MELT

V


Catherine walked the length of the passageway with determination. Savage growls protested her approach, but her stride did not falter. The way was dimly lit by the torches held by those behind her, but the underlying darkness of these catacombs - a gloom that was as much spiritual as physical - pressed ever closer. Father had called this a forgotten place; Vincent, in his delirium, had come here to be forgotten.

He'll strike at you.

Father's words. Warranted, almost unarguably, by the sling around his left arm. It was just a few weeks ago that he'd been injured in the Maze, and now this fresh hurt. A hurt far worse than what had gone before, because Vincent was at its heart, and it would be Vincent who would suffer most once he came to his senses.

If he came to his senses. The effect of Paracelsus's drug had not been known to last longer than four hours, and Vincent should have come down by now. Considering his superior physical make-up, she was astonished that he had succumbed so strongly at all. Yet this frenzy - and the snarls were growing perceptibly harsher the closer she came - surpassed that of any of the victims she had interviewed. As for those who had died…

He's not the Vincent we know.

No, not the Vincent they knew. But still Vincent. Layers of ingrained behaviour - civilisation - peeled away by Paracelsus, to reveal something…quite different. But still Vincent. She had to believe that. Had to take this base Vincent to her heart and love him as best she could. As she had just told Father, she had no choice.

He could kill you.

Yes, he could. But that didn't mean he would. He could have killed Father, too, yet the old man lived. Catherine had seen firsthand the damage Vincent could inflict when fighting for his loved ones - the evisceration, the sheer butchery - and she didn't kid herself: Father had got off lightly. A warning strike from a cornered being, meant to dissuade approach, not to kill. A similar blow would undoubtedly fell her, and she prayed it didn't come; not for her own sake, for she was beyond caring for her own safety…except that her pain was his.

She was just a few feet from him now. All human resemblance had fled. He was crouched in the shadows, snarling viciously, muscles quivering and ready for the attack. Eyes glared, filled with a venom she could hardly believe was meant for her. What was he seeing? What phantasies maddened him so? Sweat was dripping from his forehead, and close proximity brought a blast of feverish heat. He was baring his teeth to an unprecedented extent, so much so that she almost feared he would dislocate his jaw; never had he appeared so bestial as at this moment, and she walked straight into his arms.

At the contact, much of the tension in his body seemed to fall away, although the heat that enveloped her was frightening. His chest heaved in a jerky rhythm, and as she pressed herself closer she could feel his heart thundering even faster than usual. It scared her deeply; many of the deaths attributed to the drug had been a result of heart failure.

Yet already he seemed more lucid, clutching her to him and muttering her name. Maybe everything would be alright after all; perhaps Paracelsus would not be claiming another soul this day. When she thought of the wasted lives - Jimmy's in particular - she felt blessed that Vincent would not be included in their number.

Behind her, she could sense hopeful murmuring and hesitant movement, but for the moment she ignored them. Vincent's hot face rested on top of her head, his panting breaths ruffling her hair, and she felt as though she would gladly stay that way forever. Flickering torchlight soon intruded on their embrace, however, and she pulled away a little, wanting to gauge his expression.

The nearing flames glittered strangely in his eyes, which were focussed on her with almost desperate intensity. She saw with some confusion that his pupils were becoming more dilated rather than less - despite the light - and felt a frisson of fear for him. At her back, she could hear Father's uneven step and the crackle of Winslow's torch, and she wished acutely that they would stay away. Vincent was not alright, not by a long shot, and their presence might be hurtful to him.

Even as she contemplated calling to them to stay back, a change came over Vincent. An expression of baffled rage swept across his face, and she knew instinctively that it was the flames more than anything that incited this fresh madness. As the fire glinted off his burnished mane, he reeled from it, drawing her back with him. He was bristling with agitation, and gripped her close once more; his snarling began anew, the savage sound making her skin ripple with gooseflesh.

His family's advance halted abruptly; she heard Father urging the others back with a soft but imperative order. Vincent's growls grew louder, as if to drown out the sound of Father's voice; at the same time he thrust her behind him, shielding her body with his own. She wondered what hallucinogenic vision the drug had dreamt up. What was he protecting her from?

Peeping around the cover of Vincent's body, she saw that Father was standing surprisingly close. His shrewd eyes seemed to size up his son's protective stance, before he moved backwards with slow deliberation. It was not until he had reached the other end of the passage that his son dropped his guard at all, and that only to direct a low, admonitory growl at Catherine who was still trying to watch what was going on.

Catherine took the gentle rebuke as it was obviously intended, and fell behind him once more. If it comforted him to 'safeguard' her in this way, she would comply with his fever-induced wishes. She herself took some comfort from the fact that he had not struck at Father again, although she did not fool herself that Vincent was even close to well.

They remained there, alone, for long minutes. She stroked his back soothingly, but there was a wary stillness about him almost as impenetrable as the darkness that surrounded them. She saw and heard nothing of the others; they had evidently fallen back a fair distance, although it was not far enough judging by Vincent's vigilance. He acquiesced to her touch, but gave a soft hiss when she spoke his name.

Finally he shifted, straightening from his semi-crouch to turn and take her up in his arms. The sudden movement seemed even more effortless than usual, the adrenaline - or something - still firing his veins. She was glad to be held; the blackness around them gave her a profound sense of disorientation that only his presence could allay. He settled her with solicitous efficiency, his right arm tucked beneath her knees, his left supporting her upper body, and they set off suddenly before she had time to catch her breath.

How he knew where to go, she could not imagine. The darkness pressed heavily, but he seemed immune to it, running without hesitation. With no visible bearings, the jolting movement made her a little nauseous; yet even as the feeling swept over her, his gait smoothed to accommodate. A gentle crooning murmured in his throat, barely audible over his remarkably soft footfalls, and she was struck by how well he could make himself understood, when all words but her name had gone.

