Quartet

By Edith Crowe


January

"Ha--caught you, Radcliffe!"

"Yipes! Joe, you almost gave me a heart attack. Since when have you taken to lurking outside Ladies' Rooms? You'll never get to be mayor that way."

"I'm not lurking, Cathy," Joe replied sternly. "I'm keeping an eye on one of my employees who's come down with the latest office bug and is too stubborn to admit it."

"Joe, I'm not really that sick--I've been taking lots of vitamin C and it's really working. I admit my stomach's a little rocky now and then, but I feel OK most of the time, honestly. If you send me home it'll probably get worse; work takes my mind off it."

"I'm so glad the DA's office can be of service, M'am."

"Joe, sarcasm doesn't become you," Catherine announced loftily as she began edging surreptitiously toward the office.

Joe's tone turned ominous. "If Manuel had gone home when I told him to, he wouldn't have infected half the staff. No more Mister Nice Boss, Chandler. Out." He pointed to the door with a flourish worthy of the villain in a Victorian melodrama.

"But, Joe..."

"OUT! If it'll make you feel better, take some work home with you."

"I don't have anything left I can do at home," Catherine admitted. "I've already read all the new case files."

"I thought you had reformed, Radcliffe." Joe was getting that big brother look in his eye again. "You've almost gotten down to the work of a normal human being lately. I was hoping it meant you'd decided to have a personal life or something."

"Everybody's social life has slow weeks," Catherine said evasively. "All right, you win, I'll go home."

"Feeling uncomfortable?" Joe asked pointedly.

"It's just that it's getting stuffy in here," Catherine retorted, fixing him with what she hoped was a withering look. Trying not to look quite like she was fleeing the scene of battle, she collected her belongings with as much dignity as she could muster and left the office aware of Joe's speculative stare following her out.

Riding down the elevator she leaned thankfully against the wall and closed her eyes. Catherine wondered why she couldn't have a boss who didn't give a hoot about his employees. Of course then he wouldn't be Joe. She didn't really want him any other way, even if his curiosity about her personal life forced her into verbal gymnastics all too often.

She opened her eyes and focused them on her left hand. The silver ring of Celtic knotwork was beautifully ambiguous. Most people who didn't know her assumed it was a wedding ring--which it was, to her. Those who knew her, if they thought about it at all, tended to think it might be a "partner ring," or a family heirloom, or even an attractive professional woman's way of discouraging unwanted suitors. What Joe thought she had no idea. She had caught him surreptitiously eyeing it more than once but he had been uncharacteristically silent. Perhaps he sensed that any question would open altogether too formidable a can of worms. Perhaps he thought if she wanted him to know about it she'd tell him--and was hurt because she hadn't.

Catherine shut the door of the house behind her, drinking in the sense of peace it always gave. Maybe staying home wouldn't be such a bad idea after all--even though it had seemed rather empty all week without Vincent's presence. She wouldn't have been so eager to take all that work home lately, no matter how short-staffed this flu had left the DA's office, if Vincent hadn't been needed in the far reaches of the Tunnels for major repair work. For a moment she considered visiting Below, but dismissed the idea. Joe might possibly be right, and she couldn't risk infecting anyone in the Tunnels, especially the children. Even a simple flu was such a drain on their resources ... she couldn't take such a chance just because she wanted company.

Putting her coat away in the closet and starting upstairs, Catherine decided to face the chaos her home office had become. Keeping all the parts of her life in balance sometimes seemed like juggling an extremely varied assortment of objects while standing on a tightrope. Balanced on one foot. She smiled ruefully when she thought of how often her attempt to keep up with her old friends turned out to be the ball that dropped. With a righteous sense of resolution, she plunked herself down in front of the paper mountain and set to work.

Almost two hours later, she leaned back, sighed mightily, and surveyed her accomplishments. A disorderly pile of unpaid bills and unanswered letters had been transformed into a neat stack of stamped envelopes. The wastebasket overflowed with junk mail detritus and the books Devin had asked to borrow were carefully packaged and ready to mail. Catching sight of the desk calendar brought to light by her recent excavation, Catherine felt a pang of concern. Had she missed lunch with Jenny again? Please, God, let it be next week, she prayed as she realized the date showing was almost two weeks ago. Chandler, you've got to get organized, she admonished herself. Suddenly her hand stopped in the act of turning the page. For a long moment the world around her seemed as still as her body had become. Slowly she laid the calendar back on the desk. As if a spring had been released, she leaped up, rushed down the stairs and out the door, throwing on her coat as she ran.

An hour later she was sitting on her bed, staring at the objects in her hands. It couldn't be true, it wasn't possible...was it? The turmoil of conflicting emotions within her threatened to swamp any attempt at rational thought. With a prodigious effort of will she tried to impose some measure of calm. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the phone.

"Hi. Yes, it's me, Cathy. No, I'm fine. Well, maybe I do sound a little strange, but I have good reason--I think. What I really need this minute is to talk to a friend. Are you busy right now? ... no, I'd rather come over there if it's all right. Thanks--I'll be right there!"

***

"Vincent OK? Dust in face?"

"No, Mouse, I'm fine."

"Why're you shaking your head then? You do look a little funny," Jamie asked curiously.

"Looks to me like he's getting a message from radio CATH," Cullen grinned wickedly as they hoisted the last piece of lumber to shore up the crumbling passage. "You didn't drop the beam or anything this time so it must be suitable for the whole family."

"Your metaphors are certainly original, Cullen," Vincent replied, attempting to ignore the teasing tone. Cullen's sense of humor sometimes took an unfortunate turn where he and Catherine were concerned.

"There's nothing wrong, is there, Vincent?"

Vincent reached out to rest his hand on Jamie's shoulder. "No.." he replied uncertainly. "I'm not sure what it is. She's feeling some strong emotion, but it's very complicated...different from anything I've sensed before."

"Well," Cullen yawned as he picked up his tools, "you'll be seeing her in another day and you can ask her yourself. We should finish this by tomorrow afternoon, and I'll be glad to see the end of it. What a job."

"Good job," Mouse insisted proudly. "Last forever!"

"Well, a long time, anyway," Jamie amended. "You've been a big help, Cullen."

"Maybe, Jamie my girl, but I'm made for finer things. Cathy found a great old chest in the basement of the Chandler-Wells residence. With a little repair work and a lot of elbow grease it'll be perfect for Mary's room. She needs more storage space."

As they moved wearily back to their camp, Vincent smiled inwardly. It pleased him that his relationship with Catherine often seemed to bring almost as much happiness to his friends and family as it did to himself. He recognized that even Cullen's relentless teasing was just another way of sharing their joy. The depth of that joy astonished him--every time he thought they had reached the limits of it, new vistas opened up.

The house had seemed a gift from the Fates as much as from Catherine's surrogate grandmother. Within its sheltering walls they had been able to build the kind of life he never dared imagine he could have. How often in their early days together they had talked with such pain about their dream ... now life was like that dream--only better. For so long they had agonized over the demands their different worlds made upon them, and in the end they created their own special place in between; a place that served not only as a refuge for themselves but as a bridge for those they loved and those who needed them; a bridge between Above and Below.

Indeed, the "Chandler-Wells residence" seemed to have acquired a symbolic importance to many of the Tunnel family. Eric had taken to calling it the Rainbow Bridge, and Samantha had dubbed it the Last Homely Tunnel, much to Catherine's delight. Father had been reluctant to spend much time there at first, partly from his longstanding distrust of the world Above, partly from a fear of intruding upon them. Gradually seduced by the irresistable collection of books and music that Catherine constantly added to, he could now be found almost as often in their library as in his own chambers.

Vincent knew that Catherine still regretted that she could not show him her whole world. In lieu of that she seemed determined to collect every nature or travel program available on video. He smiled as he remembered her eagerness to have him view the latest acquisition. Curled up with her on the sofa, enthralled by the rather astonishing mating ritual of the banana slug, he solemnly informed his wife that he now knew more about the habits of obscure flora and fauna than most people would ever want to. Catherine retaliated by tickling him, and somehow-perhaps it was the influence of those banana slugs--they never did see the end of the program. Vincent reluctantly set the memory aside for savoring after the rest were asleep. No sense encouraging Cullen.

True to Cullen's prediction, the construction crew completed its work early the next afternoon. Jamie, Cullen and Mouse detoured to the bathing pools to wash off the dust. Vincent briefly considered joining them, until he realized it was Saturday and Catherine would probably be home. After more than a week's absence, she would surely prefer to see him sooner and grimy than later and clean. Besides, the bathing facilities at the Chandler-Wells residence would likely provide a degree of personalized attention not available Below ... Vincent began to run.

Reaching the house, he raced up the hidden stairway to the second floor, sensing Catherine's location. As he emerged into their bedroom, Catherine threw herself into his arms before the panel opened all the way. "Oh Vincent, I'm so glad ... you're home ... I missed you so much ... " Her words were punctuated with kisses that Vincent returned avidly, holding her as if he had been gone a month instead of a week.

Eventually they paused to breathe and drink in the sight of each other. Catherine looked more beautiful than ever, even through the thick coating of Tunnel-dust that now clung to her. "Catherine, I'm sorry--I should have cleaned up before I came home, but I couldn't wait." He tried with little success to brush the dust from her face. "I've become spoiled, my love. Having you with me every day makes a week apart seem so long."

"I'm glad you decided not to wait. I've been so anxious for you to come back ..."

Vincent was confused by the indefinable look on her face. He could detect no distress in her, quite the opposite--but there were layers and depths to her emotions unlike any he had sensed before. "Catherine--is anything wrong?"

"Of course not, love, you'd know if there were." Her tone was light, even; a deceptively smooth surface over deep currents. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up ... and me."

Sharing a shower with Catherine usually meant that getting clean was of secondary importance. This time, however, she was content to concentrate on bathing him, with a gentle thoroughness that made it seem like she was seeing his body for the first time. Falling under the spell of her odd mood, Vincent let her dry him and comb his tangled hair, after he had done the same for her. Only afterwards did she lead him back to the bedroom.

Catherine made love not with the hungry passion Vincent expected after their separation, but with a slow, aching tenderness that left him too moved to speak. For a long time afterwards he lay holding her, thanking every god he knew of for such a gift. It was Catherine who broke the silence at last. Raising her head from the hollow of his shoulder, she studied his face for a long time before touching her lips to his.

"Vincent ... " She traced the line of fur from his nose to his upswept brow with a touch light as a breeze. "Can we go downstairs for a little while? There's something I want to show you."

At that point, Vincent could not have refused her if she had suggested walking to China. Besides, he sensed in her a rising excitement and anticipation that told him the explanation for her strange mood might be at hand. He put on the dark green robe Catherine had given him for his birthday--could it really be three years ago now? The happiest years of his life. As he walked down the stairs with Catherine's hand in his, he realized that in a little over two months, it would be the sixth anniversary of their meeting, and the third of their wedding.

Just over three years since they had become lovers, almost three since Catherine had bought this house that had become their refuge. Vincent smiled to himself. He and Catherine should visit Narcissa again soon. Surely she would read magical significance into all those threes coming together. To him, though, every moment he spent with Catherine was more magic than any man deserved.

Leading him to the library, Catherine motioned Vincent to sit on the sofa, while she retrieved a book from the shelves and sat down beside him. "I bought this from Mr. Smythe yesterday."

Taking the beautiful old volume in his hands, Vincent smiled fondly at his wife. "Mr. Smythe certainly must bless the day you first walked into his shop, Catherine." He looked with pleasure at the well-laden shelves surrounding them. He and Catherine had begun with a substantial collection between them, and it had grown even larger in the past three years. Catherine must surely be the bookseller's best customer.

Turning his attention to her latest acquisition, Vincent turned the pages with appreciation. It was a jewel of a book, made in the days when the binding was as much a work of art as the contents. Despite their age, the illustrations seemed as fresh as the day some fortunate child first turned over these pages in the the early years of the century.

"Catherine, it's beautiful--a true work of art, as well as a classic story. Why did you choose it? Was it a particular favorite of yours as a child?"

"Yes, but that's not the main reason I got it." Catherine gently traced the complex pattern of the binding as Vincent held the book. "I wanted to read it to Jacob someday."

Vincent stared at Catherine, as confused by the tone of her voice as by her words. "I'm sure Father would appreciate this as a thing of beauty, but it seems an--unusual choice for something to read to him."

Catherine dropped her eyes to Vincent's lap as she gently took the book from him, twining her fingers around his. "I don't mean Father," she said softly, a catch in her voice. "I mean Jacob Charles."

Vincent was more confused than ever; he was sure neither he nor Catherine knew anyone of that name ...

"Or it could be Caroline Mary."

As Catherine raised her eyes to meet his, the emotions he knew she had been keeping in check were suddenly freed. Vincent felt as if he had been tossed into raging rapids, unable to sort out the powerful tangle of feelings he read in Catherine; unable to make sense of her words.

Catherine raised his hands to her lips, kissing each one in turn without taking her eyes from his. She took a deep breath.

"Vincent--I'm pregnant."

For a long moment, Vincent sat immobile, stunned. "Catherine ... " His voice sounded strange even to himself. "Are you sure? When we agreed to take no steps to prevent this I ... I really did not believe it was possible. My biochemistry is so different ... Father told me it was impossible, Peter ..."

"Peter believes it now," she said gently. "As soon as I realized I was late I ran to the drugstore like a madwoman. I got two pregnancy tests--different brands--and they both said yes. Then I went to see Peter, and he confirmed it. I've been having morning sickness for a week. There's no doubt."

Of all the conflicting emotions that assailed Vincent, fear was uppermost, followed closely by guilt. Paracelsus' horrible lies still haunted him, even though the rational part of him knew them as lies. His great unspoken fear was that the truth might be worse. The dark unknown that was his origin suddenly became populated with demons, each showing him a scene more hideous than the last, and all ending in pain and death for the woman he loved more than his own life.

"Vincent ... Vincent!" Catherine's voice brought him back to reality, but the fear was still mirrored on his face.

"Oh, dear love, don't do this to yourself!" Catherine pleaded. "It will be all right, I promise you. I have the two best doctors anyone could wish, and I want this so much. Dear Vincent--let yourself be happy. Let yourself believe in just one more miracle."

The love and conviction in her voice overwhelmed the demons, for the moment at least. With an inarticulate sob, Vincent took Catherine in his arms, clinging to her like a drowning man to a rock. "Catherine, Catherine ... a child of ours would bring me more joy than I could ever tell you. I wanted it too, more than I could admit, even to myself. But I am so afraid for you ..."

Catherine held him as tightly as she could, stroking his hair as she reassured him. "Everyone thought this was impossible ... I can't believe in a Providence that would give us such a gift if it were fated to bring anything but joy. Oh, dear heart ... let yourself believe that you deserve to be happy."

Vincent was never able to remember what he said after that. He only remembered that they laughed and cried by turns, and kissed, and held each other a long time.

"Vincent?"

He could feel Catherine's joy and love through the bond, so strong it was almost tangible. If she asked him for the moon at that moment, he would have found a way to get it for her. "What it it, love?"

She got to her feet and tugged on his hands so he would follow. "I've been keeping this inside for too long. Now that I've told you, I want to shout it from the rooftops--but I'll settle for pounding the pipes. Shall we go tell Father he'd better get used to being called Grandfather?"

Some time later, Catherine found herself experiencing a distinct feeling of déja vu as Father's reaction paralleled Vincent's. Shock gave way to fear and finally a wary sort of happiness.

"Catherine, I should have expected this," Father finally conceded. "This was the only impossibility you had yet to make real."

"I guess this means you'll have to revise your definition of 'impossible,' " Catherine smiled. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Father ..."

"Marriage to my son," Father laughed, "has certainly increased your repertoire of Shakespeare quotations."

"Only one of many gifts it's brought me," Catherine replied as she looked fondly at her still-dazed husband.

Her equally dazed father-in-law gathered the shreds of his professional persona around him and attempted to sound businesslike. "Well, I'm sure that Peter and I shall have much to discuss. Were you able to determine how far along you are?"

"I'm pretty sure it happened at Winterfest," Catherine replied with a reminiscent smile. "Well, not at Winterfest, of course; someone would have noticed. Afterwards." She ignored the strangled sounds coming from Vincent's direction.

Father maintained his aplomb with difficulty. "That means the child is due in ... September. Catherine, I hope you intend to be tested. Having your first baby at thirty-five ... "

"Father ... I need to think about that. Some of those tests are risky, and I won't take any unecessary chances. Peter and I are ... negotiating."

If Father had learned nothing else in the past six years, he learned when to retreat gracefully, if not permanently. "Well ... do you wish to make this common knowledge as yet? I know many of our community have prayed for this day for a long time."

"Even though it was impossible?" Catherine asked innocently.

"Apparently my opinion is not as revered Below as I would wish. In this case, I am glad to have been proved wrong."

"Catherine is eager to tell everyone," Vincent offered. "On the way down I had to restrain her from tapping out the news herself. I finally convinced her it would break Pascal's heart."

Catherine pushed back her chair. "There are a few people Vincent and I want to tell personally, then Pascal can put it on the pipes. I'm beginning to appreciate how the Princess of Wales must have felt the first time she got pregnant."

The definition of "a few people" kept expanding as the prospective parents sought out their special friends Below. Catherine insisted on telling Mary first--partly because of the unstated but pervasive feeling in the community that she was "Mother" to Jacob's "Father"; partly because she would be involved in this birth as much as Jacob or Peter. Although she was loath to admit it to Vincent, Catherine was not totally fearless at the prospect of childbirth. Vincent would assume she feared bearing his child; Catherine knew she could never convince him that her trepidation would be neither more nor less if this baby's father were the most ordinary man imaginable. It was just that this experience was as new to her as it was to her husband. Knowing that someone like Mary was around gave Catherine considerable peace of mind. Not that she didn't have complete faith in Father and Peter as doctors--but past a certain point, their knowledge was necessarily only observational.

They found Jamie and Mouse together, an event becoming increasingly common, to Catherine's delight. Vincent made no secret of his amusement at the way that marriage seemed to have turned Catherine into an inveterate, if subtle, matchmaker. Underneath the amusement, it pleased him more than he would admit that she found her own married state so congenial she could hardly wait to usher all their friends into similar conditions of domestic bliss.

They were especially touched by Cullen's reaction. For all the years Vincent and Catherine had been together, Cullen's pleasure at their happiness had been expressed obliquely, overlaid by the protective coloration of dry wit and relentless teasing. Expecting more of the same, they were touched when he led them to a corner of his workshop and showed them some exceptionally fine pieces of oak.

"That's for the cradle," he said with a catch in his voice. "I've been hoping for years this day would come."

