A/N: Well, so this is it. At just shy of 45,000 words, FNMS is officially the longest piece of fiction I've ever actually finished. Thanks so much to everyone who's read through to the end, and for all the warm welcomes I got in fandom as a total newb when I started this fic one year ago :) My writing time has been severely limited by annoying things like working and the occasional attempt at having a social life, but I've still got some projects in the works, so we'll see what I can get finished and posted. As always, enjoy!
Having finally sorted out the worst of the measuring errors well enough to be moving on, Vincent made notes of what could be corrected, what needed to be redrawn, and worst, what would need to be refigured from scratch. But, they were well on schedule to begin planning work for the spring, when their waterways would need to be serviced and their security measures redoubled. Snowmelt and heavy rains and the general wear and tear of the seasons caused more direct trouble to the world Above, and that sort of trouble meant scores of city work crews straying too close to comfort. Every spring was a turbulent mix of joy, anxiety, and back-breaking labor, and accurate, detailed maps were a blessing that few considered before there was trouble.
He heard heavy footsteps in the tunnel beyond his chamber several moments before William called to him, "Vincent?"
Surprised, and then immediately reflecting that perhaps he shouldn't have been, Vincent marked his place in the journal he'd been examining before looking up. "Come in, William."
The cook brought with him all the scents of the kitchen, from dried herbs to soot and smoke to the liberal quantities of sherry that seemed to end up in most meals. And this particular evening, he smelled strongly of roasted chicken—unless that was the covered plate he carried in one hand.
Swallowing a sudden excess of saliva, Vincent raised his eyes to the cook's face and asked neutrally, "What can I do for you?"
William looked indecisive for a moment before moving suddenly to uncover the plate, revealing fully half of a small chicken laid out, the skin crisp and brown. Next to that lay sections of orange—an entire one of William's carefully hoarded winter oranges, by the look of it. And completing the plate, a generous cup of fresh vanilla custard, shaved chocolate melting over the top. Not a grain of rice, a speck of potato, or a crumb of bread to be found. After a moment of awkward silence, William said, "I brought this up for you, Vincent."
"It looks excellent," Vincent answered carefully. "But I've already had supper."
William's face flushed as his brow crumpled with frustration. "Damn it, Vincent, I'm trying to apologize."
"There's no need—"
"Of course there's a need. I know what I did wasn't right, even without Cullen looking at me like I'd let you starve. It was mean and it was petty, and I'm sorry."
"It's already forgotten, William. I'll speak to Cullen—"
"None of this is going to be any good to anybody if you let it get cold."
That was a gross exaggeration bordering on blatant falsehood; the chicken would only join its leftover brethren in the soup pot for tomorrow's lunch, and neither the orange slices nor the custard would be difficult to give away. But William persisted.
"None of it will be missed on anyone's plate. Just take it, Vincent. Please. With my blessing."
Put that way, Vincent could hardly refuse. He accepted the plate and the napkin-wrapped flatware William handed him. William helped him shift maps and journals to his bed before leaving him to what was, by Tunnel standards, a practical feast. Within three bites, he had to admit that the great portion of chicken on the bone was a rare treat to be savored. He often craved protein, and while he generally made do with a mix of cheese and eggs and simply ignoring the pangs, this was as good as sinking into a hot bath after a week of labor and cold, quick scrubs in the outer, uninhabited tunnels. With no one to observe his eating habits, he made short work of picking the bones clean with contented relish.
After months of canned, jarred, and heavily spiced fruits, the bright, tangy flavor of fresh orange slices was its own luxury. He tried to savor them, but found himself greedy for each new burst and squish of juice and pulp, exactly as he had been as a child. He had always imagined that it was an orange's magical ability to capture the summer sun that ripened it and hold that light until the skin was broken; as a boy, he had always been somehow faintly surprised to see no residual glow in the tantalizing sections, as it was through their bright flavor that he felt he knew just the first thing about the warmth and joy of sunlight. He supposed, now, that that had been nothing more than childish fancy, but like his magic tapestries in the Great Hall, it was a fond, harmless narrative.
He was already full to bulging with this second dinner on top of his first, but the custard went down in a few easy spoonfuls, just as the call to the common meeting went out over the pipes. Still, he took a moment to thoroughly clean the spoon and the cup. He would return the plate to the kitchen after the meeting, and if he had not already caught William to make his apologies, he would make a point of it then.
