Love Lines

Cindy Rae



{ The following events occur in season 2, after “Chamber Music,”
but prior to episodes such as  “A Fair and Perfect Knight,” “Brothers”, and “A Gentle Rain.”
Devin is here, having returned from his most recent travels.
Many other familiar faces are present as well, as I imagine they often were. }
{ With most grateful acknowledgment to Olivia K. Goode,
whose marvelous 
Sibling Ribaldry  inspired me, as it has so many others.
And to Sobi, who always encourages me to try. }







 "Every lover is, in his heart, a madman.  And in his head, a minstrel."

Neil GaimanStardust






A Gauntlet Is Thrown Down


"... and then love, forevermore." Samantha ended her poem with a flourish and a smile.  She knew she'd recited it well.  Very well.

She gave a practiced curtsey to the sound of much applause.  She then took Kipper's hand on the one side, and Eric’s on the other.  Zach took the space beside Kipper, Geoffrey beside him, and the five friends held their clasped hands high up over their heads.  They then bowed together, the picture of triumphant stage presence.

The sound of clapping increased, along with words like “Bravo!”

Samantha ate it up.

They'd all given a commendable reading of original works, and pushed hard for the opportunity to do so.  Samantha felt it was time to bask in just a bit of glory, and was happy that even Devin had managed to arrive for the performance, along with many other people she numbered as her “favorites.”

The boys felt much the same way, she knew.

The enthusiastic response from the adults was more than just "polite," and Samantha checked to see if everyone's favorite literature teacher looked pleased.

Vincent did.  His smile was not as wide as Elizabeth's, but it was just as welcome.

Eric giggled and pointed out Pascal.  No one could beat Pascal for a wide smile, at the moment.  One of the poems had had to do with the pipes, and he was enthusiastically applauding his appreciation.

Devin put two fingers in his mouth and even whistled, while Father pounded the floor a little, with his walking stick.  William gave the tunnel children a “thumbs up” gesture, then resumed making noise.  “Bravo!”  Sebastian shouted, again.  Mary echoed him.

Samantha knew the long hours of rehearsal had paid off, and that dragging Kipper off his skateboard and pulling Eric’s nose out of a book had all been worthwhile.  The friends on the small stage all bowed, again.  It was their moment to shine.

In the audience, appreciative comments abounded, between the grown-ups.

“Someone’s been reading Bronte.” Catherine smiled up at Vincent as she said it, indicating Samantha.

“Someone has been reading nothing else,” Vincent returned, enjoying Samantha’s broad grin almost as much as he was enjoying Catherine’s.

Once the noise died down, William gestured toward the room’s exit with an open palm.

"And with that, I'd say the evening has been a resounding success, and I have ale in the dining room for the adults, and fruit punch and cookies for the children," the big cook declared, offering a gentlemanly hand to help Samantha down.

She disengaged her hand from Kipper’s as she graciously accepted William’s outstretched palm.  Unaccustomed to being on the risers, she carefully descended the platform in the music room.  A platform that was usually reserved for concerts, thanks to the acoustics and available seating.

Samantha had insisted that this was the place they needed.  She wanted the sound to carry, after all.

"Saved the best for last, did we?"  Dr. Alcott asked Samantha, as she stepped off the low “stage” and into to a semicircle of waiting adults.

Samantha smiled as Eric squeezed her hand, happy to be getting his fair share of praise, as well.  All the children were.

Zach was trying to look “above it all,” his age pegging him as the oldest in the group.  But Catherine wasn’t fooled.  He was as pleased as Kipper and Geoffrey were.  And that was saying something.

Father spoke overtop of those assembled, in the loud voice adults often use when they are delivering praise to children, but meant to be heard by all:  "A poetry reading of original compositions.  My, my.  I can’t recall a finer evening in a while,” he enthused.   “I must say, Vincent, you're working our young scholars very hard," he complimented, placing a fond hand on Eric’s blonde head.

Eric’s poem about a lost message on the pipes had gone over very well, as had Geoffrey’s about the Great Falls.

Vincent immediately deflected all accolades.  "I can claim no credit, for the idea was entirely their own,” Vincent replied, as he helped Elizabeth rise from the wide chair she’d been sitting in.

“I'm just pleased that so many could attend," he added, sending Devin a contented glance as Sebastian extended an arm to Catherine on the one hand, and Mary on the other.  The two brothers swapped a fraternal smile.  And Sebastian looked beyond pleased.

"Wouldn't have missed it dear boy, wouldn't have missed it," Sebastian assured everyone, particularly the ladies on his arms.  "Poetry is its own kind of magic, only it entirely uses words, instead of props, or sleight of hand.”  His benevolent gaze enveloped the children before him.

“It’s a positively delightful, and if I may say so, a very worthwhile skill,” the magician continued.  “A most excellent job, my young authors,” he flattered.

“Thank you,” Kipper said politely.

"Keep that up Mr. Kipper, and you shall charm yourself a lovely young lady, some day."  Sebastian advised, giving Samantha a gentleman’s wink.  She laughed, and shook her head at him, in the negative.

Kipper wasn't entirely sure he was taken with that notion, either.  But he did think "Ode to My Skateboard" was a keeper.

And so it had been.  It was Samantha who'd talked him out of rhyming 'wheel' with 'steal,' and going for 'feel,' instead.  It had turned out to be good advice.

Zach had penned an Elizabethan sonnet about the park.  Samantha had gone for romance.  All in all, it had proven to be a wonderful evening, for everyone.

The five companions grinned hugely at each other.  What had started out as a simple idea had now become a terrific reality.   They had each spent hours shining up what they considered their best pieces, wanting to perform them for invited friends.  One invitation had led to others, and before they knew it, a guest list had formed.

It had all gone wonderfully.

The children all knew that both as a whole, an in its individual parts, the performance had been stellar.

Even Arthur darting across the stage during “Skateboard” had failed to dim the perfection of the evening.  Indeed, it had, in its way, added to it.  (Even if it meant that Mouse had missed some of the material while he’d had to go put Arthur back in his cage).

As Kipper had been describing the feeling of “zooming freely,” Arthur had “zoomed,” from stage left to stage right.  It had been a marvelous coincidence, and one Kipper had capitalized on.

“Arthur knows what I mean,” he’d assured a chuckling audience.

He’d done well.  And he’d enjoyed himself.  Everyone had.

Samantha’s smile couldn’t dim.  The evening had gone just too splendidly.  It had given Vincent an excuse to invite Catherine down.  Devin had agreed to stay an extra day, visiting Father.  Old Sam had made the trip down, as had Eli and Master Wong, Henry and Lin.

And now it looked like there would be cookies.  Not bad, for a night's efforts.  Samantha thought.  And we get to stay up later.

"Maybe Michael helped them?" Brooke inquired.

The young man brushed aside her praise, politely.  "Not me, not this time.  This was all them."  He escorted her by the arm, the same way Vincent normally did for Catherine.

Brooke was in a very high heaven, indeed.

Elizabeth gave Geoffrey a fond hug.  “They’re worthy heirs to the Brownings, themselves,” she complimented lavishly.

Geoffrey thought maybe Elizabeth knew them personally, considering her age.

“Indeed, it is so,” Master Wong said as he stood with the newlyweds, Henry and Lin.  Kipper had skated all the way to Chinatown to confirm that they were coming.  “A most impressive performance,” he added.

The five "poets" bounced out into the hallway ahead of the others, leaving their adoring audience to follow as they would.

Sebastian escorted Catherine and Mary, while Kanin shepherded a very pregnant Olivia from the room.  Eli helped Rebecca carry one of the two large candelabras they’d used for stage decoration.  Jamie and Mouse preceded Old Sam, Elizabeth and Pascal, leaving Vincent, Devin, Peter and Jacob to take up the rear of the procession, as they wound their way through the tunnel hallway.

Torchlight illuminated their progress as comradery brightened their moods.

 As William had mentioned, a large keg of summer ale stood to one side of the common room, waiting to be tapped.  Given the high spirits of all in attendance, the evening was gathering the feeling of an unexpected party.



"They were all wonderful!"  Catherine tossed over her shoulder to Vincent, as the children ran over to a laden table.  A punch bowl and a large plate of shortbread cookies awaited them.

"Indeed they were," Vincent agreed, pleased by her smile.

"Would someone like to explain to me how Sebastian got to escort two beautiful women, while I'm stuck walking beside Vincent, slowing down so I don't lose the old guys?"  Devin asked, as the adults all began to filter into the large room.

Sebastian planted a victorious kiss on the back of Mary’s hand, then Catherine’s.  “The answer to that is quite simple, my boy,” Sebastian assured Devin.  “I’m just a bit more clever than you are.”

Devin groaned a protest, but the rest of the procession chuckled at that, as they all spread themselves around the large chamber William had prepared to receive the guests.

The children stayed near the cookie table as the others showed a tendency to cluster themselves according to age or gender, as parties often did.



Peter Alcott smoothed his impeccably tailored coat, as he responded to Devin’s jibe.  "’Old guys?’  ‘Old guys?’  Do you hear the disrespect, Jacob?"  Peter asked, smiling as he nodded in Devin’s direction.

Jacob took on the beleaguered aspect of the long-suffering parent of a difficult child.  "Since he was a young boy, and I can assure you, it’s gotten no better," Jacob returned, shooting Devin a warm, yet chiding look.

Devin had taken a trip to Alaska, and was currently using his “Jeff Radler” persona to file some official paperwork.  Father and son had enjoyed a good visit, and Jacob was more than pleased to see that continue.

Master Wong spoke up.  “In my country, such disrespect of an elder might be met with a caning,” he intoned, the twinkle in his eye belying his words.

“Which explains why I might not go to China this year,” Devin riposted.  “Too many old people with canes.”  He smiled at his cane-wielding father, as he said it.  “Most of whom would probably be after me shortly after I got off the plane, for some reason or another.”

Catherine grinned at him.  So did Sam.

“Seems like that would give China something in common with most places,” Sam observed.  Vincent hid a chuckle behind his hand.

Eli piled on. “Youth is a condition, not a virtue,” he pointed out to Devin, patting him fondly on the shoulder as he did so.

Peter added his two cents.  “And like many conditions, it’s incredibly temporary,” he pointed out.

Jacob chortled in agreement, while William tapped the keg.

“Young people.  If only they knew all they thought they did,” Jacob tacked on.

“Old people.  If only they knew all they thought they did,” Devin returned, not the least bit intimidated by Jacob’s censure.

"Sounds like a storm brewing," Catherine said in a stage whisper to both Sebastian and Mary.  The older woman smiled and nodded her head in agreement, as they all moved over to where William was dispensing the adult refreshments.

Jamie poured punch into glasses for the children, and William filled several tankards, to be passed out among the grown-ups.  The cold ale had been chilled, as it was poured into frosted pewter mugs.

"Thanks for the bag of ice, Catherine," William smiled he fished another icy metal cup out of a bucket.  Vincent brought her the drink.

"Thank you," Catherine returned, sipping the frosty ale.  The metal made her lip cold, and she watched as the room was filled to bursting with a convivial kind of friendship.

Everyone was clearly enjoying the evening.  The round-bellied Olivia drank punch with the children, as did Brooke and Jamie, and Mary expressed no interest in any beverage, but kept an eye on the young scholars as they began reciting their poems to each other again, and reliving the evening's triumph.

Catherine and Vincent wandered over near Henry and Lin, while Master Wong stood talking with Old Sam and Eli.

"They really were very good," Lin complimented, entwining her fingers with her husband's.  The newlyweds were never far apart.

Henry concurred.  "I thought so, too.  It's a shame poetry isn't taught more in the regular schools.”

"Hear, hear," a passing Michael agreed.

Peter Alcott overheard him. "Oh, I don't know about that.  I know this was from ‘back in the day,’ but I still have Hiawatha in here somewhere, from eighth grade," Peter chuckled, tapping his grey temple with a manicured forefinger.

"More than I've got," Kanin replied, letting his eyes follow his wife as Sebastian jovially tugged a coin from her ear.

“Heads it’s a boy, tails it’s a girl,” the magician promised.

Olivia laughed at that, and the sound made Kanin smile.

Her protest was as gentle as the rest of her.  “Put it away, please!  I don’t want to know!” she insisted.

Jacob moved closer to Peter, enjoying the conversation around them.

"Poetry is the romantic form of any language,” he opined.  “Indeed, it’s often about romance.  It's an unromantic age, up Above," the tunnel patriarch declared, sipping his beverage.

"That it is." Eli couldn't help but agree.

Sebastian left Olivia and stepped nearer to Vincent and Catherine.  With a showman’s wave of his hand, he flourished a handkerchief and wiped the condensation from the bottom of Catherine’s mug, before it could drip on her elegant white blouse.  She smiled as he returned her drink to her.

“Thank you, Sebastian,” she said.

"In truth, my dear, I do not envy you your generation," he told the beautiful attorney as he tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket. "Mine had a better sense of romance, as Father so deftly indicates.  Yours has better sense of, well, business, and technology, and... other things," he said carefully, referring to how the sexual revolution had all but exploded around them - and was still detonating, over their heads.

Sebastian’s declaration caught the attention of both Vincent and Devin.

Vincent couldn’t resist an inquiry.  "Why Sebastian, are you implying that the older generation is more romantic than the younger one?" he asked, resting his hand lightly on his beloved’s shoulder.  Her free hand reached up to cover his.

Jacob had to scoff.  "Not implying it, he's saying it outright," Father answered for the street magician, as Jacob then took another sip from his mug.  His tone indicated that the subject was utterly a given, and not open for debate.

"Hear, hear," chimed Peter Alcott and Mary at the same time.

The small chorus drew Devin into the conversation.  "Oh, I do sense that a gauntlet is being thrown down," he responded.

"Save your glove, Devin," Vincent advised.  "Catherine clearly disagrees," he said, just a touch of smugness in his deep voice.

"Oh, no you don't.  You're not putting me in the middle, here," Catherine replied, removing his hand from around her shoulder and sidling up next to Mary.

Vincent's blonde eyebrow rose.  "Surely you don't mean to imply --"

"Relax, little brother," Devin patted Vincent's broad back.  "Of all the men here," he pretended to toast the room with his tankard, "One has dated women on almost every continent.”  He took a long drink.  “And I'm saving up for Antarctica,” he added.  “I'd say that settles the ‘who is more romantic' dispute."

Now it was Peter's eyebrow that went skyward.  "Under how many aliases?  Lying to them isn't quite the same as romancing them, Devin,"  Peter pressed genially.

"It is if you're me,"  Devin returned cheekily, saluting himself with his mug of ale.

"Devin!"  Elizabeth exclaimed in mock horror.

"Elizabeth!" he returned, pretending to clutch his chest, in pain.

The assembled crowd laughed their approval at the good humor, and Catherine shook her head at Vincent’s brother.  Dressed as a New York attorney, he'd shed his business coat for the trip down to the tunnels.  He looked rakishly comfortable in a white dress shirt with turned up sleeves, a loosened tie, and a navy blue vest, unbuttoned, and hanging open.

After a few moments, the laughter faded away, and nearly everyone made themselves busy making sure all the mugs were filled, the children were properly praised (again), and that all was going well.

Several chairs were brought over for those who cared to sit, and the various groups returned to their clustered conversations, many discussing the merits of the generation they represented.

“Say what you want, but we went to the moon…”

“Valentino.  Now Valentino was romantic…”

“Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford…”

“… And then there are supermodels who make millions each year selling bathing suits.  Somebody’s buying what they’re selling…”

It was Father who actually proposed what was to come:

"Well.  Since it is clear that we have a reasonable difference of opinion about who is the more romantic, it seems there is no way to settle it other than to have a contest."

All eyes turned toward the tunnel patriarch.

"A contest?" Brooke asked, just pleased to be near Michael.  She'd spent all evening beaming at him, hanging on nearly his every word.

"The… er… younger gentlemen against their more experienced, more intelligent, more refined counterparts," Father said, indicating himself, Peter, Sebastian, Master Wong, Old Sam and Eli.

Devin, Michal, Kanin, Vincent, and some others soundly booed his description.

“We’re not going to take that lying down,” Devin assured his father.

Old Sam wasn’t so sure about that.  “Drink some more of William’s ale, and you just might,” he teased.   “Afraid to be put to the test?” 

Some of the women began to exchange knowing glances.

Elizabeth proved that age did indeed bring wisdom. "My dears, I suggest we get out of the way, before we are drawn into this nonsense," she said, tugging Catherine's arm, who in turn tugged Olivia's.

Sebastian would have none of it.  "Ah, but great romance needs inspiration!" he declared floridly, purposely stepping in the way of the escaping ladies and re-routing a fleeing Mary into the nearest chair.

"Uh-oh," Olivia said, smiling, as Mary grew flustered.

"And who else to inspire us but our own lovely, lovely ladies?" Sebastian schmoozed, swatting the seat of another chair with his handkerchief, indicating that Olivia was to sit there.

