CHARLES

Charles read the letter for the third time, his elation growing as the words on the page remained the same. He couldn't keep the news to himself... he had to share it. Quickly, he pulled his jacket from the closet and raced down the stairs to the basement. He took the time to make sure the secret door was properly closed behind him and started down the rock-walled tunnel.

By walking quickly and occasionally breaking into a half-run, he soon reached Father's Chamber and burst into the room unceremoniously.

"Father! I have something to share with you!" His excitement made him breathless and he waved the letter triumphantly.

Vincent laid down his pen and reached for the now crumpled paper. Scanning it swiftly, he stood and smiled at his son. "You've been accepted at Harvard Medical School. I'm very proud of you." Vincent pulled Charles into a warm paternal embrace. "I know how much you wanted this."

Charles was ebullient. "Yes! Harvard Med School... it's like a dream come true. And I already know what I want to do when I graduate," he added eagerly.

Vincent gave him an inquisitive look and Charles suddenly seemed to lose his impetus and began to flounder.

"I should go call Mother..." He looked down at the letter in his hands and started to back away.

"Charles." Vincent stopped him. "What is it you don't want to tell me?"

"It's nothing, Father... truly." Charles was clearly uncomfortable and didn't quite meet his father's eyes.

"Charles." Vincent waited until Charles looked at him. "What do you want to do after medical school?"

Charles looked down again at his letter, now reduced to a twisted scrap of paper. "I want to do research..." he said at length. He met his father's eyes firmly. "Genetic research."

There was a pause as Vincent absorbed this and all its implications. "That sounds intriguing," he said easily. "Why?"

Charles was incredulous. "Father, I..." He stopped in confusion.

"I understand it's because of me." Vincent was calm and thoughtful. "But why this path?"

Charles struggled to explain. "There are things I want to know... things I need to understand about me... because I don't know what I am."

Vincent was silent, assessing his son reflectively.

"There are questions I've wanted to ask... but I didn't know how..." Charles stumbled over the phrases.

"Tell me what you want to know."

"I don't know how to say it..."

"Charles," Vincent was gently encouraging. "There are things about myself that I still don't know, but ask your questions. I will answer what I can."

Charles braced himself against the desk. "I see Jacob and Amanda together. They are so certain of what they have. Whenever I meet a girl... and think... maybe she's the one I could love... I stop because..."

Vincent waited patiently. When Charles spoke again his voice was barely audible.

"How can I ask any woman to marry me... to bear my children..."

"When you don't know what those children might be," Vincent offered quietly.

"Where did you find the courage?"

Vincent began to speak slowly. "I never believed it was possible for me to have a life like other men. Even after I met your mother... after she loved me... I never dared to dream of it. It was she who taught me to believe. It was her courage, not mine, that led us into the light, and ultimately gave you to us."

Charles looked at Vincent inquisitively. "How did it happen?"

Vincent bowed his head. "It all happened so quickly..."

* * * * *

It was a lovely evening in mid-April. They were on the balcony. Vincent was reading and Catherine was leaning against him, her head pillowed on his shoulder. Finishing the poem, he closed the book and Catherine lifted her face to look at him lovingly. Vincent put out his hand to gently stroke her hair and caress the side of her face. Without thinking, he bent his head and kissed her.

Catherine had been waiting for this for so long that she had almost despaired of it ever happening. As she kissed him back fervently, the fiery desire that both had held back for so long engulfed them.

They were never quite sure how they got from the balcony to the bed, or who began what. Eager hands and mouths explored in breathless haste and soft insistent sounds came from both of them as their bodies moved as one. Vincent began growling softly, deep in his throat, making a sound that was both sensuous and passionate. It was exquisite.

Afterward, as they lay together, Catherine reached to touch Vincent's cheek. Violently, he jerked away and rolled to huddle on his side with his back to her.

Puzzled and a little hurt, she watched him for a moment before rising on an elbow and laying her hand on his shoulder. "Vincent? What is it?" Her voice was full of tender concern.

Again he flinched from her touch and she pulled her hand away quickly. When he finally spoke, his voice was harsh and unforgiving. "What have I done... what have I done? I should never have allowed myself..." He broke off, almost throwing himself from the bed and began gathering his clothes from where they lay scattered on the floor.

Catherine watched in disbelief as he dressed. His fingers fumbled with the fastenings, his impatience as great now as it had been earlier.

"Vincent?" she asked again, painfully. "What's wrong?"

Stopping in the doorway, he stood there a long moment before slowly turning to look at her, his eyes full of torment.

"It never should have happened. I'm sorry, Catherine. Forgive me."

He heard the sound of anguish she made but could not stop. As he began his descent, Vincent could hear her calling his name, but he couldn't go back... he wasn't sure he could ever go back.

Distraught, he dropped down the side of the building at a reckless speed. Only habit and instinct kept him from falling. Reaching the shelter of the tunnels, he began to run, seeking release from the anguish and shame.

Finally nearing exhaustion, he found himself deep within the earth in a passage he did not recognize. Both shoulders were sore from careening off rough rock walls and his breath came in ragged gasps. He slumped against the wall, consumed with misery.

 

* * * * *

Father picked his way carefully through a rock-strewn passage. The tunnels in this section were rarely used anymore and no one bothered to keep them clear of debris. Father himself hadn't been this way in nearly twenty years and only his concern for Vincent made him go now.

Mouse had seen Vincent two days ago, running blindly. Frightened by the look on his friend's face, Mouse had followed him. When Mouse had reported back to Father, the older man was concerned but not unduly so. Vincent frequently needed time to himself and often retreated to remote parts of the world Below to sort out his thoughts.

But for him to be gone two days without telling anyone or sending a message was unusual enough to prompt Father into making this long trek to a place that had always been a refuge for Vincent when he was troubled.

At last Father rounded a corner and stopped just inside a large cavern. The floor was littered with rocks and boulders of varying sizes.

He was about to call out when Vincent came into view. What he saw both shocked and unnerved him. Vincent's face was gaunt and haggard. His long mane of hair was a tangled mess, and his clothing was in careless disarray. He paced restlessly, his actions stiff, lacking his usual grace.

