"A file folder with these articles will be located here in the classroom at all times, so you can come in and review them whenever you have a moment. I expect everyone to have them read and have your papers done by the end of the month. Any additional research, as always, earns you extra credit. After the papers are in, we'll stage a debate on the subject. A word of warning: Vincent, Father and Kanin have agreed to be judges, so you know you had better be sharp! Class dismissed."


Catherine's Civics class filed slowly out of the chamber. She overheard arguments already raging over the controversial topic she had raised today: the death penalty. In introducing the subject, she had quoted from a variety of experts -- pro and con -- and had presented what she hoped were compelling case studies. She had ended the class by posing a variety of questions -- and no answers. The questions had provoked and even outraged the class -- which was exactly her intent.


Her class was a popular one with her students because it didn't deal only with the cut and dried facts about the legal, legislative and judicial systems of the city, state and country in which they lived. She knew that many of them would choose to spend time Above -- a few even would live there permanently -- and she wanted them to be involved citizens. So she infused her lessons with intriguing and difficult problems, often ones for which the world Above had not yet found the answers -- such as the one with which she had just engaged their interest.


By challenging her students to investigate, to become aware and interested, to think about options and possibilities beyond their safe corner of the world, she hoped to fire their intellects and expand their horizons. They rose to the challenges she set, and her classes more often than not were lively sessions, filled with argument and counter-argument, passionate defenses and equally passionate rebuttals. It gave Catherine a great deal of satisfaction to know that she could inspire such intense interest in a subject as potentially deadly dull as this one, but she knew it was the atmosphere Below which contributed to that interest as much as her skills as a teacher -- where learning is valued and encouraged, the teacher's job is already half-done.


A shadow fell across the table as she was pulling her worksheets together. Looking up, she saw her son, papers and books tucked under his arm. Strive as she and all the others who taught Below did to maintain an objective demeanor in classrooms dominated by children with whom they had close personal relationships, inevitably there were favorites -- and her son, a voracious and intense student, was hers.


"Mom, when will you be back in our chambers?" Geoffrey self-consciously pulled an antique pocket watch from his vest pocket to check the time.


The watch was a beautiful piece, one which had been in her family for generations. Her Dad had been the last to use it, and after he died she had put it away for safekeeping. When her son turned 13 two weeks ago, she had presented it to him, a legacy of her family which she knew meant the world to him. Since then, he had used any excuse to pull it out, proudly producing it and flipping the lid open, honored that she considered him grown up enough to own something so precious. Catherine smiled indulgently at him. He tried to be so adult sometimes!


"I'm taking over Father's Lit class in half an hour, but I should be home after that, at least until lunchtime. Then..." she grimaced dramatically, "'s laundry duty for me."


He snapped the watch closed with ease -- Smooth! she thought. I wonder how many times he's practiced that move since he got it? -- and remarked, "I've got a few minutes before I have to get to my next class." Leaning over the table, he filched the folder of articles from beside her. "So...might as well get this over with. I heard the teacher for this class is a real bear about getting homework in on time!" He evaded her swat, knowing she wouldn't have landed a real smack to his posterior even if he had not been so quick, and sat down to peruse the folder's contents. Deep into his reading, he hardly noticed when his Mom left the chamber.


_ _ _


Catherine entered the family common chamber carrying an unwieldy stack of books and papers. Catching a glimpse of her son's head, she realized he was sitting on the floor in front of the loveseat. She asked, "Are you feeling OK, Geoffrey? I ran into Rebecca and she told me you didn't show up for your art class." Catherine had been a bit concerned about his absence from a scheduled class, but she knew that he did sometimes get caught up in his studies and forget everything else. She'd left him absorbed in the death penalty articles for his Civics paper, after all.


Now she saw his face as he looked up at her query. Alarmed by the wide, stricken brown eyes that gazed back at her from an unnaturally pale face, she hastily plopped the untidy pile of class material onto her roll-top desk and hurried to his side.


"Geoffrey?" She sat on the arm of the loveseat and bent to take her son's face into her hands. "What is it?"


Mutely, with a none-too-steady hand, he gave her a newspaper clipping.


Catherine was puzzled. The clipping looked like one of the articles she'd gathered for her Civics class. Swiftly skimming the text, her puzzlement deepened. It concerned a convicted murderer named Ray Strickland who was facing imminent execution for the brutal slaying of a young couple in Central Park almost exactly nine years ago. There was nothing to distinguish this story from the dozen others she had placed in the folder for her class to read.


A quick glance at her son's anguished face convinced her she was missing something, however. So, starting at the top, she read the article again, slowly. The murdered couple, Jeff and Betsy Clinton, had almost literally just gotten off the bus from West Virginia when they were accosted in the park, robbed of their few possessions, and shot repeatedly at point blank range.

The brutality of the murders was one reason Strickland had been given the death penalty. A jogger who had happened upon the scene saw Strickland taking careful aim and shooting his pistol again and again at the fleeing couple -- "Like it was target practice," the witness had said. He had been laughing and taunting them as he did so. Then, once they had both fallen, mortally wounded and unable to resist, he had stood over them, reloaded and then again emptied the gun, riddling their inert forms with bullets. The witness also thought she had seen a small child running from the attack, but after searching extensively and finding no child in the vicinity, the police concluded she must have been mistaken.


Strickland had been using the system for years to avoid the inevitable; having become something of a jailhouse lawyer, he had peppered the courts with arcane pleadings and appeals. Now, all appeals finally being exhausted, execution was set for a date several weeks in the future.


Still getting no clue from the article, she looked again at her son and, shrugging, admitted, "I don't understand."


