"Faking her own death was about as bright an idea as a screen door on a submarine!" Zach rolled his eyes ceilingward with a disdain only achievable by teenage boys studying Shakespeare. Samantha looked at him with a condescension only accomplished by teenage girls convinced their male counterparts will never catch up to them in the maturity department.
Vincent threw back his head and laughed. Candlelight glinted off his cuspids as he let loose a full-blown, heartfelt belly laugh.
Geoffrey, Kipper and Eric all began to giggle as well. Zach, inordinately pleased with himself, leaned back from the table and grinned. Samantha pursed her lips and scowled at them as if they were all hopeless.
With a shake of his tawny mane and a smile, Vincent said, "We thank you, Zach for that colorful imagery... But let's get back to our discussion of the religion of love in Romeo and Juliet…"
"He seems a lot more… himself… than he has since he was little," Devin whispered thoughtfully as he leaned his elbows on the railing of the mezzanine above Father's study where Vincent was conducting his literature class at the large octagonal table.
From her perch on the top step of the spiral stair, Catherine closed her copy of Neruda's sonnets. She tilted her head to one side in an unconscious imitation of her beloved as she looked back over her shoulder toward Devin.
"What do you mean?"
"You know how little kids think they're the center of the universe? There's all kind of psychology about how it's a normal developmental phase and all that. But when he was little, he really was the center of this universe. He was the heart and soul of this world. I remember him swaggering around here like he owned the tunnels. Like every other kid, he was convinced that he deserved that place in the center of the universe." Devin moved from his spot at the railing to sit on the step below hers. "Somewhere along the line, though - I don't know if it was that incident when I took him out to see the moon, or something Mitch or one of the other kids said - but somewhere along the line, he lost that little kid swagger. He acted like he didn't deserve to be in the center of anything anymore.
"At least around everyone else. When people were around, he'd hang his head down when he was smiling or laughing, letting his hair hide his face. But not when we were alone, though. When it was just me and him, he forgot he was different. In our chamber, at night when it was just us, he was just… Vincent. He laughed like that then." Devin gestured with his head in the direction of the table. "Laughed like no one was watching. Laughed like he didn't have to hide. Like he deserved it."
Catherine's heart clenched as she saw in her mind's eye that boy who could only be himself in hiding. "As he got older, he gave up on so many dreams, one after the other, and his universe just got smaller and smaller."
Devin nodded. "When I first came back here to the tunnels, and again when I brought Charles here last year, I wondered if he'd ever felt safe enough to really be Vincent after I ran away." He looked down and away then, confessing, "I think he spent a lot of time hiding behind his hair after I left."
Catherine knew full well how long it had been until Vincent had stopped hiding like that, even with her. She reached over and laid a hand on Devin's shoulder in comfort. He gave her a half-hearted small smile that did little to hide his obvious guilt and shame about this admission.
"But somehow he's more himself again now. Ever since I got back here last month, I've been trying to put my finger on what exactly is different about him. And I think this is it, Chandler: you bring out the Vincent in Vincent."
She smiled, that notion causing a warm flutter in her chest.
Devin smirked at the flush in her cheeks. "And it doesn't hurt that he's just so damned happy, healthy and crazy in love with you."
Catherine's expression bloomed with the joy she had scarcely been able to repress since Vincent's recuperation from his long illness. Whatever tortures he'd endured in his feverish state, upon his recovery he seemed to have found the courage and resolve to finally allow their love to move forward. While it was sometimes slower than she might have wished, their progress was steady and with minimal backpedaling. They were both more content now than they had been in their three years together.
"We had such a rough time of it there for a while, Devin. Last summer, his illness, his recovery… I've never been so afraid. It took such a long time for him to get well, that for a long time I worried that he might never be the same."
She smiled. "But it's not me - he's the one who's letting out the Vincent in Vincent."
Devin's locked his gaze on Catherine's. "Nah, it's you. You dream dreams that include him. And you make them come true." They both turned to watch Vincent nodding in adamant agreement with some point being made by Samantha. "I'm glad my little brother has you, Catherine."
Catherine was surprised to see a genuine blush rising on Devin's face. It clearly wasn't easy for him to be so open with her about his childhood with Vincent, the man who held such a central part in both of their hearts. This rogue had thoroughly wheedled his way into a spot in her heart that had always longed to have a sibling.
