Catherine awoke quite early, earlier than was her normal pattern when she didn’t have to be at work. Vincent’s breathing was harsh, a deep gusty rumble. Running, Catherine thought, but the panicked sound of it disturbed her. “Vincent,” she whispered, and his breathing calmed. “I’m here.”
He opened his eyes. “You are,” he said, a sigh of relief. “I was running to you but you were lost…I was lost…”
“I’m here,” she said again, her hand resting on his chest. The beating of his heart---a frantic lurching jutter---pounded against his ribs. She glanced at one of the thick candles; she'd learned they melted at a roughly constant pace and to judge by how much of the candle remained, she thought it might be dawn, or a little before it. “Will you sleep now?”
Some remnant of the anguish of the dream veiled his eyes as he sat up. “No. I'll go write in my journal. Please, go back to sleep.”
“Is that what you'd do...before?” Catherine asked. “Because you don't have to. I could get us some coffee.”
“It's early,” Vincent said. “You shouldn't lose sleep because of my nightmares.”
“I can sleep later,” Catherine replied. “And you're awake now.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to argue further, she knew, but the stubborn, mulish look on his face faded, replaced by one of mingled love and grudging acceptance. “Very well. I would like some coffee...if you insist.”
“I do,” she said, and kissed him.
She encountered William as he was setting up. The kitchen was still cool, the brick ovens just lit for the breakfast baking. Though the tiles of the counter were chipped and mismatched, they gleamed in the torchlight, as clean as any operating room. William shouldered open the large pantry's swinging door, an unwieldy assortment of dry ingredients clamped in his beefy arms.“Good morning,” William said. “What are you doing here this early?” he asked.
“Looking for coffee.” She caught the container of oats before it hit the floor and deposited it on the counter.
William nodded his thanks and rowed his supplies into a neat, distinct order. “Haven't started it yet, so if you want, go ahead. Coffee’s in the small pantry, the filters are right next to it. If the electricity is up to snuff today, the pot might even come on.”
“Does it often fail?” She filled the carafe with water and poured it into the reservoir of the machine, then added the filter and the dry coffee.
“Depends,” William said. An egg in each hand, he cracked them into a large mixing bowl, tossed the shells into the compost and took two more from the pile. “We’ve had power outages, usually because of an ice storm Above. And there have been times when we’ve had to shut down all the electricity because Con Ed is doing an inspection…but we’ve been lucky so far. And we really try not to strain the system; we use too much, someone will come checking.”
He added flour, sugar and milk to his mixing bowl. “You know,” William continued, “I’m usually seeing Vincent here waiting. He sleeping in?”
“Not really. I just got up before him.”
“Ah,” William said. “Not many people get up as early as he does, I can tell you.” He picked up the old hand crank mixer---something Catherine had never seen outside of an antique store---and placed it into the bowl. “We make do with a lot of things our grandparents used.” The blades began to turn in response to his determined cranking, mixing the ingredients together. “It's not the easiest way to do things but sometimes, the old ways work the best for the life we live here.”
Catherine nodded and glanced at the pot, saw that it was not done percolating. “Do you need any help?” she asked.
“Nah,” he said. “Not this early. Later on though, I always need help with the dishes.”
She heard the rueful tone in his voice and chuckled. “You don't get many volunteers for that, do you?”
“Why do you think Father's got it on his list of assigned chores? I'd never see the kids or half the adults otherwise.” His tone was gruff, but Catherine heard the humor under his words and wondered how many people were initially put off by the burly cook.
“So where'd you learn to cook for all these people?” she asked.
“The army,” he said, “'Nam, more precisely. Did two years, came home, worked in a greasy spoon for a while, and then...” His voice trailed off and Catherine didn't press him, knowing how many people Below had stories ending---and beginning—with “and then...”
William added a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg to the dough. “You don't want to hear this, I'm sure.”
“Only if you want to tell it,” she said. “Otherwise, I don't need to know.”
“I do believe you mean that,” William said slowly, stirring in the chopped walnuts, measuring his words as he’d measured the ingredients. “My dad fought in World War II. I grew up on his war stories. When my draft number came up, he wanted me to flee to my aunt in Canada, but I wanted to fight. I was young and stupid and I thought war proved something, made you a man, so I went to 'Nam. When I returned...I'd seen too much. I didn't sleep well, couldn't hold a job for long, got into fights...and when my last job ran out, my dad died. I ended up at a homeless shelter and from there, I was...directed down here. Been here ever since.”
The pot stopped gurgling. “Would you like a cup?”
“Please,” William answered. “I’ve been in here since 4am.”
Williams shook his head. “Do you take it with milk or sugar?”
“No, just black, thanks,” William replied. He took a sip and his face, normally florid, flushed a deeper red.