Geoffrey tried to speak, but couldn't. Catherine noticed his thin shoulders begin to quiver, and bent to hold him as an unrelenting shuddering coursed through his lithe frame. Deep sobs tore from his throat. Finally, he managed to form two words and push them past the tightness in his vocal chords. "My...parents."


_ _ _


Later that afternoon, after Catherine had watched over an emotionally exhausted Geoffrey until he drifted into a troubled sleep, Vincent told her what he could of the boy's past.


"No one ever knew the whole story behind Geoffrey's entry into our world, Catherine," he began. "One evening Winslow, returning from a scavenging mission Above, came upon an almost catatonic child huddled deep inside the drainage tunnel close to the main Central Park entrance. He wrapped the boy in his jacket, then went out again, looking for any anxious adults in the park who were searching for a lost child. He looked for a long time, but never found anyone. Finally he gave up and brought the boy Below to Father, who treated him for exposure as well as superficial cuts and bruises -- evidence of several days spent outdoors, alone. Gentle questioning elicited nothing from the child. He seemed to be in shock."


Catherine's tears were falling freely as her Bondmate related the tragic tale. She thought of that little one -- her beautiful boy -- frightened and alone, hungry and cold. She ached to take that long-ago child in her arms and comfort him. But her mind flew ahead to fill in the gaps between the article and Vincent's story, and she was not surprised when her surmises closely matched reality.


"Gradually, patiently, Father and Mary healed the fractured mind of the child, but he could tell them nothing beyond one little scrap of information: his first name." Wryly, Vincent smiled. "He owes the spelling of his name to Father -- it was the English in him coming out." Then he sobered as he remarked, "Now we know that he was named after his...his real father."


Catherine squeezed his hand and contradicted him. "You are his real father, Vincent. He was blessed with two."


Tilting his head in graceful acknowledgment, he went on. "Helpers were asked to investigate missing children reports, hoping to match his name and description in order to arrange for a reunion with his parents. But after several months of fruitless checking, Father reluctantly concluded that the young boy had been deliberately abandoned."


"And when Geoffrey grew old enough to ask about his parents...?"


Vincent sighed heavily. "You must understand, Catherine -- we truly believed he had been abandoned. It seemed a kind and harmless lie to tell him he was an orphan. To a child that young, how could we have explained the inexplicable -- that his parents did not...want him?"

Vincent's voice had grown husky, and Catherine knew he was thinking of the discovery of another foundling almost forty years ago -- of abandoned babe, considered by most to be deformed...thrown away...unwanted -- and the devastation of bearing that burden throughout his life. She could understand why Vincent would press Father and the others to resort to a prevarication rather than bring torment to a child he thought had deliberately been left alone in the world for strangers to find.


Gently, she probed, "And all these years...he believed this?"


He took a moment to bring his thoughts back to the present, then nodded. "Yes. In a sense, he was an orphan -- whether by fact or circumstance, he had no natural parent available to claim him. He has...." Vincent hesitated, correcting himself. "He had no memory of them, and we knew of no way to alter that situation."


The light began to dawn, and she prompted, already guessing the answer, "So in determining his age...his birthday...?"


"Father and Mary concluded that the child was approximately four years old on the day he was found...and we have since celebrated that day as his birthday."


Shaking her head, she remarked in a wondering voice, "It's strange that I never even thought to ask you about how he came to be Below."


Vincent stroked her cheek with one elegant claw-tipped finger, delicately tracing the tracks of the tears she had shed for their son. "Not so strange, Catherine. So many of those Below have dark secrets...or have endured devastating adversities, tragic misfortunes. Yet no one dwells on the past. In a way, our individual pasts do not exist for us. Our history starts with our arrival in this world. At least, that's the way many choose to think. And we focus on the now...and on a better future."


She nodded, accepting his philosophical explanation, but concluded grimly, "Yet now Geoffrey is facing -- both rediscovering and confronting -- his past, Vincent. And he will need our help to cope with it."


_ _ _


"Why didn't you ever tell me? I can understand why you didn't say anything when I was a little kid, but I'm practically grown now!" Geoffrey's anger was not directed specifically at his Dad, but his Dad was the one he was looking at now, and to the frustrated boy he represented all those Below who had lied to him over the years.


Vincent looked him calmly in the eye, accepting the anger, absorbing it. "You're right. We should have told you of our assumptions before now, Geoffrey. We only tried to spare you the...pain of believing that your parents didn' you...or want you. But would it have made any difference? What we assumed -- your abandonment -- was incorrect. You truly were orphaned and...." His voice trailed away. His argument was making no impression on his distressed son.


His freckled face clouded by emotional storms, the youngster insisted, "I deserved to know the truth!"


Unflinching before the accusation in his son's eyes, Vincent replied soberly, "Even though the 'truth' -- as we knew it -- was wrong...I take responsibility for the lie, Geoffrey. I am the one who convinced the Council to keep our assumptions from you, to tell you that you were orphaned. I apologize for not coming to you when you became old enough to understand and telling you what we suspected of your past."


Geoffrey stared hard at his Dad, wanting to remain furious, to rail some more about what he felt was an injustice, evidence of lack of trust and a failure to recognize him as a man instead of a child. But all he saw was the honest regret and compassion in the older man's deep-set eyes. The words he had fully intended to hurl in his Dad's face seemed ridiculous now. He could read the understanding in those unfailingly loving blue eyes. Suddenly, the tension left the boy's slight body, and he sagged, laying his head against the back of the loveseat. "It...doesn't matter. No one really knew what happened but me...and I didn't remember any of it until I saw that article...."


"The memories returned as you read it?" Vincent was anxious to learn more about the recovery of such traumatic memories -- about the surfacing of long-buried images which not even the love of their entire community had managed to uncover in the years he'd lived Below.


