The Soul Within
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like nature, half reveal
And half conceal the soul within.
The message over the pipes caught Lena's attention and she paused, listening intently. When it ended she peered down the side tunnel to her left, hesitation clear in her face and stance, then swung around and strode down the opposite direction towards Vincent's chamber. Mary would watch little Cathy a while longer -- she was always loathe to give her up as it was. A few minutes later she reached her objective. The soft glow emanating from the doorway lit that homey chamber entrance like a soft, welcoming beacon. She paused beside it, just out of sight, took a deep breath and with a resolute shake of her head crossed the threshold.
She was drawn into a welcoming hug, and after a momentary pause, returned it warmly. She wondered if she would ever not feel that fragile sense of amazement and comfort these familial touches, so common in the tunnel community, inspired in her. She had never experienced anything like it in her life Above, and at first had been highly uncomfortable with that open affection Below. But it was no use struggling against it. From the eldest resident to the smallest child, there was no avoiding this phenomenon. It was a powerful force, and one she found impossible to resist as time wore on. She sighed softly to herself as she thought of how her daughter's life would differ from her own. How she would never know the neglect and abuse that had been her constant companions growing up. There had been no loving touches for her, no gently stroking hand upon her brow, no tender kisses, no warm voices reading stories in the evenings, no whispered goodnights to tuck her away to sleep. Cathy had all those things, and Lena swore to herself, as she tightened her arms about the warm figure before her, that she always would. She would do nothing - nothing! - to ever jeopardize this miraculous existence for her child again. Cathy would have the loving home life that had so eluded her. At the same time a quiet voice whispered within that maybe, just maybe, she might have finally found that for herself, too.
"What is it, Lena? What's wrong?"
Catherine pulled gently away and peered anxiously at the young woman as tears welled up and spilled over. Lena wiped them away quickly, embarrassed at the strong emotions brought forth at the very thought of this simple world she now called her own. She shook her head in confusion, uncertain how to explain her odd behavior.
"It's nothing, Catherine. Don't mind me."
But Catherine waited patiently, and Lena found the words spilling out, as if she were helpless to hold them in any longer. "Do you ever feel that something is just too good to be real? That somehow it can't last? Like the most perfect dream, where you know it's a dream, and you're so afraid that in a moment you'll wake up and it will all be gone. It's like that for me, being here. And then I realize that it isn't a dream. That this is my home and everyone here is my family."
"That you'll never be alone again." Catherine added that last thought in a low, whispered voice, a far-off look in her eyes.
No one could doubt who her thoughts had flown to in that small space of time, and Lena smiled shakily at the poignant image suddenly inspired -- Vincent.
Catherine focused her gaze back on her friend, then drew her into the chamber and to the small table waiting at its center. Lena took the smaller chair, pointedly leaving Vincent's larger ornate one for Catherine.
"You're doing very well here -- Vincent is so proud of you. And little Cathy has won everyone's heart, including my own. Where is she?"
Though her tears had stopped a few minutes since, she felt an almost irresistible urge to give in to them once more. She shook herself out of that mood, though, and felt the tremulous sensations subside.
"She's with Mary. I help Brooke with her reading class now, and Mary and Olivia take turns caring for Cathy." Her tone of voice was full of both amazement and pride. Never in her wildest imagination could she have envisioned herself teaching a class of any sort, much less of youngsters just beginning to read.
"Teaching the children is the most important job Below. You're showing a real talent for it -- Father is very pleased."
Lena felt herself blushing hotly at that praise, still amazed that she was trusted with such a crucial task, especially after her rocky start at life here. That they trusted her at all, much less with their children, continually astonished her. At first she had thought to be ostracized, at least by some, well-versed in the disdain her previous occupation inspired in the world Above. But there had been none of that, none at all. The tunnels had been her home for over five months now, and so much had changed within that time that it made her dizzy just thinking about it. The first three months had been awful. She just couldn't believe or accept that this fantastic place could really be anything more than a resting stop for her, so certain was she that she would always be on the other side of the glass, looking in. The destructive cycle her life had become would certainly have claimed her again had it not been for Catherine. She had sought her out, a Manhattan debutante prowling the Lower East Side relentlessly, among hookers and thieves, all for her -- her! And there had been no resisting her emotional, heart-felt pleas -- no denying their truth.
So she had returned, dreading her first encounter there with Father and the others, especially Vincent. Vincent... What she feared never materialized. He met them at a tunnel junction close to the park, a glowing torch in one hand, her daughter in the other. In his study, Father and Mary and several of the other adults were waiting, too, with warm welcomes and a seemingly endless supply of comforting tea, despite the lateness of the hour. As was typical, shortly thereafter, when the baby was three months old, the Naming Ceremony took place. Catherine. She had known, even before she'd left the tunnels to return to that sordid life Above, that that was the name she would give to her daughter. It was a little thing, but it was all she had to return, in some small measure, all that had been given to her by her amazing new friend. Imagine that -- the debutante and the hooker, friends! She almost laughed out loud, wondering exactly when that had ceased to be such a ludicrous thought.
And these amazing events were only the beginning. Soon she had been drawn into their world fully, a true member of that close-knit community. She studied candle-making with Rebecca, pipe codes with Pascal, the maintenance and layout of the numerous public chambers with Mary, cooking with William and yes, even teaching with Brooke. This last month especially held amazing revelations for her. She had discovered strengths and talents she'd never suspected she possessed. There were many skills required for the orderly operation of this precious, hidden world, and all its inhabitants shared in them to some extent, though eventually everyone settled on two or three areas that they were especially well suited for. Though she could hardly believe it, it actually seemed to her that Father was seriously considering her as a teacher apprentice.
Another area she was strongly drawn to were the pipes. She loved the intricate music of the main pipe chamber, and now spent a good portion of her week there, mastering the complex rhythms of that unique communications method. Sometimes Pascal even let her handle a small side chain when he was short of help -- almost unheard of for someone as new to the group as she. And still there was more. Despite the time required to learn the myriad functions required to keep their community running smoothly while dealing with an intensely curious and progressively more squiggly child, she made time each week to work in another, more esoteric field. Cullen spent most of his time in heavy rock work with Kanin, carving out new chambers and halls from the miles of solid rock encompassing their world, but his real talent lay in the delicate, fine woodwork and metalcraft arts that resulted in the numerous statuettes and candleholders in virtually everyone's home chamber. He brought beauty and a gentle introspection to the tunnel denizens with his art, and that was, on average, considered even more important than the hollowed chambers that were built with the larger and clumsier tools required of that trade. Lena found herself curiously drawn to that vocation, finding a peaceful tranquillity within it that she had never before experienced. Though Cullen was often brusque and impatient with others, his love for this art was abundantly clear to her, his demeanor changing dramatically when immersed within it in his own workshop. Some of the children thought he was a little mean-tempered, but she didn't think so, not any more. He was warm and giving at heart, but held himself somewhat aloof from the others, and she thought she knew why. He was fearful of letting anyone get too close, jealously guarding his personal space as a hedge against emotional vulnerability. She could understand that all too well. They were a lot alike, she and Cullen.
Catherine's teasing voice broke through her wandering thoughts, drawing her back to the reality of the chamber surrounding her. Once again she felt herself blushing. If Catherine noticed it, though, she said nothing, calmly waiting to be told the purpose of this visit. She took a deep breath, wondering how she could possibly voice the chaotic thoughts and emotions that had been preying on her mind during the last few weeks.
"I heard the message over the pipes -- that you were Below. Vincent is several levels down, in the new chambers with Kanin and Cullen. He should be up within an hour or so."
"I know. He sent Kipper to meet me along the way."
Of course she knew. Lena had heard that message as well, some twenty minutes before Kipper's rapid staccato tapping sent out the word to Vincent in the lower levels that Catherine had been safely escorted to his chamber. It seemed quite apparent to Lena now, by the watchful waiting of Catherine's posture, that her friend suspected this was no chance meeting.
"I've been wanting to talk with you, Catherine, about..."
For a moment she didn't know how to go on. Catherine's voice jolted her from her muddled thoughts. It was clear and calm, and full of acceptance.
"You can tell me, Lena. I'll understand, believe me. I know how hard it must be to become acclimated to such a different life, even one as wonderful as this. Dramatic changes are always difficult."
"It's not that. I mean... It has been difficult, but wonderful, too. I love it here. It's... Catherine, I need to make sure you understand...about before..." She couldn't go on as a dawning look of comprehension filled Catherine's eyes.
"I do understand. You don't have to explain anything to me."
"Yes, I do. I want to. I need to make sure that everything is right between us."
She saw another subtle shift in her friend's gaze. Catherine didn't say anything then, but simply nodded, encouraging her without words.
"When you first brought me Below, I didn't know what to think. It was as if I'd stumbled into a fairytale, with magic waiting for me behind every corner. I didn't see Vincent for the first few days, but I heard of him -- often. I knew, from all I'd heard, that he had to be the most magical thing of all, though I couldn't even begin to imagine what that might mean. I heard his voice first, before I ever saw him."
Lena spoke in a hushed whisper, her own memories directed inward, and never noticed the fleeting expression which crossed Catherine's face. Her eyes were luminous, suddenly wet with unshed tears. Her lips curved slightly upward, a tremulous intensity there that was barely visible in detail, but clear in the overall emotions suddenly engulfing her. It was almost a smile, and yet somehow not. Filled with an equal measure of both sorrow and joy, it silently communicated a poignant understanding.
"I stumbled upon him by accident, and knew right away that it had to be him, though he sat with his back to me. He tried to leave, to not let me see him, but somehow I managed to convince him to stay, to show me his face." Her voice broke then, full of astonishment and wonder. "Oh, Catherine, I'd never seen anyone as beautiful as Vincent!"
As before, Lena didn't notice Catherine's reaction, didn't see the painful flinching response at those words, and wouldn't have known what they could possibly mean if she had. When she looked up at her a moment later, Catherine's face was once again calmly composed. She didn't recognize the quivering lines of tension along the planes of her face, but they were there nonetheless, as Catherine struggled to close off her growing sense of dismay from Vincent.
"He is everything I'd never expected to find in a man."
"You were vulnerable, Lena, and Vincent was there for you. It would have been astonishing if you hadn't developed strong feelings for him under those conditions. It was the same with me." Her voice sank lower and her gaze became unfocused, her thoughts clearly on that time just over two years ago. "When he came to me again...when I began to feel the growing connection between us..."
