THE REST OF THEIR LIVES II

By Ginny Shearin


Now that she had a wedding to plan, Catherine didn't have as much time as she had expected to work on a safer way to share her world with Vincent. The wedding had a date and a location. Everything else could wait a week or two. First things first, she thought. She had consulted with Kanin and Cullen, who had spoken with a few others, and they seemed to think her plan should work. She had copied lists of helpers and their businesses from Father's master list and set about organizing things into a workable scheme. There was a lot of planning left to do, but she felt confident that she could approach Father with at least an outline. Peter was on his way to her apartment, and she intended to try the idea out on him before she let him escape that evening.

Her father's penthouse apartment was now hers. After his death, she was surprised to find that he had also bought the two large apartments on the floor below him as well as three old buildings in a part of town that had no connection to anything she imagined a corporate lawyer would have an interest in. She already owned her own apartment free and clear and now also owned the vacation house in Connecticut. Balances on anything her father didn't own outright had been covered by insurance. Aside from those assets and what she received from the law firm, there were her father's investments. Early in his career, Charles Chandler had invested his money with a man about his own age, who had been consistently successful, and it was rare that an investment hadn't been profitable.

Catherine had already been an extremely wealthy woman in her own right. Her mother had left her a large trust, a substantial amount of which remained untouched. Some of her earnings as a corporate attorney had gone into investments with her father's financial expert, and those had also done quite well. She no longer traveled or went on the frequent wild shopping binges she used to indulge in. Now that she had no need for that kind of financial abundance in her life, she had suddenly moved from extremely wealthy to unreasonably rich.

Her father was the last remaining member of her family. There were no aunts, uncles, or cousins. She had been an only child, and the estate had recently been settled. Now she needed plans; but with Vincent's illness and trying to catch up at work, her life since her father died had left her precious little time for planning. Peter was on his way to her apartment for a brief visit and she hoped he might have answers for some of her questions.

The doorbell rang and she met Peter at the door with a kiss on the cheek and a mug of his favorite coffee.

"First I have a favor to ask," she told him energetically, "and then I have questions."

"May I sit down first," he teased, taking the mug from her and enjoying a sip.

"I'm sorry, Peter. My mind is running ahead of my explanations. There are so many things going on at the same time." She sat down on the sofa beside him.

"Start with the favor. What can I do for you?" he asked, taking one more sip before putting the coffee on the table and turning to face her.

"Vincent and I are going to be married, and I'd like you to take Daddy's place and give me away at the wedding."

Peter gave her a big hug. "I'm so happy for both of you. So you finally cornered him, huh!"

Catherine swatted his arm. "I'll have you know it was his idea, and he planned a very romantic evening to ask me. He's a constant source of surprise. He actually designed this...But I'll let him tell you that story," she told him, holding out her hand to show off the ring. "Now do you intend to walk me down the aisle or not?"

"I would be honored."

"We're planning on the day after Thanksgiving."

"Now, what kind of questions did you have? I can't stay as long as I intended. I have to check in on one of my patients -- a minor unexpected complication," he said, taking another sip of his coffee.

"There are three buildings here," she said, pulling herself back to the work at hand, and showing him an area on a map. "I have no idea why Daddy would have bought them. I drove by and looked at them today, and there isn't anything there that looks like a reasonable business interest. In the year before he died I know the two of you spent more time together than you had in a long time. Did he say anything to you about plans for these places?"

"Cathy, your father was a good man. He was always generous, but with a corporate lawyer's eye to tax benefits. You know that. He taught you. In the last couple of years, seeing the change in your life, he began to rethink his own; and his natural generosity became less a tax advantage and more a desire to make a difference. Those buildings were going to be well constructed, attractive, low cost housing - something sorely needed in that neighborhood. I was guiding him toward helpers who could do the architectural planning and the construction. He certainly had the expertise and contacts to handle everything else. Another few months and I would have talked to Jacob about allowing him into the tunnels - and meeting Vincent. Charles would have needed some time to adjust to the idea, but seeing the you and Vincent together... He would have learned to be happy for you. I know he would."

Tears misted Catherine's eyes at the thought that she could have shared everything with her father.

"I miss him so much. I can't believe he was so close to knowing everything. Somehow I think he knows now and that I have his blessings, but it would have been nice to know for sure." She put her head on his shoulder, and he held her the way her father would have.

"He was very proud of you. He missed you at the law firm, but he was always telling people about his daughter and how she had already made more of a contribution to the world than he ever had."

"I suppose I should follow up on his plans, shouldn't I?"

"I think he would like that."

"Would you guide me to some of those helpers? I have plans for his apartment, too. This apartment is just the right size for me, but after seeing Vincent in it while he was sick, I know he wouldn't be comfortable for long with either the furniture or the space. He puts himself in danger every time he comes here, and I've come as close to losing him as I ever want to. Daddy's apartment is much larger, so I can replace some of the furniture with things that will fit Vincent. I want to remodel a few things, and put in a state of the art security system. I think I can get him there more safely. When we're married, that can be our space - our alone time. There isn't much of that in the tunnels. I've scheduled a meeting next week to clear the remodeling with the building's owners' association."

"How does Vincent feel about this?" Peter asked.

"I haven't told him anything specific yet. I was trying to put a few more of the plans in place first. I wanted to know it could work before I mentioned it to him. What do you think? If I can make it safe for him to reach the apartment and put together enough security for him to be safe while he's in it, would Father forgive me for stealing him away now and then?

"If you can convince him it would be safe, I think he might," Peter smiled after mulling it over briefly. "Jacob seems to have mellowed a little recently," he added with a hint of amusement. "What do you have in mind?" She had piqued his curiosity.

"I spoke to Kanin and Cullen a few weekends ago," she answered, launching herself excitedly into telling him her plans, "and they took a small crew to check under Daddy's apartment building. They said a new threshold shouldn't be a problem."

"Daddy's apartment has a large, private elevator that he rarely used. I want to add a few features to the elevator and the shaft that will make it safe for Vincent under any conceivable circumstance. I'll make the entrance to the elevator's lobby door more secure and work out an access for Vincent from the basement. He'll be able to get here much more safely."

"Cullen also had a crew looking at the possibility of adding a second elevator a level below the basement, one that would take us closer to the central part of the tunnels. Neither Vincent nor I are getting any younger, and it would make it easier for the older folks to go Above now and then. Cullen and Kanin said the crew thought it might be possible, that it looked less daunting than they expected when I first mentioned it to them. I'm sure they thought I was crazy. They said I they probably couldn't have found a better place for what I want to do. One of the helpers owns a company that installs and services elevators, and I plan to see him tomorrow. Another helper plans security systems for major corporations. Surely they could make an apartment safe. There are helpers who are plumbers and carpenters, and... But you know that, don't you?"

Catherine had to stop for a breath. Her words were tumbling over one another so quickly that Peter had to laugh at her excitement. It reminded him of the way she and his daughter, Susan, sounded when they were children, and he allowed himself a few pleasant memories from those times. Suddenly Catherine's voice brought him back to reality.

"And on top of all this," she said, catching her breath and indicating all the financial statements, notes and sketchy remodeling plans on the table in front of them, "I have a wedding to plan."

"And you think you can work full time, spend weekends Below, and accomplish all this by Thanksgiving?" Peter asked incredulously. Seeing that Catherine had that Moses-at-the-Red-Sea look on her face again, he laughed. "Well, if anybody can, it's probably Cathy Chandler," he said giving her a fatherly hug.

"Peter, it's so nice to have someone in my world to talk to without having to keep secrets. Thank you for listening to me ramble. My plans are so dependent on finding the right people to do the work that has to accommodate Vincent, and I have to be so careful to see that I'm not compromising anything about his world... Will you help me when I start to have doubts?"

"Just call," he assured her.

She hugged him the way she did when she was a little girl, all love and enthusiasm; and he left smiling, knowing there was someone committed to loving her and watching over her when he no longer could.

***

Catherine was grateful that the case Joe had given her had been as cut and dried as he thought. The emergency assignment had kept her from Vincent the weekend before, and she was relieved to find that it moved smoothly and closed quickly. She actually had a few evenings for herself.

She called Peter and asked if he would go with her to look at two of three buildings her father had bought. She wanted to walk through each one and see what was there, but she didn't want to go alone. If she ran into any kind of trouble, she didn't want Vincent running to her defense again. He looked and acted as if he had completely recovered, but she saw no need to push their luck. Remembering that he had worked with youth in that neighborhood at one time, she decided to call Isaac, too. Maybe he would have time to meet them there. He would probably have some valuable insights into the nature and needs of the neighborhood. As a bonus, she would feel safer and Vincent wouldn't worry.

On Wednesday night she went to her father's apartment and looked around more carefully than she had the last time she had been there, taking stock of changes she might need to make. She had sorted through everything that could have a bearing on the settlement of the estate, but she still hadn't gone through all of his personal things. She had put it off because it was such a sad, final thing to do, then Vincent was ill, then work took over... If she intended to follow through with her plans for the apartment, that job had to be done.

Both Peter and Isaac agreed to meet her on Thursday; and the three of them walked through each building, pointing out problems and possibilities as Catherine took notes. As she expected, Isaac had some understandings of the neighborhood that would be valuable in her planning, and he offered his help if she needed it.

After consulting Father's helper list, she had arranged for someone to look at the elevator in her father's apartment on Friday and to meet with her early Friday evening. She had spoken to someone else about a very comprehensive security system. He was to pick up a key on Monday and visit the apartment to assess what would be needed. She felt better. She was making progress toward a new life that allowed Vincent both easier and safer access to her world.

Catherine made separate folders for her father's apartment and each of the three buildings she had plans for. Each night that week she carefully divided any new notes, questions, ideas, etc. about each one into the appropriate folder and arranged the information in the best order she could manage at the present stage of planning.

She was disappointed when she received word from Vincent that an emergency would keep him from meeting her on Friday night; but she put the time to good use. She gathered the things she intended to present to Father and Vincent, and for a change, went to bed early enough to get a good night's sleep. She would go Below early the next morning and have breakfast with Vincent.

 

***

 

Catherine arrived in the tunnels on Saturday morning, having sent a message ahead of time asking to see Father. Since Vincent wasn't available for breakfast, she had breakfast with the others in the dining hall before Father escorted her to his chamber to talk.

She was glad she had Father to herself to broach the subject she came to talk about.

"Father, I'm about to be part of your family, and everyone here shares whatever they have, isn't that right?"

"Yes, they have the right to keep their own things; but when real need arises, we share. If you're about to offer to spend money on us again, please don't. You live Above. You've already been more than generous, and you need to think of yourself."

"I have no desire to change the system you've cultivated so well with your helpers. It benefits both sides. You've created something wonderful, and I only want to add some of my assets," she assured him. "I don't think you fully understand the extent of what I have to offer."

"We all appreciate what you do for us," Father answered. "We've suspected that the recent increase in groceries and basic supplies has something to do with you, in spite of the fact that it came from other helpers. You're here to help in any crisis. You help with the children when you come to visit. We know that you're available for legal advice and helping with transitions from one world to the other. You give of yourself in enough ways already."

"But that isn't what I'm trying to tell you," she sighed. Not knowing what else to say to make her point, she simply handed him a folder containing a few papers. "These are the financial assets we can draw from."

"Really, Catherine, it isn't necessary for you to show me this. We have no need to delve into your finances. It's enough that you want to share with us," he said as he pushed the folder back in her direction.

"Read it," she insisted, pushing it back. "I want to share it with my world, too. There are people there who need more of what this world provides, and I have resources to help provide it; but I want to start here. I need you to understand what can be available for the things this community needs and can't afford. Read!" She emphasized her determination by giving the folder another gentle push in Father's direction.

To humor her, Father adjusted his spectacles, took the papers from the folder and began to read. With each line and each page he became more aghast at what he saw.

"Catherine?" he finally stammered, collapsing back against his chair and removing his glasses. "The newspapers called you an heiress, indicated you were wealthy, but this..." He swept his spectacles in a small arc across the page. "All of this belongs to you?"

"Disgusting, isn't it?" she answered. "I had more than I needed before, but Daddy left me much more than I realized he had. All this for one woman when so many need so much. I used to take this sort of thing for granted. I grew up with it. Now it's a little embarrassing."

"A lot of people would love to be this embarrassed," Father chortled nervously, still shaken at what he had just fully realized. "Is Vincent aware of the...extent of your assets?"

"No. It never came up as important. Do we have to tell him?" she asked with a sheepish smile. Catherine had been so concerned about her talk with Father that she didn't detect Vincent's arrival.

"Do we have to tell him what?" Vincent asked from the doorway. He had caught only his name and "Do we have to tell him?" He was exhausted and dusty from his work, and he had intended to stop only long enough to see Catherine briefly before a bath and a change of clothes. "I thought we were to have no more secrets," he smiled.

Knowing that Father was aware of some of their "understandings" he indulged himself, bent and gave Catherine a quick kiss on the top of her head, then stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders. She moved her hand up to cover one of his.

"Catherine has just insisted on giving me an accounting of her financial assets. She finds it 'a little embarrassing'," Father smiled.

After seeing a reluctant nod of approval from Catherine, Father pushed the folder and the papers across the desk toward Vincent, who picked them up to read. Noticing the look on Father's face, he expected to see something surprising; but he was completely unprepared for what he saw. He reacted very much as Father had, dropping into a chair with one elbow resting on the chair arm and his hand at his forehead before he had finished reading.

"All of this belongs to you?" he finally asked in quiet awe.

"Guilty," she said, looking down.

"And you want to be here..."

"I want to be with you...wherever that takes me. You said you believe that now."

"You would turn your back on all that this could provide you...to be with me?"

"Without a minute's regret."

"Catherine..." Vincent said, shaking his head slightly as he stared at the papers in an appreciative, but dumbfounded state.

"I always hoped to find a man who wouldn't want to marry me just for my money," she answered with a hint of humor. Her head was still down, but she glanced up at him through her lashes, looking for his reaction. "Does the council need to know all this, Father?" she asked. "I don't think I want anyone else here to know."

"I think it might be better if they don't, given the episode with the ship and the treasure. Why did you feel that I needed to know this now, after all this time?"

"It's so much more than I had before. I'm about to be your daughter-in-law, so this will more officially be my home and family, too. I know there are bound to be expensive improvements you'd like to make but haven't been able to. Margaret left money you've decided to use for college for the children who want an education Above. I'd like to contribute to your everyday needs. Systems for electricity and running water and a few modern conveniences could make the work easier if you want that - not enough to change the nature of the tunnels, just enough to ease the work load. You could have better medical equipment. There could be an emergency fund for times when food or medical supplies are lower than usual, or a fund that would allow a standing supply of construction materials for jobs like the one our dusty friend here was doing this morning."

She paused briefly and glanced fondly at Vincent then took a deep breath and continued. "All the plans, all the decisions would come from the council. I would only provide the materials without imposing anything you don't want. Please let me help. All the council needs to know is that you received an anonymous gift to be used as they decide."

"I literally owe you my life. There's no way I can ever repay you for that...or for Vincent." She gave Father a winning smile. "You could consider it a dowry."

"Perhaps you should put this back in your briefcase and take it home with you. I'll need to give this some thought," he said, returning her smile as he took the papers from Vincent and handed them to her.

Catherine placed the folder in her briefcase and looked up at Vincent.

"Do you still plan to spend the afternoon with me?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered, temporarily reduced to very few words.

"Then clean up and walk to the falls with me. I'll find some reading material while you bathe."

"Clean up. Yes, I will," he echoed.

"I'll know when you're ready for me. I'll meet you in your chamber."

"In my chamber," he agreed as he touched her shoulder and left, still looking a little dazed.

Turning to Father again, Catherine pulled out more papers. Sketchy plans for her father's apartment and easy access for Vincent.

"Can you withstand some plans that include your son?" she asked him.

"Wedding plans?" Father asked, hoping for something more mundane.

"Wedding plans next time. This is more like living arrangements," she answered. "I intend to give up my job at the DA's office at the end of the year. I've already asked for less dangerous work, and I'll give Joe plenty of notice before I resign, but there are still reasons for me to keep an apartment above."

She handed Father the outline of her plans for her father's apartment and the elevators. Having spoken to the owners of both the elevator business and the security company, she had a few more details to work with. She had also included the opinions of the crew from Below.

"My father bought three buildings that aren't of much interest for business. Peter said he was going to turn them into good low-income housing. I'm planning to use one of them for that purpose. The other two are large, warehouse sized buildings across the street from one another. If I can manage it, one will be a children's home. I can't just keep snatching children like Eric and Ellie and bringing them here. The other building would be assisted living for the elderly; the ones who need help and can't afford it. The two could work well together - children and foster grandparents. It could be a service to both sides. From the planning and remodeling to the staffing it would provide jobs for helpers. The more helpers we pay, the more they can help you. I would want to be an active part of the work, which means spending time Above, especially at first."

"Knowing my reasons for spending time Above after we're married, would you forgive me for enticing your son there part time? Could you feel that he would be safe under these conditions?

Father looked over the plans as Catherine explained them in as much detail as she could presently manage and shook his head in astonishment as she finished.

"Catherine, this is too much to take in all in one day. Give me time to think. How have you had time to work and put all this together?"

"I haven't slept much," she laughed wryly. "I wanted to start work on this before I started planning a wedding."

"If you keep going at this pace Vincent will have to hold you up while you say your vows," he chuckled. "Have you shown these plans to Vincent?"

"Not yet. I wanted to be sure they could be workable first. I want your opinions - and your blessings. So far nobody has discouraged me."

"Maybe it would be best to wait until next weekend. Let us both recover from his fiance's financial status first," Father answered.

"He's waiting for me. I'll go and talk to him," Catherine said, and patted Father's hand when she reached to retrieve the folder from his desk. She then left, looking forward to the sight of a damp, but very appealing Vincent waiting for her next door.

Father was accustomed to the look on his son's face when Vincent felt emotions from Catherine. He wondered how long it would take to become used to seeing the same expression on Catherine's face now that the bond was working in the other direction, too. Vincent said it wasn't as strong on her side, but definitely there. He just smiled and shook his head, knowing he would never fully understand. He would simply enjoy knowing that it made the young couple happy and gave them a feeling of security after all they had been through in the past couple of years.

***

 

Vincent stood near his bed drying his arms and chest, wearing only the knit pants that served as pajamas, several dry towels draped across a chair. Catherine picked up a towel and looked up at him with a suggestive smile.

"Where would you like me to start?" she asked.

"Anywhere you'd like," he answered returning her smile in kind, "but, if you plan to reach the falls you should probably make conservative choices"

"Spoilsport," she said with a little pout then smiled, started with the ends of his hair and moved to his back.

"Were you ever going to tell me?" he asked as he dried.

"I don't think so. Maybe after we were married and you couldn't get rid of me. My money never mattered to you except when you thought I was using too much of it for your world...and I guess I thought it would just give you another chance to think you were depriving me of something. Then you would have tried again to send me back to where I came from."

"You really felt you had to be that careful?" he asked, stopping the towel in its track.

"I was always afraid I'd do or say something that would set off your altruistic nature, something that would convince you I should have a life that didn't include you. It was exasperating and it hurt...but I do understand that you had the best of intentions." She put her arms around his waist from behind and gave him a quick squeeze, pressing her face against the now only slightly damp hair on his back. "You wouldn't ever consider that again, would you?"

He turned and put his arms around her waist, looking down at her.

"As selfish as I know it is, I don't believe I could now. My voice and the reasonable part of me used to encourage you to find a better life, told you to find someone else and be happy; but my heart always shouted, 'Please don't go! Please don't leave me.'" He drew her closer and brushed a kiss on her hair. "I don't think my heart would continue to beat without you."

"Now you understand." She smiled and stretched up to kiss him. "Are we still going to the falls?"

"Five minutes," he promised.

While he dressed Catherine turned her attention back to her briefcase and removed a few folders to take along when they walked to the falls. She said nothing about them, just added them to the two books she had chosen. Vincent asked nothing, knowing she would explain when she was ready. He took it all from her, took her hand, and enjoyed the walk. They spread a blanket and sat in their favorite spot, leaning against a large rock and each other.

"You haven't slept much lately," he ventured as she nestled against his shoulder. "You've been working much too hard, but you don't seem to be as tired as usual."

"That's because it wasn't all the same work as usual. You missed a couple of pages," she pointed out, and showed him the notes on the lower elevator. "What do you think? Will it work?"

"Is this what Cullen and the others were discussing last weekend?" he asked, sounding amused. "I knew they were up to something. The conversation stopped or changed every time I was near them. Cullen appeared to be in charge, so I thought they might be concocting some nefarious plan for our wedding."

"I asked them to give me an objective opinion before I mentioned it to you," she admitted. "I haven't seen that part of the tunnels, so I don't understand everything in the sketches yet, but they sounded encouraging."

"If everything here is correct, there could be a good chance it would work. Look at the area here," he said, pointing out the section of the sketch that made the least sense to her. There is a large opening in the rock structure here that drops what you would call several stories. For as long as I can remember, the crews have used a system of slings, ropes and pulleys there to move large, heavy supplies into the lower tunnels."

"Like the pictures I've seen of pianos being moved to fifteenth story apartments?"

Catherine asked, delighted to make another discovery about her adopted home.

Vincent smiled. He always took pleasure in Catherine's excitement at a new understanding of how his world worked.

"This is where Mouse moved the grand piano he 'found' before he had to admit what he had done. It would have been entertaining to watch the process he invented to move what he managed on his own. When it came to lowering the part of the piano that included the cast iron frame, he had to ask for assistance. Father's face was a picture I shall never forget when he was told why Mouse was asking for help." Vincent laughed quietly at the memory.

Catherine chuckled in response, enjoying her imagined perception of Father's face.

"This opening is less than a city block east of the basement of your father's apartment. The storage building we use as access to move large supplies into the tunnels is not much farther to the west. We use the opening here often enough that we have it protected with a false wall and a sentry post. There are similar rock structures in other places, but this is the one we use.

"Why this one?"

"Security and ease of travel. The storage building provides the only outside access to this area, so there is minimal activity from sources other than the tunnels -- and travel from the base of this opening to the home tunnels is both shorter and easier than from the others. Stability is important, too. The buildings in this part of the city are well-established, well-maintained, and their well-to-do home-owners aren't likely to be displaced by development of new buildings."

"Like another Burch Towers?"

Vincent nodded as he looked at the crew's notes again. "If you weren't aware of the tunnel access there, why were you considering an elevator?" he finally asked out of curiosity.

"I plan to move into Daddy's apartment. It's larger, it has its own private elevator, the balcony still overlooks the park, it isn't far from where I am now, I'm told that the rock structure lends itself to the lower elevator, and you could get there safely...anytime you want... day or night." She looked up at him. "You could have sunlight, and we could have time completely alone. There would be a way for you to leave in any kind of emergency, a security system any government lab would be proud to own, and it would fit you better than my smaller apartment does. I would still want to spend a lot of time here, but do you think you could adjust to spending some time there?"

"Catherine..." he answered, with a touch of reprimand. "This would cost a fortune, and you would need all of this only for me."

"You and Cullen have said one of the thresholds you use for bringing in large supplies isn't too far away. A freight elevator would be large enough to be useful for moving things into the tunnels, it would be easier for some of the older people to go Above now and then...and neither of us is getting any younger. There would be a hidden compartment in the upper elevator and access to ladders in the shafts of both so you would have an exit no matter what happened. ...And you're worth it. What have I missed?"

"Very little, it seems. Is this what you meant... a man of a world and a half?"

"I have plans to help in my world - those are in folders two, three, and four - but I'm starting with us and the tunnels. Vincent, I could live in your world and be happy, but there are so many people I could help in mine; and you've seen that I have the resources to do it. I've loved every minute of the time we've shared on my balcony; but I need a place Above to work, and I'd like to be able to share more of my world with you than a balcony that you have to take risks to reach." She looked a little concerned about his reaction and asked again, a little more tentatively, "What do you think?"

"I hardly know where to begin."

"Father said I should talk to you next weekend and let you adjust to one surprise at a time, but I was too excited to wait."

"You've discussed this with Father?" he exclaimed in disbelief. Then he asked with a small chuckle, "Was he still breathing when you left?"

"He didn't give me the opinions I asked for," she laughed, "but he didn't ask about my sanity either...and I didn't have to administer CPR. It gave me hope."

Vincent chuckled again as he looked over the plans once more. Thinking realistically and sounding more serious, he said. "There would have to be a way I could be contacted in case of an emergency. The well-being of this community has to be a priority. This is my home, my family."

"I wouldn't expect any less of you."

"Catherine, I need time to absorb all this. Should I consider asking about the other folders?"

"Those are the reasons I'd like to keep a place in my world as well as yours. I would want to be actively involved, especially where the children are concerned. But keep in mind, I consider the tunnels my home too, and your family already feels like mine." Launching her thoughts in yet another direction, she teased, "Have you considered that your chamber may have to undergo some changes to accommodate a wife?"

"My chamber and I await," he answered gallantly, and kissed the top of her head as he reached for the other folders.

He looked at the very sketchy plans. Those, she had decided, could wait until after the wedding. There were pictures of the buildings, notes she had made when she and Peter and Isaac had walked through them, square footages and floor plans. There were also the plans and contacts her father had made, lists of helpers Peter had provided for her father and those she had copied from Father's lists, as well as notes she had made on what she thought she might realistically be able to accomplish with each one.

"This is a great deal of work in such a short time. Ambitious plans. Do you think you can accomplish it all?"

"It won't all happen at once; but with the right kind of guidance, I think it could all happen eventually. You'll help me, won't you? You know how much I value your advice."

"Anything I can do, Catherine. Anything at all," he promised a little absently, still assimilating the plans.

They walked back in an easy silence that was comfortable to both of them, each enjoying the evening and wondering exactly what the other was thinking. After a few minutes at the guest chamber a message was heard on the pipes calling Vincent away again, so they said their good-nights and parted.

Catherine was relieved to have finally told Vincent of her intentions, but lay awake wondering how he would respond after it all sunk in.

Vincent, when he was able to return, lay awake trying to imagine the latest new turns his life could take, and appreciating again the talents and generosity his Catherine possessed. Neither of them slept until the wee hours of the morning.

********************

 

 

Catherine woke feeling a quizzical kind of excitement in Vincent. She dressed and intended to meet him in his chamber; but she sensed him coming from another direction, and farther away. She waited a few minutes and then began to hear voices in animated conversation coming from the outer parts of the main hub. Vincent appeared with Cullen, Kanin, Father, Pascal, Jamie and several men she knew were usually involved in the planning when there were structural concerns. Mouse was trailing behind, shouting a suggestion now and then in response to their conversation. They had obviously been to look at the area for the lower elevator. The fact that Mouse was now involved gave Catherine dual feelings. One was that creative new ideas were about to emerge. The other was that she needed to be a little nervous.

"Dare I ask for your conclusions?" she asked as she approached them.

Vincent was holding the apartment/elevator folder, and a couple of the men were looking at Catherine with a new respect. A wedding to plan, and she had found time to put this together first.

"We don't have final conclusions yet, but it does look pretty promising," Cullen told her. "Even Father thinks it might work. We need to get Tom Mason down here to tell us what he can do with an elevator system to accommodate what we have to work with."

"I'll call him and make some arrangements Monday morning," she promised. "Be sure to include anything that would be of help to the tunnels in your discussions, and whatever you need, you'll have."

Most of the men looked at her as if she had lost her mind - or they were losing theirs.

"My father's estate is settled now," she explained, "I was his only living relative, and I...there's enough to provide whatever you need. Make it work for the community, not just for Vincent and me."

Father could see that Catherine was a little uncomfortable when the conversation had turned to finances, so he stepped in to steer things in a new direction. She felt so much a part of them now, and everyone accepted her that way. He knew she didn't want to emphasize the differences any further.

"Have you had breakfast, young lady?"

"No," she admitted. "I was about to look for Vincent when I came upon all you early birds."

"Then why don't you come with us. We can talk while we eat. We left before William ever serves breakfast." He emphasized the word "ever" and gave her a purposeful look, reminding her of Vincent's unheard of bending of William's hours while she was serving as nurse a few weeks before. She grinned and joined the crew to walk to the dining hall.

"After breakfast," Father said, "I think I shall return to my chamber and recover from this walk."

"Father, does all this mean that you trust me to make it safe for Vincent to spend time Above with me?" she asked hopefully. Vincent was still conferring with Cullen, and she was lagging behind with Father, keeping him company while he indulged his tired hip.

"Catherine, my dear," he said, putting his arm around her shoulder, "I admit that I wasn't always your biggest fan; but I have seen the error of my ways. I know now that you would work with the same ferocity as I to keep Vincent safe. Giving up your job, changing your life style..."

"Giving up your job? When did you make that decision? Are you doing this because of me?" Vincent had turned to join them, and caught the last of the conversation as he walked toward them. He seemed upset. "When were you planning to tell me this?"

Catherine stopped and looked up at him calmly.

"To answer to your questions in order... One - Yes, I am, at the end of the year... Two - When I decided to work with Daddy's plans. Ummm...Three - No I'm not, not entirely. And Four - Last night, but I forgot." She looked up at him a little defiantly, obviously preparing her argument.

Father walked away smiling. When it came to being stubborn, his son had certainly met his match. This small woman was going to stand up to his very large son whenever she felt it necessary. When they announced their engagement, he had promised himself not to meddle in their decisions anymore. He knew it might not always happen, but he intended to do his best. Father just moved on and left them to work this out for themselves.

"Catherine, you've given up so much for me already...kept secrets from friends, isolated yourself from so much of what you did before you knew me. You shouldn't give up a job you love. I don't want to take anything else from you."

"My priorities have changed, Vincent. That's all. I'm tired of being shot at or kidnapped or shoved around, and I don't want you feeling a continual need to rescue me. Surely you can't object to my giving that up. The longer I work with the DA, the more enemies I make, and the more danger there will be for both of us. I'll still be doing something we can both be proud of - taking the concerns we share into my world. I'll still be making a difference. I'll love my new work, too - probably more than what I'm doing now."

He leaned his head slightly to one side and nodded his acceptance of her decision, then he took her hand and they followed his father to the dining hall.

Over breakfast the group discussed the elevator and a new threshold to Charles Chandler's apartment building. Pascal had grown up in the tunnels, Cullen had spent most of his adult life there, and Kanin had been there for about fifteen years. They had all worked with helpers at times, especially those in construction. They sometimes bartered services for materials, giving their time and skills when construction workers were needed, and in return, receiving supplies needed to keep the tunnels and thresholds in good repair. That experience gave them some insight into which helpers provided the best work. They looked over Catherine's lists and offered their advice, as well as offering any help they themselves could provide. Most of the tunnel residents would be likely to make similar offers when the need for their talents arose. All of the members of the crew were impatient to meet with Tom Mason to start making more solid plans.

With a great deal of respect, Catherine watched Jamie absorbing everything being discussed. Jamie was a formidable presence for such a young woman. She seemed determined to learn every aspect of the needs of her community; and to their credit, the men, as well as the women, had recently begun to allow her involvement in some of the more important projects. She seemed to understand the varying rock structures and the reasons for treating each differently. She understood the political workings of the community, and never failed to voice her opinions - often showing an insight beyond her years. She was often asked to schedule daily duties; and she was a good mediator when tempers flared and things got out of hand - except, of course, on the occasions when the flaring temper was her own. She was also the only one, other than Vincent, who seemed to be able to keep Mouse in check - a valuable asset in itself. In spite of her youth, Catherine expected to see her elected to the council soon. She wondered if Jamie might have any inclinations toward college and engineering, and whether she could tolerate being away from her family and community for that long. She would have to broach the subject when there weren't so many other things to think about.

Now that the elevator problem had been tackled, it was time to start planning a wedding. She had already accepted that everyone at her wedding would be tunnel residents and helpers. It helped that Peter would be there to give her away. There would be at least one familiar face from Above in the wedding party. She hadn't talked to anyone yet about being bridesmaids or a maid of honor. She could hardly wait to be married to Vincent, but this wedding would be missing some important people in her life. The first step in the planning was to sit down with Mary and some of the other women and decide how to organize and decorate the room for the ceremony. After that they needed to decide what everyone would wear. They didn't have to know specifically who would be wearing it. Shopping was next. Her first thought was to have Jenny go shopping with her, but that would mean telling her why. Telling her why would mean telling her about Vincent, and that she couldn't do. A wave of sadness suddenly rushed over her, catching both Catherine and Vincent by surprise. He excused himself from the elevator conversation and held his hand out to Catherine.

