A BOY'S WILL


"Mom, can I talk to you for a minute?"

 

As Catherine glanced up from her lesson plan, Geoffrey's worried face alerted her that this would be no casual conversation. She capped her pen and gave him her full attention.

 

"What is it, sweetheart? You look troubled."

 

He shook his head as he took a seat beside her. "No...not really troubled...but.... You know I've been spending a lot of time Above lately. You said you didn't mind, and it's been kind of fun to explore the city on my own."

 

Catherine patted his hand, reassuring him. "No, I don't mind. You have remarkably good 'street sense' for someone raised in the Tunnels, Geoffrey. I know you're careful."

 

He ducked his head, embarrassed but pleased at her expression of confidence in him. "Yeah, well...see, I've kinda...made a friend...Above." He seemed to be struggling to express himself, so Catherine prompted him.

 

"A friend? A girl?"

 

"No!" Geoffrey's shy smile reminded her that, grown as he appeared on the outside, he wasn't quite at the point where he might actually seek out a "friendship" with someone of the opposite sex. Catherine covered her relief with an answering smile and a nod.

 

"So...it's another boy?" He nodded in response. "Someone about your own age?" Another nod encouraged her to continue her guessing game. "And you've been spending a lot of time with this boy?"

 

Her son finally found his voice again. "Yeah. Even though he's only about 15, he's homeless...all alone. He's been sleeping in alleys, sometimes in shelters...but the older guys are pretty rough on him. He's had some...bad experiences. So he keeps mostly to himself."

 

Still the attorney at heart, she gently questioned the seeming contradiction. "If he 'keeps mostly to himself,' how did you befriend him?"

 

Geoffrey grinned, not really minding the way his Mom's mind worked. He knew she wasn't challenging him, just probing. "I bought a popsicle from a vendor in the park one day, one of those kinds you can break in two to share? He was kinda hovering nearby, and something made me go over to him and offer him half. He seemed really surprised and all, but he took it. I sat on a bench and ate mine, and after he finished his half, he came over and sat next to me. We just...talked. About nothing. About everything."

 

Very curious now, she asked, "How long ago was this, Geoffrey?"

 

"A couple of weeks. I saw him again a few days later, and we sat and talked again. I began going up every day after classes. He's always there. We share a popsicle and spend about an hour filling each other in on our lives." At her frown he hastily added, "I'm discreet, don't worry." He sat forward in his chair, his expression one of deep concern. "He's really lonely, Mom. He's got no one. Nobody cares whether he lives or dies."

 

Another "attorney" question: "He has no family?"

 

"He says he doesn't."

 

Catherine had heard stories like this before. Gently, she confided, "Geoffrey...most of the time, well...kids your age, when they're alone in the city like your friend...." She left her sentence dangling, hoping to coax a name from her son.

 

Geoffrey rushed to supply it. "Garth."

 

She nodded. "...like your friend, Garth, it's because they're runaways. They might have left home because of an abuse problem, or because they're troubled, or for any number of reasons."

 

Earnestly, he responded, "I know, but...I don't think that's true of Garth. I believe him when he tells me he's on the streets because he has no choice."

 

Catherine sighed. She wasn't going to discourage her son easily. Resigned to following through on her inquiry, she urged him to divulge the information she needed. "What has he told you about his family, about his life...before?"

 

Geoffrey frowned in concentration, thinking back on their conversations. "Well...he told me he doesn't know who his Dad is. His Mom died in a fire in their apartment house several years ago. He was in foster care for a while, but he always felt unwanted there. The last family had no time for him at all. One day he just walked away." Looking pleadingly at his Mom, he tried to describe the undefinable something he had felt when he spoke with this boy. "He doesn't want to go into foster care anymore, Mom. I can understand that. But...he can't keep living on the street! It's killing him inside. He's becoming...I don't know...kinda hard. He's got a real tough attitude, you know? But inside, I know he's just scared and lonely."

 

Catherine pulled out a clean sheet of paper and started taking notes. "Do you know his last name, Geoffrey? I could get your Aunt Edie to check on his story, to see if he really is who and what he says he is. It's not that I doubt your 'read' on him, but...if we are going to offer him sanctuary, we must be certain we're doing more good than harm to him and his family."

 

Geoffrey's smile lit the room. She always understood, even when he couldn't find the words. Impulsively, he threw his arms around Catherine's shoulders and squeezed as hard as he could. "Thanks, Mom! You won't regret this, I promise!"

 

_ _ _

 

Edie's check had shown that Garth -- Garth Donnelly -- was an orphan who had vanished from a foster home six months before. His mother's record with the police and Social Services was a lengthy one. She'd had a number of narcotics and solicitation arrests over the years, she'd been the subject of several child neglect calls, and had even lost custody of her son once, before a stint in drug rehab convinced the court to release him to her custody. It seemed she had pulled her life together a short while before the fire that destroyed the only family Garth had in the world.

 

Of what Garth had endured since that time, Edie had no clue, other than knowing that custody had passed to Social Services. He was a minor, so his record was "officially" sealed, protected. Even so, Edie had been able to determine that he had passed through several foster homes in the fourteen months he was in foster care. Also, he had no police record. Of course, as Edie readily admitted, this fact proved nothing except that, if he had committed any crimes, he'd been lucky enough or smart enough not to have gotten caught.

 

He presented an intriguing puzzle to Catherine -- but overwhelming all was the fact that he was a lost boy who had reached out to her son, himself a lost boy when he'd been taken into the protective, nurturing environment of the Tunnels. She could understand why Geoffrey championed this young man. He saw what he himself could have become when he looked into Garth's desperate eyes. And Garth was a kid who seemed overdue for a break.

 

Catherine presented the case file on Garth to Vincent. She explained the circumstances of its development and asked for his evaluation. He accepted the file and advised her that when he was ready to discuss the situation, he would come to her.

 

_ _ _

 

"Catherine, I understand what you are saying, but still..."

 

Sensing his ambivalence, she urged him to reconsider. "Vincent, can't we err on the side of faith? I know that, at first blush, he doesn't seem like a good risk. But Geoffrey knows him, and he vouches for him. He seems a kid on the edge. What happens to him now could be the defining factor in his life. If we do nothing, he will soon disappear into the bowels of this city and he may be lost not just to us, but to himself."

 

Vincent sighed heavily. "Why did he go through so many foster families, Catherine? Can we determine that?"

 

She shook her head, regret shining in her eyes. "I'm amazed Edie got that much information on him. Those child welfare records are usually sealed tighter than a drum. I don't want to think about how much I owe her for coming through on this for me. No, I'm afraid we have nothing to go on now but gut instinct -- Geoffrey's, yours, mine. I've already explained to our son that if we three cannot agree on this, we won't approach the Council about Garth. As I've told you, I'm willing to take a leap of faith, to try to save this one life which has come to mean so much to him. But I know how difficult the decision is. We both have agreed to let you make that decision for the family, since you are the only one still dispassionate enough about Garth to see clearly."

 

Her husband gave her a wry grin. "Dispassionate. I never expected to hear that description of me come from your lips, Catherine," he gently chided her.

 

She shook her head in mock frustration and then returned his smile. "Only in this...one...singular instance do I require such a...lack of passion from you, my love." She bent to kiss him on the tip of his nose, but he moved so that his lips were what she connected with. Not displeased at all by the turn of events, Catherine made the most of his mouth, and soon their hunger put an end to the discussion.

 

Several hours later, as they lay together in spent contentment, Vincent let his fingers trail lightly up and down Catherine's bare arm. He accepted her shiver of response as evidence that he still had whatever it was that Catherine wanted. "I...apologize...for my lack of...dispassion, my heart."

 

He "oofed" as her elbow connected with his ribs. To spare himself further injury, he quickly changed the subject. "As I was trying to say before I was so delightfully distracted..." He nuzzled her ear and planted a kiss upon her cheek. "...I know how important Geoffrey feels sanctuary is in Garth's case, and I acknowledge your point that sometimes we must take a leap of faith. I cannot say that I have no trepidation about this boy...but I am persuaded that we should present his case to the Council."

 

Catherine raised up on one elbow and favored him with a radiant smile. "Thank you, Vincent. I should go tell Geoffrey right now."

 

"I believe..." said Vincent as he pulled her back down into an embrace, "...that our son has a class at the moment. He will, however, be free in another...half hour or so. If you would not mind waiting until then." He began to lick and nibble tantalizingly upon her right shoulder, and as he moved lower and to the left, Catherine's response was swallowed up in her groan of ecstasy. But Vincent was sure she was not averse to the wait.

 

_ _ _

 

The Council had struggled with the issue of offering sanctuary to Garth, but in the end Geoffrey's zealous defense of his friend swayed the vote to his favor. It was decided that, since Geoffrey knew him best, he would be the one to approach the homeless boy...alone, so as not to frighten him. If he seemed interested, Geoffrey would offer to introduce him to Catherine, who would then, with her son, provide an orientation designed to ease his passage into their world Below.

 

_ _ _

 

When Geoffrey told him of a haven where he would be fed and kept warm, where he would be cared for and about, Garth at first didn't believe him. Geoffrey described his home, his family, the unique societal structure that existed which ensured that all within it were sustained and nurtured. Gradually, Garth began to trust his friend, wanting to believe in this place which seemed like a paradise compared to all he'd known before. When Geoffrey finally asked him to come to a coffee shop and meet his mother, Garth, although wary, agreed. It was, after all, a public place, and he could run if he thought this was some sort of trap to get him back into Social Services' clutches.

