THE FIRE AND THE ROSE by Edith Crowe Catherine finished her notes with a flourish, pleased with herself at having completed her morning's work with twenty minutes to spare. Now if she could just pack up in record time and escape before some crisis reared its ugly head... "In a big hurry, aren't you, Chandler?" Catherine's heart sank. She faced her boss with a look calculated to wilt a cactus. "Hey, don't worry, you'll get your afternoon off, and tomorrow too. Before you left, though--I just wanted to tell you I've finally got you figured out." "Oh?" Catherine eyed Joe suspiciously as he made himself at home on a corner of her desk. "What will you do for a hobby now?" "Sarcasm doesn't work on me, Radcliffe--I know you just do that to distract me; to keep me from discovering your deep dark secret." Only long practice enabled Catherine to keep her voice even. "And what might that be?" "Well, let's look at the evidence." Joe was obviously enjoying himself and had no intention of coming to the point anytime soon. Catherine reminded herself to breathe slowly and concentrated on relaxing her grip on the pencil she clutched in her hand. "From day one on this job, you started digging up leads-and witnesses-that streetwise, experienced investigators kept missing. How, I kept asking myself, does somebody who spent her life in posh schools and an upscale corporate law firm do that?" "Joe, you promised me the afternoon off, and that's only fifteen minutes away..." "Ha! That was the clue! That's how I figured out your secret." "What?" Catherine was torn between fear and utter confusion. "Chandler, you are the only person on this staff who seems to consider Halloween an official government holiday. For the past two years, you've asked for that day off, and the day after." "Joe, you keep telling me I don't go out enough; now you take exception because I take the day off instead of coming in and trying to work when I haven't had enough sleep-like several others around here I could name." Joe looked faintly guilty but plunged ahead undaunted. "This year clinched it. Chanukkah and Christmas are almost at the same time. Everybody in this office started pestering me in September to let them take off the week between Christmas and New Year's-except guess who?" Catherine attempted, with reasonable success, to look affronted. "You should be grateful that I'm so accommodating, Mr. Maxwell. Someone has to mind the store." "OK, Radcliffe, you get a gold star. It's not when you're willing to work that interests me, it's when you want off. Christmas week, no problem-but you insist on having the week before Christmas-or at the very least, you've got to start your vacation on December 21st." "OK, I confess, I didn't ask for the same vacation as everyone else. What does that make me guilty of-unpredictability in the first degree?" "Exhibit A: She gets results nobody with her background should be able to get. Exhibit B: She always takes off on Halloween. Exhibit C: She takes off on the Winter Solstice." Joe pointed at her triumphantly in his best courtroom manner. "Chandler--you're a witch!" Catherine stared at him as the sense of his words sank in. With an exaggerated moan, she dropped her head in her hands. It was the reaction he was expecting, after all; it was part of the game. It also kept him from seeing the relief that was too overwhelming to hide. After a moment Catherine raised her head. "All right, Counselor, you've got me. I should have known a brilliant legal mind such as yours would figure things out before long." Joe smirked happily. "I might be persuaded to forget it, actually. All you'd have to do for me would be work like a slave, give me all the credit, maybe season tickets to the Yankee games..." Catherine looked at him speculatively as she put on her coat. Picking up the pencil, she pointed it at him in her most threatening manner. "Joe, when you try to blackmail a witch, consider this-who would vote for a frog as Mayor of New York?" As Catherine let herself into her apartment she wondered if the cab driver was even now calling to report an escaped lunatic. Surely he wondered why his fare kept chuckling to herself at odd moments for no apparent reason. She sank onto the sofa gratefully and kicked off her shoes. Then again, this was New York...cabbies probably were used to that sort of thing. Maybe he would have noticed if she had hysterics in the back seat, which she had been sorely tempted to do. Even now, remembering the fear Joe's words had first roused in her left her weak. Catherine was very glad she had given herself plenty of time to get ready for Peter's party tonight. She needed time to relax and calm down. What a year it had been... Brigit O'Donnell would be pleased with me, Catherine thought. I'm starting to think like a pagan Celt. Some months after their first meeting Brigit had sent her a book on the Old Religion, and Catherine was intrigued to discover that Samhain was the first day of the old Celtic New Year. Like all Celtic holidays, it ran from sunset to sunset, so Halloween was really its beginning. A few years ago it would have seemed strange to think of beginning a year at time that meant "summer's end," when the world was well on the way toward darkness...but darkness meant something very different to Catherine now than it had in the days when a carefree summer full of sun and shining water seemed the high point of the year. Darkness had a much more complex meaning now. It was Vincent's protection when he ventured into her world, after all. Since meeting him she welcomed the lengthening nights because they gave him more time to spend with her, more time for him to escape the confines of the Tunnels that were at once refuge and prison. Summer meant she went Below more and more-like Persephone in reverse-so they could be together without endangering him. Especially this summer. Nothing seemed as important now as keeping Vincent safe. Suddenly cold, she rose to light the fire. Appropriate to the season after all; light the Samhain fire so the sun would have the strength to return, so darkness would not swallow the light forever, so the balance would be preserved. Comforted by the warmth of the flames, Catherine let her mind drift back to the previous spring, when that delicate balance had almost been lost. No threat she had ever faced, not even to her own life, had frightened her as much as the threat of losing Vincent. Those weeks had been the hardest she had ever known, because watching his pain was so much harder than suffering her own. Blow after blow had rained down on them, almost toppling the fragile structure of their life together; a structure that had been built so carefully, so slowly. Catherine sighed. Life had certainly taught her by then that destruction was much easier than creation. After Spirko's expose had been thwarted and Paracelsus had died, she thought they could begin the work of building again-only to find the fiercest dragon remained to be slain... or tamed. The descent into the darkness to bring Vincent back to himself, and to her, was the most important journey she had ever undertaken, perhaps ever would. The work of healing was slow after that, but she was determined. She had come too close to losing everything that mattered. No task was more important. She remembered the Summer solstice ... * * * "Catherine! I didn't expect you so soon." Vincent rose quickly from his chair to greet her. "Absolutely no one at work seemed inclined to stay late today, not even Joe. Must be because it's the first day of summer. I've never heard of summer fever, but I think the DA's office has it." Catherine put down the book she carried to take the hands Vincent offered her. "The longest day of the year," Vincent said softly, averting his face. "You should not be spending it underground." Catherine captured his chin in her hand and turned him to face her. "Sunlight," she said firmly, "is vastly overrated. It's even hazardous to your health-ask Father." Her voice turned serious. "I am exactly where I want to be, Vincent. Don't ever think otherwise." Vincent looked at her for a long moment, then dropped his gaze to the book she had returned. