One Final Gift…

by Kaly


He moved slowly through the deepest, darkest parts of the tunnels, far beneath the catacombs. Making his way as he did each year at this time, the cavernous area he sought out as dark and full of holes as his memory of what had transpired there.

Yet he was always drawn back. To where his life had both begun and ended in a single moment. The place where his one reason for remaining on this earth &endash; his son, Jacob &endash; was created; a creation occurring in an event that, even to this day, he had no recollection of.

The light from his torch bounced off the tunnel walls, casting long, menacing shadows all around him. Shadows that seemed to reach out for him, mocking him, whispering of secrets that he should, but did not know. Riddles that they had kept locked away all these years, taunting him at every turn, but not divulging them to his aching heart. And so he returned again and again, hoping to finally discover those secrets and ease his tormented soul.

He turned a corner, a vision of his young son's face appearing before him, asking again why his father made this yearly journey. Why he took this pilgrimage alone, sometimes spending days away from his loved ones. Pilgrimage. A smile briefly tugged at the corners of his mouth at the pronunciation his son gave the word, realizing its use had to be the result of one of Father's talks with the boy. He'd tried to gently explain his reasoning for the yearly treks that took him far from their home…but how do you make a twelve-year-old boy understand such a complex thing? Even a boy as remarkably gifted as Jacob?

Finally he entered the darkened chamber &endash; the end of his long journey &endash; and placed his torch in the holder carved into the wall. The chamber had been used once, years ago, abandoned long before he had any memory of anyone living there. But someone must have had use of it &endash; for why else would it be there?

His mind drifted to his first excursion into this deep, dark chasm after Catherine's death. He'd fought with himself when his dark side threatened, as did his grief, to consume him. The beast within taunted him, the sound of its evil laughter echoed in his head as if it had actually bounced off the cavern walls. He had collapsed to the dirt floor, fighting against an invisible force whose only wish was to devour him.

Defeated and alone, he'd nearly given up to that fierce creature…and then, in the flickering torchlight, he'd spied it. A luminescent object lying on the floor before him, half hidden by the dirt. Her crystal pendant &endash; the necklace he'd presented her on the first anniversary of their meeting. Catherine had reached to him from Beyond, her warmth surrounding him as the memory of her last words to him brought him something he'd thought he had lost forever &endash; hope. "We loved…" As he heard her call out to him, telling him of the new life they'd created, he knew then that she would always be with him. Just as he knew she was with him now.

While he loved Jacob with a passion paralleled only by his love for the boy's mother, still there was a void in his life. An emptiness at the very core of his being that he somehow hoped could be lessened…if only he could retain some memory of what happened that day all those years ago. The day that he'd been given the gift of Jacob…and the day he'd lost the greatest gift he ever received &endash; his bond with Catherine. The connection they'd shared &endash; the way they'd always known what the other was feeling and wanting &endash; had been irrevocably destroyed during that dark time in his life.

"Catherine," he whispered reverently as he sank to his knees in the middle of the chamber. "Please…" he pleaded softly, not quite certain just what he was begging for. His long fingers fumbled for the leather pouch that never left his possession. Inside he retrieved the ivory rose she had gifted him in exchange for the crystal pendant. He had always considered his gift from her to be the more precious of the two &endash; though all he had truly needed was the love he had seen shimmering in her eyes.

He cradled the carved piece of ivory gently in his large and powerful hands, his fingers tracing lightly over the rose's raised edges. Its edges were worn and discolored from the loving attention he'd lavished upon it in all the years passed. He sighed heavily, feeling the crushing weight of his sorrow once again overpowering him. Tears fell from his cerulean blue eyes to rest upon bronze cheeks and he wondered if he would ever be able to recall Catherine without the intense pain he now felt. If only he could remember the love they had shared in this cavern; perhaps then he could find the strength to let go.

A soft roaring sound, like the rush of water, started to build in the small room. Vincent's brow furrowed as he tried to determine the source. As each second passed, the sound grew in intensity, becoming louder and more violent and he came to the shocking realization of what the sound was. It was him &endash; or rather an echo of himself from when he'd gone into seclusion in this chamber. The snarls grew so deafening that he threw his hands over his ears to try and escape the sound.