She slung her right arm around his neck, needing the closeness and stability. He was still outrageously hot, his soft skin steaming beneath the mane, and her fingers found his pulse chattering at an alarming rate. At her touch, its judder calmed somewhat, but not its pace. She raised her free hand to stroke his thundering heart, willing the drug-fever away before it killed him.

Her anxiety prompted him to cradle her closer until her face was buried in his hair. The contact was ticklish and irresistible, and she breathed in his heady fragrance. Too heady, she thought in bewilderment…only to realise he was covered in the drug.

Nose twitching, lips quivering, she pulled away before the narcotic could gain a stranglehold. The immediate impression was like stinging nettles, making her eyes water; and when she wiped her face against his sweater, she discovered that the residue was buried in his clothing also. The substance was so fine that she couldn't feel it with her fingers, but it made its presence known on her softer tissues with a burst of excruciating sensation.

She reached for the cowl neck of her pullover, pulling it up to cover her face. For the first time she felt him falter, jarring them both against the rock wall, and she knew it was in reaction to her distress. She rubbed at his neck, trying to allay his apprehension until he found his bearings once more.

The painful tingling did not last long, and she kept the wool pressed close to her face to prevent further exposure, letting the material's texture ease her discomfort. She could feel the ground scrape at her feet, and realised he had dropped to his knees in his sudden disorientation. It seemed amazing how bound they were, even now when he should have felt most disconnected.

She let the pullover drop a little and opened her teary eyes, wishing she could see him. Even as the desire entered her mind, his outline became apparent to her, just a vague shape in the gloom. The drug's phosphorescent properties were beating back the darkness; she could see plainly now that he was caked in the stuff, and that it lent him a glittery aura. It was no wonder he moved so easily in this relative obscurity, for his hypersensitive eyes - perfect circles of obsidian, ringed with gold - were eating up the drug's meagre radiance and using it to light his way.

Just feeling the steady weight of those fever-bright eyes gave her strength, and she shook off her dizziness. As if sensing her resolution, he rose once more to his feet and took off.

The pace did not lessen, but she guessed they were travelling through some awkward sections of tunnel; he would hunch over her, making certain her head was protected, before easing them both through narrow splittings in the rock. More than once she felt the brush of stone, sometimes dry, sometimes dank, but never did he allow it to scrape her. The routes he chose were in some instances uneven and crude, with loose stones crunching underfoot, only to transform abruptly into well-trodden paths and gangways. All were unlit, but some of the passes bore the sheen of fungal or bacterial growth, which glinted off the damp rock walls. From the faint whiff of decay, she surmised that they were traversing the length of the catacombs proper; the age and vastness of the place stunned her. She speculated that Father and his community were just the most recent inhabitants of ground that had witnessed the passing of centuries…perhaps millenia.

Even as she contemplated the sheer history of this place, they emerged into a large open space where the wind fluttered through her hair. Mould cleaved to the walls, giving the whole area a murky, grey-green patina. Countless stairs and doorways, with elusive, Escher-like angles, clung to the edge of a monstrous chasm in the rock. The walls bore a variety of bas-reliefs that doubtless marked the sites of tombs; she reached out her hand to trace the nearest carving, but the markings did not conform to any language she recognised, and seemed to vibrate beneath her fingertips before she withdrew uneasily. Vincent gave a soft growl of warning.

Wondering how much of what she saw and felt was reality, and how much was shadow, she burrowed deeper into her cowl neck and held stubbornly to Vincent's heat. He carried her down a rough flight of stairs before moving through a doorway; its dark aperture was enclosed by a stone lintel and jambs that reminded her vaguely of Stonehenge. Soon they were plunging back into blackness, winding through a series of rough-hewn, downward-leading shafts.

Despite the depths they were travelling to, the air seemed remarkably clean, leaving a faint mineral taste in her mouth, even through her woollen pullover. Vincent's complete confidence in his direction communicated itself strongly to her, and she lay relaxed in his arms. Perhaps he wasn't well - and perhaps she was a little light-headed and overheated herself - but she had to have faith that they would be okay.

She felt as if they had been moving for days, although she suspected it was just a little over half an hour. Vincent had yet to show any sign of exhaustion, in spite of carrying her so far. This route was not as damp as some they had travelled, but there was still the occasional patch of phosphorescent growth to mark the way, and her nose told her there was fresh running water nearby. He coaxed her through a narrow cleft in the wall and bore her across a short stretch before lowering her quite suddenly to the ground.

Not the ground, she realised, although her outstretched fingertips met grit and stone. No, he'd laid her down on a pallet of some kind, quite a large one. The blanket at her back was thick and musty, as though it had not been used in a while, but when she rolled to one side a faint scent rose from the material that reminded her of Vincent's bed. Burying her nose in the blanket, she was certain he had slept here, and the thought made her shiver.

They were obviously far below the inhabited regions of the tunnels, in a secret place perhaps known only to Vincent…and now her. In his urgency to escape the others - their intrusion, their flames - he had spirited them both to this lonely retreat beyond the catacombs. She couldn't guess how large the chamber was - it was too dark - but she sensed the area was small and enclosed. It made her think of a lair.

Propping her head on the heel of her hand, she surveyed the darkness, trying to locate Vincent. Her ears found him first, as he rustled quietly nearby, before she caught the tell-tale gleam of the drug on his hair and clothes. Their eyes met - it was the only part of his body she could get a true fix on - and she trembled in the shadow of his intense scrutiny.

She wondered what he was doing. Was he searching for a candle? It would not be an easy task, particularly since as far as she could tell he had not taken his eyes off her. Although she could see him only as a vague outline, his potent physical presence - size, scent, heat - was undeniable. There was a restless edge to his movements, the luminescent narcotic waterfall that covered him shifting uneasily in the darkness. Its incongruity held her enthralled.

