IíLL LIVE THE DREAM WITH YOU

Jo Fredericks

Catherine sighed in relief. She shut the door on the outside world and dropped her bulging briefcase from stiff fingers, then leaned against the closed door, dropping her head back against it. Wearily, her eyelids drifted shut. She felt as if she could fall asleep right there, standing up against the door. But she couldnít - she had hours of work ahead of her. Exhausted, she shoved herself away from the door and stooped to lift the briefcase again, carrying it to the dining table which was her second worksite these days.

She pulled off her heels and padded stocking-footed into the kitchen to make herself a pot of coffee. As the coffee maker did its chore, she prowled through the kitchen cabinets, searching for anything which could become a quick dinner. She already knew from last nightís disappointing foraging that nothing was left in the refrigerator or freezer, and she hadnít had any time to replenish her pantry, not even time to call her nearby grocery store for a delivery.

Finding only a lone box of crackers, she shrugged and pulled it off the shelf, tearing open the wax paper and scooping up the first cracker. She bit into it and grimaced; it was stale.

The coffee was ready - it would have to do for dinner. She threw the box of stale crackers into the trash and poured herself a cup of very hot, very black coffee, hoping it would fortify her through the long hours ahead.

Settling into a chair at her dining room table, she took a sip of the coffee, then opened her briefcase and pulled out the files sheíd been poring over all day. She rested one arm on the table, her elbow braced as she cradled the side of her head with the heel of her palm. The words on the legal document swam before her tired gaze, and she closed her eyes for a moment, waiting for the caffeine to kick in so she could pick up where sheíd dispiritedly left off in her office at 9:00 p.m. The only reason sheíd left the office was for a change of scenery and perhaps a bit more comfort, knowing she still had a good four hours of work ahead of her.

Tears of frustration and fatigue formed behind her eyelids, and she was too tired to rub them away. They slid down her cheeks and wet the papers she was reading, but she didnít notice. She was thinking back over the past four months. So many changes...so many.

"Radcliffe, come into my office for a minute." Joeís face was serious, but his eyes were sparkling with an intensity she hadnít seen in him since the time he thought he might have "made it" with an offer from Evans and Brannigan.

"What is it, Joe?" she asked, truly anxious to know what had brought on this strange mood of his.

"Take a look." He tossed a very official-looking letter to her, which she read in growing disbelief and excitement.

"Wow! This is incredible!" She shook her head at the offer sheíd just read, a smile of amazement on her face.

"Just what I was thinking," he replied. "Whoída thought it, huh, Cathy?" He was grinning from ear to ear now, the suppressed excitement sheíd sensed before finally revealed by his pleasure at her reaction.

The letter was from the Governor, formally requesting that he accept an appointment to a blue ribbon task force being set up to overhaul the State of New Yorkís sentencing guidelines. Heíd be rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers in the state legislature, with judges and others high up in the ranks of the stateís judicial system, with high-powered lobbyists and representatives from the most prestigious law firms in the state. It was a potentially tremendous career boost for a night-school lawyer who toiled in the obscurity of the D.A.ís office. If his work on the task force impressed enough of the right people, heíd never have to return to the position he currently occupied. He could almost literally write his own ticket, his future virtually assured. He could use this as a stepping-stone to run for office, or for a high-level appointment within the state administration...or maybe even in Washington. The possibilities were staggering.

"I guess this means youíll be moving to Albany," she mused.

"Yeah, thatís a given. This isnít any part-time job, itís gonna take up all my time for a couple of years. After that...." He let his sentence trail off; they both knew what "after that" meant, and it didnít have anything to do with returning to the desk heíd labored at for the past eight years.

"Congratulations, Joe!" She swept him into an embrace, and he returned the hug, then swung her up and around, making them both laugh at his impetuousness.

That impromptu celebration had been the last time sheíd felt truly good about anything in the past four months.

With Joe on the task force, Moreno had to fill his position immediately. Hampered as he was by the hundreds of details his job entailed, he accepted a referral from a political crony, glad he didnít have to conduct an exhaustive search. Heíd been promised that Carl Burkhardt was just the man for the job, and as far as he was concerned, he was.

Burkhardt had come in like gangbusters, with a determined, arrogant, punishing style that was a far cry from Joeís more informal one. What Joe got from his people by creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and high-minded principle, Carl Burkhardt had no use for. His idea of a good lawyer was one who had no outside life - a "twenty-four/seven type," as he described it. While he couldnít require that kind of dedication, he demanded work production which could only be accomplished by everyone in the office putting in increasingly long hours, from clericals to attorneys. Many had dropped by the wayside over the past weeks - single parents being the first to go, which meant many of the female staff and a few of the men had quit or requested transfers. And Catherine still cringed as she thought of the treatment her friend Edie had received. Burkhardt was no fan of sass or flip responses. Heíd tolerated nothing from Edie, writing her up for insubordination and getting her fired within a month of his coming on board. That had shocked everyone in the office and morale had plummeted further. That, coupled with the demanding workloads, had shifted the face of the office perceptibly. The turnover was high, and the replacements - virtually all young, driven, white male attorneys and support staff - were in the mold which Burkhardt demanded: they worked strenuously, arriving at the office hours before their official start times, and staying long past normal quitting time, with weekends being no exception.

Moreno was thrilled with the pick-up in caseloads. The conviction rates were astonishing as well. He was getting positive feedback at higher political levels, which bolstered his own career path, so he turned a deaf ear to the increasing complaints and pleas from those who had worked in his office before Carl Burkhardtís arrival. Catherine hadnít been one of those who had visited him, but only because she saw clearly the futility of such a move. For one, Moreno was blinded by the almost improbable efficiency of Burkhardtís operation; for another, she understood all too well the positive political implications for Moreno, who she knew to be an ambitious man. Perhaps she had just become more cynical in her years with the D.A.ís office than many of the idealistic people with whom she worked. But one thing was certain: the more idealistic were the first to fall, and their replacements were nothing if not even more cynical than she.

Now she was among the last of the hold-outs Ė except for one of the younger attorneys and a couple of clericals who adapted to the change in workload due to fear, intimidation or the lack of other choices, she was nearly the lone remainder from Joeís staff. And...she was the only professional woman left in the office. In fact, it was very odd to note that the office had somehow lost all of its minority staff - Edie had not been the first, and pressure had been placed even more heavily on the minority staff than on others, with offers for transfers seeming to open up more readily for them, so that the complexion of the office had changed within two months to lily white. It bothered Catherine immensely, as did being the lone female attorney. But she was determined not to cave in like the rest.

She was very suspicious of Carl Burkhardt and his new crew, which had been recruited primarily out of prominent law firms in the city. That little fact had been unearthed by Edie from her new position working in Charles Chandlerís old law firm - a job which Catherine had arranged and which had been mutually beneficial to the parties involved. Catherine still had friends in the firm and had not only recommended but vouched for Edie, so despite the insubordination charge and her firing, she had been given a chance. Now the senior partners were thrilled to have such a capable employee, and Edie was relieved to have gotten such a good job after the way in which sheíd lost her old one. Edie had returned the favor by doing research for Catherine on her own time, thus Catherine was aware of the strange hiring policy which Burkhardt had developed. Of course, Moreno was thrilled that Burkhardt had been able to attract such top talent to the D.A.ís office; normally the low pay made such jobs the province of graduates from middle-range law schools, with the rare exception such as Catherine, whose resume included graduation from a top-notch law school and a stint at a prestigious corporate law firm.

Despite her credentials, Catherine knew without a doubt that Burkhardt was turning the full force of his distaste upon her, making her an example whenever he found the slightest fault with her work. Just today heíd dressed her down in front of her smirking colleagues for some supposed deficiency in her case development. When sheíd countered his criticism by reminding him that the citations sheíd used in the case in question were the same as had been used by several of his favorites in similar cases, heíd darted a venomous look at her and stormed off, tossing a "Youíd better clean up your act, sister," at her before he slammed his door in her face.

So...here she was, struggling through yet another late night, still determined to prove herself to the unappreciative Burkhardt.

But worse than all of this - worse than anything sheíd suffered during the past months - worse by far...was that Vincent had abandoned her.

Perhaps "abandoned" was too strong a word, she decided. But despite her roller-coastering emotions over the past months as sheíd absorbed blow after blow from the changes Burkhardt had wrought, Vincent had stayed away. She knew he had to feel her frustration, her despair, her despondency. It was in times like these that he came to her most often, to offer her his quiet encouragement, to share his strength, to utter words of affirmation and belief in her. But although she desperately needed him to be in her corner right now - he hadnít come.

She hadnít had the time to make many trips to the home tunnels, her exhaustion and her long hours making such treks very difficult to plan. But sheíd gone to her basement threshold countless times to bang out a request for Vincent to come to her, or at least to respond to her via the pipes. Yet those repeated calls had been met only by silence, and her balcony remained empty of all but the dead leaves from the plants she no longer had time to tend.

At first she was worried that something had happened to Vincent, and that perhaps he had imposed on his family Below to keep that "something" from her. But one weekend months ago, late at night, she had made the journey to his chamber despite her fatigue, and had found him sitting there alone, hunched over his writing table, his face in his hands as if deep in thought. She had asked him why he hadnít come to her, or even responded to her tapped requests. His response had been strangely evasive, his demeanor toward her singularly reserved, and she had left with a feeling of disquiet, a disquiet which had only grown when, despite his assurances that nothing was wrong, he had not undertaken any subsequent efforts to see her.

She missed him terribly. She hadnít felt so alone since those terrible days after her attack, when she had returned to her silent, empty apartment a torn and frightened woman, her new-found determination and confidence not yet quite developed enough to overcome the siege of the long, lonely hours of the night.

Feeling sorry for herself wasnít getting the work done, she knew. Yet she couldnít seem to generate any enthusiasm for the long night ahead. What she craved was a pair of strong, protective arms to enfold her, the aroma of candlesmoke and musk, the thrill of a husky whisper in her ear telling her that all would be well, that she had the strength, that she could endure. What she craved...was Vincent.

Why did he stay away?

Sighing deeply, she opened her eyes and forced her concentration back to the task at hand.

Vincent prowled the tunnels beneath Catherineís apartment building restlessly, as he had for many nights in succession. And, for as many nights, he convinced himself that he must not go to her, despite the fact that every cell in his body screamed for him to do so. Her need of him lanced through their Bond like a searing brand, her wretchedness as desperate in its way as the loss of her father had been so many months ago. Tumultuous changes were occurring in her life, and he was forcing her to go through them alone. It tore at him, this deliberate ostracism he was imposing upon the woman he loved more than life.

His betrayal was calculated, but no less painful for that. He had made a decision four months ago to remove himself from her life, to fade away from her, to leave her free to live a life Above, unencumbered by the burdens and obligations which his involvement in her life forced upon her. He hadnít imagined then that her life Above would take such a difficult turn for her, but once heíd made his decision, he knew he had to stick with it. If he faltered when the first challenge appeared, he would never find the courage to pick up the shattered pieces of his resolve again. It had taken too much out of him to commit himself to this course - the knowledge of how his actions would hurt her in the short term, the contemplation of the bleakness of his own life once she had accepted his decision and gone on to make her own way in the world, the breaking of his heart at the loss of its one true light...his mind shied from the ramifications, coward even within his resolve and his belief in the rightness of his endeavor.

He recalled when heíd decided he could not do this alone. Once, months past, Catherine had come to him in confusion and it had been difficult beyond measure to have to send her away. He knew he couldnít handle any more such visits. And so...

The Council meeting was called to order by a perplexed Father. Vincent had asked him to call a special meeting, but hadnít disclosed the reason. Now several sets of curious eyes were turned toward the big man as he rose from his seat at the table.

"I have a somewhat unusual request to make, and I felt it best I make it publicly, and here in Council, so that affirmation may be given and all residents made aware of the Councilís decision."

"Whatís this about, Vincent?" a brusque William asked. "Whatís so urgent that it couldnít wait until the next scheduled Council meeting? Iíve got baking to do for tomorrow. And I havenít heard word one about any emergencies on the pipes."

"Itís not an emergency, William," Vincent replied quietly. "Itís a request which I seek to be granted by all. It shouldnít take long at all to dispense with the business and get you back to your kitchen."

The others on the Council looked at each other and smiled, aware that once again, as was so often the case, William caused more delays than he hurried proceedings by his impatient outbursts at Council. But his quirky behavior was tolerated as part of his nature. For a large man, he never seemed to be still - he was always busy, always doing something, and enforced idleness, as Council meetings often seemed to him, was an intolerable waste of his time.

"Patience, please, everyone," Father implored. "Vincent, enlighten us."

Vincent looked down at the table and began. "What I am about to ask of you - of everyone Below - may seem...odd. But I beg you to believe that there are good reasons for it, reasons which I cannot make known to you right now. I ask for your implicit trust." He looked up and met each pair of eyes, ensuring he had everyoneís complete attention. "I wish the Council to pass affirmation on my request that no one respond to any attempts Catherine may make to contact me or anyone Below."

Puzzled murmurs broke out among the gathering, silenced when Father raised his hands. Vincent continued, "This would include messages on the pipes or notes carried Below by Helpers. This would also include inquiries made on Catherineís behalf by Helpers who may come Below or who send messages. Further, it would include attempted visits by Catherine. I prefer that she be discouraged by anyone who sees her Below from coming to the home tunnels. I will handle any contact with Catherine until further notice."

"I donít understand," Mary said, her kind face wreathed with concern. "Has something happened between you two?"

Vincent shook his head and turned to her. "As I said before, I ask for your implicit trust, since I am not able to give you reasons for this admittedly unusual request. Please," his gaze

took in the rest of the assembly, "affirm this request. It is all I ask." Then he sat down, laced his fingers together in his lap and bowed his head to await the discussion and vote.

"We canít know why?" Pascal asked gently.

Vincent only shook his head, not looking up.

The members of the Council exchanged confused looks. But Vincent rarely asked for favors, and even though this particular one was strange, even disquieting, those on the Council were inclined to give him the trust he requested, confident that in time the mystery would be cleared up.

"Discussion?" Father asked.

There was none, and the vote which followed was unanimous. Pascal left the Council chamber and immediately put out the call on the pipes to advise all inhabitants of the Councilís decision. The others lingered only briefly, as they had all been called from other duties, and soon the only people left in the chamber were Vincent and Father.

Father studied his son carefully, unable to comprehend a reason for the request made of the Council. Finally, he asked, "Do you wish to discuss this?"

Vincentís retreating back was the only answer he got.

But all the determination in the world could not keep him from his lonely vigil here Below, willing his strength to her, aching to lessen her burden by shouldering some of it himself. How he would survive this time he cared not - he only wanted to be sure that she would. She must. It was the only reward he could hope for: to know that this sacrifice, this terrible tearing away, would result in a better, more complete life for her.

Tears slipped unregarded from his eyes to trace a path upon downy cheeks. Powerful hands clenched hard, sharp nails digging deep into the work-hardened flesh of his palms. A rumbling roar of frustration and despair was barely stifled. He stood immobile, staring sightlessly upward, his every sense straining towards her, his resolve biting deep into his soul, shredding his already battered sensibilities still further.

*****

"Joe? Itís Cathy." Sheíd risen early, hoping to catch him before he started his day, before she needed to start hers. A muffled yawn and some fumbling sounds made it clear sheíd woken him. "Iím sorry. I guess itís too early to call. I...."

"No, no," said a groggy voice. "I need to be up now anyway. I just didnít expect...." She heard more shuffling through the earpiece. "How the heck are you, Radcliffe?" he rasped. "Sorry I havenít kept in touch...itís been crazy since I arrived."

Catherine smiled at the phone. "Itís OK, Joe, really. I can only imagine how busy you must be. I wouldnít have bothered you now, but...." Now that she had him on the phone, she was at a loss for how to begin. What could he do now, anyway? He was no longer in the D.A.ís office - true, he was on a long-term detail for bookkeeping purposes, but there really wasnít a job for him to go back to, even had he wanted one. And he had enough on his mind already, without listening to her problems. Suddenly she wished she hadnít disturbed him.

"What is it? Anything I can help with?" he responded, immediately concerned.

She lost her nerve. "No...no. Really. I...I only wanted to tell you again how happy I am for you, and to say hi." It was a feeble excuse, but she needed to extricate herself from the conversation somehow.

His voice took on the sarcastic inflection she knew so well, the one which masked his affection. "Címon, kiddo. You didnít wake me up at the crack of dawn to give me an Ďatta boy.í I can tell from your voice somethingís wrong."

Of course he could. Because he knew her so well. And he was the only person with the insight to perhaps give her some advice. Sighing, she replied, "Itís hard to explain. But...I need some perspective, some counsel."

To her surprise, he responded, "Itís Burkhardt, isnít it?"

She laughed ruefully. "You werenít the D.A.ís best investigative attorney for nothing, I guess!"

He snorted. "It doesnít take a genius. I may not be there anymore, but Iíve heard the news - all the transfers, the resignations. And Morenoís called me to crow about how much more efficient Burkhardt is than I ever was!" He chuckled. "I guess this new job better work out, because itís pretty clear Moreno is happy Iím gone!"

"If he is, heís the only one, Joe," she countered, suddenly serious again. "Edieís working at my old law firm now, and sheís been good enough to do some checking for me. Things are very strange. Why would top recruits to the most prestigious law firms in the city suddenly get the public service bug and come to work for the D.A.ís office at a fraction of their former salaries? These are top guns, Joe - real junkyard dogs. They use any dirty trick in the book to get their convictions...when they want to. But...."

"But?" He was already reading her implication, already ahead of her words, she could tell. Over the years they had developed a kind of sixth sense with each other, almost as if they could read each otherís minds. She waited...and he didnít disappoint her. "Donít tell me...the Ďbutí is that certain prosecutions donít seem to work out? But theyíre covered by the fact that the caseload has increased, and the overall conviction rate is so good, nobody is noticing which prosecutions seem to be going by the boards?"

He had it in one. But Catherine wanted to be fair. "Itís too soon to confirm the pattern, Joe, but...yeah. And itís all starting to make an odd kind of sense - the wholesale turnover of staff so that only those loyal to Burkhardt are handling those cases, cutting me and the few leftover staffers out of meetings and important cases, the pressure on me to transfer or...."

"Whoa! Wait a minute! Heís putting pressure on you to leave? Youíre the best investigator the office has ever had! Is he nuts?"

"IĎm not part of the club, and besides...Iím a woman. If you saw the faces in the office these days, Joe, youíd notice a decided lack of...diversity, for want of a better word. Theyíre all cookie-cutter copies of Burkhardt. In more ways than one. But thatís almost beside the point. The prosecutions which are getting bungled all seem to have one thing in common: the clients of certain large law firms are getting off, or deals are being made for reduced sentences or fines the likes of which you would not believe, hardly even slaps on the wrist. And if I had to guess, Iíd say this was planned out long before he ever came on board."

There was complete silence on the line as Joe absorbed her line of thinking. "I guess I should have looked this gift horse in the mouth. From the first, it all seemed too good to be true. Why pick me, out of all the attorneys in the state? I have experience, sure...but there are plenty of others with more experience and better credentials for a major task force like this. And as for the work Iím doing...."

Now it was her turn to read his mind. "Itís not what you thought it would be, is it? Theyíve got you doing a lot of make-work projects? Almost as if theyíre shunting you aside while the real work gets done elsewhere?"

"Yeah," he admitted grumpily. "That about sums it up. Itís getting more and more apparent as time goes on. At this rate, Iíll be buried in paper and wonít poke my nose above ground until the task force issues its report. And nothing Iím doing will make a damned bit of difference.

"Yíknow, Moreno once asked me to take on an intern for the summer - the nephew of a city councilman. The kid didnít pay any attention, he had no enthusiasm for the work; he obviously didnít want to be there. But...he was well-connected, so I had to keep him busy. What I assigned to him was suspiciously like the kind of work Iím being asked to do for the task force. I feel like Iím in a backwards kind of Trojan horse, one designed to lock me in while some big army ranges freely outside."

