Summary: Vignettes on the senses.
Author's Note: These vignettes would not have been as they are without the continuing support and help of the lovely Carole, Vicky and Laura. Ladies, I salute you.
Father jumped, spilling his tea over a discarded edition of Grey's Anatomy, as round-faced Winslow ran into the chamber. "Father," the boy said, "come quickly. It's Devin, he's fallen!"
Father grabbed his medical bag and rushed to the fallen boy, wondering what fool thing the child had done now. If there was a rule, Devin insisted on breaking it; if there was a warning, he would not heed it. Always, always he tested the boundaries.
"Where is he, Winslow?" he called ahead.
"He fell by the Maze."
The Maze. Of course, with its caverns and cliffs so unstable that most tunnel-dwellers avoided it. Yet Devin had gone and was now injured and God alone knew what else and....
"Was he alone, Winslow?"
The child, frightened, shook his head. "No, Father, he wasn't."
"Who was he with?" Father asked, though he suspected he already knew the answer. Who else would he be with, who else could climb the sheer walls with ease? Who else was not afraid of heights (or much of anything)? Who else would go with him where angels (and tunnel-dwellers) feared to tread?
Vincent. Good god. He'd gone off on this fool adventure and taken Vincent with him. Vincent, a child of five. Devin should have known better. "How badly was Devin hurt?" he asked Winslow, but the boy was already out of earshot and running faster than Father, with his injured hip, could keep up.
Eventually, he reached the Maze, and was stunned by what he saw. Devin's ankle had clearly swollen to twice its normal proportions, but that was a normal, medical thing he could treat, not at all uncommon in the tunnels where pathways were still uneven in most areas. It was Vincent's face, white and drawn under its light coating of fur, blue eyes washed almost to grey, that drew his attention. Devin was not pale, though he should have been. And Vincent, who was to Father's eye not injured at all, very much looked as though he was. His hand, lightly furred, braced Devin's ankle.
"Devin," he said calmly, opening up his bag and taking bandages and splints out, making a mental note that they really must build up more supplies of such things. "What happened here?"
Devin tried to brazen it out. "We were running. I slipped."
Father raised his eyebrows. "Running. Indeed. This is an impact injury, Devin, as from a fall from a great height. When you decide to tell the truth, I'll be interested to hear it." His hands tied the last of the makeshift splint together. "That should do you until we get to the home tunnels."
As he replaced the torn bits of bandaging and wood back into his bag, he noticed that Vincent's hand had never left Devin's ankle, and the boy was looking paler by the minute. "Vincent," he said softly. The boy did not so much as look at him but through him with an intensity that was entirely too old for his years. "Vincent," Father said again.
Vincent looked at him finally, gaze strangely unfocused but a little less intense. "What, Father?"
"We need to get Devin up. Do you think you and Winslow can help him?" Though Devin was three years older and Winslow five years older, Vincent was already as tall as Devin. If he continued growing at this rate.....Father put the musings aside and concentrated on the task at hand. It did not escape his notice that Vincent's color did not return until they left Devin in his bed in the hospital chamber.
Later that night, with the children settled and Devin, for once, not up planning some new mischief, Father dug through an old, worn out box hidden behind some other boxes on a very tall shelf and found a battered black notebook. It was one of four that had been salvaged from John Pater's---Paracelsus'---lab after Paracelsus had been escorted to the perimeter years earlier. The first of these notebooks, by turns disturbing and enlightening, contained Paracelsus' notes on Vincent, whom he'd had custody of during the boy's first few months in the tunnels.
Father could hardly bear to hold them or look at them most of the time, remembering those dark and dangerous days, the friendship that had been, and wondering where it all went so horribly awry. But he hadn't been able to destroy the notebooks, for whatever else Paracelsus was or had been, he had been a scientist and his knowledge---particularly of Vincent's early days---had proven medically invaluable, however much Father scalded to think of the notebooks' origins.
Paracelsus had had some suspicions about Vincent's abilities that were, quite clearly, ridiculous, and Father read those sections of the notebook through a mental filter that blocked the more fanciful assumptions. But buried in the detritus of Paracelsus' more outlandish ideas, the raw data told a story that Father, a former research physician, had no trouble interpreting. Paracelsus had thought that Vincent might be an empath (and how he planned to test that, I really don't want to know, Father thought.)
Father would have normally dismissed such conclusions as belonging to science fiction, to men on Mars and the moon made of green cheese. But he had seen Vincent tonight, had seen his son with his hand on his brother's ankle. Disturbed, Father threw the notebook back in the box and replaced the box on its high shelf.
It all made a little too much sense. One more thing that marks the boy as different, Father mused. It was not a pleasant thought; the community had done well, in the years since Vincent's discovery and John Pater's expulsion, to gloss over or pointedly not notice just how different Vincent was. Some of that was simply human nature; it was near impossible to think of the child as some alien foundling when he lived, ate, and breathed the same air as they did day in and day out.
But the fact remained: Vincent was not the same as the other children. He never would be. There were commonalities, to be sure, but eventually, some oddness would rear its head and rock the community on its collective heels. What would happen when Vincent was older, and likely stronger than the lot of them? Would the empathic abilities, another facet of the boy's differences, cause him---or another child---harm? And the quick, sudden fury that Father had seen most recently in Vincent as a toddler? What of that?
Father ran his hands through his hair, cutting off the internal debate. Speculation was fine but Vincent was a boy of five and Father's son. This community was the only home he had or would ever have. Therefore, the boy must be raised within its rules and learn to contain his differences as best he could. They would discuss it tomorrow, once Father was sure Vincent had suffered no ill-effects from Devin's injury.
Envisioning the long years alone for his son, alone because there would never be someone exactly like Vincent, Father didn't look forward to the conversation.
Vincent awoke to the smell of candle wax, old books and the damp, cold scent of earth. He was able to tell that Father had been into his chamber into the night---probably to blow out the candle---by the faint odor of disinfectant and herbal tea that hung in the still air. Mary had walked past his chamber a few minutes before, her particular odor of wool, lanolin and baby powder drifting towards his nostrils.
The distinctive smells of last night's bread baking stirred as he sat up and mentally reviewed his work schedule for the day. There was the literature class in an hour, then Father had asked for his help in evaluating the possible reroute of a drainage pipe that had started leaking in the spring rains. If he hurried, he still had time to eat.
The day which had started out so calmly didn't end that way. Mid-way through the literature class, the pipes rang out with the message that the drainage pipe that Father had wanted rerouted had ruptured. Mary took over the class and Vincent went to go join the other men on the repair detail. By the time it was done, he was covered from head to toe in a fine, silty mud that would harden to concrete in the space of hours if he didn't wash it off. The mud had an acrid fish smell to it, which told Vincent much more than he wanted to know about where it had originally come from. I smell like three day old fish, he thought disgustedly, but knew no one else could smell it and was somewhat reassured, though no less disgusted.
By the time Vincent, Winslow, Cullen, and Kanin had finished replacing the pipe, and installing the newer ones courtesy of a hurried message to a helper who had access to some construction surplus, it was late in the evening and they were all exhausted. Covered in mud, Vincent staggered off to the bathing chamber, where it took several washings with Mary's strongest soap before the faint fish smell had left him. Finally retiring to his chamber, he thought about sleeping but decided to read a chapter from Great Expectations instead.
Vincent lit the one solitary candle by his bed and the lighter smell of the herbs Rebecca used in her candle workshop rose to greet him. By such smells did he know the people of this world; even before he saw them or heard them, he knew them by scent alone. He knew it was not the same for the other people Below. Just the other night, Olivia had announced that she was pregnant, but Vincent had known it for some weeks, known it, in fact, as soon as her smell had changed.
It bothered Vincent that he should know such things; it was something else that marked him as apart and separate and a host of other terms that meant that his senses were, at best, freakish. He did his best to ignore the knowledge he wasn't supposed to have, especially of private things, but there was never any real escaping it. He counted himself fortunate that he hadn't yet given himself away; Vincent doubted even Father knew how acute his sense of smell was, or else Father wouldn't have eaten that onion-laden sandwich that Lou had sent down for him a week ago. The residue of the onions and the greasier smells from the meat still coated the air in Father's chamber and made Vincent wish devoutly for a window that he could open.
