The Quickening

Teri

Part I
 

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

Alexander Pope (To Lord Bathhurst)

     Seven days.  It had been seven days.  Another voice inside him echoed that thought, but more truthfully than Vincent was comfortable with; six nights...  Though neither phrase was spoken aloud, the tone of that 'other' voice had a sharper edge, more insistent, less patient.  It demanded action.  Vincent struggled mightily to ignore that voice.
    Three weeks ago he wouldn't have questioned such a separation.  Not that a day went by, nor even an hour, when Catherine wasn't in his thoughts, but he had learned to accept the inevitable time apart, to live with that pain.  It had become a constant in his life, held in thrall by the brute force of his willpower, the steely control he had fine-tuned over the last two decades.
     But that was three weeks ago, and everything had changed since then.  Three weeks ago they had become lovers.  Lovers...
     The word alone, the mere thought of it, sent shivers racing through him.  They centered in his groin and his body responded instantly, urgently.  It was as if the years of iron control had never existed.  He leaned heavily against the rock wall, mustering the strength to submerge his desires.  For a moment the tunnels around him disappeared and he was aware of the sensations of his body only; panting breath, rushing blood, pulsing ache, he thought they might overwhelm him.  They had been so close to the surface these last few days, threatening him over and over again with their insistent call.  He leaned his face against the cool stone, his palms pressed flatly to it, willing the heat away from his body and into the depthless rocks under his fingertips.  Each episode had been harder to control than the last, and in that small moment, before his strength prevailed yet again, the events of the last few weeks flashed through him with crystal clarity.

     It had been four days since they had last met, a typical separation, he busy on excavation duty in the lower levels, she with an important case - the usual.  It was Thursday night and he'd arrived at the home tunnels just in time for supper.  It had been quite late when he'd made the spur of the moment decision to go above, just for a short visit to see how she was, perhaps to make plans for this weekend when both their workloads might be less hectic.
     On her balcony he hesitated before tapping the glass, watching her unobserved for a few precious moments.  She sat at her dressing table glancing through the leather bound book that contained a complex calendar, schedule and daily task list.  He had learned that she couldn't function without that book -- a planner, she called it.  She was never without it Above, though he'd never seen her bring it Below.  She was ready for bed, her hair quite wet from what must have been a very recent shower.
     Finally he tapped lightly, turning quickly away from the view inside to look out towards the park below in a fluid, well practiced move.  He felt her surprise and pleasure a moment before the door flew open.  Then she was in his arms, his turn back to her perfectly timed to her approach.  Oh, the feel of her against him!  He held her tight, absorbing her scent, unable to let her go for several long moments.  'Never long enough', the thought flashed through him hazily.
     Though he meant to stop for a moment only, she entreated him to stay, just for a while.  It had taken some persuasion on her part, especially when he learned she had an early deposition scheduled, but ultimately he'd been incapable of withstanding her plea.  They sat against the balcony wall talking lazily, well into the night.  He had drawn the edge of his cloak about her to keep her warm, but he shared her warmth as well, his fatigue turning that potentially dangerous situation into one of drowsy comfort and relaxation.  They must have fallen asleep then, though he still found that hard to accept.  It had never happened before -- he'd thought himself too well disciplined to allow his guard down in such a reckless manner.
     He woke slowly, sensations preceding sight, preceding thought.  Catherine lay across his lap, in the crook of his arm, her body curved against him.  Even now, despite all that had occurred since then, he was shocked when he recalled those first few waking moments, for he was indeed awake.  He knew where he was and could recall the events of the hours past.  He knew he wasn't dreaming.  And yet his response was completely at odds with his past conditioning.  He knew he should shift her gently to his side, wake her, then return to the safety of the tunnels, but he did none of these things.  It was as if there was a buffer between his thoughts and actions, one that muted his ability to respond as he knew he should.
     Later, in his desperation to understand his actions, he had even tried to convince himself that it was that other, darker side of himself that had dominated.  But there had been no rage, no loss of control or memory, none of the things he was so certain would occur under that state.  Instead he had felt a sure, calm strength filling him, a power he knew, but had never experienced with such unshakable confidence, such a feeling of rightness.  It was a sensation at once completely foreign yet utterly known in the deepest part of himself.  He accepted it unquestioning.
     He held her close with one arm, his free hand brushing her hair gently back to see her face clearly in the dim moonlight.  His gaze moved down her body slowly, surely, tracing the gold chain of his crystal to where it glittered like fire at the curve of her breast.  His breath caught at that seductive sight, his heart pounding suddenly in response.  He drew his eyes back to her face with some difficulty, noting the trembling of his hand where it cupped her cheek.
     How strange that had appeared in retrospect, for he had sensed no fear at the conscious level then.  Those liberties alone were enough to shock him now, in this more rational state, but he hadn't stopped there.
     He leaned down to touch his lips to hers, resting against her softly for a moment, experiencing the luxury of her smooth, silky lips, the feel of them pulling him into a newly defined reality, one with no doubts, no hesitation.  Finally he began a soft, subtle motion, a series of nuzzling, tasting nips, meant as much for the sensual experience as his intent that she should waken now.  His mind was focused on the dual sensations of the kiss and their bond, sensing her building response to him through her drowsy haze.  When he felt her truly waking he pulled back to watch her eyes.  They opened slowly, dawning awareness there, and a silent question.  He brought his lips back to hers and all the answer she needed was contained within his kiss.
     Her response to him was instantaneous, as if all her pent up emotions had awaited this simple movement forward on his part to bloom and flower with glorious abandon.  She slid one arm around his side, the other about his neck, drawing herself more intimately against him as her mouth slanted open under his, offering a lush garden of sensual delights that he was incapable of rejecting.  She touched him in ways that stunned him with their raw passion.  He felt her tongue against the cleft of his upper lip, spreading the folds there to nip and lick at that tender flesh.  A gasping groan was pulled from him at that dizzying sensation, then they were blending together in a passionate swirl of tastes and textures.
     He could taste her even now and he knew the feeling would be with him always.  But that thought brought no relief.  It was a tantalizing, teasing bit of memory that only hinted at the full ecstasy Catherine and Catherine alone could bring him.
     He didn't know how long they were lost in that kiss; time had ceased to hold any rational meaning for them.  But somewhere in the midst of it he had risen to his feet, never breaking that precious connection, to carry her through the door which had presented such an insurmountable barrier in the past.  He stopped at the side of her bed, finally releasing her from his secure embrace to stand before him.  He broke the kiss at last, took a step back and began to undo the laces of his vest.  His movements were sure and unhesitating, and her expression registered a stunned excitement.
     He shrugged out of his vest, letting it fall to the floor without a glance.  Next he slipped the leather pouch which contained her rose over his head.  He held it gently, reverently, wrapping the leather thong about it before turning aside to set it safely on her dressing table.  Turning back to her he watched her closely as he pulled his sweater and thermal shirt off together, seeing her confusion displaced completely by arousal, the realization finally sinking in that she could release it fully now.
     Then there was room for nothing else but her desire for him, he saw it clearly in her eyes, felt it through their pulsating bond.  That pulsing was contained within him as well.  It strummed along his veins and vibrated through his muscles, the blood pounding through him with a wildly erotic force.  Nothing in him could withstand it, and he had no will to try.  His arousal was plainly evident and he made no attempt to hide it from her.
     Where had his caution, his habitual restraint flown to?  He never even stopped to question it then, and that thought amazed him now.
     With his torso finally bared to her he backed up further, his eyes never leaving hers, sinking into a chair to remove his boots and socks.  Her stillness evaporated suddenly as she untied the belt of her robe and slipped it off her shoulders.  At the sight of her before him, the translucency of her gown revealing her body to him, he slowly leaned back in the chair, his eyes drifting over her in an awed, reverent, unhurried caress.
     He wondered at that now.  How had he had the nerve to peruse her so blatantly?...so totally?  He had taken the sight of her as if it were his due.  He couldn't understand how he had been capable of such a thing.  But he couldn't deny the expression he had seen in her eyes at that perusal.  Pleasure.  He'd felt it through the bond too; she enjoyed his eyes upon her, imagining what was to follow, glorying in the expectation of it.
     As that certainty swept over him he settled more firmly in the chair, wanting to watch the transition sweep through her from this distance, confidence and desire growing apace in them both.  Her eyes deepened to a stormy green and a flush was suddenly sweeping upwards from her chest and over her throat.  Her nipples were hardening to diamond peaks under her gown and he felt the urgent pull they inspired in him.  But he didn't move, not yet.  She slid her hands up the silky fabric, along her thighs, belly and breasts, pausing momentarily to gently stroke the firm tips, her eyes closing briefly as a low moan left her throat.
     The pulsing in him was growing now, his body throbbing to a rhythm that seemed solely connected to her.  The sight of her caressing hands and the sound of her pleasure pulled responses from him he was incapable of withholding.  His fingers gripped the arms of the chair, nails sinking in, and a low growl started deep in his chest -- he made no attempt to quell it.  It filled the room to blend with the erotic sights and scents surrounding them, defining them this evening.
     Catherineís body shivered in response to that sound, her hands tightening on her breasts as her moan ended in a gasping mewl and her eyes opened to meet his once again.  Her hands resumed their journey, sliding upwards to slip under the straps of her gown until they reached the rounded curves of her shoulders.  She paused for just a second before pushing the straps down, slowly baring her breasts to him.
     Oh god...  How could he see such beauty and ever see anything else?  She was all there was, all there ever would be.  Her soft curves and yearning peaks called to him, everything in him responding to their tender beauty.  He felt the bond tighten between them, drawing deeper responses from his aching body, though he hadn't known how that was possible.  Her fingers slid over that tantalizing flesh and down her ribcage to slip under the edge of the filmy fabric gathered at her waist.  Her hands and hips moved in a sinuous stretching and twisting motion and the gown fell in a silken pool at her feet.
     She was Botticelli's Venus, standing in glorious abandon before him, offering him everything.  His breath had fallen into the harsh panting pattern so typical to him during the rages of the other, but there was no confusion within him and he didn't stop to question any other similarities.
     His watchful stillness was at an end now, his hard, pulsing body demanding that he go to her.  He pushed himself out of the chair, his fingers fumbling with the tight buttons of his jeans.  Finally they were undone and he gasped in relief as the pressure lessened against his throbbing flesh.  A minute more and he stood naked before her, their eyes blazing across the short distance separating them.
     He saw it, felt it clearly, her love and desire, her acceptance of all he was filled the dark corners of his soul.  She was calling to him through the bond, begging him to come to her, to touch her and make her complete.  He took two large strides and she was in his arms, moans pulled from them both at the intimate contact so long denied.
     So long...he had waited so long to feel her like this.  And it felt so right.  This was meant to be, the certainty was something he did not question.  Their lips met in a blazing kiss, nothing held back now, their hands moving in a frenzy along flesh aching to be touched, but still it wasn't enough...never enough...
     He swung her up in his arms and moved to lay her on the bed, his body covering hers, his weight pressing her down.  The urgency was upon them both and it was irresistible -- they had denied themselves too long.  Her arms circled him to hold him tight, her legs wrapping around his hips so that his throbbing fullness pressed against her wet heat.  She moved against him in wanton demand, drawing him to her, moaning her need for him and he was helpless to do anything but follow.
     A gasping groan was wrung from him as he felt their flesh begin to merge, her sleek muscled sheath holding his pulsing erection with a glorious strength that was unimaginable.  She was pulling him down, deeper...deeper...until he felt himself wholly contained within her, the throbbing within him matched by her convulsing depths, hot juices flowing over him.
     The ecstasy was unbelievable and he cried out hoarsely, her name barely recognizable amidst the growling moans filling him.  He was amazed that he had any ability for speech left.
     Catherine whimpered against his throat in response, her body clutching him to her, inside and out.  She tried to move under him, to nudge her hips against his, but his weight held her down completely as he lay in stunned stillness upon her, absorbing the exquisite feel of her silky skin beneath him, her tight, throbbing flesh enclosing him.  She drummed her heels against the backs of his thighs, then pulled them higher to rest against his buttocks and his body sank deeper yet within her.  They both cried out then, and he was helpless to stop the thrust of his hips against hers, blindly seeking her farthest reaches.
     A snarl erupted from him at the unexpected pleasure that friction inspired against his taut, engorged flesh.  His short, deep thrusts rapidly escalated to full, long strokes, piercing the heart of her womanhood over and over again with unrelenting force.  There was no way he could sustain this pace for any length of time, not this first time -- his body craved completion above all else.  He sought that end with a single-minded intensity that left room for nothing else and within a few short, precious moments it was upon him.
     His climax swept over him with burning ferocity, pounding through him with a driving force that left him battered in its wake, the pleasure almost agonizing in its intensity.  His body plunged into hers with one last, all-encompassing thrust, reaching for her very womb, needing to bury himself within her completely.  Her body clutched at him in continuous, convulsing shudders and she screamed out his name, her limbs holding him to her with fierce insistence.  An explosive brightness filled his eyes and he couldn't control the roar that was torn from his throat.  For countless minutes he was held suspended above her, within her, frozen in a pose of pure ecstasy, his hot seed pulsing through him and into her, to be consumed by her greedy flesh.
     It was a moment of pure passion, of passionate purity.  When it was done he felt utterly drained.  One by one the blazing lights winked out, the burning mass collapsing in upon itself until he was surrounded by utter darkness, still and calm.  His weight fell against her and he was claimed by the deepest of sleeps.

     It was almost dawn when he began to wake.  His internal sense of time had never failed him, and would not do so now.  But this waking was nothing like that experienced just a few hours earlier on her balcony.  Then he'd been filled with a calm certainty, the purity of truth -- a truth beyond knowledge, Father had called it.  The fear and resistance which had not been present then sprang into full bloom now upon his conscious awareness of where he was and what he had done.
     How had it happened?  How?!  Catherine lay naked against him in innocent slumber, her face reflecting a perfect, peaceful serenity.  His hand cupped one luscious breast and he stared in stunned disbelief at the sight of that furred and taloned appendage upon her silky smooth flesh.  The sudden trembling there reminded him vividly of his waking on the balcony a few hours since, though then he had felt no fear.  Now a frozen stillness held him, the anxiety building to epic proportions.
     Catherine began to wake, a stretch vibrating along her length.  The panic was almost overwhelming now.  The events of the past night were clear and focused in him, still they seemed unreal.  How could he have done such a thing?!  But those memories were calling to him with seductive promise; oh, how he wanted to give in to them once more!
     She blinked hazily and Vincent glanced hurriedly out towards the balcony.  Pale light was already discernible.  He couldn't stay any longer and she had an early appointment.  Oh god...  How could he leave her without talking about this?  Yet there was that within him which craved escape, a quiet solitude to think things through.
     He had been staring out at the predawn sky, momentarily lost in those thoughts, when he was caught unaware, her mouth nuzzling against his throat, her hand drifting down his chest and belly to caress him gently, his flesh stirring despite his growing distress, a low moan drawn from him at her tender touch.  His hand tightened reflexively upon her breast and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment as he gathered his control tightly about him.  Finally he drew in a shuddering breath and released his hold on her silky flesh.  "Catherine..."  He was looking at her searchingly now, his voice achingly poignant.
     "I know Vincent, I know.  It's late, you have to leave."  Her voice was solemn, but her eyes shone with a deep contentment.  He was both contrite and grateful that she had misinterpreted his response.  Suddenly her arms wrapped around him and she was holding him tight, whispering in his ear with frantic urgency.  "I love you so, I love you...  I've waited so long for this, dreamed of it...but nothing could have prepared me for you, Vincent.  You are my deepest dream."
     He shuddered at her words, clutching her tightly to him.  He ached with love for her and now, finally, he could no longer deny her feelings for him.  Suddenly he realized he had never said the words to her, not even last night in the midst of his passion.  Tears spilled over as sorrow and regret washed through him.  He pulled back to meet her gaze, his voice fervent with emotion.  "I love you Catherine.  I love you so much.  You're everything to me, everything!"
     Quiet communion swirled around them, along the bond and through the intensity of their gaze.  Finally she pulled him back to her.  "I know my love.  I've always known."
     Joy radiated through her as she held him close, stroking his hair and back, comforting him despite the turmoil that still raged within.  He was beginning to relax within her arms when the shrill ringing of her alarm filled the room.  Catherine turned away briefly to slap it into silence, then turned back to him, her eyes filled with sorrow.  "You have to hurry, Vincent, it's almost light."
     He nodded mutely, another element of anxiety creeping through him at the thought of standing naked before her.  What had come over him last night?!  He couldn't imagine how he had done it then with such aplomb.  He stayed still for a moment, trying to decide what to do, but Catherine was already moving, making the decision easy for him.  She slid out of bed and bent to retrieve her robe, her body a milky silhouette in the fading moonlight.  Despite his trepidation at her seeing him, he couldn't keep his eyes off her -- she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.  She slipped into the bathroom and he took that opportunity to jump out of bed and pull on his jeans.  Though she was in there for only a moment, he was dressed by the time she emerged.
     She came directly to him and wrapped her arms around him, molding her soft body against his with a new, casual intimacy.  He gasped at the sensation, his mind still spinning with the events of the last few hours.
     "Oh Vincent, I can't stand to let you go!"  Her voice was an aching whisper  "I've waited so long for this...so long.  If it weren't for that deposition we could stay here, or go Below.  We could make love all day long.  Oh god...to touch you, see you, feel you inside me again!"  A shiver swept over her at the image those words inspired.
     Vincent trembled against her, his body responding to hers immediately, urgently.  A moment more and he thought he might not be able to leave, his growing desire overwhelming his alarm and fear, responsibility and judgment sinking down to a mere whisper within him.  Catherine's next words brought him back to reality, reminding them both of their duties.
     "Come Above as soon as you can this evening Vincent.  I'll be waiting."
     He felt a frisson of excited expectation quiver through her at the very thought of their next meeting.
     What could he say?  There was no denying his desire for her, not any more.  And all his previous concerns regarding this move seemed to have fallen by the wayside.  Still he paused, his uncertainty over this night controlling him.  She didn't seem to find his silence surprising, watching him calmly with tender understanding.  He realized suddenly that she wasn't aware at all of his confusion over the events of last night.  No, she simply thought him overwhelmed by the magnitude of those events.
     He couldn't think clearly, not now, not with her touch so palpable against his body, against his heart and mind.  Her presence within him had never been so strong, the bond ringing with her happiness, her joy.  He couldn't tell her of his confusion and concern over last night, not now.  "Yes.  As early as I can, Catherine."  He whispered the words against her ear and felt the languorous shiver run down her length at that sensation.  He would have to work this out today, Below, before he returned to her tonight.

     He honestly couldn't recall his trip down that morning.  He arrived at the chamber of the falls without consciously realizing that had been his destination.  By a seldom-used route he trekked to their lower levels near one of the smaller side pools some distance from the great falls.  He stripped off his clothes and dove into the icy water, his thoughts abruptly shocked into focus.
     He stayed in the area of the pool and a small grotto all day, attempting to make sense of the events of last night.  He could get only so far in his pacing ruminations before the images, scents and sounds of that evening overwhelmed him and he would once again seek the cold waters to steady his concentration on the task at hand.
     What worried him most was the complete lack of fear or concern he had felt upon waking on her balcony.  And that unquestioning courage had carried over through the hour that followed.  It was completely out of character for him.  Even if his desires had overridden his good sense, how could he have failed to consider the possible risk to Catherine?  It was the one thing that had always won out in the past.  Though they had never spoken openly about it, he knew Catherine was aware of his fears for her safety, knew also that she thought them groundless.  But nothing had occurred which would have convinced him of that, not then.  What was it?!
     The idea had been lurking in the back of his thoughts since he had woken that morning, and he finally allowed it out.  Could he not have been in control?  Could it have been that other, dark side of himself he so feared?  The very thought of such a thing made him shudder in fear and revulsion.  It was what had allowed him to keep such a tight reign over his passion in the past.
     No...It couldn't have been that.  Despite his confusion over his actions then, there was no denying to himself now the inevitability of that night, the truth revealed between them.  He was certain that other side of him could have nothing to do with the utter perfection that he and Catherine had become together.
     He went round and round with himself in these mental arguments, getting nowhere.  In the final analysis he realized that despite the noble intentions of his introspection, there was no way he could go back to what had been before, not after last night.  The last few hours had been consumed less with the rational examination of events than with a hazy reflection on that one perfect hour, his mind and body craving her again with a strength he found irresistible.
     But it couldn't be as it was before.  He couldn't risk even the possibility of that dark side touching Catherine.  He would have to tell her of his fears, bring them out in the open at last.  He shuddered at the very thought, but his mind was made up.  Finally he headed back towards the home tunnels.  He needed to bathe -- a warm one this time, he thought ruefully -- change and eat before going Above.

     Thankfully he managed to avoid any detailed questions on his whereabouts during the last twenty-four hours when he finally encountered Father.  Peter was visiting and they were deep in a discussion on the latest medical technology presented during a recent seminar.  At Father's mild inquiry he made some vague comments about visiting Catherine last night and a trip to the lower levels today -- close enough to the real truth, though certainly far from the entirety of it.  Luckily he'd had no classes today, no important work assignment missed, and the general pattern was not atypical for him at any rate.
     Father accepted his response without question.  In fact it fast became obvious the query had simply been a polite aside -- he was far too interested in Peter's trip to concentrate on his son at all this evening.
     Vincent was tremendously grateful for that distraction, mentioning in passing that he was going Above as he exited Father's study.  Both men waved vaguely in his direction and he breathed a sigh of relief at the ease of his escape.  He couldn't fully understand the ramifications of last night himself, and he was desperate to avoid this discussion with Father for as long as possible, though he knew that wouldn't be for long -- how could he hide such a change?  Only the remaining vestiges of doubt and confusion within his own mind were allowing him to keep muted the excitement building in him.

