THE HOUR WHICH MIGHT HAVE BEEN

 


Catherine stood outside the younger boys' dormitory and called out, "Geoffrey? Are you around?"

 

From far down a nearby tunnel, she heard him respond, "Catherine? I didn't know you were coming Below today!"

 

Geoffrey changed course, giving his buddies a wave and a "Catch up with you later!" as he barreled back down the tunnel in the direction of Catherine's voice. He did not check as he reached her, but ran to her in a way that Catherine secretly referred to as his "full tilt boogie" -- straight into her waiting arms. They engaged in a satisfyingly long hug, then held each other at arm's length to inspect for changes since they'd last been together over a week before.

 

Having previously discussed his recent growth spurt, she teased, "I swear you've grown half an inch, Geoffrey!"

 

He gazed back at her adoringly, taking in everything about her. "You got your hair cut, Catherine! I like it that way."

 

With those preliminaries out of the way, they turned in silent agreement and walked back to the dormitory chamber Geoffrey shared with Kipper, Eric and Zak.

 

Geoffrey had been the driving force behind the resolution of the gravest threat to her and Vincent's dream, and since then, Catherine had become more than a close but casual friend to him. He had prevented Vincent from making a tragic mistake in the aftermath of the terrible illness that had befallen him, when Vincent decided that the only way he could prevent the fulfillment of the dark nightmare he had lived through was to force Catherine to leave him. The youngster, through courage and quick thinking, had convinced Vincent to reassess his decision, and Vincent had allowed Catherine back into his life. Since then, the Bondmates were closer than ever, both shocked by the vision of the bleak future apart that had almost become their fate into a dearer appreciation of each other.

 

Because of his extraordinary defense of her right to happiness, Catherine became more aware of how special a child Geoffrey was. She began to look on the young boy as family, and he, for his part, was happy and grateful for the special attention she showered on him. He wished fervently that he could have someone as wonderful as Catherine for a mother, but he realized the impossibility of such a thing. It was enough that she cared for him and spent time with him. He knew he shouldn't be greedy.

 

Catherine, as Geoffrey knew she would, asked him what he'd been up to since they had last been together. He related his adventures in the park that past Saturday, and described a particularly graphic dream he'd had about saving those Below from some monster from Above. Catherine listened gravely to all he said. She never dismissed the topics of his conversation, but always was intent and interested when he spoke. Most adults didn't have the time or inclination to listen to a little boy's chatter, didn't realize how important it was to be made to feel significant and special. Catherine knew.

 

When he wound down, she asked to see his recent school work. She reviewed with pleasure one of his short stories, which Vincent had graded "B+" ("He's a tough grader," Geoffrey asserted), and cocked her eyebrow at the math test marked "C," causing Geoffrey to blush and mumble something about knowing he needed to try harder. He had saved the best for last, though.

 

Geoffrey had told Catherine over a month ago that he had started an ambitious history project, but he'd been keeping it under wraps, declaring she could not see the work in progress, but only the finished product. She was more than a little curious about it. He had hinted only that it was to be a modern interpretation of a 16th century castle, and the idea intrigued her. Now, slowly, Geoffrey led her to a corner table where a very lumpy "something" was hidden beneath an old quilt. Today, it seemed, was to be the grand unveiling. With a self-conscious formality, he pulled the covering away to reveal what lay beneath.

 

Catherine knew that the youngster had a vivid imagination, and she was anticipating a delightful surprise. Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the work of art he presented to her astonished eyes. When she finally found her voice, Catherine spoke in an awed whisper. "Oh, Geoffrey, this is...magnificent. Have you shown it to Father yet?"

 

Geoffrey was excited and proud that he had obviously impressed Catherine with his handiwork. "No, you're the first one who's seen it. 'Course, Zak and the other guys have seen me working on it, but I did it mostly when they were out, so no one's really seen it finished, 'cept you."

 

Her eyes shone with pleasure. "I'm not showing partiality because we're friends, honest. I know men who are architects, and they would be very impressed by this. Not only is it beautiful in general, but you show a real talent for design." She began to inspect the model from different angles, marveling at what was revealed. It looked liked an architectural rendering, it was so sophisticated and detailed. "Just look at those corner windows, and the wonderful drawbridge effect!" She studied it in silence for a while, then remarked, "There's so much to look at. I wouldn't mind living in a mansion like this myself!"