"Hear, hear," Michael approved, pulling over another chair.  Brooke sat in it, immediately, and smiled up at him.

“Run, Lin!  Save yourself!” Catherine called as the new bride picked up her slim skirt and pretended to do just that.  A grinning Henry “captured” her and seated her with the other women.

Vincent’s low voice rumbled near Catherine’s ear.  "Not to mention we'll need someone to keep score, to decide if something truly romantic has been said," he intoned, escorting Catherine to a chair next to Brooke.

"And 'snap!' goes the trap," Catherine looked to the ladies seated with her.  Mary gave her a rueful nod.

"I'll keep score!"  Jamie declared, refusing to be drawn into the line of seated women.

"But I thought I might--" Catherine began to rise.

"Not on your life," Jamie replied, pushing her back down, again with a gentle nudge of her slim hand.  "If I'm keeping score I don't have to sit around in one of those chairs getting lied to, the rest of the night."

Sebastian immediately turned to her.  "Poetry, a lie?”  He exaggerated his tone, at the description.  “Poetry is most surely not a lie.”  He did his best to feign indignation.  "It is an affectation of the soul,” he pronounced gravely.

Jamie wasn’t fooled for a minute.  "Good.  I don't have to sit around and be 'affectated,' then," she declared.

Sebastian merely chuckled at that.

Brooke was enthusiastic.  "Oh, I think this could be fun for us," she gushed.

Catherine tried again.  “Jamie, I really think I can—“

Jamie folded her slender arms, refusing to be swayed.  "If you think I'm going to let these guys pretend to sweet-talk me--"

Sam settled things with a pat to Jamie’s shoulder.  "Fine.  You can keep score," he interrupted, settling it.  "Every challenger gets a turn.  Does that sound acceptable to everyone?” he asked

Pascal nodded his balding head.  "Seems reasonable,” he agreed, standing closer to Devin.

Devin rubbed his hands together, the picture of gleeful anticipation.  “We're going to kill you, you know," he boasted confidently.  "We've got Vincent.”  He jerked his head in the direction of his younger brother.  “He forgot more romantic quotations and pick-up lines than the rest of you all know, put together."

Now it was Catherine's turn to raise an eyebrow.  "Pick-up lines?  Is that what those were?  Why, Vincent.  Have you been trifling with me?"  She gave her head an amused tilt, and the audience enjoyed the faint blush that crept up her love’s cheeks.

"Never.  And I swear to you that my intentions have been nothing but honorable." He was so serious, Devin had to chuckle.

"And I swear to you mine have never been," Devin stated to Catherine as he fetched a chair for Elizabeth.  Several people laughed at him.

Jacob spoke right up.  "See, I think that should count for a one point deduction right there."  He raised one finger and stabbed the air with it.   Father was clearly jockeying for an early score.  "We're discussing romance.  Not vulgarity."

"We haven't even started yet and you're trying to cheat your way into the lead."  Devin chided his progenitor.  "Trust me.  I can 'romance' my way into a lady's heart.”

He made sure Elizabeth was settled, and comfortable.

“It's just that afterwards, I have to romance my way back out, again," he explained to his audience, some of whom gave him an indulgent grin.

Mary brushed at her skirt and apron, not necessarily at ease with this impending charade.  Elizabeth had been seated near her, and stilled one of Mary’s nervous hands by giving it a sisterly squeeze.

"So, my dear.  Shall we provide these scoundrels with a bit of inspiration?" Elizabeth asked, knowing full well her friend had feelings for Jacob.

"I don't know how much inspiration I'll be,” Mary fretted.  “And I really should get the children to bed, soon.  So I won't be able to stay, long," she replied, giving herself an “out” if she needed one.

“Oh, we don’t need to go to bed, yet!”  Eric insisted.  The other children clearly agreed.

“We’re fine, Mary.  You have fun!”  Geoffrey was enjoying staying up later by the minute.

Devin knew scamps when he saw ones.  Even ones feasting on shortbread.

“Ah, they remind me of us,” Devin smiled to Vincent.  "Don't fret, Mary.  You are deeply loved, always."  He proclaimed it with a son's devotion.

"And I do not believe this will take long," Vincent added, pulling a large chair over for Rebecca.

Peter gave the ladies a conspiratorial look.  "Indeed it won't.”  He checked his cuffs.  "Some of us were married for many years.  We may have picked up a thing or two," he said.

The room seemed to divide on its own, the older gentleman standing to one side - near the keg, Catherine noticed - and the younger ones to the other.  The women sat in the chairs, which had been settled roughly in a line in the middle.  The interested onlookers stood back.

"Okay, okay," Jamie said, tapping a pewter mug with the side of the metal punch ladle.  "The competition to see who is more romantic, the older men or the younger ones, is about to start.  Divide up how you want, and declare your teams."

"Do the teams have to be even?"  Sebastian asked.

"I have no idea," Jamie answered.

"Some referee you are," Pascal teased her.

Devin’s sarcasm was palpable.  "Oh, thank you Pascal.  Because ticking off the judge is a great way to start.”

Jacob chuckled as he settled himself on an available stool.  "You could just concede now.  Save us all the trouble."  He was clearly bent on enjoying himself.  It had been a while since he'd put his sons into their respective places.

Time they remembered just who'd taught them how to read in the first place, he mused.

“Afraid I’ll beat you?”  Devin challenged, a good humored twinkle in his eye.

“Not unless we’re about to have a foot race,” Father returned, setting his walking stick near.  The crowd did not stop smiling.

Jamie moved closer to the other women, but remained standing so that she was clearly not a “part” of them.  "I won't play favorites," she assured them all.

"Let me fetch you a drink, then, see if we can change that," Eli offered.  "Is she old enough for ale?"

"And I can't be bribed," she informed them in her most arch tone.  The ladies giggled at that, though Jamie wasn't sure why.

"Jamie's old enough.  Old as Mouse.  Doesn't like it," Mouse spoke up for his friend.  Catherine dug a pad and pencil from her purse and handed it to the young girl.

“You can use this,” she offered.  Jamie took it.

Brooke raised a slender hand, the student’s posture of asking a question.  Jamie nodded her way.

"Is touching allowed?  Hand holding?  Kissing?"  she inquired, glancing hopefully at Michael.

It was Devin who answered her.  "Can't see how you can declare we're having a romantic duel without it," he proclaimed, liking his team's chances.  Vincent might not be much for kissing Catherine in public, but Devin knew that voice could charm the birds out of the trees.  And his knowledge of literature, famous quotes, and poetry, was nothing short of phenomenal.

"Mouse can play?" asked Mouse, stepping closer to the younger men.

Uh-oh.  A fly in the ointment, Devin thought.

There were few young men in the room younger than Mouse, other than the children, several of whom seemed raptly interested in the contest.  Zach was already placing bets with Kipper.

"Mouse likes games!"  Mouse enthused, ingratiating himself with the younger group.

Mouse was not famous for the number of quotations he knew.  Or of the books he'd read.  Or for reading at all, truth be known, though he was functionally literate, and he loved diagrams of machinery.

Devin knew as much.  They all did.

Vincent hastened to try to let the young tinker down gently.  "Well, you see, Mouse, this is a competition about romance and literature.”  He indicated the line of seated ladies with a gloved hand.  “Remembering great passages from books.  Expressing feelings of love, and deep sentiment.  Telling people openly, about how you feel."

The young man positively beamed.  "Mouse knows about feelings!  Mouse has them all the time!  Hungry, sleepy, cold... itchy!"  He seized on the word, and scratched.

Master Wong was doing his best to hide a chuckle inside his mug.  Sebastian didn't fare quite as well.

"Yes, Mouse.  Itchy.  That will do it.  You must inform the ladies immediately, that you are... itchy."  The street magician tipped his top hat and gave Mouse a nod.

The team of elder gentlemen tried to conceal their mirth, not wanting Mouse to think they were enjoying themselves at his expense.

Devin leaned over to confer quietly with Vincent.  "Do we have to take him?"  he asked, not trying to sound uncharitable, but definitely feeling the disadvantage.

Vincent whispered back.  "To refuse would to be unsportsmanlike.  And Jamie is his friend," he reminded his brother, indicating their judge.

Devin turned up his own volume.  "Mouse!  Buddy!  Come stand between me and Vincent while we, um... group huddle.  You're our ace in the hole!"

Grandfather Wong saluted the younger men with his mug.  "You are very kind to be so... accommodating," he said, taking a polite sip from his tankard.  He knew Devin's team had just placed itself at a disadvantage.  Perhaps.

Jamie beamed at Devin's team.  She liked it when people included her best friend in whatever they were doing.

"Still waters run deep," Devin boasted to his competition, clapping Mouse on the back without missing a beat.

Devin, Vincent realized, could likely con a squirrel out of its last acorn.

"Mouse is still water?"  Mouse asked.

Chuckling ensued, and Jacob spoke up.

"Mouse has never been still a day in his life.  But he should have a turn, just like everyone else," Father stated, increasingly liking his odds.

Devin did a quick count. Jacob, Peter, Sebastian, Eli, Sam, and Master Wong on the one side, against Vincent, himself, Henry Pei, Kanin Evans, Pascal, Michael and Mouse. Seven younger men to six older, now that they'd accepted Mouse to the younger men's team.  He looked around.

"And to keep things even, you take William," Devin declared.  Nothing like being fast on my feet, the prodigal rogue congratulated himself.

From near the cookie platter, the tunnels’ chief cook and bottle washer raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"Me?!  Oh, no.  I'm just in here to keep the mugs and the punch bowl full.  Whatever insanity you people are into is---"

"Absolutely not going to happen without you," Pascal chimed in, grasping the big man’s elbow.  Pascal escorted William to the “older” side of the room.

"I'm damn near the same age as you are, you know," William growled at Pascal, as he was stationed near Peter Alcott.

"Yes.  Well, you know what they say.  Age before beauty."  Pascal left the cook standing where he was and strolled back to his side of the room, amid much laughter.

"'Pearls before swine is the follow up to that, I think," Peter declared, defending the provider of the evening's libations.

"What Peter said," William huffed.

Devin’s handsome smile clearly indicated how much he was enjoying himself already.  "Now, boys.  No sense fighting before we've even drawn first blood," he declared, eying his team.  Henry Pei and Kanin Evans.  Two newlyweds.  That's good, Devin congratulated himself mentally.  Vincent and I can handle our own.  Michael should have no problem.  Pascal, who knows, and Mouse?  Well.  Got to give up a point somewhere.  This should be interesting, Devin concluded.

He rubbed his hands together, again, in a gesture of anticipated victory.

“Let’s get down to business,” he said confidently.


The First Encounter:  Henry Pei and Master Wong


"Let's see... Who goes first?"  Pascal asked, stationing himself between Mouse and Michael, on his side of the room.

Devin wasn’t through needling Jacob.  "We could go by age.  Before one of you has a heart attack and forfeits," Devin teased.

"Or by intelligence, in which case that would indeed be us, again,"   Jacob shot back.

"Or by style." Sebastian stepped forward and swished his short cape, this time tipping his hat to the ladies.  "In which case... my, my.  You young gentlemen simply don't have much in the way of advantages, do you?" he observed cheerfully.

Butter wouldn't melt in that wily old fox's mouth, Catherine realized.  The performer in him was clearly enjoying this.

Master Wong had a twinkle in his eye.  "My grandson-in-law Henry is a newlywed,” Wong declared, throwing Henry under the bus.  "Surely, he has words of sublime wisdom for us?"  he prodded, knowing full well that though Henry loved Lin deeply, his time spent making the restaurant profitable left him very little time for reading.

The ladies applauded that idea, especially Lin, who beamed at her bridegroom.  They'd been married only a few months.

Henry wasn’t so easily drawn in.  "Surely custom dictates that my esteemed Grandfather-in-law should precede me."  Henry was no fool, and offered a formal bow to Lin's Grandfather.  "And, I admit... I really don't know much poetry, and hardly any Shakespeare."

Devin's face went into his palm.  "Now you tell me."

Wong smiled like the fox Catherine had likened Sebastian to, let into a hen house.

"Ah.  How… unfortunate,” he commented, knowing full well that was the case.  He gave Henry a look similar to the long-suffering one Jacob had bestowed upon Devin.

“So that the family honor does not suffer," Master Wong declared formally, setting down his mug of ale.

He approached Lin with August dignity.  He indicated with a motion of his fingers that she was to rise from her chair, and she did so.  They stood a few feet apart from each other, as he considered his lovely jewel of a granddaughter.

The Chinese gentleman locked his fingers in front of himself, stretched his arms over his head, thought a moment, and stepped nearer to the lovely Lin.  She inclined her head, respectfully.

Lin held the subservient posture for a long moment, letting him know she was ready to receive whatever it was he was about to offer her.

Wong inhaled deeply, then spoke in the rapid dialect of his homeland.  He addressed her shortly, giving her a brief line in Mandarin.  She raised her head and bowed again, in acceptance of his words.

“Thank you, Grandfather.” Lin said.

When Wong returned to his previous station with the older men,   a smile was exchanged between Henry, Wong, and Lin.  Lin sat back down in her chair, the picture of peace.

"Chinese!  He spoke Chinese!  How can we tell if he gets a point?" Kipper asked.  Zach simply shrugged.

"Your famous bard is known everywhere, young master Kipper," Wong replied.

"He said, 'My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.'"  Henry translated.  Henry's brown eyes met those of his beautiful wife, who smiled at him, serenely.  "I agree, by the way," Henry added.

“Sonnet one hundred thirty,” Vincent identified, impressed.

Jamie smiled.  "Nothing like the sun.  Because she has dark eyes?” she asked.  Jamie's eyes were deep brown, as well.

Henry’s gaze had not left his bride’s face.  "Yes, Jamie.  Because she has dark eyes.  ‘Nothing like the sun.’  Dark.  Mysterious.  Beautiful." Henry answered the young woman, unable to tear his eyes away from the look of love that shone in Lin's rich, chocolate, exotic eyes.

"Master Wong wins a point, right?"  Kipper asked.

"Not just for knowing the line, but giving it to us in Chinese, I would think," Father pointed out archly.  The old guard was looking forward to winning, and taking an early lead.

Jamie wrote something down on her borrowed tablet.

Devin realized it was time to encourage his teammate.  "Come on, Henry!  You’re not just going to take that, are you?"  he prodded.

Henry tilted his head slightly, treasuring the woman who had saved him from a lonely life.  His heart was in his eyes, and Lin could see the moment an idea entered his fine brain.

"My reply is also in Chinese,” he said.  “My beautiful wife will have to translate.”

Lin’s grandfather lounged casually near William.  "Is it your recipe for dim sum?  That is not romance, you know," Wong observed with a subtle smile.  The older men chortled.

"It is when you're served it in bed," Lin whispered to Catherine naughtily, not wanting to shock her conservative grandfather, but wanting to say it, nonetheless.  The ladies closest to Lin tittered.

"What is that, Granddaughter?"  Wong asked from his place near the keg of ale.

"Nothing Grandfather.  Only that I see no way my poor husband can beat you."  A conspirator's grin belied her words. She made certain Henry saw her wink.

Henry approached his new wife with the same respect her grandfather had shown.  Yet there was a different flavor to it, and the difference fascinated Vincent.

He knows she’s his, Vincent realized.  He’s her husband.  He knows she is his, forever… What must that feel like?  What… amazing thing, must that feel like? he wondered.

Henry approached his wife slowly, and the mood in the room changed to a more reflective one.

“Will you stand for me, also?” he asked politely.  Again, it was different than the subtle command Master Wong had given her.

“Of course,” Lin replied, rising once more.  She did not incline her head as she’d done with her grandfather.  Though many in her culture observed such niceties between husband and wife, there was more than a little twentieth century American couple to the Peis.

Lin waited, her love in her gaze.

Henry stood before her for a long moment, and then held his hands up, palms forward, fingers held together, asking her with a gesture to press her hands to his.

Lin did so, and Catherine recognized it as similar to the pose they'd stood in the day they'd gotten married.


Henry's Chinese stumbled a little, but the meaning in the words clearly affected Lin.  There was a rhythm to his speech, and the verse was several lines long.  Lin blinked at first, and then it was obvious she was trying to hold back a tear.

Henry finished by kissing her cheek, then returning to stand next to the younger men.  As Lin took in a steadying breath, Wong inclined his head deeply, an indication that either Henry had done well, or Wong was conceding that he'd been bested.

"Lin?  Will you translate for us?"  Catherine asked.  Vincent patted Henry on the back, already having understood the words.

"The victory is Henry's." Wong conceded graciously.  "For he has said what all young ladies wish to hear the most,” he nodded toward his granddaughter.  “It is a wedding poem.  The groom's promise, from their ceremony.”

"What do the words say?" Jamie asked.  It was a question she hadn’t thought to ask, after the wedding.

Lin drew in a steadying breath, her deep eyes never leaving her husband.

