Disclaimer: "Beauty and the Beast" and the character Pascal and all the rest belong to Republic Pictures. No infringement is intended. Max and her ilk belong to me. That and all the rest of the legal stuff. 'Nuff said.

A Shot in the Dark

by Kayla Rigney


After he finished reading the article, Father folded the newspaper and looked over his glasses at the rest of the Council members. "We have a problem," he said gravely.

The room was deathly quiet.

The old man hit the table with his fist. Everybody jumped.

"Well?!"

Pascal looked down at his hands flexed them. In a voice as soft as breath, he sang, "Ain't got time to wonder why. Whoopee! We're all gonna die."

Father shot the pipemaster a withering look that left no doubt as to his opinion of Country Joe and the Fish. Pascal crossed his arms and mentally retreated into The Plague and I.

"Perhaps nobody saw the story," Mary said not very convincingly.

"And perhaps pigs are flying unfettered out of my ears," Father snapped.

The headline read: "Local Group Lobbies to Franchise Tours of Closed Subway Stations."

It was Vincent who finally broke the silence. "There's no denying the seriousness of the situation," he said. "I propose that our first plan of action be to close the upper tunnels to any but the most necessary traffic. All in favor?"

Everybody said 'Aye' except for Pascal, who was unconsciously humming The Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag.

"Will you stop that, Pascal!" Father shouted and slammed the table again.

The pipemaster cringed and was silent.

Vincent reached over and touched his friend's arm. "We'll have to relocate the Pipe Chamber down a level --; at least temporarily," he went on. "The school room has the best resonance, don't you agree?"

Pascal looked up and nodded. He locked eyes with Vincent and thought: you know me better than anyone else in the world. Please stop this. I'm drowning. He knew almost instantly that his plea had been understood. The pipemaster relaxed enough to stop digging his fingernails into his wrists.

"Good," Vincent replied, and turned to address the rest of the table. "It's decided that the upper tunnels are now off-limits to any unnecessary traffic." He put special emphasis on the word 'unnecessary,' which translated to mean Paradise was still a necessity. "Pascal and I will meet later to discuss the pipe chamber. Now, the next order of business is to brainstorm," he said. "All is not lost until we decide it is. I'll speak with Catherine and see what can be done legally to impede this project."

"I'll gather the children and explain what's happening," Mary chipped in. She seemed more at ease, now that she had a game plan. "We can easily hold classes in the great hall."

"And Mouse must be made to understand that he cannot hang around the closed stations, anymore," William said, with barely suppressed glee.

Pascal looked over at the cook. He never understood the large man's need to 'put Mouse in his place.'

"I'll worry about Mouse," Vincent growled.

Jamie shifted in her chair and said: "I'll brief the sentries and retool their assignment schedule."

Cullen, who'd silently reread the article a dozen times, looked up from the newspaper. "Is it just me, or does anybody else think there's something else going on here?" he asked.

Father shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

Vincent said nothing.

Mary looked like a deer caught in headlights.

Even William was silent.

Cullen was angry. " Oh, come off it! We're all thinking the same thing!" He turned on Pascal with a deep-seated viciousness. " It's her," he snapped. "You start seeing that little historian and suddenly the shit hits the fan!"

Pascal sat in stunned silence. When he'd finally told his friends about Max, they'd been supportive and kind. He found his voice long enough to say: "She's not an historian. She's a research consultant. And she wouldn't condone anything that would endanger my world."

Cullen jumped up from the table and pointed at the pipemaster accusingly. "You see?" he asked. "You see? He says my world! Last time I checked it was ours, you twisted little dwarf!"

 

"Cullen!" Vincent was standing and poised for attack.

"Screw you, too!" Cullen spat. He stalked out of the room.

Father restrained Vincent with a gentle hand to his chest. "Let him go," he said. Once his son was calmed and sitting, Father turned to Pascal. "Cullen is a jealous fool. But he does have a point --;"

"Father!" Pascal cut him off. "Maxine has nothing to do with this. I swear it upon my life!" His silent anger was so great; it felt like the air was being forced from his body.

The tunnel patriarch spoke with authority now. "Pascal, I never meant to imply that she did, " he replied. " The point is that Maxine does research for a living."

The pipemaster was now visibly gasping for breath. He desperately wanted to run away and up to his Paradise. Cullen's words were meant to hurt him --; and they had.

"Breathe, Pascal,' Father said, gently. "I simply meant that perhaps she could be persuaded to use her skills for us."

"I'll ask," he forced himself to reply. In truth, Pascal didn't want to ask her. He didn't want to tell Max about any of this. He didn't want her touched by ugliness or fear or the dark.

"Why don't you invite Maxine to come Below and meet with us?" Mary asked. "I'm sure if she saw our way of life and what it means to us, she'd be willing to help."

Pascal nodded. He knew if he told her, she would. For him.

'Well, then, we have a job to do," Father said. "Let's get to work."

 

Once the room cleared and they were alone, Vincent sat down on the bench next to Pascal. He deliberately unrolled a stack of blueprints on the table in front of them. Then, he leaned heavily on is elbows and looked straight ahead. "You don't have to ask her, if you don't want to," he said.

Pascal felt a rush of relief. "Thank you," he replied.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Vincent asked.

The pipemaster nodded.

