The first thing Catherine knew as she awoke was that her head was throbbing. She lay perfectly still, keeping her eyes closed. The sounds of banging on pipes told her she was Below. How had she come to be sleeping Below? It was hard to think clearly - she wasn't sure whether the things she was remembering were dreams or reality. She suddenly realized Vincent was lying beside her; she could feel his quiet, steady breathing. Was he asleep or awake? Her eyes seemed glued shut, and she didn't have the energy to open them.
Catherine tried to clear her mind, but the pain blurred everything. She remembered disjointed bits and pieces: drinking wine from a coffee mug; sitting beside Vincent for Thanksgiving dinner Below; giggling while Vincent was fuming; running through the tunnels too fast; hearing Vincent growl; serving vanilla ice cream to the children; Father and Vincent upset with Mouse. The order of events was jumbled - if they were real events at all.
She slowly opened her eyes; Vincent was watching her. He seemed embarrassed, though calm. He was probably waiting for her to act or speak first. They were in his bed, but not touching. Catherine should have been overjoyed to be in this situation, but something was wrong, and her brain couldn't click into gear. She could only focus on two things: her pounding headache and a soreness on her right wrist.
She tried to lift her right arm, but it was much too heavy. Her head swam as she shifted slightly to look down her arm. She gasped at what she saw: she was locked into one side of handcuffs, and Vincent was locked into the other side.
"What on earth?" Her voice was a croak. Shocked into being fully awake, she sat straight up. Her stomach immediately began rolling and her head swelled against her eyeballs. With a groan she sank down onto the pillow again. She could concentrate on nothing but controlling her stomach.
"Catherine, what can I do to help you?" She didn't need to see Vincent to know he was as distressed as she.
"Just... just wait," she said between gasps.
Gradually her stomach subsided a bit, and she peeked at Vincent. The poor man was panicked. That look struck a chord in her memory - had she been sick at the feast? And how had they become handcuffed together? Here she was in bed with Vincent, wearing her clothes from Thanksgiving, except for her shoes and socks. He was also fully dressed. She remembered drinking wine with dinner, but she'd never felt this hung over from wine. A memory trickled through: did she really jump in a puddle? It had something to do with Mouse.
"Vincent, I need to ask-", she began, but just then Father called softly from outside the doorway. Catherine looked at Vincent, certain that he would have fled if not for the handcuffs. However, he didn't budge or even look away from her for a moment.
"You don't have to move if you don't feel well enough," Vincent whispered. "Father will understand."
"Does he know about this?" Catherine gestured toward the handcuffs that bound them.
Vincent blinked in surprise. "Yes, of course. He came by a few hours ago to check on you, but you were still sound asleep."
"A few hours? What time is it? It feels early."
"It's probably close to eleven o'clock."
"Oh Vincent, what have I done to you?" She gripped his hand. "I think I can sit up," she said. "Slowly."
"Come in, Father," Vincent called as he assisted Catherine to shift herself to the edge of the bed. Even that small effort made her head throb again, so she rested her forehead on her hands, unable to look up at Father.
"Good afternoon," Father said, sounding cheerful. "Hmmm, I won't ask if you slept well."
"Father," Vincent said reprovingly, "Catherine is feeling sick."
"Sorry," Father replied, "I didn't mean to be insensitive. In fact, I've come to offer assistance. Catherine, could I interest you in some aspirin?"
"Yes, please," she mumbled, stifling a groan. When a cup of water appeared in front of her, she slowly sat up to accept it and two tablets from Father's hand. She swallowed one at a time, gingerly sipping the water. She handed back the cup with thanks. He set a battered aluminum bowl on the floor near her feet without comment.
Vincent asked, "Is Mouse awake yet?"
"Yes," Father said, "a short while ago. He seems to be feeling even worse than you, Catherine."
She leaned against Vincent's shoulder. "That's not possible."
Father cleared his throat. "Err, that's why I brought the basin, my dear. Mouse was quite sick when he first woke."
"Ohhh, why did you have to tell me that?" Catherine said, grimacing at Father's attempt at humor.
Vincent lifted his cuffed hand, carrying Catherine's arm along as dead weight. "Is he well enough to work on the key for these?"
