Communities
By C.L.

Another round of cramps hit her as she leaned against the grubby brick wall. The alley was dark, but it wasn’t safe to stop yet. Everyone was still looking for her. She just had to stay safe, and alive until the right group found her. St. Vincent’s loomed before her, but she couldn’t risk the hospital. No, there would be too many questions. Eschewing the comfort of a safe hospital delivery, she pushed away from the wall and pressed on. Central Park was close…she could find someplace there. Hide in the trees, find a bench or someplace out of the way. The contractions were getting worse, there was no denying the facts. Her baby was coming, and there was going to be no stopping it. “Hold on,” Ashley rubbed her stomach, “just a little bit further.”

He felt the disturbance before he heard the moan, his senses tuned to all the sounds and smells around him. There were the usual sounds of lovers stopping for private moments, people talking, traffic making its way, the ducks settling themselves on their nests and someone skipping a rock across the water. He heard the moan again, it sounded female and was coming from behind the bushes slightly before him. The presence of a stranger caused him to pause long enough to pull his hood over his head. The moaning increased, prompting him to step forward carefully. Brushing the branch aside, Vincent stepped into the grove.

The woman was kneeling next to a tree. Fingers gripped and her nails dug into the wood, as she panted. Golden brown, pain-filled eyes met blue ones, as the woman tried to scoot closer to the tree.

“Don’t be afraid,” Vincent knelt down, careful not to make any alarming moves, “I won’t hurt you.” Vincent was relieved when he saw the woman relax just a bit before the next wave of pain overtook her. “Let me help you.” Vincent moved quickly to her side, not even flinching when her hand gripped into his arm. “I can get you to a hospital.”

“No!” the woman gasped desperately as she pushed him away. “No hospital. You must go, leave me, it isn’t safe.” Vincent watched as she struggled to get up and walk away, barely catching her before she collapsed again.

“You can’t stay here alone, you need help,” Vincent pressed again.

“No, it is too dangerous.” Ashley wanted so badly to give into the soft voice of the imposing figure standing near her. It reminded her so much of home, but there was too much at risk. Her son took priority, she had to get away. “They want my baby, I can’t stay.” Stumbling, she tried to move away, knowing even as she tried that it would be a futile effort. She was too far into labor to be able to focus on anything but the continuing contractions.

“My father is a doctor, let me take you to him. You will be safe.” The voice cajoled her to give in to the safety he promised, safety she no longer had the faith to trust in any longer. She gasped as a hand gently touched her arm. Turning to face him, she gasped as the wind caught at the cowl around his head, giving her just enough of a glimpse of his face, she gave into the strength of his arms and let him lift her and race her to safety.

The sentries sent the message ahead, asking Mary and Father to meet Vincent in the hospital chamber. “Another one Vincent?” Father huffed as Vincent arrived in the chamber with yet another strange woman in his arms. Vincent carefully set her down, yet Ashley kept hold of Vincent’s arm as if it were her lifeline, while Mary fussed around her.

As Vincent set her down, Ashley turned; standing at the entrance of the chamber was an older man. He was quite dignified, despite the fact that he was dressed like he was ready for a renaissance fair, instead of the doctor that she was told to expect. Maintaining her grip on Vincent’s arm as if it were her only lifeline in this crazy world, she should have expected that he would have lived out of the way, but this was beyond her dreams. She felt as if the man before her was staring through to her soul, and finding her lacking.

“She belongs in a hospital, Vincent.”Ashley gasped and struggled, through another contraction. They were getting closer together and more painful with each passing.

“No, no hospitals!” Ashley pushed at Vincent, “just take me back, I will find something.”

“You will do no such thing.” Mary clucked around her like a mother hen. “My name is Mary, this is Father, and you have already met Vincent.” Ashley found comfort in the glare the older woman shot at the older man. “What is your name hon?” Mary shooed the men out of the way as she helped Ashley clean up just a bit before settling her into bed.

“Ashley, my name is Ashley. You have to let me go, it is too dangerous for you to help me.” Ashley tried to get the woman to see reason. “They want my baby; they will do anything to get their hands on my baby.”

Vincent touched her hair, trying to calm her down as Father approached her, “It’s all right, you will be safe here, you just focus on relaxing, let us take care of everything else.”

Ashley nodded and gave into the comfort surrounding her. She accepted that for this moment, she might actually be safe, as her world shrunk to the pain of contractions that would force her helpless baby into the world.

“I can see the head,” Father pronounced as Ashley dug her nails into the sleeve of the cloak that Vincent still wore. Giving into the need, she pulled herself up and pushed with everything she had. Blackness surrounded her as the sounds of her son’s first cries hit her ears.

Father and Mary stood shock still as they stared at the face of the new infant he held in his hands. The facial features and fingers, while still covered in birthing fluid, looked exactly as his son had over 30 years earlier. The unconscious woman’s panic and fear of a hospital suddenly made sense. The baby took a deep breath and started a new round of loud protests to his new cold environment, prompting Mary and Father to action. Quickly cleaning and wrapping up the baby, Mary tended to him while Father saw to extracting the last of the birthing.

Motioning to Vincent, they left the room as Mary carefully tucked Ashley into bed.

~~

“Father?” Vincent’s voice was quiet as they left. “She knew.” The shock and wonder in his voice reached the older man’s ears.

“I don’t know, son.” Father stepped into his chamber and sat down hard in his favorite chair. There were more questions than there were answers at this time. He had a strong feeling that the woman sleeping in the hospital chamber had a lot more answers than they had questions.

“No, I mean she knew.” Vincent paced, his confusion evident in his voice. “I thought her lack of fear of me in the park was due to her fear of her situation and her pain…but she knew.”