Lena was ecstatic, and confided that she hoped to have similar news herself before too long. She and Julio had decided that it was about time four-year-old Cathy had a little brother or sister. With a reminiscent smile, she gave Vincent her highest recommendation as a childbirth assistant.

William tried to ply Catherine with food, reminded her she was eating for two, and pointed out that "fancy Topsider food" wasn't adequate for a woman in her condition. Accepting half a dozen muffins and a basket of fruit was the only way Catherine could extricate herself. Judging by the grins directed their way as they continued on through the Tunnels, it became obvious to Catherine and Vincent that if they didn't get to Pascal soon there'd be hardly anyone left to tell. Laughing and eating muffins, they headed toward the pipe chamber.

Much later, when they finally escaped to the quiet privacy of their bedchamber, Catherine flopped onto the bed with a groan of mock exhaustion.

"Good grief! I wasn't expecting such a major social event. I can't believe how fast news travels around here. Who needs communications satellites when you've got pipes?"

Laughing, Vincent lay down beside her. "It did turn into quite a community celebration," he admitted.

"I'll say! I thought at any minute somebody was going to suggest we open up the Great Hall. And where on earth did William get champagne, of all things?"

"I didn't dare ask. I was afraid it might have something to do with Mouse." Vincent propped himself up on one elbow to smile at Catherine. "It's too bad you couldn't drink any."

"Not good for Junior." She smiled back, playing with the golden hair where it fell over his cheek. "It's a pretty good feeling," she told him softly "to know so many people are so happy for us."

"It certainly is," he agreed, kissing her forehead.

"Mm. And we still have to tell Uncle Devin. And Jenny." Catherine laughed. "Although, knowing Jenny, there's probably a message on my recorder right now telling me about this dream she had..."

She broke off as Vincent began kissing her again, and not on the forehead. As his lips moved from her cheek down the side of her neck, Catherine tilted her head back with a sigh, burying her hands in his hair. Just as she was about to move them to the fastenings of his vest, Vincent stiffened--not in the right place--and drew away from her.

"Vincent, what is it? What's wrong?"

"Catherine, I forgot..." He gestured vaguely in the direction of her midsection. "I don't want to hurt you ..."

For a moment, Catherine was totally confused. Surely he had gotten over those fears years ago! Then the truth suddenly came to her and she sat up with a start.

"Vincent, are you worried about making love because I'm pregnant?" When he nodded, she dropped her head for a moment and took a deep breath. Much as Catherine loved her hyper-protective husband, there were times when she was hard put to decide whether she should laugh or give him a swift kick.

"Vincent, we made love this afternoon, didn't we?"

"Did you think I could possibly have forgotten?" he replied softly.

"I should hope not, or I'm definitely losing my touch." Catherine leaned toward Vincent to look him directly in the eye. "I'm only a few hours more pregnant now than I was then."

"I didn't know you were pregnant then," he answered reasonably.

"Argghh. Vincent, it didn't hurt me then, it's not going to hurt me now or many months from now, although we'll have to start getting creative about positions by then."

Vincent's thoughts about the implications of such creativity were all too plain on his face. He was weakening. "Catherine, are you sure? I wouldn't want to risk ... "

"Dear heart, just because I've never been pregnant before doesn't mean I don't know anything about it. I have friends who've had babies. And besides, I've done quite a bit of reading on the subject."

"When?" Vincent was surprised. "I thought you only found out yesterday you were pregnant."

"Actually, the reading was a couple of years ago,"

Catherine replied quietly, unable to look at him when she saw the quick comprehension in hiseyes.

When they first became lovers, Vincent had insisted the possibility of a child, however remote, was too great a risk. It had taken almost a year for him to relent, and she was sure he only did so because he, like Father and Peter, didn't really believe it could happen. And because he eventually realized the depth of her pain and longing, no matter how carefully she thought she had hidden it from him. Catherine had been elated when he first agreed they would no longer take any steps to prevent her conceiving; she expected to become pregnant right away, as though the strength of her desire alone could make it happen. As the months and years went by, however, the books she had pored over so hopefully gathered dust in a remote corner, and she almost began to accept that this was one dream that would never come true.

Wordlessly, Vincent drew her close and held her tightly as she buried her head against his neck. After a long moment, he spoke again. "Catherine ... your longing is over. You are making the last of my dreams come true." At his words, the sorrows of the past dissipated like a mist, and the future held all her attention.

Pushing herself away to look at Vincent once more, Catherine returned to the subject at hand. "The dream does not include spending months with you afraid to touch me. Keeping my hands off of you was hard enough when I could only fantasize what making love with you would be like. After three years of knowing how good it is, I couldn't stand it. I'll dig out the books again and you can read them too."

"Do they have pictures," he asked innocently, "in case our creativity is lacking?"

Catherine began to laugh in astonished delight. "Will you listen to us? For years we never said the word 'sex' in each other's presence. If there'd been a National Euphemism Award we'd have won it three years running. Now we're talking about creative positions and naughty pictures without a blush."

"Well, Catherine, we have been lovers for over three years, after all, and married almost as long. That has a way of changing things."

"It certainly does," Catherine agreed with a fond smile. "I like it a lot. How about you?"

"I like it very much."

With a sudden movement, Catherine flipped over to lie on top of her husband. "And ..." Swiftly untying his vest, she slipped her hands underneath Vincent's shirt as she punctuated her words with kisses. "There'll be no more ... of this ... unneccesary reluctance ... to make love ... to your ... perfectly healthy pregnant wife."

Since Catherine was also rubbing her body sensuously over Vincent's as she kissed him, it was perhaps understandable that his reply was largely unintelligible. Taking it as agreement, she proceeded accordingly.

Much later, Catherine lay in a state of peaceful relaxation while Vincent slept his well-earned sleep beside her. She smiled to herself as she stroked the furry arm that lay protectively across her stomach. Given the excitement of this day, not to mention the recent exercise, she was surprised to find herself still conscious. Something had been tugging at the back of her mind since yesterday--perhaps that was keeping her awake. She allowed her thoughts to drift, hoping the elusive memory would surface.

***

Almost six months ago, with New York at the humid height of its summer discomfort, anyone who could had escaped the city for the beaches or the country. Catherine's escape was vertical rather than lateral, into the cool depths of the lower Tunnels. Vincent was leading one of his regular expeditions to the crystal cavern, and Catherine liked to accompany him on these trips whenever her schedule allowed. The ethereal beauty of the place always moved her, especially since it was the source of the precious crystal that hung around her neck.

Catherine was glad that Jenny had been able to come this time. After two years of hearing about its wonders, Catherine was afraid her friend had begun to suspect it was as mythical as King Solomon's Mines. As Vincent made the way ahead, on the alert for loose rocks or other dangers, the two women brought up the rear, watchful for any straggling children.

"Wow, this is amazing," Jenny exclaimed. "I had no idea these tunnels went so deep! I feel like we're going to stumble across Pellucidar any minute."

"There are tunnels a lot deeper than where we're going," Catherine replied. "But those are too dangerous to take the children. Some of the deep places not even Mouse has been to. Only Vincent."

Jenny was too intuitive, and too good a friend, to miss the undercurrent of pain in Catherine's voice. "Cathy, I know that was a terrible time for you, when Vincent almost lost himself down there. I only wish I'd known then what was going on with you, so I could've helped. But that was over three years ago. You brought him home."

Catherine slipped an arm around Jenny's shoulder to give a quick hug. "Thanks for reminding me. It's hard not to think of it when we go on this expedition."

"Why? You didn't find him anywhere near here, did you?"

"No ... you see when Vincent was so ... sick, when he wasn't himself, Mary asked him to take some of the children to see the cavern. His reaction then, and Father's, made her and others realize how seriously ill Vincent was."

"I get it. And knowing Vincent, I suppose he felt awful about disappointing the children." Jenny had known Vincent long enough by now to realize that would bother him most of all.

"He hated having them see his weakness, his lack of control." Catherine's eyes never the left her husband's graceful back as he walked before them. "Ever since then, he's made a point of taking groups of the children to the crystal cavern when they get old enough." Catherine turned to Jenny and smiled. "It's become something of a coming-of-age ritual."

"Well," Jenny grinned, "my bat mitzvah was a helluva long time ago, but I'm glad I got to come anyway. Does Vincent usually have you bring up the rear, or is this just husbandly thoughtfulness so we can talk girl talk?"

"Mostly the latter," Catherine admitted, "but he's always careful there's someone else along to make sure nobody wanders off. These passages are too deep to be used often, so there's always the possibility of something hazardous that hasn't been found in a regular patrol. Usually one of the older children comes, someone who's been on the trip before. It makes them feel so important and grown up."

"Vincent is so terrific with kids," Jenny began, regretting the words too late to recall them. Glancing sidewise at Catherine's face, she winced at the pain her friend could not quite hide.

Oh, Cath," she said hopelessly, "I'm sorry. That was a stupid thing to say. I just didn't think ..."

"Jenny, there's no reason for you to be sorry." Her voice was controlled--too controlled. "It's absolutely true. He's wonderful with children. He'd make a perfect father. It seems so unfair we can't ... oh, damn!" Catherine took a deep breath. "I can't give in to this, he'll feel it."

"It's all my fault," Jenny said miserably. "You haven't said anything about it in so long, I forgot for a moment how much it hurts you."

"Jenny, Jenny, stop blaming yourself! The world is full of things that remind me of children. Most of the time I succeed pretty well in ignoring the pain, or suppressing it. If I didn't, Vincent would feel terrible. He'll blame himself for anything given half a chance."

"Entropy?" Jenny tried to lighten the mood. "The greenhouse effect?"

"Pretty much," Catherine agreed with the hint of a smile. "I don't mind it for myself that much. There's no guarantee I would have had children even if I'd never heard of Vincent, although I always wanted them someday. After all, I was pretty close to thirty and still single when I met him."

"Yeah. You might have been crazy enough to marry a jerk like Tom Gunther." Jenny's opinion of Catherine's former boyfriend had never been high. "I can't imagine him letting kids mess up his schedule."

"How true." Catherine shook her head in wonder. "Could that really have been me? Most of the time it seems my life before Vincent happened to somebody else. Someone I barely recognize now."

Sensing that Jenny still felt guilty, Catherine took her arm as they walked along. "God, Jenny, what right have I to complain? I have Vincent, and he's a greater gift than anyone could hope to deserve. I have a whole loving community and family Below, and friends like you and Joe and Peter Above. I should be ashamed of myself for not being content."

"It's not yourself that's the issue, though is it? It wouldn't hurt so much if it were."

"Oh Jenny," Catherine sighed. "Sometimes I forget just how well you know me. No, it hurts because I want it so badly for Vincent. I've been able to give him all the other things he convinced himself he could never have ... my love, marriage, a life together. Maybe I began to believe I could make anything happen. I've read enough of the classics to know what happens when you let that hubris get out of hand."

"Oh, bull!" Jenny sputtered. At Catherine's startled look, Jenny continued. "The older I get, the less sympathy I have for that attitude. Do you have any idea how many versions of the Great American Tragedy end up on my desk in the course of a year? If I want tragedy, I'll read the newspaper. In a world like this, making up more seems sadistic at worst and adolescent selfindulgence at best."

"Wow!" Catherine exclaimed. "Have I hit a nerve?"

"Just one of my pet peeves," Jenny admitted somewhat sheepishly. "Maybe it's my family history, but I've always had more respect for people who dream about better things, especially if they work to make them come true. Pain and angst and all that are too easy. Any idiot can destroy; creation is the real challenge."

Catherine regarded Jenny with astonishment. "I never realized you felt that strongly ..."

"Cath, it's one of the reasons I admire the people Below so much, especially Father and the others who really built this place. And it's one of the reasons I admire you."

"Me?"

"Yes, you. I know the first year with Vincent was rough, everybody telling you all the time how impossible it was, till you hit bottom and escaped to Nancy's. But you came out the other side and never looked back. You dusted yourself off and started making good things happen."

Catherine was lost in memories for a moment. "You make it sound a lot simpler than it was. Our second year was no bed of roses, either."

"I don't mean to imply it was. From what you've told me, I know it was a hard road." Jenny smiled. "With no road maps. You were on your own, but you got things figured out. You were determined that you and Vincent were going to be happy, dammit, and you made it real."

"Dear Jenny, what would I do without you? You have such a unique way of looking at things."

"Well, you can take your hubris and shove it," Jenny announced firmly. "I'll take eucatastrophe any day."

"What kind of catastrophe?" Catherine asked, puzzled. "That sounds familiar but I can't place it."

"Tolkien, in his essay 'On Fairy-Stories.' A classic. The sudden joyous turn that denies universal defeat; the Consolation of the Happy Ending; 'Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.'" Jenny spoke earnestly. "Cathy, your life with Vincent has had its share of eucatastrophes. Don't give up hope of one more."

"I'll never give up hope. Not with friends like you to keep me on the right track." Suddenly Jenny's attention was on a narrow passage which branched off to the right. "What is it?"

Catherine asked, suddenly alert.

Jenny's face screwed up in puzzlement. "I could have sworn I saw somebody angle off into that tunnel, but it couldn't be. We would have heard if someone had been that close behind us."

For the first time since their conversation had become so intense, Catherine looked around to judge where they were. She had been on this trip often enough that the route was somewhat familiar. When she figured out their location, Catherine began to have a pretty good idea who the elusive figure might have been. "Jenny, it was probably Narcissa. She's one of the few people who frequent this part of the Tunnels."

"Narcissa? Wasn't she at Winterfest? That strange old black woman who makes you feel like she could turn you into a toad anytime she wants?"

Catherine laughed. "That's the kind of description Father would use."

Jenny did not laugh. "Maybe, but Father wouldn't mean it. I do." She was thoughtful a moment. "Why didn't she say hello? Doesn't she like us Topsiders?"

"It has nothing to do with you," Catherine assured Jenny. "She just likes her solitude. Some years she doesn't even come to Winterfest, although she's been doing that pretty regularly lately. I think she has a soft spot for Vincent and likes to make sure I'm treating him right."

"Well, I hope she shows up again this year," Jenny spoke quietly to Catherine, as if the elusive Narcissa weren't a long way off by now. "I'd sure like to talk to her more. She looks like she's forgotten more than most of us will ever know."

Jenny shook herself. "Well, enough of this serious stuff. We need a new subject." With a wicked grin, she turned to Catherine. "Have you ever noticed how sexy Vincent looks from this angle?"

Giggling like they were back in college, the two spoke no more of serious things for the rest of the journey.

***

Smiling at the memory, Catherine was brought back to the present as Vincent stirred in his sleep. She watched him anxiously for a moment, concerned that his movement might signal the beginning of a troubling dream. His nightmares came less frequently now than when they first began sharing a bed, but they always had a vividness that made them seem terribly real to him. Catherine doubted these visions would ever leave Vincent completely; they were too closely allied to that preternatural empathy of his which found its purest expression in their bond.

Catherine relaxed as Vincent simply snuggled more closely against her and quieted. Only one small candle near the door was still burning, but it gave enough illumination to highlight his golden fur as it followed the contours of the muscles beneath. How beautiful he was, how magical. Sometimes she could hardly believe he was real, and really hers. What had she ever done to deserve such good fortune?

At first, Catherine had chastised herself for wanting a child of their own so much. After all, Vincent and Father were as perfect an illustration as anyone could wish that ties of love were no less strong then those of biology. Stronger, sometimes, she thought, thinking of Devin. Catherine had considered adoption more than once. The world being what it was, it was all too inevitable more babies would be brought to the Tunnels in need of rearing. But the community as a whole did such a good job of that, and Catherine worried that selecting one or two children for special attention from her and Vincent would hurt the others.

Part of her desire stemmed from loving Vincent so much, and wanting to give him everything she could. She knew that giving him a child of his own would make him unbelievably happy, more than even he realized. Once the fear was gone, he would revel in fatherhood ... and he would be so good at it.

There was yet another reason, one which she had always kept to herself. She had come to love Vincent's people and his world almost as much as she loved him. As she moved through her often frustrating days above, the tide of cruelty and unhappiness she waded through often threatened to engulf her. Knowing the Tunnels were safe below her feet, that another and better way of being existed, often gave her the strength to carry on.

Vincent was more than a much-loved and useful member of that unique community; he was its symbolic heart in a way she only dimly understood. He was also its protector, like the King's Champion of old. More than once he had been all that stood between the community and its destruction--by Paracelsus, by Lin and Henry's pursuers, by so many others. Catherine fully intended that she and Vincent would live a good long time, but even his exceptional strength would not last forever. Who would protect this place when he no longer could?

One of Vincent's greatest fears, she knew, was that he would father a child like himself. It was Catherine's greatest hope. More than once she had resented the way everyone took Vincent's protection for granted, knowing the pain it caused him to unleash his killing power--no matter how just the cause or how necessary the act. Nonetheless, she was forced to admit how important his protection was, and how much he considered it his duty despite the undeniable emotional cost. If he had a son like himself-- possessing that power, but one who had no doubts about the circumstances of his birth, no deep-seated fears of abandonment, who could be guided to adulthood forewarned of the demons he might have to face ... then the King's Champion would have a worthy successor, and need carry that burden alone no longer.

Now hope and possibility was becoming reality with every breath she took, every beat of her heart, as the child grew within her. Unlike most of those Below, Father had been a bit ... restrained? ... in his enthusiasm. More than once she had seen him looking at her with a worried frown; Peter had had the same look when he had confirmed the pregnancy. Catherine wondered if they knew how transparent they both were. After years of suggesting to her, as gently as possible, the unlikelihood of her conceiving a child with Vincent, the unlikely was now staring them in the face. Now their happiness for her was tempered by the fear that she would lose a child whose father's biochemistry was so different from her own. That was, of course, a very realistic fear, given what they knew. Somehow, Catherine couldn't share that fear, sensible that it was. But then, she knew some things they didn't ...

***

Winterfest was Catherine's favorite day of the whole year. Even though this was her fifth one, it was as magical as the first--no, moreso, because she had so many wonderful memories associated with it now. Leaning against the stair railing, she watched Vincent lead Samantha around the floor in a waltz. He looked so handsome in his holiday finery it was almost more than she could do to keep from dragging him off to continue their celebration in private. How grown-up Samantha looked now! Catherine hugged herself in complete contentment. It felt wonderful to be so much a part of this community that she noticed these things. Many of the children she knew from her earliest times Below were adolescents now, getting ever closer to adulthood. More and more she could understand Vincent's pride at their blossoming. Lost in her thoughts, Catherine didn't at first notice the figure that approached her slowly up the stairs, using the railing to guide her steps.

"Narcissa!" Catherine hastened to help the old woman. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were there."