They were both silent, contemplating their respective positions.

"So..." Joe sighed. "What are we gonna do about this? When will you have pulled together enough info to go to Moreno with it?"

"I donít know if I have enough goodwill left with Moreno to even try. Burkhardtís doing a pretty good hatchet job on me. No matter how much time I put in, how many cases I turn out, Burkhardt complains, and he takes his complaints directly to Moreno. Heís got Moreno wrapped around his little finger. If I were to walk in with a grievance...or worse, an accusation...."

"Yeah, he can turn a deaf ear very easily when he doesnít want to face an ugly truth." Joe thought for a minute. "Tell you what, Cathy - you get me the evidence and Iíll go to him. If I take a few days off, I doubt anyoneíll even notice Iím gone. He might listen to me. Iíve got no dog in the fight, Iím not even in the office anymore."

"But heíll know immediately where the information came from. And it may be all the ammunition Burkhardt will need to get me transferred...or fired. This goes way beyond insubordination in his book, Iím sure." Catherine sighed, frustrated.

"Iíll think of a way to approach him which covers your butt, Radcliffe, I promise. There have to be ways. Iíll think of one."

He sounded so certain. Catherineís spirits rose a little; now that sheíd shared this burden, it felt a bit lighter. She didnít have to do it all alone. "OK, Joe. Iíll focus on pulling the facts together and leave the problem of how to present them to you."

"Fine. Talk to you soon." She had almost put the receiver back in the cradle when she heard his voice call, "Radcliffe?"

"Yeah, Joe?"

"Hang in there, kiddo. For me. If this all turns out like I think it might, Iím gonna need you there."

"I will, I promise."

Then she heard the click and a dial tone and put down the phone.

 

*****

Another fruitless hour spent banging on the pipes and getting no response had left Catherine in tears of frustration. Why was everything in her life going to hell at the same moment? It was bad enough what was happening at work, but if it were that alone, she could handle it. It was Vincentís disappearance from her life that disheartened her almost to the point where she didnít think she could go on. She missed him terribly. His absence almost literally sapped the life from her. It was as if the lights had all gone out, as if all the rainbows in the world had been drained of color, as if the taste had faded from every peach, as if...as if Vincent had left her. What was she going to do? How was she going to summon the strength to go on if he had decided he no longer loved her?

Wearily she left her sub-basement behind and trudged to the elevator. It took her back into a world which held nothing for her - nothing at all, if Vincent wasnít in it.

****

"Vincent? Where are you? Vincent?" Fatherís hoarse, trembling voice betrayed the exhaustion he felt, but he kept searching, determined to find his son. He, as all the other Tunnel dwellers, had honored Vincentís request that Catherineís calls on the pipes not be answered by anyone Below. Whatever was going on, it was between the two of them and Father didnít want to get involved. Secretly, he sustained the suspicion that the time for parting had come, and although he knew Vincent would bear terrible pain, it was a pain which had been fore-ordained, the inevitability of the whole unfortunate, doomed relationship making that a certainty. He determined that he would be there for his son during the aftermath, and hoped he could provide some solace. But he had to speak to Vincent now to satisfy the uneasy feeling niggling at the back of his mind that something terrible was happening to his son, if only he could discover what it was.

Suddenly, from the mouth of a little-used side tunnel shrouded in inky darkness, a tall cloaked figure emerged. Fatherís heart gave a distressing lurch before recognition calmed his nerves. "Finally! Thank goodness! I was beginning to wonder if you were avoiding me. Vincent, we need to talk. I want to...." His gaze fell on the rucksack slung over Vincentís shoulder. "Are you going somewhere?"

"I left a note. It will explain." The younger man moved to embrace him and kiss his forehead gently before withdrawing and moving back to the passageway from which heíd so recently emerged.

"A note? What...?" Seeing his son walking away, panic set in. Vincent was acting so strangely. It didnít bode well. "Please, can you just tell me...."

"Iím going away for a while," Vincent cut in abruptly, dismissing further questions. Then, in a gentler, imploring tone, he continued. "Donít distress yourself, Father, Iíll be fine. Please donít worry."

"But...what brought this on? Does this have something to do with Catherine? Please, Vincent, this behavior change of yours is frightening me." Father clutched at the sleeve of his sonís cloak convulsively, as if the motion could somehow compel him to stay. "You never go off alone unless something has happened to upset the balance of your emotions, or...."

Gently shaking off his Fatherís hand, Vincent replied, "I need this time alone. You must know by now I can take care of myself."

Father scrutinized the form and face of his son, looking for clues to his true demeanor. He thought Vincentís voice sounded strained, unnatural, his manner stiff, but he couldnít think of a good argument for making him return to the home tunnels with him when Vincent clearly wanted to be gone. So, finally, after uttering a deep, resigned sigh, he nodded and reluctantly waved the younger man along. "Take good care," he called out as Vincent disappeared into the gloom.

*****

"Whatís happening with Vincent, Father?"

Mary had come into his study so quietly, Father started at her words. Or perhaps he had been in such rapt contemplation of the subject of her question that he hadnít heard her enter. He sighed and ran his fingers through his cropped gray hair. "I wish I knew, Mary, I really do. But he wonít speak about it. Heís...gone off. God knows where or why."

Mary sat down beside him and took his hand. "Youíll get through to him eventually. You always do."

Trust Mary to always have an encouraging word, he thought. Aloud he said, "Iím sure youíre right. But...Iím worried for him, for his state of mind. As much as I hate to admit it, having Catherine in his life seemed to make him more...serene, more at peace with himself. Now that sheís not...he seems to be falling apart."

"They love each other, you know," she advised him gently, sure that he suspected that Catherineís feelings were as true as his sonís.

"Perhaps," he replied, still unable to believe it. Catherine came from such a different world, how could she truly love his son? And even if she did, she was playing with fire, considering how different Vincent was from ordinary men...if he even was human, which evidence suggested wasnít entirely the case. No, breaking things off with Catherine, which his son seemed to have done, would ultimately be for the best, for everyoneís peace of mind. He believed that. He did. That had been his advice to his son for three years. He had to be right...didnít he?

*****

"Get in here, Chandler."

The imperious order was barked from inside the conference room Catherine was passing on her way to the file room. She started, unaware that sheíd made a sound as she glided by, and also unaware that anyone was inside the room. She turned the knob and pushed the door open, then stood amazed at the sight which greeted her. Every attorney - correction: every Burkhardt-hired attorney - in the D.A.ís office was assembled around the conference table, with Carl Burkhardt himself at the head. He was leaning back in his chair, a scowl on his face. How heíd known she was walking by, she couldnít guess. Perhaps one of the attorneys had kept watch, fearful of interruption or eavesdropping.

"Yes, sir?" she said with a note of casual inquiry in her voice.

"I want a report on your docket," came the instruction in the same demanding tone.

Catherine scanned the room and noted that all the chairs were taken. So...she was not actually invited to join this meeting, only to give a command performance. "What would you like to know, sir?" she asked, keeping her voice neutral.

"From the top, you know the drill," he replied impatiently. "Címon, we donít have all day."

Catherine began to list her cases, itemizing the status and next steps for each. She accomplished this in a clipped, professional, detached tone of voice, letting those in the room know by her demeanor that she was not intimidated by the sea of male faces openly studying her.

She couldnít tell from his face what Burkhardt was thinking, but she was grimly satisfied to note the surprised looks on a few other faces. Apparently they were not fully aware of just how much sheíd been accomplishing, despite the huge caseload sheíd been given. She didnít feel it necessary to mention the hours of work sheíd put in at home on top of the long hours in the office which had been necessary to stay on top of all her assignments, nor the favors sheíd called in from various compatriots with whom she shared a long and respectful relationship. Many of the police investigators and court employees who regularly dealt with the D.Aís office were openly irritated by the superior attitude and condescending approach of her new co-workers in the D.A.ís office, and she had used that to her advantage, with the tacit understanding that their help would make her look good and the others, in contrast, look bad. You can catch more flies with honey, she thought wryly as she looked at the assembled crowd she faced after finishing her impromptu report.

Burkhardt now looked nonplused, which pleased her immensely, although she was careful not to let any emotion show on her face. "Fine," he pronounced curtly. Then, when he saw her still standing patiently, he dismissed her with wave of his hand. "You can go now."

Catherine turned and walked out the door, deliberately leaving it open so that one of the young guns would be inconvenienced by having to stand up and close it. She kept up the appearance of a cool customer in case anyone was watching, yet inside she was trembling over the way she was being treated by her supervisor and her peers.

The open hostility and deliberate rebuffs were getting to her in part, she realized, because she was so tired these days. She wondered, not for the first time, if all this was worth it. But she needed to keep going, to give herself time to assemble the documentary evidence which Joe would need to convince Moreno. Then a pleasant thought invaded her mind, for a moment driving the insulting treatment with which sheíd been subjected to the back of her mind: if all the "suspects" were holed up in the conference room, she wouldnít have to hide what she was doing in the file room - her research could be conducted openly, eliminating the time necessary to effect the more surreptitious searching she was accustomed to doing. With that happy thought, she plunged into the files with a lighter heart and a renewed determination to get the goods on the arrogant, smug attorneys with whom she was now working.

An hour of combing through recent trial files yielded a trove of information, much of it never disseminated to the rest of the staff as would have been the case under Joeís administration. Joe had made sure every attorney knew the status of every case and the outcome of every trial, the better to ensure that interconnections between cases could be discerned, common threads could be uncovered and followed, and standards in the offering of plea bargains could be maintained. Burkhardt operated under a different standard. The discussion of cases was discouraged, and information was kept on a "need to know" basis, with Catherine apparently not deemed as "needing to know." Fortunately, a practiced eye could pick out the obviously blundered cases or the wildly out of kilter plea bargains, if that eye knew where to look, as Catherineís did.

Now she needed to do some research to solidify her assumptions. A lunchtime call to Edie from a pay phone in a nearby deli would be in order. Tonight sheíd put in some calls to certain friends who were associates in several of the law firms from which Burkhardt had hired his new attorneys.

*****

"Iím sorry, Cathy." Peter Alcottís voice on the other end of the phone line was shaded with regret. "I mentioned to Father that you hadnít heard from Vincent in months and needed to talk with him, and he said only that heíd pass the word on. I didnít see Vincent while I was there. I tried to, but...apparently he was busy. I wish I had more positive news to impart."

Catherine sighed. "Thanks, Peter. I know you did your best."

"OK, honey." He hesitated, then added, "I...well, I took the opportunity to ask Jacob why you were denied entry to the home tunnels last Saturday, even though you didnít ask me to."

"I was hoping you would," she admitted ruefully. "Jamie didnít exactly say I couldnít come past the sentry point, but she remarked rather pointedly that Vincent wasnít available and that everyone else was very busy and couldnít spare the time to visit. And she stood blocking my way and wouldnít meet my eyes. It was very strange."

"Yes, it seemed that way to me, too," her old friend responded with some heat in his voice, incensed at the unexpected rudeness displayed toward a Helper. "But...when I mentioned it to Jacob, he merely shrugged and said that Jamie was right. Yet he looked away as he said it and then immediately changed the subject."

Catherine sighed despondently. Sheíd hoped that Peter would get to the bottom of things, but it appeared heíd had no better luck than sheíd had. "Well, I guess Iíll do what Father suggested to you and wait for Vincent to contact me."

Dr. Alcottís voice was resigned as he replied, "I suppose thatís best. Take care, sweetheart."

"You, too. And thanks for trying, Peter. Bye."

Catherine sat staring out the French doors at the gathering gloom of evening until the buzz of the phone being held too long off the hook shook her from her musing.

*****

Vincent prowled the lower tunnels endlessly, muttering to himself, "Sheís free now...sheís free." His body moved like an automaton, as if without the animation of blood and muscle. It was impossible otherwise, for within he was a block of ice. No emotion, no thought, no life penetrated the frozen tundra of his soul. He had made the decision to separate from her, and he had to enforce it. To separate...to break...to crush.... He was broken now, trampled under the force of his decision. Catherine must live her own life, must have a chance at happiness. For too long heíd sensed in her a diminishment of joy...and it was because of him, all because of him. And that was wrong, for she was born to joy, must have it. Heíd see to it. Without him to complicate her life, to drag her down, sheíd find her way again. To joy. To life. To love. This sacrifice must be made. He cared nothing for what became of himself. If all else failed...there was the Abyss. Yes...he had a way to end the anguish. One short step, and everything would be over. His last thought would be for her...for her happiness. Catherine....Catherine......

*****

It was with great pride and relief that Catherine called Joe after weeks of surreptitious research to announce, "Iíve got it, Joe!"

"The evidence?" Joeís voice was excited.

"Everything youíll need to convince Moreno. Lots of it comes from contacts outside of the D.A.ís office, and the information from the D.A.ís office files is largely public information which anyone could have compiled, once they were told which cases to check. Just as you suggested. Iíve covered my tracks as best I could. Besides, the pattern is unmistakable." Catherineís voice was exhausted but triumphant as she added, "If this were broken by an outside source, the scandal would ruin Moreno and scuttle his potential for a career in high political circles, so I think heíll listen out of self-preservation, even if heís angry that his golden boy has turned out to be made of brass."

"Great! When can I see it? I can be in the city tomorrow morning." Heíd been impatient for weeks for this moment. The gravity of the situation had filled him with outrage, as well as a heavy dose of frustration because he couldnít yet help Catherine, being so far removed - by both proximity and responsibility - from access to the information she needed to assemble. Besides, the slightest hint of assistance on his part could have blown her cover and hurt more than helped what she was trying to do. But now that she had all the evidence, he could hardly wait to review it in order to prepare for his part - the showdown in Morenoís office.

As she heard the unsuppressed excitement in his voice, Catherine knew that Joe would convince the District Attorney not only with the evidence she had compiled, but with the force of his conviction, integrity and sense of honor. She could already picture the next scene: Moreno calling Burkhardt on the carpet while Joe sat back in smug approval, then the hasty dismantling of the recently installed Burkhardt "machine," followed by the re-assembling of transferred and fired staff, with Joe back at his old desk. She was hopeful that the latter would occur, because Joe had told her that heíd decided to leave the task force.

Catherine smiled, glad that her old boss would soon be able to work with her openly, and glad that her double life at work would be ending soon. "Iíve left copies of everything with our mutual friend," she advised him, using the term by which theyíd come to refer to Edie, and which she and Edie now used to refer to Joe. "Sheís waiting for your call."

"What about you?" he asked.

"I donít want to take the chance of being seen with you before this goes down. If someone caught wind of our involvement, steps might be taken to mitigate the problems before you have a chance to present the information to Moreno." That had been her greatest fear all along - that sheíd be caught at her research and suddenly records would disappear or be altered to conceal what had been going on. She hadnít come this far to stumble now.

Joe nodded to himself. "Makes sense. Iíll deal with our mutual friend directly then. And Iíll let you know when Iíve seen him, OK? Until then...thanks, Cathy. Youíve done great work under unbelievable stress. All I can say is, the people of New York owe you big time, and youíve got vacation days coming as soon as this all gets cleared up."

"I wonít turn them down!" Catherine laughed. "I canít tell you how exhausting these past months have been, how disheartening."

"Hold on, kiddo. Itíll be over in a few days, if I have anything to say about it. See ya soon."

Catherine put the receiver down and sat back against the pillows of her couch with a tired but satisfied smile on her face. She was going to enjoy this!

*****

Catherine rose wearily from the ground. Sheíd tapped out her usual urgent request for Vincent to come and had waited for him near the jagged brick opening in her sub-basement wall. It had been nearly an hour - long enough for her to have gone to his chamber herself and to have returned again - and he hadnít come, nor had any message been sent to her.

She was not someone given to hysterics, but she almost wished she was. Sheíd have loved to let go right there, to have smashed her fists bloody against the unforgiving bricks, to have screamed her frustration to the universe until her throat was raw, to have wept loudly and deeply, uncaring of the harsh, animal sounds she made. The sweet release of that kind of temporary insanity beckoned invitingly. Catherine shook her head at the thought, then uttered a short, sharp, guttural, self-mocking laugh.

With slumped shoulders and disheartened tread, she forced herself to the ladder and began to climb. A slight, nearly imperceptible sound from behind caught her ear, and she whirled quickly to face it.

"Whoís there?" she called out in a loud whisper. Nothing. But her ears picked up a barely discernable pattern of breathing, almost as if someone was panting but trying vainly to hold it back. Rushing forward, she turned into the tunnel beyond the break in the wall and nearly stumbled into someone leaning against the corridor wall with his back to her. The form was painfully familiar to her.

"Vincent?" She was dumbfounded. Heíd been close and hadnít responded to her call?

In a low, harsh whisper, he grated out, "Yes."

Catherine moved around him so that she stood facing him and gazed up in shock at his appearance. His once-beautiful hair was wildly disheveled, knotted in places, torn in others. Deep shadows pooled beneath eyes she could tell were heavily bloodshot even in the dim light of the passageway. The flesh of his full lower lip was cracked and bleeding, and his face was sheened with sweat and smudged with grime. Her nose crinkled - he smelled terrible. She glanced down at his clothes, which she saw with a kind of fascinated disgust were tattered, shabby, grubby beyond belief, as if he hadnít changed them in days...perhaps weeks. And by his smell, he hadnít bathed in easily that long. She had never seen him so totally ravaged.

"Whatís happened to you?" she asked in bewilderment, her self-pity immediately forgotten in the face of his unbelievable transformation.

Shaking his head uneasily, Vincent moved away from the wall, seeking to circle around her and so make his escape. But she was determined not to let him go, not when he looked so in need of her help, her compassion, her love. So, as he brushed by her, she grappled with him, grabbing onto one arm with both of hers and standing fast, dragging him to a standstill. He stood facing forward, head bowed, as she peered up at him in the gloom.

"Talk to me...please." She buried her face against his massive bicep, uncaring of the unpleasant greasiness of the grimy cloth of his cape or of the rank odor which wafted around her. "Vincent, Iíve missed you so much. If you were in trouble, why didnít you come to me, get word to me somehow? You know Iíd have come in a heartbeat." Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, thinking of him in this state. She began to fear that the dark times had come upon him again, and she quailed at the thought.

In a voice cracked from lack of use, he ground out, "Let me go, Catherine. Thereís nothing here for you anymore."

Without letting loose her frantic hold on his arm, she lifted her head to stare up at him. "Nothing here? Only everything! My happiness, my dreams - my life! Whatís happened, Vincent? Why havenít we been together these past months? Why are you in this state? Are you ill?"

He answered only her last question. "No...not ill. Please, let me go." He refused to meet her eyes, which worried her. After all these long, lonely months, after all that theyíd both been through, they needed each other more than ever - and he wouldnít even meet her eye.

"No! Donít send me away. Let me help you. Whatever it is, weíll face it together, work it out...together. Please...." He didnít respond, and she could feel the muscles in his arm shift to draw away from her. Frantically, she blurted out, "I...I love you, Vincent." The motion of his arm halted; he stood stock still now, as if awaiting her next words. She didnít make him wait long. "If I hadnít already been sure of that long ago, living without you these past months would have made it more than clear - how necessary you are to me, how much my happiness is wrapped up in your presence in my life, how bitter the future looks without you standing beside me."

His great shoulders began to shake, and suddenly, as if all the air had gone out of him, he collapsed to his knees, head bent, hands on his thighs, and heaved great, gulping sobs which sounded as if they were being wrenched from the deepest part of him. "No!" he moaned through furious tears. "Not after all this. No!"

She was kneeling beside him in an instant, her arms enveloping as much of him as she could. "What is it? Why is this happening to you? Oh, Vincent, please, talk to me." Her own tears coursed hotly down her cheeks, and she pressed her face into his shoulder and wept silently beside him.

"Why couldnít you have stayed Above?" he asked bitterly. "Why did you have to come Below tonight, when I was near? You were almost free." His sobs choked him and he broke off his acrimonious reproach.

