Chapter 43: A Path of Yellow Moonlight 
“Did I tell you about the letter I received from Devin this morning?” Vincent asked as he shouldered into the last of his Winterfest finery, a burgundy brocade vest, dark against the ivory of his shirt.
“No, you didn't. Everything's all right with him and Charles?” The rich color of the vest suited him, Catherine thought, bringing out the red in his hair.
“Oh, yes,” Vincent replied. “He apologized for not being able to come to Winterfest this year but Charles is still uncomfortable in such a large group and Devin's picked up a second job.”
“Mmm...hmmm. As a driver for the local libraries, bringing books to and from a certain librarian.”
Catherine raised her eyebrows. “ 'A certain librarian' ? Does Devin have a girlfriend?”
“Not yet,” Vincent replied, “but I think he'd like that to change. He said he hoped I'd be able to meet her one day.”
“That's...quite a statement coming from Devin, isn't it?” Catherine observed. “For so long he had to deny everything about this world, about his past and now....”
“Now he feels as though he might not always have to,” Vincent finished. “Yes. Though knowing Devin...” and a wry smile flitted across his face, “I doubt he'll have much patience with the usual formalities. I fully expect the two of them to just show up at Winterfest some year.”
“Of course,” Catherine agreed. “Why be consistent?”
Vincent walked with his wife to the front of the procession, conscious of a good many smiles directed their way---Renata, her son Paolo; Maxine, standing with Corey and Gideon; Dara, in some animated conversation with Annie and Mathew; David and Joshua, heads bent together; the newly married Lena and Warren with young Cathy in tow; Olivia and Kanin and Luke; Angus and their newest helper, Santos. Valerie and Cullen were near the front of the gathering crowd, as were Marisol and Miguel. Miguel fussed with the tie of his suit. “Now I know why I'm not a banker,” he said as they arrived.
“Aside from a total lack of math ability?” Marisol said, winking at her husband.
Miguel chuckled. “Well, that too. Catherine, how have you been? Settling in all right down here?”
Catherine nodded. “Very much so, thanks. Marisol, how are you feeling?”
Marisol rested one hand on the curve of her stomach. “Much better now that my morning sickness is gone.”
“Ugh,” Valerie said, leaning against Cullen's arm, “don't remind me. Why do they call it morning sickness if it lasts all day?”
“I know what you mean,” Marisol replied. “Why don't you talk to Narcissa? She made me some tea which really helped.”
“Is she coming, though?” Valerie asked. “I haven't seen her since Catherine's first Winterfest and that was what? Two years ago?”
“Geoffrey and Samantha left a candle in her workshop as we've always done, but I don't know if she'll attend this year. Her last Winterfest was...unpleasant,” Vincent answered, reminded---as he had been since his illness---that the threat of Paracelsus was removed from the community. By my hand, he thought...and for the first time, there was no chill of accompanying horror. Paracelsus was dead; the community was safer than it had been in many years, and tonight they all could relax knowing there would be no threats, no incursions.
“You have a talent for understatement, my friend,” Cullen said, and clapped him on the shoulder. The gesture spoke of trust and acceptance and Vincent smiled back at him.
The uneven scrape of a cane over the rock floors alerted him to Father's presence. “Ah, Vincent, Catherine,” he said. “Ready to begin?”
“Yes, Father,” Vincent replied, and they began the walk to the Great Hall.
Catherine smiled up at Vincent as he pulled the heavy wooden chair out for her. She glanced up at the ceiling; lacking the lambent glow from the night before, it was dark---waiting, as they all were, for Winterfest to begin. All around them, people began to sit down, engaging in soft conversation, as if they were in a church, Catherine thought. “I can't believe this is my third Winterfest,” she murmured to her husband. “Did you know I was a bit nervous at the first one?”
“Why?” Vincent asked.
“After you gave me my candle, I realized I'd never heard anyone talk about it. For all I knew, there might have been jello wrestling involved.”
Vincent chuckled. “I was a bit...sparse on the specifics, wasn't I?”
“Yes, but I didn't mind. You'd invited me someplace special. The rest was just details.” She tilted her head, gazing at that strange, beloved face. “Were you nervous at all?”
“Once I made the decision, no.”
“Which reminds me,” Catherine said impishly. “On my balcony that night you said, 'The entire community has agreed.' Who was 'the community'? ”
“Would you believe Mary? And Jamie?”
Catherine glanced over at the two women. Mary sat between Angus and Santos at the far end of the table, and Jamie and Mouse at one of the smaller tables opposite them. “I'd already decided to ask you to join us,” Vincent continued, “but both Mary and Jamie were quite insistent that I not delay. Mary told me I had to 'invite that nice Catherine' and Jamie warned me not to be a...'twit'---I believe that was her term---and ask you already.” He grinned a rogue's smile. “Make no mistake. When those two unite in a common purpose, the universe itself would stop rotating if they told it to.”
“And Father was told when....?”
“When he needed to know,” Vincent replied. “He certainly didn't mind once he knew you were coming, but it wasn't something he'd have thought of on his own.”
“No,” Catherine agreed; her relationship with the tunnel patriarch then had been marked by a lot of tension and mistrust on both sides.