Vincent sat down next to father, the pain of his origins a tide rising in him that threatened to engulf him. Father took the hand of his son and held it tightly as he watched the emotions flow across those expressive blue eyes. “She fought for him, she was afraid for him, not of him.” The unspoken comment flowed in the room. Why hadn’t Vincent’s mother done the same?

“I don’t know, son. I really don’t know.” Father wanted answers…if only for Vincent’s sake, he wanted answers, and that woman might just have them.

~~

Ashley stretched, enjoying the luxury of a soft warm bed for a moment. Her stomach growled first, before a strong smell hit her nose. Sitting up, she grimaced before the reality of her situation hit her awareness. Before she had a chance to panic, she saw movement at the corner of the room. A woman sitting in a rocking chair started to rise. Ashley saw her check the cradle next to the chair and was relieved to see the sleeping bundle cozily tucked in right where she could see it.

“Good Morning,” Mary stated as she saw Ashley sit up. “How are you feeling?”

“Better, thank you. Please tell me that smell isn’t me.” Ashley stated, slightly embarrassed as the woman flushed and looked away.

“There is a place for you to clean up. I can have someone show you, if you want, I will stay here and watch over your son.” Ashley looked at the cradle with longing, the need to hold her son for the first time conflicting with not wanting to be near him while she was as dirty as she was. The need to be clean won out, her son was safe and as soon as she was clean she could take him in her arms and never let him go.

Ashley heard her son crying before Mary walked in through the entrance of the bathing chamber. Ashley finished tying her shoe before standing up and taking her son.

“Your son’s hungry.” Mary’s statement was un-necessary as the baby started rooting around. Undoing her shirt, she cuddled her son to her chest. Sitting on the bench behind her, Ashley undid his blankets and looked him over from head to his toes, touching each one, rubbing her fingers against the soft tips of his nails.

“He is so small.” Ashley looked up, concerned. “Is he ok?” She couldn’t keep the tremor from her voice as the weight of everything she had been through for the past several weeks came crashing down around her.

Mary came and put a comforting arm around the younger woman as the tears came. “He is fine. He has demonstrated that his lungs are more than fully developed, you must have been beyond exhausted to sleep through his protests.”

A loud growling noise grew through the room and tears turned to laughter. “I think that was me, not him,” Ashley blushed as her stomach growled again, even louder this time.

“Come, we have breakfast waiting in Father’s chamber. We thought you would be more comfortable with a smaller group.” Ashley nodded her gratitude as she rose and followed the woman out of the chamber, while carefully arranging her son’s blanket across her shoulder to cover him while he nursed himself back to sleep.

Ashley’s mouth watered at the food she saw on the table, both Vincent and Father stood as she entered the room. Vincent held out a chair and made sure she was comfortable before taking the seat next to her. Mary and Father passed the food around, ensuring that she had plenty before settling down to their own meals.

For the first time since her capture, Ashley’s hunger felt sated. She was still tired, but she could almost hear the unspoken questions in the room. That was okay; she had a few of her own. Shifting her son over her shoulder, she started rubbing his back, encouraging him to burp.

Looking straight at Vincent, “How is it I don’t know about you? I thought there wasn’t a Taj in New York, how is it possible that the council doesn’t know about you?”

Father and Vincent made eye contact. “Council? … Taj?” broken questions echoed from each person around the table. Ashley’s eyebrow shot up as she caught the confusion surrounding her. Something was off here, she wasn’t sure what it was. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that they had never heard of the Taji, but that was impossible; after all, Vincent sat right here with them.

“Perhaps you could elaborate.” Ashley looked into Father’s eyes and something set her guard up.

“You should know that it is forbidden to speak of the Taji outside of council.” Ashley countered, yet she couldn’t miss the slight sag from Vincent. She couldn’t leave it at that. “Maybe we can start with how you got here, and go from there?” she countered.

Vincent looked at Father and through an unspoken agreement Father started. “It was the coldest night of the year…”

Ashley sat and listened, astonished as she learned the tale of this amazing man sitting next to her. To have gone through so much, being so alone for his whole life. Despite the obvious closeness of his family he was just that. Yet there was something of the story that left her cold. There were no documented Taji in New York, yet here she was, and not completely of her own free will.

“So you know nothing of your background, or your parents?”

Vincent just shook his head, yet there was such heartbreak there that it cut through her. The depths of her emotions reached out and her son started fidgeting. Cuddling him closer to her chest, she soothed him and focused on her emotional state just a few hours earlier. Reaching out with her free hand, she touched Vincent’s arm.

“Vincent, I can’t tell you why you were left, but I can tell you this. It wasn’t because you were not wanted.” Her voice broke over the last, knowing that she was hitting the cusp of the matter.

Everyone sat for a moment lost in their own thoughts. Then Mary spoke up, “What do you mean by Taj?”

Ashley mentally shrugged, she would at least give them what information that was safe to give, she owed Vincent that much. “The Taji are an ancient race, they have existed from the beginning of time. There have always been guardians, and it is said that the community that can protect their Taj will be blessed with safety and prosperity, but they also must be protected. A community that fails its Taj will fall.”

“What about your family? Do you have someone worried about you?” Mary asked.

“Yes,” Amanda paused. “I don’t know for sure who got me, I was kept isolated most of the time, but with the care I was given it was very clear that not only did they want my son, but that they had tried something like this before. I only know of a small handful of mates that have disappeared, and everyone of us, right after we became pregnant. “

“Do you know why?”

Ashley shook her head. “I have my suspicions; Vincent being here in New York only strengthens them. Someone wants control of a Taj, and has discovered their main weakness.”

“And what weakness is that?” Father asked, looking at Vincent in concern.

Ashley looked at Vincent, studying him. Placing her fingers under his chin she raised his face to make eye contact. Vincent stares into her eyes as she studies him closely, lines of concentration creasing across her forehead. With a sudden smile she broke contact and leaned back in the chair, looking around the chamber for some mysterious missing person. “So where is she?”

