Title banner: drawing of Edie by Linn. Text reads: The Light is the Same by Barbara Storey

Author's Note: This story is a continuation of the Reunion story I wrote for WFOL last year - Dreams That Include Me. (read it here on Tunnel Tales.) It includes my own characters: Rowena, who is Devin’s wife, and Nathan, whose role will become clear. ;)


The lamps are different, but the light is the same
.

                                                                     ~ Rumi



She made her way into the park through the Stranger’s Gate at 110th and Central Park West, head down, determined, and silent.  Not her usual mode, but Edie was trying not to draw attention to herself, for once.  She paused to adjust the heavy backpack she was carrying - also not her usual style. In fact, certain of her friends would have a real good time making fun of that “fashion choice.”  With a snort at that thought, Edie carried on; the backpack, too, was a way to blend in.

Passing a small playground within the Park, she noticed a very small boy and girl - probably siblings - playing on a broken-down set of swings.  They had to take turns, as only one of the swings was still usable.  Edie made a mental note to talk to Cathy about possibly fixing up this corner of the Park as part of the work of the Center.  “I’ll bet,” she muttered, “we could get some Tunnel folk and Helpers to keep an eye on it, too, once we get it in shape.”

Five minutes deeper into the park, she pulled her collar closer, took a quick look around to make sure she was alone, and slipped through a rusted-out door in the Blockhouse that led to a dark, dank corridor.  She knew her way and walked sure-footedly along for several moments before she came to the grate where she would wait for Nathan. Standing still for a moment, Edie heard nothing but the sound of her own breathing and some very faint ringing of the pipes, far below.

Satisfied, she nodded, then felt for the pipe always left in place beside the entrance and banged her own private code out on the corroded iron rods.

Her energy kept her moving, circling the hard-packed earth floor of the antechamber as she waited for her guide.  And it wasn’t long before she was able to pick out the quick but solid footfall she knew so well by now.  Edie smiled, tapped her foot, and waited.

A few moments later, Nathan emerged from the shadows and stood on the other side of the grate.  Her eyes were used to the gloom by now, so she could see his handsome face and his smile.

“Took you long enough,” she said playfully. He chuckled quietly as he unfastened the corroded chain around the handle of the grate.

“Don’t give me any of your sass, woman,” he said with a wink. “You know I was waiting for you.”  The doorway opened, he gestured her through.  Edie stepped over the threshold quickly, and Nathan closed the grate, taking care to restore the chain to its previous position.  “And you know I would be glad to teach you the way any time you want. Just say the word.”

Edie frowned, shaking her head. “You know how I feel about that, Nathan.” Her voice was quiet but sharp.  “Above is filled with crazy people, and Catherine has enough friends and enemies that someone is always going to be looking for her.  If one of them ever put two and two together because of the Center and tried to get me to talk, I prefer to not have the knowledge they crave.”  She paused … and sighed.  “Below is important to me, too.  Nothing is ever going to harm this place or the people in it because of me.”

Nathan made a face and then sighed, too. “I know what you’re saying, baby, but it just seems to me that. . . .”  He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a blindfold.  “Isn’t this a bit excessive?”

“Not one bit.”  Then she relaxed a bit, stepped forward to touch his face. “It’s the sacrifice I have to make, even if it means not seeing your handsome face for fifteen minutes.  What I don’t know, I can’t tell. Now come on.  If we don’t hustle, we’ll be late for the meeting, and you know how Father gets.”

Nathan laughed again.  “True - we don’t want to get things off to a bad start.”  He motioned for her to turn around and began to fasten the blindfold in place. “He’s already a bit riled about Devin’s idea.”

Edie made a disapproving noise deep in her throat. “For once, I agree with Father. I don’t trust Devin.”  Her words were blunt with suspicion. 

The blindfold now firmly in place, Nathan offered to carry the backpack, but she was fine with it and shook her head.  He took her arm and helped her to curve it around his own, so he could guide her on their journey to Father’s chamber.  “You two need to give that man a break. He grew up here; he knows what the risks are and what could happen.  He knows them firsthand.”

“We’ll see,” was all Edie would say as they walked down the corridor and made a left turn.  She could feel a cool breeze on her face and knew they were traveling deeper into the caverns and tunnels below the city.  It still amazed her to think that an entire world existed under the feet of so many blasé New Yorkers and the majority of them would never know.  Sometimes she was tempted to peek and see a bit more of what the Tunnels looked like, but she truly believed it was safer for her not to know.

After several minutes of walking – and a growing warmth and buzz of activity that told her they were getting close to the busiest area of Below – Edie was aware they were going through a room of some sort.  The limited light that came through her blindfold all but vanished, and she squeezed Nathan’s arm a little tighter, not wanting to trip.  All of a sudden, he stopped, making a shushing noise, and Edie smiled.  A second later, Nathan’s warm, soft lips touched hers, and she let him get away with his “surprise” for a moment, enjoying the sensation and the emotion behind his kiss.  Then she pulled back, just enough to be able to speak.

“You think you’re a smooth operator, huh?  Lover, I saw that coming a mile away with my blindfold on.”

“Should I stop then?” Nathan whispered, pulling her closer.

“Hell, no.”  Edie wrapped her other arm around his neck and kissed him back, good and thoroughly.  When they both needed air and pulled back at the same time, she smiled, knowing he could read her expression.  “Later, baby—okay?”

“Definitely later,” he promised, and she could hear a pleased-with-himself tone in his voice.  He was hiding something, she knew, but decided to let him have his little secret for now.  They had other things to do.

Another five minutes, more or less, and she could definitely hear the low rumble of Vincent’s voice and the gentle, sweeter sound of Catherine’s.  “You can take this thing off ,” she said, and turned around so that her back was toward Nathan. “I know where I am now.”  She felt his fingers brush her skin as he worked the knot free, and it made her shiver just a little.  Nathan noticed and pressed his advantage with a quick kiss to the back of her neck.  Edie smiled to herself, but said, “Behave yourself,” in a mock-stern voice before turning around.  “Business first.”

She entered Father’s chambers, Nathan right behind, and looked around with satisfaction. Even though she lived Above and had no intention of ever living here, this still and always felt like home, like the heart of a place where she belonged and had purpose.  She was a Helper, and these people were her family; she had no other, nor wanted one that was not a part of here.

“Hey, girlfriend,” she called out, as she slung the backpack off her back and started to rummage around in it.  She looked up and waved in everyone’s general direction.  “Vincent, Father—how’s everybody doing?”  Edie then saw Devin, seated at a table on the side of the room, scribbling nonstop in a notebook. “Devin.”  She acknowledged him with a slightly less enthusiastic air, which she hoped Vincent wouldn’t notice.  He was particularly sensitive when it came to criticism of his prodigal brother.

Catherine hurried over to Edie, wrapping her arms tightly around her friend. “So glad to see you,” she said out loud. Then, quietly, for Edie’s ears only: “Did you bring it?”

