“Slowly. Very slowly.”
“Yes. You'll want to go slow. Too fast and---”
“Oh, I see.”
“Now, move it in and out.”
“Oh...that's lovely. I always wondered how you did that.”
“Hey, you two,” Rebecca's laughing voice cut in, “if you're done trading innuendos over there, we've got a lot more candles to finish dipping.”
Vincent gazed at his blushing wife across the vat of colored wax and raised one eyebrow. “I'm sorry, Rebecca.”
She shook her head, smiling. “No, you're not. And you shouldn't be.” Rebecca coughed, a heavy sound deep in her chest which reminded him again of why the making of the Winterfest candles had fallen behind this year. She'd fallen ill with a cold which had advanced too quickly into pneumonia, and everyone had taken shifts to cover her work. Most of the candles had already been sent out but the most special batch---the ones which were delivered to their helpers in the city---remained undone.
“Don't worry about it, in other words,” Marisol said, hanging a finished pair of candles on one of their racks. “You're both newlyweds---do you remember Kanin and Olivia in the laundry?”
Rebecca chuckled. “Oh, do I. It was months before I could look at sheets without cracking up.”
Vincent well remembered both the incident and the teasing Kanin and Olivia had taken for it. Even Father had been moved to comment: “Just because there are sheets in there doesn't mean you can...you know...”
“You know what?” Vincent had queried innocently and had watched in amazement as Father's face had colored a bright red.
“Never mind,” Father had gasped, but the commons had broken out in laughter just the same.
Now, Rebecca nodded and sat down on the camel-back sofa. “I'm just really glad we got the candles off to our out of state helpers; we'd never have managed otherwise, this close to Winterfest.”
“How are you feeling, Rebecca?” Catherine asked.
“Better,” she replied, pulling her shawl closer. “Not quite as wheezy. Thank you both for being so willing to help. It's been so hectic here, trying to keep up with our usual candle needs and the remaining Winterfest candles too. And there really aren't a lot of people I can trust to help with the Winterfest candles; it's fine if our ordinary ones are lumpy or too short or too tall, but these candles are special.”
“It's no problem,” Catherine replied, and Vincent felt a small thrill of pride, watching her as she inserted a group of white candles slowly into the vat of orange wax. It struck him again how comfortable she was here, how much she'd found her own path in their community since their marriage.
“Oh, Vincent,” Rebecca said, “there's a candle on the shelf for you.”
“Yes,” Rebecca replied. “Catherine's first.”
“I don't understand,” Catherine said.
“Tunnel tradition,” Marisol explained. “The best of the first Winterfest candles you make are given to your loved one. * Miguel still has mine,” she continued, smiling fondly. “I have to say, Catherine's got a much steadier hand than I do.”
“Nonsense,” Catherine replied, shaking her head.
“Well, you've got skill in this, that's for sure,” Rebecca said.
Marisol handed the paired candles to Vincent, and he had to agree; aside from the slightly shorter length of Catherine's candles, there was no way to tell the difference between the ones she'd made and the ones Rebecca made. “Better be careful, Catherine,” he teased. “Else Rebecca will keep you down here permanently.”
She tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and grinned at him. “I haven't minded yet, you know.”
He smiled back, acknowledging this. Where once the thought of her spending so much time Below would have filled him with both nervousness and terror, now it was something great and wondrous and paradoxically, normal. What a miracle you are. He picked up his own candles, and gently placed them into the yellow wax. The scent was familiar, comforting, reminding him of all the times he and Rebecca had dipped candles together.
“How many more do you think we need?” Marisol asked as she dipped a set of bare wicks into another vat of wax.
“Probably another twenty, then we're covered,” Rebecca said. “And a good thing, since Winterfest is in a couple of days.”
“How's the progress coming in the Great Hall?” Marisol asked.
“Arthur hasn't escaped into the Great Hall yet,” Vincent observed dryly. “So we're already ahead of where we usually are. The tapestries have been cleaned and the cleaning crews have scattered most of the spiders. William frets that he doesn't have an exact head count---”
“Doesn't he always?” Rebecca asked. “Yet we always have enough.”
“He's not fretting for that reason this year,” Vincent said with a wry look at his wife, who was very determinedly not looking at him. “There is an...unusual bounty coming to us. Peter's been given a large amount of food by one of his patients; he'll be donating it to the kitchen.”
