Chapter 49: And in Your Life, My Infinite Dreams Live 
“You sure you won’t come to the Christmas party, Radcliffe?” Joe asked, hitching his hip on one corner of her desk.
Catherine glanced up at him. With the court calendar so slow this close to the holidays, she’d taken the rare opportunity to organize her files. Even her in-box was empty…which was, to her way of thinking, nearly the perfect way to end the year at work. “Sorry, Joe,” she answered. “I’m…going up to see my husband’s family for the holiday.”
Joe pulled a face. “Mmmm…fun with the in-laws. You’ll miss one hell of a party.”
“I’m sure,” Catherine said, wondering if she could ever explain, wondering if she might ever dare to try. “Maybe next year, Joe.”
“Sure,” he said easily. “I’m gonna get to meet this guy of yours one day, right?”
“Anything’s possible. Now get off my desk---you’re cluttering it up and after I got it all nice and clean, too,” Catherine replied, shooing him away with an empty file folder. He jumped back, laughing, and ambled off.
Outside, the snow was falling; if she hurried now, she might be able to see Valerie and Cullen before Vincent finished his class.
“So what’s this all about?” Cullen asked.
Catherine took the cup of tea Valerie offered and smiled. “Well, I seem to remember Vincent saying something about a camping trip he takes the older kids on after Christmas.”
“Yes,” Valerie said, fishing a sweater out of a basket for mending. “It’s become one of our newest traditions since Vincent first visited the place, their first trip to the Crystal Caverns. It's the last part of the tunnel survival class he teaches.”
She remembered Vincent the other night, setting out his camping gear, checking it for wear or replacement. “Talk about a practical class.”
“It sure is. Most of the area, as you remember, is below the pipes, so it forces the older kids to think how they'd survive if they got lost and couldn't rely on an immediate rescue.”
“It's a great idea,” Catherine agreed. “And he’ll be gone…about a week?”
Cullen nodded. “Yup.” He waggled his eyebrows. “What are you planning?”
“Who says I’m planning anything?”
“Uh-uh,” Cullen said, chuckling. “That innocent look might work on Vincent, though somehow I doubt it. You’re up to something and you want my help to do it.”
“Guilty as charged,” Catherine replied, unrepentant. “We need a door.”
“Ohhhh,” Cullen said with a knowing grin, and Catherine felt her face warm. “I…see.”
Valerie glanced over at Cullen and grinned. “We’re going to need one too, Cullen, before the baby is born; this corridor echoes too much. Half the tunnels will know when our baby cries.”
“And it’s the…echoes… Catherine is trying to prevent,” Cullen said. “Isn’t that right?”
Catherine met his wry look head on. “Since you mention it, yes.”
Cullen’s face grew unexpectedly serious. “This isn’t because I’ve been teasing you both, is it?
Because if it is, I never meant---”
“Oh, no,” Catherine assured him. “It’s…we need more privacy.”
“No argument there,” Valerie said. “I don’t know why more chambers don’t have doors.”
“You got me,” Cullen said agreeably. “But anyway, I can make you one, no problem. I assume you want it to be a surprise?”
“Oh, very much so.”
“Well, as it happens,” Cullen answered, rubbing his chin, “we just got some lumber in a trade from one of the helpers. There’s enough to make two doors and the rest,” and he gazed at Valerie fondly, “will be used for the baby’s cradle.”
“Thank you,” Catherine said. “Is there anything you need from me?”
Cullen shook his head. “No. Just your approval of the design. Let me sketch out a few things and I’ll have them ready by Vincent’s composition class on Friday. You think you can come see me without him noticing?”
“Sure,” Catherine said. “I’ll just tell him I’m going to see Valerie.”
“Which won’t be a lie,” Valerie replied with a smile. “You and I talk often enough.”
Cullen nodded. “Well, I've got the intermediate woodworking class right now, so I'll be off.” He bent down to kiss Valerie. “You know where to find me, okay?”
“I do,” she confirmed. After he left, Valerie resumed her mending. “You know, it's funny about the doors.”
“I've lived here going on...well, a long time. The only places that have ever had them were the storage areas. And as much traffic as Vincent's chamber gets---well, used to get,” Valerie said with a wink, “he needed a door more than the rest of us combined. But he never asked for one. He…never seemed to think he was deserving of the things the rest of us took for granted.”
There was such poignancy to the observation. You deserve…everything, Catherine thought, remembering her words to him from what felt like a lifetime before. “What do you mean?”