"'I want to be your friend forever and ever.'" Lin's usually decisive voice was a bit tremulous, as she quoted her husband’s vow.

"'When the hills are all flat
And the rivers run dry
And the trees… blossom in winter
And the snow falls in summer...'"

She wiped away a runaway tear.  "It really was the happiest day of my life... I... don't think I can finish the last line.  Henry?"

Love shone in her groom’s entire countenance as he stepped forward again and offered her his handkerchief.  His voice was sure.

"'When heaven and earth mix." He lifted her chin by placing a finger beneath it.

"'Not til then will I part from you,'" he finished for her.

The audience softly applauded as Henry seated Lin, his handkerchief a wadded ball in her hand.  He placed a steadying hand on her shoulder.  The hand that bore his wedding ring.

Brooke gave Lin’s other shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“That was so romantic,” Brooke sighed happily.  “And so beautiful.”

Lin smiled a small smile, rubbing her husband’s arm in agreement.

"Way to go, Henry," Devin admired sincerely.

"And you thought sitting up all night the day before the wedding trying to memorize that wouldn't come in handy!"  Pascal jibed.

"It’s the inflection that’s a killer," the American-born Henry confided, kissing his bride on the cheek again, adoring her.

Polite laughter tittered through the crowd, and Lin smiled a tremulous smile at the man whose life was now tied to hers.

'Wait 'til I get you home,' Lin mouthed to her husband, her face out of the line of sight of her grandfather.  Henry simply gave her another kiss, then returned to his team, satisfied.

Jamie declared their score.  "So that's round one... Mr. Wong's quote was very nice.  How about one point for Father’s team, and two points for Devin's?"  Jamie asked, marking it down on the tablet Catherine had lent her.  Everyone agreed that seemed a fair way to handle the scoring.

"And how about we go first this time?"  Devin offered, enjoying their lead.  He nodded toward Kanin, who set down the mug he’d been handed, but hadn’t drunk from.


The Second Encounter:  Kanin and Sebastian


Like Henry and Lin, Kanin and Olivia weren't much more than newlyweds.  Her firmly curved abdomen declared her very pregnant with their child, a blessed event, to be sure.

Everyone who knew the expectant mother knew that though Olivia regularly said that she didn’t really care what sex the child would be, she sometimes hinted that she would like a boy.  The declaration sometimes made Kanin look… pensive.

Kanin Evans approached his wife quietly, then knelt down in front of his tunnel-born bride.  Gently, he took her left hand, and enfolded it in his.  He kissed her wedding band, the simple token of his fidelity.  His blue eyes had a look that was both very intense and very sincere.

"Nymph... in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered," he said softly.  He punctuated the quote by kissing her wedding band again.

She gave him a tremulous, uncertain smile as he stood, indicating he was done.

What was that about?  Several people in the room thought it at the same time.

Samantha was the one to ask for clarity. "Horizons?  What does that mean?"  She could not see how the obviously heartfelt request had been a romantic overture of any kind.

"Not 'horizons.'  Orisons," Vincent clarified.  "It’s an old word.  It's from Hamlet."

Samantha still looked confused.  So did Geoffrey.

Elizabeth offered to define it for the children.  "’Prayers.’  It means 'prayers.'  He's asking her to pray for him, that his sins might be forgiven," the artist translated.

Kanin stepped back, and leaned against the wall, leaving his mug where it sat.  His face was a mask.

"Oh.  Is that a point?"  Samantha asked, both curious and oblivious to the sudden undercurrent in the room.

Catherine studied the stonecutter's closed expression.  "I'd say in this case, it's not so much what he said but how he said it," she replied.

Sebastian dispersed the unexpectedly somber tone of the room as he stepped forward and gave his cape another flourish.   He would answer Kanin’s quote with one of his own.

From what could only be deemed as “center stage,” Sebastian spread both arms, his magician’s wand lifted high.  There was no doubt that he struck a dashing pose.

"All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream," said the older man theatrically, with an aristocratic wave of his magician's wand.

"That's a lovely saying, but it really isn't a romantic line, Sebastian," Brooke observed.

The old illusionist, who'd spent his life at children's birthday parties and on street corners, begged to differ.

"Your utmost pardon, lovely, lovely lady," he begged.  "Perhaps my delivery was off.  By all means, let me try again."

Before anyone could protest, Sebastian stepped closer to his pretty teen-aged critic, her brown eyes full of curiosity.  He dropped his voice quite low.  His tone implied deep consideration.

Rather than just “speak” the line, his performer’s voice caressed each word.

"All that we see... or seem..." he slowed down his delivery and reached inside her apron pocket, pulling out a fragrant red rose.  A rose that hadn't been there, before.

"Is but a dream," he presented the rose to her, "within... a dream," he finished, as she took it.

Brooke was blushing, and Sebastian had a mischievous gleam in his old eyes.  He had charmed her.

Michael was more than a little impressed.  As was everyone else.

"And they say timing is everything in comedy," Michael said, sotto voce, to Vincent.

"Apparently, it is so in romance, as well," Vincent agreed.  "And our lead is about to deteriorate."

Michael nodded.  And then spoke up.

"We said touching was allowed, but nobody said anything about the use of props." Michael interrupted Jamie from tallying the point.  "Plus, Sebastian actually took two turns, a clear foul.”

Sebastian was not about to give in without a fight.  “Foul?  I?  You wound me, sir!”  He pretended to look horrified as he indicated himself by spreading the fingers of one hand across his chest.

“And besides,” Michael continued, “Let's face it.  If somebody starts giving roses out, of course they're going to win."

Vincent touched the pouch that contained a very special rose which hung around his neck.  Catherine smiled at him, catching the gesture.

Sebastian's reply was theatrically arch.  "Young man, it is certainly not my fault if you came to a romantic duel and did not bring a red rose for a fair young lady."

He removed his top hat and gave Brooke a deep, sweeping bow.  As he stood back up, he placed the hat back on his white-haired head, and gave it a jaunty little tap, for good measure.  "Whatever were you thinking?" He shot his competition a sly glance.

The ladies applauded that notion.  The younger men groaned.  Jamie acted as referee.

“Michael is technically correct,” Jamie declared.  “You did take two turns, Sebastian.  But your delivery was terrific, and the rose was a nice touch.  How about… one point for Sebastian, one for Kanin, and… Brooke gets to keep the rose.”

Brooke buried her nose in the velvety petals and sighed, as the audience clapped for Jamie’s decision.

“You’ve got the makings of a fine Supreme Court justice, Jamie,” Catherine complimented.

“Or someone pulling permanent sentry duty on the perimeter,” Jacob pretended to threaten her.

Devin leaped to her defense.  “Hey, are you trying to coerce our judge?”  Devin challenged with a cocksure grin.  “For she is wise, and pure of heart,” he proclaimed.

Vincent gave a subtle smile to both his brother and his young friend.  “And it is I who make the duty roster,” Vincent reassured her, even though it wasn’t necessary.  They all knew Father was only teasing.

Jacob seemed to consider his drink.  “You make it.  I approve it,” he volleyed.

The older men chuckled at that while the teams decided who would be up next.

Pascal drew closer to Devin.  “We’re still ahead, two to three,” the pipe master whispered.

"We still have to put Mouse in there," Devin whispered back.

Michael placed a confident hand on Devin’s shoulder, as they quietly discussed strategy.  "Relax.   I can hold my own.”  Michael said what Devin already assumed.  “Plus, we've got Vincent to bail us out if we need to.  And they've still got to play William," Michael plotted.

"Schemer.  I like you," Devin replied.

“We’re in the middle of the King Henry plays.”  Michael said, by way of explanation.  “Prince Hal plots and schemes the whole way through.”

On the other side of the room, the low conversation was similar.

"Who's are we putting in next?" Eli asked.

Old Sam stepped up.  "I figure it’s our turn to go first," he stated.  “Might as well get mine out of the way, so I can have another ale.”

Peter nodded in agreement that Sam should take a turn.  “Don’t give in too quickly, gentlemen.  I sense our fortunes may be about to turn,” Peter advised.  “I do remember a little more than Hiawatha, and Jacob is a force to be reckoned with.”

“So is Vincent.”  Eli reminded them all.


The Third Encounter:  Sam and Mouse


Sam stepped arthritically forward, and stationed himself across from Elizabeth's elder loveliness.

"If I never say this, I think you have more talent in your little finger that Michelangelo had in his whole body," he flattered.

Devin was quick to jump.  "That's a fine compliment.  It's also not poetry, or a famous quotation.  Point for us!"  Devin crowed.

Sam shot him a look, as Elizabeth gave the older man her thanks.

“Young men,” he scolded.  “Always in a rush.  No… finesse to them.  You have to learn to take your time, Devin.  Not leave a lady… unsatisfied.”  He gave Elizabeth just a bit of a wink.

The clearly ribald remark was met with both cheers and jeers from those attending, with Mary reminding them that children were present, and the children reminding them that they’d read worse, in Vincent’s very class.

“I may need to adjust my curriculum,” Vincent observed, a slight smile playing around the corners of his mouth.  He’d been turning over various lines from Romeo and Juliet, in his mind, for his turn.

Devin knew Vincent well, and knew the teacher in Vincent would have a hard time paring down so much as one of the authors he favored.

“There goes all of DH Lawrence, half of Shakespeare, and a big chunk of Oscar Wilde.”  Devin informed his brother.

The crowd chuckled its agreement and then settled, waiting for Sam.

The older man cleared his throat, maintaining his position before Elizabeth.  Though he’d battled health problems for years, his words were delivered in a steady tone.

"’Her voice was ever soft.  Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.’  There.  That’s all I got, and don’t ask me why I remember it.”

The audience applauded politely, and Eric was pleased that he at least understood the line, that time.  Kipper rolled a cookie across the table to Geoffrey, as Elizabeth smiled, in acceptance of the words.

Vincent spoke up.  "Lear, isn't it?"  Vincent asked, enjoying the turn the evening had taken.  Shakespeare was clearly a hit, this evening.  Mentally, he continued to sort through Romeo and Juliet, for inspiration.

"King Lear it is," Eli confirmed.  "Always one of my favorite sayings.  A woman's voice truly is--"

"It was said over a body," Vincent observed, managing to do so without sounding the least bit confrontational.  "Cordelia is dead in his arms.  He's trying to ‘hear’ her, and telling everyone else on stage to be silent."

Devin all but snorted into the ale he had been drinking.  “I love my brother,” he said to no one in particular.

Several ladies gasped at Vincent’s revelation.  And several children.

"No kidding?!"  Eric blurted.

Michael chuckled at the look on the young poet’s face.

“Sad, but true,” Michael confirmed.

Catherine had been helping Michael fill out the paperwork for a scholarship to college, as Devin filed some of the documentation he’d need.  Everyone there knew that Michael was Vincent’s star pupil.  If anyone knew the origin of the line besides Vincent, he would.

Eli defended Sam’s effort.  "It's still an excellent quotation." Eli insisted, trying to keep a point for his team.

"If you're into romancing your dead daughter," Pascal chimed in on the dig.

"After a failed coup," Michael tacked on.

"Eww!" Brooke wrinkled her nose.

Elizabeth had a twinkle in her eye, and piled on.  "Are you implying something about my age, Sam?  That I'll soon be dead on the stage?"  she teased, settling her artist’s fingers against her well-covered bosom in a gesture of mock dismay.  She then glanced toward the younger men.  “Or is it that I seem so ancient to all of you?” she skewered them.

William’s reply was wry.  "The only thing dead on the stage is our chance of winning," he observed, as Sam simply shook his head and chuckled at Elizabeth's dry humor.

Sam returned to his team, not to mention his mug of ale.

"Our opponents must still perform," observed Wong sagely.

Devin patted Mouse on the back.  "Go get 'em, Tiger.  Shouldn't be too hard to beat a romantic line to a corpse."

Mouse edged forward, avoiding the ladies seated on the chairs and walked directly up to Jamie, instead.

"Jamie, I --"

Peter held up a restraining hand.  "Hold on.  I think he's trying to directly influence our judge," the good doctor stated, realizing it was true.

Devin instantly defended Mouse.  "The ladies were invited to be in the middle, so they could provide inspiration.  Jamie counts as inspiration."  The con artist in him was quick to press an advantage.

"Seems reasonable to me," Pascal stated expansively, holding his arms wide.

Jamie raised a slender eyebrow.  "I promise to remain impartial.  And if the rest of you can be schmoozed I don't see why I can't,” Jamie decided, realizing she may have missed out on something.  “Besides, we're just friends.  Like Elizabeth and Old Sam."

Perhaps not quite like that.

Vincent and Catherine were unaware they'd thought almost exactly the same thing at the same moment, but they did exchange a look of understanding.  Mouse's feelings were not necessarily as casual as Sam's, though Mouse often lacked the speech to convey it.

Jacob muttered under his breath so that no one but Sam could hear him.  "Keep your fingers crossed, Sam.  He might be about to tell her he has an itch.”

“We can always hope,” Sam replied.

Mouse remained before an expectant Jamie, and did indeed stop to scratch his neck, a little.  Jamie waited.  After a moment, a declaration came forth.

"Jamie... um.... You're okay!... For a girl."

Devin put both hands to his face.  "Gift wrapped.  It was gift wrapped, for him."

Vincent rubbed a hand across his forehead.  "Mouse, we are... er... quoting famous pieces of literature to them.  Not simply... telling them something."

"Famous pieces?"  Mouse asked.

"Yes.  Well known verses. Famous poetry."

Mouse's face brightened.  He had an idea.  And he greeted it with his usual exuberance. "Famous sayings!  So everybody knows!  Oh!  Jamie! ‘Row, row, row, your boat!’"

Laughter ensued amid the groans from Devin's team.  Jamie looked as if she wanted to smack Mouse.

"Very famous!  Everybody knows that one!"  Mouse insisted, still smiling.  Vincent rescued his friend.

"Yes, Mouse.  It's very famous."  Vincent concurred kindly, and tugged him back to the group.

"Famous!  Famous like Mouse!”  His enthusiasm was undimmed.

"Just not terribly romantic," Henry added, watching Jamie glance back at Sam.

"Sam, one point.  Mouse... zero." Jamie emphasized the latter word with a scowl as she wrote down the score.

Pascal tried to save things.  "'Life is but a dream' sounds very romantic," he nudged.

William offered false sympathy as he clinked mugs with his teammates.  “Gee, if only he’d said that.”

Devin shot William a look.  "Don't get too cocky, 'old man.'  You're going to be up here sooner or later,” he warned.

"Bring it on, Junior."  William raised his mug again.

The younger men formed a sort of huddle, looking for all the world like a sports team trying to figure out their next play.  The older men looked relaxed, and the women knew enough to look bemused.

"What do you think they're planning?"  Catherine asked Olivia.

"I have no idea.  But if somebody throws a football into the room, I'm not sure I like our chances of not getting knocked out of our chairs!" Olivia said conspiratorially.  Rebecca giggled at that, and Mary smiled, a little.


The Fourth Encounter:  Michael and Peter


The younger men stayed clustered, clearly in some sort of quandary.

"Come on, you guys!"  Samantha called from across the room, getting bored.

Eric dunked a cookie in his punch.  "I think it was more fun when we were on stage," he confided to her.

"Might be because we know more poetry," Zach stated with an author’s confidence.  "Heck, we had to write ours.  They just have to remember theirs."

Kipper chuckled at that, and began stacking a cookie tower.

Jacob was his usual, prodding self. "Er, young gentlemen, we didn't actually state that there would be time out for conferences.  Would you like us to lend you something to say?  A bit of Gilbran, maybe?"  he offered.

"Oh, I don't know, Father," Peter chimed in smoothly. "You know how my ancient, rheumy eyes are.  Probably couldn't see to find him in a poetry book."

The older gentlemen chuckled.

Sam poured himself another ale, now that his turn was over.  "Yeah.  Terrible getting old.  And beating younger people.  It's an awful responsibility," he said.

Grandfather Wong grinned at him and held out his own mug.  “The burden is immense,” Wong agreed.  “One hopes we are not so diminished in our faculties that we don’t realize that the score is now tied.”

Devin turned around, glared, then turned back, ignoring them.

Brooke leaned over to whisper to Catherine.  "Michael hasn't had a turn yet.  I hope he goes next," she confided.

"It looks like you're about to get your wish," Catherine stated, as the younger men broke their huddle.  Michael stepped forth.

He put his hands together, index fingers to his lips, in a thinking man's posture.  He was every inch the young, handsome student.  Vincent’s star pupil – and Brooke’s current crush.

Gingerly, he approached Brooke, and cleared his throat.

His declaration was familiar, and one only had to look at the young girl’s incandescently hopeful face to know that she hung on his every word.

“’She walks in beauty, like the night.
Of cloudless climes and starry skies...
And all that's... best... Of dark, and bright...
Meet in her aspect.  And her eyes.'"

Michael finished, earning a smattering of applause from those assembled, and a brilliant smile from Brooke.

