JoAnn Baca

"Thanks, Carl. Iíll see you then."

Catherine replaced the receiver and expelled a long breath. Since "ending" her work day at nine oíclock, sheíd spent nearly two hours on the telephone here in her apartment, tracking down elusive witnesses and attorneys, answering messages, putting out assorted last-minute legal fires.

This place, she thought wryly, giving a quick glance around her neat, elegant living room, is supposed to be my refuge from the world. Instead, itís just a more comfortable version of my office. Sighing at the thought, she rose wearily from the couch, re-set her answering machine, then savagely punched the "mute" button. There would be no more phone calls this night, no more interruptions. She desperately needed to unwind, to shed the stresses of another too-long day.

As she shrugged out of her suit jacket and blouse and headed toward her bedroom, her eyes scanned her mantel, resting briefly on a small red book. She hesitated a moment, then resolutely stopped her forward momentum, letting her eyes linger upon the object.

It was a slim volume of sonnets which Vincent had left on her balcony long months ago, a pressed rose marking one particular page. There it sat, filled with loving thoughts, patiently awaiting her attention, content with the merest moment of her time...just like the man who gave it to her, and who even now, in all likelihood, sat in his chamber far below her feet...patient, silent...content to share the few stolen minutes she could spare.

A sharp pang of guilt pierced her heart as she thought of him. He asked so little...he demanded nothing...he expected even less. And so she lived her life, sharing snatches of time, brief exchanges, the rare occasional evening with the man she loved. Almost as if she took him...and his devotion...for granted.

The pang of guilt evolved into a flood of self-recrimination.

Catherine threw open the louvered doors to her bedroom and entered, tossing her blouse and jacket onto the bed. These she followed, flinging herself prostrate upon the neat covers, sudden wracking sobs bringing forth bitter tears of anger and shame, all directed at herself.

She had the most extraordinary man in the world shyly, gently courting her, each step for him one into an unknown more frightening for what he brought to it than for what it held. His constant struggle was obvious to her. He always tried so hard to hold her with an open hand - easily, lightly, in case she should wish to go. Yet he gave unreservedly of everything he was. And she...what did she do? She relegated him to the night, to shadows, as she expended all her energies on her thankless, back-breaking, mind-numbing job. What was left for him? What did she give him in return for all his patience, his devotion, his unending faith and love? Not enough. Not nearly enough.

Suddenly, Catherine sat up and slapped away the impulsive tears staining her cheeks. Crying wouldnít solve a thing.

Pushing off the bed, she quickly changed her clothes and, despite the lateness of the hour, she grabbed the phone and punched in a number. When a sleepy voice mumbled a hello, she replied, "Joe? Itís Cathy. Iím sorry to be calling so late, but itís important. I need a couple of days off - starting right now."

The voice on the other end of the receiver squawked in protest, but she dismissed the objections, saying, "Look, Joe, I donít ask for much. You know the city only pays me for forty hours a week and I routinely work sixty - and thatís just at the office. I just spent two hours answering work-related calls here at home. Iím burned out. Sometimes I think I work more hours than there are in a day! Anyway, all Iím asking is for a few days of vacation time. Itís my time, Joe - Iíve earned it, itís owed to me, and Iím taking it. I need it. Besides, none of my cases are going to trial soon, so Iím not leaving you in a lurch. Iíll call your answering machine at the office and fill you in on the things that canít wait for my return. So...Iíll see you next Monday, OK?"

The other voice sputtered weakly then, resigned, uttered its acquiescence. Smiling, she said, "Thanks." Then she cut the connection.

The clock on the end table showed her just how late it was, yet even her notoriously night-owlish boss had been asleep while she had continued to work into the night. Well, she was going to make some changes in her life, starting right now. Taking a few days of vacation was a good start, but it was only that... a start. She would have a long-delayed, serious talk with Vincent about a lot of things. Then, when matters were clarified between them, she intended to move quickly, to make some dramatic alterations in the way she lived each day. She had a life waiting for her...at least, she was planning to have one, and it was beyond time she started to live it.

Catherine made good on her promise to Joe, calling the office answering machine to report on the matters which needed immediate attention on her cases. Then she grabbed an overnight bag from beneath her bed and quickly tossed in a few tee shirts, an extra sweater and pair of jeans, some underwear, a pair of moccasins and some bath products. She didnít need much when she went Below - truthfully, all she really needed already resided there...and he couldnít be stuffed into an overnight bag in any case.

She gathered up a leather bomber jacket and her keys in one hand, her bag in the other, and without a backward glance she walked out of her apartment, flicking the lights out as she went and pulling the door shut tight behind her, pausing only to key the deadbolt.

The weariness and frustration of her long day had lifted from her shoulders sometime in the last few minutes, and with a lighter heart and a brisk step, she entered the elevator and let it carry her on the first leg of her journey.

At this hour, the basement of her building was deserted and she could move with steady purpose to her storage locker. She heard a noise behind the locked doors leading to the iron ladder she was planning to descend, but before she could panic, she heard a reassuringly familiar voice whispering her name. Flinging the doors wide, she found Vincent there, a confused but hopeful look upon his face.

"Catherine...is everything all right? Your emotions...Iíve felt them swinging wildly this past hour."

She smiled down into his beloved face, so full of concern for her. "Iím fine...now. I had a little...crisis of the heart, but itís over and you wonít be sensing anymore mood swings from me, I promise. I know whatís important now. Finally, I realize it."

His furrowed brow relaxed, but his eyes still betrayed his confusion. "Iím glad, Catherine." He held her with his disconcertingly direct gaze for a long moment, until he was satisfied she was calm and happy again, then he lowered his head and began to pull the doors closed.


He looked up at her again, surprised.

"I was coming Below. I want.... Could I...." She was having a difficult time getting out her request, but then the blue of his eyes always had a strange affect on her speech center. "May I stay with you for a few days?"

Vincent didnít move. His soft smile held a curve of resignation as he reminded her, "Tomorrow is Thursday. You must work. But Iíll visit you soon.... On the weekend, if you wish. Perhaps a few minutes on Saturday night...if you have no other plans?"

Her throat tightened. When had that "afraid to hope" look entered his eyes at the possibility of spending time with her? She had focused so hard on her work these past months.... Had she left him behind somehow, without meaning to? Had she made him feel his visits were an intrusion? Oh, God....

Aloud she said, "Iíve taken some vacation days, and Iíd really like to come Below and spend them with you. I need to talk to you...and most of all, I need to listen while you talk to me. I wouldnít ask if it werenít important, Vincent."

Delighted surprise flitted across his face at the prospect of having several days of Catherineís company. Then reality intruded and his face fell. "Unfortunately, Father has designated the next several days for our quarterly inventory and cleaning. Weíll all be assigned tasks which will keep us busy all day...and for some of us, long into the evening."

The way he said this, she was sure that "some" included - perhaps exclusively - himself.

He shook his head, and she realized the sudden sparkle in his eyes was caused by tears of disappointment and regret. "Iím sorry, Catherine."

Vincent was surprised when, in reply, Catherine merely shrugged her shoulders, then moved forward and reached out an arm, pushing against his chest to indicate he was to descend the ladder. Clearly she didnít see the problem. He began to protest, but she silenced him by saying, "Iím sure you can use an extra pair of hands or a strong back. Iíll be glad to help."

Stunned, he backed down the ladder, accepting the overnight bag she passed down to him without further comment. She followed, then secured the doors, and soon they were on their way down the tunnelways, heading to his home Below.

After walking beside her in silence for several minutes, Vincent turned to Catherine and laid a restraining hand on her shoulder. Surprised, she turned to face him, a questioning look on her face.

"Catherine, you are, of course, always welcome in our home, and your help over the next few days will be much appreciated. But...youíve been working so hard, not resting enough. The last thing you need is more to do. Please, let me guide you back Above?"

