by Two Tunnel Dwellers
"Catherine. Catherine, wake up."
Catherine spluttered awake and pushed away Vincent's handful of smelling salts. "Promise letter? What's a promise letter?" she wondered for only a moment until the dream subsided completely.
"Vincent?" He sat beside her, and the real world began to gel again. "What happened?"
"Apparently you slipped in a puddle of water and fell. Are you all right?" He looked at her with concern, deftly checking her pulse with one hand.
She shook herself more awake and instantly regretted it. She rubbed her head. "Ouch! I seem to have a bit of a bump."
"Let me see... " He touched her gently. "I would have Father look at it, but I'm afraid he's not quite himself today. Winterfest preparations normally make him rather anxious, and this one seems to be taking a particular toll. I'm afraid he's been calming himself a little freely with an old bottle of Scotch he had forgotten." They could hear Father still bemoaning his toe and Catherine glimpsed him limping unsteadily across the floor toward his desk.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
She blinked at him in surprise. "Two."
Vincent breathed a sigh of relief. "Good."
"I feel fine, Vincent, really, apart from this little bump. It just hurts a little, that's all."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it, but just as a precaution, I don’t think you should be alone for the next few hours. And we need to get some ice on that bump." Vincent considered his options. He couldn't have Catherine remain Below - it would be too easy for her to accidentally discover the surprise. He came to a decision. "Catherine, may I accompany you home?"
She broke into a smile, remembering the reason for her visit. "Trying to get rid of me, are you?" she asked with mirth.
"Never!" Vincent replied, genuinely meaning it, and feeling slightly guilty that his reaction hid his ulterior motives so well. Thinking quickly he added, "Ice is easier to find in your apartment than it is here."
Catherine sighed gently, shaking her head and smiling, abandoning her attempt to discover whatever covert activity was afoot in her second home. "I would love for you to walk me home. I’ve hardly seen you lately. But I'm not keeping you from something, am I? Your note said... "
"Never mind that. It isn’t as important as your injury. Would you mind if I spend the evening with you?"
Mind??? Was he crazy? "Inside my apartment?" she asked hopefully. She cheered inwardly when he answered in the affirmative and beamed. "I'd love it!"
Vincent excused himself for a moment to speak to Father. There was a short conference in hushed tones, then he and Catherine walked back to the threshold beneath her building. Vincent, after admonishing her to be careful, left, promising to meet her on the balcony.
Catherine practically floated home. An entire evening with Vincent – inside her apartment, with no plans except taking care of this annoying bump on her head. This might be worth all the frustrations of the past couple of weeks. Right now she didn’t care what was going on in the tunnels. A nice fire in the fireplace…snuggling on the sofa or on the floor in front of the fire…uninterrupted conversation…snuggling on the sofa or on the floor in front of the fire…sharing hot chocolate on a cold night…snuggling on the sofa or on the floor in front of the fire… Would this elevator never reach the eighteenth floor?! Ah! It finally came to a stop and the doors opened.
Catherine quickly opened the door of her apartment and went straight to the bedroom doors to let Vincent in before she pulled the curtains and turned on the lights.
"Where do we find the ice?" Vincent asked.
"Follow me. You can get the ice, and I’ll make some hot chocolate. It’s just a packaged mix. William would be appalled, but it’s still good on a cold night. We can light a fire in the fireplace…"
He stopped her as they entered the kitchen, turning her toward him and resting his hands on her shoulders. "Catherine, you can make hot chocolate later if you wish, and I will light the fire for you later, but right now, the ice…and please sit down."
She handed him a plastic bag, opened the freezer so he could fill it with ice, then followed orders and sat down on one of the little sofas in her living room.
Vincent draped his cloak across the back of the other sofa, handed her the ice and a small towel he had found in a drawer, and she put it on the sofa and leaned her head back against it.
"Would you sit here with me?" she asked, looking up at a decidedly uncomfortable Vincent.
"I’ll light the fire first," Vincent answered, thinking that having something to do might make him a little more comfortable. When the fire had obviously caught well, he took a deep breath and stood, turning toward Catherine.
She had obviously been watching him. He had felt it. She loved him, and she had been hurt because she was trying to figure out why his entire community was hiding things from her. The guilt he felt was enormous. She looked so small and vulnerable.
He looked around the room momentarily before he picked up one of the small sofa pillows and sat down beside her.
"I’ve wished for this," she said quietly. "To have you in my world now and then."
His love for Catherine took over his actions. He took the ice bag and towel from her, put the little pillow in his lap with the ice bag on top of it and wordlessly invited her to rest her head there. It was all very innocent, but it was also a very loving, intimate moment between them. She stretched out with her head on the pillow and her legs propped on the arm of the sofa. She knew this wasn’t likely to last long, and she planned to savor every nanosecond of it.
She was well aware that her present state of blissful contentment was entirely due to his concern for her well being and his guilt that his part in his family’s deceptions caused her injury.
She suspected it also had something to do with getting her out of the tunnels quickly. He was even willing to break his rules and come inside her apartment to keep her away. Her busy lawyer mind hadn’t forgotten that something strange was going on. He definitely wasn’t off the hook yet. She was just willingly distracted at the moment, and like Scarlet O’Hara…she would worry about that tomorrow.
After about half an hour of quiet conversation and generally enjoying being close to one another, Catherine realized the ice was melting. "May I make that hot chocolate now?" she asked, sitting up slowly.
"If you’d like," Vincent answered. "I’ll tend the fire."
When Catherine returned with large mugs of hot chocolate, Vincent had had time to find a book.
She looked at the title and smiled approvingly as she set the mugs on the coffee table and sat back down. Will you read to me?" she asked. "This might need to cool a minute or two."
Vincent sat down and opened the book.
"You can prop your feet on the coffee table."
"You want me to do that?" Vincent asked, in disbelief that she would suggest such a use of nice furniture.
"For a long time I’ve imagined seeing you in my apartment…on the sofa with a book…your feet propped on the table, looking comfortable here."
He gave her one of his small smiles, propped his feet on the table, and started reading. At the end of the first short story they sipped hot chocolate and talked. Catherine had started the second story when the doorbell rang.
"Noooooooo," she groaned softly. "Not now. Let’s ignore it."
It rang again. Whoever was there was not to be ignored. When the bell wasn’t answered, someone started knocking on the door.
"Catherine, I should go."
Then they heard the voice of her visitor. They shared a quick hug and he swung his cloak on and left through the bedroom doors. She had been looking forward to Winterfest, but she was beginning to wonder if it was worth all this.