WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE

 


Brooke watched him surreptitiously from under her thick brown bangs. Geoffrey sat quietly beside Catherine and Vincent, who were completely immersed in conversation as they sampled their hearty breakfasts. His own breakfast remained largely untouched; a bite of sweet roll, a few sips of tea, and a partially eaten apple were all he had ingested over the past half hour. Saddened by what she saw, she took one last long look at him before rising to place her empty plate and used utensils in the appropriate collection trays. Staring at the piles before her, she said a silent prayer of thanks that she didn't have kitchen clean-up detail this week. She sighed. Life sometimes could only be measured by these small favors.

 

Looking up as Brooke walked out of the dining chamber, Geoffrey shook his head, thinking that she had endured a rough year. He had recognized her impossible crush on the much older Michael since he'd been old enough to understand such things -- how could he not recognize those symptoms when he himself had felt the same way about Samantha? When Michael had gone Above to college, then stayed on for graduate school, Brooke had still, he knew, held fast to the hope that he would return one day...for her. But at last year's Winterfest, her hopes had been cruelly crushed when Michael had introduced his fiancee to his Tunnel family.

 

He now understood Brooke's pain, so like his own since Samantha had chosen to return to Kipper. More sensitive to what she had been going through since the incident with Samantha, several times over the past few months he had tried to offer her the comfort of a sympathetic friend -- or as much comfort as an 18 year old boy could offer to a woman in her mid-20s. But she had gently, firmly refused to discuss it. For many months she had withdrawn from all but the most elemental aspects of life in the Tunnels; she fulfilled her duties on the work crews, but ate all her meals in her chamber and declined all invitations from her concerned family. Lately, however, she had seemed to be emerging from her shell. Today was the first time he had noticed her eating in the dining chamber again, although she ate alone. His heart ached for her. He knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.

 

"Geoffrey? Sweetheart, are you with us?"

 

Catherine's voice finally intruded into his thoughts, and he turned in surprise, realizing he had missed her earlier statement. "Oh...uh...I'm sorry, Mom. What did you say?"

 

Catherine smiled indulgently and repeated her question. "Do you think you could sit with your brother tonight while your Dad and I attend a concert in the Park?"

 

He nodded enthusiastically. "Sure!" Geoffrey adored his baby brother, now a rambunctious handful of "terrible twos" inquisitiveness. "Will you be gone all night?" He knew that when his parents "attended a concert in the Park," they were really going to a cozy chamber Below which approximated front row seats...and that they often did not emerge from that chamber until long past the time the concert was over.

 

"Well...let's just say we probably won't be back until past your bedtime," Catherine replied with an impish grin on her face.

 

"Then it sounds like the little guy and I are going to have ourselves a slumber party!"

 

Catherine knew that Geoffrey's enthusiasm was genuine. He delighted in his brother's antics, and the youngster adored his older brother's attention. Sometimes young Jacob would toddle after the older boy, undeterred by repeated pleas to return to his chamber or to his parents' presence. If there was anyone besides his Daddy the child clung to, it was Geoffrey. And lately, despite everything, the only thing guaranteed to bring a smile to her older son's face was the prospect of spending time with his little brother.

 

Catherine mused about her youngest. Unlike many small children, Jacob seemed to prefer the company of men. It was not that he ignored his Mommy -- far from it. He craved her attention. But if Daddy and Mommy stood side by side and called him, he unerringly chose his Daddy's company first.

 

Despite the slight injury to her maternal pride, secretly Catherine was pleased by this preference. Geoffrey loved, revered and was devoted to Vincent. But he was -- had always been -- primarily her son. What they shared was a connection almost as strong as her Bond with Vincent and just as hard to define. Because of that connection, it was inevitable that Vincent would feel a little left out. He never complained, never begrudged her that special closeness with their older son. But she knew how it filled Vincent's soul with happiness that his younger son preferred his company above any other's. And when she watched the two of them together, the tiny, sturdy child a miniature version of the tall, powerful man, it melted her heart.

 

She could imagine Vincent's childhood by watching Jacob grow. It was such a gift to be able to participate in that experience through the life of their son. Catherine sighed with bliss as she thought of how wonderful all the men in her life were, how each was so unique, how each shared everything he was with her. She knew she was lucky to have their love, and she felt blessed and fortunate.

 

Her favorite times were on lazy Sunday afternoons when all her men joined her on the big bed in the chamber she shared with Vincent, she, her Bondmate and her eldest son taking turns reading from well-loved books. She especially liked it when Geoffrey leaned against her as he read and she could run her fingers languidly through his crisp curls. Unlike other teenagers, he never minded his Mom's overt displays of affection, and these days, with his sadness a seemingly permanent part of him, she knew he craved the physical contact which demonstrated her deep love for him. A Mother's love couldn't make up for everything, but she knew it helped...a little. With Geoffrey by her side, she could watch her younger son cuddled in his Daddy's arms, both content, both purring slightly as Geoffrey's gentle voice poured verse or prose over them. At times, Vincent would unconsciously stroke the soft down of his little son's unusual nose with one hand, while Jacob curled against his broad chest, eyes half-closed, lulled by both Geoffrey's voice and his Daddy's love. Those quiet moments meant the world to her, and she savored them, pressed them into the book of her memories, her heart overflowing with pleasure. She knew there would come a day when one and then both of her sons would leave the nest and start their own such traditions with their own families, but for now...these were the best of times.

 

Even caught up in her introspection, her mother's instinct made her aware of the untouched food on Geoffrey's plate. "Honey, you haven't eaten a good meal in so long...."

 

His eyes held a pain she had almost gotten used to. Since that incident with Samantha over a year ago, he seemed to be cloaked in a mantle of resignation; a brave sadness imbued his spirit, and nothing she could say or do seemed to pierce it or lift it. "I'm OK, Mom. Don't worry about me." He rose, picking up his plate and cup, then stopped to remark, "I'll commandeer my brother before dinner, OK? And I'll bring you the evening meal when I come. Then you and Dad can have a quiet dinner in your chamber before going to the concert. Does that sound like a plan?"

