Chapter 14: Is Forever Enough? 
The next morning was a slow easy awakening for them both. Catherine stirred first, seeing the long amber colored hair drifting over her face. She turned her head slightly to see Vincent still sleeping peacefully. Well, no wonder, after last night, she thought, amused.
One sleepy blue eye opened. “You’re awake?” Vincent asked, voice still rough with sleep.
She nodded. “I don’t know what time it is, though.”
“Late morning,” Vincent said, “after ten, I’d say.” He yawned hugely, and she fought to repress a laugh. With his sleep-bleared eyes, mussed hair and those fangs, he resembled nothing so much as a lion waking up on the savannah.
Vincent raised his eyebrows, clearly having caught the thought. “So I’ve been told,” he replied mildly, not offended in the least.
“By who? Who else have you been sharing your bed with?” Catherine demanded in mock dismay.
“Devin,” Vincent said. “We shared a bed for a time before he left.” He chuckled. “He used to tell me I had ‘lion breath’ when I woke up.”
Catherine laughed. “You don’t.”
He rolled over onto his side, his hand resting lightly on the curve of her hip. “How many lions have you been sleeping with?” Vincent asked, smiling.
“I’ve never shared my bed with a lion,” Catherine replied, sensing the subtle undercurrent of his words, wondering again what it must have been like for him to have grown up never knowing quite what he was. “And I’m not sharing my bed with one now.”
They could, Vincent decided later, have happily stayed in bed all day, but certain physical needs had to be taken care of and while Catherine busied herself in their bathroom, he’d reluctantly decided to make up the bed and restore their bedroom to some sort of order. Catherine’s clothes he folded at the foot of the bed, uncertain of where she wished to store them, while his own were hung carefully back in his armoire. Shrugging into his robe—his other wedding gift from Catherine---he padded out into the antechamber to await his wife’s return.
She emerged a few minutes later, smelling of soap and hot water and the fainter scents of lotion, toothpaste, deodorant. Catherine was dressed in jeans and a patched and faded flannel shirt layered over a turtleneck. Her hair fell long and loose down her back. “Hi, love,” she said. “The bathroom’s all yours; I tried to leave enough hot water.”
“Thank you,” Vincent replied, kissing her. He tilted his head. “Where did you find the shirt?”
“It was in the dresser along with some other clothes. You didn’t put them there?”
Vincent shook his head, bemused. “I thought the dresser seemed a little heavier when Cullen and I moved it into the bedroom, but I didn’t open the drawers. Marisol must have placed the clothes in there.”
“Marisol?” Catherine asked, confused. “I thought she was the tunnel weaver.”
Vincent smiled. “Precious few of us Below are ‘only’ one thing or another. Marisol does our weaving, true, but she sewed as a hobby Above. It’s been a relief to Mary and Daniel---who was a tailor before he came to us---to have someone else who knows how to sew.”
Catherine nodded. “Do you sew?”
“I do, after a fashion,” Vincent said. “So long as it’s nothing more complicated than buttons or sewing straight lines. We all learn, for practicality’s sake if nothing else. There are simply too many of us to have just one person---or three—providing all the clothing as well as doing all the mending.”
She sat down heavily into an unoccupied chair, feeling, he sensed, woefully out of her depth. “Vincent, your pouch is the first thing I sewed since Home Ec. The only thing I know about candles is how to light them. What will your people make of me?”
“’Your people shall be my people, and where you go I will follow,’” Vincent reminded her gently; it had been one of the readings at their joining ceremony. “They’re your people now too, Catherine. No one expects you to know how to make candles or soap, or sew…these are things we’ve all had to learn. Besides, don’t you think you’re bringing some skills we need as well?”
That startled her, Vincent noticed, as it startled most people new to the tunnels. Theirs was a way of life vastly different from most communities Above; nothing, no talent or ability, was ever wasted or disregarded Below. “I hadn't thought about that,” she confessed, chagrined. “What do you think I can do down here?”
“When Laura returned Above, she'd never written a check. She didn't know anything about how to open a checking account, or write a resume or even how she should best account for the missing years of her life if someone asked. That's something all of our youth who return Above face; we try to prepare them as best we can, but difficulties can arise, and we always fear that something will happen that's beyond our abilities, or that of our helpers. You've lived Above all your life, and you're quite resourceful. Who better to help prepare our young people than someone like you?”
“I didn't know,” Catherine said. “There is so much about this world I never knew.”