Marisol cocked an eyebrow. “That's very...commendable of him, don't you think, Catherine?”
Catherine coughed delicately. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
Some hours later, after the last of the Winterfest candles were hung to dry, Catherine and Vincent ambled towards the commons for dinner. “You seem tired,” Vincent observed. “Are you all right?”
Catherine nodded. “Oh, yes. It just seems like things have been so busy since I came back from Albany.”
“They have been,” Vincent agreed. “This time of year is always so busy Below, and you're carrying a full workload Above too.”
“Don't go feeling sorry for me,” she said, leaning into the shelter of his enclosing arm. “I wouldn't have it any other way. I just never appreciated how hectic it is down here before Winterfest.”
Vincent chuckled, the rasp of his amusement something she loved to hear. “It's chaotic, isn't it? Yet it will all come together and everyone will conveniently forget how much work is involved until next year.”
“Ah, so that's the secret? Selective amnesia?” Catherine asked, grinning.
“That's my theory, yes,” Vincent agreed. “And you've heard the grumbling---everyone swearing they'll never do this again, or they'll find someone else to do it next year. Meanwhile...”
“Meanwhile, Angus and Cullen build the chairs that are needed, Rebecca makes her candles, Mouse keeps Arthur out from under everyone's feet, William makes a menu fit to serve kings and everyone shows up and enjoys the party,” Catherine finished. “I always knew this was an amazing place, but Winterfest really drives it home.”
She yawned and felt the sudden flare of his concern through their connection. “You've been working too hard,” he accused gently.
“You're a fine one to talk,” she returned, and drew back a little to look at him. “You've got glitter in your hair. And sawdust.”
He ran a hand through the dense mass of his hair, dislodging even more of the glitter, which settled in fine purple and blue drifts over his high cheekbones. “The glitter was from the children’s craft projects.”
“And the sawdust?”
Vincent flashed a quick, wry grin at her. “That's for me to know and you to find out.”
After dinner, they returned to their chamber. Vincent had been concerned by Catherine's unusual silence during the meal, the way she'd picked at her food. She was disturbed, deeply so; her tensions had risen within him, knotted and fierce, all day long, and had only slightly been abated by their work in the chandlery. He sat down on the bed and pulled off his boots, seeing Catherine stretch. “You had a difficult day at work,” Vincent surmised.
She sat down heavily on the corner of their bed and began to pull out the combs holding her hair up in a chignon. The soft strands fell loose and silken over her shoulders. “You might say that.”
He picked up the brush from her dresser and sat behind her, running the brush through her hair. Almost immediately, he felt the start of the lessening of tension through their bond. “Tell me.”
“Herman Mueller’s daughters came to see me today. They…don’t want their father bothered as they put it. They want me to leave him alone and let him die in peace.”
Vincent recalled what she’d told him of Herman Mueller’s decision to try and preserve his testimony even though he might not be alive for the trial. “They surely know it was their father’s choice to testify.”
Catherine nodded. “Yes. Yes, they do, but…I think it’s easier for them to believe he was pressured. They’re upset and angry. And afraid. He’s their dad, after all. And he’s dying.”
“And you’re a convenient target.”
She smiled faintly. “I’d much prefer they were angry at Max Avery, but…yeah.” She shrugged. “It comes with the territory. All I could do was reassure them that no, we did not pressure their father into testifying, and tell them how much it will make a difference.”
“And then?” There was more, Vincent knew; a weighted sadness pulled at her words, the sadness of only having difficult choices remaining.
“And then Mrs. Mueller called, to apologize for her daughters.” Catherine rubbed the back of her neck where, Vincent knew, a headache was brewing. “It’s…hard some days. But you knew that already.”
“I did,” Vincent answered. “I wish it was not so difficult on you.”
Catherine tilted her head back to look at him. “Thank you, love. In a way, I can't disagree with his daughters; he's in hospice and there we were with a court reporter and a video camera, when I would have much rather left his entire family in peace.”
Vincent considered. “You're giving them some peace...peace to a dying man who wanted to help, peace to his wife, who is doing what her husband wanted in his last days. In time, his daughters will realize it.”
For a time, she rested against him, the slow beat of his heart a comforting rhythm. His own day must have been busy, this close to Winterfest, and Catherine wondered yet again how he managed the chaos of her emotions in the midst of all else he had to contend with. “How was your day, love?”