The word `tortured' came to Father's mind as he stepped forward and called his son's name.

Vincent's eyes were dulled with pain. "Father." He acknowledged the other man's presence in a flat monotone.

"Vincent, are you all right?" Father moved toward his son as quickly as he dared on the rocky, uneven floor.

"How did you find me?" Vincent's voice was still expressionless.

"Mouse saw you running. It frightened him and he followed you. I thought you might be here." Father moved closer. "Vincent?"

"Please, Father. Leave me." Vincent turned away from Father's gentle inquiry.

"Tell me what's wrong."

Vincent shook his bowed head. "I cannot speak of it. My shame is too great." He couldn't bring himself to meet Father's eyes. "I cannot be forgiven for what I did."

"Vincent, what did you do?" Father's voice rose in alarm. "Vincent? ...You had planned to visit Catherine," he remembered. "Did you see her?"

Vincent's head bent even lower. "Yes." His reply was nearly inaudible.

Father was filled with dread by Vincent's obvious torment and oblique responses. "Vincent, tell me what happened!" he implored.

Vincent was silent for a long moment. Without raising his eyes, he began to speak, slowly, disjointedly, needing to share his terrible burden and trusting Father to help him shoulder it.

"Catherine and I have shared... the greatest intimacy a man and woman can share... what should be the most beautiful... and joyous experience... brings me such feelings of shame... and fear. The torment in my soul... is more than I can bear. I lost myself..." his voice trailed away.

"Is Catherine all right?" Father asked the question sharply.

Vincent lifted his head then and met Father's eyes for the first time. "I did not hurt her... physically..." He resumed his ragged pacing. "The pain I have caused her is much deeper than that... she can never forgive me." He looked at Father again. "I couldn't stop!"

"Did Catherine want you to stop?" Father asked it tentatively.

Vincent stopped pacing and looked across the cave. "No," he said at last. "Not then."

"And now?" Father moved closer.

"Now..." Vincent closed his eyes, feeling Catherine's grief wash through him. "She suffers... because of me."

Father chose his next words carefully. "Catherine loves you, Vincent... as you love her. What happened between you was an expression of that love..."

"Are you condoning what happened, Father?" Vincent almost snarled the words.

"I would not have advised it," Father said slowly, still speaking with caution. "But it happened. Surely you and Catherine can..."

"Look at me, Father!" Vincent thundered in rage, flexing his furred, clawed hands so Father could see them. "Look at me! Such a relationship with any woman is wrong for me!" For a moment his eyes were bright with fury, then his voice dropped to a whisper as all his anger drained out of him. "I can never forgive myself for what I did."

Looking utterly defeated, he stood with slumped shoulders and bowed head. "Please, Father. I need to be alone."

Father hesitated and nodded slowly. "You know where to find me if you want to talk." He came close and touched Vincent's shoulder lightly, as if to reassure him. "Remember, Vincent, your thoughts will not change what has happened. They can only serve to torment you. Time alone to think may be your worst enemy." He squeezed Vincent's arm gently, and reluctantly turned to leave.

* * * * *

Catherine was devastated by Vincent's reaction that night. What she had found to be joyous and pleasurable was causing him to agonize endlessly. While she couldn't understand his fears, she knew they existed and was trying to give him time to come to terms with those fears. After three endless days and longer nights, she could no longer endure the pain and uncertainty. She had to see him. They had to face his fears.

Approaching Vincent's chamber with nervous determination, she was at once disappointed and relieved to find it dark, cold and empty. She stood in the passage outside his chamber for several minutes as she tried to think what to do. With a sudden decisiveness, she moved off toward Father's chamber.

Father looked up as she entered. "Catherine?" He crossed the room and took her hand. "Are you all right?" he asked in concern.

She stared at him. "Vincent told you what happened."

"Yes." Father looked away, embarrassed.

"Where is he, Father? I have to talk to him..."

Father shook his head. "Catherine, he is in great pain."

Catherine hugged herself as if chilled. "I waited for him to come back," she said, staring sightlessly across the room. "I can't wait any longer." She looked quickly at Father and away again. "He asked me to forgive him." Her voice reflected all the pain that plea had caused her.

"He doesn't believe he deserves to be forgiven," Father explained gently.

"There is nothing to forgive. What happened... I wanted it. I have to make him understand that. I have to see him. Tell me where he is."

Father looked at her helplessly. "I don't know. Yesterday I went and talked to him. I sent one of the children with food and fresh clothing this morning... he came back saying Vincent was gone."

Catherine's chin went up as she looked at him steadily. "Then I'll wait for him."

"Catherine, it may be days!"

"I'll wait," she repeated stubbornly.

Catherine retreated to Vincent's chamber. Father had sent someone to light the brazier and the flames were beginning to chase away the damp chill that had invaded the room in Vincent's absence.

Catherine prowled the chamber restively, picking up a book or ornament and examining it for a few seconds before putting it down and moving on. Several times she tried to sit or lie down and rest, but she could only be still for a few minutes before her inner turmoil drove her to her feet again.

At last she sat at the table with pen and paper, trying to make sense of all the things she was feeling and thinking. She had a vague idea about writing a letter to Vincent in an effort to make him understand that there was no shame in what had happened, but she couldn't get beyond the first sentence. As she paced the room again, a sound from the doorway made her turn to see Vincent watching her sadly.

They faced each other for a long, awkward minute before Vincent dragged his eyes away from her and came into the room.

"You shouldn't be here." He spoke quietly without looking at her.

"I have to be here." Her voice was low and fierce. "Vincent, we have to talk."

"There's nothing to say."

"Vincent..." Catherine took a step toward him, but stopped when he recoiled from her. "Vincent..." she tried again. "Why did you leave?"

"You know why." Vincent still refused to look at her.

"I don't. Tell me." She wanted to go to him, but somehow she knew he needed the safety of these few feet between them.

"It was wrong..." Vincent began painfully.

"It was beautiful..." Catherine interrupted forcefully.

