Let There Be Lions

 

By Teri

 

 

            The colors were amazing.  A vivid, intense blue, the sky was the perfect backdrop for the dazzling disc of gleaming gold.  The sun, its only ornament this day, seemed a perfect jewel resting in luxuriant display against its satin bed, heat and light radiating off it in palpable waves over the savannah.  That golden sea flowed across the landscape in majestic splendor rising effortlessly at the horizon to kiss the blue field suspended above it.  Along one edge of this panoramic view the gilded waves were interrupted by a mass of tall green extending back in seemingly depthless leagues.  Blues and yellows were apparent here too, in the intricate shading of the leaves, vines and undergrowth which defined that area.  But whereas the azure sky and dun-toned plains seemed to distill the very essence of still, arid heat, the dappled tones of the deep strand appeared to beckon to shaded, cool comfort.  There the cerulean blues and green-tipped yellows bespoke of sparkling, dancing waters and flitting birds and insects.

            Vincent stood in the open of the savannah, about 300 yards off from the trees gaping in stunned astonishment at his surroundings.  He had to be dreaming, didn't he?!  He'd seen pictures of east Africa of course, but he couldn't ever recall anything this vivid.  It was as if he was there.  He was out in the open, completely exposed, the closest concealment far off, yet he felt no panic, no fear.  It was very still about him, but not lifeless; he knew he was surrounded by a multitude of creatures, comfortably secluded in their native habitat.

            He stood motionless for a moment, his senses scanning in all directions, drawing in the images and scents of this vibrant scene.  He looked over to his left suddenly, something wafting to him on the seemingly non-existent breeze.  He padded silently in that direction, his swaying stride smooth and graceful, an ideal specimen for the setting, though that thought never entered his mind.  There ahead, a slight rustle of the grasses.  He slowed his pace and peered cautiously toward that spot.  Suddenly he was there, and so were they.  He froze in protective stillness, trying desperately not to draw attention to himself though that seemed a hopeless wish.

            Two lionesses and several cubs rested together in the noonday heat, conserving their energy.  One female licked a young cub while the other nursed two more.  Amazing!  They took no note of him whatsoever.  How could this be?!  Another scent drew his sharp attention away from the group only to discover the male of the pride coming towards them.  The females had sensed the male also and were looking that way, though Vincent didn't notice - he was absorbed with the majestic view in front of him.  The male didn't see him, that much was apparent.

            So, this was a dream and he could see, smell, sense everything about him, but he was an observer only, not really a part of the surroundings.  Unbelievable.  He'd never had a dream like this before.  But what an opportunity!  A tinge of sadness washed over him suddenly.  How he wished Catherine was here, experiencing this with him.

            Vincent was distracted again as the male joined the group.  He settled gracefully into their midst and one female turned to groom him while the cub scampered over to roll against his side and bat playfully at the other's significantly larger paw.  The male accepted this attention with a magnanimous air, the master of his surroundings.  It was a peaceful, domestic scene and Vincent was drawn irresistibly closer to the group.  No, they were completely oblivious to him - it seemed he had nothing to worry about.

            His physical sense of them was astonishing.  They were there, really there!  He reached out to the nearest female and his hand came to rest on her tawny, warm flank.  He could actually feel the silky fur and sleek, strong muscles, the movement of her breath vibrating down her svelte length.

            He stood in awe at the touch of her underneath his hand.  What a gift this dream was.  He was in this exotic, far-off land, out in the open, in the midst of these magnificent creatures in this most benign of settings.  Catherine!  His mind called out to her.  Oh if only she were here with him.  His emotional level was a strange mix of excitement diffused with a softer layer of melancholy.  He shouldn't be experiencing something this intense without Catherine.  'She should be here, with me!'  A rueful expression passed across his face.  He was acting like a petulant child.  This was a dream, only a dream, and dreaming Catherine here wasn't what he really wanted at all.  It could only be a pale imitation of his desires, mocking them and him.  No, that wasn't what he wanted, and what he wanted couldn't be.

            He turned resignedly back to the pride before him, determined to experience this dream to the fullest despite Catherine’s absence when suddenly she was there.  His sense of her was so strong - he'd only felt her like this during times of desperate danger.  Only there was no fear, no danger associated with this sense of her now, just the strong bond wave indicative of her presence.  He turned toward the sensation, in the direction of the trees, and there she was.

            Her eyes met his across the distance and Vincent instantly knew that this was not a dream image of Catherine.  At least it wasn't his.  This had to be Catherine's dream image of herself.  She was in his dream!  How?!  She raised her hand and called out to him; "Vincent!"  Her expression was both confused and excited, a question in her eyes mixed with happy expectation.

            "Catherine?"  The question came out almost a whisper, but she seemed to hear him and her grin widened in pleasure as she strode towards him, confidence and trust radiating from her despite the curious setting.  He began to move to meet her when suddenly the images surrounding him grew hazy.  Catherine's smile faded and she tried to run to him, but it was too late.  Even now she was growing dim along with the savannah and everything within it.  "Catherine!"  Vincent called to her, but the sound came out muted to his own ears, more an echo from some dim, past memory, then it was gone.

 

Tuesday, early morning

 

            Vincent sat up suddenly, gasping for breath, Catherine's name on his lips.  He was in his own bed, back in the familiar surroundings of his chamber.  It took a few minutes for the disorienting feelings to slip away, but finally he was fully awake.

            It was only a dream after all.  But what a dream! It had all seemed so real - especially Catherine.  Catherine...

            He turned his senses toward her, focusing on the bond furiously.  Yes, she was awake and feeling much like he was now.  Could she really have been in the dream with him?  Was it possible?  He couldn't sit still, the urge to run to her, to discuss this strange event was so strong in him.  But he couldn't, wouldn't talk about shared dreams with Catherine.  It was too much, too close, the implications too frightening.

            He suddenly realized he was pacing about his chamber feverishly, something he did almost unconsciously when under emotional and mental stress.  He forced himself to stand still and took several deep, calming breaths, willing the tension away from him.

            Indecision washed over him.  He couldn't go to Catherine, though it was what he longed to do.  Perhaps he should take a walk - the chamber of the winds would suit his tumultuous mood right now.  But no, despite his anxiety he found himself too tired for that trip.  He reluctantly crawled back into bed, wondering whether the dream would repeat itself, both dreading and craving it.  He fell asleep almost immediately and if he dreamt again, it was not of that golden veldt with Catherine and the tawny, lounging lions.

 

Tuesday, early evening

 

            "Vincent.  Vincent?"  Father's voice and the touch of his hand upon his shoulder finally penetrated his reverie.  "You've been quite distracted today.  Would you like to talk about it?"

            He was indeed distracted.  Normally Father could never have caught him so unawares.  He was sitting at the table in his chamber, a book lying open but unseen before him.  He couldn't shake the dream images from his mind, they'd intruded constantly throughout the day - he was thankful he'd had only classes today and no physical labor.  It was bad enough that he hadn't given his full attention to the middle children's literature class, but he might actually have posed a danger to himself and others if he'd been on excavation duty in the lower levels.

            Vincent was silent a moment longer, considering.  Neither was bothered by that silence.  Father waited beside him patiently, his hand a calming presence at his son’s shoulder.

            "I'm sorry Father, I have been distracted.  Please, sit down."  Vincent's voice was low, the slight lisp that had been so prevalent in his childhood a little more noticeable than usual today.

            Jacob felt conflicting emotions at that sound.  It brought back vividly evocative images of Vincent as a boy, precious memories to him, and yet it was almost always a sign of stress now for the adult.  He pulled a chair up close to Vincent and lowered himself gingerly into it - his hip had been bothering him a little in the last few days.  His hand brushed lovingly along his son's silken brow, ostensibly pushing the hair away from his eyes, though both recognized it for what it really was, a father's comforting touch.

            "What it is Vincent?  You can tell me anything, you know that."

            Vincent shot him a piercing, sidelong glance through the thick fall of his hair, the brief expression perfectly clear.  Though Vincent would never have consciously allowed it, Father saw doubt and even a hint of accusation there.  Catherine.  This was about Catherine and their relationship.  He squirmed uncomfortably, the memory of a recent conversation washing through him.  He paused for a moment, considering his next words, then a look of resolution crossed his face and he continued.  "But I haven't always matched my words with deeds in this regard.  I haven't been fair to you and Catherine, I know that now."  A rueful look settled into his eyes at that, but he pushed ahead.  "I've been obstinate, one might almost say...pigheaded."  He winced at that, Mary's words coming back to him clearly.  "I've always thought I was doing what was best for you, but it may be that I've been overly cautious, too protective.  It's a parent's prerogative I know, but... I'm afraid now that my behavior may have done more harm than good."

            He paused, gathering his thoughts, as Vincent watched him in stunned speechlessness.  This was so unexpected.  Father usually avoided direct discussion on this topic like the plague.  What did all this portend, and why was it happening now?  He knew it was illogical, but he couldn't help but wonder at the seeming coincidence of last night's strange dream and Father's mood today.

            Finally Jacob continued.  "I was so hurt by the events of my last few years above Vincent.  I see now how it colored by perspective, how it affected my behavior towards you.  I trusted no one above, indeed I was inclined to view their very nature as more inherently evil than good.  It wasn't just my medical career.  Margaret loved me, and she left me."  His voice broke at that admission.  "I couldn't help but think that ultimately it would be the same with you and Catherine."

            Vincent froze in dismay, his heart thudding erratically in his chest at these words.  Father was right.  Hadn't he know it all along?  Catherine was not meant to tie her life to his, he needed to set her free once and for all.  Perhaps that was what the dream had been about.  But how?  How could he do it?  It had been his intent from the beginning, but so far he'd fallen short on his resolution.  And it was all selfishness on his part.  He couldn't live without her, but he had to let her go, he had to!  His hand was unconsciously clutching the pouch containing Catherine's rose, panic rising through him in waves.

            "No Vincent!  No!  I was wrong.  Margaret did love me, she always loved me, even when we were apart.  And she regretted her decision all her life.  We were able to make amends at the end, but it can never replace the time we missed together.  Catherine is stronger, her love is stronger.  I can see now that she'll never leave you of her own volition."  He gripped Vincent's shoulders, shaking him sharply.  "I was wrong Vincent.  Most people never find the opportunity for the all-encompassing love that exists between you and Catherine.  If anybody deserves such happiness it's the two of you.  You can't throw it away Vincent, you can't.  It's not fair to you and it's not fair to Catherine."

            Vincent stared incredulously, hardly believing he had heard correctly.  Tears sprang to his eyes and fell unheeded as a surge of tumultuous emotion washed across and through him with violent force.  The content, the direction this had sprung from, it was so out of the blue.  Out of the blue... the random thought caught at him, pulling him back again to the dream of last night.  Could there be a connection between these strange events?

            Jacob was unable to resist the sight of his son in such turmoil, and soon both were weeping together and holding each other tightly.

            "I know it will be difficult Vincent, but you must try to put my bad advice behind you, you must."

            "It wasn't bad advice, Father.  There were many times when you spared me hurt, both physical and emotional.  I know I wouldn't have survived my illness without you."

            "I question even that Vincent."  Jacob pulled back and wiped at his eyes.  "Looking back on it now I have to wonder whether I might perhaps have been an unwitting cause of that episode.  I took a normal adolescent incident and blew it out of proportion.  Your illness seemed directly related to that event.  You've always been so sensitive emotionally to those you care for.  I should have taken that into account."

