It must have been Vincent's kiss that woke her, because Catherine opened her eyes to a world consisting only of his face. The curtain of his hair fell around her, cutting off the rest of the universe.
"Catherine...I must go." Vincent straightened and retrieved his cape from the bedside chair. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"If you didn't want to wake me, you should never have kissed me. The day I sleep through that you can have Father pronounce me dead." She threw back the covers and rose to slip her arms around him.
"You should stay in bed--you'll get cold," Vincent admonished gently. He held her close, and she knew it was more to put off the moment of leaving than to keep her warm.
"My robe is here somewhere..." Retrieving the elusive garment from the floor, she slipped into it. "It may only take a minute to walk you to the balcony, but it's another minute I get to spend with you." Catherine took his hand as they walked slowly to the french doors. "I probably won't sleep after you leave, anyway. I'll just lie in bed and think."
"About what, if I may ask?" Vincent looked at her curiously as they reached the balcony.
"I'm not sure I want to tell you everything I think about," she laughed. "All the magazines say a woman should maintain an aura of mystery; they don't tell how I'm supposed to do that with a lover who knows all my emotions."
"You don't really mind, do you?" he asked worriedly.
"Of course not, dear heart...it's one of the many unique and wonderful things I love about you. I just wish our bond worked as well in the other direction." She hugged him fiercely, burying her face against his neck. "I always worry that something will happen to you and I won't know about it in time."
"You still haven't told me what you think about."
"Vincent, that is an utterly transparent effort to distract me."
"Is it working?" he asked innocently. "Actually, I think a lot about sailors, astronauts, archaeologists..."
"Surprised you, didn't I? Glad I can still do that. I think about people like that because they're people whose work can keep them away from their families for long periods of time. That sort of thing has been happening for at least a few millenia, and it still happens now. Sometimes I need to remind myself our problems are not so unique...or insurmountable."
"Does it help?" Vincent asked her gently as he drew her closer.
"A little. It helps to remember that we're not the only lovers who aren't able to spend as much time together as we'd like. It does more for my brain, though, than it does for my heart." She smiled a rueful smile as she gently stroked his cheek.
"It won't be too long this time. You do still plan to come Below this weekend?"
"You'll see me Friday night." Her face lit up with anticipation. "I might be a bit late--I promised to have dinner with an old family friend. She was very close to my grandmother, and she's almost eighty now. I don't want to pass up a chance to see her."
"Until then ... take care, love." With a last brush of his lips against her forehead, Vincent disappeared into the night.
You take care, Vincent. Catherine stayed on the balcony, oblivious to the winter cold. All her concentration was focused on a feeling at the edge of awareness, like dissonance just at the threshold of hearing. Not until it resolved into the harmony that told her Vincent was safe in the Tunnels did she return to the bed where his warmth still lingered. She did not sleep again.
"Earth to Radcliffe; EARTH TO RADCLIFFE."
"What? Did you say something, Joe?"
"I asked you how the deposition went. Three times. And don't even try to pretend you were engrossed in those case files instead of staring at the wall."
"Oops. Caught in the act by the boss. The deposition went beautifully; when McCarthy decided to come clean I couldn't have shut him up to save my life. We've got more than enough evidence to put away his disgusting brother-in-law for a good long time."
"I don't know how you do it, Radcliffe. Who'da thunk a socialite ex-corporate lawyer was hiding such a talent for getting so many of New York's finest scumbags to spill their guts? For an Ivy League type like you it's just ... "
"Must be a slow Friday afternoon, boss, if you have all this time to chat with the help. Oh, no--don't tell me you've lost your darts!"
"Very funny, Chandler. Pretty nervy remark for an underling caught wool-gathering. Thought I forgot, huh?"
"What you call wool-gathering, counselor, is just that Ivy League brain of mine working away," Catherine said lightly.
"Yeah. Right." Joe's voice turned suddenly serious. "Cath, you know you can talk to me anytime...if you need any time off or anything...look, you know I was only kidding about you goofing off, don't you? Your schedule may be kind of erratic but you turn out more work here than any two people.."
"Joe, Joe..." Catherine interrupted his earnest speech. "Things are fine, honestly. I know I've seemed a little distracted lately but I promise you there's nothing wrong. Do I seem unhappy to you?"
"Actually, Chandler, that's one of the things that drives me crazy. You're too damn happy for someone who doesn't seem to do anything but work. I know you care about your job but...shit! It's none of my business. I just want to make sure you're OK." Joe seemed suddenly fascinated with Catherine's paper clip holder.
