Beyond the Stained Glass

IRON BEHIND THE VELVET

 

Iron Behind the Velvet is not a finished story. 

  

Volumes 1 and 2 are complete. Chapters to be posted after one last edit.

Volume 3 is still in progress. 

 

Iron Behind the Velvet does reference stories that precede it in the arc, so it’s best enjoyed if you’ve read the earlier ones. All subsequent stories in this arc are flash forwards from Iron/Velvet but don’t really depend on its story line. If you’d rather not begin an in-progress story, you can skip on to Everything Is Waiting For You without having read any of Iron/Velvet, though, in the long run, Iron/Velvet will have offered up hints of the stories after it – those written already and those to come.

The first 78 chapters of this story were once published on my old Blogger site but have been “in edit” for, ummm, a bit, while the world conspired to keep it on a back burner. Earlier readers might notice a few changes to the details of the storyline.

Please read my journal post on this story’s return HERE. 

 

*** Adult Content Note *** 

 

Intimate moments between Vincent and Catherine appear with some regularity throughout this story, their ratings varying from mild to very gauzy. If you’d rather skip such content, as you read, you should be able to anticipate said moments by the, ummm, rising action. 🙂

 

IRON BEHIND THE VELVET

Sequel to The Only Gift.

Two hearts beating each to each!

Chapter 1 ~ Meeting at Night 

“Do we know the measure of the encroachment? I’d hoped … ” Father rubbed at his temples as he dropped into his chair. His shoulders slumped in weary concern. “The devils we know have been plague enough, but this uncertainty …” An obsidian sphere weighted papers on his desk. He closed his hand around it, closed his eyes. “We must remedy this situation.”

“We should receive reports from the additional sentries tonight.” Vincent paced the chamber, from stair railing to chess table. “To change the passages and walls now might call attention to our presence … yet we must reinforce the entrances, create diversions, blind alleys. The fix will not be accomplished quickly.”

“What does Kanin say?”

He turned and crossed the room in long strides. “He’s giving the design his considerable expertise, but he is distracted and–” A message on the pipes interrupted his words. “He’s on his way now.”

“This is most inopportune.” Father said. “We need him desperately, and he needs time unencumbered by obligation to the community, time to reconnect with his family. I am loathe to contemplate how much effort this will require from him, in addition to his … debts … above.”

“It will take many of us from our loved ones for quite some time.” Vincent leaned on Father’s desk, his hands pressed flat, his arms stiffened, bearing his weight. “For once we begin, we cannot stop.”

Father pulled his glasses away and, folding them, laid them on the papers before him – lists, Vincent knew, a dozen of them: inventories of equipment and personnel, objectives, evaluations, alternatives, if-then contingencies worried through in the middle of the night – and picked up the obsidian sphere. 

“I regret this for you, Vincent. I do.”

There was no response to this last, just a silent, shared dejection amped by urgency. He had no choice. He would tell Catherine tonight, and although he knew she would understand, that she would never complain – that she would offer her help – he dreaded making a reality of that which he had earlier intimated to her. Too far a distance from their chambers to return at night, it might take weeks of camp-living for the lot of them to reconstruct the entrances in the northern tunnels.

He would miss her so. And this time, it would be his world – his life – separating them. With a quiet, controlled sigh, he pushed away from the tabletop.

“Ironic, is it not, that this was once John’s?” Father palmed the jet-black orb hand to hand. “Given obsidian’s purported properties – the power to cleanse one’s spirit of greed and resentment.” For a moment, long-faced, he stared into the mirroring volcanic glass. “There was a time …” Father resumed, “after Devin … when I thought I might lose you, too … to the northern tunnels, to the … ease … you seemed to find on your visits. You would not have been the first to … appreciate … the construct … of the community there, decide to move away. Later, I wondered if I should have encouraged you … Perhaps …”

Perhaps I’d have never loved Lisa? Or suffered such sundering anguish for love’s sake? 

And why was Father bringing then into now, into this?  Current concerns left no room …

Father studied the orb centered in his cupped hand. “You’ve not been north in a while, Vincent,” he said without looking up.

“It’s true. I have not.”   

“I’ve not packed all the maps, if you think you might need–”

“I will remember,” he said, so quickly, perhaps so huskily emphatic Father’s gaze snapped up, held his, a carefulness in Father’s expression, the crease of trepidation at the corners of his eyes. 

“Well,” Father said, after more than one ahem. “You’ll be … efficient. And effective. I know you want to be here, after all. I mean … Catherine … Catherine has just … This is your home. Your roots are here, your future. The community’s future.”

Catherine had just … but that last rankled; it had, it would.

Father looked up with such bleak need in his eyes, need for his pledge, for his commitment to matters other than those on the table. And that rankled as well, the choosing he seemed to have no right to.

A soundless moment unfolded, but in it, a surprising cascade of memories, a curious, fleeting elation brushed the strings of his heart. A wellingand something more. Something more than willingness to attend to what was forced to hand. Something more than duty.

And he softened, his preoccupied ambivalence – sharp concern for the pressing tasks and blue dismay at their cost, the requisite leave-taking – tempering with thanksgiving. The paths he’d taken and not taken – whether by choice, fate, discipline, or schooling – before, long before, after, always – had led him to an empyrean happiness formed of pure fire, pure light – to Catherine.

Yes, he must go, and yes, he would return. 

But the home that drew him back … was wherever she was.

He smiled for the first time since morning, since seeing Catherine off to work above.“Narcissa swears the stone shields against negative thought, can transform fears into happy anticipation. Reason enough to keep it close, Father.” 

“Perhaps you should take it.”

His hand closed on his rose in its leather pouch on its leather string around his neck. Talisman enough. He smiled again and shook his head.

Father’s bearing lightened. “You do know, don’t you, that I want to go with you? I loathe what the years have taken from me.”