            "You mustn't blame yourself Father.  How could you have known then, or even now, what was right for me?  You did what you needed to do, and I will always be grateful for that.  No parent could have been more loving or more patient confronted with such an unknown entity."

            But this fervent expression was far from comforting to Jacob.  Instead it hit close to home, to his deepest feelings of guilt.  "I never meant to make you doubt yourself or question your humanity, believe me, that's never been an issue to me or anyone who knows you.  What your appearance is is irrelevant.  You are the most humane, the most human person I've ever in my life encountered.  It's what's inside that counts Vincent, what's in here."  He lightly laid his finger tips against Vincent's chest, holding his gaze tightly, willing him to accept what he said now, despite all that he had said before.

            As with his father's reaction a moment ago, this also was far less comforting than had been the intent.  "It's this 'shell' that concerns me most Father."  It is the deadly vehicle of my rages.  Without it I might be no different than countless others who 'curse their fate' and 'rage against the night'."  He turned away sadly in resignation, brought full circle back to the futility of he and Catherine and their lives together.

            "You've always been empathic towards others, but the bond you share with Catherine is infinitely beyond your past experiences - isn't that true?"  Father watched him shrewdly, knowing Vincent could never lie successfully to him.  He didn't even try.

            "Yes.  What I share with Catherine is beyond everything."

            He might question much of what their destinies held for them, but Vincent could not question this, it was the one certainty in his life now.

            "Then you must find the answers between you.  I know it won't be easy for you, but there is no other way.  Think carefully on this Vincent.  Don't throw away your happiness because of your fears... or mine."  Jacob paused for a moment, deep in his own thoughts of opportunities lost, never to be recovered.

            He stirred then, his hand stroking his bearded chin thoughtfully.  "I don't know how we got to this point today.  It's not what I came to talk about though it has been on my mind recently and I've been meaning to find the right moment to discuss it with you.  Is something wrong between you and Catherine?  Has this been the cause of your distraction?"

            Vincent could hardly assimilate all that was passing between them.  Was Father giving him his blessing, actually encouraging his relationship with Catherine?  What could it all mean?  He came back to reality as he realized that Father stood patiently, waiting for an answer.

            "No.  Well, perhaps.  I honestly don't know Father.  I had a strange dream last night.  It wasn't sad or upsetting, at least not initially, it was actually quite wonderful."  Vincent stared off into space, seeing again the scenes of last night.

            "I found myself on the east African plain.  I was there Father!  It was that real.  The colors, the scents, the textures, everything was there for me.  I found a pride of lions and watched them, even touched one of them, but they were completely oblivious to me.  I could sense everything around me, but I was only an observer.  I was wishing Catherine could be there, sharing it with me, then suddenly she was."

            He stopped then and peered at the older man intently.  "I didn't dream her.  I think... I think she came into my dream."  The glance he threw at Father then was full of trepidation, as though sure of his disapproval despite all that had been said so far.

            "The dream faded and I woke just after she appeared.  It was so different than anything I've ever experienced before, and Catherine's presence changed everything.  It's effected me strongly, much more than I would have thought it could.  I don't know what to think of it, but somehow I feel that there's more to it than just a dream, that it requires something of me, I'm just not sure what."

            Vincent had risen from his chair during this description and was pacing about the chamber, quite unconsciously.  As with his lisp, Jacob viewed this with conflicting thoughts.  He knew Vincent was quite agitated - he often paced to work off that excess energy - but the real magnificence of his bearing was never more apparent than when he was lost in this powerful motion that was so typical of him.

            "Vincent, are you sure Catherine actually shared your dream?  Have you spoken to her about this?"  Father watched him closely.  He was quite certain Vincent hadn't gone above in the last couple of days and suspected he was reaching the crux of Vincent's ‘distraction' by the expression suddenly evident on his face.

            "No, I haven't talked to her about it, but I'm sure none the less.  When I woke up last night I could sense her emotions plainly through the bond.  She was experiencing the same confusion and wonder that I was.  Her thoughts were so clear to me.  I'm sure Father."

            "You must discuss this with Catherine, Vincent.  The relationship you share, your bond, is unique.  Perhaps it is changing.  You've always been very intuitive, trust that now.  It's true the dream seems simplistic in content, but your response to it has been quite the contrary.  You mustn't ignore that.  Talk with Catherine, she may be able to help clarify it for you.  Indeed her input may be absolutely critical to your understanding of this dream since it seems to be as much hers as yours."  Father rose then, his hand again on his son's shoulder, both for support and comfort.  "And Vincent, promise me you'll think about what I've said today."

            Vincent laid his hand over his parent's and their eyes met; his own full of confusion and a tentative hope, his father's sure and calm.  "I promise Father.  I think... I think we'll need to talk again about this."

            "Whenever you're ready my son, I'll be here for you."  Jacob leaned down to kiss his brow, then turned and left him alone with his thoughts.

 

Tuesday, late evening

 

            She could still see it all so clearly; the blue of the sky only served to enhance the intense color of his eyes and the yellow grasses paled in significance to the golden mane of his hair.  She'd never been to Africa, still she was quite sure that was the setting they'd experienced.  It was really irrelevant to her; the true magic had been the image of Vincent in the sunlight, his eyes blazing across the distance at her, his hair in wild, glorious disarray about him.  What a wonderful dream.  Why did it have to end just as she'd entered it?

            The spell broke as frustration washed over her and she opened her eyes to the lamp-lit darkness of her balcony.  Where was Vincent?  He had to come to her, they must discuss this!  She sighed heavily, resigned to being patient yet again, to give him time to work through what must have been a very disturbing event for him.  Suddenly she paused, an electric tingle flowing through the bond.  She didn't often sense him the way he regularly did her.  The dream last night had been a rare exception, now was another.  He was on his way to her, she felt it with an unquestioning certainty.  He would be here any moment.  She turned to watch the corner where he would appear, and a minute later he slipped over the edge to stand before her.

            "Catherine."

            His husky tones caressed her name and through it her.  She could never fully define what it was or how he did it, she was only aware of the effect, and once again she felt it, a languorous shiver running down and through her, settling somewhere in the very center of her.

            "Vincent."

            She'd never before realized that he reacted in exactly the same way to his name on her lips, but she felt it now through her heightened sense of the bond.  For the first time too she was able to put a name to the fleeting expression in his eyes which he so successfully hid from her - it was desire.  Her heart swelled at that sudden knowledge and her frozen stance ended as she ran to him to hold him tight.

            His cloaked arms rose hesitantly then enfolded her in their depths.  He sighed in relief, feeling complete for the first time in days.

            "I've missed you Catherine."

            He buried his face in the hair at the curve of her shoulder, breathing in her scent, absorbing it into his very essence.  The silken fabric under his hands was tantalizing and seductive, at once covering and revealing the flesh beneath it.  He knew he should move away from her, but he couldn't, not just yet.

            "And I've missed you.  Always.  Lately it seems that my time away from you is simply a test of my patience.  I'm not complete when you're not with me, Vincent.  Do you ever feel that way?"

            He gasped as her words so closely paralleled his own thoughts, holding her even tighter.  He swallowed hard, trying to decide if this was something he should admit to her, then remembered his talk with Father and steeled himself to move forward, just a little.     "Yes.  More and more often now."  It was an amazing concession for him.

            Joy coursed through her heart at his words but Catherine contained her emotions with a massive effort and drew away from him slightly, rewarding his courage with some much needed distance.  Whatever change had occurred, she knew it wouldn't be wise to push too fast, no matter how much she wanted it.

            "We have to talk about last night.  Was it really you?  I could swear it was, but it all happened so quickly.  Were we really there?  Everything was so real.  And was it my dream or yours?  Oh, Vincent, this is so exciting!  We were actually together, in the sunlight!  We were, weren't we?  Tell me."

            Catherine was almost babbling in her excitement to talk about this with him.  For once she had been an equal partner in the bond, even though it had occurred in a dream.  She took him by the hand and drew him over to a low chaise near one end of the balcony, her eyes never leaving his.  They sank down on it together and she watched him expectantly, patiently.

            "I think we were."  He paused then, a hesitant look in his eyes.  "And I think it was my dream, because you appeared somewhere in the middle of it."  His tentative mood changed then.

            "Catherine, I don't think you could see them from where you stood, but I was watching a pride of lions.  They didn't seem aware of me at all.  I was as close to them as we are now, I even touched one!"  His excitement at the retelling of that part momentarily overrode his anxiety about the significance of the sharing of the dream.  He was like a little boy who had just had an adventure and needed to share it, to relive it.

            "Lions?  Really?  Oh Vincent, I didn't see them, though I knew there was something there you were watching.  Could you really feel them?  Was your sense of touch as clear as mine seemed?  I could see and smell everything, it was unbelievable."  Catherine was caught up in his tale, the vivid scene clear before her in her mind's eye.

            "There were two lionesses, three cubs and the male.  I touched one and I swear I could feel her silky fur, her muscled strength, even the breath running through her.  She was so soft and warm.  Oh. Catherine, it was so wonderful; I could feel the restrained power, their utter peace together - they were magnificent!"

            He noticed then the sudden glint in her eyes at those last words.  She couldn't hide her empathy for his fascination with those aspects of the beast.  She understood quite well.  A flush spread over his face as he caught the train of her thoughts through the bond and he went on quickly.  "It was so real; I've never had a dream like it before."  He squeezed her hands tightly at the memory.  "And the sunlight!  Catherine, it was so amazing.  I really felt like I was out on that vast plain, the sun beating down on me.  I can see the light, feel the heat, even now."

            "Were you frightened, Vincent?

            "No.  But I should have been.  That's when I was really certain that it was a dream."

            He met her gaze so openly, admitting his fears.  Her heart twisted and she suddenly leaned forward to hug him tightly, needing to comfort him even if after the fact.  She felt resistance for a moment, then his tension eased and he snuggled against her, letting her hold him, giving in to her need and his own.

            "Oh, Vincent, why did it have to end so soon?  I really didn't get a chance to experience it.  And that strand of trees behind me, it looked so strangely inviting..."  She was silent then, staring out into the night.  "What do you think it was?  Why did we have this particular dream?  And why together?  Something's changing Vincent."

            The tension appeared again in his shoulders, she felt it under her hands.  He pulled back then to hold her gaze, the openness still there, but now tinged with anxiety.

            "I don't know what it is, but I think you're right Catherine, something is changing."

            She considered for a moment before answering.

"Whatever it is, it doesn't feel bad.  I felt good during the dream, at least until I realized it was ending, and that was only because I didn't want it to.  And though I was only there for a moment, I felt positive emotions from you."

            "That's unusual, too, Catherine.  You normally don't feel me through the bond, not the way I sense you.  But that's changing now, too, isn't it?"

            He watched her closely, almost holding his breath in anticipation of her response.

            "Yes."  She met his gaze calmly, unwilling to mislead him about this new development - it meant too much to her.  Their eyes locked and they remained motionless for a few moments.

            Finally Vincent nodded slightly and a look of resolution crossed his face.  "Catherine, Father and I talked today, about you and me...  About us."  Vincent watched her closely, both visually and through the bond, for her reaction to this statement.  He sensed a sudden stillness in her, a waiting tension that he couldn't quite define.