 

As they approached the table, Garth had his first glimpse of the woman Geoffrey introduced as his Mom. His breath caught in his throat. She was...beautiful!

 

He thought back to his own Mom. The mixed feelings churned in his stomach -- love,

fear, the sense of abandonment, disgust.... So many disparate emotions spilled over whenever he thought of her. When she was off the stuff, she could be caring, gentle, thoughtful. But when she was needy, when her drug habit was really bad, and she brought home those...men, those...animals.... He could still hear the noises they made as he lay on his filthy mattress, pillow held over his ears to drown out the worst of the sounds. Her cries, the groans, the fleshy noises as those brutes mistreated her, or took her in what amounted to sanctioned rape.... How he'd hated her then, for what those men had made her do, had made him listen to. But this woman before him now, she wasn't like that. Her arms were smooth -- no tracks marred them. Her eyes -- so lovely, warm and sympathetic -- were devoid of any evidence of the kind of hard life his own Mom had led.

 

He was instantly mesmerized by those friendly green eyes -- eyes that seemed to look into his soul and tell him that everything would be OK, eyes he believed he could trust, eyes he knew he could...love. He sat quietly and allowed her words to wash over him. It didn't matter what she said. He'd do whatever she wanted, whatever allowed him to be near her.

 

He couldn't imagine this woman was Geoffrey's mother -- she was no one's mother, certainly nothing like his own. She was...an angel. In the space of a few heartbeats, Garth had become enraptured by this heavenly being who reached out to touch his hand -- she was so kind, she smelled so sweet, she didn't seem to mind at all how dirty he was, how disheveled. She could read what was in his heart, he just knew it. Maybe...just maybe, this might work out.

 

Catherine studied the young man before her as the introductions were made. Garth seemed, in many respects, just a slightly older version of her own son -- tall and slender but possessing a wiry strength, he had a mass of unkempt brown curls and a wash of freckles across his nose. He also had piercing, guarded brown eyes. Those eyes affected her deeply. They had seen a lot; they were not young eyes.

 

Catherine carefully explained about the place they would be going, the people he would meet, the questions he would be asked. She prepared him gently for the astounding reality he was about to face -- a secret world of sanctuary which could become his. She asked him then if he understood -- about the opportunity being offered, about the secrecy demanded in exchange -- and saw him nod mutely. She knew he was frightened and in awe, but sensed he was also excited and anxious to take the next step.

 

After paying the waitress, the three left the coffee shop, the two boys flanking Catherine. Garth didn't trust himself to speak, but his eyes constantly strayed from the sidewalk to concentrate surreptitiously upon the slim woman beside him, taking in her softly flowing hair, her full lips, the ripeness of her body. The thought of a safe place with warm beds and hot meals was uppermost in his mind, but not far from that thought was another: he'd do whatever he must to stay within this glorious creature's presence.

 

_ _ _

 

The adjustment had been difficult, but it seemed that finally things were becoming normal and familiar to him -- things like the dimness of the tunnels, the constant background noise of pipes and subways, the frank and friendly people who inhabited this strange world. Garth was getting used to everything -- except one. He thought back to the first time he had encountered Vincent.

 

He had been in the Tunnels for over a week, having passed the scrutiny of Father and selected members of the Council and been granted acceptance into the community Below. Since he was so close to Geoffrey, arrangements were made to house him, temporarily, in the chambers which held Vincent's family -- the chambers which, although somewhat remote from the Hub, were made warm and inviting by the loving affection so evident in the small family unit.

 

He had been placed in the same classes as Geoffrey, and his teachers were quite impressed with the scope of his knowledge. He was a bright boy, and it didn't take much to spark his desire to learn. He didn't tell them that, for a time, school had provided a sanctuary of sorts for him, with teachers who had cared about his progress and encouraged him. Once he went into foster care, however, his schooling had been disrupted and he had lost interest in learning after suffering through a series of detached, apathetic teachers. He had dropped out of school shortly before he had left his last foster family, frustrated and dejected, the last oasis in his life having been lost to him.

 

Garth always watched, with a tinge of jealousy, the easy camaraderie which existed between Geoffrey and his Mom. They touched each other casually all the time, hugged on the spur of the moment, laughed a lot, and generally made it very obvious that they loved each other. He had never had such a relationship with his own Mom. Indeed, she had been like a child herself, always trying to score, bringing men home at all hours, sending him off into the streets or to play by himself when she was "busy." His home life, such as it was, bore no resemblance to the caring environment Geoffrey enjoyed.

 

He knew, from their first conversations, that Geoffrey had been orphaned and brought to this community as a child, and that several years ago Catherine had adopted him. Garth also knew that his friend felt very lucky to be Catherine's son, and Garth could see for himself why this was so. If she were his Mom, he'd feel the same way -- and he understood himself well enough to be sure he would never willingly share her attention and affection with anyone else.

 

Yet Geoffrey was generous in sharing his home life, including his Mom's time and "ear." He and his Mom gave Garth -- a relative stranger -- complete access to their home, inviting him to spend all his free time with them, if he wished, until he made more friends within his new world. He accepted that offer gratefully, and basked in the kind attention of the woman to whom he had become devoted. The three of them made a happy team -- exploring, talking long into the night, becoming closer...like family.

 

He also found himself drawn unexpectedly to the unique and caring atmosphere that pervaded the lives of all the people Below -- by the open, loving way he was treated. Unused to the displays of kindness he received every day, he didn't know quite how to respond. He wasn't ready to trust them completely...not yet, and it amazed him that they had no concerns about him. But he knew what a good thing he had, and he wanted badly to hold onto it, no matter the cost. He figured he could do it. He could be whatever was asked of him, whatever it took. These people were easy to please, considering what he'd had to do to survive these past months. Just smile and act pleasant, and life could be good. Life could be...just about perfect.

 

And then...he had come. Vincent...he had heard everyone speak of this Vincent since he came Below. He could see that Catherine missed him a lot, and he was intensely curious about the man who could have such a powerful hold on a woman like her. He imagined him to be someone incredible. But, on the eighth night of his new life, Garth looked up from his homework to discovery this...thing...looming in the doorway. A second later, Catherine looked up and saw it too. She jumped up and ran to it, throwing her arms around it, for God's sake! He was repelled by the creature -- this huge, misshapen animal with his clawed hands wrapped around the waist of that tiny woman. What was going on?!

 

Geoffrey hastened to greet it, too -- and waited patiently and good-humoredly for his Mom to finish welcoming the third member of their family back from the work detail which had kept him from home since Garth's arrival. In his turn, he reached up to hug the man whom he had described as "my father in the truest sense." Then he turned, one arm still slung over the grotesque man's shoulders, and walked him over to where Garth sat, immobile, staring.

 

"Garth, this is Vincent...my Dad."

 

The man with the animal face contorted his lips into a smile and extended one claw-tipped hand toward him. Garth swallowed hard and tried to hide his distaste as he met the hairy appendage with his own. He forced his own face into a smile and nodded in greeting.

 

Geoffrey laughed and clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Garth. My Dad gets that reaction a lot from people when they first meet him. He's not offended. He understands."

 

"Geoffrey's right, Garth. I know my appearance is...disconcerting. I hope you'll give me a chance to get to know you better. I promise I won't bite." The smile was meant to be reassuring, but Garth was horrified by the prospect of spending any time with this...monster. He couldn't understand how Geoffrey could want to touch him like that. He suppressed a shudder as he disengaged his hand -- the feel of that hairy paw in his own had been awful. He couldn't wait to pull away from that touch.

 

No one seemed to notice Garth's reaction, or perhaps, as they said, they were used to such reactions by now, and thought nothing of it. He knew one thing: if he wanted to stay near Catherine, he'd have to act as if he didn't mind being near this Vincent guy; he'd have to pretend to enjoy his company. If anyone ever suspected how Garth really felt about him, he knew quite well which one of them would be asked to leave. And God knew, he didn't want to leave.

 

After his initial shock, he managed to reconstruct his facade quite well. Dissembling came easily to him. He'd been forced to lie from an early age -- to policemen, probation officers, judges, foster parents. He knew he could mask his true feelings and actually seem to be the happy, well-adjusted kid they expected -- no, demanded. But no one had ever penetrated to the core of him. He wouldn't allow it. Better to appear, to seem to be what others expected. He kept his true feelings and thoughts to himself. He knew how to get what he wanted -- it was a habit ingrained deeply from years of dealing with "the system." But as he listened, his eyes took in his surroundings -- assessing, evaluating, considering the probabilities and possibilities. Old habits died hard.

 

As Vincent sought to make Garth comfortable, asking him about his life Above and how he was settling in Below, Garth answered pleasantly. He noticed the looks that often passed between Catherine and Vincent, though, and he couldn't believe the love that was in her eyes when she looked at him. Soon enough, Vincent turned his attention to other matters, and Garth went back to his homework.

 

_ _ _

 

"C'mon, Garth." Geoffrey nudged his friend's shoulder. "We should leave now."

 

"Hmmm?" Garth looked up from his schoolwork. "But, it's only about 8:00. We don't need to go to bed so early tonight, do we?"

