AMANDA

 

*January - February 2014*

*(Flashback/September 1994)*

 

The chamber was hushed, lit by only a few flickering candles. Here, the tapping on the pipes was a distant sound, easy to ignore. Concentrating instead on the peaceful sound of Jacob's breathing, Amanda relished his warmth, his presence. Too soon he stirred.

"'Manda? Are you awake?" he whispered cautiously.

She thought about feigning sleep in the hope he would stay longer, but discarded the idea quickly. He would still leave, but she wouldn't have the comfort of a goodbye. "Mm-hmm," she murmured drowsily.

Half-rolling to face her, he touched her cheek as she lifted her sleepy gaze to his. "I have to go," he said, regret shining from his clear blue eyes.

Her arm, flung around his waist, tightened. "I don't want you to," she protested.

"I don't want to, either, but I have an early class."

She frowned, thinking. "Let's see, tomorrow's Thursday... that means Contemporary Literature, right?"

Chuckling, he kissed her nose and slipped out of bed. "That's Wednesday," he corrected, pulling on his worn and patched jeans. "Thursday is Political Science."

"That's right," Amanda remembered, stretching and pushing back the covers.

"Don't get up," Jacob said quickly, sitting on the edge of the bed with his long-sleeved undershirt only half on, his light brown hair mussed from pulling it over his head. He slipped his other arm through the sleeve before bending over her, his face only inches from hers. "I don't want to disturb you."

"Your leaving disturbs me."

He sighed. "I know, 'Manda, but it can't be helped."

"Yes, it can." Amanda tried hard to keep her voice low and reasonable. "Quit school. Be with me."

He moved away from her and bent to fumble with his socks. "You know I can't do that."

She hated it when he shut her off like this. "What are you learning at Columbia that you'll ever need down here? Why do you need college if you're going to live Below?" she demanded. "That life's not for you."

He paused in the act of reaching for his leather-patched sweater. "I know it isn't the way I want to spend my life, but college is an experience I ought to have."

"That's your mother talking," she snapped. She couldn't quite keep the bitterness from her voice.

He didn't reply, standing instead to stamp his feet into knee-high boots. Her conscience pricked, knowing how much these arguments distressed him.

"I'm sorry, Jacob," she apologized, slipping out of bed to put her arms around him. "I just hate it when you have to go. I want you here always... beside me when I wake up in the mornings... for meals, and in the evenings..."

He pulled her head to rest against his chest. "I want those things, too, 'Manda. You know I do. And someday they'll come true. All of them. I promise."

"Someday's too far away," she whispered, trying not to sound plaintive.

"I know. But this is important to my mother," Jacob entreated. "She expects it. I don't want to disappoint her."

"But it's okay to disappoint me."

"'Manda, we're young. We have our whole lives in front of us. Let me just do this and then it'll be our turn."

"Three more years. It's a long time."

"I know, but it's not like we don't see each other all the time."

"No," Amanda responded bleakly. "But you aren't happy."

"I'm happy enough. And now I have to go," Jacob said, stroking her cheek. "I don't want to argue, 'Manda. I love you."

"I know," she answered wistfully. "I love you, too."

His goodbye kiss was warmly passionate, leaving her slightly breathless. When he was gone, she threw herself back down on her bed, hugging her pillow in an attempt to fill the empty space beside her. It didn't help.

Her seething mind wouldn't let her go back to sleep. If Jacob was happy with his present circumstance, she wouldn't dream of challenging him. His happiness was everything to her, but he wasn't happy. Jacob found the world Above oppressingly hectic, preferring the gentler rhythms of Below.

He presented a reassuring facade to the world, but Amanda, who knew him so well, could see past it. She suspected Vincent could, too.

By nature Jacob was a conciliator, happiest when those around him were happy, going out of his way to achieve that end. Amanda suspected that trying to please both her and his mother, whose wishes were at opposite ends of the scale, was wearing him out. He'd looked tired tonight, and had gone home earlier than usual.

If only Catherine knew how Jacob really felt, it would solve everything, Amanda was sure... well, almost sure. But Jacob would never tell her, would never risk hurting her feelings or falling short of her expectations.

Maybe she could go to Vincent, discuss it with him. He would understand, and surely he could make Catherine see... As quickly as the idea came, Amanda dismissed it. Vincent had his own problems, like the flooded section of tunnels where a city water main had broken, or the need for a new science teacher since Edward returned to the world Above. He didn't need another problem, especially one this vague.

Gradually, grudgingly, Amanda came to the conclusion that if someone was going to speak to Catherine, it would have to be her. And it would have to be soon, before she lost her nerve. Resolved, she rolled over, still hugging her pillow, and fell into a restless, dream-filled sleep.

* * * *

"You look pretty," her mother greeted at breakfast the next morning. "Is something special happening today?" Her voice and smile inferred that the 'something special' might involve Jacob, and Amanda felt her cheeks warm.

"No, Mama," she answered. "Well, maybe," she temporized, realizing she would need to account for the hours she would be gone. "I'm going Above for a while today."

"To see Jacob?" her mother prompted.

Amanda shook her head. "No. I have an errand."

"I see." Her mother turned back to her morning coffee with a pleased smile, obviously sure that the trip had something to do with Jacob. And she was right, Amanda mused later, as she made the long hike to the exit she planned to use. Nothing else could have gotten her to leave the comfort and safety of her home world. Nothing but Jacob...

