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A Winterfest Carol

Nefereu


T’was the night before Winterfest, and all through the Tunnels not a resident was stirring, not even Mouse. But one was very unhappy.
 
Vincent was in bed, wiping away a tear as he tried desperately to sleep. Earlier that evening, he had been sharing a wonderful evening with Catherine that had suddenly gone horribly wrong. Even now he still couldn’t believe what had happened.

 
For the first time in anyone’s memory, the preparations for Winterfest had gone smoothly. Not one single last minute crisis had occurred.  William had finished the food preparations well ahead of schedule, the Great Hall had been cleaned and set up and all the candle deliveries had been done on time. Finding himself with unexpected leisure time, Vincent chose to spend it with the one person he most wanted to see: Catherine.
 
He and Catherine had been sitting on her balcony in the pleasant evening air. Though winter, the evening had been unseasonably warm. They had been reading “The Scarlett Pimpernel” by Baroness Emma Orczy. A departure from their usual fare, it had still proven an entertaining novel. The problem had come at the end of the novel when the lovers were reunited. The last few chapters had been quite romantic and Vincent had paused to stare longingly down at Catherine cuddled to his side. She simply hadn’t been able to resist reaching up to brush her lips gently over his cheek. Unfortunately, he’d reacted badly.
 

“Don’t,” Vincent pleaded. “Please don’t, Catherine.”
 
“For heaven’s sake, Vincent, it was just a little kiss…on the cheek, no less!” Catherine protested in exasperation as she reached over to touch his face.
 
“I’m sorry; I should go,” he stammered, anxious to make his escape.
 
But Catherine’s patience with Vincent had finally run out. “Three years, and you still won’t let me give you a little kiss on the cheek? Is it so hard to accept even the smallest gesture from me? Honestly, sometimes I think you show everyone else your affection but me!” she fumed. She actually wanted to cry; but she’d done it so many times, she had no tears left. The only thing that remained was a deep burning ire and resentment at Vincent’s continued reluctance to move forward, in spite of everything they’d been through and shared.
 

“Who do you think you are; trying to decide how things will be between us solely by yourself? What about me? Don’t I have any say so? You don’t want me to touch you, Vincent? Fine! Have it your way. From now on, you get exactly what you asked for!”
 
Immeasurably hurt, and more than a little angry, Catherine stomped back into her apartment and slammed the French doors so hard that they rattled on their hinges. Her intense anger toward him abruptly closed off their Bond. Quickly, she drew the curtains as well, effectively shutting him out. He had been left standing there on the balcony in silence.
 
Sighing heavily, he wiped away another tear. Suddenly he became aware of another presence in the chamber. As he sat up, snarling, a rumpled form in a baseball cap stepped out from the shadows.
 
“Hello, Vincent,” he greeted him, not in the least intimidated.
 
“YOU!” Vincent gasped, his mouth open in shock. It was Kristopher Gentian! “How did you get in here?”
 
Kristopher merely rolled his eyes. “Come on, Vincent. We aren’t going to play that game, are we? You’re not a skeptical lawyer like Catherine. You know exactly how I got in here. I’m a ghost. Hope you liked the painting, by the way. It was one of my best!” He said, gesturing to the canvas on Vincent’s wall.
 
“Yes, it is.” Vincent conceded, willing to play along for the moment. “Then, I’ll ask another question. Why are you here?”

 
“Why to set you straight, of course,” Kristopher replied genially with an engaging smile.
 
“Set me straight?” Vincent asked as he rose to his feet, towering over the shorter man.
 
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Kristopher replied blithely. “Just think of me as your ‘Jacob Marley’ for the evening. But please, Vincent, do us both a favor. Let’s skip the whole ‘There’s more of gravy than grave about you.’ nonsense. You know I’m real, so let me do what I came here for. You’re going to be visited by three spirits tonight.”
 
“Spirits?” Vincent inquired.
 
“Yep, just like old Scrooge. But they’re here to help you.”
 
“Help me with what?”
 
“Now, that would be telling,” Kristopher joked, but then became very quiet. “Seriously, Vincent, go with them. This is important. There’s a great deal at stake; and not for just you.”
 
“What do you mean?” Vincent asked anxiously.

 
“Sorry, my time’s up. Just be ready, Vincent,” Kristopher said as he backed into the shadows again.
 
