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OBLIGATIONS

 

by Ruby

She said, where ya been, I said, no place special
She said, you look different, I said, well, I guess
She said, you been gone, I said, that’s only natural
She said, you gonna stay, I said, if you want me to, yes
     ~ Bob Dylan, “Isis”

 

May 1991

Joe closed his eyes and felt the full warmth of the May sunshine on his face, letting the rays adore his eyelids, the lines of his mouth, warming his lips like honey. It was enough to make him feel less self-conscious about his scars and toy with the idea of maybe taking his shirt off to shoot some hoops in the park by his place. He had become used to the souvenirs he was going to carry for the rest of his life from that exploding car, most notably an angry red patch of skin that resembled an arrangement of maple leaves that ran up the left shoulder and zig-zagged down much of his back. Beyond that there were a few other puckers and ridges where they’d done a bang-up job sewing him back together. But he’d never gotten used to the raised eyebrows, the eyes going jello with pity, or the questions.

Oh it’s nothing, got blown up, then nearly got the woman I was in love with killed, but it’s all right, they found her, with a baby too. Not mine, of course, The Central Park Creature’s. Perhaps you’ve come across that name in one of the finer tabloids?

Joe bit back his jealousy. Catherine was alive and well and happily keeping house in a cave. Joe never could quite believe Radcliffe was the domestic type, but relief overrode his other objections. Besides, he felt obligated to her for inadvertently setting in motion the series of events that upended her life. Obligated. What an unpleasant word. He rubbed his eyes. He was sitting on the stoop of his building; he had lost the mood for a pick-up basketball game. He walked to a news stand; the old man running it nodded at him warily.

The old man was a “Helper,” that meant he was a welcome friend Below. Joe was not a Helper. Joe was a “friend of Catherine’s”. Which meant he was treated with a great deal of caution and care lest he went running to all his friends in city government and shut their little Eden down. Joe hated that, and hated knowing that if he had found out about Below before the explosion he would have. The last time he and Catherine had met they talked about that plain truth. It had been in a corner booth of a restaurant in Chinatown. Catherine had been waiting for him, without the baby. Joe had stirred the remains of an excellent mapo tofu on his plate, Catherine watching him kindly.

“I want to thank you again for your discretion, Joe. I know this isn’t easy.”

“You don’t owe me a ‘thank you’ every time I see you, Cathy, it’s my-”

“It’s not your fault this happened, and it’s…easier that you know now.”

Joe had to laugh. “I guess, can you imagine if you had explained to me why you really needed all that time off before…” He trailed off; he hadn’t meant to steer right into dangerous waters.

Catherine smiled. “It’s okay, Joe, I think you wouldn’t have taken it in stride.” She took a sip of tea. “I can’t stand it when people say ‘everything happens for a reason’, but I do think sometimes things happen at the right time. You didn’t find out about Below until it was time for you to find out about Below.”

“Until my faith in every institution had been destroyed, you mean.”

Now Catherine felt like she’d steered right into it.

Joe shook his head and smiled ruefully. “You know I didn’t want to hire you, Moreno insisted, and you turned out to be the best thing that happened to that office in a while. It wasn’t until…after when I really started to piece it together I realized…” He felt his throat go thick with the full weight of it.

Catherine finished for him. “You didn’t realize Moreno was counting on me being the ditzy daughter who wants to show daddy she can slum with the best of them, who constantly breaks the Xerox machine, and who you’d be so busy babysitting and cleaning up messes for there’d be no time for you to pose a threat to his plans. His orders really, he was one of…that man’s best toys.” Catherine still didn’t like to use the name of her captor and Joe pulled the conversation back to safer ground.

“But we made it, Cathy, we’re here drinking jasmine tea and you’re pretending to care how the Mets are doing this season.” Catherine laughed and Joe felt that familiar ache that she was never going to be his. But she’s alive. And maybe someday she’ll be ready to reintroduce herself to the world. I hope.

Joe nodded in return to the old man at the newsstand. He bought a Sports Illustrated and a Payday bar, putting the change in the pocket with his St. Christopher’s medallion. He glanced around; there were no other customers at the moment.

“How’s our friend doing?” It had been a few weeks since he’d seen Cathy in person.

“Well and hearty, that boy is growing a mile a minute, like they told me his father did.”

Joe’s expression got tighter. “Good, good, you let her know I’d like to see her again, soon if she can.”

“Sure I will,” was said in a tone that suggested he would relay that message along with the editorial of That assistant DA is sniffing around again, might be trouble if Catherine doesn’t smooth things over with him.