Sensing a presence in the chamber entrance, he glanced up. He saw Catherine standing in the archway, seeming so real that he nearly rose to his feet to go to her. The growling came from behind him now, and he turned, stunned to see an image of what had been. Unkempt and feral, the beast before him paced and snarled, lashing out at every turn. Vincent's eyes widened in terror, seeing his fear mirrored in Catherine's eyes as the beast spied her.

"Vincent!" Growling and baring its teeth the monstrous creature lunged for her. It raised its arm as if to strike. "VINCENT!"

Vincent watched as the beast paused &endash; he had difficulty reconciling himself to the knowledge that the creature he saw was, in fact, a reflection of what he'd been on that fateful day. The creature's eyes blinked, taking on a confused look, and the arm slowly moved downward. He felt his own heartbeat slow as he watched his former self fall forward, Catherine stumbling under the dead weight suddenly thrust upon her.

She gently placed the limp figure on the ground. The beats came slower and slower until they stopped altogether; Vincent gulped in huge breaths of air, alarmed by the deafening silence. Catherine gazed fretfully at the prone form in front of her, her eyes drifting across his face.

HIS face! Vincent suddenly found himself lying beside her &endash; taking the place of the creature in his vision. Though he knew his eyes were closed, still he saw her face as she gazed down at him, concern in her eyes.

"Vincent…" Catherine whispered, the sound barely escaping her throat. On her knees beside him, her hand pressed against his chest, feeling frantically for a heartbeat that was no longer there. "No…" she cried, shaking her head. One ear dropped to his chest and she gripped both shoulders tightly. "No!" she said more vehemently.

Her face came back up into Vincent's field of vision and he felt a hand at his throat, once again searching for a pulse. "No!" Catherine pleaded again, her head dropping to his chest in despair. "NO!" she uttered one final time, the word coming out as a low pain-filled growl. Her head rose once more to gaze upon his face.

"Vincent…Vincent! You can't!" she commanded, her eyes searching for something &endash; anything &endash; that might let her know he heard her. "You can't! Not without me! I won't let you!" Vincent felt her head fall against his chest, her arms wrapping themselves about his large frame. "I won't let you…"

Catherine's face once again moved into his field of vision, pale and drawn, her eyes haunted as she gazed down upon him. Her face fell out of focus as it dropped down toward his own and Vincent felt her lips brush across his. Light at first, and then harder &endash; as if she were trying to force her own life-force into him, trying to bring him back to her.

thump-thump. Vincent heard the faint sound of a heartbeat &endash; felt it stir within his own chest. thump-thump. The sound grew louder and a warmth began to envelop him; a tingling that began at his lips and quickly spread throughout his body. Thump-thump. Catherine's body pressed against him, he felt her hands gently caressing his cheeks as she continued to kiss him. Vincent's lips parted and he drew her lower lip into his mouth, lightly sucking on it.

His arm wrapped around her when, startled, she attempted to pull away; his hand wove its way into the silkiness of her hair, holding her mouth firmly on his as he tentatively stroked across her lips with the tip of his tongue. 'I've waited too long for this &endash; too long,' he thought wildly. 'And I'll be damned if I'll deny myself this any longer.'

Were those thoughts from long ago that filtered through his mind, he briefly wondered, or what he was feeling now. Deep down, some small part of him knew that all he was experiencing was but a memory…but…he could feel her, could smell her, could taste her &endash; as if Catherine were truly in his arms again. Incredible sensations flowed through every inch of his body, stirring him, until he no longer could differentiate between past and present.

Nor did he wish to. However it had happened, Catherine was here with him, and she was as real as she had ever been. He could feel the weight of her body as she lay across him, could feel strands of her hair between his fingers; her hands gripping his shoulders as she opened her mouth to allow his eager tongue to slip inside. This was all he'd ever imagined it could be and more, and he felt all his fears about what he might have done to her fall away in that moment. Catherine was here &endash; in his arms &endash; her lips readily accepting the attention he was lavishing upon them.