This was so unlike him, the words so harsh and incomprehensible, that Catherine was stunned. Then she focused on his last few words: you were almost free. Anger rose in her, thick as bile, flashing through her and overriding her compassion. "You kept us apart, made us both suffer...on purpose! Did you think that a few months away from you would make me forget everything you mean to me? Did you expect me to just go on with my life without you?"

Despite the anger in her voice, the love shone through, and their Bond crackled with the intensity of her feelings for him. Vincentís great head shook wildly as he tried to deny Catherineís thoughts, conveyed so purely to him along with her rush of emotion: that their love transcended everything, that their destinies were interlinked, that he had no power to redirect the course of their future. All along, to Catherine their possibilities had seemed so tantalizingly close at hand, and she had stubbornly refused his attempts to guide her thoughts in other directions - away from him and the dreams they shared of someday being together. Recognizing what he was, he knew those dreams were no more than insubstantial fantasies...no more than fond, desperate hopes waiting to be dashed against the rocks of reason and reality. For someday, inevitably, when they faced the death of all their hopes, Catherine would find that she had wasted half her life in a vain belief in an evaporating mist of a dream.

Since she couldnít see the obvious, he had taken the burden upon himself. He couldnít allow the dream to continue, and so he had attempted to alter their fates. If he could remove himself from her life, eventually Catherine would come to understand what must be. She was a sensible, reasonable, practical person, over and above the hopeless dreamer she harbored deep within. And so for long months he had kept away, kept away when everything he was cried out for her sweet embrace, the heady fragrance of her being - the phantom presence of her within their Bond the last and only greedy hold he had on her.

Now, if he wished, all that could be over. She hovered - anxious, concerned, loving - right by his side. She wanted him, all of him, for always. As he wanted her. The temptation was fierce, their Bond in turmoil in his breast as he struggled against the gravitational pull of her heart. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused the entire intensity of his mind on breaking the connection between them. His head pounded with the effort, his heart beating so hard he thought it might burst. He didnít succeed in severing their Bond, but he did blunt the connection enough to force himself to reject the siren call of her loving heart.

With a despairing half-growl, half-cry, he pushed himself to his feet and hurled himself down the tunnel, his long strides quickly carrying him far away. Catherineís desperate calls became fainter and fainter, until he could no longer hear her begging him to come back. But as he ran, a void grew within his chest, large and profound, until it felt as if heíd been hollowed out, drained of grace. And then there was only an empty husk where a manís hopes and dreams had once abided.

*****

Catherine wept through the night, finally rising sleepless for a desultory shower and a perfunctory attempt to dress professionally. Whatever was happening with Vincent, it was killing her as well. She thought last night that sheíd almost gotten through to him, almost reached that part of him that responded to her most - then, in an instant, heíd dragged himself up and fled from her as if her presence had been a torment to him.

She was worried beyond thought by how he had changed. His appearance, his demeanor, the things heíd said to her, everything about him had been bizarre, out of sync, abnormal. He couldnít have been living with the others for at least several weeks, perhaps longer - they would never have allowed him to descend into such a condition. Someone would have contacted her, concerned about his frame of mind, hoping she could bring him out of the depression he was undoubtedly in. They had done so before. But if he had been missing for weeks, wouldnít they have contacted her then, too, to at least let her know? What was happening Below? Why wouldnít they answer her messages? Nothing made sense anymore.

There was a knock on the door. She frowned. It was very early, and the doorman hadnít announced a visitor. She tried to rouse her curiosity, but found she didnít have the energy to make the effort. Her normal wariness dulled by her sleepless night and all that was on her mind, Catherine opened the door without checking the peephole, assuming it was a neighbor or building maintenance man.

A familiar face loomed into view, very close to the door frame. Catherine blinked several times to focus more carefully on it. Burkhardt?

"Let me in, Chandler. Now," he barked.

Automatically responding to his tone of command, she unchained the door. Immediately Burkhardt shoved the door wide, pushing her backwards and almost off her feet in the process. He had two of "his" lawyers with him - Mandley and Rigler, pit bulls, both of them, even if they were dressed in thousand dollar suits.

Burkhardt glanced quickly around the living room of Catherineís apartment, taking in the decor, the neatness - the lack of other human inhabitants. He nodded to his companions, one of whom shoved the door shut behind him and locked it. The other rounded on Catherine and grabbed her roughly by one arm.

"Hey!" she cried in dismayed surprise.

"Shut up until youíre told to speak," Burkhardt replied. He nodded again and Catherine found herself being hauled to a couch and thrown onto it. She stumbled and fell hard onto the cushions. One of her shoes had come off in the brief struggle, and Mandley kicked it away. Catherineís phone rang and she lunged for it, but Rigler pulled it out of her reach and stood holding it while the ringing continued. Finally, the answering machine kicked in, and she heard Edieís voice telling her that their mutual friend had called to say heíd be arriving soon. Catherine was relieved that Edie hadnít identified herself or said anything to turn Burkhardtís suspicions upon Joe. Whatever Burkhardt wanted, she could deal with, Joe and Edie being her aces in the hole.

They all stayed still and quiet until Edie signed off, then Rigler tore the phone from its connection and hurled it into the louvered doors of her bedroom, cracking several slats in the process and shattering the receiver. Her only link with the outside world shattered along with it - except.... She imagined Vincent Below, sensing her surprise, her distress. Would he come Above during the day to assist her? The risk was so great. And he might be miles away, unable to rescue her. Or, in his current state, he might not even be aware of her through their Bond.

Well, she couldnít spare thoughts on the potential for rescue from outside sources - and who knew if it was even necessary. Whatever they wanted, apparently they meant to get it through intimidation. Typical. Burkhardt and his goon lawyers came on strong, but this was only a slight escalation from the normal bullying sheíd gotten used to in the D.A.ís office environment. As always, sheíd rely on her wits to get out of this situation. However sinister their looks and however gruff Burkhardtís comments, she supposed that, just as in the office, sheíd survive this encounter with nothing more than wounded dignity and a bruised arm from Riglerís rough treatment. Resolutely, she took a deep breath and steeled herself for the confrontation.

Burkhardt put on a show of brushing his suit off and seating himself on the opposite couch, straightening the creases on his pants legs and then leaning back to regard her with a cold, cynical smile. Mandley and Rigler took up positions at the door and behind her couch, respectively.

"So...Ms. Chandler...seems youíve been a busy girl." He emphasized the Ms. sarcastically.

She sat in sullen silence, determined not to play his game.

"Nothing to say for yourself? All right. Weíll play it that way, if you like." Burkhardt leaned forward, his hard eyes glittering. "Youíve been watched for weeks, ever since we noticed you were paying too much attention to matters outside your own sphere. You know little Emily, that ditzy file clerk you befriended? Sheís a pretty good actress, donít you think?"

Catherine controlled a gasp of surprised dismay with an effort.

"We pulled her out of law school to do a spot of spying for us," Burkhardt explained casually, picking imaginary lint off her couch. "She had some interesting things to tell us about you."

Catherine cast her mind back over the past few weeks. Emily was a new employee - the first woman hired by Burkhardt. In the nearly all-male environment, it had seemed natural that theyíd gravitate toward each other. Catherine had cultivated the seemingly absent-minded, borderline incompetent young woman, probing for any evidence of a linkage with the Burkhardt contingent.

Emily was a good actress. Catherine would have sworn she was exactly what she seemed to be. Sheíd even saved the girl from Burkhardtís ire one time when Emily had muddled a project sheíd been given, helping her clear up the mess and gather the correct information before Burkhardt realized sheíd initially botched the job. Catherine ruefully remembered how grateful Emily had been, how sheíd promised to make it up to her, if ever she needed something. That had been the opening Catherine had been looking for, and sheíd solicited Emilyís help in her investigation of Burkhardt, thinking the file clerk would not be seen as suspicious if she did research in the files. Thankfully, sheíd never revealed her reasons for needing the information to Emily, but obviously, since the girl was in fact quite intelligent, it hadnít taken her long to piece Catherineís scheme together. Her heart sank, contemplating the revelation. Joeís element of surprise had just evaporated.

"Whereís the information youíve been gathering? Hmmm? Weíve got what Emily pulled for you, of course, but we know there must be more." Burkhardt was oily now, overly solicitous. "You might as well tell us. It will save a lot of wear and tear on this apartment...and you," he concluded ominously.

Catherine remained silent, determined not to cave in. It was true she had copies of the damning documents in a file in the apartment, but giving them up too soon would give Burkhardt pause; he might figure out that a second set was in someone elseís hands. She had to protect Edie and Joe at all costs.

Burkhardt stared at her. "Think youíre a tough customer, donít you, Ms. Chandler? Your attitude has always aggravated me. And I canít figure out why a Columbia grad like you is working in the D.A.ís office in the first place. Youíre obviously highly skilled. Couldnít cut it in your Daddyís law firm? Wanted to play the bleeding heart lawyer for a few years?" He shook his head and sat back in the couch again, enjoying this. "Youíre a puzzle to me, Ms. Chandler. I hate puzzles. Cade, if you please?" This last was directed at Rigler, who was still standing behind her.

Catherine felt him catch hold of her hair. He gave a savage twist which wrenched her head around. The sudden pain was excruciating, making her eyes fill with tears. In that state, she never saw the fist come at her, and the jolt as it crashed into her jaw stunned her into near unconsciousness. Rigler let her go and she tumbled backwards against the arm of the couch, her jaw and scalp throbbing.

Carefully she touched her upper lip with her tongue. It had been split by the force of the blow; she tasted blood. She wasnít sure if her jaw was broken. It hurt like it was, but she could still move it, so perhaps not. Her breathing was now shallow from the pain, raspy. She used all her strength to right herself and sit up against the cushions.

Burkhardt snorted. "Iím going to enjoy this immensely." He opened his arms in an "anything goes" gesture to the two younger men, then crossed his arms in front of his chest and settled back to watch.

Mandley advanced from the door and rounded the couch as Rigler leaned over and brutally tore the suit jacket and blouse from her body in one violent gesture. Mandley knelt on the couch beside Catherine and slapped her hard across the face, then back-handed her. Her head was spinning, the pain becoming unbearable.

Again Burkhardt asked, "Where is this information youíve been collecting, Ms. Chandler?"

Gasping, Catherine choked out, "Emilyís playing you, Burkhardt. I may not be your favorite lawyer in the office, but I havenít been collecting information on anything."

"Ohhhh...I donít think so, Ms. Chandler." His voice was sing-song, chiding. "Sheís a...shall we say...trusted associate. Actually, sheís Rigler hereís sister."

Catherine blanched. Sheíd made a tactical error, and now they knew for sure she was lying.

Teeth set on edge, Burkhardt ground out, "Iíll ask you one more time: where is the information?"

She shook her head, even though it made her vision cloud dizzyingly.

"Not talking? Fine." He jerked his head towards the interior of the apartment. "Find it."

Mandley left the couch and began to almost literally tear through the apartment. In less time than she could have imagined, he returned to her side. Every piece of furniture lay broken, her treasures spilled out and destroyed, her papers scattered, even her plates and glassware had been swept from their shelves and shattered. But in his hands he clutched the file heíd been seeking, the artwork behind which it had been secured lying torn in his wake.

Catherine sighed painfully. Well, it was over. They had what they wanted. Once they left she could probably make it to Mrs. Eastlandís apartment on the other side of the elevator and call Peter from there. She didnít think sheíd be going back to the office anytime soon. Burkhardt would undoubtedly have the papers drawn up to dismiss her for insubordination by the time she arrived anyway. So, sheíd just have to wait until Joe had his meeting with Moreno and all became right with the world again.

She looked up as Burkhardt rose from the couch.

"It seems we were too late to save you, Ms. Chandler. Some horrible men apparently gained entry into your apartment by subterfuge and killed you. So sad."

As Burkhardt was speaking, Mandley yanked Catherine up, then grasped her wrists and pulled her arms back cruelly. She felt a horrible pressure, then heard a snap as one of her wrists was broken. But she couldnít focus on that, as Rigler landed two vicious punches to her stomach, punches which would have doubled her over had Mandley not had hold of her. She saw stars and struggled to catch her breath. It was impossible. Her ribs were searing; she felt like she was going to throw up. She heard her skirt rip as Rigler tore it from her body.

Too late, she realized that Burkhardt had planned this from the moment he arrived at her apartment. He didnít want her in the D.A.ís office and he was planning to ensure she would no longer be there. Since she hadnít left voluntarily, and since sheíd proven herself a nuisance, he was resorting to the ultimate means of removal - a permanent one. She imagined that it might have come to this even if Emily hadnít been able to find anything incriminating on her. She represented a threat to his plans too great to be endured.

Rage and panic filled her in equal measure. She didnít want to die this way, didnít want her last moments to be in the company of these cruel, vicious men. The only small satisfaction she could draw from this was that she would have her revenge. Whatever they did to her, Edie had the second set of documents and Joe would still be able to reveal Burkhardtís sinister activities to Moreno. She was sure they wouldnít be intimidated into silence, and once the news was out, it would be useless for Burkhardt to consider revenge against them. She smiled grimly at the thought.

Burkhardt walked to the door as his men continued their assault. Ripping a strip from her ruined blouse, Rigler gagged her with it. Then the brutal punches continued; she felt her ribs snap after one particularly severe blow. Catherine struggled hard, kicking and twisting to break Mandleyís hold on her, but her injuries prevented her from mounting the kind of resistance of which she was capable.

Burkhardt lifted one hand and blessedly, they pulled back for a moment, waiting for him to speak. "Oh, by the way. Mr. Maxwell and that obnoxious young woman who just phoned you are being arrested as we speak. Seems they are involved in a drug smuggling operation. With Mr. Maxwellís prior arrest, itís been quite easy to generate the appropriate information to convince the police. And their little copy of your file?" He smiled. "My men will have incinerated it by now. Itís gone, just like all your hopes, Ms. Chandler. Goodbye."

Mandley and Rigler turned back to finish their work. Burkhardt made a mocking salute to her with the file in his hands and opened the door.

Five grim-faced, heavily panting men stood at the door to Catherineís apartment. Burkhardt, startled, pulled back and almost succeeded in shutting the door in their faces. But one of the men - Catherineís eyes were blurred by tears of pain, but she could swear it was Cullen - pushed him hard and he toppled backwards into her living room. The door crashed open and the others piled in, swarming over the prone form of Burkhardt and advancing fiercely on Mandley and Rigler. Besides Cullen, Kanin and three others Catherine recognized from Below had somehow made their way to her apartment and were now in full rescue mode. Their eyes held a coldness which rocked her, and in their hands were staves and knives.

Mandley and Rigler held Catherine in front of them like a shield, edging with her around the couch and toward the door. She spit the gag free of her mouth and shouted, startling her captors momentarily. The distraction proved useful to the rescuers. Kanin lunged at the nearest man, knocking into him so that his grip on Catherine loosened. Cullen and two others hit Rigler the merest second later, and suddenly she was free - staggering, but free - and her attackers were manhandled to their knees and roughly trussed up. Cullen nodded to his companions and turned to Catherine. "Phone?" he asked, panting from exertion.

"Bedroom," she responded, pointing the way with her good arm.

He ran to call the police, then returned carrying one of her robes.

"Here. The policeíll be here soon, and they shouldnít find you like...." Embarrassed, he couldnít finish.

"Thank you." She shrugged the robe around her shoulders and clutched it closed with one hand. "All of you."

The others acknowledged her gratitude with brief nods, then slipped out the door and were gone without another word. Confused, she looked at Cullen, who said, "Iím the only one of us who hasnít been on the wrong side of the law, and who has maintained some kind of life Above. So when the police come, I can at least establish my identity." He helped her lower herself to the couch and then left her for a moment, finding her kitchen and returning with ice wrapped in a dishcloth, which he applied gingerly to her already swelling facial bruises. "By the way, Iím a homeless man you met in the park and were helping. I came up for a handout, stumbled on this attack and saved you. Right?"

Catherine nodded, immediately catching on. "Right." She sagged heavily against the couch. "Cullen, they were...they were going to...."

"I know what they were gonna do," he replied grimly. He roughly toed the shoulder of one bound man; Mandley grunted and spat at Cullenís scuffed boot. "Heís lucky all heís got to deal with is justice from Above. Even if Vincent hadnít come pelting into the dining chamber, rousting us all from our breakfasts to tell us you were in danger, once we got in the door, it was clear these guys were gonna kill you."

She closed her eyes in relief. "Vincent? Heís...?"

"Below, at the threshold, probably going crazy until Kanin, Sam and the others get there to tell him youíre OK."

"He knows." She tried to smile, as through their Bond she sent him the reassurance he needed.

"Uh...maybe I shouldnít ask, but...whatís up with you two, anyway? Vincent looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or something, all torn up and grungy, and he smells terrible. You havenít been Below in...seems like months. And there was that weird notice that nobody was supposed to talk to you. I know Iím being nosy, but...did you dump him?"

She shook her head gingerly. "He dumped me."

"What? Is he nuts?"

She snorted softly. "I intend to find out as soon as I can."

Suddenly Greg Hughes rushed up to the door, followed by several uniformed policemen.

"Cathy? I heard the call. You OK?" He took in the scene. "What the....?"

Just before the uniforms took Burkhardt and his men away, Catherine pointed to the file in Burkhardtís hands and said, "That stays here." One patrolman handed it to her and then turned to help his partner lead the men out.

Catherine began to tell the story as Greg listened incredulously.

*****

From her hospital bed, Catherine held court with a variety of friends. Joe and Edie had come directly from police custody, from which they had been released with apologies once Moreno had gotten the bogus charges dropped. Knowing how publicity-shy Moreno would be about anything negative happening in or to the D.A.ís office, she had asked Greg to phone him first, then had explained the situation and left the cover-up in Morenoís capable hands. Moreno had assured her that he would take care of everything, then had called her at the hospital later that evening to advise her not just about Joe and Edieís release, but about the wholesale sweep of the D.A.ís office. He had offered all but Burkhardt, Mandley and Rigler the option of resigning quietly, and had put out feelers to reassemble his old, trusted staff. The three who had attacked Catherine were charged only with assault; the conspiracy and attempted murder charges would never be brought if they pleaded guilty and agreed to the maximum sentences for the assault. He had also pulled strings to begin the process to have their law licenses revoked due to the criminal convictions which were around the corner as soon as time could be found on the courtís docket - which would be very soon, knowing Moreno.

What Burkhardt and the law firms involved had been attempting - the wholesale undermining of the criminal justice system in New York - would never reach the press, never be mentioned again. It was enough that all involved knew they had been caught red-handed. There would be plenty of guilt money contributed to Morenoís coffers when he decided to run for office - or Joeís, for that matter, if he ever considered a career in politics. It was down and dirty city politics at its worst, but it got the job done. Catherine knew sheíd just have to be satisfied with the outcome.

Cullen had made his statement to the police, then had come by the hospital to check on her and to tell her he was returning Below to report to everyone what had happened. Peter was by her side and Catherine argued with him to be allowed to leave the hospital. He reminded her that she had received severe blows to the head in addition to internal injuries, not to mention several broken ribs and her broken wrist. He wanted her held overnight for observation, and that was that.

All Catherine wanted was the peace of one special chamber Below and the comfort of the man who resided there. She hoped he would allow it, despite all he had done to prevent her from reaching out to him all these months. Surely, after everything that had happened, he would return to her? She leaned over painfully and whispered to Cullen, "Ask Vincent for me - am I welcome Below if I come?"

"Iíll ask. And come back myself with the message."

She nodded, grateful beyond words.

*****

"No."

Cullen was taken aback by the terse and unexpected response to Catherineís request. He tried again. "Sheís been through a lot. She was almost beaten to death. She needs you."

"Enough, Cullen," Vincent growled out in a harsh rasp. He was pacing his chamber frenziedly, as if he wanted to bolt. Cullenís words had no seeming effect on his demeanor. "I canít...I canít...not now. Not even now."

He was mumbling, his words running together, making no sense, and Cullenís brow drew tight in concern. "You love her, Vincent. You canít abandon her when she needs you the most."

