Prophecy

By Linda S. Barth

 

(Please note:  The following story takes place early in Second Season, between the episodes "Remember Love" and "Ashes, Ashes.")

 

Yet she has pledged me, when I die,

A lodge beneath her private palace

In a level clearing of the wood

Where gentians grow and gillyflowers

And sometimes we may meet.

(Robert Graves)

 

 

Children's voices echoed from the highest levels of Father's vast chamber, their high-pitched tones splintering the soft effusion of candleglow and quietude.

 "Be careful, Eric!"  Ellie admonished her younger brother as she piled another book onto the already sizable stack clutched in the little boy's arms.  "These books are really old and they're probably worth a lot of money.  Father won't like it if you wreck them." 

"But they're really heavy!" he protested, his arms struggling to hold onto the unwieldy burden.  "And one of them's poking me in the stomach!" 

"Well, take that load downstairs and then come back for the rest of them," Ellie suggested, standing on her toes to reach for nother volume tucked away on a top shelf of the book-filled loft.  "And don't take all day." 

Eric grumbled -- but not too loudly -- as he wobbled down the stairs and thumped the books onto Father's desk.  For a few moments he debated sneaking away to the kitchen chamber to sample more of the treats William was making for the tunnel community's Halloween celebration, but before he could take a single step, he saw his hopes disappear faster than the candy apple he'd wheedled from the cook earlier that afternoon. 

"Where are you going, Eric?"  Samantha demanded from the chamber entrance. She stood with hands on hips, effectively blocking the young boy's escape.  "You're supposed to be helping Ellie find the books Father's going to read at the party." 

Eric pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose and smiled his innocence at the older girl.  "We're done, Sam," he began hopefully.  "See?  I just put all the books on his desk." 

Samantha sailed into the room and headed for the desk.  "All of them? 
Are you sure?" 

His sister's voice from the upper level saved Eric the trouble of coming up with another bit of fiction himself.  "There's just two or three left to go.  I'll bring them down in a minute." 

"We'd better check the list," Samantha replied, taking her responsibilities very seriously.  "Just to make sure."  She turned toward the boy.  "Eric, could you please run up there and get it?" 

Sensing escape was once again within his reach, Eric bounded toward the stairs, but stopped halfway up as a mischievous grin brightened his small, angular face.  "Hey, Ellie!  Fly the list down and I'll catch it!" 

"Wait a second," Ellie called as she leaned over the metal railing.  She pulled the list from the pocket of her smocked apron and with fast-moving fingers transformed it into a paper airplane.  "Okay, here it comes!" 

With its crisp wings floating on a cool breeze that drifted through the lofty chamber, the little plane sailed over Eric's outstretched arms toward a giggling Samantha.  Easily sidestepping Eric's mistimed leap from the staircase, Samantha caught the paper plane and held it high. 

"I've got it!"  she called, triumphantly waving her prize above her head as she looked up at Ellie.  "Can you show me how to make a plane like this?" 

"Sure, it's really easy," Ellie began.  "All you have to do is --"   Her voice stopped abruptly as her eyes widened at an unexpected sight which had appeared behind the younger girl. 

Following Ellie's gaze, Samantha pivoted just as she felt the plane being pulled from her grasp.  "Vincent!" 

Raising his eyebrows, Vincent looked from one young culprit to the next and then glanced down at the folded page in his hand.   The children waited in uneasy silence, and then felt a wave of relief at the sight of his smile. 

"Paper airplanes.  I haven't seen one of these in a long time -- not since Devin and I launched them from that loft ourselves."  He chuckled softly in fond remembrance.  "Once we hid up there during a Council meeting and dared each other to see who could land a plane in the middle of the table." 

Samantha's gasp did nothing to hide her delight upon hearing a story of her hero's youthful escapades.  "Did you really do that, Vincent?!" 

"Yeah, what happened?" Eric asked eagerly.  "Did you guys get in a lot of trouble?" 

Vincent smiled as he ruffled the little boy's hair.  "We certainly did.  Unfortunately for us, one plane hit Pascal's father right in the forehead -- point first.  Devin and I were confined to our chambers for a week, except for classes, meals, and many extra hours of chores." 

A smothered laugh from the chamber entrance commanded their attention.  "So, have you been telling the children of your own misadventures with paper airplanes, Vincent?" 

Vincent nodded, his low-pitched laugh an echo of his father's.  "It's been a long time, but I haven't forgotten those days."  He handed the plane to the older man.  "Nor, evidently, have you."       

“How could I, when nearly every grey hair on my head is proof of the trials you boys put me through?" Father retorted.  He looked at the airplane in his hand, turning it over appraisingly.  "Hmm, this one is very well-constructed.  Did you make it, Eric?" 

"No, I did," Ellie called from above, blushing both at the praise and at being caught in such a childish pursuit.  "We were just having a little fun." 

"And so you should, child," Father answered.  "But only if your work is finished."  Having recognized bits of his own handwriting visible on the plane's wings, he unfolded the paper and smoothed it out on the desk.  "Now have you managed to locate every book on the list?" 

"These are the last of them," Ellie replied as she walked down the staircase to hand two final volumes to Father.  "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and A Christmas Carol."

"Ah, the Headless Horseman and Marley's Ghost," Father commented with satisfaction as he stacked the books on top of the others.  "They're always great favorites at our Halloween gatherings." 

"How come you only read ghost stories at the Halloween party?" Eric asked.  "Don't you have any books about monsters, you know, like vampires and stuff?" 

"Halloween is very important to ghosts, Eric," Father replied.  "It's said that each year between sunset on October 31st and sunrise the next day, ghosts will return to their old homes.  However, if they can't make their way there, they must wander all night, unless, of course, they've been able to secure a new home for their, shall we say, new life." 

Eric's eyes widened behind the thick lenses of his glasses.  "Do you think any ghosts live here in the tunnels?" he asked, clearly hoping the answer would be 'yes.' 

"One never knows," Father replied indulgently.  "Although I can't say I've ever seen one myself.  Perhaps we'll find that a ghostly spirit or two shall join us for the readings at the party." 

"Were you able to find a copy of Saki's The Open Window?" Vincent asked. "I think the older children will enjoy its humor.  And in some ways, the niece in that story reminds me of you, Samantha." 

"But I'd never do the things she did!" Samantha protested, although a wide grin and the pink blush on her cheeks easily betrayed her words.  "Well, maybe I would try a trick like that on Kipper."   

She turned to Father in a successful attempt to regain her twelve-year-old dignity. "Would you like us to check the list just to make sure all the books are there?"   

"No, thank you, dear, but that won't be necessary.  I'll take a few minutes and do that myself.  It will give me a chance to mark the passages I intend to read aloud." 

"Is there anything else you'd like us to do?"  Ellie asked, tightly grasping her brother's hand before he could scamper from the room in search of other diversions. 

"Not at the moment, Ellie," Father answered approvingly.  "You've made a fine job of it.  However, I'm sure I heard William mention that he needed a great deal of help in the kitchen chamber."  He winked broadly at Vincent over the children's heads. 

"Something to do with pumpkin muffins and chocolate lollipops, wasn't it?" Vincent added. 

Eric's eyes lit up and he wriggled away from Ellie's hold to tug instead at Vincent's hand.  "Come on, Vincent, come with us!  I want to hear about the trick Samantha's gonna play on Kipper, but if we wait, the girls'll get all the good stuff in the kitchen!" 

"You go ahead, and I'll catch up with you in a minute," Vincent promised. 

Father and Vincent exchanged a smile as they watched the children run off in the direction of William's domain.  Then, his expression turning serious, Father asked his son a question that had weighed heavily on his mind for several days.  "Are you sure you're not overly disappointed about staying Below this Halloween, Vincent?" 

For only a moment, Vincent averted his gaze, but it was enough to say all the things his words would try to disguise.  "No, not overly disappointed.  There will be a great deal to do right here, and I'm sure Catherine will enjoy sharing the traditions of our world."   

But will it be enough, he asked himself silently.  And how can it compare to all we shared in her world a year ago? 

Father frowned.  "You've spoken to her about it?" 

Vincent's sigh was almost imperceptible.  "No, not yet.  But I plan to go Above as soon as it's dark, and I'll discuss it with her then." 

With a slight nod, Father let the subject drop, knowing that to pursue it further might lead to words neither wished to hear.  "Well, I suppose you should go and see what those children are up to.  William was in an unusually cheerful mood earlier, and I'd just as soon nothing occurs to disrupt that condition!" 

"And if he suspects you set the children on him, he might not be so eager to make your favorite mulled apple cider for the party," Vincent suggested. 

Father knew denial was useless.  "Go on then!" he grumbled good-naturedly as Vincent strode toward the chamber entrance.  "You're as bad as the children sometimes, you know." 

Vincent paused in the entryway and looked back at his father.  "I know."   

With a low chuckle, Father shook his head and settled himself in his comfortably worn desk chair, ready to get to work.  Having decided to begin with The Phantom Rickshaw, he reached for an anthology of Kipling's work and soon found himself engrossed in the story.  Except for a slight shiver he absentmindedly attributed to his imagination, he read uninterrupted for several minutes, lost in an otherworldly tale of long ago. 

So deep was his concentration, a small, muffled thumping sound overhead nearly went unnoticed; yet it was enough to draw his attention and with a sigh, he glanced upwards. "Samantha? Ellie?  Are you up there again?" he called out. "Eric?" 

For several moments, only silence answered his words, and with a shrug he turned back to the book in his lap.  Then he heard it again, a soft thud overhead and a dry rustling sound like leaves brushed by an autumn wind. 

"What the devil," he muttered under his breath as he set the ghost story aside and headed for the staircase leading to the loft.  But when he reached the top of the stairs, Father found the place deserted except for the hundreds of books which crowded the shelves.  With a small, self-conscious laugh, he shook his head.  I must be imagining things, he told himself. Probably Kipling's influence. Yet as he turned to descend to the study, he heard the sound once more, a crisp but hushed fluttering that seemed to be coming from behind a set of shelves a few feet away. 

Cautiously Father moved forward toward the elusive sound, and as he stepped around the corner of an old oak bookcase, he found its source.  There on the tiled floor lay a book, its antique pages lifting slightly on a cool, errant breeze.   

"So that's what I heard," Father murmured aloud, a hint of relief in his voice. "It must have fallen from a shelf."  Bending carefully in the crowded space, he reached for the book, holding it open as he straightened again.  He turned it over to examine its crumbling leather cover and felt a pang of disappointment to discover the worn gold script was nearly indiscernible.  Even squinting closely he could make out only a few words of an unfamiliar title, Tom o'Bedlam.    

With a frown, Father rested the volume on the edge of a nearby shelf, righting it once again to the pages where it had opened.  They were mottled by years of dampness and disuse, but still visible were several stanzas of a poem, and for a reason he later found inexplicable, he began to read aloud.

 

        With an host of furious fancies

        Whereof I am commander,   

        With a burning spear, and a horse of air,

        To the wilderness I wander.

        By a knight of ghosts and shadows

        I summoned am to tourney

        Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end.

        Methinks it is no journey.

 

For just a moment it was as if an icy haze chilled the very air in his lungs and he gasped at the intensity of it.  Yet in a moment it was gone, and forgotten as if it had never happened. 

"Hmmm, I wonder where this one came from," Father murmured aloud.  "Well, no matter.  It will make a splendid addition to the other stories for the party."   

Tucking the volume under his arm, Father smiled in satisfaction as he turned and made his way back downstairs, never noticing the gleam of dark, flashing eyes that watched his every move from the deepest shadows of the loft. 

******************** 

A biting iciness grazed the dark October night, hinting at the snow and storms which soon would follow.  Vincent sighed as he raised a hand to knock against the glass-paned doors on Catherine's terrace and watched as his breath appeared hazily and then vanished in the damp, heavy air.  It was later than he'd intended for his visit, and he knew it was his reluctance to speak of their Halloween plans that had kept him Below far longer than he would have wished.  But there were only a few days left until that special night, and he knew he could wait no longer. 

Again the truth rasped through him, its pain etching deep lines in his face.  There was so little he could offer her, so many opportunities denied, so much hope lost forever.  For a moment it was more than he could bear and with a stiff, halting movement he turned away from the light and warmth he sought and stared out into the dark night.  But there was nothing there for him in the familiar shadows, and even before he heard the sound of the terrace doors opening, he felt the song of her in his heart, drawing him back to the only place he longed to be. 

"Vincent, you're here."  Her voice was a soft, breathy sound, and he turned into it willingly, wishing he might lose himself in all her gentle warmth.   She smiled up at him, her eyes alight with happiness.  "It's late.  I almost thought you wouldn't show up tonight after all." 

"I almost didn't," he answered, his voice low and strained despite his efforts to control it.  "But I need to talk to you." 

When he hesitated, Catherine shivered and pulled the belt of her robe tighter around her slender body, but she knew the chill she felt was as much from within as without.  "Talk to me about what, Vincent?" 

For a moment he averted his gaze and then turned back to face her, wincing slightly as he saw her tremble in the cold night air.  More than anything else, he longed to take her in his arms and warm away every icy shard of fear within them both, but he knew that if he touched her now, he might never find the courage to speak the words he'd come to tell her. 

"Catherine, I'm sorry," he began.  "It's very late, and you're cold.  I won't stay long.  There's something I must tell you...but it's difficult to find the words when I know they will only disappoint you."  

Without hesitating, she reached up and rested her hand against his cheek, gently caressing the coolness of his skin.  "Sometimes beginning is the hardest part of all," she said softly, letting her hand drift into the rough silk of his hair before coming to rest on his wide shoulder.  "So just say it quickly and it'll be over and done with, and we can go on."  

For a moment he closed his eyes, savoring the lingering warmth of her hand against his face, but when he looked at her again, he saw a greater warmth in the depths of her eyes. "It's about Halloween, Catherine.  I know we haven't discussed it, but I'd hoped we could go Above again at least for a few hours as we did last year." 

Despite the ominous whispers she almost believed she heard, Catherine felt her mouth curve into a warm smile.  "That was such a magical night, wasn't it?" she murmured, knowing they shared the same sweet memories.  "When the walls between the worlds grew thin..." 

“And all things seemed possible."  Vincent's smile faded from his lips, leaving a bittersweet taste in its place.  "But this year will be different.  The plans for the our celebration Below have grown.  It will be much more elaborate than in past years." 

Catherine spoke quickly, feeling a jolt of dismay at her own desperate impulse to delay the inevitable.  "I love the children's idea of having a literary theme for the party, with everyone dressing as characters from famous stories and plays.  Did you know Geoffrey has his heart set on being the Headless Horseman?  I'm really looking forward to the celebration, to the games and Father's stories..." 

She forced herself to silence, and waited for him to go on.  

His gaze was unwavering and full of pain.  "And while everyone was happy to know that you'll join us at the party, there will be no chance for me to come Above." 

He waited then, searching his heart for a way to ease the hurt Catherine was sure to feel.  Yet much to his astonishment, he saw the growing shadows evoked by the ominous tone of his words disappear from Catherine's face, to be replaced by a smile that came from deep within her.  "Is that all you're worried about, Vincent?  I don't mind -- I really don't."  She shook her head in emphasis.  "I'm a little disappointed, yes, but it's nothing compared to how I'd feel if we couldn't be together at all." 

"But I thought after our hopes for the trip to your lake in Connecticut were -- " 

She pressed soft fingers against his lips, stilling further words of lost dreams.  "We still have that hope, Vincent.  Remember what you told me, that someday we'd see that lake together?"  

