the way. "Something tells me the first complicates the second." He tossed a dart, hitting the wall next to the board. "Beat it, Chandler." He grinned. "If you value your skin."
With a last grateful smile over her shoulder, she left and shut the door behind her. Joe stared at the closed door for a moment, then continued to toss his darts, one after the other.
Later, Catherine trudged wearily up the steps to her front door. Fred had never returned--maybe Mad Dog did beat him to a pulp. Catherine tried very hard not to feel pleased at the prospect. Unlocking the door, she concentrated on sloughing off her lawyer skin and wondered if Vincent was still Below. As soon as she closed the door behind her, Catherine knew he wasn't. The house always felt different without him--emptier, colder. As she put away her coat and boots, Catherine wondered how much this feeling was just the experience of living with Vincent every day, and how much an intensification of the bond in her direction.
Weariness temporarily forgotten, Catherine ran up the stairs to the master bedroom, where she found Vincent waiting, reading by the fire. As soon as she crossed the threshhold he put the book down and rose to take her in his arms. Hugging him as hard as she could, Catherine buried her face against him, soaking up the scent of him, the warmth of his body, and the almost tangible sense of peace his nearness always gave her. After a moment she drew away.
"How did I ever survive my day without you to come home to? While I change, will you tell me what's going on Below? I need to hear how sane people spend their time." Vincent moved to the bed, the better to talk to his wife as she moved between dressing room and bedroom. Coincidentally, this also provided a much better view as Catherine shed her work clothes and changed into comfortable slacks and a sweater. She laughed out loud at his account of little Cathy's temporary escape from Lena and the serious consequences to several piles of Father's books as well as his peace of mind. Devin and Charles had set off more or less on time, and promised to call as soon as the reached their home in the mountains. "I told Father I would let him know as soon as we heard."
Catherine flopped down on the bed with a grateful sigh. "So we're on phone duty for now. That means we have dinner up here."
Vincent looked carefully at the faint lines of strain around her closed eyes. "You look tired ... let me find something for us to eat."
Catherine opened her eyes. "There are plenty of things in the freezer, don't worry. Days like this are the reason God made microwaves. I'm perfectly happy to be forced to stay alone up here with you for a while. We'll go Below later and deliver Devin's message in person. I need to remind myself there are nice people in the world."
Vincent gently stroked the hair away from Catherine's face. "You had a very difficult day, I could feel it. What happened?" "Oh, just the usual ..."
"Catherine--tell me. It will help." I wonder, Catherine thought. Knowing he wouldn't rest until she had unburdened herself, she gave an abbreviated account of her day. Although the Fred incident was heavily edited and presented as amusing but peripheral, Vincent wasn't fooled. The furrow between his brows deepened, and his face began to assume the brooding look Catherine knew only too well.
"Vincent--don't make more of this than it deserves."
"It pains me that you are subjected to this. If you were married to a man you could acknowledge as your husband ..."
"Then I wouldn't be married to you, and I can't think of anything more awful than that. Besides, I'm not sure that would stop a jerk like Fred."
With the tips of her fingers, Catherine gently turned Vincent's chin until he faced her. "Dear heart, of course I'd like to tell everyone I'm as married as a woman can get, with such a wonderful husband that nobody else has a chance. The fact that I can't is a small price to pay for being your wife. And if you don't believe that, I'm going to rip your clothes off right now and ravish you on the spot."
Vincent still appeared morose, but soon his face softened. He looked directly at Catherine and spoke in a patently insincere voice. "I don't believe that."
Since Catherine was a woman of her word, he left her no choice. A long time later, after a perfect example of the rejuvenating benefits of exercise, Catherine turned to Vincent and complained, "I never should have wasted all that time changing my clothes."
Several evenings later, Catherine made a slight detour on her way home from work. Entering the lobby of her old apartment building, she was greeted by the doorman with such a look of mixed pleasure and nervousness she almost burst into giggles. He was probably terrified of her coming back here to live. No doubt he and the Tenant's Association had been thrilled to see her go. Since she had convinced Jenny to take over her old apartment, the level of unwanted excitement had probably dropped considerably. If she'd rented the place instead of owning it, she would have been evicted years ago. Riding up the elevator and knocking on the familiar door, a wave of memories assailed her.
"Cathy, hi! I'm glad you could come. If I trip over these boxes one more time I'll break something important."
Catherine regarded the pile of boxes with pleasure. Since Jenny had become a Helper, the Tunnels had received a regular supply of the free copies of books that publishers seemed so eager to toss around; many a chamber Below was decorated with the beautiful promotional posters that come with them. "Wow, what a haul! This is sure to win you the Helper of the Year Award."
For a moment, Jenny wondered if there actually was such an award. Nothing would surprise her anymore about that amazing place she had dubbed "The Magic Kingdom." She looked at the boxes dubiously. "Are you sure you can take all this stuff? I know we agreed it would be better not to use the Tunnel entrance in this building any more than absolutely necessary, but ..."
"It's no problem, Jen. I made the New Yorker's ultimate sacrifice--I took my car today. If we call Luis downstairs he'll send someone to carry them down, presuming you gave him a nice Christmas tip. Brooke and Stephen promised they'd be waiting when I got home to help me carry the boxes."
"Well, if you're sure ... I should be the one to do this, but things are so hectic right now ..." At an exasperated sound from Catherine, Jenny capitulated. "OK, OK, end of guilt trip. The least you can let me do is give you tea or something before you tackle the job."
"That sounds terrific." Catherine began removing her coat. "That will give Brooke and Stephen more time to moon over each other in the library while Vincent diplomatically removes himself to another part of the house."
While Jenny bustled in the kitchen, Catherine looked around the apartment. How different it was with Jenny's things in it. Catherine had spent some of the best and worst times of her life within these walls, and yet she almost never thought of the place any more unless she was actually in it. Still, she hated the idea of selling it or even renting it to a stranger. Walking to the french doors, she looked out onto the snow-covered balcony. Some of the evenings she had spent there with Vincent had been almost unbearably romantic--but the days and nights spent in their new home, or their chambers Below, had eclipsed those memories. And most important, Vincent could come to her now whenever he wanted without risking the dangers outside. Deep in her thoughts, Catherine jumped when she heard Jenny's voice behind her.
