Cliffs of Fall
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
-Gerald Manley Hopkins
The pounding was merciless, mallet and chisel against stone, hard thrusts designed to one day shape a new chamber out of the rough rock. Vincent became aware of Kanin's voice calling to him over the din and he lowered his chisel. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
He was aware of Kanin and Cullen---his co-workers on this shift---glancing at each other. "I said," Kanin repeated, "that Catherine's been away a long time."
"Two weeks," Vincent replied, though he could have said 14 days, 6 hours and 37 minutes. It was, thus far, the longest separation of their married life. "She's at a prosecutors' conference in Albany. She will return tonight."
"Ah, um, we'd noticed," Kanin replied.
Vincent glanced at the two of them in growing exasperation, patience thinned to a narrow line. He took a deep breath, forcing calm, recognizing that his tolerance was not what it should be. "Noticed what?"
"You've, um, been putting a lot of time in on this chamber project," Cullen said. "And you've been busy with the bridge repairs before that. And working on your house Above too. And designing the rerouting of the entrances at the same time---"
"The projects needed to be done, didn't they?" Vincent asked, though he could see their point. When labeled, the list of projects he'd undertaken or finished did seem...long. And exhausting, which had been his goal. Without Catherine, the big carved bed in their chamber seemed lonely and cold, leaving him wakeful.
"Vincent," Kanin said. "You're just working awfully hard, is all. That's all we're trying to say. Maybe you should...I don't know...knock off. Go see Catherine. It has to be nearly nightfall and you know she'll stop at her apartment before coming down. Why don't you just go meet her? Cullen and I, we've got it from here."
Vincent bit back the denial that wanted to rise---that he was fine, that he could handle the jobs he'd taken on and more besides. He looked at the chisel and mallet in his hands, feeling the soreness of overwork stiffening even his joints. "Perhaps you're right." He handed the tools to Cullen.
"Oh, and Vincent?" Cullen said just as he turned to leave.
"Renata's shop is open until five. Just saying."
Vincent nodded and left, feeling more alive than he had in days.
Catherine fled the cab, barely managing to collect her luggage and briefcase full of notes from the conference. It had only been two weeks, but it felt like a year. She and Vincent hadn't been separated that long since her trip to LA over a year before...and now that they were married, no longer living in a series of stolen and borrowed moments, the separations felt like an eternity. But neither could she have refused to go---Vincent wouldn't ask that of her, and she had needed to go to the conference, gaining skills she could use in court, learning from more experienced prosecutors.
Her mind was already somewhere else as she entered her apartment, letting her briefcase sink to the floor, ignored, against the side table. It was then that she stopped, her tired mind momentarily refusing to acknowledge what she saw.
The room was lit with candles, of every size and shape and color---Catherine even thought she recognized a couple of Rebecca's discards from last year's Winterfest batch---in sconces and jars and dishes. The effect was to turn her carefully modern apartment into a warmly lit cavern.
Vincent. Her mind sang, the bond coming alive, warm and full. Her husband. He was here. Not Below in their chamber, waiting for her to return, as she'd thought he might---the weather was truly dreadful, a heavy rain beginning to fall---but here.
He emerged from the shadows, a tall cloaked figure. "My wife," he purred. "You've returned."
Catherine threw her coat over the back of a chair, feeling light and happy as life---their life---returned. "I have...Vincent, it's so good to see you."
His strong arms enclosed her and she inhaled the scent of leather and candle-smoke, starved for him as if she hadn't only seen him just two weeks before. "I've missed you," Catherine said, hearing the distant thunder of his heart under her ear, seeing the brightness of wildflowers on the coffee table, the wildflowers he knew she favored.
Vincent kissed her. "As I have you, my Catherine," he murmured against her mouth. "The nights were too long without you." He ran one hand through her hair. "How was your conference?"
"Long," she said, "but it'll be useful eventually. I'm glad I went...but I'm not happy I had to leave you. Were you busy?"
"I wouldn't have been, except for my own choosing," Vincent acknowledged ruefully. "I was...chased off the worksite today by Cullen and Kanin."
