THE GREAT SKUNK CAPER OF 1963

By Trisha Kehoe

Moving quickly toward a grassy knoll approximately twenty feet in the distance, which would lead him to a dilapidated bridge on the other side, then a culvert, and lastly the warmth of the tunnels which were his home, Vincent quickened his pace, knowing that Catherine was waiting for him.  Thinking of the trip they had discussed earlier in the week, one which would include visits to both Narcissa and the Crystal Cavern, he smiled, his eyes glittering with anticipation at the thought of having the woman he cherished all to himself for an entire weekend.  Selfish of him, perhaps, but these last years he had come to savor Fridays, looking forward to them quite a bit more than he should.

Catherine stayed Below many nights during the week too, of course, but between his chores and her schedule, those hours were a blur of activity, leaving little time for...pursuits of a private and personal nature.  Chuckling, he ducked his head shyly, admitting to himself that those 'pursuits' usually included some rather astounding nights of lovemaking.  Ah yes, was there anything more wondrous than waking up next to the warm, sweet-scented body of a beautiful woman; someone who loved you, and was more-than-willing to lose herself in your hungers - whatever they might be?  And in truth, was there anything more gratifying than to hear her voice crying out your name at the precise moment of physical release?

Deciding it would be more prudent to rein in the path his thoughts had taken, and the imagery flashing behind his eyes, before he met Catherine and overwhelmed the woman where she stood, Vincent exhaled roughly.  Putting his left hand to his chest and gulping hard, he tried very hard to focus on something else.  But there was no help for it - all he could see at the moment was her petite body lying on top of his, and then under his, her hips thrusting upward to meet his impassioned downward strokes, her surprisingly strong fingers tensed around his buttocks...

Snap!

Just then, startling him slightly, his booted foot came in contact with something hard, which immediately refocused his attention on precisely where he was.  Up here, in Central Park, was no place to be daydreaming.  Or night-dreaming either, for that matter.  Now what on earth had he just stepped on?

Peering down, he narrowed his eyes, studying the ground for a moment, and then smiled on discovering a wealth of fragrant pinecones scattered before him.  Ah, how fortuitous!  At this time of the year, the children relished these for various phases of their holiday decorating.  Sliding gracefully to his knees, he began gathering up all of the cones within reach and stuffing them into various pockets of his cloak.

Suddenly aware of another presence, Vincent froze as still as death.  With every hair on the back of his neck seeming to snap to attention, he was instinctively alert to the fact that someone or something was staring at him from beneath the ground-level branches of an immense pine tree.  Certain that only a small animal of some sort would be able to fit into such a cramped space, he relaxed slightly, but not completely.  Without moving his head, he glanced to his right, to discover two sets of beady little yellow eyes locked to his.  Then, the owners of what they considered to be their domain broke cover and began advancing slowly toward him.

"No!"

With a half-strangled gasp of alarm, he scrambled backward, still on his knees, and then leapt to his feet, hoping to come out of this dreadful encounter unscathed.

Ah, but these wee beasties of the night were every bit as agile as Vincent. And as it turned out, they were also just a hairs-breath quicker.

* * *

Pausing just at the far side of a small bridge, near the culvert entrance, which would lead her Below, and home, Catherine tilted her head back, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply of the crisp autumn air.  Hmm, what a night.  Even here, in this vast, oftimes less than fragrant city, it seemed to smell a lot cleaner this evening, which was a welcome change.

Opening her eyes and glancing up at the shimmer of countless stars and a new luminescent moon, she studied its reflection thoughtfully for a moment.  Suddenly reminded of a shiny new holiday ornament hanging suspended in midair, perhaps held there by an unseen force, or an unseen hand, she smiled, whispering, "Hello, Vincent's old friend."

Hearing a sudden rustling of leaves just beyond the trees, on the small knoll to her left, Catherine turned to face it, her anticipation obvious.  Having felt Vincent's presence for some moments, she expected to see him moving toward her with his customary long strides and a welcoming twinkle in his beautifully slanted eyes.

Her smile altered to an apprehensive frown as her bond-mate came racing from the refuge of the trees.  With his cloak flapping about him like the wings of a colossal bird of prey, the one she loved had the appearance of someone who had the Hounds of Hell snapping at his heels.

Scrutinizing the expression on Vincent's face as he approached the small bridge separating them, she started forward, her heart beginning to pound alarmingly fast.  Something was terribly, terribly wrong.  The poor dear looked not only extremely angry, but thoroughly disgusted as well.

Narrowing her eyes and studying the area behind him carefully, and then glancing across the park from right to left, Catherine scanned the shadowed outlines of trees, whose branches had suddenly taken on the appearance of eerily outstretched arms, and held her breath.

Peering into the darkness, she prayed not to discover a mounted policeman galloping after Vincent with his gun drawn, or a curious late-night jogger sprinting after him, wanting a closer look at what his eyes had refused to believe at first glance.  Or even worse, a mugger chasing the absolutely last person on earth he would want to confront with intent to do bodily harm.  Listening carefully to each and every sound within her range of hearing, she detected nothing out of the ordinary, only the far-off, rather plaintive hooting of a solitary owl.

Curling her fingers tightly around her end of the bridge post, she leaned forward, calling out softly, "Vincent, what is it?  What's wrong?"

"Catherine, please," came the immediate, somewhat irked response, "Come no closer."

Clearing the small bridge in a bounding leap, which very nearly shook the structure loose from its precarious foundation, Vincent further acknowledged his beloved's presence with a somewhat brusque nod of his head.  Tugging his cloak tightly to his body and scurrying quickly around her, he raced for the culvert.

As he moved past her, Catherine clearly heard the words, "Loathsome, odious, little cretins..."

Watching with curiosity as pinecones seemed to come popping out of various places in Vincent's cloak, at that same moment she got a whiff of something familiar.  It wasn't 'nice' familiar, like chocolate, freshly brewed coffee, William's oatmeal cookies, or apple pie, but icky familiar.  Sniffing the air, she made a face, suddenly knowing exactly what was wrong with Vincent.

Hurrying after him and bringing her right hand up, Catherine pinched her nostrils tightly shut, every nose-hair and brain-cell screaming in silent revulsion.

Skunk!

* * *

Following Vincent as he strode through the tunnels, obviously heading toward the cavern of the Triple Falls, Catherine huffed and puffed, stopping now and again to gasp for air in an effort to catch her breath.  Brother, she'd better get back to the gym, and soon!

Straightening and continuing on her way, she slowed her pace, knowing she didn't have to actually keep up with him.  One, she knew precisely where Vincent was headed.  Two, she could sense his location through their connection.

When another foul whiff came wafting up to her nostrils, she grimaced.  And three, if she wanted to find him, she could simply follow her nose.

* * *

Immediately pulling a long drape closed over the cavern archway as soon as he entered, which would assure of him absolute privacy, Vincent tried to take only short, shallow breaths, not wanting to inhale any more of the foul stench surrounding him than was absolutely necessary.  His head already ached from the smell; he didn't want to make the headache worse by breathing deeply - or by breathing at all, for that matter, unless forced to by oxygen deprivation.

"Merciful Saints, hadn't one experience with skunks been enough for a lifetime?  Oh, how I abhor those foul, disgusting..."

Muttering angrily to himself and hurriedly stripping off his cloak, he flung it to the ground, knowing that he would never be able to wear it again.  Hopping on his right foot and grasping his left boot, he yanked it off, and then changed positions to tug at the right one.  In a rare display of ordinary human temper, he sent the black suede, thigh-high footwear flying in the same general direction as the cloak.  The odor wouldn't come out of those, either.  And not only were they his most comfortable pair of boots, Catherine had recently commented on how dashing he looked in them.  How positively vexing!

Next, off came the socks, then his thick leather belt and dark gray corduroy slacks, followed by a heavy quilted vest - his favorite one, a blue crewneck sweater, which had been a Winterfest present from Samantha, and finally a somewhat tattered looking thermal top.  Dumping everything into the same pile as the cloak, he proceeded to give the ruined articles a contemptuous sneer and a half-hearted kick with his left foot.  The stench had permeated everything.  What a waste of perfectly good apparel.

Turning around and taking the few steps necessary, toward a small alcove, Vincent made a fierce grab at a large wicker basket.  Silently thanking Mary for her habit of planning ahead for all contingencies, he reached into the container, rummaged around for a moment, and came out holding a small bar of homemade pine-scented soap and three large bath towels.

Stomping over to the edge of the small tidal pool, which was his favorite bathing spot, and wincing as he stepped on a sharp rock, he was about to dive in when he sensed Catherine's proximity.  Half turning, he eyed her grimly as she lifted the curtain and appeared in the cavern doorway.

"Vincent, what can I do to help?"

"There is nothing anyone can do to 'help'," he retorted just a bit sharply.

"Oh.  Okay, fine.  I'll...um...just leave you alone then..."  Turning, she reached for the curtain and moved it to one side, preparing to go back to their chamber and wait for him.