"Yes, yes, he's making the new one now, albeit slowly. Let's hope aspirin helps him recover quickly. Catherine, what exactly did Mouse tell you about this scheme of his?"
Catherine rubbed her forehead for a moment before replying. Events of the previous evening gradually fell into order. "Not much," she said, speaking slowly. "He gave me a key and told me to hold onto it. It was when I'd just come Below, and he pulled me off to his chamber. Oh!" She fumbled at the pocket of her pants. "The key for the handcuffs!"
Vincent patted her arm. "Don't bother. We tried it last night," he said, shaking his head. "It... didn't work."
"Oh. Well," Catherine said, "he said the key was part of a surprise for you, Vincent."
Father blew out a puff of air. "Some surprise," he said.
Catherine continued, "That was also when Mouse showed me the bottles of wine for you, Father. I thought they were the surprise, but he said the key would come in handy later. He said it would be a good joke. I told him I didn't want to play a joke on Vincent." Vincent's free hand came up to stroke her hair. "He promised me no one would get hurt. 'Great idea, lots of fun, no one mad at Mouse.'"
Father said, "Yes, well, so much for Mouse's predictions."
"Father, no one was hurt," Vincent said softly.
"No need to defend his harebrained idea, Vincent - Mouse admitted he was wrong. And beyond the insanity of handcuffs, he made that key of the flimsiest tin - no wonder it snapped in two when we tried to turn the lock. I assure you he's sorrier than anyone - except perhaps Catherine. Is the aspirin helping yet?"
"Not yet," she said. "Ohhh... I haven't had a hangover this bad since my wild college days. I don't know why I feel so awful. I never reacted like this to wine."
"Port wine, my dear," Father said. "It's much more potent than regular wine. The alcohol content is many times higher. It was quite good, actually - I wonder where he got it?" He rose, and as he turned to leave he lightly tapped the pitcher of water on Vincent's table. "Try to drink more water, Catherine. It'll help wash away the alcohol. I'll go now and check on Mouse's progress. At least he's got the broken pieces of the key to work from - he should be able to make a new one easily enough."
"If he can see clearly to do it," Vincent said. "Mouse has never experienced a hangover before."
Father chuckled and said, "If need be I'll lend him my reading glasses. Or maybe it's time for that boy to learn to drink coffee."
When Father was gone, Catherine slumped against Vincent's shoulder again. "Can you see if my head has split open?"
Vincent lightly kissed her hair. "You only drank two glasses. Port must affect you very strongly."
"Not only two," she replied. "When Mouse first showed me the wine for Father, he opened one of the bottles for me to test, to make sure it was good. He poured me a large mug, and I kept sipping at it the whole time I was there. Then there were the two glasses with dinner, and even more in Mouse's chamber when he dragged me off again afterward to spring his surprise."
"No wonder you're feeling so bad now."
"No wonder I acted like such a jerk then."
Vincent's voice became even softer. "Catherine, you could never be a jerk. What can I do to help you?"
"I think my stomach will be okay, but my head feels ten sizes too big."
She slowly tilted her head left and right to stretch her neck. Vincent stood. Catherine squinted up at him, and started to rise, but he held up his hand.
"It's all right. Stay where you are."
He stepped around her and sat down again on her other side, so that their free hands were between them. He was now able to massage her neck and back. She let her head sink down onto their joined hands, holding the back of his hand against her cheek. The rough fur felt comforting.
"How's that?" Vincent asked.
"Mmmm, so good. It helps." She pressed a kiss onto his fingers.
In this position, Catherine once again noticed her feet, and remembered why they were bare. "Vincent? I was wading in puddles in the tunnels, wasn't I? What happened to my shoes?"
"They're drying in the kitchen near the stove. And I'd say you were much more enthusiastic about it than merely wading."
"My brain is all fuzzy. Things from last night keep floating past randomly. Did that happen before or after...?" She jiggled her right arm slightly to indicate the handcuffs.
"Before," Vincent replied. "At least before I was attached. You and Mouse were both... giddy by then. You came back from his chamber wearing the handcuffs like a bracelet."
"I remember. I kicked off my shoes, and -- oh no - I threw my wet socks at William! Oh Vincent, I didn't put the handcuffs on you, did I?"
No, Mouse did it when I was trying to lift you up to keep your bare feet off the floor. I'm afraid I reacted badly."
