Even With the Bond

 

Sophia Riazo

 

It started late in the morning, hitting Vincent with a jolt.  He paused in his patrol of the outer tunnels to concentrate on his awareness of Catherine through their bond.  What he sensed in her wasn't fear, but it was intense, with an amount of alarm that set his heart beating faster.  At this time of day she was probably at her office - perhaps her distress was related to one of the District Attorney's cases assigned to her.

 

He leaned his back against the wall and closed his eyes, focusing completely on Catherine.  As the minutes passed, her state of mind remained turbulent.  In fact, he felt her frustration building.  This was one of the times Vincent wished her side of their bond was as open as his.  He tried to convey calm thoughts to her, but there was no evidence that she felt him reaching out to her.  Vincent imagined her becoming immersed in a case, perhaps involving children.  Her passionate feelings always made it difficult to carry on his normal life, but he cherished that passion, especially if included him.  He gently clasped the suede pouch that held the porcelain rose she'd given him.

 

Eventually Catherine's feelings subsided enough for Vincent to continue with his duty.  He could tell she'd directed her agitation into action of some sort.  He hoped she would seek him out to share what had happened; perhaps he'd be able to help solve the problem she was facing.  He steeled himself to be patient until she sought him out.

 

Vincent finished his rounds and had just reached Father's chamber when he once again sensed Catherine's aggravation growing sharply.  He halted in the entryway, wondering if he should send a messenger to her.

 

Father looked up from his desk, which was covered with papers.  "Ah, Vincent," he said, looking over the top of his glasses, "I was hoping to talk to you about the schedule for sentry duty.  Kipper has asked to be excused this week. He's studying for the Regents exams Above."

 

Vincent didn't move further into the chamber, but he took a deep breath and turned his attention to Father.  "Yes, he's been scouring your library and asking me to recommend books."

 

"I'm sure he'll do very well – our children have no problem keeping up with the curriculum of the city schools.  I've been able to arrange coverage for all his shifts except tonight.  Will you be able to fill in for him?"  He laid a sheet of paper on the top of the stack.

 

Vincent finally descended the short flight of steps and approached the desk.  He studied the schedule for a moment.  "I'll ask Jamie if she can take it, and I'll do her double shift on Thursday instead."  He slid the paper back toward Father.  "Catherine may be coming Below this evening."

 

"Have you heard from her?"

 

"No, but this morning I've felt..."  Vincent placed his hand over his heart as he searched for the right words.  "…her frustration, and sometimes even anger.  I believe it's related to a case she's working on."

 

"Let's pray she's not in danger," Father said, leaning forward in his chair.

 

Vincent shook his head slowly.  "I don't think she is, but whatever is happening, it's very important to her. In fact-" He turned his attention inward, toward his bond with Catherine, and then looked at Father in surprise.  "In fact, she's on her way Below – right now."

 

"Now?  In the middle of the day?"  Father frowned.  "What can it be?"

 

Vincent stood.  "I'll find out.  Try not to worry, Father – and thank you for your concern for her."

 

Vincent paused at his own chamber to retrieve his cloak, and then strode quickly toward the entrance from the Park.  He was aware that he was smiling as he passed other tunnel dwellers.  Even though he fully expected to find Catherine in a bad mood, he was eager to meet with her, no matter how briefly.  He knew she wasn't in immediate peril, and his heart swelled with pleasure that she would seek him out for his counsel or help.

 

When he reached the sliding steel door he touched his ear to the panel, listening for her footsteps on the other side.  As soon as he heard her in the giant pipe that led in from outside, he triggered the mechanism to open the door.

 

"Vincent, I'm so glad you could come," Catherine said, grabbing the iron bars to pull back the gate.  Vincent had hardly stepped into the open area with her before she thrust a small piece of paper at him.  It looked like a newspaper clipping.

 

"I've felt your distress all morning," he said.  "Are you all right?"

 

"I needed to show you this," was her reply. "It was in today's paper."  She paced the dimly lit compartment as he scanned the article.

 

The headline of the short piece was "Storm Drain Project May Disturb Park Activities".  It said that heavy winter snows and spring rains had overwhelmed Central Park's drainage system, leaving sections of the Great Lawn and other areas swampy.  The city had contracted to repair or replace many of the park's storm drains over the course of the summer.  That was all it said.  Why had this mundane information disturbed her so?  Vincent read it again, more carefully.

