Contrary to his usual habit, Vincent woke very slowly. He could feel awareness of his surroundings welling up from what seemed to be a very deep place. He saw no need to hurry it, since his present half-awake state was so thoroughly pleasant; he felt more relaxed than he could ever remember. There was also a curious and unaccustomed sensation of ... lightness? ... as if a tether binding him to earth had been cut, or a burden long carried had been relinquished at last. Everything around him was quiet, and he drifted slowly toward consciousness. Then Catherine moved beside him, and his eyes snapped open.
For a moment, the sight that greeted those eyes convinced him he was still asleep and dreaming. Reluctantly he closed and opened them again. The vision was still there ... a very tangible vision, he realized, as she snuggled closer to him, still asleep. The warmth of her body against him, the heady feel of her skin touching his, triggered the memory of the night before in a great flood. The revels of Winterfest, late into the night. Bringing her to this remote chamber afterward, that he had filled with candles and roses ... telling her that he was finally ready to take the risk of loving her. Her joy ... her passion ...
Their bond told him she was awake seconds before the sensuous rubbing of her cheek against his chest, and the cluster of kisses that followed. Sighing in utter contentment, she lifted her head far enough to focus on his face. Her smile was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen--at least since the previous night.
"Good morning." Catherine's voice held a langorous quality he had never heard before. "If it is still morning. If we've been sleeping all day we certainly earned it."
Remembering how they had earned it left Vincent temporarily bereft of speech, and almost of sense. "It's not quite noon," he finally managed to get out, in a voice he barely recognized as his own.
"How can you know that?" Catherine asked, intrigued. "It's quite obvious you're not wearing a watch ..." She smiled wickedly. "Is this yet another hidden talent you've kept from me?"
"The candles. I can tell by how much they've burned down."
Catherine spared a glance for the huge candles on their tall holders at the corners of the bed. "I must have been preoccupied last night. I never thought ... those would have to burn a long time, or we'd be waking up in the dark. Electricity doesn't seem to stretch to this chamber." Catherine propped herself up on one elbow to regard Vincent curiously. "What is this chamber, anyway? Besides a place I'll remember vividly until my dying day."
Her reminiscent smile made it somewhat difficult to frame a reply, but Vincent made a manful effort. "We have a few like this, remote, assigned to no one in particular. They are sometimes used by people who just need to spend time alone to think or meditate. They are quite popular with couples who are ... uh ... courting. Or those newly married, or parents of small children who need to get away once in a while."
"You mean, this is sort of the Tunnel equivalent of a resort?" Catherine laughed delightedly.
"One might describe it in those terms. This chamber in particular." Vincent gave Catherine a secretive smile.
"What do you mean, 'in particular'? Don't tell me you have even more surprises up your sleeve. So to speak." Catherine ran her hand slowly down his arm, as if if to emphasize his current lack of sleeves.
"Did it surprise you that I finally gained the courage to love you? You should have more faith in your powers of persuasion."
"I guess I was afraid to hope too much--it felt like I'd be tempting the gods. Look what happened to all those poor Greeks who let their hubris get out of hand." Catherine's voice was half teasing, half serious.
"Fortunately," Vincent told her gently, "whatever gods watch over us seem to be of a more benevolent turn of mind."
"At least lately," Catherine admitted grudgingly. "I hope they'll stay that way."
"They should," Vincent replied in a mock-serious tone. "After all, you just sacrificed a virgin to them ... in a manner of speaking."
"You were a very willing sacrifice, my love." Catherine was unable to take either her hands or eyes away from Vincent, as if she too were afraid he would dissolve into morning light, like her dreams of this moment always had before.
"A willing sacrifice is the kind most pleasing to the gods," Vincent spoke softly as his fingers gently traced the curve of her jaw.
"Then they should be remarkably pleased after last night. Once you realized there was nothing to fear, you were positively eager to be sacrificed. Except ... "
"Except what?" Vincent tried to keep his voice from betraying his sudden worry. Had he failed Catherine somehow? Or worse, hurt her in a way his passion of last night had prevented him from realizing?
Catherine leaned close to him and whispered conspiratorily into his ear. "I'm afraid they won't believe you were a virgin. You were wonderful. Worth waiting years for ... worth waiting a lifetime for."
Both embarassed and pleased, Vincent took refuge in words. "I was not without theoretical knowledge, Catherine, but after Lisa, how could I know that anything I read or heard would be true for me? Until you convinced me otherwise, I never believed I had the right to risk putting that knowledge into practice."
"Well," Catherine announced emphatically, "for someone who's never done this before, you have a remarkable talent. Although I don't know why I should be surprised at that; you've done well at anything else you put your hand to." A stricken look came over Catherine's face as soon as the words were out.
Vincent grinned in delight. "Catherine! I've never seen you blush before." Taking pity on her, he continued. "I haven't succeeded at everything I've tried."
"William tried to teach me once to bake bread, at my insistence. It was a disaster."
"Why? I know you can cook other things, and very well, too."
Vincent raised the hand that curled around her shoulder. "You showed me, Catherine, that these hands are made for loving, after all. But they are not made for kneading dough."
"Dear heart--bread I can get anywhere. Loving I only want from you."
Vincent pulled Catherine close for a slow, gentle kiss. After a while, she lay back against his arm, and he stroked her throat and shoulders with a feather touch as she spoke again.
"Dear love," she said softly. "So many times you told me to follow my heart--and so reluctant you were to follow your own."
"No less a sage than Emerson," he replied, "said 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.' "
"Mmm. Well, we know there's nothing small about you, Vincent," Catherine told him silkily.
It took a few seconds for her words to sink in, then Vincent gave Catherine the satisfaction of seeing him blush for the first time. This was an aspect of Catherine he had never before seen. He discovered that his surprise quickly gave way to pleasure. His lips found hers again. As they began to work their way downward, he felt her hands tangle in his hair, and his breath began to quicken as hers did. Clearly they were done with conversation for some time.
The candles had burned considerably lower by the time Vincent even thought of resuming their conversation. Catherine was idly stroking the hair that fanned out over his back as he lay with his head on her breast. He briefly considered lying there forever, but reluctantly concluded that they would both have to eat eventually, not to mention ...
"Catherine ... "
Reluctantly, Vincent rolled over and attempted a sitting position. "There's something else I would like to show you."
Catherine stretched luxuriously and moved to sit beside him. "Vincent, if you show me anything more I'll have to take a rest cure. That will make Joe very unhappy; practically everyone at work is taking off after Christmas."
"This surprise," he assured her, "is of a different category."
"Well, my love," she replied, "I don't know whether to be disappointed or relieved. But, since I've undeniably enjoyed all your surprises so far, lead on."
Rising from the bed, Vincent held out a hand to her. Curious, she took it and followed him to a door at right angles to the one through which they had entered last night. Moving the tapestry aside, he drew her through and stepped aside to see her reaction.
"Oh, Vincent, this is wonderful! No wonder you said this chamber was special." She turned to him excitedly. "Who built this? How long has it been here?"
Pleased at her reaction, Vincent explained as he retrieved bathing paraphenalia from a small cabinet near the door. "These are natural hot springs, but everything was quite primitive until about fifteen years ago. This was built by a man called Tohiro, who died before we met. He had been born in Japan, and was badly disfigured when Hiroshima was bombed. He lived with us for the last twenty years of his life."
"It just occured to me," Catherine said as she slipped into the warm water, "that I should spend all my extra time Below helping with the laundry. One thing I never considered in all my hopes of us becoming lovers was what an extra burden it would be for whoever washes sheets around around here."
Entering the water himself, Vincent watched as Catherine ducked her head under. Shaking the water out of her eyes as she emerged, she sat next to him on the stone seat carved along the side of the pool. She slipped into the curve of his arm and leaned her head against his shoulder. Vincent marveled at how quickly he had become used to having her there.
"Dearest, we are not the only ones down here who engage in activities that increase demands on the laundry. We have lovers, and married couples, and young children, after all." He kissed the top of her head. The last time he had seen her hair wet like this, she had almost drowned. There were so many memories that needed to be replaced with happier ones ...
Catherine insisted on washing every inch of him, from his mane of hair to the furry feet which had so delighted her last night. Returning the favor, he discovered a whole new category of contentment. Supporting her with one arm as she lay back in the water, he watched her hair spread out in the current, rinsing the soap away, and thought of goddesses rising from the sea.
Moving from the washing pool to the soaking one, they settled into the warmth. For a long time they sat without speaking, enjoying the feel of the water. It seemed to Vincent that only the heaviness of his totally relaxed body kept him from floating away, he felt so light with happiness and relief. Catherine sat on his lap, one arm curled around his neck and her other hand idly stroking his chest underneath the water.
"Mm?" Realizing the response fell far short of his usual articulate level, he decided he couldn't care less.
"How did you know this room would be free tonight--did you have to, well, make reservations?" She began to toy with the strands of his hair that floated on the water.
"This room is never used at Winterfest--that's the one time when all our people come together; this place is where people go to be apart."
"Well, what about the roses?" Catherine wondered. "How did you ever manage to get so many? Did you get Mouse to liberate a shipment from the flower market, no questions asked?"
"Actually, one of our Helpers is a flower wholesaler. I've helped her over the years with projects which needed strength, or construction skills. She has been troubled by arthritis for a long time, and such things are difficult for her." Vincent laughed. "I believe I now owe her my services for the next two decades."
"Didn't she wonder why you wanted about ten dozen roses?" Vincent could feel Catherine smile as her head rested in the hollow of his shoulder.
"Perhaps she wondered at first, but after seeing us together at Winterfest she may have developed a theory or two." Vincent kissed the top of Catherine's head again, just to keep in practice. "Do remember meeting Mrs. Tran?"
"She's the one?" Catherine raised her head. "No wonder she kept looking at me all night and smiling."
Vincent stretched lazily. "I told Father last night that I was going to suggest that you stay Below, since Winterfest was so late. Of course, I didn't mention that I planned to suggest staying with you." Reluctantly, he stood and took Catherine's hand to lead her from the pool. "We should give some thought to making an appearance soon. It's getting late and I do not dry quickly."
"I'll help," Catherine volunteered eagerly.
"If you help too much," Vincent cautioned, "we may not get out of here until dinnertime--and you must be hungry."
Catherine was forced to admit this was so. After the towel drying was completed in as businesslike a manner as circumstances allowed, Vincent led Catherine to a small room off the bathing pool. Its particular configuration channeled and concentrated the air, making it almost a miniature version of the Chamber of the Winds.
"This is wonderful!" Catherine shouted happily to be heard over the whistling winds. "This place even comes with an industrial strength blow dryer." Vincent smiled at her pleasure, watching the flush on her cheeks and the gleaming hair whirling around her face.
When they returned to the bedchamber, Catherine shook her head as she retrieved the velvet dress from where it had fallen the night before. "Lying in heap all night has not improved this one bit," she commented, "even if it weren't unsuitable for day wear. Might that wardrobe have something that wouldn't get me stared at all day?"
Pulling open the wardrobe doors, Vincent retrieved a dress and held it out to Catherine. "The last time you wore this was when you came Below after your father died. There are other things here if it pains you to wear it again. But you did look beautiful in it," he said wistfully.
Catherine took the dress from him and slipped it over her head. "Not all the memories from that time are painful, Vincent." She stroked his face. "And now that we know that there are no limits to the love between us, there is a core of joy at the center of our lives that no sorrow can touch." Suddenly, the wonder of it was so great she felt unable to hold it; the sudden tears that overflowed her eyes seemed all that kept her from bursting with a happiness of such magnitude she knew no words adequate to express it.
Vincent drew her into his arms, holding her as fiercely as she did him. It was a long time before they were able to part so Vincent could dress. Catherine helped him pull the shirt over his head and slip into a vest. Tying all the ties and buttoning all the buttons on the elaborately piecemeal garments brought her more pleasure than she thought possible. The intimate ordinariness of these acts, even more than than their lovemaking, stunned her with an awareness of the infinite possibilities that had suddenly opened before them. Not a life without limits, but a life together--and who knew what the limits might be?
They walked back to the central chambers with a sense of amazement at how much had changed between them since they had taken the same path in the early hours of the morning. So few hours, to contain such happiness. Such a short time to change the course of two lives. But then, there was a day less than three years ago they had begun in ignorance of each other's existence, and ended with their lives inexplicably intertwined. They walked in silent wonder, hands clasped, unable to let go of each other even when the passage narrowed too much for them to walk comfortably side by side.
Catherine wondered what Father and the others would think. Surely their new intimacy, the exponential increase in their happiness, would be so obvious that everyone would stop and stare as soon as they entered a room. Catherine was perfectly willing to shout it from the rooftops, but was afraid Vincent would be uncomfortable or embarassed. Looking at him as he walked beside her, it occurred to Catherine that the only beast-like thing about Vincent was not his looks, nor his strength, but his innocence. Whether his passion dealt love or death, it was with the innocence of a beast. Only men could pervert the act of love in rape. Only men could take sick pleasure in torture or kill for such convoluted motives as greed or revenge or politics.
Vincent's passion for her was as pure as the crystal that hung around her neck, untainted by the tangle of power games, of user and used, that so often passed for love in her world.
As it turned out, Catherine need not have worried about their reception. Everyone Below was either still groggy from Winterfest or so excited about the holidays still to come they hardly noticed Vincent and Catherine. After all, Catherine had spent so much time Below since Vincent's recovery from near-death last summer they were used to her presence. If the more sensitive of the Tunnel dwellers noticed an extra glow about their favorite couple, it was attributed to the holiday spirit-- or to the lingering effects of too much of another kind of spirit the night before.
Regular mealtimes were fortunately another casualty of the holiday preparations, so Catherine and Vincent were able to scrounge a late lunch without a lecture from William, who seemed to spend all his waking hours baking these days. Tucked into a corner of the kitchen, surrounded by warmth and the smells of yeast and cinnamon, the two lovers shared a meal of odds and ends, wondering if any heaven could possibly be better than this. Emerging from their haven, they were immediately shanghaied by Kipper and Samantha, who took their duties as heads of the decoration detail very seriously.
Catherine was put to work stringing popcorn as Samantha confided in a very loud whisper that Vincent was useless for such a task, since his large hands were not well suited to delicate threading, and besides he ate too much of the popcorn. Catherine made a mental note to load up on popcorn the next time she bought groceries, as memories of just what those hands were good for kept damaging her concentration.
Vincent was dragooned into hanging decorations at a height his diminutive overseers couldn't reach. Happily stringing her popcorn, Catherine decided that the Tunnel dwellers had the right idea. Not only did they celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwaanza, they even created another holiday of their own for good measure. Depending on when Hanukkah fell, some years they ended up celebrating for almost a month. Suddenly she stopped with her needle poised in mid-air as her face fell. In a moment, Vincent was beside her chair.
"Catherine, is something wrong?"
"Vincent, I just remembered--Hanukkah begins tonight, and I promised Jenny I'd come. They're having a big family celebration at her parents', an open house after dinner. I think they wanted to cheer me up, since it'll be my first holiday season without Dad. Jenny could hardly tell them how I was really spending the holiday."
"That sounds like something you would enjoy, Catherine," Vincent observed with puzzlement. "Why don't you--"
"Vincent, I just can't bear the thought of being away from you, even for a minute, not now, not after ..." She ducked her head in consternation. "Oh, God, I'm being silly, aren't I?"
"No," Vincent said softly, "you're not. I can't bear to be apart from you either, even though I know we must go back to our everyday lives in a little while. But you mustn't disappoint Jenny's family."
"I wish you could come with me," Catherine smiled. "Maybe nobody around here has noticed anything's different with us, but one look at my face and Jenny will know the other shoe has dropped. She'll have a fit not being able to see you right away and give a great big congratulatory hug."
"Then I shall come with you," Vincent stated.
"What?" Catherine was so startled she dropped her string of popcorn. "Vincent, it's in Brooklyn! Even if we had time to walk that far, none of the deep Tunnels go under the river. The ones that do are too public."
"We'll walk part of the way," Vincent explained calmly, "and take the subway for the rest. With the holiday crowds, it should be safe enough for you after dark ... or perhaps you should take a cab."
Catherine began to feel like she had wandered into the twilight zone by mistake. Had her beloved taken leave of his senses? Here he was talking about taking the subway together like it was the most normal thing in the world. Maybe her attempts to convince him they could have more of a life together than he was willing to admit had been too successful. As she tried frantically to think of an appropriate response, she suddenly remembered just how Vincent was used to taking the subway.
"Vincent!" she cried, horrified. "You're worried about me riding inside the subway and you plan to ride on it? You can't! It's too dangerous! We're not talking about saving my life here, just going to a party. It's not worth it. I'll call Jenny and tell her I can't come; she'll figure out something to tell her parents--"
"Catherine--" Vincent captured her hands in his and smiled. "I've been riding on the tops of subways for twenty years, and haven't fallen off once. You're in more danger crossing a Manhattan street."
Catherine looked at his sparkling eyes in consternation. One thing she never wanted to do was have Vincent be less than he was out of deference to her. She had a sudden vision of a young boy with wild golden hair, clinging to the train's roof in exhilaration, able to forget for a little while how constricted his life really was. Able to pretend for just a moment that it wouldn't be that way forever.