She emerged in an alley and picked a fastidious path through heaping accumulations of trash and stinking garbage to the street. Her destination was the District Attorney's office; it was the one place where she could be absolutely certain that no one would interrupt. She turned toward it, scared but determined.

Viewed from afar, Catherine Chandler was everything Amanda wanted to be: strong, capable, self-assured. Amanda seldom went Above and Catherine's visits Below were infrequent, so Amanda didn't know Catherine very well. When they did meet, Amanda always felt tongue-tied and hung back shyly. Catherine was always gracious and pleasant, but Amanda couldn't help feeling that she was also just a little aloof. Quite simply, Jacob's mother terrified her.

Outside the Criminal Justice Building, Amanda hesitated, looking up at the imposing granite facade. Catherine was a part of this horribly intimidating world; the mere thought made her feel panicky, but sternly she quashed her trepidation. This had to be done. Before her quavery courage could falter again, she hurried inside, finding the offices of the District Attorney on the fourteenth floor.

There were more people milling about than Amanda normally encountered in an entire day; all of them seemed intent on completing some task and it was a few minutes before anyone noticed her standing by the door.

"Can I help you?" a harried clerk paused to ask.

"Yes, please. I need to see Catherine Chandler." Panic struck anew as it occurred to her that she might be expected to have an appointment; to her vast relief, the young man didn't ask.

"May I tell her what it's about?" was all he wanted to know.

"It's personal," Amanda said firmly, giving her name.

The clerk disappeared into the maze of desks and filing cabinets, returning moments later shaking his head. "Follow me, please," he requested.

The maze was worse once she got into it, and after making a few turns, Amanda despaired of ever finding the way out. At last the young man stopped. "Wait here," he said, indicating a battered plastic chair. "She'll be out in a minute." He waved toward a closed door. Lettered across the frosted glass was a name: Catherine Chandler. Smaller letters spelled out her title: Deputy District Attorney. It was impressive, imposing, and Amanda gulped for air. Nearly five minutes passed, and her nerves were stretched nearly to the breaking point when the door opened.

Jacob's mother, looking impeccably cool and firmly in command, looked out. "Miss Collier?" she began, glancing around. Seeing Amanda seemed to startle her. "Amanda? I'm sorry, when Jeff told me your name, I didn't recognize it. Please, come in."

Feeling stiff and awkward, Amanda obeyed.

"Is everything all right? Jacob?"

Amanda managed a small nod and Catherine relaxed almost imperceptibly.

"Can I get you anything? Coffee? A soft drink?"

"No, thank you." Try as she might, Amanda couldn't keep her voice from sounding prim and entirely too stuffy.

Fortunately, Catherine didn't seem offended. She went around the big desk piled high with open books and manila folders, sat down and frowned. "This isn't a social visit, I take it."

Amanda shook her head from side to side. "No, Catherine," she said in a low voice. "It's not."

Catherine's brow puckered. "What can I do for you?"

"It's Jacob."

Catherine's frown deepened, but she didn't speak.

Amanda groped for the right words, diplomatic words. Somehow they escaped her. "It's school!" she blurted finally. "He doesn't want to go to school anymore."

Catherine looked faintly taken aback. "Why not?"

"Because it's not where he wants to be! It's not what he wants to do!" She waited for a forceful reaction that never came.

Catherine leaned forward slowly, resting her arms on her desk. "Then tell me, Amanda. What does he want to do?"

Inwardly cringing, but relieved that Catherine seemed to be taking this calmly, Amanda drew breath to answer. "He wants to come Below. He doesn't want your world. He has a place in ours. An important one. We need him. And we want to be married."

Catherine let out a long, slow breath. "I see."

"Look, Catherine," Amanda said quickly, wanting to get it all out before her nerve failed. "I know you don't like me. But I'm right for Jacob, really I am. We love each other. We make each other happy. Neither of us wants anything else."

A look of shock crossed Catherine's face. "Amanda, who said that I don't like you?"

Amanda squirmed. Her courage was failing fast. "No one had to say it," she said, agonizing. "I just know. I could tell."

"How?" Incredibly, Catherine's voice had dropped to a near-whisper, but she didn't seem angry. "How could you tell?"

"The way you've always treated me," Amanda began, uncertainly. "Not like the other kids down there. You talk to them, and laugh. With me it's different. It always has been."

She didn't understand the sudden pinched look on Catherine's face. "Amanda, I'm sorry. I never meant for you to feel singled out, or slighted."

"But you treat me differently," Amanda said, sensing acquiescence. "I'm not imagining it."

Catherine nodded slowly. "Yes, I suppose I do. I never thought you'd notice, though, and I certainly never meant for you to assume it was because I didn't like you, or care about you."

"Then why would you treat me differently? Because of Jacob?"

Catherine shook her head. "No, of course not. What I feel for you has nothing to do with Jacob." She was regarding Amanda with an odd, wistful... dare she call it tenderness?

"I don't understand," she finally whispered.

"You and Jacob have been close all your lives, haven't you?"

The apparent non-sequitur made Amanda blink, but after a moment to regain her mental balance, she nodded gravely. "We've been best friends ever since I can remember. When we were little, Mary used to call us 'the twins', because we were always together."