"Come, come child, I'm not as helpless as all that," she cackled. "Just stiffer than I was in my younger days. Ah!" Narcissa lowered herself to sit on the top step with a grateful

sigh. "The way up from the deep places gets longer every year."

"Maybe you should move closer to the central chambers," Catherine suggested, worried. "Everyone would be happy to have you."

"Even Father?" Narcissa asked.

"Even Father," Catherine insisted. "Besides, it would be good for him ... keep his adrenalin going. There's not as much excitement around here as there used to be. Thank God!"

Narcissa patted Catherine's knee. "No, child, I need the deep places, the quiet places. They are my power."

"We all worry about you, alone down there." Catherine put her hand over Narcissa's. "What if something happened to you?"

"Someday it will, child, and I will become part of the stone and the darkness. But not for a long while yet." She smiled at Catherine. "I have too much yet to do, too many to watch over."

Catherine shivered, but not in fear. Father might make light of Narcissa, call her a deluded old woman, but Catherine sensed depths in Narcissa that sometimes awed her, made her think of stories of goddesses who disguised themselves as mortals to move among them, testing them, meting out whatever boon or doom they earned. Everyone knew Vincent's role as protector of the Tunnels, but Catherine often wondered about Narcissa's. She had visions of magical wards surrounding the world Below, conjured by this strange and disturbing crone. Years ago, Catherine would have scoffed at magic, but her recent life had made her reluctant to dismiss any possibility out of hand.

"Our Vincent is very happy tonight, is he not?"

Narcissa's question brought Catherine's wandering attention back to the scene below. "It looks that way." Catherine smiled at the woman beside her. "I do my best."

"And from what I hear, child, that is very good indeed." Catherine wondered how someone who lived in such isolation as Narcissa did could know so much about the life of the Tunnels, but was reluctant to ask. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer. Catherine turned back to watch Vincent. "He deserves all the happiness I can give him. More."

"Well, child, I must be on my way." Narcissa began to rummage in the bag she carried. "But first, I have a gift for you and Vincent."

Catherine was touched. "Narcissa, that's very sweet of you. Let me get Vincent, and ..."

"No, no, child, I have been away from my own places long enough." She drew a small pottery flask from the bag, carefully sealed with cork and wax, and handed it to Catherine. "Here. Both of you must drink this tonight before you go to bed. It will bring you good fortune, and make wishes come true."

Catherine accepted with a dubious look at Narcissa, whose face wore a strange smile. She sounded like something right out of a fairy tale at times. Catherine often wondered if she did it on purpose, just to get Father's goat. Playing along, she accepted the old woman's gift with gravity. "Thank you Narcissa, from both of us. I'm glad you care so much about us."

The old woman nodded. "You must promise to drink it tonight, at the turn of the year." Narcissa cackled again. "You musn't let anything make you forget."

Catherine ducked her head down as she felt a blush rise into her cheeks. Surely Narcissa couldn't know how she and Vincent always spent the night of Winterfest--could she? Unwilling to look Narcissa in the eye, Catherine nodded. "I promise. Thank you for remembering us."

She watched Narcissa's shoulder shake with mirth as the old woman moved down the steps. Thinking of Vincent made Catherine realize she'd been letting him dance with other women far too long. Tucking Narcissa's gift into a safe corner, Catherine entered the dance floor to retrieve her husband.

"I think this was the second-best Winterfest ever," Catherine announced to Vincent as they reached the entrance to the chambers she always thought of as The Resort. What else would you call a room with a deliciously large four-poster bed and its own bathing pool right next door?

Vincent laughed at her emphatic tone. "You say that every year."

"Well, it's true. They keep getting better all the time."

"But not good enough to become first best?" Vincent asked her softly as he pushed the tapestry aside to allow Catherine to enter the room and light the candle near the door.

"Vincent, every Winterfest with you has been glorious," she whispered, wrapping her arms around him. "But how could any equal the first one we spent in this room? That was the beginning of the best time of my life." Catherine looked deep into his shadowed eyes. "Every time we make love is wonderful," she told him with a catch in her voice. "But the rest wouldn't have happened if that first night here hadn't proved it was possible for us. That's why I'll always treasure that memory as special."

Vincent buried his hands in Catherine's hair, looking at the face between those hands as if he could never get enough of the sight. "Such a brave journey into the unknown that was for you. How did you ever find the courage?"

"Some risks are worth taking, Vincent," Catherine reminded him as their lips met in a deep, lingering kiss.

After several more, Vincent pulled back a little and smiled. "Perhaps we should light the rest of the candles," he suggested. "I love the sight of you as well as the feel of you."

The tone of his voice sent delicious shivers of anticipation running through Catherine's nerves. "Good idea. Then why don't we relax in the pool for awhile? It's the longest night of the year, after all." Her voice was silk. "Let's make it last."

After the candles were lit, they undressed each other slowly, savoring every touch and glimpse as each was revealed to the other. They tied up each other's hair in leather thongs to keep it free of the water, then passed through a second doorway to the pool beyond. Taking bathing supplies from a small cabinet near the entrance, they set them near the edge of the steaming water. Vincent noticed that Catherine added an unfamiliar pottery vessel to the collection.

"Catherine," he asked, "what is that? You've already given me my Winterfest present."

"That," Catherine replied, slipping into the water beside him, "is a present to both of us from Narcissa. She made me promise we'd drink it tonight before we got too... uh, distracted. Since we usually get distracted pretty quickly, I thought we'd better do it in short order."

"Are you sure it's quite ... safe?" Vincent asked dubiously as he slit the wax seal with his claw and sniffed the cork.

"Oh, Vincent," Catherine laughed, "you sound like Father. You know Narcissa would never give us anything dangerous. She said this would bring us good luck and make our wishes come true." Catherine leaned over for a sniff of her own. "It could be a magic potion, but it smells more like an herb cordial to me."

Catherine grinned lasciviously at her husband and wrapped her arms and legs around him in the water. "Maybe it's an aphrodisiac."

"Catherine," Vincent asked huskily as he held her close against him, "are you familiar with the expression, 'coals to Newcastle?' "

Laughing, Catherine kissed him soundly before she slipped from his arms to pour the cordial into two small cups she had abstracted from the festivities in the Great Hall. "Come on, I promised. Let's drink a toast to the new year, or the return of the sun, or something appropriate."

Vincent accepted the cup Catherine offered him, his face suddenly serious. His eyes locked on hers, he raised the cup. "To one who has been a light to all the shadowed places of my life, and a torch to lead my soul out of darkness. I would make your every wish come true if I could."

Catherine's eyes filled with tears at the naked emotion in his voice. She was afraid her own would fail her as she raised her cup to him in turn. "To one who not only gave me back my life, but a reason to live it. I only hope I can make you as happy as you deserve."

The liquid slipped down their throats with a sinuous warmth. It tasted of summer herbs and autumn spices; of spring freshness and winter cold. It was like life distilled; relaxing and invigorating all at once. Its warmth seemed to flow to every cell of their bodies, leaving all the senses at their highest peak. With a look of surprised delight Vincent carefully set the cup down by the side of the pool. "A generous gift indeed," he said shakily.

Catherine laid her cup beside his. "A good beginning."

Without a word, they moved into each other's arms at the same time. As they kissed, the taste of the cordial mingled in their heightened senses with the familiar taste of each other. Catherine leaned her head against the side of the pool as Vincent's mouth left hers to trail kisses down her neck and throat. When his tongue found her breasts, the pleasure was almost too intense to bear. With a wordless cry she wrapped her legs around him, needing to be so close they ceased to be separate beings.

***

She never remembered later how many times they made love that night; it seemed like one fluid dance from pool to bed, one seamless ebb and flow of pleasure and love, giving and receiving. After she came down to earth, Catherine had wondered if Narcissa's gift hadn't been an aphrodisiac after all. Lying here now next to Vincent, their child growing inside her--a child conceived at Winterfest, she was sure--Catherine thought she had her answer at last.

The next morning, Catherine discovered that she had been the object of a conspiracy. She awoke alone, and much later than she normally would have when Below. Reading the note from Vincent on the pillow beside her, she shook her head in dismay at the unnatural quiet. This excessive coddling would have to be nipped in the bud. Throwing off the covers decisively, she jumped out of bed to begin her anti-fussing campaign, only to sit back down with a thump as a wave of dizziness came over her. This might be a bit more of a challenge than it first appeared.

When she entered Father's study Vincent leaped up to take her hand as she came down the stairs. Catherine decided a discussion of coddling could wait. Sitting down at the table with her two favorite men, she eyed the food warily as Father offered her some breakfast. "How about just some tea for now?" she suggested. "My stomach has a way of taking irrational dislikes to all sorts of things these days."

Father poured her a steaming cup. "This is a very delicate herb tea, my dear," he assured her. "And some dry toast should be all right, if you eat just a little at a time."

"Maybe," Catherine agreed somewhat dubiously. "I will admit that most of the stuff that passes for food around the office made me nauseous even before I was pregnant. In the last week being within ten feet of it sent me rushing for the nearest bathroom."

"Remember, Catherine, it usually goes away by the fourteenth week," Father reassured her.

"Usually?" Vincent asked in a concerned voice. "How long could it last?"

"Well," Father replied vaguely, "some women never experience it, some have it longer ... "

"What is the longest?" Vincent demanded.

"Well, it has been known to last as long as ... nine months," Father mumbled. Unfortunately, Vincent's hearing was too acute to miss anything. His face took on a stricken look.

Catherine took his hand, trying not to laugh. "Vincent, dear, I hope you're not going to expect the worst all the time, or the next seven and a half months are going to be very trying." She turned to Father. "And that goes for you too!"

Father spoke earnestly. "Catherine, I have no desire to alarm you, and certainly not Vincent--not that he needs any encouragement to worry about you. But you must admit there is reason for ... vigilance, at least. Vincent's biochemistry is unique; we have no way of knowing how that will affect your pregnancy."

"You were sure Vincent's biochemistry was so unique we'd never be able to conceive a child together in the first place. Doesn't the fact that we have tell you something?" Catherine reached across the table to touch the older man's hand. "Father, few women have as much attention and care during a pregnancy as I will, and I'm very grateful. Just don't let worry spoil the joy of it. Everything will be all right, I promise."

Vincent touched Catherine's cheek gently. "You sound so positive--I wish I could believe you."

Catherine captured his hand in her own and kissed his palm. "Vincent, have I ever failed to keep a promise to you?"

"No," he whispered. "Never."

Catherine answered his slow smile with one of her own. She knew his doubts would return, but for now the fears had receded, leaving the happiness uppermost.

Father's indulgent contemplation of the parents of his future grandchild was interrupted as Mouse burst in with his usual disregard of etiquette.

"Mouse! In heaven's name, what--"

"Father, Narcissa's coming! Saw her in lower Tunnels-headed this way."

"Are you sure, Mouse?" At the young man's emphatic nod, Father's brow furrowed in perplexity. "How extraordinary. Narcissa so seldom comes near the central chambers anymore, and now less than six weeks after Winterfest. Mouse, did there seem anything wrong? Did she appear ill?"

"Nope. Humming to herself. Looked happy."

"Perhaps she heard the news on the pipes last night and came to congratulate us," Vincent offered.

"Perhaps," Father agreed, "although she spends most of her time below the level of the pipes."

A smile as enigmatic as Mona Lisa's spread over Catherine's face. "I'm sure she knows--even without the pipes."

"Now, Catherine," Father began to bluster, "you shouldn't encourage her delusions of--"

Laughing, Catherine rose and tugged Vincent's hand. "Come on, let's walk down to meet her. If nothing else, it'll keep Father's blood pressure from the danger zone."

They met the old woman by the Mirror Pool. Vincent greeted her first in his usual affectionate way. Then she turned to Catherine. For a moment, the women stood looking at each other in a silence so charged it was almost tangible. Then Narcissa asked softly, "Something you have long wished for has come to pass, has it not?"

Catherine stepped forward into Narcissa's arms with an inarticulate cry and hugged her fiercely. "Oh Narcissa," she cried, her voice breaking, "I am so happy! No one ever had such a gift."

"Not a gift, child," the old woman replied softly as she stroked Catherine's hair. "Something you have earned. Something that was meant to be."

After a moment, the two broke the embrace and Narcissa looked Catherine over with a critical eye. "You look well, child." Narcissa spread her gnarled hand over Catherine's abdomen. Her almost-sightless eyes seemed to look inward. Then she began to laugh. "My, my, I do my work well! Better than I think, sometimes."

Catherine put her hand on Narcissa's arm. "What is it? What do you see?" she asked anxiously.

Narcissa picked up her basket and shook her head, still chuckling. "You'll know in good time, children. You musn't let the Old Man worry you. He has his ways of knowing, and I have mine. He worries about what could happen, what might happen, what will never happen."

Narcissa turned to Vincent. "You were always my special one. Such a loving child, but so much pain held inside. Her love heals you more every day." Vincent looked at Catherine. "A child's love will heal you too. Enjoy this time, Vincent, it is like no other."

The old woman resumed her walk toward the central chambers. "Come along. We shall have a little visit. I have some things Catherine can use to help her."

Catherine pitied her poor husband. He didn't seem to know quite what to make of this unexpected and cryptic encounter. Catherine tucked her arm in his and urged him to follow. Perhaps someday she'd tell him what she knew. Perhaps.


February

Vincent was just pouring Catherine's tea as he heard her steps coming down from the bedroom. The attractive and businesslike Assistant District Attorney who entered the kitchen was in marked contrast to the considerably less kempt woman who had chased him out of the bathroom earlier to have morning sickness in privacy.

"How do you feel, Catherine?" He asked with concern as he handed her the tea. "You should have let me help you."

Catherine kissed her husband on the cheek as she gratefully accepted the cup. "Vincent, you've seen me bruised, bleeding, filthy, beaten up, shot, and more than half drowned--but there's a limit. I am not at my best while retching, and it's better for my image to do it in private. Besides, I've had so much practice I've gotten it down to an exact science."

Vincent looked pained. "I wish you didn't have to go through this..."

Catherine sat down at the kitchen table and patted the chair beside her. "It's all part of the job, Vincent. If I could put up with up getting beaten up, shot, etc. for the DA's office, I can certainly put up with a little nausea as part of this Mom thing." Vincent still looked morose. "Actually, I think it's harder on Dad."

Vincent's eyes widened at her last word. "Dad?" he repeated wonderingly. "It sounds so strange."

Catherine smiled. "You'll get used to it fast enough, love. Actually," she said thoughtfully, "Father fits you better, but that could get awfully confusing Below."

"You don't think Father would accept Grandfather after all these years?"

Catherine gingerly attempted a piece of toast. "I don't know--we'd have to have retraining sessions for everyone or something." She looked up at Vincent. "You really don't have to wait until I leave to eat breakfast."

Vincent sipped his tea. "Catherine, I have no wish to risk making you ill. I can wait."

Checking her watch, Catherine rose. "That tea that Narcissa gave me really helps; it's only bad first thing in the morning now. Thank God I can take the stuff to work." Vincent handed her a thermos. "It's kept Joe from tracking me every time I go anywhere near the Ladies' Room."

Vincent followed Catherine as she moved to the front hall, and helped her on with her coat. "But the respite is over," she sighed. Today was the day she told Joe she needed a leave of absence. In another six weeks or so, her condition was going to become pretty obvious, and she wanted to give her beleaguered boss plenty of time to find a replacement. Catherine knew he wouldn't be at all happy at her leaving, and wanted to make it as easy on him as possible.

"Catherine--this will be difficult for you," Vincent said unhappily. "If only--"

"Vincent--don't worry. We've talked about this so much, I practically have my speech memorized, with half a dozen variations."

"Catherine, if you wish to tell him everything, if that would make it easier, I'm willing to take the risk."

Catherine took Vincent's hands in hers. "Darling, Joe's suspected for a long time I have a hidden side to my life. My guess is that anything he's thought of is probably much more lurid than reality."

"Then tell him the truth, Catherine," Vincent suggested. "He is a good man, and he cares for you. I'm sure he would keep our secret. We should have let you tell Jenny much earlier than we did."

"Vincent, it wouldn't be fair to Joe to give him such divided loyalties."

"My love, you have been in that position for years," Vincent reminded her.

"Mine aren't really very divided any more," Catherine countered. "Besides, if it became absolutely impossible for me-ethically, emotionally, however--I could quit in a minute. There are lots of other ways I could use my training to help people. Joe doesn't have that freedom."

Vincent released her hands to pull her close. "Would it really be so easy to leave?" Vincent asked, unbelieving.

"It wouldn't be easy," Catherine admitted. "Joe and I make a good team. I like working with him, and I know--on good days, anyway--that I make a difference. But I don't have to prove myself anymore." Catherine rubbed her cheek against Vincent's chest. "Joe didn't have the kind of advantages I did. He came up the hard way. I'm not sure if he really has political ambitions--I don't think he knows for sure--but I don't want to limit his options by saddling him with the burden of our secret."

"Then you'll tell him what we decided?" Vincent asked.

"Mm-hm. Only as much as I have to." She pulled back to look at her husband's face. "A kiss for luck?"

Vincent complied eagerly. Sighing, Catherine picked up briefcase and thermos, steeling herself to face a difficult day.

She smiled. "Now, how about a nice husbandly goodbye kiss?"

Laughing, Vincent took her face in his hands and kissed her thoroughly. "What are you thinking?" he asked curiously.

"I was just thinking how many people do something like that out of habit, without thinking about it. I can't imagine us ever taking this for granted."

"No," Vincent agreed softly. "Not after what we've gone through to earn this, how many obstacles we had to overcome."

"How hard we work every day to preserve it," Catherine added.

"How close we came to losing it." His voice was rough with remembered pain.

Catherine's eyes were moist. "Vincent, I love you so much." She laid her cheek for a moment against his chest. "I can face anything as long as I have you to come home to."

"I'll be waiting," he promised, as he moved away from the door. Catherine gave him a last loving look as she slipped through and closed it behind her.

Catherine fidgeted. Her attempts to bury herself in work to avoid thinking about her upcoming appointment with Joe were singularly unsuccessful. Every time she had convinced herself an hour had passed, her watch would insist it had only been fifteen minutes. She drank so much of Narcissa's tea she was afraid she'd float into Joe's office when the time finally came, but it seemed her fluttering stomach couldn't be blamed on pregnancy this time. At last the hour arrived. Taking deep breaths and willing herself to relax, she walked up to Joe's office door, squared her shoulders, and knocked.

"Well, Radcliffe," he greeted her. "You actually made an appointment to see me. This must be serious." His tone was light, but the undertone of uncertainty was all too obvious.