"Joe," Catherine said gently, "for an only child I think I have a remarkably good idea of what it must be like to have a big brother."
"Hey, Radcliffe, I'm just protecting the city's investment; it's not easy to find people who want jobs with long hours and low pay, you know."
"Well," Joe said briskly, "looks like quitting time to me. Hope you're not taking those case reports home with you again."
"As a matter of fact, I'm doing no such thing. I'm going out to dinner tonight, and going away for the weekend. Case reports have no place in my plans."
"Going out to dinner?" Joe perked up. "So, who is he, Radcliffe?"
"She is Edna Davies, and she was my Grandmother Chandler's best friend. I haven't seen her in a while, and I've been very fond of her ever since I was a child. She's a widow and neither of her children live in New York anymore, so I try to visit her as often as I can. She particularly wanted me to come tonight, and I love to visit her; it doesn't take much persuading to get me there."
"Edna Davies...why does that sound familiar?" Joe asked.
"Her husband was Richard Davies, the actor. His obituary was in the Times when he died last year. He was fine man as well as a wonderful actor; they were married for over fifty years."
"Yeah!" Joe exclaimed. "Wasn't their some scandal about her marrying him?" he asked hopefully.
Catherine shook her head helplessly. "I forgot the Enquiring Star is more your speed. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but the only scandal was her family being huffy about her marrying a penniless actor. They've been in New York since it was New Amsterdam. Even after Richard ended up rich and famous they never quite got over it."
Gathering up coat and briefcase, Catherine made her way toward the exit. "If I don't get going I'll be late. Have a nice weekend, Joe." She slipped quickly out the door before Joe realized she hadn't said anything about her plans for the rest of the weekend.
"Cathy, dear, how lovely to see you again. My dear child, you look more beautiful every time I see you."
"Edna, somehow I have doubts about your objectivity," Catherine laughed. "But I, of course, am being absolutely objective when I tell you how wonderful you look. It's good to see you back to your usual self."
"I was rather depressing to be around after Richard died, wasn't I? I always knew he was likely to go first. The damn Van der Meers live forever, after all. But it was still harder than I ever expected."
Catherine tucked the older woman's arm into hers as they moved into the front parlor, where the fire brought out the warm patina of old wood and subtly glowing carpets. "You loved Richard very much. I always knew the two of you had something very special. Losing him must have been devastating."
Catherine's voice must have revealed more than she intended; she intercepted a searching look from Edna that was altogether too wise for comfort.
"Would you pour the sherry, dear?" Edna asked quietly.
Catherine jumped at the chance with a concentration unwarranted by the task at hand. "Have you heard from those wonderful children of yours lately?"
Somehow Edna's smile made her look remarkably like a patient cat who knows the mouse will appear and is in no hurry to speed events forward. Catherine's attention was devoted solely to the sherry. "Bronwyn is very happy with Robin and loves San Francisco--she has a new book coming out next month, as a matter of fact. David and Maria are planning to spend a lot of time doing research in the Carribean after school lets out this summer."
"Are they taking the children with them?" Catherine relaxed at the innocuous turn the conversation was taking.
"For part of the time, at least. They're old enough now, and spending the summer crawling around a boat and living like marine mammals sounds like the sort of thing any reasonably adventurous child would absolutely adore."
"And any grandchildren of yours would have to be more than reasonably adventurous, of course." Catherine smiled fondly at the older woman. "It must be hard to live so far away from them, though," she sympathized.
"Not half so hard as having them live in New York being miserable," Edna announced firmly. "I admit when my son decided he wanted to be a marine biologist I had in mind a nice career at Woods Hole...how was I to know he was going to specialize in tropical species? Richard and I raised very intelligent children, though. If one is going to spend a large part of one's career on water, after all, the North Atlantic leaves something to be desired...especially in winter."
"I had a chance to talk to Bronwyn and David quite a lot when they were here for the funeral," Catherine said. "They seemed worried about you living in New York all by yourself."
"Obviously. They colluded on a security system for this house that would be the envy of Fort Knox. I'm sure they would have added a moat and drawbridge if they could have gotten a permit."
"It's a wonderful house, full of very beautiful things worth protecting," Catherine insisted. "Especially its owner."
"You've always been particularly fond of this house, haven't you dear?" Edna asked. "Ever since you were a child."
"It's a wonderful house!" Catherine responded enthusiastically. "I always felt so at home here, so safe...of course, that's because you and Richard made it that way..."