 

When he looked up, Catherine asked, "Do you think there's any danger to the tunnels?"

 

Vincent reached out to touch her shoulder.  It calmed her fidgeting for the moment, and he drew her a little closer.  "Our world is always vulnerable to those Above," he said, "and even more when there are work projects like this.  However, we have no inhabited tunnels under Central Park – only routes used for our convenience in moving about.  Now that we know, we can take steps to hide the entrances from those areas."  He held up the article.  "I'll show this to Father right away.  Thank you, Catherine."  He tucked it into a pocket as he took a step toward the door.

 

"But Vincent!"  Her hand brushed his arm and he immediately turned back.  It was obvious he hadn't eased her mind.  Had he misunderstood?  She said, "I think they may be tearing up the place where we listen to the outdoor summer concerts.  What if they destroy our music chamber?"

 

This was what had upset her so greatly, then.  The outdoor evening concert season was due to start in less than two weeks; they'd studied the schedule together to choose their favorite programs.  He bent his head to look at her more closely.

 

She continued, "I talked to someone in the Parks Department.  They might move the concerts, or cancel them, and our chamber will almost certainly be dug up. They're starting this week around the Great Lawn – that's right where we listen.  The whole thing is completely…" She exhaled deeply.

 

He reached for both her hands.  "We'll try to find a way to hear the concerts, but if we have to miss some of them, what can we do?  I'm sure this is only temporary."

 

"I know, but…"  She clenched her jaw, and Vincent longed to offer her more comfort.  "I just wish it wasn't happening.  Can't we even have this one nice thing?"

 

"We'll appreciate the concerts all the more when they return," Vincent said, but his words seemed hollow.  He didn't fully understand her distress.  After all the crises they'd gone through together, why did this upset her so greatly?

 

"You're right," she said, reading his mind with uncanny clarity.  "I'm overreacting.  Guess I'd better get back to the office.  I'd like to come Below tonight."  The wistful look in her eyes wrung his heart.

 

He nodded and released her hands.  "I'll meet you below your apartment."  He ducked into the tunnel entryway and watched as she walked out; when she was out of sight he closed the gate and sliding door.

 

He walked home slowly, trying to decipher Catherine's words and emotions.  She'd obviously been expecting a different response from him.  Did she want him to attend an evening concert Above?  No, the area was too well-lit to attempt such a thing.  Of course, Catherine didn't have to miss the concerts – he could arrange for someone from the tunnels to accompany her if she didn't like to go alone.  Vincent hoped that when they met later they'd come to a better understanding.

 

Father immediately contacted the other Council members with the news.  They sent messengers to some helpers Above who might have more information about the project, and agreed to start closing accesses in and around the Great Lawn.  Father spent the rest of the afternoon with his maps, and Vincent took Mouse out to the park tunnels to see what materials were on hand and what they'd need to transport.

 

********

 

That evening, Vincent watched as Catherine settled into the large chair in his chamber.  The bond had been subdued all afternoon, but her disquiet was obvious aside from the bond.  Rather than leaning back as she usually did, she sat straight, with her hands clasped on her lap.  Whenever they were together she usually sought to meet his eyes, but tonight her gaze flitted about the chamber.  It suddenly occurred to him she might be holding back some other bad news.

 

He perched on the edge of his bed as close to her as possible, then leaned forward.  "What is it that's troubling you so much?" he asked.  "Is there something else, something beside the music chamber?  Are you ill?"

 

"I'm fine," she said slowly, fingering her necklace chain.

 

"Please," he said, "tell me."

 

She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, trying to calm herself.  "Could we go to our music chamber tonight – one last time?"

 

"Yes, of course we can, but Catherine," he said, "I'm sure it's not the last time.  And you don't have to give up going to the concerts.  I'll ask someone to sit with you."

 

"You mean Above?"

 

"Yes, there are many who'll be glad to do it.  I would be with you in my heart."

 

"I know that, but –" she looked at him directly for the first time that evening.  "It's not about the music as much as being with you – in person. I can't hold your hand through the bond."