            "What about us, Vincent?"  Her voice was low and even, to the point of being flat.  He couldn't read her at all suddenly.

            "Father told me... he said..."  Vincent trailed off, uncertain of how to continue.            "Tell me Vincent."  Her eyes took on a warily neutral expression.

            "He apologized for being so hostile towards our relationship.  He sees now how his life above has effected his perception of me...of us.  He said...  He said he was wrong about us."

            Vincent stopped, overwhelmed at the step he seemed to have taken, his mind racing with worried expectation for Catherine's response.  He tried to focus his attention on her alone, away from his own nervous thoughts.

            The stillness evident in Catherine a moment before slowly began to dissolve.  It started with a minute trembling he could at first sense only through their clasped hands but it spread rapidly to encompass her everywhere until she was shaking violently.

            He pulled her close then, holding her tight, trying to take the tumultuous feelings from her by absorbing them into himself.  "Catherine?"  He didn't know what to do, how to respond.  Her emotions through the bond were strong now, but so chaotic he couldn't decipher them.

            "Oh, Vincent, Vincent!"  She was sobbing, her ragged breaths jarring against his chest as she clutched him, her previous resolution not to push too fast shattered by his disclosure.  "We can be together?  You won't leave me?"

            Tears sprang to his eyes as her words spilled out, riding the palpable wave of her relief.  He hugged her tight, rocking her slight body against his in a comforting motion while he let the tension drain off him, leaving him weak.  He realized suddenly that it felt as if he'd just taken his first deep breath since his meeting with Father that afternoon.

            "No."  His voice was hoarse with emotion.  "I won't leave you.  I thought once it was the right thing to do, for your sake, but I couldn't then, for my own.  Now I don't know what to think, except that I love you, Catherine."

            Oh God!  The words... she had waited so long to hear those words from him.

            He was amazed at her strength, her grip had tightened almost painfully about him.  She was no longer crying and her emotions rang through the bond clear and pure.  Vincent allowed himself a luxury he had strictly avoided in the past; he moved into the stream of the bond deeply, letting her love and happiness wash over him in cleansing waves, validating all he was, all they were together.  Ohhh!  A pleasure undreamed of.  He wanted to stay in that place with her forever.  He felt more than heard Catherine's low moan and tightened his hold about her as they were drawn deeper and deeper into a sensual well of emotion.

            An eternity later he felt her draw back from him slightly, still holding him fiercely in the eddying pools of their bond.  Her luminous gray eyes met the deepening blue of his own and the silence seemed to stretch out to infinity, this additional connection strengthening the golden web holding them fast.  Finally she spoke.

            "I love you Vincent."

            His throat tightened and tears welled up again, threatening to overwhelm him as her words lapped gently against him, borne on the waves of their burgeoning bond.

            She paused as if to gather her thoughts and add something more.  But she didn't.  For what else was there of real import besides this?  They loved each other.  There was nothing else.  She leaned back into him, resting her head against his chest, holding him loosely now, her strength sapped.

            They rested that way for hours, floating within the pulsing waves of the bond, drawing strength and peace from it and from each other.  And though they didn't realize it their combined, extended presence within caused that connection to strengthen even more.  It drew about them like a silken cord, weaving them into its intricate, patterned structure, taking this opportunity to further its purpose, to bind them permanently and irrevocably together.

 

Wednesday, early morning

 

            A pale, eerie haze just off to the edge of his vision, growing closer... closer...

            Vincent came awake with a start.  Catherine.  She was cuddled against him, fast asleep.  Anyone else might have mistaken it for the dead of night, but Vincent could detect the diffused fog over the predawn sky.  It would be light soon - he had to leave.  He glanced down at her and was caught fast by images of the evening past.

            Oh, Catherine...  What they had shared last night was almost incomprehensible to him; the bond was so strong in her now, in them both.  He felt her deeply, even as she slept.  How had they moved to this point so quickly?  And to think these events seemed to have been set into motion by a harmless, innocent dream.

            He sighed and gently eased her back against his arm so that he could see her face clearly in the moonlight.  He tenderly brushed her bangs back, loving the silken texture of her hair and skin.  So beautiful...

            A sound distracted him, it came from the streets below.  The city was beginning to stir, he couldn't wait any longer.  He cupped her smooth cheek in his palm and rubbed his thumb along the soft contours there.

            "Catherine...  Catherine..."

            She woke slowly, easily, blinking up at him sleepily.

            "Vincent, you're here.  It really happened didn't it?  Tell me it wasn't a dream."

            "It really happened.  It wasn't a dream."

            They both smiled then, the painful memories of that long ago night turned effortlessly into the pleasures just past, tied together by those fateful words.

            "It will be light soon, Catherine.  I must go."

            The regret in his voice and through the bond was evident though he tried to hide it from her.  He didn't want anything sad associated with these last few hours, but there was no way to avoid it.  Their parting now would be more difficult than ever before.  He hurried on, trying to put a happy twist on the inevitable leaving.

            "Can you come below this evening?"  He hesitated shyly, not certain what would happen now, where they would go from here.  "There's so much we need to talk about."

            A shadow passed over her eyes at his words.

            "I want to, more than anything, but I can't.  I didn't have a chance to tell you last night; I have to go to Rochester to interview a witness.  I'm leaving this morning.  I'll be gone until Friday.  Oh, Vincent..."

            "Shhh...  It's alright, Catherine.  This is your work, and it's important.  A few days won't change anything between us."

            He paused then, as if considering something that hadn't occurred to him before.  "Is this assignment dangerous?  If anything were to happen to you..."  He trailed off, unable to continue, his eyes suddenly haunted.

            "No, not at all, believe me, Vincent."  She hurried to reassure him.  "This case is one of property, not violence.  And this woman is a friendly witness.  I won't be in any danger, I promise you."

            Vincent's expression cleared somewhat, though he couldn't help but recall her supposedly 'safe' trip to L.A. and how that had almost turned out.

            Catherine's hands gripped his shoulders and shook him and he refocused his gaze upon her face.  I won't let anything stop me from returning to you safely.  You're not getting out of this one so easily!"  Her teasing words lightened the mood and he felt himself relax again beside her.

            "Friday night then.  There's a concert in the park.  They'll be playing one of my favorites, Mendelssohn's violin concerto in E minor.  Can you come?"

            "Wild horses couldn't keep me away.  I should be back in the afternoon, six-thirty at the latest.  I'll meet you at the threshold at seven-thirty."

            "I'll be waiting."

            They gazed deep into each other's eyes for a few minutes more, loathe to end this precious night.  Finally they could delay no longer.  Vincent stood up, drawing her with him, keeping her close.

            "Until Friday, Catherine.  Be well."

            He turned to leave her then, striding toward the far corner of the balcony.

            "Vincent, wait!"

            He paused to look back at her and she threw herself into his arms, burying her face in the folds of his cloak at the center of his chest.

            "I love you, Vincent, I love you."  To say the words so freely, so openly, it was such an intense pleasure.

            He gasped and enclosed her in his arms pulling the edges of his cloak about her, holding her to himself tightly, feeling her soft body mold to his hard strength.  It was an unmistakable, if unconscious, act of possession.

            "Tell me, Vincent, tell me!"  She held him fiercely, urging him on, drawing him out, to her and only her.

            "I love you, Catherine, my love... my love..."

            His voice was achingly poignant as he whispered the words in her ear and she shuddered as they vibrated through her like ripples in a pond.  She felt the fleeting touch of his lips against her temple and then her arms were empty and he was gone.

            Catherine hugged herself tightly, trying to hold the feeling of Vincent's body against hers for as long as possible.  But he was truly gone, and for the first time that night she felt the fall chill of the evening air seeping through her.  She had almost given in to her sorrow when she felt him again.  He wasn't gone, he never would be again.  He was with her now, as she had always been with him.  The bond held them safe, secure, together.  She smiled out into the night sending him her love and faith.  Until Friday my love.

 

            Vincent was on the roof by the time Catherine's message was sent.  He'd felt her deep melancholy and had almost decided, quite irrationally, to go back.  Suddenly her sorrow was replaced by a soaring sweep of love and contentment.  It was overwhelming and he staggered back, clutching the leather pouch against his chest, feeling her close.  The words poured into him like crystal clear water filling an empty vessel.  He heard them as clearly as if she were standing beside him.  A deep peace settled over him then, and somehow he knew, though much was yet to be worked out, that everything would be fine.  Someday they would be together.  Someday...

            He stood lost in thought for a moment more, then shook off his reverie and glanced out over the skyline.  The pale pink light was spreading rapidly now, he'd have to hurry.  He moved quickly towards the maintenance access panel for the elevator shaft and disappeared from sight.

 

            "Hey Radcliffe!  What are you doing here?  I thought you were leaving for Rochester."

            It was six-thirty and Joe was the only one in the office when she arrived.  He was sitting at his desk with a cup of coffee and the morning paper, one hand unconsciously twisting and untwisting a rubber band

            "I am Joe.  I just stopped in to pick up a few files.  Why are you here so early?"

            "Hey, just getting a jump on today's business.  You know me; work, work, work."

            "I see that, Joe.  Will we be picking up Dennis for breaking Mr. Wilson's window again?"  Catherine stared pointedly at the cartoon section spread open before him and Joe had the grace to blush though his boyish grin couldn't be contained.

            "You bet, Radcliffe.  Gotta keep the peace here in Gotham City.  This isn't Mayberry you know."  He twirled an invisible six-shooter, slipping it skillfully into an equally invisible holster.

            "Well the citizens can rest easy knowing you're watching over them, Barney" she quipped wickedly.

            "Hey, my name's Joe, Joe Friday, and I know all the secrets in this naked city."  He zinged right back.

            "You're incorrigible, Joe.  I should know better than to play TV trivia with the King.  Gotta run, see ya."  She headed for the door at a fast clip.

            "Cathy, wait!"

            "What is it?"

            "There's an interesting case in the works, it involves the Delano investigation.  We don't have time to go into the details now, but there may be some fireworks this weekend.  You want in?  Jackson's got some hot surveillance set up for Friday night."  It was Joe's turn to smirk wickedly now.

            "Hmmm, let's see.  Surveillance, Friday night, Tim Jackson's case...."  She drew out a pregnant pause to impressive lengths, as if actually considering his proposal.  "It sounds lovely Joe, but I think I'll pass on this one.  Thanks for thinking of me though."  She smiled sweetly and moved towards the door before he could make a serious request - she knew he was quite capable of it.

            His guffawing chuckles followed at her back.  "Ok Radcliffe, you win this one but I'll get you next time!"

            She didn't risk a reply, but instead beat a hasty retreat.  If she'd learned anything about working for Joe it was when to cut and run.

 

            Vincent had tarried in the park for as long as he safely could, watching the pale pink light brighten into the glorious ambers, reds and golds of a fall morning.  The dew tipped grass was a silent carpet under his feet as he wandered about, his thoughts centered elsewhere in the city, on Catherine.

            An early morning jogger suddenly appeared over the rise of a dirt path ahead and Vincent stepped into the shrubbery, waiting in absolute stillness, suddenly one with the foliage, until he had passed.  He moved quickly then, entering the tunnels after double checking to ensure that no one was watching.  Once safely inside his gait became uncharacteristically slow as he fell back into daydreams and memories of the night past.