“As if I wouldn’t,” Edie whispered back.  Then she let go of Catherine and announced to the men, “Cathy and I have a bit of Center business to hash out—just take us a minute.”  She knew that mention of the Brooklyn-based Charles and Vivian Chandler Center for Women and Children—the storefront from which she and Catherine ran a resource center for women and children in need, as well as a sort of “Helpers Central”—would prevent any suspicion about them needing a private conversation. Father always said that the less he knew about their activities there, the better, as it made him nervous.  Too risky, in his opinion.  But Edie was secure in her belief that it was the best way she could function as a Helper—not to mention a perfect way for Catherine to maintain some sort of legal presence in the world Above.  You never knew when that would come in handy.

Vincent and Father nodded and returned to their conversation.  Devin continued writing, oblivious to her arrival.  Edie snorted. Typical

“I have to get back to work,” Nathan said. He was still standing by the door. “Father, I think we’re going to have that old damaged room off the Great Hall completely restored by Winterfest. But there’s still a lot of carving and finishing to be done.” 

Edie could feel the glow of his pride from where she stood.  Nathan was new to the community and eager to do his share, bring gifts that were his own to the Tunnel world so he could prove he belonged there. 

Nathan had been orphaned as a teen, almost swallowed up by the streets and the gangs, until one of the ministers at St. John the Divine had taken him under his wing and brought him into a stone mason’s apprenticeship at the Cathedral. He took to the craft like he was born for it, but it still hadn’t been enough for him.  As fate would have it, he’d met Emil, one of the Helpers. He was a photographer who liked to hang around the cathedral, capturing the students’ work with his camera.  They started to talk, and in time, once Emil had a true sense of the young man’s heart, he told Nathan about the Tunnels. Nathan had wanted to be a part of them ever since his first sight of them, and the past year’s Winterfest had been his first.

“It looks magnificent, Nathan,” Vincent said, smiling at Nathan’s enthusiasm. “Wait till you see it, Father.”

“I look forward to a tour, Nathan, as soon as you think it ready for inspection.”  Father nodded at Nathan with a look of approval and affection.

Now Nathan was the one smiling widely.  “Soon, Father!” He turned to Edie. “Let me know, through the pipes, when you’re ready to go back.” He winked at her, then turned and left.

Edie wrapped her arm around Catherine’s and led her off to a corner of Father’s chambers that was even more dimly lit than the rest.  “So,” she said, all business for the moment. “Yes, I have it.” She looked back at the men—all still involved in their own tasks.  She slipped a small brown paper bag into Catherine’s hand, and Catherine immediately hid it in one of the deep pockets of her robe.  Flowing and oversized as they were, no one would notice the shape of it, stashed there.

“Thank you, Edie. You’re a life-saver!” Catherine hugged her, unable to hide the smile that betrayed her excitement.

“Well, I expect a report as soon as you have anything to tell, girl.  Don’t be keeping secrets from me.” 

Catherine winked.  “You’ll be one of the first to know if this works out, trust me. Now, we had better get to our ‘real’ meeting, before someone gets suspicious.”

“And who might that someone be?” Edie raised an eyebrow and gave Catherine a look of intense expectation—but she knew the answer to her own question and was only teasing. She gave her friend an impulsive hug, and then turned to walk back to Father’s desk. “Later,” she said over her shoulder, voice hushed.

Father looked up and smiled as the two of them approached. “Ready to get started?” he asked, beckoning them in.  “How are you, Edie? I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks.”

After giving Father a quick peck on the cheek, Edie struck a pose, pushing her hair back off her face. “I’m fantastic, as always,” she said in her best stating-the-obvious tone.  “Indispensable, too. I have that book you’ve been looking for, and some stuff for the kids.” She gestured at the backpack she’d left nearby. “I’ll distribute that bounty after our meeting.”

“What would we do without you, Edie?” Vincent smiled and patted her shoulder. “You were born to be a Helper.”

“You got that right,” Edie replied, but she winked at Vincent as she did, and he chuckled. He understood her in a way no one else did, not even Catherine. Sometimes it made her uncomfortable to be seen so clearly by someone who did not judge. But mostly it made her remember that believing Catherine’s wild story, coming down Below to see if it were true, and deciding to commit herself to being a part of this world had brought her to a decision she had never regretted. Not for one minute.

“It’s good to belong somewhere,” Catherine said, coming close enough to rest her hand on Edie’s arm. “Isn’t it?”

“It’s good to know I’m really helping people—people I know,” Edie replied with an emphatic nod.  “Not wasting my skills and brilliance on some stupid corporation or government office that’s so far removed from real need that it couldn’t see a problem without having a committee investigate it first!” 

“Ah, yes.” Catherine nodded, then sat down in a chair next to Vincent. “I don’t miss that life one bit. Ever.” 

She smiled up at Vincent, who looked at her with such devotion, Edie couldn’t keep away a small, slightly wistful smile.  But then she straightened up and put on the sassy, no-nonsense air that was her trademark—and her protection. “Don’t get started, you two.”  She shook a finger at them.  “We have no time for mush right now.”

Catherine rolled her eyes, but before she could come up with a reply, Devin left his table, a wad of papers clutched in his hand. “Hey, Edie!”  His enthusiastic greeting was met with a raised eyebrow.

“Hello, Devin.”  Her voice was not quite . . .  disapproving, but it was close.

“Let’s sit down,” Father said, eager to avoid one of their frequent verbal scuffles, “and get to the meeting, shall we? Devin is ready to tell us all about his idea, and while I have some reservations, I think we should hear him out.”

Edie made a small sound that screamed “Go ahead, impress me” but did not speak. Instead she sat down next to Catherine and helped herself to one of the steaming mugs of tea on the desk. Mary had surely brought these just before she’d arrived, and she loved Mary’s tea—a special blend of teas and spices that Edie hunted down and supplied her with.

“So, right,” Devin said, sliding a glance over to Father before he began.  “As you all know, I’ve been a lover of adventure all my life,” he began. “The kind of wandering I’ve been used to isn’t really possible anymore, now that I’m a married man and back here to stay, but it occurred to me there are other kinds of adventure in the world Above that I could”—he stopped to take a deep breath—“introduce the Tunnel children to.”

Father raised an eyebrow and looked at Vincent. 

Edie stared at Devin. “Define ‘adventure’.”

“How much of the Park do you know?” Devin came back at her, a touch of defiance in his voice. “All the bridges and sculptures and lakes and monuments? Or the museums in this city?  There are dozens of them, with all kinds of collections, and how many of them have our kids ever seen?  They have a right to know this city and all it has to offer, just like any other child.” 

He paused and looked down at his notes for a moment; to Edie it seemed like he was not refreshing his memory so much as reminding himself of the ammunition he could use. What he said next took her completely by surprise.

“Edie, you and Catherine take care of so many kids in distress through the Center, but I’ll bet they don’t have much exposure to the cultural riches this city has to give them, either.”

“And you would know all about that how?  Seeing as how it’s been years since you lived in the city.”  Edie leaned forward in her chair, wary and ready to strike down any nonsense that might come out of his mouth.