He nodded and the sudden motion stroked his mouth across her fingers in a phantom kiss that sent ribbons of fire rippling through both of them.  With a sharp intake of breath, Catherine forced herself to lower her hand. But the trembling Vincent heard in her voice was an echo of the sensations that still vibrated deliciously through his body and, he suspected correctly, through hers. 

"There are still so many possibilities for us," Catherine went on, her voice full of promise.  "This is just one night.  There will be others.  It doesn't matter where we are as long as we're together." 

He reached for her then and she went into his arms, to the place where she belonged.  Cradling her against his chest, Vincent buried his face in the cool, fragrant cloud of her hair, feeling his fears melt in the warmth of her hope and trust in him.  There were no other words beyond the sweet sound of her name as he whispered it over and over again. 

Long moments later, Catherine raised her head and leaned back in Vincent's embrace, not wishing to end the closeness they'd shared, but needing to see his face, to know that his concern for her had lessened.  She looked up to find him gazing down at her; the care in his eyes had diminished, but their intensity was unwavering, and she trembled as she sensed the undercurrents rippling from deep within him and felt their pulsing response within herself. 

She tried to smile or speak, but only a soft, quivering sigh whispered from her parted lips, and with great reluctance she pulled away from his embrace, wanting nothing more than to reach for everything Vincent wished he could promise her, yet somehow knowing this was not the time for those dreams to come true. 

The huskiness in Vincent's voice revealed his awareness of every sensation they'd shared within their bond, and his words were shaded with a sigh that echoed Catherine's. "I'll go now, Catherine.  It's too cold for you out here." 

"No, not yet."  She shook her head, unashamed of the plea in her voice and in her eyes, for it was one she knew he would willingly answer.  "I'm not that cold, and I want to hear more about the Halloween party." 

 "Then here, take this and it will warm you," he offered, reaching to unhook the clasp of his voluminous cloak. 

Then he froze, hands halfway to his throat, as Catherine quickly ducked under his upraised arms and draped the heavy woolen folds of the cloak around her slender body, wrapping her arms around his waist and snuggling close to him with a throaty laugh.  

"I think this is much better, don't you?" she asked, looking up at him with eyes that sparkled with inner light.  "And much warmer." 

Vincent exhaled an uneven breath as he slowly lowered his arms and found himself pulling her closer.  "Yes, I suppose it is," he managed, trying not to lose himself entirely in the welcoming warmth that was Catherine. 

Her smile grew wider as she rested her head against his chest where she could hear his heart beating with a heavy, rapid cadence that pulsed in perfect time with her own.   She sighed in contentment.  "Now tell me about the children's plans for the party," she continued.  "I know we'll have a wonderful time." 

Not as wonderful as this, Catherine.   

Vincent felt a smile curving his unique mouth as the unspoken reply murmured within his heart, and somehow he knew she had heard every word of it.   

******************** 

While Vincent and Catherine's love worked its special magic Above, the threads of other mysteries were weaving a mystic spell of their own in a secret cavern far beneath the surface of the city, a place well beyond even the farthest-reaching chambers of the tunnel community.  Visitors to this remote site were rare, but that suited the two beings who now inhabited the warren of twisting passageways and small, smoky rooms.  Their work would always keep them apart from others, until the time was right to bring their gifts of prophecy to those who unknowingly awaited them. 

In silence the two exchanged a small, silk-wrapped parcel, its surface sliding easily from the grasp of long, paint-stained fingers to the cupped surface of a heavily lined and timeworn palm.  For just a moment the hands formed a protective vessel around the little object, while two pairs of eyes spoke a silent incantation, as if to bless the contents they cradled so carefully.    

Then, as their hands parted, the satisfied smiles of the conspirators brightened the dim, candlelit reaches of the ancient room as they looked down at their treasure. Within moments a pair of still supple, dark-skinned hands had freed a rectangular box from its confines in the folds of a white cloth to settle it carefully on the scarred surface of a worktable.  The lid of the box slid open easily, and laughter flowed in surprisingly liquid tones from an aged throat as its owner looked with pleasure and satisfaction at the contents of the package.  The sound drew an answering grin from her much younger companion and he looked at her in eager anticipation. 

"Ahh, they are perfect," she said as she turned her opaque gaze on him.  "You do good work, my friend." 

His smile grew wider at her praise.  "It was easier than I expected.  In a few days a shop -- the kind that's being called a 'New Age Center' -- is opening right next to Mr. Smythe's place, so it was easy for me to get in there and out again without any trouble at all.  And the owners probably won't notice their inventory has been reduced by this one particular item." 

The old woman laughed again, her delight further pleasing the young man.  Despite his friendship with an old bookseller Above, in many ways he'd been alone for what seemed to him a very long time.  But now that he'd found her, he felt he'd also found a new home, a place waiting just for him, where he could once again belong.  He watched as she closed the box and held it out to him, tilting her head meaningfully as she captured his sparkling gaze in the milky depths of her own. 

"You know what must be done now," she said, the rhythmic Haitian lilt of her voice not disguising the seriousness of her words.  "But go with care.  This path holds much danger for you." 

"I'll be careful," he assured her, the ends of his shaggy dark hair rippling beneath an ever-present baseball cap as he nodded his head.  "I won't let anyone see me yet, especially not him." 

The old woman's face grew grave.  "It is not the son who causes the worry.  It is the Father.  The old ways are not for him."  Her lined face crinkled suddenly with a satisfied grin.  "He calls me a crazy, old woman." 

Reaching out one long arm, the man scooped up the box and rewrapped it in the remnant of silk, chuckling as he stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket.  "Then I wonder what he'd make of me?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in mock alarm.  "Maybe I'll just have to give him a chance to find out!" 

She tried to frown but found it was impossible.  "Be on guard up there, child!" she warned one last time, knowing his nature was colored with impulsive, extravagant strokes.  "You must not become distracted by this celebration they will hold on Halloween night.  We have work to do.  They need our help and guidance, these two special souls. We cannot fail them."  She waited, giving him time to digest the gravity of her words, before smiling at him once more.  "And when you are with them, the Father and the others, don't forget about your old friend down in these dark, lost chambers." 

He leaned forward and kissed the softly wrinkled skin of her cheek.  "I'll never forget about you," he promised.  "We're in this together, aren't we?  Everything will be fine -- I'll make sure of that!" 

With his words echoing in her ears like a remembered melody, the old woman turned away and reached for a worn wooden bowl of ivory-colored cowry shells, their glistening surfaces catching and giving back the chamber's misty light.   She heard not even the slightest sound of  retreating footsteps, but she knew when she looked up again, he would be gone. 

******************** 

Leaning across the counter, Catherine sighed in frustration as the young woman shook her head and turned the computer's monitor so that she could see the screen for herself.  "There's no listing under your name, ma'am.  See?" 

Forcing herself to remain calm, Catherine repeated the question she'd already asked despite knowing its futility.  "Are you sure?  I called over two weeks ago and asked that the Cinderella costume be set aside for me." 

"Well, these things happen sometimes -- you know, computer glitches, that kind of thing."  The sales clerk shrugged.  "Sorry, but that's all I can tell you."  

Catherine counted to ten, several times, knowing it wouldn't help.  After Vincent had left her last night, she'd drifted to sleep on dreams of dancing in his arms at the tunnel community's Halloween celebration, but now the image of herself in the fairy tale dress was fading fast.   

"Can't you just go and look in the storage room or someplace?" she insisted to the clerk, tension beginning to edge her voice.  "Just to make sure?" 

The young woman sighed and rose to her feet.  "I guess I can, but it won't be there if it's not listed in the computer."  She looked pointedly at Catherine but then turned and disappeared through a curtained doorway. 

Catherine took a deep breath as she straightened and glanced over her shoulder toward the interior of the brightly lit shop, wondering if everyone else in the city had found greater success securing their costumes for all the parties planned for the coming weekend.  There was only one other customer in view, a tall, dark-haired man who was enthusiastically rummaging through the depleted racks of fanciful clothing.  Even from several yards away, Catherine could hear him humming a hauntingly familiar song.  It's from A Masked Ball, she realized as she heard him break into snatches of  Italian lyrics, the opera Vincent and I heard in the Music Chamber last July.   

Catherine smiled, both with the remembrance of that lovely summer night and at the stranger's slightly off-key but very spirited rendition of an early scene from the opera. Calling upon the Italian language classes she'd enjoyed in college, Catherine tried to mentally translate the impromptu performance.   

 

Ogni cura si doni al diletto,                  May every care dissolve in delight,

E s'accorra nel magico tetto:                Let us come together in that magic cave.

Tra la folla de' creduli ognuno             And among the superstitious throng

S'abbandoni e folleggi con me, ecc.      Let us pursue our frolics one and all.

E s'accora, ma vegli 'l sospetto             We shall come together, but may suspicion

Sui perigli che fremono intorno,           Of the lurking danger awaken

Ma protegga il mananimo petto           To protect the magnanimous soul

A chi nulla paventa per se.                    Which fears not for itself.

L'indovina ne dice di belle,                    The fortuneteller predicts all sorts of things,

E sta ben che l'interroghi anch'io;        And so I, too, shall question her,

Sentiro se m'arridon le stelle,                To learn if the stars are in my favor

Di che sorti benefica m'e.                      And smiling pleasantly on my destiny.

 

Catherine couldn't help but enjoy the charming diversion and the lyrics which oddly called to mind the world Below, but she knew it couldn't lighten her dark spirits for long. 

"Well, at least someone's in a good mood, but I don't think any stars are in my favor right now," she muttered as she swung back toward the counter and the returning clerk.   For just a moment she felt hopeful, but the hope died a quick death when she saw the young woman's arms were empty.  

"I'm sorry, but it's just not here," she said, shaking her head firmly.  "Someone else must have already picked it up." 

The matter-of-fact tone of the woman's voice told Catherine there was no further sense in arguing.  "I'm due in court in an hour, so I haven't got time to look around for something else.  Could you just tell me what's still available in my size?" 

The clerk's eyebrows rose as she looked up at Catherine.  "Less than two days before Halloween?  There won't be much!  Every costume shop in the city has been taking reservations for months!"  The darkening of Catherine's expression painted a clear picture of her customer's rapidly waning goodwill.  "But I can check.  Maybe there's been a cancellation."  She tilted her head toward Catherine.  "What are you -- about a size six?" 

"Yes," Catherine replied, frowning as she looked at her watch.  "And could you please hurry?" 

The young woman typed in a series of code words, and seconds later a very short list appeared on the monitor's screen.  Shaking her head, she turned back to Catherine.  "Well, just like I said, there isn't much left.  We've got a pink rabbit, a witch, a Klingon, and a giant lollipop." 

Catherine's eyes widened.  "You aren't serious!"  

"I'm afraid so," the sales clerk answered as she started to pivot the screen back in Catherine's direction.  "Look for yourself." 

Catherine waved a hand in abrupt dismissal of the frustrating information.  "No, it's all right.  I believe you."  She sighed again, as the vision of herself dressed in the beautiful silvery blue ball gown standing before Vincent's admiring eyes, vanished hopelessly.  "Just put me down for the witch costume, I guess.  It's not at all what I wanted, but it beats spending the evening as a rabbit or a giant lollipop." 

"Or a Klingon!"   

The young woman's laugh was hard to resist and Catherine's face began to lighten with a smile, as she realized she'd just have to make the best she could of the disappointing situation.  "I'll pick up the costume tomorrow," she said firmly, as she handed the clerk a credit card.  "Probably late in the afternoon.  Should I ask for you? 

"Sure.  My name's Melissa.  But if I'm not here, one of the other clerks can help you." 

Catherine frowned slightly.  "And there won't be any further problems, will there?" 

"There shouldn't be.  I'll put the costume in a garment bag myself and label it with your name.  In fact, I'll do it as soon as I write up your reservation.  Remember, we close at six on Fridays, so just come in before then and it's all yours." 

"Whether I want it or not, right?"  Catherine replied with a wry smile.  "Thanks for your help." 

"No problem," Melissa called out just before the shop door swung shut behind Catherine.  

********************       

Vincent's heart was lighter than it had been in days, and he knew he needn't look beyond the memory of the previous night with Catherine to understand the welcome changes within himself.   He reached out to her through their bond, hoping to feel the same warmth and light emanating from her spirit to his, but he felt only the ever-present sensations he knew to be the ebb and flow of her emotions as she moved through the day apart from him.  Nevertheless, he was satisfied to know she was safe and that soon they would be together again.   

Feeling as if nothing in the world could challenge his new-found contentment, Vincent relaxed into a large, soft-cushioned chair in Father's study as he awaited the arrival of his parent.  A message on the pipes had summoned him there several minutes earlier, but Father had yet to appear, and Vincent assumed he'd been delayed elsewhere within the tunnel community.   

Gently lulled into a pleasant reverie of things to come, Vincent was startled back into instant alertness by a harsh sound -- half-growl, half-grumble -- venting loudly from several yards away.  He began to push himself from the chair to investigate the unexpected noise only to freeze in amazement when its source was suddenly revealed as his father's voice. 

"How you continually let the children talk you into these things is quite beyond me, Vincent!"  The thick tapestry shielding the entry to Father's sleeping chamber could not disguise the chagrin in his voice. "And I'm the greater fool for letting  you talk me into them as well!" 

With a vehement flourish, the tapestry was flung aside and a glowering figure made his entrance, stalking forward toward his son.  Coming to a halt only a few feet in front of the younger man, Jacob Wells gestured at himself with all the dignity he could still summon. "Look at me!  I cannot possibly wear this -- this -- get-up to the Halloween gathering!" 

As he rose slowly from his chair, Vincent bowed his head slightly, hoping to hide the smile he felt twitching at the corners of his lips.  Then he took a deep breath as he met his father's outraged face.  "You look quite regal, Father," he began.  "I'm sure everyone will think -- " 

"Never mind everyone else!"  Father interrupted.  "I'm sure I look a complete fool!" 

Vincent's eyes twinkled with suppressed laughter as he took in the sight of his father swathed in a voluminous white sheet, its draped edges trimmed in the same gold braid that held makeshift sandals to his feet.   "Well, Father," Vincent began, his husky voice deepening as he struggled to maintain an air of seriousness.  "You already knew what theme the children had chosen for this year's Halloween party when you assigned Julius Caesar to the literature class.  And you really can't blame them for being impressed by your reading of those scenes from the play last week.  It must have inspired them to choose this costume for you." 

Father's grey eyes narrowed as he listened to his son's none too subtle attempt to placate him.  "Don't patronize me, Vincent!  I know exactly what you're trying to do and it's not going to work -- not this time!"  He shook his head, nearly dislodging the olive wreath that graced his tousled hair.  "The children will just have to come up with something else." He took a deep breath, ready to continue his argument, when a high-pitched voice from a chamber entrance silenced him as nothing else could. 

"Father!  You look wonderful!" Samantha's enthusiasm rang through the lofty room.  "The costume is just perfect!" She turned and called eagerly to Kipper and Geoffrey as they ran through the entryway and stopped just behind her at the top of the small metal staircase."Look at Father! Isn't he the most perfect Julius Caesar you ever saw!" 

As the boys added their enthusiastic agreement, Father managed a convincing smile in their direction, and then turned toward Vincent with a glowering glare.  "Don't say a word," he muttered warningly.  "Not a single word.  I see I'll have to go along with this -- but only so as not to disappoint the children." 