"Come with me," he said, taking her hand and leading her out of the dining hall. "Tell me," he insisted as they walked.

"Can we talk in your chamber? I could use your arms around me for a little while."

"That was my plan," he smiled. "My arms have been searching for a reason to be around you."

"Do you plan to be my knight in shining armor for the rest of your life?" she smiled back, already feeling a little better.

"Yes," he answered playfully.

"A childhood dream come true."

Vincent tilted his head and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"A life with Lancelot."

He returned her smile with the same good humor. This time there was no mention of Lancelot's flaws. Vincent finally understood that in Catherine's eyes he was the greatest knight of all; and in spite of himself, he now basked unashamed in that thought. Catherine's eyes were the ones that mattered.

When they reached his chamber, he pulled the screen across the door, led her to his chair and sat down.

"What caused you such sadness. Is there something I can do?"

Catherine gladly let him pull her into his lap, and she rested against him.

"I don't know. Probably not."

"Tell me," he said, kissing her forehead as he held her a little closer.

"I was thinking of our wedding and all the preparations we need to make. I need to find fabric for the dresses and choose flowers, and a host of other things..."

"And that made you sad?" he asked gently, wiping away a single errant tear from the corner of her eye.

"No, that makes me very happy. It's having to do it alone that made me sad. I found myself thinking of shopping with Jenny and Nancy, but that would mean telling them. Jenny knows there's someone, and she's left me alone about who; but I know it kills her." She stopped and smiled at Jenny's forced self-control on the subject. "Nancy knows I love someone named Vincent, and she's a good enough friend to listen to what I can tell her and accept that I can't tell her more. I could call her; but then I couldn't invite her to the wedding... She would understand, but it would hurt both of us. I want to tell them everything. I want to have them in our wedding. I know they would love you, too; but I won't betray the community. Telling them only about you would leave too many unanswered questions." She took in a deep breath and sounded more cheerful. "I'll get over it. It just hit me by surprise this morning before I could stop it. I didn't mean to worry you with anything like that. Maybe Mary and Olivia would go with me. Jenny and Nancy don't know any more about sewing than I do. We'd probably be a disaster looking for a place to happen."

"Catherine..." he breathed against her hair. "Another disappointment because you love me." He shifted slightly in the chair and seemed to be thinking, rather than brooding, the way such a conversation would often affect him. "You trust these people completely, don't you?"

"Completely. Neither of them would ever betray my trust...ever."

"Mmmm..." he responded sympathetically and left the subject there, resting his cheek against the top of her head.

Catherine snuggled against him and enjoyed being close for a while. Sharing a kiss now and then made her feel considerably better. She knew it couldn't last. Vincent had work to do that morning, and it wasn't long before Cullen was teasing from the other side of the screen.

"Hey! What are you two doing in there?"

"Come in, Cullen," Catherine answered, reluctantly leaving her nice, warm snuggle to move the screen away from the door. Smiling at him mischievously as he entered the room, she added, "...and you can leave your one track mind out there."

He grinned back. For a spoiled little rich girl, she had turned out pretty well, and for someone like her to love someone like Vincent... 'Go figure,' he thought to himself, but he had to admit to admiring her. She had certainly paid her dues Below, and he'd be in her corner any time.

"Come on, Vincent, we're ready to go. The sooner we get started, the sooner you can get back to whatever I interrupted." He grinned again at seeing Vincent look annoyed.

Vincent picked up a toolbag near the door, swung it over one shoulder, and looked toward Catherine apologetically.

"Don't worry about me," she told him. I'll go and talk about weddings with Mary and Olivia and Jamie and Rebecca, and Sarah, and..." The list of names came out in a sing-songy fashion, indicating a long list, and the twinkle in her eyes indicated her excitement about the subject.

Vincent smiled and followed Cullen out. When they were barely out of the door, she heard Vincent's voice.

"Tell the others I'll catch up, Cullen. I forgot something."

His large form reappeared in the doorway. He swung his free arm around her and planted a kiss full of promise on her lips.

"I love you," he whispered.

"I love you, too, Lancelot," she whispered back. "See you this afternoon."

 

 

********************

 

 

It was Sunday, and normally on Sunday morning things were quiet in the tunnels; but there had been a security breach at one of the thresholds on Saturday night. That was what had kept Vincent and Catherine's goodnight so short the night before. Vincent heard the message on the pipes and had to respond with the security crew. After checking, it didn't seem to be a real problem, but to be certain, they had posted extra sentries there overnight. It was a frequently used entrance; so to avoid the possibility of discovery, Vincent's work crew planned to close that threshold temporarily and reopen an old one close by.

On Sunday mornings things were usually very laid back. Breakfast was always as simple as possible, and was generally served an hour later than usual. The Sunday cooking was all done on Saturday, and the assigned kitchen staff served it on Sunday to give William a day off. This Sunday William had come in early to enlist the help of the kitchen staff for the morning and had helped pack lunches and drinks for the crew to take with them. They would all be exhausted when they returned.

Catherine resigned herself to seeing very little of Vincent that weekend, picked up her notebook, walked to Mary's chamber and asked if she had time to discuss a wedding. As she expected, Mary was more than willing. Knowing that several of the other women would never forgive being left out of the planning, she gave Catherine several names and claimed a few more for herself. They then separated and went to round up those who could meet them in the dining hall where they could all sit around a table and talk.

Knowing the women in the group always had a hand in planning Winterfest, Catherine expected that they would have good ideas about how to set up the hall to best accommodate a wedding ceremony. She wanted to allow the tunnel residents the time they needed for extra wedding preparations without placing an unreasonable burden on their normal duties. The room itself and what they would need in terms of organizing food and decorations seemed the right place to start. From what she was hearing about the number of people who would want to attend the wedding, she had already decided they might as well plan it as an event the size of Winterfest. Catherine had no desire for a wedding that size, but she felt she should accommodate the wishes of Vincent's friends and family.

The women who had lived Above were well aware of the kind of wedding Catherine would probably have had in her world, and they wanted to give her something as close to that as they could manage.

They didn't have much time to plan something that size, but if everything else was arranged, Catherine knew she could buy dresses, etc. if it became necessary. Besides, she wasn't ready to think about dresses without Jenny and Nancy in two of them quite yet.

'Good thing I have money!' she thought with a smile.

She and her soon-to-be family members sat talking, planning, and laughing at the ridiculous suggestions that always come from trying to solve the last few seemingly impossible problems. By the time they had worn themselves out coming to what appeared to be a workable plan, they were referring to themselves as The Committee.

The children were excited enough about the wedding that Catherine wanted to find a way to include them in the planning, so The Committee decided on an area that the children would be responsible for decorating. They all envisioned some arguments and a high degree of whining and complaining among the younger members of the community. They also envisioned a high degree of refereeing and diplomatic intervention by the older members, but the thought of the children's pride at seeing their contributions used for the wedding more than offset the anticipated wrangling.

When they finally came to the conclusion that they had done all they could do for the time being, Catherine had actual plans to share with Vincent and Father. As she closed her notebook they realized people were beginning to drift in for lunch.

"Well," Rebecca announced in a rather self-satisfied tone, "I believe we've put in a good morning's work. Let's see what we have for lunch."

No one argued. Everyone just followed her to the steadily growing lunch line.

Catherine filled a tray for herself and Father with the intention of having lunch with him in his chamber and showing him their plans. She put the tray down, hugged the members of The Committee, and thanked them for their help. As long as it had taken for Father to accept her so completely, all of them understood her excitement at sharing her plans with him.

She appeared at the top of the stairs to Father's chamber just as he was collecting his cane for the short trek to the dining hall.

"I brought lunch and wedding plans, Father. Sit down and let me refill your tea for you."

"Lunch and wedding plans? You're full of surprises this weekend, aren't you?"

He sat down at his desk, accepted the hot tea Catherine offered and watched as she laid out their lunch. She came to his side of the desk, playfully dropped a napkin across his lap and bent to kiss his forehead. He smiled as she walked to sit across from him, relishing the attention.

"May I assume the little meeting in the dining hall concerned wedding plans?" "It did," she answered, sounding both excited and amused. "I have sketches of a couple of arrangements for the hall, and some decorating plans, and there are reception plans for a very large number of people." She emphasized the words "very large". "I'll need to talk to some of the helpers about arranging for flowers and for some catering to help William out. I know he'd try to manage it all, but he shouldn't have to worry about Thanksgiving, a wedding this size, and Winterfest all in the same few weeks."

"He will undoubtedly grouse about too many cooks, etc.," Father agreed, "but I'm quite sure he will appreciate the help when the reality of so many events rears its head."

"After lunch will you give me your opinion about which layout looks most workable?"

"May I see?" he asked.

Catherine handed Father the plans and they ate lunch in a companionable silence as Father looked over the morning's work. They discussed the pros and cons of the different arrangements and decided on the one with the fewest cons.

"Father, I know you often officiate at the joining ceremonies here, but I would like to have this wedding as close to legal in my world as possible. Vincent has never had a legal existence, and if anything happened to the tunnels - another builder with Burch Tower plans, an intrusion that revealed this place to the world... I can't imagine anything worse for him. If our marriage were recognized, at least by a church, it might give me some leverage to keep him safe. My father used to take me to church. We were involved in a lot of activities there with Peter and his daughter through most of my childhood, but the minister there isn't on your list of helpers. Do you have any suggestions?"

"I believe I do," Father answered. "One of the young men who grew up here graduated from seminary year before last and has just been assigned as associate pastor in a church in Brooklyn. Jason idolized Vincent when he was growing up. I imagine he would consider it a consummate honor to perform the ceremony."

"Then I'll see him next week," Catherine told him. "May we count on you to open the ceremony?"

"My dear, I would also consider it a consummate honor. You may count on me for whatever you need, including minding my own business...as much as I can manage," he said good-naturedly.

"I love you, Father," Catherine said sincerely, reaching across the desk to place her hand on his.

"I have come to love you, too, Catherine - very much," he answered, taking her hand in both of his. "I look forward to this wedding for many reasons, not the least of which is claiming a remarkable daughter-in-law."

Catherine smiled in pleasure and appreciation at words she once thought she would never hear, and briefly placed her other hand over his. She then stood to gather the dishes.

"I'll talk to Vincent about this when he returns," she said, and grinned mischievously. "Next weekend we discuss fashion."

As Catherine left with the dishes Father was still chuckling at the thought of Vincent discussing fashion.

 

***

 

 

After the work crew returned and Vincent cleaned up, he and Catherine had dinner and looked at the wedding plans. He made only one suggestion for change, which made perfect sense when Catherine thought about it; so she made that change in her written plans and felt quite relieved that so much had been accomplished in one day.

They spent some quiet time together before Catherine had to grudgingly go back to reality. She had to be at work the next morning. Vincent walked her to her threshold and only intended to give her a good-night kiss; but the moment their lips touched, it ignited something in both of them. They hadn't seen each other at all the weekend before, hadn't had time for more than kisses on Saturday; and with the work crew gone on Sunday, they had precious little time together for anything at all. Things were immediately getting out of hand. Vincent lifted her and pressed her against the brick wall next to the ladder, and she was willingly responding when the pipes sang out another message for Vincent. Simultaneously Mouse came barreling around the corner toward them. Vincent released Catherine and whirled toward him with an angry snarl, standing protectively in front of Catherine.

"Need you quick, Vincent. Accident. Nathan. Leg caught. Hurry!"

Mouse said all that in total oblivion to what Vincent and Catherine might have been doing, or to the fact that Vincent had snarled at him. Most of the time Mouse lived in his perception of the moment, and this moment only included getting Vincent to where he was needed.

Vincent glanced quickly at Catherine, still disoriented both at what had nearly happened and from being snatched away from it so unexpectedly.

"Go, Vincent. Nathan needs help. I'll see you next weekend," Catherine told him.

Vincent touched her arm and squeezed it gently, adding a quiet apology before he left, running back through the tunnels with Mouse.

Catherine leaned against the wall for a few minutes, calming her overwhelming response to Vincent's kiss and recovering from the thought of what might have happened if Mouse hadn't interrupted. What was Vincent doing to her judgment? What was she doing to his? Neither of them would have intentionally started something like that in such an inappropriate place. She had to admit to herself that she was glad it had been Mouse looking for them instead of someone who might have actually been paying attention. She released a long, slow breath at the relief of being spared that indignity and pulled herself up the ladder toward her world.

********************

 

 

The week that followed was largely uneventful at the DA's office. Catherine took advantage of the unexpected lull and used the late afternoons for meetings with the contractors who would be working on her father's apartment. She had hired only helpers, in part because she wanted to support their businesses, but more importantly because she knew that she could trust them completely. All of them would understand the need for Vincent's safety. None of them would speak to tabloid reporters or gossip mongers about the accommodations for a very large man in an apartment meant to be occupied by only a small woman.

Both of the companies she was presently dealing with had started small, and their owners had worked hard to turn them into successful, respected businesses in their fields. Both owners had been helped at some time in their lives by the tunnel community and had made it a point to hire as many helpers as possible to return the favor. They would both see that only helpers entered Catherine's apartment.

Knowing the security conscious nature of the tunnels, neither of them objected to giving Catherine a copy of their proposed plans to take Below. They both had a great deal of respect for the opinions of the crews in the tunnels. They both understood Catherine's concern for Vincent's safety and knew those in the tunnels did as well, and if their plans had missed anything at all that could compromise that, they wanted to find it.

 

 

***

 

 

The workweek in both the tunnels and the DA's office was pretty mundane for a change. There was always something pressing in the DA's office, but this week it hadn't been pressing quite as hard as usual. Catherine had worked late a couple of nights, but she had managed to leave work on time on Friday afternoon. She knew Vincent was still busy, so she took her time preparing to go Below. Her bag was packed, including a stack of magazines - some of them vintage magazines - and a couple of books with pictures of gowns and the accompanying men's wear, several century's worth. She had no intention of trying to get Vincent into a tuxedo, but she smiled devilishly at the thought. In her opinion he looked just fine in exactly what he usually wore. She just needed to find Mary the right fabric to make him a new silk shirt like the white one he wore when he proposed - and a new vest, and she had to remember to ask who made his boots. He could use some new ones anyway, and this would be a good excuse to keep him from complaining about the extravagance. The other men in the wedding party - maybe tuxedos? ...maybe even Father? Another mischievous smile.

After the bag was packed Catherine took a long, leisurely bath and took time to paint her nails a soft peach color to match the sweater she was wearing. She hadn't bothered with coloring her nails for a while, and she felt like pampering herself tonight. It would do Vincent good, too, to feel this complete relaxation coming from her direction. He worried about her too much.

Dinner was warming in the microwave while she checked once more to see that she had everything she would need for the weekend. She looked through the headlines in the newspaper as she ate her dinner, then she cleaned up the small mess in the kitchen and gathered her things to go Below.

***

 

 

Vincent was waiting impatiently at Catherine's threshold, pacing restlessly now and then. He knew she was on her way; but he needed to be close to her, and it seemed hours since she arrived at home. He hadn't been there long and couldn't have been there any earlier anyway, but he was impatient nevertheless. Finally he heard movement in the storage room above him, saw the light from the basement door; and there she was, moving down the ladder toward him. He took her bag, dropped it to the dusty floor and caught her in his arms before she reached the bottom of the ladder.

Her feet were dangling and she was nearly eye level with Vincent, but she was getting the kind of kiss she had dreamed of all week. At that moment she really didn't care if her feet ever touched the ground again.

"Mmmmm... " she growled breathlessly. "After the last time we did this here, do you think this is wise?"

"It may not be wise, but I believe it was the best moment of my week," he said, smiling broadly.

"Do you intend to put me down?"

"Do I have to?"

"You do unless you intend to carry me back to your chamber and then cover the entrance. That might raise a few eyebrows, don't you think?"

"Do you think so?" he chuckled as he lowered her to the floor.

She reached for her bag, but Vincent was faster and swung the strap over his shoulder.

"You had a pleasant evening," he said, wrapping his other arm around her shoulders.

"Yes," she answered as she snuggled against him contentedly and reached under his cloak to put her arm around his waist. "And it's getting more pleasant by the minute."

They talked on the way back to the living area, trying not to look as if they wanted to run to Vincent's chamber, although that was the way they felt. It had been too long since they were together, and they needed the loving touches they could now allow themselves. Vincent immediately moved the screen to cover the door as they entered his chamber, and he swept a very cooperative Catherine into his arms. He drew her as close to himself as he could manage, and she seemed to feel it wasn't close enough. They let the kiss that followed take its own course, and it was rapidly leading them toward Vincent's large bed when he suddenly moved and turned away from the door. Catherine was confused at first. She understood when Teresa rushed in, pushing the screen to get through and calling Vincent's name as she entered.

Catherine could see where Teresa was going at that speed and she had no intention of allowing it. Vincent was sitting in his large chair by then with his hands across his lap, wondering how embarrassing this situation might become. Knowing that Vincent's lap right then was neither the proper place for a four year old, nor the best target for a forty pound bundle of energy moving at warp speed, Catherine grabbed the little girl up and swung Teresa into her arms.

"Vincent, Vincent?!" Catherine exclaimed with a smile she hoped looked more sincere than it really was after that particular interruption. "What about Catherine, Catherine? Why are you in such a hurry?" she asked.

Teresa laughed and gave Catherine a hug.

"The other kids gave Vincent good-night kisses, but I didn't get a chance. I came to say good-night."

"Why didn't you give him a kiss, too?"

"Brooke was still helping me take a bath."

"So you weren't there," Catherine said. "Well, I think Vincent would be willing to take care of that problem." Thinking as fast as she could, Catherine asked, "Do you know what my mother would do after my bath sometimes when I was little like you?"

"What?"

"She would get me into my pajamas, turn me upside-down and I would give my daddy upside-down kisses before they tucked me in. Would you like to give Vincent upside-down kisses?"

"Yeah," Teresa giggled, obviously enjoying the idea.

Catherine walked toward Vincent with Teresa's feet over her shoulder and the rest of the giggling little girl dangling upside down in front of her. Teresa planted two big kisses on Vincent's cheek just as Brooke called his name from outside the door. She had gone to check on one of the other children, and Teresa had escaped. Another child told her that Teresa ran out saying something about Vincent, so she checked at his chamber first. Hearing a four-year-old voice coming from the chamber, she let herself in. Brooke took Teresa from Catherine and reprimanded her for leaving.

"I just wanted to kiss Vincent good-night" Teresa protested.

"Well, you should tell me before you leave next time," Brooke scolded. "I'm sorry, Vincent," she said in his direction. "It looked like the door was covered. Did she just burst in?"

"We'll talk to her about that tomorrow," Vincent told Brooke, sounding a great deal more patient than he felt.

Brooke left, holding Teresa's hand firmly and speaking to her about entering chambers without announcing herself properly.

Catherine put the screen firmly back in place.

"I guess it was a little early to think we could get away with it, wasn't it? But it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time."

Vincent leaned his head back against the chair in exasperated silence then voiced a small growl. Catherine laughed and sat on his knee.

"What now?" he asked, his head still leaned back.

"We wait until they all go to sleep, I suppose," she said equally exasperated. "That's two close calls. If she had burst in a few minutes later..."

"A disconcerting thought," Vincent agreed. He pulled her into his lap and rested his head on hers. "I know that patience is a virtue, but right now it isn't one of mine." "We could visit Father," Catherine suggested.

"He would welcome a visit. It might be a wise decision."

They sat for a few minutes calming their impatience then went to visit Father.

Later Vincent walked Catherine to the guest chamber, knowing no one had seen them and that most of the tunnel residents were sleeping peacefully; and they loved one another until they were both content. When he moved to sit up, Catherine pulled him back in protest.

"I can hardly wait until we can do this without one of us having to leave" she complained.

"Two months, one week and six days," Vincent answered, kissing her shoulder.

"Too long," Catherine groaned.

"Yes," Vincent answered as he moved from the bed and dressed.

Before he went back to his chamber and his cold empty bed, he leaned and gave her a lingering kiss and promised to wake her the same way.

***

 

 

Knowing it had been two weeks since he and Catherine had any extended time together, no one would assign Vincent a duty that morning. They knew how much he had missed her. He and Catherine spent a quiet morning at the mirror pool. They talked about the present status of the plans they had made, and intended to make more wedding plans that afternoon. They also entertained the thought that if eloping Below were a possibility, they might consider it.

Catherine wanted Vincent to have a say in what the men in the wedding would wear, a subject Vincent was not terribly excited about. He was going along with the excitement patiently because he understood it was the way his family and friends chose to show their joy in his happiness - the way of wedding celebrations through the centuries. Like Catherine, though, he was ready to reach the end of the ceremony and the beginning of the actual marriage. Being completely honest with himself, he would have to admit that reaching the actual honeymoon wasn't too low on his wish list either. He couldn't suppress a smile at the thought of waking up next to Catherine for the rest of his life, or at knowing that she felt the same about him. Now and then he still felt he needed to pinch himself to be sure it was all real.

Devin would be best man, and Kanin and Olivia would stand with them, as well as Mouse and Jamie. That was as far as the wedding party decisions had progressed.

Knowing both how proud Mouse would feel to be included in the wedding and how unpredictable he could be, Vincent had mentioned the idea to Catherine before saying anything to Mouse; and she had immediately agreed. She did mention that she was glad Jamie would be close by for back up.

After lunch in the dining hall Catherine brought Kanin, Mary and Olivia to Vincent's chamber to help them make their decisions.

Kanin was as thrilled as Vincent about being included, but Olivia insisted it was necessary. He just hoped it wouldn't take too long. Tunnel clothes were meant for comfort and warmth, and he had become quite happy with that over the years. He could only imagine what these women might want to subject him to.

Mouse had not been invited. No one thought that Mouse would understand a discussion of clothes. The women intended to simply tell him, "This is what you will wear." and tolerate the protests.

When Catherine entered the chamber with her small entourage, Vincent and Kanin exchanged looks similar to what one would expect of a deer in someone's headlights. No one expected to see Vincent in anything other than a newly made version of what he usually wore. They just needed to try to drag out of him some preference for color and the type of vest he would like Mary to make. How to dress the other men was the next question - tunnel clothes or Above clothes? Knowing the men's lack of enthusiasm for the project, the women did their best to help.

With a little encouragement and prodding, decisions were made. Knowing they had extracted all the fashion advice they were likely to get from Vincent and Kanin, the women thanked them for their help. Gathering their books and lists, they removed all evidence of their visit from Vincent's chamber, and went to join the rest of The Committee to plan what the women would wear. Mary smiled at Vincent and Kanin on her way out, patting Kanin on the shoulder as she left. Olivia gave Kanin a kiss on the cheek. Catherine placed her hand on Vincent's shoulder, and he covered it with one of his, looking up at her.

"Thank you for your patience. I know this wasn't your favorite topic for discussion."

"It's my wedding, too."

She returned the smile he offered, let her hand fall to his upper arm and rubbed it gently before turning to go.

"And thank you, Kanin," she said as she turned to leave, smiling as she passed his chair.

"Whew," Kanin teased when he was sure Catherine was gone. "I've never seen a little touch on the arm look so..."

"Kanin..." Vincent interrupted with a tone of gentle reprimand.

"I'm only saying that if you two get that much out of a little touch on the arm, life should be good."

"We plan to have a happy life, a life I never thought would be mine."

Kanin stood to leave. "I need to go and rescue Samantha from Luke. He was a menace this morning."

He turned when he reached the door. "We all want you to have a happy life, my friend. You don't say much about it, but I know you worry about being different. You do know that nobody here cares about that, don't you? We've been waiting for this joining for a long time."

Vincent smiled and lowered his head in response. After watching Kanin leave, Vincent opened his journal and penned a few lines about happiness, warm feelings of love and support from his family, and the pleasure he felt in comfortably sharing even such a small touch of affection with Catherine in the presence of his friend. There was also a brief mention of his aversion to being a fashion consultant.

Sunday night and the familiar parting at Catherine's threshold came too soon, the only consolation being that their next meeting would only be a week away.

********************

 

 

Monday morning brought another domestic abuse case to Catherine's desk. This time there were no children involved, only the wife. She had been beaten badly enough to require hospitalization - broken ribs, numerous severe bruises, some internal bleeding, several cuts on her face, and a gash on the back of her head where she had been shoved against a metal sculpture. Having met the doctor in the course of other similar investigations, Catherine suspected that he would stretch the hospitalization to its limits to give the victim extra time to consider what to do when she left the hospital. It was the third time the woman had been hospitalized with injuries, but this time was far worse than the others. The two times before she had agreed with her husband's explanation of accidents. This time there was no way to explain it as anything short of what it was.

The husband had been caught in the act when the police arrived. The incident started when she tried to leave him and he snatched her back into the apartment as she opened the door to go. In his anger he carelessly left the door ajar, so the neighbors heard everything. They liked his wife, Elaine. They found her to be a caring, pleasant person and hated what he did to her. This time two of them decided they needed to be brave enough to do something about it. One of them even worked up the nerve to peek in the door to see what was happening while the other called the police.

The stomach virus from the week before was still making its way through the DA's office. They had been short-handed for about a week, so Joe had no choice but to reassign the case. Catherine had already interviewed the witnesses and agreed to Joe's request that she go to the hospital to take Elaine Langston's statement. It looked like a solid case against the husband. There were witnesses, and they had hopes that the wife would cooperate this time.

Since Elaine was trying to leave him when this had happened, she was in the right frame of mind to help the DA prosecute her husband. She had already seen a crisis counselor, and when Catherine mentioned the probability that Gerald would be released on bail soon, she asked about a restraining order to keep him away. Rather than going home again, she planned on going to a shelter or safe house temporarily. Catherine had advised her not to confront Gerald or mention the restraining order if he visited her at the hospital.

The husband, Gerald Langston, had been in jail for several days because his lawyer had been out of town, and he refused to talk to anyone else. He was a well-established businessman who the police and District Attorney had been trying to convict for a variety of crimes for several years, but they had found no solid evidence. Since there had been no prior convictions, his lawyer managed to arrange bail. Gerald went straight to the hospital when he was released on Thursday afternoon, swooping into the room with roses, apologies, and professions of love just as Catherine had finished taking Elaine's statement.

"Who are you?" Gerald asked belligerently when he saw her.

"I'm from the DA's office," Catherine answered, not cowering at all.

"Well you can leave now. We don't need you here, do we, honey?" he said, looking at his wife lovingly.

Elaine just turned her bruised and swollen face toward the wall.

Catherine stooped and put the papers in her satchel next to the bed then stood and leaned to lay one hand on Elaine's arm. With the other hand she surreptitiously slipped the call button for the nurse's station in Elaine's hand and tucked the cord inconspicuously under her arm.

"Just in case..." she whispered, moving the covers slightly to make it less obvious. She added very quietly, "You know how to find me." Catherine patted Elaine's arm encouragingly and reached for her satchel.

Elaine turned her face back toward Catherine, gave her an appreciative look and nodded very slightly.

Even knowing there were witnesses this time, Gerald was still arrogant enough to think he was immune to trouble.

"My wife doesn't need you here upsetting her," he told Catherine.

"She doesn't need to be in this condition, either." Catherine answered quietly, slipping the strap of her bag over her shoulder.

"Leave us alone from now on, understand?" he said to Catherine, approaching her menacingly.

She walked past him nonchalantly, appearing unintimidated.

Knowing he was pushing his luck, he said nothing, just glared angrily as she left. He then turned his attention solicitously to his wife, expecting that she would forgive him again and that his life would go on as usual.

Catherine stopped at the nurse's station on the way out, explained the situation, left her business card, and asked that they alert security and have someone close as long as Gerald was in the building. She promised to provide a picture of Gerald so the staff would be aware if he came back and to send them notice as soon as the restraining order was issued.

After she left the hospital she went back to the office and reminded herself why she had decided to give up this job. Gerald Langston had shaken her a little, but she had no intention of allowing him to know it. She knew the man could be dangerous, and he definitely had no use for Catherine stirring around in his business.

It was nearly closing time, if the DA's office actually had such a thing. Catherine had arranged to see the florist who provided Vincent with the flowers when he proposed. She intended to spend the evening making some floral decisions for the wedding. Jenny was going to meet her for dinner, and then the florist, Myra, would meet with her after she closed her shop for the night. There was a threshold in the shop's basement, and Vincent and some members of The Committee would be meeting her there. She was looking forward to a very pleasant evening, and thoughts of Gerald Langston were going on the back burner for now.

She decided what still needed to be done before she left and completed it quickly, with no intention of taking work home with her. Tonight was hers. She had a friend to meet and a wedding to plan; and to add to the anticipation, Vincent would be close enough to touch. Tomorrow was Friday. Knowing that one more piece of wedding planning was completed would make the weekend easier.

The lower elevator project had started on Wednesday. It seemed that anything that could be done for Vincent's wedding or their apartment went to the head of the helpers' priority lists. Tom Mason employed only helpers, so any member of his crew could be trusted to handle the elevator projects. They all knew Vincent, some from as long ago as childhood, and they jumped at the chance to provide him a little extra freedom. The security system installation would start the following week, with a few finishing touches to be added when the changes to the upper elevator were complete. The new plumbing and the redecorating in the apartment itself came after that. It never failed to amaze Catherine that so many people in her world knew and loved Vincent, but that his existence still remained a secret from her world in general.

***

 

 

Jenny was waiting at the restaurant when Catherine arrived, dramatically pretending to have been there much longer than the five minutes she had actually been waiting. During dinner she mentioned vague dreams about a man in Catherine's life, but said it was all very strange and sketchy. She knew Catherine was happy, but that was about all she could tell her. Catherine wanted to tell Jenny everything; but she smiled and remained non-committal, changing the subject as quickly as she could without looking suspicious. They had squeezed dinner into their schedules between Catherine's job and a book signing Jenny had arranged at a store near the restaurant. Sooner than they wanted they rose to go their separate ways. On the way out of the restaurant Catherine heard a smooth voice say her name, as if in surprise. She turned to see who had spoken to her and there stood Gerald Langston, a smile on his face and an appearance of complete self-control.

"Miss Chandler, I didn't expect to see you here."

To any casual observer it would have appeared to be a chance encounter, but Catherine sensed something more sinister in his being there and wanted to be away from him as soon as possible. Jenny felt that something was going on, so she didn't leave as soon as she had paid her check as she had intended to. She walked outside with Catherine, got a very sketchy explanation and waited until her friend was safely in a cab before she walked around the corner to the bookstore. She looked back briefly at the door before she left and didn't see Langston. She and Catherine both assumed he was paying his bill inside.

The taxi got only as far as the corner near the restaurant before having to stop at a traffic light. Catherine was fidgety, anxious to put some distance between herself and her unwelcome encounter.

It was still early for her meeting with the florist, so she had plenty of time to do some quick errands and unwind a little. She knew Vincent had felt her anxiety at the encounter with Langston. If she didn't control the apprehensive feelings, he might come to meet her early to see what was wrong. He might also feel the need to be out looking for her; and she didn't want that. Although it was dark, it was still early enough in the evening that there were a lot of people on the streets; and he wouldn't be safe. She intended to go to the florist shop and wait in the back room until everyone else was there, and she would go back to her apartment by way of the tunnels. She had left Langston at the restaurant, and the thought of extra time with Vincent successfully cleared most of the worry from her mind.

She didn't feel that Vincent was that close yet, and there was a small grocery store across the street from the florist, so she stopped to pick up a few things she needed. Realizing she had a little more time, she asked the grocer to hold the items for her to pick up in a few minutes and went to a little shop a couple of doors down the street to look for a gift for Nancy's birthday. As she left the shop someone opened the door for her. She turned to thank him, and looked into the eyes of Gerald Langston again. It was such a surprise that she didn't have time to shield any of the shock from Vincent.

"We meet again, Miss Chandler."

"And we'd better not meet again any time soon," she answered icily as she left.

She tried to compose herself as she walked back to the grocer's. The clerk at the grocer's looked up when she entered his store. He placed a bag on the counter and smiled at the pleasant, attractive woman he had joked with as she shopped.

"Here it is," he said. "Enjoy."

"Thank you," Catherine answered. "I'm sure I will. How much do I owe you?"

As she handed him the money, the bell on the door announced another customer, and there was Gerald Langston again.

"Leave me alone," Catherine demanded.

"Leave you alone? What do you mean? I have every right to enter a grocery shop."

"But you have no right to follow me all over Manhattan." She turned toward the clerk; and as she placed her grocery bag on the counter, she silently mouthed, "Please call 911." She turned back to confront Langston and suggested, "Why don't we discuss this outside? This young man shouldn't have to deal with it any further."