 

Always amazed at his thoughtfulness, despite numerous proofs of it over the years, Catherine smiled and nodded. Vincent voiced his approval gratefully. "Yes. Thank you, Geoffrey."

 

The young man left the table, deposited his nearly uneaten breakfast in the appropriate receptacles, and departed from the dining chamber. Two pairs of concerned eyes followed his progress. When he turned a corner and was finally out of view, Catherine looked at her Bondmate and shook her head. "Will the sadness ever lift, do you think?"

 

Vincent shrugged, a pensive look on his face. "It seems that another generation of Wells men is doomed to disappointment in love." Sensing Catherine's wide-eyed look and her impending protest, he turned to her and took her small hands in his, squeezing gently. "Father's true love was lost to him when he was young, and he only reclaimed that love, that happiness, in his later years. I was...wounded by the first girl I gave my heart to...only to wait twenty years before finding a greater, truer love." He bent to place a tender kiss upon his beloved's forehead, then he continued. "In the interim, we both, Father and I, suffered in lonely, painful silence. I only hope our son does not have to wait as long."

 

Catherine, her eyes bright with tears, nodded and replied, "So do I, my love. So do I."

 

_ _ _

 

Brooke found Geoffrey leaning against the rickety railing over the Abyss, idly tossing pebbles into the great chasm, waiting in vain to hear them hit bottom. He looked the picture of dejection. Brooke knew that feeling well.

 

She stared at him speculatively from the shelter of a nearby rock outcropping. She had come to realize over the past few months that this boy's heart held a pain she knew only too well. She had noticed how the younger Geoffrey had followed the girl Samantha around like a doting puppy, and she had also noticed how, now that they were both older, he still gazed wistfully at her. Samantha, long accustomed to his silent adoration, had little time for him these days. She and Kipper had reached a kind of understanding and, although Father considered them too young to Join before their Tunnel family, everyone acknowledged that, sooner or later, such a Joining would come to pass. It was inevitable. For Geoffrey, it was very apparent that it was a painful inevitability.

 

Brooke herself had gone through a long nightmare of the soul, emerging only recently with a small measure of self-confidence intact. Michael -- it still ached so badly to think of him -- had been the focus of all her fantasies since she could remember. When he had been accepted to college and had gone Above, tasting the delights of the city she shied away from, still she clung to her hopes. Gradually, her child's fantasies had become her woman's dreams.

 

She still recalled with chagrin the conversation she'd had with him while he was home for a long weekend over a year ago, several months before Winterfest. As always, she had filled him in on the happenings of life Below and had urged him to share his experiences Above. Even the most mundane activities were so foreign and exotic to her, but more than anything, she just wanted to hear his voice, to revel in the pleasure of him speaking directly to her, only her.

At one point, she had coyly asked if he'd found a friend Above to replace her yet. She knew she was blatantly fishing for some sign that she was the most important woman in his life. Even though he'd never given her the slightest reason to believe he was romantically inclined toward her, in her mind they had an understanding, they were soulmates, and...in time...he would tell her what was in his heart. That day, he had finally told her what was in his heart. And what he'd said to her had stunned her....

 

"You know you'll always be my best pal, Brooke. And that's why I wanted you to be the first to know -- I've been seeing this girl, Sarah. She's...wonderful! She's everything I ever imagined the perfect woman to be. She's so smart and funny and sensitive and....well, I love her. I know you will too, once you meet her. And someday, I hope you find someone as incredible to love. I've asked her to marry me, but please don't say anything to anyone yet. Let it be just our secret, OK? I need to make plans first, tell her about the Tunnels, that kind of thing. I want to announce it officially at Winterfest, when I bring her Below to meet everyone."

She could never tell him, after that...could never tell him that she had already found that someone...and that it was him.

 

After that fateful conversation, she had descended into a whirlpool of emotional turmoil. If she couldn't count on her dreams coming true, what was left for her? She began to question every other assumption in her life, finding only more uncertainty, more confusion. It had all seemed so simple once. She had been confident of the path upon which her future would unfold. She had only to wait for her beloved to finish school, and he would come back home to her, make a life with her here, Below. But one conversation had snatched all that away from her.

 

She withdrew from all the company she had formerly delighted in. Her Tunnel family was aware of the miasma of bleak despair which surrounded her, but she would tell no one of the reason for her misery, and would accept no offer of concern or assistance. She refused all attempts by others to break through the walls she had erected between her heart and the world.

 

When Michael had announced his engagement at the last Winterfest celebration, she had thought she would not survive the pain. But, surprising herself, she had survived it. And, as astonished as she was by that, she took heart from it. She had managed to endure the worst, the death of her dream, and still she was standing. Slowly, carefully, painfully, she began to do more than just stand. She being to take a few halting steps back to life. In the months since Winterfest, she had regained some of her equilibrium. She still had a long road ahead of her, but for the first time in a very long time, she was beginning to look forward to the journey.

 

Now, as she contemplated the young man before her, she recognized the melancholy, the heartache. What he was going through was not so different from her own rough passage. Yet even with his own pain, he had made several offers in recent months to take her to concerts or even to join her for dinner. She had refused all of them, feeling he was only doing it out of pity. But now, she wondered. Perhaps he had been reaching out to one like himself, another soul in torment who could understand his anguish, who wouldn't try to cheer him up, but just let him be. She hadn't been fair to him, too blinded by her own misery to understand that he was miserable too.

 

Coming to a decision, she pushed away from the rock wall against which she had been leaning and crossed to the middle of the unstable bridge, stopping to lean against the railing just a few feet from where he stood.

 

"Hi, Geoffrey."

 

He started, looking up quickly, as if his mind had been a million miles away. He offered her a brief, shy smile as he replied, "Hi, Brooke. Saw you at breakfast today."

She nodded. "I guess I've decided to rejoin the world."

 

He smiled again, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. He uttered one word: "Good." Then he turned away to resume his contemplation of the dark chasm beneath their feet.

