Disclaimer: "Beauty and the Beast" and the character Pascal and all the rest belong to Republic Pictures. No infringement is intended. That and all the rest of the legal stuff. Max and her ilk belong to me. 'Nuff said.

Air You Breathe

by Kayla Rigney


Chapter 1:

The absolute quiet woke him; it often did. Out of habit, the pipemaster touched base with his world. It very late --; around two a.m. from the resonance of the pipes. The only sound from the line was the occasional "all’s well." Everything just felt so right.

If someone had told Pascal even six months ago that he’d be married and sharing his life with a beautiful woman, he wouldn’t have believed it. He still didn’t quite believe it. Deep down, he was afraid to believe it. Women like Maxine Seaton did not end up with men like Benjamin Pascal; they ended up with men like Devin or Vincent Wells. But Max said ‘I do’ and kissed him in front of everybody as though he was the most handsome man in the world.

Pascal gently smoothed Max’s hair away from her face. She had fallen asleep with her head on his chest and the rest of her sprawled more or less on top of him. He loved her weight and her scent and her steady breathing. He was drunk with the feel of her. And unabashedly amazed that she wanted him.

Pascal held his breath and listened. "Pipes," he laughed.

Max stirred. "What?"

He kissed the top of her head and replied, "When you breathe, you sound like the pipes."

She looked completely baffled.

Pascal raised her chin so he could fall into her violet eyes. "You were snoring," he said, softly and laughed.

"Oh." Max said. She nuzzled the crook of his neck and snuggled even closer. "That’s because I’m cold."

The pipemaster tucked his thick homemade quilt tight around them. He knew she wasn’t used to the constant tunnel chill and probably never would be. Pascal ran his fingers through her hair, thinking that it looked like liquid fire against his skin. She doesn’t belong here, he thought. Desert creatures need the sun. He reminded himself that she chose to stay Below with him; she was his and she was very, very real.

"What time is it, Ben?" Max asked, finally. Her voice was husky and very low.

"Late," Pascal whispered. "Go back to sleep."

Max reached up and gently ran her fingertips across his lips. He let himself taste the henna wedding tattoo and the simple gold band he’d given her at the ceremony. Then, Pascal caught her wrist and brought her hand down and held it against his chest. He wanted her to feel how hard his heart was pounding.

"I mean it, Max," he said, doing his best to sound stern and failing miserably. "I'm exhausted."

She had a priceless look on her face --; halfway between lust and sleep. "You win," she said. "Don’t get used to it."

Pascal laughed softly. "With you, I’d rather lose."

Max stretched her whole body against his, releasing years of sighs. She did not look up at him when she sang:

 

Must have lost my heart, Baby can’t you bring it back home?

Surely you don’t need it, ‘cause you already got my soul.

Must have lost my heart, Somewhere out in the cold...

"It’s safe with me, Max," he told her, very quietly. "It always will be."

Max smiled as she kissed him. Pascal could actually taste the desire on her breath; it was so sweet.

The pipemaster was no longer tired. He wanted only to remember this moment forever. He had so many memories now…

 

The morning after he proposed, Pascal awoke to a feeling of complete and utter peace. When he opened his eyes, Max was smiling into them.

"Good morning," she said.

Pascal stretched just to feel the full length of his body move against hers. "Good morning," he replied. "How long have you been awake?"

"A while."

Pascal pushed a stray curl out of her face. "Why didn't you awaken me?" he asked.

"I enjoy watching you sleep," Max replied. "You look so innocent."

He raised his eyebrow at her. "I think not," he said. His body was suddenly and undeniably alive with feeling and need and love.

"Oh, I think so," she said, laughing. Without looking away, she reached over and pressed the play button on the boom box Pascal kept on the bedside table. Robert Johnson came pouring out.

 

Woke up this morning feeling ‘round for my shoes

I swear I got those mean ole walkin’ blues.

Woke up this morning feeling ‘round for my shoes…

"Lowdown dirty blues before breakfast, Pascal?" Max asked, grinning from ear to ear. "Father would be shocked."

"We don’t have doors, Maxine," he replied. "I doubt Father is shocked by anything anymore."

Her warm laughter cascaded over him like a wave. It seemed to originate inside the music itself. "The one regret of my life is that I never learned to play a mean slide guitar," Max said, her voice lowdown and extremely sexy. "I always wanted to pull the perfect lick and say ‘walk wi’ me, now’." She closed her eyes and sang the next verse under her breath.

 

Some people say ‘don’t worry blues ain’t bad’

Hey, now, I swear they’re the worst damn thing I’ve ever had…

"I didn’t know you liked blues, Max."

"I love the blues," she replied all but purring. "And there’s a lot about me that you don’t know,"

Pascal smiled. Max was one of the few people he knew who could honestly be called a Morning Person. She was bright and relaxed and obviously didn’t need caffeine to function. Her laughter was contagious and inviting. Pascal thought wickedly that innocent people rarely felt as he did right now.

"But never forget that I do know you Benjamin Pascal," she told him.

"I’m sure you do," replied Benjamin Pascal.

Max was lying on her back beside him, one arm thrown above her head and the other curled up in the crook of his arm. Her skin looked so pale against her deep blue sweats. Even her normally wild hair looked peaceful.

The pipemaster gently tapped out her name inside her upturned palm until she closed her hand around his finger.

He smiled with delight.

"’Morning," she said, softly.

"’Morning," he replied, still caressing her palm with his finger. He wanted to ask her permission to do a hundred delectable things.

Max smiled into his eyes saw all his questions. Without saying a word, she put her index finger beneath his chin and drew him into a kiss. They were sealing their promise and Pascal knew it. They had only to make it official in the eyes of his world. Her world did not demand it.

"Would you be willing to stand before the Council and exchange vows with me?" he asked, quietly.

Max reached up and cradled his face in her hands. "Yes, Pascal," she said. "I would like that very much."

"I don’t have a ring to give you," he told her, lacing his fingers through hers. "I will get one." His heart was pounding so hard, he was afraid it would beat itself right out of his chest.

"I…have… no…words," she stammered. Her hands trembled beneath his. He could see that she almost desperately wanted to speak but could not.

"It’s all right, Max," Pascal replied, tenderly. "It’s all right to just show me."

She did not have to be asked twice.

Max knew what he wanted. She softly touched her lips to his and whispered his name. When he answered her, he felt the small, perfect tip of her tongue dart tentatively across his lips. Pascal gave himself over to her completely.

"Dance with me, Max," he whispered, gently touching his tongue to hers. He felt her smile, he felt her warm tongue entwine with his. A jolt of desire ran down the full length of his body and back up again.

Max snaked her cool hands beneath his T-shirt and pulled him to her. Pascal thought he could die of the intimacy of her touch. She ran her fingertips down his back and his sides and brought her hands to rest over his pounding heart.

He held her close, deepening their kiss more and more. He began to believe he could be one with her like this -- their tongues and lips and breath dancing. Without breaking their kiss, he lifted her sweatshirt and sank into the pleasure of skin against skin.

Max slid her arms around his neck and pressed her lean body hard against his.

Pascal ran his fingertips up her sensitive spine just to feel her shudder. He fed off her pleasure. He imagined that she had been born to fit him alone; even her skin seemed to dance beneath his hands. He touched her in ways that pleasured her and excited him to the very center of his being.

"Make love to me, Pascal," she said, her voice cascading over his lips and tongue and down the back of his throat.

I am, he thought. He was very aware of how her small, round stomach fit into his concave one and of how her breasts perfectly fit the cup of his hands. He wanted to tell her how wonderful he felt, but he could no longer remember how to speak.

Pascal had no conscious memory of removing their clothing. His only awareness was of Max and of her taste and her skin and of her surrounding him in every way humanly possible. He took her deeply and thoroughly. He thrust into her until he could no longer tell where he ended and she began. They moved as one person, bodies mouths and minds dancing to the music inside. He came hard and fast.

Beyond words, beyond thought, Pascal kissed her smile.

"I love you, too," Max whispered.

He sighed with perfect happiness. She truly did know him.

 

 

Chapter 2:

"May I come in?"

Vincent stood respectfully at the doorway to Pascal’s chamber, as was tunnel custom.

