A Dark and Stormy Night

By Edith Crowe

Catherine lay in the quiet darkness, too content to open her eyes, and wondered idly why she was awake. The November storm that had raged earlier, rattling the house and sheeting its windows with rain, had clearly stopped. Manhattan was never truly silent, even in the middle of the night, but its unceasing background hum was so familiar to Catherine it never would have disturbed her sleep. She smiled. Her mind might be awake, but her body was still heavy with langorous satisfaction. Something in the storm had triggered an answering wildness in Vincent, and their loving that night had been fierce and prolonged. Thinking of it brought an irresistible need to be closer, and Catherine turned to snuggle against him as he lay beside her.

Her eyes snapped open in surprise as she encountered not the relaxed muscles of a sleeper, but a tense rigidity that told her he was not only awake but alert. There was just enough light in the room to reflect the glitter of his open eyes. Moving her hand to touch his cheek, Catherine whispered next to his ear. "Vincent, is something wrong? Did you have another dream?"

Turning his head just enough to face her, he slipped one arm across her body in a reassuring caress. "No, it's not that. I just ..."

"What? Tell me."

He sighed, then spoke slowly, reluctantly. "I heard something."

"Heard what?" she pressed him. "Where?"

"It sounds like it's coming from downstairs."

Catherine clutched his arm as a surge of adrenalin banished every vestige of relaxation from her body. "You mean someone's in the house?"

"No." He spoke quickly, but his voice lacked complete conviction. "It sounds more like someone at the door, trying to get in."

"But you can't be sure. Have you been hearing it long? Could it be someone from Below?"

Vincent shook his head. "I doubt it, it's been going on too long for that. If someone from the Tunnels needed to contact us in an emergency, they'd come up right away and knock on our bedroom door. Many of them know the house well enough to find their way around it, even in the dark."

As Catherine slipped from Vincent's arms and threw back the covers, he quickly grasped her hand to hold her back. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going downstairs to see what's going on, of course."

"Catherine!" Vincent's whispered hiss was sharper than he intended. "You don't know what's down there--it could be dangerous."

"Vincent, you know this house has the best security system there is, that's one of the reasons I bought it. If someone's trying to get in, I doubt they'll succeed. I'll look through the peephole, and if it's anyone who looks suspicious, I'll call the police. No heroics, I promise."

Vincent pulled her close, partly so she could hear his words, partly from his instinctive need to protect her. "I can't be sure the sound is coming from outside. And no matter how well the house is secured, there's still the Tunnel entrance. Some outsider could have found that."

"The way Mouse concealed it, that wouldn't be easy," she argued. "Besides--I can't just lie up here wondering what's going on. And I'm not about to let you go down there and risk discovery."

Vincent sighed, hugging her. "I don't suppose I could convince you to leave that way," he asked, nodding toward the wall that concealed the stairway to the Tunnels.

"Certainly not without you," Catherine replied emphatically, "and I don't want to leave the house at the mercy of who-knows- what. It means too much to me, to us. I can't stand by and see it violated." Vincent sighed again in a way his wife recognized as capitulation. She knew he felt the same way about their home, their refuge that was a bridge between Above and Below.

Releasing her, he threw off the rest of the covers. "We'll both go," he announced, "and very carefully."

"I don't want you to risk being seen---"

Vincent picked up his robe from the chair where he had flung it hours before. Its deep green was barely distinguishable from the surrounding darkness. He pushed his golden hair under the hood, which he pulled far forward over his face.

Catherine put on her own robe, somewhat reassured, and gently removed her gun from the nightstand drawer. It had lain there, untouched, since she had moved into this house nine months ago. She had hoped it would lie there forever. Quietly, she and Vincent moved to the bedroom door. Catherine opened it with great care, but its hinges were well-oiled and made no sound. She moved slowly down the stairs, walking on the side of the treads to avoid betraying creaks. Her right hand held the gun; Vincent held her left as he followed her closely.

As they approached the lower floor, she heard the sounds that only Vincent's ears had detected earlier. Clearly, they were coming from outside, as if someone were trying to find a way in. Motioning Vincent to stay behind in the shadows, Catherine approached the front door, rising up on her toes to look through the peephole. After a moment, she returned to where Vincent waited, tense and alert. In the darkness, Vincent could still see that Catherine's face was puzzled.

"What did you see?"

"Nothing," she whispered back. "Someone's obviously out there, we both hear it. But I can't see anything but the street." She was silent a moment, considering, then spoke with conviction. "I'm going to open the door."

"Catherine!" Vincent hissed. "The danger--"

Catherine put a reassuring hand on his arm as she spoke. "Someone could be lying there hurt. It's cold out tonight, and that storm was a bad one--how could I face myself if some poor homeless person died on my doorstep for lack of my help? Or someone who's been attacked, like I was?"

Vincent knew that Catherine could not turn her back on such a possibility, any more than he could have left her bleeding in the park three and a half years ago. "Let me--"

"No! You can't risk anyone seeing you! I promise," she argued placatingly, "I'll keep the chain on; I'll just look. I've got my gun. If it's someone who looks the least doubtful I won't let him in, I'll call for help."

Vincent agreed--reluctantly--but stayed as close to her as he could without being seen as she deactivated the security system and slowly opened the door. Expecting to find a shivering or bleeding body on the doorstep, they were slow to react as something shot through the small opening and disappeared into the dark interior of the house. Vincent was the first to recover, running after the mysterious intruder as Catherine pushed the door shut with an expletive that would have surprised Father. Not wanting to stop to turn on lights, Catherine followed the pursuit by its sound, wishing she had brought a flashlight. She thought she heard Vincent in the living room, but just before she reached it Vincent burst out into the corridor almost in front of her, heading down the hall to the library.

Close behind him as he followed his quarry into that room, Catherine had the presence of mind to push the door firmly shut behind her. Whatever it was wouldn't escape now. Vincent seemed to be all over the room; whatever he was chasing moved quickly. She could hear her husband caroming off the furniture. A crash and clatter in the far corner told her the table holding the chessboard had gone over. Concerned for Vincent, Catherine was about to abandon her post at the door when an unearthly screech almost made her jump out of her skin, and sudden silence descended. Fearful, she groped for the light switch.

As a lamp in the middle of the room illuminated the scene, Catherine's jaw dropped. Carefully clicking the safety on, she put the gun into the pocket of her robe. She needed both hands to clutch her stomach as she began laughing till tears came.

"Catherine," Vincent grumbled as he struggled up from his ungainly position on the floor, "I hope you are laughing in relief, because I find nothing funny in this situation." Not only had the hood of his robe fallen back; the belt had come undone, giving Catherine an unobstructed view of one of her favorite sights. Vincent in his semi-naked glory was normally no laughing matter, but--clutched to his chest, hanging on for dear life, was a soaking wet and hissing kitten no bigger than his hand. "If you can compose yourself," Vincent suggested, "perhaps you could help me find a more effective way to restrain this creature before he damages a portion of my anatomy you would sorely miss."