            "Vincent!  Up early.  Like Mouse."  The young man nodded knowingly.  "Can't sleep, always going, doing."  His hands gestured about him in a wide, vague sweep, somehow implying an endless list of exciting tasks just waiting their turn for his attention.

            First Father, now Mouse, Vincent thought ruefully.  Next thing you know Samantha, chattering magpie that she was, would be sneaking up on him.  Then again perhaps he was being too hard on himself.  Mouse wasn't called 'Mouse' for nothing after all.  That thought brought an inevitable grin, his good humor close to the surface this morning.

            "Hello, Mouse."  He clasped the younger man on the shoulder affectionately.  "Where are you going?"

            His young friend glanced about him furtively, as if he might encounter a spy lurking about, listening in for secret information.  He leaned in towards Vincent to speak in an exaggerated stage whisper, secrecy plainly on his mind.  "Big experiment, Great Hall.  Too many people last Winterfest."

            He looked thoughtful for a moment, giving this problem his full attention.  Vincent however was suddenly worried, visions of blown out walls and sawed down tables flashing through his head.  Then again perhaps Mouse's plan had more to do with the tunnel inhabitants than the hall.  No, even Mouse had his limits.  He hoped.

            "Mouse, you don't intend to do something to the Great Hall, do you?  You know that any major project must first be approved by the Council."

            "Just measuring" Mouse assured him.  "No explosives, yet."

            That last statement didn't have quite the effect Mouse had intended it to.  In fact Vincent was now furiously wracking his brain for a diversion.  Luckily there was one method that almost always worked with Mouse.  He feigned a nonchalant air and baited the hook.

            "It's too bad you have to do that just now.  I was thinking of making an early breakfast and was hoping you'd join me.  Mmmm, let's see, what shall I have.  Pancakes I think.  And I believe William had intended to make blueberry muffins last night.  I normally wouldn't do a thing like this, but I don't think I can resist raiding his pantry this morning."  He glanced off to the side with a studied air of indifference, reeling off a list of Mouse's favorite foods.  "Bacon of course, and I think Mr. Ngu sent down some fresh oranges yesterday."

            By now Mouse was fidgeting mightily, visions of these tasty morsels dancing through his head, vying with the equally fine image of the Great Hall in glorious ruin, awaiting his magic renovations.  Hunger  finally edged out chaos, but just barely.

            "Cinnamon pancakes?" he asked breathlessly.

            "What a good idea Mouse, I believe I will" Vincent replied, locking up the victory.

            "I'll find, you stir.  Great Hall can wait."

            Vincent heaved a huge sigh of relief, threw an arm about Mouse's shoulder and steered him towards the inner chambers and away from destruction, at least for now.

 

Wednesday, late evening

 

            What a day it had been.  The commuter flight had been delayed for an hour sitting on the tarmac checking out a questionable gauge.  When she'd finally gotten to the Rochester District Offices she'd been informed that their witness had decided that perhaps she wouldn't testify after all.  It had taken several additional hours to find and convince her again and by then it had been too late to start the deposition proceedings.  She'd tried to at least start the interview, but the witness needed to be home, cooking dinner for her family.  Catherine found herself staring at her hotel walls with nothing to do.

            Well perhaps that wasn't exactly right.  She found it all too easy to lose herself in the memories of last night and this morning.  This was the first time that they'd really discussed their relationship, and though nothing had been decided, she felt hope coursing through her.  It would be all right, it would.  She would help him through this and they would have their happy life together - nothing would stop her in this quest.  

 

*   *   *

 

            He was back again, the golden grasses spreading out about him in all directions but one, the trees...  Catherine had wanted to go there.  Catherine.  He called out to her purposely now, though he wasn't certain whether he actually said the words aloud or only thought them through the bond.  It was irrelevant really - he was sure she would hear.  And she did.  There she was now, running towards him, her eyes sparkling, laughter bubbling up through her.  His long strides brought them together that much quicker and then he swept her up quite impulsively, swinging her in circles under the glorious afternoon sun.  He stopped before she could get too dizzy and lowered her to her feet, her body sliding along his length.  He blushed at the intimate, unintentional touch, moving away from her slightly.  Catherine pretended not to notice.

            "Oh Vincent!  We're here again.  I can't believe it, just look at you."  She smiled up at him, suddenly quite still, taking in his magnificence.  Copper and gold shades were everywhere about him - he positively glowed.  She had not thought it possible for his eyes to appear bluer than before, but amazingly they were."

            "And you Catherine.  I didn't think you could ever look more beautiful to me than on your balcony by moonlight, now I may have to reconsider."

            He teased her lightly, yet he was completely serious as he watched the golden highlights of her hair gleaming in the sun.  The tawny peach of her complexion amazed him, she always appeared a more ivory hue by candlelight.  He honestly didn't know which appealed to him more.  Her beauty was endless to him and truth to tell, he would see her that way no matter what her physical appearance.

            She could see he was falling into the deep introspection that was characteristic of him and moved to gently steer him in another direction.  Now was not the time for that.  They were together, in the sunlight, and who knew when the dream would end again.

            "Do you think the lions are still here?"  She was jumping up and down, her cheeks rosy with excitement.  "Oh show me, Vincent, show me!"

            Her excitement was contagious and Vincent quickly scanned the surrounding area, looking for clues to their presence.  He caught their scent almost immediately.

            "Over there, Catherine.  Come."

            He took her hand and they moved towards the trees until they were about a hundred yards off from them.  They almost stumbled upon the pride, so well concealed were they in the deep grasses, their coloring a perfect camouflage.

            "Oh, Vincent."  Catherine gasped at the sight.  She dropped his hand and moved towards them cautiously, though they never took the slightest note of her.  She sank slowly to her knees beside the male and tentatively reached out to touch him.  So warm, so sleek and strong...  She slid her hands deep into his mane, feeling the coarse silk slipping through her fingers, the massive muscles at the juncture of his shoulders and neck.  She was lost in the sensuous feel of the beast beneath her hands.

            Vincent stood motionless, watching Catherine lean heavily against the animal as she stroked and smoothed him almost hypnotically.  He felt a momentary jolt of fear for her so close to the wild cat, but quickly discarded it as it became obvious she would come to no harm.

            Her hands moved against him, feeling the muscled strength, the tawny sleekness, her fingers delving through his fur as she slid them along his supple length.  Vincent shivered suddenly and realized he had been imaging those tender touches along his own flesh.  He shook the sensations from him with great difficulty, then moved forward to kneel beside her.

            "Oh, Vincent, he's magnificent."  She gazed around her at the recumbent, powerful animals as they lazed in the sun, soaking up the heat, conserving their energy.  She could imagine their nightstalks, the scenes suddenly vivid before her and strangely compelling.  The silky, muscled warmth was irresistible to her and she leaned forward to rest against his powerful back, her arms extending over her head to trace along the beast's shoulders, slipping around his neck and under the thick mane as far as she could reach.

            Vincent gasped, the eroticism of her actions flooding through him in pulsing waves.  He felt himself drawn to her and couldn't resist; he spooned his hips behind hers and laid his torso down against her back, his arms curving over hers until his hands could clasp hers and hold them tight.  He felt her sleek warmth against his length, the rise and fall of her breathing combined with that of the cat beneath her.  The silky fur of the animal was twined between their clasped fingers, both teasing and soothing in its effect.  A strange mixture of excitement and peace filled him as they laid together.  His nerve endings were so heightened, he felt every nuance of breath and motion beneath him.  He was operating on pure sensation now, bypassing his oh-so-logical mind to experience this directly through the bond.

            She lay utterly still beneath him, basking in the sensation of the benign power enclosing her.  She felt a purring vibration rumbling through her and couldn't tell if its origin was Vincent or the beast beneath her.  Then again, perhaps she was the source.  She couldn't have felt safer or more sublimely content.

            They lay that way for long, countless minutes until, inevitably, their arousal began to override their control.  Vincent pulled away from her then, trying to still the panting of his breath and the erratic beating of his heart.

            Catherine lay still a moment longer, pulling her control tightly about her.  He wasn't ready for this yet, be patient, be patient...  But they had come so far already.  She couldn't believe the strides they'd made in the last few days.  She smiled to herself and decided that perhaps one more small step was in order this day.  A kiss.  She wanted just one kiss.  A small, innocent one to grow on.

            She sat up then and turned to face him, her expression one of calm, loving acceptance.  His features on the other hand were full of doubt, fear and tension.

            "Shhh...  It's alright my love."  Her hands rose to gently caress his face, easing away the tension there.  "You see, we can stop whenever we like.  It's up to us Vincent.  Always."

            The panic had begun to ease from his eyes, soothed by her stroking hands and low tones.  He spoke haltingly.  "Are you sure Catherine?  I don't know...  These feelings are so new, so overwhelming to me."

            He paused, then went forward resolutely.  "That part of me that... protects..."  He stumbled over this last word, trying not to frighten her.  But he couldn't hide anything from her in this place and she clearly heard the word 'kills' through the bond.  "I don't know if I can control it."  His eyes pleaded with her to understand his fears, unable to articulate them.

            "I'm know...I know."  She spoke quickly to reassure him, then hesitated before going on.

            "You've never hurt me Vincent.  Even in your deepest rages, even when overcome by Paracelsus' drug.  That side of you is always there to protect me when I need you.  I know you don't trust that part of you, but I do.  I love all of you, and I know that all of you loves me.  Trust the bond in this, it will always hold us safe."

            She held him in the depths of her clear eyes and the warm security of the bond, their only physical connection now the touch of her fingers against his face.  He was beginning to relax, the bond sending out soothing waves of healing comfort to them both, encompassing and enclosing them within its golden circle.  For a time they were completely oblivious to their surroundings, their only awareness that of each other.  Finally he shook off the calming lassitude and spoke somewhat shyly, needing to distance himself from this sensitive topic for the time being.

            "Catherine, would you like to go investigate that wooded area now?"  He glanced away from her toward that region and his expression became thoughtful and somewhat perplexed.

            She looked that way but saw nothing in particular and turned her gaze back to him.

            "What is it Vincent?  Tell me."

            "I'm not sure.  It's just something about those trees.  They don't seem right.  I mean..."  He paused bemusedly as if not sure exactly what he meant.  "They don't look as if they belong here, in the midst of this savannah."

            His eyes stared out towards the deep corpse, furiously scanning it for some signal or clue that could shake the eerie feeling filling him over its presence there.

            Catherine looked again closely, but she felt nothing besides the slight tingling that seemed hard to separate from the overall dream experience.  There was something about it, but she couldn't put her finger on it and she finally quit trying.

            "Don't worry Vincent.  Though sometimes it's hard to remember, this is only a dream.  If the lions can't hurt us, I don't think anything in there will either."

            He stared out for a moment longer, then finally turned back to her.

            "You're right.  Let's go."

            He took her hands and drew her to her feet and started to head off in that direction.

            "Wait."  He felt her tugging at him, pulling him back.  She didn't look alarmed in any way, so he watched her curiously, waiting, a silent question in his eyes.

            "I'd like one thing before we go."  Her tone was light and whimsical.

            "What, Catherine?"

            She didn't respond right away, instead gazing at him speculatively, openly.