Father also looked puzzled—and concerned. “Devin, what do the children of the Center have to do with the Tunnel children? What exactly is it you have in mind here?”

“Please.” Vincent’s calm voice broke into the conversation.  “We should let Devin explain himself before we start bombarding him with questions.  He would like, I’m sure, to give us all the facts, so we can make the best decision.”

“Thanks, little brother,” Devin said with a nervous grin and a wink.  “Good to know someone is on my side.”

“I never said I was not on your side,” Father began, slightly flustered, but then Catherine spoke up.

“We’re all on your side, Devin,” she said quietly, leaning forward to squeeze his arm in encouragement. “Go on.”

He smiled in genuine gratitude. “Thanks, Cathy.”  Another deep breath and he continued. “You all know I used to run photo safaris—or, if you didn’t, well, I did.” He grinned guilelessly. “Best fun ever.  So, here’s my idea: what if I took the kids out on cultural photo safaris here in New York—all over the city? Little excursions, so I could keep an eye on them with just an adult or two to help.  Emil and Matthew told me they would love to help. The kids could get to know more than just the Tunnels, see the history of the rest of New York. Emil suggested we could get them all little disposable cameras or something, or maybe a few of the cheap point and shoot digital models, and take them on explorations, let them express themselves and show us what they see.  And if I ran these excursions out of the Center, and we included the kids who come there, who we help, then it would kind of . . . disguise the tunnel kids a bit, you know?  So— what do you think?”

There was silence for a whole minute.

“Are you out of your . . .  mind?” Edie just managed to get the words out without cursing—she was holding back for Father’s sake—but her scorn was clearly expressed.  “I can’t even begin to count the possibilities for this going sideways.”

Father was still blinking like a startled owl, his mouth open but incapable of speech—for the moment.

“But,” Devin persisted, “what if we thought and planned it all out, made sure that we had everything covered and nothing could go wrong?”

“You know,” Edie replied, her voice dark and heavy with doubt, “that that is just when everything DOES go wrong.”  She sighed heavily and shook her head, then pushed her tea away, no longer interested in its warmth and comfort, every defensive bone in her body on full alert.  “It’s just too dangerous, I say.”  She looked over at Vincent and Catherine.  “What do you think?”

Vincent sighed as well and looked over at Father, who was obviously marshaling his arguments and getting ready to speak.

“I think that we should focus on the positive side of this proposal before we begin to tear it apart.”

Vincent spoke in a firm, yet loving, voice, and Edie leaned back in her chair, ready to take in every word.  If Vincent got behind Devin’s wild dream, it was going to happen; she knew that much from experience. And she would be the one who’d have to make this work, so she needed to pay attention.

He did not normally try to influence events in the world Below, even though he easily could.  But Edie knew that Vincent had a soft spot for his brother that brought out not only his protective instincts, but an insistence that Devin be given every chance possible. 

“Surely we can find a way to make his idea viable. Devin is back with us, a part of our world, and he wants to contribute in his own unique way to our lives here Below.”

“So do we all.” Edie snorted.  “Doesn’t mean every idea we have is a good one.”

Vincent looked at her, a bit of sadness and a very clear request for understanding in his eyes.  Edie sighed and rolled her eyes.  “Okay, let’s talk about it—what are you going to need to pull this off?”

“Now, just a minute,” Father said, hands out as if he could physically halt the words.  “I don’t think we’re at that stage yet, are we, of actually implementing this . . . idea?”  He paused and glanced at Devin, then Vincent. “It’s . . . a lovely idea in theory, but what of the risks?  Can we really create some kind of organized expedition Above with our children and not expect there to be difficulties? I think we need a lot more discussion before we can even begin to think about doing such a thing!”

“That’s why I brought it up now.” Devin jumped back into the conversation. “I was hoping to get this started by late spring.” He looked at Father, who was still wide-eyed, and then at Vincent, who smiled.

“Spring might be a little optimistic,” Catherine said, leaning forward and resting her arms on the table.  Edie could see she was already puzzling out possibilities in her mind. “But Edie and I are working on a big project for the Center right now, and it just might dovetail with this ‘adventure’ very nicely.”

“You mean the shelter?”  Edie was a bit surprised, but as the idea sunk in, she could definitely see where Catherine was going. They had just signed the papers to buy a building across the street from the Center’s storefront, which they planned to use as a women’s shelter. A place for women—with or without children—to get help and resources that would put them on their feet, on their own after leaving a bad situation with nothing to call their own. It was being funded entirely by the Center, so no government oversight to worry about, other than the usual business and real estate regs.

And Catherine was right. No one would ever think twice about kids coming and going from the building, or question the need for anonymity and secrecy. The women in the shelter needed those things, needed protection from abusive partners.

She explained the details quickly to Vincent, Father, and Devin, Catherine jumping in with details here and there.   Vincent nodded, a smile growing on his face as he listened. Devin got more and more excited as they spelled it all out.

“Perfect!”  He interrupted Catherine’s predictions of when the building might be ready.  “This would really work!”

“Tamp down that excitement just for now, my friend,” Edie said, showing him her palm.  “There’s a long way to go from here to there, and I’m still not sure about this whole idea of yours.  But . . .” She looked over at Catherine and tilted her head. “If Catherine believes in it and is willing to help me work out details, I reckon we could figure out a way to do this crazy thing.”  She stared off into the distance for a moment, plans already beginning to hatch in her imagination; then she nodded at all of them.  “And as we all know,” she continued with a smug expression, “I’m your go-to girl for impossible schemes.”  She winked at Catherine, then looked directly at Father, who she could see needed a bit of convincing still.  “After all, didn’t I make Rowena very happy with something you all thought couldn’t be done?”

“You did indeed,” Vincent said with pride, and Edie felt a slight blush at his tone, and his smile.  It made her feel wonderful when Vincent was proud of her—he really was like the big brother she’d never had.

“And I’m just as grateful as she is,” Devin said quietly.  “You did make her happy, and I owe you for that. Please let me work with you, make this thing happen.”

“As soon as the building is legally ours, we need to go in and start renovating,” Catherine said briskly. “Maybe we can plan for an activity room of some sort, for the kids, that you and Emil can run this from.”

Father sighed heavily.  “I’m still not sure this is a good idea, but if Edie and Catherine think it’s possible. . . .”  His voice trailed off and he looked at Vincent, questions still in his eyes.

“It will be fine, Father.”  Vincent’s voice was gentle, soothing. “This is going to be so good for the children. It will expand their minds and their world, and Edie and Catherine will make sure it’s safe.”

“Maybe I can even teach you a bit about night photography, Vincent,” Devin added with enthusiasm.  “There are special cameras, special films—”

Edie saw Father’s eyebrows almost come of his face, and she stole a glance at Catherine, who was just as alarmed as she was.  “Let’s not get carried away, shall we?” Edie said, giving Devin a meaningful look.  “One step at a time—this is a huge project. Two projects, actually.”  She paused, frowned, and then studied Devin for another moment before speaking again.  “Let me put it plain.  You all know I’m famous for being blunt, after all.” 