The two friends communicated in a complex language of questions and gesture. Because of his empathic abilities, Vincent knew when not to push Pascal --; and in return, Pascal told his secrets. Had anyone looked into the library, they would have seen two men hunched over blueprints, seemingly absorbed in technical discussion.

"She gives me sanctuary," Pascal said, simply.

Vincent dug through the stack of blueprints until he found the one for the main living area. "Here it is," he said. He pointed to the schoolroom and tapped it with his claw. "What do you give her?"

Pascal took his wire-rimmed spectacles out of their case and put them on. He looked at the blueprint closely. Moving the pipe chamber was going to mean days and possibly weeks of backbreaking work. "The same, I think," he replied. Pascal could not admit the truth aloud, even to Vincent. I give her myself, he thought. A shortcut suddenly leapt from the page. "We'll add a single lead there. I can connect with most of the boroughs that way."

Still focused on the task at hand, Vincent made a light mark to indicate Pascal's revision. "Which do you love more, the books or their owner?" he asked, lightly.

Pascal raised his eyebrow and looked over his glasses. "Both, equally." He replied.

They silently mapped the changing the picture of their world, moving the population ever downward and away from danger.

Vincent shifted a little on the bench. Everything in the world was too small for him. He constantly had to adjust his body to fit benches and chairs that were designed for someone else's definition of comfort. "Is there any truth whatsoever to Cullen's implication?"

"No!"

"Pascal, what does Maxine do for a living?"

"She's a research consultant." The new pipe chamber began to take shape in his mind. Vincent was right; it only took a few changes to make the school room a command center. "She's a research consultant who preserves things."

"What kind of things does she preserve, Pascal?"

"Books, music," Pascal replied. Me, he thought.

The pipemaster looked long and hard at Vincent. This man was his lifelong friend. They'd been through so many things together --; good times and bad. They carved out their lives as they carved out tunnels. Pascal had to decide whether to tell the truth or to lie. If he lied, then he would be as hurtful Cullen. When Vincent turned and looked at him, Pascal saw him in many layers; mostly he saw the scared little boy who tried so hard to keep up with Devin and ended up failing.

"What does she preserve, Pascal?" Vincent asked again.

"Time," Pascal replied. He hadn't known the answer until he actually said it. Once voiced, he knew for a fact it was true and correct.

"What?"

"She preserves time."

"But that isn't possible."

"Well, neither are you."

They laughed uneasily; but deep inside, Pascal was relieved. Lately, he'd been noticing things about Paradise -- things he couldn't explain, like the fact that more than a few of the books and CDs had copyright dates from the next millennium. They couldn't all be misprints. Could they? He reached inside his vest pocket and pulled out a book he'd found in the box marked: "General Silliness&endash;Q-Z." He put it on the table in front of Vincent.

"Look at the copyright date," he said. It was new. It still had that new book smell.

"What?"

"Just look at it."

Vincent picked up the paperback. He carefully opened it and read the date. "It's an obvious misprint, Pascal," he said. "I'm sure it should say 1989."

"That's what I thought, too," Pascal replied. "At first. Only there's more where that came from. Boxes and boxes more." He crossed his arms. "And when I went Above and tried to look it up in Books In Print, To Say Nothing of the Dog isn't listed. It doesn't exit."

Vincent flipped through the book. "This is fluff. Why would anybody save fluff? Wouldn't it make more sense to save learned texts?"

"Probably; but that's not the point," the pipemaster said, impatiently. "The point is that I just finished reading a piece of fluff from 1998."

"What does Maxine have to say about this?"

"I haven't asked."

"You must ask her, Pascal," Vincent said.

Pascal stared at the blueprint. They were no longer talking about the book. "I could sleep in the little annex off the schoolroom," he said quietly.

"If this book is what it appears to be, then Maxine knows what becomes of us."

"I'm not a complete idiot, Vincent."

"You have to ask her." The growl was unmistakable. Vincent meant business.

Pascal forced his voice to remain calm, even though he was very afraid. Not that it mattered that much. He knew the Beast could smell fear a mile away. "I love this woman," he said, evenly. "She's the only person who accepts me, no questions asked." The forced calmness made him feel better. "I do the same for her."

The thing sitting next to him was no longer Vincent. Its claws were dangerous. "Ask her."

"The answer I get might not be the one you wish to hear," Pascal replied quietly.

"I know where you go at night. I follow you there sometimes."

"And I know where you go at night, too."

"Is that a threat?"

"Try me." The pipemaster knew he was deep into dangerous territory. Physically he was no match for this thing. Nobody was. On the other hand, the Beast was intelligent. It knew that if anything happened to Pascal, Paradise might not be waiting at the end of the tunnel.

The standoff worked. The Beast backed down, and Vincent reappeared behind his eyes. He turned back the to blueprints as if nothing had happened.

Pascal smoothed the section that lay in front of him. "We'll move the general dormitories down to the old tunnels," he said. "At least, there are bathing facilities on that level."

Vincent picked up the book and stared at it. "It looks so innocent."

"Yes."

"Pascal, what are we going to do?"

"We're going to move the pipe chamber and carve out deeper tunnels."

"What are you going to do?"

The pipemaster took off his glasses. He put them back into their hardcase and snapped it shut. It sounded like a gunshot. His head ached and his heart hurt. Vincent could not survive without the tunnels. Sometimes, the ugly choice is the right choice. To save one life is to save an entire world.

