by JoAnn Baca
Vincent surveyed the scene before him. Since his Shakespeare class’s play rehearsal had run late, he knew he had missed most of the performance Sebastian was giving for the younger children. He had longed to be here earlier. Watching the youngsters as they delighted in the old street performer’s sleight-of-hand tricks, his silly jokes, his balloon animals, and the variety of other entertainments with which Sebastian secured a precarious existence Above was always a treasured experience. So as soon as the rehearsal had wrapped, he had swiftly covered the distance from the Great Hall to the Council Chamber, hoping to catch at least part of the performance...and anxious to see today’s invited guest: his Catherine.
The last time Catherine had visited, the children had excitedly imparted the news that Sebastian was giving them a show the following Saturday morning. Their enthusiasm had rubbed off on her, and she’d expressed her envy of them for having such a wonderful performer all to themselves. As soon as they’d heard that, several chimed in at once to insist she join them, thrilled at the opportunity to offer their friend from Above such a rare treat. It had warmed him to see this evidence of how his family Below accepted and loved Catherine, but Vincent had groaned inwardly, knowing how busy she was, even on weekends, and hoping the impromptu invitation hadn’t ruined her plans. He was mildly surprised to hear her agree with alacrity, promising she’d bring the popcorn so they could all have an appropriate snack during the performance. She’d insisted later, as he’d escorted her back to her threshold, that she’d had no other plans and was as excited as the children about Sebastian’s exhibition of skills.
Now he stood in the entry, gazing at the audience - if one could charitably call the tangle of humanity sitting before Sebastian an audience. What he saw was arms, legs, heads, and occasional leather- and corduroy-clad torsos intertwined in an undignified heap on the carpeted floor of the chamber. He could barely single Catherine out in the intermeshed gaggle of youngsters - he needed a moment to pick out her limbs from among the children’s. The picture was one of casual intimacy, as every child seemed to have an arm around, a head leaning on, a leg in the lap of, or a shoulder hugged by the one adult among them. This unseemly display didn’t appear to bother either Sebastian or Catherine one bit, though, judging by the smiles on their faces.
The performance was nearly over. Sebastian offered to make more balloon animals so that every child could have his or her choice, and a mad scramble ensued as they rushed to line up for their treasures. Catherine was left with only two of the children still beside her: Geoffrey, who had been at the bottom of the pile and was still leaning against her folded left knee, and little Rissa, who clutched Catherine’s hand tightly, half in affection, half in fear.
Rissa was a fairly recent arrival in the Tunnels, still shy of everyone. Noticing how unsure she was about joining the press of children, Geoffrey extended a hand to her. “C’mon, Rissa. I need someone to hold my hand so I don’t get scared around all those kids.”
The little girl turned a grateful look in Geoffrey’s direction, and Vincent saw the beginnings of an adoring crush developing in the child’s eyes as she gazed upon her Protector. “‘K,” she replied, and let loose the death grip she had on Catherine’s hand to grab onto the older boy’s.
Catherine watched them go, tugging her cardigan back onto her shoulder with one hand and running the other distractedly through her tousled hair.
“I see you’ve been abandoned. May I help you up?”
The amusement was clear in the silk-and-gravel voice emanating from above and behind her. Catherine hadn’t seen Vincent enter the chamber, and despaired at the sight she must be - in front of the one person she always wanted to look perfect for. She turned to look up at him, an embarrassed smile on her face.
“Oh...Vincent! I was hoping to straighten up a bit before....” She broke off her explanation and shook her head in resignation, mock consternation on her face. “Once we decided to sit together on the floor, I’m afraid things got a bit out of hand.” She gestured to her clothing and hair, both still in disarray.
Vincent thought she looked adorable - invitingly mussed and deliciously flushed. A sharp pang of jealousy shot through him unexpectedly; what the children had shared with her in innocent abandon was something he had longed to share as well...although not in such innocence. He took a deep breath to calm his suddenly unsteady nerves. Aloud he said, “What was that, exactly? I’ve never seen the children do that before.”
She took his proffered hand and rose with a muffled, unladylike grunt, as legs which had been too long folded and cramped into one position stretched for the first time in nearly an hour. “Several of the children asked to sit next to me, and I could see the disappointment on the faces of the ones who hadn’t asked quickly enough. To avoid hurt feelings, I suggested we...snuddle.”