Sensing her emotions and instantly aware of the rudeness of his last remark, Vincent sighed heavily.  Taking his fit of pique out on someone who was merely concerned for his well being would serve no good purpose; neither would acting like a complete oaf.  Knowing full well that the tone he had just heard in Catherine's voice had been one of surprise mingled with hurt feelings, he made a great effort to rein in his temper.  "Please, don't go?"

"Are you sure," she questioned, her voice soft; uncertain.

"Yes.  Do forgive me for what happened back at the bridge, my Love, and for my lack of good manners just now?  I realize how out-of-sorts I must have sounded, but it truly wasn't directed at you."

Releasing the curtain, but keeping her distance, Catherine smiled at him. "I know that."

"My anger was directed at the vile skunks I unexpectedly crossed paths with."

"How...um...many of them were there," she dared to inquire.

"Two.  Which was more than enough," came the sneered response.

Then, without warning, another whiff of icky phew drifted Catherine's way.  Pulling a face, she gestured toward the water, urging, "Vincent, please take your bath?  We can talk later, after you've...scrubbed."

"You're absolutely right, of course.  The smell is unbearable, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is, so please wash it off - now."

After dropping the three towels to the cavern floor, he turned and lifted both arms high over his head.  Curling his toes around the edge of the pool, he bent his knees slightly and jack-knifed under the water.

Oh my, oh my.

Knowing that this incredible man truly wasn't aware of his own sensuality, or of his appearance most of the time, Catherine ogled him as he stood poised to dive, but kept a tight rein over her emotions, not wanting to cause him embarrassment.  Whether you saw it from the back, from the front, or even from the side, Vincent's body was fantastic.  Oh yes, indeed.  And he had the cutest little dimple on his left buttock.

Whatever activity he was engaged in, whether it was swimming, working, dancing with her, making love, or simply walking, he was absolutely delicious to look upon.  And when they loved, to hear his moans of pleasure, to feel him moving harder and faster, claiming her for eternity with every part of himself, as though never able to get quite deep enough into her body...

Stop that, she admonished herself.  Right now really isn't the time to let your mind take the train to Sexyville.

Surfacing about ten feet from shore, Vincent swept his long hair forward, over his left shoulder, and began to scrub at it vigorously.  Pausing for a moment to eye the woman watching him, having already sensed everything she was trying so hard to conceal, he tried to take slow, even breaths.

Although Catherine's thoughts and emotions where he was concerned were more than a bit disconcerting at times, he no longer found such things embarrassing in the least.  In fact, under other circumstances, he would have quite possibly urged her into the water with him - clothes and all.  He had done that more than once these past years.

Clearing his throat and fighting desperately to keep his voice from betraying the surge of arousal sweeping through various parts of his body, and heating his blood, he asked, "My Dear, would you please return to our chamber and bring me some clean clothing and a pair of boots?"

"Of course. Any outfit in particular?"

"No, just something warm," he replied, then quickly ducked his head under the water.  Resurfacing a moment later, Vincent captured a large portion of his hair between his fingers and sniffed at it.  Blast.  It still reeked.  Peering up just in time to see Catherine heading for the cavern entrance, he called out, "There is one more stop you'll have to make for me, if you would?"

Turning, she afforded him a questioning look, waiting for him to continue.

"I shall need a trash bag for my ruined clothing and at least two cans of tomato juice."  Seeming to be lost in thought for a moment, or in memories of another time, Vincent nodded.  "Yes, two should be enough - one would hope."

The expression in her eyes was one of obvious bewilderment.  She recalled something about skunks and tomato juice from her childhood and time spent at the lake in Connecticut, but for the life of her, right now she couldn't remember exactly what the connection was.  "Two cans of... tomato juice?"

"Yes, please."  Gesturing to his hairy chest, lower torso, and lastly to his lengthy tumble of amber hair, Vincent shrugged his shoulders matter-of-factly.  "Mere soap simply won't remove all of the smell, especially from...my body."

Saddened by the tone in his voice when forced by circumstances to mention what he considered to be any of his 'differences', Catherine blew a kiss in his direction.  "Well, we can't have your lovely bod all gunked up, now can we?"

Smiling at his Beloved's choice of idioms, which never ceased to delight him, Vincent made a valiant attempt to stifle his laughter.  This incredible woman always knew precisely what to say to ease his discomfort, in any given situation.

Eyeing him from the top of his head, to where his pelvis disappeared just beneath the surface of the water, she declared, "When I nibble on that ample chest of yours later on tonight, as I certainly intend to, and tangle my fingers in that scrumptious head of hair, I want to find your usual scent there."

Playing along, Vincent tensed his stomach muscles and swallowed his laughter, asking, "And which scent would that be - in particular?"

"The delectable one that seems to wash over you right after orgasm.  The one that takes my breath, haunts my dreams, and drives me nuts."

At that, he actually blushed, and the color was very becoming.  "Catherine, please, the sound of your voice could very easily travel beyond this cavern."

"What if it does?  It's not like you actually keep things secret at those moments."  Tossing her hair saucily back over her right shoulder, she elaborated, "You, my dear man, have a very powerful set of lungs."

"Oh, I have, have I?"

"Uh huh.  At times you've announced your completion so loudly, I'm sure the grates in the street above our heads actually came unhinged.  I know I did."

Good Lord.

Trying very hard to look appalled, and failing miserably, Vincent exclaimed, "You utterly disconcerting woman, whatever am I going to do with you!"

Grinning devilishly, she waggled her eyebrows at him.  "Exactly what you've been doing for the past nine years.  As they say, whoever they are, 'If it works, don't fix it'."

When Vincent burst out laughing and wagged his left forefinger in her direction, his lady beamed at him.  "So, tomato juice it is."

Deciding it would be wise to get back to the business at hand, Vincent dunked the cake of soap beneath the water.  Bringing it up to his chest, he began lathering, calling out, "Thank you, Puss."

Absolutely adoring the nickname he had given her so many years before, Catherine paused with one hand on the curtained entrance. Glancing back over her left shoulder, she eyed the other half of her heart with so much love it seemed to shimmer off of the cavern walls.  "I haven't done anything yet."

Peering up through eyes which had darkened to the shade of a velvet-blue evening sky, the look there one which claimed every part of her, Vincent softly replied, "Oh yes, you have."

* * *

Moving carefully toward his desk and making a great effort not to spill his freshly brewed cup of tea, Father sat down, leaned back, and opened a newly delivered Medical Journal.  After setting his glasses on the bridge of his nose, he settled his buttocks down into the curves and crevices of an old familiar chair.  Running his right hand along the back of his neck, he squeezed the muscles there, trying to loosen a kink which had been haunting him since mid-morning.  Feeling the spasm finally release the death grip it seemed to have on him, he sighed gratefully.  "Ah, that's better. "

Lifting the cup of Earl Grey tea to his nose, he inhaled deeply, but the scent that came spiraling up to his nostrils certainly wasn't the one he expected.  It wasn't even close.

"Phew!"  Pulling back, the patriarch of the tunnels hastily set the china cup and saucer on the desk and leaned forward to peer into it, muttering, "God's teeth!  What is that ghastly smell?  It can't be my tea."

Instantly reminded of Mouse and his penchant for smuggling pets down here, which was absolutely against the rules, Father lifted his head.  Scowling, he peered over at the entrance to the library and sniffed again.  No, it wasn't Arthur Two; on his worse day even that repulsive little creature wasn't this odiferous.  But if it wasn't the raccoon, which at times had rather unsettling bouts of sulfuric indigestion, then what on earth was this ghastly smell?

Grabbing his cane and rising to his feet, Jacob Wells took the few steps necessary and leaned on an iron railing just at the entrance to the room.  Inhaling again, deeper than before, he choked and reeled backward, nearly tripping over his own feet.  Oh good Lord, the odor hanging in the air smelled very much like that of a skunk.  He grimaced.  No, not very much like a skunk, it was a skunk, and it was down here!

Moving as quickly as he could toward a length of pipe running along one side of the library, the elderly man tapped out a rapid-fire message with the end of his cane.

To all sentries.  Skunk.  Find it.  Capture it.  Get it out of here as quickly as possible.

Starting to walk away, he frowned, then turned and added one more line to the message.

Make certain not to aggravate the creature - in any way.

* * *

"Okay sure, do it quick.  No problem."  Holding the trash-bag as far away from his body as he could, Mouse grimaced.  "Really stinks!  Into the Abyss it goes, right?"

"Right," Catherine agreed, smiling.  "Thanks, Mouse.  Vincent and I will see you tomorrow."

"Tell Vincent hi, okay?"

"I will."

Hefting the clothing and boots she carried into the crook of her right arm, Catherine stopped for a moment and adjusted her grip on a paper bag holding three large containers of tomato juice and a can opener.  Vincent said he would probably only need two, but better safe than sorry.  And of course she'd replace all three cans before William even realized they were gone.

Hurrying along, she turned a bend in the corridor and almost knocked Mary to the ground.  "Oh Mary, excuse me!"  Reaching out, the younger woman steadied the older one by quickly grabbing her by the elbow.  "Are you all right?"