Something indefinable flickered in Catherine's eyes, and she looked suddenly distant. "Really. I didn't know that."

"She never said it in front of you or Vincent," Amanda hastened to add, feeling an unexplainable need to smooth over whatever had just been disturbed.

"No. I'm sure she didn't." Catherine paused, her gaze focused on some distant point. "Amanda, did anyone ever tell you that Jacob is a twin?"

"Excuse me?" Amanda wasn't certain she'd heard correctly.

Catherine's smile was bittersweet. "Vincent and I had five children, not four," she said slowly. "First we had Charles, and then came a set of twins, a girl and a boy."

*Oh, my God*, Amanda thought, panicking yet again. *She's going to tell me I'm her long-lost daughter, and that Jacob and I are siblings*. The very absurdity of the thought broke over her an instant later. If such an outrageous thing were true, someone would have put a stop to her relationship with Jacob long ago and no one had even tried.

Catherine went on, her voice wistful. "Jacob's sister lived only a few minutes."

"I'm sorry," Amanda managed to whisper. "I didn't know."

"It was a very difficult time for me, Amanda. Vincent was grieving too, of course, but he had his work to occupy his mind. I had Charles and Jacob to care for, but I also had too much time to think, to brood. It was hard..."

* * * *

Catherine laid her three-week old son into his cradle and covered him, tucking the soft quilt around him tenderly. Her fingers trailed across his smooth cheek in an aching caress, and she crouched beside him for a few minutes, watching him sleep. This new life was precious, doubly so because of the loss of his twin. She touched him again, letting her forefinger trace the split in his upper lip; the baby's nose, a miniature copy of Catherine's own, twitched in protest.

To Catherine, the cleft lip didn't matter; her baby was strong, healthy, and beautiful. But it mattered to Vincent. He was adamant that this child would have all the opportunities denied his father; that other children would never point fingers, or laugh at him, or taunt him with cruel names. Peter and Father agreed that surgically repairing little Jacob's cleft lip was a relatively minor procedure, and Peter had already contacted a plastic surgeon who would perform the operation in a few weeks.

In the passage outside, Catherine heard the sound of voices and rose to greet visitors. It was probably Olivia or Kanin bringing Charles home; he'd been playing with their younger son Jonathan all afternoon.

"Here he is, Catherine," Kanin said cheerfully. He was still grimy with rock dust from his day's work and declined her invitation to sit down. "Olivia says to tell you he was good," he added dutifully. "He and Jon had cookies and milk about four o'clock, so don't worry if he's not hungry right away."

"Thank you, Kanin. Thank Olivia for me, too."

"I will." With a wave and a grin, he left.

"So," Catherine said, turning to her three-and-a-half year old son. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yes! Me and Jonathan played cars. We made a thing with a board," his gestures suggested a ramp of some sort, "and the cars went really fast and bam! They wrecked!" His hands demonstrated the dramatic crash with enthusiasm.

"That sounds like fun," Catherine said. "I hope you weren't too noisy."

"No," Charles assured her. "After a while, 'Livia read us a story and we ate cookies. Then Kanin brought me home."

"And the cookies had chocolate in them, didn't they?" Catherine asked sagely.

Charles scrubbed automatically at his mouth.

"It's too late," Catherine said. "I've seen it." Charles scowled, knowing what was coming; like most children his age, he detested having his face washed.

She had her back turned, wringing out the cloth, when the sound of a wonderfully familiar step in the doorway was overlaid with Charles's awed voice. "Father, you're all over blood!"

Catherine was beginning to smile at the oddness of the phrasing when the meaning of her son's remark sank in and she wheeled around, letting the cloth drop from suddenly nerveless fingers. Vincent had paused in the doorway and she flew across the chamber to his side. There was a large patch of dark, drying blood soaking his tunic across his lower abdomen and right hip and she reached out frantically, seeking the injury.

"Catherine, don't," he said, catching her hands. "It isn't my blood." There was more blood on his sleeve, but his hands, holding hers, were clean. "I'm all right," he assured her.

"Then who? What?" Her panic was ebbing.

"Elaine's baby was born this afternoon. A little girl." He was still holding her hands; his calm expression was edged with concern.

Catherine knew Elaine, though not well. She'd grown up in the tunnels but when she reached young adulthood, had decided to try her wings in the world Above. There, she fell in love with a young construction worker and after a brief but ardent courtship they were married.

Their happiness was short-lived. As her husband was coming home from work one evening, a shopping bag in each arm, he was brutally murdered in the course of a senseless mugging. Devastated by his death and disillusioned with the world Above, Elaine returned to her home Below. Not until several weeks later did she learn she was carrying his child.

Catherine frowned. "Isn't it too soon?" she asked uncertainly.

He nodded gravely. "The child was premature, but Mary says she seems strong enough. She's breathing well..."

Catherine flinched, only a little, but of course Vincent noticed, and knew that she was remembering their own little girl, whose lungs had not been developed enough for survival.

"The blood," she prompted him.

"Elaine was bleeding excessively," he explained. "Neither Mary nor Father could stop it. We had to take her to Peter; he's had her admitted to a hospital."

"Is she all right?"

"We don't know yet. Peter will send word as soon as he can, but he seemed to think she would recover."

