There was a new member of the tunnel community, a man in his mid-fifties who had just moved in a few days earlier; and, as was his habit, Vincent had stayed out of sight long enough to allow the man to acclimate to his new home. However, the newcomer, Harry, overheard some of the children talking in the passageway after dinner that evening.
"It’s not fair that Vincent has to hide every time somebody new moves in. He lives here, too. He ought to be able to go where he wants," Eric grumbled.
"He just does it so he won’t scare anybody. I guess he could look a little scary if you don’t know him," Zach answered, trying to reason with Vincent’s zealous young defender.
"He didn’t scare me the first time I saw him. I thought he was neat."
"That’s ‘cause you’re a little kid and you see things differently. Grown-ups have lived long enough to think of a lot more reasons to be scared. That’s why they’re always telling us not to do stuff."
"Harry doesn’t look like he scares easy. Vincent should just sit down and talk to him at dinner. Then he could do what he wants."
"I don’t think Vincent minds all that much. He plans things to do. He said Catherine will be here tonight. He’ll have company. He’s okay."
"It still isn’t fair," Eric complained, sounding grouchy.
"Probably not," Zach finally agreed. "He’d appreciate that you’re taking up for him." Zach smiled as he tousled Eric’s hair. "But he wouldn’t want you to worry about it."
As Eric batted Zach’s hand away, Harry approached them. "Who’s this Vincent who’s hidin’ himself from me? The little guy’s right. I don’t scare easy. Nobody needs to stay away because of me. Why’s he hidin’?"
"‘Cause he looks kinda different," Eric answered.
"How different? Is he deformed or somethin’?"
Simultaneously from the boys he heard Eric almost shout, "No!" and Zach more calmly answer, "We don’t think so."
With a little shrug of his shoulders, Eric added, "He’s just…Vincent." The look on his face told Harry that the matter rested there in the youngster’s mind.
If these kids were this matter-of-fact about Vincent, how bad could it be? "You want to point me toward his room…uh…chamber? I’m gonna go tell him to stop worryin’ about me. Would that make you happier, kid?" he asked with a smile.
"Yeah. Thanks, Harry," Eric grinned, and took his hand so he and Zach could lead him toward Vincent’s chamber. He liked Harry anyway, but this definitely insured Harry another friend.
Since Vincent was staying out of sight, he had sent Mouse to guide Catherine down, and she and Mouse had arrived at Vincent’s chamber just in time to see Harry calling out from the passageway, "Hey, Vincent. My name’s Harry. I’m new here. Nobody needs to put themselves out for me, and I know that’s what you’re doin’. Can I just come in and meet you so you can get back to goin’ where you want to?"
Catherine, hoping to help ease the surprising turn of events, walked just inside the door and asked Vincent if she should bring Harry in.
"Yes," he answered, bracing himself for another awkward introduction.
Harry didn’t entirely understand the mystery, but he walked into the chamber anticipating something unusual…and wasn’t disappointed.
"The boy said you were ‘kinda different.’ I guess he knew what he was talkin’ about," he said in awe. Suddenly remembering the manners his mother had taught him, he pushed his mind through the shock of Vincent’s appearance and held out his hand. "I’m pleased to finally meet you," he managed. "If those boys are any sign of how folks around here feel about you, I hope we get to be friends."
Vincent smiled just enough to look welcoming, being careful not to show his canines, and accepted the other man’s handshake. "I’d like that, Harry." Giving Zach’s shoulder a fatherly squeeze, he added, "Zach and Eric must think of you as a friend, or they wouldn’t have brought you here."
"I met Mouse, but who’s the pretty lady?" Harry asked, glancing at Catherine.
Before Vincent could answer, Mouse chimed in, "That’s Vincent’s Catherine." And he went bounding off through the passageway.
"It’s good to meet you, too, ma’am," Harry said, offering his hand in her direction, and wondering what that meant…‘Vincent’s Catherine.’ He’d figure it out soon. He’d already discovered where the tunnel gossip was easiest to find. "Well. I won’t take up any more of your time. Just wanted you to be able to go about your normal business again."
"It was good of you to think of me," Vincent answered, impressed with the newcomer’s consideration...and directness…and self-control.
"’Night, Vincent…Catherine," Harry said, nodding toward each of them.
Catherine smiled and waved as Harry left, then looked up at Vincent. "That was easier than you expected, wasn’t it?"