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. You've had that a long time." "Actually, I still do." She curled up on the bed while Vincent settled himself in the chair beside her. "I decided to buy my own copy. I think I've become Mr. Smythe's best customer." She smiled at Vincent. "It's hard to believe that only a little over two years ago, all I needed to guide my life was a collection of corporate law texts and the latest issue of Vogue. Now, Joseph Campbell seems much more to the point." "You exaggerate, Catherine," Vincent admonished. "You have always had a great love for books." He stared at the book he held, turning it over and over in his hands. "Catherine..." His voice was rough and he didn't look at her. "No hero of legend was ever braver than you. What you risked, to follow me into the dark..." "Vincent!" Her voice was soft, but very determined. "I told you once there was no darkness, as long as I was with you. I've never had cause to change my mind. Oh, I was afraid, terrified-of losing you. I was afraid for you, but not of you. I knew you would never hurt me." "How could you know something I don't know myself?" Vincent cried, rising from the chair and turning to face her from across the room. Catherine gazed at him steadily. "You always told me to follow my heart." She chose her words as carefully as she knew how, trying to project her conviction to him. "Vincent, this is something both my heart and my mind tell me. This bond we have-you told me it's something unique, something you've never had with anyone else." "Yes." "When Paracelsus gave you that drug..." she winced at the pain that memory brought to his face, but forced herself to go on. "You were lost then, too. No one could reach you, not even Father. But I could. Vincent, have you ever wondered what our bond is for, why it is?" Vincent looked at her like a drowning man who sees a distant shore. "No... perhaps I was afraid that it would disappear if I looked at it too closely ... that it was somehow presumptuous to question a miracle." Catherine held out her hand and Vincent slowly moved toward her to take it as he returned to his chair. "I believe that bond is very special, Vincent," she said earnestly. "I don't think you could ever lose yourself so far that you wouldn't know me. I don't think you could ever hurt me." Vincent looked at her for a long time, then sighed--but offered no further argument. Catherine drew his hand to her lips and kissed it, gently as a whisper. "Come on." She rose from the bed and pulled him to his feet. "I brought a large box of very sinful chocolate cookies. If we hurry, maybe we can snag a few before Mouse eats them all." Vincent smiled. He seemed glad at the lightening of the mood, but thoughtful. Catherine tucked her arm in his and allowed herself a mental sigh of relief. One small seed, she thought to herself. One brick at a time. * * * The collapse of a log in the fireplace brought Catherine out of her reverie. Glancing at her watch in chagrin, she moved quickly to the bedroom and began shedding her clothes. She hadn't taken the afternoon off to sit around lost in thought, but to give herself time to get ready without having to rush. As she entered the bathroom she had a sudden vivid memory of running to the door on this same night two years ago, rushed and damp, to greet her father. The memory was so startling and so vivid it brought tears to her eyes. This was the night when the wall between living and dead grew thin, she remembered. Blinking back the tears she remembered her last sight of her father, in the Tunnels below. More and more since then she had come to believe that was no dream or hallucination brought on by wishful thinking and grief, but a true vision. She drew strength from the memory. Oh, Daddy, she thought. I've discovered you don't just have a happy life, you have to build it for yourself, piece by careful piece. And you can't ever stop, or let your attention wander even for a minute. It's very hard... but I'm trying... Stepping under the soothing water, she remembered last June ... * * * The New York summer had not yet turned into steam bath that would drive everyone but overworked Assistant DAs out of town. Joe should still be in a good mood, Catherine told herself as she approached his office door. "Joe--got a minute?" Catherine knew perfectly well he had, because she had sneaked a surreptitious peek at his calendar and timed this carefully. "Sure, as long as you promise not to ask me for vacation. The Ramirez trial is coming up next week, and I want you in on it." "Actually, Joe, the job is what I want to talk about, but I promise I have no vacation requests and I was hoping you'd want me in court on the Ramirez case." "Oh, great," said Joe, somewhat taken aback. "You're not going to ask for a raise, are you?" "No ..." Catherine smiled. "Although I probably deserve one. I... I've been thinking, in a few months it will be two years since I started this job. I want to talk about where I go from here." "There are a lot of places you could go from here, Cathy-as long as it's not to Providence." "I promise you, Joe, there's absolutely no chance of that! I don't want to leave New York." Joe looked like he was dying to ask her why, but instead he said carefully, "I think you do very well in court. I was hoping you liked it well enough to switch to the trial division permanently and do less investigation." Joe took a deep breath and plunged in. "Look, you've done great as an investigator. I admit in the beginning I had a chip on my shoulder about you so you felt you had to prove yourself, but you've done that ten times over. You take too many chances sometimes, it's not worth it!" "I know. I agree." "And don't give me a hard time about my big brother complex, Chandler. We've got plenty of other people to... what did you say?" Joe snapped his head up and his mouth shut. "I said I agree. When I came here, Joe, I didn't just need to prove to you and myself that I could do the job. I also had to prove to myself that my assault hadn't paralyzed me, made me afraid to ever take risks again, even when it was important." "Sort of like getting back on the horse right away after you've been thrown off?" Joe asked gently. Catherine nodded. "It was very important to show myself I hadn't lost my nerve. But I think maybe I over-compensated. This year... well, I've just come to close to the brink too often." Joe watched as she struggled for the right words, fingering the crystal she wore around her neck while she stared out the window. "Maybe I realized I can't act as if I exist in a vacuum... that if I put myself in danger, I'm not the only one who could get hurt." "Cathy--what exactly do you mean?" As Catherine turned from the window she seemed to pull herself back from far away. "I mean ... well, Joe, look what I put you through. I know that I kid you a lot about acting like my brother, but don't think it doesn't mean a lot to me that you care. The doorman told me what you did after my father died." "I just wanted to make sure you hadn't fallen and cracked your head or something ... most accidents happen in the home you know, and..." "Joe ... it's OK. Really." Her tone became more businesslike. "I think I'd like to do more trial work, maybe concentrate on child abuse and battered women. It's not like there isn't enough misery here to go around. Let somebody else investigate serial murderers and drug dealers for awhile." "Like maybe the cops? That is their job, you know." "Promise to remind me if I forget? And if I find out about something or stumble across valuable witnesses, I promise I won't go to meet any strangers alone in a dark alley." "You've got a deal, Radcliffe!" He leaned back in his chair, grinning from ear to ear. "You know, I think you just made my life a lot less complicated." Catherine smiled at him in return. "Mine too, Joe," she replied fervently. "Mine too." Leaving Joe's office Catherine decided she deserved an early lunch in a quiet corner. It had been easier than she thought, but any serious conversation with Joe these days was full of unasked and unanswered questions lurking beneath the surface. Bless him for not asking. Next to the threat of losing Vincent, the most frightening thing about the events of last spring was the fear that she had articulated to Father. It had never occurred to her before she said it, but once uttered it preyed on her. Was it possible that, unconsciously, she put herself in danger because she knew it would draw Vincent to her? Why would she do such a thing? In some ways, answering that question was the hardest task of all those she'd had to face in that dark time. Slowly, she worked her way to the heart of it. When had she first begun to know that her love for Vincent had passion in it? Maybe that first magical Samhain they spent together. For a long time afterward she told herself that she'd run after Vincent because she feared for his safety, but in retrospect she could admit that a little twinge of jealousy had something to do with it. She remembered the knowing smile Brigit gave her. Maybe it was true about the Irish having second sight. Brigit certainly knew what kind of love it was before she did. When Vincent almost died in that cave-in, there was no way to avoid facing the truth. This was no Platonic love, no matter how much they talked about it as if it were some third party apart from them. She admitted to herself it was there, but neither of them seemed to be willing to face the issue of what to do about it, until the anniversary of her mother's death sent her into that emotional tailspin. That was a painful time, but being born is not a process without pain. She looked on that time now as the end of the transformation from the old Catherine Chandler to the new ... and the new had no doubts about what she wanted. At first she thought the slow progress of their relationship was due to Vincent's innocence. From things he and Father had said it was clear to her that neither of them had ever expected such a love was possible for Vincent because of his difference. It had been hard for her to understand how he had escaped as long as he had. There was more than one woman in the Tunnels in the right age group. It hadn't taken her very long to decide that Vincent was the most beautiful and wonderful man in the known universe, how could it escape the attention of those who grew up with him? She decided that very fact had made him seem too much like a brother to them and concluded some unconscious incest taboo was operating. Then Lisa appeared, and Catherine realized that her task would be harder than she had thought. She was glad and honored that Vincent told her what happened ... but she also knew that half a lifetime's belief would not be eroded overnight. She was determined that it would be eroded; that he was as wrong in this fear as in his other fears that he would hurt her. After Paracelsus died she had a dream ... disjointed images of Vincent's painful confession about Lisa; of his killings to protect her; images