Elizabeth leaned in closer to Brooke.  "I take it you like Byron, my dear," Elizabeth said, sensing a bit of unrequited love brewing.  The older woman tried to deflect the moment, to minimalize it, so that Brooke would accept the quote for what it was; a bit of poetry written by George Gordon, and not necessarily an attempt to woo her, personally.

"Yes.  Yes, I like Byron very much," Brooke sighed, unfazed by Elizabeth's vain attempt to lessen the moment between her and Michael.

Jacob spoke up, interrupting Brooke’s reverie.  "Peter, do you think you can handle that bit of Byron?  He was a terrible rake, by the way," Jacob threw in, loud enough so that everyone was sure to hear it.

"Oh.  And Shakespeare wasn't," Vincent rejoined.

"He was married to the same woman for over thirty years," Father replied.

"I notice you didn't say, 'faithfully,'" the younger man shot back.

Catherine shook her head at the exchange between Father and son.  "If you're looking for a faithful poet, we may have to start singing 'Row, row, row your boat' again,” she chuckled.  The rest of the ladies joined her.

"Who wrote that song, anyway?"  Mary asked, finally relaxing enough to enjoy herself.

Lin was quick.  "Someone faithful," she intoned.  More laughter.

Devin waited until the giggling died down.  "Faithful.  Sounds like a dog.  Women want to be dazzled, not bored." Devin smiled at Rebecca as he said it.

"Hey!  Faithful men are not boring!"  Catherine felt the urge to stand up not just for fidelity in general, but for her love, who embodied it for her.

"Well said,” Elizabeth agreed, folding her hands in her lap, primly.

“Elizabeth and Catherine are right,” Rebecca insisted, her blonde curls bouncing as she did so.

Devin waggled a finger at them all.  "Ah, you all say that.  But then later, you know what you're really wishing for is somebody… edgy.  Somebody mysterious, and just a little... dangerous."  He all but purred it into Rebecca's shell of an ear, and glanced Vincent's way when he said it.

"Right, brother?" he asked for confirmation.

An arched blonde eyebrow went up.  "I'm sure I have no idea what you mean." Vincent refused to be drawn in.

"Yes.  He has no idea what you mean.  And you should be in jail, anyway,” Catherine teased.

"Maybe... but not before I win this game!"  Devin replied, patting Michael on the back.  "Literature major.  Applying for a scholarship.  To a good school."  Devin pointed out Michael's obvious virtues.  "And, nice delivery, by the way,” he tacked on.

Brooke couldn't agree more, as all eyes turned to Peter Alcott.

With the elegance of a man comfortable in a three piece suit and tie, Peter strolled casually over to the seated ladies, stopped in front of Mary, and went down on one knee with the grace of a courtier.

"This was for a different Mary," he told the seated, older woman.  "But maybe it's for all the ‘Marys,’ out there."  He took her hand.

"'See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;’”

Mary blushed, and smiled at him.  They’d been friends too long for her not to.

Pascal whispered to Vincent.  “Which Mary is he talking about?” he asked.

“Mary Shelley.  It’s one Percy Shelley’s best—“

“And the sunlight clasps the earth,” Peter continued,
“And the moonbeams kiss the sea;--
What are all these kissings worth..."

He paused on the question, waiting to see if Mary knew the last line.  She did.

"If thou kiss not me?"

They said it together, and Mary chuckled a little, the sound making her seem years younger.

Peter offered her his left cheek, and Mary politely pecked it, much to the approval of everyone.  They had indeed been friends for years, and knew they always would be.

"Love's Philosophy, by Percy Bysshe Shelley" Vincent groaned.

"It figures," Devin replied.

Peter rose and shot Devin a knowing glance.  "Columbia School of Medicine.   No scholarship.  I hear it's a good school.  Oh, and I very much wanted a young English major from Cambridge to go out with me."  He smoothed his tie and returned his dapper self to “his” side of the room, where his team congratulated him.

"Did she?"  Catherine asked, smiling and curious to know.

Peter was shaking Sam’s proffered hand.  "A gentleman would never kiss and tell," Peter answered gallantly.  "But I promise you I did get kissed by someone.  Susan turns twenty-nine, in June."

The laughter was contagious and Jacob took in Mary’s pleased reaction, not sure he liked the pink in her cheeks.  Peter Alcott was a widower, as well as a friend.

"And now it looks as if you're trying to steal my… Mary," Jacob prodded, not sure he liked either the flushed hue of Mary’s complexion, nor the difficulties inherent with describing the nature of their relationship.

Peter chuckled, sensing an opportunity to needle Jacob.  "I’d like to point out that she mid-wifed with me before she mid-wifed with you," Peter replied, toasting Mary, who sent another friendly smile his way.

Jacob was not impressed.  "Yes.  Because this is grade school.  And ‘I saw her first’ is so important, right now," Father groused.

Peter's team laughed at that while Michael's stared a Jamie.

Pascal asked the question they all wanted an answer to:  "Well, what's it to be, Jamie?  Michael or Peter?  Byron or Shelley?"

"Oh, that's so hard!"  Jamie declared, staring at her tablet.  "How about we declare that one a tie?  But they were so good!  Two points each?"

The ladies seated in the chairs all agreed that sounded fair, and Mary reached over to squeeze Brooke's hand.  This was fun.  They were all enjoying themselves.

“What’s the score?”  Eric asked Zach.

“Five to Five, tie score” Zach answered before Jamie did.  He had a head for math.

"Who's next?"  Kipper asked, realizing they were more than half done.  “Four down, three to go,” he added.

"I'll go," William offered.

"You can do it William!"  Catherine applauded, encouraging him as she did so.

Vincent could feel her pleasure, through their bond.  She was having fun, seated with the other women.  It showed in her face, and Vincent could almost taste the subtle joy that coursed through her.

But soft.  What light through yon window breaks?  It is the east, and Juliet is the sun… he mused.

It was a good line.  And it kept a particular one at bay.  One that was “there” but he knew he couldn’t say.

"Hey, whose side are you on?"  Devin demanded of Catherine, indicating Vincent with a jerk of his head, as his question interrupted Vincent’s train of thought.

Catherine watched William draw near, as well as Pascal, from the younger men’s side.  "At the moment, I'm on William's side.  After that, I'll be on Pascal's,” she stated judiciously.

"You're such a lawyer," Devin said.

"Said the man pretending to be a lawyer," Catherine replied.


The Fifth Encounter:  William and Pascal


The crowd chuckled, and William stepped up to the row of ladies.  Pascal drew closer, yet stayed back far enough to give the big man room.  He was aware the two of them had been set to face off against each other probably from the moment they'd joined the game.

Vincent’s eyes never left Catherine’s face, and he saw Lin whisper something to her and she smiled, even chuckled a little.

She is one of them.  She is included, Vincent thought, realizing with extreme pleasure how much the same could be said for himself.

There was a time when anything like this would have seen him standing firmly back on the sidelines, or even out of the room, altogether.  But now, and thanks entirely to her… no.

He was in the thick of it, and sifting through his prodigious memory for what he would say.  While not every man here was “part of a couple,” (as Kanin and Henry clearly were) he knew he was; and that the object of his affection was in the room, about to bear witness to William’s attempt at beguilement.

William put his thumbs under the straps of his overalls and took the pipemaster's measure, as he tried to remember the verse he wanted.

"Trying to think of a love poem about food?"  Pascal teased innocently.

"Hey.  My chocolate layer cake is a love poem about food, Shorty,” William protested.

"I'll vouch for that," Brooke replied.  William smiled at her fondly.

He stepped in front of Rebecca, and cracked his knuckles, stalling for time.

Henry gave him William a nudge.  "I'm sensing a point for our side," he joked.

"I'm sensing a recipe for lasagna,"  Devin agreed.

Peter wasn’t about to let anyone bully his teammate.  "It may be the way to a woman's heart is also through her stomach," he encouraged.

William placed his huge hand over the center of his chest, either mimicking sincerity or trying to project some.  He cleared his huge throat, and recited:

"Love is patient, love is kind.  Love is... wait a minute... Love... it does not envy.  It does not... b-boast."

He was stammering his way through, but he was getting there.

Rebecca smiled patiently, as he continued.

"And... It is not… proud!  Whew!"

 He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, glad to be done.

Catherine swore his face had more perspiration on it than when he cooked the evening meal.  She smiled at him.

"Corinthians," Elizabeth approved, naming the book of the Bible the verse had come from.

"That was very... commendable, William," Jacob encouraged.

William blew out a sigh of relief.  "Good.  My mother had it stitched on a sampler in her kitchen."

The crowd chuckled at the revelation.

Henry toasted the information with a raised mug.  "Figures that would be where you got it from.  A kitchen," he stated, aware that he had a few sayings he liked framed in his.

The laughter continued.

"What?  None of your mamas ever did needlepoint?" William asked genially, content that he'd done his best.

Now it was the pipe master’s turn.

Pascal deftly approached Rebecca, also.  "Would you stand, a moment?" he asked.

"Sure.  Why?" she asked in return, standing gracefully as he flipped her chair around.

"Because this is for you.  But I need this," he said, pulling out the sticks that never left his possession.

He tapped experimentally on the back of a chair that had once called a diner home.  The rungs across its back were made of metal.  It sounded similar to a pipe.

"This will do," he declared.

He commenced a fairly rapid sequence of tappings, looking up to smile nervously at Rebecca, as he did so.

He was done quickly, and several members of the audience grinned, and three “awed” as he finished, including Jamie.

Rebecca blushed, Pascal he returned the sticks to the deep pocket of the loose vest he habitually wore.

Catherine needed a translation.  "What was that?  It was too fast for me, and I didn't catch it!" she confessed.  "Something about 'light?'"

Of course it would be, considering that Rebecca is our premier candle maker, Vincent thought.  He stepped nearer to Catherine and translated: "He said 'The light that lies in a woman's eyes, has been my heart's undoing.'"

Catherine's smile grew wider.  "Thomas Moore!  How sweet!" she enthused.  The pronouncement caused Rebecca to redden a little more.

"I think he should get style points for tapping it out to her," Devin prodded.

"And I think he should lose one for asking her to stand up so he could use her chair," Jacob shot right back.

Michael defended their point.  “Hey, Master Wong and Henry both did that.  Lin didn’t mind, and nobody said a thing!”

Eli was quick to counter the argument.  “Master Wong is Lin’s grandfather and Henry is her husband.  There is a difference.”

“Not different!  Just fine!” Mouse returned.

Catherine intervened.  "You gentlemen are so serious!" she teased, yanking a few chains, just little.

"Death is easy.  Poetry is hard," Michael paraphrased.

"Only if you don't know it very well, young Michael." Master Wong replied.

"Hey, it's a quote-off."  Devin placed his palm on his chest, indicating himself. "The young, handsome bucks against the old, decrepit, one-foot-in-the-grave guard.”  He waved a hand in the general direction of his elders.  “Of course we're serious.  Think of the romance!”  He swept his hand out to indicate Pascal, who gave him a look, not enjoying the spotlight, overmuch.

Devin was not to be swayed.  “A secret message, sent out at night,” Vincent’s irrepressible brother painted the scene.  “Something tapped out on the one pipe that leads right to Rebecca’s chamber.  Nice one, Pascal," Devin complimented.

Pascal blushed.  “I would never--!”

“We know you wouldn’t.  It’s why you’re a bachelor.  Like me,” William chuckled at both of them.

Pascal turned Rebecca's chair back around for her as they all continued to tease each other.  Once she was seated again, he moved away from the room's center, far more comfortable standing near the other men, though part of him longed to stay near the blonde candle maker.

"I think my one-foot-in-the-grave just kicked a young buck’s backside," William boasted, stationed once more near the ale.  Pascal grinned, but shook his head in the negative while his teammates booed William's claim.

"So who wins that round?"  Mary asked Jamie, glad she hadn't been pressed into service as a judge.

Jamie shrugged.  "I hate to just keep giving out ties.  Since Rebecca was the object of their affection, why don't we let her decide?"

Smart, Catherine thought.  "Nice way to dodge, Jamie," she observed.

"Hey, I’ve got to live with these guys, tomorrow," Jamie replied.

"Just remember which one of them is feeding you," William stated genially.  Almost.

Every eye was on Rebecca, who suddenly turned from pink to scarlet.  "Oh, I don't know!" she said, looking at both her “suitors.”  "They were both good!"

Her face turned even more crimson, and Catherine realized how seldom Rebecca came out of the chandlery, how shy a woman she was.  And how similar her brand of shyness was to Pascal’s.

Maybe that’s the problem, Catherine mused.  Perhaps this will be good for them, even though they’re uncomfortable, right now.

Catherine, better than almost anyone there, knew the value of being removed from one’s “comfort zone.”  The changes she’d made in her life since meeting Vincent were often just that.  Decisions that had been made thanks to… everything.  Her assault.  Finding out about the world Below, and meeting Vincent.  Especially meeting Vincent.

I look so much like I ever did, yet so much inside me is changed, and new, she mused, hoping Pascal and Rebecca could look forward to a similar outcome.

Catherine took in the unexpected tableau, before her.  Pascal gazed at Rebecca with hopeful eyes.  William looked like his usual, gruff-but-friendly self, but not like he was effected emotionally, by Rebecca.

The candle maker glanced between them, twice more.

Pascal won out.

"Pascal gets two points for tapping it out in tunnel code.  The quotes themselves were both good, so one point for William," Rebecca decided.

Devin cheered for his team’s lead in the game, while Jacob's side of the room groaned and Eli declared "No fair!  It's not like William had time to bake her a cake and write it with frosting!"

"But if he had, we'd have all eaten it so you still wouldn't see it!" Mary joked.

"That is so true,” William nodded to Mary.  “I'll take my point and be happy," the big cook conceded magnanimously.  "It's not like anybody thought I was going to get that much," he said, content with Rebecca's judgment.

"Does this mean I'm still invited to pancakes for breakfast?"  Rebecca asked William, teasing, and glad the decision was over.  She fanned herself, with her hand.

"Sure.  You might have to scrounge for syrup, though.  Just saying," William replied. He shot her a wink.

"Rebecca can have my syrup," Pascal said earnestly, not quite picking up on the fact that William was teasing Rebecca, and she knew it.

"Aw, that's sweet!" Brooke said.  The pipemaster blushed just as red as Rebecca had.

Might just be something there, Catherine continued her line of thinking.  Maybe they're both too shy to say anything, any other way, and this little game will start something wonderful for them.  She hoped so.

"What makes you think you're even getting pancakes, Pascal?"  William asked.  At the shorter man's shocked expression, the room burst into laughter, and it was then he realized it was said in jest.

"You can have one of my pancakes, Pascal," Rebecca ventured, maintaining her smile.

Catherine swore she thought she heard Pascal say "I'll hold you to that," over the next wave of laughter.

"You know, this really is fun," Olivia said to Elizabeth, who nodded in agreement.

"It definitely beats darning socks," Mary observed, relaxing a little more.

Eric chose that moment to run through the middle of the room, chased by Kipper.

"Settle down, you two!"  Father called.

Kipper took on the aspect of the long suffering child.  "Girls sitting in chairs.  Men saying lots of dumb stuff.  But this is getting boring, Father!"  Kipper complained.

"I see that 'fun' is in the eyes of the beholder," Catherine commented, watching the two boys go back to stand near the cookie table.  Rebecca chuckled her agreement.  “It certainly is.”  She sounded happy, and snuck another look at Pascal, who returned it.


The Sixth Encounter:  Devin and Eli


"Okay, who's up next?"  Jamie called.

They were getting near the end.  On the side of the older men, only Jacob and Eli hadn’t had a turn.  For the younger, Devin and Vincent had yet to perform.

Devin liked his chances either way, though of course, “liking his chances” was what Devin did on reflex.

Be that as it may, the older Wells brother was smart enough to know that Jacob felt he could stand toe to toe with any opponent, as well.

Eli was another story, however, and Devin knew that Pascal's win had helped their cause.  The younger men now held a slim lead, again.  Devin was sensing the opportunity for a victory.

"Time for the captain to take a turn," Devin declared, with his usual self-confidence.

"You are our captain?" Vincent inquired, his tone clearly indicating he'd never agreed to such a thing.

 "You can be my co-captain.”  He patted Vincent on the front of his vest, up near the shoulder.

“I'm going to go quote some Shakespeare, now.  Make sure they're taking notes."  He said it loud enough so everyone could hear.

Kipper smiled at Devin’s antics.  "Who's winning?"  he asked.

Jamie consulted her book.  "The young guys, seven to six, with two teams left to compete,” Jamie informed them all.

Jacob took in the information, and decided to try and rattle his son.

"You were never that good at Shakespeare," Jacob reminded his progeny.  “You were much more fond of Dickens.”

Dickens.  The name lanced across Vincent’s consciousness.  He pushed it firmly aside.  No.  Not Dickens.  Not that one.

"Maybe, but I’ve got an incredible memory,” Devin replied, tapping his left temple with his forefinger.