To ease his mood, she tilted her head again and said, "That's so sweet, Devin, that I can't even tease you about actually calling me Catherine instead of Chandler."
Devin chuckled and looked more at ease. Ready to move on from the tender moment, he tried to play it light. Giving her an affectionate shoulder to the ribs, he said, "Aw, shuddap, Chandler."
She lowered her gaze to her book once more. Then she playfully nudged her elbow into him before whispering, "No, you shuddup… Fraud!"
Devin barked out a laugh, drawing the attention of the class below. As a dozen faces looked up to see what had caused the interruption, they saw Catherine demurely glancing up from her book, as if she'd been reading all the while; the picture of innocence. Devin began laughing even harder and said, "But at least I'm a good fraud!"
Catherine looked at Devin, then down at Samantha, shrugging as if to say to her, "Who knows? There's just no understanding these creatures, is there?" Dimples danced across Catherine's cheeks as she smiled and affected a return to her reading.
Devin, graceful in defeat, told them he was sorry and gestured to Vincent and the class to go on about their business.
Vincent, delighted that two of his favorite people in the world had grown so close, contentedly watched Devin and Catherine as his class resumed.
"It's good to have Devin home again," Vincent said with a smile in his voice as he strolled down the tunnel at Catherine's side. The two of them were following Devin and a handful of the tunnel children toward the communal dining hall of Below for the evening meal. "Has he heard how Charles’s treatment is progressing?"
"Yes. He went Above to Columbia Medical this morning and visited him. The treatment does seem to be helping, and apparently Charles just adores the other patients in the clinical trial. He’s made lots of friends in the residence. He's never been around others who also suffered from neurofibromatosis, and it's so good for him to know he's not alone."
"Yes, Catherine, having that kind of a support group would do as much or more good for Charles than any drug or treatment could." By unconscious agreement, they slowed their pace slightly allowing the others to get further ahead of them. Vincent eased his arm around Catherine's waist and she sighed as he pulled her closer. He said warmly, "You and Devin have become great friends, too, these last weeks."
"Oh, yes. You know, on our ride back from that carnival upstate, I told Devin that when I was a girl I used to pretend I had a little sister. Now that he's been back for a while, I think know what it's like to have a big brother."
They paused in their walk. Not wanting to waste this moment of solitude, Vincent leaned down to Catherine's lips, nuzzling her mouth. As their kiss deepened, he wondered yet again if it would ever not steal his breath, this taste of Catherine.
Devin's voice echoed down the tunnel from the dining hall in a loud sarcastic jibe, "Now where on Earth could Vincent and Catherine have gotten to?" The lovers broke apart, both smiling and annoyed.
Catherine asked, "How did you ever get any peace when you two were young?"
"Who says I did? Remind me after dinner to tell you about why Pascal's father started calling him Devin the Menace…"
In the dining hall, Vincent and Father sat at the end of one table, Catherine and Devin next to them in the middle, Zach on Devin's left and Geoffrey beside Catherine. As the meal was winding up, Zach was complaining to Devin that Shakespeare was dull.
"I know everyone else here loves him, but Shakespeare is just not as cool as Tolkien or Poe, and I can't help it if I think so," Zach maintained stubbornly.
Just before Father could defend the bard, Devin gestured to him and said, "Zach, I feel your pain. Growing up down here, I was weaned on Shakespeare." Devin slung an arm around the boy's shoulders and continued in a conspiratorial tone, "You listen to some people around this place," he pointed, not so subtly, toward Father, "and you'd think that stupid playwright had invented the wheel, sliced bread, and the bikini!"
Zach started to laugh but cautiously looked up the table to make sure this wasn't going to get him into trouble with Father.
Zach started to laugh but cautiously looked up the table to make sure this wasn't going to get him into trouble with Father.
Father glanced at Vincent with a beleaguered expression that said, Now what is Devin up to?
Devin continued, "But as I got older I started to catch on to the cool stuff in Shakespeare, then it got a lot more interesting."
"What exactly is 'the cool stuff' in Shakespeare?" Zach asked dubiously.
"The secret is this: Shakespeare is worth it all, if only for the jokes and the insults."