 

The younger boy's face flushed. "Well, no...but...well, Dad's been away for a long time...and he and Mom...I think they'd like to be alone for a while."

 

Although his face betrayed nothing, Geoffrey's implication hit Garth full blast -- she was going to bed with that...monster? She was going to let that hulking beast put his paws on her? No, it couldn't be. The disgust he felt at the thought made his gorge rise. He said his goodnights and left the room, walking to Geoffrey's chamber -- his temporary home -- in a daze. But instead of entering the chamber with Geoffrey, he made straight for the bathroom chamber and retched his disgust into the basin.

 

_ _ _

 

"Garth seems...sullen, Catherine."

 

They were curled up on the loveseat, sharing the Sunday New York Times. Catherine looked up from the crossword puzzle and remarked, "Does he? I don't see it. I know he has a bit of a smart-guy attitude, but he's always very open and friendly with me. Perhaps he's still...intimidated by you." Gently, she offered, "Sometimes...no amount of good intentions can make people...like you."

 

Vincent nodded in acknowledgment of that fact. "Still, I feel he is always somewhat constrained in my presence. But...you're probably right. I will continue as I have always done with him, and hope for the best."

 

Catherine kissed him lightly and smiled. "When did you become such an optimist, my love?" she asked wryly.

 

"The day you agreed to Join with me." A slow smile spread across his face, and he clasped his lover to his chest with a prayer of fervent thanks to the beneficent gods. At that moment, Garth strode into the common chamber they all shared. Wrapped up in each other, neither of them saw the look of revulsion that passed briefly over Garth's features. By the time they noticed his presence, his face was blandly neutral once again.

 

"You...wanted to see me, Vincent?" the boy asked, a hint of challenge in his voice. Try as he might, he couldn't help the attitude that leaked through his polite veneer. This man was getting to him in a way no other authority figure ever had. His resolution seemed to melt when that slanted blue-eyed gaze settled upon him -- questing, probing, seeking to uncover the secrets of his soul. He tried so hard not to react, but he could not relax in the presence of the thing that everyone else treated like a normal man.

 

The tension between the two seemed more obvious now that Catherine's attention had been called to it. Still, she believed that eventually Garth would become comfortable with the imposing man she loved. It was, she thought, inevitable. No one could get to know him and not be charmed by him.

 

"Garth." The object of Catherine's affection turned to face the boy. "Thank you for coming so promptly. You're getting quite good at discerning the messages on the pipes. I marvel at your adaptability and determination to make your new life work. Everyone has told me of your efforts to become useful and helpful."

 

The compliments did not affect the boy. He shrugged his shoulders in acknowledgement and dismissed it. What this creature thought of him and his abilities mattered not at all to him.

 

Vincent continued. "I must return to the worksite with Cullen and the others. Since we finished the clearing and shoring up two weeks ago, we've been designing the second phase of the project and collecting materials. Now, nothing's left but the actual work. I would appreciate it if you would assist Catherine and Geoffrey in anything that might come up while I'm away." He gave the young man a piercing look. "In the short time since you've joined us, you have become a good friend to this family, Garth. I don't believe what I'm asking would be considered a burden, am I right?"

 

With a show of manly pride, the boy responded, "No problem. Geoffrey's like a brother to me, and I think of Catherine as my own...Mom."

 

Whatever trepidation his heart held, he was determined to give this manchild the benefit of the doubt. It meant so much to his Catherine and their son. Vincent pushed the niggling tendrils of uncertainty and apprehension firmly to the back of his mind. He nodded solemnly. "They are my two most precious reasons for living, Garth. I know I leave them in good hands."

 

_ _ _

 

Several days had passed since Vincent had left with the work crew. Garth was ecstatic. It seemed like old times again -- if a time just a few weeks in the past could be considered "old." He was untroubled by the image of that hulking monstrosity absorbing all of Catherine's attention like some obscene vacuum sucking all her love to him. He could pretend again that she was "his." He didn't mind sharing her with Geoffrey; the kid was OK, and he kept to himself a lot. Garth was able to have her to himself much of the time. Yesterday, in fact, after his chores and studying were done, he and Catherine had gone on their own to explore some parts of Below he had not seen yet.

 

She showed him the Chamber of the Winds and the Great Hall where Winterfest was held, explaining as they went along more about the history and unique culture which had grown in the years since Father had taken over as leader of the community. And he was fascinated -- but more by her than by anything she said. He listened raptly, asking questions when conversation lagged, if only to hear her voice again. She was the most incredible woman he'd ever known. She made him feel powerful and important. And she was so kind to him, so open and warm. She was...everything.

 

One thought kept troubling him. Finally, he was compelled to ask the question which mystified him so. "Catherine, can...can I ask you something?"

 

They were clambering over an outcropping of rocks near the Falls, so she was panting slightly as she replied, "Of course. You can ask me anything."

 

Garth stopped to take a swig from the canteen slung over his shoulder. "It's about...Vincent." He tried to keep the contempt out of his voice as he spoke of the hated man. "What's the story there?"

 

Puzzled, she turned from the rock she was about to negotiate and asked, "What do you mean?"

 

Feeling he could be completely truthful about some things, he commented wryly, "Well, he's not exactly a movie star. How'd you guys ever hook up?"

 

Catherine smiled, then found a convenient rock ledge and pulled herself up on it. "You might as well sit down. This is a long story!"

 

_ _ _

 

In his bed that night, Garth went over and over the story in his mind. He guessed he could understand Catherine being grateful to someone who had saved her life. But...marrying him was carrying gratitude too far. He couldn't imagine she really loved something like that. It was too sickening to be believed. Yet she seemed to like him touching her. As bizarre as that was, she actually seemed to enjoy his attentions. Maybe she wasn't as perfect as he'd thought. Maybe something in her was...sick, too.

He closed his eyes and tried to imagine her and Vincent having sex. The guy was huge..and she was so small. Vincent was this enormous, slobbering thing, and he undoubtedly was even more repulsive with his clothes off. Garth shuddered. He actually touches her with those claws, rubs his hairy body against her silky pale skin, makes harsh animal noises when in his lusting, rutting moods - this last Garth knew for certain. He knew because one night, very late, he'd padded softly into the common chamber to pick up a book he'd left there earlier in the evening, and he'd...heard them.

 

He'd stopped dead for a time, repelled yet spellbound to hear them in there, to hear him...and the sounds of their coupling. He had been shocked almost to flight by the knowledge being forced upon him. But he'd stayed. He'd stayed -- stock still -- and listened for over an hour. The murmur of voices, the muted laughter, the soft growls and cries transformed themselves in his mind, until he was listening once again to his Mother as she catered to her leering customers with their foul cravings. And when he finally returned to the chamber he shared with Geoffrey, he'd thrown up as he had the night he'd first met the beast who dared to love his Catherine.

 

Now, this night, as those sounds replayed in his head, he began to imagine what they looked like...together. His hand crept beneath the covers, and as he imagined it, imagined them, recalling the sounds and matching them to the motions of lovemaking, he placed himself in Vincent's stead...and masturbated furiously as he groaned over and over, "Catherine! Catherine! Catherine!"

 

_ _ _

 

Garth spent most of Friday working on a project for his science class. He'd been excused from his other classes so he could consult with Mouse. The strange man had been of some help, Garth had to admit, but he was so...weird. He thought he'd met every weirdo in New York City during his time on the street, but Below seemed to have its own share of oddities. Mouse and Vincent were certainly nothing if not odd.

 

When he ambled into the family's common chamber, Catherine was there. Since it was early afternoon, he was surprised to see her.

 

"Hi, Catherine! What's up?"

 

She was in a happy mood, and almost bursting with her news. "I just heard a message from the work crew. They'll be finishing up much earlier than anticipated. They may even be home as early as tomorrow night! Isn't that wonderful?!"

Garth sighed to himself. For her he put on a grin and said, "Great!" Yeah, just great...his idyll was coming to an end. God knew when that gross freak would get another long assignment like the one he was finishing. Now he'd have to share her again...and watch the two of them together again...and pretend to smile. He couldn't bear the thought...he couldn't....

 

_ _ _

 

Garth looked at the illuminated dial on his watch for the tenth time since he'd gone to bed. Geoffrey was asleep -- the kid was a deep sleeper, thank God. Once his head hit the pillow.... Even Catherine could hardly wake him in the mornings. It was 2:00 a.m. The tunnels were silent. Even the pipes were quiet, except for the terse sentry reports. Here on the outer edges of the Hub, it was rare for foot traffic even during waking hours -- at this time of the morning, nothing and no one stirred.

 

Stealthily, Garth pushed the covers back and rose from his bed. He didn't need a candle -- he knew the way by heart. Quietly he slipped from the chamber, turned into the main tunnel, then glided around the corner into the entry of the family's common room. Using his senses to guide him, aided now by the soft glow from the one candle still burning in the bedchamber beyond, he passed like a ghost into the room used by Catherine and Vincent.

 

After he entered, he turned and felt for the heavy privacy hangings and drew them down over the entrance. He looked around quickly -- he had never been in here before, never having a reason to cross this threshold. Dimly, he saw a painting on the far chamber wall -- and shuddered at the possessive embrace with which that...monster held his Catherine. Turning his face from that image, he approached to within a few feet of the bed.