of fire, from a raging forest fire to the comfort of a hearth. Waking suddenly in the middle of the night, she had her answer. She knew that her first step had to be the one she had just taken, to cease putting herself in danger when it could be avoided. The second step was to tell Vincent what she had learned, and get him to believe it ... but she knew he was not yet ready to hear it. * * * Emerging from her shower, Catherine decided that she would never be ready in time unless she forced her mind to remain in the present. That was not an easy task, with so many vivid memories of the last six months to dwell on, and so many hidden hopes for the future that she guarded in her heart like seedlings still too fragile to be exposed to the outdoors. Constant vigilance was necessary, but she was successful enough that she was able to finish her preparations with time to spare. Eyeing herself critically in the mirror, she decided she made a passable Maid Marian, as long as she had Robin Hood beside her to suggest something beyond generic medieval. Early though she was, she left her apartment and headed Below. No sense sitting around getting the dress wrinkled; she could always spend extra time admiring the children's costumes ... Laughing at her feeble attempts to hide her real motivation Catherine swept down the hall to the elevator. "Catherine--you are a vision." Father greeted her with a flourish as she entered his chambers. "I know I'm early, Father, but I didn't want to just sit around my apartment," Catherine admitted. "Do you think Vincent will be ready soon?" "I fear you may have quite a wait." Father shook his head. "Mouse insisted on helping Vincent don his 'getup,' as he puts it, so it should take at least twice as long as it would have otherwise." Laughing, Catherine settled into a chair, arranging the voluminous skirts of the gown around her. "That's quite all right. It's nice to have time to visit with you, since you won't be coming to the party." Father leaned forward in his chair. "I'm very glad Peter offered to have this party. I confess I feel better knowing Vincent will be there rather than on the streets, even on the one night he can be seen Above with some measure of safety." He sighed. "I suppose it was inevitable that he would begin to feel trapped Below, especially as he got older." Father rose to retrieve a teapot from his desk and offered some to Catherine. "I regret how often I blamed you for his restlessness. The truth is, his wanderings Above began well before he ever met you. He never would have found you in the first place if he hadn't been on one of his customary explorations." "And I regret many of the arguments we've had about it in the past," Catherine told him. "Let's face it, you and I are both firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place. We love him, and want to keep him both safe and happy ... but as long as the world is as it is, and Vincent is what he is, there's no way he can be completely safe without shrinking his horizons more than he-or we-could bear." Catherine laughed ruefully and leaned back in her chair. "Today my boss accused me of being a witch. I wish I were, so I could solve the whole problem with magic." "How would you do that?" Father asked her, intrigued. "Turn Vincent into a handsome Prince?" "No!" Catherine cried. "I wouldn't change a hair on his head, or anywhere else. Vincent is the closest to perfect of any man I've ever met, or hope to. What I would do ... " Her voice turned wistful. "I'd change the world, so he could live in it without fear. Not only would it be good for Vincent, it would be a damn sight better world." "O brave new world, that has such creatures in it," Father quoted softly. "Well put. Vincent always claims Shakespeare knew everything." Catherine laughed. "Here we sit, rebuilding the universe to our order over cups of tea." "For the present, at least, " Father smiled, "we shall have to do with Peter's party. It's really an excellent idea. It will make the older children feel very grown up and daring to go to a party Above." "And Vincent can indulge his well-developed sense of responsibility chaperoning them with me, in an environment where everyone knows him. Just the children, some Helpers, and quite a few Tunnel 'alumni.' " "You know, Catherine ..." Father fixed her with a steady gaze. "It really was remarkably fortuitous that Peter came up with the idea for this party. You and I were so concerned about ensuring Vincent's safety this year without making him feel too confined, and then this ideal solution presented itself Nothing like it ever occurred to Peter before." "It's lucky he thought of it when he did," Catherine agreed innocently. "If one had a suspicious nature one might question the source of his inspiration." "How fortunate," Catherine responded with a smile, "that you don't have one." As they talked of less consequential things, Catherine reflected that one positive result of recent events had been the deepening of her relationship with Father. Especially since Charles Chandler's death, Vincent's family had become more than ever her own. More than anyone else it was she and Father who suffered through Vincent's agonies, and their love and care that guided the long, slow healing throughout the summer and fall. Some of the wounds he suffered were so deep they might never heal completely, but Catherine was determined she would always be there whenever the scars plagued him with remembered pain. Catherine had spent more time with Father in those months than ever before. Many times, after Vincent had finally achieved sleep less troubled by vivid dreams, they would sit in the next room and talk softly far into the night. Father seemed to have decided Catherine had the right to know more about Vincent's past. He told her many stories of Vincent's long and often heartbreaking struggle to become the man they both loved more than any other. As she learned more and more from Father, and as she reached her own conclusions about the meaning and possibilities of her problematic relationship with Vincent, Catherine began to understand how strongly Father's assumptions-not always conscious, not always well examined-influenced Vincent's view of himself. She began to ask questions of Father, as subtly as she knew how, that might lead him to question some of those assumptions. Perhaps, given a nudge in the right direction, Father might come to the same conclusions she had, or least be more receptive when she finally felt confident enough to articulate them. "Maid Marian, Robin and his Merry Persons have finally arrived!" Catherine turned at the sound of Jamie's voice to behold a sight more glorious than ever graced Sherwood Forest. "Vincent, you look magnificent!" she exclaimed in appreciation. "Jamie, Mouse, you've outdone yourselves. The costumes are wonderful." "Mary helped sew," Mouse was forced to admit. "But Mouse helped Jamie with gizmos." Catherine smiled at the thought of medieval "gizmos," but agreed the archery paraphernalia was beautiful as well as authentic. Jamie had insisted on making a bow that was suited to Vincent's stature. It was a work of art. "Vincent's tunic is really too long," Jamie complained, "but he said if I made it any shorter he'd refuse to wear the tights." Clearly uncomfortable with this discussion of hosiery in front of Catherine, Vincent hastily suggested they should go find the younger children right away. He wanted to read the first round of ghost stories before turning the task over to Father. Since Jamie and Mouse were clearly eager to show off their handiwork, Catherine acquiesced with good grace and tried not to mourn the loss of the shorter tunic too much. Patience was, after all, a virtue. She reminded herself that the Grand Canyon had started as a humble stream bed. * * * "Vincent," Catherine exclaimed with satisfaction, "I would say this party is a rousing success." Vincent emphatically agreed. "I've never seen Mouse act so..." "Civilized?" Catherine suggested. "I was about to say, mature," Vincent admonished her as he slipped an arm around her velvet-clad shoulders. "Of course you were," Catherine replied without conviction as she leaned contentedly into his embrace. She let her gaze drift around the room, enjoying the variety of costumes and people. "I'm so happy Michael is doing well," Catherine said fervently. "I may never forgive myself for being so blind about him; I should have realized what was happening. I caused him so much pain ... " "Catherine, stop." Vincent admonished her. "You can hardly hold yourself at fault for the natural course of adolescent hormones. The most innocent actions can seem like cosmic transgressions at that age." "But he felt so guilty about it ... " Catherine stole a careful glance at Vincent's face. "A guilt quite disproportionate to the nature of the offense. As if loving you could be considered an offense." As Vincent smiled down at her tenderly, Catherine began to find it increasingly difficult to give this conversation the concentration it deserved. Turning her face reluctantly back to the room, Catherine kept her voice casual. "Michael is so sensitive ... I hope he's been able to put the whole thing into perspective." "He talked to me about it more than once," Vincent informed her. "I think I was able to help him see that he was blaming himself unduly." "I'm glad to hear you say that, Vincent," Catherine said with satisfaction. "Very glad." She turned to him and smiled. "And now, good Robin, may I have this dance?" It was well after midnight by the time the Tunnel contingent had been rounded up