 

The boy smiled shyly. "That's what I was imagining when I built it. I was thinking, 'What kind of house would Catherine love?' and that's what I came up with!"

 

She looked at the young man in wonder. "You are truly an amazing kid, Geoffrey." Her eyes turned mischievous. "Of course, it couldn't really be perfect unless there was tunnel access!"

 

Solemnly, Geoffrey lifted a wall, exposing the interior of the model to view. "There, Catherine. That's how Vincent would get in to visit you."

 

She could see the doorway and steps leading from a basement area. She marveled at his acuity. "Then it is perfect!"

 

Geoffrey nodded in satisfaction. He really didn't care what grade Father gave him now. He had the approval of the person who meant the most to him. That was all that mattered. Suddenly, he noticed a large form hovering in the entrance to his dormitory room. "Vincent? You can come in!"

 

The cloaked figure hung back. "I don't mean to intrude. I thought I heard Catherine's voice, and..."

 

"Vincent, please come see this," Catherine urged, going to him and taking his hand to draw him inside. "I'm sure Geoffrey would value your opinion of his history project."

 

He was soon absorbed by the model, remarking on various aspects of the design. Finally, he pronounced his opinion: "It is the best model I have ever seen, Geoffrey. You must be very proud -- it is quite an accomplishment. I am sure Father will be impressed."

 

Geoffrey beamed. "Catherine likes it!" was all he said.

 

Catherine glanced quickly at Vincent, then took Geoffrey's hand and sat down to speak to him. "I know I took you away from your friends earlier, sweetheart. Thank you for sharing this with me. I'm honored I was the first person you showed it to. Now, why don't you join the guys, and I'll see you later at dinner." She gave him a quick squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. Geoffrey nodded, gave her a shy kiss in return, then ran out the door.

 

Vincent smiled down at her as she carefully replaced the quilt over Geoffrey's creation. "You have come to mean much to him, Catherine. He treasures your attention, and he has blossomed under it."

 

Tilting her head, she considered his comments, then sighed. "I wish I could do more for him. I've come to love him very much, Vincent, you know that. I feel that somehow he's getting lost here Below. He has lots of loving hands to guide him, but he's not really getting the kind of one-on-one attention that could spark his growth to his full potential." Realizing she sounded critical of his Tunnel family's care, she quickly added, "I'm not saying anyone's neglecting him. I just have a feeling he needs a lot more encouragement and positive reinforcement than other children. If he had parents...."

He replied, nodding and sighing in return, "I know what you mean, Catherine. Father and I and the others try, but there are so many orphans here, and we must give each a measure of our attention. The Samanthas of our world demand and receive an inordinate share, I'm afraid, leaving the quiet children, like Geoffrey, to get a bit less than they need."

 

Catherine hesitated, then spoke of what had been on her mind increasingly over the past few months. "I've been thinking, Vincent. Geoffrey and I have an extraordinary attachment to each other. I'm not sure how it happened, but it's there. He needs someone special in his life, as you said. And I don't feel I can give him that, seeing him only a few times a month. So what I've been contemplating is...adopting him. What do you think?"

 

Vincent was stunned by her suggestion. He knew Catherine's life was very complicated, and couldn't imagine her complicating it still further by taking on the care of a child. "Catherine, what you are suggesting...have you thought about the amount of time and work it would be? You would have sole responsibility for a child's life. I know you care for him, but do you understand the consequences of what you have in mind?"

 

Catherine nodded. "I've been thinking of little else recently. I know I'd have to make a lot of adjustments in my life." She began to tick items off on her fingers. "Find a bigger apartment, enroll him in school, plan regular meals, get a job that allows me to have more normal hours so I can be there to check his homework, become involved in his life and activities, plan for his college education...there is much to consider." Crinkling her brow and shaking her head, she continued, "But I love the little guy, Vincent, and he's worth the trouble and time and everything else I'd have to do. He deserves a good start in life. You have done as much as you can for him, but I can do more, and I want to do more."

