Written for Winterfest Online 2012
With special thanks to my beta-readers Carole W. and Aliset
For their advice and encouragement
Outside, it was a nasty, dank, perfectly dismal day. Heavy, pewter-colored clouds blanketed the sky, and a mixture of snow, sleet, and freezing rain pelted the streets. People slipped and slid from one street corner to the next, fighting over taxis and shouldering slower folks aside, anxious to get out of the miserable weather. Cabbies honked their horns as they slithered in and out of the heavy noon traffic.
In the midst of this typical January work-day angst, Catherine’s beaming smile was completely out of place, as she hummed quietly to herself in the back seat of the cab, jammed between the window and the two harried lawyers who shared her trip from the courthouse to Central Park West. She barely even noticed the woman’s File-o-fax digging into her ribs or the man’s sopping wet fedora on the back dash drip, drip, dripping onto her silk scarf.
When the taxi arrived at her building, Catherine handed the snarling cabbie a twenty, chirping “Keep the change,” waving an airy goodbye to the oblivious attorneys, now bickering over whose appointment was the more urgent, and practically skipped up the steps into the lobby. Once inside her apartment, Catherine dropped her briefcase on the floor, the mail on the desk, her purse in a chair, her drenched overcoat on the coat stand, and then executed what her father long ago had dubbed her “Happy Dance” – a flamenco-like staccato of clicking heels, pumping arms, and an exuberant cry of “Yes! Yes!! YES!!!!”
Five days! Counting the weekend, she had five whole DAYS off, and Winterfest was TOMORROW!!! “Bless you, bless you Thomas Moran!” she shouted, as she burst into another rendition of the “Happy Dance.”
Not wanting to take any chances with her good fortune, Catherine curbed her enthusiasm long enough to unplug the phone from the wall. She hadn’t exactly had the best of luck with Winterfest. Her first had been marred by Narcissa’s serious injuries and Paracelsus’ bomb attempt. Her second had been completely sidelined by a bad case of the flu.
This year, it looked like her bad Winterfest luck was going to come in threes. Catherine and Joe were deeply invested in prosecuting financier Matthew Magruder for the murder of his business partner, but the evidence was almost completely circumstantial, and they had been working day and night to shore up their case for the Grand Jury.
Just when Catherine had lost hope of having any time off for Winterfest, Magruder’s bookkeeper Thomas Moran had come forward with his boss’ second set of books. In exchange for witness protection, Moran laid out Magruder’s entire embezzlement and money laundering scheme, providing ample motive for the greedy executive to have murdered his partner. Even now, Joe was triumphantly hammering out a plea bargain with Magruder’s cowed lawyers that would put the slimy crook away for at least 50 years.
“Five days, beginning right NOW!” Catherine crowed, kicking off her heels and dancing across the living room carpet to the bedroom, shedding her suit jacket, jewelry, blouse, skirt, and panty hose in rapid succession. “I can even help them finish getting the Great Hall ready!” she exulted, rapidly donning old jeans, sweat shirt, thick socks, and sneakers suitable for a cleaning detail Below.
Into her partially packed duffle bag, Catherine added several extra sets of clothing for her unexpectedly extended visit. Hanging in its protective bag, her new Winterfest dress was a vision of swirling, deep-blue velvet, accented with intricate silver piping on the bodice. A feast for the eyes, as well as luxurious to touch, it was certain to please Vincent’s heightened tactile senses.
Taking the duffle and dress bags to the front door, Catherine grabbed her jacket and plugged the phone back into the wall. Her last burden for the trip Below waited by the door – an enormous double-handled basket containing her thrift store finds and a special request from Mouse – four large bags of colorful marbles.
“I’ll be just in time for a late lunch,” Catherine chortled, as she pushed the combination of buttons that would express the elevator car straight to the basement. The coast was clear, and soon she was peering down the sub-basement ladder, hoping to see Vincent’s beloved leonine features.
No such luck.
“Oh well,” she sighed. “He wasn’t expecting me so soon, and he’s bound to be busy in the Great Hall.”
Just as she was making her last trip up the ladder to reset the concealing boxes and close the doors, she heard an eager voice behind her.
“Catherine need help?”
She smiled down into Mouse’s beaming face, as he hopped excitedly from foot to foot, glancing from her grin to the treasures at the bottom of the ladder and back, caught between his joy in seeing her again and his curiosity about what she might have brought.
“Vincent sent,” he chattered on as Catherine came down the ladder. “Felt you, but couldn’t come. Ropes all frayed on the big chandeliers.” He frowned, shaking his head, “Not good. Need to fix.” With a proud smile, he continued, “Vincent sent Mouse for Catherine. Carry bags?”
Catherine laughed, giving Mouse a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and whispered in his ear, “It’s so good to see you, Mouse.”
