Vincent easily moved downward along the windy staircase, hair whirling around his face, the woman he was carrying, carefully wrapped in his cloak, happily snuggled against his chest. The pace was brisk, if slower than usual, to avoid frightening her, and to allow the man following them with a torch to stay close.
"… and it was so kind of you, Vincent, to come for me, I cannot thank you enough!"
"Well, Therese, surely you are trying, as this is the fifth time you've thanked me!" he replied with a smile.
"It would have been the first time I missed Winterfest… "
"Mom, I think that's the fifth time you've said that as well," commented the man following them, a chuckle in his voice, "and if you mention the operation again, I'll scream!"
With her piercing voice that defeated the loud sound of the wind, she replied over Vincent's shoulder: "Oh, Craig, of course it's a good thing if at last this afternoon you received that liver match for the transplant you've been waiting for so long, but I… "
"She said it! She said it!" interrupted her son, "Vincent, can I scream? Please?"
"You'll never have a better place or opportunity to scream, Craig! Go for it!" Vincent responded laughing, while the old woman squeaked, "Stop teasing me, you youngsters!" giggling as well.
"Teasing? He's deadly serious! Actually, you should rent the place to frustrated topsiders, Vincent!" Craig stopped, braced himself securely on one of the steps, and shouted at the top of his lungs "AAAAaaaahhhh!", and the sound danced with the wind.
Vincent, chuckling, continued the steady descent with his light burden, who squealed, "Oh, stop it, you rascal! Just think if your colleagues at the hospital could see you now!"
"If his colleagues could see him right now, I think they'd have several puzzling things to sort out, not only his shouting," said Vincent, and again he could not suppress a burst of giggling, promptly followed by the other two.
That was Craig. Terribly talkative, graced by a joyous demeanor which mysteriously put everybody he met at ease and in a good mood, he did not quite appear the reliable and committed surgeon who, in his early thirties, was already one of the most appreciated assets of his surgical ward. His mother, Therese, with the same friendly and easy going personality, had been a Helper almost from the beginning, and he had grown up often visiting the Tunnels and playing with the children there. And eagerly absorbing the Tunnels' code and values.
"If I can have a say, I'm very happy to be here as well," he said. "Last year for Winterfest I was in Rwanda visiting my Doctors without Borders friend… quite an experience, Vincent, I'd like to tell you about it…."
"And I very much would like to hear…." Vincent replied.
"I will. Heartbreaking, but terribly rewarding, from the human and from the professional point of view... but speaking of walking the world… I hear that Devin is attending this year! I heard he was back sometime last year, that he visited the tunnels almost like a resurrected ghost…."
"Oh, yes, that dear Devin," interjected his mother.
"… and then that he returned with that amazing friend of his… the one with the neurofibromitosis."
"Yes. Charles. He's here as well. Devin brought him, out of a sudden inspiration that he should experience a crowded place in safe surroundings, which he never does."
"Oh, how thoughtful of him!" Theresa said.
"Mmmm… maybe… but although the surroundings are safe, and people have been properly warned, so that they are friendly and welcoming, Charles is terrified all the same, albeit terribly excited. And he clings to me, because of course Devin is the star tonight, and is being captured by everybody who once knew him and wants to greet him and be filled in….Charles would scarcely let me get away to come meet you when the word was sent on the pipes that you had arrived and were ready to come down."
"Oh, and it was so kind of you to leave everything to come for me, Vincent…"
"Sixth time!" the two men exclaimed in sync, with a new burst of chuckling.
"Oh, well, I can't help myself, so be ready for the seventh as well, I'm too glad to be here. I'm only sorry I missed the candlelighting ceremony… but more than happy that you are carrying me down, or I'd never have made it at all…."
"Or you'd have made it just in time for the candlelighting… next year! Vincent, it wasn't more than fifteen minutes from when the sentry sent the message to when you arrived. Did you fly up these stairs? Oh, by the way, that poor sentry was a tad sad, all alone while you folks are here having fun…."
Chatting and laughing, they had finally arrived at the Great Hall doors, and Vincent put Therese on her feet, to open a crack in the doors and let them slip in.
The warmth, the light and the merry sounds filling it welcomed them, as well as several people who promptly came to receive and greet mother and son. While Therese was immediately surrounded by her old acquaintances and drawn away to join the fun, happy to tell afresh about the delay, the surgery, and how nice Vincent was, a very happy Charles almost ran toward Vincent, with Mouse in tow.