"Do you ever miss it?"
"Only the view," Catherine admitted.
"Well, you're welcome to look at it whenever you like, since you are my landlady." Jenny proceeded to set down a huge pot of tea and enough pastries to feed an army. "Although I imagine the view at your place is even better."
Catherine smiled fondly at her friend. One of Jenny's most endearing traits was her unabashed admiration for Vincent as a hunk. Well, Catherine had always considered her a woman of taste and intelligence. "That it is. Vincent's not just a husband, he's an aesthetic experience."
Jenny eyed a poppy-seed homantash and debated with herself. "Well, as a supporter of the arts, maybe you should give tours like the docents at the Metropolitan."
"Dream on. If you're very nice to me, maybe I'll let you come with us next summer when we go swimming Below." Jenny's reply was somewhat garbled (the homantash won) but Catherine caught the gist of it.
"No, I do not mean skinny-dipping. And only if I think it won't bother Vincent."
Jenny looked at Catherine sharply as she drank her tea. "I thought you and Devin had worked things out. Something else is going on, isn't it? Don't tell me there's trouble in Paradise?"
Catherine shook her head. "Not really--just a lot of little things. Oh well," Catherine laughed ruefully, "I knew this job was tough when I took it."
"Want to talk about it?" Catherine was silent for some time, staring into her teacup as if the mysteries of the universe lay revealed at its bottom. As Jenny refilled the cup, she began to speak. "It just gets on my nerves sometimes, having to pretend I'm something I'm not."
Catherine nodded. "I'm as a married as a person can get. It's hard to listen to the other women at work talk about their husbands, while I have to sit there with my mouth shut. And I can't talk about dates because I don't have any. About the only people I go out with are Peter and you, and I doubt anybody thinks I'm romantically attached to either of you. I'm always afraid they'll think I'm stuck up because I don't say anything. It's not that people are nosy--not most of them, anyway, but you know how it is when you work with a lot of other people. A certain amount of social grease is necessary to keep the wheels moving. The hardest part is those stupid affairs you have to go to, like the Mayor's Dinner. I know you get stuck with those too."
"I'm glad I asked. Knowing you, I'll bet you never say things like this to Vincent."
"How can I? You know what he's like. For years he kept trying to make the noble sacrifice of giving me up, so often it began to get downright irritating. Now that we're safely married he's stopped that, but he can still brood at the drop of a hat over how difficult it is for me to have a secret marriage. Good grief, it's nothing compared to the gift of being his wife!"
"Did something in particular happen lately?"
"Monday was a real stinker of a day, not made any better by the obnoxious Fred. I tried to make light of it, but Vincent zeroed in on it right away. And he's always worrying about how I never go anywhere, in comparison with the dazzling social life I used to have. I wish I could convince him how boring it really was."
"Not completely," Jenny reminded Catherine. "You always loved opera, concerts..."
Catherine sighed. "Well, yes. But so does Vincent--so when I do go I can never forget how much I want him with me, and how unfair it is that he can't be."
Jenny reached across the table to touch her friend's hand. "I'm sure it bothers you more than it does him." Catherine held her teacup in both hands, as if in need of its warmth.
"True. He keeps telling me that experiencing things I enjoy--through the bond--is almost as good as being able to go himself." Catherine drained the last of her tea and stood up. "I wish we could talk longer, but I really should go home."
"OK, but you and I need to have a good long lunch soon, just us girls."
"You're on, but only if you let me treat you--maybe Tavern on the Green. No protests; it's cheaper than therapy."
"All right, just this once. Now I'll call Luis and get this show on the road."
Once Catherine reached home, the books were unloaded quickly. Stephen and Brooke were eager to get Below for dinner, since William did not take kindly to latecomers. Catherine released them from duty as soon as the books were inside the house. She still had to garage her car and walk back; they could always take the boxes Below later. If she and Vincent were late, they were unlikely to suffer any consequences. These days, Catherine could do no wrong in William's eyes. Between the fresh foods from her garden and the other raw materials that she supplied surreptitiously, she had made William her staunch supporter. It also didn't hurt that she'd brought in a Helper whose parents owned the best deli in Brooklyn. Between books and bagels, Jenny was high in William's estimation as well.
"I'm glad you're home," Vincent greeted her. "For more than the usual reasons."
"Speaking of the usual reasons," Catherine replied, "kiss me first, then you can tell me about it."
Vincent complied with his usual eagerness and thoroughness. When Catherine came up for air, he began to speak. "I was hoping that you could come Below tonight. Benjamin is planning to visit after dinner and I know you'd like to meet him."
"That sounds great. I'll change clothes in a minute." When Vincent began to follow, she turned around and stopped him, laughing. "You'd better stay down here--you know what happened Monday. I don't relish having to explain why we've missed dinner." Vincent agreed reluctantly, limiting himself to watching Catherine appreciatively as she ascended the stairs.
Just in case, Catherine decided to bring William the bay leaf wreath that Nancy Tucker had given her for Christmas. If he'd had any notion of scolding them for being late, that bribe put it right out of his head. Catherine could practically see him mentally flipping through his recipe file, deciding how best to use this bounty. After dinner, Catherine and Vincent spent some time playing with Catherine's namesake, agreeing wholeheartedly with Lena that she was an especially attractive and precocious little girl.
Mouse poked his head into Lena's door, practically bouncing up and down with excitement. "C'mon, everybody! Ben's here!"
As he shot back out into the corridor, the others followed more sedately, although Catherine sympathized with Mouse. She was no less eager to meet this long-absent Helper, and share with him some of the ideas that been proliferating at the back of her mind since Sunday. When they reached Father's study, they had no need to ask where the guest was; the knot of chattering people by the big table told them that. As the others became aware of their approach, the chattering ceased and the group shifted to allow Vincent and Catherine to approach.
"Vincent!" As a deep voice rumbled his name, Catherine saw a rumpled bear of a man reach out to hug Vincent with the same unselfconscious affection that Vincent showed toward Father. When they parted, Catherine's image of a bear was reinforced--a teddy bear, mostly. The stranger was a few inches shorter than Vincent, but stocky, with a riot of dark curly hair and a full beard. The lines around his eyes suggested a man who laughed a lot, and he exuded good humor. A very comfortable man, Catherine thought.