Vincent looked at her and then at Catherine, concern clear in his expression.  Catherine nodded and then took her hand in his before silently encouraging Edie to go on.

“Catherine and I have worked together for many years,” Edie began, keeping her eyes on Devin, who was squirming just a little. “I know how she thinks, and she certainly knows how I do, as I don’t believe in keeping such things to myself.” She smiled at Catherine, then became serious again.  “But here’s the thing: I don’t know you.”  She pointed at Devin.  “And you don’t know me.  But we will have to trust each other if this is going to work. I have to trust that you have the Tunnel world’s best interests at heart, not just your own.”

“Edie!” Vincent and Father spoke as one, but Devin raised a hand, shook his head.  “No, no, that’s fair. My record isn’t exactly . . . pure as snow.”

“What he said.”  Edie gestured with open hand in Devin’s direction and looked sternly at Vincent and Father. She knew she was the only one who could give Father that look and live to tell the tale, which not only tickled her but proved the respect he had for her opinion.  Both were important to her.

“Further,” she said, pointing at herself, “you will have to trust me, trust that I know what I’m doing and how best to do it, and not push or crowd me with your own timetable.  I don’t work well under those kind of conditions, as Catherine can tell you.”

With a smirk, Catherine nodded. “I can testify to that, yes. Many times over.”

“So.”  Edie stood up. “These three people are my family, too, and I value their opinion. If they trust you. . . .”  She extended her hand across the table to Devin and smiled. “I can trust you.”

Devin rose, his grin growing huger by the second as he realized she was finally on his side.  He shook her hand and nodded.  “I know how much Father, Vincent, and Catherine trust and care for you,” he said quietly, “and that’s more than enough of a reference for me.  Thanks.”

They stood there for a moment more, and then Edie pulled back her hand. “Enough of the mushy stuff,” she said, her voice brusque and fooling no one.  “Do we have any more business to discuss before I go see the kids?”

“If not, I’d like to go and tell Rowena about this,” Devin said, looking hopefully at Father.

“Go ahead, son.” Father patted his shoulder. “I know she’ll be anxious to hear all about it.”

Devin smiled again, and with a quick wave to everyone, was out of the chamber in a second, his footsteps echoing away from them.

“He’d better not give me any trouble,” Edie grumbled.

“We could say the same of you, I think,” Vincent teased her. 

“Only because it’s you are you allowed to say that,” Edie teased right back.

“I’d better get going, too,” Catherine said, getting to her feet.  “Mary asked me to help her with the inventory of food supplies. I’ll let you know if we have any urgent needs.”  She looked at Edie, who nodded. “And don’t forget tomorrow night,” Catherine continued. “You, Nathan, Devin, Rowena, Vincent, and me - dinner in our chamber.”

“Like Nathan would ever let me forget.  And you know I am looking forward to it.” She gave Catherine one of her best inscrutable looks, and tried not to smile when Vincent looked between them, clearly puzzled.

Catherine leaned in to hug Edie, whispered “Stop it, you,” and then was gone.

Edie turned toward Vincent and offered him her arm. “Would you walk me to the children’s classroom, brother dear? I want to catch them before Rose is done with them for the day and give out my treasures.”  She went to pick up the backpack, but Vincent beat her to it, and she let him have it.  Not wise to fight with someone as stubborn as he was—she’d learned that over the years.

They both bid Father farewell—he was already embroiled in a discussion with a very passionate Mouse and made a vague “good-bye” motion in their direction.  “I think, for once, I’ll stay out of a brainstorm session with Mouse,” Vincent said with a chuckle as they headed out of the chamber.  “Our meeting was enough . . . excitement for one day.”

“Do you think I’m wrong to be skeptical of what Devin’s proposed?” Edie asked him as they began to wend their way down a wide tunnel.

Vincent was quiet for a moment, considering. “No, not wrong,” he replied. “You need to be cautious; it’s part of the way you help us, take care of us. But . . . .” 

“Go ahead, spill it.” Edie tugged on his arm and looked up at him, trying to be as patient as she could.

“I wish everyone—not just you—would be more trusting with Devin.  He’s come back to us; he wants to belong and fit in, to live here. He’s never wanted that before.  And—“

“You don’t want us to scare your brother away, again.” Edie finished the sentence for him.

Smiling, Vincent patted her hand. “I suppose that’s what it comes down to. I want him to feel like he belongs here, that he made the right decision to come here with Rowena.  And I want my brother to stay, yes. You know me too well.” 

He let Edie go ahead around a corner that was a bit narrower than their pathway had been, then took her arm again once they were past it. She could hear the faint sounds of children’s voices somewhere ahead, and smiled.

“They’re going to love the stuff I brought,” she said, feeling very pleased with her choices. These art and craft supplies were going to keep them happy and busy for some time to come. And this was something of a test run for her, too; she wanted to know what was going to work in that activity room in the shelter.

“All I ask is that Devin be trusted to contribute in his own way,” Vincent said quietly, interrupting her thoughts.  “Rumi once wrote, ‘The lamps are different, but the light is the same.’ That’s how we live here Below - we need everyone’s light.”

Edie nodded, but was silent for a moment.  “I guess,” she said finally, “I never expected him to be interested in doing things with the kids.  He’s never seemed to be the type.”  A sudden thought came to her: he wants to work with kids; he’s a married man now, settling in with his wife. . . .  Edie grinned and she wondered if maybe Rowena and Devin had a secret of their own.  She’d be going to see Rowena next, and Edie made a note to grill her about it.

“Some might say you’re not the most obvious one to care about the children so much.  And yet. . . .” He gestured at the backpack, smiling in quiet triumph.

Edie punched him in the arm before letting go—they were just outside the classroom now.  “Don’t go blowing my cover,” she warned him with a rueful smile.  “I’m a tough customer and no one gets around me—unless I want them to.”

“Ah, yes, that reminds me. I need to go talk to Nathan—he said he needed my opinion on a special project. Let us know when you’re ready to go back up top.”

That remark earned him another punch, which she was sure he didn’t even feel.  He bent to kiss her forehead before he left, chuckling the whole time.  “Brothers,” she muttered to herself, and felt a surge of contentment, thinking of how she finally had one.

A horde of high, eager voices squealed as she entered the room, and Rose gave up all hope of restraining her charges as they rushed Edie and surrounded her in a wild group hug.

“Whoa, whoa—you’re going to break something!  My bones, in particular!”  The children laughed, seeing right through her gruff greeting as they always did.  She laughed back, and put her arms around as many of them as she could for a moment.  Then she straightened and held up her arms.

“Y’all need to give me some space if you want what’s in this backpack!”

The children dropped in unison, forming a ring around her as they stared up in fascination, waiting for the reveal.

Edie made a show of it, opening the zipper as slowly as she could, teasing them, until their shrill objections made her laugh out loud and she gave in, opening the backpack wide.  Rose stood to the side, arms folded over her chest as she watched and smiled.

“So. Here’s the modeling clay you wanted, Eric and Luke. I want to see some masterpieces out of both of you.  Ask Nathan for help if you want to build anything big, okay.  He loves to build things.”