“Wait!” Vincent cried as he tried to follow; but only the shadows remained. Sighing once again, Vincent returned to his bed and sat down heavily. He was still quite stunned and mystified by what had just occurred. After a time, he fell asleep.
 
Vincent awakened to the feeling of another presence in his chamber once again. “Who’s there?” he called, peering into the shadows.
 
“Who do you think, lunkhead?” a voice shot back. Vincent sat up and smiled without thought. Only one person had ever called him that.
 
Devin?”
 
“Who else?” But the Devin who stepped from the shadows was not the mature world traveler who had departed with Charles months before. This was the cocky, young, teenaged Devin of Vincent’s youth. Once again, Vincent gaped in shock.
 
What’cha you doing, little bro?” the youthful vision quipped. “Trying to catch flies?”

 
Devin, I don’t understand.” Vincent said.
 
“Well, who were you expecting; the ghost of Christmas Past?”
 
“Something like that,” Vincent replied in confusion.
 
“Well, come on!” Devin called as he turned to head out of the chamber. “Jeez, Vincent, will you hurry up already? You always were the slowest!”
 
Vincent rapidly slipped on his boots and grabbed his cloak as they headed out into the tunnels. Strangely, the familiar corridors were filled with shadows and mist that made them feel positively alien. It left Vincent uneasy. 
 
After a short walk, Vincent found himself on a stone mezzanine in the Great Hall overlooking what appeared to be a Winterfest celebration in full swing. He gaped in astonishment since the Great Hall was nowhere near his chambers. It also didn’t have a stone mezzanine.

 
 Involuntarily, Vincent grinned at the lively celebration. But his eyes widened as he recognized a small child dashing with several others through the crowd. It was him as a child!
 
“Children! Slow down!” a much younger Father admonished. “This is the Great Hall, not a race course!”
 
“Oh, Father, let them play!” a red haired William bellowed back. “It’s Winterfest!”
 
As Vincent continued to watch from his perch high Above, the carbon copy of his guide, a teenaged Devin, cornered the younger Vincent and presented him with a Winterfest gift.
 
“I remember this,” Vincent exclaimed. “This was the last Winterfest before you left. You gave me that travel book with all those pictures. I still have it; it’s on the shelf in my chamber!”  With the wisdom that comes from age, Vincent looked upon the scene below with new understanding.
 
“You were planning to leave even back then,” he whispered softly. “What happened?”
 
The teen Devin next to him nodded slowly in affirmation. “There was a girl. We’d been meeting in the park for months. Her family worked in a carnival, and they were headed South. I thought she loved me, but she didn’t.”
 
“You could have come back,” Vincent replied.
 
Devin snorted derisively. “Right, and listen to Father’s lectures for months afterward? Not hardly!  You know how he can be!”
 

Unfortunately, Vincent did. Father had always been stubborn and unyielding where his sons were concerned.
 
“So you stayed away,” Vincent commented.
 
“Yeah,” Devin agreed. “It was easier. I’m sorry for that, little brother. But it really had nothing to do with you. Come on, we have to go.” He pivoted and headed back into the misty tunnels, leaving Vincent no choice but to follow.
 
In an instant, they were in the huge foyer of a large and imposing house. Several doorways led off the room, but its focal point was a sweeping staircase. Minimal light indicated the very late hour. After a moment, Vincent became aware of a small frame on the bottom step of the huge staircase. The imposing steps positively dwarfed the little child that sat crying at its base. Though he couldn’t say why, the child’s tears tore at Vincent’s heart, and he had to restrain himself from going to comfort her.
 
“It’s okay; she can’t see you,” Devin informed him. Cautiously, he moved closer, kneeling beside the little girl. Just then, she lifted her head up, and Vincent’s heart froze in his chest as a familiar pair of grey-green eyes looked right through him.
 
“Catherine,” he intoned reverently. He raised a hand as if to touch her.
 
“Yes.”
 
“I don’t understand,” Vincent remarked.
 
“This was her home. After her mother died, her father sold it and moved them both into the city. They’re leaving tomorrow. That’s why she’s crying.”
 
“But why is she here alone? Surely they haven’t left her by herself,” Vincent protested.
 
