A Lucky Break

By Teri

Quarry mine, blessed am I,
In the luck of the chase
(Navaho hunting song)

    Catherine ran through the tunnels, jumping the narrow chasm between two steam pipes haphazardly, hardly noticing them or the plunging fall beneath her feet in her hurried flight towards the hub - towards the home tunnels where most of the living quarters were situated. She'd been thrilled to play such a major role in the capture of the ring leaders of the large welfare fraud scheme plaguing the state, but she hadn't given much thought to what would follow should all go well.
    Served her right, she thought wryly, looking back on the past two weeks with the benefit of hindsight. Seventeen days! Seventeen days of investigations, depositions, reports and more of the same, all spent in Albany, where the pretrial work was being done. But that was all behind her now, at least for a few days. It was an enormous case and there was a lot yet left to be done but they'd accomplished an amazing amount in the last seventeen days, enough so that when the others on her team urged her to take a few days off and get caught up at home she had gratefully accepted. She'd have to go back on Sunday afternoon, and probably stay for another two weeks at least before things were wrapped up, but that was two days away, and she refused to give it a moment's more thought just yet.
    She had returned just two hours ago, stopping at the office only to leave a huge stack of documents for Joe's review, laughing at the trapped look on his face as he sized up the box of documents she set on his desk before him. He was going to have a busy weekend ahead of him. Then she told him, a resolute look in her eye, that she was taking the weekend off, and he had accepted it graciously, all in all. That meant she now had the better part of two free days before her and she intended to spend every precious minute of it with Vincent. She rushed onward, those memories of the last few weeks without him brushed aside with no effort by the image of Vincent waiting before her. How she'd missed him!
    There, ahead! The familiar side tunnel appeared and she flew around it, miscalculating the curve and bumping her shoulder hard against the rocky outcropping in her frantic haste to get to him. She winced and grabbed the bruised muscle with her left hand, but didn't stop until she'd cleared his threshold. It was pitch dark inside, the only light evident a dim aura from the torch thirty yards behind her, at the juncture of the main passage from which she'd just come. Damn!
    There was no use in lighting the candles she knew sat clustered at the center of the writing table; he wasn't here. Nonetheless she stood still and closed her eyes, trying to sense where he might be and if he was coming to her.
It took a few minutes. The sensations of the bond, except under extreme conditions of danger, were quite new to her, her sense of them growing only in the last few weeks. Finally her panting breath calmed, and a stillness engulfed her. She let the dark drift over her, not just from the tunnel chamber, but inside herself, opening to the bond in a way she had discovered only recently. Little by little a tingling sensation made itself felt, growing steadily stronger as she waited, though it remained muted, as if at a low level of consciousness.
    It was the bond - she recognized it clearly. The stream of sensations increased slightly, then coalesced into a dim reflection of emotion that somehow translated along her own muscles and bones and through the very blood heating her veins. He knew she was here, and he would be here too - soon - but yet not soon enough to suit her. But it wasn't a completely calm stillness. There was urgency there, too, but it was banked, and she knew it wasn't only her own new exposure to the workings of the bond which caused that. Vincent was controlling his emotions, as he did so often when it came to her. Wherever he was, he was needed there, at least for a little while yet.
    Catherine's eyes opened to the chamber about her, the outline of its contents now clear in the dimly reflected light. She sighed raggedly, turned and left. Her steps, though less quick and light than a moment before, were sure nonetheless, as she made her way to Father's study. She hadn't seen him in weeks, and despite the exciting step forward she and Vincent had made in their relationship before she'd left, she realized now that she had missed the gruff, wise presence of the patriarch of the tunnels quite a bit.
She grinned surreptitiously at that thought. She'd been thankful enough for his absence during those few evenings Below when she and Vincent had managed to somehow spend time together alone, without interruption. They were few and far between, true, but each moment stood out clearly, that time alone, here in his world, a precious memory of a growing closeness between them.
    It wasn't here, though, in Vincent's world where they had shared their first real kiss, though she had kissed him here, Below, to be completely fair. It had been shortly after her father's death, upon her return to her Above life, after a few precious days spent with him - with all of them - Below. But that one didn't count - not really. It was a kiss, true, but only in the barest sense of the word, given in gratitude and allowed by him for much the same reason, though she suspected the truth was that he had been too stunned to react in any other way at that moment. No, this was a real kiss, and though it had been simple, and mostly hers, there was no doubt that he had shared it in a way that couldn't be said of the time before. That momentous event had finally taken place Above, on her balcony, only hours before her flight to Albany and away from him.
    She'd told him it would take at least two weeks to finish the pretrial preparations, perhaps more, and he was resigned to that absence. He'd tried to hide the sorrow stealing over him at the thought, but he couldn't. It wasn't the bond - not then. No, it was in the very lines of his face, in the deep well of his eyes as they spoke together that night, pretending that nothing was wrong. He asked her to describe what she would be doing, and she did, in some detail, trying to give him an exact picture of the events that would take place miles to the north over the next two weeks. Lost in thought, as she traced those events in her mind, she didn't notice his growing stillness as he sat beside her on the floor of her balcony, their backs pressed against the cool stone of the low wall behind them. When she'd abruptly turned to face him, she caught him looking at her with an intensity he'd been unable to hide for a moment.
She stopped in mid-sentence, shocked by that look, and he quickly lowered his gaze, a flush sweeping up over his face. But it was too late. She'd read his emotions so clearly in that moment - a yearning, desperate hunger that filled him utterly, surrounded by a measureless love. There was no hiding it, though he tried, ignoring it completely instead, asking her some trivial question about the legal proceedings in an attempt to distract her. His voice was hoarse, though, and only served to reinforce the emotions she'd seen in his eyes.
    A strange mix of sensations overwhelmed her then, the need to shake him and make him face his desires, and all that meant, and a need to hold him close and shield him from his fears. Those warring emotions clashed within her for a tumultuous moment, then a fierce sense of protectiveness rose up in her, as if he were threatened from some outside source, unrelated to herself.
She had to smile at that image now. He needed protection all right, she thought with an ironic burst of humor. That thought cooled the suddenly raw edge to her emotions, and she was able to gain the necessary control once more. She was astonished, though, given what had come before, that he hadn't immediately left her. It was a sign of his growing dependence on her - she recognized that instantly, wondering where this would ultimately lead them. Wherever it was, she was sure of one thing - it was their fate, and they would face it together.
    And so he stayed for yet another hour, until the dawn began to lightly paint the sky to the east and there could be no more delaying their good-byes. He couldn't stay any longer, not without risking the safety of his own way back, and her flight was an early one. With one long glance that spoke volumes he rose to his feet, gently drawing her up beside him. He looked out over the park, then back at her, and she read his dilemma. She would be gone for at least two weeks, but after that telling moment a while back, he was hesitant to initiate anything she would interpret as an intimacy between them. She held her breath, wondering what he would decide. Surely he wouldn't let her go like this, without holding her one more time. Surely he wouldn't...
    The thought lay unfinished as he reached for her, the conflict still plain in his eyes. She went to him immediately, and his arms enfolded her, drawing her close. He held her tenderly, but she could feel the tension in his body. He was resisting any deepening of that embrace, though she sensed an urgency beneath the surface that seldom reached to her through the barriers of his control. She was still considering what it might all mean when he whispered against her ear, the sudden presence of his warm breath there sending a jolt of shivery pleasure down her spine and shocking her out of her introspection.
    "Take great care, Catherine. You'll be so far away..."
    Across the continent or just upstate, any distance beyond which he could reach her in a matter of minutes, should the need arise, represented an agonizing separation.
    Her arms tightened about him, and for a moment he returned the pressure, though he loosened his hold almost immediately afterwards. She pulled back slightly, just enough so that she could stare up into his face, their eyes meeting and locking instantly. She saw both sorrow and fear there, and beyond it she felt something else - loneliness. It was creeping over him already, and she wasn't yet gone.
    "Don't worry, Vincent. I'll be careful, I promise. We'll be together again soon, believe me, my love."
    Tears sprang to his eyes at her words, the endearment one she had spoken to him many times before in her heart, but never before aloud. He stared at her in wonder for a moment more, then simply nodded, silently acknowledging her words and their meaning, but unable to do more. He moved away then, reluctantly, and turned to the balcony wall once more. For a moment, as he turned, his hair glinted golden in the growing light, and at that sudden sight she whispered out to him, "Vincent."
    He turned back, a question in his eyes, and she went to him. His cloak was pulled loosely about him, untied at the throat, the hood of it down upon his shoulders. She reached up and tugged the woolen cowl forward, then, after a momentary pause, brushed back his unruly locks, tucking them within the dark folds. The short hair upon his cheeks and jaw was fine and silky smooth as her fingers brushed against him in passing, and at the first tingly sensation of them her hands stilled. The hesitation lasted only for a moment, and his eyes widened in stunned surprise.
    Only later did she have the presence of mind to wonder if he had known what she would do before she herself knew it. If he did, he was either too shocked or too confused to stop her. Almost as if they had a will of their own, her hands cupped his face and held him still, their eyes locked together. It was a light touch, but inexorably it urged him down to her, and she rose up on her toes to meet him halfway. Like a sleepwalker in a dream he watched it all, unable to do anything to stop it, unable even to close his eyes as her own finally drifted shut a moment before her mouth touched his. At the first silky touch of her lips upon him, a low groan was torn from his throat, but still he didn't move.
    In that last moment, a thought rushed through him that perhaps she would kiss him as she had that time last spring, almost a year ago, upon the death of her father. That kiss had been hers alone, sweet and gentle, and mercifully short. He didn't know what he might have done had she not kept it so. This kiss, too, was sweet and gentle, but it was not short. Her lips rested against him for a moment, unmoving; a simple touch that warmed and thrilled him. But then it changed, and he couldn't stop the groan that escaped him again, his eyes finally closing to drink in the ecstasy of her kiss more fully. Her nuzzling touches were light and non-threatening, but full of an exquisite pleasure he had never before experienced. And this was Catherine - his Catherine! - kissing him... No, he couldn't imagine such a thing not affecting him deeply. Impossible!
    Finally she drew back, and when he opened his eyes she was watching him, a yearning love in her face that spoke to him deeply, answering all his own anguished questions with a simplicity that stunned him yet again.
    "Soon, Vincent, we'll be together again soon. I promise."
    She didn't speak those other words this time, but he heard their echo nonetheless, 'my love...' and blinked rapidly, shocked by the openness of the bond between them this night.
    He still stood unmoving, and it was Catherine this time who reminded him that he must go, her worried glance out towards the pale light to the east drawing him from the dream-like state that held him in its thrall. He shot a glance over his shoulder in response and gasped, amazed at how the sky had lightened in just those few moments. How long had it been?
    "Go, Vincent, and be careful!"
    He nodded, drinking in one last, long look at her again, then slipped over the balcony, swung himself up to the roof and hurried toward the elevator access panel.
    At that moment the side tunnel to Jacob's study appeared just ahead, and she shook off the dreamy lassitude those memories brought. Father would be shocked if he knew of that episode Above. Thank god the bond she shared with the son didn't extend to the father, she thought, a bubble of humor lightening her mood.
    The glow from ahead might have indicated a presence within, but Catherine knew this was the typical state of the patriarch's study, whether he was in or not. This was a central meeting place for the Council, and indeed for all Below, and it was always ready for any and all who sought out the safe haven it provided. This day, however, Father was within, seated behind his large desk, a stack of journals and the ever-present cup of tea before him.
    "Catherine, my dear, welcome back!"
    A genuine smile lit his face and his voice was indeed full of welcome. Catherine felt a momentary twinge of guilt at the sometimes uncharitable thoughts his image brought. He was overprotective of Vincent, that was certain, but he was becoming much the same of her, and she ruefully realized that her feelings for him were truly those of a daughter for a father - sometimes an unruly daughter and a stern father, true - but there was no doubt that what she felt for him was love, and that he returned those feelings in full measure.
    "It's good to be back, Father. I missed you all."
    Jacob had risen from his chair, and met her around the other side, hugging her warmly in greeting. He pulled back at her words and chuckled, tipping her face up to meet his own.
    "You missed us all, eh? And I suppose you missed us all equally?"
    She blushed beet red at his uncharacteristic teasing on this subject, trying to think of a suitable reply, but her tongue was tied in knots at the unusual circumstance set before her and the words eluded her. He took pity on her, though, and laughed it away, guiding her to the circular table at the center of the room and setting a cup and saucer of delicate limoge porcelain before her.
    "Tea?
    "Yes, please."
    Her face was still flushed, but she felt once again on safe ground.
    Jacob poured out the steaming brew, then brought his own over to the table, seating himself across from her. He didn't make her wait for what she obviously needed to hear.
    "Vincent is working with a repair crew on a side passage a few levels down. The support structure has been falling into decay there and it required shoring up. It's not far from here, and I assume he'll be up shortly. In fact I'm surprised he's not here already."
    The words were spoken with a wry humor, and Catherine felt her face growing pink once more, amazed at the ease with which he approached a topic that had so frequently been taboo between them. Before she could find some equally light reply, though, a sharp, stabbing pain distracted her, centered in her right arm and shuddering along its length. She clutched at it reflexively, gasping in pain, Father's gentle teasing completely forgotten.
    "Catherine? What is it?"
    Jacob got up hurriedly and came around to the other side of his table to touch her arm gingerly.
    "I'm not sure. I bumped my shoulder on the way down, but this pain was lower and sharper. It's gone now. I guess I must have hit a nerve and it's acting up a bit.
    "Let me see. Where does it hurt?"
    "I bumped it here", Catherine touched her upper arm, near the shoulder, to indicate the spot which she had bruised on her way to Vincent's chamber, "but the pain I felt a moment ago was here", and then touched a spot midway between her hand and elbow. "It was very sharp, but it's gone now. It's probably nothing."
    Jacob pressed gently upon several spots along her arm, eliciting a slight wince at the shoulder area. He undid the top three buttons of her cotton blouse and opened one side, sliding the sleeve down to expose her shoulder to uncover a darkening bruise about the size of his palm. He examined it closely, along with the rest of her arm, but there was no response at any other point besides that of the bruise, and certainly nothing below the elbow. Just then the pipes beat out a rapid staccato and Jacob turned an ear toward them, catching the precursor which indicated that this message was intended for him. When he turned back to Catherine there was a surprised look on his face.
    "It's Cullen. He says Vincent hurt his arm at the work site. They're coming up now."
    He didn't mention the obvious - that the pain she'd felt a moment ago might have been communicated to her through the bond - he didn't have to, and Catherine gave him no time at any rate. She jumped up in alarm at his first words, and hurried out the door.
    "Catherine wait, he'll be here shortly!" Jacob called out behind her, but she either ignored him or didn't hear. At the juncture to the main passageway she paused with a deep look of concentration on her face. A moment later she turned left and was gone from his sight. After a slight hesitation he swore softly to himself, grabbed his bag and hurried out after her.
    Catherine didn't know how she knew which paths to take, but somehow she did, following her course unerringly. In just ten minutes she saw a group round the bend some hundred yards ahead of her and increased her pace, sprinting towards them.
    "Vincent!"
    Even from that distance she could make out his larger, cloak-enveloped form easily. She noted with relief that he was walking on his own, but she also saw that he leaned against Cullen, and that gave her pause. Several other men followed close behind. A moment more and she was there. Without thought she moved to his left and Cullen slipped away, making room for her by Vincent's side. She took that place naturally, without thought, wrapping her right arm about his back to help support him. Vincent's left arm, which had been about Cullen's shoulder, immediately eased around her own. His weight leaned heavily against her and she winced as he pressed upon her bruised shoulder, but discarded that thought and the pain that went with in instantly, her concern increasing for him. He was usually so cautious with his strength - especially with her - and she knew something had to be very wrong for him to allow that unusual lapse. At the same time she was intensely grateful for the trust that action implied. She glanced across his chest, and though his cloak covered it, she could see the bulky outline of his arm folded up against his breast. Though she longed to check it now, she knew this was not the time or place. Father was nearby, and so was the hospital chamber, where the right tools and conditions waited. They continued onward without pause, towards the hub. A moment later Vincent spoke lowly, trying to reassure her;
    "I'm all right, Catherine, really."
    His words were a husky whisper and she looked up at him in question. He met her gaze squarely and she read the truth of his words, but she also saw a flickering tension in the lines of his face, and knew he was in pain. She knew he wouldn't lie to her, but she also knew it was worse than she could tell at the moment, all the joy of their reunion now given over to a worry that would not abate. She didn't answer in words, but instead tightened her hold about him, giving him what comfort and support her slim strength had to offer.
    A few minutes more and Father joined them, giving Vincent a searching, scrutinizing glance, but not attempting to dislodge Catherine from his side. He moved to the right of his son and the group continued on silently, until they reached the hospital chambers five minutes later. He kept his own concerns to himself, but the fact that Vincent himself led the way there, and not to his study, told him that the injury was more serious than he had at first suspected upon receiving the message over the pipes. Vincent hated the hospital chamber - he always had - and almost always asked for any treatment he might require in the less formal, more comfortable surroundings of his father's chambers. Jacob sighed but kept his thoughts to himself, only speaking a moment before they arrived, near a side juncture, to ask Stephen if he would run and fetch Mary.
    Once in the hospital chamber Vincent released Catherine and shrugged his cloak off, letting it fall to the floor, then sank down upon a narrow cot, his left arm gingerly cradling his right. Catherine quickly picked up the dark cloak, folding it over her arm and holding it before her in a protective manner which spoke volumes, before finally laying it upon a chair in the corner.
    Turning back she observed him quietly. His heavy vest had been modified as a sling, the right arm held securely within it, its leather laces rethreaded and tied behind his shoulder and neck. He wore a pale blue sweater with an unbuttoned crew style neck, and beneath it the rounded edge of his ever-present cream-colored thermal shirt peaked out, though it no longer could be seen as that light shade. Now she also saw what the dim lighting of the passageways had not revealed. Vincent and the others were covered with mud. It coated their upper bodies almost completely, matting their hair down in thick, clumps and covering their shoulders, arms and chests in wide streaks of color from deep brown, where it was still wet, to thinnish swipes of chalky gray where it had begun to dry. Vincent's left hand released his right for a moment to brush distractedly at some drying, cracked grime along the short, fine hairs of his cheeks and Catherine suddenly felt a twinge over the bond, there and gone almost before she knew it. She felt tension and pain, and she suspected that at least some of both of those emotions came from the discomfort of the thick mud drying upon him now as much as from the injury itself.
    As to that injury, she could see nothing of it so far. She moved behind him then - behind the cot and out of Father's way - and laid a hand upon his left shoulder. From this vantage point she could watch everything and be of immediate assistance if needed. She was well aware of Vincent's concerns at her presence here - he hated to have her see him in a vulnerable state. But she also knew, better perhaps than he, that that was when he needed her most.
    "Cullen, you can stay for a minute, but the rest of you had better go - there's not room enough for all of you, and besides, you must have brought as much mud and rock dust back here as you left down there." Father's voice was light and soothing, calming them all. "Go on now, get a bath and then something to eat. I'm sure William can find something for you."
    The others left, but Catherine stayed, and though he hadn't addressed her specifically, she could tell Father was resigned to her presence, as Vincent was, though the tension under her hand spoke as much of discomfort with her presence here now as it did of pain from the injury itself.
    "All right, Cullen, tell me what happened."
    She found it somewhat odd that father should ask those details of Cullen rather than Vincent, under the circumstances, and couldn't help but wonder if Vincent thought so too, based on the sudden tension she felt through his muscles at those words, but he remained silent, letting Cullen speak as requested.
    "I'm not sure, Father. We were taking down an old beam from the ceiling supports. There's broken pipe in that area that we didn't know about. Apparently it was just cracked, and only a little leaking was getting through, but it was enough to soak the surrounding earth pretty good - you know that whole area is awfully close to uptop, and there's no rock in that part of the tunnels. We were trying to replace the beam with a new one, but it was tough to get out. Apparently it was stuck in mud above, though we couldn't see that from our angle, and it was rotting through. Vincent was securing one end with a rope and Kevin and I had the other. It felt stable enough, but suddenly it slipped. Vincent tried to catch it, but it was too heavy. It fell, along with half the ceiling above it." Cullen wiped at his own mud-coated face at that, as if he clearly felt the initial rush of slimy earth once again. "It broke his arm. Vincent, did you feel it begin to give way? You looked so odd for a moment, as if you weren't there at all just then, but nothing else seemed unusual."
    Catherine's breath caught, and she glanced down at the man seated before her, in time to see a quick shake of his head as he dismissed Cullen's question without reply. Vincent had been distracted. Was she the cause? Had he been concentrating on her, on her return to the tunnels and her euphoric thoughts of him, when he should have been focused on that dangerous work instead? From this angle there was no way to really tell, especially with the mud coating him so thoroughly. She certainly couldn't see his eyes, and that might have been the only way to get this particular truth out of him. At any rate, there was no way to tell if what she suspected were so. She certainly couldn't ask it of him now, in front of Father.
    At that thought she glanced up to the latest object of her musings, and surprised a reflective expression on the older man's face as he, too, observed his son. Catherine was suddenly quite certain that his expression mirrored her own, and that she was not alone in her speculation. He didn't say anything though, and she breathed a sigh of relief. This was not the time for that, though she had no doubt that a lecture awaited Vincent once he was safely treated and resting comfortably. Maybe Father would hold off until tomorrow, she prayed. Her thoughts were interrupted by hands brushing past her own - Father, reaching to untie the knotted laces of the modified sling.
    "Wait, Father. I'll need a table to rest my arm on first."
    Jacob's hands paused at Vincent's words, then he nodded his understanding before turning to look behind him.
    "I've got it, Father."
    Mary. She had entered the chamber silently, as she so often did, and a moment later wheeled over a decrepit but quite functional tool tray. It was about eighteen inches wide by thirty inches long, and she positioned it so that he could rest his arm along the narrow width, with some open space remaining for supplies. Father proceeded to undo the mud-encrusted laces carefully while Vincent continued to hold his right arm steady with his left. When the vest was undone, he gingerly positioned his arm on the tray table and finally the quilted material fell open. Catherine's eyes opened wide at the sight of the torn and bloodied sleeve. Even the muddy dirt couldn't disguise the darkening red there. She hadn't expected that, though of course a large beam could tear skin as well as break bones. Father glanced at it, but didn't seem surprised.
    "Mary, can you try to get these filthy sweaters off? If you have to cut them off, so be it."
    "I don't think that will be necessary, Father..."
    Jacob shot him a telling glance and Vincent's words died away. He wisely said little else over the next few minutes, sensing his father's thoughts on this injury and its cause.
    The space around the bed was tight, and Catherine knew she would have to move to let Mary accomplish Father's request and she had no intention of doing that - not without a fight.
    "I'll do it, Mary."
    Vincent's startled glance turned up towards her, but her own expression must have been as forbidding as his father's, and he didn't argue. She tugged the two sweaters out of the waist-band of his trousers on his left side and he easily slipped his left arm out without disturbing the fabric along the right arm. Sliding the mud-caked fabric over his head was easy too, but easing the sleeve off his injured arm was more difficult, the drying mud and blood sticking a little. As she lifted the two layers away she noted that the mud had found it's way through the neck-holes of both garments to drip down his chest and back, coating his shoulders and arms liberally, despite the protection of cotton and wool above. She moved in front of him, just off to his right side to complete this task and finally it was done.
    Mary took the sweaters from her hands and finally they had a clear, unobstructed view of his injured arm. This time she couldn't stop a shocked gasp of surprise.
    "Oh, Vincent!"
    She sank to his side on the bed and stared in horror. This was no simple fracture. The bone was broken in a jagged gash that pushed through muscle and flesh leaving a large, angry tear for several inches along his forearm.
    "It will be all right, Catherine."
    His words drew her from her own fears. The injury and pain were his, and yet he sought to comfort her. She stared into his eyes, then finally wrapped her arm about his waist and leaned forward to press a tender kiss against the back of his bare shoulder, finding a spot mostly clear of mud, though that wasn't easy. She did it without thinking, needing to comfort him with her touch. She never saw the shocked looks of surprise that appeared on both Vincent and Father's face in response to her instinctive action, though she clearly felt a shudder quiver down the muscles of his back. She attributed that to the pain of his injury, though, completely oblivious to any other reason just now. She stayed where she was for the moment, resting her cheek against the fine, silky pattern of short hairs at his shoulder, now caked and coated with drying dirt, while her hand stroked gently along his lower back, trying to ease the pain and tension she felt within, not guessing that much of it was caused by that very same touch. She would never have missed such a thing before, but now all she could see was his poor arm, everything else driven from her thoughts.
    The sight of Catherine touching his son so intimately truly shocked Jacob - if truth were to be told, actually more than the severe injury itself, which he knew would heal quite rapidly - and he stared in horrified fascination. But he also recognized the benefit her presence brought in this particular instance, and so he said nothing, though it went against every fiber of his being. Hadn't he spent years trying to ensure that Vincent would never have to face just such a situation? And now... Well, there was nothing to be done at this particular moment; more urgent matters - if not ultimately more important ones - awaited. Jacob cleared his through gruffly before speaking.
    "Mary, this mud needs to be cleaned off before the bone can be set - it will be a miracle if an infection hasn't already set in."