Pascal motioned him inside. "Of course!" he replied, shoving Max’s duffel under the bed with his foot. "I’m almost finished up in here. Do you have time to talk?"

"I always have time for you, my friend."

"Thank you," the smaller man said, smiling. He moved to his sideboard and put water on to heat for tea. "We’ll have some Earl Grey and talk. Like old times."

"Where’s Maxine?" Vincent asked.

"She’s taking a quick bath," Pascal replied. "I’m sure she’ll be back soon, though. I know she’d love to see you."

Vincent sat in Pascal’s lone chair while the pipemaster finished making his bed. Before Catherine and before Max, the two had often shared a quiet cup of tea before breakfast. Both missed the ritual.

"You seem to be yourself now," Vincent said. His sea blue eyes were filled with concern.

"I am," the pipemaster replied, nodding. "I’m sorry I worried you."

"I’m the one who should be sorry, Pascal. I didn’t know how to break through your depression," Vincent said, slowly. "You were so angry at me."

"I was, but I’m not anymore." Pascal did not know how to explain without bringing up a lot of things best left unspoken. He slipped on his vest and said: "Max has a way of making me see things for what they really are. Do you understand what I mean?"

Vincent nodded. The lionine man shifted in the small wooden chair. To him, everything in Pascal's chamber seemed to be scaled for, well, hobbits. He sighed and tried valiantly to balance his bulk at the impossibly small writing table. "I heard blues playing earlier," he said. "I take it Maxine shares your love for music?"

"Yes, she does," Pascal replied. He knew he was blushing, so he kept his back to Vincent and pretended to be busy with the electric kettle. In spite of his private nature, he actually liked the fact that in tunnel eyes, he was linked to Max. Pascal tried to still his singing mind, so he could tell his friend his secret. "I have news," the pipemaster said, finally. He busied himself in the preparation of The Tea. Cups, spoons, sugar cubes…

"Good news I hope?"

Pascal turned to face Vincent. He leaned back against the sideboard and crossed his arms, trying to look Normal. It was impossible to contain his happiness. "Vincent," he said. "I asked Max to marry me."

Vincent’s blue eyes shone. "And what did she say?"

"She said Yes."

The next thing Pascal knew, Vincent had him locked in an airborne bear hug "This is wonderful, wonderful news!" he roared, laughing "Congratulations!"

Still engulfed in Vincent’s good-natured embrace, Pascal asked, "Will you help us tell Father?"

Vincent instantly grew conspiratorial and deposited the pipemaster back on his own two feet. "Ah," he said. "The game is truly afoot." He rubbed his chin. "Telling the proverbial Old Man is always tricky. Does one break it to him gently or drop it in his lap over breakfast?"

"I’ve always found the direct approach works best," Pascal replied.

"That’s because he considers you an Adult," Vincent said, laughing. "I have a wife and child and he still treats me like a helpless infant."

"Between us, I’m still a little afraid of Father," the pipemaster admitted.

"Between us, so am I."

The two men shared a good laugh.

"There’s always the option of telling Mary first," Vincent suggested. "She can work wonders when no one else can."

"My personal theory is that she blackmails the old man into submission," Pascal replied.

"Works for me."

Vincent carefully went through the pile of CDs that lived on top of the desk. Most of them had property of m.l. seaton embossed on the covers; some had copyright dates from the next millennium. He chose one called "Supernatural" and handed it to Pascal. Vincent was always afraid he would scratch the little discs with his claws.

"You’ll like this one," Pascal said, approvingly. "It’s sort of late-at-night music and very good." He put on the CD and turned the volume down low.

"Well, I enjoy Carlos Santana," Vincent replied. "Catherine has quite a few of his albums."

Pascal sat on the bed and held his teacup with both hands. He had something on his mind. "Vincent, I think I told Max some things I shouldn’t have last night," he said, slowly.

"Such as?"

"Such as how Father ignored the abuse that went on." There. He’d said it. He hadn’t kept it locked in his emotional little black book.

Vincent winced. "How did she take it?"

"She understood implicitly."

"Why does that worry you?"

"I don’t know," Pascal replied, although he really did know. "It was the way she said ‘talking about pain steals its power’."

Vincent reached over and touched the pipemaster on the arm. "Are you afraid she’ll say something to Father?" he asked.

"Yes."

"I’m sure if you ask her not to that she will respect your wishes."

The pipemaster grew very quiet. He withdrew to a place deep inside the music. He had to force himself to speak. "I’m not sure if I want to ask her to do that," he said. "Max is right, Vincent."

"Well, I guess it’s time Catherine had company on Father’s Shit List," Vincent said amicably.

Pascal smiled. "It must be lonely for her at the top of the pile," he joked.

Vincent shifted his weight and the little chair creaked ominously. "Catherine and Maxine would make a formidable team," he said. "I can see it now. It isn’t pretty." He laughed until tears ran down his face.

"There’s a reason Father is always trying to force a wedge between them." Pascal couldn’t help joining in the laughter. "He’s afraid."

"He’s very afraid."

The two old friends shared the much-needed laughter. It broke the tension of the bleak weeks of quarantine, and it healed a rift in their friendship. Pascal felt the mending deep down inside his heart. This was a defining moment in time. Going forward, he knew that he and Vincent would be true allies --; in friendship and in their closed society.

"We’ll definitely tell Mary first," Pascal said, gasping for breath.

"Definitely," Vincent agreed.

"Tell Mary what?"

Max stood in the doorway engulfed in the pipemaster’s huge robe. Her hair hung in an impossible tangle of curls and she was trailing a very wet towel.

"Max, you look like an angry wombat," Pascal said through tears of laughter. "What happened?"

"Somebody ‘accidentally’ knocked me under the water in the very public bath," she said, darkly. "And tell Mary what?"

"About us."

"I somehow doubt that will be necessary," Max replied. "Evidently, your chamber is situated on a direct hub to the center of the tunnel universe."

"What?" Pascal asked.

"Mary already knows. Father already knows. And I’m sure every man, woman and child in the free world already knows." As an afterthought, she added: "Hello, Vincent."

"Hello, Maxine."

"Max, what are you talking about?" Pascal asked.

"I’m talking about the fact that I just had a lovely run in with your ex-girlfriend," she snapped. "Rebecca not only outweighs me by a good twenty pounds but also has no sense of honor."

"I’m afraid to ask, but what did she do to you?"

"She dunked me!" Max replied. "No warning. No nothing. Rebecca just knocked my head under the water and walked out." She tried to rake her fingers through her matted curls. "It’ll take hours to get this mess untangled."

Vincent caught Pascal’s eye and grinned. "You’re lucky she didn’t drown you," he told Max. "Rebecca has quite a temper."

"That’s a comfort," Max shot back.

Pascal got up and walked to over to her. He pulled her inside and literally sat her down on the bed. He reached over and got and old wide-toothed comb out of his bedside table. "Don’t be such a sook, Max," he said laughing. "I’ll comb your hair."

"What’s a sook?" Max asked. She pretended to be quite put upon about Pascal’s ministrations, but he could tell she was actually very pleased.

"Yes, I’d like to know as well," Vincent said.

"It’s a great word," Pascal replied. "I learned it from that helper who always sends whale pictures along with care packages."

"But what does it mean?"

"It means cry baby." Pascal gently desnarled Max’s hair, which wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. Wet, her hair was wiry and very, very curly and almost impossible to comb. No wonder she was so angry with Rebecca.

"Oh, thank you very much," Max said. "I’ll remember that the next time you get depressed." She muttered something under her breath about Uptight Aryan Blonde Women.

Vincent laughed.

"Rebecca is just That Way, Max," Pascal said, gently. He patiently worked through the mat of snarls around her face. One perfect curl emerged. "She saw the opportunity and she took it. This will be the end of it."

She looked up at him balefully. "Really?"

"Really," the pipemaster said.

"Really," Vincent said.

Max looked incredulous. "Humph," she said. She took the comb and began quickly yanking it through her hair.

"That looks like it hurts," Pascal said, wincing.

"It does," Max replied, her eyes watering. "But it feels so good when I finish."

"I understand completely," Vincent said. Bathing for him was a good two-hour ordeal.

Max held out her hand. "Put ‘er there, comrade." They shook hands like old friends.