After smoothing her skirt, Mary put one hand to her breast and took a deep breath, fighting to regain her equilibrium.  "Yes dear, I...I think so."  Eyeing the clothes and then the paper bag Catherine was holding, she furrowed her brow, obviously curious.  "You seem to be in rather a hurry.  Would you like some help delivering those to... whomever they're meant for?"

Knowing, of course, that this was Mary's polite way of asking what was going on, Catherine shook her head back and forth.  "No thanks, I can manage."  Hefting the bag and nodding toward the pile of clothing, she explained, "These are for Vincent.  It's just some clean clothes and a few cans of tomato juice."

Frowning, Mary echoed, "Tomato juice?  But, he doesn't like tomato juice."

"Oh, this isn't for drinking."

"It's not?"

Knowing it was either tell her outright, or stand here for some time trying to squirm her way around the truth, Catherine explained, "Earlier tonight, he had a rather severe...hmm...run in... with some skunks."

"Skunks!" the older woman gasped, obviously distressed.  "Oh no, not again."  Shaking her head back and forth, she remarked sadly, "The poor dear."

"Again?"  Frowning, Catherine asked, "Has this happened before?"

"Yes.  But it was a long time ago."  Pursing her lips, the woman who was the only mother Vincent ever had, or would ever have, paused for a moment, trying to remember.  "In fact, it was over forty years ago."  Patting Catherine on the arm, Mary urged, "I don't want to keep him waiting, so go along now.  If you need any more juice or anything else, just tap on the pipes.  And you will make certain that he dries himself thoroughly, won't you?"

"Uh huh."

Starting forward again, Catherine chewed at her lower lip, knowing she really shouldn't ask, but she simply had to know.  Turning, she called out, "Mary?"

"Yes, dear?"

"When you have a few minutes tomorrow, will you tell me what... "

But before she could finish asking the question, Mary interrupted, "You should really ask Vincent."

Damn.  "I suppose you're right."

"As I recall, it took him some time to forgive Devin for that particular episode in their lives."

"Devin," Catherine muttered to herself.  Stomping down the corridor trying to decide his fate if she ever got her hands on him, her jaw tightened angrily.  "I should have known that villainous rogue would be involved in some way."

* * *

On reaching the Falls and carefully closing the curtain behind her, Catherine peered down at the tidal pool.  When there was no sign of Vincent, she tilted her head slightly to the right.  Listening to an inner song only she could hear, the gentle thudding of his heart, she started down a rock-strewn path, toward an area just beyond the pool.  There was a small, rarely used cave there, where she and Vincent had spent some very happy moments these past years.  The spot retained an air of absolute privacy, which was often nearly impossible to find Below.

Having made her way cautiously down the path without tripping over her own feet for once, she eased behind a large boulder to find a glimmer of light escaping from the entrance of the cave.  Happy to learn he'd remembered the supply of candles left here from the time of their last visit, Catherine started forward, then stopped in mid-step, nearly falling on her behind as she witnessed the scene playing out before her.

Vincent was seated on a large boulder with his back almost completely turned toward her.  With a towel under his buttocks and a second one slung around his shoulders, he was bent far forward, obviously attempting to sniff at areas of his body he couldn't quite reach - at least not with his nose.

Wide-eyed, she clamped down hard on the inside of her jaw.  No.  No!  She wouldn't laugh. After all, this wasn't funny, now was it?  The poor man was in obvious distress.  So, she absolutely, positively, would not laugh.

When he began grumbling a quite unique string of curses and continued to examine himself matter-of-factly by sniffing at various other portions of his anatomy - and ended up nearly falling off of his rocky perch in the bargain, Catherine very nearly wet her pants.  Quickly taking a step backward, she scurried out of the cave, crossed her legs, and leaned back on the cavern wall.

"Mmmfff...!"

Stuffing one sleeve of Vincent's shirt into her mouth, she nearly choked, fighting hard to stifle a nearly overwhelming snorting fit.  It was dreadful of her to laugh, of course, but she simply couldn't help it.  These past years, she had seen Vincent in many positions, and bent over in a variety of ways, but never quite like that before.  Good Lord, the man was part pretzel!

Taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly, she took another one, and then a third, trying to regain her composure.  When she was certain she had control of her emotions, Catherine straightened her shoulders and stepped inside the cave.

"I have the things you asked for, Love."

"Thank you."  Lifting his head but not turning around, Vincent sounded just a bit testy.  "Are you quite through with your bout of hysteria now?"

Oh, Oh.

"I'm sorry, but you looked...you looked..."  Unable to continue, and not daring to meet his eyes, Catherine lowered her head and held out the clothing.  "Here you go."

As he took the bundle from her outstretched hand, twin pools of blue seemed to shoot tiny daggers at her.  "Thank you so very much."  Then, thinking it over and finally able to admit to the humor of the situation, Vincent chuckled deep in his throat.  "I must have been quite the sight."  When the woman standing beside him made no reply, he glanced at her.  "I said..."

"I heard you," Catherine managed, but only just barely.  Reaching for the towel he had around his shoulders, she quickly stepped behind him and began rubbing at his back.  Once out of sight, she swiped at her eyes and took a deep breath.  "You're s...sopping wet."

"Since I must wash my hair again after using the tomato juice, I didn't bother to dry off."

Clamping down on the inside of her jaw, she mumbled, "Uh huh."

"Are you still laughing back there?" came that voice that could do strange things to her knees - as well as various other parts of her anatomy.

"Uh huh. "

Half turning, Vincent cast her a narrow-eyed look of displeasure over his right shoulder.  "Very well then, stay back there until you've quite finished, if you please."

"I will.  It…It may take me a while."

"I realize that."  Reaching behind him with his left hand, he gave the woman he adored a playful swat on her derriere.  "Get it out of your system.  I'll...wait."

* * *

Having washed every part of his body to the best of his abilities, dried off, dressed, and now safely ensconced in the chair behind his desk, Vincent ran the fingers of his right hand through his still damp hair.  Sensing Catherine's approach with the tea and cinnamon muffins she had gone to the kitchen for about twenty minutes earlier, he eyed the doorway, knowing he had about sixty seconds before she entered the chamber

Not wanting her to catch him at this a second time, he quickly ducked his head for one last sniff at his arms and fingers, then grabbed at a clump of his hair and inhaled deeply.  Frowning, he allowed the hair to glide back to his shoulders.  Sighing heavily, Vincent rested his head on the back of the chair and closed his eyes.  Everything seemed normal or normal for him at any rate, but it was difficult to tell for certain; his nostrils were still saturated with that obnoxious stench.

As far as he was concerned, there were very few things on this earth as unpleasant as the foul odor only a skunk emitted.  Suddenly recalling the number of eyes gleaming at him in the park earlier, Vincent grunted to himself and amended that perception, for there was one thing worse than the smell of a skunk - and that was the smell of two.  Furrowing his brow thoughtfully, he tried to remember a humorous word Catherine was so fond of using.  Ah yes, now he had it.  Skunks were...yucky.  Thinking it over, he came to the conclusion that this rather odd terminology fit the occasion perfectly.  In fact, double yucky seemed even more appropriate.  Wondering if there was such a thing as a triple yucky, he made a mental note to ask Catherine about that at another time.

"Tea's up," his lady announced cheerfully, stepping over the threshold.

Leaning forward in his chair, Vincent eyed the tray in Catherine's hands, his mouth curving upward into an expectant smile.  "Ah, wonderful.  Just the thing to ease the strain of a damp miserable experience."

Halting mid-step, Catherine eyed him.  "Did I just hear you say the word damn?"

"No, I said damp," Vincent corrected lovingly.  Then he burst out laughing, admitting, "But I may have been thinking the other."

"Well," she observed, walking toward him, "After what you've been through tonight, I wouldn't blame you one little bit if you had actually said it out loud."  After cautiously setting the ornately carved wooden tray down on the desk, Catherine removed the tea cozy, folded it, and laid it aside.  Turning back a well-worn, but freshly washed linen napkin, to reveal four large, piping hot muffins, she eyed them worriedly.  "I decided these would taste even better heated in the bread warmer.  I hope I didn't dry them out."

"I'm quite certain they're heated to perfection."  He beamed at her.  "Any task you undertake usually turns out that way."

Returning, his smile with an even more expansive one, she teased, "If you think such obvious flattery is going to guarantee you a third muffin, you really need to reevaluate that assumption, you silver-tongued devil."

Not surprised in the least by how completely this woman knew him, and every nuance of his nature, Vincent shrugged his shoulders.  "Ah well, I had to try.  But truly, this late night repast is precisely what I needed."

"Well, dig in."

Eyeing the steaming pot of herb tea and then leaning forward, toward the plate of muffins, Vincent inhaled deeply, sighing happily as the aroma of cinnamon permeated both the air and his nostrils.  "Ah, what an exquisite aroma." After pouring Catherine's tea, and then filling his own china cup, he reached for a small plastic container of honey, observing, "I had a substantial supper earlier, but I find that I'm unusually hungry again."