Vincent had been gently massaging her back and neck, but now his hand fell away as she straightened and faced him. Her head felt a little wobbly, so she caught a handful of his vest to steady herself.
She tried to make her voice strong. "Vincent, no one thought you reacted badly when you growled at him. Come on! There I was, giggling like an idiot, sloshing through water, singing 'Over the River and Through the Woods' at the top of my lungs, making a complete fool--"
Catherine stopped short as she remembered something else she'd done. She felt a blush sweep up her neck and cheeks.
"I kissed you," she said.
Vincent looked away, and she saw an identical blush blooming on his face. He tensed slightly, as though he was going to jump up. He probably needed to pace, or run away - both of which were impossible since they were handcuffed together. He sighed and settled back onto the bed, still not looking at her.
Catherine added, "In front of everyone."
"I embarrassed you."
He shook his head slowly, keeping his face turned enough so that she couldn't see him. She was trying to remember exactly what had happened. How had he responded to her kiss? She remembered him holding her by the shoulders and gazing into her face. She was determined not to apologize, or to let him apologize, for that matter. He did altogether too much of that.
Catherine braced her free hand on his shoulder as she rose, shuffled a step, and sat again - this time on his lap. She laid her arm across his shoulders and smiled as she felt his hand slip around her waist. She nuzzled her face into his hair and placed her right hand over his heart. Vincent's left hand was obliged to follow, and came to rest on top of hers. For a minute or two the only sounds in the chamber were messages on the pipes and a distant passing subway train.
Even if she wasn't clear about what had happened between them last night, Catherine was grateful that he accepted her embrace now. She could feel the pounding in her head gradually receding. In the calm of his chamber, she tried to feel his heart beating under her palm.
Once again a voice from the hallway broke in. It was Jamie. Catherine raised her head, thinking Vincent would move her off his lap. However, he only lowered their joined hands from his chest before inviting Jamie to enter.
She was carrying a tray with a teapot and two cups. She grinned slyly at them as she set it on Vincent's desk. "This is tea - William made it strong. I can bring breakfast if you want. Or lunch."
Vincent looked questioningly at Catherine; she shook her head. "No thank you, Jamie," he said, ignoring her sarcasm.
"Jamie?" Catherine asked. "Would you mind bringing my shoes and socks? Vincent said they were in the kitchen."
Jamie held up a canvas bag. "Yeah, I figured you'd want them." She tossed the bag onto the bed beside Catherine. "They're all dry."
"Any news on the key?" Vincent asked. Catherine turned to hide her smile. Vincent was very eager to be free of her - small wonder, since she'd done nothing but moan and threaten to vomit since awakening, not to mention her drunken antics of the night before.
"Mouse threw up a few times so far," Jamie said, wrinkling her nose. "He looks like Death, but he's working as fast as he can. It should be done soon. I'll go back and check on him."
Vincent and Catherine both thanked Jamie as she left. Catherine slid off Vincent's lap onto the bed again. She dumped her shoes and socks onto the floor and leaned over, but she moved too quickly - her head spun and the pain spiked again.
"Let me," Vincent said. He knelt before her and lifted her foot onto his knee. He was done quickly, even with the clumsiness of having their hands linked.
"I'm sorry to be so much trouble to you, Vincent." She touched his cheek tenderly. "Thank you for being so considerate. I hope I didn't embarrass you in front of your family."
"There's nothing to apologize for. Really, Catherine - nothing." He stood, stretched to reach the tea pot on his desk, and poured two cups. "Here, try to drink something." He swallowed his in one gulp.
Catherine took a few sips, testing her stomach: it didn't rebel, so she drank the rest and handed the empty cup to him. "Vincent, I'm not sorry I kissed you."
"Neither am I." He was staring into her tea cup, slowly swirling the remaining drops.
Vincent tilted his head slightly and looked at her quizzically, finally meeting her eyes. "But what?"
"I feel a 'but' coming. Are you sorry I kissed you? You must have known I've wanted to kiss you for a long time."
"Yes, I knew." His voice was very low.
She took a deep breath and rose to face him. "And I hoped you wanted to kiss me, too."
"Catherine, can we.... can we talk about this later? When we're not..." He swiveled his left hand to jangle the handcuffs.