Geoffrey considered the question. "Not so much right then. First, I thought I recognized the names of...of the...victims. Then, as I stared at the picture, I recognized him. Then the actual memories came back to me...of that day...and of...before."


His eyes grew clouded as recollection superimposed itself over the scene in their cozy chamber. "I remember running through a field filled with rows of plants...there was a little black and white dog...a creaky porch swing. My Mom reading to me...." He stopped and, embarrassed, said, "My...other Mom."


Vincent nodded his head, his lips quirked in a sympathetic smile. "I understand. Go on."


Before he did, a sudden thought struck him, and he remarked, "You know, I think I've dreamed of these things before...but I thought they were just stuff my subconscious made up."


The idea intrigued Vincent. "Perhaps because you were so very young, those memories did not make much sense to your rational mind. So they drifted, coming out in dreams, or even in ways you probably aren't consciously aware of -- an inexplicable sense of comfort when you eat certain foods, for instance, or scents which evoke something you can't quite put your finger on."


The boy shrugged. "That could be. It's so weird. What really gets me is the fact that I couldn't recall anything about my life...before...until I read the article." Frowning, he returned to his memories, focusing fiercely. "I remember a horrible Mom crying. I felt scared...I knew she was scared." He shook his head as if attempting to force some particularly elusive thought into place. "Things are still confused. I kinda remember falling asleep in my Dad's lap...getting on and off a bus. I do have a clear memory of having a hot dog for lunch and another for dinner, which I thought was really neat." He smiled softly at the recollection.


Geoffrey's face screwed up in concentration. "Words...I remember words -- something about losing the farm, starting a new life in a big city with lots of opportunities. Dad repeated that a lot. Then there was the park...and I was swinging between my...parents' hands while we walked. My Mom was laughing...and I was so happy. Then...then...."


He shuddered, and Vincent hugged him close, saying nothing, just letting Geoffrey get it out any way he could. "This big ugly man came up...the gun...all I could see was this huge black gun. It went off...once...with the loudest sound I'd ever thunder. Everything happened so fast after that...shouting, running...I heard more loud noises behind Mom yelled at me to keep running and I did. Once...just once...I stopped...turned around...saw my Dad holding her...they were on the ground...and that man was pointing the gun...just shooting...shooting.... And I ran again, so fast...until I couldn't run anymore...."


They both were silent for a moment, thinking of the article's description of the bodies, shot multiple times. "I don't remember anything else after that...not for...a really long time."


Vincent gently stroked his son's hair, alternately kissing the crisp dark curls and hugging the boy closer. Geoffrey burrowed into his Dad's warmth, memory and reality colliding in his mind, as he fought to keep from crying. He wanted to be strong, to show his Dad that he was grown up enough not to get emotional over things that had happened years another lifetime, really. He tried to hold the tears inside. He tried desperately. But his Dad's murmured words of love and understanding broke through his fragile defenses until they collapsed, as he did. Then all he could do was try to muffle the tears and the sound of his crying by pressing his face harder against his Dad's thick corduroy vest.


_ _ _


Several days passed, and Catherine was worried about the despondency that had seized her son after his wrenching recollections. Uncharacteristically, he had refused all offers of comfort from her -- from the person to whom he had turned so often in recent years, since even before the adoption ceremony had formally bound their lives and futures. She heard scraps of muted conversations between her Bondmate and her son, but she was not invited to join in them. Once, she overheard Vincent beg Geoffrey to explain...something, she didn't know her, and Geoffrey's murmured objection had followed her down the tunnel passageway as she walked past his chamber door.


In the evenings, alone in their bed, Vincent would gently tell her that their son had asked him not to repeat their conversations to anyone else, a promise he could not break -- not even for her. She understood the value of such a trust and did not press him for details he could not in good conscience provide...but her heart was breaking from being left on the outside, out of her son's confidences.


_ _ _

"Mom...can I talk to you a minute?"


Geoffrey had approached her so silently that she was startled at the sound of his voice close to her ear. She jumped, her head snapping up sharply from the papers she was grading. Instantly recovering, she smiled and nodded as she closed the folder and placed her pen upon it. Turning in her chair, she looked up into the anxious face of her beloved child. "What is it, Geoffrey?"


Dropping his eyes, he blushed furiously as he began with an apology. "I shouldn't have...well...left you out of things...these past few days. Dad told me how much I was probably hurting you not sharing what I was thinking...feeling...."


As he trailed off, she captured one of his fidgeting hands and laid it against her cheek. "Sweetheart, it's OK. There's no need to apologize for needing your Dad's comfort instead of mine. Truly, honey, I understand." She smiled tenderly, encouragingly. Even if her maternal pride had suffered a blow because he had not instinctively chosen her to confide in, such petty feelings were supremely unimportant. She would not burden him with them or make him feel guilty about them. "I know how easy it is to talk to him and what good advice he gives. Seeking his counsel is a wise choice. I do it a lot myself!"


He nodded, relieved. She wasn't angry with him then. There were things...deep things...he didn't feel quite comfortable sharing with her. Things about not knowing who your natural parents were, about the sense of loss that can overwhelm you, about how adrift you can sometimes feel. These things hadn't bothered him much before, but since he'd read that article and recovered his memories, they had started to prey on his mind. He knew his Dad could relate to those feelings, and it had helped enormously to discuss them with him. Yet, especially because they had always been such confidants before now, he'd worried that his Mom would be upset. And after what his Dad had said, he'd become even more concerned. But, as always, she understood and accepted. As always.


Bolstered by the compassionate reception he had just received, he broached the subject which had been on his mind when he'd entered their common chamber. In his talks with his Dad, he'd advanced this proposal and received -- after long and difficult consideration -- a kind of reluctant acquiescence. But it was his Mom's understanding...and assistance...he really needed. "I've...I've made a decision. But...I need your help."