Pascal reached over and put his small hand on top of Vincent's large one. "I'm going to ask her," he said. "I'll ask her tonight." Even if it costs me everything, he thought. Like a shot in the dark.

 

Pascal felt the beat before he turned the corner to Paradise. It was definitely pop, definitely not his taste; and he smiled in spite of himself. It was exactly the kind song Max played when she thought no one was listening. Whenever Pascal found her playing the Ronnettes or Belinda Carlisle, she always acted a little flustered and offered to put on something more "serious" --; like Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Very early on, Pascal teased her about her definition of "serious." He was merciless about it, too. Finally, Max said 'enough' and played Kurt Weill's Youkali Tango. She translated the words from French slowly and deliberately.

Life, tedious and banal, drags us along.

Yet the poor human soul, seeking complete oblivion,

Had to let go of earth, to find the mystery

where our dreams are buried

In some Youkali.

Youkali, it is the land of our desires. It's happiness, it's pleasure;

It's the place where we leave our cares behind

It is the beacon in our clouded night, the star we must follow…

There we keep our promises. It is the land of shared love

It means hope for all human hearts, the deliverance we all await.

Youkali is the land of our desires.

It's happiness, it's pleasure.

But it's just a dream

A fantasy

There is no Youkali.

Pascal was floored.

Even as a young man, the pipemaster was prone to bouts of depression and self-doubt. He never spoke of it. He accepted the fact that he was neither attractive enough nor intelligent enough to win attention; and by the time he was in is early twenties he'd settled into a life that revolved around mostly around his job. It honestly hadn't occurred to him that beautiful people were touched by any pain at all; and he told Max as much. Pascal was deeply shocked when Max replied it never occurred to her that he wasn't beautiful.

He rather respected her choice in music after that.

Standing in the dark outside Paradise, he pushed the day's events down deep inside and told himself that he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to do. Tonight, Max was sitting cross-legged on the futon furiously sorting through a box of CDs, her foot tapping in time to a tolerable song called This Kiss. Pascal didn't say anything. He silently slipped into the room and sat watching her without speaking. Max was one of those rare women who looked sexy in patched jeans and a sweatshirt. Pascal contentedly watched her until she sensed him sitting there.

Max didn't look up from under her jumble of auburn curls, when she said, "Hello, Just Pascal. I'll only be a few more minutes. I promise."

"I have all night," he replied.

Finally, Max found the one she was looking for. She put it in the CD player and turned the sound down very low. "One listen, and I'm all yours," she said. She flashed him a devastating smile. "I swear."

Pascal answered by joining her on the futon. Max listened intently, as though imprinting the song on her mind. When the CD finished, Max shut off the player and smiled at him.

"Well?"

"That's a hideously bad song, Max," Pascal said, laughing aloud. "The possession of five different edits in two languages has got to violate some universal law."

She pretended to be horribly offended. "I have it on good authority that in the future, Marc Anthony is a god and You Sang to Me is considered the height of sublimity."

"That's not even a word."

"Yes, it is --; and you know it." Max, no longer able to contain her laughter, fell back into Pascal's arms. She rolled over and rested her head on his chest. "Oh, all right. It's an awful song," she said. "But I like it. It makes me happy. And how are you today, my fine bald hobbit?"

"I'm all right," Pascal replied, even though he wasn't. He was very tired and looked it. He gently pulled on one of her curls just to watch it bounce back. He wished he could bounce back as easily.

"Like hell you're all right," Max replied, smiling. She didn't push it, though. Instead she kissed him softly and settled herself into the crook of his arm. "We make a nice fit, Pascal," she murmured. She placed her hand over his heart and very softly tapped her fingers against his chest in time with its rhythm.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"No problem. Let's just be still for a while."

When he came to Paradise, the pipemaster was often tired or in pain from his hours on the line. Almost from day one, Max understood and accepted this. She never took his exhaustion personally. Many nights, they just talked quietly until he drifted off to sleep in her arms.

Pascal was very aware of the tender way she touched him. He lost track of himself, holding her; it was very intense. Sometimes, simply lying next to Max was as connected and as erotic as making love; and nothing could touch him. Other times, it relaxed him to a point where he couldn't keep anything hidden. Tonight was like that. Without warning, Pascal thought of his world, and he felt like a raw wound. He sighed.

"What's wrong?" Max asked, her voice very relaxed and low. "You want to talk about it yet?"

"I think so," Pascal replied. He shifted his body so he was almost facing her. "Max, may I ask you a question?"

Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled at him. "Of course, you may," she said.

"What time is it, Max?"

"I don't know," she replied, laughing. "You're the one who always carries a watch."

Pascal put his hand on the small of her back and rolled her so she was looking him directly in the eye. "What time is it here in this room?" Her entire body tensed. So I've hit a nerve, he thought. The pipemaster had been in enough fights to know when he was up against a formidable opponent.

Max did not answer.

"I read copyright dates, Max." Pascal told her. "I want to know what time it is in this room. This is not a difficult question."

Her violet eyes flashed fire. For an instant, he thought she was going to strike him. "It's no time at all," Max snapped. "Happy now?" She did not move from his arms, though.

"Is it the place or is it you?"