“No. Her father is here up in his study. But all the servants are gone, and he thinks Catherine’s in bed. He doesn’t know she’s down here.” Devin shrugged.
 
Catherine lowered her head, and the tears began to fall again.
 
“We have to leave now.” Devin said.
 
“We can’t just leave her like this!” Vincent countered anxiously. Her tears were tearing into him like claws.
 
“Why not?” the teen Devin replied callously. “It isn’t the first time she’s cried alone; won’t be the last either.” With those cryptic words, he began walking, once again forcing Vincent to follow, albeit reluctantly.
 
Vincent would have said more, but he stopped short as he recognized his surroundings. They were now in the tunnels again, directly outside Mary’s chamber.
 

“What are we doing here?” Vincent asked.
 
“You’ll see, or hear actually, soon enough.” Devin grinned devilishly.
 
“It’s not fair!” A childish girl’s voice whined plaintively. Vincent paused for a moment before stepping to the doorway of the chamber to see if the voice belonged to who he thought it did.
 
Inside the chamber, Mary was packing a suitcase as young Lisa stood in the corner pouting.
 
“Now, Lisa, you should be happy. This is a great opportunity for you.” Mary admonished gently.
 
Lisa’s pretty face became churlish. “That what everyone claims; but I know the real reason! Father blames me for what happened with Vincent! It’s not my fault he’s Father’s pet!”
 
Lisa!” Mary cried in outrage.

 
“I’m sorry, Mary,” Lisa replied, her face a picture of false remorse. “I didn’t mean that. But it really isn’t my fault!” she protested with cloying pathos. “It was Mitch’s idea. He had this necklace he got Above; it was real pearls! He said if I just teased Vincent a bit and strung him along a little that he would give it to me. He just wanted to teach Vincent a lesson he said; that’s all. So you see; it wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything wrong at all!”
 
But the look on Mary’s face told Vincent she wasn’t buying Lisa’s insincere apology.
 
“Lisa, I have always known you were a bit self-centered, but until today I never realized that you were also capable of being quite cruel. I think Father is right in sending you away. You don’t belong here Below anymore. It would be best for everyone if you were to leave.”
 
The mist swirled up again and the images faded.
 
“I never knew. Mary never told me,” Vincent said mildly.
 
Devin shrugged in response. “Why would she? You know how much Mary loves all the children in her care, you especially. She saw no reason to tell you. She thought it would only cause you more pain.”

 
Vincent sighed, and then blinked as he realized he had returned to his chamber. Frantically, he looked for Devin, only to find he was alone once again.
 
Vincent collapsed into his chair, his mind reeling from all that he had just experienced. He must have dozed off again, because he was forced awake by the sensation of a presence in his chamber once more. But he was taken aback by the person who now stepped from the shadows; it was none other than Elliot Burch. The two men regarded each other with an adversarial glare for several moments, each sizing up the other. Neither seemed particularly pleased to see the other. Though Vincent’s conscious mind knew that the person confronting him couldn’t possibly be the real Elliot Burch, it didn’t stop the feelings of jealousy and resentment that arose in him at the sight of the elegantly dressed man.
 
Elliot broke the silence first. “I guess I was probably the last person you expected.”
 
‘That’s putting it mildly,” Vincent replied, frowning.

 
“Let’s get this over with,” Elliot proclaimed bluntly as he headed out into the tunnels. Vincent followed behind warily. They went a short way and abruptly emerged into a room ablaze with light. VincentVincent sighed in relief.
 
“Where are we?” Vincent asked.
 
‘The mayor’s annual reception. Everyone who’s anyone is here. See for yourself.” Vincent’s eyes followed the direction Elliot indicated. At the same moment, a low, gentle laugh reached him through the ambient noise of the surrounding crowd and sent a shiver up his spine. He would know that sweet voice anywhere: it was Catherine. Without a second thought, Vincent made his way quickly through the crowd and soon found himself at Catherine’s side. A tall, dark haired man stood opposite her.
 
“Aww, come on, Radcliffe. Let me take you to dinner, just for old time’s sake.”

Catherine smiled softly to take the sting out of her words. “Sorry, Joe. I’ve got plans.”
 
“Better than dinner with me?”
 
“‘Fraid so,” she smiled back.
 
“Hey, Joe!” Someone called loudly from across the room, summoning Catherine’s companion away.
 