Catherine knew that to be undeniably correct.  He had to, considering.

“Besides, times did change,” Devin couldn’t resist the urge to needle Jacob.  “One of us has been to Stratford-on-Avon.  It says so on my passport,” the young con artist boasted.

"Thank you, Jeff.  Or is that not the name you were there under?"  Eli jabbed good-naturedly.

“And ‘What’s in a name?’” Devin quoted as he waved away the jovial insult.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweetly,’ Vincent finished, mentally, touching his pouch again.  Then… No.  That’s not it.  That’s not what I want, that’s not the line.  But--

"It doesn't matter what people were calling me.”  Devin’s boisterousness interrupted Vincent’s train of thought.  “It mattered that I was soaking up the atmosphere."

He wandered over to where the women were seated, expectantly.

"Do you like Henry V?" Devin asked Brooke.

"Sure," she replied, shrugging as she answered.  But it was largely about a famous military campaign, not a romance.

"Ah, good."  He looked over his shoulder at his rivals.

"William Shakespeare.  Henry V.”  He turned back to his female audience.  The ladies leaned back in their chairs, ready for a show.

“Not Agincourt, no, no, my beautiful ladies.” He wagged his finger over their seated heads.  “No ‘heading into the breach’  here… as delightfully euphemistic as that might be.”

He gave them a roguish smile as he buttoned up the collar of his shirt.

Only Devin would enter a competition by telling everyone what he wasn’t going to do, Catherine thought, amused by him as she usually was.

She wondered what Vincent was deciding on, as he stood several feet away.  He certainly looked like he was concentrating.

Devin called attention back to himself.  “The marriage proposal scene,” Devin nodded toward Henry Pei, acknowledging that he’d done much the same, but in Chinese.

“For who doesn’t love a good proposal?” Devin stated, tugging on his tie so that the ends would lay evenly, when he knotted it.

“Apparently, we don’t, since you’re ten lines in and we haven’t had one, yet,” Old Sam complained good-naturedly.

“Perhaps he’s having trouble remembering how it goes,” William said to Sam, a bit loudly.

Jacob piled on.  “This is a bit of a long introduction for something that hasn’t arrived,” he concurred.

“Hah.  You are the soul of wit,” Devin replied.  “Losing, but the soul of wit,” he tacked on cheerfully.

The older men groaned at that, and Eli waved a dismissive hand.

Devin tied a nearly perfect Windsor knot and buttoned up his vest, ignoring his detractors.

He shot the seated ladies – and the judge – a winning smile.  “This is probably the only way a man should ever propose to a woman.  Not that I'm actually doing that, I’m just saying."

He checked his cuffs, and even Catherine admitted he cut a fine figure of, well, if not a king, at least something well-heeled, even a touch noble.  It was Devin’s gift to adopt a different persona when he chose to.  It was an actor’s talent, and Devin was essentially an actor, while he was pretending to be everything else.

Catherine watched him as he began to move differently, before them.  The casual stroll changed into something more measured, and more graceful.  He was “creating his character” right before their eyes.

"Considering we have no idea what name you'd take your vows under, I think we all understand you're just... 'saying,' Devin," Catherine chided him cheerfully.

The other ladies tittered, and he gave her a confident grin that would have melted the ice in the bucket where the tankards had been chilled.

“Devin Wells has never been married, this is true,” he acknowledged, bowing slightly.  “On the other hand, Derek Saunders, the Kenyan tour guide, has come verrry close, on several meaningful occasions.”  He held out his hand and teetered it back and forth, to indicate indecision.

“How close?”  Rebecca asked, curious.

“She was really pretty, though not as lovely as you, Rebecca,” he answered.

The ladies “aww-ed” at that.

“And her daddy had money, though probably not as much as Chandler’s, here.  And he also had a gun.  Which was sometimes pointed right at me,” Devin tacked on.

The audience roared its laughter, and Mouse brought Jamie a cup of punch, asking for forgiveness for his earlier misstep.  If her smile was any indication, he got it.

Devin bowed slightly again, acknowledging the delighted sound of his audience.  Now they’re all in an even better mood, he thought, knowing full well that his story, though not untrue, had been told exactly for this effect.

Jacob was secretly worried.  Devin’s choice was indeed one of the most romantic scenes in all of Shakespeare.  That meant Jacob would have to do very well indeed, and that left only Eli, on his team, against Vincent.  Suddenly, the fact that the older gentlemen were one point behind had consequences, and their situation looked tenuous.

“For all of you beautiful ladies,” Devin schmoozed, stationing himself at the front of the line, near Elizabeth.

Jacob sat back and watched, realizing why his son was so successful with his schemes.  For one, he was a natural born actor.  And rather than choosing to charm one of them, he was clearly about to charm all of them, beginning with Elizabeth.

Devin cleared his throat.  “No deductions for paraphrasing.  The woman in the scene is a princess named Katherine,” he nodded in Catherine’s direction, “But I’m going to change that, here and there.”

“If you ever get started,” Peter Alcott nudged.  “Long scene?  Sure you’re not having trouble remembering?” he asked.

Devin spared him a look, then turned back to Elizabeth.  That was enough preamble.  With a gesture, he asked for her hand, and she gave it.

“’Fair … Elizabeth, and most fair,’”

Devin bowed his head.  Elizabeth inclined her own, taking the compliment as her due.

Elizabeth’s advanced age did not alter her perception of herself, nor of what “fair” was.  She’d been a beauty in her day, and understood better than anyone how often “beauty” took a different and unexpected form.  To Elizabeth’s way of thinking, Vincent was a prime example of this, but so too was Peter Alcott.  Olivia’s pregnant beauty was different from Rebecca’s, or Catherine’s.  But there was no denying that they were all “beautiful.”

Devin’s shaggy head came up, and he continued.

“Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady's ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart?”

He punctuated the request with a kiss to the back of her age-spotted hand.  He then moved down the row of seated women.

“’O fair … Mary, if you will love me soundly with your French heart,
I will be glad to hear you
confess it brokenly with your English tongue.
you like me, Mary?’”

Mary chuckled and shook her head at his audacity.

“Your paraphrasing is taking a scene meant for one woman, and scattering it among several.”  Jacob groused, confirming what his son was about to attempt.

“You win this your way, and I’ll win it mine,” Devin shot over his shoulder.  “Where was I?  Oh, yes.”

He turned to Olivia, whose dark eyes were alight with a sense of mischief.  She waited for her compliment.

“An angel is like you, Olivia.  And you… are like an angel!”

The ladies applauded at that, owing both to Olivia’s pregnant form and the glow she bore from it.

Even Kanin, who had remained fairly quiet since his turn, inclined his head in tacit agreement and stated, “That is a fact.”

“I said so, dear Olivia, and I must not blush to affirm it,”  Devin continued, his hand placed over his heart.

Michael leaned over to whisper to Vincent.  “Man, he is good.  He’s running straight down the scene.”

Jacob was looking decidedly uncomfortable.

Vincent nodded his agreement.  “Indeed.  I begin to see why his ventures Above are so… successful,” he replied, equally softly.

But the tableau was still causing Vincent some consternation.  He knew his turn would be next.  He stepped away from Michael, still searching for both what to say and how to say it.

Perhaps not Romeo and Juliet.  Perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Vincent sifted through the many scenes he knew by heart.

But again, something in him knew it wasn’t “The Immortal Bard” he wanted.  The title of the play notwithstanding, he’d had many “dreams” (Midsummer and otherwise), since meeting Catherine.

But it was no “dream” that whispered just below his consciousness, now.  No dream at all.  Something closer to a vow.  A vow he’d both given to Catherine and never given to her, couched as it had been, inside a story.

Catherine, whom Devin was standing before, now.

“’Kate, my wooing is fit for thy understanding:
I am
glad thou canst speak no better English;
for, if
thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king
that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my

He gestured expansively at the room to indicate his “farm.”

“And I didn’t even have to change her name on that one,” he lobbed Jacob’s way.

Catherine gave him an indulgent grin as he stepped in front of Brooke.  Devin ran a smoothing hand down the front of his tie, then offered her that hand.  Brooke reached out for it, and he held her by the barest touch of his fingertips beneath hers.  He was the picture of courtly grace.

 “’I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say 'I love you:'
then if you urge me
farther than to say 'do you in faith?' I wear out my suit.’”

He released Brooke’s fingers, and stepped over to Lin.

“’Give me your answer; i' faith, do: and so clap hands and a bargain: how say you, lady?’”

Devin stuck his hand forward as if he meant to shake hands and seal a business deal, with Lin.  She laughed at him and shook her head in the negative.  “I say I’m already married,” she replied, wiggling her ring finger at him.

“That’s my girl,” Henry cheered.

Devin turned his head to look at Henry.  “You’re supposed to be on my side, and this lovely lady is impartial,” he said.  Lin was still chuckling at him when he looked her way again.

“Spoilsport.”  He shook his head at her good-humoredly, then dropped the proffered hand, and continued on his way.

Rebecca was the last woman seated in the line.  She sat waiting patiently for her share of outrageous flattery.  Devin did not disappoint her.

“’Marry, if you would put me to verses or to dance for your sake, Kate, er, … Rebecca,
why you undid me: for the one, I
have neither words nor measure, and for the other,
have no strength in measure, yet a reasonable measure in strength.’”

Through the sleeve of his white business shirt, he patted the muscle in his upper arm, to indicate “strength,” and Rebecca smiled at him just as Lin had.  Pascal frowned a bit, but only Catherine caught his expression.

Devin didn’t miss a beat as he brought the scene to its conclusion, moving back to stand before all of his captivated feminine audience.

“’If I could win a lady at leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armour on my back,
under the correction of bragging
be it spoken.’”

He raised his index finger and turned in a sweeping motion, indicating that he was now speaking to everyone in the room.

“’I should quickly leap into a wife!’”

He jumped high in the air, feet together as he said the last line, then brought them down with a loud “thwack” upon the rough floor.  His smile was utterly contagious.

Everyone assembled roared their laughter, again.  Even Sebastian and Old Sam gave hearty chuckles at Devin’s antics, and they knew his performance would be all but impossible to beat.

“Well done, my boy, though it pains me to admit it,”  Sebastian said.  Rebecca simply laughed and shook her head at the man she’d known since girlhood.

Devin remained in the center of the room, and gave a deep bow, both arms extended outward to either side.

“We should have bowed like that,” Zach told Geoffrey.  The younger boy practiced beside him, agreeing.  “Looks much cooler.  Vincent has a cool brother,”  Geoffrey replied.

Devin rose, and his hands went to the topmost button on his white dress shirt, and undid it.  He caught Jacob’s eye.

“Uh, no pressure,” Devin tossed back over his shoulder in the direction of the older gentlemen, as he sauntered cockily back to his teammates.  Vincent clapped him on the back.

“That was most impressive,” Vincent complimented.  “I didn’t know you’d kept up with your studies.”

“A carny knife thrower has to know how to work a crowd,” Devin replied.  “And you’d be amazed at how much time you have to kill, when you’re hopping freights cross country or sitting on a plane.”  He picked up his tankard and took a much deserved swig of his ale.  His throat was dry, from the long performance.

“Besides, if you’re not going to really romance any of them, might as well romance all of them.”  It was said sotto voce, but he saluted all the seated ladies with his mug.  Several toasted him back.

Jacob was about to rise, to accept Devin’s challenge.  But as he reached for his cane and made ready to stand, Eli put a restraining palm on his compatriot’s shoulder.

"Relax.  I’ve got this," Eli stated, setting his mug down on the table and pushing up his shirt sleeves in a “time to go to work” motion.

"You sure, Eli?"  William asked.  Life in a fix-it-shop was hardly a place for poetry lessons, and Eli's love was for music, more than literature.

“That was a rather… incredible performance,” Jacob lamented.

Eli gave his old friend a smile.  “All you have to do is remember how the rest of the scene goes,” Eli prompted, raising a meaningful eyebrow at Jacob.

Father searched his memory, then smiled his understanding.  “Do you actually have it memorized?” he asked.

Eli nodded.  He was an educated man, and always had been, in his way, in spite of his ragged appearance.  Though much of his knowledge was self-taught, he was no less cultured, for that.

“My very great uncle Dennis was supposedly a blacksmith.  Family history swears he was at Agincourt, but who knows?” he gave for an answer, looking over at his competition.

Across the room, Mouse and Henry were joining in on congratulating Devin.

“And my Mama was a big fan of Sir Laurence Olivier’s,” Eli continued, watching Devin get his due.  “We saw the movie three times.”

The two older men assessed a very triumphant-looking Devin, who was clearly enjoying the attention.

Eli smiled reassuringly at Jacob.  “And I don’t need to know the whole thing.  Just the part that’s going to lay Devin out,” he said.

Jacob chuckled as a very smug Devin emptied his tankard and loosened his vest and tie, again.

“Go get him, Eli,” William encouraged.

Eli nodded, and stepped forward into the center of the room, standing before the ladies much as Devin had done, before he’d taken his bow.  There were patches on the knees of his trousers, and his rough beard looked in need of a trim.

And there was a twinkle in his eyes that told Devin he’d best watch out.

The ladies straightened in their chairs, politely.

Elderly, portly, casual Eli could not look less like Devin if he tried.  Which was fine with Eli.  As a matter of fact, it was a bit of the point.

"From the same play,” he announced.  “And as a matter of fact, the same scene."

He surprised everyone by declaring it.  He stood more before Catherine than anyone else, since she was seated near the middle of the row of women.  Once he began speaking, they all understood why he’d chosen to address her.  As Devin had indicated, the proposal scene was for a princess named “Katherine.”

“’But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence,
nor I have no cunning in protestation;

only downright oaths, which I never use till urged, nor never break… for urging.”

He stepped back a bit, and Devin looked bemused, but not especially worried.  Vincent, however, rubbed his palm across his chin, and he did know enough to look concerned.

“What is it?” Henry asked Vincent.  “What’s wrong?”

“If he remembers the entire speech, everything,” Vincent whispered, suspecting they were sunk.

Eli continued as smoothly as any seasoned actor.  He dropped his voice just a touch low, and whereas Devin’s brand of charm had projected braggadocio and wit, Eli’s frank and forthright delivery painted him as the soul of modest sincerity.

“’If thou canst love a fellow of this temper, Kate, whose face is not worth sun-burning,
that never looks in his glass for love
of anything he sees there…”

He paused a moment to let that reality sink in.  Handsome Devin was clearly very fond of his reflection, either because of the rakish scars on his face or in spite of them.  Plain Eli, however, was an ordinary looking man, through and through.

“’ let thine eye be thy cook,’” Eli bid Catherine.

With a few lines, Eli had utterly changed the tenor of the room.  By speaking to one woman rather than all of them, he’d changed the speech back to its original incarnation.  A pleading marriage proposal, where a conquering king presented himself as the humble servant, to a French Dauphiness.

“’ I speak to thee plain soldier: If thou canst love me for this, take me: if not…’”

Eli shrugged his heavy shoulders.

“’ to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too.’”

It was honest, and sincere, with touches of blunt declaration.  It suddenly was not Devin’s speech.  It was Eli’s.

“He’s channeling Laurence Olivier,” Michael realized.  He’d seen the film.  “He’s even imitating his gestures.”  The student whispered to his teacher.

“’This is about to get bad,” Vincent confided back.

“’And while thou livest, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy;
for he perforce must do thee
right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places:’”

Eli looked straight at DevinNo one in the room missed his implication.

 “’for these fellows of infinite tongue,
that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favours,…
Eli paused, and let it hang.

 “they do always reason themselves out again.’”

“Ohhhhhhh” the ladies sighed as a group, and glanced Devin’s way.

Devin put both hands to his face and leaned back in the chair, hoisted on his own petard.

Eli simply smiled.  And prepared to drive in more nails.

“You can stop, any time,” Devin commented.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Eli returned.  He stretched out one hand.

“’What! a speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad.
good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a black beard will turn white;’”

He stroked his own greying beard for emphasis at that.

“’a curled pate will grow bald;’”

He indicated William.  And then got down on one knee, in front of Catherine.

“’a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax hollow: but a good heart, Kate’,”

He laid a giant palm across his chest, indicating his heart.

“’is the sun and the moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon;
for it
shines bright and never changes,"

The older man’s voice was resonant, and firm, with the faint accent of his homeland.

 “but keeps his course… truly.’”

Eli stayed down on one knee and bowed his head, again, playing the “anti-Devin” card.  Rather than leap around the room, he would stay humbly still before the object of his “affection.”

There were three beats of silence before a sound was heard.  The three beats that let every actor know he has stunned the audience into silence, and held their rapt attention.

Then, most of the hall erupted into spontaneous applause, both for content, and for length.  Even the younger men had to agree that it was a stellar, if surprising performance.

On the other side of the room, William put two fingers to his mouth and gave a piercing whistle of approval, as Master Wong poured Eli a fresh ale.

