"I assume the preparations are coming along well?"
The question greeted Vincent the very moment he walked into his father's study. His steps slowed as bemusement grew on his face.
Every year, it was the same question. Repeated often. Sometimes changed or slightly amended. But always asked with the same tone of reverence for a tradition in which the patriarch took great pride.
Winterfest was just days away. The children were already running their candle delivery routes. Pascal was tapping out announcements and updates nearly non-stop. The helpers were already responding with their heartfelt acceptance of invitations. William was reaching franticness over this year's menu. And Father was devouring his manuals on chess strategy, determined to be the champion this year.
And just as in past years, Vincent, overseeing most of the Great Hall's transformation, would answer his father in much the same way. -- -- "Yes, everything is progressing well. Some rusted chains needed to be replaced on the chandeliers, but with Mouse's stockpile, it was little issue."
Father glanced up from his book, a very *non*-traditional look of dourness threatening to sag his features. "And the tapestries?"
Vincent's demeanor took on the same countenance, as he sat down in a nearby chair. "They're gone."
Indeed, this was the one change from festivals of old. Tapestries that had hung since John Pater's time had been politely and unceremoniously removed. In years past, Pater had been 'merely' a criminal, if such a thing could be. Threatening their existence -- and yes, even their lives on occasion -- but always from the outskirts of their home tunnels. Some among the community ... especially those with the most forgiving hearts ... had managed to maintain some sympathy for the outcast. Perhaps believing that they, as a community, bore some of the blame for the onset of the man's psychoses.
That, however, was before last year, when the evil had come directly into their most special festival. And if that wasn't enough, the evil had then reached toward one of the tunnel's most prized members. He who was also one of the most vulnerable in many ways -- -- -- Vincent himself.
Months ago, even the softest of hearts had hardened beyond stone when Pater had driven Vincent into his spiral of madness. It had culminated in Pater's death, and none could deny that a collective sigh of relief had risen from the underground community.
It was time to put the past in its proper place ... a decision of the council, then agreed upon by all. The tapestries ... the last vestige of Pater's aspirations for this world ... had been taken down. With Peter Alcott's help, Catherine would be donating them to a museum above. Somewhere they could be enjoyed for their history, without their memories clouding their beauty.
But, there was to be a replacement. A rebirth, if you will. ... ...
"And the quilts?" inquired Father, referring to some newly created replacement decorations.
Vincent's smile returned at the reminder of another new addition to Winterfest activities ... that of his own wife. "Catherine is down there now, I believe, with Jamie and Zach, trying to hang one of them today."
The happiness underscoring Vincent's mention of his beloved was contagious, helping to lift Father's spirits as well. Truly, there would be new light at this year's Winterfest.
"I never thought I'd see that woman learn to quilt," Father chuckled, unable to resist.
"Nor did I," Vincent returned just as jovially. "But I'm not certain that 'learn' is the correct word. I suspect Mary, Olivia, and some of the others presented higher accomplishments in that field. Still ... Catherine has done far better than I could ever achieve."
Father nodded his agreement, then propped his chin thoughtfully into the palm of his hand. "I'll give her credit for the idea though. Especially to use the painted tunnels as inspiration."
Slowly, Vincent nodded, watching his father's reaction. -- -- Noting the ease with which the older man had come to speak of his new daughter-in-law.
"She's happy here, isn't she Vincent," was Father's next observation, spoken far more as a realization than a question.
Again Vincent nodded, his smile irrepressible. "My last fears are diminishing. Every day I feel her joy." ... his hand rose on pure intuition, gently touching his chest where such sensations centered. "It's still growing. Farther and more beautifully than I could ever have imagined."
Father took a moment, swallowing hard at the amazing moment of witnessing his son so happy. That was all he'd ever wanted, even if his methods had not always been the best. Reaching forward, he patted Vincent's other hand where it rested on the chair arm. "I suspect, my dear boy, that it's an effect of the company she now keeps. And I don't mean the rest of us."
Now it was Vincent's turn to rein himself in, controlling the emotions whose existence he was still learning to accept. Father would alleviate the moment though, and he rose impulsively. Across the room he moved, the click of his cane echoing through the otherwise silent chamber.