With that statement she brushed past him and moved just outside the door. It was a pleasant autumn evening, and the glass door was open, leaving only a screen door between their conversation and the clerk, who was stealthily using the phone behind the counter to dial 911.

"There's no chance it could be coincidence that you were at the same restaurant over a mile from here, standing at the door for me at another shop less than five minutes ago and now appearing at the grocer's right behind me. I'm prosecuting your case. This could easily be construed as an effort to intimidate me."

"I haven't done anything intimidating - yet," he answered, a little more venom in his tone than before.

'No, Vincent,' Catherine thought pointedly. Aloud she said, "I intend to report these 'coincidental meetings' to the police. Right now I intend to pick up my groceries and go about my business, and I don't expect to see you again this evening."

A police car rounded the corner behind Langston just in time for it's occupants to see everything that happened after Catherine's last statement. They had been less than a block away when the dispatcher alerted them to a possible problem outside the grocery shop.

"Who do you think you are, telling me what I can do?" Langston exploded, his carefully controlled exterior quickly falling away. This was a woman issuing him orders. On top of that, it was a woman who was going to make a lot of trouble for him. His control was gone, and he needed to teach her a lesson. He advanced on her, shouting abusive names and remarks, grabbing her arms and roughly shoving her back against the store window.

***

 

 

With Jamie close on his heels, Vincent had already headed for Catherine when he felt her initial reaction to Langston at the restaurant. He mentioned the impression of fear from Catherine when Jamie questioned his distraction. It hadn't felt life threatening, but he wanted to know what caused it. He wasn't running, but he wasn't wasting time either. After Catherine was in the taxi and distancing herself from the problem, he altered his course for the florist shop and was already at the threshold when he felt the stab of shock she felt at the shop door. Now he felt both fear and anger, and he had to be there. He wasn't in the rage that had always taken him before, but the need to protect Catherine was much too strong to ignore. Jamie was desperately trying to reason with him in the alley behind the shop. Her opportunity to reason with him existed only because Vincent could feel Catherine's determination through their bond - she wanted him to stay out of it. Jamie did, too - pointing out the number of people who would see him.

"I'll go this time, Vincent," she insisted. "She's okay on her own so far. It doesn't look like anything's happened yet. Catherine and I can handle him between the two of us...and you won't do Catherine any good if somebody panics and shoots you.

Vincent said nothing, just backed up against the wall in frustration and waved Jamie on, knowing she was right, but hating it. He watched as she ran toward the street; then they both saw Langston shove Catherine against the window, grab her and shake her, hurling verbal abuse at her all the time. Simultaneously a low, angry growl came from the alley and Vincent's half of their bond received a powerful jolt from Catherine's that strongly suggested she wanted him to stay away.

Gerald Langston had beaten his wife and several former girlfriends in his lifetime and had always gotten away with it. He wasn't expecting a woman who would fight back. Catherine surprised him and shoved his arms away, at the same time stomping the heel of one of her high-heeled pumps down on his foot. While he reeled from that, she elbowed him sharply in the ribs and swung the large satchel from her shoulder hitting him directly on the side of his head. By that time a policewoman was out of the car announcing herself as police and ordering Langston to place his hands on the window. Her partner had stopped the car and was on the way.

Gerald immediately shifted himself into victim mode.

"Thank goodness you're here," he moaned, holding his head. "You must have seen her attack me. She had no reason. She must be crazy."

"Hands behind your head. You have the right to remain silent..." the policeman began, going through the familiar Miranda warning as the policewoman handcuffed Langston.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. "She attacked me. You saw her."

"We also saw you shout at her, throw her against the window, grab her arm and shake her before she ever touched you. Looked to us like she was defending herself," the policewoman told him. "...And a lot better than you expected her to, from what we saw," she grinned as her partner took him to the waiting car. Turning back to Catherine she asked, "Are you hurt, miss?"

"No," Catherine assured her. "A little shaken, and I may have a few bruises; but I

think that's all."

She saw to it that Vincent received the same assurances about her safety, knowing that it would allow him some relief.

"We'll need to get a statement from you, Miss...?"

"Chandler, Catherine Chandler."

Catherine gave her a brief explanation of the situation and a business card, and promised whatever cooperation she needed. By the time her story was complete, Catherine had caught her breath and was pulling herself together.

"Thanks, Miss Chandler. One of us will contact you tomorrow," the young officer told her, closing her notebook. "With a second offense so close to the last one and witnesses to both, I don't think you need to worry about seeing him again any time soon. I'll speak to the young man at the grocery store before we leave. Just need to check with my partner first. Good moves back there, by the way. Glad you're on our side. G'night."

"Thanks for everything," Catherine answered as they parted.

Jamie had been watching from across the street, thoroughly impressed at seeing Catherine in action like that for the first time. It wasn't the right time to dwell on that, though. She ran across the street calling Catherine's name, asking if she had been hurt.

Catherine hugged her and assured her that she was fine.

"You need to go to him. He needs to see for himself that you're okay. It was all I could do to keep him from running right out here in the middle of all these people."

"I know. I gave him a piece of my mind - literally," Catherine laughed ruefully, crossing the street toward the florist.

"You alright, ma'am?" the clerk called.

"She's fine," Jamie answered as Catherine ran toward Myra's shop. I'll take her bag.

"That guy sure got what he deserved. Tell her she's welcome to come along when I ask my brother-in-law to pay back the money he borrowed last month," he said with a grin.

Jamie laughed and thanked the clerk for his help.

Catherine hurried into the florist shop, told Myra she would wait for her in the back and headed straight for the stairs Jamie had described.

Vincent had consciously tried to calm himself, but he was still impatiently waiting at the top step to fold her into his arms.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to frighten you," Catherine apologized from against his chest."

"What happened?" he asked, pulling her closer. "Was there a reason he wanted to hurt you? I've felt your concern about something several times since this afternoon."

"To make a long story short..." Catherine again briefly explained the day's events. She finished by saying, "I told him I intended to call the police, and told him to stop following me. He snapped - I guess you saw the rest. I knew you were close."

"Yes," he answered, kissing her head, "I felt so helpless. I know you and Jamie were right, but it was little consolation. I believe it was the first time I really saw how well you defend yourself. Other times when you were in danger, I saw little more than the anger that someone intended to harm you." He pulled away from her slightly and looked down at her with one of his small smiles. "At first I feared for you," he said, emphasizing the word "you". "Isaac taught you well."

"Yes, he did," she stated firmly, but a little flirtatiously. She was both floored and hopeful at this new turn in his response. "Keep that in mind the next time you're about to put yourself in danger unnecessarily."

"It didn't feel unnecessary at the time," he insisted.

"Thank you for wanting to be there," she answered, "but I want you to be safe, too. I plan to need you for a very long time, and I want to keep you around."

Catherine stretched herself up to kiss him, feeling happy that the tension between them was diffusing itself so quickly after this incident.

Vincent willingly put the tension aside in favor of savoring her kiss and knowing she was safe.

When he abruptly separated himself from her, she realized Mary and Rebecca were entering the basement from the threshold.

He and Catherine were still in a shadow at the top of the stairs; so he took advantage and kissed her forehead quickly before going down the stairs to offer Mary his hand and assist her through the threshold.

To give her time to formulate a plan, Catherine had taken Myra a copy of their sketch of the layout for Great Hall, knowing she would be familiar with the room. Her plan was accepted with a few minor suggestions. Decisions made, Catherine quietly slipped Myra a generous deposit check while the others cleared the table, and they moved toward the basement, copies of the edited sketch in hand.

It was an unspoken understanding that Vincent would walk Catherine home through the tunnels.

As they walked back, Olivia led the others in teasing Vincent about keeping him company all the way to Catherine's threshold. Olivia was a couple of years older than Vincent and they had grown up feeling that she was his older sister, especially after Devin left. That feeling continued, no matter how much bigger he was now; and she was currently pressing her rights as a big sister. As they reached the fork that took them either to the living areas or to Catherine's threshold, Vincent had a brief moment of worry that they might have been serious; but they finally turned toward home, saying "Good-night." He could hear them laughing at their joke as they walked away.

"I was beginning to think they meant it," he said, sounding relieved.

"Me, too," Catherine answered, smiling at Olivia's regression to childhood.

They walked hand in hand until they passed the last sentries, then Vincent put his arm around Catherine's shoulders and pulled her closer. She wound her arm around his waist and leaned close, appreciating his warmth, his scent, the movement of firm muscles against her... They walked in silence for a while, content to just enjoy being close, and alone.

Catherine was surprised when, out of the blue, Vincent suddenly asked, "Would you keep your calendar free one week from tomorrow?"

"For you, definitely," she smiled up at him. "What happens one week from tomorrow?"

"There are two people I'd like you to spend the evening with - with me. I think you should enjoy their company."

"Should I meet you at my threshold? What time? Wait...I'll have to be at my father's apartment that night to meet with the last contractor. He has plans for the remodeling." She stopped and corrected herself and grinned at the thought. "I'll have be at our apartment that night. I can probably meet you at the elevator that evening. Mr. Mason said the upper elevator should be complete by the middle of next week, and Cullen said the new threshold should be finished this weekend. What time?"

"They should arrive at seven o'clock, and they should say that they have invitations from your friend."

"Who are they? You don't usually go to so much trouble."

"They are two women who will be important to both of us. Indulge me for now," he insisted. "Allow me to surprise you." Leaning his head to one side as he spoke and giving her one of his small, teasing smiles, he easily won the moment.

"Fine, but I may be eaten alive with curiosity before Friday. We should meet you at the threshold, then?"

"May I meet you at the apartment instead? Perhaps, since they will expect to see me, it would be easier for them to meet you there and then come here with us."

"What can I do to help?"

"Just be there," he answered, enjoying her curiosity.

Calling it their apartment instead of her apartment still felt wrong somehow - too presumptuous, too much like accepting more than he should. Still, it made her so happy he couldn't bring himself to tell her that. He was sure she was aware of it anyway.

They lingered longer than necessary at Catherine's threshold, hating to have to part. Finally Vincent moved away.

"You need rest. You have to work tomorrow," he said firmly.

"You need rest, too. I'll be here as early as I can tomorrow night."

"Something to look forward to," he answered, kissing the hand he was still holding.

"Sleep well, Vincent."

Catherine watched as he turned to walk away. A few yards away he looked back longingly. She smiled slightly with a similar look on her face and started up the ladder.

********************

 

Friday wasn't nearly as eventful as the day before. Catherine never left the office, just gathered and processed information. Joe had been in meetings all morning and wasn't aware of Langston's attack on Catherine until another file folder appeared on his desk. The judge had refused bail this time, and a friend of Joe's had pushed the paperwork through and delivered it to his desk personally. There was a note on top that said, "Thought you'd want this one fast." He burst out of his office and went straight to Catherine's desk, wielding the folder.

"Are you okay? Geez, Cathy, can't you even take a statement without getting into trouble?"

"I'm fine - just a few bruises. I think I caused one of them myself swinging this bag," she smiled, nodding toward the large satchel on the floor.

"I see you kicked butt," he grinned, satisfied that she wasn't hurt.

"He didn't expect a woman to actually fight back. It was a woman who cuffed him, too. Fitting, don't you think?" she smiled.

"Yeah," Joe answered, appreciating the irony. He had no sympathy for men who abused their families. "Trouble is, now I have to give his case to somebody else."

"What a shame," Catherine said sarcastically. "I'm tired of being a target. Sometimes it feels like every nut case in the city has a folder that crosses my desk."

Joe looked at her sympathetically. He felt guilty that the little interview he assigned her had turned into something dangerous - exactly what she had tried to avoid.

"I told Vincent I was out of investigations and the danger should be behind us. I promised him. He worries about me. I don't want..."

"Look, if I had any idea this would happen, I would never have sent you."

"I know that, Joe. It was a fluke - bad timing. The good that came from it is that Langston is likely to be in jail for a while, so Mrs. Langston can go home and recover in peace - and I can stop worrying about where he might show up next."

"From what it says in this report here," Joe said with a grin, "wherever he shows up next, he'll be limping." He chuckled as he turned toward his office. "Just don't plan to get out of the next case by beating up the defendant," he said over his shoulder as he walked away.

***

 

 

After a long, relaxing hot shower Catherine dressed for Below, rechecked her bag and shuffled through her folders for the ones she intended to take with her. She wanted to show Vincent and Father what had been accomplished in her father's apartment so far, and she dared not go near The Committee without the wedding folder.

The biggest decisions about the wedding had been made. The rest of it could wait a day or two. Vincent and Catherine wanted a quiet weekend after all the excitement of the night before. Catherine would spend some time with The Committee while she was there; but this weekend the children had put together a little play for Saturday night, and Catherine had promised to help with whatever she could. She intended to devote whatever time was necessary to do that. Since Vincent was working with them, too, it wasn't difficult to generate some enthusiasm for the project. She was certain that would be excitement enough for Saturday.

"I love you," Catherine said when she saw Vincent at the bottom of the ladder.

"And I love you," he answered with a smile. "Is there a reason for that particular greeting?"

"Just wanted you to know," she answered, and she threw her arms around him. "I've missed you. I can't wait to be your wife."

Vincent laughed softly, joy bubbling up in him at her enthusiasm. He hugged her close and gave her a kiss that echoed her enthusiasm, then took her hand and turned toward the central tunnels.

"The children are excited that you plan to help us tomorrow."

"I brought milk and cookies to surprise them after the show. Well, I didn't actually bring all of it. Mr. Jackson was sending some produce down tomorrow morning, so he's delivering my things, too. The milk was a little heavy."

"You spoil them, you know."

"I do not. Well, not too much, anyway," she conceded unwillingly. "All children need to be spoiled once in a while. Didn't you enjoy it when someone spoiled you?"

"I still do," he said suggestively with one of his half smiles, and lifted her hand to kiss it as they walked.

The easy exchange continued between them as they walked toward the main hub.

They dropped her bag off in the guest chamber and went to see Father, knowing they dare not trust themselves alone until everyone else was settled in for the night. Two close calls were enough.

"Catherine, welcome back," the older man said, greeting her with a hug.

Catherine still felt a burst of joy when Father seemed so glad to welcome her to stay in the tunnels. She wondered how long it would take to get over each visit's initial surprise that he now accepted her, even welcomed her so completely.

The three of them talked for a while, synchronizing the schedule for the children's project the next day and answering Father's questions about the previous night.

"Have you had any pain? Did you see Peter for an examination?"

"No. I'm fine," she assured him. "A couple of minor bruises and some sore muscles, but nothing else, not a scratch anywhere. Please don't worry."

"Fathers worry, dear. Worry comes with the job," he answered, patting her shoulder affectionately.

Vincent was both pleased and amused to hear those familiar words being used on Catherine, rather than himself.

"Catherine, you promised to read the children a bedtime story," Vincent reminded her. "They should be ready by now. After being disappointed that you didn't have time last weekend, they may show up en masse at the doorway if we don't go."

Catherine stood to leave. She turned to Father and asked, "Shall we meet you for breakfast? I'd like to tell you and Vincent about the progress in the work on the apartment."

"I would enjoy that," Father answered, pleased to be included in their plans.

***

 

 

The younger children were waiting impatiently when Vincent and Catherine arrived. They had the books they had chosen the week before waiting in the reading chair for Catherine. A third book had been added to their selections. They apparently thought that disappointment warranted an additional story. Catherine smiled when she noticed the third book.

"You're sneaky little rascals tonight, aren't you," she said, sitting down and holding up each book individually as if counting them.

A chorus of various responses, all meaning "Pleeeeeease," answered her remark.

"We'll see how long the first two are," she told them and saw their little eyes twinkle. That did it. She already knew they would get all three stories out of her.

Just before she started the first book, she looked up at Vincent, who was leaning against the wall behind the children with his arms folded, silently mouthing, "You spoil them." She stifled a laugh and began. "Once upon a time..."

After the three books were read and the tucking in ritual was complete, Vincent and Catherine stopped to visit Mary for a while before he walked Catherine to the guest chamber - another effort to keep themselves apart until later.

***

 

 

There was a large, overstuffed chair in the guest chamber on the side of the bed farthest from the door. They sat together in the chair, Catherine in his lap with her legs dangling over the chair arm and the rest of her snuggled against Vincent. They sat there for a good while, just being close. Words weren't necessary. Kisses, touches and small sounds of pleasure or contentment spoke volumes. After the fear and worry and tension of the night before, they both needed that sense of well-being and complete relaxation.

"The other guest chambers are empty tonight. Do you suppose we can get away with it?" Catherine asked, looking yearningly toward the bed.

"I think we might," he answered with a smile.

She swung her feet down to the floor and stood next to the bed to turn down the covers. She had only managed to pull the covers on that side of the bed away from the pillow when Vincent wrapped his arms around her from behind. She instinctively dropped the covers and leaned her head back against his shoulder. He slowly undressed her, kissing her neck and shoulders seductively between moving the various hindrances of fabric out of their way. He held up the covers for her, to get her out of the chilly tunnel air, then he put out candles and less patiently moved fabric away from himself. Catherine slipped the covers from under the other pillow and burrowed under the soft, warm weight of the quilts, moving over to make room for him to join her. He loved her slowly and gently, and they held one another quietly and contentedly afterward.

"I wish you could stay," Catherine whispered.

"But I can't," he answered softly, wishing as much as Catherine that his answer could be different.

"I love you," he told her, and kissed her once more before sitting up and reaching for his clothes. The temperature of the air seemed much cooler than it had before. He had his boots on and was fastening his belt when they heard Jamie's voice from the passageway.

"Catherine," she called out before entering, waiting to see if there was a response.

Catherine quickly pulled up the covers Vincent had turned back when he left the bed and gathered them around her neck before she answered.

Jamie came into the chamber and started to explain why she was there, then she suddenly realized Catherine wasn't alone. Seeing Vincent on the other side of the bed, she assumed she had interrupted exactly what she had barely missed.

"Oh..." I'm so sorry. I didn't expect to... I didn't mean to interrupt..."

"You've interrupted nothing," Vincent assured her. "What was important enough to wake Catherine in the middle of the night?"

"It's Keith. He heard me say something about what happened with Langston on Thursday night, and he dreamed that somebody hurt Catherine. He's been crying for fifteen minutes non-stop. Sarah bundled him up and took him to the dining hall so the others would go back to sleep, but he won't settle for anything less than seeing Catherine for himself. I'm sorry."

It's okay, Jamie. I had a bad dream, too. I'll go and see him. We'll console each other," Catherine answered.

Knowing what Catherine wasn't wearing, Vincent suggested that he go with Jamie and see if he could help while Catherine found her robe and slippers. Catherine promised to follow quickly.

"I can understand why she might have a nightmare," Jamie said sympathetically.

"Hating the idea of lying to Jamie, Vincent said non-committally, "I knew she needed me. I stayed with her for a while." Neither of those statements represented the whole truth, but they weren't entirely lies, either.

Catherine caught up with them as they neared the dining hall. They could hear Keith crying well before they reached the doorway. She quickened her step and hurried in to take the distraught little boy from Sarah, who by that time was as glad to see Catherine as Keith was.

"Ca'frin," Keith sobbed against her shoulder. I saw the bad man hurt you."

"I'm not hurt, Keith. Look at me. No hurts, not even a little boo-boo. It was only a dream." Catherine walked, rubbed his back, and soothingly reassured him as his crying gradually calmed to loud sniffles and an occasional hiccup. He still clung tenaciously to Catherine's neck.

Vincent had only watched until the little boy began to calm, then he joined Catherine.

"Do you think you'll be alright now?" he asked, stroking Keith's hair gently as he spoke. "You can see that Catherine is fine."

"I was scared. He was a mean man, an' I love Ca'frin," he sniffed.

"I love Catherine, too," Vincent answered.

Sarah and Jamie looked at one another in surprise. Everyone knew it, but hearing it so matter-of-factly from Vincent's lips was uncommon and brought an exchange of smiles between them.

"If Catherine were hurt, I wouldn't be so calm, would I?"

"No," Keith admitted, lifting his head slightly and barely easing his vise-like grip on Catherine's neck.

"Is there a bad man?"

"No," Vincent assured him.

"Is there a bad man, Ca'frin?" he asked, finally leaning back enough to look at her.

"No. He was just a dream. Nobody hurt me. See."

Vincent took him from Catherine's arms, sat on one of the benches near a table, and sat Keith in his lap.

"Nightmares can be frightening, can't they?"

"Yeah. I cried," he said, putting his thumb in his mouth and leaning against Vincent.

Vincent suppressed a smile at Keith's understatement.

"There was a time when I had a dream that a bad man hurt Catherine, and I felt afraid when I woke up. It made me want to cry, too," Vincent told him. "Then I realized it was only a dream, and I felt better. Do you feel better?"

"I guess so," he sniffled quietly, his breathing nearly back to normal.

"If I carry you back to bed and Catherine tucks you in, do you think you can go back to sleep now?"

"Maybe."

"Catherine will walk with us," Vincent promised. "There won't be a bad man anywhere. We can watch over her. Will that be alright?"

"Okay," Keith agreed.

Vincent stood with the little boy, and he and Catherine took him back to bed.

Sarah looked at Jamie inquisitively. "By the way, why was Vincent here?"

"Catherine had a bad dream, too. He had gone to check on her, I guess. That bond thing... I thought I might have interrupted something, but he was dressed just like you saw him. He said I didn't. Looked like he just got up out of the chair."

"Too bad," Sarah answered with an uncharacteristic mischievous smile.

She and Jamie took their time walking to the nursery, and passed Vincent and Catherine as they were leaving.

"He's exhausted. We think he'll sleep now," Catherine told Sarah.

"Thanks... both of you. We needed a rescue," she answered.

Catherine and Vincent walked back toward the guest chamber. When they reached the uninhabited part of the passage where they knew they could speak freely, Vincent said, "It seems we've been reduced to untruths to cover our tracks."

"Untruths about what?"

"I saw no evidence of a nightmare before Jamie arrived," he teased.

"The nightmare was after Jamie arrived," she smiled. "It happened when I imagined Jamie arriving ten minutes earlier. All three of us would have been mortified, and you and I would have had very few secrets left. Only five minutes earlier and Jamie would have had the answer to every question she might ever have had about your anatomy."

"Another disconcerting thought," Vincent said, remembering a similar conversation from the weekend before.

"Even the middle of the night isn't safe anymore unless we announce our intentions," Catherine complained. "I don't want to announce our intentions. This belongs to us."

"There are only two solutions," Vincent answered.

"I'm afraid to ask," Catherine responded, already knowing what they were.

"We either allow everyone to know, or we stop until we are married and hope they have the courtesy to leave us alone for a while."

"I know you're right, but I don't like it," she pouted. "Reading to each other is still nice, but it isn't quite as much fun as it used to be."

"No," he agreed with a smile. "But perhaps we could tolerate it a little longer."

They reached Catherine's chamber, and he followed her in and took her in his arms.

"I could come to your apartment. I've stayed away only because I knew you were busy and needed to rest - and because I know you worry about me."

"I don't want you putting yourself in danger. We're too close to our dream to take chances. The way you get to my balcony has always made me a little nervous. Maybe after I move into Daddy's apartment? I suppose, in the overall scheme of life it isn't really that long. It just seems that way right now."

"Yes," Vincent agreed, with a deep sigh.

"We don't have to give up everything, do we? I can still kiss you and sit in your lap?"

"I would be disappointed if you didn't."

"I knew that was the only answer as soon as Jamie called from the passage. I just didn't want to think about it. That was the rest of the nightmare."

Vincent chuckled and pulled her close. "Then we are agreed?"

"Yes," Catherine answered reluctantly, "But it won't be easy."

He held her a little tighter and then pulled himself away and started to leave.

"Vincent..."

"Yes?" he answered, turning to look at her.

"Tonight made a beautiful enough memory to last until our wedding night if it has to. It was loving and wonderful."

"For me, as well," he answered. He cupped her face in his hands and gave her a gentle kiss before going back to his chamber.

***

 

 

On Saturday morning they had breakfast with Father and went over the checklist for the children's performance. Catherine excitedly showed Father and Vincent the apartment folder, pointing out the progress made since her last visit.

She and Vincent laughingly found a favorite book and read to one another for a while during the morning.

There was a final rehearsal with the children on Saturday afternoon. They spent some time after the rehearsal soothing rattled, young nerves and helping with last minute costume problems. When the last of the children left, they reorganized the minor mess the young actors had made of the props so they would be found in the correct places for the performance. Breathing a sigh of relief, Vincent kissed Catherine quickly on the forehead and took her hand to walk with her to his chamber. They talked for a while before dinner, visited with others while they ate, and went back to help the children prepare for their performance.

The little show went well. Eric forgot his line once and there were a couple of late entrances - all corrected quickly - but there were no major problems. The children were quite proud of themselves, the adults were all appropriately enthusiastic in their praise, and Vincent, along with the others helping to put it together were relieved that it was finished. Catherine asked the children in both the cast and the audience to follow her to the dining hall. A few of the other adults had already set out the cookies and milk - for the actors, a reward and for the others, a celebration that their friends had done well.

The bedtime routine began immediately after their surprise snack, and it wasn't long before they were all tucked in and the weary adults went back to their own chambers.

Their new agreement was aided by the fact that two of the guest chambers near Catherine's were occupied that evening. She and Vincent indulged themselves in the agreed upon kisses and lap sitting before Vincent returned to his chamber.

Sunday brought another meeting with The Committee and a few more completed wedding plans. The day was quiet, pleasant and uneventful - exactly what Catherine needed before going back to work. She left early that evening to prepare for Monday's busy schedule.

"Don't forget about your guests on Friday night."

"I don't believe I could. My curiosity is killing me. Shall I meet you at the threshold on Wednesday night? You can let me know then if you need me to arrange for anything."

"I would meet you on Wednesday night for any reason you want," he assured her.

"She kissed him thoroughly, and said, "See you Wednesday."

***

 

Catherine returned from her last trip to the tunnels armed with Vincent's measurements and the name of the helper who had made those wonderful tan boots she loved to see him wear.

During the week she managed time for enough phone calls to find a reputable costumer who would make a costume custom fit for Vincent - and paid him enough to entice him to have it ready a week before Halloween. She smiled remembering his reaction to the measurements. "He's a big boy, isn't he?" was the man's comment.

She also ordered Vincent two new pairs of boots, one black and one brown. Knowing Vincent's style of dress, the shoemaker made some suggestions and helped Catherine make her decisions.

The week at work moved non-stop, but she was able to leave nearly on time every day to check the work being done at the apartment.

The upper elevator work was complete; and the security system was nearly complete. The plumbing and wall moving would begin the next week and the work on the lower elevator would continue. The large storage area for the penthouse apartment had conveniently been beside the elevator. That made it easy to enclose the elevator inside a wall that allowed it to open directly into the storage room, rather than into the basement - part of the security plan. Catherine had a small desk there along with a bookshelf for her father's law books and another wall of shelves for other storage. The bookshelf unlatched and swung out to uncover the threshold, and it gave her the added benefit of a small law library at home. Those improvements would have to do for Friday night's visit.

By the end of the week Catherine was pleased with what had been accomplished.

 

 

********************

 

 

Standing in the lobby waiting for Catherine to answer their call from the newly installed intercom system, Nancy and Jenny were thinking of the message that started this visit, the meeting with Peter, and the impatient excitement of the week since then.

Jenny Aronson had been late getting home that day. She had tried to call Cathy repeatedly for a couple of weeks. Her dreams had been haunting her again lately, but this time she didn't feel the need to warn Cathy of disaster. This time she had been desperately trying to find out who and what was making her so happy - in so many ways - and the woman was never home.

Amid those thoughts she juggled her purse and her grocery bag until she could open her mailbox, dropped the mail in the bag and took the elevator to her apartment. To her surprise, when she checked her answering machine there were four messages from Nancy, each more impatient than the last. Jenny stood staring at the machine as it played the last message.

"Jenny, it's Nancy again. I hope you're not out of town or something. Call me the very minute you walk in the door, understand."

When the machine announced the last of the messages, Jenny immediately picked up her phone and dialed Nancy's number. Nancy's voice was there after the first ring.

"Hello? Jenny is that you?" Nancy's words rushed out at her.

"Nancy, what on earth is going on?"

"Have you checked your mail today?"

"Not yet," she answered dryly. "I had instructions to call someone the very minute I walked in the door."

"Very funny," Nancy retorted. "Go check your mail for a card with really nice handwriting.

"What is it? I take it you got one of these cards. Should I check it for signs of explosives or something?" she joked as she made her way to the kitchen and fished the contents of her mailbox from the grocery bag.

"Just go and check."

"I'm checking. I'm checking...even as we speak. You're not going to explain anything while I do this, are you?" she asked in frustration as she sorted through a stack of junk mail, a few catalogues, and a couple of bills. "Maybe this is it," she said, "Old fashioned handwriting, no return address?"

"That's it!" Nancy answered eagerly. "Hurry up and open it. You won't believe this. Mine came this morning. I can't tell anybody else, and I'm about to explode."

"Okay, you're scaring me, Nance," she laughed, pulling the card out of the envelope.

Jenny starting reading, her eyes getting bigger as she read.

Jenny, you don't know me, but you probably know that I exist in Catherine Chandler's life. For reasons which will become obvious to you

later, she has had to keep our relationship hidden; but it has been especially

difficult for her to keep it from you and Nancy. It has been distressing to

see her struggle so often with her secrets. I ask your help with a remedy

for that problem.

I would consider it an honor to meet the two of you, and a joy

to give Catherine the freedom to again share her life with her close

friends. Unfortunately, I need to ask that you mention this to no one else.

Peter Alcott can make arrangements with you for a time and place.

 

Vincent

 

Jenny screamed briefly into the phone with glee.

"Have you called Peter?" she asked.

"Yeah. This afternoon - between leaving desperate messages on your answering machine," Nancy laughed. "He's going to meet me at that Chinese restaurant on your corner tomorrow night at eight o'clock. Can you be there?"

"I couldn't be stopped by wild horses," Jenny exclaimed, pacing her kitchen in excitement. "What do you suppose brought this on? Hey! This is the same signature as the one in that book of sonnets she keeps so close all the time. This has been going on for a couple of years? She's good. Vincent, huh? Wonder what the big secret is. Is he married or something?"

"We talked once. She said he isn't. Jen, you should see her talk about him. Once she made up her mind, even as little as she could tell me, she positively glowed. The girl is really in love. Whatever makes them hide this, we might as well plan on accepting it, or we'll see less of her than we do now."

"That would be pretty much nil. I've been trying to call her for two weeks. Peter couldn't meet us tonight?"

Nancy laughed at her friend's frustration. "I may die of curiosity before this get-together. This Vincent must be something special to make her willing to go to such lengths to keep him a secret," Nancy speculated.

"Special!?" Jenny snorted. "Have you ever dated a guy who would take time to send your two best friends handwritten notes asking to meet them - just to make things easier for you? That says special, don't you think? Nope. Wild horses couldn't keep me away from this guy!" With a deep sigh, she continued. "You couldn't have called me in the morning, could you? I'll never sleep now. I'll probably be face down on the table at the staff meeting tomorrow morning, and it will be all your fault."

"Jenny," Nancy answered, pretending shock. "That note was in your mailbox, too. If you had opened it at two in the morning, you know you would have called to wake me up."

"Right, as usual," Jenny laughed. "I don't know how I'm going to last until we see Peter, much less until we meet Vincent."

Both women were early for the meeting at the restaurant the next night.

After checking schedules and considering what would be best for everyone concerned, they settled on one week from that day. Neither of them was happy at the wait, but that was what would work. Peter gave them a few instructions, verified the date and time, and enjoyed a pleasant dinner with them. He sent a message to Vincent immediately, confirming the plans for him.

 

 

***

 

 

 

Friday had finally arrived; and Catherine was nervously waiting for her guests, not knowing at all what to expect, other than visitors. Why had their portrait from Kristopher Gentian suddenly appeared in the apartment, and what was that cryptic note on the frame all about? She had placed the picture against the wall in the bedroom where she could close the door and hide it if necessary. She wished she had a little more information. When it came to meeting new people, Vincent was usually more forthcoming.

The intercom phone from the lobby rang, and she felt a stab of panic when she heard Jenny's voice. How would she be able to send her away without looking suspicious or unwelcoming?

"Cathy, did you hear me? Nancy is with me. We have invitations from your friend."

"Say that again," Catherine said in disbelief.