Galvanized by this frightening if unlikely possibility, Catherine ran across the hall to retrieve some towels from the downstairs bathroom. Returning quickly to the library, she carefully extricated the kitten's claws from her husband's chest and wrapped the small, dripping bundle in a towel, cooing softly all the while. Vincent gathered his robe and the shreds of his dignity around him once again, looking more than a little miffed.

Taking pity on him, Catherine made a prodigious effort to stifle her laughter. "Let's go into the kitchen; it's warmer there. Besides, I think we could both use a cup of tea."

Vincent ended up making the tea while Catherine continued to coo over the little furry bundle, drying him off with one towel then wrapping him snugly in a dry one and cuddling him close to her breast. Although quite unable to recognize the source of his irritation, Vincent frowned to see a spot which he regarded as his own usurped by the little hellion. "Catherine, are you sure you should do that? He might have fleas."

"Even if he had," Catherine smiled, "they've certainly all drowned by now. The poor little thing looks awfully skinny-- let's see if we can find him something to eat."

"Yes. Let us do that," Vincent said in resignation as he got up to search the refigerator while Catherine continued to hug the kitten. Warming some cream in the microwave, he set the dish before her. Rummaging in the cupboard, he unearthed a can of tuna fish and put some on a small plate. Setting it down on the table as well, he sat again, pulling his chair closer to Catherine's.

"He's so tiny," she said softly. "I'm not even sure he's old enough to be weaned--let's see what he thinks of the cream."

A comfortable silence settled around them in the warm glow of the kitchen. As the kitten's fur dried, Vincent was surprised to see it was almost the same tawny gold as his own. He watched as Catherine settled the kitten on its back, against her breast, and carefully transferred the cream from the bowl to the hungry little mouth with her finger. Happy, as always, to watch his wife for hours, Vincent let his thoughts drift. The two of them, sitting in their own comfortable home in the middle of the night, steeped in the great contentment such togetherness always brought ... he smiled as Catherine made soothing noises. The kitten's eyes never left her face as he greedily devoured the cream. How beautiful she looked as she tenderly cared for it, almost as if it were ...

The sudden pang of longing that overwhelmed Vincent was so intense and so unexpected he must have made some inadvertent sound. "Vincent?" Catherine raised her head. "Did you say something?"

It took all Vincent's concentration to make his voice sound normal. "He ... seems to be taking that well. Why don't you see if he eats on his own?"

The golden fur stuck out every which way as Catherine unwrapped her charge and set him on the table in front of the food. Devouring the remaining cream in short order, he began to attack the tuna fish with relish. "Well," Catherine exclaimed in surprise, "Seems like he can handle solid food after all. I guess he's just small for his age."

Vincent cleared his throat. "What do you intend to do with him?"

"Well, for tonight I thought we could put him in the solarium; he can't hurt the furniture in there. There's some sand in the basement for plants, so we can make up a cat box."

"I hope he knows how to use it." Vincent frowned. "I wonder if this was wise ..."

"Well, we didn't really have any choice, did we?" Catherine challenged. "Besides ... " Catherine's voice became very soft. "I think it's a good idea, as a matter of policy, to rescue small adorable furry things left out in the cold. You never know how they'll turn out."

Vincent made the only response to this he could, leaning over for a long, loving kiss. They broke apart only when a demanding yowl from the table startled them back to reality. "Well!" Catherine laughed. "It appears our guest is asking in no uncertain terms to be shown to his room."

After several trips up and down stairs, the kitten was installed in his new quarters with a makeshift cat box, bed, and second helpings of food. After warily examining every corner of the large room, he finally settled down and yawned prodigiously. As Catherine smoothed down his spiky fur he began to purr, and soon fell asleep. She rose and took Vincent's hand, smiling fondly at her new charge.

They tiptoed away as quietly as possible, shutting the door gently behind them. "Catherine," Vincent whispered, "this door doesn't latch very well."

"I know," she whispered back. "I keep meaning to ask Mouse to fix it. I'm sure it'll be OK--our furry friend is much too small to open a door this heavy."

Hearing the tiredness in his wife's voice, Vincent swept her up in his arms and headed down to their bedroom. Sighing in contentment, Catherine kissed the hollow of his throat as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Thank God, there had been nothing to fear tonight after all. Perhaps the Fates were through testing them at last.

When they returned to bed, Vincent took Catherine in his arms as they nestled under the warm comforter. "You're going to keep him, aren't you?"

"No, love," she replied. "We're going to keep him. Don't forget, we're married now. What's mine is yours and vice versa."

"For better or worse," Vincent sighed in resignation.

"Think of how much the children will enjoy playing with a kitten ... and he'll be company for me when I'm alone in the house."

"Think of what fuel this will provide Cullen's dubious sense of humor," Vincent winced. "It could be worse, I suppose. It could be a raccoon."

Vincent could feel Catherine's smile as she snuggled into the hollow of his shoulder. Soon afterward, she was asleep. It had begun to rain again, but a soft quiet rain as gentle as a lullaby. The warmth of Catherine's body beside him, and the sound of the rain, soon sent Vincent into the same sweet darkness.

A welcome winter sun poured through storm-washed air and the gauzy curtains of their bedroom. Catherine could feel the brightness on her eyelids as she slowly woke. When she finally opened her eyes, she had to clamp her jaw firmly shut to keep from laughing out loud and waking her husband. The poor man certainly deserved his rest after his exertions of last night. Between lovemaking and cat-chasing, neither of them had gotten much sleep. Lying on her side facing Vincent, Catherine kept as motionless as she could, unwilling to disturb the priceless scene before her.

Vincent lay on his back, his face turned toward her. During the night the covers had migrated downward, and his furred torso was pale gold in the winter light. The tilt of his head caused part of his hair to spill gloriously over the pillow next to her; the rest swept over his cheek and the upper part of his chest. Nestled there, so close in color he was almost invisible, curled one very contented sleeping kitten.

It was too good to last. As he shifted in his sleep, Vincent's nose began to twitch as it encountered a small furry tail. The tail in question began to switch even more at this stimulus. A rapid escalation of switching and twitching soon caused Vincent to jerk awake, sneezing. His eyes opened as a small golden tornado launched itself off his chest, bounced off his thigh and leaped to the floor. It suddenly reappeared in one of the chairs that flanked the fireplace. After several loud complaints, the kitten ignored them and began washing its tiny face with vigor.

Vincent sat up, glaring first at the feline terror and then at Catherine as she dissolved into giggles at last. "Catherine, this is not amusing! Did you see where he landed? He could have ..."

Pulling the bedclothes down all the way, she leaned over to inspect her husband's thigh very closely. "Looks fine to me, dear, but just in case ..." She bent even lower. "I'll kiss it and make it better."

Vincent drew in a deep, shuddering breath as he tried to concentrate on feeling indignant instead of ... "Catherine," he began firmly.

Restraining herself, Catherine moved back to Vincent's side, propping up on one elbow to caress his chest where it had been used as a launching pad. The thickness of his fur there seemed to have prevented any damage. "I'm sorry," she said contritely. "I should have removed him before you woke up ... but he did look so sweet there, curled up on your hair like he'd made a nest in the tall grass."