            "Tell me."

            She never could resist the low tones in his voice when he urged her on with those two simple words.

            "A kiss, Vincent.  Just one small kiss.  Please?"

            He stood utterly still before her, but she had heard the slight, indrawn breath.  She waited patiently for a few moments, letting him become accustomed to the idea.  Finally she leaned forward and gently touched her lips to his.

            She didn't move then, or pull away.  Neither did he.  After a moment she tenderly brushed her mouth against his, feeling the heat and textures of him there.  His lower lip was smooth, the upper one silky.  The overall combination was devastating.  She moved a little more aggressively now, nipping at the curves and dimples of his mouth with her own, softly, gently.

            Vincent was frozen in place.  He couldn't believe the sensation of her lips against his.  It stirred him to the depths of his soul.  She stopped suddenly and he gasped in dismay, wanting her back.  He opened his eyes slowly to see her watching him, her eyes clear and calm and filled with love for him.  He drew a ragged sigh then leaned in to kiss her back.  He just couldn't resist her.  He moved his mouth over hers, copying her movements, careful not to do anything she hadn't, determined not to startle or frighten her in any way.  Tingling urges were running through him, centering in his belly, but he ignored them with a massive effort, focusing completely on this their first real kiss.

            Her lips were so full, so luscious.  He'd always been fascinated by them, struggling with himself not to stare when they were together.  But now his concentration was centered there entirely.  The satin lushness of them drew him to caress those curves, tasting a slight moisture there that caught and held him.  He stopped then and drew away, afraid he would be unable to if he waited a moment longer.

            Vincent’s eyes met hers with stunned astonishment.  She was the sweetest thing he had ever tasted.  He was trying to make his mind work rationally again when Catherine's face began to fade.  Her expression turned to one of dismay and he saw her lips move to frame his name, though he heard no sound.  "Catherine!"  He called out to her, but they were being pulled apart now, her image growing more distant and vague until she was gone and he sank into black nothingness.

 

Thursday, early morning

 

            "Catherine!"  Vincent jerked abruptly out of sleep, sitting up in bed and calling out her name.

            But of course she wasn't there.  So real... it had been so real!  And they had shared the dream despite the fact that Catherine was several hundred miles away in Rochester.  He could feel her now; she was awake too, calming her heart after the dizzying end to the dream.

            The dream...  Catherine had kissed him, and he had kissed her!  He couldn't help himself, he laid back down and replayed that scene over in his mind, feeling her lips once again upon his.  The sensation had been exquisite, the pleasure intense, unlike anything he'd ever experienced before.  Oh, Catherine, I never knew...

            Then the barest whisper of thought floated through him sending shivers of fear and anticipation along his spine.  Until Friday, Vincent...my love...

 

Thursday, late evening

 

            Another lousy day.  Of course she knew it would be after the poor start yesterday.  The interview had taken up most of the day, and she'd begun to furiously chase down and confirm the information as soon as it had ended.  She'd only stopped because all the key places of business on her list had closed for the night.  She should have been almost done by now but instead was behind by at least half a day.  Still, there was no way she wasn't getting out of here and back home by tomorrow's concert, especially after last night.

            She dragged herself upstairs (the elevator was broken, wouldn't you know), found her room, kicked off her shoes and flung herself across the bed.  Ten o'clock.  She was hungry, she should eat, they did have room service.  But what if...  No, now she was being silly.  Vincent wouldn't normally be sleeping at this hour.  Still, there was no way she was missing the dream if it came along again tonight, not after last night.

            The dream had been beyond her wildest imaginings.  The lions had been just as Vincent described - magnificent.  She had kept tightly hidden her deepest response to them, how they had spoken to her of him, of his power and grace.  And when she had touched the big cat,, and Vincent her... and then the kisses...  Oh God...  A shivering wave passed down her length as the memory played itself out again.

 

*   *   *

 

            Vincent, Father and Mary were sitting in Father's study enjoying a late-night cup of herbal tea and some quiet conversation.  The children's story hour had ended about half an hour since and this quiet time between the three of them was an opportunity they rarely missed if able.

            "Vincent, William told me you averted near disaster yesterday with Mouse.  Apparently he 'overheard' your conversation in the kitchen.  He's especially grateful as he considers the Great Hall one of his prime responsibilities."

            Mary paused for a moment, biting off a thread on the shirt she was mending.  "Still, I wonder if it was absolutely necessary for you to use so many of his muffins as a bribe, though I'm sure you only ate one or two yourself." 

            Her eyes twinkled at him at these last words and she was rewarded by Vincent's seldom-heard full laugh.  Jacob looked confused and somewhat irritated.  He normally knew everything that occurred below but he'd apparently missed out on something involving his own son!

            "I'm not surprised to hear the words 'Mouse' and 'disaster' in the same sentence, still I would appreciate it if you two would kindly tell me in exactly what way Mouse had planned his disaster this time."

            Father's words came out somewhat stiffly and Vincent and Mary hurried to placate him, filling him in on the details of Vincent's early morning adventure.

            "It was extremely lucky that you were there, Vincent" Mary added at the end of the telling.  "I'm not saying Mouse would have done anything besides take those measurements, but you know how things can get out of hand once he gets an idea into his head.  Though to be fair (and Mary was nothing if not fair), most of his ideas have turned out to be quite useful to us.  What were you doing wandering around so early?  Are you having trouble sleeping?"

            Vincent squirmed in his chair suddenly, and the image of him as a child popped into her mind as clearly as if it were yesterday.  He had never been able to fool her then either.

            "And how is Catherine, Vincent?  Is everything all right between you two?"  She flashed Father an uncharacteristically stern look then, as if to remind him of their previous conversation and his agreement.

            "Yes, yes.  I remember quite well.  I'm not yet in my dotage you know."  Now there was no denying the irritation in his voice.  "You'll be happy to know that Vincent and I have discussed it and he knows that I've had a change of heart regarding Catherine."

            "Good.  It's about time."  Mary's timidity vanished when defending her children.

            Vincent watched this exchange with open-mouthed amazement, not sure whether he should be offended or not.  It seemed his and Catherine's relationship had been an on-going topic of discussion amongst his closest family recently.  How had he missed all this?

            "Well I'll leave you two now.  I'm going to make one more check on the children.  If Aaron's cough doesn't clear up I think we should put him in the hospital chamber Father.  It's that time of year when little colds turn into contagious flues."  Mary was bustling about the room, the previous conversation about Catherine and Vincent seemingly forgotten.

            "You're right, Mary."  Father's irritation had vanished, soothed by Mary's maternal concerns for the children.  "Would you take his temperature please?  If it's all right let's not disturb him and the others by moving him tonight.  We can reevaluate his case in the morning."

            "Of course.  Goodnight Father, Vincent."  She stopped near Vincent's side momentarily, her hand stroking his hair back absentmindedly and he had a vivid, fleeting image of Father's similar action of a few days back.  It reminded him forcefully of his place in these halls, the affection of Father and Mary and all the other's he'd grown up with and it filled him with warm contentment.  He stood then and hugged Mary tight, sudden gratitude welling up in him for her intercession on his behalf in this matter.  Not many people could have taken on Father as she had apparently done - and won.

            "Goodnight Mary.  And thank you."  These last words were whispered in her ear.  She patted his cheek in understanding and left before they could see the tears in her eyes.

            Father watched this with a knowing eye, feeling a little teary himself suddenly at the palpable love that was present in the chamber.  And he also found himself, much to his chagrin, intensely curious about Vincent's recent visit with Catherine.

            "Would you care for a game of chess, Vincent?"

            Vincent turned his attention away from the door.  "I'd like that Father."

            He moved to the chess table and took his place behind the black pieces, leaving the opening move to Father.

            Father took an inordinate amount of time, scowling over the board fiercely, before making the typical pawn to F4 move.  Vincent responded immediately with knight to C6.

            "Father, I spoke with Catherine about our conversation."  He caught the older man's gaze and held it.  "She's... We're both very grateful for your support."  He ducked his head shyly then, still amazed he could talk about this with him.

            Father's hand reached across the table to cover Vincent's, squeezing tightly.

            "Good.  I know how difficult that must have been for you."

            Vincent took a deep breath then forged ahead.  "Father, there's something else.  I... We... had the dream again last night.  Catherine's in Rochester on business, she's been there since yesterday, yet we were together in this dream as clearly as you and I are together now."

            Now this was really interesting.  Jacob had always been fascinated by dream theory in his psychology and psychiatry courses in school.

            "Was it like before Vincent?  Just as vivid to the senses?"

            "Yes.  Even more so than I remembered the first time.  Or perhaps it was only because Catherine was there the whole time that it felt so much more intense."

            Vincent's gaze appeared unfocused then, his thoughts replaying yet again their kisses in the sunlight.  Father could see that there was something in particular that Vincent wanted to discuss about this event, but he stayed silent, waiting for him to bring it up when he was comfortable enough.

            "The lions were there again.  Catherine touched one."  His voice was unusually flat, the warm tones normally present strangely missing.  "She sat right in their midst and she wasn't afraid at all."

            Ahhh.  So that was it.

            "And how did you feel about that Vincent?"  Jacob watched Vincent closely for his response.

            "I was terrified for a moment, but it wasn't until sometime after the dream that it really hit me.  She didn't pause, not even to consider the possible risks.  Why was she so comfortable with them?  She hadn't seen them the first time, she should have been more cautious."

            Vincent was looking down at the board now, but it was obvious he wasn't seeing the pieces.  His shoulders were tensed, distress evident in the stiff lines.

            "But you said that you'd touched them yourself, that nothing happened, they didn't even seem aware of you.  You told Catherine that, didn't you, before the second dream occurred?"

            "Yes.  Still, how could she have known that it wouldn't be different this time?  She should have been more cautious," he repeated stubbornly, a hard set to his mouth.

            Father decided that it was time to take the bull by the horns.

            "Vincent, are you worried about Catherine's endangering herself above, on her job, or are you thinking about her relationship with you?"

            The breath expelled from his lungs loudly and his shoulders slumped forward.  Vincent gazed up at Father with haunted eyes.

            "I've spent most of my life knowing that love was not for me."  His eyes were filled with tears now, his breathing ragged.  "How can I know that I won't hurt her?  How can I take that chance?"  He couldn't help himself then, rising to pace about the room.

            "Father, I can't live without her.  I know that now, and Catherine does too.  Yet I don't know how to go forward, not without risking injury to Catherine.  I can't do that, I can't."

            How to help him with this?  Were there really any answers?  Jacob thought furiously.

            "Vincent, what else happened in the dream?"  He kept his voice calm and even, trying to reassure Vincent that somehow everything would be all right.  It had always worked when he was a child, perhaps it would work now.

            Vincent was silent for a moment, standing still and staring off into space.  The dream had been clearly divided into three parts; it began with the lions, had proceeded with their discussion of the wooded area and at the end...at the end had been the kisses that had stolen his breath away.  Could he talk to Father about that?  It was so new, so precious to him.  But it was obviously at the heart of  his concerns now.

            "We...kissed."  Vincent spoke in barely a whisper then began pacing again furiously, uncertain whether or not to go on, or how.  "Catherine asked, and after our talk on Tuesday I couldn't refuse.  It seemed like such a small thing."  He seemed caught somewhere between defensiveness and embarrassment.