Again Mary was ahead of him. Even as he spoke she stepped forward with a basin of warm water and antiseptic soap. She set it on the empty table space, next to his arm, but before she could reach for the sponge in the basin, Catherine leaned forward and claimed the task. There was no time to get the mud cleared from his arm entirely, and instead she focused on the area surrounding the injury itself, cleaning it carefully from elbow to wrist, watching for any sign of pain. Catherine pressed the warm sponge down to soften the drying mud, little by little melting it away from the golden hair coating his arm. She worked at the site of the injury itself first, wincing each time he did, though he remained still beneath her ministrations. Finally she was able to move outward a way, to less sensitive areas of his arm.
    Mary replaced the warm, soapy water at least three times while Catherine worked, and finally the area was clean enough to treat further. Father began swabbing it with an antiseptic, and Catherine held Vincent's hand, his fingers grasping her strongly at the first stinging bite of the cold liquid. A moment later he released his tight grip, and she continued to wash the dirt from his hands and fingers. She took special care with his nails, cleaning all the caked mud from beneath them. She inspected her finished work closely, to make certain she had left no chance for infection, and when she looked up she found Vincent watching her, a still expression on his face which was unreadable. He held her gaze with a searching one of his own, but only for a moment before his lids lowered guardedly, his attention turned fixedly upon his father's work on his arm. Catherine waited for several minutes, but he resolutely kept his eyes down, pinned to that spot, and with a soft sigh she gave in.
    "Catherine?"
    Mary's voice disrupted her quiet introspection, and she turned a startled glance in her direction.
    "You'll need to move back here now - Father needs to set the arm."
    Sure enough the preparations were done, and Father was moving the table out of the way as Vincent held his arm carefully, a stoic look on his face. Catherine moved behind him to his left, and waited hesitantly.
    "Cullen, would you hold his shoulder, please?" Father requested.
    Cullen moved behind Vincent and slid his arm about Vincent's ribs, crossing it over to his left shoulder, while his left hand grasped the right shoulder firmly, holding it tight.
    "Ready, Father."
Jacob took Vincent's arm just above the elbow with one hand, his wrist with the other, then glanced at his son for a moment. Vincent nodded his assent. Just as Father pulled on the arm, Catherine sank down behind him and wrapped her arms about his waist, holding him tight. A gasp escaped Vincent at that touch, followed quickly by an almost silent moan as the bone popped into place. She squeezed him tighter at that sound, her face pressed against the planes of his back, wishing she could take the pain from him and into herself. A moment later she stroked soothingly against his breast, trying to calm the tension she felt in him.
    "All done. I'm afraid this is going to require a few stitches, Vincent."
    Vincent nodded resignedly, and Mary brought a tray of sterile tools, anticipating this step, too. Father preceded with his work. The opening appeared much less severe now that the bone was back in place, however, and not many stitches were required. He was done in under twenty minutes. During that time, Catherine stayed where she was, pressed against Vincent's back, her arms about him. Periodically she felt a tensing of the muscles of his torso and back, each time caressing him tenderly in response, falsely attributing those quivers to the pain of the needle.
    "All finished."
    Mary appeared again as if by magic, set down a bowl of plaster and a pile of loose bandage strips, and took the stitching implements away.
    "Just half an hour more and we'll be done, then you can get to bed. It's been a long day."
    At Father's soothing tone she finally loosened her hold a little. She held him a moment longer, though, nuzzling his shoulder blade gently, before she released him and stood up, stretching her arms and back, and rubbing at her neck.
    "Catherine, are you all right?"
    Vincent stared hesitantly up at her, completely ignoring Father's work now, a look of concern on his face and something else, some other emotion that eluded her.
    "Of course I'm all right, Vincent." She sank down to his left and stroked his back again, her eyes holding his. "It's you I'm worried about."
    He shook his head with an almost imperceptible motion, as if dismissing her concerns out of hand.
    "I'm fine."
    He was so used to ignoring his own pain. That thought made her both angry and sad, and she knew by the sudden confusion on his face that he'd felt those conflicting emotions in her, and wondered at their meaning. She didn't know what to say to explain, but she found she didn't need to say anything. The silence between them was not uncomfortable. Their gazes locked, and it was as if they were all alone in the chamber. The memory of the time spent without him during the last seventeen days was slowly being erased, replaced with his strong presence here now, and she felt herself renewed, despite the upsetting events of this afternoon.
    "Done."
    Catherine looked over at Father and found, to her surprise, that the cast work was finished and drying rapidly. It felt as if he had just started, yet now he was slipping a sling onto the finished work, one obviously obtained uptop - from Peter Alcott, no doubt, she thought. Vincent, too, looked surprised, and when their eyes met again, she saw a bit of sheepishness there that had to be reflected in her own expression. Father moved away from them for a moment, and when he returned he held out a pill and a glass of water.
    "This should dull the pain, Vincent, and help you sleep."
    Catherine watched closely, expecting an argument, but Vincent took both without comment, downing the pill and all of the water in one long drink. Mary spoke up next, and Catherine turned her startled gaze in her direction. She'd forgotten she was there.
    "Would you go with Vincent, Catherine, and get him settled? I'll send hot water and make sure the guest chamber is ready for you."
    "Yes, of course, Mary."
    She hadn't given a thought to staying Below, but now she knew that no one, not even Father, could dislodge her from the tunnels tonight. And what, she wondered, did 'getting Vincent settled' entail? She had to grin a little at that, but she kept her humor under control lest Father see it and take issue with Mary's suggestion. She got up and went to get Vincent's cloak, resting on a chair across the room. As she picked it up, a fine dust wafted through the air, the remnants of his work in the lower levels this day, but it definitely was dust and not dirt. The cloak had been set aside during his work, obviously, and had apparently escaped the small cave-in which had caught the men.
    "I'll go shake this out in the hall."
    "Good idea, Catherine, though I don't see that it will make much difference considering how much dirt is still on Vincent." Mary smiled fondly at him and brushed back a few clotted strands of his hair, shaking loose some crumbling particles of dried mud from about his head. "This is going to be almost impossible to get out without shampooing and I don't see how you can possibly maneuver in the bathing pools with your arm in a cast - it's much too dangerous. You'd better let it dry a little more and then see if Catherine can brush it out before you go to sleep tonight, or you'll be terribly uncomfortable." She didn't wait for a response before holding out a thermometer and changing the subject. "Here, before you go..."
    Catherine smiled tremulously at the poignant site of Vincent obediently opening his mouth for the thermometer at the small woman's request, his pose one she was sure Mary had seen many times before from the other youths Below, not least of all from this very one before her now. She smiled and left the chamber, moving down the hall a ways before shaking the cloak repeatedly. When most of the dust had settled, she returned, and just in time to see Mary shaking out the remains of the mercury.
    "Ninety-nine point five. Typical for you, at least so far. I'll check it again tomorrow morning, just to be sure."
    "Thank you, Mary."
    Vincent stood then, and moved toward Catherine, his good arm reaching for the cloak she held, his other tucked protectively against his broad chest. Catherine stood rooted to the floor, her eyes widening in shocked surprise. She'd been with him here for almost two hours, comforting him with her touch and helping Father and Mary when allowed. But for some reason - perhaps it was her preoccupation with his injury and the work required to take care of it quickly - she hadn't really been able to see what had been plainly before her all this time; Vincent, naked from the waist up.
    Her gaze, finally released from the moments of urgency past, drifted downward, taking in the beauty of his naked chest, clearly apparent, even through the streaks of caked mud. Vincent drew in a ragged gasp at that look and she watched in awe as the muscles along his torso rippled in response. He was beautiful. A coating of burnished gold and copper covered him almost everywhere, in some spots thin and fine, in others thick and lush. The skin beneath, though always covered and hidden from the sun, was nonetheless a rich shade of bronze, blending with the silky hair to give him an almost sculpted appearance of rugged masculinity. The sling on his arm covered one breast, but his left side was fully exposed, the cast partially enclosing his hand almost holding it in a cradling pose which seemed to display rather than hide what was left open to her gaze. The hair on his shoulders was thin and short and almost integral to the skin, delineating every muscle clearly. The hair on his chest, while thicker, hid nothing from her hungry eyes. Smooth, ripped muscles stood out clearly, rising and falling with each breath he took - the pouch with her rose rested there, against his skin. Centered on one firm pectoral muscle and nestled in a gingery down, his round pap and protruding nipple could be seen, a richer mahogany in color. The thick whorls of hair at the center of his chest narrowed as it traversed downward, until it was nothing more than a thin strip which revealed a teasing glimpse of his navel before disappearing beneath the waist band of his trousers. The musculature of his body was clearly defined, long, rangy biceps and taut abdomen flexors adding to his appearance of a mythic-like statue. He was virility incarnate. He was perfect.
    Catherine stared at him in awe, for the moment oblivious to his growing agitation and the presence of the others in the chamber. Her tongue flicked out to lick the arid dryness of her lips, too busy staring at the wonder before her to notice Vincent's flushed gaze drop to her mouth at that motion. She needed no thermometer to confirm the rise in her own temperature. A feverish heat engulfing her out of the blue, building to epic proportions.
    Vincent stood frozen for a moment as her eyes devoured him, hesitation and fear filling him, along with something else that was less easy to comprehend. It spoke of 'what ifs' and 'maybes', a wondrous possibility of futures awaiting them, but he brushed those traitorous thoughts aside quickly, ruthlessly denying them a place in his bleaker world and life. A moment more and he didn't know what might happen, so with a supreme effort of will he broke his own stillness, hurrying forward to take the cloak from her suddenly lifeless fingers. He couldn't help himself then, turning his back quickly to hide himself from her eyes before pulling the cloak around his shoulders as best as he was able with only one good arm. He was still adjusting the voluminous folds when he felt hands gently straightening the lay of it at his shoulders, tugging it into place and smoothing it tenderly. Catherine. He turned then and their eyes met, gratitude and trepidation in his own, love and contrition mixed in hers. She finally broke the silence and his gaze, glancing about the chamber.
    "Do you need anything else here, Vincent? Are you ready to go?"
    Her words broke the spell enclosing him, and he too glanced about confusedly. For the life of him he couldn't recall what he'd had with him when he left for the work site this morning, and if they'd brought anything back on their return journey a few hours before, except for his sweater and thermal shirt, and those dusty items were nowhere in sight now. No doubt Mary had already had them sent to the laundry chamber. At any rate he could see nothing else laying about that appeared to belong to him, and finally shook his head no.
    "Let's go, then."
    Catherine tucked her hand around his left arm and moved towards the exit. Vincent followed obediently, still dazed by the events of the past two hours. The injury had been nothing - a little pain, a little blood - it would heal in no time. The break itself did make him nervous. He would have to remind Catherine of the urgent need for her to take extreme caution Above over the next two weeks until it was healed and he had his strength back in full force. God forbid anything should happen to her now, while he was so vulnerable, though in truth that was almost a moot point considering that she would be out of his reach entirely during that time regardless. That thought didn't make him feel any better - quite the contrary. His chaotic musings were interrupted by Father's voice, coming somewhere from behind them as they exited the hospital chamber.
    "Try not to get the cast wet, Vincent."
    Father called out the reminder somewhat absent-mindedly, and Catherine suspected he had had cause to use that phrase many times before with several of the more adventurous children of the tunnels. She wondered how many casts he had applied and re-applied over the course of his 35 years as resident physician to the tunnels. She grinned then, and wondered how many he had applied to this particular child over those same years. But those delightfully boyish imagines couldn't hold their place in her thoughts this day - now her mind was consumed with the very real and awe-inspiring image of the man the boy had become.
    Lost in that troubling daydream, she wandered by his side, completely oblivious to Vincent's hesitant sidelong glances at her as they made their way through the side tunnel from Father's chamber to his own. It wasn't until Vincent stepped back behind her slightly to usher her into his chamber that she had any idea they had arrived. It was still dark within, as it had been when she'd left it, but he guided her through the shadowy outlines unerringly, his left hand at the small of her back. In a moment the candles on the table were lit and the room was aglow with a cozy, golden light. After that, though, he paused, looking about himself uncertainly, the words 'what now?' hanging between them unspoken. He still wore his cloak, something he never did in his chamber, and in fact now held it protectively closed with his good hand, covering his bare chest from her sight.
    A sigh of sorrow escaped her at the thought that he was still frightened by what she might think of his appearance, but she ignored it for the moment, knowing that it would only make matters worse if she drew attention to them now. Instead she glanced about the chamber and her eyes fell upon his wash basin and pitcher on a small side table near the far wall. His brush sat beside them, and she moved to retrieve it then returned to his side, glancing at the two chairs near the table, one richly adorned, though worn with age and use, the other simple and plain.
    It wasn't his own high-backed chair with the worn velvet upholstery, more rust-hued than the red it must have once been, but rather the smaller one she usually sat upon, low-backed and unadorned, but with a simple comfort, which she pulled out from the table.
    "Sit down, Vincent."
    Early on in their relationship he had tried to insist that she sit in the upholstered chair when she visited, but she always refused, saying it was much too large to be comfortable for her. She had never told him the full truth - that she enjoyed the sight of him in that setting far too much to give it up for propriety's sake. He looked like a prince of a kingly realm seated there, and in a way she knew it was true - when Father was gone, Vincent would lead those here Below, that much was certain.
    But it wasn't that thought that pleased her so. No, it was the simple pleasure of seeing him surrounded in a sort of luxury that suited him, despite his humble disclaimers and origins. She wanted to give him so much, and yet he accepted so little. She was sure he would never believe that it was as much for her own pleasure that she wanted him seated thus before her.
    He had read to her often from that chair, lost in the words while she was lost in him, her eyes drinking in his beauty. Of course there were those times when she read to him, and as often as not he would choose to lounge upon his bed then, his eyes closed to convert the words to images in his vivid imagination. Sometimes, when she looked up unexpectedly, she would find his eyes upon her, intense and searching. Those times made her heart pound, but they were all too infrequent for her taste, and much too short-lived, for Vincent was rarely caught in such unguarded moments.
    That look was nowhere in evidence now. The dazed expression from before was still on his face, and she suddenly realized that the considerable strength of control and will so typically his had now deserted him. He hesitated for a moment, then sat down, still holding his cloak closed in a tightly clenched fist. Catherine lifted his hair back from his face until it tumbled behind him, over the low back of the plain chair, and a dry coating of dust sprinkling her fingers at that contact. Without another word she began to brush the dusky strands, a light cloud of rock powder drifting about his shoulders and down to the floor with each stroke.
    Much of his hair to the left side of his face was coated with thick mud, and it seemed apparent to her that he had turned away at the moment of the fall, his right arm bearing the brunt of the beam's weight, while the mud had cascaded over his other side, to the left. The rest of his hair was dusty, but relatively mud-free, and she began there. In moments she was lost in the sensual pleasure of her task. His hair was thick, but silky soft, and she had to rigidly control her desire to bury her fingers in that lush mane, concentrating instead on the tingling delight as she paused periodically to work loose a stubborn knot. She felt a stiff tension beneath her hands, but little by little it abated, until a shivery sigh escaped him and she felt him relax somewhat. He settled back in the chair, eyes closed, his hair cascading over the third and top rung of the chair. Slowly the drifting dust settled until there was no more, but she didn't stop. It wasn't often that he allowed her to touch him in such an intimate way - almost never, in fact - and she had no intention of stopping until it was absolutely necessary. When she had gotten as much dust out of the non-coated strands as possible, she began on the dried mass of mud-coated hair on the left side. She worked as gently as possible, using her fingers to try and loosen the thick mud from it. Some large chunks did break away, but in just a few minutes she realized how hopeless it was - it would never come out this way.
    "Vincent. There's no way I can brush this mud off your hair. I need to try to wash it out."
    Her hands rested at his shoulders and at her words she felt them tense up. She stroked gently there, trying to ease him from his fears - even for such a small thing as this. Just then, as if the fates themselves had had a hand in it, William called out from the outer tunnel.
    "Vincent? Catherine? Mary sent me with hot water."
    Vincent was silent, and after a slight pause, Catherine responded to the man waiting outside the chamber.
    "Come in, William."
    In one hand he carried a large tea kettle, steam lightly issuing from the spout. In the other he carried a pail full of water - apparently cool this time, by it's lack of steam on the surface.
    "My, oh my, Vincent," he observed, a chuckle in his voice, "I wondered why Mary asked me to bring so much! I don't know if it will be enough, though, now that I see you for myself." His voice changed then, the laugh disappearing entirely. "How do you feel? You had us all worried - again!"
    William shot him a piercing look, and Catherine easily saw that this was not the first time he had spoken those words to the man seated before him. But Vincent didn't take the bait, speaking simple words in a quiet voice which both communicated gratitude and dismissed those concerns out of hand.
    "Thank you, William."
    William had obviously had this conversation before, and wisely let the topic drop without another word. He was a man who gave comfort through nourishment, and he offered that now, instead.
    "I've got a nice stew ready, Vincent, would you like some? You should eat."
    "Not just yet, William. Perhaps later. Catherine, you should go and have supper. I should be cleaned up by the time you're finished..."
    "No, Vincent."
    She interrupted him, her voice firm.
    "You're going to try to go into the bathing pool, aren't you?"
    Vincent could never lie to her, and his sheepish expression easily confirmed her suspicions.
    "I'll be fine, believe me. I've done this before."
    She didn't reply, instead turning back to the big man who hesitated in the doorway, watching the exchange with interest.
    "I'll get something to eat later, William. Thank you for the water."
    Her words were polite but firm, and there was definitely a dismissal there. William's smile was somewhat chagrined, but he shrugged good-naturedly and quickly left them alone. Catherine wondered how quickly this story would make the rounds in his kitchen. When she was sure he was out of earshot, she turned back to Vincent.
    "I agree, Vincent - you'll never get this mud off of you here. You need to go into the pool, but I'm coming with you."
    "Catherine, no..."
    The shocked expression on his face almost made her giggle, but she kept a stern expression and cut off his reply mid-sentence.
    "Yes. You can go in by yourself, as long as you stay on the steps with your cast out of the water. I'll come in and wash your hair for you when you're ready. At least the warm water will soak most of the mud from you without making a mess here."
    "That isn't necessary, Catherine."
    His mouth was set in a stubborn line, and she changed her tact.
    "Is it so hard for you to accept this help from me, Vincent? You've taken care of me so many times, can't you allow me to do the same this once?"
    She had started out with the intent of shaming him into submission, but the words she spoke were true and their vocalization drew a visceral response from her she hadn't anticipated, her eyes welling up with tears. She turned away, inexplicably embarrassed to have him see that sudden, unexpected response and surreptitiously brushed the tears from her cheeks with a trembling hand. She sighed, realizing that despite their advances of a few weeks ago, they still had so far to go. Finally, when she felt in command of her own voice again, she offered him a compromise, resigned to giving up her place as care-giver to someone else Below.
    "If you aren't comfortable with me there, I'll get Cullen or Kanin or one of the others to help you, but you're not going alone."
    His hand on her shoulder startled her and she turned, amazed to find him so close.
    "I'm sorry, Catherine. Come with me, please?"
    She gasped in surprise and her eyes flew to his searchingly. She read dismay and sorrow there and knew it was because he had hurt her, along with amazement that such a thing were possible. Beyond that, though, she also saw resolution. She stood with her mouth agape, astonished by his unexpected capitulation, and before she could say a word he had turned for the chamber exit. She started abruptly, then turned quickly to his wardrobe, removing a nightshirt, slippers and robe from it, before hurrying out after him. He was already out of sight, but there was only one direction to go, and she turned left at his exit, moving slowly to give him the time she knew he needed.
    The bathing pool Vincent used was a private one - the only non-public pool Below. It was located in a side passage, between his and Father's chambers, isolated from the rest of the inhabited areas. About 30 yards or so down from Vincent's chamber she reached the entrance to the pool, but paused outside of it, off to the side.
    "Vincent?" she called out softly. "Tell me when you're ready. And be careful!"
    "Just a minute, Catherine."
    His response was a husky whisper, but she heard it clearly enough. A few minutes later she heard a very quiet, but unmistakable sound of lapping water followed shortly thereafter by his voice.
    "You can come in now."
    She took a deep breath, held it for a moment before releasing it with a rush, then rounded the corner and stepped within. The single torch resting in it's wall niche midway between the two entrances to the chamber wasn't lit, as it typically was. Instead three candles sat along the ledge on that same wall, providing a much lower level of light, barely more than a golden glow of highlight and relief shadows which almost shimmered about the rocky walls and floor of the chamber. It took a moment to realize that phenomenon was from the almost non-existent lapping of the water in the pool, the candlelight bouncing off its rippling smoothness to reflect on the walls, leaving the dark, wet surface almost invisible in its wake.
    And in that darkness she found him, waiting in stillness, at the edge of the pool near the other exit. He stood on one of the lower step benches carved about the pool's periphery, perpendicular to the wall of the pool, his back to her. The water began just six inches below the floor of the chamber and reached about midway to his ribs where he stood. The position of the bench put him at a height which allowed him to easily rest his injured right arm and cast on the chamber floor, clear of the water. He stood unmoving for a moment, as if he'd paused that way a moment since. The frozen tableau ended as, with his head tipped slightly to the left, he slowly scooped up some water with a small pitcher in his left hand and poured it over his mud-caked hair.
    The light was so low she could barely see his outline, but even that small glimpse of his muscled back and narrow waist made her shiver with delight. Even in this light she could discern the broad width of his shoulders and the delineated lines of muscles and tendons in his arm as he lifted it slowly to pour the water. She watched it cascade over his hair, less seen than actually sensed in the dim bouncing of light about him. Only a moment passed while she gazed at him in awe, and when she realized what she was doing, she closed her eyes tightly and clamped down on her emotions to protect him from them as much as possible.
    When she opened her eyes again she wore a look of resolute determination and firmness. She turned to the ledge at her right and saw the sling he had set there, along with the leather pouch which held her rose, next to the candles. She set his nightclothes beside them, then turned along the walkway to the other door. Next to it sat two wicker baskets and she reached down to pull out a cake of soap, a vial of shampoo, a large sponge and three fluffy towels from one. In the second basket she noticed his muddy trousers crumpled up and waiting for the cleaning crew. She spared them only a passing glance before moving to his suddenly motionless form. He still hadn't spoken. When she stood near his right shoulder and arm, just behind him, she dropped one of the folded towels on the ground and then knelt upon it. Her hand reached out across his back to lightly rest on the tense muscles of his left shoulder for a moment before sliding down it's length and tugging him a bit closer to the pool wall. His stillness ended abruptly when her hand broke the water line, slipping beneath. His hand jerked up in response, bringing hers above the water with it and then froze. She gently slid along his fingers until she found the small tin pitcher in his hand then eased it from his grasp.
    "Here, let me," she said, her voice a low, comforting whisper that seemed perfectly suited to their cozy surroundings.
    With one hand she smoothed his matted locks back from his face and with the other poured the warm water over them, stroking along their length with her fingers to loosen the dried mud. Over and over again she repeated those soothing motions, her actions almost hypnotic, until most of the dirt was loosened. Finally she set the pitcher down and poured out some shampoo, rubbing her hands together to spread the slick lotion between her fingers and palms. He waited in stillness until her hands began to firmly rub the gel throughout his hair and scalp.
    At the touch of her fingers upon him, he tensed noticeably beneath her fingers, but a moment later a shiver shuddered through him and he closed his eyes in resignation. Her hands and fingers moved caressingly upon him, both gentle and firm at the same time. It felt so good. He couldn't believe she was touching him like that, that he stood in the pool naked - naked! - while she knelt beside him, her hands moving over him in a chore both strangely domestic and erotic. The very idea of being like this with her was unacceptable, it was madness, but this time, for some reason he couldn't grasp, he couldn't send her away. Warm water surrounded him, deep and dark and soothing, while her touch eased away the pain and fears of the day, along with the loneliness and doubts which always filled him in her absence. Amazingly, astonishingly, he felt his muscles relax abruptly in a quivering fall. His shoulders sagged forward even as his head leaned back into her hands, pressing against her touch, seeking it out.
Catherine felt his capitulation instantly, her fingers pausing for a moment as a sense of elation filled her. She didn't let it overwhelm her, though, and almost immediately continued on as before. After a few minutes she rinsed away the soapy water, then began again, this time fairly sure his hair was free of the dirt by the silky feel of the soapy wet strands under her palms. Finally she dipped her hands beneath the watery surface to rinse them off - careful not to startle or frighten him with a motion too close to his body - and then pressed a warm, wet palm to his forehead, urging him to lean back for the final rinse. The pitcher of warm water was filled over and over again as she poured it upon his hair, stripping the suds away until she felt none remaining.
    Vincent was lost in the sensual well surrounding him. The feel of Catherine ministering to him in such an intensely intimate way touched him deeply. How, in light of his response to this simple touch as she washed his hair, could he ever imagine that he could allow anything of a more truly intimate nature between them?! Impossible, unthinkable...
    And yet he couldn't stop thinking of it.
    Lately his thoughts had been consumed with her, with the feel of her in his arms, of her pressed close to the aching planes of his body, of her lips nuzzling lovingly and longingly against his own...
    Oh god, could he ever have imagined anything like the sensation of her kiss?!
    No, it was beyond anything he had ever dreamed.
    Ever since that night, that last night before she'd left, he could think of little else but that devastating kiss. How he'd missed her during those seventeen days! Many times he'd wondered, his heart heavy with the doubts and fears that so often consumed him in her absence, if it was possible that he'd dreamed that kiss. It seemed too perfect, too precious to be real, to have existed in the world he inhabited and had grown to know. How could she have done it? Did she know what she did? Could she possibly have the faintest idea what it did to him, her kiss? And would she ever have done such a thing if she had known?!
    He couldn't make himself answer that question in the affirmative - it was just too far outside the parameters of what he had grown to expect for his own life. But despite his doubts and despite his fears, despite his absolute certainty that such a thing could never be, he couldn't stop thinking of it, dreaming of it, wishing for it... again.