Until it fell away with a shocking suddenness, leaving only the dim sheen of his mane to float, disembodied, above her; the change was strange and frightening, and she thought she might be hallucinating. Bodiless, he approached her, and she wriggled back a little, legs tangling in the blanket, before a rock wall impeded her retreat.

Fingers clamped around her wrist, and at the familiar contact her alarm subsided. It was Vincent; she would know his touch anywhere. Yet even as she calmed, a startling realisation swept over her: his cloak of invisibility was in fact nakedness.

The shock of discovery flared in her mind, and she could not contain an astonished gasp. Her pulse quickened, creating a roaring din in her ears. That he should make himself so vulnerable to her! And was it even Vincent who was the vulnerable one here?

Callused fingertips stroked over her wrist where the pulse hammered relentlessly, whilst his thumb traced circles across her palm; his grip reduced her hand to almost doll-like proportions. The thundering in her ears slowed enough that she could hear him crooning softly; the hoarse sound was soothing, and contained an unmistakable note of entreaty.

She was defenseless against this beguilement, her hand turning in his until they could clasp one another. Yet even as her eyes were drawn to the meeting of their hands, she was reminded anew of the poison running riot through his body; at this close range she could see the drug embedded deep in the fur of his fingers.

God, what had Paracelsus done to him? She reflected anxiously on what was known of the drug…precious damned little. The lab boys thought it might be a psilocybin-derived component - like in magic mushrooms - that caused the hallucinations and the distortions in space/time perception so relished by the club crowds. Added to that was a cocaine-like kick to keep the central nervous system hopping, plus a few even nastier surprises. The chemical cocktail had largely defied analysis, but the results of excess consumption were clear: derangement, and all too often, death.

None of which gave her much insight into Vincent's current condition; his aggression had eased, but he was clearly not himself, and she felt frightened for him. This loss of inhibition - taken now to such a literal extreme - was something for which she had prayed for months; its cause, however, was a thing she feared. Under the drug's sway he was acting in a manner foreign to him, which would undoubtedly occasion significant distress when - if - he recovered. She had to be strong for his sake.

Tugging gently at her hand, though, she realised that he might be beyond her influence. His grip tightened perceptibly, not enough to hurt her, but sufficient to keep her immobile. She had nowhere to go; the rock at her back held firm, and Vincent seemed firmer still; he released a muted growl at her resistance, wordlessly expressive of his determination that she submit.

Catherine was uncertain how to progress; she did not wish to exacerbate his agitated state in any way, yet felt hesitant to comply with an appeal made when he was intoxicated. The decision was clearly not hers, however, for as she lay passive before him, his hands found her waist and wrested her away from the wall recess.

Left breathless by the sudden motion, she found herself hauled upright into a sitting position. His hands wound their way through her hair, and he pressed his face close to hers until brows touched and noses tickled. He was still hot and wet with the drug-fever, his breath searing through flared nostrils, his eyes fiery black pools. She waited for a kiss, but it did not come.

Instead he eased her head back and grazed the line of her jaw with his teeth, the action both unstudied and sensual. A curl of desire twisted deep within her, and she tried to quash it, knowing that she must put an end to these longed-for caresses; why did they have to come now, when he was out of his senses? The temptation to yield to him was so strong, yet she knew without a doubt that he would not choose this, that he would be horrified by his actions. She had to do what was right for Vincent, and disregard her own selfish wants.

But she couldn't disregard him. He wouldn't allow it. Even now his mouth was discovering the fragile flesh beneath her ear, and tasting her stuttering pulse. The desire began spiralling once more in her belly, too strong for conscience. Claws tugged restlessly at the cowl neck that impeded his mouth, and she knew a like impatience for the barriers to come down; she fought the longing stubbornly.

As if sensing her ambivalence - and she was certain he did sense it, despite the drug's influence - he sounded a deep-timbred growl into the crook of her neck before giving her a reproachful nip. It seemed he would not be dictated to, would not feel daunted by reservations so at odds with what her body told him, what it had always told him.

The catch of his teeth on her skin stilled her in body and thought, and his chest emitted a low rumble of passionate approval before he released her, soothing the mild hurt with the rasp of his tongue. Her troubled spirits felt strangely eased by his almost peremptory actions; she'd never known him to take such an assertive attitude towards her, and no matter how unlike him it was, it still satisfied some primitive need deep within her. She would have found such possessive forcefulness repugnant in another man; in Vincent, it beguiled her, because it affirmed so much of the longing he usually kept smothered…and because she trusted him. Even under the drug's influence she trusted him.

He withdrew from her suddenly, and although she knew they must stop, she almost cried out in denial; the loss of his mouth left a bitter loneliness. His hands, however, found the fastening on her jacket, and she was soon torn between vexation and relief as he tugged the garment away from her body; it seemed that he had no thought of withdrawal at all.

His efforts left her off-balance, and without the support of his hands, she fell back on the pallet. Helplessly supine in the dark, she was reminded of when they first met, and how she would lie for hours on end, blind and scared, groping for a hand that would not meet hers. She reached out now, anxious for his touch, and felt his hand close about her own; how was it possible that she had ever flinched away from him?

She wasn't flinching now; if she dared open her mouth, she might even start begging. Every good intention counted for nothing, it seemed; she felt utterly defeated by his hunger and her own. In this lonely place it felt as if the real world and all its worries were far away; their elemental need for one another was all that mattered.

Almost as if he had been waiting for this realisation - this call - he fell upon her, insinuating himself low between her legs and pressing his face against her midriff with a sigh. The powerful expanse of his chest forced her thighs wide, and although he supported most of his weight on his arms, she still felt overwhelmed by his iron muscularity, and quivered at the thought of being covered by him.

His hands fumbled at the bottom edge of her pullover, only to find the thin material of a tee-shirt, which he tugged impatiently from the confines of her trousers. He slowly pushed the clothes as one up the length of her torso, releasing a guttural purr of satisfaction as her bare flesh was revealed to him. She didn't need the urging of his steel grip to arch her body against him; the first touch of his bristled face upon her belly left her writhing.