Almost absurdly relieved that he had come to her...finally...she vowed, "Whatever you need. Just tell me."


Geoffrey summoned his most somber expression to support his request; she had to understand how serious he was. "I...want Ray Strickland. Can you arrange it?"


Stunned, she only stared at him. She couldn't have heard him correctly, could she? Eventually, nearly choking over the words, she managed to get out, "The...the man who...killed your parents?"


He nodded. "It's important, Mom. Really important...or I wouldn't ask."


Catherine's first instinct was to utter a firm "Absolutely not!" -- but she checked herself just as she opened her mouth. A knee-jerk reaction wouldn't dissuade him, might even just make him dig in harder. No, no matter how ill-conceived the idea, he deserved to hear rational, clear reasons for denying this frightening request. It would make it that much more difficult for him to persist with it.


"I don't know if that would be possible, Geoffrey. While sometimes victims' families are allowed access to a prisoner, you aren't known to the authorities as the child of Strickland's murder victims. Besides, it's extremely unusual for children to visit death row inmates unless they are related to them."


Despite what she hoped would be convincing arguments, Geoffrey pressed on, voice calm, eyes steady, imploring her. "You worked in that system for years, Mom. You know the ins and outs; you know lots of people. You could do it. Maybe you could ask Mr. Maxwell's advice? Please...I really need you to help me."


Stymied in her attempt to dissuade him, she focused on another aspect of the situation. "Let's assume for argument's sake that I could arrange a visit. Strickland's pending execution is front page news right now. Do you realize your visit could generate a lot of publicity -- exactly what neither of us needs? Lots of uncomfortable questions could be raised, for which we don't have good answers, and some of which we couldn't answer at all."


She had never seen him so determined, so self-possessed, as when he gravely announced, "It's worth the risks, Mom. I have to do this. I'll accept whatever consequences come."


Catherine shook her head firmly. If appeals to logic, safety and practicality wouldn't work, she would have to turn down his request -- hopefully as dispassionately as possible. "You aren't old enough to make such a decision, son. I'm responsible for you...and I can't allow you to jeopardize yourself for the dubious honor of a few moments of time with a depraved murderer, even if it were possible to arrange. No. I'm sorry, but no."


She saw when she looked into his eyes that she had underestimated his determination. He was unmoved...and very adamant. "If it were your parents who had been killed by that man, would you want to face him?"


She considered the situation rationally. He was handling this difficult discussion very maturely and he deserved a reasoned response. "Yes, I suppose I would."

His frustration leaked out, causing his voice to crack a bit, as he replied, "Then why can't you understand my wanting to see him? It's the same thing."


Catherine was suddenly very tired. This situation was so disturbing, so unresolvable, so sad. Shaking her head regretfully, she answered him. "No, it's not. For one thing, I'm an adult. For another, I have an established identity Above. Even if I have chosen to live secretly and apart from that life, I have something to fall back on should questions come up.


"But you, Geoffrey -- not only are you a minor, but you have no cover story. As far as the world Above is concerned, you don't even least not in ways that are important to them. You haven't got a legal guardian who can come forward to claim you, you've never been enrolled in school, you're not even on Child Protective Services' list of missing children -- I know, I've checked. So that means that you probably don't have any relatives left, or someone would have alerted the authorities that you went missing when your parents died. And if I tried to get your birth certificate now...well, you can imagine the firestorm of interest that would cause." Despite her attempt to rein in her emotions, she felt her lower lip tremble slightly as she concluded, "You...could be taken away from me...once the authorities start asking questions we can't answer."


Stolid and implacable, her son stood before her. "I respect that you're trying to protect me, Mom. But I've thought this out. If they take me from you...I'll just walk away from wherever I'm sent...come right home. It's my life, Mom. And like I said, I understand the risks. "


Just as implacably, she replied, "I don't believe you do."


Quailing a bit from what he was about to say, nevertheless he plunged ahead. "You're wrong. Besides, Dad agrees with me."


"What?!" Catherine was astonished. Vincent had said nothing to her about this. Of course, he was sworn to secrecy, but something like this.... Her son had never lied to her, so she had to believe him -- but she felt slightly betrayed that Vincent had not at least warned her.


Anxious to explain and wipe the look of incredulity off his Mom's face, Geoffrey said, "Dad said I should think about what I needed to do to come to terms with everything. He suggested we hold a farewell ceremony, like we did when Ellie died. You know, so I could write to my parents, tell them how I felt, let them know I was OK and happy."


Catherine didn't see how this granted tacit approval to her son's decision to meet his parents' murderer, but she assumed Geoffrey was leading up to that. Thinking of how much comfort young Eric had derived from the letter-writing process...and how much better it had made her feel...she nodded. "That's an excellent idea."


The youngster before her smiled nervously, glad that his Mom's stern demeanor had cracked just a bit, hopeful he could enlarge that crack so she would help him with what he so much needed to do. "Yeah, it is. And it would be real nice if we did it. But...when I started to think, like Dad told me to...about coming to terms with things, all I could think about was that...that man. He took my life from me, in a way. He took my parents' lives, but he also took mine -- the one I would have led...with them. I was real lucky that Winslow found me, and I love everyone Below...especially you and Dad...but...."


Softening towards him, she probed gently. "And you think meeting this man would put the demons to rest?"


He nodded once. "Yes."