"Yes," Vincent answered, looking somewhat dazed after the surprise encounter.
The two boys lingered a moment more. "Was it okay…bringing him here, Vincent?" Zach asked.
"It was a good decision," Vincent assured them.
They looked pleased and relieved. Then, wishing their favorite couple ‘Goodnight,’ they turned and walked back toward the boys’ dormitory.
"He said we made a good decision," Eric said with a grin, hero worship showing in his eyes.
Zach passed on the fatherly squeeze of a shoulder to the younger boy as he smiled down understandingly at Eric. "He sure did."
Vincent and Catherine watched the two boys leave, enjoying the affection they could see between them.
"You’re a very good influence," she told him.
"Didn’t you see Zach treat Eric the same way you’ve always treated him?"
"I’m not the only one who treats him well," he responded, dropping his arm lightly over Catherine’s shoulder now that they were alone.
"But you’re the only one who brings that worshipful look to their eyes. What you do affects them. They think the sun rises and sets in you."
"I believe you exaggerate," Vincent smiled as he guided her into his chamber.
"No. It’s just that I recognize the look…because I think so, too," she admitted, turning toward him and wrapping her arms around his waist, resting her head on his chest.
Having no ready answer for that statement, Vincent simply enclosed her in his arms and luxuriated in having her close.
After a moment, Catherine moved back to look at Vincent. "Harry asked you who I am," she started, obviously still trying to formulate her next question. "If Mouse hadn’t answered for you, what would you have said?"
"I would have told him your name." Vincent could feel that Catherine had a purpose for her question, and that it wasn’t yet complete, and he was puzzled by it.
"And if, in general conversation, he were to ask where I fit in here, what would you tell him? How would you explain me?"
"How would I explain you?" he parroted, not ready for that question.
"You could say I’m a helper, which is true, but he seems pretty observant…and pretty direct. It wouldn’t take long for him to realize that I’m more than a helper to you. At least I’m assuming I am."
"Catherine, you are my life…the other half of my soul," Vincent answered quickly and earnestly.
"That might be a little heavy for a casual conversation." She chuckled before she turned serious again. "How would you represent me to someone who asked…someone who doesn’t know yet how much people here allow you your privacy?"
"I…I’ve never had to think of it."
"Neither have I." Playing with the ties on his vest as she talked to him, she continued. "Girlfriend seems too trivial. I can’t think of calling you a boyfriend, either. Boyfriends are those people I won’t go back to…the ones I gladly left behind for you. What’s between us is more substantial than that."
"Yes," he answered softly, dropping his arms and turning slightly away from her. His head was down now. He was retreating behind his hair to mask his discomfort at the honesty of putting things into words…and not finding the words she seemed to be searching for. But she deserved honesty, and he would offer it.
She asked her questions without looking at him…temporarily allowing him the comfort of having no eye contact. "How long do you want me to stay in your life?"
"Always, Catherine…as long as you will."
"Do you still think that I might leave you someday…that I could ever turn to someone else?"
"I used to think that."
"No. Not now."
"Will you ever walk away from me again…try to push me away?"
"Do you believe that I love you…just as you are?"
Turning to him and looking him in the eye, she asked, "Do you love me?"
He hesitated and looked away, but she reached to take his chin with her hand and turned his face back. "Do you love me?" she repeated more firmly.
This time he took a deep breath and looked at her. "With everything that I am," he finally admitted.
"Then say the words," she insisted.
"I love you, Catherine."
"Why haven’t you said that…in those words?"
His head went down again; and she didn’t protest, only listened. He was talking to her. That was enough. "Because I know your heart. If I had said the words…had allowed myself to…" One more deep breath. He had almost broached another subject he had avoided between them. "You would have given yourself to me completely. It would have bound you to me…confined you…taken away your choices. It would have been unfair to you."
"And you think I have choices now?" she asked incredulously. "We’ve just established that I don’t intend to leave you, that you won’t leave me again, that we want to share our lives…always, that we love one another. Where do we go from there? Is it fair to either of us to stop there? If it were left to you, left simply to what you want…how would you want to introduce me to a newcomer?"
"Catherine…" He looked up again, a sad resignation in his eyes. "I have no right to expect… I am not like other men. I can’t offer you even simple things that other men could. I know what we have, what we want, but it still seems impossible."