 

Vincent turned slightly away from her, bowing his head, and his next words were muffled slightly by the long blond mane that fell about his face. "You would...leave your apartment, Catherine?"

 

She wrapped herself around him and hugged him until he lifted his head. Looking straight into his captivating eyes, she replied, "I would find a better apartment, Vincent. One with more convenient tunnel access, with more privacy than the one I have now. Remember...you are my priority. I would never do anything to jeopardize our relationship or our time together."

 

In quiet, measured tones, he commented, "But what you are proposing will permanently alter both our relationship and our time together, Catherine." Then, shaking his head, unhappy with how he had expressed his concern, he said, "That sounds selfish, and I didn't mean it to." Earnestly, trying to explain his feelings, he went on. "Geoffrey deserves to have a parent who would love him and guide him. Father's special love and care made all the difference in my life, and I know you would do the same for Geoffrey. But we must face facts, Catherine. You will not have much...spare time to come Below, and your weekends will be devoted to your...son."

Protesting his conclusions, she countered, "Just because I'd adopt him wouldn't mean I'd cut him off from the only friends and family he's got! For that matter, I have friends and family here Below, too, and I don't plan to abandon them!" Seeing the apprehension on her beloved's face, she hugged him tightly, sending a wave of comfort and love through their Bond.

 

In her heart, she acknowledged the complications her decision would entail -- for both of them. Admitting he had cause for his concern, she added, "We have a lot to discuss, Vincent. I know this won't be easy. But I promise, we'll keep talking and thinking and planning until we work everything out to our mutual satisfaction. Only then will I put the plans in motion. Do you promise to work with me, and not give up on us in the process?"

 

Catherine tugged gently at Vincent's hair as she asked her last question, and Vincent was forced to smile in response. Catherine thought she read in that smile that everything would be all right -- that somehow, they would make it work.

 

To Vincent, his smile was one of resignation. This relationship with Geoffrey was so important to Catherine that she was willing to change her life for it. And it would make all the difference in the young boy's life, to have a mother as remarkable as Catherine to come home to every night. He swallowed a bitter pill of regret that he had never given Catherine another reason to change her life so radically, had never asked her for a real commitment to their dream. For all that he had talked of "someday," he knew he was always, subtly but insistently, pushing her away from him. If he had only told her how he truly felt, what he so desperately wanted and needed from her, maybe.... No. Even if once it had been possible...that time had passed. It was too late. Now, such dreams were confined permanently to shadow and darkness. They were swept away by this new passion of Catherine's, this commitment to a child who would be her world. He, Vincent, must accept a secondary role in her life. It was better than nothing. And...perhaps...it was for the best.

 

Despite her first impression, Catherine became puzzled by the strange look in Vincent's eyes, even though he had smiled in response to her question. She had not raised the idea of this adoption with him earlier because she'd wanted time to work out a lot of the issues beforehand, and today's conversation had made her reveal her intentions before she was ready. She knew now that was a mistake. She could sense his surprise, his apprehension...and something more. Something was...closing down in him. Now, as they walked to Father's chamber, she felt their Bond getting perceptibly weaker. She knew she needed to delve into the cause with him, but before she had time to think more about it, he surprised her.

 

The older man turned as they entered, and a delighted smile lit his face as he saw Catherine. "Ah, you are finally here, my dear. Come in. Come in!"

 

She was about to reply to his welcome when Vincent suddenly said, "Father, Catherine has some news to discuss with you. I think you will be very pleased to hear it."

Catherine started at this unexpected announcement. What could he be thinking? Why would he bring the subject up before they'd had a chance to work out the details? Father would be awash in questions they couldn't answer yet. It was almost as if...as if Vincent were somehow...distancing himself from the situation, knowing that Father would take the idea and run with it now.

 

Father was gazing at Catherine expectantly. She shot an irritated glance at his son that Father did not miss, but then she revealed her news. "Well, Father, it's not really a full-blown plan yet -- just the germ of an idea, really. There are lots of details to work out. But...as I just recently mentioned to Vincent, I am thinking of formally adopting Geoffrey."