"Maybe it was the combination of the night air and the warmth of the pool," she suggested.

"Perhaps."  Reaching for her hand, Vincent squeezed her fingers very gently, and very carefully.  "Thank you, my Dear, for going to so much trouble."

"No problem.  I was hungry, too," she replied, returning his gentle squeeze with one just a bit more substantial.  "I had to see a man about a horse anyway, so a stop at the kitchen wasn't all that many extra steps."

Reaching for his cup of tea, Vincent stayed his hand and afforded her a thoroughly puzzled look.  "See what man about what horse?"

Slipping out of her heavy quilted bathrobe and plopping down into a smaller chair on the opposite side of the desk, Catherine lifted both arms high over her head and stretched widely.  "I had to make a visit to the porcelain God."

"Excuse me?"

Wishing he'd remember these gems she'd been tossing at him for more than fifteen years, his soul- mate swiped her hair away from her face and reached for the honey.  "I had to go to the bathroom, Vincent."

"Oh. "

Porcelain God?  Deciding not to file that particular phrase away for future use, Vincent reached for the basket of muffins and a linen napkin.

* * *

"Oh-h-h, I must have eaten about a gazillion calories."  Settling back in her chair, Catherine patted her stomach, groaning, "Remind me to tell William that those muffins were too good."

Understanding that phrase, the man seated opposite her nodded in agreement.  Then, seeming to completely forget his table manners, at least for the moment, Vincent proceeded to lick the remaining traces of honey off of the tips of his slender fingers.

Observing this breech of etiquette, Catherine smiled but made no comment.  Okay, she thought, he's scrubbed himself raw, he was dry, or fairly dry, he was comfortable, he was fed, and he seemed to be in a much better frame of mind.  It was now or never.

Taking a sip of her tea, she remarked offhandedly, "When I literally bumped into Mary earlier tonight, she mentioned that you had another encounter with skunks some years ago."

"Yes, I did."

Catherine eyed him.  Well, that told her absolutely nothing.

She tried again.  "And Devin was also involved, huh?"

"Involved," Vincent echoed, his voice lowering to a semi-growl.  "Oh, he was much more than merely involved.  What ensued that day was entirely his fault."

"It was?"

"Yes."  Finishing the last of his second muffin, he went on, "It was a very long time ago."

Praying for patience, she tried one last time.  "You're gonna make me ask, aren't you?"

The smile edging into the corners of Vincent's mouth couldn't quite be concealed.

"It appears that way, doesn't it?"

"Well then, I'm asking, you...you stubborn old poop."

Cringing inwardly at the mental image her choice of words invoked, Vincent kept his eyes focused on the desk.  If he laughed now, he was well aware that his span of earthly life would be shortened considerably.  "Isn't that the name you privately gave to Father some months ago, when he wouldn't allow your stereo to be moved down here, due to our meager supply of electricity?"

Completely losing her patience, Catherine shied a bit of her muffin at him - which he caught midair and promptly ate.  "Is the stereo down here now?"

"Why yes, it is."

A second, larger piece of muffin landed on the front of his shirt - which he picked up and also crammed between his teeth.

"And do I use it from time to time when I remember to buy the stupid batteries?"  With that, a third piece of muffin hit him on the bridge of the nose.  This piece he simply removed and dropped onto the tea tray.

"What point are you attempting to make, Catherine?"

"Excuse me?"

"I merely wanted to know the point of this conversation."  Pausing for effect, Vincent afforded her the most innocent look at his command.  He secretly considered himself to be quite adept at such expressions.  After all, he'd had over forty-five years to perfect them.  Then, he proceeded to take his life in his hands and pushed the envelope of his lady's patience by remarking, "And if you don't want the rest of your muffin, why don't you cease playing with it and give me the entire thing, instead of hurling it at me bit by bit?"

"Because I'd rather torment you with it, that's why."  Drumming her fingers on the desk, Catherine positively glared at him.  "The point I'm making is that Father is no longer at the top of my 'stubborn old poop' list."

"Ah, now I understand."  Affording her a full smile, and not seeming to mind a whit that all of his extremely sharp, very white teeth came into full view, Vincent observed, "So, I'm assuming that spot on that infamous list of yours now belongs to me?"

Realizing he had once again completely changed the subject on her, which was getting to be a habit of his, she exclaimed, "Oh honestly, at times you are the most exasperating man I've ever known!"

Getting quickly to her feet and stomping around to his side of the desk, Catherine buried her right hand in Vincent's hair.  Plunking her fanny into his lap, she proceeded to tug his head from side to side.  "That spot will be yours for a very, very long time, dear heart, if you don't start talking, and right now."

Capturing her busy little digits, Vincent kissed them lightly, one by one, and then wove their fingers together.  Then, quickly clamping his free hand around her left one, before it could join in the fray, he surrendered.  "Very well, if you insist."

"Oh then, I definitely insist," she grumbled, butting him in the chest with the top of her head when he refused to release her hands.

Settling back in the chair and cuddling her tightly in his embrace, thus waylaying any further invasion of his person, and loving the sensation of having her close, safe, and here with him, Vincent pursed his lips, trying to remember the details in the correct order.

"I was seven, or perhaps eight, and Devin was eleven, or thereabouts.  At the time, I didn't find the incident funny in the least, especially when my twit of an older brother dubbed it, 'The Great Skunk Caper Of 1963'."

When Catherine reached up and began to gently stroke the nape of his neck, Vincent closed his eyes and nuzzled the tip of his nose into her hair.  Sighing happily, he continued, "As I recall, the trouble began with an article Devin had read in a magazine..."

--------------

Sprinting into the chamber and skidding to a halt just at the side of the bed he shared with his brother, Devin waved a magazine under the younger boy's nose.

"Vincent!  Boy oh boy, have I got an idea on how we can make us some quick easy money!"

Not even glancing up from the book he was reading, Vincent growled, "No."  Obviously disappointed by such a lack of enthusiasm, Devin rolled up the magazine he was holding and bounced it off of his bratty brother's head.  "Whattaya mean no? Ya haven't even heard my idea yet!"

"That hurt."  Looking up, the younger boy glared at him, warning quietly, "So, don't do it again."

Knowing he'd need help in this project, and not wanting Vincent totally pissed off at him, or mad enough to take a poke at him, Devin quickly tried to make amends.  The kid didn't seem to know his own strength yet, and he certainly wasn't ready to take a whipping from a skinny little runt like him.  "All right, all right, don't get your juices in an uproar here.  I'm sorry I whacked ya, okay?"  Plopping his fanny down on the bed, he held out the magazine.  "But after ya read this, maybe you'll decide to make yourself twenty or thirty bucks by helping me."

Closing his book and putting it aside, Vincent's eyes widened.  Looking from the magazine back to Devin, then completing the route one more time, he gasped, "Twenty or thirty whole entire dollars?  That's an awful lot of money!"  Uncertain of the way cash worked, exactly, and its denominations therein, never having had more than two or three dimes in his entire life, he peered up at his brother for confirmation.  "Isn't it?"

Knowing he had Vincent's complete attention now, Devin walloped him playfully on the arm, exclaiming, "It's a freaking fortune!  And it's all ours just for the asking!"  Grabbing the magazine, he turned to the page he needed and jabbed his forefinger on the ad.  "See?  It's all right there."

Peering down, Vincent hurriedly began to read:

Tell the boss you quit!  Retire at thirty!  You too can make your fortune with very little effort.  Send name and address to: Henry K. Barnstable, P. O. Box 783P, Trenton, New Jersey.  All particulars sent on receipt of small handling fee of five dollars.  Cash or money orders accepted.  No personal checks please.

"An address?"  Sneering, Vincent tossed the magazine down on the bed.  "We can't send this stranger an...an address!  'Sides, we ain't even got one.  Plus you gotta send him five whole dollars!  We haven't got no dollars neither."

"We can ask old Sam if he'll let us use his place for the address," Devin suggested.  "And we do so have five dollars."  Affording his brother a secretive smirk, he asked, "Remember all the times you were looking for me this month and couldn't find me?"

"Yeth, of course I remember."  Making no effort, for once, to conceal the lisp which had been plaguing him since his front teeth came in, Vincent stared down at his curved nails.  "You thaid you were playing ball in the park.  I..."  Hesitating, he sighed.  "I sure would like to play ball in the park...someday."

Wishing he could do something to keep his brother from looking so sad most of the time, Devin reminded him, "I told ya I'd figure out a way, and I will.  I promise.  Okay?"

Knowing that Devin usually tried his best to keep promises, especially to him, Vincent looked up.  Smiling at the one person in the world he absolutely idolized, he nodded his head rapidly up and down, which sent his tumble of long hair flying in all directions.

"So, anyway, the part about me being in the park was true, but I wasn't playing ball," Devin admitted.

"You wasn't?"

"Nope."

Vincent's eyes went extremely wide.  "You lied to Father?!"

"Well ... sorta."

"Then what were you doin' Topside?"

"Collecting empty bottles."  Grinning widely, Devin revealed, "I've got eleven trash bags of 'em stashed down a side tunnel, where no one'll ever find 'em."