Her words tapered off entirely then as she lost herself in the sensations of their bond. The intense emotions generated there filled her strongly now in this moment of fierce concentration on him. Lena watched that transition with a growing sense of wonder and not a little envy. What she wouldn't give to share that tie with another, to feel a connection that bound her, heart to heart and soul to soul, with the one who would make her life complete. She swallowed hard at the image that thought brought forth, struggling mightily to get her feelings under control once more. Finally she was successful. Her words broke through Catherine's reverie.
"No, not the same. What you have is special, Catherine. No matter how much I imagined that I could make him happy, I know now how wrong I was. Nothing could replace what you share. Nothing and no one. You were right. I just... I just needed someone. Someone who could make me believe that everything that had come before meant nothing. That everything ahead of me was new and untainted by my past. I know he cares for me, but only as a friend. There was never a chance for there to be anything between us, and I'm ashamed that I even tried such a thing. I know you've forgiven me, Catherine, but I can't forgive myself. I can't stop thinking about it -- how I went to him that night, how I betrayed your friendship and trust..."
Catherine froze in stunned stillness at those last words, her eyes opened wide in shocked surprise. This time Lena didn't miss her response, and stopped abruptly.
"You didn't know." The words were almost but not quite a question. "I thought... I was sure Vincent had told you." She jumped up from her chair in agitation, but Catherine remained sitting, almost motionless. "Nothing happened, Catherine, please believe me!"
"I believe you, Lena."
Despite her distress over this disclosure, Catherine managed to keep her voice calm and steady, and Lena finally sat down to face her once more. Catherine sat still before her, asking nothing about that night, but Lena understood that she wanted to know, yet couldn't bring herself to ask. The conflict was plain upon her face, and Lena sighed with resignation. This had been a mistake. In trying to assuage her own feelings of guilt she had only transferred her pain to another, to one who had done nothing but ease her suffering throughout those first few months. Perhaps it was destiny, though, a new thought suddenly intruded. Perhaps Catherine was meant to be the healing force in her life, painful though that might be for them both. It was the hardest thing of all, and one she still struggled with daily here Below. Giving help was something she had little experience with Above, but it was not a concept completely foreign to her. Taking help when needed, indeed asking for that help, was another thing altogether. It was the most difficult lesson of all in this new life of hers. Now that she had reminded herself of the central theme of her new home, though, she forced herself to move ahead.
"It was just before the Naming Ceremony, at the very end of March. Vincent had been gone for some time, I don't know where exactly. Pascal said to some river without a name, far below. You weren't there, and with Vincent gone... I felt so alone, Catherine, so out of place. Everyone was kind to me. They tried to make me feel like one of them, but I couldn't believe that it was true -- not then. When he came back everything changed. Poor Vincent. I followed him around like a puppydog. He was my anchor in this new world, and I thought... I thought I loved him, and that maybe, just maybe, he could love me. I was an outsider, and I knew that he understood. And so one night I went to him, to offer him all I thought I had to give -- myself."
Lena paused then and searched Catherine's face intently, noting the pallor of her skin, the slight trembling of her mouth, and the sparkling tears even now wetting her lashes as she blinked furiously to hold them at bay. Tears welled up and spilled over her own cheeks at the pain she saw there. Her fault. It was all her fault. But there was no stopping now, that would only make it worse. She had to tell her everything and then perhaps they could finally put this all behind them.
"I didn't know any other way, Catherine. My life before... It was all I knew."
Her voice was brittle and hollow sounding, pain and regret both present there.
"He was sleeping, but he must have heard me and woke. He looked so surprised, so shocked. I sat beside him on the bed and I told him how I felt, told him how we could make each other happy. How...how I could be there for him, beside him in this world."
Catherine couldn't stop the gasp of pain that escaped her then, and Lena covered her clasped hands resting upon the table with her own. The trembling there could not be hidden. She spoke urgently now, desperate to ease the pain her words had inspired.
"I didn't know! I didn't know how it was between you, the way you had chosen to live your lives, the necessity of it all. And I didn't really understand about your Bond -- not then. When you went back Above after your father died, I just assumed that... No, that's not true. I knew how much you loved him, and how he loved you. No one could live here Below and not see that. I just didn't want to believe it."
She stared at her friend, willing her to believe her next words, though she thought how little reason she must have to trust her now, after this.
"Nothing happened, Catherine, nothing. He sent me away."
Even now, she couldn't completely hide the bitterness in her voice at that memory. But she swallowed that emotion, and felt it recede, felt it fading away, the pain lessening moment by moment, now that she had finally spoken of it to Catherine. She watched her friend anxiously, desperate to know that the lessening of her own pain wasn't merely the transferring of it to the pale woman beside her. They were both crying now, and she held herself stiffly still, wondering what would happen next. Had she ruined everything? Was their friendship lost, destroyed beyond repair?
"He loves you, Catherine, only you, and I know he'll never love another."
The still form beside her suddenly moved and she was enveloped in a tight hug. They cried together and held each other tight, and it was Catherine who uttered the comforting and soothing words both so needed to hear.
"It's all right. Everything will be all right."
* * *
Catherine paced restlessly about the dimly lit chamber, holding her emotions fiercely in check. Vincent's physical recovery from that feverish illness of a month ago had been rapid, but his emotional state was still somewhat fragile. She was determined not to let this incident impede the progress he'd made in the last few weeks. Everything had been resolved between them and Lena had left some minutes since. Catherine's mind was now occupied entirely with Vincent. Despite the control she exerted to keep her tumultuous emotions contained, she felt a dull pressure building in her chest like a fist pressing against her heart. The thought of that intimate encounter, painful though it must have been for them both, was burning through her. She and Vincent had never ventured into that territory -- not directly. She had tried to discuss it, several times, but he had always adroitly turned the conversation away from that rocky terrain and on to safer, less satisfying subjects. Once, while she was Below after her father's death, they had come close. They spoke of their dream then, and its potential. Catherine thought -- but wasn't absolutely sure, even now -- that for once they meant the same thing, that this 'happy life' they both yearned for was something more than a cerebral, ethereal connection between two souls. They had been closer than ever after that, until Lisa's return. Why was it always two steps forward and three steps back for them?!
A bitter grimace flickered across her face for a moment at the irony of it all. Vincent had led a solitary life, convinced that love and family could be found only in the platonic and familial surroundings of his tunnel world. He had closed off all hopes and dreams for anything beyond that, until he found her. The bond between them made it impossible to ignore what she meant to him, what they meant to each other, yet he still refused to accept it. And now, despite that monkish existence and past, two women's paths had crossed his own, one from his youth, and another new and unexpected, casting them both into an emotional upheaval. Lena and Lisa -- ironic indeed. Even their names were strangely similar. It had been such a struggle to break through to him after Lisa. Despite her words of love and commitment, Catherine knew she had not completely eradicated the pain he still felt from the memory of that long ago event. The pain and shame he felt afterwards was thickly present between them, and he had been unable to face her for some time, until...
The memory flooded through her then. Vincent's return from that nameless river and their odd meeting with Kristopher must have just preceded the event Lena described. Within two days it was all over; Lena found and returned and her daughter named in the traditional tunnel ceremony. Three days after that she and Vincent had celebrated their second anniversary, and that night another danger found them in the guise of a psychotic stalker, watching them both. Looking back on the last two months, Catherine shook her head in stunned bewilderment. So much pain, so much despair. Lisa's return, coupled with the growing closeness between them, had brought the taboo topic of those more intimate needs to a dangerous head. It had begun to take an emotional and physical toll on him -- Catherine saw that clearly now, in retrospect. She saw now that it had really begun shortly after Lena's move Below, though she was not the impetous for the chain of events set in motion at that time. It burst upon her with sudden clarity -- Michael...it had been that painful, emotionally charged, innocent event with Michael from which all else flowed.
It was like something out of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', though this version was dark and grim, and totally without humor, she thought. She and Michael, Vincent and Lisa, and then, finally, the strange interrelated ties that bound Catherine and Vincent to the newest tunnel waif -- Lena. Add to that several closely spaced, dangerous situations both Above and Below, along with the resultant loss of control suffered by Vincent because of them, then the physical and mental breakdown he'd experienced last month seemed all too easy to understand. She was amazed, looking back on it all now, that she hadn't seen the intricate ties of those events. It all seemed so clear now, so clear. Thank god that illness, intense though it was, had been of short duration and now seemed over and done with.
Her stunned musings were broken suddenly by the presence of Kipper in the entrance, his approach completely unheard by her. She shook off the effects of that revelation and focused her attention on him as fully as she was capable of in that moment -- which wasn't much, all things considered.
"I'm sorry, Kipper, my mind is wandering today. Do you have a message from Vincent for me?"
She didn't need to see his nod to know that it was so; his expression told her that instantly.
"Yes. He and the others were delayed with a problem. He said to tell you it's nothing serious, but it may be another hour or so until they get back. He wants to know if you can wait for him."
The poignant, unintentional wording, so close on the heels of her upsetting discovery, made her heart ache.
"Of course I'll wait. I've got the whole weekend free. Tell him... Tell him I'm staying right here -- that I'm not going anywhere."
She hoped he would use those words exactly, though there was no way to ensure it without revealing more than she cared to the youth waiting so trustingly before her.
"I'll tell him."
She blushed suddenly at his knowing glance, sure he had missed nothing in her words or expression. Before she could think of a reply, he was gone. She stood in the center of the room for some moments after, emotionally drained from the tumultuous musings of the last half hour. She was suddenly exhausted. An hour -- she had at least an hour before he returned. She could go finagle a mid-afternoon snack of cookies and tea from William, or she could seek out Rebecca for a cozy visit, or... Her gaze was drawn to the seductive expanse of Vincent's bed, the rumpled mix of textures and patterns there intensely appealing. After a moment's hesitation she toed off her sneakers, took a quilt off the shelf running along the head of the bed and climbed in, shaking it out to cover her reclining form. The warm scent of him engulfed her and within minutes she was fast asleep.