 

Brooke recognized a dismissal when she saw one. She'd delivered enough of them herself over the past year, until her moodiness had ensured that she was left strictly alone unless it was she who initiated a conversation. However determined she was now to enter into the mainstream of life again, it was up to her to make the effort, to prove to others that she wanted to become a true part of this world again.

 

"Geoffrey? I...want to apologize to you."

 

Jarred from his thoughts once again, he asked, "Why?"

 

"You've tried to be kind to me in the past, and I've rebuffed you. I let my pain take over my life for the longest time. Now...I hope I can make amends."

 

Shaking his head, he replied, "There's no need, Brooke. I understood."

 

She smiled ruefully. "I had a feeling you did. More than anyone else, you understand what I've been going through, haven't you?"

 

A sardonic smile crossed his face. "You could say that."

 

"I know it's going to sound funny...especially considering how I've acted toward you recently...but...if you ever want to talk...." Brooke let the sentence dangle. After a long moment, she realized he wasn't taking the bait. She wasn't surprised when he didn't take her up on her offer. She hadn't figured he would, not really. "If...if you ever change your mind...come see me...anytime. I've been there, Geoffrey. Boy, have I been there. I know it's not a pretty place. The pain, the jealousy, the longing...."

 

Geoffrey stood up straight. He tossed the remaining handful of pebbles away and said abruptly but not unkindly, "Excuse me." In another moment, she was alone on the bridge.

 

"Oh, Geoffrey....," she murmured into the chasm.

 

_ _ _

 

Samantha and Kipper strolled arm in arm through a little-used side tunnel, oblivious to their route, lost in each other.

 

Kipper had done a lot of growing up in the past year. Nearly losing the girl he loved had shocked him out of a lot of his teenage posturing, and when he was with her he treated her respectfully now. Despite his outward show of bravado, he let his friends know how much he valued her, too. No longer did he choose their company over hers, nor was there ever a doubt that when she entered a room, Kipper saw only her. He still took a certain amount of razzing by his buddies...all except Geoffrey...but it just didn't bother him anymore. He had almost made a bad mistake just to make himself look macho in front of a couple of goofy friends. But when Samantha came back to him, he vowed to himself that he would never again take her for granted.

 

Kipper halted their forward progress, turning to wrap his arms around his girl. Samantha smiled tenderly at him and raised her chin, presenting her lips for kissing. He took the hint, and soon they were caught up in the rapture of this gentle union.

 

As Geoffrey rounded the corner, he was confronted by this tender scene. It hit him with all the force of a sucker punch. How could he bear this? Tears welled in his eyes and he felt the blood rush to his face, his heart beginning to race. Fists clenched, he tried to control his physical reactions, but he could not. Worse still, he was rooted to the spot, trembling, unable to pull his eyes away as the sight tore great gaping holes in his already lacerated heart. Finally, he wrenched himself away -- unwilling witness to this intimate tableau -- and compelled his rubbery legs to carry him back the way he had come, to hold him up just for the few steps necessary to hide his torment and shame from the view of the entwined lovers. As if they had eyes for anyone but each other, he taunted himself.

 

Alone now, sagging against the tunnel wall, he began to force long, deep breaths into his lungs, willing himself to some semblance of calm. When he felt capable of moving again, he turned and began to run blindly, anxious only to put a great distance between himself and the vicinity of this fresh pain.

 

He ran for a long time, until his breath burned like fire and his legs protested angrily, shaking with the effort they could no longer endure. He was panting heavily when he finally pulled up and leaned one arm against a tunnel wall, bent nearly double with the task of merely taking in enough oxygen. A noise nearby startled him. When he looked up, he saw Brooke coming out of a chamber entrance.

 

One look at the gasping, miserable young man was all Brooke needed to see. Without a second thought, she moved swiftly to his side. Placing a hand on his back, she gingerly rubbed his tense muscles, offering this tactile comfort but not sure of how it would be received. "Come inside, Geoffrey. You don't have to talk to me. Just...come inside."

 

His eyes were wide and glassy, and at first he stared at her as if he didn't know her. She waited patiently, though, and in a few moments she saw the briefest nod of his head.

 

"Good. I have a small pitcher of lemonade inside, William's largesse after I tackled the pots and pans from lunch for him." She smiled encouragingly and took him by the arm, steering him into the chamber from which she'd just emerged. She guided him to an old overstuffed armchair which had seen better days and urged him to sit before turning to pour him a glass of the refreshing liquid. He drank thirstily, and when he'd finished the glass, she emptied the remainder of the contents of the pitcher into it and he gratefully accepted another glassful from her. By this time, his breathing had returned to normal, and he leaned back in the chair, eyes closed, as perspiration dripped from his forehead and chin. Brooke took a washcloth from her bureau and gently wiped his face, patting the hair around his temples to absorb the excess moisture there. When she finished, she stood back, regarding him solemnly.

 

Finally, Geoffrey opened his eyes and looked up at her. He sighed gustily. "Thanks, Brooke."

 

She took a seat on the shabby ottoman beside his chair and smiled at him. "No thanks are necessary. As your Mom once told me, it's 'professional courtesy.' " In answer to his puzzled expression, she explained, "From one veteran of the wars to another."

 

He grinned sheepishly. "Is that what I am?"

 

"Yep. A veteran in the war of love."

 

He snorted. "A battle-scarred veteran."

 

She laughed wryly. "Is there any other kind?"

 

_ _ _

 

"Where we goin', Geoffy?" His childhood nickname was reborn once his little brother began to talk. His full name was still too much for the little fellow to pronounce.

 

"It's a secret, Jake-o. A big secret," Geoffrey whispered conspiratorially.

 

Jacob shivered with delight. If there was one thing he loved, it was going on adventures with his adored brother. Secret adventures were rare and all the more treasured. With his hand trustingly cradled in the older boy's, he allowed himself to be led. Soon, they came to a side tunnel which the youngster didn't recognize. His world so far was bound by the more traveled ways: from home chambers to Grampa's, the dining chamber, Aunt Mary's. This tunnel was dark and mysterious, and he would have been frightened if not for the comfort and security of the hand holding his.