Vincent nodded, a willing conspirator for both his Father's and the children's sake.  "Then I suppose this makes you the 'noblest Roman of them all'," he murmured under his breath, knowing Father would mistake neither the humor nor the affection in his voice. 

Father nodded in true Patrician style as he offered a royal Roman wave to the very impressed children.  "Yes," he agreed, his implacable dignity once again firmly in place despite everything.  "I suppose it does." 

But as Vincent turned toward the entryway at the far end of the chamber, he heard Father's final comment on the subject.   

"Now I wonder what they have in mind for you."       

*************************

Melissa rose from her place behind the counter and walked toward the costume racks to find and set aside Catherine's witch regalia.  "Oh good, there it is," she murmured as she pushed aside other garments to reach for the black satin dress and hat.  Minutes later they were safely packaged in a dark blue garment bag, labeled with her customer's name.   

"I'd better take a look and make sure no one else's costume is missing," she muttered, rounding the end of a long row of racks.  "That's all we need at this --" 

Her words were cut short as she walked straight into the arms of a tall, handsome stranger who'd been reaching for a vampire costume. "I'm sorry," she said breathlessly as she stepped back and looked up into his twinkling eyes.  "I didn't see you."  Something in the back of her mind whispered, And I didn't hear the shop door open either.  I was sure I was alone.  But the words vanished unspoken as the man smiled down at her. 

"I need a costume for a Halloween party this Saturday night," he told her.  "Something dramatic!  Maybe a knight in shining armor ready to rescue a damsel in distress, or a fearless buccaneer sailing the high seas!" 

"Sure.  Let's take a look," Melissa answered.  She gave him her brightest smile, wondering if he already had a date for that party.  "There isn't a lot left, but I'm sure we can find something perfect for you." 

She pulled a pirate costume from a nearby rack and held it out to him, glancing the length of his body appraisingly.  "This looks like it will fit you.  Would you like to try it on?  There are dressing rooms in the back." 

"This is great!" he exclaimed, reaching with one hand for the elaborate plumed hat that completed the outfit and pulling off his baseball cap with the other.  With the hat angled alarmingly over his dark, glossy hair, he made an exaggeratedly low bow before reaching for the young woman's hand and raising it to his lips.  "Now you're my prisoner, fair maiden!  You must come with me to sail the seven seas!" 

Rolling her eyes, she giggled and tugged on his hand, pulling him toward the dressing rooms.  "Come on, Captain Kidd.  First the Halloween costume, then we'll talk about cruise wear!" 

She unlocked a latticed wooden door and flipped on the light within before moving back to allow him entrance.  "Just yell if you need help, okay?"   She hadn't taken more than a few steps back toward the front of the shop when she turned around and called over her shoulder,  "By the way, my name is Melissa." 

"Thanks, Melissa," came a muffled voice from behind the dressing room door.  "I'm Kristopher." 

*************           

Vincent contemplated Father's parting words as he walked the length of a wide, brick-lined tunnel.  Sighing slightly, he shook his head as he recalled the image of his parent in a Roman toga with an olive wreath atop his head.  Clearly the children found such a costume completely suitable for Father.  Perhaps there was cause to worry about what they might have dreamed up for him. 

Vincent knew that except for the momentary startlement displayed by young newcomers, the children never seemed to notice his differences.  He was simply a part of their lives, a beloved combination of friend and teacher, hero and champion, brother and father.  Their love enriched both his existence and theirs, yet he hoped it would not blind them to the fact that there were times when the differences they so easily disregarded would make it uncomfortable for him to participate fully in their lives. 

Lost in thought, Vincent veered into a narrower side tunnel and came face to face with Pascal, nearly colliding with the smaller man who had been hurrying toward that same intersection. 

"Pascal!  What brings you out here at this time of day?"  Vincent's sense of time, like that of all long-term tunnel dwellers, was almost unerring, and he knew that mid-afternoon typically found Pascal hard at work in the vast central Pipe Chamber. 

"Actually, I was looking for you," Pascal answered, his voice slightly winded.  "I sent out a message on the pipes, and Father answered saying you'd left his chamber several minutes ago but he wasn't sure where you were going.  Didn't you hear it?" 

"No, I didn't," Vincent answered, a slight frown creasing his brow.  "I'm not sure why, but perhaps I just didn't notice it." 

Pascal's own frown deepened.  "That's not like you, Vincent.  It must mean something's wrong with the pipes out here.  I'd better take a look." 

Together they entered the larger tunnel, and Pascal retrieved a short piece of copper tubing from a deep pocket of his tunic.  A series of rapid tapping sounds filled the corridor as he tested several pipes, concentrating intently on the tone and pitch of each one.  Minutes later, he seemed satisfied with the results and turned back to Vincent who'd waited patiently for the procedures to end. 

"Well, everything seems okay out here," Pascal announced, his worried expression lightening with relief.  "Maybe it was just that you weren't listening carefully for once, Vincent." 

Vincent smiled.  "That's probably it.  I'm glad there's no reason for concern.  But what was it you wanted to see me about?" 

Immediately his friend's demeanor sobered again.  "I'm not sure if it's a cause for alarm," he began.  "Zach has been doing a great job as my chief apprentice, so this week I've been giving him the bulk of the afternoon shift supervising the messages as they come through the central pipes.  I was trying to read in my chamber after lunch, but I just couldn't seem to relax, so I went to the Pipe Chamber -- just to check on things, you know."      

Vincent nodded in acknowledgment of the pipemaster's near legendary devotion to the tunnel world's communications system.  "And what did you find?" 

"At first, everything seemed to be in order.  Zach was handling things well, so I figured it was only my imagination.  But then just as I was about to leave, I thought I heard a very faint tapping sound coming from up in the far northeast corner of the main chamber.  It struck me as odd right away since we almost never use those particular pipes." 

"Where do they lead to?"  Vincent asked. 

"To Narcissa's chambers," Pascal answered, his brow furrowing with the anxiety he couldn't hide.  "But I'm pretty sure it wasn't Narcissa who was using them." 

"Why is that?" Vincent asked, feeling a slight chill creep along the edge of his spine. 

Pascal shrugged.  "First of all, it just didn't sound like her.  You know how everyone develops an individual style, even though we all use the same codes.  The code was correct -- one of the older ones that we've adapted over the years -- but the rhythm was slightly off."  His frown deepened.  "It was as if the person sending the message wasn't speaking normally."  He looked up at his old friend and noted the worried look on his face.  "It was more like singing than talking." 

"Singing?"  Vincent's voice reflected his surprise.  "Could you tell what the words were?" 

Despite his uneasiness, Pascal smiled, feeling a small sense of relief now that he was not alone in this.  "Sure.  That part was easy.  I even wrote them down."  He drew a small notebook from his pocket and flipped through it until he found the pages he sought.  "And the other thing that seemed really strange is that the message was addressed to Father.  Here take a look." 

Vincent's eyes widened as he scanned the words Pascal had carefully printed.  "You're right," he said as he raised his head to meet his friend's expectant gaze.  "They are the words of a song.  It's from the first act of an opera -- The Masked Ball.  Catherine and I listened to it when it was performed in the park last summer." 

"But what do you think it means?"  Pascal, the hint of a nervous laugh tingeing his voice.  "Is someone in Narcissa's chamber, sending Father secret messages in songs from operas?" 

Vincent shrugged, but the look in his eyes betrayed his puzzlement and concern.  "It's unlikely, but so it would seem.  I'll go and check on her and see what I can find.  Will you send a message to Father to let him know where I've gone in case he looks for me later?" 

"Sure, Vincent, I'll do it right away.  But do you want me to come with you, just in case?" 

Vincent shook his head and clasped a reassuring hand on the other man's shoulder.  "Thank you, Pascal, but no, that won't be necessary.  You're needed here.  And I have no sense of danger about this, strange as the whole thing seems." 

Pascal nodded, remembering the mysterious alliance Vincent and the exotic old woman maintained.  "Well, okay, but let me know what you find out." 

"I will," Vincent promised, "And I think it would be best to keep the details of this between Zach, you, and me for now.  I don't want Father to be worried unnecessarily." 

"I agree, Vincent.  Maybe it's nothing but a joke of some kind."  The forced evenness of Pascal's voice was meant to be reassuring, but Vincent felt it set his nerves further on edge. 

Turning in the direction of the tunnels which would eventually bring him to Narcissa's hidden realm, Vincent left the main hub of his world behind.  Several minutes later he reached the junction where he would turn off from the main passageway.  A rounded opening yawned ahead of him, but as he was about to enter it, he thought he heard the faint sound of footsteps behind him and he whirled to face his unexpected companion. 

Except for a hazy mist that might have been nothing more than cool, damp currents of air swirling through the underground world, the tunnel was empty.  Even the pipes were completely silent, and Vincent found himself half-annoyed and half-amused at his own actions.  "Is anyone there?" he called out, and felt a slight tremor ripple along his spine at the sound of his own voice echoing through the deserted passage.  He waited, straining his ears, but heard nothing more.   

Feeling slightly foolish, he turned and stepped over the raised threshold of the tunnel, ducking his head until he cleared the low, rounded ceiling of the entryway.  He lengthened his strides as he resumed the journey toward Narcissa's chambers, knowing it would take more than an hour to reach her even using the shortcuts few knew of and even fewer would risk taking.  As he walked, the words Pascal had transcribed drifted through his mind and he wondered at what hidden message they might convey and why it would be addressed to Father.

 

King of the abyss, make haste,

Hurl through the ether,

And, sparing the lightning flash,

Penetrate my roof.

Three times already the owl

Has breathed its cry;

The fiery salamander

Three times has hissed

And moans from the grave

Three times have sounded.

 

A prophetic warning or only an eerie attempt at humor?  No matter, Vincent knew he would have to do all he could to discover its meaning before sharing any of it with Father.  He broke into a run, his long legs setting an easy loping pace as he moved deeper into the underworld.  Sensing no other presence in that faraway place, Vincent fully believed he journeyed alone. 

********************

Long afternoon shadows deepened as day blended into night in the world Above.  Her responsibilities in court had ended unexpectedly early, and Catherine was grateful for the opportunity to make a rapid escape toward home.  She entered the elevator of her building, but as the doors slid shut behind her, she hesitated and on impulse pushed the button that would take her not to her eighteenth floor apartment but to the sub-basement. 

Minutes later she stood in the misty light of the brick-edged threshold to the underground world, half-hoping Vincent had sensed her intent and would be on his way to meet her.  She walked a few yards into the nearby tunnel, only to find the length of it dark and deserted as far as she could see.  For a few moments she considered trying to find her way to the home chambers on her own, but the memory of Vincent's warnings could not be ignored and instead she retraced her steps to reach for the small hammer that together they'd secreted near the tunnel entrance. 

Catherine smiled as she tapped out a message, using the tunnel code she was slowly but surely memorizing, and in seconds her smile widened as she heard Pascal's reply.  Leaning against the rough brick wall, Catherine waited for the promised escort to arrive and let her mind play with thoughts of a life that she fully believed would someday come to be.  The ways may change, she told herself, but it doesn't matter as long as they always lead me to him. 

Several minutes later Catherine straightened as she saw a flickering light begin to brighten the darkened tunnel ahead of her.  As she watched, the increasing light revealed Jamie, carrying a flashlight in one hand and a bulging burlap bag in the other.

"Hi, Jamie!  Thanks for coming to meet me," she began, reaching to take the flashlight from the younger woman's outstretched hand.  "How did you get here so quickly?  It usually takes Vincent and me at least twenty minutes to get to the home chambers." 

The gloom of the tunnel couldn't hide Jamie's grin.  "That's probably because you two aren't in any hurry to get there," she suggested, her smile growing at Catherine's laughing acknowledgment of the truth in her words.  "But actually, I wasn't too far from here when your message came over the pipes, so I answered and told Pascal I'd come and meet you." 

Jamie reached into a pocket of her denim jacket and withdrew a second flashlight identical to the one she'd given Catherine.  "All set?"  At Catherine's nod, she switched on the light and began to lead the way deeper into the tunnel world. 

"Have you seen Vincent today?" Catherine asked as they made their way along the dimly lit route. 

"Not since breakfast.  But I heard a message on the pipes that he was going to see Narcissa and wouldn't be back until later tonight." 

For a moment, Catherine was silent, not wanting to appear ungrateful for Jamie's company, but unable to smother her disappointment. 

"Why don't you stay for supper and then just wait for him?"  Jamie suggested.  "He shouldn't be too late and I know he'd be really disappointed if he missed seeing you." 

Catherine felt her heart warm at the understanding reply from her friend.  "Thanks, Jamie, I think I'll do that.  And maybe there's something I can do to help with the Halloween preparations in the meantime." 

"Be careful who you say that to," Jamie warned with a laugh.  "Or you'll find yourself knee-deep in crepe paper, paint, and who knows what else.  This year's celebration is getting bigger and more elaborate all the time." 

"What do you have there -- something for the party?" Catherine asked, gesturing toward the bag Jamie carried. 

"Pumpkins.  I'm just on my way back from Mr. Long's shop.  He had some extra ones that he wanted to donate." 

"Do you want some help?" Catherine asked.  "They must be heavy." 

"No, they're not too bad," Jamie answered.  "But thanks for asking.  They're just small ones for the younger children.  The older kids decided they wanted to have a pumpkin-carving contest, so, of course, all the little guys had to get in on it, too.  It'll be too late for them to stay up tonight to work on theirs, so tomorrow morning Rebecca, Matt, and I are going to help them.  They can draw the faces on the pumpkins, and we'll do all the carving for them.  But they can be in charge of scooping out the seeds and pulp." 

"Which they'll probably love," Catherine commented with a smile. 

"That's for sure," Jamie agreed.  "The messier it is, the better they like it!" 

They continued in companionable silence, not wishing to become distracted in case there were unexpected hazards on the way.  Although it did not happen often, there were occasional rockfalls caused by eroding supports in the walls and ceilings of some of the outlying tunnels, and the sweep of the flashlights' beams could not fully penetrate the darkness before the two friends.  After several minutes had passed, they reached the more traversed areas of the tunnel world, where slow-burning wall torches and the occasional overhead light, whose electricity Mouse had surreptitiously converted from sources Above, allowed them to switch off their flashlights and relax their guard. 

"I'm really looking forward to the party," Catherine said.  "Does everyone dress up in costumes?" 

"Just about," Jamie answered. "It's been a tradition ever since I can remember." 

"Even Father?"  Catherine asked with a laugh. 

"Especially Father," Jamie retorted with a laugh of her own.  "He loves it!  You know that this year the children convinced him there should be a theme for the party?" 

"Yes.  Vincent told me.  Everyone's supposed to come dressed as a character from some literary work." 

Jamie nodded, grinning sideways at Catherine.  "Well, wait until you see Father!  He agreed to let the children put together a costume for him, and guess what they came up with?" 

Catherine shook her head.  "I can't imagine.  What?" 

"Julius Caesar!"  

"Oh, no!"  Catherine giggled helplessly.  "Not with a toga and everything?" 

Jamie nodded, as the sound of their shared laughter echoed through the tunnel.  "Definitely with a toga -- and sandals and an olive wreath!"  Gasping to catch her breath, she added, "Now, you can't laugh when you see him in it!"  

Catherine's laughter subsided enough to allow her to speak.  "Well, I'll try my best. Thanks for the warning!" 

"Luckily I put my own costume together before the children volunteered to help me.  I'm going as Rosalind -- you know, from As You Like It.  We just finished reading the play in our drama group, and I really liked her spirit,"  Jamie said.  "How about you?  What's your costume?" 