Realizing that he'd read the same line in Great Expectations four or five times without really understanding it, he decided to take a walk. Vincent blew out the candle, gathered his cloak and left, meeting the eyes of the sentries as he did so. Vincent's nighttime ramblings were no great secret to anyone in the tunnels.
It might have looked, to an outside observer, that Vincent was meandering without any great thought for where he walked, but the opposite was true. He knew this particular section of the park well enough to know the patterns of its traffic, where the prostitutes and the drug dealers were more likely to be, and he avoided those areas assiduously. There were areas of the park which were entirely hidden in darkness each night, and it was those areas he sought. The wind turned suddenly and the smell hit his nostrils. Blood. The fur along his back and neck bristled. Someone was injured, and the other odors mixed in with the blood---the metallic tincture of knife-wounds, the thicker, cloying smells odor of infection and fever---told him that the person was seriously injured.
Vincent's eyes scanned the park, looking for the source of the odor. At least he found it; a bundle in a dark coat, arms and legs askew like she'd been thrown there. He pulled the hood of his cloak up and ran towards the woman. The smell of blood got stronger as he came towards her and gently turned her over. Feeling for a pulse, he found it; weak and thready, but definitely there. Her dress was dewy, like the grass around her, so she been there nearly too long already. As cold as she was, he wondered if it was already too late.
The first thing Catherine smelled when she awoke was the the dry odor of the bandages covering her face. My face? What happened to my face?
"Your face will be fine, as will you," a voice said, a male voice that sounded like velvet dragged over concrete. A voice Catherine knew she could trust, though she couldn't have said how or why.
"Who are you?" she asked, breathing in the smells of broth and candle wax and hearing a low, rhythmic tapping on metal. Pipes? This surely was no hospital.
"Vincent," the man said softly, reluctantly. Why reluctantly? Catherine wondered. "Where am I?" she asked.
"You're safe," Vincent said, and Catherine knew he was evading the question. I'm someplace safe, but someplace hidden.
With her eyes bandaged and her other senses weighted down by the exhaustion of her healing, Catherine didn't have the strength to ask too much more. She felt herself covered by a blanket scented lightly with lavender and closing her eyes again, Catherine slept.
She slept off and on for the next several days, but less and less each day, until finally she was awake more often than she was asleep. In the interim, someone ways always there---the woman called Mary, with her soft voice and smell of baby powder, who helped her to and from the facilities and helped the man called "Father" with her bandages. And always, always there was Vincent. The morning that she would forever remember as "the day I threw a headlight at Vincent" was the also the day she'd awakened and begun to recognize his scent of candle smoke and leather and something indefinably him that she felt she would know if she never regained her sight, that she would never forget if she lived to be 100.
"I've never been ashamed of what I am, until now," Vincent said softly and Catherine could have wept for the sorrow in his voice, sorrow that she had put there in her fear and anguish over the sight of her scars.
"How did this happen to you?" she asked.
"I don't know. I have ideas, but I'll never know. I was born and I survived."
Catherine carried his words with her when she left the tunnels. I was born and I survived. I'll survive. They reassured her on many nights when everything seemed so horribly askew: her father's careful silences that tried to pretend nothing at all had changed, the conversations with Tom that never went anywhere or resolved anything, her own image of who and what she was.
And there were times too when she wondered about Vincent and the world which had healed her. In her dreams she would smell leather and candle smoke and know it for his smell, and she fancied that she might still smell it when she awoke, but it was always gone. Catherine knew perfectly well what any doctor would say if she told them the truth about where she'd been: they'd say she was delirious or traumatized, and had simply imagined the whole thing. But the very idea of Vincent as a fever-dream was too ludicrous, even in a world where her very idea of what was normal and expected had changed forever.
The rattling on her balcony startled her out of her reverie and she reached for the gun in her drawer. Training with Isaac and her own newer awareness of just how easily she'd become a victim had made her senses hyper-acute and a whole host of fears played through her mind. But what she saw, first, was the volume of Great Expectations on the ground, the lovely old scarf...
And Vincent, pressed against the wall as if he were as terrified as she, as if he might bolt at any sudden move. "Wait," she said. "I've missed you so."
And then she was in his arms, smelling of home and love and safety and belief and nothing would ever be the same again.
The faint rustle of cotton, leather, and the quick efficient tread of Catherine's steps told Vincent everything he needed to know. It was over. He would soon be home.
"I was never giving up," Catherine said, taking Vincent's one uninjured arm and hoisting it over her shoulder. "You're safe now." He could hear the love and fear mingled in her voice, thick with her worry and guilt.
Vincent also heard the blown-out sigh that told him as clearly as sight that Father was near. And angry. "Can you walk to the hospital chamber or should we send for a gurney?" Father asked sharply. Even as blurred as his vision was, Vincent could see that Father was very carefully not looking at Catherine. He drew in a quick breath, meaning to say that Father should not be angry with her, but the pain that crashed through his chest made him think the better of it. Vincent settled for what he hoped was a quick warning scowl, but which was probably, in his utter weakness, nothing of the sort.
"You might have punctured a lung," Father said, more gently this time, casting a quick, experienced eye at the way Vincent braced his ribs. "I'll call ahead for a gurney." He turned around a corner, searching for one of the thick-barreled pipes that sounded the loudest in Pascal's pipe chamber. The tone would ring over and above any other tunnel traffic and Pascal would recognize it as an emergency. Help would come soon.
Catherine's face was distorted, blurred by exhaustion and his head injury. "Here, lean against me," she said quietly. Her small hand touched his face, gentle on his burns and bruises, and he heard her indrawn breath as though she were breathing in his pain. The quick river of her thoughts flitted through his mind, made clearer by their physical connection. If I hadn't gone alone/oh god Vincent, you're hurt and it's my fault/how can anyone be so cruel/I love you/I've caused you to be hurt/Father will never forgive me for your pain. The bond fairly howled with the sorrow she was trying not to let emerge. "Don't, Catherine," Vincent said, holding her hand where it rested against his cheek. "I will recover. It's over."
Father's voice cut through the conversation, cold and cutting as the winds of the Abyss. "The stretcher will be here soon, Catherine. There's no need for you to stay." It was said in Father's best "surely, you don't mean to be unreasonable" voice, but with an undercurrent of anger that drew Vincent up short.
"Father," he said as evenly as he could, though his own emotions were tattered and torn and entirely too close to the surface. "I would like Catherine to stay."
It was as clear as if Father had said the words, though he hadn't spoken. Hasn't she done enough already?
Catherine's hand tightened around his own, the one visible sign of her distress. She, too, clearly heard the underpinnings of Father's tone. "I will stay, Vincent," she said, reassuringly. There was a steely undertone to that as well; Vincent heard it clearly through their bond. I'm here. I will not leave.
The stretcher arrived then, and they began the long journey back to the home tunnels.
Vincent heard the click of the penlight as Father turned it off, and closed his eyes against the pain the light had caused. "You have four cracked ribs, a concussion, a bruised collarbone, several burns, a bruised kneecap and a hairline fracture of the fibula," Father said. "I'm surprised you were able to move at all."
Vincent coughed, feeling the bracing on his ribs constricting his chest. "Not easily," he said. It was an understatement. He'd been sick before and injured, but never so many injuries all at once. His nose wrinkled involuntarily at the smell of stale beer on his clothes and wondered if he could possibly get to the bathing champers to rid himself of the smell. Perhaps tomorrow....
With a decisive snap, Father closed his doctor's bag. "Jamie got a message to one of the helpers; we need some drugs that we don't have here. Right now, I need you to rest."
"What about my vision?" Vincent asked. He knew enough about concussions to know the blurred, distorted vision was not an uncommon symptom, but there were gaps in time during the hours he'd spent as the Silks' captive and if they had done something more permanent...
"Your eyes responded normally to the light," Father said reassuringly. "I'm sure your vision will come back quickly." Left unsaid was the larger catalog of bruises and burns that, while not permanent, spoke of the abuse Vincent had endured. "It's time for you to rest," Father said again. Vincent nodded, though he didn't miss the tension that sparked between Catherine and Father. They'd argued, he suddenly realized, while he was missing and by the looks of it, the argument was far from over. He meant to speak, to tell them that there was no need, but the darkness pressed upon him and his exhaustion carried him far out to sea.