and escorted Below by their sympathetic but implacable chaperons. It was several hours after that before Catherine reluctantly agreed it was time to go home, while she was still conscious enough to climb the ladder to her building. She and Vincent walked very slowly along the familiar route. "Vincent ... " Catherine asked uncertainly, "did you mind too much that we didn't spend the whole night Above like we have before? It's so unfair, when it's the one night a year that we can do that, but the children did enjoy the party so much ..." "And, coincidentally, it was much safer for me." Vincent looked at Catherine with a raised eyebrow. "How nice that Peter's alternative presented itself so ... fortuitously." There's that word again, Catherine thought. "Perhaps Peter did have an ulterior motive." She tried with all her might to project feelings of total innocence. "He is very fond of you, and Father. He's concerned for your welfare." "And yours as well," Vincent pointed out. "Catherine, of course I would have preferred to spend the night Above with you again, but it's too dangerous for me to be seen in your company. After the events of last spring it would be too great a risk. Too many people might make the same connections Spirko did." His voice became rough with pain. "It would have been bad enough before. People in your world might have regarded me mostly as a freak. Now they would view me only as a dangerous killer. Which, of course, I am." Catherine stopped and, pulling with all her strength, turned a startled Vincent around to face her. "Vincent, don't you dare talk about yourself that way!" Her voice held equal parts of pain and fury. "You have never killed anyone that wasn't trying to kill you at the time, or me, or someone you loved!" "And what of Paracelsus, Catherine?" Vincent asked her roughly. "You were there. You saw. I killed an unarmed man in anger." "You killed a man who was trying to destroy you, using words as his weapon. Oh, I admit that would be the hardest to justify in court, especially to anyone who didn't know Paracelsus." The hatred in her voice startled her as much as it did Vincent. "I have never known anyone so thoroughly evil as that man. He was a conscienceless murderer many times over, including of his own wife. He was a master of manipulation who could have driven a saint to kill!" "Still, it was I who did kill him, Catherine ..." "Vincent!" She was almost shouting in frustration and anger. "Don't you think anyone else wouldn't have killed him, given the chance? William? Jamie? Me? Don't think any one of us wouldn't. But as usual, it was you who got to do the dirty work-despite the pain it brings you. How can your people keep doing this to you?" She was almost in tears. Vincent pulled her close to him, and she buried her face in his neck, trying to regain some measure of calm. "Catherine," he admonished softly, "do you think you're being fair? It has always been my choice to make." Catherine clung to him for a long moment, then stepped back enough to see his face. "Vincent, what would they do if you didn't exist?" Her voice broke a little at the mere contemplation of such a possibility, but she plunged on. "They'd have to do things for themselves. What I'm trying to say is, what you've done is no different from what anyone else would. You just get stuck doing it more often because you're better at it. Like the 'artistic' kid in school who always ends up doing the bulletin board." "Catherine, the two are hardly comparable." They resumed their walk toward her building, hands tightly clasped. Catherine's tone was very serious. "Vincent, you attribute so many things to your difference-even if there are other, simpler explanations. Lately I've been thinking how hard it must have been for Father, how heartbreaking, to curb a child's natural trust and fearless curiosity. He had to stress your differences to keep you safe; I don't see what else he could have done. But sometimes I think he did his work too well." "You can hardly deny I am different." Vincent drew their hands up in front of them as if to emphasize that difference. Catherine drew his hand toward her to kiss his fingers. "No, I can't deny that," she admitted softly. "But most of that is a difference of degree, not of kind. Great power brings great responsibility. You've had a harder battle than most, because you are so powerful. Your responsibility is a terrible burden, but you've borne it in a way that no one else could. Killing to defend yourself or those you love is something anyone would do. Including me." "What of the times my power has been used to hurt those I love, not defend?" "Are you thinking of Lisa?" Catherine's voice was very quiet. "Yes. And Father, the time I broke his arm. When I was under the influence of Paracelsus' drug." "Let's take the last case first." Catherine slipped into her lawyer mode. She needed something to keep away the tide of feelings that would overwhelm her, given the least chance. "If you had taken the drug on purpose, with your strength, that would have been reprehensible. You would be responsible for the consequences of unleashing unpredictable and potentially deadly power without control-like a drunk driver. But you didn't take it on purpose; you didn't even know what was happening to you until it was too late. The responsibility for what happened is all on Paracelsus' head." "Perhaps that wasn't a good example," Vincent conceded, "since an outside force was involved. But what of Lisa? Only I was responsible for what happened to her. My failure of control. My selfishness." Catherine steeled herself against the pain and bitterness in his voice. She had to keep alert; what followed might be the most important words she would ever say. "All right," she said carefully. "Let's look at that. How old were you when it happened? Sixteen? Seventeen" "I had just turned seventeen." "And Lisa was even younger, right?" "Yes." "So ... two adolescents with all those overwhelming hormones and a background of near-total innocence. I get the impression that sex education was not Father's forte...hardly surprising considering when he grew up. I expect he hoped that if the issue was ignored it wouldn't arise. I'll bet he didn't prepare you at all well for what you were feeling, at least in any way specific enough to be of much help." "I ... I suppose it could be seen that way," Vincent admitted reluctantly. "But I think neither Father nor I believed it could ever become an issue for me." "Which supports my contention that you've always given too much weight to your differences." Catherine waited for a moment, but Vincent was silent. "Vincent," she continued, "You've obviously assumed two things. First, that Lisa pulled away from fear or disgust directed towards you, personally-because of your difference-and that you held on because you were overwhelmed with selfish desires you couldn't control." "And wasn't it true?" Vincent asked hoarsely. "It happened. I hurt her." "Vincent, what happened between you and Lisa could have happened between any two people your age. Lisa wasn't afraid of you, she was afraid of a whole new and frightening world of sex and desire. That's pretty powerful stuff, Vincent." Catherine fought to keep her voice impersonal. She was treading on dangerous ground, approaching the place of his greatest fear. "Any large, strong male would be frightening to someone as unprepared as Lisa was. And you were even less prepared. You'll never know what would have happened if Lisa hadn't panicked. I'm sure you've always assumed the worst, but for all you know she could have gotten through to you if she'd kept her head a little longer. Please don't think I'm blaming her, it wasn't her fault any more than it was yours. But the truth is you'll don't really know how that would have ended. You've been castigating yourself for half your life on the basis of a possibility, attaching more significance to the whole thing than Lisa herself ever did. Do you remember our talk about Michael?" Vincent lifted his bowed head in confusion. "Michael?" "Yes, Michael. What happened between him and me was different in degree, not in kind. The way he hung on to me, if he'd had claws I'd have scars on my back right now. You refuse to let him condemn himself for that, nor should you. Why are you so hard on yourself?" Vincent stopped dead in his tracks. "I ... I never looked at it in that way before. Perhaps ..." Catherine wondered if she really saw the distant glimmer of understanding in his eyes, or was deluded by her own hope. "Perhaps?" Vincent took her hands, but was reluctant to look at her. "Catherine ... dear Catherine ... I admit my fear is all the greater because it is a fear of the unknown. To risk myself is easy for me, perhaps too easy. To risk you ... I could not live with myself if I ever harmed you. Your love for me is the most precious thing in my life, more precious than my life." His voice shook with emotion as his hands entwined with hers. "I know you have great faith in our bond. I know I have always told you to follow your heart, but I am afraid to trust my own in this. How can I know if it tells me truth, or what I so desperately want to hear?" "I understand, Vincent," she reassured him. "If you're afraid to listen to your heart, then, what about listening to your head? I've been thinking ... thinking a lot lately about the times you've come to save me, to protect me. I've developed a theory about it. I'd like your opinion." As she had hoped, her words brought him a little out of his pain. The look he gave her was dubious, but intrigued. "What theory?" Catherine