"Do you consider it flattering to compare your husband's body to... the African veldt?"

"Actually, it's more like northern California ... beautiful hills and valleys all covered in gold ..." Her hand moved slowly, sensuously, down its favorite landscape. "Why look, I must be right about the location ... there's a redwood tree!"

"Catherine," Vincent said hoarsely, "you are taking an unfair advantage in this discussion."

His wife continued her caresses. "I'm a lawyer, dear. I was taught there's no such thing as an unfair advantage."

Vincent was finding it increasingly difficult to marshal cogent arguments; it seemed his blood was finding better things to do than nourish his brain. Reaching for Catherine, he gave in. Why fight it, when capitulation would be infinitely more pleasurable? As her lips began to follow the route of her exploration, Vincent began stroking her naked skin with the furred backs of his hands. When he thought he could bear no more, she knelt above him then lowered herself slowly as she guided him into her, eyes never leaving his face.

As her strong legs lifted and lowered her in a rhythm that sent fire along his nerves, he slid his hands up her sides to support her, letting his thumbs caress her sensitive nipples. With a small sound, Catherine's head leaned back at his touch. Vincent never could decide what excited him the most when they made love--her caresses and the indescribable feeling of her welcoming body accepting his, the look on her face as their passion built, or the inarticulate sounds of pleasure she couldn't control. As if this were not enough, their bond flooded him with all her feelings as if they were his own. Sometimes the intensity was so overwhelming he feared he would die from the sheer joy of it, but could not bring himself to care.

As he felt Catherine nearing her peak, Vincent relinquished the last vestige of his control, thrusting powerfully upward as she pushed downward. Swept away by sensations too primal to be named, he knew nothing more until Catherine collapsed on top of him, too weak with pleasure to support herself any longer. As soon as his own limbs would respond he wrapped his arms around her, caressing her back as the world slowly took shape around them again. He turned his head a little to kiss her hair. Opening his eyes, he found himself looking into two green ones staring unblinkingly back at him from the top of the bedside chair. Disconcerted, his hand groped for the sheet to pull it up.

This unexpected movement caused Catherine to raise her head. "Vincent, what?--" Following his gaze, she spotted the little voyeur, then turned back to her husband in amused surprise. "Dear heart, he's only a cat."

Vincent reluctantly tore his gaze from their observer to face Catherine. "I wonder. Perhaps I should take him to Narcissa and ask her opinion."

Catherine traced the unique line of Vincent's lips with her fingers, then kissed him thoroughly. "You can hardly blame him for watching. He's probably just impressed."

"Catherine ..." Vincent lowered his eyes. Even after almost a year of loving her this way, and seven months of marriage, he was never quite sure how to respond to compliments of that sort. The need to do so was obviated by a peremptory yowl from the doorway.

"I wonder if he's hungry," Catherine speculated, looking toward the bedside clock. "Oh, good grief!" Leaping out of bed, she tugged Vincent after her. "I had no idea it was so late," she gasped as she threw on a robe and slippers. "Don't you remember? We've got a horde of Tunnel children due in less than an hour for the nextStory of English tape." Catherine scooped up the cat with one hand and propelled Vincent toward the bathroom with the other."I'll feed this feline vacuum cleaner and take my shower downstairs."

"We could shower together," Vincent offered.

"Oh, right," Catherine answered drily. "Today's lesson is supposed to be literature, not sex education."

Vincent drew himself up in affronted, if naked, dignity. "Don't you trust my self-control?"

"Always," Catherine replied as she treated herself to one more quick kiss. "But I can't say the same for mine."

It was a near thing, but Catherine managed to get everything ready just as a familiar knock sounded on the cellar door. "Just a minute!" she called out, securing her four-footed guest before opening it to Brooke and the children. As they poured into the kitchen, they were immediately entranced by the kitten. All asking questions at once, they jockeyed for the best petting positions.

"Children, this is supposed to be a lesson in English, not animal behavior." A slightly damp but reasonably kempt Vincent entered the kitchen and regarded his pupils with mock disapproval.

"But he's so cute," Samantha insisted.

"Which, of course, excuses everything," Vincent laughed. "Why don't you all help Catherine carry the food into the living room, and we'll tell you how we acquired our new boarder."

Still a little awed by Catherine's house, the children were very careful as they carried the platters and baskets across the hall. "Wow, there's a lot of food here." Zach sniffed appreciatively at a basket of apple-cinnamon muffins. "We all ate breakfast, you know."

"And I'll bet you can still manage to eat more," Catherine countered. "You look an inch taller every time I see you. Besides, Vincent and I haven't had breakfast yet."

"Oh?" Catherine was startled by Brooke's speculative grin. She was growing up, and Catherine made a silent promise to herself not to forget it.

"Yeah, we wondered what happened to you guys last night," Eric announced through a mouthful of bagel. "You usually come Below on Friday nights."

"Well, we kind of got involved with other things," Catherine explained lamely, avoiding Brooke's eyes. "And it got to be pretty late, and since we had to be here this morning for your English lesson ..."

"Well, it's a good thing you didn't come last night." Teresa was happily petting the kitten, delighted by his ecstatic purr. "Otherwise nobody would have been here to help him."

Her sister Maria watched, wide-eyed, as Teresa's lap was mercilessly kneaded. "Where did he come from?"

Catherine and Brooke brought hot chocolate from the kitchen while Vincent began a dramatic, if heavily edited, account of the kitten's rescue. Sensing he was the center of attention, the furry dynamo exhibited his feline prowess by mercilessly chasing a grape around the floor. At the conclusion of the narrative, Kipper asked the sixty-four-dollar question. "What's his name?"

Discovering he had none, the children insisted no more time should be wasted. Suggestions were tossed out thick and fast. In short order, Marmalade, Leo, Kzin, Cuddles, Aslan, Pumpkin, and Surprise were discussed and discarded. A silence fell in which the sound of mental wheels turning could almost be heard. Naming a cat was an important matter.

Vincent cleared his throat. "What about Bulwer-Lytton?"

Catherine looked blank. "Who, or what, is a Bulwer-Lytton?"

"A relatively obscure and largely untalented Victorian novelist," Vincent explained. "Originator of that deathless phrase--"

"It was a dark and stormy night!" The children shouted in unison.

"Vincent makes us read his stuff to help us learn how not to write," Zach explained.

Catherine grinned. "I like it. It's certainly appropriate to the circumstances." She regarded Vincent fondly. "You're probably one of the few people in New York who knows that didn't originate with Snoopy."Catherine knew Vincent's cultural literacy was sufficiently vast to encompass the legendary beagle as well as minor Victorian novelists. What a remarkable man she'd married.

"That's a pretty long name for a little cat," Zach objected.

"Well, obviously, he has to have a nickname too," Samantha informed him in a superior tone.

"You could call him Bulwer for short," Teresa suggested.

"Or Bull," Vincent amended, his gaze firmly fixed over Catherine's head.