“Catch you later, Cathy,” Joe quipped as he went to join the person who called him.
 
Vincent stood next to her, drinking in the lovely sight in front of him. Catherine was the picture of elegance and grace, draped in a lovely, beaded jade cocktail dress that highlighted the green of her eyes. Her honeyed hair was simple and loose; her only adornment the crystal he had given her. To Vincent, she was a vision of perfection.
 
“You’re thinking she belongs here,” Elliot commented.
 
Vincent started; it was as if Burch could read his mind. 
 
“You aren’t paying attention. Look closer.”
 
As he did, Vincent noticed that Catherine kept glancing at her watch and looking longingly out the window at the night sky. A small, secretive smile kept crept onto her lips.
 
“She’s just waiting until she can get away without causing too many questions. She has somewhere else she really wants to be; on her balcony,” Elliot informed him softly.
 
Vincent couldn’t mistake his meaning. Bewildered, Vincent looked from Catherine to the surrounding crowd as if trying to make sense of it all.
 
Elliot Burch sighed heavily. “You still don’t understand, do you? Come on, maybe our next stop will make it clear for you.”
 
Vincent wanted to stay, but knew he had to see this strange journey through to its end. With great trepidation, he turned to follow his guide. In a flash, they were back in the tunnels, directly outside Father’s chamber. He sat, wearing his reading glasses, hunched over his desk as he carefully scrutinized a paper in front of him.
 
“Father,” Mary admonished as she entered from the opposite direction. “Are you still up? It’s late; you should be in bed. We all have a big day tomorrow.”
 
“I’ll go soon, Mary. I’m just trying to finish up this new sentry schedule before Winterfest starts. I won’t have time later,” Father replied.
 
‘I thought you were going to ask Vincent to do that,” Mary protested.
 
Father hesitated before answering. “I was, but when he returned from visiting Catherine he seemed quite upset. I decided not to bother him with it.”
 
‘But you know what Peter said at your physical last week.”
 
“Yes, he said I was in good health.” Father asserted stubbornly.
 
Mary merely rolled her eyes. “He said you were in good health for a man of your age. He also said that you need to start slowing down. You push yourself far too much. It’s time you start letting others take over some of your responsibilities.”
 
“I’m fine, Mary. You worry too much,” Father scoffed.
 
“Perhaps,” Mary conceded. “I hope nothing is seriously wrong between Catherine and Vincent.”
 
“I’m not sure. I didn’t ask Vincent. I have found lately it’s better if I don’t. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if Vincent and Catherine had never met,” Father sighed idly.  To Father’s utter astonishment, Mary pounced on him immediately with the ferocity of a mother tiger protecting her cub.
 
“Jacob Wells, how dare you even make such a comment? That young woman is the best, most generous helper we have ever had! She’s even risked her life to help preserve our community! She is the best thing to come into our tunnels, and Vincent’s life, in a very long time, even if you’re too stubborn to admit it! Vincent is a grown man, and it’s about time you woke up to that fact! He’s more than capable of taking over some of your duties, and he deserves a chance at happiness and a life of his own with Catherine. They belong together, and if you’re so blind that you can’t see what everyone else around here so obviously can, then you aren’t the man I’ve come to know and respect for the past thirty years.”
 
After delivering her dramatic speech, Mary turned and stormed out, leaving Father literally speechless in her wake. Vincent could sympathize. He was taken aback himself. Mary had never spoken to Father in such a way before.
 
“She’s not the only one who feels that way, you know. Many of your tunnel family love and respect Catherine almost as much as you do,” Elliot informed Vincent softly as he turned to depart again. “We have one more stop to make.”
 
The pair returned to the misty hallways, only to suddenly emerge in Catherine’s apartment in her bedroom. Directly in front of them, Catherine sat on the edge of her bed, her head down as her body shook with great, gasping sobs. In her hands rested her precious crystal. “Why, Vincent?” she whispered only for her own ears. “Why is it so hard for you to show your love for me?”
 
Suddenly, a flash of anger crossed her face, and for a moment, it seemed as if she might fling the crystal away from her against the wall. But just as her hand drew back, she paused, pulling the crystal to her chest as she curled up on the bed into a tiny ball and began to cry again in earnest.
 