Vincent seemed impressed.  "Wow, that's a lot."

"It sure is."  Casting him a serious look, the dark-haired boy remarked, "See?  I already did most of the work, and I'm still willing to share all of the dough with you."

"I woulda helped, really and truly, Dev, but I'm not allowed Above," came that whispery voice that could rip your insides apart, and your heart, too, if you weren't real careful.

"Aw, that's okay.  I work better alone anyway."  Teasing him, Devin laughed aloud.  "You're such a goody-goody, you woulda just held me back wiping the dirt off your hands every two minutes."

"I am not a goody-goody!"  Vincent protested angrily.  Leaping from the bed, he stomped out of the chamber, accusing, "You're always picking on me!"

Whoops.  Devin grimaced.  Had to be careful here, before he lost his slave labor.

Hurrying to catch up to Vincent, he skidded to a halt beside him and nudged him in the ribcage.  "Hey."

Not stopping, the smaller boy snarled, "What?"

"Come on, don't be mad?  I tease you sometimes, but I'm like that, ya know?  I tease everybody, if I like 'em.  I don't really mean nothing by it."  When Vincent merely shrugged, Devin stepped in front of him.  "So, if I only tease people I like, I must really like you, cuz I tease you the most.  Right?"

Thinking that over and looking a bit less distressed, Vincent shrugged again.

"Well, ya wanna take a look at my stash of bottles now, and help me count 'em up?"

Being a forgiving child, one who didn't like being mad at anyone, especially Devin, because when he was, his stomach always hurt, Vincent surrendered.  "Okay."

* * *

Swiping at his dirt-spattered face, Devin collapsed back against the tunnel wall and let gravity bring him down the rest of the way, until his fanny met the ground.  "Whew, I'm glad that's finally done."

"Me, too."  Hunkering down beside him, Vincent eyed the scrap of paper in Devin's right hand.  "Have we got enough?"

"I dunno.  Lemme check..."  Studying the list for a moment and moving his fingers up and down, Devin tallied up the amount, then grunted in disappointment.  "Crap.  We're, a dollar and seven cents short."  Rubbing the back of his neck, he groaned, "I was sure I had enough bottles!  Well, I guess I gotta go back to the park again tomorrow.  Maybe I'll take a look further downtown, along Forty-second Street.  There should be some bottles there, if the skanks don't beat me to 'em."

Disliking that particular term for the homeless people of this city, Vincent studied the far wall.  "They can't help it if they got no place to go."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," the older boy conceded, getting to his feet.  "Sorry."  Shrugging his shoulders, Devin explained, "I heard Mitch call them that and just kinda picked it up, I guess."

"Mitch is mean," Vincent observed quietly.  "He enjoys hurting people."  Getting to his feet and swiping at his sand-covered dungarees, he put his left hand on his brother's shoulder.  "But you don't like to hurt people.  Not really."

"Thanks."  Embarrassed by such displays of what he deemed gushy stuff, Devin could only return the kindness with a sly wink and an affectionate poke to his brother's forearm.  Starting down the corridor, he called back, "If I ain't home by suppertime, tell the old man that I broke my leg and ya had to shoot me."

"What?!" came the horrified response.

Glancing at the stones over his head as though praying for patience, Devin heaved a dramatic sigh.  Turning around to eye his kid brother, he growled, "That was a joke, Vincent."

"Oh.  I knew that."

"Yeah, right.  See ya later.  Don't get lost going home, okay?"

"Hey!" the younger boy shouted back, obviously indignant.  "I know these tunnels as good as... "  Hesitating, Vincent thought it over and then laughed.  "Aw Dev, you kidder!  That was another joke, right?"

From far down the corridor drifted back an openly sarcastic grumble of, "What was your first clue?"

* * *

Entering his chamber to look for something to read until suppertime, Vincent discovered a rather glum-looking Devin sitting cross-legged on the middle of the floor, staring down at a piece of paper.

"Hi."

When Devin's only response was a grunt, Vincent craned his neck, trying to get a closer look at what he was reading.  He truly didn't mean to be nosy, but what his brother was holding looked like a letter, and he'd never known anyone who had received a real letter, from anyplace.  "Whatcha got?" he asked hopefully.

When he finally looked up, the expression in Devin's eyes was one of outrage mingled with disgust.  "What we paid five dollars for."

In his excitement, Vincent didn't seem to be aware of his brother's sarcasm.  Grinning, he reached for the paper and plopped down on the floor.  "It finally came, huh?  Good!  I've been waiting and waiting."  Leaning back against the bed, he began to read, and the more he read, the more disappointed he looked.

Waiting until Vincent allowed the letter to slide to the floor, Devin snarled, "Nice, huh?"

Picking up the paper again, Vincent studied it and sighed.  "This says we gotta order some kinda salve from this guy and sell it door-to-door.  We aren't allowed to do something like that!"  Hesitating, he stared down at the floor.  "And even if Father said you could, I couldn't help, cuz I can't go Above."  On the verge of tears, he blinked them away and glared down at the sales scam for a moment, as though hoping a second look would change what was written there.  Then, crumpling the paper into a tight ball, he flung it across the chamber.  "That guy stole our money!  We should call the cops on him!"

"Yeah, right," Devin grunted.  "And who's gonna fill out the police report, you?  Me?  Father?"  When his brother didn't answer, he continued, "Let's face it, kid, we've been had."

Too upset to respond aloud, Vincent swiped at his runny nose and nodded his head slowly up and down.

"But, ya know what, I've been sitting here thinking about it and I know a way we can still make some money.  And it won't cost us no five dollars, neither!"  Dropping to his stomach, Devin fished a tattered magazine out from under the bed.  Opening it to a page near the middle, he shoved it under Vincent's nose.  "This gave me an idea.  Read it. "

Not really all that enthused about anything in a magazine right now, Vincent pushed it away.  "I don't wanna read it."

"Aw, come on," Devin urged, "It ain't at all like the other one."

"Well...okay."

After taking a moment to prepare himself for another rotten old sales scam, Vincent eyed the words suspiciously...

WANTED: All varieties of rare, fur-bearing animals.  Private collectors will pay top dollar for live specimens.  We pick up at our own expense.  Cash on the spot.  No questions asked.  For further details, contact Adolph Meisner, RFD #7, Milltown, Delaware.

Frowning, he handed the magazine back to his brother.  "Where are we gonna get rare animals?"  He cast Devin a mistrustful look.  "I ain't gonna rob the zoo in the park, no matter what you say."

"Hey, that's not a bad idea!  We could..."  Hesitating, the older boy thought it over for a second, and then shook his head back and forth.  "Nah, we'd need a knife to pick those locks.  Anyway, we'd probably get caught trying to do something like that."  Studying the ceiling, he smiled, asking, "But what if we could get the animals right up there?"

"You mean bats?"  Looking up, Vincent curled his lower lip in disgust.  "Oh, gross!"  At that same moment a shudder seemed to run the entire length of his thin frame, from the top of his head right down to the soles of his feet.  "Bats ain't rare, they're just...scummy old bats."

Knowing his brother's feelings where those creatures were concerned, Devin laughed.  Ever since that night a few months ago, when a bat got down here and chased Vincent through the corridors all the way to the Library, the kid had absolutely loathed bats.  "Don't get your bowels in a uproar, okay?  I'm not talking about going on a bat safari."

"Good, cuz you'd go alone."

"But there's all kinds of animals up in the park; raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks..."

"They ain't rare," Vincent insisted, totally unconvinced about this new venture.

"Well, they're fur-bearing, right?  And we could make them rare, 'specially the skunks."  Pursing his lips, he nodded.  "Yeah, I was thinking about 'em before, and skunks will work out real good.  They got nice black and white fur, big bushy tails, and…"

"No way!"  Vincent exclaimed.  "I've been reading about skunks.  The book said if you get 'em mad, they spray stuff at ya, and it s'posed to smell really bad!"

"Oh yeah?"  Reaching into the back pocket of his dungarees, Devin retrieved a small bottle filled with clear liquid and a roll of cotton batting.  "I told you I've been thinking about this..."  Holding the items in the palm of his hand, he announced triumphantly, "They can't spray nobody with nothing if they get a whiff of this, cuz they'll be knocked out cold."

"They gotta smell it?" Vincent questioned.

"Yeah."

"How do you know?"

"I looked it up in a old medical book, that's how."

"Is that stuff from the hospital chamber?" the younger boy asked, his tone openly mistrustful.

"Uh huh."

Staring at the bottle, Vincent gasped, "You stole m...medicine?!"

"I didn't steal it, so shut up, big mouth, before Father hears you and comes in here.  And it's not medicine, exactly."  Devin chewed at his lower lip for a moment.  "Well, it is, but I found the bottle behind an old metal cabinet last month, when I was helping Father clean up the place.  And there was lots of this cotton crud, so who's gonna miss this little bit?"  Gesturing to the vial, he urged, "Look at the label.  See how faded and yellow it is?  Plus, it's handwritten and it's not even Father's writing."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Devin insisted.  "I can actually read it, and you know hardly nobody can read the old man's scrawl, 'specially on the first try."

