He busied himself folding the laundry and packing up the remaining perishables for delivery to Matt and Gertrude; the electricity would be turned off after they left and Matt would come by, as he had for some years, to see to the maintenance of the cottage. Vincent smiled. Catherine had confessed to much the same feelings of loneliness as they unfolded the furniture covers that morning. “When I was a very little girl, I used to think that this place would up and disappear over the year. It just seemed so remarkable that it would stay in one place while we were away.”
Vincent pulled the last of the clothes out of the dryer and took the laundry upstairs. He had just reached the top of the landing when he heard the crunch of gravel and Catherine's voice. Vincent ducked around the corner so he would be hidden from anything Matt might see.
He heard her open the door and the light scuffing sound of a cardboard box being lifted off the table. “Here you go,” Catherine said. “Thanks again for coming to shut the place down.”
There was the sound of clothing brushing together as they hugged. “You take care now, Cathy,” Matt said. “Call us when you get back to the city, okay?”
Vincent could hear Catherine's smile in her voice. “Will do,” she replied. “Drive safe.”
Matt chuckled. “You do the same. Bye now.”
He heard the click of the door shut. “You can come down, Vincent,” Catherine called up to him.
Vincent placed the laundry on the bed and walked back down the stairs. “Is everything all right?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Got the van---it's probably in better shape than it was when Mr. Ang lent it to us.” Catherine folded her arms and the light drift of sadness crossed through their bond.
“What is it?” he asked, taking her in his arms.
“I'm being silly. We have to go back, and yet some part of me doesn't want to. Isn't that silly?”
“No,” Vincent replied. “This has been a place out of time, away from our obligations. We've needed this badly, Catherine. Of course you feel torn. I feel the same.”
She pulled back and took his hands in her own. “Well, as my grandmother used to say, if wishes were fishes we'd all cast nets.” She bit her lower lip. “Vincent, while the van was at the shop, I asked them to tint the windows. We can leave anytime, since no one will be able to see you.”
“Mr. Ang will be pleased,” Vincent replied.
“He should be, since I bought it from him,” Catherine said, smiling.
“Yes, I did. We worked it out---the van will stay at his shop, and he'll keep using it for business, but if we need it...it's ours.” She touched his face. “I had to give us a way to come back, Vincent. We'll need this place, now and then.”
“We will,” Vincent agreed, smiling in return.
They left that morning, after a light lunch and quick call to Peter's answering service to let him know they were on their way back. They might have stayed the entire day, Catherine knew, but there was always the risk of the weather worsening by nightfall and with them now able to travel in daylight, she knew they'd be back home later that night.
“It's Friday and I don't have to be back to work until Monday,” Catherine said, glancing over at Vincent. The hood of his cloak was pulled up and he sat low his seat to further hide from any passing cars, but she could sense his fascination with the bright, snowy world around him. “You don't mind that we didn't stay the entire weekend?”
He laughed. “Catherine, with the adventures we went through just getting up here, I wouldn't have complained if you'd wanted to leave yourself a week coming back.” Vincent touched her hand where it rested on her thigh. “In all honesty, I think we'll both need the time to...transition. Much has changed since we left.”
“Oh, hasn't it,” Catherine replied, clasping his hand. “It seems so strange that when we drop the van back off at Paul Ang's, we'll also be back to our divided worlds. But I've never felt less divided.”
He looked over at her and favored her with one of his slow, loving smiles. “Because you're not divided. Nor am I. We'll find a way to create a world for us. I promised you that, Catherine. Why don't you come below this weekend?”
“Two more days with you? How could I say no?”
Vincent laughed and the road stretched wide and free beyond them.
They reached New York City just as night---and a light snow---was falling. Catherine pulled the van into Ang's parking lot and stretched as she got out. Vincent came around the front of the van and took her satchel. “I'll carry it,” he said. “You drove. It seems only fair.”
She yawned hugely and smiled. “Thanks.” Catherine used the key she'd been given and opened the back door of the grocery, locking it behind them. Soon enough, they were through the secret entrance and back in the twilight and tapping pipes of the tunnels.