“Who?” Vincent asked, confused.

“Your Mate, of course, who else? You’re what, in your 30’s now? You have to have already found her.” Ashley registered the shocked looks on the faces around her.

“I am not married.” Vincent’s voice was quiet as he broke eye contact with her.

“Of course you’re not married,” Ashley picked up her cup and noticed it was empty. Setting it back down she continued, “well, not at least in the legal sense. But then again, none of us are, since none of you officially exist. But at your age, you would have called her to you already.”

“Called? What do you mean ‘called’?” Mary reached over and grabbed the tea pot offering it to Ashley.

“Thank you.” Ashley picked up the full cup and sipped as she thought out her words. “A Taj has a connection to his surroundings. He has a mental bond to his family, and is aware of their emotional and physical health when they are near him. But there is a cost to him, emotionally, physically.” Ashley paused to take another sip. “The toll can be devastating and potentially deadly if he doesn’t find someone to be his balance, his refuge and the other half of his soul. She is his mate, and the bond between mates is deep, even when they are physically apart.”

“So how do you know he has one?” Father leaned back, intrigued by the information he was getting from this young woman.

“His eyes. There is pain, and confusion, understandable given what you have told me. But there is also peace. At his age, you would start to see the disconnect as the strain of the community tore at him if he did not have her to balance things out for him.”

Vincent half listened to the conversation around him as he thought about Catherine, slowly he realized that was just what she was for him. An escape, and a balance. She accepted him as he was, all that he was openly and willingly. Despite how much of himself he tried to hide from her, she still saw it all, and loved him.

“And your son’s father?” Father had to ask.

“Is like Vincent.” Ashley paused before she dropped the bigger bomb. “Just as my father and brother are. They will be looking for me, and now that he is born, Ephram and his team will be heading this way.” Pushing the tea cup away, she stood. “Which is why I have to leave.”

“What?” Mary, Father and Vincent all jumped to their feet. “What do you mean, now that your son is born?”

“The bond becomes blocked when the woman becomes pregnant.” Ashley gave a small smile. “My Dad said it was self-preservation, thanks to the emotional roller coaster that hormones and pregnancy put a woman through. It is the only time a Taj and his mate are truly vulnerable. If I hadn’t been pregnant, the people who took me never would have succeeded, now they will be watching him to try to find me. They knew I was close to my time, and I will not be the cause of bringing danger to your community. I have to contact someone to let them know that we are okay and make arrangements to get back home. Ephram can feel me now, he will be coming. I have to get in touch with him and let him know about the danger.”

“No, it is too soon. You need time to rest and recover.” Mary protested.

“We can get a message to him for you. It is too soon for you to be on the run. You must have time to heal; please stay.” Vincent wasn’t sure if he was pleading with her for her safety or because of his need to know more.

Ashley looked at the people around her, their genuine desire to help her was in every posture and expression. Looking down at her son, she realized they were right. She was still tired and weak from her ordeal, and if she were to be able to produce milk for her son, she was going to need to have a reliable source of nutrition. “Yes, thank you.”

~That night~

Catherine stumbled through her door, placing her briefcase and jacket on the couch as she allowed gravity to finally have its way. Falling back into the cushions, she took her shoes off and rubbed her tired feet. It was days like this that she questioned the wisdom of leaving the boredom of corporate law. Kicking off her shoes, she contemplated her plans for the evening. She dismissed the desire to go below, despite her longing to do so. It had been almost a week since she had last seen Vincent, and she was beginning to miss him. Tiredness fled from her body as the familiar clicking sound of nails hitting glass drew her attention. Racing to the French doors, she conveniently dismissed her stocking feet as she threw herself into Vincent’s embrace.

“What is it?” Catherine immediately knew something was wrong, it wasn’t in how he buried his face in her hair during their embrace, or with how tightly he finally was becoming comfortable holding her. There was almost a distracted air about him that was very unusual during their time together.

“There is someone new below…. a woman.” Vincent released Catherine and turned to stare at the lights.

Catherine nodded, waiting for Vincent to continue. It was so hard for him when new people came, he had to stay hidden in his own home. “Give her time, Vincent, she will come to accept and love you as we do.”

“It’s not like that. She is different.” Catherine’s heart paused a bit at that comment.

“How different?”

“She was in labor, when I found her in the park. She was alone, frightened and running for her life.” Vincent paused, he could feel Catherine’s trepidation but he had to continue with all of it.

“Is she okay?” Catherine asked.

“Yes.” Vincent’s answer was monotone, it was so hard for him to push on.

“And her child? Is her child okay?”

“Yes.” Vincent paused before continuing. “Her child…a son …he looks like me.”

Catherine felt the world fall out from under her feet. Slowly she sank down into one of the chairs on the balcony as she digested the words. “How?” The implications of this information for Vincent would be huge. If there was a baby like him, then there had to be others.

Vincent sat on the floor next to her, slowly he let her guide his head to rest on her legs as she stroked his hair. The emotions of the day finally taking its toll. “Her name is Ashley.  She talks about people called the Taj.” Looking up into Catherine’s eyes, he continued, “She knows what I am, and she wasn’t afraid of me; she was afraid for her son, not of him.”

Catherine felt her heart breaking for her noble poet as he continued, “She keeps him cuddled close to her; so far Mary, Father and I are the only ones who know the truth of her son’s appearance.” Vincent pulled a piece of paper out from his cloak. “She has asked us to contact her family and let them know that she is safe, but that there is still danger.”

“What kind of danger?” Catherine’s blood ran cold at the thought of Vincent and the tunnels at risk, especially from a stranger.

“She was taken, those that took her want her child.”

“So her assailants knew about the origins of her child when they took her?” The investigator in Catherine started clicking in, looking for pieces of this puzzle.

Vincent nodded. “Ashley is convinced that they did. That is not all, Catherine.” Vincent stood up and went back to the half-wall, leaning against it as if he needed the weight of the bricks to hold him up.