“William?” Catherine asked. “Are you all right?”
He swallowed, coughed, tried to speak, then coughed again. “Good God, where did you learn to brew coffee?”
Catherine felt her face grow warm. “Um, Radcliffe?”
“You make it stronger than I had it in the army,” William managed. He sat the mug at some distance from him as if it contained a live grenade. Then unexpectedly, he grinned.
He returned to his mixing, the clack of the blades quiet against the ceramic bowl. “Pascal is always after me to make the coffee stronger, says it tastes like brown water. I do think I’ll let him try this.”
Vincent looked up as Catherine entered their bedroom. “Here you go, love,” she said and handed him his coffee.
“Thank you,” he replied. He gazed down into the cup and noticed the brew seemed darker than normal. “William didn’t make this, did he?”
Unexpectedly, she blushed. “What makes you say that?”
“I’ve seen tar that’s lighter,” he responded, amused. “Did William drink any of it?”
Catherine flushed a pleasing shade of dark rose. “He did; in fact, he said he’d give it to Pascal next.”
“That should be interesting,” Vincent replied, laughing, and took her cup from her as she sat down next to him on the bed, careful not to jostle the hot liquid.
She settled against him and as always, some eldritch light flooded their connection at the contact. He cautiously took a drink of his own coffee and was noticed that the bitterness no longer seemed quite so acrid. “Is it really that bad?” Catherine asked.
“It's not,” he answered. “Either that or I'm getting used to it.”
Catherine laughed. “Poor William. I don't think he'll be letting me anywhere near a coffee pot now.”
“I wouldn't be so sure,” Vincent said. “We have our caffeine addicts below too, Catherine. I have heard complaints---when they're sure William isn't in earshot—-that the coffee is sometimes rather...weak. You may find yourself with legions of fans once word gets out.”
Her mirth danced through their bond as she drank. “I have to tell you, when I thought about what I could do down here, 'brewer of strong coffee' didn't make the list.”
She leaned against him again and they sat in companionable silence for a time, broken only by the sounds of their breathing. Catherine placed her empty cup on the nightstand and turned to him. “You want to tell me what that dream was about? Was it one of....?”
“It doesn't mean anything,” Vincent reassured her. “It wasn't a portent of anything that could happen in the future.”
Catherine glanced at Narcissa's carved mirror, now sitting on his dresser. Even as accustomed to magic and the mysterious as he was---as he couldn't help but be, being what he was, whatever he was---he still found it difficult to believe at times that their experience in the caverns had really occurred. “If you say so,” she said, unconvinced. “But I don't want you trying to protect me from your dreams, from your fears. We're in this together.”
He thought of Cullen and Valerie's earlier spat and smiled inwardly. He, too, was still learning. “I won't,” he said. “I promise.”
“So what’s on your schedule for today?” she asked him sometime later. They had showered and dressed and now Vincent sat on the edge of their bed, trying without much success to towel dry his thick hair.
“I have a couple of classes to teach, and we’re supposed to get the first of our Winterfest deliveries today,” Vincent said, a wide-toothed comb in his hand. “Candle wax for Rebecca, if Maxine can make the delivery.”
“Maxine?” The name was unfamiliar to her and Catherine thought again how there were so many helpers she never knew.
“She’s a taxi driver by trade; her husband runs a delivery service out in the Bronx. Normally, she’ll pick up the wax and bring it to us at the warehouse.”
Catherine remembered the warehouse; it was likely the same one she'd met Peter at when the plague epidemic had ravaged the tunnels. “But you said she might not be able to make it?”
“She’s been ill recently, and her husband’s business is very involving; they don’t often have spare time, though they’ll do their best, of course. If they can’t deliver the wax, we’ll need to arrange some other means of pickup.” He flashed a quick smile. “Rebecca’s eager to start her candles. Once the wax arrives, they’ll need my help to move it from the warehouse to her workshop.”
“Vincent,” Catherine said, startled that she hadn’t thought of it earlier, “we have a van. Remember? Mr. Ang’s delivery van, the one we used when we went to Connecticut? It’s just parked at his store but it belongs to us.”
“I’d completely forgotten,” he replied, chagrined. “If Maxine sends word that she can’t make it today, would you mind picking up the wax?”
She nodded. “I’d love to help, you know that.” She looked at his hair, saw that much of it was still not dry. “Let me help you with this,” she said, gesturing towards his comb.
“Thank you,” he said in some relief.
She scooted behind him on the bed and took the comb from his hand. “So which classes are you teaching today?” Catherine asked. His damp hair flowed down his back in a river of auburn, the long, graceful lines of muscle and bone gilded in the candlelight.