"I think Bulwer's perfect," Catherine announced, in a tone that did not invite disagreement. "It's kind of dignified--maybe he'll grow into it."

Samantha bounced up and down in excitement. "We should have a naming ceremony for him, just like we do for babies!"

A sudden flicker of emotion, gone almost before he felt it, caused Vincent to turn quickly to Catherine. Her head was bowed, and she seemed inordinately interested in the pattern of a sofa pillow.

"That's dumb," Kipper scoffed.

"Did you have one for Arthur?" Maria asked.

"Nope," Kipper pointed out.

"We wouldn't want to hurt Arthur's feelings," Vincent suggested softly.

"I guess not," Samantha reluctantly agreed.

"Well," Vincent continued, "I think it's time we learned about English in Shakespeare's time. Do you think you'll be able to pay proper attention, or shall I take Bulwer upstairs?"

Faithfully promising Vincent they would not be distracted, the children settled down and remained on their best behavior throughout the tape and their teacher's subsequent lesson. Afterwards, they all helped Vincent and Catherine clean up so they could go Below without further delay. Unwilling to leave Bulwer on his own, Catherine found an old picnic basket that could be pressed into service as a cat carrier. As they made their way, they decided it was much too dangerous to let Bulwer loose in the Tunnels. However, they were at a loss to decide how to limit his wanderings in a place that lacked real doors. To any Tunnel resident, a curtain closing off a room was as inviolate as a locked door would be, but how to explain that to a kitten? Catherine finally concluded they would have to trust to Mouse's ingenuity to come up with something. Kipper found the idea of a Mouse helping out a cat very funny.

Vincent and Catherine spent the rest of the weekend absorbed in the life of the Tunnels. Vincent spent every day there when Catherine was at work, but Catherine was seldom able to manage more than one or two nights a week Below in addition to weekends. Since the loss of her father, and her marriage to Vincent, Catherine had become an integral part of the community, and when she was Below she seemed to spend all her time inundated by people wanting to show her what they'd been doing since her last appearance. The children, especially, were as fascinated with "Vincent's Catherine" as ever, but less in awe of her since her presence had become so familiar.

As he and Catherine prepared for bed that evening, Vincent watched Bulwer test the web-like contraption Mouse had rigged over the the door of their outer chamber. Fortunately, it seemed to be one of his successful inventions. The kitten didn't seem to mind--perhaps he saw it as a cat gym provided for his amusement, rather than a means of restraint. Entering the inner room, Vincent found Catherine already in bed, gazing fondly at Kristoffer's portrait of them where it graced the wall next to the door. She smiled as the artist's rendition and the even more beautiful original stood side by side for a moment; then Vincent moved forward to settle gratefully beside her in the large bed. "If you don't mind, Catherine, it would probably be a good idea to spend tonight sleeping."

"After last night, I'm forced to agree. I could hardly keep my eyes open after dinner." She snuggled close to her deliciously warm husband. "Besides, I read someplace that the average married couple makes love 6.2 times per month. We're way ahead."

Silence. "Vincent?"

"I was just wondering how one makes love .2 times."

"Too quickly for my taste!" Catherine laughed.

Vincent rubbed his cheek against Catherine's hair. "I'm afraid we take advantage of your generous nature. You give so much in your work Above, then come Below where we demand even more. No wonder you're tired."

"Don't be silly--I love it; especially the children."

Vincent held her closer. "I noticed."

"I can't believe how fast little Cathy's growing--and Lena's such a good mother. I was so worried whether bringing her down here was the right decision. Thank God it worked out so well."

"Catherine--have I told you how happy I am to be married to you?"

Catherine lifted her head to look at his face. "Regularly. But I never get tired of hearing it." She gently traced his cheekbones, and the line of golden fur from his nose to where it disappeared under his hair. "I love you."

Vincent stroked her hair as she settled back against his chest, not trusting himself to speak for a moment. "And I love you."

Several days later, Vincent meandered along the familiar route towards what Cullen had dubbed "the Chandler-Wells Residence." Slipping through the well-concealed entrance, an engineering triumph of Mouse and Cullen, he made his way up the narrow winding stair concealed inside the wall of the house. He paused, concentrating on the bond. Catherine was near, and alone ... she was always careful to warn him if it wasn't safe to enter. As he drew his attention back to his other five senses, he realized something smelled quite wonderful. His long fingers went unerringly to the hidden trigger. As the wall pivoted, Catherine turned to smile at his entrance.

"Catherine," he exclaimed in astonishment. "You're ... cooking?"

"You don't need to sound quite so surprised. It's hardly the first time you've seen me do it."

"It isn't something you ... er ... choose to do often." In the interests of diplomacy, among other things, he bent to kiss her. "Mmmm."


"You have something very tasty on the corner of your mouth."

"You're just trying to distract me. I happen to be quite a decent cook, if you don't expect anything too complicated." Catherine began stacking dishes on the counter. "My mother liked to cook. I used to help her in the kitchen, before ... well, then my dad had a very grandmotherly sort of housekeeper who let me do the same with her. I'm sure she felt sorry for me."

"You must have been very lonely, with your father working so hard."

Catherine took off her floury apron, the better to embrace her husband. "Dear heart, don't sound so sad. That's all in the past ... and you've given me an even bigger family to replace the one I've lost." They stood there for a long moment, until a peremptory buzzer from the direction of the oven called Catherine back to her responsibilities. Vincent sniffed appreciatively as she carefully took four loaves out of the oven.

"Is there some particular reason," Vincent queried, "for this sudden ..."

"Domestic fit?" Catherine smiled and turned back to begin loading the dishwasher. "Part of it's the holidays coming up. Thanksgiving's pretty close, and pumpkin bread seems just the thing for this time of year. Besides, we had a shower today at lunchtime for one of the paralegals. Maybe that got me in the mood."

"A wedding shower?" Vincent asked idly, as he began putting away containers of baking supplies.

"No. A baby shower." Catherine's voice was even--too even. Through the bond, all Vincent could sense was a smooth, impenetrable surface. Her absence of emotion told him more than its presence ever could. She never tried to hide her feelings from him, unless they might cause him pain. He stood still, irresolute, at a loss for what do. Her back to him, she calmly continued with her task like an automaton. Stretching out a hand to her, Vincent was about to speak when a knock rapped at the cellar door. Catherine quickly moved to open it, and the moment was lost.

"Jamie! We didn't expect to see you tonight."

"I'm sorry. I know you were just Below last night and you must have lots of work to do ..."

Catherine patted Jamie's shoulder. "Nothing that can't wait another day. How can we help?"

"It's the play we're working on for Thanksgiving. Mouse has come up with some terrific special effects, but they're kinda complicated. I told him we needed to do a trial run, a kind of ... what do you call it ..."

"Technical rehearsal?" Vincent prompted.

"Right! Well, you know Mouse, he insists Vincent and Catherine are the only ones outside the cast who can see what he's got planned. He wouldn't pay attention to anyone else's advice anyway." Jamie sighed. "I told him you were probably busy, but he can't stand waiting 'till Friday."