    And now, finally, she was here, back in his world where he needed her so. His throat tightened at the poignancy of that thought, at the merest flicker of acknowledgment of what she meant to him and to his life. It was overwhelming. Lost in that introspective musing, he was caught by surprise when he felt the softness of a soapy sponge stroking gently along his forehead, cheekbones and chin. Her touch was so tender it made him want to weep. Against the natural instincts of a lifetime, he kept his head tilted back to accommodate her touch, intensely aware of the vulnerable exposure of his throat as her hand stroked warm, rinsing water along its length.
    A moment later his eyes flew open in shocked surprise, looking down to see her hand moving the sponge across his shoulders and upper chest. He still stood as he had before, sideways to the edge of the pool, his right arm resting on the chamber floor with     Catherine kneeling behind it, near his back, but her arm curved around his right shoulder now, washing the grime from his chest. He gasped in astonishment at the sight of her hand moving upon him and stood frozen, uncertain what to do next. At that moment she spoke, forestalling the necessity of his own response, at least for the time being, which was a good thing, considering he was almost incoherent with trepidation.
    "Are you getting tired, Vincent? Is the pain pill Father gave you working? I'm almost done, then you can go to bed. It's been a long day."
    She required no reply, that much was obvious, and he was gratefully silent, concentrating fully on the sensations of her touch, on everything about her as she surrounded him so lovingly. Her voice was low and soothing, and as she spoke her left arm came up to rest across his back, her hand cupping his far shoulder, one hand holding him, the other stroking the soapy sponge upon his breast in a gentle, caressing motion. He stood naked within her embrace, and began to tremble. It was too much... too much. Her touch, so simple and yet so devastatingly erotic, seared him, every nerve in his body tuned to her and the slightest contact of their skin. A shuddering moan escaped him, low and almost silent, but he knew she'd heard, though she made no sign.
    "Just let me get your arm and back and I'll be done."
    With the sponge still in hand, her right hand met the left at his shoulder, urging him to turn, to face her completely. He moved to her bidding, completely unable to resist, despite the fear which gripped him. This position helped, though, strangely enough. He faced her now, true, but the wall of the pool was directly before him, between them, as it were, and, illogical though he knew it was, he suddenly felt the tiniest bit safer and less exposed, despite the darkness of the water which had acted as an effective shield so far.  He couldn't dwell on that thought for long, though, the momentary relief of anxiety only that - momentary - as she began to wash his left shoulder, working her way down his arm and then back up again, all the way to his armpit. Though she was careful to make the motions as innocent as possible, he found them intensely sensual, the sensations full of erotic implications and imagery. He clamped down on those feelings fiercely, afraid that she might actually feel them from him this night, they were so strong. She was rinsing the soap from his arm when he had finally gained control once more.
    "Lean forward, Vincent."
    Her hands tugged his shoulders gently and he realized she needed to reach his back by leaning over him. Both arms now rested on the chamber floor, at either side of her kneeling legs, and he obediently bent his head forward, his wet hair cascading about her thighs to enclose and cover both them and him, hiding the confusion of emotions that trembled across his face. Her hand pressed gently against his head, turning his face until his cheek lay against her lap. He resisted for a moment, but she held him gently and the softness beneath him, the comforting feel and scent of her was too much, and he gave in, resting his head on the soft haven she provided. In moments she had soaped up the sponge once more and was stroking it along his upper back and shoulders. Slowly, gently, she moved downward, washing his quivering muscles with a degree of tenderness that he found excruciating in its poignancy.  She stroked down to just below the waterline on his skin - about four inches above his waist - but proceeded no further, and he breathed out a gusting sigh of relief. Soon she would rinse the last of the soap from him and it would be over.
    But she didn't, not for a while. Instead she continued to gently wash him, her touch a caress he felt in the deepest part of himself. It felt as if she wanted to touch him like this, as if she weren't simply doing it to help him in a task he couldn't easily do for himself this night. But no, that couldn't be... Could it?! He shuddered, unable in that moment to convince himself of what he had always been certain of in the past. Whatever her rationale, whatever her motivation, for this night, for this moment, he would take those sensations into himself and hold them close to remember always her gentle touch. A languorous wave enveloped him and he gave in to it.
    Catherine felt his head grow heavy upon her thighs, felt his body give in to her touch, and rejoiced at that small victory. For a moment she paused in her ministrations, her arms crossing about his back to hold him close, soap and water saturating through the thin white blouse and beige khaki's she wore. He was half asleep now, and didn't seem to notice, but rather cuddled closer, nuzzling his face against her softness. She closed her eyes tight and clenched her teeth against the moan building in her throat and tightened her embrace about him, holding it longer than had originally been her intent.
    With him resting against her she decided to indulge herself just a little bit more, and so went on with her caressing strokes. A thought occurred to her and after a momentary pause she set the sponge aside on the chamber floor and continued on with her bare hands only, the soap slick and slippery beneath her palms and fingers. She stroked along him gently, as she had before, only now she could feel every ripped sinew and muscle of his corded frame. The intent to be as clinical as possible flew from her mind at the touch of him beneath her, her cleansing strokes shifting subtly to deeper, massaging caresses as she rinsed and stroked the suds away from the downy gold coating him. She explored him tenderly, finding each long, defined muscle to trace it completely, over and over again. God, he was so beautiful!
    Time passed but she was completely unaware of anything but the body of the man she loved beneath her soothing hands.     Suddenly a new sensation entered her awareness. It was a soft yet sharp stroking and kneading along the outer edges of her calves, through the light cotton of her slacks. It came from Vincent. She looked down at the amazing sight of him resting against her, his head pillowed by her thighs, long locks, darkened by water and dim light, cascading over her lap and down about her kneeling legs. From there her eyes traced the impressive expanse of his naked back and shoulders, down his heavily muscled biceps. His arms, from elbow to wrist, rested on the floor, along either side of her calves, and his hands opened and closed in a repetitive motion over and over again, fingers and clawed nails kneading lightly, compellingly against her skin. With outstretched, open hands he began at her bare ankles, scraping upward over the edge of her slacks and along her calves. Even the cast upon his right arm didn't impede the actions of his fingers as they moved in that instinctive motion, closing upon her, sharp nails pressing against her sensitive skin to stroke again along the fleshy part of her outer calves, between her ankles and knees. With each repeating motion his nails pressed longer against bare flesh, slipping beneath the thin leg of her trousers to stroke her skin directly. She knew that when she looked closely later, she would find tiny red scrapes along her skin, and a sudden shiver winged through her at the intensely erotic image that thought brought, culminating in a convulsive tightening of the muscles at her very core. She shuddered in response, her whole body reacting to this amazingly erotic touch. Her nipples hardened and she felt the most intimate, feminine part of her body tremble for his touch, longing for it in a way that took her utterly by surprise, a convulsive tremor quivering through her. It happened immediately, a creamy heat building at her center, all for him, only him. She responded instinctively, pressing a soapy hand against one breast in a futile attempt to stem the desire that throbbed through her so insistently.
    Vincent felt it, of course, - how could he not? His head jerked up from her lap and his hands closed tightly about her ankles, enclosing her deliciously between his body and arms. Sleepy eyes stared up at her, confusion and desire mixed there, and she suspected he couldn't tell her what had inspired those tremulous emotions now filling him, only that they had woken him, the strength of their call a thing the bond ensured he would respond to always. With a will she hadn't known she had, Catherine clamped down on the sensations singing through her own body and brushed a tender hand along his brow, pushing the damp strands back.
    "All done, Vincent."
    Her own smile trembled slightly and her voice shook - she couldn't stop it altogether - but she thought she did a credible job of controlling her emotions and hoped her eyes didn't betray her shattered sensibilities. It was impossible, of course. He was motionless before her, his gaze locked deeply to hers, and she watched as he absorbed the sensations of the bond, actually feeling that heady transfer this time as he probed the bond, the trials of this day weakening his control. She saw comprehension slowly fill his face as waking alertness began to replace the sleepy haze of a moment ago. Finally his gaze drifted downward to encompass the kneeling form before him. His eyes swept over her body and she knew there was no hiding her arousal from him, the hardened tips of her breasts clearly visible through the thin, wet cotton of her blouse. The thighs of her slacks, too, from hip to knee, were darkened and wet from his head resting against her, and she saw him pause there for a moment. A jolt shuddered through her stomach as she caught the almost imperceptible flaring of his nostrils and realized he was drawing in her scent.
    Given the events of the last few minutes that was heady knowledge indeed, and she stayed absolutely still, completely uncertain of what to do next. A sudden gasp escaped him, followed by the abrupt release of his hold upon her legs. He stepped back and clutched the edge of the pool with trembling fingers, a desperate look in his eyes, and she responded immediately, hurrying to ease his growing anxiety, feeling all of it through the chaotic turmoil of their bond. Looking about blindly she found the two towels she'd left resting to her right, and picking one up, began to press it's fluffy softness against his hair, urging the last of the remaining water from it's strands.
    "I'll do that."
    His voice was raspy, tense and low and she responded to the command there immediately, releasing the towel to his waiting hand.  He didn't continue on with that task, though, but rather held the towel before him, covering a portion of his suddenly heaving chest from her view. She sat back, quiet before him, still not sure what he needed from her, until his next words told her.
    "Would you have William bring some herbal tea to my chamber? He'll know what I want."
    His voice was brusque, the words awkward, stiff and short, and she didn't miss the implication of his words 'have William bring'.   He wanted her to leave him now, to let him have the time and space he needed to regain his control once more. It wasn't really a question, and with a resigned sigh she gave her tacit acceptance to it all, answering the more superficial request and ignoring the rest.
    "Yes, of course."
    She stood up slowly and turned to leave, but at the chamber exit turned back to him for a moment in hesitation.
    "Vincent, be careful getting out, all right?"
    "Yes."
    His response was so softly spoken she wasn't sure she really heard it at all. He was a still shadow in the pool now, no motion apparent. She stared at him for a moment longer, then turned and left.
Vincent stood motionless until he heard her retreating footsteps disappear, then his breath released with a rush and he fell against the wall before him, grateful for the support of the buoying waters, his knees suddenly weak. He pressed his cheek to the cold, hard stone of the chamber floor, trying to banish the sensation of her soft thighs. They'd left an imprint upon him that was beyond physical, beyond emotional. He only had to close his eyes to feel it again, and completely against his will did so, the soothing and erotic feel of her coming to the forefront immediately, as if he still rested against her. He jerked away from the stone with a cry of dismay, pressing his palms flat to the floor with a desperate strength. His body burned for her, and he stood tensely still, trying to dissipate the strength of that desire, his arousal pulsing like white heat between his thighs. He focused intently, but nothing worked, finally pressing himself against the hard stone of the pool wall, his straining erection pressed tight between it and his belly. He pushed hard, hoping the pain would diminish all else, and finally, as he gained further control over his emotions and the bond, his body followed suit. His quivering muscles collapsed and he gave a groaning sigh of relief, pressing a trembling hand to his flushed and heated face. Slowly he left the pool, feeling unutterably wearied. He had been successful in banishing those emotions, but oh, how he wished he could immerse himself within them again, to surrender to them completely, with Catherine.
    At that traitorous thought he gave his head a sharp shake, banishing that image along with the others. No. Nothing had changed.     This was not meant to be, and he had to be the one who was strong, because only he knew the full dangers associated with such a foolish course. He had to be strong for them both.
    Once out of the water he quickly wrapped the towel he held about his waist, wincing at the touch of the fabric against his hypersensitive flesh. He picked up the other two by the side of the pool, and paused for a moment, then lifted the folded one she had knelt on and held it to his face, breathing in strongly to catch her elusive scent upon it. It was there, though barely, and the memory came back full force of his waking awareness of her. The delicate tendrils of her scent wafted around him, a heady, tantalizing aroma that called him to her with a force that astonished him. There was no resisting that call, and no resisting her, not when he had allowed her so close.
    His eyes flew open and he gasped in dismay, searching hastily about the chamber to ensure that he was still alone. What was happening to him?! No matter what he did, no matter how strong his intentions, he came back to her, the thought, sight, sound, feel and scent of her as real in his mind now as she had been a moment ago while in this very chamber. She was a fever in his blood, but he'd always had a level of control that allowed him to deal with it in the past, which seemed to have deserted him this day.
    A sigh whispered through the darkened room, the sound soft but filled with a desperation that spoke to the fears of the man within. Looking down to the two towels in his hand, he resignedly tossed the fresh one aside, using the folded, compressed one she'd knelt on to towel off his body as well as he was able with one hand. When he patted the tender skin of his inner thighs, brushing gently against the sensitive flesh above, a gasping groan escaped him and he quickly moved on, stopping long before the golden hair on his body was actually dry.
    He dressed quickly then, suddenly afraid that she might come back, wondering about his absence. He had absolutely no concept of how much time had passed since he'd sent her away, and that was more telling than anything else, for he always - always! - had as true a sense of the passing time as he did for compass directions, whether Above with the constellation landmarks to guide him, or Below, in shadowed darkness.
    He slipped her pouch about his neck with reverent care, handling it very cautiously, as he always did. The sling was next, and went on with relative ease, as did his slippers, but the nightshirt was another matter. It had ties on the front, from about midway on up, and he was able to pull it over his head and insert his left arm with a little effort. However the bulk of his cast-enclosed right arm within the shirt made it uncomfortably tight, and after a minute he untied the front laces and slipped the right sleeve down beneath the sling, baring his right shoulder and bits of his chest, down to his navel, which just peeked through the slight opening beneath his cast. He contemplated his disheveled appearance for a moment with dismay, feeling completely exposed and vulnerable, then shrugged resignedly and pulled his robe about his broad shoulders, holding it tightly closed to protect what little of his modesty still remained. Despite the thick softness of that material, he still felt indecently underdressed, especially with Catherine Below. He paused for another moment, considering his options, then ruefully shook his head - there were none - and headed out the door and down the side passage to his chamber.
    In a moment he was there. He hesitated just outside the chamber, his senses tuned within, and with a sigh of relief entered quickly once he realized it was empty. The pain pill Father had given him was hard at work now - they always made him extremely sleepily - and he knew he couldn't stay awake much longer. With a searching glance at the door, his senses tuned outward this time, he threw his robe aside and slipped beneath the covers, moving awkwardly to the center of the bed and drawing the blankets up to cover him to his chin. That priority accomplished, he reached his left hand up to try and rearrange the pillows behind him to a more comfortable position, wincing in pain as his arm throbbed within the cast at the straining motions of his torso. Catherine had been right about the bathing pool, he ruefully acknowledged to himself - he never could have done it by himself, not this time.
    "Here, Vincent, let me help."
    Catherine. His eyes flew to the chamber entrance with surprise and found her standing there, a tray in hand. How could he have missed her arrival?! That thought was quickly followed by a rushing sense of relief that he had arrived just in time to get himself covered before her sudden appearance. She set the tray down at his writing table and hurried over to him, a look of concern and fierce protectiveness in her eyes. He clutched the bedclothes to him as she helped him to an upright, seated position, gasping at the feel of her warm hand against his back, part of her palm resting on the bare flesh left exposed from the dropped right sleeve of his shirt. He resolutely ignored those sensations and waited tensely while she straightened and fluffed the pillows behind him. A moment later and her hand was upon his shoulder, pressing him gently back, and he followed her urging gratefully, resting against the comfortable softness.
    He was speechless, from all that had transpired between them this day, but luckily she had turned away to return to the tea at the center of the room. He watched her pour out two cups, the scent of the soothing blend filling his chamber and inexplicably calming him, and waited for her return, a little more composed than a moment before.
    Finally she turned back to him, her hands holding two delicate china saucers with steaming cups upon them, their patterns mismatched on all four pieces, the effect somehow charming. She set them both upon his bedside table and settled herself cautiously on the bed by his side, careful not to jar him. He had to smile at that, wondering how in the world she could suppose that her slight weight could ever hurt him. That thought brought forth another, darker one, though, and he winced in pain, turning his gaze downward for a moment to hide it from her.
    "William said this is his blend for healing, and that it will also help you sleep. Is this the one you wanted?"
    Her voice was soft and casual, and he realized that she was determined to ease him past the chaotic emotions of their time in the pool. He accepted her offer gratefully, following her lead, his voice still husky and soft, but fairly stable at last.
    "Yes. William has quite a few different herbal blends for different uses. Some recipes he gets from our helpers Above - especially from Chinatown - but a few he's developed himself over the years. This is one of them, and it works particularly well."
    "You need to be more careful, Vincent. I think you've required this tea all too often."
    Her words were serious, but her teasing smile lightened them somewhat, and he found himself smiling in return, instinctively responding to her emotions, as he always did. He took the cup from the saucer as she held it before him and lifted it to smell the enticing aroma, taking a sip of the hot brew before responding almost absent-mindedly.
    "I try, Catherine, but sometimes it's not always possible to anticipate everything that might occur."
    "I know."
    The words were short and innocuous in and of themselves, but something in the tone of her voice made him glance up from the cup, his eyes locking with hers. Yes, she knew it wasn't always possible to avoid danger, and he knew she wasn't just speaking of her own work - and that was extremely dangerous, as they both knew - but also of the risks they took in simply being together, in pursuing their happy life, uncertain what that might possibly entail for a couple such as they.
    "Vincent, tell me the truth. Did I distract you today when I came Below? Is that what happened just before the beam slipped?"
    She was very serious now, and he couldn't respond with anything less than the truth, though he hesitated over it, extremely uncomfortable with such intimate revelations, even to her... especially to her.
    "No, Catherine, it wasn't that. I knew you were Below, but I didn't lose my concentration, not then..."
    She frowned at the ambiguous phrasing of his last words as they trailed off, knowing there was something more, but she didn't speak, waiting for him to tell her or not, as he chose.
    He sighed, wishing it was within his power to conceal from her what he considered necessary, but he was incapable of lying to her outright, even by omission. He had tried that before, during that painful episode with Lisa and then later with Michael, and learned the hard way that he could withhold nothing from her. Finally, inevitably, he continued.
    "I was so happy and relieved you were home, and somehow I couldn't stop myself from thinking about the last time we were together, just before you left..."
    His voice trailed off again, the words unfinished, but this time no more was necessary. Comprehension flooded her face and he knew she was aware of the meeting he spoke of - of the exact moment he had recalled which had in turn distracted him at such a crucial time - of the kiss they'd shared on her balcony that early morning seventeen days ago.
    A drop of hot tea splashed against his thumb and he looked down in surprise to see the cup shaking in his trembling hand. Catherine saw it, too, and her hand rose to cover his, holding it steady. His gaze lifted to hers once more and the look there was yearning and vulnerable, a chaotic mix of trepidation and despair softened by love and longing. She leaned in to him, her left arm circling his shoulder and back carefully, then pressed her cheek against his, holding him gently, ever-mindful of the injured arm in its cast between them.
    "Oh, Vincent."
    Her voice was soft and soothing, warm breath wafting against the sensitive flesh of his ear, sending a shiver of pleasure down his spine. The trembling of his hand began again, but he knew it only when he felt her response, her own hand tightening about his, the cup held tight and steady between them.
    She held him for a few minutes more, then finally leaned back, slipping her arm from his shoulder and taking the cup to set it on the table once more. Turning back to him she brushed a drying, golden strand of hair back from his beautiful face.
    "It's not fair, Vincent. Our bond keeps me safe, but it puts you at risk. If only you didn't feel it so strongly..."
    "Shhh..."
    He pressed a finger lightly to her lips, stilling her words, and she looked up at him, obediently silent, a question in her eyes.
    "I would endure anything, Catherine - anything! - rather than lose the smallest thread of my sense of you. You can't know what it means to me, to feel you so close. Sometimes..."
    He hesitated a moment, and she was almost certain she could she a reddening of his complexion, though she couldn't quite be sure.
    "Sometimes you're so close to me it's as if we were one being, one soul, one entity... One."
    She gasped at the look in his face as he spoke those words, a trembling vibration growing in her at their intimacy.
    "You've changed my life in ways I can't begin to describe and I can never go back to what was before. You are my life, Catherine, only you, my love, only you...
    Her mouth opened in an almost silent cry then her eyes closed, the words echoing through her. She had waited so long to hear it, so long, and now she immersed herself in the aftermath of that sound, hearing it over and over again as she nestled it close to her fluttering heart. When she finally opened her eyes they were full of tears. Vincent stared at her, a perplexed look of confusion on his face. She could easily read his thoughts, with or without the bond. He couldn't believe he'd said those words to her, not after the resolutions he had most likely made only minutes before, while she was getting the tea. She smiled tremulously, her lashes glinting wetly, but made no move, determined not to push him further this day, though her need of him was almost overwhelming now, her whole heart and mind and soul open to him, her body yearning towards him like a flower.
    She was so beautiful! Her eyes were full of a light that had to have some origin other than earth, and her ivory skin appeared almost translucent in the golden glow of the candlelight surrounding her. Her lips were full and lush and he didn't know how he could possibly not kiss her...
    His left hand reached up to cup her silky cheek and she leaned into his palm, her eyes drifting closed once more. Her head fell back slowly, the long column of her throat pulsing before him, filling him with a growing hunger to taste that tender flesh, to kiss the pulse beating just beneath her ear and trace it down to the delicate hollow where her collar bones met. As if she heard his very thoughts, her face turned into his cupping hand, exposing the long line of her neck with the beating artery plainly apparent. Her lips pressed a warm kiss at the center of his palm, nuzzling his bare skin and inspiring an erotic tension in him all out of proportion to that touch. A gasping groan escaped him and he regretfully slid his hand away, sliding it down her throat to the curve of her neck, finally coming to rest at the safe turn of her rounded shoulder. He squeezed her gently, that touch meant to give her comfort in the absence of any other, and was shocked when instead she winced and gasped. He immediately felt her pain, his eyes widening in dismay.
    "You're hurt!"
    He sat up quickly, dismissing the protesting pain in his own arm, and touched her shoulder gently.
    "It's nothing, Vincent, just a bruise. I forgot it was there, that's all."
    He stared at her intently for a moment, then began to undo the top buttons of her blouse, just as Father had done in his study earlier this day, only he wasn't Father and this wasn't the same. He tugged open the blouse and pushed the right sleeve down and she was deeply grateful that she had at least put on a thin strapped T-shirt this morning when she had decided against a bra. Not that it did much good. Her nipple was plainly apparent through the thin-ribbed cotton, it's tip hard and protruding, and she blushed profusely as she sat before him, a desperate urge growing within to raise her hand and cover herself, to protect his sensibilities as well as her own. The contradiction to her feelings was the worst of all. How she longed to give him the gift of her naked body, to see the pleasure in his face when he finally accepted that gift. But he wasn't yet ready, and that made a tremendous difference.
    But Vincent wasn't looking at her breast. As she had done earlier this day, his attention was focused solely on what pained her, to the exclusion of everything else - at least for now. He traced the palm-sized purple-ish bruise gently, his eyes finally raising to meet hers.
    "You did this on your way down. I thought I felt something, but it was gone so quickly."
    "Yes. I bumped it rounding the corner to your chamber. I always miscalculate that angle," she said with a chuckle. "It's nothing, Vincent."
    His eyes were still on hers and he finally nodded slightly, willingly admitting that some hurts were nothing, and that some were worth the pain. Still, his fingers stroked her shoulder softly and his gaze lowered once more to inspect the multi-colored spectrum growing there.
    "Devin and I used to show off bruises like this one. The bigger it got, and the more colors that showed up, the better it was."
    He chuckled then, too, and she smiled at the image of those two small boys trying to outdo each other with the numerous and inevitable bumps and bruises of youth.
    "Well, I'd be happy to have a contest with you. I think it's possible that mine will be more colorful than yours if nothing else," she said, a roguish glint in her eye.
    The laughter in her eyes disappeared suddenly, replaced with something altogether different, when he leaned forward and pressed a kiss at the center of the purple bruise, holding it a moment before pulling away. When their eyes met again his were hazy and confused. She recognized that look. It was the same one he'd worn that day when he'd kissed the blood from her hand, after she'd scratched it on a thorn from her rose-bush. For a moment she had been sure - absolutely sure - he was going to kiss her, despite his initial attempt to draw away, but the inevitable knock at the door had come and the moment was lost. Suddenly a firm resolution filled her.
    She would not allow this moment to be lost.
    Her hand came up to cup his chin, just as he tried to pull back - as he had done on her balcony before, as she'd known he would here now. He froze instantly when she touched him, a strange look on his face. She leaned in slowly, watching him watch her. His eyes stayed locked to hers until the very end, and then lowered inevitably to her lips. His bottom lip quivered in anticipation and she shivered in response, desperate to ease his fears and bring him pleasure, even if only by a simple kiss. Finally their lips met, touched lightly and held, the barest contact between them. She turned her head slightly, angling her lips to his and suddenly they melted together, every inch of her silky lips in close contact with his own
    Vincent gasped in shocked amazement, not anticipating the sensations of that touch. Though he'd felt it twice before, it was as if it were the first time. He couldn't contain the rumbling groan that was building within, and neither could he take his lips from hers, the sound vibrating against their sensitive skin and adding to the heightened sense of eroticism now surrounding them. At that sound Catherine's stillness ended and she began to nuzzle lovingly along the full curve of his lower lip, nipping his tender flesh until he thought he couldn't stand it a moment longer. This was so much more intense a touch than the one they'd shared more than two weeks ago, and that amazed him. He had been certain then that nothing could possibly come close to the sensations that kiss had inspired.