"It's good to have you back, Benjamin. You have been greatly missed." When Vincent spoke again, the changed tone in his voice caused Catherine to reach for his hand. "I'd like you to meet Catherine--my wife." Catherine almost cried at the mingled pride and wonder in that simple statement. Vincent had so few opportunities to introduce her in that way, she was already grateful to this stranger for providing one.
Extending the hand that wasn't entwined with Vincent's she greeted him warmly. "I'm so happy to have the chance to meet you at last."
"And I you. I already knew Vincent was a remarkably intelligent man, but he's certainly proved that by marrying you." Vincent tried to look modest at this and failed miserably.
"How can you tell?" Catherine teased. "You just met me."
"Ah, but your reputation precedes you. You'd come into the picture before I left, but the way the kids talked about you I wasn't sure at first if you were real or legendary. I've only been back down here half an hour, and already I've heard a litany of your praises. You've done a lot as a Helper, I gather, but I get the impression everyone Below will love you forever just for putting that sappy expression on Vincent's face."
"No sappier than the one he's put on mine. I'm sorry you missed the wedding."
"Sorry doesn't half describe it--the Event of the Century as far as the Tunnels are concerned."
That was all the conversation they were allowed to have for some time. Everyone wanted to greet Ben and tell him in detail everything that had happened since he'd been gone, preferably all at once. The children who were old enough to remember him well seemed especially delighted to have him back. Catherine watched these interactions attentively, plans blossoming in her head like her rose bush in the Spring. Tonight wasn't the time, but she was determined to get him more or less to herself as soon as possible.
Sitting next to her on the spiral stairs, Vincent watched Catherine watching Ben. Something was on her mind but he wasn't sure what and wouldn't ask. The bond told him she was pleased, with an undercurrent of excitement and anticipation. The increased intimacy of marriage made him even more protective of her emotional privacy. Unless it signaled that she was unhappy or in danger, he let his awareness of her feelings lie as a quiet undercurrent beneath the surface of their daily lives.
"You seem quite taken with Benjamin."
"I think he's a complete sweetheart. I'll bet he's a great teacher; look how thrilled the kids are--even Kipper, and he's hardly the world's most dedicated student."
"He is. Eric knew him only a little while before he left. Benjamin will be gratified to discover how science-minded Eric has become since then."
Catherine leaned her head against Vincent's shoulder, still holding his hand. "I wonder how much that has to do with Ellie's death. He never seemed that interested before--no more than he was in anything else."
"As Benjamin would be the first to tell you," Vincent replied, "coincidence does not prove causality. In this case, however, I'm sure you're right. Ellie's death affected Eric deeply. After the most acute grief had passed, he kept asking questions: why did Ellie die and others live? why was I apparently immune? how could a sickness that had been known for so many years still be killing people? why could no one prevent, or cure it?"
"Pretty hard questions," Catherine whispered. How could acts of compassion have such tragic consequences? She had rescued Ellie from the brutality of the streets to a place of presumed safety; Vincent had pulled Dmitri from the death-grip of the sea and brought him to the same presumed refuge. Now both were dead.
Catherine felt Vincent's lips on her hair. "Try not to mourn, my love. Narcissa, among others, would say there is a greater purpose to it all."
"Maybe. It would help if I knew what it was." Vincent's empathy could still surprise her. Sometimes it seemed he could read her mind as well as her emotions. She determined to shake off this negative mood. The past couldn't be helped, but there were things she could do about the future, starting now. "Vincent--I'd like to invite Ben for dinner at our house soon. Do you think he'd like that?"
"I'm sure he would. It would increase his estimate of my intelligence even further."
"Only if someone else does the cooking," Catherine laughed. "I really want to get to know him better, and I want to hear more about his teaching plans. There may be a way I can help."
"You are so good to us all."
"That's what family's for." Catherine turned to Vincent with a look that would melt the wax on ten candles."It's getting late. Why don't we go home, and I'll demonstrate just how good I can be." They were gone so quickly no one saw them leave.
* * *
A little over a week later, Catherine stood in her kitchen, mentally ticking things off her list of pre-dinner chores. She turned at the sound of the opening door, immediately losing her place in the list. "Oh ... you look delicious!"
Vincent was clearly pleased but trying not to be too obvious about it. "Only because my wife has such excellent taste in birthday presents. Is this really a buccaneer shirt?"
"That's what the catalog called it--it does look like something Errol Flynn might wear, but he wouldn't look as good in it." She moved closer to Vincent to engage in a bit of collar- straightening and sleeve-tweaking. "I liked it because it didn't look very Topside. It's made by a small company, almost a cottage industry. Why are you smiling like that?"
"I was just thinking how much Devin and I would have loved shirts like this when we were younger. We were quite taken with Captain Blood at one time. Our pirate hideaway was behind the Near Falls."
"Really? Well, maybe we can give Devin one for his birthday--a pirate shirt seems very appropriate. I'll bet Dr. Amanda will like it. Maybe Devin can play pirates with her."
"Catherine, I never realized before we married that you could be so risqué. It's quite Elizabethan."
"Thank you. Now, much as I'd prefer to continue admiring you, there are still some things I have to do before our company comes."
"Take these flowers into the dining room, for one."
Vincent followed Catherine as she moved into the next room, then stopped in surprise as he saw the table. "Why are there four places? I thought only Benjamin was coming."
"Oh, I invited Jenny," Catherine replied lightly, scrutinizing the table. "Didn't I tell you?"
"No," Vincent answered suspiciously. "I enjoy Jenny's company any time, of course--but was there a particular reason you invited her tonight?"
"Well, you know I want to talk to Ben about ways I can help with his teaching. Since Jenny gets a lot of books for us I thought she should be in on it too; she may be able to give Ben what he needs." Catherine sounded more like a lawyer trying to bamboozle a jury than a hostess explaining her dinner arrangements.
Suspicion became certainty. "She may indeed. But do you think she'll be fooled for a moment?"
"I can't imagine what you're talking about." Catherine turned to the door, avoiding her husband's eyes. "I really must get dressed. They'll be here soon."