"I have something for her," he announced, retrieving a small gold-foil box from a set of bookshelves. "Well, for the both of you, actually. But I'd like to think it will express some of my apologies to your wife, in a far more pleasant manner than revisiting some of our previous scuffles."
It was an odd statement, and Vincent cocked his head inquisitively. "Should I be worried, Father?" The question was primarily facetious, but a thread of genuine concern still ran beneath it. It had become instinctive over the years.
"No." the patriarch reassured his son. "In fact, tell her that I hope she puts it to good use. ... I hope you *both* put it to good use."
Vincent's expression remained slightly suspicious, but in an impish sort of way. All right. He would accept it on faith. Gingerly, he took the proffered box, noting its lightness. "I'll be heading down to see her now."
The customary gust of wind blew through the Great Hall as Vincent hauled open the heavy wooden doors. Inside the room, only a matter of yards away, Jamie's squeal cut through the unusually strong whoosh. A loud explanation came from Zach as well, upon the box of tools that came clattering down, narrowly missing his head.
Catherine and the boy had been struggling to support one of the new, giant quilts in its selected position against the wall. A few feet away, Jamie was perched atop a scaffolding rigged up by Mouse. She was -- perhaps not surprisingly -- one of the few people who instantly trusted Mouse's constructions. Unfortunately, in this case, the brilliant amateur engineer had miscalculated the effects of powerful wind currents.
The girl had been working on the fasteners drilled into the wall. These quilts were heavier than the tapestries, and she was hard at work trying one of Mouse's suggested solutions for the wiring of delicate fabric to hard, vertical stone. Now, of course, she clung to the scaffolding precariously, grabbing after the box of tools that had just fallen away from her.
In dodging the danger coming down atop him, Zach had released his part of the quilt. His height had been an advantage, especially as he'd stood on a natural pair of steps carved into the foot of the wall. And without that height, the quilt had fallen unceremoniously down on Catherine, trapping her beneath its drape.
Catherine held on, inquiring on Zach's condition from beneath her impromptu cotton tent. There she waited, until she finally felt the quilt lifted away. Vincent was behind her, his hands being the first thing she saw as the bright torchlight shown back into her world.
"I do wish you wouldn't do that," she chastised.
"I *had* offered to help," he countered, folding the quilt back into her hands at the wall. Then he bent down to help Zach retrieve the scattered tools. Jamie had already been plucked from the wobbling platform, deposited safely on solid Earth.
"We need to come up with something better," Jamie announced, swiping the back of her hand across her forehead. Zach handed her a piece of wire from the fastener she'd been manipulating, once he located it on the ground. She fiddled with it speculatively. "Maybe if Mouse could make a triangle with points. Something sturdier." She looked over at Catherine. "Maybe like those sharp things some people use above to hang curtains."
"It's worth a try," Catherine shrugged hopefully. In truth, she always enjoyed seeing Mouse's latest solutions and inventions. And while her faith might not have been as strong as Jamie’s, it wasn't too terribly far behind.
"All right," Jamie decided. "Come on Zach. Grab the tools and let's go find him."
While the younger pair exited the room via a far less blustery stairway, Vincent took the quilt from his wife's hands. His long wingspan was a useful advantage, and he spread and folded the giant garment all by himself. ... ... And Catherine? She fixed her stare on him the entire time, her arms crossed and an amused but scolding smirk challenging her mate.
Once the quilt was folded, he presented it humbly as part of his surrender. Leaning forward, he issued a playful, "I'm sorry." Catherine's lips pinched as she tried to suppress a more legitimate smile, especially when he qualified the apology with, "But I did offer to help."
She relented, her arms relaxing and genuine humor winning out over the sarcasm. She took the quilt, stepping around him to drape it over one of the scaffolding's metal bars. "I know. I'd just like to prove myself helpful down here without my husband having to lurk over my shoulder."
"You are helpful, love," he assured her. "This idea of the quilts alone is already bringing joy and relief to many." He paused thoughtfully, noting the inadvertent ... or perhaps not so inadvertent ... way she'd hung that particular garment. The fabric image of baby Vincent smiled out into the Great Hall, already anxious for the coming Winterfest. "You're bringing good memories back to this celebration. Memories that will heal many."