breathed a silent prayer that she could find exactly the right words. "From what I've seen, and heard from others, your control is much easier when I'm not directly threatened. Those people that were after Lin and Henry-you dealt with them like a soldier who's doing something he may hate doing, but that has do be done. You did what you had to do efficiently, intelligently. With those outsiders, you were able to hold back even when they were threatening Mary and Father; you held back until they gave you no choice. And even then, you didn't really begin to ... lose yourself at all until they found me. It's only when I'm being directly threatened that your control slips, like it did with Stephen... " "Catherine, that still haunts my dreams. I didn't need to kill him to save you, but I would have if you hadn't stopped me..." "But that's just it, Vincent, I was able to stop you. I've always been able to stop you." Her voice was almost shaking with the strength of her conviction. "Like I did when you were lost after Paracelsus drugged you. Like I did when you ran away from us all into the dark. I've always been able to pull you back from the brink, haven't I, even when no one else could?" "Yes," Vincent whispered. His eyes were fixed on her face, and his whole soul was in them. Catherine gently touched his sleeve. "Vincent, don't you find it curious that I seem to be the one that can trigger the greatest rage in you, and am also the one that seems to able to bring you out of it?" "I never realized it before ... perhaps there is a pattern in it ... but what could it possibly mean?" His longing to understand was almost palpable. "When we were going through that terrible time with Spirko, I told Father I was afraid that I was putting myself in danger because I knew you would come to me." "Catherine!" Vincent was horrified. "How can you think such a thing? You would never ..." "Not on purpose, not consciously, anyway." Catherine admitted. "But in the dark depths of the mind ... I had a dream, you know, not long after Paracelsus' death. I dreamed of all the times you'd killed for me, and then I dreamed of fire. Two kinds of fire-volcanoes, forest fires-the kind that kills, destroys. But I also dreamed of the kind that gives life, like sunshine, or hearthfire." Vincent seemed confused at her change of direction. "Catherine, I don't understand ..." "Neither did I, at first. Then I realized it was telling me that fire is an impersonal power, that can be used equally well for creation or destruction." Vincent's reply was thoughtful. "That is true of most things. Fire, water, even tools ... " "Or our own passions. You and I have a great deal of passion in us, Vincent." She felt the hand she held tense suddenly and then relax as if by an effort of will. "Passion isn't something good or bad. Like fire, it's a power that can express itself in many ways. Some people have a passion for justice, or a passion for God; some have a passion for death that can only be fulfilled in war." They had reached the entrance to her building. Catherine turned her eyes to the shaft of light, not daring to look at Vincent. "There's a lot of passion between us, Vincent, but we've prevented it from seeking its most creative outlet. You won't let yourself use it to love me, only to kill for me. And I let you, because I want, because I need that passion so much. I give you opportunities to demonstrate your love for me in the only way we've allowed ourselves. We've chosen Thanatos over Eros, without realizing what we've been doing." Risking a look at Vincent's face, Catherine had no need to ask what he thought. He looked stunned, stricken. His eyes held hers, beseeching. "Catherine, I ... I don't know what to say." "I don't want you to say anything," she told him gently. "Just think about what I've said. It took me a lot of very ... painful self-examination to work it out; I don't expect you to take it in all at once. Just think about it. Maybe ... maybe what you think is a problem is really the solution." She turned her face to the light, then back to Vincent. "It's late, you should go back to your chamber ... we're both dead on our feet." She carefully refrained from touching him. "Take care, Vincent." Her voice was almost a whisper. Vincent looked at her a long time, leaning against the wall as if he might forget to stand upright without its help. He nodded slowly. "Take care, Catherine. Good night." Climbing the ladder to her building, Catherine wondered if she would have the strength to make it to the top. She found herself in the elevator, hardly knowing how she had gotten there. Leaning against the wall, almost weeping with exhaustion, she realized she had just delivered the summation in the most important case she would ever argue in her life. All her seeds had been sown. All she could do now was wait--and hope as she had never hoped before. * * * The year continued its downward turn into the dark, and Catherine's life moved quietly along. Her new work was rewarding, but emotionally draining. She was still seeking a balance between the demands of all the people seeking her professional help and the needs of those who had become her true family. Especially the one who had become the center of everything. Vincent made no more references to what had happened on Samhain, and she did not press the issue. What she had planted would flower in its own time, or not at all. Many people had invited her for Thanksgiving, concerned about how she would feel on the first such holiday after her father's death. She was touched by their caring, and assured them all that she would be spending the holiday with some good friends. Everyone took this at face value, except Jenny. After the episode of the watcher, Catherine found it increasingly difficult to keep things from Jenny, beginning to suspect that it was more than the demands of her double life that had kept her from seeing more of her old friend in the past two years. She remembered just how frighteningly intuitive Jenny could be. Jenny was understandably curious about the mysterious stranger who stayed with Catherine the night she was rescued from her nearest brush with death. Gradually Catherine told Jenny a version of the story she had given Nancy Tucker-vague enough to protect Vincent and his secrets; detailed enough to satisfy Jenny's curiosity and assuage her concern. Catherine had no illusions Jenny would be satisfied with that forever. Given her friend's track record, Catherine half expected a phone call any day, and Jenny's voice telling her about a remarkable dream ... Catherine half feared an event like that, and half hoped for it. The rain and cold of a New York November meant that Catherine spent a lot of time Below. When Vincent came to her, needing to escape, he no longer confined himself to her balcony. Those three days spent inside her apartment-though he remembered only fragments of that time-seemed to have broken the spell at last. Tentatively at first, then with increasing ease, they spent many evenings by her fire. They talked of everything from Jung to Asian music to the oscillating universe. She shared with him the pain of all the wounded families she dealt with in the course of her day, and his quiet sympathy helped her bear all their sorrows. Despite the strange feeling of being suspended, waiting for something to happen, in many ways it was the happiest time of Catherine's life. Thanksgiving Below was quieter than Winterfest, and less elaborate, but very moving to Catherine. Although there was no denying she missed her father terribly, she had but to look around her to be reminded how much she had to be thankful for. Her family now was actually bigger than she'd ever had before, and no less loving for the lack of any ties of blood. Father regarded her rather speculatively when Mouse commented-in his inimitable way-on the unusual bounty of this year's dinner. Catherine had wondered how she could bring that about without being too obvious about it. In a moment of inspiration she enlisted William as her secret ally. It had been like offering Michelangelo some choice pieces of marble. What artist could turn down the means to outdo himself? Vincent seemed to be inundated by children for most of the day, more so than usual. Catherine thought she understood why. The Tunnel children were a part of the community in a way few children of their age in her world were. They knew only too well, she was sure, how close they had come to losing their favorite teacher, confidante, and surrogate big brother ... or perhaps surrogate father would be more accurate. Many of the younger children could easily have fathers Vincent's age. At that thought, Catherine had to look away and steel herself against the emotions she could feel welling up from the deep place where she kept them hidden. As each day grew darker, the city became more dazzling, adorning itself for all the festivals of light that converged at this time of year. Catherine had never enjoyed Christmas shopping more. Santa Claus was going to be exceptionally generous Below this year if she had anything to say about it, and hang the consequences. Father would probably lecture her afterwards about spoiling everyone, but that would come later. After all, how could he possibly criticize Santa Claus in front of the children? For the most part, she tried to choose gifts that were beautiful and meaningful without being too impractical-hand-carved knitting needles for Mary, paints and brushes for Elizabeth, a glorious variety of "gizmos" for Mouse. She tried not to think too much about what he might concoct