"Stop!" Vincentís pacing terminated abruptly, and he grasped the smaller man by both shoulders, shaking him roughly. Cullen gulped and ceased talking. "Donít you think I know she needs me? Donít you think I want desperately to be with her? I canít. I canít." He released Cullen just as quickly as heíd grabbed him and resumed his pacing, murmuring as if to himself, "Not after all this time.... She must be free...no matter the cost.... No matter...." Then suddenly he was gone.

Cullen let out a long breath, shaking his head in sorrow and disbelief. Whatever was going on, it was beyond his power to help his friend. He sighed deeply, then began the long trek to the hospital with his unwelcome news.

*****

"Iím sorry, Catherine." Cullenís eyes reflected his bafflement. "I figured heíd come around after everything that happened, but...." The wiry man shrugged his confusion and disappointment.

"Itís all right, Cullen." She patted his arm. "Thank you for telling me. Iíll make arrangements to stay with a friend for a few days. Give everyone Below my love?"

He nodded. "You sure youíll be all right? I mean, I know youíve got friends and everything...."

"I promise," she assured him. She was in agony, but it wouldnít help to inflict her despair on the man who had saved her.

Cullen left her hospital room and Catherine rose painfully and reached for the phone to dial her oldest friend. "Peter? Looks like Iíll be taking you up on that offer. Cullen said that Vincent...he doesnít want me Below. Iíll be ready when you get here. Bye."

Staring listlessly across the room, Catherine idly stroked the crystal of her necklace. What was happening with Vincent? After their conversation below her threshold, when sheíd told him that she loved him and didnít want the "freedom" he was offering her, why was he still staying away from her...and refusing to let her come to him? She knew he loved her. Cullen had told her heíd wanted desperately to be with her...before saying he wouldnít allow it. Was he going through some Darkness as before? But if so, why hadnít Father called for her? Nothing made any sense anymore, she decided. Wearily she lay back on the bed, trying to gather the strength she needed to dress and wait for Peter.

*****

The weeks of her recuperation had passed slowly for Catherine. True, she was feeling much better physically, her wrist out of its cast now, her ribs healed, the heavy bruising on her face finally faded. And she had long ago returned to her apartment and proceeded with the task of cleaning it up, which meant mostly tossing things out. But she had gone about restoring her apartment in a kind of daze. Making simple decisions about her possessions was almost a relief, as the uncomplicated tasks numbed her mind and kept her from thinking too much about Vincentís absence from her life.

Virtually none of her furniture had been salvageable. She was amazed Cullen had found the phone in her room useable, as the end table it had been on was in splinters. She had gone shopping for replacement pieces, and found herself gravitating to antique furnishings which she had bought more for their utility and the feeling of comfort they gave her than for their monetary value - tunnel furniture she had realized a day or two into her shopping expedition, and that thought alone made her feel better.

Her collection of glass eggs was nearly destroyed; only two eggs remained, the heaviest crystal pieces, which were family heirlooms. For those, she was immensely grateful. It had been her deep attachment to those two pieces which had moved her to begin collecting the lovely objects as an adult. But the thought of replacing the beautiful but frivolous collectibles now struck her as inappropriate, given all the ways her money could be better spent. That collection was a relic of another lifetime, and she had to admit that the loss of it did not really upset her. The beloved heirloom eggs now stood on her desk and were used as paperweights.

The clothing which had been in her drawers and closet mostly had been spared harm, with only a few of the most delicate things having been torn or stained beyond repair. But everything had been trampled and wrinkled from having been ripped from drawers or hangers and tossed aside like rags. As she retrieved the clothes from where they had been thrown, she realized she hadnít worn many of them in ages and couldnít foresee a time when she might have a use for them. Silky strapless evening gowns, beaded jackets - these, like her egg collection, were part of the superficial life she once had led. She boxed up and donated so many items to Goodwill that the pile of clothing left to iron was much reduced, although still too much for someone recovering from a broken wrist. She had arranged for her cleaners to do the job, and now her closet seemed cavernous, the newly pressed clothes taking up just a fraction of the space since so much had been given away, and the drawers of her new dresser were similarly half empty.

Eventually, her apartment had taken shape, this time designed as a haven and not a showplace. She couldnít believe what a difference the modifications in her home meant to her, its cozy, welcome comfort such a change from the stylish but cold environment it had been. How had she lived with it that way for so long when it clearly didnít reflect her personality or interests anymore?

While she went about reconstructing this part of her life, she could keep herself busy working out delivery times, handling the paperwork for the insurance claim, hiring workmen to repair the interior doors and re-paint the apartment, and the myriad activities she cultivated to fill her days. But whenever she had a moment to reflect, she couldnít stop the thoughts which roiled through her mind. The nights were the worst, when the commotion of her days quieted and she had nothing to keep her from facing her anxieties. For then especially, the knowledge of Vincentís rejection plagued her.

He didnít want her near. He hadnít once come to visit her when she was staying with Peter, nor since she had returned to her apartment. She had heard nothing at all from him or from anyone Below since Cullen had come back to the hospital to give her Vincentís message.

Sitting in her transformed apartment, she couldnít help but think of it as a metaphor for her life. True, she still had a job to go back to, and with Joe as Assistant D.A. True, she still had her friends. But what was really important to her - what sheíd come to realize was the lynchpin of her serenity - was Vincent. Vincent, without whom anything else was meaningless. Vincent, who held the key to her happiness and her future. Everything else, no matter how important, was secondary. No, not just secondary. Everything else faded into oblivion compared to him, compared to his value within her heart. With him, she didnít need anything else. Without him, nothing else mattered at all. And he was gone from her life. Just...gone.

She cried herself to sleep in misery every night, a misery which had nothing to do with the pain in her body and everything to do with the pain in her heart.

****

"When are you coming back to work, Radcliffe? We miss you. Iíve got a huge stack of files that need your personal touch."

"Gee, Joe, you really know how to make a girl feel wanted," Catherine laughed, glad to hear her friendís voice even if heíd only called to wheedle her about work. A pang of guilt twinged her conscience. She knew she could have...should have...returned to work long before now. There was no physical reason why she couldnít put in a full day at the office. But she had resisted even the thought of it. And Moreno, almost obsequiously grateful to her for the way in which she had handled the potential embarrassment to his department, had been very generous about allowing her time off. Sheíd taken full advantage of that gratitude - another reason that her conscience tweaked her now.

Joe tried a different tactic. "I donít mean to push, but...well, itís been nearly two months. I mean, youíve been attacked before, even shot...and youíve always been back within a few weeks - three, tops."

"You donít mind that you come off just a little bit heartless, do you, boss?" she teased, but she was stung by his seeming insensitivity, even as she knew he was right.

His tone changed again, and this time his voice disclosed the concern he was feeling. "Look, kiddo...Iím worried about you. The months while I was gone were hard on you, I know - all the long hours, the mental torment of working for that bastard. The attack was just the icing on the cake, horrible as it was. But...you donít call, you donít answer your door when I come to see you - and donít try to tell me youíre not there, Ďcause your doorman knows all. So, I gotta wonder. Whatís going on in that pretty head of yours? Do you need something? Is there anything I can do?"

Catherine sighed deeply. "Nothing, Joe, but thanks. I just have to...work some things out. My concentrationís shot, for one thing. I know I couldnít give the cases the right kind of attention. I donít want to come back until Iím sure I can give it one hundred percent."

"Well...OK." He didnít sound convinced. "Iím not trying to push, really. You take your time. But...if you need a friend, I hope you know you can call me anytime, right?"

"I do know that, Joe. Thanks for understanding."

She stared at the phone for a long time after sheíd rung off. When she made her decision, she jumped from the chair and grabbed her jacket and keys before she could change her mind.

*****

"I donít care if he doesnít want to see me, Jamie," she argued. The younger woman had been on patrol when Catherine was making her way into the tunnels and had tried to head her off as she had once before, months ago. "Believe me, I donít mean to intrude on life Below. And I wouldnít, except...." Her eyes grew misty with the tears she was fighting down. When she spoke again, her pleading voice trembled and cracked, "I need to see him. Please. Itís been so long. I donít understand what...." She took a deep breath as she tried to pull herself together. "I love him, Jamie, and I need to find out if he still loves me. If he doesnít...well, then Iíll know. But this...this abandonment.... It canít end like this. I deserve better from him. And if thereís a chance I can still plead my case, I have to take it. Please."

Jamie relented in the face of Catherineís clear distress. She hadnít understood Vincentís plea that no one contact Catherine or accept contact from her. It didnít make sense. And if she and Vincent were having problems, well, avoiding problems never helped anyone, as far as Jamie was concerned. Besides, Vincent had been an absolute mess since whatever had happened between them. He disappeared for weeks at a time. When he was with his family Below, which he hadnít been lately, he was a virtual recluse, refusing to stir from his chamber, no longer conducting classes, only taking on patrols which took him far from the inhabited sections of the tunnels. Nobody seemed to be able to even carry on a rudimentary conversation with him anymore. And he seemed oblivious to the worried whispers which followed in his wake. If Catherine wanted to try to talk to him, her job was cut out for her. But she was probably the only one who might be able to get through to him.

Jamie jerked her head toward a side passage. "Címon, Mouse has been keeping track of him. Iíll show you where he is."

*****

In the gloom of the distant tunnel to which a hard hourís walk had taken her, following in Jamieís wake, Catherine could just make out a dark form which huddled in a shallow recess of the craggy wall. Jamie had whispered, "There," and then faded like smoke from the passage, leaving her alone with the still figure.

She approached him with trepidation, unsure of her welcome. Would he howl at her as he had last time, accusations on his lips? Would he brush by her and run away, leaving her alone in this deserted place? Would he speak at all, or even acknowledge her presence?

She reached him and still he hadnít moved. Kneeling before him on the dusty earth, she murmured, "Vincent?"

At first it seemed he didnít hear her. Then his head jerked slightly, as if heíd been asleep and had been jolted awake. As his head lifted, the hood of his cape fell back, and Catherine was dismayed to see that he was in an even worse state than the last time sheíd seen him - unkempt, slovenly, broken-looking. Her eyes softened in sympathy and she spoke to him again. "Vincent. Iím here. I love you. Please donít send me away."

Those were the words sheíd come to say - all of them. The essentials, stripped of any flowery language or complicated appeals. But facing him and uttering them now, she was afraid he wouldnít understand even those few simple words. He seemed incapable of comprehension, almost of rational thought. He was more wild-looking than even in his darkest times, this still, unspeaking man.

Confusion knitted his brow. It was as if he were trying to focus both his eyes and his thoughts on the woman before him. "Ca-" he began, his voice faltering from disuse. "Catherine?" The name ended on a note of disbelief, as if he hadnít felt her approach, hadnít realized until this moment that she wasnít a figment of his imagination.

She smiled gently and reached out a hand toward his cheek. "Yes, my heart, itís me." When her hand touched him, he recoiled in seeming shock. Stunned, he replied, "How?"

"Jamie led me here. Please donít blame her. I practically forced her to." She was worried about his ability to understand her. He seemed not completely in this world.

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he appeared to be clearing his mind of an unwelcome vision. When he opened his eyes and she was still there, he bounded to his feet with the quick litheness of a cat, but then stood swaying, as if the leap up had taken all his strength. She rose before him and stood looking up into his confused face.

"Come with me," Catherine urged, slipping a shoulder under his left arm. He walked haltingly, his steps uncertain, and she struggled to help him stay upright. Their progress was agonizingly slow, but eventually they came to the hot springs she and Jamie had passed on their way to where Vincent had been hiding from everyone and everything. Catherine pulled her flashlight from her pocket and led them into the vast cavern.

"Weíll stop here," she suggested, and he nodded wearily. She got him seated on an outcropping where he could support his weight against the stone wall of the cavern, then searched the immediate vicinity for anything which could be useful. Behind some rocks she found a couple of old blankets, a few candles, a box of matches, and a canteen. These she carried back to where Vincent sat. He was slumped against the cavern wall, his eyes closed, his entire body speaking of his extreme exhaustion. Seeing him so close to the breaking point, Catherine shivered. Had she almost lost him - not just emotionally, but physically?

Shaking her head, she settled her armload of supplies beside his feet, taking up the canteen before she descended the gentle slope to the edge of the hot springs. She opened the canteen and immersed it in the heated pool, filling and emptying it several times until she had gotten it as clean as she felt she could, given the primitive conditions. Then she circled the area trying to find a cooler spring-fed section from which to fill the canteen. Eventually she found a cranny about waist high from which cool water coursed down the cavern wall and along a short ravine into the hot springs. She dipped her hand into the water and then tested the wetness. It smelled and tasted fresh. Nodding to herself, she cupped her hand and drank from the flow, then filled the canteen from it. The slope wasnít steep, but she traversed it slowly on her way back to Vincent, wondering at his shocking appearance, his strange behavior.

"Vincent?"

He opened his eyes but she could see he had trouble focusing them.

"Drink this."

He allowed her to place the canteen to his lips, and she tipped it back slowly, letting him fill his mouth. At first the water made him choke and gag. She pulled the canteen away and waited for him to stop coughing. When the paroxysms ceased, she offered the canteen again, and this time he took it from her hands and drank from it thirstily. Her warning to go slow was heeded, but even with smaller sips, he soon emptied the canteen. Without asking, she took it from his hands and went to refill it, and when she returned, he took several more sips, then put the canteen down.

"Thank you." It was a bare whisper of sound. His eyes were closed again, and he looked as if her were ready to tumble off his perch.

"You need rest," she asserted. Turning to the blankets, she shook them out along the smooth floor of the cavern, thought a moment, then pulled off her jacket and folded it into a pillow. "Let me help you." He leaned on her heavily as she maneuvered him down onto the blankets, where he collapsed in a heap, and she struggled to turn him onto his back and straighten his limbs. There was nothing with which to cover him, but the cavern held the residual warmth given off by the hot springs, so it was comfortable. Still, she worried that his resistance was so low that any chill could have grave consequences, so she snuggled against him, giving him the warmth of her own body, ignoring the sour smell of his clothes and skin.

The only sound in the deep cavern was the steady drip of water. She turned off her flashlight to conserve the batteries, and in the pitch blackness of the warm cavern, she soon found her own exhaustion overtaking her. They both slept.

*****

Catherine felt him grow restless beside her and awoke in an instant. Fumbling, she found her flashlight, then used it to locate a candle and the matches. In a moment, the soft flicker of candlelight replaced the harsh glare of the flashlight, and she turned back to Vincent. He had quieted upon awakening, and now lay silently watching her.

"Would you like more water?" she asked him.

"Yes, please." He rose shakily on one elbow and took the canteen from her hand. He slaked his thirst and returned the canteen to her. She took a few sips and then screwed the cap back on and placed it within his reach.

"How do you feel?" Her concern for him was unabated. He still seemed dangerously weak and disoriented.

"Better," he offered gallantly, then coughed hard and amended his answer to a rueful, "Not well."

She smiled compassionately. "I didnít think so." Sitting with her back against a stony outcropping, she considered their position. "I donít think I can help you get back to the home tunnels on my own. But Jamie knows, in general, where we are. Iím going to find the pipes and call for help."

He reached out a trembling hand and stayed her as she was about to rise. "No...please. I canít...."

"You need help, and Iím not strong enough. Once youíre back in your chamber, you can have food and a proper rest, and you can clean up."

His voice grew distressed. "No! I...donít want them to see me...like this." He lay back, exhausted. Catherine was disconcerted. He needed help badly but would accept none except, it seemed, from her. Certainly he hadnít refused the water sheíd offered, and hadnít pushed her away while they slept.

"What if I asked Jamie to meet me, asked her to bring some food, fresh clothing? Do you think you could get strong enough resting here for a while, then return to your chamber under your own power?"

He nodded, apparently relieved, and she stood and scooped up her flashlight to use on the pipes. "Iíll be right back. Rest until I return."

She found a series of pipes running along one wall of a tunnel passage a short distance from the cavern and tapped out a call for Jamie, who arrived so quickly, Catherine got the impression sheíd been hovering somewhere nearby awaiting word. After a hasty conversation Jamie left, promising to return within two hours.

Catherine returned to Vincentís side. He hadnít moved in the time sheíd been away. "Jamieís gone to get what we need, and she promised to explain to everyone that youíll return later...on your own."

Vincent heaved a deep sigh, then rolled over and immediately fell asleep again. Catherine kept quiet vigil over him until she heard soft scuffling sounds in the corridor, then she slipped out to greet Jamie. The younger woman had a backpack on and her arms were filled with another knapsack. These she handed to Catherine, whispering, "Thereís sandwiches, some soup in a thermos, candles, his clothes...." Her eyes were sad and worried for her old friend. "I added a couple of towels and some soap. Last time I saw him, he was so...."

Catherine nodded. "Thatís why he doesnít want anyone to come for him. Heís ashamed, Jamie." She smiled gratefully and added, "But these things will make all the difference. Thank you so much for your understanding."

Jamie looked deep into Catherineís eyes and studied her for a long moment. "Take good care of him. Heís well loved," she ordered.

Catherine wasnít insulted; she completely understood what Jamie was saying to her - not just the words, but the emotions behind them. Vincentís family felt powerless right now; he was refusing their help. All they could do was depend upon Catherine...and hope. "I promise," she vowed.

*****

Many hours later, the smell of Williamís chicken soup wafting under his nostrils woke Vincent, who sat up groggily, shaking his head. "Food?"

"Soup...and sandwiches," Catherine informed him. "Hungry?"

He nodded like a small child, his eyes grown large and hopeful. He tried to take the spoon from her but almost immediately his fingers, clumsy from exhaustion, lost purchase and the spoon fell clattering into the bowl. Catherine took it up and spooned out the rich liquid herself, blew on it to cool it, then offered it to Vincent. He seemed to want to resist being fed, but his hunger won out and instead he opened his mouth obediently. She handled her feeding of him matter-of-factly, so that his embarrassment faded quickly, and soon the thermos was empty. He accepted half a sandwich from her then, and ate it with increasing gusto. Catherine could almost see the strength returning to him with the sustenance of solid food.

While he finished the other half of the sandwich, Catherine refilled the canteen, then set it beside him and watched him complete his meal in silence. He didnít speak, but his eyes constantly darted up at her, as if reassuring himself of her continuing presence.

As she packed the backpack with the remnants of his meal, Catherine glanced at him surreptitiously. He seemed a great deal recovered, the dark smudges under his eyes nearly gone, his eyes clear and bright once again. The long hours of rest had done him good, even if he had only the hard rock floor for a bed. Now, for his other...problems.

"Jamie brought you a change of clothes," she began.

He lowered his head, hiding his eyes behind the fall of his hair, and his hands clenched where they rested on his knees. "Iím...fine."

She knew he wasnít, he just didnít want to change into clean clothes when he knew he was filthy. She went on as if he hadnít spoken. "Jamie also thought we might want to soak in the hot springs before the long trek back home. She brought us towels and soap. Oh, and a comb."

He glanced up at her through the greasy tresses which hung listlessly over his face, then quickly away. Now that he was feeling better, his embarrassment was becoming ever keener.

"I know Iíd love a good soak. How about you?" she asked conversationally, determined not to allow him to sink into a state of shamed silence.

He shook his head no, but she leaned toward him and reached for his chin, urging him to look up at her. While he allowed her to lift his head up, his eyes remained closed and tears squeezed out as she regarded him.

"Vincent, youíll feel so much better after a soak in the springs. Come on. Iíll go in first, and you follow. I wonít look, I promise."

She rose and made a show of taking up the towels, a few candles and matches, the comb and the fragrant lavender-scented soap which Jamie had brought. Humming, she wandered down the slight slope to the pool, lit the candles and then quickly shed her clothes and stepped in.

"Ahhhh....." she signed, satisfaction making her voice sultry and inviting. "You have to get in, Vincent. Itís heaven."

He didnít reply, and for a long while she sat in the steamy waters alone, thinking she might prune up completely before he agreed to join her. Finally, she heard small sounds behind her, and as she had promised, she turned her face to the far wall of the cavern until she heard him ease into the water a few yards from her. His groan of pleasure set her heart trip-hammering in her chest. How she wished she had brought that sound from his throat instead of the heat of the water.