"Of course we'll come," Catherine said brightly. "Won't we, Vincent."

"Of course."

Relief was obvious on Jamie's face. Getting Mouse to accept "no" for an answer could be very trying. "Why don't you come Below for dinner? There's still time. I'll help you carry the pumpkin bread."

Vincent shook his head in dismay. "Jamie, that is the most blatant hint I have ever..."

Smiling, Catherine began wrapping the warm bread in towels while Vincent unearthed a basket. "I hope William won't think I'm after his job."

"Don't worry, Catherine," Jamie reassured her. "Even if your bread is better than his, nobody would dare say so."

After a short but spectacular demonstration of Mouse's latest inspirations, all concluded that more work was necessary. A little nervous about her responsibilities as head of the costume department, Lena begged for Catherine's advice. Vincent encouraged Catherine to accept the task, claiming a good long visit with Father was overdue.

"Vincent! How good to see you again so soon. How was the rehearsal?"

"Fine, Father." Vincent sat wearily in a chair opposite him. "We were able to put the fire out right away."


"Never mind."

Alerted by something in Vincent's voice, Father looked sharply at his son. "Is something wrong? You came for more than a visit, didn't you?"

Vincent sighed and leaned back in the chair. "I cannot bear to see Catherine hurt ... but she is in pain, and I am the cause."

"Surely not! I can't believe you ..."

"Father, she wants a child. My child."

A charged silence hung in the air for a moment, then the older man spoke with great care. "She's told you this?"

"Not in so many words. We haven't really discussed it since we first became lovers, but that was almost a year ago. I was unwilling to risk it, but Catherine has such courage ... I'm sure she agreed because of my fear, not her own."

"Has she said or done anything recently," Father asked, "that leads you to believe her desire for a child is more intense?"

"It is less what she says than what she avoids saying--and feelings she takes care to block from me." Vincent leaned forward, his head in his hands. "But I know it's true--and I don't know what to do."

"How can I help?"

"I know the story of how I was found, but I thought perhaps ... some small thing, some detail you thought unimportant, anything that might tell me ..." Father started as Vincent's fist pounded the table in frustration. "If only I knew!"

"One thing I'm sure of--Paracelsus' story was a total fabrication, meant only to manipulate and hurt you. You must put it out of your mind."


"Vincent, it makes no sense! Higher species require the care of parents to survive--it would be evolutionary suicide to destroy one's mother at birth."

"Women die in childbirth," Vincent said hoarsely, regretting the words as soon as they left his lips.

A look of pain passed over his father's face like the shadow of a cloud over the ground. "I know that only too well." Father sighed. "Vincent, no matter what I've told you, you've convinced yourself that you were the cause of your mother's death in childbirth--or that she abandoned you because she couldn't bear the sight of you."

"Both likely possibilities," Vincent insisted bitterly.

Father reached over to lay a hand on his son's arm. "No more likely than a number of others. Yes, your mother may have died in childbirth, but for reasons having nothing to do with your uniqueness. She could have been sick, or poor, with no medical care. Such women die giving birth at a disgraceful rate, even today."

Vincent remained silent, so Father was emboldened to continue. "She could have been in the control of others, who took you from her without her knowledge. It may even have been kindly meant--youwere left at a hospital. The rags you were wrapped in gave no clue, nor did your condition. You were small, and very sick at first, but we weren't sure how long you'd been outside. It could have been no more than exposure. You didn't appear premature, at least not significantly."

"In other words, no one knows anything of use. Father, how can I allow Catherine to risk herself when I know so little? If anything happened to her because of me, I couldn't bear it."

"There is another consideration."

Vincent lifted his head wearily. "What?"

"Your biochemistry is unusual. Scientifically speaking, I think it's unlikely you and Catherine could conceive a child ... surely that's occurred to you?"

"Yes," Vincent admitted. "If that were the case, I think she could accept it in time. But never to know, never to try ... she loves me so much, Father, I can still hardly believe it."

"And, loving you as she does, it's only natural she wants to bear you a child."

Vincent looked at his father in wonder. "She would even welcome one like me."

Father grasped Vincent's hand. "She is not the only one. But what about you? How do you feel?"

"Sometimes, when I see her with the children Below--or even with that kitten--I think there is nothing I could want more. But to expose her to such a risk, or place such a burden on a child ... " Before Father could think of an encouraging response, familiar footsteps sounded in the passageway.

"Well, are you two having a nice visit?" Catherine kissed Father lightly on the cheek before moving to her husband's side. "Lena's finally through with me. I really should spend some time working ... would you like to stay Below longer?"

Vincent rose to his feet and slipped his arm around Catherine. "No, I'll come back with you. Goodbye, Father." As he bent to kiss the older man's forehead, Father hugged him closely. Their eyes held for a long, wordless moment when they parted.

"Goodbye, Vincent--Catherine. Take care."

The next morning, as Catherine was about to leave for work, Vincent took her hand. "Would you mind staying alone tonight? There are ... things I need to take care of Below that will take me far from the central chambers. It would be difficult to make the journey in a single day."

Catherine smiled at her husband. "It wasn't that long ago, dear heart, that seeing you two days in a row was heaven. I don't want to be selfish, or have our family Below think I'm monopolizing you too much. If you have things to do, now is actually a pretty good time--I'm trying to get as much work done as possible right now so I can relax over Thanksgiving. I'll spend the evening in the study slaving over legal briefs--and Bulwer will keep me company."

"You are a most understanding wife, Catherine."

"We aim to please ... but there's one thing you have to do first."

"And what might that be?"

"Give me a goodbye kiss that'll keep me going for two days."

Vincent smiled as he drew her face toward his. "We aim to please."

As he made his way Below, Vincent felt more than a little uncomfortable. He hadn't exactly lied to Catherine, but had let her assume that his absence would be due to some work that needed to be done in the Tunnels. He began to brood, not for the first time, over the unequal burden their bond placed on Catherine. She did not have the luxury of hiding her feelings from him completely, since the act of doing so was revealing in itself. She sacrificed so much to love him--even the privacy of her own emotions. Did he have the right to ask her to sacrifice motherhood as well? But the alternative might mean the sacrifice of her very life. When he reached the hub, Vincent sought out Father, relieved to discover he had not yet gone to breakfast.

"Father, may I speak with you a moment?"

"Of course ... have you eaten? We could have breakfast here, or join the community ..."

"No--I came to tell you I won't be able to teach today. Is Rebecca free to step in for me?"

"I'll ask, but I'm quite sure she would be happy to; she quite enjoys teaching." He looked at Vincent sharply. "Is something wrong? Is Catherine ill? I could--"

"No, nothing like that," Vincent hastened to reassure him. "I just need to ... get away for a while."

Father leaned against the table and regarded his son with concern. "This wouldn't have anything to do with what we discussed last night, would it?"

Vincent nodded. "I'd like to leave as soon as possible, to avoid questions."

Father approached Vincent and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I understand, my boy. Why don't you take what you need from your chamber, and I'll get you some food from the kitchen. Don't worry about your class; if Rebecca can't take it, I shall."

