MIDNIGHT SNACK

by JoAnn Baca

Catherine absolutely could not get to sleep. An hour of determination had produced nothing but frustration. She was too keyed up from the excitement of spending a rare night Below. The children's concert had been lovely, and the late night walk to the Falls with Vincent had been wonderful, even romantic, albeit in a subdued and oblique way. Nothing had been "said" -- nothing ever was -- but assumptions were made, and looks had passed between them, and that alone had kindled her now distracted state of mind. Sleep was not on the agenda. Maybe a snack would help....

Resolutely, Catherine threw back the covers and groped for her shawl. Rather than light a candle, she dispensed with her slippers after searching fruitlessly in the dark for them. She skipped lightly out of the guest chamber and began to make her way to the kitchen.

They had not returned to the home tunnels until quite late -- after midnight. The tunnelfolk were of the "early to bed, early to rise" philosophy, and so they had encountered no one when they whispered their reluctant good nights and departed for their separate chambers; the tunnels had been quiet and deserted already. She felt certain that at this hour she would have the tunnels...and especially the kitchen...to herself.

Catherine passed a number of darkened chamber entrances before she came to the tunnel where Vincent's chamber lay. Unexpectedly, there was light spilling from his doorway. So he was not asleep. But he might be getting ready for bed. Or he might be lying under the covers reading. Whatever he was doing, he was certainly not anticipating unannounced callers at this late hour. For a brief moment she struggled over what to do, but her practical side held little sway where Vincent was concerned. Knowing he was awake, she craved the sight of him.

She padded over to the door and peeped her head around the corner of his chamber entry. Vincent was lost in thought, head down, making a journal entry. It was rare that she caught him unaware, but he didn't seem to realize she was standing there. Catherine took the opportunity to observe him, to marvel at his unconscious, elegant grace. Illuminated by candlelight, he was a vision of incomparable beauty, encircled in an aura of hazy incandescence, the amber highlights of his hair aglow. He took her breath away -- she knew he always would.

"Vincent?"

He looked up at her soft call in surprise, then offered her his gentle half smile, the one that always melted her heart. "Catherine." The way his husky voice caressed her name made her shiver with delight and desire. "I didn't hear you come in. When I write in my journal, I sometimes become so enmeshed in my thoughts, I am oblivious to what is happening around me."

Catherine mentally kicked herself for not realizing that staying up late like this was a way for him to carve out a small bit of privacy in his busy life Below. "I'm sorry, Vincent. I shouldn't have bothered you." She gave him an embarrassed, apologetic smile and turned to leave. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him rise to stop her, and she turned back just as he pleaded, "Don't leave. Please...don't leave."

When he saw she would not go, he sat again and stared at the open journal before him. Almost to himself he added, "I write to...feel closer to you...when I cannot be with you. But now that you are here...." He left the sentence unfinished, but deliberately closed the journal and recapped his fountain pen, setting both aside.

Despite his obvious acceptance of her presence, Catherine felt she had to offer an explanation for her sudden appearance in the middle of the night. "I was feeling restless and couldn't sleep, so I decided to raid William's pantry for some warm milk. When I saw your light, I thought I'd invite you along." In a conspiratorial stage whisper, she added, "We might even score some brownies -- William once told me about his secret hiding place."

His chuckle rumbled deep in his chest at her suggestion, but surprisingly, he shook his head. "The tunnels are very chilly at this time of night, Catherine, and I see your toes are already turning blue." He tried unsuccessfully to hide his smile as she responded by rubbing the backs of her toes against her calves in an attempt to warm them. "Rather than the long trek to the kitchen, perhaps I could offer you some tea instead? The chamomile you like?"

She smiled and asked, charmed, "Celestial Seasonings? The tea I gave you?"

He nodded. "I save it for...special occasions. Like now. Please...stay and share some with me? If you don't mind missing out on the brownies, that is." At the last comment, his upper lip quivered slightly. He suspected she had invented the intriguing possibility of brownies just for a chance to spend some time with him. Tonight, he wanted nothing more than to humor her.

Catherine barely contained her surprise at his unexpected offer, and nodded happily, knowing it gave him pleasure to do even this small thing for her. Vincent rose and strode to the brazier to heat the teakettle. She claimed his chair for herself and sighed contentedly as she scrunched into it sideways and absorbed the warmth from his body lingering in the worn leather. Tucking the hem of her nightgown under her bare toes, she made herself at home, watching as Vincent steeped the teabags and poured their tea.