Vincent turned his back. "Catherine, you must go."

"No. Vincent, what happened was my fault... my need was too great..." Involuntarily, she took another step toward him and again he moved away.

"You must go," he repeated doggedly. "We cannot be together any longer. I can no longer trust myself..."

Catherine saw Vincent's agony clearly and she longed to reach out to comfort him, but suddenly she was angry, too, that once again he was pushing her away, refusing to let her help him in his pain.

"Vincent, look at us! We have been together in the most intimate way and we're still here! The sky didn't fall and lightning didn't strike! What are you so afraid of?"

Vincent shook his head in mute denial.

"Vincent..." Catherine spoke softly now. "I don't regret what happened. I wanted it too much." Her voice began to tremble. "It was beautiful, Vincent. But if I lose you... the price is too high. Please don't let that happen to us..."

Vincent was silent, each of her tears a hot knife burning its way into his heart.

"It must never happen again," he said finally. "Never."

"If that's how you want it to be," she agreed quietly, sensing his determination and wanting him back on any terms.

Looking at each other, they were painfully aware of the gap between them now. Slowly Catherine moved toward the door. Stopping in the opening, she looked back. "I love you." Tears ran unchecked down her face as she walked away.

* * * * *

The next few weeks were difficult. Vincent never went to Catherine's balcony, and on the few occasions when she came Below, there was a formality, a constraint which had never been there before. They didn't touch and were never truly alone together.

Sometimes Catherine would look across the space between them and ache for Vincent to hold her, or just to look at her tenderly. It was becoming increasingly difficult to accept the limits he set.

She spent a lot of her time alone brooding unhappily and she knew her work was suffering. There were no glaring mistakes but her edge was gone. Several times she caught Joe eyeing her speculatively, though he never said anything beyond a gentle offer of help if she needed anything.

Vincent endured long, solitary hours in his chamber. There were times when it required all his self-control not to go to Catherine, take her in his arms, and tell her how much he loved her, but his fears held him back. He no longer trusted himself.

Because he knew Father was worried about him, he struggled to present a facade of normalcy, though he wondered at times if his life would ever be the same again. His pain was compounded by the sorrow he felt from Catherine and sometimes her sadness threatened to overwhelm him.

He only saw her when she came Below now, and those infrequent visits were so strained that the intimate details of their lives were no longer shared. He longed to know what was happening to produce the brief flashes of anger, serenity or delight he felt.

Mostly he felt her despair and depression, but after several weeks, these feelings began to change. For a period of days, Vincent could sense Catherine's feelings of apprehension and anticipation so strongly, they might have been his own. Something of consequence was about to take place. Once, he would have known the source of those feelings because Catherine had always shared everything with him. Although he ached to know what was happening, she did not come to him now and he still could not bring himself to go to her.

Finally, one morning, he was staggered by an explosion of emotion that was so intense... shock, joy, and fear followed each other in rapid succession. Sometimes one would take precedence, then another. They would subside for a time, then surge up again.

Whatever the cause, these conflicting emotions remained high... powerful enough to keep Vincent from concentrating on anything. By evening, he found himself at the entrance to Catherine's basement. Impatiently he waited, certain she would come to share whatever had affected her so deeply. Hours passed and still she did not appear. He felt the sadness and fear more strongly now, crowding out the other emotions. At last he could bear it no longer.

* * * * *

Slipping silently over the balcony wall, he hesitated. Memories were strong here and for a moment he wavered. But Catherine needed him, so he stepped to the french doors and peered in.

Sitting huddled on the bed, she was hugging her knees and resting her forehead against them in a posture of utter despair. When he tapped on the window she froze, as if gathering courage, before slowly swinging her feet over the side of the bed and coming toward him.

Feeling acutely her sense of dread, he began to be frightened. He backed away from the door to give her room to open it, and as she came outside, he looked at her, truly looked at her, for the first time in weeks. He drew in a sharp breath, aghast at what he saw. Catherine was alarmingly pale and her face had a drawn, pinched look. Her eyes were hollow and darkly circled from lack of sleep.

Crossing to the wall, she stood silently, looking out at the city.

Vincent scrutinized her profile fearfully. "Catherine? What's wrong?"

There was a moment's silence as she leaned her hands on the low wall and studied the skyline. "I went to Peter's office today."

From the way she said it, he knew immediately that she had seen Peter as a patient and not as a friend.

"Are you ill?" The words threatened to choke him as he forced them out.

She smiled a sad half-smile as she continued to gaze out into the night. "No. I'm... Peter says if I don't start eating and sleeping again I will be ill... but I'm all right." She paused for a deep breath before going on. "I'm going to have a baby..." She turned and looked at him almost pleadingly. "Our baby."

"No!" Vincent was paralyzed with shock and fear as a series of terrifying images flashed before him... Lena's screams of pain when her baby was born... Devin's mother dying in childbirth. Worst was the fear that the child would be like him. Even though he knew it wasn't true, the horror of the story Paracelsus had told him about his tearing his way out of his mother's body still haunted him.

"No!" he said again. "Catherine, you mustn't! The risk is too great!" His protest was instinctive and involuntary, a rebellion against a terrifying reality.

She turned away from him again and he could sense how tired she was. The stress and anxiety of the past weeks had left her with little strength.

"I want this child, Vincent," she told him wearily. "It's the fulfillment of our dream. I know your fears... but they are not my fears... and I don't have the energy to deal with them now. I need you to be here for me... if you can't..."

All her earlier joy and fear had drained away and he could feel only her pain. Backing away slowly, he remembered the times he had asked her to leave when he was suffering. A part of him wanted to be happy, wanted to rejoice in the new life they had created. But his fears for Catherine's safety overwhelmed him, and his belief in the shamefulness of the union between them made the fruit of that union also seem wrong.

"Catherine, this distance between us... I feel it growing...it's tearing us apart. It is as though we are on opposite sides of a vast chasm, and what you most need, I cannot give you. All I can leave with you is my love."

