The Tunnel adoption ceremony had begun as an impromptu declaration on the day so many years ago when Father had taken Vincent as his son. It had developed into a more formal event since then, similar to those other rites of communal celebration Below: Winterfest, naming ceremonies and joinings, among others. Yet adoptions were among the rarest of the formal rites performed Below, for the simple reason that the entire community took over the raising and nurturing of the Tunnels' many orphans. Although housed communally, the children were all considered "family" and shared fully in every aspect of life in the Tunnels.


Often, special attachments occurred as one or another child developed a closeness to a certain adult, but no formal arrangements were made due to lack of housing options or lack of true necessity. Pascal was widely accepted as Zak's mentor and father-figure. Father himself had taken Samantha under his wing, guiding her bright, inquisitive mind and giving her the special tutelage she craved in the wide range of matters of interest Below. Mary, surrogate mother to all the Tunnel children (young and old), had been particularly close to Rebecca when the young woman was a child, a relationship that continued, rich and fulfilling to them both, even as Rebecca ceased to require any "mothering" at all. So, the special relationship that had grown between Catherine and Geoffrey was not considered unusual, even though few Helpers had developed such bonds with the youngsters Below.


As word spread that Catherine intended to ask the Council for permission to adopt Geoffrey, excitement buzzed among the adult inhabitants of the Tunnels. Many wondered aloud how this would change Vincent's relationship with Catherine. When word filtered around that Catherine would also be asking to move Below permanently, the gossip mill worked overtime considering all the ramifications that bit of news represented. The only piece of the puzzle that was missing -- the only news that Vincent and Catherine had managed to keep from leaking out to all and sundry -- was that the two of them planned to be Joined. That information, the biggest bombshell to hit the Tunnels since the news the previous year that Vincent and Catherine were no longer seeing each other, was held only in the two lovers' hearts. But it could not be held there for long.


_ _ _


Vincent called out, "Geoffrey, may I speak with you for a moment?"


As the youngster fell back from his buddies at the older man's call, he was beckoned to a side tunnel. Standing there now, with Vincent's hand on his shoulder, he looked up in anticipation.


Vincent dropped to one knee to face him, his brow contracted in consternation, and he said, "A decision has been made which greatly affects you, and I have realized somewhat belatedly that it was made without your knowledge...or approval. The decision should not have been made without you, and I apologize." He looked away for a moment, as if it pained him to meet the youngster's eyes.


Vincent was clearly uncomfortable, and Geoffrey couldn't imagine why. Besides, he was never consulted about any decisions -- he was just a kid! The only time anyone had consulted him was when...uh-oh. He began to get nervous. This had something to do with Catherine...with Catherine and his adoption. So...some decision had been made which affected his adoption. Tears formed in his eyes but he willed them back. He had to be brave. Vincent needed him to be brave, he could sense that.


The older man lifted his head again and stared into Geoffrey's eyes. He didn't know how to begin. So much depended upon the understanding of this young boy. "Catherine has...spoken to you about adoption, and you have agreed to become her son."


As he paused, Geoffrey nodded in confirmation. So far there didn't seem to be a problem.


Vincent went on. "Recently...I asked Catherine about...coming Below to live with me. She...she has accepted me, Geoffrey. She and I will be Joined."


Geoffrey heart plummeted. He felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach. All he wanted to do was run somewhere and scream. He had come so close to having a Mother again -- so close. And now....


Vincent's eyes betrayed his deep trepidation as he came to the reason he had sought the youngster out. "I should have asked you before, Geoffrey. You should have been part of the decision. I am sorry."


The young boy stood stiffly and put his hand on the large man's shoulder. "It's OK, Vincent, really. You and belong together. More than...anything. It's OK."


Vincent looked at him in amazement and wonder. "Thank you, Geoffrey! I cannot tell you how much this means to me. I promise you I shall never forget what you have done for me today."


Avoiding his eyes, Geoffrey whispered, "Was that all, Vincent? Can I go now?"


Vincent nodded, puzzled by his reaction, and watched the boy run down the passageway.


_ _ _


Gathering her gently into his arms, Vincent concluded, "He said that you and I belong together. Even a child could see that, Catherine. What took me so long?"