 

"We're almost there, little man. It's j-u-s-t beyond this next turn...here!"

 

Jacob stopped, confused, not seeing what was so special about this particular junction of tunnel. He looked up...way up...into the face of his brother and smiled uncertainly. "Where, Geoffy?"

 

"Turn around, Jacob." Geoffrey indicated with his outstretched hand the direction he meant.

The younger boy turned and saw a break in the rock wall; it looked like a chamber entrance, and a glow emanated from beyond it. He looked up again at his brother, suddenly uneasy. He didn't want to go in there -- in...where? -- all alone. Geoffy wouldn't make him, would he? He decided that sometimes adventures could be frightening. Jacob raised both arms, suddenly needing to be held, reassured.

 

Geoffrey complied, lifting the child easily and settling him snugly against his hip. He wrapped his arms firmly about the boy, letting him know by that physical contact how safe he should always feel when he was with his big brother. The young boy's arms snaked around his neck, gripping him quite tightly.

 

Just before entering the chamber, Geoffrey whispered into his brother's ear, "Don't be scared, little man. It's real pretty in there." He followed that with a gentle kiss to a chubby cheek, and Jacob leaned contentedly against his brother's shoulder, his trepidation eased, as they began to walk inside.

 

The first few steps into the chamber revealed nothing but bland rockface. Suddenly, they emerged into a low cavern filled with a color Jacob had never seen in such profusion Below. The rock walls seemed to glow with a deep blue light, filling the chamber with a beauty that took his breath away.

 

"What do you think, Jake-o?" Geoffrey whispered.

 

"It'th bootiful," was the solemn pronouncement.

 

"Grampa can explain the scientific reason why the walls give off this color, but I come just because I think it's 'bootiful' too."

 

"Can I touch?" Jacob was so mesmerized, he'd forgotten to be afraid.

 

"Sure. Just don't try to eat it, OK?"

 

At the child's nod of assurance, Geoffrey set him down and let him explore. He took a seat on a ledge and watched his little brother toddle around the chamber, pausing to examine this and that along the way. He loved these adventures as much as Jacob did. It amazed him to see this world through the youngster's eyes. The commonplace became wondrous all over again.

As his eyes scanned the chamber, he realized they were not alone. In a far corner sat someone else -- a woman. He squinted in the low light until his eyes discerned the features. Brooke. She lifted an arm and waved. He rose then and, keeping an eye out for his oblivious little brother, made his way over to her.

 

"Hi."

 

"Hi, Geoffrey." She patted the ground beside her, inviting him to join her. "I didn't want to disturb you when you first came in. Is this Jacob's first time in the Blue Cavern?"

 

Settling himself next to her, he nodded. "I like to take him on little adventures. He gets such a kick out of them. And so do I."

 

She looked at him and smiled. "You're a good brother."

 

He shrugged. "I love the little guy like crazy, Brooke. He's so special."

 

Nodding, she remarked, "He gets that from his parents...and from you."

 

Geoffrey shook his head, refusing the compliment. "I'm not special, Brooke. Not special at all."

 

Surprised by the depth of self-loathing his comment revealed, she demurred. "How can you say that? That little boy adores you. Your Mom thinks you walk on water. Vincent's so proud of you he practically bursts his buttons whenever he speaks of you. If those three feel that way, you must be special."

 

Adamant, he insisted, "They're my family, Brooke. They love me. They'd love me no matter what."

 

"Maybe. But there's love...and there's love."

 

A quick pain flashed through his eyes. "Don't."

 

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...." Before Brooke could finish her thought, she was interrupted by the sound of little feet running up to them.

 

"Geoff-eeeee!" Jacob squealed. "Neat!"

 

"Told you so, little man!" Geoffrey rubbed a hand over the child's tousled blond mane. "Do you remember Brooke?"

 

Jacob scrunched his face up in an obvious effort to remember her face. But she had kept so much to herself these past months, she had become almost a ghost even to long-time residents; to a child as young as Jacob, several months was an eternity. Finally, he shook his head to indicate he did not. But he did remember his manners. "Hi," he said shyly, and stuck out his hand to shake hers.

 

Very solemnly, Brooke returned his "Hi" with her own "Hello, Jacob," and shook his offered hand.

 

Geoffrey hugged his little brother to let him know he'd acted like the perfect gentleman, then asked, "Is the intrepid explorer ready for his snack now?"

 

Jacob wasn't quite sure what "trepid" meant, but "snack" he clearly understood. At the boy's enthusiastic nod, Geoffrey rummaged in the pack he had brought along and pulled out slices of apple wrapped in a cloth napkin. "You know the rules, Jake. Sit when you eat. Wrap leftovers in the cloth and give them back to me."

 

Jacob plopped himself down between his brother's legs and with total concentration accepted the bundle and carefully unwrapped his apple slices, then proceeded to devour four of them in quick succession.

 

Geoffrey noted that he was spearing the slices with his claws to carry them to his mouth. It was a habit his parents were trying to break him of. He knew he should probably say something, but the little guy was behaving so well and having such a good time, he hated to correct him for something...especially in front of his new friend. He didn't want to embarrass the kid. Oh, well...ignoring it one time probably wouldn't hurt. Instead, he turned to their companion.

 

"I've got more, Brooke, if you'd like to share?"

 

"Sure, thanks!"

 

He pulled an apple and a pear from his pack, offering her a choice. She selected the pear, and they both began to eat, watching Jacob as he enjoyed his snack. When they had all finished, Geoffrey accepted the remnants of the repast from each of them and stored everything back in his pack. Jacob quickly got bored sitting with the silent adults, and shortly he was off again, exploring the wonders of this magical cavern.

 

After watching him watch Jacob for a while, Brooke said, "Geoffrey? Would you prefer that I leave? Did you want to be alone?"

 

He looked at her as he replied hurriedly, "No. I mean, I'd like it if you stayed."