Vincent watched her leave, shaking his head. The road to their present happiness had been a difficult one. Catherine had apparently concluded that if the path to true love was proverbially rocky, it was best to hire a bulldozer early on. When Ben arrived he was given the complete house tour. He had just settled down in the library with a glass of wine when the doorbell rang again. Jenny had walked over, and it took several minutes to unwind her from the protective coverings necessary for even a short winter stroll.
Catherine scrutinized her friend. The cold gave her cheeks a flattering blush, and the snowflakes that managed to land on her hair only made it curlier. The kindness and good humor that were soul-deep in Jenny gave her face a combination of sweetness and animation that Catherine had always loved.
"Why are you staring? Did I forget to button something?"
"I was just thinking how nice you look."
Jenny took Catherine's arm as they moved toward the library. "Only a woman secure in the affections of her husband would be glad I look good. Let's go admire one of New York's finest and furriest sights."
"Actually, two," Catherine said quietly as they entered the room. "Meet Ben Goldman--he's another Helper. Ben, this is my best friend, Jenny Aronson."
Mumbling something that sounded like "Yenta Alert" at Catherine, Jenny moved toward Ben with an outstretched hand and dazzling smile. Ben certainly looked appreciative, Catherine noted.
After a few minutes of conversation, Catherine excused herself. "I just need to take care of a few last-minute things in the kitchen. Vincent, would you help me?" Trying not to raise his eyes to heaven at this decidedly unsubtle ploy, Vincent followed.
Some time later, Ben sat back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. "That was a wonderful dinner, Catherine. And the conversation equally satisfying."
"Well, I can't take much credit for either one. You and Jenny did most of the talking. And as for the food--Vincent made the salad and I made the dessert, but our housekeeper was responsible for everything else."
"Do you remember Margaret Maloney?" Vincent asked Ben.
"Maggie? Of course! She's your housekeeper?" Ben looked thoughtful. "It's been years since I've seen her--she didn't come to Winterfest very often, as I recall. I thought she had a job living in with some disgustingly rich family on Park Avenue. I remember being appalled at what those people threw out, even though most of the stuff ended up Below. I'll never forget the time they tossed out that big erector set just because their kids got bored with it--"
"And Mouse used it to construct an automatic candle-dipper for Rebecca," Vincent finished.
"Did it work?" Jenny wondered.
"At first." Vincent winced. "When it failed, it did so quite spectacularly. Unfortunately, I was in rather close proximity at the time. After Mary finally cut all the wax out of my hair, I looked like I had been set upon by a mob of homicidal barbers."
Ben grinned at the memory. "So what happened to Maggie? Did she finally get fed up?"
"No," Vincent replied sadly. "Despite the character of her employers, it was a good position for her. They paid well, and she was happy to be able to supply us with so many useful discards. Then she was in a fire ..."
Ben snapped his fingers. "I did hear about that. Dad's illness had just started getting serious about then, and I was pretty preoccupied. She recovered all right, didn't she? She must have, if she's working for you."
"Yes," Vincent continued. "But it was a long and painful process, and her face was badly burned ..."
Catherine, who had been slowly coming to a boil, finally could hold herself in check no longer. "Those rotten people let her go because of the way she looked! They said she 'distressed their guests.' After all those years they treated her like a piece of furniture that clashed with their decor!"
Vincent took Catherine's hand and squeezed it. Catherine took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Memories of her own slashed face were still too vivid. There but for the grace of God and expensive plastic surgery ...
Giving Catherine more time, Vincent took up the tale again. "Margaret comes here during the week to care for the house. Catherine has tried to convince her to live in, since the house is so large, but she doesn't wish to."
Catherine, her voice quieter now, broke into Vincent's narrative. "It's silly for her to pay rent, and I know it's painful for her when people stare on the subway. But she insists on keeping her independence."
"It's my theory," Jenny offered, "that she also wants to leave the newlyweds alone. The Irish have a serious romantic streak, I've been told."
As intended, that brought the smile back to Catherine's face. "Speaking of the size of this house, it's time to discuss the reason I invited you tonight--other than the pleasure of your company."
"Do tell," Jenny remarked drily.
Ignoring her, Catherine continued. "I bought this house because I've loved it for years, and couldn't pass up the chance when an old family friend decided to sell. But it is awfully big for two people; it makes me feel guilty to have so much space. I figured on using extra bedrooms for people Below who want to make the transition to Topside, like Michael or Laura did. But there's no one at that stage right now, and a lot of space is sitting unused."
Ben smiled. "I can tell a Tunnel convert when I see one. Wasting anything drives you crazy now, doesn't it?"
Jenny matched his smile. "She badgered the DA's office for months to set up a paper recycling program. And she lectured her boss so mercilessly he wouldn't touch a styrofoam cup now if his life depended on it."
Catherine made a face at her. "As if a certain publishing house weren't getting a little pressure itself. Let me shift the subject for a moment." She turned to Ben. "Vincent's been telling me how valuable you are to the children Below, teaching them science."
Ben looked embarrassed. "Vincent and the others teach them the important things--love of learning, and how to think for themselves. Teaching kids that have that kind of preparation is easy--and a pleasure."
"I'm sure you're too modest." Out of the corner of her eye, Catherine caught the admiring look Jenny was giving Ben, and indulged in a brief bout of self-congratulation before continuing smoothly. "From everything I've heard, you're a terrific teacher. But what do you do for equipment? It's such a technological world these days, computers are being used for everything. Some of the children will choose to stay Below, but for others the Tunnels are a way-station, a place to heal until they're ready to return Above. I want them to have as many chances as they can when they get there."
Ben sighed. "You've certainly zeroed in on a problem. I have some equipment at home. I bought a loft way back in the days when they were going cheap, and it looks a lot like Mouse's chamber most of the time. But teaching high school is hardly the world's most lucrative profession. I can't keep up with the latest stuff. The public schools are so strapped they have trouble getting adequate equipment in the first place; when they do, they use it till it falls apart."
He leaned forward, becoming more animated as he became involved in his subject. "Besides, that's only good for the kids who are able to go Above. Eric's still listed as a runaway, I know, so he shouldn't risk going Topside. Same for Rosa's girls, among others. Even if I could scrounge enough for Below, the stuff pulls too much power. A drain like that would set bells off at Con Ed."