     Though the trip down that morning had been a vague haze in his memory, the journey up was the epitome of awareness to him.  There would be no abdication of responsibility for him now; some deep, strong part of himself drove him relentlessly onward while another part of him tried desperately to pull back.
     The debate still raged within him, the events of the previous night playing over and over again in his head, his response to them a mixture of growing desire and absolute incredulity.  How had he done such a thing?!  No romance, no gentle preludes...  He had been driven by lust, and he had acted on that lust, pure and simple.  But there was no denying that Catherine had responded with a fervor that matched his own.  Still, he was determined to tell Catherine of his confusion and concerns over his actions.  They must discuss this before they continued on this path.
     He paused on the roof of her building, gathering his strength and courage about him.  This had all happened so fast...he just wasn't prepared to deal with it.  But there was no other choice now; he could no more stay away from her than could a moth from the flames.  Even now he could feel her heat; it drew him with a stunning force and he went willingly to his immolation.
     He slipped over the balcony and in an instant Catherine was there, in his arms, her soft, silken warmth numbing his mind, his good intentions ready to slip away on the gentle breeze.  He held her tight for a moment longer, then stepped away, drawing in the evening air in gasping draughts in a futile attempt to cool his blood.  The pulsing ache of last night was beginning to build again and he moved back from her several paces, desperate to regain some capacity for rational thought.
     The happiness and excitement on her face changed to hesitant confusion at his actions.  "What is it, Vincent?  What's wrong?"
     He felt dread begin to grow in her, her thoughts clear to him:  Everything had been so perfect last night, her deepest wishes coming true she'd thought.  Too good to be true...?
     Catherineís voice trembled with fear at the possibility that the gains of last night might be taken away by his fears, by a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to protect her yet again.  "Tell me Vincent."
     "Last night Catherine..."  He stumbled over his thoughts, the rational exercises of the day suddenly lost to him.
     "Last night was wonderful.  It's what we've both needed for so long.  Don't tell me you're taking that away from me.  Please Vincent, I couldn't bear it."  She crossed her arms over her chest, holding herself tight as tremors of fear washed over her.
     He stepped back to her and pulled her into his arms, giving her his warmth, ashamed that he had brought her to this when she had met him with only joy.  "You're cold, Catherine.  Let's go inside."
     It was clear from her expression that she hadn't expected that.  He kept one arm about her tightly and she went along with him through the dining room doors.  He led her to one of her small sofas and they sank down onto it.  She had a fire going tonight, in anticipation of his presence, and he stared into the flickering flames, gathering his thoughts.
     "Last night was wonderful, Catherine.  I've never experienced such pleasure, such intense joy...Never!  I didn't know such ecstasy was possible..."
     Their eyes met in deep communion and Catherineís fear slowly trickled away at his words.  Somehow she was sure that he would not reject her now, regardless of the pain his next words might bring.
     He hesitated, drawing a deep breath before he spoke again.  "From the moment I saw you, I've loved you, Catherine."  His voice was achingly poignant.  "And though I tried to deny it, to myself and to you, I've always wanted you...always!"
     He was trembling at that admission, Catherine could see it clearly.
     "Still, until last night I was sure that kind of love was not for me, could never be for me..."  His voice trailed off at those words as images of their night together played swiftly through his mind, devastating in their erotic intimacy.  His eyes focused back on her face as he desperately pulled away from those images.
     "I've always kept my desire for you under control, hidden, often from myself even.  But when I woke on your balcony last night...  I had no control, Catherine, no restraint.  I never even questioned my behavior -- it seemed so right between us -- until we woke this morning in your bed.  The fear, the anxiety I'd always felt at even the thought of us taking that step filled me completely then.  I don't know how I allowed it to happen, and that frightens me now.  I can't explain it, I don't understand it myself."  He paused for a moment, his eyes hesitant, before continuing.  "I was even afraid that perhaps that dark side of me had been in control.  But I remember everything, it was me..."
     He stared out at the flames again as those memories threatened to overwhelm him once more and again he shook them off.  He turned to watch her closely, his voice tinged with a shy hesitancy.  "I don't think I can live without this between us now Catherine, but I need to understand, to make sure there is no destructive force at work here which could cause you harm.  I can't let that happen...I can't.  I need your help with this Catherine."
     He had never in his life felt so vulnerable as he waited for her response to those words.  He focused furiously on the bond, needing to know her true feelings over his confession.  Amazingly he felt only her love, overlaid by a strong sweep of sympathy, the fear and dread, the trepidation he had felt in her earlier gone now completely.
     Catherine held his hands tightly, projecting love and acceptance with all her being.  "Vincent, tell me again why you thought it might have been the dark side of yourself in control last night."
     He thought this over for a few minutes before responding.
     "I would protect you with my dying breath, Catherine.  I've never regretted those actions, only their necessity.  But that side of me that is capable of such violence..."  He shuddered at the memories those words brought.  "It holds all those primal instincts I've fought so strongly against since you came into my life.  Until last night I didn't think I was capable of giving in to those emotions without letting that other side of me loose."
     Catherine watched him closely as he answered her question, and he suddenly felt her hesitation, unsure of it's cause.
     "What is it Catherine?  Tell me."
     "Vincent, I've watched you deal with these emotions, seen you relegate them to that 'other' in an attempt to deny their source.  Don't you see?  At the deepest levels we all have these primal instincts.  We're all capable of violence to protect what we love.  I've done it many times myself -- you've seen this in me, you can't deny it."
     Her gaze demanded a response from him and he couldn't withhold it.  "Yes, I have seen this in you Catherine, but not like me...never like me.  You are not capable of that!"  He spoke vehemently now, sure of the differences that separated them, lost momentarily in the images of bloodshed that would never fully leave him.
     She grasped his shoulders and shook him roughly, drawing him out of that deep introspection.  "No Vincent!  It is the same.  The only difference is that physically you are better equipped than I, and so I carry a gun."
     He looked shocked at her words, ready to defend her, even to herself if need be, but she went on before he could speak.
     "It's true Vincent, I know it even if you won't admit it.  You are more efficient at protection than I, but the motivation for those emotions is the same in us both.  Violence and passion are the deeper, more basic side to anger and love.  You can't have one without the other and it's tearing you apart.  That's why you've fought so hard against accepting the fact that I love you, really love you.  That's why you've never been able to tell me you love me, to actually say the words, until now.  In trying to deny your passion you've had to reject my love."
     She leaned forward, holding his shaking hands tightly, her gaze locked to his.  "Don't you see?  There is no dark side lying in wait to overcome you.  These are normal, human emotions, aspects of everyone's personality.  But because your emotional and physical response is so acute, so strong, you feel threatened by them.  You push them aside to some small corner of your psyche and call them the 'other'.  But emotions need an outlet, Vincent, and they will find it eventually.  You've repressed your desire for me for too long, and last night was the result of that repression.  In a sense it was the 'dark' side of you, but not in the negative way you've always seen it."
     Catherine watched him intently, seeing the doubt and fear mingling on his face.  "Please, Vincent, I need you to accept the desire you feel for me, to express your passion, and so do you.  I know this will be difficult for you, but you must believe me; there is no 'other', there's only you.  And I'm not afraid of those emotions, those instincts you would deny.  The violence I've seen from you could never hurt me any more than your passion could.  Everything in you loves me, just as everything in me loves you.  Believe me, my love, it's true."
     He trembled at her words.  The duality of his nature was something he had never questioned, it was so real to him.  For so long he had felt this schism within himself...ever since Lisa...  He was lost in the labyrinth that thought unfolded, trying to follow the logical paths that would unravel this mystery, that part of himself he had always seen as separate and inhuman.  Could it be true...?!
     With great difficulty he drew back from those musings, knowing that this was not a problem he could work through now, tonight.  He focused his gaze back on Catherine and saw her waiting patiently, the love he had felt before still there.  She believed what she told him, and yet she still loved.  How was it possible?  He didn't know if he was capable of it, of accepting within himself what had always been abhorrent to him, to be kept separate, denied.  And yet he could no longer deny his love, his desire for her.  He could see it in her eyes, feel it through the bond, she was aware of this conflict, of the confusion within him.
     "Give yourself time, Vincent.  You've spent so many years building those defenses, you can't tear them down overnight.  I'm here, my love, I'll always be here.  You won't go through this alone, we'll do it together, one step at a time."
     He felt tears well up at her words, felt her love surrounding him, holding him safe.  Her fierce protectiveness humbled him and left him stunned.  His weight sagged against her and he felt her arms enclose him.  She stroked his back and arms, soothing the trembling engulfing him until finally his muscles loosened and relaxed in grateful relief.
     Long minutes went by while they rested together and little by little he released those chaotic thoughts, lulled by her gentle touch, the bond drawing them closer yet.  But that proximity led inevitably to other thoughts.  The bond was a warm, sensual well pulling them down together, their souls twisting and floating until they were indistinguishable, one from the other.  His cheek rested against the curve of her throat, her scent pulsing strongly there.  Beneath his hands her flesh was smooth and warm, her silky gown enhancing rather than muting that sensation.  He pulled away from her until only their hands touched.  Their eyes met, understanding plain.  "And until then, Catherine, what of us?"  There was a poignant ache in his voice.
     "Last night we took that first step Vincent.  Can't we go on from there?"
     Through the bond he felt her hope faltering, dismay growing.
     "Please Vincent, surely you know now that you could never hurt me."
     He pulled away from her completely then, rising to his feet to pace restlessly about the small space of her living room.  How he wanted to give in to her plea, to once again feel her bare flesh against his, her hands upon him, their bodies joined together in ecstasy.  He felt the heat building within, the walls closing about him and turned abruptly to leave the room for the open sanctuary of the balcony.  He was leaning against the low outer wall, breathing in deeply the cool night air when he felt her join him.
     "Tell me, Vincent.  Just tell me what you really want."  Her voice was low and intense, demanding the truth of him.
     He took a deep breath and turned to face her.  "You, Catherine.  I want you."  The trembling was back again, this time an equal mixture of fear and desire.  "But not like last night."
     He flinched suddenly as he felt the pain his words had inflicted upon her, hurrying on to explain.  "I was thinking only of myself, Catherine, only of what I needed, what I wanted."
    "Oh, Vincent...  It was perfect, beyond my dreams.  You felt my pleasure, I know you did."
     The sorrow in her voice added to the burden of his guilt and he began pacing again -- he couldn't help himself.  "Yes, at the end, but before that..."
     Vincent couldn't complete the thought, shame washing over him at the memory of how he had taken what he wanted with no thought of her needs, no gentle touches, no tender words.  He hadn't even told her of his love for her until after they had woken this morning!  How could he have treated her that way?!  The guilt and shame were burning through him now, his pulse racing with anxiety.  He stopped at the opposite end of the balcony, leaning against the outer wall once again, trying to still his pounding heart.
     Long moments passed as he stared out blindly over the glittering skyline, trying to regain the control which seemed so elusive since last night.  Suddenly he became aware of a stillness surrounding him.  What was she thinking?  He pushed his shame aside for a moment and focused on their bond.  The pain he had sensed from her a moment ago was gone now, a calm strength flowing over him.  It came from Catherine.
     Suddenly he felt her hands upon his back and shoulders, soothing the tension there, easing it away.  Her hands slid around his abdomen to rest upon his chest, her body pushed fully against his back now.  He couldn't control the low moan that escaped his throat at the feel of her there.  "Catherine..."
     "Shhh..."  She pushed up tighter against him, her hands caressing him tenderly through the knit sweater and thermal shirt he wore.  He watched her hands move upon him with stunned awe.
     "You said you needed to know what I want."  She moved softly against him, hands in front, body behind, sensuality inherent in the sultry lilt of her voice, the sensuous feel of her body and the bond enclosing them.  "This is what I want now, Vincent."
     He stood frozen, trapped by both his words and the sensation of her touch.  Her hands slid down his torso to tug at the fabric of his sweater, pulling both layers upwards until she could slip underneath them.  He gasped at the feel of her cool fingers against his bare skin as they delved through the curls on his chest to stroke his nipples, his muscles straining in response.  "Oh Catherine..."  He moaned in ecstasy at her tender touch.
     She pulled her body away from his just long enough to slide her hands around his back and push the knit fabric up towards his shoulders.  The cool air was quickly replaced by her silk-clad warmth and he groaned in pleasure at the feel of her there, her taut nipples pressing against him.  Her hands were back at his chest now, teasing through the curls there, drawing him out of himself with her tender touch.  His hands were braced against the low balcony wall, arms straining with his passion, head bowed and breath panting as he tried to keep some vestige of control.  It was fast becoming impossible.  Oh god...
     Her hands were moving again, this time downward, and he struggled mightily not to stop them, wondering dazedly how far she might go.  One hand came to rest on his abdomen, at the waist of his jeans, while the other slid lower to stroke lightly against the throbbing flesh enclosed there.  He groaned in anguished tension at that intimate touch, a shudder running down him.  He felt Catherine's pounding heart and breath now along his back, and knew her excitement was growing along with his own.  A growling began deep in his chest and he couldn't stop or contain it.  It rumbled softly through the night, drawing them both deeper within the spinning, sensual vortex their bond had become.  His muscles shook and it took a tremendous effort to stand still against her, to watch her hands move over him in such excruciating intimacy.  He wanted desperately to turn and take her in his arms, but he stayed still, letting her direct her hands and her pleasure as she wanted, determined to control his passion completely this night.
     Catherineís hands had momentarily stopped their caressing motions to meet at his waist, fingers fumbling at the buttons there with an urgency that had been missing a moment ago.  Finally they were undone and he gasped in stunned anxiety as he felt his turgid flesh swelling now unfettered.  A moment later that anxiety changed to outright fear as one hand slid within the loosened jeans to touch him directly.
     He couldn't stop himself then, grasping her wrist to hold her still, uncertainty flaring through him.  But her fingers would not be stilled.  They moved against him, stroking and exploring his pulsing erection with a fervid intensity that could not be denied.  He felt himself swelling even further in response to that gentle caress and cried out in pleasure, his hand releasing hers to allow her deeper touch.  Her other hand joined the fray now, slipping inside the coarse fabric and between his thighs to cup the tight globes nestled there.  He couldn't withhold his response to her, his growls growing as he opened his legs to her probing fingers.
     "Oh god Vincent!  I love the feel of you...so smooth, so silky...so powerful."
     He felt her shudder against him, the response vibrating through him as well.  Through the bond he felt the quivering within her, and suddenly the memory of last night -- of her tight flesh enclosing him, holding him -- was instantly upon him.  They both groaned aloud as the sensation swept over them in erotic splendor.
     Vincent gently pulled her hands away from him to turn and take her into his arms, their lips blending in a passionate, deep kiss.  He pulled away suddenly, holding her arms tight and drawing gasping breaths, his eyes boring into hers, his voice shaking and hoarse.  "You have to help me, Catherine.  Please.  I need us to go slowly tonight.  I need to feel everything you feel, to know this is right between us.  Whatever this is in me, instinct or the other, it's so close now and I don't know if I can control it.  It wants you, Catherine.  I know you don't believe I can hurt you, but I have to make sure.  I can't let my guard down entirely, but it's so difficult...so strong..."  His eyes were unfocused, seeing and feeling the chaos raging within.
     With a strength she hadn't known she possessed Catherine took a step back from him until only their hands touched, then drew in a deep breath, stilling the hunger pounding through her, closing down tightly on it with a supreme effort.  "I will help you Vincent.  Whatever it takes, I will do...for you."
     Both used this interval to try to regain some semblance of control.  Catherine directed all the strength at her command in an effort to send Vincent a wave of calming, soothing emotion over the bond.
     The still calm swept over him, filling the jagged cracks split open by his growing desire.  It was coming from the bond, but he hadn't done it.  Catherine, it was coming from Catherine...
       His eyes widened suddenly with shocked surprise and she realized with an almost giddy sense of joy that she had been successful.
     He took another shuddering breath and felt the control he'd been so desperately seeking settle over him like a soft mantle of snow, cool and still.
      "Catherine..."  He breathed her name in reverent awe, gratitude and love filling him at this sign of her care and concern for his fears, her commitment overwhelming him.
     Her tremulous smile told him how well she understood the implications of these last few minutes.  The bond was so much stronger in her now.  Was it because of the events of last night?  Or was it the openness Vincent had allowed during this evening's painful discussion?  She didn't know, and frankly she didn't care.  She only knew that there was an inherent responsibility in the new strength of the connection which flowed around them.  A responsibility to protect and guide him through his fears using this new knowledge, this deeper comprehension of his battered psyche.  A responsibility to lead him s afely through the crashing waves until together they reached the safe shores of their love.
     In the precious stillness of that moment she made a promise to herself and him.  She would do whatever it took, submerge her own desires in respect to his fears, be patient and supportive, but always, always she would ease him towards what he needed most, despite his fears; the release of that sensual nature which was at his very core.
     Catherine turned then and led him through the balcony doors and into her bedroom.  This time the pounding urgency of their passion was held at bay.  They touched and kissed tenderly, gently, allowing their excitement to build, but only so far.  At the least hint of that loss of control which he so feared she pulled back from him, allowing his hunger to cool, feeding him a still calm instead, over their strumming bond.
     They made love slowly, cautiously, holding their deepest urges at bay to allay his fears.  When they finally reached their orgasm the release was a sweet throbbing through them both.
     They cuddled and kissed for a long time after that until finally Catherine fell asleep.  But despite his fatigue from the long day's struggle with himself Vincent couldn't sleep.  He felt a deep need to watch over Catherine now.  He left the bed, pulled his jeans on and settled into a chair, wrapping a light quilt around himself.
     Her face was so peacefully composed, no nightmares or dreams disturbing her sleep.  He eased more deeply into the stream of their bond to feel her sleeping emotions.  A satiated fulfillment emanated off her, he could sense nothing else.  The depth of her contentment flowed over him, easing the inexplicable restlessness within him, pulling him down to sink with her into the gently lapping pool their bond had become.  Finally he joined her in peaceful slumber.

     Vincent woke just before dawn to find Catherine still asleep.  He dressed quickly, then sat on the edge of the bed, stroking the pale perfection of her smooth cheek, astonished anew at the sight of  his furred hand against her silky skin.
     She began to wake, blinking lazily up at him.  He couldn't resist her sleep-tumbled beauty and leaned down to press a soft kiss against her lips, pulling back only far enough to watch her eyes.  They were filled with a sure contentment, tinged only slightly with disappointment.
     "You have to leave, don't you, Vincent."  It wasn't a question.
     "Yes.  It's almost dawn."  He was still stroking her cheek, unable to withdraw his touch from her.
     Catherine brought her hand up to stroke the enticing expanse of his chest, wishing it were bare to her touch, her sigh a mixture of satisfaction and longing.  "All right.  You'll come tonight won't you?  I have to go to the office for a few hours to work on a case, but I'll be done by early evening.  And tomorrow I don't have anything to do at all.  We could stay here all night and go Below together, at dawn.  Can we, Vincent?"
     Her voice held such hope, he couldn't resist her request.  "Yes.  We'll spend tonight Above and tomorrow Below."
     She smiled happily at his words, pleased that the anxiety which had prevailed at the start of their evening last night appeared completely dissipated now.  She moved to sit up, wanting to go with him to the balcony to say good-bye, but his hand at her shoulder pressed her back down.
     "Stay here Catherine.  It's chilly out and you still have time for a few more hours rest.  Besides, I want to remember you like this today."  His voice was tinged with shyness at his last words.
     She acquiesced, leaning back down against the pillows, but her arms would not release him, pulling him down for one final, breathtaking kiss before he left her.

     The tunnels reappeared around him and he shook his head hazily, his harsh breath and pounding heart slowing back to their normal rhythms.  Finally he was able to turn his attention back to assess the situation at hand.
     He had covered almost thirty miles of new territory over the last seven days, an amazing feat considering the laborious work connected with the mapping and documenting of new routes.  The known boundaries of their world had just expanded; Father would be pleased.  It was something not taken on very often, perhaps only once or twice a year in the last decade, but the chore was always his.  He was ideally suited for it; the long hours of solitude walking new, uncertain terrain, the tedious marking of trails and the subsequent recording of numerous, detailed minutia in his journal.  He had claimed this job as his own when he was eighteen, the time away a welcome opportunity to indulge in the introspection that was fast becoming habitual to his nature.  He always looked forward to the start of these journeys with pleasure, to their end with regret...until now.  Now the pleasure to be found in this deep solitude could not compare to what awaited him Above.  Catherine...
     Seven days...they'd been apart for seven days.  The mapping was done now, finished in record time -- he'd planned on eight days to complete the objectives of this trip, nine if you counted the time required to travel down and back.  He was near the central area to the newly mapped routes -- just twelve hours' journey up to the home tunnels and Catherine...
     He trembled with anticipation, sexual excitement growing in him, as it had been steadily over the last few days.  He had thought it wouldn't be too difficult, but each day had grown worse.  He had been successful in controlling his full passions during those two weeks with Catherine, but the toll that was taking now was immense.  That part of him cried out for her, demanded her warm, silky flesh, the scent and taste of her, the feel of her surrounding him, holding him tight.
     He had done as she'd asked, spending a good part of his time on this journey searching his innermost thoughts and feelings, even making tentative forays within, probing that 'dark' side of himself consciously, here where no one could come to harm.  It was extremely difficult to do, he had separated that part of himself for so long now, it was second nature to him.  But the growing desire he felt from Catherine and his own response to her had made that task simpler than he'd imagined it could be.
     The first two days hadn't been too hard, they had been apart for that length of time during those two weeks before he had left on this journey, though only twice -- he had tried to stay away, she had a job to do, needed her rest -- but he couldn't.  He needed to be with her, coming Above as often as possible, and with rarely more than a day's separation between visits.  Still, after that third night he never stayed for more than a few hours and always left before he could fall asleep, ever on the alert for that loss of control which had set them on this path.  He remembered that evening vividly.

     They sat in the living room, cuddled together in front of the blazing fire, kissing and touching by the light of the flickering flames.  Finally they moved to the bedroom where they made love slowly and sweetly.  He fell asleep then, not thinking to question the wisdom of it, not then.
     Sometime before dawn he woke to the feel of her satiny body pinned beneath him, his hard, throbbing erection buried deep within her, their bodies moving together in a fierce, primal rhythm.
     He hadn't been in control then, oh no...
     A shiver raced through him as the memory of that night swept over him.  It had been like the first night, hard and fast, the urge for release pulsing through him with an irresistible force.  But never again after that.  Never again during the four other times they had made love before he'd had to leave on the long-planned mapping journey.  Never again, despite Catherine's vehement protests, her assurance of both her mental and physical well-being.  He couldn't risk that loss of control until he had fully defined its parameters and understood it completely.
     He tightly controlled his every action, his every response to her after that night, keeping his nails turned away from her delicate flesh to touch her gently with the furred backs only and holding his weight off of her so that he could feel her every movement and every wish, pulling away from her completely at the slightest sign of pain or distress -- usually only to discover her increased distress at that absence.  He kept the movements of their lovemaking slow and shallow, ever conscious of his size and strength.  Most importantly, he was careful never to fall asleep with her.  Catherine fought him, wanting him to release his passions fully, but he was adamant on this point.  He couldn't risk it, he just couldn't.
     He had felt a strange mixture of anguish and relief as his departure date approached.  He dreaded the thought of leaving her, especially now when their relationship had miraculously evolved to allow them to share such dizzying pleasures, but he was also under extreme stress.  He wouldn't have believed anything could be more difficult than suppressing the desire he'd felt for her before they had become lovers, but this was much harder.  That restraint was loosed now, never to be reclaimed, but only to a point.  The hunger he felt for her was overwhelming and frightening in its intensity.  The hazy, driving urges which throbbed through him when they were together filled him with dread and fear for her safety.
     But the distance between them was no solution -- his desire for her was unending.  By the third day of his journey he could concentrate on little else. That evening the drumbeat of his desire was almost deafening, distracting him completely from the mapping duties at hand.  He sought out one of the numerous spring-fed pools in this area, the coldest one he could find, and spent long minutes there cooling his lusty blood in the swirling waters.  The internal fight left him exhausted and he quickly moved from there to his bedroll, but sleep eluded him at every turn.  He thought he had successfully vanquished his desires, but he hadn't taken Catherine's into account.
     She'd been fighting it too, but she didn't have the decades of experience at this that he did.  She had done well over their first two years, but now that they were lovers it was almost impossible.  That night he felt her finally give in to it, her desire growing, passion following.  He could feel her emotions spinning out of control, felt the responses of her body as if he were with her, they were so strong.  He resisted the pull of them, tossing and turning in an agony of denial, but when her climax was finally upon her it reached out through solid stone to sweep him along with an irresistible force, leaving him gasping and drained in its wake, his roar of release echoing through the empty caverns.
     The bond had been so clear, so strong in them over the last two weeks -- now was no exception.  And for the first time during their separation he felt her truly with him in that drowsy aftermath of their passion.  They floated together in a sea of satiated fulfillment, an all-encompassing contentment holding them close.  He slept peacefully that night, reenergized for the next day's work.
     That night had been a revelation to him.  He thought on it at length that following morning.  Perhaps letting his passions loose during the onslaught of hers, while separated by this safe distance, might give him further insight to the boundaries of his own.
     The very thought made him tremble.  Rationally he had always known that outlet was the safest one, the only one possible for him.  Yet in his attempt for complete control over his desire he denied himself even that.  But everything had changed over the last few weeks and now he found himself questioning the habits of a lifetime so that he and Catherine could enjoy the fullness of their love.  She wanted that desperately and it was becoming harder and harder to deny her, or himself.
     And so the decision was made.  He couldn't be the one to initiate it -- that was too much too soon for him -- but he didn't have long to wait.  Catherine too had felt his response.  She knew it hadn't troubled or distressed him as she was afraid it might, at least not after some thought.  And besides, she felt as if she would jump out of her skin without that release, her concentration at work suffering at his absence, her caseload building up.
     It was two nights later, five days into his journey, when he felt her again; felt her emotions tremble as she stroked the embers of her desire, felt her imagining his hands upon her in place of her own.  He let her rising passion and arousal sweep over him, filling him, before finally allowing his hands to move along his own body, tentatively touching and caressing, envisioning her tender, delicate fingers moving over him in luxurious freedom.  The bond drew tight about them, their emotions building and swirling until they could almost feel the physical touch of the other.  They reached the peak together, their bodies convulsing in primordial ecstasy.

     Vincent shook his head hazily, the memories clinging with seductive intent.  He took one last look around him, checking for any supplies left lying about.  The last side tunnel was finally mapped and he headed wearily back towards his base camp.  He detoured down the first tunnel explored on this trip and made a stop at the small hot springs pool he had discovered early on in his explorations.  Heíd worked at a frantic pace today, determined to finish the job early, and he had succeeded in that objective.  But now he was covered with enough dirt, grime and dust to account for three days' work at least.  He was immensely grateful he had one fairly clean change of clothes in his pack that he could wear for the return trek to the home tunnels, looking with disgust at the filthy clothes thrown in a heap near the side of the pool.
     He soaked leisurely for about an hour, letting the bubbling springs wash away the grime and ease his tired muscles, his fingers combing idly through his hair and fur to dislodge any stubborn particles remaining.  The hot water felt wonderful, but finally he could no longer ignore the rumbling of his stomach.
     He left the pool and quickly dried off with the one well-worn towel he had packed.  He pulled his boots on over his bare feet and wrapped his cloak around his shivering form before gingerly gathering up the dirty bundle and heading out again.
     Within minutes he arrived at his base camp.  Before entering that chamber he hung the wet towel out near a tunnel junction where cross winds whistled endlessly to ensure that it was well dried before putting it back in his pack.  He shook out as much dust as possible from his clothes and laid them over a rock shelf to air out for a while. These last chores complete, he ducked into the small chamber, set his lantern off to one side and kicked his boots off before settling on his bedroll with his backpack, grateful for the angle of the entrance which shielded him from the winds in the outer cavern.
     He lit several candles and turned the lantern off before going through the pack, itemizing its contents and pulling out the last meager food supplies, pleased that he had planned out the requirements for this trip so well -- there would be nothing extra to carry back with him.  Tonight he would consume the last of William's travel fare; heavy grain cracker bread, beef jerky, hard cheese sealed in wax and dried figs and apricots, setting aside a few strips of the jerky only for tomorrow's trek.  He was thankful for the abundance of cold spring water down here which made hauling his own unnecessary.
     Leaning back against his bedroll, Vincent scanned the chamber and made his return trip plans as he ate.  He had chosen this place as the most convenient location to his mapping routes.  It was centrally located to the three side tunnels he had explored this week, and very near the tunnel junction which would lead him back up.  The chamber was smallish, but its opening was large enough to avoid a closed-in feeling.  It contained his bedroll, backpack and lantern.
     His bedroll was positioned just under a low, recessed shelf along one wall, upon which a few candles were placed -- he preferred them to the lantern for reading and relaxing.  Several books also rested on that shelf, the most important of which was the mapping journal itself.  He always started a fresh one for each trip, keeping detailed notes and maps of his explorations.  These journals were among the most important historical documents of their community.  Larger, detailed copies of the maps would be made for common use, but the journals themselves were carefully wrapped and stored for protection and posterity after each trip.
     It was late now and he was tired, but he had an almost irresistible urge to start the return trip tonight.  The trek back was a simple route straight up.  Though the numerous side tunnels on the levels above him had been mapped for many miles, requiring several days' journey in some directions, the trip up from this previously unexplored area would take only about twelve hours -- though he thought he might do it in ten, so great was his need to see Catherine again.  If he left now he would be home by mid-morning and could sleep in his own chamber while waiting for nightfall.
     After a little consideration he rejected that idea; he doubted he could get a minute's sleep so close to her, and besides, he'd have Father and the others and their inevitable questions about the new tunnels to deal with then.  No, it was best to sleep here, then get an early start tomorrow.  He could reach the perimeter of the home tunnels by early evening with just enough time to bathe and change before it was dark enough to go Above.  He also thought he might be able to skirt that outer perimeter, avoiding the sentries and any other chance encounters at that hour -- he knew the tunnels well and besides, they wouldn't be expecting him back so soon.  He could time his return to coincide with the children's story hour so that Father and many of the others would be otherwise occupied.
     That decision made he settled down on his blankets, hoping for a quick sleep which would bring morning and Catherine that much closer to him.  But it was not to be this evening.
     He felt a pulsing within, starting deep and low, almost unrecognizable on the conscious level.  He had felt it from the start of his journey, attributing it to the solitude of these tunnels and Catherine's absence.  Very quickly he had come to recognize it as the beat of his desire for her, and it was growing daily.  Usually he could submerge his awareness of it by concentrating on his work, but not always.  Their two evenings of shared but separate passion had made that clear.  It was a deep, throbbing rhythm that was somehow inherent to their bond, tying them together.  It was there always now, sometimes only the barest sensory pulse, seemingly at the low levels of his biological threshold, sometimes much stronger.  But as their time apart grew, so did it, building to a driving, pounding rhythm that drew them inexorably together.
     He felt that insistent throbbing now, his body responding without thought.  It was stronger and deeper than ever before and he gritted his teeth and writhed upon his pallet, waiting for Catherine to come to him, to release him from this growing agony.  Long, anguished minutes passed without the feel of her swelling desire, the signal that relief would soon enfold them both.  It took an immense will to hold his anxiety at bay, but he was finally able to do it, clearing a path of rational thought through the swirling maelstrom their bond had become.  He felt Catherine within it and knew she was alone, experiencing these sensations with him, her own discomfort plain.  His confusion joined the storm of their driving tensions as he sought to focus more clearly on her in an attempt to understand why she held herself back from him.
     A moment more of fierce concentration and the answer became clear: she was waiting for him.  She wanted him to begin this time, to build his passion and draw hers along.  He felt this need in her and it was strong, her determination firm.  She was waiting for him.
     The throbbing of the bond was matched by that of his body now, the driving beat seemingly contained in the very blood rushing through his veins.  He didn't try to mute the growling sounds pulled from him -- there was no one down here to hear them.  In an instant he made his decision, opening completely to that side of himself he had tried so hard to control and suppress.  He was stunned by the force of his response, passion flooding through him to course into every fiber of his being.  He pulled the cloak away from his heated skin, throwing it from him with a snarl.
     His body was a throbbing, pulsing mass of taut muscles and quivering flesh.  It cried out for Catherine's touch, craving her with a bottomless desire that was overwhelming.  He pictured her Above, her naked form stretched out upon the bed in glorious, sensual surrender, a seductive siren calling out to him.  He pictured her like that here Below, next to him.  Suddenly she was there, a clear, burning presence in his mind.
     His hands moved now, caressing his yearning flesh demandingly, building the all-encompassing passion sweeping through him to ecstatic heights of ravenous lust.  Her passion grew along with his and he felt the response of her questing hands upon her own trembling body.
     The bond was a swirling chaotic vortex of voracious sexual hunger and urges and they gave in to it completely.  The exquisite sensations grew until he could actually feel her against him, feel his probing hands and fingers delving into her to uncover her deepest secrets, feel her cry out in joyful ecstasy at the release of those passions.
     The quickening surged through their blood like a firestorm, its intensity unimaginable.  It swept over them with an irresistible force and their cries rang out in joyous, ecstatic release.  In that small instant the bond expanded yet again and Vincent felt her quivering sheath surrounding his turgid flesh, convulsing in endless waves to draw the very life force out of him and into her.  Somehow he knew that at that same moment Catherine felt herself filled with his pulsing, swelling length, felt the thrusting urgency of him at her deepest reaches as they came together with stunning force.
     In an instant they sank into pure black nothingness, down to the still, dark core of their timeless bond where it held them in protective stillness and comfort, together.