 

She nodded. "OK, then I will."

 

He turned away, looking toward the toddler again for a while, not saying anything. Finally, he asked, "How...how are you doing these days?"

 

Shrugging, she replied, "A little better each day. It takes some time, I guess. But I'm feeling better than I ever imagined I'd feel again."

 

He thought about feeling "better." He hardly remembered a time when he'd felt "better" for more than a few minutes at a time. With his brother...with his Mom sometimes. But mostly...mostly there was a cold, empty place where his happiness once dwelled. "How long before...you start to feel that way?"

 

Eyeing him sympathetically, she commented, "I can't tell you that. Your circumstances, in some ways, are worse than mine. You can't really...avoid...the situation." She could see his eyes fill with tears before he pretended to be quite interested in his shoelaces. "Like...the other day?"

 

He nodded. She saw the drops fall from his eyes to the dusty cavern floor.

 

Murmuring gently, she offered her hard-won wisdom. "It's up to you, Geoffrey. You have to decide how much...how much you can let it all affect you. One day you'll wake up and...decide you need to put it behind you. I can't tell you how long that'll take. I only promise that one day it will happen."

 

He turned to look at her then, not trying to hide the tears that coursed down his cheeks. "It hurts...so bad," he whispered.

 

Brooke leaned over and took him gently into her arms. "I know. I know." She held him as he wept, watching over his shoulder through tearful eyes to ensure that Jacob was OK.

 

_ _ _

 

"Hi, Bwooke!" Little Jacob threw himself into her outstretched arms as the young woman knelt in the doorway to the dining chamber.

 

"Hi, little man," she replied as she hugged him tight. She had begun to use the endearments his brother used, feeling that, since everyone else called him only "Jacob," he could use a couple of decent nicknames to add spice to his life. She'd never had a nickname herself, and growing up, she'd always been mildly jealous of those who did.

 

"Eat wif uth?" her greeter begged.

 

Brooke looked up to see Geoffrey just sitting down with a plateful of food and Catherine and Vincent still getting their meals. Geoffrey beckoned her over to the table. "We have plenty of room. Please, join us."

 

Catherine came up behind her son and seconded the invitation, so Brooke felt comfortable in accepting. She sat where Jacob indicated by a pat of his chubby little hand, right between him and his Mommy, with Geoffrey on his other side. Smiling an apology at having displaced Catherine by her young son's side, Brooke said, "Thank you."

 

Catherine didn't begrudge the young woman at all. Wanting her to feel at ease, she made a point of including her in their conversation. "Geoffrey mentioned that you and he will be taking Jacob to the Falls later today for a picnic and swimming lesson."

 

Brooke looked suddenly worried, and quickly asked Catherine, "Is that OK?"

 

Catherine smiled warmly at the girl. She's as skittish as a colt still, poor thing. "Of course. I think it's a wonderful idea. It probably will take the two of you to keep a handle on him. He's gotten to be quite the boisterous young man." She smiled fondly at her youngest, who was too busy carving a valley in his mashed potatoes to listen to adult conversations. With his little pink tongue stuck between his lips in concentration, he was laboriously drawing his fork through the white peaks.

 

Looking indulgently at the earnest child, Brooke murmured, "Mary mentioned the other day that he's so different than Vincent was at that age, not shy or quiet at all."

 

Catherine considered the statement for a moment. "Yes, I imagine. Not only does he have his own unique and very dear personality, but he's got his Daddy to look to, to give him confidence. He's not an 'only' child in any sense."

 

Brooke looked up in surprise at Catherine's comment. She'd never really though about what it must have been like for Vincent, growing up so different. No matter how much love he received, one couldn't discount the burden of "otherness" he must have carried when he could not see his face reflected in another's. How comforting and affirming it must be for Jacob to gaze into his Daddy's face, to look at his Daddy's hands, and find a mirror there.

 

Vincent sat down beside Catherine. Brooke found her attention immediately focused on the older man. She had always loved him -- as a teacher, as a friend. Now, she admired him all the more for overcoming such incredible odds, for forging a happy life for himself despite all the barriers he had to overcome. She was just a girl when he had first met Catherine and she had seen nothing unusual in their relationship at the time -- it had all seemed just too romantic for words. Yet now that she thought about it -- what an amazing leap of faith that was, for both of them. She gazed in awe at the older couple. Would she ever find something as wonderful in her own life?

A tug on her sleeve diverted her attention to her tiny dinner companion. "Want a dwink," came the imperious order. Shaking her head at his single-mindedness, she held his cup while he sipped, tolerating the noisy slurping he couldn't yet help -- drinking quietly when one had fangs, Geoffrey had once told her, was beyond the ability of a child his age.

 

Becoming absorbed in such activities, a hallmark of dinner with Vincent's family, Brooke forgot she used to be uncomfortable in a crowd.

 

_ _ _

 

Brooke flopped down on the blanket, exhausted from the swimming lesson and general running around that had engaged them for the past two hours. She had just finished packing up the remnants of their picnic lunch, and she shook her head ruefully. How one little boy could tire out two grown-ups was beyond her. Finally, though, he seemed to have gone down for a nap, and she and Geoffrey would be taking advantage of the break to rest themselves.

 

"Is he asleep?" she murmured. After lunch, Geoffrey had started rocking a squirming Jacob in his arms, determinedly humming his Mother's special lullaby to the recalcitrant child. Gradually -- very gradually -- Jacob had quieted, then his eyelids had drooped, and now, finally, he seemed to have dropped off. Geoffrey nodded while still humming. He placed the boy atop a nest of cushions they had brought with them. Then, as the boy lay there dozing, Geoffrey stroked his face and whispered in his ear -- loving words, no doubt. Brooke thought she'd never seen such gentleness and patience in such a young man. He was so kind and caring. She was glad they were becoming friends. Even if he was six years younger in age, sometimes he seemed more mature than she was. 'Born old' was a phrase she'd heard applied to him, and now she was beginning to understand what that meant.