Before Vincent could offer – again – his reassurances of the community’s massed skills, of the loop Father would be kept within, that all would be well, that all would return to the wondrous balance Father believed in, needed, had all but willed into existence, booted footsteps thudded in the corridor.

Ah,” Father exclaimed, rising, returning the ball to its brass stand. “Here’s Kanin. And Cullen and Mouse! On time, Mouse, thank you. And Dominic! Wonderful. We will have the benefit of your experience.”

A bundle of rolled plans and maps under his arm, Kanin hustled down the steps. Dominic followed, thick-leaded carpenter’s pencils clutched in his fist, yellow papers fanning from his clipboard. It was time to decide. Six worried heads bent over the drawings spread across Father’s library table.

* * *

He met her at the portal in her basement.

The bags he took from her were heavy with treasure. Day by day, she was transforming his private chambers – those he’d believed would forever echo only with dreams – into their home together. Mouse had organized tunnel dwellers and helpers into teams, and one after another, they had trekked to the warehouse where the furniture and keepsakes from her father’s house were stored. Now the round cherry desk held center court upstairs in the rooms she claimed along the gallery, and the soft leather sofa replaced the solitary chair in the downstairs library.

She had been right about the sofa. They needed a place to sit together, and there was little more precious to him than the private moments when he could embrace her, hold her while he read to her … or when she would read to him. There, in that in-between place, he floated on the song of her voice, melted into her sweet warmth. Eased by her storytelling, his defenses mellowed, and his differences, his fears, faded from his own consciousness, freeing him to be simply a man in love.

It was a perfect place.

These days, these weeks to come, would feel strange. He’d be far from her measured in the miles of his world and working to keep her world out. She would fill her time, he knew, with her work and friends and with occupations he so wished he could share. A thin shiver traveled his spine, delivering a scornful suggestion that with so much time and space between them, she might remember all she must forgo for him.

He shook his mane of hair – once, twice – banishing the hiss of words to a faraway vault. He imagined shoving his shoulder hard against it, hearing the click of the lock in that heavy door that barred the narrowing corridor …

The song of her voice ...

She tugged on his sleeve.  “You’re … elsewhere, Vincent. Is something wrong?”

“We met today,” he said, careful to keep his chin high and his pace steady, “with Kanin, Cullen, Mouse and Dominic … to plan the northern tunnel changes.”

“You heard more from Stewart and Noah.”

“We did. Early this morning. I’d just left you, just started home, when Pascal relayed Noah’s message. I walked out halfway to meet him.”

She stepped in front of him, stopping him with her palm to his chest, waiting as he set the bags at his feet, until he straightened. “Will it be dangerous for you? Don’t try to spare me! What did he say?”

“They’ve found more evidence that others are entering and exploring our upper tunnels, but there’s been no deep encroachment. The intruders are still at levels that reveal nothing of where and how we live. We’ve sent out advance sentries and their reports will tell us if it’s outsiders from Above or if it is migration from Below.”

“Which would be worse?”

“The northern tunnels are somewhat wild and what lies outside the perimeter is still a mystery. The community declared it the boundary of our world years ago. There are those who live beyond it, we know, and beyond our laws. Their knowledge of us could prove … problematic.” As her hand closed around his rose in its leather pouch, he felt a tug on the strap at his neck … at his heart. “Try not to worry, Catherine. The boundaries have held all these years, and we’ve devised plans now, strong ones, that will work, I’m sure. It will just take a great deal of time, and I’ll be so far away.”

“When will you leave?”

“At morning.”

“Tomorrow?” Her single word stuttered in the air. “How … how long?”

“Too long, if it were only one hour.” He pulled her close, turned his cheek to her hair. “But it will be weeks … several weeks.”

“I’ll need to see you.” She leaned away, searching his face. “An entrance? One close to camp?”

Wherever that is, she didn’t add, though the reasonable half-complaint sounded in his mind, albeit in his own mutter. He’d shown her so many places special to him, ranging far and deep, but never north. And while he’d not refused Liz’s Winterfest invitation to holiday there with his lifelong friends (Friends you have slighted, sidestepped, his conscience jabbed), he’d not named the time. Catherine had not asked why, not yet, and now there wasn’t time  – to either explain or explore the oversight.

“We’ll be moving place to place,” he told her. ”Working long hours. Until we can assess the danger, I can’t risk you near.”

“Has Noah’s family left? Has Wren?” 

He shook his head … sighed. 

“Vincent,” she begged. “An entrance. Tell me.”

“When I know it’s safe, I’ll get word to you. But for now …”

“We’ll be apart,” she said, a brave smile framing her words.

“We will be apart,” he echoed, forlorn.

He deposited her bags in the middle of his old bed, mindful of her penchant for delicate objects of art, and turned to her. Her face was a sad mirror of his as she fell into his arms.

“How can I help?” She spoke into his cloak and shirt.

“First,” he said and she looked up, “you must let me kiss you, and then you must let me tell you how deeply I love you.”

“And after that? After I let you kiss me, and after you tell me you love me?”

“I’ll show you our maps and plans so you’ll know what and how and where, and then we’ll welcome a new baby, have our supper together.” He met her lips with a promise of still another after.

“Did Kanin tell you the baby’s name?” She reached deep into one bag, lifting out a gift wrapped in pink paper and topped with a mass of curling, silver ribbons. With a flourish, she placed it in his hands.

“He’s said nothing at all, and Olivia seems worried about tonight. We’d all hoped for a seamless reconnection, but I fear it is less than that.”

“He must be miserable. He’s just home. To have to leave his family again …” Shaking her head, she sank into his big chair to change her shoes.

“To find that Luke has lost his memories of him. And the baby …” Vincent continued. “He’s missed her birth, missed bonding with her. Olivia has had to rely on others. It’s all very sad now, but in time, they’ll find each other again.”