out of them. Practicality went out the window in an obscure little shop in the Village, where she found a gift for Vincent she was unable to resist. As Catherine went about her holiday business with a growing sense of joy and anticipation, the wheel turned inexorably until it was the longest night of the year. * * * "Peter! Come in--I'm almost ready; I just need to give my cloak a good brush and get my candle, and Vincent's present." Peter Alcott looked at her appreciatively. "Cathy, you look lovelier every time I see you, but tonight is exceptional. That dress is spectacular." "Do you like it? Panné velvet does seem to be a Tunnel kind of fabric, doesn't it? And this color made me think of snow by candlelight-very appropriate for Winterfest." "It will certainly put Vincent in the holiday spirit," Peter chuckled. "Peter, if you say anything embarrassing in front of him I'll never forgive you. It's bad enough when you tell everybody that I was naked when you first saw me ..." "Just part of my persona as the quaint old family physician," Peter insisted. "I shudder to think what you and Father say about us when we're not around. No, don't say a word, I'd rather not know." "Cathy," Peter said as he helped her into her cape, "I have told him more than once that he should never underestimate you. I wish I'd been there to tell him from the beginning. When I think of you carrying that secret all alone for so long ... " As the left the apartment, Catherine tucked her arm in Peter's. "I'm just glad I finally did find out that you were part of it too; I only wish we could have made the discovery under happier circumstances. It's been wonderful to have someone from my own world to talk to, especially since..." "Especially since you couldn't tell Charles?" "Yes. I'll always regret he never really got to meet Vincent. I'll never know for sure what he would have thought,"Catherine said sadly. Peter patted the hand that rested on his arm. "Knowing my old friend Charles, I'm sure he would have accepted anyone his daughter loved so much. Of course, he might have been a bit startled at first." "Might have been?" Catherine laughed. "All right, would have been," Peter admitted. "But Charles could recognize quality when he saw it. After all, he married your mother." Catherine smiled gratefully. "Yes, he did, didn't he? And he certainly had good taste in friends." Catherine and Peter had decided to use the basement entrance and find their own way. The Tunnel community would be spread thin, preparing for the party and escorting Helpers Below. By now Catherine knew this route by heart, and could find her way around most of the Tunnels unaided. She never even thought about it anymore. As they approached Father's chamber, they encountered more and more people busily moving about. Some carried musical instruments, others platters of food; festively wrapped bundles poked surreptitiously out of many a pocket. Catherine and Peter found their journey took longer the closer they got to the central chambers. One of the original Helpers in the company of the almost legendary Catherine could not be allowed to pass by without effusive greetings. Catherine and Vincent arrived in Father's chamber at the same time from different directions. Although both were greeted with holiday wishes from the small crowd assembled there, neither could have repeated a word that was said to them to save their lives. Catherine was aware of nothing but the look on Vincent's face when he saw her, and the look of Vincent himself. He wore the ruffled "special occasion shirt" she loved, but everything else seemed new-or as new as anything ever got Below. His pants were a green so dark as to be almost black, the fabric softened by many washings. The black boots were ones Catherine couldn't remember having seen before; they were lighter than those he usually wore-dancing boots, she hoped. The most impressive item of his new wardrobe was a long vest made of a velvety fabric that had probably begun its life as curtains or upholstery. Time had mellowed the red and gold pattern to a muted richness that would make anything new look garish. The effect of all this on Catherine was sufficiently obvious that the greetings of those assembled soon tapered off and changed to ill-concealed grins. It wasn't until Vincent approached her and took her hands that she realized they were the center of attention. "Vincent ... you look ... wonderful," she managed to stammer. "Thanks to my Winterfest gifts," Vincent said with amusement. "Mouse claims he found the boots quite legitimately, and I have not been willing to ask him any questions. The rest is from Mary, who insisted I needed something more festive for such occasions." Vincent held Catherine a bit away from him, drinking in the sight of her like he could never get enough. "I'm glad she did-though it still makes me barely worthy to escort such a vision." "If you two are through discussing which of you is the more dazzling," Father chuckled, "we should start toward the Great Hall now." "We'd never agree, anyway," Catherine admitted. She turned back to Vincent. "I thought I'd wait until Christmas to bring my presents, but I couldn't wait that long for yours. Could I just put it in your chamber for now, and we could exchange gifts after the party winds down?" "I was about to suggest the same thing myself," Vincent agreed. "But you must promise not to examine my gift to you too closely. No unfair advantages in guessing." "Vincent, passing up an unfair advantage goes against all my legal training. But I promise." Catherine had been enthralled by her first Winterfest. There was a power in the ritual that seemed to tap the very roots of meaning, roots that reached back to the first time humans watched the sun dwindle and prayed for its return. Above, that primal meaning barely survived under layers of superficiality and commercialism; Below, it was stripped to its essentials. This year it seemed more powerful than ever. As Vincent took her hand to lead her into the dark, she could not help but remember leading him out of his own ... and she knew he was remembering too. Sitting at the great table, Catherine held her breath, waiting for Father's voice to emerge from the gloom. "The world above us is cold and gray. Summer-a distant memory. Our world, too, has known its winters. So each year we begin this feast in darkness, as our world began in darkness ..." The words seemed to bore into her. The memory of this particular summer would stay with her forever. Her world had almost ended in darkness; without Vincent life would be cold and gray forever. Catherine had absorbed more losses in her life than she would have believed she could bear, and they had only made her stronger in the end. But that was one loss she knew could not be borne. As Vincent took up the ritual, she let the sound of that matchless voice wash over her, and found comfort in the sight of his face emerging in the candlelight. As Father, Mary and Vincent spoke the familiar words and the light grew around her, Catherine marveled at the difference a year had made. At the last Winterfest she had been overjoyed because it seemed to signify a new degree of acceptance of her, a public recognition of her Helper status. Now, her life was so interwoven with this world its very center had shifted Below. Especially since her father's death. "We are all part of one another. One community. Sometimes we forget this, and so we meet here, each year, to give thanks to those who have helped us ... " Lifting her head, Catherine saw that Father's eyes were on her. "And to remember: even the greatest darkness is nothing, so long as we share the light." Catherine had loved last year's Winterfest, despite Paracelsus' attempts to ruin it, but this one put it to shame. The sense of joy and freedom was almost palpable. Although no one said it so many words, Catherine knew why. With Paracelsus' death, a threat that had hung over this community for over thirty years was gone. He still had followers, but without his brilliance to organize them and his obsessions to give their malice direction, they were only a minor worry. All knew who was responsible for lifting that threat, and they knew what it had cost him. Everyone seemed to be taking the opportunity to shower Vincent with love and attention. Catherine came in for her share of attention as well. Most knew what she had risked to save Vincent, and recalled how many other risks she had taken over the years to keep their world safe. From the beginning she had been an object of consuming interest as "Vincent's Catherine;" now she was loved and honored as their Catherine. It seemed that every male Tunnel resident taller than her waist wanted to dance with Catherine, and the female contingent was equally attentive to Vincent. Since his stamina was greater than hers, Catherine felt only a little guilty abandoning him to his fate temporarily and joining the spectators on the stairs. The scene below her made her think of Fezziwig's warehouse. The candlelight, the music, the dancing all conspired to give the scene the feel of something from another time. Catherine smiled. Vincent, of course, made it seem even more magical than that. His golden hair seemed to pick up all the light in the room as he swung a worshipful Samantha around the floor. So entranced was Catherine she didn't realize anyone was beside her until a delighted baby-shriek brought her out of her reverie. "Lena! I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were there." Catherine smiled apologetically. "It seems little Cathy is enjoying her first