 

Vincent spread his hands on the bed on either side of him and gazed over her head.  How was he supposed to reply?  "To go Above… The danger…"

 

"I didn't mean it that way," she said quickly.  "It's just… Oh, if only they weren't tearing up our special place."  She shook her head.  "I'm sorry – I know I'm being irrational."

 

"It's only natural you would be upset."  As it had earlier in the day, her melancholy expression caused his throat to tighten.  She was disappointed – and he couldn't help but think that he was somehow the cause.

 

They heard Father's voice outside the chamber, and Vincent invited him in.  He entered, carrying several maps rolled up under his arm.  Vincent rose to clear a space on his desk, and Catherine shifted to Vincent's spot on the edge of the bed.

 

"Hello, Catherine," Father said.  "Thank you for alerting us about the construction.  We've been able to find out more particulars, and have already begun camouflaging entrances.  Your help was invaluable."  He patted her shoulder, then deposited the maps on the desk.  He opened one and jabbed his finger at a spot.  "Unfortunately, there's not much detail here.  Vincent, were you able to locate that old engineering journal I mentioned?  Even though it may be out of date, I think it will include a better map of Central Park than what we have here."

 

"Yes, I have it."  Vincent turned to Catherine, who still sat on the bed.  "It's on the shelf over there," he said, pointing to the far side of his bed.  "The black one with leather binding.  Do you mind?"

 

She leaned back, stretching to grasp the large book, but at arm's length she was unable to budge it.  "Hang on a second," she said.  She crawled across the bed and lifted it more easily.  "Here you go."

 

"Thank you," Vincent said, and in turn handed it to Father.

 

"Ah," he said, "that's the one I meant.  Let me see…"

 

Vincent kept his eyes on the maps and nodded occasionally as Father pointed out different areas, but he already knew what needed to be done.  His attention was focused fully on Catherine, who came to stand beside him.  When she leaned in for a closer look, he shifted toward her very slightly, so that her shoulder and arm pressed lightly against his side.  He knew she was aware of his action, and although he felt a vague sense of guilt, he also knew she enjoyed the contact as much as he.  A trace of her perfume drifted up: some kind of flower.  Father's voice was a distant hum.

 

When Father finally returned to his own chamber, Catherine didn't move from Vincent's side.  "Can we still go?" she asked.

 

"To the music chamber?  Now?"  When she nodded in reply, he said, "Let me get a lantern."

 

They passed a few people on their way, pausing briefly to greet them before continuing.  Catherine didn't reach for his hand or slip her arm through his as she often did.  Vincent reviewed the events of the day, trying to estimate his part in causing her low spirits.  He considered holding her hand, but she seemed lost in her thoughts.

 

When they reached the chamber, she immediately began picking up bits of trash.  "I should have brought a bag for this junk," she said.

 

"Catherine, it isn't necessary.  It's perfectly normal for all sorts of things to fall down into this place," Vincent said, gesturing upward to the metal grate.

 

"I just don't want anything to seem suspicious," she replied, bending to grab a crushed plastic cup.  She turned to him with full hands.  "Can you take this out?"

 

Vincent accepted the trash, and walked into the tunnel a short way to drop it in a pile.  When he came back she was scuffing into the corners with her shoes for scraps of paper.  "Really," he said, "it will be more unusual if there's nothing in here.  I doubt they'll be examining it very closely in any case."

 

She stopped with her back to him; he saw her shoulders rise and fall in a sigh.  "Isn't this place special to you at all?" she asked quietly.  There was a tinge of irritation in her voice which was amplified by the bond.

 

Vincent felt panic rising in his throat – he'd been saying the wrong thing to her all day long.  He gently turned her around and reached for her hands; she didn't return his soft squeeze.  "Of course it's special,” he said.  “Could I forget the night you stood here and danced in the rain?"  The corners of her mouth turned up a little, and he felt a smile growing on his own lips.  "Your happiness that night is one of my most precious memories.  I promise you: we'll listen to concerts again, whether it's here or in another place.  We will."

 

He finally felt a release of the tension that had been in their bond all day.  He shut his eyes to relish the sensation; and opened them the next second when he felt her arms enclose him in a hug.  As much as he loved her displays of affection, they nearly always surprised him.  What exactly did she expect in return?

 

Vincent softly rubbed her back – yes, she liked that – and prayed that he wouldn't spoil the harmony of the moment.