 

There she lay, sleep-rumpled and completely unsuspecting. The sight of her took his breath away, and his heart began to hammer in his chest. Her skin, creamy and flawless, took on the soft golden glow of the candle. She was so lovely, so enticing...so vulnerable.

 

For a long while he just stared at her, drinking in her beauty. He licked his dry lips as the hunger in him grew, as he imagined her in his arms, giving him everything he so desperately craved. He began to touch himself with one hand, stroking and pulling his already aching flesh until he was fully engorged, throbbing. She turned in her sleep, throwing one arm over her head and extending the other onto the pillow beside her. The curves of her body as she moved beneath the covers were too tantalizing to resist any longer. He padded closer to the bed and slowly -- excruciatingly slowly, so as not to awaken her -- he lifted the covers off of her, peeling them back to the foot of the bed.

 

Catherine frowned in her sleep and began to toss her head. Quickly he leaned to whisper in her ear, "Sleep, Catherine." This seemed to content her, and she quieted. He used that moment to grasp the knife he had brought with him more tightly. He edged to where her legs lay and picked up the hem of her nightgown. Taking a fold between two fingers, he used the knife to start a slit in the front of the gown. The action made almost no noise, but he couldn't trust his luck too far. He tossed the knife aside and tore the thin material the rest of the way, revealing her nakedness to his ravenous eyes. He got only a quick glimpse of ripe rounded breasts, the soft curve of her hips, the dark curls at the juncture of her thighs. His mind reeled -- she offered all of this to that...horror on two legs?

 

She became restless -- he knew she would soon awaken. He quickly blew out the candle and crawled on top of her, pushing her legs apart, positioning himself to penetrate her. Unsure of his welcome, Garth took the precaution of binding Catherine's wrists together with one hand; he pulled them above her head, to free her face and body for his enjoyment of her. In his mind, he believed that, once he began to make love to her, she would participate gratefully -- she hadn't had a real, normal man in years. Then he lowered his mouth to suck hard and heavily against one breast. He had imagined this for so long -- now the taste of her pliant flesh let loose a frenzy in his blood. Taking as much of her into his mouth as he could, he suckled in earnest, dragging his teeth against her tender skin so roughly he drew welts.

 

Coming awake with a start, Catherine was unnerved to find someone covering her, pressing her down. The mouth on her breast was replaced by hard fingers rubbing and squeezing her painfully, and she gagged as a hot tongue was forced into her mouth to slide clumsily across her tongue. She thought, Vincent?, but immediately dismissed the idea. This was not Vincent. THIS IS NOT VINCENT!! With that thought clanging through her brain, she began a fierce struggle against the unknown assailant who was forcing the breath from her lungs, weighing her down with his hard body.

 

Garth, realizing she was going to fight him, clamped down hard on her wrists, the fingers of his hand digging deep into her flesh. Catherine twisted hard against his grip, but succeeded only in wrenching the muscles of her shoulders and upper back; he still held her cruelly, her arms useless. She was impeded and constrained by the position she was in, and they both knew it.

 

While Catherine struggled to find a purchase from which to mount a counterattack, Garth pressed his advantage. He was trying to force himself inside of her, battering against her, his penis a cudgel which he wielded with one hand, ramming it repeatedly against her. She was virtually defenseless with her legs spread so wide, but neither was her body ready for such an intimate penetration, and her lack of desire manifested itself in a physical tightness that temporarily thwarted and frustrated him. Finally, he used his hand to pry her vagina open enough to ram himself inside, heedless of harming her, determined only that he would have her.

 

She began to feel lightheaded; her frantic struggling had depleted her of oxygen. Although he no longer had his tongue in her mouth, fearing her teeth, his mouth still covered hers, denying her the gulp of air she desperately needed. Turning her head sharply to one side, she succeeded in dislodging his mouth long enough to take a deep breath. With everything in her, she screamed.

 

Raising her knees to the sides of her chest, she began to pummel him with her legs as she bucked hard, trying to force the rapist off her. She couldn't see, could hardly think. But he clung with a fierce, desperate strength, plunging deep into her, tearing her in his mad thrusting. Suddenly, she heard him grunting, "Cath'rine! Oh...God...." and she recognized the voice.

 

"Garth?! Why? Please...stop!" Writhing frantically, she didn't notice the pain arcing through her as he tore into her, ramming himself all the way inside of her, filling her now, viciously, callously. Catherine began to bleed inside.

 

As the blood seeped down her warm channel, he gloried in the wetness he felt, assuming it was the result of her desire for him. She thought she could resist him -- but she couldn't, not really. Her body betrayed her even as she fought him. She was really perverted! Just like his own Mom, he thought. She was no different. He'd thought she was an angel, but she was just as disgusting, as filthy as...the whore his Mother was. Oblivious to the pounding she was delivering to his legs, back and sides, he pumped himself hard into her, brutally driving her down into the bed.

 

Savagely, he squeezed her wrists, grinding the bones, and rasped, "You give yourself to that...that...thing! He's nothing but some weird animal and you...you let him...you let him...." Beyond words now, he drove into her with a previously unmatched ferocity, all his rage and confusion unleashed against the woman trapped beneath him.

 

Wild to escape from him, fighting with every ounce of strength she possessed, she twisted in his grasp, pushing, kicking, bruising herself as well as him. "The only animal I know...is YOU!"

His outrage that she would insult him like that resolved itself into a fist -- he used it to punch her in the face. She thought she would pass out, but fought against the nausea and the whirling stars, focusing on the taste of blood. She let it fill her mouth and spat it at him. "You're SICK, Garth. Get...OFF ME!!!"

 

Finally she broke her arms free of his grasp, but he arched against her at that moment, spewing his seed deep inside her. She slashed at him with her nails, shoving him off her, then pummeled him with her fists. "Get OUT! Get away from me!! GEOFFREY! GEOFFREY!!!"

 

Garth scrambled away from her, screaming, "I loved you! But you couldn't see me -- all you saw was HIM! So I just gave you what you like -- what he gives you every night. It's disgusting. I could hardly stand to think of you with him that way!"

 

As he was speaking, Catherine grabbed the sheets to cover herself as best she could. Whatever Garth was saying to her, she didn't listen -- none of it mattered. She was bruised and bleeding, soaking the sheets, her lips were cut, and she felt her right eye swelling shut. But already she was turning away from conscious thought of the outrages done to her physical being to concentrate on the one person who had shared the full torment of the past moments with her. Closing her eyes, concentrating all her strength and love to him through their Bond, she willed Vincent to know that she had survived and, whatever had happened, she was alright.

 

Garth turned and ran as he finished pouring the poison of his heart out to her. She never cared for him. All she cared about was that filthy creature. She wasn't worth his love. She was just some sick bitch who liked it real rough. Well, he gave it to her, didn't he? He gave her just what she was asking for.

 

Geoffrey, awakening groggily as he heard some kind of commotion -- was someone screaming? -- fumbled to light a candle. Garth appeared in the doorway and crashed into the furniture. He began rummaging frantically, grabbing up his shoes, his jeans, his jacket. Garth's appearance, wavering in the flickering candlelight, startled Geoffrey. He was naked, crying, wild-eyed. His hair was a mess, and he had scratches on his chest and blood on his chin and genitals.

 

"Garth? Wh-what happened?"

 

Garth swiped at his eyes, hardening his face and his heart toward the boy he'd considered his brother just minutes before. "Oh, shut up, you idiot! You haven't got a clue, have you?" Insolent through his tears, Garth threw the words at him. "You're precious Mom and I have just been entertaining each other in bed. Now I'm leaving. It's been...fun. Later." And he dashed from the room, pelting down the side tunnels, running away from everything and everyone, escaping from his last chance, from safety, from warmth, from love...from her.

 

Unable to believe his ears, Geoffrey sat stunned in his bed, unnerved, until his Mother's voice broke through his paralysis.

 

"Geoffrey!"

 

Catherine stumbled into his bedchamber. Geoffrey leaped up and caught her as she sank to the ground, then guided her to his bed. She was bleeding, clutching at the edges of her robe. He noticed blood dripping down her legs and realized that what Garth had taunted him with was true. He couldn't find his voice. "G-G-Garth?"

 

Catherine nodded shakily. "Listen to me, Geoffrey. Send a message to your Dad now. Tell him I'm OK. Tell him not to worry. Then go get Father. Do not call him over the pipes. Tell him I've been raped, tell him who did it, and tell him not to try to stop Garth from leaving. The sentries will see him go. We can decide what to do about him later. Do you understand everything I'm saying, Geoffrey? It's important that you do NOT call Father over the pipes, where your Dad can hear the call."

 

"Y-y-yes. I..I understand. I'll be back as soon as I can." He started to rush from the room, but turned to look at her. "Mom, I'm so sorry. I love you."

 

Catherine smiled and nodded weakly at him, then grimaced in pain. "Go!"

 

_ _ _

 

Vincent had awakened at the worksite from a deep sleep as his rest was shattered by the resounding reverberations of Catherine's terror and horror echoing inside his mind. Their Bond thrummed with the torment she was experiencing. Wrenching, tearing pain gripped him, and he knew with certainty that his lover was being raped and brutalized. Roaring as he thrust the blankets from himself, he jumped up and began to run, then halted as he considered with sickening clarity the tremendous distance which lay between his home chambers and this remote cavern. He stood for a moment in helpless rage, his hands gripping at phantoms before him, his frantic growls filling the small cavern.