Father's chamber was filling quickly, and Vincent resumed his chair. William was already seated, but it was several minutes after the final call to the meeting had sounded over the pipes before Pascal hurried in and took his own seat, and Father stood to begin the meeting.
"Thank you, everyone, for joining us. We have a great deal to go through this evening, so let us begin immediately. The votes for the Council position have been counted, and we have a clear majority, by nearly three quarters."
Vincent was slightly surprised; he had thought that William and Pascal would be more evenly matched. He wondered again that his efforts at neutrality seemed to have backfired so spectacularly. It didn't make the least bit of sense; he was quite skilled at choosing the correct words and tones to convey the nuances of his meaning. That some unintended inference seemed to have been made that he could not track and snare confounded and unsettled him.
"As Vincent reminded us this morning," Father continued, "our new Council member shoulders a great responsibility, and will be expected to do so for years to come. The position is a great honor of trust and respect, but it is also one of dedication and work. I know that, personally, I can think of no one who will serve us better, who has served us better for many years, than this newest addition to the Council, but the choice was all of yours. Vincent, I'm proud to welcome you onto the Council, not only as my son, but also as a worthy and respected member of the community."
Everyone in the room began to clap, but Vincent only looked up from his conjectures, at the happy faces around him, in confusion.
Father held out his hand. "Vincent, you have to come forward."
He stood and, amid claps on the back and congratulations, he approached the table. Father pulled his head down to kiss his forehead.
"This is a proud moment, for both of us," Father said quietly.
"I don't understand," Vincent confessed just as softly.
"The vote was clear. You were chosen by overwhelming majority."
He wanted to protest, wanted to find some flaw, but numbers were unyielding and hard to argue with.
"Vincent, you're the only one here who's surprised. You're deeply loved, by all of us. What's more, you're deeply respected. It's time you understood that."
Vincent leaned his forehead against his father's and nodded.
He pulled back and found Mary at his elbow. She drew him into a tight embrace with bright words of congratulations and a kiss on his cheek.
When she let him go, Edward took his hand. "Well," he said. "You know I wanted to see my boy follow his old da, but you're as fine a choice as they come, my lad." He leaned in conspiratorially. "And don't think you're such a young pup you should let this lot get away with anything. Hearts are all in the right place, but some of 'em don't always think with their heads." He laughed at Vincent's bewildered expression and shuffled away.
Vincent turned to call him back, but he found two faces he couldn't ignore. "William. Pascal. I had no—I'm sorry—"
Pascal waved him off. "Don't apologize. After this afternoon, even I voted for you."
He looked to William, who harrumphed. "Well, I didn't. But that's neither here nor there now." The meal he'd brought to Vincent in his chamber finally made sense, as much apology as concession. William grabbed his hand and pumped it bruisingly. "Congratulations."
Winslow announced himself with a solid slap on Vincent's back, but he addressed William and Pascal. "Did I look this damn stupid when you all voted for me?"
"Stupider," Pascal answered without hesitation. He looked in no way apologetic when the bigger man cuffed his shoulder roughly.
Winslow pulled Vincent into a bear hug and pounded his back. "Welcome aboard. Can't wait to see even your patience get tested by this job."
When Winslow released him, Pascal shook Vincent's hand and pulled him into a one-armed embrace. "Congratulations," he said. "No one better for the job. Yours is the truest voice I know."
Vincent pulled back with a hand on Pascal's shoulder, silent acknowledgement of how much those words meant; Pascal nodded slightly before stepping out of the way. It was then that Vincent realized how many expectant faces were watching him from all around the chamber, waiting for him to speak. The weight of their collected confidence settled on him, but he could feel the strength of their affection, too. It humbled and bolstered him in the same moment.
"I don't have any words prepared," he told them all by way of apology. "But it seems I'm the only one who's surprised by your decision." A few smiles met this. "I'm deeply honored by your faith in me. I'm deeply touched." So many souls packed so closely together, he felt their love as a warm hum deep in his breast. It arced haphazard and unfocused around the chamber, but he felt himself enveloped in it, cushioned against the darkness, held fast and steady. That some part of him reached out into that life-giving goodwill and found something missing, yearned for something unnamed, left him wretched, ashamed of his own capacity for ingratitude. He steadfastly ignored the aching emptiness that could remain unmoved by and indifferent to such strength of love and devotion, and clung instead to the good that he felt, that tethered him to humanity. "It will be my mission to be worthy of that faith, to serve you as well as you have always served me. Thank you, all."