Pascal sat quietly and drank in the scene. He was happy in his skin, and the two people who mattered most to him liked each other. "Only Vincent knows, Max," he said, softly. "I told him and nobody else."

She smiled at him then. He was devastated by her warmth. He longed to touch her, to kiss her, and he knew it showed.

"I’d better go and let you get dressed," Vincent said, clearing his throat a little. "You don’t want to miss breakfast."

"Oh," said Max. "Yes, of course."

Vincent left so quickly, Pascal laughed aloud.

"I didn’t mean to scare him," Max said.

"You didn’t." he replied. "I did." He touched her then. And he kissed her. He pressed his forehead against hers and said: "Vincent can read my face like a book."

Max smiled. "What am I going to do with you, hobbit?"

"I don’t know," Pascal whispered. "How about just love me?"

"I can do that," she said; and she pulled him into her arms and held him.

She just held him.

 

Chapter 3:

It was common knowledge that every morning before breakfast, Father retired to the library to read the morning papers. Any tunnel resident who wished to discuss something privately was welcome to do so at this time. There were simply some things that could not be said in the great hall.

The pipemaster stood in the in shadows beyond the doorway for a long time before he finally found his voice. "Father, may I come in?" The library smelled of books and coffee.

Father looked over his glasses and motioned the pipemaster inside. "Of course," he said, clearing away a stack of newspapers. "Have a seat."

Pascal shifted a little uncomfortably on his feet. "I think I’d rather stand," he replied. "If that’s all right."

"It’s fine, Pascal," Father replied, smiling. "Come in, anyway."

"I have someone with me."

"I thought you might."

Pascal took Max by the hand and led her into the light of the library. "Good morning, Father," she said, quietly.

"Good morning, Maxine," Father said. "It’s good to see you. Would you like a seat?"

"Actually, yes, I would." She moved to the reading table with clarity and sat down across from Father. She turned and smiled. "Stop looming like a guilded bat and sit down, Ben," she said.

Hearing her speak his given name in public was very satisfying. Pascal slid onto the bench next to her. He felt her warmth and was calmed by her quiet breathing. He read the upside-down headlines on the table in front of him. All of them were ugly. He stopped reading.

"It’s good to see you looking well, my friend," Father said, warmly. "When will you learn that the rules can be broken? Your well-being is very important to me."

Pascal looked up with a jolt. He was about to speak when felt Max’s cool hand on his.

"Father," she said. "He’ll never learn. That’s what I’m for." Her manner was light and flirtatious.

The old man actually laughed. "So to what do I owe the honor?"

Max looked at Pascal with her calm violet eyes and smiled. She laced her fingers through his. Her smile and her touch gave him strength.

"Max and I…" He heard his voice trail off into quiet. The only sound was the murmur of the pipes. He was acutely aware of Max’s cool skin against his. Pascal knew he had to find the will to speak. "Father, Max and I wish to be married."

Father’s eyes were soft and kind. "Congratulations, Pascal," he said, smiling. "Although, I must add it’s about time."

The pipemaster felt Max’s laughter cascade over him. He lifted his fingers slightly, just to feel her respond to his hidden caress.

"We want to stand in front of the Council and take vows," Pascal said, quietly.

"I’d be honored to perform the ceremony," Father said. "But I have a few questions for Maxine first."

Max withdrew her hand and folded it over her other one. She sat up very straight. "What sort of questions?" she asked.

"Where will you live?" The old man looked very stern.

"Here and there," she replied, looking him in the eye. "I have to continue my work during the day, so technically I’ll be only sleeping in the tunnels."

Pascal was surprised by the directness and also the implications of her answer. Of course, they’d discussed living arrangements, but he had no idea Father would be in on the deal.

Father shifted in his seat. He took a sip of coffee and said: "Since you are going to be living here at least part of the time, I have the right to know what you are, exactly." The way he said the word what felt like a blow to Pascal. It hurt him physically. "If you should become ill or hurt, I need to know how to treat you."

Max withdrew into herself in a way Pascal had never seen before. "There is no word in your language for what I am," she replied, quietly. "My physiology is nearly identical to a human’s. In fact, our medical development evolved parallel to yours."

"Nearly?"

"I have two spleens and two appendixes."

Father looked over his glasses and asked it again: "What are you, Maxine? You’re an intelligent woman. I’m sure you can find a word."

This was some sort of quiet war of wills, and Pascal knew it.

She crossed her arms tight across her chest. "Kobold," she spat. "Kobold would be closest." Max had retreated so far behind her eyes that Pascal barely recognized her. "Yes, Father, I’m one of those gnarled little gnomes that live deep in mines. My clan has a genetic affinity for tunnels and time."

No wonder she calls me hobbit, Pascal thought. He longed to touch her, but sensed he should not. Not yet.

Father seemed satisfied with Max’s answer --; or rather her reaction to his prodding. "I have only one more question for you, then," he said.

"And what might that be?" Max asked.

"If you have children, where will they live?"

Max uncrossed her arms and put her hands palm down on the table. "Techs don’t have children," she replied, coldly. "Not that it’s any of your business." She pressed against the unforgiving oak so hard that all the veins on the backs of her hands stood out.

"He meant nothing by it, Max," Pascal said, gently. "Resources are tight here. Those are all legitimate questions." He slid his arm around her waist and felt her relax almost instantly.

"Yes, Maxine," Father said, sounding hollow. "I meant no harm."

"All right," said Max, but Pascal knew from the tone in her voice that she did not believe him. She acted is if she’d won a battle.

Maybe she had.

"I hope your wedding will be soon," the old man said, sounding defeated. "The community could use some happiness after this epidemic. I know I could."

"Yes," Pascal agreed. "We all could." He looked at Max, who still seemed very far away. "So, when will our wedding be?" he asked softly. He caressed her with his voice and she responded.

Max smiled her private smile. "How long does one need to make a wedding here?" she asked.

Pascal smiled back. "Long enough to prepare the great hall and invite the guests," he replied.

"May I invite my sister? I know there are rules about these things and --;"

Father cut her off with a wave of her hand. "Of course," he said. "I have the feeling that in your world, people understand the need to preserve ours."

"They do," Max said, quietly.

"Then it’s decided," Father said. "You two will stand in front of the Council as soon as you wish." He shuffled through the newspapers and picked up the financials. "Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish reading my newspapers."

Standing in the silent hall outside the library, Max leaned back against the wall and looked into Pascal’s eyes. "You never asked me what I am," she said. "Why is that?"

"I didn’t need to," Pascal replied. He could almost taste her fear. Did she think he would reject her? He was the one who needed to worry about rejection. He had so little to offer her. "You’re Max and you make my life wonderful. That’s all I need to know."

"Hold me?" she asked, her voice soft as breath. "Please?"

Pascal leaned in and pressed his body against hers. He pulled her away from the wall and into his embrace. Max buried her face in the crook of his neck. "I don’t like Father, Ben," she whispered. He felt her breath soft against his skin. "He enjoyed my discomfort. He thinks it gives him power."

"I know, Max."

"It doesn’t."

"I know that, too."

Max slid her arms around him and held on very tightly. "I guess we have a wedding to plan," she said.

"I guess we do," Pascal replied, smiling. He couldn’t help it.

She arched back and looked at him. "Pascal?"

"Yes?"

Max smiled and brought her cool hands up to the back of his neck. He shuddered with delight. "Kiss me."

"Here?" He asked, suddenly shy. "Now?"

"Yes."

Pascal kissed her. He kissed her so softly that he actually ached with tenderness. He opened his eyes and found her looking at him. He laughed and so did she.

"We’re a good match," he said. He reached up and buried his hands in her hair just to feel the curls surround his fingers.

"Yes, we are," Max replied, smiling. She was no longer far away. She was here with him.

"Can we please get breakfast now?" Pascal asked. "I’m hungry."

She rewarded him with warm laughter and a smile so inviting it was all he could do not to drag her back to his chamber. Max reached up and guided his right hand down to hers. She gentled his palm open and coded, I love you. Forever. For always. She offered her palm to him.

The pipemaster drew a heart with his index finger. Inside it, he tapped I love you, too. Forever and all ways. He paused, looking for the right words. In all ways, Max. He coded slowly, making his words into a dance. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically.