 

Father eyed Vincent surreptitiously as Catherine spoke. He noted the grim set of Vincent's mouth and the way he averted his eyes from Catherine...and his parent. Something was going on here. The undercurrents would have to be explored -- later. Right now, he would concentrate on Catherine's unexpected and rather remarkable proposition.

 

With a rare burst of enthusiasm, Father remarked, "A splendid idea, Catherine! Young Geoffrey is quite fond of you, I know, and he would be very lucky to have you for a mother." Pausing a moment, realizing his comments might dampen her excitement, he took a deep breath before continuing. "I must tell you, though, that the way he came to live with us was somewhat...irregular. He...disappeared from your world many years ago. He has no idea what his last name is...or even if he was born in New York, so finding his birth certificate would be an insurmountable task. He's never been enrolled in any school Above and he has no acceptable explanation for where he has been for the past few years. I don't know what roadblocks you might find in your way should he suddenly reappear, and in your custody. It might prove extremely difficult to adopt him according to the formal procedures of your world."

 

Understanding that he wasn't trying to dissuade her, but merely pointing out potential problems, Catherine nodded. "I realize things might be difficult, Father. As I said, I haven't had time to work everything out." Catherine voiced her list of considerations, letting Father know that she comprehended and accepted the many obstacles which would have to be overcome. Then, throwing another exasperated glance at Vincent, who had said nothing during the discussion, she summed up. "Vincent has promised to assist me in figuring out the particulars."

 

"Well, now that you've presented the proposition to me, I'm sure among the three of us we will shortly have all the problems ironed out. Don't you agree, Vincent?" Father deliberately turned to his son, hoping to draw him into the conference.

 

Vincent tilted his head in acknowledgment, then said quietly, "Of course, Father." But his entire posture spoke of a different response. One leg on the bottom step of the stairs leading up to the entranceway, his frame leaning gingerly against the railing there, arms folded in front of him, his body language indicated that he wished to remain as distant from further discussion as possible.

 

Father could sense Catherine's growing unease at Vincent's lack of enthusiasm. He felt he had to do or say something quickly, to preserve the momentum of her selfless suggestion, before she withdrew it in the face of some so-far-unknown objection on Vincent's part. What was his son's problem? Then, suddenly, the ideal answer to the situation presented itself, full-blown and flawless.

 

Quite pleased with himself, Father informed her, "I have an excellent idea, Catherine, if I do credit myself. This would resolve the thorny legal issues as well as the other concerns you raised -- a new apartment, regular meals, day care, a good school." He indicated she should sit, then took a chair beside hers and reached out to clasp one of her hands in both of his own. How he was going to enjoy the look on her face when he revealed his plan!

 

"Your work means a good deal to you, my dear, and I know you would prefer to keep working where you are doing so much to help others. Now, as for Geoffrey -- currently he benefits from having an extended family. Also, he is advancing quickly in many classes here Below, and extensive tutoring is available to him for those subjects with which he needs more assistance. As Michael's success at university so amply demonstrates, we provide an exceptional educational environment for our children here, one which could not be equaled in your public schools Above, and which might be the equal of even the better private schools. I'm sure you'd agree." He didn't need Catherine's nod to spur him on.

 

"So, here's my suggestion. Adopt Geoffrey, but do it here Below. And...you come Below to live among us. We would provide you and your son with your own quarters so you could live as a family. Geoffrey would continue his studies among his friends, and would participate in the community life he has come to know and love. You need not worry about day care or meals, but come Below each night and be here for Geoffrey as much as other parents Below are here for their children. Your basement entrance was never meant for that kind of traffic, but with Mouse's help we could find a more secure way for you to enter our world. What do you think?" Father smiled with evident self-satisfaction as he looked from Catherine to Vincent and back.

 

Catherine was dumbfounded. Father was suggesting that she move Below?! But she saw the overwhelming merits in the proposal, and could not, at first blush, find any fault with it. "I'm sure we'd have a lot to work out, but it sounds...perfect, Father. Truly perfect!" She smiled in gratitude and relief. It was coming together faster than she'd thought possible.