"Partly..." Edna agreed. "But this house was special long before I ever met Richard. It's been in our family for a long time, and I know that it was special to my mother, too. That's why she left it to me instead of to my brothers. She knew that to them it was real estate, but to me it was home. It won't be easy to leave it."
"Leave it?" Catherine was startled by the sudden revelation. "What do you mean?"
"For years David and Maria have been trying to convince me to come to live with them in Florida. Since Richard died, New York has lost much of its charm for me. I've decided to accept."
"Catherine, I hope you weren't about to make some remark about making such a change at my age? Oh, don't look so embarrassed, child," Edna laughed delightedly. "Getting in a rut is no prescription for longevity! I can hardly wait to do something different. Key Largo has always been one of my favorite movies, you know. I'm rather looking forward to a touch of tropical decadence in my declining years. Maybe I can entice Burt Reynolds away ... that was a joke, dear."
"I ... I'm sorry Edna, it's just that ... well, I'll miss you very much. Are you sure you'll be happy away from New York after all this time?"
"Quite sure. After all, there's nothing to keep me in New York anymore." The older woman fixed Catherine with an uncomfortably steady gaze.
"Whatever do you mean?" Catherine asked. Her attempt at innocent incomprehension sounded unconvincing even to herself. Edna rose from her chair and held out her hand to Catherine with a knowing smile.
"Cathy, dear. We are going to have a lovely dinner now. You are going to stop pretending you don't have the faintest idea what I'm talking about. Then, I am going to show you some things no one outside our family has ever seen ... and lastly I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse. I hope."
Catherine prowled around her apartment, trying to think of anything she may have forgotten to pack for her weekend Below. She found concentration difficult; the implications of the evening she had just spent with Edna seemed to grow with every passing moment. All the restlessness of the past month, all her feelings of distraction and expectation suddenly seemed to come to a head. Halting in the middle of her living room, she stared at her surroundings like she had never seen them before.
When had this place begun to seem alien to her? She had come here with such a sense of renewal--glad to leave the apartment in SoHo tainted with such unpleasant memories of Stephen, glad to begin her working life under the proud eye of her father. The home that had once seemed so airy and sun- drenched felt strangely insubstantial to her then, as if it might dissolve in the light.
She wandered into the bedroom and picked up the book of poetry on the nightstand, leafing through it to find the poem that reminded her of Vincent.
When I too long have looked upon your face,
Wherein for me a brightness unobscured
Save by the mists of brightness has its place,
And terrible beauty not to be endured,
I turn away reluctant from your light,
And stand irresolute, a mind undone,
A silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight
From having looked too long upon the sun.
Then is my daily life a narrow room
In which a little while, uncertainly,
Surrounded by impenetrable gloom,
Among familiar things grown strange to me
Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark,
Till I become accustomed to the dark.
How could her feelings be so contradictory? One moment this place was ready to dissolve into light; without Vincent it seemed to have no light at all. Catherine sat down on the bed and sighed. These days her life seemed a fragile thread stretched between air and earth, light and dark, Above and Below.
Lying down on the bed, Catherine thought of the first time she and Vincent had made love there. For over two years she had despaired of getting him merely to cross her threshold. When he finally did, it was only because he hardly realized what he was doing. He had always been so reluctant to enter her apartment Catherine suspected that in some unconscious way it symbolized her body to him. They had made love for the very first time Below... She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, remembering ...
Catherine clamped down on her emotions and sprang from the bed shaking her head. Several amusing if embarrassing incidents had taught her the effect her erotic daydreams had on Vincent; Cullen still made cryptic remarks that provided her with the interesting knowledge that Vincent was able to blush. Laughing to herself, she picked up her bag and set out for the basement.
"Jamie! I was expecting Vincent to meet me--there's nothing wrong, is there?"
"No, it's OK, Vincent's fine," Jamie reassured her. "But Samantha's got a bad cold and insisted she couldn't possibly sleep if Vincent didn't read her The Hobbit again."
"And Vincent, of course, caved in immediately." Catherine smiled indulgently. "Actually I'm rather glad he's not here right now."
"He said I should take you to Samantha's chamber as soon as- -what did you say?"
"Jamie, please don't look like somebody just told you there's no Santa Claus! It's just that I need to talk to you and Mouse about something I don't want Vincent to know about--at least not yet."
"A surprise for Vincent? Great--but that's not easy to do."
"Tell me about it," Catherine agreed ruefully. "But this is going to be a big one, if I get the right answer from Mouse. If I do, I'll need lots of help...from you and Mouse and maybe Cullen. No, definitely Cullen. He owes Vincent one..."