*   *   *

     Vincent woke slowly, easily, still tied to Catherine through the precious connection of their burgeoning bond.  She was lazily content, her happiness communicated to him with an effortless ease that stunned him with its raw power.  The stress and pressure he so often felt from her as she began her day's work was surprisingly absent now, her joy overriding all else.  He lounged against his blankets, idly stroking the silky expanse of his chest as he stared up at the rocky ceiling blindly, soaking up that joy, immensely pleased and strangely proud that he was at the heart of it.  Then it rushed over him; they would be together tonight...really together, for the first time in eight days.
     His heart began to pound with excited anticipation and he jumped up quickly, in a  hurry now to close down the camp and be on his way.  He decided not to bathe this morning, that would mean a wet towel to pack and a chilly start to his trip.  Besides, the traces of passion remaining on him from last night were inextricably tied to Catherine now and he wasn't in a hurry to wash them away.  Within thirty minutes everything was efficiently folded in or tied to his pack and he was on his way.

*   *   *

     The trip up flew by as if a dream, his long legs eating the miles away seemingly without effort.  The pulsing of the bond was there again and getting stronger with each step towards Catherine.  He didn't fight the sensation, letting it throb through him instead with insistent force.  Fantasies of them together flew in and out of his conscious mind, pictures of them making love in splendorous excess.
     During the last two hours of the trip he encountered many places they had shared together during her visits Below, but the images were irresistibly changed now from strolling walks and tender glances to erotic, sexual encounters in the dark, the contrasting feel of hot, silky flesh and cold, hard rock clear in his mind.  The throbbing was growing stronger now, leading him to her with a force he could not withstand.
     At the outer perimeter to the home tunnels he stopped at a small cold springs pool both to wash away the dust of the lower levels and to cool his blood as much as possible.  He pulled his dirty clothes back on with some distaste and hurriedly left again.  It was after supper-time and the tunnels were silent -- he knew many of the inhabitants would be cozily ensconced in their own chamber or in Father's study for story hour.  Still he moved silently, cautiously, avoiding everyone in the short walk to his chamber.
     Once there he quickly discarded his pack, threw aside his clothes and pulled on clean ones, eschewing for once the multiple layers which were habitual to him.  Within minutes he was on his way Above, to Catherine.

*   *   *

     Long before he reached Catherineís balcony, Vincent knew she was there, waiting for him with eager anticipation.  Finally his foot found the low outer wall and he slipped over the edge to stand before her.  They stood motionless, the throbbing of the bond pounding through them both.  Their eyes met in silent communion -- words were not adequate to convey the depth of their feelings.
     Then their quivering stillness was at an end and they surged together to wrap their arms around each other, holding tight.  His breath was a panting growl he couldn't control, his swelling flesh pushing against the soft corduroy of his trousers and into her silk covered abdomen.  Suddenly the old fears welled up at the intensity of his passion, here now in her presence.  He drew away with a gasp and Catherineís eyes widened in shock at his retreat.
     He saw the excitement in her eyes turn to disbelief and dismay, felt the aching in her chest as she turned to stand against the low wall, looking outward, trying to make sense of what had just occurred.
     What was wrong with him?!  Hadn't he learned anything during their time apart?  He stilled his pounding heart to tap fully into the bond, delving beyond her sorrow to let the ever-present love and trust from her wash over him, filling him with the courage he needed.  Then he moved slowly forward to stand in still silence behind her.
     His hands enclosed her arms, just above the elbows, feeling that strange contrast of fragile bone and sleek muscled strength that had always fascinated him.  He held her gently but firmly, pulling her back to rest against his pulsing length.  Catherine offered no resistance, sinking weakly back to feel his hard strength, reveling in it, the fear and dismay of a moment ago draining away at his touch, her sigh of relief a whisper on the night's breeze.  Her head nestled at the center of his chest, and from his height above her he could see her eyelashes fluttering against her flushed cheeks, her luscious bottom lip quivering deliciously in anticipation.
     His eyes drifted lower and found the hardening peaks of her breasts plainly evident through the thin silk of her gown, felt the ache growing there through their burgeoning bond.  His swelling flesh throbbed in response and she arched her back, pushing her soft buttocks against the rising fullness of his loins.  A mewling cry was pulled from her and a growl began to rumble through him at the erotic sights and sensations enclosing them both, but he moved slowly now, determined to experience her fully this night.
     Catherine stood absolutely still against him, feeling his need and luxuriating in the release of that sensual nature she had always sensed in him.
     His hands finally moved, sliding up her arms, his touch as light as a butterfly's wings against her sensitized skin.  They stopped at her shoulders briefly, gently pushing one capped sleeve of her gown down her satiny arm until a bare breast was revealed to him.  He watched her response, seeing as well as feeling a shiver vibrate through her, her nipple hardening even further at the touch of the cool air and his intense gaze.  His grip on her shoulders tightened momentarily as a wave of lust washed over him, almost irresistible in its force, as he stood in silent stillness against her.
     Finally he allowed his hand to drift slowly down, sliding over that breast with only the barest hint of contact.  A shudder rocked through them both at the almost touchless stroke of his palm over her taut nipple.  It wasn't until his hand had reached the underside of that delicate curve that he allowed his hold on her to tighten, cupping her gently and grounding her with his touch.
     Catherine held her breath at that first, firm contact as they both gazed at the impossibly beautiful sight of his strong, furred hand tipped with deadly nails holding the soft globe of her silken breast, the puckered tip straining out above his fingers in a desperate bid for his touch.
     Finally, slowly, his thumb slid down to stroke that yearning peak, gently brushing back and forth across it, the pleasure excruciating in its building strength.  Catherine couldn't control the low groan that sensation drew from her, her knees buckling at his tender touch.
     His other hand still rested at her shoulder, but he quickly moved it down to her waist at the first hint of that shivery response, catching her fall to pull her tight against him as he continued to caress her silky flesh.  At the feel of that increased pressure he hugged her closer yet, pushing his loins against her strongly and rubbing his growing erection across her full curves, his growls intensifying in strength.
     Suddenly his hands released her and Catherine leaned dizzily against the low wall, supporting her weight on trembling arms.  He sank to his knees behind her and his arms circled her thighs, pulling her close and pressing his cheek against the sweet dip at the small of her back, her soft curves resting enticingly close now.  He nuzzled against her, the circle of his arms holding her still for his gentle exploration.  His hands drifted down the sheer silk of her gown along the front of her legs, palms cupping and tracing their curves, until he reached the edge of her gown.  They slid around to the back, then retraced that route upward, this time against her bare flesh.  He leaned away from her slightly to watch as the slim length of her legs was bared to him.
     Vincent moved with excruciating slowness, building their pleasure and anticipation to an exquisite peak of sensation.  He felt the soft roundness of her buttocks before that flesh was bared to his sight, the feel of his hands against her there drawing whimpering moans from Catherine.  He pushed the gown up to her waist where it draped forward, held there by the leaning angle of her body against the balustrade, and drew in a deep breath of excitement at the beauty of her feminine curves.
     His hands moved to trace those curves, cupping and squeezing their luscious fullness and stroking down the delicate skin of the cleft in between.  Suddenly her feminine scent drifted to him on the evening breeze and his hands tightened upon her, spreading that delectable flesh open to draw it in deeply, leaning against her, low down, close to its source.  His growling was a continuous rumble through the night, an audible part of their bond, surrounding them in a haze of sensuality, loosing those feelings in them both.  He couldn't control the panting of his breath, his open mouth and deadly teeth moving over her tantalizing skin with an intensity that stunned him in the small corner of his mind where rational thought still survived.  She moaned loudly at that erotic caress, writhing against him in ecstasy.
     Oh god...the feel of her against him, the scent and sight and sound of her was overwhelming.  He needed more now...more...
     His hands gripped her hips, turning her to face him, her gown falling down about her legs in a silken whisper.  She moved to his slightest touch, leaning back on her hands at that low wall and watching him with a dazed anticipation, her body vibrating with a throbbing pleasure that was fast approaching pain.  She whimpered low in her throat, aching for the release that only he could give her.  But she didn't speak, letting him direct their lovemaking completely this night, freeing her senses to experience the full release of his passions, to enjoy them to the absolute limit.  Her breath caught in a gasp as she envisioned where that passion might take them.
     But she couldn't focus on that right now.  Vincentís hands repeated the journey they'd made a few minutes before, sliding along the silken fabric of her gown until they reached the hem, then moving upward again against her tingling, quivering skin.  His gaze was locked at the juncture of her thighs, waiting for the sight of her to unfold before him.  His fingers reached their goal a second before the gown was lifted to her belly to reveal the glossy curls there and he groaned deep in his throat as her scent swept over him in pulsing waves.
     It was so close now, so close...
     The throbbing of his body matched that of the bond, his pulsing flesh swelling against the front of his trousers, crying out for release.  He ignored that call with a massive effort, focusing completely on the sweetly vulnerable image of her before him.
     His fingers and palms rested against her belly, just inside the sleek curve of her hipbones at the taut curve of her thighs.  Softly, gently his thumbs stroked downward over her curling mound, his touch feather-light.  He repeated that motion again and again, his touch sinking deeper into her curls with each repetition.  Finally his sharp tipped nails skimmed the sleek flesh below and slipped gently into that sweet cleft.  Catherine couldn't contain the cry of excitement and anticipation she felt then, shaking as though in a wind storm, holding tight to the cool stone behind her.
     Vincent's hands were utterly still now as he stared at the impossible image before him, that stillness drawing out their arousal to stunning heights.  Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of waiting, he drew his thumbs slowly apart, baring her sleek, pulsing sex to his avid gaze.  Her hooded button of desire was flushed and throbbing; it called to him and he felt his erection swell even further within the tight constraint of his clothing.  Her inner lips quivered with arousal, almost translucent compared to the blood engorged redness of the nether lips he held against the pads of his thumbs, sharp nails gently stroking their taut sleekness.  A sigh, soft as the lightest breeze, whispered through him at the sight of this most intimate, hidden part of her, everything in him responding to her perfect beauty.
     A mewling sound drew his reverent gaze.  Catherine stood in a pose of pure sensuality, sexual offering apparent in every line of her being.  The muscles of her arms shook as she leaned her trembling weight against her hands on the wall behind her.  Her torso was a taut, quivering length that curved endlessly upward to her pulsing throat, her eyes closed and face tilted upward in glorious abandon.  One breast was still bared to the night breeze, its peak straining outward, yearning for his touch.  Her mouth was open and a sensual panting and whimpering sound emanated from her -- it called to the wildness in him and he let that part of himself loose, answering her call with a snarling growl.
     Her eyes flew open and quickly sought his at that sound, the quickening flashing through them with a pounding force.  Her female scent was suddenly, strongly there and he pulled his gaze back to its source, feeling a convulsion through the bond which could only be attributed to her hidden depths.  The sweet dew of that muscled sheath drained downward, coating her flesh and his thumbs with a glistening sheen and he slowly massaged that moisture into the inner flesh of the lips he held spread wide.  Catherine groaned loudly at the touch, her thighs shaking.
     Vincent knew she couldn't wait much longer, and neither could he.  His eyes were locked upon her yearning flesh, his tongue slipping out to wet his parched lips.  Slowly he leaned in towards her until his mouth touched that most sensitive tissue, covering her gently in the softest of kisses, for the moment holding completely still against her.  Then his tongue flicked out to lap gently against her swollen bud of flesh and Catherine cried out, one trembling hand reaching out to thread through his silky mane, holding his head to her.
     Vincentís slow, deliberate motions were at an end now.  His hands moved around to cup her buttocks, squeezing and pulling apart those enticing curves, feeling her feminine flesh opening further to him in response.  He nuzzled and licked the swollen fruit of her passion, wishing he could sink within her entirely.  His mouth devoured her completely, his tongue delving into her deeply as she moaned and cried out, her body writhing against and above him.  Through the bond he felt her climax approaching and gripped her full curves tighter still, holding her open and still to his questing mouth.  He moved to concentrate his efforts on her pulsing button entirely now, suckling and pulling against it in strong, forceful waves.
     Catherine felt herself pushed over the edge at that fierce questing of his mouth, free-falling in measureless leagues as she screamed out his name in an agony of release.  His hungry mouth moved against her to the beat of her pulsing passion, slowing as the waves of her orgasm receded, then finally stopping to hold his lips closed gently about her for a still, final kiss.  He let her go then, and as if her body had waited for that permission from his she collapsed against him, sinking down to be enclosed in his quivering arms.
     Vincent held her tight, his body shaking against hers, his breath panting, eyes wide in astonishment.  Somehow, amazingly, he had managed to hold himself back from her climax, feeling her sensations uninterrupted by his own.  His mind was stunned by the revelation of that experience, but his screaming flesh could no longer be ignored.  He reached down between them to undo the buttons of his cords, freeing his swollen erection to the cool night's breeze, gasping in relief, though his desire for her was unabated.  He wrapped his hand around that throbbing shaft and squeezed tightly in a futile attempt to quell the urgency of  his demand for her.
     It was no use.  He needed to bury his pulsing flesh inside her, feel the clutch of her muscled length against him, holding him tight, drawing him to her very womb.  With a snarling gasp, he pulled himself shakily to his feet, drawing her unresisting form up with him.  He carried her quickly inside to the bed, threw the covers back and laid her down upon the cool sheets.  His shaking hands drew the remaining capped sleeve down her arm to bare her other breast to him, then lifted her body to strip the gown away from her entirely, dropping it on the floor without a second thought.
     Vincent stood and moved a few feet back to gaze at her naked length in awe, the panting of his breath and pulsing of his throbbing erection driving him completely now.  He looked down to the erotic sight of his questing flesh curving tightly towards his belly, the blood surging through it with an irresistible force that could not be denied, then pulled off his clothes in a frenzy and moved back towards Catherine, his eyes locked to her reclining form.  He scanned her body slowly, seeing the flush along its length, feeling the vestiges of heat still emanating off her from her recent release.
     Catherineís eyes fluttered open and immediately locked upon him.  "Oh, Vincent..."  A shiver vibrated down her length culminating in a luxurious stretch, satisfaction evident along her every line.  Her dreamy eyes met the intense blaze of his, her breath catching at the erotic intimacy of his gaze, stunned by the events which had just transpired.  They had taken their passion further in those minutes on the balcony than in all their previous lovemaking, few though those times were.
     At the sound of her sultry voice, Vincent sank down upon the bed, draping his body over hers and claiming her mouth with a deep, frenzied kiss, frantic with his need for her.  He writhed against her body, his mouth leaving hers to tracing a molten path down her throat until he reached her silken breasts, their peaks soft now in relaxation.  He kissed and nuzzled across the round curves, moving to concentrate on their enticing tips.  He licked against them gently for a moment, feeling her growing response, the tightening he so craved.  Finally he drew one rigid peak into his mouth, suckling against her strongly.
     Catherine moved restlessly beneath him, moaning in pleasure at the tugging sensation of his mouth, his tongue and teeth teasing her mercilessly.  His pulsing erection throbbed against her thigh and she slid her hand down his body, desperate to touch his silky strong length but unable to reach him in this position.  She whimpered in frustration, her hand stroking wildly along his abdomen and ribs.
     Vincent felt her need, his own overwhelming and curved his body along her length as his mouth moved to her other breast.  His hand slid down her arm to grasp her questing hand and guide it the his throbbing, swelling flesh, closing her small fingers around him and squeezing them tight for a moment before beginning a stroking motion, showing her what he wanted.  He pulled away from her breast, growling in pleasure at the feel of her hand against his sensitive flesh, the urgency of his desire growing.  Finally he could wait no longer, speaking for the first time this evening.  "Now, Catherine, now!"  His voice was low and  husky, his need plain.
     She responded to the command of his voice immediately, releasing her hold on him and sliding her thigh up over his hip to rub her wet, yearning flesh against the pulsing strength of his own.  "Yes, oh yes.  Come inside me now, Vincent, I need to feel you filling me, all of you.  Don't hold yourself back from me, not now, please!"  Catherine moaned the words out, the urges of their pulsing bond and bodies quickening through them irresistibly.  She pulled her thigh up higher over his hip, expecting to feel the hard welcoming weight of him pushing her down.
     But that didn't happen.  Instead he loosened her hold on him and pulled away from her, one hand curving around her back to draw her down to the mattress on her stomach.  He rose over her, straddling her thighs and his hands moved frantically over her back and buttocks, his growing growls filling the room.
     Vincent gripped her hips suddenly to pull her up on her knees.  Then there was a momentary stillness and she groaned aloud in anticipation of his touch, stunned at this move on his part.  His hands slid from her hips to rest, palms flat, against the small of her back.  They slid upwards then, stroking the flat planes there and pushing her shoulders down until she rested her head against her crossed forearms.  His hands slid back towards her hips, not stopping until they cupped that luscious fullness, squeezing and stroking her, exploring those delicious curves.
     Vincentís growls were continuous and loud now, unstoppable, an integral part of his passion.  He slid one hand around the curve of her hip and belly to slide between her thighs, his fingers slipping into the lush garden of her womanhood, spreading her wide, holding her open to him.  His other hand closed around his throbbing erection, guiding its pulsing tip along the sweet division of her buttocks until he reached her yearning sex.  He guided the swollen knob within her with a twisting push of his hips, then stopped.  His hands returned to grip her hips tightly, then she felt a fervid heat as he pressed firmly, surely against her, his throbbing flesh sinking into her with a slow but unhesitating force that would not be denied.
     Catherine moaned in pleasure, feeling each inch of his thick invasion, welcoming him with the lubricious convulsing of her muscles, feeling them pushed out and held tight, reduced to helpless quivering by the fierce power of his unrelenting flesh.  When he finally stopped she felt him deeper than he had ever gone before.  He still held her hips, but she couldn't contain herself, rising up on her hands and grinding back against his loins, trying to bury him deeper yet in her yearning flesh.  "Oh yes, yes!  More, give me more..."  She cried out her need to him, the bond a twisting swirl of urgency now.  "I want all of you, Vincent, everything..."  Her voice trailed off to a whimpering moan, her mewling cries blending with his rumbling growls to surround them fully, enclosing them in a blood red haze of ecstasy.
     Vincent tightened his hold on her, a gasping groan torn from his throat at her wanton pose before him, spine arched, head thrown back, all of her straining towards his questing flesh.  His throbbing sex pulsed and grew within her and they both cried out at the exquisite sensation of his deepening touch.  She was held still to his pervasive presence now, lowering her upper torso back to the mattress, moaning and thrashing her head upon her folded arms in an agony of need.
     Slowly he began to withdraw from her, watching the emergence of his swelling, glistening flesh with an awed amazement.  When only the tip was left imbedded within he stopped that retreat, suddenly thrusting into her with one smooth, deep motion, burying himself within her hot, pulsing depths.  They both cried out then at the force of that penetration, stunned by his raw power.
     That one movement, so foreign to what he had consciously allowed before, heralded the release of his power completely.  He began to move against her with deep, full strokes, pulling out almost completely after each thrust.  Vincent watched the sensuous image of his flesh impaling her with a stunned awe, lust driving him completely.  He gloried in it.  His swelling erection glistened with the coating of her honeyed dew, and he stopped for a moment, sliding his hands over her buttocks to grip her there and spread her cheeks wide, the lusty sight rushing wildly through him.  He slid slowly forward until he was immersed halfway into her glorious depths, then rotated his hips forcefully, his thick flesh opening her further to him.  Catherine groaned in ecstasy, her body craving him with an unending desire.  His hands returned to her hips then, holding her tight as he thrust against her quivering flesh, sinking deeper yet within.
     Catherine cried out her pleasure, her release close.  "More, Vincent, more!  Hurry, oh please hurry..."  She moved strongly with him now, her hips pushing back to meet each driving thrust, urging him deeper and deeper with each stroke.  His growls were fierce, primal, drawing primitive responses from her.  "God... oh god, now, please now...  I can't wait any longer!"  She didn't know how it was possible, but he moved harder and faster in response to her impassioned plea, pushing her towards her release with an insistent, unstoppable force.
     "Yes, now Catherine, now!"  Vincentís voice was thick and hoarse, urging her on.  One hand released her hip to slip around her belly, delving into the lush nest surrounding his thrusting, burning erection.  His fingers swirled against her throbbing flesh and found the pulsing button there.  He rubbed against it wildly, then suddenly gripped it between his thumb and forefinger, squeezing firmly.  Catherine screamed in ecstasy as her body climaxed with stunning force, her quivering sheath convulsing along his hard, hot length in continuous, pulsating waves.
     Her climax triggered his own, a full roar torn from his throat in victorious release before he sank forward against her back to grip the curve of her neck and shoulder by his deadly teeth, holding her still beneath him as his seed pulsed out of his aching flesh and into her.  It seemed an eternity passed while he held her, their sensations centered completely on the joining of their bodies.  He could feel the convulsing of her muscles in minute detail as she took all he had to give, the sensitive tip of his sex throbbing in response to her tight grip.
     Catherine could feel that throbbing tip deep within her, pressing against the very entrance to her womb.  She whimpered in pleasure, wanting him deeper yet, were it only possible.
     Finally the eddying waves of their passion receded.  His hands and teeth released her, though he did not withdraw from her tender sheath.  They sank forward onto the mattress, his welcome weight resting against her entirely, blanketing her with security.  He felt the shivery vibrations deep inside her, his softening flesh pulsing slowly, deeply in response, weak groans drawn from them both at that intimate sensation now, during the aftershocks of their passion.  A deep, dark peace stole over them and they sank down into it, sleep claiming them completely.

*   *   *

     Catherine woke slowly to the luxurious feel of Vincent's silky strength.  His body was spooned against her backside, touching along her full length.  One arm draped over her hip to curve up to her breast, his hand cupping her gently.  She sighed in pleasure as the memory of the passion they had shared last night washed over her.  She didn't want to move, enjoying his slumbering touch upon her as the morning sun filtered through the balcony doors to fill the room with a soft illumination.
     She was drawn out of that drowsy haze suddenly by the full implication of that thought, her eyes shooting open to scan the view outside.  She gasped in dismay as she realized that it was indeed morning, and long beyond dawn from the looks of it.  She sat up, panic stricken, all of her senses tuned outward to assess the potential danger to Vincent.  She heard a door close and the elevator hum just outside of her apartment.  It was Saturday morning and people would be coming and going all day, running their weekend errands.  There was no way Vincent could leave until late tonight.
     Catherine turned to look at him, stunned anew by the glorious image of his reclining form here, in her bed.  Fear began to creep through her now, joining the panic already filling her.  Last night had been so wonderful, so perfect.  What would be his response to it?  What if he pulled away from her yet again, retreated back to impose the distance, the restraint he had thought so necessary before the mapping journey?  And she had been no help.  How could she have allowed them to sleep past the dawn like this?!  It would only exaggerate his response to last night, she was sure of it.
     Vincent was beginning to wake now, no doubt feeling the strong emotions emanating from her.  She watched with dread, trying desperately to think of a way to ease his fears over this situation.
     He blinked up at her sleepily, a soft smile curving his lips, then yawned widely, his sharp teeth in full display.  "Good morning, Catherine."
     His voice was a husky, seductive whisper, drawing a shivery response from her despite her growing fear.
     "Vincent...  We overslept, it's past dawn."  Her voice shook as she gave him the news, but his response was not at all as she had anticipated.
     He glanced out towards the balcony, almost idly, then back to Catherine, his hand reaching up to pull her down upon the mattress at his side.  He pushed her to her back, reclining on one forearm to lean over her, looking deeply into her eyes.  "Then I'll have to stay here until evening.  Do you have to go into your office today?"
     His gaze held hers entirely, so it came as a complete surprise when she felt his hand slide under the covers to caress her breasts, squeezing and stroking her tenderly, her nipples hardening instantly in response.
     "No.  I don't have to go in at all today."  She choked out the words, stunned disbelief warring with arousal, the sensations washing through her.
     Vincentís mouth lowered slowly to hers and then they were kissing sweetly, gently, his hands and mouth drawing a groaning sigh from her.  His mouth left hers to trace a leisurely trail down her throat towards her breasts, the hand there sliding down her torso to her curly mound.  "I hope you don't mind staying in today, Catherine.  But I'm sure we can find something to do to keep occupied."
     Her gasping groan turned into a breathless laugh as his hands and mouth claimed her silky flesh, comprehension sinking through her, leaving her weak with pleasure and relief.  "Oh yes, Vincent, I'm sure we can."
     Her voice took on a teasing note.  "Right now, for instance.  I really feel like sleeping in this morning, don't you?  And what you're doing now...mmmm...it's lovely..."  She was actually purring with pleasure, her body stretching luxuriously under his loving exploration.  "If you run out of ideas, let me know.  I have a few of my own that I think you'll enjoy..."
     Catherine felt more than heard his sigh of happiness in response to her words, his erection pulsing strongly against her thigh.
     "I'm sure you do, Catherine, I'm sure you do.  And I'm anxious to hear every one of them, my love."
     His touch deepened upon her at that moment, and any thought of continuing this witty exchange with him was gladly given over to the more interesting pursuits at hand.
     "Oh, Vincent..."

 Part II

The Lesson

 
ĎTis true, Ďtis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise, because Ďtis light?
Did we lie down, because Ďtwas night?
Love which in spite of darkness brought us hither
Should in despite of light keep us together.

John Donne (Break of Day)
 


     Vincent stood beneath the hot spray of water, his head thrown back, eyes closed.  He couldn't stop thinking about it, about he and Catherine making glorious love in the sunlight.  The tension he had felt during the last three weeks was utterly gone now, peace and serenity radiating through him in a mute testimony to its absence.
     During those first two weeks after they had become lovers he had felt that tension growing inexplicably within him, his guilt not far behind.  His deepest dreams had come true, and yet, unbelievably, he had felt something missing; a craving inside that called out for more, despite all she had given him.  He had lost himself twice within her, early on, the visceral satisfaction following those episodes filling him with fear and dread.  He had been ever vigilant after that, never again allowing that loss of control, deaf to Catherine's pleas that she wanted that from him, wanted him to let go.  As he had done over and over again during the past two years, he ignored her desires, sure she could not know what she asked of him in this regard.  He had almost been relieved when it came time to leave on the long-planned mapping journey, needing some distance between them to regain his slipping control.
     But once separated by the safety of miles of solid rock and deep earth, he had given in to her urgings, freeing his thoughts and desires for her.  At first he had been disgusted and dismayed by the animalistic cravings within him, wanting desperately to attribute them to that dark side he had so readily accepted in the past.  But he would not concede to that easy out now, remembering Catherine's words; her denial that there was anything dark or cruel at heart within him.
     As usual, she had been right.  In letting those feelings out for conscious examination, the mist had lifted, revealing the sensual nature at his very core.  That vision had stunned him, but there was no denying the reality of it, especially not once it had been released to create a passion pure and true between them while they were yet so far apart.  Though it seemed impossible, the changes that had occurred during their eight day separation rivaled and perhaps even exceeded those which had taken place during the two weeks preceding it.
     He had returned from the mapping journey with a firm resolve to trust Catherine fully with his needs and desires.  Their reunion last night on her balcony, and later in her bed, had been the antithesis of their cautious lovemaking nine days earlier.  He had slept past the dawn this morning, and when they'd awakened they made love again, the early morning light filtering through her apartment allowing him to watch every response in the hazy depths of her green-gray eyes as their passion carried them once again to dizzying heights, culminating in a shattering climax that left them breathless and replete with satiated fulfillment.
     "Vincent?"
     Catherine's voice drew him from his reveries.  He hadn't even heard the door open, he thought with dismay.
     "I'm leaving a robe for you.  Breakfast is just about ready."
     Though he hadn't heard it open, he definitely heard the door shut and found, with wry amusement, that he had been holding his breath.  And his breathing was not the only thing that had changed; his erection was swelling under the heat of the steamy spray, driven by his erotic thoughts and the mere sound of her voice.  He wondered if he would ever not react to her presence in this way again.  He turned the hot water off until the remaining spray turned stinging cold.  Even then it took several minutes to cool his lusty blood.
     Finally he left the shower and dried off vigorously with the fluffy towels Catherine had left on the vanity.  He found the robe hanging on the door and gently stroked the soft fabric before pulling it from the hook.  It was made of a deep, soft material that felt like flannel, but was much thicker than any flannel he had ever encountered before.  The cloth was a dark, rich brown, trimmed with a satiny navy blue piping around the collar, sleeves, sash and pocket.  His breath caught at that last item, finding upon it an embroidered letter 'V' in the same blue as the trim.
     Catherine had bought this robe for him!  Vincent was stunned.  How had she known that he would stay above with her, and so quickly after his return?  He pulled it on and found that it fit him perfectly.  He wrapped and belted it securely before leaving the bathroom, a shyness and uncertainty still with him despite, or perhaps because of, the events of last night and this morning.
     Leaving the bathroom, his eyes were irresistibly drawn to the bed.  It was freshly made, the broad expanse intensely compelling.  For a moment he stood staring at that sight, those clean lines replaced instead by a rumpled mass of sheets with he and Catherine lying entwined together upon them.  He shook that insidious vision from his mind, dismayed at the ease of its appearance, and left the bedroom.
     He padded into the breakfast area silently, Catherine's back to him.  She wore a white terry cloth robe that ended just below her knees.  Her hair was still damp from the shower she had taken just before him.  For a moment he stood silently watching her smooth motions in front of the stove, then he moved forward to enclose her from behind in a warm embrace.  He buried his face against the curve of her neck, breathing in the scents surrounding her; flowers and herbs from her shampoo and soap, and underlying that the seductive fragrance that was hers alone.
     "Good morning, Catherine."  His voice was a husky whisper, the feel of her body against him bringing back those memories which were so close to the surface now.  Her hands covered his, pressing them tight against her cotton-covered belly, but that thick layer couldn't keep the feel of her smooth, silky flesh from his mind.  Once again, despite their amorous morning's activities, his body responded to her without thought.  Embarrassed by the seemingly continuous nature of that reaction, he pulled away from her as nonchalantly as possible, moving towards the french doors to stare out over the sun-lit balcony, struggling once again to gain control over his rebellious body.  The bright light glinted off the shadows of the low wall, blazing against some as yet unmelted frost from the early morning chill.
     "Vincent?  Are you worried about being Above?  I can go below and let Father know where you are.  Or we could call Maria; she has pipe access at the back of her shop and could send a message for us."
     The control he had so desperately sought settled about him then, humor bubbling through him at the flat intonation in her voice.  She couldn't fool him.  Even if he hadn't been able to read the bond so clearly over this issue, he would have felt her palpable dread over that first option, her blatant hopes for the second.  Catherine couldn't see the smile on his face, but she heard it in his lightened tones.  "Yes.  We should call Maria."