“I’d say we found our ace in the hole,” Peter chuckled to Jacob.

“I’d say we have,” the good Dr. Wells agreed.

Eli stood with arthritic difficulty, and dusted off the knees of his patched pants.

"You'd be surprised how much time I have to read, in my shop.  And there's always a TV or a VCR needs fixing," he tossed Devin’s way.

"You did not see that on TV,"  Devin scoffed.

"On tape.  Laurence Olivier for the Hollywood version, and PBS for The Shakespeare Plays.  Don't you get PBS?"  Eli jabbed, content that he'd made his point.  Or at the least, gotten one.  Or two.

Jamie made a decision, but it wasn’t about who got the point.

“Catherine, I think you’re right.  I think you should do this,” she declared, offering the tablet to Catherine.  “You decide the points.”

Catherine was far too smart to be so bamboozled.  “I completely withdraw my petition, your honor,” she said, crossing her arms in front of herself.  Vincent chuckled.

“No desire to be our judge?” he prodded verbally, as the applause settled down.

“None whatsoever,” Catherine shook her head, smiling at him.  She knew he would be up, next.

Devin tried to salvage his position.  “I’d just like to point out that I romanced every woman in the room, while Eli pretty much just focused on Catherine,” he pointed out.  Several of the ladies nodded their understanding of that fact.

“And I’d just like to point out that Eli buried you,” Old Sam replied, clapping his longtime friend on the back while Wong handed Eli his drink.

Master Wong was complimentary.  “That was truly magnificent,” he praised.

“I’ve had my days,” Eli thanked his teammates.

Jamie was clearly not sure what to do.  "I can't decide," she declared.  “Catherine?  Please?  What do you think?  They were both romancing you."

"Oh, no.  You're not going to get me in the middle of this.”  Catherine unfolded her arms and held up her hands in surrender’s pose.  “It’s on you, Jamie."

Devin sensed a chance to maintain his lead.  "Oh come on, Cathy!  Pick one!" he urged, hoping to play on their friendship, if not her tie to Vincent.

"If I do, you might not like the way it goes," she cautioned.

"A woman who values sincerity," Eli saluted her with his tankard.

“That I do,” Catherine replied.  “Very much,” she added, looking in Vincent’s direction.  They exchanged a knowing smile.  And something flickered across Vincent’s eyes.  Something that indicated he was growing uncomfortable, but trying to hide it.

“Sincerity it is, then,” Jamie declared, drawing Catherine’s attention back.  “Two points for Eli, and one for Devin.”

“That is a terrible decision!”  Devin complained, though he was laughing as he did so.  The con man knew when he’d been had.

“Before, you said I was wise,”  Jamie countered.

“Before, my team was winning.  There’s no way that performance wasn’t—“

Master Wong spoke up.  “I believe she can always subtract a point in case there is a poor sport, among us,” he warned.

Devin was immediately quiet, as Jamie tallied the score.

“It’s a tie.  Last match decides it,” Jamie declared.

“Eight all,” Zach confirmed.  Winner takes ten points, and the game.”


The Seventh Encounter:  Jacob and Vincent


“I believe it is your turn,” Vincent said, indicating that since Devin had gone first last time, now the floor was Jacob’s.

“Ah, I believe it is," Jacob declared, sorry to see the evening drawing to a close.  It had been great fun.  Of course, winning would make it moreso.

"Fa-ther, Fa-ther!" his team began to chant.

Devin let them have their fun, before he intervened.  "Vincent will beat you in poetry the same way he does in chess," he boasted expansively.

While his teammates chuckled at that, Catherine noticed that Vincent didn’t.  Something was going on, behind that normally steady, blue gaze.  Something Catherine had no name for.

He looked almost… uncertain?  Reticent?  Was that the expression that had been creeping into those eyes, the last few minutes?  Catherine wasn’t sure.

"Oh, Vincent knows lots of books!  Wouldn't want to be Father!"  Mouse encouraged, waiting for Jacob to come forth.

Vincent stayed near Devin, and folded his arms in the gesture of letting the older man come forward.  At first, Devin smiled when he looked up at his younger brother.  But the seriousness in Vincent’s expression bespoke a storm of some sort, brewing.

"You'll pardon me if I need my cane," Jacob said, knowing it gave him a Byronic air.

Pascal grinned at what he felt was a bit of an affectation.  There was no reason Jacob couldn’t deliver his lines from his seat.  "We understand you need it when you start to feel tired.  We'll ask Vincent to be kind," Pascal said.

Eric declared his loyal support.  "I think Father's going to win.”  Eric and Jacob had grown very close, the last few months.

“What makes you think that?” Zach asked.

“He’s older.  Older people are smarter.  That’s just how it is,” Eric stated simply.

Wong chuckled at that.  “That is precisely what we were trying to tell them, Master Eric,” Wong confirmed.

Catherine’s fingers idly traced a ring around the lip of her mug, as she leaned over to listen to Mary.

Vincent watched the gesture.  ‘Oh, to be a glove upon that hand,’ Vincent mused, watching his love.

The thought did not help to settle his disquiet.  If anything it only increased it.

Jacob’s voice redirected Vincent’s attention.

"I very much appreciate your support, Eric,” Father smiled.  Vincent caught Jacob’s self-confident expression.

“Now, let me see..." the grizzled tunnel patriarch began, stepping close to Mary.

He settled the walking stick directly in front of himself, placing both hands atop its rounded, wooden head.  He dropped his chin until a quite sincere look overtook his bearded features, and he openly stared at the woman who had helped him mentor countless children, for dozens of years.

"’How do I love thee?’"  he asked her.

"’Let me count the ways.’" Jacob said, as Devin mouthed the words along with him.

"Uh-oh," Devin whispered to Vincent.

"Indeed," Vincent agreed.

"You got something for this?" the elder Wells brother asked.

"Perhaps," was all Vincent would reply.

“’I love thee to the depth and breadth and height 
My soul can reach,’”

Jacob lifted a hand as if to “reach” and plucked an apple off an invisible tree, then offered it to the woman who had been his companion for decades.

“’when feeling out of sight 
For the ends of being and ideal grace. 
I love thee to the level of every day’s 
Most quiet need, by sun’”

Jacob gestured upward, again, with his walking stick, indicating an absent heaven.

’and … candle-light.’"

He continued, pointing to the nearest candelabra.  The women were universally 'ohh-ing.'  The older men looked intensely pleased.  Jacob would be tough to beat. 

“’I love thee freely, as men strive for right;’”

He indicated the company of the room with a wave of his fingerless gloved hand.  If any group of people could be said to strive for right, surely, it was these people, one and all. 

“’I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.’”

The hand came back in to indicate Mary, with a soft gesture toward her lowered cheek.  If ever there was a woman who “turned from praise” for all her efforts, it was this one.

He motioned Eric over, with a wave of his hand.  Eric came. 

“’I love thee with the passion put to use 
In my old griefs, and with my … childhood’s faith.’”



He ruffled Eric’s blonde hair as he said it, and Eric’s smile was sun-catching.  He was delighted to be included in Jacob’s wooing of Mary, even if he couldn’t keep up with all the words.

Mary smiled at the young boy.  Then he went back to join his friends.

Jacob’s voice dropped to not much more than a sincere whisper, and he drew close to the lovely lady’s seated form.

“’I love thee with a love I seemed to lose 
With my lost saints.’”

Vincent tilted his head, knowing that his father had indeed lost his faith in love, once upon a time.  Perhaps it was Mary who would restore it.

Jacob’s soft voice continued:

 “’I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life;’”

Jacob paused meaningfully, for the full effect.  Even though everyone knew the last lines, that did not diminish their power.

“’and, if God choose, 
I shall but love thee better after death.’”

Mary blushed as Rebecca had done, and the room erupted into applause.  Even Pascal, Mouse, Vincent and the other younger men had to admit Jacob had given a virtuoso performance.

Jacob inhaled deeply, restoring himself.

"Always hold fast to the classics,”  Jacob advised his competition, as he reached down to plant a kiss on the back of Mary’s gloved hand.  He then made his way back to his seat, looking as if his hip barely bothered him at all.

“And... she's mine," Jacob said with a playful warning to Peter.  Or at least most of them thought it was “playful.”

This brought about another round of chuckling, as Mary looked down at her skirt, bemused, them back up at Jacob, who had a definite twinkle in his eye.

“Old ham,” Devin groused.

Vincent wasn’t sure about that.  “It may be that he was sincere, more than acting,” Vincent mused.

"I'd hate to have to beat that," Zach said.

“And yet, it seems that is my assignment,” Vincent stated, narrowing his blue eyes at Jacob.

More Browning did not enter his mind, nor did any Shakespeare.  And the one verse that did… he couldn’t bear to hold it in his head, much less on his tongue, in such large company.

"You're toast," Devin taunted his father.

"That remains to be seen, son,” Jacob said calmly.

"Vincent will level you.  He has more poetry in that brain than in all of Bartlett's.  And the woman he loves is sitting, oh, let's see..." Devin wandered over near Catherine's chair, "Right here."

Catherine smiled as Devin stepped back a ways, to give Vincent plenty of room.

Every eye in the considerable assembly turned to Vincent, as Vincent's turned to Catherine.

The play of emotions across the big man's face was quick, and anybody's guess as to what it meant.

"Go ahead, Vincent.  Let him have it," Devin prompted.

Vincent felt tension, in his chest.  This has been a game for everyone.  But it is no game for me, he realized.

The great head tilted.  And no sound came forth.

Two beats.  Three.  Five.

"He's thinking," Devin covered.

"He's freezing up," Pascal whispered.

"Whose team are you on?  I said ‘he's thinking.’"

"Of freezing up," Pascal insisted.

If there was one posture on which Pascal felt eminently qualified to speak about, it was freezing up in front of a large group of people.  He'd done it for most of his adolescence.  It was why he'd always preferred the pipe chamber to other company.  It was a way to “talk,” yet not have to speak, publicly.

He recognized in Vincent no desire to do either, at the moment.

He’s right, Devin realized.   It hardly took a poetry major in a literature class to realize that Vincent was indeed working through something mentally, yet not saying anything, aloud.

"Stage fright?"  Kanin asked Devin.

"He could tell you ‘All the world's a stage.’  Probably in three different languages," Devin scoffed.

"Four, counting Mandarin," Henry supplied.

It didn't help.

"Vincent!  Brother!  Anchoring player..." Devin applied the unnecessary pressure.  "You got to pick just one.  You know.  Something flowery, yet deeply moving.  Something Shakespeare.  Something like ’Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?’"

Jacob broke in.  "Devin, is it you wooing Catherine for us, or is it Vincent's turn?"  Father corrected.

"You know, I think Devin's always kind of liked her," William jested.

Peter chuckled at William’s taunt.  "Could make for some awkward dinner table conversations, around your chamber, Jacob." Dr. Alcott jibed.  The older men were sensing victory.

Devin gave them all a sour look, particularly his father.  "No more awkward than the ones we used to have when I stole your comparative anatomy books," Devin joked, trying to give Vincent time to come up with something.

Mary chuckled at that.  "Why Devin.  Whatever would you have wanted those for?"  she teased, still warmed by Jacob's possessive declaration.

"I'd say it was because he wanted to, um, compare some anatomy,"  Olivia giggled, and the rest of the ladies joined in.

"Do we know with who?" Rebecca's beautiful eyes were guileless.

Catherine had wondered the same thing. "Right now, we're not even sure 'why,'" she contributed.  The laughter increased.

Jacob distinctly remembered locating the books in the boys’ dorm room.  "That was you?"  Father pretended to scratch his head.  "And all this time, I thought it was Ike,” he lied.

"He may have helped distract you,” Devin allowed.

The assembled audience laughed some more.

"Like you're doing, now?" The older man wasn't letting the young one take over the conversation.

Devin held his arms out, and his palms up.

"Just walking down memory lane with you, Father," he surrendered.

Jacob knew that if there was one thing Devin never did, it was “surrender.”  "And much as I'm enjoying it... Vincent?"

They’d delayed for his sake long enough.  Father knew it.  So did everyone else.

Catherine had been watching her love with what she hoped were not expectant eyes.  All during the exchange, she knew something was wrong with him.  He was unsmiling at the jokes Devin caused at his own expense.  There was a tension in his frame, and a look of concern in his deep blue eyes.

Before he even conceded the game, she knew he was going to.

I can't, he thought.  When the evening is done, Kanin will take Olivia back to their chambers and hold her close, telling her how much she means to him.  Brooke will give Michael a longing kiss, and hope for more.  William, Pascal and Devin will tease about how beautiful Rebecca is, while Father and Mary may finally speak of... no.  I can’t.

Vincent sighed, deeply.

I can't, he repeated mentally.  Words are the only way I have to… to love her, to touch her, to… make love to her.  I can't do that in public, or make a game of it.  It’s not a light thing, a shallow thing, when deep words pass between us.

He looked into the eyes of the only woman he’d ever adored, with his man’s heart.

The look in her soft, sea-green eyes was supportive and understanding.  As it so often was.

Would he ever not find sanctuary, there?

His deep baritone delivered the concession.  "I regret that I have nothing which can best the most romantic poem ever penned," Vincent bowed his head, in Jacob’s direction, conceding defeat.  He picked up his love's hand, and brushed a kiss across its back.

"I'm sorry, Catherine.  It appears Father is correct, regarding the romantic prowess of older men.  Not to mention that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning."

The older team clapped, applauding itself, while the ladies and many of the younger men joined in.  Devin complained tokenly, aware too late that something was indeed bothering his brother.  The children were simply relieved to be done.

"Father, did you win?"  Eric wanted to be certain he understood.

Jacob glanced toward Mary, who was chatting with Rebecca.

Peter caught the glance.  "The score says so, yes," Dr. Alcott answered for Jacob as he patted the towhead.

Then he leaned closer to his old friend.  "But the jury may still be out, on that one." The words were meant to give Father a nudge, though he thought they probably weren't needed.

"It's Catherine who is usually concerned with juries," Jacob replied, noting the undercurrents running between Vincent and Catherine.   His head inclined in their direction.

"So it is," Peter acknowledged.

"Well.  We’d best break things up.”  Father made his voice a good bit louder.  “And now everyone, it's getting late.  Kipper, Eric, all of you?  Bed time."

"Aww, Father!" Geoffrey groaned.

"Not a word, and you've all been allowed up far past your normal bedtimes.  Even you, Zach."

"Yes, sir," Zach grumbled.

"Don't think I didn't know that wasn't the plan all along, my little poets.  There's a reason the starting time was 8:30, I take it."  Jacob rose to his feet, Eric making sure he had his cane.

Samantha couldn’t resist leaping to their collective defense.  "We just wanted to make sure Catherine could come down.  And everyone would have time for dinner!"  she protested tokenly.

Peter Alcott chuckled.  "And so we did, and I'm sure we all enjoyed ourselves," he said, rising also.  "Eli?  Walk you back up?"

"Sure Doc.  Give me a chance to tell you all about this pain I have in my hip."

"You show me yours, I'll show you mine, my friend," Peter commiserated, adjusting his jacket and then straightening his tie.

Olivia yawned.  "Us, too.  The baby takes it out of me."

Kanin was instantly at her side, helping her to rise.  "You should have said something earlier, Livvie."

"I wouldn't have missed it,” she answered.  “Besides, you know how I've been.  One minute, I think I have plenty of energy.  The next minute, I swear I need my pillow."

"It's a normal sign of pregnancy, as I'm sure Jacob has told you," Peter chimed in, as Kanin solicitously escorted his wife out.

Jacob moved to Mary’s side.  "Mary, would you see our young poets to their rooms?"  he asked, extending his hand to help her rise from her chair.

She nodded, and set about gathering up her charges.

But then Jacob did something Vincent and Catherine didn't quite expect.  He stepped closer to her and whispered something private, in Mary's ear.  His look was a beseeching one.  She simply nodded, a little.  Catherine could swear she also blushed, a bit.

"It looks like someone just arranged to have a private conversation, later," Elizabeth said cannily, as she leaned in toward Catherine.

"Looks like," Catherine agreed.  Vincent, still standing near, said nothing.

Master Wong took Lin's right arm, while Henry took her left.  "A good evening to you all.  It has been most enjoyable," the elder man thanked his hosts.

“It really was," Sam stated.  "And now, I'd better get these old bones in bed."

"Me, too," William chimed in.  "Breakfast comes early."

Devin approached Rebecca. "C'mon Rebecca.  I'll walk you back to--"

"The chandlery,” she said.  “There are some things I need to set up before I go to bed.  You can help me, if you want,” the pretty woman stated.

"I'll help," Pascal offered, inserting himself between the pair.  Vincent knew Devin thought of Rebecca as a sister, more than anything else.  He wasn't sure about Pascal, however.

Perhaps wondering about Devin's intentions will give Pascal even more incentive to speak up, Vincent mused.

He had no idea.  It was safe to say that Vincent felt fairly uncertain about everything, at the moment.