"Yeah, I never knew Vincent could blush."
"Jamie! Just what do you know about why he was blushing?" Catherine asked, mortified.
"Well, word kind of spreads around here...maybe it's because we don't have television."
"Besides, Vincent always told us curiosity was important so we could learn ... and I've just learned you're pretty good at blushing yourself." Jamie's look of mock innocence was lost on Catherine, who had suddenly developed a consuming need to inspect the texture of the floor as they headed for Mouse's lair.
Catherine hugged herself happily as she approached Samantha's chamber. Mouse had been encouraging; she was beginning to realize her plan was really possible. Not until now had she dared to believe it. The great challenge would be keeping things from Vincent. He would know she was hiding something but so long as he knew she was happy he wouldn't press the issue, assuming she was planning some little surprise. This time he'd be half right...this was a very big surprise.
Approaching the chamber quietly, Catherine let the unmistakeable sound of the beautiful and familiar voice wash over her...
"And so at last they all came to the Last Homely House, and found its doors flung wide.
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave. Bilbo would gladly have stopped there for ever and ever--even supposing a wish would have taken him right back to his hobbit-hole without trouble. Yet there is little to tell about their stay.
The master of the house was an elf-friend..."
"Cathy!" Samantha's cry was delighted if a little hoarse. "You better not hug me, I could still be catching."
"How about if I blow you a kiss and hug Vincent instead?" Catherine asked very seriously.
Samantha grinned. "I bet Vincent would like that."
"Vincent would indeed," he agreed. Catherine suited the deed to the word and curled up next to Vincent.
"Are you going to stay all weekend?" Samantha asked hopefully.
"Two whole days," Catherine said happily. "I don't have to go back until Sunday night, so I can relieve Vincent from a few chapters here and there."
"That'd be neat," Samantha agreed. "I like the way you read almost as much as Vincent."
"Well, that's high praise." Catherine whispered conspiratorially to Samantha. "I like his reading best, too."
Accepting the book from an amused Vincent, Catherine curled against him and began to read. All the frustrations of her hectic week melted away as the rhythmn of the words and the comfort of Vincent's presence wove an almost palpable web of peace around her. As Samantha's eyelids slowly descended, Catherine felt a rush of emotion that could only be coming from Vincent. The flood of love and longing almost caused her to lose her place. Soon she stopped. Samantha was clearly asleep. Quietly putting the book aside, Catherine turned to look at Vincent. No bond was needed to read the emotions clearly mirrored on that loved face. Dear Vincent, she thought as her finger touched his lips. If wishing could make it so... Very quietly they rose and left the room.
Vincent took Catherine's hand as they walked slowly in the direction of his chamber. "Samantha isn't the only one who's glad you have two days to spend with us."
Well," Catherine smiled up at him, "that means there are at least three people who are pretty happy about it."
"A lot more than three," Vincent replied. "Father is determined to have you as a chess partner, Kipper is planning some manner of theatrical presentation, Mouse can hardly wait to show you his latest invention..."
"Good grief!" Catherine exclaimed. "You'd think I'd been away for months instead of spending most of my weekends here."
"It's been several weeks since you've been able to spend both days of a weekend Below," Vincent reminded her. He shook his head. "It wasn't very long ago that having you here for that much time would have seemed a miracle." He stopped and turned to face her, cupping her chin in his hand. "How quickly we become used to miracles."
Catherine traced the line of his jaw with her finger. "Are any of these exciting events planned for tonight?"
"No. I explained you would be late and convinced all your admirers not to descend upon you until tomorrow."
"Then perhaps we could just go to bed," Catherine said softly.
"Are you tired?" Vincent whispered.
"Not in the least."
"Then we shall definitely go to bed."
"Rita--where the hell is Chandler?" Joe looked around the office as if she might suddenly emerge from the woodwork.
"She's on her lunch hour. We are entitled to those at least twice a week, aren't we?" Rita asked drily.
"Chandler's having a bad influence on you, Rita; you never used to be such a smart mouth."
"I guess learning to be one is an important part of my legal training, Sir."
"Definitely a bad influence. Maybe I should ...Chandler! There you are."
Catherine deposited several bulging shopping bags in a reasonably safe corner. "Yes, here I am, Joe. I work here, remember?"
"Very funny. Aren't you taking pretty long lunch hours this week?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. It's important to get away in the middle of the day when you stay until eight p. m. as often as I do," she informed Joe pointedly.