"Not to me. If I wanted other men, I wouldn’t be in the tunnels looking for you so often…or standing on the balcony…freezing in the middle of the night. Now, if you were any other man…could offer me what you think I deserve…how would you want to introduce me to a newcomer? ‘This is Catherine, who…’ ‘This is Catherine, the…’ ‘This is Catherine, my…’ How would you want to finish one of those sentences? Remember…my choices have already been made. I’m just waiting for you to allow them."
After what seemed a great deal of effort from Vincent and what seemed an eternity to Catherine, she heard his voice, quiet but decisive, say, "This is Catherine…my wife." He looked up then to see her response, and she touched his cheek, looking into his eyes again.
"Yes," she whispered, overwhelmed with emotion, her eyes full of love for him.
"I said ‘yes.’ You might have to restrain me from going out looking for newcomers to bring Below so I can hear you introduce me that way over and over again."
Realizing the magnitude of what had just transpired, what he had finally found the courage to do, the possibilities that accompanied what he had just set in motion, Vincent drew Catherine into a tight embrace, burying his face in the curve of her neck. "I do love you, Catherine. My love has grown stronger since the day I found you…and will grow stronger yet until the day I take my last breath."
She wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled against his cheek. "I thought we might never get to this point, Vincent. I don’t know how we’ll work out our two worlds, but we’ll find a way. This much love can find a way."
They held each other for a while, pulling their emotions back into a more manageable state before they could bear to be more than a fraction of an inch apart, then Vincent lifted his head and leaned his forehead against Catherine’s. Cupping her cheek with one hand and stroking it with his thumb, he gave her one of his small smiles and asked lovingly, "Did you just argue me into a proposal, counselor?"
"I think I did," she answered with a mischievous smile. "I would have settled for something like ‘This is Catherine, the woman I love,’ but don’t even think of trying to back out of this now."
"Never," he assured her, caught somewhere between humor and the emotion of his encompassing love for the woman in his embrace. He pulled her firmly back into his arms, softly repeating, "Never."
"Does it help your ego to know that you made me work that hard for it?" She felt the rumble of a quiet chuckle in his chest. "I’ll take that as a yes," she responded dryly.
"I didn’t mean to make it difficult for you," he replied apologetically.
"I know," she assured him. "You just had to fight with yourself until you finally won?"
"I love you," he said into her hair and tightened his embrace increasingly as he spoke. "I love you, I love you, I love you."
"I believe you," Catherine laughed delightedly, squeezing him tighter, too. "And I love you...more than I have words...."
He pulled back and looked down at her, interrupting. "It feels good to say it."
"And it feels good to hear it." With a twinkle in her eye, she added, "Now it seems to me you said something else earlier. I think you phrased it, ‘If I had said the words…had allowed myself to…’ Would you care to finish that sentence?"
As an answer, he slowly lowered his lips to hers and surrendered the first of a lifetime of kisses that he would freely give her…always.
Harry came around a curve in the tunnel that led to the dining hall and nearly bumped into Vincent and Catherine as they left. It didn’t escape Harry’s attention that they were holding hands and looking happy.
"Sorry, Vincent, Catherine," he apologized as he pulled himself to a stop. "Guess I was in a hurry for dinner. I just heard a big whoop from the dining hall. Musta missed somethin’ big. I’m not up on enough pipe code yet to know if there was some kind of announcement."
"Harry, when I met you last night, you asked about Catherine," Vincent answered, "but Mouse took care of the introduction for me. I’d like to introduce her myself." Looking down at Catherine, to see her reaction, he said, "This is Catherine, who has agreed to be my wife."
Harry reached out and engaged Vincent in a hearty and energetic handshake, and Vincent could feel the good will pouring in his direction. Apparently Harry had no difficulty accepting Vincent’s humanity.
"Congratulations, Vincent. You, too, little lady," he added, reaching for Catherine’s hand with the same gusto. "So that was the big announcement I missed?"
"That was it," Catherine agreed, smiling widely at his enthusiasm.
"Well, I wish you both the best," he said sincerely before they all continued on their original paths.
Vincent claimed Catherine’s hand again and looked down at her with one of the flirty little smiles she loved. "Do we need the restraints yet? We can only support so many new members of the community."
Catherine laughed. "I think that can wait until after the joining. Then you might have to keep an eye on me."