His Bondmate smiled and shook her head, placing a tender kiss against the strong column of his neck. "It doesn't matter. What does matter is that we will be a family! I'm so happy, Vincent! The two of you have made me so happy!"


_ _ _


"Geoffrey? Geoffrey, where are you?" Catherine's voice reflected her worry. She had been searching for the youngster for over an hour. It wasn't like him to just disappear. All the children Below were taught from the time they could walk to let an adult know where they'd be at all times. Too many unpleasant things could befall someone -- grown-up or child -- in the often treacherous landscape Below.


Having checked chambers and side tunnels along the way, she eventually entered the Chamber of the Falls. The muted thunder of the water as it crashed against the rocks far below made her voice sound tinny in her own ears as she called out again.


Just as she was about to leave the area, an obviously reluctant Geoffrey came out from behind some large boulders. He stood still, not approaching Catherine, his head bowed.


Relief coursed through her that the stray had been found. "I've been looking everywhere for you. No one's seen you since this morning." She ran over to him and knelt, taking his face in her hands. "I was so worried. Are you all right?"


He pulled away from her, moving to sit facing the Falls. In a dull monotone, he replied, "I'm OK. I just...wanted to be by myself for a while. I'm sorry if I worried you."


Catherine sat beside him, dangling her legs over the ledge, and nudged him with her shoulder. "It's OK to want to be alone sometimes. You don't need to apologize for it. Just leave a note or something, OK?"


Puzzled, he mumbled, "Why?"


Surprised by his sullenness, she remarked, "Why? Because otherwise I'll worry, like I told you."


He turned to look at her then, and she noticed that his face was flushed, his eyes red and puffy.


"Geoffrey, something is wrong! Please tell me?"


In that same distressing monotone, he muttered, "Vincent...I talked to Vincent this morning."


Baffled, she reached out to caress his face, brushing a stray curl from his forehead. Vincent had sounded so relieved and happy after his discussion with the boy. What could have happened? "Did something he say upset you?"


Fresh tears sprang to his eyes. "He told me...about you and him."


Catherine smiled, exhilarated at the thought. "Yes! He said you understood -- that you said he and I belonged together."


"Yeah, I do believe that." He put his head down and she saw spreading dark patches on his jeans from the tears falling now with abandon. Alarm overwhelmed her.


"Please, Geoffrey, what is it? I can't stand to see you in pain. Come here to me, please." She reached out and pulled him close.


He resisted at first, but his need for comfort overcame his reluctance to allow any further intimacy between them. He let her warmth flow over him, but it couldn't ease the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't think that feeling would ever go away.


Her proximity suddenly became unbearable to him. He pulled away from her, roughly, and stammered, "P-p-please, Catherine. I...I don't want you here! This just makes it h-h-harder."


Confused and concerned, she grasped his shoulders and shook him gently. "What are you talking about? This makes what harder? You're not making any sense!"


He tore himself from her grasp and stared at her with accusing eyes. "I did what you wanted. Don't you understand? I did what you wanted!" He jumped to his feet and ran from her, blindly, and didn't stop running until he was sure she couldn't follow.


_ _ _


Catherine finished relating the essence of her troubling encounter to Vincent. She concluded by admitting, "I don't know what to do. He said he didn't want me near him, that I was making something harder for him. The last thing he said was that he did what I wanted him to do. And...and he called me 'Catherine' -- not 'Mom.' What could he mean?"


Vincent's puzzlement was clear. He went over in his mind his own recent conversation with the boy and found no clue to the mystery. "And you couldn't find him after that?"


Catherine shook her head. "He ran so fast. I tried to follow but I couldn't keep up. I called and called, but I couldn't find him. He's alone and he's hurting, Vincent -- and I don't know why!"


Placing a comforting kiss on her brow, he rose and grabbed his cloak. "I will find him for you -- don't worry," he vowed. With that, he turned and strode from the chamber.


_ _ _


His keen hearing detected the soft shuffling steps retreating farther down a dimly lit side tunnel. Following the sound, Vincent came upon a narrow chamber entrance. He could barely squeeze through the entry, but after divesting himself of cloak and tunic he managed the feat. Raising his torch high, he saw the small figure huddled miserably against the far wall of the rock-strewn cavern.