Catherine pressed one hand to her mouth to hide her smile, picturing the scene. "Working too hard, eh?"
"That's what they said. I needed to keep busy, Catherine. The days were too....alone."
Catherine sighed, remembering how cold the hotel room had seemed without his presence, how silent the room had been without the tapping of the pipes. "I know. I tried to stay busy... but I missed you too."
She felt the warm nuzzle at the top of her head---Vincent's characteristic gesture of love, of reassurance. "I'm making dinner," he said. "Spaghetti. Nothing fancy but...if you want to go take a shower and relax for a bit, it should be ready soon."
"I thought I smelled something delicious," Catherine said, grinning up at him. "Funny, I thought it was you."
Catherine emerged half an hour later, smelling strongly of the vanilla lotion she favored, wearing a pale lilac nightgown Vincent had not seen before. When he asked her about it, she blushed a bit. "I went shopping when we were on break from the conference. I figured you'd seen all my others."
The memory of just how he'd seen the others, the feel of satin bunching under his hands, sliding off the curves of her body, momentarily derailed his concentration. "Mmm, yes," Vincent said, stirring the sauce and hoping it hadn't burned in his inattention. "Perhaps you are familiar with the expression, 'Coals to Newcastle'?"
She grinned. "I am, and thank you. So what have you been doing the last couple of weeks?"
"Lena and Warren are needing a larger chamber, since they're getting married next month. And Katie needs her own room," Vincent replied, tossing the salad with quick, expert motions. He handed the bowl to Catherine, who took it to the dining table. "I've been working with Cullen and Kanin while Warren is building some furniture as a surprise for Lena."
"Oh, how lovely for Lena," Catherine said. "And Warren too. They seem so happy together."
"They do," he agreed. The spaghetti was ready; pouring it into another bowl, he joined Catherine at the table.
As they ate, Catherine found herself growing distracted by the universe of Vincent's gestures, little things she'd not seen in two weeks and missed with a soul-deep ache: the candlelight reflecting red in his hair, the fond smile---startling still, coming from a man who once smiled so little---and the soft rasp of his laughter. "Oh, I missed you," Catherine said, chuckling as he finished his story of Arthur's latest misadventure in Father's library.
The eyes that met hers across the table were dark and very warm. "Did you, my wife?"
At the sound of that voice, in that tone, Catherine felt an oh-so-familiar stirring. "Oh, yes. Yes, I did."
Something wry and passionate, joyous and loving, darted through the blue of Vincent's eyes. He rose and held out his hand, the light reflecting off his wedding band. "Show me?"
The moonlit clouds turned the shadows of the bedroom a silver gilt as the rain continued to fall. Vincent gazed at his wife, pale in the dimness, and blessed whatever fate had once again brought them to this shore. Sometimes he---they---did not quite seem real (surely he would awake alone again?) but then Catherine would look at him as she looked at him now, and the reality of their life together would anchor him. She was here, she was real and she loved him, wanted to love him.
"Vincent?" Catherine asked. "What are you thinking?"
He started, realizing his hand had halted at the complicated fastenings of his vest, stalled in his musings. "I'm sorry," he replied. "Just...thinking."
She stepped towards him, and undid the knots and ties. "Stop thinking."
With her very nearness, her familiar, loved scent, Vincent was beginning to find that thought was the last thing from his mind. "Yes," he murmured, touching the graceful line of her collarbone.
Catherine undid the last knot and he sensed her mirth through their bond even as her body shivered under his touch. "Of all the things you could have chosen to wear tonight," she said, pushing the heavy material off his shoulders to fall on the floor. He smiled and undid his shirt, leaving it where it fell.
His hands returned to rest on her collarbone and Vincent was reminded of the owl he and Devin had rescued and then set free years before, its wings beating against his cupped hand; such strength there had been in those frail bones, in the heart that had thrummed against his skin. As he slid the straps of her nightgown off his mate's shoulders and watched the satin pool on the ground in a liquid rush, he felt the sparks begin to flicker through their bond.