"What?" Nancy asked, sharing the handset for the intercom with Jenny. "That we have invitations from your friend. Peter said it would be a surprise."

"Well, Cath? Are you going to invite us in sometime tonight?" Jenny demanded impatiently.

"Yes! Yes! I'm, sorry. I'll be right there," Catherine answered excitedly.

She took the elevator eagerly to the lobby to meet her friends, mulling over the things she hadn't understood about this evening. What had Vincent said? - "Two women who will be important to both of us" - and the sudden appearance of their portrait with a note saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." He had planned time for her to speak to Nancy and Jenny before he arrived... Oh, yes. This was a wonderful man.

Leaving his chamber on his way to the apartment, Vincent knew from the evident joy pouring through the bond that Catherine's friends had arrived. He allowed himself the luxury of being rather pleased with himself. This surprise had worked quite well so far. He smiled at that thought as he walked, although he was nervous at the idea of meeting her friends and was wondering how difficult it would be for them to accept him. Still, it was well worth his discomfort to bring her friends back into her life. She had certainly given up more for him than a little temporary mental discomfort, and he no longer had doubts that Catherine would love him no matter what her friends decided to think.

The suspense had made that week seem endless. Nancy and Jenny eagerly moved into the elevator as soon as the door opened, and they were grabbed together in an energetic group hug as soon as Catherine saw them. As the door closed, they were all talking at the same time the way they did in college.

"I can't believe he did this," Catherine exclaimed about the time the elevator reached the apartment.

"Is he waiting for us?" Nancy asked excitedly.

"No. He'll be here at seven-thirty. I know now that he wanted us to have time to talk first. I need to explain a few things before you meet him."

"You need to explain a lot," Jenny laughed. "How about starting with why we need warm clothes and comfortable walking shoes for a visit, and why we need to stay the night. Not that I mind, you understand. It's October. These clothes are fine, and we haven't had a sleepover in ages."

As the elevator reached the apartment, Catherine realized for the first time that each of her friends had an overnight bag with her; then the implications of the comfortable shoes suddenly hit her. They were going below. That was what Vincent had said, wasn't it?

"He's thought of everything - and managed to surprise me with all of it," she exclaimed in awe, almost to herself. She then turned to settling her friends in for the evening.

"Give me your bags. Both of you have been here before. Jenny, I'll put you in the guest room and Nancy can have what was my room."

She quickly took the bags to the correct bedrooms and returned to see her two friends glancing around the apartment as if they were looking for something. When Nancy finally spoke, she realized what they were looking for.

"With all this security, don't you feel free to have pictures of him around yet? We're dying of curiosity," Nancy said.

Maybe they were going to make this easy for her.

"Remember that package addressed to me, the one that was found at the end of the Kristopher Gentian art exhibit?" Catherine asked turning to Jenny.

"Yeah. Looked like a big piece of art work."

"It was a portrait of the two of us - Vincent and me. It's propped against the wall in the bedroom. You might as well come and look."

Catherine found herself agreeing with Vincent about a picture being worth a thousand words. She just wasn't quite sure yet what words would follow the picture.

Nancy and Jenny thought she sounded a little nervous, but both of them gave that idea the benefit of the doubt because they were all three so obviously excited.

Entering the bedroom the first thing they saw was a king-sized bed.

"Geez, Cathy," Jenny blurted out, always one to speak her mind. "Is that a bed or a playground? And has it been properly initiated?" She followed the last question with a teasing grin and some suggestive eyebrow wiggling.

"No," Catherine answered, looking away.

"What a shame." Jenny answered, about to ask another question when Nancy interrupted.

"Cathy, this is gorgeous!" Nancy exclaimed.

When she turned toward Nancy the grin vanished from Jenny's face and her hand went to her mouth.

"Oh my god. Is this Vincent?" Jenny asked.

"Yes."

"Look at the way he's holding you," Nancy sighed, stepping closer for a better look and reaching to touch it. "This is beautiful, but why a portrait in costume and make-up? You both look like you belong to another time. What was the occasion? Why were you costumed?" Turning back to Cathy, she asked, "Is he as big as he looks? And is he as protective of you as this makes him seem?"

"Yes, he's that big, and yes, he's that protective. He isn't too possessive, though. He doesn't need to own me. He's wonderful," Catherine smiled. "I'm that protective of him, too."

Nancy and Catherine suddenly realized that Jenny was uncharacteristically quiet and turned to see her looking a little pale, her hand still at her mouth.

"Jenny, are you okay?" Catherine asked, sounding concerned.

"I've seen him in my dreams. That's why I was trying to call you all week. The two of you were in a strange place... like another time, like Nancy said. You were both so happy. I kept waiting for my dreams to show me his real face, but it never happened." As if dreading the answer, she finally asked, "...It isn't a fantasy portrait, is it? It isn't make-up?"

Maybe this was going to be a lot easier than Catherine originally thought.

"No," Catherine admitted. "This is Vincent. This is how he looks, this is how he dresses; and the strange place you saw in your dreams is probably where he lives. There it all seems perfectly normal. I'm sure that's the reason for the comfortable shoes. He plans to take you there later."

"Wait a minute," Nancy began, looking a little agitated. "You're trying to tell us that the face in this portrait is actually Vincent. How could what I see here be real?" She looked at Catherine, expecting to see some sign that she was joking, but found no such sign."

"Nobody knows; but he does exist, and I love him more than I can begin to describe." She took a deep breath and released it in a resigned burst of air. "Sit down, and let me explain a few things."

Nancy and Jenny looked at each other in disbelief and wordlessly sat on the edge of the bed. Catherine sat across from them in a chair. She explained how Vincent found her, about their bond and about her need to keep secrets for his safety.

"I've missed being able to talk to both of you, but I couldn't give away anything that would put him or his community in any danger. I made promises I had to keep, not just for his safety, but for the safety of his whole family."

Both her friends were stunned, but now understood why she had been so hard to reach and so secretive for the last two years. They were speechless for a couple of minutes.

"Does his whole family look like him?" Nancy finally managed to ask.

"No," Catherine answered. "We'll explain all that later."

How does he get here?" Nancy obviously had a lot of questions. "He can't just walk to the front door, can he?"

"That's why I'm moving here. Now he can almost do that. For all practical purposes, the elevator has become the front door, and he has access to the elevator." She stopped, looked away briefly, and took and released another deep breath. "I know this is a lot to take in; and believe me, before the night is over there will be more surprises. I hope you can accept it all eventually, because nothing is going to change. I've never been this happy. He gives me so much... Listen to me. I'm hopeless. I'm too in love to make sense."

"That's what I saw in my dreams," Jenny said quietly. "I've never seen you so happy, or so certain everything is right. Is that how it is, Cath?"

"Yeah. That's how it is," she smiled.

"That's how it looked when you left my house in the middle of the night to come back to him," Nancy chimed in, standing to enclose Catherine in a sisterly hug. "If he makes you this happy, then we have to learn to love him, too. Right, Jen?"

"Absolutely," Jenny answered, joining them.

Just then they all heard the elevator moving.

"Give him a little space at first, okay?" Catherine asked. "I know he's nervous about meeting you."

"Only a little," Jenny answered. "He invited us, remember? ...and we've waited too long already."

"Just give us a minute."

Catherine met Vincent at the elevator.

"Thank you," she said softly and sincerely. She was at his side, taking his hand and looking up at him.

"Were you surprised?" he asked with one of his small smiles.

"You know I was," she grinned. "The portrait was a nice touch. It helped with Nancy, but Jenny had already dreamed about you. She simply had to accept that her dreams were real. Are you ready to meet them?"

"Yes," he answered and reached to adjust his hood.

Catherine stopped his hand.

"No. No cloak this time," she told him with an air of determination. These are my friends, and this is going to be your home. They will meet you and accept you openly."

This approach was obviously important to Catherine, so Vincent swallowed his anxiety over these introductions. He pushed back his hood, swung his cloak from his shoulders, and forced himself to appear more relaxed than he was. After she quickly folded his cloak and left it across the back of a chair, she took his hand and turned to introduce him to her impatient friends. Standing behind Catherine he both looked at them and spoke to them individually, smiling gently and pretending that they weren't staring.

"Nancy, I believe Catherine and I both owe you thanks for your counseling services...and Jenny, I understand I appeared in your dreams recently. I hope I behaved well."

The face and the voice and the blue eyes were enough, but the grace and easy self-assurance of the man and the nearly visible connection between him and their friend were almost too much to accept. Both Nancy and Jenny seemed to finally find their tongues at the same time.

"I didn't do much more than listen," Nancy told him.

"You behaved very well," Jenny said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

As they talked, Vincent, in his usual manner, drew the women to talk about themselves. They realized later how well he listened and turned the conversation to things that related to their interests. He seemed to be interested and well versed in nearly everything they brought up. They also noticed how he seemed constantly tuned to Catherine without ever appearing to leave the conversation with the others. It was becoming easier to see why she could love him. Before long they found themselves fascinated by the fact that someone who could have looked so ferocious could be such delightful company - and that his manners were far better than a lot of the normal men they knew.

Talking later, Nancy and Jenny searched for a word to describe him and finally settled on two - "elegant" and "distinguished". If not for his unusual physical features, he could easily move in the social circles Catherine had grown up in. They already had the impression, though, that he wouldn't be happy for long in that atmosphere. They had the feeling there was much more to him than social skills.

Nancy had a little more trouble accepting all this new information than Jenny -- maybe because Vincent and Catherine hadn't been wandering around regularly in her dreams. She had enjoyed Vincent's company, though, and she did like him, in spite of her doubts.

*******************

 

 

Catherine turned back to Nancy and Jenny. "Well, ladies, I suppose it's time for the second round of surprises. Shall we go Below now?" she asked Vincent, and he nodded his agreement and stood.

"Is this the part where we need the warm clothes and good shoes?" Jenny asked as the elevator started moving.

"This is it," Catherine answered, going to the closet to pick up her jacket.

"And this is the strange place I saw in my dreams?"

"Probably."

"What did you mean by 'go below?'" Nancy asked.

"Below is where I live," Vincent answered simply. "You can see that I couldn't live in your world. By your standards it will appear quite primitive; but it works well for us, and there are good people there. Most of us aren't related, but we regard ourselves as family. Everyone expects you this evening, so prepare to be treated as the guests of honor... by a large number of people. William has a dessert table waiting for us."

"William?" Nancy and Jenny asked, nearly in unison.

"The best cook in the world," Catherine explained. "Just wait until you taste the chocolate cake."

Nancy suddenly realized they were passing the lobby and pointed that out to Catherine.

"Below doesn't start at the lobby," she smiled.

The door opened in Catherine's basement storage room, and the two new occupants looked around in amazement.

"It looks more like a law office than a storage room," Jenny said, surprised, seeing the desk and her father's law books on shelves beside it. "But why are we in the basement?"

"It's the entrance to Below," Catherine answered. "From here you're going to have to trust me more than you've ever trusted me before."

Catherine released a hidden latch on the bookshelf, and Vincent pulled it away from the wall to reveal the threshold. He swung himself effortlessly through the opening and started down the ladder.

"Okay, girls, you're next," Catherine grinned.

"We're going below the basement? You've got to be kidding," Nancy said uncertainly.

"Deadly serious," Catherine answered.

"What the heck!" Jenny interrupted. "Come on, Nance. A little adventure will do us good." She then stepped out on the little ledge and onto the ladder.

Nancy watched as her friend disappeared down the ladder, shrugged her shoulders uncertainly, and followed Jenny. Catherine pulled the bookshelf back in place before she started down and met them where they stood at the bottom with Vincent. They had entered the elevator in a world they knew well, and shortly after exiting it found themselves in what Jenny and Nancy could only describe as another world.

"Wow," Jenny breathed softly as she looked around her."

"Yeah," Nancy echoed.

"It gets better," Catherine smiled.

The two newest visitors to the tunnels walked silently, following Vincent and Catherine through the rock walled passages on what seemed to them an endless journey in the soft glow of the torches. Both women had to reach to touch the rock walls now and then just to see that they weren't imagining the place. They had seen the wisdom in the comfortable shoes before reaching even the outskirts of the living area.

Out of habit and the need for her reassuring touch, Vincent looked down at Catherine and took her hand, and she looked up at him with a smile. Their love seemed to enclose the two of them without leaving out their companions. Jenny elbowed Nancy and pointed as they watched from behind.

After the initial shock of their new surroundings wore off, both women began to ask questions about the people and the community they were going to see. Vincent and Catherine explained as much as they thought would make sense at the time.

"Peter visits here often. He went to medical school with Vincent's Father," Catherine told them. "Can you imagine? All these years he's helped take care of both Vincent and me. Two of his best friends were Vincent's father and mine."

"Vincent, why did you decide we needed to see where you live tonight instead of later," Jenny asked.

"Because time is growing short. Mary insists that she needs measurements for your dresses," he responded.

Catherine understood immediately and looked up at him with a wide smile, wanting nothing more than to leap into his arms and give him a huge kiss. This wedding had already grown so far beyond what Catherine had originally imagined... what difference would a couple of extra bridesmaids make now? Vincent had apparently already plotted with The Committee.

"Dresses?" Nancy asked, looking confused.

"Bridesmaid's dresses, I believe she called them. The wedding will be the day after Thanksgiving. Will you have time to be here?"

Jenny stopped walking and seized Nancy's arm, stopping her, too.

"Wedding?" she asked. "What wedding? Bridesmaid's dresses?" There was a short pause, and both women looked confused. "Wedding!" she exclaimed, suddenly understanding. "You're getting married? Cathy, you're getting married! Nancy, they're getting married!" Jenny was beginning to babble and the excitement in her voice was growing by the syllable.

"Cathy, you and Vincent are getting married? Really?" Nancy asked.

Catherine nodded.

Nancy's reaction was a little more subdued and carried a little more doubt than Jenny's, but she tried to hide that and held out her arms. She knew the soul searching that it took for them to reach this decision, and Cathy seemed happier than she had ever seen her. Whatever Vincent was, Cathy loved him and he wanted her friends to be in their lives, and she was going to do her best to be happy for them.

Nancy hugged, Jenny hugged and babbled, and Vincent watched and smiled. He felt that he had just returned to Catherine the most important thing she'd had to leave behind when she chose to be with him.

Father and Mary met the four of them in the passage near Father's chamber. They introduced themselves before escorting them to the dining hall - warning them to be prepared for a crowd of enthusiastic friends of Catherine's. Jenny and Nancy arrived in the living area of the tunnels already excited and in awe of their new surroundings; and to add to that feeling, they were received in the dining hall like visiting royalty - by about eighty-five people of a variety of ages.

Father gave the official welcome, and even made it brief; then he invited them to enjoy the sweets William's kitchen crew had created and to meet the other members of the community.

Once they had adjusted to the strange clothing and lack of electricity and modern conveniences, they had a wonderful evening. The children had made them cards, all saying in one form or another that they were glad Catherine could bring her friends here now. They talked to The Committee about the upcoming wedding, immediately becoming it's two newest members, and both agreeing they could hardly wait to see the Great Hall.

The men all took time to pay their respects, even if they couldn't think of anything more to say - some speaking of their respect for Catherine or how they had benefited from her help, some just making small talk. Jamie and Cullen seemed to enjoy Jenny's brusque, no nonsense approach to things. Cullen joked with her and thoroughly enjoyed her quick comebacks.

After briefly meeting what seemed an endless supply of new faces, Nancy settled into a long conversation with Mary and Olivia, accompanied by the best cake she had ever eaten.

Jenny was busy moving from group to group - and dessert to dessert - all the while bemoaning what she was doing to her figure. She was in the process of telling William about her parents' delicatessen when Mary announced to the children that it was bedtime. The expected protests rose from the children, followed by the expected insistence from the adults.

Catherine and Nancy offered their help with the children; and Mary was protesting that they should stay and enjoy the party, when several of the younger children latched on to Catherine, wanting her to read them a bedtime story. Keith, one of the four-year-old boys, came and leaned against Nancy and stuck his thumb in his mouth, looking sleepy, but not wanting to admit it.

Nancy's motherly heart did little flips.

"You look tired. Would you like me to carry you?" she asked, putting her arm around his little shoulders. He nodded and she picked him up. She felt several small tugs at her jacket sleeve, and looked down into the big brown eyes of little Teresa. She held her hand out to take Nancy's free one.

"Want me to show you where we sleep?" Teresa asked.

"I would like that," Nancy answered.

Mary stopped protesting. She knew she'd lost the battle. The older children helped gather the younger ones and usher them toward the nursery. Nancy and Catherine and their charges brought up the rear.

Jenny realized that her two friends were leaving and excused herself from the conversation she was finishing. She wasn't about to miss any part of this adventure.

"Hey! Wait for me," she called, scurrying to catch up. "Where are we going?" she asked when she was close enough.

"We're on bedtime duty," Catherine smiled.

"I could go back now."

"And let all these people know you're a coward?" Catherine teased.

Jenny laughed and fell in step with the others. It wasn't as bad as she expected it to be. They had a good system here. Each of the older children was assigned a younger one to help that evening, so the hand and face washing and tooth brushing and dressing for bed and trips to the bathroom were not nearly as time consuming as Jenny and Nancy imagined. The adults supervised all the activity, stepping in to help when they were needed. After that flurry of activity all the freshly pajama clad children sat near the story chair in anticipation of a bedtime story - two stories if they played their cards right. One of the children handed Catherine Green Eggs and Ham, a book the children loved and Father loved to complain about.

Seeing the title, Jenny exclaimed, "I used to love to read that when I babysat my neighbors. Move over, Cath. We'll read it together." Jenny, of course, read Sam I Am's lines and let Catherine read the rest. To the delight of their audience, young and old, they both threw themselves fully into their parts. When they finished the book, the children laughed and applauded and wanted them to read it again. Mary, Nancy and Vincent, watching from the doorway, had enjoyed the little performance enough that they were tempted to allow it; but common sense won out. The children were excited enough already.

"If you go to bed now, maybe we can talk Jenny into coming back soon and reading it again, but right now it's bedtime," Mary insisted. With a chorus of mild grumbling the younger children climbed into their beds and the older ones went to their own chambers. Nancy tucked Keith in and felt her heart swell when he took his thumb out of his mouth long enough to say, "Thank you, Ca'frin's friend," in a very sleepy voice.

The adults made the rounds with good-night hugs and kisses and tucked them all in. They then went to the older children's chambers doing the same for those who still wanted that attention and touching the shoulder or ruffling the hair of those who thought themselves too old for such foolishness. Each child received appropriate attention of some sort, invited or not, and none of them protested. The adults seemed to know what each one needed and provided it. Nancy and Jenny learned that an adult was assigned to sleep in the nursery each night, so emergencies were always covered. The more they saw of this place, the more impressed they were.

Vincent escorted them back to the party.

"The bedtime story was quite a success," he observed, smiling at Jenny. "The children will be looking forward to your next visit."

"I'm looking forward to my next visit, too. We haven't begun to see everything here, have we?" she answered.

"Not even close," Catherine told her.

"Where do the children come from?" Nancy asked. A few of them seemed to go with their parents. Are the others orphans?"

"Their situations vary," Vincent explained. "Occasionally a parent will ask us to take a child temporarily. Most of them have been found abandoned and living on the streets or have come from various abusive situations. We have a large network of helpers now, and we often manage to find their families. If there are good families who are looking for them, we see that they are reunited. If they have been fending for themselves on the streets, we offer them a home, people to care for them and a place to heal. With the young children there is never a question. With the older ones we have to be more careful, but we always try to find a way to help."

"Where do they go to school?" Nancy asked. "Do they ever play in the sunlight?"

"We teach them here. Father and Mary teach the small children. Mary does most of that, with help from some of the other adults. Father teaches the older students math and science, and I teach history and government and what your schools would call language arts and literature," Vincent answered. "Some of the adults take them Above to play in the park almost every day, and there are occasional trips to museums or concerts in the park. The older children are allowed Above for errands."

"Wow!" Jenny responded, completely dazzled by the surprise after surprise they encountered in this world. Without having to think about it, Jenny knew that Vincent had never been included in the trips to the park or the outings to the museums. In spite of that and all the similar disappointments and difficulties he must have had in his life, this place had still turned out an unusual man with a loving spirit - one who felt the need to share his world with Cathy's friends. Her admiration for both him and his home grew another notch larger.

Vincent immediately recognized that moment of understanding from Jenny and gave her an appreciative glance, receiving a warm smile from her in return.

"Will my family ever be allowed to come here?" Nancy asked. "Paul would be fascinated. He would be asking you questions from the time he arrived to the time you shoved him bodily back into the basement to get rid of him," she grinned.

Vincent returned her smile, again appreciative of Catherine's friends and their acceptance of his home, and especially their acceptance of his intent to marry Catherine.

"Catherine would need to present that possibility to the council for approval," Vincent told her. There is a system of government here, one of the strongest priorities being protecting the community. Anyone new to the community has to be approved."

"You did that for us?" Nancy more stated than asked.

"Actually, he did that for Cathy. Right Vincent?" Jenny asked.

He again smiled in return. He was understanding more and more why these women were so important in Catherine's life.

"When they arrived at the dining hall the party was about to break up. Everyone repeated their welcomes and their appreciation for helping with the children, and they added their invitations to return; then, a few at a time, they returned to their chambers for the night.

"Does this mean we have to go back now?" Nancy asked, looking around to commit the scene to memory.

"Not until Mary has those measurements," Vincent told them. "I would not hear the end of it if I allowed you to leave before she finds you with her measuring tape."

The two women laughed at the image of someone the size of Vincent dreading catching the wrath of someone as small as Mary.

"I'll take them to her," Catherine volunteered. "Why don't we meet you in your chamber after Mary finishes with these two? You can walk us home,"

Vincent nodded his agreement and watched as they turned toward Mary's chamber.

"Brace yourselves," he heard Catherine say. "Mary takes very thorough measurements. Want to go shopping tomorrow?"

He walked leisurely back to his chamber wearing a self-satisfied smile and savoring the happy glow he felt in Catherine. Yes. He was definitely pleased with himself. His surprise had worked quite well.

 

 

***

 

 

Mary lived up to Catherine's warning. The measurements were thorough, but the work they were intended to facilitate would be equally accurate. They would realize later that it was well worth the trouble. The fitting stage of the process would be much faster - and with a wedding this close at hand that would be a definite plus.

Olivia had left the party with Luke when the other children left for bed. She had tucked him in a few minutes before she came to Mary's chamber, hoping to catch Catherine and her friends before they left. She asked if they had seen the sketches of the dresses they would be wearing.

"We were just getting to that," Mary told her.

After seeing what the others here were wearing that night, Nancy and Jenny mentally held their breath, waiting to see what they would be expected to wear. They were pleasantly surprised to find a something they could wear Above if they chose to.

Thinking back to her comment to Vincent that she and her friends knew nothing about sewing, Catherine issued an invitation without consulting Jenny and Nancy. It was her wedding, after all; and she wanted everything about it to work well. With her two best friends involved, it had just taken a positive turn. She looked toward Mary and Olivia and smiled.

"We're going shopping tomorrow to look for fabric for the dresses. Come with us. The three of us know nothing about sewing... and we can take you to lunch and make a day of it. I have to warn you though, these women are professional, marathon shoppers. Get out your Above clothes and come with us... Please."

Catherine was feeling excited about having her Above friends blending with her Below friends. Her two worlds were suddenly becoming a little more comfortable with one another. It was nice.

"Find Jamie, and bring her, too. She's my other bridesmaid from Below. Do you think we can talk her into wearing a dress?" Catherine grinned.

"For this, I think she'll make a temporary concession," Olivia answered with a smile.

"Tell her that you have to go shopping with us tomorrow to be sure we don't plan something hideous for you to wear."

Catherine saw a pleased smile grow on Olivia's face - excitement bubbling up about both the wedding and an all day trip Above.

"I'll talk to Kanin about watching Luke tomorrow. Mary, you'll go, too, won't you? This sounds like so much fun. It's been ages since either of us went Above for anything but taking the children to the park. I'd enjoy seeing some of the stores."

"Please come, Mary," Catherine pleaded. "We have to dress you up, too. You have to serve as Mother of both the bride and the groom."

Mary laughed at her excitement and agreed to go along, and Olivia went to find Jamie. Mary and Catherine decided on a time to meet at Catherine's threshold, then Catherine guided the others back to Vincent's chamber.

Vincent met Catherine and her friends at the door of his chamber rather than inviting them in. He knew that none of the three women would sleep much that night. They had too much to talk about, and he realized that much of it centered on him. That thought made him uncomfortable, but he could see that Catherine would brook no intolerance of their relationship. He had no idea what had he done to deserve such a woman; but whatever it was, he certainly was glad he had done it.

"Mary and Olivia, and maybe Jamie, are going shopping with us tomorrow," Catherine told Vincent enthusiastically as they approached. "We're going to make Jamie wear a dress for the wedding."

"That will be a treat," Vincent chuckled. "I believe I am to walk you home now," he said as they reached the doorway.

"You're sending us away?" Jenny wailed playfully.

"Just for tonight," he assured her, sounding amused. "I've heard stories of your shopping trips, and you might need rest."

"He's probably right," Nancy agreed, smiling in anticipation. "I'm out of practice. I need to call Paul and tell him not to expect me until late tomorrow night.

The four of them talked easily as they walked. Catherine was feeling satisfied with the evening. Her friends had put Vincent and his family at ease and he and his community had freely accepted them. Everyone seemed to feel comfortable with one another.

Vincent saw them back to the apartment, still answering questions about his world and the helpers they had heard mentioned. When he turned to leave, Catherine asked her friends to give them a few minutes alone. They went to the kitchen to find something to drink, and Catherine stayed with Vincent in the elevator.

"Thank you seems so inadequate for what you've given me tonight," she said, wrapping her arms around his waist. "I've wanted this for so long."

Vincent returned her hug, resting his head on hers, glad to finally have a few minutes alone with her.

"You needed to be relieved of some of the struggle you've endured for the past two years. I couldn't watch you hurt any longer." He brushed a kiss on her hair, then moved slightly to look down at her. "I like your friends."

"They like you, too. I can tell," she smiled.

Just as she was ready to give him the consuming kiss she had wanted to give him earlier, they became aware of two other people watching them mischievously not far away. Catherine playfully gave them a menacing look and pushed the button to close the elevator door. She and Vincent heard teasing, unison voices saying "Good-night, Vincent," as the door closed.

They laughed and went back to Catherine's original consuming kiss plan before Vincent opened the door for her to return to the apartment.

"Some people have very nosy friends," Catherine said jokingly as she returned.

"Cathy, that place is amazing," Nancy said. "Do you think they would let me bring Paul and the kids?"

"I don't know. Do you think the kids could keep that kind of secret?"

"I think they would do absolutely anything if Vincent asked them to," she answered.

"Huh!" Jenny snorted. "If he weren't Cathy's, I'd probably do anything Vincent asked me to. Not that he'd ask. I saw the way he looks at you. You two really haven't initiated that bed yet?" she asked.

"No," Catherine answered.

"I don't remember your dad having a gigantic bed like that," Nancy observed. "When did you get it?"

"It was delivered yesterday," Catherine told her.

"So there hasn't been time. Maybe Vincent's bed Below?" Jenny prodded playfully. "That's where you were in my dreams. He makes you veeery happy in my dreams," she said suggestively, looking for a response from Catherine.

"You see that in your dreams?" Catherine exclaimed, looking uncomfortable at the thought.

"Well, I don't actually see anything, but it's definitely going on - and on, and on, and on..." she teased. She caught exactly the expression on Catherine's face that she had been looking for. She'd known her long enough to know the "dead give-away look" when Catherine wore it, even for just a fleeting second. "I'm right, Nancy. Look at her."

"Jenny. I'm not talking about it. It's just for the two of us," Catherine said, annoyed at herself but knowing when she was beaten. "Nobody else knows, and you're not going to tell them, understand? Nothing is happening now - not until we're married."

"Nothing? Really?" Jenny said both in disbelief and apparent disappointment.

"Really." Catherine assured her.

"It was really great though, wasn't it?"

"Jenny!" Catherine protested.

"Oh, come on... It's just the three of us. You have to tell us something," Jenny wailed in frustration. "There's nothing going on in my life right now. I have to live vicariously through yours. Really, really terrific... wasn't it?" she insisted with a twinkle in her eyes.

Catherine looked away and released a little puff of air in her own frustration; then in spite of herself, she smiled and answered, "Yeah... But that's all you get."

Nancy was watching the exchange, admittedly as curious as Jenny.

"Should I ask again if he's as big as he looks," she chuckled.

Catherine broke down and laughed as she shoved at Nancy's shoulder in playful protest, but she didn't answer another question on the subject. She dropped herself to the sofa and accepted the little bottle of juice Jenny had brought her.

Nancy sat down beside her and asked more seriously, "Do you plan to have children?"

"No," Catherine answered. "Vincent won't even consider it, and I've agreed. There are good reasons beyond the obvious ones. We'll just parent the ones in the tunnels."

"That's a lot to give up, Cathy. I know you've always wanted children."

"Nothing is too much to give up for him. I don't know how to begin to tell you how much I love him."

"You don't need to try. I think we can both see it," Nancy answered.

Jenny nodded her head in agreement.

The three of them talked well into the night. They covered the pros and cons of the life Catherine had chosen for herself and the ups and downs of life with a family at Nancy's home. Jenny's job and the fact that she hadn't found the right man yet, came next, then old college memories and time spent in the apartment when Catherine's father was there. Finally they admitted they were exhausted and needed at least a few hours sleep before the shopping expedition they intended to tackle that morning.

***

 

 

Mary, Olivia, and Jamie met Catherine and her friends at the threshold in Catherine's storage room on Saturday morning. They took the elevator to the lobby and left as if they had all spent the night in Catherine's apartment. Nancy had called a friend who did a lot of sewing to ask where they should go to look for the kinds of fabric they hoped to find. Armed with one list of stores and another list of sizes and fabric requirements, they excitedly started their adventure, taking two taxis to the area Nancy's friend said would be the best place to start.

On Sunday morning Catherine appeared at the threshold below her apartment with some of their purchases. She had a gym bag over each shoulder and more in her arms. Vincent took all of it from her and asked with a teasing smile if they had enjoyed their shopping trip.

"Yes, but I think Nancy and Jenny and I got a little carried away," Catherine told him sheepishly. "This is only the beginning. You might want to bring a cart next trip, maybe two," she chuckled. "Between the three of us... Well... You may need to carve out an extra storage chamber."

"Mary and Olivia didn't mention that you bought that much."

"Mary and Olivia don't know about all of it yet. In only the first fabric store we saw more fabric than Nancy, Jenny, and I thought existed. Mary and Olivia were like children in a candy store, touching the different textures and enjoying the colors and patterns. I found a salesperson in each store; and when Mary or Jamie or Olivia found something she particularly liked or thought someone at home would especially enjoy, I quietly showed the sales clerk. The sales staff and I had a wonderful morning. I was very sneaky."

Catherine evidently had a wonderful time, and Vincent was enjoying her eagerness to include him in the fun.

"Did you find what you were looking for there?"

"You obviously don't understand marathon shopping trips," she grinned. "We were just getting started at that point. We stopped at an antique store and the owner told us where to find vintage clothing and fabrics. There was a children's store, and Nancy and Jenny bought jeans, sweaters, socks and underwear for the children and warm sleepers for the babies. That's what you're carrying."

"All this is for the children?" Vincent asked in surprise.

"Compliments of Jenny and Nancy. You have two new helpers. They were impressed with 'Below.' They can't wait to come back. Nancy wants to bring the family. The next fabric shop had wedding fabric, and the vintage store had lace and trims that I bought when Mary and Olivia weren't looking... and I found a soft wool shawl to give Mary for Christmas or Winterfest or something... and Jamie found perfect buttons for your vest there. By that time even the marathon shoppers were wearing down, so we hailed taxis and everybody went home."

"Not taking it with us when we left the store wasn't wise, though. I was surprised at what I'd gathered when we went back to pick everything up at the end of the day. I think I can safely say that no one who wants to make something new to wear for Winterfest will be disappointed. The wedding fabric will be delivered tomorrow."

"You exaggerate well," Vincent teased.

"Exaggerate? Just bring the cart," she laughed. "You'll see. I hope I can manage to appease Mary and Olivia for my stealth purchases."

They spent Sunday afternoon at the falls, visited with others at dinner, and Vincent walked Catherine back to her threshold.

"I'm glad you enjoyed your weekend," he told her. "I don't feel you so completely relaxed Above very often."