* * *
A swirling fog surrounded her, but little by little it began to clear. Within moments she found herself standing in Vincent's chamber. It was dimly lit, and all about her was utter quiet. Even the pipes were still. She turned around and her gaze immediately found him, asleep in his bed. Oh god... He was so beautiful, so relaxed and vulnerable, so supremely masculine in this unguarded moment. She wasn't sure exactly what it was he wore, and couldn't spare much attention to focus on it. She only saw that it had some sort of thonged tie near his collar and that it was undone now, allowing the thin fabric to gape open, exposing the broad expanse of his muscular chest to her hungry eyes. She wanted to move closer to him, to touch him, to stroke the silky softness coating him, but found herself suddenly unable to move. He stirred, turning his head in her direction, and for a brief moment she was sure that motion was due to the bond, that he was ever aware of her presence, whether sleeping or awake. A moment after that, though, a flickering image from her peripheral vision caught her attention. Someone else was in the chamber with them! She tried to cry out to Vincent, to warn him, but her voice remained silent and so, too, it seemed, did their bond. The figure moved past her mute form and merged directly into her line of sight. Lena. She wore a thin tunnel gown and had something loosely wrapped about her shoulders, perhaps a shawl of some sort or a soft woven throw. Though she stood before her, there could be no doubt as to where her gaze was pinned. Catherine glanced hurriedly past Lena's waiting stillness and saw that Vincent was stirring, his keen hearing no doubt picking up the almost silent presence in his chamber. He went from deep sleep to wide awake in a heartbeat, and sat up partially on his elbow, scanning the chamber completely before focusing upon his unexpected visitor.
"Lena, what is it? Is something wrong?" Though he was clearly awake, his voice was still husky with the residual dregs of sleep.
Lena shook her head and took the final two steps forward to sit beside him on the bed. He looked startled and shocked by that move and leaned back a little, almost as if he were pulling away from her.
She hadn't yet spoken, and didn't do so in that first moment, instead lifting one hand to rest her fingers against his lips in a silencing motion. Finally she spoke.
"Shhh, Vincent. I need to tell you something."
He looked intensely uncomfortable, but was silent, waiting for her to continue. Catherine watched the tableau before her with a growing sense of shock and disbelief. 'Don't do it, Lena, please, no...' The small voice whispered inside, but could find no outlet, no way to be heard. She struggled mightily now, trying desperately to move, to cry out, to do anything, anything that would stop this scene from unfolding. But she was helpless, frozen in place in this odd moment. Was it their bond or simply a dream? She had no idea. She only knew it felt intensely real, and she waited now with an odd sense of resignation and a suffocating anxiety. Despite that resignation though, the words in her mind continued to repeat themselves in a whispered lyric, the plea directed alternately to Lena, then to Vincent, then back to Lena again, her mind unable to separate and make sense of what she saw here, in this beloved chamber.
Despite her words, Lena sat silent and still beside him, her hand tenderly stroking along his cheek, sometimes lightly brushing against his silky upper lip. Vincent, too, remained still. The moment drew on, taut with tension. Finally there was motion. Lena leaned slowly toward him, her intent plain. Catherine gasped in shock -- he wasn't pulling away. Instead his eyes lowered to focus on her lips, his half-closed lids suddenly giving him a languorous and seductive look -- a look Catherine had craved to inspire in him all too often herself. The words in her head built to an excruciating, rushing whirl, a whimpering moan of anguish aching to escape.
'No...no. Don't do it, Vincent, please no...'
"No, don't Vincent. Don't do it, please!"
Her words found voice, a pleading cry of sorrow that escalated to a keening wail.
"Catherine, wake up! Catherine!"
She heard his voice first, then felt strong hands holding her shoulders, shaking her awake with an urgent yet somehow tender force. Her eyes flew open and he was there, sitting beside her. She quickly scanned about the room, anxiously peering into each dim nook and cranny. His chamber, yes, but there was no one else here, only she and Vincent...only them. As those words formed in her head, a sudden bloom of relief expanded within her. Thank god, it was only a dream...only a dream. The discussion with Lena came back to her then with crystal clarity and her burgeoning relief burst within her, leaving a taste of bitter ashes in her mouth. She fell forward against his chest, desperate for his comforting closeness despite the anxiety that still lingered over this afternoon's revelation from Lena, but found herself pushed back, his touch gentle but firm. He rose from the edge of the bed, moved to the far side of the center table and toyed with a candle cluster there, but didn't light it. He wasn't pacing, but his motions were somehow jerky and stiff and completely lacking the panther-like grace that was almost always present. Finally he stood still, near the wall almost completely opposite from her, at the outer periphery of the chamber. Five feet to his right, directly across from the foot of the bed, hung the picture Kristopher had painted of them, and she was struck by the severe contrast of his image now and that of the one portrayed on the canvas. In the painting he held her with a supremely masculine confidence, possession inherent in his stance, expression and embrace. His pose now was almost the exact antithesis. With only one candle lit, and that one upon the bedside table, it was quite dim where he stood, and he was almost completely hidden in shadows. He wasn't wearing his cloak, and yet his motionless figure blended in perfectly with the camouflage of the darkly shadowed rock wall curving about him, muted colors of earth, rock and night blending with the russet, copper and burnished gold shades of his hair, skin and clothing.
"Are you all right, Catherine?" His voice was low and almost completely emotionless.
Though she typically thought of the bond as silent on her end, she knew this wasn't really so. When it made itself plain to her, it was often in the abrupt absence of a sensation that had somehow subconsciously become recognizable to her as Vincent. She felt that absence now, his presence so still within her that it made her heart ache. She stared intently into the darkened corner, trying to make out anything at all of his features while clamping down tightly on her own growing emotions, the resolution of an hour ago uppermost in her mind.
"I'm fine. I decided to take a nap while I waited for you and had a bad dream. I guess I'm just not used to sleeping during the day." She tried to make her words and tone light, but they sounded weak, even to her own ears. She tried to relax, but it was impossible, his quiet stillness speaking volumes.
"What...what was your dream about, Catherine?"
The steadiness of his voice slipped a little, and she thought she heard a tremor there. She hurried to reassure him, wandering what he could be thinking of.
"It was nothing. You know, just those odd images and scenes that make no sense when you're dreaming them and disappear when you wake." She managed to speak casually, slipping her legs over the bed and sitting up to face him more fully. "Are you through with the work in the lower levels? Do you have the rest of the day free?"
He made no response and her heart sank. Something was wrong -- something was very wrong. Finally he spoke.
"On my way to you I could feel your dreaming emotions through the bond. You were shocked and frightened. You... You were in pain. When I got here, just before you woke up, you said something. You said 'Vincent, no, don't.'"
His voice broke completely then, and his hand tightened into a fist, pressing against the center of his chest. But he didn't stop there, forcing his next words out with a palpable effort.
"What did I do in your dream? Tell me, Catherine, please."
The meaning behind his words coalesced and settled about her heart in a solid ball of anguish, shock and dismay. She jumped from the bed and moved quickly toward him, but froze abruptly when he stepped back from her in response. Her eyes filled with tears and she reached out toward him beseechingly, desperate to dispel those ugly thoughts.
"No! Please, don't think that. Never, you could never hurt me, you must know that!"
He turned away from her then, his hands pressing against the cold stone wall, and she barely heard his low whispered words.
"I don't know that."
She thought her heart would break.
"I know! Please, Vincent, please believe me!" She was crying in earnest now, tears of pain and sorrow that would not be stopped. She couldn't help herself then, moving close to him and reaching out a trembling hand to his tension-filled shoulder. He flinched away from her as if her touch burned.
"Please, don't touch me."
She stood frozen, a shocked, aghast look upon her face. They were the same words he'd spoken just over a month ago, in the early stages of the emotional chaos which had consumed him so fiercely. Shame filled her at the thought of what he'd endured in his dreams during that time. Dark and full of death, her own this day was nothing by comparison. Everything had come to a head in that deep cavern, far below the home tunnels. She was with him when he collapsed, and for a few infinitely long minutes she could find no heartbeat. Her hands had moved feverishly over him then, desperate to feel the life spark in him, certain that life was impossible for either of them without the other. That rhythm had returned suddenly, strong and steady, and for the next few minutes, while he lay vulnerable in her arms, she hadn't been able to resist touching him, reassuring herself that their bond still existed, and they within it. It had been such a luxury, that touch, for once unrestrained.
The memory coursed through her while her hand remained suspended, lifted yearningly toward him. The flashback ended abruptly and her hand dropped heavily to her side, as if it had lost all the will which had previously animated it. An endless minute passed before she spoke again, and when she did her voice was flat and somehow barren.
"I was standing where you are now, in the shadows, watching you sleep. It was as if I were frozen in place -- I couldn't move."
He didn't look at her, but she saw his shoulders tense at those words.
"You started to wake up, and at first I thought it was because you sensed me there, that you sensed me through our bond...but I was wrong. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone else come into the chamber. It was Lena."
He turned to face her then, a shocked expression on his face, and something else that was not quite definable. She ignored what she saw, and went resolutely on.
"You woke, and she went to sit beside you on the bed. She stroked your cheek and leaned in toward you..."
Her voice broke then, a breathy gasp that couldn't be contained.
"She wanted to kiss you, and you...you were going to let her."
She interrupted him, a tinge of accusation in the previously emotionless tone of her voice. Her words were considerably more animated now, and Vincent watched her with a growing sense of dismay and anxiety.
"I tried to make her stop, to make you stop. I tried and tried to cry out, to make you hear me, but you didn't. You didn't even know I was there!"
Tears trickled down her cheeks, but she seemed totally oblivious to them, staring at him with a yearning pain. He tried once more, but again got no further than her name before she stopped him.
"I know about that night, Vincent. Lena told me this afternoon."
His face, his voice, his whole demeanor was one of consternation.
"Nothing happened, Catherine, you must know that."
Her face crumpled, and a small sob escaped her.
"I know nothing happened, just as you knew when Michael kissed me. It doesn't change how I feel now." Shame burned through her, and she finally dropped her face into shaking hands.
"Tell me how you feel. Let me help."
She realized then that despite the loss of her restraint, her emotions were too chaotic and complex for him to make sense of. She shook her head, her face still hidden from him, desperately wishing she could spare him the tumultuous blend of sensations engulfing her; sorrow, anger, bitterness and shame. She knew it was impossible though, not now.
"Tell me, Catherine, please." She heard the break in his voice and it drew her from her own pain, just a little. Her gaze met his and she could no longer contain the words she'd held back for so long.
"It should have been me, not Lena. There's so much you hold back from me, so much I want, and yet we never speak of it. I pretend it doesn't exist, this desire I feel for you, because that's what you need from me, but it's not fair, it's not..." She stared imploringly up at him, her gaze entreating with a luminous intensity. "Lena didn't hide what she felt for you. I know it wasn't your choice, but she still shared something with you that I've been denied. I envy her that. It should have been me, Vincent...it should have been us."
The air was thick with tension and pain she could see him struggling with what she said, trying to find some way to resolve these bitter emotions churning within her.