"Geoffrey, Catherine is very worried about you. Won't you come back to the Home Tunnels with me and talk to her about what's troubling you?"


The boy shook his head in a vehement "no."


He approached the now cowering child and bent to lay a hand on his shoulder. Geoffrey twisted away from his touch. "Just leave me alone, please! Just go away and leave me alone!" His voice cracked with emotion on the last word.


With a voice filled with sympathy, Vincent responded, "No, Geoffrey. You need someone. Let me be the one you need right now."


Anguished eyes looked into his as Geoffrey turned to him and replied, "I love her."


Stunned, Vincent answered him. "I know. So do I."


Bitterly, the youngster said, "And you've loved her longer. I understand. I'm only a kid, but even I can understand that. That's why I gave her back to you. I couldn't stand to see her unhappy, and you're the one she really wants."


Vincent dropped down beside the boy, shock reverberating through him. Of course! How could he have been so blind! In his own happiness, he had not thought about what effect his announcement would have upon the boy. Geoffrey's interpretation of events was a child's, and yet...he had responded as a man. Vincent's respect for the boy grew immensely as he sat, forming his reply. He had to be so careful now. He'd already unwittingly caused so much torment to this brave little one.


Gently, he contradicted the child's heartbreakingly erroneous conclusions. "You are wrong, Geoffrey. She wants both of us. This has all been my fault, for not explaining what was in my heart, for not making you truly understand."


He reached out to stroke the boy's back, but checked the almost unconscious gesture. The youngster wouldn't welcome that touch...not yet. "Geoffrey, Catherine already thinks of you as her son. The adoption ceremony is only an occasion for celebration for everyone Below. You and she are already family.


"When I came to see you this morning...what I was trying to say to you...was that I had not...asked for your approval before I asked Catherine be with me. I should have done so, and so I apologized. I wanted to ask your permission to...join your family."


Earnestly, he leaned toward the boy, anxious for him to truly understand. "When you said 'OK' I just...assumed that you understood everything I was trying to say. I didn't realize that you thought you had to...sacrifice your happiness for hers, for mine. That you thought that's what you were being asked...and did it anyway, willingly, out of your love for Catherine -- that was the most selfless act I have ever witnessed. I hope someday to become the man you already are, Geoffrey."


The words were slow in penetrating his mind. He hadn't expected this -- maybe a lecture about brooding or running away...but not this! He couldn't think, couldn't form a coherent sentence, and so he responded with a strangled, "What?"


With formality in his tone, the older man answered, "I'm asking you if you would allow me to join your family, Geoffrey...if you would allow me to become your father. I would be honored to have you for my son."


Geoffrey gulped in astonishment. So, he wasn't going crazy! Vincent had actually said it! He wasn't losing his Mom! Spindly arms threw themselves around Vincent, hugging him tight.


Vincent's eyes misted, and he whispered, "Do I take this as a 'yes'?"


A fierce young voice responded in his ear, "Oh, yes, Vincent! Yes! Catherine's still my Mom, right? And now you're gonna be my Dad? Really?" He realized he was babbling as Vincent's rumbling chuckle accompanied a hearty "Absolutely!" They hugged for a long time, relief and happiness vying for dominance in their hearts.


_ _ _


"...and this time I'm sure he understood what I said." Vincent, smiling, came to the end of his tale, and Catherine wept into Geoffrey's hair as she held him tight.


Taking his slight chin in her cupped palm, she angled his face up to hers. Searching his eyes for confirmation, she demanded, "You do understand, don't you? The three of us...we'll be a family?"


Geoffrey nodded vigorously. "Like Dad said to me, Mom -- absolutely!"



_ _ _


The formal approval of the Council having been given enthusiastically to both the adoption and Catherine's permanent relocation, work proceeded in earnest to prepare for both events. Letting Kanin in on their plans for Joining and swearing him to absolute secrecy had been necessary, for Kanin's assistance and advice were vital in selecting appropriate accommodations. Catherine could have handled all of it with Kanin by herself, of course, but she didn't want to deprive Vincent of an active voice in all the decisions which would have to be made. Making Kanin aware of their intentions would allow the planning to proceed much more easily and quickly.