 

Her cheek rested against his vest, and she spoke softly.  "Just you and I?"

 

"We'll find a way."

 

"Thank you, Vincent.  I'm sorry for being so unreasonable about all this."

 

"No…"

 

She drew away slightly, laying her hands on his arms.  "It's just that when I saw the article this morning it made me mad. And then I… well, a lot of things went wrong today.  We have so few chances to be together – with no emergencies, no danger – just being together.  This was the closest thing we ever had to a date.  And then they take even that away!"

 

"Only temporarily," he said.  "And… we're together now."  He'd started badly, but Vincent was determined to preserve her contentment now.

 

"Yes, it's nice, isn't it?"  Catherine held his gaze as she stepped back.  She looked somber, and Vincent thought for a moment she was going to speak of their problems again.  But she blinked and her expression cleared. 

 

She said, "I guess we should be getting back."  She looked around the small chamber.  "Goodbye for now," she said, holding her arms out and looking up through the grate.

 

Vincent reached for her hand, and she held on firmly all the way to the threshold in the Park.

 

********

 

Another jolt came rushing through the bond.  Vincent was writing his nightly journal entry when Catherine's sudden feeling of extreme anxiety brought him to his feet.  They'd said goodnight less than an hour ago.  What was happening to her?  He probed the bond: once again there was no danger, but something had gone terribly wrong – she was frantic with worry.

 

He had to go to her.

 

He left his chamber, racing toward her apartment, but when he was nearly there he slowed and stopped.  She was also moving, but not toward the threshold beneath her building.  Where was she going?  He stood still, his face turned upward, trying to discern her direction.  In another minute he knew: she was headed through the Park toward the tunnel entrance.  Vincent set off again at a run.

 

She should have been there well ahead of him, but he found the giant drain pipe empty.  The evening was still young, and the weather was mild - it was likely people were out.  Did he dare to venture into the Park to meet her?  He lifted the hood of his cloak to hide his face, and lingered at the mouth of the pipe, searching for a sign of Catherine’s approach.  Finally she appeared, but she didn’t run to him or even notice him.  Instead she advanced slowly, scanning the ground with a flashlight.

 

“Catherine!”  His call was barely above a whisper.

 

When she looked up, her expression sent a shiver down his spine: she wasn’t glad to see him.  She stared at him with open mouth for an agonizing moment, and finally came closer.

 

“What happened?” he asked.  “Are you in trouble?”

 

Catherine rubbed her forehead with finger and thumb while her other arm hung limply at her side, as though the flashlight was too heavy to lift.  “I can’t believe I was so stupid,” she said.  “I should have told you right away, but I thought I could get it fixed.  Oh, what an idiot!"

 

"Let me help you, please."

 

"I don’t even know when it happened.  I'm trying to retrace my steps…"

 

Vincent was starting to feel panicky, but with no idea of the cause.  She was still berating herself as he led her a short distance into the pipe and turned her to face him.  He raised his palm, and she stopped immediately.  "Tell me," he said.  "From the beginning."

 

She was panting as though she'd run for miles.  "This morning.  It was after I saw the news article about Central Park.  I was upset about that.  I was putting on my jacket to come see you, and somehow my crystal got snagged.  Your crystal, the one you gave me."

 

His eyes went immediately to the familiar gold chain around her neck.  It disappeared into the neckline of her sweater.

 

Catherine continued, "I was annoyed, and instead of being careful I just yanked at it, and bent it all out of shape – the wire, I mean.  Part of it unwound and twisted the wrong way."

 

"Mouse will be happy to repair it," Vincent said, but immediately realized it was worse than that.

 

"I know," she said, "but I was ashamed I'd been so careless – so stupid!  I hoped to get it fixed."  She sighed and continued slowly.  "Without having to tell you."

 

"Catherine," he murmured.  "It was an accident.  There was no need to be ashamed."

 

She slowly reached for her necklace chain and drew it out of her sweater.  The crystal was gone.  Only a short length of the gold wire that had held it still remained.

 

"I have no idea when it snapped," she said, unable to meet his eyes.  "I know it was still attached before I came Below this evening, but I didn't notice anything until I got home again."  Her arms dropped to her sides again.  "I ransacked my apartment – nothing.  Now I'm trying to go back over my steps."