The young man turned bright pink and tucked his chin down, pleased and abashed at the same time, and quickly tried to deflect her attention by murmuring, “Catherine take dress? Mouse take bag and basket?”
“Sounds like a plan. Thanks!”
The two friends shouldered their burdens, and Mouse led the way through the break in the brick wall and off into the tunnels.
“Had to change the ways down again,” Mouse explained, as they hustled along the corridor. “Further on. Next building. City workers came down. Big gas leak in a restaurant. Can’t take chances.” He pointed and shrugged. “Dropped false wall here, opened old entry there. Easy!”
“Oh, I remember this way,” Catherine breathed, remembering her very first trip from Vincent’s chamber back to her building over three years ago. “This leads to that big spiral staircase, doesn’t it?”
“Right, right!” Mouse enthused, proud of her. “Catherine smart. Remembers old ways.”
“Catherine also remembers that Mouse asked for something special for his secret project,” she replied with a sly smile.
Gasp. “Marbles?” Mouse asked, hardly daring to breathe. “Catherine got Mouse marbles?”
“Ummmm hmmm,” she nodded, smugly. “Four big bags, lots of different colors! They’re in the basket.”
“Oh! Oh! Catherine come see? Right now?” Mouse squeaked, bouncing on his toes. “Surprise all finished! Jamie helped! Just needs marbles!”
“Sure!” Catherine laughed. “Just let me drop off my things in the guest chamber. I can’t wait to see it!”
“OK, good! OK, fine!” Mouse beamed, scuttling off. “This way!”
“Oh my!” Catherine stared goggle-eyed at the contraption occupying an entire tabletop in Mouse’s chamber. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
It was an enormous, intricate, labyrinthine marble race constructed with multiple quasi-Escher-inspired mazes, marble-powered gears, and an elaborate, continuous-action, stair-step pulley system to bring the marbles one-by-one from the end of the race back to the top of the maze.
“This is just . . . amazing, Mouse!” she grinned, “But how will you ever get it to the Great Hall? It’s so BIG!”
“Easy.” He shrugged, smiling. “Latches here.” Point. “Here.” Point. “Here.” Point. “Open it up, breaks in three pieces. Carry down tonight, put back together. Easy!” He grinned proudly, then pointed shyly at the basket. “Try it out?”
“They’re all yours!” Catherine laughed, handing over the marbles.
Mouse broke open a bag and showed a small handful of marbles to his pet raccoon. “See, Arthur? Marbles! Watch!”
Mouse loaded two entire bags into the receptacle at the top of the marble race, then opened the chute that fed the marbles into the first section of the maze. When the marbles hit the first set of gears, a ratcheting noise began as the entire gear system set into motion and the stair-step pulley started swaying back and forth. The marbles raced around and around the maze, through and over the gears, up to another maze level, then down, down the track until they were caught at the bottom of the stair-step and inched one marble at a time up, up, up, and back into the original receptacle.
“Works! It WORKS!” shouted Mouse, jumping up and down and hugging Catherine with uncharacteristic abandon. “Neat! NEAT! See! Even Father happy! No spills! Marbles clean up all by themselves!”
“It’s just WONDERFUL, Mouse!” Catherine exclaimed.
“Surprise for everyone!” Mouse grinned. “Make everybody happy! Vincent, Father, everybody!”
“It sure will.” Catherine nodded. “And it’s quite an engineering feat. This must have taken you WEEKS to design and build!”
“Long time!” Mouse agreed. “Jamie helped, and Catherine brought parts.” His face lit with a sudden idea. “Catherine help tonight? After work, before dinner?” He pointed. “Catherine, Jamie, Mouse carry three pieces to the Great Hall? Use the back door! Not need Vincent.”
“Of course!” She grinned. “I’d be happy to help!”
As they covered the project with a tarp, Catherine noticed for the first time that Mouse’s chamber seemed much neater than she had remembered. In fact, the living area had been completely rearranged. Then she spied a small washstand in the corner with a mirror and a woman’s hairbrush, as well as a distinctly feminine bathrobe hanging on a hook.
Mouse followed her gaze and blushed a bit. “Oh. Jamie live with Mouse now,” he murmured, shyly yet proudly. “Mouse has a love. Like Vincent and Catherine.”
Momentarily stunned, Catherine quickly recovered, closing her gaping mouth and giving Mouse a slow, sly smile, “Well . . . it seems I’m behind on the news here in the tunnels!”
“No! No!” Mouse quickly interjected with a big head shake. “No! NOT news!” He smiled softly, ducking his head. “Secret. Not tell yet. Jamie says everything brand new. Just for us right now.” Turning on his big puppy-eyes, Mouse pleaded, “Catherine not tell? Not even Vincent?”
He was completely irresistible. “Of course I’ll keep your secret, Mouse,” Catherine replied, “even from Vincent, although I’m sure he would understand. Besides, this really isn’t anybody else’s business, is it? You and Jamie are both adults now, and you can make your own decisions about how you want to live.”