“I still feel terrible. I wish every day I’d had no part of it.”

“You’ve helped him, Catherine, in ways no one else could. Know that. His spirit will mend.”

As they passed the corridor to the dining hall, the scent of brownies wafted sweet on the air. “Chocolate to welcome girl babies,” Catherine said, leaning into his arm. “You’ll have something rich to take with you tomorrow.”

A vision of the dessert table drifted into his thoughts. “It will not make up for what I leave behind,” Vincent replied. 

* * *

The pipes were strangely silent with so many – even Pascal – in attendance, but the chamber bristled with an electric energy. Celebrants crowded the room in tight knots of conversation and the younger children, giddy with speculation, rounded the table piled high with gifts. The spiral stair allowed only a slow current of movement from floor to balcony, where feet and legs dangled over the edge and eager faces pressed between the railings. Mary and Sarah stood watch in the outer corridor, their arms folded, turning and turning from the festivities to the passage … to each other.

“There’s Dominic,” Catherine said. “I want to talk to him.” Soon, their heads were bent close, Catherine nodding, Dominic scribbling on his yellow pad. Materials, supplies, food … whatever they – we – need. He tore the paper away and folded it, handed it to her. She opened it to read the address. I’ll be there, first thing. She’d meet him at his shop Monday morning and put on account there enough money to ensure they would not have to make do, that this work would secure their world – their freedom – Below. Whatever was necessary she would do … to prevent Vincent’s having to act alone again.

Olivia appeared, at last, in the high arching entry, the baby nestled in a sling and Luke in hand, his eyes wide at the sight of presents, determined to pull from her grasp. The chatter quieted on a slow receding wave. Even the children stilled. Olivia stood, struggling with Luke … and for words. Mary stepped close, reached out, touched her arm, but without speaking, Olivia turned and fled.

Vincent’s nod was message enough. He edged the crowd, and with a last sorrowful smile for her, disappeared down a far corridor.  Catherine hurried after Olivia, trailing Luke’s heartbroken sobs.

* * *

He stepped onto the ledge at the falls. The rush of water, launched from a high, secret gorge, was veiled in a silvery mist, and, bleak against it, staring into the distance, Kanin sat at the scarp. When Vincent settled at his side, he curled away and dropped his head in his hands. A stony silence stacked between them.

“What do you want me to say, Vincent?” Kanin sputtered at last. “I’m back? Let’s forget what I did, who I am? Let’s all just pretend I wasn’t in prison? I’m supposed to, what, walk up to Olivia, drop my stuff on the table and say Hi, honey. Oh, yeah … where were we?”

“This estrangement you feel, Kanin, will be dispelled with your presence alone. Your arms around your wife, the touch of your hand to your daughter. A smile for Luke. They need you–”

“They don’t need me,” Kanin interrupted him. “That’s a fact. Luke doesn’t remember me. He asks for Robert. He asks for Damien. He asks for you.” Kanin glowered at Vincent, a wildfire of anger in his eyes.

“Olivia had help from everyone. As you wanted, as you were promised. You knew she would be safe.”

“Is it my baby?”

“Kanin. Stop. It’s not even a question.”

“She doesn’t know me.”

“Babies know when they’re loved.”

“Olivia should have told me about her.”

“How was she to do that, Kanin? You made the rules.You gave her no option save to wait. So she waited, out of love for you. It wasn’t deception.”

Kanin flung out an arm, a fierce quick gesture. “Go ahead. Tell me I’m a hypocrite to accuse Olivia of … of anything.”

“I have no intention of saying that.”

“No, you’ll just think it,” Kanin said, flinching as Vincent gripped his shoulder.

He willed back frustration, impatience … “Kanin, please,” he said instead. “Open your heart. Love her. Name her.”

* * *

The baby had taken up her brother’s wail and while Olivia crooned to the two of them, while she rocked the spindled cradle with her foot, Luke snuffled his despair into her shoulder. Soon exhausted, their tears fell to whimpers, then into deep, slow breaths of sleep.

“I’m so sorry he has to leave tomorrow,” Catherine whispered. “It’s terrible timing.”

“He’s glad to go,” Olivia said, her chin resting on Luke’s crown. “Maybe he’ll never really come back. Maybe he’ll move back up top, take a job … find a new life.”

“That’s not going to happen. The thought of getting back to you kept him sane last year.”

“I should have told him about the baby.”

“How can you know? It might have been worse for him, just as you thought. He needs more time and this … project will help him. He’ll see how important he is to us, that he’s needed.”

“My daughter needs her name.” Olivia blinked back fresh tears. “I can’t … I don’t want to do that by myself.” She rose to carry Luke to his bed. “I shouldn’t have to.”

Catherine watched Olivia cross the room – her back strong and straight under her son’s weight, against the gravity of her disappointment. At his side, Olivia knelt and tucked the covers around him, loosened the damp curls from his forehead, kissed his nose … whispered a dream to his pearl-shelled ear. The baby stirred and Catherine, bending close at the cradle, brushed a finger to the baby’s downy cheek. Her tiny rosebud lips pursed as if for a kiss.

“Olivia?”

Rebecca stood in the doorway, her arms held wide. Olivia hurried to her, sagging into her embrace. Catherine looked at her hands and found them suddenly empty. An ache both sweet and sharp seized her heart.

On her way to the small dining alcove, through a sea of Luke’s toys, skirting baskets of laundry, Catherine stopped to close the doors of a massive oak wedding armoire. The ornamentations – the acanthus leaves, the rosettes and scrolls, the two lovebirds – were intricate and dark with age, deeply carved to last the years … the centuries. A single shirt lay folded on the highest shelf. The soft grey and black plaid flannel, faded, patched – Kanin’s – was one Olivia had worn herself as she grew large with child.