“How could you? Vincent asked reasonably. “This is a side of our world that few of our Helpers ever fully see, the way of life for those of us who live here. You are far more to us than my wife, or a Helper,” Vincent continued. “You’ll find your way; please, try not to worry.”
She tilted her head and grinned at him. “Isn’t that my line?”
He chuckled and pulled her near. “If the shoe fits…”
After their late breakfast and two cups of coffee had chased the last of sleep from her mind, Catherine turned to her husband. “So…what’s the tradition here?”
“Tradition?” Vincent asked, now dressed in a sweater and jeans, damp tendrils of hair curling around his face.
“When we leave for the Crystal Caverns,” Catherine clarified. “Do we just go or is there some sort of formal leave-taking?”
Vincent smiled. “I think you’ll find that everyone will be doing their level best to pretend they don’t see us…at least, until we return.” He sobered briefly. “Catherine, I’ve told you that some parts of our journey will be below the pipes and some distance from the nearest aid stations. For that reason, I will leave directions with Mouse on how to find us. He won’t come and look for us otherwise, not unless we fail to return in a week, or if he receives an emergency message, but it is important that someone should know where we will be traveling.”
“I understand,” Catherine said, and she did. From her limited understanding of tunnel geography, the Crystal Caverns were at the very center of what Vincent had termed The Wildness---the border between the inhabited tunnels and what lay beyond. Such areas might be dangerous, or they might not, but only a fool would go there without taking precautions.
“We’ll have to carry whatever provisions we expect to need as well,” Vincent said.
Catherine nodded, gesturing to one of the backpacks leaning against the wall. “I raided a camping goods store last week---before we go, please check it out to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s been years since I went camping.”
He nodded. “We'll go over our other gear before we leave. I don't expect that we'll encounter any dangers---the trip was uneventful when I journeyed there before---but it's always wise to be prepared.”
“And when do you want to leave?” Catherine asked.
He glanced at her and the look in his eyes made her smile. “Later on today, I think. I find myself quite...unwilling to leave just now.”
“You do?” she said, and chuckled when he pulled her into his lap.
“I do,” Vincent replied, and kissed her.
They left shortly after a quick lunch of leftovers picked up from the kitchen. Vincent had unfurled a map covered in his neat hand, marked with symbols that seemed as foreign to Catherine as hieroglyphics, and had begun teaching her how to read the map as they ate. “This symbol here,” he said, pointing to a small red cross, “is an aid station.” That symbol had seemed familiar, but the others....
“A green line indicates a master pipe. Did I tell you what a master pipe is?” Vincent asked.
Catherine shook her head. “It's a pipe that has a direct, unbroken line into Pascal's pipe chamber,” Vincent explained. “Many of our pipes don't lead directly into the chamber; they link into smaller ones. Messages are clearest when using a master pipe, and fainter, sometimes too faint, when using the others.” His gaze was quite serious. “If you have to send an emergency message, use a master pipe.”
She nodded. “What does this symbol mean?” Catherine asked, pointing to a yellow asterisk and noticing there were not many of them near the Crystal Caverns.
“Torches,” Vincent replied. “One of the first jobs people often have here is making sure the torches are lit in the corridors; the sentries have that duty around the perimeter. Further out, of course, there's no one to do that.”
“I see,” Catherine said, marveling again at the complexity of this world. “And the blue triangle?”
“Water,” he said. “Not all of the water Below is safe to drink, though much of it is. The water that isn't safe has a black line drawn through the triangle.”
“How do you know which is safe and which isn't?” she asked, curious, doubting that they had water tests Below.
He shrugged, looking mildly uncomfortable. “I've...always been able to smell when water is fouled or unsafe. I can't explain it.”
She reached across the table to touch his hand. “No need to be uncomfortable, love. We all have different skills, remember?”
Vincent smiled then, and she felt the momentary cloud lift. “How strong you are,” he said. “To accept…everything….”
Catherine shook her head. “I had a good teacher.”
Catherine left Vincent as he was checking their gear so that she could wash and return their lunch dishes to the commons. When she returned, two loaves of William’s traveling bread and two smaller jars of canned soup in her hands, it was to find that Vincent had repacked and was just finishing signaling to Mouse that they’d be leaving soon. “I see William added to our provisions,” Vincent said, amused. “He always fears we don’t eat enough.”
“It’s sweet,” Catherine said, nestling the canned jars carefully in her backpack.
“It is,” Vincent agreed. He lifted the other pack, testing it for its weight.
Catherine lifted hers and was surprised to find that her own pack was suspiciously lighter than it had been when she'd packed it. “Vincent,” she began, “did you....?”