Vincent placed his hand over Father's in wordless gratitude. After some hesitation, he spoke again. "Catherine has a great deal of work to occupy her right now, so I doubt you'll see her, but ... she assumed I would be away on some task for the community."

"And you failed to correct that assumption."

Vincent nodded his bowed head, lifting it only at the sound of his father's chuckle.

"Good heavens, Vincent, you look as guilty as if you'd committed adultery! Total honesty in a marriage, or any relationship, is not always the best policy. I presume you had a good reason for your silence."

"I know that Catherine and I need to talk about this, but it doesn't seem fair to bring it up when my own feelings are in such confusion--it would only upset her to no purpose. I know what she wants. I don't know yet what I want--or if what I want is what I should have."

"I wish I could give you your answer, Vincent."

"But you cannot, Father. I must try to find it for myself."

A short while later, Vincent moved quickly through a maze of lesser-used passages, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and the most densely inhabited part of the Tunnels before the day's activities began in earnest. One of the disadvantages of living in a community that was more like a large extended family than a village was the relative lack of privacy. Sometimes he felt like the last few years of his life had been played out on a stage for the amusement and edification of his friends and family. He was more pleased than he liked to admit that Catherine had managed to provide a place for the two of them to be alone together, a place not totally a part of either her world or his.

Vincent smiled. More than once, he and Catherine had spoken with wry amusement of the symbolic burden their love seemed to have acquired over the years. Even if the path to true love was traditionally uneven, theirs had been strewn with particularly large boulders and deep abysses--and every up and down, every twist and turn, was avidly followed by a disconcertingly attentive, though loving, audience. When he had finally found the courage to consummate their love almost a year ago, the more astute inhabitants of the Tunnels figured it out almost at once, and within days he and Catherine found idiotic grins bestowed on them everywhere they went. Their wedding a few months later acquired an aura that made the most historic royal nuptials look pale by comparison.

Shifting the pack on his back as the route became steeper and rougher, Vincent thought of Winslow. As if it were only yesterday, he could see his friend's dark face in the light of the fire, speaking his heart in a way he had never done before. The love of himself and Catherine was important enough to Winslow that he was willing to give his life to preserve it. Time and again, Vincent had sensed that same feeling in others, though never stated as clearly as Winslow had. Without realizing it, the community had come to believe that as long as he and Catherine were together, anything was possible--the reconciliation of Above and Below, the reality of "happily ever after," love itself. If any force, internal or external, destroyed their union, it would break hearts in a way much deeper than personal sorrow ... it would be as if the universe itself had betrayed them, and Vincent feared they would never again dare to dream.

Would a child be the fulfillment of their dream, or its destruction? Over the past year, and especially since the wedding, Vincent had noticed many a speculative glance in Catherine's direction, most of them directed toward her middle. Whenever Catherine played with the children--which, he realized with a pang, she did more and more often--Mary would look from her to him in a way that could have only one interpretation. Lena, too, and many another young parent or prospective "aunt" or "uncle" exhibited the same mixture of indulgence, curiosity, and discreet speculation. Only four people knew that he and Catherine were preventing the conception of a child, and two of them had been told only because of their status as physicians.

No matter how curious their friends were, Vincent knew they would never ask, too sensitive to the possibility that conceiving a child might simply be impossible for them. The children that are yet to be born ... It still pained him to remember that night. When he had closed the Tunnel door against Catherine's tearful face, he was sure he had destroyed any possibility of happiness for himself, but given her back the future she deserved. He shook his head. It was difficult now to remember how he could once have believed her love for him could have been so easily set aside. After their joyous reunion, she had given him the barest account of the events at Nancy's. It was enough, however, to tell him that Catherine had had within her grasp exactly the kind of life she had always thought she wanted, and fled from it in the middle of the night to come back to him. It was clear to her then, although not yet to Vincent, that no life without him could be a happy one for Catherine. If the price of that were the dream of children, so be it. His head spinning with questions, Vincent vowed to push them all from his mind until he reached his destination--the distant waterfall where he had gone that night to contemplate the unbearable bleakness of a future without Catherine in it.

Between the relentless pace he set himself, and the strain of not thinking about the problem that consumed him, Vincent arrived at the falls feeling hot, disheveled, and grubby. Setting his gear in a protected cavity in the rocks, he quickly stripped off his clothes and began to climb. When his body split the water in a graceful dive, the cold revived him and he began to swim back and forth across the large pool, slipping into the familiar rhythm without the need for thought. He enjoyed the sensations of his powerful muscles as they propelled him through the water; of the warming blood pumping faster; of the air filling his lungs deeply as he swam.

For too many years his physical strength and power had been something to be feared, the beast that emerged after Lisa's flight always lurking in the shadows, threatening his control. It had been Catherine who first realized, after the horror of Paracelsus' bloody end, that Love was stronger than Death. Carefully, slowly, she led him to discover on his own that wholeness lay not in destroying that dark side, but embracing it. Only after that had he found the courage to love her, and what a glorious world had opened up then. To know his body not as a source of fear, or shame, but as a source of pleasure--not only for himself, but, wonder of wonders, for her. He continued his rhythmic stroking, memory and and present sensation flowing together to create a delicious feeling of warmth. At first his exertions banished the chill, and he continued swimming for hours, back and forth, until the cold once again asserted itself.

As he emerged, dripping, he began to shiver. Drying himself off with his shirt, Vincent was glad he had thought to bring a spare. He smiled a wry and faintly bitter smile. No matter how much he might resemble certain large felines, he lacked the ability to shake off water as easily as they did. This strange body of his might grant him strength and stamina most men would envy, but not the least of its disadvantages was excessive drying time ... gradually his smile took on a very different character. Catherine had certainly found ways to make that particular disadvantage less onerous. Suddenly he stopped the mechanical action of rubbing and stared at the leg he was drying as if seeing it for the first time. Damp fur clung closely to the corded muscle of his thigh, and Vincent contemplated it for a long time before picking up his cloak and moving to the other side of the pool, far from the waterfall.

There, removed from the force of the falling water and protected by an outcropping of rock, was a smaller pool whose surface was relatively still. Spreading his cloak on the pebbled ground, Vincent knelt and leaned far over the water. Only a little distorted by an occasional ripple, his reflection stared back at him. Was this a monster? I have never regretted what I am ... until now. Very poetic, but hardly true. In the years that led up to that remarkable time he had managed to forget, conveniently, any number of regrets. There was the time Devin had taken him to see the moon, and a little girl had cried at the sight of him, shattering his youthful innocence forever When he was older, the obligatory swimming lessons all the Tunnel children had to take--only the elusive Mouse had managed to escape--caused him pain all the more acute for being kept hidden. Among a gaggle of playmates as sleek and smooth as porpoises, he felt keenly the difference of his already-furred small body. And Lisa--no regrets? Only an unspoken convinction that the physical expression of love was impossible for him, a conviction strong enough to deny him that pleasure for almost half his life, and cause Catherine years of unecessary pain and longing.