"Why, Vincent? Why can't I tell you how I feel? Why won't you listen to me?"
For a moment she thought he wasn't going to answer, that he couldn't, but finally he spoke.
"Because I love you." His voice was aching and hoarse. "Because I want you."
She was speechless with amazement. She couldn't believe he was saying those words -- speaking of both love and need together -- but he didn't stop there.
"I've learned to live with denial all my life, from the time I was old enough to realize that I could never go Above except by cover of night. There were things I missed, things I yearned for, but nothing -- nothing -- prepared me for the sense of loss I felt when I truly knew what it meant to love you -- and knew, too, that I could never have you."
"I love you so much, Catherine, so much."
Tears coated the silky down of his cheeks and Catherine's stillness ended. She surged forward and wrapped her arms around him tight, her pain forgotten in the presence of his own. He stood stiffly before her for a single second, then a shuddering gasp escaped him and his arms encircled her slim body. He grasped her to him, pulling her intimately close to his shaking length, so close she felt the desperation in the trembling muscles of his body as well as in the taut connection of their bond. Sobs shook her frame, her tears joining his. They rained down in a seemingly endless supply. His hands stroked urgently along her back while he nuzzled against the crown of her silky hair, needing to comfort her, mindless of his own distress.
"Don't cry, Catherine, please don't cry."
His lips brushed her temple, and a electric spark jumped between them when he touched the salty wetness of her cheek. He paused for a moment only, then kissed her again, taking the tears from her face and the pain from her heart. His lips moved feverishly now, kissing her pale cheeks and lowered lids until suddenly she felt the silky softness of them against the quivering corner of her own mouth. They both froze and she could feel his heart racing, feel his pulsing breath, hot and powerful, blending with her own. Through the layers of his clothing she clearly felt his arousal, and when he didn't pull away she pressed closer yet, needing this intimate touch from him, a feverish desire building seemingly from out of nowhere. The emotions surging within her suddenly burst free, swirling to join with his in a triumphant crescendo of blazing heat. The bond opened to her fully and she gloried in the ecstasy of their shared passion, finally released.
"Kiss me, Vincent, please kiss m..."
His lips covered hers with a fierce urgency and rapture exploded through their bond. When he pulled away she stared up at him in a haze, her eyes silvery gray beneath half-closed lids. His own were dark and brilliant and filled with a wild mix of conflicting emotions. She saw a shocked confusion there, and a breathless yearning, but despite that slight glimmer of hope, he released her abruptly and stepped back, putting both a physical and emotional distance between them once again. In that same instant the sensations from their bond disappeared and suddenly she knew. It wasn't that she was incapable of feeling the effects of the bond as Vincent did, it was that he had purposely withheld the stronger currents of that vibrant stream from her. Her emotions plummeted, a sickening nausea burning through her.
"No..." She backed away from him, a stunned, stricken look of dawning awareness on her face. "How could you, Vincent? How could you?!"
There was a desperate urgency in his voice, and his hands reached out to her, but she turned and fled the chamber blindly, tears streaming down her cheeks. At the juncture where Vincent's side tunnel met the main she paused, but only for a moment. She turned left and took a path they had traveled together many times. There were several confusing twists and turns enroute to this place from the hub, but she knew them well now and had even found it once alone, inordinately pleased with herself over that accomplishment. She found it again this day, instinct guiding her unerringly toward that comforting spot.
* * *
No music wafted down from Above this afternoon. Instead she heard the summer sounds so typical for a June day in Central Park; the laughter of children, the smooth rush of rollerblades and the barking of dogs as they strolled with their masters bringing to mind an instant picture of the scenery up top. She stared up through the grate, remembering the times they had shared here. The evening when they'd listened to Schubert's unfinished symphony, made shorter still by a sudden thunderstorm. She saw the look of surprise on his face give way to undisguised pleasure as she knelt in playful supplication beneath the torrenting rain. When she'd fallen into his arms, soaked to the skin, he held her tight and pulled her close, for once unable to resist the emotional demands of their bond.
She had felt their combined emotions so clearly in those moments, and for quite a few after. Her recognition of the bond was typically so sporadic, and had been lessened so gently that night, that she'd never realized it had been consciously done by Vincent. Until now.
Hard on the heels of that memory came another, this one darker and even more emotionally chaotic. It had happened just over four weeks ago. Vincent was supposed to meet her at the threshold, but he never came. There had been no message sent and so she'd decided to go directly to the music chamber and wait for him there. She shuddered as images and sounds came back from her that night. He'd finally arrived, and so engrossed was she in the music that at first she hadn't noticed his growing agitation. With eyes closed to absorb the magical notes from above, it was a sudden surging of the bond that communicated the urgent message that something was drastically wrong. She'd tried to talk to him, but it was as if he neither hear nor comprehend what she said. He stared at her intently, as if searching for something and she knew now that that had been his first realization that the connection between them was breaking. It had never really been gone at all, of course, but only closed off on his end, done subconsciously as a protective measure for her, or so both Father and Peter thought. The three of them had discussed it one evening two weeks after his collapse -- just two weeks ago. By then he was almost fully recovered from that ordeal, the bond restored once again to its full power.
At least for him, she thought bitterly.
His voice was soft and hesitant, and the sensations inspired now, as he stood behind her, were suddenly reminiscent of another time several months before. She turned to him slowly.
"I wonder if I'll ever not be surprised to see you standing there."
Her words should have been inexplicable under the current circumstances, but she could see from his expression that he understood them immediately, as she'd known he would.
"I said those words to you the night you came to my balcony, after Lisa returned Above. I didn't know then that it was your doing. That you were purposely closing off your own emotions to our bond."
She didn't really need confirmation from him, but she saw it nonetheless in his tortured expression of guilt and shame.
"You let me believe that the bond was something I could never feel as strongly as you, but it's not true, is it? It's always been there equally for both of us. You just kept it from me. Why, Vincent? How could you do that to me?"
"I did it for you, Catherine." His words burst out, rapid and hoarse. "There are things about me, dark things, that you need to be protected from. I've tried to tell you, but you refuse to listen."
He hadn't moved from his spot at the entrance, but he leaned toward her imploringly and she felt the force behind his words. More importantly she felt a trickle through the bond as if a crack had formed through which his emotions escaped. They flickered in and out, and she knew that he was still trying desperately to hold his deepest feelings from her. She shook her head in sorrow and pain.
"No. I know you think you're protecting me, but it's not true. Don't you see? It's you who can't deal with what lies between us, what's still left unresolved. You're not protecting me, Vincent, you're protecting yourself. Our connection is growing stronger. It's drawing us together, where we both need to be, but you're resisting, closing yourself off from me and bottling up those emotions deep inside. That's what caused you to be so ill last month, and it will happen over and over again until you stop. Please Vincent, you've got to stop. You've got to let me help you. I'm what you need -- we need each other. Don't withhold the bond from me any longer. Please."
While she spoke she opened her emotions to him completely, letting him feel the full strength of her words and all they meant to her, no longer hiding the component of desire that was ever-present but usually buried deep beneath her other emotions, held back from their bond. He wasn't the only one who had done damage in the name of protection, she realized with a sinking sensation of guilt. In an instant she saw that he understood it all, yet the confusion evident upon his face kept him speechless for yet a little while longer. She knew he wanted to comfort her, to deny that she was in any way responsible for the isolation of his own wants and needs, but he still couldn't face what would be brought into the open by that declaration -- the tacit admission of their desire and need for each other. She knew he was searching desperately for a way to accomplish the first without touching upon the second.
"No, Catherine, it's not you, you're not responsible. I've always known what my own limitations were, I just didn't know how difficult it would be, loving you."
Tears sprang to her eyes once more at the poignancy of his words and expression, so despairing of hope. Suddenly a fierce surge of anger filled her, for a moment displacing all else. It was directionless, but no less severe for all that. She wanted to throw something, to hit something, to find someone to blame for it all. She wished Father were here. At that last thought her anger subsided as quickly as it had appeared. No, much as she would have liked to blame him for all the pain they had endured, she knew that was too simple a solution. Oh, he had done more than his share in instilling those fears in his son, but she knew Vincent's own deeply introspective nature, combined with the disturbing differences he so easily perceived between himself and his tunnel family were more than enough, on their own, to ensure that he would impose an extreme degree of isolation and restraint on his emotions and impulses as he matured, especially after that damaging incident with Lisa almost twenty years ago.
She had to make him understand.
"I am responsible, at least in part. I shouldn't have tried to hide my feelings from you. If I had insisted upon our discussing this, even a few months ago, you might not have endured what you did last month. Please Vincent, won't you trust me?"
"I do trust you, Catherine. But what I feel for you..." He shook his head in pain and sorrow. "I don't trust myself."
He was trembling with the force of that admission, and in the past she would have pulled back and given him an out, but not now, not today.
"Desire can be frightening. In its purest form it's an emotion meant to overwhelm, to eclipse all else. What you're feeling is normal, Vincent."
The trickling stream of his emotions had widened further, though she could see it was not by his conscious intent. She pushed him relentlessly and he was finding it harder and harder to hold the bond closed, his distress and agitation growing with each moment's discourse.
"Normal?" His voice was suddenly harsh and raspy and filled with pain. "These feelings of mine are not 'normal'! If you knew what I felt, what I've thought in my moments of weakness, you would be disgusted and repulsed. You would be frightened. You should be frightened."
"No! There is nothing you could want from me that I have not wished to give you a thousand times over. Nothing."
Despite the fervency of her words, she could see that he didn't believe her, that he couldn't imagine her desire was in any way related to his own. She saw it clearly, and knew there was only one way to convince him. She moved forward and slipped her arms around him, molding her body along his own shaking length. His arms hung down at his side impassively, but he didn't pull away from her. She nuzzled against his throat and neck, moving upward beneath his hair until she found his ear. Her lips pressed against him and he shuddered violently, even before she spoke, her voice a low, throaty whisper.
"There's nothing I have not desired of you, Vincent. My dreams are full of you, hot and hard, loving me completely. You touch me everywhere - everywhere - with your hands, your mouth, your body. I've pressed my naked breasts against the silky roughness of your chest and felt your muscled thighs urging me open to you, felt the solid strength of your hips as I wrapped my legs about you, offering you everything. I've felt your nails trailing lines of fire along my body, igniting my senses until there is nothing left but you and me and our need for each other. In my dreams you kiss me with a fierce passion that knows no bounds. You give me pleasure so intense I can barely stand it, and you allow me to return that pleasure. You let me touch you and kiss you, withholding nothing from me. I've felt your desire for me, full and tight and pulsing with hot blood, and I can barely stand the waiting then, that emptiness inside me that craves to be filled by you, my love, only you. If I told you of the ways I've dreamt of us making love, you would be shocked. In my dreams sometimes our love is sweet and slow, and full of tenderness, and sometimes it's hard and fast, driven completely by fierce, urgent desires. I've dreamt of us making love in every way you could possibly imagine and in almost every spot we've shared together Above and Below; in my apartment and in your chamber, beside the mirror pool and in the Great Hall, upon the stairs along the Abyss, on my balcony and at our threshold. In my dreams we've made love here, with the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach drifting down over us."