She bowed her head at his words and, lowering himself over her balcony wall, he began his long descent, acutely aware of her isolation. She was so alone, and much as he wanted to, he could not be there for her. His own feelings of guilt and dread prevented him from saying the things he knew she needed to hear.

Vincent struggled for several days, trying to reconcile his fears. At last, he reached a place within himself where he could be with Catherine, talk to her, even enjoy her company, but he still maintained a careful distance between them and couldn't bring himself to speak of the child.

Hurt by his withdrawal, Catherine nevertheless tried to preserve the delicate balance of their relationship, accepting what he could give her without asking for more. Her heart cried out for him but they were still so far apart she wondered if the gap would ever be bridged.

* * * * *

Nearly three months had passed since the night that Vincent wanted so much to forget. Catherine was Below for a rare visit and as she stood talking quietly to Mary in the passage outside Vincent's chamber, Father and Vincent approached.

"William's making corned beef and cabbage for supper tonight," Father commented cheerfully, sniffing the air. "You can always tell by the smell..."

Catherine had been fighting the nausea caused by the cooking odors for several minutes and at Father's words she clapped a hand over her mouth and disappeared into Vincent's chamber. Mary went after her, but when Vincent, concerned, tried to follow, Father restrained him.

"She won't want you to see her," he explained gently.

Vincent looked in to see Catherine hunched over a basin, retching miserably, before allowing Father to draw him back out into the passage.

Mary supported Catherine's shoulders until the spasms were over, then brought a wet cloth to wipe Catherine's face.

"Are you sick often?" she asked.

"All the time," Catherine confessed.

Mary looked worried. "You've been under a great strain lately," she said, with a reproachful glance at Vincent, who now stood in the doorway. "Stress can aggravate morning sickness," she added.

"I know. Peter told me."

Vincent listened to this exchange in alarm. He had known, of course, that Catherine was trying to manage the same sorrows he wrestled with, but she hadn't told him of this persistent sickness. Suddenly, he saw clearly that not only was his refusal to accept the child's existence causing Catherine great emotional distress, but was actually making her physically ill, as well.

He was very quiet as he walked her back to the basement of her building, trying to create order out of the chaos of his thoughts. When Catherine turned at the opening for the slightly formal exchange which had become their farewell, he lifted a hand to stop her.

"Catherine," he began, unsure of what he was going to say. "Catherine, forgive me..." All at once everything fell into place for him and nothing mattered except their love. He held out his arms and, after the briefest hesitation, she came to him.

They clung to each other, crying with joy that they were together again and with regret for the time they had lost.

At last Vincent pulled back far enough to look at her tenderly. "I can feel it," he said in a voice tinged with wonder.

Catherine looked at him in confusion. "Feel what?"

"The child. I can feel its presence... very vague and unformed, but it's really there."

She smiled at him through her tears. "Yes, it's really there."

A powerful wave of love for Catherine and the child swept through him as he pulled her close again. He held her tightly, as if to make up for the long weeks of estrangement. "Your courage, Catherine," he whispered into her hair. "Your courage held us together and made this healing possible."

"I love you, Vincent." Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. "I never stopped loving you."

"I love you," he echoed softly. "I never stopped..."

* * * * *

 

Nearing Father's chamber, Vincent walked more quickly, knowing Catherine was there waiting for him. He stopped short, however, when he saw Father pressing his stethoscope against her abdomen and listening intently.

His anxiety was quickly dispelled when Catherine looked up and smiled radiantly.

"Peter heard the baby's heart today," she explained. "Father couldn't resist," she added fondly.

Father smiled sheepishly as he got to his feet. "A fine, strong heartbeat," he pronounced. "Would you like to hear it?"

He offered the stethoscope to Vincent.

Vincent came slowly and knelt by Catherine's chair. Father helped him adjust the earpiece and placed the bell on the spot where it had rested before.

Vincent frowned. "There are so many sounds..."

Father chuckled. "Can you hear a regular, rhythmic whooshing sound?"

Vincent nodded.

"That's Catherine's heart," Father explained. "Now listen for the same kind of sound, but much faster and lighter."

Vincent listened again. "I hear it," he said softly. "The beating of an unborn heart." Listening raptly for a little longer, he raised his eyes to see Catherine smiling at him tenderly.

Well into her fourth month of pregnancy, Catherine's morning sickness had all but disappeared and she fairly glowed with happiness and health. Vincent could not remember her ever looking so beautiful.

In the months to come, he would still have occasional struggles with his fears for Catherine's safety, but gradually these fears were being replaced by a sense of joy and protectiveness he had never known before. Often he would find himself daydreaming about the future of their unborn child.

Fascinated by the child's development, he sat for long periods with his hand on Catherine's growing abdomen, waiting for the baby to move. He read everything in Father's extensive library about pregnancy and childbirth and asked Mary endless questions.

Sometimes what he read provided him with a sense of security about Catherine's well-being, while some things only heightened his fears. It never ceased to amaze him that Catherine could be so serene in the midst of all the changes that were taking place in her body and her life.

* * * * *

 

Winterfest came when Catherine was eight months pregnant and the Great Hall was alive with gaiety and excitement. With the opening ritual over, couples were dancing, while others were eating, drinking and enjoying the festivities.

Vincent worked his way slowly across the crowded room. Returning to where he had left Catherine safely ensconced in Father's care, his sensitive ears picked up fragments of conversation from those around him. Normally, Vincent would not have dreamed of eavesdropping, but these conversations were centered on him and Catherine and the coming child. Half expecting to hear someone censure the relationship and its result, he found himself pleasantly surprised. He did not know what he would or could do if someone denounced Catherine's part in it, but he knew no one could say anything about him that he had not already said about himself. He truly did not realize how much he was admired, respected and loved by those who lived Below and those who helped them.

Everyone was talking about the coming baby, but no one seemed to question whether or not it was appropriate. The only concern, expressed discreetly by some of the adults, was what the child might look like. Vincent shared those concerns and understood them.

Delighted at the thought of Vincent's baby, the children made Catherine the center of attention. Vincent stopped just outside the group of youngsters gathered around, waiting their turns to feel the baby kick.