Catherine grimaced with disgust.  "A witch.  I was supposed to be Cinderella, but that fell through." 

"What happened?"  

"I called a costume rental shop to reserve a beautiful ball gown, but they lost my reservation, and the witch outfit was the best of the few horrible choices that were left.  It's just a plain, ordinary witch's dress and hat, so I'll have to come up with some specific character I'm supposed to be." 

"I'm sure the children can help you with that," Jamie replied solicitously.  She knew how few opportunities Catherine had to be a part of the world in which Vincent lived.  Hoping to ease her friend's disappointment, she added, "And you know Vincent will think you're beautiful no matter what.  He's really happy you're going to come to the party." 

Catherine's smile illuminated her face.  "Thanks, Jamie," she said softly.  "I'm happy about that, too." 

"Come on," Jamie suggested.  "Let's drop these pumpkins off and go see what's left of supper." 

"Sounds like a good idea," Catherine agreed.  "I'm starving!" 

******************* 

As Jamie and Catherine entered a world of light and warmth, Vincent's journey brought him to a place of shadows and secrets.   He was eager to speak with Narcissa so that he could return to the community as soon as possible, but as he reached the short, rocky corridor leading into the her workroom, he hesitated, hearing the unexpected sound of indistinct voices from deeper within the chamber.  For moments he lingered uncertainly, but then a familiar melodic voice beckoned him forward. 

"Come in, Vincent, come in.  Do not haunt my doorway like some poor lost soul."  The old woman chuckled at her own words, and for just an instant Vincent thought he heard the faint sound of other laughter from the hazy shadows.  The sensation sent another icy chill prickling down his spine, but when he quickly scanned the chamber, he found no one but Narcissa within it. It must be my imagination, he thought, as he forced himself to shake off the strange events, unwilling to give in to fanciful fears. 

"How did you know I was here?" he asked, his voice firm and deep. 

"I saw you in the waters, child," Narcissa answered.  She gestured toward the translucent surface of the liquid in a shallow bowl and flicked her fingertips across it.  "Not many come to see me, but I always know when a journey is begun." 

Irresistibly drawn, Vincent moved closer to the old worktable and glanced fleetingly at the water which still moved in small rippling waves.  There was no sign of his own reflection there, and yet he thought he caught the sensation of movement deep within the water, a volatile portrait of bright sparkling eyes and a gleaming smile in some unknown shaded face.  He shook his head hard, dispelling the vision, but found it took all his willpower not to turn and look behind himself to see if the image might have substance after all.  

"What is it, Vincent?"  Narcissa continued, her voice grounding Vincent to some semblance of reality.  She gazed up at him with eyes clouded yet far-seeing.  "Why have you journeyed so far from home to come to this old, forgotten place?"        

Vincent glanced around the crowded room, spotting treasures and mysterious objects that had fascinated him since he was a child.  Even the smoke and spice scent of the chamber was familiar to him, yet there was another odor drifting elusively through the air; Vincent knew he'd smelled it before, but it seemed out of place here, and he could not name it.  With effort, he relaxed his face into a smile, despite the sense of misgiving that  lingered within.  "I have a question to ask of you, Narcissa, one that only you can answer."       

Her broad smile seemed to relieve some of the gloominess of the room.   "Then ask me," she said, her deep affection for Vincent giving warmth to the command.  "And I will try to find the answer for you."       

"A few hours ago, Pascal heard a message for Father being sent over the pipes.  The wording of it was very mysterious, and the pipes that carried it lead directly to your chambers.  Was it you who sent the message, Narcissa?"       

The old woman frowned with displeasure as her eyes flickered away from Vincent's face to settle for less than a moment on some shadowy place beyond him, deep within her realm.  Yet before Vincent could react, she regained her composure and focused on him again, tilting her head sideways as she smiled up at him.  "No, I didn't send a message to the Father, Vincent.  What would I have to tell him?  You know he does not believe in my ways."       

Vincent tensed warily, but kept his voice even.  "Then who did send it, Narcissa?"       

The old woman shook her head, her ornate gold earrings catching flickers of errant light.  "Who can say, child?  Maybe you are wrong, and that message came singing along those old pipes from someplace else."  She swung her arm in a slow, graceful arc that encompassed the deepest reaches of the room.  "See?  There is no one here but me."       

Vincent sighed imperceptibly as his eyes followed her gesture.  He realized there would be no answers here, for whatever Narcissa knew, she had chosen not to reveal to him.   "Perhaps you're right," he told her.  "Even Pascal has been known to make mistakes."       

Narcissa chuckled, but the sound did not warm Vincent as it had before.  "Or maybe it's the old spirits playing tricks.  Sometimes they have a wish to tell their stories to us.  And it is their time now.  When the walls between the worlds grow thin..."       

Hearing those words from the mysterious old woman did nothing to set Vincent's mind at ease and he felt an increased eagerness to return to the warmth of his own world.  "Thank you, Narcissa.  Is there anything you need, anything you wish me to bring to you?"       

She patted his arm and smiled up at him again.  "No, child, but you are kind to ask me.  Your heart is full of truth and goodness."       

He returned her smile, knowing that she would somehow see it.  "Then I'll leave you now.  Take care down here."       

"Do not worry for me, child," she replied as her opaque gaze followed his steps toward the chamber entrance.  "I have much work to do and I am happy here in my world."       

Vincent paused at the edge of the passageway.  "I know, but remember there will always be a place for you with us if you desire it."         

As he looked back at her, she acknowledged his caring words with a nod of her head, but said nothing more as she turned away from him to reach for a small glass bottle and old wooden mortar and pestle.  With a slight shrug, Vincent again turned toward the entryway and moved swiftly into the connecting passage.   As he did, he caught sight of a large piece of canvas stretched on a wooden frame a few feet away.  It was tilted against the rocky wall so that its painted surface was hidden from sight, and for a moment he paused and almost reached out to turn it toward him.  Then he shook his head and continued onward, the impulse forgotten as he realized that at least one small mystery had been solved.  The unusual odor he'd noticed earlier was paint, artist's oils, and if for some mysterious reason of her own Narcissa had chosen to take up painting, he knew it could be no business of his.                   

*****************

Upon reaching the upper levels, Vincent stopped to talk with Pascal as he had promised.  After he had shared what little he'd learned, the two friends decided to let the matter drop until the time when they might gather further information.         

"It probably was just a Halloween prank anyway," Pascal said, although the doubt in his voice did little to convince either of them.         

"Perhaps," Vincent agreed.  "Although I don't think Narcissa would do something like that."       

Pascal laughed softly.  "Neither do I, but then again with her, you can never be sure."       

"No, I suppose not.  If you hear anything more, will you let me know?"       

"Sure, Vincent."  Pascal's eyes darted toward the old pipes high in a corner of the chamber.  "I'll send a message to you right away.  Say, did you know Catherine's Below?  She's with some of the others in Father's chamber."       

The welcome news erased all thoughts of Halloween mysteries from Vincent's mind, and for a moment his eyes took on a faraway look as he concentrated on the bond that flowed from her heart to his.  "No, I didn't know," he said softly.  "When did she get here?"        

"Jamie met her at the entrance to her apartment building a few hours ago.  I think they've been helping the older kids get their jack-o-lanterns ready for that contest they have planned for tomorrow night, but they must be finished with that by now."       

Vincent closed his eyes as he felt the even hum of Catherine's emotions whisper within him.  He knew she was happy, content to be Below, to be a part of his world, and that realization warmed him to the soul.       

"Vincent?"  Pascal reached to give his friend's arm a shake.  "Don't you think you ought to get going?"       

A small, self-conscious smile curved Vincent's mouth as he opened his eyes and focused on Pascal's friendly grin.  "Yes. I think I should."   He started down the tunnel, but after only a few paces, he turned and looked back.  "You won't forget to tell me if there are any more messages from Narcissa's chambers, will you?"       

"I won't forget," Pascal reassured him, waving an arm in dismissal.  "And I'll remind Zach about it, too.  Now go on!  You've got better things to do than worry about some dumb Halloween joke."       

Minutes later as he neared Father's chamber, Vincent heard the sound of laughter and friendly voices, their warmth as tangible as the bright glow of candles and the featherlight touch of Catherine's presence within his heart.  It was the sound of home, and he felt a tremendous sense of happiness and peace, greater than any he'd ever known, when he thought of Catherine as a true part of his home, his world, his life.  For just a moment he paused at the threshold to the chamber, allowing himself to dream that someday it might be forever.       

"Vincent, here you are at last!  Come and join us!"  Mary's voice pulled him from his musing, but it was Catherine's face he saw first, smiling up at him from her place at the long, mahogany table in Father's study.        

As he descended the small staircase, Vincent watched Mouse jump up from his chair next to Catherine.  "Sit here, Vincent.  Next to Catherine."  Mouse smiled with satisfaction.  "Saved this place for you."       

"Thank you, Mouse," Vincent answered, as he took the chair the younger man offered.  Fighting the urge to reach for Catherine's hand, he instead accepted a mug of fragrant orange spice tea from Rebecca and clasped it between both hands.  His gaze swept the length of the table, appreciatively noting the relaxed, friendly faces of several members of the tunnel community, before resting for several long moments on the smile in Catherine's eyes.         

With difficulty, he tore his gaze away from her and again looked toward the others, some of whom were making little attempt to hide their own smiles.  "What have you been doing this evening?" he began.       

"Most of the time we worked on a few final preparations for the Halloween party," Catherine answered.   She gestured toward a large plate in the center of the table.  "And believe it or not, I even managed to help William with the baking."       

"You did very well," Mary said firmly.  "The peanut butter cookies turned out just fine."       

"And some of us have been helping the older kids with their jack-o-lanterns," Jamie said.  "We're going to use them for decorations at the party, but they had to carve them tonight since the contest is going to be tomorrow after dinner, remember?"       

Vincent shook his head.  "I forgot about it," he admitted.  "How did it go?"       

William laughed as he reached for one of the few remaining cookies.  "Not too good at first.  Some of them didn't like it when they found out they were better at coming up with ideas than at using the carving knives."       

"For a while I thought all we'd end up with would be a few bowls of pulp and a big pile of broken pumpkin shells," Rebecca commented as the others nodded in agreement.  "Not to mention a lot of hurt feelings."       

"Thought there might even be a fight," Mouse said, a worried frown creasing his forehead.  "That would be bad.  Someone could get hurt."       

"But Father came up with a good solution to the problem," Catherine added quickly, wishing to allay Mouse's concern.       

Father cast her an appreciative smile.  "Well, it was more of a compromise actually, but if I do say so myself, it did work out quite nicely."       

"It worked beautifully." Mary nodded approvingly.  "Father suggested that each child be given the option of having an adult help with some of the carving.  That way they still were able to do most of the work themselves, but they didn't have to give up some of their more elaborate ideas."       

Vincent smiled.  "And I suppose they all took you up on the offer?"       

"All except Kipper," Rebecca answered.  "You know how stubborn he can be."       

"His jack-o-lantern turned out okay anyway, even though it's a little lopsided."  William chuckled as he recalled the sight.  "But did you see Geoffrey's?  I kinda think that one looks something like me."       

Good-natured laughter again warmed the chamber and with it the hearts of the family who gathered there.  From her place in their midst, Catherine was filled with the sense that this all felt so right.  The feeling wrapped itself around her, becoming more than a dream, more than the wish she'd heard in her heart time and time again.  Someday, somehow...  And when she stole a sideways glance at Vincent, she knew in a heartbeat that their as yet unspoken wishes and dreams were one and the same.       

The sound of a chair scraping against the stone floor drew everyone's attention.  Standing to face the others, Father began, "It's been a long day and it's time for me to turn in, but before I do, I believe an important announcement must be made."   As he paused, his wry grin previewed the words he'd say, revealing them to everyone but Vincent.               

"What announcement is that, Father?"  Jamie asked with far too much innocence in the tone of her voice.       

Vincent's eyes narrowed warily.  "Yes, Father, what announcement?"       

"Why, the names of those who will judge the jack-o-lantern contest tomorrow evening, of course," Father replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  "Earlier tonight it was agreed that there should be three judges who will award the various ribbons of merit.  Most frightening jack-o-lantern, most beautiful, most comical, and so on.  Isn't that right?"  Again he paused while the others smiled and nodded in agreement.       

Vincent watched William and Rebecca exchange an obvious wink.  "And to whom will this honor go?" he asked, already knowing the answer.       

"To the three individuals who promised to help this evening but evidently were otherwise engaged.  Kanin, Olivia, and you."       

"But I --" Vincent began.       

"It's been decided, Vincent," Father answered firmly, although his slate blue eyes were full of mirth.  "Make certain you're available after dinner tomorrow night for the judging."       

As she gathered the empty mugs onto a tray, Mary cast a more sympathetic look in Vincent's direction.  "I'm sorry, Vincent. I know how you hate to be in a position to make judgments like this.  But you weren't here earlier, and you were just outvoted."       

For a moment Vincent was tempted to stay and argue, but he knew it would be pointless.  Then a far more enticing option presented itself, one he readily seized.       

"Vincent, it's getting pretty late and I should go Above now.  Will you walk to the threshold with me?"       

Grateful for the chance to touch her at last, Vincent reached for Catherine's hand as she rose to her feet beside him, and it was only with effort that he was able to let her go.  As he waited patiently while she said good-night to the others and repeated her promise to return for the party, he heard the seemingly casual statement she'd made moments earlier echoing within his heart.  She said 'I should go Above now,' he repeated silently, Not 'I should go home.'         

Perhaps it meant nothing at all, he told himself, and yet he knew that it had.  Each small, tender moment they shared meant everything to him -- the love in her eyes every time she looked at him, the fleeting touch of her hand in the presence of others, the tentative promise in her words.  Each was a gift he'd never thought would be his, until the night he first found her and began to know what possibilities life might hold even for someone like him.       

Lost in thought, Vincent slowly became aware that Catherine was waiting for him at the bottom of the small metal staircase which lead to the main passageway.  Her smile drew him forward like a light in the darkness, and moments later they were alone, the welcome and well-loved sight and sound of family and friends giving way to something infinitely more precious.       

As they walked their usual route toward the sub-basement of Catherine's building, Vincent reached for her hand, knowing this time there was no need to let her go.  The surge of happiness he felt shimmering within their bond was as real as the warmth of her fingers entwined with his and the subtle seduction of her smooth skin sliding across his work-roughened palm.  Even in his innocence Vincent knew that such a small gesture would pass almost unnoticed by most couples, when for him it was a moment of sensuality to be treasured.  But the thought did not shame him; instead, he realized with a glimmering of surprise, it seemed to be yet another promise, one that heightened his awareness of all the tenderness and passion that had always lived in their dreams.  Dreams which might someday come true if they moved toward them with caution and with care...       

"Vincent, what are you thinking about?"  The reality of Catherine's voice was an enticement even greater than his alluring reverie.  "You look so far away."       

When seconds passed and he did not answer, Catherine waited, watching as he gazed at her with an intensity he seldom allowed himself to reveal.  For just a moment she thought she saw something deep in his eyes, a simmering image that told of the desire he worked so hard to keep harnessed and hidden.  And although his words, when at last he spoke, were enigmatic, the sound of his voice dispelled any lingering doubts.       

"Not so far away, Catherine," he murmured in the low husky tone that always sent a flickering of fire racing through her.  "Maybe not far away at all."       

She felt her heart beat faster as she waited for him to go on, but when he turned his head, hiding for a moment behind the bronze-gold curtain of his hair, she knew he would say nothing more of this.  And yet, for now, it was promise enough.       

