IN THE DEAD OF WINTER COMES ...

"THE HOPE OF SPRING"

By Judy McPherson

"After Paracelsus' disruption of Winterfest and his attempt to take over the Tunnels, could Vincent just let Catherine walk home to her apartment? Maybe not."

 

Shadows danced in the corners of the Great Hall…and across the walls…cast there by the light of the lantern sitting in the middle of the floor. It was an expensive lantern, given to Vincent for his birthday. He could think of no better way to christen its use than this late-night dance with Catherine. The Hall was empty now, except for the two of them. He remembered Father's works to him when they were trapped in the Maze. Father was describing seeing Margaret for the first time: "She was…a vision!" Jacob had whispered as his mind traveled back through the years. Vincent looked down at Catherine and he echoed the words in his mind. Yes, Catherine was a vision tonight with the soft white dress, the muted light, and her contented smile as they waltzed around the room.

Finally, though she strove mightily not to show it, fatigue came washing over her. Vincent grinned at her closed eyes and facial contortions as she tried not to yawn in his face. She couldn't stand the thought of the night ending when they were having such a wonderful, private time together. She had enjoyed her first Winterfest, if you discounted the attempted murder of numerous people and a takeover bid by Paracelsus.

Vincent stopped the dance and pulled her close into his embrace. "Catherine?" he whispered close to her ear, "It's getting very late. We should be getting back."

Catherine nodded her assent, though she would rather have stayed. Vincent held her a moment longer before releasing her, but then placed his hand on the small of her back to direct her toward the table where his cloak and her coat lay, stooping to pick up the lantern on the way. He held her coat for her before he swung his cloak around his shoulders with practiced ease. Catherine couldn't help but admire his graceful movements. His hand once again on the small of her back steered her out the door. She held her coat close against the wind as Vincent lifted the heavy beam and replaced it in the brackets. She marveled once again at the sheer power of the man. She remembered the ease with which he had lifted her in his arms to carry her to the bathing area near his chamber those months ago. She suppressed her feeling of delight at the memory, not wanting to risk the wonderful mood.

Catherine was getting very tired, and Vincent didn't object when she leaned against his side as they made their way back toward the more densely populated area. Catherine was enjoying walking with him and didn't notice how quiet he was.

Vincent was holding a strong debate with himself over whether to take Catherine to the basement of her apartment, or to suggest she stay the night Below in one of the guest chambers. He knew Rebecca's sister had left earlier to head back home, as she had to work the next day. The chamber she had been using was a fairly roomy one, with a dogleg entrance that insured privacy for the occupant. The bed might not have been remade yet, but there was a nightstand in the room where spare sheets were kept. It would be a matter of moments to make it. Her fatigue was only one of the reasons for having her Below. After the attempt by Paracelsus to kill Father and take over the Tunnels, he really wanted Catherine close where he would know she was safe. Of course, she probably would be fine Above in her apartment. But somehow that just wasn't the same as having her close in his world.

Now, what would she wear? It was very late; otherwise he would go to Mary and borrow a gown. He could always loan her a nightshirt, but his thoughts shied away from sleeping in a shirt Catherine had slept in. He was sure he wouldn't get much sleep at all! He thought about the packet he had hidden in the bottom of his wardrobe. Under his clothes, in the back corner he had the gown Catherine had worn during those 10 days she had stayed with them to recover from her attack. He wasn't sure how she would feel about putting on the garment &endash; would it bring back too many memories?

Finally, the second time he caught Catherine as she stumbled due to her fatigue the matter was decided for him. As they came to the crossroad, he turned toward his chamber instead of toward her apartment. At her quizzical look he replied, "I don't think you should try to go back to your apartment so late. You are very tired. I thought you might stay here in one of the guest chambers for the night and head back Above tomorrow. If that is acceptable to you," he added quickly. "If you wish, I can return you to your apartment."

Catherine tried to temper her intense delight, not wanting to trigger a retreat. Instead she let her relief at not having to negotiate the trip up to her apartment filter through to him. "That would be wonderful! I'm so tired all of a sudden I don't think I could make it!"

Vincent dipped his head in acknowledgement and tucked her tighter against him. "Just to support her in case she stumbles," he told himself.

He led her to the chamber she was to use. He left her in the doorway as he went in and retrieved a candle and then went back into the passageway to light it. He then took her arm and escorted her inside, lighting several more candles just inside the door. As he thought, the bed had not been remade. A quick check of the nightstand produced a clean set, but somehow he really couldn't make the bed with Catherine in the room. And most especially with her help. He knew her…there was no way she would let him make the bed without offering to help.

