A/N: Important facts about this fic: a) It started off meant to be humorous and fluffy. It's still pretty fluffy, but the humor never really got properly off the ground. Oh well. b) I'm a sucker for a happy ending. c) I effing hate my muse. d) OMG, I actually managed to write a one-shot that stayed a one-shot. e) Shockingly, I own no rights to anything BatB related, this is an entirely unauthorized fan work, and I make no profit, monetary or otherwise, whatsoever—unless you count reviews, which make the slave-driving my muse does all worth it :) Please enjoy. Concrit is always welcome.
In A New Light
Father did love Catherine. He thought of her as a daughter. He was endlessly grateful for all that she had done for him, his community, and his son. Her devotion to Vincent alone was worth more than he would ever be able to express. He loved her dearly.
He reminded himself of these facts while he stood, nodding in what he hoped was a vaguely appreciative manner, as Catherine pointed to things like hidden stairwells and clever doorways with excited pride. Why in the world she thought he would be equally impressed with them as she was utterly beyond him. His world didn't even have doors. Well, the outer-most tunnels did, of course, he had to concede that, but where people lived, where he actually lived, was open and communal. The hidden thresholds to the world Above were a necessity and a worry. This romantic fascination with secret passages…he hated himself for thinking it, but she could be such a topsider sometimes.
And Vincent was no help. He was much too busy watching her move, much too enraptured by the sound of her voice, much too eager to agree with how very clever and generous all of it was, to so much as gently suggest that she had gone too far, that perhaps she should rethink her motives.
Well, no, that was being unfair to both of them. Vincent had been casting his father concerned glances for the better part of twenty minutes, since they had reached the third floor of the place. And he couldn't honestly question Catherine's motives. He knew everything that she was willing to give for his world; the money was hardly a concern to her. And even Jacob Wells had to be charmed by the way this strong-willed woman conducted his personal tour with the same mix of glee and trepidation as a child presenting a very thoughtful piece of macaroni art to a favorite grown up.
It was just that the whole place was so…big. It was massive. A dozen families lived comfortably in less space Below, he was certain. He accepted her need to remain Above, and even Vincent's need to join her there, at times. Catherine couldn't be contained by mere degrees of altitude, any more than his son could be contained by the fear and prejudice of a world that knew nothing of his existence. Neither was there was any doubt that buying a brownstone and engineering direct tunnel access was a much better alternative to Vincent scuttling along the sides of a building, eighteen stories high, and in any treacherous weather. No, the idea of it had been a relief to Father. But standing in the reality of it, he found himself feeling…resentful. Hurt, even. Insulted.
There were perfectly reasonably sized houses that she could have bought. Money was no object, and even with the law office she planned to open on the first floor, a three-story home like Peter's would have been more than reasonable for herself and Vincent—and surely his son intended to come home at some point! Father understood a honeymoon phase, to be sure, but life did go on down Below. That a man so prone to endless movement, to whole evenings spent in restless walking, had spent nearly all of his free hours in this single building for weeks, sometimes not returning home for days at a time—it was an uncharacteristic development and deeply unsettling.
But it was something more than that, something subtler, more insidious. Father couldn't deny the profound contentment he saw in his son now. He was still just a little surprised—and a lot grateful—for this new abundance of good humor, these many soft, easy smiles, this subtle-but-telling confidence in the way that he moved and spoke. Even in agitation now, Vincent's notorious pacing had become...gentler, somehow, like the movement truly soothed him, instead of caging him in a frenzy of aimless, impotent energy. Indeed, Father had spent many uncomfortable hours with the realization of how very solemn and alone—tortured, even—the son he raised had been such a very short time ago. No, there was no denying that, however Vincent had chosen to spend his time since the wedding, it had done him endless good.
The trouble in Father's mind hadn't started until the third floor. The basement entrance was large, but thoroughly secured. That Catherine intended the threshold in her new home to be open to everyone at all times was no surprise; she'd made the fact very clear, pointing out that with a business open on the first floor and a few precautions taken, tunnel dwellers and helpers could come in and out inconspicuously. That she'd arranged with William to purchase and maintain several large drop freezers, an unsustainable luxury for the limited supply of electricity in the tunnels, was only a minor surprise. Their tour of the first floor had been cursory; it would be an office soon and required little explanation of form or function. On the second floor, he'd already been aware of Catherine's plans to keep rooms that tunnel dwellers could use, either in transition to the world Above, or else simply as a mailing address; she'd discussed that openly with the Council and with many members of the community. She and Vincent wanted the building to be welcoming and open to family and friends. Well, of course they did.