Vincent handed her a steaming mug, and she curled her fingers gratefully around its warmth as she inhaled the fragrant aroma contained within. He reclined on his side on the bed, and they sipped from their mugs in companionable silence for a time, watching the small fire in the brazier as it crackled merrily. Finally, Vincent asked, "Are you still cold, Catherine?"

Enigmatically, she replied, "I'm never cold when I'm with you." The remark seemed to disconcert him though and, anxious to reclaim the ease between them, she changed the subject. "Why couldn't you sleep, Vincent?"

At first she thought he might not answer, but finally he spoke, and his voice was low and soft as he replied. "I find it...difficult to sleep...when you are Below, Catherine."

She was immediately abashed, and her consternation was apparent as she responded. "Oh, Vincent. I'm sorry! You have so many cares and burdens, and here I'm...thoughtlessly compounding them by keeping you from your rest. Why didn't you say something before?" She set her mug on the table and swung her legs down until she was sitting at the edge of the chair. "If you like...I could go back Above right now. I wouldn't mind...if you would sleep better."

He regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment, then dropped his eyes as if making a shameful revelation. "No...I would not like you to go back Above, Catherine. That is the last thing I would like. It..." He paused for so long, Catherine was unsure whether he meant to finish his thought. "It...comforts me greatly when you are...close by. I would rather stay awake and...relish the closeness for as long as you are here." He raised his eyes finally and gazed into hers, willing her to understand all he could not yet say. "Lost sleep I can make up, Catherine, on the many, many nights when you are not...Below."

Catherine pondered this disclosure. Should she probe further? His unexpected frankness emboldened her response. "Perhaps, Vincent...perhaps...if I were here more often...it wouldn't seem so...unusual...and you could sleep, knowing I would be here again the next night...and the next."

Slowly, Vincent rose and knelt beside her. His solemn blue eyes held hers bound in thrall. He reached for her hands, and gently clasped them between his own. "Would you, Catherine? Would you...stay...if I asked you?"

"I would do anything for you, Vincent. But it would not be an entirely selfless act. Being close to you...always...is my heart's greatest desire."

"Then...stay. Please...stay."

"Vincent...what are you asking of me? Is it to stay Below? Or to stay Below...with you?"

"Does it make a difference?"

"Perhaps not...I won't know for sure until you answer."

He rose and turned away from her then, and Catherine's heart plunged. To come this close...only to turn from the brink! Silently, she urged him to take the chance she offered him.

"Catherine...I have...no right to ask...that."

"I'm giving you that right."

The silence grew lengthy, the only sound in the room the sputtering of the brazier. She knew the war being waged within his heart was tearing him apart, and she longed to ease the torment. But this was one decision he must come to alone. He must be sure. He must want it badly enough to reach for it, to claim it for himself. Time seemed to hang upon heartbeats. After an agonizing interval, Vincent sighed deeply, a shuddering almost-groan which gave no clue of the decision he had reached. Catherine hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath, but she released it slowly now, steeling herself for what might come.

"I...I...would ask you to stay...with me." Vincent's heart shuddered and skipped from the force of his audacious entreaty. He turned back, anxious to see her reaction. The face he encountered was lifted to his, and was filled with joy and wonder. He never knew where he had found the courage to speak the words which would bind them forever, but he was grateful for the reservoir of hidden strength which summoned it.

Catherine rose from the chair and moved toward him. "Yes! Yes, I'll stay. Always, Vincent." Vincent stretched out his arms to his beloved.

The embrace was shattering in its intensity. They melted into each other, pressing close everywhere, merging their separateness. All barriers between them dropped, and they held each other for the first time...as lovers.

Catherine was the first to pull away, although she did not forsake his arms entirely. "It's very late, Vincent. If I stay...do you think you could sleep?" Her enchanting smile was rewarded with the gentlest of kisses, as Vincent brushed his lips lightly against hers. It was such an exquisite bliss, he had to kiss her again, with a trembling exhilaration that caused her heart to flutter. He couldn't stop just yet, and so he tasted her sweet mouth once more, then drew a shaky breath and said, "I will try, my Catherine...but I cannot promise I will. I can only promise...." His mouth again reached hungrily for hers, and his unspoken promise was fulfilled.