 

Father's smile broadened. "Yes, well, there's just the formality of a Council vote, then. As you know, Catherine, except in emergency situations, we accept new residents only upon a unanimous vote of the Council. In your case, I doubt there will be any objections. Don't you agree, Vincent?" Father's eyes twinkled as he urged his son to second what he was sure would be a more than acceptable idea to him.

 

Vincent would not look either of them in the eye. He seemed to have a hard time finding his voice, but when he did, he said, "Father, Catherine...forgive me. I cannot give my approval to such a proposal." Then, as quickly as he had dropped the verbal bomb, he was up the stairs and gone, leaving a stunned Father and Catherine in his wake.

 

Catherine recovered first, fighting down the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. "Well, that's it, I guess." She patted Father's hand to soothe his outrage. "Don't worry, Father, I'll work things out another way. Thank you for the offer, though. You'll never know how much it meant to me." She kissed him on the cheek and rose to leave, but the kiss had jolted Father into recovering his powers of speech.

 

Truly indignant, he sputtered, "I fail to understand my son's reaction. Why would he object to such a perfect solution? I'll have a word with him straightaway and demand some satisfactory explanation."

 

Catherine had turned back to him as Father began to rant, and now she put out a restraining hand. "No, please, Father. Vincent has a right as a member of the Council to vote his conscience. He could have waited for the vote at the meeting, when his objection would have been anonymous. That he has chosen to tell us now how he would vote will avoid any...unpleasantness...later, in front of the whole community."

 

She took a deep breath, trying to still the quaver in her voice. When she continued, she had mastered it -- somewhat. "I appreciate his honesty. It couldn't have been easy for him to tell us. So you mustn't try to change his mind, please. If he wouldn't be comfortable with me living Below, it's best that we know that now, before any further plans are made."

 

Sensing that the older man was concerned that she might have second thoughts about the adoption in light of Vincent's reaction, she sought to ease his mind. "This changes nothing, Father. I'll still try to adopt Geoffrey, and he'll still have his extended family. I'll make sure he has ample opportunity to come Below for visits and stays. It will be more difficult, I won't deny that, but...we'll deal with the problems as they come up, OK?"

 

She waited for the Tunnel patriarch to nod in agreement, then continued in as rational, matter-of-fact a voice as she could muster. "OK. I'll start the ball rolling Above -- contact Child Welfare Services, check on adoption procedures, research private schools which might accept his home-schooled skills. And I'll start looking for another job and apartment immediately. I think I'd better stop at the bookstore and buy a couple of cookbooks, too!" She got a smile out of him with that last comment, as she'd intended.

 

She leaned down to place a grateful kiss on his furrowed brow. "I'll consult with you, of course, every step of the way. But first, I need to talk to Geoffrey. If he doesn't want this, I wouldn't force it on him."

 

Catherine left to find the youngster, leaving Father confused and angry at the sudden and complete ruin of his "perfect" solution. He wasn't sure why his son had rejected the idea so utterly, but he meant to find out, regardless that Catherine had urged him to leave the situation alone.

 

_ _ _

 

Geoffrey, returning to his dormitory chamber, was surprised to find Catherine there waiting for him. "Hi! I thought I was gonna meet you in the dining chamber later?"

 

Shrugging, she admitted, "That was the plan, but I need to talk to you about something important, and I don't want to do it at dinner with lots of other people around. Do you have time now?"

 

The young boy nodded. "Sure! Can we talk while we walk to Vincent's chamber? I have to drop off some books I borrowed that I promised I'd return today. I forgot all about giving them back to him when he was here earlier."

 

Catherine smiled and said, "That'll be OK, as long as you let me carry half the books!"

 

Geoffrey handed her several volumes, but she noted that he kept the weightier ones for himself. He constantly surprised her with the depth of his thoughtfulness. She hoped that she could nurture and sustain the special spirit inside this child -- he was truly an extraordinary boy, and she knew in her heart he would grow to be an exceptional man.

 

As they walked, Catherine formulated her approach on this delicate subject. She wanted to present the option as dispassionately as possible, so he would not be unduly influenced by her desires in the matter. Finally, cautiously, she began. "Geoffrey, I hope you know that I care for you a great deal."