For so long, all she had been able to think about were the fears and self-doubts that kept Vincent from consummating their love, and how she could convince him that completion was not only possible, but inevitable and right. That was so monumental a task, she had barely given a thought to what came after. Now, feeling the touch of those gentle hands that had at last given her the love she knew they could, Catherine realized that an even greater challenge lay ahead. Building a life with this unique, precious creature before her would be full of such unexpected questions. There was no model for it; they would have to move carefully, making their own path. But make it they would, and the journey began now.
"All right, Vincent," she said, sounding braver than she felt. "But you'd better not make a habit of it if you have any concern for my blood pressure."
A moment after Catherine knocked on the Aaronsons' door, it was opened and a wave of light, sound and delicious smells poured into the corridor and surrounded the smiling figure of Jenny's mother. "Cathy, dear, I'm so glad you were able to come. We don't see enough of you these days."
Catherine gave Leah Aaronson a hug. "I know. I promise one of my New Year's resolutions is to say 'no' a lot more often at work. I know it's important, but so are family and friends."
David Aaronson came to add his greetings to those of his wife, and led Catherine through the throng to say hello to Jenny's oldest brother. His visit from California was the reason for this exceptionally large gathering of the clan. After saying hello to the whole family and admiring the baby, Catherine was handed from one Aaronson to the other, talking to people she hadn't seen in years, and several she was sure she'd never met before. The only Aaronson that didn't seem to be in evidence was Jenny.
Catherine hoped Vincent wasn't too bored, waiting for her in the tunnel that ran below the apartment house across the street. She tried to open herself to all the sights and smells and sounds around her, letting her feelings of warmth and friendship for these people flow through their bond. If he couldn't be here with her, Catherine wanted to share this with him as much as she could.
Suddenly the crowd parted and gave her a glimpse of Jenny, trapped in a corner by a group of young cousins engaged in some cutthroat dreidl-spinning. She was scowling suspiciously at a gangly youth as if she suspected him of rigging the game. Looking up suddenly, her eyes met Catherine's. Doing her best to look nonchalant, Catherine smiled and waved. Jenny stared at Catherine a moment as if puzzled by something, then her eyes widened. Climbing over the Aaronson cousins, oblivious to their protests, she approached with the inevitability of a tsunami.
"Hi, Jenny," Catherine greeted her.
"Hi, nothing, Chandler," Jenny countered. "Come on."
Catherine found herself dragged down the hallway into a bedroom populated solely by a mountain of coats. "All right, pal," Jenny ordered, "give."
"Cathy, if the electricity went out right now, a room with you in it would still look like a hundred menorahs on the last night of Hanukkah."
"Jenny, nobody else seems to have noticed anything. I can't imagine what you mean." Catherine knew this was a game she'd already lost, but it was fun anyway.
"Bull, Chandler. You forget who you're talking to."
"Whom," Catherine corrected primly.
"Whom, schmoom," Jenny dismissed her. "Don't change the subject. Something's happened, and it must be pretty big to get you to look like that. What ... ohmigod." Jenny grabbed Catherine's arms and grinned from ear to ear. "You did it, didn't you."
"Did what?" Catherine couldn't keep this up much longer; an equally flamboyant grin kept struggling to take over her own face.
"You know damn well what! You and Vincent! Tell me this minute or I'll go push your face in the chopped liver."
"Well, if you put it that way ..." Catherine couldn't hold it in any longer. "Yes. YES. YEEESSS!!"
Jenny shrieked and hugged Catherine with such abandon they both fell over on top of the coats. "Good grief, Jenny," Catherine giggled. "If anyone comes in now they'll have a whole new theory about why a nice girl like me doesn't have a boyfriend." That set them both off again, and it was several minutes before either of them could manage to sit up. After wiping her eyes and straightening her hair, Jenny took a deep breath.
"Cath, I am so happy for you. I can tell by the look on your face it was wonderful."
"Yes, it was," Catherine whispered, hugging herself. "I can still hardly believe I'm not dreaming."
"Damn!" Jenny exploded, practically jumping up and down in her excitement. "I wish we weren't stuck at this party. Not only would I like to tell that gorgeous guy of yours how smart he is, I'd like to get you back to him. I can't believe you bothered to come to this shindig--I know you'd rather be with Vincent, especially now. I can't believe you could tear yourself away."
"Jenny, you know your parents really counted on me coming," Catherine reminded her. "They've always been so nice to me, and I've hardly seen them lately. Besides, they're so concerned about me being alone since Dad died." Catherine sighed. "I could hardly tell them I'd be spending the holiday with the city's biggest extended family."
"Turned out to be quite a holiday, didn't it?" Jenny grinned. "You sure got some present, and it's not even Christmas yet. Of course, I guess this qualifies as 'the gift that keeps on giving.' We've gotta get you back to Santa Claus as soon as possible."
"Actually, that won't take as long as you think," Catherine revealed. "You're right about not being able to tear myself away. He's just across the street."
"Across the--" Jenny stared. "You mean there are Tunnels in Brooklyn too?"
"In every borough," Catherine told her, "but only the ones in Manhattan are really lived in."
"But how did Vincent get across--no, don't tell me, I can take only so much at once. Just when I think I've gotten used to the idea of the Magic Kingdom ... "
"Jenny, you learned about it less than two months ago. It does take some getting used to ... although you got used to Vincent amazingly fast."
"Yeah," Jenny agreed, "in some ways that was the easiest part. I already knew you loved the guy, and when I met him, all I could think of was at last you'd found the right one, and he wasn't some egotistical Yuppie clone."
"Understatement of the century," Catherine smiled.
"No, seriously," Jenny insisted. "Remember, I've known you since we were freshies at dear old Radcliffe. Your track record was not too impressive then."
Catherine winced. "I was young ... "
"That's what Nancy and I kept telling ourselves. Then you actually decided to marry Stephen Bass--I can't tell you how relieved I was when that fell apart. And Tom Gunther ... look up 'prick' in the dictionary and there's his picture."
"You really worried about me, didn't you?" Despite the bantering tone, Catherine could hear the seriousness under Jenny's words.
"You bet I did," her friend agreed. "You never believed you were worth much for anything but decoration--everybody assumed you were just a shallow rich kid, until you believed it yourself. You kept picking guys that thought so too." Jenny looked at Catherine thoughtfully for a moment. "I guess that's why when I met Vincent, none of the strangeness mattered. All I could see was that you'd finally met a man who not only thought you were worthwile, but had even gotten you to believe it."
Catherine was so moved by Jenny's revelation she didn't know what to say; she sat with her eyes on her lap, stroking someone's fur muff.
Jenny stood up decisively. "Come on, if we don't get out of here soon people are going to talk. You can mingle for a little while longer, then we'll sneak out of here so I can get you back to Mr. Right and tell him how good he is at picking women. Besides, I'm dying to see if he looks as pie-eyed as you do."
Less than an hour later, Jenny and Catherine were climbing a ladder down into the tunnel where Vincent waited. Jenny clutched a large bag of Hanukkah cookies in her teeth, since Catherine had mentioned how much he liked them. Jenny was a little worried about her reception--this was not exactly an occasion covered by Miss Manners. What was the appropriate way for congratulating a furry hunk on having the good sense to start sleeping with your best friend? She'd only met the guy six weeks ago, after all, even though she'd been dreaming about him and Cathy since the beginning. When she finally met him, his appearance neither frightened nor repelled her. She was too delighted to discover that for once her dreams hadn't been full of the ambiguous symbolism that so often frustrated her, but perfectly literal.
After that first night when they had talked for hours, Cathy had told her that Vincent felt the way Jenny did, like they had known each other for years. Maybe it wasn't so surprising, after all. They had one very important thing in common. They both loved Catherine and wanted her to have the happiness she deserved. Jenny was almost as ecstatic as Catherine that Vincent had finally decided only a life with him would give her that happiness. She grinned as well as she could with a bag of cookies in her mouth. Boy, the next fifty years or so were going to be real interesting. She was determined she'd be around to watch.
Reaching the tunnel floor, Jenny turned around, bag of cookies still in her teeth, to find Vincent's smiling eyes looking directly into hers over Catherine's shoulder. They were hugging as if they'd been apart for about a year. With a final squeeze they separated enough so both could face Jenny, who saw that Vincent's smile wasn't limited to his eyes. Realizing Miss Manners was sure to advise against speaking with a bag in one's mouth, Jenny hurriedly removed it and extended it toward Vincent. "Happy Hanukkah," she managed to croak out. "L'chaim."
"L'chaim," Vincent repeated. "A very appropriate sentiment, since I have never felt more alive." He looked at Catherine, who gazed up at him like he was a combination of God and lunch.
Jenny couldn't stand it anymore. Miss Manners be damned. She threw her arms around the two of them, almost in tears. "God, I am so happy for both of you!"
Entangled in a three-way hug, Catherine and Jenny weren't sure whether to laugh, cry or both. Vincent was dazed by the feelings coursing through him, both Catherine's and his own. Having spent his whole life preparing to face pain, he found himself inundated by more joy than it seemed he could possibly hold. He realized in some amazement that he would have to learn at last to deal with happiness. What a welcome task that would be ...
Jenny extricated herself and attempted to regain her composure. "Those are Hanukkah cookies," she explained, gesturing toward the rather damp and now very wrinkled bag. "Cathy said you really liked them. I know you like latkes even better, but they don't exactly travel well."
Vincent acknowledged her gift with a smile. So far, he'd done more smiling in the last ten minutes than in the six weeks he'd known Jenny. "Perhaps soon you can come and make some for us." Us. What a lovely word.
"Oh, you bet!" Jenny agreed. "Any time!" She took Vincent's hand, and Catherine's. "Look, I have to get back to the party, or my parents will call the police. I'll come and see you soon, OK?" She shook her head in wonder. "You know, Hanukkah presents are supposed to be just for kids. But you two have given me the best one I've ever had."
The trip back to Manhattan was uneventful, but Catherine didn't breathe easy until she descended the ladder in her basement and found Vincent waiting as calmly as if he'd taken a more conventional means of transportation. She insisted she didn't need Vincent's help to retrieve things from her apartment. Riding on the subway was enough excitement for one night. She made him promise to stay rooted to the spot until she returned. Catherine had always intended to spend Christmas Below, but she had counted on going home the night of Winterfest and coming back later. Now she was planning to stay right through until Christmas night. Too bad Cinderella was going to turn back into an overworked ADA on December 26. Catherine smiled happily as she packed a small suitcase. True, she and Vincent would have to take up the duties of their daily lives all too soon ... but they would never be the same again. Discovering the shape and direction of those lives--that life--was going to be a glorious adventure.
They stopped by Vincent's chamber so he could pick up more clothes also, then took themselves to the room full of roses where they had spent the previous night. They had intended only to drop off the clothes and return to help with the holiday preparations. They did manage to get the extra clothes put away, but the presence of the huge bed, and the roses, and the fact that it had been hours since ... It was a long time later before Catherine realized neither of them had really had any dinner. She sighed happily as Vincent began nuzzling her neck again. They had water, they had each other, and they had a whole bag of Hannukah cookies. Who could possibly need more?
They made up for it at breakfast the next morning. Going to bed as early as they had meant they were actually able to squeeze in some sleep. Catherine was discovering to her great pleasure that Vincent's reknowned stamina was good for much more than running through tunnels, but it wasn't infinite. Now that she and Vincent were one in every way possible, Catherine felt even more a part of his world. Although both duty and friends kept her tied to the world Above, her father's death had severed the last family tie. Neither his family nor her mother's had been large, and now there was no one left. Sometimes, wrapped in the love of Vincent's world, it truly felt like Father and Mary were her parents, Jamie and Rebecca her sisters, Mouse the somewhat disreputable younger brother. Now that the last barrier between her and Vincent had crumbled, now that their dream of a life together was beginning to take on the texture of reality, Catherine realized how relieved she felt, knowing this world, like Vincent, could be part of her life forever.
William was pleased to see Catherine devouring twice as much breakfast as usual. He took it as a compliment to his cooking, since clearly she didn't eat enough Topside. Maybe Vincent thought she was perfect, but William believed she needed fattening up. As a reward for her appetite, he allowed her one of the coveted spots on the cookie-decorating crew, while Mouse dragged Vincent off, reminding him of his duties as director of the children's production of A Christmas Carol.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Father found himself awake very early. He had been much in demand during the furious holiday preparations to give advice, mediate disputes, and patch up children whose urge to decorate inaccessible corners was greater than their balance. Years as the Tunnels' only resident physician had long ago cured him of the need for much sleep, so he made himself a pot of tea and brought it to the study. The peace and quiet was like a balm; there had been precious little of it this holiday season.
He sat back in his favorite chair, letting the tea warm both his hands and his insides. The midwinter festivities seemed more lavish than usual this year, and Father began to examine why this was so. He thought back to Winterfest, where Vincent had seemed to be the center of attention. The children had surrounded him all evening. Every girl-child old enough to walk wanted to dance with Vincent; time and again Catherine had to drag him away from partners who barely came up to his waist. It didn't take a great deal of insight to recognize that the community knew only too well how close they had come to losing Vincent not long ago. Paracelsus' death, and Vincent's close escape from it, were cause for rejoicing. This year was the darkest they had known for a long time; it made sense that their yearly celebration of light would be greater.
Father suddenly realized how little he had seen of Vincent since Winterfest. He smiled, thinking that Catherine's presence Below had something to do with that. Unlike the days after her Father died, when her constant closeness had been so troubling to his son, Vincent now seemed content, even happy to have her here. Father admitted to himself how much he had come to rely on her presence as well.
Suddenly Father had an overwhelming desire to talk to his son. Vincent usually woke quite early, but often stayed in his room reading, so as not to disturb others. Reaching his son's chamber, Father was surprised to find it empty. Where could he be at such an hour? As he continued to stand there, it slowly occurred to him that this chamber felt like it had been uninhabited for some time. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen Vincent near this room since before Winterfest. No emergency could have called him away; the pipes would be full of such an event. Surely he had not gone to find Catherine so early in the morning ... He stared at the empty room for a long time, then went back to sit in his study with his pot of tea and think.
The morning of Christmas Day found him there again after breakfast, but this time his peripatetic son made an appearance. Father motioned Vincent to sit in the chair beside him.
"I'm glad to see you," he smiled. "We seem to have been ships that pass in the night of late."
"Indeed, Father," Vincent agreed. "The children seem to think of me as a freighter, since I spent most of yesterday moving furniture and carrying heavy objects from place to place."
"After the year we've had," Father said with feeling, "it gives me great happiness to see you enjoying this time of celebration. Catherine, too. She seems to be in the spirit of the holidays as well. I'm glad that being among us has helped ease her pain over the family she has lost."
"She loves us all very much," Vincent answered softly. "I believe she truly regards us as her family now."
Father spoke again in an even tone, looking at the table rather than at his son. "Her closeness was so troubling to you when she stayed Below with us after her father died. I'm glad to see that no longer seems to be the case." Vincent said nothing. "You know," Father continued, "I have finally admitted to myself how much I have come to be grateful for her presence as well. When you were having those terrible nightmares this past summer, and took so long to recover, I came to rely on her greatly."
"She has been reluctant to talk of it to me," Vincent confided. "I remember being convinced the Beast would win this time, and being weary of the battle ... I remember deciding there was only one way to protect those I loved. I remember Catherine suddenly there before me, screaming my name as she saw my claws aimed at my own throat. I remember thinking, just before I lost consciousness, that I could not bear to give her the pain my death would cause."
Father closed his eyes at the memory of how close Vincent had come to the brink, and how only Catherine's love had kept him from taking that last leap into the dark. Half a year later, the recollection could still cause him to shudder. "When you were in the coma, she was down here every night, watching you, talking to you. Even after you came out of it and the nightmares began, she stayed, hoping her presence would somehow soothe you."
Vincent shook his head in wonder at being loved so much. "All she would say to me about that time was that it gave her the opportunity to become closer to you."
"It did," Father agreed. "During your convalesence she came Below night after night, even though you were asleep most of the time. We would sit here, alert for any sounds of distress from you, and talk for hours on end."
"Mostly about you, of course." Father seemed a million miles--or six months--away. "She was hungry for every scrap of information about your past, especially the time you almost died before, after Lisa left. Anything that could help her understand your pain and help you deal with it."
"It surprises me," Vincent admitted, "that you told her. You were never so forthcoming before."
"I was well aware," Father replied emphatically, "that I owed your life to her. She more than earned the right, by her love for you and her courage. I told her everything I knew." He was silent for a moment, then continued. "At the time, I was too preoccupied with your health to notice ... it was only afterward that I realized her questions had a pattern to them."
"A pattern?" Vincent asked, suddenly alert.
At first, Father seemed to have changed the subject. "Once I was so certain I knew the answers where you were concerned, and if I didn't I thought it prudent to err on the side of caution. If it were necessary to curtail your life to preserve it, what choice did I have?"
"But Catherine saw things differently." It was not a question.
"She never said so in so many words," Father recalled, "but the questions she asked made it clear she believed my fears for you, my certainties about what was and was not possible for you, were based less on evidence than on long-unexamined habits of thinking."
"And that disturbed you."