"To do what, Vincent?" she challenged him. "To sit and vegetate Above - Ďrestingí? Iíd be bored and frustrated, and the Ďrestí wouldnít do me any good. Besides, physical labor is different from what Iíve been doing too much of - and the chance to see the immediate and tangible results of my labors for a change would do me good." She stared deeply into his eyes, asking him with all her heart to understand. "Please.... I...need to be with you. Even if weíre on different work details and I canít be with you much...just knowing youíre near will ease my spirit. Please?"

How could he deny her when all he wanted was her sweet presence beside him...always? He mentally reviewed his assignments for the inventory-and-cleaning period. All were rough work consisting mainly of heavy labor away from the main Hub, although some of the work would be accomplished by young adults of the community Below, work which would be suitable for Catherine to do. Perhaps...just perhaps, Father could be persuaded to assign Catherine to his work crew? Yet in his heart, he despaired of the next few days. He felt certain that Father would see to it that such an assignment would be unacceptable for a variety of reasons. And he couldnít really blame him. With Catherine near, Father knew his concentration would be affected. If Father expected maximum effectiveness from him, he would have to assign him to a project as far away from Catherine as physically possible within the confines of their world. That meant he would see her as little as if she were still Above. And he knew what a torture it would be to have her near and not be able to be with her. Still, just knowing she was Below and close...that would be something...something wondrous.

Realizing she was waiting for an answer, Vincent shook himself from his reverie and declared, "Of course." He then turned and resumed the trek through the tunnels. He was mildly disconcerted when he felt Catherineís small hand creep into his own, then warmly nestle into his palm. But almost convulsively, his massive hand closed to engulf hers in a protective clasp.

The two silent figures moved through the late evening quiet of the tunnels, not speaking again until they reached the corridor leading to the guest chambers. As they entered the softly lit hallway, Mary emerged from a chamber, backing out as she called a soft "good night" to someone within. They stopped, waiting until the older woman saw them. Amazement mixed with delight on Maryís face as she recognized Catherine and Vincent standing near.

"Catherine! What a lovely surprise!"

"Catherine needs a place to spend the night, Mary. She has offered to assist us in our work over the next few days."

The pride on his face was unmistakable - this was one Helper who was so much more, especially to one special someone Below. Affection for them both creased Maryís face into smiles. But then confusion registered in her eyes and she replied, "But itís the middle of the week, my dear. What about your job?"

Catherine smiled and said, "Iíve taken some vacation days, and Iím eager to help. Put me to work doing whatever you think I might be useful at, please, Mary."

The older womanís eyes regarded her kindly. "Thatís very generous of you, dear. Iíll think on that. But itís very late and right now Iím wondering where to put you. Several of the children have chicken pox and weíve moved them to the guest chambers to keep them from the other patients in the hospital chamber, as well as to keep them isolated from the other children, if possible. Both guest chambers are taken, Iím afraid." She pondered a moment, then her eyes lit up. "Of course! Take my chamber."

Catherine began to object. "Oh, Mary, no. I donít want to impose..."

"Nonsense," Mary replied. "Iíll be staying on a cot here for a few nights to nurse the children, so I wonít be needing my bed. And, if you donít mind, you could take over my duties on the work roster. I was scheduled to do inventories with William. He tends to get a bit...cranky when his cupboards and larder are invaded, so Father usually asks me to work with him. But Iíve already got my hands full here...."

Catherine interrupted. "Iíd be glad to. You stay with the children. I deal with hardened criminals and obnoxious lawyers all day long, so mere crankiness wonít phase me one bit. Besides, Iím sure William canít be half as cranky as my boss on a good day!"

Vincent and Mary shared a knowing look. Then Vincentís eyebrows rose as he responded, "William may well be a match for Mr. Maxwell, Catherine. His...fits of pique during inventory time are...."

"Legendary," Mary finished for him, smiling to show she didnít take Williamís temper tantrums seriously. But she looked anxiously at Vincent and asked, "Perhaps I shouldnít ask Catherine to take over for me? After all, she shouldnít have to take on something most of our family would refuse to do."

Catherine answered for him, her lips quirked into a wry grin. "Donít worry, Mary. Iím tough. I can take it. You just concentrate on getting the children well." She opened her arms and hugged the older woman, who patted her back gratefully.

"It would really take a lot off my mind, knowing someone from Below doesnít have to shoulder the extra responsibility. Fatherís schedule of assignments is quite rigorous and there was no one else I could ask."

"Then itís settled." After another quick hug, Catherine turned to Vincent. He nodded his good night to Mary, then reached for Catherineís hand to lead her to Maryís chamber. Maryís eyebrows rose speculatively at the sight, then she smiled approvingly before turning for her bed.

Early the next morning, Vincent called for Catherine at Maryís chamber. She was already up and dressed. He noted her work clothes approvingly, admiring the scarf which tied her hair back into a ponytail. It always amazed him that she could look elegant in anything...and desirable in anything, as well.

His heartbeat quickened at the thought of her living Below, even for a little while. Heíd gotten no sleep in the hours since heíd left her at Maryís chamber entrance, just imagining the moment when he could walk down two short tunnels and find her there. And now...here he was. And there she stood, more lovely and more tempting than even his active imagination had conceived.

"Breakfast will be a hurried affair, Catherine. Everyone is anxious to begin their assignments. But I thought...perhaps we could eat together before we start work." His voice was huskier, hoarser than usual, betraying his excitement at the prospect of sharing a meal...even a hurried one...with her.

Her answering smile lit his heart as she replied, "Oh, yes, please!"

He inclined his head and swept one arm before him with a flourish, indicating the direction of the dining chamber. Catherine blushed prettily at his gallant behavior and nodded. She knew how flustered he was by the slight lisp which had accompanied his greeting, and wondered if he realized how wonderful it was to be able to see him so early in the morning, knowing their time together stretched out over days, not merely minutes. She was more than a bit flustered herself, contemplating that, and she struggled to regain her composure as they walked to breakfast.

Breakfast was indeed hurried. Dense, fragrant muffins and strong tea were all that was available. William could be heard in the kitchen barking orders to his galley assistants - a nourishing and easy main meal of stew and rolls was already in the last stages of preparation. The stew would simmer all day, and those taking breaks from their assignments would serve themselves throughout the afternoon and evening, leaving the kitchen staff free for other duties.

Catherine and Vincent each took a muffin and a filled mug of tea to a corner table. When Catherine sat down, Vincent took the seat opposite hers, with a wide expanse of table separating them. Using the excuse that she needed more sugar for her tea, Catherine rose and went back to the service area. When she returned, she sat right beside Vincent rather than taking her original seat across from him.

Vincentís left shoulder was against the chamber wall, and Catherine was pressed warmly and firmly to his right one. He could barely breathe from either the close proximity of his Beloved or the fact that all his Tunnel family could see them sitting together so intimately. His heart had stopped beating for a moment, but was now stuttering in his chest, and he felt sure the heat of his blush would cause his tea to boil.

"Mmmmm," Catherine purred, and the sound nearly startled him out of his skin. He noted belatedly that she had just broken off a piece of muffin and bitten into the tender morsel. He hastily bit into his own, then murmured distractedly, "It is good."

The comment seemed to puzzle Catherine, so he clarified, "The muffin...."

"Oh...the muffin!" She looked at the pieces in her hands as if noticing them for the first time. "Yes...the muffinís good...too."

While he was digesting the implication of her comments, Father appeared before them. He looked over the top of his glasses at the couple who, though sitting quite close at an otherwise empty table, seemed to be engaged in innocently eating their food, oblivious of him. He was about to make a disapproving comment when his eye was caught by Maryís from across the room. When he turned to her, she glanced pointedly at Vincent and Catherine, then shook her head.