With a sympathetic smile, she shook her head. "It won't, Geoffrey. You may think that because this man is facing his own death, he's had a change of heart and would welcome the chance to make amends -- that he'll apologize to you and seek your forgiveness. That's always a possibility, I guess. But it's far more likely that he's unrepentant and angry, and seeing a young boy whose parents he killed might bring out that same terrible, unreasoning hatred that caused him to murder." She paused, unwilling to cause him pain, but hoping that by doing so now, she might prevent a greater pain later on. In the softest of whispers, she continued. "Have you considered that he might refuse to see you? Or that he might say cruel things to you? Or even that he might taunt you about those murders? That he might enjoy watching you suffer?"


Undeterred, unflinchingly, Geoffrey said, "I'm ready for whatever comes, Mom. I'm not a kid anymore. You may think I still am, but I'm not."


Not wanting to disabuse him of this now, when he was trying so hard -- and in large part succeeding, she had to admit -- to conduct an adult conversation, instead she changed course and asked, "You said that your Dad...agreed with you? Did you tell him exactly what you had in mind?"


Carefully he recounted the gist of the discussion with his Dad. He wanted to convey the fact that Vincent, although he had deep concerns, would abide by his decision. He concluded by saying, "He said that if facing the man would allow me to deal with my parents' murders, he would do what he could to help me."


Her eyes narrowed, suspicion darkening them. She never expected emotional blackmail from Geoffrey -- he'd always been too honest a kid to stoop to it. But in this case...she had to know. " that you've secured your Dad's support, you're pitting me against him, is that it? Does this become a matter of who loves you more?"


He shook his head vehemently. He didn't mean it that way at all. "No. I'm telling you I'm going to try to see Mr. Strickland, no matter what you say. I'm glad Dad understands how I feel, but even if he didn' wouldn't matter. I'd like your help, but I'll try to do it without your help if you won't give it to me."


Ominously, she replied, "You can't. I won't let you."


He sighed heavily. This was going worse than he thought. When he'd managed to convince his Dad, he'd thought he'd won over the more conservative of his parents. Instead, it was his beloved Mom who was proving so intractable -- the one person in all the world with whom he nearly always saw eye to eye. It shook him deeply to say what he was about to, and he was afraid to say it. But he was determined to do this thing. "I asked Dad if you could legally prevent me from trying. He said he didn't know, but he also said that my adoption here has no legal bearing Above."


Catherine felt the blood rush to her face. She felt as if her son had literally slapped her. "Let me get this straight -- I'm your Mom when it's convenient, but you'll cast me aside when I don't suit you? You're challenging my authority to do what's best for you, is that it? This is to be a battle of wills?"


Resigned to the fact that he had lost her...maybe forever, he still averred bleakly, "No. I'm only asking for your help, not your permission."


She stood and walked to the entryway, turning just before she left to deliver her judgment. "I'm sorry, Geoffrey, but I won't give you either one."


_ _ _


Frustrated tears filled her eyes. She had left Geoffrey just moments before, immediately seeking out her Bondmate where he was doing research in the stacks of Father's library and pulling him into an unused side chamber to discuss the situation with their son. Vincent had quietly confirmed what Geoffrey had told her. Unable to believe what he was saying, Catherine blurted, "He's just a child, Vincent!"


Taking her delicate hands in his own large, calloused ones, he sought the words to make her understand what had ultimately caused him to agree to support the boy's decision, despite his own deep trepidation. "Yes, in years he is a child. But we both know what a thoughtful, mature child he is. And this is something which affects him deeply...and for which, in a few more weeks, nothing more can be done. I, too, would rather he wait until he's older to confront this man, Catherine. But he hasn't got time to grow older. The execution is set and he will lose the opportunity if he doesn't grasp"


Catherine's hands squeezed his painfully as she tried to convince him he was wrong. "I'm aware of the time that's slipping away, Vincent. I'm also aware -- perhaps more than anyone Below -- of what damage a person like Strickland could inflict upon an innocent and trusting boy. I've worked in that system and I've seen things.... Well, trust me when I say I know the criminal mind better than you, and certainly better than Geoffrey. But all that aside -- if he's asked the wrong sorts of questions, if doing this exposes him to media or legal scrutiny...things I can't protect him from...."


"Oh, Catherine...." Vincent's eyes closed tightly in agony as he struggled against the flood of stark terror which coursed through their Bond when she imagined everything that could go wrong if their son went Above. With an effort, he spoke. "I understand...and share...all of your concerns. I acknowledge all of the dangers that exist for him if he should do this. Yet the fact remains that there is only this small window of opportunity for Geoffrey to confront his past. We will try to help him deal with whatever happens, but we must let him take this step, if at all possible."


Catherine pulled herself together with an effort, dampening her emotional reactions which triggered the painful surges she knew Vincent was feeling from her, compounding his own anguish. She focused on the first practical issue her mind seized upon in order to force herself to deal with the situation as rationally as circumstances permitted. "I doubt if it will be possible, Vincent. We're not talking about a small-time prisoner in a regular jail. We're talking about a serious offender in a high-security lock-down situation. Under these circumstances, I seriously doubt if I would be allowed to see him, much less our son."


He sensed her struggle -- attempting to be calmly logical while her mind was screaming for her to hold her child close, to protect him at all costs, even if she lost him in the process. "Then he will accept that -- once you have done all you can to try to get permission for him to go." Pleading a case for which he had no enthusiasm was wearying, but for his son's sake, he had to try. "Please, Catherine, believe that I fear for him, just as you do. But this is a rare chance -- remote as it is -- for him to face his past, to make some sense out of the senseless loss of his parents. Would you deny him in order to protect him from that for which he does not want to be protected?"


Once more she spoke the words which, in her mind, negated all argument. "He's just a child!"


Grasping her shoulders firmly, Vincent held her steady and forced her to face the hard truths. "He's not just any child. He's our son. He's Geoffrey. He's made a rational decision based on sound reasoning. He may lack the maturity to deal with the aftermath, but we cannot refuse to allow him to face the consequences of this decision."