But then there was the third floor. And now, the fourth. They were both largely empty, only half-finished, and with no particularly definable purpose, but lots of potential, according to Catherine, who seemed to be building a wall of potentials as Father's impatience grew. There were many uses to which the people Below could put these floors, she assured him, clearly unaware that space was one thing that Father's world had never lacked. The only use such space could be for the people Below would be if they moved up into it, and that was the most disturbing thought of all.
That train of thought ended as Catherine led the way up to what promised to be the last floor, where she and Vincent would actually make their home—well, their sometimes-home; Vincent already had deep roots elsewhere, even if he did seem to have temporarily forgotten the fact. They traipsed up still another hidden staircase and through two cleverly locked doors.
Stepping into the first room of the fifth floor, a library, Father's misgivings only increased. With built in shelves, antique furniture, and yellow-shaded lamps that reminisced of candlelight, the room felt like a polished, stylized imitation of chambers Below. It had the look, but none of the feel, none of the soul, none of the carefully mended smattering of mismatched, discarded everything that made the world Below a world of its own and not merely the subterranean rendering of Above. It was appalling that such a thing had been created by Catherine. But to think that Vincent had had his own hand in it, even in nothing greater than a silent consent—his mind could scarcely complete the circuit of that thought.
It was then, standing there while Catherine remarked on the age of the chairs and the origins of the books, that Father finally formed his discomfort into a solid concept: she and Vincent had built their own castle, to play lord and lady over any residents who agreed to join the game, not as a part of the larger community they professed to love, but as a small recreation of it. A pet. An ant farm. A private fiefdom. Perhaps that wasn't what they intended it to be, exactly, but what other use would the five-story building be? What else could all of that potential Catherine had prattled on about possibly add up to? Clearly they were trying to bring the world Below up Above with them. The gall of it! To think that what Father had spent thirty-five years building and nurturing and governing could simply be propagated elsewhere, like a common household plant.
Unless Catherine sought to lure Vincent away from his family Below? It was a chilling, incongruous thought that Father would have never considered seriously, until this recent evidence of his son's chronic inattention. Father himself had challenged Vincent openly on the issue of his continued absences and been coolly rebuffed. But Father knew his son, knew that his stubbornness always bowed to truth in the end.
"I'll show Father the outside," Catherine told Vincent.
They stared at each other for a moment, a silent conversation passing in the shifting of eyebrows and the angles of their heads, before he acquiesced and gestured Father to follow Catherine through a heavy wooden door on the far side of the room.
The light of a cloudless summer afternoon assaulted Father's eyes and did as much for his temper as the sticking heat rising up off of the concrete city. He let Catherine go on about the improvements that had been made to the roof and the excellence of the view while he stumped his cane with added vehemence.
"I suppose the view lures him," Father said, surveying the city from a greater height than he'd seen in decades.
"This is the tallest building for four blocks in every direction," Catherine answered. "But he won't come outside during the day."
"Indeed. It's good to know that he still has some sense."
"You don't like it."
They both knew she didn't mean the view or the specific height of the building, nor did he waste time pretending to misunderstand.
"It's terribly far away."
"Hardly any further to walk than the Great Hall," Catherine rejoined easily. "And Mouse and Pascal have put together the most clever system to alert Vincent if there's trouble. I'm surprised Mouse hasn't shown it to you. It's all he could talk about for a week."
Mouse had, of course. He and Pascal had both worked on the plans and the installation for nearly three weeks and been very proud of the results. Catherine knew this, no doubt. She was waiting for him to make the first move.
"Don't you see what you're doing?" Father pled, trying to find the benefit of any doubt he could muster about her intentions. "He's hardly at home at all anymore."
"He's Below six days out of seven most weeks," Catherine countered at once.
"Well, yes, during the day—"
"And some nights," she cut in, some of the frustration she'd clearly been masking with incessant chatter finally bleeding through, "since your last discussion about his neglect of his community."
"His place is Below, Catherine."
"His place is his choice."
"You and I both know it's not that simple," Father answered at his most reasonable. "Not for him. More to the point, he has responsibilities to the people who love him, whether he remembers them or not."
"He remembers them, Father. He never forgets them. How can you suggest that he does? Does he have to go back to being at everyone's beck and call every moment of every day to prove to you how much he loves everyone Below? Lonely and wandering the dark places because those were the places that didn't expect anything of him? Is that really what you want for Vincent?"