As Vincent studied the writing carefully, and then nodded, agreeing that it certainly wasn't Father's penmanship, or lack of it, his brother declared confidently, "This bottle won't be missed; it was there a long, long time.  'Sides, I don't think people even use this kinda medicine anymore."

Taking the bottle, Vincent sounded out the long, unfamiliar word inscribed there, his keen eyesight aiding greatly in his efforts to decipher the faded, black ink lettering. "Law-dee-num.  What's it for?"

"I think old time docs and dentists used it to ease pain, and knock people out when they had their teeth yanked."  Devin poked at the lower part of the label, where more words were inscribed in smaller letters.  "It says right there to use caution, 'cuz it can make you real sleepy."

Vincent still didn't seem convinced.  "But how you gonna get the skunks to breathe it?"

"Ha!" Devin hooted excitedly, "I got that all figured out!  Remember them big old rat traps you, me and Winslow found a few months ago, in the North tunnel, near Section F?"

"Yeah.  What about 'ern?"

"I'm gonna trap the skunks in them, knock the suckers out, and store 'em down there, in the North tunnel, and when we're ready, I'll give them another whiff if I have to, and I'll de-scent them.  Then, they'll be rare.  You know, a skunk that don't stink - that's rare, isn't it?"

"De-scent..."  Looking absolutely horrified, Vincent gulped, stammering , "You mean you...you'll c...cut them?!"

"You got it."  Trying to sound convincing, Devin promised, "But I'll make sure they're asleep.  I'll use lots of alcohol on the scalpel so it's sterilized good, and I'll sew 'em up real careful."

"You...sew?" Vincent snorted loudly.  "You don't know how to sew."

"I've seen Father do it, on people's arms and legs and like that, and it looks easy."  He motioned with his hands.  "Thread the needle, jab it through the skin, pull it out the other side, and you're all done.  Piece a cake."

"But first you gotta cut them with one of those... sharp thingies."

"A scalpel," Devin enlightened him.

"Yeah, that."  Appalled at such a prospect, Vincent shook his head adamantly back and forth.  "You just can't do it!"

"Why not?"

"Cuz you don't know how!"

"No, not yet," Devin admitted.  "But I can learn.  With all the books in the library, there has to be at least one on veterinary stuff.  All I gotta do is read it and follow the instructions.  Well, are you in or out?"

Crossing his legs Indian style, and resting his left elbow on his bent knee, Vincent stared at the far wall of the chamber, saying nothing for a very long time.

Knowing his brother was thinking things over, Devin waited and tried to be patient.  Then, unable to stand the suspense for another moment, he waved the bottle of Laudanum back and forth under the younger boy's furry nose, demanding, "Make up your mind, Vincent, cuz I can do this without you, ya know, if I havta."

"You won't catch lady ones, will ya?"

"What's the big deal if I do," Devin asked, truly puzzled by the question.

"Cuz they might have babies, and if you take their mother, the little ones could starve or get kilt!"

"Oh yeah, I'm glad you thought of that," Devin muttered, a bit ashamed that he hadn't.  "Okay, if I get any females, I'll let 'em go."

"And you promith the skunks won't be hurted?"

"Yeah."

Eyeing him, Vincent insisted, "I want a really and truly promise."

Blowing his dark hair back from his face, Devin rested the palm of his right hand over his heart, repeating solemnly, "I spy, spit in your eye, I'll keep this promise or truly die."

Satisfied with that, for it was the most sacred of boyhood oaths, Vincent held out his right hand toward his brother.  You had to follow a solemn oath with a handshake - it was the most important rule.  When Devin grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down very hard, he afforded him a look of absolute trust.  "Okay, I'm in."

* * *

"Vincent," the voice hissed.  When that got no reaction, a shout of "Vincent!" echoed through the small chamber.

"Huh?  What!"  Jerking upright on the bed, Vincent blinked at his brother and tried to get his bearings in the dim chamber.  Reaching down, he grabbed a pillow and hurled it at Devin's head, snarling hoarsely, "You scared the hell outta me!"

Realizing how true that must be for the brat to actually use a swear word, the older boy ducked the incoming missile and tried his best to seem contrite.  "Sorry."  The apology made, Devin plopped down on the bed, announcing, "I got two!"

Two?  Barely awake, Vincent pondered that sleepily.  Didn't all boys have two?  Rubbing at his eyes and yawning so widely Devin thought for a moment he was gonna swallow the bed, quilts and all, he just sat there, smacking his lips and fighting to wake up.  Then he frowned and peered over at his brother.  "Two...what?"

"Skunks!"

"Two of em?"  Now fully awake, Vincent seemed to catch Devin's excitement.  "That's way cool!  And it's about time!"

"Hey, it's only been five days, ya know," his brother reminded him.  "So, let's go.  I got everything ready."

Shaking his head back and forth so hard his face became hidden behind a tumble of hair, Vincent's reply was muffled.  "Go where?"  Lifting his hands, he parted the long hair down the middle and peered out from in-between the strands.  "What time is it?"

Devin shrugged.  "I don't know.  Around three maybe."

"In the morning?!"  Groaning, Vincent collapsed back to the bed.

"No," came the sarcastic response, "In the afternoon, you dweeb.  Come on, get dressed, we got work to do."  When that didn't get his brother moving quickly enough to suit him, Devin warned, "Unless you want to wait and take a chance on Father finding out what we're doin'."

Father seemed to be the magic word.  "I'm up, I'm up!"

Flinging off the mound of nice warm quilts and stumbling to his feet, Vincent shivered as a blast of cold chamber air hit him full force.  Brrr!

"Here, put these on."

"Huh?  Oh.  Thanks."

Sliding into the clothing Devin had thrown at him - and managing somehow to get the sweater on not only inside out, but also backwards, he reached for his boots and shoved his feet into them.

"Ain't you ready yet?"

"Uh huh," Vincent muttered.  Forcing his tired body to move forward and careening off of a small stool he'd momentarily forgotten was there, he yelped as he banged his toes and lost his balance.  "Ouch!"

Yanking him upright, Devin hissed, "Sheesh, you're about as graceful as a dead yak.  Will you get with the program!"

* * *

Eyeing the small metal cages and keeping his distance, Vincent whispered, "Devin, are you sure those... things... are sleeping?"

"Trust me, they're dead to the world."  Proving it, he poked each of the skunks on their furry noses with the tip of his forefinger.  When there was absolutely no response from either animal, he grinned widely and motioned to the small bottle of drugs, which was nearly empty now.  "See?  I told ya I knew how to use this crap.  As soon as I saw them in the cages, I wrapped some cotton around two sticks, sloshed lots of Laudanum on 'em, and shoved the sticks in their faces.  Ha!  You shoulda seen them.  Ten seconds and poof, they flopped over on their sides like dead herring!"

After sniffing the air, Vincent wrinkled up his nose.  "It really stinks in here.  Did they spray you?"

"They tried to get me before I knocked 'em out," Devin admitted.  "But I jumped outta the way just in time."  He decided to omit the part about the vapors almost knocking him out, too, along with the skunks.

Clamping his nostrils together with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, Vincent cautiously moved a few steps closer to the orange crate supporting the metal cages.  "Well, they mighta missed you, but I can still smell 'em.  Phew!"

"Yeah, it's rank, ain't it?"  Devin observed, laughing.  "But what a great defense.  Anything bothers ya, just zap 'em, and they'll sure as hell leave you alone real quick."

Eyeing the stainless steel medical instruments soaking in a small bowl of alcohol, Vincent frowned.  Pointing to them, he announced accusingly, "Those belong to Father."

"Good guess," Devin replied snidely.  "Who else down here has things like that?"  Before his brother could say anything more, he cut him off.  "Don't panic, I'm gonna clean 'em up really good and put them back in Pop's medical bag as soon as we're done with 'em.  Okay?"

"I suppose so."

"Now shut up and come over here."

Vincent didn't move.  "Why?"

"Because I need you, that's why," Devin grumbled.

"To do what?"

"You gotta lift their tails while I cut."

"Uh uh.  No way..."  Taking a step backward, Vincent eyed the skunks and then his brother.  "I ain't gonna lift nothing."

"Vincent, you promised to help," Devin reminded him angrily.  Reaching into the bowl, he carefully eased out a small scalpel and a long curved needle.  After placing the needle on a white cloth next to a spool of black thread, he guided the scalpel into the correct position between the fingers of his right thumb and forefinger, as he had seen Father do, and then jerked his head toward the orange crate.  "So get over here - now, and open the cages."

Vincent's eyebrows instantly shot upward, nearly disappearing into his bangs.

"B...Both of them?"

"Yeah.  It'll be quicker that way."  Eyeing his brother over his left shoulder and noting that he hadn't moved as much as an inch, Devin narrowed his eyes, announcing ominously, "Vincent, don't make me have to come over there and kill you."