            Jacob was torn himself.  He wanted to tell his son there was nothing wrong with that.  That it was normal for two people with the attraction, the love that was between them, kissing.  But hadn't he spent the last few years, indeed much longer than that, driving home the point that it wasn't acceptable, at least not for him?  Vincent's concerns were obvious; what next?  And Father well understood his fears.  How should he advise him on this matter?

            "What is it Father?"  Vincent was still again, his voice suddenly harsh.  "Have you rethought your position.  Decided again that it is not wise for Catherine and I to pursue this?"

            Father saw it clearly.  Saw that Vincent wanted him to agree to this, to give him a reason for not moving forward in his relationship with Catherine.  He was looking for a way out.

            "No."  He spoke quietly and calmly, sure now of what he must do.  "I was wrong Vincent.  I don't think that's an option for either of you anymore.  Sit down, please."

            Vincent was breathing heavily, his whole body trembling.  For a moment he stood frozen in place, indecision etched across his face.  Finally he moved forward and sank down into his chair.

            "I don't know what to do Father.  Tell me, is this safe for us? ...for Catherine?"

            Father thought carefully before answering.

            "I've always been your physician, so believe me when I tell you that physically it is possible."

            Vincent's eye's were lit with a sudden hope and Father paused before going on, needing to reassure him, but not wanting to give false hope.

            "But I cannot know what the...effect...of your emotional response will be."

            The hope in his son’s face was rapidly draining away, replaced with a resigned comprehension.

            "And neither can I, Father, without actually being with her.  It's hopeless.  I cannot take the risk."

            He was sinking into a well of despair, and Jacob spoke quickly, pulling him up short.

            "Vincent, how did it feel to you when you and Catherine kissed in your dream?"

            Vincent was silent, the far away look of a moment ago back in his eyes, though now it was tinged with sadness, as if mourning for something just discovered and now lost forever.  "It was exquisite.  I've never felt anything like it before, nothing that compares."

            Father chose his next words carefully.  "And was Catherine hurt?"

            Vincent looked a little confused at that.  "No."

            "'No' because it was just a kiss or 'no' because it was just a dream?"

            Vincent appeared speechless at that question, and at the implication behind it.

            "It seems to me, Vincent, that you may have been given a chance to, er, 'test the waters' so to speak.  My advice to you is to take advantage of it."

            Vincent was stunned.  He sat in a daze, hearing Father's last words over and over again, wondering if it was indeed possible.  He finally shook off the fog surrounding him and looked about the chamber.  Father was gone and he hadn't heard him leave.

 

*   *   *

 

            The sun was beating down, the glare almost painful.  She found herself wishing that this dream came equipped with sunglasses.  She grinned then at the incongruity of that thought amidst all of this.  Suddenly it struck her - she was here alone.  She had begun the dream this time.  She was inordinately, inexplicably pleased by that thought.  Could she call to him through the bond as he had her?  Would he hear her?  She closed her eyes and focused on him, seeing him clearly in her mind.

            'Vincent... Vincent...’

            Suddenly he was there, standing beside her, almost no distance at all between them.

            "Oh, Vincent!"  She threw her arms around him hugging him tight.  "It worked, it worked!  I started the dream this time.  I called to you and you came.  You did hear me, didn't you?"

            She pulled back to look up at him, her eyes shining with excitement and pleasure.  The anxiety that had plagued him after his conversation with Father was dissipating in the face of Catherine's joy at her accomplishment.  And truth to tell, it pleased him immensely.  To feel Catherine reaching out to him through the bond was a pleasure he'd never imagined.

            "Yes, I heard you as plainly as if you'd been standing next to me."

            They stared at one another for a few minutes, lost in each other’s eyes.  Catherine finally sighed and turned to look toward the trees.  For some reason the thought of them had intruded on her thoughts throughout the day.  They were drawing her even now.

            "Vincent, there is something about that area.  I don't know what it is; it doesn't feel threatening to me, but it is...compelling."

            She turned back to him, her eyes meeting his.

            "Let's go there today.  Please?  Somehow I think that we're meant to."

            Vincent bent an intense gaze towards the trees, scanning them for any sign of danger.  He couldn't sense anything but a strong urge to go to them.  Finally he nodded.

            "All right, we'll go.  But Catherine, promise to stay near me until we're sure there's nothing to fear there."

            "I have every intention of staying near you."

            Her voice was lightly teasing and Vincent blushed as he realized he'd walked right into that one.  He held her hand tightly and they set off.  Within minutes they were at the border between the savannah and the woods.  They stepped into the shaded region and instantly felt transported.  It was cooler here, and a gentle breeze whispered through the leaves.  Birds, butterflies and other insects flitted about, and they could plainly hear the sound of falling water somewhere nearby.  It was also apparent that the foliage here wasn't the norm for this part of the African continent, though Vincent couldn't quite place where it was native to.

            “This place doesn't belong here, alongside that."  He gestured back to the arid veldt, where even now they could see the heat rays shimmering along the ground.

            "You're right, I'm not sure where it belongs, but these two places don't go together."  She paused for a moment, looking about her then continued.  "Do they have to?"

            Vincent’s look was one of confusion at her question.

            "This is a dream after all.  Why should they be from the same place?"

            "Mmmm.  I suppose that's true.  This all feels so real to us, we've been imposing some boundaries on it that are, after all, based only on speculation."

            "Sometimes that's all too easy to do."

            He caught her obvious meaning and was trying to decide whether to address it or ignore it when she took pity on him and went on as if she'd said nothing of significance.

            "It’s beautiful here.  I feel very...comfortable.  Almost at home.  It’s strange.  Come on, let's walk."

            He scanned all about him again with his senses, but could find nothing, and they began to move deeper into the foliage.  They were unconsciously following the sound of the water when suddenly they stumbled upon its source.  They turned a bend, walked over a slight rise, and there ahead was a twenty foot fall of water spilling gently into a large, placid pool.

            "Oh, Vincent!  It's beautiful."

            She looked more closely about while a strange sense of deja vu swept over her.  Dawning recognition finally broke across her face.

            "Vincent, this looks like part of the Chamber of the Falls, you know, the small area in that far corner across from the promontory.  At least it looks like I imagine it might if it were outdoors and not underground."

            Vincent was stunned.  He hadn't seen it before, but at her words the resemblance became plain.

            "Yes, this is familiar."

            He scanned the area furiously, certain now that the meaning of the dream was somehow centered here.  He was about to tell Catherine of his thoughts when she spoke.

            "This is why we're here."

            She didn't notice his look of surprise, or if she did she misread its real meaning.

            "I mean.."  She shook her head to clear her thoughts, needing to articulate herself clearly about this sudden certainty filling her.  "the savannah belonged to the lions, it was their place, their domain.  This place...it belongs to us."

            She turned to find Vincent standing frozen, an inward look on his face.  She couldn't know how his thoughts had parallel her words, combining with last night's conversation and jumping forward to his own conclusions.  She sensed a strong sweep of chaotic emotions through the bond, but couldn't separate or make sense of them.

            "What is it, Vincent?"

            He seemed to draw out of his reverie at her question and finally focused on her.  How could he tell her what Father had implied last night, had suggested...?

            "I'm not sure Catherine.  Something Father said last night."

            "Can you tell me?"

            His hesitancy was plain.

            "I... don't know."  His eyes searched hers beseechingly.  "I want to Catherine, but this is difficult for me."

            "Come, sit down with me by the pool.  There's no hurry, let's relax."

            She led him to a grassy spot that dropped directly into the pool by a flat edge about six inches above the water.  She sat down, though he remained standing for a moment looking about him.  She dipped her hand in the water, it was both cool and warm, invigorating and soothing.  She sighed.  If she hadn't been wearing jeans she would have sat on the edge cooling her feet.  It looked so appealing.

            No sooner had the thought slipped through her than she found herself dressed in a comfortable tee-shirt and khaki shorts that ended just above her knees.  Her shoes and socks were gone.  She heard a gasp and turned to see Vincent staring down at her, his eyes wide with shock.

            "Catherine...?"

            "I don't know, Vincent.  I was just wishing I was dressed more comfortably, so I could soak my feet, and suddenly...this.  I guess it's another example of us forgetting that this is a dream and we're really in it, not just watching it from afar.  It's strange though...  When the dream first began, out there - she gestured vaguely in the direction of the grassland - I was wishing I had sunglasses on, for the glare.  Nothing happened then..."

            She didn't waste much effort in trying to determine the 'how' or 'why' of it though, instead taking advantage of the situation by slipping her feet into the soothing pool, sighing happily.

            "You should try this, it feels wonderful."

            He looked frightened at that suggestion.  He wasn't ready for this.

            "I...don't think so Catherine."

            "Well at least take your cloak off.  I don't think you'll need it here, and you must be hot."  She tried to keep her voice even and light.  She knew that the sudden turn the dream had taken was very disturbing to him.  She wished he'd tell her Father's theory on it.  But it was best to let him take his time, to wait until he was comfortable, though that could take a while.

            Vincent hesitated for a moment.  It was hot in all these layers.  Finally he slipped his cloak off and laid it across a large rock.  He almost unconsciously began pacing about trying to think things through.  Well, he did feel a little better, though he was still warm.  He was used to dressing for the habitual coolness of the tunnels; those layers suited both the climate and his modesty.  He suddenly realized he hadn't heard anything from Catherine for a few moments and glanced down at her.

            She was leaning back on her hands, her feet kicking lazily in the water, her eyes closed and face turned up towards the dappled sunlight.  She looked very cool and comfortable, relaxed.  He sighed heavily.  Why were the simplest things so hard for him?  Here they were in this lush, green setting and he was standing about in boots and three layers of clothing.  He wished he could at least feel the grass under his feet.

            He gasped in dismay as the tingly crispness was suddenly there.  'Be careful what you wish for...' the fleeting thought flashed through his mind.  He looked down and found his clothing had changed.  He was covered decently enough, but in only one layer - absolutely unheard of for him except when he was sleeping.  He wore soft jeans and a cambric work shirt.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd been without a thermal shirt.  And he was barefoot.  He stared down at his feet, suddenly anxious about Catherine's reaction to them.

            "You look much more comfortable now.  Come sit down with me."

            He glanced up sharply to see her perusing him idly, no particular expression on her face beside the lazy contentment that had been there moments before.  He let the breath he'd been holding go, and finally sat down, drawing his knees up and clasping his arms around them tightly.  His logical mind knew it was silly, but he felt himself in an almost decadent state of undress.  He sat stiffly, wondering what might happen next, but nothing did, and after several long moments he felt himself relaxing.  The lighter clothes let him feel both the breeze and the heat almost directly - it felt wonderful.

            They sat in companionable silence for a while then, Catherine's lightly splashing feet an accompaniment to the rushing sound of the falls.  Vincent found himself watching them, thinking how inviting the water looked.  He suddenly remembered his and Devin's adventures as Huck and Jim on the river.  Foot dangling had been an absolute must during those games he recalled.  The memory was a good one and he relaxed even further.  After a few minutes more he hitched his jeans up as far as they would go - only about mid-calf - and slipped his feet into the water next to Catherine's.

            "Doesn't it feel marvelous?"

            She smiled at him innocently and he sighed; no further answer was necessary.