 

His companions, awakened immediately by the frightening sounds emanating from his throat, stared in dread at their friend. Only Cullen had the courage to question him. "Vincent? What is it?"

 

Vincent's demeanor changed suddenly. He stopped growling, and grew very quiet. Then he dropped to his knees in hopeless surrender, his hands pressed to his heart. Slowly he turned to the others, and they saw the tears streaming unchecked down his face. His voice a hoarse whisper now, he stammered, "It...it's Catherine. I cannot h-h-help her. Oh, God...I cannot help her." He wept openly, his grief overwhelming his rage. Here, miles from the home tunnels, there was nothing he could do. Even if he ran full out, he could not get to her for several hours. By then.... He could only suffer with her as her ravishment went on...and on -- and hope. His agony was palpable. No one else in the tiny cavern moved a muscle. All their eyes were riveted to the face of the strongest, bravest man they knew -- as he collapsed in complete despair.

 

After a time, his weeping ceased. His eyes took on a faraway look, as if hearing a voice meant only for him. Then he turned to them and said, "It is over. She has...survived." He rose and without a backward glance he began the long trek back to her, leaving everything and everyone behind. He couldn't help her, couldn't save her any of the pain. He was desolate, bereft. He was so very far from home.

 

_ _ _

 

"Other than the discomfort from the wounds you received during the...assault, you seem fine. You have a badly sprained wrist, a twisted knee, a wrenched back, the black eye, of course, as well numerous contusions and...the other injuries, but no permanent damage has been sustained, thank God." Father heaved a deep sigh and continued with the unpleasant task. "Ah, I would recommend that you do not...er...do not engage in..."

 

She nodded once, wincing with the pain that slight movement caused. "I understand, Father. For how long?"

 

"Well, perhaps for several weeks. We'll have to wait and see how you heal. He...." Father's voice choked, betraying his attempts to keep up his professional detachment. "He tore you up inside, Cathy. You must have fought him...very hard."

 

She touched her lower lip gingerly with her tongue and nodded. "Unfortunately, he was...very determined." She grimaced. "I never saw that rage in him, Father. Vincent...Vincent had his doubts about the boy from the start, but Geoffrey and I...we saw only his need, his desperate desire to belong. If I had had even an inkling...."

 

As he was wrapping her wrist, Father tried to console her. "You cannot blame yourself, my dear. He fooled everyone. Vincent's heightened empathic abilities permitted him a deeper glimpse inside the child's soul, but if he had truly felt that rage, he would not have consented to give him sanctuary here. Sometimes, despite all we try to do...."

 

Catherine interrupted him, one thought uppermost in her mind. "I must see Vincent as soon as he arrives, Father."

 

"Yes, I know. I can't imagine what he must have gone through, feeling your pain, knowing he was too far away to help you. He's always been able to protect you Above...but here? Whoever thought you'd need such protection here?" Father ran stiff fingers through his short gray hair, still stunned by the brutal attack on the woman he had come to regard as a daughter. "Why did you not allow us to...to stop Garth before he left these tunnels? He may be lost to us forever Above. He might even divulge our secret to forestall any further action against him on our part."

 

Catherine shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I don't know what else he might do, but I do know that he loved being here, in this place. He's a troubled boy, but not a traitor. He knew true safety and acceptance here -- before he threw it all away. He wouldn't want to hurt Geoffrey...or me...any more than he already has. I believe we can trust him not to betray us. And as for punishment here Below -- what could we do to him here, Father? Imprison him? We don't have the facilities for it. What else could we do but banish him? And that he's done for us."

 

Father shook his head, plainly disbelieving her. "I hope you're right. Our existence depends on trust -- a trust he has already violated beyond belief."

 

She gripped the older man's shoulder with her good hand, willing him to understand. "What he did to me -- that was personal. That came from someplace buried deep within."

 

Taking her hand from his shoulder, he kissed it, then held it gingerly between his own. "How can you be so...understanding? His attack on you was so violent, so cruel...."

 

Shuddering, she replied, "I didn't say I forgave him, Father...only that I believe he will not reveal our secret. I can't begin to say I 'understand' what he did. I don't want to 'understand' it."

 

_ _ _

 

As Father came out of the hospital chamber, a frightened Geoffrey jumped to his feet. "Is she OK, Father? Will she be OK?"

 

Patting the distressed boy on the back, Father held his gaze as he said, "She will be fine, my boy. She needs you to be strong for her now. She's holding up so far...but inevitably, the impact of what she's been through will cause her...well, she'll need your strength and comfort. Can I count on you, Geoffrey?"

 

The young man nodded, then asked in a voice cracking with emotion, "May I see her now?"

 

Father smiled his encouragement. "I think that might be just what she needs. Go in to her now. Go."

 

Needing no further urging, Geoffrey ran into the chamber. In a hoarse and muffled voice, he began, "I'm so sorry, Mom. It's all my fault. If I hadn't asked you to let him live Below...."

 

"Hush." Catherine stopped the anguished apology by opening her arms to her son. He ran straight into them. They held each other tight and for a long time, they just cried.

 

_ _ _

 

She had insisted that Father allow her to return to her own chamber immediately and, assisted by Geoffrey, she made her way by little-used side tunnels to their home to bathe and dress. Someone -- she suspected Mary -- had already straightened the disarray in the sleeping chamber and changed the sheets; the bloodied linens and Catherine's torn gown were nowhere in sight.

 

Catherine and Geoffrey settled onto the loveseat to await Vincent's arrival. He could not reasonably be expected for several more hours yet, but they had no will or desire to do anything other than sit and be together. Geoffrey's arm encircled his Mother; her head rested in the crook of his shoulder and her arms were wrapped around his waist. They were as close physically as they could get, but mentally they were miles apart. For a long time, neither spoke. Finally, Geoffrey gathered himself and said, "Mom...I can't believe it happened, that someone I thought I could trust could hurt you like that. I can't help but feel that I made a terrible error in judgment...and you've paid the price."

 

His Mother's arms tightened about his waist. "Before you take this all upon yourself, Geoffrey, listen to me. I remember when I brought someone to this place who I thought would fit in. She was lonely and vulnerable and desperate, just like Garth. At first, everything seemed to be fine, she interacted well with everyone, made friends, contributed as much as she could. But then she abandoned her newborn child here and returned Above...after an...encounter with your Dad which...caused us both a lot of pain. As it happened, I found her again and everything worked out. But...."

 

She sighed heavily, remembering how close she'd come to walking out the door before Lena called her back. "It could easily have ended badly. What I'm saying is, you can't stop trusting, stop believing in people, because one person lets you down or hurts you. Yes, you should be cautious, and yes, you should be prudent...but don't let this...horrible experience harden your heart to those Above, to those in need."

 

Geoffrey's whole body stiffened and his eyes betrayed his anguish as he spat his words out. "I...HATE him! If he were here right now...I'd kill him, I swear I would!" His grip upon his Mother tightened painfully. He didn't realize it until she gasped.

 

"No, Geoffrey, please, no! Don't think that way!" Catherine took her son's face in her hands and forced him to look at her. "If anyone has a right to feel that way, it's me. But I can't hate him. I despise what he did to me. I feel so...violated and hurt..and angry. But...something twisted Garth into the thing he's become. It's whatever did that to him that I hate."

 

His bitter tears washed over her fingers. "Mom, I can't stand this. How can I ever face Dad again? He'll blame me for this, and he'll be right. He had his doubts about Garth, but I kept pushing him and needling him until he gave in."

 

Shaking her head, she dismissed such a notion. "Nonsense! Your Father would never blame you for what happened -- either to your face or in his heart. And he is not so simple-minded that he'd be swayed by any argument if he truly believed something being asked of him was not in everyone's best interests." Her voice caught, an aching pleading giving it a ragged edge. "Don't do this to yourself, please, honey! I can't get through this if I have to worry about you feeling this way. Please, Geoffrey!"

 

Seeing the compassion in her eyes and knowing it was all for him, Geoffrey felt a guilty blush sweep over his face -- guilt for causing his Mother more torment, now, when she least could handle it. He had no right to make this his problem. She was the one in pain, the one who had been so violently assaulted. He managed to put a small smile on his face as he said, "OK, Mom, OK. I give! I do understand what you're saying to me. I love you more than anyone else in the world, and I wish he had taken his...whatever...his anger...out on me instead of you. But I know what you're saying. I promise I'll work on this...lousy attitude of mine."

 

Grateful for his attempt at humor, and relieved that he seemed to accept what she had told him, she burrowed closer into his arms, hugging him tight, and savored his loving warmth.

 

When Vincent arrived several hours later, both Catherine and Geoffrey had recovered some of their equilibrium. He who had come to offer his comfort found himself instead being the one comforted. Catherine rose to meet him as he entered the chamber. He went straight to her and knelt, wrapping his arms about her knees, and began to sob. She ran her fingers soothingly through his tangled mane, murmuring softly to him. Geoffrey silently left the room, knowing that at this moment he was an intruder on their own special pain.

 

_ _ _

 

Vincent entered the darkened chamber. His eyes, better able to pierce the gloom than those of the others Below, easily made out the figure of the young man huddled miserably on the bed. He called out softly, "Geoffrey? May I come in?"

 

Hoarsely, the young man answered, "Shouldn't you be with Mom?"