Catherine sat down carefully and screwed up her courage to look him in the eye. "I wanted to make sure we weren't interrupted. It is pretty important."

"Cathy, is something wrong?" Joe asked worriedly.

She smiled. "Oh no, something is very right. It's just that ..." Here goes, Chandler. "I need to take a year's leave of absence, starting at the beginning of April. I wanted to give you as much time as possible to find a good replacement."

Joe looked as if whatever he had expected her to say, that wasn't it. "Cathy, you're not sick, are you? I knew it, that wasn't just flu you had! Look, don't try to keep it from--"

"Joe, Joe, calm down," Catherine reassured him. "I'm not sick, I promise you. It's not that. Let's just call it ... personal reasons."

Joe got up abruptly and began pulling darts out of his board with a vengeance. "Look if it's the job, we can work something out. I told you you don't have to prove anything to anybody. If all that domestic violence work is getting to you we can find you something else. Or ... " He turned suddenly to face her, darts clutched in his hand. "Cathy, you're not in trouble, are you?"

For a moment Catherine was taken aback at the time-honored euphemism. Technically speaking ... but that wasn't what Joe meant.

Misreading her temporary silence, Joe's face became concerned. "Cathy that's it, isn't it? Kiddo, I wish you'd trust me. I told you years ago, we could get you out of it-- whatever it is." He looked hurt. "Cath, I know I'm your boss, and you must think I've got no business butting into your private life, but it's only because I care about you."

Catherine put her head in her hands and sighed. Oh, damn.

She raised her head again and looked Joe's face. She couldn't put him through this any more.

"Joe, please, sit down and put the darts on the desk before you hurt yourself. I'll tell you why I need to leave."

Joe did as she asked and looked at her expectantly.

Catherine couldn't help but smile as she said the words. "Joe, I'm pregnant."

As long as she lived, Catherine would always treasure the look on his face at that moment. At first he seemed to believe he couldn't possibly have heard her correctly; when it sank in, astonishment was quickly followed by total confusion at how to respond.

"Pregnant? But Cathy you're not ... I mean I didn't think... I mean, if you got married how come you never ... but if you're not it doesn't ... oh, shit." His face was a startling shade of pink, and articulate speech seemed to have deserted him.

Catherine took pity on him. "Joe, it's awfully hard to explain. I'll tell you as much as I can, but I can't tell you everything."

Not trusting himself to speak, Joe waved a hand to encourage her to continue.

Catherine absently began twisting the silver ring on her left hand as she spoke. "In every way that counts, I've been married for almost three years. Just not in any way the State of New York would absolutely recognize as legal."

"Cathy, I don't understand--why not?"

"Because legally, my husband doesn't exist ... and he has to stay that way."

"Look, if he's in some sort of trouble--"

"Joe, do you remember the accounts of my assault six years ago? God knows the papers had a field day with it, although they could only speculate."

"Yeah, but the police reports--" Joe suddenly clamped his mouth shut.

Catherine smiled at him. "It hardly surprises me that you looked up the reports, boss. It would have surprised me more if you hadn't. There were a lot of gaps, weren't there?"

"You never said where you were for those ten days."

"Those animals just dumped me in the park like a piece of garbage; it didn't matter to them whether I lived or died. Vincent found me there and took care of me. He saved my life."

"Vincent?"

"My husband. The father of this child. The man I've loved more than my life for five years."

"My God, Cathy, I've never heard you talk about anybody like that before. How could you keep this a secret for so long? And why?"

"Vincent brought me to his home," Catherine continued. "His father is a doctor, and the two of them treated me and took care of me until I was ready to face the world." Catherine appeared to change the subject suddenly. "Joe, you've been part of this system long enough to know how often we don't win. How often we make things worse when we try to help. How often people don't get enough help, or fall between the cracks and get none at all."

"Cathy, we do the best we can. I know the bureaucracy sometimes seems like it's only there to get in the way, but we try." He seemed confused at this unexpected direction.

"Vincent and his father are part of a community of people who have their own way of helping each other, outside that bureaucracy. It works, but they don't always follow the letter of the law, our law, anyway. They've given new lives to people that our system ignored. I don't want that system to crush them."

"So what has all this got to do with Vincent?" Joe asked. "Why does he have to be such a mystery?"

"Vincent was abandoned on the day he was born," Catherine replied softly. "He was brought to these people and raised by them; he's lived with them all his life. He was educated by them, and he spends his life helping them. He teaches the children, he fixes and builds things, he --"

"OK, Cathy, he sounds like a paragon. But I still don't understand why he has to be such a big secret. Nobody's going to care at this late date that he played hooky from the public schools. Is he so dead set against 'the system' that he won't be a part of it even to marry you? Especially now? I know you think I'm old-fashioned sometimes, but after all--"

"No, Joe, you've got it all wrong! Oh damn, I'm just not explaining this as well as I thought." Suddenly unable to sit still, Catherine rose from the chair and walked to the window. She stared unseeing at the city for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts.

"Vincent doesn't set himself apart from our world out of some arrogant fanaticism. It breaks his heart that I have to keep our love a secret." She turned to Joe. "It would be dangerous for Vincent if his existence became known. At worst, it could mean his death. At best, his life would be made a living hell. You see, Vincent's ... different."

"What do you mean, different?" Joe demanded. "How different can a guy--" He stopped suddenly, then continued in a changed voice. "You mean different as in, well, 'special'?"

Never was that euphemism more apt, Catherine thought. "Yes, Joe. He's very special."

"You said he was an abandoned baby. Was he ... well ... deformed in some way?"

Catherine returned to the chair and sat down heavily. "I never quite know how to answer that," Catherine sighed. "Some people would say so. Some have called him a monster. I don't want to make myself out to be some saint, loving this poor, hideous creature because I can see the beautiful soul underneath. I think he's the most beautiful man I've ever seen, outside and inside--and I'm not the only one who does."

Joe was still a little stunned at Catherine's revelation. Would there ever come a time when she couldn't surprise him? "If he's that afraid of showing his face, it sounds like you expect the first group would be in the majority."

Catherine nodded. "Most people are afraid of anyone different," she said unhappily. "They'd rather destroy than try to understand. Vincent's not a small man, Joe. He could be very intimidating to someone like that--someone who might shoot first and ask questions later." Her face darkened with anger. "Even if he didn't get killed, the world is full of leeches like those tabloid reporters who'd treat him like a freak. Vincent is such a sensitive person--sometimes I think that would be worse than death to him."

Joe was appalled to see her eyes fill with moisture. He grabbed a box of tissues and hurried to put an arm around her shoulders as he sat on the arm of her chair. Catherine accepted his fistful of tissues gratefully, smiling through her tears.

After a moment, she continued. "Not only would people like that make Vincent's life miserable, they wouldn't rest until they found out where he came from. If that happened, a lot of good people would lose the only safety they've ever known, their refuge."

"Cathy, why were you so afraid to tell me all this? I could have helped you."

Catherine shook her head emphatically. "Joe, the less you know, the better. You're supposed to uphold the letter of law. Vincent and his people don't always do that, although they're some of the most ethical people I know. I won't put you in a position like that."

"Cath, it doesn't matter ... "

"Yes it does," Catherine insisted. "Joe, I've told you as much as I'm going to. Now you know that I'm happy, and loved, and you can stop worrying about my lonely workaholic future."

"God, was I that obvious?" He asked sheepishly.

Catherine's raised eyebrows were answer enough.

"Well," he said, walking back to his desk, "about this leave."

"You can understand why I can't take a regular pregnancy leave, and why I need to be out of here no later than the beginning of April. Things are going to start getting obvious before too long, and I don't want the office gossip mill to find out about this."

"Cathy," Joe asked with concern, "you can't keep this a secret from everybody--it's not like you can leave town, if things are like that for Vincent."

"Believe me, Joe, most people will think that's just what I've done. I'll be spending most of my time with Vincent's people, or in our house."

"You know, Cath, celebrities have babies without being married all the time, it's hardly news anymore. You don't have to shut yourself up if you're worried what people will think."

It's not that, Joe," Catherine replied seriously. "You see, since we don't know what caused Vincent to be they way he is-- well, the baby could look like his father. If that's the case, he'll need to be protected too. The fewer people that know about this, the fewer people to wonder why there's no baby in evidence later."

"Geez, Cathy, I never thought." Joe looked at her with undisguised admiration. "You've got a hell of a lot of guts, you know that?"

"Joe, I warned you, don't act like I'm Mother Teresa or something." She smiled. "I wish you could meet Vincent, then you'd realize I'm the lucky one. But it's better if you don't, so just trust me, OK?"

"OK," he capitulated, laughing. "If he can put a look like that on your face, he must be something. Kid, you'll get your leave. If Moreno gives me any trouble I'll remind him he still owes you one from the time he used you to get at Elliot Burch."

Catherine moved to the door and opened it. Just before slipping out she turned to her boss with a grin. "Thanks, Uncle Joe."

Catherine laughed to herself in delight. She could hardly wait to tell Vincent about Joe's expression at that parting shot.


April

"Peter, we've been through all this before. I see no reason to change my mind." Catherine folded her arms decisively and gave him a look that would discourage further argument in the most contentious criminal. Peter Alcott, however, didn't give up quite so easily.

"Catherine, we're dealing with an unknown situation here, that neither my training nor Jacob's could have prepared us for. The more information we have to go on the better."

"Peter, I won't risk this child. Amniocentesis can cause a miscarriage, you know that's true. I won't take that chance."

"Catherine, the likelihood of a spontaneous abortion because of this test is so small ..."

"I don't care how small it is." Catherine leaned forward and gripped the edge of Peter's desk. "We're talking about Vincent's child. A child no one believed we could even conceive. Well, by some miracle, we've done that--but I doubt we'll get a second chance. Any risk is unacceptable."

Peter Alcott sighed. "Catherine, it's because this is Vincent's child that I'm concerned. We have no idea what effect his genes might have. This pregnancy and birth could be very dangerous for you; we need to be prepared."

Catherine rose and began to pace in frustration. "If Vincent is such an unknown quantity, what good would the test results be? You wouldn't know how to interpret them anyway."

Peter shifted uncomfortably. "We don't know that ... "

"Besides," Catherine interrupted, "what's the point? It would only tell me things there's no point in knowing. Do you seriously think I'd consider aborting this child even you did discover a problem? Do you think we'd love this child any less if it had Down's syndrome, for instance? Knowing Vincent, he'd only love it more." Her voice softened at the thought.

Seeing the look on her face, Peter capitulated. "All right, Catherine, you win. But what about a simple blood test that cannot possibly harm the fetus?"

"What kind of test? What does it do?" Catherine asked suspiciously.

"It will help determine your due date, for one thing," he replied. "Although you insist this child was conceived at Winterfest, you seem further along than that to me, based on your size and weight gain."

"Thanks a lot," Catherine told him sarcastically.

"Catherine, we all know you can't possibly have this child in a hospital, in case it resembles Vincent. I want to estimate your date as accurately as possible so we can be prepared." He rose and walked toward Catherine, taking her hand. "I promise you, there's no danger in this test."

"Is that all the test does?" Catherine asked suspiciously? "Tell you how far along I am?"

"Well", Peter admitted, "an elevated level of the protein could be caused by other things--placental bleeding, for example, or ..."

"Or what?" Catherine got the impression he didn't want to go further.

"It could also suggest neural tube defects in the fetus."

"I don't like the sound of that, Peter." Catherine shivered. "What does that mean?"

"Defects in the development of the brain and nervous system," Peter explained uncomfortably. "Spina bifida is probably the best known."

Catherine was silent a moment, considering. "All right, Peter, do the test." She touched his arm. "I'm not trying to make your life more difficult, or Father's. I understand that you're only concerned for me and the baby. But I'm having this baby, no matter what. If I can tell you something that will help you without risking it, I will. But that's as far as I'm willing to go."

Peter raised his hands in capitulation. "I'll take what I can get, my dear." He pretended to scowl at her. "You're a very difficult patient, do you know that?"

Catherine smiled sweetly at him. "Just think of it as a payback for all those bad jokes about seeing me naked."

A week later Catherine was wading her way through sales brochures for law databases. She didn't want her legal skills to rust during her leave, and decided doing research and consulting for various legal aid and public interest law organizations would be just the ticket--not only could she make a real contribution, but it would be interesting and different from what she'd done before. Although she expected to spend much more time Below now that she wasn't working, she was afraid Vincent would never be able to concentrate on the children's classes with her around. Several of them had already made their amusement at their favorite teacher's recent air of distraction all too clear.

The ring of the doorbell startled her. Looking through the peephole, she was surprised to see Peter Alcott on the stoop. Catherine moved quickly to let him in. The weather was having trouble making up its mind between winter and spring; right now winter seemed to be winning.

"Peter, I'm amazed," Catherine joked as she took his coat. "Aren't you afraid this will ruin your medical reputation? People might get the idea you make house calls."

"You should be concerned about your own reputation, my dear," he replied. "Having such a handsome and distinguished man as myself visit you will no doubt cause the neighbors to assume the worst."

The tone of his voice jarred with the bantering words. Catherine was suddenly suspicious, and a little afraid. "Peter, something's wrong, isn't it? Tell me."

"Now, Catherine," he reassured her, "there's no reason to assume anything's wrong. Your test results came in, and the FAP is elevated ... "

"Oh, God," Catherine whispered, "you don't think ... "

"Catherine!" Peter said sharply. "What I think, what I've thought all along, is that you conceived earlier than you said. There's absolutely no reason to assume anything more serious."

"How can you tell for sure?" Catherine asked worriedly. "What do we do now?"

"Can you come to the office with me? I'd like to do an ultrasound--you have no objections to that, do you?"

"No," Catherine admitted. "You mean we can do it right now?"

"I'd like to set your mind at rest as soon as possible," he replied. "I'd also like to keep Vincent from having a fit, since he has such a tendency to assume the worst. I was hoping he wouldn't be with you. We can have this all settled before you have a chance to tell him about it."

"Let me send a message Below," Catherine asked. "I planned to meet him there when he's through teaching. I want him to know I might be late, and tell him not to worry."

While Peter waited, Catherine went down into the basement to tap out a message on the pipes. She was sure Vincent had felt her momentary fear, and didn't want him abandon his duties Below to come to her. Concentrating on staying calm herself, she prayed that Peter was right, and there really was no cause for concern.

Only Vincent's overdeveloped sense of responsibility kept him from going to Catherine when he felt that moment of fear and doubt, fleeting though it was. Her message failed to reassure him, but he realized there was nothing he could do until she came to him. When he finally felt her presence in the Tunnels, it was all he could do not to rush away to meet her. Perversely, the class had lasted longer than usual, and he could not bear to cut short the children's enthusiastic questions. He detected no fear in her now, but it was hard to concentrate on the bond and pay attention to the children at the same time. He hoped Catherine was not blocking her emotions again to spare him pain.

He arrived at Father's study only minutes after Catherine did, hardly noticing that Father and Mary were also there. Seeing Catherine with Peter Alcott, Vincent felt the fears he had pushed into the depths of his mind rise again with paralyzing suddenness. Lost in his familiar terror, he was astonished when Catherine ran to him, laughing, and threw her arms around his neck before proceeding to kiss him soundly.

"Oh, Vincent," she cried in delight, "you clever, wonderful man!"

Expecting bad news, he was unprepared for this reaction. Catherine had no qualms about expressing her affection for him in front of others, but usually in a much more restrained fashion. He looked at her beaming face in utter confusion, and then looked at Peter. "I don't understand," he said helplessly. "I was afraid ..."

"I think it would be an excellent idea if we all sat down now," Peter suggested. They proceeded to do so. Catherine was in no mood to be separated from her husband even by the width of a chair arm, and settled herself firmly on Vincent's lap.

"Will someone please explain what is going on?" Father demanded with impatience. Peter looked at Catherine, who turned to Vincent with a loving look.

"Dear heart," she announced happily, "we are not going to have a baby. We are going to have babies. Twins."

Vincent stared at Catherine's grinning face in stunned silence. The two of them were an island of stillness in the midst of sudden pandemonium, as everyone else began talking at once. The hubbub died down when the others realized Vincent and Catherine were paying them no attention whatsoever.

"Oh, Vincent," Catherine was saying happily, "not only will our children have two parents who adore them, they'll have each other ... and I get two babies for the price of one--so to speak." Laughing, she hugged Vincent.

"Catherine ... " Vincent could not for the life of him think of anything else to say. After three months, he had barely managed to assimilate the idea of becoming a father after thirty-seven years of believing it impossible. He had thought his remarkable wife had run out of major surprises, but apparently his assumption was a bit premature.

"Catherine," Father said in a very different tone of voice, "this is a serious matter. Has Peter explained that a multiple pregnancy is, by definition, high-risk? There's a greatly increased chance of premature labor--"

"I told her," Peter asserted firmly. "Also, I pointed out she was under increased risk for hypertention, anemia,infection ..."

"Dear God," Father exclaimed, "the possible complications of delivery, and postpartum bleeding ..."

"Stop it! Will you listen to yourselves--and look at what you're doing to poor Vincent!"

Everyone, even the increasingly terrified Vincent, stared at Mary. Father and Peter huffed in embarrassment and were silent before her implacable gaze. This was not the Mary they were used to.

"Not only have I delivered more babies than Father," she announced, "I've also had them, which is more than either of you can say. You make it sound much worse than it is. There are plenty of women who have twins without any great problem, especially when they know they're carrying them this early in the pregancy."

"Now, Mary," Father insisted, "you can't deny there are more possibilities of ... "

"Possibilities only," Mary interrupted firmly. "Catherine is an extremely healthy and strong young woman, and her pregnancy has gone quite well so far. Don't frighten her and Vincent by talking like doctors instead of people."

"Mary," Catherine congratulated the older woman, "I couldn't have put it better myself! In fact, I don't think I could have put it as well." She turned to Vincent and stroked his cheek in reassurance. "Please don't be afraid, dearest," she begged him.

"I promise everything will be all right."

"Well," Father began placatingly, "it is true that forewarned is forearmed. We'll have to watch your progress very closely. But one thing is clear--you cannot have these children Below; the danger of complications is too great."

"No!" Catherine wailed. "You're all my family, I want to have my babies down here."

Peter, Father and Mary answered Catherine all at once, and battle was joined again.

***

"Wow," Jenny exclaimed, "what happened then? What did you finally decide?" She and Catherine were sitting comfortably around Catherine's kitchen table a week later, demolishing an enormous lunch. Actually, Catherine was demolishing most of it, in between giving Jenny a lively account of the events following her startling announcement.