Her heart sank. "Okay. Later."
"Don't be sad. What I mean is-" He took both her hands, but before he could go on they heard the sound of running footsteps in the tunnel. They stepped apart as Samantha raced in breathlessly.
"Vincent, can you and Catherine come to Mouse's chamber? He's nearly done with the handcuff key, and he wants to have his tools handy in case it needs adjusting."
"Yes," Vincent said, "We'll come right now."
Samantha reached into her pocket and drew out a hair brush. "Jamie said you needed this." She held it out to Catherine with a big smile. "You do."
Catherine's free hand went to her hair. "Thanks, Samantha. I probably need a lot more than this, but it's a start, at least. You go on ahead and tell them we're coming."
A few minutes later, neatened up as much as possible, Vincent and Catherine were walking through the tunnels as fast as she was able. The aspirin had taken effect, and her headache had faded to a dull annoyance. They held hands as they passed tunnel dwellers. Many wished them good luck; a few patted them on the shoulder in passing; everyone seemed amused. Catherine received several knowing winks and nods, and she began to wonder what else she'd done besides kissing Vincent. She couldn't remember anything after that; she must have passed out shortly afterward.
They were walking down the last stretch of tunnel before Mouse's chamber, with no one in sight. "Vincent?" she said. "How bad was I last night? Everyone's in on the joke but me."
"You weren't bad at all. You were wonderful."
"I was ridiculous."
"Ridiculous and wonderful." His hand tightened on hers and he drew her a little closer to his side. His voice dropped to a whisper. "And I'm not sorry you kissed me - either time."
* * * * *
Click. The handcuffs fell away and clattered to the floor. Mouse kicked them under his work table. "Leave 'em there," he said. "Never want to see 'em again."
"Thank goodness," Catherine said, rubbing her right wrist. Vincent was doing the same with his left.
Father pointedly cleared his throat - clearly a signal to Mouse, who clasped his hands together as he rose to face Catherine and Vincent. "Really sorry for what I did. Truly sorry - and not just because of the headache. It was a bad joke. Do you forgive me?"
Vincent patted Mouse's shoulder. "I forgive you."
Catherine ruffled his hair. "Me too." She leaned forward to whisper in his ear, "Sorry about your hangover."
"I hope you've learned your lesson, Mouse," Father said.
"I learned! Never again!" Mouse said. He looked around the room at the gathered crowd. "Father? Can we eat soon? I'm starving."
* * * * *
Vincent held Catherine's hand again as they walked to Father's chamber after the Thanksgiving leftover feast. They had sat across from each other at the meal instead of side by side. It wasn't that she'd had too much of him while they were bound together by the handcuffs. Rather, she felt a sweet confidence, without having to touch him, that they were closer than ever. He seemed to feel that way, too. Whenever their eyes met he held the gaze lovingly, without embarrassment.
The only details still unclear to Catherine were the events just before she'd crashed. Based on the behavior of the tunnel folks, she must have said or done something silly, though not terribly humiliating. Everyone had a fond smile for her. Father was in the best of moods. He'd done his best to be stern with Mouse, but he was clearly enjoying the humor of the situation - even going so far as to pour himself a small glass of the port wine.
Catherine was hoping to ask Vincent in private about those missing details, but that conversation would have to wait. The gathering in Father's chamber was large and festive. It seemed to be a tunnel tradition. The table that usually held maps was covered instead with leftover pie and cookies; a stack of plates was an invitation to help oneself. Father was already well into a game of chess with Eric, and a few boys seemed to be in line to challenge him next. Other children were huddled around a Chinese checkers board in the corner, and some of the adults were engrossed in card games.
Catherine and Vincent separated for a while to wander from group to group. When she next saw him, he was on the love seat behind the spiral staircase, and was browsing through a book. He must have felt her gaze, because he smiled and nodded to the empty space beside him.
"What's that you've got?" she asked as she settled down in the spot he'd been saving for her.
Vincent closed the book so she could see the title: Poems of Ogden Nash. "Here's one I think you'll appreciate," he said as he opened it again. He kept his eyes on her as her recited,
Catherine laughed gaily and pinched his arm. He quietly laughed along and offered to read another.
"As long as it's non-alcoholic," she replied.