"That's good." Despite her words, her eyes strayed to the splotch of blood on his tunic.

"It looks worse than it is," Vincent told her. "Don't worry." The look in his blue eyes was reassuring.

"I won't. But I want to know when you hear from Peter."

"I promise." Arm around her shoulder, he looked toward their elder son. "You've been eating chocolate," he said with mock severity, and Elaine and her baby were forgotten.

* * * *

The following afternoon, Catherine was rocking Jacob when a hesitant voice called from outside the chamber door.

"Come in, Samantha," she called.

Sixteen now, Samantha had fulfilled her childhood promise of beauty. Thick dark hair cascaded over her shoulders, and her eyes were soft and expressive. A thick book was clasped to her breast.

"Are you going to study?" Catherine asked conversationally.

"Biology," Samantha confirmed. "Timothy says if I don't bring my grade up, I'll never get into college, much less medical school."

Catherine smiled. Timothy taught mathematics and science to the tunnel children and Samantha was one of his prize pupils. "He's just trying to push you into doing your best, Samantha," she said. "Father's already planning for the day when you can take over as tunnel doctor."

Catherine stood; Samantha put down her book and reached for Jacob. Catherine gave her baby one last loving touch before surrendering him.

She moved toward the door hesitantly. "And speaking of Father, if I don't hurry, I'll be late. I've just fed him," she added. "He'll probably sleep the whole time I'm gone. If he wakes up, clean diapers are stacked on that shelf, and nightgowns beside them. Charles is in Kanin and Olivia's chamber. I don't think he'll be back before I am. I'll be in Father's study..."

"I know all that, Catherine," Samantha chided gently. "You act as if I've never looked after a baby before. You'll be right down the passage if I need you. Now go on. Have fun."

Prosaically, Samantha tucked Jacob into the crook of one arm, dropped into Vincent's chair, opened her book, and began to study. Catherine gave one last backward look and went out.

She suspected Father had invited her to join him this afternoon simply because he thought she needed to get out, and tea in his study was a good place to start. Although she hated leaving little Jacob, even for an hour, she went because she knew it would ease her family's concerns. As she turned into the short passage leading to the study, she heard the distinctive rumble of her husband's voice and brightened. She hadn't known he'd be there, too.

She paused just inside the entrance. Vincent and Father were across the chamber, backs to her and heads close together as they consulted over something. Catherine waited for Vincent to recognize her presence and acknowledge it, but he seemed oblivious. His voice, low but clear, reached her.

"No, Father. I can't ask it."

"Vincent, you must. Or let Mary."

"No." Vincent sounded adamant. "It's too soon, Father. The strain would be too great. We'll have to find another way..."

"That is precisely what we are trying to do, Vincent, but in the meantime, what choice do we have? You know Mary's been trying her on different formulas; she seems unable to tolerate any of them."

"I can't help that, Father."

"Perhaps Catherine could just..."

At the sound of her name, Catherine started. Vincent felt it, and spun around to face her.

"What?" she asked, coming down the short flight of metal stairs. "What could I do?"

"No, Catherine," Vincent said. "We'll find some other way."

"At least tell me what it is," she said, ignoring the chair he offered. "What child are you talking about?"

Father and Vincent exchanged startled glances; Father sighed heavily. "Elaine's baby," he began in explanation. Vincent made a brief, aggravated gesture and turned away.

Catherine glanced from Father's worried face to Vincent's rigid back. "How is Elaine?"

"Better. The doctors at the hospital were able to control the bleeding. She should be able to come home in a few days." Father's expression was bleak; it wasn't often that his medical skills failed to the point that he had to send a patient Above.

"What's wrong with the baby? Vincent said she was doing well."

Father glanced unhappily at Vincent's back. "She was, at first," he said. "But Mary's found her unable to tolerate any of the formulas. She's getting very little nourishment."

"What can I do, Father?" Catherine's voice had dropped to a near-whisper. "What does she need?"

Beside her, Vincent sighed in defeat, and turned around. "She needs milk, Catherine," he explained gently. "But no one is nursing right now except..."

"Me," she finished for him, understanding dawning at last. "She needs my milk. But what about Jacob?"

"Catherine, Elaine's baby is very small. It is likely you'll have milk enough for both, for the few days it will be necessary. And if for some reason you do not, little Jacob is a fine, strong boy. I'm sure he can tolerate the formula," Father assured her.

"Catherine, if you don't feel up to this, we'll find another way," Vincent began. She could see the concern on his face, and touched his arm.

"We have no choice, Vincent. We can't let her starve." She turned to Father. "Where's Mary?"

"With the baby, in the hospital chamber," he answered, and before the words were quite out of his mouth, Catherine had wheeled and started out of the chamber.

She half-expected Vincent to follow, but a hurried glance over her shoulder showed no one behind her. Catherine felt physically well and emotionally pretty stable, considering it had been only three weeks since she'd experienced childbirth and its accompanying tragedy, but she knew Vincent worried. Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. She entered the hospital chamber with a sigh.

"Hello, Mary," she said, announcing her presence.

Mary turned, a small, blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. A frail, mewing sound came from the bundle and instinctively, Catherine moved closer.

"Let me see," she begged, and Mary offered the bundle.

Catherine took it, gazing at the tiny, wizened face within. "She's so small," she breathed.