Lifting one hand to her cheek, he traced the outline of the scar which she wore proudly, a symbol of survival and the new and better dream which she had found as a result. "We all face painful or difficult moments in life. We cannot often choose the timing. He had no choice in the loss of his parents. He has made a choice now, to confront their murderer. For good or bad, he has made that choice. There is no other time for him to do this, Catherine."


_ _ _


With her Bondmate by her side, Catherine entered their common chamber to find Geoffrey standing almost exactly where she'd left him, still and pale as a statue. He turned as he heard their footsteps, and blanched a bit at their combined presence. Catherine reached for his hands and drew him to the loveseat, urging him to sit, then knelt before him. She felt the slight tremor in his hands which betrayed his fear of her next words. Intuitively, she knew that after all that he had said, and as bravely as he had presented his case, he was at heart desperate for his parents' approval.


In the short time she had spent away from her son, she had gained a different perspective on the agonizing situation which confronted them. She now realized, thanks to Vincent, that she had to look beyond her immediate concerns to the rare opportunity which existed for her son. She was convinced it would be a harsh, painful experience for him -- one which would leave scars where no one could see them. But as much as such pain could devastate, it could also bring growth. One couldn't count on that growth, but it was the possibility that something could be salvaged from this reckless action that made it even slightly bearable. She and the others Below had nurtured Geoffrey and taught him -- in the abstract -- to always seek for knowledge, understanding, wisdom. The fact that he was demanding that right now was as much their fault -- her fault -- as his for trying to take on the mantle of adulthood too soon. If there was blame to go around, she had to accept her share of it and deal as best she could with the consequences.


Her brow furrowed and her lips set in a thin line of disapproval, she faced him. "I am totally against this, Geoffrey. I feel you are too young to understand the ramifications of your actions, and that you will come to regret this decision. But you have done something which has impressed me -- you've persuaded your Dad. If it were anyone else, I wouldn't be moved to assist you. But...since you have him in your corner...." She sighed, desperately uneasy about what she was doing. "Against my better judgment...I will do what I can to arrange things."


Stunned by her capitulation and feeling more than a little guilty that he was making a choice she was so opposed to, Geoffrey could only nod his understanding.


"I'm going Above to talk to my former boss. As you suggested," she finished wryly. "He knows the system better than anyone, and he has plenty of contacts both inside and outside the normal channels. I've got a lot of fancy explaining to do, and I don't know if I'll be successful...but I will try my best. I don't want to get your hopes up," she warned. "But if it can be done, it will be."


Hesitantly, not quite sure of how welcome his touch would be right now, the boy reached out to hug her. Catherine immediately pulled him close and squeezed him hard, burying a hand in the hair at the back of his head to press his face to her shoulder. As he nuzzled gratefully into the comforting warmth of her embrace, she whispered fiercely into his ear, "I love you so much, Geoffrey. I don't want to see you hurt. I'm so afraid for you."


Lifting his head, he gazed deeply into his Mother's eyes. "Thank you. It means more than you know that you'd do this for me. I know you're afraid I might not be capable of dealing with this, but I am. Trust me, Mom."


She grimaced as her eyes filled with tears. "I wish I deserved your thanks. But I think this is the worst mistake of your life. It's not that I'm afraid -- I know you're not old enough -- mature enough -- to handle this situation."

Gently he disengaged from her, then placed one hand upon her cheek. She pressed her face against it, closing her eyes for a moment, letting the tears flow now. When she opened her eyes, he was holding his other hand out to her. In it she saw the pocket watch. "Here. Why don't you hold onto this? Give it back when you believe I'm mature enough to own it." He bit his lip to keep his own tears from surfacing. "When you gave it to me, I thought it meant... Well, I don't think you realized what I thought you were saying by giving it to me."


He rose and walked past his somber Dad out of the chamber, leaving his Mom, stunned, clutching the watch to her chest, bitter tears wetting its surface.


_ _ _


It wasn't easy. In fact, it was harder than almost anything she had ever done, and not just because her heart wasn't in it. Her meeting with Joe had been agonizing, the gaps in her explanations painfully obvious. His incredulous response was not unexpected, but neither was his ultimate agreement to do what he could. They both made phone calls and personal appeals, called in major favors, cajoled, begged, sweated and prayed.


Luckily for Catherine, the question of who Geoffrey was -- beyond the cursory inquiries regarding his interest in the matter, fairly smoothly dispensed with under the guise of a school project by an exceptional student under the mentorship of the Assistant District Attorney (Joe lied well, although he hated to) -- didn't come up. And, unexpectedly, media attention was distracted from the execution by the fortuitous if tragic juxtaposition of a political scandal involving the governor and a terrorist attack on American tourists in Europe. All of a sudden, no one had time to care about one criminal's execution when far better copy could be made of a juicy and sensational exposé and the heartbreak of local families whose relatives were killed in an exotic locale by shadowy extremists.


_ _ _

Walking through the long entryway leading into the high security prison, the little group was quiet and grim. They had endured the expert and thorough inspection for weapons and other contraband which all visitors went through, and now were on their way to the warden's office under armed escort. Catherine hadn't said a word during the long drive up, and Joe's feeble attempts to make small talk with Geoffrey were gingerly rebuffed, so the tension and strain among the three was high. Joe found himself wondering for the hundredth time just who this kid was and why Cathy had gone to the moon to get him this interview.


After a brief meeting with the warden, the three were taken into a small room and seated before a reinforced glass wall with telephones lining a small shelf. Geoffrey perched on a battered grey folding chair between his Mom and Joe, and he undoubtedly was the calmest of them all. He sat with a studied patience that impressed Joe, who himself was nervous both because of his deception and because he didn't know the true reason the boy was here.