As she reached for the pillowcase, he reached out and stopped her. "Wait a moment. You'll need to change. If you'll come with me, I'll take you to find something to wear," he told her softly.

"Vincent, it's so late. I hate to wake anyone up. If you have an extra t-shirt and sweats, I'll just wear that. Really, it'll be fine."

Vincent nodded and turned to escort her out of the room and to his chamber. The way wasn't difficult or long. After entering, Vincent lighted a few more candles for Catherine's comfort. He didn't particularly need much more to maneuver around the room than the five or so already there, but her eyes weren't as sensitive as his. He knelt down in front of his wardrobe and pulled open the drawer in the bottom. He remembered there was a pair of sweatpants in there he had been meaning to pass along as they had drawn up in the wash and were too short for him now. That should make them a little less long on Catherine than the ones he normally wore to lounge in. Unfortunately, as he was digging around for them he lifted out a stack and there lay the gown Catherine had worn, folded up in the back corner of his drawer. To his intense embarrassment, Catherine saw it from where she was watching the proceedings from behind his left shoulder.

She must have sensed his feelings, for she put her hand on his shoulder to brace her as she knelt down beside him. Slowly she reached out and ran a finger across the well-washed fabric. Her feelings tumbled over each other so fast Vincent was unable to follow them. She was thrilled he had felt so strongly as to keep it. And he had kept it in the drawer with his clothes, not just in a box somewhere.

Vincent lowered his head and let his hair swing forward to hide his face. How had he been so careless as to move that particular stack in the drawer? He couldn't read her feelings, but he was sure she wasn't happy with him for keeping the reminder of that terrible attack. He felt her hand leave his shoulder and sensed rather than saw her lean forward. His head did swing toward her, though, when he heard her say, "That's okay, Vincent. I've found something to wear." She had unfolded the gown and was holding it against her as though it was very precious to her. She looked up into his eyes and she was smiling through her tears.

Vincent reached out a tentative finger and wiped a tear from her cheek. "Catherine…I…" he stammered, not knowing what to say.

Catherine reached out and gripped his hand and pressed it to her cheek before turning and placing a quick kiss on his palm. He was almost too shocked to hear her words, "Oh, Vincent. You can't imagine how much it means to me that you kept this, and kept it close to you! Yes, the attack was horrible, but look at what I gained. You."

Vincent swallowed hard and even managed a small smile before rising and helping her to her feet. He gave her a pair of his thick socks and sent her along to the washroom past his chamber (she knew the way well) and told her to meet him back at the guest chamber when she was finished. As she turned down toward the washroom, Vincent hurried along to the guest chamber to make the bed. He was trying to hurry and finish before she got there, and as a result took twice as long. He was just smoothing the quilt when she walked in, her dress draped over her arm.

"Well, it still fits," she said with a grin, feeling the need to break the tension building in the chamber at the expression on Vincent's face. It was so…controlled. As if he was trying to hide his feelings from her. But she knew.

"Here, I'll take that and hang it for you so it won't get wrinkled," he told her as he reached for her dress.

She handed it over and as he went to the wardrobe in the room to look for a hanger. She took advantage of the situation and turned down the covers on the bed and climbed in. She felt warm inside at the thoughts of Vincent making the bed just moments before just for her. When he turned and saw her already in bed he didn't come closer, but kept his distance.

"Catherine, are you sure you'll be comfortable?" he asked.

"Oh, quite sure, Vincent. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine," she assured him.

"Do you think you'll be warm enough? I looked, but there wasn't an extra blanket or quilt in the wardrobe. It must have been taken with the other linen to be washed. Would you like for me to get you another?" he asked. He knew she wasn't as used to the cooler temperatures Below as he was, and even the residents here used more cover than she had now.

"Actually, I think that might be a good idea. I'm just a little chilled," she told him shyly. She hated to be a bother.

He laughed softly at her, knowing her feelings well. She had changed so much from that spoiled little rich girl she supposedly had been. Personally, he didn't believe Catherine had been as bad as she thought. He told her he would be right back, turned and quickly left the room. He knew he had an extra blanket across the foot of his bed he seldom used unless he had been working in wet conditions and returned chilled to the bone. It had happened again just a couple of weeks ago. That double-thick wool blanket had really felt good that night! He grabbed the blanket up and held it tight against his chest for a few moments. Catherine was Below for the night! And she was going to be using his blanket! One thing was certain; he wasn't going to be sleeping tonight. Thoughts of Catherine were sure to be racing through his head.