“What is it?” Catherine stood up, going to him, she leaned into the heat of his body.

Vincent’s arm went around Catherine as he pulled her closer. “She speaks of a mate, a brother and a father…All look like me.”

Catherine gasped as the implications took hold into her mind. Taking the paper from his hand, she looked over the names and numbers. “I will see what I can do, Vincent. I will try to get the answers you seek.”

“Thank you.” The last was whispered into her hair. “Be careful,” echoed in the wind as Vincent disappeared into the shadows of the night.

~Later the next day~

Catherine walked into Father’s chambers. She always loved this place; the craftsmanship of the furniture, the piles of books, all of it fit the man who occupied the table in the corner as he poured over journals and medical books.

“Ahh Catherine, come in” Father gestured for her to come closer. “I take it Vincent has told you the latest?”

Catherine nodded as she sat in the chair opposite from Father. “Yes, I tried to get in touch with Ashley’s family, but most everyone had already left. They are headed this way.”

Father nodded. “Ashley warned us that might happen.”

“Father, are you sure about this woman?” Catherine hated to sound so cynical, but she couldn’t bear for Vincent to be hurt.

“I saw the child; there is no doubt that her story is true.” Father took off his glasses to polish the lenses.

“And the risk?” Father’s eyes shot up at that comment. The irony of Catherine bringing this topic up did not escape either of them.

“We have increased the sentries, and are in the process of closing some of the passages. The helpers are being warned about the increased risk.”

Catherine’s head turned at the slight noise of someone entering the room. A woman was making her way carefully down the stairs, hugging a bundle close to her chest. Father stood and assisted the woman as she joined them at the table.

“Catherine, this is our new resident, Ashley.”

“Temporary resident” Ashley stretched her hand out, “I have heard so much about you.”

“Likewise,” Catherine responded as she shook the woman’s hand.

“Do you have any news? Were you able to talk to Ephram?” Ashley was almost beside herself. As soon as Mary had translated the pipe code about Catherine’s arrival she rushed as fast as she could to Father’s chambers.

“It seems I missed everyone. They left late two nights ago. I left a message for an Emily Carlington. The person I talked to was going to try to reach them, but she did not expect anyone to check in until they got here.”

“That changes everything.” Ashley sagged in her chair.

“That changes nothing,” Father spoke firmly. “You are not in any condition to risk travelling.”

“Father, when Ephram gets here, he is not going to be in any condition to negotiate with. He will see anyone he comes across as a barrier between me and him.”

“That is if he can find his way here. We still have options.”

Ashley sighed as she turned to Catherine. “Could Vincent find you?”

Catherine looked at Father. “Yes, I could,” Vincent’s voice echoed from behind them.

“Vincent…” Father started, but paused when he saw the determination in the three faces before him.

“You can take me to the top…They will be looking for me.” Ashley pressed on.

“And so will the people you escaped from.” Catherine added. “We can’t just discount them.”

“She’s right, Ashley, we will find a way to get you to your family without risking you, your son, or our people.” The look in Father’s eyes told her that the discussion was final.

“Ephram won’t be open to any discussion. I need to be the first person he sees.” Ashley resigned herself to the fact that these people were going to keep her safe no matter what. They might not be connected to the Taj Council, but apparently the same rules applied. Protect a Taj and Taja at all costs.

Father nodded as he watched Vincent look over the maps. “We have increased the sentries; someone is now positioned near every entrance. We have no way of knowing which entrance he will take.” Vincent looked up and glanced at Ashley.

“More than likely, he will follow our scent through the entrance that you brought me into.” Ashley added.

Vincent nodded. “Then we can anticipate him coming this way. We can move the false walls to guide him to this area.” Vincent pointed to a spot on the map. “From there it is a straight shot to the central hub.”

Father nodded as he looked over Vincent’s plan. “That looks doable; we should start the work immediately.”

Vincent stood up, “It already has. When the sentries report the breach, Ashley can meet Ephram in the Hub.”

Ashley sighed, as she adjusted the bundle she carried. Lovingly she stared into a smaller version of the face she loved so much. Catherine watched the play of emotions across the younger woman’s face. “Would you like to see him?” Ashley offered. Catherine nodded and leaned forward as Ashley adjusted the blankets to reveal her son’s face.

“He is amazing.”Catherine gasped as she traced the slight dusting of that hair followed the infant’s nose line. His bottom lip was tucked under the upper clefts while he made sucking motions in his sleep. Catherine felt her heart melt as she studied the small baby before her. This is what Vincent would have looked like, this is what his son might look like. For a moment Catherine felt the beginnings of a dream she had never allowed to take seed. Suddenly everything no longer seemed so impossible between the two of them.

Vincent paused in his planning as he felt the stirrings in Catherine. The look on her face broke his heart, there was so much he couldn’t give her. Suddenly it was all too much for him to take in, carefully stowing away the maps, Vincent excused himself to go find some heavy rocks to move.

Catherine watched Vincent leave which a slight resigned sigh.

“Man, you’ve got it bad.” Ashley tried to hide her smile.

“Excuse me?” Catherine looked confused.

“Let me guess; you’re stuck in the ‘you can do better’ stage.”

Catherine sighed. “There are times all this seems so impossible.”

“Complicated? Yes…Impossible…No.” Ashley touched Catherine’s hand

Catherine sighed again and looked at the door Vincent just walked out of. “He just can only see the obstacles, and what I would be losing.”

“I remember those days.” Both women looked down as the baby started fussing. Ashley shifted him over her shoulder and began rubbing his back to sooth him. “Tell me, have you gotten the ‘You can do better’ speech?”

Catherine suppressed the urge to snort at that. “Worse, there is a man in my world that Vincent seems to think I would be better off with.”