*    *    *

     The New York Times had made its way Below before, but then, as now, Vincent bypassed all else in favor of the entertainment section, checking out the week's music schedule and book reviews.  Catherine had made them a hearty breakfast and the gnawing hunger he had felt all morning had finally dissipated.  They had done the dishes together, though that turned out to be an amazingly simple task once Catherine had shown him how the dishwasher worked.  Then the buzzer on the dryer had gone off and she'd shooed him towards the couch and paper, telling him to relax.
     He had built a fire before breakfast and now its cozy warmth drew him.  A moment later, lost in a fascinating review, the enticing, unmistakable aroma of Earl Grey tea wafted over him and he looked up to find a steaming china cup on the end table next to him.  He glanced around, but she was nowhere in sight.  Probably getting dressed, he thought, disappointment washing through him for a short space of time until he could suppress that unreasonable emotion.  He sighed heavily and turned back to the article before him.  Still, he found he could not focus on the story fully, part of his attention turned towards Catherine and the back room.
     Twenty minutes passed without a sign of her, though through the bond he could easily feel her lazy contentment tinged with a slightly muted sense of anticipation.  Vincent had just made up his mind to go looking for her when the louvered doors opened and she walked through them.
     Strange...  She was still in her robe, though her hair was now dry and curved softly about her shoulders.  What could she have been doing in there for so long?
     He couldn't take his eyes off her as Catherine moved across the room and settled at his side.  She sat facing him, her hip against his thigh, one leg curled beneath her, then tugged the paper from his suddenly lifeless fingers and set it on the table.  Her hand reached up to stroke along his chest, over the embroidered pocket which covered the region of his heart.  He looked down at the sight that never failed to astonish him; her delicate hand upon his massive chest.  Finally his hand rose to cover hers.  "Catherine, I didn't thank you for this gift.  It's beautiful.  How did you know...?"
     He couldn't finish the thought, suddenly afraid he would hurt her feelings by once again questioning the certainty she'd always had, but which had so eluded him, concerning this intimacy they now shared.  He breathed a sigh of relief when her soft laugh bubbled out, assuring him of her comfort with this topic.
     "I didn't know, Vincent.  But I hoped...  I've had this waiting for you since just before our first anniversary."
     He gasped in shocked disbelief.  "Over a year!?  You felt this way about me even then?!"  He could not disguise the incredulity in his voice over this discovery, everything in him stunned by her revelation.
     "Sometimes I think there hasn't been a time when I didn't feel this way about you.  The confusion I felt during those first few months...it's so vague and hazy now.  I think it had more to do with my acclimation to the new life I had chosen, rather than any uncertainty over us.  When you and Father were trapped in the cave-in, when I thought I might lose you; it was so clear to me then, my feelings for you.  Everything I thought and felt about us before then is gone now, consumed by my love for you.  I truly can't remember a time when I haven't wished for this between us; and now, finally, here we are."  She smiled up at him happily, their hands still resting together upon his chest.  "When did you know that you loved me...that you were in love with me?"
     Vincent stared at her, his eyes locked upon her face.  His silence stretched out until she thought he might not answer, but then the words breathed out.  "Always, Catherine.  Always."
     His voice was low, just barely audible, but so intense she would have heard him had she been clear across the room.
     "From the moment I felt a flicker through the bond, even before I found you, my heart was lost.  I helped Father suture your wounds, all the while mesmerized by your beauty, by the pull of our growing connection."  He spoke in a dazed whisper, a glazed look in his eyes.  The hand that had been covering hers left to cup her cheek.  A moment later one sharp nail lightly traced across her face in a pattern that matched where the scars had been.  Finally his fingers came to rest on the one remaining scar in front of her ear, stroking the skin there tenderly.  "I thought...  I was sure this could never be, but I couldnít stop dreaming of us together, of your silky skin against mine, your tender touch upon me."
     Vincentís gaze focused on her face and she drew in a sharp breath at the vulnerable expression there.  "Oh, Catherine...  I never thought to know the intimate touch of a woman, though it was something I longed for always.  After Lisa, I banished that dream, convinced it could never be...not for me.  But the need never really went away; it was just buried deep inside, waiting for you to come and set it free...set me free.  Even now, I can hardly believe this has happened...that you could really want me in this way."
     Catherine held back her tears, a strange mix of sorrow and joy filling her; sorrow for the years he had spent alone, without the touches his sensual nature so craved, joy at the realization those years of denial had led him inevitably to her; that she, and she alone, would know the passionate nature that so defined him.  She searched for the words to tell him of those feelings, to let him know she felt as he did, that he would never be alone again, but they eluded her, the complexity of her thoughts and emotions resisting that structured form.  His heart beat strongly beneath her hand, and her gaze moved there, suddenly certain that words alone would not be sufficient to prove to him that her need to touch him surely matched his need for her touch.
     Vincent drew in a deep, gasping breath as her hand moved down his chest to stop at the belted sash at his waist.  Her nimble fingers quickly undid the tie and his hands rose to cover hers in consternation.
     "Catherine...?"
     Her other hand joined the fray and her eyes met his.  "Shhh, Vincent.  It's all right.  Trust me."  Her hands pushed his back until they rested at his sides and he didn't resist her, though she could clearly feel the trembling there.  Her hands traced across the middle of his torso until once again they reached the overlapping edges of his robe.  Her fingers hooked into the loose folds and gently pulled them apart, baring his body to her avid gaze.  Vincent lifted his right knee in an instinctive response to that vulnerable position, moving to set his heel on the edge of the couch, thus hiding a crucial portion of his nakedness from her eyes.  Catherine met that rising thigh with one palm, gently pressing it back until his foot rested once more upon the carpet, the trembling in that long muscle seen now as well as felt.
     Besides that one motion, she hadn't really touched him yet.  Her hands lifted to his shoulders to push the robe down and off his shaking arms until the full length of his muscled body was exposed to her.  She sighed deeply at that sight, his virile beauty affecting her strongly.
     Her eyes met his and she saw the fearful uncertainty there.  Despite all they had shared, their lovemaking had always been cloaked in shadows, until this morning.  Even then, the urgency that had quickly overwhelmed them had precluded much in the way of sensual exploration.  They were still so virgin to each other in this way.
     "Oh, Vincent...don't you know how beautiful you are?  You are every woman's dream of masculine perfection.  I know you think I merely accept your physical appearance because I love you.  I haven't pushed this issue in the past, knowing how uncomfortable you are discussing it, but now I need you to see what I see, to accept my feelings for you fully."
     There were tears in his eyes, and abject denial.  He shook his head sorrowfully, unable to believe her words, sure that only through the eyes of love could she accept his differences.  "Catherine, I believe you love me, I do..."
     "No, Vincent!"  She interrupted him in frustration, angry at Father and Lisa and Mitch and all the others who knowing or unknowingly had caused the growth of this self-loathing in him.  She drew in a deep breath and let go of that anger.  "Vincent, I know you don't believe I find you beautiful -- really beautiful, but you will.  I'm never going to stop trying to convince you of that, even if it takes all the years of my life."  The sad tone of her voice changed then to one of seductive, teasing promise.  "So sit back and try to relax, because I intend to do a little convincing right now and I don't want to hear any arguments out of you!"
     The grin she threw his way caught him off guard.  It was an almost leering smirk, quite in contrast to the seriousness of her demeanor a moment before.  The sorrow building in him minutes ago was suddenly gone, replaced by an odd mix of apprehension and almost fearful excitation.  "Catherine..."
     "You're not arguing, are you Vincent?"
     The grin was still there, but he couldn't miss the stubborn determination he had come to know so well over the last two years.  He gave in as gracefully as possible considering his vulnerable state, merely shaking his head, though the trapped look in his eyes was still quite evident.  The conversation of the past few minutes had him in a tailspin.  He wasn't sure what to expect now, but he was exceedingly grateful that the confusion filling him seemed to have extended to that part of his anatomy which had been so eagerly responding to Catherine's presence on and off now for the last twelve hours.  He didn't think he could sit quietly before her with that state of arousal upon him.
     A moment more and he had reason to believe he'd given thanks too soon.
     The expression on her face softened and her hands rose to stroke outward from his neck down his arms, her palms pressing strongly along the sleek pattern of his silky hair.  She slid all the way down to his hands, twining their fingers together and caressing him strongly with a kneading motion.  Finally they returned upwards, this time her fingers and nails pushed more strongly against the delineated lines of his muscles, brushing against the smooth growth of his fur with a pressure that seemed to generate electrical sparks along his skin.  They radiated up his arms and throughout his body, culminating at his groin.  He felt the stirrings of his soft flesh and struggled mightily to bring it under control.  Once again, without his conscious intent, his knee rose to cover that sensitive spot, and once again Catherine reached to push it back down, leaving him completely and vulnerably exposed to her.  Much to his relief she ignored his arousal, her hands returning to his upper arms to squeeze his muscled biceps.
     "Look at you, Vincent."  The words were a hushed whisper of awe.  "Men Above pay a lot of money and spend hours of their time each week trying to gain just a small portion of the muscle that you've been gifted with.  You don't know how often I've fantasized about how you looked beneath all those layers.  Now I know my fantasies never matched the reality of you.  I've ached to see you and touch you like this for so long."  Her hands moved up to his shoulders and from there down to his chest.  They stroked along that muscled expanse, delving into the soft, thick fur to find and caress his nipples.
     Vincent couldn't withhold a groan at that tender touch, her words exciting him further still.  There was no stopping his swelling erection now, and he gave up trying, ignoring it instead, as best he could under the circumstances.  Catherineís fingers left his straining nipples and began to trace their way downward.  He sucked in an anxious breath and her hands stopped at the rippling muscles of his abdomen, her fingers stroking him lazily.
     "And here...  Only world class athletes have this kind of musculature in my world -- usually they're boxers."  She leaned in to whisper her next words to him.  "When we're making love I like to touch you here, to feel these flexing muscles.  Sometimes I think you might be able to go on forever."
     Vincent gasped at that image, recalling clearly her fleeting touches there last night and this morning.  He was panting deeply now, his arousal steeling through him in creeping, insidious waves.  He wanted to take her in his arms and carry her to bed, to bury himself deeply within her and feel the pulsing clutch of her sleek, silky flesh holding him tight.  Yet the separation between them was plain; she wouldn't allow him to become lost in these emotions, not now.  That distance was compelling an awareness between them that he had never before experienced during their intimate moments together.  It was almost frightening in its exquisite detail, the pleasure verging upon pain as he fought for control.
     Catherineís hands were moving again and he held his breath, wondering if she would touch him there now, where his throbbing flesh so plainly demanded her attention.  But her hands passed on by, skirting that sensitive region to stroke downward along the strong, muscled length of his thighs.  She rubbed her fingers forcefully against them, digging in deep to ease the trembling there.  "Do you know why I love to visit the Chamber of the Winds with you, Vincent?"  Her voice was low and teasing, the lilt there somehow matching the sultry glint in her eyes.
     He shook his head dazedly, his eyes never leaving the sight of her fingers and hands upon him, his erection straining just inches above them.
     "With the narrowness of the stairs, and the Abyss to one side, you always lead the way down and up.  I love to watch your hips and thighs as you walk in front of me.  Sometimes the winds blow your cloak aside to give me a better look.  Of course it's pretty difficult keeping you from sensing what I feel then, how aroused that sight makes me, but I try.  Did you know that, Vincent?  Could you sense those feelings in me then?"
     "No, I never knew."  Vincent had to force the words out, his voice thick and hoarse.  He was amazed he could still speak at all.  He remembered those trips, attributing her pensive silence on the stairwell to vigilant caution.  He wondered if he would ever traverse that walkway again without the image Catherine had just planted in his mind overwhelming him.
     That vision disappeared suddenly as her hands slid to the inside of his thighs just above his knees, pushing them apart before she began to work her way upward.  There could be no doubt as to her intent now.  Her fingers reached the silky smooth skin of his inner thighs and stayed there for a moment, stroking and teasing that taut flesh.  Vincent was in an agony of expectation, the feel of her hands there driving him to distraction.  His hands gripped the cushions at his sides, wanting desperately to reach out to her, but he stayed still.  She wanted this now; wanted to touch him in the sunlight where both could watch in wonder at the unimaginable sight unfolding before them.  Finally her fingers slid up the last few inches to tenderly touch the tight fullness there.
     Vincent felt as if he had been holding his breath for hours as he responded to that touch, the panting beginning again, loud and harsh.  "Oh, Catherine!"  The words were pulled from him in a groaning cry, the feel of her hands there, the sight of them upon him so intimately, affecting him more strongly than seemed possible.
     Her delicate fingers stroked the silky softness of him, finally cupping him with one hand while the other rose to tenderly trace along the turgid length straining above.  He moaned loudly when she reached the flared head of his erection, his flesh swelling further yet.  Catherine sighed gustily at that sight, her exploring fingers closing about him to squeeze gently.  Finally she found her voice again, her eyes rising to meet his, though her hands never left him.  "How could you ever have questioned my response to you, Vincent?  No woman in her right mind could be unaffected by the sight of your virile masculinity.  And that's nothing to the sensations I feel when you're inside me.  You fill me utterly, silk and steel moving so deeply within me."  Her eyes closed and her hold upon his straining flesh tightened momentarily as a shudder coursed down her length, the memory washing over her and to him along their burgeoning bond.  He groaned again, his erection growing further still within the tight circle of her fingers.  "Vincent, when you imagined us together, before you thought it was possible for us to become lovers, what did you do?"
    With some difficulty he withdrew his gaze from her hands and his swelling flesh.  Their eyes met and his were full of a hazy pleasure, tinged only slightly by a hesitant confusion.  "Catherine...?"
     "What did you do, Vincent, you know, to relieve the sexual tension you must have felt then.  Did you touch yourself and think of me, like we did while you were Below this past week?"
     His confusion cleared then, replaced by a shy embarrassment.  "No.  Not until a few nights ago, not since...Lisa."
     Catherine stared at him in amazement.  "Not since Lisa?  Never?!  Oh, Vincent...  Why?"  The hand cupping his silky globes left then to slide around his neck, though the other remained where it was, stroking his pulsing shaft tenderly.
     "After Lisa, I knew how dangerous those emotions could be for someone I loved.  They were so strong in me.  I knew I had to close them off, to deny them altogether."
     "Are you saying you felt nothing?  No desire?  How is that possible?  I know what a sensual nature you have, Vincent.  How could you simply ignore it?"  She felt his rigid flesh begin to soften, her hold on him now protectively still.
     He swallowed hard, his gaze turned inward.  "It was difficult.  After Lisa left the tunnels, when I became ill...  I knew those two events were tied together, Catherine.  I almost died.  I was delirious most of the time, but now and then I'd hear snatches of words and conversations.  One evening, out of nowhere, I woke and for a few moments everything was lucid to me.  Father was in a chair next to my bed, his face buried in his hands.  He was crying, Catherine.  Before everything went black once more, I heard him whisper, 'My son, my son...í
     When I finally recovered, I remembered almost nothing of the ordeal, except for that...  I've never forgotten that.  I couldn't risk that hurt to him again...I couldn't.  So I decided that part of me, those urges and needs would have to be sublimated, for the greater good.  And then you came into my life."
     Vincent buried his face against her throat, hugging her tightly to him.  "Oh, Catherine.  It was so hard, especially when I was younger, in my teens and early twenties, but eventually I mastered those emotions, pushing them back, controlling them always, until you came...  Then it seemed I was besieged by those thoughts and feelings.  I struggled with them always...always!  Whenever Iíd visit you on your balcony, whenever you met me there dressed in a soft, silky gown, the feelings would be overwhelming, unbearable.  Usually I'd seek out the coldest pool I could find Below after those visits.  Sometimes I would stay for hours before I felt myself once again in control of my emotions."
     "And now?"
     Vincent heard the tears in her voice, saw the deep sorrow in her eyes and hurried to reassure her.  "Now I no longer have to go in search of those cold springs.  Now I have you, and amazing as it seems, you love me.  I wasn't really living before you came, Catherine, I was only existing.  My life began the night I found you."
     "As did mine, my love.  And nothing was ever the same, for either of us.  I promise you this, Vincent; you'll never need to repress those feelings again.  I'll always be here for you, always!  And I'll always want you, just like you want me."  Catherineís hand tightened upon him once more, her fingers stroking along his length, an urging his body heeded without thought.  It took only a minute before his full erection strained once again beneath her caressing hand, a panting groan torn from his throat, the sad thoughts of a moment ago now far away.
     She released him suddenly, and Vincent waited anxiously, wandering what she would do next.  Her hand joined the other about his neck, kneading the tensed muscles there for a moment before it moved to slide down his right arm.  When she reached his hand, she covered it with her own, her hand small against the back of his.  She guided him back to his straining erection, pressed his palm and fingers about the throbbing stalk and began a slow, stroking motion along his turgid length.
     Vincent couldn't contain his moan of pleasure at that sensation, the sight of their hands together upon him filling him with a building ecstasy that cried out for release.  He watched unabashedly, her actions unbelievably erotic to him.  Finally he pulled their hands away, but only long enough to reverse their positions.  He wrapped her hand around his quivering flesh, his own hold much tighter than her previous one had been and began the stroking action again.  They both watched with stunned awe as his erection grew and throbbed against her hot palm.  His breathing was once again panting and harsh, his hand urging hers along his yearning shaft harder and faster with each passing moment.
     A minute later Catherineís fingers pressed outward against his.  The sensation was barely noticeable, but Vincent released her immediately, though he couldn't contain his cry of dismay when her hand left him completely.
     "Shhh...  Soon, Vincent, soon."
     Catherineís hand moved upward once more, delving deeply into the golden hair upon his belly and abdomen until once again she reached his chest, roaming through the thick curls there.  Her other hand unwound from about his neck and slid down to join its twin, her fingers playing through the silky thatch upon that broad expanse.  "I know you're embarrassed by this, but I love it.  You're such a magnificent combination of silky softness and steely strength.  It's unbelievably erotic, you must feel that from me -- when we're making love...when you rub your chest against my breasts...oh god!"  She shuddered yet again at that vivid memory.  When her eyes opened Vincent saw a purposeful intent there.  Her hands left him to untie the belt of her own robe, and a minute later she knelt facing him upon the cushions at his side, gloriously naked to his hungry gaze.  Catherine sat still for a moment, letting his eyes wander freely over her, then slid onto his lap, turning towards him so that the side of her hip and belly brushed against his straining erection and her breasts pressed tightly to his muscled chest.  She rubbed against him sensuously, all the while watching the seductive trails made by her nipples through the downy fur covering him, mewling cries pulled from her at the exotic feel of him.
     Vincentís moans increased in strength and frequency, turning inevitably to the groaning growls that drew her body's deepest responses.  She pulled away slightly, her hands exploring that silky growth until she found his nipples, pushing aside the hair in that region until the small pebbles and surrounding paps were bare to their eyes.  She leaned forward and brushed the taut peak of her breast against his, rubbing there luxuriously and both cried out at the erotic sensations inspired by that lusty action.  She repeated that sexy contact on the other side, stilling the ache growing there in them both.  Finally she pressed both breasts against his straining nipples, holding him to her tightly.
     His arms raised to enfold her, pulling her tighter yet against his yearning body.  One arm stayed about her back, the other moved downward to cup her buttocks, drawing her closer to his swelling erection until the throbbing flesh was pressed tight against her belly.
     Catherine stayed there for several minutes, but finally pulled back, leaving him aching and yearning towards her.  She pushed his arms down to his sides once more and his quivering muscles shook at that retreat, desperately needing the release that only she could give him.  As one they looked down at his pulsing erection as it strained towards her.  Both knew he couldn't take much more of this; he was ready now, the flared head suffused with a deep burgundy color, the vein along its length throbbing visibly.  Their eyes met and his pleaded with hers, his husky voice soon entreating her as well.  "Please, Catherine.  I can't wait any longer."
     "Yes, my love, now.  Tell me how you want me to finish this time; with my hands...", her fingers traced once again over his sensitive nipples, tenderly reviving the sexual tension that had muted slightly at her earlier retreat, "...or with my mouth."  Catherineís hands dropped away a moment before her mouth covered one taut nipple in a soft kiss.  She held the light butterfly touch for a few seconds, then pulled away slightly to lick against that straining tip, suckling and nipping at him lustily.  Vincent gasped in ecstasy at those intimate touches, instinctively understanding the choice she was giving him, despite his innocence.
     Catherine pulled back from him, not touching his torso at all now except where the tips of her fingers rested lightly along the sides of his ribs.  Vincentís breath was a harsh, deep panting, his eyes stared deeply, intensely into hers, the blue there darker than she could ever recall seeing it.  One shaking hand rose until his fingers rested softly against her mouth.  He was still for a moment, then moved to trace the full curves of her luscious lips, his desire plain.  Her tongue peeked out to flick against an exploring finger and he froze as she began to nibble against the sensitive tip.  She drew him in deeper, sucking strongly upon him as he watched with stunned amazement.  Finally he groaned loudly, drew his shaking hand away from her and pulled her to him roughly, their lips meeting in a lusty kiss that held nothing back.
     The kiss went on for several long moments until finally Catherine broke away to launch a passionate attack upon the sensitive cleft of his upper lip.  She nuzzled and nipped at the sleek tissue there, drawing gasping groans that rivaled any she had heard from him thus far.  He was pulling her tighter against his straining erection, his hands gripping and squeezing the soft curves of her buttocks with unrestrained ardor.  His steely flesh surged against her belly and she immediately pulled away from him, sensing the rapid approach of his release.
     Once again Catherine pushed his hands down to his sides, then rose to stand in front of him.  Vincentís breathing was deep and harsh, the severity of it increasing as she sank to her knees between his legs, pushing them open further yet, his position before her profoundly vulnerable and erotic.  She saw the shaking of his arms, the clenching of his fists into the cushions at his sides, and reached her hands across his thighs to grasp and hold him, their fingers twining together tightly.
     Catherine stayed still for a few moments, letting him gain some slight control before once more pursuing the path she had traveled earlier, this time with her mouth.  She kissed and nibbled her way up his inner thighs, moving back and forth from one leg to the other.  The trembling along that taut skin increased as she approached the apex, until finally she nuzzled against the silky softness nestled there.  She pressed against him, breathing deeply the musky, masculine scent of him and Vincent cried out in ecstasy, his groans turning to lusty growls whose vibrations quickly found their way to her most sensitive, quivering flesh.
     Catherine couldn't contain herself then, his virile, pungent aroma infusing her with a wantonness she had never before experienced.  She licked and kissed him all over, finally drawing in first one taut globe, then the other, mouthing and nipping his sensitive flesh in an erotic frenzy.
     When Catherine was sure he couldn't take a moment more, she left that warm, soft place and moved upwards along his aching shaft, pressing hot, wet kisses along and about him as she traveled towards the throbbing tip.  Once there she nibbled around the jutting edge and licked delicately at the tiny opening at its center as Vincent cried out and bucked beneath her, his fingers squeezing hers with a strength that spoke volumes.  Suddenly she tasted the warm beginnings of his release and quickly moved to engulf the broad, tumescent head completely, sucking strongly upon him with wild abandon.  She freed her hands from his and her fingers stroked and explored him with a relentlessness that would not be denied, his cries ringing out to fill the room with erotic splendor.
     The heat of the fire along her side was nothing now to the pulsing between his thighs.  It radiated outward to encompass her entirely, his erection growing and straining against her questing mouth and hands with a virile strength that turned her insides to molten lava.  Everything in her cried out to him, hot sweetness dripping down her kneeling legs as the throbbing within her grew to match his own.
     Vincentís hands had been holding her forearms, just above her elbows, but suddenly they moved up to grip her shoulders.  A moment later his shaking fingers threaded through her silky hair, holding her to him tightly.  His growls escalated rapidly and finally burst forth with a full, rushing roar.  His hips thrust up towards her and she drew in as much of his straining flesh as she possibly could, drawing the life force from him with her hungry mouth.  His climax engulfed her and she cried out in ecstasy, the pulsing jets hot against her tongue and the back of her throat, his hot flesh thick and hard for several long moments. She continued to stroke his still-rigid flesh with one hand while holding him gently in the deep heat of her mouth.  Her quivering sheath convulsed about the empty space that called out to him with a mindless strength and her other hand slid between her thighs to press against her yearning sex, wishing he were there within her, yet unwilling to relinquish the sweetness of him against her lips.  Finally the quivering muscles beneath her relaxed and he fell back in a boneless heap.
     Catherine stayed where she was for several long minutes, her head resting upon the spot where his thigh joined the hip.  She drew in deep breaths from that heated, virile region, periodically nuzzling against his softening flesh, unable to withstand the compelling sensuality of his body, even in this relaxed state.  Finally she pressed a soft, open kiss against the flared head, then moved to sit once more in his lap.  She wrapped one arm about his neck, but could not keep her hands off him entirely, the other sliding down to cover him as much as she was able, cradling him tenderly with her gentle touch.
     A moment later Vincent stirred beneath her, turning to nuzzle against the curve of her ear, his hot breath sending shivers up and down her spine in lazy waves of languorous pleasure.  "Oh, Catherine..."  The words were a low whisper, more sensed than heard, his complex emotions plain to her; stunned disbelief mixed with a satiated, luxurious fulfillment.
     A small smile touched her lips.  She turned her face towards him until their gazes locked; ocean foam and sunlit skies meeting and blending in perfect harmony.  She murmured lowly across the small distance separating them, her eyes never leaving his.  "Did you like that, Vincent?"
     He blinked dazedly and drew in a shivery breath at that unnecessary question, the answer plain to them both.  Still, she waited patiently for his inevitable response and he didnít disappoint her.  "Yes...  Oh yes."
     "I liked it too.  Your silky strength, hot and hard...", her fingers caressed him gently, "...the tangy scent and warm, thick taste of you."
     Vincent didn't know what he had expected, but it wasn't that.  He exhaled a ragged sigh at her words, his expression open and vulnerable.  One hand rested loosely about her waist, the other rose to massage the muscles at her neck and shoulders.  After a moment it slid down her arm to cup her hand where it rested intimately upon him, squeezing her gently against his sensitized flesh.  His gaze dropped to her swollen lips, the look there suddenly hazy and unfocused.  "Kiss me, Catherine.  I want to taste you now, to share this with you fully."
     Catherine drew in a sharp breath at the erotic intimacy of his words.  Slowly she leaned forward until her lips just touched his.  She rested gently against him, and he made no move to deepen the kiss, waiting for her to come to him.  Finally her tongue flicked into the sensitive cleft at the center of his upper lip and his mouth dropped open with a gasp, his response to that action as inevitable as his earlier words.  She pressed tightly to him then, her questing tongue immediately met by his.
     Vincentís hand tightened upon hers while he drew the mingling tastes there deeply within himself, groaning loudly at the intimacy of this new experience they shared.  Finally the kiss eased to a sweetly stirring touch of tongue upon tongue, their concentration focused there entirely.  They drew apart slowly, tongues giving way to soft lips and nipping teeth, until they were separated by the endless distance of inches, reluctant yet to give up the sweetly savored mingling of their breath in that small space between them.
     "Oh, Catherine..."  The words were the same as a moment before, but there was no hesitancy in Vincentís voice now, only supreme satisfaction.  He rubbed his hands up and down her arms, soothing the goose-bumps there, while his heavy-lidded eyes stared deeply into hers with such an intensely masculine light it almost made her swoon.
     Without withdrawing that heady gaze, Vincent gathered her in his arms and turned them both until he sat with his back against the padded arm of the couch with her facing him.  He pulled his right leg up to rest it, knee bent, against the back of the couch while his other foot stayed flat on the carpeted floor to his left.  He moved to position her so that she sat between his legs then slipped her left foot over the couch arm behind him and her right leg over his left.  He pulled her to him until he felt the wet heat of her sex resting against the soft, pulsing warmth of his own, then eased her gently back until she lay before him, her body trembling with excitement and anticipation.
     The image of them out on her balcony last night filled Catherine and a flush swept over her torso and up her pulsing throat before his avid gaze.  She saw his eyes darken and felt the stirring of his flesh where they touched, the sensation excruciatingly exquisite.  She moaned loudly, unable to stop the instant response of her body to his.  Her muscles clenched convulsively, deep in her very core, and she rubbed against him shamelessly, wishing he were filling her hot depths.
     Vincent felt everything she did; felt the heat flooding her chest, the taut fullness of her breasts aching and yearning toward him.  He felt the clasping grip of her sweet sheath as if she held him there, and a groan was torn from his throat, his erection suddenly full and tight and pulsing with hot blood once more.  His hands tightened upon the tender flesh of her thighs, holding her fast as he sought to gain control.
     Take her...take her now.  The words whispered insidiously in his head, but he resisted, wanting the wild taste of her against his tongue, the memory of her standing before him on the dark balcony overwhelming him.  His hands reached up and cupped her breasts, squeezing gently, then stroking the soft fullness and aching tips over and over again until she cried out her pleasure.  At that telling sound his hands released her, sliding down her taut belly until his fingers trailed through the soft curls at the juncture of her trembling thighs.  He stroked downward into her lush folds, his fingers wet with her silky joy, and traced against her yearning flesh.  His eyes moved continually between her face and his hands upon her, desperate to watch this transition sweeping over her.
     When the flush covering her had darkened to a dusky hue and he felt her on the very edge, Vincent pulled back, taking his hands from her to once again caress her breasts, coating them with the slick honey upon his fingers.  He massaged that sweetness against her firmly then pulled his hands back until they cupped the soft undersides only, squeezing the fullness there until her taut peaks strained towards him in yearning need.
     A voracious hunger filled him, but he restrained himself with a will of iron, leaning forward slowly to lap against her quivering nipples, the taste and texture there a combination that swirled through him in building waves of lust.  Finally he could hold back no longer, taking one breast deeply within the heat of his mouth to suckle and pull strongly against her with a passion that gripped her very womb.  Catherine cried out, holding his head strongly to her breast, whimpering frantically when he left her until he drew the other taut bud into his hot mouth.  Suddenly he pulled away to stare down at her flushed, aroused body, a look of stunned disbelief on his face.  "Catherine, can you possibly know what it means to me, to see you like this...touch you like this...to know that you accept my touch, even crave it?"  His voice was deep and hoarse, a growling tremor at the very heart of it.  "For so long I've dreamt of you, of us together.  When I woke from those dreams, reality would crush me with its fierce denial.  I tried desperately to resist them, but sleep was the one realm I couldn't control.  To me they were both heaven and hell, full of the most exquisite, forbidden images and sensations I could possibly conceive.  But now I know what heaven really is; those dreams pale in comparison to what you have given me."
     His hands reached out once again to stroke her breasts, moving in smaller and tighter circles until at last he reached her nipples.  He could feel the aching yearning there through their bond and finally moved to assuage that pain, alternately kneading and tugging the tight peaks.
     Catherine groaned at the erotic pleasure filling her, her fingers digging deeply into the silky hair and taut muscles of his thighs as they rested at either side of her hips.  "Tell me, Vincent, tell me.  Tell me you believe me now when I say I find you beautiful; your face, your body, your hands...  Oh, god, your beautiful, sensuous hands.  Touch me and tell me, please, Vincent, please..."  Her words trailed off to a keening whimper, her body quivering uncontrollably before him.
 "    I do believe you, Catherine, I do.  How could I not after you showed me so clearly.  Your touch has made me beautiful.  And now you lie before me, calling out to me with your words and thoughts, with the very trembling of your body.  I feel it, Catherine, feel your body crying out for mine."
     Vincentís hands left her breasts and slid down her torso once more.  When he reached her silky curls he slipped his fingers within the lush heat there and opened her to his avid gaze, his breath a panting rasp that filled the room.  "You're hot and wet with desire, and I know it's for me, unbelievable as it seems.  Even now I can see you respond to me; the flush and swell of your tender lips, they throb before my very eyes, begging me to touch you, taste you, take you..."
     "Yes, oh yes...for you, Vincent, only for you."  Catherine whimpered hazily, her passion sweeping over their bond to engulf them both in relentless waves of need.  "I am yours, and you are mine.  Everything, anything for you.  Please, Vincent, please..."
     Her last words were a low, almost inaudible murmur, but Vincent felt the intensity of them through their bond, their urgent need clear and strong in him.  He bent over her and nuzzled against her belly, his mouth open and hot, his sharp teeth grazing across her sensitized skin with a wild abandon that amazed him in the small corner of his mind where rational thought still remained.
     But he didn't attempt to control his passion now, trusting in their bond as he never had, suddenly sure that Catherine had been right all along.  He couldn't back up any further, instead slipping his hands under her buttocks to slide her forward along the couch until her silky nest lay beneath his mouth, waves of spicy heat rising off her to surround him with seductive promise.  His fingers slid within her quivering lips and once more spread open those delectable folds, her sex pulsing and hot before him.
     Vincent groaned deep in his throat, the sensations overwhelming him entirely, then buried himself against her lush, sleek flesh.  His mouth and tongue eagerly claimed all of her, delving into her over and over again, questing after her voluptuous taste.  He felt her orgasm approaching and tightened his grip about her thrashing hips, his attention now centered solely on the pulsing, tender knot of flesh at the apex of her inner lips.  He felt his own flesh swelling and throbbing, demanding release, but steeled himself against it, against the passion building through the bond.  Her climax burst upon them with stunning force and he threw back his head and clenched his teeth in agony as he struggled to withhold his response to it.  Catherine screamed and arched against him, lost in the throes of her release.
     When the strongest wave had passed and he felt himself no longer in danger of being drawn along with her, he bent back to her and urged her on, extending the exquisite waves of pleasure for countless minutes until her voice was no more than a soft, mewling, birdlike cry.  Through the bond he felt her deep, strong convulsions taper off to a faint, sporadic flutter.
     Vincent pulled away from her then, his eyes caressing the full length of her body.  She was loose and limp with relaxation, everything in her open and soft.  He knew he should wait, but he couldn't -- he needed to be inside her now.  He rocked forward until he knelt upon his right leg, his left foot still flat on the floor, Catherineís legs slung over the curve of his thighs and hips.  His hand slid down to wrap around his tight, pulsing erection, leading it to her wet heat.  He groaned at the first touch of her honey-slick flesh against his flared head, slipping within her with a twisting motion, his power carefully restrained for now.  He held himself still for several long minutes, just barely inside of her luscious warmth.  Finally he gathered her into his arms, pulling her breasts tightly to him.  He flexed his hips strongly against hers, sinking deeply within her in one smooth thrust and they both cried out at the intimate sensation of that deep penetration.
     Catherine's eyes flew open, locking upon Vincent's with an intense light, passion flaring there once again.  "Oh yes, Vincent, yes..."
     The words were a low moan; her voice surrounding and filling him through the bond.  He released his hold on her and sat back to survey her flushed body before him.  His hand slid along the outer thigh of her right leg until he reached her knee, slipping behind it to lift her foot onto the padded arm of the couch behind him.  Her left foot already rested in that same position on his other side, and his hand slid back up her leg until both rested at the curve of her waist as he knelt before her.  Vincent stared down at her for countless minutes, their eyes locked together.  His hands slipped down to her hips and pulled her to him firmly, her position completely open to him, his erection sinking deeper yet within.
     Catherine closed her eyes against the rising sensations at their point of joining.  Despite her recent release, she felt herself once more on the edge of the abyss.  She knew how little it would take for him to push her over that precipice, and she held herself there tightly, wanting to enjoy the achingly erotic feel of him strong and thick within her for as long as possible.
     Minutes passed before Catherine noticed a stillness; both of his body against her and of his mind through the bond.  She opened her eyes and found him staring down at where their bodies merged, the silky down of his cheeks wet with tears.  She gasped in dismay and searched frantically along the bond, but could find no sorrow or fear, only joy and love.  Her hands stroked along the silky fur of his thighs, easing the trembling she felt there.  "Tell me, Vincent."
     He drew in a ragged sigh and met her searching gaze openly.  "Since I returned last night we've shared intimacies I've never dared dream of, Catherine.  With each new experience I thought to myself, 'nothing can match the eroticism, the depth of feeling that this touch inspires in me'.  And yet each time our bodies join, I feel it as if for the first time.  There is nothing that compares to that sensation, Catherine, nothing...  For as long as I can remember, I've hidden my body, been ashamed of the differences which have set me apart from everyone else.  All of that has changed now.  You've taken me into your sweet depths and held me with a pulsing heat that draws me to you with a force that cannot be withstood.  There are no words to describe what your acceptance has done for me.  No longer will I deny my desire and need for you.  You have set me free -- free to love and be loved, sweetly and slowly or with a wild, wanton abandon that seemed impossible a few short days ago.  You are a fever in my blood, Catherine, a hunger that only grows with the feeding of it.  Everything within me responds to you and you alone, my love."
     Catherine was crying now too, the passion and love in his voice and over the bond filling her completely, even as his swelling fleshed pushed deeper yet within her silky sheath.  "I love you, Vincent...only you.  Love me now, complete me with your body and our bond; fill me until nothing separates us."
     The tears still streamed down her cheeks, but her loins nudged against his, urging him on, and Vincent was helpless to resist.  He leaned down upon his forearms, his chest lightly grazing hers, and her hands rose to rest upon the taut muscles of his abdomen, bare inches separating them there.  Their gazes locked in tender communion as he slowly withdrew from her, that retreat excruciatingly slow and sure.  When only the throbbing tip was still embedded, he thrust back into her, filling her completely with one smooth stroke.  Over and over again he repeated that motion, his pace gradually quickening.  Finally their lips met in a deep, searching kiss, his tongue seeking the hot depths of her mouth even as his thick erection sought her very womb.  He moved against her with a fierce tenderness now, rising up on his right knee and driving forward with the full power of his left leg, his foot planted firmly on the floor on that side.  One hand slid beneath her, and with each thrust he lifted her hips to his, sinking deeper yet with every stroke.
     Never had Catherine felt him like this.  Last night he had allowed himself to lose control with her, trusting in the bond to keep her safe.  Now there was no loss of control, but rather the conscious release of his power, with full knowledge and understanding.
     Vincent sought out Catherineís most tender depths, moving against the sensitive tissue there with relentless force until he felt her pleasure bordering on pain.  He pulled back slightly then, staying still within her while his mouth found and suckled her taut breasts, one hand kneading and caressing the full curves of her buttocks..
     Catherine felt the throb of his erection corresponding to the pull of his mouth and cried out in ecstasy, the pleasure overwhelming all else.  At that sound he drove into her deeply; once, twice, three times, and she screamed out as a shattering wave of rapture drew them up within it and flung them off at its twisting peak.  His groaning growl burst forth, the roar rising to fill her ears with a rushing reverberation, while through their bond she clearly heard him call her name, over and over again, in ecstatic joy.
     Catherine felt as light as air as they hung suspended in some space unknown and unseen, more sensed than felt.  She didn't know how much time had passed until once more his weight rested solidly upon her, comforting and warm.  Her arms tightened around him and she breathed against his ear in a feathery whisper, his hair fluttering lightly near her lips.  "Forever, Vincent, forever."
     A languorous shiver ran down his body at her words and Vincent buried his face at the curve of her throat, pressing a warm kiss there.  "Yes, my love...forever."