"It's me," she said, quietly. "Just me, Just Pascal. Now can we talk about something else?"

"No." Pascal hated what he had to do next.

Max tried to pull away, but he was stronger.

"I have ask you something," he said. "And I think you already know what it is."

To his surprise, Max started to cry. Her tears were silent. "Please, Pascal," she pleaded. "Please don't."

The pipemaster felt a part of himself die deep inside. "Max, I don't have a choice."

"I can see that," she whispered.

Pascal cupped her cheek with his hand, letting her tears wash over his palm. "Does my home survive?" He tried to ignore the obvious fact that his hand was in the same position that landed a slap.

Max took a deep breath. "Pascal, you're not going to like what I have to say."

"Tell me anyway."

She lowered her eyes. "This room is an office on the third floor of a building in Nevada," she said. "Two doors down is a collection of personal papers confiscated from the library of Dr. Jacob Wells." Max tried to push away again. "Pascal, don't make me tell you."

He put his hand under her chin and made her look at him. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "But I'm afraid I have to."

Max looked at him with her violet eyes that now seemed as bottomless as the ocean. "It happened a long time ago."

"What?"

"The Trust for the Preservation of Underground New York," she replied.

"They found the tunnels, didn't they?"

"Yes," Max said. "That and more."

Pascal could not speak. Too many thoughts ran through his head. He rolled over flat on his back and stared at the ceiling.

"The Trust was a ruse," she told him. "It was by design a trap for the Company to get its hands on Vincent Wells. God, it was clever, too. They even got Catherine Chandler to do the dirty work."

"What?"

"Am I being unclear?" Max asked icily.

"No," Pascal whispered.

"I thought not," she said. "Anyway, because the subway stations were declared historic sites, there was a tenuous excuse to push deeper into the underground. That excuse was all it took." Max stretched like a cat and rolled over on her stomach. She propped her chin on her hands. "Pascal, it happened so fast," she said. "In less than six months, it was simply gone --; your world, the people, the dream."

"When did this happen?"

"Now."

Pascal tried to understand what she was saying. It was strange to hear events in her past referred to as now. "You know this to be a fact?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, softly.

"What happens to us?"

"Well, everybody was --; will be --; forced Above," Max replied, deliberately using the future tense. Clarity was important. "Mostly, they adapt --; thanks to the kindness of Helpers. William gets a job in a deli. Jamie goes to college." She rubbed her forehead, as if she was thinking very hard. She wasn't. Pascal knew her well enough to see that she was fighting tears. "Kipper gets married way too young. Father disappears. Mary teaches."

"Of course," said Pascal, dully. "Vincent? What about Vincent?"

Max closed her eyes. "Vincent is put into a lab, where he can be 'studied,'" she said. "The project is still classified, so I don't know any details. I've heard rumors. They keep him alive. For a while, anyway." She tried to form the words in a way that didn't sound hateful. It wasn't possible. "Vincent won't cooperate. They do horrible things to him. I don't know, Pascal. I simply don't."

The pipemaster was silent. What would he do Above? He was 41 years old. All he knew was the pipe chamber. "What happens to me?" he asked.

Max shook her head. "That's all she wrote," she said.

"I want to know." He had a strange memory of hot water and blood.

"Remember, you asked," she said, sadly. "I didn't want to tell you."

"Tell me, Max."

Max lapsed into the past tense. "You went Above," she said. "But you never really adjusted. You committed suicide sometime in the early 'nineties."

Time passed --; or did not pass --; in silence. Finally, Max spoke. "I cannot allow this to happen again."

"Again?" Pascal asked. He felt weak.

Max lowered her eyes. "It hasn't happened yet," she said with conviction. "I've read every single thing in that archive, Pascal. I decided a long time ago. I'm stopping it this time."

"Why?" Pascal had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Because of you," she said. "Don't you see? Without Below, Above is thrown out of balance. I must fix the equation. You're part of that." It wasn't exactly a lie.

Pascal looked away. He couldn't bring himself look at her. In his mind, Cullen's twisted little dwarf mingled with her nickname for him bald hobbit. Pascal suddenly wondered if he was just part of that equation to Max. Maybe she wasn't attracted to him at all? Ugly choices are sometimes the right ones. In one night, Paradise turned to pain.

He felt Max's fingertips under his chin. He reluctantly let her turn his face to hers.

"Pascal, don't even go there," she said, evenly. She wasn't crying anymore. She looked angry. "I can read you as easily as I can read a book." She caressed his face, traced his lips. Very softly she made her fingers glide and soothe. "When you fell, I fell, too."

Pascal reached over and touched her face softly. "How?"

"Well, for starters, this is a really old office." She looked towards the wall and pointed with her index finger. "The walls are paper thin," she said.

For the first time, he noticed a slight defect in the hole. It seemed to flicker and shimmer a little, as if light was reflecting off mist.

Max turned back to face him. "Okay; so I was careless," she said. " I left an opening. I didn't mean to. Or maybe I did. Hell, I don't know."

Pascal knew. He knew for certain.

"My job is to pass through that door and get things," Max said. "Things we lost." She took another deep breath. "Things we need in order to be whole again. Nobody said those things can't be alive."

"You did it on purpose," he said. "You left the door open on purpose. Admit it. You lured me here with books and music." And you, he thought.