"Nice, isnít it?" she offered, keeping her tone light.

"Yes," was all heíd reply.

Catherine was sitting on a natural ledge which allowed her to be submerged up to her neck. She leaned her head forward and dunked her hair in the heated water, then toss it back, letting a sheet of water course in an arc behind her. She laughed with delight at the sensation.

Reaching behind her, she felt for the thick bar of soap and began to lather her hands, then ran them through her hair. The soap was soft, delicious - it was so gentle that it rinsed out of her hair easily, leaving it squeaky clean and easy to comb. As she turned to hand the soap to Vincent, Catherine caught his guilty start. Heíd been staring at her, open-mouthed - watching as she washed her hair. He dropped his gaze immediately, chagrined.

"Would you like the soap now?" she asked. He shook his head and sank lower into the water, so that he could only be seen from just beneath his nose to the top of his head.

"Well, then...would you let me wash your hair for you?"

Vincentís eyes grew wide in shock, and without apparent thought he rose up as if to leave the water. It sluiced from a body that was glorious, Mother Natureís finest creation, all massive muscles and ginger-colored hair, and she tried in vain to prevent herself from gaping in awe at the sight of him. But although his chest and arms were bare, it appeared heíd entered the water wearing his worn, patched jeans. A brief pang of disappointment shot through her at what she was missing, what the jeans concealed of him. Still - to see him this way, so beautiful and so enticing, was almost more than she could handle.

At the realization that he was revealing his nakedness, Vincent promptly sat down again, raising a heavy wave of water that splashed against Catherine, briefly engulfing her. She spluttered and gasped at the shock of it, shaking her head to disperse the droplets from her nose and eyes. It all happened in a moment, but when she opened her eyes, Vincent had closed half the distance between them, his eyes reflecting his concern and dismay at having, even if briefly, submerged her.

His concern was alleviated as Catherine began to laugh, and she choked out, "Iím fine, really. It just caught me by surprise." She smacked the water hard with her hand and the splash hit them both. Vincent allowed himself a small smile as he understood that his actions hadnít upset her. Then Catherine plunged both hands into the water, cupped them, and pulled them out with such force that a huge blast of water hit Vincent in the chest. His smile widened ever so slightly.

"Itís not fair," she mock-pouted. "Youíre too tall for me to splash you properly."

Obedient to her innocent desire, he obligingly dropped to his knees in the shallows and the next time Catherine hit the water with force, a satisfyingly large wavelet lapped across his face and over his head.

"There!" she pronounced, satisfied with her efforts.

Vincent suddenly slammed his angled hand palm down on the surface of the water, and Catherine was once more shaking droplets from his eyes. She waved one finger warningly under his nose. "This means...war!"

She began to paddle furiously at the water, sending gushes of water at him, grinning wickedly.

One of Vincentís eyebrows quirked upwards and with great dignity he replied, "War it is then."

If she was surprised at his ready acceptance of her game, she had no time to wonder at it. She was doused with a cascade of water which ascended so suddenly, she had no chance to back away from it. Spluttering, she launched herself at him, intent on dunking him bodily. Sheíd forgotten she wasnít wearing anything, thinking only of swift and terrible retaliation. She swooped down and caught him standing stock still, pouncing and dragging him down into the water. She let go once they hit the surface, to allow him to rise on his own. Instead of responding, however, he turned swiftly, his back to her, and spoke her name in a strangled voice.

Confused at the sudden end to their play, Catherine contemplated his densely muscled back while she pushed her streaming hair from her face with both hands - until an errant breeze across her nipples made her look down...and awareness burst upon her. She, unlike Vincent, had entered the water completed naked, for she had no change of clothes. And she was standing in the shallows with the water coming only up to her hips. Vincent must have gotten an eyeful when he emerged from his dunking, she thought ruefully. And now all her good intentions of getting him to relax were out the window - if there had been any windows in this vast cavern, that is.

Catherine sighed gustily. Sitting back down in the water, she called to her companion. "Itís OK now, Vincent. Iím decent." His head turned and he spared a brief glance. When he saw it was safe, he turned back to her entirely.

"Iím sorry, I forgot," she murmured, chagrined. "I didnít mean to embarrass you."

He shook his head. "You didnít embarrass me. I was just...surprised."

"Iíll bet," she replied, rolling her eyes, determined to regain the easiness theyíd enjoyed a few moments ago, before her unintended peep show had put an end to their fun. "So, I guess I won that round." His puzzled look indicated he didnít follow her train of thought, so she added, "I dunked you. I won." She smiled softly to show him she was teasing him about everything, and he gave her a tentative smile back.

Encouraged by his smile, she again made her a bold offer. "Now...if I promise to be very good and not bounce out of the water again, may I wash your hair for you?"

He froze immediately, tension in every line of his face.

Trying to sound matter-of-fact, despite the hammering of her heart, she ventured, "Iíll get out of the water and wrap up in a towel, and you can lean against the side of this outcropping here." She pointed to indicate a natural shelf at the edge of the pool. "Iíll shampoo your hair and see if I can work some of the knots out, then you can dunk in the hot springs to rinse. If we try to comb out the remaining knots while your hair is wet, I can soap them and make it easier to work them free. It would be much more painful if you tried it by yourself."

She saw he was considering her proposal, then, much to her surprise, he said, "All right."

Recovering quickly, she merely replied, "Good. Now, close your eyes."

He shut them tightly and turned away as she rose from the water and slicked her palms down her torso, her arms and her legs, getting as much of the warm water off her as possible. Then she took one of the towels Jamie had brought and wrapped it around herself. "OK," she called to him as she grabbed up the soap, the comb and a couple of lit candles. "Iíll meet you at the outcropping."

She walked and he swam over to the flat rock which overhung the pool. Kneeling, she placed the candles carefully, set the comb near at hand, then dipped her hands in the water beside him and began to lather them. "Lean back...thatís right," she murmured. From this angle, she could look down at the long line of his neck, the corded muscles standing out, and admire it freely. And his face - the unique planes and angles, the dusting of soft stubble, the muzzle-like upper lip which aroused such tender feelings in her.... Shaking herself, she got to the business at hand.

Starting at his temples, she slowly worked the lather into his long, thick, tangled tresses. It was slow going. Almost immediately she ran into knots. But she was gentle and patient, and as the minutes went by, she managed to massage the lather across his entire scalp, even if she couldnít yet run her fingers through the length of his hair. She asked him to dunk his head and wash the lather away several times during this process. Finally she was at a point where she felt she could introduce the wide-toothed comb which Jamie had provided. Reaching for it, she couldnít control the shiver which ran the length of her body. Despite being so close to the hot springs, she only had a wet towel on, and the ambient air of the chamber was cooling her to an uncomfortable level.

Vincent sensed her discomfort immediately. "Catherine," he said, turning to look at her. "You have done enough. Why donít you get dressed while I finish this?"

"No," she replied. "You canít see the knots. I can."

"But youíre cold."

She shrugged. "Iím only cold because Iím wet. And if I dress, I canít lean so close to you to work on your hair or my clothes will get damp." She bit her lip, wondering if she should ask what she wished to. "Will you....could I come back into the water with you? Your back will be to me, so it shouldnít matter what Iím wearing...and I can work on the knots while the water keeps me warm."

He bowed his head away from her, considering. Then he stepped forward into deeper water and turned to her. "Where?" he asked.

She covered her surprise and said, "How deep is it here?"

"Not deep. Itís almost as shallow as the end you were in."

Catherine twirled her index finger in a circular motion, indicating he should turn around. He did, and she pulled the towel off and slipped back into the heated water. It enveloped her in soothing warmth once again, and the chill she was feeling left her.

"Come back to me," she called, and the soft echo of that request, pregnant with meaning, seemed to shimmer within their Bond. He turned and advanced upon her, his shoulders and upper chest gradually emerging due to the increasing shallowness of the pool. When he came breathtakingly close, he stopped and murmured, "Shall I sit at your feet?"

All Catherine could do was nod. She was breathless at his beauty and his question, innocent though it was.

When he had positioned himself, he bent his head forward so that the full length of his tawny mane was exposed to her. She lifted a section and began to explore it carefully for snarls, then tenderly worked the comb through to disentangle them. Patiently she worked from handful to handful, and it took more than an hour to accomplish her chore. By then her neck and arm muscles were cramped and tight, her recently healed wrist twinging, and she was saddened by the sorry state of his once lush and beautiful hair. She couldnít imagine what he had done to it. It was torn and thin in places, short and ragged in others. The though of what he must have been through in those long months apart from her made her heart break. Whatever problems sheíd had, sheíd had support from friends during her hard times. What Vincent had gone through, he had gone through alone. If his hair was any evidence, he had been leading a painful, desperate existence. Why?

Catherine sighed and put the comb down, then patted his shoulders lightly and said, "Youíre done."

Vincent ran his long fingers experimentally through his hair, astonished to find he could run them freely from scalp to ends without impediment.

"Youíre amazing, Catherine. I felt no pain, only a slight tugging."

She smiled wearily. "Thatís why I insisted I do it, not you. You couldnít have seen the tangles and youíd have had to tear through them, which would have been very painful. There was no need for that, with me here and willing...to do it," she finished lamely.

"But if I had, you wouldnít be sore now,"he reminded her.

"Thatís easily repaired," she replied. "Step forward. Iím coming back in."

Catherine sat on the outcropping and carefully slid into the water, descending until she was submerged up to her neck. The heat immediately began its work, soothing the overworked muscles.

Vincent came up behind her and suddenly she felt his fingers gently kneading her shoulders, the hard pads of his work-toughened fingers massaging away the kinks and tightness. She stifled a moan, not wanting to frighten him away, confused and excited in equal measure at this unexpected intimacy. This was the man who had forced them to be apart for months, and now he was stroking her bare flesh. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Why had he made them both so miserable?

She let the questions slip away and resolved to enjoy the moment...his touch...the freedom they enjoyed here so deep in the earth, so far from human habitation.

Too soon, he sensed the discomfort had lessened, and he broke off his actions as suddenly as heíd begun them. Catherine turned to him quickly, before he could move away, and grasped one of his hands. "That was wonderful. Thank you." She pressed a kiss onto the furred knuckles of his fingers, then let him go. "If youíll turn around again, Iíll get out and dress. Thereís plenty of soap left if you want to bathe. Why donít you do that while I check the knapsack to see what other goodies Jamie sent along?"

Catherine waited until Vincent had removed himself to the far side of the pool, then reluctantly got out of the soothing waters, took up her towel, and left.

Vincent stood for a long time in the pool, thinking of Catherineís soft hands upon him, of her silken flesh beneath his. He finally shook himself out of his reverie and dove deeply into the waters.

 

*****

Theyíd had a snack of apples, then slept again, Vincent once more allowing Catherine to lie beside him. When she woke, she was alone in the dark. Panic filled her instantly, until she heard Vincent behind her, striking a match to light a candle.

"Iím causing you nothing but pain, Catherine." His voice was almost inaudible, very hoarse, reflecting the anguish in his heart.

She shook her head. "Thatís not true. Your love is the one thing I need in my life, the one thing I canít do without."

His smile - a quirking curve at the side of his mouth - was bitter. "Perhaps...but the price you pay for that need is...too high."

Catherine heaved a deep sigh and sat up to sit cross-legged before him. "Is that why youíve kept us apart all this time?"

He nodded, sitting the same way. The candle rested between them, a lone, brave light fighting back the gloom. With one hand she took up the candle and placed it high on a ledge beside them.

"I know you think thereís conflict in my heart between my feelings for you and my dreams. And itís true that I havenít been happy in a while. But you arenít causing the unhappiness. You arenít bringing me pain."

He glanced down at her, a brief, disbelieving gaze, before turning his attention to a point somewhere above her head. "You are unhappy. Desperately so. And itís because you love me. There is no other reason." The stubborn set of his jaw told her she hadnít gotten through to him.

"I canít win this argument, can I?" she ground out, exasperated. "Not when youíre so bound and determined to take the blame."

His shoulders sagged suddenly, and he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, his head hanging low between his shoulders in desolation. When he spoke again, his voice was thicker and bore the evidence of tears. "Why do I do this to you? Why canít I let you go, let you be happy in your own world? Instead, I imprison you in the shadows of dreams denied and promises unfulfilled. If only...if only I could find the words to release you...."

His misery lanced through her, even without their Bond telling her of it. "All this time,

youíve been letting your heart break willingly, thinking you were doing me a kindness by sending me away, by trying to ending whatís between us." Her hand reached out to clutch his forearm, emphasizing her point. "You were wrong to try. It wasnít strength you had, Vincent, it was despair."

Vincent threw his head back and took a deep, shuddering breath. Then he looked directly down into her earnest face. "Perhaps it was. The same despair I feel now. What we have between us...is going nowhere, Catherine. I sense your frustration and I know itís with me."

"Itís not!" she broke in. "Never with you. Itís...itís with the situation."

He turned away again, unable to explain what was in his heart.

What she wanted - the situation, as she called it - was for him to accept her unambiguous invitation to move forward in their relationship. To make love. To bare himself, body and soul, to her. To allow her to touch him. To let himself touch her, love her, in all the ways heíd tried desperately not to imagine but had, over the three long years of their friendship. Since his teens, heíd been schooled against such thoughts, had steeled himself against them afterwards - and now the sheer irresponsibility of such an act terrified him. There was danger - for her physically, for his own precariously balanced psyche, for the relationship which was everything to him, if they were to try...and fail. Let alone the fear of what could be let loose should he let his control slip.

Too much was at stake, too much unknown.

Better to deny her, deny them both, than to find out to their horror that such a thing could never be.

Even if it meant he lost her.

Then she would live Above, sleeping every night in her bed, alone, just as he would sleep in his own cold bed Below...alone, always alone. Until death took them both.

For he knew now, deep in his heart, that just as surely as he could never love anyone else, she would never turn to another if he succeeded in sending her away for good. He could no longer delude himself that another man could replace him in her heart. He knew her well enough to understand that her heart, her entire being was fixed upon him. For better or worse, they were bound inextricably - hearts, minds and souls.

It was only their bodies which remained apart.

And that was how they must remain.

Even if it meant he lost her.

Pain-filled eyes turned to her, burning with tears. "I canít, Catherine...I canít," he whimpered, utterly defeated, and his tears fell in hard, fat drops. He followed them, kneeling quickly by her side, reaching desperately to wrap his arms about her waist and burying his face in her lap. His shoulders heaved with the force of his weeping, and his voice cracked as he repeated wretchedly, "I canít."

Stunned, Catherine caught him up in a tight embrace, pulling him close and murmuring, "You donít have to. What we have is all that matters."

The warmth of her body was a sweet balm. It had always drawn him, but these past hours, in his torment, the warmth she exuded had wrapped around him like a blanket, soothing him, calming him. She was like the sun he never saw - his own personal celestial body, shining only for him, shedding her life-giving radiance full upon him, baptizing him in light. He snuggled deeply against her, desperate for more, for a heat that would thaw the coldness that had filled him, that had shredded his soul at the thought of losing her. If she went away now, he wouldnít survive the parting. Especially knowing it was all his fault. Miserable, he begged, his voice muffled against her, "Donít leave me...."

"Never," she assured him immediately. "Iíd never leave you, I promise. I couldnít."

"But youíre unhappy," he protested, realizing as he said it that he was being unreasonable, especially considering what he had done to make her leave him these past months.

"You arenít responsible for my happiness, Vincent. Only I am. And being with you makes me happier than anything else in the world. Besides, no one is promised a perfect life, and mineís much closer to perfection than Iíd ever imagined. So...Iíll adjust. Please donít do this to yourself...please."

He lifted his face to hers, and he trembled at her touch as she gently swept the tears from his cheeks, then ran her fingers through the thickness of his hair, brushing it back. Her gaze swept over his face, and he could see the empathy in her eyes, even as he felt it flowing through their Bond. When she bent to him, he thought she was going to place consoling kisses on his red and swollen eyelids, and he closed them in anticipation of the touch of her soft lips. If she were to do that, he would treasure the intimacy always. He had no right to expect such a gift, but Catherine was a compassionate woman, and it was like her to offer such an expression of her caring. Heíd seen her do it with the children Below when they came to her for comfort, and guiltily he recalled the pangs of envy heíd felt when heíd seen her bestow such kisses, wishing he had earned such special treatment, even as he knew he could never do so.

But the expected pressure of her lips upon his eyes never materialized. Instead, he felt her warm breath as she exhaled and placed a delicate kiss against his temple. Disappointed - and knowing he had no right to be - he was startled a mere second later when he felt another small kiss on his cheek, followed almost immediately by the merest breath of a kiss full upon his slightly parted lips. His eyes flew open in surprise, to find Catherineís closed in ecstasy just as she was descending to his mouth again. This time, the kiss she gave him was warm and alluring, lingering against his mouth for several seconds before - was it really reluctantly? - she pulled away again.

Catherineís frank green eyes were regarding him calmly now, while her hands still held his face captured between them. "Everything is all right between us, Vincent. I will never leave you. Please donít try to force us apart again. Iím sorry my desires have made you take such desperate action. Forgive me?"

Forgive her? She was the injured party. She was the one who had suffered through months of unexplained separation, the one who was so desperately unhappy because of something she had every right to expect from a man she loved, something he withheld from her out of fear and doubt. And she was asking him for forgiveness?

"Itís I who must apologize, Catherine. I...," he began.

She hushed him with another kiss.

This time he had the presence of mind to concentrate on the sensation of her full, ripe lips as they danced across his malformed mouth. He needed to remember this, for he was certain it would not last long. He expected at any moment that she would recoil from the oddness beneath her mouth. Sympathy, compassion, even comfort were one thing - but he could never inspire true passion, not once a woman had felt what it was like to kiss his deformed, abnormal lips. His heart raced and plummeted, all at the same time - the thrill of such an extraordinary experience coupled with the anticipation of her shuddering withdrawal combined to brew a churning mix of pleasure and pain within him.

A few more incredible seconds and the kiss ended - although, surprisingly, Catherine did not pull away abruptly as he had expected. Still, eyes firmly shut, Vincent felt compelled to tell her, "You didnít have to...do that. It couldnít have been pleasant for you." He took a shuddering breath, trying to steady his rocketing heartbeat. "You shouldnít have to touch this," he added, indicating with one hand his muzzle-like upper lip. "Iím sorry."

He felt his head being tilted and, before he realized what was happening, Catherineís mouth was on his again, urgently, ardently. This kiss lasted much longer than the last, and this time he responded - hesitantly, experimentally - all the while in shocked amazement that Catherine was willingly kissing him. He let his lower lip nuzzle gently against hers, listening to her delicate sigh with wonder. Catherine parted her lips against his, and he brushed the tip of his tongue along the inside of her mouth, enthralled by the sweet moisture within. Her lips were the softest silk, the flesh of her mouth tender and supple. When she slid the tip of her tongue against the slick pink flesh at the center of his muzzle, the thrill of arousal it produced in him shocked him to the core.

His mind reeled, crashing against the prohibitions of a lifetime, but he could not stop. As long as she would allow this, he had to continue. The hunger for her which was never far from the surface of his being flared into brilliant life, exacerbated by the months of enforced separation, and he knew only that he would starve if he didnít keep tasting her - would likely starve anyway, once the sweet sustenance of her kisses was denied him.

His arms ached to hold her, to pull her close, but he clenched his fists to resist the impulse, for it would be too presumptuous to press his body to hers as closely as he wanted. This had to stop - would stop soon, he was sure of it. Any moment now, the realization of just how different he was from a man would dawn on Catherine, and she would pull away, and expect him to do the same. He had to be ready for that when it came, for the ultimate rejection which would shatter him. It was inevitable. Heíd tried to warn her, tried to make her understand, tried to make her leave him...but perhaps this was best. She would finally realize heíd been right all along - and heíd have this tiny shard of heaven to remember forever, even if it pierced his heart as he held it close.