“Well, we don’t have doors. But almost everyone has a curtain. Vincent didn’t have one of those either until you both returned from Connecticut.”
Catherine remembered awakening the night they’d returned to see the tapestry. “Where did it come from? I always wondered.”
Valerie laughed. “Well, that’s a story. After you fell asleep, Vincent paid a visit to Marisol and asked if she had anything he could use to cover the entrance to his chamber. Marisol told me later he could have knocked her over with a feather, she was so surprised.”
“I bet she was,” Catherine replied, picturing the scene.
“Marisol was happy for him, though. We all were. We are.” Valerie touched her hand lightly. “When I came to the tunnels, Vincent was…not sad, but withdrawn. The only time I ever saw him smile was when he taught the children. Now, he hardly stops.”
As luck would have it, she ran into Vincent as he was leaving his English composition class. Curiously, his hair was soaked; trails of water ran down his back and shoulders, coloring the tan of his vest a muddy brown and darkening his hair to auburn. “What on earth happened?” Catherine asked. “More leaking pipes?”
“No. Father would call it karma, I’m sure,” Vincent responded, a touch ruefully. “A water balloon fight.”
She took the thick towel he was using to sop up the worst of the moisture. “Turn around, love.” The thick mass of his hair was drenched; she pulled it back into a loose ponytail and then wrapped the remainder of the towel around it, draping the excess over his broad shoulders. “So, who were the combatants?”
“This time?” Vincent asked dryly. “Kipper and Geoffrey, and possibly a couple of others, hiding in the upstairs alcove when they should have been in their own classes. I’ll find out who else was involved soon enough,” he added, a touch ominously.
“Why were they fighting?”
He shrugged, nearly dislodging the towel. “Could be a million things. Father’s having a…discussion with them right now.”
“Ah,” Catherine said. “They’re at a rough age. Not old enough yet to be teenagers, too young to be children.”
“I have my doubts over the ‘too young’ part, but yes, you’re right,” Vincent said, though a smile tugged at his mouth. “They were restive in class; I had to chastise them both for not paying attention. Next thing I knew, there was some arguing and then…I was caught in the crossfire. Fortunately, they missed hitting the books, though the carpet is soaked in places and will likely take some time to dry.” He studied her. “You’re here early.”
“Cleaned off my desk,” she said easily. “And I decided to head Below. Why don’t we head back to our chamber so you can get changed into some dry clothes?”
“I’m going to need to take a shower; if my hair dries like this, it’ll tangle.”
“Then you’ll let me comb your hair out?”
His gaze was warm, defying the cold of the winter snows above them. “I’d like that, very much.”
“So is there something you want…truly want…for Christmas?” Catherine asked.
Vincent smiled at her. For so long, want had been a foreign word in his vocabulary; his needs were met, he had family and friends, and what he wanted…he had convinced himself he could not have. Now, though…“You gave me your present already, remember?” he asked, towel-drying his hair, now blessedly untangled thanks to both Catherine’s unending patience and the liberal application of detangling conditioner.
She chuckled, a rich, slightly wicked laugh. “I’m not likely to forget it, love. But truly, is there nothing you want?”
What more could he want? Catherine was here, against all odds, all impossibilities. His greatest and truest gift. “I was thinking about the house.”
“How will we furnish it?”
Catherine arched her eyebrows. “I have some antiques which are in storage right now; they were from my father’s house, but I confess I haven’t thought much beyond getting our house renovated. Why? Do you have a suggestion?”
“I…yes, yes, I do.” He stood and held out his hand. “I’m not sure I ever showed you this place. But I believe you’ll like it.”
She took his hand. “Well, then, lead on.”
Catherine opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Vincent smiled, pleased by her reaction. “What is this place?” she asked.
All around them, beds rested, disassembled, against the walls; mattresses were propped up on old daybeds; mirrors glinted dully in the dim candlelight; and half-open baskets full of blankets and sheets were tucked next to armoires. Vincent tried to see the little room as Catherine must: a haphazard collection of furnishings, an antique store run amok. “It’s a storage room for furniture used or donated, which we have no use for right now, or things which need to be repaired so we can use them. There are several of these chambers scattered throughout the tunnels---” and Vincent remembered with a pang he had brought Dmitri to one such chamber---“and if you like, I’ll show you all of them.”
She nodded, her attention diverted by an old armoire with a high curved top, dark with dust and age. “Do you think I’d cross into Narnia if I climbed in here?”