“Not nearly as hectic as yours.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” she said dryly. “You can't tell me you weren't a lot of the muscle when you and Cullen had to wrangle that huge banquet table into place. And when Kali and Wilma chased Arthur into the kitchen, who helped Mouse wrangle Arthur and---”
“You heard about that?”
“Mmm—hmm,” she replied. “I ran into Marisol at the co-op during my lunch break and she told me.”
He chuckled. “And here I thought gossip traveled fast on the pipes.”
“It does, but it so happens Marisol's a bit faster,” Catherine replied, returning his smile. “And the new helper is coming to Winterfest too, from what she said.”
“Yes,” Vincent said. “Santos Riveira. He's a friend of Miguel's. I'm...meeting him tomorrow.”
Catherine turned in his arms to look up at him. Sometimes---most of the time---she all but forgot there was anything different about him, until moments like this brought it home. I wonder how I ever found you frightening. “Is it...” She pressed one hand to her mouth. “Will it be...difficult for you?”
Vincent shook his head, though his eyes were shadowed. “No. At least, I don't believe so. He's been...prepared, as much as anyone can be; he's met everyone else.”
“Yes, he has,” Catherine agreed. “I don't recall how Miguel came to decide Santos might make a helper, though.”
“They’ve become good friends. Santos has been a regular on Miguel’s bus route for some months now.”
“A good man?”
“He volunteers at a homeless shelter four nights a week and his elderly aunt lives with him.”
Catherine recognized those two values---care of the weak, care of the community---as ones particularly treasured Below. “There’s something else, though, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” Vincent replied. “In a fortunate coincidence, he works as a surveyor for the city of New York.”
“Oh, Vincent, that’s----”
“Some measure of security for us, yes. We might at least have warning the next time there’s a skyscraper planned to be built over our heads. Burch Tower caught us…unawares. And for the survival of our community, we can’t be so ignorant ever again.” A speculative look crossed his face. “There are other reasons. Another lesson of Burch Tower is that we must be prepared to expand, to have some tunnels we can retreat to in case of an emergency. But we lack the skills to properly chart these mazes, so expansion has been slow and haphazard.”
“I don’t believe that,” Catherine scoffed. “You and Mouse and Cullen---”
He kissed the top of her head. “Thank you for your faith in us, but we’re amateurs, self-taught engineers. For every chamber we build, every source of water we find, there are three or four that must be abandoned almost before we begin because the walls are too unstable or the air is poor, or the water fouled. If this community is going to continue, we have to be able to grow and grow safely. Accurate, precise maps would be a huge step in the right direction.”
Catherine thought of the hand-drawn maps she’d seen, scrawled with messy, cursive notations in a dozen hands, and saw his point. “All right. But promise me…you’ll let me be there with you when you’re introduced.”
“There’s no need---” Vincent began, until Catherine’s finger on his lips silenced what he would have said. “Yes, there is,” she told him. “Introductions haven’t always gone well for you, have they?”
“No,” he agreed finally. “Santos will…get used to me.”
She touched the side of his face and his hand covered her own. “Beloved, no one should have to ‘get used’ to you. This is your home. I am your wife. Let me be here for you. Please?”
Vincent at his most hard-headed was formidable, and Catherine thought he might---as he would have done, earlier in their relationship---come up with a dozen excuses why she should be anywhere else but at his side. But he didn’t; instead, he pressed a quick kiss to her palm and smiled. “I…forget sometimes,” he murmured.
“Forget what?” she asked.
“That you're stubborn too.”
The thick mass of his hair was soft under her hands as she pulled him down for a kiss. “You better believe it.”
Catherine went into work early the next morning, to get a jump on the court hearings and upcoming trials which were promising to clog the rest of her week. She entered her office to find Joe on a ladder, hanging a tinsel decoration from the ceiling tiles. “Oh, hey, Radcliffe,” he said. “You’re here early.”
She glanced up at him and smiled. The mystery of who was responsible for the office Christmas decorations was now apparently solved. “I might say the same about you. So you’re the one behind all this?” Her gesture took in the garlands on the tops of the cubicle walls and the small tree in the corner, festooned with glittering ornaments.
“Well, someone has to,” Joe said, stepping down from the ladder. “Say, you and your husband coming to the Christmas party? The guys from Gangs are promising us some good music this year.”
