EMPTIED OF HER GRACE


 

Catherine entered the dining chamber to find her son there ahead of her, resting on one arm, eyes closed, still obviously sleepy. She had asked him to get up a bit earlier this morning, because she had something she wanted to talk to him about. Most of the men, Vincent included, were on an emergency project, and the chamber was less than half-filled.

 

"Hi, Sweetcheeks!" She planted a loud wet smack on Geoffrey's exposed cheek.

 

He groaned dramatically and whined, "Mo-om!"

 

Despite his reaction, Catherine could see he was secretly delighted that she called him by that nickname and expressed her affection for him so blatantly.

 

Geoffrey realized that he hadn't fooled his Mom in the slightest with his demonstrative "objection" to her loving greeting. Even though the older boys teased him good-naturedly about it, he never asked her to cease making such a display of her affection, nor did he request that she stop using such an unusual nickname. In truth, he loved it when she so lavishly expressed her feelings for him. Besides, in Geoffrey's eyes, his Mom could do no wrong.

 

Catherine set the plates of breakfast down in front of them and took a seat beside him. Then she whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "Here, I scored an extra brownie from William last night, and I hoarded it until this morning just for you." She slipped the napkin-wrapped square from her pocket and placed it in his hand while innocently looking around to see if anyone else noticed.

 

With a Mom as great as mine, thought Geoffrey, is it any wonder everyone adores her! "Thanks!" He made quick work of the treat, before Father could notice and reprimand them both, she for condoning and he for the eating of sweets before breakfast.

 

His Mom was always doing little things like that for him, always making him feel special. He remembered the day a few months ago when she had come Below late from a long day at court, but still had remembered that he'd asked for special art paper for a project he was doing. Usually he made do with scraps and gleanings, as did the other children, but this project was to be a special one, marking his first Mother's Day as Catherine's son, and he desperately wanted it to be just right. She never even questioned his need. Just knowing that it was important to him was enough for her. He marveled at his luck. She was the best!

 

He picked up the last crumbs of the brownie from the napkin with a moistened finger, then carefully wiped all tell-tale traces of brownie from his lips and hands. Presenting his face for inspection, he watched as Catherine looked him over carefully, then nodded in satisfaction. Then they both turned to their breakfasts and began to eat.

 

As they were sponging up the last of the egg on Catherine's plate with their toast -- something else Father abhorred but his Mom encouraged -- she elbowed Geoffrey to catch his eye. When he looked up at her, she inclined her head. They rose as one and brought their plates to the waiting trays, then strolled out of the chamber hand in hand.

 

Father, who had missed absolutely none of their activities from the moment Catherine had entered the room, smiled fondly and continued his meal, listening distractedly to Mary's report on the progress of the renovations in the dormitories.

 

_ _ _

 

As they ambled down a side tunnel which took them away from the Hub, Catherine began to speak of the mysterious "something" which was on her mind. "Geoffrey, I've...made an important decision about...my life, one that will affect you in many ways."

 

She seemed a bit nervous, and Geoffrey swallowed convulsively, picking up her agitation. With a suddenly dry mouth, he responded, "Don't be afraid to tell me anything, Mom, just like you always say to me."

 

Catherine smiled at his oh, so adult reply, but knew she'd probably upset him a bit in her clumsy attempt to start this conversation. Anxious to dispel his worries, she quickly added, "It's nothing bad, honey. I'm sorry if it sounded that way."

 

She felt him relax as he replied, " 'K."

 

They had been walking aimlessly through the tunnels, but now Catherine steered him into a little alcove used as an informal and cozy gathering spot; at this time of the morning, it was deserted. They settled themselves among the overstuffed patchwork pillows on the bench lining the rock wall.

 

Catherine took one of Geoffrey's hands in both of hers, and for a time she just stroked his hand, tracing his fingers against one palm. Then she lifted his hand, kissed it, and replaced it by his side. He looked up at her then and nodded encouragingly.

 

"Before the adoption ceremony and the Joining, we all discussed what our home life would be like. It seemed very important to your Dad...and, to some extent, to me...that I continue my work Above. With everyone Below to take care of you during the day, and with Vincent engaged in his work details, there really wasn't any need for me to remain Below. As I recall, you didn't offer an opinion, but you never once complained about that arrangement in the six months since, so I assume....?"

Geoffrey interrupted her. "I don't mind it, really. Your work helps people, Dad said. And you're real good at it."

 

She nodded solemnly. "I appreciate you saying that, sweetheart. But...and neither you nor your Dad ever knew this, because I kept it a secret...I didn't really want to continue working Above. I wanted to come Below and live as a full member of this society, right from the start of our family."

 

The youngster's face registered surprise...and anger. "Then why didn't you?"

 

"Excuse me?" Catherine was puzzled by his reaction.