Joe wondered if it might help if he told the old man he was a former assistant DA. Moreno being the gift that kept on giving meant that being viewed as one of Moreno’s right-hand men had effectively ended his career before they finished scraping Moreno off the sidewalk 20 stories beneath his apartment windows. He had enough friends left not to get charged, with what he didn’t know, but the new hungry DA could have found something. “Being an incredible idiot” was a possibility Joe wasn’t even inclined to argue too hard against. But he was a liability now, so he had resigned in a to-the-point letter, was granted a severance package, and was now cooling his heels waiting for the calls to come into the private practice he’d set up.

He was about to tell the man his ability to be a threat to his beloved lion man and company was greatly exaggerated when he saw Noriko walk up. She carried a small basket of lunch for the old man and he took it happily: a rinsed-out baby food jar filled with pickled radishes and sandwich halves wrapped in clean cloths printed with daisies. He unwrapped them to find tuna on fresh bread with thick slabs of red onions peeking out shockingly purple against the earth tones of everything else in the basket and Noriko’s clothes. Joe had been Below only once, but it unnerved him how of-the-earth Below was, down to its colors. Cathy had worn blazers and blouses of dazzling hues, and earrings the size of salt shakers; even her umbrella was lilac.

Joe remembered seeing that lilac umbrella on a gray drizzly day that could turn the Park entirely slate gray. He had leaned on Peter enough to get “She’s alive, that’s all I can tell you” to “I’ll see what I can do”. He walked quickly, not minding the ache in his leg with the pins in it. The dark haired woman holding the umbrella saw him approaching and stood. Her hair was cut in shaggy layers that suggested a friend’s work instead of a salon’s. Her sweater was more patches than wool, and she was wearing baggy trousers that had likely started life as curtains. Her belt was a finely woven braid of colored cords, the height of fashion fifteen years ago. She looked at him, his expression at her clothes, and didn’t get embarrassed or defensive. She did not offer a hand in greeting but simply started talking.

“I’m Noriko, Peter told you to expect me?”

“Yeah, now look I’m not here for more run around I-”

Noriko cleanly cut him off. “You will see Catherine today, skipping a process that’s usually a lot more involved. Not that it matters but I strongly advised against you being taken to see her now but I was overruled. Seems she’s a staunch defender of your character.” Her mouth quirked at that last part and Joe felt a mix of anger at her clear dislike – if not of him than for the duty she was expected to carry out – and admiration at how she didn’t give a damn about soothing his feelings or trying to butter him up for the no doubt major load of bricks Chandler was about to drop on him on top of her being alive and kicking.

Joe smirked. “Well, Noriko, I guess I better prove that she was right about my sterling reputation.”

Noriko didn’t smile. “The well-being of a good many people depends on her being right.” And she started walking, with Joe clearly supposed to follow her. They didn’t exchange another word until they reached a small Asian grocery. In the storeroom a young man helped her move a cabinet blocking a hole in the wall.

Joe did get angry then. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“She is down there, and I knew it was a mistake to bring you.”
“Catherine Chandler is holed up in some secret tunnel behind a grocery store? Look, I don’t know what you’re playing but I wa-”

Noriko was firm. “You either follow me, no questions asked, or we move this cabinet back, you go home, and the next time you come, even if you bring the cops,” Noriko speared him to the floor with a look, “you’ll find the entrance bricked up tight, and even if you sledgehammer it down you’ll never find your way to her. She argued for you, Mr. Maxwell. I must admit I’m not seeing what she apparently sees right now.”

Joe felt a lick of shame at that. “All right, but I swear, if this is some trick, you’ll have a very long time to regret it.”
“Noted,” and without another word Noriko marched into the darkness.

Joe gritted his teeth, “Goddammit,” and followed her, aware of the cabinet being pushed back into place behind him.

That was his last clear memory of that day because the rest of it was one impossible thing after the other. He saw Cathy, he saw Cathy holding a beautiful baby, he saw…something with the face of a lion that was that baby’s father. He felt like his blood had been replaced with helium. He wanted to scream and shout. But he didn’t want to wake the baby. And he saw the love that flowed between Catherine, the baby, and…Vincent, whose eyes never left hers or the baby’s. You could practically see the love; it filled the room like the amber light that came from the candles and braziers that filled the utterly impossible spaces Catherine was now living in. Joe’s ears hummed like when an orchestra stops playing and the ghost of the music can still be heard. He had every right and responsibility to report all of them to the authorities. And as he trudged back to the surface with Noriko he knew he would never ever do that. They exited a different way than they’d come in, their journey ending in an alley by a coffee shop. Noriko was watching him carefully. Joe felt like after everything he’d learned, not just today but in the very long weeks leading up to it, he was going to be sick. And much to his embarrassment he turned to grasp the edge of a garbage can and lost the contents of his breakfast. Noriko didn’t say anything but led him by the elbow to the coffee shop. She ordered two cups of tea but didn’t put the bag in.