"Jamie told me you went to see Narcissa.  How is she?" Catherine asked, tightening her grasp on his hand to further draw his attention back to her.  "Do you think she'll come to the Halloween party?"         

He looked down at their tightly clasped hands for just a moment before he turned his gaze to her face once more.  "With Narcissa, it's hard to say," he replied, shaking his head. "But that's not why I went to see her.  Pascal reported receiving a strange message meant for Father, and it came from the pipes that lead to her chambers.  Yet when I asked her about it, she said she hadn't sent any messages at all."       

"Why did Pascal think the message was strange?" Catherine asked.        

"It didn't seem to make any sense."  Vincent's face tightened.  "Of course, it might be nothing more than a Halloween prank.  At least that's what we'll have to assume for now."       

Catherine felt a slight chill at the sound of his words. "What did the message say?"       

He glanced down at her and squeezed her hand reassuringly.  "It was nothing really, just some words from a song.  And by coincidence, it was a song from --"       

His words were cut off by the sound of running footsteps approaching from a tunnel that branched away to their left.  Instinctively, Vincent stepped in front of Catherine, shielding her from any possibility of threat while he stared into the gloom of the narrow side tunnel.       

"Mouse!"  The relief in Vincent's voice was palpable as he saw the young man emerge from the darkened passageway and slide to a halt in front of them.       

"Vincent!  Catherine!  Didn't expect to see you here!"         

Having moved to Vincent's side, Catherine felt his body relax as she leaned against him; then she sighed with a combination of relief at the sight of their friend and pleasure as Vincent rested an arm around her shoulders.  "Mouse, you really startled us," she said, her smile easing any sting he might feel at her words.  "We didn't expect to see you either."       

"Where are you coming from in such a hurry?" Vincent asked.  "You aren't in any trouble, are you?"       

Mouse shook his head.  "No trouble.  Just in a hurry, that's all."  His tone was slightly reproachful.  "Went to see Elizabeth.  Decided we need paint for the littlest kids' pumpkins."       

Catherine smiled.  "Are you going to help them paint jack-o-lantern faces, too?"       

The shaggy blond head nodded vigorously.  "Someone needs help, they always call Mouse.  Even the little kids know that."       

"And I'm sure you'll be of great assistance to them," Vincent answered warmly.         

Mouse grinned with self-conscious satisfaction at his friend's comment.  "Better get these things back to Mary," he answered, gesturing toward the lumpy pockets of his jacket.  "Tubes of paint and some brushes.  She wants everything ready for first thing in the morning."       

Before Vincent or Catherine could say another word, Mouse had veered around them, and they shared a warm smile as they watched him disappear at top speed back toward the home chambers.  Vincent let his arm slide from Catherine's shoulders, but took her hand once again as they continued toward the sub-basement threshold.  For several minutes, the metallic music of the pipes and the occasional hissing flicker of a wall torch were a familiar underscoring to their companionable silence.       

Then, realizing their journey was nearly over, Vincent resumed their conversation. "When will you come Below for the party, Catherine?"       

"Surprisingly enough, I'm just about caught up with my work from the office, so I can come down early.  Maybe sometime Saturday afternoon," she answered happily, "as long as that's all right with you."       

There was no hesitation in his answer.  "Yes, it's all right.  I'll come to meet you."       

"Great!  About three o'clock?"  She watched a small smile of pleasure curve his lips as he nodded in agreement, and felt its mirror image on her own mouth.  They had so little time together, and the promise of an afternoon and evening, even in the presence of a great many friends and family members, filled them with happiness.       

"I'll pick up my costume after work tomorrow night," she continued, half-hoping he might suggest that she come Below then, yet not surprised when the invitation was not forthcoming.       

"What kind of costume will you wear?" he asked, as a beautiful remembered vision from a year ago shimmered in his mind.       

Catherine's response was not what he expected.  "Not the one I wanted," she answered with a short sniff of disgust.  "I'd reserved a gorgeous dress, but the costume shop lost my reservation, so I had to take what was left."       

"And what was that?" he continued.       

"A witch costume," she answered, lingering disappointment shading her voice.  "I'll be wearing an ugly, ordinary witch outfit, instead of Cinderella's ball gown.  But what I wanted was to wear something special, something beautiful just for you."       

"You will be beautiful no matter what you wear," he told her, his husky voice soft and almost shy.       

Any regret Catherine still knew vanished as she smiled up at him.  "How do you always know the perfect thing to say?" she asked, feeling her heart swell with love.  "You always make me feel better no matter what, even when I'm worrying about something silly like this."       

When his only reply was the warmth in his eyes, Catherine went on.  "What will you dress up as, Vincent?"       

"I don't know," he answered.  "The children asked if they could put together a costume for me, but according to Samantha, it's not ready yet."       

Their steps slowed as they finally reached the sub-basement entrance to Catherine's building, and they paused at the threshold, reaching for a few last moments together.       

"But didn't they tell you what it would be?" Catherine continued, visions of a toga-clad Father rippling her voice with suppressed humor.         

Vincent's expression grew wary. "No, I told them they could surprise me, but now I'm not certain that was such a good idea."       

Guessing his thoughts had taken a similar path, Catherine grinned up at him.  "You know what they came up with for Father?"       

Smiling in spite of his worries, Vincent nodded.  "Yes.  In fact, he showed it to me earlier today.  I can only hope they show more...restraint...in their plans for me."       

A sudden image flashed through Catherine's mind of Vincent standing before her, wrapped only in a soft length of cotton sheeting, bare muscular arms crossed over the sculpted width of his chest.  His amber hair would lay in waves against his unclad shoulders, soon to be tangled by her own hands as she clung to him.  And when she looked into his eyes, she knew she would find a deepening hunger that could no longer wait to be satisfied.  Then, unable and unwilling to resist, he would stride toward her, the strong rhythmic movement pressing the thin cotton fabric against his body to reveal more than an enticing hint of the virile masculine beauty he offered her at last.             

But they would not be part of a bright, noisy crowd at a Halloween party.  They would be alone in her bedroom Above with only the pale golden glow of candles lighting their way, as with a sigh both rough and tender he would pull her into his arms and carry her to her bed...       

Unable to restrain the torrent of desire that swept through her, Catherine could do nothing more than give in to the sensations, even though she knew he would feel them, too, as they flared over him through their bond.  She'd known for a very long time that he was aware of her desire for him, for she could no sooner mask it entirely than she could keep the sun from rising in the sky.  But more and more often now, it filled her dreams of him at night and suffused their waking moments together, its force too vibrant to ignore, too powerful to be tamed.       

She looked up at him uncertainly, and as their eyes met, she knew there could be no doubt he'd felt everything.  Quickly she searched for words which might ease the throb of pain and pleasure her unleashed emotions had brought him, knowing with a small, chilled burst of sadness, that he would not be able to speak of it aloud.       

Yet she could not know the image she presented to him, her gleaming eyes still smoldering with desire, her soft lips parted expectantly, her breathing rushed and uneven.  Without speaking, she'd told him everything, unmistakably revealing all the doubts and desires that lived in her with a fierce intensity which cried for release, and Vincent found he could no longer resist the sound of her heart.  He struggled to find words of response, but they eluded him, so lost was he in the vision of Catherine and the sensations searing through their bond.       

Finally she drew a shuddering breath and with it regained her composure.  "I'm sorry, Vincent," she began, her voice low and trembling just a little.  "Not for the way I feel about you, but because I never want those feelings to be a burden to you...and I'm afraid that sometimes they are."       

"Your feelings...for me...are not a burden, Catherine," he replied, surprising them both when he did not turn away from her but instead looked deep into her eyes.       

"Then what are they?" she asked, half in hope, half in fear.        

Somehow denying the powerful urge to pull her into his arms, Vincent continued to stare down at her, but he could not keep a deepening rasp from his voice, even knowing its sound answered all her questions, those asked and those yet unvoiced.       

"They are a blessing, Catherine," he answered.  "A blessing and a gift."       

Moving beyond thought or word, they came together then, holding one another for long, unmeasured moments in a circle of love and light, feeling their hearts beat together in perfect cadence and sensing the unceasing rhythm of their bond pulse with the promise of what would someday come to be.          

But when they finally parted to return to their own worlds for yet a while longer, they remained entirely unaware that ever since leaving Father's chamber, they hadn't been alone.  The abiding love they shared in all its multi-faceted hues had beckoned to another's heart as surely as if they had voiced aloud words of warmth and welcome, and he had followed them, unseen and unheard, his form as insubstantial as a shadow and just as silent.  The existence he now knew was filled so often with cold and darkness, that he found the golden light of their souls impossible to resist.  It reminded him of all that might have been, had his own life not been cut short one frozen, starless night.       

All at once he was filled with a need to do something for them then and there, something beyond the pledge he'd made to the magical old woman in the earth's deep chambers, even beyond the plans they'd forged together.  He hesitated, his forehead creasing and his dark eyes narrowing as he searched his heart and mind for inspiration.  Then in a heartbeat it came to him, and with soundless steps he went Above.  He knew the costume shop would be closed for the night, but he understood that fact would provide no difficulty for one such as he.  And when he laughed in happy satisfaction, he was sure he heard in the now silent sound the vibrant warmth it had always possessed. 

***************** 

"Come on, Catherine, hurry!"         

Samantha and Kipper waited impatiently as Catherine set aside a small suitcase in Vincent's chamber, while Vincent hung the garment bag containing her costume on a wrought iron hook on the outer door of his wardrobe.       

Catherine smiled at the children.  "Okay, I'm all set.  Now where are those prize-winning pumpkins?"       

"We moved them to the big dining chamber," Kipper answered, as they walked through the winding tunnels.  "That way everyone at the party can see them."       

"Rebecca made special candles for them," Samantha added, her dark eyes gleaming in anticipation of the festivities to come.  "They'll burn for hours and hours."       

"Exactly when does this party start?" Catherine asked, feeling herself easily caught up in their enthusiasm.       

"Within the hour," Vincent answered.  "At four o'clock, Father will begin reading to he younger children.  It will be too late for them to stay up for the whole party, so after the stories, they'll dress in their costumes and wear them during dinner.  Then there will be some simple games for them, but by seven, they'll be in their beds in the nursery chamber."       

"I remember when we had to do that," Kipper said.  "It was fun, but this is much better!"       

"Definitely much better!" Samantha agreed. "Now we can stay up as late as the grown-ups!"       

Catherine and Vincent exchanged understanding smiles as the children raced forward into the large, communal dining chamber.         

"This looks wonderful!"  Catherine paused in the doorway, her smile growing as she took in the decorations that had transformed the plain, utilitarian space into a magical world.  "Where did it all come from?"       

"Some of the things we've had for many years, and others have been found more recently or donated by Helpers," Vincent told her.  "Nearly everyone helped in some way, but it's mostly the work of the older children, along with Brooke, Mouse, Jamie, and Matt."       

The long trestle tables were covered in cloths of black and orange, their surfaces already set with plates and silverware for the evening meal.  In the center of each table, waiting to be transformed by flickering ivory candles later in the evening, were the jack-o-lanterns, nestled in sprays of colorful autumn leaves.  Catherine glanced upwards and saw dozens of Rebecca's candles, bright yellow and golden orange, arranged in the old iron chandeliers, and then let her gaze travel the length and breadth of the room as she admired the displays the children had arranged.  In one corner there was a straw-stuffed scarecrow dangling precariously between two tall sheaves of cornstalks, a fat, orange pumpkin at his feet, and in another corner she saw an array of ghosts suspended from the ceiling on translucent fishing lines, fluttering in the slightest movement of air.          

At one end of the spacious chamber, an area had been set aside for the trio of musicians who would play, their efforts to be overseen by two companions -- a leering vampire the children had constructed from an old mannequin secured by Mouse on a "finding and taking" mission Above and the full-size skeleton borrowed from the hospital chamber, which now wore a battered top hat and red bowtie.  Astonished and impressed, Catherine looked in the opposite direction to find a long table set against one wall, half its surface already crowded with covered plates of treats the partygoers would enjoy after dinner, along with a large black cauldron which, she guessed correctly, would contain homemade apple cider.        

"It really is amazing," she said, turning toward Vincent.  "I've been to lots of Halloween parties, but I know this will be better than any of them."       

Vincent knew her thoughts had traveled the same path as his.  "Even better than last year's party?"        

She tilted her head and smiled the smile that always made his heart beat faster.  "I know how special that night was for you, Vincent, for both of us.  But this one will be even more wonderful than that.  I know it will."         

Barely able to acknowledge the unspoken yet eloquent message he hoped he'd heard in her words, Vincent found their attention once again commanded by the children.       

"Aren't you going to come and look at the jack-o-lanterns?" Kipper asked. "Mine won first prize for the scariest face."       

"Well, mine won first prize for most artistic," Samantha added quickly.  "The judges said it showed real promise."       

"Yeah, but I promise mine's better!"  Kipper retorted with a laugh.       

Catherine felt a small hand slip into hers and she looked down to find that Geoffrey had arrived in the chamber without their notice.  "Do you want to see my jack-o-lantern, Catherine?" he asked shyly.  "It's over here."       

She let him lead her to a nearby table and watched as he pointed to a plump, round pumpkin, its carved face dominated by a toothy grin and lopsided smile.  "That's mine."       

"It's wonderful, Geoffrey," Catherine said warmly.  "And did you win a prize, too?"

"Yup.  Mine got the prize for the friendliest face."       

Having come up behind them quietly, Vincent smiled a warning at Geoffrey and then turned to Catherine.  "Does it remind you of anyone?" he asked her.        

Catherine leaned closer to the jack-o-lantern and scrutinized it carefully as Geoffrey and Vincent grinned at each other while awaiting her response.       

"It does, but I can't quite tell who," she answered, straightening and turning back to them.  "Will you give me a clue?"       

Vincent and Geoffrey shook their heads.  "Look again, Catherine," the little boy urged as she did what he asked.  "Everyone said it looks just like --"       

"William!"  Catherine sputtered with laughter. "You're right -- it really does look like him!"       

"I heard that!"  William's good-natured voice boomed from the chamber entrance where he'd stood watching the goings-on.  "And here I was counting on you to defend my honor!"       

Catherine smiled up at the burly cook as Vincent helped him carry in two huge covered baskets of freshly baked rolls and breads.  "That's just what I was doing, William," she joked back.  "It's quite an honor to have your portrait carved by a budding artist."       

"Well, I suppose it is," he conceded with a chuckle.  "And I don't see any other jack-o-lantern faces that look like anybody else around here, so I guess that makes Geoffrey and me pretty special.  Right, kid?"   Having handed the second basket to Kipper, William affectionately mussed Geoffrey's hair as the youngster grinned up at him.       

"Right, William!"       

"Now aren't you kids missing some of Father's stories," the cook suggested.  "He's already started reading."       

"Aw, those stories he reads first are for the little kids," Kipper answered.  "He saves the good ones are for later while they're eating their supper.  I'm waiting for the scary ones!"  He made a horrible, monster-like grimace in Samantha's direction, only to find his efforts met by the girl's haughtiest stare.       

"Well, I still like them," she announced, dismissing what she obviously considered to be Kipper's lack of appreciation for literature.  "And I'm going to go listen to them."       

"Me, too, Sam," Geoffrey agreed.  "I still like some of them, too."       

"Oh, all right." Kipper sighed noisily.  Then his eyes took on their typical gleam as a grin transformed his face.  "But I'll beat you there!"       