He knew her very well - over the years they had developed a visual signal system that had come in handy when dealing with medical and other emergencies. Now she employed it to attempt to dissuade him from speaking crossly to his son. That surprised him, until he took another look. Catherine was clearly dressed for working Below, but he didnít remember Vincent advising him that sheíd be in the work detail today.

As he was contemplating this puzzle, Mary appeared at his elbow. She plucked his sleeve to get his attention. He inclined his head and listened as she whispered of what had occurred the previous evening. Fatherís brow furrowed, but he had to admit that Catherineís unexpected appearance was fortuitous, solving a very large problem for him. And, he reasoned, after a day or two of dealing with William, she might become decidedly less enthusiastic about coming Below...for any reason.

Yes...now that he thought about it, this was serendipity indeed.

With a brisk, efficient tone, he finally spoke, startling the couple. "Catherine! How nice to see you. Maryís told me youíll be filling in for her with the inventories." At her nod, he added, "Good, good. Well, Iíll let you finish your meal. I know you must be anxious to start."

He turned to retrieve a muffin himself from the rapidly depleting pile in the service area, mumbling that he needed to pass a few words with William before the day began, and Mary nodded at the seated couple as she loaded a tray with muffins for her little patients.

By tacit agreement, no one else approached them during breakfast.

Despite nibbling the smallest bites she could manage, eventually Catherine finished her breakfast and she had no further excuse to remain in Vincentís company. With a barely discernable sigh, she left the warm comfort of Vincentís solid, muscled form and rose to find William. But before she left him, she asked where he would be working. Vincent told her - cleaning out some storage chambers to prepare them for occupancy. Heíd be moving furniture and scrubbing bare rock walls all day, along with Mouse and several of the younger boys. The prospect of meeting for the afternoon meal seemed dim, but she asked anyway. He smiled in apology, telling her that they would be bringing provisions with them to avoid the trek to and from the chambers before they were through. And so they parted, each reluctant, yet each hopeful that they could find some time late in the day to be together.

Mary and Vincent had warned her, Catherine admitted to herself. She had airily dismissed those warnings, however, and now she regretted doing so, for it meant she would have to apologize to them in order to earn their commiseration. William was more than cranky, more than disagreeable, more than unpleasant. He was an unmitigated bull elephant of obnoxious, demanding, impatient arrogance. She meant this in the nicest possible way, of course. He just devoutly believed that he was the only competent person on the planet, and her law degree and successful career impressed him not at all - he regarded her as good for little more than stoop labor. Lifting, shoving, carrying endless heavy armloads of boxed goods and loose equipment, polishing cookware...the tasks seemed endless, and all were accompanied by his hectoring, haranguing voice - goading, admonishing, demanding.

By late afternoon she had reached a point where she could have cheerfully strangled him. Sheíd had to practically demand a few minutes of rest and a chance to eat a quick bite, and even this argument had been won only after enduring withering commentary from William concerning the frailty of Topsiders when it came to good, hard, honest work. The heated discussion had left her blushing and ashamed of her weakness; she had resolved to outlast the big bully and hadnít asked for - or received - any rest or sustenance after that. By late evening, after being pushed relentlessly, she was contemplating recombining his atoms using the leftover explosives Elliot had provided when Vincent and Father had been trapped in the cave-in. But later she became too exhausted to imagine making the trip to Mouseís chamber even for such a sweet joy as pinching his explosives and blowing her tormentor into teeny bits.

Finally, when it was approaching midnight, after sixteen nearly uninterrupted hours of labor, William grudgingly admitted that he was satisfied that the inventories and the spring cleaning were adequately accomplished and released her for the day.

At that point, too tired to eat and aching in every muscle, all she could think of was Maryís soft, inviting bed. She didnít even have the strength to take a hot bath, and she realized grimly that without relaxing her muscles in that way, sheíd be tight and sore for days. Frustration bit into her and she nearly began to cry. Her respect for Mary, always high, rose exponentially as she imagined the much older woman performing the back-breaking labor the inventories and galley cleaning had required.

She was amazed and angry that Father would allow William to work anyone like that, let alone Mary. It was incomprehensible to her...and yet, Mary had clearly told her this was her chore whenever inventory day rolled around. Obviously, she was made of sturdy stuff, much sturdier than herself, she feared. But Catherine knew she could not complain to anyone, for fear of seeming just another whining Topsider who talked a good game but couldnít cut it Below. More than anything, she wanted to become part of this world, and to do that, she had to go along, get along, put in the time and effort that others did.

Blinking back the tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, therefore, she set her face in a determined expression. Exhausted beyond thought, she stumbled into the corridor leading to Maryís chamber amid the dim nighttime shadows. When she reached the room, not even bothering to toe off her sneakers or remove her outer garments, she fell, utterly drained, upon the bed...and an instant later was fast asleep.

Father looked in on her a short while later...and nodded in satisfaction, even as he silently marveled at her tenacity. She had lasted far longer than he had expected, given all heíd asked William to do, but she was showing the effects now. He thought back upon his discussion with William as heíd revealed the plan to him - or as much as heíd wanted the cook to know. The big man had balked at his orders at first, but ultimately had given in when Father had explained the necessity of proving to this particular Helper that life Below consisted of much hard, dirty work. Well, she had lasted the day - but considering her exhausted slumber, he knew she had just barely done it. Yes, he would see how much longer she could deal with life Below. Heíd drive every last romantic notion from her head over the next few days. And...just maybe...drive her away...completely. As much as it pained him to contemplate the short-term anguish it would cause his son, he believed it was for the best. Catherine was a lovely person, but it was obvious just looking at her that she existed in a world...no, a universe apart from his son. No amount of good intentions or starry-eyed dreaming could change the cold, hard reality of that truth. She could bring Vincent no true happiness, only hopeless longing and, ultimately, bitter disappointment.

Now, as for tomorrow.... Fatherís brow furrowed in concentration as he contemplated Catherineís next assignment. Perhaps Cullen would be the right man for the job. Heíd have to awaken him and explain things to him, make him understand as heíd done with William. Cullen would go along, though, he was sure of it - once it was explained to him properly. And there was no sense in complicating things by revealing Williamís complicity in his little plan. No, Cullen would be more apt to go along with the scheme if he assumed he was the only one Father had brought into his confidence. Nodding to himself, he moved from the chamber entrance toward Cullenís alcove.

Vincentís own work the day before had gone long into the evening. Heíd sent the younger boys to dinner and recreation at six, told an exhausted Mouse to retire at eight, and had himself worked until ten finishing up. He had sensed Catherineís weariness and frustration growing as the day had advanced, which had surprised him. He knew William as a gruff but good man who would be kind to Catherine, understanding that she wasnít used to the kind of work to be done. It puzzled him that, despite the care he believed William to be taking, Catherineís emotional resonance, sensed within their Bond, was so dispirited, her exhaustion so complete. He had wanted to check on her late in the evening, after heíd taken a long, restorative soak in the hot springs, but by the time heíd finished his bath, it seemed too late to bother her. He knew she was asleep and he was not willing to disturb her merely to ask about her day. But, perplexed by the strange pulses of emotion he had felt from her all day, he had spent a restless night, tossing and turning before his own extreme exhaustion finally overtook him and at last he slept. When he awoke, he let himself lie in bed for longer than usual, trying to make up for the lost sleep of the night before. Finally, he reached through their Bond to sense Catherineís soul, happily realizing that she was awake. Quickly dressing, he hastened to her temporary quarters, looking forward to taking his breakfast with her. But he found her already gone, which disappointed and surprised him, for he had known how much she was looking forward to the time they could manage to spend together despite the work they had to do.

His surprise turned to shock as he entered the dining chamber, only to find a regular daily breakfast being served. Father and William were laughing and chatting companionably over tea, the remains of a substantial breakfast before them.