Catherine sat back, nodding at the confirmation of her expectations. "How would you like me to make you an offer you can't refuse?"
"You've seen the house. Except for the solarium, most of the rooms on the top floor are empty. How about turning them into labs? Tell me what equipment you need, and I'll see that you get it."
Ben stared at her, mouth open. "Are you serious? By God you are! But how--"
Catherine grinned at his astonishment. "I guess no one Below was crass enough to mention it, but I am disgustingly rich, although not, I hope, disgusting."
Ben's face turned red as he tried to remember just what he'd said about Maggie's ex-employers. "I didn't mean ..."
"Ben ... I take no credit for it, or blame. My ancestors earned it--honestly, as far as I know--I only inherited it." Catherine looked lovingly at Vincent sitting beside her in his buccaneer shirt and patchwork vest. "My tastes are very simple these days. I'd love the chance for the money to do something besides earn interest."
Ben's words tripped over themselves as he thanked Catherine effusively. "You're offering a teacher's dream come true! Eric will be beside himself--heck, I'm beside myself. Mouse--" Ben stopped dead. "Is your insurance paid up?"
Laughter rippled around the table as Catherine stood. "Don't forget to add lots of fire extinguishers to your equipment list. Let's go upstairs so you can look at the rooms again, take measurements, whatever. I can hardly wait to start."
When the party finally broke up later that evening, Ben insisted on walking Jenny home before catching the subway. While he finished a last conversation with Vincent, Catherine accompanied Jenny into the front hallway to retrieve her coat. "Am I forgiven?"
Jenny tried to be stern. "I should kill you. You know how I hate being fixed up. But ..."
"Yes?" Catherine held her breath.
Jenny looked up to see Vincent and Ben emerge into the hallway. She turned to Catherine, speaking very softly. "Chandler--I think now I owe you one."
Ben was so excited at the prospect of "Chandler Labs" he began work almost immediately. Fortunately, and much to Catherine's relief, one of the Helpers was an electrician. This meant not only greater speed, but secrecy. She had worried that an outsider might conclude she was some sort of mad scientist, or a computer hacker bent on bringing down the global banking system or starting World War III.
In the next month, many evenings found Ben asking if he could come by. Catherine was a little amused at the obvious war within him between eagerness to work on his pet project and reluctance to violate their privacy. Did everyone assume that she and Vincent did nothing but make love nonstop whenever they were out of sight? Appealing, but unrealistic. Not even Vincent could do that, and if he could, she'd be in the hospital.
They left Ben to his own devices for the most part. Coping with Mouse's eager help, and Eric's, was more than enough for any man--even though Cullen was usually along to keep them in line. When Catherine and Vincent did drop in for one of their periodic inspections a few weeks into the project, they were amazed at the progress that had been made. Most of the furniture was set up, and the equipment that Ben had brought from his loft already in place. Extra computer hookups would take longer, and much of the newer equipment had been ordered but had yet to arrive. Still, it was finished enough that Ben had already begun giving lessons there.
"Vincent! Cathy--what do you think?" Ben beamed proudly at the businesslike setup.
"I'm astonished," Catherine admitted. "I never expected so much progress so fast."
"All it takes is a blank check and a lot of enthusiasm," Ben laughed. "Have I thanked you lately?"
"Not since you arrived ninety minutes ago," Catherine answered.
"Well, consider it repeated. See the latest addition? Something I've always considered words to live by." Prominently displayed on one wall was an elegant framed needlepoint that bore the legend, RESIST ENTROPY. "One of my colleagues made that for me before she retired. She said if I planned to stay in the New York public school system I'd need it."
"I wonder if she'd make me one for the DA's office," Catherine mused.
"It's beautifully done," Vincent observed. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have it at home?"
"No, I know it'll be safe here, as well as appreciated. Besides, I really have to clean out my loft a bit. It looks like some messy old bachelor lives there."
Only when Catherine turned to him with a delighted look did he realize what he'd said. Seeing him desperate for escape, Vincent took pity. "Eric is very excited about his new opportunities. Father has begun to hope the boy might consider a career in medicine, and take over for him some day."
"Oh, he's well on his way already. You know I don't believe in killing animals for classroom use ..."
"Yes." Vincent smiled. "So Eric has been scouring the Tunnels looking for dead vermin to dissect."
Catherine made a face. "Oh, yuk! Are we getting a refrigerator in here?"
"It's on order," Ben assured her, glad of the change of subject. "And besides that ... do you know you have mice in your basement?"
Vincent regarded Catherine fondly as she squirmed. "For some reason, Catherine cannot bear to kill anything furry, even a rodent."
Ben looked at the two. Watching lovers made him feel very benevolent lately. "Well, Bulwer doesn't seem to have the same scruples. He's become quite attached to Eric lately--"
Catherine sighed. "I suppose because Eric likes it when dead mice are dropped at his feet."
Jenny fidgeted. The fire was blazing nicely in the fireplace. Candles on the table. Dinner in the oven. Wine--good grief, had she forgotten to chill the wine? She ran to the kitchen and pulled open the refrigerator. Wine--OK good, OK fine, as a friend of hers was wont to say.
Doorbell. Doorbell! She rushed back to the living room, screeching to a halt just in time to avoid opening the door the hard way. Taking a deep breath, she managed to remember to check the peephole first, just in case it was some criminal type who hadn't heard Catherine Chandler didn't live her anymore. She peered out. Definitely not a criminal type. When she opened the door, a bouquet of flowers entered, followed by Ben. "Happy Valentine's Day."
Jenny grinned in delight and confusion. "Valentine's Day was weeks ago."
"Happy Early Valentine's Day, 1992."
Accepting the flowers, Jenny gave Ben a kiss. "Dinner will be ready soon. While we're waiting have some wine and tell me how the lab project is going. Between work and the big pickup in my social life lately, I haven't seen Cathy in too long."
Telling about the lab lasted at least halfway through the dinner. Jenny was happy to eat and watch Ben as he enthusiastically described their progress. Fortunately, he had decided the account of Eric's vermin could be shared at a time that didn't involve food. Then they traded accounts of Life as a Helper, more anecdotes about their families, opinions on the Mideast Crisis, plans for the future ... Jenny had discovered early on that talking with Ben was one of the most satisfying and energizing things she'd done in years. Dinner over, they settled on the sofa before the fire. Comfortable quiet reigned for a while as they watched it flicker.