He looked at her backpack and then across at her. “Yes, I did,” Vincent replied.
“I've hiked before,” Catherine said. “I can carry a heavier pack.”
“You've hiked in Connecticut,” Vincent said. “Catherine, this will not be a difficult journey, but neither will it be as simple as just walking to the Crystal Caverns. There are areas where the lighting is quite dim and the passages narrow and the footing uneven. I didn't wish burden you further with a heavier pack along with your unfamiliarity with the terrain.”
Catherine sighed, unable to fault his logic and knowing that he was just doing what he'd always done---trying to protect her. “But if you get tired because your pack is heavier, you would tell me?”
“I will,” Vincent promised.
“Well, then,” Catherine replied, tying her hair into a loose ponytail and shouldering her pack. “If you're ready, so am I.”
As it turned out, they were not quite able to leave unseen. Devin and Charles were preparing to leave as well, and Father was talking to his eldest son just as Vincent and Catherine exited their chamber. “Are you certain you won’t stay a few more days?” Father was asking.
“I can’t, Dad,” Devin said, and Catherine hid her smile at his wording---Dad, not Father---behind her hand. “I have to be back at work tomorrow and Charles has a doctor’s appointment. Besides, if we leave now, we can be ahead of the snowstorm instead of in it.”
Father wasn’t convinced, Catherine could tell, but he smiled just the same. “All right. Drive safely, the both of you.”
“He will,” Charles said, casting an arch look at Devin.
Devin grinned. “I get no respect, I tell you.” He turned to look at Catherine and his brother. “So, you’re off to your honeymoon?”
Catherine nodded. “Well, you two be safe,” Devin continued, grinning roguishly. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
She felt Vincent’s amusement through their bond. “That would seem to be a remarkably short list,” her husband said dryly.
“Oh, don’t you start,” Devin said, chuckling. “Just…stay safe, okay?”
“We will,” Vincent said, and Catherine was startled when Devin gathered her into brief hug. “Take care of him,” Devin whispered for her ears alone as they embraced.
She nodded, and he released her to hug his brother, then his father. With one last wave, Devin and Charles left for Renata’s basement entrance and home.
“You’ll let Mouse know where you’re going?” Father asked, turning to them.
“Yes, Father,” Vincent replied.
“And you have enough supplies?”
“Yes, Father,” Catherine put in. “Vincent checked before we left, plus William added some.”
“Father,” Vincent said, interrupting with what was evidently the skill of long practice. “We’ll be fine. Try not to worry. We’ll take every precaution.”
“Well, then,” Father said, “take care of each other and return soon.”
“We will,” Catherine said, feeling the warmth of Vincent’s arm around her waist.
They were about an hour outside of the hub before the terrain really began to change. As they walked, Vincent pointed out the different striations in the rock, showing where the ingress of water had begun to eat into some of the limestone. “This is the same area as the Maze, isn't it?” Catherine asked, wondering at the power of water to wear down even the strongest substances.
“Close to it,” Vincent replied. “Fortunately for us, these walls aren't completely made of limestone like the Maze is.”
Vincent gestured to a narrow band of purplish rock. “This was created when there were dinosaurs walking Manhattan,” he said. With all the finesse of a geology professor, he pointed out the layers and their eras---Permian, Mesozoic, and Cretaceous---with a passion that brought home to Catherine how much he truly did love this world. “I’m amazed,” she said after one claw had gestured to the outline of a fossilized ammonite that had been invisible to her untrained eyes.
“By what?” he asked.
“By you, by what you know. Who taught you?”
“Winslow's father, Simon. He used to take us on hikes through these caverns when we were children; some of our earliest maps were written by him.” There was a fond smile on Vincent's face. “I can still see him, Catherine---a great barrel of a man, stomping around, teaching us as he went. I don't think Simon ever did anything at a low volume.”
Catherine chuckled. “I can picture it. Me, I barely stayed awake during freshman geology. I like that way of teaching much better.”
“Simon thought learning should be fun,” Vincent agreed. “Though when it came to calculus...I'm afraid I didn't share his enthusiasm.”
“Calculus? That's such an advanced subject---how did he come to be living Below?” she asked, curious.
Vincent turned to take her hand as they navigated through a narrow passageway. His graveled voice floated back to her. “I never knew the full story, but Winslow told me his father had been a teacher Above. There were some difficulties and he lost his job. Simon and Winslow's mother were homeless when they sought shelter in what they thought was a drainage ditch.”