The intimacy of this way of communicating touched Pascal on a level that went even deeper than making love. He knew he connected with Max in a way that no one else ever could when he talked into her hand.

 

I have no words, she coded.

Max pressed her open palm against his. Pascal felt an intense warmth pass between their kissing hands. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the exchange. It was incredible and beyond any physical experience he’d ever known. They stood quietly connected like this until Father brushed by them in a rush.

"We’d better go," Max said, finally.

"Yes," said Pascal. He couldn’t bring himself to break the connection. He pleaded with his eyes. Please, Max, he thought. Don’t make me.

Max smiled.

They walked hand in hand to the great hall. Even though his world was too quiet and too many of his friends were ill, Pascal was happier than he had ever been in his life.

I am no longer alone, he thought. And I never will be again.

 

Chapter 4:

The pipemaster lay beside his sleeping wife. He couldn’t get enough of touching her. The simple feel of her skin beneath his fingertips filled him with joy. He brushed the hair out of her face just to see her smile in her sleep. In spite of everything, she smiled freely.

I’m so happy, he thought. Do you know that? He hoped she did. He kissed her on the forehead and then settled back against his own pillow.

For maybe the first time in his life, Pascal was completely sated. He’d actually lost track of how many times they’d made love that night. With Max, there were so many levels and so many ways. A kiss could send him to the heights of ecstasy; he could peak just looking into her eyes. He remembered small things, special things --; like the way she smiled after he kissed her. When Max smiled like that, it filled him with both love and longing. That made him smile.

Only twelve hours ago, Max stood in front of the Council and accepted his ring. And after the vows, before they kissed, she said loudly enough only for him to hear: "You’re so beautiful." He’d managed to hold back his tears but only just.

Everybody in the room cheered when they kissed. Pascal wanted that moment to go on forever, and it almost had.

Lying here beside her, he vaguely remembered that there had been a time when he thought he’d lost her. But she chose him. Max chose him even though he had only himself to offer.

Pascal rolled over and gathered her into his arms. He fell asleep lulled by her warmth and by the soft scent of her hair.

When word came down the pipes that Max returned from Paradise four hours ago, Pascal knew something wasn’t right. She hadn’t stopped by the pipe chamber and she hadn’t sent word. As soon as Kip took over the line, the pipemaster went directly to his own chamber. It was silent. His heart sank. When Max was in residence, there was always music. Pascal was worried. This wasn’t like her.

It took him a few moments to notice that his boom box was missing --; along with Max’s backpack. There were very few places in the tunnels that masked sound, and he knew them all. As none of the sentries reported her going Above, Pascal figured she’d probably gone deep into the catacombs.

He grabbed a Power Bar, his stethoscope and a lantern and headed out. He ate the Power Bar on the run. His first stop was the main lead pipe inside the pipe chamber. Kip took one look at him and called an all-silent.

"Who’s missing, Pascal?" he asked.

"Max."

The pipemaster was in his element now. He knelt beside the lead pipe and placed his palms flat against its copper surface. Talk to me, he thought. Beneath his hands, Pascal felt a very faint rhythm, like a heartbeat. He knew then that she was Below, anyway. The question was now Where? He took a deep breath and pressed the stethoscope against the metal. The heartbeat became words.

 

The morning sun touched lightly

On the eyes of Lucy Jordan

In her white suburban bedroom

In her white suburban town…

The words became a map.

"Oh, Maxine," Pascal muttered. "You’re in the third level catacombs." Trust Max to find the best acoustics in the place.

Kip turned pale. "They’re completely unstable."

"Yes, they are."

 

At the age of thirty-seven

She realized she'd never ride

Through Paris in a sports car

With the warm wind in her hair

"What do we do?" his assistant asked. "Should I send out an emergency call?"

"You’ll do no such thing," the pipemaster replied, sternly. "She’ll be fine as long as she doesn’t decide to climb the walls." Or turn the volume up too high, he thought.

 

And she let the phone keep ringing

As she sat there softly singing

Pretty nursery rhymes she'd memorized

In her daddy's easy chair

Pascal silently wondered what had gotten into Max. He knew that she’d gone home to invite Addie to the wedding and to get a few things out of her office. Perhaps something went wrong with her work? And why on earth was she playing The Ballad of Lucy Jordan? The song was about suicide.

"Kipper, I’m going to find Max and bring her back," he said. "I want you to send a conditional all-clear. No unnecessary traffic."

Kip nodded. He knew what to do.

"You stay glued to the lead pipe," Pascal said. "If anything changes, and I mean anything, you signal me immediately. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Pascal."

"And, Kip, not a word to anybody."

"Yes, sir."

Kip stepped into position in front of the lead pipe and began the task of listening with both his hands and his ears.

The pipemaster picked up his lantern and left the pipe chamber running. He had it in his mind that he wouldn’t stop until he was standing in front of Max. He moved quickly and quietly into the deep recesses of his world.

The catacombs had been blocked off by a cave-in many years ago. Only old-timers knew that they were still accessible by one unmarked passage. The entrance was situated in such a way that unless one was directly in front of the door, it remained invisible to the eye.

Pascal now stood silently in the cobwebs and shadows of the forgotten passage trying to catch his breath. At least, Max was safe. The old rooms were still electrified after all these years. In the thin light of what had once been the best guest chamber, Max sat huddled in the middle of the floor sobbing.

"You shouldn’t be here," Pascal told her. "It’s dangerous."

She looked up at him with uncomprehending eyes.

His heart melted. Pascal went to her. He sat down on the floor and put his arms around her. "Max, I’m here," he said. "What’s wrong?"

She let him gather her into his lap but didn’t speak. Pascal rocked her to the rhythm of the music. He didn’t know what else to do. He’d never seen Max like this before. She was so strong, but now she was crying as if her heart was broken.

"Talk to me, my love."

Max shook her head and shrugged. She put her fists against his chest and buried her face in his vest. Only then did Pascal notice the crumpled piece of paper in her hand. He reached up and gently tugged at it until she opened her fingers and let go.

It was a letter.

 

 

Max (it read)--;

 

How dare you waltz into my house and announce that you’re marrying that man! What makes you think I would condone such a union in the first place? It’s wrong, Maxine.

Does he have any idea what you did for him? Does he know that you literally threw his world back in time? I bet you didn’t tell him you did it more than once. Bet you didn’t tell him you did it until you got it right. How many times was it, Max? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? How many lifetimes has that one miserable human lived because of you? He nearly cost you your reputation and your career.

You say you want me to come to the wedding. Have you gone totally insane? Or do you just assume that I’ll do anything you ask me to --; until you get it right? That stops here and now. Do you understand?

In our world, you’re rich. You’re famous. You have a life. You have a family who loves you and understands what you are. You’re special, Maxine Louise. In his world, you’re just another faceless person. I’ve read his journals. They’re not that good. No man is that good.

You’re better than that.

I love you, Max. I love you with all my heart. But I just can’t. I can’t and I won’t. Find yourself another Ass-Istant. I quit.

Until you start behaving like a rational person, you are not welcome in my home. Don’t contact me. Don’t contact the kids. Don’t call, don’t email, don’t write, and don’t send music. You have no sister.

 

--; Adele Seaton-Deiter

 

Pascal had never read such an angry letter in his life. Addie had to know that ugly words are more powerful on paper and that her sister would react accordingly. Her letter was calculated and it was mean; he could see that, even if Max probably couldn’t right now. It was no wonder she was crying her heart out in the unstable dark.

Pascal didn’t know what to think, but he knew what to feel. "I love you, Max," he whispered, and he raised her clenched fist and kissed her hand.

"I love you, too," she said. Her voice was weak and very shaky. "And I love Addie; but she’s making me choose." Max grabbed on to his vest and gave him a little shake. "Why is she making me do that, Pascal?" she asked. "Why?"

His heart sank. "I don’t know," he replied. He knew she wouldn’t choose him. He steeled himself to keep from crying.

Max looked up at him, her violet eyes rimmed with tears. "Addie doesn’t understand," she told him. "She thinks she does, but she doesn’t." She ran her fingertips across his trembling lips. "You always have."

Pascal held her tight against him. He was intensely aware of her soft curves and shuddering breath.