 

Looking up at her adoringly, shyly, he replied, "I know. And...and...I love you, too, Catherine!"

 

She smiled. So much for being dispassionate! "You are so special to me that...I...I'd like you to become my family. What would you think about having me for your Mom?"

 

Geoffrey stopped dead and stared open-mouthed at Catherine. In a shocked whisper, he stuttered, "Y-y-you...want to...adopt me?"

 

Kneeling to be closer to him, she responded, "I want that more than anything, sweetheart. But only if that's what you want, too."

 

As if unsure of what he'd heard, he begged for confirmation. "You want me to come live with you?"

 

Seeking to reassure him, she explained, "Yes, but more than that. I want you to be my son. If I adopted you, our lives would be joined as closely as if we were related by blood. We couldn't change our minds. If we had an argument, or you were disappointed in something I did, or I was unhappy about your grades, we couldn't just call it quits. We'd have to stick it out, get over it, forgive each other and move on. Do you understand? It would be a 'forever' thing."

 

Breathless now, his heart pounding wildly, he could barely get the words out. "How did you know?"

 

She was confused by the unexpected question. "How did I know...what?"

 

"That's what I've wished for...so hard. It's my most secret wish. I wanted it so bad. I've prayed and hoped that you could be my Mom." His admissions came shyly, haltingly. "Once I almost asked you if you would adopt me, but I figured you'd think I was being stupid, so I didn't." He stopped, then continued in a soft voice, "Can I call you Mom?"

 

With a look of wonder on her face, Catherine caught and held his gaze, vowing, "If that's what you'd like to call me, I'd love it. And Geoffrey, never be afraid to tell me anything again...anything at all. I will always be here for you. You'll always have me."

 

The young boy unleashed a torrent of words now, freed by Catherine's affirmation of her love for him. "I promise I'll always be good! I promise I won't ever do anything to make you change your mind, or wish you hadn't adopted me! I promise...."

 

Catherine laughed and, dumping the books on the floor of the tunnel, reached out to gather Geoffrey in a big bear hug. "You don't have to promise me anything, honey. Just knowing you love me enough to want me to be your Mom is enough for me. That's my promise."

 

Vincent and Father came upon this scene as they accompanied each other to the dining chamber. Father was arguing a point as they walked, while the younger, bigger man inclined his head and listened politely, if distractedly.

 

Vincent had caught the sound of murmuring voices long before Father, his hearing being naturally more acute. He had heard Geoffrey tell Catherine how he had almost asked her to adopt him once but had lost his nerve, and how she had responded: Never be afraid to tell me anything. He had more reason than Geoffrey to know of Catherine's love for him, of her need for him in her life, of her desires, of her "secret wishes." Even though they had never really spoken of these things, the feelings had surged, at times flooded, from her through their Bond. Yet he, too, was afraid to tell Catherine almost anything, needing yet fearing her response.

 

The conversation with Father was proving frustrating and inconclusive. It had started when the older man had hobbled determinedly into his chamber, adamant in his assertion that Catherine's move Below was the best solution for all concerned. His position had not surprised Vincent as much as it might have even a few months ago.

 

Father's feelings toward Catherine had changed over the years, from bare tolerance to grudging respect to guarded acceptance to total capitulation to her charms. He now considered Catherine to be like a daughter, so it was natural that he would pursue with single-minded fervor his belief that Catherine should move Below and become a part of their community, for Geoffrey's sake, if for no other reason.

 

Father could not conceive of why his son would not agree to the move, would not accept the rightness of it. Surely he loved Catherine? Hadn't Vincent done nothing but argue that point for years? And had Father not ultimately come to agree that he should have whatever life he thought might be possible with Catherine?

 

Vincent had noted that Father did not pry anymore into his relationship with Catherine. He just assumed, however wrongly, that, since his own strong objections had been removed, the two had made inevitable progress in their relationship. Vincent had never disabused Father of the latter's belief that they had moved beyond their intense but chaste friendship into some type of physical intimacy. As naturally reticent as Vincent was, Father would not expect outward displays of affection between them just because they had become lovers. That they were not lovers was a source of anguish to both Vincent and Catherine, but one of which no one else close to them was aware. They suffered this pain in silence, with silence between them.