"And what's with this shop till you drop bit?" he asked her, curious. "You reverting to type or something? Since you started this job, I swear you wouldn't take the time to eat if you couldn't get groceries delivered. But you've spent more time shopping in the past month than in the two years before that. What are you up to?"
"Maybe I do it for fun." Catherine struggled to pull off her snow-caked boots and hang up her damp coat.
"Chandler, anybody who's idea of fun is trooping around the streets in of New York in February when they could be comfortable in a nice, warm office ... c'mon, what gives?"
"Joe, were you looking for me to ask about my shopping habits, or did it have something to do with the job?" Catherine smiled sweetly at her boss.
"I give up ... I can't even get a rise out of you anymore." Joe motioned Catherine toward his office."Ever since you came back from Christmas vacation you've been acting weirder than usual. In the past month you've been so cheerful it's driving me nuts."
Catherine ignored his obvious invitation to explain and simply gave him an enigmatic smile. "Poor Joe, saddled with cheerful employees." Her voiced dripped with sympathy. "You've seen the last of the major shopping for awhile--but you're stuck with cheerful. In fact, it'll probably get worse."
Despite her teasing, Catherine took pity on Joe. She had tried to put a damper on her feelings at work, but she was simply too happy for the change not to be noticeable to someone as close to her as Joe. She was sure his feelings were hurt, thinking that she didn't trust him. Even if she didn't have promises to keep, telling Joe about Vincent and his world wasn't fair. It was hard enough for her to walk the tightrope between her professional ethics and her responsibility to those Below. She didn't want to put Joe in a position like that; his job meant too much to him. Besides, she knew in her heart that her deepest loyalties were not to the laws of the City and County of New York--at least not the part above ground. She couldn't be sure Joe would make the same choice. It was too big a risk to take. She decided she could at least assuage his curiosity about the shopping. Just before she left for the day, she tucked a note into his desk blotter: Check the latest addition to my personnel file.
Early the following afternoon, Father looked up as Vincent, his hair still slightly damp from washing, entered the central chambers.
"Vincent, I wondered when I'd see you. Mouse came by a while ago and told me you had finished the aqueduct extension."
"Mouse," Vincent said somewhat testily, "was long on planning but short on execution. I didn't expect to be away this long, but members of my crew seemed to keep disappearing to work on other projects. I had to stop by one of the bathing pools on my way back to make me fit for civilized society."
"Now, Vincent, you know we have much to do at this time of year before the spring rains come. Besides, considering Mouse's experiences in the past, I would think his absence would be to your advantage."
"At least he knows how to swim now." Vincent smiled. Teaching Mouse how was not an experience either would soon forget.
Father leaned back in his chair. "I'm gratified you were so eager to return to your dear old Father," he chuckled.
"Of course, I was anxious to see you as well, Father."
"Of course. The fact that several hours still remain before dark has nothing to with the fact that you're still sitting here with me."
Vincent shrugged his shoulders in unspoken acknowledgement. "Can you blame me for being eager to see her, Father? It was hard enough to be apart before, but now ... "
"My boy, you spent most of your life believing such a love was impossible for you; it is hardly surprising that you want to immerse yourself in it, now that Catherine has shown you that you you were wrong ... that I was wrong."
Leaning forward, Father clasped his hands between his knees. "Vincent," he said earnestly, "I really did believe it was impossible. I was so positive she would only bring you pain in the end. I have never been more wrong, and I deeply regret any pain I may have caused you both."
"It was my belief as well. You could not have been more discouraging to Catherine than I was. How grateful I am," he said with feeling, "that she is not easily discouraged."
"Still ..." Father struggled with his words. "I sometimes wonder if I was right in teaching you to be so unselfish. You are not just torn between Above and Below, but between your desire to be with her and your loyalty to this community. Sometimes I think we take advantage of both of you. We depend on your strength to protect us, even take it for granted, despite the pain it brings you ... "
"Father ... "
"No, let me finish. We take advantage of Catherine as well. She stays Above partly because she is of more use to our community there. You know that's true."
Vincent moved to sit on the floor beside Father's chair. "She is of use there to many who need her. Believe me, Father, it brings her great satisfaction to give to others--she has told me how grateful she is that we taught her how."
Vincent took Father's hand, smiling. "If we were together every minute of the day it would not seem like enough. Catherine once told me there is no life without limits. It is a good thing to remember--there are many lovers Above who are able to spend less time together than Catherine and I. If am given a bag of diamonds, do I complain because the bag is not velvet?"