Joe looked over at Cathy. She was sitting stiffly upright, hands clenched on her lap, white-knuckled and white-lipped. All the color seemed to have drained from her face, and he was stunned by the tormented look in her eyes as she spared him a brief glance before turning her attention back to the closed door they could see on the other side of the glass partition.


After what seemed like an eternity but was probably less than ten minutes, the door was opened by a burly guard, who led in a balding, heavy-set, middle-aged man. The prisoner was shuffling, hunched over due to the manacles and chains which linked his wrists and his ankles and met at his waist. Another guard, heavily armed, followed them into the room and closed the door decisively behind himself.


The prisoner was dragged over to a chair opposite Geoffrey on the other side of the glass and shoved onto a chair. A telephone receiver was lifted by the guard to the prisoner's ear and the guard gestured to Geoffrey, indicating he should lift the receiver on his side. Catherine and Joe did the same. For this visit, the warden had instructed that the four phones should share one line.


The chained man's face was a study in contempt, its lines deeply etched from years of confinement into a permanent sneer. He stared rapaciously at Catherine for a long moment, then let his eyes slide over to Joe. Nothing there to hold his interest. Finally, he turned his stare onto the youngster sitting directly across from him. He had been told nothing except that some school kid wanted an interview. Bored, he had agreed, hoping it might be some nubile young blond but not too disappointed that it was a boy of such tender years. He waited for something to happen. But the three people across from him could have been statues. Finally, Ray Strickland spoke first. "Who the hell are you?"


Calmly, almost remotely, Geoffrey responded, "I'm Geoffrey Wells. But my last name used to be Clinton."


Hearing the name, Joe's eyebrows rose in surprise as he made the connection to the murder victims. His head snapped to the side and he looked over Geoffrey's head at Catherine. She glanced over at him but said nothing, only nodded once, then turned back to watch the drama unfold as it would.


"Yeah? That s'pposed ta mean somethin'?" Strickland growled.


Almost conversationally, Geoffrey responded, "It should. It's the reason you're here. You killed my parents."


The big man shrugged as he snorted, "Oh, yeah?"


"Yes." Geoffrey's eyes hadn't left the man's face since he'd been brought into the room opposite him, and now they searched that terrible visage as if for some clue, some sight of the man's soul.


Slightly disconcerted by the boy's keen stare, Strickland snapped, "Whaddaya want from me? An apology? Well, ya ain't gonna get one, kid!"


Eyes still locked to the older man's, Geoffrey shook his head. "I didn't expect to. I don't want anything from you, really. I just wanted to...see you. To face you. To look into your eyes."


He was disturbed that he hadn't been able to intimidate this...child. Settling on "attitude" as the only way to break the confusion this boy's continual stare caused in him, Strickland made a show of looking Geoffrey over. "C'mon over to this side of the glass and I'll bat my baby browns at ya, if ya want," the man leered. "You can be my 'last meal.' "


Joe was coiled to jump to his feet, ready to remonstrate the prisoner for his offensive behavior, but he was startled and stilled by the surprisingly steely grip of Geoffrey's hand on his wrist. Muttering, Joe settled again in his chair.


Catherine's face, already pale, had gone deathly white. She stole one hand towards her son's and he grasped it gratefully. No words or even glances were exchanged between them though. This was Geoffrey's moment, and she was determined to let him play the scene out on his own, as he had insisted. But it took all her strength to sit quietly while the beast before her taunted her child.


Geoffrey seemed to actually consider the disgusting suggestion before responding. "No, thank you," he said, alarmingly polite.


Catherine turned to stare at him, astonished. She didn't know exactly what she had expected from him, but a calm, reasonable reaction in the face of the bold and evil man before them was not even on her radar screen. She continued to watch him as he finally revealed his intentions to the murderer...and to her.


"As I was saying, I wanted to look at you, and to tell you that you killed two loving people, the people who gave me life. I wanted you to know that I will always remember them and honor their memory. And I will go on to live a full and happy life...for them, for myself, for the people who love me now. You took their possessions and their lives, but you lost everything in return. You haven't really lived at all, only existed -- in this place, or in places just like this. I have my whole life ahead of me. And I won't think of you again. You'll be forgotten by everyone -- in a few weeks, no one will even remember your name. But my parents will go on, in my mind, in my heart, in my blood. They will live forever."


Strickland began to say something, but Geoffrey had already dismissed him from his mind. He replaced the telephone receiver and stood up, facing his Mother. "I'm ready to go now." He turned to Joe, extending his hand to him. "Thank you, Mr. Maxwell, for everything you did for me. I can never repay you but I'll always be grateful. If there's ever anything I can do for you, just name it."


Surprised, both Catherine and Joe set their telephone receivers down too, cutting off whatever vicious invective Strickland was spewing. When the guard saw that the visitors were no longer listening, he pulled the telephone from Strickland's ear and set it back in its cradle, then hauled the prisoner up out of the chair and shoved him toward the door leading back to his cell in solitary confinement on death row.


Geoffrey knocked on the door to alert the guard they were ready to leave, the two stunned adults trailing in his wake.


_ _ _


The ride home had been as silent as the drive up, but this time the tension was replaced by quiet introspection. Each was absorbed with his or her own thoughts.


As he drove, Joe's mind raced -- he wanted desperately to find out where Cathy had found the murder victims' son. He knew from reviewing the file about the witness's statement concerning the child running from the scene, and his curiosity was overwhelming. But he also knew that now was not the time to ask. And knowing Cathy as he did, he strongly suspected there never would be a right time to ask.


Catherine was staring at her son, scrutinizing him for signs of a break in his calm facade. She was waiting with resigned patience for his true reaction, but he surprised her by remaining unruffled and seemingly unfazed by the experience of coming face to face with the unrepentant murderer of his parents.