And she was stirring his senses in such a way that he'd never felt &endash; before or since. Not Lena, not Diana, not even Lisa had ever enflamed him as the woman in his arms now did. He wanted her, needed her; no other woman would ever fill the space in his heart and soul that belonged solely to her. His Catherine.

Firm but gentle hands pushed at his shoulders and Vincent reluctantly let his arms slip from around her. "Don't leave me," he heard his own voice plead, weak and gravelly. She sat beside him and gazed down into his eyes, smiling tenderly, her expression full of love.

"Never," Catherine whispered to him, brushing a hand tenderly across his golden head. "All I wish for is to be at your side, Vincent. Always and forever." She shrugged her overcoat off and snuggled down next to him, her arms slipping about his waist, contented with just holding him close to her.

But for him it was not enough. He longed for more and sensed that she did as well, though she would never admit it. He tilted her face up to meet his own and his mouth found hers, his thumb and forefinger gently gripping her chin. A soft moan slipped from her mouth to his, and she seemed to melt into him, the two becoming one. Vincent feasted upon her lips, his hand moving across her cheek to cradle her head in his large palm. A soft growl rose in his throat as she drew away from him a second time.

"Are you sure?" Catherine asked softly, raising a hand to brush hair from his eyes. It glided across his temple and down his cheek. Vincent's arms slipped around her waist and, shifting slightly, he pulled her atop him. His gaze fixed on hers, he held her tightly against him, proving to her just how certain he was.

"But, Vincent…" Catherine protested weakly; Vincent saw her concern for him in her eyes, yet there was a fire there also &endash; one that would not be stamped out this time. Not if he could help it. He lifted his head, seeking out and capturing her mouth once again. His arms wrapped firmly around her, Vincent turned, until they lay side-by-side. He would have continued, wanting to feel her body beneath him, but she stopped him, her strength surprisingly great.

"No," she admonished gently, kissing his cheek before leaning in to whisper in his ear, "Together. Always, Vincent, we travel this road together." It took him a moment to realize what Catherine meant &endash; this was to be a joint effort, neither taking the dominant role &endash; and he sighed, appreciating that her worry had yet to completely abate. He felt her lips at his throat as she placed feathery light kisses to the sensitive flesh between neck and shoulder. He tightened his grip on her, wanting to mold her body to his.

Catherine was right, he realized…this was more than just the joining of their bodies &endash; more than a physical coming together. Their two souls, though already bonded, were now to become one. This was where their two roads merged &endash; what he could have had long ago, if only he hadn't given in to his own fears. He'd allowed that fear to control him, nearly depriving himself of the greatest gift that love can give.

Cupping her face in his powerful, but gentle hands, Vincent lifted her gaze up to meet his own. Catherine's love for him shone in the depths of her green eyes and he felt as if he were being drawn into them. His lips melded with hers; one taloned hand moved into her soft hair and held her mouth tightly against his own.

Catherine moaned into his mouth; one arm slipped around his waist as she snuggled tight against him. His free hand moved slowly down her back until it reached the hem of her sweater. He hesitated only a moment before allowing the hand to drift underneath and he traced small circles into the small of her back. Catherine's back arched, trying to move into the caress and a soft sigh escaped from her lips.

One small hand slipped between them; Vincent felt the slender fingers make their way up his chest before brushing across his cheek. He leaned into the hand and pressed his lips to her palm. Both of his hands slipped beneath her sweater and stroked her back; his long, tapered nails &endash; deadly when used in anger - pressed gently into her skin as they traced her spine.

Cradling his face in her hands, Catherine pulled back and looked longingly into his eyes. "I love you, Vincent," she whispered reverently, her green eyes brimming with tears. She swallowed hard, her eyes fluttering closed and Vincent leaned in to bestow a kiss upon each moist eyelid, tasting the saltiness of her tears.