"More than I ever admitted to her. Good grief, Vincent!" Father's eyes met his son's at last. "My whole life Above crumbled into ruin because my scientific training wouldn't allow me to deny the truth of the evidence before me. Now I had to face the probability that for years I had been allowing my affection for you, my fears for you, to cloud my judgment."
Vincent smiled fondly at his his Father. "That explains the change I found in you when I recovered enough to talk. Your answers to my questions had always been full of 'definitely nots.' I was amazed at the sudden plethora of 'maybes' and 'I don't knows.'"
"Catherine," Father said emphatically, "made me examine all my cherished certainties. It became painfully clear how much I had represented my interpretations as facts. Even though she never told me directly, I came to realize she had her own theory. Did she ever tell you what it was?"
"Yes," Vincent replied, looking over his Father's shoulder into the distance. "Simply put, she believed that what I saw as the problem was the solution. That my killing for her was the only outlet I allowed to express my passion. That our bond would never let me hurt her. That giving our love the physical expression it demanded would not be dangerous, but would only heal us both. Eros over Thanatos."
"Do you think," Father asked very carefully, "that she might be right?"
For a long moment, the silence hung between them like something that could be touched. Then Vincent met his Father's eyes again, calmly, proudly. "I know she is."
Father let out the breath he didn't remember holding, closing his eyes against the sudden threat of tears. Thank God, it was true. Love was stronger than Death after all. He opened his eyes to find Vincent leaving his own chair to kneel on the floor beside him. He hugged Vincent as fiercely as he could, weak as he was with relief, and giddy with joy.
This was the sight that met Catherine's eyes when she entered the study. Slowly she walked toward them, sinking to her knees beside Vincent. She looked up at Father and smiled at him, half shy, half triumphant. "I guess you know."
"Oh, Catherine," he cried, "I have no words ... "
"Then we have your blessing?" Vincent asked with a smile in his voice.
"My blessing, my congratulations, and my everlasting gratitude to Catherine!" He touched her hair. "To think, I once told my son to forget you, that you could bring him nothing but pain."
"I think we're both grateful," Catherine laughed tearfully, "that Vincent can be very stubborn at times."
That Christmas morning, Catherine thought how different this was from any Christmas she had spent before. Not only being without her father, or being secure in the knowledge that she and Vincent were together at last. Christmas Below was so different. Instead of the disorderly mounds of ripped paper and ribbons scattered among expensive presents, there were small piles of brightly colored paper, carefully removed and folded to be used again. There were few presents, since most of the gifts were exchanged at Winterfest. Those that were in evidence were simple, homemade or recycled, but imbued with more love than anything F. A. O. Schwartz ever sold.
Watching the children and not a few of the adults enjoying their presents, Catherine laid her head happily on Vincent's shoulder and thought about last night. She and Vincent had exchanged their tangible presents after Winterfest and before Catherine knew about the greater gift that was in store for her. Last night and this morning they had given that gift to each other many times. Afterwards, they had packed their things to take back to Vincent's chamber. Just before cleaning up the room in readiness for its next occupant, they had carefully picked all the petals from ten dozen roses. Although they couldn't resist the romantic gesture of tossing a few into the bathing pool with them, the rest would be dried for potpourri and sachets. Catherine made Vincent promise to save some for her. She planned to buy the most beautiful fabric and lace she could find and make one for herself, something to treasure for the rest of her life, as she would treasure the memories of the past three nights.
Lost in those memories and the delicious feel of Vincent's nearness, Catherine gradually began to pay attention to faces around her. Although many were absorbed in thoughts and conversations of their own, she began to intercept more than a few surprised and speculative glances. Mary looked oblivious, and Mouse bubbled along in happy innocence. But Jamie--Catherine nuzzled Vincent's neck and grinned at Jamie, whose eyes got so big they threatened to eclipse her face. Lena was looking awfully knowing, and Catherine knew she couldn't face Cullen's wicked grin for more than three seconds without blushing. Even if the increased intimacy between her and Vincent weren't becoming more obvious every day, the looks that Father kept giving them would give the least observant of their friends a pretty big hint. Poor Vincent was going to be the object of considerable speculation by tomorrow.
Catherine lifted her head to speak softly into Vincent's ear. "Since I have to go back to work tomorrow ... could I interest you in coming to my place tonight to see my Christmas tree?"
"Most people," Vincent asked innocently, "use etchings, do they not?"
"I," Catherine replied loftily, "am not most people."
"No. You are not."
Catherine remembered what she had planned to say with some difficulty. "You've only been in my bed once before, when you hardly realized where you were. Even under those circumstances, worried as I was, I remembered thinking how well you fit there."
"Yet another memory that needs to be replaced with a happier one," Vincent said. "When would you like me to come? So to speak."
"Vincent!" Catherine whispered in astonishment. "I had no idea you were such a bawd. It's wonderful."
"You forget," he smiled, "how well acquainted I am with Elizabethan literature. If more people understood Elizabethan English better they would be quite shocked at Shakespeare."
"That sounds promising," Catherine mused. "You can read me all the naughty bits and explain what they mean if I don't know."
"I shall begin a careful review of the Complete Works tomorrow."
"To return to the subject," Catherine went on, "I should like you to *arrive* as soon as possible after dark. Since A Christmas Carol is a matinee, that should give you time to accept everyone's kudos on your brilliant direction. Just give me an hour's head start so I get the apartment ready."
"I accept your gracious invitation with pleasure," Vincent purred, kissing the top of Catherine's head.
"I wish I didn't have to go back to work tomorrow," she sighed. "I hate to think of you alone down here, with everybody indulging in heavy speculation."
"I think speculation is fast changing into certainty," Vincent countered. "After I leave tonight and don't come back until dawn, it will only accelerate the process."
"You've stayed out that late lots of times before," Catherine reminded him, "walking the city streets, or looking at the lights."
"True," Vincent agreed. "But I didn't come back with the look I expect to have on my face tomorrow morning."
* * *
"Jenny!" Catherine exclaimed as she opened the door to her friend. "You're early."
"I know, I wanted to ask you a favor before we go out to lunch." She leered comically. "Since it's the middle of the day I knew I wouldn't be interrupting anything."
"You've been enjoying yourself altogether too much this past month," Catherine laughed. "Ever since Vincent and I got together you haven't stopped smirking."
"You should see the look that's been on your face since Winterfest," Jenny countered. "I can't believe everybody at the DA's office isn't wondering what's going on."
"I'm sure they are," Catherine said, "but they know better than to ask by now. Joe's curious as can be--I keep catching myself grinning like an idiot at the oddest moments, and being so distracted at others people have to ask me things three times. So, what favor do you want? You can have anything but Vincent."
"Rats!" Jenny exclaimed. "Well, as my second choice, can I borrow a dress?"
"Any one in particular?"
"My idiot employers have decided to have a posh reception for one of our most obnoxious but profitable authors. Attendance for lowly editors is not optional, but we're supposed to wear evening dress. Do they really think I can afford to buy evening gowns on what they pay me? I suppose I could rent something, but--"
"But that would be silly when I have a whole closetful I hardly ever wear anymore. My lifestyle doesn't require them much these days. Come on, let's raid my closet."
Jenny rummaged among Catherine's clothes, picking out dresses she thought would flatter her and handing them to Catherine, who spread them out on the bed. Suddenly Jenny began to chuckle. "Well, well, Cath, what have we here? This looks a bit large for you." Jenny held up the dark green hooded robe. It looked about a foot too long and miles too big.
"That," Catherine informed her, "is Vincent's birthday present. He needed something comfortable to keep up here, for the times he stays in my apartment."
"Nice color for him," Jenny mused. "Bet it looks great with his hair. Does he stay here often?"
"Too often for my peace of mind," Catherine confided, sitting on the bed.
"Hey, what's wrong?" Jenny asked in concern as she sat next to her friend.
"Oh, Jenny--ever since we became lovers everything seems so much more intense. I'm happier than I've ever been, but more worried too. Even though my hours are more regular at work now since I stopped that dangerous investigative stuff, the domestic violence and child abuse workload is tremendous. I can't spare the time to go Below every night, but Vincent finds it harder than ever to stay away now."
"So what's the problem?"
Catherine clutched Jenny's arm. "It's so dangerous! I worry constantly about him falling--the weather's so awful. Or he might be seen, it's happened before. I can't believe I've been letting him do it for over two years."
"Let hardly seems the right word," Jenny pointed out. "I doubt you could have stopped him. So what are you going to do?"
"What makes you think I'm going to do anything?" Catherine asked innocently.
"Because I know you," Jenny replied. "From what you told me, ever since last summer you've been making things happen. You saved Vincent's life and helped him recover. You changed your work so it wouldn't put you--and him--in danger anymore. You convinced him not to be afraid of making love to you. I can't believe you're not planning to do something about this."
"Well," Catherine admitted with a smile, "I am. But you'll have to wait until after lunch to find out. So--why don't you try on this one?"
Jenny looked around as the neighborhood began to seem familiar. "Haven't I been here before? There aren't many places like this left in this part of New York. Most of them are apartments now."
Catherine unlocked the front door of the handsome old townhouse as the late-January wind whipped around them. "You've got quite a memory," Catherine said in admiration as they entered the foyer. "I don't think we've been here together since college."
"Right!" exclaimed Jenny. "You brought me here during vacations a couple of times. I remember I was scared to death the first time--humble Jewish scholarship student meets scion of Old New York family, wife of famous actor."
"Who turned out to be an absolute sweetheart, to your surprise," Catherine reminded her.
"True, true. I couldn't believe those stories she told about herself and your grandmother when they were young." Suddenly Jenny turned to Catherine in alarm. "The house looks empty--and you've got a key. She's not--"
"Oh, no," Catherine reassured her. "Edna's fine. She just didn't want to stay in New York anymore after her husband died. She went to live with her son's family in Florida."
Jenny gave a sigh of relief. "Thank God. I know she must be almost eighty by now, but I hope she lives forever. Are you doing some legal things for her?" They moved into the main part of the house after depositing their coats in the closet.
"Sort of," said Catherine casually. "I bought her house."
It took a moment for that to sink in. Then Jenny grabbed Catherine and shrieked. "You what? Of course! What a dolt I am! This is the solution, isn't it?"
"I hope so," Catherine said fervently, hugging Jenny. "But I need your help."
"Anything!" Jenny vowed. "Move furniture--strip wallpaper-- I'll even clean basements."
"Nothing like that," Catherine laughed. "Come on, let me show you the place first and then I'll explain."
After the tour, Catherine led Jenny to the kitchen. Only after they were seated at the large table with coffee in front of them did she begin to talk. "The thing that bothers me a little, Jenny," she explained, "is that I haven't told Vincent about this because I want to surprise him. But it's a pretty big step to take without consulting him."
"Good grief, Cath, how can he not love it? It gives you both what you need most--a safe place to be together. It's got the best security system I've ever seen, access to the Tunnels-- not only can he get here without going outside, he can come any time of day. There isn't a window in this place that isn't frosted or curtained. It's perfect."
"That's what I thought," Catherine agreed. "I even asked Father, and he thought it was wonderful too. But just in case, I want you to be my insurance policy."
"Your what?" Jenny was at a loss. "What can I do?"
"Take my old apartment."
"Take your--as a favor? My God--twice the rent I could afford to pay wouldn't half cover the mortgage on that place." Jenny scowled. "And if you were about to suggest I take it rent free--"
"I would if I thought you'd do it," Catherine retorted, "but I know you too well for that. You can pay the same rent you're paying where you are now--and don't worry about covering the mortgage, there isn't any."
Jenny's face fell. "Oh, Cath, I forgot ... it was in your father's name, wasn't it?
Catherine nodded. "And he had mortgage insurance on it. Don't forget," Catherine said almost bitterly, "I'm an heiress now. I've got more money and real estate than I know what to do with."
Catherine took Jenny's hand. "I'm sorry. I just get upset sometimes, thinking how hard my father worked to give me everything that money could buy. Maybe he thought it would help make up for losing Mother."
"Maybe he thought it would help him forget," Jenny suggested gently.
"Maybe. I can't help but think it helped kill him years before his time ... and regret that I didn't tell him I'd rather have had more of him and less of the money. Now it's too late."
Jenny still held Catherine's hand. "Don't you think it pleases him to see what it's doing for you now?"
Catherine squeezed Jenny's hand. "Oh, I hope so. I hope he sees how happy we're going to be here."
"So--what about the house in Connecticut? Do you have to sell that?"
"No, I'm selling Dad's duplex. Edna probably would have been happy to give me this place--it meant a lot to her, and she hated the thought of a stranger living in it. But she knew I wouldn't allow it." Catherine looked far away for a moment. "I couldn't bear to sell the Connecticut place, even though I hardly get to go there any more."
"Only when Vincent's busy and your impoverished friends need time in the country," Jenny smiled.
"You know you can go there anytime you want, with or without me," Catherine smiled back. "Besides, it's a great place for groups of Tunnel kids to go. And ... "
"It's silly, I know. I just can't help but hope I can take Vincent there some day. I know Father's right, it's much too dangerous--but I still keep hoping."
"It's important for you to give you and Vincent a place of your own, isn't it?" Jenny asked. "Away from the Tunnels."
"God, you scare me," Catherine said in awe.
"Hey, this is Ms. Intuition you're talking to. I agree with you." Jenny stared into her coffee cup. "I realize I've only known those people for a few months, but it didn't take long for me to see that place is as much a prison for Vincent as a refuge. Of course, everybody loves him, but they also take him for granted a lot. It wouldn't take much for them to become overdependent on him--if they aren't already."
"You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that," Catherine said fervently. "I thought maybe I was seeing things that weren't there."
"No, I think this is just what both of you need. You know, I've wondered ..."
"Were you ever tempted to just chuck it all and move Below?"
"Twice," Catherine admitted. "Both times at emotionally vulnerable moments. One of the things I admire most about Vincent is that he didn't take advantage of that. He's always believed more in me than I did in myself."
"Do you think you could do it?"
"If something happened Above that gave me no choice, yes. But you must remember, I'm not just the woman Vincent loves, I'm a Helper. It took me a long time to earn that trust, and it's a responsibility I take very seriously. Down there, I'm just another brain and pair of hands. Right now, I can do more for all of them--including Vincent--where I am.'
"I think this house is the ideal solution," Jenny said. "Vincent can spend the day Below while you're at work. You can go there as often as you have time, and he can stay here with you when you can't. Rub your shoulders when you're hunched over those briefs. Bring you tea and sympathy. Curl up in a chair by the fire with a book and watch you all night instead--hey, Cath!" Jenny reached over to put an arm around her friend's shoulders. "That's not supposed to make you cry!"
Catherine wiped her eyes with a napkin. "I'm sorry, Jenny," Catherine sniffled. "It's just--what you were describing--it sounds like Paradise. I can't believe it could really come true at last."
"Well, we're gonna see that it does, pal. I guess I can trade my little dump for a grossly expensive co-op if you insist, just to do you a favor," Jenny grinned. "And you can come visit the balcony any time you get nostalgic. But I think you're worrying for nothing, Cath. Vincent's gonna love this place."
* * *
A month later, Catherine paused in the door of the library, tea tray in hand, to drink in the sight before her. Vincent sat on the sofa, wearing the green robe, absorbed in the book he held. The firelight brought out the highlights in his hair and the rich patina of Edna's old furniture. He loves it, Catherine thought happily. He really loves it. The wave of happiness that suddenly overwhelmed her caused Vincent to look up. He came toward her and took the tray, setting it down to gather her in his arms. Paradise indeed, Catherine thought. Or almost ...
There was one great thing left unspoken between them, and Catherine feared it would remain so unless she set things in motion. The past two months of loving had not been enough to dissolve that iron core of doubt that still hid in the center of Vincent's heart; the belief, unvoiced and perhaps unrecognized, that there were still things he dared not wish for, dared not believe he could deserve. Catherine wasn't about to delay any longer; it was time to show him just how much he did deserve. She kissed Vincent lightly as she pulled away. "Our tea will get cold."
"We musn't allow that," Vincent laughed. "Father would never forgive me if I showed disrespect for a good pot of tea." Vincent released her and they settled comfortably on the sofa, facing the fire. Catherine tucked her feet under her and sipped the tea quietly for a moment. She sensed Vincent's contentment as it settled over him like a blanket. Holding the cup in both hands, she began to speak very casually.
"I had a chance to talk to Lena for a long time last night while you were helping Mouse," Catherine began.
"Do I dare ask the subject of your conversation?" Vincent asked.
"Actually, we hardly talked about you at all. In fact, I mostly listened while Lena went on about how wonderful Julio was. Those two are really serious, aren't they?"
"That is quite obvious to everyone Below," Vincent agreed. "It gives me great pleasure to see Lena happy."
"It gives me even greater pleasure," Catherine chuckled, "to see her get over you."
"She did that some time ago--shortly after she met Julio."
Catherine became absorbed in smoothing the sofa pillow. "So--what are they going to do now?"
"Continue what they have been doing for some time, I imagine," Vincent suggested as he nuzzled her ear.
"My, haven't we gotten over our shyness quickly!" Catherine said in mock surprise. "That's not what I was talking about and you know it. Are they going to ... well, get married?"