"Yes," Mary acknowledged, a trifle sadly. "She weighed five pounds, ten ounces at birth."

"Six ounces less than Jacob," Catherine observed, her gaze fixed on the little face while she tried not to remember her other baby, who hadn't been even this big...

"She weighs less than that now," Mary said.

"That's normal in newborns, though, isn't it?"

Mary looked unhappy. "Not this much. None of the formulas agree with her..."

"I know," Catherine said. "That's why I'm here."

Mary's sudden smile was full of gratitude. "I knew if Vincent asked, you would come," she said.

Catherine's own smile faltered a little at mention of Vincent but she lifted her chin bravely. "Shall I feed her now?"

"If you would, Catherine," Mary answered, gesturing toward a nearby chair. "The poor little thing is half-starved."

Catherine settled into the chair and opened her blouse; Mary's presence made her a little self-conscious, but she resolved to ignore it, and concentrated on the baby.

"Come on," she coaxed tenderly as the infant rooted blindly. "You can do it."

Mary stood back, observing, and didn't try to help. The baby might not know how to nurse, but obviously Mary had confidence in Catherine's experience. After a moment Catherine was successful in guiding the little mouth to her nipple, and smiled. "Good girl," she whispered, head bent low.

The baby settled down, but her manner of nursing wasn't the no-nonsense way that Jacob had, or that Catherine remembered from when Charles was small. She seemed half-hearted, sucking for a moment and then stopping, sometimes losing the nipple altogether. After only a few minutes she ceased the struggle, relaxing into sleep. Catherine glanced at Mary dubiously.

"It's all right," Mary assured her, coming to take the infant. "She hasn't much strength now. When she's rested, she'll want more."

Catherine nodded. It was only then that she noticed Vincent waiting tentatively in the doorway. She didn't know how long he'd been watching, and smiled at him.

Mary turned, noticing him too. "Come in," she urged in her usual effusive way. "The baby's just eaten," she informed him. "We'll wait a little and see if she keeps it down."

"What happens if she does not?" Vincent asked.

Mary sighed. "Then she'll have to go Above," she said. "I know Elaine doesn't want that, but we'll have no choice. We can't let her starve."

"No, of course not," Vincent agreed. He glanced at Catherine. "How often will she need to be fed?" he asked Mary. He seemed determined to guard Catherine's strength, whether she wanted him to or not.

Mary's reply didn't reassure him. "I'd imagine she'll want more in an hour or so," she said. "And every couple of hours after that, for a day or two. As she grows stronger, she'll eat more, but less frequently."

Vincent nodded sagely. "Then we'd better take her to our chamber," he said. "Catherine is already getting up twice a night to feed Jacob; she needs her rest."

Mary agreed. Neither of them consulted Catherine, but she didn't object to the arrangements, and held the sleeping infant while Vincent helped gather the items needed for the new baby's care.

When they reached their chamber, Jacob was just waking from his nap, wanting his dinner, so Catherine gave Elaine's baby into Samantha's eager arms and took her own baby to the rocking chair while Vincent and Mary crowded the new baby's things onto the nursery shelf. When everything was arranged to her satisfaction, Mary tucked the new baby into one end of Jacob's cradle; the babies were small enough that they could share, at least for a night or two.

"You're certain you don't want me to stay?" she asked Vincent one last time.

"Quite certain, Mary," he assured her. "Kanin and Olivia will keep Charles for the next few nights; Catherine and I will manage."

Mary looked unconvinced but acceded to Vincent's assurances. While they talked, Catherine tucked Jacob into his own end of the cradle and lingered over it, touching first one infant, then the other, fussing with their blankets, adjusting the tiny knitted cap Elaine's baby wore to conserve her body's heat. She smiled, feeling a soft glow of contentment that had been absent for too long. When Vincent touched her shoulder, she rocked back onto her heels and sighed. "She looks so fragile next to Jacob."

"Yes, she does," Vincent admitted. "But Mary says she is doing well," he added, and drew Catherine to her feet, turning her to face him. She looked up into his beloved face; the look in his eyes was faintly troubled. "If you are to do this, you must rest," he admonished softly. "William should have supper prepared; I'll bring you a tray."

She knew him too well to argue when his mind was made up, and besides, she was feeling hungry. She nodded acquiescence. "Stop and say goodnight to Charles," she urged. "I'll lie down until you get back."

He waited until she had stretched out on the bed, covering her with a quilt and bending for a soft kiss before he left the chamber. Catherine rolled onto her side, curling up comfortably under the warm quilt where she could see the cradle, if not its occupants. Her rest didn't last long, though. She was just drifting into a light doze when a soft mewling brought her back to alertness.

Tossing back the quilt, she went to the cradle where Elaine's baby was fussing quietly in between attempts to suck on her fist. "Come here, little girl," Catherine admonished softly, picking her up. A quick check of the diaper showed it to be dry, not altogether surprising in a child who'd eaten little since birth. "We'll fix that," she murmured, taking the baby back to the bed.

When Vincent came back bearing a covered tray, the baby had finished nursing and was just falling asleep. "I think she ate a little more this time," Catherine told him, encouraged. "And she's keeping it down."

"Good," Vincent said, approving. He took the sleeping infant into his own capable hands. "I'll put her back to bed," he said. "Eat your supper."