“Let me send out the message that we're back,” Vincent said. He tapped out a brief message which Catherine was now able to translate: Vincent to Pascal-Pipe Chamber-we're back. Dinner still available?
Pascal's reply was brief, but warm. Pascal to Vincent-Ang's Grocery entrance-welcome home, the both of you. William left a couple of plates for you.
“Oh, good,” Catherine said, linking her hand with Vincent's. “I'm starved.”
The pipes started echoing louder and louder with the repeating message: Vincent and Catherine are back! Vincent and Catherine are back!
Catherine laughed. “If we thought we were going to make a quiet entrance, I'm guessing we were wrong.”
“We were missed,” Vincent said simply. “And I've never gone away before.”
As they ambled towards the more inhabited tunnels, people came out of their chambers to welcome the two back---quietly, but with great affection. When they made their way to Vincent's chamber, Father came out and hugged them both fiercely. “It's good to see you back. I'm so glad you came home safely. Did you have many adventures?”
Catherine grinned up at Vincent. “Oh, only about a million.”
After the commotion died down and they'd both eaten some of William's beef stew with homemade bread, Father wanted to hear about their trip. “The colors, Vincent, what were they like? Are they as glorious as I remember?”
Vincent nodded, seeing autumn's splendor in his mind's eye. Even if they returned again the following year, the first time he had seen such an explosion of color would remain fixed in his mind. He opened his satchel and pulled out his journal. Tucked inside were the leaves they'd carefully unpinned from the library curtains only that morning.
He handed one, a leaf crimson and gold and red, to Father, who stared at it as if he stared at the holy grail. “It's beautiful, Vincent,” Father whispered. He peered up closely at his son. “Do you know you have freckles?”
Vincent chuckled. “Yes. As Catherine informed me.”
“How much time did you spend outside, anyway?” Father asked, the tinge of old warnings and cautions edging his words.
“Father, did you expect I would stay inside the entire time?” Vincent asked, smiling.
“Then don't worry. I have freckles because I walked outside and saw the sunlight and was unafraid of who might see me or what I might find.”
A faint snoring sound drew their attention. Catherine, sound asleep in her chair. Vincent smiled at her as Father said, “Mary made up the guest chamber for Catherine.”
“That won't be necessary, Father,” Vincent said, meeting his father's eyes squarely.
Father's eyes widened. “That much has changed?”
“Yes,” Vincent said, mindful of Father's warnings in all the years since Lisa about being cautious and prudent.
Father smiled. “Good. I'm glad for it, for you both.” He gazed at his son and there was something in his eyes that Vincent had only rarely seen. “I was wrong, Vincent. And foolish—I wanted to protect you, but...” His eyes glimmered. “Love is what makes life worth living. In protecting you from the hurt, I would have protected you from the joy as well. I'm just sorry it took me so long to come to my senses.”
Father tilted his head. “Oh, I don't know, Vincent. You've been gone for two weeks. Your skills may have atrophied.”
Vincent grinned, showing all his teeth, in a way he hadn't felt comfortable doing for years. “Don't bet on it.”
Catherine awoke some hours later to the feel of Vincent's body nestled against hers. They were in his chamber; the light from the stained glass window was dim but it was bright enough to see the outline of Vincent's arm around her middle. She closed her eyes, listening to the tapping of the pipes and realized it was far darker in here than normal. A quick glance at the entrance revealed why: there was a thick, ornate curtain or tapestry covering the doorway. When did that go up?she wondered; one of Vincent's exasperated, if affectionate, observations about his tunnel family was that they often considered his chamber to be an open gathering place. She realized that he must have hung it up after they arrived, perhaps while she slept, and the thought warmed her at all it symbolized, a demarcation between all that they had been before Connecticut and all that they were or might become now.
Vincent stirred and she turned her head into the copper warmth of his hair. He opened his eyes slightly and touched her face. “Catherine? Are you well?”
She smiled. “Of course I am, love. I'm home.”
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