Father reached the head of the table and a hush---expectant, joyous---fell over the crowd. He lit his candle and began the ceremony. “The world above us is cold and grey...”
She barely heard him over the din of music and talking and laughter. “Vincent?” she asked, craning her head.
“Up here,” he said.
Catherine looked up and saw him standing in the curtained shadows of the upper gallery. She made her way through the throng of people milling about and walked up the stairs. “Is this area safe?” she asked in a stage whisper.
“I haven't been asked to dance for at least ten minutes, so I believe so,” he replied dryly.
“Poor Vincent,” she said, teasing. “All the ladies want to dance with you. Whatever shall you do?”
His fangs peeked out in a wry smile. “Hide here until my toes recover.”
“It can't be that bad,” Catherine answered, though in Samantha's case, she thought she might be stretching the truth. The girl had hit a growth spurt recently, towering over many of the other girls, and Catherine well remembered that age of awkward feet.
“Oh?” Vincent asked. “How many times have you and I danced tonight?”
“Twice,” Catherine replied. “And one of those was interrupted---”
“By Arthur skittering across my boots, yes. And Mouse chasing after him.”
“Well, in that case, I'll have to defend your honor. Or your toes, whichever comes first. Would you like some punch?”
Vincent nodded. “The orange one, please. The red one is William's special recipe and it's mostly alcohol.”
She glanced down at the tables, saw the adults guarding the red bowl, shooing the teenagers away. “All right. I'll be back soon.”
“Ah, Catherine, have you seen Vincent?” Father asked.
She ladled some of the orange punch into two mismatched mugs and smiled. “He's in the upper gallery taking a break from his dance card.”
“His old hiding place, eh?” Father said, returning her smile. He took the cup she offered him. “He and Devin used to go up there when they were boys.” At her questioning look, he continued, “You saw the thick velvet curtains; they deaden sound. As we found out to our cost once they discovered water balloons.”
She pressed her hands to her mouth, imagining the two boys, united in their mischief. “They didn't...during Winterfest?”
“Oh, no,” Father said. “Before the commons was expanded, we held many of our community meals here. Mitch and some of the other children had been deviling them, and Vincent and Devin launched an aerial assault. With the curtains drawn, no one could hear them.”
“Did you get hit?”
“Yes, but accidentally. Vincent's aim is very good, but his claws proved too much for one water balloon. He lobbed one at Mitch---who was standing behind me---and I got drenched in the process.”
Catherine sipped at her punch, thinking of all the children this man had helped to raise. “I'm amazed you have any hair left.”
Father rolled his eyes in mock consternation. “Some days, so am I, my dear.”
She laughed. “Was there a reason you wanted to see Vincent? Nothing’s wrong, is there?”
“No, no reason, only...”
“Forgive me, my dear. I really must get over the habit of needing to keep an eye on him. I hadn't seen him for a bit and...”
She touched his arm. “Father. He's fine.”
He nodded briskly and covered her hand with his own. “I know.”
“That's an interesting smile you have on your face,” Catherine said during their third waltz.
“Is it?” Vincent asked. “Look over my right arm and tell me what you see.”
Moving as they were, it was difficult to see what he meant, until Catherine saw Mary. “Mary...dancing with Santos?”
“Mmm...hmm,” Vincent said. “That's their fourth dance tonight, unless I miss my guess.”
“Do you think there's anything to it?”
“Possibly,” Vincent replied. “If so, I'm glad. Mary's been alone a long time.”
“I thought she and Father---” Catherine began, then stopped. Why did she see Mary and Father together? They were close companions and long-time friends, but...was there more to it than that? Had there ever been?
Vincent's breath, released in a soft chuckle, lifted the fine hairs on her forehead. “A good many people have said the same thing, over the years,” he said. “When I was growing up, I thought Father had always been alone. For Mary...” and his voice lowered, “I don't know her full story, why she came to us. But although I remember a few of our helpers trying to court her, she...simply wasn't interested.”
“So this could be a beginning for her?”
“It could,” Vincent agreed. “Or it could be that Santos is simply a good dancer.”
“Time will tell,” Catherine said, and thought of all the missteps and trials they'd endured in their own relationship. Abruptly, she became of the silence---affectionate, amused---which enclosed them. “Vincent?”
“The music stopped.”
Vincent kissed the top of her head and looked down at her, not a trace of embarrassment or chagrin on his face. “Why, so it did.”
After the closing circle, the helpers gathered to be guided back above. To her surprise, not everyone left; Catherine saw some of the teenagers remaining behind as well as several of the adults. “We're having a real party,” Samantha said, excited, as she darted off to corral a nervous Geoffrey. The music changed from folk and medieval to rock and roll, courtesy of a boom box someone had brought below, and the cavern echoed with the frenetic giggles of young girls.
“Is there an after-party every year?” Catherine asked as they left.
“Yes,” Vincent replied. “There wasn't one at your first Winterfest because of Paracelsus' reappearance.”
“I can imagine,” Catherine said. “Did you ever stay for it?”