When he caught sight of Vincent, William hastily and, to Vincentís astonishment, guiltily, removed himself from the table and hurried into the kitchen. Father turned and, seeing him, also rose to leave, but he couldnít move fast enough to exit the chamber before Vincent intercepted him. Vincent was bewildered by the attempted evasion.

"Father, good morning. Have you seen Catherine?"

The older man adjusted his cloak about his shoulders. If he didnít know better, Vincent would have sworn that Father was avoiding direct eye contact with him.

"Er...no. No, not lately," Father mumbled as he flicked lint from his trousers.

His curiosity mixed now with puzzlement, Vincent continued, "Wasnít she to help William with the inventories again today?"

"Well, now...let me see. No...I donít think so.... I...uh...I believe sheís assisting in another task today."

Vincentís puzzlement deepened. "Why isnít she continuing the task assigned to Mary? She promised Mary she would. Itís unlike Catherine to fail to keep a promise or to leave a job half-done."

Father patted Vincent on the shoulder. "Now, donít be too hard on her, Vincent. Sheís not used to the kind of work it takes to keep our lives running smoothly here Below. Perhaps she felt more useful on this...er...other task? I may have given her the idea myself - or perhaps after I suggested it, she felt it to be an assignment. Yes...now that I think about it...I did indicate her services could best be used by...Cullen."

"By Cullen?" Vincent was frankly incredulous. "What could she do for Cullen? The teenage boys are usually assigned to him."

Perspiration now dotted the older manís brow, and his eyes darted from side to side as if searching for an avenue of escape. Vincent eyed him skeptically - this wasnít Fatherís normal behavior at all. "I know, I know. But...you see...several of the children are laid up and Iíve had to shuffle assignments to ensure all the work gets done within the prescribed period of time. I believe some of the boys who normally would help Cullen are assisting on other projects instead."

A faint suspicion was quickly growing into a certainty in Vincentís mind. "Where is she now, Father?"

"I...Iím not quite sure, really. Cullen called for her early in order to get started on his...project."

"How early? I went to meet her to escort her to breakfast but didnít sense her anywhere near the main Hub."

The guilty flinch in Fatherís eyes confirmed Vincentís fears. "Is the reason we had a regular breakfast this morning because Williamís inventory has been completed?"

"Er...well...yes, as a matter of fact, I believe it is. William...was just telling me that Catherine was quite...successful...and she finished it...yesterday." This last was spoken with great reluctance, an admission which carried with it more than a hint of chagrin.

"Yesterday?!" Vincentís voice thundered through the chamber, drawing startled glances and shocked silence. In the sudden hush, his voice carried clearly as he accused, "It takes Mary and William a full three days to complete the inventory, Father. And youíre telling me that Catherine, who is totally unfamiliar with our system, finished in one day?"

"Well...yes. Yes," Father stammered, unnerved by the sight of his son in such an angry state.

"How was that possible? And why was it necessary?"

The Tunnel residents had abandoned all pretense of eating their meals and were gazing aghast at the two men.

Father was desperate to calm his son, but he knew the words he had to say would have only the opposite effect. Gamely, he tried to explain. "I...believe... Catherine...worked... uh....through the day...until...well...shortly before midnight."


The word came out as a half-roar, and the startled bystanders jumped in their seats.

"Vincent, please!" Father begged, futilely trying to avoid making more of a scene. His plan was backfiring badly. "Thereís no need to shout. Come to my study and letís discuss...."

But before he could get the rest of his sentence out, Vincent whirled and roared in the direction of the kitchen, "Will-IAM!"

The big man poked his head into the dining chamber. "Who the heck is... Oh...Vincent.... Uh...Iíve got pies...."

Struggling to regain his control, Vincent replied in a tight, harsh whisper, "Come here, please, William."


Vincent called over his shoulder, "Rebecca, please see to Williamís pies for a moment."

Rebecca rose with alacrity and scurried into the kitchen, concerned about the storm brewing between Father and Vincent. She couldnít imagine a circumstance in which they would disagree so loudly...or so publicly. But if her presence in the kitchen would help, she would be happy to do it. Besides, there were still plenty of witnesses who would be more than happy to fill her in on what sheíd miss.

Without his pies as an excuse, a reluctant William tromped into the dining chamber and came to stand before Vincent and Father. He tried a defiant posture, arms crossed tightly against his large stomach, but a few seconds of Vincentís withering stare and all the fight went out of him. He forsook his aggressive attitude, letting his arms hang limply by his sides.

"Why was it necessary to finish the entire inventory in one day, William?" Vincent asked without preamble - in a deceptively calm voice.

William shot an accusatory glance in Fatherís direction, then confessed, "I was...asked to."

"By whom?" Vincent queried, already sure of the answer.

"Well, now...Mary couldnít handle the inventory due to the kids getting the chicken pox...so...." His voice trailed off as his mouth went dry. He swallowed hard, trying to get his tongue unstuck from the roof of his mouth, then resolved that he wasnít going to go down alone. "So, anyway...Father asked me to.... Well, to.... You see, Catherineís so much younger and stronger than Mary, so we figured...."

"You figured you should push her to...and hopefully past...her limits. You figured a day or two of incessant, back-breaking hard labor might discourage Catherine. Might even...drive her away. Is that right?"

William flushed bright red, embarrassed at having to admit publicly to his complicity in the outrageous conspiracy. "Father thought...."

"Oh, I think I know what Father thought," Vincent replied icily. "But William, how could you do that to Catherine? Sheís never been anything but kind to you."

William slumped, his head hanging in shame. "Believe me, I felt pretty bad, especially as the day went on and she kept on working so hard. She actually finished the inventory by about nine last night," he revealed. "I had to...make up chores...to keep her busy until midnight. I tried to keep her going longer, but I...I couldnít stand watching her anymore." He lifted his eyes to Vincent and said, "Iím real sorry. It was a lousy thing to do. When Father explained it, it seemed logical, but...."

"Iím not the one you must apologize to, William. And if I were Catherine, I donít know if I could ever forgive you." His eyes raked over the two men standing before him. "Either of you."

William nodded, then escaped back into his kitchen. All eyes now turned to Father.

"Tell me where she is. Now."

Father closed his eyes tightly and admitted, "Sheís in the far storage tunnels...moving lumber for Cullen."

Several gasps from the assembly revealed that this news would become the subject of horrified gossip in short order.

"Moving...lumber...for...Cullen," Vincent repeated, unable to believe his ears. "When did Cullen call for her?"

Father brokenly replied, "I...asked him to awaken her at four."

"She worked until midnight with little rest...and then you had Cullen awaken her at four.... And I donít suppose she was given time to eat?"

"Cullen brought her a muffin from yesterdayís breakfast," he replied numbly.

Vincent shook his head, saddened. "No matter what reason you thought you had, Father, I would never have believed you could perpetrate such a cruel act upon another human being."

Before Father could stop himself, the words burst from his lips. "I did it for you, Vincent!" No one could miss the pleading tone coloring his voice, despite the bravado.

"For me? Why? To protect me in some way? Is there some reason I need protection from Catherine?"

"We both know sheíll only bring you unhappiness, son. I was trying to...spare you that." The reply was part plea for understanding, part defiant justification.

Vincent sighed. "I love you, Father. But I ask you now, before our family...do not try to Ďprotectí me from Catherine anymore. I love her." He heard a soft intake of breath but didnít turn to check its source. "And she loves me. No matter what problems exist, we will deal with them. Your attempts to deal with them for me, however well-meaning, are not appreciated...and will no longer be tolerated. Tell me you understand that they will cease."

Father, defeated, nodded his head. "Yes...theyíll stop. I admit what I did was ill-advised...foolish and cruel. I will apologize to Catherine at the very first opportunity, I promise you."