In the cupboard, she found a tin box layered with paper packages, flat-folded and tied with string, scented with anise and caraway, lemon and ginger. The coals in the old copper brazier had died to embers, but beside it, a bin was stacked with the trimmings of grapevine and rose canes. She added the still-moist branches to the smoldering chips and soon a tangy incense filled the air. Steam whistled from the spout of the teakettle.

Lin was here for a visit, she thought. These are her gifts. I wish I’d seen her. Lin would have her own baby soon. For a moment, she allowed herself to dream.

Knee-to-knee, their hands clasped, Olivia and Rebecca sat in two overstuffed chairs pulled close. They spoke in a soft melody, in half-sentences rich in history and smooth with familiarity. The ache inching from her heart to her throat, Catherine pulled a tray from a shelf, set it with a bone china teapot, with two silver spoons, with two delicate, flowered cups. And though they looked up in protest, though they begged her to stay, she smiled and shook her head. Before she turned into the corridor, she heard them talking again, intimate, in sisterly turns.

The passageway was quiet. Their world was in waiting – anxious for Olivia and Kanin and concerned with the threat from beyond the northern tunnels. She pulled her jacket close and hurried her step, but a sadness seeped in, a sadness not just for Kanin, for Olivia … and not entirely due to Vincent’s impending absence. She was lonely – lonely for a girlfriend with whom she could share her happiness, with whom she could speak openly of her life … lonely because she held secret the most important, the most precious

Because I’m not going to be … alone, she’d admitted that terrible night.

And Jenny had accepted. Well, what am I doing here?

But lately, between them, the mystery forged a chasm – fracturing, threatening to crumble. Jenny wanted to know who. She’d tease for information, yet Catherine could see it on her face – the hurt – in her wrinkled brow, in the line of her lips pressed against the unspoken words.

Why can’t you tell me, Cathy? Why?

Soon enough, too soon, the question would be voiced. Again, she tried to imagine the telling. At times, Catherine wanted nothing more than to grasp her friend’s hand and lead her down, promising with every step the fulfillment of a most exquisite fantasy and the answers to all her queries. In her mind, she approached the falls through the maze of candle-lit tunnels, Jenny in tow, knowing he’d be there – magnificent, golden – the majestic cascade a backdrop of music and magic. He’d say Jenny’s name … in that voice … and

And there her daydream would falter … and fade. The mists would rise and she’d be left standing at an incontestable wall, her face turned from the truth of why

As if it were a scene painted on a folding fan, she closed the vision away. She would not dwell in this melancholy, would not feed her yearning with if onlys. She would not let him leave worried for her.

But she couldn’t deny it. She wanted to take someone with her across the river …

* * *

He was not in his old chamber, and he was not beyond the stained glass in their private rooms. She readied herself for bed and then waited for him – prowling, restless – returning to their bedchamber where she stood before the long table, before the little shrine of gifts for granted wishes.1

The music box, wound and open – the Pathétique, the adagio …

The worn leather volume, its gold gilt edges shining, a tuft of the bluebird’s feather marking the place …

The shard of reflective metal in which she’d first beheld his face … a fluted crystal candleholder, begging for light …  the camphor-wood chest of treasures … 2

And the sculpture …3

She let her fingers play within its hollows, across the faceted amethyst pyramids and spires, along the fired, impassioned bronzed lovers’ limbs …

“Catherine.” He called to her from the doorway. “I’ve kept you waiting.”

She turned to him, surprised but not startled at his silent approach. These weeks would prove interminable if the last hour were any indication of how much she would miss him. He crossed the room in a few a quick steps and surrounded her with his strength and his warmth, his deep knowledge of her. It was enough.

It was everything.

* * *

He sat on the side of their great bed as he removed his boots, watching her, though his face was downturned and waving hair obscured his eyes. She lingered at the shrine, lingered in her dreams and wishes, until his soundless call for her surely stirred her heart. She helped him with his vest and pulled open the ruffled collar ties, and kneeling, pressed kisses to his chest as she unbuttoned his shirt.

He did love it when she unbuttoned his shirt.

So new, this freedom … to admit his want … to touch … to have

Still slow to start into lovemaking, he wanted to look at her, to travel the curves and shadows of her body. He loved just to pull her close and feel her pressed against his length. She thrilled at his quickening breath and at his warring desires, and he felt her thrill in a Mobius loop with his own, one twisting ribbon of sensation without end. She could bring his heart almost to a stop with the brief trail of her fingertips along the inside of his thigh … and when she would grasp his hips and beg him closer, he would obey, but nearly faint. If she were atop him, taking him … he would watch her face in the candlelight, wreathed in pleasure, in pleasures he gave her. She was all that mattered to him – her happiness, her delight, her completion.

With her, he was complete.

Yet always, he quelled a sense of pressing, almost menacing imperative. His desire for her was so deep, so clamant, it might easily overwhelm him, and he harbored the fear that he might lose himself in his fervor, that he might frighten her – or worse. Still, everything she said to him, all she showed him, gave him, allowed him to take, told him she was not afraid, and with her hands, with her kisses, she led him further toward the shining light, into the fire of himself, illuminated as only she saw him.

She wanted to take him with her into that light. Not content to leave him on the shore of it, she coaxed him, assured him … believed it would free him.

But she did not truly know.

A current of wildness eddied through his under-self, as black and swirling as the nameless river far below these chambers. Even he was unsure of what swam in its depths. He might always hold back, might never know the joy of losing himself in her.

It was enough … what he allowed himself to savor.