"Married? You mean, Above?"
"I mean anywhere," Catherine replied. "I suppose they could get married Above if they wanted to, since they both had lives there at one time. But neither of them seems much inclined to go Topside ever again."
"No," Vincent mused. "Their lives there were quite painful ... and Julio has been with us for over ten years. He has shown no interest in going back."
"So, what do you think they'll do? Has this sort of thing happened before?"
"Sometimes," Vincent explained. His concentration on refilling their teacups seemed excessive for the task at hand. "In the past, some members of our community have married legally Above. They use a Helper's address to obtain the proper documents. We also have a number of Helpers authorized to officiate at marriages."
"That seems a good idea, for those who thought they might want to return Topside someday," Catherine replied in her best professional voice. "But about those who are sure they never want to? Or somebody like Pascal, or Rebecca, who've never lived anyplace but Below? I can't believe the people who came up with Winterfest, and that beautiful naming ceremony, haven't invented something suitable for the occasion."
"You remember Lin and Henry--"
"But that wasn't a real Below wedding," Catherine interrupted. "They only held the ceremony there for safety. You must have something for those who've never had a life Above. And what about Kanin and Olivia? He'd been Above, but she never had. What did they do?"
"We do have our own ceremony," Vincent admitted softly. "The union is recognized Below, but of course has no validity in your world."
"Which world is that?" Catherine asked quietly. "I have two now."
"I only have one," Vincent said, not looking at her.
"A little more than that, surely. We share a small part of my world, even if most of it's within these walls."
Catherine stole a glance at Vincent's face. He sat staring at the fire, the flames washing his still profile with molten gold. After a moment's silence she continued. "I had a friend in college who was Catholic. She told me that in the past, when people sometimes lived in remote places without a priest, it was perfectly legitimate to marry without one. The true marriage was in the hearts of the couple, and the vows they made. A priest doesn't really marry people, they marry each other. Did you know that?"
"I believe I've read something to that effect," Vincent almost whispered.
Catherine continued in the same even voice, "It sounds like the really important part is making that commitment to each other, and acknowledging it in front of their community, people who mean something to them. It's as binding as any set of legal papers. More, actually--a contract can be broken. But a true union of minds and hearts is forever." Catherine stopped suddenly, no longer trusting her voice.
Vincent took a deep breath and spoke again. "What you say is true when both people have chosen a life Below. But for someone who had to maintain a life Topside as well, it would be very difficult."
"Above, such a person would not be viewed as married at all."
"Well, what would that really matter?" Catherine asked, her voice back under control. "Lots of people stay single nowadays, especially if they have careers. Oh, I suppose people around them might speculate. Maybe they'd assume the person was afraid of being married just for her--or his--money. If the person were a woman, say, they might think she'd just missed the boat, since there are more single women than men. Maybe they'd think she was gay ... or carrying on a long-time affair with a married man."
"Surely it would be uncomfortable for someone to be the object of such speculation."
"Vincent," Catherine replied, "I think you overestimate people's curiosity about others, especially those they only know casually. Most people are much too concerned about their own problems, or acid rain, or inflation, to spend much time wondering about their colleagues' private lives ... especially if they seem to lead very dull ones."
"Surely it would be difficult for ... for a woman such as you describe to keep such an important part of her life hidden."
"Perhaps," Catherine agreed huskily, "but only because she would be so happy, and so proud of her husband she'd want to shout the news out to everyone. But silence would be an awfully small price to pay to protect something that meant so much to her."
Suddenly Vincent rose and stood with his back to her, his hands gripping the mantle. For a long moment, there was nothing to be heard but the crackling of the logs. Vincent's voice was so low Catherine could barely hear it, but there was no mistaking the undertone of astonished wonder. "Her husband ..." In one fluid movement, he turned and sank to his knees before her. "Catherine--dearest Catherine--will you marry me?"
Unaware of the tears that ran unchecked down her face, Catherine sank into the depths of his eyes. "Yes. Oh, yes. Yes!" She threw her arms around his neck, burying her damp face in a cloud of gold. Home at last.
"Catherine, perhaps we should move. You must be cold." Without exactly discussing it, they seemed to have decided to seal their bargain immediately--too immediately to take the time to climb an entire flight of stairs. Vincent was still puzzling out Catherine's remark that 'right here on the Oriental' was the perfect spot. It sounded like a quote, but Vincent was quite sure it must be from something he hadn't read ... not that he'd been in any mood to request footnotes at the time. Vincent really didn't want to move, but he didn't feel the cold like Catherine did--besides, he was supremely comfortable, with her draped over him like a blanket. Still, it would be ungentlemanly not to make another attempt.
"Catherine--dearest--wouldn't you like to move? The fire has gotten quite low, since we haven't been paying attention to it."
"We haven't?" Catherine mumbled into his chest. Raising her head, she grinned at him. "Oh--you mean the one in the fireplace over there. I guess it could stand another log. But don't you dare move from this spot until I get back. We have things to talk about."
"Surely," Vincent suggested as she stood reluctantly and moved toward the fire, "there are more appropriate places to talk?" Watching Catherine stoke up the fire wearing nothing but earrings was really quite pleasant. He stretched luxuriously, unaware that the unconscious seductiveness of that action nearly caused Catherine to drop the poker as she turned toward him from the now-blazing fire. Grabbing an afghan from the sofa, she spread it over them both as she quickly settled into her former position.
"Vincent, dear," she informed him, "the most appropriate place to do something is not necessarily the only place."
"Are you by any chance referring to our recent activities?"
"Beds are fine places to make love," Catherine announced, "but floors in front of fireplaces make a nice change, don't you think? You certainly seemed ... energized by the novelty." Since Vincent could not contradict that argument, he said nothing. "As a matter of fact," Catherine continued, "I was noticing how sturdy the kitchen table is."
Between Vincent's startled twitch and her own laughter, Catherine managed to fall off her beloved and land beside him on her back, still giggling helplessly. "Oh, Vincent," she managed to gasp, "the look on your face!" Getting herself under some semblance of control, she kissed the tip of his nose apologetically before continuing. "I was only kidding. I have too much respect for the nation's artistic heritage to risk a Stickley table that way. Besides, how would we ever explain to Father how we got the splinters?"
"I am sure he is a sufficiently skilled diagnostician to determine that," Vincent replied drily. "It occurs to me," he continued, "that being married to you is going to be even more interesting than I dreamed."
"You don't know the half of it." Catherine promised. "So-- when do you want to do it?"
"Do it?" Vincent asked, astonished. The woman was insatiable.
"Get married," Catherine reminded him. "Remember?"
"Well--" Vincent stalled for time as he switched mental gears. "We should allow enough time for everyone Below to prepare. This will be a very important occasion for them."
Catherine hugged Vincent. "I can hardly wait to tell everybody. Knowing how happy this will make them gives me almost as much pleasure as knowing how happy it will make us."
Vincent hugged Catherine back, rubbing his cheek against her head. "We need to allow enough time for Devin and Charles to make the necessary arrangements. I would like Devin to stand beside me."
"I thought you might. And I'd like Jenny. Do we get more than one each?"
"If you wish," Vincent replied. "Do you have someone else in mind?"
"Yes--and I think you do, too. Someone to whom it would mean a lot."
"Yes," Catherine agreed. "He absolutely worships you; he'll be beside himself when you ask him. And I'd like to ask Jamie. She's a good friend to me Below--and besides, she's the only one who can keep Mouse in line."
Vincent tilted Catherine's chin so he could look into her face. "Do you think six weeks would be long enough?"
Catherine smiled lovingly at her husband-to-be. "Great minds with but a single thought. Our anniversary?"
"Are you sure," Vincent asked, "that it would not cause you pain? You have other memories of that day that are not pleasant."
"All the more reason," Catherine announced emphatically, "to exorcise those demons once and for all."
They lay quietly for a long time after that, listening to the crackling of the fire as it died to embers. Finally they rose, collected their robes, and turned out the lights. As they sleepily mounted the stairs toward their bedroom, they speculated on the effect their announcement would have Below. Basking in the glow of anticipation, they finally slept.
* * *
"Oh, Cath, tell me everything," Jenny begged. "What did Mouse say? Jamie? Father? Did they go as crazy as I did?"
"At least," Catherine laughed. "I don't think Father was surprised, exactly, but he knows Vincent. I'm sure he wondered how long it would take his stubborn son to allow himself to dream of the next logical step. My guess is he thought it would take a lot longer."
"He may know Vincent," Jenny admitted, "but he doesn't know you as well as I do. You lawyers are a devious bunch, putting ideas into people's heads in that sneaky way you have."
"Vincent would have dared to think of it himself, eventually," Catherine replied seriously. "But it would have taken a long time. He still had some idiot notions about tying me to a limited life with him instead of all the dazzling possibilities I could have Above. I knew after we agreed to get married he'd have a reaction."
"So what did you do about it?"
Catherine looked astonished at herself, and a little sheepish. "I got mad. Would you believe I actually yelled at him?"
"Yes, I would. What did you yell, exactly?"
"First I set him him straight about my dazzling life Topside. I've tried to tell him before, but I guess I was a bit more ... emphatic this time. I let him know in no uncertain terms how shallow and unsatisfying it was ... how I've done more real living since I've known him than I did in the three decades before."
"Good start," Jenny said admiringly. "Then what?"
"Then I accused him of insulting me by assuming I was still so shallow that I'd come to regret my choice if I got a better offer. I pointed out that I'd had one from Elliot I thought I couldn't refuse, and the prospect made me so miserable I could hardly bear it. I told him I'd never been happier in my life, goddammit, than I was with him, and then I threw a pillow at him and started to cry."
"Wow!" Jenny exclaimed, impressed. "What happened then?"
"I think he finally got the point," Catherine smiled. "And then we made up. Exactly how is none of your business," she said firmly, forestalling her friend's next question.
"Oh, I can imagine." Jenny looked at Catherine speculatively. "It must be pretty wonderful, given the way you've been looking and acting ever since Winterfest."
Catherine looked at her hands. "It is. I find myself thinking the most astonishingly trite things."
"Like, 'I never thought it could be like this?' I'd be willing to bet you've even said it.'"
Catherine groaned and hid her face in her hands. "Guilty," she mumbled through her fingers. She removed her hands to reveal a suspiciously pink face to her erstwhile Maid of Honor. "But it's true! Making love with Vincent bears about as much resemblance to making love with anyone else as--as Chartres does to a McDonald's."
"Do you think it's just because you love him so much more?"
Catherine leaned back in her chair and pondered for a moment. "That's certainly part of it. But not all. For one thing, Vincent's more concerned with pleasing me than himself."
"And ditto for you, I'm sure."
Catherine smiled. "I suppose so," she admitted. "There's also the bond. He can always tell through that what I like best. But I've also gotten pretty good at knowing what he likes. Not that it's difficult ... his responses are so innocent, so completely honest."
"No trying to be cool? No looking like he's trying to remember what that diagram on page fifty-six looked like?"
"Hardly. I also wonder ..."
"What?" Jenny prompted when Catherine remained quiet.
"I wonder if the bond isn't beginning to work a little in the other direction. Lots of times it seems like I can sense his feelings in a way I couldn't before--at least not often. Maybe it's just that being around Vincent has developed my intuition."
"Could be all of the above," Jenny suggested. "If I were you I wouldn't worry too much about analyzing it. Just be grateful for it."
"Oh, I am," Catherine assured her. "I am." Catherine's reverie and Jenny's amused contemplation of her friend were suddenly interrupted by the doorbell. Jenny stayed alert as Catherine went to answer, hoping it was something innocuous. She relaxed as Catherine re-entered the library, grinning and shaking her head.
"What is it?" Jenny was dying of curiosity.
"Would you believe a telegram?" Catherine replied. "From Devin."
"A telegram? You're kidding! Who sends telegrams any more?" Jenny was looking forward to meeting this strange brother of Vincent's. "Why didn't he just call you? The Adirondacks aren't that far away."
"Devin never got over all the Sherlock Holmes stories he read as a child." Catherine handed the piece of paper to Jenny. "Besides, Vincent will enjoy this better than a phone call."
Jenny took the paper and read.
HOT DAMN STOP SMARTS RUN IN FAMILY STOP CHARLES
AND SELF BE THERE BELLS ON STOP LOVE TO BE BEST MAN
STOP CAN ALSO OFFICIATE IF NEEDED STOP SEE YOU
"Can also officiate?" Jenny looked confused. "What does he mean?"
"God," Catherine realized, "I'd better not show Father that part. I presume he means he paid twenty-five dollars once to become a Minister in the Universal Life Church," Catherine laughed. "Strange as it seems, that lets you perform legal marriages."
"Are you going to take him up on it?" Jenny asked dubiously.
"No--only one role to a customer in this wedding."
"So who is going to do the honors? Father?"
"That's what I thought at first," Catherine replied. "But then I came up with another idea, and talked to Father and Vincent about it." Catherine curled up on the sofa next to Jenny. "Most of the time, for a strictly 'Below' wedding, Father or another Council member officiates. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided to have it done by clergy. One of the Helpers is an Episcopal priest. I've met him before, he's a really fine man."
"Is that so important to you?" Jenny asked. "You're a good person, Cathy, but you never struck me as being terribly religious, in the formal sense."
"I'm not, particularly," Catherine agreed. "But I want this to be as much of a marriage as possible without endangering Vincent. Maybe we can't have a marriage that's exactly legal-- but at least it will be sacramental."
Jenny touched Catherine's hand. "I think that's wonderful. I'm sure it will mean a lot to Vincent."
Catherine squeezed Jenny's hand gratefully. "It will mean a lot to both of us." She was quiet for a moment. "But there's more to it than even that."
Jenny looked at her friend sharply. "Do I detect a shift into lawyer mode?"
"There you go, being intuitive again." Catherine's face suddenly looked serious, and more that a little pained. "I've never been able to forget that time Vincent was captured by Hughes, and how lucky we were that I got him back before word got out. I keep wondering what I could do if something like that happened again, and we weren't so lucky."
"What do you mean?"
"Vincent's greatest protection is the fact that, legally--as far as Topside is concerned--he doesn't exist. But if he ever did get captured, that could work against him."
Jenny's eyes widened in sudden understanding. "You mean, if he has no legal existence, he has no rights either."
Catherine nodded. "And without a legal marriage, I'd have no rights as his wife, no way to protect him. But there's church law, and civil law. If we were married in a religious ceremony, that could make for an interesting legal tangle. At least it would give me some ammunition."
"Wow. What a thought." Jenny shuddered. "Let's hope it never comes to that."
"Amen," Catherine agreed emphatically. "But if it did-- well, Vincent's protected me more times than I can count. I have to protect him in any way I can." They sat in silence for a moment, then Catherine shook her head as if to clear it. She stood and turned toward Jenny. "Enough of this. It's getting late, and we have a dinner reservation Chez Tunnel. Let's go."
After dinner, the members of the wedding party split up according to sex. Vincent and Mouse went off with Father, while Catherine, Jenny and Jamie huddled in Jamie's chamber. Catherine remained standing while her two attendants flopped onto the bed. "Well, your brideship," Jenny inquired brightly, "what's the plan? Are we going to wear pink chiffon and picture hats?"
"Bite your tongue, Aaronson," the bride replied, looking like she'd bitten into a lemon. "This is a Below wedding, and it's going to look like one." Catherine began to pace. "Since the bride's family traditionally pays for the wedding, I'm being indulged. But I don't want things to get too fancy--it would make me uncomfortable in front of people who have so little."
"Catherine," Jamie reassured her, "I told you not to worry so much about that. Everybody Below is so happy you're marrying Vincent you could wear a dress made of dollar bills and nobody would care."
"Now that would be an interesting fashion statement," Jenny offered.
Catherine couldn't help but smile. "Well, I did compromise. I bought tons of old fabrics from some antique clothing dealers, and all sorts of remnants--but they're remnants from very expensive shops. Don't tell."
"Mary and Sarah," Jamie explained, "are looking it all over and they promised to give us some ideas of what they'd like to do by next week. Then we can all decide which we like best. I know they'll come up with something wonderful."
"OK with me," Jenny agreed. "I love the stuff people wear around here. But what about the bride?"
Catherine inclined her head toward the door and Jamie jumped up to pull the heavy tapestry over the opening. To any Tunnel resident, that was as inviolate as a closed door would be Above. Catherine opened Jamie's wardrobe, which never had much in it, and reached back in the corner. Jamie helped her pull out the large garment bag and extract the dress it held. Shaking it out, Catherine held it up against herself and looked at Jenny. "What do you think?"
"It's gorgeous!" Jenny exclaimed. "And unusual--I've never seen a wedding dress made of raw silk before."
"My mother," Catherine said softly, "was an unusual woman."
"Oh, Cath--" Jenny found that the lump in her throat kept her from saying more.
Catherine stroked the fabric lovingly as she continued speaking. "Mom had very simple tastes. She didn't like things that were too fancy or glittery. It's funny--she couldn't have picked a better dress for me to get married in if she were with me now. It almost makes me believe she had a glimpse of the future, and knew that I'd wear it someday--and for whom." Catherine gave an embarassed laugh. "Silly, isn't it?"