Catherine’s tears tore at Vincent’s insides, and he rounded on Elliot Burch in ferocious anger. “Why have you brought me here? To torture me? Don’t you think I know how I much Catherine suffers because of me? I can feel it every minute of every day!”
 
‘Yet still you don’t understand,” Elliot countered sarcastically.
 
“Understand?” Vincent snarled angrily back. “What is there to understand?”
 
“Look at her! Do you honestly believe you could hurt her this much if she didn’t love you with every fiber of her being? All the others before you; Stephen Bass, Tom Gunther, even me…we were nothing to her! None of us ever knew her, not like you do! You share her soul; you love her for all that she is, not just the small part she showed us!” Elliot began to walk around the bed slowly as he looked directly at Catherine.
 
“I used to lie awake nights wondering about you, envying you.” he continued.
 
“Me?!” Vincent was shocked by that idea.
 
“Yes. Does that surprise you? Oh, I knew there was someone else, even when Cathy agreed to marry me. I knew she didn’t love me; it was obvious. There had to be another reason she agreed to my proposal.”
 
Vincent nodded sorrowfully. “She was doing it to protect me, and my family Below.”
 
“She was willing to sacrifice everything, even her own future for you. God, what I wouldn’t give to have a woman love me like that! Wealth isn’t all it’s made out to be, Vincent. I’d trade all of mine if Cathy had looked at me the way she looks at you,” Elliot finished bitterly.
 
“She deserves more than I can give her,” Vincent whispered softly.
 
“Yes, you’ve urged her before to find someone else, haven’t you? Look at her harder, Vincent. Do you honestly believe she could love anyone else this much? Could you?” Elliot questioned equally softly.
 
Vincent winced and closed his eyes against the painful image in front of him. Heavily, he let out a huge sigh and softly admitted what he already knew. “No.”
 
“Now you’re beginning to understand.”
 
Vincent’s eyes flew open, and he found himself back in his chamber alone. He took in several deep, painful breaths, trying to come to terms with the revelations this night had brought. Without warning, the chamber was plunged into icy cold, and Vincent was filled with dread as he noticed a tall, figure in the doorway. The figure was cloaked in darkness, covered completely from head to foot in long cloak that blended into the shadows. Like Ebenezer Scrooge facing the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, Vincent feared this spirit most of all. Yet, like Scrooge, he knew he had no choice but to accompany the spirit.
 
“Lead the way. I’ll follow you,” Vincent said.
 
The spirit merely turned and glided noiselessly out into the corridor. In an instant, they were in the dining hall where a celebration appeared to be going on. Vincent was surprised at how small the gathering was. Though several children were running around, there were fewer than he had ever seen in the tunnels. There was food laid out, but the meal was sparse at best. Still, one boy in particular, who looked to be about ten, caught his eye. The tow-headed child laughed, and Vincent smiled as well. The child’s joy was almost infectious. Vincent couldn’t help being drawn to him. It was only then that Vincent noticed two familiar faces in a corner. There to the side stood an older Pascal next to a much more mature Jamie.

“It’s a nice celebration this year, don’t you think?” Pascal was remarking.
 
“Yes,” Jamie agreed, but her smile looked forced. After gazing intently around the room for a moment, her face fell and she sighed heavily. “He isn’t coming, is he?”
 
Pascal hesitated before speaking. “No.”
 
“Where is he?” she asked.
 
“Where he always is now most days; his chamber,” Pascal replied sadly.
 
“I know it’s hard for him, but I would think he would make the effort today of all days, at least for little Jacob’s sake,” Jamie commented as her eyes focused on the tow-headed boy he had observed earlier.
 
“He simply hasn’t been the same since...” Pascal broke off.
 
“But it’s Winterfest, Pascal. He could at least try!” Jamie protested.
 
“Remember when we used to hold it in the Great Hall, and William would cook for days before hand?” Pascal reminisced. “We would work for hours to get ready, and all the helpers came Below to celebrate.”
 
“Times change, Pascal,” Jamie said, her voice a bit brittle and harsh.
 
“I know. I just miss those days, I suppose,” Pascal added wearily.
 
Vincent gaped at the realization of what this celebration was. He simply couldn’t fathom how the world he knew could have altered so dramatically from the vibrant, thriving community he had come to know and love. In comparison to the Winterfests he had grown up with, this was a pale shadow of its former glory.
 