“We know that!” Eric and Luke took the boxes of clay, thanking her several times after Rose had cleared her throat and looked at them pointedly. 

More packages of paints and paper and all sorts of craft materials came out of the backpack, to ooohs and ahhhhs and fervent thank-yous from the children at her feet. Soon almost everyone was busy with some project or another—except for Molly, who was still sitting and trying very hard not to squirm.  Edie looked down at her fondly; Molly had been the first child she’d brought down Below from the Center, after she had lost her mom to AIDS, and the tiny girl with smooth cocoa-colored skin and bright dark-brown eyes had always been special to her.

“Didn’t you get anything?” she said with mock puzzlement, scratching her head.

Molly’s eyes got big and her expression became very serious. She whispered, “No.”

Edie squatted so that she was at the child’s level.  “Come on, now,” she said quietly.  “You know I’m teasing.  I would never forget you.”  She caressed Molly’s cheek, then reached into the backpack.  “Just saving the best for last.  Don’t tell anyone else I said that, though, okay?

Molly’s hopeful smile returned.  “You got them?”  Her voice was still so quiet Edie could barely hear it.

“Of course I did.”  Edie pulled out a big, round container filled with shiny beads of every size and color and strings to match them.  “Now you can make jewelry, as much as you want. And you let me know when you run out of these. I’ll get you more.” 

She thought her heart might burst as she watched Molly take the box out of her hand and hold it reverently, her eyes exploring every glittery treasure it contained.  “I’m going to make you a bracelet, right away,” she said, then looked up at Edie in adoration.  “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie.”  She stroked the little girl’s cheek again. “But I want you to make one for yourself first, okay?  You need some sparkle on your arm, girl!  And then you can make me one. I like purple,” she informed Molly with a nod. “Just so you know.”

Molly nodded eagerly.  “What color do you think Vincent likes best?”

Edie almost choked trying to contain a burst of laughter.  “You want to . . . make Vincent a bracelet?”

Molly nodded, her eyes round. “He’s so pretty, and a bracelet would make him even prettier!  And then,”—she paused, looking down at the box shyly—“he would think of me whenever he saw it on his arm.”

Edie pulled her into a big, long hug.  “He thinks of you all the time, sweetie. Don’t worry about that. But for Vincent. . . .” She paused, putting a finger to her lips as if thinking deeply.  “I’d use every color you have—he likes them all.  And make it extra big, because, you know, Vincent is—”

“Big.” Molly supplied the word with satisfaction.  Then she kissed Edie on the cheek and ran off to the table to open her beautiful box of beads.  Halfway there, she stopped, ran back, and whispered, “Thank you again” before heading back for the table, ready to get to work.

“Thank you so much, Edie.”  Rose had come over to give her a hug in greeting, now that the children were all busy with their gifts.  “You’re so good to them. To us.”

“Everyone needs something pretty, some bling in their lives,” Edie said. “I’m happy to do it . . . for my family.”  She and Rose watched the kids for a moment, all of them oblivious to everything but their creations.

“Well, I guess I should be moving on,” Edie said finally. “Have to find Rowena, see how her work is coming along, now that she has her tools again.”

“Do you need someone to take you?”

“Nah, I was down that way often enough when I was arranging for that monstrosity to be brought Below. I know the way.  See you later, and let me know when the kids need more supplies.”

With a wave to the children, Edie headed out of the schoolroom and down the tunnel that would take her to Rowena’s work chamber, which was very close to Elizabeth’s painted walls.  She liked to keep an eye on the elderly woman—Rowena had told Edie she considered that part of her daily routine, now she was part of the family, and Edie knew everyone breathed a little easier, knowing Elizabeth was not so isolated anymore.

She heard the clacking noises as she approached Rowena’s work chamber a few minutes later, feeling very satisfied that she had been instrumental in bringing that new sound to the tunnel world. It was comforting, Edie thought as she stopped to listen for a moment, a reassuring sound, like the constant echoes of the pipes as messages and news were sent round to their destinations.  With a nod of appreciation, she called out to announce her arrival just before she entered the chamber.

“Edie!  So good to see you!” 

Rowena got up from the stool in front of her loom and came over to greet her visitor, wrapping her arms around her. Her robes carried a faint scent of lavender, and Edie breathed it in, feeling even more calmed and soothed.

“I have to thank you again,” Rowena began as she urged Edie to a chair near her own and they both sat down.  “I didn’t think anyone would be able to get this monstrosity out of Alaska, let alone down here!”  She stroked the wooden frame, then the colorful tapestry she was working on—her first piece to be done Below.  “And all my supplies, the wool . . . I’m so grateful, Edie.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Edie admitted, making a face as she remembered the nerve-racking experience of taking the loom apart per Rowena’s explicit instructions—Nathan and Emil handled that, thank goodness—and bringing it Below piece by piece over the course of a month, again according to Rowena’s instructions, so she could begin assembling it as each piece arrived.  Edie had “assigned” each part of the loom to a different Tunnel entrance at different times of the night over an entire month, so that they could be brought down, one wooden puzzle piece at a time, in a complicated rotation that she was confident would never be detected.

There had been some scary moments, but finally it had all arrived, and Rowena had been ecstatic, finally able to settle in and contribute to her new home in her own way.

“You’re a genius,” Rowena pronounced. “No one else could have done it.”

“True,” Edie agreed. “You could remind Nathan of how spectacular I am, if you want.” The two of them laughed, and then Edie took a closer look at the fabric that was emerging from the shuttles of pale cream and golden thread. “That’s beautiful.  What is it going to be?”

Rowena’s cheeks flushed just the slightest shade of pink, barely noticeable in the candlelight—but Edie saw it. “Oh, a secret project. I see.  Hmm.” Either Rowena had figured out Catherine’s news— women always knew first—or there was something else afoot.

“You’ll find out,” Rowena said quietly, and smiled as her hand smoothed the work in progress, which seemed to shimmer in the low light. “Maybe soon.”  She looked up at Edie. “Maybe tomorrow night.” 

“Uh-huh. This is going to be some interesting dinner party, if you ask me.  Lots of secrets going on. You’ve got one; Vincent says Nathan’s got one—”

“Oh, yes!” Rowena’s laugh was almost a giggle.  “I think you’ll like it.”

“You know about it?” Edie narrowed her eyes, searching Rowena’s face for clues.  “I’m not sure I like that.”

“All in good time, dear Edie.  Tomorrow night.”  Rowena moved her stool closer and took Edie’s hand. “Do you mind if I ask you something? I’ve always wondered—how did you become a Helper?

Edie recognized a distraction when it was being perpetrated on her, but she let it go. She had a pretty good idea what was going on. With Rowena and Catherine, anyway.  This secret of Nathan’s, though. . . . What was that man up to?  But she shook off her curiosity for the time being.  “How did I become a Helper?  Well, that IS a story.”

Rowena settled in for the tale. “Do go on.”