“Right, right!” Mouse agreed with a round-eyed grin. “Mouse decide. Jamie decide. No one else!” He patted Catherine’s shoulder. “Catherine good at secrets!” Then a worried look crossed his face. “Jamie not be mad?”
Catherine chuckled, “I think Jamie will probably be happy to have someone to talk to about this!” She walked over to her basket. “I’m guessing that Jamie’s probably in the Great Hall with everyone else. Shall we go help them finish getting ready for Winterfest?”
Mouse smiled slyly. “OK, good! OK, fine! Take Catherine to see Vincent!”
“OK Vincent,” Cullen shouted over the hubbub of workers in the Great Hall. “Jamie and I have the last hook bolted in place! Go ahead and slowly pull ‘er up so I can make sure she’s properly balanced!”
The morning’s work had required quite a bit of heavy lifting, so Vincent had slowly shed his quilted vest, then his sweater, and finally his flannel shirt as he worked up a sweat. His last remaining layer – a long-sleeved thermal Henley – molded to his powerful torso as he slowly raised the heavy chandelier until it hung about three feet above Cullen’s work table.
This was the first sight that greeted Catherine’s eyes when she and Mouse entered the Great Hall – Vincent’s supple form angled to steady the chandelier for Cullen’s final inspection, arms stretched out along the rope, muscles flexed, feet planted, legs braced, upper torso arched back. “Magnificent!” she thought, as she drank in the beauty of Vincent’s unconscious display of raw power and a warm ribbon of desire spooled up her core and flushed her cheeks.
Just then, she noticed a sudden slight tightening in his neck. “Ooops!” she winced. “He felt that!” To her surprise, Vincent turned his head and gave her what she could have sworn was an almost sultry glance before slowly and smoothly hauling the chandelier up into position and tying it off on the wall bracket, each move a gracefully choreographed dance of muscles rippling through his full range of motion.
“I don’t believe it!” she gasped inwardly, thrilled. “He’s actually showing off!”
The fixture settled securely in place, Vincent stretched out his arms, flexing his back and rolling his head from side to side, shaking off the strain of his latest feat of strength. He then put on his shirt, buttoning two of the middle buttons to keep it from flapping about him as he crossed the hall to greet her with a low, raspy, rumbling, “Catherine.”
“Vincent,” she breathed, placing her hand gently over his great heart, her eyes shining with unspoken endearments, then sparkling with a bit of mischief. “Looks like I got here just in time for the finale of the floor show,” she purred.
“Catherine!!” He chuckled, blushing a bit, then laying his hand over hers and entwining their fingers to draw her further into the Hall.
“Show! What show?” Mouse burbled, looking about. “Stage empty.”
“A joke, Mouse,” replied Vincent. “Catherine enjoyed watching me raise the chandelier.”
“Oh.” He paused, thinking. “Don’t get it.” Then he lifted his burden. “Where should Mouse put basket?”
“Over there in the corner, Mouse,” she replied. “I imagine Mary won’t want to start dressing the tables until all the cleaning is done and the dust has settled.”
“That’s right, dear,” said Mary, as she bustled over to hug Catherine, while Mouse placed the basket in an out of the way corner. “Oh, how good it is to see you, Catherine! We weren’t expecting you today!”
“Yes,” Vincent added. “I felt your elation this morning. There must have been a break in your case.”
“Oh, Vincent.” Catherine sighed, giving him a gentle hug and tucking her head into that perfect nook under his chin. “The best possible break – a witness with iron-clad evidence. Joe gave me the rest of the week off!”
“How wonderful! You’ll be able to enjoy Winterfest and have a nice long visit with us afterwards,” gushed Mary. “Now, you come right over here and sit down with the others for some lunch. William sent down plenty of food.” And off she bustled, calling, “Kipper! Geoffrey! Come help me serve our last group!”
“Great!” chirped Jamie, flopping down on the bench to Catherine’s right while Vincent settled more sedately to her left. “I’m starved, and William said he was making chicken and dumplings, my favorite!”
“What’s in the mysterious basket, Catherine?” asked Cullen with a sardonic wink, as he dropped onto the opposite bench.
Catherine laughed, “Oh, nothing terribly exotic, Cullen. Mrs. Draper, the Helper at the Second Avenue Thrift Store, told me that a small hotel in the neighborhood had redecorated and was donating its old table linens and holiday decorations. I thought we could use some extra cloths for these big tables, plus a few dozen more napkins, and some fluffy garlands to help dress up William’s serving tables. All second hand and very inexpensive,” she reassured Vincent before he could object.
“Catherine always finding good stuff.” Mouse grinned as they settled down to enjoy William’s good food.