"You are back! I have been waiting for you," he said grinning.
"Yeah. Watching door. All the time," added Mouse who had proclaimed himself Charles' guardian for the time being, "Hi Craig!"
"Hi, wonder boy!" he replied punching his shoulder.
"Thank you, Mouse. Charles, this is Craig. I went to meet him and his mother, remember? Craig, meet Charles."
With a shy smile, the big hand of the gentle giant engulfed Craig's, who said, "Oh, Charles! I heard about you, and I'm happy to meet you! Great friend of Devin, right?" and beyond his easy attitude, Vincent could sense the physician's wonder and interest.
"Yes, also Vincent's!" Charles replied, proudly taking his arm. "Vincent, will you come with me now and…"
Where Charles wanted Vincent to go was cut off by a delighted cry from Craig, staring in astonishment over Charles' shoulder: "I cannot believe it! Tell me it's Catherine Chandler I see coming this way! Tell me that lovely creature is a Helper! Oh… there is a God, definitely there is a God, and he loves me!" and he darted in her direction, leaving the other three in varying degrees and types of surprise.
Charles watched the man scuttling through the crowd to reach Catherine, and then unperturbed, continued, "… will you come with me and tell me something about the tapestries? Mouse does not remember who the…"
Catherine was trying to crawl her way toward Vincent, and her reaction at seeing Craig was an astounded smile. Vincent's extraordinary sense of hearing could catch, "Craig Jenkins? You're the Craig Vincent went to pick up?"
"Absolutely it's me, and I'm absolutely happy to meet you here! Cathy, what a wonderful surprise and what an incredible gift! You're beautiful!" and he caught her hands and opened her arms to admire her elegant Winterfest attire, while Vincent could sense a little embarrassment in her, along with the pleased wonder.
She quickly looked at him over Craig's shoulder, and took the man's arm to lead him back to the three of them. "Oh, surely a surprise, but this world never ceases to amaze me… Craig Jenkins a Helper!"
"Cathy Chandler a Helper!" and both broke into laughter.
"Vincent!" Craig exclaimed a moment later, smiling broadly, "do you know how long I've been trying to see Cathy beyond the shifts we share at the suicide hotline? No way! The most fascinating woman I ever met, after my mother, and a true sphinx. Now, I understand a lot of things… but tonight…" he added looking at her mischievously.
Catherine was uncertain, trying to catch Vincent's feelings, yet a little part of her could not help being amused at the situation, and laughingly replied, "After your mother? Oh, a true honor!"
"Oh, you'll understand when you meet mommy! Eh, Vincent?" Craig retorted, laughing as well.
Her brain was wondering about the most appropriate way to cool down the exuberant man who still clung to her arm. Stop fooling around, Craig, I am Vincent's woman. Please, Vincent, can I say it? For once, she wished Vincent could really read her thoughts. She was "Vincent's Catherine" for most of the Tunnel folk and some of the Helpers, but apart from a few who had seen them holding hands, they kept their relationship so private that most people didn't know of it, and the others thought they just didn't like intruders. Which was essentially the truth. Vincent looked at them, a small, polite smile on his unreadable face, his feelings a blank to her.
"Vincent, will you come with me, please?" Charles persisted, untroubled by the little drama taking place in front of his unaware eyes. Mouse looked at the three of them, unsure what to say or do.
Catherine asked, "Where do you want Vincent to go with you, Charles?"
"To see the tapestries and hear about them" Charles replied. "Yes, Vincent? Please?"
"Oh, I'd like to know about them as well - may I come with you?" Catherine said, knowingly smiling at Vincent, who looked at her and warmly reciprocated her smile, making her feel much better. Good move, Radcliffe!
"Of course… " he begun, but Craig, as unaware and as happily selfish as Charles, had other plans for that night.
"Cathy, please, please take me to William's buffet and let's have a drink and some of his incredible cinnamon cookies... do you know them? They are the very essence of Winterfest! And I want to know everything about how you got to the Tunnels! After, I promise I'll tell you everything about those tapestries, I've known them since I was five, right Vincent?" and lightly tugging at her arm, he headed toward the tables, while Charles clung to Vincent's and began to pose questions, dragging him a little less gently in the opposite direction.
While being separated in such an awkward way, Catherine cast a side glance to Vincent with a small uncertain smile, mirrored in his, then he bent his head to hide his face and commenced to answer Charles, turning to go.