"Jenny?" Ben broke the silence. "Who's your cousin Myron?"
Jenny lifted her head from Ben's shoulder. "How did you know I had a cousin Myron? I'm sure I never mentioned him."
"No, you didn't--it was something Cathy said in passing. It wasn't so much what she said as how she said it ... kinda gave the impression he's not one of her favorite people."
"With good reason. Myron was one of Cathy's pseudo-dates."
"Remember, only a few Topsiders know Cathy and Vincent are married--all Helpers. And me, of course. I'm the only one that was her friend before I became a Helper. None of her other friends know, and nobody at work."
"That must be tough on her."
"It is." Jenny snuggled back against Ben. "Most of the time she gives a pretty good impression of a dedicated career woman who's very reticent about her private life because she's been splashed over the papers once too often."
"But people would wonder if she never went out--she's wealthy, and almost as pretty as you--she must get plenty of offers."
Jenny rewarded Ben with a kiss. "You sweet talker, you. She gets too many--not to mention the occasional semi-official social function she can't get out of."
"God, I hate those." Ben shuddered. "I've had my share over the years."
"Well, when things like that come up, Cathy needs to find guys that look like dates but aren't really. Get her to tell you about the time she went out with Devin. Better yet, get him to tell you, it'll be even funnier."
"So what did Myron do to get on Cathy's you-know-what list? Make a pass?"
"Heck, no! One of the reasons Cathy picked Myron was his total lack of romantic interest in her. Myron goes for tall, busty, bleached blondes."
"To each his own," Ben snorted, deciding to kiss a medium- sized brunette.
"Mmmmm," Jenny said some time later. "Where were we?"
"Right. Myron's problem is, he's a shrink. He concocted this elaborate theory about why Cathy only went out with guys she wasn't interested in. He was positive she had developed this deep-seated rejection of men because of her negative experiences. After all, everybody from complete strangers to her ex-fiance tried to kill her. And the ones that didn't try to kill her outright kept beating her up or sacrificing her to voodoo gods or--"
"Did you say voodoo?"
"I did. You missed a lot while you were gone."
"To put it mildly. OK, Myron developed this theory, but I still don't see why--oh, no. He told her, didn't he?"
"Bingo. You'd think somebody who'd been studying human behavior all those years would have more sense."
"Did Myron survive the experience?"
"Oh, he probably doesn't even know she's mad at him. Cathy's perfectly capable of kicking a guy in the--where it hurts, if necessary. But unless she's defending life or honor, she's usually pretty polite."
"It's really not such a bad theory, just totally wrong. And not much help to Cathy," Ben decided. "If it got around all her friends would think she was seriously neurotic, and start figuring out a million not-so-subtle variations on 'get thee to a therapist.'"
"Very perceptive. Anyway, it's all academic. Myron just got married last fall."
"To a tall busty blonde?"
"Actually," Jenny grinned, "to a tiny redhead with a plan."
"Oh, Jenny," Ben laughed. "I could listen to you talk all night."
"I hope not," she replied so softly Ben wasn't sure he heard. Standing up, she reached out a hand to him. "It's warmer than usual tonight. How about getting a good look at the most romantic view in Manhattan?"
Ben followed her onto the balcony. It was a little chilly, but bearable if you had someone close to put your arms around. They spent a moment looking at the view in silence, then Jenny began to speak softly.
"Standing here, I've often thought of all the times Cathy and Vincent must have spent here before I knew he existed. It must have been awful for her, bearing that secret all alone for so long. And Vincent--can you imagine loving a woman so much you risk your life just to see her? To touch her?"
"Yes," Ben whispered. "I can."
Leaning against the solid warmth of his body behind her Jenny shivered, though not with the cold. "Ben--since I've lived here, I felt the place was special. I--well, I sort of feel things, you know."
"I've heard about the famous Jenny dreams."
"I can understand why Cathy didn't want to give this place up completely. A lot of bad things happened to her here, but so many good things, so much love. Enough to more than balance the scales. So much I can feel it in the air, in the walls." Jenny moved out of the circle of Ben's arms, but held on to his hand. "Let's go back inside." As he turned toward the doors they had come through before, she stopped him. "Not that way. This way."
Ben's grip on Jenny's hand tightened. "Are you sure?"
"Very sure. This place has seen plenty of love; it's about time it saw more."
Ben nodded, and followed Jenny toward the bedroom. "Let's add our share to the balance."
Catherine stared moodily at the street. In Spring a young woman's fancy turns to thoughts of love ... unfortunate, when her husband's turns to thoughts of leaks. And floods. It was almost April, still pipe-patching and dribble detection season Below. No sooner would Vincent get back than another breach would be discovered, and he would be drafted onto yet another repair crew. She turned to the window, steeling herself to face the pile of work she'd brought from the DA's. The sensible thing to do was to spend this time catching up on it, while Vincent wasn't around to distract her. She hadn't counted on his not being here distracting her even more.
She opened a file and began to read, but after a few pages her thoughts began to drift again. Of course, it rained every Spring, but last year at this time she and Vincent had been immersed in their plans for the wedding. Or maybe it was the stupid Mayor's Dinner that was bothering her. Last year had been a lark. Devin had escorted her. Between the beard, an Australian accent, and his uncanny ability to put on a new personality, no one suspected her "date" was the same young lawyer who had worked so briefly at the DA's the year before. It had been fun, like children playing "let's pretend," and Devin had everyone Below in stitches afterwards with his extremely irreverent account of events.
The memory brought a smile to Catherine's face, but it faded as the present crowded in again. Too bad Devin lived so far away, and had other responsibilites. He was such an accomplished imposter he could be someone different every year and no one would catch on. The date-parking-the-car routine wouldn't work again. Not that it really worked the first time--who would believe she'd date men stupid enough to take a car in Manhattan? Maybe Jenny would let her borrow Ben. Of course, first she'd have to find Jenny. Catherine gave up on the file and stared out the window again. At first Catherine was inordinately pleased with herself at how successful her matchmaking had been--until she realized the price. She saw so little of Jenny these days. Only now was she beginning to appreciate how much she counted on her being around, ready for dinner and the movies on short notice, or a visit to a gallery ... berating herself for selfishness, Catherine vowed to tackle the file again as penance when the phone rang.