The clothing caught at her chest, like a final warning. His hands were almost lost in great fistfuls of material, but she could feel the sharp claws of his thumbs trembling in the hot crease beneath her breasts, as if awaiting permission. Her body lifted into his touch - wordless sanction - and his thumbnails traced an electric path over her breasts as he shoved the clothing higher.

The baring of her breasts seemed to paralyse him; she could feel him leaning over her, panting hotly against her skin. As for herself, she felt utterly vulnerable; her arms were raised high above her head, trapped by the fetters of her own clothes.

With an animal groan, his head lowered to her breasts. She wondered if she might die from the bittersweet sensation of his bare flesh upon her own, from the brush of his hair across her naked body. She wondered if she might die if he didn't release her from her imprisoning clothing, so that she could hold him to her with both hands and never let him go.

She wondered if she might die.

He nuzzled her hard above her sternum, pressing her breasts together to embrace his face. She could feel his thumbs lifting her, his callused fingers supporting her, and a restraint that kept the barely-leashed violence from scoring her. She wondered if he would remember this, remember the way he stayed his claws, even under this starving, drug-fuelled provocation. She wasn't certain she would be able to show a similar consideration, and was almost grateful for the clothing that hampered her; unbearably aroused, she could feel her own nails itching to claw at his back.

He rubbed himself into the furrow between her breasts, then nudged insistently beneath them, soaking up her sweat on his tongue; the abrasive heat made her skin ripple. His mouth discovered one yearning nipple and surrounded it, suckling her hard until she had almost painfully peaked; when he released the bud, she sobbed at the cool touch of cavern air against her. He found her other nipple and embraced it in turn, framing the areola between his sharp incisors and rasping his tongue across the sensitive tip. Before freeing her, he eased the nipple into the cleft of his lip, giving her a uniquely heady kiss that sang like velvet through her veins.

By the time he raised his head, she was whimpering, her thighs clasping his torso vehemently. As if he were just realising her predicament, he caught at the clothing that still bound her and eased it fully over her head and further up her arms. As more flesh was exposed, he followed it with his mouth, grazing his tongue along the cords and hollows of her neck, and murmuring incoherently into her underarms until she wanted to scream with ticklish delight.

Even as he freed her arms from the clothing, she was more firmly bound by his own grip; he seemed to take intense pleasure in stroking the length of her arms and testing their strength. Riding higher up on her body, he let more and more of his weight rest upon her until his hips were wedged firmly between hers. When he finally drew her clothing from her hands and flung the garments away, he loomed over her at full stretch. She felt as if he were taking her measure, and hoped she was not wanting.

But, oh, how she wanted! Her hips rocked furiously beneath his weight, her wrists struggling in his clasp. She rubbed her breasts into his thickly furred torso, wanting to cry at the thought that, but for Paracelsus' machinations, she might never have known this melting pleasure. It was a horrid, almost blasphemous notion - that she should be grateful to such a man, and for such a reason! - and it gave her pause.

Vincent, however, would not admit delay. He released her hands and sank down the length of her body, leaving her quivering under the brush of his darkly falling hair. The unfastening of her trousers was accomplished in an instant, and he soon coaxed them - together with her panties - over her hips and down her shaking legs. A brief tussle ensued as he tried to remove everything, including her boots, at once, but soon she was naked beneath him in trembling welcome.

With a tormented growl, he settled between her thighs once more, his mouth pressing fever-hot against her belly. Her heart lurching frantically, she buried one hand in his hair and forced the other to her mouth, whilst her legs searched for purchase on his body. Sensitive to her every craving, he took her knees and moved them over the iron support of his shoulders, until her toes could clench in the wild mane that grew halfway down his back.

She was keening now, a hungry, pleading sound that accompanied the helpless bucking of her hips. His hands took her buttocks in a steadying grip and his lips moved lower, eager to grant her body's demand; yet even as his bristles caught on her curls, she was coming in a molten rush, and the first hot huff of his breath against her open body was met with ecstasy. Just the thought of him there…

She bit back a scream, her teeth digging painfully into her wrist. She was dimly aware that her sudden climax was forcing his own, though there was nothing to tell her this except their bond, for he was utterly silent. She was also aware that he was not yet finished, that he would peak with her again and again, and that next time he would be inside her; even now his body was gathering itself for the revel, whilst her own cried out for more.

And she was aware of something else. Revulsion.

The feeling had little time to crystallise before he was leaning over her once more, his glittering, voracious eyes meeting hers. There was a mesmerising aspect in his gaze, and she stroked his cheek dreamily; he was as still as stone, yet hot and humming, and she was reminded of the bas-relief she had touched in the catacombs. She waited to be filled by him, waited until time seemed suspended, and then she waited no more.

****************

Hours later, Vincent watched over her sleep.

He could see very little of her, just the fall of her hair lit by glowing coals in the nearby brazier. She was wrapped snug in a blanket - a clean blanket, he reminded himself grimly - and was facing away from him.

He expected no less.

He was abhorrent.

Shoulders slumping with weariness, he waited patiently for a sign of stirring. Her rest was deep and dreamless, her body unnaturally still. He was to blame for this quiescence, for he had forced it upon her, manipulating their bond to his own purpose. Imposing his will. A despicable act of cowardice that he had never known he was capable of.

And not the least of his transgressions.

If only she would wake. Yet he dreaded it, dreaded the hatred and loathing in her eyes. And whatever her eyes told him would be magnified a thousand-fold by the bond, a punishment well deserved.

He could remember some of it. Much was lost in the kaleidoscopic frenzy. Barriers, cages, wherever he turned. The inferno, the sickening wash of blood. Father. God, had he truly struck at Father? Surely that had been a dream…yet the crack of bone still ricocheted in his ears. Nothing had made sense except Catherine. And even she had seemed strange, a pagan goddess beckoning him to make a fiery sacrifice.