    He was wrong.
    Her touch invaded his soul, taking possession completely, and he was her willing victim, the emotions that kiss inspired drawn eagerly from him through their pulsing bond. In this moment, in this place and time, he was incapable of resistance.
    He tasted so good! She couldn't stop, though she had been determined to keep this kiss light and non-threatening, especially in light of the earlier turmoil he'd endured this day. But he tasted so good... She nibbled at the corners of his lips, seeking out those delicate spots and his mouth dropped open with a groan. A spicy scent assailed her nostrils and she drew it in deeply with her tongue, licking at the hidden, secret flesh at the outer corners of his mouth. She had yearned to explore them for so long. He trembled before her, but he didn't pull away, though she made sure that he could, should he feel the need to put some distance between them. She sat facing him, her hip lightly touching his own, a safe distance between them ensured by his bulky cast. Her left arm hung down at her side while only her right hand touched him, cupping his cheek and stroking it gently as they kissed. The tips of her breasts just brushed his cast, and she found herself swaying against it with a groaning sigh, pressing her nipples lightly upon that hard surface to ease the ache growing there.
    Vincent's hand still rested on her own shoulder, his touch light and gentle against the bruised flesh there, but suddenly she felt it slip away, tracing over her shoulder and down her back in a touch so light it was almost unfelt. His hand stopped at her waist, easing gently around to the small of her back to pull her closer. With a low moan she leaned across his lap until she could safely press the right side of her torso along his left, well out of the way of his cast. A rumble began deep in his chest at that contact, the sensation of her almost-bared breast against his nightshirt-clad chest shocking him completely. Her left arm slipped up and about his neck and she pulled his head down more firmly against hers to deepen the kiss, her body almost reclining along his lap and torso now.
    "Oh, Catherine, Catherine!"
    He cried out to her, his voice husky and hoarse, his mouth pulled from hers for just a moment until he bent to her again, pressing his lips upon hers once more. She paused suddenly, a new sensation making itself felt. When he'd pressed his lips back to hers, she'd felt a momentary nip, not from his top and bottom lip, but from the top lip alone. She moved to that source in an instant, and felt him freeze, a new tension apparent in the muscles of his body against her. She paused for a moment, considering what it could mean, then hesitantly, slowly, continued on, kissing along his top lip and nuzzling its silky surface lovingly and thoroughly before settling at the very center. She pressed a kiss to the cleft there, then another, and another, each time nuzzling a little deeper to feel that tender flesh part beneath her. Suddenly she reached the secret, slick flesh of the inner lining and was rewarded with a loud, gasping groan from Vincent in response.
    He pulled away abruptly and their eyes locked, a look of shocked amazement in her own and dazed hunger mixed with trepidation in his. She would never have guessed that this was such an erogenous zone for him, though of course he had to know. And the look of fear on his face now confirmed that thought easily, and also told her at least a little bit more about why he'd always been so strict at enforcing a physical distance between them. He was afraid she would be repulsed by this discovery, would find it alien, different, disgusting. And this, no doubt, was only one of what he probably considered many physical differences about his body that would do so.
    Her breath came fast and hard, the beat of her pulse felt in every part of her body. How could she convince him that he had nothing to fear? That this newly discovered facet of him thrilled and intrigued her more than she could possibly say? She stared up at him, love and longing shining in her eyes, wanting him back. If she kissed him again now, she knew it would be almost impossible to stop, and she could tell from the look of fear in his face that he wasn't yet ready for that. And yet he needed some reassurance, something he wouldn't be able to discount later as a trick of his imagination, as something borne of his desiring heart alone, separate and apart from her.
    "Vincent," she whispered "don't you know how much I want to give you pleasure? Can't you feel what it does to me when I do?"
    She reached up a shaking hand and gently traced his trembling lips, stroking their silky softness in a reverent caress before finally stopping at the center of his mouth.
    "Do you really believe that anything about you could repulse me?"
    At those words he squeezed his eyes closed and flinched, a painful acknowledgment clear in his posture before her.
    "I saw you today."
    His eyes flew open wide and sought hers out, a questioning, fearful confusion there.
    "You always hide from me, afraid I'll be disgusted by your body, by your differences. But I'm not disgusted, Vincent, not at all."
    Her serious words were suddenly broken by a chuckle and he stared at her in astonishment.
    "I saw you today, and I loved what I saw."
    Her hand left his mouth and slid down his throat slowly, caressing that tender, vulnerable flesh with a lover's touch. She paused for a moment to trace the hollow dip at the base before slipping lower, pushing the covers down with her exploring fingers to expose the left side of his chest, left vulnerable by the untied opening of his nightshirt. She stared at that muscled expanse in awe, her fingers frozen for a moment. Finally they whispered into the rough thatch of silky gold coating him. She caressed him lovingly, stroking her fingers deep into the lush curls to sensually scrape her nails against his bare skin, feeling the trembling of his tense muscles beneath her hand. She watched the movement of her hand, not wanting to miss a moment of this astonishing opportunity. When she finally reached the darker flesh and protruding tip of his nipple he shuddered, a moan drifting out into the darkened chamber. Her hand froze upon him and she looked up, needing to see the look on his face now.
    Vincent stared down at her hand upon his chest, a look of stunned amazement in his eyes. Close behind that she saw a building passion warring with his ever-present fear. She continued to watch his face as she began to caress him in that intimate, sensitive spot. He had never been touched like this, and that thought thrilled her beyond belief. His skin was so soft, a blatant contrast and complement to the steely strength of the muscles underlying it, and surrounding her fingers everywhere was the silky profusion of lush gold glinting with copper. The tender bud of his nipple responded to her touch, tightening beneath her moving fingers until it could easily be seen through the bronze hair that had moments before covered it.
    The shaking of his body was almost violent now and her left arm tightened about his neck to comfort him. She increased the pressure there and leaned in slowly, and knew he had become aware of her intentions when she heard his breathy, indrawn gasp above her. Pushing the silky curls away from his pap, he suddenly looked terribly, vulnerably exposed, and she moved quickly to cover him with a tender kiss. His breath gusted out mightily above her and she felt it stirring the strands of her hair.
    "Catherine!"
    The word was a breathy moan, full of shocked disbelief and passion both.
    She nuzzled closer, determined to erase the disbelief from his voice with her touch, to make him finally understand how she longed to touch him everywhere, that there was nothing about him - nothing! - she didn't find beautiful. The silky tip and surrounding smoothness intrigued her and she opened her lips and drew him in, licking delicately at the quivering tip for a moment before finally sucking gently upon it. His muscles jumped beneath her and a load groan was torn from his throat. She could easily imagine how shocked he was at what she was doing to him. She wondered if he sometimes dreamt of this touch and others, then castigated himself for something he thought was unnatural or perhaps degrading to her. If he only knew how she longed to touch and taste him everywhere, to give him all the pleasures he might ever have imagined and more. At that thought she released him, drawing back a few inches to inspect the result of her efforts.
    His flesh was darker in color now, as if suffused with blood, and silky wet from her kisses. A gasp drew her attention upwards, and she watched his face as he looked down at himself, dazed and incredulous. Her fingers slid over him once more, caressing the slick bud as she watched his face change, his eyes growing darker and hazy with desire. His mouth dropped open in a panting groan and Catherine shivered as she got a close look at the exposed tips of his incisors, something he almost never allowed. She knew then she was pushing him beyond his normal boundaries, and a voice inside demanded she stop, while another urged her on, the drive to complete their bond strong within her. Finally the first voice won out. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed to hide the hunger blazing there, unwilling to add more to his burden this day. His arm still encircled her waist, but he made no move to pull her tighter against him again, though she was close enough to feel the heaving tumult of his breast. She shuddered at that sensation and tightened down on the bond yet again, desperate to stop that heady transfer now, before it was too late.
    Finally she had her emotions under control. It was astonishing, all things considered. It had always been Vincent who had stopped any movement past those barriers, but today it had been her, and she felt inordinately proud as she gazed up at the man she adored, drinking in the precious sight of him almost overcome with passion for her. She sat up and gently pulled away, and finally felt his hold upon her waist break, her eyes widening at the look of reluctance in his face as he did so. He had almost been unable to stop, she realized suddenly. In fact now that her head was clearing, she wondered with a sinking sensation if he had intended to stop at all this time! Was it possible...? She stared at him in shock, wondering if it could possibly be true, then shook that thought away. Even now Vincent was blinking confusedly down at her, as if he couldn't quite believe he had allowed them to go as far as they had.
    Vincent was speechless, confusion, fear and passion all vying for supremacy within. He could feel the primal emotions, not only the passion, but deeper ones yet, just beneath the surface, churning to get out. His control was terribly weakened - a factor of both his injury and the medication Father had given him, no doubt - but he was regaining a hold now, with some small amount of help from the dull throbbing pain in his arm. Suddenly he was overwhelmed, fatigue steeling over him in sweeping waves. He had held off the effects of the pain pill for a much longer time than was usual, and that, along with William's tea and the turbulence of the day, was finally taking its toll. He blinked sleepily up at her, the sensations of her kisses still fresh upon him as he sank back against the pillows. He couldn't stop staring at her, something he almost never allowed himself to do, though the edges of her image were beginning to blur until it almost seemed that a golden aura surrounded her. Somehow that seemed right - she was an angel... his angel.
    "I missed you so while you were gone, Catherine", he whispered.
    She blinked rapidly in return, surprised by the yearning love and open vulnerability in his voice. She knew he would never have allowed so much between them under different circumstances, but each movement forward today, including the gift of these words, filled her heart with joy, even though she knew there might very well be a price to pay for that advancement tomorrow. And that was all right, she decided. She would pay that price gladly for the pleasure this day had brought, only regretting the event which had set all else in motion.
    "I missed you too, Vincent. Rest now."
    Gently she stroked the unruly, wild waves at his brow, almost dry now from their recent washing. His eyes fluttered closed and she leaned down to press a soft kiss against each, tugging the blankets up to cover him tenderly as she did. When she leaned back again she was surprised to find him fast asleep.
    "Catherine?"
    She jumped, startled, her head turning to seek out the figure standing in the dim opening of the chamber entrance. Father.
    "Is he asleep?"
    "Yes."
    She felt a fiery blush steel up over her cheeks, though she was fairly sure he couldn't discern it in this low light. She wondered, though, how much he had seen? She hadn't heard him arrive, and had no idea how long he'd been standing there. She was spared the necessity of further comment as he walked into the chamber, his gaze turned upon his son with a look of concern. When he reached the side of the bed, Catherine stood up and gestured for him to take her spot, and he did so with a nod of grateful thanks. He reached out and gently stroked the sleeping man's brow, just as she had done a moment since, and Catherine's heart melted at the tender father - son tableau before her.
    "He's all right, Father, just tired."
    The older man didn't answer at first, but finally he sat back, looked up at her and nodded.
    "Yes, it's always this way when he's been hurt."
    "What do you mean?" she asked, curious to hear more.
    He gestured to the chair behind her and she sank down into it and leaned forward to see his eyes better by the low light of the candles.
    "He heals so quickly. Really, Catherine, you'll be amazed. The torn flesh will be almost healed in four or five days, the bone knit in probably two weeks. But it's always the same at the beginning - his strength goes down quite a bit the first three days or so, as if all his energy is focused on the healing process itself. I was hoping to find you still here, Catherine - it's what I came to talk to you about."
    "What is it, Father?"
    "The weekend is coming up. Is there any way you could stay below for the next day or two?"
    She was speechless. Was he actually asking her to stay Below?! She realized her amazement must have clearly shown in her face because suddenly he chuckled, a genuine sound of amusement in his voice.
    "I know, I know, you can't believe I'm saying this, can you?"
    He smiled in understanding and she snapped her mouth shut, a rueful look crossing her face. When he next spoke, however, his tone was devoid of all humor, utter seriousness there.
    "If something were to happen to you while he's like this... He would never get it over it, Catherine. And he's missed you so much these last few weeks. Can you stay?"
    "Yes, of course I'll stay."
    "You're sure it's all right? Your work..."
    "It's fine, Father. I have to go back to Albany on Sunday for two more weeks, but I have these two days to myself, and I'll stay here the whole time. I only wish I didn't have to go back again so soon. You know there's no place else I'd rather be."
She spoke seriously now, too, and her eyes locked with his. After a momentary pause he nodded in acknowledgment.
    "Yes, I know."
    He turned back to Vincent, and stroked a hand across his brow again, this time a little more critically, and Catherine could tell he was checking for any signs of fever. After a moment or so he stood up - reluctantly, she saw. It was obvious he would have liked to sit beside him for a while longer.
    "I have to go meet with the council to discuss what's to be done in the area they were working in today, Catherine. Vincent should sleep the night through, but I'll leave this here in case he wakes up and has trouble getting to sleep again."
Jacob set a small white pill next to a glass of water on the bedside table, and with another long look at his son, turned to leave. He paused for a moment next to her, before she had a chance to rise from her chair, and reached down to stroke her own forehead, and her eyes widened in surprise.
    "You should get something to eat and then go to bed yourself. It's getting late, and you've had a busy day."
    "Yes, I will," she murmured, feeling somewhat like a chastised but cherished small child. The feeling made her warm all over.
    He walked to the chamber exit, then paused and turned back towards her hesitantly.
    "Welcome back, Catherine, we all missed you. Somehow it's not quite the same now when you're not here."
    She nodded, her throat suddenly choked with tears.
    "Thank you, Father."
    He nodded and they exchanged a long look, then finally he turned and left. The spot by Vincent's side again free, she immediately took it, her hand drawn irresistibly to his silky cheek, stroking gently along it. Though he seemed to be sleeping deeply he sighed, as if he recognized her touch instantly, and turned his face into her palm, his lips brushing against her bare skin, sending an electric tingle arcing from her hand all the way up her arm and from there throughout her whole body. She shivered, holding absolutely still, then reluctantly, regretfully, drew her hand away with a sigh. She stood up to leave, but stayed by his bed watching him sleep for many minutes more before she finally left the chamber to seek out William's dining hall.
    When she arrived at her destination she found it fairly thin of people, most having eaten an hour or two since. Pascal sat in a corner, studying a tattered sheaf of papers before him, and after filling up her plate with some of the hearty stew William had sitting out in a large kettle, she made her way to his table and joined him.
    "Hello, Catherine. How's Vincent?"
    "He's fine, sleeping now."
    He nodded in response, and Catherine could see the relief in his eyes.
    "It's good to see you again, I'm glad you're back."
    He spoke the simple words with an air of sincerity that touched her heart, and she reached across the table to lay her hand upon his for a moment before answering.
    "I am, too. I missed you all."
    He nodded sympathetically, and the warm glow from Father's words reappeared. For some reason she didn't quite understand, she seemed to have made a transition. She suddenly felt as if she belonged here, Below, more than Above, as if that was now her temporary abode and this her real home. The thought startled her, but in a moment she realized how true it was, and how true it had been for some time. Her heart was here, with Vincent. Wherever he was, that was her home, she'd known that for quite a while now. What amazed her was that apparently others Below saw it in much the same way. Even Father seemed to have indicated as much, and that was a thought almost too large to contemplate, the very idea filling her with confusion.
    "Catherine?"
    Startled, she quickly turned her attention back to the small, shy man sitting across the table from her.
    "Don't worry too much. Vincent will be fine. He's so strong and he heals so quickly."
    She smiled, touched by his comforting words.
    "Yes, I know, Father told me. It's seems so odd that I wouldn't know about that pattern - Vincent's been hurt several times in the last few years - usually, though, I'm not allowed to stay, but this time Father asked me to..."
    Her voice trailed off, a sense of wonder filling her at the change this represented.
    "I'm glad you're staying."
    Simple and sincere, like Pascal himself, the words spoke volumes and she glanced up quickly to meet his gaze.
    "He'll do much better with you here, especially tonight and tomorrow, when he's particularly weak. He's missed you so much."
    "How..." She took a deep breath and forged on. "How do you know that, Pascal?"
    "It's not anything he says," he hurried to assure her, "it's in the little things. He's distracted and distant, and even more turned inward than he usually is. We try to keep him occupied - the children especially - but he's sad when you're gone, we can all see it."
    Her heart ached at that description, tears forming instantly at the image of him surrounded by the children, trying to make up for her absence. William's excellent food suddenly turned to ashes in her mouth and she wished she were back in his chamber so that she could hold him close, the need to touch and comfort him tremendously strong in light of Pascal's poignant disclosure.
    "I want to be here for him always, Pascal, but sometimes... Sometimes when he needs me most, he pushes me away."
    She felt a warmth in her face, startled and embarrassed to have so easily disclosed something of such a private nature concerning hers and Vincent's relationship. Pascal was a private, solitary person, and even after three years she wasn't sure she really knew him well, though she liked him tremendously. He had spent time teaching her the rudiments of the pipe system - especially during this last year - but despite that they had never really spoken much of personal matters, and so she was particularly surprised to find herself saying something which she had always kept carefully to herself in the past. But Pascal was a true and loyal friend to everyone Below, with a special soft spot for Vincent. He was among the small circle of peers that Vincent had grown up with, along with Devin, Rebecca and several others, and she knew he considered him in the light of a brother, and she found herself amazed at the sudden relief she felt to be talking with someone about it. She'd kept it to herself for so long, holding it close and tight, even from Vincent, because she knew how the very thought of her being here upset him. It felt good to say the words aloud, and she drew in a deep, cleansing breath, a weight somehow lifted from her in the space of a moment.
    "I know. It's so hard for him, Catherine. I wish I could help you both find your way, we all do..."
    His words trailed off and she stared at him in amazement. Apparently the difficulties in their relationship were not as secret as she had thought. Pascal read her expression and hurried to explain.
    "Vincent feels things so deeply - you especially know that. We grew up together, and that gift - his empathy - is something we all know of first hand here Below, but none of us could miss the change that came over him when he found you. The bond you share... Sometimes we can see it, Catherine. We can see it in his face. He lives and breathes for you."
    His words were spoken with a sort of reverent awe, those emotions equally visible upon his face, and she gasped as the intensity of his meaning was pushed home.
    "He's so special to us all, and now so are you. I know him, I grew up with him, and I know that what he feels for you is something that will never change. Vincent is committed to you, and for Vincent that means forever."
    Suddenly a hesitant, uncertain expression appeared, and she could tell he was trying to decide whether to go on with what he had to say.
    "What, Pascal? Tell me."
    Her voice was low, but intense and compelling. She needed to hear this. He was silent, and she was afraid he wouldn't continue, but suddenly he took a deep breath and went on.
    "Catherine... I'm so afraid for what will happen to him if he were to lose you."
    His gaze locked directly to hers, a deep fear there that sent a shiver through her. She wanted to reassure him, to tell him it would be all right, but she couldn't. She knew what he meant, and suddenly she felt the fear that shone so clearly in his own eyes. Could she overcome Vincent's fears and Father's strictures? What if she couldn't? What would happen to them? It was too awful to contemplate.
    "I know. I'm afraid, too."
    This time it was Pascal who reached across the table to cover her hand with his own, holding it in a comforting clasp. Where a few minutes before she had found herself amazed to say anything of a such a private nature to him, now she found she couldn't stop, and went on with her deepest fears over this issue.
    "He's afraid, Pascal, and I want to help, but I can't. It's so mixed up with Lisa and Father and other things, too, but he won't tell me the whole of it and I can't reach through to him. I don't know what to do."
    Tears were in her eyes, and she brushed them away with a trembling hand, her other still held tight by his own. She felt the pressure of his grip increase, and gratefully returned the pressure, her throat too tight for words. Some time passed while she tried to compose herself, and when Pascal spoke again, the unexpected direction of his words stunned her.
    "Lisa was the start of it all, but you have to realize that not all his fears are imaginary."
    She glanced up in startled surprise, staring at him in confusion.
    "I know he hurt Lisa, but she was a child playing childish games. She didn't know what to expect, and she got in over her head. I'm not a child, Pascal."
    He looked highly uncomfortable, but she also saw a look of resolution fill his face, and after glancing about to ensure that they were alone in the chamber, he continued on, his voice pitched low for her ears alone.
    "And you think you know what to expect?"
    His words shocked her.
    "I can't believe you think I care what he looks like. I know he's afraid of that, but you can't think so!"
    "No, of course I don't. And I know Vincent worries about his appearance - unnecessarily so, from all of our standpoints here Below. But that's such a small part of it. Vincent's afraid, Catherine, and with good reason. Don't you see? It's not simply that he looks different, or that he could hurt you with his nails, as he did with Lisa - though surely that fear, at least, should be enough to hold him back, considering how he feels about you.
    "How can you say that, Pascal?" she broke in hurriedly, astonished that he seemingly would argue that his friend - a man he loved like a brother! - was somehow different enough to warrant isolation and the living of a solitary existence, alone and unloved. "It's condemning him to a life alone and I won't let that happen, I..."
    "Never, Catherine! I want him to have the life and love he deserves - with you! But you have to go into this with your eyes open if you're going to help him. It won't happen any other way."
    His words silenced her abruptly, the truth of them sinking in with a sickening blow. This quiet man had just said more in the last ten minutes than she could recall in all of their previous conversations together, and she was stunned by the importance this topic must engender with him to bring that about. The anger building within her dissipated in a flash, leaving a vulnerable need in its wake.
    "Tell me what to do. Vincent won't tell me, and certainly Father won't. Please, Pascal, I don't know who to turn to."
    He drew in a deep breath, and she held her own until he released his and began to talk.
    "Vincent's like the rest of us in all the ways that matter, but he's still different, and he has to consider those differences, especially where you're concerned. It's not just his nails. It's his strength and size, and it's his empathy - especially in how he responds to you."
    "But our bond has always ensured that he protect me. Why would it be different in this case?"
    "What if it has nothing to do with your bond? Look at him and think about it, Catherine. He's well over six feet tall. He weighs 240 pounds and almost all of it is muscle. You weigh, what? 110 pounds?"
    "I understand that concern, Pascal, but that difference is certainly not unheard of among other couples..."
    "Look at him, Catherine."
    He repeated the words insistently and she stopped short, staring at him in bemusement.
    "Look at the physical strength he has, and the strength of his emotional responses. Add to that the instinctive response time that is so inherent to him. He doesn't have to think through most of his physical responses - they come naturally to him, in the blink of an eye. Should he allow himself to act instinctively with you now? You're not the same as he is, Catherine, any more than I am, not exactly. Can he trust his instinctive responses in this area with someone not like himself? Should he? This is the question he can't answer. He could hurt you in a moment, and not know until he'd done it, especially in such an emotional situation as sex."
    The use of that word stood out graphically in the midst of the carefully couched phrases used so far and she knew instantly that he had done it on purpose, to make sure she considered all aspects of what they had discussed so far - and all those they had not.
    "Vincent is so uncertain of himself, of what his place is, not just here, in the tunnels, but in the very purpose of humanity. You and I know there is no one who more aptly fits the definition of that word, but we're talking about physical differences now, and until you consider those fears and confront them, you'll never break through his barriers. First you have to understand his fears and admit that they're valid. So many things could go wrong. Do you think it's so strange that he would choose the path that ensures your safety in light of that?"
    She gasped at his words, tears spilling over unstoppable now.
    "Then what is there for us? He can't know unless he tries, and he won't try unless he knows. There is now way but to try, and he won't. And by your logic he shouldn't! Does that mean there's nothing more for us? No future beyond this... this wanting and needing..."
    The words, private and intimate, emerged without thought, drawn from the abyss of her sudden despair. She was sobbing now, her hands held to her face to muffle the sound, her shoulders shaking in response. Pascal quickly slipped around the table to sit on the bench at her side, putting his arm around her and drawing her close.
    "No, I don't think this is all there is for you."
    "But you said..."
    "Shhhh..."
    He rocked her and held her comfortingly, until she was able to stop the flow of her tears enough so that she could listen to what he had to say.
    "Catherine, I said that Vincent's strength and size, combined with his nails, presented a clear danger that needed to be taken into account."
    "I can't change those things, Pascal. I can't make them go away even if I wanted to, and I don't want to! I love him, just the way he is."
    She stared at him perplexed, her tears all but forgotten. He certainly was trying to make a point, and she liked to think she was normally quite astute, but she just didn't get it. A pink tinge was suddenly apparent on his face and her confusion deepened.
    "Catherine, for the next few days Vincent will be considerably weaker than he normally is. For the next two weeks one of his arms' will be in a cast. That won't affect him too much when he's on his feet, but it will restrict him a little under different circumstances."
    She stared at him in shocked amazement, comprehension dawning.
    "Are you saying that I should..."
    He quickly interrupted, the light pink inexorably darkening to a dusky shade of red.
    "I'm saying that the things Vincent fears most about himself - especially where you're concerned - are of less significance now, at least for a short while. Tell him, convince him that this is a chance you have to take. His strength of will is stronger than anyone's I've ever known, but he wants the same things you do - surely you must know that. Don't underestimate that. And Catherine, though his size and strength are the things that are really of importance, don't discount his fears over everything else, over the things you and I find so easy to dismiss. For all his strength, he's so vulnerable in this area."
    She stared at him in stunned disbelief, barely managing a nodding acknowledgment of his words. He got up to leave, but hesitated, then turned back.
    "Catherine, I know you aren't afraid, and I'm not saying you should be..."
    Her expression of disbelief turned to one of bemusement as she waited for him to finish.
    "You know I want you both to have what will make you happy, but... Be careful, for both your sakes."