 

The disembodied voice replied, "She's sleeping. She took a mild sedative that Father gave her. I'll return to her soon, but I need to talk to you now."

 

"I know what you're gonna say," came the resigned response. "Don't worry. It's not like I haven't said it to myself a hundred times since it happened."

 

Vincent walked over to the bed and eased his frame down to lie beside his son. He cradled Geoffrey's body with his own, wrapping the boy in his arms as he did so. Geoffrey lay limp and unresponsive. "Tell me."

 

Geoffrey snorted derisively. "What's to tell? You know what happened." His voice darkened with sarcasm. "And I was having such a pleasant dream that I didn't even hear my own Mother begging me to help her. What kind of a son am I?"

 

Vincent hugged him more tightly. "The son she loves more than you can know. The son she does not blame for anything. The son she needs if she's going to heal from this horrible nightmare."

 

The boy turned in his Father's arms and allowed himself to be cuddled in a way he hadn't since he was a child. Gently, Vincent rocked him and whispered softly to him, "I need you, too, son. I need you to hold on to. I couldn't...help her either. I..." His voice broke and his tears shocked Geoffrey out of his introspection.

 

"Dad, no! Don't cry, please! Oh, Jeez..." He pulled out of his Father's arms and moved to gather Vincent into his own, imitating the comforting embrace he had just been in. He realized he had never before been in a position to offer comfort to his Dad. It made him proud that Vincent had sought him out for this -- usually it was Mom or Father who filled that role. Tonight he had come to his...son. Geoffrey felt a fierce protectiveness blossom within him. He always knew his Dad loved him, but tonight his Dad needed him!

 

Stroking and patting his Dad's back, Geoffrey said nothing for a long while. When he sensed his Father's tears begin to ease, he said, "We're a fine pair! Both of us feeling sorry for ourselves, as if anything had happened to us."

 

Understanding that Geoffrey wasn't being critical, but only trying to lighten the mood, Vincent raised his head and smiled, and even though Geoffrey couldn't see it, he felt it in his Dad's voice as he said, "Thank you, son." Vincent held him fast for a moment, then disengaged and rose from the bed. "Try to get some rest. I'll be with your Mother if you need me."

 

"Dad?"

 

Vincent turned and waited.

 

"I always need you. Thank you for...for needing me, too."

 

"Always, Geoffrey."

 

The sound of Vincent's soft footfalls receded as he left the chamber.

 

_ _ _

 

Every afternoon for a week after the attack on his Mother, Geoffrey went Above to the park, resuming his former routine of eating a popsicle while sitting on one certain bench. His rational mind told him that this was the last place to which Garth would return, but he couldn't help hoping. He wasn't entirely sure what he'd do if he saw the boy, but he desperately wanted to talk to him.

 

On this afternoon, seven days after the events of that terrible night, a rustle in the trees behind Geoffrey alerted him to the presence of another. He had just seated himself and unwrapped his popsicle. He waited for the briefest moment, hoping the presence would materialize beside him on the bench. Neither he nor the unseen person behind him moved. Finally, Geoffrey broke the popsicle in two and held one half of it out behind him, over the top of the bench. Otherwise, he did not change position. The popsicle was removed from his hand. Without turning, Geoffrey said, "Hello, Garth."

 

There was no response, but he knew the figure behind him had not left.

 

"Mom's OK. You didn't do her any...permanent damage."

 

Still, there was no response, just the merest ruffle of foliage to let him know the person behind him was still there.

 

"She doesn't hate you, you know. None of us does. I wanted to, at first. But she and Dad convinced me that hating wouldn't solve anything."

 

He could hear the unseen boy breathing, hear the sounds of the popsicle being eaten.

 

"We're all real worried about you. Did you find someplace safe to stay? Are you OK?"

 

Only silence greeted him.

 

"We...we could find you someplace to stay. Not Below...but someplace else safe, where you could get the help you need. Would you let us do that?"

 

The silent figure did not stir, did not respond.

 

"Father is concerned...but I told him you'd never tell anyone about where we live. I told him you would never do that, no matter what."

 

A soft shuffling close behind him made Geoffrey start. A licked-clean popsicle stick flew through the air to land several feet in front of him. A low voice whispered close to his ear, "I won't ever tell. And tell your Mom...tell her...I'm so sorry."

 

Geoffrey turned, but caught only a glimpse of the swiftly retreating form of the boy he knew now he would never see again.

 

_ _ _

 

It had been nearly two months since Garth's attack, and all of Catherine's physical wounds had healed. Several weeks earlier, she had approached Vincent and asked him to make love to her, knowing he would be hesitant to make the first move after what had happened. Their loving had been tender, exquisite, slow. They had both wept. It had healed them in the secret places of their souls to be as one again. Since that time, Vincent had been careful never to allow the more...robust impulses he sometimes had to surface during their lovemaking. There would be time enough for that -- years ahead in which to express the darker passions within him. For now, she craved the gentler side of him, and he allowed her to lead him only where she felt safe.

 

This morning they had made love before dawn, when only the sentries whispered on the pipes. As they held each other in quiet contentment, Catherine suddenly lurched to a sitting position.

"Catherine? What is it?" He could feel...something...through the Bond -- not a pain, but a fuzzy sort of discomfort. Catherine threw the covers back and hastily made her way to their lavatory chamber. He heard her moving about for a while, then heard her vomit into the basin. Concerned, he rose and entered the chamber without knocking. She was wiping her face with a wet washcloth, holding onto the basin for support. His arms came up to support her, then he swept her into his arms and carried her back to bed.

 

"I'll get Father."

 

"No, Vincent. I'm all right now...."

 

Her protest fell on emptiness, for Vincent had departed immediately, at a run. He returned so quickly with the older man that Catherine was convinced he must have carried Father at least part of the way.

 

"What seems to be the problem, Cathy? Vincent said you were sick this morning. Do you feel like you're coming down with something?" Father reached for her wrist and took her pulse.

 

She shook her head. "Not really. I'm just...queasy."

 

Pulling out his stethoscope and thermometer, Father began to give Catherine what everyone Below called "the once-over." He straightened suddenly and turned to his son. "Vincent, could you give us some privacy, please?"

 

Catherine grew alarmed. "Father, I don't mind if...."

 

Father ignored her protest. "Vincent. Please. Some privacy, if you don't mind."

 

With a nod, Vincent retreated into the common chamber. Father twitched closed the privacy curtain, then turned back to Catherine. "I believe I know what it is," he said briskly. "There is a modern invention of which Peter has apprised me and which I find quite useful in such cases. Please, take this package and follow the instructions. I will wait right here."

 

Catherine's confused looked turned into one of comprehension, then of panic, as she looked down at the object he had placed in her hand -- a home pregnancy test. She looked up in horror. "Oh, no!"

 

Patiently, he urged, "Take the test first, please. I could be wrong. It's been known to happen."

 

Catherine clambered from the bed and entered the lavatory. She returned shortly and handed the test to Father.

 

"Well?" He looked at her in anticipation.

 

"I...I didn't look. You tell me."

 

Father gazed down at the results, then back at Catherine. He smiled. "It's positive. You're pregnant, my dear. Congratulations."

 

Catherine stared at him. "How can you say that? Do you realize what this means?!"

 

Stung by what seemed to be an unwarranted attack on his professional competence, he snapped, "I think I do. I am a doctor, after all. I believe it means that you are going to have a child."

 

"But whose child?" she hissed.

 

Father's face fell, the full implication suddenly hitting him. "Oh, my God!"

 

She sat down on the bed, her shoulders drooping. "Vincent and I...we've been together for so long. We've never...not even a false alarm. After all this time...could it be possible? Isn't it more likely that...that this baby is...is Garth's?"

 

Chagrin colored his face. "Oh, my dear! Forgive me for not thinking of that possibility. Yes, of course, the likelihood is quite high."

 

In a quavering voice, she asked, "Isn't there...some sort of test?"

 

He shrugged. "We could do a test to determine paternity, of course, but we shouldn't take the risk. You remember what the lab said when Peter sent Vincent's blood in for analysis when he was so ill."

 

Recalling the uncomfortable questions the lab had asked, she settled the matter. "No, you're right. We can't take the chance."

 

Father tried to offer her some comfort. "It won't matter to anyone, Catherine, as long..."

 

"It will matter to me! It will matter to Vincent! How could it not? Oh...God..." She began to weep, deep shuddering sobs racking her small frame. "I thought it was...over! Now it may never be over! I can't bear it! I can't!"

 

Father rose and put his arms around the stricken woman, mutely rocking her. He felt totally incapable of grappling with the complications she was now facing. Once he thought he had all the answers...but now he could hardly frame the questions. Suddenly he felt very old. One thing he knew -- he wasn't the one she needed right now. Murmuring softly, he suggested, "Why don't I call Vincent in so you two can talk?"

 

She withdrew herself from his embrace and squared her shoulders, willing her tears to cease. "I suppose that's best. We have a lot to discuss. Thank you, Father. I'll be all right now." She brushed the tears from her face and ran her fingers through her disheveled hair. "You can send him in."

 

Unable to meet his eyes, Father beckoned to his son. Vincent entered the chamber after Father left.

 

"Catherine." He went to her side, sitting on the bed and opening his arms to her. But instead of entering his embrace, she placed her hands on his forearms, forcing them gently down, then laid her hands atop his on the bed between them.