Yet she called him with her body, called his primal nature from its self-imposed isolation. He raged to keep it back but gave up a bit more ground each time she loved him. She reached so far into his being … reached nearly to the edge of his darkness …

What would she find …

There was an answer in her whisper, in her voice at his ear, on her lips at his throat, traveling his pulse – and in her pledge – with her hands on his arms and on his back, with her sweet breasts offered to his mouth … yours … and with her legs wrapped ’round his waist, claiming him … hers.

Listen … you can hear it if you try. He had only to believe her.

He loved to fall asleep with her cradled in his arms, her breath warm across his chest, her hand measuring the beat of his heart. But now, though she slept and slept soundly, he dreaded his own slumber, for the few hours left of this night would be their last together for too long a while, and in the morning he would necessarily part from her. She carried his heart, all of it, and it was all for her.

It was everything.

____________

Title Quotation: Robert Browning. Meeting at Night, Parting at Morning. 1849.

1. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 14: See Me.

2. The Only Gift.

3. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 7:  Love-Throb in the Heart.

Chapter 2 ~ Parting at Morning

 

She watched him dress. Occupied, readying himself for his work, still he fumbled his buttons and the lacings on his jerkin. His chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm.

“Vincent.”

From his seat on the low, broad stool, he looked up at her, his eyes wide and dark within their azure halos. A flush still bronzed his cheeks and at the base of his throat his heartbeat was evident. His lips just curved in the expression that delighted her, an after-love expression that had, in these last few days, changed. Surprise and gratitude were giving way … to assuredness, to …

Yes. There it is. Her own breath caught short. Boldness. Faith. A flicker of exultation. It was thrilling.

For a long moment he held her gaze, then broke away with a sigh. His hands gripped his knees; his head bowed. He was leaving … leaving in only minutes. The realization ripped through her.

Do not cry, Chandler. Not one tear.

Years of training let her speak with more confidence than she felt … with more courage. “Before you have to go, I have something for you.” From her pocket, she pulled a small package and, taking his hand in hers, placed it in his palm. “Three years ago … tonight.”

The amber light of guttering candles half-shaded his face. “Go on,” she said, when he had yet to move. “Open it.” The tissue paper rustled as he peeled back the layers. “It was my father’s. Look inside.”

She showed him how the pocket watch opened and showed him the tiny dials that marked not just the hours and seconds, but the day, the month, the phases of the moon.

“Listen,” she said, guiding his hand to his ear. “It has an odd tick, a heartbeat almost. It’s old, from my great-grandfather’s family.” A heaviness settled in her breast. Already she was bereft. “I know time Below is different, but I thought … I thought you could have it to count the days … the years of our life together.”

He clicked shut the cover, turning the case to the candlelight, and traced the engraving – a winging bluebird, a spray of stars. He closed his hand around it. “Catherine,” he said, his voice crumbling at the edges. “I don’t want to be apart from you tonight of all nights. There are things I want … things I need to tell you. About … after Winterfest … when I …”

She pressured his lowered chin, brought up his gaze from the depths he stared in to … kissed him – a slow, tender, sure kiss … a deep and tasting kiss … a kiss of understanding, of promise. Of time.

“It will keep until you’re home,” she said. “I’m here, Vincent. Always.”

Though the last messaging pipes ended well above their bedchamber – at the top of the sweep of stairs, at the entrance to their rooms behind the stained glass – the tappings grew loud, insistent. He leaned into her, his arms around her waist, his head pillowed at her breast. Her fingers tangled in his hair. Near the doorway, a candle sputtered out, then another. The hour would not be denied.

“I … I have something–” He rose and from his dresser retrieved his offering folded in a scrap of dusky blue-grey velvet. “I discovered this on the journey I made with Mouse. I hope it will always remind you, Catherine … that my heart … my heart has found its home.”

Pillars and spires of smoky quartz formed a faceted castle. Deep within, a pale, ephemeral, mirrored wispiness – a phantom palace – floated. In the candlelight, it was beautiful, a fairy tale in the palm of her hand.

* * *

The dining hall echoed with excited chatter – with well wishes, the checking of lists, the repeated instructions for the relief crew. Catherine stood with William, packing lunches into rucksacks, handing them out as the workers filed by. With handshakes and hugs around, laden with tools and packs, they were gone. Of the first detail, only Vincent and Mouse remained behind – Mouse intent, his brows knit, his hands expressive in the air explaining Arthur’s care to Jamie.

“Father, did you see Olivia this morning?” Vincent asked. “Or Kanin?”

“Olivia? Is she–” Father searched the room, a hopeful quirk to his brows. The crowd had thinned after the crew’s departure. Mary leaned at the entryway with an agitated Kipper and an indignant Geoffrey before her, her arms folded, a frown of dismay on her face. Sarah cleared the sideboard, packing leftover scones and muffins into tin keepers. Deep in conversation, their foreheads nearly touching, Lena and Brooke and Willa sat at a far corner table. Father’s face fell. “No. No, I didn’t, and Kanin left very early. Hours ago, Pascal said. A sentry saw him start out alone. I take it you made no … progress … with him last night?”

Vincent shook his head.

Father sighed, leaning on his cane, both hands to its smooth-worn grip. “We can’t let Kanin … go, Vincent. Watch over him.”

“I will. Try not to worry, Father. You’ll have enough to do here with so many of us gone. And you must watch over Catherine for me.”

“If she’ll let me,” Father replied. He brightened as she approached. “Perhaps she’ll join me in a game of chess!”

Perhaps,” she said, linking her arm with Father’s, “we should stick to childhood stories. That way, everyone wins.”

Father turned at the sound of animated argument. Mouse hopped from foot to foot, adamant that Arthur sleep under Jamie’s covers, that he be free to roam about at will. Jamie muttered something no one could hear, but something everyone understood.

Vincent laughed as Father hurried to mediate, as he began a well-worn lecture of public health, germs, and disease.  He lifted his pack and bedroll. “I’ll enjoy watching this relationship evolve,” he said, offering her his free hand. “It promises fireworks.”