They gradually attracted a small group of listeners as Vincent read Nash's whimsical poems. At times he handed the book to Catherine for her to read aloud. She lost track of time, and was surprised when Father broke up the party to send the children to get ready for bed. Some carried out the dishes and silverware, some swept the floor, and the others packed up the games. The good-nights took a long time, but finally the only ones left in the room were Catherine, Vincent and Father.
Catherine helped Vincent as he replaced the maps on the large table. When everything was in order they took seats near Father, watching as he reset the chess pieces.
"This was such a relaxing evening," Catherine said. "It's a wonderful tradition you've made."
"Actually," Vincent said, "we usually do this on Thanksgiving evening."
"Except that there was a slight distraction yesterday," Father said with a smirk.
"I can't believe I was out of control like that," Catherine said shaking her head. "I'm so sorry I disrupted everything."
Vincent patted her arm. "There's nothing to apologize for, Catherine. No one believes the handcuffs were your idea."
"But I was drunk, acting crazy! And..." She sighed as she admitted, "I can't remember everything I did." She felt a growing sense of dread as Father and Vincent exchanged a quick glance. "What? Is it because I kissed Vincent?"
"Well," Father said, exhaling slowly, "there's that...."
"Why don't you tell us what you do remember," Vincent said. He shifted his chair closer to hers and held out his hand, but Catherine stood abruptly and began arranging the rolled up maps on the table, feeling extremely self-conscious.
"I, um, pretty much remember everything up to where I was running around the dining hall barefooted. Mouse had put one side of the handcuff on me, and I thought it was the funniest thing to show it off to everyone." She meticulously lined up the maps, glancing at Father and Vincent nervously. "I remember when he clicked it onto your arm, then ran away when he thought everyone was angry at him. I didn't realize I had the key in my pocket - or I was too drunk to remember."
"That's all correct so far," Father said, nodding. "It took us half an hour to find him - and of course the key was useless anyway."
Catherine shrugged. "It's kind of blurry after that." She looked sadly at Vincent, regretting they had to discuss this so matter-of-factly in front of Father. She longed to tell him that the kiss wasn't a mistake.
But Vincent didn't seem upset at all. "You were trying to calm everyone," he said, "and by the time you got to Father, I think you'd forgotten Mouse."
Father said, "You asked me to dance."
"I did?" Catherine dropped the map she'd been fiddling with. She had no memory of that. Perhaps that was why everyone had been so amused.
"I pleaded off because of my bad hip - but you were most insistent. You put your arms around my neck and whispered - quite loudly - that you were also hoping to dance with Vincent, and if I would dance with you, it might encourage him to follow suit. He was standing right there, of course - handcuffed to you."
"Oh Lord," Catherine groaned, covering her face with both hands. "Why didn't someone put me out of my misery?" She held her clenched fists against her mouth, dreading what she might hear next.
"Catherine, no," Vincent said, holding his hand out to her again, though she didn't move any closer. "You were so sweet and sincere."
Father took up his narrative. "You said to me, 'I'm in love with your son, you know.' I replied that I did know. No, don't be embarrassed, because then you said the loveliest thing. You said, 'Isn't he the most wonderful, magnificent person you ever knew?' You never said a truer thing, my dear."
"You told Father he was a great man himself." Vincent paused for a moment, his face neutral. "And then you kissed him."
Catherine looked back and forth from son to father; they weren't telling her everything yet. The twinkle in Father's eyes set loose a flock of butterflies in her stomach. She felt her face burning. "On the cheek?" she asked in a shaky voice.
Father shook his head, then tapped a finger a directly on his lips.
"Oh no! Father, I was - I didn't know what-"
"Catherine!" Father spoke loudly to cut her off. "Please, don't be so distressed. The kiss was offered in complete innocence and sincerity, and I received it in the same spirit." He leaned forward in his chair. "Please look at me, Catherine. All teasing aside: you have no reason to be ashamed. You did nothing improper."
Catherine returned to her chair, plopping down with a sigh. She put her hand out to Vincent, who clasped it protectively in both of his. "Just tell me the rest," she said.
Father continued, "At that point you became weepy, and returned to Vincent's arms. That was when you kissed him - rather more enthusiastically than me."
"And you started to fall asleep," Vincent said.