*    *    *

     Catherine swam slowly upward from the warm well of slumber enclosing her.  She lay on her side, Vincent spooned along her back, his hand cupping one breast.  Ahead of her the balcony was cloaked in darkness, the clock at her bedside glowing dimly.  Two am.  Vincent could safely return Below now.  They had made love all day long, stopping only for short cat naps and a bite of nourishment here and there.  The freedom that had grown in them throughout the day was astonishing, a clear result of those glorious hours spent on her couch that morning.  But despite the many times they had made love since then, Catherine didn't want to let him go.  She sighed and stretched her stiff muscles, smiling dreamily at the soreness along her length, inordinately pleased by its presence.
     Vincent's hand tightened upon her breast, squeezing gently.  "You're restless, Catherine."  His low, seductive tones and tender caress sent a shiver down her spine, goose-bumps rising along her flesh.  He felt that quiver along her length and plucked teasingly at her suddenly taut nipple, a low chuckle vibrating against her back.  "You're wearing me out, my love.  I don't know how much longer I can keep up with you."
     She laughed in turn, pressing her soft buttocks against his muscled loins, clearly feeling his erection growing there.  "Somehow I don't think that will ever be a problem for you, Vincent."  Her tone suddenly became solemn.  "It's two oíclock.  It's safe for you to leave now."
     "It will be safe at four oíclock as well."  His hand left her breast and moved down her torso, his fingers sliding within the sleek folds between her thighs.
     Catherine sighed with pleasure at the sure confidence of his touch, opening her legs to him even while she continued their debate.  "Father will be frantic, Vincent.  He's sure to be waiting up.  It won't be pleasant.  Don't you think..."  Her remaining words were left unspoken as she gasped and arched against  him, the feel of his strong fingers slipping within her arousing her instantly.
     Vincent nibbled at the curve of her neck and ear while his fingers stroked against her gently, deeply.  "No, it won't be pleasant.  Neither now nor in two hours.  And though I know itís wrong of me to make Father wait, I think I require some fortification for this meeting.  Something in the nature of a...morale builder."
     Catherine chuckled and writhed against him, pushing firmly upon his questing hand.  "Is that what it's called these days?"  She heaved a resigned sigh with as much drama as she could spare considering the pleasure coursing through her.  "I'd be more than happy to help build your morale Vincent, though it seems to me you don't require any help at all just now."  She squirmed against his swelling flesh lustily, and his fingers tightened upon and within her, pulling her back and holding her firmly against him.
     "I'll always need you, Catherine."
     Vincentís voice was completely serious now, and Catherine turned her head to meet his lips, their kiss a sweet promise and commitment.  His mouth left hers and slid along her jaw until he could trace the sensitive tissue of her ear.  He blew against her hotly, and whispered lowly.  "Make love with me, Catherine.  Share your sweetness with me once more.  Take me in you and hold me tight...show me how you love me."
     Catherine shuddered against him, his passionate words stirring her as nothing else could.  "Always, my love...always."

 Part III

The Gift

All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Love)

     Vincent and Catherine made their way through the dimly lit tunnels towards the communityís hub.  They wandered slowly, their arms wrapped around each other, lost in the sweet sensations of their bond.  Neither noticed the presence of the patriarch of the tunnels until they were almost upon him.  He stood at the side tunnel fork which led to their home world; to Vincentís chamber and his own study.  His tersely spoken words stopped them in their tracks.
     "Do you two know what time it is?"
     Their initial surprised response was all that Jacob had hoped for, but what followed was extremely discomfiting to him and not in the least expected.
     For Catherine, the note of outrage in his voice was dwarfed completely by the humor of his words, immediately casting her back to a night seventeen years ago when her own father had met her at their door with those very same words, his expression just as thunderous as the one now worn by this father.  Before she could stop herself a giggle escaped her.  She quickly covered her mouth in horrified chagrin as both men turned shocked looks in her direction.
     There was a suspicious quirk to Vincentís lips however, and her response left Father somewhat taken aback, his footing no longer quite so sure.  He paused to reassess the situation, then finally turned towards Vincent, deciding that perhaps he should focus his attention on his errant son for the time being.  "Well, Vincent?"  The words Ďwhat have you to say for yourselfí were on the tip of his tongue, but he wisely bit them back, noting that Catherine had not yet seemed to gain sufficient control over herself to fully understand the gravity of this situation.
     "Itís four-thirty, Father."
     Vincentís literal response to Fatherís question surprised another giggle out of Catherine, and Fatherís back stiffened, though he resolutely ignored her.  "I know itís four-thirty.  Thatís not what I meant and you know it."  He was beet red by now, and almost spluttering in his anger.
     "Do you know how worried we all were when you didnít come home two nights ago?  I couldnít sleep and went to your chamber to borrow a book.  I found your backpack there and went in search of you.  None of the sentries had seen your return and they all feel guilty now for somehow missing you.  I suspected you were with Catherine, still I worried all night long until we received the message from Maria.  And now, rather than returning at the earliest possible hour, you come waltzing in at four-thirty.  How could you behave so irresponsibly?"
     Fatherís last words were directed to both of them and what humor Catherine had initially found in this situation instantly disappeared.  They had behaved irresponsibly.
     Vincent felt that guilt most acutely.  He had been thinking only of himself when heíd made his way back from the lower levels, of his need to see Catherine.  He had used his detailed knowledge of the tunnels to intentionally skirt the sentries, though their sole purpose was one of vigilant protection of their community and its inhabitants.  He was ashamed, his head bowed in contrition before the wrath of the smaller man.  "Youíre right, Father, and Iím sorry."  A glance in Catherineís direction told him well enough that she shared his feelings in this regard.  "I was so anxious to see, Catherine.  I didnít think anyone would know I had returned.  I wasnít thinking clearly."
     "Iím sorry too, Father.  The time passed so quickly," she blushed pinkly at those words, but Father didnít seem to notice, "and we didnít think to send a message until it was too late for Vincent to safely return."  She didnít even attempt an explanation for their late return this night.
     Jacobís anger was receding under their contrite apologies.  In truth, he was extremely happy to see his son again after that long absence.  And he found it so difficult to stay angry with Catherine these days, though it had been easy enough during those first two years of their relationship.  In fact he was amazed that he had been able to maintain his anger at all after watching their approach through the tunnel perimeter.  Their happiness surrounded them, impossible to ignore.  Though Father still had doubts about Catherineís place in his sonís life, he couldnít help but rejoice with them as their love grew and filled everyone Below with a sweet certainty that was fast becoming a constant in all their lives.
     Still, something was different now, he could see that clearly.  In fact he had noticed an uncharacteristic distraction in Vincent during the two weeks leading up to his departure on the mapping journey.  At the time he had thought it nothing more than a combination of the concentration that usually surrounded his son as he planned for these trips, and anxiety over the coming separation from the woman he loved.  But seeing them together now, he wondered if that had indeed been the case.  Come to think of it, he hadnít seen Catherine at all during those weeks.  Vincent had gone Above frequently during that time, but she hadnít come Below, not once.  That was strange...
     The direction that thought led him was inevitable, and he paused, perusing them closely.  Was it possible?  Hard on the heels of that thought an answer came to him.  Not only was it possible, but it was all too likely in light of their recent behavior.  With a dawning amazement he wondered how he could possibly have missed such blatant signals, especially given the vigilance of his guardianship during the last two years.  He had been preoccupied lately with several interesting tunnel projects, and Peter had brought such fascinating information down for him to study since his latest medical seminar.  Still, it was so unlike him to have dropped his guard in such an irresponsible manner.
     But there it was nonetheless.  What he had so worried over and fought against had apparently occurred with no repercussions whatsoever, at least none that he could readily perceive this night.  Yet he knew there were risks in the course they had taken, and the conversation he had worked so hard to avoid was now at hand.  He drew his wandering attention back to the remorseful pair, casting a stern eye upon them, though strangely enough he found it difficult to maintain that sterness, despite the shocking course of events now plainly set before him.  "Vincent, I think we need to talk."
     Jacobís suspicions were confirmed when his son evinced no surprise by that statement, instead only nodding in agreement.
     "Itís late, Father, can it wait until tomorrow?"
     His immediate inclination was to say that it couldnít, but upon reflection he realized that a few hoursí wait could make no possible difference now.  And he was tired, the hours spent during his worried vigil weighing heavily upon him.  He sighed and gave in resignedly.  "I suppose not.  I am rather tired."  He turned towards the side tunnel to his own chamber, his limp more pronounced than usual, and felt his sonís hand at his elbow.
     "Iíll see Father back to his chamber, Catherine."
     "Yes, of course.  Goodnight, Father."
     She looked so sorry now that he almost felt as if were the villain here, when anyone could see that he had only done what was necessary...what any parent would have done under the circumstances.  Still, the look of repentant concern in her eyes touched him, and he somehow couldnít maintain the hard edge to his voice so required for this event.  "Donít worry, Catherine, itís just my arthritis acting up.  It will be better after a long soak in the hot springs pool on level B tomorrow."  He paused a moment longer and he saw her blink away the tears that suddenly filled her eyes.  She blamed herself, he saw that clearly.  One hand reached out towards her, but he hesitated uncertainly and finally dropped it back to his side.  He murmured his goodnight to her and turned down the tunnel to the right, Vincent at his side.
     It took only a few minutes to reach his chambers, and the walk was a silent one.  Vincent wasnít the only empathic one where loved ones were concerned.  Jacob could plainly feel regret and sorrow emanating off of him.  Strangely enough, though that filial response should have pleased him, he found himself oddly out of sorts at the absence of the blissful aura that had surrounded the couple before they had encountered him.  He found himself wishing that he had left this meeting until morning, his role in their waning happiness weighing heavily upon him.
     "Iíll be back in a minute, Father."
     When Vincent returned, bearing a tray with a teacup and kettle upon it, he found his father already in bed, his eyes closed wearily, though he was obviously not asleep.  He poured out a cup of herbal tea and the fragrant scent filled the small sleeping chamber.  "Here Father, drink this.  Williamís special blend always makes you rest more comfortably."
     Jacob took a tentative sip and a soothing warmth infused him.  Williamís tea did indeed always make him feel better.  He slipped easily back into the thoughts that had consumed him since their first meeting this night, oblivious to his sonís concerned expression.
     "Father..."
     Vincentís tentative tone drew him from his musing introspection.  He saw that his son was willing to begin that discussion now, if that was his wish.  Strangely enough, he found that it wasnít, hastily interrupting and inexplicably changing the subject, much to Vincentís confusion.  "How did the mapping journey go?  Did you find anything new and exciting?"
     "Yes, several chambers and routes that have potential for our use.  We could go over my maps and notes with the others tomorrow, if you feel up to it."
     "Of course I will, my boy.  These flare ups never last more than a day or two.  Iíll be fine, I assure you.  Go get some sleep now, weíll talk tomorrow."
     Vincent turned to leave, but paused by the chamber exit, looking back at his parent guiltily.  He stopped then and came back to the side of the bed, bending down to kiss his fatherís brow.
     Jacobís hand rose unconsciously to stroke his sonís unruly locks, thinking as usual, that they needed a good brushing.  He couldnít count how many times Vincent had come to him as a child with his hairbrush, asking for help with his mop of golden curls.  He remembered those times fondly, his small son sitting in his lap contentedly as they shared a cozy chat over their plans for the day.
     He suddenly realized that he had once again been lost in thought.  When he focused on his surroundings, he found Vincent sitting still at his side, one large hand resting warmly upon his shoulder.
     Who would ever have thought that his small son would have grown so large?  Where had the time gone?  He could still see him so clearly, a small tot in denim overalls sitting next to him at his desk, his short legs swinging high above the ground.  Things had been so much simpler then -- he had always been sure of the decisions he had made for his son then.  But now...  Now, he just didnít know.  Had he done what was right?  Had it helped or only hurt the delicate balance inherent to his sonís makeup?  He sighed heavily, a lethargy beginning to close over him.  Williamís special tea always had that effect on him, he thought sleepily.  "Go to bed, Vincent.  You donít have to sit here with me."
     "Shhh, Father.  Youíre very tired, and need your rest.  Sleep now."  Vincentís hand moved to stroke gently across his fatherís forehead, his caress soothing and comforting.  Within a short while Father was asleep.  Vincent sat by his side for a few minutes more, then finally left the chamber.
     When he reached his own chamber he found Catherine curled up fast asleep.  She lay near the stained glass inset at the far side of his bed, and it was obvious she expected him to join her there.  He stared down at her, wondering if he shouldnít instead take the guest chamber.  But it was only idle speculation.  He didnít want to be apart from her now.  There would be enough partings between them during their everyday lives Above and Below.  Why impose it now, when they were together?
     Shrugging resignedly, Vincent turned and left the chamber, picking up an unlit lantern on the way.  He left it in the outer passage, about twenty yards down from his chamber entrance in the direction of the main tunnel.  When he returned he began to pull off his clothes, draping them over a chair rather than folding them neatly away as was his wont.  He turned towards his wardrobe, intending to pull on his normal sleepclothes, but paused.
     Never in his life had he slept naked through the night in this chamber.  It was only Above, in Catherineís apartment, where he had experienced such freedom.  Now he found that he liked it, liked it very much indeed, though he wryly suspected that it had less to do with simply being naked than with being naked with Catherine.  He crawled into bed and pulled Catherine into his arms, ruefully wishing that she wasnít wearing the warm tunnel gown she had obviously found in his top drawer.  But he was as tired as she, and didnít give it much thought beyond that.  He snuggled close to her and within minutes joined her in a deep sleep.