“NO!” Vincent turned to the spirit belligerently. ‘You cannot convince me that this is the future! Father would never stand for it. He simply wouldn’t allow this to happen! Take me to him now!”
 
The figure said nothing, but the mists swirled, and Vincent was stunned to find himself in the Catacombs. “Why have you brought me here?” he demanded angrily. The figure merely gestured in front of them. With an apprehension that almost bordered on panic, Vincent moved to where the figure pointed and brushed away the years of dust until the words inscribed there were revealed.
 
Jacob Wells
Beloved Father
 
But it was the date that filled Vincent with horror. It was a day barely two years into his future! Vincent fell back then, reeling in confusion. Instantly, another thought came to him.
 
Catherine! Where is she? Take me to her. Please, I must see her!” Vincent pleaded, his world in tatters. The figure didn’t move, but the mist swirled again, and Vincent was abruptly thrust into unyielding daylight. He shook his head to clear it, only to have his terror increase. He and the figure were standing in a graveyard. There on the ground at their feet, Vincent’s worst nightmare took shape. It was a headstone that simply read:
 
Catherine Chandler
Beloved Daughter of Charles and Caroline
 
and gave a death date barely a year and a half into his future.
 
Vincent roared in anguish and rounded on the figure once more. ‘’NO! NO! THIS CANNOT BE!”
 
“‘Why?” A quiet, but strangely familiar voice replied. “Because you can’t accept it?”
 
The figure moved then, drawing back the dark hood and finally revealing his face. Vincent breathed shallowly in shock. The face staring back at him was his own; but a vastly changed one.
 
This Vincent was older and far more careworn. There was a heavy streak of grey at his temples; but it was his eyes that drew the younger Vincent in and caused a pressure deep in his chest. His formerly crystal blue eyes were now watery pale and held a soul deep look of infinite sadness.
 
“How?” The younger Vincent breathed softly.
 
“I drove myself mad with my own fear and self loathing,” the older Vincent answered, his voice hoarse with regret. “I fled into the tunnels and nearly died. Catherine brought me back with the strength of her love. We ...loved.” he went on, his voice breaking,
“but our bond was lost to us. A man from a case Catherine was working on kidnapped her and took her from me. She was pregnant. When he learned I was the father, he kept her until our child was born and then killed her. I found her, but I was too late!”
 
“A child?”  Vincent asked.
 
The elder nodded sadly. ‘You saw him in the dining hall. His name is Jacob.”
 
“And Father?”
 
“I got our son back, but it took months. The strain of everything was simply too much for Father. He died later that year. After he passed, everything Below started to fall apart. Mary died, then William. Helpers began to drift away; some of the residents moved Above. I tried to go on for Jacob’s sake, but without Catherine...” He broke off as a sob tore from the depths of him. “You must understand; you must be made to see! It’s too late for me, but not for you! Do you know what it has been like day after day, year after empty year, living without her? I had my greatest dream snatched from me in the span of a single heart beat! When Catherine died, part of my soul died with her!”
 
“NO!” Vincent howled as the other Vincent clamped a vise-like claw on his shoulder. Instantly, a maelstrom of emotions overwhelmed him as his counterpart’s oppressive grief rushed in on him. Mind numbing agony mixed with ceaseless regret sent him to his knees as the feelings intensified. Vincent could only gasp helplessly as untaken chance and missed opportunity to show Catherine even the smallest gesture of his true feelings played out endlessly before him. But the worst part of the ordeal was finally realizing and truly understanding for the first time how deeply he had hurt his beloved by withholding his affections. The storm got worse, and Vincent felt himself slipping into a yawning black hole. “Catherine! Catherine!” he cried out as the darkness overwhelmed him, and he felt himself fall into its cavernous gloom.
 
“Vincent!” At the sound of his name, he jerked his head up, and Vincent shook his head to clear it. He was greeted by the most wonderful sight of his life. Catherine, in a pair of thick pajamas, knelt in front of him, safe and sound. He was now lying face down on her balcony. Without a second thought, he scrambled to his own knees and instantly seized Catherine for a passionate, breath stealing kiss. Belatedly, he realized she was shaking as much as he was, though whether from emotion or the now cold wind, he couldn’t tell. He further surprised them both by boldly sweeping her up into his arms and carrying her into her apartment.
 