“Just drink the hot water plain.”

Joe did as he was told and stopped feeling like his heart was about to clamber out of his chest. “Hey that works, how?”
Noriko shrugged. “Don’t know, old trick I learned a long time ago.” She traced a spoon over her fingerless gloves. “I want to thank you for keeping our secret safe.”

“How do you know I’m going to do that?” Joe asked, not as a threat but with a genuine curiosity, as he’d said nothing to anyone Below indicating that.

“I saw how you looked at her and I knew it would be all right.”

Joe snorted. “That obvious, huh? But isn’t a jealous man the most dangerous kind?”

Noriko took a sip of her hot water. “You are jealous as hell of Vincent, but you love Catherine enough to know you’d destroy her if you hurt Vincent. I know that can’t be easy, so I want you to know how obligated I am, we all are, to your silence.”

Joe felt uncomfortable again. “You don’t owe me anything, and I just want to be able to see her from time to time, to help her get her life back.”

Noriko said nothing to that, and Joe suspected Cathy wasn’t planning to return anytime soon and that hurt, but he let it go, for now. “It was also nice to get to meet you today. You don’t take any mess, like my Ma would say.”

Noriko laughed a little at that, and Joe saw how her eyes caught the light of the cafe, black eyes that shone like onyx in a ring. “I know I don’t come off as the friendly type. It’s just…Below is my home, I couldn’t make it without it, and neither could so many people I love.”

“Your secret is safe with me.”

Noriko nodded and took that as her cue to leave, leaving Joe to pay for the tea.

He had seen her a few times since then, usually in the Park and once over dinner at a Turkish place he wanted to try. She was good company, but he never lost the feeling she was friendly to him out of a sense of…that word again, obligation. That she was doing her part to keep Catherine’s friend in a good mood so it wouldn’t bring a swarm of social workers and police officers down upon them like locusts.

Joe watched her hand off the basket to the old man who told her to wait. He handed her a copy of Vogue. “Cover is torn, can’t sell it, I know you don’t ever let anything go to waste.”

Noriko took the magazine and thanked him; she turned back towards the Park and Joe followed. Noriko sat down on a bench and Joe took a place next to her. He thought about asking if she wanted something from the ice cream man but thought better of it, especially if he ended up saying what he felt he had to. He watched her flip through the magazine.

“Below wants to keep up with the hottest designers this spring?”

Noriko flipped past an ad where the model wore a jumble of sunglasses on her head. She smiled. “Colorful pages make for good paper beads the children love to make.” She stopped on a spread of arresting black and white photographs. “Mary Ellen Mark, one of Vincent’s favorite photographers, mine too. We’ll probably argue and bargain with chores to see who gets which ones.”

Joe was surprised. “I didn’t know he was into photography.”
Noriko nodded. “A wall of his chamber we call his ‘20th Century Wall’ is for people he admires, photographers whose work he enjoys, landscapes of places,” she got wistful, “he won’t ever get to go to.”

Joe took that in. He was so jealous of what Vincent had, he never stopped to think of all the things Vincent didn’t. He couldn’t sit on a park bench in the radiant May sunshine with Catherine, and he felt a knot in his stomach at that.

Noriko kept flipping pages. She stopped on a perfume ad, the kind that had a strip to lift for the fragrance. “Ahh, my favorite too.”

“What is it?”

“Magie Noire.” Joe felt the words come out of Noriko’s mouth like a feathery kiss on his jaw. “We use these pages as liners for where we keep our clothes.” She carefully lifted the edge of the flap and held the page up to Joe’s nose. It smelled spicy and woody and like leather. Like old stories where you had to walk for a year and a day in iron shoes to find your true love and only after losing everything you’d ever known and hoped for could you hope to be saved.

Joe closed his eyes, he had to say it. “Look, Noriko, I appreciate your willingness to humor me, but it’s okay, I’m really not going to cause trouble.”