She lowered her eyes and shrugged. He very definitely saw her blush.

Pascal hugged her tight against him. "I just want to hear you say 'I admit it,'" he said.

"Oh, all right! I admit it!" Max snapped. "I liked your journal, hobbit! And maybe I was isolated as you were. Did you ever think of that? This is a really lonely job."

The pipemaster felt a laugh begin to rumble in his belly. He knew. He knew, and he didn't care. Pascal laughed joyously. "You read my journals," he said. He laughed so hard; he couldn't catch his breath. "You read them and you liked what I had to say. And you fell for a dead man."

Max was completely baffled by his reaction. "That's about it," she said, dully. "Except you left out the part where I fell in love with your words."

Pascal continued to laugh.

"This isn't funny," Max said. Pascal could see she was still on the verge of tears.

"Yes it is." Still laughing, he took her in his arms and rolled them both so he was on top of her. He smoothed her hair out of her face and softly brushed the tears away with his fingertips.

"This is not funny," she said again.

Pascal did not speak with words. Instead, he soothed her with his touch and the movement of his body. He let her initiate the next kiss. She was tentative and afraid. He could taste the difference in her body chemistry. He liked it. "Can you save my world?"

"I think so," Max said. "Yes."

"Am I part of your job?"

"Pascal," she said. "For the last and only time, you are not a part of my job. You're a part of my life. No matter what you think, I didn't initiate this."

"No?" he asked, softly, softly kissing her lips. She was trembling.

"No," Max said, her words themselves becoming the kiss. "You did."

"If you say so," Pascal whispered. He put his hand beneath her chin and guided her mouth to his. He kissed her very, very deeply. He kissed her for a long time. "We make a good fit," he thought or said or thought.

"Pascal?"

"Yes?"

"I have something to tell you," Max said.

"What?"

"I love you."

Her words overwhelmed Pascal with undeniable need. His heart felt like it would burst and his body ached for ached for release. "I love you, too, Max," he whispered, roughly. He took her hands and guided them under his vest. The coolness of her touch burned through his thin T-shirt. More than anything, he wanted her to lose control before he did.

Her hands seemed to be everywhere at once. "Lose the vest, Pascal," Max whispered.

"You do it," he replied. Pascal closed his eyes so he could fully experience every sensation as Max slid the garment off his shoulders and down his arms. She moved against him, using the vest as an excuse to caress every inch of his upper body. He held her loosely. "Kiss me, Max," he whispered.

And Max kissed him. She kissed him so tenderly, that Pascal shook deep inside. She wrapped herself around him and kissed him with her mouth and her hands and the building rhythm of her body.

She undressed him boldly.

He returned the favor slowly and very gently. He pulled her down to him. He cradled her chin in his hands; and as he looked into her eyes, he could see it. She wanted him. "Oh, Max," he said, softly. "I never thought anyone would look at me like this."

"Like what?"

Pascal felt himself start to blush.

Max kissed him very softly. "Like what?" she asked again.

"Like you want me," he whispered. Pascal knew that he wasn't much to look at. Max was so beautiful. How could she want him?

"How could I not?" she asked. And Max kissed him.

Pascal felt his control slip away. "Please, Max," he whispered. "Take me."

Max was very tender with him. She moved with him and not against him.

 

God, we're a good fit, he thought.

In his heart, Pascal knew that whatever was asked, no matter the question, the answer would be 'yes.'

Pascal found Vincent in the library. He was still pouring over blueprints.

"Maxine said she would meet with the Council."

"Oh, that's such good news." Vincent looked up at him and smiled. He's such a gentle Beast, Pascal thought. "As we speak, Catherine is busy putting together an injunction on the grounds that the closed stations are historic sites."

"I'll bring Max down tomorrow morning after breakfast," he said and turned to leave. Pascal paused at the doorway with his back to his friend. "Vincent, what if Catherine is wrong?" Pascal asked.

"She rarely is," Vincent replied. "Thank God."

 

Pascal had never been to Paradise during the day before. The upper tunnels smelled different in the early morning. There was a definite aroma of coffee and bagels and lox. Everything seemed edgy and strange. Even familiar sounds took on new meaning:

 

It's a Shot in the Dark

But baby I'd like the chance

Fate ain't working

So I'm taking it in my hands….

The pipemaster slid through the portal quickly, before he lost his nerve.

"Good morning," Max said, smiling. She was sitting on top of a box labeled PERSONAL RECORDS, TAX RETURNS, & EPHEMERA 2003. "Don't look so serious, Pascal. Everything will be all right. This is what I do. As soon as my assistant arrives with some last minute specs, we're copacetic."

"Assistant?" Pascal asked. He was profoundly and acutely ashamed of his ragged appearance. Next to Max, he really did look like a hobbit.

"Addie's great," she replied. "She was up all night double-checking my calculations. This is just too important to leave margin for error."

"I'll just go back outside. " Pascal started for the wall.

Max reached out and stopped him with a touch on the arm. "No," she said, softly. "I want her to meet you. She needs to see that there's a face to the work. Please do this one thing for me." She looked up at him with eyes that reflected the fear in his. "She's my sister, Pascal."

Until this moment, it had never occurred to the pipemaster that Max might have family. She was so rare and special to him that she seemed to exist in a continuum of her own making. He'd never loved anyone much as he loved Max; it made him selfish.