Gentle applause accompanied him as he resumed his seat. Father stood and cleared his throat, and the gesture quickly earned everyone's attention. Vincent sat back in his chair to watch and to listen, but his mind wandered. He had learned as a boy that the natural slant of his eyes gave him the appearance of deep focus, even if in truth he was traveling by raft down the Mississippi or struggling to survive the perils of an uncharted island. He had cultivated this trait and learned to divide his attention, to have some part of his mind always scanning the goings on around him so that he wouldn't be caught entirely unawares if the conversation shifted to something more salient.
He passed the majority of the common meeting this way, absently noting how the chamber slowly began to empty as the most important topics to the community were aired and argued and put to rest in one fashion or another. With the holidays past and spring yet some weeks away, there seemed little fire in anyone over the current state of things or over future endeavors. It was that way every winter, even if there was little evidence of any given season in the stone around them.
When it became politely possible, he made his farewells and retreated to his own chamber, finding comfort in the slow methodology of his cartography. The pipes had long been silent save for the tap of each hour with its implicit all's well before he found any satisfaction in his progress for the day.
A bundle of rolled pages tucked carefully under one arm, Vincent carried the maps that he had been able to complete or that had needed no work back to Father's chamber, which was now dim and silent with the lateness of the hours. Father was still up, bent over his desk by the light of an oil lamp, his glasses fallen halfway down his nose. He glanced up from his writing, and Vincent nodded silently as he crossed the chamber.
With the last of the maps away, Vincent contemplated the drawers. With the population growing and the living arrangements becoming ever more complex, the maps seemed to copulate and produce offspring like the proverbial rabbit. And like virtually everything in Father's study—save the community's medical records—the maps had a haphazard sort of organization, a rough outline of order with more exceptions than rules that worked mainly because there were enough people who knew the locations of the maps as well as they knew the tunnels themselves. But that was hardly good practice. Perhaps he'd suggest to Father that a clear system be developed, something less intricate than Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress, but still orderly and usable. A standardized set of letters for each map type might be a place to start, unless it would be easier to organize everything by the portion of tunnels charted? But what of maps that covered several specific sections, such as their aqueduct charts, which had always been a horse of a different color, with coding for seasonal weak points, flood zones, and potential repair/construction hazards. No, they would almost certainly do better to organize by map type and try to coordinate the sections, perhaps by color coding or—
Father's expectant, baiting tone brought his thoughts to an abrupt halt, and he turned toward the desk. "Well?" he echoed curiously.
Father grabbed his cane and pushed himself up to his feet before he elaborated. "Well, are the two of us speaking?"
The question confounded him, and he pulled the other half of his mind away from possible organizational methodologies to give the conversation most of his attention. "I don't recall arguing, Father."
The elder man snorted as he stumped around his desk and into the middle of the chamber. "You didn't want the position on the Council."
"I didn't feel it could be justified," Vincent corrected.
"Mm. And now?"
"And now I have a greater obligation to those that I love, to earn the trust they've put in me."
"Vincent, I think perhaps you've rather missed the point of your own speech this afternoon."
Vincent cast back to the words he'd spoken in this chamber a few hours before, but as they nearly all orbited his lack of suitability for the position in question, he could find nothing to misinterpret, and he only shook his head.
Father's eyes took on the same gleeful luster he had when he thought he might have a chance at winning a game of chess. It was a spirited, youthful happiness that Vincent enjoyed seeing in his father, so much so that he'd occasionally considered throwing a game on purpose just to feed that spark. One of these days, he might actually do it, too; his winning streaks had begun to extend beyond merely embarrassingly long.
"You told us today that no vote could change what you are to us. And so it hasn't. It mustn't. Today, the community voted for who you have always been and what you have always done."
The vague ideas of cartographic organization still at the back of Vincent's mind evaporated like breath on a mirror. He looked down at his empty hands, finding no convenient dalliance to occupy them. "And what is it that they've voted for, Father? What am I? How can I believe that they understand when even I do not?"
"Vincent, this new preoccupation with what you are or are not will gain you nothing but heartache."
"This preoccupation, as you call it, is hardly new," Vincent returned. "It is at the center of everything, every question I have about where I come from, how I could…do what I have done, what more I might be capable of in the future."