Catherine pointed out, "The jokes are sometimes hard to understand because the language has changed so much since Shakespeare's time, but they're really very funny, Zach."
"And the insults! No one could curse and abuse like the bard! Only with Shakespeare can you insult someone in such a way that it actually makes them sound dumb and you sound smart all at the same time. You can burn someone a thousand different ways…" Devin began counting on one hand as he listed, "Let's see. We got your naughty knave, devilish knave, most villainous knave, scurvy, lousy knave, ummmm…"
When he paused to think of another, Catherine helpfully suggested, "Beetle-headed, flap-ear'd knave."
"Why, thank you, Chandler."
"Bacon-fed knave," Devin continued.
Geoffrey laughed and repeated, "Bacon-fed!"
Catherine countered with, "An ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave."
That one earned Catherine a loud set of laughs from the boys, and Devin looked at her appraisingly. He was not about to be one-upped if he could help it.
"Rascally, scald, beggarly, lousy, pragging knave!" He gave Catherine a take-that look.
"Foul-mouthed and calumnious knave," Catherine promptly responded.
After a beat, he pointed at her and said, "Slippery and subtle knave."
Catherine grinned. "The lyingest knave in Christendom."
"That one's always been one of my favorites," Vincent commented to Catherine. Like Father, he had been watching this conversation bounce across the table like a tennis match. He could feel though the Bond how much she was enjoying the mental challenge of this contest of wits with his brother.
Devin had a wicked glint in his eye as he said, "Pestilent, complete knave."
Catherine paused for only a moment. "Poor, decayed, ingenious, foolish, rascally knave."
Devin looked askance at Vincent. "Man, she's competitive!"
Vincent grinned and tilted his head in acknowledgment. The irony that Devin was competing fiercely at this moment was lost on Devin, but not on Vincent.
Suddenly inspired, Devin stood up and exclaimed, "A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave."
"I would have been very disappointed in you, my boy, if you hadn't thought of that one!" Father said to Devin, who beamed back at him, before sitting back down laughing.
Much of the conversation at the adjacent tables was quieting now as the tunnel dwellers began to listen to the interesting and unusual conversation taking place at Father's table.
"Devin," Catherine shrugged with a dismissive gesture, "you are not worth another word, else I'd call you knave."
Vincent and Father exchanged amused glances and chuckled. Father commented, "Catherine certainly is well-versed in her comedies."
"Whereas Devin seems mostly to recall Othello and the historical plays," Vincent said grinning.
Devin laughed and turned to Zach. "Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg of the knaves. We haven't even gotten into all the ways you can call someone a villain, the explicatives or the really good insults yet."
Zack asked, "What are 'the really good insults'?" By this point, Kipper, Eric and the kids at the next table had become very intrigued by this conversation, and turned around to follow it better.
Before Devin could answer, Catherine volunteered, "Well, Zach, instead of just telling someone to shut up, wouldn't it be cooler to say, More of your conversation would infect my brain?"
"And," Devin asked, "who but Shakespeare could get away with telling someone, There is not yet so ugly a fiend of hell as thou shall be?"
"Yes, and only Shakespeare would let me tell Devin, Methinks thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee."
"And thanks to Shakespeare, I can tell Chandler here that her beauty and brains go not together."
"What play is that from?" Catherine asked.
"Cymbeline." Father and Devin answered simultaneously.
"Hmph," said Catherine under her breath. "Who has ever actually read Cymbeline?"
Vincent offered, "Act 1, scene 3."
"Hey, whose side are you on?" she whispered, cocking her head at him.
"There are sides?" Vincent feigned ignorance. "I am merely trying to edify."
"OK, fine. I'll give you that one, Devin. You are… a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of not one good quality."
Devin shrugged. "Tell me something I don't know, Chandler." He stood back up again, stepped away from the table and began pacing as he thought.
Catherine wondered if there were any Wells men who failed to acquire that habit.
Smiling, Devin turned and said to Catherine, "She hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs."
Now the whole community was watching in amusement. It wasn't often that an after-dinner entertainment spontaneously generated in the middle of the dining hall.
Devin was clearly loving the attention. He cocked his head to the side and waited for Catherine's next move.