* * *

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
But Desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there...

    Catherine paused, then reread the verse, feeling its meaning deep inside. Though she'd always loved his work, Blake's words had never touched such a chord in her as they did this day, especially after the tumultuous events of the last 24 hours. 'Abstinence sows sand all over...'
    She herself felt barren and dry, a fitting analogy to his words. And as to 'Desire gratified', she couldn't remember what that felt like anymore, so long ago and far away were such things for her now, gone from the memories of both mind and body as if they'd never existed, as if all of her had been reborn, whole and new, that terrible and wonderful night three years ago, when he'd found her.
    She stared at the verse blindly, her attention caught by that lonely, interior capital 'D'. A poignant ache filled her, centered somewhere about her heart. Surely this was something reserved only for them, for her and Vincent together. The words echoed like a mantra within, 'But Desire gratified…', then slid into the next line, merging with it to change the entire feel of what had come before 'Plants fruits of life and beauty there...'
    Her body stirred, but at so low a level she was almost unaware of it, a flickering ember which yearned for air. She had learned the hard lesson of emotional restraint in this area over the last three years, determined to spare Vincent those feelings which she knew could only bring him consternation and pain, jeopardizing all they had gained. Now the thought nagged at her that perhaps she had been wrong. How she yearned to feel the ripe, lush satisfaction of desire gratified with the man she loved beyond everything. Didn't they deserve it? Yes, they did, she was certain of that. Vincent deserved it most of all.
    A rustling sound, barely more than a sigh of soft, quilted fabric raised by silent breath, turned her attention instantly from the book in her hands to the bed before her and the man within it. Vincent was asleep, as he had been for much of the day. Father had certainly been right about his son's amazing healing properties and its effect upon his strength. Throughout the day she had noticed a dramatic improvement in his overall well being. It was almost as if the events of yesterday had never taken place. Two things alone remained to remind her that it had indeed happened - the cast on his arm and the deep lethargy surrounding him. He'd always had a peculiar ability to be very still and completely at ease in that stillness, but this was different. Today he had been as weak as a kitten, lounging in bed as if he couldn't find the energy to move from it.
    It was especially telling in light of her presence here Below.
    She had spent the day reading aloud and keeping him company in his chamber while he lay in bed, tremendously enjoying this chance to be with him, in his world, in such an unusually intimate setting. Vincent dozed on and off, and had left his bed only twice, each time for mere minutes, and not once had he offered to read, which was very unusual for him, telling her as much, if not more, about how sapped of strength he really was.
    It was very late now - almost two o'clock in the morning - and the rest of the tunnels had long since joined him in slumber, but not her. He had fallen asleep - again - hours ago, while she read to him, and she had finally left for the guest chamber to change into her own nightclothes, resolved to put the traitorous thoughts of this day behind her. But it was useless, sleep eluded her this night, as it had for much of the night before, and she finally returned to Vincent's chamber, driven there by a deep need that didn't bear close scrutiny.
    As she watched him now, she was struck by his very stillness, as if even in sleep he hoarded his energy, funneling it to that part of himself that needed it most. At that thought, as it had all day, last evening's conversation with Pascal came back again full force. What should she do?
    "Catherine?"
    His soft voice startled her out of her reverie, and she wondered guiltily how much she might have revealed in that unguarded moment. He gazed at her sleepily, with half closed lids, and she drew in a deep breath and clamped down tight on her emotions, certain he had never looked quite so disheveled and warmly inviting, all tucked into his cozy bed among the crazy-patch fabrics and quilting surrounding him.
    "I'm sorry, Vincent, did I wake you?"
    He didn't answer, a look of bemusement on his face that told her well enough of his predicament. Of course she'd woken him, though she had make no sound. He didn't answer, but instead sat up slowly, reaching weakly behind him to adjust the pillows. She moved to help and he let her, his weight leaning heavily against her arm when she finally eased him back against the supporting mound. Finally he was settled.
    "Something's been bothering you all day. Tell me," he said, the sleep almost gone from his eyes as he sought out the concealing depths of her own.
    She hesitated for a moment, hovering beside the bed, twisting the ends of the soft shawl which lay about her shoulders, then slowly, tentatively, sat down at his side. Still she couldn't find the words. How in the world could she tell him such thoughts, much less have the nerve to believe he would ever agree to such a thing?!
    "Are you worried about leaving? I'll be fine, Catherine. Father is here, and Mary."
    His left hand came up to touch her cheek gently, almost hesitantly, as if he were afraid she might think he was enticing her to do what she had last night, when she'd kissed him before the effects of Father's pain pill had finally taken effect and he'd fallen asleep.     She smiled at the thought of that innocent, chaste kiss. What would he think if he knew of her thoughts and wishes now?
    A shiver rushed through her and she held herself resolutely still, trying to contain it and the emotions which drove it. She had a tremendous urge to turn her lips to the palm of his hand, as she had last night before she'd kissed him, and raised her own hand to his to distract herself from that course of action.
    "I know. But I'll miss you so much."
    She felt her cheeks tingle, and knew a blush covered them. He had used almost the same words last night, as they sat together in almost the same pose. She couldn't help but think that there was a destiny here which controlled them, a shivery sense of deja vu sweeping through her. He stared at her intently, as wide awake as she had seen him this day - though that wasn't saying much - seeking the truth in the clear, gray depths of her eyes. She felt a shadowy brush along her thoughts and knew he was trying to probe the bond, but even in this area his strength was slightly muted just now. With that realization she couldn't help but think how right Pascal had been about this opportunity. Could she pass it up without an attempt?
    "Catherine, please tell me."
    Her gaze was drawn back to his, from the place inward it had been turned, and she saw worry and confusion there.
    "Vincent, I..."
    How could she tell him such a thing?!
    "What?"
    She hung her head, the silky sweep of her hair covering her burning cheeks. When she looked up again his expression had shifted from worry to fear, and at that sight she hurried to reassure him.
    "It's nothing you've done, Vincent, believe me. I just don't know how to say this."
    He didn't answer, and she knew he waited now for her to decide. Suddenly she was sure that he was remembering the time she had implored him with the words 'you can tell me anything'. Only it hadn't been true, not that night. Days had passed before he'd found the courage to tell her of that childhood incident with Lisa, and how it had affected the years of his life since then, up to and including the very course of their own relationship, right here, right now. She remembered the fear and anxiety she had suffered as she waited for him to come to her, and that alone was enough to give her the strength she needed to go on. She took a deep breath, then finally said what she wanted, in simple words, knowing they were only the tip of the iceberg of what remained to be said.
    "Vincent, I want us to try to move our relationship forward."
    He drew in a gasping breath, a look of shock on his face, and his hand dropped away from her cheek. He certainly hadn't expected this. She wasn't sure he would answer, but finally he did, his voice low and hoarse.
    "Haven't we been doing that? Before you left for Albany, and last night..."
    The words trailed off, as if he found it almost impossible to even imagine that they had indeed kissed. She hurried to fill the void, needing him to know that she recognized and appreciated every small step forward he had been able to take.
    "Yes, oh yes. Vincent, I know you don't understand yet, but please be patient and let me explain."
    He stared at her intently for a moment longer, then nodded and leaned back against the pillows, his knees drawn up protectively against his chest, almost touching his cast, waiting tensely for her to go on. She could tell that despite the anxiety and agitation this topic brought, his strength was still too low for the responses that were so typical of him in this regard. Had it been at its normal level, she was almost certain he would no longer be here, but instead long gone in search of someplace - anyplace! - far away, enroute to the deepest part of the tunnels to escape her words. But he wasn't. He was here, and now she found herself searching for words to explain, a task that seemed almost impossible at the moment.
    "Vincent, you once told me that one day, if we faced our fears and worked through them, we would truly be together. You meant that, didn't you?"
    It was his turn to blush now, but he couldn't deny that he had spoken the words, nor that he had at least wished that they might somehow, against all odds, turn out to be true.
    "Yes."
    So much was revealed in that single, tensely spoken syllable.
    "I know you want us to be together, Vincent - please believe me - but I'm afraid that you won't allow yourself to work through those fears. I'm afraid you won't try for fear of what might happen to me."
    His eyes widened and in them she read confirmation.
    "I know you think this is necessary, to protect me, but what if you're wrong?"
    He started at her words, and after a momentary, stunned surprise, his reply burst forth.
    "What if I'm right?! How can I take that chance, Catherine? No, the risk is too great!"
    She drew in a deep breath, knowing the next part would lead to the heart of his fears.
    "I know you're afraid you'll hurt me. I know you can't forget about what happened with Lisa."
    He gasped in shock, flinching in pain, but she went on, needing to say it all, before she lost her nerve entirely.
    "You're afraid that your deepest, most primal emotions will make you lose control, that the sense of me through our bond will be lost to you, even if only for a short time, and that in that confusion of passion you'll hurt me. You're afraid of your strength and size, even if the bond remains."
    He was panting heavily now, pressing into the pillowed wall at his back as if to escape her words. She remained silent, keeping the small distance between them intact, knowing his discomfort would be unbearable were she to touch him now. Finally she spoke again, gently, quietly, hoping her voice would somehow calm his agitation.
    "I know that's what you fear, Vincent. You don't have to be ashamed to admit it to me. I understand, I do."
    A shudder quivered down his body in a visible wave and his eyes closed tight. When they opened again tears welled within, and he stared at her in yearning despair.
    "Yes, I'm afraid I'll hurt you. I'm not like other men."
    She could see the fear trembling through him at that terse admission, and she leaned toward him, wanting to touch and soothe him, but knowing that would be the wrong thing to do just now.
    "Would you consider trying, Vincent, - just trying - if the risk was lessened?"
    He was taken aback at that, this new direction completely unanticipated.
    "I don't understand. How can the risk be lessened? I am what I am, Catherine, no matter how much I might wish it to be otherwise, for both our sakes."
    His lower lip trembled and she fought the urge to lean in close and kiss it tenderly. They had reached the heart of the matter now, and she considered her words carefully before speaking again. When she did her words were unusually stark and unambiguous.
    "What if your nails presented less of a danger than they usually do?"
    As she spoke, her right hand reached out to trace lovingly along what showed of his fingers and nails, outside the restraining cast.  He looked down and gasped, closing his hand instinctively, curling his nails into his palm and away from her. He understood her immediately.
    "What if your strength was not what it usually was?" Her gaze burned into his.
    "What if the effect of those things you worry about most - your size and strength and emotional intensity - were all muted temporarily. Regardless of the circumstances, wouldn't that be the opportunity we needed to at least try and determine what there might be for us?"
    "Catherine, you don't know what you're saying!" The words burst out of him, as if he could restrain them no longer.
    "Don't I? Then tell me. I love you, Vincent, and I know you love me. We belong together. I need you, and I don't want to let this opportunity go by untried. Please."
    His head fell back against the cushions, eyes beseeching, full of pain and despair. How she wanted to see hope there, but there was none, and she knew that he was incapable of making this next step alone. Her fingers released his, and lifted to rest on his chest, and beneath them she felt the startled jump and wildly thudding beat of his heart. His head snapped down to stare at her hand while his left one rose up to cover it, squeezing tight as if to stop any movement it might make.
    "Please, Vincent, let me."
    His eyes met hers and she saw the dazed confusion there.
    "Let you...?"
    "Trust me, Vincent, just this once. I won't let anything bad happen, I promise."
    He stared at her, aghast, his body trembling all over. Even before he spoke, she knew he was preparing himself to deny her yet again - to deny them both.
    "I do trust you, Catherine, I do, but we cannot do this. I'm sorry..."
    She didn't let him finish, leaning in quickly to stop his words with her mouth, pressing her lips to his to stem the flow of that denial. He froze beneath her and after a momentary stillness she began to nuzzle against him, as she had last night, caressing his lips with her own. She felt his sudden indrawn breath, and beneath her hand his chest muscles contracted, as if attempting to physically distance himself from her. She pressed down harder with her fingers and mouth, not allowing that retreat.
    "Catherine, no..." he moaned. His mouth whispered against her own, their breaths mingling and shared.
    "Yes, Vincent, yes. Let me..."
    The slight separation necessitated by that exchange of words disappeared dramatically in the next moment as she slanted her lips across his and flicked her tongue into the sensitive cleft of his upper lip. Purposefully she sought out the slick inner lining of his hidden flesh, and finding it licked sensually over it's surface. His mouth dropped open with a loud groan and she immediately took advantage of that opportunity, seeking out his tongue with her own. He gasped at the sensation of her intimate touch, jerking away to stare at her in astonishment and shock. She allowed that distance between them for only a moment, just long enough to let him see the acceptance and desire in her eyes, then leaned back in - ever careful of the cast between them - and took his mouth again, opening to him in a wanton way which would shock her when she looked back on it later. She kissed him passionately and after a momentary pause he kissed her back, his tongue twining with hers in an instinctive rhythm.
    It happened so fast. The air tingled about them and suddenly she knew that this was it, this was their moment. Her resolve firmed and she pulled her hand from his, stroking downward from his chest. She paused at the trembling fingers tucked tight against his ribs, held there by the cast and sling, and squeezed them reassuringly for a moment, but she didn't stop, continuing on almost immediately. He jumped, a hoarse cry torn from his throat, when her fingers found him, hot and hard, but she ignored that completely, tracing his throbbing arousal through the thin linen of his nightshirt, feeling the pulsing vein running along the underside of its length as it strained up against his belly. She couldn't contain her own moan of desire, her body immediately readying itself for him. He was hot and thick beneath her caressing palm and fingers, but her body cried out for him, and that demand suddenly grew three-fold as he surged in her hand. Her head fell back, breaking their kiss, but amazingly enough she felt him press his face against her throbbing throat, his mouth open and gasping, hot breath pulsing against her neck.
    "Catherine, Catherine!" His voice was hoarse and thick.
    She knew she couldn't stop, that she dare not give him even a moment to regain his senses and reassert control. She knew he was capable of that even now, in the midst of the most turbulent emotional encounter of their lives. With trembling fingers she tugged his nightshirt upward even as she shifted her body over his lap, kneeling astride him. Her left arm encircled his neck, holding his head to her throat, and her right hand found him again, beneath the sheltering folds of her own gown. This time she enclosing his hard, silky flesh in her warm, bare palm. She shuddered with excited expectation as her small fingers wrapped tightly about his impressive circumference. The groaning sounds coming from him suddenly increased at that intimate touch, turning to rumbling growls that vibrated through his chest and into her own, drawing moaning cries from her in response. Without hesitation she stretched herself upward and led him to the liquid heat at her core. Her body shook at the thought of what was about to happen. She pressed downward, the pressure building at the juncture where their bodies met, but her trembling muscles wouldn't give way in their excited state. Suddenly a cold wave washed over her. Could he have been right all along? Could it be that this was just not possible between them?
    No! She wouldn't accept that!
    Suddenly he pulled back from her, just a bit, to stare up into her face, and she gasped at the look there. His eyes glittered darkly and she recognized the presence of that other part of him, the one who was always there when she needed protection, but banished and resolutely ignored at all other times. And then she felt the fingers of his left hand slide around her waist until it rested flat upon her hips, just beneath the small of her back and above the rounded curves of her buttocks. His eyes never left hers, though the rumbling growl of his voice continued unabated as he pressed down firmly. Gray eyes met blue, and the sensations surrounding her suddenly gave way in a fluid rush of emotion, her whole body responding instantly to the demand of his. His hand slid up and grasped the curve of her waist and his arm wrapped around her hips, pulling her down slowly but insistently. The pressure grew until it was almost a pain, but suddenly it gave way and he was within her, though just barely. She cried out at that penetration, excited almost beyond belief. Her body responded to his presence instinctively, with a convulsive grip so strong he moaned deliriously. Slowly she lowered her weight, trying to take him deeper. She wanted all of him. Little by little she sank upon him, not releasing him at all. His breathing was labored and loud, his mouth open, his breath pulsing hotly against her face as he stared at her with an expression that made her shiver, the sensation culminating in the satiny core of her body, drawing him in a little more. His arm tightened about her, but he simply held her now, not pulling her down, but only holding her close. He let her move at her own pace and she could see the strain on his face as he resisted the urge to thrust to her deepest reaches.
    She wanted to give him that desperately, but now was for something else, and she listened to her body closely, exerting as much restraint as he as she waited for each shivery expansion within, using those moments to wriggle closer to him, stunned by his virile touch in the most secret, intimate part of her. The moaning growls coming from his chest and throat nearly undid her, but she resolutely ignored their call, focusing on the greater goal - the safe passage of this momentous event and the pleasure it would bring them both in their future life together - if nothing went wrong now.
    Finally she reached a point where it seemed she absolutely could take no more, and reluctantly stopped, the building pressure beginning to go beyond ecstasy, though she wanted nothing more than to hold all of him, safe and cherished in her body, telling him with that one indisputable reality that they belonged together. And so she waited, focused completely on the sensations within, even as her gaze fell into his, drawn there by a compulsion that could not be resisted. She felt the a growing ripple of waves through their bond, felt it's expansion throughout her completely, while in the deepest part of her she felt him grow larger and harder, seeking the very center of her, where life began. The waves within and without began to merge and her legs began to shake. She didn't think she could hold her weight any longer, and was wondering desperately what to do next, when his arm slipped down to surround her hips, supporting her completely. Gratefully she let the strain on her kneeling legs loosen, and felt his arm take her weight entirely, pulling her closer to his trembling torso. She leaned a little to the side, away from his cast, and his hand was caught between them, the back of it pressed to her breast. They became aware of it at the exact same moment. She felt his stillness, and then its disappearance a moment later, a soft brushing caress felt upon her aching nipple through the soft weave of her gown.
    With a groaning sigh she released herself to him completely, trusting him to hold her safe. And with that surrender, her body responded in turn, the tight, slick tissue beginning to convulse about his surging flesh. The sensation began there, at her core, and grew rapidly, until she was shaking with it everywhere. His arm tightened about her hips as his own body shook savagely against hers, the deep, low growl growing louder and wilder. The convulsions reached a fever pitch and she writhed upon him, taking him deeper yet, crying out at the exquisite, excruciatingly erotic sensation. The swirling vortex exploded and she screamed his name, clutched him deep inside, hard and tight.
    It was indescribable and irresistible, a blazing ecstasy overwhelming them both with a fervor that burned, licking fire along nerve endings and into secret depths. Vincent shuddered violently beneath her, emptying himself into her in a passionate release, the sounds coming from him ones she'd never heard before, but recognized instantly as the perfect reflection of absolute ecstasy. It seemed an eternity passed as they were locked together in rapturous bliss, their senses saturated with the responses of their bodies, each for the other. Finally it ended with a quivering rush and they fell back to the pillows together. Catherine felt the darkness reach out to enfold them in its loving clasp and she welcomed it, her body draped along his side, his softening flesh held deeply, securely within her. She sank into the darkness, embracing it completely.