She could not dismiss the unpleasant, silly impression that Charles was more important to him than herself… and that when a man showed interest in her, he just stepped aside for him, raising in her the utterly disturbing feeling that he still did not feel himself worthy of her… that he was always ready to fight for her, not for their love… wrong feelings, stupid feelings, bizarrely mixed with the taste of the kisses they had been exchanging for just the past week and which made her lips tingle at the thought….
Vincent, please know that I don't like this. I am yours. I want to stay with you. And then, she took Craig's arm and walked slowly toward the buffet. "So, you've known the tunnels all your life?"
A very puzzled Mouse continued to stare alternately at the two odd couples going off in opposite directions.
A strange Winterfest, that second of Catherine's. She'd been excitedly expecting it since the night she received that blessed invitation candle, delivered to her with the warm wrapping of their first incredible kisses.
Its two pieces, carefully tied together with a matching orange ribbon, were now in Vincent's pocket along with his own. He had taken them after the candlelighting ceremony, as she had no pockets in her flowing, warm velvet dress, which was orange like the candles as well as the sunny mood she'd been in since that night.
After the magical, moving moments of the opening ceremony, everything seemed to conspire against her expectations, and yours, Vincent, right? Charles, then the two guests to go and pick up, and now, Craig, who never stopped talking, never let go of her arm and led her around like a trophy, making it seem so natural, and even pleasant! What am I doing with him? she thought, pensively considering the charming man at her side. Not the right one.
For almost an hour, she reluctantly had to admit that she enjoyed his company, his witty humor, and his tales about the Tunnel world, about the children with whom he played and grew up, about Father, about Devin - who recognized him and engaged him in a whimsical, funny, bright bantering, causing everyone close to them to laugh hysterically. And about Vincent himself, catching her eager attention.
They walked, ate, danced, and encountered more than one surprised look from the most cognizant Tunnel people. Damn it! What am I supposed to do? Have an argument with Craig to let me go? What if he asks me why? I know what I want to say, but… what does Vincent want me to say?
Every moment she was aware of Vincent's whereabouts in the Great Hall, unable to disengage his arm from the powerful, demanding - no, pleading - grip of Charles' hand. A couple of times she managed to drag Craig close to the cluster of people constantly gathered around them, either playing some games, or watching Sebastian working his magical tricks, or proudly telling an interested bunch of listeners about his and Devin's life in the Northern woods… and the joy shining in Charles' eyes made Catherine blush at the anger slowly building within herself… against fate, against Devin who had abandoned his friend to Vincent's custody - okay, okay, Radcliffe, he's been taking care of him every single day for almost a year now, it's only right he allow himself a moment of respite, but… - and every time she managed to meet Vincent's silent look she felt more impotent and guilty... Damn it!
At last, Craig managed to lead her to a couple of seats in a corner of the Great Hall, a glass of wine in their hands. While his chatter slowed, he became more friendly and willing to listen, rather than talk. He tactfully induced her to tell about her attack and offered his professional opinion about the excellent plastic surgery on her face. He knew the surgeon who performed the operation, the absolute best in town, and Catherine found herself talking of things and feelings she never had spoken of with anybody before. She admitted her satisfaction in seeing her face returned to its former beauty, the energy this gave her, and even the deeply hidden, never revealed thought of the need for revenge behind her choice to join the DA's office. Yes, it's true, all this is also in me. I have to talk with Vincent about this…
And suddenly, Vincent was there, at her side. She lifted her eyes to his face, surprised, and blushed a little, as if caught in some unbecoming attitude.
"Vincent!" and then she didn't know what else to say. He looked straight into her eyes, and immediately she felt inordinately happy, and shy, and off guard, and... it took a little while to realize that Charles was not around.
"Vincent, yeah!" Craig said, stretching against the seat back. "You know, Cathy, this world is magical, we have talked about it a lot tonight, and Vincent is this world. He is the magic itself. Did you ever had the opportunity to experience his empathic powers? And yet…" with a mischievous smile, he addressed himself to Vincent directly, "considering those amazing powers, he ought to know that some moments should not be disturbed…" he said, openly requesting his knowing complicity.
Catherine gave a little gasp. She looked at Craig, and then at Vincent, and was speechless and flustered, desperately seeking something to say…
"Craig", Vincent answered, his look serene, almost amused, "when a charming, clever, gifted man wants to share such moments with Catherine…" and those serene, amused eyes turned on her, while slowly reaching for her hand "… my empathic powers tell me that my place is right here." And while saying so, he gently had Catherine stand up, took her place, and pulled her onto his lap.