 

Geoffrey persisted. "Why didn't you? I always wanted you to. I'd love it if you stayed Below with us all the time!"

 

Surprised at his vehemence, she stuttered, "R-r-really?"

 

He nodded vigorously. "Didn't you know that?"

 

"Well...no. Whenever we discussed it...."

 

He shrugged. "I know, I never said. But Dad always told me that you should be free to live in both worlds, that we shouldn't ask too much of you, that we should be grateful for the time you give to us. And I am grateful, Mom! You're the best, really...the best!" He heaved a heavy sigh, guilty about the selfishness he was about to confess. "But...I miss you a lot. Some nights when you work late, or on weekends when you have to go Above for interviews or whatever, I get lonely for you."

 

"You...get lonely for me?"

 

He nodded.

 

Catherine lowered her eyes, unable to meet his earnest look. "Sometimes...sometimes I get so lonely for you and your Dad that I cry. I feel so torn. I know Vincent is very proud of the work I do, and it's important to him that I maintain my life Above...but...." Her voice trailed away. Could she admit to her son what she couldn't seem to say to her own Bondmate? "I think I only continued doing it because...because he...insisted. He kept saying that nothing would have to change...and I guess I just went along with it."

 

Geoffrey looked up at her hopefully. "But now...you've changed your mind?"

 

She had tears in her eyes as she responded, "Yes." She gave him a rueful grin. "I just...don't want that anymore. My whole life --everything...and everyone..." She reached for him and hugged him hard, then went on, "...that's important to me -- it's all here. My heart is here, my thoughts are here...I want to be here."

 

"So...what's the problem?" The brow above his soft brown eyes was crinkled in confusion.

 

"I guess...I expected some...argument from you and your Dad."

 

He grinned. "You won't get any from me!"

 

She laughed, delighted. "I can see that! Thank you, sweetheart. I hope your Dad is as happy to hear this as you."

 

_ _ _

 

Bolstered by her son's enthusiasm about her decision, Catherine had relaxed her guard when she spoke of it to Vincent. She realized now that she shouldn't have. His response had been immediate...and extremely negative. What had started as a quiet discussion over tea before bedtime had turned into a quarrel, and each of them was amazed and startled at how quickly it was turning into a full-blown argument. In all their time together, they had never been as upset with each other as they were now -- and neither could figure out exactly why.

 

Now, almost in tears, Catherine hurled her confusion at Vincent. "But I don't understand! Don't you want me here?"

 

Her frustration and distress communicated themselves clearly through their Bond. Sharp flares of psychic pain assailed Vincent as he attempted to explain, his own frustration growing incendiary. "It's not a matter of my wanting you here, Catherine! You have spent thirty-two years of your life Above. You have so many who love you, depend on you there. And in the important work you are doing, you represent the aspirations and dreams of...of all of us here Below. I cannot stand silently by as you turn your back on all you have achieved there, on all your ties. To do this...even for me, for Geoffrey...would be to deny a part of yourself. I could not live with myself, knowing that." He rose from his chair and began to pace, trying to dispel the anxiety that was building within him.

 

"I'm not running away from anything, if that's what you fear -- I'm running toward something. Toward the rest of my life. Toward a more complete commitment to everything that Below has come to mean to me. Toward the fulfillment of my dreams. Why can't you understand that?" Her tears flowed freely now, and she was angry at herself for not being able to stem them. They made her argument seem overly emotional when what she wanted most was to appear calm and rational. But his obstinate resistance to her decision had robbed her of her cool demeanor, her sensible manner. She was deeply hurt and indignant now, and her physical reaction was an embarrassment to her. Viciously, she swiped at her cheeks, slapping the offending evidence of her tears away.

His anger clear through the stiff lines of his back, through his refusal to meet her eyes, he spat, "Does it matter if I understand or not, Catherine? You made this decision without consulting me. From what you have told me, it would be difficult to change your mind now."

 

Sullenly, she replied, "But not impossible, Vincent. I could pull back my letter of resignation. I'm sure Joe would leap at the chance to tear it up. And I could talk to my lawyers again, remove them from actively handling my financial affairs. Nothing's set in stone."

 

He stopped pacing then and stared at her, a small spark of hope in his eyes. "Will you?"

 

She faced him down, defiant. "No."

 

In a soft whisper, he implored, "Not even if I ask?"

 

Throwing her hands up in frustration, she pleaded, "Oh, God, Vincent! Don't do this to me! I need to be Below on a more permanent basis -- for myself, for you, for Geoffrey. Don't tell me I should continue with a life Above when it's not what I want anymore! Being here -- that's what I want! If this was a few years ago, I'd understand your reticence. But...we're Joined now. We're a family. My son needs me here...wants me here. Why don't you?"

 

Unable to withstand the encounter any longer, he dismissed her question. "Do what you wish, Catherine." He left the room then, left her standing in the middle of their common chamber, chilled to the soul.