"Vincent," she murmured against his mouth, "please, donít make us stop." Her next kiss was part supplication, part demand, her tongue slipping into his mouth to tangle joyfully with his. The feel of her inside his mouth was incredible, like nothing heíd ever experienced - a bewitching invasion that he was eager to surrender to. In response, Vincent groaned in relief, then immediately regretted making such a brutish sound. What must she think of him, making sounds like an animal? But as he began to withdraw in embarrassment and confusion, Catherine grasped his chin and pulled him back to her, fusing their lips with another heart-stopping kiss. He didnít have more time to consider if she might be put off by the groan heíd emitted, and as their kiss went on, he forgot it and concentrated only on the incomprehensible fact that Catherine was kissing him with an unbridled passion which he couldnít deny.

Finally, he unclenched his fists. He had to have her in his arms. Her hands were clasping his face firmly, as if afraid heíd retreat if she didnít hold him close. But his body cried out to feel her warmth pressed tightly against it. Reaching for her, he let his hands wander from her hips to her back, he savored the feel of her before taking her into an embrace. But it wasnít enough. She was sitting and he was kneeling, and they couldnít be as close as he wanted, needed to be.

Vincent reached under Catherineís legs with one arm and, in a fluid motion, pulled her onto his lap, his face still warmly held and his mouth still firmly worrying Catherineís lower lip. Immediately, Catherineís arms slipped down to his neck, holding herself up so she could continue to receive his kisses.

The wind could have been howling around them, the waters flooding over them - they would have been oblivious to anything but each other. Their kisses lingered, lengthened, heated by desire unleashed and passion unbanked. The argument of minutes ago had been settled suddenly and in a manner neither could have conceived.

Catherine, in a feverish haze, broke reluctantly from one of a series of bone-melting kisses. She had to ask something before she dissolved completely within the circle of Vincentís arms. "Lie down with me?" she begged, her voice a low, husky moan. "Please...take me...."

Vincentís mind sluggishly registered that she was speaking, and he waited for her to finish her request. When she didnít continue, he prompted, baffled, "Take you...?"

"Mmmm," was Catherineís reply. "Yes. Take me." She began to scatter kisses across his jawline, then took his chin between her teeth and tugged playfully, like a puppy with a bone. Letting go, she kissed the tiny marks she left, soothing the imagined hurt.

Fighting through the stupor of his fascination with what Catherineís mouth was doing, Vincent tried to focus on her words. Take me. She said, "Take me."

He heard her murmuring it low, as if a mantra now. "Take me, Vincent. Take me? Take me...."

The request set his blood afire, and he became intensely aware of the erection which was making his jeans uncomfortably tight. Her words were forcing a decision to be made, one he thought had been determined long ago. What she asked must never be. Never.

Never.

But....

The temptation was strong to re-think that decision. If he could think. Now was not the time. His mind was too befuddled, too absorbed in the scent and taste and feel of his woman.

His woman??

When had he begun to think of her that way? The words had never crossed his conscious mind before, but thinking them now felt...right. Felt...good. Felt...perfect.

She was his. Hadnít she told him that a hundred times...a thousand? She belonged to him, just as he belonged to her, no matter if they were together or apart. Telling her to go would not change those facts. Tearing himself away from her wouldnít either. If nothing else, the past months had proven that.

The sweet temptation to do as she asked tormented him. How could he? Could he truly just lay her down on cold stone with only thin blankets for comfort and bury himself within her love, within her body, as if he were any man with the woman he desired? But he wasnít any man - he wasnít a man at all...was he?

Torn, frozen with indecision, he hovered between the unendurable impulse to set her down and flee, and the fierce urgency of their mutual need. He squeezed his eyes shut as Fatherís warnings and images of Lisaís blood on his hands and the ravening darkness of the beast within him all thundered through his brain. Head thrown back, he felt every muscle within him groan with the tension which suddenly pervaded his body. His breathing became harsh, desperate, as he struggled to drag air into lungs that were constricted by the agony in his chest at the thought of letting Catherine...letting all of this...go.

Catherine recognized his distress for what it was, and desperation clawed at her, making her stomach heave with the fear that he would leave her now, would run from her and from his desire for her. He couldnít! He had to know, had to see that what they were sharing was beautiful, was so right and perfect...and inevitable. How could he not believe that now?

With every bit of control she possessed, Catherine forced herself to wait for Vincentís decision. Anguished tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. The move toward love was one he must make on his own, no matter how much she wished she could grab him by the shoulders and compel him to do it. If he could not reach out for what he wanted most - and she had no doubt he did, almost more than she herself - then nothing she could do to draw him to her would help. Heíd totter forever upon the precipice, and she along with him.

Please, she prayed. Pleasepleasepleaseplease....

Vincent bent his head down and his eyelids fluttered open. His gaze was fastened upon hers, the usually intense blue of his eyes nearly black with the force of his desire. Catherine held her breath.

Without a word, Vincent knelt with her and gently laid her on the blankets which had served as their bed. Her arms still clutched him, and tenderly he grasped her wrists and pulled her arms from around his neck. He sat on the blankets beside her, looking down at her with an odd expression on his face, as if contemplating a work of art, admiring how the artist had accomplished his feat, searching for the one tiny imperfection that would transform the piece from a cool, flawless paragon to the true embodiment of the human form. She lay in silence, allowing him to gaze his fill, wondering what it was exactly he was searching for.

Vincentís eyes focused upon her left temple, and reaching down with reverent fingers, he brushed the hair from it, exposing the jagged scar to his scrutiny. He exhaled - a deep, relieved sigh that seemed to settle something in his mind. With fingers which trembled now, he trailed the path of that scar as if committing it to memory. Again and again he traced it. Besides that one small action, neither of them moved a muscle. Catherine could hear the dripping of water from out of the blackness behind them, and the lonely sound of wind whispering through the tunnels. There were no other sounds except their breathing. The world stilled...waited.

Suddenly, Vincent bent down and placed a solemn kiss against the scar. He kissed it again. And again. Then his mouth played across Catherineís cheek, her eyes, her forehead, her nose, sprinkling tender kisses everywhere, until he found her lips once more. Pulling back slightly, he looked again into her eyes. Catherine saw the decision in them, and her heart began to beat once more.

He wouldnít leave.

Reaching up, she threw her arms around his shoulders, using the leverage to pull herself up to where he was sitting. Vincent held her face cupped between his hands, staring at her with rapt adoration, in that brief moment conveying to her everything she meant to him. She gazed back at him with her own look of rapturous veneration, willing him to understand and accept every aspect of her love for him.

Their kisses began again in earnest, both of them desperate to reclaim the tastes and sensations they had shared minutes before. But this time, Catherine didnít leave her arms around his neck. Instead, she drew them down between them and started working on the complex lacings of his patched leather and suede vest. To her surprise, the knots fell easily before her questing fingers, and soon she was able to push the vest off his shoulders. Next came his fishermanís knit sweater which, while thick and bulky, slid readily when she pulled it out of his jeans and over his head with almost no break in their kissing.

Vincent wore only a chambray work shirt now, which was already untucked from his jeans on the side where she had first grabbed his sweater. But instead of immediately unbuttoning his shirt, Catherine unbuttoned and slithered out of her own, then slid her fingers under the thin straps of her bra, slipped them off her shoulders, and flicked open the clasp between her breasts. Her bra fell softly behind her.

All this while, Vincent was focused on the hot, moist pleasures of Catherineís mouth. He vaguely understood that she was undressing them both, but was content to allow her to take charge of that while he continued to plunder the riches of her lips and tongue. This exploration consumed him. Everything, every touch, every texture was a marvel to him. How he had lived so long without the intimate familiarity of her kisses astounded him. Had he only known....

Catherine gently disengaged from Vincentís attentions, turning her face to kiss the work-hardened palms which held her so tenderly. He lifted his head away with confusion and dismay apparent in his eyes, but she smiled them away, taking his hands in hers and guiding them to her shoulders.

Vincentís eyes widened when he realized Catherine was asking him to caress her bare skin. Beneath his fingers, he felt the smooth, cool satin of her shoulders and back. He stroked his hands down her arms, letting his glance drift down to follow them - then he stopped abruptly when he saw that she was no longer wearing her bra. Two tantalizing mounds of creamy flesh resolved themselves in his line of vision, capped by dusky pink nipples which lay within a fingerís span of his hand. He swallowed hard, then looked quickly up into Catherineís eyes. The tender acceptance he found there eased his nervousness, but he was still unable to move.

Feeling the sudden tension in his hands as they gripped her elbows forcefully, Catherine leaned into Vincent, rubbing her cheek against the rough cotton of his shirt. She could feel the heat of his body clearly through the fabric, and she yearned to remove this last layer separating them. But his reaction just now demonstrated clearly that she needed to give him time to adapt to these new experiences.

As she continued to press her face to his chest, Catherine wriggled the tiniest bit, ensuring her body grazed against Vincentís fingers. Their furred backs sent delightful shivers through her as they skimmed along the sensitive flesh of her sides and breasts. When she leaned back, she noted that he was holding her arms more loosely, and she lowered her head while she raised her gaze up at him, presenting an image of innocent entreaty. "Will you hold me?" she purred. She lifted her arms to envelop him in a hug, forcing his hands away from her elbows. With them suddenly free and Catherine leaning against him, it was natural for Vincent to wrap his arms around Catherineís bare back. Then, when she leaned away from him once again, his arms had to loosen to accommodate her movement, so that he ended up with his hands at her sides, just below her breasts.

This was exactly what Catherine wanted.

She looked down at herself and at his hands, then took each of his hands in one of hers and brought them to her mouth, kissing their furred backs and rubbing her cheek against them. She heard Vincentís breath catch in his throat. This was so much like that night long months ago when he had told her of his shame about Lisa. And like that night, she held his hands firmly and reiterated quietly, but with fierce assurance, "These hands are beautiful. These are my hands."

Waiting for his acknowledgment, she saw his dazed nod. His lower lip was quivering, though, and she couldnít have him fearful, not at this point. She tilted her head to capture that trembling lip, holding it between her own, warming it with her tongue, sucking gently on it, until she felt Vincent squeeze her hands. Looking up into his eyes, she saw that he was now more aroused than apprehensive.

Good.

Pressing one more kiss to each hand, Catherine lowered them to her breasts. She placed them so that when she pulled her own hands away, Vincentís were cupping her lightly. The sight of his strong, large hands with their long, tapered fingers pressed against her bareness sent a thrill of arousal through her, centering low in her stomach. Sheíd dreamed of this forever, ached to have him hold her this way. And now...now...it was finally sweet reality!

Vincent seemed stunned into immobility by what she had done with his hands. He started visibly when she urged, "Touch me...please." Her hand came up and squeezed his, showing him how she wanted to be touched; she even coaxed his thumb up and over her nipple, just once. Then she pulled her hand away again and waited.

He looked into her eyes, still seeking confirmation that his touch was acceptable, desired. She sent a wave of affirmation surging through their Bond, hoping it would give him the courage to move forward. She could almost see his concern melting as his eyelids half-closed, their Bond conveying what he needed to feel.

Hesitantly, the fingers of one hand closed upon her breast, cupping it more firmly. She leaned into the touch, her mouth dropping open to emit a soft sigh of pleasure. The hand continued to caress her, stroking her tentatively but with growing confidence. The thumb brushed across her nipple once, twice, three times. By the third time, it had pebbled into a tight peak. This seemed to intrigue Vincent, for it encouraged him to caress her with both hands now. Twin sweeps across both nipples followed, then a gentle but insistent kneading of her breasts. This was swiftly causing Catherine to lose the tight hold she was trying to maintain on her control. The fluttering deep inside her was growing more frantic by the minute. She tried to calm herself, knowing it would be some time yet before Vincent felt comfortable enough to go much further.

His voice cut into her introspection, as he murmured her name. She saw him wrench his gaze from her breasts to meet her eyes, and was startled to see a flush of tawny color sweep over his face. He was...embarrassed?

"What is it?"

He seemed about to reply, then stopped and shook his head instead. His hands dropped to his sides, and her breasts ached with the sudden loss of contact.

"Tell me," she pleaded, imbuing the two words with all the tenderness and compassion she could. He again opened his mouth to speak, but again flushed duskily and could not bring himself to say anything. It was then that Catherine understood.

She reclined, taking his forearms in her hands as she went, urging him to follow her. He came willingly, supporting himself above her with his arms. She tugged at his shoulders and induced him to lie against her, then she wriggled upwards until his head was at her shoulder, his arms lying to either side of her. She leaned down toward his ear and whispered into it, "Would you do something for me?"

He looked up and nodded earnestly. "Anything."

"This time, when you caress my breasts..." He looked down, away from her as she spoke.

She continued as if he were still looking at her. "Would you kiss my breasts as you kiss my mouth...with your lips and tongue?"

She heard his sharp inhalation of breath and knew sheíd discovered the thing he could not ask of her.

He said nothing, but he nodded. Then he looked once more at her face. She smiled and added, "Iíve dreamed of it. It would feel wonderful."

If he thought he was doing it for her, perhaps that would penetrate his reserve and he could overcome his shyness at the thought. She knew he must want this desperately to have even attempted to make such an intimate request. God knew, it was something she was desperate for.

He looked down at her breasts for a moment, not moving, his hot breath tantalizing the sensitive flesh he contemplated. Then he bent to them, kissing each nipple so softly Catherine almost thought his mouth hadnít touched her. One of his hands left the blanket to stroke the smooth underside of a breast, then to hold it steady while his mouth descended to lightly kiss it everywhere. His kisses were chaste, with only his lips touching her bare flesh. She wanted to cry out from the combined ecstasy and frustration of it. His kisses were thrilling, but she wanted so much more - his hot mouth devouring her, suckling strongly against her. She thought sheíd cry out in frustration if he didnít open his mouth and take her inside. Then, just when she thought she couldnít stand the exquisite agony a second longer, she felt his tongue lap against her and then she did moan, calling out his name in relief. This seemed to galvanize him, for his attentions became steadily more intense, his tongue licking her with a voracity which seemed to increase the more he continued. And finally, when he had tongued every inch of her breast, she felt it - the moist heat as his mouth enclosed her nipple, sucking gently at first, then with growing force, until he growled low and suckled hard and deeply. Her hands flew to his head, encouraging him with the lightest of pressure, as she moaned, "Yes...oh, yes..." over and over.

Time seemed to have no meaning, nothing counted but the insistent tugging of his mouth and the pressure of his hand kneading her flesh. The soft sounds of his suckling, the low moans she uttered, the gentle stirrings of the blankets were all there was in the world. When he pulled away she felt bereft, but he only settled against her in a different position so that he could attend to the breast he had neglected, and soon Catherine was again in a state of heated bliss. She pressed small kisses against the top of his head and murmured her love for him, all the while her body thrummed with pleasure, with the knowledge that Vincent was becoming her lover, that this most special dream was at last being fulfilled.

Eventually she murmured, "Beloved," and he raised his head, his eyes hazy with pleasure. "You must be uncomfortable. Why donít you lie down with me?"

He nodded, then sat up groggily, and looked down at himself. He was still wearing most of his clothes. Catherine sat up, then knelt behind him and put her arms around his broad shoulders, her fingers beginning to work the buttons of his shirt. "Take off your socks, and Iíll help you with the rest," she offered.

Without a word, Vincent slipped his socks off. Catherine had half of his buttons undone, and he took over from her, his shaky hands having trouble with the last button until, impatient, he pulled his shirt off over his head. His fingers fumbled over the closure of his jeans, and while he was thus distracted, Catherine took the opportunity to stand up in order to quickly slip out of her own jeans, socks and panties.

Vincent looked up and saw Catherine standing before him completely bare to his eyes. The scent of her arousal filled his nostrils and he inhaled deeply, his soul filling with something he identified later as masculine pride. Knowing that he had provoked her arousal by his touch, his kiss, brought a fierce joy to him, a feeling heíd never known before. Raising his arms to encompass her waist, he pulled her toward him, burying his face against her taut, firm stomach. God, he loved her. To have such a gift as her love was a measureless blessing, wholly undeserved but gratefully accepted.

Catherine knelt before him, murmuring, "Let me help," and Vincent was brought swiftly back to the here and now as he felt her strong, supple fingers attack the remaining fastenings on his jeans. He wasnít sure she could help him; his main problem was that his erection had grown so painfully large, his jeans were too tight. How she could undo the buttons with so little "give" in the fabric was beyond him. But her fingers were smaller than his, and she managed to set him loose. He heaved a sigh of relief as his jeans opened, and another when Catherine immediately lay back upon the blankets. He wasnít quite ready for her to see him completely naked. He wanted to put that moment off as long as possible, for a dim fear still echoed in his head, that one good look at what he was would be too much for her. Surely, once she saw what he was, sheíd turn away. But until that moment, he had hope, and he had the divine gift of her touch. Heíd savor every second, even knowing it would likely end...too soon.

Shifting off the blankets, he gathered the top blanket in his hand, lifted it and slid under it, covering himself to the waist as he quickly shed his jeans.

Catherine didnít object. She suspected he might still not be ready to bare himself to her fascinated eyes. Besides, there was much to admire even above the sheet. The glory of his body, its magnificent proportions, the massive arms and musculature of his shoulders and chest, the deeply defined ridges of his stomach, the rich, tawny fur lavished across his forearms and pectorals...she sighed in admiration as she took him in with her eyes.

Vincent felt her approval as she gazed at him, and he relaxed, sighing in relief. Amazingly, she wasnít put off by the dense fur matting his body, one of the things he hated most about himself. It astonished him to think that she could overlook so animalistic a feature, one that caused him such anguish. So often when he looked down at his arms, he saw the fur protruding from under his sweater, even when he tried to cover it with layers of clothing. The revulsion that others felt burned him, each time their eyes slipped down to his wrists and then widened in disgust, just before they turned away or tried to hide their reaction with a false smile. He remembered each instance as if engraved in his heart, etched there by acid. But those deep scars began to heal a little now, given the balm of Catherineís acceptance.

Catherine, too, slithered under the topmost blanket, so that it covered them both. She moved to snuggle against his side, and instinctively he lifted his arm to allow her to cuddle close, as she did sometimes when they shared his cloak on cold nights. It was a familiar experience, and perhaps thatís what lulled him into its easy execution. But her warmth, her softness, the incredible intimacy of her bare flesh pressed against his own was unexpected, a shock which sent his senses teetering on the edge of overload. He pulled away, and immediately he sensed the hurt heíd caused Catherine. Stricken, he sat up, ready to abandon the shared blankets, until she stopped him by laying a staying hand upon his forearm, apologizing to him.

"Iím sorry. That was too much, too soon. I didnít think." She let him go then, moving back toward the edge of the blankets, letting him decide whether he would return to her side or not. But it reassured him more when she added, "It...it startled me as much as you, I promise."

When he had the courage to look at her again, she was smiling contritely. "Please...come back to me?" she implored.

Gingerly, he returned, but he didnít lie beside her. Instead, he lay on his side, leaning on one elbow, resting his head on his fist. He regarded her solemnly for a moment, then shook his head and said, "Iím sorry, Catherine. I know this hasnít been what youíve dreamed of. Iím not what you...."

She cut off his apology. "Donít. You have no idea how wonderful you are, how I treasure all weíve shared tonight."

He bowed his head, murmuring in reply, "Iíve been difficult...anxious...."

"No," she declared. "Youíre understandably nervous...and too hard on yourself." She reached out a hand, stroking his tousled locks, letting her fingers drift through the thickness of his sadly ravaged hair again and again. The repetitive, undemanding motion calmed him, soothed him, and he relaxed again. "Youíve given me so much tonight. You must know how your touch pleases me."

He glanced up at her through his bangs, a quiet smile lighting his countenance. "It amazes me, but...yes." It was true. She had not made a secret of her pleasure, and their Bond brimmed with it, if he still had doubts.

"Then...touch me again?"

He looked at her apprehensively, unsure what she meant. He didnít think he could embrace her as heíd tried earlier - not just yet. His courage didnít stretch that far.

Shoving the edge of the cover down, she raised one leg, placing the sole of her foot flat upon the lower blanket. He gazed at the cool, firm length of her leg and sighed gustily. So beautiful.