"Catherine!" One young voice rang out above the others.

"Yes, Miranda." Catherine smiled at the chubby eight year old. Miranda's freckles were too numerous to count and her bright red pigtails stuck out at different angles. She smiled confidingly as she leaned close, gazing at Catherine with wide green eyes.

Vincent winced a little because Miranda had an insatiable curiosity and a propensity for asking potentially embarrassing questions in the most public places.

True to form, Miranda's voice carried clearly as she asked, "Will your baby look like Vincent?"

Vincent froze, waiting for Catherine's answer, and more important, her feelings as she delivered the reply.

Her voice was even and Vincent could sense only serenity as she said, "We don't know. We won't find out until it's born, just as we won't know if it's a girl or a boy until then." Catherine put an arm around Miranda. "But it doesn't matter. Whatever the baby looks like, we'll love it." Her gaze shifted and she caught sight of Vincent watching her intently from the edge of the group. She smiled at him tenderly, lovingly, as Miranda pulled at her arm with another question.

"But don't you want the baby to look like you, instead?"

A number of the adults had overheard the questions and a hush seemed to fall over the room as everyone waited for Catherine to respond.

Although she spoke slowly, choosing her words with care, Vincent knew she was speaking from her heart. "It would be nice if the baby looked more like me, because then it can choose whether to live Above or Below. But there's nothing wrong with a baby that looks like Vincent... I think Vincent's beautiful." She smiled at Vincent again. "What I'm really wishing is that the baby is like Vincent in other ways... I want it to be strong, kind, gentle and wise."

Because Vincent and Catherine had never discussed the child's appearance, he knew she had spoken more for his benefit than Miranda's. Moving through the throng of children, he stopped beside Catherine's chair and reached for her hand.

She let him help her to her feet. Leaning close to him, she asked, "Dance with me?"

Vincent hesitated.

"Dance slowly with me?" she amended, seeing his doubt.

Smiling, he led her to a secluded part of the room, where she stepped into his waiting arms. Catherine's condition precluded a waltz as well as effectively preventing them from dancing too closely together. But love finds ways, and they moved gently to the strains of a dulcimer, oblivious to all else but each other.

* * * * *

Two weeks later, Catherine entered Peter Alcott's office and lowered herself carefully into one of the chairs facing his desk. After her routine examination was over, Peter always took a few minutes to talk to her before she went on her way.

"Well," he told her cheerfully, looking up from her chart, "You're as healthy as a horse. And so is the little one."

Catherine laughed. "Would you write that down so I can show it to Vincent?"

"Is he still fretting over you?"

"Yes." A look of compassion crossed her face. "I shouldn't tease about it. Underneath, he's still very frightened."

Peter sighed. "Jacob asked me to talk to him. I'll have to find the time before I leave."

Catherine was surprised. "Are you going somewhere?"

"Yes, didn't I tell you? I'm going to Susan's for Christmas. I'll be gone a week. Don't you dare have that baby before I get back!"

Catherine laughed and glanced at her watch. "I have to run. I'm due back in court in twenty-five minutes."

Peter frowned. "I thought you were taking a leave of absence."

"I am." Pushing herself awkwardly to her feet, she reached for her coat. "The city will let me have six months maternity leave. It starts Monday."

"Well, don't work too hard in the meantime. I want you to let Jacob take a look at you next week, and I'll be back for your checkup the week after."

She grinned at him. "You'll have to make a house call. I'm moving Below this weekend."

"That's right, I'd forgotten. Make sure Jacob sends for me if anything happens. I'd like to be there when the baby's born." Peter came around to open the door for her.

"I'll tell him," Catherine promised. "Give my love to Susan!" she called over her shoulder as she exited.

* * * * *

Vincent stared pensively at the far wall of Father's chamber, ignoring the medical book which lay open on his lap.

"Vincent? Is something wrong?" Father came into the room and stopped by Vincent's chair.

Vincent came back to himself with a start. "What? Oh, no, Father. I was just thinking..."

Father noticed the book in Vincent's lap. "About the baby." He crossed to his desk and sat.

"Yes," Vincent confirmed, looking down.

"Isn't Catherine coming down in a day or two?" Father tried to divert Vincent's thoughts.

"On Saturday." Vincent fingered a page of the book.

"You don't seem happy about it..." Father ventured.

Vincent closed the heavy volume with a snap. "She should be Above, in a hospital, where there are better facilities to care for her."

Father was puzzled. "But it's been settled for months... Catherine wants Mary to deliver the baby..."

Vincent rose to his feet and began to pace in agitation. "I know what Catherine wants. But I'm frightened, Father. And the more I read of all the things that could go wrong, the more frightened I become."

Father sighed and rubbed his forehead. "`A little learning is a dangerous thing,' Vincent," he began. "Women have been having babies for centuries and the complications you've been reading about take place in only a very small percentage of all births."

"I know. But still, it frightens me. She would be safer Above."

Father spoke gently. "We must face reality, Vincent. The child may be like you. Think what would happen to Catherine if she were to give birth to such a child in the world Above."

"But if anything should happen to her, Father... because of me, because of our child..." Vincent's anguish was plain to see.

Father tried to reassure him. "You must stop worrying. Catherine is strong and healthy. There is no reason why anything should happen. Mary and I will both be there..."

Vincent bowed his head in defeat. "I know..."

* * * * *

By the end of the week, Catherine had cleared her desk and turned over the few cases she still had pending to one of the other attorneys in the office. She had closed up her apartment and made arrangements for her mail to be picked up and her bills paid. Six months was a long time to be away from home, but they would be spent Below, with Vincent... and soon, with their baby.

To avert suspicion, she had to be seen leaving her building, suitcase in hand. A waiting cab took her a short distance and let her out near the entrance she and Vincent had agreed upon.

It was the Saturday before Christmas and the sidewalks were crowded with last-minute shoppers. Catherine, moving slowly because of her bulk and the suitcase she carried, was buffeted by careless pedestrians hurrying by. Her destination was a nearby subway station and she held firmly to the handrail as she descended the stairs leading to the trains. Assailed by the dank odor omnipresent in subways, she made her way unobtrusively to a door at the rear of the platform. After a casual glance around to be sure she was not observed, she opened the door and slipped through, pulling it shut behind her.