The Eighth Encounter:  Vincent and Catherine


Vincent surreptitiously glanced in Catherine’s direction, checking to see if anything seemed amiss.  She’d risen from her chair and was hugging Brooke good-night, and then Samantha.

Her smile seemed genuine, and not as if she’d just been… slighted, in some way, or cheated out of something that should have been her due.

Though Eli had addressed King Henry’s proposal scene to her, Vincent was painfully aware that it was he who had been expected to “romance” Catherine.

The evening broke apart mostly in couples, with the occasional trio or single making its way out into the hallway.  Vincent proffered the customary arm to Catherine, who took it.

The “camouflage” of walking with the loosely knit group, and being engulfed by their still occasional and random chatter, was something Vincent welcomed.  It precluded them from having to speak about what had just happened, for one thing.

Catherine got the distinct impression that Vincent was grateful for the distraction and noise other people were still providing.  And she was very aware that he’d said nothing, since the end of the game.

Whatever it was that had held his tongue still, she sensed he didn't want to discuss it, either now, or as the crowd began to thin, and then disperse, entirely.

As they made their way past the hub, their last companions, Wong, Lin, and Henry, bid them “good-night” and headed for Chinatown.

Vincent steered Catherine toward the passages that led to her basement, still obviously lost in thought.

Catherine attempted to lighten his thoughtful mood.  "I think Brooke has a massive crush on Michael," she offered for conversation, as he strolled in silence, beside her.

"So it would seem," Vincent answered, keeping his voice low.

"And Father and Mary.  Do you think they'll talk?" she asked.

Vincent's eyes flickered, though with what emotion, Catherine would have been hard pressed to name.

"It would seem so," Vincent said again, the mixing of the words doing nothing to hide the fact that he’d just said the same thing, twice.  Vincent began to feel like something of an incompetent parrot.

Catherine figured it would do no good to ask about the eventual doings of any of the other couples of the evening, considering his quiet demeanor, so she let the subject drop.  It had been a long night, and a very enjoyable one, right until the end.

Whatever strange mood had overtaken Vincent, she was determined not to push him about it.  He was a private man.  If he wanted to tell her, he would.  If he didn't... well.  There was such a thing as respecting his desire for personal space, and privacy.

They passed through the areas he’d brought her through the first time they’d ever bid each other good-bye.  She leaped across the gap in the pipes with familiar grace.  Farther along, the treadle sewing machine still sat on its table, waiting for its next use.

But the area was deserted, thanks to the lateness of the hour.  The quietness of the area served to exacerbate the near silence, between the two of them.

Vincent remembered bringing her back this way, the first time he’d ever returned her to her world.  He recalled every step as if it were yesterday.

In a way, for him, it was.  His mind was very much on that distant time, and had been, much of the evening.

Finally, they stepped into the area that held her exit.  The ladder loomed before them.  Dust danced in light that always gave her an angelic glow, whenever they parted.

"Good-night, Vincent.  Thank you for a wonderful, and... very unusual evening."  Her smile was sincere, as she tried to let him know she accepted whatever this was.

"Good-night, Catherine." He wanted to say more.  She could tell he did.

"Something is... troubling you?"  She wanted to give him the opportunity to speak about it, if he would.

His answer was almost too quick.  "No.  I just... it's late.  It is late, Catherine."

It was.  And she knew an unspoken plea to “let it drop” when she heard one.

"It is.  I probably won't see you tomorrow.  Late meeting.  Thursday, maybe?"

It would give him time, and at least some of the distance he often craved, when something was bothering him.  Catherine knew it.  So did Vincent.

"Thursday," he agreed.

 She swore he breathed a sigh of relief, at the word.

"Well.  Good-night, then."  She repeated, embracing him, feeling almost awkward, in doing so.  She felt both the stiffness in his tall frame, and the part of him that was fighting against that.

"Be well.”  He whispered it into her hair.

They slid apart, and he held her hands for a moment longer, though she expected him to drop them so she could climb her ladder.  She knew he was about to.  And then he could go to… well…

Whatever it is he does when he’s upset about something, she reasoned.

"Thank you for walking me all the way back," she said, aware that they were about to part.  Because it was time.  Because they had to.  The two things that always seemed to dictate that, since their beginning.

Vincent kept hold of her hands.  "I felt I owed you... something," he said, and the declaration surprised her.

He seemed as if he was struggling to find the right words to say, and was at a near a loss for those.  That wasn't like him.   She told him so.

"It's not like you to forget a line of famous poetry.  But I suppose it happens to everyone,” she smiled her indulgence.  She was giving him an easy way out, a way to deflect any uncomfortable feelings he still harbored.

He knew she was.  They both did.  And it was all right that they did.

Tell her good-night and then go.  Go.  Just go, his mind bid him.  Let the evening end.  Let time pass.  You know it works.  It always has.

But what he said was, “I am so sorry, Catherine."

He was aware he’d said it before.  Somehow, it just didn’t seem like it was enough.

"Sorry?  Why?” she asked.  “Everyone… freezes up, now and then.  You should see me when it happens in court.  I have a fit.  Then, Joe does."  She tugged her hands away from his, and brushed aside the evening's end with Catherine-like aplomb.

They both knew what she was doing.  She was refusing to put him under pressure.  The fact of that gave him the courage he needed to try to explain without… explaining.

"I did not... freeze up,he stated, stepping back a few paces.  He seemed to need the slight distance, even though the alcove wasn’t known for its room.

"I wanted to say something.  Something I’d shared with you before…"

"Oh!” she brightened.  “Well, if I knew which line you wanted, I could have given you a hint!"  Had he actually just gotten a touch of stage fright?  That doesn’t sound right.  Or like him. 

Catherine knew that he could often be quiet.  But he wasn’t actually shy.

"I did not need... reminding."  He couldn’t look at her for a moment, and he studied the familiar configurations in the stones, instead.  Then, he faced her.

"I needed... forgiveness.  I think."

There was a familiar line between his brows.  One that meant he was thinking.  Either puzzled, confused, or determined, or a mix of the three, but it was a line Catherine recognized.

"Forgiveness?  From whom, Vincent?"

His reply actually startled her.

"You.  Of course."

He moved away as he said it, putting some more distance between them, placing his back quite literally against the wall near where they’d stepped in.  As he faced her, he held out his right hand in a beseeching gesture.

"Every woman there tonight was given the gift of a romantic gesture.  Everyone… but you."

“Eli did a lovely job—“

“Eli was bearding Devin, not romancing you.  Every woman there knew the difference,” he interrupted, clearly struggling with something.

Perhaps that was so, but she wasn’t about to let him blame himself for whatever happened.  "You were having a hard time--"

He shook his maned head, to cut her off, again.

"I couldn't say it, Catherine.  Not in front of them.  Not even, perhaps, in front of you."  He turned his back to her, trying to collect himself as he did so.  He remembered another time he’d needed to do that, with her, to “collect” himself.  In this very spot, or a few feet to his left of it.

At his odd pronouncement, he heard the clear confusion in her voice.  “In front of me?”

He turned back, reluctantly, feeling his cape brush against the grey stones.  "In that moment, I understood.  It wasn’t a parlor game, the poetry wasn’t.  It wasn’t a trick, or a joke, or some… display of my education.”  His blue eyes beseeched more of her understanding.

“It was how I felt.  How I've always... felt."

Catherine’s sympathetic green eyes reflected her wisdom.  "And you didn't want that trivialized.  I understand," she said gently, stepping toward him.  "But that doesn't mean you need any sort of forgiveness from---“

“I knew exactly what it was I was going to say.  I toyed with other words, but that was just my mind, avoiding the inevitable.  Avoiding… what I've always said, inside myself.  What I’ve felt... since the beginning.”  His eyes fixed hers, meaningfully.

“The very, very beginning."  He glanced over toward the area where he’d first said good-bye to her, nearly two years ago.

If he’d been taciturn during their walk back, he was anything but, now.  Catherine simply let him continue.

“I toyed with the idea of quoting Romeo and Juliet.”  He stroked the rough bricks with a clawed hand.

Catherine glanced to where his hand pressed, and she wondered at what memory he was holding.  He shook his head.

“But then… I knew.  I knew the lines I wanted.  The only ones I wanted.”

"You did?"  Catherine asked, still confused.  "Was it the Shakespeare you sent me?  The 29th Sonnet?"  Her eyes were lightly curious, her encouraging smile a whisper, on her lips.

He shook his head.  "No.  Not Shakespeare.  Not this time,” he replied.

"Oh.  Byron, then?  'She Walks in Beauty,' but Michael said it first?"

"No, not Byron.  It doesn't matter.”  He shook his heavy head, again. “It only matters that when the time came... I'm sorry.  I couldn't... marginalize it.  Couldn't make it some sort of jest spawned over ale and Devin's urge to best Father."

"Vincent, it’s all right," Catherine replied, trying to soothe him.  "I understand.  You didn't want to be... embarrassed."

His denial was quick.  "Nothing I have ever felt for you has ever embarrassed me.”

She shook her head.  “I didn’t mean it that—“

“It just... amazed me,” he interrupted, his low voice caressing the words, and full of their wonder.  “And frightened me, at times, I admit that.  For all it implied, all it meant for me.”  His look was open, and utterly honest.

“And all it might mean for you," he added.

Catherine nodded her understanding.

“Still, I knew exactly what I wanted to say.”  His voice was firm.  “I knew exactly the words which express… so much of what is in my heart.  I just … couldn’t say them.”

She was gently reassuring.  And a little curious, as well.

"You found a line of poetry that says all that?”  She sounded truly impressed.  Her smile was a subtle curve.  “You're doing well, then,” she softly congratulated him.

She left the compliment where it was, and he glanced around the alcove again, remembering the incredible thrill that had shot through his system the instant her delicate palm had rested on his chest, so long ago, as he leaned against the wall.

Her touch had confirmed what a small paragraph in a book had assured him of.  That he loved her.  Possibly far too much for either of their own good.

"You haven't pressed me to hear it," he observed.

Just as you never press me, but let me come to everything in my own time, she thought.

It was his way to help her.  His way to... comfort her, when she needed that.

She could only return the favor.

"When you're ready, you’ll say it.  When you think it's time,” she said compassionately.

He knew he needed that compassion.  That he’d even depended on it, at times.  He knew he returned that to her, full force, but that this was not a competition about that, the way the earlier evening had been.

"You told me you loved me long before I said it."  Vincent stayed where he was, and stared at the metal path back to her world.  To that world of possibilities, she always seemed to see, and always to bring him, simply by staying right near.

The world of possibilities she never left him for, or got lost in, the way Devin had once seemed to.

As much as he needed her to go, he knew he absolutely needed her to return.  It was the dichotomy that both built and stressed their union.  A dichotomy she handled with deft grace, often.

"I think I was ready before you were."  She made it sound so simple.

She remembered telling him that she'd helped Mouse to save him from the tunnel collapse, because "It was love."

"You sent me the Sonnet, though," she defended him to himself.  "You have to admit, you don't get much more romantic than a Shakespearean sonnet."  She smiled again, as she once more tried to help him brush away his somber mood.

"The Sonnet."  His head jerked a little to the side as he said the words, and he shook that head, slightly.  It was a subtle negation of her claim.  "I re-read it just the other day.  It would have been easy to recite it.  I've held it in memory since the night I sent it to you.  Before that, truth be known.  Long before."

He leaned back against the stones, on the other side of the wall where he'd been the very first time they'd ever said good-bye.  The bricks pressing into his shoulder blades held the memory, and brought him a wisp of poetry.

‘There is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close,’ he thought. 

The fact that he was now internally quoting Pablo Neruda was not lost on him, for irony.  So much of Catherine, of the two of them, was wrapped up in poetry, in his mind, he knew.

"Why didn't you just -- Never mind," she caught herself, realizing she was about to ask why he hadn't simply recited the sonnet, and won the game.  Or tried to.  Jamie would have had to be the judge.

"Why not just say those words?" he asked.  "Because if you look closely at them, you realize that there is a certain... conceit to them."

She raised a well-sculpted eyebrow.  “How so?" she asked.

"’For thy sweet love remembered, such wealth brings, I'd scorn to change my state with kings,'" he recited.  "It says how much your love means to me.  But says nothing… nothing of mine for you.  In light of… some of what we heard this evening…” She knew he was referencing Jacob’s poem, among others, “that seemed... unfair, Catherine."

Unfair?  Catherine turned the oddly chosen word over in her lawyer’s mind.  She'd never thought of the Sonnet in those terms, at all.  But she understood what he was wrestling with, or at least she thought she understood part of it.

Of the two of them, she'd more often said what she felt, directly, while he used a combination of his own words, actions, and poetry, to express what he was feeling.  There were times when he seemed to prefer the beautiful words used by others to outright declarations.

Catherine had never felt the lack, for his choices.  He'd said the words.  She understood if he was uncomfortable saying them publicly, even couched in someone else's poetry, or prose.  He would hardly be the first man to feel that way.

She kept her voice low.  "We aren't keeping some kind of strange score, on the subject.  We never have been."

She disliked that the evening’s revelry had led to this.  And she didn’t like that he recalled the sonnet in such a way, no matter how technically correct it might be to do so.

"And if we were, I'd never be out of debt,” she pressed, as she closed the distance between them.  “You saved my life from the first moment we met."

And you saved me, every moment after, he thought.

There, she thought.  That should settle things.  The lawyer and the logician in her was firm.  You couldn’t argue with the fact that you saved my life.  You brought me here, because of it.

She gave him a sweet smile and a touch on the cheek to soothe the moment over, thinking to bid him good-night again, and simply climb the ladder, so they could both go to bed.  Her tone remained softly reassuring, as she meant it to be.

"The evening truly was lovely.  But Father is right about the children pulling a fast one.  It's later by the minute, and I have an early start tomorrow." She gave him a soft, quick hug, content that she’d repaired his disquiet all she could.  She turned toward the iron rungs.

She was beautiful, and she was leaving.  It was a constant between them, especially in this singular place.

With the light streaming down and her back to him, Vincent’s blue eyes saw her gloved hand reach upward.  She gripped the first metal bar.

And then he made sure she’d move no further.

"’I loved her against reason.’" He said it to her back.

Catherine froze.  The words struck both her ears and her consciousness, hard.  And the tone in his voice told her he felt every syllable.  She didn’t let go of the ladder, feeling she suddenly needed its steady surety.  But she didn’t reach upward any more, either.

Her nimble mind scrambled.  Those words.  Where are they from?  The answer seemed very important.

And why did it suddenly seem incredibly vital that she remember, before he just gave the answer to her?

Softer now, his low voice moved over the same line, again.  "’I… loved her… against reason,’” he repeated, infusing each word, with a deeply sonorous tone.  “’I loved her against reason.  Against promise.  Against peace.’

She turned to face him.  Memories crossed her green eyes, and she was hunting through them.

“Wait.”  She reached for her temple, the gesture of someone trying to prompt a specific recollection.  Her eyes darted a little, searching.

Catherine felt her mind reach back, come up with no answer, then reach again.  She knew those words, but she couldn’t place them, right away.  But she did know them.  She was sure she did.

“I… I know those words… I know them…  Don’t I?”

He barely gave her a nod.

She did know them.  And what's more, she associated them with this place, with the tunnels, and not with the world Above.  He'd never read them to her on her balcony.  Of that, she was positive.

"Wait…” she said again.  She was fumbling.

Why is this so hard to find, this wisp of memory?

“That isn't Shakespeare.”  Her brow knit with confusion.  “Or… Wordsworth…"  She was picking her way through, trying to run the process of elimination, since the other way wasn’t working.

Vincent could see her sorting through the literature she knew, getting closer to the memory she was seeking.  "But I know those words," she said, consternation in her voice.

She did.  And somehow, even though he'd never read poetry to her in this spot, she knew she should associate the words with this odd space.  Something in her said so.  But… he’s never read to me here…

"You do know them,” he confirmed gently.  “Where do you know them from, Catherine?  Do you remember?" he prodded softly, wondering if she would recall it.  Wondering if she would be able to.

The fingers of her right hand stayed at temple, brushing it, trying to remember.

Had they read it near the falls?  No.  Her memory rejected the notion.

In the Great Hall, during Winterfest?  No, again.

She held his azure-eyed gaze, and continued to step backwards, in her mind.  "It was a long time ago,” she realized.

Her brain was still searching.  But she did know the lines.  And not from anyone but him.  They weren’t words she remembered from school, or a play she’d seen, or a movie she’d watched.  She knew them in his voice.  His, and his alone.  He’d said they were from their beginning.

“A long… time ago,” she repeated.

"Nearly two years.  Fully."  He confirmed the time.

"I can all but hear you," she said, diving into a jumble of random memories that suddenly seemed to hold too many things she didn't need, because they weren't this.

Did he say them to me the first night he came to my balcony? she wondered.  Then she shook her head in subtle negation.

No.  That didn’t seem right.