The first thing Father did was pour tea. Catherine took the cup from him, bemused by the body language of a man who was clearly furious, yet who had the courtesy to pour her a cup of tea. She sipped it carefully, trying to pick her words but somehow feeling that nothing she said would be right. She couldn't very well say that Vincent's injuries hadn't been her fault, when he'd followed her there on her account. And there was no defense possible when the object of his concern, of hers, was battered and bruised and, Catherine knew, lucky to be alive. He'd followed her when she'd gone, stupidly, alone, and now he was paying the price for his concern.
She'd rarely felt more like a criminal.
At length, Father sat down in the battered wood chair next to her---like so many things in the tunnels, it was salvaged and remade and repaired, ungainly, but sturdy enough. "I am sorry for my harsh words earlier," he began.
Catherine's jaw opened minutely, then closed. Of all the things she'd expected him to say, that hadn't been one of them. "I still believe your relationship with my son is a mistake, but it's a mistake that saved his life tonight," he continued. Father shifted in his chair uncomfortably. "I wouldn't have known where to find him or where to look if it hadn't been for you."
Vincent had told Catherine that he'd walked the city streets above for years prior to meeting her and Catherine began to see the shape of Father's nightmares more clearly. He couldn't have ordered Vincent to stay below, not and take away what little freedom he had to walk as other men did, but neither could he keep from worrying that one day, Vincent would be caught above. As last night, he had been.
"Why did he come to you last night?" Father asked quietly.
She told him the story, of one gang turning on another, of her interview with an informant that had gone so unexpectedly awry. And finally, struggling to keep her tone even, she told Father of the bomb that had left Vincent injured and nearly dead and left to the mercy of the Silks. More than that, she could not say, not knowing fully what Vincent had endured from the Silks. "I'm so sorry, Father, I never meant for him to get hurt." The words tumbled out of their own accord.
Father looked down into his tea then back across at her. His eyes, a bluish grey, were worn and tired as he looked at her. "Whether you mean it or not, Catherine, it has happened, now. It will continue to happen. All you can do is bring him pain." There was a frayed edge of old bitterness lacing his tone.
She couldn't even say he was completely wrong. The mess with Elliot, the brief flirtation that had succeeded only in deeply wounding Vincent, and which continued to shame her now, had been just a few short weeks before. And now, this. "I didn't want him to come tonight," Catherine said softly. "I thought I could handle things on my own." Even as she said the words, though, she knew how completely stupid they were. Joe would have assigned her backup if she'd so much as asked, if she'd told him she was going alone to meet an informant in one of the most dangerous areas of the city...but she hadn't. Still trying to prove that she was as tough, as strong, as everyone else, she'd taken one risk too many...and Vincent had paid the price.
Catherine didn't realize she'd started to cry until Father handed her a handkerchief that looked like it had been a piece of a linen tablecloth in another life. "Shall we call a truce, then?" Father asked as she wiped her eyes. "Tonight, we have only one concern."
She nodded. The tension between Father and herself was not over and Catherine knew they'd likely repeat all or most of this argument in the future but just now, she was grateful for his tolerance.
Catherine heard the sound first as she sat, dozing in the large chair by Vincent's bedside. Father had left strict instructions to call him if Vincent's condition became worse, and had left her alone to catch a few hours of sleep in his own chamber.
"No...no, please..." It was Vincent's voice, but soft and hoarse like she'd never heard it, not even after one of his killing rages had swept through him.
The Silks, Catherine realized. She came to sit next to him, sitting carefully on the very edge of the bed so as not to jostle his healing ribs and other injuries too much. "Vincent," Catherine said quietly. "I'm here. It's over."
But was it really? Vincent was a proud man, and what the Silks had done to him, the bruising and the burns and the injuries all told a tale Catherine had no trouble interpreting. They had treated him like an animal, all because she had been foolish enough to go alone that night, because her nerves had called him to her side.
Vincent's head rolled back and forth on the pillow. "I will not," he hissed, and Catherine caught his hand before he could injure himself further. "Vincent," she said again. "I'm here."
Slowly, his blue eyes opened, glazed and a little bit bewildered. "Catherine?"
She tilted the lone candle by his bedside in order to see his eyes more clearly. Father's instructions had been clear. Good, pupils contracting with the added light. Putting the candle back on his nightstand, Catherine smiled at him. "Yes, Vincent, I'm here."
In the low light, the bruises and the burns did not stand out as clearly as they had in the full light of the tunnel entrance, but Catherine knew where they were just the same. "How do you feel?"
She nearly jumped at the Vincent's brief chuckle. "I think the standard response is 'Did you get the number of the truck that hit me?' I'm sorry to say I didn't."
That he could retain any of his dry sense of humor now was reassuring to Catherine, if not something she necessarily expected. "I can imagine," she said wryly. "Father said I'm to ask you if you're still seeing double."
Vincent shook his head slightly. "No, there's just one of you now."
Abruptly, Catherine began to cry, which frustrated her since she wasn't the crying sort—she'd learned she had to be stronger than that, in her job--- yet here she was crying twice in the space of hours. And this wasn't supposed to be about her pain anyway, but Vincent's and what she'd done to him by being so terribly incautious and naïve, even, about the dangers of her world and the criminals she hunted. "I'm so sorry, Vincent. I'm so very sorry."
"Catherine," he said, in that voice, the one that made her name sound like a caress, like something holy in a language she'd never learn, and it was balm to her shattering nerves.
Calmer, Catherine continued, "I was so worried I'd never find you, or I'd find you but it would be too late, or I'd find you and...." She could not finish; the tears were threatening to press in again.
"Come," he said, shifting carefully in his bed, the humor in his eyes changing slightly to the warmth that made her always feel whole and complete, no matter what horrors she'd seen.
There was just enough room on his bed for her to have room to sit closer to him and hold him and yet....She smiled, feeling her nerves calming and---unbelievably--some of her own sense of humor returning. "Vincent, there's probably a foot of you that doesn't have a bruise on it and Father will have my hide if I injure you further. You should rest."
"Come," he said again, smiling. Catherine could hear in his voice that she was what he needed to feel whole, to heal, to be reminded that the horrors of the night before were over.
And so she did.
The tapping of the pipes echoed in the nearly empty Commons. Catherine had learned enough by now to translate most of the messages, though a few of the more complex ones still stumped her. Ang's Grocery-milk ready to spoil-can use?/Kanin-picking up supplies-will take Geoffrey and Eric with/Lena-teething ring-Olivia? Ordinary, mundane conversations, but they were the music of this world, and deeply soothing, their echoes a peace she did not feel.
Catherine leaned forward and rested her head in her hands. Four days, and Vincent still hadn't awakened. He'd had barely enough strength to leave that dark cavern, even with Father’s and her help, and once back in his chamber, wounds stitched and bandaged and cleaned, he'd fallen into what Father termed a "deep, healing sleep." Catherine wasn't so sure. To her, it looked a lot like coma and their bond, which normally sang between the two of them, was stretched and faint, like mist dissolving in sunlight. He was alive, but that was all she knew. Whether he would stay alive was something that no one, not even Father, could predict.
The rasp of ceramic on the wood table startled her and she looked up to see Father's worn features. He held out a steaming bowl of stew. "Catherine, you must eat."
She couldn't remember the last time she'd had an appetite. She'd eaten something right after Vincent had left her apartment, but that had been days ago. Food since then had tasted like ashes and smelled worse. And the little she had been able to eat hadn't stayed down, so she'd just about given up the attempt. "How is he?" Catherine asked.
Father sat down next to her. It was late at night and normally, the Commons would be filled with people eating, nursing mugs of tea or coffee, or just relaxing before heading off to their chambers to sleep, but it was quiet now. It was just the two of them in this chamber, trying to find some respite in their worry. "Mary's with him now. No change," he said before she could ask, and Catherine noticed how drawn he looked.
"When was the last time you slept?" Catherine said, looking at him closely.
He smiled, a faint wry smile that reminded her suddenly of Vincent's own dry humor. "About the same time you last ate." Father touched her arm, about as close to a hug as his own reserve would allow. "Eat," he said.
"Sleep," she returned, and was astonished to find herself smiling. 'That's better," Father said inexplicably and she knew he as at least as worried about her as he was about Vincent.