"You made it special for me. The shopping was fun, but watching my Above friends enjoying my Below friends was the real joy. It brings my two worlds closer." She gave him a warm hug and a loving kiss and thanked him again for including her friends in their lives, then she went home and resignedly returned to the briefcase she had successfully ignored all weekend.

********************

Joe and Catherine had worked late again. He looked at his watch, closed the folder and stretched his arms and shoulders.

"We got a lot done. Let's table the rest for tomorrow morning," he said.

"What?" Catherine answered, feigning shock. "Did those words actually come from your lips?"

"Yeah, I know it's a little unusual. It's still pretty early. Suppose I buy you dinner and drive you home... and don't give me that shocked look again. You've put in a lot of overtime this week. I can at least treat you to a decent meal."

"Sure. That sounds great," Catherine agreed. "I'll get my coat."

Joe took the folder back to his desk, grabbed his overcoat and put it on as he joined Catherine. They stopped for a couple of minutes to speak to the night custodian on the way out. He was accustomed to seeing them there late.

It was a crisp, unseasonably cold fall night, and a stiff breeze blew the leaves and bits of trash around their feet as they walked to a restaurant a block from the office.

"First you try to work me to death, then you try to freeze me to death," Catherine joked, pulling her coat closer. "It wasn't this cold this morning. Can we start with coffee? Nice hot coffee."

"Sounds good to me," he answered, holding the door open for her.

They talked over dinner and relaxed, enjoying the easy-going nature of their friendship.

As they left the restaurant they were met by two police officers.

"Joe Maxwell and Catherine Chandler?" one of them asked.

"That's right," Joe answered. "Can we help you?"

"We're here to help you," the other officer stated, showing them identification. "I'm Latham, this is Thompson. We've been ordered to take you into protective custody. Gerald Langston has escaped from jail, and the word is he was throwing your names around a lot while he was locked up - especially Miss Chandler's. The car's right there at the corner." He looked around, keeping careful watch as he pointed. His partner was checking the corner.

"How did this happen?" Joe asked indignantly as they walked toward the car.

"He managed to switch identities with another guy who was being released today. We didn't get the whole story. Come on. We need to get you off the street. We'll take you to a safe house tonight. You'll get more details when we get there," Thompson told him.

"How did you find us?" Catherine asked.

"Night custodian told us where you said you were going," Latham answered.

"Watch your heads," Thompson warned as Joe and Catherine slid into the back seat of the car.

Officer Thompson slipped in behind the wheel and started the engine while Latham got in on the passenger side. Not much was said at the beginning of the trip, but before long a quiet conversation began between the two officers. Joe and Catherine were behind a separating window and couldn't understand the conversation, but Latham seemed to be questioning Thompson about something and didn't look happy with the answers. The farther they drove, the more agitated Latham seemed to become.

Both Joe and Catherine began to feel uncomfortable with the situation, a feeling aggravated by Latham's sudden demanding tone and angry pointing, followed by a swift turn into an alley. The two officers were obviously having a substantial disagreement about something. They both left the car and stood on the driver's side arguing vehemently.

"I don't like this," Joe said. "Something's wrong here. I'll go with them, but I'll have them take you wherever you want. Go to that place you disappear to, wherever that is, and don't come back until they find Langston. This wasn't supposed to have anything to do with you.

"What do you think they're arguing about?"

"I don't know, but ten-to-one it has something to do with us."

"We can't get out of here, can we?" Catherine asked, trying to stay calm.

Outside the car, Latham was making a frightening discovery.

"What do you mean there's no safe house?" he hissed. "What have you gotten us into?"

"We're going to the docks. Langston has my wife and kids. He's trading them for these two. What am I supposed to do, just let him kill them?"

"There's got to be another way, man. We'll call for... "

"No!" Thompson shouted, pounding his fist on the car's hood. "He said anything suspicious and they're all dead. I don't have a choice."

"You know what he's planned for these people," Latham argued, gesturing toward the car. "We can't be responsible for that. I'm calling... "

"You contact anybody and I swear I'll kill you myself," Thompson said through gritted teeth and rested his hand on his gun. "Langston has people everywhere. All we need to do is let the wrong person hear us ask for help, and my family is gone. I'm not letting that happen. Get in the car."

"Wait a minute, Latham pleaded. "We could give them the vests in the trunk. In the dark and under the winter coats, he probably won't notice. They'd have at least a slim chance of getting out alive. We'll get your family to a safe place and figure out what to do next."

"I don't know," Thompson said, having trouble thinking in his agitated state.

"Come on. Get the vests. We can't leave them with nothing."

Thompson finally opened the trunk and they each took a vest. They opened the back doors, handed the vests to Joe and Catherine and told them to put them on, quickly closing the doors and getting in the front seats without another word.

Catherine pounded on the window, demanding an explanation, but got no response.

"Put it on now, Cathy," Joe insisted. "Looks like trouble."

She wasted no time following his instructions. By now, Catherine had advanced from nervous to frightened. She was trying to stay calm to help Vincent do the same; but when the car pulled out of the alley as they donned bulletproof vests, it wasn't an easy task.

It wasn't long before the DAs realized where they were being taken and fully understood the danger they were in. The car pulled into a dark area near the water and a figure emerged from the shadows.

"You got Chandler and Maxwell?" the man asked when Thompson got out of the car.

"Yeah. You get them when I see my family walking to the car."

"No problem. The boss owns you now," he laughed. "Get 'em out of the car and we'll make the trade."

"Thompson saw his six-year old son and ordered Latham to get Catherine. He yanked Joe from the car and took him to the other side to join Catherine. When a woman and two other children appeared from the darkness behind the little boy, Catherine realized why they were in this predicament. Thompson hugged them briefly and hustled them into the back seat. Latham got in on the driver's side and Thompson took Joe and Catherine at gunpoint to the man he had spoken to.

"Thanks, Thompson," he said with a sarcastic smile. "Good work. We'll be in touch."

Thompson quickly returned to the car and Latham got them out of there as fast as he could, a cold, sick feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.

From the shadows another figure came into Catherine and Joe's view and stood behind the first one, closer to the water. It was Gerald Langston leering at them and pointing a gun at Catherine.

"You didn't seriously believe I'd let you win, did you?" Turning to his partner, he ordered with a satisfied sneer, "You take care of Maxwell. I get the lady litigator. They do their jobs way too well for our peace of mind. Isn't that right, Jack?" he said smoothly.

Catherine heard a familiar, quiet growl. A split second after Langston raised his gun and fired at Catherine, Vincent's arm came up over the edge of the wharf, grabbed Langston's leg and yanked him into the water.

"Cathy!" Joe shouted as she fell.

Jack recovered quickly from the distraction of Langston's plunge into the water and aimed for Joe's head. Vincent pulled Jack's feet from under him and the bullet hit Joe's thigh instead. A second shot, fired as Jack dropped to the pavement, grazed the side of Joe's head as Joe himself was falling. In the aftermath of Joe's wounds and the two men's forceful encounters with the pavement, both Joe and his assailant lay unconscious on the wharf.

Vincent immediately went to Catherine's side, knowing she was still alive but in pain. He could feel her beginning to recover.

"Where are you hurt?" Vincent asked her.

"Chest hurts...hard to breathe," she rasped. "... No blood? Joe?" Looking next to her, she gasped at the sight of the blood there.

"Oh, my God!" she whispered. "Is he...?"

Vincent looked at the wounds and used the skills he had learned from Father to assess the damage as best he could under those conditions. "He was hit here, and here," he told her, pointing out the wounds. I need something to stop the blood loss from his leg, and we need to put pressure on the other wound."

"Help me out of my coat and vest. You can use my shirt" she answered weakly.

He removed her coat and the vest that had blessedly saved her from Langston's bullet, then the shirt. Vincent was relieved that there was no sign of a bullet wound. He wrapped the coat back around her, and with the help of one of his claws, he tore several wide strips from the shirt. He deftly bandaged Joe's wounds and turned his attention back to Catherine.

"I don't think either of his wounds is life threatening if he has medical attention quickly. You could call for help, but it might take a while to get someone here, and you are in no condition to either drive or find a telephone. We could take him to Father. You need attention, too. I came here often when I was younger because that storage building has a threshold. Can you walk that far?" he asked, indicating a small building about one hundred feet away.

"I don't know. If you can get me as far as the threshold, I can wait there for someone else to come for me while you move Joe."

Without further discussion, Vincent helped Catherine stand against the building behind her, lifted Joe across his shoulder and braced Catherine against his side. She leaned against the wall while he opened the hidden door at the threshold. Vincent brought both Catherine and Joe past the threshold, took them to the first torch, and sent a message to Father. He knew it wouldn't be well received, but he also knew Father wouldn't refuse someone who had been such a friend to Catherine, and indirectly to Vincent, too.

"Go Vincent. Just ask someone to meet me so I don't get lost when I'm up to traveling."

Vincent had already sent that message. "Don't leave this place," he instructed. "Someone will be here soon."

"Wouldn't think of it," Catherine smiled weakly, leaning back against the wall to recover.

Vincent took Joe toward the main tunnels, and a small crew met him with a stretcher about halfway there. While they transported Joe to the hospital chamber, he went back for Catherine and carried her to the main hub.

Seeing Joe's blood on both of them, Mary was worried as she followed them into Vincent's chamber.

"Sit down, both of you. Let me see where you're hurt," she insisted.

"You shouldn't worry, Mary. We were helping Joe," he told her as he finally allowed Catherine to stand again. He still didn't take his supporting arm from around her, and she didn't mind the opportunity to lean against him. "Catherine feels bruised, but she is not bleeding. I believe she just needs rest. I am completely unharmed."

"Father will still want to look at her. I'll make up the guest chamber," Mary answered, turning to do just that.

"No. Catherine will stay in my chamber tonight. I need to be the one to watch over her. I need to know..."

"Of course, Vincent. I understand," Mary interrupted, seeing the tears threaten his eyes. She had seen this many times before. The adrenalin slowed, and reality took its ugly toll. "Father will be here as soon as he can to let you know about Joe. I'll find something clean and comfortable for Catherine to sleep in and help her clean up. Why don't you go for a bath and a change of clothes while we do that?" she encouraged kindly.

"Thank you," Vincent said appreciatively and washed his hands in the basin before getting clean clothes.

"Leave your cloak, dear, and I'll see that it's cleaned before too much damage is done."

Vincent made sure that Catherine was steady on her feet, then swung his cloak carefully from his shoulders and folded it inside out to keep the blood from touching anything else.

"Vincent, did you have to..."

"No," he interrupted. "The only blood shed was Joe's...from the gunshots. Thank you for being concerned." He bent and kissed Mary's cheek, reluctantly leaving Catherine to her care.

"I left a change of clothes here, Mary. Vincent keeps them in the bottom drawer for me. If there's water in the basin to clean up, I'll be fine."

"I had put fresh water in Father's chamber just before the call to help Joe. I'll be right back. When you get out of those clothes, I'll see that those are cleaned, too."

Mary pulled the screen across the door behind her, went quickly to her chamber for a nightgown, and stopped in Father's chamber next door for the fresh water. She returned to find Catherine sitting on the edge of Vincent's bed, grimacing as she tried to remove her coat.

Catherine's adrenalin had stopped pumping, too, and reality was hitting her hard. She was going to be sore. She gingerly pushed off her shoes and socks with her toes. Mary helped her remove the coat and skirt and insisted a nightgown would be more practical than the clean jeans and sweatshirt she had left with Vincent - less work and more comfort. Catherine gratefully accepted the gown and allowed Mary to check her for injuries and clean her face, hands, and arms the way she remembered her own mother doing when she was a child.

"I'm sure Vincent intends for you to have his bed tonight, dear. Let's tuck you in before he returns. You need to rest."

By the time Vincent was back, an exhausted Catherine was under the covers and fighting sleep. "Is Joe okay?" she asked drowsily, trying to stay awake long enough for an answer.

"Father is still with him. We aren't certain of his condition yet."

Catherine's eyes opened briefly a time or two, and then she gave in and slept.

"She looks so small, Mary... " Vincent said softly, "... so fragile, and yet she has such strength. She thinks she draws strength from me. I wonder if she knows how much strength I draw from her. I don't know how I would exist now without her."

Mary's response was interrupted by Father's entrance.

"I thought you would want to know about Joe..." he started at full voice, but Mary and Vincent both shushed him, pointing at a sleeping Catherine.

"Should we wake her?" Father asked more quietly. He had intended to end with his usual blustering reprimands, but she looked so small and fragile to him, too... tomorrow would do just as well.

"No. I intend to watch over her tonight. If she wakes and has questions, I can answer them," Vincent told him, clearly intending that there would be no argument. "How is he?"

"He's a lucky man," Father reported more quietly. "He's going to need crutches for a while, and he's likely to wake with a whopping headache; but in time everything should heal. With the medication we gave him, he should sleep well into the morning; I believe it would be a good idea to have Catherine there when he wakes. These surroundings will be disconcerting for him, and I wouldn't want him to be upset enough to dislodge any stitches. He should see a familiar face to keep him calm when his eyes open... I really should examine Catherine."

"I checked, Jacob," Mary told him. "I think she needs rest more than an examination right now."

"I think so, too, Father," Vincent echoed.

"Well, the two of you are seldom wrong...Vincent does have the advantage of their bond...and she looks so peaceful... Tomorrow it is, then. Vincent, I'm sure you know to wake me if you have the slightest concern for her. Mary, could I interest you in a spot of tea? I think I need to wind down before I can sleep."

"Start the tea. I'll be right there," she answered.

"I'll cover the doorway before I leave," she told Vincent softly as Father left. "Go and hold her. Both of you need to feel safe tonight. I'll bring your breakfast and wake you before Father comes to see Catherine."

"I seem to be thanking you endlessly tonight, Mary." Looking down at Catherine he added, "I don't tell either of you often enough how much I love you, do I?"

"We know, Vincent," she smiled, patting his cheek gently, "We both know. Now I'm going to have some tea, and you're going to take care of Catherine. Good-night, dear."

***

 

 

As promised, Mary slipped into Vincent's chamber early to bring breakfast. She put the tray on his desk and just watched the couple sleep for a moment. Catherine was under the covers and Vincent was sleeping on top of them with a quilt pulled around him, but his arm was around her waist where she wouldn't feel pain from the touch, and he was curled protectively close around her.

Mary had cared for Vincent since he was brought to the tunnels; and she knew him better than anyone but Father. Father had mentioned the kisses he had witnessed, insisting on Mary's promise that they keep that information to themselves. She had noticed the subtle changes in the way Vincent looked at Catherine lately, and she wondered if the arrangement of the covers might be for her benefit rather than for Catherine's. She found herself hoping so. They both looked so peaceful, so content. Her heart nearly burst with joy every time she saw them together. She had wished this for her little boy all his life and had feared it would never happen. Of all the children she had helped raise in the tunnels, Vincent was the one she thought of as hers. Father claimed him as his own outright, but she had always claimed him in her heart.

She walked to the edge of the bed and reluctantly shook him gently.

"Wake up, Vincent. I've brought you breakfast," she whispered, hoping not to wake Catherine. After waiting for a response, she tried again and Vincent's eyes opened. "Good morning. I've brought breakfast," she repeated. "It's only muffins and fruit. It can keep if you don't want to wake Catherine just yet. I thought you might want to be out of bed when Father came to talk to Catherine about being with Joe."

"You are a wise woman," Vincent answered quietly, smiling as he slipped from under the quilt, and being careful not to disturb Catherine. "Father said Joe should sleep late into the morning. We can let her rest a while longer."

"Will you speak to Joe, meet him while he's here?"

"I'd like to. I feel we can trust him, but I'll leave it to Catherine. Will you have breakfast with me, Mary?" he asked, pulling an extra chair up to his desk. "I'll go to the kitchen and get something for Catherine when she wakes. I would appreciate your company. Do you have time?"

"Of course I have time for you," she answered, accepting the chair he offered. "Is anything special on your mind?"

Vincent, as usual, was slow to share what was really bothering him. His lips moved several times before he finally parted with his thoughts.

"She came so close to dying last night... If that man had aimed for her head instead of her heart..." He took in a shuddering breath at the image that statement called forth. "Our wedding day could so easily have become a memorial service... I love her so much..." His elbows went to his knees and his face fell to his hands.

In spite of his huge frame, he was distraught, and he needed her comfort now as much as he did when he was less than three feet tall. Mary came to his side of the desk, stood beside him and drew his head to her shoulder the way she did when he was a boy. He wrapped his arms around her waist the way he used to, but now he felt his arms could circle it nearly twice.

"She loves you just as much," she said, stroking his hair soothingly. "She felt awful that she had put you through all this."

"As much as I want her to accomplish the good work she wants to do in her world, I look forward to the day when this job ends. I know I'm being selfish, but I can't seem to help myself."

"You're not being selfish, child. You're being in love. You want her around to grow old with you, and she wants the same thing. That's why she's giving up this job. Did you know that she feels selfish, too, walking away from her work to indulge herself? That's because she wants you to be safe, so you're around to grow old with her." She continued to stroke his hair, allowing him a moment to absorb that idea. "There's nothing wrong with either of you feeling the way you do. It's perfectly normal."

Father walked into that picture.

"Vincent, is something wrong? Is it Catherine?" he asked with growing concern.

"Only indirectly, "Mary assured him. "He's still shaken about last night."

"She's drawn you to the killing again, hasn't she?" he said accusingly.

"No, Father," he snapped, sitting up straight. "I killed no one. She has encouraged me not to allow the rage to overtake me, and it didn't. I threw one man into the water near the wharf, and knocked the other one off his feet. Neither of them saw my face. The second man was unconscious when I brought Catherine and Joe to the threshold, but I left both of them alive."

"Perhaps I have misjudged Catherine again," he conceded. Then unable to drop the idea entirely, he continued. "What was she doing on the wharf at that time of the night? What was she thinking?"

"What was she thinking?!" Vincent shot back at him.

"Jacob, you have no right to blame Catherine," Mary chided. "He protected us before he ever knew her. We allowed him to expect to do that. How can you be so shortsighted? We're all equally guilty." While she spoke she left her hand protectively around Vincent's shoulder, as if she dared Father to upset him any further.

Father backed off.

Vincent kept his voice hushed to avoid waking Catherine; but his anger grew as he spoke. He stood, glowering down at his parent. "The two of them were leaving the restaurant where they had dinner and were taken by a police escort. The police took them to the docks instead of a safe house." He began to pace. "How could they have known not to trust the police?" He stopped and turned toward Father and virtually hissed. "If I hadn't been there they would both be dead. You will not speak harshly to her about this. She has been through enough."

Father could see that to upset Catherine would only upset Vincent further. This close call seemed to have taken quite a toll on his son, and apparently he really had misjudged Catherine this time. He decided to simply get Joe out of the tunnels as soon as possible and leave the subject behind them. He would just have to be grateful that all of them came through it alive.

 

 

***

 

 

Joe slept deeply for more than an hour after Catherine set up camp in the hospital chamber. There was a comfortable chair and a small table where she propped her feet. Vincent had confiscated a pillow to make the chair more comfortable. While Vincent taught his literature class, she sat reading and moving as little as possible. She was still uncomfortable.

Vincent returned to check on her as soon as he left his class, pausing at the door and calling her softly to be sure Joe wasn't awake. She stood slowly when she knew he was there and met him at the door with a much gentler hug than she really wanted.

"I want to hold you closer, too...but I'll wait until it won't hurt." Looking into the chamber at the bed, he asked, "Has he shown any sign of waking? I don't want to frighten him."

"Nothing yet, but Father said it shouldn't be long."

Most of the tunnel residents were either involved in their morning chores or their classes, and there was a curtain pulled partially around Joe's area of the hospital chamber. They both looked at Joe, then at each other. Catherine tilted her face toward Vincent and he slowly, gently gave her the kiss he knew she wanted, then another. She moved her hands to his shoulders to return his kisses with an enthusiasm tempered only enough to adjust to her bruises and soreness. Unfortunately, that was when Joe chose to wake up.

He first noticed that he wasn't at home; not only not at home, but not in any kind of home he recognized. His eyes drifted around the room, looking for something familiar. Seeing Catherine, he was about to feel relieved, then he saw Vincent; and she was kissing him... He watched the giving and returning of kisses for a moment, seeing Vincent smile gently at Catherine before the last one. He closed his eyes again, noticing the pain then and thinking he must be hallucinating. The light hurt his eyes, anyway, even if it did look like candles. He slowly moved his forearm across his eyes. "Cathy?" he mumbled.

She moved quickly away from Vincent's arms, wincing at the sudden movement. "Do you think he saw us?"

"I think you'll know soon enough," he whispered, looking contrite. "I should have had more self control. I'll be outside if you need me."

"Don't blame yourself. I think I started this," she whispered with her own apologetic smile, and moved as quickly as she dared to the bed.

"I'm here, Joe." She took his hand as she spoke to him, trying to will him to stay calm as he discovered his strange surroundings. "You were shot, but you're safe. The doctor said you have some recovering to do, but you'll be fine. He said you may have a humdinger of a headache."

"He was right about that," Joe muttered, his other arm still over his eyes. "Must have affected my mind. When I woke up I thought I was in some sort of cave...and you were in a lip lock with...I dunno...some kind of cat man, big strapping guy, lots of hair..." He stopped briefly and grinned, in spite of his pain. "... and you looked like you were lovin' it. Some imagination, huh?"

While Catherine decided how to answer him, his memory of the night before began to return and he opened his eyes to look at her.

"You okay, Radcliffe? Last I remember, Langston shot at you and you fell... Really scared me... Thought I'd gotten you killed. I'm sorry I got you into all this." He reached to place his other hand over hers but suddenly became acutely aware of the pain from both wounds, and he closed his eyes again, stoically waiting for the pain to subside.

"He hit the vest, Joe. I'm okay. You're the one who got shot."

"Jeez, what did he shoot me with, a cannon? Everything hurts."

"He shot you twice. Once in the thigh and another shot grazed the side of your head." She added more lightly, "Father said your hair should cover the scar."

"Father? Am I in a Catholic hospital?" Opening his eyes, he realized the cave part of his hallucination was real. "Where am I? This place looks like a World War II bomb shelter. Are we really in a cave? How did I get here? Please tell me the cat man isn't outside the door. That would sure explain why you don't introduce your boyfriend to anybody... Oh, God. Am I still hallucinating?"

Catherine could see he was still disoriented and was becoming agitated. She held his hand tighter and used a firmer tone of voice.

"You trust me, don't you?"

"Yeah, I trust you."

"Then for right now, can you just accept that you're in an old fashioned hospital room in a cave and being well cared for by a good doctor? Let yourself get a little stronger and I'll explain later. You're very safe here."

"How long will I be here?"

"Until you can get around a little on your own. You lost a lot of blood. Father is your doctor, and he wants you to rest a couple of days..."

"The mysterious Dr. Father... " he teased.

Catherine smiled and sighed. The irrepressible sense of humor was still there. He would be fine.

"He wants you to rest a couple of days before we get you back to your apartment. You'll need crutches for a while. We were both lucky it wasn't any worse last night."

"Like I said, Cathy, I'm really sorry."

"Are you hungry - thirsty?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Thirsty," he answered, and she poured him a glass of water, holding a straw so he wouldn't have to move his head too much. His head was beginning to clear and the DA habits were showing.

"What time is it?" he asked her. "Have you talked to anybody about last night? I remember Langston falling into the water. What happened to the other guy?"

"It's about noon. I'm not sure what happened to Langston. We left the other man unconscious. I need to go and file a report this afternoon. I'm going to have to introduce you to some friends of mine and leave you for a while, but I'll be back tonight. I'm going to say that you're sedated and that your doctor says he'll allow you to talk to them by Saturday or Sunday. You'll be fine here. The people are friendly and the food is good, two of your prerequisites for life."

"I'll just watch TV till you get back."

"Not here, you won't," Catherine chuckled. "You won't make any phone calls, either.

"Who doesn't have TV and phones in a hospital these days? Are you in some kind of cult, Chandler? And what about the cat man? Do I meet him, too?" he grinned.

"Maybe," she smiled enigmatically. "You never know. I'll be right back."

Catherine returned with Sarah, Pascal, Kanin, Mary, and Father. She introduced each of them, finally reaching Father.

"And this is the mysterious Dr. Father," she smiled. "He's the one who stitched you up last night. People here call him Father because he heads the community, and no, it isn't a cult. It's an unusual place, but not a cult - more of a kibbutz. It's a good place, and when we go home, you'll have to forget it exists. These people are part of my secrets, Joe. You'll have to help me protect them. Do you remember Dr. Peter Alcott?"

"Your doctor, right?"

"He'll take care of reporting the gunshot wounds. I know this is a lot to take in, but last night this was the best solution for getting you help when you needed it. I was in no condition to drive. As you gradually get your head back together we'll explain, I promise. I'm going home now to change clothes and talk to Greg Hughes. We know we can trust him. Do you want anything from your apartment?"

"I guess I'll need clean clothes. Can you find my keys?"

Father indicated a small table in the corner, and Sarah retrieved the keys from the drawer.

"These people will see that you have everything you need. They'll take turns sitting with you. Somebody might even rustle up a deck of cards if you feel up to it. I'll be back tonight." She leaned over to whisper close to his ear. "These people don't know you yet. It might be best not to mention the cat man thing for now. Okay?"

"Good plan," he mouthed silently.

Catherine smiled at him and patted his arm. As she left, she could hear the beginnings of the "Any friend of Catherine's..." sort of introductions to conversation. He would be in good hands.

 

 

********************

 

 

After stopping at her apartment for a shower and a change of clothes, Catherine went to see Peter. He examined her so he could present the police with a legitimate report. Greg Hughes had a copy of the report Latham had filed as soon as he knew his partner's family was in a safe place, so she only needed to report what happened after the meeting at the wharf the night before. She returned the vests she and Joe had used and reported the incident as close to accurately as she could without giving away secrets.

Her report included a fabrication to cover their departure from the docks. Since Joe was unconscious at that point, it was one less lie that he would feel responsible for. She said Joe was taken to a small clinic where Peter was owed a favor. Joe was in no condition to protect himself. Since they weren't sure yet what happened to Langston or who his informants were, it seemed a wise precaution to keep Joe under wraps until Langston was in custody again.

Greg Hughes apparently accepted her story without question. It fit what they knew of Langston's habits, and followed the ramblings of his cohort, Jack.

"Jack Faison was the man with Langston," Hughes told her. "He said Langston shot you. He saw you fall and thought you were dead. Apparently after the gun was fired Langston lost his footing and fell into the water. Did you hear any growling? Jack said he heard some kind of growling or snarling just before Langston fell."

"Growling? No, I don't remember anything like that. Of course, most of my attention was on the gun pointed at me."

"He probably imagined it. Maybe Joe can fill in the rest later. What were his injuries?"

Catherine recounted Joe's injuries and the encouraging prognosis.

"I left him sleeping, sedated. Peter has promised to keep me posted. I'm not planning to stay at my apartment until Langston has been found. If you need me, leave a message at the office or my apartment. I'll be staying with a friend, but I'll check daily for messages. If I remember anything else, I'll call you."

"Thank you, Cathy. I appreciate your coming in so quickly after such an ordeal. I'll send an escort with you to take you back for your belongings and see you safely to your friend. I'll handle this carefully. If Langston is interested in Joe, he'll certainly be interested in you, too."

"Thank you. I do need to stop at Joe's apartment and get him a change of clothes. If someone would just escort me there and back to my building, I would appreciate it. My friend and I have things worked out from there."

"The lieutenant called to another man across the room, saying quietly when he arrived at the desk, "I need you to take Miss Chandler wherever she needs to go and see that she gets into her apartment safely. She's become a witness in a new case against Gerald Langston, and we've temporarily lost track of him. Keep your eyes open."

"My pleasure, Miss Chandler," the younger man answered, gesturing to his partner to join them. "We're going to take good care of you. All of us want this guy." They all also felt a good deal of respect that she and Joe were willing to leave themselves in the position they were in to try to put Langston away."

***

 

 

After leaving with the two officers she went to Joe's apartment, then they drove her home. The two young officers were true to their word. They intended to take good care of her. She tried to convince them to leave, but they were insistent. She wanted nothing more than to go straight to the basement and Vincent's waiting arms, but she had to tolerate all these good intentions first. They escorted her to her apartment, checked it before they left, and cautioned her to be on her guard.

She thanked them, assured them she would be careful, and locked the door behind them. After waiting a few minutes to be sure they were gone, she picked up Joe's bag and took the elevator to the basement. Her bag was already packed and waiting in the basement storage room. Now that she had Joe's things, all she needed to do was go back to the tunnels.

Vincent was waiting, this time at the top of the ladder. He had no intention of allowing her to handle those bags as well as climb down. She was already exhausted - mentally and physically.

"Give me the bags and I'll help you down."

"What would I do without you?" she asked gratefully.

"Get much less exercise," he teased, taking the bags down the ladder.

Catherine gingerly moved through the opening and down the ladder and suddenly found herself scooped up carefully into Vincent's arms.

He was very conscious of her discomfort, and accommodated it as much as he could, but she welcomed whatever physical discomfort came with the gratifying comfort of his arms. Gratefully resting her head on his shoulder and draping one arm around his neck, she nuzzled her face there and kissed it in several places.

"I've already sent the message that we're on the way. Someone else will be here for the bags soon. You are my only concern. You're exhausted, and again putting everyone else before yourself," he scolded as he started striding smoothly toward home.

"All the reports are covered for a couple of days. I can relax at least until tomorrow afternoon. Greg Hughes will leave any messages at the office or on my answering machine. I really could walk, you know."

"I know," he answered, "But then I could only hold your hand."

Catherine smiled appreciatively.

"Okay, You can carry me for a little while," she said from the comfort of his shoulder. "How is Joe?"

"Recovering well - rapidly charming his way into the community. He never meets a stranger, does he?" Vincent chuckled.

Catherine chuckled, too. She could see Joe making friends left and right. Maybe he would become a helper. It was going to be nice to have someone else close in her world to talk to besides Peter.

"Joe and I need to coordinate our stories before he goes back Above... and we have to figure out how we're going to get him back. I'll give you his address and you can see if there's a threshold somewhere near his building."

He knew she was paying attention to their conversation; but as they walked, Catherine couldn't resist leaving little kisses against Vincent's neck. It was so close, and he smelled so nice... and he didn't mind at all.

"Those arrangements have already been made," he said, kissing her head. It seems we have a helper in the building next door to Joe's - a threshold similar to yours. The worst part for Joe will be getting him up the ladder, but I'll be there to help."

"You'll be there to help?" she exclaimed. "Have you met Joe while I was gone?"

"No, but I think it's time, don't you? He's a good friend to you, Catherine. He deserves some answers, and I don't think he would betray your trust." Sounding more somber, he added, "He will likely put two and two together and have trouble with the answers; but in the end he will undoubtedly see them as having saved your life. He's in love with you too, you know."

"I know. I haven't consciously done anything to encourage it, and he's never done anything to make me uncomfortable being with him. He knows there's someone else, and he's accepted it." She stopped for a moment. "He did see us this morning."

"You and the cat man?"

"I was afraid you heard that."

"What was he supposed to say? He was already disoriented and completely unprepared for what he saw. He did have the good manners to mention that you were 'lovin' it,'" Vincent smiled mischievously.

"And if you'd slow down for a minute, I'd love it again," she smiled back.

Vincent stopped, knowing they were between sentries and still in a relatively untraveled area. He gave her several short kisses, not allowing her to feel where he would like it to lead - just enjoying having her close, the scent of her hair, her lips on his... He couldn't dwell on that too long. He started moving toward the home chambers again.

"Mary has a guest chamber ready for you, and insisted on preparing it herself. She already loves you like a daughter. I believe she may be as excited about our wedding as we are."

"Not quite as excited as I am," Catherine answered. "She'll be missing some of the fringe benefits I'm looking forward to."

Vincent treated her to a warm smile, also enjoying thoughts of the fringe benefits, and kissed her forehead again as they walked.

As they came close to the main hub, Catherine began to insist on walking, protesting that she was just sore and uncomfortable, not helpless. After much persistence on her part, Vincent finally put her down. He took her hand and walked beside her.

"Your hand is a poor substitute for what I had before," he complained good-naturedly.

"I'll kiss your neck some more when we're alone," she whispered.

"Then you might be forgiven," he whispered back. More seriously he asked, "Shall we see Joe before dinner?"

"Yes," she answered hesitantly. "How would you like to do this?"