Jenny found her voice again. "I don't think it's silly at all. I didn't know you had your mother's dress."
"I didn't. I found it at Dad's place when I went to clean out the last of his stuff."
"And I gave you a hard time because you wouldn't let me come with you," Jenny remembered.
"You came all the other times, and I couldn't have done it without you. But that last time--I had to do that alone." Catherine continued to stroke the fabric tenderly. "I found this tucked away in an out-of-the-way closet. I guess I always assumed it was in storage somewhere; I never dreamed Dad kept it at home all these years."
"Maybe he liked keeping it close by," Jamie suggested, "because it made your Mother feel closer."
"I'm sure that's right," Catherine nodded. "There wasn't as much dust on this as you'd expect for something tucked away for a quarter-century or so. It makes me wonder how often he took it out to look at it."
"Hey," Jenny admonished, "save the tears for your own wedding, huh?"
Catherine squared her shoulders in determination as Jamie helped her put the dress back in its protective covering. "Right. I've got enough to worry about without that."
"Such as what?" Jenny asked. "Wondering if the groom's going to pass out from excess of ecstacy before the ceremony?"
Catherine tried to pretend she wasn't blushing even as Jamie's giggle told her otherwise. "Such as what the bride's present to the groom is going to be--don't even think it, Aaronson--and the rings."
"What about the rings?" Jamie was concerned at Catherine's sudden unhappy look.
Catherine dropped heavily into the chair and sighed. "I could afford to buy them, but I'm afraid that would make Vincent uncomfortable. I know it disturbs him that he has 'so little to give me,' as he puts it. Even though I've told him a million times that all I need is him ... there's nothing more precious to me than that."
Jenny looked thoughtful. "Cath--your intended has a self- esteem problem that's been decades in the making. You're not going to get rid of it overnight."
Jamie nodded sagely. "Men can get funny ideas sometimes."
That remark brought a smile back to Catherine's face, but only fleetingly. "Even if I could buy them without hurting his feelings, can you see me waltzing into a jewelry store to buy wedding rings? Catherine Chandler, darling of the tabloids?"
"Ouch," Jenny winced. "I never thought of that. You've been doing your best to keep a low profile so they'll forget about you, but that would sure set them off again."
"And I couldn't wear a ring that was too obvious, anyway. Think of what fuel that would be for the DA's office gossip mill."
Jamie had been sitting silently in deep concentration. Suddenly, her face brightened. "Catherine?"
"What is it, Jamie?"
"I think I have an idea. Will you trust me to take care of it? It can be my wedding present to you."
Catherine looked at Jamie in surprise. Jamie was a resourceful young woman, but to depend on her for something so important ... but then, what was family for? "If you're sure, Jamie ... yes, I'll leave it to you."
"Well, Vincent," Father observed, "your plans seem to be moving forward apace. William, of course, has been complaining that six weeks' notice was barely enough to prepare for an occasion of this magnitude, but he's exaggerating."
"He usually does," Vincent observed drily. "I was more concerned about Father Atwood being available."
"Nigel wouldn't miss the chance to officiate at your wedding if the Archbishop of Canterbury were in town," Father beamed. "I'm very pleased that you and Catherine wanted him."
"Can't get license," Mouse pointed out. "God's better."
Vincent stared at Mouse. Sometimes that young man's insights amazed him. Vincent himself had suspected Catherine had several layers of motivation in her choice of Nigel Atwood; he had not expected to have his suspicions confirmed by Mouse, of all people.
"I find it all too appropriate," Father went on, "that your prodigal brother has decided to arrive on April first."
Vincent raised an eyebrow. "Father, you're extremely pleased he plans to spend so much time with us, you needn't try to hide it. And he has hardly been prodigal of late."
Father's face softened. "No--his care of Charles has been exemplary. I admit I was worried about his choice to live in a rather remote area, given Charles' medical needs. But Peter's report of his visit was very reassuring. The local doctor seems a good man, and Charles has come to trust him."
"Besides," Vincent reminded him, "didn't Peter say the man's daughter planned to join him in the practice when she finished her residency? It appears Charles will have the best of care."
Mouse spoke from his Buddha-like pose on Vincent's bed. "Glad Charles is coming too. Sorry everybody messed up last time."
"Yes," Father agreed. "There are many Below that feel we could have been more patient, more understanding."
"Charles is calmer now," Vincent added, "more secure. Both Devin and I were guilty of underestimating the burden of fear and confusion he still carried."
"What about clothes?" Mouse interrupted, ready to move on to topics of more immediate interest. "Have to wear fancy stuff?"
Vincent smiled. "Not too fancy, Mouse. Not for you and Devin. I only hope Sarah and Mary practice restraint where the groom is concerned."
"Well," Father beamed, "it sounds like everything is going splendidly."
Vincent nodded, but Mouse's eyes were on his hero's face, and what he saw there gave him concern. "Something else, Vincent. Something wrong."
Father looked sharply at his son. "Mouse is right, isn't he, Vincent? There is something."
Vincent sighed. "A minor thing," he admitted. "I don't know what to do about a ring. The crystal cavern holds many wonders, but gold ore is not among them. Catherine knows we have little of value to her world here Below, and would be uncomfortable knowing we used part of our scarce resources for her."
"Mouse won't get caught. Not again."
"Bailing you out of jail is not the only situation that would require us to use such resources," Father informed Mouse.
"Catherine could certainly afford to provide what was needed," Vincent continued, "but she fears hurting my pride. Rationally, I know her wealth means little to her, except as a way to make life easier for those she loves, or who need help."
"But it still bothers you." Father reaches out to touch his son's bowed shoulders. "Vincent, it's only human nature." As Vincent raised his head, Father met his son's implacable gaze. "Yes, Vincent," he insisted. "*Human* nature."
Suddenly their mutual concentration was broken when Mouse leaped up and began hugging himself gleefully. "OK good, OK fine! Mouse can fix! No problem."
"Mouse, whatever are you talking about?" Father exclaimed in exasperation.
"Rings. For Catherine. For Vincent too. All figured out. Let Mouse do it--OK, Vincent? My present."
"Mouse, what makes you think--" Father stopped abruptly at Vincent's touch.
"Mouse, do you mean you will provide the wedding rings?"
Mouse beamed at Vincent, nodding his head so vigorously his hair fell into his eyes. Vincent thought hard for a moment. To trust something this important to the unpredictable Mouse ... Vincent made his decision. Better for him and Catherine to wear cigar bands for all the years of their marriage than extinguish the light that suffused that young face. "All right, Mouse. And thank you."
Father sank back into the chair, appalled. He hoped against hope that Vincent didn't regret this.
* * *
On the streets of Manhattan, March was trying to decide whether it was a lion or a lamb, and changing its mind frequently. Below those streets, Catherine and Vincent were curled up on his bed, surrounded by piles of books. Catherine rummaged enthusiastically, increasing the disarray. Finally Vincent could stand it no longer. "Catherine, what are you searching for?"
"That book that talked about Quaker weddings. I wanted to check the wording again." She turned her attention to the bookcase next to Vincent's bed, hoping the elusive volume might have migrated over there. Suddenly she reached out and drew something from the shelf, turning to her fiance with an indulgent smile. "Vincent, I didn't know you brought this down here."
Vincent shrugged his shoulders. "I wanted more time to look at them. When we looked at them together, I found myself too easily distracted from the past by the present."
Catherine opened the photo album with a fond smile. "May it always be so, love," she announced firmly. "I want us to concentrate on present and future ... but it's nice to remember, especially the good parts."
Vincent slipped an arm around Catherine's shoulders. "It gives me great pleasure to see what you looked like as a child. It seems amazing that we shared the same city for so many years, with no idea of what we would be to each other some day."
Catherine turned to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. "The fact that we managed to find each other at all is the really amazing thing. I think it happened at just the right moment in our lives. I don't think I could have appreciated you properly when I was younger and even shallower, and I can't imagine you would have seen anything worthwile in me."
Catherine," Vincent admonished, "you have often expressed your concern about my self-image, but you are hardly immune to--"
"Let's change the subject," Catherine interrupted hastily. "What about that book?"
Vincent sighed but began helping her look. In a sudden burst of inspiration, he leaned over the edge of the bed and spied the volume in question resting on the floor in company with several of its fellows. Retrieving it, he handed it to Catherine with a shake of his head. "My love, you are one of the most energetic researchers I have ever known. You must have left your law books in ruins."
"Guilty. I have to restrain myself when the books belong to somebody else, like the library or the DA's office. This feels more like my carefree college days." She flipped through the pages looking for the passage she remembered. "Here it is! All you'd have to do is stand up during the regular Sunday meeting and say, 'Friends, I take this my friend Catherine Chandler to be my wife, promising through divine assistance, to be unto her a loving and faithful husband, until it should please the Lord by death to separate us,' in about fifty or sixty years." Catherine looked at Vincent lovingly. "I added the last part."
Vincent kissed her forehead. "It has a sweet simplicity to it," he agreed. "Would you say the same to me?"
"Suitably adjusted for 'husband' and 'wife,' yes." Catherine sighed. "I'm afraid it's a little too simple. I just liked the part about friends. You were my friend first, after all. Or at least I thought that's all you were at the time." She took Vincent's hand, twining her fingers around his, but didn't look at his face. "When did you fall in love with me? At the very beginning?"
Vincent looked at their entwined hands, speaking so softly Catherine could just hear him. "Yes. I didn't recognize it at the time--after all, I had spent years convincing myself that kind of love was something I would never know. All I knew then was that I couldn't get you out of my mind--literally or figuratively."
"When did you recognize it?"
"When you were falling in love with Elliot Burch."
Catherine blinked back tears as she put her arms around Vincent. "Oh, my love--I can't bear the knowledge that I caused you pain, however inadvertently."
Vincent held her close. "Catherine--dearest--how could you have known, when I tried so hard to convince you, and myself, that kind of love was impossible between us? Part of me wanted nothing but your happiness--but another part screamed in pain at the thought of you finding that happiness with anyone else."
"If it's any consolation, I think it was already too late. I think I fell in love with you as early as you did with me; it just took me even longer to recognize it."
"Catherine, for all those months I kept away from you--you had no reason to believe you'd ever see me again. You must have wondered sometimes if it all hadn't been a dream."
"No. I knew it was real. I doubted I'd ever see you again, and hadn't the faintest idea of how to find you, although I thought of looking more than once. I told myself it was just because I wanted to be your friend, to thank you more for all you'd done ... but I was lying to myself. I never told you before, Vincent, but after I met you I never slept with anyone else. I gave myself other explanations at the time, but now I know it was because some part of me knew from the first there was no one for me but you."
Vincent looked at Catherine in wonder. "I never realized ... when I discovered the bond I had with you, at first I tried hard to ignore it; it felt like I was invading your privacy. I just assumed ... but now that I think about it, I should have known. If you had been with anyone else, I don't think I could have escaped knowing." He shuddered helplessly at the prospect.
"I should have known when everything fell apart with Elliot." Catherine continued. "I turned against him so fast, without listening to his explanations, and he did nothing worse than Tom Gunther or countless others like him did every day. But by then I knew you, and without realizing it, measured every man I met against you. None ever came close."
"When did you realize you loved me as more than a friend?"
"I came pretty close when Hughes captured you, but you'd done such a good job of convincing me that going to Providence was a good idea, I didn't trust my perceptions of what was between us. But when you were in that cave-in, and I thought you might be dead--after that, there was no doubt. It took me awhile to figure out what to do about it, but after that I never again doubted that I was in love with you."
Vincent drew Catherine close again. "Sometimes I think we made the path to true love even rougher than it's supposed to be."
Catherine snuggled happily against him. "Maybe," she agreed. "But who knows? Maybe that's the only path that would have gotten us here--and since I like where we are, I'm not about to quibble over the route. I'm counting my blessings."
They held each other quietly for awhile, each reliving the torturous road that had led them to their present joy. After a time they reluctantly separated to continue their research. There was after all, a wedding to plan. Some time later, Vincent began to chuckle.
"What?" Catherine demanded.
"If you wish simplicity," Vincent grinned, "the customs of the Trobriand Islands should be perfect. It says here that even couples who have been sleeping together for some time are not considered married until they perform a certain act in public."
"What act?" Catherine attempted to look her most seductive.
"Eating yams," Vincent answered, straight-faced. He had only seconds to enjoy Catherine's reaction before the pillow impacted his head. Her attempts to pulverize her betrothed ended when she was weakened by an unvoidable fit of the giggles.
Vincent struggled for composure. "Catherine, we really should keep our minds on the job at hand."
Catherine regarded him indignantly. "You're the one who brought up yams," she reminded him.
Eventually they settled down to some serious research, identifying poetry and other readings for their wedding, taking bits and pieces from various sources to construct as ecumenical a ceremony as possible. When Catherine suddenly frowned, Vincent asked her what was wrong.
"Don't we have the older version of The Book of Common Prayer somewhere?"
Nodding, Vincent dug into the pile and handed her a well- worn volume. "The 1928 edition," he announced. "Father refuses to acknowledge the 1977 revision."
"Really?" Catherine smiled. "Why doesn't that surprise me? Actually my father liked the older version better, too. I can't decide which to use for the exchange of rings. There's a beautiful, straightforward simplicity about the new version ... "
"I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you ..." Vincent quoted from memory, in a voice that caused Catherine to lose her train of thought completely.
"And the old version?" Vincent prompted.
"The what? Oh ..." Catherine tried to collect herself. "I never liked that obey business much," she admitted. "And that bit about endowing with wordly goods seems terribly materialistic. But there's a part they left out that I always loved ... do you think we could combine the two?"
"I don't see why not--it's our wedding, after all." Vincent gently trailed the back of a finger down her cheek. "What part would you like to keep?"
Catherine leaned into his touch, her eyes fixed on his face. " 'With my body I thee worship'--I never understood what it meant--until you."
Like spontaneous combustion, the sudden wave of passion that engulfed them seemed to erupt from nowhere--but in seconds, they were both on fire. Books went flying as they sank into the bed, arms and legs entwined, lips seeking hungrily. As Catherine's mouth opened under Vincent's, his hand slipped under her sweater. As she tangled one hand in his hair, the other began a frantic tugging on his shirt ...
"Vincent, have you--oh!"
Father stopped dead in his tracks, transfixed by the scene before him. Disentangling themselves in record time, Catherine and Vincent stared at him in turn. For a moment, all held still like a Victorian tableau, then all began to talk at once.
"Forgive me, the tapestry was up so I thought--"
"I'm sorry, Father, we didn't expect--"
"We didn't expect to ... I mean, we were just--"
They stopped talking all at once, as if on cue. Choosing the better part of valor, Catherine buried her face in a pillow, trying unsuccessfully to hide the fact she was having hysterics. Vincent ran his fingers through his hair, attempting with no more success to make himself look less disheveled.
Recovering first, Father began to appreciate the humor in the situation. He began to chuckle. "Vincent--dear Grace had a favorite expression: 'if you hadn't seen it before, you wouldn't know what it was.' "
"Thank, you, Father," Vincent replied fervently. "We did not expect to need privacy; we only intended to work on the ceremony."
"That should be quite a ceremony," Father observed, undeterred by his son's pained expression. "What account of exotic marrriage customs led to such ... enthusiasm?"
Catherine emerged from the pillow. "Actually--" she looked Father right in the eye--"it was The Book of Common Prayer."
Father looked startled, but quickly decided not to pursue this conversation. He began moving toward the door. "Well, I'll take my leave and allow you to continue your theological discussion. Shall I put the tapestry down?"
"Perhaps that would be wise," Vincent agreed. "Father--what were you about to ask when you came in?"
The older man looked puzzled for a moment, then began to laugh. "You know, I haven't the faintest idea! Something seems to have driven it quite out of my head." He was still chucking as he pulled the heavy tapestry down over the open door.
"Oh, my God," Catherine groaned. "I've never been so mortified."
"Look at it this way, Catherine," Vincent attempted to reassure his beloved. "For all those years, Father thought this kind of love would be denied to me, and that caused him great sorrow. He's really very pleased that you and I became lovers."
"I know that, Vincent," Catherine sighed, "and I'm glad. But he seemed willing to accept hearsay evidence. I hadn't intended to give him a demonstration."
"Perhaps," Vincent decided, "this would be a good time to tell you about Rebecca's wedding present."
"Another one? I thought the special wedding candles were her present--that's more than enough."
"Well," Vincent admitted, "the second present is only a by- product of something else."
Catherine tugged on Vincent's hair. "Well, come on, tell me! I'm dying of curiosity."
Vincent capitulated. "Rebecca has decided to move in with Gregory."
"Oh, that's wonderful!" Catherine threw her arms around Vincent's neck and squeezed. "I'm so happy for them--they're crazy about each other. Maybe we'll have another wedding Below pretty soon."
"It wouldn't surprise me at all," Vincent agreed.
"But what does that have to do with a wedding present for us?" Vincent was silent, but Catherine's face suddenly lit up as she put two and two together. "Vincent! Rebecca's moving out!"
Vincent nodded sagely. "Moving in with Gregory would entail moving out of her present quarters, yes."