"I warned her," Max said. "I asked her not to make me choose. And she went ahead and did it, anyway."

The pipemaster brought his hands up and cradled her face. He wanted so much to believe she would choose him. But Addie was right about one thing: in his world, Max was special only to him.

Max covered his hands with hers, lacing her fingers through his. "I came here to say good-bye," she told him, softly.

Pascal could no longer hold back the tears. They flowed down his face unbidden. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her. It hurt too much. But if he had to say good-bye, so be it.

Suddenly, Max was kissing him, touching him in ways that both comforted and aroused him. "No, Ben, no!" she said. "I choose you!" Her hands were everywhere at once. Her fingers untied the cords that closed his tunic. She pressed her hands against his bare chest and desperately coded. I choose you. I choose you.

Kissing her, he gently trailed his hands down until they covered hers. He tasted her tears and yet he could not stop the fierce need from building deep inside him. Max, he coded on top of her tender hands, Max, you don’t have to choose. We don’t have to get married.

She broke their kiss and gave him one of her devastating smiles. "I want to marry you," she replied. "So much."

"So much," Pascal whispered. He kissed her again, deeply. He no longer tasted tears. He tasted her strength.

"I came here to say good-bye to Addie," Max whispered. Her hands were still over his heart. "Even if I hadn’t made my decision, what you said would have cemented it for me."

"What did I say?" The pipemaster was baffled. He’d said nothing --; only what was in his heart.

Max wrapped her arms around his neck and smiled. "You said I didn’t have to choose," she replied, quietly.

"Oh," said Pascal. He was surprised and very touched.

"Ben," she said. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Would you dance with me?" Max pressed her forehead against his and shuddered a little. "Not to this song. But to another one?"

"I’m a rotten dancer," Pascal replied, smiling. He wanted to say, God, Max, don’t you know I’d do anything you asked me to? I want you so much, I could die from it. Instead, he said: "I’ll dance with you, Max."

Max stood and walked to the CD player. She punched some buttons and Lucy Jordan mercifully went away. In her place was a song Pascal had never heard. It rolled like the wheels of a train; it flowed like blood to his heart. Max opened her arms to him and together they danced good-bye to Addie.

 

Dreams in the night

Dreams overflow

Building bridges to each other

Hearts make the waters flow

"I won’t give up on her, you know," she whispered, her words themselves seemed to be part of the dance.

"I know," Pascal said. "You didn’t give up on me." He flashed on Addie’s angry letter and wondered how many lives Max had bequeathed him. At the same time, he also knew it didn’t really matter. The only life that meant anything to him was this one now.

Max smiled. Her hair brushed against his cheek and neck as they danced.

 

You were sleeping, I was walking

To the rhythm of the falling rain

Too much water, to cross over

All the bridges falling down

"We’ll have a beautiful wedding, won’t we, Ben?" Her body fit against his so perfectly.

 

You sing songs

With overtures

From strange exotic places

Words I've never heard

"Yes, we will," Pascal replied. He brushed his lips against her ear. He wanted her. He wanted her like he’d never wanted in his entire life. The pipemaster imagined what it would be like to take her here in this forgotten room on this soft dirt floor. Oh, my beautiful Max, he thought. Would you let me? The very question was so overwhelming that a moan escaped his lips before he could stop it.

Max looked at him with knowing eyes. "It’s all right," she whispered. "I feel the same way."

 

Wait 'til the morning

Don't send me back

Don't send me back across the rainbow

No return to where I've been

They danced until the song ended and the catacombs were silent again. Pascal forced himself to walk over to the one exposed pipe in the room and tap out a safe return message to Kip. The pipemaster unplugged the boom box and gathered their things. He folded Addie’s letter and tucked it inside his vest pocket. Then, he slung the backpack over his shoulder and handed the lantern to Max. He picked up the boom box and offered her his free hand. She took it very gently.

"Let’s go home, Max," he said.

"I’d like that," she replied.

Max laced her fingers through his.

Pascal pulled her closer and slid his arm around her waist. She leaned in to his embrace. "I love you," she said.

"I’m beginning to figure that out," he replied, laughing. He grinned at her.

For the first time that evening, Max laughed. To Pascal, that sound was better than any music he knew; and he told her so. "I love you, too, Max," he said. "Everything will work out all right," he told her. "Addie’s just afraid. Remember how she cried when you came across to meet with the Council?"

"Yes," Max said, softly. "I remember."

"Give her time," Pascal told her. "She’ll come around."

"I won’t give up," Max replied. There was fierceness in her voice.

Pascal stopped and turned to face her. Without asking, he kissed her with equal fierceness until she melted into his soul.

We’ll give the sentries something to talk about, he thought or said or thought.

"Ben, I want you," Max moaned, her voice was rough with need.

"I know, my love," Pascal said. "I know." He soothed her need with tenderness. "We’ll be home soon. I’ll do anything you ask of me, then." I’d do anything you ask of me now, he thought.

Max smiled and pinned him against the passage wall with her small body. She kissed him almost roughly. He liked it. Pascal felt his control slipping. "Please, Max," he pleaded. "Wait until we get home." God, he prayed. Help me wait until we get home.

"This really is my home, isn’t it?" Max asked, quietly. Her beautiful face was still like the pipes at night.

"Yes," Pascal replied. "It is."

"Hobbit, you read Addie’s letter," she said. "I don’t think I can go back across for a while. I don’t want to."

"Then stay."

"With you?" She looked at him so hopefully, he had to laugh.

"God, yes, Max," Pascal said. "With me."

Max smiled. She kissed him with that same smile. "Let’s go, Ben. I want you to walk me back to your chamber."

"Our chamber," he said, firmly.

Pascal took her hand in his and quietly led her back to the only home he’d ever known.

 

Chapter 5:

He couldn’t get the song out of his mind. He ran through it over and over, like a broken record.

 

I was driving on against the wall

Hitting it like a wave

Trying not to feel at all

"Vincent, she’s just so quiet," the pipemaster said. He blew across the tea in his cup, just to see his breath ripple across the surface. "Max spends her days Above, and when I’m working the line in the evening, she buries herself inside books," he went on. "It’s like a light’s gone out; and I don’t know what do."

"There may not be anything you can do, Pascal," Vincent replied. "We all deal with grief in different ways, and this just may be hers."

The pipemaster nodded. "I guess you’re right," he agreed. "I never looked at it that way." He ran his index finger around the brim of the china cup. It was very smooth.

"You’re a kind person," Vincent said, speaking slowly, as if to clarify the point. "You love Maxine deeply. You see her hurt and only want to soothe it. But some hurts can’t be soothed. They can only be lessened."

"I think Max is more angry than hurt," Pascal said, softly. "I see it in her eyes, sometimes." He thought of his lover’s expressive face and his heart broke a little.

"Anger is grief, my friend."

"I know."

Vincent settled back in Father’s comfortable reading chair. "Maxine is very much like you, Pascal," he said.

"You think?"

"Yes," he replied. "I do."

"How so?" Pascal knew that Max was very different on a fundamental level. For one thing, she loved easily. She loves me, he thought.

"She heals her heart by feeding her mind," Vincent said. "And she uses music to say what her words cannot,"

"I don’t do that."

"Yes, you do. You always have."

Pascal felt a blush rise.

"It’s all right, my friend," Vincent said, gently. "I’m probably one of two who hears."

"Oh," said Pascal. He felt exposed. He wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of Father’s son knowing his most intimate thoughts. He decided to be more careful in the future.

"You have to admit that she’s much more at ease since Father steered her towards Edith Wharton," Vincent said, laughing softly. "It was a very savvy move I think."

"Yes, it was," the pipemaster agreed. "Max says that compared to The House of Mirth, the whole Addie Thing isn’t depressing at all."

Vincent threw his head back and laughed.

"Of course, she also says that her friend Annika the massage therapist doesn’t really like touching people; but as it’s touching for money, massage is okay."

"Is that as illegal as it sounds?"

Pascal laughed aloud. "I have no idea," he replied. "But Annika’s coming to the wedding, so I get the feeling we’re going to find out."

"Does Maxine have any family besides Addie?" Vincent asked, quietly.