 

_ _ _

 

As he entered their bedchamber, Vincent's precarious control snapped. He began to shiver, the force of his emotional turmoil breaking down even his physical resistance. He collapsed into his great oaken chair, clutching his arms in a vain attempt to still his shaking muscles. Torn by conflicting desires, his body shuddered while his mind swirled in a vortex of confusion.

 

How could he express to Catherine his true reasons for opposing her? Although he had longed with all his heart for the moment when she would truly become a part of his world, deep within he had always felt that such a move would be a terrible mistake. She was a creature of light and air, a being nurtured and supported in the ever-changing, ever-varied atmosphere of Above. She had thrived there long before she became bound to him, long before she had entwined her life inextricably with his. And she deserved all that her world offered. He had hoped that when she had Joined with him, the blending of their worlds would be enough for her, that she could retain her connection with her own life Above while becoming more involved in everyday life Below. But he understood now that in his need for her to be with him, he had been blind to her next, obvious step -- abandonment of her world.

 

He feared that she had sensed his unrevealed, desperate desire for her to be always within touch. Since she had moved with him to these chambers, how he had rejoiced in the nearness of her, the feeling of completeness whenever he thought of her lying close by his side. But had his secret yearning for her influenced her, until she thought those desires her own? And now, out of a misguided sense of duty, was she going to turn her back on all that had made her, that had sustained her, and become a creature of his own dark world? How much he had wished for this! And how appalling that selfishness was to him. How could he allow her to make such a sacrifice? Lost in his torment, he was unable to move, unable even to reach out for the comforting touch of Catherine's soul through their Bond.

 

_ _ _

 

Catherine did not follow him into their private chamber, although Vincent walking away from her, their discussion unresolved, was a bitter pill to swallow. Her heart was beating wildly and she could barely breathe -- she felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. She didn't think she'd ever let someone walk out on her in the middle of an argument before. As Jenny would say, it "pushed all her buttons," and not in a good way. She opened her mouth to call him back, intent on demanding that he return and finish their discussion. But, just as the first word was about to leave her lips, she abruptly closed her mouth and stilled her protest. Perhaps it would be better to let the tension between them dissipate somewhat before trying to speak to him again -- although what she would say to him, she hadn't a clue.

 

Her thoughts reeled in her mind, disconnected, confused, disoriented. What had happened to the man who had once told her that his dream was that one day she would come to live Below? Was he trying to tell her that his dream was fulfilled by her spending the spare bits and pieces of her time with him? Did he, perhaps, regret that they had Joined? She couldn't imagine either being true -- they'd been almost deliriously happy together since she'd moved Below, despite the time they still had to spend apart. She knew that he wanted her here with him, that he treasured her company. So why would more of a good thing be so terrible for him to contemplate?

 

Shaking her head, she allowed herself to weep now, letting the bitter tears flow as they would. Curled up on the loveseat, she buried her face in her hands and cried. For long minutes she sat there, feeling disowned, unwanted. She was startled when she felt a small hand on her shoulder. Looking up sharply, she saw with chagrin the concerned, frightened face of her son.

 

"Mom! What's the matter?" He climbed up onto the loveseat and knelt beside her, patting her back awkwardly, trying to offer comfort.

 

She sniffed and attempted to wipe her eyes free of the damning tears. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. You shouldn't be seeing me this way."

 

"Wh-what happened?" Seeing his beloved Mom in such a state made his stomach feel queasy. Unsettled now, tears began to prick his own eyes.

 

Reaching out to him, Catherine gathered him into her embrace and rocked him gently, smoothing his crisp brown curls and stroking his face. "I'll be OK, sweetheart. I'm just...feeling a little sorry for myself right now. Sometimes adults have to act like children...to get it out of their systems. Understand?"

 

He didn't. His Mom wasn't acting childish -- she was hurting, bad. He could tell. What was she trying to protect him from? "Did you and Dad...have a fight?"

 

Shaking her head, she replied, "Not really a fight, Geoffrey. More like a...a difference of opinion. We both feel strongly about something...and right now we can't see any way past our differences. But we will. We'll work it out. I promise you." She smiled hopefully at him, wanting him to be comforted.

 

But he persisted. He was part of this family, and he wanted to know what had made his Mom cry. He hated it when she cried, and he'd do anything to make things better for her. Turning in her arms, he faced her and demanded, "What was your fight about? Please, tell me?"

 

With a resigned sigh, Catherine realized she wasn't going to be able to put him off. He was a caring and perceptive child, and she knew he wouldn't sleep well if she tried to send him away with no real explanation. Taking his face in her hands, she smiled bravely and kissed his forehead, then his cheeks, and finally his sweet, freckled nose. "Sometimes I think I make you grow up too fast." She inhaled deeply, then said, "OK. I told your Dad of my decision to quit my job and stay Below. He...doesn't want me to."