Catherine gamely accepted the challenge. Mentally slipping into attorney mode, she stood confidently and affected her best courtroom posture. She gestured in Devin's direction addressing the dining hall as if it were the jury box.
"He is deformed, crooked, old and sere, ill faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere, vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind, stigmatical in making, worse in mind."
Lena looked at the women at her table and said, "Oh, she told him!"
Devin looked back at Catherine, rubbing his finger across his mouth as he thought. "She is an irksome brawling scold."
"If I be waspish, best beware my sting."
"Technically speaking, Catherine," Father pointed out, "that is really more of a threat than an insult."
Catherine gave him a withering look.
"But very good advice, Father," Vincent intervened softly.
Father covered his mouth in amusement and nodded in agreement. "Hmmm. Yes. Just so…"
"That's fine," Catherine acquiesced. "We have an objection and will disallow that one." She paused thoughtfully. "Devin, you lisp and wear strange suits."
With one exception, everyone in the dining hall was laughing. Mouse snuck up to Vincent and slid into the empty spot next to him on the bench. "Vincent, why Devin and Catherine are saying mean things to each other?"
Vincent reassured him. "Oh. It's only... a kind of game, Mouse. A strange and somewhat rude game - one that you probably shouldn't play."
"OK, good. Don't want to." Mouse looked moderately reassured and turned toward Devin, whose turn it clearly was.
Devin squinted in concentration and quoted, "You leather-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch!"
When the laughter quieted, Cullen piped up, "OK, I'll admit that sure does sound bad, but I'll be damned if anybody actually knows what it means!" He slapped Pascal on the back and chortled.
Catherine strolled up to Devin, paused, sniffed the air, turned to the hall and said, "His breath stinks with eating toasted cheese."
The hall erupted in hilarity. William bellowed, "I guess I know what not to serve Devin for lunch tomorrow!"
Eric suddenly hopped over to Zach and swatted him. "Zach! Why aren't you writing these down?! We'll never be able to remember them all!" Zach pulled out a pen and, lacking any paper, pushed up his shirt sleeve and started writing frantically on his arm.
Devin looked like he was beginning to run out of quotes. He ran his hand pensively through his floppy dark bangs for some while before exclaiming in delight, "Oh! I got one! The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!"
Father, ever the spirit of fairness, pointed out, "Again, strictly speaking, not an insult…"
Catherine laughed along with the crowd. "Yeah, yeah - just a good idea... I've never heard that one before. Sorry, Devin. Father disallows it. Pick another." She looked very confident.
Remembering Catherine's private school and Ivy League education, Devin grimaced. He leaned over Vincent's shoulder and whispered, "I'm in over my head, aren't I?"
"I believe so."
"Never stopped me yet," Devin shrugged. "Lady, you are the cruelest she alive."
"Thank you. To a lawyer that's a compliment. He has not so much brain as ear wax."
Devin began muttering to himself, "Ear wax? Seriously? There's ear wax in Shakespeare?" He looked to Father for confirmation.
Father replied, "Troilus and Cressida, Act 4, scene… scene…" He looked to Vincent for help.
"Act 5, scene 1, Father."
"Oh, yes. Thank you, Vincent." And he looked back to his son. "Come, Devin, surely you haven't run out of ammunition already?"
Remembering Vincent's class that afternoon, Devin gestured toward Catherine and said, "OK. She speaks, yet she says nothing."
The boys were thoroughly cracking up by now. "We can use that one on Samantha tomorrow!" Zach snickered.
"Well, that's taken completely out of context, Devin, but I won't even contend the point, since Four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one."
Lena leaned over to Olivia and whispered something that set Olivia blushing. Father tapped his fingers against the dining table as if he were itching to toss in some quotations of his own choosing.
"Chandler, what a brazen-fac'd varlet art thou," Devin said smugly.
To which she instantly replied, "You rogue! I'll make a sop o' the moonshine of you. You whoreson cullionly barber-monger!"
Devin groaned in annoyance that she had come up with another so fast. He really had run out of ideas.
Father scolded him, "Well, what did you expect, Devin; you practically fed her that line!"