Perceptions doubled and redoubled---I am/she is/we are---through the filaments of their connection. Their loving had taught Vincent that the intertwining of thought and emotion was a natural consequence of their bond, but it still surprised him in awe and joy. Her need for him was almost a living force and the quick river of her thoughts had but one meaning: Mate. Husband. Mine.
Catherine's touch released the fly on his jeans (and not a moment too soon, Vincent thought gratefully as he pushed the pants down and off, along with his boots.) For a moment they stood, their arms enfolding each other, their breathing only as loud as the pouring rain. "I missed you so," he said against the golden mass of her hair.
Her hands toyed with the fur on his chest and Vincent shivered. "Did you?" Catherine murmured against his throat. Vincent felt---and knew she felt---his pulse stutter at her touch. He could manage only a low growl of need and want. Something in her thrilled to hear that sound, he realized. Desired it, even. She slid her hands through his long hair, caressing him. Her scent coiled in the air, waiting. Wanting.
The balcony doors had opened slightly; the cool scents of wind and rain and the distant heavier city smells---asphalt, exhaust, fuel, damp pavement---entered the bedroom. "I should close the doors," Catherine murmured, but almost of their own accord, Vincent felt his arms tighten around his wife. He did not want to let her go, not now, not ever. In the instant the instinct emerged, he overruled it with a chill of horror, and released her. What was he thinking, to hold her so tightly with his greater strength? What must she think?
Catherine's eyes met his own, wise and green and not at all horrified. "It's okay," she said, and to his everlasting surprise, Vincent knew that it was. She understood...everything. She hadn't wanted to leave either. She crossed to the other side of the bedroom and closed and locked the balcony doors. "There," Catherine said. "Now, where were we?"
"Catherine---" Vincent began.
The touch of her fingers on his mouth silenced him. "Don't," she said.
There was nothing he could do but accede to that demand, the apology dying in his throat unspoken. Vincent tasted the salt of her touch on his lips and bent down to kiss her, tasting her sweetness.
Catherine drew back a little. "Better?" she asked, looking up at him.
One of her hands rested at his throat; the strong pulse hammering like the roll of distant thunder. "You have to ask?" Vincent asked.
"I don't," she replied, tugging on his hand. "Come, love." Turning back the covers, she drew him down beside her.
They lay there for a time, foreheads touching, breath mingling. Catherine reached up and touched the high planes of his face, the golden, dense mane. The blue eyes watched her, dark and loving and, she thought, just a little stunned that she hadn't recoiled from him. "Hold me, please?"
Vincent's arms encircled her again but his touch was light, as if she were made of glass. "I need you closer," she insisted.
He released a great breath that stirred the hair on her forehead, but his arms tightened. "Better," Catherine said, kissing him, feeling him start to stir against her.
"I love you," he said, voice no louder than the rain, and the light and joy flooded their bond.
"I love you too," she replied. Catherine felt the long muscles of his back and shoulder relax, no longer as tense as they had been. His strong thigh nestled between hers, his hands at her back pulling her close. Her breasts rose against the soft fur of his chest, tearing a soft groan from him. "You undo me," Vincent said against her throat.
She shivered, his teeth gently scraping the skin. "I'm melting," she whispered, and felt his slow dawning smile against her neck. They had watched The Wizard of Oz only a few weeks before---Vincent, for the first time.
"What a world," Vincent murmured, chuckling. He lifted his head to meet her eyes and something very intent darkened his eyes. Catherine knew that look, that want, his desires only too plain. A clawed hand touched her breasts and she shivered again, loving how even his most gentle touch could light fire along her nerves.
The hair on his hands felt like satin on her bare skin, she had told him once and, as adept a student in this as he was in everything else, Vincent had not forgotten. Catherine glanced at his eyes, seeing the blue of them nearly lost to the dark of his passion as waves of her enjoyment crossed through their bond. Her hands found that one spot---known only to her---on the base of his neck, hidden by the dense curled hair, and she could sense the powerful rhythms of his pulse lurch again at her touch.