"All your reading has certainly given you a gift for metaphor," Father replied gruffly. He gave Vincent a strange look. "Catherine is an amazing woman. So many things I was sure you could never have, she has given you. I have given up using the word 'impossible' in her presence. When it comes to you, she refuses to admit such a concept exists. Sometimes I wonder if there is any limit to what she can do ... time and again, she has dared to dream more for you than anyone thought possible, and time and again she has made the dreams come true."
Father reached out a hand to tenderly stroke his son's hair. He smiled a strange and enigmatic smile. "Never underestimate her."
Before Vincent could reply, a small whirlwind burst into the room, soon resolving itself into Mouse and Jamie.
"Vincent, come. Show you something!"
"Mouse, that's not polite," Jamie hissed. "You shouldn't interrupt."
Mouse scuttled down toward Father's chair. "It's OK, done talking--right?"
Father laughed and threw up his hands. "It would appear so."
Vincent looked curiously at the older man, surprised at such unexpected good humor. Indeed, Father seemed to be in a remarkably good mood all of a sudden--not an effect Mouse's behavior usually produced in him.
"Are you sure, Father?"
"Oh, go ahead. Mouse and Jamie are obviously quite eager to show you one of their projects. Perhaps it will give you something to occupy your mind for the next several hours," he told his son pointedly.
Vincent considered Mouse, who was hopping from one foot to the other in his eagerness, despite Jamie's whispered admonitions. Father might be right ...
"All right," Vincent acquiesced. "Lead on."
Before too long, they came to a little-used side tunnel in the upper levels which showed signs of recent activity. Branching off again, they came to what appeared to be a dead end. Beaming at Vincent's questioning look, Mouse demonstrated the mechanism that opened the well-concealed entrance. Mouse hopped up the newly revealed staircase, with a grinning Jamie and a curious Vincent following at a more sedate pace.
They came to a smooth wall, and Mouse showed Vincent the release which caused a section to swing inward. They were in what appeared to be some kind of wine cellar-cum-pantry, although the shelves held little. Mouse eagerly motioned Vincent toward the door.
"See, look through this hole, see if anybody's there. Neat, huh?"
Looking through into a basement, Vincent conceded it was neat. "What is this place? Mouse? Jamie?"
The usually dependable Jamie was beginning to act as inexplicably as Mouse. "You'll see. It's a surprise," she added, as if that were sufficient explanation for the time being.
Sighing, Vincent followed them up the basement stairs. Had it been only Mouse leading him on, he would have been considerably more reluctant, but surely Jamie would not be involved in anything too dubious. Following his two companions through the door at the top of the stairs, Vincent drew back with a sharp intake of breath.
"This is a private house--we shouldn't be here!"
Jamie took Vincent's hand and drew him forward, while Mouse eagerly attempted to reassure him. "House belongs to Helper. Mouse, Jamie and Cullen helped fix up entrances and stuff. Said we could show you. Honest!"
"It really is all right," Jamie added. "We wouldn't bring you here otherwise."
Jamie's sincerity convinced Vincent they were not trespassing, but he could not quite shake the feeling there was something he was not being told. Cautiously, he followed his erstwhile guides through the large, old-fashioned kitchen, into a room across the hallway. Entranced, he moved past them into its center.
It appeared to a study, or library. A fire burned, cheerful against the gloom of a winter afternoon. Its flames were reflected in the polished surfaces of the sturdy and elegantly simple furniture. Vincent reached out toward a nearby chair, almost touching its welcoming surface before he remembered where he was. The rich patina told him it was old and well-cared for; it looked like pieces he remembered from a book on furniture of the Arts and Crafts movement--what? seventy or eighty years ago? It had the sturdiness and simplicity of Below combined with the elegance he associated with the world Above.
Translucent curtains covered the barred windows beneath heavy drapes, so Vincent felt safe exploring further. A small table with an inlaid chessboard sat between two other chairs in a corner of the room, but no pieces were in evidence. A few lamps were lit, giving enough light to read the titles of the books that lined most of the walls from floor to ceiling. These books were clearly there to be read, not for show. They seemed to represent every subject under the sun--children's books in great profusion, art, literature, poetry, science--everything from old and venerable editions in the elaborate bindings of another era, to brand new books in their colorful dust jackets. He could lose himself in such a place ...
"Like it?" Jamie's voice from the doorway made him realize he had almost forgotten she and Mouse were there.
Scanning the shelves, entranced, Vincent replied without turning his head. "It's a wonderful place ... perfect ..." His voice was full of yearning.
"I'm so glad to hear you say that."
Vincent's hair flew across his cheek as he whipped around to face the door. "Catherine!"