 

She glanced around the immense cavern. The sound of the falls was a wonderful counterpoint to the soft lullaby Geoffrey was still humming. The little cove where they had laid out their blanket was in a backwater; the water here was shallow and calm, perfect for swimming lessons, for splashing and playing, or for dangling one's feet. She wished she had the energy to do the latter, but she honestly didn't think she had enough left even for that small effort.

 

Geoffrey's voice, soft and low, surprised her. He had come to sit beside her so quietly she hadn't noticed his approach. "You look like you could use a nap, too."

 

She smiled at him. "I could at that!"

 

"Would you like me to sing you a lullaby?"

 

He seemed serious. While she was still trying to decide if he was, he lay back and lifted one arm, inviting her to lie down and be cradled against him. Stunned, she realized she really wanted to accept that invitation. She allowed herself to be drawn down beside him. She felt awkward, tense, numb. Then, as he promised, he began to hum again, very softly. Still, the rumbling of his humming vibrated deep in his chest; she could feel it as she lay against him. Slowly she let herself relax. He held her gently, loosely, not in a romantic embrace, but in a comforting one. She thought of how long it had been since she'd accepted the embrace of another, and of how much warmth and companionship the mere act of touching could convey. How lucky his little brother is, she thought, as she drifted off to sleep.

 

_ _ _

 

"Has...has Geoffrey spoken to you at all about...Brooke?"

 

"No, Catherine. Why? Does the relationship worry you?"

 

Vincent had awakened her when he returned from sentry duty at 4:00 a.m. They had loved each other sweetly all morning, both in a very tender mood. Sometimes their couplings were fierce, almost stunningly so, and sometimes they were like today -- ethereal, magical. But each was so attuned to the other that they fell into their lovemaking knowing what the other wanted, needed most. Their Bond ensured their affinity, but it was their deep knowledge, each of the other, that honed their loving to a fine art. In their years together, they had pleasured each other thousands of times, yet each time still felt new; each touch, each embrace unique and precious. Now they lay in a languid tangle, replete and comforted, cocooned in the warmth of their Bond, their love, their passionate commitment to each other. Catherine's question represented a jarring note to an otherwise perfect morning, as Vincent discerned the tendrils of unease begin to ripple through their Bond.

 

"Not exactly. I mean...well...." Catherine propped herself up on one elbow and looked into her beloved's face. "I love Brooke. She's a wonderful person. I wish I could have helped her these past months, but she didn't seem to want it."

 

As he stroked her back to soothe her, Vincent replied, "Nor mine, Catherine. Rightly or wrongly, she felt she had to work through that sorrow on her own. We have to respect her choice."

 

She nodded, resigned. "I do. And Geoffrey...he hasn't been able to share his pain with anyone either, not even me. I ache for him, Vincent."

 

"I know." He nuzzled against her, offering his comfort as their Bond reflected her sympathy for their troubled son.

 

She kissed his softly bristled cheek, grateful for the strong, calming presence beside her. Snuggling deep within his embrace, she mused, "Now...it seems these two lost souls...."

 

"You are afraid they are turning to each other for the wrong reasons?"

Catherine sighed. "I don't know. I hope not. I'd hate to see them hurt again. And if this doesn't work out...."

 

His warm breath tickled her ear as he reminded her, "We cannot protect them from hurt, my love. If they need each other as friends right now, I'm glad they found each other. If it turns into something more...well, they are both gentle spirits, they would be a good match."

 

"But what if it's a mistake?"

 

"Catherine...." he rumbled warningly.

 

"I know." She smiled against his broad chest, pressed a kiss there, then rose again to gaze into the mesmerizing azure of his eyes. "But I can worry, can't I? That's a Mother's prerogative, isn't it?"

 

He lifted his face to hers, kissing her gently. "And a Father's."

 

_ _ _

 

"Brooke? May I enter?"

 

"Of course, Vincent! Come in." The words were welcoming, but her voice sounded choked, muffled.

 

He found her tussling in a mock wrestling match with his youngest son, the child squealing in delight as her probing fingers found ticklish spot after ticklish spot. Her face was flushed and her hair in disarray as she sat back and looked up at the older man, blowing stray curls out of her eyes. "This is one strong young man!" she reported. Jacob, to prove the point, launched himself at her, pushing her backward, then declared, "I win!"

 

Laughing, she hugged him and asserted, "Yes, I guess you did!" She kissed him soundly on the forehead, brushing at his mass of soft tresses in a vain attempt to neaten them.

 

"Hi, Daddy! I won!" Now that he had conquered Brooke, he headed for his Daddy, but his attempt to knock Vincent off his feet met with no success. He couldn't even budge him. Abandoning this effort, Jacob tried to tickle his Daddy, but his ticklish places were all beyond the toddler's reach, no matter how high he jumped. Indulgently, Vincent sat upon the ground in one graceful movement and allowed himself to be pummeled by his triumphantly crowing son.

 

Brooke watched them together. Vincent rarely smiled as widely or as unselfconsciously as when he was engaged with Jacob. At those times, it seemed he cared for nothing in the world but the sparkle in the young child's eyes. It was so obvious how deeply he adored Jacob, yet the youngster didn't seem to be the least bit spoiled. Brooke marveled at the complexities of parenthood, and how Vincent always seemed to know the right thing to say or do.

 

As he hugged his little one, Vincent spoke to her over the boy's shoulder. "I thought I would find Geoffrey here."

 

She nodded. "He was here. But Jacob forgot his favorite storybook, and even though I happen to own a copy of the same story, he insisted that he must be read to from his own version. Geoffrey went back for it. He should return in a few minutes."

 

Jacob, hearing himself spoken about, offered an explanation. "I can wead my book. Can't wead Bwooke's."

 

Vincent smiled and remarked to the young woman, "He has each page memorized. He 'reads' it to us often. Although he knows the story by heart...."

 

"...he can't turn the pages at the right point in my book," Brooke finished knowingly.

 

Vincent nodded. He set his son on his feet, and Jacob ran to a coloring book that Brooke had set out for him, intrigued by the pictures of knights and castles. With great care, he selected a color from the box of crayon stubs beside him and began to work. After watching him for a moment, Vincent turned back to the young woman.