Noriko looked surprised, then hurt, then quickly ducked into an attempted neutral expression. “What do you mean, we tru-”

“You trust me, but you, all of you, still think of me as the long arm of the law. I’m not anymore, and even if I was still with the D.A.’s office…” he sighed, “I used to believe rules were rules and that’s that, but I learned the hard way that certain people make the rules while having no intention of the rules ever applying to them. People who are happy to grind the helpless into dog food if it would make them another dollar. And I don’t want to be one of them, using you because I’m lonely, and wondering if anytime I make you laugh are you really finding me the funniest man on Earth,” Joe smiled sadly, “or are you willing to do anything to protect Below?”

Noriko held the magazine tightly in her hands.

“So I’m going to make it easy. I’ll send messages through Peter when I want to see Cathy and you’re relieved of ‘soothe Joe’s wounded ego’ duty, okay?” He stood; his heart felt like oatmeal, all lumps and no cream, and he walked away.

Noriko sat there for a moment in silence. She didn’t know what she was feeling. And she still wasn’t sure by the time she reached Eli’s shop and walked into the storeroom to the Tunnel entrance there. A radio was playing music from tinny speakers “…So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away. For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong…” Noriko was halfway to the home chambers when she realized she was crying.

* * *

In his chamber Vincent looked over the magazine Noriko had brought down. She sat off to the side watching him, not really touching her tea. She sighed and broke the silence.

“Joe thinks I was just being nice to keep him from calling in the National Guard. And I admit at first I did feel like it was pulling sentry duty, something difficult that’s also necessary.”

Vincent put the magazine down. “And now?”

“I don’t know, it could be more, but can something that starts from a feeling of,” she said the word like tasting something unpleasant, “obligation ever have a chance to become something more? Or should we both be grateful the candle got put out before either of us had a chance to really get hurt?”

“I can’t answer that, but perhaps Joe is protecting himself from getting hurt and not realizing how you feel. I think love can spring from surprising places. A pragmatic motive can become something wonderful. You should tell Joe how you feel, rather than let the question of what might have been hang over you for the rest of your days.”

Noriko nodded. “I should know better than to talk to you about my problems by now as you’re always going to convince me not to ignore them and hope they go away.” She got up to leave, bending to give Vincent a kiss on the cheek. “If you’re looking for Catherine, I think I saw her going down to the Mirror Pool.”

“Thank you, Noriko, I wish you the best of luck and every happiness, no matter the outcome.”

Noriko touched the wall by the doorway and nodded. She closed the salvaged door behind her.

At the Mirror Pool Catherine saw Vincent’s reflection walk up. She idly tossed a stone into the pool and the ripples of his image spread out like wings.

He sat down beside her. “Thinking?”

“Of a great many things. I know I said I could not ask for more than you and Jacob, but I’ve been thinking about Jacob, and you, and of my family’s lake house in Connecticut.”
“We never made it there,” Vincent said softly, “a regret I will always carry.”

“Well…” Catherine looked carefully at the ground, “…Kay has been very helpful to me, acting as my agent for my money and letting people think I’m staying out of sight somewhere overseas, and…I asked her to purchase the properties on either side of that house.” She looked Vincent in the eye. “Part of it is I wanted to make a camp where the Tunnel children could go in summer. And the other is I want us to be able to go there. Anytime. No matter the season, I want you to know what that lake looks like at every time of the year.” She took a deep breath. She looked into the water, seeing something clearly that Vincent couldn’t.

“Tell me.”

“I want our second child to be conceived there.”

Vincent felt his heart trip down his ribs. He wanted this too and yet…

Catherine saw the warring fear and need in his eyes. “I know you’re frightened, so am I, but not so much that I won’t say how much I want this. I want you there for the whole time, for the good and the bad. I want you to hold my hair back when the morning sickness comes. I want to snap at you over the silliest little thing.” She laughed and Vincent fell in love with her all over again. “I know I’m asking a lot.”
“Not any more than you’ve already given and continue to give.” He embraced her. “I cannot say I am ready right now, but I want to see that lake. I want to have this conversation again in that house.”

Catherine relaxed against his shoulder. “That’s a good place to have a conversation. I love you so much.”

Vincent closed his eyes and let the peace of their Bond radiate out like a plucked string, filling the cavern with music only they could hear.

Joe had decided to not spend the entire evening at his apartment sulking when he heard a knock at his door. He opened it to find Noriko standing there, looking like a traveler from Middle Earth and holding a dented canister of tea. She held it out to him.

“I had been meaning to bring you this for your leg, it will help a little with the pain.”