Winterfest." "Little Cathy is so excited she may never calm down. Sarah said she'd put her to bed for me so I could stay at the party. I hope she doesn't change her mind," Lena said mournfully. "Sarah's got a low tolerance for large parties, according to Father," Catherine reassured her. "He said she never stays very late at Winterfest. It was nice of her to do that for you, though." "Yeah. I thought Sarah was pretty scary at first, but I figured out she just likes to look that way. She's really nice underneath." "I'm glad you'll have the chance to stay till the end, especially since it's your first one. Winterfest is wonderful," Catherine said enthusiastically. "I'll bet you'd say the same about National Pickle Day as long as you got to spend it with Vincent," Lena laughed. "Is there really a National Pickle Day, or did you make that up?" Catherine retorted. "Besides, I hear you may have ulterior motives for spending a lot of time at this party ... like dancing with Julio all night?" Lena looked a little flustered. "I guess it's pretty hard to keep secrets in this place. He's wonderful, Cathy. He loves the baby, he doesn't care about my past ... and he loves me. I just can't believe it all. After all the trouble I caused you, all the bad things I've done ... how can I deserve to be so happy?" Catherine put her arm around Lena's shoulders and hugged her fiercely. "Lena, you had the courage to change your whole life because you loved your baby, and wanted things to be better for her. And as for loving Vincent ... well, I've never understood why there wasn't a line down the block ... or down the Tunnel, in this case." Lena turned serious. "I'll bet Vincent had a lot to do with that. You know, at first I thought it was your fault that you and Vincent weren't together. But I've learned a lot since I've been down here. I guess it's a lot more complicated than I thought." Catherine sighed. "Complicated is one word for it." "Mouse told me all about that Burch Tower stuff, how you got him out of trouble. And I heard a lot of other things, too. I guess it's pretty important to everybody Below that you are where you are. You can help them a lot more up top than you could down here." Catherine nodded, but said nothing. Cautiously, Lena went on. "You even helped Lisa." Catherine turned her head sharply to look at Lena. "How did you know about that?" "I talked to her a lot while she was down here. Nobody would tell me much about her, but I kind of got the idea Vincent, uh ... liked her once. Guess I was curious." "What did you talk about?" Catherine asked carefully. "Well, she mostly liked to talk about herself," Lena admitted. "And she liked to talk around things, if you know what I mean. But she said enough to make me think maybe Vincent's the one who's keeping you and him from getting together." Catherine stared at the dancers below her in eloquent silence. "Cathy, I know it's none of my business, but after all you did for me, I really want you to be happy. And I still love Vincent a lot-he's my best friend. I want him to be happy, too." "Well, that makes two of us," Catherine said ruefully. "At least." Lena turned as she spotted Sarah in the distance, coming to take the baby. "I just wanted to say you shouldn't give up. Vincent's been real quiet lately, like he's thinking hard." Catherine took Lena's free hand and squeezed it. "Thanks. It means a lot to me, that you care so much." She watched as Lena moved away to meet Sarah. Lost in thought, she turned her eyes to the revelers below without seeing them, until she realized that Vincent was coming up the stairs toward her. Reaching her side, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. "I have felt less exhausted," he complained, "after carving out chambers." "You do seem to have a full dance card," Catherine laughed, taking his arm. "The stairs are apparently recognized as a sanctuary, though. We should be safe if we stay up here." "I had hoped to dance with you once in a while," he said hopefully. "Just for the novelty of doing it to audible music." Both smiled at the memory of last year's silent waltz. Catherine leaned against Vincent as he put his arm around her. "Soon the children will be herded off to bed," she announced. "Maybe once the competition lessens I can get you to myself. Right now, it's nice just to watch everyone being so happy. I know this is only my second Winterfest, but somehow it seems-special." Catherine turned toward Vincent for confirmation and found him looking down on her with an unreadable expression on his face. "Indeed," he agreed softly. "I think we shall remember it for a long time." For the rest of the evening, Vincent stayed close to her, fending off his remaining admirers as best he could. They moved through the crowd, talking to the many people they knew, sampling the food, admiring Sebastian's new tricks, even getting a chance to dance together now and again. This year's festivities lasted far into the night; no one seemed willing to let it end. Finally, though, Catherine found herself in the circle between Vincent and Father, hearing words that were now burned into her soul. "Darkness is only the absence of light ... and all winters end." As usual, Vincent was the last to leave, putting the huge wooden bar across the doors until the next occasion the Great Hall might be needed. The Helpers had long since returned to their homes above, and most of the Tunnel residents had stumbled into bed, except for the clean-up volunteers. Even the pipes were quiet as they approached the central chambers. Only a few candles burned in Vincent's chamber as they entered to retrieve their gifts. Catherine sank gratefully in the chair as Vincent sat on the floor beside her. Her feet had gotten quite a workout tonight. She handed Vincent his present. "Happy Winterfest, Winter Solstice, Chanukkah, Christmas, Feast of Sol Invictus, and et cetera," she smiled. "You have been reading a great deal of Joseph Campbell," he said fondly as he accepted her gift. It felt heavy. Carefully removing the beautiful wrappings intact he opened the box and smiled. "Sekhmet." "It's a nineteenth century copy, of course," Catherine admitted. "You don't find genuine Egyptian antiquities in little Greenwich Village antique shops. But I just couldn't resist her." "I wonder why?" he inquired. He turned the lion-headed bronze figure over in his hands. His eyes returned to Catherine's face. "She was a war goddess." "She's a very strong goddess, a warrior's goddess. I decided you needed somebody very powerful to watch over you when I'm not there." "Are you comparing yourself to Sekhmet?" Vincent asked. "If anything threatened you, I could give her a run for her money." Catherine pointed to herself. "Though she be but little, she is fierce." Vincent laughed. "Your ability to quote Shakespeare grows by leaps and bounds." Catherine reached out a hand to stroke his hair. Her voice grew serious. "Perhaps it's my way of telling you I love all sides of you. Before I told you there was no darkness, as long as you were with me. Now that I think about it, I realize it's not true. There's always got to be darkness, and that's not a bad thing. How else would we recognize light? It's the balance that's important." "Light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the right hand of light," Vincent quoted softly. "Exactly," Catherine agreed. "It's not that there is no darkness when we're together-but that I'm not afraid of it. There can be treasures buried in darkness." Wordlessly, Vincent handed Catherine her gift. She also unwrapped it carefully, knowing the paper still had many lifetimes of use Below. Nestled in tissue paper was something that seemed nothing but a piece of stone at first, until she tilted it and the light flashed from its glittering heart. "Oh, Vincent, it's beautiful! I've never seen a geode this color. It's like a crystal flame." "A small thing-for your belief that there was treasure in my darkness." The love in Vincent's voice was so strong Catherine could not bear to look at him for a moment. She stared at the red-gold heart of the stone in her hands, wondering if Vincent could read her mind as well as her feelings. Often, in her own mind, she had compared his desire for her to a geode. She thought of his passion, as fiery and pure as this crystal, locked inside impenetrable stone. Sometimes she despaired of it ever seeing the light. "Catherine--are you all right?" She raised her head to face him. "Just overwhelmed. It's so beautiful." Vincent took her hand and held it to his cheek for a long moment. "Not as beautiful as you." Still holding her hand, he searched her face for a moment. "It's very late ... would ... would you stay Below tonight?" For a brief moment, the imagery of the geode still in her mind, Catherine's heart leaped. Could he possibly mean-no of course not. "Where could I stay?" "There is chamber free that you should like. It's somewhat distant from the others, you would not be disturbed." Concentrating hard on hiding her feelings of disappointment, Catherine nodded. "Thank you. To tell the truth, I don't feel much like going Above tonight." Vincent rose, still holding her hand, and blew out the candles. They walked a long way, past doors behind which only quiet could be heard. As they passed the chamber where she had stayed when her father died, Catherine idly wondered if someone had moved into it since. Finally, at the end of a branching corridor, they came to a door with a heavy tapestry covering it. Pulling it aside, Vincent motioned Catherine to precede him. It took a moment for Catherine to