Vincent turned to look around the dining chamber. At least two dozen Tunnel denizens were gathered there in groups of two and three. All eyes were on the tableau before them. Everyone had heard their exchange. Father was shamed before them all, but Vincent had not a drop of pity to spare for him. He was thoroughly appalled at what had been done to Catherine in the name of love - and so terribly disappointed in those who had conceived of or participated in the plan.

Without another word, he strode from the chamber and went in search of his Beloved.

Catherine wiped the sweat from her forehead. In the close confines of the wood storage chambers, the air was stuffy and dry. Sheíd been working non-stop for three hours, shifting the unwieldy lumber at Cullenís direction. She already had several splinters for her efforts, but Cullen had regarded her request for gloves with disdain, informing her they did without such niceties Below. Sheíd bitten her tongue then and continued her labors. She was now hesitant to question what seemed to her to be the eccentric and unconventional rules governing work Below which first William and now Cullen expounded - they seemed shocked and displeased the few times she did. So now she just bore her lot in silence, grimly reminding herself that she had volunteered for this duty, for whatever work she could be useful doing. If she complained or questioned too much, she was worried that this would reflect badly not only on her, but on Vincent. And more than anything, she did not want to disappoint him. If others were to comment to him about her lack of cooperation, she would be mortified.

But her will to do what was asked of her was strained nearly to the breaking point. She was already stiff and achy from the inventory project, and her arms felt as if they were ready to fall off. As desperate as she was not to let Vincent or his family down by asking for special privileges, she feared she couldnít maintain the heavy strain on her body for much longer. She had a new and healthy respect for those Below who did this work every day, knowing it was beyond her abilities. But she earnestly vowed to develop the reserves needed to accomplish them more easily in the future - because she needed to prove herself to them all, to show herself worthy of their respect, of Vincentís love.

"You done in there yet?" Cullen called. "If you are, Iíve got some things out here that need...." His voice cut off suddenly as he saw a familiar but unexpected figure materialize in the entranceway. Putting on a brave face, Cullen asked casually, "What can I do for you, Vincent?"

Blue eyes glittering dangerously, Vincent responded, "You can release Catherine from servitude. Father has confessed his plan, so thereís no need to continue it."

Cullen blanched at Vincentís words. He jerked his thumb behind him to indicate the chamber from which the muted clattering of wood on wood emanated. Vincent spared him only one warning glance, then he entered the indicated chamber.

Catherine didnít notice him. Her back was to him and she was kneeling on one board while prying nails out of another. Every angle and plane of her body spoke of her utter exhaustion, and he could sense that she was carrying on from sheer will alone. Her desire to persevere shone like a beacon through their Bond.

In one glance he took in her disheveled state. Grimly he noted that Cullen had not even seen fit to provide her with a pair of the sturdy gloves those Below always wore when handling heavy or dangerous objects. He saw that she had torn the scarf which yesterday was jauntily tied in her hair and wrapped her hands with the ruined scraps in a vain effort to protect them from the jagged, rough edges of the lumber she had been handling. Her hands were skinned, bleeding - he saw cruel welts and blisters on her palms. His anger increased immeasurably as he saw her attempting to complete the back-breaking task assigned to her. For what discernable purpose was Cullen having her move these unwieldy, heavy blocks of scrap wood?

Softly, he called to her. When she didnít hear, he stepped forward and laid a hand gently upon her shoulder. She started, then murmured, "Iím almost finished, Cullen. Iíll be there in a minute."


This time the voice penetrated the fog of her fatigue. She turned to look at him, a question in her weary eyes.

"Come with me, Catherine. Youíre finished now." Compassion filled his voice as he held out a hand to her, expecting her to take it and rise.

But, although tears filled her eyes at his words, she replied with defiance. "No! Iím not through yet. The project...."

"The project is over," he interjected. "There is no shame in stopping now. Youíre exhausted."

He tried to take her hand but she pulled away, panic filling her mind - he was making exceptions for her, excuses...because he knew she didnít have it in her to finish what sheíd started. She wanted him to know that she didnít appreciate such solicitude, not now when she had so much to prove. "No, Iíll continue. Iím not going to accept special consideration. Iíll

work like everyone else, until the jobís done."

Vincent leaned forward and gathered her into his arms. "Itís done now. What was asked of you is far beyond what is asked of everyone else. Isnít that right, Cullen?"

The voice was calm and soothing, but Cullen wasnít fooled - the kindness in Vincentís voice was not meant for him. The slender woodworker agreed quietly, "Heís right, Catherine. This wasnít...a real project anyway. Father just...."

"Father?" Catherine was confused. But she couldnít concentrate on what he was saying. She was so tired, her muscles ached beyond endurance, her hands throbbed from the splinters sheíd picked up, she was numb with hunger and what she wanted more than anything was just...to cry. She felt like a total failure.

Vincent cuddled her close and murmured, "Iíll take care of you now. Just close your eyes." With that, he lifted her against him and left a chagrined Cullen in his wake.

Catherineís head lay buried against his neck - she didnít speak, and he felt clearly the hot tears of exhaustion she was shedding. He wanted nothing more than to spirit her away from everything and everyone who had hurt her - but he was trapped: he had only Below, nowhere else to take her. And so he carried her to the only haven he could offer: his own chamber.

Cradling his precious burden, he strode briskly through the tunnels toward his destination, eating up the distance quickly with his long, measured pace. As he entered the denser habitation of the Hub, he brushed aside all attempts at assistance, including that of a remorseful Father who hurried after him for several paces, black bag in hand, until Vincent turned on him suddenly and, with a curt growl, stopped him in his tracks.

"I will tend to Catherine myself. Let no one disturb us."

The warning light in his fierce blue eyes was enough to convince even the patriarch of the tunnels that he should not attempt argument.

As he entered his chamber, Catherine lifted her head, blinking as her eyes adjusted from the welcome burrow of his neck to the soft candlelight in the room.

"Take me to the threshold...let me go back Above," she pleaded, in a broken voice which hurt him to hear.

"I canít, Catherine. Itís the middle of the day. And even if you could get to your apartment from your threshold, there is no one to tend to you Above. Please, let me keep you here, let me take care of you? No one will bother you, I promise."

He ached to have to refuse her, yet a part of him was glad of the complications. If she left now, he was afraid he might never see her again. How could she ever forgive him for what had been done to her?

Accepting her resigned nod gratefully, he set to work. First putting the teapot onto the brazier to heat water, he went to his wardrobe and withdrew a workshirt which had seen better days - but the material was worn to a welcome softness, and it would be comfortable for Catherine to sleep in. Fastidious himself, he knew she could not rest easily in clothes she had perspired and slept in; besides, they were torn in places, stained and soiled from the work she had done.

Turning to her, he asked, "Can you undress yourself? You should rest, but those clothes must be grimy and uncomfortable." He held the shirt out to her, and she studied it for a moment before mumbling, "Yes."

While she undressed, he turned his back to pour the heated water into a bowl and to assemble the tools and cloths he would need. He heard the sharp intakes of breath whenever her bruised hands grazed too forcefully against clothing or fastening and wished heartily that he could help her - but undressing Catherine was a venture he could never imagine under the best of circumstances...and this was certainly not the time to begin.

Finally, he heard her climb onto the bed, ever so gingerly. Turning, he saw that she had neatly folded her nearly ruined clothing and set it on a chair. Now dressed in his workshirt, which looked impossibly big on her petite frame, she was slumped on his bed in a posture which spoke of both dejection and exhausted muscles forced beyond endurance. Vincent wanted to weep at the sight - she looked so fragile, so disheartened, so unhappy.

Kneeling at her feet, he took her dear, torn hands in his own and inspected them closely. In addition to numerous cuts, scrapes and scratches - both shallow and deep - there were ripening bruises on her forearms; angry blisters covered her palms, some already broken and weeping, and he counted six...no, seven splinters. He looked up quickly, catching the expression on her face as she gazed down in horror at her hands - likely the first good look sheíd had of them in hours.