 

"I'll help you," Vincent said.  "Try to stay calm, and we'll—"

 

"Calm?  It's too late for that.  If I've lost it…"

 

"We'll find it.  I think I know when it might have come off," he said.  "Do you remember in my chamber, when you reached across the bed for Father's book?"

 

Her eyes lit up. "Yes!  That must be it.  It's probably right there on the bed."  She grabbed his hand.  "Come on!"

 

Vincent had been about to suggest that she go back home and let him search, but she dragged him past the gate and sliding steel door with such energy that he simply let her lead the way.

 

********

 

"Where else did we go tonight?"  Catherine's voice was hoarse from fatigue – and doubtless from all the dust she'd inhaled.  "Where could it be?"

 

They were sitting on the rough tunnel floor outside their music chamber.  They'd carefully shaken out Vincent's bed quilt and scoured the floor of his chamber on their hands and knees; they'd examined every inch of the tunnel along paths they'd followed earlier; they'd even picked through the pile of trash gathered from the music chamber: no crystal.  Vincent's hands were repellently sticky and dirty, and he longed to wash them, but there was more searching to be done in more filthy places.

 

"Catherine," he said, "you're exhausted.  You need—"

 

"No, I can't leave!  It has to be here somewhere."

 

He got to his feet, brushing at his jeans.  "I'll keep looking, I promise, but let me take you home."

 

"Please, Vincent," she said, "don't make me go.  This is all my fault – I can't stop now."  She reached for the lantern and scrambled back into the music chamber.  "Can you bring the flashlight?" she called over her shoulder.

 

Vincent followed, shining the light onto the area in front of her.  She was on her knees, sweeping slow semicircles across the floor with one hand while holding the lantern aloft with the other.  However, she soon stirred up a cloud of dust which enveloped her; she began coughing.

 

He took the lantern from her and helped her to her feet.  "It's very late," he said, gently escorting her out of the chamber, "and you have to be at work tomorrow.  Please don't blame yourself – it was an accident.  You're too tired to go on."

 

Catherine truly did seem worn out – she allowed him to lead her without further protest.  Vincent winced when her hand slipped into his, but quickly realized that she was so dirty herself she wouldn't notice his grimy hand.  They both kept their eyes down, scanning the ground in hopes of catching a glint of light from the crystal.

 

Vincent took a route to her apartment that skirted the home tunnels.  He felt her weariness, and kept their pace slow.  They walked in silence.

 

When they neared her building's threshold she slowed even more – she wanted to talk.  He set the lantern on a ledge and turned to face her.  She looked so forlorn that he pulled her into a hug.

 

"I had an idea," she said, although she didn't sound hopeful at all.  "It might be caught between your bed and the shelf."

 

"I'll check it."  Vincent was sure they'd already looked there.

 

"If only I could go back and undo this mess… Please find it," she said, eyes closed.

 

"I'll do my best."  He held her lightly, resting his cheek on the top of her head.  "But if I can't…"

 

Catherine had been leaning warmly against him, but at his last words she froze.  Vincent put his hands on her shoulders.  "If I can't," he repeated, "I'll take you to the crystal cavern-"

 

She stepped back, away from his touch.  "No," she said, looking him square in the eye.

 

"But that's where I found your crystal in the first place," he said.

 

"I don't want another crystal."

 

He gaped at her in confusion.  He'd been sure his suggestion would comfort her.

 

"Vincent," she said, her voice dropping lower, "if I gave you a different china rose – one that I bought at a store – would it be the same to you?"

 

Vincent hesitated.  Catherine's hypothetical situation seemed fundamentally different from his suggestion, but he didn't dare fuel her abrupt anger by trying to explain.  He shook his head – but that seemed to be the wrong response, too.

 

"I can't believe it's happening," she said, seemingly to herself.  Her voice was choked with emotion, and her eyes suddenly glistened.  She brushed past him toward the ladder leading up into her building.

 

"Catherine!"  He followed her right into the patch of light filtering down from Above.  "What do you mean?  What is it that's happening?"

 

She studied his face intently for several moments, and seemed to relent slightly.  She ran her fingers through her hair.  "Maybe I'm over tired.  I'm not thinking clearly."