He'd brought a plate for himself as well, and Catherine cleared a space on his writing table so they could share a quiet meal together.

The evening went quickly as Catherine fed the new baby twice more and Jacob once before Vincent took note of her weariness and put her firmly to bed. She lost track of how many times she was up in the night, feeding one baby or the other.

Near morning, a thin, demanding wail pierced her exhausted stupor. She felt Vincent slip silently from the bed and knew he was trying to give her just a few more moments of rest. She turned her head, watching him from sleep-heavy eyes. She didn't recognize the cry - it wasn't Jacob's vigorous wail, but it didn't sound like the new baby's soft mewing, either.

He bent over the cradle and lifted one of the infants carefully. "Hush, little one," he soothed, lifting Elaine's baby in both hands. The cry dwindled at the sound of his voice and Catherine could see the baby's dark eyes trying to focus on his face.

He took the baby to the dresser whose top was used as a changing table and she began to wail again as he unpinned the sopping diaper. Her cries grew in intensity while he changed her and by the time he finished, Catherine had pushed herself up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Vincent brought the highly indignant child and laid her in Catherine's arms. "She's stronger this morning," he observed.

Catherine acknowledged his droll understatement with a sleepy smile of agreement. "I can hear. How long has it been since her last feeding?"

"Nearly three hours," Vincent told her; it was by far the longest interval since Catherine had taken over the baby's feeding.

Opening her gown, she brought the baby to her breast. The cries stopped abruptly as the baby began nursing greedily; she had the hang of this now.

A stronger, but no more insistent, cry started from the cradle; Jacob was awake now, too, and Vincent went to pick him up. By the time he was changed, he was loudly demanding his breakfast. Catherine had read of mothers of twins nursing both babies simultaneously, so she knew it was possible, but she didn't relish the idea of actually trying it right this minute. "Hurry," she urged the child in her arms, but Vincent never hesitated, turning to the nursery shelf and taking down a small bottle of prepackaged formula Mary had provided.

It took only a moment for him to break the seal and peel the stiff plastic cover away from the already-attached nipple, and a moment later Vincent lowered himself into the rocking chair and offered the bottle with more competence than Catherine expected. At first, Jacob tried to spit out the unfamiliar rubber nipple, making her worry that his cleft lip was interfering, but the baby soon figured out there was food in there, and in moments was nursing comfortably on the bottle.

Catherine felt a prickle of indignation. "What are you doing?" she demanded, and then wondered guiltily if it was fatigue that made her sound so irritable.

"I'm feeding my son," he replied mildly.

"I can feed him," Catherine retorted defensively. "I'm his mother."

"And you've been up most of the night tending the little one," Vincent answered. He sounded infuriatingly reasonable. "You must conserve your strength. Jacob is fine. Besides," he added, looking down at his son's face, "I've never done this before."

It wasn't right. Jacob was her baby; it was her duty to care for him, feed him, protect him. Her defiant protest died in her throat, though, as she recognized the pleasure on Vincent's face. Her resentment faded and she wondered why she had never thought to suggest giving a bottle for an occasional feeding so Vincent could share the experience.

Temporarily mollified, she turned her attention back to the baby in her arms. Five minutes into the feeding she was still sucking vigorously; it was a definite improvement, and her little tummy was distended with milk when Catherine tucked her back into the cradle and covered her with a quilt.

Days passed, and Catherine grew accustomed to the care of two infants. Charles came back from his stay with Kanin and Olivia; Elaine's baby required feeding less often. Catherine's days were busy, but there was fulfillment in the work.

Vincent helped too, of course, but he had returned to his usual duties and often she didn't see him from breakfast to dinner. Sometimes in the evenings, during what used to be their quiet time together, she found Vincent watching her with an odd expression and wondered if he was missing those times of sharing. Despite the almost unceasing demands, though, there were still moments of peace and those were the ones most filled with joy.

One afternoon, when Elaine's baby was a week old, Catherine was enjoying one of those rare moments. Jacob was asleep in the cradle and she had succeeded in persuading Charles to take a nap as well, leaving only the new baby awake. There were times in the past week when Catherine had shared the rocking chair with all three children, but now she had only the new baby cradled in her arms. The baby was alert, watching her with enormous dark eyes and Catherine smiled, running a finger over the soft dark hair.

"If you would go to sleep, I might have a half-hour to myself," she informed the infant. "What do you think?" With pleasure, she noted how the little face had lost its pinched, wizened appearance. The child was looking less like a little old lady and more like a baby with each passing day. She touched one diminutive hand, smiling as tiny fingers curled around her larger one, gripping tightly.

Softly, rocking rhythmically, Catherine began to sing her mother's lullaby. She was on the fourth or fifth rendition and the baby's eyelids were drooping when some indefinable urging made her look up. Vincent stood motionless in the doorway, watching, and she smiled at him. He stayed where he was; his expression didn't change.

"What?" she asked, softly so as not to disturb the baby.

He made a small, 'I don't know' gesture with his head and shoulders. "The sight of you there, looking the way you do right now, is a memory I want to keep, forever," he said. He moved, crossing the chamber to her side.

She looked up at him, freeing one hand so she could reach out for his. "How do I look?"

"Like a Madonna... serene, and radiantly happy." He knelt beside her, now studying the baby's sleeping face. "She has brought you great joy," he observed slowly.