She saw his slanted eyebrows arch in curiosity at this unknown word, and explained, “It’s something I used to do when I was small. One Sunday morning when my parents were sitting on the couch reading the newspaper, I felt left out. I wanted to snuggle...and cuddle...but when I asked, it came out as snuddle.” Her eyes grew misty with remembrance. “It became a kind of ritual from then on. At breakfast, Daddy would solemnly ask if we would be snuddling today. And Mommy would always ask for a good snuddle when we all sat down on the couch together.” She laughed then, banishing the threatening tears, a bright, happy sound that unexpectedly moved him. “I thought of that when the children clamored to sit close to me. So I explained the concept to them. They immediately seized on it, inventing their own version which, as you saw, involves at least one body part of each child’s touching at least one of mine!”
Vincent looked down at his feet and shook his head, his mass of golden hair draping to hide his smile. When he looked up again, his face was sober, although his blue eyes sparkled with merriment. “You may have instituted a new Tunnel tradition, Catherine. Congratulations.”
“I’m sure whichever adult is subjected to it next will curse me for it!” she responded with some chagrin.
“Undoubtedly,” he agreed. “I’m trying to imagine William...or perhaps Father...in a mad tangle of children, fighting for a breath and recalling who invented this game.”
She shuddered delicately. “Perhaps if I slip out quietly and never return....”
The smile he had been trying to hide broke forth, revealing the tips of his glittering white canines. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” He gestured at Sebastian and himself. “There are witnesses.”
“You’d betray me to Father?” she accused, trying to keep a straight face, to impress upon him how seriously she regarded this breach of good manners.
“Would you suggest that I take the blame?” He shook his head, indicating that was an unacceptable alternative. “No, you alone must bear the full brunt of the displeasure of the adults Below.” He paused a moment, then added, “I pity you.”
Her eyes widened in astonishment and her lips twitched into a smile. Vincent...teasing her?! This was an unexpected but welcome expansion of their relationship. Catherine had never quite been able to break Vincent of the habit of being slightly formal with her. Unless she was in grave peril or in some deeply emotional circumstance, he was usually so reserved. The rare occasions when he breached that reserve were always followed by extended periods when he would not come to her or allow her to see him - almost as if he were punishing himself for dropping his guard...or taking the time to painstakingly build up that wall of control yet again. She wondered if this breach in the dam of his restraint would herald another of those times when he pulled back to regroup. She desperately hoped not. But she was determined to continue this conversation, delighting in it and knowing he was enjoying it, as well.
“I’ll take your pity then, if I can get no sympathy. And here I thought you liked me,” she added, a pouting smile on her lips, teasing back, showing him they could be light and easy with each other without the sky falling in on them.
But Vincent didn’t reply at once, and the smile faded from his lips. He reached for her hand, clasping it between both of his. His eyes grew serious, their sapphire unfathomably deep. When he answered her, it was with a simple, “I do.”
“You...do?” she responded lamely, unable to believe she’d heard him correctly.
“Like you. Yes...I do,” he repeated. His voice quivered with unexpressed emotion, imbued with a power and urgency that belied the simplicity of those unadorned words.
They stared at each other in rapt astonishment, neither believing what had just been spoken aloud. The tension in the air between them crackled, an anticipation abruptly materializing which staggered both of them. His answer seemed to open a world of possibilities, a world in which words were unimportant. Their bodies swayed, then leaned ever so slightly toward each other, while their eyes, locked, asked the same question. But whatever had been about to happen between them - and Catherine cursed roundly to herself that they always seemed to have the worst timing where such matters were concerned - suddenly they found themselves engulfed by clamoring children, all contending to be the first to show them what Sebastian had made: a dog for Rissa, a giraffe for Samantha, a shark for Eric....
Shaky with unspent emotion, they inspected and admired each balloon animal as best they could, then finally extricated themselves from the excited throng when Sebastian, sensing too late what the children had interrupted, called them back to help him gather his props together for his journey back Above. An apologetic smile from the older man caused Vincent to blush as he realized that, although he did not proclaim any prowess in mind-reading, Sebastian had nonetheless been right on the mark when he had intuited the situation he had seen unfolding between Catherine and himself.
What had he been thinking? To imagine that Catherine would kiss him...and in a public chamber...and in front of the children! He couldn’t believe he’d allowed himself to get so carried away. Just because Catherine looked so invitingly rumpled, so happy, so beautiful, that it was almost more than he could manage to keep his hands to himself. Gods, how he’d longed to brush those errant tendrils of hair from her cheek, to right the upturned collar of her blouse, to smooth the wrinkles from her long paisley skirt....