"I had to give in on that," Catherine sighed. "They're right, I can't take the risk in case there are problems. I don't think there will be, but if I absolutely had to be rushed to a hospital ... Vincent would never forgive himself if anything happened to me."

"So Father and Peter finally got you to agree with them on something."

"Well, not quite," Catherine corrected her. "Vincent asked me to do it. He worries so about me, Jenny. I couldn't bear to give him anything more to worry about." Catherine gave herself a third helping of bulgur pilaf.

"God," Jenny said enviously, "I'm tempted to get pregnant just for the experience of being able to eat like that just once. I can't believe how much you're putting away these days."

"Hey," Catherine reminded her, "I'm not just eating for two, you know, I'm eating for three."

"So, come on," Jenny prompted, "what are you planning to do? You can't possibly risk having the babies in a hospital, can you? Not unless your life was in danger."

"No," Catherine said with conviction. "Not without knowing whether the babies will take after Vincent. There's no way to keep our secret if that happened. I'm having the baby at home, with all the high-tech equipment money can buy standing around just in case. Thank God I've got plenty--of money, I mean."

"And all you spend it on is books, CDs, videotapes, and anything you can get for Vincent's folks without triggering the pride reflex."

Catherine smiled. "Funny you should mention that. Guess where all the medical equipment's going after I'm through with it?"

"Let me guess," Jenny played along. "Tunnel General?"

"Well, I can't keep it here," she countered. "It doesn't go with the decor. Besides, the room we're setting up as a delivery room is supposed to be the nursery eventually. We won't need it for awhile, since I plan to stay Below most of the time after the babies are born, and we'll keep them in our bedroom at first when we stay up here. Want some ice cream?" Catherine tossed over her shoulder on her way to the refrigerator.

"Have mercy," Jenny moaned. "I'll have to eat celery sticks for the rest of the week at this rate."

"No problem," Catherine reassured her, "it's really only ice milk. I'm behaving myself."

"Actually, you've been a saint ever since you convinced Vincent to risk having kids," Jenny said in admiration.

"I've almost forgotten what alcohol and caffeine taste like," Catherine sighed. "I'm sure some of my colleagues thought I'd joined some strict religious sect. It paid off, though. It helped me convince Father I've never been in better shape than I am now. Between my sterling diet habits and all the exercise I get--"

"I didn't think sex counted as aerobic exercise," Jenny interrupted.

"Jenny!" Catherine threw a roll at her friend's head. "If you ever say anything like that in front of Vincent, I'll pitch you into the Abyss. I was referring to things like walking and stair climbing and stuff like that."

"Right," Jenny grinned.

Catherine tried to glare at her, but couldn't keep a straight face. "Our latest argument is how much time I'm supposed to spend in bed," Catherine continued.

"Oh?" Jenny asked archly.

"You have a one-track mind," Catherine laughed. "Bed rest is supposed to reduce the risk of premature labor, and I think there's also something about improving blood supply to the fetus, or something. I have to read up on it."

"I can just see you," Jenny said, "quoting medical books at Father. How's his blood pressure?"

"Rising, I'm sure," Catherine admitted. "Sometimes he forgets his daughter-in-law is a lawyer who's done her share of grilling expert witnesses. Father wanted me to plop myself into bed immediately, from what I could gather, and stay there for the next four months. Peter suggested four hours a day plus lots of sleep, and Mary said there's no actual proof it works. I don't think Father realizes how much of his medical library she's been through."

"I'm amazed at Mary," Jenny said. "I never thought she'd say boo to the proverbial goose."

"Everybody's amazed at Mary," Catherine agreed. "I think there's something about Vincent and me that brings out the unexpected in people. But wait till I tell you about the Great Stair Controversy."

"Do go on," Jenny encouraged, fascinated.

"Well, Father didn't think I should come Below at all until the babies are born, because of all the stairs I have to climb. I really hated the idea of that," Catherine said emphatically. "So many people down there care so much about us--Mouse, Jamie, William, Cullen, Samantha--our love has always been something special to them. So many people were so happy for us when they first found out Vincent and I were having a baby; it would break my heart not to share it with them as much as I could. But I didn't want to do anything to endanger these little ones." Catherine patted her stomach protectively.

"So how did it come out?" Jenny demanded.

"Father was pointing out in his most authoritative manner that I was going to have to give in on this one, since there was no way to get Below and back without climbing more than was good for me, and I was getting more and more morose."

"Cath, I can't stand the suspense," Jenny almost shouted. "how did you finally convince him?"

"I didn't," Catherine smiled. "Vincent suddenly stood up right in the middle of Father's lecture, picked me up and carried me up the stairs and out of Father's study. When Father tracked us down in our chamber, I was still giggling and Vincent was looking insufferably smug."

Jenny laughed uproariously. "Oh, I wish I'd been there to see it! I wish you had it on videotape."

"Me too," Catherine agreed, joining her laughter. "I'd like to replay it--it was wonderful. Father's face was a sight to behold."


May

Catherine was appalled to discover she had fallen asleep yet again. This bed rest thing had a tendency to turn into naps all too often. Such behavior was not calculated to show Father how little this pregnancy was affecting her. Of course, the truth was she felt much more tired than she ever expected to. Nancy hadn't been like this; she looked like she could have had her babies in the proverbial field and gone right back to harvesting. Of course, Nancy'd had the sense to have her kids one at a time.

Still an overachiever, Chandler, she kidded herself. A soft rustle in the corner caused her to turn her head. Vincent sat in a chair, a book open but ignored on his lap. Clearly watching her had been more interesting to him than the written word. Catherine smiled. Feeling like a laudanum addict was a small price to pay to put a look like that on her husband's face. "Hello, love," she greeted him. "How long have you been there? How long have I been asleep?"

He moved to sit on the bed beside her. "Almost two hours, to answer both questions. How do you feel?" He gently stroked the sleep-tousled hair away from her face.

"I feel disgustingly self-indulgent," she answered. "The old Cathy Chandler would have put up with this much better. Catherine Chandler-Wells, crusading ADA, longtime Helper, is used to a more active life."

Vincent bent to kiss her soundly. "Catherine Chandler-Wells must realize," he told her, "that her friends and family are enjoying the opportunity to take care of her, all the more because they will probably not get another chance. Think of how happy you're making Father."

"That's what bothers me. If it were up to him, I'd be in bed all day, and I was hoping to show him I didn't need it at all." She pouted. "This compromise was only because I absolutely refused to consider drugs if premature labor threatened."

"Are you sure ..." Vincent began.

"Absolutely," Catherine cut him off firmly. "Your reaction to drugs is too unpredictable--what if that's something the babies inherit? Too big a chance to take, so here I lie. If only I wouldn't fall asleep so much!"

"My love, I think letting yourself be taken care of is the hardest part of all this for you."

Catherine sighed. "You're right. I thought I had reformed; ever since we've been married I've tried not to overdo it at work, but old habits are dying harder than I thought. It's all your fault, you know."

Vincent caressed her swollen belly lovingly. "Catherine, you can't claim this is all my fault."

"Not that! You can bet I'm taking my share of the credit for Junior & Junior." Catherine attempted to scowl convincingly at her husband. "I mean six years ago, when you started me on the road from Ms. Fashion Law to what I am now."

Vincent raised his eyebrows at her. "And what might that be?"

The scowl dissolved into a beatific smile. "The happiest woman on earth," Catherine admitted as she wound her arms around Vincent's neck.

Some time later, a combination of hunger and the desire to show Father she wasn't a total slug drove Catherine out of their chamber on Vincent's arm. Intending only to cut through Father's study on their way to the kitchen, they were surprised to find him there talking with Peter Alcott.

"Well, how's my most challenging patient?" the latter asked with unconcealed amusement.

"Absolutely fine," Catherine replied loftily, "as if you didn't know. With all the poking and prodding I get all the time from you two, I can't sneeze without you knowing about before I do."

"How's the bed rest working out?" Father questioned.

Catherine wondered how often he might have peeked in and caught her sleeping. She decided to brazen it out. "Driving me crazy with boredom, actually, but I'm trying to be cooperative." Vincent didn't say a word, she noted. Wise of him--three years of marriage had taught him the virtue of silence in appropriate situations.

"We didn't expect to see you today, Peter," Vincent offered. "Does your visit have something to do with Catherine?"

"Only indirectly," he replied. "Why don't you join us and I'll tell you what it's all about."

Vincent insisted they all wait until he brought food for Catherine. While they waited for his return, Catherine talked about inconsequential things with her her two doctors. Despite the overtly casual air, she felt like something in a petri dish. Whenever she was in the same room with either one of them these days, Catherine was sure sure they were watching her like hawks for the least suggestion of complications. She sighed. Only a little past the halfway point. Catherine hoped she could get through the rest of this pregnancy without throwing things. Knowing them, they'd only tut-tut knowingly and blame it on her hormones.

Only after Vincent returned with enough food for several mothers-to-be and assured himself there was nothing else his wife could possibly want did Peter begin his explanation. "I said this was indirectly related to your condition, Catherine," he began. "This is something that has been imminent for some time, but your pregnancy has convinced me that now is the time to bring our plans to fruition."

"What do you mean?" Catherine asked--as well as she could with her mouth full. "What plans?"

Father took over. "For some time Peter and I have been concerned that those Below have only us to depend on for medical help. Mary is the best nurse and midwife I've ever known, and most of the community are well trained in first aid and other basic techniques. But it has caused us concern that we have access to no doctors younger than us."

"In Jacob's case," Peter continued, "he can only contribute his considerable skills. I'm the only one with connections Above, the only one who can legally obtain medical equipment and drugs, for instance. If anything happened to me, the situation Below could become very serious."

Father took up the explanation again. "Many of our people could go Above to use medical facilities if it became absolutely necessary, and it weren't an emergency. But that only applies to those who had some prior existence Above. There are others ... "

"Such as I?" Vincent interrupted unhappily.

"Not only you, Vincent," Father continued. "There are those like Pascal, who were born down here--or those like Mouse, who have been here almost all their lives. Can you imagine what would happen to Mouse if he had to go to a hospital up top?"

Catherine shuddered. Any encounter with the vast and impersonal social service bureaucracy would be unpleasant and dangerous for those who had been Below for all or most of their lives. Aside from the possibility of difficult questions, people who had no legal existence had little protection against the enforced care of the monolithic agencies that so often did more harm than good. Catherine feared that her legal skills wouldn't be enough to keep Mouse out of the permanent clutches of well-meaning bureaucrats bent on keeping him "for his own good"--and destroying him in the process. As for Vincent--

"What can you do?" Catherine asked sharply. As Vincent reached for her hand, she knew that her fear for him had been all too obvious.

"I had hoped," Father sighed, "that one of our children who went back to the world Above might choose a medical career, and be available to help us. So far that hasn't happened, although Eric has been considering it. Even if he does follow through, it would be many years before he were in a position to be of use to us."

"For some time," Peter said, "I've been keeping my eyes open for a possible Helper who was a physician. There is a woman--a resident at St. Vincent's, appropriately enough--who I believe would be perfect. I think now is the time."

"Why now?" Catherine asked suspiciously. "This has something to do with me, doesn't it? I don't want you to take any risks on my account."

"I don't believe there is any risk," Peter insisted. "I have every confidence that Dr. Robinson will make an enthusiastic and trustworthy Helper. Jacob has merely been procrastinating."

"Procrastinating!" Father exclaimed indignantly. "I was merely being cautious. It is difficult to predict who will make a good Helper."

"Especially for you, Jacob," Peter retorted. "As I recall, you didn't think Catherine was Helper material at first, let alone--"

"Let alone a potential daughter-in-law," Vincent broke in, "and mother of your future grandchildren." He turned to Peter to give Father a chance to recover his aplomb. "Are you sure of this woman, Peter? Your judgment has never failed us before."

"Very sure," Peter insisted, "and I'm confident the Council will agree."

"You still haven't explained how this relates to me," Catherine reminded him.

"Cathy, I admit your pregnancy has been going well so far, although it's early days yet. Your mother had an easy pregnancy and delivery with you, and I'm hoping you take after her in that. Mary is right, many women deliver twins without any problem ...but we have to be prepared for any eventuality." He leaned forward to speak directly to Catherine. "If everthing goes well, and you can have a natural vaginal delivery, no one will be more pleased than I. I delivered you thirty-five years ago, and I consider it a great privilege to be able to do the same for your children."

Catherine looked at Peter with new eyes. She had been so focused on his professional concern for her she had almost forgotten what a dear friend he was. "Peter, I'm glad you're going to be there for me. I'm sure Mom and Dad are happy about it too."

Peter continued in a suspiciously husky voice. "With twins, there's a better-than-usual chance that an emergency Caesarian will be needed. Jacob or I are capable of doing that if necessary, but I'm concerned that neither of us is an expert in anesthesia. Twins are very vulnerable to oxygen deprivation, and with the possibility of unusual drug reactions--I would feel a lot more comfortable with an expert anesthesiologist around. Even if you have a normal delivery, another physician will make me feel better." Peter smiled. "I'm not sure we can count on Jacob's equilibrium when his first grandchildren are being born."

"Are you impugning my professional objectivity?" Father asked in mock indignation. He turned to Catherine. "Peter's protegé did a residency as an anesthesiologist for a year before switching to emergency medicine. I am forced to admit, her background is ideal for our needs."

"Not only is she an excellent physician," Peter asserted, "but a very likable woman. I think she and Catherine will get along splendidly."

"Well," Father agreed, "you can put your recommendation before the Council tonight. If it's accepted, we shall all look forward to meeting her."

Almost a week later, Catherine found herself back in Father's study, no more able to sit still than most of the Council and other members of the community who had gathered to meet the new Helper. Peter's advocacy had been eloquent and convincing, and none could deny how important another doctor would be to everyone in the Tunnels. Catherine was more nervous than most, since it seemed she was going to be the still mysterious Dr. Robinson's first patient. Everyone else involved in her pregnancy and delivery was an old friend, and she definitely had mixed feelings about letting a stranger into that select group at this late date. If it weren't for Vincent ...

An excited murmur rippled through the group as Pascal entered the room to report that Peter and his friend would be there in a matter of moments. Catherine clutched Vincent's hand tightly and tried not to look as nervous as she felt. Vincent lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it reassuringly--but Catherine had her suspicions that he was as nervous as she.

Just then, Peter Alcott stepped through the door. A second later, he was followed by a tall black woman with the longest, most graceful neck Catherine had ever seen and a head as exquisitely shaped as a Benin bronze. She was dressed in attractive but casual clothes--not unlike the sort of thing ADA Catherine Chandler was wont to wear during everyday time spent in the Tunnels--although Catherine Chandler never looked like a Vogue model in them, she thought ruefully. Even less now. A twinge of distress attacked Catherine as she gazed ruefully at her fast-expanding front.

Peter was busily making introductions--to Father, who looked rather bowled over by the impressive Dr. Robinson, and Mary, who had admitted to Catherine she was looking forward to working with a doctor whose knowledge of female innards was not just theoretical. As they moved through the room, the new Helper was introduced to the Council and all the other members of the community who had managed to squeeze into Father's chambers. Even Jamie looked impressed by the new arrival, and Catherine knew Jamie was not easily impressed.

Catherine had deliberately chosen a remote corner to give herself a chance to look over this stranger as much as possible before the inevitable meeting. Vincent always hung back when someone new was introduced, anyway. He usually gave new residents several days to get used to the Tunnels before showing himself. New Helpers were different. In some ways, their reaction to him was the final test before their full acceptance. Even though Helpers were well prepared before finally being introduced to the Tunnels, no one could be completely prepared for Vincent.

Finally they reached the corner where Vincent and Catherine waited. As Dr. Robinson turned away from her greeting to Sarah, only a slight widening of her dark eyes betrayed surprise. Without the slightest hesitation she extended her hand. "And you," she said evenly, have got to be Vincent. May I say that Peter's rather ambiguous hints didn't do you justice?"

Vincent relaxed as he took her hand in turn. "If you'll allow me to say the same about you," he smiled.

"The legacy of many generations of Masai and Somali genes," she admitted. She turned a little.

"I know you're Catherine Chandler," she said warmly. "I've been eager to meet you. I've heard so many good things about your work with battered women and abused children. I see all too much of that in the emergency room, you know, and your name has come up many times. I think we have quite a few professional contacts in common."

Catherine shook her hand warmly, all nervousness gone. "It never occurred to me that we would," she admitted, "although it makes sense. I'm afraid I've been thinking of you mainly in obstetrical terms."

"I'm hardly an expert," the black woman laughed, "although I've delivered a few babies in my time, including once on a Boeing 747. That's not an experience I care to repeat, so I hope you're not planning on any plane trips."

"Not a chance," Catherine laughed. "Vincent would be a nervous wreck."

"Since you're my first patient in this new job, I hope we'll have time for a good long talk soon. It doesn't look like it'll be tonight, does it?"

"Not considering how early my bedtime is these days," Catherine agreed. "You're going to be a nine-day wonder, anyway, Dr. Robinson."

"Oh, good grief, call me Helen, please." She smiled at both Catherine and Vincent. "Why do I have the feeling that my life is going to be a lot more interesting from now on?"

A few days later, on a glorious May afternoon that made Catherine remember why she loved New York, she opened the door of the house to admit Helen Robinson.

"What a wonderful house!" Helen exclaimed in unfeigned delight. "Peter told me there was an interesting story behind it--did you inherit the place?"

As they settled in the light-filled living room with tall glasses of iced tea, Catherine explained about her late grandmother's old friend Edna, who had offered to sell her the house when she decided to leave New York to live with her son's family. The opportunity had come at the perfect time, only a month after Catherine and Vincent had become lovers, when Catherine was becoming increasingly concerned about the danger Vincent faced whenever he came to see her. The house would have been a godsend even without its special features.

"Did Edna know about you and Vincent?" Helen asked.

"No, although I know she suspected I was involved with somebody not quite acceptable in my former social circle,"Catherine smiled ruefully. "I often wonder just who she thinks it is--I've been afraid to ask. Next time she comes to New York for a visit, I'm going to ask if she can meet Vincent. I trust her to keep a secret, and I think she'd be delighted. Her own family always considered her quite the rebel. When she married an actor, of all things, it was considered quite shocking. Of course, that was over fifty years ago."

"Peter said this house was pretty special--I take it he meant something more than Tunnel access. From what I gather, Manhattan is full of Tunnel entrances." Helen shook her head in wonder. "I still haven't quite gotten used to the idea of a whole different world beneath my feet."

"That's how I felt six years ago, and look at me now," Catherine grinned. "Actually, this house has a juicy secret passage that goes along one side from basement to roof. It seems Edna's stuffy family had a long history of smuggling, illegal booze during Prohibition, you name it."