The fire brought out the gold highlights in her hair and caused the silk of her blouse to shimmer like water as she walked slowly toward him, her eyes on his face. There was no sign of Jamie, or Mouse.
"Catherine--I don't understand--why are you here?"
Reaching him, Catherine took his hands in hers. Her voice was soft, but deep with feeling. "Because, my dear, dear love ... this is my house. This is our home."
Vincent stared at her, bereft of speech. A mixture of astonishment and dawning comprehension seemed to leave him rooted to the spot. Gently, she led him to the sofa that faced the fireplace and pulled him down to sit beside her.
"Vincent, you remember when I went to dinner with Edna Davies last month? She told me she was leaving New York to live with her son and his family in Florida. She loved this house, and didn't want it to go to just anyone."
Looking down at the hands she held, Catherine began to stroke her thumbs along their fur-covered backs. "Edna is very intuitive. She also knows what it's like to love someone others don't find ... acceptable. She suspected I might be in the same situation. She knew I loved this house ever since I visited it as a child, and thought I could use a ... a refuge. It's solid, secure--before I said yes, I checked with Mouse to make sure it was easily accessible from the Tunnels. He and Jamie and Cullen helped make the entrances a bit more sophisticated."
Vincent finally found his voice, or a reasonable facsimile. "Catherine, I visited you in your apartment only a week ago. How ... "
"Edna wanted most of the furniture to stay with the house; she didn't think the Florida climate would be good for it. I've been moving things over from my apartment that were really important, and lots of books from from my father's townhouse and our old place in Connecticut. I've also been buying so many things it's driving Joe crazy. When he checks my personnel file he'll see I filed a change of address."
Catherine's voice became uncertain. "I know this was a pretty big step to take without talking about it first, but Edna would have been terribly disappointed if I'd said no. I kept my apartment, just in case--my father actually owned it, you know, he was letting me pay him for it, gradually. And reluctantly. When he died, the insurance paid off the mortgage, so it's mine."
Catherine slid her hands up his arms to rest on his shoulders. "Vincent, I know you love that balcony, but visiting me there was so dangerous, even if you only came at night. I know how important it is for you to have a place to go away from the Tunnels. And I loved being with you there, just the two of us--but every time you left me, I would worry that something would happen to you. It's too big a risk to take now, when we have more to lose than ever."
Vincent took Catherine in his arms and pulled her close. Her arms went around his neck and she rested her cheek against his chest. "I left room for you to bring some of your things, if you'd like. I really want this to be our place."
"Father knew about this, didn't he?"
Catherine nodded. "I wanted to surprise you, but I knew I couldn't do it alone. I wouldn't have been able to borrow three people to work on the entrances without him knowing about it. I was also a little nervous about doing it, I guess. I thought he might be able to give me an idea of what you'd think about it."
"And what did he say when you told him what you planned?"
"For a minute, I thought he was going to cry. Then he said I kept doing for you more than he had ever dared to dream for you." Catherine raised her head. "Please tell me what you think, Vincent."
"I think I am my Father's son," he whispered, as his eyes filled with tears. "Catherine, do realize what you've done? You've given us a life together, safe as we can make it. A life in the sunlight. Even filtered through curtains, it's more than I ever dreamed of having."
Catherine smiled through her own happy tears. "Actually, there's even a room on the top floor with a skylight. Even though it's frosted glass, I can hardly wait till summer to see what your hair looks like in the sun." She buried her face in that glorious golden hair as they held each other a long time. After a while, she pulled back. "Come on, I want to show you the rest of the house."
Vincent seemed barely able to take it all in as she led him through the living room, dining room and pantry back into the kitchen. As they stood by a sturdy and much-used old table Catherine spoke again.
"Edna was always terribly irritated that her father and brothers carried on so about her marrying a penniless actor. I always assumed it was because she thought they were being chauvinists and snobs, but it seems there was more to it than that."
"Indeed?" Vincent asked. "Do I detect an interesting story coming?"
"More interesting than you can imagine. Edna's family were among the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and most of them never let you forget it. They were also filthy rich, but it seems not all their money came from stealing real estate from the Indians. I had no idea, until Edna told me, that smuggling and and other shady and downright illegal activities were an old family tradition. She was incensed that they had the gall to criticize her behavior when they were basically crooks ... albeit very high-class ones."
Catherine moved toward the cupboards along one wall of the kitchen. "Apparently every house the Van der Meers lived in had some extra features that came in useful for, uh ... business purposes." Catherine pressed a spot on one of the lower doors and a whole section of the wall slid forward without a sound, revealing a sizeable space behind and a spiral staircase leading up and down. "Edna told me her poor Mother spent all the years of Prohibition afraid the house would blow up because there was so much illegal liquor hidden in the walls."