"Of course, Max," he said. "I'd be honored to meet her."

She laughed nervously. "I wouldn't go that far. This is Addie we're talking about." She scooted over and made room for him on the box.

Pascal sat next to her, making sure to touch her shoulder with his. "What makes you more nervous --; talking to the Council or me meeting Addie?" he asked.

Max rewarded him with a laugh. "Addie, I guess," she replied. "I'm very good at my job."

"How did get into your line of work, anyway?" Pascal asked.

"You really want to know?" She sounded very surprised.

"Yes."

Max sighed and leaned against him. "I was born into the business," she said. "My family has done it for centuries. Eons, probably."

Pascal reached over and ran his fingertips along her arm.

"Remember your Fairy tales?"

The pipemaster groaned.

She ignored him. "I'm talking about the unsettling ones," she went on. "All those stories about changelings and men disappearing into a world beyond the mist and 'whatever you do, don't eat the food.'"

He nodded.

Max looked at him from under her eyelashes. "Well, they're about my ancestors and others like them," she said. "They call us Archivists and Librarians; but we call ourselves techs. Guardians of time would be closer. And by the way, most of us are under five feet five, which probably goes a long way towards explaining the whole Celtic little people thing."

Pascal took her hand in his. He shuddered with happiness when she entwined her long, slim fingers with his. "Does your entire family work with time or whatever?" he asked.

Max shook her head. "Not everyone can do it --; or wants to," she replied. "A tech works one project his or her whole life. It can get pretty boring and very lonely. A good tech gets involved."

"Are you a good tech?"

"Yes." She sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I am now."

Together, they sat staring into the portal, while the CD player ground through Belinda. It was scratched.

 

"Is there something behind the wall I should worry about?"

Pascal and Max both jumped.

"Addie!" Max said. "I wish you wouldn't sneak up on me like that!"

"And I wish you wouldn't send me on pointless quests for lox in the middle of the desert." Addie Seaton looked nothing like her sister. She was very small, very round, very blonde --; and very scary. She ignored Pascal and handed Max a greasy-looking paper bag. " All I could find was Cajun smoked salmon chunks. No bagel," she said. "This is B.F. Nevada, Maxine. Air isn't up yet. You're lucky I found the store." As an after thought, she tossed a bound report into Pascal's lap.

Max laughed and said: "Pascal, this is my sister, Addie Seaton-Deiter. Addie, this is Pascal." She quickly ate a handful of salmon chunks.

Addie's demeanor changed completely. Suddenly, she was all smiles. She shook Pascal's hand warmly. "I'm so happy to finally meet you! I heard absolutely nothing about you until two o'clock this morning. Before that, I was too busy researching the sewers of New York to listen."

The pipemaster grinned and replied: "And I knew nothing of you until thirty minutes ago."

"If you hurt my sister, I'll have you hunted down and killed like an animal," Addie said, pleasantly. "And then I'll sell your desiccated body parts to science."

"I'll keep that in mind." For reasons he could not explain, he liked this woman.

Max took the report and gave it the once over. "This is excellent work, Ad," she said. "Thank you."

Addie smiled at her sister warmly. "You're welcome." She looked at her watch. "Max, you'd better get going."

Max sighed. "Yes, you're right." She didn't move from the box. In fact she inched closer to Pascal.

"Max," Addie said, standing almost toe to toe with her sister. "Just go."

Max stood and clutched the report to her chest. Pascal stood next to her and marveled that for the first time in his life, he was the tallest person in the room.

"It's a shot in the dark," Max said. She had little beads of sweat across the bridge of her nose.

"But you're taking fate into your hands," Addie replied, her voice the absolute definition of calm.

"Do I look all right, Ad?"

Pascal thought Max looked wonderful. She was wearing a simple black dress that made her seem slim and very tall. It swayed with her body. She looked more like a dancer than she did a tech on her way to meet with a council of strangers.

"You look gwaugeous, Max." She took off a silver crescent pendant she'd been wearing and put it around her sister's neck. "For luck."

"It's time," Pascal said.

Pascal helped Max through the portal. For some reason, they both turned and looked back into Paradise. Addie was sitting on the box labeled PERSONAL RECORDS, TAX RETURNS, & EPHEMERA 2003 eating Cajun salmon chunks. And she was crying.

"She loves me," Max said, simply. "She's afraid I won't come back."

"Is that a possibility?" Pascal asked.

Max just smiled.

"Let's go," she said.

 

When Max stepped into his world, Pascal thought he felt a shift in the atmosphere. The constant tunnel draft seemed to disappear. He felt impossibly safe.

"Well," Max said. "This is it." Without looking at him, she took his hand in the dark.

"I can't believe you're actually here," Pascal whispered. He was very aware of her warmth and her physical presence.

"In my mind, I've walked these tunnels a million times," she replied, softly. "But it feels so different with you."

"Yes."

The pipemaster allowed himself the luxury of really looking at Max. In the reality of his world, her features were sharper and somehow elongated; and like an animal, her violet eyes seemed to focus and deflect light. Her skin had a definite olive cast. Pascal pulled her to him just to feel the soft angles of her body beneath her thin jersey dress.

"You are so beautiful," he said.

"So are you," Max replied.

"Are you scared, Max?"