"Yes." Catherine smiled down at the little face and couldn't help feeling a mother's pride. "Look how pretty she's getting."

Vincent nodded agreement. "She's going to be beautiful," he said. "Like her mother."

Catherine flinched and raised her gaze to meet his implacable one. She could see his determination to ground her in reality before her dreams could take her too far away from him.

"Elaine will be glad," he added.

"Yes," Catherine acknowledged after a moment, looking back at the baby in her arms.

"Peter is pleased with her recovery," he said. "She should be home in a day or two."

Catherine bristled defensively. "Yes, I know."

"Mary thinks there is no reason why Elaine can't care for her own baby, once she's returned," he added relentlessly.

"I know that, Vincent," Catherine said hotly. "Don't patronize me."

He recoiled a little, and a small sliver of remorse wormed its way into her consciousness. His steady gaze didn't falter, though. "Will you be able to give her up when the time comes?" he asked softly.

"Of course," she answered brusquely. She saw the faint disbelief, the fear for her, in his eyes, and softened. "I know she isn't mine, Vincent. However much I might wish otherwise... however right it seems to have two babies sleeping in the cradle..."

His hand came up, then, to stroke her cheek and she tipped her head toward it, welcoming the touch.

"I'll be all right, Vincent," she assured him softly. "I will."

He nodded gravely, but her reassurance couldn't quite dispel the doubt in his eyes. After that, she was acutely conscious of the way he watched her, understanding his fears at last, and did whatever she could to comfort him. Inside, though she knew it would hurt, she was supremely confident of her own strength... and she believed that right up until the morning Elaine came home.

* * * *

"Peter said ten o'clock," Mary fretted aloud.

"Perhaps something has held them up," Catherine said reasonably. Inside, she didn't feel reasonable at all; she felt on the verge of panic, waiting for an imminent blow. Any delay, for whatever reason, was welcome. She wished Vincent could be there; his mere presence would bolster her, but he was in the upper tunnels, waiting to bring Elaine down. Unconsciously Catherine clutched the blanket-wrapped bundle a little more tightly. Inside the blanket, Elaine's baby squirmed in protest.

Mary bent to peer at her. "She's changed so much in the past week, I'm not sure Elaine will recognize her," she marvelled. "She's very lucky you were here."

"Who?" Catherine asked, trying bleakly to inject a note of humor into the morning. "Elaine or the baby?"

"Both," Mary said firmly. Her expression softened, and she gave Catherine a penetrating look. "But this is hard for you, isn't it?"

Catherine had determined to be stoic, but Mary's compassion breached her resolve. Her defiant shake of the head dissolved into an unhappy nod. "I convinced myself I could do this," she whispered. "And now it takes all my strength of will not to take her and run off into the deepest tunnels where no one could find us."

"You wouldn't do that, anyway," Mary said, a warm hand on her arm.

"No," Catherine agreed sadly. "But I'd like to."

"She's a sweet baby," Mary acknowledged. "And she's been fortunate, Catherine, to have had your care and your love for the first week of her life. You've given her a good start."

It was what Catherine needed to hear, and she managed a smile just in time. In the passage outside were voices, and the sounds of footsteps.

Vincent came in first with Elaine cradled in his strong arms. He carried her to the waiting bed and put her down gently, but his gaze was fixed on Catherine. She produced a shaky smile solely for his benefit, and stood up, stepping softly to his side.

"Here she is, Elaine," she said, and gave the baby into her mother's care.

Elaine reached for her daughter eagerly; her fingers fumbled on the blanket as she pulled it open in the time-honored way of new mothers.

"She has all her fingers and toes," Catherine assured her. "I counted for you."

"I know she does. I just need to see for myself, I guess," Elaine admitted shyly. Her face was thin and pale, but lit from within by her joy at being home. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"

"Yes, she is," Catherine agreed solemnly, her heart breaking. Despite the others in the room, Vincent took her hand, holding it surreptitiously between them. His touch helped immeasurably.

"Catherine, and Vincent, I can't thank you enough for taking care of my baby." Elaine included both of them in her heartfelt look.

"It was nothing," Vincent assured her, discounting the sleepless nights and the distress he'd suffered over Catherine. "You should rest now. Catherine and I will leave you to become acquainted with your daughter."

Still holding her hand, he drew Catherine toward the door.

* * * *

"...And the baby was me," Amanda said, rapt.

"Yes," Catherine said softly. Her eyes were still fixed on something far away.

"What happened after that? I mean, to you?"

Catherine smiled. "Vincent took me back to his chamber, and I cried a little, and we held each other and talked."

"About me?"

"About you, and the baby we'd lost, and about us."

"And it helped."

Catherine smiled. "Talking with Vincent always helps," she said simply.

"That's how it is with me and Jacob." Amanda leaned forward in her chair. "Catherine, please understand. It hurts to be apart. And Jacob isn't happy. He wants to be Below. Can't you see that?"

Catherine rose abruptly and turned to look out the window. The silence that followed seemed to stretch out interminably. "I've been holding him back, haven't I?" she asked finally. She didn't turn from the window, didn't really seem to expect an answer. "He's denying himself what he wants most, just to please me."

"Yes," Amanda ventured in a very small voice. "He loves you very much," she added quickly. "He admires you."