“Well, Catherine and I once worked together, at the DA’s office. When she was new on the job, she used to come to me for help, as my researching skills are legendary.” Rowena smiled, and Edie made a “What?” face before continuing. “Catherine Chandler, high-fashion lawyer, getting her hands dirty with the common folk. So I thought. I had her pegged as strictly uptown. Useless society girl trying to do her bit for humanity.  Then she showed me what had happened to her, the attack that left her for dead in the Park, where Vincent found her.”

Rowena nodded. “She’s told me all about that.  What a horrible thing to happen to her, and yet look what it brought into her life!”

“It changed her all right.” Edie sighed.  “We worked together for a while, then I got an offer in a private lawyer’s office, too good to refuse, so we went our separate ways.  For a few years, anyway.  Until she tracked me down.

“I could not believe the change in her.  So peaceful and calm, and she looked even more beautiful than I remembered.  Radiant—that’s what she was.  She said to me, ‘Edie, you’re the only person I can trust with a secret. A big secret. Do you want to hear it?’  Hell, yeah, I told her.”  Edie pushed her braids back off her face as the story grew more intense; Rowena leaned in closer.

“When she told me about here, Below, and all the people who lived here . . . I was stunned.  My first thought was, ‘You’re crazy, girl.’ But I saw it in her eyes, the truth of it, and I knew she was dead serious.  My second thought was: YES. I said to her, ‘Cathy, from what you’ve told me, I was born to be a Helper. I want in.”  And I’ve been running Helper Central ever since.”

“You make it sound so simple.” Rowena sighed and leaned back. 

“It’s not,” Edie said, serious for once. “It’s very complicated, but I’ve things worked out to a science, over the years. Schedules, the right people to tap for favors, where you can get stuff for free if you hustle. Father likes that part best—says he doesn’t like to be beholden to anyone.”

“He’s very . . . determined about some things, isn’t he?”  Rowena smiled. “But he’s such a wonderful man. So intelligent, so principled.

“When he met me, it was like . . . what’s that expression, an immovable object meets an irresistible force?”  Edie laughed.  “It took him a while, but he understands now that I can do things no one else can, simply because I live Above, and that I’m just as careful as he would want me to be. Always. “

“You’ve never wanted to live Below? I felt like this was home the moment I got here.” Rowena looked around with a contented smile, and reached out an arm to touch the nearest wall, as if to reassure herself it existed, and was hers. “Devin wanted to ‘transition’ into living down here, and I told him, ‘I don’t need to transition. I just want to get down there, where I belong.’”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Edie said, raising a hand as if in protest.  “This is my family down here. I don’t have any other.  My older brother was. . . .”  She stopped and let out a deep sigh before continuing. “He was in the Marines, and never made it home from his last tour of duty. Not even a body to bury.  It killed my mom, seven months later.  And my dad was gone long ago, when I was a kid. So, this is where I belong, no question. But.” She paused and shook her head. “I cannot live in a cave—no offense, but it’s not my style.  Ask Catherine; she’ll tell you.  And the other thing is, I really could not do any of the things I do for my adopted family if I lived down here. Above, I have access to things and can allocate resources that we need desperately. I can arrange things like,” she gestured, “your loom, better paints for Elizabeth, gadgets for Mouse to take apart and play with, so he doesn’t go up top and get himself in trouble so much. I can bring the things of the world that are needed down here to survive and to enjoy life. It’s better for everyone that I have a foot in both worlds, really.

“Besides,” she paused and smirked at Rowena, changing the mood.  “Below, I’d just be a pain in the ass, trying to run things and organize people. They’d kick me out before my first week was done.”

“No way, never,” Rowena declared.  She pulled Edie into another huge hug, and once again Edie felt soothed by the gentle scent that surrounded her.  “We love you,” Rowena whispered, “and we always will. Don’t you forget it.”

“Oh, hush,” Edie murmured into Rowena’s shoulder before pulling back and straightening herself and her clothes.  “Don’t get all mushy on me now—that’s not my style either.”  She winked at Rowena, knowing her protest was not believed for a moment.  “Now—let’s talk about this dinner party tomorrow.  What should I bring for dessert? Lord knows I’m not a cook—my favourite recipe is takeout—but I know a bakery in Brooklyn, around the corner from the Center, that makes the best cannoli ever.  And Vincent can NOT resist them. Trust me. What is your man’s weakness?”

******

She hadn’t worn heels, of course—worst fashion decision ever for the Tunnels—but otherwise Edie had gone all out when it came to her outfit for the dinner party.  New amethyst earrings and choker necklace, complementing the silvery fabric of her dress very nicely . . . but she covered it all up for her trip to the Park entrance she was using that night. Once Nathan met her and let her inside the rusty gate, she could at least open her coat to let him have a preview.  As they went further down, into the heart and warmth of Below, she slipped off the coat and twirled for him.

“Oh, babe,” he whispered. “You look amazing. Beautiful and elegant and . . . you are the light that makes my life special.”

“You sweet-talker, you,” Edie murmured.  Their journey to the dinner party was halted for a while as Nathan expressed his appreciation of her outfit in certain . . . nonverbal ways. But she was finally able to distract him enough—before the precious box of dessert she was carrying suffered—to get going again and make it to their destination.  He did not let go of her hand the whole way, and only did so once they arrived because he had to help her out of her coat.

She delivered her box of Italian delicacies directly to Vincent, waiting for his usual widened eyes and smile at the prospect of his favourite treat, but he was already looking quite happy and took the box from her, absently, as he kissed her cheek.  Edie studied him for a moment. Yes, he was looking quite pleased with himself. She looked over at Catherine, who winked and then put a finger to her lips for a moment before her mouth curved into an ecstatic smile.  Edie winked back.

Rowena and Devin seemed quite preoccupied with each other, small smiles and touches often interfering with the setting of the table.  Yeah, there was going to be a lot of good news tonight—she could feel it simmering, waiting to be shared.  Edie felt a slight twinge of envy before mentally scolding herself; she had her own path to follow, and it had its own rewards. Nevertheless, she leaned over and gave Nathan a kiss as she handed a wine glass full of deep red smoothness to him.  He smiled and raised his glass to her, and they had their own private toast just before Catherine announced all was ready.  Edie made note of the fact that neither Catherine or Rowena were indulging in wine with their dinner, and smiled knowingly.

It was a great meal; Catherine had learned a lot from Mary and was good at some dishes, and Rowena had turned out to be an amazing cook. That was one of the reasons they’d started having these little dinner parties: good food, good company, and the bond between all of them. The next generation of the Tunnel community, as Edie liked to think of them.  Upholding tradition, yet introducing new things into the lives of the people Below, with Edie working around Father’s misgivings about change in the way that only she could.  Yes, life was good, Edie thought as she sipped her after-dinner coffee. She had to ask Catherine how she had managed that—fresh-ground coffee in the Tunnels?—but suspected Mouse might have had something to do with this innovation.  If that was the case, maybe she should see what he was up to, and if there was anyway she could help him do it better.  He got as excited as the children when she arrived with new gadgets and things for him to take apart and make better.