"Not that I know of," Pascal replied. "But she has some close friends --; Annika for one. And there’s a blues musician that she considers family. I’ve exchanged letters with him. He seems very nice and adores Max even though, and I quote, ‘the girl needs to mellow out and partake of herbal refreshment.’"

"Maxine certainly accepts people on their own terms, doesn’t she?" Vincent asked, suddenly serious.

"That she does, my friend. That she does."

The two sat and finished their tea in silence. Pascal listened to the pipes, but in the background, he heard Max’s music:

 

You don’t know what it took to leave you

You don’t know what it did to me.

Deep down, the pipemaster knew that Vincent was right. There were so many feelings that neither he nor Max could voice; and Max was healing in her own way. Still, one verse of the song stood out from the rest:

 

Every step I took just told me

That battle was easy for me

Baby, just let me make it all up to you.

And Pascal solidly decided that that was precisely what he was going to do. Sitting quietly in the study with his best friend, he decided that he would make Max’s life as full and as wonderful as he could. Starting now. If she wanted to disappear Above, he’d swallow his discomfort and go with her. If she wanted to curl up with a book and read in silence, then he would do that beside her, too. After all, she’d spent hours thus with him.

 

I’ll make it all up to you

I’ll make it all up to you.

"Pascal, look at the time!" Vincent said, suddenly. "You’re late for your shift!"

But the pipemaster was already gone. He was running towards the pipe chamber.

 

The shift was a particularly long and arduous one, and Pascal’s only thought was of home and Max. She was a tireless sit-in-the-quieter and a gentle listener. He made the short walk quickly and lightly. He stopped at the door to their chamber and looked inside.

Max was stretched out on the floor with her feet propped up on the bed, reading The Age of Innocence. Some sad ragtime waltz seeped out from around her earphones. Pascal leaned against the doorjamb and watched her, grinning. When Max read, her fingers unconsciously tapped out the words against the book’s cover in time to the music.

He must have sighed, because she looked over at him and asked, "How long have you been standing there, hobbit?" She pulled off the headphones.

"Not long," Pascal replied. He didn’t move from his perch and he didn’t stop smiling.

Max let the open book fall down against her chest and hugged it. "I had no idea people wrote novels like this," she said. "I thought all straight fiction was mad monkey sex and wet sucky noises --; in other words boring." She closed her eyes and stretched a little. "But it’s not," she went on. "Some of it is amazing and beautiful."

"Yes," Pascal replied. "Some of it is." He really wanted to how her world defined ‘straight fiction’ and exactly how said wet sucky noises could be ‘boring.’ He wanted examples; he wanted titles.

"And why is this called The Age of Innocence, anyway?" Max asked. "It should be The Age of Monumental Cruelty." She held out her hand to him and he walked over and took it.

Soon, the pipemaster was stretched out beside her; his feet propped up on the bed. It felt like Paradise.

"Read to me, Pascal," she said.

He reached into his vest pocket and eased his glasses out of their hard case. Before he put them on, he kissed her softly, just to feel her smile. "Where were you?" he asked.

Max handed him the book and pointed to her place on the page.

Pascal took a breath and began to read. As the words slid from his mouth, it occurred to him that Max was right. This was a cruel story.

Ever since she’d been introduced to Classic Novels, Max couldn’t get enough of them. She kept asking goofy questions, like: "Why don’t they teach this in school? Children would be so much happier if they read Little House on the Prairie, don’t you think?"

"They do read it," Pascal or Vincent or Father or Mary would reply laughing.

And Max would look more than a little miffed and toss her hair and say, "Well, I never read it. The focus in our school system is history and the sciences. Not the Arts. Of course, we read Rose Wilder Lane. But that’s different; she was political."

As he read, Pascal felt Max relax against him. As she relaxed, her hands started to read along with his voice. It felt wonderful. Afraid to say anything, he kept reading. After a while, he found it hard to keep his voice even. He wanted to cry out; he wanted to laugh. Until Max, no one in his life had found joy in code, and certainly, no one coded without thinking. He knew he did, occasionally. (Growing up, Vincent teased him about it.) Now, his Max did --; when she read and when she listened to music, sometimes. She even coded in her sleep but softly, and he never could tell exactly what she was saying. It didn’t matter. There was such warmth inherent in Max’s cold hands.

Pascal balanced the book against his chest and reached over and covered her hand with his. Max looked up at him.

"What?" she asked. "Why did you stop reading?"

"It’s nothing," he replied. He was afraid if he said anything, she would become self-conscious and stop.

"No, Pascal," Max said, rolling so her chin was on his shoulder. "I want to know."

"Max, you code," he whispered.

"I code?"

The pipemaster looked into her violet eyes and smiled. "Yes," he said. "You code. When you read. When I read." When you think to yourself, when you dream…

"Does it bother you?" She started to take her hand away but he stopped her.

"No," he replied. "I like it." He ran his fingertips across the back of her hand. I like it very much.

Max blushed.

"It happens, Max," he told her, gently. "It happens to me all the time."

"It does?" she asked.

"Yes, it does." Pascal laughed. "I’ll be troubleshooting or thinking or just day dreaming, and suddenly, I look down and my fingers are going a mile a minute." He squeezed her hand. "Don’t say you haven’t noticed."

Max smiled self-consciously.

Pascal groaned inwardly. He’d been so afraid of that. "Max," he said, sternly. "You have no idea how much I like that you do it, too. No idea."

Her face was nearly as red as her hair. She looked away.

He set the book aside and took off his glasses. The pipemaster was always amazed at the small things that embarrassed Max. He covered her now still hand with both of his. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, he coded.

Pascal marveled at the contrast between her hands and his own. Years at the pipes had given him large calluses and even nerve damage. Max’s hands were very, very smooth; even the ridges where her veins stood out were soft. Her palms felt almost liquid to the touch, they were so incredibly expressive. Taking her hand in both of his, he turned it palm upward against his chest.

 

I love that you code, Max, he said into the fluid skin.

Her breath was suddenly ragged.

 

It’s rare and special, he went on. So few people ever come into my world.

Max looked at him. He swore he saw desperation in her eyes.

Pascal let his fingertips rest against her palm. He had very little sensation in them anymore, but he could still feel the warmth and the connection. He closed his eyes and softly caressed her hand. Your coding means more to me than anything. He found himself suddenly and completely aroused.

Max shifted and brought her other hand up to cover his. I didn’t know, she coded. Do I do this in public?

"Sometimes," Pascal replied. His voice was rough from the reading and then disuse. Images flooded his mind. He wanted to kiss her hands. He wanted to make love to her hands. It was his turn to blush. "Sometimes, you code along to the conversation."

 

How long have I been doing this?

"Not long," he whispered. I don’t know. A while. He fought the desire to bring her hands to his lips, to taste her slim fingers. What was happening to him?

"Don’t fight it, Ben," she said, her voice low and rough. Max lifted their clasped hands to his hungry mouth.

Pascal moaned as he gave in to his need. Her skin was so soft, so smooth, so cool; and it tasted so sweet. He loved her hands with his tongue and his lips and his breath. He caressed her fingers with his own. He buried his face in her open palm and smelled her strange scent. Pascal thought of the tender ways she touched him with those hands and took her reaching finger into his mouth. He’d never done anything like this before. He was shocked by his own boldness.

 

Don’t stop, she coded against his trembling lips.

"I can’t," he moaned. What was happening to his mind and to his body? He was doing things to Max he’d only imagined. Desire flooded over him in waves.

Max pressed against him, but he only wanted her hands, her beautiful hands. He entwined his fingers with hers, and that’s when he realized her hands were warm! And almost at the same instant he had this realization, Max tried to pull her hands away. He didn’t let her. Instead, he tasted their warmth.

Pascal pulled her to him, so he could watch her face while he pleasured her. Max’s pupils dilated until he could see almost no violet. "Oh, Max," he whispered. "Why didn’t you tell me your hands are an erogenous zone?"

She blushed a deep crimson and said: "I didn’t know how."

 

I want this the pipemaster lightly coded with the tip of his tongue against her palm. "I’ve wanted this for a long, long time," he said. His voice was so rough and warm he did not recognize it as his own. "I just didn’t know it."

Max smiled.

Pascal ached with need and with desire. She had to know. She had to feel it. Max, please, he coded with his clumsy fingers. Please. His mouth found hers and he thrust his wanting tongue deeply, leaving no doubt as to what he had in mind.