As a matter of fact, she was sure it wasn’t.

Like so many of the times between them, Catherine had spent hours replaying everything he’d said that night, mentally.  Her mind continued to sift and sort.

 Near the Mirror Pool?  In the Music Chamber, waiting for a concert to begin?  Why can’t I remember this, when it feels so important?

“Say them again.  Please,” she requested, still searching.

He held her gaze steadily.  "’I loved her... against reason… against doubt… against peace…’” he prompted slowly.

A flicker of memory.  Just two words.  “Against… hope,” Catherine said, as the furrow in her brow deepened.

Vincent nodded, letting her know she was correct.

You’re getting there, he thought.  Where are we, Catherine?  Where, when you heard those words, the first time?

"Why do I know it?  Why do I remember, yet not?” she asked, though he knew the question was at least somewhat rhetorical.

Catherine felt herself drawing closer to the answer.  “We've never read it on the balcony.  I don't remember seeing it in a book.  I usually remember what I see on a page,” she said.

She did.  It was half of how she’d passed the bar exam.

But now, that knowledge confused her.

Our beginning.  Our very beginning.  His words came back to her.

Realization flickered across her stormy eyes.  Surely he didn’t mean…

"You are correct,” he praised.  “We never did read it on the balcony.  At least not that line.  And you… never saw them in a book.”  He stepped close, and brushed her hair back from her face, taking in her searching look.  Her green eyes were beautiful.  They were so beautiful.  And of no earthly use to her, for this.

“Indeed, you never 'saw' them at all," he said.

Never saw them?  But that would mean…

There was only one time in her life that Catherine ever remembered being sightless.  Sightless, and near him, while he was reading to her.

She closed her eyes, and the blindness helped, because it was blind she'd been, when she’d first heard the words.

Vague images of an old manor house came to her eyes, because that’s what he’d read to her about.  His voice had helped paint her memories.  Memories of… not a thing she’d ever “seen,” but a place she’d imagined.  A place he’d taken her to, with his voice.  A place inside a book.  A very special book.


She opened her eyes, and he could see by the look in them, that she’d realized something.  That she’d taken her brilliant mind back all the way to where he’d wanted it to go.  She was a little startled, and it showed.

Vincent didn’t flinch.

How early were we then, Catherine?  Four days?  Five?  You weren’t even awake for the first one, and I could feel you, feel you fighting.  Feel you… striving.

"Dickens.  It's Charles Dickens,” she whispered raggedly, certain she was correct. “Pip goes to Miss Havisham's to see Estella again.”  Her memory was gathering strength, and conviction.  “It's the first time he sees her when she's back from France.  It's… the middle of the book."  She was searching through memories long forgotten, and finding answers.

"The very middle of it," he confirmed.

And so it was.  The lines were neither near the beginning of Great Expectations, nor at the end, but buried in Chapter 29 of a 59 chapter epic.  It was central to, and centered in, the story.  Their story.  Pip and Estella's.

And his and hers.

The old tale had bound their fate, both then and now.

"It's important to the story.  Very important."  Catherine was still pulling memories out of her nimble mind, and remembering the first time she'd ever heard him say the words.  She wanted to let him know she remembered, that she was “there” again, in her mind.

“I remember now.  I was laying in your bed, and you were reading to me.  It's how Pip feels for Este--"

"It is how Vincent feels for Catherine.  How I have always felt for you.  Like it was impossible, but that there was no help for it, and I didn't even want there to be."

Her newly opened eyes became bright with tears, the reaction too quick, too sudden, to keep at bay.

The sharp mind that remembered the source of the quote now realized what that meant, in terms of the amount of time they had known each other, back then.

"You… you read that to me the first week you found me."  Tears threatened to drop from her lower lashes.  "Oh, Vincent... I can hear your voice.”

She reached out her hand and grabbed for the front of his vest, needing the handful of fabric to steady herself. 

Five days.  Maybe.  We’d known each other no longer than that, she realized.

He was thinking almost exactly the same thing.

Less than a week.  A bare number of days.  Not so much more.

And he’d stumbled into the lines, and known their import.

She held the memory of the first time he’d ever said the words to her.  “I remember…” she could barely whisper it.

Her declaration was such that he didn't doubt she was hearing him read to her, hearing him say it to her, again.

She looked in the direction of her memories, and in an instant, Vincent knew she'd put herself back there.  Back to their very beginning.  She was in his chambers, and in his bed.  Helpless to do anything but listen.

Just as he'd been helpless to do anything but give her the words that seemed to define both of them.

With her eyes wrapped in gauze, and her back supported by a stranger's pillows, he'd read her the paragraph that explained Pip’s love for Estella.

Vincent watched her remember that.  Watched her feel it.  She let go of his vest as two tears slipped from her eyes, pearls of emotion, and recollection.  She brushed them away, and kept her focus, reliving the moment he’d brought her to.

“Your voice was so gentle.  So… full of… something.  Something I didn’t even have a name for,” she said.

"I knew that the words were prophetic when I said them to you," he whispered.

She steadied herself and looked up at him.  "You were sad!"  She brought her fingers to her lips as she recalled his tone.  Recalled laying with her eyes swathed in cotton, utterly mesmerized by his voice.

“I loved her against hope, against reason, against peace…”

Catherine could hear the almost soulful melancholy in his long-ago delivery.

"I was... wistful.” He admitted that much.  “I knew the truth of the words, felt that truth becoming real.  'I loved her against hope.'  I remembered thinking it, and feeling it inside.  Knowing that all the words were true."

"Against even hope!" she repeated the words to him, her distress plain to see.

"Hope, I had none,” he said gently.  “And I knew it, at the time.  And yet, I persisted.  The feeling of loving you persisted.  Not a week later I sent you back up to your world, and I knew a part of my soul was going with you."

He dropped his head a little, and turned it to look at the place where they’d parted, remembering the bittersweet flavor of their first separation.  He’d touched her back, through her coat.  The palm of his hand still held the memory of it.  He enfolded her now, allowing that palm to rest there again, for a moment.

Vincent inhaled deeply, walking through distant days, in his mind.

’Against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.’” He finished the line.  His voice was an almost somnolent rumble, inside the chest Catherine pressed her ear to.

Catherine could only hold him tightly as he continued, lost in a past that suddenly felt all too much with them.

"So, all I could do was… feel it.”  He brushed a kiss across the top of her head, reassuring both of them of her beloved presence, in his life.  He tipped her face back up toward his, wanting to see the deep green of her eyes, a thing he’d been unable to see the first time he’d read her Dickens.

They were bright with more unshed tears. 

“Now do you know why I couldn’t say it?” he asked.  She simply nodded, and he glanced over toward the portal that would bear her away from him.  Again.

His eyes developed a faraway look, and a recollection of distant things.

“I sent you back.  I had to.  We had to.”

She knew he was right.  About everything.

“I know we did,” she said.

“And yet… I felt it all, felt every word of it.  It stayed with me until I couldn't stand it anymore, Catherine,” he confessed.

“I had to bring you the book.  Had to bring you the last chapter, so you could know how the story ends.  So you could... feel that part of it, perhaps, as well.  Find hope in it.  Somewhere.  Somehow.  It was the last chapter.  It was all of the book we had left."

She could almost feel the past, in his voice.

But Catherine had memories of her own.  Memories she realized she’d never shared with anyone.  Not even him.

"'To be loved like that,’" she said, feeling overwhelmed by her own recollections.  "I remember thinking it.  I remember laying there, in your bed, thinking it.  And that's what I thought. "Oh, to be loved like that!"

Catherine turned to look around the dusty antechamber, the site of many of their separations, and their reunions, as well. Her lips pursed, with memory.

His voice was soft, with inquiry.  "Is that what you truly thought?"

She nodded, and one of the tears she’d been holding back spilled down her soft cheek.  She simply dashed it aside.

Vincent’s voice remained an intimate thing.  "I remember that I felt you thinking that something had moved you, though I didn't know the words to what you were feeling."

He had.  He’d felt her think something she hadn’t given voice to, and he’d had no name for.  An almost… poignant sensation had come from her, at the time.  It was one he still recalled.

She’d been as wistful as he’d been.  And for similar reasons.

She drew back from him, dropped her head, and looked down at her gloved hands, clasped before her.  The evening had taken a most unexpected turn.

"You didn’t know the words to what I was feeling.”  She shook her head and the honey waves of her loosely styled hair moved with delicate grace.

“But you knew the words to what you were feeling," she concluded.  "They were in front of you, in your lap.  And they were Dickens'."

He sighed his agreement.  "They were Dickens'," he echoed, letting an almost bittersweet sensation of nostalgia spin out, between them.

He felt both caught in his past, and put upon by the present, as the hour grew later still.  It was a familiar feeling.

"So... even then...?" She let the sentence trail away.

"Even then." He gave his head a small shake of remembered futility.

“Without a thing to recommend us, you… embraced it,” she said.

“More like held it in a death grip,” he said wryly.  He saw her actually smile a little, at that.

“You?”  he asked, daring to.  “We are impossible, Catherine.  I think even Dickens knew it.  Yet, I can’t help—“

Her head came up, at his description of them.

"Say it, then, any time you like,” she interrupted, knowing now that this small piece of Dickens would be a line that defined them, and knowing why.

“Say it just as you did then,” she continued.  “Say it all, because it's all true, and we've both been nothing if not honest with each other, from the start.” She looked up at his handsome, impossible features.  “The very start,” she gave an almost sardonic shake of her head, at that.

She wasn’t done.  “Tell me it's... ludicrous that we should try to be together.  ‘Against all reason,’ as you said.”

Her lips pursed with memory.  It was one of her “stubborn” gestures.  One of the ones she had that indicated she would not be put off. “And I'll tell you..." it was her turn to look at the place of their first separation, for a moment.  Then she looked back at him.  "I'll tell you you're right.”

She surprised him by saying it.

“It's insane,” she added.  “It's too risky, for you.  Too… impossible, for me.  It's a foolish venture." She paused as her words, similar to the words he'd just given her, sank in.

"Tell me it goes against any reasonable amount of hope and I'll tell you you're not wrong,” she agreed, though he wasn’t sure he liked that she did so.

“That Rolley, for all his soul-rending addiction, probably has more.  Tell me that, and I won't even disagree with you."  The lawyer in her was setting up an argument.  He knew it.


She held up her hands.  "My friends don't even know about you.  But what would they say if they did?  Do you think they'd tell me this was a 'reasonable' thing to do?  That it would bring me peace?  That there was any real hope that it would succeed, ultimately?”

She paused, then answered her own question.  “You know they wouldn't.  I know they wouldn't."  She reached out her hand for his, as she said it.

“So we go against reason, then, and against peace.  Against hope.”  Her fingers twined with his.

"But tell me... "  She shook her head and looked down at his vested shirt front, unable to meet the question in the blue of his eyes.

"Tell me that Vincent doesn't love me... and... no."  She shook her head back and forth, more vigorously, this time, setting her hair to dancing, again.

"No.  Just…no.  That you cannot tell me.  It isn't true.  All the rest of it I'll give you.  All the rest of it... you can have.  But that?"  She raised her head, again, no question in her certain eyes.  "That belongs to me.  The verse says it.  The first three words say it.  Don't they?"

Vincent’s brow furrowed, as he reached for the line one more time.  He whispered it to himself, no longer “reciting” but “hearing.”  Hearing what she’d heard, and hoping she was right.

"I loved her against reason.  I... loved her..." he said, his expression registering how true it was.  Whatever else Dickens had been trying to say, there was no doubt that he was saying that Pip had loved Estella, and knew it.

He leaned down, and breathed her in, touching his forehead against hers.  "I do love you, Catherine.  I swear I do.”  He gave her fingers a slight squeeze.  “Sometimes.... sometimes I think it's all that I can cling to, but I swear to you that it's true, that it's real.  That even if we don't... succeed, somehow, that it will still be the one truth I know I live by."

She gave his fingers an answering bit of pressure.  “We succeed in that we are here,” she said, looking down at the dusty ground they occupied.  “We succeed in that we keep returning to this spot, keep refusing to let my leaving for my world define us.  And you love me.  So, I know all I need to, in that I know that."  His hands remained locked, with hers.  Hers were so small, by comparison.


She was sure, in her purpose, and she stepped back and faced him squarely, so that he could see the positive look in her gaze.  "And I do know that, Vincent.  I do."

He nodded, and she tugged down on his hands and he leaned his head low again, touching his forehead back to hers.

I love you.  Against anything.  Against everything.  I love you, Catherine.

He shifted their position into a soft embrace, feeling his hand rest on the exact same spot on her back it had the first time he’d ever said “good-bye” to her.  Either by communion or reflex, her right hand came up to rest on the right side of his chest, just as it had done on a long-ago day.

The feeling of it sent his head up and back, for a moment, as sensation coursed through him.

They were a mirror of their first parting.  Only Vincent knew that this time, unlike that one, she would be back, and soon.  He brought his head back down over her, breathing her in, once more.

Oh, I remember this.  Remember you.  So much.  So much, this… pain of parting.  This… joy, inside the pain. This joy.  You were a wish I had, in my heart.  A heart that felt like it only started to truly beat, in that moment.  And the words raced across my consciousness.  I know I thought them.  I know I did, standing here, that first time.  ‘I loved her against hope, against reason… against all discouragement that could be.’

Vincent held her, simply held her.  Lost in memory, and to the feel of her.  Her palm was a brand on his chest.  Her love was a brand on his heart.

Her sigh was deep, and heartfelt.  Wherever she was, in her own memories, he knew she was remembering, too.  She was.

He didn’t want to let her go.  And at the same time, he knew he had to.

“It’s late.  You’re growing tired,” he said, after several moments of quiet communion had passed between them.

“I’m fine.”

Little liar.  God, how I love you.

She stood quietly a moment longer, and then she lightened the moment just a little, knowing that she needed to.  That she needed to, for him.

"Well.  I guess that settles which one of us told the other one they were in love, first," she stated. He heard the soft smile in her voice as much as saw it.

"I imagine it does," Vincent said, feeling very exposed, yet very protected, at the same time.  It was often so, with her.

"Thank you for not pressing me for it, in front of everyone," he added.  "There are some things... things I want to keep only for the two of us."  He brushed the top of her head with the barest kiss.

She moved so that her hands slid down his arms until her fingers threaded back through his, wanting to keep hold of the hands she knew were hers.

And she waited.

When he studied her beloved face again, it was to see her with a coaxing smile, full of love.

"It's just the two of us right now,” she observed.  “Do you want to?  All of it?” she nudged.

His smile was so subtle, it was barely there.  That was his outside.

Inside, a tight fist of concern had opened its palm, and the outstretched fingers of relief spread a loving warmth all through him.  She was his.  She always would be.  Against everything. Against all of it.

Because he loved her, and always would. 

"I do.  Very much," he said, feeling her shiver of pleasure, at the words.  She loved the sound of his voice.  He knew she did.  It wasn’t an act of ego to know that.  Just one of fact.

"Does it bring you pain?" she asked.  She wouldn't push him for it, if it did.

He considered his reply, for a moment.  "At first, I think the sorrow of it threatened to utterly crush me.  But now... "  He looked into the eyes that held the secrets of his soul, and every promise for a lasting happiness.

"They bring me only what pure joy can give," he answered.

She squeezed his fingers, one more time.  It was a coaxing, asking pressure.

"Say them again, then.  I know it's ridiculous to ask it, but... please say them again, to me."

She was a child begging for a bedtime story, a friend asking for a favor.  A lover wanting to be wooed one more time, before the night was over.  She was all of that, and more, and to the bottom of his great heart, he blessed her for it, for all of it, and for bringing it all to him.  For the gift of herself.  For the gift of them.

“You’re sure they don’t bring you to a place of pain?” he asked, aware that the first time he’d ever uttered the deep words to her, she’d been in a terrible place.  “You were frightened, then, and injured,” he added.

“I was.  But I also wasn’t alone.”

You were the end of my aloneness, as well, he thought.

He planted a soft kiss on the back of her hand, loving her for both her acceptance and her bravery.

“Your eyes were covered.  You were in the dark,” he said, compassion in every word.

Her smile was sun-eclipsing, as she repeated what she’d told him at Winterfest.  “There is no darkness, Vincent, when you are with me.  Please?”

Her soft entreaty reached through to his pounding heart.  He tugged her back into their former embrace, placing her hand on his chest right where he wanted it, feeling his own hand go to the center of her lovely back.  He felt her head nestle a little, and he reveled in the remembered feel of her soft, slight body, pressed against his own.

Though she leaves, she will return.  Though we love against hope and reason, still… we love.

He dropped his baritone low, and brushed along the old words in his deepest, most resonant timbre, caressing the lines like a lover's sure hand:

"I loved her against reason, against promise,
against peace, against hope, against happiness,
against all discouragement that could be."









No matter where you are in your own fairy tale, I wish you love.
~ Cindy









Illustrations supplied by the author





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