He tried to calm his heart rate and breathing as he walked back to Catherine's chamber. He had to get himself back under control! He couldn't barge in there as out of control as some of the teenage boys he had seen. He stopped and leaned against the wall of the tunnel until he felt ready to continue. As he reached the entrance, he stopped and stared at the sight before him.

 

Catherine watched Vincent hurry out the doorway and smiled after him. He was such a dear! She knew his fears and uncertainties, and she knew how much he loved her…as much as she loved him. She snuggled down in the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. The familiar smells of stone and candle smoke came to her in the stillness. She closed her eyes and smiled. Catherine began to relax as she never did in her own bed. The comfort of the Tunnels and Vincent's love wrapped around her and she slid softly, slowly, into sleep.

 

Vincent stood there and stared at Catherine sleeping peacefully. Her face looked so lovely he could only stand there, holding the blanket to him and wishing, in a deep corner of his heart where his conscience thoughts couldn't see it, that it was her.

Catherine must have sensed his presence because she stirred slightly in her sleep and cracked her eyes. Vincent hurried forward, inwardly berating himself for waking her. He spread the blanket over her and pulled it up to her chin. "Shhh, Catherine," he whispered to her. "Go back to sleep." He stroked her cheek gently and she smiled and snuggled toward his hand as she drifted off again.

He knew he should go, but he couldn't leave just yet. He had to make sure she was asleep again, didn't he? He blew out the candles on the nightstand so the light wouldn't be in her eyes. The only ones left were the two on the dresser. That should be enough in case she woke again. He walked over to look at her and felt for her emotions. She wasn't very deep asleep yet. In fact, she was just drifting under again. He wondered if she was going to be warm enough. Maybe he should get another blanket? As he stood there trying to decide what to do, a thought came suddenly to him. Without stopping to analyze it, he turned and strode to an armchair by the wall and returned with it to Catherine's bedside. He put the chair beside the bed and sat down. He would just wait a few minutes and make sure she got deeply to sleep. He could also check to be sure she was warm. Surely she wouldn't mind if he just lifted the covers to be sure her feet were warm? Catherine had laughingly told him once that her feet were often cold at night and she put an extra blanket, doubled, across the end of the bed under the comforter. As a child, sleepovers had been interesting because everyone laughed at how cold her feet were. So much so that she would wear socks to bed!

Vincent lowered himself into the chair and stretched out his legs in front of him. He laced his fingers and rested his hands on his stomach as he looked at Catherine. She was such a dear friend to him, and all the rest of his family. He couldn't imagine a time when she hadn't been there. They got along so well, it was almost as though they had known each other all their lives. Everything they found out only seemed to bring them closer. Books, music, and art were only a few of the topics they had touched on, only to find their tastes very much alike. Vincent leaned his head back and let his thoughts roam back to the evening just past. What a series of ups and downs! It was as the children had described a roller coaster to him. But the end of the night had definitely been one of the ups! Holding Catherine in his arms had been heavenly. She had waltzed divinely, never faltering once. He had seen the popular dances up top, and had wondered if she would think them old fashioned down here. He guessed it was the social circles she traveled in that accounted for her skill with ballroom style dances.

His mind continued to wander back over the night, the feel of her dress under his palm. Just the two of them, all alone in the Great Hall. Ah…

Slowly, his eyes closed and his head dropped back to rest on the back of the chair.

 

Mary saw the light coming from the chamber as she left her chamber early to walk out the cramp in her calf and wondered what was going on. She distinctly remembered she had told Stephanie to be sure the bed was stripped after Rebecca's sister left. She knew the candles were out earlier. She walked to the doorway and stopped, stunned. Then she smiled. Vincent was lying sideways in a much too small chair, his head resting on the foot of the bed that held Catherine. Catherine was on her back, her arms out from under the covers. Mary smiled to see the gown she was wearing. She had suspected it had been appropriated when she couldn't find it after Catherine had returned to her world, but wouldn't ask. The last thing she wanted to do was embarrass Vincent.

And come down to that, what was she going to do now? If she walked in and woke him, he would be mortified at having been seen. Well, she would leave them alone. Vincent had an uncanny internal clock, and it was getting close to the time he normally woke up. She would just let them be. Smiling, she retreated softly back the way she had come. Yes, everything was going to be all right. Maybe after such a dreadful winter, there was hope for a lovely spring.