"How do you want me, Pascal?" she asked, her voice low and soft.

He didn’t know how to ask. He looked down at her hands and then back to her lovely face. That was as clear as his insecurity allowed him to be.

Her eyes widened "Oh," Max whispered, but she didn’t look away. Instead, she gave him a slow kiss and lowered their dancing hands…

He was physically aware only of Max’s giving fingertips, of her warmth, of the words she coded as he made love to her hands. Gentle by nature, Pascal was surprised by the brutal need behind his thrusts. He couldn’t stop himself from pounding upward, upward between and against her palms. Her hands were so warm. He pressed his hands down against hers. When she pressed back against him, it felt like fire. As their passion increased, the heat intensified and he was compelled to take her. Hard. Deep. Fully. Pascal heard her cry out; and then he cried out. And the whole world shuddered and their chamber was still.

Drifting peacefully in and out of consciousness, Pascal was warm beneath the blanket of Max’s accepting hands. He wondered how he’d ever survived without this rare pleasure. His eyes slowly came back into focus, and he looked over at Max. She smiled back at him from under her eyelashes. The pipemaster began to understand what had just happened between them.

He suddenly realized that Max’s power was all in her hands. She threw his world back in time. She made doorways in time. She brought his emotions to the surface. She healed with her touch. And she spoke freely and easily with her fingers. It made sense that her deepest pathway to intimacy was hidden inside her touch. He still felt that intense connection flowing between them. The cold was merely a glove --;natural protection against pain.

Pascal also sensed that her desire had somehow flooded over and into his body and guided him. He often felt layers of emotion when they made love; and now he thought he knew why. "Max," he whispered. "Can you feel what I’m feeling? Do you let me feel what you feel?"

Max moved closer to him, and nodded. Her eyes were endlessly deep.

"Can you see behind my eyes?"

"Yes," she said. Her voice was very controlled.

"Can you see behind them now?" Pascal asked. I love you, Maxine Louise, he thought. I love the way you touch me. If you can hear this, please kiss me.

Max smiled. She moved into the kiss very tenderly. And she said, slowly, softly: "I love you, too, Benjamin Pascal. I love the way you think."

"Everything will be all right, Max," he said.

"But all right has its own terms this time, " she replied, sadly. "After the wedding, I may have to close the door for a while." And live here full time came through loud and unspoken.

Pascal nodded. He understood. "It’s the only way." He smiled at her. "How does that song go?"

"Which one?" Max smiled, too, and rolled on top of him. The connection grew even more intense.

He kissed her. "The one that says you don’t die from love."

She laughed. "Oh, that one."

Sing it for me, he thought.

Her voice ran softly through his mind, clearly and sweetly:

 

You don’t die from love

Your world won’t end

You’ll live to see it all again

Your little heart will open wide

The tears will come

You don’t die from love.

"You’ll be all right, Max," he told her softly.

"I know," Max said, kissing him. "I have you."

"No," Pascal replied, gently. "We have each other."

"You’re right," she said, smiling. "There is a difference."

"Yes," he said.

 

Oh, yes.

Their connection built until there was nothing left of shared loneliness or sadness. There was only mutual passion and something much sweeter than that --; simple love.

Oh, yes, Pascal thought as he kissed her. We do have love.

 

In abundance, Max coded softly with the tip of her tongue against his lips.

The pipemaster laughed and allowed her to see deep inside his soul.

Max smiled.

"Everything is all right," she whispered. "Oh, hobbit, I love you so."

"You’re my heart," Pascal said. Addie will come around, he thought.

"You know what?" Max replied

"What?"

"I don’t give a damn if Addie never comes around in this life," she replied. "I’m happy. For the first time, I’m truly happy." She kissed him tenderly and she sighed.

Pascal lost himself deep inside her touch, and he smiled.

Much later that night, when the pipes were quiet and the tunnels were still, he led Max to the second-level baths. Once he ascertained that the baths were empty, Pascal politely left a flag at the entrance so no one would disturb them.

Neck-deep in the hot water, the pipemaster did not ache so much; and Max understood this implicitly. Physical pain seemed to be the one thing that separated and defined them. Pascal was ashamed of this, but she accepted it the same way she accepted his depression, as part of who he was. She curled up in his lap and wrapped her arms around his shoulders and deftly eased the knots from his upper back. Her hands were cool again.

"Thank you," Max said, softly.

"For what?" Pascal asked.

Max pressed her forehead against his. "For tonight," she replied, smiling into his eyes. "For accepting me."

He was caught completely off-guard. He didn’t know how to respond, and it showed.

She laughed warmly. "Just say, You’re Welcome, Max," she said.

"You’re Welcome, Max," Pascal replied, laughing as well. He reached up and buried his hands in her hair. It was curled tight from the humidity. He leaned in and kissed her smile. "I love you with all that I am," he said. "You know that, don’t you?"

"Yes," she replied, softly. "And you know that I love you, too."

 

"Yes."

Pascal wanted to ask her about something --; something that crept in around the edges of his mind while they were making love. He touched her tenderly.

"What is it, Ben?" Max asked, softly. "You look so serious."

"I am serious," he replied, smiling. He drew her very close. The water around them rippled and waved. "I felt it, Max," he whispered.

"What?"

"Your walls aren’t as high as you think they are."

She grew very still in his arms. Her hands stayed poised along his shoulders. Time itself seemed to stop.

"I know," he said. "And it’s all right that I know."

Max actually began to shake. She looked away.

Pascal put his hand under her chin and turned her face back to his. "I want a family with you, too," he told her, gently.

"It can’t happen, Pascal," Max said.

"That doesn’t matter to me," Pascal replied, smiling. He felt complete. "But your feelings do matter very much. I want you to know that."

She smiled, too; and he smoothed the hair back from her eyes.

 

Chapter 6:

The lead pipe gave out on Thursday morning. It came crashing down from its moorings and refused to be righted. "Vincent," Pascal said, running his hands over his head. "I’ve done everything I know to do, and there’s no way around it. This time, it must be fixed."

Vincent groaned. Fixing the lead pipe was a major undertaking. Fixing the lead pipe meant solder. It meant welding. But mostly it meant working very, very fast in extremely cramped conditions. "What do you need me to do?" he asked.

The pipemaster shifted from one foot to the other and back again. "The usual," he replied. "I’m sorry."

"There’s no need to apologize, Pascal," Vincent said. "These things happen. I’ll get Cullen and William and meet you in the pipe chamber in ten minutes."

Vincent accepted mending, patching and fixing as part of tunnel life. Over the years, he’d developed a keen sense of what could be rigged and what could not --; and more than anything, he trusted his instincts. When the pipemaster said that something had to be fixed, instinct agreed.

"Fifteen minutes would be better," Pascal said, decisively. "I need to gather my tools."

Max looked up from her dog-eared copy All This and Heaven, Too and asked, "What can I do to help?"

"Rub my back, when I’m finished," Pascal replied, impatiently. He found his tool belt from on top of a pile of books that he’d never seen before.

"Ben, I really want to help," she said.

The pipemaster stopped and looked at his lover from an engineering point of view. Max was almost exactly his size and nearly as strong. The few times he’d asked her help, she’d been efficient and very, very steady. But he also knew that this particular job required precision and speed that came only with experience. Lack of experience in these matters often led to serious injury.

"Next time, Max," Pascal told her. "As much as I’d love to teach you, we’re working against the clock."

"I understand."

Max extended her hand to him. Pascal took it and allowed himself to be drawn into her embrace. When she smiled at him, he leaned down and kissed her. He meant for it to be a quick kiss, but he found himself lingering until she parted her smile. Pascal all but melted into her lap. He buried his face in her hair.

"Just be here when I get back," he whispered.

Max arched away and looked into his eyes. She framed his face with her soft, cool hands and smiled. "Of course," she replied, lightly running her fingertips through his remaining hair. The pipemaster relaxed and refocused beneath her touch. "I’ll be here, my fine bald hobbit," Max said. She pressed her forehead against his. "Please be careful."

Pascal fortified by her words and her concern, turned his attention to the task at hand.

"I won’t be long, Max," he said. "And rest assured, I will be careful."