 

"Try and get some rest.  Try not to worry."

 

"If you find it, come right away."

 

"Yes, I will," he said.  He stood at the ladder to spot her as she climbed.

 

If he'd been puzzled in the morning by Catherine's response to the news of the construction project, Vincent was totally bewildered now.  He accepted that she was upset at the loss of her crystal, but what had he said that disturbed her so badly?

 

He still had her flashlight, and put it to use as he rummaged around and under his bed, and searched his chamber's floor once again.  Nothing.  He'd begun working his way down the tunnel, staring intently at the ground, when Father came upon him.

 

"Vincent, what on earth?"  Father had a book in his hand and used it to gesture toward Vincent's hair and clothes.  "You're an absolute mess!  Have you been up to some tomfoolery with Mouse?"

 

As Vincent straightened he felt a twinge in his back, reminding him how long he'd been hunched over.  It occurred to him that the tunnels and pipes had been quiet for quite some time.

 

"No," he said as he stretched, "I'm looking for something.  Catherine's necklace with the crystal was damaged, and the wire broke.  She thinks it fell off while she was Below this evening."

 

"Yes, I know," Father replied.  "Why are you looking out here?"

 

Vincent blinked.  He and Catherine had said nothing of their search to anyone.  "You know?"

 

Father smiled wryly.  "I should never have expected you to hear a word I said while you were with Catherine."

 

"I don't understand.  How do you know about the crystal?"

 

"Son, it broke off her necklace while we were looking at the maps in your chamber this evening.  I pointed it out at the time, and you both seemed to comprehend my words. At least that's what I assumed from the way you nodded and smiled."

 

Vincent stepped forward eagerly, towering over his father.  "Where is it?"

 

Father chuckled as he gently pushed Vincent back a few inches.  "Perhaps in the future I should pinch you to make sure you're awake."

 

"Father, please!"

 

"All right, all right.  It dropped onto a pile of papers on your desk.  It's probably-"

 

Vincent didn't stay for the end of Father's sentence, though he heard laughter as he flew back to his chamber.  He frantically shuffled through the accumulation of papers and books, patting around to feel for the crystal.

 

There it was!

 

He held it up for a few seconds, admiring the beautiful fragments of rainbow colors in it, and imagining Catherine's joyful reaction.  He turned to reach for his cloak, and saw Father in the doorway.

 

"I must take it to her," Vincent said.

 

"It's nearly two o'clock, you know."

 

"I promised to bring it as soon as it was found."

 

Father pointed at him.  "Looking like that?"

 

Vincent remembered his dishevelment and changed his mind about running Above without delay.  Though Catherine may not have noticed his dirtiness before, he wouldn't get away with it again.  His clothes could be brushed off and tucked in, but his hands…

 

As Vincent poured water into a basin, pushed back his sleeves and began washing, Father entered the chamber.

 

"Tell me," he said, sinking into a chair, "why have you gone to such lengths for this necklace, this piece of jewelry?"

 

"It's important to her – it has great sentimental value."  Vincent decided to splash water on his face as well.

 

"Yes, I'm sure it does.  And this morning," Father continued, "when she was upset about the construction project in the park – is there sentimental value there as well?"

 

"One of the work sites is a small drainage chamber where we listen to outdoor concerts."

 

"I see.  Now, Vincent," he said, taking a deep breath, "I know I'm not qualified to give advice on women, but I do know they have a logic that's very different from our logic."

 

Vincent had grabbed a towel and was scrubbing his face dry.   He looked up at Father.  "What does that mean?"

 

"Just this: let her tell you why these things are so important to her.  Don't assume that her thought processes are the same as yours.  Even with the bond you share, I believe some things are hidden from you."

 

After the day that had just passed, Vincent could not object to Father's statement.  He continued his hurried preparation, and when he was ready to leave he paused.

 

"Thank you, Father," he said.  "I appreciate your counsel – this has been a very… perplexing day."  He bent to kiss Father's forehead.

 

********

 

When he reached Catherine's balcony she was waiting for him.  She was beaming as she greeted him.

 

"I felt it!" she called. "It was so sudden I knew it had to be your excitement I was feeling through the bond.  You found it!"  She enveloped him in a powerful embrace, and he wrapped his arms around her as well.  What a relief to sense her delight again – it was a delicious, cool drink of water to a thirsty man.