Helen laughed uproariously. "That's fantastic! What hypocrites!"

"That's much more polite than what Edna called them," Catherine assured her. "Whatever its shady history, it's perfect for Vincent and me. It means a lot to me," Catherine continued in a suspiciously husky voice, "to give Vincent as close to a normal home life as possible. It's something he convinced himself he'd never have."

"You've really worked miracles," Helen said admiringly. "He's pretty special, isn't he?"

"In more ways than one," Catherine agreed. She looked at Helen, considering, before she continued. "I was impressed with your reaction when you met him," Catherine continued. "It's not exactly typical, as you can imagine."

"Blame it on my heritage," Ellen told her. "He looks like something my ancestors might have worshipped. And the scientist in me finds him utterly fascinating." Noticing a strange look on Catherine's face, she became concerned. "Catherine, does it bother you to talk about Vincent this way? Peter told me about Hughes--I don't want to stir up unpleasant memories."

Catherine shook her head. "I'm sorry, just a flash of how he looked in that cage--it still gets to me sometimes. I know it's important to talk about it, especially with the babies and all. Frankly, I'm glad to have someone to talk to that can be more objective--it's hard to talk to Father or even Peter about it, let alone Vincent."

"Peter said you managed to--shall we say, 'liberate' Hughes' records on Vincent when you rescued him. Do you mind if I see them?"

"Please, go ahead--you deserve to know as much as you can about what you're getting into. But they won't help you much, Hughes didn't have very sophisticated equipment available to him. They only told us that Vincent is a remarkable physical specimen," Catherine smiled, "and I already knew that. Besides," she continued, her smile gone, "they had him drugged almost the whole time, that must have messed up some of the results."

"I wish we could get a DNA scan on him," Helen sighed, "but there's no way we could get that kind of equipment and expertise-unless you happen to have a Helper who's a research biologist with some heavy grant funding?"

Catherine's only reponse was a rueful laugh.

"Well," Helen went on, "the fact that you're pregnant at all suggests that Vincent isn't that different, although, frankly, if I didn't have the evidence before my eyes I would have agreed with Peter and Father that it wasn't possible." Catherine smiled but said nothing. "Did either of them discuss the possibilities with you, genetically speaking?" Helen continued.

"On a basic level," Catherine replied. "I kept thinking of Gregor Mendel and his pea plants."

Helen smiled. "Well, if whatever genes give Vincent his unique characteristics are dominant, the children could look like him. If they're recessive, they could be quite normal. They'd carry the genes, of course, but since the likelihood of them having children with someone who carried the same recessive genes is virtually zero, your descendants could carry those genes for generations and they'd never be expressed. What is it?"

Catherine started. "I'm sorry--I'm just getting used to the idea of being a mother. The idea of being a grandmother and an ancestor, even ... it's a bit much to take in."

"Sorry, I guess I'd better stick just to the next generation," Helen laughed. "It's also possible Vincent's genes are neither dominant nor recessive, and your children could be a blend of both your characteristics."

"Gregor's pink pea plants," Catherine replied.

"In a manner of speaking," Helen agreed with a smile.

"Then there's the last possibility."

"Another one?" Catherine asked curiously. "Father didn't mention anything else."

"Since we don't know how many genes are involved in giving Vincent his unique characteristics, or where they are ... they could all be on the Y chromosome. If that's the case, a son could take after him but a daughter show none of those traits whatever."

Catherine sighed. "I was hoping our children would inherit his hair ... it's so much more beautiful than mine ... and his eyes ..." She suddenly became aware of the tone of her voice and blushed. "Oops. Do I sound like someone who's got it bad?"

"In my professional opinion, you're an incurable case," Helen grinned. "But it does bring up another point. We really don't know which characteristics belong to the human side of Vincent and which to ... well, to whatever else he is. Since I haven't had the chance to examine him, can I ask you a question at the risk of making you blush even more?"

"What?" Catherine asked dubiously.

"Just how different is he from other men? All I've had the chance to see is his face and hands. I'm sorry if it embarrasses you, but it would really be useful."

"Oh God," Catherine replied helplessly. "Part of me wants to crawl under the rug, and part of me is thrilled to have another woman besides my friend Jenny to talk with about this."

She took a deep breath. "OK. Other than what anyone can see, there isn't that much. He'd have claws on his feet if he let them grow, but he keeps them trimmed so he doesn't have to wear steel socks. He's awfully furry, but it follows the same distribution pattern as any man, it's just thicker, and softer-more like fur than hair. It's especially thick on his chest, and lower arms and legs--like you've seen on his hands. But on his sides you can see his skin through it, and you can see there's none on his neck and throat. He's heavy for his size because he's so muscular."

Helen looked not only fascinated but impressed. "Hmm. Those are all relatively superficial differences. What about this exceptional strength I've heard about?"

"He's amazingly strong, but he's not Superman. I once saw him fight another man who was unusually strong, and it was a near thing. His claws really saved him, and the fact that he was fighting for my life at the time. He's got an amazing constitution; I've seen him able to fight or run with injuries that would have most men unconscious. He can see in the dark better than anyone, and his hearing is very acute; his stamina is remarkable."

"A lot of what you describe is a difference in degree, not in kind. I've seen what medical records Peter and Father have on him, and in many ways he's not that far from the upper range of human abilities. Some things--his strength, his heart rate--are within the upper limits of the range. You may discover that many of those characteristics belong to his human part, which is probably a larger percentage of the total than most people think, including him."

Catherine impulsively reached out to take Helen's hand. "Do you think you could get him to believe that?"

"I promise I'll suggest it at every opportunity. I know I'm pretty new to all this, and I don't want to sound like some arrogant young whippersnapper, but I think there's a good possibility Vincent's differences are not so great as he's been led to believe."

"An ally at last!" Catherine rejoiced. "What about his strange reactions to drugs? And the lab that thought we sent animal blood?"

"I'm not saying he doesn't have biochemical differences," Helen warned her, "he clearly does. But people have unusual drug reactions who don't look like Vincent. And the lab--well, they deal with pretty high volume. If they found anything in the least anomalous they'd just bounce it back to get it out of the way. I'd like to study it more. What this means for you," Helen said, "is that many of his characteristics could be perfectly human ones heritable by a child of either sex. So you may get those beautiful blond babies after all."

Catherine beamed. "Doctor, has anyone told you your couchside manner is terrific?"

Catherine and Helen got along so well they were still in the living room talking up a storm when Vincent arrived. Catherine was astonished to realize it was almost dinnertime.

"Helen, would you like to stay?" She asked. "Can you? I've been talking so much about myself I don't even know if you have a family I'm keeping you away from."

"I'd love to stay, actually, if it's not too much trouble. My husband's out of town right now, and I'm on the midnight-to-dawn shift in ER these days. Can I help with dinner?"

Vincent insisted he was perfectly capable of turning out a passable dinner, and proceeded to do so while Catherine and Helen continued their animated conversation in the living room.

After a meal that was much more than passable, Catherine brought up something that had been puzzling her ever since Peter had first told her about the potential new Helper.

"Helen," Catherine began tentatively, "Peter seemed awfully certain that you and I would hit it off. Somehow I got the impression there was more to it than the fact you're an extremely nice person."

"I got the same idea from him," Helen admitted, "and after hearing the story of your life today I think I've got it figured out. We actually have a lot in common."

"Like what?" Catherine asked. "Certainly not our height."

"Or our color, I notice you didn't mention." Helen became serious. "I had a very privileged and insulated background, Cathy. My parents were both upper middle class--my mother grew up in Atlanta, my father in New England. I was born there, but we moved to Hawaii when I was very small; I lived there until college."

"What do your parents do?" Vincent asked, curious.

"My dad's a biologist; mom's an anthropologist. They still teach in Hawaii. Between our money, and growing up in a place where a racial and cultural mix was a fact of life, I was spared a lot of the bad experiences I might have had elsewhere."

"How did you end up in New York?" Catherine wondered.

"By way of Stanford, where I met my husband. I came partly because he wanted to go to law school here, and partly because I was beginning to feel unhappy at the kind of privileged life I was leading."

"I think I'm beginning to get the picture," Catherine said.

Helen nodded. "I had no experience as dramatic as yours, Cathy, it was more a gradually increasing dissatisfaction. And Daniel had something to do with it, too."

"Daniel?" Vincent asked. "Is that your husband?"

Helen nodded. "He always had a strongly developed social conscience. He's a terrific lawyer and could make a fortune at the kind of firm Cathy started out in--but he's never wanted to do anything but public-interest law."

"Peter said you planned to specialize in anesthesiology," Vincent said, "which makes you extremely valuable to us if Catherine needs that. Was the change to emergency medicine part of your desire to be of more help to others?"

"Very perceptive," Helen nodded. "For many of the poor, the emergency room is the only medical care they ever get. Besides," she confided, "I discovered that other MDs think anesthesiologists are weird."

"I can see now why Peter was so sure we'd like each other," Catherine told her. "I guess we've followed a similar path in many ways."

"More than you think," Helen replied softly. "You see, I can also sympathize with what it means to have a love that's not-socially acceptable, shall we say."

"Your husband--" Vincent began.

"Is white," Helen concluded. "Very white--mostly Irish, with a touch of French and Swedish. I know it's hardly in the

same category as the problem you and Cathy have--but there are plenty of places in this world even now where our marriage would be viewed as a capital offense. It's more hidden these days, but it's still there."

"I hope we get to meet him," Catherine said warmly.

"You certainly will, Cathy," Helen agreed. "I think it might take a while to convince those Below that he should be let on the Big Secret over there." Helen waved her hand in Vincent's direction. "You know, Daniel loves to play chess," she said thoughtfully. "Maybe the possibility of a new partner would influence Father favorably."

"Does your husband play chess well?" Vincent asked.

"He's a terrific player!" Helen replied enthusiastically.

Catherine laughed and shook her head. "Then believe me, you'd be better off not to mention it at all."


June

Even as Vincent felt himself waking, he wondered if Catherine's distress had disturbed his sleep again. For only two babies, they seemed at least four times as active as one. Their vigorous movement often kept Catherine awake; sometimes she would spend many of the night hours in the rocking chair, trying to quiet them. As he became gradually more alert, Vincent knew Catherine was beside him, but something seemed wrong. He usually woke quickly, but this time he seemed to be clawing his way to consciousness from the bottom of a deep pit. And that smell in the air--something all too familiar to him, he knew, but not pleasant ... that coppery tang of ... blood.

Suddenly awake, the sound of screaming assaulted him. Turning to Catherine in blind panic, he saw the agony on her face as the horrible lake of red poured from her belly to stain the sheets around them. When he saw the small clawed hands emerging from the wound, he tried to hold her torn flesh together with his own hands. As the blood matted his fur, he heard hideous roaring screams of pain and fear, only dimly realizing they came from himself. Despair overcame him as he saw all his dreams shattering around him. All he had ever wanted to give her was love, and he had brought her only death...

"Vincent! My God, Darling, wake up, please! VINCENT!"

It took a while for Vincent to turn from the hideous vision inside himself and focus on his surroundings. The first thing that penetrated was Catherine's face, filled not with pain but fear and confusion. Blindly he reached out to touch the smooth, unblemished skin over her rounded belly. The sheets, though hopelessly tangled around them, were unstained.

As Vincent's pounding heart gradually subsided, the tapestry covering the door was flung aside and Father rushed into the room carrying his medical bag, followed closely by Mary. Only the surety of a dire medical emergency would have caused him to ignore their privacy, but the screams that tore the night apart were like nothing ever heard Below, even from Vincent. Catherine was too concerned for Vincent to care about, or even notice, their nakedness. The look of terror on Vincent's face frightened her even more than the pounding of his heart and the deep, rasping breaths that swelled his chest. His panicked eyes kept moving from her face to her belly, where his hand still rested.

Her hands moved incessantly, sweeping the wild tangle of hair from his face; caressing his cheeks, his chest, his back-trying to wipe away that horrible look of fear. "Vincent, dearest, it was only a dream. Everything's all right."

With an inarticulate cry, Vincent took her in his arms and buried his face against her neck. Holding him, Catherine looked helplessly at Father over his shoulder. Father shook his head. His experience of Vincent's dreams was several decades beyond Catherine's, but he remembered none so terrifying as this one seemed to be.

Eventually, Catherine's caresses seemed to calm him enough that he pulled away from her toward the concerned faces around him. Mary tucked a comforter around them both, more concerned about possible shock than modesty. "What did you dream, Vincent?" Catherine asked him gently. "Please tell us, love--don't hold it in."

Haltingly, he began to describe the dream, his head bowed so his face was hidden by a curtain of gold. Telling it was almost as painful as experiencing it, but he knew the wisdom of doing so, rather than leaving the hideous images to fester inside him. When he finally raised a tear-streaked face to his wife, he was pained to see the tears that covered hers. As he watched, her look of pain turned to one of anger, and she pounded one small fist against the mattress. "Damn Paracelsus! Damn him to Hell!"

Father sighed and sank heavily into a chair by the bed. "An understandable sentiment, Catherine," he said wearily, "But probably unnecessary. I'm sure he did that quite effectively by himself." He looked at his son. "Vincent, I thought you had conquered your fears about this pregnancy. You seemed happy about it."

"I thought I had conquered them as well," he said miserably. "It seems I was wrong."

"Vincent," Father began unhappily, "I know I seem to dwell on possible complications; I'm afraid it's my fault that you ..."

"Father, no!" Vincent interrupted. "You have only expressed reasonable caution. I have no one to blame but myself."

Mary's soft voice pulled Vincent's attention from his own misery. "Vincent, in six months Catherine has shown no evidence of any problems other than tiredness and mild anemia. Neither of those are at all unusual in any woman carrying twins. She's doing beautifully, Vincent, really. We wouldn't lie to you if there were any cause for worry; believe me, there isn't."

Vincent looked at her with gratitude, but lowered his head again without replying.

Father rose and picked up his bag. "Well, it appears that my medical assistance won't be needed. I imagine the best we can do is leave you two alone so you can try to sleep." Neither looked at him as he ushered Mary out the door--Catherine's eyes were on Vincent, and Vincent's eyes were on his lap. With a shake of the head, Father left, letting the tapestry curtain fall behind him to cover the door.

Catherine slept most of the next day, exhausted by her worry for her husband as well as lack of sleep. Vincent hovered around her all morning in mute misery, then disappeared soon after lunch when she fell asleep again. An hour after that, Mary went in determined search of him, finally tracking him down in the Chamber of the Falls. He sat with his arms wrapped around his legs, chin resting on drawn-up knees, the very picture of depression and self-recrimination. Mary watched him quietly for several minutes, then squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and went forward to beard the lion in his den.

"Vincent, may I talk with you?"

The fact that he hadn't heard Mary approach told her volumes about the depth of his brooding. After his initial startled response, Vincent motioned her to sit beside him, but kept his eyes fixed on the waterfall.

"Vincent," Mary began in a businesslike fashion, "you know Catherine is determined to have the twins without any medication." This statement didn't seem to call for a response, so Vincent made none. "That's quite wise of her," Mary continued, "since analgesics are discouraged in a twin birth."

Vincent remained silent. Mary plunged ahead. "With only three months left--possibly less, since twins are often early--it's time to begin serious preparation for that birth. It's quite possible to bear a child with little or no pain--or at least none that can't be managed--if a woman has been trained in what to do, and is properly motivated. Catherine is as motivated as any woman I've ever seen. But Vincent, you have an important decision to make."

"Me?" Vincent finally turned his head to face Mary.

"Vincent, the most important factor in controlling pain in childbirth is being able to relax."

"Catherine has been doing the relaxation exercises you showed her," Vincent insisted. "You said she was making excellent progress."

"And she is," Mary agreed. "But there's more to it than that. Being able to relax one's muscles so completely is not easy, Vincent. Emotional tension can cause muscle tension, and that leads to pain. If you aren't able to overcome your fears, we had better make some decisions now about other ways to handle this birth."

"What do you mean?" Vincent demanded.

"Vincent, the husband doesn't have to be the labor coach, you know, even though it's preferred. You would have been ideal, because of that wonderful voice of yours--sometimes a woman in second-stage labor gets so relaxed between contractions not even the doctor's voice will penetrate, only her husband's. Catherine will be disappointed, I'm sure, but she's a sensible young woman and will see the wisdom of it. I'm sure Jenny would be happy to do it, she and Catherine are very close ... of course, it might be difficult for her to get the time off work ... but then there's Jamie, of course! Jamie's so fond of Catherine, and she's such a strong, intelligent girl--yes, Jamie would be an excellent choice ... or perhaps--"

Mary had been surreptitiously observing Vincent's increasing agitation out of the corner of her eye. Suddenly, he rose to his feet in one swift movement, hair and cape swirling with the force of it.

"NO!"

"Why Vincent, dear, what's wrong?"

"Catherine is my wife, bearing my children! Do you think I would let anyone else guide her through this? My place is by her side."

"Well, ideally, yes, of course, dear," Mary soothed him, "but if you aren't able to do it I'm sure Catherine will understand--"

"I can do it," Vincent almost shouted, "and I will!"

"Now really, Vincent, after last night--" Mary tut-tutted. "There's no reason to be ashamed. More than one husband has been unable to put aside his own fear in a situation like this; why, I remember one poor young man who was such a phobia about doctors... "

"Mary," Vincent said in a voice that would brook no disagreement, "there will be no repeats of last night. You are not to suggest or even consider that anyone else do this for my wife." Turning on his heel, Vincent stormed out of the Chamber of the Falls toward the home chambers and Catherine.

Mary watched him go. Not until he turned around the bend did she allow her self-satisfied smile free rein. Rising to her feet, she dusted off her hands in the gesture of a job well done, and followed.


July

His duties Below finished for the moment, Vincent made his way through the Tunnels towards the entrance to the house that he and Catherine shared Above. As her time grew closer, she spent more time there than Below, at the insistence of her extensive medical team. Vincent seemed to have little to do these days, aside from his teaching. Construction and repair crews never included him anymore, and all the many small tasks he had been accustomed to perform, from moving heavy furniture to reading sick children to sleep, were apparently not required or being taken on by someone else. What a coincidence that his workload had suddenly become so light just when Catherine began spending most of her time Above. Vincent smiled gratefully. He knew a conspiracy when he saw one.

Since Catherine could not now go Below as much, the whole community seemed to have decided to bring Below to her. She was seldom alone when he wasn't with her. Jamie, Mouse, Rebecca, Samantha, Eric, Mary, Father and countless others took turns at Catherine- watch. Although it was unlikely anything would happen so suddenly to Catherine Vincent wouldn't feel it, he was grateful for his friends' concern. If nothing else, it kept Catherine from being lonely and bored. In fact, she had laughingly confessed to him just last night that the Chandler-Wells residence was beginning to resemble Grand Central Station.