*   *   *

     Catherine woke to a hazy delight.  A dim, pale light surrounded her, cozy and unobtrusive.  She knew it was morning, but had no idea of the time.  She only knew she felt wonderfully refreshed and relaxed.  The primary source of her happiness took that exact moment to nuzzle against the soft fullness of her breast and she wished that she hadnít worn anything at all to bed last night.  Still, at the time it had seemed the prudent thing to do, all things considered.  But now...now was a different matter.
     Vincent had apparently had no qualms over that issue.  He slept gloriously naked against her, and she smiled happily, somehow sure that this was quite a leap forward for him, here in this tunnel chamber.  He brushed against her round curves sensuously, obviously searching for the treasures which had held him so enthralled during his time Above yesterday.  Catherine was in a quandary.  She desperately wanted to get her gown off and feel his silky body pressed tight against her own, but he lay half on top of her, and there was no way she could remove it without moving him -- something she didnít even want to consider, the sensuous feel of him upon her leaving her dizzy with delight.  Luckily, at that moment he awoke -- whether her indecision had reached him through the bond, or his inability to find her taut nipples through the woolen weave had drawn him from sleeps hold, she couldnít be sure.
     Vincent gazed sleepily up at her from his comfortable resting spot at her bosom and whispered huskily, "Good morning, Catherine."
     She smiled tremulously down at him, stroking what she could reach of his muscled shoulders and back.  "Good morning, Vincent."
     He moved upward until his mouth reached the exposed skin of her throat and began to nibble along the luscious length there.  Catherine sighed in pleasure, trying desperately to hold onto the solemn question which had sprung to mind just a moment ago.  "How did it go with Father last night?  Is he all right?"
     Vincent continued to nip and kiss the succulent flesh of her neck, finding the warm pulse just beneath her ear and settling there leisurely.  His voice whispered out to her, in-between his sensual nuzzling.  "Heís fine, Catherine.  Everything is going to be all right.  Weíre going to talk today, but I sense that Father is not as upset as he thought he would be over this development.  I think heís just finding it difficult to let go of that particular concern for me."
     "Really?  Youíre sure?"
     Vincent heard the worried tone in her voice, and stopped his erotic ministrations, moving up to stare deep into her eyes.  He saw the love and care there, recognizing the same look he had seen for Catherine in Fatherís eyes last night.  He sighed happily, certain now that the two people he loved most would find the peaceful resolution that had seemed so in doubt at one time.  "Iím sure.  Father loves me, Catherine, and he loves you.  He will rejoice with us...once he gets past the shock."
     His solemn tone had turned quite teasing at the end, surprising a relieved chuckle out of her in response.  "Iím glad.  Now would you be so kind as to help me get this damned gown off before I tear it off?"
     He quirked an eyebrow, looking down at her askance.  "Such language, Catherine.  I would have thought a well-bred woman like you would have better manners."
     She smiled sweetly and batted her eyes up at him.  "Please?"
     "Much better."  Vincentís grin turned quite wicked then, the sharp tips of his incisors in plain view.  That image of him was before her for only a moment before he buried his face in the curve of her neck to continue his lascivious attack upon her tender flesh.  One arm slipped around her shoulders, holding her close and still for his tender assault, the other swept down her body and found the edge of her gown.  His hand traced its way up one silky leg beneath the softly woven wool, his caressing touch moving inexorably higher.  He reached the juncture of her thighs and slipped between them to stroke her wet heat, but stayed there for just a teasing moment before moving on.
     "Oh, Vincent."
     Catherineís moaning breath whispered out and he shuddered at the sensation it inspired in his own body.  His muscles strained now with erotic tension, his erection full and throbbing.  It didnít matter how many times heíd had her during those glorious hours in her apartment, his desire for her was unabated, and he suspected it always would be.
     His mouth moved to cover hers and their kiss was passionate and deep.  He tasted every inch of her warm, wet flesh with a wild abandon that grew with each passing minute.  Finally he pulled away to suckle and nibble at the luscious fullness of her lower lip, his desire plain.
     She didnít disappoint him.  Her tongue licked against the sensitive cleft of his upper lip, drawing a gasping groan from him, that response immediate and inevitable.  She pushed into that tender fold, nipping and sucking against the lush flesh there until he thought he would die with the ecstasy it sparked in him.  His hand had reached her breasts and was now kneading and caressing that silken flesh firmly, compellingly.  The erotic sensations were building within them both, drawing mewling cries from her and groaning growls from him.  He pulled away for one small instant, just long enough to slip the gown over her head, and tossed it aside without thought, his mouth rejoining hers with an insistent kiss that melted her insides completely.
     "Vincent?"
     It took several minutes, but the voice was persistant, patiently calling out to him as if he intended to wait forever.  Vincent muttered a muffled oath, both shocking and pleasing Catherine immensely he would later learn.  He rolled off of her and out of bed, grabbing his cloak along the way.  He had barely pulled it on before he swept out of the chamber, magnificent in his sensual power.  Catherine stared in stunned disbelief, the flash of his bare legs still in her mindís eye long after he had left the room.
     Mouse stood at the far side of the lantern, fidgeting and grinning happily as his friend approached.  "Been gone a long time, Vincent.  Glad youíre back.  Father told me.  Was it neat?"
     Vincentís exasperation dissipated with those words.  He found it impossible to be angry with Mouse, even under circumstances as frustrating as these.  He took several deep breaths before he spoke.  "It was neat, Mouse.  There will be a meeting in Fatherís study later today to discuss my findings.  Youíre welcome to attend."
     Vincent paused, and Mouse took that opportunity to launch into a description of the events of the last nine days, completely oblivious to Vincentís emotional state.
     That state was drawn sharply into focus when Vincent found himself interrupting that description, something he never did.  "Mouse, do you know what an unlit lantern outside of a chamber means?"
     The younger man stared at him as if heíd suddenly gone daft, and Vincent had to bury a chagrined smile as he realized that he might just appear that way now.  Suddenly he was acutely aware of his naked, vulnerable state beneath his cloak, amazed that he had left his chamber in such a condition.  Still, he was determined to make this plain, realizing that privacy for he and Catherine wasnít going to come easy.
     "Course.  Everyone knows that.  Means canít come in.  Private."  Mouse stressed the last word and nodded wisely, sure he had accurately explained that tunnel tradition to Vincent, though he couldnít imagine why his friend and mentor wouldnít know such a thing.  Even the children knew about the lanterns!
     "Yes Mouse, it means that those inside wish for privacy.  It means that, unless thereís an emergency, they should be left alone."
     It suddenly occurred to Mouse that Vincent wasnít referring to some hypothetical example, but was talking about him, about now.  "Stayed beyond the lantern, didnít come in, only called to you.  Privacy, right?"
     "No.  Calling out is not acceptable, not unless thereís an emergency.  It means you must leave them alone entirely.  Not enter, not call out.  Do you understand now, Mouse?"  He spoke quietly but firmly, his hand resting upon his young friendís shoulder to soften his words.  He pulled away hastily though when he saw that Mouseís attention was suddenly caught by the naked flesh of his arm, coated with golden hair and visible now through the cloakís opening.  He repeated his last words, trying to draw Mouseís wandering gaze back to the topic at hand.  "Do you understand?"
     Mouse nodded energetically.  "Not call, not come in.  Got it.  Sorry, Vincent.  Just wanted to see you.  Missed you."
     "I missed you too.  We can talk about the trip later today, all right?"
     "Okay good, okay fine.  See you later, at Fatherís."
     Mouse had turned to leave and was halfway up the side tunnel before Vincent called him back.  "Mouse, do you know where Father is now?"
     "At the hot springs with William and Old Sam.  Took a bottle of brandy with them.  Said it was Ďmedicinalí.  Whatís Ďmedicinalí, Vincent?"
     "It means they think it will make them feel better, at least until tomorrow."  Vincent added that last comment under his breath, humor bubbling through him at the image of the three men in the pool.  If this turned into anything like their foray last year, the inhabitants on level B were in for a little spontaneous concert -- Irish folk tunes were a favorite with all of them.  Luckily this was a rare occurrence.  Rather than an angry crowd, they were much more likely to draw a raucous audience outside that humid chamber.  He couldnít hold back a soft chuckle now, that image all too clear to him.  Mouseís voice interrupted his wandering thoughts, his young friendís eager but unrealistic expectation for the outcome of that event adding to the humor filling him.
     "Okay good!  Maybe William will make pie for dessert, huh Vincent?"
     "I wouldnít count on it, Mouse.  Iíll see you later."  Vincent clapped him on the shoulder and turned back towards his chamber, unable to shake the image Mouseís words had inspired.  He still wore a silly grin when he entered his chamber, but it disappeared instantly when he found Catherine up and dressed in her tunnel gown and robe.
     She smiled and shrugged resignedly.  "Itís late, isnít it, Vincent?  We should get dressed and go see Father, though I hope thereís time to stop for a bite first -- Iím starving."
     "Itís almost noon, but I donít think Father will be available for some time yet.  Heís with William and Old Sam -- they may be a while."  He didnít go into detail, deciding that would be a good story to share later.  Right now he was primarily interested in regaining the intimacy they had been immersed in before Mouse had interrupted them.
     "Almost noon?!  Will you take me to a bathing pool, Vincent?"
     Her mind seemed to be made up, and he smiled ruefully to himself as he realized that for once she was the one worrying about what the others Below thought of their behavior, rather than the other way around, as was typical for them.  Suddenly he knew how she had felt all those times when he had been so careful to release her hand as others approached them on their walks through the tunnels.  He promised himself grimly that he would make it up to her, make up for all those moments when he had denied his love and desire for her in an attempt to maintain appearances for his tunnel family.
     "Of course, Catherine.  Come with me."
     Vincent picked up another lantern from the shelf lining one wall of his chamber, led her out the door and took a left, continuing down the side passage in the opposite direction of the main tunnel.  A mere thirty yards in this direction lay the bathing pool he shared with Father.  It was lit by a torch, as all the bathing chambers were, and was of course quite empty.  He gestured to the basket of towels and soaps and left her there as he continued on through the other opening at the opposite end of that chamber.  That passage led directly to Fatherís chambers, and though he was quite positive Father wouldnít be returning for some time, he left the unlit lantern about twenty yards away from the bathing pool.
     Catherine sighed quietly as Vincent left the chamber, wishing he could stay with her.  She pulled her gown and robe off and laid them in the empty basket next to the one containing the towels, soap and shampoo.  She chose a cake of rose scented soap and a vial of lilac shampoo, then entered the pool.
     The water was comfortably warm, and Catherine made her way around the spiraling bench steps until she sat at the fourth level, where the water just barely covered her breasts.  A moment later she looked up in surprise to see Vincent reentering the chamber.  She was about to ask him if he had forgotten something when he pulled off his cloak and stepped into the pool.  Her tongue became a twisted knot, the words caught in her dry throat.  "Vincent...?"  It was the best she could manage.
     He paused on the first step, the water no more than ankle deep there.  "Did you get some soap and shampoo, Catherine?"
 Vincent stood in all his glorious, masculine splendor and she could only nod mutely in response.  He didnít walk around the perimeter on the steps, but simply stepped off the first bench and into the pool with barely a splash.  He submerged completely for a moment and when he stood up the water reached to the middle of his ribcage.
reached past her to pluck the vial of shampoo from the ledge behind her, uncapped it and poured a liberal amount in his hand.  He deftly recapped the bottle then moved back towards the center of the pool, rubbing the liquid mass through his fingers thoroughly before raising them to work the foaming lather through his long hair.
     He stood with his eyes closed and head thrown back while he messaged his scalp and moved downward through his water-darkened hair.  The muscles in his arms and chest flexed beguilingly as his fingers threaded through his long locks, and Catherine sat transfixed at the sight before her.  Suddenly he sank below the water and when he emerged a moment later his hair was free of the bubbling foam, the frothy remains drifting on the surface of the pool towards the far side where the moving spring exited through narrow vents.  He squeezed the excess water from the silky strands and moved back towards her purposefully.
     Catherine expected him to reach beyond her left shoulder for the bar of soap, but instead he levered himself upon the third bench, also to her left.  Each of the benches in this pool were about three feet long, with an eight inch drop between them.  He sat on the step edge facing her, setting his feet upon her bench.  The water was waist-high on him at that level, his upper torso now completely exposed to her.  He picked up the cake of soap from the ledge and proceeded to lather his hands completely, rubbing the bar leisurely across his shoulders and arms before setting it back on the ledge.  He used his lathered hands to wash his arms, shoulders and chest, his motions unmistakably erotic as he moved across that massive expanse.
     Catherine usually prided herself on her insight and quick thinking, but it wasnít until that exact moment that she realized that his every motion since entering the pool had been for her benefit.  This sensuous show was for her and her alone, and she felt her whole body tingle deliciously as the implication of that thought washed through her.
     Vincent felt her sudden realization, and the inevitable response that followed, but ignored it completely, focusing on the touch of his wet skin amidst the silky lather, intent upon giving her this gift.  When he finished washing what was exposed, he scooped up handfuls of water to rinse the frothy suds from his body, that action as tantalizing as the washing itself had been.  He poured the water over his body, his hand sliding through the silky curls over and over again, stripping away the suds until they were totally gone.  He surprised her then, turning to kneel at her side on her bench, whispering over his shoulder to her.  "Could you wash my back, Catherine?"
     She nodded, completely oblivious to the fact that he couldnít see her response.  She reached for the soap and lathered her hands, her eyes pinned on his enticing width.  She moved her hands over that expanse slowly, almost hypnotically, amazed at the depth of feeling this simple action inspired in her.  Vincentís muscles rippled under her caressing fingers and she felt an answering clench in the sleek sheath at her very core.  The strength of that sensation almost made her swoon, and she clutched at his arms for a moment, her fingers biting deeply into his taut biceps.  She felt a sudden tension fill those muscles and knew he had felt her response through the bond, though neither spoke.  When she once more felt herself in control, she rinsed him off slowly and thoroughly, as he had done earlier, her hands lingering over him.  Finally they fell away from him, her task complete.
     When she was finished Vincent stood up, water draining down his magnificent length in a fall of sweet rivulets.  She began to reach out to him, her hand reaching towards the taut curve of his buttocks, but he was moving away, stepping back onto the third bench then turning to sit upon the edge of the second one, once again facing her.  The water barely covered his lower hips, and she gazed at him hungrily, waiting for a full view of his virile beauty.  But his feet rested on the third step, his knees together and even with the level of his waist in that position, and the view she craved was denied her.
     Vincent turned slightly toward the pool wall and lifted his left foot to rest it against that rough surface.  At that angle the outer side of his leg and hip were now bared to her avid gaze.  He washed that exposed flesh thoroughly, and she licked her dry lips sensuously when his hands slid up the inside of that leg, the view there blocked to her.  He slowly rinsed the full length of that long limb, dropped it back onto the lower bench then switched his attention to his right leg.
     Catherine couldnít contain the gasp that was drawn from her at that action.  Vincent placed his right foot on the same spot of the pool wall, but in this new position he was completely exposed to her, his erection clear to see, full and throbbing.  Her heart tripped rapidly in her chest and she couldnít stop the panting that claimed her, her eyes pinned inexorably upon that virile region.  He washed that strong, muscled length leisurely, completely ignoring his pulsing arousal and her gasping response.
     When he had finished rinsing the soap from his right leg, he left his foot upon the pool wall and his hands moved to his abdomen.  He washed slowly, starting at his bellybutton and working downward.  Finally his hands circled his thick shaft, stroking along its length with a sensuousness she found hard to believe, even in him.  One hand left that throbbing staff and slipped between his thighs to cup and caress the tight, full sac just beneath, both hands moving together in rhythm.
     Besides asking her to wash his back, Vincent had been completely silent, so when Catherine heard a low moan issue forth she glanced up quickly, stunned at the erotic sight he presented.  As when he had washed his hair, his eyes were closed, his head thrown back, but all similarities to that episode ended there.  The taut lines of his face and the tensed, straining muscles of his body clearly showed her the passion he was now feeling. The extreme intensity of her own emotional response became clear to her too, as she realized that she had been feeling the combination of both their reactions, too obsessed with the erotic sight before her to recognize that blending of their passion.
     But there was no mistaking his response now.  She felt it through the bond and saw it in his face, the eroticism of his actions beginning to overwhelm him.  He pulled his hands away suddenly and leaned back upon them, his breath panting harshly to echo about the small chamber with a carnal force that transmitted itself to her through the bond instantly.
     Catherine felt his trembling hesitation and insight flared within her, his conflict plain.  The straining muscles of his arms shook as he rested upon them, but little by little she saw an easing there, feeling it through the bond as well.  Though his flesh still strained tight and full, she clearly felt the lessening of the pounding lust which had filled him a moment before.  This time however, rather than use his hands to rinse the soap from his body, he sank forward onto his knees on the third level bench, the water reaching almost to his navel.  He scooped water over his belly and it drained down, washing away the silky foam in drifting clouds of froth.  Finally his hands disappeared from sight as they sank beneath the water line to rest upon his thighs.  He stayed there for several long minutes, his head bowed, his face hidden within the wet strands of coppery hair.  She clearly felt his effort to regain control through the bond, and his eventual success.
 I    t took several minutes, but finally Catherine felt the tension leave him, and his power flowed over her as well, calming her tensed muscles somewhat, though the tingling deep within her was only banked.  She still felt the embers glowing with heat, waiting patiently for the elements that would once again fan the flames of her desire.
     Catherineís attention was brought abruptly back to their surroundings by the sinuous motion beside her.  A languorous stretch vibrated down Vincentís length, every sinewy muscle tightening and releasing slowly, the relaxation transmitted to her own body as he loosened his taut flesh.  She watched his sensuous maneuver with awe, the control he exhibited so finely tuned that it seemed she could see each individual fiber rippling across his body in an undulating wave of erotic splendor.
     Finally he was through and his eyes met hers, the intensity of his gaze muted somewhat, though Catherine still felt the passionate energy seething within him.  He moved forward slowly, his eyes never leaving hers, until he sat on the edge of the third bench with his feet resting near her hip.  His hands reached out to gently grasp her shoulders, turning her to sit with her back to him.  His warm palms slid up her neck until he could tilt her head back, then she felt the water cascading over her to run down her back and arms.  His hands left her, but she kept her eyes closed, knowing what would happen next.
     When they returned, Catherine felt the slick coating on his hands, the sweet smell of lilacs drifting down over her until it surrounded them both.  His long fingers massaged her scalp, rubbing gently in a circular pattern until she felt what tension remained draining off her entirely.  A hazy, drifting pleasure filled her, completely lacking in the urgency building in them just moments ago.  She didnít notice him slip off the bench, but suddenly he stood at her side, leaning her back over the pool until the water surrounded the smooth planes of her face, her hair submerged completely.  One arm held her secure while his other hand gently combed through the floating strands with a slow, measured rhythm.  He pulled her back into a sitting position, and for a short while she leaned against his hard strength, dizzying waves of pleasure filling her.
     When Catherine had regained her balance, Vincent stepped back from her, his eyes aglow with a lazy delight.  His hands slid down her arms until they reached her hands, then slowly lifted them until they rested upon his shoulders.  When he felt her fingers curl in along the tautly defined lines of his muscles he released her and reached for the rose-scented soap, once again lathering his hands thoroughly.
     Vincent started at the back of her neck and worked down, rubbing and massaging the silky flesh of her shoulders and back until he reached the water line.  He moved from there to the curve of her shoulders, slowly working down the length of one arm, then back up again.  When he reached the sensitive skin of her underarm, Catherine couldnít contain the trembling that overtook her at the erotic response his touch inspired there.  He couldnít miss her shivery response, and stayed there a long time before moving to her other arm and repeating the process  Finally he gently washed along the soft curve of her neck and throat, working downward and across the satiny swell of her upper breasts.
     The relaxation of a moment ago was fading rapidly now, her nipples tightening almost painfully beneath the warm water at his tender caresses just mere inches away.  Finally his hands left her to gently splash the warm water in languorous waves against her, rinsing the soap off completely.
     Catherineís eyes had drifted closed during those loving touches, but fluttered open once again when she felt his arms slide beneath her legs and about her back.  She felt the barest touch of his body against hers just before he deposited her upon the third level bench.  He set her upon her knees, facing the pool wall, and she instinctively reached out to rest her hands against that rocky surface.  The water was almost waist deep on her in this position, the dimpled indentations of her spine just barely visible above the water line.  To her left she saw his hand once again reaching for the soap, and then heard the soft sounds of him working it through his fingers.  He set the bar back on the ledge to her right and she felt his firm caress start just beneath her shoulder-blades, right where he had ended when she had sat at the lower bench.
 Vincentís hands moved down her length, pressing strongly against the sweet curves to either side of her spine, his thumbs tracing teasingly along that sweet dip, and Catherine sighed in bliss, her tensed muscles quivering with pleasure.  Suddenly she felt his hands grip the curve of her waist and she was tugged upward until the she knelt upright, the water barely reaching the tops of her thighs.  His hands slid down to stroke the soft flesh of her buttocks, and she felt her muscles clench helplessly in response.  His silky hands massaged her flesh firmly, and she shuddered uncontrollably when he reached the crease of her thighs, slipping in between them to gently push her legs apart.  Vincentís fingers stroked her tenderly, just barely grazing the edge of her quivering sex.  He slid closer and closer, teasing her mercilessly, then finally stopped when she couldnít contain a low moan of desire.  He rinsed the soap from her body then, his hands repeating the pattern he had used a moment ago to wash her.  When his fingers once more reached the tender flesh of her inner thighs, they tightened there momentarily holding her firmly with his strong hands while her hips writhed helplessly with wanton passion.  Finally he released her and pressed upon her full curves to ease her back down until she once again rested upon her trembling thighs.  But he wasnít through yet.
 Vincent soaped his hands once more and slid them around her ribcage, moving upward inexorable until finally he cupped her breasts in the slick, wet warmth of his palms.  He massaged her gently at first, his strokes becoming firmer with each passing minute.  Finally his hands circled the fullness at the base of each breast, stroking outward until his fingers tightened upon her straining nipples.  Over and over again he caressed her thus, until she couldnít restrain the mewling whimpers that were pulled from deep in her throat.  He led her to the very edge with that simple touch, finally pulling back just before it was too late.
 Catherine cried out loudly then, wanting that promised release, needing it.  "Please, Vincent, donít stop."  The words were barely audible, buried as they were in a deep moan.
     He cupped his hands about her sensitized flesh and pulled her back against his chest, the rest of his body denied to her by the height of the bench she rested upon.  "Soon, Catherine, soon."
     She whimpered in response to the husky sound of his voice, his low, seductive tones drawing her deeper yet within the eroticism laying claim to them both.  Suddenly she knew exactly how he had felt on her couch yesterday morning, the wry suspicion filling her that this was, at least in part, his intent.
     Vincentís hands were utterly still upon her now, holding her softly, gently, until her trembling had subsided and he felt her passion once more under control.  He released her then, to cup handfuls of warm water against her breasts and abdomen and she watched the silky soap slide away in rivulets on the almost imperceptible current of the water.  His hands barely touched her during this process, letting the water do most of the work, but at the very end he once more cupped her breasts to squeeze them firmly, his fingers tugging at her rigid peaks until she cried out.  His hands left her then, and she sank down in frustration to rest her head against her outstretched arms wearily.  She wanted him so badly...needed him...
     Catherine was lost in that hazy introspection when she felt his arms lifting her once more.  A second later she found herself seated on the second bench, the water level now just below her bellybutton.  He gently pushed her back until she leaned against the pool wall, then reached down to slip a hand beneath the back of her right knee, lifting her leg to set her foot against his left shoulder.  He lathered his hands once more then one hand gripped her ankle firmly while the fingers of the other slid along the sole and between her toes, pressing strongly against that sensitive flesh.  Finally both hands began to work their way up the line of her calf and thigh, massaging and caressing each muscle deeply.  At the top of her thigh, his fingers slid beneath the water to lightly stroke against the soft curls and silky flesh of her sex, but he retreated almost immediately, leaving her shaking with a barely controlled urgency.  He rinsed her thoroughly and gently slid her leg back into the water, reaching for the other without hesitation.  He repeated the process on her left leg, and when he was finished Catherine was quivering in one long continuous wave, her restraint near an end.  He felt her response clearly and stepped back from her a few paces, his touch removed from her completely.  Her eyes pleaded with him, yearning apparent in every taut line and curve of her body, but he stayed where he was for several long minutes until her breathing had once more calmed.
    Finally Vincent moved back to her, lifting her tenderly in his arms and setting her gently down upon the top step, right next to the dropping edge which led to the second bench.  He stared up into her eyes, the top of his head barely even with her shoulders in this position, and his hands drifted slowly down her body, her quivering response inevitable at that touch, until they rested upon her knees.  The water reached a bare two inches above this top step, and with the exception of her lower legs, she was completely exposed to his avid gaze, the water lapping lazily about her hips and thighs where she sat on the bench.  He slipped one hand beneath her right knee, then drew her leg up and pushed it gently outward until her foot rested on the second level bench to her right.
     Catherine gasped at that bold action, falling back to rest her forearms upon the chamber floor, the pool wall only inches high at her back.  Her position before him was wantonly suggestive and she shivered in excitation, stunned at how quickly he had taken to this seductive game she had begun only yesterday.  But Vincent was a fast learner, the topic one he was eminently suited for, buried though those feelings had been in him throughout his young adulthood.
     His other hand repeated the same motion on her left leg, moving it upward and out, only he placed that foot on the same bench she sat upon, her position now completely open and profoundly vulnerable before him.  His hands tightened on her thighs, and he was unable to withhold his response to that blatant pose, his breath now panting and harsh and blending with the sounds of her own.  He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, and when he opened them again they blazed up at her with erotic intent, sending a quivering wave shuddering through her with seductive force.
     Vincent released his convulsive grip on her legs, reaching for the soap on the shelf to his left, then lathered his hands slowly, his eyes drifting down over her body with a leisurely thoroughness that set her muscles trembling.  He drew the softened bar across her waist and down her belly, skirting her pulsing sex to slide along the taut surface of her inner thighs.  Finally he set the soap back on the ledge and she felt the touch Catherine had been craving now for what felt like an eternity.
     Vincentís hands rested lightly on the curve of her waist for a moment, then began to move in a seductive, caressing path across her quivering flesh.  He stroked along her gently rounded belly, delving into her silky curls with a deepening touch, then finally withdrew, slipping down to the creases of her thighs, the force of his hands increasing.  Catherine was shaking as if in the midst of a windstorm and cried out helplessly when his fingers finally moved to the satiny folds of her most sensitive flesh.  He massaged her quivering lips firmly, stroking along their pouting, pulsing surface in undulating waves of eroticism.  His fingers met at the apex there to knead the turgid knot of flesh tenderly, drawing groaning gasps from her.  Her head thrashed from side to side, her restraint completely at an end.  "Oh god, Vincent!  Please, oh please!"  Suddenly she felt the heat of his mouth against the rounded swell of her breast, a fervent kiss pressed there.
     "Hold on just a little longer, Catherine."  Vincentís words were husky and low and her moaning cries died down to mewling whimpers as he pulled back from her body and began to rinse the lathered foam from her.  Her legs trembled, but she held them open to his searching hands and gaze, watching irresistibly as his fingers stroked the water along her belly, sex and thighs.  When the soap was completely gone his fingers returned once more to her tender lips, stroking them wide and dipping within to feel the silky warmth that awaited him there.
     Catherine felt a flash along the bond, a flare of heat, a split second before he bent his mouth to her with a wanton lasciviousness that released her passions entirely.  She screamed out and thrashed against him, but his hands gripped the back of her thighs, holding her open to his questing lips and tongue.  He devoured her utterly, driving her to a fiery orgasm.  It swept over her with a pounding force and she was consumed within its blazing heat, her release so intense Vincent immediately left her pulsing center to pull her shaking body close, holding her tight until she lay limp against him.
     Long minutes passed before Catherine was once again aware of her surroundings.  Reality slowly solidified around her until she once more felt the hard rock of the pool beneath her and the considerably more comfortable rock-solid muscled length of Vincent against her.  His arms circled her ribs, holding her close, and his cheek rested against the curve of her breast.  Her legs drifted in the water at either side of his hips, and she found herself idly rubbing her heels against the firm strength of his long thighs.  She felt loosely relaxed, residual shivers periodically quivering through her in deep response to his erotic power.
     The bond too was open and loose, Catherineís sense of Ďthemí so much stronger than was common for her.  And because it was so open to her now, she couldnít help but be aware of the tension within him.  Her sense of it was no more than that of a stillness at first, but then she felt the almost minute trembling of the muscles all along his length and knew it was more.  She had assumed heíd shared that erotic climax with her, attributing the strength of the ecstasy enfolding her to their combined release.
     But now she knew it wasnít so.  The release had been hers alone, and that knowledge left her stunned.  What was the limit of their passion and how had he taken her so far when only two days ago, for the first time, he had met the fears of his desire head first?  How had he resisted that cataclysmic explosion, when she had been utterly swept away by it?
     All questions she was determined to have the answering of, but not now.  Now, in the hazy aftermath of her pleasure, she wanted nothing more than to bring that same pleasure to him; to see his desire grow and his passion climb until he too had scaled that towering peak, the downward slide its own reward.  Her arms tightened about his shoulders and she lifted her legs to wrap them around his hips, her actions unmistakable.
     Vincent felt her intent, both through her body and their bond, the throbbing within him growing tighter and tauter in anticipation.  Truth to tell, he hadnít known how he had withstood the firestorm that had raged about them.  He had meant to try, but was stunned that heíd actually done it.  Somewhere in the midst of that inferno he had lost all consciousness of their physical surroundings, his awareness returning with hers.  But the lazy relaxation enfolding her was far from present in him.  The heat in his body still remained, his full erection pulsing so fiercely it was an agonizing pain.  He needed her now, but the strength of that need frightened him, and he found himself hesitating.
     Catherine felt that in him, and somehow, through the strength of their bond, felt the source of that hesitation.  She murmured softly against him, the words indistinct, but at once both soothing and arousing.
     Her emotions flowed over the bond, breaking against the wall of restraint Vincent had so carefully cultivated for her protection.  A crumbling crack appeared and a surge of power radiated through every muscle.  Suddenly he didnít fear that power.  With a certainty he did not question, he knew that force was his to release or restrain, and somehow, now, he knew he controlled that force, had always controlled it.
     Vincent pulled her body off the bench and tight against his own, lowering her slowly until their eyes met.  He stared at her in silent awe, stunned by what he found there.  The color of her eyes had always varied depending on her mood and surroundings.  He had seen them stormy gray when she was angry or upset, tinged with spring green when she was laughing or relaxed and sparkling with pinpoints of amber when he felt passion building in her.  But he had never seen them like this.  Now they blazed with a pale, silvery light that was almost iridescent, the effect close to that of no color at all.
     Vincent didnít need the bond to know that the amazing color was a reflection of the bliss that had encompassed her a moment ago.  He wanted to feel that violent release now, and the satiated calm it left in its wake.  His eyes were heavy-lidded and dark, burning with a fierce intensity that drew her to him with a force that was irresistible, though she had neither the will nor the desire to obstruct that force.
     Slowly he lowered her, until Catherine felt the hard strength of his passion penetrating her softly yielding body.  He held himself utterly still, pulling her down to enclose him completely.  He didnít stop until he was buried to the deepest reaches of her luscious body, a groan torn from him at the joy he felt to be held thus.  His arms tightened about her and she felt him gently guide them around the corner of the first bench wall they had been leaning against.  Finally they came to rest in the corner of that uppermost step, the pool wall at her back taller there, with no sharp edge pushing against her shoulders.
     Vincent had not moved yet within her, and she wondered at his control, amazed he hadnít climaxed immediately upon entering her body.  With the wall at her back, his body in front and the water supporting them, he loosened his hold upon her, his hands gliding along her back and sides to caress her tenderly.  They moved up her arms to her shoulders and throat, not stopping until he cupped her face within his warm palms.  He stared deep within her eyes for a moment, the words he had spoken so often during the last thirty-six hours still stunning her with the force of his passion and adoration.  "I love you, Catherine."
     Then his mouth found hers and they were kissing deeply, longingly, his body suddenly rocking against hers to match the cadence of their kiss.  Catherine hadnít thought she was capable of another orgasm, not after the strength of the last, but now she knew she was wrong.  She knew now that her bodyís response to his was inevitable and undeniable.  Her passion was growing once more, the sporadic, fluttering shivers she had felt moments ago in the aftermath of her pleasure now heralding the onset of yet another blaze.  The strength of his thrusts increased, and he was hot and hard and thick, touching her deeply...thoroughly.  She couldnít maintain the kiss any longer, her head falling back as gasping breaths were drawn from deep within her.
     Vincent was panting harshly now too, his open mouth and sharp teeth moving across her throat and collar-bone, his actions sensuous and earthy.  Catherine felt her body wake further to his insistent caresses, her silken sheath clenching sharply against his steely length.  He gasped at that sudden sensation and she felt him nip at her neck, the eroticism of that love bite drawing a loud groan from her.  His arms tightened around her once again, his powerful body moving forcefully against her in shuddering, pounding waves.  She tightened her legs about him, the convulsions deep in her core rolling down his plunging length strongly and continuously.  His hands slid down to cup her buttocks, squeezing the fleshy muscles there and spreading those curves wide.  She felt him sink deeper yet within her at that lusty action, crying out at the fierceness of the sensations filling her.  She needed to let go, needed it desperately.  How could he have waited so long?!
     "Hurry, Vincent.  Now, oh please, now!"
     Catherine didnít think it was possible, given the friction of their watery bed, but he moved faster and harder within her, his arms holding her fiercely while yet protecting her from the rough stone at her back.  His low growls filled the chamber with a rumbling echo, and she felt his erection swell deeply within her.  The erotic sensation pushed her over the edge and her body convulsed with a wildly abandoned frenzy.  She screamed out his name and felt his answering cry, hot jets pulsing against her quivering sheath as he thrust against her with an insistent force that could not be withstood.  She felt her own passion begin to wind down, only to be pushed back to its full, pounding rhythm by the intensity of his driving response.  Any control she had was completely gone now, her body and mind responding instinctively to the hazy pleasure enfolding them.
     Finally Vincentís movements slowed to a pulsing throb within her, his flesh amazingly firm for several long minutes after that.  When he slipped from her body she cried out at that absence, feeling achingly empty where he had been, despite the utter peace and relaxation slowly easing through her.  They rested for a few moments in the tight corner between the wall of the pool and the first bench, the buoyancy of the water compensating for the trembling in both their bodies.  Finally he drew them up upon the fourth bench, and collapsed there weakly, pulling her into his lap.  The water swirled around his ribcage, covering her lower body with a hazy warmth.  The cooler tunnel air shivered along their upper torsos, easing the erotic heat still emanating from them both.
     For countless minutes they rested there, half asleep, held within the pulsing waves of their blissful bond.  Finally Catherine became aware of his hand stroking idly across her body, his tender touch bringing her back to the tunnel pool once more.  She blinked hazily, finally focusing on their surroundings.  She could have sworn he was asleep, but for the gentle stroking of his hand along her skin.  His eyes were closed, his muscles relaxed, his heartbeat slow and even beneath her cheek.
     Vincentís touch was hypnotically soothing, perhaps even unconsciously done, but despite that it was tantalizing and mesmerizing, holding her in its thrall.  She felt his warm caress along the planes of her back, his fingers and sharp nails trailing down the sensitive dip of her spine and continuing on beneath the water to trace the soft flesh of her outer hip.  He slipped beneath her to explore her full curves languidly.  His intent was not to arouse, she could sense that clearly, but only to explore and soothe.  His fingers stroked tenderly down that soft cleft and slipped between her thighs, almost, but not quite touching her sensitive female flesh.
     Before Catherineís response could move from drowsy delight to something more, he left her, his hand moving up over her hip to caress the curve of her waist and ribs until he found and cupped her breasts gently.  He stroked along their satiny smoothness, lightly trailing his fingers across the relaxed tips of her nipples, his touch tranquil and slow.  Then his hand moved downward once more until it broke the waterline and finally reached the dark curls at the apex of her thighs.  His fingers delved within her sirenís locks, threading through them and tugging gently to mix with the soft currents of the water.  Little by little his touch deepened until finally he slipped within her silky folds to rub against her still slick flesh.  He moved upward a little to tenderly caress the small nub hiding within, but didnít stay there long, leaving the minute he felt a tiny, almost imperceptible shiver course down her length.  Finally two fingers slid gently into her soft sheath and she stretched luxuriously at the feel of him there.
     This was a touch she had thought would be long in coming, his fear of hurting her not at all imagined in this regard.  But yesterday, in her apartment, Vincent had learned that he could indeed control that deep touch, and had quickly found that it was irresistible to him, the feel of her satiny smoothness something he craved to be immersed in continually, whether in the midst of their passion, or in the hazy aftermath of it.  He loved to feel the little shivers that rippled through her for so long after they made love, knowing this was her bodyís enduring response to his own.  He rested there now, stroking her softly, soothingly, and her legs drifted open on the warm currents, telling him how she enjoyed this touch from him.  She felt him nuzzling against her hair now, acknowledging her yielding response with this first movement besides that of his hand upon her.
     "Oh, Vincent.  You are amazing.  Wherever did you learn of such pleasures?"  A hazy relaxation strummed through her, and she rested easily against him, thoroughly enjoying his deep touch within her.
     "From you, Catherine."  He pressed a warm kiss against her temple, his thumb stroking the outer edges of her sensitive lips.
     "Me!  Iíve never imagined such a bath in my life, much less done it.  Tell me, Vincent."
     "I have imagined many things since finding you, Catherine.  I tried to control those thoughts, those dreams...until the mapping journey.  The mind is an amazing thing -- once we had become lovers, I couldnít stop thinking of us like this.  On my return trip, every place we had ever visited together took on new meaning.  I saw us making love everywhere...in every way imaginable.  Two days ago I couldnít help but be dismayed by the strength of my desire for you.  Now..."
     "Now?"  Catherine watched him eagerly, thrilled that he had come so far, so fast.
     "Now I find that I canít resist you, that there is no desire within me to resist you...only to love you, totally and completely."  Vincentís fingers slid from her body, eliciting a gasping mewl from her at their absence.  He stroked upward along her body until he cupped her cheek and stared deep into her eyes, speaking the words she would never tire of hearing.  "I love you, Catherine."
     "And I love you.  Iíll always love you, Vincent, always."
     Their lips met in a kiss, soft and warm, their whole world contained within their arms.