            "Vincent, I've been thinking about it, this dream.  Maybe this is the bond's way of giving us some privacy.  We never truly get that Below or Above.  Our time together often seems full of one crisis or another.  What do you think?"  She spoke lightly, trying not to frighten him with her theory, though of course she knew it would.

            Vincent was very still, the tension suddenly evident along his length.  She laid her hand along his back and he jumped, taken unawares.

            "What is it?  Please tell me."  The eyes turned upon him were suddenly sad, begging him to share his worries with her.

            He took a ragged breath and spoke.

            "Father said something like that last night.  He said that perhaps this was an opportunity to...to move our relationship forward, to test its limits...without risk to you."

            He couldn't meet her eyes and his last words came out in a whisper, barely audible to Catherine, but she heard and understood what he was telling her.  She tried to control her response, but she couldn't contain the shiver that coursed through her, the excitement that suddenly filled her.  And it was obvious that Vincent felt her reaction by the incredulous look he gave her.

            "And you're uncomfortable with that."  It wasn’t really a question.

            It was obvious he was, but she couldn't think of any other way to ease into this topic.

            He jumped up then and began pacing furiously, unable to sit still.

            "I don't know what to think of it, Catherine.”

            He was trembling now, amazed that they were talking about this at all.  The emotional turmoil of the last few days was beginning to take its toll on him.

            Catherine stood up and approached him slowly.  He looked like he was poised to flee at any moment.  She reached up and put her hands on his arms, anchoring him with her calming touch, her eyes locked upon his.  She felt his trembling ease somewhat, and in the background her mind was very aware of the muscled strength outlined under her fingers, usually hidden by his many layers of cotton, wool and leather.  She damped down on that sudden, sweet sensation, knowing now was definitely not the time to indulge in it.

            "Vincent, we don't have to do anything we're not comfortable with.  There are no deadlines or timetables here any more than in our waking world.  If this dream has been generated by the bond for our use then I'm sure we'll have the leisure to use it as we wish.  Nothing threatening has happened so far, has it?"

            She took a chance with her next statement.

            "If we were being pushed in any way, why was I suddenly dressed like this instead of something much more suggestive, or perhaps nothing at all?"

            He gasped at that and she went on quickly, not giving him time to become overwhelmed by the thought.  "Because it was comfortable for our surroundings and it was in line with what I was thinking of.  So far we've been in control of everything.  I don't think that's going to change."

            They stood silent for quite some time before Vincent was able to speak.

            "I just don't know, Catherine."  He looked like he was going to add more, but didn't.

            She smiled at him soothingly then, and her hands slid down his arms to take hold of his.  She led him back to the grassy bank and sank down, pulling him after her.

            "I know Vincent.  And I won't let anything happen to us, I promise."

            For some reason he was irrationally reassured by her words and allowed himself to be pulled forward into her arms, resting his head against her shoulder, his face hidden in the curve of her neck.  The intimacy of the last few days, both emotional and physical, was frightening to him, yet he couldn't help but take refuge in its source.  He slumped against her, allowing her to support and comfort him.

            She sighed with happiness, pleasure radiating through her and to him, soothing them both.  It was so rare when he allowed her to take care of him.  She hummed softly and stroked his brow with one hand while the other rubbed gently against his back.  Though she knew that this was all occurring in their dream she nonetheless felt his welcome weight resting against her, anchoring and holding her secure while she held him tight.  She turned her head to press a kiss upon his forehead and felt his sighing breath against the curve of her throat.  It sent shivers running through her.  She didn't try to hide that from him now and she felt the shudder along his length as he responded to  her touch, heard the low moan he couldn't contain, felt his lips against her neck in a fleeting kiss that was devastating in its innocence and intensity.

            "Oh, Vincent...  It will be all right, I promise you my love, I promise."

            He pulled away from her slightly, but not enough to break the hold of her arms about him.  His eyes were heavy lidded and a deep, sultry blue, darkening even more as she watched.  His magnetism was irresistible to her and she leaned forward hypnotically to ease into a kiss.

            It began as it had last night, at first just the softest touch of her mouth upon his.  She moved her lips tenderly against his, experiencing his textural delights to the fullest.  His sigh breathed against her, titillating and erotic.  She drew in a sharp breath, then leaned into him, pressing against him firmly.

            Suddenly his hands were squeezing her upper arms, drawing her closer.  His mouth slanted against hers, seeking the most complete contact with her.  There it was again, that sweet taste.  It called to him and he answered, lapping at the corners of her lips to draw in the moisture there.

            Catherine groaned deep in her throat and her tongue flicked out to meet his, touching him boldly, passionately.  Vincent froze for a moment, shocked by the lusty assault.  He had never felt anything like this - never!  He couldn't control his response any more than Catherine could.  His arms tightened around her and their tongues sought out each other, twining together, driving them on to passionate heights.

            Heat and light were building within her.  She felt that she would float away if he didn't hold her tighter.  She pulled her mouth from his and buried her face against his neck, gasping for breath and licking at the sensitive, inner curve of his ear.  She was rewarded with a deep groan that escalated into a full growl setting up a shimmering vibration deep within her.

            "Oh, yes!  Yes, Vincent!  Kiss me again, please kiss me again!"

            She whimpered and moaned, biting down on the soft lobe then sucking that tender flesh gently.  Her world suddenly spun around and she found herself on her back, the lush grass tickling her where her shirt had ridden up, his heavy weight pushing her into that velvet carpet.

            He was delving deeply into her mouth now, urging her to open to him, to yield to him all.  His hard, hot body moved strongly upon her, rubbing against her insistently.  She clearly felt his arousal building and hers followed, a willing slave to his slightest wish.  She writhed beneath him, seeking an ever closer contact, but he held her still, torturing her with his touch.  He left her sweet lips and a groaning gasp was pulled from her at that absence.  His breath came in deep, erratic pants as he moved to trace the curve of her throat with his hot, molten mouth, his sharp, cool teeth pressed against her skin, the dual sensations driving her mad.  When he reached the tender base near her collarbones he sucked upon that spot and she felt the blood rushing in a wild flood through her skull.  His kisses slid along the side of her neck then, nipping and lapping along that quivering flesh until he finally reached her ear where he tormented her mercilessly while endless waves of rapture crashed through her.  They grew stronger and stronger until suddenly, amazingly, they burst free and she screamed his name, her body arching strongly against his in a convulsion of ecstatic release.

            The sensation swept through him with undreamt-of intensity, drawing him along with her and a roar was torn from his throat in stunned disbelief.  They found themselves suspended for some endless space of time, batted about by the cresting waves of their passion, then finally collapsed together into oblivion.

 

Friday, early morning

 

            She was floating, drifting, a languorous wave washed through her, then another and yet another.  Slowly the waves diminished and finally she sank into a gentle pool of satiated fulfillment.  She had never felt anything like it, never.  And they had only kissed!  Oh, god...  She stretched lazily in happy contentment.  Vincent...  Vincent?!

            "No!"  She sat up, suddenly panic stricken.  She was alone in her hotel room.  Why?!  Why were they given that, only to waken apart?  Why couldn't the dream have held them close for just a little longer?  Sorrow washed through her then, replacing the fear.  She wanted him with her so badly, her arms ached to hold him close.  Her disappointment and frustration were unbearable.  She couldn't stop the sobs that wracked her then and turned on her side holding a pillow tightly to her stomach, her knees drawn up high.

 

            "Catherine!  No!!"

            He sat up suddenly in bed, staring blindly at the wall, all his senses focused Above, on her.  One moment he'd been enclosed with her in the sweetest sea of pleasure and contentment, the next a wave of violent emotion rushed through him; fear...anger...sorrow.  They came from Catherine.  The ecstasy and joy were swept away in their path, turned to bitter ashes within him.  He was in an agony of anguish.  What had he done?!  It was over, all over.  He had to get away from here, from these feelings, he had to.  He closed down on the bond desperately, fumbling gracelessly for his clothes with frantic urgency.  He didn't know where he was going, he only knew he had to move, now!  The anxiety was closing in on him, his breaths ragged and jarring.  He tucked his nightshirt into the first pair of trousers within reach and pulled boots on over his bare feet.  Finally he grabbed his cloak and ran out of his chamber heading blindly outward and down, away, far away from the home tunnels.

 

Friday, late afternoon

 

            Home, home, she was almost home!  The words repeated themselves over and over in her mind, almost like a child's nursery rhyme.  She stared out the window of the commuter plane, but didn't see a thing there.  Her vision was turned inward, to memories of last night's dream.  Dream schmeam, she didn't care what it was or what they called it as long as it gave them the opportunity to be together as it had last night.  She couldn't hold back a very audible sigh of ecstatic joy, not noticing the speculative glance bent her way by her grinning seatmate.

 

            Vincent paced furiously in the large, cavernous chamber.  He was in a state of nervous exhaustion, but he couldn't stop.  Every time he did, a paralysis of pain and anxiety enfolded him, threatening to crush his pounding heart in its tightening grasp.

            What could he do?  What?  He'd been here all day, but there were no answers, only questions.  He wouldn't stop long enough to hear those, he couldn't.  He felt dry, empty, drained - bereft of all hope.

            Was she back yet?  What was she thinking, feeling?  He had kept the bond closed tighter than he'd ever dared try before.  He felt only the thinnest thread of her presence now, nothing else.  He needed to know what she was feeling, but he was afraid, afraid he would once again encounter that accusing stream of hate and fear which had condemned him back to his solitary existence.

            He had to check on her, the drive was overwhelming.  He forced himself to be still - for just a moment he told himself, just a moment - then let go the slightest bit on the desperate grip he held over the bond.  It wasn't a matter of opening the bond.  No, the dream had brought them far beyond that.  It was now a question of holding it closed, and it had taken all his strength to do so this day.

            Oh, god.  She was on her way Below.  No!  He squeezed the threads of their connection tight, closing it off again.  He couldn't face her, he couldn't.  He stood frozen, his mind again replaying those agonizing emotions along his nerve endings.  He'd frightened her, disgusted her!  As quickly as those terrifying emotions appeared, other ones followed; a futile sense of regret and loss, pain and despair.  He had to see her, at least once more, to tell her how sorry he was, that it would never happen again, never!  He struggled mightily with his conflicting needs, then suddenly swept out of the chamber, his long stride turning into a dead run as he headed upwards, towards his fate.

 

            Catherine was confused.  It was almost eight o'clock and Vincent wasn't here yet.  She finally decided two things: One, Vincent was unavoidably detained with something urgent, and two, he would be there, though perhaps late.  She knew this with absolute certainty because nothing else save an urgent matter could have kept him from her - especially today she said to herself with a grin - and if he couldn't be there at all he would have sent someone with a message.  The logic thus worked out, she headed towards their private music chamber.  Vincent would know where she was and meet her there.

 

            Vincent had finally reached the home tunnels, though he'd skirted the busy areas, desperate to avoid contact with any of its inhabitants.  The music chamber was just ahead, and suddenly his steps slowed, dreading this meeting,  He didn't know if he could survive the look of fear or reproach she might wear.  Or perhaps, worse yet, she would keep a blank, neutral expression on her face, trying to protect him even now.  No, please not that, not her pity.  He was almost paralyzed with fear.  Finally he was at the chamber entrance.  Catherine stood at its center, just under the grate.  Her eyes were closed, face tilted upwards towards the music, the moonlight and Mendelssohn washing down over her, surrounding her with glowing warmth.  She wore a silky sheath of midnight blue, a light breeze blowing the hem gently about her knees.  The neckline fell away from her in soft folds to show the crystal at her breast, plunging low behind her to expose the small of her back.  Her arms and legs were bare and her exposed skin gleamed a rich ivory hue in the reflected light.