He stood frozen in stunned silence while she whispered those seductive, erotic words into his ear, and she knew he was indeed shocked by the images she described, but more than that he was astonished and incredulous at her verbalization of them. The last reference especially made an impact, wedding her dreams to the solid reality surrounding them. His breath came in harsh pants and he shook as if in a windstorm -- she clearly felt his swelling erection pressing against her belly. This time he did try to pull away, a gasp of dismay jolted from him, but her arms tightened about his waist and she followed, pressing even tighter against the growing evidence of his desire for her.
"No, don't. Please don't hide from me any longer. I need to know that you want me as much as I want you. Kiss me, Vincent. Let go of the bond and share your feelings with me."
He trembled violently, not moving for what felt like an eternity, but suddenly his hands closed about her upper arms and with a dizzying swirl of motion she felt herself turned and pressed back against the rocky wall, his eyes locked intently to hers. He stared down at her, a veiled intensity in his gaze she found impossible to read. He controlled them both now, but the bond was still contained and he touched her not at all except where he held her arms. Despite that, however, his body encompassed her completely. He surrounded her, his forearms resting against the wall, the edges of his cloak draping about both of them together, and she shivered with anxiety and anticipation, uncertain what would follow next. He might just as easily be using this moment of domination to regain his own faltering control. It was true that he still held tightly to the bond on his end, but it was a tenuous hold and the crack there had widened considerably. She own breath was shallow and fast, as if she couldn't pull enough oxygen in to survive. But she couldn't even try to control that now. Now all her efforts were focused on the the burgeoning bond and she grasped at the wild stream of his intense emotions, desperate to gather them into herself and become one with them. She couldn't imagine how it would feel when those sensations were released to her entirely, but oh, how she craved that moment. She wanted it with a bottomless desire that would not let her rest. He had to share this with her, he had to! She didn't know how she could go on without this astonishing blend of emotions that was she and Vincent together in the bond.
All introspection ended abruptly as she saw his gaze drift down from her eyes to rest upon her lips. Oh god... She recognized that look. It was the same one seen in her oh-so-recent dream, only now it was directed at her, only her. How could she have ever imagined it could be any other way?! Then that thought, too, flew away as he slowly leaned in toward her, his intent plain. His lips brushed hers tenderly with a touch so light she barely felt it. The pressure of this kiss was exactly the opposite of that fleeting but fierce one he had taken from her in his chamber shortly ago, and with a flash of insight she realized that he needed to move slowly if he was to move forward at all. He needed to know that his desires would not take all control from him. He needed to know that he wouldn't hurt her.
A sigh escaped her and she felt his response to the sensation of that warm air gusting against his own lips through the sudden tightening of his hold upon her arms. That grip loosened again almost immediately, confirming her speculation on his hesitancy now. He pulled back from her slowly and she held her breath, desperately hoping he wouldn't stop and leave her. A moment later she released it with a rush as she felt his lips press against the pulse at the side of her throat. He nuzzled there for a few minutes and she felt it quicken, felt hot blood shuddering through her body in a heated rush of passion in response to his touch. She squirmed against the wall, wanting his body pressed to her own, but restrained the urge to arch up against him, determined to let him explore these new possibilities slowly, to give him the time he needed. His mouth left her throbbing pulse and moved upward, then along her jaw until once again he touched her lips. This time he nuzzled against them with a little more force and her mouth dropped open to gasp in some much needed air. He froze for a moment, then briefly enclosed her upper lip between his own. It, too, was a fleeting touch, released in an instant.
A second later he did it again, this time holding her a little longer. He began a softly sensuous nuzzling and nipping motion along her silken flesh, then abruptly left to repeat those same tender ministrations on her full lower lip. Catherine couldn't resist the opportunity before her and her tongue peaked out to lick against his intriguing upper lip. Purely by chance she brushed against the unique cleft there and the response from him at that unintentional touch was completely unexpected. He gasped and jerked away while his hands tightened upon her arms with an almost painful grip. He stared down at her, eyes wide now with a stunned expression, and Catherine realized that this was an intensely sensitive and erogenous area for him. She desperately wanted to pull him back and repeat that touch, but instead she waited with a barely restrained eagerness for him to return to her, to accept this new, dizzyingly erotic touch. A moment later he did.
The chaotic confusion in his eyes never left, but she could see, too, the yearning for a repeat of that stunningly pleasurable sensation. She saw instantly when the decision was made, and then he was returning to her, nuzzling against her lower lip just as he had just moments before. She waited a bit, letting him ease into the kiss of his own accord, then slowly, gently licked along his sensitive upper lip, for the time being ignoring the cleft at its center. With the first touch of her tongue upon him, Vincent froze against her, but he didn't pull away and so Catherine continued on with her teasing caress. Finally she slipped into that hidden fold and he gasped again. The secret flesh was silky and slick, and an intense pleasure radiated through their bond as she kissed him there. Suddenly the emotions between them burst outward, and she pulled back with a gasp of astonishment and joy. The bond was open to her fully now, and she stared at him in wonder at the sensations swirling within. This is what he felt so often from her. This is what she had been craving for so long. Vincent's gaze met her own with a chaotic blend of ecstasy and understanding, and she couldn't stay away a moment longer. She pressed herself tightly to him and their lips met in a devastating kiss, tongues twining together in a rapturous bliss of passion that was as timeless as it was instinctive. He finally released her arms and pulled her close. His hands roamed feverishly along her back, stopping just before the soft curves of her hips, molding her against his full length, no longer trying to hide his pulsing arousal from her. The kiss went on and on, and when it ended Vincent buried his face against her throat with a groaning growl that sent pulsing shudders racing through every muscle in her body.
"Oh, Vincent, Vincent!"
Her cry echoed through the small chamber and their bond, multiplying the sensations surrounding and filling them. His lips pressed hungrily against her neck in response, but for the moment he seemed beyond words. Her breasts ached for his touch and she slipped her hand between them and began to undo the buttons of her shirt, all caution thrown to the wind. He continued to mouth the silky flesh of her throat with erotic intent, at first seemingly unaware of what she did, but when she reached the final button, the back of her hand brushed against his abdomen near the waistband of his jeans and he jolted away from her with a shocked gasp. Looking down he saw the edges of her shirt undone, the line of creamy skin between unbroken by any underclothing. Hunger and fear warred in his face, and she stayed perfectly still, her hands lightly resting at his waist, not holding him there, but simply letting him feel the comforting presence of her touch. She held her breath, wondering what he would do next, somehow certain that this would mark the line beyond which he would not or could not go this day.
She was wrong.
His expression was filled with hesitant uncertainty, but he reached out to her as if unable to stop himself. Lightly, with the back of one finger, he stroked along the smooth line of her silky flesh, from the base of her throat to the edge of her jeans then back up again, stopping at the center of her chest, in the warm hollow between her breasts, to stroke her lightly there. The silky hair felt both soothing and teasing, sending a shiver of anticipation through her that resulted in a sinuous wave along her torso, visible to them both. Even though he touched her with the furred back only, he kept his finger tightly curled, the sharp nail tucked within his palm. A twinge of sorrow and pain arrowed through her and was quickly gone -- one thing at a time, she told herself.
But Vincent had felt that fleeting emotion, and in that instant he froze. Anxiety had been present throughout their encounter this day, but it had been diminishing steadily, pushed aside by his love and need and her eager acceptance. Now it returned full force, dominating the emotions she felt from him through their bond. She had to do something quickly, to make him understand why she had felt that complex emotion at that moment. The curled edge of his finger still rested upon her skin, but it was motionless now, and she knew in a second it would be withdrawn and he would retreat. Before he could do either, her hand covered his, pressing him firmly against her chest for a single moment and then lifting it to her lips. As she had that night on her balcony, after he had told her about Lisa, she tenderly kissed the back of his hand, this time, though, she didn't stop with that simple touch. She kissed down the length of each finger until she reached the sharp-tipped nails. He tried to pull away at the clear sight of them resting upon her palm, but her hand closed about his, stopping that retreat, and he froze again. She knew it was fear that he might hurt her in pulling away which had stopped him this time, not acceptance. She bent to his hand once more, this time kissing the lightly furred flesh at the base where his nail began and he gasped in shock at the first sensation of her lips there. She repeated that touch on each finger, cherishing what he abhorred. When she was finished, Catherine turned his hand in hers and repeated that kiss at the tip of each finger, this time upon his bare, sensitive skin. The sharp edge of each nail trailed lightly along the fullness of her upper lip as she moved from finger to finger and a delicious tingling sensation arose in her from that erotic touch. Finally she moved to the center of his palm and pressed a warm, lingering kiss there, holding his hand cupped against her. His whole body was shaking, but she stayed still, nestled in his hand for some moments, her pose before him almost one of supplication.
A minute passed as she rested there, but finally she lifted her head to meet his stunned gaze, a calm expression of tender love in her eyes. Her hand opened gently, allowing him to leave that safe haven and he paused for a moment, confusion in his eyes. Her hand dropped away and his remained suspended for a fleeting second before he lowered it back to his side, his eyes now following the path of her hands. Both met at the center of her chest, lightly hooked about the open edges of her shirt, then slowly pulled them aside to bare her breasts to him. He drew in a harsh breath at that sudden sight, his gaze pinned upon her creamy flesh. Catherine could feel his emotions so clearly; he wanted to touch her, to kiss her, to take her in his arms and pull her close against him...he was embarrassed at his inability to look away. She knew those thoughts with an unshakeable conviction, though what she actually felt through the bond was a jumbled mass of shame, anxiety and lusty desire. She remained still before him and tried to focus her own emotions. With all her intensity directed outward, she willed him to take what she offered, to touch her and make her his, forever. She knew he felt and understood when his gaze flickered upward to meet hers, a hesitant confusion mixed there along with all the other emotions.