Seconds later the dining chamber was deserted by all but the three adults who smiled at one another in shared remembrance of their younger days.       

"Is there anything I can do to help you, William?" Catherine asked.       

"Nah, I don't think so, thanks.  We're just about set.  But you'd better take a good look at the rest of those jack-o-lanterns, 'cause you know those kids are going to ask you about them later."       

"I suppose I should." Catherine smiled up at Vincent.  "Want to take me on a guided tour?"       

Playing along, he gestured toward another arrangement of pumpkins on a nearby table, and, taking her arm, he began to lead her toward them, as William headed back in direction of the kitchens.         

"Say, Vincent," he called out, pausing in the doorway.  "You did good work judging the contest, even though we stuck you with the job."       

"Thank you, William," Vincent replied.  "It wasn't as hard as I'd thought it would be since we made sure every child was awarded a prize.  But I'm glad Kanin and Olivia were there to help make the final decisions."       

"I know why you got that assignment, Vincent," Catherine said with a gentle laugh.  "But what did Kanin and Olivia do to deserve it?"       

Vincent shrugged.  "I'm not sure.  Perhaps they were busy somewhere else and just forgot about it."       

"Yeah, they've sure been busy a lot lately!"  William's teasing comment was accentuated by his gruff but warm laugh.  "Even missed dinner a few times -- which reminds me, I'd better go check on things in the kitchen."       

As he disappeared down the passageway, Catherine glanced up at Vincent, unable to resist a sympathetic and yet amused smile when she saw the slight blush that rose along his neck.   It still amazed her that despite the depths of strength and courage he possessed in so many ways, his heart was far more sensitive, more vulnerable than anyone she'd ever known. He was an incredibly compelling dichotomy of virility and innocence, and she knew that no other man would ever compare to him.  A wave of pure desire swept through her, a longing for all that he was, all that he could be to her and to himself.  Yet before he could sense it fully through their bond, she somehow managed to set the sensation aside, and instead turned her attention back to the Halloween celebration.       

She looked up to find him gazing at her, his face relaxed and calm, but his eyes alight, and she knew that he had sensed at least a shading of her emotions through their bond.  Yet she only smiled, contented for now to believe that he was finally beginning to share her faith that there were so many possibilities waiting for them.                                     

**************       

"One more story, Father, please!"       

"Yes, Father, just one more!"       

Inordinately pleased by the spirited reaction from the members of his audience, both young and old, Father nevertheless closed the book and rose from his chair, pausing for a slight dramatic bow, before speaking.  "No, that's all for this Halloween," he told them, shaking his head slightly to indicate that he shared their disappointment.  "You have been a wonderful and most attentive audience, but it's time for you to go and put on your costumes before we enjoy the special supper William has prepared, and the games and entertainment to follow.  So off with you now!"         

Rising to their feet from the cushions strewn across the floor of the study, Vincent and Catherine joined the many others making their way toward their chambers to follow Father's suggestion.  "I really liked the readings," Catherine commented enthusiastically. "Father has a wonderful flair for the dramatic, doesn't he?"       

Vincent laughed softly.  "Yes, he does.  I'm not sure who enjoys this yearly tradition more -- the audience or the performer."         

"I certainly enjoyed it," Catherine answered.  "In fact, when he read that part of H.G. Wells' The Inexperienced Ghost, where Clayton actually summons forth the ghostly spirit and sees it appear before him, I almost believed I saw it, too, standing right in Father's chamber."  She shivered appreciatively.  "It was wonderful!"       

Vincent looked at her with a quizzical half-smile.  "I didn't realize you enjoy being frightened, Catherine."       

She smiled up at him, shaking her head in mock exasperation.  "I don't.  Well, maybe only once a year, and only if I have you to protect me from all the 'ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night'."       

"I can see Father's going to have some competition for his performance if he's not careful," Vincent commented dryly.       

When they arrived at his chamber, Vincent paused in the entrance.  "You can change into your costume here," he said.  "I've left mine in Father's chamber, and I will change there.  When you're ready, tap out your name and mine on the pipes and I'll come back for you."       

"All right," she agreed.  "I won't be long.  But, Vincent, you never told me what your costume is.  What did the children choose for you?"       

He hesitated self-consciously.  "I can only guess they were inspired by their study of Idylls of the King," he answered in a low, even voice.  "I'm to be Lancelot."       

"The greatest knight of all," Catherine said softly.  "I think they made a wonderful choice."       

The sound of her words and the image of her small, secretive smile lingered within Vincent long after she had disappeared into his chamber, and he found he had to remind himself to turn and retrace his steps toward Father's rooms.  As he walked, he wondered, perhaps for the thousandth time, how it could be that Catherine saw so much more in him than he'd ever believed of himself.  And for just a moment he let himself rejoice in knowing that through her love, she had given him hope, the hope that on some distant day he truly might become the man who filled her dreams.             

Once inside Vincent's chamber, Catherine set her small suitcase on his bed and opened it to remove the things she would need to go with her witch's costume -- a pair of black boots that laced almost to the knee and sheer black pantyhose embroidered with a whimsical design of silky white spider webs.  She hadn't been able to resist buying them when she'd returned to the costume shop the previous afternoon, even though, she admitted ruefully, it was highly unlikely anyone else would have an opportunity to appreciate them.        

After quickly shedding her sweater, jeans, socks, and white leather tennis shoes, Catherine reached for the zipper tab on the garment bag which held her costume and pulled it open, eager to escape the chill of the underground chamber even if it meant putting on the outfit she abhorred.  But as she reached for the dress, a harsh gasp from deep within her broke the silence of the chamber and for several long moments she could do nothing more than stare at the fabric she now clutched in her hand.  Instead of black satin witch's robes, she pulled forth a soft length of white chiffon, layer upon layer of diaphanous silk which seemed to ripple through her hands.       

As if in a daze, Catherine pulled the dress over her head, feeling it settle around her slender body like a cloud.  It was a perfect fit, from the low draped neckline to the softly fluted hem which just brushed the tops of her feet.  She gazed down at herself, wishing there was a mirror so that she might see how she looked in the unexpected beauty of the mysterious dress.       

"And what kind of dress is it?" she wondered aloud.  "What am I supposed to be?"       

Her eyes were drawn to the garment bag which still swung slightly from the wardrobe hook, and as she reached deeper inside it, her questions were answered.  On a second hanger were the clues she sought -- a pair of delicately made wings, their sheer fabric stretched on a light wire frame and dusted with silvery stars that glittered softly in the candlelight, and a small length of silver and white ribbons braided together in a circular shape.         

Catherine's smile was one of sheer amazement.  "Wings and a halo," she murmured bemusedly.  "I'm supposed to be an angel...The angel from Vincent's dream..."       

Even from the distance of Father's chamber, Vincent felt he'd heard Catherine's astonished gasp, but when nothing more than strong waves of surprise had rippled to him through their bond, he'd resisted the urge to run to her, to make certain she was safe.  He hurriedly finished dressing, fastening a heavy leather belt over a knee-length royal blue tunic and then pulling on black leather boots over snug-fitting black pants.  Despite his haste, he paused for a moment, glancing down the length of his body to admire the children's creativity in putting together such a handsome costume.  The tunic was embroidered with a border of gold fleur-de-lis and the belt which rested on his narrow hips even had a scabbard to hold the theatrically elaborate sword he now reached for.  He wondered where they'd managed to find the costume which, while perhaps not historically accurate, still portrayed to perfection a noble, storybook knight.       

Then setting aside all thoughts save those of Catherine, he bolted from Father's chamber and was outside his own in mere seconds.  Yet despite his concern, he hesitated as he remembered she hadn't sent out the requested signal on the pipes; he could not rush in on her unaware.  The idea of Catherine standing half-dressed beside his bed, gentle candlelight gilding her skin and hair as she awaited his return, taunted him for just a moment with enticing images he could only imagine, but he smothered them quickly with practiced force and, he had to admit, with more than a hint of reluctance.       

Taking a deep, calming breath he called out to her.  "Catherine, are you ready?  May I come in?"       

"Yes," she answered.  "Please come in now."       

Her voice sounded strangely breathless, and it drew him forward instantly, feeding both the anxiety and eagerness he believed he'd set aside.  But when he halted just inside the chamber entrance, those sensations increased a hundredfold, merging with waves of wonderment, desire, and disbelief that threatened to overwhelm him with their force.  Catherine waited for him, framed in an aura of golden light that gleamed from the arc of amber and bronze stained glass behind his bed.  Clad in the delicate shimmer of a white dress that drifted over her graceful body, she seemed to waver in the light, as much a creature of fantasy as she was an earthly woman.           

To Vincent's entranced eyes and mind, it seemed that Catherine had been transformed into the living, breathing embodiment of the angel with whom he'd ventured not so long ago into a nightmarish dream world of a life that should never be.  That angelic image of Catherine had been the only truth to guide him home, leading him back to all the love and life and light that was truly his.  And although he'd never told her of that image, it seemed to him now that somehow she had always known.       

He exhaled a low raspy breath and with it the sound of her name.  "Catherine... how did this happen?  How did you know?"       

She smiled at him and shook her head, the halo of ribbons woven through her hair catching the light in a silvery gleam.  "I don't know how it happened," she said softly.  "When I went to put on my costume, I found this dress instead.  They must have made a mistake at the shop. But isn't it beautiful?"       

"Yes," he whispered, as at last he moved toward her.  "Beautiful.  So very beautiful."  He stopped only inches away, confusion and pleasure warring in his cobalt eyes.  "But how did you know?" he repeated.  "I never told you that part of the dream."       

She reached for his hands and for one heartstopping moment she held them to the softness of her mouth, gently pressing a kiss to the sleek-furred skin before entwining her fingers with his and lowering them once again.  "You did tell me," she said, her voice as soft and warm as the hands that clung to his.  "You just never knew that you did."       

"But I should remember that," he answered, the turmoil beginning to surge within him reflected in his eyes.  "I should know."       

Catherine smiled up at him, her face full of love and reassurance.  "You didn't tell me in words," she began, her voice soft with wonderment.  "But I knew. I knew because you told me through the dream...Do you remember when you awoke and I was sitting by you on your bed?"       

His eyes flickered toward the expanse of quilts and comforters just beyond them, recalling in an instant the incredible sensations he'd felt at that moment of awakening.  "Yes, I remember.  When I opened my eyes, you were there, smiling at me, touching my face...and I knew I was home -- I was safe."       

She nodded, the remembered smile once again illuminating her face.  "I'd been there for a little while, watching you sleep, waiting for you to return to me.  I watched the changing expressions on your face, and I knew you were dreaming, a strange and terrible dream, and I wanted to comfort you, to soothe away your pain."       

"And you did," he broke in, picking up the thread of her story.  "You brought me back from that nightmare world.  And I remember telling you what I'd seen there and how an angel had journeyed with me -- but not that the image of the angel who guided me ...was you."       

Catherine's eyes gleamed softly.  "Maybe the words weren't spoken -- maybe we didn't need them.  With every gesture, every touch, every look, Vincent, you told me what I'd meant to you in your dream."       

"What you'll always mean to me, Catherine," he whispered, his voice deepening with emotion.  "Always."       

For long moments they simply gazed into each other's eyes, sharing the voice of their hearts.  But at last the sounds of the tunnel world intruded -- footsteps passing in the corridor outside Vincent's chamber, laughing voices of excited children, a message tapped along the pipes summoning everyone to the dining chamber -- and they moved apart.       

"I suppose we should join the others," Catherine said, "before someone comes looking for us."       

"Yes," he agreed with barely disguised reluctance, "I suppose we should."  He started toward the chamber entrance, but paused and turned back at the sound of Catherine's voice.       

"Vincent, stop and let me see you in your costume," she said, an admiring warmth in her voice as she looked at him where he hesitated a bit self-consciously in the doorway. "You look wonderful -- a perfect Knight of the Round Table!"       

"But Lancelot was not a perfect knight," he reminded her with a small, bittersweet smile.  "He tried for perfection, but in the end he failed."       

Catherine shrugged, the slight movement making her gauzy wings flutter enticingly.  "Perfection can be boring," she murmured, her voice shimmering with decidedly unangelic ardor.  "I much prefer someone with a few intriguing flaws."       

He looked at her sharply then and beyond the dreamlike pleasure of all they'd just learned, he saw something more.  Maybe it was her words or the tone of her voice or the lingering wonder of the discovery they'd shared; even when he lay in his bed hours later, mulling over the events of that Halloween night, Vincent would find he could not be certain.  He only knew that it was true.          

"Flaws can be disappointing, Catherine," he continued in the low, raspy voice she loved to hear.  "Dangerous...and full of risks..."       

She tilted her head, the smile in her eyes and on her lips seeming to touch him from across the room.  "I'm not afraid, Vincent," she reminded him gently.  "And some things are worth great risks.  They're worth everything."       

With her words floating around his heart, Vincent watched her move forward to take his hand, and together they left to join the others. 

***************          

"This is one of the best Halloween celebrations we've ever had!"  Olivia's enjoyment was clearly shared by everyone, including her husband, who, could be seen enthusiastically gliding a smiling Mary around the small space that had been cleared for dancing.  Kanin's black satin vampire's cape and the velvety robes of Mary's Renaissance-style gown swayed in time to the music of cello and violin.       

"I've had a great time," Mr. Long agreed, his quiet dignity uncompromised even thoughcostumed as an Old West sheriff from a Louis L'Amour novel.  "Thank you for inviting me to share this night with you."       

"And thank you for your donation of pumpkins and apples," Father answered.  "Your generosity makes a tremendous difference to our world."       

"Yes," Rebecca agreed, holding out the star-crested wand she carried in her Halloween role as Glinda.  "Sophie made this for me, even though she and Mischa couldn't come to the party.  Our lives would be bleak without the generosity of Helpers like them and like you Mr. Long."       

Embarrassed but pleased by their gratitude, Mr. Long's face crinkled with a smile.  "I am glad to do what I can, but many others help, too."       

"Yeah, those extra pots and pans Lou gave us really came in handy," William nodded his head vigorously, but the small, brown felt hat he wore in his guise as Mr. Pickwick stayed put.  "He said he got them when he closed up his mother's house last month."         

"It was very kind of him to think of us when it was a time of sadness for him," Olivia replied, smoothing the apron that covered her long, patched skirt.  "We're really blessed to have such friends."       

The others nodded in agreement as they glanced around the festive chamber, appreciatively taking in the sight of their friends enjoying the tunnel world's hospitality.        

"It's too bad Peter couldn't come to the party," Father commented, shrugging his shoulders beneath the royal purple cloak he'd donned as much for warmth as for his own composure. "He always enjoys the Halloween celebration."       

"Peter always enjoys any celebration!"  William chuckled.  "But this year he'll have to wait until Winterfest."       

"I heard Pascal report that he wouldn't be able to get here in time," Rebecca added.  "What a shame he had to miss the party!"       

"What a shame who had to miss the party?" Vincent asked, as Catherine and he joined the group, having settled yet another dispute between Samantha and Kipper over who was to choose the next game.  Kipper -- and Parcheesi -- had won, with Samantha, for once, accepting loss with grace.       

"Peter," Olivia answered, waving toward her husband and Mary who were making their way toward them through the crowd.  "And he had a great costume planned for this year -- but I'd better not tell you what it is in case he wants to save it for next year."       

"You would have enjoyed meeting him, Catherine.  He's one of my oldest friends," Father said.  "Another time perhaps."       