"Oh, Catherine," he murmured, with a mixture of sympathy and apology. Slowly, tenderly, he bent to the savaged flesh and, where he found small spots of unbroken, unbruised skin, he kissed them reverently.

He didnít seem to notice Catherineís half-gasp, half-moan at his actions, but quickly thereafter he went to work, carefully removing the splinters, cleansing her wounds, dabbing salve on the cuts, and finally bandaging her hands. He despaired as he worked - her lovely, delicate hands...hands which had caressed him dozens of times with such tenderness, such care...were now torn and bleeding because of him, because sheíd placed her trust in him and his world, and they had both let her down.

And her battered hands werenít the least of it. He could feel the bone-deep soreness in her muscles as if within his own body - her strength was nearing its limit, the long hours of punishing physical labor and little rest were taking their toll on her. Every muscle in her body was agonized, protesting, cramping. Opening his first aid kit, he withdrew several aspirin and gave them to her, along with a cup of water. He longed to offer her a less impersonal comfort, but what could he do? She needed a long soak in the thermal pools at the very least, and perhaps a soothing massage to unkink and relax her muscles. Neither could he do for her - the pool perhaps they might manage, with female help, but he had already refused all assistance from the others...and how could he offer a massage - just the idea of his massive, work-hardened hands upon her small, exquisite body would likely repel her, much less allowing the kind of intimate kneading and stroking which would do her muscles the most good. He had to settle for offering her his bed, and ensuring she was wrapped up warmly before she slept.

She looked at him, and the anguish in her shimmering green eyes nearly undid him. She was in so much pain - both the physical, which would disappear within a few hours or days...and the more lasting, searing pain of the heart. Trembling, her bandaged hands in her lap, she looked down once more and in a choked whisper said, "They...they hate me."

Sharp, lancing pain pierced his soul at her words. For a moment, panic overcame him and he thought, Oh, God...could it truly be so? But then his ever-practical mind reasserted itself. No. Itís impossible anyone should hate her. Not her. Not...my Catherine.

With immeasurable tenderness, he cradled her weeping form against his strong chest, wrapping his large arms around her consolingly. "No, Catherine. They donít hate you. Please, donít think that."

His murmured reassurances gradually dulled the pain in her heart, and she lifted her face to his like a child, grateful when he carefully wiped away her tears with the calloused pads of his thumbs. His smile was gentle, rueful, as he added, "I believe they were, in their clumsy, wrong-headed way, trying to test you...to see if you were worthy of their faith in you, in your devotion to this place that is all the world to them."

She smiled a little at that, then nodded. "Yes. I guess youíre right. Itís what Joe did when I first went to work for him; he once told me he threw everything at me, to see if I was serious about the job. And Father was just trying to protect you...to ensure that Iím worthy of you...and...."

"Worthy...of me?" he interrupted, his voice hoarse with surprise. "Catherine...no."

"Yes," she insisted. "Itís not as if I havenít asked myself that question a hundred times: am I worthy of the love you give me? Do I deserve it?"

He shook his head, appalled. "How could you ever think such a thing? Itís...itís I who am not worthy of you, Catherine! Thereís so much I canít...."

Now it was her turn to cut him off. "You have no idea, do you, Vincent, how much you have to offer...how incredible you are...how honored I am to receive your love." Her smile was so tender it nearly stopped his heart. As he was trying to absorb the implications of her words, she continued, "I understand now what Father and the others were trying to do. They donít hate me, youíre right. They were only testing me." Her eyes filled with tears again. "Iím sorry I let you down. Iím so sorry I...I wasnít up to the challenge."

Still shaking his head over her latest words, Vincentís amazement finally found voice. "You didnít let me down. You never have. What they put you through yesterday...this morning.... It was far more than anyone Below could have done. You more than proved yourself, Catherine - to anyone who needed proof."

"But...I failed!"

He took her bandaged hands - so small, so delicate, so cruelly damaged - gently between his own large ones. "You...did...not...fail. Catherine...the inventory you accomplished in one day usually takes William and Mary - working together - the better part of three days to do. And the work Cullen asked of you....thatís not something thatís ever required...of anyone. You were set monumental tasks, and the mere fact that you attempted them uncomplainingly...let alone accomplished all you did...is a testament to your determination and your will. Donít ever say you failed. As horrified as I am by what was done to you...I am so very proud of you, Catherine."

Her jaw had dropped open at his last words - words she hadnít known she needed to hear until they were uttered. All the hurt, the resentment and disappointment over the actions of his family Below melted away in the fierce light of pride in his eyes. She gave him a wide, grateful smile, and his heart began to beat again.

She looked down at her lap for a moment, then shyly up once more. "Do you know why I came Below yesterday?"

He was surprised by the sudden change of subject. "Not really. You said...you needed to talk with me...?"

"Yes." He saw her shoulders droop as she expelled a silent sigh. "But I donít know if I should.... After everything thatís happened, maybe now isnít the right time...."

"The right time...for what, Catherine?"

He looked so beseechingly at her that it was all she could do to suppress the instinct to reach out and caress the intriguing hollow of his softly bristled cheek. How she longed to express her love to him by touch, to glide her fingertips along the unique and fascinating planes of his beloved face, to stroke the lines of tension from his furrowed brow.... Then, looking down at the bandaged mess her hands had become, she shuddered in horror. He wouldnít want her touch, not now. Dismayed, she searched in vain for the hard-won confidence which seemed to have deserted her in the last twenty-four hours.

"Catherine?" She had gotten so quiet, he was almost afraid to ask her what she had wanted to discuss. He could sense her mounting horror through their Bond, and it frightened him. He reasoned that the horror was directly related to what she had come Below to tell him. So...whatever it was, it couldnít be good news. After all, she had taken time off from work, which she only did when there was a crisis of some kind.

He cursed the sequence of events which had prevented them from having any meaningful conversation until now...now, when she must...as any person would...harbor resentment and ill-feelings toward those Below...probably including him - for didnít he fail to protect her? Didnít he allow a terrible wrong to be inflicted upon her? On top of whatever else was so bothering her that she chose to make a special effort to come Below to speak of it, she had to contend with the disappointment he must be to her now. He cringed inwardly. Oh, Catherine...if I could turn back the clock... Finally, when the tension had stretched almost beyond breaking point within him, she moved slightly, and his attention riveted upon her.

She sighed again, deeply this time. "I donít know, Vincent. Maybe...maybe I should go back Above...put some distance between...."

The muscles in his jaw twitched violently with the force of his suppressed groan of anguish. His voice betrayed his anxiety as it came out in a strangled whisper. "You need to put some distance...between us?"

She looked up sharply at his comment, saw the agony in his eyes, read his misinterpretation. "Oh, God...no! Never!" She flung herself back into his arms, clinging to him with as much force as she could considering the pain in her every part. She felt the slight relaxation of his tension as he welcomed her within his embrace.

Despite the restrictions he had always insisted upon in expressing their affections, she felt compelled to give him some solid evidence that there was nothing wrong between them. Hadnít he already breached that infuriating defensive wall himself, when he kissed her hands? Sheíd nearly moaned aloud with the ecstasy sheíd felt as his lips touched her palms, despite the pain in her hands. So she burrowed against his neck until she felt the smooth, warm skin of his throat, and there she placed a reverent, loving kiss, her trembling lips moistening the skin there with the ardent proof of her love.

The effect was like an electric shock. Vincent jerked away in surprise, astonishment flooding his features. Catherineís heart sank at his reaction. Sheíd only wanted to show her love, but he apparently wouldnít allow even that much overt affection from her. Sadly, she realized that what sheíd wanted to ask would not be granted - not now...not for a long time...perhaps never. He wasnít ready. It wouldnít be fair to him to ask and force him to refuse her request. What she wanted so much - to be with him in his world - was an impossible dream. He couldnít accept even one chaste kiss, how could he accept her in his everyday life?