His hands trailed down her spine to the small of her back and then curled around her hips, bringing her flush against him. Catherine's eyes flew open and she gazed into Vincent's blue eyes, their cerulean depths darkened by desire. Large furred hands found her waist and a soft smile rose to Catherine's face as those hands fumbled nervously with the fastenings of her slacks.

"Vincent…" she whispered, her hand moving to cover his. Their gazes locked upon each other's and, though she did not speak it, Vincent could clearly hear her say, 'Let me.'

She sat up momentarily and glanced around the room, causing Vincent to wonder if she had changed her mind. Then she smiled again, her eyes lighting up as if just making a great discovery, and she reached behind her for her discarded overcoat. Vincent's brows drew together and he sighed.

Noticing his forlorn expression, Catherine bent down to sweep a hand across the side of his face, her thumb gently tracing his lower lip. She gazed longingly at him as she opened her coat and spread it out on the ground beside him and knelt down upon it.

"You didn't think I would leave you?" she asked softly. "Always and forever, Vincent…remember?" She slipped her pumps off her feet and Vincent grinned in spite of himself at the sight of her wriggling her toes. "Habit," she said with a smile. She bent down and helped him move onto one side of the blanket she had made of her coat.

Catherine paused, suddenly seeming a bit uncertain and nervous. Vincent knew what she was feeling, for, he too, was experiencing the same emotions. They had already gone, in the last few moments, much farther than they had ever before. But, this last step &endash; there was no turning back once they crossed this threshold.

He gazed up at the face of the woman he loved as she knelt beside him, looked into the depths of her green eyes and knew that this felt right. All of his doubts melted away at the sight of the love in those eyes, eyes that had seen him at his darkest and had not turned away. She'd stood her ground &endash; even as he'd prepared to attack &endash; because she trusted that, deep down, he would never hurt her.

He felt so undeserving of that trust, undeserving of her love. For what did he know of love, other than that which he had read in books? He knew of the love of a parent to a child &endash; for that is what Father had bestowed upon him from the start. He knew of a child's love &endash; for the children of the tunnels gave that to him in abundance. And the love of a friend &endash; friends &endash; for all of the tunnel dwellers and their Helpers looked out for him, as well as for each other.

But this love, this was a far different &endash; all-consuming &endash; love. Full of powerful emotions that had been so heady and fearsome while he'd been growing into adulthood. When he had been unable to handle them…with Lisa. He'd not understood what was happening to him &endash; only that, in the end, both he and Lisa had been frightened beyond words. And Father unknowingly compounded those fears by sending Lisa away.

"Vincent." He blinked, Catherine's voice bringing him out of his reverie. The uncertainty that had marked her face was gone, replaced by determination…and love. The love was always there, had always been there.

When they'd first met, he had been the teacher. Showing her that she had survived &endash; could survive; teaching her to trust again, in herself and others. Now they had come to a place where Vincent had to let Catherine take the lead &endash; let her teach him. Just as she had taught him how to dream…dream of a life they could share, a love they could share.

And now that love was about to take one final step. Vincent watched as his love, Catherine, a tender smile still upon her face, slowly shed her clothing and came to lie beside him. Nervous, his gaze stayed focused upon her face, but for a few quick and fleeting glimpses of her slender form.

Lying on her side next to him, Catherine propped herself up on her right arm, her hand resting underneath her cheek, and leaned toward him. "You do blush," she whispered with a small chuckle. "I'd wondered…" Leaning a bit further, so that she was slightly over him, she bent down and brushed across his lips with her own. She took his right hand and brought it over to rest on her hip; Vincent reflexively drew it back quickly, his face flushing even more.

"Vincent, it's okay to touch me," she chided gently. Taking his hand again, she brought it up to her face, brushing the back of it against her cheek. "I won't break…I promise."

Catherine released his hand and it hovered there a moment, Vincent feeling the silky softness of the cheek beneath his touch, before he slowly traced down her jaw line with his fingertips. They trailed down the length of her neck and across her bare shoulder and she sighed, her eyes closed. Then his fingers closed around her upper arm and he felt her tremble.