“Have you seen fireworks? Real ones?” Catherine asked, as they entered the passage north.

“Oh, yes, but years ago. Sometimes we’d hike to Yankee Stadium … well, underneath it, and from a certain vantage point, I could see them. They were beautiful. And loud.”

“Like Jamie and Mouse?”

“Yes.” He tightened his clasp of her hand. “Dominic told us what you’ve offered. Your generosity is appreciated.”

“It’s the least I could do. And it’s something I can do.”

Around the curve of the corridor, alone now, they stepped within a darkened niche. Vincent shed his pack and gathered her in.

“Promise me you’ll be careful,” she demanded, her voice muffled against his vest. The one tear she could not contain seeped into the tanned leather. She felt him nod once.

“Know this, Catherine. I live for you. While I’m away, you … you must be careful.” The words, whispered at her ear, feathered the down of her skin as he cradled her face in his hands. His lips traced the scar she wore, his thumb brushing after … along the now-fading memory, over her cheek to her parted mouth.

One last kiss …

A guttural moan rumbled in his chest , the tension in his arms a duet of denial and resignation.  And then he raked up his gear and swept away, too quickly out of sight.

“Be well, Vincent,” she said to the emptiness.

A clang and jangle reverberated in the tunnel. Moments later, Mouse careened past, tools clanking from a heavy belted harness, bags strapped to his shoulders. “Back soon!” he crowed.

She hoped soon would be measured not in Mouse time, but in hers.

Catherine passed William at the kitchen door. He was fuming, his hands parked on his ample hips, from heel to toe rocking forward and back … forward again.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

He raised his arm and pointed with a shaking finger across the room, grumbling under his breath. Jamie and Father were busy with knives and a bowl of fruit. Arthur, a china plate at his feet, perched between them on the long table. With a little imagination, triumph could be seen in the raccoon’s masked eyes, Father and Jamie gleeful partners in his spoiling.

She pressed William’s arm back to his side, struggling not to laugh. “Rebecca’s coming with a new batch of dining room candles. I passed Zach in the corridor. He’s gone to help her carry them up.” William blushed and hustled into the kitchen. A clatter of metal cook pots rang out as he cleared away his morning’s work.

“So, Jamie. Where will Arthur sleep?” Catherine stood behind Father, her hands on his shoulders.

“Wherever he wants, as long as it’s outside my blankets,” Jamie said. “That I meant. But probably with Father. You love the little thief, don’t you, Father?”

“Well, no one else must know. It would be ruinous to my reputation,” he said. With a sheepish grin, he offered Arthur another grape, a chunk of melon, a slice of banana.

“You know what Arthur really likes?” Jamie said. “Marshmallows and maple syrup.”

“At the same time?” Catherine said, pulling out a chair, sitting down. “That has to be …”

“Messy. Quite.” Father grinned. “Run ask William for the treats, won’t you Catherine? He won’t say no to you.”

Uh uh. I want to stay on William’s good side. I’m trying to fit in down here.” 

“Peanut butter, then. He likes that second best.”

Catherine popped a grape into her mouth, capturing it between her teeth, and crossed her eyes.

“I take it that’s a no,” Father said, chuckling. “I’m … ummm … planning to arrange those stacks of books today,” he continued, suddenly mesmerized by the netting of the melon’s rind. “Would you two care to assist me?”

“Don’t say yes, Catherine. What he means is – will you carry out his instructions while he directs you from his chair. Isn’t that right, Father?” Jamie teased.

“The shelves are rather high any more, and the ladder … my hip …” Father looked from one to the other with a beseeching, helpless expression, a glint in his eye.

“I’ll stay and help you,” Catherine said. “Right after coffee.”

“Ah, yes, coffee. I understand it is … important.”

“Has Vincent been talking about me?”

“Oh, no, no, never.” Father smiled at her. “But I have seen him push his way to the front of the line some mornings. He certainly acted as if it were … an emergency.”

“You tea drinkers just don’t understand.”

Father reached over to pat her hand. “I’m coming to understand many things, my dear. Many things. I find that I learn something new almost every day now. And to think, I was once sure I knew it all.”

Jamie snorted; Catherine smothered a laugh. Father harrumphed. With Arthur gathered up, carrying him like a kitten, he rose to leave.

Women!” he said in a stage whisper, sweeping for the doorway. “Arthur, you must stick with me. You’ll live a much simpler life.” 


She turned to Jamie, still smiling. “You and Father have mended fences. He’s not concerned about you and Mouse any more?”

“He’s not, but now I am.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, how can I say this … Mouse … he’s …” Jamie shuddered. “Let’s just say he needs some turning on the lathe. And then a good sanding.”

Catherine laughed all the way to the coffee table and back. “So tell me  … your sessions with Isaac … do you like him?”

“Isaac’s great! The lessons are hard, though. He really makes us work.” Jamie toyed with two spoons, leaning one against the other. “How much does he know, Catherine?”

“Isaac’s a special person. Once he decides to trust you, he’ll never question you. After that night, when Vincent was … when he helped me search …” She winced at the recollection of his injuries, to his body, to his spirit … at the accusation in Father’s eyes. Even now, years later, a sour queasiness rose in her throat at the thought. She hadn’t known then, couldn’t imagine or understand the depth or breadth of their bond, of his commitment … or what he would willingly risk. Swallowing against the memory, she struggled on. “Isaac saw him clearly – the tunnel entrance too – and he’s never asked me to explain. When I set this up for you, told him what you wanted, he just nodded. He’d make a good Helper … if we recruited Helpers.”