"Which happen to be right next door to yours!" Catherine almost jumped up and down in her excitement. "That means--"
Vincent wrapped his arms around her, partly to keep her from bouncing off the bed, partly because he found it undeniably pleasurable. "That means that within the week I can start blocking the current door to that chamber and carving out a new one that will link it to this. We can make Rebecca's old room our bedroom, and this into an anteroom."
"Hallelujah!" Catherine exclaimed. "Much as I love you, and like staying Below--there are times when this place feels less like the honeymoon suite and more like the lobby." She resumed her interrupted task of removing Vincent's shirt. "Now, where were we ...?"
Vincent slipped his hands under her sweater again. "With my body I thee worship ... "
"Let us worship together," Catherine intoned, just before her mouth found better things to do.
* * *
Catherine sat at her kitchen table, nursing a cup of tea as she gazed dreamily at the tiny garden. It was definitely starting to feel like spring. Even though this winter had been a remarkably mild one, and an even more remarkably happy one, she was still glad to see the change of seasons. Only spring could due justice to the feelings of rebirth and renewal that made her feel too full to hold any more. For two years she had been planting seeds of hope in Vincent's disbelieving heart--at last, it was time for their love to bloom.
She stretched luxuriously. It really was time to be getting upstairs and back to work, but it felt too good to sit here. Weekends were usually spent Below. Only the need to get ahead at work so she could take a week off this month kept her nose more or less to the grindstone. Joe probably thought she was going to the Bahamas or some such tropical paradise. She had implied she was going out of town, after all, but had otherwise ignored her boss's unsubtle attempts to learn more. Catherine rested her chin in one hand and smiled. She certainly wouldn't be getting any tan where she was going; not many people spent their honeymoon underground.
The ring of the telephone startled Catherine out of her reverie. Normally she would have let the answering machine pick it up to see who was calling, but she jumped at the chance to avoid facing the pile of work in her study. Vincent was busy preparing their new chamber, so she couldn't count on him to rescue her for some time.
"Cathy!" Jenny began eagerly as soon as Catherine said hello. "You've got to get down here right away."
"What? Jenny, where is 'here?' What's going on?"
"I'm at that antique shop in the Village, the one you told me about. Where you bought Vincent's Winterfest present, remember?"
"Of course I remember," Catherine replied. "But why are you there? Why do I have to come all the way down there now? Jenny, are you in trouble? Is something wrong?"
"Heck, no! I just saved your buns, that's all. You know how you've having fits because you haven't found the perfect wedding present for Vincent? Well, I'm looking at it."
Catherine didn't hesitate. "I'll be down there as soon as I can get a cab."
Jenny laughed. "If you can't get one to stop, pull out your gun and commandeer one. But hurry--if I have to stay here much longer, my VISA bill is on your head."
Catherine had lived in Manhattan long enough to know how to get a cab without resorting to firearms. Before Jenny's will power could break under the strain, Catherine entered the shop she had stumbled across last December. Spotting Jenny in a corner, she rushed to her eagerly, wondering if her friend's intuition was correct again.
Jenny grabbed Catherine's arm as soon as she was within range, pointing to the wall. "Well, is that it?" she asked.
Catherine was silent as she read the words, then gingerly took the frame off its hook and moved to where the light was better. After looking at it carefully for several minutes, she sighed. "Oh, Jenny, this is most definitely it. Bless you-- you've done it again."
Jenny grinned happily. "Hey, when I'm a Maid of Honor I don't fool around; all part of the service. Have you ever seen such beautiful calligraphy?"
"It's exquisite," Catherine breathed. "And Vincent loves John Donne. I'm glad whoever did this used the Elizabethan spelling; he'll like that too."
"Look at the design of that border," Jenny pointed out. "It looks like Arts & Crafts period. It might have been made about the same time as the furniture in your house."
"Or earlier, if it's English." Catherine turned the frame over, but the back yielded no clues. Turning it over again, Catherine shook her head in wonder. "This was obviously done with a great deal of love, as well as talent. I wonder how it got here? How could anyone bear to part with it?"
"Would you like to know?" Catherine and Jenny both turned to face the tall, soft-spoken man who appeared behind them.
"This is your shop, isn't it?" Catherine asked. "I remember you from when I was here before Christmas."
The man nodded in agreement. "Jonathan Sykes of Sykes and Moore, Inc., at your service. Ah, I remember you now--the nineteenth-century bronze of Sekhmet."
"I'm impressed," Catherine admitted as she shook his hand. "You have a remarkable memory. Especially since it wasn't even you who waited on me."
"I imagine it was your unusual reaction to the statue which caused me to remember," Mr. Sykes mused. "The lion-headed goddess is a powerful deity. Most people react with derision or awe, depending on their attitude toward other people's religions. I can recall no one else who grinned."
Catherine looked uncomfortable and Jenny suddenly became fascinated by a Victorian chamber pot. "You know the story behind this piece? I'm surprised anyone would let it out of the family."
"It belonged to my late partner," Sykes explained. "He had no close relatives to will it to."
"He didn't leave it to you?" Jenny asked.
Catherine winced. "Jenny, that's none of your business."
"Sorry," Jenny apologized. "I'm a hopeless romantic."
Jonathan Sykes only smiled. "Mr. Moore was my business partner only, and my good friend. He did have a companion of many years, but that gentleman predeceased him."
"Still ... " Catherine looked at the beautiful poem again. "I would have thought he would rather have left it to a friend than have it sold."
"Patrick Moore was convinced it would find its proper owner," Sykes explained. "It was made by his grandmother for his grandfather. There was considerable family opposition to the marriage. His grandmother was a descendant of English aristocracy--no doubt disreputable younger sons who fled to the New World--but aristocracy nonetheless. They wouldn't hear of her marrying a poor Irish immigrant. But she did."
Catherine and Jenny both stared at him in fascination as he continued the narrative. "Then Patrick's father carried on the tradition by falling in love with a black woman. His grandparents didn't object, but most of the world certainly did back then. Patrick's mother and father passed this on to him, and he carried on the tradition in his own way. He had an almost mystical belief that whoever bought this would be led to it-- would be someone who appreciated its history."
When he finished, Catherine was too stunned to say anything for a moment. Sykes wondered if she realized that she was clutching the poem so close to her chest she looked like she would kill anyone who tried to take it away. Finally, she found her voice. "Believe me, Mr. Sykes--there isn't anyone in New York who could appreciate this as much as I do."
"I had a feeling that was the case," he admitted. "I'm sure Patrick would have been very pleased. And please call me Jonathan."
Catherine was still dazed as they left the shop, the precious parcel well wrapped and held tightly in her arms, but not too dazed to thank her friend. "Jenny, I owe you one--I owe you ten! First, I'm taking you home in a cab, then I'm taking you out to dinner. Name the place, I'll get reservations if I have to bribe someone."
"Whoa," Jenny laughed. "I'll take you up on the cab ride, but just drop me at my place--which used to be your place not too long ago. I'll take a rain check on dinner. There's somebody I have to see tonight."
"Oh?" Catherine pressed. "Business someone or pleasure someone?"
"Business, and none of yours. You concentrate on where you're going to hide that present until the wedding."
Jenny was so eager to get back to her apartment she let Catherine refuse her contribution to the cab fare without an argument that would take time she couldn't spare. Jenny hadn't been raised by a Jewish mother for nothing. Invite a man for dinner, even strictly a business one, and certain standards had to be upheld. She grabbed an apron and faced the kitchen like a general preparing for battle.
By the time the doorman announced her visitor, the smells that filled the apartment were enough to make strong men weep with anticipation. Checking the peephole, Jenny determined that her visitor was the one she expected. Even though Catherine claimed security in this building was much improved, Jenny was dubious. Despite the "Aaronson" prominently displayed on the directory downstairs, Jenny kept expecting anyone from wandering gypsies to voodoo cultists to crooked cops dropping by unannounced. Undoing various locks and deadbolts, Jenny opened the door.
The man's grin didn't quite disguise his curiosity. "Hi, Jenny. You know, I've never actually been in this apartment before? Although I did end up butt-first in the elevator once."
Jenny smiled as she motioned him in. "I know, Cathy told me that story. Come on in, Devin."
As they worked their way through appetizers, dinner, and a bottle of wine, Jenny and Devin traded stories about Vincent and Catherine as well as each other. As the level in the wine bottle got lower, the stories got funnier. There hadn't been much time to talk during Devin's grand homecoming the previous weekend, but what little Jenny was able to observe told her Devin had a definite way with words. By the time they had polished off dessert, both were weak with laughter.
After a short, comfortable, silence, Devin set his coffee cup down firmly and faced Jenny. "So, what's this all about? You told me you were going to make me an offer I couldn't refuse. While women have often found my body irresistible, something tells me that wasn't the kind of offer you meant."
Jenny's grin matched his. "You're right about that. Besides, wouldn't it be incest or something?" She leaned forward on the sofa, fixing Devin with a semi-serious look. "Have you gotten Cathy and Vincent a wedding present yet?"
Devin looked suddenly unhappy. "No--I was hoping I'd get an inspiration once I got to New York." He sighed. "I'm not exactly flush right now. Taking care of Charles is more expensive than I anticipated ... and there aren't many opportunities for getting rich in the depths of the Adirondacks-- unless you already happen to own a nice lodge or ski resort."
Jenny looked pleased with herself. "What I've got in mind won't take much money--but it will take time, ingenuity, and some persuasive talking. I can tell you've got all it takes of the last two."
"If this idea is as good as you think it is, I'll make time. Everybody's concentrating so hard on entertaining Charles or preparing for the big day, they'll never miss me."
Jenny nodded. "OK. Here's my plan ... "
While Jenny was unrolling her lengthy plot to Devin, one of the objects of that conspiracy was wandering around her dressing room, poking and prodding in drawers, making mental lists. What to pack for a honeymoon spent crawling around in an underground kingdom that still seemed half-mythical to Catherine at times? She knew poor Vincent was still fretting about their limited possibilities for such an important occasion. No matter how many times she told him she'd be happy to spend her honeymoon in a dumpster as long as it was with him; no matter how many stories she told him about outdoorsy friends who went camping on their honeymoons, he was still unhappy, reminded once again of the limitations his differences placed on their life.
Catherine sighed. As if such unimportant things mattered to her, measured against the glorious prospect of a life spent with him. Clearly this was one battle that would have to be fought again and again. Maybe in a decade or so she'd get him to really believe it didn't matter. At least the wedding night would be spent in this house; the nightgown she'd bought for the occasion should dazzle her groom enough to last through a week of jeans and sleeping bags. And the crystal cavern--if that really was as beautiful as Vincent described, it should be pretty romantic even if it was a bit rustic.
Wandering into the bedroom, Catherine pulled out the crystal that hung from its gold chain around her neck. It would be nice to see the place this came from. She sat on the bed, lost in memories. The dress she had worn the night Vincent put this around her neck almost two years ago had looked almost as much like a wedding dress as the one she would wear in five days. There was a promise made that night, though never stated. Through all the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress of their relationship, through all the doubt and despair both of them had suffered, this indestructible crystal lay over her heart. Its silent message of endurance, of hope, had kept her own determination alive through the darkest times. And now ...
Catherine looked up as the wall panel opened and Vincent stepped into the room. The look in his eyes as he saw her sitting there dangling the crystal in her hand was worth enduring anything. Wordlessly, he knelt before her, taking the crystal from her and kissing it before letting it slide back under her shirt to find its home between her breasts. Catherine wrapped her arms around Vincent's neck and rested her cheek against his hair. They held each other in silence for a moment. As they separated, Vincent rose and held out his hands to Catherine.
"Are you ready to go Below, my love?"
Catherine took his hands and stood. "I'm ready to go to the ends of the earth with you, any time." Such a remark clearly deserved a kiss, and Vincent was eager to oblige. Eventually, they made their way Below, not quite missing dinner. William had to restrain himself from complaining, knowing he would immediately be jumped on by a small army of romantics who were indulging the wedding couple shamelessly these days.
Catherine felt almost guilty for stopping to eat at all. Mouse had obviously wolfed his meal down early, and was almost bursting with eagerness to show Catherine and Vincent his surprise. Even Jamie had only limited success in curbing his obvious impatience. Wilting under Mouse's implacable scrutiny, the two lovers decided they could always sneak back later for more to eat, and made do with an abbreviated meal. When Catherine and Vincent rose, Mouse burst out of his chair like a rock from a catapult, leading them toward Cullen's workshop at a pace more suitable for a track and field competition than for navigating the Tunnels. Jamie pretended to be disgusted, but Catherine could tell she was really as excited as Mouse.
When the rest of the party arrived in Cullen's workroom, they found Mouse looking like the cat that had swallowed the proverbial canary--several canaries. Cullen was grinning his usual sardonic grin, and even Jamie looked unusually smug. The three conspirators--it was now obvious they were all involved-- faced the future bride and groom as Jamie began to speak.
"Cathy," she began, "you remember I told you not to worry about the wedding rings, that I'd take care of it?" Catherine nodded, noticing Vincent's head turn to her in surprise as Jamie continued. "Well, when I went to ask Mouse for his help, I found that Mouse had already promised Vincent the same thing."
Now it was Catherine's turn to look at Vincent in surprise. "Great minds think alike," Mouse offered. "Heard Father say that once."
Cullen handed a small carved wooden box to Jamie, who handed it to Mouse. Suddenly shy, Mouse offered it to Vincent and Catherine. As Vincent accepted it, he and Catherine looked at the intricate carving. What had seemed at first a complicated abstract pattern resolved into their entwined initials. Catherine reluctantly lifted her head. "It's beautiful! Is it your work, Cullen?"
Cullen nodded. "Mouse and Jamie are idea men--and women," he added hastily at a glare from Jamie. "They came up with the notion and provided the material, then roped me in for my special talents. So it's a present from all three of us."
"Open," Mouse commanded. "Hurry up!"
As Catherine lifted the lid, she and Vincent looked into the box. Nestled on dark velvet, two silver rings glowed in the soft light of Below like captured moonlight. After a moment of absolute stillness, Vincent reached inside and gently removed the smaller of the two. The delicate band revealed itself as a circle of carefully carved Celtic knotwork, a pattern weaving in and out of itself seemingly without beginning or end. What looked like separate strands at first proved to be so inticately interwoven they formed a single entity. Catherine held the second ring, as beautifully carved as the first but sized to fit Vincent's larger hand.
Unnerved by the lengthy silence of his friends, Mouse began to explain. "Sorry they're not gold--gold's not easy to find or take--not a good idea, either." Mouse pointedly avoided looking at Cullen, who bowed his head at a suddenly painful memory.
"Silver's easy to get," Jenny broke in. "People are always losing earrings and rings in grates, and Mouse finds lots of bits of forks and spoons all the time. I knew he'd have plenty for rings."
Catherine finally found her voice past the lump in her throat. "They're wonderful--they're perfect!"
Vincent agreed. "This is great gift to us. We will both be proud to wear them."
"Don't mind they're not gold?" Mouse beamed but was still not quite convinced.
"You know," Catherine replied, "gold stays shiny even if you neglect it, that's one of the reasons people value it ... but I don't think that's a very good metaphor for a marriage."
Catching Catherine's train of thought, Vincent nodded. "Silver requires care, and attention, to remain at its best. Its beauty cannot be taken for granted."
Catherine moved to hug Cullen, Jamie, and a flustered but delighted Mouse. "I think you've made a perfect choice. These are the best presents you could possibly give us." Relectantly putting the rings back in their box, Catherine handed it to Jamie. "Technically, it's the Best Man and Maid of Honor who are responsible for the rings," she explained. "But under the circumstances, I don't think Devin or Jenny will mind if we give that honor to you and Mouse."
Mouse looked like someone had just presented him with a lifetime supply of the finest tools and gizmos, and Jamie looked equally as happy. Cullen smiled on the whole gathering like a benevolent if slightly disreputable uncle on his best behavior. Vincent suggested they all repair to the kitchen to celebrate the occasion. Catherine grinned to herself as her unsatisfied stomach rumbled in happy anticipation. How clever of her to marry a man who was smart as well as handsome.
* * *
On the eve of the wedding day, Father entered Vincent's room--Vincent and Catherine's now, really. The outer room seemed little changed from the day long ago when Vincent finally accepted that Devin would never be back to share it, and began to make it his own. A new door, however, now led to the chamber beyond. As yet it held little but the magnificent old bed that mysteriously appeared there one day when Vincent was away in the house he and Catherine shared. No one knew yet, except the perpetrators, whose gift that had been. There hadn't been time to add much else, but Father was sure the newlyweds would deal with that task in short order when they returned from their honeymoon.
Sensing his father's presence, Vincent lifted his eyes from the task before him and smiled. "I'm glad you came, Father. I thought you might like to see this finished. I have to wrap it soon, Catherine will be here within the hour."
Father stood next to Vincent, contemplating the gift his remarkable child was about to present to his bride. "It's beautiful, Vincent; it turned out exactly as you had hoped."
Vincent shook his head ruefully. "It never turns out as well as I hope, Father, but I pray Catherine will be pleased."
"I guarantee she will be." Father laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "And very touched, as well."
Vincent's smile of gratitude was fleeting. "It pains me that since her father's death, Catherine has no real family left at all ... only some distant cousins she's never even met."