"I'll look forward to that," she answered, turning from Father to Mr. Long.  "It was really nice to meet you tonight, Mr. Long.  I've heard such nice things about you from Jamie and the others."       

"It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Chandler," he answered.  "We will meet again, I am sure.  But now it is late and I must leave."       

"Oh, surely not yet," Father insisted, taking his friend's arm and steering him toward a small table nearby.  "We haven't had our game of chess yet."       

"Just so," Mr. Long replied, easily persuaded.  "I will keep my promise."       

Catherine smiled up at Vincent.  "I've had a wonderful time, too.  Thank you for letting me be a part of all this."       

"You are a part of our world, Catherine.  You will always be welcome here."       

Astonished and deeply pleased by his unexpected response, which several others had overheard, Catherine found herself at a loss for words; yet she knew he'd sensed the depth of her response.       

"I love your costume, Catherine," Olivia commented, reaching out to adjust one slightly bent wing.  "It's really beautiful!"        

"Thank you.  Actually, you and I almost came to the party as the same character, only at different times in her life.  I had planned to dress as Cinderella at the ball," Catherine shrugged her shoulders, yet smiled as she continued, "but somehow the plans changed."       

The two friends turned at the sound of approaching footsteps.  "Olivia, your husband is a wonderful dancer," Mary exclaimed as Kanin and she had finally managed to make their way back to the little group.  "I don't know when I've had such a nice time dancing at one of our parties!"       

"Oh, you can borrow him anytime," Olivia teased.  "I don't mind!"       

Pretending to be deeply hurt, Kanin began to withdraw the arm he'd draped around his wife's shawl-clad shoulders, but before he could, she reached up and grabbed his hand, holding onto him firmly.  "Not so fast," she warned.  "I've been known to change my mind."         

"And besides, you know you can't get rid of me that easily," Kanin joked, kissing a smudge on her cheek, as the others smiled affectionately at the couple.       

"Who's taking care of Luke tonight?" Catherine asked.       

"He's in the nursery with the other children," Olivia answered.  "Sarah volunteered to stay and watch over them."       

"That was so kind," Mary said warmly.  "The children love her and they'll enjoy her company."       

"And it was good to see you enjoying the party tonight," Vincent told her.  "Your work with the children is invaluable, but you need to take time for yourself, as well."       

Mary blushed as she smiled at him.  "Now, Vincent, I have plenty of time for myself.  Don't worry about me."       

"So what's next on the agenda?" Kanin asked, still full of energy.  "Anybody have any ideas?"       

"Remember when Alicia lived Below?" Rebecca asked.  "She always read the tarot cards for us at the Halloween parties."       

"Yeah, I remember that," William said.  "Didn't believe in it much, though."       

"I thought it was fun."  Kanin shrugged.  "Too bad she's not here tonight."       

"I can read tarot cards."  Every face in the group reflected undisguised surprise as they turned to look at Mary, who couldn't help smiling at their expressions.  "I learned how from a friend once.  It was a long time ago, but I think I could still do it."       

"Do you have a set of cards?" Rebecca asked eagerly.       

"I did, but they've been lost for years," Mary answered.  "I'm sorry."       

As if on cue, Eric appeared at Vincent's elbow.  "Hey, Vincent, will you play a game with me?  Everyone else is too busy."       

"What did you have in mind, Eric?" Vincent asked kindly.  "What kind of game?"       

"A card game.  I found these over there," he gestured toward the other side of the chamber with one hand while clutching a small, wrapped box in the other.  "Well, I didn't exactly find them.  One of the Helpers gave 'em to me."       

Something prickled warningly at the base of Vincent's spine.  "Which Helper?"       

"I can't think of his name," Eric said, frowning as he tried to recall it, and then brightening as a clue popped into his head.  "But he's wearing a pirate costume -- with a fake sword and everything.  It's really cool!"       

Vincent scanned the crowd but could see no one dressed as a pirate.  "Where did you see him last, Eric?" he asked, keeping his voice even and calm.  "Can you remember?"       

"Sure!  He was standing by that big thing of apple cider, talking to Laura.  You know,with sign language and stuff."       

"That sounds like Sebastian," Rebecca suggested.  "He can sign fluently."       

"Probably," Vincent agreed, his wariness relaxing as he sensed no further tremors of doubt.  "Why don't you show me the cards, Eric, and we'll see if we can figure out how to play the game."       

"Okay," the boy agreed, happily handing them over.  "I knew you'd help me.  I never saw this kind of card game before."       

Vincent carefully removed a small rectangular box from its wrapping of white silk.  The box was unlabeled, but slid open easily to reveal a colorful deck of cards.       

"Why, they're tarot cards!" Mary exclaimed.  "Imagine that!  And just after we were talking about them."       

"That's quite a coincidence," Kanin agreed, glancing at Vincent whose face tightened for a moment.  Once again he quickly surveyed the laughing, happy throng, only to find nothing out of place.       

"That's probably all it is," Catherine suggested, as she touched his arm reassuringly.  "Only a coincidence."       

"Yes," Vincent agreed with a lingering trace of wariness in his voice and stance.  He handed the cards to Mary.  "Would you like to try reading them?"       

"I'll do my best, but I'm sure I'm a bit rusty at it."  Mary looked from one smiling face to the next.  "Now, who'd like to go first?"             

"How about you, Catherine?" Rebecca suggested.  "Have you ever had the cards read for you?"   "Never." Catherine shook her head.  "Actually, I'm kind of a skeptic when it comes to things like this, but I'm willing to give it a try."       

Having waited patiently only to discover the cards weren't a game after all, Eric decided to look elsewhere for more enticing Halloween fun.  "Hey, Vincent," he called, successfully regaining his friend's attention.  "You can keep the cards.  I don't want them if they're not a game."       

"Thank you, Eric.  Maybe you can find something more enjoyable to do with Geoffrey and Kipper," Vincent suggested.  "Of course, you can stay and have your fortune told if you want." 

"Nah, I don't think so," the boy answered.  "Hey, you know what I read today in one of Father's books?  Friendly ghosts are supposed to be able tell about peoples' futures on Halloween night.  Do you think maybe a ghost left the cards here at the party?"       

Vincent tried hard to keep a smile from his face.  "I doubt it, but then again, you never know what might happen on Halloween."  He watched Eric run off to share his supernatural news with his friends and then joined Mary, Catherine and the others at a trestle table that had been cleared earlier.               

"Here, Catherine, you sit across from me," Mary said, indicating a place on the opposite bench.  "Everyone else can sit or stand wherever they're comfortable."       

As the others found places, Mary glanced through several cards.  "Some tarot decks are designed with a certain theme, and it's easy to see what this one is."       

"What?" Rebecca asked eagerly, leaning forward to scan the cards Mary held out to them.  "Oh, I see -- it's myths!"       

"Yes," the older woman replied.  "Here's the card with the symbol of the Sun.  The illustration for it is Apollo, and the card for the Moon shows Hecate."       

"I get it," William said, pointing to another of the cards Mary had fanned out on the table. "Hercules is on the one for Strength, and Cronos is for the Hermit."       

Olivia reached for a handful of cards that still rested in the box and carefully spread them out next to the others.  "How about all these?  They look like they tell certain stories."       

Mary glanced at them and smiled approvingly at Olivia.  "They do.  Tarot cards are divided into two categories, a Major Arcana and a Minor Arcana.  The ones we've been looking at are part of the Major Arcana, the cards which show general concepts found in nearly all cultures."  She pointed to cards that Kanin had picked up.  "For example, there's Justice, the card which symbolizes a need for a clear mind and inner balance, and Death, which is a card of transformations."       

Kanin held out the cards for the others to see.  "Makes sense that the artist picked Athena for Justice and Hades for Death," he commented as he reached for another.  "And here's Prometheus.  He's on the card of  The Hanged Man.  What does that one mean?"       

"If that card comes up in a reading," Mary answered, "it advises the questioner to pause and consider that a sacrifice might be necessary in order to gain something of greater value."       

"But how about the others?" Olivia reminded her.  "The ones with the stories."       

"The Minor Arcana.  Those cards are divided into four suits which correspond with the four elements -- fire, water, air, and earth -- and specific life paths," Mary said, quickly riffling through them.  "In this deck, as in most, the four suits are called Wands, Swords, Pentacles, and Cups."         

"And what life paths do they represent?" Vincent asked, becoming caught up in Mary's story.       

"To make the readings easier to follow, the person who designs the cards sometimes uses specific stories to illustrate the paths," Mary continued.  "Let's see.  The Wands stand for the element of Fire and tell of adventure, imagination, and glory, so in this deck, that's the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece.  The Swords are for the element Air and they symbolize strife and struggle, this time through the story of Orestes and the Furies."         

Setting the cards aside, Mary reached for those that still remained.  "Here are the Pentacles, which always stand for Earth and the material world.  Do you see the connection in the myth?"       

The others nodded.   "I'm glad I always paid attention in Father's literature classes!" Olivia said.  "It's the tale of Daedalus, the master craftsman."       

William prodded Kanin as he pointed to the cards in Mary's hand.  "Maybe that's you, Kanin," he joked.       

"Hey, you never know," Kanin replied.  "But if Mary reads the cards for me, I bet we'll find out."       

"Well, it's Catherine's turn first," Rebecca reminded them with a warm smile toward her friend.  "So let Mary get started!"       

"Wait!  There's one more group."  Olivia gestured toward the last few cards.  "What are those, Mary?"       

Before Mary could answer, Catherine spoke up, her growing interest apparent in her voice.  "I recognize that one," she said, "even though I don't have the background in mythology that you all have.  It's Cupid and Psyche, right?"         

"That's right, Catherine," Mary answered with a smile.  "The myth of Cupid and Psyche stands for the suit of Cups in this deck, and it's a perfect choice!  The Cups are associated with the element Water and symbolize emotions, especially those connected with love."       

"Okay, now that we've got that all straightened out, let's hear Catherine's fortune," William said, along with comments of agreement from the others.       

Mary shook her head, her expression growing serious.  "The tarot cards are not used for telling fortunes the way most people think of it, although that's a common misunderstanding. What they do instead is provide guidance in helping a person think through a certain problem or situation.  Even though the cards have specific symbols and meanings, it's up to the individuals to interpret them for themselves, depending on what is happening in their lives."       

"You mean instead of predicting an exact future, they give a sense of structure and point out possibilities that might occur, based on your past and on your own thoughts," Vincent suggested.       

"That's it," Mary agreed, as she gathered all the cards into a stack.  "They're like a mirror.  They help the questioner look at things -- certain tendencies or qualities -- that are often kept in the subconscious, and which have an effect on one's actions."       

"Should I think of something general or something more specific to ask?"  Catherine said, reaching for the deck Mary handed across to her.       

"Whatever you prefer, and if it's not too personal, it would be helpful if you could tell us what your question is.  That way it will make the reading more interesting and clear for everyone."       

Catherine shook her head.  "I don't mind telling you.  A lot of changes have occurred in my life during the past year.  Wonderful changes.  And my life has taken a direction I hadn't expected, although now I know it's what I've always wanted."  She smiled up at Vincent, seated next to her, before continuing.  "What I'd like to know is how will these changes continue to develop in the coming year?  Is that an appropriate question for a reading?"       

Mary nodded approvingly.  "It's fine.  Now, what you must do is concentrate on what you've just said while you shuffle the cards.  Keep shuffling them until you feel ready and then hand them back to me."       

A hush settled around the little group as the others watched Catherine follow Mary's instructions.  Mary then turned over ten cards, arranging them in a fan-like shape in front of her.  "There are many different ways to lay out the cards," she said.  "This arrangement is especially good for Catherine's question since it shows present situations and influences, as well as those that are unexpected and may have an effect on the future.  Look at these cards first."  She pointed to the cards farthest to the left.  "They reflect the present circumstances in Catherine's life, based on the past changes she mentioned."       

Everyone leaned closer to see the cards as Mary continued.  "The first one is The High Priestess from the Major Arcana.  She represents a thirst for knowledge and secrets to be revealed.  This deck shows her as Persephone descending into an underworld rich with possibilities and potential."       

"In other words, the realm of the unconscious," Vincent said.  "Dreams and intuition."       

"Yes, but it's more than that," Mary added.  "It indicates that Catherine's present life is full of great potential, things that are as yet unfulfilled but will become real as more changes occur."       

"And the image of Persephone," Rebecca said excitedly.  "It's like Catherine coming Below, entering our world.  I suppose maybe it's only a coincidence..."       

Catherine glanced up at her friend, a smile playing across her mouth.  "But it's a good beginning."       

"It certainly is," Mary said.  "Now look at the second card -- the Three of Cups.  It shows Psyche and Cupid, who is also called Eros, celebrating their marriage.  Now remember in the myth they entered into this union with Psyche knowing only that Cupid had both saved and transformed her life.  She knew little else of him, yet it was enough for their love to begin."        

"This is amazing," Olivia murmured under her breath, reaching for Kanin's hand.       

"This card in its broader sense represents a rejoicing that follows the initial phases of a relationship," Mary went on.  "It also warns of sacrifices and trials ahead, but where there is love and loyalty -- a true commitment -- there will be cause for further celebration."       

As Mary pointed to the next pair of cards, Catherine stole a sideways glance at Vincent and found him seeming to study the layout with intensity.  He did not look at her, but Catherine thought she felt rippling currents of emotion within their bond.        

"The next two cards represent Catherine's wishes and wants," Mary said.       

"Uh-oh, are you sure you want us to hear this part?" Kanin joked.       

Catherine laughed lightly as she looked up from the cards.  "Not entirely -- but I think I'll take my chances."       

"The first card is the Wheel of Fortune," Mary continued, "which is the card of fate and changes.  New beginnings are waiting, your life is entering into a new phase, but you must remember that you are responsible for your own destiny through the choices you make.  The outer circumstances of your life are still changing, but your inner self is true and stable."       

"That's nothing we didn't already know," William remarked.  "What about the other one?"       

"It's the Knight of Cups," Mary answered, a slight blush warming her face.  "Remember the Cups stand for the emotions, particularly those associated with love.  The Knight of Cups is represented by Perseus who willingly underwent great sacrifices and changes in the name of love.  He followed his heart, no matter what, to reach the woman he loved."       

"It sounds like Vincent, doesn't it?" Olivia said softly.         

"Now that card definitely shows Catherine's wishes and wants!" Rebecca exclaimed before casting a somewhat nervous glance at the couple.  "I'm sorry -- I didn't mean --"       

"It's all right, Rebecca," Vincent answered, as Catherine turned to look at him, a mixture of surprise and delight on her face that Vincent both sensed through the bond and saw with the brief glance he cast her.  He pointed to the middle grouping of cards.  "Mary, what do the next cards indicate?"       

"These can be very significant," she replied hurriedly.  "They tell of influences that are about to come into Catherine's life, although she does not expect them.  First we have The Magician, who is pictured here as Hermes, the messenger who moved between the heavens and earth, the gods and men, and for our purposes that means a communication between the unconscious and conscious mind."  She looked across at Catherine.  "You must know that soon you may find yourself at a crossroads and you will need to make decisions that will change your life forever."       

"What about the other card?" Catherine asked.  "Does it give any indication of what these changes might be?"       

Mary studied the card briefly and then shook her head.  "No, it doesn't.  It, too, talks of serious changes and exceptional choices to be made, important directions to take, but it also represents guidance in the form of an unexpected ally.  Look at the picture -- it's the Seven of Cups, showing Psyche seeking help from Aphrodite."       