 

Her voice a thin whisper, she began, "Vincent. I don't know how to break this news to you...."

 

Tenderly, he leaned forward to place a kiss upon her brow. "You need not try to find the words. You know my hearing is quite acute. I...couldn't help but overhear your conversation with Father."

 

"So. You know." She cast her eyes down and removed her hands from his. He clutched them quickly, before she could withdraw physically as it seemed she was doing through their Bond.

"Yes, my love." He hesitated, trying to think of the right words to calm her troubled spirit. "The chance to bring a child into this world has always been a dream of yours, Catherine..."

He paused and his head lowered, allowing his hair to fall forward, an old gesture designed to cover his embarrassment or shame -- Catherine hadn't seen him do it in years, and it struck her to the core.

 

Finding his voice again, he finished his thought. "...a dream...I could never...fulfill."

 

"Oh, Vincent," she cried, pulling him to her and hugging him fiercely. "If you heard Father and me talking, you know what this means. I'm most likely pregnant as a result of...."

"I know, Catherine, I know." His large hands gently stroked her back, offering her his comfort, trying to calm her. "But it doesn't matter. This is a child of your body."

 

"And...his," she spat bitterly.

 

Refusing to focus on the painful past, he urged her to think of the future. "But you will carry it, nurture, raise it. This child will know nothing of the violence that begat it, only of your warmth and love."

 

Shocked by his words, she pulled away from his enveloping warmth. "You...you want me to keep this baby?!"

 

He seemed startled by her question. In his mind, he had already accepted this child. It existed. It was real. And no matter how it came to be, it had its own value. But most importantly...it was Catherine's child. All of a sudden, understanding dawned. He grasped the implication of her question and struggled to come to terms with it. "You would..." his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "...you would...consider aborting this child?"

 

Grimly, she replied, "I'm thinking about it."

 

Vincent sensed the desperate struggle within her. Her rational and emotional sides were engaged in a vicious tug of war -- the child versus the pain, the dream versus the nightmare. Although she had never spoken of it, he knew that to have a baby was her most profound desire. Now she had that chance. He had to remind her of that long-held dream.

 

"Consider this another way, Catherine. This may be your...your only chance to bear a child. Would you throw that opportunity away...in bitterness and anger? You once told me that you were willing to take a leap of faith to try to save one life. Could you do that now...for this child?"

 

Listening to him expose her deep-seated yearning -- one she thought she had successfully hidden from him all these years -- her small frame began to tremble uncontrollably, shaking so hard that her teeth chattered. She felt so cold, as if nothing could ever warm her again. Thoughts skittered through her mind, shredding her consciousness on the sharp points of fear, remorse, anxiety, anger. Why would Fate offer her the fulfillment of a cherished dream at such a terrible cost? It wasn't fair! What was she going to do? How could she live up to the challenge? And Vincent -- how noble of him to say he would accept this child, but how could she ask such a sacrifice of him?

 

Unable to cope now with the enormity of the decision before her, nevertheless she demanded that her Bondmate understand what his suggestion entailed. "It's my body, Vincent. If I...kept it...all the time I'd be pregnant, every moment, I'd be reminded of the horrible attack that caused it. You want me to put myself through all that?"

 

Vincent was overwhelmed by her anxieties, by the turmoil within her heart. Logic could not penetrate the beginnings of panic he felt in her. Flooding her with his own strength through their Bond, he willed her to draw from it what she could. Gradually, slowly, her trembling ceased. When he sensed she could listen to his words again, he continued.

 

"The...attack...was not this child's fault. But only you know how much the nature of its conception will affect you, how much of the pain of that knowledge you can bear. I know the decision is yours, and whatever you decide, I will support you. But know this -- I would welcome this child into our lives. Do not make any decision based even in part upon a mistaken belief that I would not want this baby, to help raise it, protect it...love it. I want to do all of those things. Because, whatever else may be, this is your child."

 

Gazing into his earnest face, she thought with a burst of fierce pride, How like him. And she knew he would do all he said -- for her. But how many sacrifices must this dear man make for her? She'd already asked him to accept Geoffrey into his life. Of course, he loved the boy like his own -- but he wouldn't have adopted the boy if she hadn't asked him to. And now...to expect him to accept another child, one conceived in violence, when she had the means to prevent such a sacrifice.... She knew she had much to consider...and had to resolve this complex situation on her own. She was aware of how he felt, but ultimately, it was she who had to decide.

 

Catherine took a deep breath and stood up. "I...need time to think, Vincent. I'm going to go Above for a few days, maybe visit with Nancy and her family. Is that all right?"

 

Numbly, Vincent nodded. So much could happen while she was Above.

 

_ _ _

 

She was gone for eight days. Eight days, and she had sent no word Below. Father had asked Peter to contact Nancy, but Nancy hadn't heard from Catherine in almost three months. Geoffrey had gone up to the apartment she still maintained Above, but by the accumulation of mail and dust, he knew she had not spent any time there recently. Vincent felt the turmoil roiling through her, but knew she was blocking much of what she was feeling from him. All he was catching was a trickle of her emotions, and even that was devastating to him. He wanted to go to her, to help her through this...but it was obvious she would not welcome his comfort or advice. By leaving their home, she had made it clear she planned to make her decision alone.

 

_ _ _

"Mom! You're back!" Geoffrey ran the length of the tunnel to clasp Catherine in a bear hug. His relief that she had returned home was palpable, causing Catherine to whisper, "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."

 

Puzzled, he pulled back and looked into her eyes. "For what?"

 

"For...everything. For leaving so abruptly...for not letting you know where I was...for not talking to you about this decision I've made." Her eyes were filled with tears. She had been determined to see this through in a rational, matter-of-fact way, but her emotional detachment regarding her decision had been stripped away the moment she was enclosed in the warm embrace of her son. Her son...

 

Seeing her tears, he grew concerned. "Mom? Are you OK? Don't worry, it's all right. Dad knew you weren't in trouble. He said you needed some time to think things through. I knew you'd be back."

 

She touched his cheek affectionately and smiled -- a pale, wan smile. "I can't stay away from you too long, that's for sure. I'd miss you too much." She hugged him again -- a brief but warm hug. "Where's your Dad?" She had thought he might be waiting for her at the park entrance, and she was worried that he hadn't been there to greet her.

 

Geoffrey grinned. "He's helping Mouse on some pipe repairs that Pascal insisted couldn't wait. He told me you were coming home and I told him I'd come get you."

 

"Just like old times!" She squeezed his arm and turned to walk the rest of the way home with him.

 

_ _ _

 

Vincent entered their common chamber, still damp and grimy from the repair work. It was obvious he was anxious to see her -- so anxious that he hadn't stopped to make himself more presentable for her. "Catherine! I apologize for not coming to meet you myself."

 

She rose from the loveseat as she spoke. "That's OK. Geoffrey explained."

 

He approached her as in their early days -- half hoping she would -- half expecting she might not -- welcome him to her. Quickly she closed the gap between them and buried herself in his inviting embrace. The sound of her sobs racked him. He stood silent, rigid, waiting to hear her decision. Finally she got control of herself. In a low voice, he asked the question he could not bear to hold in any longer. "Have you...decided?"

 

She bit her lower lip and nodded. "Yes."

 

"And?" That one word held a universe of emotion.

 

Catherine frowned, still uncertain how to break the news to him. "Oh, Vincent, this was such a hard decision to make! I hope you won't come to hate me for this later...or regret my decision. I couldn't ask you to be part of it, though. It wouldn't have been fair. You made your opinion clear, but in the final analysis...only I could decide." She clutched his shirt, her voice pleading now. "I'm sorry if I've hurt you by going away. It's not because I didn't want you near, or need you...but I had to face my demons and...and overcome them...on my own."

 

"And have you?" The not knowing was unbearable. But he knew she had to tell him in her own way.

 

She shook her head. "Not really. These demons are large, frightening. This decision cannot be reversed, once made." She took a deep breath. "I've decided...to have this baby."

 

Vincent felt his knees go weak. His head swam with joy. "Oh, Catherine! Thank you!" He wrapped himself around her, clung to her, rained sweet kisses on her face. His tears mingled with hers as they laughed and cried...together.

 

_ _ _

 

When she entered his chamber, Geoffrey took her by the hand and sat her on his bed. As she started to speak, he laid a hand on her arm to stop her. He wanted to let her know how he felt about...everything, and he wanted her to know it before she told him what she had to say.

 

"Dad told me why you had gone away. I...I was pretty upset about...you being pregnant...at first, but he explained to me that I can't blame a baby because of how it came to be. I realized he was right. After that, I just hoped you would make a decision you could live with...always. I tried to put myself in your place, but I couldn't. It's just not possible for me to know what you must be going through. But I love you, and I want to tell you that I will stand by any decision you make. If you can't bear to have this baby, I would understand. If you decide to have it, I'll do everything I can to help."

 

Catherine had left Vincent to seek out her son, feeling that he should be the next to know of her decision. The impact would affect him more than anyone except herself and Vincent. She had been worried that he might resent her making such a momentous decision without asking for his opinion -- she'd made so many in the past without his input, always expecting him to understand -- but once again she had been amazed by his maturity and thoughtfulness. He was such a blessing. She could ask for no more wonderful child of her body than this one of her heart.