“Ouch! So he has his replacement already picked out?” Ashley shook her head. “That is worse than I thought. But, I can honestly say, been there, done that.” Lifting her son, she rubbed her cheek against his. “And now I have the souvenir to prove it.”

Both women laughed at that comment before Ashley scrunched up her nose as the smell that was coming from the bundle she was carrying.

“Catherine, don’t fret. You are not alone in this anymore, I promise to do my part to open your Vincent’s eyes to exactly what his possibilities are with you.” Ashley excused herself to go to her chamber and tend to the needs of her son.

~~

Catherine walked in through her door just in time to hear the answering machine click on. “Ms. Chandler, this is Dr. Carlington, you left a message about my daughter-in-law Ashley…” Catherine rushed and grabbed the phone, “Hello, Dr Carlington?” rubbing her leg from the brush against the edge of the table.

“Thank God you answered! How is Ashley?”

“She and the baby are fine, and safe.” Catherine replied.

“So she had her baby?” Emily sounded concerned.

“Yes, a boy, both mom and son are healthy and in a place where they are safe.” Catherine tried to assure her.

“How many people have seen the child?”

“Not many. Vincent is the one who found her, the doctor and midwife who helped in the delivery, and myself.”

“There is a doctor involved? Has he given either of them anything?”

“I don’t believe so…Dr. Carlington, please understand Father is well versed in the needs your grandson has. They are doing everything they can to ensure the health and safety of both of them.”

“He can’t possibly know,” Emily protested.

“Dr. Carlington, Vincent is like your grandson.” The other side of the line got so quiet Catherine began to think that the connection had been broken.

“That isn’t possible.”

“I can assure you it is possible, Dr. Carlington,” Catherine assured her.

“How?”

“I do not feel comfortable discussing this over a phone, Dr. Carlington. Can you tell me how your son is expecting to get here?” Catherine decided a definite change of subject was needed.

~~

Even if the bond had not been restored, Ashley would have know of Ephram’s arrival by the change in atmosphere around her. Everyone stopped, frozen, listening to the tapping, then they would glance at her and turn away. His emotions were chaotic, almost desperate, the need to reach her, touch her, was his only driving force. With a sigh, she unbound her son from the sling across her chest, handed him to Mary, she turned, determined to beard the lion in his chamber.

Father, Vincent and several others were pouring over maps as they discussed strategy when she walked into the chamber. “Take me up.” Hands on her hips, she demanded.

“Absolutely not! The climb is too much for you at this time.” Father sternly replied. Ashley sighed. She knew that would be his approach; fortunately, she had plan B. “How much damage has he done?”

“He has already broken through two security levels, and he is headed towards the labyrinth.” Ashley didn’t recognize the smaller man that spoke, but simply nodded.

“Then send a child.” Placing her hands on her hips she stared down the men at the table. That comment got everyone’s attention. “You will want to send someone old enough to recognize the importance of this task, but not so old that he/she would have fully cleared puberty yet.” Ashley ignored the shaking heads as she faced Vincent. “Tell them, Vincent, explain to them. If it was Catherine you were trying to reach, would you harm a child?”

Vincent paused and thought before replying, “No, I would not harm a child.” but even then, his family already knew the answer.

 “I’ll do it.” A small female voice spoke up from the upper level of the library, causing everyone to jump.

“Samantha, you don’t know…” Father began

“Yes I do.” Samantha interrupted. “If this intruder were truly dangerous, Vincent would not be standing here with you trying to figure out how to get him here safely. If the intruder were dangerous…Vincent would already be gone.”

Ashley hid her smile; the intelligence behind the child’s bright eyes dared anyone to contradict her statement. The child was brave, but she had come to expect no less from the inhabitants in Vincent’s community.

Kneeling down, Vincent signaled Samantha to him. “Do you know what you will need to do?” The young girl looked at Vincent, then turned to Ashley. “I will need to lead him here, as quickly as I can, while avoiding contact with anyone else.”

Ashley nodded. “Samantha, you will have to be brave, but allow Ephram to come to you. You cannot run from him.”

Samantha nodded as Ashley continued with her instructions. “More than likely he will be wearing biker’s leathers with a dark helmet over his head. All you have to do is go sit in his path and let him come to you.”

“I can do that.” Samantha leaned towards Vincent and gave him a quick hug. “I will be okay.” She whispered in his ear before clutching a book to her chest and dashing out of the room.

~~

Ephram froze in his steps. The tiny voice was humming a simple tune as she sat innocently in the middle of the tunnel, flipping through a book as if it were the most natural place in the world to be doing such an activity. A brief flare of his senses told him that she was there alone. The others had escaped him, scurrying behind walls like frightened mice, but this precious child sat in the middle of his road.

Crossing his arms, he leaned against the stone wall, admiring the girl’s bravery as he studied the attention to her appearance. Long wavy hair that refused to stay tucked behind her ear reminded him so much of his Ashley when she had been that age.

Samantha looked up at the man, and her heart stopped just for a moment. It was as Ashley had said, Ephram was a tall man, mightbe even bigger than Vincent. In black leather with his dark helmet, he made her a little uneasy. Samantha held her breath as the man moved forward and knelt before her. Taking a deep swallow she pushed up and held out her hand. “You must be Ephram, I am supposed to welcome you to our home and escort you to Father and Vincent.”

“Oh you are, are you?” Ephram couldn’t help but grin at this child’s show of regal authority. Whomever she belonged to had their hands full. Bending down, he gently took her hand in his gloved one and bent over it in a gallant gesture that had the child blushing prettily. “Then lead on, my fair maiden, but I would prefer to be taken to Ashley.”

Samantha picked up her book and stared at the strange man in front of her. “She is with them.”
Turning and skipping down a tunnel, Ephram watched as this child lead him in the opposite direction that he sensed Ashley was in. He could detect no deception in the child as she skipped further away, as if she expected him to follow.