She was in a small maintenance room. Cleaning supplies and boxed fluorescent light tubes lined the shelves along one wall. A couple of push brooms and a string mop were propped in a corner, while an industrial type mop pail with wringer stood nearby. Catherine bypassed all of this, going to the back wall and moving a few empty cardboard cartons aside. She was raising her fist to pound on the wall when a section of it began to swing silently away from her.

Vincent waited on the other side and she stepped past him into the tunnel beyond. He quickly pulled her suitcase into the passage, restacked the empty cartons in front of the opening, and pushed the hinged section of wall closed. Only then did he turn to Catherine and she smiled and held out her hands. He reached for them, then changed his mind and swept her into a tender embrace.

"Are you well?" he asked after a moment.

"I'm fine, Vincent." A slight testiness in her voice indicated that perhaps she'd been asked that question once too often lately.

He ignored it and picked up her suitcase. His other arm went around her shoulders as they began the long walk to the heart of his world. Taking her to his own chamber, he set the suitcase on the bed.

Catherine looked at him in confusion. "Your chamber? I don't understand."

"Mary told me how much it means to you to have the baby here, in my chamber," he said gravely. "I can sleep somewhere else while you are here."

"Vincent, you don't have to give up your room..." she began, but stopped when she saw the pleading in his eyes.

"Let me do this for you, Catherine. Please."

After a moment, she smiled and nodded her agreement. Going to the bed, she opened her case.

"When I was going through some of my father's things last year, I came across a box my mother had saved. Look." She held up a tiny yellow nightgown. "This was mine when I was a baby."

Vincent reached out to touch a sleeve that wasn't much longer than his finger. "It's so small."

"Babies aren't very big, Vincent." She laughed softly

and leaned her head against his shoulder for an instant before reaching into the suitcase again. She pulled out three or four more newborn sized gowns and set them aside, then lifted a threadbare blue and white checked blanket. "Look at this. I dragged it around with me until I was five or six. My mother used to have to practically pry it out of my hands to wash it."

She fingered the worn fabric lovingly and Vincent smiled at her obvious delight in the memory.

"Ow!" Catherine straightened suddenly and clutched her side.

"Catherine, what is it?" Vincent was immediately alarmed.

"I've just been kicked!" she said indignantly. "Right in the ribs." She rubbed at the spot gingerly.

"Shall I get Father?" Vincent asked anxiously.

Catherine was quick to reassure him. "No, Vincent, I'm okay. It's just a painful place to be kicked."

"You're sure?" Vincent asked, not entirely convinced.

"Yes, I'm sure." The testiness had crept back into her voice. "Where shall I put these things?" she asked more gently.

Vincent helped her put away the things for the baby and showed her the clothes Mary had provided for Catherine to wear while she was Below.

"Thank you, Vincent," Catherine said when everything was safely stowed away. "Now I think I'll try to take a nap."

"You're tired." He was concerned all over again.

Catherine smiled. "I'm sleeping my life away lately... but Peter says it's perfectly normal." She put her arms around him. "Don't worry," she whispered.

Vincent returned the embrace gently. "Rest now. I'll be nearby."

* * * * *

Catherine slept soundly for nearly three hours and woke refreshed. She was looking through her tunnel clothes and debating whether or not she should change when Father came in.

"Catherine, you're awake!"

"Hello, Father." She greeted him with a smile.

"How are you feeling?" he asked sympathetically.

Her smiled quickly faded to a frown. "Why does everyone ask me that?" she said, her voice edged with frustration.

He put an affectionate arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "Because we care," he reminded her. "And now that you're here, we can keep an eye on you."

"Speaking of keeping an eye on me, where's Vincent?" She smiled self-consciously.

"I sent him on an errand." Father shook his head. "I'm beginning to think that if he asks me one more question..."

"You'll scream," Catherine finished for him. "I know. He asks me at least five times an hour if I'm all right."

They smiled at each other with understanding and sympathy for Vincent's fears before Father cleared his throat. "Vincent was telling me about the clothes you brought down for the baby," he began. "And I remembered this." He produced a tiny sweater and offered it to her.

Catherine took it gently, a question in her eyes.

"Grace made it when she was carrying Devin," he explained. "Both of my sons wore it when they were infants." He smiled sadly. "I kept it out of sentiment, I suppose."

Catherine was touched. "I can't believe Vincent was ever small enough to wear this."

"Not only did he wear it, it was once too large for him," Father chuckled. "And even as sick as he was, Vincent was a big baby."

Catherine's face clouded. "Father, I've been wanting to ask you... I know Vincent was very ill as an infant... he nearly died..." She hesitated. "Was it because of the way he is?"

Father was instantly comforting. "No, Catherine. Vincent was half starved and suffering from exposure. It was bitter cold and there's no telling how long he was outside before Anna found him. Don't worry. Even if your baby is like Vincent, there's no reason to think it will be anything but strong and healthy."

"Thank you, Father." Catherine accepted what he told her and let her mind be set at ease.

"Now," Father told her, "I believe it's time for supper."

Offering her his arm, he asked, "May I escort you to the dining chamber?"

* * * * *

Catherine had been Below for more than a week and Vincent was beginning to get on her nerves. She tried to be patient with him, knowing how fearful he was, but he seemed to be constantly underfoot and she bumped into him every time she turned around. She wasn't sure when he slept, because every time she woke up he was there, watching over her. While it was nice to be so loved and cared for, Catherine was starting to feel smothered.

"Please, Vincent," she begged one evening. "Go play chess with Father. Go for a walk in the park. Go up and look at the city lights. Go do something, anything, somewhere else!"

Almost immediately contrite, she called to him, but he had already left the chamber. She was afraid she had hurt him and wished desperately that she hadn't said anything. These last days of pregnancy were making her irritable, but that was no excuse for lashing out at Vincent.