Suddenly, the exhaustion of the past hours claimed her. Not only was she deeply tired in every limb of her body, but her mind and heart were battered as well. She wanted only escape - from his confused eyes, from the protective barrier his family had erected around him...from everything associated with Below. The overwhelming reality was that, much as she wanted to become a true part of his life, she couldnít. Perhaps his family might someday let her...but he never would.

Turning from his shocked gaze, in one motion she lifted her legs and curled into a fetal position on the bed, her back to him. She was mortified, humiliated - and facing him right now was beyond her capacity for pain.

Vincentís stunned brain registered her despair, and he realized that his reaction to her devastating if innocent kiss had been wildly misinterpreted. Now she was trembling - from pain, from exhaustion, from misery, and he could feel the hot tears in her throat as if they were his own.

Heaving great wrenching sobs, Catherine surrendered to her despair. She no longer cared that Vincent was witness to it. She couldnít have tried to hide it no matter what - her reserves were too low to allow her to dissemble even for his sake. All she wanted right now was to be magically transported from this chamber deep within the earth to...to...to where? Where would she truly rather be? On some tropical beach, unable to enjoy herself because she wanted to share it with someone who could never be by her side Above? In her lonely apartment, while the man she loved was alone in his chamber Below? In her office, amidst stacks of files and harried co-workers, with the telephone ringing shrilly off the hook? There wasnít anywhere else sheíd rather be - but here, right now, was such a painful place....

Vincent was frantic. What was he doing to her? What his family had done was bad enough - was he now going to make it worse by reacting so badly to her tentative offer of affection that she thought he didnít want it? How could he make things right between them?

He cursed himself for the miserable mess heíd made of things. Over the past year, their love had grown until there was no denying the strength and depth of it - yet they had resolutely turned away from any discussion of it, heíd made sure of that. Catherine had her work; he had no right to impose his needs, his desires on her - and he wouldnít allow her to speak of hers, for they frankly frightened him. What they promised was more than he could accept, had any right to acknowledge. So the feelings they had for each other had become a strain, a tension which boiled just beneath the surface whenever they were with each other, making their every conversation fraught with nuance. And today, when they most needed to speak honestly and directly, because he had erected so many obstructions to their expression of affection, they couldnít admit to each other the tenth part of their feelings. The wildly inconsistent emotional roller coaster theyíd been on was tumbling her out of control...and himself along with her. Even with that precious link - their Bond - between them, almost everything theyíd said and done today had been at cross purposes. Seeking to offer comfort or empathy, theyíd reeled from one misunderstanding to another, knocking each other off their emotional underpinnings and hurtling themselves into dejection or elation so quickly their heads were spinning. He had to make it stop, had to be clear and direct - had to express himself to her in a way that left no doubt how he felt about her, how much he cared for and needed her, how necessary she was to his life.

A tentative hand stroked her hair. A husky voice whispered low, "Iím sorry, Catherine." She felt the mattress sink, and then a large, warm presence filled the space behind her from her neck to her toes, curving to cup her body, to shield her from the cool ambient air, from the world beyond this chamber. Large, powerful arms reached under and around her to encompass her within them. One heavily muscled leg draped across both of hers to wrap her protectively beneath itself. Warm breath heated the skin of her neck, and the softest touch sheíd ever felt - could those be his lips? - pressed a light, velvet kiss upon her cheek. More words were murmured now, close to her ear, the breath tickling that delicate flesh: "Iím sorry. I didnít mean to pull away. More than anything, Iíve longed for your touch, Catherine. Please donít leave me. I love you. Stay with me. Always. Please...please...please...."

The arms tugged insistently, pulling her around to face him. Her tears didnít allow her a proper view of Vincentís face, but gentle kisses pressed the liquid flood into oblivion, and when she opened her eyes again, her wet lashes fluttered upon his cheek, he was pressed so close to her. He held her gently, but very tightly against himself. She had stretched out full length against him when sheíd turned, and heíd slung one of his legs over hers once again to capture them and hold them close. His broad hands were splayed wide against her back, soothing her with tender strokes as his fingers played gently across the tight muscles there.

Catherine groaned. The pleasure of his embrace was as exquisite as it was unexpected. And all the while, he never stopped his whispered confession of need, his murmured admission of desire, his breathless declaration of love. The relief she felt was intense and immediate. She realized she had misunderstood Vincentís reactions, the meaning of his words. She was so tired...perhaps her mind refused to perceive, accepting only the familiar, timeworn explanations rather than allowing her to see the new truth that had been in his eyes, she now realized, since heíd brought her to his chamber.

Her hands throbbed, but she didnít care, she lifted them until she could cradle his face, then she moved her mouth to his, offering herself to him unmistakably. He leaned into their first kiss with a joy and abandon she hadnít expected. Elation burst like a bubble within their Bond, filling it with the sweet, hot colors of hope and hunger. His lips were like brushed velvet to her senses - smooth, warm, supple. His tongue dipped gently against her mouth, tasting, and when she parted her lips, he shared his honeyed breath with her. She pressed herself into his kiss, deepening it, wanting him to taste the trueness of her love for him. He accepted that truth and offered his own to her.

No words were possible...or required, yet when the need for breath parted them, Catherine replied with words, for they were words sheíd longed to speak, ached to speak - and finally, now was the time to utter them. "I love you...so much. Mmmm....." Momentarily losing her train of thought as a fresh assault on her senses was launched - he had pulled her tightly into his body, and the feel of his erect manhood pressing firmly against her stomach nearly undid her - she surrendered to the feeling, pausing only to ask the question which had been her sole purpose in coming Below: "I want to stay...for always. Will you let me?"

Vincentís burgeoning heart nearly left his body at those words. She wants to stay! Still, he had to be sure - too many misunderstandings had occurred this day for him to take anything - even joy - for granted. He stared deeply into her luminous green eyes. He wanted this so much, he needed to be sure heíd heard with his head and not just his heart.

"Youíll stay with me? Here, Catherine? With me...in my chamber...by my side...for always?" His full lower lip trembled with the force of his emotional reaction to her request. Please...please...it has to be true...let me have heard her correctly.

She smiled, all her pains forgotten in the happiness which now coursed through her soul. "With you...by your side...in your bed...wherever youíll have me. Forever...."

"Was this what you wanted to speak to me about...the reason you came Below?"

She nodded. " ĎWither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people....í "

He smiled gently. "Are you sure you want Ďmy people,í Catherine?"

This drew a tiny chuckle from her. "Even if sometimes they drive me to distraction...yes." Her eyes glistened, the ardor, the adoration in them unmistakable. "Oh, yes."

The look on her face, the impact of her words - all combined to take the breath from him. He had barely enough left to ask a one-word question. "When?"

She closed her eyes and snuggled closer to him; his arms tightened around her in response. He tried to imagine what it would be like to have her in his arms like this every day for the rest of his life. He couldnít - the immensity of the idea was beyond his capacity to believe, still...even after what she had said.

"Well...Iím here now...."

Incredulous, he pulled back to stare at her, his mouth slightly open, allowing her the barest glimpse of sharp, gleaming incisors. She raised an index finger to his chin and gently urged his jaw closed while a smile played across her features. "Is that so shocking?" Her playfulness ended, and she continued, "Seriously, I can resign from the D.A.ís Office effective two weeks from the date of my letter, plus I have some leave coming to me which I could take during those two weeks - at least a few days - and if I use that time to put my financial affairs in order and take care of some personal things, like explaining my absence to certain friends...I think it might be possible to come Below permanently after that."