For several days, Vincent and Catherine huddled with Kanin over plans for family chambers. After considering several options, the two Bondmates decided upon a series of small natural caverns located a little way outside of the main Hub. Kanin assured them that the caverns they had selected could be made habitable with some minor stonework. Small but adequate bathing chambers were already available nearby. They would be relatively close to the sites of all communal activity, yet they would be far enough away to enjoy a sense of familial solitude, their nearest neighbors being a long tunnel hallway beyond their portal.


Geoffrey had been asked his opinion about his own chamber and had selected a modest one right next to the two connected caverns which would become the master bedchamber and the family common room. He would have his privacy -- and his parents theirs -- but they all would be within close proximity. The youngster was truly excited about having his own chamber, even as he had some trepidation about sleeping all alone. As far back as he could remember, he'd always shared living quarters with a number of other children, and it was kind of scary to contemplate the absolute silence which would accompany his nights. Still, his Mom and Dad would be close by, so it would be OK.


Kanin advised that work on the chambers could be undertaken and accomplished during his and Vincent's free time within a few months, barring unforeseen problems -- just in time for the festivities. Vincent intended that there would be no such problems -- if he had to work night and day until their Joining to make it so.


_ _ _


"I'm ready!" Catherine, her face flushed with excitement, knelt at the basement entrance to her threshold. She handed down several suitcases to Vincent, then climbed down to join them...and him.


After a long, satisfyingly intense embrace, Vincent remarked, "Mouse and Jamie are available to assist you in moving any of your other things Below, Catherine. If you can get them to the warehouse where Peter delivers our drug supplies, they will be able to transport them from there."


Catherine frowned at the idea, asking, "If you don't mind, I'd rather wait...until our chambers are ready? There's no sense in moving things twice. After all, I'll be in a guest chamber until then -- hardly the place to unpack the household items I'll be using after we've Joined."


Tilting his head in acknowledgment of her logic, he replied, "Nevertheless...they...may think it strange that you have brought only these few things Below. Even knowing you are in temporary quarters."


"You mean...I would be expected to make the guest chamber 'home' for a few months?"


He nodded.


She sighed deeply. "But I just don't feel like it will be." Then a thought struck her, and in a lightly playful voice she suggested, "Now...if I were sharing quarters....?"


He looked at her in genuine puzzlement, not catching her meaning. "With whom, Catherine? Geoffrey?"


Shaking her head, she murmured in a soft, low voice, serious now, "No."


Vincent set the suitcases down gingerly and stared at her. He stammered in shock, "But...we aren't yet...and we haven't even told anyone except Kanin that we...."


She honestly hadn't intended to make such a rash suggestion, but it had suddenly seemed so logical when they began discussing moving her things. She was moving Below to be with him, after all. So why not truly be with him? She sighed softly, realizing she had shocked and disconcerted him. Hardly the way to begin my new life Below, she thought ruefully.


What seemed to Catherine a simple matter caused Vincent's heart to skip a beat. Sharing his chamber...his bed.... He wasn't yet prepared for all that would mean. Intellectually, he realized that sometime soon, they would...deepen their relationship. They had agreed to be Joined, and implicit in that was...the joining of not just souls and hearts...but bodies, too. But his mind still skittered away from the actual moment. He thought he still had two months to...prepare himself. And now Catherine was suggesting...tonight?

"Vincent?" She shook his arm gently to get his attention. "It's OK. Forget I mentioned it. I only thought.... But we have lots of time. When you're ready...." She let her implication sink in.


When he was ready.... So...she already was. His stomach trembled and clutched. She was ready couldn't even wrap his mind around the concept! She offered if it was the easiest, most natural thing in the world....


Without another word, he hefted her bags and began to walk with Catherine down the long tunnels toward...home.


_ _ _


"Welcome, Catherine!" Father, Mary and Geoffrey were awaiting her as she turned the last corner leading to the guest chamber which had been prepared for her. Smiling in delight, Catherine dropped the bags she was carrying and rushed down the passageway into their open arms.