"Jenny! I can't believe it--I was just thinking about you."
"Probably trying to remember what I look like."
"Well ... I have missed you, but I've no one to blame but myself. Getting you and Ben together seemed like a great idea at the time."
"It will go down in history as the best idea you've ever had, next to falling in love with Vincent. Now it's my turn to have a great idea, and I want to talk to you about it."
"Sounds intriguing. Do you want to come over?"
"How about going to Tavern on the Green next Saturday for that lunch we never had? Except it won't be just us girls; there's some people I want you to meet."
"Why not? They've got more windows to watch the rain from."
"Hey, cheer up. Weather report says clear by the weekend. Gotta go now, Ben's coming for dinner. Cath--he really is the nicest thing you ever did for me."
Catherine's grey mood dissolved at the obvious happiness in her friend's voice. "Hey, that's what friends are for, remember. Have a good time tonight, and say hello to Ben for me. See you Saturday."
Jenny's prediction turned out to be correct. Although it rained Friday evening, Saturday dawned bright and clear. As she walked down Central Park West, Catherine was buoyed by a feeling of renewal at the sight of the park. In winter it always reminded her of an etching, stark branches against white snow and grey sky. Now it was a watercolor, all washes of pale blue and brand new green. Jenny was waiting for her just inside the restaurant, and they were led to a table for four.
"So where are these mysterious people you want me to meet?" Catherine wondered.
"They'll be here soon, I'm sure. So, how have you been? Vincent still doing a lot of pipe-patching?"
"Too darn much," Catherine complained. "The last job was so far away he didn't make it back last night. I stayed Below just in case, but no luck. Father doesn't really expect the crew back until late afternoon."
Realizing Jenny's attention was focused across the room, Catherine followed her gaze. Two men were approaching their table. One was a complete stranger. About Ben's height, but thinner, at first he looked familiar to Catherine because he reminded her of many of the boys she had grown up with. The clothes, the easy confidence ... it seemed a hundred years ago now, a life that belonged to someone else. But if she met one of those long-ago sailing and dancing companions now, surely he would look just like the man walking toward her. The other was older, taller and tweedier.
"Jenny--that's Carl Hoffmann. I've met him lots of times."
"Yup. Best science editor in the business, and we've got him."
"Enough commercial. Who's the other one?"
"That, old pal," Jenny replied, "is your date for the prom."
Before Catherine had time to demand an explanation, the men reached the table. After they seated themselves, Jenny performed introductions. "Cath, you know Carl already. This is Paul Hancock, Carl's--"
"Longtime Companion, as Time so charmingly puts it." His eyes twinkled as he took Catherine's hand. "After Jenny told me we were going to meet you, I discovered we have a tenuous connection. My mother's on several committees with Kay Hamilton."
"Really?" Catherine's smile was genuine. "Kay's a dear friend, she's known my family for years. I even thought for a while she might be my stepmother."
"Yes--I actually met your father with her once, at the Philharmonic. Kay was very attached to her late husband, from what my mother tells me. I doubt she'll ever remarry."
Catherine nodded. "I came to the same conclusion. I think my father was the same way."
Conversation during lunch was interesting, and Catherine discovered she was enjoying herself a great deal. She had always liked Carl. He was rather formal, but a kind, generous man with a gift for making the most arcane scientific concepts make sense. Jenny encouraged him to talk about a book he was editing on recent medical breakthroughs, knowing that Catherine would soak up as much as she could to relay to Father. Not until the coffee was served did Jenny begin to assuage Catherine's curiousity.
"I know you're probably going crazy, Cath," Jenny apologized, "but I'm always afraid the waiter could be moonlighting for the Enquiring Star."
"What has that got to do with it?" Catherine was more confused than ever. "Are you going to tell me you've seen Elvis?"
"Hardly. I've just discovered that Paul has a problem similar to yours, and I think you could help each other out."
Catherine stared at Jenny. What problem could Paul possibly have that was similar to hers? If Carl had fur and claws he was hiding them well.
"Look," Jenny said, "let me explain about Paul and you'll see what I mean. Carl can tell you that being gay in the publishing business, at least in New York, is no big deal. But Paul has a job that forces him to stay pretty much in the closet."
"What do you do?" Catherine asked. "I just assumed--"
That I spent my time looking after my investments?" Catherine nodded sheepishly. "Don't look so guilty, it's not an unreasonable assumption. It's true that I don't depend on the job for my livelihood. But I'm good at what I do, and I love doing it."
"He teaches elementary school," Jenny announced.
"Ouch," Catherine said. "I see the problem."
Paul shook his head sadly. "There are still an awful lot of people who think 'gay' and 'child abuser' are synonymous."
"That's ridiculous," Catherine exclaimed. "I work with abused kids all the time. Anybody who looks at the statistics--"
"You're preaching to the converted, Catherine," Carl interrupted gently. "Prejudice pays no attention to reality. Jews don't eat babies, or engage in any of the other ridiculous things they've been accused of over the years. That didn't stop six million from dying in the Holocaust. Or gays, or gypsies ..."
"The witch persecutions may have killed as many as nine million women," Paul added. "For most of them, their only crime was being old, or too outspoken--or maybe just knowing about herbs and keeping a cat."
Catherine stared into her cup. Vincent was the most loving, intelligent and sensitive man she had ever known. That hadn't keep him from being thrown into a cage and treated like an animal. "If I can help you in any way, I'd be glad to. But how?"
Jenny took over. "If Paul were seen squiring a certain woman around town now and again, it wouldn't hurt."
Paul watched Catherine carefully. "There are times when I'm forced to attend events I can't get out of--work-related things, an occasional charity function. Most of my women friends are married now, or involved. Please don't feel obligated; I can see Jenny didn't prepare you for this ahead of time."
Catherine looked at Jenny. Clearly Jenny had told her friends nothing about Catherine's situation. She was giving Catherine the choice of how much to reveal. There was no one Catherine knew, except Vincent, whose judgment of people she trusted more than Jenny's. She turned back to Paul. "I understand everything now, including Jenny's paranoia about the waiter." She took a deep breath. "I'm secretly married, to someone I can't even be seen with in public. Who he is, and why it has to remain a secret, I can't tell you ..."