He stared into her eyes for some measureless length of time, then his gaze drifted downward again, drawn by the burning desires she felt so clearly through their bond. His trembling hand lifted tentatively toward her, but paused for a moment when once again he saw those deadly nails, this time with the clear view of her creamy, tender breast just beyond. The trembling increased and she waited breathlessly, hoping he could find it within himself to move forward. His hesitancy ended, and suddenly she felt his warm palm cupping her gently. A sigh of joyful relief escaped her at the poignant sight of his strong, furred hand holding her pale creamy flesh, her taut, rosy nipple straining outward just above the curve of his fingers and thumb. His hand still trembled, and she could feel his stunned amazement that he had dared to take this step. She brought her own hand up to cup his reassuringly, telling him without words that he belonged there, that she was his, all of her. At the touch of her hand upon him, his trembling suddenly diminished, though minute shivers continued to quiver through him. She knew they would not be banished until he had conquered all his fears. Gently she guided his thumb upward to brush over her nipple, showing him what she wanted. She completed the arc, then her hand left his, letting him continue on, or not, as he was able. Once again his eyes rose to meet hers. His were full of uncertainty and desire, hers with love and passion.
The bond swirled between them, mixing their emotions until neither was sure which belonged to which. Lost in the maelstrom of those sensations, Catherine was caught by surprise when she felt his thumb stroke tenderly over her quivering flesh again, this time of his own accord. He leaned toward her and the gentle blending of their lips joined that other tender caress.
"I love you."
He whispered the words against her in the midst of that blissful kiss, and Catherine moaned in pleasure before his mouth covered hers once more. Their kiss progressed from a light, innocent nuzzling of lips to a deeply passionate embrace of tongues and the touch of his hand upon her grew in passion as well. His fingers kneaded her soft flesh, fondling and exploring the silky fullness of her with a need he could no longer deny. His other hand rested upon her back, holding her close, but it slipped down now to cup her rounded hips, pulling her up and in to his taut arousal. Through the layers of their clothing she felt the throbbing surge of his erection and knew that he couldn't take much more of this. At that moment he broke away with a gasp, releasing her entirely. He turned away to lean against the chamber wall, his forehead pressed to the cold stone.
Catherine was left standing beside him, a breeze from above cooling her exposed, heated flesh. The sensations of their bond held her still, but she could feel him struggling to gain control over them once more, and she knew that, at least for now, this was as far as he could go. With trembling fingers she began to button her shirt, shivering at the sensation of the cotton cloth upon her still taut and sensitive nipples. She contained those yearning emotions resolutely, determined not to push him too fast. They had made an amazing leap forward, far beyond anything she could possibly have imagined for this day, and she would wait patiently for the time when he was ready to accept more from her, until he was ready to accept everything. She felt it clearly when his control returned, and a moment later he turned to face her, a poignant mix of stunned disbelief and shy hesitancy on his face.
"We should go back, Catherine."
She nodded her acceptance, biting back the sudden urge to plead with him to stay for just a few minutes longer.
They turned toward the chamber entrance but his hand suddenly stopped her and in an instant he was on one knee beside her, lifting a stocking-clad foot into his hands.
She heard the consternation in his voice, and for the first time noticed a soreness there.
"I left my shoes in your chamber."
She didn't need to explain how that had happened. Vincent stripped her stockings off and closely inspected the pads of each foot with a tender touch.
"The tunnel floors are rocky and uneven. There are bruises forming already."
She could clearly feel them now that their passion had subsided, but she couldn't find it in herself to give that small sensation of pain any serious consideration. It was insignificant compared to the blissful emotions they had shared so recently.
"It's nothing, Vincent, really."
He stood up then, and met her gaze, understanding clear in his eyes. Still, as she knew he would, he swung her into his arms and she didn't protest. She closed her eyes and nestled against his broad chest as they left the music chamber, happy to share a few minutes more of this physical contact with him before he sent her Above, to her apartment alone.
* * *
Catherine had run from his chamber to their music room earlier this day in just under ten minutes, and now, despite his walking pace and the weight of her in his arms, Vincent made the return trip in much the same time. Though she kept her eyes closed the whole way, she knew when they had entered his chamber by the subtle shift over the bond followed by the sudden pause of his stride. She sighed and steeled herself to accept the coming separation with grace, though a small part of her stubbornly rebelled. She wanted him so, wanted more of his passionate kisses and caresses and the sensations they engendered. She opened her eyes resignedly, and found exactly what she had expected, the cozy, intimate setting of his chamber before her. Next to the bed she spotted her shoes, and she waited for him to put her down and retrieve them, certain their stay here would be brief, but that didn't happen. Instead he carried her into the chamber and to his bed. He set her down where she had earlier lain napping and sat at her side.
Catherine held her breath with stunned disbelief. She had not expected this -- not at all, and was sure it had to be something other than it appeared. A moment later, when he gently pushed her back to rest against the pillows piled behind her and leaned in to press a warm kiss against her throat she knew she was wrong once again. Tears sprang to her eyes, and a surge of happiness, mixed with relief, filled her and instantly communicated itself to Vincent through their bond. He pulled back to study her face, uncertainty filling his own. She smiled tremulously up at him, and he gently cupped her cheek and stroked the tears away with the pad of his thumb.
"Don't cry, Catherine."
His voice was raspy and low, a tremor there which matched that evident along the graceful sinews of his hand and fingers. She covered his hand with her own and slid it down until she could once more press a kiss against his palm, her eyes never leaving his.
"I love you so much, Vincent."
The words vibrated against his skin and the trembling there increased. He stared at her in amazement and she could easily read his perplexed disbelief. He couldn't believe she was here, in his chamber, in his bed, sharing emotions and touches he had thought forbidden to him. His hand slid away and his fingers threaded through her hair until he cupped the back of her neck. His thumb stroked tenderly along the sensitive flesh just in front of her ear, and after a still moment she felt him urging her forward as he leaned in to meet her. His lips touched hers in a gentle kiss, and for a moment he did nothing more than nuzzle against her silky fullness. Catherine returned his caresses in kind, letting him set the pace, stunned at how quickly he'd grown accustomed to this previously unknown intimacy. Little by little the passion of his kisses grew, until finally he teased her lips open with his tongue and tasted the tender flesh of her mouth, exploring all the textures there with a boldness that astonished her. In the midst of that blissful assault, she felt herself pushed gently back until she lay nestled against the pillows once more, his arms circling her slim body to hold her tight, his chest pressed intimately against her own. When he finally pulled away from her, his hands slid to her shoulders, a gentle pressure there telling her he wanted her to stay. He stared down at her again in wonderment, as if he needed to continually reaffirm that this was really happening, then finally spoke, his voice hesitant and shy.
"I can't believe I can kiss you like this, Catherine, that you want this as much as I do. Somehow this feels like it must be a dream. I couldn't bear it if I woke up alone, not now, not after this."
"It's not a dream, Vincent. This is real. I'm here and you're here and we're finally beginning to experience our bond together. This is how it was meant to be. I love your kisses. I love the feel of your mouth upon me, and your hands..."
His eyes darkened to a deeper shade of blue at her words, and he couldn't stop his gaze from drifting down over her breasts. Her nipples felt hard and tender once more, and she knew he could easily see those firm peaks through the fabric of her blouse. When his hands slid from her shoulders to the first button there, undoing it slowly before moving on to the next she was utterly astounded. Never in her wildest dreams has she imagined them moving forward so far in such a short period of time. She had thought that they would make tiny inroads, over many weeks, perhaps even months, once he began to allow some physical intimacy between them. Now she began to wonder if instead his sensuous nature, once released to experience even a little of the pleasure awaiting them, was incapable of remaining contained. She couldn't think too much upon that though, for he was at the last button now and when it, too, was undone he scarcely hesitated before pulling the shirt open to bare her breasts to his hungry eyes once more. He drank in the sight of her with a ravenous thirst, and she watched him, pleased beyond measure at the joy she was finally able to give him with this simple gift.
"I loved how you touched me in the music chamber, Vincent. Please, touch me again."
His gaze flickered up to her meet hers for second only, then back to her breasts, and a moment later she felt his hands slipping over her to cup both tenderly. When his fingers began to move upon her, caressing her aching nipples with a soothing, stroking motion, she couldn't contain a moan of desire.
"Oh yes. That feels so good!"
With her eyes close and head thrown back, she allowed her emotions to spin away, joining his in the bond to swirl about them both. She felt his growing arousal, her own building rapidly. It had been so long...too long. The low tones of his voice flowed over her in a husky whisper, at one with the erotic sensations swirling about them and through their bond.
"You're so beautiful, so silky soft and warm."
His hands were miraculous, each touch bringing her closer to the peak of ecstasy. She wanted so much more, and yet she realized with a an astonished sense of amazement that his tender touch and sensuous kisses alone could easily bring her a sexual fulfillment she had never before experienced. Nothing and no one had ever inspired these sensations in her before. Lost in the bliss of his touch, she wasn't prepared when his mouth once more took hers, this time no gentle prelude to prepare her for the ecstasy of his passionate kiss. A muffled moan escaped her and turned into a mewling whimper when he misinterpreted her response and drew quickly away.
"Catherine? Did I hurt you?"
She easily heard the fear in his voice, and knew, regardless of the progress made today that that fear was ever-present, and he ever-vigilant. She hurried to reassure him, her voice husky and almost incoherent with pleasure.
"No, you didn't hurt me, believe me, Vincent."
She wanted to tell him not to stop, but through the foggy haze surrounding her she realized that this break in their passion was needed now. She knew that if their emotions built any higher everything would soon spin out of control, and as wonderful as that might be, later Vincent would be sure to question that loss of control. She couldn't risk that -- not this first time. So she gathered her strength together and sat up, only inches separating them. Her eyes held his as she slipped her opened shirt off her shoulders, and she spoke quickly when she saw a twinge of apprehension appear.
"Do you remember how I told you that I'd dreamed of feeling my breasts against your bare chest?" As she spoke her hand rested gently, non-threateningly upon the center of those taut muscles.
He nodded slowly, and though the hesitancy was still present in his eyes, he didn't pull away.
"Could I, Vincent? Please?"
He drew in a deep shuddering breath, and she could easily read his thoughts. They had come so far, and if they were to move forward from here at all he would finally have to begin to reveal his body to her. It was either that or retreat, and she held her breath as she waited for his decision. A moment later she released it with a rush of relief. He didn't speak his consent, but his trembling hands moved to the edges of his cloak and began to pull it back. She hesitated for a moment, then quickly covered his hands with her own, holding them reassuringly, but stopping their movement. A second later she drew them away and pressed them down to his side and her hands replaced his own at the edges of his cloak. She eased it back off his shoulders, and it slid to the floor with a whispered sigh. Her hands returned to the soft leather of his vest and traced the V'ed edges until she reached the point where they met, at his waist. She watched both her hands touching him and the expression on his face, ever cautious of his response to this next level of intimacy.