Catherine rose from her seat at the table, and Vincent was instantly up and by her side, arm around her waist and drawing her in close to him.  The love, the adoration that came off him in waves was strong enough to knock them all off their chairs.  Edie approved.

Catherine smiled up at Vincent, stroked his cheek, and nodded. Then she dragged her attention back to everyone at the table.  “Vincent and I have some news to share, and we wanted the four of you to be the first to know.” Her voice was quiet, full of joy, and Edie sat up a bit straighter, sure of what was to come and feeling the tightness of happiness ready to burst in her chest.

“Oh!” Rowena looked at Catherine, then Vincent, then at her husband. “I. . . .”  She paused, then smiled gently and waved a hand. “Please, tell us!”

“We have some news oursel—” Devin started to say, but Rowena nudged him in the ribs. “Wait your turn,” she said playfully, and kissed his startled face.

Catherine chuckled.  “I’ll be quick, then,” she promised, fishing around in her pocket for something. Once she located it, she smiled to herself, but did not bring whatever it was out just yet.  Edie smiled; she knew what was about to happen—oh, boy, did she know, since she had brought that item in Catherine’s hand Below herself.

 “It’s unusual for a lawyer,” Catherine said, “but I’m at a bit of a loss for words, so I guess I should just say it.” 

Vincent watched her, absorbing her every word and gesture and emotion; Edie could almost feel the air vibrating between them. “Go ahead,” he urged his wife, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Tell them.”

“Vincent and I are going to have a baby.”  Catherine’s words spilled out of her, and everyone at the table stopped breathing for a moment. She brought her hand out of her pocket and showed them all the plastic stick from a pregnancy test.  “Thanks to Edie bringing me this, we learned for certain last night.  I am. . . .”  She stopped then, looking around in wonder, as if searching for words that could even begin to express how she felt.  “I have never felt happier, or more complete, in my life.”

Edie was out of her chair in seconds, arms wrapped around Catherine and as much of Vincent as she could manage at the same time.  “This. Is. AWESOME!” she squealed.  “Not that I wasn’t in the know, girlfriend—and you didn’t really need to show us the evidence, eww!—but this is fantastic!  We have plans to make, Mommy Catherine.”  Then she let go of her friend and wrapped both arms around Vincent, whispering into his shoulder.  “You deserve this, big brother. I’m so happy for you.”

Vincent hugged her back and nodded, unable to speak, but that was okay.  She knew how ecstatic he was, because it was all in his eyes.

Edie gave way to Rowena and Devin and Nathan as they hugged and kissed and offered congratulations. The joy in the room was infectious; Edie gave a little squeal and a little dance before hugging Nathan, who was looking a little shell-shocked.  Happy, but stunned, would be the words she’d use to describe his expression.

The celebration eventually quieted down a bit, and Vincent helped Catherine back into her chair. Edie could see that Catherine had several months of being treated like glass ahead of her, and they exchanged looks of amusement.  But Rowena and Devin remained standing, smiles and nervous looks passing between them like flickering light.

“Spill it,” Edie demanded, hands on hips.  “I know you two got something to say, and now’s the time.”

Rowena laughed, and then laced her fingers through her husband’s.  “Yes, Edie—I’m sure you have figured it out. I just hope Catherine and Vincent don’t think we’re stealing their thunder.”

“No!” Catherine was on her feet again, her gaze darting back and forth between Rowena and Devin.  Vincent leaned forward.  “Are you saying what I think—”

“You’re not the only lucky one, Vincent,” Devin moved close behind Rowena and curved his hand around her hip to stroke her stomach.  “Playmates!” he said with a grin. “We’re due in July, we think. How about you?”

Pandemonium returned. “I KNEW that blanket on your loom was not just for practice!” Edie crowed as another excited, happy jumble of hugs and kisses and congratulations formed. She couldn’t remember there being this much baby news in the Tunnels in a long time—certainly not two together—and Edie imagined how ecstatic everyone would be, how eager the anticipation for summer to arrive.

Vincent and Catherine’s baby.  Edie was sure Vincent had never dreamed he would know such happiness—to actually be a father!  Everyone Below would be as overjoyed for him as they would be pleased that a new life was about to join their family. Rowena, though new to the world Below, were already much beloved. Edie nodded with satisfaction as she watched the two couples chatter and compare due dates and symptoms. This was what her grandfather had always referred to as an extra helping of blessings.

Nathan put his arm around her then, leaning in for a kiss on her cheek.  Neither of them were ready for or even thinking of this sort of change in their life, but still. . . .  Edie had the slightest twinge of longing, but put it away in the back of her mind for

. . . later.  It was not her time for this particular experience. There was a lot for her to do now, though.  She gave Nathan a quick kiss, too, and then stepped forward, clapping her hands for attention.

“So, we have a lot of work ahead, everybody.  Nursery chambers to prepare, you men. Supplies and clothing to start laying in—that would be my department. I’ll get in touch with Megan, our Helper midwife in the Bronx.  I think we need to get her down here to talk to the mommies as soon as possible, so we can get a birth plan happening.  Actually, we should tell all the Helpers. Pascal will help us get on that.  And I’m sure Mary and all the women—Below and Above—will want to organize a baby shower.”

Vincent stared at her, puzzled.  “Surely there’s no need for all that yet.  We have. . . .” He glanced at Catherine, still new to calculating such an event. “A bit more than seven months?”

Edie rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth.  “Typical man,” she sighed. “Thinks the job is done because he’s finished with his part of it.”

Devin’s hoot of laughter was followed, almost instantaneously by Rowena’s elbow in his rib.  Edie noticed a faint blush spreading across Vincent’s high cheekbones.

“Edie is just teasing you, Vincent,” Catherine said, wrapping her arm around his and giving Edie a significant look.  “But yes, there is a lot to do, to plan, and it’s never too early to talk to a midwife.”  She gave him a comforting kiss, then scurried over to Rowena, giving her yet another hug. “So happy and excited we’ll be sharing this time!” 

“I know! It’s better than a dream come true.” Rowena was transformed, her face alight with peace and contentment, and Edie guessed that the next several months were going to be pretty darn special.

“These babies are going to have only the best, if I have anything to say about it.  And we all know I’m the one who can make these things happen.” Edie blew on her fingernails and then pretended to buff them on her dress in an attempt to make Vincent smile.  She was rewarded for her efforts with a look of great fondness.

 “Your lamp brings a very bright light to our world, Edie,” Vincent said softly, “one we could never do without.”

Edie looked at Catherine with raised eyebrow and mock dismay. “Is he gonna get all emotional and sappy, now that he’s a daddy? Keep your man under control, please!” She paused, and her face became serious as she reached for her wineglass and raised it to acknowledge all of them. “I do what I do because I take care of my own.”

“And we are beyond happy that you are our own.” Vincent raised his drink; murmurs of agreement, the chinks of glass meeting glass, and the loving smiles of her friends came as a response. 

Edie turned to look at Nathan, who had a rather . . . smug look going on.  He glanced at Devin and nodded, and Devin stepped forward.

“There’s one last surprise tonight, to complete the circle,” he said, nodding in Edie and Nathan’s direction.