Catherine ... what a miracle she was. Never, in all the years they had been together, had he detected the slightest trace of disgust or even distaste at his strangeness. When she flung a plate at him the first time she saw his face, he had fled in unthinking misery, until he realized what the strange new bond with her was telling him. Her horror had been a reaction not to the sight of him, but to her own ravaged face. When she lifted the concealing hood away and looked at him, the combination of her physical proximity and her emotions almost drove him to flee again in confusion. Not disgust, not fear--only wonder, curiosity, and the beginnings of what she would eventually come to recognize as love. Vincent pondered his reflection for a long time, but the discomfort of his leaning position finally forced him to move. Sitting back, he wrapped himself in the cloak and remained in that spot for hours, staring unseeing at the waterfall until sleep claimed him.

"... let us be thankful."


"Before we attack this exceptional bounty ..." Vincent raised his head as Father continued beyond the traditional Thanksgiving ritual. "I feel more than the usual degree of gratitude is in order. Never since the founding of our community has a single year given us so much to be thankful for. Releasing Vincent's hand, he turned sideways and raised his glass. "To Vincent and Catherine, who this year made their dream, and ours, come true."

Recognizing Vincent's mild discomfiture at being the center of attention, Catherine squeezed his hand before releasing it to pick up her glass. Turning to Father, she smiled with disarming sweetness and raised her glass to him in turn. "I'm so glad it's turned into 'our' dream--I remember, not too long ago, when it was your worst nightmare."

William let out a belly laugh of such magnitude--considering the size of the belly in question--that a lesser assistant than Brooke might have dropped the massive turkey she was carefully lowering onto the well-laden table. As laughter rippled around the tables, Father protested feebly while several people gleefully repeated some of his more ill-advised remarks concerning the potentially disastrous consequences of his son's relationship with a particular Topsider. Having set the pigeon firmly among the cats, Catherine sat back with satisfaction and began helping herself to stuffing.

Vincent leaned over to kiss her ear before whispering into it. "Remind me to give thanks that I married such an intelligent and thoughtful woman."

"Of course, dear." She patted his knee. "I didn't get into Columbia Law School just because daddy could afford the tuition."

As Catherine pressed huge amounts of food on him, Vincent looked around the room with profound gratitude. Sebastian was making exaggerated faces at one of Peter's notoriously bad jokes; Pascal was eating as fast as he could so he could return to the pipe chamber; Lena was unsuccessfully trying to convince little Cathy that cranberry sauce was more effectively eaten with a spoon than with the fingers. The past year had certainly been the happiest of his life. Within a few months of last Thanksgiving, he had managed to acquire a lover, a home, and a wife. It was also the most peaceful year he had spent since meeting Catherine. Between her insistence on transferring to a less dangerous section of the DA's office, and the acquisition of the house that was such a safe haven, even Father could find little to complain about these days--at least as far as his son was concerned. For so long the future had been something to contemplate with trepidation, wondering what new obstacle the Fates would place between them and happiness. But now, for the first time in years, it seemed appropriate to face it with anticipation.

It seemed hours before the meal was finally over. Ever since Catherine had become a Helper, their Thanksgiving feast grew more massive each year. Father was suspicious, but William was decidedly unforthcoming on the source of such increasing bounty. After the last of the clean-up detail made off with the remnants, guests and residents began to move around the room, talking and greeting old friends.

Catherine gravitated immediately toward her tiny namesake, sweeping a happily shrieking little Cathy off the floor into a huge hug while her indulgent mother looked on. Vincent watched, saying little, as Catherine and Lena became involved in an intense conversation about Cathy's cleverness, attractiveness, and precocity. After a while, he let the ebb and flow of people carry him away, until he was captured by Elizabeth.

"Vincent, my sweet boy, how nice to see you." She patted his cheek and fixed him with a steady gaze. "You look quite well, dear--marriage must agree with you."

"Completely." He smiled at her. "I only wish I had come to that conclusion earlier."

"Things happen in their own time, Vincent," Elizabeth insisted, taking his hand. "Catherine told me just last weekend she's afraid to wish anything had happened earlier--because everything was so wonderful now, she wouldn't dare wish for things to have happened differently."

"She said that?" Vincent whispered.

Elizabeth smiled at the awestruck look on his face. "Oh, she goes on and on about what a perfectly wonderful husband you are. I'm surprised your ears aren't burning all the time."

Vincent ducked his head and sought for another subject of conversation. "I didn't realize that Catherine visited you so often."

"Oh, yes, dear, she visits me quite often when you're busy. She loves to see the Painted Tunnels."

"A great compliment to your work."

"Tush! Remember, dear boy, those are the only wedding pictures she has."

"Of course ..." A fleeting look of sadness passed over his face. "I never thought of that."

"And," Elizabeth grinned mischievously, "they're the only pictures she has of her handsome husband, except that lovely thing of Kristoffer's. She particularly loves the one of you as a baby."

Vincent's head rose. "How do you know?"

"Why, it's obvious. Every time she comes to the Painted Tunnels, she has to touch that one of Father holding you ... and she has the sweetest look on her face when she does. It makes me wish I'd done more pictures of you, but that wouldn't have been fair to the others, would it? Of course, you were special ..."

"So are you, dear Elizabeth. And so is Catherine."

"Yes, indeed, Vincent. Now I must find Mouse. I'm almost out of burnt sienna ..."

Vincent watched Elizabeth as she moved away through the crowd. For a long time he stood, an island of stillness in a sea of movement and laughter. Finally, he went in search of Peter Alcott.

"Vincent!" William's homemade ale seemed to have made Peter more ebullient than usual. "I hope you're taking good care of my Cathy, or Charles will come back to haunt me. I promised him a long time ago if anything ever happened to him, I'd do my best to see that she was happy." Peter looked Vincent in the eye. "He would have been surprised at you, no getting around it. But he would have approved when he came to know you. I'm sure of it."

"I made him a promise, also," Vincent replied softly, "although I'll never know if he really heard it. I shall always regret that I never had the opportunity to really know him--I owe him so much."

"He certainly raised a remarkable daughter," Peter nodded. "She deserves all the happiness you've given her."

"I think," Vincent sighed, "she deserves more than I've given her."

Peter's look of skepticism was almost comical. Vincent took a deep breath. "Peter, you knew me as a baby; Father told you about how I was found--what do you think happened to my mother?"

At first, Peter looked puzzled at this unexpected turn of the conversation, then the light dawned. "There's no evidence that your birth harmed her in any way."

"Nor is there any evidence it didn't."

"There are times when I regret Jacob taught you logic."

"Peter--what do you think I am?" Vincent's implacable face made it clear he would brook no evasion.

"Oh, Vincent ... I wish I could tell you. With the advances in genetic engineering I've seen in the past few years, anything seems possible in the future--but thirty-five years ago? No one then could have approached even the primitive skills we have today ... at least not in this world." Peter laid his hand gently on Vincent's arm. "I've always seen you as a miracle ... a gift."