Hours later, the cleaning crew was at last finished setting the Great Hall to rights. Vincent and Catherine strolled together, hand-in-hand, while Mouse and Jamie straggled along behind, whispering and conferring furtively. As they closed in on the intersection separating Vincent’s quarters from the tunnel leading to Catherine’s guest room, the big man admitted, “I’m glad Mary insisted on preparing your guest room, even though we thought your case would prevent you from being able to spend much time with us for Winterfest this year.” He dipped his head, a golden fall of mane shadowing his unique features. “I trust you have everything you need?”
Catherine slipped one arm around his waist and reached up to lift his chin, her green eyes caressing Vincent’s cobalt blue with the tenderest of glances. “I have the beginning of everything I could ever want or need right here in my arms, Vincent.” She placed a finger against his lips as he opened them to object, “Shhh. I know you don’t believe me, but this is my truth, and someday I hope it will be your truth as well.”
“Catherine . . .” he rumbled, as she gently traced the curve of his lower lip before placing her hand once again over his heart.
“It’s all right,” she whispered, softly patting his chest. “I’ll see you in the dining hall.” Then she backed away a few paces, gazing at him with her heart in her eyes, before turning down the tunnel to her guest chamber.
As her shadow slipped around the corner, Vincent raised his fingers to his lips, still tingling from her touch.
Catherine . . .
Catherine had just begun gathering together clothes and toiletries to wash up in the guest bathing pool, when she heard Jamie call out, “Catherine, may we come in?” from the chamber entrance.
“Sure!” she chimed, as the young couple entered. “Let me guess, you want to take Mouse’s surprise down to the Great Hall now.”
“Right! Right!” chirped Mouse, head bobbing. “Go now. Everyone else bathing. Just be a little late for dinner. Keep surprise secret.”
“Besides,” Jamie interjected, blushing, “I was hoping maybe I could share your bathing pool when we’re done, Catherine. Mouse tells me you know our secret, and I’d like to explain . . .”
“No explanations are necessary,” said Catherine with a gentle wave of her hand, “but I’d sure love to have your company. You know we can talk about anything.”
“Thanks.” Jamie sighed, giving Catherine a big hug. “This is really important to me.”
“OK, good! OK, fine!” Mouse grinned at Jamie. “Told ya! Catherine understands. Let’s go!”
As Mouse scampered ahead down the tunnel, Jamie linked arms with Catherine and confided, “First of all, I want you to know that nothing has happened. Yet. We’ve been friends forever, but . . . something has changed. For both of us. It happened about two months ago during a swimming lesson. Mouse has always been really nervous in the water, and it’s been a challenge helping Vincent to teach him just the basics. Anyway . . . I had my arms under Mouse, talking to him, trying to get him to relax and stop grabbing at me and just lay back and let me hold him up in the water. I looked down into his face and said something like, ‘Don’t you trust me?’ He froze for a moment, and then he just let go of all the tension in his body, reached up to touch my face, and said, ‘Mouse trust Jamie. Always. Mouse . . . loves Jamie.’”
“Wow,” breathed Catherine.
“I know, right?!” Jamie exclaimed. “I mean, just that one little touch and a few sweet words, and I knew.” She stopped and gave Catherine another huge hug. “Oh my gosh, Catherine!” she gushed. “It’s so good to talk about this with someone!”
Catherine smiled. “I’m honored you’re willing to share this with me, Jamie. And believe me, I know exactly how you feel!”
“Hah!” Jamie snorted. “I guess you do!” Then she stopped short again. “Wow! I never thought about it, but you really don’t have anyone to talk to like this about Vincent, do you?” Catherine shook her head ruefully. “Oh, Catherine! I’m ready to burst after holding onto this secret for just two months. But you’ve been keeping really BIG secrets from your friends for years!! How do you stand it?!!”
Catherine linked arms with Jamie and continued down the tunnel. “It hasn’t been easy. I can talk with Peter, especially about the tunnels, and that helps. But it’s more like talking to an uncle or a surrogate father, not like sharing secrets with a close girlfriend or a sister. And even if I could talk with someone, there’s only so much I can share,” she mused. “Vincent is such a very private person, and our relationship is so fragile. He has so many doubts about himself . . . .”
Then she shook herself and perked up, “Enough about that! I want to know how you managed to move in with Mouse and keep it a secret from everyone else! Especially Father!”
Jamie chortled. “Almost all of my furniture and most of my stuff is still in my chamber, so it’s pretty easy to keep up appearances. And since Mouse and I work together almost all the time, nobody thinks twice about us spending a lot of time in his chamber. I just brought down a few clothes and necessities at a time, and then one day, Mouse looked around and asked, ‘Jamie live with Mouse now?’ And that was it. To tell you the truth, I’m looking at this as an experiment.”
“An experiment?” Catherine queried.