"Perhaps you should talk to him for a few minutes. Tell him what you learned from the police today. When he mentions the cat man... as I'm sure he will; ask if he would like to meet him. I'll let you decide how much to prepare him. Just be sure he doesn't have anything to toss at me. His throwing arm might be stronger than yours," he said playfully.

"Vincent, will you never let me live that down?" she protested.

Vincent laughed as she batted at his arm.

"Cathy, is that you?" Joe called out.

Catherine patted Vincent's hand. "Here goes," she said quietly. "I won't be long." Raising the volume of her voice, she answered Joe. "It's me. Have you behaved yourself while I was gone?"

Kipper was sitting with him and beating him soundly at gin rummy.

"I tried," Joe answered.

"He's been okay," Kipper chimed in.

"Yeah, kid. You say that because you're winning," Joe said, and handed his cards to Kipper.

"Kipper, I need to talk to Joe a few minutes alone. Would you mind..."

"No problem. Winning all the time gets old after a while," he grinned.

"Hey, kid. Give me a break. I'm in pain. It blows the concentration," Joe retorted toward Kipper's back.

"Bye, Joe," Kipper chuckled as he left, smiling over his shoulder on the way out.

"How are you?" Catherine asked.

"I hurt," he answered with a less of a smile.

"I thought you might."

"Dr. Father gave me pain killers a while ago, so it's a little better now. I may fall asleep in the middle of the conversation, though. What did you do while you were gone?"

Catherine recounted the afternoon's events and the report she filed, and told him she was going to have to ask him to coordinate a story with her before they went back home.

"I need to lie about what happened?" he responded, looking concerned.

"I don't think so. Not much, anyway. The only part you may have to lie about is what happened after you were shot. You'll have to back my story about the clinic. This place isn't on the map, and it needs to stay that way."

"I guess I owe you that. There are some good people here. They dress funny, but they're good people. Hey, Kanin, the one we sent up for that drunk driving accident...he lives here. Seems like a nice guy."

"I know."

"You knew then, too, didn't you?" he challenged.

"Yes."

"So does this place have something to do with that information network you developed so fast?"

"Yes."

"Is this where you disappear to sometimes?"

"Yes."

"Are you gonna to tell me more about it before I go home?"

"Yes."

"Are you gonna to introduce me to the cat man?" he asked with a playful smile.

"Yes."

"Yeah, right," Joe grinned. "He's your mystery man, isn't he? You don't know I exist because I don't have enough hair."

"Something like that," she answered, looking down, and looking more serious, hating for Vincent to hear those references.

"Okay, Radcliffe. You're beginning to worry me."

"Joe, I want you to meet Vincent."

"I actually get to meet Vincent?"

"Before you meet him, you need to know he's very different. There literally isn't anyone else like him. Well... just know you're in for a surprise, but you'll get over it." She turned toward the door and called quietly, "Vincent, come and meet Joe."

"Wait till Vincent hears you were kissing the cat man," Joe teased. The grin on his face as he spoke turned to a silent, slack-jawed stare of astonishment when Vincent appeared in the doorway. He looked huge...and strong...and scary.

"Vincent already knows about that," Vincent said with a small, non-teeth-baring smile, intending to put Joe at ease about his last remark. He pushed back the hood of his cloak and rested his gloved hands at the foot of the bed. "I'm pleased to finally meet you. Catherine speaks of you often."

Vincent's soothing voice and the gentle humor in his response to Joe's unintentionally rude comment brought Joe almost back to his senses. After struggling to regain his voice, as well as his composure. He finally managed to speak with his typical if-you're-uncomfortable-you-can-always-make-a-joke Joe humor.

"Hey, I'm really sorry about that. If I could move my leg, I'd stick the other foot in here with this one." He pointed toward his mouth.

He was relieved to hear both Vincent and Catherine chuckle.

"That's real?" he asked, looking closely at Vincent's face. "That isn't make-up?"

"No."

"The guy on the subways...?" He had to ask.

"That was Jason Walker with a mask and metal claws," Catherine assured him. "He saw Vincent, followed him here, and there was an accident. He died, and there was no way to retrieve the body."

Joe seemed relieved at that disclosure.

"Where did you come from? Is your whole family like you?"

Simultaneously Catherine heard both men.

"I doubt that I will ever know."

"I'm sorry. My mother taught me better manners than this."

"Don't be concerned," Vincent told him. "I am well aware that this is not what you expected to see."

Joe nodded, biting his tongue to keep from exclaiming, "You got that right!" He turned to Catherine for encouragement and saw her watching Vincent with a look he could hardly believe. He knew then that a friend was all he would ever be to her. He just couldn't understand how she could have fallen for...whatever you'd call this...person?

"How did you find Vincent?" he finally managed to ask.

"Actually, he found me," she said, still gazing at her favorite sight.

Joe glanced back at Vincent and saw him looking at Catherine the same way she was looking at him. The connection between them was almost visible- he could nearly feel it in the air around him - and they were on opposite sides of his bed. They weren't even holding hands.

"He found me in the park the night I was attacked and brought me here," she told him, looking back at Joe. "He helped take care of me until I was able to go back. His father is your doctor."

"That's your father?" Joe said in Vincent's direction, clearly confused.

"I was adopted," Vincent explained.

"You see now why I had to 'forget' where I had been," Catherine continued. "This place means his safety. I couldn't do anything to jeopardize that."

"Okay. That makes sense," Joe agreed.

"He brought you here last night after you were shot. I wasn't in any condition to help you, and he wouldn't leave me," Catherine told him.

"Then I guess I need to thank you - for both of us," Joe said, looking back at Vincent.

"No thanks are necessary. You are Catherine's friend."

"We should let you get some rest. I brought you clean clothes and a few other things. Someone will bring your bag in a few minutes. Do you need anything before we go?"

"No, thanks. Can't think of anything."

"Then we'll leave you to recover from today's surprises," she smiled sympathetically and gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. She and Vincent turned to leave, then she turned back. "Oh, by the way, would you keep what you saw this morning to yourself? We'd just as soon avoid gossip. With no TV, it's quite a pastime here," Catherine asked a little sheepishly.

"My lips are sealed," he assured her with the best twinkle in his eye that he could muster up at the moment.

"Thank you, Joe," Vincent said warmly. "We'll visit again tomorrow."

Joe caught a fleeting glimpse of the tips of his canines that time. He had felt the solid strength of the "man" when they shook hands. He must be all muscle, He could practically see the power lurking there; and the guy didn't even seem to be particularly aware of it. Seeing those teeth unnerved him. When he was sure they were away from the door, he allowed himself to exhale a breath of relief. He wasn't sure what this Vincent was; but, whatever he was, he knew he wanted him on his side. Other than the obvious differences in appearance, what was it that left him so unstrung about meeting him?

Cathy Chandler certainly was full of surprises. She would obviously never forgive him if he did anything to compromise this place or Vincent, and that had a power of it's own in Joe's heart. Besides, he seemed to owe Vincent for his life at this point. Why did that concern him so? Then there were all the people who lived here - wherever "here" was. Yeah, he'd have to keep her secrets. He settled down into his pillows, grateful for the pain medication. The way his mind was racing, he wasn't sure he would sleep now without it.

"Why the gloves this time?" Catherine asked, watching Vincent remove the gloves and tuck them in the pocket inside his cloak. He reached for her hand as they walked. It was still the only show of affection they allowed themselves in public.

"I didn't want him to make too many connections yet. We both know he will before long. We should allow him another night's rest before he has to contend with those thoughts. I like him, Catherine. I hope he can learn to see me as a friend."

"I hope so, too. Thank you for this, Vincent. I know it wasn't comfortable for you."

They walked a little way in silence.

"He loves children, you know. You saw how he and Kipper took to one another. Once he meets the children, he's likely to become a helper," Catherine said.

"Anyone who has met him so far would certainly welcome him back any time he wants to visit. The mention of his name brings a smile already," he told her.

When they reached the guest chamber, Vincent stayed for a short time. He sat in the chair near the bed and pulled Catherine gently into his lap, her favorite place to sit.

"We are now alone. I believe you have a promise to keep," he said with a mischievous smile in his blue eyes.

Catherine had already snuggled against him. It took only a small move to plant the promised kisses on his neck. She stretched a little more to briefly nip at his ear lobe. From there her small kisses brushed across his jaw line and gradually reached his lips, where he willingly joined her efforts. After a few minutes he moved, indicating that he intended to stand.

"If not for your bruises I would be tempted to break our agreement. How many years away is our wedding?" he groaned as he stood.

"Weeks, not years," Catherine grinned. "We'll make it."

"Rest now," he said, kissing her lightly. "I think I may go for a cold swim."

"See you in the morning," she answered with a little laugh, and fueled his need for the cold swim with one more kiss.

Vincent uttered a small, frustrated growl, chuckled, grasped her shoulders, kissed the top of her head and left her smiling.

 

 

***

 

 

Attesting to the fact that Joe was winning his way into the community, Catherine arrived at the hospital chamber on Friday morning to find William personally delivering his breakfast. When William left, she let Joe know what an honor he had just experienced.

"You were right about the food. It's great. I told somebody yesterday that I'd love to thank the chef, and I guess he got the word." He said as he moved a forkful of hotcakes toward his mouth.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"As long as I take my meds and don't move too fast, it isn't too bad. Except for the lack of TV, this is the best hospital care I've ever had. People here take real good care of each other, don't they?"

"Yes," Catherine answered.

"The lack of phones has been kind of nice - nobody trying to get me back to work."

"You noticed that, too?" Catherine said pointedly.

"Oh, you're funny this morning," Joe answered good-naturedly. "You loved zinging the boss with that one, didn't you?"

Catherine just laughed as she watched him down another bite of hotcakes.

"Are you going to tell me where we are?" Joe asked suddenly after he swallowed. "My head is clearer today, and I've seen enough of the people here to know I couldn't say anything to expose them. I'm not telling any of your secrets, Cathy. Be straight with me."

"We're below the city...below the subways. The ringing you hear is from the pipes - it's a communication system. There were a few people living here even before Father came here in the early fifties."

"That long? Wow," Joe responded in disbelief.

"Father was brought here by a friend when his life Above fell apart, and he stayed. He and another man, John Pater, turned it into a well-organized community and established a system of barter and foraging to keep the supply lines alive. They take from the city in a way, but what they've given back to it replaces it tenfold. There are people who have lived here their whole lives and others who are here temporarily - long enough to get their lives back together and return to our world. Most of the people who have been helped here in one way or another become helpers and continue to give to this community in whatever way they can."

"I don't remember meeting any John Pater. Will I meet him before I leave?"

"No. John Pater is dead." Taking a deep breath, she added, "Do you remember the drug case, the dealer who insisted on being paid in gold?"

"You're about to tell me that had something to do with this place, too, aren't you?"

"That was John Pater. He called himself Paracelsus by that time. He was both a genius and a madman. I dealt with him a few other times, both directly and indirectly - all extremely unpleasant experiences. Again, I couldn't turn him in because it would have betrayed this community. More secrets..."

Joe could see that it was getting more difficult for Catherine to talk to him.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg, isn't it? I'm getting the feeling there's some heavy stuff you've had to keep to yourself. That's a big load for one woman to carry around all alone."

"I'm only alone in my world, not in Vincent's."

"That must have been hard for you."

"It has. At least now I can talk to you sometimes...can't I?"

"Sure, Radcliffe. You know I'm always there if you need me."

"Thanks, Joe," she answered, giving him a gentle hug, mindful of his injuries.

It tore at his heart to think of all the times she must have felt so alone. He would have to get over being in love with her and concentrate on being the best friend she could ask for. Just then a stab of intense jealousy ran through him as the recipient of her affections entered the room.

"Good morning," Vincent greeted him, stopping beside Catherine next to the bed.

Catherine smiled up at him and moved closer. Joe extended his hand in greeting. To return Joe's gesture of goodwill, Vincent reached out for a brief handshake with his now ungloved hand.

"Don't get any wrong ideas. She hugged me," Joe said quickly.

"Chivalry is dead," Catherine answered dryly.

Vincent just smiled at their bantering.

"Father tells me that you're recovering well. No sign of problems developing," Vincent said.

"That's what he tells me, too," Joe answered. "Doesn't make it hurt any less."

Vincent looked at him in a way that made Joe feel completely understood.

"It will be good for Catherine to have someone close in her world who understands the burden she carries. I'm sorry you had to undergo such pain to provide that."

Joe suddenly became distracted when he noticed Vincent's hands. "Good Lord, are those as sharp as they look?" He asked without thinking first.

"Yes," Vincent answered with resignation. It appeared the time of reckoning had come. He could imagine the DA's sharp, analytical mind struggling to make the connections Joe hadn't identified yet, and he dreaded the moment when it all came together in a single truth. Catherine saw it, too, and shared the same dread.

"Don't you have a class this morning?" Catherine asked, partly from curiosity and partly to quickly change the subject.

"In about twenty minutes." He smiled and chuckled slightly. "Father was busy removing a button from Jonah's nose, so I've already taught the early math class."

"Jonah is one of the more active three year olds," Catherine interjected with a knowing smile.

"I was instructed to tell Joe he can go home on Sunday morning, as long as he shows no sign of complications." Turning to Joe, he added. "Father says we can give you crutches today and allow you some movement."

"Will I be able to do some exploring?"

"Whatever you feel you can manage... within reason, of course."

"If I have to go home on Sunday, I guess I'd better start managing," Joe observed. "Cathy told me where we are. How do I get home from here?" he asked curiously.

"With a lot of help," Vincent answered. "We'll do our best to make it as easy for you as possible. Peter will meet us to see that you don't need further care."

"I'll keep all this to myself," Joe assured him.

"I know," Vincent told him. "Catherine trusts you completely. That tells me we can trust you as well."

Kipper suddenly bounded in the door on his way to class. "Morning Joe. Want me to bring the cards later?" He stopped as suddenly as he had entered, surprised to see Vincent there. "Did you cancel class this morning?" he asked hopefully.

Vincent gave him a stern, but patient look.

"No, Kipper, I'm afraid you still have to tolerate me - and King Lear. Did you finish your reading?"

"Yeah. I think I'm actually beginning to understand this stuff."

Vincent smiled and ruffled Kipper's hair.

Kipper reached up to bat his hand away, but anyone watching could see that he relished that attention from Vincent.

"Then perhaps we can both conclude that all the frustrations have been worthwhile. Why don't we prepare for class and leave Catherine to entertain Joe for a while?"

"Sure, Vincent. See you Later, Joe."

Vincent draped one arm over Kipper's shoulder and started an easygoing conversation as they left.

"What class were they talking about?" Joe asked.

"Vincent teaches a literature class in the morning. Right now they're studying Shakespeare - King Lear."

"Shakespeare? He teaches Shakespeare?" Joe repeated in amazement.

"Doesn't look the part, does he?" Catherine grinned. "It would amaze you to know how many interests he has, how many things he does well."

"Are you sure he didn't go to a Catholic school?" Joe asked. That look he shot Kipper reminded me of the ones the nuns gave me."

His mind was working overtime now, beginning to pull things together.

"Those times you were going to a concert in the park, but nobody saw you there..."

"He's been listening from a place under the park for years. I go there with him." We don't see much, but the sound is superb," she said mischievously.

"How much are you willing to give up for him?" Joe asked seriously.

"Everything I have to. I'm not sure how I would live without him."

"What does he give up for you? Looks like you're making most of the sacrifices."

"He gives me more than you can imagine," she shot back angrily. How dare he pass judgments with so little information. "His influence is the reason I wanted to work for the district attorney - the reason I managed to put that attack behind me. I draw on his strength constantly. He puts my welfare ahead of his own much too often. Every time he comes to my balcony to see me, he puts his life in danger. Every time he comes to help me..."

She stopped suddenly, realizing she was about to say too much, but it was too late. Joe had finally made the connection that had been eating away at the back of his mind ever since he saw Vincent. Under the kindness and that unique, soothing voice there was the raw power, the claws...and the visible love for Catherine.

"To help you... To protect you. Isn't that what you meant?" Joe asked, suddenly feeling very uneasy. "All those killings...some of the bodies looked like they had been mutilated by an animal. Those sharp nails... My God. That was Vincent, wasn't it?"

Tears gathered in Catherine's eyes and one escaped down her cheek.

"It nearly killed him, Joe. My carelessness nearly killed him. He had come to my defense too many times... and he hates what he did. Can you imagine being what he is...so much a man and yet partly something that can't be explained? There was no time that he killed for any reason except to defend me or his community. When it happened here it was no different than the special forces going in to complete a mission, but when it was to protect me he was out of control. The remorse for the lack of control and what it could mean in our lives pushed him into a breakdown that we weren't sure he would survive. There were other factors, but I'll always feel responsible. Jason Walker can be blamed for the subway killings - Vincent was responsible for the others."

"God, Cathy," Joe breathed softly. "He ripped some of those guys to pieces. How can you live with that?"

"There was no innocence in what they were trying to do either. All of them had killed before with no sense of remorse or responsibility, and they were in the act of attempting it again...but that doesn't change anything, does it?" She couldn't look at Joe when she actually made that admission. The tears were flowing freely now. She realized she had never had to put all this into words, and it was painful. Joe slowly shook his head, temporarily speechless.

"That's why I asked to be transferred away investigation. I didn't want to put him in that position again."

"And I dropped the two of you right back into it. Are there more mutilated bodies to be accounted for?"

"No. Vincent and I talked after his illness, tried to account for the reason he lost control. I don't think it will be that way again. Wednesday night he pulled Langston into the water and threw the other man off balance. It knocked him out when he fell. No deaths to account for at all. They haven't found him yet; but Vincent said Langston was alive, clinging to a board or something in the water when he last saw him."

"Whew. I'd hate to be responsible for anything worse. Geez, I'm sorry. I had no idea how bad this would be for you."

"You didn't come out of it too well yourself," she smiled slightly, feeling appreciative that he could find any sympathy at all for her after what he had just learned.

"I left you out there again, all by yourself, trying to practice law and cover for Vincent at the same time. How have you managed? How have you juggled so many secrets and still functioned like a normal person?"

"It's been hard," she admitted. "Vincent knows it isn't easy. He knows what I've given up; and for a long time he couldn't, or wouldn't understand that what he gives me is worth more than anything I can gain from what I've left behind. He's tried to send me away more than once 'for my own good,' but I came back often enough that he finally gave up and kept me," she sniffed, smiling a weak smile through her tears.

"He was a fool to send you away even once," Joe muttered, wondering if he could have been that generous.

Apparently there was a lot more to this Vincent than claws and fangs and carnage. He put Cathy's best interests above his own when it was so clear to anybody with eyes how much he loved her. He was ready to defend her in spite of the danger to himself from just being seen in her world. He was built like a boulder. He enjoyed Shakespeare, and classical music, taught math, seemed to love children... From the comments of people here and their responses to him he could see that Vincent was certainly a valued and trusted friend and a community leader. There was a lot to admire. Why couldn't complex problems ever be black and white? Why did things this complicated always have to come in shades of gray?

"Joe, I'm sorry. I never wanted you to have to deal with all this."

"I'm sorry, too. If I hadn't gotten you into this Langston mess we wouldn't be having this conversation." He looked up at her. "I'll still keep your secrets. I'll have a lot of trouble with some of them; but I'll keep them... and I'll be around if you need somebody to talk to when you can't get here."

"Thank you," she said, tears flowing freely again. She leaned over and gave Joe a big hug. He wrapped his arms around her, hoping to soothe away some of the pain their last conversation brought her. When Catherine stood again, he had a few more questions.

"You would give up everything for him, wouldn't you? Move here if you had to?"

"Whatever it takes to be with him and keep him safe."

"How much longer will you stay at the DA's office?"

"You're not going to make this easy, are you?" she smiled ruefully, the tears beginning to subside.

"Was it ever easy?"

"No."

"Okay, then answer the question."

"The end of the year, probably. I had planned to talk to you next week."

"Any particular reason?"

"My life needs to be less dangerous. I have financial resources I can use to work with children who need the love, patience and help they get from people here. Maybe I can help stop at least a little of the criminal behavior before it starts instead of reacting to it after it happens. You can join me any time you want."

"I had a feeling this was coming. It won't be the same without you."

Like I said, you can join me any time you get tired of what you're doing. I'll make you one of the head honchos."

"You'd like being the boss for a change, wouldn't you?" he teased, trying to lighten the mood.

"You better believe it," she smiled.

"Anything else I need to know?"

"This is an engagement ring. Will you come to the wedding? Your leg should be healed by then."

That bit of information hit him like a knife to his heart, but he smiled.

"I wouldn't miss it."

She gave him another appreciative hug.

********************

 

 

After his class, Vincent came to bring Joe crutches. Catherine had gone Above to check messages and see if Langston had been located. Joe accepted Vincent's help in moving from the bed and adjusting the crutches for his height, but knowing what he now knew made it difficult not to imagine the details of those attacks. Vincent needed no empathic abilities to sense Joe's discomfort at his presence.

"You know, don't you?" Vincent asked as he completed the adjustment for the second crutch. He didn't look up, just stopped and rested one arm across his knee where he knelt next to Joe.

"Cathy said something that put it all together," Joe answered nervously, leaning back to rest on the edge of his bed. "You know it can't happen again, don't you? She'll have to take the heat for it alone if, or when, it comes out. If I made the connection, somebody else will figure it out sooner or later. She can say she doesn't know anything, but she'll always look suspicious. If it stops, maybe..."

Vincent was still having difficulty looking at Joe directly, but he felt it necessary to face his questions. He had never been one to share his feelings about himself, even with those closest to him; but Joe was important to Catherine, and he wanted Joe to trust him. That required painful honesty. He stood, but faced slightly away from Joe when he spoke.

"It's complicated. Part of me is capable of more than human responses. It frightens me - sickens me that I was capable of doing those things; but some of those same abilities have protected the people I love. I have killed in defense of my home and family, but only when we were threatened, and with as little violence as possible. When there was no real danger, we simply found ways to frighten intruders away and seal off their entrances. Protecting Catherine was something different. When I knew someone was trying to hurt her and I wasn't sure I could reach her in time... The rage that came with the anger and fear for her safety took over completely, and I was lost in it. If she hadn't stopped me, it could have been worse. Seeing someone try to kill her...I may never be able to entirely stop the rage." He still hadn't looked up.

"How did you know where she was?" Joe interrupted. "Did she tell you where she was going?"

"I felt her fear and followed my sense of her," Vincent told him matter-of-factly as he finally faced Joe. "I can't explain the connection between us, but it exists; and it has saved both her life and mine."

"Wow," Joe responded softly.

Joe began to relax a little. He thought quietly for a short time. So Cathy hadn't actually planned any of this with Vincent, and what Vincent had done sickened him, too. He began to imagine what it might be like to be Vincent. You've found the woman you love and watched as she recovered from one horrible, life-threatening attack. She's being threatened with death again. You know you can't afford to be seen; but you know you don't want to live without her. You aren't sure you can get to her fast enough to save her. You have the strength and natural weapons to make short work of the people threatening her. Adrenalin, fear, anger and frustration are flowing like fountains... What would you do under those conditions? How would you react? He came to a frightening conclusion.

"It scares me to think it; but if I had to work with the same factors you do, I might have done the same thing," Joe admitted slowly.

Vincent looked at Joe as if he were absolutely mad.

"You can't mean that," he stated in complete disbelief, yet he felt that Joe was being truthful.

"Yeah. I do mean that. I'd fight like that for her, too. I'd like to think I could stop before it got that bad, but I don't know... I've never had to live the way you do... I'll never put her, or you, in that kind of spot again. You have my word." Another stark realization suddenly hit him. "Wait a minute. If she hadn't stopped you? She saw all that happen?" Joe shuddered as he spoke.

Vincent answered only by lowering his head again.

"My God. She watched all that," Joe repeated in quiet shock, and again he felt his stomach churn. "What did she do? How did she handle it?"

"She didn't," Vincent answered quietly, still not looking up.

"What do you mean 'she didn't'?" Joe asked, concerned.

"She has yet to...'handle it'," Vincent answered, glancing at Joe now and then, still unable to face him completely. "She only allowed herself to be concerned with my safety. She saw, but didn't allow herself to feel. One day she will; and I fear what it may bring. We hardly mention that the killings happened...as if we don't speak the words, the reality can be held at bay." He took a deep breath that shuddered slightly. "I always stayed away from her afterward. I believed she would finally be too disgusted to want to be near me again."

"But in spite of all that, she always came back?" Joe asked.

"I told her to leave me, to find a normal life. Elliott could have given her the life she was accustomed to. You love her. You could have given her the love and the family she wants."

Joe's stomach knotted. This "man" who could easily rip him to shreds had just, very matter-of-factly, stated that they were both in love with the same woman. It wasn't presented as an assumption. It was presented as a known fact. He began to relax again as he grasped that there was no anger or accusation in the statement. He might as well just admit to it and get them past it."

"You love her more than either of us. I'm not sure I could let her go if I'd had the chance to marry her -- or even if she had ever looked at me the way she looks at you. Burch had a promise of marriage and let her go. I never figured out what happened, but she didn't seem too excited about any part of it." Suddenly another revelation hit Joe. "She didn't agree to that marriage because she wanted it, did she?"

"No."

"That had something to do with this place too, didn't it?"

"The excavations for Burch Towers were about to destroy our community. She made stopping the building a prerequisite for the marriage."

"And that engagement... It nearly killed both of you..." Joe thought out loud

Vincent's look was all Joe needed as a confirmation.

"So Burch was a big enough fool to give her up for a building - a pile of concrete and steel. She would have married him and never loved him to save you and this place." Joe breathed out a slow breath in astonishment. "I don't think I can absorb any more secrets today," he said, shaking his head slightly and imagining how much they must love one another to still be together through all of this. "I want to see some of this place she's so attached to."

"Lunch will be served soon. You can visit this area, and I'll help you to the dining hall for lunch if you feel up to it."

"Let's go," Joe answered, working out a slow rhythm of movement with the crutches. His sense of reality was slipping away in increments. First he had learned of the attacks, now he was feeling that he understood them. Cathy had watched some of the killings, undoubtedly felt guilty and appalled about it, but still loved Vincent enough to make this many changes in her life to be with him and protect his home. He had to see this place for himself.

By the time he and Vincent had explored the closest passage, including a bathing chamber and, to his great relief, one of the "necessary chambers", Joe thought he must have asked Vincent a hundred questions. When he seemed to be tiring, they had stopped to visit one of the tunnel residents in a home chamber where Joe was offered a place to sit.

Vincent walked slowly, allowing Joe to set his own pace as he guided him to the dining hall. Once they reached it, he was welcomed as if the community had known him for years. Some of the children who came for attention from Vincent were drawn to Joe immediately.

Watching him with the children, Vincent knew Catherine had been right. He would be back, and probably looking for the little ones first.

***

 

 

By Sunday morning Joe had moved around enough to feel reasonably comfortable about going home on his own. Some of his new friends had helped him pack his things in his gym bag. He was ready to go Above; but he still couldn't imagine how he would get there. If they were as far below the city as it seemed from the conversations he'd been part of, he certainly couldn't get there on crutches. As if answering his question, four men from the community came in the chamber, one with an old fashioned stretcher.

"You don't mean to carry me on that thing all the way to the surface, do you?" he asked, feeling embarrassed at the thought of being such a bother - as well as a little less than macho.

"We do unless you intend to hobble up there by yourself," Cullen told him dryly. "We'll let you try if you want, but you probably won't make it home before next weekend."

"This is the only way?" Joe asked.

"Only one we can think of," Martin answered.

"So how do we do this?" Joe conceded reluctantly.

"We put the stretcher on the bed, you lie down on it, and then you trust us not to drop you," Cullen teased. "We'll be as easy on you as we can," he added a little more thoughtfully.

When they arrived at the threshold, Vincent helped Joe stand, stooped enough that Joe could lean across his shoulder, carried him up the ladder and eased him into a sitting position at the edge of the threshold. From there Joe was able to swing his good leg into the storage room and scoot back a little at a time until he could coerce the other one into following. Vincent helped support the injured leg through the threshold then followed him into the storage room and again carefully helped him to his feet. Joe could see that this crew had done this sort of thing before. Peter met them there. He kept a close watch on the proceedings and stayed with Joe until he had him safely settled in his own apartment and knew that he had ample groceries for a day or two.

***

 

 

Catherine returned to work on Monday, but Peter insisted that Joe stay home for a few days.

Joe protested; but after the trip from the hospital chamber to the threshold in the building next door, he was exhausted. After that there was the trek on crutches to his apartment. Getting around on crutches and doing things for himself in his apartment was a little more effort than he cared to admit, and he began to feel more willing to stay home for another few days.

Catherine stopped by on her way home each afternoon that week to check on Joe and keep him up to date on what was going on in the office. He was relieved to know that Jack Faison was talking in return for a guarantee of protection. He seemed to have some valuable information pertaining to other cases involving Langston as well, and had evidence to support a lot of his claims.

Langston had been fished out of the river when a 911 call came in about someone clinging to a board and yelling for help. He had never learned to swim; and he had spent some time clinging to a large board in what the police thought was a well-deserved panic, trying desperately to get someone's attention as he drifted with the current in the cold water. The attention he got was more than he bargained for. He thought he had left two dead DA's on the wharf. To his dismay, he found he had left two live witnesses to the fact that he tried to kill one DA and had, in their presence, ordered the murder of her boss. His recollection of events included feeling that something had pulled him into the water, but his only other memory was of frantically trying to find something to hold on to keep himself from sinking like a rock. Vincent didn't figure into the picture at all.

With Langston behind bars in a more secure facility, Joe saw that his life might finally be returning to the reasonably normal state he was accustomed to. The following Monday morning he could hardly wait to get back to work and help coordinate Langston's certain demise.

"Welcome back." Catherine said when she stopped at his office door.

"Come on in, Radcliffe."

Catherine entered the office and closed the door behind her. "You're looking good."

"I should. I've been well looked after. Did Vincent tell you he came to check on me Thursday night? He came up the fire escape and tapped on the window -- scared the bejeebers out of me, but my blood pressure came back down while we talked. Somebody's been there every day with food, and Bill Reston from the apartments next door has called or stopped by every day to see if I need anything. He even gave me a key to his storage room in case I needed to go back Below. It's hard to believe that so many people who hardly know me have taken that much of an interest."

"They can always use new helpers," Catherine answered pointedly.

"Well, they found one. I owe them big time," he said. "Tell me what I should do."

"When you get on your feet again, go and visit. You'll pick up on what you can do just by keeping your eyes and ears open. There are all kinds of ways to help. Talk to Father," she suggested.

"I sort of missed the old grouch when I came back home," Joe admitted with a grin.

They spent the afternoon in a conference room with several others who would be working on the Langston case. Their carefully coordinated statements were scrutinized and readily accepted, and the most recent evidence from several of Langston's cronies was organized into its appropriate place amid the evidence they already had.

As they left the conference room, Joe asked jokingly if Catherine intended to go to the concert in the park on Halloween.

"There isn't a concert on Halloween."

"Yes, there is. I saw it in the paper this morning."

"Do you still have the paper," Catherine asked hopefully.

"I think so," Joe answered. "Go ahead and get yourself ready to go before somebody finds something else for us to do. I'll be right back."

He was back at Catherine's desk as quickly as his crutches would allow, the newspaper stuffed in his jacket pocket.

"There you go, Kiddo. Enjoy." he said, leaning on one crutch and plopping the paper on the desk.

"Do you need help with anything?" she asked.

"Nope. I'm getting pretty good with these things. Peter says I can start using a cane next week. That's bound to be a nuisance, too; but it's got to be better than this," he answered. "Better get out of here while you can," he warned with a smile.

"Okay, see you tomorrow. Thanks for the paper." She found the entertainment section and the concert schedule. Sure enough, there was a concert on Halloween that had been inadvertently left out of the previously printed season's schedule. She took in a little breath of surprise as she glanced at the adjacent page, smiled, stuffed the paper in her satchel and headed for home, going straight to her threshold when she arrived.

***

 

Catherine didn't stop to leave her satchel in the basement, and she didn't even get to the bottom of the ladder before she started talking. Vincent had to kiss her to make her stop for a few seconds so he could keep up with what she was trying to tell him.

"Vincent, lets go to your chamber right now..."

"At this hour of the evening?!" he teased with one of his half smiles. "Everyone in the tunnels will be awake now. We would never get away with it. I thought we had an agreement."

"I was about to say..." she answered sternly, "I have something to show you. I know how we can spend Halloween."