“Cullen and I are taking the beginning woodworking class later on this morning. Brooke and Jamie are studying for their GEDs and have asked my help with some of the math study questions. Then it's the reading group for the littlest readers. ”
She used the end of the comb to separate the various layers in his hair and combed them smooth, drying them with the towel. “Do you think Brooke and Jamie will return Above one day?”
“Brooke may; she’s said she’s interested in becoming a nurse. Jamie, though…” Even though she couldn’t see his face, she could sense his love for Jamie, the same love he had for all the children in his care, the young adults he had taught and guided towards adulthood. “For her,” he continued, “it’s more that she doesn’t want to leave any option unexplored. She came to us a wounded, abandoned child and has found her healing here. I don’t think she wants to return, but at least having her education gives her the option.”
“That’s practical,” Catherine agreed.
“That’s Jamie,” Vincent answered. “She always was endlessly practical, even as a small child. Wouldn’t wear dresses because she wanted to go exploring. Learned a bow and arrow because she wanted to be a sentry. Such independence is something we encourage in the children here; our world is as safe as we can make it, but there are still dangers and it's best they learn early how to use their own judgment.” His mouth quirked. “Which doesn't, mind you, mean Father was thrilled when she announced---during a council meeting---that she was ready to start her sentry's training.”
“How old was she when she decided that?”
“Eleven or twelve, I believe.” There was a slight mischief in his voice.
“You made her the bow and arrow, didn't you? And taught her to shoot?” Catherine asked.
“I made the bow, yes, though Jamie learned archery from Elijah. Officially, Father believes she found the bow and arrow below. Unofficially, I'm sure he knows perfectly well where it came from.”
“No doubt,” she said. She combed another lock of thick hair. “Weren't you worried, though? Jamie was so young.”
Vincent half-turned to face her, profile etched in bronze. “Yes, she was. But she was...an uncommon child, even at that age. Responsible, serious. Which isn't to say that she didn't get into her fair share of hijinks but when it came to that bow and arrow, she was quite intent in learning how to use it. It wasn't a game to her---from the first, she felt a determination to protect us. Winslow used to tell her it was our job; we were the adults. But...” his mouth quirked, “did I mention she was stubborn?”
“You might have,” Catherine replied, smiling. “And I'm glad she is. That stubbornness saved your lives, more than once.”
“It did,” he acknowledged.
With one last gentle tug, Catherine freed his hair of its tangles. “I think it's almost dry now,” she said, leaning forward onto her knees to kiss the top of his head, breathing in the clean, masculine scent of him. “You smell good.”
He tilted his head to look up at her, and pulled her down for a kiss. “So do you.”
After breakfast, they returned to their chamber. “The woodworking classes are held at Cullen's workshop, so if you need me, that's the location code for the pipes,” Vincent told her, retrieving a well-worn tool belt from an old domed trunk.
“What's the project for today?” she asked, finding the sight of him in patched denim, layered flannels and that leather tool belt unexpectedly...intriguing. There's varnish stains on his jeans and his shirt is frayed and worn, but...damn. Is it hot in here?
The sudden startled rise of his head and the quick flash of laughing blue eyes told Catherine that her desire must have crossed their bond, try though she might to remind herself that he had work to do, as did she. “Bookshelves,” he said, failing to keep the mirth out of his voice. “But I'll be back around lunchtime.” A roguish grin crossed his features. “Will you be...ready?”
She waggled her eyebrows. “Count on it.”
A sudden flurry of tapping broke into their reverie. “Is it just me or is Pascal banging on the pipes a lot faster today?” Vincent asked.
Catherine affected a pose of utter innocence which, she knew, didn't fool him for a bit. “I really wouldn't know.” She tilted her head, trying and failing to understand the message. “But what on earth is he saying?”
Vincent chuckled. “In this case, a little caffeine may have been too much of a good thing. He's saying that Maxine sent word that she still has the flu and is asking Rebecca if it's crucial she has the wax today.”
“I can pick it up whenever it's ready. After all, Matthew and Annie won't be down until later this evening,” Catherine said.
“If you're sure it won't disrupt your own work?”
“No, not at all. I have to go above sometime today anyway to check the messages on my phone.”
“Very well,” Vincent answered. “Rebecca has the address of the shop where we get our wax from; once you get to the warehouse, send a message on the pipes and we'll get it unloaded.”
She nodded. “Have a good day, okay?”
“I will,” Vincent replied. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” Catherine said, and watched as he dropped the tapestry curtain behind him.
Catherine was making headway on the largest of the Avery files when she glanced at the old walnut mantel clock that had once belonged to her grandmother. I can’t believe it’s almost 11. Working Below was, she was surprised to find, both easier and more challenging than her office above. No one bothered her, not with the tapestry down, inviolate as any door, but---she rubbed her eyes in fatigue---trying to read files by candlelight for long periods had its drawbacks. I wonder if Mouse could run some electricity in here, just enough to power a lamp or two. Or maybe they have battery-powered lamps.