“I can’t, Joe. We’re going to visit his family,” Catherine replied, feeling, as always, the tug at having to lie to this man. But maybe…maybe…one day I won’t have to. Oh, Joe, would you ever understand the secrets I’ve had to keep?
“Too bad,” Joe said cheerfully. “You’ll miss one hell of a party.” He paused, the tinseled garland in his hands looking incongruous with the suddenly serious look on his face. For a moment, he stared at the decoration as if he’d never seen it before. “You got a minute?” he asked.
Catherine nodded. “Of course. What is it, Joe?”
Joe closed the door of his office behind them. “I heard from my contact with the Feds last night. Officially, they won’t confirm it but he as much told me that Avery’s mobbed up. Said he was surprised we didn’t know.”
Catherine thought of the depths of Moreno’s treachery. “I’m not.”
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “I’m not either. But anyway, I wanted to let you know. What time does Rita get in?”
“She said she’d be in around nine after her hearing,” Catherine told him.
“Good. When she gets in, I need to see you both.”
“Right.” A thought occurred to her then. “Joe, were you ever able to find out who told Avery’s people where Rita and I were?”
“No,” Joe said, frustration plain in the tie he yanked askew. “I met with Internal Affairs while you and Rita were in Albany; they also aren’t revealing much because of their ongoing investigation, but I gather they believe more than one person is involved.” His mouth twisted. “When Moreno went down, he didn’t take all his buddies with him.”
“We’re going to be dealing with the mess he's left us for years, aren’t we?” Catherine asked.
Joe nodded. “Yeah. I'm expecting a flood of appeals from the period while Moreno was DA and who knows how long it’ll take to get settled.”
“We’ll get through it,” Catherine said, knowing this was a sore subject.
“Yeah. Maybe.” Joe glanced outside his office window, where a string of Christmas lights hung unlit, plain against the glass. “Wanna help me hang some lights?”
“Coffee first,” Catherine agreed, laughing. “Then, yes.”
Vincent arrived at the basement threshold nearly half an hour before Catherine was due to arrive. Restless, unable to settle at any but the most basic tasks, he had finished his last class---the children's reading circle---and changed his clothes. I am nervous. I shouldn't be nervous. This is my home.
“You're pacing, love,” a voice said from above him. Catherine, descending from the snows of Above. The scent of a chill winter's dampness entered with her; it would rain soon.
He stopped in mid-pivot and looked up to see his wife, haloed by the light. Like an angel, he would have said. He moved to help brace her passage down the ladder; though she had come down this ladder unaided many times before, he enjoyed the contact and---as he felt the tremor through their connection---so did Catherine. “Thanks, love,” she said when her feet touched tunnel earth. Her eyes searched his face. “You're nervous.”
There was no point---there never had been---in denying it. What his expression didn't tell her, their bond surely would. “Yes,” he admitted.
She clasped his hand. “I won't tell you not to be but...you're not alone. Where are we meeting him?”
“Father's chamber,” Vincent replied. “With the rest of the council.”
“You know,” Catherine said as they began to walk, “Jenny wasn't afraid of you at all when she first came down.”
“Jenny had been dreaming of me for months,” Vincent reminded her. “I believe she was more relieved than shocked.”
“Probably,” Catherine said, remembering Jenny's reaction, her delighted smile. “But maybe you'll find there's nothing at all to be worried about.”
Vincent inclined his head, considering. “True. And Santos has been through the process; if he was not trustworthy, if the Council had any reason at all to doubt him, he wouldn't be coming here tonight.”
“That's the spirit,” Catherine replied, leaning into his arm. “I know you've got every good reason in the world to be nervous, but try not to worry so. Besides, Miguel was his sponsor. I can't see a man who drives a city bus not being a good judge of character.”
Vincent nodded. Just before they reached Father's chamber, he stopped and reached for the hood of his cloak. He was startled when Catherine's own hands pulled the hood up and he smiled, remembering an April night so long ago. “Thank you,” he murmured. “He's here. Shall we?”
“Yes,” Catherine said, and hand-in-hand, they walked into Father's chamber.
Click here for Chapter 42....
* Idea shamelessly stolen from Sue Glasgow's “When the Phoenix Sings.” http://www.classicalliance.net/tunneltalescg/glasgowphoenixindex.html If you haven't read it, do. It's a fantastic story.
 “Tie Your Heart at Night to Mine, Love,” by Pablo Neruda