“I guess he trusts us then. He’s taught us things to do in enclosed spaces, close up, by ourselves, but in teams too. He never tells us to run or yell for help. It’s like he knows …”

“A part of him does know.” A vision took form, floating just out of her reach – a secret door sliding open, Vincent at her side … her hand outstretched for Isaac’s …

“I’m supposed to go up top today,” Jamie said and the dream fell away. “This afternoon. Esther and Damien went on the first crew though, so it’ll be just Willa and me.”

Catherine grinned, bringing her coffee to her lips. “Damien, the lone man among the warriors of Scythia.”

“Oh, he loves it,” Jamie scoffed. “But he’s really good, and he believes …”

“Believes in protecting Vincent,” Catherine acknowledged. “He, of course, wasn’t happy to hear about your lessons.”

“I know. He just gave me The Look. I didn’t back down though, and he never actually said anything. But here’s the thing, Catherine. Vincent’s leading a crew. He’s miles away. What are we supposed to do if something happens down here? Or we’re up top, doing whatever, and somebody needs help? It’s not just about him!”

Catherine nodded, understanding all of it. It was mostly about Vincent. She fitted her mug to a scar in the wooden tabletop.“This problem, up north … do you think … is it dangerous?”

“It’s hard to say. There were some … ummm … incidents … years ago near the perimeter. Really bad ones. I was still– It was before– Well, I’ve heard the stories.  It’s best if we stop anyone outside from coming further in. And if it’s topsiders …”

“I know. Vincent couldn’t tell me which would be worse. It’s all bad, isn’t it?”

“Could be. But we can stop it. Kanin and Vincent and Cullen and Mouse together are genius. It’s just going to take time.”

“I think, sometimes … it’s so strange. They’re less than fifteen miles away from here, hardly an hour’s drive with heavy traffic. But for them … I mean, for us, it’s days of carrying and camping and complicated logistics.”

Jamie set her elbow on the table, propping her cheek on the heel of her hand. “Some of this has to be awfully hard for you, Catherine. Two worlds. All the secrets. The … differences. Are you happy here?”

“I am.” Of that she was certain, but she searched her cup for a few moments, swirling the dark brew. “I want to be part of you,” she said, meeting Jamie’s gaze. “On my own, not just when Vincent is here, not just because I’m … with him. That’s going to take time, to develop a history … my history. I’ve known you all such a short while.”

“If you ask me,” Jamie said, “it feels like you’ve always been here.”

* * *

Helping. A misnomer, she decided.The job was dusty, strenuous, and one she accomplished mostly on her own. Samantha and Geoffrey attempted a bucket brigade, passing tomes hand to hand, but soon enough their enthusiasm waned, another obligation suddenly remembered. So many books, so little empty space, and, after Father would necessarily approve a volume for shelving, a few only after first some page-turning and note-taking, Arthur insisted on inspecting each as it went in. Catherine climbed down after the last one was refitted and fell into the nearest chair.

“Where will you put all those books of Dad’s? Are you sure you really want them?”

He swiveled from his laden desk, inched his chair around to face hers. “Oh, yes, indeed. Absolutely. He was interested in ancient history, didn’t you say? And Etruscan archaeology? Fascinating, fascinating.”

“Father, tell me the truth. Have you ever met a book you didn’t like?”

He steepled his fingers and tipped his head against the high back of his chair, the beginning of a smile on his lips.

He’s enjoying this game, she thought.

“A book I didn’t like … surely there was one. I will give that serious thought, Catherine, very serious thought,” he said as he closed his eyes.

“Hey! Are you going to sleep?”

“No, not at all. I’m just … thinking.” He snugged his robe’s lapels closer, crossed his arms and settled in his chair. “Well, maybe just a short nap before supper.”

“Is it that late?” A day had passed, most of it, with Vincent gone from her, and the time had worn easily, companionably. She would stay for the meal, enjoy the evening’s promised entertainment, and then …

Earlier Pascal had delivered the news to Father – the crew had reached the first destination, camp had been set, the late afternoon’s work had gone well. And there had been a message for Catherine. A blushing courier, Pascal passed it to her in private, calling her down from her perch, waiting for her in the entryway, darting away before she could unfold the heavy ivory paper, before she began to read his translation of tapped code – two lines written in Pascal’s careful, cramped script, but heard in Vincent’s voice …

        We are such stuff as dreams are made on.1
        Sleep well tonight, Catherine.

         V.

She missed him, but he knew that.

* * *

When the evening drew to its close, when the children who begged her to read to them took her third or fourth declaration of last one to heart, she found herself in Vincent’s chamber, their common room, as he called it now, the room they used for company, for meetings, for Vincent’s classes. Their rooms beyond the stained glass were private –and though the secret door stood open now, always, no one ventured past his old chamber without an invitation.

It was the same – this room – filled with his furniture, his keepsakes, his presence, his scent … and she was soon lost in his treasures.

Here, she curled up in his bed, a bolster in her arms. Here, on the anniversary of her first night below, she slept alone. His voice came to her, dreamed and whispered, lulling her, and in the hollow of his memory, her day rounded with sleep. 2

There is none like her, none.

And never yet so warmly ran my blood
And sweetly, on and on
Calming itself to the long-wished-for end,

Full to the banks, close on the promised good.

None like her, none. 3

____________

Title Quotation: Robert Browning. Meeting at Night, Parting at Morning. 1849.

1. William Shakespeare. from The Tempest. 1611.

2. Ibid.

3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. from Maud, XVIII. 1854.

To be continued …

15 Comments

  1. So excited! Can’t wait to re-experience your vision.

    Reply
    • Hey, Dawn! It’s so nice to see you here. Thank you for visiting! I’m excited to have this site up and running – it has taken me far too long. I’ll be getting the first 78 chapters of Iron/Velvet posted soon, and the third and final volume will (surely) begin to show up. I’m really grateful you have remembered me and this story.