~~

Ashley paced the chamber, it wouldn’t be long now. She could feel him getting closer. If it wasn’t for the people starting to gather into Father’s library, more and more of them blocking her escape down the same path that Samantha had dashed down. Three months was a long time for mates to be separated, it seemed like it had been so much longer, that these last few moments seemed to have come to a complete stop. “There are too many people here!” She finally declared, her glare at Father warning him to shoo everyone off or she was going to do it for him.

Recognizing the building tension in the small woman pacing the chamber, Vincent encouraged everyone to go along on their tasks. That they would be kept informed of the situation as needed. “Perhaps it would be best if you meet him in the hub as we originally planned.” Father suggested.

“I thought the hub was the opposite direction of the labyrinth,” Ashley countered; she was not willing to do anything that would delay her reunion with her mate.

Just as she thought to warn Vincent that he would want to take a less aggressive posture, Ashley felt the push against her mind. “He’s here!” rushing across the room, she launched herself into the arms of the large dark man as he entered above the steps.

Hands tangled together as they both struggled to get Ephram’s Motorcycle helmet off him. “Why do you have to wear this damn thing? Ashley cussed just moments before she felt his mouth find hers in joyous reunion. Vaguely she recognized the sound of the helmet hitting the ground as Ephram lifted her to crush her against his body. Tongues tangling as they strained to enjoy the taste and texture that both had feared they would never have again.

The murmurs hit Ephram’s ears first as he became aware that he was not in the room alone with his mate. Raising his eyes, yet not quite willing to end the kiss yet, he saw several people standing in apparent shock as they took in the scene before them.

Ephram raised his head from Ashley’s, allowing her to bring him back for one last brief connection. Raising her a bit higher, he held her close to him as he buried his face in her neck, the tension leaving him as he took her sweet scent in. The world was right again, this was all that mattered.

“We are not alone.” It took every ounce of strength Ephram had to put Ashley away from him. Ashley sighed and threaded her fingers in through his. It was obvious to both of them than any contact was better than none.

Pulling him forward, Ashley brought him further into the room. “This is Vincent, the man who saved my life.”

Ephram took off his glove and extended his hand, pulling the shocked man into a hug, “Thank you.”

Ashley then turned and pulled forward an older man. “And this is the man they call Father.” As she watched Ephram and Father shake hands before she added, “the man who delivered our son.”

Everything in Ephram froze. “Son?” turning to Ashley he studied her face for the truth he had been afraid to touch. “We have a son?”

Ashley nodded, tears filling her eyes. This is not how it should have been. Ephram should have been by her side and been the one to hand her their child for the first time. Not these strangers, no matter how friendly and welcoming they had been.

“Where is he?” Ephram looked around the room, dismissing everyone around him.

“Mary has him.” Turning at the sound behind him, he watched as an older woman walked into the room carrying a bundle.

Ashley rushed forward. “Thank you,” she told Mary as she gently took the bundle and turned to put him in Ephram’s arms. Ashley watched as Ephram sank into the nearest chair and performed the same inspection over the baby that she had merely a day earlier.

Both were so focused on their reunion that they completely missed Vincent, Mary and Father shooing everyone from the chamber. Introductions could be made later.

“Look Ashley, he has your ears.” Ephram traced the slight point at the top of the right ear. “I can’t tell yet, but I think he is going to have your eyes.”

Vincent leaned against the entry way that lead to his chamber. Curiosity warred with pain; he could not drag himself away from the events in the room even if he wanted to. They were like any other parents, comparing features, counting toes, and celebrating a new life. Even though that new life looked like him. Ashley had told him that while she didn’t know how he had gotten there, one thing she was sure of. He had been wanted, at one point, his parents would have wanted, even celebrated, the possibility of what he was.

That concept warred with everything he knew about his life, or didn’t know. Here was this woman, not as beautiful as Catherine, but beautiful in her own right. Obviously in love and devoted to a man who looked like him. They were living a life he had always thought impossible.

The possibilities, his dreams that he had dismissed, Catherine’s dreams that he tried to ignore. All of it…So many things that he now had to think about and relearn.

“I want to thank you.” The voice jolted Vincent out of his ponderings as he watched Ephram approach. “We owe you our lives.”

“You owe me nothing.” Vincent fought the urge to stare at the man before him. Ephram had no such qualms. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, Vincent continued. “You will want a chance to be with your family.” Both men looked over and watched Ashley try to smother a yawn.

“Of course.” Ephram patted Vincent on the shoulder. “I trust we will have time to talk later.” Not waiting for a response, Ephram turned and walked back into the chamber. Barely pausing, he bent down and scooped Ashley up. Ashley squeaked and tightened her hold on their baby.

“Ephram, put me down, NOW!”

Ephram kissed her cheek. “Once you are in bed, and resting.” Nodding to Mary, he continued.

“Which way to where you are staying?” Mary pointed the direction she had come in from and led the way.

~~

Father watched Vincent from across the room. Despite the obvious similarities between Vincent and Ephram, there were definite differences as well. Where Vincent was golden, Ephram’s coloring was a darker. The research doctor inside him itched for answers about the genetics, the father in him burned for and yet dreaded answers about what truly happened to place Vincent in that alley so many years ago. Ashley’s reactions were also revealing. He watched her pace, in a manner he had always associated with Vincent. He watched her reactions as she became aware of Ephram’s presence in the tunnels. In fact, she had reacted before the first of the pipe messages had made it to them, pipe code she would not have understood.

Vincent walked over to Father and sat at the table next to him. Both men sat silently, lost in their own thoughts. Vincent finally rose. Placing a kiss on Father’s head, he gathered his cloak and left.

~~

Ephram sat in the rocking chair next to the bed as Ashley fussed around the chamber. “How?” Ephram made a sweeping gesture to the room that surrounded them.