 

Because of this unresolved tension, Catherine's reaction to Father's suggestion had truly stunned Vincent. He felt that she should have realized, without being told, why he could not bear her presence in the Tunnels on any kind of permanent basis. Yet she had agreed when Father had suggested it, had called the idea "perfect," and had been greatly disappointed when he had advised her he could not vote in Council to approve her residency.

 

However, since he was not going to explain the true state of his relationship with Catherine to Father, and since she was not going to help him by resisting Father's suggestion, he could do nothing but reaffirm his position -- he would not vote to approve her request to move Below. Vincent could not give Father the reasons he demanded, could not let Father know that the thought of Catherine always so close and yet so...unattainable would cause him more torment than he believed he could endure. And so their discussion had continued, unsatisfactory and painful to them both, until, to Vincent's relief, seeing the tableau before them in the tunnel had suspended Father's plea in mid-sentence.

 

Recovering quickly, Father closed the distance to Catherine and Geoffrey, a beaming smile on his face. "Well, I see you two have decided to adopt each other. Good, good! I'm very happy for both of you." He knelt stiffly to put a hand on the young boy's shoulder and speak man to man. "Geoffrey, I hope you will always remember that Catherine chose you out of all the other children in the world to become her son. That's how special you are to her. You are now responsible to each other. Treasure that responsibility, Geoffrey, and treasure her."

 

The boy's reply was solemn and heartfelt. "Don't worry, Father. I know how lucky I am. Catherine...Mom...is the greatest, and I love her a lot."

 

Catherine's smile lifted to Vincent, and he beckoned to her quietly. She nodded imperceptibly, then said to Father and Geoffrey, "I need to speak to Vincent for a moment. Will you both excuse me? Geoffrey, if you'll go on ahead to dinner and save two places, Vincent and I will be along to join you soon."

 

His infectious grin was all the reply she needed, but she got just a little more. "Sure, Mom!" With one last hug, he was off down the tunnel, and Father righted himself and ambled after him, saying, "No need to run, Geoffrey. William serves in his own good time."

 

Catherine turned towards Vincent, then moved past him down the tunnel until she entered his chamber. He followed, then stood uncertainly in the entranceway as she claimed one of the massive old chairs by his writing table.

 

Beckoning to him, she prompted, "You wanted to talk, Vincent?"

 

As he nodded, he walked to the side of his bed, then sat gingerly on the edge of it, suddenly unsure of why he had asked for this conference.

 

Noting his hesitation, Catherine spoke again, her voice quiet and sure, her remorse filling their Bond. "I understand why you can't vote for my moving Below. I...apologize for putting you in such a position, for having to take the brunt of Father's anger. I guess I got so caught up in his enthusiastic acceptance of the adoption, I didn't even think about what my presence in the Tunnels would...do to you. I promise I'll smooth things over with him."

 

Vincent still did not speak. Catherine was becoming concerned. She rose from the chair and moved to his side, noticing sadly that he tensed a bit as she sat. Will it always be this way between us? she wondered.

 

Careful not to touch him or upset him anymore than he already seemed to be, she begged, "Tell me what you're feeling."

He spoke as if in a trance, paraphrasing her recent words to Geoffrey. "I shouldn't be afraid to tell you anything?"

 

Understanding immediately that he had overheard her earlier conversation, she uttered a fervent reply. "Never, Vincent. What I said to Geoffrey is even more true for you. I will never leave you, no matter what. I will always love you. I will always be here for you. And, yes, you can tell me anything. There shouldn't be any fear between us."

 

All he could muster was a hoarsely whispered, "And yet, Catherine...we do fear to speak of...certain things."

 

She nodded, tears in her eyes as the implication hit her. "Yes. Like when Geoffrey told me that he almost asked me to adopt him once. I'd been struggling with the idea, wondering if he'd want me as his mother, and all along he was wishing for the same thing I was. How much time did Geoffrey and I waste in our silence, Vincent? How much time have you and I wasted in ours?"

 

He lifted his head and stared hard at her. "Do you know that I love you, Catherine?"