      Reply
  2. Hi Carole! I’m back and so anxious for I/V to reappear here! I was reading it over at the old site and had gotten through Chapter 50, when I was redirected here. I love this long story so much! HUGS, Lindariel

    Reply
    • I’m anxious to see it reappear too! I so want to spend time with this story … and take it to its conclusion. The characters are really tapping their feet – it sounds like a performance of ‘Stomp’ in my head! Thank you so much for your encouragement. The old Imagine has a redirect on it now, which does cause some issues I hadn’t thought of. Those issues are prompts to get Iron/Velvet back up and going as fast as I can. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Iron Behind The Velvet haunts me. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out. You have created a beautiful world for our two favorite characters and everyone else Above and Below.

    Reply
    • Hey, Barbara! It’s such a nice surprise hearing from you. Believe me, I, too, am anxious for how this story turns out. I’m making edits and will be putting the story back up chapter by chapter very soon. Now, I know you’ve heard that before! But I’m promising, and I’m committed to get through to the end. Thank you so much for remembering this story’s beginning and middle – the “end is (relatively) nigh”! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Hi Carole. It’s been a while since I’ve visited your site (at least 2 years). I came to see if I could read the last chapters of ‘Iron Behind the Velvet’ but sadly I see it’s no longer online. It’s been years since you first started posting the ‘Iron Behind the Velvet’ story, but then removed it to re-edit it and post it when completed. I’ll like to know if it this story will ever be completed and published here? It would be a travesty if it never happens.

    Reply
    • Hi, Sonia! It has been a long time, hasn’t it, that I’ve heard from you and that I’ve posted any updates to Iron/Velvet. Real life has been busy and that and other BatB activities have delayed the reposting of this story. In the middle of everything else causing delays, I moved the old Blogger site to a regular website (that required new skills acquisition). Then recently I moved the site from one host to another (more new skills required.) And this summer has been unusually busy. However! I’m heading into what I hope remains a calmer, quieter fall. I have the first 78 chapters to repost (this will take a while, but I am ready to go), and then the rest of the story will unfold. Maybe not as quickly as you might wish – I know I’ve tried your patience. But please know it makes a difference hearing that you still remember this story and care to see it finish up. I’m taking your message here as a nudge of encouragement. 😀

      Reply
  5. I feel the mood growing for a complete re-read!
    Hugs

    Reply
    • Claire! How nice of you to visit and how kind of you to even remember this story!

      I want so badly to get the finished chapters back online and want even more to GET ON WITH THE REST! (I’m yelling at myself!!) I do see light at the end of the tunnel, haha, as we’re so much closer to finishing Jenny’s house remodel, and then I’m in the computer chair for the duration.

      Thank you for the encouragement and hugs, hugs!

      Reply
  6. It’s been several years, but I have not forgotten this beautiful story, and have checked back occasionally to check on it’s status. I have printed out through Chapter 60 – so I can revisit when I need a Vincent and Catherine fix. You remain far and above the best fanfiction writer I have ever had the pleasure to read.

    Reply
    • Oh, it’s so good to hear from you! I hope you’re doing well.

      I truly do not know how to thank you for your kindness. I was having a little trouble finding “positivity” today, and then … I had notice of your comment. That you remember this story means so very much to me. And your generosity, your encouragement … I was stunned to read your words, stunned and humbled, stunned, humbled and moved to grateful tears. Thank you – you changed my day entirely.

      I really will be getting Iron/Velvet back online this year. Too many things have jumped out of side-tunnels into my path! Obstacles and slow-downs … but I do think about the story and write in my head if not on the screen. I’m anxious to finish this major renovation project (for my daughter) and then editing and finishing are top-of-my-list.

      Big hug,
      Carole

      Reply
  7. Revisiting, yet again, in the hopes that your Volume 1 and 2 chapters might have reappeared to satisfy the voraciously hungry. I miss this story so much!

    Reply
    • You are so kind to reach out and I’m sorry to disappoint … still! The good news is though – we’ve finished the 13-month remodel of our daughter’s house! I’ve been at the computer again the last few days, so I now truly believe that one day soon, Iron/Velvet will show itself once more.

      Also, I have time to do some reading now, too! 😉

      Thank you for remembering this story which is languishing too long. It’s been nudging and nudging, I promise.

      Hugs for your encouragement,
      Carole

      Reply
      • So glad to hear that Jenny’s house is finally finished. I know she must be revelling in all the wonderful changes you’ve made.

        Also glad to hear you’re back at the computer. I’ve missed your creative voice so much! Let me know what you think of my three new stories so far. Actually, I’ve done quite a bit of editing. Would you like me to send you the most up-to-date versions?

        I’m in the midst of a 4th story in my BATB universe, following on somewhat after Walking Unfamiliar Ground. This one is entitled The Ache for Home and explores a favorite BATB trope — finding a Home Above for our favorite couple. I’m about 25 pages into it, and it’s stalled on me. After a HUGE writing rush, producing A Fine and Private Place (AKA The Door Story, 21 pages), His Own Kind of Nobility (AKA Elliott’s Redemption Arc, 54 pages), and Walking Unfamiliar Ground (36 pages), for a total of 136 single-spaced pages in the space of about two months, The Ache for Home is coming along, and yet I’m not satisfied with it for some niggling, unnameable reason. I think I might have written myself into a bit of staleness, or maybe this isn’t the right direction. I just don’t know.

        So, I’ve taken a break from writing for a while. Plus, I really haven’t heard anything back from JoAnn or Laura, and I know you’ve been too busy to get around to reading my magnum output, so perhaps it’s best to give my kind editors a break!

        Let me know if you’d like updated copies of the three completed stories, and maybe even a look at the uncompleted fourth.

        Happy writing and contemplating!

        HUGS,

        Lindariel

        Reply

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