Ashley paused and turned to face her mate, and waited for him to finish.

“What happened to you? How did they get you? How did you get here? How did he get here?”

Questions spun through his head, each one picking up before the other left off. “Three months, Ashley, for three months I didn’t know if you were alive, dead, hurt. For three months, I feared the worst and prayed that my passing would be quick.”

Ashley put down the blanket she had been folding and rushed across the room. Ephram let out a burst of air as she crashed into him. Bending down, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tighter to his body.

“I’m all right, I’m all right.” Ashley kept whispering as Ephram buried his face in her neck. Lifting her, he stumbled the few steps towards the bed where they crashed together. Hands collided as clothes fell away.

She was smaller than he remembered, she seemed more frail. Tongues collided as a small voice in the back of Ephram’s head screamed, “It’s too soon!”

“Shhh, it’s all right, I am all right.” Ashley repeated over and over. “You won’t hurt me, you can’t hurt me.”

Ephram allowed his emotions to sweep through the bond, celebrating in its renewal. Celebrating the feel of her, yet this was different than before. What their mind completed, their bodies withheld. Breast to chest, legs entangled, Ephram and Ashley sunk into the currents of their bond and allowed it to carry them to peaceful darkness.

~Early next morning~

Vincent paced by Catherine’s threshold. Confusion ran through him. His first reaction was to run deeper into the tunnels and to the river, where he could think, focus, put all this new information into perspective. Yet his feet had other plans, instead of finding the path that would have lead him deeper into the earth, to peace and solitude, they had brought him here. To Catherine.

Vincent felt the moment that Catherine reached the entrance, her joy reaching him as she crossed through the light, and approached him.

“Ephram is in the tunnels.” His words said so little, and so much at the same time.

Catherine stepped closer and leaned against Vincent, looking closely into his face. “You don’t look like you have slept at all.”

Vincent merely shook his head at that. Words failed everything.

“I spoke with Ashley’s mother-in-law, she is flying in later today. She insists upon meeting Father.” Vincent nodded somewhat absentmindedly, his hand stroking the soft fabric of Catherine’s jacket.

“I am sure under the circumstances arrangements can be made.” Vincent pulled away from Catherine a bit. Slipping his hand in hers, he lead her down the tunnel.

Father looked up as Vincent lead Catherine down the steps. Piles of medical journals spread haphazardly across the table. “Catherine, we were not expecting you this morning.” Father leaned back, removing his glasses, he wiped the lenses, before wiping his eyes.

“I understand Ephram made it.” Catherine sat in the chair next to Father, barely catching several journals before they slid off onto her lap.

“Yes, earlier last night.”

“And neither of you have slept since.” Catherine observed.

Father cleared his throat, a bit flustered at that observation. “With all the excitement, I am getting the impression that our two guests were the only ones who did get any rest last night.”

“Yes and with the fuss the baby started up early this morning, it is sounding like even they didn’t get much.” Mary added as she carried in a tray. “Good Morning, Catherine.”

Father, Vincent and Catherine quickly cleared away the journals to make space for the tray just in time for Eric to rush in with a second tray behind Mary. Eric had barely released the tray before rushing over to Catherine to give her a hug. Catherine returned the hug then tousled Eric’s hair as she watched his eyes dart behind her. She didn’t think his eyes could get any bigger before she turned to see what caught his attention.

“Eric, William promised to save you a muffin, but you should probably get back quickly before someone else finds it.” Mary pointed him in the direction of the dining hall and gave him a gentle shove.

“That smells great!” Ashley stated as she lead Ephram down the steps.

“You think anything smells great, as long as you didn’t cook it,” Ephram teased as he followed her in.

“Don’t start!” Ashley chided as she turned around. Ephram, not phased, looked over her head and continued. “Did she tell you how she managed to finally hook me?”

“Ephram,” Ashley growled.

Everyone looked at each other as they watched the two interact. Despite his teasing, there was a light in his eyes every time he looked Ashley’s direction that was impossible to miss.

“I can’t say we have had the pleasure of that story.” Father, always up for a good tale, ignored Ashley’s glare as she sat down in the chair across from him.

 “Well it is simple…She fed me her mother’s cooking. I assumed that Ashley had been similarly trained.”

“I distinctly remember telling you that I didn’t cook,” Ashley warned.

“Yes, well at the time I thought that meant you didn’t have time to cook.” Ephram paused for effect. “My first clue should have been your mother’s present to us when we announced our binding plans.”

Not able to resist, Catherine leaned forward and asked. “What was the gift?”

Ashley blushed as everyone looked at her. “A wall plaque.”

Ephram snorted. “Yes, Ashley, and what does this plaque say?”

Ashley blushed harder as she fidgeted with the baby blanket. “Dinner will be ready when the smoke alarm goes off.” There was just a moment of silence before everyone at the table burst out laughing.

“I have accused her of pulling a bait and switch, but she won’t have any of it,” Ephram continued.

Taking pity on Ashley, Catherine responded, “But did she ever tell you she could cook, or present her mother’s cooking as her own?”

Ephram scratched his head, and thought for a moment. “No, I can’t say that she did.”

“Well then you do not have grounds for Bait and Switch, or false representation.” Catherine smiled at Ephram.

Ashley’s mouthed “Thank you.”

Completely unaware of the exchange between the two women, Ephram looked at Catherine.
“And why would you say that?”

Catherine caught a glimpse of Vincent’s expression and struggled to keep a straight face. “Bait and switch is if the product advertised is not the product that is sold. False representation would be if she presented her mother’s cooking as her own. By your own admission, you knew it was her mother’s cooking, and came to your own unsupported conclusion that she had the same skills. Therefore, the real issue is that your expectations exceeded the situation as it was offered.”

Ashley burst out laughing. “She has you there.”

Ephram looked a little shocked as he looked between the two women. Not quite willing to give up the banter, he pressed on. “What do you base this on?”