Not the Catherine he knew.

It was only after she had walked into his arms that events crystallised in his mind. This was his Catherine. Vulnerable, beloved flesh and bone placed trustingly in his grasp. The dizzying sensations of paranoia and disorientation had fallen away, to be replaced by the familiar need to protect her. Her presence strengthened him, her touch giving him purpose and will. Danger was all around; it was imperative that they not be separated. He wanted only to snatch her up and carry her away to a safe place, far from the flames that threatened them both.

A safe place. He looked about him and shook his head in disgust. He knew this cavern well; it was one of the places he came to when he felt most drawn to her, when his defences were at their lowest ebb. No one else, not even Mouse, had seen this place before; it was his own dark secret, a refuge from her unwitting pull. And this was where he had brought her.

He could not even tell himself that it had been an unconscious act. When all else had seemed perilously unknown, he had recognised her touch, both the physical sensation and the thread of sanity reaching across their tumultuous bond. He had even known her name, at least for a few moments. The name was soon gone, but the feelings it had invoked lingered; he had known a primitive need to claim her and keep her.

That need was nothing new; it had been with him since the moment he had taken up her bleeding, battered body in the park Above. He had ignored the need steadfastly for almost a year now, smothering his every possessive instinct no matter how vehemently they had screamed. And instinct had been hard to ignore, for he felt in his bones that she was made for him, that she was his mate. Only his rational self, his conscience, kept instinct in check; and Paracelsus had loosed the tethers.

Vincent groaned, unable to shake off the ache of foreboding. His actions had been unforgivable, his every weakness uncovered. Surely it must come to an end now, this dream of love; it could not survive such naked exposure of his darkness, his demons. The separation would be harder still now that he had tasted of her, but he would take the punishment as his due.

Almost in reaction to his distress, a tremor shook the stillness of their bond, and within a moment she was awake; he was relieved that she was able to throw off the unnatural sleep he had imposed, but steeled himself for what would come. She rolled over slowly, and he watched her brow furrow in confusion. The light from the brazier flickered across her face, and one small fist crept from under the blanket to knuckle at her eyes.

"Vincent?" She called his name with soft hesitance, and his heart twisted at the sound.

"Catherine. I'm here." His greeting was a hoarse whisper, and he trembled to see a smile crease her face. She peered in his direction but did not meet his eyes, and he realised that she could not see him.

He stepped tentatively from the dark recess where he had stood watch over her. The cavern was small; just a few strides across the uneven ground would bring him to where she lay on his pallet. The bedding was placed on a low platform tucked into a wide niche in the rock wall, and he did not want to make her feel cornered or vulnerable.

As he came within her sight, however, her smile widened. "Vincent, are you alright?"

It humbled him. After all that he had put her through, her first concern was for him. "I…am well, Catherine."

Her hand was shielding her eyes from the light, and he realised that its dim glow was bothering her. Nevertheless, she reached out for him, and he stepped closer to take her outstretched hand, helpless to deny her. She tugged imperatively and he obeyed the unspoken demand, kneeling at her side.

"You are well, aren't you? Your pupils…" Her voice drifted off as she examined his eyes; her own continued to blink owlishly. "They seem to be contracting okay, although I don't know if that proves anything. I can hardly see a thing myself, anyhow." She actually chuckled a little before raising their joined hands to his forehead. "Feels normal. Not hot at all."

Even as she said the words, he felt his skin flush in contradiction. A swim in a nearby underground river had put an end to the drug-fever; he had stroked relentlessly through the frigid water for over an hour until the last of the poison had been sweated from his system. His body did not so easily forget Catherine.

A blush was creeping into her own cheeks as her eyes adjusted to the light, and he realised that her gaze had dropped to his bare chest. He didn't know why she should stare so avidly; having dragged on some long thermal underwear, he was significantly more covered than he had been…before.

Before he had lit the brazier, to keep her warm as she slept. Dear God, he wasn't thinking at all. The drug, the exhaustion…every last bit of sense had been wrung out of him. The near darkness had been as nothing to him, and all the while she had been struggling blind. His heedlessness appalled him.

He stood abruptly, trying to spare her the sight of his body. After the intimacy…before…he felt as though he knew her by heart, and it had not occurred to him that she would not feel a like familiarity. In the grip of his delirium he had flaunted himself shamelessly before her, mistaking sightlessness for acceptance. Now she studied him for the first time, and he felt unbearably exposed.

There was to be no reprieve either. "Catherine, I…forgive me." He gestured helplessly at his body, resisting the urge to tug at his thermals; they slung low beneath his hipbones, clinging close to his skin. "My clothes are all wet. They were covered in that…substance…and I had to get it off somehow. There's a river nearby. I just threw everything in…your clothes too, I'm afraid. The pullover will probably shrink. I'm so sorry…" He broke off, uncomfortably aware that he was starting to babble, aware also that it wasn't really the clothes he was sorry about, but so much more. He turned away, conscious of her eyes on him, yet unable to meet them.

When he had laid the sleep upon her - his only defence against the feverish hunger that was overwhelming them both - her naked vulnerability had given him such a sweet pang; all he could think was that he was an affront to such loveliness. It was his climax, of all things, that had allowed him to shake off the greater part of the drug-mania; the strange scent of his own lust wreathed in the drug's poisonous fumes had been sickening. To think that such a thing had been allowed to touch her in any way; but for his precipitate desires, he could have been inside her, degrading her with that filth. Only then did he realise he was exuding the chemical odour from every pore, and that it was mingling obscenely with the scent of Catherine's body.