"Itís just my leg," she chided, jokingly gently with him. He caught her flirtatious smile and it warmed him. It was just her leg - and only his hand would be involved. The thorny problem of holding her close could be put off for a little longer. This was something he could do for her right now.

Taking a deep breath, he began.

His hand stroked almost disbelievingly up her bare, smooth leg from ankle to thigh. If ever he had imagined himself loving her - and he had, night after night, until the yearning to do so had become so deeply ingrained it was a part of him, like flesh, like bone - he had never allowed himself to dare to dream of this. His strong, claw-tipped fingers pursued their path, their furred backs causing tiny goosebumps to rise upon her tender skin. Then, finally, they hesitated, just at the brink of heaven. Try as he might, he couldnít seem to make his hand touch the barrier of crisp brown curls. This was what heíd longed for, dreamed of, thought impossible until tonight - to touch her there, to compass the hidden breadth of her with his palm. Now he trembled at the very threshold of her womanhood and knew himself unworthy. His eyes narrowed, locked onto the vision of his coarse hand upon the creamy perfection of her skin. This wasnít right. No matter what she asserted, what he hungered for - this wasnít right.

Catherine laid a restraining hand upon his just as he would have pulled back from her. She held him captured against her thigh, felt the vibration of his unsteady hand against hers. He looked up, confused yet hopeful, catching her look of tender understanding and using that lifeline to begin to steady himself within, even as his fingers slowly lost their tremor. He heaved a deep sigh, letting his breath out in shuddering pants.

"I love you," she murmured, and his heart leapt at the words. Her eyes spoke them as well, and her heart - he could feel their Bond swell with the immensity of her feelings for him. He adored her utterly, but that was not so unusual. He knew of many others who did, both in her world and his. The amazement that never left him was that a woman so beautiful, so warm, so perfect could find within his own disfigured flesh something to care for as well. How blinded by love was she, that she couldnít see him clearly, that she could accept what he was and still manage to love?

He felt his hand being squeezed, and he left off his introspection to focus more intently on her face. Her smile was so compassionate, as if she read his thoughts. He felt himself tilt his head slightly in unspoken inquiry, and thought it might be to offer her a way out, as if he could acquiesce to denying his desires without hesitation - not true, but if he could make her believe it, perhaps he could force himself away from her. But she didnít accept his offer. Instead she lifted his hand to her supple, soft mouth and kissed his calloused palm, nuzzling into it, warming it with her hot breath. Each finger received its own adoration, kisses gentle and reverent, causing his heart to stutter painfully in his chest. And then she lowered their joined hands once more to her thigh, just above her knee.

"Touch me, please, Beloved." She uttered the words in a throaty whisper, her desire undisguised. He looked up at her face, at her lying so still, so breathtakingly beautiful beside him. He was reclining on one elbow, his face close to the perfect small breasts he had kissed for what seemed like hours. Her gift to him - her own sweet self - was rich beyond price. He hadnít known what to do first - kiss her lush mouth, stroke her silken flesh, taste of her, adore her - and so he had done it all. Joyfully. Until a moment ago, when the prospect of caressing her most hidden flesh had nearly undone him.

The trembling vibration of her body called to him even as her words urged him back. She wanted him. He ached for her, had no wish to deny her, and so he let her desires give courage to his own. Heaving a great breath, he began again the stroking motion which brought his fearsome hand within scant inches of the center of her being.

She was intensely aroused. His nosed twitched at the heady, musky aroma which overwhelmed him deliriously as she parted her legs to give him better access. He inhaled deeply of her scent, glorying in the thought that his embraces, his caresses, his mere presence had brought her to this state.

His fingers combed through the soft brown curls at the apex of her thighs and suddenly, he was there. Her nether lips were flushed and moist beneath his fingertips. In awe he touched his Beloved, reverently stroking her, seeking more of the velvet sensation of her. She was all wet heat and quivering softness and he absolutely could not tear himself away. As one fingertip skimmed across her center of sensation, he felt her shudder as a soft moan emanated from her throat. He looked up and beheld Catherineís face, a study in ecstasy - her eyes closed, her nostrils flared, her lips parted, panting in short gasps. Captivated, aroused more violently than he thought possible by the mere sight of her face, he traced across the swollen nub again and again, reveling in the increasingly expectant moans of pleasure drawn from her by his actions. Tears formed in his eyes as he was overcome by the understanding that he was capable of giving Catherine such pleasure. Until this moment, he hadnít been entirely sure he could.

Galvanized by her reaction to his touch, Vincent bent and did what he had never dared in even his most furtive dreams - he kissed her where he had been touching her, sucking lightly and trailing his tongue across the swollen flesh, lapping the slick wetness his caresses had induced, drinking in the taste of her. She squirmed and pressed herself closer, and he took her in an open-mouthed kiss which elicited a hitched cry of delight from his love. Fastening his attention upon the little nub, he suckled in strong, rhythmic draws, not stopping even as Catherine convulsed and her thighs clenched helplessly around him. Their Bond transmitted the transcendent, spiking waves of pleasure she was experiencing, which nearly drove him over the edge himself. But he fought it, concentrating on Catherineís pleasure, determined to prolong this wondrous moment of bliss as long as possible for her.

Her voice moaned out his name, and he shuddered in delight at the sound of it, drawn out, nearly hissed in the pleasure of her passion. She gasped then and sobbed, "Oh god oh god oh god," and, finally, sighed his name on a long exhalation of breath which signaled she was at last coming back to Earth. He didnít relinquish his kiss until her felt her thighs loosen and fall back, boneless in her contentment. Then he lifted himself until he could embrace her, holding her more tenderly than he ever had as she clutched at his arms and whispered over and over in a kind of delirium, "Thank you, oh...thank you. Thank you!" He was himself in a kind of daze, unable to quite believe what had just transpired.

Then, suddenly, Catherineís reactions changed. Vincent knew he had pleasured her, but this consequence was so totally unexpected, he didnít know if he could trust his senses or even their Bond. For they were still telling him she was happy beyond measure, her body sated...yet she was weeping against his chest now. And her fingers were gripping his biceps so tightly he winced. She began to shiver, even as, nearly incoherent now, she continued to murmur her gratitude.

His arms tightened around her, and he began to rock her gently, hushing her, kissing the long scar at her temple and whispering hoarsely that he would make right whatever was wrong, he promised, if only she would stop crying. In response she lifted her tear-streaked face to his and, shaking her head, gasped out, "It was so beautiful." Stunned, he lay his forehead against hers and managed to murmur, "Are you sure?"

Her breath hitching in her throat, she pulled back from him slightly and, with astonishment lighting her face, replied, "How could you doubt it?" A tremulous smile quivered upon her lips and the flow of her tears diminished to a trickle. "My God, Vincent...that was incredible! Iíve never.... I wouldnít have believed...." She couldnít seem to finish a thought, but he understood, finally. As amazing as it seemed, he had taken her to a height of sensation she had never experienced before. He had. With only his heart to guide him and his deep adoration for the woman in his arms. He was awed, humbled. And so happy his heart nearly burst.

"Iím so glad, Catherine." His voice was hoarse, earnest, and his eyes worshiped her, his beauty, his light, his life.

"Ohhhh...just...hold me!" she cried, so overwhelmed by the intensity of his love and his remarkable inability to believe just how incredible a lover he was turning out to be that she could only cling to him and try to make him understand in some other language than words.

The embrace slowly turned into a caress, as Catherineís hands explored the broad, heavily muscled back and arms of her Beloved. She turned them both so that he lay flat on his back and she half upon him, half upon the blankets. As he lay there, allowing her to do what she would, her fingers trailed down the inside of his arms until they met and held his hands. With fingers entwined, she effectively held him at her mercy, even though he had no thought to resist.

Catherine leaned forward to press delicate kisses upon Vincentís softly stubbled muzzle and full lower lip, lingering at the deep curves at the corners of his mouth. His lips parted for her obediently, and she slipped her tongue across his lower lip, then into the heat of his mouth. Their kiss was languorous, their tongues stroking slowly, delving deeply. The world was a million miles away, lost in the mists that often rose in the tunnels and in the park above, dissolving into unreality in the heat of their rising passion.

Their entwined fingers closed tightly together as their kisses heightened in intensity, in fervor. The soft sounds their mouths made coupled with the instinctive whimpers and moans which vibrated deep in their throats at the exquisite contact. Catherine thought she could do this forever and never tire of the sensation, so unique and wondrous were the pleasures of his kisses.

She recalled fleetingly that he at first had been concerned that she would find no joy in his kisses because of the unusual shape of his mouth, and had actually apologized for this. It was so typical of him, to anticipate only her disappointment with anything he had to offer her physically. And how astonished he had been when their Bond had pulsated with her profound delight in how their lips had met and merged! She was resolved to drive every last one of those silly impulses to apologize from his psyche. For if they had proven anything over the past hour, it was that they were so perfectly attuned, so capable of delighting each other, that to be anything other than what they both were would have diminished the rapture they had found in each otherís arms.

Catherine disengaged only reluctantly from the drugged pleasure of Vincentís mouth. Kissing him more would only succeed in sidetracking her from bestowing upon him even the smallest portion of the ecstasy his mouth had given her just minutes ago. She softened the disappointment she felt from him through their Bond by trailing adoring kisses along the hollow of his cheek, down the firm length of his throat - and couldnít a rhapsody be written upon that subject! - along his collar bone and into the luxuriant matting of fur on his deeply muscled chest. She rubbed her nose into the short silken hairs covering his pectorals, delighting in the warmth and musk of the skin beneath, so tender, like a newbornís, having never been kissed by the sun.

There. Sheíd uncovered one adorable pink pap, lying there so flat and innocent. No woman had ever touched him here, she knew this. Truly, his whole body was virgin. She considered that for a moment, the ramifications growing in her mind. Each touch this night was, for him, wholly new, uncharted territory. What stretches of his glorious body might prove to be hitherto unknown erogenous zones? Would they necessarily be the same as those other men had? She thought of their first kisses, when, to her amazement, heíd reacted so strongly to her tongue playing against the tender patch of flesh in the cleft of his upper lip. She hadnít even considered that it might be especially sensitive, had only traced it with her tongue out of her own curiosity and captivation...until she noticed that each flick of her tongue there caused a deep shudder to course through him. So, she knew sheíd have to be alert to the smallest of his reactions, for he was still too shy to admit to her straight out which touches he liked best.

Deep in her womanís heart, Catherine knew that locked inside Vincent was a profoundly sensual being, one who craved the gift of touch and who longed to touch in turn. But he was hesitant, unsure - both because he perceived, however wrongly, that he was imperfect physically, and because he had no concept of what his body was capable of, both in giving and receiving physical love. So she had to go slowly, let him grow accustomed to each new caress, each previously unknown sensation, no matter how much she wanted to just smother him in kisses and rub herself brazenly against the hard-muscled planes of his body.

With a newfound respect for their voyage of discovery tempering her lustier impulses, Catherine gently teased the nipple with her lips, earning a taut gasp of surprise from her lover. Tenderly, slowly, she suckled him, pressing her lips warmly to his flesh while pulling the nub delicately into her mouth. He squirmed ever so slightly beneath her, and she detected an almost imperceptible whimper which he tried hard to swallow. She let the nipple go, noting with satisfaction that it was now puckered hard, and blew hotly against it. This time, the whimper her actions elicited could not be contained.

"Mmmmm...I love when you do that," she murmured. "It lets me know you like what Iím doing. I so much want to do things you like." She squeezed his hands in encouragement, then bent back to his nipple, licking and sucking it as tenderly as before. Her reward was a soft moan of pleasure, followed by a pull as he tugged one hand free of hers, to place it against the back of her head, holding her to him. She smiled and nuzzled against him, cherishing the small nub once more. When she lifted her head to move to the other pectoral, he tensed and released her head somewhat reluctantly. But when she burrowed into the warm fur to find the other nipple, he sighed in relief, allowing her to play at will, his hand now only loosely holding her head to him.

Catherine used her free hand to stroke Vincent from chest to hip, letting him get used to her hands upon him so intimately. He had been doing almost all the touching so far, so she needed him to relax into her touch now. For she had noted the slight tension in him whenever she moved to a new position. She could feel his erection - massive, hot and heavy - when it occasionally brushed against her side, yet she knew she couldnít touch him there yet, no matter how much he might need the release she could give him. It was much too soon, she realized that. So she patiently continued to caress him, lightly, soothingly, up and down, from chest to hip and back again, lulling him with the rhythm and pattern of touch. Gradually she discontinued her attentions to his pap and lay her head, cheek down, upon his breastbone, rubbing her face against the profusion of golden fur which covered it, while with one hand she stroked his side. His hand left her head and settled gently upon her shoulder, where he could feel the play of muscle as she stroked him. His touch was light, not restricting her movements at all.

Slowly, slowly, she let her fingers drift lower as she caressed him, progressively reaching further, until her stroking took in the length of him from chest to knee and back. Her arm brushed against his erection at nearly every stroke now, for he was so large, and her caress so lengthy, she couldnít avoid the touch any longer. Then, imperceptibly, she moved her hand from his side to the top of his thigh, continuing her stroking but taking in the rise of his hipbone, the hard ridges of his abdominal muscles, his lower ribs - until her hand met her chin where her face rested against his upper chest. Down again. Then the long sweep up, with each sweep slowly, so slowly, moving her hand closer to the center of his trunk, so that finally, on a downward stroke, she met the head of his erection.

He stiffened, suddenly tightening every muscle; his hand clenched hers, the other hand upon her shoulder tightening as well. Again she squeezed his hand in encouragement, and she turned her face into his chest and pressed reassuring kisses there. In a low, sultry whisper she begged, "I love you so much. Please, let me...." And then she waited. It had to be his choice. She wouldnít force any touch upon him.

A long moment passed. Catherine filled it with more light, comforting kisses upon his chest while the fingers of her free hand idly drew circles on his stomach, inches away from their goal. She had all the time in the world. And if this was as far as they could go this first time, she would accept it. It had been miraculous so far, and she didnít believe in questioning miracles.

The hand on her shoulder lifted, and she felt it grasp her own, lying upon his stomach. She held her breath, wondering what he would do next. Then her heart staggered in her chest when she felt him repeat the move she had made earlier this night, when he had been hesitant to touch her intimately. For her hand was drawn up to her Belovedís mouth, which pressed warm kisses upon palm and fingers...and then slowly it was lowered and placed upon the thick, broad head of his erection.

As her fingers captured him there, Vincent hissed in what Catherine imagined was mingled anticipation and fear. She was sure he was also slightly embarrassed at what she would think of his boldness, even though she had made it clear it was what she wanted to do. She almost shook her head in sorrow that he might still agonize over his right to such a touch.

When Catherineís small hand began to caress him, the groan he let out at the touch was louder and more hungry than she had imagined heíd allow himself. She was glad that he was getting more comfortable with the sounds of sex - sounds both of them made, but which she knew he was mortified to manifest. She thought it might be because he considered them animal sounds - and she also knew that the only way to overcome his shyness was to realize that she was not embarrassed in the least by the sounds she made. And that she welcomed his gasps and moans as proof that she was pleasing him.

With protracted, delicate strokes she covered the length of his erection again and again, running her palm lightly over the wide, deeply blushing head each time, her thumb lingering at the slit which wept of his need, then down the thick stalk to the closely curled hair at the root. He was huge, more massive and elongated than any man sheíd known - or than sheíd imagined any man could be. She considered his height, the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his legs; he was beautifully proportioned everywhere else, so why not here? She should have expected nothing less. She smiled to herself as she realized that she had never imagined him with such masculine endowment even in her most driven, lust-filled dreams - perhaps unconsciously preparing herself in case he did not turn out to be the Golden Knight she wished him to be. Well then, she had deluded herself for years, because the reality of him was far more beautiful...and potentially satisfying...than her mind had conjured, happily for her.

She felt his trembling, knew he was not going to be able to control his response to her touch for long - and knew also that he couldnít tell her this, not now, not yet. Looking up at him, she noted that his eyes were squeezed shut and he was breathing through clenched teeth. He was close...too close. "Vincent," she called softly. His eyes blinked open in some confusion, and he looked down at her hazily. "Beloved, Iím going to love you now the way you loved me."

His eyes widened in dawning comprehension, with a look of shock spreading across his face. He was about to shake his head in negation, she knew, so she forestalled him by squeezing his erection gently, causing him to gasp hard. "I want to. Iíve longed to," she added, guessing correctly that such a scenario had played heavily in his secret fantasies.

He blushed hotly, his face suffusing with a golden pink which charmed her, but she didnít smile. She was, in fact, desperate to taste him, even if she also knew she could never fully encompass him within her mouth. He closed his eyes and gave her a slight nod. Rising to her knees, Catherine leaned upward to kiss her lover gratefully. He hadnít expected the change in position, but when she let go of the hand sheíd been holding since she starting touching him, he used it to capture her chin and situate her mouth into a desirable position for kissing. The thrill for Catherine was compounded - not only was he kissing her, but he was taking a small step in showing her how he liked to be kissed, how he enjoyed kissing her.

The kisses were brief, if passionate, for Vincentís need was too intense to brook much delay. He released her chin and their eyes met in a fleeting glance of complete understanding, of total love, of deep commitment. Released, Catherine slithered back down the blanket. With an involuntary groan of pure carnal lust which she couldnít have stopped if sheíd tried, Catherineís mouth descended onto the crown of Vincentís erection. Her tongue danced over and around it, lapping up the moisture she found there hungrily, then slowly capturing more of him, her hand ascending to take the rest of him firmly in her grip.

She felt the blanket pull against her as Vincent grabbed huge handfuls of it in both hands to anchor him in space and time. When the two men sheíd been with before had demanded this from her, they had held her head firmly down while sheíd accommodated them. How different with this man - her true soulmate - that not only would he not ask, but when she offered, he would not even think of holding her captive while she loved him in this way. He was special...different...in so many respects, and not in the ways he feared, but in ways that made her so glad he had chosen her to love.

With mouth and hand working in unison, she lavished her attention upon him, sucking and stroking him lovingly but insistently. Her other hand cupped the heavy, full sacs below, which had tightened close to his body, evidence of his imminent release. The harsh cry which broke from between his clenched teeth signaled his loss of control, and immediately she felt the surge as his hot seed spilled forcefully into her mouth. He groaned her name aloud, and one of his hands reached blindly for her, brushing against her shoulder and then gripping her there, squeezing her spasmodically as his orgasm broke over him.

Catherine gentled him through the crest and ebb of his consummation, her spirit soaring as through their Bond she caught the intensity of his release, the utter joy he felt. How strong his emotions must be for her to feel them in this way! Gladdened beyond measure that she had been able to share his feelings, even a little, she pressed kisses along the still impressive length of him, cupping him protectively in her palms. Feeling warm hands reach for her, she relinquished the dear weight of him and scrambled up and into Vincentís embrace.

He crushed her to himself with one strong arm around her back, cradling her head to his chest with the other. "Oh, Catherine...Catherine..." he murmured, his whole body shivering now. She pulled whatever covers she could reach up and around him, then pressed them to him firmly with her arms. "Iím here, Iím here," she crooned in response. It was her turn to soothe him after the violent intensity of his completion.

Hot tears spilled into her hair, and her heart constricted in silent sympathy. "Donít cry," she urged. "Itís all right." Lifting her face to his, she beheld the torment in his eyes and grew alarmed. "What is it, Vincent?" She rose and bent over him, taking his face in both her hands, stroking the tears from his cheeks with her thumbs gently, gently. "Please, my heart, tell me?" She kissed him lavishly - furrowed brow, wet eyelids, high cheekbones, quivering lips - lingering upon his lips, which he wrenched from hers again and again to let out sobs and take in gulps of air.

"Please my love, please...."

Only very gradually did his weeping lessen, and as it did, he crawled over to wrap his arms loosely around her waist and lay his face against her thighs. She cradled him, hunching over to wrap her arms around him, kissing the top of his head, his shoulders, his neck, always whispering of her love to him.