*   *   *

     It was past one-thirty when they finally entered the dining chamber.  There were very few people there, the most common hour for the mid-day meal between twelve and one.
     "Vincent, Catherine!"  Mouse waved to them frantically, as if the typical lunch crowds stood between them, though there were only a dozen or so people there now.  They stopped at the main table to dish out their meals, then made their way across the large chamber to a corner table where Mouse sat with Rebecca and Jamie, drinking tea and visiting.  Along the way, welcome backís and quiet greetings were exchanged with the others as they passed.
     "Itís good to have you back, Vincent, and you too, Catherine."  Rebecca lightly rubbed his back in greeting as Vincent took a seat beside her on the long bench.
     "Itís good to be back, Rebecca."  His arm swept around her to pull her into a close hug, his comfort with this childhood friend sweetly touching.
     "How was it, Vincent?  Did you find anything interesting?"  As usual, Jamie cut right to the chase, avid curiosity in her eyes.  Like Vincent, she never tired of uncovering the secrets of their world.
     "Quite a bit, actually.  Weíre going to meet to discuss it this afternoon.  Why donít you come along with Mouse?  Has Father returned yet?"
     A sudden stillness at the table was broken by Rebeccaís giggle, though Mouse and Catherine only looked confused by the laughing grins suddenly exchanged by the other three.
     "I think it will be a while yet, Vincent.  I snuck down an hour ago and caught Fatherís recitation of ĎThe Minstrel Boyí and ĎSir Patrick Spensí -- Irish brogue and Scottish burr inserted where appropriate, of course.  I stayed until the three of them started ĎMy Wild Irish Roseí, then I couldnít take any more.  There was quite a crowd gathered outside and they were making a list of requests for Cullen to shout out to Father.  They could be there all day.
     All three of them burst into laughter then, and Catherine enjoyed the sight of Vincentís sharp teeth so publicly exposed, though she still had no idea what they were talking about.
     Vincent immediately answered her silent question.  "Father likes to soak at the hot springs pool on level B when his arthritis is particularly bad because the water there is so much hotter than in our pool."
     Catherine blushed pinkly at the memory his words inspired, the expression Ďour poolí taking on a completely different meaning than he had originally intended.
     Vincent hurried on, chagrined to have brought such intimate images to mind in such a public setting, though thankfully no one seemed to have noticed her blushing response.  "Once or twice a year William and Old Sam join him -- usually with a bottle of brandy."
     "Medicinal, right Vincent?"  Mouse spoke up eagerly, anxious to have his say in this thoroughly confusing discussion.  His confusion only deepened as everyone at the table, including Catherine, who now seemed as much in the know as the other three, broke into howls at his words.  "What?  Whatís funny?  Tell me, Vincent."
     Mouse was fidgeting mightily, a confused frown on his face, and Vincent turned to explain, concerned lest he should think they were laughing at him.  "Brandy is an alcoholic beverage, Mouse.  Father, William and Old Sam didnít bring it with them as a medicine, but because they enjoy its taste...and its effect.  Though they do it only seldom, they always drink too much and thatís when they start to sing Irish songs and recite Celtic poetry.  And they almost always have a hangover the next day, so you would be wise to stay out of Fatherís way until Tuesday at the very least.
     "Whatís a hangover, Vincent?"
     Catherine answered instead, a comical picture in her mind of the three men stumbling through the tunnels with ice packs clutched to their heads.  "Thatís a headache, Mouse, a great big headache.  The biggest problem with it is that those who suffer from it usually pass it on to anyone they encounter, so Iíd take Vincentís advice if I were you."
     "Okay good, okay fine.  Stay out of Fatherís way.  Easy, do it all the time."  Mouse nodded wisely, and was once again surprised by the laughter his words inspired, but he didnít pursue it, another question nagging at him from Rebeccaís earlier comments.  "How come Cullenís outside?  Shouldíve left a lantern."
     Only Catherine noticed Vincentís sudden stillness, but she didnít have a chance to whisper a question to him before Jamie responded impatiently.
     "Of course they put a lantern out, Mouse.  People always leave a lantern when theyíre bathing so others wonít think the poolís open and wander in."
     "But Vincent said..."
     Vincent interrupted Mouseís statement and the others turned to him somewhat taken aback by that atypical behavior.
     "The public chambers are different, Mouse.  The pools are often shared by many people during the common bathing hours.  The lantern is simply to warn others that itís occupied."
     Jamie had a sudden flare of insight and realized that Mouse was confused over the difference between an unlit lantern outside of a public chamber, like the bathing pools, and a private one, like someoneís sleeping quarters.  She turned to explain to her friend, feeling guilty for the curtness of her last words to him.  "Lanterns at private chambers are different, Mouse.  Father and William and Old Sam donít mind the others outside listening to their songs; in fact I think they rather enjoy their audience.  But a lantern outside a private chamber means the people inside want privacy."
     Mouse jumped in at that word, feeling on firmer ground.  "Know it.  Vincent told me.  Canít come in, canít even call out, not unless itís an emergency."
     "Thatís right.  It means whoís ever in there wants to be alone.  You wouldnít want to wake people who were sleeping, would you, or interrupt them if they were, you know... getting romantic?" She rolled her eyes and grinned, her meaning quite clear to all at the table, even the youth sitting across from her.
     Mouse shook his head rapidly, his eyes round with consternation.  He turned to Vincent and Catherine suddenly, and though Vincent knew what he would say an instant before he said it, there was no way to stop him.  "Sorry, Vincent.  Didnít mean to interrupt you and Catherine this morning.  Wonít do it again, promise."
     Neither Rebecca nor Jamie missed Catherine and Vincentís bright flush then, their curious expressions suddenly showing dawning understanding and amazement.  Vincent rushed in, drawing attention away from Catherine as smoothly as he could, though his own embarrassment was almost overwhelming.  "Itís all right, Mouse.  Would you like to go over the mapping journal with me now?  You could go get Kanin and Pascal and bring them to Fatherís study, Iím sure theyíd like to hear about my trip too."
     Mouse nodded enthusiastically, the subtle interplay of a moment ago completely missed by him.  "Okay good, okay fine.  Bring them right away."
     He jumped up and almost ran out of the chamber, leaving Vincent to face the prospect of either an uncomfortably contrived conversation or perhaps, more likely, the shocked expressions of the two women he most often thought of as sisters.  When he finally shook off his frantic musings and turned his attention back to them he found neither of these things, however.  Instead he found Jamie, Rebecca and Catherine perfectly relaxed and chatting cozily about current events Below.  He breathed a sigh of astonished relief and sat listening on the periphery for a few precious minutes, pulling his dignity about him once more.
     Vincent was amazed at their response.  He knew with absolute certainty that they had drawn the correct conclusion Mouseís words only implied, in fact knew he himself was largely responsible for that insight, his own reaction a dead give-away.  And yet they werenít shocked or disgusted by this revelation.  And beside her initial reaction, Catherine appeared very comfortable with them...with what they now knew.  He was astonished.  Finally, at a lull in the conversation, Vincent broke in.  "I should go get the mapping journal and bring it to Fatherís study, Catherine.  You can stay here, if you like, and join me later."
     Her response was immediate.  "No.  Iíll come with you."  She turned to the other two.  "Are you coming with us, Jamie?"
     "Iíd like to, but I have sentry duty this afternoon.  Youíll have to fill me in later."
     "Weíll probably see you at supper, then.  Will you save us a spot?"
     Vincent observed Catherineís and Jamieís conversation with amazement.  Besides their initial surprised reaction, neither Rebecca nor Jamie acted as if there were anything unusual or unexpected in the news that his and Catherineís relationship had moved beyond the platonic.
     "It will be a late supper for me, I donít get off sentry duty until seven", Jamie replied.
 Rebecca chimed in at that point.  "Perfect.  Iíve got a batch of candles to finish this afternoon and should be done around then.  And remember Jamie, weíve got bath duty with the children tonight at eight oíclock."
     "I havenít forgotten, though Iíd rather be doing almost anything but that."
 The four made their way out of the chamber, the womenís relaxed laughter following Jamieís remark.  They paused at the exit, their destinations down opposing tunnels.
     "If you get bored, Catherine, come and keep me company in the candle chamber.  See you later, Vincent."
     Rebeccaís words were completely casual, but he felt the subtle brush of her hand along his and looking into her eyes instantly read of her happiness for him.  He sighed softly, his own expression communicating his silent thanks.  She and Jamie turned down a side tunnel and he watched them for a few minutes before turning back to Catherine.  "They know."
     "Of course."  Catherineís soft laugh rang out, and it was Vincentís turn to look confused.
     "You donít mind?"
     Catherine was silent for a moment as they turned down the tunnel that led to his chamber.  "I mind for you, Vincent, because I know how uncomfortable you still are with this.  But Iím happy too.  I love you so much.  I want everyone to know how happy youíve made me."
     Vincent stopped to stare at her, the words sheíd spoken completely unexpected by him.  Nothing she could have said or done could more clearly tell him of her confidence in the acceptance of their new relationship by his tunnel family.  She had no doubts about them...none at all.  Suddenly he remembered Fatherís strange behavior last night, his mood swinging from worried anger to soft nostalgia, and realized that Catherine was right.  If Fatherís response had been so much milder than he had anticipated, how bad could anyone elseís be?  He remembered his decision this morning in the pool, to make up to her for the times he had denied his feelings for her, here in his own world.  Though they were in a main thoroughfare, with several people traversing itís length, he swept her into his arms and hugged her tight.  He felt her stiff response to that unexpected public display of affection, and held her close, waiting.  Finally she relaxed in his arms and he pulled back to look into her eyes, whispering the words he had been so hesitant to say until just recently.  "I love you, Catherine."
     She sigh ecstatically at his words, pleasure reverberating through her at the sound of them, here in this public tunnel.  "I know."
     After a few moments of silent communion, Catherine turned to continue on toward his chamber, but his arms tightened about her, stopping her once more.  She looked up at him in surprise, a question in her eyes, and was stunned when he leaned down to press a warm kiss upon her lips.  It was a soft kiss, the barest contact between them, but he held it long enough so that all those who saw could not mistake it for a mere sign of friendship.  Vincent was telling them, as clearly as if he had shouted it aloud, that he loved her...was in love with her.
     Finally he let her go, though he kept one arm around her waist as they continued on down the tunnel.  They were too engrossed in each other to notice the happy congratulations in the eyes of the tunnel-dwellers who had witnessed their tender embrace.

*   *   *

     Mouse had located Kanin and Pascal, and they were waiting in Fatherís study when Catherine and Vincent arrived.  Their pleasure at Vincentís return was evident, and Catherine basked in the warm glow filling the chamber as they included her in their welcome.  Within minutes they were deeply engrossed in Vincentís mapping journal, their fascination and excitement plain.
     An hour later Catherine was on the mezzanine level searching through a stack of reference journals for them and Vincent was in the midst of describing an interesting bit of terrain to the others when Father returned.
     Jacob paused at the entrance, somewhat surprised at the unexpected crowd gathered there, then made his way gingerly down the stairs amid the smiling greetings of the others.  Though they strove mightily to subdue the humor in both their voices and expressions, he nonetheless winced and gripped the railing a little more tightly, speaking testily.  "Must you shout so?  Iím not deaf, you know."
     Vincent was the only one who managed to keep a straight face, standing at the foot of the stairs solicitously.  "Weíre sorry, Father."
     "What are you all doing here anyway?"
     There was no doubt about it, the brandy did indeed seem to be wearing off -- irritation was clear in his voice.  Vincent was immensely grateful that he had sent Mouse off to retrieve some additional maps from his chamber a few minutes since.  He was quite sure that Father would not endure his insightful questions and comments, innocent though they might be, with the same degree of patience required of he and Catherine this afternoon.  "We were just discussing my trip."
     "Oh.  Well, I suppose we should..."
     Vincent took pity on his father, smoothly interrupting his wander gaze.  "Actually, Father, I think we should delay the main review until tomorrow, when Cullen and several of the others are available.  What do you think?"
     "Cullenís not free?  Well of course we should wait then.  No use in doing this twice."
     "How is your hip?  Did the hot springs help?"
     Several smirks materialized around the room, though they were quickly hidden as Father glanced suspiciously about.
     "Yes, well, Iím afraid itís still a bit sore, though Iím sure it will be better by tomorrow."
     "Of course, Father.  But it canít help for you to be on your feet all day."  Then, almost as if it were an afterthought, he added the suggestion which was so obviously on his fatherís mind, though his dignity would never have allowed him to bring it up first.  "Perhaps you should lie down for a while."
     "Iím not at all tired...  But perhaps youíre right.  No use making things worse, as can sometimes happen when one isnít careful."
     Luckily he stood with his back to Pascal.  Though widely considered one of the kindest and gentlest souls Below, even he couldnít contain the wide grin that broke out during that last exchange.  Kanin developed a sudden hacking cough, and Jacob peered at him with a suspicious scowl.  Vincent wisely broke in at that moment, drawing his attention back once more.
     "Will it bother you if we stay here a while and talk over my trip?"
     "No...no, just keep it down if you please."
     Vincent had taken his elbow to gently guide him towards his bedchamber during the last few sentences.  Father didnít seem to notice, moving along with him as they talked.  They were almost out of the study when Father spoke again, seeming to have forgotten the presence of the other men in the chamber.
     "By the way, where is Catherine?"
    "She is nearby, Father."
     For some reason Vincentís oblique response seemed to satisfy him.
     "I still want to talk to you two, young man."
     His sonís voice was low, no teasing evident now.  "Tomorrow will be soon enough for that, Father.  You should rest now."
     "All right, tomorrow then."
     They disappeared from view, and Catherine stood watching them go.  When she looked down towards the others she found Kanin staring up at her, a softened, happy expression evident upon his face.  Pascal turned back to him, and seeing their exchange smiled up at her shyly and tapped him on the shoulder.  "Come on, Kanin, back to work."
     A moment later Vincent reentered the room.  His gaze was inexorably drawn to where Catherine stood on the upper level, and their eyes met in perfect understanding.
     Finally she spoke, breaking the still silence of their communion.  "Iíll get those journals."
     During the next few minutes a course of action was decided upon.  Between them they would transfer the journal drawings from this latest trip to large pieces of grid paper, simplifying the work for tomorrowís meeting considerably.  They spread out upon every available writing surface and got down to business.
     The time flew by as they all busily mapped and conferred, double checking their drawings against his journal maps and notes.  Catherine did not do any of the draft work herself, that skill foreign to her, but instead cross-checked data for them among the numerous other reference sources they had, periodically disappearing to bring in tea.  Father never reappeared.
     Before they knew it, it was seven oíclock and they decided to break for supper, their work group joining Rebecca and Jamie at a long table.  Supper was a relaxed meal, full of cozy, comfortable conversation.  It ended too soon, however, the group deciding that with just a little more effort, they could finish up this chore completely.  Rebecca and Jamie had bath duty with the small children that evening, and Catherine asked to be excused from the remainder of the mapping work, anxious to spend time with the smallest tunnel inhabitants.  Vincent assured her that the four of them could finish what was left, and Catherine left with her friends to brave the childrenís pool, seductive images of their morningís activities fresh in her thoughts.