 

She met his eyes frankly. "Yes. I've always known. With every look and touch and word you've spoken, you've made me know it."

 

Answering his own unspoken question, he murmured, "Yet that is not enough."

 

His eyes demanded total honesty, and she offered nothing less. "Not enough, no. Not anymore."

 

Vincent sighed and looked at his hands. "Not anymore."

 

Catherine took one of his hands in her own, squeezing it to emphasize her next words. "I'm like Geoffrey. I've dreamed and wished and hoped and prayed. But I've never really given voice to my greatest desire. Will you let me tell you, Vincent?"

 

A pause. For the space of two heartbeats, he did not reply. Then.... "I want to hear it...more than anything, Catherine." Saying that, he again looked up into her eyes. She saw the naked, desperate need within them, and knew that the time was finally right. He would listen with his heart. He would hear her.

 

"I love you, Vincent. There is nothing without you. I will love Geoffrey as my son, of course...but no one else can take your place. Ever. The only time I'm fully alive is when I'm with you -- everything before and after is just...waiting. And there's only one thing I desire. I want to be with you, to live with you, to make a life with you. I can make you happy, Vincent. Give me the chance to try. Let us be together, please?"

Vincent was silent for long moments, gazing into the depthless green eyes of the woman who had just poured her heart into his hands. Their Bond trembled with the fullness of her hopes, her entreaty echoing in his ears. Overwhelmed, he closed his eyes and, taking a deep breath, finally gave voice to his most private thoughts. "I, too, have wished and hoped for a life with you, Catherine. But it always seems just out of reach, this...impossible dream of ours. And even if it were possible, how cruel and selfish I would be to limit you to the kind of life you would have to endure to be with me. You deserve so much. You deserve everything!"

 

Her hand was gripping his so tightly, he felt the bones of his fingers grind together. But he ignored the pain. He realized his words were cutting deeply into her soul, and sensed her longing to reject them. But other than that convulsive grip, Catherine didn't move a muscle, straining to stay quiet, to listen to whatever his answer might be.

 

He tried to stop speaking then, to let these words be the only ones she would hear. He wanted to give her her freedom...so badly. He should.... He must! Yet in the core of his being, a voice he had tried to still refused to be silent. It rose up in him, filled his chest, forced its way into his throat, and despite his intentions, he found himself saying, "Even though I have tried every way I know to make you go from me, still you are here, still you persist in loving me. It is a miracle beyond imagining that you love me, Catherine. I am humbled by that love. I am not in any way worthy to receive it...."

 

Stop! Don't say any more! his mind cried. But his heart would have none of it -- no more renunciations, no more denials, no more restraint. The rest came out in a headlong rush of emotion, his throat almost closing as tears swelled it. "I am not worthy to receive it...but I desperately need it. I can no longer live without you. I realized that today, when you asked to live Below to care for Geoffrey. I could not have you here and not be with me. It would be a torment too difficult to survive. I would ask you to come Below for me, Catherine. I would be...honored if you would come Below to live with me. If you would make such a sacrifice, I would do anything in my power to make you happy."

 

Catherine's grip on Vincent's hand grew even stronger; involuntarily, he winced. She tried to speak once, but no words would come. She tried again, and finally gasped out a few words before sobs overtook her and she fell into Vincent's arms. "Oh, yes, Vincent! It's no sacrifice! Thank you!"

 

He held his Catherine close as her relieved tears soaked through his garments and he felt their heat on his bare skin. He held her close as she gradually composed herself and the tears stopped falling. He held her close as she clung to him, and felt her love and gratitude rush through him within their Bond.

 

He whispered to her then as she pressed herself deep into his encompassing embrace. "I promise I will do anything to make life beautiful for you, Catherine. I promise I will never give you reason to regret your decision. I promise I will place no demands on you -- you shall have all the freedom you require. I promise."

 

Catherine smiled as she lifted her eyes to Vincent's, and he was stunned anew by the love and desire he found within their depths -- for him, all for him. The words she spoke were familiar ones, but they held a lifetime of fulfillment within them. "You don't have to promise me anything, Vincent. Just knowing you love me enough to want me to be yours is enough for me. That's my promise."