 

"How are you, Brooke?" His voice was full of gentle concern.

 

Looking straight into his eyes, she was happy to tell him, "I'm really...fine. For the first time in a long time, I feel...human again."

 

She saw the genuine pleasure in his eyes, but saw that pleasure turn into something dark as he hesitated, then asked, "Do you think...Geoffrey is feeling...human again?"

 

Sitting back on her heels, she contemplated the question. In the three months since she had poured Geoffrey the last of her lemonade and let him recover his equilibrium in her armchair, they had seen more and more of each other. Often, their meetings were nothing more than short chats as they passed in the tunnels. But they also had spent time together -- eating meals, taking care of Jacob, or just talking. It wasn't so much what they'd said to each other as the fact that they had known how the other felt that had drawn them closer. Brooke knew that, in many ways, Geoffrey had helped her to overcome the last of her trauma. Had she been able to do the same for him?

 

"We...we don't talk about...the past...too often, Vincent. So...I don't know." She shrugged her shoulders and looked apologetically at him. "All I can tell you is that his friendship has been a godsend. To have someone who understands without words being spoken, someone who offers only kindness, demanding nothing in return.... I guess I don't have to tell you what a special person he is."

 

Vincent nodded, then looked down, not meeting her eyes. "And what a young one."

 

Brooke was shocked by the implication. "Oh, God...Vincent, I swear...nothing's happening...." She began to blush furiously. In all their months together, she'd never even thought of him in a romantic way. Now she saw their relationship through Vincent's eyes and realized what others must be thinking. Maybe...what Geoffrey himself might be thinking? Was she doing to him what Michael had unconsciously done to her? She closed her eyes and shuddered. To be healed at the cost of Geoffrey's heart, it would be too much to bear.

 

In a hoarse whisper, she avowed, "I don't know how...how he feels, but I'll find out. Truthfully, at this moment, I don't even know what I feel...." She gulped a deep breath, then continued, "But I promise you, I would never hurt him."

 

Vincent considered her statement for a moment, then smiled gently and leaned forward to place a tender kiss upon her brow. "Take care of both your hearts, Brooke." Her eyes filled with tears, and when she looked up, he had gone.

 

_ _ _

 

"Could you meet me by the Abyss when you finish sentry duty tonight, Brooke?"

 

She looked up from her meatloaf to find Geoffrey staring intently at her. Concerned by his seriousness, she nodded. "Sure. What's up?"

 

He shook his head, dismissing her query. "I'd rather wait until then. I...I have something I want to say to you."

 

_ _ _

 

By the time her sentry duty was over, Brooke was in a high state of agitation. Since her conversation with Vincent a few days ago, she had tried several times to bring up the subject of their relationship with Geoffrey, to attempt to define it, but each time she had been unable to form the right words and have given up before she started. If he sensed some unease in her, he didn't say anything about it, however. But this meeting, held away from their chambers and in the depths of the night, seemed somehow ominous. She didn't know what to expect. But maybe, after he'd said what he had to say, she'd finally find a way to introduce the topic she'd been trying to discuss with him. God, she didn't want to hurt him. She'd been so wrapped up in her own petty concerns, she wasn't even sure how their friendship was affecting her best friend. That's what he'd become in the past months -- her best, closest, dearest, most trusted friend. Saying a silent prayer, she approached the appointed meeting spot.

 

"Hi, Geoffrey." She stood beside him, thinking of the last time they'd met here, all those months ago, Geoffrey tossing pebbles into the Abyss, her trying to reach out to his pain.

 

"Brooke. Thanks for coming. We need to talk. Well...I need to talk."

 

Oh, God. "I'm listening." He looked so serious. Butterflies invaded her stomach and her knees felt weak.

 

Unaware of her consternation, Geoffrey began to tell her what was on his mind. "I'm confused about a lot of things, but there's one thing I'm sure of, and it's that we're friends. We trust each other to tell the truth, we don't hold back what we're thinking...or feeling. I treasure that."

 

She nodded. "So do I."

 

He smiled, then went on. "Somewhere along the line, I got to thinking about...about Sam. About how she and I have never really been friends...not the way you and I are. And I suspect, in your heart, you realize it was the same way with you and Michael."

 

Strange, how hearing his name didn't bring even a twinge of pain anymore. When had that stopped happening? She considered what Geoffrey had said. Finally, she replied, "You're right. I never thought of it before, but...yes. A lot of our relationship was in my head, in my fantasies. He never meant to hurt me, probably still doesn't know he did. I really can't blame him for how I feel...felt."

 

Geoffrey added, "It was more of a crush...although one with devastating consequences."

 

"Yes."

 

Looking out into the darkness beyond them, he confessed, "That's what I recently realized about me and Sam. By the time I got around to telling her how I felt about her, she was already half in love with Kipper. But it was too late even then. She and I were never best friends, we never shared secrets growing up, she never indicated the slightest interest in me even after we grew up. But I loved her so desperately, I thought that would be enough for both of us."

 

Brooke probed the source of her own pain. Her friend's words rang true. "But it wasn't. Just like with me and Michael. There never was a 'me and Michael.' "

 

"No. Nor a 'me and Sam.' "

"Is that what you asked me here to tell me?" Her heart was pounding now, wondering what this was all a prelude to.

 

"I guess I asked you here because this was the place you first offered your friendship to me. I think about that moment often, you know. How I was so relieved to hear you speak those words, even though I wasn't ready to respond to them." He turned to her and took her by the shoulders, willing her to look into his eyes, to hear and understand him. "I think you saved my life, Brooke."

 

She tried, but couldn't meet the intensity of his gaze. "I...don't know what to say."

 

He let her go. "You don't have to say anything. I just wanted to tell you, to let you know that your willingness to just let me be, to spend time with me, to accept everything on faith...it means more to me than I can ever say."

 

She felt there was something more, something he wasn't quite able to articulate yet. "And now...?"