The echoing, the strange twinning of Vincent's perceptions overlaid with her own, was beginning to cross through their connection as she stroked the longer, fine hairs along his spine, wringing another groan from him. It seemed she could see into another world, quite distinct from this one---sounds were clearer, sight sharper and it might have been her scent or his that hung so heavily in the air, beckoning.
His arousal was strong against her thigh and she could feel him fighting his instincts and their desires to merge them both. Which made no sense---surely Vincent could tell how much she wanted him? His own desire was thundering through the bond with all the force of raging river. "Why?" Catherine asked, gently forcing him to meet her eyes.
A vision shot through their bond then, as clear and specific as any she'd ever sensed from him. The porch swing in Connecticut....the silver of reflected rain glistening on her skin....her body, arching above his own...In a thunderclap of remembered sensation, Catherine knew. That treasured moment---one of many from their trip----was what Vincent had seen only once, what he yearned to see again. "Oh, yes," she murmured against his shoulder. "Yes."
Vincent lay back then as Catherine left the bed to open the balcony curtains wide to the sight of the rain and the moonlit clouds. She scrambled back onto the bed to his warmth, and felt his strong hands clasp hers as she settled over his abdomen. "This?" she asked, feeling the pulse jump and shudder where their hands were joined.
"Yes," he rumbled, voice somewhere between a growl of need and a purr as his hands left hers to trace her breasts. "To see you like this...in my dreams I saw you when you were away..."
"I know," Catherine said; their dreams were shared, more often than not. How many nights in Albany had she awakened, gasping, on fire from memories or fantasies? Too many to count and yet, they were here, now. She rocked against him, a wordless demand.
Her hair was gilded against the ivory of her skin, silver as it flowed loose down her back. Rain rattled and shook against the glass doors, the ageless rhythms of the storm echoing the gathering tide in their bond. Vincent heard her demand, her heart's plea. Now. Please. I can't...
He knew. Oh, he knew. His hands traced the smoothness of her thighs; his mouth tasted her soft breasts, dappled where the reflection of the rain touched her skin. Her low groan of pleasure was his own---that this woman, his wife, would love and desire him so. And he could no longer deny what they both wanted. He arched against her slightly, and Catherine gathered him in, welcoming, bringing him home.
Becoming part of her was more than a physical joining, their souls finding each other. In such moments, they were more than something other...something that had never been before and would never be again. Light and dancing fire, a fire that never harmed but only burned hotter, began to flood their bond as Catherine moved against him, as he felt all that he was and would be follow her into the flames together.
Catherine never let him move from her, after. Knowing this, Vincent gently turned them both onto their sides as she nestled against him. Her hands moved through his hair as their foreheads touched again, as she kissed him.
"If I could purr, I would," she said, her hand on his chest, no doubt feeling the soft rumble under his breathing.
Vincent smiled, feeling his knowledge of words and their use beginning to return. Her forehead was damp against his and she shivered as he ran one hand down the smooth silk of her flank. "I don't know....I don't think you need to."
"Mmmmm," Catherine replied, stretching lazily, tracing the peculiar lines of his ears. "Perhaps you're right." She tilted her head up to look at him. "Can you stay today?"
Vincent nodded. "I'm sure there are those Below who will be...very happy indeed that I've decided to stay with you."
She laughed, a delicious sound, low in her throat. "Ah. A bit surly, were you?"
He acknowledge this with a small, rueful smile. "Perhaps. I missed you."
With her free hand, Catherine managed to pull the tangled covers over them both. "I missed you too. Will you sleep, now?"
Clearly sensing his surprise, she chuckled again. "Vincent, I know you. You looked so tired when I saw you tonight. You haven't been sleeping well---you've been working on stubbornness and a sense of obligation, am I right?"
"Yes," Vincent said; there was no point in trying to hide anything from her, nor would he ever try. "And you? Will you sleep now?"
She didn't have to say it had been just as difficult for her; he could feel the weight of those days in their bond. "Yes, I will, now that you're here."
"Rest now, then," Vincent murmured against her hair.
He closed his eyes.