“Well think about it,” Jamie continued. “Mouse has lived alone almost his entire life. Even after Vincent convinced him to join the community, he chose a solitary chamber far away from the main hub. He’s still rather wary about letting people touch him.” She sighed, “Look, I know Mouse is really fundamentally different. Father thinks he might have Asperger’s syndrome or some form of high-functioning autism. Or maybe he built up protective mental walls in order to survive whatever trauma left him scrounging and hiding in the tunnels when he was just a little kid. He’s never been able to talk about that at all. I think he may have blocked it out completely.”
She impatiently wiped away a furtive tear. “I know Mouse loves me! But I don’t know if he’s capable of sharing a day-to-day life in close quarters with someone else. He’s come an amazingly long way from the wild animal Vincent brought home. But Mouse can still be pretty oblivious to other people’s feelings and needs sometimes, you know? So I want us to find out if we can share a life together before anything intimate happens.” She barked out a short laugh. “Then I’ll really have my work cut out for me!”
“What do you mean?” Catherine asked.
Jamie blushed, “Mouse is really innocent when it comes to the birds and
the bees. Father never
bothered to include him when he had ‘The Talk’ with the rest of the
boys, and he’s worked hard to make sure Mouse doesn’t get any ‘ideas’
about girls, so I’ll have to start at the very beginning.”
She squared up her shoulders.
“I’m going to treat it like a building project with lots of
pictures and diagrams and . . . I don’t know . . .
The two young women laughed together. “Well, it sounds to me like you have really thought this through,” said Catherine, “and you have a smart plan in place. But most importantly, you’re following your heart. You and Mouse both deserve to have someone wonderful love you back.”
“Thanks, Catherine. And I do have hope.” Jamie blushed again, looking at Catherine from the corner of her eyes. “Mouse likes to kiss me, and he was a surprisingly fast learner!” She grinned and tapped a finger to her lips.
Catherine gaped and then burst out laughing, “Why Jamie! You lucky girl!” Then, she sobered a bit. “Vincent will sometimes kiss me on the top of my hair, but that’s all.” She looked up at Jamie with a determined glint in her eye, “So far! I have hope too, and I’m hoping for a special gift this Winterfest. A real kiss.” She sighed and mirrored Jamie’s gesture, laying a finger briefly on her lips.
“It’ll happen, Catherine! You’ll see!” Jamie exclaimed, giving her a one-armed squeeze. “Vincent really loves you, you must know that!”
Catherine was about to answer when Mouse came careening around the corner and nearly knocked them both down. “Oh! Oh! This is bad!” he shouted, bouncing up and down. “Worse than bad! Worse than worse!”
“Mouse, calm down!” Jamie soothed, putting a gentle arm over his shoulder and stroking his cheek. “What’s wrong?”
“Arthur!” Mouse squeaked, clutching her. “Gone! Looked all the usual places! Not there! Gone!” Bouncing again. “Bad! This is BAD!”
“Oh no!” Jamie groaned. “Did you check down by our spring? You know he sometimes goes there if his water dish gets empty.”
Mouse shook his head adamantly. “Not there! Not anywhere!”
“Did you check under the tarp? Around your project?” Catherine asked.
“Not there! NOT THERE!” Mouse shouted.
“OK, OK,” Jamie soothed. “Don’t shout at Catherine, she’s just trying to help.”
“Sorry, Catherine! Sorry!” Mouse keened, fretting, trembling. “Father will be so mad! Everybody mad at Mouse!”
Jamie glanced apologetically at Catherine. “We’d better head straight to the dining room and get a search started right away. Arthur has a history of getting into trouble when he goes missing.”
Father’s bellow could be heard the entire length and breadth of the dining hall, turning heads left and right. Mouse cowered behind Catherine and Jamie.
“Father, please,” Catherine pleaded. “Calm down! Mouse is terribly upset already, and yelling at him won’t do any good.”
“Yes, yes.” Father puffed as he struggled to his feet, searching for his walking stick. “I’m sorry, Mouse, I didn’t mean to upset you. But you must understand, Catherine. Arthur is naturally a very curious creature, and his escapades usually result in some kind of enormous mess, if not outright damage.”
“Oh my, yes,” Mary agreed, handing Father his cane. “Do you remember the time Arthur got loose in the laundry room? By the time we caught him, he’d overturned a wash basin and dumped an entire box of soap powder onto the floor. We were slipping and sliding everywhere trying to get it cleaned up, and it took gallons of water to get rid of the soap residue.”
“One time, Arthur unrolled an entire spool of candle wicking and tangled it into a hopeless knot all over my work bench,” added Rebecca. “That big blue spot on the floor came from a broken bottle of dye.”
Just then William came barreling up in a frenzy. “Please tell me, I heard wrong!” he shouted. “Don’t tell me that rodent is on the loose again!”
“Now, now, William,” tutted Father pedantically. “I certainly sympathize, but I must remind you that raccoons are not rodents. If I remember my taxonomy, they are actually much more closely related to bears than to rodents.”