That pulled Father up short, first with impatience at how thoroughly his daughter-in-law had twisted his meaning, then with the utter failure of his own counter argument to come to fruition. Of course he didn't want to see Vincent return to that former melancholy. He just didn't like this feeling that he was slowly losing his son. He had been happy to bring Catherine into his family. He never expected her to whisk a vital part of that family away to the very top of this far away tower.
"Father," Catherine said into his unsettled silence, "you're the only one who's calling him back Below, who isn't just happy for him."
"Of course I'm happy for him!" he cried, truly aghast that she would imply otherwise.
"You might try telling him, then," she returned with equal force.
Father scowled at her, but he was too busy reviewing his recent conversations with Vincent to form a proper response.
She sighed, the fight and fire fading from her face as quickly as it had come. "He'll be wondering what's upset me. Let's go back inside. At least let me make you a cup of tea."
Leaving his scowl in place to demonstrate his continued displeasure, Father nonetheless agreed to that simple kindness. He followed Catherine in through another heavy door into a wide, open room hardly any dimmer than the summer sun outside, but it was at least blessedly cooler. This was clearly the main living space, with large, lush settees, a wooden table, and open kitchen space at the back. The furnishings looked comfortable, but sparse to eyes so accustomed to the claustrophobic clutter of tunnel chambers. The wood floors and white walls amplified the sunlight streaming in through large windows on two walls and a great skylight at the center.
Father's progress into the room halted as he took in that skylight—or, more accurately, the man standing beneath it, face raised to the sun in silent reverence. Vincent turned toward Catherine and Father with one of those newly-customary little smiles of easy contentment, even as his eyes sought hers in silent question.
"Please, make yourself comfortable, Father," Catherine said, and if her gracious tone held a hint of briskness, well, Father would have to have noticed her speaking to him at all to hear it.
"I've put the water on." Vincent nodded to the silver kettle heating on the stove, and his hair shifted in the sunlight, golden and glowing. The ubiquitous candles Below tended to create a warm, yellow filter, but that light suddenly looked grubby and anemic compared to the richness of a summer afternoon. Father had the sudden, startling sensation of seeing Vincent clearly for the first time. Thirty-five years, Father thought, and he had never seen his son in the light of day. And more, to see him lounging against the center sideboard of the kitchen, relaxed and, by Vincent's normal standards of premeditated rigidity, almost obscenely languid in the bright afternoon—it struck Father with a terrible jolt just how small his boy had been the last time he had looked so at ease in his own skin.
Other details about the room began to seep in, including a sturdy wingback chair positioned near a window to catch the late sun, with a tiny table beside it, under a stack of ragged, second-hand books; no doubt Vincent sat and read there in the fading light at the end of long summer days. The image came to Father with a perfect clarity that stung his eyes. The tallest building for four blocks in every direction, Catherine had said. And this was why, why she tried so hard to justify two floors of dead space, why she needed him to know every security measure they had put in place. To give Vincent not only a fragment of daylight, what small place in the world Above she could, but also the faith to accept and enjoy it for himself alone.
"Father?" Vincent's concerned inquiry reached him just as Catherine touched his elbow. Father started and stared at her, into her searching eyes.
"Are you all right, Father?" she asked. "The climb up the stairs—?"
He shook his head and laid his hand over hers. "Catherine. Dearest Catherine." But he hardly had words, and his eyes and his throat still ached with emotion. "It's so very bright," he said. "Perhaps we might sit in the library?"
The tea kettle began to whistle then.
"Of course," Catherine said, her gaze still sweeping over him again and again. She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't think. Vincent will get the tea. Here, I'll show you the way." He knew that this was only an excuse to take his elbow, just in case, as they crossed the expanse of wooden flooring to the only door that could lead back to the library.
The dim clutter was a blessing to his aging eyes, but there were far more important matters to attend. "Will you forgive a poor, old fool, dear Catherine?" he asked as soon as the door was shut behind them, gently refusing her urgings toward a padded chair.
She shook her head in confusion.
Father took her hand from his arm and settled it between both of his own, over top of his cane. "There are so many things I never dreamed Vincent would have in life, even as I knew that no one could deserve those things more than he. We both know how long it took me to accept that there was any woman who could see him and all that he is and love him still, as deeply and openly as he deserves. There are so many dreams, so many hurts… I remember that precious, extraordinary boy, learning that there was such a thing as sunlight, and that it would never be for him, that the simple summer joys of his brother and his friends would always be denied him, for no reason, for no sin of his own making." His vision blurred to recall inflicting such truth on that bright, eager child, to see those blue eyes so stained with uncomprehending sorrow. "Catherine, what you've given him…" He shook his head. "Did you think I'd disapprove, my dear? Did he?"