 

He looked sharply at her. "And now?"

 

She recovered quickly. "Nothing. I just...I thought I sensed an 'and now' coming from you. If I'm wrong, I'm sorry."

 

He ducked his head. "No. That was all."

 

She took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. "Well, if that's what you brought me here to say, then I guess it's time for me to tell you something too."

 

He looked so vulnerable, so young, so sweet as he faced her; there was something in his eyes -- hope? Fear? Both?

 

She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, then gave him a rueful grin and tried again. "I've been struggling with this for days. I still don't know how to say it. I'll probably mess it up, but I can't hold it in any longer. Bear with me, OK?"

 

"Sure. Take your time." Always the kind, thoughtful Geoffrey.

 

"Your Dad asked me the other day how I felt...and I told him that, thanks in large part to you, I was feeling almost human again." She smiled shyly and he smiled in return.

 

"That's good," he murmured.

 

"Then...he asked me if you were feeling almost human again, too. I was stunned to realize that I didn't know the answer to that." She looked up into his eyes. "From what you've told me tonight, I'm relieved to know that you are. But I'm so sorry that I've been too self-absorbed to even ask before now."

 

He shook his head. "That's all right."

 

"No, it isn't, but you're kind to say it. Anyway, I got to thinking about how our relationship must look from the outside. I mean...here we are, always seen together...is everyone getting the wrong impression?"

 

He stiffened visibly, and she knew she'd hurt him. "What do you mean?"

 

Placing her hand on his shoulder, she squeezed it lightly to reassure him. "We're best friends. That should be obvious. But...we're also...well, you're six years younger than I am...and...." She struggled for the words until he interrupted her.

 

"...and you're worried people might think you're robbing the cradle?" He looked at her incredulously. "Who might think that?"

 

"I...don't know...." She didn't want to lie, but she didn't want to betray the confidence either.

 

The light dawned in Geoffrey's eyes. "My Dad? Did my Dad ask you that when you talked the other day?"

 

"Not in those words, exactly. I think more he was worried about you getting hurt again."

Her eyes pleaded for understanding. But she had underestimated him.

 

His face cleared and he relaxed. "It was probably Mom. She talked to Dad, so he came to see you and, in the gentlest way possible, hinted of their concern?"

 

Grateful that he grasped the context, she nodded.

 

Suddenly his mood shifted, and he went on cautiously. "That's not something we've ever talked about." No need to define what "that" meant -- they both knew.

 

"I know. I don't think either of us was looking for that when we became friends." Now, finally, she had the courage to ask the crucial question. "Is it something you've thought of since?"

 

He gazed at her for a long time, then gently shook his head. "No. You?"

 

"No."

"Is that the 'and now' you thought I might bring up before?" He smiled to indicate he already knew the answer.

 

Lifting her eyebrows in an embarrassed acknowledgement, she nodded. "I was so afraid I'd inadvertently created a situation which would cause you pain. I know that, even though everyone thinks of you as a kid, you're a thoughtful and caring man, capable of handling your own heart. But despite that, I wouldn't for all the world want to lead you on or hurt you."

 

"You won't. I trust you, Brooke."

 

"And now?" Half in jest, half in earnest, she asked him this most important question.

 

He considered what she'd asked for a long moment before replying, "And now...we continue. We treasure the moment and have faith in the future and...what comes will come. OK?"

 

Smiling, happy -- genuinely happy -- she looked into the warm brown eyes of her best friend and caught just a sparkle of...something. Or perhaps it was a reflection from her own eyes?

 

_ _ _

 

Another lazy Sunday afternoon.... Catherine lay curled in Vincent's arms as he read to the family from Jacob's favorite storybook. Leaning against her knees was Geoffrey, who was cuddling his brother; they were nuzzling gently, nose to nose. She could hear her younger son's purring from where she half-sat, half-lay. She sighed deeply, content to her bones. One hand cradled her stomach, the new life there apparently lulled by the somnolent afternoon. No kicking had disturbed her for over an hour now. She rubbed her palm lazily against the slight bulge which indicated some appendage -- elbow? foot? -- pressed against her abdomen. This pregnancy had been so unlike the first; as difficult and debilitating as that one had been, this one had been nearly the opposite -- so trouble-free, it was almost a breeze.

 

Vincent finished the story and put the book aside. He bent his head to savor the aroma of Catherine's hair, a gesture as beloved as it was familiar. Closing her eyes, remembering the past, her heart filled to overflowing with the treasures now within arm's reach.

 

Finally, she spoke, breaking the intimate silence. "I think it's going to be soon, Geoffrey. Will you be my coach again?"

 

Geoffrey looked up and smiled at his Mother. Catherine's heart clutched in pride as she looked at the chiseled features of the young man who gazed back at her so lovingly.

 

Over the past eight months, he had blossomed, both physically and emotionally. No trace of boyishness remained in his face. He was fully a man now. And something inside him had finally broken free, setting his spirit soaring again. He smiled more often now, as he faced life with his old shy confidence. He'd begun making plans, sharing his feelings again -- opening himself to possibilities. Everything within him was reflected in his frank, open face. He was so beautiful...almost as beautiful as Vincent, in his own way. He shone with goodness both within and without.

 

"Absolutely, Mom. Wouldn't miss the chance to welcome another sibling into the world."

 

Jacob chimed in, "Me, too!"

 

Geoffrey looked down at the imp in his arms and asked very solemnly, albeit for the hundredth time, and already knowing the answer, "What do you want, Jake-o? A little brother or a little sister?"

 

"A bwother!" was the enthusiastic reply. Tiny arms flung themselves around his neck and the little boy explained his choice. "Want one jutht like you!"

 

Geoffrey squeezed the little fellow to his heart, depositing kisses on his furry nose and eyebrow ridges, until the child yelped in protest.

 

Watching it all, Vincent hugged Catherine closer and whispered into her ear, "An excellent choice, don't you think, my love?"

 

Love shining in her face, she looked deep into his blue, blue eyes and replied, "A dream come true."