Geoffrey's demeanor was not feigned. He truly felt composed, almost serene. The biggest struggle for him had been to convince his parents about his decision to meet Ray Strickland. He had spent so much energy and thought on that process that he hadn't spared much time considering what he'd actually do when the time came and he faced him. But once he saw the man, he had known what he needed to say, had been surprised himself that he could say it all without stammering, without letting the man get the upper hand in the conversation.


In truth, despite his initial fears about the physical aspects of the meeting -- would he actually be close enough to see into his eyes? would there be too many witnesses for him to say what he wanted to say? -- he had very little trepidation about the confrontation. He knew Strickland to be powerless, to be unable to hurt him except if he allowed Strickland's words to do so. And the man's words were the last thing that could hurt him now, not after what Strickland had done to his parents. Because Strickland meant nothing to him. He didn't have the ability to inflict pain because Geoffrey didn't respect him or care about him.


The only words which had caused him pain in the past week were those uttered by his Mom. She, who he loved the most in all the world, had the greatest capacity to hurt him with her words. He needed her love and approval so much -- what she thought about him mattered so deeply to him. He understood that it was her love for him that made her want to protect him. But that didn't make it any easier to accept that she doubted his maturity. The fact that she felt he wasn't capable of handling this meeting had torn him up, almost made him doubt his resolve. Defying her had been the hardest thing he'd ever done. And as much as she'd hurt him, he knew he'd hurt her as well. He hoped she'd be able to forgive day.


_ _ _


As soon as they'd returned to the Home Tunnels, Geoffrey had disappeared into his chamber. Catherine hadn't tried to speak to him then. Knowing they were waiting anxiously, she'd gone first to Vincent and Father and delivered a terse report. They had understood the terrible strain on her and hadn't demanded more details. Grateful, she had left almost immediately. There was something she needed to do, and now that she had assuaged her Bondmate's fears, she didn't want to wait one more minute than was necessary. She made a brief stop at their common chamber to get something from her desk, then went to find her son.


"Geoffrey, may I come in?"


Not surprised that she wanted to talk now, he replied, "Sure." Since they'd returned below, he'd been trying to brace himself for her recriminations. He was sure she felt justified -- Strickland had done exactly what she'd said. She'd known all along he would be antagonistic, scary, even mean and insinuating. Well, she'd done what he asked her to -- she'd arranged for the meeting -- so now he'd let her do and say whatever would make her feel better.


Catherine came to sit on the bed beside her son's recumbent form. He had his arm thrown over his eyes, so she couldn't tell his emotional state. Unsure how to begin, she asked, "How are you doing?"


He was surprised at the tenderness in her voice, having expected a sterner tone. He sat up at the question, sitting cross-legged on the bed. Catherine was relieved to see he hadn't been crying. "I'm OK, Mom. Really. I thought I'd be...I don't know...I thought, after everything, maybe it would...get to me. But I'm really OK. I feel...relief, I guess, more than anything."


She scrutinized him carefully, her concern for him evident in the set of her face. "You aren't just putting on a brave front for me, are you? Because you know you don't have to do that."


He gave a small shake of his head. "I know. And no, I'm not. I think...I'm probably feeling better than you." He chanced a smile and was relieved when she returned it.


"Well, I'll admit it was excruciating to sit there in silence while that meeting took place." Her voice changed then, becoming charged with an emotional resonance that made it richer and deeper than normal. "It's not every day a mother gets the chance to watch her son...become a man." Catherine reached into the pocket of her suit jacket and pulled out something wrapped in tissue paper. "I believe this is yours."


He took it from her, his hands trembling slightly, knowing what was in it by the weight even before he'd unwrapped it. Her Father's pocket watch. His watch. Looking up into her face, almost breathless from the significance of her gesture, he whispered, "Are you sure?"


She nodded solemnly, then leaned over to kiss his cheek. "I'm absolutely sure. You proved something to me today that I shouldn't have asked you to prove. I should have trusted you -- believed in you. I was wrong, and I hope you'll forgive me...because I know I...I hurt you by doubting you."


When she would have pulled back after the kiss, he clutched her arm, keeping her close. Mother and son gazed into each other's eyes for a long moment, both reading more there than could be expressed in words. Finally he responded, "This makes up for it."


They embraced, each grateful beyond measure for the inexpressible, indefinable connection which transcended blood and cemented their love. Catherine reluctantly broke their hug, but only moved back far enough to capture her son's face in her hands. "I'm so proud of you, Geoffrey. I love much." Her eyes grew clouded, unsure. "And...there's something else I need to tell you." At his nod of encouragement, she continued, "When we were in that room...there was...a presence. I could feel your Mom and Dad -- their spirits were there beside me, and they were telling me how proud they were of you, too."


For the first time all day, his eyes filled with tears. " really think they were?"

"I know they were." She straightened then, breaking the mood. "I can't wait to get out of these clothes! Give me ten minutes, then come get me and we'll meet your Dad for dinner, OK?"


"OK." He laughed at her discomfort. She'd worn such clothes every day for years, but since she'd given up her job Above she'd packed them away. It seemed so natural to see her in them again -- the elegant suit, the slim heels -- yet obviously they felt as alien to her now as they would be to...Mary...or Rebecca. Thinking of all she'd given up, all the ways she'd changed to make a life with him, his heart filled with adoration and gratitude for the fierce, protective, compassionate woman who had adopted him. "Mom?"


She turned at the entrance to his chamber. "Yes?"


"I love you...and thanks."


Smiling, she left the chamber. He sat for a moment, fingering the watch. Then slowly, reverently, he opened it, set it, wound it, and placed it in his pocket.