She covered his top hand with hers, her own eyes going bright. "You know how he is, Father; the more he wants something, the more afraid he is to allow himself to ask for it. He's embarrassed for anyone to know that I've bought an entire building just so that he could have daylight whenever he wanted it. But it was nothing, Father, and it makes him so happy." She smiled a watery smile. "You should see. He follows the light sometimes. I don't think he even realizes he's doing it. But in the morning, it's breakfast at the counter. And then it's his reports and the children's assignments on the couch. Lunch at the table. Dinner at the island. And finally, a book in his chair. It hurt his eyes at first, but it's been weeks now since he complained about it. It's such a simple thing—I would give him so much more, if I could, Father—but I can't tell you what joy I see in him every morning that he wakes to sunlight, almost like it's the first time all over again."
Father nodded. "Forget everything that I said a moment ago, my dear. You have my eternal gratitude, my love, for giving him so much that I could not."
She surprised him with a fierce embrace. "And you gave him to me," she said softly. "We're even, Father."
Vincent arrived with the tea then; he paused in the doorway, taking in the scene before him with his head tilted to one side in vague incredulity. "Father? Catherine?"
She released him and moved to take the tea tray from Vincent. He surrendered it silently, still examining his wife and his father, no doubt with his empathic abilities as well as his eyes.
"Catherine and I have come a to a new understanding of each other," Father said amiably. "I must apologize to the both of you for being such a disagreeable guest before. Rest assured, I've learned my lesson."
Vincent's questioning gaze drifted to Catherine once more, but the soft smile she offered him over the business of pouring tea seemed to satisfy. Father settled himself in a padded chair and watched Vincent take up one corner of the settee. Catherine passed out the cups of tea before curling in against her husband's exposed side; he shifted in a silent assertion of propriety, but she ignored it completely and followed until she was tucked comfortably under his arm, and he gave in with small, quick kiss in her hair. Father hid his smile in his tea.
The new lightness in his mood stretched through the afternoon as the three fell to comfortable conversation. When the hour came that he felt a need to return Below, Catherine kissed his cheek and sent him off with Vincent to guide him while she saw to the tea things.
Down in the basement, Father waved off his son's offer to accompany him down to the home tunnels. "I can find my way from here. Your Catherine is waiting for you Above." The words came out happily, encouragingly, and Vincent's steady gaze said that he noticed, that he didn't entirely understand.
"Father, I know I've been remiss in some of my duties Below. I'd like to—"
"Nonsense, Vincent. We can spare you a while longer yet."
His son tilted his head, trying to understand such uncharacteristic words.
Father sighed. "Vincent, what I've too seldom said to you, too seldom acknowledged, even to myself, is that there will be plenty of time for service and duty to our community for you in the years to come. You've never abandoned us when we truly needed you, and I know that you will come back to us when the time is right, for you."
Vincent shook his head in protest, but Father wouldn't let himself be countered.
"You're devoted to us. And you're devoted to Catherine. Even a stubborn old man has to see, only you can find your balance between the two." He raised a hand to his son's hair, saddened somehow by the half-shadow that nearly obscured his eyes, that softened the extraordinary lines and contours of his face. "Take the gifts she gives you, Vincent. There will be time for responsibility. In my need to protect you and our people, I've too often tried to protect you from living. Perhaps even I can learn to step back. To trust." Father smiled and touched Vincent's cheek before turning to cross the threshold. A hand on his arm stopped him.
"Father. Catherine and I have made it clear that our family Below will always be welcome in this new home. That will never be so true for anyone as it is for you. Know that however high this new chamber is, it is no more closed to you than my chamber Below has ever been." He pulled Father into a tight embrace. When he pulled back, he said, "Be well, Father. Catherine and I will be Below tomorrow."
With a final farewell, Father crossed the threshold, wondering idly if the borders of the world Below hadn't been expanded beyond mere elevation. What a strange and intriguing notion. Well, if anyone was going to challenge the definition of something so apparently self-explanatory and unarguable as the words Above and Below, it would be Vincent and Catherine. Father surprised himself by finding only mild trepidation at the thought. He chuckled to himself, thinking suddenly that maybe he was growing up.