"But Aphrodite was Cupid's mother and she was jealous of the love between her son and Psyche, wasn't she?" Olivia said.  "She didn't want to help Psyche and Psyche didn't want to ask her for help, but there was no one else she could turn to."       

"I remember that part of the story," Rebecca added.  "Aphrodite knew her son truly loved Psyche, so she finally agreed to help her find him -- but she didn't make it easy!"

"Then I'm to watch for someone who will help me follow through on my decisions," Catherine said carefully, "even though that person might not want to help me at first."       

Mary nodded.  "So it would seem.  Now let's go on and see what's next.  The seventh and eighth cards show what is likely to happen in the near future, within a month or two of this reading.  We have the Chariot first, which stands for struggles and conflicts that lead to change and growth.  The card shows Ares holding the reins of two horses that are pulling in opposite directions -- often reason and passion.  But it's up to him to resolve the struggle and guide himself toward the right destination."       

"Then that means Catherine might have to choose between reason and passion?" Olivia asked.       

"Not necessarily.  Remember that the two horses must pull the chariot together or it cannot move forward."       

"So it would indicate a need for reason...and passion...to align themselves, to support one another, before any progress can be made," Vincent observed quietly.  "But not for one to subdue or overpower the other."       

"That's it exactly!" Mary smiled at him before turning back to Catherine.  "Is any of this making sense to you, dear?"       

"It certainly is," Catherine answered.  "Much more than I'd imagined."       

"Then let's go on," Mary said with satisfaction.  "The other card in the position of the immediate future is the Star."       

"It's the myth of Pandora's Box!" Catherine exclaimed.  "It was one of my favorite stories when I was a little girl."       

"Then tell us what it means to you," Mary suggested.  "What does the message in this card mean to the changes that will soon be presented to you?"       

Barely hesitating beyond a heartbeat, Catherine answered, "It tells of a strong, unchanging belief in a better life. That there is cause to believe that all will be well no matter what might happen.  That I should never give up hope."       

"And that your faith will be rewarded despite, as you recognized, there may be many trials ahead of you," Mary added.       

"I like the sound of this myself," William said, "but isn't it kind of general?  You might say that what you've told Catherine could apply to all of us."       

"Yes and no," Mary answered.  "Look back at the cards we've already interpreted and think of her original question.  Catherine wanted to know how the changes she's already experienced in the past year will continue to develop, and that's definitely the direction this reading has taken.  Of course, everyone's life changes from time to time, but Catherine's entire life has undergone changes recently, and that theme of transformation seems destined to continue at least for a while longer.  That can't be said for all of us, at least not in such serious, meaningful ways as it can for Catherine."       

"Yeah, I see what you mean," William acknowledged.  "But how about the last two cards?  Do they tell what's going to happen in the end?"       

"Perhaps, but that's up to Catherine and the decisions she will make," Mary answered.  "Are you ready to hear about the possibilities that lie ahead for you in the next six to twelve months?"         

At Catherine's nod, Mary read the last two cards.  "The ninth card is The Tower, which is the symbol for a perilous journey.  The myth here is the story of Theseus entering the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur and bring peace and freedom to his homeland.  But don't forget that Theseus had a talisman -- the golden thread given to him by Ariadne -- to help guide him back from the darkness and achieve his goal."       

"This one is confusing," Olivia commented.  "It seems so specific and yet it's pretty unrealistic."       

"Yeah, I can't see Catherine having to do anything like this," Kanin agreed.       

"Remember that the stories are only symbolic," Mary answered.  "Catherine's journey may be one an inner one, where she has to confront and subdue something she fears or doubts within herself.  But on the other hand, there's also the possibility for a physical journey or quest of some kind with the goal of preserving what is good and true.  What's important to remember is that she must change what is false and embrace only the truest beliefs and values."       

Catherine took a deep breath.  "And the last card?  The Nine of Cups?"       

Mary's face brightened as she examined the final card.  "This is wonderful!  After all that's gone before it, you couldn't hope for anything better!"       

"Tell us," Vincent said, the carefully even tone of his voice belying the tension he felt.       

"Well, of course, I will!"  Mary answered, giving him an indulgent smile.  "It shows Psyche and Cupid reunited after their trials and long journey.  They know they will be together always with a love that's been made stronger because of all they've endured.  Even the other gods offer their blessings.  See?"  She pointed to the image of Aphrodite smiling upon the happy couple.  "This is the card that tells of great wishes coming true.  So it seems highly likely that you will make the right decisions and overcome all hardships, Catherine, and you'll find that a dearly held dream or desire will come true for you in a year's time."       

"Oh, Catherine, I'm so glad there's a happy ending waiting for you!"  Rebecca sighed as she smiled across the table.         

"So am I!"  Catherine replied before looking again at Mary.  "Thank you, Mary.  You've given me a lot to think about."   Without anyone else noticing, she carefully reached for Vincent's hand beneath the table and felt her heart quiver as he quickly clasped her hand within his, as if nothing could persuade him to let her go.  The bond echoed with the impact of Mary's reading, and they knew no one, not even they themselves, could even begin to guess the extent of the journey they were undertaking, nor the depth of the changes that her life, and his, would undergo.       

"That's what a tarot reading is supposed to do," Mary answered warmly.  "But  remember that ultimately you make your own decisions.  Now, would anyone else like a turn?"       

"I would!" Rebecca exclaimed, her quick reply bringing a grimace of disappointment to Kanin and Olivia's faces.  "Sorry, guys, but maybe you can be next!"       

"Next for what?"  The commanding undercurrent of the speaker's voice was easily heard despite its casual tone.  "What have you been up to?"       

"Mary has been reading the tarot cards, Father," Vincent replied as he reluctantly released Catherine's hand and rose to his feet.  "It's been very...enlightening."       

The others smiled.  "Why don't you have a turn, Father?"  William suggested.  "See what the Fates have in store for you!"       

"I don't believe in that sort of nonsense," the older man replied.  "And neither should you."       

"Oh, Father, it's just for fun," Olivia protested.  "Although the reading Mary did for Catherine was pretty incredible."       

"And Mary explained to us that the archetypal symbols on the cards can be used to give one's thoughts a sense of direction and structure, not necessarily to foretell the future," Catherine added, rising to stand beside Vincent.  "But I certainly wouldn't mind if the meaning of the cards in my reading turned out to be literal."  She couldn't resist smiling up at Vincent and was pleased to see he returned her smile before looking at Father again.       

"Go on, Father, give it a try," he said.  "Maybe you'll get an advance warning of the costume the children will provide for you next Halloween."       

"I already know what it won't be!" Father replied.  "This was all well and good, but I didn't care for a few of the comments I overheard -- especially a very impertinent-sounding one from a fellow in a pirate costume whom I saw talking with Laura earlier.  I suspect it might have been Sebastian."       

"Father, I've been meaning to ask you about Laura," Mary said quietly.  "She doesn't quite seem herself."       

"I noticed that, too," Rebecca added.  "In fact, I was surprised to see her here since she hasn't come Below in at least two or three months, not even for a short visit."       

"Laura must be free to find her own way in the life she has chosen," Vincent said softly.  "And the life she has chosen now lies as much in the world Above as it once did Below with us.  We must help her, but we cannot make decisions for her."       

"Vincent's right," Father agreed, "but I will talk with her, just to make sure she's all right."       

Festive sounds of the party swirled around the small group as for a few moments each was lost in private thoughts.  I wonder if Vincent meant those words for me as much as for Laura, Catherine mused, repeating them in her mind and hoping the message she thought she heard was real.        

As she glanced about the chamber, Catherine realized that many of the party-goers had left and that it had grown late.  With a barely whispered sigh, she turned to Vincent and found him gazing down at her, his expression unreadable.         

"I had a wonderful time tonight," she said, "but it's late and I suppose I should leave now."       

He inclined his head toward her.  "I'll go with you to get your things, and then after you change your clothes, I'll walk to the threshold with you."       

Catherine smiled up at him.  "You know, I've really enjoyed being an angel tonight, and I don't think I'm ready to give up the part just yet.  So, I think I'll keep the costume on, and I can pick up the things I left in your chamber another time."       

A surge of warmth filled his voice.  "As you wish, Catherine."       

He waited while Catherine said good-night to the others, and then far too soon, they found themselves at the sub-basement entrance to her apartment building.       

"This was a wonderful night, Vincent," Catherine said, reaching for his hands and clasping them tightly.  "Thank you for asking me to be part of it."       

For just a moment Vincent thought he might set free the words of his heart, but then a lifetime of self-control and denial reined in their passionate spirit.  Yet nothing could completely contain the desire that was so much a part of him now.  "It gives me great pleasure to know you're happy here, Catherine," he said, his voice husky with suppressed emotion.         

Her reply was quick and heartfelt, filling him with love and hope. "I'm always happy when I'm with you."         

"Always?" he teased.  He dropped her hands to pull her into a loose embrace.       

"Often enough," she retorted, grinning up at him before snuggling closer and resting her head against his chest.       

For several minutes they stayed as they were, knowing that their time together soon would be over, wishing it would never have to end.  Finally Catherine stirred in his arms, leaning back to look up into his eyes.       

"Vincent, about the things Mary said -- the decisions that lie ahead of me and the choices I'll make, choices that will change my life," she said quietly.  "We'll need to talk about them."       

He hesitated for only a moment.  "Yes," he murmured.  "We will...but not tonight."       

"No, not tonight," she agreed, gently easing herself from his embrace and taking a reluctant step backwards.  "But soon, Vincent."       

He nodded once, feeling a cold emptiness as she moved away from him, but taking comfort in knowing it was only transitory and could never touch the love they shared.   He watched as she smiled back at him one last time, cherishing the promise in her eyes, and felt a deep, almost uncontrollable longing to call her back as she walked farther from him and began to vanish in the haze of blue-white light that filtered down from Above.  It glistened around her, and again he saw the Catherine angel of his dream as she had come to him, whispering words of remembered love, softly touching his face, kissing his mouth.  And he knew he wanted nothing more than to know that moment had been real.        

For several seconds Vincent wondered if he'd actually spoken aloud when he saw Catherine stop and turn back toward him.  She paused and seemed to tremble in the grasp of the strange, misty light, somewhere between one world and the next.  Then she raised her arms toward him and smiled with so much love that he felt it engulf him in a rush of heat and light, its passion so pure and intense that it burned him within and without.  It seemed to his willingly enchanted eyes that in looking at Catherine, he saw not only the woman he would always love but also the essence of all his secret dreams, and he knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that Catherine would guide him ever closer to the time when those cherished dreams would come true.        

Vincent shook his head dazedly, his gaze once again becoming focused on a very real Catherine who had moved to the edge of the circle of light.  He wanted to go to her and yet he found he couldn't move, so mesmerized was he by the image before him.  Again she seemed to embody an elusive thread of his dream, one he'd tried to ignore but didn't want to forget.         

The light framed her in an ethereal aura that turned the starry whiteness of her dress to a translucent cloud, easily revealing the soft curves of her body that had so often haunted his dreams both asleep and awake.  As he gazed at her, he felt a searing heat suffuse his body in throbbing  waves that were filled with far more pleasure than pain.  For a few brief moments he yielded to their seduction and then, with a deep shuddering breath, he forced the sensations aside, secreting them deep inside himself.  Then, almost before he knew it, he was standing a heartbeat away from her, gazing down into her luminous eyes.       

"Vincent," she whispered.  "What is it?  I...I thought I heard you calling to me."       

He ached to touch her, yet still he resisted, struggling first for the words he needed to say. "I have to ask you something, Catherine," he began, his voice raspy with fear and longing. "And when you answer, you must tell me the truth."       

"I won't lie to you, Vincent," she promised.  "Tell me what you want to know."       

He swallowed hard, feeling his heart race as he spoke.  "In my dream, just before I awakened, the angel -- you -- told me to always remember love.  Then she moved closer to me and I -- I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, you were there, smiling at me."  He tried but when found he could not continue, he lowered his head, hoping to hide his sadness and shame from her.        

For long moments Catherine waited, and then raised one hand to his face, gently urging him to look at her again, and felt herself filled with happiness when she found he could not resist her.  "There's more you wanted to say, isn't there, Vincent?" she asked softly.  "Something you need to be sure of."       

His eyes deepened to the blue of a night sky.  "Yes," he admitted, his voice low and full of simmering heat.  "There is something I need to know...That night, Catherine, I dreamed -- I think I dreamed the angel...kissed me..."  Again his voice trailed away but this time he did not turn from her.         

She smiled with a warmth that filled her heart and her voice.  "And you're not certain if it was the angel in the dream or if it was me."       

He nodded, his gaze unwavering even as he heard the rustle of her dress and felt the soft warmth of her body as she moved closer.  He felt a delicious shudder tremble through him when she framed his face with her hands and again when he tasted the sweet temptation of the words she breathed against his mouth.         

"Vincent, are you really sure you want to know?"       

His heated groan reverberated through her body. "Yes!"       

And then as her mouth touched his, offering promises and pleasures still to come, he knew the truth and found in it everything he'd ever dreamed possible.            

The candles and torches in the dining chamber had been extinguished, leaving the room in darkness until the morning when the earliest risers in the tunnel community would work to clear away the last remains of the Halloween festivities and ready the room for its everyday use.  All was still and quiet as a single figure stood in the entryway, his keen eyes easily piercing the shadows before he entered the chamber with a small bundle held carefully in his arms.  Within moments he had placed his burden in the center of a long trestle table, and with a broad, satisfied smile, he stood back to admire his efforts.       

I don't think Narcissa will mind that I did this, he told himself.  Especially if it turns out that Father's the one who finds it.  The imperceptible warmth of his laughter echoed through the chamber as he turned and strolled away, content now to return to the mysterious lair his kindly friend had offered as his sanctuary.       

Yet as he reached the doorway, he paused, reluctant to leave his artistry to chance discovery and the assumption that it was all a prank.  He ran an impatient hand through his dark, glossy hair, nearly knocking his baseball cap to the chamber floor, and then with a silent sigh, he retraced his steps and reclaimed his gift.  Moments later, he was in Vincent's chamber and almost immediately he found the perfect resting place for his offering.  Somehow he knew Vincent would appreciate his work, and maybe someday Catherine would, too.  Maybe they'd even become his friends, these two special souls, as Narcissa called them.  The sparkle returned to his smile as he left the chamber, and he began to whistle a soundless melody to underscore his journey home.        

A slight breeze flickered the candles in Vincent's chamber, sending shadows dancing across the rocky walls and ceiling, but it did not disturb the gentle golden glow of two candlelit jack-o-lanterns that rested in the center of the desk.  Their faces were carved with exquisite skill -- one portraying a beautiful woman with large, luminous eyes and a soft, sensual smile, and the other offering an image of a fiercer beauty, a man whose extraordinary face was filled with equal measures of sensitivity and strength.  Just in front of them rested a sheet of paper torn from an artist's sketch pad, containing the words of a poem scrawled across its surface in a poignant message of promise and hope, possibilities offered from one unique soul to another.

 

Floating Bridges

Oh what tremendous multitudes,

invisible and ever-changing,

come to this garden and linger forever!

Every step we take on Earth

takes us to a new world.

Every single footstep

lands on a floating bridge.

I know that there is no such thing

as a straight road.

Only a vast labyrinth

of intricate crossroads.

Our steps incessantly

create as we go

immense spirals

of unfolding pathways.

Oh garden of fresh

possibilities!  Oh garden

of all I still am not

but could and should have been!

(Federico Garcia Lorca)