Catherine was startled again when he took her hand and clasped it tightly. "Catherine, dear Catherine," and her eyes welled. It was the same tone he'd used when he'd talked of the dream she'd given Vincent. "You must take care of yourself." He sat back a little, tilting his head and once again she was strongly reminded of Vincent. "The best thing you can do for Vincent is to keep his child safe."
"How..." she spluttered. "How...when I didn't know myself?" The world tilted on its axis.
Father smiled across the table at her. "Catherine, I've been a doctor longer than you've been alive. I know the signs." His eyes were calm, reassuring, none of the scorn she once would have expected from him. "You're...glowing," he said gently.
"I see," Catherine said faintly. Their one encounter had been after they'd rescued Elliot from the gorronistas. Vincent's terrified awareness of how close she had come to dying had sparked a final change in their perpetual dance of euphemism and guarded touches. It had been fierce, that first loving, but life-affirming too.
A few days after it, she'd begun to feel unwell...but that had been too easy to push off as just another office bug. Later, there had been too much going on, between the stress of the nightmares of Spirko and Paracelsus and Vincent's own encroaching illness, to verify her suspicions. And now....Vincent hadn't known and it might well be too late. Catherine tasted the harsh salt of tears rising in the back of her throat. Oh, Vincent, come back to me.
"He's going to live," Father said, sensing her despair, and she wondered at his absolute bedrock certainty. Then Catherine remembered: Father had been through this once before when Vincent had been an adolescent. "You must keep telling yourself that. He's going to live." Looking at the worry in Father's eyes, she saw his certainty for what it was: he needed her to believe as much as he needed to believe. Any other possibility---that Vincent might never wake up, that he might die even now---was simply unacceptable.
She dipped her spoon into a bowl filled to the brim with what Vincent had once described as "William’s Mystery Stew." It was thick and dark, concocted from whatever was available and edible at the end of the month when provisions would sometimes run low.
"And William won't tell us what he makes it from, either," Vincent had said. "Devin and I used to follow him around, making up the most outlandish ingredients just so he'd get mad at us and tell us what was really in it." Catherine smiled now at the antics of those two young boys, and hesitantly tried the stew. It was good, tasting of vegetables and some sort of peppered broth. Before she knew it, it was gone. And Father held out his hand so they could return to Vincent.
Father was right. She had to stay strong, for all of them.
Vincent opened his eyes to the candle-lit darkness of the tunnels at night and for a bare second, the shadows mimicked the flickering of torches outside the cave. And he feared he was down there again, chained by his rage and pain and roaring his suffering to the uncaring rock. But he wasn't there, not now; the tapping on the pipes told him that.
He turned his head slightly to see Catherine sitting awkwardly in the chair by his bed, one arm crossed over her abdomen, a leg braced crookedly on his bed, mouth open in sleep. She was lovely beyond his ability to describe, even as disheveled and tired as she was, and his second thought was a dawning hope that he hadn't hurt her in his madness.
Catherine stirred then and opened her eyes. "Vincent?" she asked softly.
"Yes," Vincent said. His throat hurt as if he'd been screaming, which wasn't far from the truth, he thought ruefully.
Catherine stood up and poured him a glass of water. "Drink it slowly," she said. "You've been unconscious for five days." Her hand touched the side of his face and he felt her concern and love and worry arcing through him like live wire. There was something else too, something he couldn't quite make out....
Then Catherine kissed him and he smiled, feeling life rushing back. She tasted like springtime and sunlight and all the other things he'd nearly lost in his time of madness. "Welcome back," she whispered.
He smiled and reached up to touch the honey gilt of her hair. Vincent remembered the cave, snarling at her in his rage and fear, one part of him warning her away, another part wanting nothing more than for her to come closer. "Is this paradise?" he rasped, the water only barely soothing his throat.
Her mouth quirked in a smile. "I don't think paradise comes with IV stands," Catherine said, and Vincent saw the IV line snaking out of his left arm.
Vincent chuckled. "No, I suppose not." He studied her carefully, his mood changing quickly as he remembered the incessant rage that had pounded within him. "Did I hurt you?"
"No, Vincent. You tried to harm yourself, but not me." The grief ran in thick rivers in her voice and he was ashamed again that she'd had to see any of it. You saw me as I am...again. How can you love this? The memories of his illness, his time of darkness, were fragmented, distorted by the anger and rage he could still taste, even now: a faint bitter iron taste that coated his throat, the taste of regret and fury and guilt and shame.
"Hey," Catherine said gently. "None of that. You're here. I'm here." She leaned forward to kiss him again and this time, he was able to taste the changed scent of her as he breathed in. It was the scent, the taste, of new life, rich and complex and ancient. "How....?"
Catherine grinned. "The usual way, I suspect." And he remembered, as she did, that fierce loving that had brought all the rest of their barriers down...and created a miracle.
With his free hand, he touched her hand, then moved it to the plane of her still-flat belly. "A child," he said wonderingly. "Yours. Mine. Ours."
"Ours," Catherine said softly.
It was six weeks after Vincent's illness and life, above and below, had pretty much returned to normal. Vincent had returned to teaching his classes and Catherine was making progress slogging through the files that had backed up during his illness. Peter Alcott had examined her and stated that things were well with the baby. Life was resuming its normal rhythms.
But the shape of her life below had changed, in ways Catherine would never have expected. Her relationship with Father had changed during the long nights of Vincent's illness. Father might never come to trust her world, but he did finally trust her and her relationship with Vincent. Although, as Vincent had remarked wryly, that might be because he had finally found someone he could beat at chess.
There were other changes too, changes that were much less visible but no less important. The bond between herself and Vincent, that once had seemed so strong only on his end, had deepened, becoming more two-way. Sometimes, she would be working on a case and some deep emotion would surge through the connection, startling her briefly out of her train of thought. Or she would be preparing to come below at night and realize the very instant when Vincent arrived at the threshold. It should have been unnerving to know this much about another person, but it wasn't. I know you, Vincent she could think now, and know it to be true on a soul-deep level, beyond any words.
Catherine was stunned, though, at how busy things were below. She had suspected the tremendous amount of work necessary to keep the tunnel world going, but she had only seen glimpses before---the children's recitals, the impromptu gatherings after dinner in the Commons, the dizzy holiday glory of Winterfest. What she had not seen, because Vincent had never brought her into that part of his world, was the day to day work of keeping the tunnels going. And it seemed endless---candle-making, cooking, laundry, preserving, repairing, recycling or simply making do. And this was on top of the classes for the children, the perpetual ongoing work of making sure no pipe sprung a leak large enough to flood the tunnels or alert City Water of their existence, the routine security that changed the ways down every few days or weeks. It was hard work and a lot of the work of the larger or more complex projects fell on Vincent.
"It's always you," she had said to him one night when he'd stumbled into his—their chamber, now---nearly grey with fatigue, the bond fairly vibrating with his frustration. He'd been down with Kanin and Mouse and Cullen, trying to resolder an old copper drainage pipe that quite clearly had had other ideas.
He had glanced at her sideways from under his soaked bangs. It was such a rueful look that she might have laughed, except that he was obviously beyond humor at this point. "Who else would it be?" Vincent said, yawning and exposing his fangs.
Who else, indeed. Catherine had done some thinking, in the endless nights of his illness, about what forces had driven him to the sharp edge of madness. Some of it, she thought, was simply an overdose of stress—between Spirko and Paracelsus and his own unfulfilled, long-denied yearnings and needs, it was no wonder he'd simply broken under the strain. People took what they could take until they broke.
Catherine had also seen how everyone pulled on him...and how she herself had done it to him as well. Despite illness or injury, he'd always forced himself to be what she or the community needed. And damn us all for not seeing what it was doing to you, she thought, but that wasn't completely fair either. Vincent was the absolute last to admit weariness or attend to his own needs. Whatever she---or anyone---needed would always come first with him. It was who he was, and Catherine could no more change that than she could (or would) change the way he looked.
She was also becoming concerned about the nightmares Vincent was still experiencing, nightmares that left him shaken and staring blindly on most nights. He would come to himself and cling to her with a desperateness that told her more than words of how terrible the dreams had been. But he wouldn't tell her what was wrong, what he had seen. And Catherine had accepted it. She'd learned long ago that she couldn't push Vincent and she couldn't out-stubborn him. He'd speak about whatever it was when he could find the words, but not before.