Father's gruff voice was thick with emotion as he murmured in her ear, "It is so good to have you here, my dear." Mary held her close for a long moment, whispering, "Welcome, child!" Geoffrey, hopping from foot to foot in impatience, finally tugged on her sweater to gain her attention, and she bent to receive his enthusiastic greeting.


As Father and Geoffrey moved to take the bags she had abandoned, Vincent spoke for the first time. ", Father, Geoffrey."


They looked up at him in surprise. Mary remarked, "But everything's been prepared! William is planning to bring tea and carrot cake in a few minutes."


All eyes turned to the large man who almost filled the tunnel. He turned and said over his shoulder, "Follow me."


Geoffrey looked at Catherine, who shrugged. She took Mary's arm and trailed after Vincent, curious now, although a little flame of hope began to burn within. Father and Geoffrey brought up the rear of the little troop as they wound their way through the familiar tunnels, stopping at Vincent's chamber entrance. Father's eyes widened in surprise, and Mary fussed with the warm knitted scarf at her throat.


Aware that he had their complete attention, Vincent began, "Father, Mary...Catherine and I...and Geoffrey...have something to tell you."


"But...I thought it was a secret?" the youngster hissed.


Vincent inclined his shaggy head to look down into the boy's questioning brown eyes. "Not anymore." Facing the older couple, he said, "The adoption ceremony will not be the only rite you will conduct on April 12th, Father. Catherine and I...ask pronounce the words that will Join us, also."


Father's mouth worked, but no sound emanated from it. Mary clutched his arm, partially to support him, partially to support herself. Tears flowed from her eyes as she looked from Vincent to Catherine and back. "So wonderful," she murmured, as if to herself. Rallying, she embraced first one, then the other, saying, "Congratulations, children. This is the best news you could give us."


Father had found his voice by this time and seconded Mary. His eyes suspiciously bright, he congratulated the couple. "It will be a celebration, indeed! Vincent...Catherine...." His voice choked on her name, and he could no longer stifle the tears which fell as he was embraced by both of them.


Recovering after a moment, he straightened and announced, "We have much to plan. The Helpers will all have to be notified, of course. Many will likely want to be included in the festivities. William will need to plan for a much larger gathering than we had first assumed. Instead of my chambers, I would suggest we hold the ceremonies in the Great Hall, don't you agree, Mary?" As he spoke, Mary gently herded him and Geoffrey down the tunnel towards Father's chamber, murmuring, "Yes, indeed...yes, Father...of course," as he continued to enumerate everything that would need doing.


Left alone in the passageway, Catherine turned to Vincent. "That was quite a bombshell you dropped. I think it's entirely escaped Father that I'm...moving in with you. He's focused so on the future, he's forgotten about objecting to these...arrangements."


"Yes." The corners of his unique mouth turned up slightly in a quiet smile.


Catherine laughed delightedly. "You're a sly one, Mr. Wells. But I believe you're enjoying your little subterfuge a bit prematurely. Just wait until Father figures it out!"


He shrugged at her warning. "By then, Catherine, you will be...quite...moved in. He will not be able to...dislodge you so easily."


She smiled at the thought, then turned serious, gazing deeply into his eyes. "You're...sure about this? The other chamber is all prepared for me, and if you'd rather....?"


Taking her in his arms, he lowered his head and kissed her -- a move so unexpected that she was caught off-guard and didn't even respond to the gentle pressure of his lips upon hers. Breathless, she begged, "Again?" Obliging her, he offered her that sweetness anew, and she returned the embrace in full. Then, without pulling his mouth from hers, Vincent lifted her into his arms and carried her into his chamber.


Catherine's suitcases remained piled outside the chamber entrance, effectively blocking entry. As word spread like wildfire about the impending Joining, many came to Vincent's chamber to offer their felicitations, but none dared to brave that barrier.


The afternoon turned to evening and so to night as notes, small gifts and the occasional flower began to pile up against the bags. In the small hours of the next morning, when Vincent stirred to forage for food, he found the loving messages there. Smiling, he stepped over them. Time enough later to read them, time enough to accept the congratulations of their family and friends. Time enough...all the time in the world.