Vincent's gaze was pinned upon her hands as she moved downward along his length, and when she reached his waist he gasped, unable to withhold the anxiety and excitement vying within. She remained still for a moment, letting him get used to the sight of her hands upon him, then slid to the buckle of his overbelt. It was intricate and foreign in its design, but in a moment she had it undone and it joined his cloak upon the chamber floor. She slid her hands back up, palms flat, then stroked outward to push his vest off too. She usually found herself cursing his many layers, well aware how hidden he was from her in them, but today she shivered with anticipation, the slow uncovering of him a blissful pleasure that filled her completely. Her hands slid back to rest at the center of his chest once more, and she remained there for a moment, unmoving, enjoying the deep rhythm of his heart beneath her palms. They both stared down at that sight, her hands small against the broad muscled expanse. Suddenly his hands covered her own.
"Catherine, are you sure?"
Her gaze swung up to his and she searched his eyes intently. He was afraid. Afraid of what was to come and even more afraid of missing the smallest moment of this erotic journey they now shared.
"I don't want to disappoint you, or..."
He couldn't finish that thought, but she felt it through the bond easily enough.
"You could never disappoint me, Vincent. And you could never frighten or repulse me."
He cringed at her words, and she knew immediately that she had been right in her assessment of his fears.
"I love you. You are the other half of my soul. Without you I'm incomplete, only half alive. I know you're afraid I won't be prepared for what your body looks like, or for the force of your desires. And I suppose you're partially right, at least on the first part. I can't know for certain what to expect, but it just doesn't matter. Don't you see? It's so unimportant compared to everything else we share. And believe me, Vincent, your desire for me can't possibly exceed my desire for you. Perhaps you're the one who should be concerned."
She added that last in a teasing voice, surprising a chuckle out of him and the tension she felt over their bond lessened somewhat. When he responded to her words, though, he spoke seriously, and more clearly on this subject than he had ever before been able to with her.
"In theory I know you're right, but the reality... It's part of my physiological makeup to feel emotions very strongly, both my own and in the sensing of yours. But I've never experienced anything that rivals the intensity of what we've shared today -- nothing that even comes close. How can I know what my reaction will be? You know of the severity of my response when you or the others need my protection. You know what I'm capable of."
As he spoke she felt the anxiety level through their bond increase, and his eyes filled with tears, though she clearly felt his struggle to hold them at bay and finally discuss this issue as rationally as possible.
"I know all that, Vincent. But I also know that you could never hurt me. You respond as you do to ensure that I'm not hurt. The bond always lets you know when I'm in pain or distress, and you always respond to alleviate it. How could it be any different now?"
"What if it has nothing to do with the bond or my awareness of your pain? I never shared a bond with Lisa, yet I knew she was frightened, and I couldn't let her go. I hurt her, Catherine, and we were doing nothing -- nothing at all compared to this."
"You were so young -- you both were. You say you knew she was frightened, but did you really? You were both so unaware of what was happening, and it happened so quickly. Things are different now."
"Different? I thought I loved Lisa, but I never knew what love was until I found you. My feelings for her were nothing to the sensations you inspire in me. Yes, I'm no longer a naive adolescent, but I am inexperienced in this, and my passion for you is so strong, so overwhelming. And I'm not a boy any longer. My strength and size..." His voice cracked as he reached the end of this painful disclosure. "What might I do if I lost control? If I were to hurt you... It would kill me, Catherine. I just don't know if it's worth it."
"Don't say that! It is worth it! Please, Vincent, I don't want to go on with this aching emptiness between us. No matter how much we share in the bond, the absence of this would be unbearable. Have you forgotten so soon how it's been these past two years? I know you've felt my desire for you -- I was never very good at hiding it, no matter how hard I tried. And even though you kept the bond closed to me, I've always known how much you loved me, how much you desired me. We love each other, Vincent. It's right that we share our bodies as well as our hearts and souls. I want this so much, and I know that you do, too. Please, can't we try?"
It was shameless, this pleading, and she knew it, but it felt as if there was no other way out of this cyclic argument. He was afraid to try because he might hurt her; he didn't know if he would hurt her because he was afraid to try. There was no end in sight on its own. He gazed at her, his confusion plain both in his face and over their bond. She had meant to play fair, but enough was enough. She would do whatever it took, even if she had to drag him kicking and screaming along the way. She stroked along his chest and ribs, stopping again at his waist. Once there she slipped her hands beneath both his sweater and the thermal shirt hidden under that, and finally -- finally! -- encountered bare flesh, silky, sensual, erotic bare flesh. His muscles tensed immediately, but she couldn't contain her sigh of delight.
"You feel so good, Vincent, so good."
She didn't wait for his response, stroking upward over his chest and tugging the two pullovers along. He hesitated briefly, then lifted his arms to help her remove them, the discussion of a moment ago pushed aside by the tantalizing sensations of her touch. Catherine's hands remained on his ribs as he pulled both sweaters over his head and dropped them to the floor at his side. Her eyes stayed on his for a few minutes, giving him some time to get used to sitting before her in such a vulnerable state, but finally she lowered her gaze to peruse the naked splendor of him.
He looked just as she had imagined he would, and yet she thought there was no way she could possibly have been prepared for the utter perfection of his beauty. She wanted to tell him how magnificent she found him, but her throat was suddenly dry and the words would not come. It didn't matter -- he felt her emotions clearly through their bond. Instead she smoothed her hands along the silky covering and well defined muscles, tracing every sensuous curve of him. So beautiful... His small nipples peaked out through the silky thatch of reddish gold hair coating him and she stroked them tenderly, brushing the coppery fur-like coating aside to caress him fully. His moan of pleasure caught her by surprise, so engrossed was she in the sight before her. She slid her arms about him then and nestled close, rubbing her bare breasts against the soft hair and hard muscles of his chest. Oh god -- there was nothing to compare to this sensation! He stayed stiffly still beside her for a moment, then his arms enclosed her and pulled her closer yet.
"Oh Catherine, Catherine!"
She nuzzled into the hollow of his throat pressing soft, wet kisses there with glorious abandon. His pungent, evocative scent surrounded her, filling her with a passion far beyond anything she'd ever experienced before. Finally she left that warm spot and began kissing her way down along his chest. She nuzzled against one small, taut peak, pushing the silky hair aside to kiss him gently and he sucked in a deep breath of shock, his reaction easily felt by the sudden concavity of his upper abdomen, upon which her fingers rested. She kissed him over and over again, a blissful joy radiating through her at the freedom to give him this pleasure -- for them to share it together. She moved to the other side of his chest and repeated those erotic caresses there. Suddenly she found herself pulled back up to him and he was kissing her with a dizzying passion that knew no bounds. Yes...oh, yes! She felt herself bent back over his arm as he nuzzled and nipped his way down her throat and chest until he was kissing and licking her bare breasts. He explored her full curves completely, then paused for only a moment before drawing one rigid nipple into his hot mouth. He loved her so thoroughly then she thought she would faint with the ecstasy it.
"Oh yes, please, Vincent, please!"
For many minutes he stayed there, moving back and forth from breast to breast as if an impossible decision were set before him, willing to give up neither. He built her ecstasy to a ravenous peak, and just when she thought she could take no more, that she must certainly explode into a million pieces of shattered soul, he pulled away, that abrupt end to their pleasure making her dizzy.
He pulled her tight against his heaving chest and rained kisses down upon her face and neck, nuzzling against her ear and cheek and jaw, hungry for the taste of her. Finally he pulled slightly away until his eyes blazed down at her.
"I love you so much, Catherine, so much. How I want you!"
Everything in her shivered deliciously, an agonizing expectation and excitement shuddering through her, but he stayed still now, staring at her with a complex blend of urgent hunger and despairing uncertainty. She reached up to cup his cheek, stroking gently along his lips with the curve of her thumb for just a moment before drifting downward along the pulsing column of his throat and into the erotic thatch of golden hair upon his chest. She caressed him slowly, without hesitation, her eyes never leaving his, then moved lower yet. A moment later he gasped and began panting erratically when she ran her fingers lightly over the taut fabric of his jeans where it covered his throbbing erection. Her gaze shifted to reflect a hazy pleasure, a luminous light filling her face. Finally her eyes left his to glance down at the sight of her hand touching him so intimately. He couldn't help it -- he watched, too. Her other hand slid from behind his back to tug at the first button of his jeans and it was soon undone. Both hands worked together now, undoing the remaining buttons one by one until his turgid flesh brushed fully against her fingers and she enclosed him in a loving caress. Her eyes met his once more and she easily read the stunned disbelief mixed with anxiety there.
"You are so beautiful." Her hands never stopped touching him as she spoke. "I want you, Vincent, only you. Please my love, don't hold yourself back from me any longer."
His hands slid up to hold her shoulders, staring at her intently. His hold, though tight and possessive, in no way impeded her caressing hands, and she sighed with exultant relief at the knowledge that this was purposely done. He craved these intimate touches from her, had always needed them, and now, finally, he was taking this pleasure, letting her give him all she had held back for so long. After some endless space of time his arms circled her and pulled her close for a deep kiss. All of his passion was released in that kiss, and Catherine reveled in the sensuality surrounding and enfolding her. He was the epitome of masculinity, so virile, so seductively erotic. How had she ever lived without this between them?! Her body was on fire, liquid heat coursing through her veins and between her trembling thighs. Never had she felt an arousal like this -- never! Need burned through her with an irresistible force and her hands left his silky flesh to fumble frantically at the waistband of her own jeans, desperate to get them off.
So intent was she on this task that his own hands caught her by surprise. He brushed hers away and quickly undid the stubborn clasps, then stripped them off her body and tossed them aside. For a moment only, his hands left her as he pulled off his boots and stockings and quickly discarded his loosened jeans, then his welcome weight was pushing her back among the pillows. Only the silky scrap of her lace-edged panties remained, and with a boldness that shocked her, Vincent slid down her tantalizing length and nuzzled his lips against that silky softness, breathing in the seductive scent of her with a virile seductiveness that was completely instinctive. He held her close with one arm about her waist and hooked his fingers in the edge of the lace and silk, finally tugging those off, too. His trembling fingers brushed over her silky curls and touched her with a tentative exploration of wonder and delight. When he discovered the honeyed liquid of her female flesh, he sighed deeply. Through the bond she clearly felt his astonishment, love and passion, all building wildly to a stunning state of uncontrolled lust. He pressed a kiss upon her glossy curls then slid up along her body, until their eyes met once more. Catherine shivered wildly, her desire for him something that could no longer be contained.