The exact sequence of what happened next would forever remain slightly blured in the memories of both boys.

Reluctantly stepping forward, Vincent lifted the latch on the first cage and opened it.  Stretching his left hand out, he reached for the bushy tail of the first skunk and very slowly e-a-s-e-d it into an upward position.  Then, being careful to stay as far away as he possibly could, he opened the remaining cage and captured the tail of the second skunk in his right hand.  Knowing there'd be blood involved in this, he averted his eyes.  "Okay they're both...um...ready."

Perhaps it was the sound of the metal doors creaking open that brought the little creatures immediately awake - or perhaps it was the scent of something or someone they had never smelled before.  Or it could quite possibly have been the reality of someone messing about with their hind-ends.  Whatever had awakened them from their drug-induced slumber, their combined reactions were both instantaneous and utterly devastating.

The skunks retaliated.

Spotting the forepaws of the first skunk twitching and realizing it was awake, Devin started to cry out a warning to his brother to drop the tails and run for his life!  But, it was already too late.

"Vincent, look...!"

"Ack!"  Hit full force by the spray of both animals, Vincent reeled backward coughing and gagging.  The attack had missed his eyes, but not his hair, nor his clothing - or his face.  Overcome by the stench, he sank to his knees, howling, "Devin, they got me!  I'm gonna die!  Help!"

Yanking off his denim jacket and flinging it over both cages, Devin tried very hard not to breathe - at all.  Cripes, what a stink!  Just managing to slam both cage doors shut before the animals took flight, he turned around and knelt beside his stricken younger brother, then leaned away from him.  "E-w-w, you smell awful!  We gotta get you washed off real quick."

"Get lots of soap!" Vincent wailed.  "And some tomato juice, too!"

"Yeah, right, for the smell."  Getting to his feet, Devin backed away.  "I read about that in the vet books."  Sprinting from the chamber, he called back, "Meet me at our clubhouse!  I'll be there as soon as I can!"

* * *

"Okay, get ready, here comes the last of it..."

Trying very hard not to cry as the cold tomato juice came splattering down over his head, shoulders, and naked buttocks, Vincent wrapped his arms around his chest and shivered.  Hopping from his left foot to his right in the small porcelain basin which Devin had the forethought to bring with him, he howled, "That stuff's so c...c...cold!"

"I know, kid.  I'm sorry.  But I haveta get the stink off of you now, before it dries into your skin.  So keep still, okay?"

"That's what I'm trying to do!"  Swiping at his lips, Vincent growled, "Quit getting that crappy juice in my mouff!"

"Well, if ya keep your mouth shut, it won't get in!"

Standing on an old wooden stool, which was part of the meager furniture in their clubhouse, Devin continued to dribble the cold juice over his brother's head.  Cripes, the poor kid.  What a mess!  He felt really terrible about what had happened, and wondered if Vincent would ever forgive him, or trust him again?

A rather urgent and descriptive announcement from his little brother brought Devin's attention back to the chore at hand.

"Devin, I'm gonna frow up!"

And turning around to face his brother, that is precisely what Vincent did.

------------------

"And naturally, Devin had forgotten to bring a towel, or a change of clothing with him so I had to run through the tunnels all the way to our chamber stark naked, praying that the sentries or other members of the community wouldn't see me and tell Father."

Returning to the present, Vincent eyed the mantel clock.  After noting the hands edging toward ten thirty, he leaned forward slightly to kiss the top of Catherine's head, murmuring, "And that my Love, is the story of two boys, two skunks, and a horrific childhood caper that didn't quite turn out as planned."  Sighing, he continued, "It's also the predominant reason why, to this very day, I loathe tomato juice.  The mere smell of it turns my stomach."

When there was no response from his lady, who was still curled up in his lap, he peered down at her.  Studying her closed eyes, long lashes, and listening to her quiet, even breathing, he smiled, thinking Catherine had fallen asleep on him - again.

When he reminded her of this particular habit she indulged in from time to time, she always insisted it was due to his soothing voice.  More than once, he found himself wondering if that was the truth, or if his stories simply bored her so deeply she sought the sanctuary of sleep to escape them?

Lifting her carefully into his arms and suddenly aware of the coolness of her skin, Vincent quickly got to his feet.  Placing a kiss to the side of her face, he moved toward the bed and deposited his Best Beloved gently amidst the pillows, and then covered her up to the chin with her favorite down quilt.

At that moment, two slender arms curled around his neck.

"Oh no, you don't," Catherine murmured lovingly, "You're not getting away from me that easily."  Pulling Vincent toward her, she relaxed her grip as he willingly tumbled down next to her and positioned himself so that they were chin-to-chin.

"I thought you had fallen asleep," he whispered, kissing her on the tip of the nose.

"I wasn't sleeping.  I heard every single solitary word you said," she insisted, cuddling closer to the warmth of his body; loving moments like this so much, she wished she could purr.  Sliding her left hand from his neck, Catherine trailed her fingers over the front of his chest and edged them underneath the top button of his shirt.  "You poor dear.  That was a terrible ordeal."

Shuddering deeply, Vincent agreed, "It most certainly was.  That atrocious odor haunted me for weeks.  And Father did find out the truth of the matter almost immediately."

"He did?"  Catherine's eyes narrowed.  "Who squealed?"

"No one...squealed.  As I was racing for my chamber in my...birthday suit, I made the last turn and ran directly into him.  I recall knocking Father down, and then Devin, who was right on my heels, tried to jump over us and cracked his skull on the tunnel wall.  The wound required three or perhaps four stitches to close."

"Oh, oh."

"Up until that moment, I had never seen Father utterly lose his temper.  Later, Devin told me that was the first time he was truly afraid of him.  And when he finally did calm down and was able to speak rationally again, Father punished not only Devin, but me as well."

"You were punished!" Catherine gasped.  "On top of everything you went through?  That hardly seems fair."

"Fair or not, my Dear, knowing that those creatures were Below and not reporting it was a severe breach of the rules we live by."

Other than a very unladylike grunt, which told him she didn't agree with that observation in the least, Catherine held her silence.

Remembering his surprise at actually being punished, just like any other boy, Vincent smiled.  He never did tell Father how grateful he had been to be treated that way - for once.

Undoing the second button of Vincent's shirt, Catherine slid her hand beneath it and trailed her fingers back and forth against his small hard paps.  "And there was no one to comfort you, but Devin, and he was the cause of the trouble in the first place.  Oh, him and his scatter-brained ideas!  That stuff might have gotten into your eyes, that careless, irresponsible..."

Trying desperately to maintain his focus as her hands slowly but methodically destroyed his ability to form coherent thought, or sentences, Vincent gulped, pleading, "Now, Love, please don't abuse my brother, especially when he's not here to defend himself?"

"Fine," Catherine conceded a bit ungraciously.  "The next time he comes home for a visit, I promise to let him live."  She hesitated for a moment, then asked grimly, "Can I at least give him one good swift kick in the shins?"

"Oh, wouldn't that be a fine welcome home gift."  Shaking with laughter, Vincent barely managed to get the words out.  "Very well, one kick, but only...shin high. And after you've wounded him, do you promise not to go any further?"

"I suppose so."

"Truly?"

Withdrawing her right hand from the inside of his shirt, Catherine placed it over her left breast, intoning solemnly, "I spy, spit in your eye, I'll keep this promise or truly die."

Barely managing to contain his amusement, Vincent observed, "So, you were listening after all."

"Of course I was."  Peering up at him, she afforded him a slow, purely devilish wink and walked the fingers of her right hand across his chest, back to the inner folds of his shirt.

Knowing, of course, that her touch brought this wondrous, utterly sensual man great pleasure, Catherine stopped now and then to prolong the sensation.  Then, continuing her loving torture, she moved both hands down to his belly, then to the waistband of his dungarees.  Stroking him softly, in ever-widening circles, she whispered, "I realize it's long overdue, but let's see if I can comfort you now..."  Lowering her head and sliding his jeans lower on his pelvis, she began licking delicately at his small innie of a belly button.

"Hmm..."  Closing his eyes and releasing a contented grunt, Vincent allowed his entire body to go completely limp.  Well, perhaps not his entire body.  Part of him was quite definitely not in that particular state.

Then, as the third button of his shirt was undone, he tried to swallow and wasn't at all surprised to discover that he didn't seem to have any spit.  When the fourth button was eased open and five small fingers inched their way across his tummy to tease the single snap at the top of his dungarees, he tried to keep very still and enjoy each new sensation as it crashed through his body and centered in his groin.  Dear God, her hands...Catherine's small hands.  What they could do to him was simply astounding.

Bringing his left arm up and bending his elbow, he covered his eyes with his forearm and tried to take slow, even breaths.  Unable to prevent it, his lower body thrust upward, toward her hands, loving the sense of touch, the pleasure, and the hard physical arousal he no longer felt ashamed of - or feared.

"Catherine?"

"Yes, my Love?"

"You are driving me utterly mad."

"I know."

"If you do not stop right now, I...I won't be held responsible for the consequences."