"Catherine…you're chilled."

"It's okay, Vincent. I won't be for long." His blush threatened to deepen as he came to understand the meaning of her words. Blue eyes looked into green and he saw her slight nod, a silent and gentle urging for him to continue his exploration.

His hand traveled the length of her arm, pausing as their fingers entwined and she squeezed them gently. Catherine leaned into him as his fingers traced her hip, causing his hand to caress the soft curve of her behind. Vincent's eyes widened at the sound of her breath catching, concerned for a second that he had done something wrong. Then he saw the smile on her face and relaxed.

"Vincent?" she questioned softly as he felt her slender fingers brush across his waist. He saw the hunger in her eyes, knowing it matched his own, and mutely nodded, afraid that speaking his assent aloud would somehow break the spell.

Catherine worked on unfastening his pants, Vincent lifting his hip from the ground as she slipped them off him. He drew in a sharp breath of his own as her hands brushed across his hips and behind as she did so. His hair was finer there than on the rest of his body, yet still more prominent than that of other men, and he couldn't help but wonder what Catherine would think.

Catherine removed the pants and drew his lower leg forward slightly, a shudder running through him as her fingers traced the hair on the back of his calves. Straightening his left arm so it lay flat across the floor, she moved up and rested her cheek on his bicep, tilting her gaze until it met his. She leaned into him and their lips met in a kiss. She snuggled up against him, her right hand flat against his chest as her left one wound itself into his golden mane.

"Catherine…" Vincent groaned as their bodies pressed together. His skin felt aflame where it touched hers; he felt his heart beat faster under the warm pressure of her hand. He shuddered involuntarily as her hand sifted through his long hair and drifted down his back, slipping underneath his shirt to stroke the soft down of fur on his back.

For her part, Catherine showed no outward reaction to the differences between Vincent and the other men she'd been with in her life. If anything, she seemed more determined to get closer to him, her hand gently squeezing the muscles of his back and sides. She rained kisses upon his face and mouth; all the while her body began to slowly rock against his.

"Cath-e-rine…"

"Shh…" Catherine replied, her mouth turned up into a tender smile. Leaning his body back slightly, she draped her left leg over his hip and carefully guided him inside her. She gasped softly as her body adjusted to his size, then moved against him, coaxing him into a slow and gentle rhythm.

Vincent reveled in the feel of her body joining with his, the warmth of her leg across his hip. He exhaled sharply as the leg tightened around his backside, drawing him further into her. Instinctively his arms encircled her; the left hand curling into her soft tresses as the right one dared to drift down her back to the curve of her behind.

Catherine moaned softly as his fingers squeezed the soft flesh; she nuzzled his neck, her lips finding the tender spot between neck and shoulder. The hand at the back of her head tilted her face toward Vincent's and he captured her lips with his own in a searing kiss. A kiss filled with long-repressed passion.

Their passion building, their bodies moved faster, clinging tightly to one another as the fire consumed them both. Again and again their bodies met, Catherine whimpering softly against Vincent's mouth. Their breaths came hard and fast; their heartbeats racing in tandem, as though the two hearts had become one.

The fire burning within him grew; the soft sounds emanating from Catherine telling him that she too was nearing the culmination of everything they shared together. Burying her head against his shoulder she cried out softly, her body tensing in his embrace. Catherine's actions triggered his own release and Vincent drew her close to him as he rode the wave that engulfed him.

"Catherine…" he murmured her name as he nuzzled her hair, planting a tender kiss to the top of her head. He collapsed on his back, drawing her on top of him, unwilling to let her go now that they were finally joined. The only sound in the chamber was that of their heavy breathing. Catherine's hand, having moved to his chest as he'd rolled onto his back, was now gently circling through the soft hair there, her head resting upon his other shoulder.

Vincent groaned softly as she slipped from his body to lie at his side, her hands moving from his chest and encircling his waist. His heart rate slowly returning to normal, Vincent's eyes fluttered heavily. He was tired…but it was a pleasant feeling, warm and soft like the woman at his side. His woman &endash; his love…his Catherine.