Catherine considered that what Vincent needed most, now, was time to process all that had changed. She was not surprised, then, to find that Father's mind was on the same path; his chamber was very near theirs and surely, he had heard the nightmares too. Though they had not always seen eye to eye, when it came to Vincent, they had always been allies. "Vincent," he said as he set the chessboard up, "have you taken Catherine to a concert yet?"
Catherine felt his surprise through the bond. The concert season above had been something they had regularly attended in their underground chamber before Vincent's illness had closed in on them. After his recovery, there simply hadn't been time."No, Father, I haven't."
"I think we're seeing the last of the good weather before the spring rains set in," Father continued.
Catherine had been involved with the tunnels long enough to know what he meant. Spring rains, and the resulting changes in the water table, inevitably meant flooding and repairs to the pipes...which would also mean long days of repair and patchwork for Vincent and the other tunnel-dwellers. If there was a serious rupture, it might mean days or weeks apart.
Father impaled him with one sharp look."Vincent, you can certainly be spared from your normal duties for a few hours." His features softened somewhat. "I think you should take some time and just...relax. Get away from here for a while."
Vincent made as if to protest, but Father took his hand. "Vincent, listen to me. You've been through a terrible struggle for your life. And we have all, all of us, asked so much of you. Take the time."
The concert was, Vincent discovered, a celebration of Pachebel's compositions. As the lilting strains of the Canon in D Minor drifted through their concert chamber, Vincent thought again about the gift of time, time they had so nearly lost. Sometimes the awareness of just how close it had been would sweep over him, leaving him tasting the foul bitterness of despair.
He wondered how he would tell her of his dreams. Catherine had accepted, much to his continual surprise, the nature of his dreams, that they could be prophetic or simply an allegory for things which he already knew but refused to accept in his conscious mind. The dreams he'd had since his illness, though, had left him shaken and gasping.
Catherine was concerned; it surged through their bond each and every time he awoke in the middle of the night. But he could not bring himself to speak the words that would tell her all that he had seen. It seemed to him that it would taint their world, the life they were making together now if he so much as uttered the words. And Catherine had not asked; though he'd felt in her how much she wanted to, she respected his silences.
She was there waiting, in a tunnel dress that seemed somehow dressier for all of its patchwork finery. Catherine smiled at him. "Come," she said, holding out her hand. "It's been a while."
The last concert they had attended was when his illness had begun to peak, when half-feverish and ill, he had gone to the concert and fled from her when the images, the passions in the music, had throbbed too close to the beast he kept caged. Life now is different, Vincent reminded himself, and stepped forward into the light with her. She truly was lovely, a miracle containing another miracle and he sat down next to her and wrapped his arm around her, drawing her close, breathing in the taste of sunlight through the scent of her hair. The cavernous sense of loss nearly crushed him again and he drew a breath inward, trying to contain the emotion before it surged through their bond.
"Will you tell me?" Catherine asked softly as the music surged around them. One small hand reached under his chin as her eyes met his. "You know you can."
He pulled her tighter against himself, needing the reassurance that the dream had been, after all, just a dream. "I lost you, Catherine," Vincent began, almost too quietly to be heard above the thrum of violins. "You were betrayed, and kidnapped and...murdered. And I couldn't find you in time to save you." His vision blurred then and the nails of grief rose high in his throat, choking the words off.
"You could never lose me," Catherine said, wiping his tears.
Vincent felt again the grief that had nearly sent him into the Abyss when he awoke in the dream without Catherine's living presence, the shattering grief that had awoken him night after night even though she was right there beside him. "There's more," Catherine asked. "Isn't there?"
"I cannot keep it from you," Vincent sighed. "Yes. Our child was taken and you were killed because of him."
Catherine smiled then, a mysterious woman's smile that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Mona Lisa. "Well," she said, "I firmly believe we're having a daughter." She sobered then. "Vincent...who betrayed me in your dream?"
In some ways, that had been one of the worst parts of the dream, that someone Catherine had spoken of trusting could have been involved in her murder. "John Moreno."
He felt rather than saw her go pale and the shock of it crashed through their bond. "Catherine, what is it?"
"Vincent, remember when I went Above last night?" Vincent nodded; he'd been working on carving out a new chamber and it had taken all of his concentration not to worry about her and focus on the task at hand.
"John Moreno was arrested," Catherine continued slowly. "Joe told me. The FBI had been doing a corruption investigation on him; he was arrested while you were sick. He'd been on the take for three or four years at least, and the corruption runs pretty deep. Joe's been appointed acting DA."
"So you see, " Catherine said softly, "the dream is not our reality." Vincent felt the chill racing up her spine, though, and he knew she wondered, as he did, how close that dream might have come to being reality.
Vincent felt as though something had torn loose inside him. They were safe now and he was alive and Catherine was alive and their child grew inside her. Whatever else might be happening, this was a certainty he could hold onto. It was the taste of freedom and love and it was sweeter than anything he'd ever known. "I love you," he murmured against the warmth of her hair as the violins thrummed around them. "Have I told you today?"
Catherine smiled at him, feeling how they were at last set free. "You have. But you can keep saying it. I love you too."
"There are no words, Catherine," Vincent murmured in the quiet of the tunnels. It was night and Catherine slept finally, after her long labor. The baby---Hannah Caroline, they'd decided to call her, though her name wouldn't be announced until the Naming Ceremony in a few days---stirred a bit in his arms and he looked down at her.
His daughter. After all the months of waiting, it still hardly seemed possible. She was so tiny, a miniature kitten with Catherine's green eyes. The leonine features which had always seemed so heavy and abnormal to his own eyes echoed gracefully in their daughter—finer, as if drawn by a delicate, wispy brush.
Catherine awoke then as they were staring at each other. "Vincent?" she said softly. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes," he said. "Rest, Catherine. I'll stay up with Hannah." He could sense her utter exhaustion through the bond, see it in her eyes. She smiled up at her husband and touched one hand to Hannah's downy head, already showing reddish-blonde curls. "Sweet love," she said, and closed her eyes again.
Vincent sat down in the rocking chair and held his daughter. Of all the things he had seen or ever wanted to see, this was beyond his imagination.
Catherine awoke to the sound of the baby's squalling. "She appears to be hungry," Vincent said wryly as Hannah rooted against his chest. "I've changed her diaper."
Gently, he handed the baby to Catherine and watched as Catherine unlaced her blouse and the child began to suckle. "Oh, that feels better," Catherine murmured.
Vincent raised his eyebrows. "It does?"
Catherine shifted her arm to support Hannah. "Yes. I'm sore."
"Shall I get Mary?" Vincent asked, concerned.
"No, I don't think Mary can help with this one," Catherine replied, grinning.
Abruptly, Vincent understood. "Oh." Incredibly, he felt heat in his cheeks, something that surely hadn't happened since he was a teenager. He'd seen tunnel women breast-feed before, but had somehow never connected that with....
"She's a strong eater," Catherine said wryly. "Though I could do without the teeth."
"Teeth?" Vincent hadn't noticed. She had teeth? Like his? He glanced at the baby's small hands, already tipped with sharp nails that would one day thicken into claws.
She was just like him. Abruptly, he remembered Devin's old nickname for him: Fuzz. He remembered Mitch teasing him, meowing as he passed by and always, always being the one left behind, the one who didn't look at all like anyone else, the one who couldn't go everywhere or do everything because of the way he looked, because of the face that stared back in the water. The facts now stared him back in the face, in the tiny hands of his nursing child: I am no longer alone. There is myself, and now there is Hannah.
Catherine touched his arm with her free hand. "What is it?" she murmured.
Vincent drew in a breath, trying to calm his racing thoughts. "I used to think," he said softly, "that having a child would be a cruelty." He clenched his hands, feeling the claws bite into his flesh. "I looked at these hands and saw nothing human, more beast than man. How could I do this to anyone else?"
"And now?" Catherine challenged. As always, her fierceness astonished him; he sensed she was quite willing to do battle with him over his sense of self, as she had so many times before.
"Now," Vincent smiled, relaxing, "I have Hannah and she looks like me. And it occurs to me that...it is not such a bad thing after all." He reached over and touched the bottom of Hannah's foot, watching the miniature toes curl inward. "How do you argue with a miracle, after all?"