Father sat on the bed beside Vincent, resting both hands on his cane. "Vincent, tomorrow Catherine will become part of our family--if truth be told, she is already. Those Below could not love her more if she'd been born to us--for herself, and for the happiness she brings to you."
Vincent put an arm around Father's shoulders and kissed the top of his head. "Thank you. That means a great deal to me. To both of us."
Father rose and moved toward the door. "Now, I shall leave you to await your bride-to-be. If you two have any last-minute discussions ..." he smiled mischieviously, "don't forget to curtain the door." Vincent suddenly began wrapping Catherine's present with great concentration.
He finished with only minutes to spare. Catherine must have left work early or found a cab driver whose speed had endangered every pedestrian along the route home. Vincent just stood there looking at her. She couldn't stop smiling; her eyes shone with happy anticipation. He held out his arms, and she flew into them--after carefully depositing the package she carried on the daybed. Swinging her around, Vincent kissed her firmly, or as firmly as he could manage despite her giggles.
Setting her down, Vincent smiled in return. "Well, you're early. Does this mean you still want to marry me?"
Catherine slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him so hard for a moment he couldn't breathe. "You bet! You have to make an honest woman of me now, or I'll sue you for breach of promise. I'm a lawyer, you know, and I've got witnesses." Suddenly serious, Catherine laid her cheek against Vincent's chest. "Oh, my dear love--it's only twenty-four hours, and I can hardly bear to wait."
Their second kiss was deeper, more passionate; Vincent was almost ready to suggest putting down the curtain when Catherine broke away with a reluctant little sigh. "I guess we'd better restrain ourselves until bedtime, we've got a lot to do yet tonight." Catherine picked up the package she had brought and handed it to Vincent. "Starting with this. The bride's gift to the bridegroom ... thank you for loving me. Every time you look at this, I want you to remember just how much I love you, and always will. Body and soul."
With trembling hands and a full heart, Vincent carefully unwrapped Catherine's present. When the beautifully written poem and its painted border were first revealed, Vincent drew in his breath sharply; when he finished reading the words, he turned to Catherine with a look that made her weak.
"Catherine--this is magnificent, perfect. You found something you knew I would truly love."
Catherine sat down next to him, kissing his cheek. "Actually, I think it found me." As they both looked down at the words and colors, she told Vincent the story of its provenance. When she finished, nothing would do but another kiss, and another. Then Vincent pulled away, took a deep breath, and handed Catherine her present.
Unwrapping the back first, Catherine realized it was a painting. Elizabeth had told her that Vincent was an artist of no mean talent, but he didn't seem to agree. Catherine had seen little of his work, except some humorous sketches that he often made to amuse the children. She turned it over with anticipation. When Catherine saw what he had done she gasped, and then began to cry. "Oh, Vincent, I can't believe you did this--I can't believe you even thought of it. You are the most wonderful, amazing man ..." She buried her face in his shirt, turning it damp almost instantly. Vincent put his arms around her as best he could, which was a bit difficult since she still held the painting.
After a moment, Catherine regained control of herself and raised her head, looking at the painting again and wiping her eyes with her free hand. "So this is why you had my old photo album down here." Looking out at her from the frame were four people, painted in blacks and whites and grays to resemble a photograph. It looked like a typical wedding picture, with the bride and groom in the center. Vincent must have had to guess at their clothes, since he wouldn't see his completed for the first time until tonight. The bride's dress wasn't exactly accurate, but close enough that Catherine wondered if Jamie had squealed, just a little. Both her portrait and Vincent's were good likenesses, although he had made her much more beautiful than she actually was and himself less so. Flanking the wedding couple, all smiles, were the bride's parents.
Vincent had made Caroline Chandler look a little older, although nowhere near the twenty years she'd never had the chance to live. Her father looked so alive Catherine couldn't believe it was a whole year ago she'd lost him. Looking at this picture, it seemed for a moment she hadn't really lost either of them at all. No matter how truly she believed they would be there in spirit, Catherine knew Vincent had sensed her sorrow that her parents couldn't be at their wedding in a more tangible way. This was his way of giving her that, creating a little world within the boundaries of this frame; a little world where the impossible was real.
Catherine laid the picture gently against the wall and sat there looking at it a long while as Vincent held her. Finally they rose and took both presents into their bedchamber, having agreed without the need for words that was where they belonged. Steeling themselves to ignore the bed for now, they went out to meet the evening's fate hand in hand.
For once, William didn't seem to mind that everyone was too excited to give his dinner the attention it deserved. His head was too full of plans for the wedding feast to even notice. After dinner, Mouse, Devin and Vincent were dragged off by Mary and Sarah for the final fitting of their wedding clothes. Catherine and Jamie took advantage of their absence to go meet Jenny at the entrance under Catherine's old building. Jenny had decided to come Below the night before so she could be on the spot in the morning, doing her duty to get the bride properly decked out for the occasion.
When the female contingent of the wedding party returned, they were dragged off in turn to try on their dresses and pronounce them satisfactory. Following that, Father had insisted on a brief wedding rehearsal, even though the ceremony was going to be neither long nor complicated. Nigel Atwood muttered something which sounded like "O ye of little faith," and Peter prescribed a good stiff dose of brandy for purely medicinal purposes. Catherine and Vincent were too amused at this byplay and too wrapped up in each other to notice how much time Devin and Jenny spent off by themselves in earnest conversation.
Finally there was nothing left to do until the day arrived. After escorting Jenny to her guest chamber not far from Jamie's, Catherine and Vincent were able to return to their own chambers at last. Vincent pointedly pulled down the tapestry over the outer door and the inner for good measure. As he began the always pleasurable task of undressing Catherine, he said softly next to her ear, "I'm glad you don't believe the superstition about the groom not seeing the bride before the wedding."
Catherine smiled as she methodically unlaced Vincent's complicated garments. She was getting much faster at this with practice. "Who says I don't believe it? I don't think it says how long before the wedding the groom's not supposed to see the bride, does it?" Vincent nuzzled her neck as he slid the blouse off her shoulders; her slacks soon joined it over the back of a strategically placed chair. Having quickly disposed of Vincent's shirt, Catherine pushed him onto the bed so boots and jeans could follow. All impediments removed, she joined him on the bed, slowly running her hand through the soft fur of his torso. As the back of one furry hand slid sensuously down her backbone, Catherine purred in Vincent's ear. "If we don't want to take chances, you don't have to see me. We can always turn out all the lights. Even you can't see in complete darkness."
They day of the wedding dawned clear and beautiful, but the only ones who saw it were the Helpers who would be coming Below later for the evening ceremony. The groom didn't see a thing, since the bride had decided to take no chances after all and extinguished every light and candle. After making love one last time that morning before it became sanctified and more or less legal, Catherine made Vincent promise to keep his eyes closed while she stumbled toward the door in the dark, muttering a very unbridelike remark when her knee banged into the chair. Dressing quickly in the outer chamber, she made her way to Jenny's room. She wouldn't see Vincent now until the wedding.
Catherine found Jamie already in Jenny's room. Looking guilty as sin, the two broke off their excited conversation the minute Catherine popped her head in the door. A light breakfast was laid out, with a pot of tea kept warm by something that looked like one of the fifty percent of Mouse's inventions that worked.
"All right--what are you two up to?" Catherine eyed them both suspiciously as they offered her tea and muffins.
Jenny looked mysterious as she slathered a bagel with cream cheese. "I was just telling Jamie about your wedding present," she informed Catherine. "You and Vincent will just have to wait to find out what it is." In between bites of bagel, Jenny laid out the day's schedule. After breakfast, Vincent would be spirited away by his groomsmen to supervise final preparations in the Great Hall. During their absence, the bridesmaids and the bride would help put the finishing touches on the decoration of Father's study, where the actual ceremony would be held. It would be a bit of a squeeze, but the spiral staircase was perfect for grand entrances.
"After lunch, presuming any of us feel like eating by then, men and women go to their respective pools for the ritual bath. I like that," Jenny asserted, "it sounds very Jewish."
"You must like the ceremony, too," Catherine replied. "We borrowed bits from everybody."
"Except the yams," Jenny corrected.
Catherine groaned. "God, does everybody know about the yams?"
Jamie nodded. "Pretty much. Vincent must have told Father. Brooke overheard Father tell Peter, and she told Stephen, and he told ..."
"Never mind," Catherine interrupted. "I don't think I want to know. Back to the schedule ..."
"Right." Jenny licked her fingers. "Well, after the ritual bath comes the ritual robing. First we do our hair with the flowers and all, then we start to get dressed. With all the buttons and ties and laces and whatever, that should kill the afternoon."
"Then Rebecca lights all the candles--Kipper and Samantha are going to help." Jamie's face was alight with excitement. "After that, we just wait for the signal."
"And then," Jenny said softly, "you and Vincent get married."
Catherine reached out to Jenny, clutching her hand. "Oh, Jenny--it's really happening, isn't it? It's really coming true."
Jenny squeezed Catherine's hand. "That it is, Cath. It really is. Are you getting nervous?"
"No, not really. Excited yes, but not nervous." Catherine pondered a moment. "I guess it's because I've been married to Vincent in my heart ever since that night I left Nancy's. But I'm still glad we're making it official," she smiled.
Jenny stood up and put an arm around her friend. "Well, c'mon--let's go get you married."
Later that afternoon, Devin enjoyed the temporary respite as he relaxed in the baths with his brother and a remarkable aquatic mammal named Mouse. Right about now, Devin thought Otter might be more appropriate. Watching Mouse's antics, Devin turned to his brother in amazement. "Are you sure you only taught him to swim last year?"
"Yes." Vincent shook his head as one of Mouse's more energetic maneuvers splashed them both. "Unfortunately, he still seems unclear on the difference between a swimming pool and a bathing pool."
Watching Vincent watch Mouse, Devin was quite happy to sit still himself. It had been a hectic week, between the wedding preparations Below and the even more elaborate preparations he and Jenny had made. At one point, he was convinced they'd never pull it all together in time, but Jenny was adamant. He thought the hardest part would be keeping Vincent and Catherine in ignorance of their plans, considering they'd had to bring Father in on it and a few others. That had turned out to be surprisingly easy--or maybe not so surprising. After all those two had been through, they were entitled to be wrapped up in each other for awhile.
Vincent turned his head to meet Devin's eyes on him. "What are you thinking?"
In all his travels, Devin had never encountered eyes like that. "About the fact that my little brother is actually getting married. Although you're not so little any more, are you?"
"No," Vincent agreed. "Nor so innocent."
"In more ways than one, from what I've heard." Devin turned his eyes to Mouse again. "There's another way I let you down. If I'd stuck around, things wouldn't have been so hard for you. You wouldn't have had only Father's opinion about what was possible for you."
Devin turned again as his brother's hand came to rest on his shoulder. "Devin," Vincent said earnestly, "don't do this. How can I wish anything had been different, if my life led me to the joy I know now? Perhaps no other path would have brought me here--and I could not be happier than I am at this moment."
Devin put his hand on Vincent's gratefully and then grinned. "Oh, I don't know--I'll bet you'll be even happier in about ten hours or so." He gave Vincent a long, speculative look. "Cathy really likes that furry carcass of yours, does she?"
"She does indeed," Vincent emphatically, squirming a little. "And if we pursue that line of conversation I won't be able to stand up for some time. We can't afford to linger; you remember how long I take to dry."
Devin laughed in delight. "My, my, little brother, you have grown up! OK, I'll be good. I'd be drummed out of the Best Men's Union if I made you late to your own wedding."
Maybe Catherine wasn't nervous, but Jamie was becoming increasingly anxious at the idea of being the first of the bride's party to go down the stairs. Even knowing that Mouse had the unenviable position of leading off the whole show didn't make it any easier. She kept telling herself that even if she fell all the way down, no one in the audience would remember it after they saw Catherine. Jamie had always thought Catherine was beautiful, but tonight she looked like a princess out of a fairy tale--which, Jamie decided, was pretty appropriate after all.
Jenny seemed to agree. "Cathy, I've never seen you look more gorgeous--and I've seen you look plenty gorgeous before. Vincent's going to just melt."
Catherine adjusted one of the flowers in her friend's hair. "Jenny, it wouldn't matter to Vincent if I were dressed in a sack. One of the many reasons I love that man so much."
"He's a paragon, no argument." Jenny looked at Catherine with a critical eye. "OK, final checklist. Something old?"
Catherine touched the crystal lovingly. "Probably a few million years."
"My present from Peter." Catherine held up her wrist to display the delicate crystal-and-silver bracelet.
"Something borrowed--must be those attractive pearl earrings belonging to your Maid of Honor." Jenny shook her head in mock amazement. "Even though the idea of Cathy Chandler borrowing earrings is like Imelda Marcos borrowing shoes. And something blue ..."
"You've already seen that, several layers ago," Catherine said firmly, "and I'm not showing you again. Besides, Peter will be here any minute."
"Alas," Jenny mourned, "the most beautiful lingerie in Victoria's Secret, and only Vincent gets to see it from now on."
"Yes," Catherine agreed. "Isn't that wonderful?"
Jenny hugged the bride and agreed. "You bet."
"Well, Mouse," Devin asked, "ready for your grand entrance?" Mouse was pale but determined. He would face death and torture for his beloved hero and friend, but right now either seemed preferable to the prospect of walking down that staircase first.
"I have every confidence in Mouse." Vincent clasped the young man's shoulder. "He'll do fine."
As Mouse gazed at Vincent in grateful adoration, Devin turned his attention to the groom. "And how are you doing? I expected you to be a basket case by now."
Vincent was quiet for a moment, then began to speak in a wondering tone. "For most of my life, getting married was something I never conceived of in relation to myself. Even when I fell in love with Catherine, and knew she loved me, it seemed no less impossible. Now that we've decided to marry, it seems as inevitable as moonrise. How could I ever have thought otherwise?"
Devin clasped his brother's arm, the smile temporarily absent from his face. "For twenty years, I carried your pain with me as an undertone to everything I did. Seeing you happy at last is the best thing that's ever happened to me."
"Amen to that." Father entered quietly and looked on his two sons with fondness. "Vincent, you look elegant. Catherine will be quite overcome."
Devin moved to put an arm around his father, the smile returning. "You know, Mary wanted to dress him in gray, but had to settle for all those tawny colors because Vincent insisted on wearing that Puss-in-Boots footwear of his--and I can't get him to tell me why."
Father smiled in response, reveling in the cameraderie of his two unique children. "Vincent? Surely you'll tell your poor old father?"
Vincent raised his eyes to heaven and prayed for strength. Perhaps grooms were made to suffer this way as a final trial before winning the fair maiden. A nice fire-breathing dragon would have been better. "Catherine," he sighed in resignation, "is extremely fond of these boots."
Devin gave the thigh-high boots a long look. "Is that what she said? 'Extremely fond?' Somehow that doesn't sound like her."
Vincent ducked his head so the golden mane obscured his face. "Actually, if you must know, he admitted grudgingly, "she said they were 'unbelievably sexy.'"
As Kipper lighted the last of the candles, Rebecca turned to Mary. Lit only by countless flickering candles, the chamber looked magical. The air of excited, joyful anticipation was almost tangible. Members of the community she hadn't seen in months had come for this, even Narcissa. There were at least as many Helpers as there usually were at Winterfest--but then, this was the event of a lifetime for many in their community. Rebecca nodded to Mary, and as the older woman stepped forward, the pure notes of a flute cascaded off the walls like elvish music. Into a silence that thrummed like an unvoiced note, Mary spoke.
"Our world began in darkness and in fear. Through love and generosity, through mutual caring, we made a light that drove back the darkness, one candle at a time. Today, we gather to witness two members of our community pledge their love to each other. As one candle is lit from another that the light may never die, so love must be renewed generation after generation. Love created our world, hope sustains it, and the vows that these two make today carry both into the future--may their love sustain them through all their lives, and the lives that follow them."
Michael stepped up to face those assembled as Mary retreated. Taking a deep breath as he opened the book he carried, he began to read.
Attenders to this day:
Look, the wedding is a reason
To inspect your thoughts; say
Smily wishes to the young wedded,
But see to your own new season--
No trite impediments, no bored white
Winter of cold thoughts imbedded
In mountain crevices of self-pity.
Be gathered into the light,
Into no mere festivity--
But more, a snowballing of hope.
Then you still live; we all
Live on tomorrow when two breaths elope,
Tonight when pulse on pulse sustains
Two lives, these and their sweet flesh ...
Inhale brisk flowers, then let befall
Whatever dark rains
Come; you see lives mesh
Today; today you bystand bliss.
Attend all this.
Michael retreated in turn as Lena and Julio took his place, reading in chorus.
Splendor is upon everything
Blessing is upon everything
Who is full of this abundance
Bless this groom and bride.
Nigel Atwood took the place of Lena and Julio as the sound of cello and violin, harp and flute, filled the chamber. All eyes turned toward the top of the stairs. After a few seconds of unbearable waiting, Mouse appeared. Looking more serious than ever in his life, he moved downward with concentration worthy of a brain surgeon. He clutched a wooden box in his hands so tightly those assembled might have guessed it contained the One Ring on its way to Mount Doom. Fortunately for Mouse's peace of mind, he was the center of attention for only a moment, then the Best Man appeared. Even the irrepressible Devin seemed awed by the specialness of the occasion.