"Please, Vincent, I need you now!" She pleaded with him shamelessly, and knew instantly by the fierce passion of his gaze that he would not deny her now -- nor ever again. As quickly as the thought appeared it was gone again, his blazing kiss stealing all rational thought. She whimpered with a moaning delight into his mouth, and pulled him closer, urging him over her body and drawing him to the welcoming haven of her silky thighs.
"Come to me now. Come to me," she whispered hoarsely in his ear, nuzzling him there feverishly.
His weight settled over her completely and she sighed with ecstatic joy at the trust he showed by resting fully upon her, not holding back for fear of hurting her, not denying her the pleasure of his complete surrender to her and to their passion. She was so small compared to him, and yet how perfectly her body complemented his. She held him completely, and despite his superior size and strength, he drew comfort from the security of her embrace. Her arms surrounded him to press him to her everywhere, and her legs locked about his waist, urging him to that place of heated passion so clearly calling. His body knew hers and sought her out instinctively, the silky touch of their yearning flesh making them both gasp with wanton desire. Though he knew it must be so, he was just as certain it was impossible, and Catherine clearly felt his incredulous amazement at the exquisite sensation of their bodies beginning to join together for that final passionate bliss.
"Oh, Catherine...my love, my love..."
He moaned his pleasure against her throat and the words vibrated through her skin, sinking deep within even as his body sought out the depths of hers.
"Yes, oh yes."
Her words were a bare whisper, a husky intensity urging him on. He lay motionless upon her, stunned by the sensation of her dewy, muscled sheath tightly caressing his pulsing length. Never, never had he imagined anything to compare to this heavenly embrace. It was pure and it was carnal, a churning mix of all that love was and all it could be. The bond called to the deepest part of them, urging them outward to be joined completely, body and soul. Her hips nudged against his as she whimpered beseechingly, and he began to move upon and within her, his motions timeless and completely instinctive. Each jolt of pleasure she felt was instantly communicated to him and with each movement he brought her a joy so intense it was almost past bearing. And that pleasure doubled, then tripled his own, though that seemed utterly impossible. The urgency was growing within him and he couldn't control his gasping breath, his frantic heartbeat or the quickening tempo of his thrusts. Her body met and equaled his fiery pace. For a moment a twinge of anxiety reasserted itself, but there was nothing within her but a quivering, pulsing pleasure, bursting to be set free and he let his fears go. He focused on her desires, his body and mind tuned to her completely. She needed that ecstatic release now, yes now, and so did he. The strength and speed of his thrusts increased until the pleasure was so intense it was almost pain, but now he knew it for what it was, and fear could gain no hold in him. There was no room in him for anything but Catherine and the burning flames of their passion. The sensations swirling about them gathered in a quickening force, drawing a groaning cry from Catherine which quickly evolved into a scream of pleasure. Her muscles convulsed about his swelling flesh and his growling roar joined her cries of ecstasy to fill the chamber as a rapturous, explosive force thundered through them. It was the sound of pure and bliss-filled passion.
* * *
Jacob took the short cut from his chamber to Vincent's, cutting through the bathing chamber they shared. Where could the boy be? he wondered irritably. He hadn't been terribly surprised to find him missing at supper -- Catherine was Below after all, and food was never uppermost in Vincent's mind when she was there. Still, his son knew very well that Peter was down for his weekly check-up. They had all agreed to this precaution weeks ago, and no matter how well Vincent felt now, vigilance was absolutely necessary. He had no logical reason to expect it, but somehow Jacob was certain that this illness -- whatever it had been -- was not yet through with his son. The chamber entrance was before him suddenly, a soft glow of candles from within marking it's presence. Jacob never paused as he rounded the turn, but in a split second all of that was gone and he stood frozen in place, shocked by the sight before him.
Catherine and Vincent lay sprawled across the bed, naked and fast asleep. Dear god, how had this happened?! Despite his well justified outrage, a small voice inside him answered satirically; oh, don't be a ninny, Jacob! He glanced quickly behind him to the dimly lit passageway and confirmed that there was no unlit lantern left outside -- the typical signal for privacy used Below. Searching within the chamber his eyes picked out the carelessly discarded clothes on the floor and then noted that not even the bedcovers had been turned back. This was unbelievable! How could they have behaved so carelessly? Anybody could walk right in on them...as he had, the rueful thought presented itself. At that moment Catherine stirred, turning her face more fully toward Vincent's, though she showed no sign of waking. Neither did he, but despite that he moved instinctively, pressing a soft kiss upon her waiting lips as if he'd known she'd turned to him in her sleep for no other reason than that.
Jacob gasped at that prophetic sight. The sudden image of them together caught him in its entirety, and he found himself studying their sleeping forms closely. Catherine lay on her back, and would have been completely exposed to anyone entering the unmarked chamber were it not for Vincent's slumbering presence beside her. He lay nestled against her, his chest covering much of her body along her right side. A furred hand cupped her left breast and one long muscular leg curled over her lower body, hiding much of her hips and thighs. Even in sleep he protected her, Jacob mused.
From out of the blue the thought came to him that what he had feared most -- that a repeat of Vincent's illness awaited them -- was suddenly gone completely. It all fell into place then and no doubts remained. Vincent was in safe hands now. Catherine was what he had always needed and he had known it all along, indeed would have ensured that happiness and security long before now were it not for his obstinate father. Jacob sighed at that thought, but now, with the truth plain before him, he could find no anger or bitterness left within him. A billowing sensation swelled in his chest, then burst outward and he smiled with relief at the clear course now set before them all. Vincent and Catherine would have their happy life, and everyone Below would share in their joy. Safe hands indeed. He turned to head back to his study, where Peter waited, and wondered how he would explain to his old friend that they need have no more concerns for their favorite patient. Thinking of the days to come, he smiled. Things would change here Below once the news got out. Why, the sudden thought occurred to him, he might even make use of this situation and goad his sure-to-be-distracted son into a few games of chess in the next week or so -- games he was certain to win, all things considered. Oh yes, this was a very fine turn of events indeed. Jacob's heart was light, as were his steps, and as he made his way down the side tunnel back to his own chamber he wondered idly why in the world he had ever felt differently on this matter.
* * *
A sound, distant but clear intruded into the depths of his conscious and he woke in an instant. Vincent's head flew up and he searched out the waking sound, identifying it immediately as his father's step; soft, distant...and retreating. Comprehension flooded his being and he jumped up from the bed, pulled his cloak on and stepped out into the passageway. He peered down the side tunnel in the direction of the bathing chamber he shared with Father, but there was nothing. He knew that by now Father was nearing his study. There was no need to search about the outer area of his chamber entrance -- he knew very well that he had put no lantern out for privacy. It was a common practice Below, but one he rarely indulged in. And unlike the others here he had never had need of it for the kind of privacy required by the more intimate moments most couples shared...until now.
With that thought he stepped around the corner of the entrance and stood frozen by the stunning sight before him -- Catherine, gloriously naked in peaceful slumber upon his bed. Impossible! Unbelievable! Was it possible that the final barrier had been crossed? It felt too good to be true, yet he knew it was. His heart, the bond and the satiated contentment of his body all told him it was so. He recalled the distressing emotions he had felt from her as he returned this afternoon from the lower levels, and the painful discussion that followed. Never could he have imagined that the facing of those issues, avoided so ardently by him for so very long, would result in the one thing that was still missing from their relationship. But it had. The barriers had come tumbling down, and the blissful aftermath of that confrontation held within it all the ecstatic joy and dizzying pleasures he had so yearned to share with her.
Ecstatic joy and dizzying pleasures... Oh yes, there had been that, and so much more, more than he had ever imagined there could be. His eyes drank in the beauty of her slumbering form with a greedy need. He was no longer able to hide his hunger for her -- not from her and not from himself. No more. He pulled his gaze away from her seductive image and grabbed a lantern sitting upon the floor just inside the chamber entrance. He took a right turn in the hallway and moved down the side passage towards the main tunnel, then set the lantern down about twenty yards from his chamber. When he reached his door once more he paused for a moment, peering down the opposite direction, towards the bathing chamber. Father's rooms were located about thirty yards beyond that spot. He didn't give it much thought though. Father had been here once already and had seen them together. Vincent blushed at the image they must have presented, and wondered how he would face him tomorrow...
Tomorrow. Not tonight. Father would not be back again this evening, Vincent was certain of that despite his disconcertion. And tonight belonged to him and Catherine.
That thought diverted him entirely, and he moved into the chamber, his eyes pinned on her, as if in a trance. He pulled his cloak off and dropped it to the floor without thought, then paused at the side of the bed. Scanning the length of her body he shuddered as erotic images of them together played through his mind. So much pleasure they had shared...so much more yet waiting for them. Without further hesitation he sank to the bed, draping his body along her own. His hand traced an erotic path from her knee, up her thigh and along the taut curve at her hipbone, stopping for just a moment to trail trembling fingers lightly across her silky curls and the satiny flesh of her belly. He continued on then, slipping up over her abdomen and ribs then tenderly stroking the full curves and soft peaks of each breast. Catherine slept on, but through the bond he felt a slight stirring. Despite that slumbering state, her body recognized his touch, her nipples growing hard under his caressing hand. Finally he cupped one soft globe tenderly and leaned forward to kiss the turgid peak. So warm, so sweet... He wanted to stay here forever, drowning in her honeyed sweetness.
Her voice, though hazy with sleep, held the same stunned amazement of his own waking response. With one more lingering, wet kiss, he left her breast and pulled himself up along her body until his eyes, heavy-lidded with passion, stared down into her own. His hands cupped her face, holding her still for his fierce perusal and he watched the growing awareness there followed quickly by the swelling desire that was already so evident to him through their bond.
"I love you, Catherine."
His voice trembled with the force of that simple declaration, and her answering response quivered through him, completing the circle and their destiny.
"I love you, Vincent. Always and forever."
"Yes. Always and forever, my love."
Their lips met in a tender kiss, sealing their commitment and their fate. The world disappeared around them until there was nothing left for each but the other. Nothing left but love and pleasure with the promise of an ecstatic fulfillment. Their happy life together had begun.