"You mean I passed out," she said with a wry grin. "Was there any other kissing I should know about?"
Father laughed and assured her that was all, but Vincent only squeezed her hand. Catherine looked at him cautiously. Whatever it was, he obviously didn't want to discuss it in front of Father. But she decided to give up worrying. After kissing Father on the lips in front of the whole tunnel family, anything she'd done in private with Vincent would be easy to accept.
"This will be a Thanksgiving remembered with fondness for years to come," Father said, slowly rising from his chair. "I'm sorry we cheated you out of a good night's sleep," Father said. "If you'd like to stay, I'm sure we can find you a comfortable bed."
"I'd love to," she replied, "but I promised my friend Jenny I'd meet her for lunch on Saturday. I really should go Above tonight. Thanks for the invitation - could I come again Sunday afternoon?"
"Yes, of course," Father said. "You're always welcome."
"Come," Vincent said as he rose, keeping hold of her hand, "we'll get your things from my chamber and I'll walk you out." He glanced at Father. "I'll stop in later."
"Good night, Father," Catherine said. She started to follow Vincent toward the door.
Father's voice stopped her. "Don't I get a proper good night?" She turned to look at him: he was standing with his hands spread wide. She walked back into his hug, and before she released him she quickly kissed his cheek. "Good night, dearest Catherine," he murmured.
* * * * *
Vincent led her out through the park entrance. Catherine waited until they were nearly out before she spoke, not wanting any of the tunnel sentries to overhear. She watched as Vincent slid the heavy iron door closed and latched the barred gate. He raised his hood, laced his fingers with hers and slowly strolled out through the large drain pipe.
"There was more, wasn't there?" she asked. Vincent nodded silently. "What did you mean before when you said, 'either time'?"
They were just stepping out into the park, and they both took a deep breath of the brisk night air. Vincent looked around to confirm that they were alone. He didn't answer until they reached the walking path. "After you... passed out, you weren't completely unconscious. You kept waking up to apologize or to reassure me that you were all right; you'd fall asleep again immediately - sometimes in the middle of a sentence."
Catherine shook her head. "I am never drinking port wine again." She tilted her head to look up at Vincent. He was grinning.
He continued, "I carried you to my chamber, and got you into bed. I had to join you..." Now he was finally coming to it. She let go of his hand and slipped her arm around his waist under his cloak; he settled his arm across her shoulders. He once again scanned the area they were passing through before continuing. "You were restless at first; several times when you woke you rolled over into my arms. Twice you kissed me - as Father said, most insistently."
"I wish I remembered that." Catherine glanced up at him. "Did it bother you?"
He stopped walking and turned to face her. "No, though I would have expected so. But after hearing what you told Father..."
"That I love you," she said.
"That you love me," he said, pressing his hand over his heart, savoring the thought. "After hearing that, and even more after seeing how natural and honest and simple it was to be kissed by you - in front of my friends - in that moment I realized I've been too fearful. I've been forcing you to act from fear as well. It was only when you were uninhibited that you could speak and act freely from your heart. Catherine, your heart is so beautiful."
"My heart is yours," she whispered, moving forward to embrace him tightly. "My heart beats for you."
He tucked her head under his chin and nuzzled the top of her head. "I feel your joy. It fills me with hope." They stood in close embrace for a long minute, until he loosened his hold, drawing back enough to look into her face. "My fear is not gone, but now I see a way through it: love. Our love for each other."
"Yes," she said, "and we have to focus on love, not fear." Catherine yearned to kiss him, especially now that she'd remember it; but she wanted even more for him to kiss her. She was willing to wait. So when he gripped her shoulder again and resumed walking, she simply hugged his waist and fell into step with him.
Vincent paused again when the lights along the street came into sight. "It's late. I'll see you to the edge of the park, but before you go... would you like a proper good night?"
Catherine smiled broadly at his innately courteous way of asking for a kiss. "Very much." Vincent cupped his hand on her jaw and slowly kissed his way from her forehead to her temple to her cheek, and finally her lips.
They slowly drew apart. "Vincent," Catherine said, rubbing her hand across his chest, "can we say good night a little longer?"
In reply, his arms twined around her waist. His voice rumbled delightfully against her lips. "Good night, dearest Catherine."