When Vincent appeared at last, arm in arm with Father, a sigh went through the audience like wind through wheat. Not one of those assembled would have thought such a creature in need of a spell to turn him back to a handsome prince. He was one already, a vision in cream and brown and tawny gold. Never had his natural grace been so evident; never had he seemed so sure; never had anything seemed so right. He carried an unlit candle, Father a matching candle already topped by a steady flame. When they approached Nigel, Father moved to stand at right angles to Vincent as Devin and Mouse fanned out behind him. Vincent turned to face the staircase, a look on his face like a saint might fix upon the altar of his god.
Had anyone been looking at Mouse when Jamie appeared, they would have seen the face of a young man whose world has been turned upside down. In place of the scruffy companion of his Tunnel wanderings, a young goddess glided down the stairs. Her peaches-and-cream dress looked like something Juliet might have worn, or at least a Juliet who had to depend on leftovers from the looms that supplied the palaces of Verona, instead of the wealth of the Capulets. Suddenly Mouse's world shifted into a new and disturbing orbit, never to be quite the same again.
Jenny came next, looking like she had followed the fairy lights under the hill, and didn't care if she discovered a hundred years had passed when she emerged. She was a woman who had seen Catherine down many a dead-end path, and was delighted to know her most beloved friend had found the right road at last. Jenny's smile was so infectious, by the time she was halfway down the stairs everyone below her was smiling too--except Vincent, whose eyes remained fixed on the top of the stairs.
His eyes widened and his lips parted a split-second before the soft sound of a hundred people beginning to breathe again filled the room. Catherine stopped for a second, finding Vincent like a lodestone finds True North, before moving down the spiral path in a rustle of silk. Like Father and Vincent, she and Peter carried the same combination of lit and unlit candles, only hers was surrounded by a cascade of flowers. In the years to come, Catherine was never able to describe the room in which she was married to save her life. If Elizabeth hadn't preserved the scene in the Painted Tunnels, it would have remained a mystery to the bride. From the moment her eyes first found Vincent's face, nothing else existed for her.
Reaching Vincent, she handed the flowers to Jenny and stood beside him holding the candle. Father lit Vincent's candle as Peter did the same for Catherine's. When the new flames steadied, Catherine and Vincent touched them at the same instant to the huge candle that stood before them on its tall holder. As that flame took hold in turn, Father and Peter spoke together. "As light passes from candle to candle, so life passes from soul to soul. In the name of those who gave you life, we pray that together you may bring light to those who come after. Carry the flame into the future, as we have carried it to you."
After all four smaller candles were placed in holders on either side of the great one, Nigel Atwood began. "Dearly beloved ..." The Archbishop of Canterbury might not have recognized the ceremony that followed, combining as it did words from a whole tapestry of faiths and times and places. Disparate as they were, all were chosen from the heart. Words of poets and priests were woven together with those of the ceremony that had united those Below for decades. Her wedding reminded Catherine of a Tunnel garment, bits and pieces from all over put together in way that was unique and beautiful.
"Catherine, will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?"
"I will." Her voice rang strong and true. Never had a promise been easier to make. It only put into words what her heart had vowed a long time ago.
"Vincent, will you have this woman to be your wife ..." Vincent was awed by the look of loving determination on Catherine's face. Through what miracle had such a woman come to love him, and have the courage to put her heart and her life into his keeping?
"... as long as you both shall live?"
"I will." He felt the sudden pressure of Catherine's hand on his as her eyes shone with unshed tears.
Catherine had determined that any promise, any pledge, that Vincent made to her she would give to him in turn. Her voice never faltered as she gave him the special promise they had agreed to make. "Vincent, please know this: I will protect you, watch over you, and love you until my last breath." As Vincent repeated the words to her, it was as if two unseen presences were now beside her, rejoicing in the knowledge their beloved child had found her happiness at last.
When Vincent completed his promise, Devin and Jenny stepped forward. Each picked up a cup of water and poured the contents into a silver goblet. Handing it to Catherine and Vincent, they spoke as one. "As many rivers flow into the great ocean, the separate streams of your lives now join. May your love be as clear as a river, as patient as a forest pool, as enduring as the sea." Catherine drank from the cup, then passed it Vincent to do the same. Under the sea-green gaze of Catherine's eyes, Vincent felt his future open up before him, as vast and uncharted and full of wonders as the ocean he had never seen.
Mouse had to continually keep himself from sinking into the beauty of the ceremony like a stone into that sea. At last, it was time for his final duty. He handed the wooden box to Devin, and relaxed. He hadn't disgraced himself, and now he could enjoy the ceremony without worrying if he would. Devin opened the box and handed Vincent the ring. Catherine was determined not to cry at her own wedding, but Vincent's voice as he slipped the ring on her finger almost made her break her vow to herself.
"...with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you ..." Those beautiful hands, that she loved so, but caused Vincent such pain. The hands that had killed so often to protect her, those same hands that he had almost turned on himself, now cradled her own as he slipped the silver circle onto her finger. A circle, symbol of infinity, world without end ...
Devin passed the box to Jenny, who removed the larger ring and handed it to Catherine. Vincent was sure he already loved Catherine as much as any living being could love another, but when she put the ring on his finger, he found his heart swell even more. Such a small thing, done without thinking ... as Catherine slipped on the ring, she twisted it so it would slide smoothly over his fur. Vincent blinked back tears of his own as her voice and feelings filled him like a song. "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship ..."
As the ceremony moved toward its conclusion, the room became quieter and quieter, waiting for the words that would seal it all, not daring to believe the miracle was about to happen. As Catherine and Vincent stood before him with clasped hands, Nigel Atwood gradually raised his voice so the final words rang out in triumph: "As fire and air make light, and earth and water give life, these two have pledged to join their lives. I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the name of God. What God has joined together let no one put asunder."
For a few seconds, silence reigned as if no one could quite believe it had really happened. Then the musicians burst into sound, seeming like ten times their number. Vincent and Catherine stood facing each other for a moment as if they couldn't believe it was true either. Then they moved into each other's arms for a kiss that brought happy grins and a sudden burst of talk and laughter from their assembled friends.
After they parted, Vincent suppressed an almost irresistible urge to roar as he took Catherine's hand and led the way to the Great Hall. Jenny and Devin followed arm in arm, sharing wide grins that somehow contrived to be smug and happy all at once. Deciding it was the proper thing to do, Mouse offered Jamie his arm. She accepted it like the daughter of royalty and moved serenely forward. Mouse, on the other hand, had some trouble navigating as he kept staring at Jamie and not at the path before them. Father tried to maintain a dignified pace, but he felt alternately like tossing away his cane and dancing a jig, or fainting with relief. Fortunately, a brother physician was in attendance ... although Peter seemed miles, or more likely years, away.
The excited crowd flowed behind them, acting like this was every holiday they'd ever known rolled into one, and several more they hadn't thought of yet. This time, Vincent wasn't allowed to risk mussing up his wedding finery by moving the huge bar from the door. It took Cullen, Michael and Julio to take his place, but eventually the doors were thrown open and everyone poured into the Great Hall for the Wedding Feast.
Vincent and Catherine were led to two elaborately carved chairs that had been set up at one end of the room. No mere reception line for these two--they looked more like a King and Queen of some magical land presiding over their court. It seemed that every member of the Tunnel community and at least two-thirds of the Helpers were determined to offer congratulations. For a while, Catherine was afraid she and Vincent would still be sitting in these chairs next morning, but eventually the multitudes found their way to the food tables or congregated into talkative groups.
Suddenly a high note rang out from the flute, calling for silence. Vincent stood and offered Catherine his hand to lead her to the center of the floor. The musicians began to play a waltz. As they glided around the room, the crowd ceased to exist for them, caught up as they were in the music and each other. "What are you thinking?" Vincent asked softly.
"About my first Winterfest." Catherine looked at her new husband as if she still couldn't quite believe tonight had really happened. "Less than fourteen months ago I didn't even know that you could dance."
Vincent held her tighter. "We have both learned much since then."
"So we have ... and we've only begun."
Soon the bride and groom were claimed by others. Catherine danced with so many people she lost count. Father was as elated as she'd ever known him; Peter could talk of nothing but how much Catherine looked like her mother on her wedding day. She expected Devin to joke, but all he could do was thank her again and again for making his brother so happy. Even Mouse risked a dance, concentrating so hard on his footwork Catherine had all she could do not to laugh.
Eventually, she found her way back to Vincent and they escaped to the stairs, a traditional refuge for weary dancers. Laughing, she hugged him. "If any more people want to dance with me, I'll have to crawl to the crystal cavern with you tomorrow."
Vincent hugged her in turn and smiled. "Normally, I would simply carry you the whole way--but I'm not sure I'll be able to stand up tomorrow either. This is worse than Winterfest."
"I never thought I'd see people happier than they were then, but look." Catherine gestured toward the crowd below them. "I think it's because at Winterfest we were really celebrating escape from death. Tonight we celebrate nothing but life."
Vincent took Catherine in his arms and kissed her thoroughly, not caring they were visible to all. If a man couldn't kiss his wife in public ... his wife ... his wife! He kissed her again, even more thoroughly, and she wrapped her arms around his neck as if she had no intention of ever letting go.
Across the room, Jenny saw this display and nudged Devin. "They don't look like they're going to last much longer. We'd better tell them before they get away from us."
Devin stared at Vincent like he'd never seen him before. "Wow ... what were you saying?"
Jenny explained again as she dragged Devin across the room, picking up Father along the way. Not until they were halfway up the stairs did Vincent become aware of their approach. Catherine was only alerted when he extricated himself from their kiss. "You can't ask either one of us to dance," she announced in no uncertain terms. "We claim sanctuary."
Jenny laughed and handed Catherine her bouquet. "As Maid of Honor, it's my job to see that you do your duty. I got the impression you and the groom here were contemplating an early escape."
As Devin called for attention, Vincent removed one of the larger flowers from the bouquet. He had absolutely refused to have anything to do with garters in public, to Catherine's relief. When a crowd of laughing young men gathered below, Vincent turned his back to them and tossed the bloom over his shoulder. Making the leap of his life, Julio caught it in midair. As he was carried off by well-wishing friends, Catherine squeezed Vincent's hand. "My compliments on your aim, husband. I hope I can do as well."
Vincent didn't even notice the single women congregate. That was the first time Catherine had called him "husband." Not until she swung her arm over her head to toss the bouquet in a graceful arc did awareness of his surroundings return. To no one's surprise, a delighted Lena caught the bouquet. Clearly there had been a conspiracy--many a taller woman seemed unaccountably unsuccessful. Lena was borne toward a laughing Julio, and the musicians, renewed by the promise of another wedding soon, broke into dance music with new vigor.
"Well," Devin grinned, "it looks like this party can go on fine without you, if you can think of other things you have to do."
"I'm sure we'll think of something," Catherine replied loftily. "We have to get our rest if we're going all the way to the crystal cave tomorrow."
Jenny took a deep breath. "You're not."
Catherine and Vincent both stared. Catherine found her voice first. "What do you mean, we're not?"
Devin put his arm around Jenny's shoulders. "We decided the occasion called for something more special than that. It's our wedding present to you."
"But Devin--" Vincent shook his head sadly. "Where else could we go?"
Devin looked at Jenny. Jenny looked at Devin. They turned back to the new-wedded pair and spoke together. "Connecticut."
Vincent clutched Catherine's hand as he felt a sudden hope leap in her, only to be forcibly quenched.
"Oh, Jenny--Devin--it's very sweet of you, but it's impossible." Catherine bowed her head and blinked quickly several times. "Father's right, it's too dangerous."
"Why?" Devin demanded.
Catherine raised her head in surprise. "Why--suppose something happened so I couldn't drive, even a sprain ... we'd be stranded. Even if Vincent knew how to drive, he couldn't risk being seen."
"That's why you're getting an escort," Jenny announced firmly. "We've got two vans; Devin will drive you and I'll be right behind. If your van breaks down--and it better not at these prices--we'll get you there. If anything happened that you couldn't drive, there's two of us to take over."
"We'll be traveling at night." Devin added. "There's practically no chance Vincent could be seen. But if he is, I've got enough stories cooked up to explain our way out of anything. Not to mention lots of fake ID for all occasions."
Vincent felt that flicker of hope in Catherine's heart strengthen ever so slightly, but she continued. "Suppose there was some kind of medical emergency ... "
"You'll just have to be easy on Vincent," Devin said solemnly. "But if something happens, remember how good a fraud I am ... and remember that someone who's led safaris in Kenya had to be a pretty good bush doctor. I've handled emergencies in places a lot more primitive than Connecticut."
Jenny didn't give Catherine time to object further. "We're staying in the next town the whole time you're there, and Peter lent us a beeper. If you need us for any reason, we'll be close by."
The flicker became a flame. "The house isn't ready ... we're not packed ..."
"It is," Devin corrected, "and you are. What do you think Jenny and I have been doing all week?"
Catherine was almost ready to believe. "But Father ..." she objected weakly.
Jenny and Devin stood apart so Father could step up behind them. "Not even I could fault their plan. Nothing is totally without risk, but these two have eliminated most. What remains is worth it for this."
Catherine turned to Vincent, a question in her shining eyes. He touched his palm to her cheek, finally daring to hope himself. "Catherine--we have faced greater risks together. I'm willing if you are."
Catherine threw her arms around his neck and hugged him as hard as she could. Turning to embrace Devin and Jenny, she burst into tears at last. Vincent faced his brother for a moment, then embraced him with a gratitude too great for words. After a whirl of hugs, kisses and tears, Devin lent Catherine a handkerchief. "Everything's in the van, you just need to change into your traveling clothes."
"Take as long as you want," Jenny encouraged, "as long as you remember we've got two hours of driving ahead of us. Think of it as being in yichud."
"What?" Devin asked.
Vincent's wedding reading stood him in good stead. "After a Jewish wedding, the couple spend a short time in seclusion. It is symbolic of earlier times, when the marriage was consummated right after the ceremony."
Devin grinned wickedly. "Well, the old ways are often the best. Pound the pipes when you're ready, and we'll come get you."
Vincent and Catherine walked slowly toward their chamber hand in hand. The Tunnels had never been so quiet, even after Winterfest. With the exception of the sentries, and Pascal in his pipe chamber, everyone was still celebrating with an enthusiasm usually reserved for Royal nuptials. Husband and wife moved through the dim corridors without speaking until they reached the door of the chamber where Vincent had brought Catherine, broken and bleeding, three years ago this very night. As if reading his mind, Catherine turned to him and spoke in a voice husky with feeling. "At first, I was sure that night was the end of my life. And it turned out to be the beginning."
Unable to speak, Vincent could only take Catherine's face in his hands, looking at it a long time before bending to kiss her. Then, his eyes never leaving her face, he swept her into his arms and carried her through the door. Setting her down, he pulled the tapestry over the opening and began pulling pins and flowers out of her hair until it cascaded down around her shoulders. Catherine turned around and Vincent carefully began undoing the many buttons one by one. Finally she stepped out of the dress and hung it carefully in the wardrobe. Someday ...
Piece by piece, their wedding finery was removed and carefully laid away. At the very last, Vincent lifted the crystal from Catherine's neck and laid it gently down beside the white rose in its pouch. Lifting her hand to his lips, he kissed the silver band that circled her finger. Still holding her hand, he turned to lead her to the inner chamber.
"Vincent..." He stopped and turned back to face his wife. Catherine gestured toward the bed in the outer room, the one he brought her to the first night they met. "Here, Vincent," she said simply. "We need to close the circle."
Nodding, he laid her on the bed where he had dreamed his boyhood dreams, and lay down beside her. No dream of his youth had even come close to this. Golden as he in the light from the stained glass, Catherine held out her arms, and he sank into them like a river into the sea. As their love carried them in an ever-heightening spiral, they crossed the threshold which left the past, with all its doubts and fears, behind. Together, they entered the future.
Now, as in Tullias tombe, one lampe burnt cleare,
Unchanged for fifteene hundred yeare,
May these love-lamps we here enshrine,
In warmth, light, lasting, equall the divine;
Fire ever doth aspire,
And makes all like it selfe, turnes all to fire,
But ends in ashes, which these cannot doe,
For none of these is fuell, but fire too.
This is joyes bonfire, then, where loves strong Arts
Make of so noble individuall parts
One fire of foure inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.
Originally published in Definitions of Love 3
About the Author
Edith Crowe is an academic librarian who has been involved in various fandoms (starting with Star Trek) since 1972. Beauty and the Beast, however, is the one she's most emotional about and the first (and so far only) one to inspire her to write fiction. She has had seven "continuing classic" stories published in the late 80s and early 90s, in zines now out of print as far as she knows. She hopes that publishing them here will allow them to reach not only people who missed them the first time, but also new fans who weren't around in the old days. After an enforced haitus from fandom and from writing--sometimes the Real World just gets in the way--she has recently jumped in again with both feet and had her story, My Furry Valentine, published in the 1996 A Kingdom By The Sea conzine. Look for Edith's zines at the next convention! You may contact Edith at Ecrowe1228@aol.com.