"No. I'm with you. Everything will be fine." She sounded so certain that Pascal believed her. "We need to go, Pascal. They're waiting for us."

He released her from their embrace reluctantly. In his whole life, he'd never felt so complete.

The pipemaster led Max down the winding passages slowly. As they neared the main living area, there was more light. The sentries at their posts acknowledged their progress. They sent signals down the line: they're here/they're on the way. Max smiled and nodded and held on to Pascal's hand very tightly. She seemed to be taking in every detail of his world with the same concentration she usually reserved for music.

"Would you like to see the pipe chamber?" Pascal asked, almost shyly. "Take a fast look?"

"Yes," she replied. "I'd like that very much.

Pascal led Max down the main corridor, past his own small chamber and into the heart of the tunnels --; and the center of his universe. He built or helped to build every level of the network. In spite of his fear of heights, Pascal designed a complex system of pipes that spanned the length of three walls and a height of three stories. When he thought about his pipe chamber, he felt deep pride. This was Home.

"You built this?" Max whispered.

Pascal nodded.

"It's amazing, Pascal."

The pipemaster came alive inside simply having Max here next to him. Pascal began to sway unconsciously to the rhythm of the pipes; and the words flowed through him. Part of him wanted to grab a pipe and relay. The pipes sang with news of Max.

High above them, Kipper was furiously working the upper platform.

"They're talking about us," Pascal told her.

"I hope it's good," Max said.

Pascal smiled and motioned to the door. It was time to leave.

Mouse was waiting outside the pipe chamber.

"Hello, Mouse," Pascal said.

"I wanted to see the fairy," Mouse blurted. He looked shyly at Max.

Max extended her hand. "I'm not a fairy," she said" I'm Maxine Seaton. And I'm very glad to meet you." Her voice was gentle, the way Vincent's was whenever he spoke to Mouse.

"Glad to meet you," Mouse said, rocking from foot to foot.

"I've heard a lot about you." She took Mouse's one hand in both of hers and held it.

"All good?" Mouse asked, very worried.

"All good," she assured him. "One hundred percent, definitely Good."

Pascal had of course carefully prepared her for Vincent's appearance; but he'd told her nothing of Mouse, except that he'd been responsible for his landing in Paradise. He guessed she'd read about him in Father's papers.

"Okay, Fine. Mouse must leave now." He slipped his hand out of hers and disappeared.

"See you soon, Mouse," Max said. She turned to Pascal and smiled. "You have no clue who that man is. None at all."

Pascal laughed and said: "Do you intend to enlighten me?"

"It would take too long to explain," she replied. "And you'd never believe me, anyway."

Finally, they were standing outside the Great Hall, where the Council was waiting. Max leaned back against the wall and sighed. "This is it," she said, locking eyes with Pascal. She tapped the report against her leg. It made a soft, sharp sound.

"Pascal?"

"Max?"

"You understand that this really is a shot in the dark, don't you?" she said. "Just because I know in my gut that I'm right and your world must exist, doesn't mean that it's supposed to exist. There's a slight possibility that events are set."

Somewhere, deep down Pascal knew and accepted this. But he also sensed that Max had never been in his life before this --; that she'd watched this unfold countless times and yet had never physically intervened. He stood very close to her as if shielding her with his small body. "If it doesn't work, then you tried," he said.

"Will you kiss me once for luck?" she asked.

"You bet."

Pascal gave her a gentle kiss and then leaned in so his mouth was next to her ear. "It's going to work," he told her. "This is and we are."

Max flashed him her smile. "Thank you."

"I mean it, Max."

She pressed back hard against the wall and closed her eyes. Pascal watched as her demeanor changed into one of complete control. Suddenly, Max seemed physically more appealing and even more beautiful --; as if that were possible. The pipemaster gasped. "It's called glamour, Pascal," she said, laughing. She was truly striking with her auburn hair and violet eyes. "It's show time."

Max took a very deep breath and entered the Great Hall in front of Pascal. With remarkable poise, she walked to the head of the table and stood next to Father. "Hello, everyone, sorry I'm late," she said, in a voice that meant Business. "My name is Maxine Louise Seaton. I solve problems. It's my job."

Introductions were quickly made all around. Pascal took his usual seat next to Vincent.

Max did not sit. Instead, she stood beside Father. "I have two conditions," she said. "One: no guarantees. Some events cannot be changed."

Everyone was deadly silent.

"Two: if you do as I say, then everything will be all right." She smiled a smile Pascal had never seen before. Max leaned over and put her palms on the table. "And the first thing you must do is drop the injunction."

A gasp went up from the room.

"Has it been filed?"

"No."

"Then don't go forward with it," she replied. "Drop the injunction."

"What on earth are you talking about?" Vincent asked. "Catherine says it's the only way."

"Well, Catherine is wrong," Max replied. "If any part of the underground is declared an historic site, you're up shit creek. Do you understand?"

"Her logic is flawed," muttered Cullen, just loudly enough to be heard. He was itching for a fight, but knew better than to turn on Pascal.

"Excuse me, sir. But if you wish to address my logic, I'm standing right here."

Cullen said nothing.