Father stepped in front of him and rested both of his hands over top of his cane to square his shoulders and meet his son's eye. "You are my son, Vincent." He tutted away Vincent's dismissive scoff. "You are my son, and that is all any of us has ever needed to know of your origins. Now I know that isn't the answer you want, but it's the answer that we have, and what we do have, what we do know, is all that we can live by. There's enough that is not possible. Let us not deny ourselves what is possible."
"Not possible because of what I am."
Vincent saw the hurt flash through the gray of his father's eyes, but neither man knew how to be cowed by the truth; Father nodded sadly and spoke plainly. "Yes."
And that was that, the baldness of everything laid out between them. Something in Vincent rebelled, cried out in wordless denial like a wounded animal denying its own mortality, even as life seeped away in red, salty rivulets. With a practiced, weary thought, he suppressed that base instinct and brought himself back to tightrope equilibrium.
"It's been a very strange day. I think I'll go to bed," he said.
Father nodded, and it was understood that going to bed meant prowling the quiet places of their underground world in an effort to soothe his mind and his heart. "Good night, then, Vincent. Sleep well."
"And you, Father. Good night."
Rounds of the innermost chambers proved that everyone within slept soundly, safe from the winter and the dangers Above. As he spiraled out and away from the central living spaces, he began to hear the occasional tap of a sentry, reporting that all was quiet. Vincent passed through the Chamber of the Falls and paused, but the rush of the water felt entirely too desolate tonight, so he moved on, pleased with the secure stillness he found in every twist and passage, but dissatisfied with the stark silence all the same. The Whispering Gallery, then. He stepped out onto the bridge to find one of the magic places, a focal point for a hundred disparate sounds and voices. These were old, steadfast friends, who spoke to him and soothed his fretful mind and yet never asked anything of him. His silence—he himself—fit into these whispers from Above so easily, letting them eddy and flow and float around him.
It was the same way that Devin had always been so ready to assume Vincent in his life without demands, without expectations. This place often reminded Vincent of his brother, the memories as fond as they were heartsick. Growing up together, they had argued and rassled and called each other names, but it was all all right, because each always expected the other in the same way that they expected to find books in Father's chamber and wind beyond the doors of the Great Hall. Perhaps that was why, even fifteen years later, Vincent found himself still expecting to hear that familiar crack of laughter, that volatile, beloved voice swinging from taunting to pained to exuberant, nestled in amongst the voices Above, perhaps bracketing and commanding them. This had always been one of Devin's favorite places, and the one with enough magic in it to have captured some vital essence of that vibrant youth.
Sometimes—often—Vincent imagined his adoptive brother's reactions to events Below. For so much of his childhood, Devin had been his confidante, his partner in all things, so that his voice still whispered in his ear, saying so much that Vincent had never dared to. These, the changes made today, Devin would no doubt take as some great joke, laughing at Vincent's discomfort, finding some deeply unsettling way to tease and prod. Unlike so many others in his world, Devin had continually surprised Vincent, both with his blade-sharp understanding of things left unsaid and his obtuse, thick-skulled incomprehension of the same, at other, apparently selective times. Inconstant, impatient, entirely uncontainable—utterly unsuited to life nestled within the earth. Caged.
What it was, exactly, that brought Devin to mind so strongly on this night, Vincent had no idea, but then, his brother came and went from his thoughts at his own behest, as he always had. For fifteen years, Vincent had roamed the quiet places Below on his own, searching the dark, still caverns, finding peace as much as torment in the depths he plumbed, charted, knew, and never any remains of a teenaged boy within three days' travel of the home chambers. There was always the Abyss, of course, but the stone and the dark felt so completely contrary to his memory of Devin: bright, brash, unsettled. He would have gone up. He must have gone up. To the bright lights of the city. Photophilic. Vincent still imagined that Devin must be out there, somewhere, laughing his way through the grand adventures they'd enacted as children in cardboard armor. Some days, he was absolutely sure—
Well, whatever the case, Vincent found solace among the voices, among the memories. Between the echoes from Above and the ghosts of his childhood, he had never felt alone on this desolate bridge. Companionship without expectation—it was a fine notion, even if it was simply one more illusion. He sighed gratefully into the vast emptiness all around him. It was enough.
God made a garden, it was men built walls;
But the wide sea from men is wholly freed;
Freely the great waves rise and storm and break,
Nor softlier go for any landlord's need,
Where rhythmic tides flow for no miser's sake
And none hath profit of the brown sea-weed,
But all things give themselves, yet none may take.