Catherine nodded, but the gesture seemed grim. "Do you know," she asked slowly, "just why it's so important to me that he finish school... that he continue his life Above?"

"No."

"Neither did I... until just now. I told myself that it was for his own good; that he needed to see and experience both worlds in order to make an informed choice..."

"But he's been experiencing your world all his life," Amanda said in bewilderment. "He knows what it is. He doesn't want it."

"No, I see that now. And I realize that it isn't Jacob I've been thinking of... it's me."

"You? How?"

"You thought I didn't see how much he wants to be part of his father's world, your world, didn't you?"

Amanda nodded cautiously.

"But I do. And I've resisted it not because I truly thought Jacob could be happy in my world; I know he can't. It's because it's easy for him... to give up my world, to go and live in yours."

Amanda's bewilderment was growing by leaps and bounds. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I don't understand."

"Did you ever think, Amanda, that my life with Vincent doesn't have to be the way it is? Separate? That I could have chosen to give up my life, and join him in his?"

"I guess you could have..." Amanda began slowly. Catherine cut her off.

"But I didn't. Some part of me couldn't bear to let go of the glitter and glamor of the world Above. And so we live the way we do, in a world apart, with me not completely a part of his world, and he not permitted in mine." She sounded bitterly self-recriminating and Amanda rose, going around the desk to stand beside her.

"But, Catherine," she said softly, "you wouldn't be happy in our world. Everyone knows that."

"Do they?"

"Of course! But it's okay because you found a way to make it work. You're happy, and Vincent's happy, and you have each other."

"It seems so lacking in conviction... the wanting to have the best of both worlds; to have Vincent, and to have my work, too..."

"You live in both worlds because you can," Amanda argued with conviction. "But if something happened where you had to choose, you'd choose Vincent."

"Would I?"

"Of course you would."

Catherine turned from the window; her smile was genuine. "Of course I would," she agreed. "And I suppose I knew that all along, but I thank you for reminding me. Sometimes I need that." She moved, bypassing her desk to sit on an old leather couch that was pushed against one wall, patting the spot beside her.

Gingerly, Amanda sat.

"When you came in, you said something about wanting to be married..."

* * * *

Beyond the thin wooden partition, Amanda could hear the muffled buzz growing louder as more and more guests arrived. Nervously, she looked down, into her lap; the knuckles of her clasped hands were white and she made a deliberate effort to relax them.

"There. You can look now." Jacob's sister Vicky held up a hand mirror and Amanda ducked her head a little to scrutinize her reflection.

The girl staring back from the mirror looked like a frightened deer, with enormous dark eyes; artfully arranged tendrils escaped from her drawn-back hair to soften and frame her too-pale face.

"It's fine," she managed to whisper. "Thanks, Vicky."

"It's perfect," her mother added. Elaine was suspiciously misty-eyed. "You're absolutely beautiful, Mandy."

Amanda ducked her head shyly. "I hope Jacob thinks so."

"He will," declared another voice, from the door. "You're lovely, Amanda; he couldn't possibly miss it," Catherine added, crowding in to the tiny cubicle.

"Yeah. His mama didn't raise no dummies," Vicky chimed.

"Victoria." Catherine's tone was severe and Vicky offered an immediate, if somewhat insincere, apology.

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry. This is a solemn occasion, right?"

Truthfully, Amanda was glad she had said it; it had broken the nearly unbearable tension that had been building inside her all morning. Standing, she smoothed her dress, looking to Vicky for reassurance.

"Are you ready?" Vicky asked.

"I think so," Amanda said. "I'm scared."

Elaine put an arm around her. "Not of Jacob," she said confidently.

Amanda shook her head; the very idea was ludicrous. "Never of Jacob. Just... of the people, I think. They'll all be watching."

"You won't see them," Catherine predicted. "You won't see anyone but Jacob. Trust me."

The thought gave Amanda courage and she lifted her head; for the first time, she could feel a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth.

Things had happened with alarming speed once she and Catherine had their talk. Surprisingly, it had been Jacob himself who had insisted on finishing the semester at Columbia University, but that was over now; he'd taken his last exam. He had effectively moved out of his mother's house, bringing his personal belongings Below; even now they were stacked in boxes, crates, and untidy stacks against one wall of one of the newest chambers. Sometime today, Amanda's things would be brought to that chamber, too.

Today, she and Jacob were to be married and embark on a new life together. "I'm ready," she said, pleased that she'd found her voice again. She wanted to sound sure and firm when she repeated her vows. Taking charge, Vicky pressed a single blue cornflower into her hand.

"You two go sit down," she instructed. "Nothing can happen 'til you're out there."

"My baby," Elaine sniffled, hesitating. "Getting married. And already I'm crying."

"Me, too," Catherine confessed, and the mothers hugged each other, sentimentally weepy, before taking turns hugging Amanda. Vicky gave a theatrical shrug and rolled her eyes in Amanda's direction as she finally succeeded in ushering them out.

A moment later, the sweet strains of a violin filled the suddenly hushed chamber, and Amanda stepped out from behind the partition, ready to make her way, as Jacob was from his side, to the center of the chamber, where Vincent waited to marry them. Her gaze found Jacob's across the room, and as Catherine had promised, everyone else faded away. She smiled, and stepped forward to meet him.

The End