Motioning Vincent to follow, Catherine began to ascend the stairs. "It goes all the way from the basement to the top floor, and you can always look into a room before you enter, to make sure it's empty."
"Or with you in it," Vincent smiled up at her.
"Even better," Catherine said happily and returned his smile with an incandescent one of her own. She led him to the top, where they emerged into a large bedroom, empty of furniture. She turned to Vincent.
"This room hasn't been used much since Edna's children left home, but it would be wonderful for some of the Tunnel children to stay overnight once in while. This house has lots of bedrooms--they'd be perfect when people need a place to stay who are planning to go Above--like Michael. Well, maybe not exactly like Michael," Catherine admitted ruefully.
Vincent kissed the top of her had as he pulled Catherine into an embrace. "We were all very naive," he admitted, "in not recognizing the combined effect of adolescent male hormones and propinquity. This house is so much larger, such problems may not arise. Besides, I intend to leave you alone here as little as possible."
As he held her close, Catherine began to consider the effect of propinquity on adult male hormones. It was such a pleasant thought she decided to cut the tour a little short. "There's not much to see on this floor now," she said, tugging his hand and leading him back to the hidden stairs. From the second floor landing, she pushed a section of wall aside to let Vincent enter the room.
Standing beside him, she could feel him take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"This, I take it, is the master bedroom?" he asked her in a voice that turned her blood to fire and her bones to water.
"Oh, yes it is," she replied with feeling. "It most certainly is."
Taking her hand, Vincent looked at the room for a long moment. To his right, a fire provided the only light. Two chairs sat on either side of it. To his left, the great bed nestled against the wall between two curtained windows. From the nightstand on its far side, another flame seemed to flare--then Vincent realized it was the geode he had given Catherine at Winterfest, only two months ago.
Catherine spoke softly. "That door is to the dressing room, and the one next to it leads to the bathroom. There's a room across the hall I've set up as an office ... but I intend to spend as little time in it as possible. Do you like it?" she asked Vincent nervously.
The look he gave her made words unecessary, but he said wonderingly, "You show me Paradise, and ask me if I like it?"
Her smile gave more light to the room than the fire. "The bed is new--a reproduction--to match the other furniture. That's one thing Edna couldn't bear to leave."
Catherine moved closer to Vincent and leaned her head against his shoulder. "She said she'd done most of her best living in that bed and had every intention of dying in it. I'm glad, because that means this one will be just ours."
As Vincent took her in his arms to kiss her, Catherine thought of the other room on the this floor, the one she hadn't mentioned. It was only a storage room at present, but Edna had told her, with a twinkle in her eye, that it had been the nursery. Catherine decided to keep that particular piece of information to herself for now ... but she hoped with all her heart that there were other dreams yet to come true.
Vincent pulled back for a moment to look at her. His eyes glittered in the flickering light, and his voice was rough. "Catherine, you give me so much--all the things I convinced myself I could never have. Your love ... a home of our own ... you have given my everything."
"Not everything, dear heart," she said softly. "Not yet. But I have a whole lifetime to work on it."
As he took her in his arms again, she kissed his ear, his neck, the long line of his throat. No more longing for the dark to come. No more sleepless nights after he left her bed, fearing for him. This house would be a haven for them, a magical place where any dream might come true. A bridge between Above and Below ... their special place.
Almost breathless from his kisses, she took Vincent's hand and led him toward the bed.
"Come, my love," she whispered. "Let's make it ours."
FOUR OF RODS Meaning: Happiness. The symbolism here is of that which has been long awaited, the arrival of one ... heralded by the garland of flowers welcoming the weary traveler. He ... has finally made it to where he had so long desired to be. The castle is there and the drawbridge is across the moat, as further invitation to that which is his at last.
F. D. Graves, The Windows of Tarot
"The Four of Rods" © 1989 by Edith L. Crowe
Comments & questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in Tunnels 2 (1989), edited by Barbara Storey
About the Author: Edith Crowe is an academic librarian who has been involved in various fandoms (starting with Star Trek) since 1972. Beauty and the Beast, however, is the one she's most emotional about and the first (and so far only) one to inspire her to write fiction. She had seven "continuing classic" stories published in the late 80s and early 90s, in zines now out of print. New stories include the rather racy "My Furry Valentine" in the A Kingdom by the Sea conzine and several in issues of Sanctuary.