*   *   *

     Vincent couldnít believe it was already ten-thirty.  He felt unusually tired, given the sedentary nature of the dayís work, and wearily scanned the bond as he approached his chamber.  Catherine was relaxed and happy, though he himself couldnít shake the depression beginning to steal over him at the thought of their parting.
     The others had been determined to finish the mapping chore tonight, and he hadnít felt comfortable leaving them when there was so little left to be done.  Catherine had been busy with the children during that time.  She had come in after their baths, telling him not to worry about story hour, that she and Mary would read to them tonight.  Vincent had gratefully accepted her offer, though he wanted nothing more than to retreat with her to his chamber and hold her close, to ward off the inevitable separation.  And now it was ten-thirty and their time together was rapidly drawing to a close.  How he wished she didnít have to go back Above.  But it was Sunday night, and she would need to be in the office early tomorrow no doubt, her hectic schedule something he had long ago grown accustomed to.  He sighed as he turned down the side tunnel to his chamber and the entrance came into view.  A few more long strides and he was there.
     When he reached the entry he stood in silence, stunned at the image of her within.  Catherine lay on her stomach reading, the pages of her book illuminated by the candle cluster sitting upon the bedside table.  She wore a tunnel gown and was nestled deep within the covers of his bed, completely unaware of his presence.  Finally he moved to enter the room, his motion drawing her attention at last.
     "Are you finished with the maps, Vincent?"
     "Yes.  Everything is ready for tomorrowís meeting."  He hesitated over his next question, the answer patently clear.  "Youíre staying, Catherine?"
     She set aside her book and sat up to face him, her legs curled under her, her image both beguiling and sweet.  "Yes.  I had Pascal send a message to Maria after supper.  Sheíll contact Peter and heíll call Joe.  Iím taking vacation days tomorrow and Tuesday."
     "Where will you...?"  Vincent stumbled over his words, loathe to assume anything, though his pounding heart told him that she wanted to be with him.  Her next words confirmed that thought.
     "I want to stay here, Vincent, with you.  Is that all right?  Do you think Father will mind?"
     He shook his head mutely.  In truth, whether or not Father would mind concerned him not at all right now.  His only thought was that she would stay with him, his relief swift and complete.  He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled her into his arms.  Catherine melted against him instantly, slipping her arms around his back to hold him tight.  He nuzzled against her silky hair and the scent of lilacs drifting over him called to mind the images of them this morning in the bathing pool.  A shiver brushed through him, and his arms tightened about her.  "Iím glad youíre staying, Catherine."
     She sighed and pressed a kiss against the warm flesh of his throat and felt his trembling response.  "Of course Iím staying.  You realize, donít you, that we havenít made love in your bed yet?"
     Vincent drew in a shuddering breath at her words, and pulled back to look into her eyes.  She smiled up at him tremulously.
     "You donít think Iíd leave without that, do you?"
     There was a teasing, seductive lilt to her voice, and he instantly felt himself drawn within the sensual spell she wove.
     Vincentís eyes darkened and Catherine felt his arms tighten about her, felt herself turned until her right shoulder nestled under his left.  His right hand rose to gently stroke her cheek, stopping to finally cup that silky curve.  They froze in that position for some unknown length of time, their gazes locked, until finally he lowered his mouth to hers.
     He nuzzled against her lips softly, pressing warm kisses there and nipping gently at her tender flesh with a leisurely thoroughness that left her panting.  He pulled back slightly to see his effect on her, craving that evidence of her desire.  Her lips were full and dark.  He felt her breath gusting against him, her lips parted, the barest tips of her teeth visible.  She was irresistible to him, irresistible...
     Vincent bent back to her and traced the trembling curves of her pulsing lips with his tongue until he had explored that yearning flesh thoroughly, finally concentrating his efforts at the luscious center of her lower lip.  He nipped at the fullness there, and sucked against it.
     Catherineís mouth dropped open in a gasping groan in response to his erotic caresses, her tongue tracing the silky flesh of his upper lip in turn.  Finally she delved into his tender cleft to taste the hidden tissue there.  She felt his quivering response, a low moan drawn from deep within his chest.  The secret flesh there was silky and slick, the taste and scent emanating from that spot a concentration of the spicy earthiness that defined him in his arousal.  She felt her insides begin to unravel, everything in her melting and loose, his arms her sole source of support.  She pulled away for a moment and his eyes were hazy and unfocused, the lines of his face taut with passion.  "Oh, Vincent..."  She whispered out to him, love and yearning unmistakable in her voice, in the silver-gray depths of her eyes.
     He shuddered upon hearing that sound and focused back upon her lips, drawing her to him with firm intent.  This time the kiss was his, and it was deep and lush, his tongue languidly exploring her mouth to taste every texture within.  Neither noticed the figure which appeared at the entrance just then.
     Father stood watching the pair kiss with a mixture of shock and chagrin.  He had woken with a pounding headache and an awful taste in his mouth, swearing to himself, as he did at least once a year, that he would never again touch brandy or any other alcoholic drink, for that matter.  He had gotten up and gone in search of William and his tea, craving that soothing herbal blend kept for just such an occasion, rare though it was in the tunnels.  In the kitchen he met Olivia, who explained with a wry smile that William had gone to bed early.  She fixed him a steaming cup and they visited quietly for a few minutes, before sheíd left to rejoin Kanin and Luke in the privacy of their chamber.
     For the first time since Vincentís return, Jacob truly considered the situation between his son and Catherine.  Perhaps now was the time for that talk, he had thought to himself, only to find, in retrospect, there wasnít much enthusiasm in him for that chore.  Stop dilly-dallying Jacob, and just go see him.  Not that he was likely to be in the hub at this hour...  In fact he was quite certain that Vincent and Catherine were probably well on their way to their threshold by now.
     So it was with no small surprise that he found them within, and in such a tender, intimate embrace it left him literally speechless.  His astonishment was magnified by that fact that Vincent had apparently not noticed his approach, and stranger yet, seemed totally unaware of his presence now.  With this shocking display before him, he almost laughed out loud as the totally unexpected and strangely humorous thought flitted through him:  ĎThey should have put out a lantern...í
     Jacob toyed with the idea of clearing his throat, thereby diplomatically announcing his presence, but upon second thought suspected that would perhaps not be the diplomatic thing to do after all.  He started and flushed guiltily, suddenly aware that he had been staring at them for some time, their kisses and caresses unimpeded by any suspicion of intrusion.
     Still, for a moment more he could not withdraw his gaze.  He had always thought this was something that could never be for his son, something that must be denied him, for his own peace of mind.  Now he realized how wrong he had been.  The love that had always surrounded them was more vividly apparent now, the golden glow of the candles seeming to enclose them in a hazy aura.  They looked so right together, so natural.  Some concerns still remained for them, for what their future held, but his fears were draining away in the face of the irrefutable proof before him.  He couldnít question the rightness of this between them, not upon seeing the perfect passion and love filling them in this chamber.  He turned and made his way down the tunnel silently, a lightness in him that he had never expected to feel where his sonís relationship with Catherine was concerned.
     Vincent had indeed been unaware of his fatherís presence, and never heard his retreat, so engrossed was he in the lushness of Catherine in his arms.  Her mouth was a paradise of tropical pleasures, warm and honey sweet.  For several long minutes he was absolutely convinced he could stay there forever, quenching his thirst in her moist depths.  But soon his craving grew, and he knew he needed more.  He needed to feel her touch, her passion...for him.
     Catherine had been still against him, yielding herself up to his tender demands, but now she felt the shift in his desire and responded instantly, her tongue slipping into his warm mouth to explore him with a wanton lust that left him shaking.  She delved within, seeking the wet, silky taste of him with an urgency that drew them both inexorably to their deeper passions, a swirling vortex building about them, their bond its source.
     She was drawing in the deepest, complex taste of him when she felt his hand upon her breast, caressing her firmly through the soft, woolen fabric of her tunnel gown.  She had worn this once before when sheíd stayed unexpectedly one night, and found it still waiting for her in his bureau drawer when searching there earlier this evening.  Given the tendency to share and pass on unused clothing, she suspected this was quite an aberration; that Vincent hadnít wanted anyone else to wear what she had worn, that magic too rare and precious for him to consider it within the logical framework of the tunnel traditions.
     The gown was as soft as spun candy, angora wool surrounding her with luxury.  It had silk ties up the front and Catherine had chosen it immediately, a sudden vision in her mind of Vincent unlacing those ties by the warm glow of the candles in his chamber.  That image unfolded in reality now, and she shivered in anticipation as his hand slid over to pull the first ribbon, its loose bow coming undone instantly.  His fingers lightly traced along the silken hollow between her breasts until he reached the second, undoing that one slowly, seductively.  Finally the last lace was untied and the gown gaped open slightly, down to her belly button.
     She shivered with anticipation, and Vincent didnít make her wait.  His hand slipped in to cup her left breast warmly, rubbing his palm against her yearning peak with a light, teasing motion.  Catherine stretched beneath him and arched into that stroking palm, pressing against him firmly.  His hand tightened about her in response to her demand, and she moaned her pleasure into his mouth, the sound soft and low, drawing him to her with an irresistible strength.  Suddenly she pulled her lips from his and drew back slightly.  His eyes were hazy and confused, his hand still cupping her tenderly.
     "Catherine...?"
     "The lantern, Vincent.  Youíd better put it out just in case Mouse decides to pay us another visit."  Her voice was husky and low, a mixture of wry humor and utter seriousness there.
     Vincent pulled her upright and held her tight until he felt her trembling subside.  When her heart was no longer pounding, he left her and quickly exited the chamber, grabbing a lantern along the way.
     When Vincent returned he froze in the doorway, a gasp drawn from him at the compelling sight of her.  Catherine sat just as heíd left her, her legs curled beneath her, enfolded within the soft, tawny wool of her tunnel gown.  But her eyes were dark and her lips flushed with passion, the gown falling open to expose one quivering breast.  The silk ribbons fell across its taut peak in a caress he craved for his own fingers, for his thirsting mouth.
     Finally he moved into the room, stopping at its center about five feet away from the bed.  He stared at her for several minutes, suddenly seeing the scene from that first night in her apartment more than three weeks ago.  The images from that evening had plagued him during the days that had followed, the pictures clear in his mind, but muted and still, as if he had somehow watched it all from afar.  Now the sensations of that night burst upon him, and he felt the heady blend of power and passion that had filled him then.
     He remembered standing before her avid gaze, his arousal plainly evident.  In Catherineís eyes he clearly saw the same desire which had burned through her then, the pleasure she had found in his newly discovered self-confidence radiating through him to add to his erotic intensity.
     As on that night, his hands rose to slowly strip off his sweater, the cream colored thermal shirt following.  Vincent took his time, his taut muscles stretching languorously as he undressed before her.  He tossed both garments aside, paying no attention to where they fell, his eyes pinned on her.  His hands stroked firmly along the muscled expanse of his chest, finally coming to rest at the waistband of his jeans, the bulge straining at the front of that taut fabric impossible to misinterpret.  He undid the top two buttons, and the pressure lessened somewhat against his throbbing erection, the blood-engorged head just visible now through the slightly opened denim.
     Catherine watched his masculine display with an awed delight, her body trembling with a passionate ardor that hammered away at what little restraint she had left.  The bond pulsed between them, their desire a smoldering fire just on the edge of combustion.  Without thought her hand reached up to caress her bared breast, squeezing gently at the taut fullness and aching peak, a mewling cry drawn from her throat at that sensation.  Her gaze never left him and he knew that she was barely aware that she had done it, the touch she felt attributed to him, to the strength of his presence in the bond, though they were physically separated by those five endless feet.
     Vincent drew a shuddering breath in a desperate attempt to cool the hot blood pounding through him, wanting the image of her before him, wanting this erotic expectancy to build, to last.  He backed up a foot and slowly sank into his large reading chair, leaning down to slip off his boots and socks and breathing a sigh of relief as that angle temporarily eased the aching pressure building at his groin.  He stayed there for a few minutes longer, watching Catherine gently stroke the silky curve of her breast.  Then her hand cupped that soft fullness, her invitation and offer unmistakable.
     Vincent pushed himself out of the chair and went to her immediately, sinking down at her side to sit facing her once again.  He placed his hands upon the bed, not touching her, then slowly leaned forward.  His golden hair brushed tantalizingly across her ribs a second before his mouth enclosed her, the dual sensation intensely erotic.
     Catherine quivered before him, her hand holding her tender flesh for his pleasure.  Vincent held the turgid nipple gently in his mouth, the pressure on her so light as to be almost no more than a warm kiss.  He stayed still against her until a mewling cry was drawn from her and he felt her aching need through the bond.  His left arm swept around her then to hold her tight, and his tongue lapped softly against her.  Finally he moved his mouth across the straining peak, catching her quivering nipple in the cleft at the center of his upper lip over and over again in an erotic caress, deep groans pulled from her at the sensation that touch inspired.  Her words spilled out, shaking and hoarse.  "Oh, Vincent, please donít stop.  Can you possibly know how wonderful that feels?"
     "Tell me."  His voice was a husky growl, almost unrecognizable amidst the rumbling growls filling him, filling their chamber.
     "Oh, god...  Thereís nothing like your touch...nothing!  When you kiss me there, I feel the trembling sensation all the way down."  Catherine took his right hand and drew it to her abdomen, pressing it down her torso in a straight line over her quivering belly until it rested at the juncture of her thighs, the silky curls a softness he could feel even through her warm gown.  "Here, I feel it here, deep inside.  Harder, please Vincent."
     He answered her plea instantly with the strong suction of his mouth, drawing in her nipple and the surrounding, puckered flesh to suckle against her with a pulsing rhythm Catherine felt in the very depths of her silky sheath.  She pressed his hand tightly against her curly mound and through the bond he felt her deep response.
     Vincentís hand slid from beneath hers to find the hem of her gown, slipping beneath it and tracing upward quickly to slip between her thighs.  She was hot and wet, her creamy flesh throbbing insistently for him.  Gently he probed against her slick folds, slipping within her to feel the deep contractions at her feminine core, wanting to be there within her entirely, yet craving the sustaining of this erotic tension, the pleasure so intense it almost bordered on pain.  Suddenly he felt her fingers against the pulsing tip of his erection and his mouth left her momentarily as a groaning cry was pulled from him.
     Catherine stroked the straining flesh exposed, then quickly moved to undo the remaining buttons of his jeans, his surging flesh released abruptly into her hot palm.  She trailed her fingers down his steely length with a touch so soft he could barely feel it, his searching hand moving against her irresistibly in response.  When she reached the base of his thick staff, her fingers closed around him and squeezed firmly, his flesh throbbing with the hot blood filling it.
     A deep growling filled the chamber, continuous and low, and Vincentís mouth once again moved upon her, pulling her taut nipple deeply within the heat there until he felt her answering response deep in her very core.
     Catherine began to slide her hand upward in one long, slow, smooth stroke, her grip increasing in strength as she approached the flared head.  When she finally reached that lusty goal, her thumb slid up to glide along that quivering flesh, exploring him thoroughly, finally rubbing against the tiny opening at its center.  She felt his touch deepen within her to an extent he had never yet dared, and threw her head back in triumph at the sensual release she felt in him over the bond.  "Yes, Vincent...oh god, donít stop!"
     But he needed her bare flesh against him entirely now, and carefully drew his hand away from her trembling flesh, her cry echoing through the chamber at that absence.
     "No!  Please, Vincent, I need you."
     His hand rose beneath her gown until he circled her shaking shoulders, holding her to him tightly, comfortingly.  "Iím here, my love.  I wonít leave you."  Vincentís voice was low and hoarse, passion filling him completely.  He slipped the gown over her head, breaking her hold upon him, and threw it toward the foot of the bed, where it slipped to the floor unnoticed.
     Catherine was naked against him now, and he groaned in blissful satisfaction at that sweet sensation, but still it wasnít enough.  Vincent pulled away from her to quickly strip off his jeans, then rejoined her on the bed.  He slid them beneath the bedcovers and pulled her body along his full length, a shudder rushing through them both at the intense pleasure that contact inspired.
     They lay on their sides, their arms wrapped tightly about each other.  Catherine slipped her left leg over his hip until their throbbing flesh touched intimately, the sensation of that liquid heat duplicated throughout their bond.
     "You feel so good against me, Catherine.  I wonder now how I ever lived without this...without your touch."
     Her reply went straight to the heart of the words left unspoken.  "Youíll never have to live without this again, Vincent, never.  I will always be here for you, my love.  You know now, donít you...?  You have to know...how I crave your touch, the feel of you against me, in me."
     A languorous shiver moved through her and Vincent tightened his hold upon her, flushing hotly as he felt the creamy warmth of her sex pulse wetly against his own.  His erection throbbed and surged against her instantly in response and he buried his face in the curve of her neck, a loud groan pulled from his throat.  He needed to feel that wet heat surrounding him, holding him tight...he needed it now.
     One hand slid down between their bodies to guide his swelling erection to her yearning flesh.  Vincent pressed the flared head of his pulsing organ against her warmth and Catherine moaned with pleasure as her body drew him in without thought, without hesitation.  He pushed deeply within in one smooth stroke, then lay utterly still, absorbing the amazing sensation of being held so tightly, so intimately by her.  "Oh, Catherine...  Iíll never get used to this feeling...never!
     She shuddered at the fervent intensity of his words, their sensual poignancy rushing through her.  He felt that shiver move down her length until it encompassed his throbbing erection, his flesh surging and growing within her in response.  They both cried out at that erotic sensation.  "Never, Vincent, never!  Oh, god, the feel of you inside me..."
     Catherine tightened her hold upon him and tried to move her body closer to his, to increase the depth of his penetration.  She pulled her leg higher over the curve of his hip, and Vincent slid deeper within her, though they were limited by their position.  He began to move then, a shallow rocking motion that resulted in only the slightest withdrawal of his body from hers.  His rhythm was slow and steady, more comforting than seductive for now.  He felt her tensed muscles relax suddenly against him, except within her silky sheath, where she still held him tight, her bodyís response to his presence there inevitable and unalterable.
     Suddenly they found, to their amazement and delight, that tranquil pace and soothing motion brought about something neither had expected or anticipated; the temporary calming of the seething passion building in them both, a rare luxury in the midst of the tempestuous and turbulent intensity which had defined their lovemaking during the last forty-eight hours.
     A low rumble vibrated beneath her ear, from deep within his chest, and Catherine sighed in bliss.  "When you were gone...there were times when I wanted you so badly.  I tried to keep those emotions from you then, but it was so hard.  They would come upon me out of nowhere, sometimes when I was sitting in my office working, or talking to Joe."
     Catherine took his hand and drew it back to her belly, leaning her upper torso away from him slightly to make room for that touch.  She pressed his palm against the low curve where her smooth skin met silky curls and held him there tightly.  "Itís a sudden dropping away of the muscles deep inside.  It would happen out of the blue, and when it did, Iíd feel this plunging emptiness.  I wanted you there then, needed you there, to fill me, to make me complete.  Oh, Vincent..."
     She shivered against him and he drew their hands away and pulled her close once more.  His rocking motion had stilled while she spoke, his concentration focused wholly on her words, so his actions now caught her completely unaware.
     In one smooth movement Vincent rolled her to her back, his weight settling over her heavily.  His arms came to rest along the outside of her shoulders, his hands cupping her face for his fierce perusal.  He flexed his hips strongly against her, sinking deeply within her quivering body with a force that overwhelmed her entirely.
 "Oh, god!"  Catherine threw her head back and arched against him strongly, feeling him so much deeper than in their previous position.
     Vincent trembled at the strength of her response; seeing it in her eyes, hearing it in her voice, feeling it through his body and their bond.  The tranquillity of a moment ago was lost now, but he had a sudden urge to regain it again, to keep this lusty intensity at bay for a little while longer.  He wanted to watch the passion filling her, feel it growing slowly, until they were inundated completely with its irresistible force.  He held still against her, fighting the urge to begin the deep stroking motions which would bring them to the very peak of the blazing inferno awaiting them, knowing that they would teeter on the edge of that abyss for some eternity before being cast into it, to be consumed utterly by their passions.
     Finally Vincent felt the control he had been seeking.  He turned them once again, until he lay on his back, Catherine atop him.  He breathed a sigh of relief as this new position eased the pressure filling him.  She lay along his full length, her legs stretched out along his, his pulsing erection no longer reaching the depths of a moment before.  She moved slightly, and he clearly felt her intent to rise up on her knees, to straddle his hips and take him deeper within her.  His arms circled her back and held her still, his husky words whispering out to her.  "No, Catherine, not yet.  Stay like this, for just a while.  I want to feel your body against mine, feel your silky flesh holding me.  Please, Catherine, just a while longer."
     He felt her immediate capitulation as her body relaxed against his.  She stretched luxuriously along his length, rubbing the satiny skin of her legs against the silky strength of his.  Her hands rose to stroke along his biceps, caressing him soothingly, and his hold upon her loosened, his fingers and nails trailing lightly along the smooth planes of her back.  "You feel so wonderful, Vincent.  I love the feel of this silky covering over your muscled strength."
     Catherine knew she would never tire of telling him these things, and that he would crave those words, those assurances, from her always.  She rubbed her cheek against his chest, turning her face in to nuzzle against the downy fur until she reached the silky skin below.  She found a taut nipple buried there, and licked against it delicately.  The small nub puckered up and she blew against it hotly before taking it into the wet heat of her mouth to suckle upon him lustily.  With a supreme effort she kept the rest of her body still, absorbing the sensations through his trembling body and their bond.  Vincentís chest expanded beneath her and his biceps tightened within her grasp.  At that same instant she felt his erection swelling with her, a pulsing throb evident along its length.  She couldnít resist the clenching wave that traversed along her silken sheath, caressing his steely length with a quivering grip even tighter than before.  A deep groan was pulled from him at her erotic caresses, and she nipped at the tight bud beneath her, his muscles jumping in ecstatic response.
     "Oh, Catherine...donít stop, please donít stop."  Vincentís hands slid down to tighten upon her full cheeks, gripping and kneading them with a fierce pressure, his sharp nails biting into her flesh without cutting the surface, the feel of them intensely erotic.
     Catherine felt a pattern in those fevered caresses, the kneading periodically interrupted as he spread her open and pulled her down.  With each repetition of that pattern she felt his swelling erection sinking more deeply within her.
     She knew when their position was no longer enough for him, felt his craving, and her own, for a deeper penetration.  She stroked upwards along his arms and shoulders until her hands rested upon his chest.
     Vincent felt her pull her hips away from him slightly and cried out, needing to be buried completely within her silken depths.  It was only for a moment, however, while she pulled her legs up to rest upon her haunches at either side of his hips.  She pushed back strongly then until he was once more immersed in her honeyed sheath.
     The growls beneath her were growing now, filling the chamber with his erotic delight.  She leaned against his chest and sat up, pushing deeper yet against his surging erection.
     Vincent groaned loudly and writhed beneath her, arching his hips up into her, seeking her farthest reaches.
     Catherine watched him with stunned awe.  Vincentís muscles were tautly defined, the silken hair covering him darkening to a coppery hue with the heat and sweat of his passion.  His hands gripped her knees tightly, squeezing them incessantly as his head thrashed from side to side, the pale flame of his hair glimmering upon the sheets.  She stayed utterly still upon him now, waiting for him to gain the control he so desperately sought.
     Finally Vincent lay still before her, his breath panting and harsh.  He looked up at her through dark, heavy-lidded eyes, the eroticism there so intense she couldnít contain the rippling wave that gripped her, and him, deep within.  He moaned in response, his hands tightening reflexively upon her knees, his voice hoarse and shaking.  "Oh, Catherine, Catherine..."  His trembling hands slid up her thighs and along her torso until he cupped her breasts tenderly.  He caressed her slowly, loving the weight of her in his hands, the thrusting urgency of her taut peaks against his palms and fingers.
     Catherine quivered upon him, holding her body as still as she could for his loving touch.  She watched his hands intently, her hair cascading down to curtain her features within its silken fall.
     When she couldnít stop her rapturous cry, Vincentís hands left her, trailing down until they rested once again upon her shaking thighs.  He stayed there until he felt the trembling in her subside somewhat, though he knew it could not be stopped, not entirely, not now.
     His hands gently traced upward once more, this time following the taut, tender skin of her inner thighs until he reached her curly mound.  His fingers stroked along that silky spot, caressing her slowly and soothingly.  The intensity quickened within them both, however, when his touch upon her deepened, delving through the dusky curls to tenderly probe at the apex of her creamy flesh, searching for the throbbing button of her desire.  He found it easily, that knot of tissue straining ecstatically for his intimate touch.  His fingers slid into the fleshy outer folds and spread them wide, the view of her tender lips pierced by his thick erection clear before him now.  He couldnít stop the deep growl that was drawn from him then, the sight before him so sensually intimate and utterly arousing.
     Catherine couldnít resist, rising to her knees slowly as he held her open to his avid gaze. She looked down at the sight of his hands upon her and almost swooned at the sensual vision before her.  His throbbing flesh was bared to their eyes, only the flared head still nestled within her.  His pulsing erection was thick with engorged blood, and glistening with the slick, honeyed coating of her most feminine flesh.  She heard his gasping response and looked up at him.  He was staring at where their bodies joined, as he had done yesterday on her couch, an incredulous look upon his face.  She watched him intently, easily reading the thought there, the logic of it eluding him, though he well knew the reality now.
     After several long minutes, she began to sink back upon him, wanting to give him this visual confirmation of the perfection of their bodies, each for the other.  Vincentís hands shook as he continued to hold her tender lips spread wide, and she could feel the trembling of the muscles along his hips and thighs, though he held himself completely still, watching her take his thick flesh into her.
     Vincent felt her tight muscles stretch and expand, giving way before his pulsing arousal.  Finally he was buried completely within her, only the base of his throbbing stalk now visible.  He sighed in bliss as her muscles tightened about him, releasing her silky lips to massage her tenderly, feeling the caress along the sensitive base of his own sex as well.
     His hands finally rose to her waist to hold her tightly.  He tugged upward and Catherine followed immediately, his desire hers.  She began a stroking motion, at first shallow and slow, barely releasing him from her tight sheath.  His hands rested upon the curve of her hips, not guiding her so much as simply feeling that sinuous motion through his palms as well as along his quivering erection.  Little by little she rose higher above him, plunging him deeper within her with each downward stroke, the intensity and strength of her motions increasing.
     Vincent watched for a long time, until he was overcome by the sensations, his head falling back and eyes closing in ecstatic rapture.  "Yes...oh, yes.  Donít stop, Catherine, donít stop."
     Catherineís weight fell forward against his chest, her hips grinding against his with a fierce insistence.  Her mewling cries were growing, the stroking rhythm faltering with short, jagged thrusts.  His hands gripped her strongly in response, trying to reestablish the motion they both wanted...needed.  But it was impossible.  The contractions were building in pulsing waves at her core and she could no longer maintain the control necessary to keep that rhythm.
     Vincent sensed this at the exact second that she did, and rolled them over until once again his weight rested upon her, heavy and hard.  He drew his knees up to rest outside her hips, her thighs straddling his.  He pulled her legs up higher yet until they wrapped around his waist, then sank deeply within her, the angle of her body open and yearning, offering him the deepest penetration possible.  He couldnít contain the growls pulled from him then, and they echoed about the chamber with a virile strength that would not be denied.  His arms circled her back and his hands gripped the curve of her shoulders, holding her tight as he drove into her quivering flesh over and over again, their release imminent.
     Finally it was upon them.  Catherine cried out his name, and the quivering muscles of her silken sheath began a rapid, continuous convulsion, wracking him with the rolling, liquid grip that stole any control which might have remained.  His muscles expanded along every inch of his body, the sexual tension within them at the breaking point, his erection swelling and surging within her beyond anything he had experienced before.  Vincent increased the speed and strength of his thrusts against her tender flesh, his head thrown back and breath gusting mightily.  He drew in a shuddered, gasping breath and released it with a rushing roar, his body pounding against her incessantly.  She felt the release of his sperm within her, hot and pulsing.  He filled her trembling flesh, splashing against the walls of her contracting muscles to bathe her with the salty heat of his passion.
     It was as if an eternity passed as his hot flesh pulsed within her, until finally his stroking rhythm slowed and then stopped, his body collapsing upon her.  They lay together, utterly drained.  Vincent gave one small thought to moving his weight from atop her, but he had no strength left, not even for that.  Darkness stole over them, swift and complete, and they sank together into the deep, dark, soothing well of their bond.

*   *   *

     Vincent woke to a hazy warmth, the pale, comforting amber light shining lowly through the stained-glass inset at the far side of his bed.  The twenty-four hour candle behind it was the only one left lit in the chamber, and he knew it was late at night, close to four a.m.  Catherine stirred against him, and he tightened his hold upon her, a shuddering sigh breathed out at the pleasure of her in his arms.  Now, in the peaceful stillness of the night, in his own chamber, he finally began to see the full magnitude of all that had transpired during the last few weeks.
     Despite all his fears, despite all his denial, Vincent finally saw the end to his aloneness.  Catherine had told him how it would be, how it must be, and she had never wavered in her belief for what their future held.  He hadnít been able to see it, to accept such a foreign concept, not then -- it was too far beyond what he had learned to expect for his life.  But now her tender patience and love had finally won out.  He saw the inevitability of their future together and embraced it with the fullness of his entire being.
     There was much yet to be settled in this new life of theirs, but Vincent no longer questioned that destiny.  Never again would he deny his love for her, nor question hers for him.  That was done.  He would love Catherine and protect her, as he had promised her father, until the end of time and with his dying breath.  There would never be another for either of them, he knew that now.
     In the stillness of the night, while Catherine slept peacefully beside him, he made the decision which would change their lives forever.  Their love would endure, and they would be together always -- they would find a way, Vincent knew that now in the deepest part of who he was.  He drew her closer, pressed a kiss upon her brow, then joined her once again in the deep sleep and comforting bliss of their eternal bond, his thoughts drifting out to her through the gently lapping waves surrounding them.
     Forever, my love, forever...