"Look, you don't have to tell me anything."
"You've been honest with me, I want to be as honest with you as I can. Frankly, you could be an answer to a prayer. I'm tired of making up creative explanations for why I never seem to go out. I go crazy when one of those attendance-not-optional shindigs looms. I'm especially tired of fending off the Freds of this world."
"Never mind, I'll tell you that story some other time."
Paul searched Catherine's face carefully. "Does this mean there'll be another time?"
Catherine leaned back in her chair and carefully folded her napkin. "Mr. Hancock, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to the Mayor's Dinner?"
Weeks later, Catherine moved along the familiar route between the hidden entrance to her house and her chambers Below. She was impatient, but the long dress and high-heeled shoes wouldn't let her move any faster. She hadn't gotten very far before a familiar figure approached. "Vincent!" She threw herself into his arms.
Catching her easily, Vincent swung around once then planted her down in front of him. "I felt you Below, and it surprised me, I didn't expect you so soon. Why didn't you take the time to change?"
"Well, you didn't have the chance to see me all dressed up before I left for the dinner ... and besides, I couldn't wait to see you. I missed you."
"Dearest, you saw me only this morning." Catherine took his hand as they began to walk toward their chambers.
"That was fourteen whole hours ago."
She was too busy watching her feet to see the quirk of amusement that flitted across her husband's face before being forcefully suppressed. "You should have at least changed your shoes," Vincent suggested. "You could hurt yourself."
"Does this mean the honeymoon is over?" Catherine pouted. "I'm wearing a drop-dead dress, and all you can think of is my feet."
"Of course not," Vincent said diplomatically. "You look beautiful." Of course, she looked equally beautiful to him wearing her wedding dress, an old sweatshirt, or nothing at all, but he decided this was not the time to mention it. "Did you have a nice time on your date?"
Catherine whirled around to face him. "Vincent! It wasn't a date, not really--oh, damn! What is it with me and heels? They get near my foot and they can't wait to fall off." Leaning against Vincent, she pulled off the offending shoe in exasperation, then the intact one. She moved forward tentatively and grimaced.
Manfully resisting the urge to remind Catherine of his warning, Vincent easily swept her up in his arms and continued their journey. "You seem upset." He looked at her face for a moment, then said gently, "Did you really think that I would be distressed by this? That I would be jealous?"
"Oh, God, I don't know ..." Catherine buried her face in Vincent's hair and mumbled into his ear. "I feel practically adulterous."
"Jenny warned me you might feel this way. There's no need." His wife didn't reply, burrowing deeper. "Oh, Catherine," he whispered. He carried her in silence for a while, until Catherine began doing things with her lips and tongue he couldn't ignore. "If you do that one more time, I may drop you."
Catherine continued, but stopped long enough to make one remark. "Then maybe you'd better hurry." He hurried.
A great deal later, temporarily exhausted but extremely happy, he turned his head to regard Catherine speculatively. "If this is the result, perhaps you should date more often."
Catherine punched him in the chest, laughing, then rolled over on top of him. "You rat! All right, maybe I was a little silly, but it feels strange to have people think I'm romantically involved with anyone who isn't you. It is a good idea, I know-- Paul is just the sort of guy most people expect me to go out with. Joe looked like he was already trying to figure out what to buy me for a wedding present."
Vincent stroked Catherine's back contentedly. "Could that be a problem?"
"Paul already thought of a solution. If I want to look more like I'm playing the field, he's got several friends who'll be happy to oblige. It sounds like I could practically rent myself out." Catherine stopped speaking all of a sudden and began to rub her cheek against Vincent's chest.
"Is something wrong?"
Catherine sighed. "All this cloak-and-dagger stuff is fun, in a way, but it also makes me sad and angry. It shouldn't have to be. Maybe our problem is unique, since you're pretty unique. But plenty of other people have similar ones. I don't feel quite so sorry for us anymore--I feel sorry for the world at large, needing to put people in little boxes and hating the ones that don't fit."
"We can only hope things will get better, love." Vincent put both arms around Catherine, holding her close to him. "Sometimes I think there are only two kinds of people, creators and destroyers--those who build up, and those who tear down. I keep thinking of Benjamin's motto--resist entopy." "It's a tall order, but it can be done. Look at Father--he's one of the best entropy-resisters I know."
"And you are another."
"Ever since I've known you, your life has been devoted to stopping the destroyers, and helping others build, create meaningful lives for themselves. And you've built a life together for us more complete than I ever dared to imagine."
Catherine slipped her arms behind Vincent's shoulders, hugging him hard. "I didn't do it alone," she whispered.
"No," he agreed. "Perhaps that is the most powerful force of all. Look at the web woven around us--family, friends, Helpers. You gave Jenny a gift, she gave you one. You and Benjamin give Eric the gift of knowledge, and who knows what gifts he may give us back some day."
"You're wonderful, you know that? You always know just what to say to make me feel better." They lay in comfortable silence for a while just holding each other. Then Catherine began to caress Vincent slowly, moving her hands over torso and thighs as she covered his face and neck with little kisses. She shivered at the touch of his hands as they began to move over her skin, caressing it as gently as the spring breeze caressed the new leaves in their garden. While she could still speak, and think, she pulled away a little to look at his face.
"Vincent--it's Eros and Thanatos again, isn't it? The life- force, love, against death. The creators and destroyers, the builders-up and tearers-down, entropy--it's all the same thing, isn't it?"
"Yes," he whispered, in a voice rough with feeling, and need.
"Then love me," she said. "Love me."
And he did, while candlelight flickered across the stone ceiling--and far above in their garden, a rose, eager to bloom, waited only for morning.
First published in Reflections in Candlelight (n.d.), edited by Rita Davies (UK)
About the Author: Edith Crowe is an academic librarian who has been involved in various fandoms (starting with Star Trek) since 1972. Beauty and the Beast, however, is the one she's most emotional about and the first (and so far only) one to inspire her to write fiction. She had seven "continuing classic" stories published in the late 80s and early 90s, in zines now out of print. New stories include the rather racy "My Furry Valentine" in the A Kingdom by the Sea conzine and several in issues of Sanctuary.