“Fine, then,” William snapped, “I don’t want that animal anywhere near my kitchen and pantries! Need I remind you that last year just before Winterfest he managed to break into a twenty pound sack of flour, track it everywhere, and then polish off two entire mince pies? Not to mention how sick he was afterwards – all over my counters?!!!”
“Please, everyone!” Catherine urged. “Let’s not jump to conclusions!”
“You don’t understand, Catherine,” William boomed. “That raccoon is a menace!”
By this time, poor Mouse was hiding behind Jamie, clinging to her shoulders, weeping miserably. Suddenly, a huge roar echoed through the room, and Vincent strode up to put a protective arm around the trembling inventor.
“That’s enough!” Vincent quietly commanded when the echoes died down. “I don’t think there’s a single person here who hasn’t created a mess or caused a problem at one time or another. You seem to be forgetting the most important point here. A member of our family is missing! Arthur is very dear to Mouse, and you are all carrying on without any concern for his feelings! Arthur could be lost or trapped somewhere, perhaps even hurt or sick!”
“I’m very sorry, Mouse,” Father apologized, gently patting Mouse on the shoulder. “Very sorry, indeed. Vincent is absolutely right everyone. Above all else, Arthur is a beloved member of our tunnel family, and we need to organize a search right away. Kipper, I want you to run a message to Pascal and have him sound an all-clear and get the word out on the pipes for everyone to check their living spaces. Mary, would you and the older children help William start here in the dining hall, kitchen, and pantries? Rebecca, please check your workshop and the laundry. Sarah, I’d like for you to take the younger children and search the dormitories. Jamie, why don’t you and Mouse go check in with Cullen and search the other workshops and the foundry? Vincent, would you and Catherine be so kind as to help me search my library? Send word on the pipes as soon as Arthur has been found. We’ll all meet back here in one hour to report in!”
An hour later, most of the tunnel residents had returned to the dining hall with no news about the missing raccoon. Father sighed. “It’s getting late. Many of us still haven’t had any dinner, and the younger children need to go to bed.”
“Mary and the older children helped me organize carry-out meals for anyone who missed dinner,” said William.
“Thank you! That will be very helpful as we expand our search,” added Father. “Rebecca, why don’t you and Sarah get the younger children fed and off to bed. I’d like Eric and Geoffrey to stay and help William clean up the kitchen and prepare for tomorrow. The rest of us will figure out the next search pattern.”
As the others dispersed to carry out Father’s plan, Mouse moaned helplessly, “Jamie, Jamie. This is bad. Really bad. Arthur never gone this long!”
“I know, Mouse,” she replied, gently hugging him and kissing his temple. “Please don’t give up hope. We’ll find him!”
“Mouse,” said Catherine softly, rubbing his back. “When and where did you last see Arthur?”
Mouse sniffled and then raised his head from Jamie’s shoulder. “Catherine knows. In Mouse and Ja- . . . In my chamber. When you saw . . . Um . . . You know!”
“Oh,” Catherine responded, thinking back. “Oh . . . Oh!”
“What is it, Catherine?” asked Vincent.
“Oh, Mouse!” Catherine goggled, “You don’t suppose . . . ?”
Light bulb! “Arthur . . . in Catherine’s BASKET?!?!?!” Mouse replied, eagerly, hope dawning.
“You mean the basket of linens and decorations from Mrs. Draper’s thrift store?” asked Vincent. “But that would mean . . .”
“Oh, my stars,” gasped Mary. “Arthur has been in the Great Hall all this time!”
The entire group groaned. “Quickly!” said Father. “We’ll take the back way!”
“I’m coming with you!” William insisted. “All of the nonperishable foods for Winterfest were carried down earlier this evening. Goodness only knows what Arthur’s gotten into!”
As the search party gathered outside the back entrance to the Great Hall, Father cautioned them, “Now, no matter what sight may greet us behind this door, I want everyone to remain calm and quiet. The last thing we want to do is to frighten Arthur into running. We’ll just have a mad scramble on our hands, and the potential for an even bigger disaster.”
“I’ll go in first to light some of the torches,” Vincent suggested, “and Mouse and Jamie can follow behind and softly call for Arthur. The rest of you should hold back for a bit. Hopefully, Arthur will just come directly to Mouse. Then, we can begin assessing any damage.”
When Vincent had half of the torches lit, he waved Mouse and Jamie into the Hall. Just as Mouse was about to call for Arthur, Vincent suddenly threw up his hand, signaling for complete silence.
After listening intently for a few moments, Vincent whispered to Mouse, “Do you hear that?”
Mouse shook his head no, then suddenly stopped, focusing his attention on the corner where he had placed Catherine’s basket earlier that day. He pointed in that direction and whispered, “Squeaking noise. Like mouse.” Pause. “Real mouse. Not Mouse,” he clarified, pointing at himself.
Vincent padded noiselessly over to the basket, peering carefully inside. “Oh my,” he breathed, then gestured, “Mouse, Jamie, come here slowly and quietly.”