Mouse was having a wonderful time inventing elaborate devices to make Catherine's life easier. His pride and joy was a chair with a tray attached to hold her computer keyboard, wide enough so she could sit Indian-style and "stretch the baby door," as Mary put it. He had gleefully planned an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes so Catherine wouldn't have to climb stairs, and abandoned it with great reluctance when Catherine hastened to tell him the house possessed a tiny elevator, installed during the last illness of Edna's late husband.

As Vincent reached the hidden stairway, he sensed that Catherine was on the top floor. Opening the wall panel to enter the solarium, he noticed with surprise that the shoji screen which usually sat in a corner of the room was under the skylight, blocking his view as well as that from the room's more conventional door. Suddenly Jamie's head popped out from behind the screen and immediately popped back again.

"It's OK, it's Vincent," Jamie said to someone behind the screen--presumably Catherine. His wife's reply was not quite intelligible, but it resulted in a giggle from Jamie, who emerged from behind the screen again and moved toward Vincent.

"Hi," she greeted him cheerfully. "As long as you're here, I guess I'll make myself scarce."

"You needn't leave, Jamie," Vincent assured her. "Catherine enjoys your company."

"Oh, I've been here for hours," Jamie replied breezily. "We've been talking up a storm."

"About what?" Vincent asked suspiciously.

"Oh, all sorts of things. Being older than me, and a wife and mother (almost, anyway) and all that--Catherine's got lots of good advice. Say, did you just come from Below? Do you know where Mouse is now?"

"He was helping Cullen with the cradle. Having to redo it to fit twins has put things behind schedule."

"Thanks." Jamie grinned. "Well, have a nice afternoon."

Vincent shook his head in amusement at her rather transparent train of thought. Poor Mouse didn't have a chance. Instead of leaving by way of the secret panel, Jamie chose to exit by the door into the hall. Curious. As he turned toward the screen, Vincent heard her lock the door behind her.

Stepping behind the screen, Vincent stopped in his tracks. Catherine was sitting on a blanket placed on the floor, leaning comfortably against a backrest. The filtered sunlight spilling through the frosted glass made her skin glow. This was quite noticeable, since she wore tiny gold earrings, her crystal necklace, and nothing else.

"Catherine!" he sputtered. "What--"

"Sit down, dear," she replied, patting the blanket beside her and looking up at him with a langorous smile. "I'm doing this on medical advice. Why don't you take off that cape first? It's much too warm in here for that."

"Helen and Mary," Catherine explained, "have been telling me that in benighted cultures such as ours, where people run around with lots of clothes on all the time, it's a good idea to--well, toughen up the lunch counter, so to speak."

Vincent looked hopelessly confused for a moment, then light dawned. "You mean this has something to do with breastfeeding?"

"You clever man," Catherine congratulated him. "With two babies--especially if they inherit their father's appetite--I'd better be good and prepared. Actually, I should be sitting in direct sunlight, but I'm not about to go onto the roof like this; with my luck there's sure to be some weirdo out there with binoculars. I thought I might as well sit under the skylight at least--maybe it'll have a placebo effect."

"How often are you supposed to do this?" Vincent asked.

"Actually, it would be great if I just walked around topless all day from now on," Catherine replied sweetly. "But I thoughtthat might be upsetting to Mouse and Eric and Fa--"

"Not to mention me," Vincent interrupted in a strangled voice.

"Really?" Catherine asked innocently. "Well, there's lots of other things that help ... massage, for instance, like this ... see?"

Vincent saw. He couldn't take his eyes away. Catherine was right--it was very warm in here.

"Of course," Catherine went on, "it gets pretty boring after a while to do this all by yourself. And there are other really useful things that just can't be done without help."

"Such as?" Vincent's voice was getting very gravelly.

"Well, think about what the babies are going to do to these poor, delicate little--well, not as little as they used to be, I admit--breasts of mine ... " Catherine sighed. "The more trialruns, so to speak, the better off I'll be later." The look of wide-eyed innocence was belied by the flicker in those eyes.

Vincent looked into their green depths for a long moment as a slow smile transformed his features. Father did not raise stupid sons. As his hand reached toward one breast and his mouth lowered toward the other, he felt Catherine's contented sigh as her hands buried themselves in his hair. So this was why Jamie locked the door.

When Vincent came to bed that night, Catherine was sitting up with one end of a stethoscope in her ears and the other against her belly. She grabbed her husband's hand excitedly as soon as he got close enough. "Oh Vincent, this is wonderful! Father was right, I can hear their heartbeats! They're so strong, just like you said."

Vincent's own ears were so sensitive he had noticed the rhythmic sounds when he laid his head against her, which he seemed to love doing at every opportunity. When Catherine confided her disappointment that she couldn't--even if her ears had been good enough her bending ability certainly wasn't these days--Father had laughed and told her it was time she might be able to hear them herself with a little help.

When Vincent slipped into bed beside her, Catherine put the stethoscope on the nightstand and turned to give him a resounding kiss. That horrible dream he'd had a month ago apparently had a cathartic effect. Ever since then, Vincent seemed to be looking forward to the birth as much as she. His arm slid around her asshe snuggled her head against his shoulder. Catherine was sure that he still had some fears buried deep; they wouldn't leave him completely until he held his children in his arms. She was equally sure that all would be well. Giving birth would be a lot less trying than being pregnant; at least she'd get to do something other than lie around becoming an increasingly more accurate imitation of the Goodyear blimp.

Vincent rubbed his cheek against her hair and kissed the top of her head. "I wish you weren't so uncomfortable at night," he sighed. "It worries me that you get so little sleep."

Catherine patted his hand reassuringly. "It'll get worse before it gets better, love, but don't worry about it. I make up for some of it during the day."

"What do you mean, it'll get worse?" he asked, anything but reassured.

"Well, those contractions Father warned me about have started, and they'll get more frequent as time goes on. The bigger I get, the harder it is to find a comfortable position. And after they're born, I'll be feeding them all the time. I figure I can sleep when they're weaned." Catherine raised herhead from Vincent's shoulder and laughed at the morose look on his face.

"Why the sudden concern?" she asked. "You've been messing up my sleep for six years now."

"What do you mean?" he demanded indignantly.

"Well, to begin with, it was partly your fault that I changed from a nice underworked corporate lawyer in Daddy's firm to Catherine Chandler, Crimebuster. When I think of how many nights I spent roaming around scummy parts of town, following up leads, not to mention wading through paperwork ... "

"Which you stopped doing when you believed it put me in danger," he said gently.

"Well, the paperwork didn't stop. And then, I'd come home from a long day at work and spend most of the night on my balcony with you instead of catching up on my sleep."

"I thought you didn't mind," Vincent replied with a guilty look.

"Of course I didn't mind!" Catherine exclaimed in exasperation. "You're the one who thinks sleep is so important, not me."

"What about after you bought the house? I don't have to wait until darkness to see you anymore."

"Well, in the last three and a half years you've found all sorts of delightful ways to interfere with my sleep," Catherine purred. "Not every night, but often enough to make all my girl friends madly jealous if they knew."

"Catherine!" Vincent laughed. "You're incorrigible."

"Don't blame me, you're the one who turned out to be so talented. I wonder if the progeny will inherit that from you? If so, we'd better keep it quiet or we'll have to beat off an army of suitors when they reach puberty."

Vincent was suddenly very quiet, and the smile fled from his face. Catherine knew at once what was wrong; inevitably the doubts would overwhelm him again as the birth approached. It was past time they talked about it once more.

"Vincent--dear heart--tell me what you're thinking."

"I was thinking," he admitted sadly, "that our children may never forgive me for what they inherit."

"Vincent--we've talked about this before, years ago. I never would have tried to have children, no matter how much I wanted to, if you hadn't agreed. You did agree," she reminded him.

"I agreed to a possibility, one that few believed could ever became actuality." He spread his large, furred hand over her stomach. "But now, that actuality is only two months away. What if either or both of these children is like me? Did I have the right to inflict that pain on anyone else?"

"Vincent," Catherine said gently. "Even if we have a child like you--and nothing would make me happier--it won't be you. Our children will have a different life." She put her hand on top of his, stroking the furred back lovingly. "Dearest, I know you've always believed you were abandoned because your parents, or your mother at least, couldn't bear the sight of you. I don't think that's true, I can think of lots of other explanations. But even if that were true in your case, it certainly won't be for our children. They'll have both parents with them from the minute they're born, and they'll always know how loved and wanted they are."

"I never doubted Father loved me," Vincent replied. "It didn't take away the pain of being different."

"Vincent, much of your pain was not just because you were different, but unique--utterly alone in that difference. Don't you see, that's something a child of ours will never know. If they're both like you, they'll have each other." Catherine twined her fingers around Vincent's and lifted his hand to rub it against her cheek. "Even if only one takes after you, he, orshe, will still have you. And how could any intelligent child not be proud to take after such a wonderful father?"

"Oh, Catherine." Vincent wrapped his arms around his wife and held her as close as he could. She gently stroked his back as he held her, knowing from the catch in his voice he was fighting back tears. After a long while, he pulled back and lay against the pillows, his eyes closed.

"Even with all that," he went on, "a child like me will be confined to life Below. Will I ever be forgiven for that?"

"Look at me," Catherine commanded gently. As he opened his eyes, she put her hand on his chest and looked directly into their beautiful blue depths. "There are people born in the Tunnels who live their whole lives there, out of choice, like Pascal. Do you think he feels trapped? And remember, plenty of children Above lead lives more miserable and restricted than anyone Below could dream of--I know that only too well. Besides, you've done pretty well despite restrictions, haven't you? Do you remember what that irreverent brother of yours said to you just before our wedding?"

The pain in Vincent's eyes gradually gave way the faintest beginnings of a smile. "I remember."

"Quote, please," Catherine insisted, doing her best imitation of Father.

"Little brother," Vincent recited, "I've been all around the world and here I am still single. You spend your whole life in a hole in the ground and snag the most eligible woman in New York."

Catherine turned out the lamp and snuggled into her most comfortable position, one leg draped over her husband's thigh. "Don't you ever forget it, buster," she laughed as they settled themselves for sleep.


August

Catherine stood in her dressing room without a stitch on, scowling glumly at the shirt which had managed to slip off its hanger and land on the floor. The prospect of trying to retrieve it was so depressing she had just about decided to ignore it and wear something else. Turning in disgust to rummage for an alternative, she caught a sudden glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror and almost jumped out of her skin. Dammit, had Vincent closed the bathroom door? Glumly, Catherine realized how assiduously she had been avoiding mirrors lately. She stared in growing dismay at the sight of her suddenly unfamiliar body.

What had happened to the Catherine Chandler who was so proud of her small waist she wore all those wide belts to show it off? The petite woman with long neck and exquisite bone structure that Vincent loved to trace with his fingers? She had wished for bigger breasts since she was a teenager--now she had them, but they felt and looked like they belonged to someone else. God, her face was so bloated, and her ankles looked more appropriatefor some poor bag lady who had to wear slippers all the time because shoes wouldn't fit over the swelling. And everything stuck out so--nipples, navel, not to mention that huge bulge in front that made her look like a snake who'd swallowed a wildebeest.

After weeks of avoiding this confrontation with herself, Catherine was horrified. It was worse than she thought, she was grotesque. How could Vincent stand to look at her? How grateful he must be that her usually insatiable appetite for his lovemaking had at last been reduced in the face of her increasing discomfort. He still seemed to want to touch and caress her at every opportunity, but he must be forcing himself so she wouldn't feel unloved. Catherine's lip began to tremble. The sight of her disgusted him, she was sure of it, and he was hiding it from her.

Catherine almost jumped out of her skin when the last person on earth she wanted to see suddenly appeared in the doorway. She stood rooted to the spot in horror; there was no place to hide. The unexpected sight of her hadn't given him time to hide his revulsion--look at that strange look on his face! He couldn't stand the sight of her, he might as well admit it.

"What is it?" she heard herself ask accusingly. "What are you thinking?"

"Catherine--" he stared. "I didn't expect ... "

"I'm sure you didn't," she said testily. "Answer my question!"

He spread his hands helplessly. "I was just thinking--I've never seen you look more beautiful."

If Vincent had been surprised at her question, Catherine's response to his heartfelt reply thoroughly disconcerted him. She began to cry with great abandon, soaking the front of his shirt when he reached out instinctively to hold her close--or as close as was possible these days. Vincent had once feared the idea of Catherine in childbirth, but he was beginning to look forward to it with great eagerness all of a sudden.

***

Catherine began to blubber again in telling the story, but Jenny had the presence of mind to see it coming and keep her best friend well supplied with tissues. Catherine blew her nose and continued her narrative.

"God, Jenny, what poor Vincent must be going through. Feeling my emotions through the bond--by now he must think he's on the world's biggest and most unpredictable roller-coaster."

"Look at it this way," Jenny suggested cheerfully, "it'll keep him so discombobulated he'll forget to worry about B-day. So how've you been feeling, anyway?"

"As well as any woman can expect who weighs a thousand pounds," Catherine replied grumpily.

"Now, Cath, you're exaggerating, Jenny replied. "You don't look an ounce over five hundred."

Catherine began to laugh in spite of herself. "Well, I still have those damn leg cramps, and if I take any more calcium I'll start to solidify. Vincent's leg rubs work better anyway.

A full night's sleep is a distant memory. Not only do the Chandler-Wells offspring spend most of the night wrestling or dancing the fandango ... "

"Maybe you've got another Fred and Adelle in there," Jenny interrupted.

"Or Hulk Hogan and--shoot, I don't know the names of any other wrestlers. Anyway, I can't find a position that's comfortable for more than half an hour. At least I don't have trouble breathing any more, and despite the way I look, I don't feel quite so heavy."

"Does this mean something?" Jenny asked.

"It usually means the baby's moved down, according to my sterling team of doctors," Catherine told her.

"Well, that sounds promising," Jenny said brightly. "Maybe that means you'll be early."

"Ha!" Catherine replied. "If there's one thing I've learned from all the reading and doctor-badgering I've done, it's that an 'average' pregnancy is a myth. Peter tells me it could mean only two more weeks, or four more weeks. Great. No two books agree on what average is, but I guess it doesn't matter, since nobody has an average anything anyway."

"At least you don't have to stay in bed so much now," Jenny reminded her.

"Right. That gives me more time to perfect my waddle," Catherine retorted. "God, I wish this were over with! Everybody's as nervous as cats."

Jenny began to giggle helplessly. "What's so funny?" Catherine demanded.

"Speaking of Vincent," Jenny choked out.

"You rat!" Catherine couldn't help joining in her laughter. "Having you for an honorary aunt is going to warp our kids beyond repair."

"Speaking as an honorary aunt," Jenny continued when she got her breath back, "I'm reminding you I expect to be notified as soon as the blessed event is underway. I insist on being here to help."

"Jenny, I'd love to have you here, you know that--even though our biggest problem isn't going to be lack of help, but keeping the crowds down. But how could you get off work on short notice? Fall is the biggest time for a publishing house."

"Listen," Jenny replied smugly, "I'm the fair-haired editor around there ever since I discovered one of their best-selling authors. They're terrified I might go elsewhere and take the lucrative John Winslow with me."

"AKA Devin Wells," Catherine grinned. "So he's still selling like hotcakes?"

"Better all the time--especially that space opera series of his; we can hardly print those fast enough. Boy, I owe you for that one, Cathy."

"Owe me? You're the one who got him published."

"Sure, but you're the one who first got him thinking about trying a legal way of telling lies," Jenny reminded her.

"So he owes us both," Catherine grinned wickedly. "He can pay me back by babysitting whenever he sets foot in Manhattan."

She raised her glass of skim milk. "To fiction!"

"To fiction," Jenny echoed. "Say, the setup in the 'birthing room' looks pretty impressive. I didn't know they made double hospital beds."

"I didn't either until Helen told me," Catherine admitted. "She'd seen them in some birthing centers and thought something like that would be just the ticket for me and Vincent. Poor dear, he'd have the babies for me if he could figure out a way to do it; at least this will let him get as close as he can."

"Cathy ... " Jenny began.

"What?"

"Well, I was wondering--with this bond of yours, isn't it possible that Vincent will get too involved--not be able to coach you like he's supposed to?"

"He insists it won't be a problem. Remember, what he picks up from me are emotions. Even if part of the labor is painful, he won't feel the pain, but my emotional reaction to it. And I'm sure my emotional reaction to that kind of pain will be--I don't know--determination, excitement, elation. Nothing negative."

"Should be pretty interesting for him, no matter what," Jenny mused.

"Well, on the off chance it's so interesting he passes out or something, Jamie's been trained as a backup," Catherine confided. "Vincent resisted that at first, but Mary insisted that it was a reasonable precaution, since she'd be too busy midwifing. Jamie was eager to learn, anyway--said it could come in handy in the future."

"You mean when other Tunnel women had babies."

"Sure," Catherine replied nonchalantly.

Jenny looked at Catherine suspiciously for a moment, then grinned. "You've become such a yenta, you know that? Mouse is doomed."

"Aaronson," Catherine warned, "shut up and drink your milk."


September

Vincent woke to discover Catherine sitting up beside him, leaning against the headboard. He frowned. Poor Catherine looked so tired these days; if only she didn't have such trouble sleeping.

"Catherine--how long have you been awake?"

"A couple of hours," she replied distractedly, looking at the glowing face of the bedside clock.

"You should have wakened me, love," he chided gently. "Shall I rub your back? Perhaps that will help you sleep."

She turned to him in the darkness. Only eyes like his could have seen the slow smile she gave. "Vincent, I don't think either one of us will be sleeping for a good long time."

Suddenly the feelings of amusement and--excitement that flowed through the bond made sense. "Catherine!" he grabbed her shoulders. "You don't mean ... "

"Nice regular contractions, every fifteen minutes, for over an hour." She took a deep breath. "I think this is it."

"But--it's too early! You're not due for three weeks!"

"Two and a half, actually. That doesn't really count as early, especially with twins." Catherine touched her husband's cheek in reassurance. "It's OK."

Vincent turned on the bedside lamp so he could see Catherine's face better. She looked excited, elated as she took his hands in hers. "Oh, Vincent, just think--by this time tomorrow we'll be parents! Our children will actually be here!" She grinned even wider. "They're probably early because they can't wait to meet their wonderful daddy."

"Oh, Catherine--I love you so much." Vincent held her in his arms a moment, then kissed her slowly, tenderly. Reluctantly releasing her, he drank in the sight of her glowing face. "Will you be all right? I must notify Father."