“I doubt it,” Vincent answered, enjoying her flight of fancy, “but almost every child in the tunnels has tried at one time or another.”
“Oh, yes. These old armoires were our favorite hiding places as children.” He leaned up against a tall dresser. “I was thinking…perhaps we could find the first piece of furniture for our home?”
“I like that idea,” Catherine agreed. “And after all, there's no need to have the entire house furnished at the same time. Some night...we'll have to go to my storage unit; then we’ll decide what will work best in our home.”
We’ll decide. Our home. The words were blessed, magical, especially when spoken by his wife. His glance fell on a collection of old camping equipment bundled, improbably, with some snowshoes. “I wish you could come with us on the camping trip.”
“I do too,” Catherine replied with feeling. “Believe me. But your accountant friend and I have some quality time scheduled with the latest bank records on the Avery case. I’d much rather be with you.”
It was true, Vincent knew; she’d mentioned on a number of occasions that she and David had planned to meet while he was gone, but there was a small flutter in their bond…mischief? The sensation came and went so quickly he decided he must have misunderstood. “I know,” he replied. “You’ll be missed.”
“You’re taking them to the Crystal Caverns?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“And you’ll….be careful?”
He understood what she meant, of course; it was impossible not to know. The quartz cave, the visions he’d had there, the experiences he could never fully explain to anyone else...his left hand throbbed dully with the memory. “I will. And you will as well?”
“Of course,” Catherine replied. “Though I’m likely to hemorrhage from the paper cuts, that’s the most danger I’ll be in. I promise.”
There were numerous dangers which could still find her…or him, Vincent realized. Avery’s men, a rock-fall below…but she would do her best, as would he. It would have to be enough. “Very well. Have you found anything you like?”
Her hand rested on the twisted, carved bedposts of an old walnut four-poster bed. She smiled a slow gamin smile. “I don’t know…I’m partial to beds these days.”
They spent a quiet, happy Christmas far different from the ones Catherine remembered as a child. The days leading up to the holiday had been filled with as much chaos as the ones leading up to Winterfest, but this time, it was the children who made all of the holiday decorations, and Catherine found herself tugged from one table to another, helping them with their crafts, uncapping glue bottles, making garlands out of construction paper or popcorn and somehow, despite her best efforts, ending up covered in glitter. It was a cheerful, if messy, time, but she wouldn’t have changed it for anything.
Nor would she have missed out on the chance to watch Vincent as he guided the children through their crafts, cutting paper or patterns for those too young to handle sharp scissors, hanging tinsel, and setting the pine Christmas tree---a gift from a helper who ran a nursery---up into its stand. She would catch a glimpse of him now and then as she worked with the children, a tall muscular figure hanging ornaments under the copper glow of a hundred candles, his profile no longer strange, but only a thing of wonder. And she would wonder---as she often did---what her life had been before him, before this place.
The night before Christmas, she and the other adults took part in the delivery of the gifts, leaving the small wrapped packages outside the entrance to the children’s chambers, or beside their bed in the nursery. As in years past, the gifts were simple things---a set of gilded brushes for Samantha, a bag of washers and screws for Mouse (“destined to end up in a gizmo,” Vincent had said as he’d wrapped them,) science books for Eric and so on---gifts given from the heart, out of love and care.
And finally, the preparations over, Catherine and Vincent made their way back to their chamber. “Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked as he tried unsuccessfully to shake the stray strands of tinsel out of his hair.
Catherine smiled. He asked every year—did he really think the answer would change now? She reached up to pick out the green metallic strands in his hair. “Of course. I always do. It’s such a different holiday here than it is above.”
“Yes,” Vincent agreed. “I’ve been above during the holiday season; it seems so…hectic.”
“It is,” she replied. “When Dad was…alive, our Christmas season was filled with parties: the party the firm threw for the employees, then the one he threw for the clients his firm wanted to wine and dine. I never remember it being this peaceful.”
He touched her cheekbones in a caress that dislodged yet more of the fine glitter. “You have glue stuck on your hands and glitter in your hair and on your face---"
“And don’t forget the paper cuts,” Catherine chimed in, grinning; her battle with the butcher paper had been short-lived.
“How could I?” Vincent asked mildly. “I only meant to say you have a strange definition of peace, Catherine.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, leaning against him. “Somehow, I like it just fine.”
Click here for Chapter 50....
 “In My Sky at Twilight,” by Pablo Neruda