She stood and arched her back, stretching to ease the kink. Catherine folded her notes into a neat pile and decided to take a break. I need to see Rebecca anyway and I haven’t seen Marisol for a couple of days. I wonder how she’s feeling? Emerging from her office, she prized out the length of pipe from behind one of Vincent’s bookshelves. Here goes nothing.
Catherine to Rebecca---Vincent and Catherine’s chamber—can I stop by?
Almost at once, the answer came back in a flurry of sound. Rebecca to Catherine—The Chandlery—of course. Please bring coffee. Marisol has cookies. We’d love to see you.
Catherine to Rebecca—thank you---stopping by the Commons first.
Finding the Chandlery (Catherine smiled a bit at the coincidence of the name) turned out to be relatively easy. She already knew the location of Marisol's chamber, and the candle workshop was just beyond it, down a long corridor that also contained the workshops of some of the other tunnel-dwellers. With a carafe of coffee in her hand and three cups in a basket, Catherine called out, “Rebecca? Marisol? I'm here.”
“Come in!” Rebecca's voice called and Catherine entered the Chandlery.
It was a large room, with completed candles strung on racks. She noticed that some of them were the traditional orange-yellow-white Winterfest candles---already! she thought, pleased---while others were the more common solid white ones used in every chamber Catherine had visited. Along one wall, a neat row of shelving held supplies—wax, wicks, dye, fragrances---and steam rose from large tubs of wax with makeshift dipping racks strung over them. Another shelf held completed tapers in every size and color, arranged into neat rows. The air was heavy with the scent of warm beeswax and herbs.
“I didn't, not exactly,” Catherine replied, sitting down on the ottoman opposite the two women. “But I thought I remembered it and here I am.”
Rebecca poured the coffee. “Well, I’m glad you did. Vincent told me you’ll be picking up the wax today---thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“It’s no problem,” she replied. “I have to go Above anyway to check my messages---one more errand isn’t going to put a kink in my schedule.” She glanced around the room. “How early do you start doing the Winterfest candles?”
“We don’t actually ever stop,” Marisol said. “There are a lot of helpers and we send them to those who live out of state, who were once involved Below but aren’t around anymore. I think we even sent one to Africa a few years back when one of our helpers was in the Peace Corps.”
“I didn’t know you helped out here,” Catherine said.
“Oh, yeah. This was actually my first job Below, before old Josephine taught me to weave.” Marisol grinned. “I’m not nearly as good it as Rebecca is—mine tend to come out all lumpy---but they work, at least.”
“She’s better with it than I am at weaving,” Rebecca put in with a playful grin. “And I can always use the help.”
Catherine thought of the dozens of candles in Father's study and in her own chamber. “I bet you do. Is it tough to learn?”
Rebecca shook her head. “Nope. When you have a couple of hours, stop by. I'd love to show you.”
“I'll do that,” Catherine said. She gazed at Marisol. “We didn't see you at breakfast. Are you all right?”
Marisol patted the small curve of her stomach. “Not much in the mornings these days. Miguel was kind enough to bring me some toast and some tea later, but I wasn't up to breakfast just then.”
“Are you feeling better now?”
Marisol handed her the plate of cookies. “Oh, yes, thanks. It's just inconvenient but not fatal; Mary says I should be over with it in a few weeks.” She tilted her head. “What about you? Are you finding everything okay down here?”
Catherine nodded. She took a cookie and noticed the smell of nutmeg and cinnamon. Oatmeal, she decided and wondered if these were the ones William had been making in the kitchen earlier in the morning. “Pretty much. At least, I haven't gotten lost yet.”
“You will, though,” Rebecca said. “Everyone does, now and then, even those of us who have lived here for years...well, everyone except for Vincent and Mouse. Vincent told you about the master pipes, I'm guessing---if you get lost, bang on one of those. Pascal will get you straightened out.”
“I'll remember that, thanks,” Catherine responded.
Vincent entered their chamber, and stopped, startled. There was not a single candle lit in the antechamber; not a hazard for him, but a definite risk for Catherine, unaccustomed as she was to the depths of tunnel darkness. “Catherine?” he called.
“In here,” she answered.
He entered the short hallway leading to their bedroom and halted. The candles in the antechamber had been moved to this room, casting a warm flickering glow, banishing all shadows. Catherine lay in their bed, the pale ivory of the sheets slightly darker than the pearled curve of her breasts, the gleam of her shoulders.
She raised her arms, beckoning. “I'm here,” she murmured as he lay beside her.
“I know,” he said, and buried all his worries and cares, the things he knew and might never know, in the sheltering paradise of her arms.
 “A Dream Pang,” by Robert Frost