Preparations were in full swing for Hannah's naming when late one afternoon, Father came to their chamber. He was a frequent visitor and clearly doted on his granddaughter. "I can't quite get over it, Vincent," he said. "You were so small, so sick, when you were born and look at her. She's so big."
Right then, Hannah was amusing herself by gnawing on Vincent's fist. She looked up at her grandfather through a cloud of red hair and smiled a toothy grin. "She has your smile too," Father said. "And I see she's focusing early, just as you did."
Catherine smiled at the three of them fondly as she folded some of Hannah's baby clothes and put them away in a basket. "You said you had a question about the guest list, Father?" she asked.
"Oh, yes. It seems you've left off someone."
Vincent raised his eyebrows. It seemed as if the entire population of Manhattan had been invited to Hannah's Naming; he couldn't imagine whom they would have forgotten. "Catherine," Father said, "it occurred to me that we have not been entirely fair to you."
It was Catherine's turn to raise her eyebrows. Her relationship with Father had not always been a good one, but they were long past that now. "There will be no one from your world there, Catherine," he continued. "Is there no one you wanted to tell?"
"Well, yes, Father," Catherine replied. "But I gave my word. None of my friends know of this place." After so long, she had grown accustomed to the half-truths, the shaded words that kept those she loved safe. But it had never been easy: Jenny would have loved the bookish types here, Nancy would have been so amused by the childrens' antics, and Joe...Joe would simply have been amazed.
"You have carried our secret alone for too long, Catherine," Father stated. "We have asked other helpers to recommend trusted friends or family, but we've never asked you. That was a mistake."
Catherine looked up at Vincent's indrawn breath. "Someone from Catherine's side of the river," he breathed..
"Yes," Father replied, smiling as Hannah grabbed Vincent's mane. "Vincent and I had a conversation a number of months ago about how there was no one from your world whom you could talk to. I would like to suggest that if you have a person in mind, that you ask them to the Naming."
Just when she'd thought Father couldn't surprise her anymore..."Yes, Father, I'll think about it." She eyed him curiously. "What made you change your mind?"
Father tilted his head slightly, in a gesture that was so much like Vincent's that a smile crossed Catherine's face. "I have not always been fair to you, Catherine. I questioned your relationship, your intentions, from the start. I don't for a second believe that having someone on your side of the river makes up for my harsh words, but it's the best I can do."
She reached over and clasped his hand once, hard. "Father....it's long past. And over. You had to question, then." Margaret's name, and Lisa's, hung in the air, unspoken. "But thank you."
After he left, Vincent moved to sit next to Catherine on their bed as she fed Hannah. "What do you think about that?" Catherine murmured.
"I think it is a very good thing, and long overdue," Vincent replied. "This is how our community of friends grows, Catherine. One leaves, another is brought in." Vincent studied her face, felt her unease through their bond. "You seem troubled. What is it?"
Catherine smiled. Vincent could never claim ignorance of her feelings; it would never occur to him to try. "It's just...how do I explain this, to anyone? Sometimes I think if I weren’t living my life, I wouldn't believe me either."
"Perhaps 'once upon a time' would be a good place to start," Vincent replied wryly.
Catherine chuckled. "Perhaps. But I hardly think we're a fairy tale."
"Oh?" Vincent asked, raising his eyebrows. She knew that look: to him their life certainly seemed like a fairy tale at times, complete with the "happily ever after" part.
"No, love," she said, and he kissed her. "We're better."
The next morning, while Hannah took her nap and Vincent was teaching Pride and Prejudice to the teenagers' literature class, Catherine began writing a list. She had to pick one of her close friends to tell about his world, her husband, and their daughter. Who? Nancy might be a natural choice; she already knew more about her relationship with Vincent than either Joe or Jenny, and had helped her through a very rough time. Then she remembered: Nancy and her husband Paul were taking a long-awaited second honeymoon to Hawaii. She'd received a postcard from them just last week.
Then there was Jenny, dear, kind Jenny who probably had guessed more than Catherine knew about her relationship. But Jenny was on a publishing junket in Scotland and wouldn't be home until next month. Maybe I can tell her later, Catherine mused, then smiled at the thought. Until yesterday, it hadn't occurred to her that she might be able to tell anyone.
And then there was Joe. Joe, who'd been her boss and then her friend through any number of strange occurrences, disappearances and half-truths and evasions. She owed him the most in terms of an explanation, for she had worked with him every day, and had lied to him nearly every day in the things she could never say. If he saw this world, what would he say?
She picked up her pen and finding some blank stationary in one of the pigeon-holes in Vincent's desk, she began to write. Dear Joe...
There were days when Joe absolutely hated his job. Today was shaping up to be one of them. There was the joint press conference with the FBI announcing the latest round of indictments arising from the investigation into John Moreno. Joe had hated that the most of all, because while he was the acting DA and as such, was glad to have Moreno and his co-conspirators off the streets, there was also a part of him that wondered about his mentor and friend. When had John gone on the take? And why? The FBI, for all their talk of a joint investigation, had been unable or unwilling to share much in the way of details, but Joe suspected the arrests were far from over. Which left him with a whole host of questions he couldn't answer and a nagging feeling that he should have known sooner that Moreno was dirty.
There was also the matter of Cathy's temporary replacement, a man who couldn't find a file on his desk with a map and a flashlight and who lacked the passion Cathy had brought to her work. Not to mention her contacts, Joe thought; somehow, Cathy had always been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat when a case looked to be going sideways. Joe threw a dart against the door. Frank Abner had been pulled from another unit to cover Cathy's cases while she was out on maternity leave, but once Cathy was back, Abner could go back to prosecuting misdemeanor jaywalking cases—or what ever he'd supposedly been doing---for all he cared. That is, if Abner survived the wrath of his co-workers and the support staff, who had gotten tired of Abner's frenzied, last-minute emergencies.
And finally, there was the latest mystery, an invitation scrawled on heavyweight paper like his grandmother used for her important letters. It was from Cathy, but it left him perplexed. And with one too many mysteries on his hands already, Joe didn't want another one. She was inviting him to dinner at her apartment that evening, but she'd invited him with a letter, not a phone call. It was so odd, so totally unlike Cathy's direct personality, that he was beginning to get a strange feeling that this wasn't completely a social call.
"Hey, Radcliffe, what's this all about?" Joe asked that evening in her apartment. She looked good, he noticed, though tired, as he'd expect from the mother of a newborn. Looking around the place as Cathy hung up his coat, Joe didn't see any baby goods---no diapers, no clothes, or toys or anything to indicate there was a child living here. Mentally, he prepared to have yet one more thing added to the growing pile of Radcliffe's Secrets. Like who'd tended her when she disappeared a few years back, who had rescued her from that sinking car in the middle of the lake, and a thousand other things he'd wondered about but never quite had the courage to ask
She handed him a beer out of the fridge. "The baby is why I'm here. Her name is Hannah and she's about a week old now."
"Oh, hey, that's great. Congratulations! Do you have pictures?"
He was astonished when she shook her head. "No. And there won't be." The words were said in a careful, even tone that he'd long associated with Cathy's deeper secrets. She's protecting her daughter. Why?
Cathy sat down on the dinky chair across from him. "Joe, remember when I disappeared?"
Joe almost asked, "Which time?" but stopped himself. "Yeah, I remember. Your file said you disappeared for ten days, but couldn't remember who you'd been with and who took care of you." He said it carefully, but he could hear his words to Moreno when they'd discussed hiring her. Right. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. The police, as he remembered, hadn't found the story remotely believable either but under pressure from Cathy's father and her then-boyfriend, they'd dropped any further inquiry.
Joe watched as her hands tightened on her mug of tea. "That's not...entirely the truth, as I'm sure you've guessed. I'm about to tell you who took care of me, and I'll answer any questions you want answered. But I do ask that you keep this conversation a secret. A lot of very good people's lives depend on my silence---and now, yours."
Joe sat back on the couch and considered. Over the years, he'd made up any number of mental stories to explain Cathy's mysteries but failed to come up with any one explanation that would explain everything. So he'd learned to let it go; Cathy's work was above-par no matter what, and beyond that, he was her friend. And he wanted to remain her friend. "All right. So, what happened?" he asked.