Devin paced some more and grew increasingly flustered. A sheen of persperation appeared on his forehead. As he hemmed and hawed the crowd grew quieter and a hushed anticipation fell over the room. He muttered to himself, "Lear…Henry V… Henry IV…. Ummm…Ummmm"
Finally he turned to Catherine and shouted, "Peace, ye fat guts!"
There was a massive intake of air as everyone in the chamber gasped. Father's mouth fell open and stayed that way as he stared in horror at his son. Mary's lips puckered into a tiny "o" and her hands flew to her cheeks.
Vincent's sky blue eyes widened in shock beneath his upraised feathery eyebrows. He wondered for a moment if he should rise to Catherine's defense, but he could feel through the Bond that her feelings were not really hurt. Besides, he remembered Falstaff.
The first to find her voice was Lena, who exclaimed, "He did not just call her fat??! Ohhhh, you're in trouble…"
"What? Too much?" Devin asked the room.
Catherine had raised her head and squared her shoulders, suddenly seeming a foot taller than her real height. Although he wouldn't have admitted it, Devin very much wanted to cower just then. "Devin, of course, you know… this means war."
Devin affected some false bravado, gestured to Catherine, and said, "Bugs Bunny is all you got now? C'mon - bring it on - hit me with your best shot, Chandler!"
"Though she be but little, she is fierce, Devin," Vincent warned, turning away from his brother as if disavowing all involvement. He sensed a wicked, gleeful anticipation from Catherine.
Catherine strolled over to her opponent, looking too cool to melt butter. With a mischievous gleam in her eye, she glanced over to the table with Lena, Olivia and Jamie and winked.
She walked slowly past Devin, looking him over contemplatively. With a dramatic flair, her eyes scanned him from his face to his groin and back to his face. She raised an eyebrow, repeated the scan and said in a stage whisper, "You… three inch… fool."
There was a pregnant pause as people absorbed the line.
Hoots and hollers burst out across the hall. "That was below the belt!" Pascal crowed. Cullen and William began to cry with raucous laughter. Lena high-fived Catherine.
Mouse and some of the kids just looked lost.
Devin's jaw opened and shut several times as if he could not choose between humor and shock.
Father and Vincent stared at each other in mortification.
Father said to Vincent, "Perhaps we ought to put an end to this?"
"Perhaps we should have done so several minutes ago. What army do you suggest we now enlist?"
Catherine sauntered to the opposite end of the hall from Devin, and very casually leaned against a table. "I can go on all night like this, Devin; I got a list a mile long."
William and Cullen whispered something between themselves until they collapsed into sophomoric hysterics.
Devin, though a little red, looked at Catherine with a new-found respect. He shook his head, grumbled, glanced up at her, shook his head some more and muttered, "Oh, I dunno…" Finally he threw his arms wide in defeat and in a deadpan voice said, "Jane, you ignorant slut."
Catherine threw back her head and roared with laughter. Cullen, Lena and a handful of others who had come to the tunnels in more recent years joined her. Vincent, Father and most of the rest of the community simply looked around them, uncomfortable and confused.
Vincent said to Father, "There is no Jane in Shakespeare."
Catherine asked facetiously, "What play's that from? Twelfth Night Live?"
Devin snorted. "Yeah! Live from Stratford-on-Avon, it's Saturday Night!"
"I will accept that as your concession speech, Devin." Catherine offered him her hand, which he kissed with a courtly bow before Cullen and William flanked him and the three began to laugh and talk among themselves.
As they prepared to exit the dining hall, Father told Zach that he wanted a research paper with plays, acts and scenes for every item written on his arm. "If you're going to quote Shakespeare's less complimentary passages, you'll at least be informed as you do it!"
Catherine returned to Vincent's side and put an arm around his shoulders. "Compliments! That's a wonderful idea! Devin - Tomorrow night, let's have a Shakespearean compliment contest!"
Devin asked if they could compete in teams. Catherine agreed as long as she got Vincent. Devin called dibs on Father. As conversation returned to normal, most people began to file out of the hall.
Devin gave her an exaggerated salute, and said, "I confess it, Chandler; you have a filthier mind than me." Devin leaned over to Vincent, "Seriously, little brother - you let her kiss you with that mouth?"
"Absolutely," said Vincent as he stood up, staring at her luscious lips, "for there's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple." And with that compliment, he kissed the victor.