* * *

    "Catherine?"
    At the sound of her name, softly spoken, her head jerked up off Vincent's left shoulder. He woke at the same time, struggling to sit up, the cast on his arm momentarily forgotten. He had only limited success, however, since his one good arm was wrapped around her waist. She peered over his chest with confusion, heat filling her face and found Geoffrey standing near the bed, a small candle held carefully in its holder to light the darkened chamber. Self-consciously she tugged the quilts up about them both, despite the nightclothes that covered them, and piled the pillows behind Vincent as she spoke, providing a wall of support for his back, while at the same time maintaining enough eye contact with Geoffrey to distract his attention from the large man beside her. She could feel Vincent's confusion and tension, and knew that both sleep and physical weakness added to this state. He was so cautious with everyone Below, but the children especially, and she kept her voice light and even so as to appear as if nothing at all were out of the ordinary in Geoffrey finding them together in Vincent's bed.
    "What is it, Geoffrey?"
    "Father sent me to tell you that it's nine o'clock. He says you have a plane to catch. I looked for you in the guest chamber, but I figured you had to be here when I couldn't find you there. Where are you going? Will it be a big plane?"
    The child spoke with excited enthusiasm about the plane, but as to the rest, it was apparent he found nothing odd in finding her here like this with Vincent. Catherine felt a warmth spread through her chest and couldn't help but think that the children Below saw she and Vincent in a considerably different light than did Father, to say the least. The warmth was quickly set aside, though, as the realization finally hit her that she was going to miss her flight if she didn't leave, and fast. Her heart plummeted at that thought. How could she leave Vincent now, after what they had shared last night? They had so much to talk about.
    But it was impossible. The detectives she'd been working with for the last few weeks would be waiting for her in Albany, and they were as anxious as she to end this investigation and get back to their homes and families. She shook her head and focused on the child before her once more.
    "A small one. One with propellers. I'm going to Albany."
    Geoffrey nodded, but she could see that any plane at all had to be tremendously large in his fertile imagination, and Albany far, far away relative to the world he knew.
    "Father says I can take you up. And he sent you this."
    Geoffrey reached into an oversized pocket sewn into his large sweater vest and pulled out something wrapped in a napkin.
    "It's a bagel with strawberry jam. William just made them this morning and they're great! Here's one for you, Vincent."
    He reached into another pocket and a second package appeared.
    "Geoffrey, I appreciate your offer, but it's not necessary. I'll take Catherine..."
    Vincent's voice was barely more than a whisper, though whether those husky tones came from the sleepy confusion still surrounding him or his emotions over last night, she couldn't tell. She rested her hand on his shoulder, stopping him, and spoke directly to the young boy.
    "Thank you, Geoffrey. I'll be ready in twenty minutes. Would you meet me in the main passageway outside of this tunnel?"
    The child cast a curious look in Vincent's direction, but seeing no contradiction, nodded eagerly.
    "Sure. Can Samantha come with us?"
    Vincent replied to that question, and Catherine breathed a sigh of relief, happy that he had apparently decided not to insist upon coming himself.
    "That's a good idea, Geoffrey. Why don't you go find her now. Catherine will be ready shortly."
    The child nodded, turned and left, the candle held carefully before him, leaving darkness in his wake. Catherine took a deep breath before turning to face Vincent, well aware of the tension in the muscles beneath her hand.
    "Catherine, what..."
    She knew his eyes sought out hers, though in the absence of all but the palest of light she couldn't see it. Still, she knew that a chaotic confusion filled him. She could tell that he found it almost impossibly to go on, unable for once to articulate what he was feeling. She could hardly believe what had happened between them herself, and felt a bright pink blush steel up over her chest and face and knew that despite the darkness he could see it. Finally she leaned in to kiss him. It was a simple kiss, but it spoke volumes toward the change which had occurred in their relationship.
    "I know."
    "Did I..? Are you…?"
    He couldn't finish either sentence, but she understood what he so desperately needed to know.
    "Oh, Vincent."
    She shook her head, for a moment unable to go on herself, overwhelmed with the memory. Finally she reached out to trace lovingly along his cheek, cupping him warmly, her expression open and vulnerable to the penetration of his gaze and their bond.
"Feel what I'm feeling."
    She waited for a minute, and the stillness of him before her bore mute testimony to his compliance. A ripple wavered through her and she knew it was his presence in the bond, tentative, searching, seeking. With his next words she knew he was too overwhelmed to believe the evidence of his senses.
    "Tell me, Catherine."
    She hesitated, then leaned in, pressing her cheek to the curve of his neck, her lips close to his ear.
    "I've never felt like this before, Vincent. Never. I want to stay here with you, in this bed, and never leave it. I want to feel your hands on me again. I want to feel your body inside mine, hot and hard and deep. I love you so much… so much."
    He shuddered helplessly at her words, and finally his arm circled her waist and pulled her close, holding her tight against his left side.
    "How did you know?"
    Even now, despite all that had occurred, he was incredulous over the events which had transpired so few hours since and she knew that a part of him still couldn't quite believe it. To tell the truth, she felt much the same way herself. She sighed and relaxed against him, letting the feel of his body lull her for a few precious moments.
    "It had to be, Vincent. We had to be. Why else would the bond exist? Remember what you told me more than two years ago? You said 'there is a truth beyond knowledge'. I know what that truth is, Vincent, and so do you."
    Her eyes had finally adapted to the dim light of the chamber, the distant glow from the torch in the main passageway now providing enough illumination so that she could see the vague outline of his face and the glint of his eyes.
    "Tell me", she demanded.
    He was silent a moment, staring at her intently. Finally he spoke, and the words were as they had to be.
    "That truth is love."
    And even though she had expected no less, and knew they were the only ones possible, her heart fluttered in response.
    "Yes."
    She waited then, wondering what he would do, but he was silent. When he finally spoke the words were carefully neutral, and she felt a twinge of fear. Was he controlling his own emotions to help them both past the difficult separation before them, or was it something else.
    "You have to go."
    It wasn't a question. They both knew this would be far worse than anything they'd had to endure before, the brevity of the time to acclimate to this change together agonizing to them both. But there was nothing to be done. Both knew their responsibilities.
    "Yes."
    "Go, Catherine, the children will be waiting."
    She had a sudden, desperate urge to explore this worrisome, ambiguous mood, but there was no time, no time at all, and so pulled him close and kissed him tenderly, love and longing and so much more all mixed together and inseparable in the meeting of their lips.  He trembled in response to her touch, and she found it almost impossible to pull away, though she did, before the kiss could turn to something else far more irresistible. She climbed carefully over his torso and slipped from the bed, leaving his chamber quickly, before she lost all will to do so. Ten minutes later she returned, dressed in the clothes she'd worn down on Friday. She sat by his side on the bed and leaned gently against his torso, off to the side, pressing her cheek against his heart so that she could hear the comforting beat of it, letting its steady rhythm soothe her as it always did. His left hand circled her body, his hand resting at the center of her back, between her shoulder blades, but his touch was very light.
    The twinge of worry increased a bit as she felt that touch. It was non-committal, as if he were either afraid of hurting her or of implying a demand where there was none. Or perhaps it was nothing more than his need to keep their parting as painless as possible and she was simply over-reacting. All were possible and there was no time to determine which was the true state of affairs, and so she said nothing. They were silent, communicating through touch alone, the sorrow filling them too deep and close for words. Finally she kissed him one last time then resolutely stood and left the chamber.

* * *

    "Vincent?"
    Vincent still sat in the pose in which Catherine had left him, knees drawn up to his chest, his back pressed to the pillows piled high behind him. He had been deep in concentration, focused inward completely, and had no sense of Father's presence until his softly spoken name had drawn his attention. He stared in dismay at the older man, unprepared for any discussion between them, the emotions filling him too turbulent and chaotic to allow him the control which was so habitually his own. He was afraid to speak at all just now, as a matter of fact, not sure he could find his own voice in the midst of that raging turmoil, and so sat quiet.
    "Catherine's gone?"
    It wasn't really a question, but Vincent nodded. It was obvious that Father understood much solely from the pensive mood of his son where this woman was concerned.
    But when he asked, "How are you feeling this morning, Vincent? Better?", Vincent couldn't stop the blush that spread over his face. Better? He wasn't sure how to characterize how he felt just now. Father saw that response, though, and his eyes narrowed as he assessed the man before him a little more closely.
    "What is it?"
    Vincent paused for a moment, then gave a vague answer, which was true enough in its own right, and therefore not a lie.
    "Two weeks is a long time. I miss her already."
    The older man peered at him intently for a moment, then nodded. He hesitated himself over his response.
    "Having her here is difficult for you, I know, but I think you were lucky she was so close by."
    Those words surprised a startled glance out of Vincent. By the sound in his voice, and his hesitancy, he could tell his father questioned whether or not he should bring up this topic at all. That alone gave the younger man pause. Could Father be reconsidering the restrictions he had so stridently insisted upon as his son grew into adulthood? And the gratitude in his voice for Catherine's presence made him feel warm - especially since it had been quite obvious that Father suspected Vincent's preoccupation with her had been the primary cause of the accident. All in all there was just enough of a reflective musing to his father's words to give Vincent the strength to voice something of his own concerns.
    "You sound as if you might actually be coming to accept Catherine's place here. Is that possible?"
    Father's gaze sharpened at those words, but he answered in all seriousness, not immediately responding with dire warnings and commands, as was his wont in this regard.
    "Perhaps. Catherine has certainly earned her right to this place for her status as a Helper alone."
    "As a Helper, Father? And what about our status, Catherine's and mine? How do you view that these days?"
    The older man's expression changed at the tone of those questions. They weren't sharp or angry, as the discussions between them on this issue often had been in the past, but rather there was a vulnerable, serious quality that gave him pause. In fact he thought for a long time before answering, considering his words carefully.
    "I'm not as sure of that as I once was, Vincent. Does that surprise you?"
    It obviously did. His son's expression was one of wide-eyed incredulity at that unexpected response.
    "Father..."
    How could he find the words to tell him this? And should he?
    "Tell me."
    Vincent glanced up, encountering the expression which had always worked magic on him, ever since he was a boy. Father was often stern, but behind the gruff exterior was a caring, warm man, whose loyalty and love was unsurpassed by anyone Below. Vincent had perhaps seen that side more than most of the others in the tunnels, though it was also true that he had had more than his share of experience with the stern, forbidding side as well.
    "Not now, Father. I need to think things through for myself before I can talk about this with you. But you know, don't you, how much it means to me to know that you're here for me, when I need you?"
    Father nodded in understanding, then stood up to stroke tenderly along his son's brow.
    "I know. When you want to talk, I'll be here."
    He leaned down and pressed a kiss upon his son's forehead, then left the chamber, leaving Vincent alone with his thoughts.

* * *

    "Vincent?"
    Vincent turned a startled glance to his left and found Pascal standing at the shadowed tunnel entrance to the gallery. He sighed with resignation, having lost count of the number of times people had taken him unawares in the last two weeks, and gestured to the smaller man to join him. A moment later Pascal sat companionably beside him at the center of the bridge, the soft whisper of voices fluttering about them.
    "I see Father removed the cast. How does your arm feel?"
    Vincent flexed it, stretching his weakened muscles. There was some apathy, but he knew from experience that it would pass quickly. The stitches had been removed too, the scar there already fading. All in all he felt himself once more, his full strength returned, all healing complete.
    "Good. A little sore from disuse, but that will pass in a few days."
    Pascal nodded. He had grown up with Vincent, and had himself been witness to those amazing healing properties many times over the years. It wasn't really why he was there, though, and he hesitated before speaking again. He had advised Catherine two weeks ago, and was astonished even now that he had interfered in such a way. Still, he now felt a responsibility of sorts to these two, though he had no idea if anything at all had come of his and Catherine's discussion.
    "When is Catherine returning?"
    He tried to keep his voice as light as possible, though he knew his face was red by the heat he felt there. Luckily the light was low enough to hide it, though that probably was irrelevant given Vincent's pensive state over the last couple of weeks. That more than typical reflective state had been noticed by everyone lately, and it had especially given Pascal pause, all things considered.
    "I think... I think she'll be back tomorrow, Friday. She hasn't left yet, but something feels different..."
    His voice trailed off, and Pascal could tell he was a little chagrined to be speaking of the connection between them with another.
    "Good. We've all missed her, and we'll all be happier when she's back. It's not the same here without her now."
    "Yes."
    Vincent was silent after that short reply, but his emotions were eminently clear in that single syllable. Finally Pascal cleared his voice and broke the silence between them once more.
    "We all know how hard it is for you, Vincent, when she's not here where you can watch over her."
    "Yes, I miss her so much when she's gone."
    He paused before continuing, and Pascal knew that this was a crucial juncture for him by the words he spoke.
    "Sometimes I worry that I need her too much, Pascal."
    Though he understood very well, Pascal asked nonetheless, knowing Vincent needed to talk things through with someone besides himself.
    "What do you mean?"
    "Catherine has her own life to lead. I'm afraid I'm growing too dependent on her, and that she's growing too dependent on me."
    "Do you mean you think you should spend some time apart?"
    Vincent looked startled at that, and Pascal could tell he hadn't quite expected the drawing of that conclusion so rapidly.
    "Apart?"
    "Well, if you're convinced that your lives lie in different directions, then it wouldn't really be fair of you to let her believe otherwise. Or for her to do the same to you, for that matter. Is that what's happening, do you think?"
    "I... I'm not sure."
    "She has been Below a lot lately, more often, and for longer periods of time. To tell you the truth, Vincent, if you think that's a bad idea, I wish you would do something about it fast."
    "What do you mean?"
    Vincent stared at him in consternation now, and Pascal had to remind himself of the intended goal in order to keep up with this farce.
    "She's becoming one of us, a part of our family. It wouldn't be fair to her or to the rest of us if you led her on then hurt her. I wouldn't like that, Vincent. No one here would. We don't want to see Catherine hurt."
    The larger man beside him drew in a sharp breath at those words, his eyes widening in shock.
    "I would never hurt, Catherine, never!"
    "Not intentionally, I know, but unintentionally..."
    "What do you mean?!"
    "Vincent, it's obvious to all of us how much you love her and need her, and it's obvious that she feels the same way about you. But it's also pretty clear that you only let her so close. We can see how that hurts her. You're like a brother to me. We grew up together, and I love you - that will never change - but Catherine is very special to me now too, and not least because of the happiness she's brought to your life. You need to make up your mind, Vincent. You can't play games with her forever - she deserves better than that."
    Vincent gasped audibly at that, and jumped to his feet to stare down at the smaller man in disbelief.
    "You think that I... that I'm..." He couldn't finish that thought, either direction leading to a place he wasn't quite ready to see.
    "Playing? Not exactly that, maybe, but you won't commit one way or the other, and she deserves that."
    Pascal rose to his feet as he spoke, and the two men stood facing each other. Pascal's face was beet red and Vincent's chest was heaving with the chaotic emotions filling him.
    "Vincent, either accept what she's offering you, and give her the same in return, or let her go. You have to decide. And just in case you have any doubts about it, and for what it's worth, my own opinion is that you'd be the biggest fool on god's earth if you even consider letting her go."
    Vincent stared at him in stunned silence, and finally Pascal turned and left him alone, the whispering spirits his only company.