 

She gave him her warmest smile. "Thank you, Geoffrey. I can't tell you how much what you've said means to me. You are so special to me, have I mentioned that lately? My life would not be as rich and full and happy if you were not such a large part of it."

 

He ducked his head the way he used to as a child when delighted and flustered, and she tenderly placed a kiss atop his bowed head. "Would you like to know what I've decided?"

 

He looked up in expectation. "Tell me."

 

She smiled to herself. So, yet another generation of Wells men has adopted that particular phrase!

 

Taking his hand, she squeezed it in gratitude, then revealed her plans. "I'm going to have the baby. I may have some bad days ahead, trying to come to terms with my decision, but basically it comes down to something your Dad said to me -- this child is blameless."

 

He nodded, encouraging her.

 

"It would be easier for me to be rid of anything which would remind me of that horrible experience, but that would be selfish. I am a strong person, I am blessed with two wonderful, supportive men...." She kissed his palm, then resumed. "...And God knows we have the means and ability to raise this baby in a loving environment. I am not going to go through this alone, nor will I have to raise the child alone.

 

"I'm still not totally comfortable with this decision, Geoffrey. It's...painful even to think about this pregnancy. But just because it will be hard is no reason not to go through with it. Do you understand?"

 

Now he took one of her hands in both of his own, stroking it gently, reverently. He looked down at that soft pale hand which had so often soothed his hurts and comforted him as he replied. "Sure, Mom. What you've said makes sense. But I still think it takes a remarkable person to put aside her own pain to give so much for a child she never wanted."

 

She caught his chin with her free hand, lifting his face to hers. "You know, I wasn't looking for a son when I found you, Geoffrey. I think maybe this child will be just as much of an unexpected blessing as you were. At least, that's the way I'm choosing to look at it!"

 

His eyes grew cloudy, and she knew what he was thinking. "Don't."

 

His startled expression indicated that he hadn't realized his feelings were apparent.

 

"Don't, honey."

 

He hugged her fiercely, and in a tight, muffled voice he responded, "I can't help it. If I hadn't brought him Below...if I had heard you when you were struggling with him...."

 

Catherine pressed him closer still. She could feel him begin to cry, his body quivering with his sobs. "Sweetheart, you can't shield me from all harm. You're just like your Dad, you take too much of a burden on yourself. Sometimes, no matter how much we plan and prepare, things happen. That's life. We pick ourselves up and go on. You did nothing wrong, and could have done nothing to prevent what happened to me. Please, honey, don't brood? One brooding man in this family is quite enough, thank you!"

 

He pulled back and gulped, trying to stem his tears. "I know what you say is true, and yet..."

 

Smoothing the tears from his cheeks, she said, "It's natural to feel bad that someone you love has been hurt. But you have to distinguish between empathy and guilt. I treasure the former, but won't allow the latter. Do I make myself clear?"

 

Her mock-serious directive had the desired effect; Geoffrey smiled and nodded, relief visible on his face.

 

_ _ _

 

"Hey, you! Kid! Whatcha doin'?"

 

Garth raised his head and tensed. Caught! He'd been caught. Rather than respond to the rent-a-cop, he turned and ran. He had almost made it out of the store when he was tackled sideways by another man. When he was scoping this place out, he hadn't known about the other guard. He'd assumed the man on duty outside at night was the only one around. So, his luck had run out. Well, as far as the cops were concerned, this would only be his first offense.

 

"I got him, Stan! I got the little creep!" The man who had tackled him pulled him up roughly by the arms and stood, holding him in a cruel grip, until the guard he called Stan ran over.

 

"Finally! We been watchin' for ya, ya know. Yeah...you punks think you can bust in here anytime ya want and take whatever ya get a fancy for. Well, that's gonna stop right...now!" Stan threw a vicious punch into Garth's mid-section, bringing him to his knees. "Me and Artie here've been waitin', just hopin' you'd try it again. That's why you crooks always get caught -- yer stupid, plain stupid. Just 'cause ya broke in here once, ya think we're easy marks, huh? Well, we're gonna teach ya a thing or three about how easy we are, ain't we, Artie?"

 

"Ya got your shot, Stan. You hold him now, 'K?"

 

Hard hands passed him over, and suddenly a flashlight flared into Garth's eyes. "Hey, Stannie, he's a cute one, huh? Not no more, kid!" The flashlight came down hard against Garth's right cheek, breaking it and caving in his eye socket. He knew nothing more. The beating continued. When Artie's arm got tired, Stan dropped the unconscious boy to the ground and they both began to kick him. Eventually, they decided the young punk had had enough. While Artie acted as lookout, Stan dragged the boy out into the alley and down about 50 yards, far enough that no one would know where he had come from. Then he dropped Garth hard, spat on him, and left him.

 

Stan and Artie went back inside, laughing and congratulating each other. Stan had a thermos bottle full of Jim Beam in his gym bag, and they broke it out and toasted each other.

 

In the alley, a furtive figure came upon the unconscious boy. Deft hands went through his pockets, taking the pitiful amount of change the boy had secreted about his person. The kid had nice shoes, and his jacket was pretty decent too. Soon, Garth lay stripped upon the ground. The night grew cold as he lay bleeding there. He kept bleeding. It got colder. Finally, the body stopped bleeding. When it was found a few days later, it was entered into city records as the third John Doe found that month. He had never told. Now nobody would ever know.

 

_ _ _

 

"The poor thing." Mary whispered to Father as they left Catherine's chamber. "I've never known someone to have such a hard pregnancy. It's so awful, considering how this all came about, for her to have such a terrible time of it now."

 

Father nodded in agreement. "I have never seen the like myself. She is amazing, though. I always knew she was a strong woman, but she is stronger than I ever thought. She has to be. She'll need that strength more and more in the months to come."

 

Mary's face reflected her sympathetic concern. "What if...I mean...if the pregnancy is this difficult, what about her delivery?"

 

He shook his head, obviously distressed and frustrated. "We've made all the arrangements, Mary. I fear for her, but we can do no more to prepare. If between you and me and Peter we cannot help her...." Father ran his hand though his short-cropped gray hair and acknowledged, "I'm worried too. We must pray, Mary. Pray...and hope."

 

_ _ _

 

When her water broke a month before her due date, the contingency plan swung into action. Peter was able to come Below almost immediately, since it was a Sunday morning. Catherine's labor was intense and prolonged, and she grew weak with her efforts. But they dared not attempt a c-section in their rather primitive hospital chamber until it became a matter of life or death.

 

As Sunday faded into Monday, and then into Monday night, Vincent grew frantic. He whispered to Father, "Did I make a horrible mistake, influencing Catherine to have this child? If she...if she were to...die..." His voice choked off as half-formed, enigmatic visions flashed across his eyes. His old nightmare! Was it somehow coming true?

 

Father took him by the shoulders and shook him until he felt his son return to the present. "Don't even think it, Vincent! She is strong. The baby's heartbeat is strong. You must be strong too."

 

Vincent drew in a harsh breath and clutched his abdomen as Catherine's latest contraction swept a wave of agony through him. He could not assist her as he'd wanted, due to his intense physical reaction to her labor. He raged within himself for his uselessness. When Catherine needed him most...! But Geoffrey had stepped in as Catherine's coach, and he had been nothing short of remarkable. Knowing that his son was standing in his place prevented Vincent from descending into total madness over his inability to succor the woman he treasured above all others.

 

Geoffrey sat splay-legged on the bed behind his Mother, cradling her straining form, urging her into her contractions. When she could relax, he took all her weight as she leaned against him. He whispered a constant stream of reassuring words to her as he wiped her brow, encouraging her and praising her efforts. Father was much impressed with his intuitive and compassionate grandson.

 

"Geoffrey, have you ever considered a career in medicine?"

 

Geoffrey looked up, blowing at a stray curl dangling in his eyes, and grinned. "Father, I don't really think this is the best time for career counseling, do you?!" He accepted a bowl of ice from Mary and placed a piece to his Mother's lips, already concentrated fully on her once again.

 

_ _ _

 

"Vincent!!!"

 

"I'm here, Catherine."

 

"Push, Cathy! Push now! I see the baby's head! You're almost done!"

 

"You can do it, Mom! Just a little more, and then you can rest. You're doing great!"

 

Catherine groaned once more, a sound echoed softly by Vincent, and the child was born.

 

Father looked up at Vincent and smiled. "It's a boy!"

 

_ _ _

 

"Would you like to see our son, Catherine?"

 

An exhausted Catherine had been placed on cool clean sheets on another bed in the hospital chamber by Vincent while Mary cleaned the infant and wrapped him in a warm blanket. Now she and Father came toward her, both beaming. Geoffrey's eyes were alight with happiness, and he relinquished his Mother's hand as Vincent reverently took the child from Mary and placed him in Catherine's outstretched arms. She looked down into the face of her new son and astonishment swept her countenance. In amazement she looked up at Vincent. "Dear...God..."

 

Solemn blue eyes gazed unblinkingly at her from a face as familiar as the one she loved more than life. A riot of damp golden curls covered his head, and soft down covered his eyebrow ridges. His cheekbones and muzzle were prominent, but devoid of hair. His little fist waved wildly before his face until instinct took over and he slipped his thumb into the cleft of his upper lip. He began to whimper.

 

""I believe...our son is hungry, Catherine."