He still hadn't returned when she went to bed and she lay awake for some time, waiting for him. When she opened her eyes, Vincent was dozing in a chair at her bedside.

"Vincent!" She whispered to him and reached to touch his hand.

He was instantly alert. "Catherine?"

"I'm all right," she assured him automatically. "Vincent, I'm sorry for what I said. I'm so grouchy these days..."

"No, Catherine. The fault is mine," he interrupted gently. "I have given you no time to be by yourself, with your own thoughts."

She shook her head in denial. "I'm worried about you."

"About me?" He was surprised. "Why?"

"You aren't sleeping... you're always here. Vincent, that's lovely, but you need your rest."

He smiled gently. "I'll sleep later. I want to watch over you... if you don't mind?"

"No... I don't mind." An idea struck her and she offered it tentatively. "Vincent... if you want to be here with me, I think this bed is big enough for all three of us." She looked at him hopefully.

He studied her thoughtfully for a minute, before moving slowly toward the bed. Sliding over, she made room for him as he gingerly laid down on top of the blankets.

At first he held himself carefully away from her, but she nestled trustingly against him and fell asleep almost at once. Soon Vincent began to relax and enjoy lying with Catherine in his arms. The child within her stirred and kicked vigorously but Catherine slept on, undisturbed.

Vincent wondered how she did it. He was sure he couldn't sleep with those little feet (at least, he thought they were feet) thumping his side rhythmically where Catherine pressed against him. But in the end he did sleep, and in the morning he woke a little cramped, but wonderfully refreshed.

From that night on, they shared the same bed. Vincent woke every time Catherine did and couldn't help asking her each time if she were all right, but she resisted the impulse to snap at him. Patiently, she explained whatever had awakened her and let him walk with her on her frequent nocturnal trips to the bathroom. Most of all, she reveled in the feeling of having him close by.

One night she awoke suddenly, for no reason she could pinpoint. Reassuring Vincent, she tried to lie quietly, but couldn't go back to sleep. She was unable to find a position that seemed comfortable and didn't want to disturb Vincent's rest. Finally, she got up and pulled on a robe.

"I can't sleep," she told Vincent in a whisper. "Don't let me keep you up. I'm just going to walk for a while."

"I'll come with you." Over her protest, he rose and followed her out into the passage.

Catherine didn't know why she felt so restless, but Vincent followed her patiently as she wandered through the passages near his chamber. She tried once to lie down and go back to sleep, but she still couldn't get comfortable and went back to walking. Several times Vincent offered to get Mary or Father, but Catherine refused.

"There's nothing wrong, Vincent. Let them sleep."

She had been having mild contractions off and on for several weeks, so she didn't pay attention when they started again. But as they gradually grew stronger, she began to suspect that this might be the beginning of her labor.

She tried to hide it from Vincent as long as she could to spare him anxiety, but finally, as another contraction gripped her, Catherine put one hand against the wall for support and the other on her belly. Vincent's arms went around her at once, holding her steady. When it was over, he lowered her carefully to the tunnel floor.

"Stay here," he instructed firmly. "I'll get Mary."

Catherine tried to call him back, but he was already on his way to Mary's chamber. When he returned a few moments later with a sleepy Mary in tow, Catherine was gone. Exasperated by her fierce independence and distressed over the ordeal to come, he followed his sense of her and caught up with her just outside his chamber.

"You should have waited," he chided.

"Vincent, I'm all right!" Catherine turned to Mary. "I told him not to wake you yet. I'm sorry."

Mary smiled. "If it will set Vincent's mind at rest, I don't object to being awakened in the middle of the night. Are the contractions regular?"

"I think so. They seem to be getting stronger."

"How far apart are they now, and how long have you been having them?"

Catherine looked blank and Vincent answered for her. "The last few have been about seven or eight minutes apart. She woke almost four hours ago and hasn't been able to go back to sleep. I have been feeling the contractions for the last two hours."

Catherine looked at him and laughed shakily. "And I thought I was doing such a good job of hiding them from you."

Vincent smiled at her tenderly and Mary laughed.

"Catherine, I'd like to examine you to see what's happening," she said. "Vincent, you'd better wait outside."

Vincent left the chamber reluctantly and paced impatiently until Mary called him back.

"Her labor's started," Mary told him. "There's still a long way to go. I'm going back to bed, but call me if there's any change or if you have any questions. And Vincent," she paused to lay a hand on his arm. "Try not to worry. Everything is perfectly normal so far."

"Can I keep walking?" Catherine wanted to know.

"Catherine..." Vincent started to protest but Mary squeezed his arm.

"If she wants to walk, let her, Vincent. It won't hurt her and it may speed things along."

Vincent acquiesced reluctantly and he and Catherine resumed their slow progression through the nearby passages. When a contraction began, Catherine would stop for a moment while Vincent supported her. As the contractions grew more intense, Catherine began to turn and lean against him for each one, letting him hold her and whisper words of encouragement.

They walked for hours until the community began to wake up. Growing tired of explaining why they were pacing the tunnels, Catherine finally allowed Vincent to take her back to his chamber.

Soon Father and Mary came. In an attempt to distract him, Father dragged Vincent unwillingly off to breakfast.

"Catherine will need you to be strong later," he told his son. "Mary wants to examine her now and will stay with her until you return."

News of the impending birth spread quickly and Vincent was the recipient of many smiles and encouraging pats and hugs from others who were taking their morning meal. At Father's insistence, he allowed William to fill a plate for him, but he was acutely aware of each of Catherine's contractions as they occurred, and he was unable to swallow more than a few mouthfuls. Finally Father admitted defeat and dismissed him and Vincent flew back to Catherine's side.

Mary had persuaded Catherine to lie down and Vincent went at once to sit beside her, taking her hand in his.

"She's doing fine, Vincent," Mary told him. "Everything is happening just as it's supposed to."

Vincent was a little comforted by that, but as Catherine's labor progressed, each contraction seemed to take her farther and farther away from him.

"It hurts," she whispered, as a particularly strong contraction subsided.