Her head resting firmly on his shoulder, Catherine tilted her gaze to look upon his leonine features. Her hand moved from his waist to brush through his long, golden locks. His eyes opened and found hers.

"Catherine…" he started, wondering how he could ever truly express what he was feeling.

"Shh…" Catherine replied, placing her hand to his lips. She rose up, her mouth drawing his into a soft kiss. Gently stroking across his cheek with her thumb, she whispered, "Rest now, my love." Vincent's heart pounded at the words she spoke. She swept her hand softly through his hair, leaning down to kiss his eyelids as they closed.

"I love you, Catherine," he said quietly, his words slurred slightly as he drifted towards sleep.

"And I love you, Vincent," Catherine responded, her hand still stroking his soft mane of hair. She kissed him tenderly. "Always."

"Catherine!" Vincent bolted upright, glancing frantically around the dimly lit chamber. She had seemed so real &endash; he could still feel the softness of her skin, could still smell the sweet fragrance of her hair. His head bowed, a single tear glided down one cheek. Once again, he was alone.

"Always and forever, Vincent…remember?" Her voice rang out in the quiet and he felt a weight being lifted from his heart. He smiled through his tears.

"Always and forever, Catherine."

****

Father paced in his library, growing increasingly more worried as Vincent's scheduled return had come and gone some time ago. He'd thought, foolishly perhaps, that as the years passed Vincent would no longer feel the need to immerse himself in solitude on the anniversary of Jacob's conception. Had hoped his son could come to terms with his loss.

He knew there were days when the melancholy would strike, as it did for him on what would be his own anniversary with his dear Margaret. But, for Vincent, the pain always seemed so fresh. He sighed heavily, and the pacing continued.

"You worry far too much, Father."

"Vincent!" the older man cried, moving to embrace the man he was honored to call 'son'. "Thank God!"

"Is something wrong?" Vincent asked, concern in his voice.

"No…no. I am just glad that you have returned." Father said quickly. "Vincent, I just do not understand why you insist on these yearly pilgrimages. Why must you torture yourself…" he paused as he noticed the expression on the younger man's face. "Vincent? Are you all right? You seem…different." He sat down in his favorite chair, Vincent sitting down across from him.

"I feel different, Father," Vincent admitted softly. He sighed, a tender smile lighting up his face. "Catherine…" he started, words catching in his throat as he tried to figure out how to explain what he had experienced. "I could see her face, could feel the warmth of her in my arms…I can't explain how or why, Father, but somehow, Catherine was there with me."

"Vincent…"

"I remembered, Father," Vincent broke in, not allowing the older man's doubts to creep into his mind. "Catherine gifted me with the most amazing &endash; the most treasured memory I shall ever possess."

"You…remembered?" Father asked incredulously. "You…and Catherine? You remembered what happened there?"

"Yes," Vincent responded, a sense of peace washing over his features. "It was remarkable…and beautiful…and beyond any description I could ever articulate in words."

Jacob Wells looked at his son, the fine and noble man he had nurtured and loved from a small babe, and marveled again at the extraordinary love he and Catherine had shared. How could he deny Vincent's claim &endash; so many times their love had far exceeded the limits society had dictated for it. So many times had he seen just what that love could accomplish. So how could he doubt that what his son was telling him now was anything but the truth?

He placed a comforting hand on Vincent's shoulder. "I'm so pleased for you, my son. But…why now? Why, after all these years have passed, did your memory of this time return now?"

Vincent sat silently for a long moment, his eyes focused on something only they could see. "I do not know for certain, Father, why Catherine chose this moment to reveal this memory to me. I can only hazard a guess…"

"Which is?" Father gently prodded.

"Catherine held onto this memory &endash; this gift &endash; for so long because…before now, I was unwilling to accept it. She waited all these years…until she felt I was ready, was worthy of such a gift." Vincent smiled. "Catherine's final gift was a reminder of something I had all along, though I often failed to see it…Her love."