"Catherine." His voice was muffled behind his hair, against her legs. "Oh, Catherine, Iím sorry."

"Why? You didnít do anything wrong, I promise." She placed one hand under his chin trying to force his head up. Instead of complying, he rose and knelt before her, although his head was bowed against her shoulder. That he wouldnít look at her worried her immensely.

"I...I shouldnít have. Iím so sorry." He sobbed miserably, clinging to her shoulders with desperate hands.

"Shouldnít have done what I begged you to do? Or is it something else?" She wasnít sure why he was suddenly so bereft. Sheíd felt his wild joy, the sweet elation of his orgasm, of the knowledge that their love was true and right and good. Their Bond didnít lie to her, she knew it couldnít. So where did this savage sorrow come from?

"Sorry..." was all she could get out of him.

For a long while she just held him close, telling him over and over how beautiful this time together had been, how fulfilling, how perfect. He stopped weeping but didnít look up, didnít respond, and his hands still clutched her shoulders in an urgent grip that made her think he was worried sheíd fly from his side at her first opportunity.

"Lie back down with me?" she suggested softly, hoping heíd at least let her cuddle him. She wanted to press him close to her everywhere, to cocoon them both within the blankets if thatís what it would take to make him feel secure again.

He sat back suddenly, ripping himself from her arms, although he still held her shoulders securely. His gaze was rapt, inquisitive. "You want...?" But whatever he needed to say, he couldnít get it out.

"I want to lie with you, Beloved. I want you to hold me, and I want to hold you...so close. I want to make love with you again and again. I want to feel your mouth and your hands and your body on me. And I want to taste and touch you...everywhere." She was nearly breathless with her need to express her desire and passion for him. "You are so beautiful, so incredible. I canít get enough of you. Please, Vincent...whatever it is you think happened, there isnít anything to apologize for. I love you!"

He stared at her, uncomprehending, for a long minute. Then he let out a loud groan and drew her close, holding her so tightly he nearly squeezed the breath from her. "Then...what I did...?"

"What do you think you did wrong? I swear to you, there was nothing," she responded, heartsick now that something had gone so grievously wrong when sheíd tried to ensure his first time would be gentle, reassuring.

He finally forced the words passed his lips, clearly miserable. "I...couldnít control myself."

Confused, she replied, "You werenít supposed to. How would that even have been possible? I was doing everything in my power to make you lose control. Thatís part of making love, Vincent - losing yourself with your partner. Didnít you think I expected that?"

"But...." He shook his head, tried again. "I should have pulled away...at the last second. But I didnít."

"I didnít want you to! You werenít supposed to. Why did you think you were?"

He shrugged. The gesture nearly broke her heart. His voice became very soft, very uncertain. "Devin once told me...he said...that girls hate...that. So you have to be careful not to...."

Catherine rolled her eyes over what had to have been a conversation between youngsters, held close all these years as likely one of the only discussions Vincent had ever had with anyone about a real-life sexual situation. She groaned inwardly. Devinís first pubescent experiences with the opposite sex were not going to ruin her manís first time with her.

"He was talking about girls, Vincent. I havenít been a girl in a very long time. And Iím betting the girl he was talking about was not deeply and hopelessly in love with him, and was not sure about how she liked to give and receive loving. I am so in love with you, and so ready for the kind of loving weíve shared, and will share. Please believe me." She eyed him speculatively and decided a bit of shock therapy was in order. " I was greedy for every drop."

That worked. He lifted his head and stared in frank astonishment at her.

"Whatever other...advice...your older brother gave you about sex, I hope youíll dismiss it right now. Nothing matters except the two of us. Whatís acceptable between us is something we both get to decide. It doesnít depend on anyone elseís opinions or practices."

His sigh was so deep, she thought his chest would crack.

"I felt what you felt, through our Bond, Vincent. I know I made you happy. You enjoyed what happened between us. You did, didnít you?"

"Yes," he admitted, with that half-smile and head tilt which always drove her wild to kiss him. So she did.

The kiss continued, becoming two, then three, then too many to count. They slid back down to the blankets, in glorious disarray now, jumbled and tangled. They didnít care.

Vincent showered Catherine with kisses, marveling that he could still taste himself on her lips. She smiled and said, "You taste so good," and he blushed again. She couldnít get over how adorable he looked when he blushed. Then he bent his head to her breasts and, with no preamble whatsoever, licked and nipped at her nipples until they rose obediently and came tautly to attention. With both hands he kneaded her breasts while he suckled hard upon first one lucky nipple, then the other. Catherine writhed with abandon, uttering short, soft cries of delight.

She was ready to come again just from the attention Vincent was paying to her breasts. No one had ever made her feel this way before. She wondered why she had ever bothered with Steven or Tom. They were strictly amateur hour compared to the man who had her very masterfully and deftly in hand right now. Panting, nearly frantic for release, all she could do was whimper, "Please...please...please," and hope he understood.

He did.

Vincentís head came up and he melted her with a slow, deep, long, wet kiss that curled her toes and left her incapable of coherent thought. While she was still in this condition, she felt his hand descend once more to her nether curls. Her hand brushed against his thigh and found his erection, thick and very apparently painfully full. She had felt him tense when she caressed his manhood, and he was trying to gently ease her hand away from him now.

"No, Vincent, you...."

"Catherine, you need...."

"I need you, Beloved. Inside me. Now!"

He faltered. His fingers, which had found their way between her thighs and had begun stroking her just right, fell away from her yearning flesh. She used his moment of indecision to maneuver him atop her, and when his erection slid as if on cue between her thighs to rest at her very center, its head cushioned against the moist essence of her desire, he gave up control to her.

Quickly she opened her legs and allowed him to settle more comfortably between them. Then she lifted them, wrapping them around his waist and using the leverage gained to position him at the perfect angle. His breath was coming in short gasps and she could see how much he wanted this, but she could also see the misgiving on his face. He, too, had noted how large he was compared to her petite body, and he had himself touched the very small opening through which she expected him to enter her. She knew he wasnít certain this could happen between them as she wished it to.

"Donít worry, my love. Weíll take it slowly. Just ease inside, inch by inch...by inch."

He gazed into her eyes with disconcerting intensity. "Are you sure, Catherine? I think Iím too...."

"Youíre just perfect. Donít worry," she replied, hoping, deep down, that this wasnít just bravado speaking. He was immense, huge, enormous, extremely large...whatever description she conjured, it all meant "big." Neither of her previous lovers had been anywhere close to Vincentís size, and she wasnít entirely sure of her own...capacity. But she wasnít going to let faint heart get in the way of the fulfillment of this dream. If Vincent could find the courage, finally, to come to her like this, she was not going to concede anything without a fight!

He had taken her at her word, and now he bent to take her mouth in a devastatingly sensual kiss, his tongue invading her, stroking her tongue with lavish caresses, igniting the smoldering fire inside of her and burning her utterly with the intensity of his desire, manifested in his kiss. As he did this, he hitched his hips very slightly and the flat, broad head of his penis entered her. She gasped at the sensation, at how good he felt. He could tell from their Bond that there was no pain for her, so he twisted his hips just a bit, urging his turgid flesh a bare half inch deeper inside of her.

Catherine concentrated, focusing on relaxing her inner muscles. Not only was Vincent very large, but she hadnít been with a man in three years, and she knew she was tighter than she should be. Between nerves and lack of practice, she was probably as close to being a virgin again as it was possible to be! But she took deep, cleansing breaths, letting the lower half of her body go as slack as she could, and when she felt him press deeper, she noted with relief that her inner core allowed the entry. She was feeling "full" though, and knew he was only halfway there. She prayed hard and fast that she could accommodate his entire length. She so much wanted to be perfect for him, to take him into herself completely. He deserved that. He deserved a lover who could complete him.

The next few minutes were comprised of little dances of hips and muscles. His control was phenomenal, and the pressure inside her eased slowly, allowing more and more of him to enter. She nearly sobbed with relief when Vincent suddenly collapsed against her, pressing his face to her neck, and moaning, "Oh, Catherine!" She knew they had won.

Clutching him closer, she whispered into his ear, "Weíre one now...and for always." He nodded against her, kissing her throat, then trailing his mouth up to her lips. The reverent kiss he gave her belied the intense, soul-deep hunger they both felt, but it grounded them both, made them even more aware of the incredible gift they were giving to each other. Vincent raised his head and looked into her eyes - his stunned blue, hers smoky green. His lower lip trembled, making it difficult for him to speak. "You are every dream Iíve ever had, Catherine. Every desire. Everything. You are everything."

She let her eyelids drift shut with the happiness inspired by his words, but opened them again to gaze deeply into his eyes. "Your love is the air I breathe, Vincent. I canít exist without you. You are the destiny Iíve sought all my life - you, my beautiful man."

Tears slipped from his eyes to mingle with those she wept. Her cheeks were wet but she smiled tenderly, happily. "Love me now," she urged, and lifted her hips in silent invitation.

The rhythm he set was slow, tantalizing, delicious. Each time he filled her, he did so completely, groaning in ecstasy, as she did. They matched thrust for languid thrust, both determined to make this first time last, to savor the extraordinary sensations of his steely length within her sleek core. In all their time together, neither had been sure this moment would ever come, and now that it had, and it was so glorious, so exquisite, so breathtaking, the thought of it ending was painful to them both. Perspiration dewed their bodies as they danced together, kissing and caressing each other, their lovemaking inexpressibly languorous, sensual, murmuring tender words and loving promises, delighting in the feel of flesh sliding within flesh.

Catherine had never felt more a woman than now, with her lover filling her utterly, his hands and eyes and mouth adoring her even as his body paid the ultimate homage to her. She couldnít believe sheíd ever been worried that she might not be able to handle his proportions. Her body felt electrified, so needy, so eager for him. He was perfection inside her, his hot, hard length, his thickness making each inch of his entry a sweet pleasure. Sheíd knew sheíd never feel complete without him inside her again.

Vincent was overwhelmed by the ease with which Catherineís petite body had welcomed him. Until the very last, heíd been so sure he was too malformed to be accepted or acceptable. From what heíd seen of other men, he knew that his phallus in full arousal was frighteningly large; in his mind he thought himself grotesque. And heíd believed deep in his heart that if they attempted to make love as others did, he would at the least cause Catherine pain...and at the worst, tear her most delicate flesh. This fear had kept him apart from her long after any other excuses made sense. Then somehow, tonight he had been able to take the leap of faith necessary to embark on their journey.

Still, his faith had only carried him so far. The trepidation he had felt was only partially assuaged when Catherine had promised they could move slowly, for at some point, heíd been sure, she would tell him to stop, that it had been a mistake, and he would have been forever trapped within the confines of "beast" - never again to be thought of by Catherine, even for a moment, as fully a man. So when her exquisite body had clutched at him with its sleek, muscled walls and drawn him deeper, ever deeper, until heíd been immersed to the hilt, heíd nearly collapsed at the sweet surrender. He was a man - not the disfigured creature heíd always felt himself to be. Catherineís body had taken him in willingly, gladly, had sheltered him within its silken depths, and he was finally free of the shackles of doubt and uncertainty which had plagued him all his days. He was whole...he was complete...he was human.

Gradually, the urgency of their desires became more frenzied, the demands of their bodies more insistent for completion, and the torrent of their passions filled them at last to overflowing. The force of it broke through the last barriers of their restraint and rushed headlong through their Bond, carrying them away in a tidal surge of ecstasy. Everything fell before it: Vincentís body answered the siren call of Catherineís, pumping deeply, forcefully into her, and Catherineís rose to meet it, ravenous, possessive. Their mutual passion ascended the heights and burst with a crashing force, engulfing them both in a dizzying completion which left them breathless, gasping, utterly spent.

Quivering aftershocks shimmered through their souls, lingering sparks of pleasure set off by the merest shift of movement, as their shared climax ebbed into memory. Replete, their thirst for each other momentarily slaked, they nestled close in exhausted contentment. Vincent turned them both so that they lay on their sides, facing each other, and nuzzled tiredly into Catherineís tousled tresses. As he slipped from within her, he felt a stab of loss, but suddenly there was Catherineís hand, cupping him gently, tenderly, stroking him in a way that made his mind reel, and he had no time to regret no longer being joined with her. If she continued that, heíd be wanting her again in no time....

"Ohhh...Catherine," he murmured.

"Happy?" She smiled up at him, and his heart lurched as he contemplated her beauty. How was it possible that this exquisite woman wanted him above all others?

"Mmmmmm," he sighed, unable to articulate more, devastated by what her hand was doing to him, even as he knew he should ask her to stop. She had given him so much tonight, much more than he could ever have expected. If she thought his body was still not satisfied, he was sure she would recoil. But oh...it felt so good!

"Me, too," she breathed on a sigh. Her eyelids fluttered closed and Vincent thought she might sleep now, so he, too, shut his eyes. But her hand continued its insistent caress, fondling his ever-more-burgeoning erection with firm strokes, until he could hold back his response no longer and groaned loudly at the touch. The skin of his penis was very sensitive now, from the never-before-experienced friction of their lovemaking, and her hand was sweet torture.

Very sweet.

God...he needed her again! What would she think of him?

He felt himself being urged onto his back, and Catherine changed position, her silken skin skimming across his body until she draped herself atop him.

Opening his eyes, he saw her sultry smile, her eyes flashing wickedly. "I hope you donít mind," she murmured mischievously, "but I need you again." She squirmed and slithered along his length, driving him to distraction. Instinctively, his hands came up to encircle her waist, ensuring she didnít unintentionally slip off.

She...needed...him? The tension he hadnít known was building dissipated in the wild exhilaration of the moment. She needed him! He laughed out loud, just once - startling them both. He hadnít laughed like that in ages; there had never been such a joyous reason before. Then he tightened his embrace, pulling Catherineís lower body more firmly against his erection. Shocking himself with his brazenness, he surprised himself still further when he managed to shyly reply, "It appears that I need you, as well."

It was Catherineís turn. Elation lighting her features, she tossed her head back, her neck arching as she laughed delightedly. With such a delicious target in easy reach, Vincent lifted his upper torso, bent forward and fastened his mouth at the juncture of throat and shoulder, sucking lightly, licking her smooth, creamy skin, taking its warmth deep into his being.

The mood between them changed in an instant, from playful to passionate. He felt the vibration of her smoldering moan a second before she uttered it, a sensation which ignited his arousal like a firestorm. Anxious for more, he leaned closer to her, his motion carrying him into a sitting position, and Catherine reacted swiftly, straddling his hips and rubbing herself shamelessly against his engorged flesh.

His erection surged perceptibly where it nestled between Catherineís parted thighs, and she responded by adjusting her body to accommodate its insistent length, wriggling until the broad head of his erection pressed tightly to her nether lips, then driving her hips toward his so that he entered her smoothly, deliciously impaling her with an ease which surprised them both.

Vincent growled low in his throat as he felt her slick wetness drizzle over his hot, hungry flesh, driven to sudden lust by the rapaciousness of Catherineís actions. This was not the gentle, undemanding lover who had brought him this far. This was a vixen he had never met before. Had she been hiding within Catherine all along?

An assertive tongue was winding a hot, moist path up his throat towards his ear. When it reached its goal, the tip of that tongue traced along the edge of his ear as heated breath turned his insides to jelly. But the distraction of Catherineís mouth was minor compared to the devastating things she was doing to him elsewhere. Her hands had reached low to grasp his bottom firmly, and she was urging him up and into her, forcing his penetration ever deeper, even as she ground her hips down onto his to enhance their closeness. He couldnít believe how deep within her he was, and how incredible the sensations of her inner muscles clutching him, holding him. He wanted to weep, he wanted to shout, he wanted never to let her go.

There was only one answer to her bodyís unrelenting demands. He turned his head to take her lips, plunging his tongue into her mouth in rhythm to the pace he began to set between them as he thrust into her seductive depths, his own body already frantic for release. His firm hands grasped her bottom, separating her cheeks slightly, angling her to permit even deeper penetration.

Catherineís hands had moved, sliding up his body until they drifted into the lush profusion of his mane, capturing and holding him close while they kissed. When breath became a vital necessity, they broke from their embrace for scant moments, panting heavily, only to seek each otherís mouths once more, their kisses becoming more impassioned as their bodies ground ever more desperately together.

Each thrust now nudged against the tip of Catherineís womb, driving her closer and closer to the edge of ecstasy. Then, without warning, she suddenly spasmed, convulsing around Vincentís erection as her orgasm surged through her, spiraling her senses into near oblivion. She half-cried, half-moaned Vincentís name as she was swept away, and the merest second later, he joined her, enveloping her tightly in his embrace as he groaned, shuddering with his release, unable to stop thrusting even after he was spent, craving the hot friction of her bodyís depths.

They clung to each other for long minutes, both gasping in needed air after the intensity of their joining and of the near-apocalyptic consummation which had followed. Perspiration poured off them, Catherineís creamy flesh slick with it, Vincentís fur drenched, darkened. Where their bodies were joined, the wetness was most evident, the essences of their lovemaking pooling and stinging their overtaxed flesh. Their coupling had been fierce, almost savage; it had overtaken them unexpectedly and they were stunned by its suddenness. Yet the exhilaration they both felt was undeniable. It had been wild, but it had set their spirits free in a way almost too complex to discern.

Spent, Catherine rested her forehead against Vincentís, her slim fingers tangling in his hair as she swept damp tendrils from his cheeks and neck. "Youíre incredible," she panted softly, still slightly out of breath. "Iíd say spectacular, but I donít want you developing an inflated ego." She grinned tiredly, then pressed a kiss against his nose.

The chuckle which reverberated through his chest was all the answer he gave. Then his lips sought hers as his arms tightened around her. His kiss was tender at first, but quickly turned into something more compelling, more profound. Within her, as their kiss deepened, his manhood lengthened and thickened with new desire, filling her once more. She moaned and murmured hoarsely, "Iíll add astonishing and impressive to the list."

Vincent pulled back slightly to look into Catherineís eyes. "If I ask too much...."

She cupped his cheek with her palm. "Never. You could never ask too much." Then she closed her eyes and slanted her mouth to his once more.

*****

The pipes tapped out the ecstatic message:"Vincentís back!"

Tunnel residents poured into the passageway leading to Vincentís chamber to greet their long-missing friend. He dropped the knapsacks he was carrying and embraced Father, who was standing before his chamber entry.

"Allís well, son?" Father whispered anxiously into Vincentís ear.

"Better than best," was the murmured reply. Then he straightened and turned to the assemblage. "Iím sorry for the worry I caused," he said. "Iím home to stay. And...please welcome Catherine when she returns to us."

Mary smiled softly and emitted a little sigh of relief. "When will that be, Vincent?" she asked.

"Soon, Mary. Very soon."

*****

"Cathy! Youíre back!" Joeís face was wreathed in smiles as he saw her. She hadnít told him she was returning to work, so his first reaction betrayed his real feelings. But then he forced a scowl onto his face as he added, "Itís about time. You milked that broken wrist for way too long."

"I missed you, too, boss," Catherine laughed. "But weíve got to talk."

*****

"Mmmmmmm....itís so good to be home," Catherine sighed, snuggling deeper into the arms of the man she loved. Gone were the two "dinky" couches which Joe had always mocked. In their place was a large overstuffed sofa, much more comfortable for one large leonine-featured man and his besotted lover to stretch out on. "Are we staying Above tonight or going Below?"

"Tomorrow is Saturday, correct?" Vincent murmured into her ear.

"Correct," she responded crisply.

"And you donít need to go in to work?" he inquired softly.

"Absolutely not. No more weekend work for me. That was a condition for my going back to the D.A.ís office." Catherine had been firm, and Joe had relented. No weekends, no investigative work. Just plain old boring...and safe...trials from now on.

Vincent nuzzled her ear, sending chills of delight down her spine. "Then, letís stay here tonight. So I can fulfill another dream tomorrow."

Catherine pulled back slightly within Vincentís embrace to gaze at him curiously. "Which dream is that?"

His ready smile lit her heart. "To make love in the sunshine."