He shook himself. He had to banish these traitorous thoughts. What would Catherine think of him? What must she already think of him? He’d seen the astonished look on her face. He groaned inwardly, his eyes closing with the despair he felt rising in his heart. This was bound to happen. He knew if he let his guard down, even a little, calamity would follow. And it nearly had. If the children hadn’t come running over, what might he have done? And how would be have faced Catherine afterwards?
“Vincent?” By the concern coloring her voice, Vincent realized this was not the first time Catherine had called his name. While he’d been preoccupied with the disaster which had been so narrowly averted, she had been trying to get his attention. What was he going to say to her? He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
“Are you all right?” she whispered to him as he regarded her with trepidation. The question unsettled him further - she was concerned about him?
“Let’s go somewhere. Your chamber?” she urged as she took his hand and tugged him forward in the direction of the stairs.
He allowed himself to be led, completely mortified by the past few minutes, unable to respond other than to surrender to her urging. Before he realized it, he found himself in his chamber, standing by his bed. Catherine put her hands on his shoulders and patted them, and he complied with the unspoken suggestion, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Vincent? What is it we did after we decorated Kanin and Olivia’s new chambers? Didn’t we put an unlit lantern in the passageway outside their entry? That means the people inside want privacy, doesn’t it?” Her voice was low, compelling, demanding his response. He couldn’t look at her. All he could do was nod in reply, unsure his voice would be steady enough to respond.
She left him for a moment. He heard her soft tread as her booted feet left the carpeted area of his chamber and walked a few paces beyond his entry. Faint metallic sounds drifted back into the chamber, and soon she was standing before him once more. “Is that all I need to do?” He felt her slender hands on his shoulders, shaking him to get his attention. “Vincent? Is that all I need to do? No one will come in now, right?”
He nodded his head to indicate they would not be disturbed. He heard her sigh quietly, then felt her hands move once again upon his shoulders. This time, however, rather than trying to gain his attention, her hands moved in a gentle caress, brushing repeatedly across the heavily padded material of his vest. Despite the thickness of the fabric, he could feel the heat of her hands as she rubbed his shoulders, and he took great comfort from her touch. Yet he marveled that she would dare to touch him so, when a much less personal touch a few minutes ago had nearly led them to disaster.
“I have a question to ask you. Please, Vincent, look at me?” she murmured, and he felt her squeeze his shoulders in encouragement. He could avoid facing her no longer. He summoned what remained of his courage and control and lifted his face to gaze up at her.
Catherine saw the raw vulnerability in the desperate gaze which met her eyes. He was retreating inside himself after the revealing encounter they had shared in the Council Chamber, just as she suspected he would. Next would come...what? A full withdrawal? Perhaps weeks before he would again allow himself to be in her presence? All because they had shared an intensely intimate moment - however inappropriate or inopportune given their location - which they both desperately desired? That would not happen this time, she vowed. Not if she could help it.
She smiled at him in tender encouragement, projecting as much consolation and reassurance as she could through their Bond. She was never sure just how much of her emotional shadings he could sense, but he had told her once that he felt what she felt - so, for what it was worth, she wanted him to feel that all was right within her heart over what had almost transpired between them.
“Before we were interrupted by the children, you told me something that I treasured hearing. You said...you like me. Did you mean it?” she breathed.
He stared at her in blank amazement. She wanted to revisit the painful moments just passed?
She was insisting on an answer. Much as he might wish he could take them back, he couldn’t deny his words. “Yes,” he managed to rasp, wincing at the slight lisp which accompanied the one-word response.
“I’m glad,” she replied, her smiling growing wider in relief. “I thought - just for an instant - that you might still have been teasing me.”
It was a blatant lie and they both knew it. She had been absolutely sure of the truth - and more - behind those words, just as he had been absolutely sincere in uttering them. But as a way of gently easing into what she had to say, she now had his complete attention.
Catherine cupped his face between her hands, holding him still to her gentle perusal. Her gaze drifted adoringly across his features, lingering on his lips for the briefest moment, then lifting to capture his eyes again. “I don’t ever want you to tease me about that. You can tease about anything else. I love it when you do. But how you feel about me is much too important to ever joke about.” Her green eyes misted as tears gathered, and her voice grew husky with emotion. “I love you so much, and I needed to hear you say that you care for me as well. You’ll never know how I’ve longed to hear you tell me how you feel about me.”