He promptly sat down on one of the sofas, Catherine in his lap. He drew the edges of his cloak tightly around them both, wrapping her firmly in the warmth of his arms. For a long moment, he simply sat there, rocking her tenderly as he held her tightly against him, his head resting lightly on the top of hers. Catherine was completely mystified, and taken aback by Vincent’s strange behavior, but she couldn’t bring herself to pull away. It felt too good to have him hold her like this, regardless of the reason. Vincent let the gentle comfort of Catherine’s presence seep into him, driving away the cold darkness forever.
 
After a while, Catherine lifted her head to regard him with a loving gaze. “What happened, Vincent?” she asked softly. “I was in my bedroom, and suddenly I heard you calling my name. When I found you, you were out on the balcony and almost seemed asleep. Are you all right, my love?” Gently, she lifted a hand to rest lightly on his cheek.
 
To her surprise, Vincent turned his head and pressed a soft kiss into her palm, but failed to answer. Vincent heard Catherine’s question, but chose to keep quiet. His mind couldn’t find the words to explain the events that had taken place tonight.  Besides, there were other words that it was far more important for Catherine to hear.
 
Vincent shook his head and spoke for the first time. “It doesn’t matter. But there is something I must say. Catherine... I...I love you.”
 
Catherine’s eyes grew luminous, and a wild joy suddenly suffused their bond. For the second time that night, Vincent’s head swam. But this time he didn’t care. He sealed his mouth to hers as tears streamed down both their cheeks.
 
“Oh Vincent, I love you,” Catherine breathed as they broke apart at last.
 
* * *
 
Vincent paced restlessly next to the ladder to Catherine’s building. After a few more moments, a light appeared above, and Catherine slowly descended into Vincent’s waiting arms. Though the hour was quite late, he couldn’t bear to be parted from her and had begged her to come Below with him. Catherine had agreed at once. Vincent transferred Catherine’s bag from her shoulder to his, scooped her up, and made his way rapidly to his own chamber. Once there, he lowered her gently back to her feet.
 
Catherine removed her coat, and Vincent quirked a smile at the heavy pajamas she still wore beneath it. Catherine noticed his expression and blushed. “I didn’t feel much like putting on a nightgown tonight,” Catherine explained sheepishly.
 
Vincent’s smile broadened. Catherine could wear sackcloth, and he would still find her the most beautiful woman he had ever beheld. Vincent could feel the fatigue creeping up on her and knew they both needed rest. In spite of the changes the night had wrought between them, Winterfest would soon arrive, and they would both be swept up in it.
 
“It’s late, Catherine, and you should sleep. I should take you to the guest chamber, but I find I don’t want to leave you. Will you stay with me?” he asked softly.
 
Catherine’s eyes widened in shock, but her face lightened instantly into an impish smile.
Vincent, are you propositioning me?” she asked lightly.
 
In a flash, he blushed scarlet but soon understood she was merely teasing. The strong desire that had always existed, shimmering just below the surface of their bond, was still present; but tonight its power was lessened somehow, perhaps muted by the tender love that now flowed unhindered between them for the first time. For tonight, it was enough. 
 
Returning her smile, he moved over to the bed and drew back the covers. She crawled in and settled down with a sigh of contentment. Vincent slid in next to her and took her into his arms for another gentle kiss. “I love you,” Vincent whispered again. It still astounded him that those three simple words could bring them both such happiness. Why had he ever withheld them?
 
When Catherine echoed them softly, his joy abounded ten fold. Vincent felt too excited to sleep, but he overestimated the effect of having Catherine cuddled so wonderfully close. It wasn’t long before Catherine breathed deeply and began to drift off, cocooned in the safe haven of Vincent’s powerful arms. Soon, Vincent too began to drift off, but was roused at the last moment by the now familiar sensation of someone else in his chamber.
 
From the shadows emerged Kristopher Gentian one last time. He gave Vincent a wink and a thumbs up. Just as he began to melt back into the darkness, Vincent heard him speak.
 
“See? I knew you’d figure it out.” With that last thought, Vincent smiled and surrendered to the best night’s sleep he’d ever had, confident that Winterfest would herald a new beginning and a new chapter in his life with Catherine.
 
~