Stunned, he contemplated a time two weeks hence when his every desperate, secret wish would come true - his Catherine would be Below, living with him, sharing his life...his love....

When he still didnít speak, Catherine continued, "There are a few things from Above Iíd like to have with me here - some pieces of furniture, my books, photo albums, things like that. Would that be all right?"

He nodded, numb, still speechless.

Just as words were again able to coalesce in his conscious mind, a voice called out from the tunnelway beyond his chamber entrance. Father... He groaned inwardly. Not now... He turned toward the still-empty doorway, fearing the older man might not wait for permission, but stride in as usual. Aloud, he said, "Later, Father. Please."

Catherine tugged at his vest and he looked down at her. He read the pleading in her eyes, and reluctantly he broke their embrace. Rising, he moved to the entrance and called Father back. He was walking away in the company of William and Cullen, and as they turned, he saw that the whole group looked self-conscious and abashed. "Come in, please," he offered, then stood aside and indicated they should enter his chamber.

The miserable men walked with halting steps past Vincent and into the chamber, shuffling to a stop before the bed where Catherine now was sitting up, her lap and legs primly covered by one of the quilts from the foot of Vincentís bed. Her face was a mask, betraying no emotion. Vincent marveled at her, knowing of the emotional storm which had passed through her just minutes ago.

William and Cullen looked down at the worn carpet on the floor of the chamber, unable or unwilling to meet her eyes. Only Father had the courage to face her, and he spoke for them all.

"Catherine...my dear...weíre sorry to disturb you...but we...all of us...wanted to offer our sincerest and most abject apologies to you. Our behavior was...unforgivable. We had thought.... What we meant to do was.... That is...." He stopped, floundering, and cleared his throat. This was very much harder than heíd imagined - and heíd imagined it would be terribly difficult. "There is no excuse for what we did. Yet we hope you will someday find it in your heart to...."

Catherine couldnít bear to watch them suffer anymore. As difficult as theyíd made it for her since sheíd come Below, she had the kindest of hearts and didnít want to see them squirm. "Father," she said, then to each of the others in turn, "William. Cullen." As she called their names, they each looked up at her, meeting her eyes, and she saw the sincere regret and embarrassment reflected there. "I understand what you were trying to do." She smiled tiredly, then added quietly, "I hope I passed the test."

William spared one withering glance at Father, then replied, "Iíve always admired you, Catherine. But you really showed me something yesterday. Iíd be happy to work by your side any day."

Cullen added, "Me, too. And all I can say is...well...it seemed like a good idea at the time, and we didnít think about how you might feel, and we didnít mean for...well...." He wound down, unable to explain himself further, and just shrugged. "Iím sorry."

"Iím sorry, Catherine," echoed Father and William. They looked like nothing so much as naughty schoolboys caught playing a prank. Catherine could barely control a smile.

She lifted the quilt away and stood. Cullenís eyebrows shot up as he got a good look at her shapely thighs and calves, but when he realized Vincent could see him ogling her, he snapped his eyes back to her face.

"If youíll each promise me something, Iíll forgive you."

Cullen looked quizzical, but he nodded readily enough. William looked grateful, and did the same. Fatherís obvious wariness also did not prevent him from agreeing with a nod.

"If youíll all help me settle in when I move Below, weíll consider all debts paid, all scores settled. Deal?"

Cullen and William nodded automatically. Only Father stood frozen in something akin to shock, staring at her. He tried to speak once, but his mouth opened and nothing emerged. He closed his mouth with an audible snap, then tried again with more success. "When you...move...Below?" The words came out half-strangled.

"If itís approved by the Council," Catherine continued calmly, but with a hint of devilment in her eyes and enjoyment at Fatherís befuddlement. "Vincent has asked me to join him here Below. Weíd be...together, Father." Her eyes held a warning which he didnít miss - he would not dare object, not now, would he?

The resignation in his eyes answered her - no, he wouldnít. And in truth, if she could handle what the three of them had dished out to her, he imagined she could handle anything. Certainly sheíd proved beyond a doubt that she was up to any challenge presented Below. And she loved his son, of that he was sure. No one would have put up with what sheíd had to for this long if there wasnít true affection and genuine respect between them.

His mind and heart eased at the thought, and he found that he held no fear or worry in the contemplation of Catherine residing Below. In fact, now that he really considered it, it made so much sense. Vincent wouldnít be prowling Above at all hours, in all kinds of weather, vulnerable to discovery and danger...nor would he be moping and brooding for days on end over enforced separations....and there would be a very capable pair of hands and another bright mind to share the duties and responsibilities Below. Yes, all things considered, this was a very satisfactory solution.

He pulled himself up to his full height, ignoring the twinge his aching hip gave him, and nodded once, sharply, confidently. "Iím sure the Council will have no objection, Catherine. Let me be the first to formally welcome you Below."

William, Cullen and Vincent stared in frank astonishment at his sudden capitulation. Only Catherine accepted his words calmly, and she wordlessly thanked him with a grateful blink of her eyes. He caught the subtle gesture and smiled briefly in return. They were to be allies then, he saw, not enemies. He could live with that.

Vincent cleared his throat. When that failed to move the three men, he gently reminded them that Catherine had had little sleep or food in a very long time. This galvanized the men into action. William hustled his considerable bulk out the chamber door, calling over his shoulder that heíd send Kipper with a tray of food in a hot minute. Cullen half-bowed and scurried out right behind him.

Father lingered for a moment, looking first at Catherine, then at Vincent, then back to Catherine. It seemed he was trying to get something out, something that was sticking in his throat. The two younger people waited patiently, even though, as Vincent noted with some concern, Catherineís legs were beginning to tremble with the effort of standing - she literally was on her last legs as far as strength, but just as he was about to suggest that she sit, she broke the impasse by stepping toward Father and enveloping him in a warm hug. He seemed startled at first, then raised his arms and awkwardly patted her back, and finally let his arms rest for a moment around her. They whispered something to each other, which only Vincentís sensitive ears could have picked up: while Father had murmured "dearest Catherine," at almost the same time, she had whispered, "I love you."

When Father broke the embrace, it was clear that he was quite moved by Catherineís loving gesture. His eyes sparkled with moisture, and he ducked his head, murmured his goodbyes, and quickly left the chamber, nearly barreling into Kipper, who was just entering with a tray laden with covered plates.

Vincent took the heavy tray, which was listing precariously, from the overburdened lad, and whispered his thanks and dismissal. As the boyís footsteps receded, silence fell in the chamber. Vincent looked at Catherine, who was swaying on her feet. Swiftly he set the tray down, and caught her up in his arms just as she would have collapsed to the floor. He gently eased her onto the bed, placing her in the middle of its wide expanse. She was already asleep, the strain of her meeting with her erstwhile tormentors having taken the last ounce of her stamina.

He gazed at her raptly for several long moments, savoring the sight of her - a sight he knew would soon become familiar...but would never be taken for granted. Then he moved silently about the chamber, extinguishing all but a few of the many candles which lit the room. In the near-gloom, he sat, removed, his outer garments, then slid onto the bed beside his Catherine. Leaning over, he grasped a quilt and gently lay it over her, wrapping himself, last of all, protectively around her, and he held her as she slept, murmuring nearly inaudibly of his love and gratitude, whispering the promises of a lifetime to her. The occasional muffled staccato of a pipe message filtered its way into the chamber. Far off, the distant sound of a subway train rumbled. Otherwise, all was silence. A deep happiness spread through him, permeating their Bond. In her sleep, Catherine sighed and smiled. Vincent nuzzled into her hair, burying his nose in the scent he most loved. He had never in his life been so relaxed, so hopeful, so unworried about the future. Then, with an ease that would have surprised him had he noticed it, he slipped softly into sleep, the Bond cocooning them both in lambent shades of shimmering blue...



and peace.