"You can't tell me here?"

"I can't see in this light as well as you can; but if you insist, I'll tell you about it while we walk."

"Then we should walk," he answered. "You've piqued my curiosity."

They walked down the narrow path and across the little bridge Vincent had built across the chasm after Catherine became a regular visitor to his world. After they reached the easier part of their walk he took her hand and led her toward the home tunnels.

"There are a couple of events going on that I think you'll enjoy," she told him. "There's a Halloween concert in the park that night. We can watch this time, not just listen. You can see a professional orchestra up close. We'll sit wherever you want."

"Are you sure? I don't recall hearing of a concert on Halloween."

"Yes. That's what I wanted to show you. Joe mentioned it to me. I brought the newspaper with me. But the concert isn't everything," she said spiritedly. "There's a museum exhibit, too. It's a special exhibit of all kinds of works based on magic and mythical creatures - witches, wizards, dragons, centaurs, elves and fairies, unicorns...and it's open until the 'witching hour.'" She turned to make appropriate gestures as she said "the witching hour." We can go to the museum after the concert and see the exhibit, and the rest of the museum, until midnight. You can see some of the things you've only been able to see in books."

By the time they reached his chamber, Catherine's excitement had grown in Vincent, too. He could hardly believe the things they were discussing could be for him. They looked at the newspaper and planned for their evening out, Catherine spontaneously hugging him now and then in her enthusiasm.

"I told Nancy and Jenny about our Halloween excursion after Bridget's party, and they want to come with us this year. What do you think? Would you mind sharing our time Above?"

"They really want to spend time with me - Above?"

"With both of us. They can hardly wait to get back here; and Nancy still hopes that you might ask the council to let her bring the family to the wedding.

"I still find it difficult enough to believe they accepted me so easily, but to be willing to be with me Above, where I could be found out for what I really am..."

"Haven't I been telling you you're easy to love?" she asked, grabbing his vest with both hands. "Convincing you of it has always been the hard part. Besides that, they want to help us blend into the rest of the scenery. The larger the group in costume, the less conspicuous we'll be."

Vincent took Catherine in his arms, wordlessly appreciating her energetic assurances. He had come a long way toward accepting himself, but long years of self-doubt had taken their toll.

"What would you like to do, Vincent?" she asked. "This is your night. We'll do whatever you want."

"I would enjoy spending the evening with your friends," he answered. "A concert and a museum..." he said with a somewhat awed smile. "I never thought to have either. To have a choice..."

"Or to have both," Catherine reminded him with a grin. "Jenny likes museums. I'm not sure about Joe and Jenny and concerts," she laughed, "but Nancy and Paul take the children to the museum often, and Nancy takes them to children's concerts during the day. Jenny would go along to humor us just to have the chance to harass us later about what she didn't like."

"Speaking of Jenny... I'm supposed to meet her for dinner later tonight. We finally managed to make our schedules work out together again long enough for dinner. Did I tell you the caterers have already agreed to work with us for the wedding? Henry and Lin do some catering from their restaurant. Mrs. Braxton's restaurant is providing more, and there's a little bakery that has great desserts and beautiful cakes. I intend to order enough of something to give William a whole day off. Did you know you had three small catering services on your helper list?"

"Yes," Vincent answered, again enjoying Catherine's enthusiasm.

"Are you laughing at me?" she asked, hands on her hips.

"Never," he answered with a small smile.

"I don't believe you," she retorted. "You forget - the bond works both ways now."

"Have I told you how much I enjoy watching you when you're excited?" Vincent asked, showing the tips of all four canines as he smiled.

"No, but I knew," she answered playfully. "I suppose that makes up for laughing at me." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. "I'll tell Nancy and Jenny to have their costumes ready. I've ordered something for you. Halloween is a week from tomorrow, and the costumer promised it would be ready a week beforehand. That will give Mary or Sarah time to alter it if necessary. Mary gave me your measurements to work from." "What do you intend me to wear?" he asked, sounding a little concerned.

"You'll have new pants, a new cloak, a vest, and gloves. You'll need to wear your tall tan boots and your white ruffled shirt. I can hardly wait to see you in this outfit. Don't worry. I won't ask you to wear anything that makes you feel uncomfortable." She looked up at him, her arms still around his waist. "I have to get back. I'm supposed to meet the plumber at Daddy's apartment in about half an hour. I've only hired helpers. You could come with me if you want."

"I would like nothing better," he said. "Unfortunately, Mary and Father both have plans for me tonight."

"I understand."

"I think I have time to walk you back." he offered, not ready to part with her yet.

After stopping at Father's doorway long enough to let him know that Vincent would be back in time for their meeting, they walked to Catherine's building and said a lingering "Good-night." Both went to their appointments with smiles at the thought that in barely more than a month they could go to that apartment together and stay until morning - no explanations necessary.

***

 

 

It was Halloween. That afternoon Father stopped at Vincent's chamber with an envelope. He said that a man shouldn't have a rare night out without a little cash in his pocket and handed the envelope to a flabbergasted Vincent.

"It seems wrong to accept this. It should belong to the community, not to my evening out."

"Take it, Vincent. It was a small gift sent to me personally by a helper. Do something for Catherine if the opportunity arises. Consider it an effort to make amends to the two of you for making things difficult at times. Both of you put us first so often... If I'm going to have more gray hair tomorrow from worrying about you, I might as well have the satisfaction of knowing you have everything you need to enjoy your time Above."

"Thank you," Vincent answered, accepting the gift and hugging his father.

Both of them understood that Father's support of Vincent's evening Above was a far greater gift than the contents of the envelope.

"Please be careful, my boy."

"Shall I let you know when I return?" Vincent asked with a small smile.

"That would be appreciated." Father patted Vincent's arm, and with a resigned sigh went to help prepare for the children's Halloween party.

Vincent bathed and dressed in his new clothes, along with the boots and shirt Catherine asked him to wear. In a rare moment he wished for a mirror. She had been so excited, he found himself wanting to see if he thought she would be pleased.

The children were beginning to gather in the large open room of Father's chamber for the standard reading of Halloween stories - traditionally ending with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and the party and Jack-o-lantern contest in the dining hall.

Vincent was to see the children's costumes and read a few poems for them before he left to join Catherine and her friends. When he entered Father's chamber, a chorus of compliments greeted him, all meaning "Vincent, you look great!"

Father smiled in approval. "You look quite the proper gentleman this evening. I'm sure Catherine will be impressed."

"You're certain it looks acceptable?" Vincent asked.

"If he isn't, I am," Jamie answered, walking around him for a better look.

"She's right," Mary agreed quickly. Seeing his uncertainty she took his arm and pulled him into Father's smaller private chamber. "Here. See for yourself," she told him, guiding him toward the long mirror.

The mirror was angled for Father's shorter stature, so at first all Vincent could see was from his shoulders down. What he saw with the gloves covering his furred, clawed hands was very much the image of a well-built, well-proportioned, well-dressed man. Perhaps Catherine would be as pleased as she thought. Then Mary adjusted the mirror for his height, and Vincent saw his face. He quickly turned away. When Catherine looked at him he could temporarily forget the reality of his features; but when that reality stared back at him from the mirror, there was no ignoring it. All the old doubts and pain came rushing back.

Mary saw his reaction for what it was, and she was determined it would not be allowed to spoil his evening.

"Vincent, look at yourself. You look wonderful."

"I look inhuman... as I always have," he answered, the pain so close to the surface it was nearly visible.

Mary picked up a smaller mirror and held it up to him.

"How does Catherine feel when she sees this face?" she asked him. She caught his chin with her hand when he tried to turn away and insisted that he look. "You know that better than anyone. This is the face she loves above any other, the face she has chosen to live with for the rest of her life. I've loved it since I saw it for the first time. This is a face the children trust to run to when they're hurt or excited or need reassurance, the one the council turns to when a voice of reason is needed, the one so many of us and our helpers call a friend. Can it really be so bad? If that many others accept it, can't you give it a little honor, too? You're different, Vincent; but your face has its own beauty, just like the man behind it. Look at yourself again. See yourself the way Catherine will see you. You cut a dashing figure tonight. She won't be disappointed."

Vincent reluctantly allowed Mary to turn him back toward the long mirror and looked again. His face still surprised him because he never allowed himself to look at it, but Mary was right. He imagined Catherine's face the last time they said good-bye. She enjoyed looking at him, said that other men's faces were boring now. No. She wouldn't be disappointed, and wasn't she the one he was concerned about? Her friends had accepted him, as odd as that still seemed to him, and wanted to spend their evening with him tonight. He hadn't frightened them. Except for his face and his hidden hands he looked acceptable, even to himself.

"Now... let's join the others so you can go and meet Catherine," Mary smiled.

Vincent grabbed her in a appreciative hug that nearly took her breath.

"Thank you, Mary. What would I do without you?"

"You might find out if you don't let me breathe," she laughed. "Now get yourself moving so you can start your evening out."

Vincent chuckled softly and released her, feeling a renewed burst of confidence, and he went to take his part in the festivities. He started by commenting on each child's costume and pretending he didn't know who was behind the mask, then he read the poems Father had chosen for him and quietly exited the room as Father took over the reading.

Watching him leave, Jamie leaned over to Sarah and whispered, "Wonder if I could interrupt something tonight after Catherine sees him in that outfit."

She and Sarah giggled quietly, but it was enough to earn a stern look of reprimand from Father.

********************

 

 

Vincent started toward the park, but decided it might be more prudent to use the threshold in a building not too far from Catherine's. He watched from an alley between two buildings for a moment or two, then he stepped out on the sidewalk about a block from Catherine's building when he thought he would be least conspicuous. Just as the self-doubt was resurfacing, his confidence was shored up by wolf whistles from two young women who were looking directly at him, one dressed as a witch and the other as Red-Riding Hood. He stopped and gave them a brief courtly bow, prompting huge smiles from them.

"You looking for a date?" Red Riding Hood asked. "We're available."

"I have one, thank you," he answered.

"Ooooo, and a voice to match the rest of the package. Tell her she's a lucky lady. Have fun," the witch smiled over her shoulder as they walked away.

Jenny and Nancy were waiting for Vincent in front of Catherine's apartment building, intending to accompany him to pick her up at her front door.

Jenny caught sight of him a few doors away and touched Nancy's arm to get her attention. His slight smile only enhanced the picture his normal stature and bearing presented. When the new clothes were added to the mix, the effect was stunning.

"There he is, Nancy. Look at him - the way he moves, the clothes... Do we dare let Cathy close to him in public? She may embarrass us."

Nancy turned to look and understood Jenny's response. Vincent was wearing his tall tan leather boots, matching tan leather gloves and dark blue, fine wale corduroy pants - as form fitting as most of his others. The ruffled front of his white shirt cascaded over a slightly deeper tan suede fitted vest that was only waist length, and he wore a dark blue suede cloak. As Father observed, he looked every inch an early nineteenth century gentleman - as if he might mount his horse to ride up to his estate any minute.

"Vincent, you look wonderful!" Jenny gushed, walking around him, much as Jamie had, to see the entire picture.

Nancy agreed and gave him a quiet hug. Nancy was wearing a Victorian dress and pale make-up. Her hair was in Victorian ringlets and arranged to emphasize the two bright red fang marks she sported prominently on the side of her neck.

"Let's go," Jenny insisted. "I can't wait to see Cathy's face when she sees you." With that she moved toward the front door of Catherine's building, pulling Nancy and Vincent along.

Vincent rode inside the elevator for the first time, a little nervously, and followed the others to Catherine's door. It suddenly dawned on him that he had never seen this side of her door.

Jenny rang the doorbell then grabbed Vincent's arm and pulled him in front of her.

Catherine answered the door looking every inch the early nineteenth century lady. She wore a long, high-waisted, low-cut dress and looked as if she had just stepped out of Pride and Prejudice.

"You look beautiful," Vincent said softly.

"You look even better than I thought you would," she answered, taking his hands. Mary had been right. Catherine was far from disappointed, and the way she looked at him left him nearly speechless. He involuntarily raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, never looking away from her.

"Okay, so what are the rest of us, chopped liver?" Jenny asked from behind him. "Are you two going to stand there and gaze into each other's eyes until the concert is over?"

"Sorry, Jenny. Come in. Both of you look great," Catherine laughed. Looking at Nancy's neck, she added, "Nice touch."

"Where's Joe? I thought he might be here. Should somebody see if he's looking for us outside?" Nancy asked.

"He's meeting us at the concert; taking a taxi to the park," Catherine answered. "He's still using a cane, and this way will be easier for him. He should be there in about half an hour. We should probably leave now and find seats. They're setting up some chairs this time because of the costumes."

Vincent waited in the hallway until Catherine had locked the door and escorted the women to the elevator.

The little group received more than a few stares and comments on the way to the park, many of them aimed toward Vincent. When they reached the park, they waited where Catherine had agreed to meet Joe, but there was no sign of a taxi. Catherine looked behind her, grabbed Vincent's arm, and pointed.

"It couldn't be. Do you suppose he's decided to come and keep an eye on us?" she asked.

Vincent looked up and saw a familiar looking figure hobbling toward them, and for a moment he was deciding whether to be amused or annoyed; then he realized the figure had darker hair than he expected.

Joe walked up to them with a grin. "I decided to dress as Dr. Father," he said, his eyes twinkling with mischief. He sent me one of his canes, so I figured I'd just go for the whole picture. The taxi dropped me off down there," he said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. Had you worried for a minute, didn't I? Did you think dear old dad was going to tag along?"

"For a moment we were concerned," Vincent conceded with a smile. Gesturing toward Joe's costume, he said, "Father will feel honored."

"You've mastered the walk and the mannerisms," Catherine laughed. "A talent I didn't know you had."

"Comes with the cane, I guess," Joe teased. "Where's Jenny?"

"Little Bo Peep, right over there," Catherine said, pointing in Jenny's direction.

About that time Jenny turned toward them and was nearly fooled by Joe's costume, too.

"Joe?" she asked laughing. "What a great idea."

"I wouldn't have known you, either with those blond ringlets," he answered. "I guess I can't try anything out of line. Looks like you brought your cudgel," he said gesturing at her shepherd's crook with his cane.

"I can do damage, too," she assured him, playfully maneuvering the shepherd's crook.

"We're going to find seats," Catherine announced. "We want a good view of the orchestra."

"Why do they need to see the orchestra?" Jenny asked Joe quietly. "Isn't it enough to just hear it?"

"Don't ask me. I wouldn't be here if it weren't Radcliffe asking," he answered. "Can't we go get some coffee or something while they sit and listen - and watch?"

"We promised. I'm staying in case somebody needs to run interference for Vincent," Jenny insisted.

"Yeah, you're right," Joe agreed, and with very gentlemanly manners offered her his arm. She curtsied, accepted and decided the evening might hold more promise than she thought. Joe seemed to be more fun than she remembered.

"Hey, I know why Cathy wants to be up close - so he can see everything. All he ever gets to do is listen. We take a lot for granted, don't we?" Joe said, showing more interest in staying than before. Watching Vincent would be interesting - like seeing someone watch snow falling for the first time. The museum was looking a little more interesting at this point, too. Joe was certain that had never happened for Vincent before either.

The orchestra played an hour-long pops style concert with a few entertaining explanations of the music for the children and new listeners in the audience. They started with a few classical pieces of standard Halloween fare - "Night on Bald Mountain," "Danse Macabre," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"... The last section of the program was given to themes from movies and television programs about magic or monsters. Vincent didn't recognize most of them, but he enjoyed both watching the orchestra and seeing the audience's responses. By the end of the concert even Joe and Jenny had to admit they had enjoyed it.

When the concert ended, Catherine couldn't resist hugging Vincent quickly. His pleasure in watching the orchestra had been evident during the program.

"You heard the music differently tonight, didn't you?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered, still watching as the orchestra left the stage. "I had heard the energy in the music before; but now when I hear it, I can remember their faces and the choreography of the bows...the intensity, the director..."

"You enjoyed it, huh?" Joe asked.

"Yes," Vincent answered with a smile. "Very much."

Catherine had released her hold on his waist quickly, but her hand immediately went to his arm, and he placed one hand over hers.

"Jenny, why don't we sit over there and take in the costumes for a few minutes. I saw a couple of creative ones when we got here," Nancy suggested.

They watched the crowd leaving, commenting on some of the costumes, laughing at the creativity of others and graciously accepting the comments on theirs. Someone asked Joe who he was supposed to be.

"A grouchy old man with a bum leg and a dangerous cane," he answered, wielding his cane good-naturedly. "Don't give me a hard time."

The questioner feigned fear and walked away laughing.

Vincent saw something and turned to Catherine. "Wait here," he told her. "I'll be right back."

She was watching to see where he went, but Jenny touched her arm and distracted her.

"Did you see the guy over there? He's dressed as a tube of toothpaste," she laughed then suddenly realized Catherine was alone. "Where's Vincent?"

"I'm not sure," Catherine said looking back in the direction she last saw him. "He told me to wait here. There he is."

"What's he doing?" Jenny asked.

"It looks like he's talking to one of the vendors," Catherine answered, puzzled. "It's hard to tell. He has his back turned."

Just then Vincent turned to come back, and he had something in his hands. As he came closer she could see that he had cups.

"Hey, Jenny. Come check out this guy's costume," Joe called.

Vincent reached Catherine's side as Jenny went to look. He handed Catherine one of the cups.

"You've made so many of my dreams come true, I thought I could provide a small one for you," he said.

Catherine accepted the cup and looked confused for a moment.

"It isn't daylight; but we are walking down the street with everyone else, no one is paying much attention, and I've just bought you ice cream," he explained with a small smile.

She rewarded him with a smile of absolute delight, remembering her dream at the hospital the year before.

"I love you," was all she could think of to answer.

It was all Vincent needed to hear. He took ice cream to the others and guided Catherine to a bench nearby where they sat and enjoyed their treats more than either of them had enjoyed ice cream in a long time.

Joe, Jenny and Nancy soon joined Vincent and Catherine to see if they were ready for the trip to the museum. They hailed taxis, laughingly shoved Vincent into the back seat of one of them and started toward their next adventure.

As they approached the museum building, Vincent claimed Catherine's hand with his. She could feel his excitement building. They had to smile at the large signs that announced the title of the exhibit - "Ghoulies and Ghosties and Long-leggedy Beasties and Things That Go Bump in the Night."

The exhibit included the advertised mythical creatures, as well as a few illustrations from children's books, and paintings depicting witches and magic. Like the costumes they had seen, some were frightening, some were beautiful, some were funny, and every degree in between was represented as well - very fitting for the occasion. Knowing it would be open through the weekend, Nancy planned to bring the children later in the week and lead them to the less frightening displays.

Joe and Jenny stayed at the first exhibit a little longer and sat to talk for a while, giving Joe's leg a rest.

They still had well more than an hour to wander through the rest of the museum, and Vincent could hardly wait to see it. Nancy turned out to be a very effective guide, and she and Vincent had enthusiastic conversations about colors, textures, form, styles, artists and the various mediums they used.

Catherine included herself off and on, but she was enjoying the interchange between Vincent and Nancy. She watched Vincent and luxuriated in the joy he felt at seeing such treasures, and in his opportunity to feel a part of what everyone else took for granted.

When the "witching hour" struck, they reluctantly left the art treasures behind; and, as they reached the street, Vincent turned to take one more look, wanting to remember every detail. Catherine took his hand.

"Nancy and I are spending the night at Daddy's apartment. Joe is wearing out. He says all he needs right now is sleep and ibuprofen. Jenny has an early meeting tomorrow, so I think they're both going home from here. Nancy is taking a cab back to the apartment. You and I can stay out longer if you'd like."

"Tonight has been a joy," he said, looking down at her, "whether we see anything else or not. You have opened doors for me that I thought would be locked for my lifetime. I can find no way to thank you."

"We'll think of something later," she grinned.

Vincent and Catherine strolled leisurely back to Catherine's second apartment, arriving a little after one o'clock, tired but happy; and they took the elevator to the basement.

"Thank you for tonight. It was extraordinary."

"Yes... It was. You could come back to the apartment and stay a while longer," she suggested.

"You have to be in court tomorrow. You should rest."

He kissed her softly. That fueled their need for one another, and the next kiss left Catherine reeling when their lips separated. Clinging to him for support, she asked with a shaky little laugh, "How many years until our wedding?"

"Weeks, not years. We'll make it," Vincent laughed softly. He rested his cheek against her hair, feeling a little unsteady himself, and held her until both their heads were clearer. He kissed her again more gently and moved her away, his hands still resting on her shoulders. Just before he opened the threshold, she caught his arm and turned him toward her to claim another kiss.

"You look drop-dead gorgeous tonight, by the way," she said, leaning against the wall with her hands behind her and watching as he moved the bookcase. "There were women watching you all evening," Catherine said casually, but almost as a challenge.

He smiled at her indulgently. "Good-night, Catherine," he answered firmly.

"They were definitely looking. I thought I might have to tell one of them to back off," she called softly as the bookcase swung back into place. She was rewarded with a low-pitched chuckle just before it latched.

Catherine stood leaning against the wall for a moment, smiling to herself and savoring her last few minutes with Vincent before returning to her world.

***

 

 

The following day Jenny called to say she had left her purse at Catherine's apartment and they arranged to meet at her father's apartment that evening.

When she arrived, Jenny could see that Catherine wasn't her normal, cheerful self.

"Why don't you stay for dinner," Catherine asked. "I picked up Chinese on the way here, and there's enough food here for both of us. It would be a shame for it to go to waste."

"Twist my arm just one more time," Jenny smiled. "I'll get the dishes. You get the rest."

During dinner Catherine brought up a subject that had been on her mind for a while.

"You've always liked my apartment, haven't you?"

"This apartment?"

"No, the other one."

"I love it. The view is great. The balcony is great. The kitchen is small enough to give me an excuse not to cook too much." she said mischievously.

Catherine laughed. "Enough with the cooking jokes," she said. "Would you like to move into that apartment?"

"I can't afford that apartment," Jenny answered in surprise. "If I could, I'd take it in a minute. I'd love it there."

"I'm not asking you to buy it, just whether you want to live in it," Catherine said.

"I couldn't impose on you that way," Jenny protested, all the while dying to grab the opportunity.

"You wouldn't be imposing on anything. Somebody has to live there. You could just pay the taxes and maintenance. I would love knowing you were there - that somebody loved it as much as I did -- and you'd already have a threshold to the tunnels. If the tables were turned, you'd do the same for me. Besides, I owe you and Nancy so much for the way you accepted Vincent. There's no way to tell you how much that means to me."

"There's no way we can tell you what it means to have you back, either," Jenny said, reaching to place her hand over Catherine's.

"Before we both start blubbering... What about the apartment?"

"Twist my arm just one more time." Jenny laughed again. "My lease is up for renewal at the end of December."

"Great!" Catherine answered with a smile. "Then it's settled. You can move in anytime after Thanksgiving. That will give me plenty of time to get my things packed. Whatever furniture I don't move here will go Below. It won't take long to find uses for all of it. I need to go through Daddy's clothes and personal things, too and decide what would be useful there."

"Do you want some company when you do that?" Jenny asked, seeing Catherine's expression change at the thought of another finality. "We could start on it tonight. I can stay over and go home long enough to change tomorrow morning."

Catherine thought a moment. She was tired, but she didn't want to be alone for that job, and it did need to be done. Her father would like knowing that his things were being used well. She would separate the things that were usable in the tunnels from the suits, etc. that could be sent to a helper's consignment shop to profit the community in other ways. Maybe she would have Mary look at the suits to see if one could be altered for Father - to give him something more up-to-date, just in case he needed to make other trips Above. Tonight was as good as any to get the job done. Jenny always made things more fun. That might take the edge off the sadness in the task.

"Do you mean it?" she asked, giving Jenny a chance to change her mind.

"Sure," Jenny answered. "We'll start as soon as we clear the dishes."

They finished dinner in companionable conversation, disposed of the kitchen chores and set to their task. They started with the smaller things like belts and shoes and began the sorting with determination. Catherine slowed the process now and then by stopping to share a memory connected to something she found; and Jenny responded with an enjoyment of the memory or a hug at the sorrow that a memory was all that remained. Neither of them slept much that night, but before morning, there were several well-organized stacks of Charles Chandler's belongings in the living room not far from the elevator, ready to be transported to their appropriate destinations. Catherine had kept a few things that held particularly precious memories and parted with the others knowing that her new family would appreciate them and use them well.

With a minimum of sleep, both Catherine and Jenny were a little bleary-eyed the next morning; but both had a feeling of accomplishment, and both headed directly in search of a cup of coffee on the way to work.

***

 

 

Catherine went to work Thursday morning feeling a weight lifted from her. She had wanted to sort through her father's things, but hadn't had the strength to start such a task. Jenny's help had made the job go more quickly, and her understanding and sense of humor had made it less emotionally wrenching. She couldn't thank Vincent enough for bringing Jen and Nancy fully back into her life.

"Morning Joe," she called as she passed his open office door.

Joe looked up and smiled. He enjoyed seeing her look so happy. He would miss her terribly when she left, but knowing what he now knew, he couldn't blame her for wanting a change. The change she was making would produce as much of a contribution to the city as what she was doing now.

He still had trouble understanding how Cathy could be so in love with Vincent. He had to call him a person after being around him for a while. He had a conscience, a concern for others, a sense of humor, a work ethic... He would trust Vincent to care for his nieces and nephews more easily than he would trust a lot of the normal men he'd known. In a lot of ways he was a better man than some of the people right there in the office, but those people hadn't left mutilated bodies behind them. Joe still had a moral dilemma stemming from his knowledge of the killings, but he was coming to terms with the idea of just living with it. What he had seen of Vincent had left him having difficulty believing that the soft-spoken, caring "man" he'd met could have ever have been so violent. Both Vincent and Catherine had acknowledged the fact, though, proving that neither of them intended to lie to him about anything.

He still worried about Vincent's assessment of Catherine's lack of response to the killings, too. Sooner or later, she would have to face it; and having seen victims and witnesses of particularly brutal crimes as often as he had, he knew the longer the trauma lay dormant, the more difficult it was likely to be to face it when it surfaced. To add to the problem, she couldn't go for counseling because she couldn't tell anyone; and as far as he could tell, she felt that she was responsible for most of it. Worst of all, the horror had been perpetrated by someone she loved beyond all understanding. That was a pretty heavy load to have suddenly reach your consciousness. Right now, though, she was nearly a bride, and very happy. There was no way he was going to bring up anything that would destroy that before her wedding.

Catherine settled at her desk with her large cup of coffee and resignedly started work on the untouched folders she had taken home the day before.

The rest of the week was busy, but there were no substantial surprises to deal with, so with less than an hour of overtime on Friday, she managed to leave the office behind.

***

 

 

Over the weekend she spent time with Mary and Sarah for fittings and consultations about her wedding dress and met with The Committee for a progress report session. They listed everything that still needed to be done and assigned responsibilities. Catherine was overwhelmed at the effort and love that was so willingly going into the wedding tasks. With all the holidays they celebrated between the end of October and the end of December, she was amazed that they weren't all stressed beyond endurance. She questioned the wisdom of adding a wedding to the normal busy end-of-the-year schedule - especially one that had grown well beyond her intended boundaries almost by the time it was announced. It was late. The meeting had been something of a marathon, starting after dinner and bubbling with excitement and anticipation.

"Too late to back out now," she thought, smiling at the flurry of activity she had just left behind her.

"Does The Committee have everything under control?" Vincent asked as she entered his chamber.

"You know very well that they have everything under control, including us," she laughed and closed the heavy curtain Vincent had installed to replace the screen at the door.

"They won't be in control much longer," he answered as Catherine dropped into his lap and adjusted herself comfortably against his chest and into the curve of his arm.

"No. By then we can go to the apartment and close them out if they get too pushy," she answered with a smile. "Mmmmm... This feels so good."

"Yes, it does," Vincent answered, moving his hand possessively along her leg.

"There was a time - not too long ago, as a matter of fact - when I thought I might never get you to kiss me, much less make a suggestive remark."

"I have...mellowed, as you said of Father," he answered with a small smile, his hand still moving.

"And extremely well," she answered, mirroring his playful mood. "Three weeks and I won't have to leave you to go back to my apartment or the guest chamber. You will be totally, completely, one hundred per cent mine...to do with as I please." She said the last few words with absolute pleasure as she moved to plant small kisses under his chin and wrap her arms around his neck.

Vincent held her tighter and growled softly against her neck, planting a few kisses of his own.

"And you will be totally, completely, one hundred per cent mine," he responded. "To do with as I please."

"Should we shock everyone and slip that into the wedding vows?" Catherine asked mischievously.

"The Committee would probably have collective apoplexy," Vincent chuckled in amusement. "We wouldn't want to be responsible for that."

"I suppose not," Catherine grinned, and kissed him soundly on the lips.

When he returned her kiss, it rapidly became less playful. Their hands-off policy was wearing on both of them, and they were both breathing harder when the kiss broke.

"If I stay here, I'll lose all sense of control; and someone, if not the entire population of the tunnels will be entering your chamber to interrupt us at the worst possible moment," she laughed shakily. "You should walk me back to the guest chamber, or I'll take no responsibility for our embarrassment."

"I probably should, but it falls very low on the list of things I want to do," Vincent answered and kissed her once more before he allowed her to stand.

They walked slowly, hand in hand, to the guest chamber, talking along the way.

"I should have everything at my apartment boxed and ready to move by next Sunday. I've already started. Why don't you come for dinner on Thursday night? We can say good-bye to the apartment. There are a lot of memories there."

"Yes," Vincent answered, gently squeezing her hand. "What time would you like me to be there?"

"Is nine o'clock safe this time of year?" she asked.

"I think I can make it safe," he smiled.

They said good-night at the door of the guest chamber, not trusting themselves to go inside alone, and parted until morning.

***

 

 

Catherine left the tunnels on Sunday afternoon to give herself time for more sorting and packing before she had to go to work the next morning. She was still trying to understand where it had all been stored before she started sorting and boxing.

Tom Mason promised that the lower elevator would be complete the week of the wedding, and on Wednesday afternoon, everyone concerned proclaimed her father's apartment finished. Catherine felt another weight lifted.

***

On Thursday afternoon the jury was still out on the case Catherine had expected would have been decided the day before. She told Joe he would have to take her place if the verdict came in that night.

"Tell them I'm sick. Tell them I was called away for an emergency. Tell them I just don't want to be there. Tell them anything you want. I don't care. This time Vincent comes first," she told him adamantly.

"Yes, ma'am," he answered when she finished her demand and stalked back to her desk to collect her things and go home.

Catherine chose to wear a deep green dress, cut low in the front so her crystal could be seen to best advantage, although she knew that her jewelry wouldn't be Vincent's strongest interest.

The apartment was lit by candles and decorated with a few vases of flowers. The table had candles and a bud vase with two roses, one red and one white. She hadn't been extravagant in decorating, but she wanted to make the evening look romantic. The night was cool, so a fire was crackling invitingly in the fireplace.

Vincent arrived on the balcony at nine o'clock, and Catherine met him at the door and took his hand to lead him inside. He wore the dark blue pants and high boots she had loved at Halloween along with his ruffled shirt and a long, leather vest. He wore the new suede cloak for the occasion.

She had prepared dinner herself and was very proud of the results. She had bought the rolls from a bakery, but she had put together a baked potato and a salad on her own. The steaks - one of which was a size she was pretty certain Vincent hadn't had placed in front of him before &endash; were still cooking. She was pleased with herself so far. She realized that this, sandwiches, eggs, toast, and things from cans and frozen packages pretty well covered her cooking skills; but she was bright. She could learn.

"I've missed you," he said softly.

"I've missed you, too." She stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss then led him to the kitchen.

"Nothing is burning," Vincent teased in mock amazement.

"You and Jenny give me no credit at all," she laughed, and pushed him in the chest with one hand for emphasis. "You don't have to eat it if you don't trust my cooking."

"It smells good," he said in a more conciliatory tone, peeking over her shoulder to see what was there.

"That's better," she answered with a flirtatious smile. "I'll still feed you if your manners improve."

Vincent chuckled as she checked the steaks.

She decided they were done, filled the plates and handed them to Vincent to take to the table. Taking the salads from the refrigerator, she followed him. Everything else was already in place.

Looking at the steak she gave him, Vincent said "I remember hearing stories of steaks this size, but I don't believe I've ever seen one. Did you really believe I would be this hungry?"

"I didn't want you to go home and need to raid William's kitchen. It would only encourage the jokes about my cooking,"

Vincent smiled, knowing that was probably true.