Joe opened the canister. The tea smelled of vanilla and ginger and other spices he couldn’t place. “Thank you,” he felt awkward as a teenager at their first dance, “would you like to come in?”
“Yes.” Noriko walked in warily, taking in the simple but homey space, “I’ve been thinking about what you said in the Park.”

Joe put the canister down. “Look I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings but I-”

Noriko placed a hand on his arm. “Joe, please, just let me finish and then I won’t ever see you again if you don’t want to.”

Joe’s eyes darkened at that prospect. But he said nothing.

Noriko began to pace a little. “I’ll admit, when I saw how you looked at me in the coffee shop the day you found out about Below, I realized I could be…useful to keep you from talking. But, but…I had the entire walk here to think of something to say and all I can say is I’m not sure how I feel about you. But I want a chance to find out. I want whatever happens to be because we wanted it to, not because we felt we owed some greater cause something.”

Joe sighed. He wanted to reach for her but too many losses stacked up like dirty dishes left him too tired to reach for one more potential hurt. “Go home, Noriko, you don’t owe-”
“I know I don’t owe you anything, Joe!” Noriko was surprised by the anger in her own voice. She stepped closer to Joe; she never got enough of how the dark curly mop of his hair fell into his eyes a little. “I don’t owe you anything, and I’m not here out of some obligation, obligation doesn’t feel like this.” And before she could talk herself out of it, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Joe felt her lips on his and then his skin was on fire. But this wasn’t the fire that smelled of gasoline and burning engine parts. This was the fire he imagined when stars were born. Great cosmic furnaces of creation. His arms wrapped around Noriko, and he trailed kisses down her throat as her hands reached for his shirt buttons and he realized he would be staying in after all.

* * *

It was getting close to midnight and Joe watched the shadows play across the walls of the bedroom as Noriko half dozed on his chest. His body radiated with a relaxed satiation he hadn’t felt in god knew how long. He stroked his fingers through her hair, and a familiar fragrance ticked his nose. “Magie Noire?”

Noriko smiled up at him. “You remembered. I ran my comb against the strip before combing my hair, a trick a friend taught me.”

“I really like it.” He looked at her, vulnerable in her nakedness but primal too, and his, if she would have him. He didn’t know what waited for them when the sun came up and another day began and he didn’t care. He had stopped caring the moment she saw his scars and didn’t raise her eyebrows, or go soft with pity; she kissed them, her fingers tracing them from wounds into sacred patterns as she clung to him. He understood what contentment was now; it wasn’t the hunger that never could be fed of unrequited love, it wasn’t looking for trouble in worrying about how they would tie their lives together or even if they could. It was just lying here in this bed, her breath warm on his chest and his hand on her hip. “I think I realized something tonight.”

“What?” She looked at him, the moonlight making her eyes liquid black, like the rivers that criss-crossed the city at night.

“That it’s not obligation that drove us to do what we did, you seeing me, and me not telling, it’s gratitude. I was so grateful Cathy was alive and you were so grateful I wasn’t going to expose Below, we both wanted to show that gratitude.”

Noriko’s brows creased. “I didn’t sleep with you out of-”
“I know, what I’m saying is, it’s all right. However we got into this bed tonight we got here from gratitude, so whatever happens after can happen without us worrying about who owes whom what. We don’t have to worry we’re using the other or only here because we have to be. We can go wherever this takes us together.”

Noriko sighed with happiness, and ran her fingers through Joe’s chest hair. She remembered a quote from one of the books in Father’s library; she whispered “‘Gratitude is heaven itself.’”

Joe nodded. “William Blake.” He didn’t miss Noriko’s expression. “Surprised the hell out of you I knew that, didn’t it?”

“Yeah,” she said, her grin sparking into laughter, “it kinda did.”

And Joe laughed too, and Noriko saw his eyes swimming with laughter and moonlight and covered his mouth with hers again and there was no more laughter for a time.

And somewhere Below a couple practiced by a pool filled with the Pleiades what they were going to do in a house by a lake during a long, very eventful summer. And the stars held all the lovers gently in their light.

 

2 Comments

  1. Awesome I just love this. Captured from the beginning. I loved it

    Reply
  2. Perfectly shown picture of Joe, his anguish, guilt, jealousy, grief and anger…so many emotions…. It was so hard for him to accept Catherine’s new life, but gratitude and love prevailed. His reaction is just as I imagined it would be…and it makes me very happy that with all this turmoil he met someone to whom he can give his heart…it is beautiful and such a good read! Thank you so much.

    Reply

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