He had flung himself away from her, feeling sanity return for the first time in hours…and with it great surgings of guilt. What was he to do? He hadn't wanted to leave her alone, nor did he trust himself near her, with his body still taut with craving. Paramount in his mind had been the necessity to rid himself of the miasma clinging to him. Trying desperately not to touch her, or even look at her - knowing to do so would undermine his efforts - he had eased the semen-stained blanket from beneath her body before wrapping her tenderly in a clean one. It was then that she had turned in her sleep to face the wall, like an unconscious rebuke. He had sighed with remorse and dragged their clothes to the river, where - fighting exhaustion and fever - he had scoured his body with soap. When that did not remove the chemical fetidness, he had sweated it out by swimming long and hard in the icy darkness. He could not face her until he was clean.

Unfortunately, he had succumbed to the frenzy of washing before it had even occurred to him that he no change of clothes; only by sheer luck had he returned to find an old pair of thermals in the battered sea trunk he kept in the cavern. There was a shirt in there as well, but he had put it aside for Catherine - thinking as much of his own sanity as her modesty - and now he wished he'd put it on anyhow. Right now the weight of her eyes on his naked, densely furred back was almost more than he could bear. What was she thinking?

"Vincent?" The tentative touch of her hand on his back startled him, making him flinch. It was a measure of his abstraction that he had not her approach.

"Don't touch me," he muttered, moving back into the shadows beyond her reach.

"Vincent, don't be sorry." There was a note of pleading in her voice, and he knew she was not referring to the wet clothes either, any more than he had been. Even with his back to her, he could tell that the smile had left her face; if he turned around he knew he would find her eyes filled with that soft sadness that never failed to disarm him.

"I am sorry, Catherine. More than I can tell you."

He heard her gulp a little. "I…I don't want to hear that. But if you're going to apologise, I wish you would at least look at me."

He turned slowly, his head hanging low. "I have never been so ashamed." Self-loathing lent an unintended harshness to his tone, and as he peered at her from beneath his tangled fringe, he could see her bottom lip quivering.

"Oh, Vincent, why? Do you honestly think I would blame you for any of this? Do you think I even mind?"

"I mind!" he growled. "This loss of reason…of dignity…it shames me. And it hurts us both!"

"Do I look hurt, Vincent? Do I?" She pulled herself up straight, queenly in her blanket and bare feet. "The only way you can cause me pain is by punishing yourself like this."

He reached out his hand and stroked furred knuckles across her cheek and down her proud neck. How could he make her see? "Your skin…your soft skin, Catherine. It's covered in abrasions. Like a rash, wherever I touched you. It hurts me to know I put those marks on you…and it hurts more to know that I enjoyed doing it."

"That's not pain, Vincent. That's a pleasure." She tried to take his hand in her own, but he pulled away, avoiding her touch even as he longed to submit to it. "If you won't listen to me, then at least listen to our bond. It will tell you I'm not lying."

He tried to concentrate on their connection, but it felt strange and tenuous, and he realised he had been cutting himself off from her, too frightened to know the truth. Since that shattering climax they had shared, when he had felt such a helpless thrall to her body's demands, he had been pulling away. Guarding against the loss of control…the loss of himself. Terrified of hurting her in the extremity of passion.

"What of Father?" he asked suddenly. "I struck him down. Broke his arm." Stating the fact baldly, he realised it was truth…could even picture the scene in his mind in all its horrifying detail, stripped of haziness. He collapsed to the ground, feeling overcome with sick regret.

"Yes, you did." She dropped down beside him, her expression serious. "And he understood, Vincent. He's a doctor; I'm sure he could provide you with a list of your symptoms. I can do it myself, if you like; I've interviewed enough victims. Hallucinations. Delirium. Persecution complex. Hyperpyrexia. Tachycardia…"

"Stop!" he cried, not wanting to hear anymore of the litany. As if it made any of his actions forgivable…

"You were hot, Vincent. So hot you scared me. It felt like your skin might dissolve at my touch. And your heart…" She reached out tentatively, as if she might stroke his chest, and he twisted away, unable to bear it. "I thought it might stop. And mine would have stopped soon after."

"No!"

"Yes." There was a conviction in her voice that he couldn't ignore. "I couldn't live without you, Vincent. Why do you think I came down to the catacombs? Father asked me, and I could tell he regretted the request as soon as he made it; he was thinking as a father, not as a doctor. But I came anyhow. I told him I had no choice. I wouldn't even want one."

"You had a choice, Catherine. You could have left me alone. I wish you had."

"Just like you leave me alone every time I'm in danger?" He glanced up at that, discovering a tenderness in her eyes. "Vincent, there's something very powerful at work between us. And I can't resist it, any more than you can."

"Catherine, I snapped his bone with one swipe of my arm. Just think what I might have done to you." The thought of her, lying broken and bruised at his feet, made him reel with horror.

She took his chin in her small hand, holding him gently. "Vincent, you were under the severest provocation today, and still you couldn't hurt me. Isn't that more than enough proof of your self-control?"

More than enough proof. She was sitting here before him, loving and vital, caressing him willingly. He opened himself up to the sensation, rubbing his cheek into her hand…and felt a ghostly tingle in his own palm.

They remained that way for several minutes, taking comfort in the connection. It was amazing how much strength her fragile touch lent him. One of the worst effects of the drug had been the disorientation, the sense of rupture from all he knew. She had dispelled the feeling just by walking into his arms. If only he had allowed himself to enter her body, he felt he would never have known alienation again.

Such thoughts were dangerous. He stood in one fluid motion and moved to the trunk where he had left a pitcher of water. It came from the river, far upstream from where he had washed himself and their clothes, and it had a fresh, biting taste; he had already quenched himself thoroughly, long before she'd awakened. He brought the pitcher over to her and held it to her mouth. "Catherine, you're thirsty."

She blinked at him and licked delicately at her lips. "How did you…?" She didn't finish the question - already guessing the answer - and instead let him feed her. He watched her throat move sinuously with each swallow, and felt his own mouth dry in response. Once she had had enough, he sipped from the pitcher himself, his lips replacing the shadow of her own.