* * *

    Catherine's foot tapped impatiently as she waited for the elevator to reach her floor. Come on, come on! the words repeated themselves incessantly in her mind. Finally the car came to a stop and the doors slid open with a silent whoosh. She almost ran down the hall to her apartment, dragging her garment bag, briefcase and purse on top of the wheeled suitcase behind her. She fumbled for the keys, making three attempts before the door opened and finally she was home at last! Home at last...
    She'd been thinking that for the last two hours, ever since her flight had taken off from Albany. She leaned against the closed door, her bags strewn about her on the living room floor and wondered wildly what to do next. She'd thought about little else but this moment since she'd left two weeks ago, but now her mind was a blank. It was almost seven o'clock - far too early for Vincent to come above yet. It wouldn't be really safe until after nine. She could go to him, but not yet - the park entrance was not to be used during the daylight hours except in emergency, and the sub-basement, she'd learned to her dismay just minutes ago, was currently being painted. Just her luck it was a company who actually worked beyond five o'clock and were still there, hard at it. She was hot and sticky from the crowded flight in the small prop plane, and almost frantic with worry over what would happen next between she and Vincent. Finally she decided that whether he came Above or she went Below, she couldn't meet him like this. A bath first, yes.
    She moved purposefully then, the decision made, and hurried to unpack her bags, separating clothes for the wash and the dry cleaners. Twenty minutes later it was done and she took a deep breath and stepped out onto the balcony. She stared out over the park in wonder - everything looked somehow different to her now. Her gaze shifted to the corner of the balcony where Vincent always appeared, and sought out the rosebush she had planted almost a year ago. She drew in her breath at the sight awaiting her.     She had uncovered it a week before she'd left, deeming the spring to be far enough advanced, but she certainly hadn't expected results this soon. The stalks were green with life, and two buds twined together, their tender petals new and barely unfurled. Gently she touched the fragile tips, one creamy white, the other blood red, her thoughts on Vincent. Soon, she whispered aloud, seeing him in her mind's eye, soon...
    Finally she pulled herself away and left the balcony. It would be an hour at best before she could brave the park entrance safely, two hours if she were to wait for him here. After a momentary pause she began stripping her clothes off, throwing them in the laundry hamper in the closet, then pulled on a terrycloth robe. In the corner of her dressing table sat a small CD radio which was deceptively simple in its appearance. The speakers seemed all but non-existent, but the sound was amazing. She flipped through the jewel cases in one of the drawers, waiting for something to capture her mood. Mozart? Beethoven? Perhaps something more contemporary, like the wistful, Irish music of Enya. Her fingers froze as a picture obviously from the 60's appeared among the CD's strewn about. The Righteous Brothers. Yes. Slipping it into the CD slot, she set the program to loop about one track and one selection. The plaintive melody filled the pale light of dusk painting the room with shadowy rose tones, and she stood for a moment, eyes closed, imaging that Vincent were here.
    Finally she stirred from her reverie and turned to the armoire across the room. She opened her lingerie draw and removed a delicate nightgown of cream-colored silk. It was a simple gown, with thin straps that crossed at the center of the back, ending at the scooped edge low down, near the dimpled concavity of her hips. The front wasn't cut too low, but the fabric was delicately thin, and almost translucent. It felt gossamer light. Would Vincent come to her tonight? Should she go to him? She would decide later, she thought, then disappeared into the bathroom, the gown in hand.
    While the water filled the tub, she poured in bath salts and scented oil, then turned to the vanity where several large candles sat. She lit them and turned off the light, the door left open an inch or two, then finally sank into the warm, sensual water. Closing her eyes, she let his image invade her completely, sighing with blissful delight.
    Vincent paced restlessly at their threshold, dangerously - foolishly - close considering the presence of the workmen there. They had been dragging out the last of their work for an hour now and he was growing impatient. When would they leave?! It wasn't quite eight o'clock yet, but he needed them to go now! How he needed to see Catherine again, and quickly, they had to talk...
Talk. How could he talk when all he really wanted to do was to hold her in his arms and find out if it was really true or only a dream. He still couldn't quite believe what had happened between them two weeks ago.
    The voices and footsteps above the ladder and behind the door retreated and he stopped his anxious pacing, listening intently for five minutes more, before resolutely climbing the stairs and slipping within the darkened room. The smell of drying paint was strong, but there was nothing else, no other danger present. It was foolish in the extreme - it was barely dusk outside - but he couldn't wait a moment longer. He pressed the service elevator button and hid himself off to the side, behind some boxes. When the car arrived, he peered into the opened doors from his hiding spot for a moment, before hurrying within and pressing the button for the eighteenth floor. Before it reached the lobby level he had slipped through the safety door at the roof of the car, safely out of sight, and just in time, too. The elevator came to a stop and a couple got on. Vincent stood directly above them, silent, breathing a sigh of relief when they got off a minute later at the fifth floor.
    The car made no more stops, and the rest of the trip was made without incident. The roof approached and just before the top of the elevator eased into its stopping place inches below the top of the shaft, he grabbed his usual handhold and stepped off to balance on a small ledge with about a two foot clearance from the elevator itself. Right next to this spot was the safety access door to the roof, and he cautiously opened it to peer outside, where the sun still hadn't quite set, though the sky was now a dusky rose tinted with plum. No one. He moved across the roof quickly, vigilantly scanning about him, and slipped over the wall, his foot finding Catherine's balcony ledge automatically. When his feet were safely on the ground he moved up against the shadowed wall and out of sight. Finally.
    He turned toward her door, a slight hesitation evident now that he had arrived, and suddenly paused. Catherine's rosebush was blooming! He knelt beside it and softly touched the tender buds, leaning down to press his lips in a light kiss against the ivory cream of one then the scarlet red of the other. Finally, cautiously, he moved to the door of her bedroom. It stood open, the linen sheers wafting gently in the evening breeze. Cautiously he peered within. He knew she was here - he had felt her arrival an hour ago - but she was nowhere in sight now. No lamp was lit in her bedroom - none were needed at this hour - but a thin strip of mellow light shone from the slightly ajar bathroom door, telling him immediately of her whereabouts. Candlelight. He stared at the door, his teeth worrying against his lower lip, then finally leaned against the jam of the french door and waited.
    Only then did the softly playing music register with him on a conscious level. It was a delicate, tender melody, one he had never heard before. The volume was set very low, but he could hear it despite the sounds of traffic audible from his vantage point on the balcony. He closed his eyes to draw in the words more clearly, and finally they began to take shape.

    Oh my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch a long lonely time,
    And time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much,
    Are you still mine?
    I need your love, I need your love, god speed your love to me,

    His heart ached as the words wove their tendrils about it, speaking a truth he had found so difficult to acknowledge, though its profound reality was something he could no longer deny. The melody was an odd one, shifting subtly from one cadence to another, but always with a yearning love that touched him deeply, drawing him inexorably into its sensual spell. When it shifted again and the words filtered through the haze surrounding him, he gasped, his hand pressing against his breast as if to slow the rapid beating within.

    Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea,
    To the open arms of the sea,
    Lonely rivers call, wait for me, wait for me,
    I'll be coming home wait for me.
    Yes, oh yes...
    Oh my love, my darling, I hunger - hunger! - for your touch...