A brief look of amusement flitted across her face. "I've been told I should start with 'once upon a time,' but that's not quite it..."
Two hours, one beer and one large pizza later, Joe stared in frank amazement at the fire. "I don't believe this." Maybe that bridge in Brooklyn really is for sale after all....
"I know," she said softly.
He remembered the pictures in some of the cases she'd worked, the men who'd been slaughtered. "The men who died. You know who did that?" It was the greatest of Radcliffe's Secrets, and the one that he'd always had the hardest time reconciling with her. She was fierce, but not lethal, not like that.
"Yes. It was self-defense," Catherine replied, a touch too evenly.
"Isn't that a matter for the courts to decide?" he shot back. Joe had a very dim view of vigilantes.
"Joe. I know I've put you in a tough spot."
He leaned back in his chair. "'Tough' doesn't begin to describe it. I'm an officer of the court, Cathy. I can't ignore what I saw."
"Isn't that what you've been doing all along? You saw the files, you could have asked me at any time what was going on, but you didn't. You never asked," she said reasonably, not denying or defending anything.
Joe swallowed a mouthful of beer, and considered. "You're right. I could have asked, but I didn't. I wasn't the only one who noticed."
Cathy paled. "Who else?" she managed to get out. And Joe wondered then, about the cost of living a double life. The people she protected must be something special, to make her live like that.
Joe placed the beer bottle on a coaster. "Moreno noticed. Even brought it up to me once or twice. But the results you got were just too good, and he...stopped noticing. I imagine there were other things he had on his mind," Joe finished, bitterly. His mouth twisted as he remembered the friendship he'd had with Moreno, whom he'd once thought a good, decent man. How many other people did you betray, John?
A flash of motion from the balcony caught his eye. "Who's out there?" He tensed, thinking of prowlers, until he remembered that Cathy was seventeen floors up; most prowlers wouldn't bother.
Cathy smiled. "That would be Vincent. His father is the one who took care of me. And he's the other part of the secret."
Joe put two and two together and got five, and from the warmth in her smile and eyes, he was sure he wasn't wrong. It sure wasn't a look she'd ever given Elliot Burch...or him, for that matter. "And Hannah's father?"
Cathy nodded, slowly. "And Hannah's father."
The balcony doors opened slowly and Joe felt all of his casual, ordinary assumptions about what was possible begin to dissolve. "Holy shit." If he hadn't put his beer bottle down, he'd have dropped it.
The---man? beast?---was well over six feet, broad-shouldered and....abruptly, Joe's mind ran out of adjectives to describe him. Lion? Man? Something in between, but neither? He didn't know. "Mr. Maxwell," the man said, in a low cultured voice, "my name is Vincent. I am Catherine's husband."
Joe tried to imagine the two of them together, delicate, petite Cathy and this giant of a man. It wasn't as hard as he'd thought.. His world had already been rocked by a monster wearing the face of a good man, and it seemed entirely possible to him, somehow, that a good and decent man might be behind the lion's face.
And then there was the other, more important factor: Cathy was happy. Happier than he'd ever seen her with any number of suitors who'd tried to claim her, happier than he'd ever seen her, period. And Vincent loved Cathy; it was there for anyone with half a brain to see. Besides after a whole night of shocks---a community living under the streets of New York? Cathy protecting them all these years?---Joe simply wanted to see where this all was going.
Joe's eyes slid back to Cathy. "You never told me you were married."
"You never asked," she responded, amused. Cathy gestured towards Vincent. "And now you see why I couldn't tell you."
"The home she told you of, and the people who live there, are the only place I can survive," Vincent said, resting one clawed hand on Cathy's shoulder. "She trusts you, as do I."
"And Hannah...looks like you?" Joe managed, a bit nervously. He felt Vincent's eyes on him, measuring him, ready to defend Cathy and his family no matter the cost. And Vincent's claws explained all too clearly what had happened to the men who'd threatened Cathy. All right. "Self-defense," she says. He defended her, saved her life. Am I gonna prosecute him for that? Put her through that? No. I may be an officer of the court, but I haven't seen a thing.Vincent nodded. "She does."
Joe tried to imagine that, failed, and settled for drinking more of his beer. "What happened to you?" He realized as soon as he spoke the words that it came out sounding harsh, accusatory. Great job, counselor. Why don't you get the guy mad at you already?
Vincent smiled slightly, revealing the sharp tips of fangs. "I don't know. I was abandoned by my parents as a baby and brought to the tunnel community. There is only me…and now, Hannah."
"Cathy, why did you tell me all this tonight?"
A look passed between Cathy and Vincent, one which left Joe with the distinct impression that there was a whole other level of conversation going on. Impossible. And yet, there's a six foot tall lion in Cathy's living room, whom she's married. And she's had his child. Who am I to say what's impossible? "Joe, I haven't ever told anyone this. I'm telling you because I trust you and because we want you to be there at our daughter's Naming Ceremony."
"It's how a child is welcomed by our community," Vincent said, by way of explanation.
Joe relaxed minutely. He was an uncle to any number of nieces and nephews; this was something he understood. "Of course I'll be there. How do I....?"
"A helper—that's someone who helps the community, Joe----will come for you Thursday evening. You'll get a note from the sandwich seller the day before with the time."
"The sandwich seller? Gary?" This was becoming more surreal by the minute. He wondered how many other people in his life were helpers, that he would never have known or suspected.
"Gary," Cathy confirmed wryly. "So don't turn your nose up when he offers you a tongue sandwich, okay?"
Joe chuckled. He had noticed Cathy occasionally buying some odd sandwiches, but would never have thought that to be a signal of any kind. "Will do."
Another of those looks passed between Cathy and Vincent. "Is there anything you would like to ask, Joe?" Vincent asked.
Joe had never thought himself a particularly imaginative man, but all he had seen and heard tonight stretched his imagination, his beliefs about what was possible and normal, into directions he’d never thought they’d go. "I’m sure I’ll think of something later," he murmured.
Cathy laughed. "You’re certainly handling it better than I did when I first met Vincent," she said wryly.
Joe raised his eyebrows, feeling that there must be quite the story there. And relaxed. Leaving out that one of the people in Cathy’s living room was a six-foot tall lion, he might have been having this same conversation with any other friend. Emily Post sure never covered this situation, he thought wryly. "Let me guess," he said lightly to Vincent, "she flirted with you and you fell for her at first sight?" He waggled his finger at Cathy. "You uptown girls, I tell ya…"
Cathy threw a pillow at him. "Not quite," she laughed. "I threw a headlight at Vincent."
"I startled her," Vincent said mildly, clearly not bothered by the memory at all. "She hadn’t seen me the entire time she’d been ill because her face was bandaged."
"And you missed, right?" Joe asked, remembering that Cathy had never been able to land a dart on his dartboard.
Cathy smiled, more than a little ruefully. "Nope. Hit him right on the side of his forehead. He probably still has the scar."
Joe thought, suddenly, that something like that could have ended their relationship, that Vincent could have shown Cathy the way home and never talked to her again. But he hadn’t. He’d returned, again, and again, risked everything, because he loved her. This was clearly no one-sided infatuation, this was love, alive and present.
He smiled as he noticed Cathy holding back a yawn. Right. Newborn at home. Wherever home is. "Look, it's getting late and I need to get home. Cathy, it's been a pleasure." He stood, glanced at Vincent's blue eyes set in that strange, leonine face, and held out his hand. Vincent shook his hand, gently, though Joe was very much aware of the restrained strength behind that grasp. "And Vincent...it's been amazing."
The next day was the usual humdrum: arranging for coverage of yet another hearing that Abner had forgotten about, settling a thousand and one details that came with the job yet made him feel unmercifully tired. He hadn't gone to law school to be an administrator; what he lived for, thrived on, were the trials. Cathy would be great in the Trial Division. Get her off the streets, out of investigations, into a safer job. I'll ask her when she comes back. And maybe once the dust from all of this settles, and they find someone who really wants to be the DA, I'll join her there.
As the day wore on, Joe found himself awaiting the sandwich cart like a child at Christmas. Sure enough, there was that tongue sandwich on rye, and tucked in between the mustard packet and the salt and pepper packets was another note: 6pm. Your apartment. Wear layers. C. He tucked the enigmatic note into his pocket and felt a smile breaking out on his face. Already, the day was looking up.