And then, Craig just disappeared for them. The joy that exploded in Catherine's heart hit him like a nova, while she helplessly brought his hand to her mouth and kissed it, giddy with surprise and bliss, frozen in his lap, unaware of anything but him.
Yours, I'm yours, you just proclaimed it… was the only coherent thought in her mind and she reveled in it, their hands intertwined. His eyes were tender, and proud, and happy, and… possessive? Yes, you're mine. His feelings caressed her as well as his eyes.
When, after an enchanted while, the surroundings again entered her perception, the enormity of what had just happened struck her. Without moving, she dared to dart a look around, mindlessly noticing that Craig's seat was empty, and whispered, her head a little bent, their foreheads almost touching "Vincent, I… I think that half of the people in the Great Hall are more or less staring at us…"
With an impish grin, he replied "All of them, Catherine. The other half are just pretending not to stare."
A little pause, the sparkling in his eyes was intoxicating, and she felt dizzy and daring. "Do you… do you think that some of them are still wondering if we…?" and she closed her eyes, almost frightened of the image rising in her mind.
She felt, more than saw his smile broadening, and his whisper, "Maybe…"
Opening her eyes, she saw his gaze twinkling, and then, slowly, moving to her mouth. The Great Hall held its breath. While her heart thudded so loud that she was sure it covered every other sound in it, their lips came closer, and closer, and touched, and lingered for a little, precious, magic moment.
Pascal took Rebecca's hand, William continued to fill the same cup over and over again, Father forgot that wonderful move to checkmate Samantha he'd been thinking of during the whole game, Samantha forgot everything and eventually lost that game all the same, Craig bit his lip, and a very, very proud Mouse looked at Devin, who blinked in reply, while behind them, the children kept a delighted Charles engaged in an arm wrestling tournament.
When their lips parted, a muffled, discreet but distinct sigh could be clearly heard all over the Great Hall, and the joyous noise of Winterfest activities resumed louder than ever.
No more doubts…
Catherine buried her face in Vincent's neck without daring to open her eyes, and he murmured, with a side glance at her face: "Lovely color that crimson. It's becoming on you."
"Oh, shut up!" she hissed, poking his chest and uncontrollably grinning. "You're not crimson only because you can't blush!"
"Sometimes being different has convenient side effects," he retorted into her hair. She felt almost drunk with bliss; a part of her brain wanted to think, to fully understand and savor what had just happened; the other part just wanted to be silly and taste the joy….
"Would you like to dance, my lady?" the words caressed her ear.
She suddenly realized that the music had commenced and filled the air over the conversation and merry sounds, and again, an uncontrollable burst of giggling shook her "Liebestraume… of course! " and she at last lifted her head, but did not yet dare look around, just into his eyes.
They stood up, and he took her hand. "I don't think it's a coincidence…" he said with a smile.
"Oh?… I'll… I'll have to thank Lesley…."
"Okay, Lindsay. I'll never manage to remember her name."
The flimsy chat made her feel a bit foolish, but it helped her to walk the little distance to the dance floor, close to the grand piano where Lesley… no, Lindsay was performing an arrangement of Liszt's piece with impetuous energy and a huge grin on her face. A few couples were whirling… no, dancing… Radcliffe, please try to get control of yourself… and why should I? Vincent kissed me in front of the whole world! I'm his, he's mine!
And then she was in his arms, and they began to dance. She was unaware of anything but his hand at the small of her back, his eyes gazing into hers, his body brushing against hers and making her float across the floor. She was unaware that, like in a romantic movie, the other couples, one by one, left the dance floor, and that the whole Great Hall stopped to watch them dancing.
Only the thundering applause that exploded when the music ended tore her from her dream, and she looked around uncertainly….
"Crimson has become purple," she could hear the whisper in her ear. "Becoming, as well."
With a tremendous effort, she got back to reality, and graciously accepted that Charles, who had ecstatically watched his hero dancing with his beautiful lady, captured Vincent again. She got several knowing and touched hugs and exchanged a sheepish glance with Craig who lifted his glass to her from far away, while she sent his way the most heartfelt thank you!
Some time after - how long? who knows? - it was time for the closing ceremony, Vincent was again at her side, and the second Winterfest, that memorable, magical, wonderful Winterfest was over.
Or maybe not…
Written as a birthday gift for a friend, February 2004.