 

Vincent had been prepared to surrender the crystal as soon as his feet hit her balcony floor, but she was apparently in no hurry.  She gave him another squeeze, and then stepped back, keeping hold of his hands.  Her smile turned into laughter; she swung their hands back and forth, higher and higher.  Vincent realized she wanted to dance, so he raised one arm to let her twirl out with a flourish and then back into his arms.

 

"Would you like to see it?" he asked.

 

"Mmm, let me think," she said.  "Yes!"

 

As soon as it dropped into her palm her smile faded.  Vincent explained where it had fallen, but instead of being amused she grew sober.  She crossed the balcony to lean against the wall, gazing out at the city lights.  Vincent thought she would cry, and he went to her side.

 

"Catherine?"

 

She leaned into him, inviting his arm to encircle her shoulders.  "I've taken you on a wild roller coaster ride today, haven't I?" she said.

 

"I misunderstood you woefully at every turn.  Whenever I was confident I had the solution to your problem, instead I was completely wrong.  Forgive me."

 

She pressed closer to his side, and slipped her arm around his back.  "Of course I do – but I can't let you blame yourself for my moods."

 

Father's words were fresh in his mind: he hoped he wouldn't stir up her ire again by questioning her.  "I confess," he said, "I still don't fully comprehend your strong reactions about the music chamber and the crystal."

 

"You picked the right word: reaction.  I was just reacting all day.  I finally thought about it tonight as I was waiting here.  It's because I've been afraid."

 

Vincent tilted his head and turned toward her so he could observe her more closely as she continued.

 

"You told me once – more than once, actually – that you expected I'd eventually find someone Above, get married..."  She paused, and he felt a sudden hollow in the pit of his stomach.  "…and make a life apart from you."

 

Vincent had indeed said such things to her, but it hurt to hear them repeated back to him. 

 

Her voice was a whisper.  "I haven't wanted that for the longest time, you know.  But it was always in the back of my mind that you might somehow make me do it."

 

"Catherine, I – I could never…"

 

"So, tonight I realized I've been clinging to things like the crystal because, well – what if one day it's all I have left of you?"

 

He tenderly pulled her close and pressed his lips to the crown of her head.  Her words and actions earlier in the day now appeared in a different light.  "What have I done to you?" he murmured.  "How could I let you go on with such a burden of fear?"

 

Her arms once again stole around his waist.  "Then you don't want that either?"

 

"Not for the longest time."  The answer came effortlessly, to his own surprise – he hadn't realized that truth till now.  "I promise you: those fears will never come to pass."  He drew back enough to look into her eyes.  "Catherine, I'm glad you cherish the crystal, but know that it's only a shadow of the beauty I see in you.  The real treasure is in you."

 

"And in you."

 

Her joyful relief flooded through the bond; it gave Vincent courage to ask another question.  "There's something you said: do you think of our time at the music chamber as –"  He swallowed a lump in his throat.  "– as a date?"

 

Her smile made him feel rather giddy.  "Yes, of course.  Do you?"

 

Vincent didn't answer right away, and Catherine gazed patiently at him.  His thoughts were swirling as he framed his request.  "Would you like to come Below this weekend?  We could…"  He paused, trying to decide if she would prefer to read a book at the falls or take a picnic supper to the mirror pond.

 

"Could you take me to the crystal cavern?" she asked.

 

Vincent didn't realize his mouth was hanging open until Catherine gently closed it with the touch of her finger on his chin.  He swallowed again and said, "I thought you didn't want-"

 

"I don't," she said.  One hand slid to his shoulder.  "But I'd love to see it.  Can we go?"

 

Vincent nodded, and impulsively leaned down to kiss her cheek.

 

As he drew back she followed, kissing him full on the lips.  How could he have been fearful of this?  It was wonderfully easy, perfectly natural!  Vincent closed his eyes in pleasure, but opened them when she drew back quickly with an "Oh!"

 

She grinned sheepishly and pointed down.  The crystal lay a few inches from her feet, which were clad only in socks.  "It fell again," she said.  "At least it hit my foot this time."

 

"Leave it there – we'll know where to find it," Vincent said as he cupped his palm on her jaw and leaned into another kiss.