Mouse and Jamie tiptoed closer to the basket, and then Mouse slowly sank to his knees, gaping in wonder. “Oh. My. God,” Jamie whispered, placing an astonished hand to her cheek as she joined Mouse on the floor.
“Vincent,” hissed Father impatiently. “What is going on?”
“It’s Arthur,” said Vincent quietly and calmly. “SHE has had three babies.”
Stunned silence. Then, “Ex-, excuse me Vincent,” Father stammered, “I don’t believe I heard you properly. Did you say that Arthur has had babies?”
“Arthur,” murmured Mouse tenderly. “Arthur . . . a Mommy!”
“Baby raccoons!” hissed Kipper excitedly. “I want to see them!”
“Wait! Wait, everyone! Please!” urged Father, quickly regaining his composure and holding back an impending rush of eager children. “New mothers are very skittish and protective of their babies. I believe we should stay well back, and let Vincent, Mouse and Jamie handle this situation.”
“Oh!” whined Samantha, bouncing rather like Mouse. “But I want to see them!”
“Samantha,” said Vincent quietly but firmly. “Some wild animals will kill and eat their babies if they feel they are being threatened. I don’t believe Arthur would do that, since he . . . um . . . SHE knows all of us so well. But do you really want to take that chance?”
“No,” pouted the pre-teen. “I guess you’re right.”
“Father,” continued Vincent quietly. “I don’t see that Arthur has caused any damage at all down here. In fact, I suspect he,” head shake, sigh, “SHE never even left the basket after it was brought down here. She was probably in labor the entire time. Since it’s already so late, I think the children should go back to the hub for dinner and bedtime. There will be plenty of time for everyone to see Arthur’s babies tomorrow after SHE has had a chance to calm down and get some well-deserved rest.”
“No,” said Mouse with quiet determination. “NOT tomorrow. Tomorrow is Winterfest. Everyone busy, all excited. Tomorrow Arthur rest, take care of babies. NO visitors. Everyone see babies the next day.”
“I think that’s very wise and very sensible, Mouse,” said Father proudly. When the children started complaining, he continued, “Now, now, Mouse is absolutely right. Arthur deserves the same consideration we would give to any new mother in the tunnels – a chance to rest and spend quiet time with her new babies.”
“Come along children,” Mary chimed in. “With William’s permission, I’ll get out some of the cookies he made for Winterfest, and we’ll have an early tasting party, how about that?” The children grudgingly moved off murmuring, “OK,” and “Oh boy, cookies,” and “But I really wanted to see the babies,” etc., with several adults joining Mary to shepherd the brood back to the main hub.
The remaining adults moved further into the room, Father and Catherine edging close enough to peer around Vincent and into the box. “Oh my,” Catherine breathed. “Aren’t they just adorable?”
The raccoon cubs looked almost like little puppies except for the pointed noses and the already visible bandit mask across their tiny faces. Like most baby animals, their eyes were not yet open.
“Father, how on earth did you miss THIS?” asked Cullen impishly.
“Well,” Father spluttered, a bit embarrassed, “I’ve never actually examined Arthur. By the time we discovered that Mouse was raising a young raccoon in his chamber, he had already named him, um, HER, Arthur, and I guess I just assumed . . .”
Vincent chuckled. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Father! We ALL assumed Arthur was male.”
“Yes,” Father smirked. “Well, clearly we were all WRONG! I just can’t figure out how this happened! Raccoons don’t burrow far enough underground to come even remotely close to our tunnels, and Arthur never goes outside. How on earth did she get preg . . . um . . . find a mate?”
Dead silence, suddenly interrupted by a quiet, “Oh . . .” from Mouse.
“Yes, Mouse?” asked Father. “Do you have something to tell us?”
“Well …” Mouse squirmed. “Long time ago, before Thanksgiving. Arthur restless. Not sleeping, wriggling around a lot, getting into everything. Annoying!” He continued defensively, “Took Arthur up Top to the park. Fresh air, exercise good for Arthur! Thought Arthur would settle down.” He sighed, “Arthur not like sunlight. Ran off! Couldn’t find.” Fretting. “Looked everywhere. All afternoon. FINALLY found him . . . HER! By the pond.” He wrinkled his nose. “Arthur all messy. Brought home and gave bath.”
“Ah!” said Catherine with a sly smile. “Well, you know the old saying, Father . . .”
“What would that be, Catherine?” asked Vincent with a slight smile, anticipating some sort of mischief.
Instead, she sobered and looked tenderly into Vincent’s startling blue eyes. “Nature finds a way.”
“That’s all very well,” hissed William tensely. “But I want to know what we’re going to do about this situation. ONE raccoon in the tunnels is more than enough. We can’t have four – we’ll never have any peace! And you know those children are all going to want to keep them! We have to decide what to do with them right now, before anybody gets attached to them!”