 

The young boy's eyes grew round with disbelief. "Is he nuts?"

 

"Geoffrey," Catherine chided in an admonishing tone.

 

But he wouldn't be silenced. "How can he want you to be away from us so much? I don't understand!"

 

She smiled gently as she informed him, "You know, most women would feel blessed to have a husband who is so proud of his wife's career, who is so supportive and encouraging. Maybe I'm not being fair to him, Geoffrey. I may not be right, you know."

 

He hugged her and mumbled miserably against her shoulder, "Well, I love you...and I want you here with us...always!"

 

Her soft breath stirred his curls as she said, "Oh, honey, I know you do. I wish I could tell you it's that easy. But it's not. We have to consider your Dad's feelings, too. I wouldn't upset him for the world...and this decision of mine has upset him. How can I ignore his concerns?"

 

Arguing still, he responded, "Well, how can he ignore us?"

 

Catherine smiled sadly. "He's not. Geoffrey, please try to understand -- your Dad's feelings are just as valid as ours. And he and I need to discuss this some more, to discover what the real stumbling blocks are. But I promise you, even if this is not the time, one day it will be. One day I'll come Below for good. We just need to cherish that hope, keep it in our hearts, OK?"

 

Holding her son close, she shushed his further objections. He wrapped his arms around her tightly and squeezed. She responded, gathering him more firmly against her, as thankful for his affectionate embrace as he was for the comfort of her arms.

 

_ _ _

 

Vincent's painful introspection was interrupted as he heard the sound of voices in the outer chamber. He listened as his beloved defended his actions to their son. Despite her own confusion and despair -- which throbbed through their Bond with such force it almost drove him to his knees -- she refused to engage young Geoffrey as an ally. Even knowing how powerful the combined emotional pull of Bondmate and son would be, she would not draw the boy into their disagreement. He marveled at her sense of fair play -- in stark contrast to his so rudely dismissive remarks to her earlier. He was ashamed of his curtness, his coldness, when he knew she only wanted to reason with him.

 

"Reason" -- what a word for the argument they'd been having. He knew that, in Catherine's mind, his "reasons" were unfathomable. She was, after all, only trying to follow her heart. He sighed heavily. He could never make her understand his feelings about this hasty and permanent abandonment of her former life. His objections would always seem "unreasonable" to her.

 

And Geoffrey -- he saw this situation through the child's eyes. To the young boy, it must seem that his own Dad was trying to keep his Mother out of his life. What possible explanation would an eleven year old accept? No. Despite his serious misgivings, he could no longer voice his opposition. No matter how justified his fears, this was something that had to be. He prayed fervently that Catherine would not come to regret this monumental alteration in her life.

 

Deep within him, a kernel of apprehension took root in his subconscious and found fertile ground upon which to grow.

 

_ _ _

 

Neither of them heard Vincent enter the chamber, but suddenly he loomed before them. They both looked up, startled at his silent approach.

 

He gazed down on them for a long time, at the woman of his deepest desires and the boy who had become a son to him. They were both miserable, both desperate to be together. Who was he to try to prevent them from achieving their fondest dream? His further resistance would only drive a wedge between those he loved and himself. He could no longer stand in their way. Their happiness -- Catherine's and Geoffrey's -- was more important than anything else.

 

The tension in the chamber surged and vibrated as Catherine and Geoffrey waited to hear what Vincent would say. Neither of them attempted to make any argument, they just waited uneasily as the silence grew longer. Then, within their Bond, Catherine felt the first stirrings of...regret? Remorse? Resignation?

 

Vincent expelled a long breath and knelt before them. Without a word, he leaned toward them and caught them up in his powerful embrace. His voice a husky whisper, he declared, "I love you both...so much...."

 

Geoffrey braved his Dad's wrath, asking breathlessly, "Can Mom stay Below?"

 

Vincent looked gravely into his son's eyes. "It was never a matter of your Mother staying or going, Geoffrey -- but...yes, I shall abide by her decision. If she wishes to leave her job, her life Above, she shall."

 

Shocked by his sudden capitulation, Catherine was apprehensive. What she was catching through their Bond felt more like surrender than acceptance. She pulled away from his embrace and gave him a frankly disbelieving look.

 

Vincent smiled and nodded. "I accept your decision, Catherine. If it is what you wish, what Geoffrey wishes...then I support it."

 

Unused to the subtle interplay of adult emotions and how language could veil meaning, Geoffrey took his Dad strictly at his word. He started jumping up and down on the outraged springs of the little sofa, shouting, "Yessss! Whooo-HOOOO!!!"

 

Both Catherine and Vincent laughed aloud at his obvious pleasure. When they turned to look at each other again, they found understanding, forgiveness...and love in each other's eyes. And that was enough. That was everything.