As if by agreement, both pairs of eyes turned toward the room to seek out Catherine. Lena had taken baby Cathy off to bed, and Catherine was now attentively listening to Maria and Teresa as they reported at length the results of their extensive survey of all the residents Below on the care and feeding of kittens. Finally tearing his eyes away from the sight, Vincent addressed Peter again. "I have been given one great miracle in my life, Peter. Perhaps I'm afraid to ask for another."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Peter replied, "if a lot of people in this room were already asking in your behalf."

Catherine had been successful enough in clearing up her work to forget about the world Above for the next three days. The newlyweds attended a post-mortem on the Thanksgiving play, which had gone off without major casualties; led a marathon reading of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; avoided playing chess with Father; escaped to the Mirror Pool for a starlight picnic; peeled countless potatoes; broke up a fight between Kipper and Zach; helped Rebecca make candles; and made love every night.

Early Sunday evening, Catherine reluctantly forced herself to face the responsibilities of her other life. Tracking down Vincent in Father's study, she walked up behind his chair and wrapped her arms around his neck. "It's been the loveliest weekend--I hate to have it end."

"Is it time to go Above?" Vincent bowed his head to kiss her arm.

"Time for me, anyway. Would you like to stay longer?"

"No ... I need to prepare for class tomorrow, and most of the books I need are Above." He rose and took her hand. "Let's go home."

When they arrived at the house, Catherine went upstairs to her office while Vincent settled in the library. He tried to concentrate on his self-appointed task, but with little success. He would find a passage he was seeking, begin reading, and know nothing more until some sound outside would pull him out of the reverie into which he had fallen. Restless, he wandered around the room, absently touching a book here, a chess piece there. Coming to the table where several photographs rested in their silver frames, he stared a long time without touching. In one, Nancy and Paul Tucker stood with their children in front of their home. Another showed a large contingent of Aaronsons surrounding Jenny, all smiling in the light of Hanukkah candles. Peter and his daughter posed comically in front of a large cactus ... Joe Maxwell with Edie at her farewell party ... Devin and Charles ... Last was a photograph of a wide-eyed five-year-old Catherine, holding tight to her mother's hand in the Central Park Zoo.

Leaving the library, Vincent turned out the lights and made his way upstairs. More time must have passed than he'd realized; he found Catherine already in bed. Some file folders scattered around her testified to her determination to do more work, but Bulwer had apparently distracted her from her good intentions. Eyes closed in ecstacy, he kneaded her lap furiously as she petted him. Vincent could not help but smile at the sight as he began to undress. When he came to sit beside Catherine a little while later, the tableau was unchanged.

"I hope Bulwer appreciates his good fortune. You seem to have become quite fond of him in a short time."

Catherine smiled up at him. "Maybe it's that beautiful golden color of his."

"Or his winning personality."

Catherine cuddled Bulwer in her arms. "Could be. Or maybe I just needed something small and furry to love." Suddenly, without warning, Catherine's face crumpled and she began to cry. Vincent was no more surprised than she was; Bulwer leaped from her arms as her hands flew to her face in consternation. She shook her head in denial, but the tears wouldn't stop.

"Oh, God, Vincent, I'm sorry--I don't know what's come over me--"

Vincent's heart thudded in his chest.The moment of truth. He gathered her into his arms and held her close. "Yes you do, dearest, and so do I. You want a child, and have only agreed to avoid having one for my sake. I'm sorry."

"No, we both agreed--"

"That was almost a year ago, when we first became lovers. It was hardly fair on my part, was it? After years of waiting, standing in the doorway of a bedroom filled with candles and roses ... you were afraid to let anything stop us before I lost my courage. Things are different now. We must talk about it-- I've been a fool not to have seen it sooner."

"Don't you dare say that! You were only concerned for me, afraid it would be dangerous."

Vincent loosened his embrace to brush the hair from her tear-streaked face. "It may well be impossible."

"I realize that. But never to know..."

Lowering his eyes, he took her hands in his. "I know how brave you are, Catherine ... but if I were the cause of any harm to you ... I don't think I could live with that."

"Dear heart, the same danger has been faced throughout history, by every woman who's ever conceived a child. I know you've always assumed the worst, but there's no real reason to believe having your child would be any more dangerous than having anyone else's. And I want yours--only yours."

Freeing one hand from hers, Vincent lifted it before them. "Even if we are willing to face the consequences for ourselves, have we the right to create another like me? What of the child? I keep thinking of that little girl in the park, all those years ago ..."

"How do you it wasn't seeing Devin that made her cry?" At Vincent's disbelieving look, she continued seriously. "Some children are easily frightened, you know--William could have scared her just as much if she'd seen him ... remember, you never frightened Eric. Or ..." Suddenly her voice softened. "Has it ever occurred to you that she didn't cry because she was afraid? Maybe she thought you were the most beautiful, magical creature she'd ever seen in her whole life, and cried because she was being carried away from you. I can understand that. I felt the same way the first time you took me back to my apartment, and disappeared. Only I was too grown-up to cry ... at least on the outside."

Vincent's own eyes became suspiciously bright at her words. "My dearest, dearest Catherine--when I'm with you, especially when we make love--I feel beautiful."

"You are beautiful! I'm not the only one who thinks so. Ask Lena.Ask Jenny ... or Mary, or Jamie, or--" Catherine took his hand back, laying it against her cheek. "Remember, even if our child took after you, he'd be a separate person. He wouldn't grow up wondering who his parents were and how they felt about him. He wouldn't be all alone, the only one of his kind. He'd be forewarned about what he might have to face, because his father had been there before him." She smiled a little, holding his eyes with her own. "Your life didn't turn out so badly, did it? Our child's could be even better, spared some of the pain-- or at least guided through it."

Vincent was quiet for a moment, thoughtful. "There is one more thing. Most in your world don't know of our marriage, nor would they recognize its legitimacy if they knew."

"Do you think I care? Nor would a lot of others. My life's too quiet now to be of interest to the tabloids or even the office gossip mill. I'd have to be a movie star, or maybe the Trumps, to be news now. Manhattan is full of single mothers ... and nothing like that would matter to anyone who's really important to me." Catherine paused for a moment. "I have so much to be thankful for, I should be content. But you've always told me to follow my heart--and it's pulling me in only one direction. I can't believe it would mislead me."

Vincent bowed his head; he seemed to have nothing more to say. A charged silence settled; even the city around them seemed to be holding its breath. Slowly, he looked up again into the infinite promise of Catherine's eyes. "Then we must follow where it leads, because I can no longer deny my own heart leads me the same way."

Catherine neither moved nor spoke for a moment, afraid to believe what she had heard. Then, with a cry of joy, she threw her arms around Vincent's neck, burying her tearful face in his hair.

The city began to breathe again. Unnoticed at the foot of the bed, two green eyes looked first at one, then the other. Settling paws under him and tail around, a small golden kitten tucked himself into a sleek package. With one last look at the two before him, he closed his eyes in contentment and began to purr.

"A Dark and Stormy Night" © 1991 by Edith L. Crowe
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First published in Forever & Always 4 (1991)

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 published in Sanctuary.