            He was overwhelmed by her beauty, despair filling him at the thought of what was to come.  How could he live without her?  How?  He drew in a deep, ragged breath and spoke.  "I'm sorry Catherine."  His voice was husky with pain.

            Catherine spun to look at him, startled and shocked by his sudden presence and the unexpected words.

            "Vincent...?"

            She began to move towards him, but his abrupt motion away from her in response froze her in her place and sent fear trembling through her.

            "Vincent, what is it?  What's wrong?"

            She was pretending nothing had happened.  So it was to be pity after all.  His heart was breaking with sorrow and loss, the emotions spilling out over his face as his struggle to hold the bond closed grew immense under the added weight.

            "Don't try to protect me, Catherine, please.  I know.  I felt everything."

            He couldn't continue for a moment, unable to hold back the tears, they flowed down his cheeks unchecked.

            "No!  Don't do this to us, Vincent.  Don't."  She was crying now too, her distress growing along with his.  "After all we shared in the last few days...  Why Vincent, why?"

            "You know why, Catherine."  His voice was hoarse, but he forced the words out past the pain.  "I felt your sorrow this morning, your anger and... your fear."

            Catherine gasped as understanding flooded through her.  She tried again to move towards him, but he held his hand up, holding her off.  She knew with sudden certainty that he would leave if she tried to touch him now.  She stood absolutely still in response to this realization, trying desperately to probe the bond.  Nothing.  She'd been so caught up in her reveries and daydreams today that she hadn't noticed he'd closed off their connection.  Its presence was so new to her, its absence today hadn't penetrated the fog which had surrounded her.  She had to make him understand and she needed to be calm to do it.  She drew in a deep breath and attempted to center her thoughts and emotions.

            “Vincent, I have something to say.  Will you promise to stay until I'm through?  To listen to me?  I promise I'll stay right here, I won't come any closer and I won't try to touch you.  Vincent?"

            Trembling vibrations coursed through him but he couldn't control them, he absolutely couldn’t.  Never to feel her touch again!  He was in agony.  This was it, the end of everything.  It would be the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.

            "I'll stay until you're through."

            She released the breath she'd been holding, shaking with relief.  Then she drew her thoughts together, thinking deeply before she spoke.

            "Vincent, what happened in our dream last night was unbelievable.  We only kissed, and yet I've never before experienced such intense pleasure...such ecstasy.  Never!"

            Her eyes had taken on a far-away look now, feeling again his body against hers.  She shook off that memory sharply.

            "When I woke up I thought it was a continuation of the dream.  Then I realized that I was alone, that the dream was over."  The sorrow she had felt that morning washed over her again full force, the recollection fresh and clear.

            "I was angry because the dream had ended when I wanted it to go on forever.  I was afraid that perhaps I’d imagined it all and it had never really happened, that it was truly just a dream, not a part of our bond.  I was sad because it shouldn't have ended that way.  We deserved to be together after that.  I wanted you with me so badly then, I ached to hold you, to share the aftermath of our pleasure together"

            She paused then, and watched him closely.  He was trembling, doubt and fear warring now with the small spark of hope in his eyes.

            "Vincent, I'm telling you the truth.  Open the bond, please."

            She was begging, her voice and eyes pleading with him and he couldn't refuse.  He slowly released the tight hold he had over their connection.

            It started as a thin trickle then built rapidly until her emotions were a flood breaking through his defenses.  He gasped as the full extent of her love and trust washed through him.

            She had made him a promise, but she couldn't keep it, she couldn't.  She moved towards him slowly then finally drew him into her embrace.  His whole body shook, standing stiffly against her.  Suddenly his arms came up to grasp her and his knees gave way.  He sank to the ground, drawing her with him.  He drew in shuddering gulps of air, his weight resting against her heavily as shimmering waves of relieved distress rolled off him, through her and were gone.

            "Oh, Catherine, Catherine...  I thought I had lost you!"  His voice shook as the words poured out of him.

            "Never Vincent!  I'll never leave you.  I couldn't live without you, you must know that by now.  The only real pain that touches me now is your absence.  You are the source of all my pleasure and all my happiness.  Please Vincent, let me be that for you."

            A pulsing shudder ran through him at her words.  His mind was struggling to resist the teachings of a lifetime, to accept what she told him, to take the commitment she offered not only for her sake, but for his own.  In the final analysis he realized that there really was no other choice; not for him or her.  Resistance fled.  He pulled back slightly so that his eyes could meet hers, the throb of the bond palpable between them.

            "Yes.  I want that Catherine, more than anything.  I need that.  I need it from you, my love, only from you."

            She gasped in stunned relief and they fell together, holding each other tight.  Long moments passed as the realization of all that had transpired here sank in, the magnitude of it.  The decision had been made; they didn't know how or when, but they would join their lives together.  A hazy lassitude stole over them then, the exhausting emotions draining them.  Finally Catherine, overcome with curiosity, felt safe in asking a question which had nagged at her since the start of their meeting.

            "Vincent, the bond has been so strong in us the last few days.  How is it that you didn't feel my... response last night."  She blushed suddenly, unable to be more specific.

            "I did, Catherine.  I've never felt anything like it in my life.  It was beyond ecstasy, beyond belief."

            His voice was hushed with awe as the memory of those sensations played through him again.

            "But when I felt your waking emotions, I doubted that experience.  I thought perhaps I was reading my own feelings only, that the strength of them was overpowering the sensing of yours."

            He pulled back once more to look at her, the look in his eyes a strange combination of shy speculation and hesitant uneasiness.  His hand cupped her jaw and tilted her head back and to the side.  He closely searched the creamy skin of her throat and neck, checking for any scratches or marks.  There was nothing and he breathed a sigh of relief and released her.

            "No bruises, Vincent, nothing.  I checked myself this morning."

            He looked startled at that, and concerned.

            "It's not what you think."  The blush reappeared again.  "I was...  I don't know, I guess I was hoping that there would be something, some slight sign, to prove it had really happened."

            Her eyes had a dreamy far off look in them while her index finger lightly stroked the tender flesh at the base of her throat, sensations of his mouth against her there sweeping through her.  Her eyes closed as a particularly strong wave shuddered through her and Vincent trembled as her arousal transmitted to him.

            When she opened her eyes to look at him they had shifted from a clear, pale gray to a deep stormy green.  She held his gaze until he felt himself falling into it, then she leaned forward, her intent plain.

            Her hands came up to frame his face, then their lips met, a soft, fragile contact.  He held still beneath her hands, needing to compare this live experience with that of last night's dream.

            She moved her lips gently over his, then slid down to capture his lower lip between her own, sucking and nibbling at the tender flesh.  His mouth dropped open to draw in a deep breath, trying to calm the sudden pounding of his heart.

            She shifted to trace his silky upper lip with her tongue dipping lightly into the sensitive cleft there.  He pulled back reflexively, gasping in stunned astonishment at the sensation.  He was panting now, his gaze unfocused.

            Her hands slid forward from his temples until the thumbs could stroke along his upper lip.  Finally they met at the apex of his cleft and she slowly drew them apart, spreading open that secret fold.  The flesh exposed was pink and tender, completely different from any other texture in this area.  She blew a stream of hot air into it and a groan was pulled from deep within him.  She couldn't believe the state of arousal this simple sound instilled in her.  Her tongue flicked out to lick the delicate interior tissue and Vincent shuddered as fire teased along his nerve endings.  A growl began building and he couldn't contain it.  He suddenly became aware of the bare flesh of her back beneath his hands, and they moved irresistibly over her, stroking and caressing.  He felt her soft breasts and taut nipples through her thin silk dress and the fine linen of his nightshirt, the sensation overwhelming in its intensity.

            "Oh yes, touch me, Vincent, touch me."  She whimpered against his mouth still nibbling at that delectable spot.

            "Catherine, Catherine.  Help me control this, please.  I don't know if I can."

            His breath was ragged and he could barely get the words out, they were a hoarse, husky growl of sound, erotic and intense, sending shivers coursing through her in languorous waves.

            Catherine pulled back from him, then gently pushed his trembling arms away from her body to rest down along his sides.  Her hands slid up from his until they were at his shoulders.  They gazed deeply at one another, confused desire plain on his face, restrained passion on hers.  She pushed him back firmly and after a momentary resistance he sank backwards to rest against the cushions lining the outer perimeter of the chamber.  She lay against his side one hand gently stroking his chest through the thin fabric of his nightshirt.  He turned his face to hers and their lips met in a blazing kiss, nothing held back now.  His hands came up to hold her again, one at her back the other cupping her face to keep her close for this deepest of kisses.  Catherine moaned at the sensuousness of his touch and squirmed along his length, one knee sliding over to rest upon him intimately.  His gasping cry pulled their mouths apart, and his eyes suddenly filled with apprehension.

            "Shhh.  It's all right, Vincent.  Please, let me return the pleasure you gave to me last night."  She stayed perfectly still, her hands gently petting and soothing his face as their eyes met in deep communication.  His features remained tense, but he didn't attempt to pull away from her again.

            She lowered her mouth to kiss him deeply, then moved to trace her way along the curved length of his throat.  She reached the spot at the base which he had loved so thoroughly on her and gave it her complete attention, nipping and sucking at the tender skin, tasting the silky hair exposed by the nightshirt gaping open at his throat.  Vincent groaned loudly, his hands falling away to clutch convulsively at the cushions beneath him.

            Once Catherine was convinced he was deep into the eroticism of the moment, she eased her body over his, resting her full weight upon him, his aroused body tensed and shaking.  She continued to mouth the flesh at the curve of his throat and shoulders while her body moved insidiously against his, building their excitement to a lustful peak.  She knew he couldn't hold out much longer and finally let her teeth bite gently into the flesh of his neck, moving against him strongly, insistently.

            The swirling flames of passion burning through him coalesced, erupting in a fireball of blazing heat.  He cried out her name, the sound rising to a full roar, his torso pulled from the ground, lifting her along.  His hands were suddenly around her, holding her to him tightly as the firestorm swept through him.  His burning passion ignited her own and she was taken up in it with him, crying out in rapture as endless streams of ecstasy drove over and through her until the flames receded and left them floating in a blissful state of sweet nirvana.

            Vincent held her tightly, whispering of his love for her over and over again in a tremulous, shaking voice.  Catherine wanted to stay awake, to experience the last spark of awareness with him, but their emotions had been too raw, their passion too intense.  They were sinking even now into a deep, dreamless sleep which would last until morning.  Catherine had one fleeting thought of last night's dream and the lonely waking, but she dismissed it languorously.  She had no doubts, not any longer.  They would wake here, in their private chamber, together, and nothing would ever be the same.  Her last thought before sleep overtook her was to wonder what the next bond dream held in store for them.  Mmmm...

 

Note:  Teri is presently in process of writing a ‘part 2’ to “Let There Be Lions”

 

Contact Teri at: taptap@mn.rr.com