"Well, I have no intention of' stopping," she murmured, reaching for the waistband of his pants.  "So, I guess I'll just have to take the consequences.  Won't I?"

Inhaling sharply as the snap on his jeans popped open, and both hearing and feeling the zipper being carefully eased down, Vincent came to the immediate conclusion that he could withstand no more taunting and teasing.  When the woman he cherished as the miracle of his life eased the dungarees away from his body and bent her head towards the very heart of him, a hungered growl surged upward from the depths of his throat.  Yet, as much as he enjoyed this touch, right now it wasn't enough - not nearly enough.

"Catherine," he groaned, "I cannot endure this..."

Reaching out, Vincent gripped her by the arms almost too tightly.  Yanking her upward in the bed, he expertly skimmed her nightgown over her head and cast it aside.  Lowering his mouth to hers, he vowed huskily, "There are no words for how much I want you at this moment.  How much I always want you - hunger for you.  Or how desperately I need to lose myself within you..."

Just then, the sound of approaching footsteps caused Vincent to lift his head and glance toward the chamber entryway.  Yanking his jeans back up and eyeing the privacy curtain that neither of them had remembered to draw shut, he sneered at the damnable thing.

Attempting to speak in a normal tone of voice, and failing miserably, he released his hold on Catherine's arms and fell back to the bed, gasping, "Someone is coming this way."  Tilting his head to the right, he listened for a moment.  "It's Father."

"Of course it is."  Curling her lower lip in obvious disappointment, Catherine quickly reached for the quilt and yanked it upward until it completely covered her and rested just under Vincent's chin.

"Catherine," he hissed as quietly as he could, "What are you...doing?"

"Getting comfortable."

"But... "

A small hand dug into the hair on his chest.  "Quiet.  I'm enjoying this and he's not going to stop me."

"But...he...he'll know you're...down there."

"So what?"  With that, he felt a few of the hairs on his chest being lifted upward, and then summarily yanked out.  "I belong here."

"Ouch!"

Pausing just outside of the entryway, Father called out, "Vincent?"

"Yes, Father?"

"I thought I heard you shout.  Are you all right?"

"Yes."

"Well then, may I come in?"

"Of... course."

Entering the chamber, Father looked toward the bed and furrowed his brow.  "Are you quite certain nothing is wrong?"

"Everything is simply...marvelous," Vincent replied, fighting to keep still as Catherine continued her unseen torment.

Walking toward the bed, the older man grabbed the edge of the desk for support and then slowly eased down in the chair.  "Earlier this evening, did you..."

Hesitating, Father glanced at the nightgown on the floor, then he took a second look at the mound of quilts on the bed.  They were moving.  Vincent appeared to be lying utterly still, yet the quilts were moving.  Suddenly aware that he had intruded on a very private moment, he cleared his throat and went quite red in the face, his embarrassment obvious.  "Ahem.  Good evening, Catherine."

From beneath the covers came a muffled, "Hello."

As he met his parent's eyes and caught the expression there, Vincent barely managed to keep from falling off of the bed.  Averting his gaze, and knowing he was on the edge of outright hysteria, he studied his nails at great length.  "What were you going to ask me, Father?"

Ask him?  The older man frowned.  Hm, what had he been about to ask him?  Good Lord, he was getting more and more forgetful every day.  Ah yes, now he remembered.  "Earlier this evening, did you smell a skunk down here, in one of the corridors?"

From beneath the covers came a small choking sound.  Not having his son's keen ears, Father didn't hear what was said, but Vincent did.  Catherine had gasped, "Or maybe two?"

Surreptitiously edging his left hand beneath the covers, Vincent pinched the rounded bottom he discovered there - the admonishment crystal clear.  If you cause me to laugh right now, I shall be very upset with you.  The giggling ceased at once.

As he was sometimes forced to do when faced with either lying or telling the absolute truth, he answered Father's question with a question.  "Did someone find a skunk?"

"We didn't find one, no, but its smell is everywhere."

At that moment, just when Vincent assumed all was in hand, the quilts began shaking up and down.  Saints in Heaven, now she was laughing.  He would never survive this tête-à-tête if Catherine didn't stop that!  A second rather forceful pinch to her derriere brought the situation under control again, at least temporarily.

"If the creature was down here, perhaps it went Above again on its own," Vincent offered hopefully, praying that would bring this conversation to an end quickly, before he absolutely exploded.

"Yes, you may be right."  Getting to his feet, Jacob gave the bed a final glance and then turned and moved as quickly as he could toward the chamber entrance.  "Goodnight, Vincent."

"Goodnight, Father.  Pleasant dreams."

Without turning around, his parent nodded, calling out, "And goodnight to you, too, Catherine, wherever you...are."

Peeking out from beneath the quilts and fighting very hard to keep from laughing out loud, Catherine managed to emit a slightly strangled, "N...Night."

As soon as Father's footsteps stopped echoing along the corridor, Vincent leapt to his feet.  Striding toward the patched velvet curtain hanging from a brass rod to the left of the chamber entrance, he reached out and yanked it across the opening, vowing roughly, "There shall be no further interruptions in this chamber tonight."

"Well, I should hope not," Catherine replied.  Then, she grinned at him.  "I'd hate to be the next person who tried to enter this room before morning."

Moving toward the bed, Vincent snarled ominously, "They could quite possibly find themselves in the same place that you instructed Mouse to dispose of my ruined clothing earlier this evening."

Knowing he was merely teasing, she giggled.  "Would you hurl them into the Abyss?"

No reply.

"You wouldn't do that to a member of the community."

Seeming to capture her very soul, eyes that had narrowed to glittering points of silvery turquoise blazed into Catherine's.  Hooking his thumbs under the waistband of his jeans and sliding them quickly down over his hips and off, Vincent didn't fold them neatly as he usually did.  Hurling the pants halfway across the chamber and striding toward the desk, he slapped out the single candle burning there with the palm of his left hand.  "Wouldn't I?"

* * *

Finally recovering some of his strength, Vincent ran the tip of his tongue over Catherine's mouth and then eased over onto his back.  Curling his left arm around her shoulders and taking a deep cleansing breath, he moaned, "Good Lord, are we still alive?"

Giggling, she rolled onto her side and buried her nose into the nape of his neck.  "Barely."

At that precise moment, Vincent's stomach rumbled quite vigorously.  Peering down at it, he muttered, "Blast."

"What was that gurgling noise?"

"My stomach."

Lifting her head, Catherine stared at the same spot he was peering down at.  "What's wrong with it?"

"I'm hungry."  Knowing this woman as he did, and almost as though he could hear her mind going click, click, click, before she could remark on his choice of words, Vincent eyed her.  "For food."

"Oh."  Sitting up and stretching for the ceiling, she sighed, "Well, this time it's your turn to raid the kitchen."

"I know.  But right now, I simply do not want to move from this bed."

Peering back at him, Catherine winked.  "Got ya, huh?"

"I think the question of who got whom is open to debate."

Lifting an eyebrow in his direction, she observed, "Well, all I know is I'm the one who's actually sitting up."

"I could do that, if I chose to," he growled, the challenge obvious.

"Oh, I see, so you're lying there like a slug through choice?"  Eyeing him from the top of his head to the center of his thighs, Catherine issued the ultimate challenge.  "Well, are you rested enough and ready to begin again?"

"Of course I am.  Why, I'm barely even winded."

Rolling over to lay on top of him, she nibbled on the curve of his chin.  "Liar."  Snuggling down against his chest, Catherine laughed softly.  "When Father was here earlier, the tone of your voice sounded so frantic, I nearly wet the bed."

"Well, if you ever do such a thing, please have the good grace to manage the accident on your side of it, not mine," came a grumbled command.  "I will absolutely not sleep in a wet spot."

Eyeing him with an expression of out and out sarcasm, she asked, "Why not?  I do it all the time."

When Vincent's only response was a somewhat embarrassed grunt, Catherine lifted a few strands of his hair and wove them around her right thumb.  Squinting in the darkness, she studied the length of it, and felt its texture with the tip of her finger, remarking, "I never imagined I would love someone with prettier hair than mine.  Women don't like that, you know."

"I wasn't aware of that fact."

"Well, it's true."  Letting the strands drift down to his shoulders, she smiled.  "It's such a wonderful shade of reddish-amber."

"My hair wasn't always the color it is now."

Frowning, she met his eyes. "What color was it?"

"At one time, it was a much lighter shade of blonde."

"Oh?"  When Vincent didn't elaborate, she asked, "Did something in the water down here turn it this color?  Because if it's the water, I'm surprised my hair hasn't changed at all over the years."

"No, it wasn't anything in the water."

"What then?"

Making no attempt to contain his amusement, Vincent pulled her upward until they were eye-to-eye.  "My Love, it would seem that there are long-lasting aftereffects of a...tomato juice shampoo.  At least there were with me."

Going wide-eyed, Catherine bit down on the inside of her jaw, but it didn't help.  Completely losing it, she buried her face into Vincent's chest and began snorting so loudly he thought there could conceivably be an incident of moist bedding in this chamber tonight after all.