Ashley interrupted, “Give it up, Ephram. You know better than to argue with a woman.” Leaning forward, she gave him a little peck. “Don’t feel too bad, dear. If you want to feel pity for someone…Then you should feel sorry for Vincent.”

Everyone at the table stopped and looked at Ashley.

“And why do you say that?” Father sounded a bit defensive.

“Simple. Ephram can occasionally, all-be-it rarely, win an argument. Between his Mother, Sisters and I, he has learned when to not even try.” Ashley paused to spread honey butter on her muffin. “Vincent, on the other hand, has a snowball’s chance in Hades. Not only does he have to deal with his life mate…but she is a lawyer on top of that.” Covering her smirk with a small bite, Ashley continued before counting on her fingers. “1. Female, 2. Attorney, Yup I
would say poor Vincent.”

Everyone stared at Ashley for a moment before Ephram burst out laughing. Slapping Vincent on the arm in a gesture of camaraderie. “We must suffer together, my friend, that is one of the costs of having a beautiful life mate.”

Both Catherine and Ashley blushed at that comment as the conversation turned to planning for the arrival of Ephram’s family.

~~

Ephram watched as Vincent interacted with his community. While he had never been formally trained in the ways of the Taj, he had adapted to them instinctively. Father might be the defacto leader of this Community, but Vincent was the person that everyone went to for answers.

“What is it?” Ashley leaned against Ephram’s chair, sighing as he pulled her down onto his lap.

“Watch Vincent,” Ephram paused as he waited.

Ashley puzzled why Ephram wanted her to watch Vincent, but he always had a good reason when he asked seemingly odd questions.

“Do you see it?” Ephram queried.

“See wha…” Ashley paused before the light dawned. “Oh!” Sitting up, she turned to Ephram.

“So it does look familiar.” Ephram leaned back, pulling Ashley closer to his chest. “I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it.”

“Your mom is coming. Do you think she is going to want DNA to confirm?” Ashley whispered.

“Possibly, but look, the coloring is about right.”

“I thought he was more like you?” Ashley commented.

“Yes, but his mate’s family had escaped Hitler’s breeding program, so she had blond hair, blue eyes.”

“Hmmm,” Ashley thought, “well that would explain the coloring. I barely remember his brother, wasn’t he at our wedding?”

“Yes, Kevin was there for a short while, that was also about when the drama about his community clashing with his life mate happened.” Ephram’s voice got cold with that comment.

Ashley stroked Ephram’s arm, wanting to avoid that heated topic. “Well that group’s foolish political maneuverings cost them everything. That community fell shortly after their Taj left.”

“As it should have.” Ephram lifted his hand to caress Ashley’s cheek. He let her calm him through their bond. “But still, to have lost a pair like that…”

“Humph,” Ashley turned around, and went back to watching Vincent work with the children.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Ephram demanded.

“We haven’t exactly lost that pair,” Ashley commented.

Ephram sat up, “WHAT?” His voice raised to an almost roar, causing all activity in the chamber to stop. Ignoring the audience they suddenly acquired, Ephram continued angrily, “What exactly do you mean, we haven’t lost them?”

Ashley took exception to Ephram’s tone and jumped off his lap. “Don’t you roar at me, Ephram Carlington! I know for a fact you have excellent hearing, and know exactly what I said.” With that, she stomped out of the room, leaving Ephram facing a group staring at him in shock.

“WOMEN!” Ephram cursed, as he followed Ashley out of the chamber.

~~

Catherine shuffled the papers on her desk again. Joe needed this deposition, yet she couldn’t seem to focus on the page. The implications of the new visitors in the tunnels weighed heavily on her. To say that she and Vincent had been taking their relationship slowly would have been an understatement. Glaciers moved faster than they had been moving. Ashley talked about the complications of taking extended maternity leave without any of her co-workers knowing that she was pregnant.

“Must be a great read.” Cathy jumped as she looked up at the smirking face of her boss. Her stomach turned as he popped a chocolate cheese doodle in his mouth.

“I don’t see how you can eat those things,” Cathy grimaced. “Especially in the morning.”

“This must be why I am such a sweet guy.” Joe grinned. “You should try it sometime.”

Cathy snorted. “You, sweet? Since when?”

Joe placed his hand over his heart. “You wound me.”

“I doubt that.” Catherine leaned back in her chair. “Is there a reason you have decided to torment me with your food choices?”

“Yes, just a quick question.” Joe paused long enough for Catherine to feel like rolling her eyes.

“And that question would be?”

“What does a Dr. Carlington have to do with any of your cases?”

Catherine sat up in her chair quickly. “Emily is here?”

“Yes she is, who is she?” Joe popped another cheese doodle into his mouth.

“Possible expert witness for a case.”

“Really? Which case?”

“I am not sure, Joe.  She contacted me.”

Catherine rose from her desk and walked away, not looking over her shoulder. These close calls with Joe were getting worse. She didn’t know how much he really knew, but it was obvious that he was suspicious of something. Walking into the door, she saw an elegant older woman. Her gray streaked hair still held enough color to show where Ephram got his coloring.

“Dr. Carlington, I am Catherine Chandler.” Closing the door behind her, Catherine watched as the woman turned around and held her breath. Her eyes were a bright color blue that Catherine had only seen on one other person in her entire life.

“Call me Emily, please.” She sized up the younger woman. Catherine Chandler was not exactly what she expected. Her professional dress did not hide the elegant debutant Emily knew her to be. “Your pictures don’t do you justice.”

“Here we go again.” Catherine figured that she would never completely live down the debutante label, no matter how hard she tried. “Thank you. I know a safe place where we can have lunch and talk.” Catherine opened the door. “Do you have a place you are staying?”

“Yes, I have already checked in at the Waldorf East.” Emily followed Catherine out the door and down the hall.