“NO!” Mouse shouted, jumping up and marching over to stand toe-to-toe with William. “Arthur’s babies! Not yours! No one take . . .” Gasp! “Steal! STEAL! No one STEAL Arthur’s babies and make Arthur SAD!”
As William’s tenuous control on his temper began to unravel, Jamie jumped between the two angry men and urgently whispered, “Mouse you have to stay calm or you’re going to upset Arthur. I know you don’t want that!” She glanced meaningfully at William. “Nobody is going to take Arthur’s babies, OK? I won’t let them!”
“William, please,” said Vincent gently. “I know you have concerns, but this isn’t helping.” William threw his arms up in the air and stalked away to gather his composure.
“Mouse,” Vincent continued, drawing the young man away from the angry cook and back over to Arthur’s basket. “Do you remember the wildlife book we read together so you could learn how to take better care of Arthur?” Mouse nodded, suspicious. “Do you remember what the book had to say about how long baby raccoons stay with their mothers before going off to live on their own?”
Mouse wrinkled his brow, thinking hard and then remembering, not exactly pleased with the results. “Three months. Sometimes as long as nine.”
“That’s right,” said Vincent. “You see, after a while, Arthur will want her babies to go live somewhere else.”
“But,” murmured the young man softly, “Mouse loves Arthur’s babies. Can’t just put them out!”
“Mouse,” Catherine broke in gently. “Do you remember the lady you met when we took the children to the Central Park Petting Zoo a few months ago?”
Mouse nodded eagerly. “Nice doctor lady. Red hair! Let Mouse give bottle to a baby goat!”
“That’s right!” Catherine smiled, then continued to Vincent and Father. “My friend Dr. Suzanne Metzner is the veterinarian in charge of the Central Park Petting Zoo. She often schedules tours for people with special needs or circumstances, and she took quite a shine to Mouse. Once they’re weaned, I’m sure she’d be very happy to have three tame baby raccoons for the petting zoo.” Back to Mouse, “You and the children could visit Arthur’s babies any time you like. What do you think?”
Mouse looked down adoringly at Arthur and the baby raccoons, brow wrinkled, thinking REALLY hard. “OK, good! OK, fine! Hear that, Bandit? Rebel? Scamp? You get to have a home in a nice zoo!”
“Oh, dear Lord,” murmured Father. “They already have names!”
Catherine patted his shoulder and murmured back, “There, there, Father! When the time is right, I suspect Suzanne would be willing to perform a little surgical procedure so this doesn’t happen again, in exchange for those darling baby raccoons, of course. Hmmm?”
“Yes, indeed, my dear,” Father agreed, squeezing her hand. “As always, you have proven to be sensitive, wise, and resourceful. Whatever would we do without you?”
Cullen crept over to pat Mouse on the shoulder, as he basked in the wonder of Arthur’s unexpected gift. “Just one more question, kiddo,” Cullen asked with a sly wink. “Arthur is a boy’s name. What are you going to call your raccoon now?”
Mouse looked up sharply. “Oh!” Brow wrinkled. Thinking REALLY hard. Huh!
“Arthur!” Mouse replied firmly. “Always been Arthur. Still Arthur.” Shrug. “Just girl Arthur!”
Later on, as Vincent and Catherine watched Jamie and Mouse gently carrying Arthur’s basket home to Mouse’s chambers, the big man shifted their carry-out dinners to one arm and placed the other gently around Catherine’s waist, leading her back towards her guest room and whispering, “I know about Jamie and Mouse.”
“What? How?” she stammered, looking up at him incredulously. Then, “Oh . . .”
Vincent laughed softly as he placed their dinners on the small table in the corner and drew up two ladder-back chairs. “I may not share a Bond with them, as I do with you, but I can still sense the feelings that pour off them whenever we’re in the same room.” He looked down, his mane shadowing his face and shook his head in wonderment. “Mouse absolutely adores Jamie, and she loves him so completely, despite his many differences and challenges.”
“Yes,” replied Catherine, waiting for him to look back her way. As soon as Vincent met her eyes, she continued, her voice trembling with emotion, “That is their truth.”
He gazed at her for a moment, and then dropped his eyes, overwhelmed.
“Too much,” thought Catherine, sighing inwardly. “Too much, too soon, Cathy. When will you ever learn?” She drew in a calming breath and turned to get the kettle of hot water from the brazier to make some tea. But before she could move, Vincent’s warm hands settled possessively on her shoulders, turning her back around to face him.
“Our truth, Catherine,” Vincent rumbled, his voice nearly an octave lower than normal, his eyes dark, glowing with an inner fire, as he finally moved towards love and lowered his unique mouth to hers for a tentative, then increasingly ardent kiss.
One thought spiraled through Catherine’s mind before she completely lost herself in the astonishing gift of Vincent’s first kiss . . .
Thank you, Arthur!