Joe dumped the rest of the sandwich in the garbage----tongue sandwich? People eat that?---and bolted for the door. "Rita," he called on the way out. "I'm taking a long lunch. Tell Abner I said that if he misses one more court appearance, he can go back to prosecuting misdemeanor avocado rustling."
"Right, Boss," she said, grinning. "Enjoy your lunch!"
Joe waved back at her, smiling in return. He was going on an adventure tonight and old boyhood memories rose up of excitement and the joy of a new place, a new experience---of camping with his brothers, of scuba diving, the first time he kissed a girl (Alice Martinelli from the next street over; her father had come out just in time to see them and had not been thrilled that his only girl was being kissed by Joey Maxwell.) Hailing a cab, he gave the address of the nearest toy store. Every baby needed a stuffed tiger. Especially, as Joe smiled again, remembering, if her father was a giant lion.
It was just starting to rain by the time the doorbell rang at his apartment, precisely at 6pm. Joe looked through the peephole and found a teenaged girl. Dressed as she was, there was nothing to particularly indicate that she came from Vincent's world, except for the patched-together look of her garments. "Mr. Maxwell?" she called out. "I'm Jamie. Catherine asked me to bring you down."
Joe put on his jacket, grabbed the wrapped gift and bolted the door shut behind him. "Mr. Maxwell was my dad. I'm just Joe. Nice to meet you, Jamie."
Jamie gestured towards the elevator. "We need to go to your basement. There's a threshold there."
The way she said it made something prickle in Joe's memory. Stories he'd heard from his aunt or his grandfather, of miles and miles of tunnels and chambers abandoned deep below the earth, accompanied with the usual rueful laugh about city waste and inefficiency. "Access? You mean most buildings have them?"
Jamie looked at him as if he'd said the earth didn't orbit the sun. "Of course," she replied, as if it was the most common thing it in the world. Joe reflected that to her, it probably was. "Most of the older ones do. The others...we can add to, if there's need."
He'd been in and out of that basement a thousand times and never would have guessed..."Right. So it's through the looking glass for us, eh?"
Jamie giggled, which made her look and sound years younger than her age. "We don't have any white rabbits, though."
The first thing that struck him about the tunnels was just how big they were. The pathways were long and meandering, with switchbacks and turns and with no signs, no signals to indicate which way to go in any particular direction. "I don't see how you ever learned your way around this place," Joe commented.
"I've lived here since I was a kid. It's not easy at first; I think Father keeps the chalk companies in business up-top," Jamie replied.
"Chalk?" Joe didn't immediately understand, but then he thought of the old myths he'd loved as a boy, of Theseus and his ball of twine in the minotaur's lair, and understood. "Oh. What color did you use?"
Jamie grinned. "Purple. It stands out."
"What color did Vincent use?" Joe asked idly, as they came to another fork and Jamie turned right. He wondered if some of these paths were designed to confuse visitors, and decided that he didn't much blame them. The people down here had a right to their secrecy.
"You know, I don't think Vincent ever needed to use it. Aside from Mouse, he knows these tunnels better than all of us."
"Mouse?" Joe asked.
A faint blush rose to Jamie's cheeks in the dimness. "Ah, so it's like that, eh?" Joe teased.
"He's just a friend," Jamie said, but the blush deepened.
"Like Cathy and Vincent are friends?"
Jamie smiled again. "Well, they started out that way." Abruptly, she stopped and picked up a rock to beat out a swift tattoo on the overhead pipes. "I'm just letting them know I picked you up."
"It sounded like Morse code," Joe said, remembering his grandfather's stories of World War II.
"It is," Jamie said. "Or was. It's changed a lot over the years; Pascal could probably talk your ear off about it."
At length they came to a narrower tunnel where, surprisingly, Joe felt the first stirrings of a draft. "We're almost there," Jamie called over her shoulder.
"Where?" Joe called back. The draft was getting stronger. Wind? Weather? Down here?
"The Chamber of the Winds," Jamie replied, louder. "Take my hand; there's no rails on the stairs."
Joe took her small hand in his own as she guided him down the steps. The crosswinds were furious, tugging at his hand and coat and the pink bow on the package. This was a wild place, a dangerous place, one with its own rhythms. Granddad, your tales didn't cover the half of it. They came to a giant wooden door, one that Jamie surely shouldn't have been able to push open on her own, and yet, it gave, if not without a bit of resistance.
The next thing Joe saw, once his eyes adjusted to the light was candlelight. And people---hundreds of people. "Surely they all don't live down here?" Joe asked in astonishment.
"No," Jamie said, "a lot of them are helpers. Our community isn't this large."
Over in a corner, he saw a table laden with gifts and just beyond it, Vincent and Catherine, holding a bundle he assumed was their daughter. They were talking to an older man who was leaning on a cane. Despite the size of the crowd, it all seemed very comfortable. There were musicians playing something vaguely folk that reminded him of the last time he'd been at a Renaissance Fair, and children scampering in and out of the crowds, laughing.
This was family. This was home. And it hit him then: he'd been in crowds before, larger ones than this, and felt alone. Not here. These people knew one another, and although they might disagree or argue, they were there for each other, each of them guarding the secrets protected here.
Joe smiled as he saw Cathy wave at him from across the room. "Jamie, would you excuse me?"
Jamie smiled back. "No problem. I've got to keep an eye on Mouse anyway." And she was off like a shot, finding another teenager with a shock of rough-cut blond hair standing next to the punch bowl.
He found himself chuckling as he made his way over to Cathy. "Hi, Joe," she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. "I'm glad you made it." She turned to the older man. "Father, this is Joe Maxwell. He's my---"
"Overseer, task-master, boss, friend," Joe finished for her. "Did I cover everything?"
Cathy laughed. "I'd say that about covers it."
There was something familiar about the old guy, something Joe couldn't quite place. Then he remembered; last year, Cathy coming back from an interview in in the Tombs so distracted, and hastily stuffing a file back into her briefcase. The file had had this man's face on it. And Joe had pressed for a reason, a real one this time, and Cathy had given him what even then he'd sensed was a heavily edited version of the truth. "Wait a second. This is where you knew him from? Benjamin Darrow?"
Cathy gazed at him evenly. "Yes. That was the name he was released under. It's not his real name, but I couldn't tell you that then. But the rest of what I told you was true: he was wrongly accused."
The man Cathy called Father pinned Joe with one sharp grey gaze, like a hawk's. "Catherine saved my life, and not for the first time."
Joe smiled and felt the mood lift again. "She's good at that."
The bundle in Vincent's arm stirred. "Can I see her?" Joe asked.
Vincent nodded, lifting the blanket slightly. Joe peered at the infant girl and was unutterably charmed. She looked like her father, all right: kitten face, Cathy's green eyes, and a mass of curly red hair. But the features that could look so forbidding on her father were, frankly, cute in Vincent's daughter. Get my sisters down here and they'd be oohing and awwing for hours, Joe thought, wryly. He wasn't too far from that himself. "She's lovely," Joe said, and noticed that Cathy and Vincent were both smiling, though Vincent's smile looked a little off, owing to the presence of fangs.
Father blinked rapidly. "You did well in your choice, Catherine," he said. Recovering, he said briskly, "Now that everyone's here, I suppose we should start this before the guest of honor sleeps her way through the party."
Joe watched as he moved to the center of the crowd and thought that no matter how long he knew these people, he'd never get to the end of their stories. The old man was their leader, that much was obvious. Who had Father been, before he came here? How had this place been created? And why?
Joe's musings were interrupted by the sudden hush that fell over the crowd. "Catherine, Vincent, would you come up here please?" Father asked. Cathy and Vincent moved to the center of the crowd.
"It has been said that the child is the meaning of this life. Today we celebrate the child - this new life that has been brought into our world. We welcome the child with love that she may be able to love. We welcome the child with gifts that she may learn generosity, and we welcome the child with a name. Catherine and Vincent, what name have you chosen for your daughter?"
"Hannah Caroline," they said as one.
"Hannah Caroline," Father repeated, "we welcome you to our home and into our lives."
And Joe thought then, that if he lived a long and fruitful life, he'd never see anything quite as magical as that child of possibility, of hope and imagination and love, welcomed by her family.
The End (for now)