His eyes closed in astonishment and awe, and he felt a lump rise in his throat. She’d just spoken the three most wonderful words in his vast knowledge of vocabulary. He had no words to offer her for those remarkable ones she’d just shared with him - he was utterly speechless, incapable of recalling even his own name. Suddenly he felt the warmth of her breath, and a moment later, the press of her mouth upon his in a kiss so feather soft, he wept at the beauty of it.
Catherine murmured his name once, so breathlessly that it dissipated in the air as if made of candle smoke. But hearing it stirred him, drew him, brought him back to the solid reality of the moment. He opened his eyes and gazed upon the beloved face hovering so close to his, and he whispered hoarsely the words he knew she waited - she deserved - to hear. “Catherine, I love you...with all my heart.”
He heard her short gasp, felt the brush of expelled breath which immediately followed it, savored the tears which fell upon his upturned face. When her mouth touch his this time, he was ready, and he molded his unique lips to hers in a shy response, the pressure of this kiss exceeding their first ever so slightly. He felt her smile against his mouth as she nuzzled against his lips for a moment before pulling back.
Catherine stepped close to him, wrapping one arm around his shoulders, one hand holding the back of his head. She tightened the embrace, and Vincent found himself buried against her warmth, the crisp cotton of her blouse warming quickly beneath his face where it pressed against her stomach. He groaned low and lifted his arms to gather her closer, holding her to him around waist and hips. He felt her drop a kiss to the crown of his head, then she laid her cheek upon him there.
They held each other in this way for several heartbeats, not moving, cherishing the unaccustomed intimacy. And Vincent found, to his utter surprise, that he planned to hold her like this forever.
* * *
“Rissa, there you are!” A relieved Geoffrey caught up to the little girl who had wandered away from the children’s dormitory so late in the evening. She was still carrying the balloon dog Sebastian had made for her, unwilling to relinquish the treasure to anyone in the hours since she had been gifted with it.
Geoffrey noticed her shuffling her feet uneasily, and asked, “Were you trying to find the bathroom?”
The sniffling tot nodded her head, looking miserable, as she shifted from foot to foot while clutching her “doggie.”
Geoffrey smiled down at her and playfully pinched her nose. “All you have to do is ask Sarah or Mary to take you, you know,” he explained. Pulling a handkerchief from inside his patchwork vest, he knelt to wipe her tear-stained cheeks.
“I know,” she whimpered, blowing her nose as he held the handkerchief over it.
“But you were too shy, right?” He remembered well when he’d first come Below. The kindness seemed overwhelming sometimes, and it had been difficult to learn to trust the strangers who wanted to help him.
She nodded again. He understood!
Enveloped by a big hug, Rissa sighed in relief. He wasn’t mad at her. He wouldn’t punish her. She hugged him back, hard.
“It’s OK. After a little while, you won’t be so afraid,” he murmured.
Her little arms tightened further around his neck as she whispered back, “Not afwaid of you.”
“Good!” He gave her a final hug, then stood and reached out a hand to her. “Now, let’s get you to the bathroom, then back to bed.”
Five minutes later, they were traversing the passageways leading to the dormitories, Rissa skipping happily next to her new best friend. A chamber entrance was up ahead, and when Rissa noticed it, she asked, “Bincent’s chamber, right?”
Geoffrey nodded approvingly. “Very good! You’re starting to learn your way around. Pretty soon you’ll...hey!”
Rissa had slipped her small hand out of his grasp and was closing the distance to Vincent’s chamber, running hard. Geoffrey couldn’t shout at her to stop - it was deep in the evening and a loud sound would disturb his sleeping family. Then with chagrin he noted the unlit lantern set in front of Vincent’s chamber entrance. He groaned. But it was too late to go after Rissa, as she was even now disappearing within.
Geoffrey held his breath. He was in an agony of indecision. He couldn’t just go in and get her. Even calling for her would be intrusive. But she shouldn’t be disturbing Vincent and he would be the one blamed for letting her run in. Unsure what to do, he just stood there, staring bleakly at the entrance.
Thankfully for his sanity, he didn’t have long to wait. Mere moments later, the little girl came trundling back out of the doorway, her tiny feet, moccasin-clad, making no sound in the soft dirt of the passageway. As he uttered a heartfelt sigh of relief, she grabbed his hand and pulled him, unresisting, further along the tunnel.
“C’mon, Geoffwy,” she whispered.
“What...?” he replied, confused by the proceedings of the past minute.
Rissa turned guileless brown eyes up to his. “Bincent was with Cath’rine.”
Geoffrey closed his eyes and blew out a dismayed breath. “Did they see you?”
“Nope,” the young girl informed him as she continued down the tunnel. “They was snuddling.”