"You did all this for me?" he said, looking around the apartment appreciatively. "...When you have so many other things to do before you move."

"It's the last time we'll be here together," she said softly, reaching to touch his hand. "I wanted it to feel special."

"When we're together, it always feels special, Catherine - with or without roses and candlelight," he answered, placing his other hand over hers.

"I love you," she said softly, then retrieved her hand, took her napkin from the table and put it in her lap determinedly. "You should eat your dinner. If you don't start now, I may not let you," she said suggestively.

"Is that a promise?" he asked with a smile and no movement at all toward his meal.

"Eat!" Catherine demanded good-naturedly. "Steak is much better when it's still hot."

They enjoyed their quiet, easy conversation, both as an opportunity to have time alone together and as a precursor of evenings to come after their marriage. Vincent helped her clear the dishes after the meal, and they sat together on one of the sofas in front of the fireplace. She took Vincent's boots off for him and encouraged him to prop his feet on the table, then she swung her legs across his lap and snuggled against his shoulder with his arm around her. They sat that way for a while, enjoying the uninterrupted closeness and the calm, unhurried atmosphere of their last evening at the apartment, then Vincent leaned to kiss her and the atmosphere changed. Catherine leaned back against the pillows at the arm of the sofa, and Vincent followed. Her arms moved around his neck and his kisses fell on her cheeks, down to her neck, and across her shoulders. Just as she made a little sound of pleasure that further incited Vincent's intentions the phone rang.

"Ignore it," Catherine said when Vincent stopped his attentions to her shoulders. "The answering machine will get it."

The answering machine wasn't to be ignored, either. They suddenly heard Joe's voice saying, "Cathy, I know you're there. Pick up. The verdict's in."

"You know you want the answer," Vincent said, moving back into an upright position on the sofa.

Catherine made a frustrated growling sound and answered the phone.

"Hope I didn't interrupt anything," Joe's way too cheerful voice said. "I thought you'd want to know you won. He won't have an opportunity to hurt another child for a very long time. Good work, Radcliffe."

"Thanks. And thank you for covering for me tonight."

"Good date?"

"Yeah. So far this phone call is the only glitch in the evening."

Vincent had moved out to the balcony and stood leaning forward with both hands on the brick wall. He laughed softly at Catherine's response to Joe's phone call.

"Oh, did I interrupt something interesting?" Joe teased, not actually considering what he might have interrupted.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Catherine answered firmly and hung up the phone. She walked out to the balcony to join Vincent.

Vincent held out his arm and Catherine tucked herself against him, relishing the warmth and comfort of his arm drawing her close and wrapping her in his cloak. They stood and looked out over the city as they had so often in the past.

"Would you like to go back inside?" Catherine asked.

"Perhaps we should stay here," Vincent answered. "In three weeks you will be my wife, with all the fringe benefits. This place has always been the meeting of our worlds - the place where we dreamed of what could be. The interruptions we've encountered may be telling us that it should remain the place for our dreams. In less than a month our dreams will become reality. Shall we exercise our self-control a little longer?"

"We can do that," Catherine answered. "It won't be as much fun, but we can do that. That little sofa wouldn't have given us much room, anyway," she said looking up at him with a frustrated smile. "Telephones and doorbells are real mood-breakers, aren't they?"

He laughed gently and pulled her close, brushing a kiss against the top of her head and resting his cheek there.

Tell me about your case," he encouraged. "I take it you were successful."

Catherine told him about the case, and Joe's report of the outcome.

"Your work accomplishes such good in your world. Are you certain you want to give this up, Catherine?" he asked with concern, moving to look directly into her eyes as he spoke. "I don't want you to have any regrets about the changes you've made for me."

"My new work will accomplish a lot of good, too. I'm sure I've made the right decisions - about you, about work, about the apartment, about everything... I'm certain, Vincent. I'm very certain."

He pulled her close again, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. He still had feelings of guilt for closing so many paths her life had allowed her before, but she loved him. He knew that. She had voluntarily closed some of those paths well more than a year ago, and had shown no sign of missing any of them except her two closest friends. She had those friends back now. Regardless of his nagging feelings of guilt, he no longer had the strength to even consider sending her away. Their lives would be permanently linked in a few short weeks, and the joy in his heart rose to great proportions every time he thought about it.

Catherine recognized what he was feeling and consciously allowed her love and confidence to surface to reassure him.

They enjoyed their last night on the balcony, talking and enjoying their plans for the future until well after midnight.

***

 

That Saturday Jenny and Nancy met Catherine to go Below for an overnight visit and dress fittings. This time she took them through the threshold behind the boxes in her storage room. She also gave them both keys to the storage room in her new apartment. They were now accepted readily as helpers, with access to the tunnels anytime they wanted to visit. They might as well have easy access.

The dresses fit well. With the finishing touches completed, Mary and Sarah could breathe a sigh of relief that the sewing for the big day was complete.

Nancy and Jenny stayed overnight in the guest chambers, and went back home the following afternoon. Catherine and Jenny agreed to repeat their Green Eggs and Ham reading for the children; but this time, having heard the reports from the young ones, some of the adults insisted on having the reading in Father's common chamber so there would be room for them to listen, too. Everyone went away thoroughly entertained.

Catherine again lagged behind the others when it was time to leave, wanting a few more minutes alone with Vincent. After a kiss that would probably lead Vincent to consider another cold swim, she reached for the ladder; then she remembered her earlier conversation with Nancy and turned before she went further.

"Nancy asked me again about bringing Paul and the children to the wedding," Catherine said. "What should I tell her? I have the feeling you would rather they didn't come."

"I would rather they didn't come now," he answered, lowering his head to screen his face from her and losing the light-hearted feeling he'd had only moments before.

"Why?" Catherine asked. "Does something concern you about Nancy?"

"Something concerns me about what she should be told before she introduces me to her family. Joe knows everything. He works with the results of brutal crimes often, and even he has difficulty imagining the kind of violence that would cause the deaths he knows of. Nancy deserves to know what I'm capable of before she exposes her family &endash; especially her children - to me. She should know what questions she may have to answer sometime in the future."

Feeling the pain that permeated him at that statement, Catherine closed the distance between them and hugged him tightly.

"I would rather tell her after the wedding if you don't mind," he said, resting his head on hers. "I want you to have your friends with you. I don't want to frighten them away. We'll talk to them soon. If they can still accept me, perhaps Paul can be invited to Winterfest, and the children sometime later."

"I understand. I'll think of something to tell her. I'm sorry, Vincent. If it weren't for me..."

"Not now," he answered, placing one clawed finger gently on her lips. "We have to face this, but now is not the time. Our marriage is soon, and it should be a joyful occasion. We have a lifetime after that to work out all the problems that come with it... and we have more than our fair share."

"Yes," Catherine agreed quietly and accepted his comforting embrace before she climbed the ladder back into her world.

***

 

 

The following two weeks were a blur for Catherine. The apartment was ready to become their second home, and the wedding plans seemed to be well under control. She certainly didn't lack for help. When she was in the tunnels, the members of The Committee bombarded her with plans and questions; and when she was at home, Nancy and Jenny were calling. She would be glad when all that was a fond memory and she could just have Vincent to herself for a while.

Her lunch times were spent shopping for things for Vincent to keep at their apartment. "Their apartment" - the thought nearly consumed her with contentment. She found him a few necessities that weren't too different from what he wore in the tunnels. She also bought one pair of very large, silk pajamas - for herself, as well as for him. She couldn't help but imagine the feel of the silk over the hair, over the muscles...

 

 

********************

 

 

Devin's plane arrived at LaGuardia at 10:00 p.m. He gathered his luggage, hailed a taxi, and headed for the hole in the ground he called home. It was hard for him to contain the smile that automatically rose in him each time he thought of the reason for his visit. His little brother was going to be married, and he was to be best man. He wondered how Catherine had managed to pull Vincent out of that cocoon his father had helped him build around himself for so many years. After his first visit he could see that if anyone could manage Vincent, it was Chandler. Not only had Little Brother found a woman who loved him; he had found a rich, good-looking one.

The taxi dropped him at the home of a helper. He had decided that taking luggage into Central Park late at night might look too suspicious. Mrs. Baker insisted on feeding him before he went Below, knowing that William's kitchen would be closed at that hour. He ate and visited with Mrs. Baker and her daughter for a few extra minutes before descending through the threshold in their basement.

***

 

 

Catherine had a long, difficult day. It was Tuesday night, the wedding was only three days away, and she was trying to finish everything before she left on Wednesday afternoon. She had refused to allow Joe to lighten her workload too much because she still felt guilty about taking so much time off and then quitting a few months after returning. She didn't want it to appear that he was giving her special favors.

Joe now knew everything and was trying to ease the workload as much as he could until after the wedding, but the work itself wasn't cooperating.

There had been a series of small but time consuming little surprises and Catherine was way behind the goals she had set for herself. She had planned to work on Wednesday and go Below early in the evening, but she needed to be with Vincent right now. She could feel some of the strength and comfort she needed drifting to her through their bond, but she needed it to be up close and personal.

Finally realizing that she would accomplish more the next day after some rest -and probably accomplish it in less time; she resolutely slammed the folder in her hands shut and dropped it noisily on her desk. Never looking back, she gathered her coat and purse and left everything else behind.

Vincent was dressed for bed, not expecting to see Catherine until Wednesday night. He had felt her exhaustion and frustration during the day and expected that she would go home, shower, and fall asleep. Now he realized she was on her way to the tunnels. He pulled his boots on over his knit pants, threw his cloak around him and met her when she was halfway to his chamber.

"I didn't expect to see you tonight," he said, obviously pleased to have been wrong.

"I won't stay long," she told him. "You need rest, too. This will be a busy few days for both of us."

"So you made this trip just for a short visit? You must have missed me," he answered, taking her hand as they walked toward his chamber.

"I made this visit for a hug. Do you suppose I could find one?"

"Joe wouldn't give you a hug and save you this long journey?"

"Those hugs just don't work as well as yours. I could feel some frustration in you today, too. Where was that coming from?"

"You have left me alone with a number of women who intend to produce a perfect wedding - a large number of women with a large number of plans and questions," he answered good-naturedly.

Catherine laughed, feeling better just being near him. She could imagine his efforts to be patient with questions, and probably instructions, coming from so many directions. As much as she was looking forward to marrying him, she would also be glad when they could stop worrying about the ceremony.

By the time they reached his chamber she had told him briefly about her day and he had told her about his. Both were more fun in the retelling than they had been in reality.

The room was dark except for the light from the stained glass window, and Vincent moved to light candles; but Catherine stopped him.

"There's no need for that. I can't stay long, and we don't need light for a hug.

He sat on the bed and she sat down beside him, then he leaned back on the pillows and invited her into his arms. She gladly moved to the pillows next to the window and snuggled close to him. They held each other, indulged in a few kisses and a very close embrace and talked quietly, each providing the other with the peace of mind they had longed for all day.

Devin was passing Father's chamber. He knew Father would be asleep and had no intention of waking him, but his brother was another story. Vincent never minded seeing him, no matter what time of the day or night. He stopped briefly at the sight of the curtain, wondering why it was there; then he barged right in, dropping his bags noisily on the floor.

"Hey, Vincent. You awake?" he laughed.

Vincent's response was a menacing snarl as he turned toward the sound, moving one arm protectively over Catherine

"Calm down, Little Brother. It's just me."

Catherine rose from behind Vincent, propping herself on her elbows.

"Hello, Devin," she said, not in her best welcoming tone.

"Oh... It isn't just you, though, is it?" Devin answered. They could practically see his mischievous grin in the dark. "Sorry, guys. You two couldn't wait a couple more days?" he asked. He was much too amused at catching his very proper little brother with a woman in his bed to sound nearly as contrite as he should under the circumstances.

"He doesn't seem to be going away," Catherine told Vincent dryly.

"Do you suppose my family will ever learn to announce themselves before entering a chamber in the middle of the night?" Vincent asked, following her lead.

"Who else has... No! Don't tell me the old man walked in on this. I'd love to have been here for that," Devin laughed.

Vincent was, by then, out of the bed and lighting candles; and Catherine sat on the side of the bed. Devin could see that they were both fully dressed, even though Vincent was in his night clothes. Having lit enough candles to provide reasonable light, Vincent greeted Devin with a hug.

"It's good to have you home. We didn't expect to see you until tomorrow evening."

"You obviously didn't expect to see me tonight," Devin answered, grinning over Vincent's shoulder at Catherine.

"You interrupted only a little comfort at the end of a long day," Vincent assured him as he stepped away.

"And Father only interrupted a kiss," Catherine said as she stood and gave Devin a hug, too. "Sorry to disappoint you," she added, patting his cheek slightly harder than necessary. "Welcome home."

"Thanks, Sis," he answered. "Sis. I like the sound of that."

"I need to go home and get some rest. Tomorrow will be a hectic day. You two catch up," Catherine smiled. "Don't keep him up too late, Devin. He's going to have a couple of busy days ahead of him,"

Vincent walked Catherine to the door, and she turned to give him a hug. 'Forget Devin,' she thought. 'We'll be married in three more days.'

Vincent returned her embrace, seeming to have come to the same conclusion. She stood on tiptoe and gave him a soft, warm kiss, then stroked his cheek longingly before leaving. Vincent leaned on the doorway briefly, watching her go.

"Wow. If one little good-night kiss can stir up that many sparks, I'm gonna be green with envy on the wedding night. So what about the bed? Has there been more than a little comfort at the end of a long day yet?" Devin asked with a suggestive look.

"Devin, you will show Catherine more respect," Vincent snapped, the earlier snarl barely below the surface.

"Believe me, I mean Catherine no disrespect. I'm just happy for you. I want you to have everything you're supposed to have in your life. You know, most men would be proud to talk to a brother about having a woman like Catherine in..."

"Have I ever been listed among 'most men'?" Vincent asked.

"Come on, Vincent. Talk to me. If you have, don't you think her girlfriends know? You said Jenny and the other one... Nancy... know everything now. Do you think women don't talk, too? I've met Jenny, and if anybody could drag information out of Chandler, that woman could."

Vincent did need someone to talk to and as much as his brother teased, he knew their conversation would remain between the two of them. He concentrated on lighting a few more candles as he spoke.

"Catherine never meant to tell them anything. Jenny knows Catherine well enough to ask the right questions, make the right statements, and read the answers in her responses. She had dreams about us. 'I was making Catherine very happy,' I believe was the way she phrased it."

"I really am sorry. If I hadn't come barging in when I did..." Devin started

"It would have changed nothing," Vincent said firmly. "We intend to wait until after the wedding."

"I thought you were 'making Catherine very happy,'" he said with some appropriate eyebrow activity.

"We were getting careless," Vincent answered with a short, self-conscious chuckle. "The only way to control ourselves was abstinence."

"There must be a story behind that," Devin chortled.

"Maybe another time," Vincent answered. "Right now it's all new and something we wish to keep between the two of us. No one here knows, and we'd like to keep it that way."

"Need any advice?" Devin grinned. "Anything I can do to help?"

"You could save me from the wedding planners." Vincent answered with a smile. They seem to be everywhere."

"Sorry, Kid. I've been all over the world, and I've observed in nearly every culture that a man cannot be saved from the wedding planners - but I'll do my best to run interference."

"Any help will be welcome," Vincent answered, still smiling. "We'll talk about the wedding tomorrow. Right now, tell me where you've been. What have you been doing?"

Devin knew when to give up. He told Vincent about living in the mountains with Charles for a while. They met an older couple while they were there who had lost a son to a genetic disorder similar to his. They took a liking to Charles and offered him a permanent home. They offered Devin a place to stay anytime he wanted to visit, so Devin was off on his adventures again. He told Vincent about some of his time in Alaska working on an oil rig. He enjoyed it for a while, but decided against staying longer after experiencing an Alaska winter. His plane tonight had arrived from nice, warm San Diego where he was now working for an investment firm.

Vincent stretched out on the bed to listen, his arms folded behind his head the way he did when they were young and Devin would tell him about his adventures Above. They talked until the wee hours of the morning before they both succumbed to the need for sleep.

Devin knew the guest chamber wouldn't be prepared. No one had expected him that night. He changed into sweat pants and a T-shirt and put out all but one small candle.

"Move over, Bro," he ordered, sitting down on the side of the bed.

"Devin..." Vincent protested.

"Hey, I know I'm not much of a substitute for what was here when I came in, but I'm not looking for sheets and blankets at this time of night. If I'm sleeping anywhere comfortable tonight, it looks like this is it," he said, shoving at Vincent.

Vincent moved over and turned toward the window. Devin settled in on his own side of the bed and pulled the covers up around his neck and shoulders. Feeling the covers slipping away from him, Vincent yanked them back, feeling himself reverting to childhood.

"You can't hog the covers anymore," Vincent told him firmly, pulling them back in place around himself.

"Why not?" Devin asked with a chuckle. "It always worked before."

"Because I'm bigger than you now," Vincent responded, emphasizing that statement with another small, self-satisfied tug.

Devin laughed at the brotherly teasing, burrowed down into his fair share of the covers, and fell asleep.

 

 

***

 

 

When Vincent didn't arrive in Father's chamber to meet him for breakfast at the usual time, Father went to look for him. Entering Vincent's chamber, Father saw the luggage, and by the light of the one small, guttering candle he could see a second person in Vincent's bed. Just as he started to retreat, thinking he was intruding again, he realized the second figure was much larger than Catherine. He moved closer and saw that it was Devin.

Standing at the side of the bed, he watched them sleep for a few minutes, remembering such times when they were children. He noticed the covers and smiled to himself at the fact that Devin didn't have them all this time. He remembered having to bring extra quilts for Vincent when they were small. Finally, thinking of the several busy days ahead of them, he mustered up his best dad voice.

"Time to get up boys," he said as loudly as he had in their youth.

Vincent stirred and opened his eyes briefly, but Devin didn't respond at all.

"Vincent! Devin! Wake up. William won't be serving breakfast all morning," Father all but shouted sternly, trying to squelch the chuckle that was building as he watched his sons.

Vincent and Devin opened their eyes to find Father standing next to the bed smiling at them fondly, his hands resting on top of his cane.

"It's been a long time since I could wake both my boys together," Father observed.

"And it will be a long time before it happens again," Vincent responded as he sat up.

Devin just waved slightly and closed his eyes again.

"If I have to get up, you do too," Vincent told him. He smiled mischievously as he snatched the covers away, leaving Devin exposed to the chilly tunnel air. "You're the one who kept me up half the night."

"Is he always this pleasant first thing in the morning?" Devin asked, almost able to joke about it. He drowsily pulled himself to a sitting position.

Father was smiling broadly now, enjoying the easy banter between his two sons.

"Good morning, Father," Devin said, rising to give the older man a hug.

"Welcome home," Father answered, hugging his older son, warming with the thought that they had now begun to mend some long neglected fences between them.

"Make yourselves presentable and meet me in the dining hall," Father instructed as he left.

"Hasn't changed much, has he?" Devin grinned, running his fingers through his hair.

Vincent chuckled at Devin's half-awake state as he gathered his clothes and dressed. Devin was moving more slowly, but managed to dress in a respectable length of time, and the two of them met Father in the dining hall. Devin was immediately added to the schedule for Thanksgiving chores and given an appointment time by The Committee for wedding instructions.

"Remind me to make my next visit when there isn't so much going on," he grumbled to Vincent as they finished their meal. "Can't we sneak off somewhere this afternoon like we used to?"

 

 

***

 

 

Catherine arrived in the tunnels right after work. She and The Committee arranged everything that could be left overnight in The Great Hall and organized everything they would have to move the next morning. Everyone else in the tunnels seemed to be working on daily chores and Thanksgiving arrangements. With that many willing hands, everything seemed to be falling into place.

The Thanksgiving meal was usually a real treat, and this one was no exception. Helpers were generous around the holidays. Generally there were no free guest chambers because former tunnel children often came home for the holiday. Some of the helpers would come as well. As in many families, it was a joyous and noisy reunion. To add to this year's festivities, there was the excitement about the wedding. Thanks were given for the old and new members of the community and for its safety and success through another year.

Catherine had intended to spend the night in the apartment Above to allow her guest chamber to be used for another visitor, but Mary and Sarah wouldn't hear of it. They didn't intend to miss one minute of this wedding day.

By late evening, after a short wedding rehearsal in the dining hall, Catherine and Vincent were exhausted. Finally managing to wrestle a little time alone out of the busy and well-inhabited tunnel holiday, they collapsed into the big chair in the guest chamber and both breathed a sigh of relief.

"I'm envious," Vincent said against her hair as he held her.

"Why?"

"If someone looks for you here, you can pretend to be asleep. I have to manage to reach my chamber undetected."

"What do you suppose your chances might be," she asked, amused.

"Slim to none," he answered with a rueful chuckle and kissed her forehead. "Do you realize this is the last time I have to leave you in the guest chamber?"

"I've thought of very little else during any free moment all day."

"I know," he said. "We have to find a way to control some of those thoughts of yours. They can be very distracting - with the strong possibility of embarrassing."

Catherine laughed and nestled into the warmth of his arms, contentedly imagining never again having to spend their nights in separate rooms.

"Hey! You two behaving?" Devin's voice called from the passageway. He had heard his brother's voice when he arrived.

Catherine started to stand, but Vincent stopped her.

"This time tomorrow Devin will be your brother, as well as mine; and I don't want to give this up yet. There are elaborate plans to keep me from seeing my bride until the ceremony tomorrow, and I'd like this moment to last as long as possible."

She kissed his cheek and smiled.

"Come in, Devin," she called. "Your timing is impeccable, as always."

"I might leave you alone tomorrow night if you're nice to me," he grinned devilishly. "Mary asked me to bring you this, Chandler. She said you left it in the dining hall." He handed her a list she would need for the next morning.

"Thanks Devin," she said, putting it on the table between the bed and the chair. "I hadn't missed it yet."

"Wonder why?" he said with a big, mischievous smile. "Are you there because you didn't think you could get away with there?" he asked, nodding toward the bed.

"He knows?" Catherine asked Vincent, leaning her forehead against his cheek.

"He operates very much like Jenny," Vincent answered, and Catherine chuckled.

"You can't stay here all night, you know. People will talk." Devin teased, looking at his brother. "I'll wait for you in your chamber. We have Big Brother/Best Man things to talk about."

"This time tomorrow...one hundred per cent mine..." Catherine said, looking up at Vincent and knowing Vincent would one hundred per cent understand. She stood and said, "Go and talk to your brother as a single man. Your hours are numbered."

Vincent took a deep breath of resignation and stood to follow Devin.

"Wait outside, Devin," Catherine ordered. "He's mine for a minute."

Devin flashed his devilish grin one more time and went to wait in the passage.

Catherine pushed Vincent against the wall, molded herself against him, kissed him thoroughly, and touched him in a way that hadn't happened in a good while.

"I thought you told me to go," he said with one of his small smiles. "You're sending mixed signals."

"Promises," Catherine answered flirtatiously, "So you'll dream about me until tomorrow night."

"I believe you've just assured that," he chuckled softly and kissed her before he reluctantly joined Devin.

Devin was grinning again when Vincent joined him.

"That's a satisfied look. Must have been some 'good-night,'" he teased.

"You can be vexing at times. Has anyone ever told you that? This had better be a very important conversation," Vincent warned him as they walked back to his chamber."

"It might be worth your time," Devin answered, "but you probably want me to wait until we close the curtain at your door."

Vincent looked at his brother questioningly but said nothing else.

Safely ensconced in Vincent's chamber, Vincent sat in the chair next to his desk as Devin broached the subject he meant to discuss.

"I know you don't need the basic birds and bees talk anymore, but I know you. You still don't think of yourself as quite human enough, so you may not trust your wants to be human wants. That's what Big Brother hauled you in here for." Devin paced briefly, then launched into a short litany of affairs with several women - at one point bringing Vincent to ask, "A woman would want to do that?"

"This one did," Devin answered. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. Don't assume that because of the way you look, your response isn't human. If it's what you want and what Catherine wants, it's probably a perfectly normal human desire. Hey, does that bond thing work when..."

"Yes. Otherwise I may never have had the nerve." Vincent answered, not looking directly at Devin.

"Does she know... ?"

"Yes."

"Wow!" Devin breathed in awe. "No wonder you didn't have any questions. I guess you were 'making Catherine very happy,'"

"Does that mean our discussion is complete?" Vincent asked as he stood.

"Yeah, I guess so," Devin answered. "I'm really happy for you Little Brother, and more than a little jealous. The two of you are likely to have more to contend with than most, but I don't think for a second that you won't have a good life together. If I'm lucky, one day I might find somebody who loves me even half as much as she loves you." He gave Vincent a warm, brotherly hug. "Get some sleep if you can," he grinned. "See you in the morning."

"Sleep well, Devin... Thank you," Vincent answered appreciatively.

 

 

********************

 

 

Vincent woke the day of his wedding feeling the love, joy and anticipation from Catherine flowing into his heart. He couldn't seem to stop smiling and imagined her having the same problem. He no longer had doubts. He no longer had fears. He no longer worried that he was limiting her life. He now simply accepted her love and her desire to live her life with him. However misguided he once saw it on her part, he now accepted that it was her decision to make, and was grateful that she had decided in his favor. The only nervousness he felt was concern that he might do something wrong during the ceremony. He stretched, luxuriating in thoughts of having Catherine with him as long as he lived and reached to the table next to his bed to pick up the schedule The Committee had given him the night before. They had planned the day to avoid having Vincent cross paths with either Catherine or her wedding dress before she walked down the aisle to marry him. He wondered how he would get through the day without seeing her when she was so close.

Catherine woke feeling the same way Vincent did. She could feel his confidence in their decision - something she thought might never happen; and she felt no last minute doubts. They had been through too much together to leave room for doubts that their love could survive. All that remained was the ceremony to publicly cement their commitment to one another and start their new life together. The Committee's schedule was what Devin had brought her the night before.

With resigned sighs, knowing neither would see the other any time soon, Vincent and Catherine sat up in their beds, consulted their schedules and prepared for the day's events.

Their breakfast schedules were separate, Vincent eating first and being dispatched to open the door of the Great Hall and assist with moving some of the things that would have given the women some difficulty. After his duties were complete, they would bring Catherine to help them oversee the final preparations. Mid-afternoon should see the hall decorated and prepared for the wedding and by late afternoon the caterers would start delivering their wares for the reception. Catherine would be given time for a leisurely bath, hair drying, etc. Nancy and Jenny would be there by then to help, and Joe would be joining Vincent as the last member of wedding party. If everything ran according to The Committee's plans, this wedding should go without a hitch.

When seven o'clock arrived the crowd was gathered in The Great Hall, the small orchestra from the tunnels as well as a few musicians from Above were providing the music. Catherine was waiting out of sight of the others, Vincent and Devin were ready to enter and Father and Jason were prepared to speak to the congregation. The congregation was ready to get on with the wedding they had all anticipated for so long.

Father spoke first. He referred to the love between Vincent and Catherine and of their selfless love for others. He welcomed Catherine into his heart and his family, saying that she already held that place - they were here only to make it official. He made mention of his well-known original doubts, which brought a ripple of laughter from the crowd, and his complete lack of doubt now. He then deferred to Jason to perform the ceremony.

The orchestra began the wedding music, and Vincent and Devin appeared from one side of the hall. Vincent wore black trousers with new black cuffed leather boots. His white silk ruffled shirt was worn with a deep green suede vest. An aisle had been arranged from the steps at the entrance to a platform set up near the tapestries on the other side of the room. Kanin and Olivia came down the aisle together followed by an amazingly well-behaved and well-dressed Mouse accompanying Jamie and looking very proud. Joe and Jenny took their places with the rest of the wedding party, then Nancy made her entrance. The orchestra began the Trumpet Voluntary for the bride, and everyone turned to look for Catherine.

Her dress was simple. She thought that was appropriately in keeping with the tunnels and a compliment to what Vincent wore. It was similar to the one she wore at Halloween, but made of soft, winter white velvet with long, pointed sleeves, a high waist, and a low cut neckline. Mary and Sarah had decorated it subtly with matching lace and small, iridescent beads that caught just the right glow from the candlelight and complimented the crystal she wore. Her veil was long and made in several layers, one of which covered her face. It was attached to a wreath of flowers Myra had lovingly created for her. She held a cascading bouquet of roses in one hand and held Peter's arm with the other as she walked toward Vincent. Neither Vincent nor Catherine thought they had ever seen a sight as beautiful as the other, and neither was much aware of anyone else in the room. They quickly found it necessary to be aware of the minister when he asked, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

Peter placed his hand lovingly over Catherine's and patted it gently. Turning to the minister, he answered, "I do." He then kissed her on the cheek and ushered her to Vincent.

Jason began the service, looking with great joy and pride at his childhood friend and mentor and the lovely woman who intended to share his life. Vincent and Catherine had discussed the possibility of writing their own vows; but with the wedding growing into the event it had become, they decided in favor of keeping things as simple as possible. Jason guided them through their vows and the exchange of their rings, hearing a sincerity in their responses that warmed his heart.

After the exchange of rings Vincent took Catherine's hand and kissed her fingers where he had placed the ring, the greatest physical display of affection their family had been allowed to see at that point. He lifted the veil from her face, and Catherine drew his larger hand to her lips and kissed the back of his furred fingers the same way he had kissed hers. All the while they gazed into each other's eyes with a look that held the crowd in the Great Hall spellbound. Jason, both the minister and the friend, smiled at this unlikely pair, who he thought would probably have a more successful marriage than most normal couples, and pronounced them man and wife. Vincent turned and took Catherine into a quietly loving embrace and held her close, resting his head close to hers almost reverently; and her arms went around his waist, her head resting on his chest. Applause was about to break out when they separated, then his hand went to her cheek and his fingers slid slightly into her hair at the back of her neck as if they had minds of their own. When Catherine's hands went to his chest, the scattered applause died and there was a sudden silence when everyone realized what they might see. Vincent leaned his face toward Catherine's to place a slow, gentle, loving kiss on her lips, and she responded by sliding her arms up to his shoulders to accept and return it.

The collective, silent holding of breath was finally released when the kiss ended and Kipper's voice broke the silence by simply saying "Woh!" in a quiet tone of absolute awe. He echoed the thoughts of everyone there. For Vincent and Catherine it hadn't been a passionate kiss, but the electricity Father had mentioned to Vincent filled the room. Kipper would always remember that kiss as the moment his young hormones had sprung to life, and Samantha, as well as a couple of the other girls, suddenly looked much more interesting than they had a few minutes earlier.

Couples with children began to scout the hall for prospective babysitters for the evening, and the crowd began to relax into giggles and twitters and comments. After that kiss, many of the women in the room would never again see Vincent in quite the same brotherly light. Before the response grew any more, the minister quickly took advantage of the relative quiet.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced in his best cathedral voice, "I present to you Vincent and Catherine... He hesitated briefly at the unfamiliar thought of giving Vincent a surname, "...Wells," he finished, as if just making a discovery. Please offer them your support and your prayers in their new life together."

The applause and cheering was thunderous, and matched by the size of Vincent's smile. Catherine looked just as happy when she took his arm to walk down the aisle to the reception area at the other end of the room. About halfway down the aisle Vincent, in his joy, suddenly lost all sense of propriety and swept Catherine up in his arms to carry her the rest of the way. Their laughter disappeared into their audience's response to Vincent's unexpected lapse of decorum. Reaching the end of their walk, he placed a kiss on Catherine's cheek and gently put her down. Their smiles were contagious, spreading to everyone in the room.

The members of the wedding party, by virtue of having followed them down the aisle, had the first opportunity to congratulate the newlyweds, starting a crush of enthusiastic well-wishers Vincent and Catherine weren't sure would ever end. There was no semblance of a receiving line. It rapidly became a very informal reception. Eventually they were able to cut the work of art/wedding cake that William and a helper had created and to point the congregation's attention to the reception tables. The children led the adults to the food, and the musicians made their way back to their instruments to strike up a waltz. Vincent and Catherine started the dance alone. The onlookers watched for a while, enjoying how well they moved together; and then, a few at a time, they drifted on the dance floor to join them, cutting in on them over and over as the evening progressed.

They were married, Vincent was fully recovered, the community was happy for them, Catherine's closest friends could now share in her happiness, there were no present threats to their lives or the tunnels... They could finally relax and allow themselves to be happy for a while. Their new life had actually begun; and they knew that whatever happened, whatever came, they would face it together... and they would endure.