“And I don’t know anything about it?”  Edie frowned for real this time. “How did you keep something from me? I can usually read you like a book, baby.”

Nathan ignored her question, putting his wine down and taking Edie’s from her.  “If you all don’t mind,” he said, “I’d like to show Edie now.”

“Show me what?”  Now her curiosity was on high alert, and Edie was pretty damn sure she didn’t like being the only one in the room not in the know.

“Go, go.” Catherine waved them off with a wink and a grin for Nathan.  “We’ll see you later. Or not.”

Before she could protest any further, Edie found herself being taken gently by the arm and guided out of Vincent and Catherine’s chamber by Nathan, who was still looking far too satisfied with himself and his secret.  The murmur of conversation was soon behind them as he guided her towards a path she was not used to taking. Definitely not liking being on the outside of a plan, she glared at him and stopped in her tracks.

“Not going one more step till you tell me what’s up!”

“I just want you to look at a special project I’ve been working on, give me your opinion on how it’s coming along, if it needs anything more.” 

“Nathaniel Becker James!”

He stopped and gave her a pleading look—difficult to see in the torchlight, but still impossible to resist.  Edie sighed heavily.  “You should be glad I indulge you so much,” she muttered.

“Not enough, I’d say.” Nathan dodged her hand as she attempted to smack him.  “Please, Edie—humor me this time.”

“Hmmph.” But she did not protest any further. The truth was, Edie liked the fact Nathan wanted her to help him with his work.  Neither one of them was truly happy about the meager amount of time they were able to scrape together for themselves—not working, not arranging things, just being together.  It was a difficult situation, with him Below and her Above, and they both put a lot of effort into making it work. But it was never quite as satisfying as a real life together. She had told Vincent she was good at making things happen, but this was one thing she had never been able to figure out, given what both she and Nathan did for a living.

“Are we there yet?” she teased him.  No sooner were the words out of her mouth when Nathan stopped and lit a torch that seemed to be waiting just for them.  He turned back to her and took her hand.

“Do come in.”  He gestured at the chamber door in front of them.

Edie walked in and gasped.  There were two candles, big ones, lit and glowing on a table in the middle of the room. No, it was a desk, not a table, with paper and pens and books in neat stacks on the edges.   A large monthly planning calendar took up space in front of the chair that was angled invitingly in front of the desk.

While she had been studying the desk, Nathan had hurried around the room, lighting more candles, including a gorgeous brass candelabra, polished within an inch of its life. The soft gleam reflected from its shiny surface brought more light into the room.

And with all this light, Edie could see the rest of the room: a large and very comfy-looking bed in one corner, piled high with huge, puffy pillows and overflowing quilt made from many pieces of bright fabric.  A plush velvet high-backed armchair, complete with reading table at its side, was in another corner, a soft throw carefully arranged over the back.  She came closer and recognized the fabric she had seen in Rowena’s loom just the day before.  “Well, I’ll be. . . . .”

“What do you think?”   Nathan stood in the center of the room, rocking back and forth from toes to heels.

“It’s beautiful!” Edie walked to the corner the bed occupied, intent on investigating the tall antique wardrobe that stood near the foot of it.  She opened a door and saw a few robes, also very colorful, and some boots that looked very much like the leather she had brought Below a few months ago for Michael, the cobbler who had moved below last year.

Eye narrowed suspiciously, she turned back to Nathan. “This room looks pretty complete to me.  Just what do you need me for?”

“Well, first, I want to know if you like it.”

“I love it.  It’s more than gorgeous, it’s . . . a haven for whoever gets it.”

“Second,” Nathan continued, taking a deep breath, “I want you to accept it. It’s my gift to you—your own place below.”

Edie stared at him, unable to speak.  A chamber of her own?  It was such a beautiful and tempting thought, but. . . .”

“Nathan,” she said quietly, not sure what she could say without wounding this man she loved so deeply.  Perhaps more deeply than she had realized until this moment. “You know I can’t live down here.”  She walked over and stroked his cheek. “I . . . I just can’t.”

“Don’t give me that crap about it not being your ‘style’.” His voice was calm, but firm.  “You know you spend as much time down here as you do Above.  Some nights, meetings go late, or we’re spending time together”—he leaned in and blessed her lips with a tender kiss—“or you need space to work out logistics for some project or another. I thought it was only right that, for those occasions, you have a space down here that you can call your own.”

“But I can only do my job if I live Above,” Edie insisted, feeling guilty but wanting him to see this situation from a more practical point of view. “I need to be able to take care of everyone, do things, get things from Above that no one else can.  If I move Below, who’s going to make sure the kids have those special things that the resources of our Center provide? Who’s going to get Elizabeth the paints she deserves to have? There’s no way Rowena could create the way she does if someone hadn’t been able to arrange it. Baby, I was born to be a Helper—even Vincent said that was my special light!”

Nathan shook his head stubbornly. “Your greatest gift is not what you can do for us, but yourself.  Yes, you bring things to our world that no one else can provide, but the fact that you’re here, a part of us, is what matters. ‘Things’ are wonderful, but we can live without them.” He pulled her in close and kissed her again. “I can’t live without you.”

Edie closed her eyes and leaned her head on his shoulder for a moment, head whirling, trying to figure out how this might be done. Because the truth was, in that moment, she wanted it. Even though she believed it wasn’t possible, or a good thing for anyone other than her and Nathan, she still wanted it.

Nathan stroked her back and leaned his cheek against her head. “I can hear the gears turning,” he whispered.

“Oh, stop it you.”  She smiled, though. He knew her so well.

Nathan began to sway, taking them both into a comforting rhythm with his body.  Damn him, Edie thought, he knows how to get to me every time.

 

“Baby, I think you’re missing my point,” he said at last, his voice still very quiet. “I didn’t say I wanted you to move here permanently, leave the world Above behind forever. I just want you to have your own space here, when you need it. Nothing more.”  He pulled back slightly so he could look her in the eyes. “Let me give you something for a change, Edie, please?”

She looked back at him, loving everything she saw: his tenderness, his strength, his need to make her happy.  What they had wasn’t perfect, not yet.  They were giving long-distance relationships a whole new twist, that was for sure. But why couldn’t they have this much of a life together?  Suddenly, she couldn’t find a single argument against it.

“No one’s really expecting us back there, are they?”  She gave him her best seductive look, even though she knew there was no need to give him . . . incentive?

“Nope.” Nathan tried not to smile in triumph, but it was a near thing.

“Then. . .” Edie stepped back, took his hand, and began to lead him to the bed in the corner.  “What do you say we christen my new chamber properly?  We can talk about the sign I need outside my door later.  And I’m only going to wear those robes when the occasion absolutely demands it. That is one thing for sure that is NOT my style, darlin’, no matter how much I love you.”

Nathan laughed out loud. “You are impossible!”  Then he tackled her, and they conveniently landed on the bed, and . . . never made it back to the dinner party.

Pencil drawing of Edie by Linn. A profile of her, her gaze is cast down. She's wearing earrings and her hair is cut above her shoulders.



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