"I know." Vincent could feel her reaction to the pain and he was frustrated by his helplessness. If he could, he would gladly take her suffering away, but as it was, all he could do was to soothe her with his voice and his touch.

Perhaps Catherine sensed this, because her eyes opened. "I love you."

He kissed her damp forehead. "I know."

By midafternoon the contractions were coming in such rapid succession and were of such intensity that at times, he wasn't sure Catherine even knew he was there. Between contractions she would sometimes smile at him distractedly as he wiped her face or smoothed back her hair.

"It won't be much longer," Mary announced from her position at the foot of the bed. "Catherine, how are you doing?"

Another contraction kept Catherine from answering. Vincent talked her through it as he knelt by the bed, his face close to hers.

As the contraction ended, Catherine gripped Vincent's sleeve. "I can't do this anymore," she gasped futilely. "I want to go home. Please, Vincent, take me home."

Vincent looked at Mary in dismay. Catherine's despair was unexpected and overwhelming and he didn't know what to do.

Peter came quickly from the corner where he'd been quietly observing and knelt by the bed. "Come on, Cathy. You can do one more, can't you?" He spoke as he would to a frightened child.

At her reluctant nod, he went on. "Okay. One more and you can go home. Vincent will take you home. You can do it, Cathy."

She seemed satisfied with that and Vincent could feel her confidence coming back as he stared at Peter.

"She can't go home..." he began, appalled.

"She knows that, Vincent," Peter explained, with a warm glance at Catherine. "At this stage of labor, she isn't entirely rational. Just tell her what she wants to hear." With an encouraging pat on Vincent's shoulder, he retreated to his corner just as the next contraction began.

Vincent followed Peter's advice and it seemed to work, giving Catherine the strength she needed to get through each contraction one at a time.

Soon Mary was telling Catherine she could bear down, and the confusion Vincent had been sensing from her slipped away. Pushing was hard work but it seemed to him to be less painful and more fulfilling.

"I can see the top of the baby's head," Mary said after a while. She smiled at the two curious faces looking back at her. "It has lots of dark hair," she added.

"Dark hair?" Catherine laughed tiredly and looked at Vincent. "I wonder where that came from."

A few more pushes and Mary beckoned for Father. "On the next contraction, don't bear down," she instructed Catherine. "Take short, quick breaths."

With Vincent's encouragement, Catherine obeyed, resisting the overwhelming urge to push. Moments later, Mary was telling her to bear down again and the baby slid into the world, screaming his displeasure with his first breath.

"It's a boy!" Father exclaimed over the baby's outraged cries. "A perfect little boy!" He wrapped the infant in a blanket and brought him, still wet and struggling, and laid him in Vincent's arms.

Vincent cradled his son gently, holding him so that Catherine could see his face. She reached to touch him and looked up at Vincent in wonder.

"He's beautiful," she whispered. "Let me hold him."

Carefully, Vincent laid the baby beside her. The infant had stopped crying and was trying to put his clenched fist into his open mouth. Almost reverently, Catherine stroked the child's head, marvelling over the thick dark hair. She thought she could see a vague resemblance to Vincent in the contours of his face, but he looked completely human.

The child had been weighed, measured, washed and diapered and Vincent was holding him again when Catherine began to shiver uncontrollably.

"It's a normal reaction," Mary assured as she covered Catherine with a warm blanket. "You'll be all right in a few minutes."

When the tremors began to subside, Vincent placed the baby beside her again. "Father says he appears to be completely normal," he said thankfully. "He weighs eight pounds, three ounces and is twenty-two inches long." A certain amount of pride had crept into his voice and Catherine smiled at him lovingly.

Father came back and looked at Catherine. "His public is waiting outside," he gestured toward the door. "May I take him out so they can see him?"

Exchanging glances, Vincent and Catherine agreed and Father gathered his grandson in his arms, carrying him out into the passage. A ragged cheer could be heard as Father emerged. The chatter of voices grew louder as those who had waited for the birth gathered around. Father returned in a few minutes and Vincent took the child and cuddled him close.

"Have you chosen a name yet?" Father was frankly curious.

Catherine looked at Vincent. "We never even discussed names," she said with a small laugh. "Vincent..." she waited until his attention was fully focused on her. "You name him."

Vincent looked down at the tiny face, then back at Catherine. "Charles. His name is Charles."

Catherine's smile was more eloquent than any words and Vincent knew how much he had pleased her by selecting her father's name for their son.

After a short time, Mary, Peter and Father excused themselves, leaving the new family alone together for the first time.

 

* * * * *

A few days later, Peter came down to admire the baby's progress. Since Vincent was elsewhere, he visited with Catherine.

"You are planning to register his birth Above..." he began tentatively.

"Of course. He is a child of both worlds. He can choose which one he prefers when he is old enough, but he will grow up in both." Catherine was matter-of-fact.

"Good!" Peter was obviously relieved and produced the application for a birth certificate that he'd brought with him. "I filled out the first part, about you," he explained. He looked at Catherine closely. "You know you're going to have to say `father unknown'"

She nodded tightly. "I know. It wouldn't be safe any other way."

Peter nodded his agreement, and went on. "I filled in his first name - Charles. Does he have a middle name?"

Catherine smiled. "Tunnel children don't have middle names," she pointed out.

"I thought he was going to be a child of both worlds," Peter challenged her.

Catherine considered that and her face brightened as she thought of a way for Charles to carry his father's name. "Vincent," she said clearly. "His name is Charles Vincent Chandler."

* * * * *

As Vincent came to the end of the story, Charles looked at his father with love and respect. "So that's how it happened. I always wondered."

Vincent was carefully thoughtful. "I still don't know if what I am is hereditary," he explained. "Each of you has some of my characteristics, but none of you is completely like me. Perhaps your children, if you are able to have them, will be perfectly normal."

Charles grimaced. "That still leaves the problem of finding a wife."

Vincent smiled slightly as he looked at his son. "You must do as I did, and find someone who is strong enough and brave enough to risk everything for you. If you can do that, Charles, you will find happiness. I promise you."

THE END