    The sudden strength of that emphasis struck a deep chord, and he felt the utter truth of it within. He loved her so much, and his desire for her sprang from that love. He could doubt himself and his own humanity, but never could he doubt this love. It was the one constant in his life, and he could no longer deny any part of that love - not any more. How he had missed her! How he wanted her now...
    Catherine left the bathroom, padding on bare, silent feet, the thin gown sensually covering the still-slick skin from the humid room behind her, then froze at the sight across the room. Vincent! He stood half in the room and half out, leaning against the door jam, his head thrown back, eyes closed. His right hand was pressed against his breast, and looked almost as if it were in the sling still, but the cast was gone, and it was obvious he had no more need of it. Father told her it would be so, but she was still surprised to see it.     Satisfied that his arm was all right, she allowed her gaze to travel upward, and gasped at the expression on his face, drinking in his beauty as he listened to the music wafting across the room. Unchained Melody. The words were having a profound affect on him, she could see that clearly, and suddenly the title of the song took on a new meaning. Had Vincent let go of his fears? Had her love loosened the chains that bound him? She fervently prayed that it was so, but if not... Well, she had nothing but time before her, and all of it was devoted to him, whether he accepted it or not right now. And as to now...
    She moved toward him slowly, almost hypnotized by the yearning lines of his face, amazed that he gave no sign of awareness at her presence, so caught up in the words was he. When she stood before him she didn't pause, but instead took another step forward. Her hands touched his chest first, one against his breast, the other over the hand that pressed upon his heart. His eyes flew open in startled surprise, his hand pulled down and away from hers, as if her touch burned him. With eyes locked to his, she slid her hands over the muscled expanse of his chest and around his ribs, pulling herself in close and tight to his beautiful body, craving his strong length against her entirely. She smiled at the stunned look on his face as she leaned in closer yet. Her eyes drifted closed the moment their lips touched, and a shivery flow of delight shuddered through her at the silky touch of him. She held him tight, but kept the kiss softly chaste, only pressing lightly to him there, not yet broaching that tender, hidden spot beneath the intriguing cleft of his upper lip.
    Suddenly his hands closed over her upper arms and she felt herself moving backward, her steps matched instinctively to his. The door jam on the opposing side stopped their movement, and she was amazed when he took one step more, his thigh pressing between her own to capture her body in an intimate snare, between the hard wood at her back and the hard muscled length of his body before her. His arms enclosed her at the waist, loosening a bit to slide down about her hips. He tightened his hold again and pulled her up and into his embrace. She arched against him with a groaning sigh and felt the moisture between her thighs, slick and hot, and rubbed shamelessly against him in response. At that moment he deepened the kiss, opening her mouth with his own, searching longingly, yearningly for her tongue, caressing her with such intensity she thought she'd melt. Her knees gave way, but his arms tightened yet again, holding her firmly against himself, pressing his knee upward in a sensual move which almost undid her. A whimper escaped her throat and his kiss deepened further yet, his tongue touching her with masterful strokes that shocked her completely. A sudden, vivid image of that night two weeks ago flashed before her, and she relived the sensation of his hard, hot flesh filling her, a convulsive shudder quivering through her tender, aching sheath. She pressed forward forcefully, rubbing against his thigh and belly both, moaning at the feel of his thick arousal between them, the surging pressure of him clear, even through his clothing. He gasped and pulled away at that intimate touch and she cried out, but stopped almost instantly when he swung her into his arms, his eyes locked to hers.
    Catherine drew in a gasping breath at that expression. The intensity of his gaze made her head spin. Suddenly she had a fleeting thought of Lisa and that turbulent time of his youth, so long ago. She almost smiled at the thought, finding it in herself to have a little sympathy for the poor girl. If she didn't love him so much, she might find herself a little frightened by the look on his face right now. But fear was the last thing on her mind...
    Her thoughts were interrupted as she found herself pressed down to the mattress, his fully-clothed body pushed tight against the thin-clad length of her own. His knee pulled up to rest across her hips, and she raised her thigh slightly, enough to feel the taut fullness between his own legs, rubbing against him gently, ever mindful of the sensitivity of that delicate flesh. He moaned lowly, then a groaning growl began to build, rumbling through his chest to vibrate against her own. His hand grasped her arms tightly, nails pressed into her tender skin. She remembered the delicate kneading of his hands in the bathing chamber and moaned in response, wanting to feel the trail of fire from those nails once more. But he released her instead and she whimpered in frustration. He stared down at her, an intense light in his eyes, and suddenly his hands moved to her shoulders, stroking the silky bare flesh over and over again, then curling around her neck to gently fondle the round concavity at the base of her throat with his thumbs. She arched her neck, baring her throat to him completely, purring with pleasure. When his hands slid away her eyes flew open, wondering what he would do next.
    She didn't have long to wait. His hands returned to her shoulders, holding her tight once more, but this time with a confidence that stunned her. His gaze, however, had dropped to her breasts, and she looked down to see the taut peaks plainly evident through the thin silk of her gown, expecting his hands to move there next, certain he would touch her and relieve the aching pain building there.     He did, but not in the way she had imagined. His hands never left her shoulders, tightening instead and pressing her back to the mattress. She felt so open and vulnerable to his gaze, even covered as she was. When he finally touched her it wasn't with his hands, as she had expected, but with his mouth. He leaned down and kissed one taut peak gently, tenderly, with a reverent awe, repeated that action upon the other, then pulled back to look at her again, as if he couldn't get enough of the sight of her arousal.
    She was sure she knew what would happen next. He would caress her shyly, a slow, hesitant progression of tentative touches leading to stroking hands and then to exploring fingers, timid nuzzles leading to warm, open kisses and finally to hungrier, deeper urgings.
    But that didn't happen - not at all. It was as if the hunger within him, once released, could only be satisfied by complete and utter access to her quivering body. Without warning his mouth nipped at one yearning peak, long, sharp incisors scraping across the silk of her gown till he enclosed her nipple, tugging at it for a fleeting moment before it popped free of his teeth. Twice more he did that, each time holding her harder and tighter in the heat of his mouth, her breath coming in jolting gasps at each searing touch. Finally he enclosed her completely, his wet, hot mouth drawing in her nipple and the surrounding flesh to suckle upon her hungrily, through the creamy silk. She gasped in pleasure, raising her hands to hold him tightly to her breast, but he moved instantly to pull them away, pressing them back to her sides and holding her there, open to his lusty mouth. When he moved to her other breast he took it immediately, laving the tip with his swirling tongue.
    A cool breeze prickled the flesh of her deserted nipple and she stared in shock at the wet fabric outlining the turgid peak as it strained upwards, yearning for his mouth again, though she wouldn't for the world - even if she could - take him from the breast he drank at now. She was breathless, speechless, stunned by the sensations he wrought upon her sensitive flesh, as if every nerve in her body were tuned to his most ardent command, quivering before him in greedy need, wanting all of him, wanting him to take all of her...
    He pulled away again and she moaned loudly, wanting him back, but he held them apart firmly, drinking in the taut beauty of her breasts through the silky fabric of the gown, his amazement and fascination easy to read. When his hands grasped the thin straps and slipped them down, she shivered, desperate to be naked in his arms. Little by little her breasts were bared to his gaze, the feel of the silk sliding over her aroused peaks almost driving her crazy. When the straps were at her elbows and the bodice of the gown at her ribcage, he stopped, then slipped his left arm around her back, grasping her by her own left arm, holding both her and the strap at the elbow. He tightened his grasp and she felt herself lifted off the bed slightly, her back arching to thrust her yearning breasts toward him. The sight of herself like that, so vulnerably exposed before him, thrilled her in a way she couldn't even begin to understand. It was as if she were a virgin sacrifice to some lusty god, and suddenly she thought she knew why those countless young girls had gone so willing to the alter in their time. She knew that she would give him anything - anything!!
    Now, now, he would taste her again, his mouth hot and wet, his teeth sharp and shivery against her tender flesh. Oh, yes... She panted heavily, unable to control her pounding heart, waiting for his mouth to enclose her, but as he had done before, he surprised her again now, reaching out instead with his free hand. He didn't cup her breast in his warm palm, as she was certain he would, sure, she thought, to be followed by a slow, hesitant journey of exploration which would ultimately make its way to her taut nipple. No, instead his fingers touched her there first, a look of awe and astonishment in his face, as if he couldn't believe the sight of her arousal could be real. He traced around her areola gently, then brushed back and forth against her straining nipple with the tip of his finger and its sharp nail. She watched it all in astonishment, feeling her face flush deep red with passion even as she grew more turgid beneath his touch. Finally he slid his hand about her, cupping her tenderly, the heat of his palm exactly as she imagined it would be. Slowly, almost hypnotically, he leaned down to her, lifting her at the same time, until his lips rested against the lusty, quivering peak.
He was strangely still for a moment, then she felt him press against her in a foreign motion, followed by a sudden slick pressure on her nipple. He shuddered sinuously along her body and she gasped, feeling her tender peak enclosed by tight heat, at the secret cleft of his mouth. His erection surged strongly, palpably against her thigh and they both moaned loudly, stunned by the erotic feel of this new contact between them.
    But every touch was new, every sensation something they had only imagined in their sleeping and waking dreams. They had shared the most intimate of joinings once already, but this was the first time they had truly touched, and somehow, despite the knowledge of what had come before, or perhaps because of it, these virgin caresses between them were all the more powerful and all the more erotic. The short, silky hair of his cheeks and nose rubbed against her as he pressed himself closer, taking her nipple deeply to that hidden spot, and she writhed beneath him, aroused almost past bearing. When his tongue touched her, pressing her firmly between the slick folds of that secret place she cried out, arching up against him strongly, though his arms still held her tight. Finally he began to suckle her tender flesh.
    It was like nothing she had ever felt before. Between her legs she felt her feminine muscles clench helplessly with longing, a slick, creamy heat building there which threatened to consume her utterly. She tried to wrap her left leg around the knee that rested across her, desperate to feel his straining sex against the aching emptiness of her own, but his hand met her thigh and pushed it back down.   His mouth released her suddenly and she felt herself abruptly pushed to her side, facing away from him. A moment later he was pressed up tight against her back, his loins intimately spooned to her hips. She pushed back hard, rubbing shamelessly against him.    His growling groans echoed through the night, and she felt the havoc in him through his chest at her back, the sounds of his passion leaving her weak. When he stroked her hair back, baring her neck to his kisses, she shuddered wildly before him, almost unable to control the shaking of her body.
    A sudden sensation cascaded through the bond and she knew he felt her on the edge, and was giving her some reserve of his own considerable strength. While her attention was caught on that shivery sensation within, he slipped his hand around her to cup a breast and pull her back, his touch strangely comforting, despite the erotic nature of it. She took a deep breath and let it go, collapsing in his embrace, and felt his kiss at the nape of her neck again, almost as if it were a reward for her regained control. With a sudden flare of insight she realized that he was aiding her restraint not just for her comfort, but for his own pleasure as well. He wanted this to last...
    With that recognition she shuddered violently, all her senses overwhelmed by the erotic sensations of his physical and emotional touch upon her. So close, she was so close... But somehow, though the abyss was directly before her, he held her back, and she sank to his protective embrace, freely giving him all he wanted and needed of her this night. Her eyes closed and she immersed herself in his touch, her skin incredibly sensitized to even the air around her. His clothes were coarse and rough against her - even the erotic touch of soft wool and buttery leather - but the sensation was a delicious contrast, though she was in an agony of expectation to feel his naked body at long last.
    A soft groan was torn from her throat when she felt his lips kiss gently down her spine, tenderly traversing her slender back. His hand stroked ahead of his kisses, tracing the feminine curve of her waist and hip, down her thigh, then back up again. The cut of the gown was low in back, baring her almost completely, down to the dimpled concavity of her hips, and he settled at the small of her back and mouthed that tender, sensitive flesh slowly, sensuously, taking his time. When she felt the scraping of his nails along her ribcage she shuddered wildly, intensely aroused by the shivery flames of those sharp tips. His fingers slipped beneath the edge of the gown's bodice and tugged downward, little by little baring her hips to his hungry gaze and questing mouth. Each new inch of bared flesh received his loving attention, kisses lavished along it with patient care. Occasionally she jumped at the sudden feel of sharp, cool teeth scraping against her tender, milky skin, sending her into a paroxysm of shivery delight. The rumbling from his chest was mixed with another sound now, and she suddenly realized what it was - purring. It was low, and almost hidden amidst the other sounds of his passion, but it was there, and she trembled at the erotic sound.
    It seemed to take forever, but finally the gown was pushed down to the tops of her thighs, her tender, full curves exposed to him completely. His hand was still tucked within the folds of silk near the junction of her thigh and hip, and while still buried partially beneath it, he slid his fingers around to her belly, stroking downward to the soft curls at the vee of her thighs. Lightly, carefully, he trailed his fingers through her silky locks, stroking the sensitive mound beneath. She shook at his touch, desperate to open herself to him, but unable to do so by the enclosing fabric of her gown and his own encircling arm. He withdrew his touch almost immediately, though, and she whimpered softly at that withdrawal, wanting his touch in the deepest part of her. Instead his hand slid down her thighs, stroking front to back to ease the gown down her legs and off her body. If fell away with a whisper and she shuddered at the sudden image they must present, her small, naked body curled up in the center of the bed with his large, clothed and cloaked form surrounding her from behind. She felt the massive power of him and quivered with unrelieved tension and erotic anticipation, her muscles aching for his touch and the sensual possession she knew must follow.
    At that thought her muscles clenched sharply, the empty core of her crying out for him, making her moan loudly in need. He responded to her call immediately, tracing his hand back up the front of her calves until he reached the curve of her bent knees, slipping behind them to pull her legs up tighter against her torso. From there he slid further along the back of her thighs, up towards her hips. As his fingers slowly made their way toward her pulsing center, her trembling increased. She was so used to hiding her passion from him, but now she was exposed completely, not just physically - though that was indeed the case with her legs pulled up tight as they were - but also emotionally and mentally. None of her thoughts or feelings were hidden from him now, any more than the most intimate part of her body was hidden. The bond was open between them completely, everything mixing and shared in the tender waves surrounding and enclosing them.
    When his fingers reached the tender folds of flesh pressed tight between her thighs, she shuddered and moaned, but held herself still and open to his touch. He stroked along her with the barest whisper of sensation, gently brushing against the quivering petals of her outer flesh, then trailing one finger lightly down the line of their center. The heat within her spiraled tightly, then unraveled, a creamy warmth meeting his gently questing fingers. He touched her with a tender reverence, as easy to feel through the bond as through his trembling hand, and she pressed her face against the curve of her arm and groaned, shaking with the need to turn to him, to open herself fully to the hunger she knew lay just below the surface of his barely-restrained passion. She knew he felt that urging within her by the sudden increase of his breathing at her back. His hand slid to the fleshy back of her thigh and gripped her there, tightening on the soft flesh as he exerted what little control remained. She shook in response, wishing he would let it all go, needing him so badly.
    But he didn't, not then. Instead he pulled away abruptly. She rolled to her stomach, legs stretched out smoothly now, and turned her head in his direction, needing to watch him. For a moment the thought occurred to her that he might leave, his limits reached, but that was banished instantly. No, he wouldn't leave her now, not like this. She was so vulnerable, and she wanted him so much. He wanted her so much... No, he would stay, there was no question in her mind.
    And she was right. He sat on the edge of the bed, partially turned away from her and leaned down to pull off his boots and socks, tossing them aside without thought. His hair hid his face as he bent to the task, and she waited anxiously to see his beloved profile once more, sighing with pleasure when he sat upright again. His gaze flicked to her for a moment, his expression plainly telling her of his intentions to stay, and that he well knew where her thoughts had been in that brief space of time. There was still hesitancy and a little uncertainty there - and a bashful shyness that astonished her considering all that had occurred so far - but none of it mattered in light of his love and desire for her, she could see that clearly. His face was partially hidden from view again, though, while he undid the laces of his vest with trembling fingers, his head bowed and eyes shuttered. She knew he found this intimacy with her to be almost overwhelming, so strongly did he feel her emotions and his own, and let him take this much-needed moment to gain mastery of himself once more.
    Finally the laces were undone and he pulled the padded leather garment away from his shoulders, dropping it to the floor. Next he raised his hips from the bed for a moment, stripping the oversweater and thermal shirt free from the waistband of his trousers. As he pulled both off at once, arms upraised, Catherine drew in a gasping breath at the sight of his strong biceps and broad shoulders, wishing she could see more of his chest, hungry for the sight of all of him.
    She couldn't help herself then, turning over and sitting up beside him in one fluid movement. The edge of her hip rested near his backside, and she leaned against him to press a kiss upon his shoulderblade, feeling his inevitable shudder beneath her lips. Her right hand slipped around his ribs to caress his chest tenderly and the breath jolted from him at her touch, a groaning gasp escaping him, but he sat still, letting her explore his broad muscled expanse. He still wore the pouch about his neck which held her rose, and she stroked it lightly in passing, before moving inexorably lower. The muscles of his abdomen were tautly defined, and they jumped beneath her descending fingers, tightening deliciously, so that she couldn't resist stopping, for just a minute, to caress him there, too.
    She wanted to touch him everywhere, but more than anything right now, she wanted to get the last of his clothes off of him so that she could feel his silky heat pressed against her bare skin, every inch of him open to her seeking hands and eyes. At the waistband of his trousers she paused, giving him a moment to acclimate himself for what was to come, finally slipping lower to stroke his straining erection through the worn fabric. At that intimate touch his growl erupted, low and hoarse. To someone else it might have sounded menacing, but she knew it for what it was. His hand covered hers, holding her tight, as if he would stop her movement, but a moment later he released her, his hand slipping away, and she knew he was giving his tacit approval to go on. He was hard and hot, his pulsing thickness huge against her palm, even like this, through his clothing, and she shuddered, a groaning sigh easing out through the night at the thought of taking him within her again. She squeezed her thighs together tight, trying to still the aching emptiness there which cried out for him, drawing her knees up and leaning against his back as she pressed more firmly to his strength. She stroked along his throbbing length, tracing downward to the tight fullness she knew rested between his thighs. He shifted a bit, turning slightly toward her and drawing his right knee up upon the bed, opening his legs to her. She slipped in eagerly, finding and cupping him, and he arched against her, groaning softly. Holding him gently there, her left arm slipped around his body to again caress his chest, finding and stroking the taut bud of his breast through the golden thatch of hair covering him. Both hands moved upon him now, and his torso writhed in bliss, the sounds from his throat somehow different than before, even more compelling, a yearning call that urged everything in her to him.
    She had to touch his silky, naked skin, she just had to, and her hand eased away and began to fumble at the waistband, trying to undo the fastenings with one hand. She couldn't do it, and reluctantly pulled her other hand from his chest to join its twin. In seconds it was done, and his hot flesh surged against her hands. She slipped within, circling as much of his pulsing shaft as she could with one hand, the other slipping lower to cup the heated juncture at his thighs, her beasts pressed tight to the silky strength of his back. The taut peaks ached and she pushed hard, rubbing against the muscled planes there even as her hands moved upon him, stroking and caressing him while he groaned and writhed against her.
    Suddenly he circled her wrists with his hands and gently pulled her away from his throbbing flesh. Slipping the opened trousers down and away, he turned to face her a bit more, his long thigh curled onto the bed and the full length of his body exposed to her completely. Her eyes widened with stunned surprise as she gazed at him, overwhelmed by his masculine beauty. Golden hair coated his bronze-toned skin. His muscles were tautly defined, despite the silky hair covering him, and at his groin his erection strained toward his belly, unabashedly proud and hard, despite the tinge of fear still lingering in his eyes. She touched his cheek gently, trying to reassure him, hoping he would somehow be able to make sense of the quivering emotions vibrating through her now. She couldn't hold his gaze for long, though, the newness of this pleasure too much to resist. She had to see him, to watch his body respond to her presence, staring at his straining flesh with awed incredulity.
    As she gazed down at him, she had to admit that he had had reason enough to question the safety of this between them, and could only be extremely grateful that the circumstances of two weeks ago had somehow overwhelmed those fears to the point where they had been allowed to try. Even now she couldn't believe how a dreadful accident had pointed the way to the opportunity that might otherwise have been denied them. Fate? Destiny? Luck? She didn't know, and right now she didn't care, not with this virile view before her. Taking in the entirety of his surging length now, she was stunned. It didn't seem possible, and yet there was no denying what they had shared before, and she resolutely put those questions behind her,. They had their answer now, though it didn't really belong to the original question. And it no longer mattered.. The only thing that was important was she and Vincent and the blissful joy they had found in each other two weeks ago. She ached for him, determined to share all they'd had before and more - and the sooner the better!
    They sat somewhat facing each other now and Catherine couldn't resist the opportunity finally presented to her, slipping her arms about his shoulders to turn him more fully to her. She tightened her embrace about him and drew him closer until her breasts were pressed tightly to the silk strength of his chest, sighing in pleasure at the sensation that contact brought. She looked up at him and gasped at the sight of his head thrown back in bliss, the throbbing pulse of his throat bared to her upward gaze, and leaned forward to press her mouth to that arching column, licking and kissing that tender flesh just at the juncture of his collarbones.
    She didn't want to leave that sweet place, but so much else called out to her, and somewhat reluctantly she moved downward and to the left, tracing the line of his right shoulder, slipping her arm beneath his and about his ribs so that his arm was completely free to her kisses. The fine, almost invisible hairs along his shoulder and upper arm gave way to a denser coating beneath his elbow, and she nuzzled among the golden fur, it's touch upon her lips and skin poignantly sensual. While she explored those new sensations, her hand slipped down to his, and his fingers clasped hers tightly. She turned his hand and beneath her mouth the gingery thatch of hair was replaced by smooth, tender flesh. She stared down at him, searching out the remaining scar of his injury, and was amazed to find it fading already. It would be gone soon, that much was clear, but the four inch line was still visible to her now and she gently lowered her mouth to it, kissing its length. His hand tightened upon hers and she felt the muscles of his torso tense beneath her breasts and the other arm which still circled him. An answering quiver flowed down her own body in response. If he could respond this way to such an innocent touch between them, how would he react to the deeper, more intimate caresses that still waited?
    Suddenly she was very anxious to investigate those wondrous possibilities. She kissed back up his arm, to his shoulder and chest, then moved downward, into the silky thatch of hair covering him. Her left arm slipped around his ribs once more and her right hand was cupped about his left shoulder, her arm resting along the side of his torso. His own arms encircled her, holding her gently, not obstructing her movements, but not directing them either, letting her go as she chose. Nuzzling through the golden down, she caressed his flesh with her lips, mouth and tongue, tasting him everywhere with a shivery delight. When she found his taut nipple she stayed there a long time, nibbling and kissing that tender flesh and feeling the pleasure jolt through him in response, his pectoral muscle jumping beneath her caressing mouth. The low growl was ever-present, occasionally interrupted by a moaning sigh.
    When she felt his left hand slide upward from her back to cup her head, holding her to him, a starburst of joy filled her. His fingers threaded through the strands of her hair, stroking her there over and over again. Finally they stilled and she felt a slight pressure that had been absent before. She responded to it instantly, moving to his hesitant request and found herself at the left side of his chest, his other nipple straining eagerly toward her caresses. Her right hand left his shoulder so that now both arms circled his body about his ribs as she lovingly caressed him. Her ministrations there were perhaps even more enthusiastic than before, telling him clearly how happy she was that he had been able to tell her of his desires, even in such a subtle way as he had a moment ago. His hands tightened about her in response, holding her close, and she knew he understood.
    There was no way she could stay in any one spot for too long a time, though, the rest of his body calling out to her in a way that was totally irresistible. Finally she slipped from his breast and resumed her course downward, resolutely ignoring the loud moan from him at that absence. She found and explored his tautly defined abdomen, licking along the indentations of each ripped set of muscles - six of them all told - with delight. They quivered beneath her teasing tongue, contracting strongly in response.
    A loud groan echoed above her when she slipped beneath that spot and flicked enticingly into his navel. His muscles were tensing and flexing all over now, and he writhed against her, but she knew it wasn't that simple touch alone which inspired this dramatic response. She moved again, testing his reaction and knew that he was feeling the silky strands of her hair as it hung down beneath her, caresses his throbbing erection, straining below. He moaned again, loudly, the sound filling the night. She couldn't resist him, not now, not like this. Her right hand slipped around his ribs and traced downward beneath her, finding his aroused flesh instantly and enclosing it in her hand, strands of hair caught between them. When she began to caress him there, while she still kissed him above, he cried out, the muscles of his torso flexing strongly against her, his erection surging strongly in her palm.
    He was hot and hard and so thick. She tightened her grasp about him, wishing she could hold him entirely, and began to stroke his steely flesh, kissing down his quivering belly. He strained upward rather than out, so aroused was he, and she quickly felt the heat of him against her cheek, turning in an instant to press a kiss against the throbbing head while her hand still stroked his pulsing shaft.     The sounds he made then were beyond ecstasy, beyond belief. They drove her on and she responded with an instinct as old as time, taking him in the heat of her mouth to caress him with an intimate lovers embrace. Her hand still touched him, stroking his aroused length, occasionally releasing him to slip between his thighs, cupping and caressing the oh-so-sensitive, tight fullness there. He was so hot and so compelling, she wanted to never leave, and yet the hunger within her was growing for more, the muscles between her own legs quivering tautly in anticipation of his erotic presence. How she needed him there!
    A whimper escaped her throat and her left hand slipped away from his body to press against the growing ache at the center of her thighs. Suddenly she felt her hand pulled away, to be replaced by his own. Cautiously, carefully, he caressed her, brushing against her silky mound with his palm first, then slipping below to cup her warmly. His fingers began to stroke her sensitive flesh tenderly, gently, exploring the outer lips of her sex before finally slipping deeper to trace along the delicate inner petals. He was so very mindful of his sharp nails, but every now and then she felt a sharp scraping of them along her flesh and cried out in ecstasy at that intensely erotic sensation.
    His left arm still circled and supported her body against him, his hand cupping her head while she loved him so intimately with her mouth, and she suddenly wanted the circle complete, drawing her left knee up slightly and turning her lower body a bit so that she was open more fully to his touch, an invitation there that was impossible to misread. His hand tightened upon her for a moment, and then slipped away and she heard his loud, inward gasp of breath, and knew without looking that he stared down at the open, vulnerable pose of offering she presented. The growling from his chest was a constant rumble now, deep and compelling. She felt it all the way down in his abdomen, the muscles of his belly vibrating with the sound. The hand that had deserted her yearning flesh suddenly reappeared at the back of her upraised knee. He tightened his grip about her for a moment, then lifted, opening her more fully to his lusty gaze. His fingers released her and traced down along the sensitive skin of her inner thigh to stroke and caress the silky, creamy flesh at her center yet again.
    She glanced up his torso, never stopping her tender, open kisses upon his engorged flesh, and saw him staring at that spot and his caressing hand with a dazed look of incredulity. When he leaned in toward her body, her eyes closed and she moaned with excited desire and anticipation. Finally, finally she felt his mouth against her tender flesh, pressing soft, warm kisses upon her. Heat grew at her center and the muscles at her core responded, quivering to his touch in a way she had never before experienced. His mouth was hot, tasting her everywhere, soft kisses followed by nuzzling licks and nibbles along every inch of her sensitive flesh. His right hand rested on her right inner thigh, but suddenly slid back until he cupped the soft curved muscle of one buttock, tightening about that luscious flesh to open the most secret, feminine part of her completely to his exploring mouth. She whimpered with frustration when his mouth left her, then shuddered irresistibly when she realized that he stared down at her yearning flesh. Nothing was hidden from him now - nothing. When he returned to her it was with a lusty intensity that set her ablaze. She writhed beneath his searching mouth, her muscles convulsing continuously as he consumed her with lips, teeth, tongue and stroking fingers.
    The sensations gathered and quickened, until there was nothing left but complete and utter submission to his virile mastery. His left hand left her to slip between her thighs, until his forearm rested against that quivering length and his hand cupped the other half of her bottom. Both hands tightened at once, and both arms pushed outward, opening her completely, his intentions plain. She willingly gave in to his lusty demands, releasing his own throbbing flesh and falling back to the bed with a moaning gasp which quickly escalated to a wailing cry of ecstasy. Her torso arched and writhed upon the bed but his attention was focused entirely at her core, urging her on with a commanding passion that brooked no resistance. The night blazed, the heat consumed her, and he continued on, demanding every last bit of strength within her in response. Finally her moans tapered off to soft, bird-like cries and her body lay still beneath him. She felt molten, liquid, as if her body flowed to him completely, open and waiting. He pressed one last kiss to her quivering flesh and a moment later he lay along her side, staring down at her face with stunned awe.
    Vincent couldn't believe it. The response of her body to him a moment before, and the look on her face now were almost beyond his ability to comprehend. How was this possible? She lay beside him naked and flushed, overcome with satiated passion and contentment. He felt it all through her, the bond feeding him every sensation, and realized that her response to him went well beyond the physical. The emotional intensity between them played as much if not more a part in her body's reactions, the physiological response multiplied and expanded by the magnifying presence of their bond. Though she was not quite back from that devastating place of satiated satisfaction, he couldn't resist stroking his hand along her still quivering body. Her breasts responded immediately, the nipples tightening up beneath his palm, and as his hand stroked downward, slipping between her thighs, the creamy warmth there pulsed against him.
    Suddenly he knew that her response to him was as inevitable as his was for her, and another insight burst upon him. They didn't respond to each other this way because of the bond, but rather the bond existed because of this response between them. Of all the souls in the world, their two were perfectly matched and made for each other, whether by divine fate or chance he didn't know, nor did he really care. It was thus between them, and that was all that mattered.
    With that revelation so clear within him his doubts fell away, replaced with a calm assurance that knew no fear. It was time now, time to complete their destiny together. He moved his weight over hers, pressing his throbbing erection tight to her belly and spreading his legs outward, pushing hers along to open her body to him. He let much of his weight rest upon her, a part of him astonished that he could do so, while his forearms supported his upper body off of her slightly so that he could look down into her face. His fingers stroked along her flushed cheeks and temples while he stared at her, amazed by the look of serenity on her face.
    "Catherine."
    It was a whispering sigh, and her lashes fluttered against her cheeks in response.
    "Catherine", he repeated again, as softly as before, but with a growing, compelling urgency. Her eyes finally blinked sleepily, then she was staring up at him, a smile there that caught his breath completely.
    "Vincent." Her voice was almost a purr, and she stretched beneath him sinuously.
    Her gaze locked to his and something changed there. He saw the events of the last hour played out again in her gray depths, sinking into them and feeling it all over again.
    "Now, Vincent, I need to have you inside of me now."
    "Yes."
    There was no other answer, no other response. He needed to seek out the full depths of her, to find her very center and hold himself there, claiming all of her. His hands tightened upon the outline of her sculpted cheeks and jaw, and he bent down to press a tender, chaste kiss upon her lips before sliding his body down along her length. He trembled at the sensation of his pulsing erection pressed tight between the slippery friction of their bodies, shuddering when that friction was gone, cool air replacing it. Quickly he pressed forward, nudging up against her creamy heat, sighing with relief at the feel of her. She drew her legs up and wrapped them around his waist and he gasped as the slick folds opened as if to place a wet kiss about the throbbing head of his sex.
    Their gazes locked together and he threaded his fingers through her hair, holding her still while he pressed upward, seeking entrance. Her eyes fluttered closed and her head arched back, a groaning cry drawn from her as he pushed steadily against her.     Pulling her legs higher about his torso, she opened to him further yet, then slid her hands down his back to cup his tensed buttocks, squeezing and kneading the taut muscles there, then finally tightening and pulling him in, telling him with her eyes and body, and through their bond, that she wanted all of him. He felt the tiny contractions through the bond first, as small waves that quivered through him, though he knew they originated in her. He felt them a moment later through the minute pulsing sensations of her creamy lips against his straining erection, and gasped in surprise, feeling her caress him in such an intimate way. He needed to feel that touch along his full length now, and pressed even harder, twisting his hips with a groaning growl until he felt her quivering flesh give way, allowing the initial entrance of his probing sex.
    They both groaned loudly at that sensation, the responses of their bodies inevitable and immediate; he surged strongly, even that small part of him within her growing, and she tightened down to hold him in the most intimate of embraces, the slick tissue inside her body caressing every inch of his embedded flesh.
    "Now, Vincent, please, don't make me wait any longer."
    He stared down into her eyes, astonished at the pleading expression there. It should be him, begging for even the smallest touch of her hands, her mouth, but this... This was unbelievable to him.
    "I need you, Catherine, I need you so much. Open yourself to me, my love, let me inside your creamy warmth. Hold me close and deep. Oh, Catherine, Catherine", he groaned, "I never want to leave you."
    She began to cry at his words, her chest shuddering tightly to his with sobs of pleasure.
"Yes, I will, I will. Only for you, my love, only for you. Take me now, make me yours and I will give you everything, anything..."
    Her words ended in a gasping mewl, blending with his own growling cry as he thrust strongly against her, surging into her deeply.  He was panting harshly, his head ringing, his whole body shaking with desire. Half of his erection was now buried within her slick depths, and he stroked his thumbs along her eyelids urging them open. He needed to read her carefully now. She responded to his command and opened her eyes, and in them he read her desperate need.
    "Everything, Vincent, all of you. Now, oh please, now!"
    He held her gaze and gathered his strength. She felt the tensing of his body a moment before it was released, one last deep thrust burying him completely within her hot, silky depths. She screamed and arched her back, quivering everywhere at the deep penetration of her body by his, frightening him with the severity of her response. He tried to pull away, suddenly frantic with worry, but she wouldn't let him go, holding him with a strength that amazed him. A moment later the muscles at her core began to convulse about his throbbing, surging erection, and he lost all will, unable to do anything but stay, luxuriating in her creamy heat. His body collapsed atop hers, his face buried at the curve of her neck while his loins writhed against hers, seeking out the very center of her.
    "Oh, Catherine, Catherine!"
    Their arms wrapped tight about each other, every inch of their bodies touching, both inside and out. Slowly he began to rock against her, driven by an instinct he never thought to question. She moved with him, feeling the thickness of him touching every shivery, sensitive spot within, caressing her completely to kiss the deepest part of her. Slowly the rocking motions sharpened, turning to something else. He slipped from her body now, just a bit, before thrusting back, each thrust followed by a sharper removal, until his erection was barely within her at the outstroke, the penetration which followed all the more extreme in the sensations it engendered. She cried out with each jolting thrust, her legs locking high about him to open her body more fully to his demanding touch, and shuddered strongly as he surged within her yet again, increasing in both thickness and length to press against her very womb with each returning stroke.
    "Now, Vincent, now!"
    The speed of his thrusts increased in response to her command, his body moving over hers with a fine-tuned precision, seeking her depths and touching her completely, eliciting a response from her that overwhelmed him entirely. Faster he moved, and deeper still, holding her tight as his body sought hers out in the most intimate way he could have possibly imagined. He was beyond words now, only the groaning growls and rumbling purrs left to vocalize his sensations, but they were more than enough, the vibration from his chest shuddering through her whole body and centering at her very core, where slick moisture gathered, coating his straining erection with the sweet essence of her body. With each thrust now she felt the tip of his sex press against the very depths of her, a pleasure bordering on pain building and crying out for release. It continued to escalate until the convulsions traversed down his steely length non-stop and she gasped in astonished disbelief.
    "Vincent!"
    She stared up at him, eyes wide, mouth open and panting, and he read the need there instantly. His body and the bond responded, an electric arc blazing through them as his thrusts increased yet again, as if he would push beyond the opening of her cervix and into her very womb, as if he sought that center of life.
    "Catherine!"
    Her name was almost lost in the roaring rush of sound, as with one last mighty thrust he pressed up deeply into her and held himself there tight, his body exploding in an agony of release. The contractions of her body increased immediately, milking the life force from him while she sobbed and moaned and thrashed beneath him. A moment later he resumed a slower rocking against her, the hypersensitive flesh of both their bodies responding in a quivering rush at the touch of each others flesh sliding along the slippery coated surfaces of their muscles. He was hot and hard in her for a long time, drawing out both their orgasms as his loins writhed against her, and she held him protectively close, her hand pressing him tight to the curve of her throat as he pumped the last of his seed within her. Finally his weight collapsed upon her entirely, his flesh still thick and deep within her, residual pulses quivering through him and into her. The shaking muscles of her legs gave way with a sigh and she let them slip down until they rested along the outer edges of his own. His arms were buried beneath her and her own arms circled his torso, holding him close and safe. She wanted to stay awake, to watch over him a while longer, but her strength was utterly gone and she joined him in that place of deep contentment. Their bond pulsed about them, holding them safe, secure, together.
    A light breeze wafted the sheers lazily into the darkened room and Vincent felt the coolness along his naked back and he cuddled closer to the soft warmth beneath him. His eyes fluttered open and reality congealed around him. That softness and warmth belonged to Catherine, and he gasped as the memory of the last few hours filled him. They had been asleep for a while now and he was astonished and dismayed to find himself still laying atop her, though a little off to her side now, his softened flesh still buried within her silky depths. He tried to move his weight from her, but she tightened her arms about him, even in sleep reluctant to let him go. He thought for a moment then circled her body again, holding her close, to ease them both over until she lay atop him, their positions reversed. He couldn't believe he was still inside her, that their sleeping motions hadn't separated them. That thought lasted only a minute, though, as desire began to build in him again, and he felt his erection growing within her. He groaned at that sensation, feeling her relaxed muscles respond to him immediately as he filled her tender depths once more. What would she think of him?!
    He didn't know what to do, thinking he should separate them before this became something she had no say in, but wanting nothing more to stay right where he was, to feel their passion growing again, to give in to it and love her until she cried out in pleasure, bringing back those tears of joy she'd shed earlier this night. His turbulent thoughts were interrupted by Catherine herself. She was waking now, her eyes fluttering open to meet with his. She stretched along his length luxuriously, wriggling her hips back to bury him more deeply inside her.
    "Oh, Vincent..."
    She smiled down at him and he smiled helplessly in return. The words he'd tried so hard to keep from her flowed easily now, and he realized he could never again recall or deny them.
    "I love you, Catherine."
    His hands reached up to stroke her cheeks tenderly, tracing the features of her face lovingly.
    "Love me now, love me always."
    She turned to press a kiss into his palm, holding his hand tight to her mouth with her own. When she turned to face him, his palm now cupping the curve of her cheek and jaw, her eyes were alight with passion and love.
    "Always, Vincent, always."
    His hand tightened about her, urging her down to him, until their lips met and blended, sealing their destiny together for all time.

    And their happy life begins... again