“I did when I was in my early teens. Then later, I stayed to chaperone.” He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “The year Winslow and I chaperoned, he said he'd rather wear a wool sweater in the forge and dance naked in the Great Hall than do it again. The...giggling...got to him after a while.”
Catherine had a brief memory of her father, staying up late with their housekeeper, Helen, during one of her sleepovers, brewing endless pots of coffee and playing nickel poker. “The universal complaint of adults everywhere,” she said lightly, taking his hand as they walked. “My dad used to say he should lock the lot of us in a room with some of his more stubborn clients; hours of non-stop teenage chatter would make anyone straighten up just to get away from it.”
Vincent chuckled. “He sounds like a very wise man.”
“He was,” she agreed, able to remember him now without the serrated, savage pain of grief. She leaned against Vincent's arm. “Like someone else I know.”
Vincent removed his vest and hung it up in the armoire. With Winterfest now over, the pipes were silent, except for the occasional reports from the sentries. He stretched, enjoying the calm lassitude, the muted sound after the noise and chatter. Almost all normal work in the tunnels would be suspended for the next few days, and he found himself greatly looking forward to the extra time with his wife.
He heard a faint rustle behind him. Catherine toed off her shoes---heels, in the tunnels, Vincent noticed, bemused---and removed the small wrapped package from her tote-bag. “Your choice,” she told him, grinning. “You can unwrap it yourself. Or you can unwrap it....on me.”
The taste of anticipation...the memory of her taste, of the satin of her skin and the salt of her hidden places...made his mouth go dry with wanting and all ordinary thought take flight. “You choose,” he managed.
“If you'll unzip me so I can get out of this dress, I'll go and get changed, then.”
Careful of the soft fabric, Vincent tugged down the narrow zipper, but couldn't resist a brush of the back of his hands against the ivory of her shoulders. She shivered and the dress fell to the floor in a rush of velvet. Catherine turned to face him, the candlelight glinting on the paleness of her underclothes. “I'll be back soon.”
While she undressed---or did whatever mysterious things she was doing in their bathroom---Vincent removed the rest of his own clothes, stowing them away and hanging Catherine's dress up so that it wouldn't be wrinkled. He turned down the covers on their bed and began to snuff out almost all of the candles, but turned at the sound of footsteps behind him.
Catherine was dressed in a gown of the palest sea-foam green which shimmered in the low light. It was sheer, or nearly so; he could tell she wore nothing underneath it. The fabric clung and shifted with her breath; her hair fell long and loose over her bare arms, a river of gold. “What do you think?” she asked.
Words fled for a brief few seconds in a mix of need and want and love. “I...think it's the most...lovely wrapping paper I've ever seen.”
The trill of her laughter, her joy, echoed in their bedroom. “Well, I think everyone should have a Winterfest present to unwrap.”
“Yes,” he agreed. His own gift rested as yet unseen in her study; it would keep until the morning. His hands went to the silken ties of her gown. “May I?”
She smiled up at him. “I thought you'd never ask.”
Vincent gave a gentle tug at the two ties at the collar of the gown and it slid off her shoulders. Her breasts rose high against his chest as she stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “Happy Winterfest, Vincent,” she murmured against his mouth.
Her scent rose in the cool, still air; a rushing flood against all his senses. The feel of her hair against his bare neck brought back memories of the time when her embrace had been so new in his life. “What are you thinking?” she asked, clearly sensing something of the direction of his thoughts.
“When I left you at your threshold, the first time I held you,” he answered. “I was...stunned by your courage.”
“It wasn't courage---”
He drew back a little to look at her, at the miracle in his arms. “Wasn't it? You'd been through such trauma, but you trusted me. Dared to touch me. That was...uncommon in my life, until you.”
“And didn't you trust me? I might have gone Above and led the police back down here.” Catherine looked up at him and ran her hands through his wild hair. “Come here, love. I need to feel you next to me.”
There was nothing to be done but obey the feelings coursing through both of them; against the onslaught, Vincent was helpless and had never minded less. She tugged him towards the bed, the heady scent of lavender rising as they stretched out on the covers. “Now, where was I?” Catherine asked, a wicked lilt to her voice. She kissed his neck. “Was I here?” Her hand drifted lower. “Or was I here?”
“I...don't remember.” He brushed the softness of her lips with his own; his hand cupped the soft globe of her breast, the curve of her hip. “Shall we start all over?”
“Mmm,” Catherine murmured. She traced the odd lines of his ears, the planes of his cheekbones, even the cleft of his upper lip. It was the touch of love, from a woman who accepted, utterly. “Again and again, if necessary. It's a sacrifice but...”
Vincent chuckled. So much joy had she brought into his life, and in the most unpredictable ways. “Your...dedication is truly inspiring.”
She propped her head up on one hand and toyed with his chest hair. “I'm not sure 'dedication' is quite the right word.”
“Oh? Which would you use, then?”
“Persistence. It did take you almost three years to kiss me.”
“Yes. But I don't recall hearing any complaints. Though I should have done it much sooner.”
“Well, then, I think we have to make up for lost time, don't you?”
“Oh, yes. Starting...now."
Click here for Chapter 44...
 “Bennacht/Blessing,” by John O'Donohue