Silently, Catherine nodded her appreciation as she returned to her mate.
"In fact," Vincent ventured, "Father was just saying the same. Only moments ago."
Now that surprised her. ... "Father?! To be honest, I was more concerned he'd think I was stepping on some toes. I know how much he values the festival and its traditions. Not to mention this Hall."
Vincent shook his head in the negative, struck anew at how hard she was working to adapt to his world. To fit in. And as much as he sometimes doubted his worthiness, he knew Father was probably right. -- -- It was his own presence that inspired her actions.
"He sent something with me," Vincent finally noted, retrieving the small gold box from the pocket of his trousers. "Explicitly said it was for you."
Surprised even more, Catherine took the shiny object. She too was struck by its lightness of weight.
"Do you know what it is?" she asked in curiosity, finding herself almost scared to open it. In the past months, especially since Vincent's time of darkness, the patriarch had been consistently warming to her. Even her marriage to Vincent had earned his support ... despite the night he'd caught her donned in Vincent's nightgown and sheepishly wandering through the tunnels. Maybe her surprise was warranted ... or maybe she still had not escaped the habit of seeing Father's behavior through the prism of long gone interactions.
Vincent shrugged helplessly. He too had been hesitant to open it, although his curiosity was mounting rapidly.
Well, no time like the present, and she lifted the lid away. Inside, beneath a carefully folded piece of tissue paper, lay a sprig of leathery green leaves. Catherine's brow furrowed as she picked it up.
Vincent, however ... ... he was quite clearly, and quite instantly, pleased.
"What is it?" she asked, turning it over.
"It's from your world, love. Don't you recognize it?"
She shook her head, meeting his eyes.
"Mistletoe," he answered with a widening grin. "We used to have some at every Winterfest, actually. In years gone by."
"I didn't see any last year," she stated, searching her memory. Had something like that been hanging from the ceiling -- oh yes, she most certainly would have noticed it. Not least of all during her private dance with her beau, right here in this quiet, cavernous room.
"Father instructed it be removed last year," Vincent explained. "Because ..."
"Because I'd be here?" she interrupted, her mouth quirked and her eyebrow raised. At least she could find some humor in the idea. "Trying not to encourage me, was he?"
Sorrowfully, Vincent shook his head. "No," he corrected gently. "It was at my request." His fingers reached out, claws brushing her fingertips as he delicately took hold of the preserved green sprig. He could remember his entire conversation with Father, nearly one year ago today.
"The tradition is from Britain," he mused. "And not entirely as amicable as is often assumed. The lady was considered to be 'caught' when found beneath the magical plant. The kiss became the gentleman's privilege." He paused, his eyes returning to hers, asking that she please understand. "I never wanted you to feel 'caught', Catherine. Or trapped. ... ... And worse, if you had pulled away. ... ... Some things I can weather. Others would cut me to the quick. ... It would have gone too deeply, had you pulled away. I could not bear even the risk of such a sadness."
Catherine's hands gravitated to his, wrapping around his fingers in heart-felt comfort. As so many times before, she was tempted to assure him that she would never have pulled away ... even back then. Not from a tender kiss, offered by the only man she would ever love.
But this was Winterfest. A time for new light. A time for optimism. A time for looking forward, rather than back. "And this year?" she asked instead. "When the great festival begins?"
The smile on her husband's face was almost answer enough ... growing freely and uncontrollably whenever she looked at him with such unrestrained adoration.
He turned, grasping her fingers more tightly, and silently led her to a stone archway that framed the base of one stairway. Above it, a small, ornate candelabra arched out, patiently awaiting the Winterfest candles it would burn this year. With Vincent's height, he easily reached up to wrap the sprig around one iron candlestick.
"This year," he finally answered, pulling her closer until they were both positioned exactly where fate had always wanted them. "This wonderful year, I believe it shall be my favorite decoration of all."
And then, at blissfully long last, he finally indulged in his Winterfest dream -- -- kissing his beloved beneath the magical mistletoe.