Her eyes looked huge as she studied him, and a figment of her thoughts flashed in his mind; she was remembering how he had suckled at her breasts. An unmistakable yearning emanated from her that his own body immediately echoed, and he almost dropped the pitcher.

Trying to cover his confusion, he put it on the ground and rose from his haunches, walking over to the brazier. "There's water warming here for you, Catherine." He wanted her to wash, but didn't know how to say so without offending her. She was undoubtedly unaware that she was covered in his scent, not just his own distinctive fragrance - which he was always secretly elated to find on her - but that strange chemical smell that had poured off him in feverish waves. He had managed to rub it all over her in his fit of possessive fervour, and desperately wished it eradicated.

There was also the strong scent of her arousal to tease his nostrils, and he wanted that gone too. It was an unbearable temptation after all that had happened, tearing his willpower to shreds.

"All the amenities," she said from directly behind him, and he realised with a start that once more she had snuck up on him unawares. How could he be so attuned to her, and so distracted at the same time?

"I'm sorry about…well, all this," he said, motioning vaguely about him to their Spartan quarters.

"Vincent, please stop apologising. I thought I'd gone to a great deal of trouble to convince you that our present situation is not your fault. If you want to blame someone, blame Paracelsus."

"Paracelsus," he muttered. "I will have to deal with him."

"We'll take care of him, Vincent…the two of us. But please, just promise me you won't go after him alone."

He stared down at the gently steaming kettle of water. His face was a warped reflection on the copper surface…a cruel reminder of what Paracelsus had accomplished. "I cannot promise that, Catherine. I will not place you in danger. But I promise to be careful. Now that I know just how devious this man can be, I will be on my guard against his tricks."

She sighed, and he felt the warm rush of air touch his back. "I suppose there's no immediate urgency. He's probably gone to ground."

"I agree. And I will take care of him when the time comes." He could sense her gathering breath to argue, and tried to distract her. "Would you like to bathe, Catherine? This water is more than warm enough now, and there's soap and a washcloth here."

"A sponge bath?" He turned to find her looking about their confined quarters uncertainly. "Perhaps I should just wait until we return to the main tunnels."

"It will be a while before we can dress. There's a natural ventilation shaft not far from here, and I've hung our clothes as best I can, but it will still take some time before they're wearable."

"Oh." She looked endearingly flustered, and held her blanket in a death grip. "Well, I certainly don't relish prancing into Father's study in my present attire. And as for yours…" She broke off with a light laugh. "I like the look myself, but Father might have an apoplectic fit."

He had almost forgotten his state of undress. Father would indeed raise more than an eyebrow. "There's a clean shirt of mine which you can put on. It will probably reach your knees. But first…" He pulled the kettle from the brazier, letting more golden light into the cavern, and continued, "…your bath water."

She watched with a furrowed brow as he poured the water into a basin on the trunk, before looking at him askance. "Vincent? Is there some reason you want me to wash?"

He stared at her impassively, even as he searched his brain for an excuse that would not reveal his shame. The truth would only disturb her…perhaps disgust her. "I thought you might be more comfortable. I'll give you privacy."

"No, don't leave! Please, I don't want to be alone. It's just that…" Her voice trailed away as she sat down on the trunk, her hand swaying in the rising steam. He could feel the heat warming his own fingers, despite the distance between them; he could feel too the tumult of anxiety and embarrassment growing within her, but could not guess its cause. With her eyes cast downward and the blanket wrapped around her, she looked absurdly young, like a child awaiting punishment with solemn resignation. "Vincent, do I…repulse you?"

He was astonished by the timid question. Repulse him? He loved her so much he ached with it. "How…how could you even think such a thing?"

"I…I don't know. After we…" She bit her lip hard, and his own mouth twitched in response. "Afterwards, I sensed this - I don't know, revulsion - and I know it wasn't me. So it must have been you. And now you think I'm dirty, and you're trying to run away, and I don't understand!"

"Oh no, Catherine, no!" he cried, shaken by her welling anguish. "It's nothing like that at all!"

"Then tell me. Please?"

He felt utterly wretched to have wounded her so. How strange that she should be pricked by the same sort of self-doubt that nagged at him, always. "Catherine, you're right. I did feel revulsion. But it was for myself, not you. Never you." Her face was still naked with distress, and he knew he had to try and explain, no matter how ignoble it might sound. "Paracelsus' drug…it felt like a pestilence inside me. I reeked of it - it was seeping out of every pore, and I never even noticed, not until I…"

"Until you came."

He flushed miserably at her words. "Yes, Once I could smell it, really smell it, it was like a slap in the face - and the drug started to lose its hold on me. All I could think of was getting away, getting it off me…getting it off you."

She looked thoughtful as she weighed his words, and her eyes followed the paths of rose stippling across her chest and disappearing beneath the blanket. "You made me sleep, didn't you? I thought I passed out, but it was you."

His skin crawled with shame. "It was the only way I could stop, Catherine. I couldn't stop myself, so I stopped you instead. I'm so sorry…"

She dipped her fingertips into the hot water, and the sensation was like an electric shock, checking the flow of distraught words, the apologies. He reached for the pitcher and drew beside her to pour cool water into the basin. There was an angry circle of teeth marks at her wrist, and he felt a strong compulsion to lay his mouth on the hurt, to soothe it with his tongue. She looked up suddenly and caught the direction of his eyes. In a soft, calm voice she said, "There'll be a bruise."

"Yes," he agreed. The colours were already forming.

"I was trying not to scream. I've never felt so out of control." With a quirk of her mouth, she immersed her hand in the water, hiding the mark she'd made. "Still Daddy's little girl, I guess. So important to be a lady."