"Go ahead, pound the pipes, I'll be fine." She shook her head. "Poor Father; I hate to drag him out at four in the morning, but he'll have a fit if we wait. I'll call Peter." She took Vincent's face in her hands and they kissed once more, very gently. "Don't worry--believe me, we've got plenty of time."

As soon as Vincent received excited confirmation from Pascal that his message had been received and would be passed on, he ran back up the stairs to rejoin Catherine. A tousled but no longer sleepy Father, accompanied by Mary and Jamie, was the first to arrive, followed closely by Peter--who grumbled that Catherine seemed inordinately pleased that she had managed to wake him up in the middle of the night. Catherine only grinned--she had rather enjoyed it. Helen, assured there was no reason for hurry, joined them shortly after her hospital shift ended at dawn. Catherine insisted there was no need to drag Jenny out of bed until then, at least. Once her plethora of doctors had assured themselves that Catherine was, indeed, in labor, they retreated to the kitchen to stoke up on coffee and leave Vincent and Catherine alone until called for.

They walked around the house at first, especially the library; sometimes Vincent would pull a book from the shelves and softly read passages to Catherine--everything from Sonnets from the Portuguese to an ancient Aztec "Poem to Ease Birth."

Catherine was touched to think of him poring through books Above and Below throughout the months of her pregnancy, choosing things to read to her during the long hours of waiting. When a contraction came, she would bend over slightly, leaning against Vincent's body, breathing carefully until it passed. He held her gently as a flower, his hand on her abdomen, lips brushing her hair. At intervals, someone would peek in quietly to check on the parents-to-be. Sometimes Catherine would ask for ice to suck; most of the time she barely seemed to notice, concentrating on strange but exciting sensations inside her, and the reassuring presence of Vincent at her side.

***

"So how long is this likely to last?" Jenny asked, too nervous to sit still.

"Relax, Jenny," Peter encouraged. "It'll be hours yet before things get interesting."

"I'll bet they're pretty interesting for Catherine right now," Jamie retorted.

"Not to mention Vincent," Helen added.

"Anything is interesting to those two as long as they're together," Father laughed. "Even watching crystals grow." His face clouded. "They look so happy, so excited. I pray nothing goes wrong."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Mary exploded. "Everything seems to be going quite well. The babies are in a good position, Catherine and Vincent have been well trained in what to do ..."

"By the best of teachers," Father conceded.

"Thank you," Mary replied primly.

"Sounds more like grandfather jitters than professional concern to me," Peter accused. "Calm down, Jacob, and let yourself enjoy the process. Even Vincent's been able to do that, and he's rather more involved than you are."

Father subsided reluctantly under this multiple assault. He sighed. "I can hardly wait till it's over."

***

"I can hardly wait till it's over," Catherine admitted.

Vincent stopped his gentle caresses to look at her with concern. "Is anything wrong? Are you in pain?"

"No, nothing like that," she reassured him. "I'm just so eager to see the babies, find out what they're like. Will they be identical twins or not? Will we get two alike or one of each? This part just takes so long!"

Vincent held her close as he gently stroked her breast. "I'm doing my best to help."

"Mmm. You can keep doing that whether it helps or not. I can't believe you got Father to admit--mm, do that again--that it can help labor."

"One of the advantages of being well-read," Vincent replied with amusement. "He couldn't deny it when I was able to quote chapter and verse."

"Did you ever tell him about those people in Polynesia or wherever who make love during labor to help things along?"

"No, I thought that would be too much for him--and that reference was more dubious." Vincent almost purred as he kissed her neck. "Would you like to go suggest it to him now?"

Catherine gazed at him in mock horror, which soon degenerated into giggles. "Oh, it's so tempting, just to see the look on his face! But somehow, I don't think it's a good idea at this stage to give your doctor apoplexy--not to mention your father-in-law."

The medical crew was cleaning up after a scratch lunch in their kitchen headquarters when Vincent and Catherine appeared in the doorway. "Catherine thinks she'll be more comfortable in bed now," Vincent announced.

"Catherine, do you feel all right?" Father asked immediately. "Are you experiencing any pain?"

"Not exactly," Catherine said carefully. "But the contractions are getting pretty close together and more--intense. I think it's time."

"Well, make sure you take the elevator upstairs," he commanded, glaring at Vincent.

"Of course, Father," his son answered seriously. He turned back just before they disappeared from the doorway. "Just remember," Vincent added as a parting shot, "no one ever gets stuck on the stairs." The look on Father's face sent everyone into paroxysms of laughter as they prepared to follow.

As the contractions came ever closer together and intensified, Catherine found it harder and harder to avoid tensing; her eyes closed as she concentrated. Vincent's hand rested lightly on her abdomen, checking her breathing, as his voice flowed around her like warm cream. It never stopped, conjuring pictures in her mind of happy, peaceful times they had spent together, telling over and over again how precious she was to him, how much he loved her. Sometimes he would recite poetry to her--the rhythmn of the words, spoken in that beloved voice, relaxed her more effectively than anything else possibly could. Soon the contractions came so close together they seemed almost constant; the feeling of pressure and fullness increased until a moan of pain escaped her.

"Catherine--what's wrong?" Vincent's voice was concerned, but he kept it calm by force of will.

"My back--" she breathed. "Vincent--help me."

Anticipating Peter's instructions, Vincent turned Catherine on her side and pressed the heel of his large hand into her lower back. Catherine almost cried in relief as the pain lessened. Peter's voice, speaking softly, gradually penetrated her consciousness.

"Cathy, I know this is the hardest part, but remember--it's the shortest. Just think of how soon you're going to see those babies."

"Peter, I've got to push!"

"No, you don't, honey, not yet. I know it's hard to relax, now, Cathy," Peter reassured her, "But you can do it. Not much longer."

"My dear, brave Catherine," Vincent whispered softly, "I love you so--breathe gently now, my love--soon ... "

Suddenly, when she was sure it would go on forever, the backache disappeared, and Catherine felt an overwhelming sense of relief. "Now?" She demanded? "Do I get to push now?"

"You bet!" Peter replied with feeling. "You're in the homestretch."

Vincent helped her rise to a sitting position again as Mary raised up the bed. Vincent kept his arm around her shoulders, lifting her forward with each contraction, his cheek against hers. Catherine held Vincent's hand on one side and Jamie's on the other, squeezing them each time she bore down. After awhile, the relaxation she sank into between each one became so profound she was aware of little around her besides Vincent's voice in her ear or lips on her forehead. He seemed to know without her asking when to wipe her brow with a cool cloth, or when her lips were dry and needed the gentle touch of his finger smoothing something soothing on them. Catherine lost all track of time as she focused on the rhythm of rising, pushing, when to breathe and when not to. Her concentration was broken when she began to feel a burning, stretching sensation that caused a sudden flicker of fear.

"Oh God, I feel like I'm going to burst!"

"You're not, child," Mary said calmly. "Everyone says that and no one ever does. Give a good push at the next contraction, and then relax. You'll be seeing your baby very soon."

A little while later, Vincent almost lost his concentration when Catherine cried out his name and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her cries, ecstatic tears, and the feelings that flooded him through the bond were those he had only felt from her before during the climax of their lovemaking.

"The baby's crowned!" Peter announced exultantly. "Breathe quickly now, don't push."

Vincent couldn't tell if the overwhelming sense of excitement and expectation he felt was his, Catherine's or both-and it didn't really matter, since he had no sense of where one left off and the other began.

"There's the head!" Mary cried. "Look at your firstborn." Mary gently rotated the baby's head until it faced the stunned parents. "Come, now, help with the rest."

Tears were pouring unchecked down Catherine's face as she reached down to help bring their child into the world. As the tiny shoulders and torso emerged, Vincent reached out with one hand to place it under the baby. Catherine knew as long as she lived, she would never see anything more moving than the sight of that large, furred hand gently easing the small form from her body.

"Ah, Cathy," Peter whispered in a shaky voice, "she looks just like you did all those years ago. Say hello to your daughter."

The baby announced her arrival loudly as Mary quickly cleaned her eyes and mouth and Peter just as quickly checked her over; then Mary lifted her to Catherine's breast and covered her with a blanket. With one arm still circling his wife, Vincent rested his other hand on his daughter under the blanket.

Blinking his tears away to drink in the sight of the tiny face against Catherine's breast, he marveled at the perfection of it, overwhelmed by astonishment and relief. "Oh, Catherine," he breathed when he was finally able to speak, "she's more beautiful than I ever dreamed possible."

Catherine's tears began again as the tiny mouth began to suckle gently. "Oh Vincent--how could any child of yours not be beautiful? Thank you for such a gift."

Vincent gathered mother and child more closely into his arms. "Catherine, dearest, it is I who must thank you--for having the courage to believe this dream could come true--and to make it come true." He kissed her hair, her forehead, the tracks of tears on her flushed cheeks. Lost in contemplation of a miracle, both parents realized only gradually that Father was standing beside them, looking stunned. Catherine reached out her hand to draw him into their circle.

"Meet Caroline," Catherine said softly.

Wonderingly, Father reached out to touch the downy head that lay at Catherine's breast. He shook his head, unable to speak at first. "Ah, Catherine ... Vincent ... there are no words ..." Squaring his shoulders, Father brought himself back to the job at hand.

"Your task isn't over yet, Catherine," he reminded her.

"But I'm an old hand at this now," Catherine grinned. She felt exalted, elated--invulnerable. A beaming Jamie gazed smugly upon the whole family, proud of how well her first foray as assistant labor coach had gone so far. Jenny and Helen emerged from the corners of the room to congratulate the new parents and gaze in awe at the tiny replica of Catherine who suckled contentedly, unaware of the miracle of her existence.

Within minutes, labor started again. Father and Mary moved down to escort the second of the Chandler-Wells offspring into the world, as Peter retired with Jenny to positions as observers. The new parents reluctantly allowed Helen to remove Caroline temporarily so Catherine could concentrate on her sibling. The second labor was easier for Catherine, now that she knew what to expect and was fresh from the triumph of her daughter's birth. Once again, she experienced that moment of orgasmic pleasure as the baby's head crowned.

The second baby slipped out all at once, and as Catherine and Vincent reached for the tiny body to ease its passage Catherine gave a joyous cry. "Oh, Vincent, how wonderful! Isn't he beautiful?" Her happy tears began again as her finger traced the line of the tiny mouth that led to the flat kitten-nose, already kissed with the faintest line of golden down along its side. Mere ghosts of claws tipped the tiny fingers that clutched at Catherine's breast. Father's face, too, was streaked with tears as he remembered that day so many years ago when a similar magical child was laid in his arms to transform his life. Not in his wildest imaginings had expected that day would lead to this.

Vincent looked from Catherine's ecstatic face to Father's and back to that of his son. Feelings of unalloyed joy washed over him from Catherine through their bond. And strangely, for the first time, he sensed more than her presence. Though they were faint and still unformed, two new flames of consciousness flicked at the edges of his awareness. His awe at this realization was so great, for a moment he forget to breathe.

Then Helen brought Caroline back to lay her beside her brother on Catherine's breast. Looking at his family--his family--Vincent suddenly knew with total certainty there could be no doubt about the rightness of such a miracle. He raised his eyes to scan the faces around him, that looked on them with joy, relief and unmistakable love. Gathering his wife and children into his arms, he kissed Catherine's forehead and rested his cheek against her tousled hair. "Oh, my love-- there is no magic greater than yours."

As he pulled back to see her face, Catherine looked into the blue depths of his eyes, seeing his fears and doubts melt like snow in the sun. "Dear, dear, Vincent," she whispered, "there is no greater magic than love."


October

The soft light of lamps and candles washed over Vincent as he lay in bed, holding his sleeping daughter in his arms. Beside him, Jacob stared enraptured at his mother's face as he still suckled energetically at her breast. Catherine turned her gaze to her husband. How peaceful he looked, how happy, now that his great fear had been laid to rest at last. He was ecstatic at being a father, as she knew he would be, but still not used to the daily wonder of it. She smiled. Perhaps he never would be.

Raising his head from his daughter's fascinating face, he caught his wife watching him with unconcealed indulgence. "What are you thinking?" He asked softly. Even though the bond sent him uninterrupted waves of happiness and contentment, it pleased him to hear the words as well.

"I was just thinking how happy you look," she said simply, "and how happy it makes me to see you that way."

"Catherine," Vincent replied unexpectedly, "do you know one of things I love most about you?"

"What?"

"The fact that, in the entire month that has passed since our children were born, you never once said, 'I told you so.' "

Catherine smiled at him tenderly. "I didn't have to. You get that message every time you hold these two, or look into their faces. I think I may have mentioned it to Father once or twice, I'm forced to admit."

Vincent laughed softly, shaking his head. "Catherine--what made you so sure that all would be well?"

Her look was enigmatic. "Because I've come to believe in magic, and fairy tales. Sometimes a happy ending is the only one that fits. In fairy tales you have to earn that happiness, but you can be sure it'll be waiting for you at the end."

"But this isn't the end," Vincent replied.

"No," Catherine agreed, stroking little Jacob's increasingly sleepy head. "Only the beginning of the happily-ever-after part."

"That's the part the stories never tell," Vincent pointed out.

"Then I guess that means we'll have to write the book ourselves," Catherine replied firmly.

"Psst! Can we come in?" Two blond heads peered hopefully around the open doorway.

"Mouse, Jamie, of course," Catherine invited. "I think Jacob's finally finishing his dinner."

"Eats lots." Mouse observed. "Like Vincent."

"Yes, he certainly takes after his father," Catherine agreed. "I wonder if it's the food or the container he finds so appetizing."

Jamie grinned at Vincent's discomfiture. Mouse screwed up his face, for a moment, then began to blush.

"Well," Jamie began, taking pity on them both, "we just wanted to see how the babies were doing." Jamie had taken a proprietary interest in both children since helping escort them into life.

Mouse adored them and found them fascinating, if a little scary. He began to describe elaborate plans for a complicated play apparatus that sounded like some bizarre hybrid of an erector set and jungle gym.

"Mouse, they're awfully young yet," Catherine interrupted hastily.

"Any such plans would require very close supervision," Vincent added, unwilling to discourage Mouse but equally unwilling to trust his precious children to one of that young man's more dubious constructions.

"Don't worry," Jamie reassured them, patting Mouse's shoulder, "I'll take care of it." Catherine grinned openly and even Vincent couldn't hide the ghost of a smile. Mouse smiled happily too, not really sure what was going on but glad all his friends were in such a good mood.

"Like the cradle?" he asked for about the fortieth time. "Big enough? Babies comfortable?"

"They love it," Catherine replied warmly. "You and Cullen did a wonderful job."

"OK, good; OK fine!" Mouse exclaimed gleefully as they headed toward the door. At Vincent's request they lowered the tapestry behind them, the signal the room's occupants wanted privacy. Vincent rose to put Caroline into the cradle, then took the finally-satiated Jacob from Catherine and laid him beside his sister. He stared at the two sleeping faces for a long time before rejoining Catherine in their bed. He wrapped his arms around her as she snuggled close.

"I keep remembering," Catherine said quietly, "how happy everyone was on their naming day. Especially Father."

"He really had no idea we had picked out Jacob Charles."

"Mmm. I'm glad we decided on Caroline Mary. I just wish" Catherine sighed, "that Charles and Caroline Chandler had been there to see it."

"Don't you think they were?" Vincent asked as he gently pushed the shining hair away from her face.

Catherine hugged him gratefully. "Of course. I'm sure they were."

Settling back down, Catherine rubbed her cheek against Vincent's chest in sleepy contentment. "Are you very tired, Catherine?" he asked. "You seem to spend so much time feeding these babies--I worry that you don't get enough sleep."

He could feel her smile against his chest. "Dear heart, I've never been so indulged in my life. It seems all I have to do is eat, sleep, and feed babies." As if of its own volition, her hand began to stroke the soft fur that her cheek rested on. Her voice turned serious. "I'm so lucky to have such a loving group of friends and family to help me, not to mention the world's most perfect husband. So many people have none of that. I know how fortunate I am."

"You have such a loving, generous spirit, Catherine," Vincent whispered softly. "You bring out generosity in others." They lay quietly for a long time, only the idle tracery of Catherine's hand on his chest telling Vincent she was still awake. Suddenly she turned her head to kiss the spot where her cheek had rested, and trail more kisses along his collarbone and throat until her lips rested on his. After a long, slow kiss they broke apart to look at each other's faces.

"Catherine," Vincent marveled, "I can still hardly believe it. You've made all of my dreams come true."

"Well," she replied seriously, "we'll have to get you some new dreams. How about Caroline Chandler-Wells, President of the United States?" No ... " Catherine mused, "better she should do something honest--a crusading lawyer like mom, or a doctor like grandpa, or maybe a writer like Uncle Devin, or an artist ... maybe she'll decide to stay in the Tunnels, and everyone will be asking 'Mother's' advice someday."

"What about Jacob?" Vincent asked carefully.

"Jacob," Catherine announced firmly, "is going to be just like his father." She put her hand gently on Vincent's cheek. "Teacher. Builder. Renaissance Man. Protector of the Innocent ..."

"Oh, Catherine ... " He put his hand over hers and turned his face to kiss her palm.

"Remember," Catherine continued, "they were born on a Friday. Loving and giving. Somewhere ... " Her eyes seemed fixed on a far horizon. "Somewhere, right now, or in the near future, are two people who'll bless the day those two were born-just as I bless the day you were. Then we can start having dreams for our grandchildren."

Vincent could hardly take in such a prospect. "Catherine, you amaze me--to have not only the courage to dream great dreams for us, but the determination to make them come true."

Catherine's only reply was a sleepy, contented smile. Vincent turned off the lamp, leaving just one small candle burning. As he turned back to her, she snuggled against him happily, resting her head in the hollow of his shoulder.

"You grow more beautiful every day," he whispered. He gently stroked her breast with a touch that, for the moment at least, had more of reverence than passion in it. With a sense of peace greater than any he had ever known, Vincent laid his golden head beside hers. Soon, in the soft glow of a single candle, they slept--to dream new dreams.


"Quartet" © 1990 by Edith L. Crowe
Comments & questions to
ecrowe1228@aol.com


First published in Definitions of Love 4 (1990), edited by Kay Simon


About the Author: Edith Crowe is an academic librarian who has been involved in various fandoms (starting with Star Trek) since 1972. Beauty and the Beast, however, is the one she's most emotional about and the first (and so far only) one to inspire her to write fiction. She had seven "continuing classic" stories published in the late 80s and early 90s, in zines now out of print. New stories include the rather racy "My Furry Valentine" in the A Kingdom by the Sea conzine and several in issues of Sanctuary.