“The main entrance?” Catherine asked.
“The main entrance,” Vincent confirmed. “It was our good fortune that they found us, and that we found them. Simon and Winslow...they were good people.”
“What happened to Winslow's mother?”
“She and Simon separated when Winslow was a small child; I never knew her.”
“I wish I'd known Winslow better,” Catherine said, ducking her head to avoid---what? A stalactite? Stalagmite? She couldn't remember the difference---as they crossed under a low overhang.
“I wish I did too,” Vincent said. “I knew him all my life, but there were parts of him I didn't know or understand until...the end.”
She reached out to tug the bottom of his pack, knowing he'd feel it and stop. “Vincent. He loved you all deeply. And his death wasn't your fault.”
“I know,” Vincent replied. “But I’ll always regret that there wasn’t something I could do to save him.”
“You did all you could,” she reminded him. “Try to remember that too.”
His blue eyes, darker in the dimness, were less troubled as he gazed down at her. “I will,” Vincent said. He glanced down the narrow corridor where torches glinted in the distance. “Come, we still have two more hours before we reach our campsite for the night.”
“I don’t believe this,” Catherine breathed out, a sound of joy and wonder. “Vincent how….how did this get here? It’s…I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Vincent smiled at his wife; like the few others who had seen Masthead Point, she was taken aback. And no wonder; a ship’s masthead jutted out from one side of the cavern—permanently and mysteriously embedded in the rock walls---while the soft susurrus of a waterfall just beyond it lent the entire area the air of some pirate’s hidden cove. “Perhaps this was the mast from Mouse’s ship,” he said. “Devin and Pascal and I, we used to pretend we were pirates down here, hunting for our lost ship, or for buried treasure.”
She laughed, clearly picturing it. “Did you ever find anything?”
He nodded. “Bits of wood, and what Devin swore had to be the lid from a treasure chest. But nothing valuable. Devin once told us he’d found buried treasure but…”
“But?” Catherine asked, and Vincent wondered if she thought---as he often did---how well the role of pirate suited Devin. Even now, as settled as he’d ever been, there was still something of the wanderer, the rogue in him.
“He made a map, then lost it. We’ve never found it since.” A chuff of amusement rode just under his words. “Pascal was very upset. Devin always lost things, but Pascal, even as a boy, was careful and deliberate---they fought for weeks over that map until Father caught wind of it and forbade us from returning here.”
“Did you listen?” Catherine asked, her own amusement glittering in their bond.
Vincent raised his eyebrows. “What do you think?”
“Hmm,” she replied, amused. “I’m guessing not.”
“And you’d be right. The three of us returned two or three more times before Devin left, but we never found that map, or his treasure---if there was any.” He took her hand and gestured with his free hand to the waterfall. “There is a small lake---a pool, really---at the base of that waterfall, and a strip of beach next to it. If you like, we can make camp there tonight.”
“That sounds lovely,” Catherine replied.
Using some of the dry timber leaning against one of the cavern walls--from one of Vincent’s previous expeditions, Catherine wondered?---she made short work of getting a fire going, while Vincent unearthed their supplies for dinner and unrolled their sleeping bag. Dinner was William’s hearty vegetable stew, a loaf of bread that they split between them and some herbal tea from Vincent’s own stash. It was simple but hearty fare, the kind of food Catherine remembered from camping trips years earlier.
After dinner, when everything was cleaned and packed away again and no more work remained to be done, Catherine leaned up against her husband as they watched the shadows of the flickering flames against the stone walls. His arms enfolded her, gathering her close. “What are you thinking?” he asked, nuzzling the top of her hair.
She sighed. The warmth of the fire was hypnotic, as was the barely perceptible thrum of Vincent’s heartbeat. “Only that I love you.” Catherine tilted her head up too look at him and thought again how beautiful he was, and how utterly unknowing of his own beauty. “What are you thinking?”
“Only that I love you as well,” he said quietly. “I have done many things here, Catherine, been a pirate, an explorer, or simply been alone. But,” Vincent continued, his eyes growing darker, “there is one thing I have never done here.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
He nodded. “Well, we can’t have that,” Catherine said, rising and taking his hand. “What haven’t you been here?”
Vincent drew her down beside him on the sleeping bag and slowly unbuttoned her blouse. “Your husband,” he said. A roguish smile crossed his face. “Do you mind?”
“Never,” she replied, and kissed him.
Click here for Chapter 15....
 “Lullaby,” by the Dixie Chicks. “How long do you want to be loved?/Is forever enough?”