Again, the astonishment. He had been so worried about his own loss of dignity; it hadn't occurred to him that she might fall prey to similar thoughts. Her passion had staggered him, strengthened him; how could she see it as reason for shame? He put the pitcher down and took up her hand, obeying his initial instinct.

Water dripped from their fingers, piercing the silence as he brushed his lips gently over her tender skin. The gesture was almost courtly, and then his mouth opened to absorb the moisture onto his tongue, and it wasn't courtly at all, but primitive and possessive.

Her pulse seemed to fill his mouth. He tried to fit his teeth to the impression made by her own, pressing until he felt the pang, then licking the soreness away. Her blood was rushing to meet the cadence of his own pulse, the bond drawing their bodies irrevocably into synch. He had meant only to comfort, but their mutual need transformed every touch - every breath - into seduction.

Staring down into her eyes, he found them dilated with covetous import; reaching deep within himself to the place where she lived, he knew it was true. He couldn't let those eyes go. Turning her hand to lave at the heart of her palm, he held her midnight gaze stubbornly, and when her eyelids started to slip his hold, he nipped at the delicate slope of skin between her thumb and forefinger, demanding her attention.

Her eyes were wide and wondering, and the sigh of his name escaped her lips. He drew her index finger into his mouth and let her explore his tongue. It was flatter and more flexible than her own, and for the first time the difference did not disturb him; the speculation in her eyes was more than matched by the sparkle of ardour. She teased the ridged roof of his mouth and traced the savage outline of his incisors, until he was wild to drink her in deep; he suckled the water from each finger in turn, supplanting the moisture with his own.

A smile creased her features, dreamy and disarming, and she took her fingers from his lips to touch her own. "Will you bathe me then?" she asked, a silky whisper that broke his reverie, and he saw that the blanket had fallen about her waist, released from her boneless grasp.

"Catherine!" Had he truly thought he was tired? The sight of her simple surrender ignited him, and his answer was a ragged undertone, raw with wonder. "Catherine, I will."

He breathed her in deeply, tasting the hunger, the molten emptiness. Overlaying that beauty was Paracelsus' poison. It was an affront, a heinous imposition. He groped for the washcloth and soaked it in the warm water. Squeezing out the excess wetness, he drew the cloth gently across her upraised face and over her hair. Her eyes drifted shut, but the dreamy smile remained; it felt like a benediction.

It wasn't enough. He wanted more. Finding the cake of soap - still damp from his own bath - he lathered his hands in the basin. Then he laid them upon her…and could not tell who trembled more.

He held her throat in a light clasp; she was utterly relaxed, completely trusting. His fingers pressed into her nape whilst his thumbs traced the cords of her neck, forcing a hum of pleasure from her slack lips. Her head lolled, searching for support, and he stepped closer until her brow could rest against his hip bone.

The contact dragged a harsh growl from him, but he massaged the delicate bones of her shoulders as though they were made of eggshells. Leaning over her, he scooped up handfuls of water and sluiced the fine lines of her back; her small hands crept up to grip at his waist, tugging at the thermals, and he groaned as she cuddled into his pelvis. He was hopelessly aroused.

Searching for something - anything - to distract him, his eyes found the beauty mark at the top of her spine. He remembered that he first saw it just moments before she first saw him. He had dreamt of it often, this small blemish that beckoned his touch, and wondered if she even knew it was there. Further down, off to one side, was the puckered scar of a bullet wound; the sight of it reminded him of how fragile and precious she was. Her life could have been snuffed out so easily.

He fell to his knees before her, overwhelmed with a sense of urgency. Lathering up quickly, he cupped the gentle weight of her breasts, gasping as she arched into his hands. Her entire torso was mottled from the sandpaper caress of his cheeks, her nipples swollen and suppliant; he soaped and rinsed and coaxed her all over, his every touch accompanied by her soft keening. When he dragged the washcloth along the length of her arms, her muscles flexed hungrily, crying out to hold him…echoing his own craving.

He persuaded her to her feet, snatching the blanket away. She could barely stand of her own volition, and wound her hands into his mane for support; his own legs trembled in sympathy, and he was glad he was kneeling. Nestling into the buttermilk soft skin of her belly, he flicked his tongue over the mottled imprints he had left. She was exquisite, everything he had ever wanted.

He bound his arms tight about her, listening as her body quickened. Her salty scent rose stronger, more demanding, and he could feel the marvellous pull and thrust of her inner muscles, almost like pain. Oh, she was fast, tilting at him, trying him, but he wouldn't let her have her way, not until they were together.

Sobriety lent no moderation; he could only feel her all the more. He loosed his arms, and she was swaying, then sliding, a silken fall along her body. She settled across his thighs, her head tossing in ferment, and he pressed it into the crook of his neck, where he could whisper into her ear, "Not yet, Catherine…not without me."

She sobbed, "No, never," and clutched at him. Her thighs were straining to span his, and he hooked his arms beneath them, draping her around his body to relieve her stress. "Never without you. But hurry!" she pleaded, and he was inside her now, with nothing to separate them.

Ah, but she was tight, so hot and wet he wanted to dissolve in her embrace. He pushed up, and up again, heeding primal instinct until the two of them were so entangled he hardly knew what he was feeling. She met him with a power to match his own, sheltering and savaging him in turn, and it was so good, so good to just…let go.

He took a fistful of her hair, pulling her back so that she must see him. "Not…Daddy's little girl," he gasped. "My woman, oh, my mate. Please, Catherine…" He pressed his mouth to her hot brow, to her cheeks where tears of frustrated pleasure fell. "Say it. Say you're mine."

"Yours, Vincent, yours," she whispered brokenly.

He grounded himself deep inside her and let her have her way. "Scream, Catherine," he urged. "We're alone…we're one…now scream!"

And she did in the end, even as he found his own ferociously silent release, melting inside her body. She screamed to shatter the silence of their cavern…screamed to shake the catacombs.