"I thought so," Max said, icily. She turned her attention back to the Council. "Here's the deal, people. If you do nothing, the funding falls through and the Trust for the Preservation of Underground New York ceases to exist." She waited for that idea to sink in, then she said: "But, if you choose to go forward with historic status, this place will be crawling with architects and historians. Within two months, they'll find the pipe chamber. Then they find the remains of the upper level baths." Max tapped the report against the heel of her hand. "The public becomes enchanted with the Underground and makes it into something like the City Under Seattle only couth."

"Oh, Lord," Father said, rolling his eyes.

Max looked at Pascal and smiled briefly, then her expression was deadly serious. "If it goes that far, and it will --; bank on it --; the Trust gets massive government funding. Four months later, a hand-picked team breaks through whatever barriers you erect and the jig is up."

"How do you know this?" Father asked.

Max stepped back from the table and walked over to Pascal. She rested her hands on his shoulders. "What I say cannot leave this room," she said.

"You have our word."

Pascal alone knew Max was trembling. He placed his hands on hers and said: "Tell them, Max."

She stood, pulling herself to her full height, which admittedly was not all that impressive. Her hands remained firmly on Pascal's shoulders. "Time exists in layers," Max said. "It flows and ebbs in a circle. I come from the world that runs parallel to and ahead of yours. There are those, like me, who have the responsibility to correct the mistakes of the past so our joint future can continue. It is my belief that when your world was destroyed my world was thrown out of balance. There are things that are supposed to be but aren't. Yet."

Pascal placed his hands on top of hers and remained that way.

"Please," Vincent said. "How can you be so certain?"

Max took a deep breath. "Because I'm a tech and I'm responsible for the study and continuation of Jacob Well's vision," she said, deliberately. "The Trust is not what it appears to be. It's a front for something called the Company, whose sole objective is the capture and study of one Vincent Wells. The push to open the closed tunnels is merely a step in a carefully laid out deception."

The quiet was deafening.

"Inside this folder is proof of my story," she went on. "These are not fake articles and briefs. This is the record of the deliberate destruction of your world and all the lives dependent upon it." Max leaned heavily on Pascal, but she didn't falter. The pipemaster held her hands with absolute tenderness. "If you believe me, you will survive," Max said simply.

Father sat open mouthed at the head of the table.

Vincent stared dully.

William flipped through the folder with a look of absolute horror on his face.

"I don't believe a word of this," Rebecca said. She glared at Pascal with undisguised hatred.

"Well, I believe her," Mary replied, her voice the model of controlled hysteria. "I think she's talking about the CIA, and I think she's right."

"She has honest eyes," Vincent said, softly.

Max walked slowly towards the head of the table. Pascal watched her skirt swing with her stride. All eyes in the room were focused on her alone. Max looked strong and smart and beautiful. It's called glamour, Pascal, she'd said, laughing. She wasn't laughing now. She stopped and stood to Father's right. "The ball is in your court, Father," she said.

"Contact Catherine as soon as possible, today," Father said. "Tell her to drop the injunction."

"Wait."

All eyes turned to Vincent.

"Pardon me?" Max asked.

"I said, wait," Vincent replied. He turned to Max. "What happens to your world if we do this?"

Pascal hadn't thought of that.

Max smiled and gave a little shrug. "Absolutely nothing," she said.

"How can that be?" Vincent asked. "It makes no sense that we change something so fundamental now and yet nothing happens then."

"What's done is done," Max replied. "My world stays the same."

"And ours does not." There was a Mouse in the room.

"Good for you, Mouse," Max said, laughing.

"Care to let us in on your little joke?" Father very annoyed.

Mouse wasn't a Council member. He had no right to be there.

Mouse boldly walked over to the table. He took the empty seat on the bench next to Cullen. "Okay, fine," he said. "Door opens, door closes. Doesn't mean the tunnel isn't there anymore. Just means Mouse can't see it."

"Exactly," Max said, smiling.

"Will Paradise still exist?" Pascal asked. He felt as though he was going to suffocate. He couldn't live without the succor he called Max

"Always has, always will," Max replied. "That's one door that will never close."

"And you know this because?"

"Easy," Mouse said, as if he were sitting at a table of dunces. "Door doesn't close unless somebody closes it."

Max seemed to glide as she walked back over to Pascal. This time, she leaned over and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. The pipemaster blushed. "I don't want to close that door," she said. "Do you?"

"No," he whispered. He wanted to hold her in his arms. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to take her back to his chamber and make love to her until he passed out from sheer pleasure.

"The ball is in your court, Father," Max said.

"Stop the injunction," Father said decidedly.

Vincent was gone in the blink of an eye.

Everyone was so still, as if waiting to be told what to do next. Pascal motioned for Max to sit beside him at the Council Table. She fit in easily, as though she belonged there. For all anybody knew, maybe she did. It was not his imagination; the atmosphere in the Great Hall had subtly changed. He felt with certainty that this place, this world, would continue to exist for a long, long time.

"I did it," Max said, quietly, as if she didn't quite believe it. "Everything's all right now."

"We're all right now," Pascal said with equal gentleness, taking her hand in his.

Max turned and smiled for him alone. "Sometimes a shot in the dark is the best you get," she said.

Unable to resist, Pascal leaned in and kissed her. He loved the way she tasted and the way she blushed when he broke the kiss. The world felt different, somehow. His burden was lighter.

"Well, now that that's settled," Father said. "Next order of business…"