make sense of the scene before her. When she did, she seemed to lose all power of motion and could only stare. At first, she saw only fire and roses. The flames soon resolved themselves into countless candles-smaller ones in niches and on the tables; large thick ones in tall holders at each corner of the huge bed. The roses remained roses, huge bouquets of them on every surface, and two perfect blooms resting on the pillows. Catherine whirled around to search Vincent's face, afraid to believe that all this could mean what it seemed. His face would have told her all she needed to know, if the tremor in his voice did not. "Catherine-I would stay here with you-if you will have me." She could not speak, but the surge of joy and desire she no longer needed to hide was answer enough. Vincent almost staggered at the force of it, a look of astonished wonder on his face. Throwing her arms around his neck, Catherine buried he face in his chest and burst into tears. "If I will have you? Oh, Vincent!" Her voice was a mixture of laughter and tears as she lifted her head to look at his face. "Vincent, are you sure about this? Don't do this for me; it has to be what you want." "Catherine, I have wanted this almost from the first moment I saw you, even though it was a long time before I admitted it to myself. And once I had done so, I mocked myself for thinking, even for a moment, that you could ever think of me in that way. Painful as that was, I consoled myself with the thought that it was all for the best, since it was impossible anyway." "And when did you admit that I did think of you that way?" Vincent looked down at her face with a reminiscent smile as he combed her hair with his fingers. "One disadvantage of the bond I have with you--it makes it very difficult to maintain ignorance of something like that." Catherine leaned her head against his hand, closing her eyes. "When did you decide it wasn't impossible after all?" "I have thought long and hard these past months about your words, and your faith in me. You have finally given me the courage to trust what my heart tells me. But even now, I can't be certain ... can't be sure this is without risk." Catherine opened her eyes at the undercurrent of fear she heard in his voice. Turning her head, she kissed the palm of the clawed hand that had been buried in her hair. "Remember, Vincent-some risks are worth taking." Wordlessly, Vincent traced the tracks of tears on her face with his fingers, then bent his head to let his lips follow their path. When those lips finally found her mouth, Catherine buried her hands in Vincent's hair. She knew then he had been right to deny her this before. It was like putting a match to straw-once begun, there would be no stopping. Finally, they broke apart to look at each other, breathing as if they run a long way. Catherine tried to calm her raging feelings a little bit. She had waited so long for this moment, she intended to make it last-for her own sake as well as Vincent's. Vincent seemed glad of the temporary respite. Finding his voice at last, he spoke seriously, not looking at her. "Catherine-it is unlikely I could ever give you a child. But if there is any chance at all, it is not a risk I am prepared to take ... it is too dangerous for you, and not fair to the child." Touched by the undercurrent of sorrow in his voice, Catherine put her arms around him and held him close. It's a risk I would take gladly, she thought, but that was a battle for the future. She had expected he would feel this way. Paracelsus' poisonous lies had done their work well. Stepping back, stroked Vincent's cheek tenderly. "You don't have to worry about that, love," she reassured him. "A little while ago I decided it might be a good idea to ... uh ... be prepared for ... anything," she finished lamely. Catherine was relieved at the quick understanding that showed in his face. Being the son of a doctor had its advantages. Vincent's voice was teasing. "You were that sure of me?" "Oh, no! God, no," she answered with feeling. She looked deep into his eyes. "I was that hopeful," she whispered, her voice breaking. Seeing her own longing mirrored in his eyes, she rubbed her hand on the velvet of his vest for a moment, before slowly beginning to untie it. Laying it aside, she toyed with the ruffled collar of his shirt, and suddenly smiled. "What is it?" Vincent asked her, bemused. "I was just thinking-when I first saw you tonight, I thought of this as your 'special occasion shirt.' I had no idea just how special an occasion it would prove to be." Catherine took his hands and pulled Vincent forward. "Come on, sit down on the bed a moment. There's something I've been dying to know." Afraid to ask, Vincent allowed himself to be led. At this point, he could refuse Catherine nothing, no matter how inexplicable. When he was seated, Catherine knelt to take off his boots, then his socks. When she was finished, she looked up at him, grinning. "Catherine, don't you dare say it." "You are awfully tall for it. But you do live in a hole in the ground, although I've never seen you smoke a pipe. Do you eat six times a day?" "Catherine, I have been hearing this sort of thing from the children all my life." "Do you mean," she asked in mock indignation, "everybody around here knows you have furry feet except me? How did they all find out?" she asked him suspiciously. "Father has always insisted we all learn basic survival skills, including swimming. I have never been comfortable doing so with others around, but I could hardly put anyone to the trouble of teaching me separately. Word spread." Catherine rose to sit on the bed beside him. She put her arms around him and hugged him fiercely for a moment. "Vincent-there you go dwelling on your differences again, and assuming the worst. Didn't you ever think that people might actually find them delightful? I hope you don't think I love you in spite of them. I love you because of them, because they're part of your wonderful, unique self." To reinforce her words, Catherine traced the shape of his lips, first with her fingers, then with her tongue. Somehow among the hungry kisses that followed, the ruffled shirt ended up on the floor, and Catherine almost lost herself in the feel of silky fur against her hands. With an effort, she pulled away and stood up, Vincent following as if mesmerized. "Your turn," Catherine whispered, indicating the dress. For a moment, Vincent did not move. Then, taking a deep, shuddering breath, his finger moved along the chain of her necklace to touch the crystal where it rested between her breasts. Catherine kept her eyes on his face as he reached behind her. Unzipping the dress slowly, he eased it off her shoulders. As it slid to form a gleaming pool around her feet, he drew in his breath sharply. "Vincent?" "I ... I had expected you would be wearing more underneath it," he admitted hoarsely. "It's a heavy fabric," she explained. "I thought it would be too warm with the dancing, and all the people ... it's not the first time you've seen me this way," she reminded him gently. With obvious effort, Vincent raised his eyes to her face. "All I could see then was the blood and the bruises. I could not understand how anyone could bring himself to mar such beauty ...it seemed a desecration."As he spoke, his hands moved tenderly over her skin, as if they had a will of their own. Pulling him close to her, Catherine whispered into his ear. "Then it's past time you had some better memories to replace that one." Catherine knew full well what it cost Vincent to take this step, and what fears still remained. Despite all her words in the past, a little core of doubt lay deep in him, doubt that she could really love, really desire, a body such as his. Having no doubt herself, Catherine simply let her feelings show him the truth as they slowly finished undressing each other. He was more beautiful even than she had imagined, and she could feel the joy growing in him as his doubt dissolved under her touch. As they lay together in the great bed, she slowly discovered what a feast he was for the senses, as he learned how strongly she responded to his discovery of her. Sensing Vincent's remaining fear of losing control, Catherine used her own growing passion, transmitted through the bond, to lead him onward until the last of his barriers crumbled. They both discovered, as Catherine had known all along, that the fire inside him was hearthfire, keeping them warm; the fire of the sun, giving life. As they moved together, Catherine seemed to lose all sense of boundary between herself and the world. There was nothing but the feel of Vincent inside her and around her, and light, and the smell of roses. Just before awareness dissolved into pure sensation, it seemed she could sense a great wheel turning. It poised for a moment at the still center of the world, and then began its inexorable climb back toward the light. And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one. -T. S. Eliot Four Quartets Written 7/89 Originally published in Definitions of Love 2 ******************************** 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, in Father's Online Library, 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 hiatus from fandom and from writing--sometimes the Real World just gets in the way--she has recently jumped in again with both feet. She submitted a story for the conzine for "A Kingdom by the Sea" and is hard at work on another. She plans to attend the con in Norfolk and may have paper copies of her stories available if things work out. Edith's e-mail address is Ecrowe1228@aol.com.