"Good."

"It’s based on a true story, you know," Pascal called on the way out the door.

"What?"

"The book you’re reading."

Max’s laughter followed him down the hall.

Not long turned into six hours. The initial repair job went quickly, but closer inspection revealed the reason for the failure. One repair became two and two became four --; and at one point, Vincent actually cursed and questioned the lead pipe’s parentage. It turned out that the bracing system had to be realigned. It was filthy, exacting work and Pascal, Vincent, Cullen and William ended up covered in grime and hysterical. Kip completely lost it and banished them from the pipe chamber forever.

"Or at least until you can behave like adults!" he snapped, brandishing his ‘tappers’ at them from his perch on the third level. He fairly oozed with a fifteen-year-olds righteous fury. "Don’t make me come down there!"

"Ooo, I’m scared," said Cullen.

"Terrified," said William.

"Let us depart before he spontaneously combusts," Vincent said.

Pascal, who was laughing too hard to speak, merely gathered his tools and walked out the door. His partners in grime wisely followed, leaving Kip to stew in private.

Max saw the look on his face and asked: "What evil thing have you done?"

"Nothing," Pascal replied, shrugging. He returned his tool belt to its place on top of Ghost Towns, Gamblers & Gold. "Nothing at all." He smelled and he needed a bath.

"Is that why you’ve been banished from your own pipe chamber for life?"

"Evidently, Kip can’t handle anyone but himself acting like a teenager."

"Righteous," said Max. She returned to her reading, or hiding behind her hair. Pascal couldn’t decide which.

The pipemaster stretched and looked around the chamber. In his absence, the piles of books and CDs had definitely grown. Odd-looking cables and patch cords trailed out from under the bed, and something suspiciously electronic seemed to have been stuffed under the writing table and covered with a towel. Did she think he wouldn’t notice?

"Max, what’s going on?" he asked.

"Pascal, we have to talk." She didn’t look up.

"I’m listening."

"I closed the door," Max said.

Even though they’d discussed this at length, Pascal was stunned and he let it show. Max closed the book, put her hands in her lap and looked up at him.

"It was time," she said.

The pipemaster went to her then. Smells and baths be damned, he knelt beside her chair and took her hands in his. Her palms had the slick feel of liquid mercury, as if nothing could break the surface. "Why now?" he asked. "Did something happen?"

"Pascal, there are things you don’t know," Max replied. "Things that outweigh stupid family prejudice and careers." She held his hands very tightly. "This community must continue to exist beyond the next century. It’s my job to see that it does. I can’t do that sitting on the fence."

Max literally collapsed against his chest. Pascal steeled himself to keep from falling over.

"Please forgive the mess," she said.

"There’s nothing to forgive," Pascal assured her, smiling.

She entwined her fingers in his.

"Your world is like an engine that powers mine," Max went on. "Relationship is the fuel that feeds it. There must always be balance," she said decisively. "And my going back and forth kept everything out of balance. Do you understand?"

"I think so," Pascal replied. He marveled at the liquid feel of her skin and the way it seemed to accept and surround his hands. "What about your family, Max? What about your friends?"

Max finally looked into his eyes. "Love still exists behind closed doors," she said, smiling softly. "And we make such a good fit."

"Yes, we do." The pipemaster found infinite warmth inside that smile.

Her smile deepened into a grin. "You do realize that I know how everything turns out," she said.

"And?"

"It’s all good."

Pascal burst out laughing and pulled her into his arms. One thing about Max --; she wasn’t bothered by grime or sweat. She kissed him with a sweet gentleness that demanded an equally gentle response.

"You’re very afraid, aren’t you?" Pascal asked, tracing the outline of her lips with his fingertip.

"Yes," Max whispered, nodding. "I really am."

They sat huddled on the floor between piles of books and CDs and clothing. Pascal held her very close. "You can open the door again, right?"

"If I choose to," she replied. Her voice trembled slightly.

"When you choose to," Pascal said, firmly. His voice sounded very strong.

"Okay, when," Max agreed. She held on tightly and was silent.

He rubbed her back lightly and felt her give in to comfort. Pascal looked around at their disordered chamber. The picture was definitely worse from floor level. He smiled and gently lifted her face to his. When they kissed, Pascal finally and solidly understood that he completed Max as she did him.

He didn’t even care that every physical object in the room was out of place.

Small things don’t matter, he thought. You taught me that.

Suddenly, Max laughed. She laughed with her whole being. "Pascal," she said. "No offense but you really need a bath."

"Now you tell me."

Pascal found out much later that while he was busy repairing the pipes, Max had been holed up with Father. The two hammered out an Agreement -- the details of which were never revealed by either party. When Vincent tried to ask Father about it, the old man turned pale and refused to discuss the matter at all. Max merely smiled like the Mona Lisa and said: "Water under the bridge." And that was all she would say.

Pascal knew her well enough to guess that she’d played a trump card --; one that Father could neither acknowledge nor refuse. He also noticed that while Max preferred to remain on the edges of tunnel life, she immediately began teaching the older children history and also helped Mary in the infirmary while he worked his day shift on the line. The pipemaster sensed that whatever the agreement reached, it had certain conditions and that Max willingly abided by them.

He teased her about it once and only once.

"I hope Father wasn’t too hard on you," Pascal said. "I hope he didn’t threaten to kick you out on your pretty little tucas."

"I’m here, aren’t I?" she told him, smiling too sweetly. "Besides, the price was right."

"Let me guess," he said. "All it cost was your pride?"

"Yes," Max replied. "But I didn’t need it." She laughed the way she did late at night when only he was listening. "I really don’t want to talk about this anymore, Ben. Okay?"

"Okay," said Pascal.

Love made him selfish; it didn't make him stupid. They never talked about it again.

Her nightmares started not long after her meeting with Father. At least, he assumed they did. "Don’t worry about it, Just Pascal," Max said, shrugging. "It happens. They go in cycles."

She was cowering in the hall with her personal DVD player at the time.

Pascal said nothing, but he went back into their chamber and got his thick old, quilt off the bed. He sat down beside her and gently pulled its warm layers up around them.

"You don’t have to sit with me," she said.

"I know," he replied. He slipped his arm around her shoulders. "What are you watching, Moxie?"

Max actually blushed. "Diary of a Lost Girl," she murmured.

Pascal smiled to himself. Max’s taste usually ran along the lines of the Marx Brothers and in a pinch Val Lewton’s original Cat People. By day, she preferred comedy and implicative fear, but in the dark, she turned to silence. The only exception to the rule was Les Enfants du Paradis; and he knew well enough to steer clear of her when she sat alone watching that.

"You’re not lost," Pascal said.

Max pretended to be absorbed in the dance that was Louise Brooks.

"You’re not," he said again.

"I know," she said, softly. She leaned in to his embrace and balanced the DVD player on her knees between them. Without music, without sound, the flickering images seemed very fragile on the tiny screen. "It’s like watching somebody else’s dream, isn’t it?"

"Yes, it is." Pascal gently guided her head to his shoulder. She rested there without resistance.

"It’s late," Max said. "You should be asleep."

"I think I’ll sit here awhile, if you don’t mind," Pascal said.

In reply, Max settled in and slid her hand under the covers. She placed it over his heart, but she didn’t speak. She never spoke of the nightmares. What she did communicate came through only in the language of somebody else’s dreams.

Pascal understood this implicitly. The message inside the silence was chilling: how could something that feels so right and so good have a price? He wanted to ask her about it, but he already knew the answer --; and it frightened him. The pipemaster knew that the nightmares were connected to his lover’s agreement with Father. It made him feel somehow unclean.

Pascal held her hand close to his heart and tapped out the subtitles on the back of her hand. "Whose dream are we watching?" he asked.

"Pabst’s," Max replied. "G.W. Pabst’s. He couldn’t save her, either."

"Who?"

"Louise Brooks. Nobody could save her from herself."

"Maybe she didn’t want to be saved?" Pascal asked, wondering how the hell Max knew these things.

"Oh," Max replied, smiling. "I never thought of that." It was like a load had been lifted from her shoulders.

"I didn’t think you had." He kissed her very softly.

After that, they sat huddled together, warm and safe, and watched the movie without sound. It was safer, somehow, to watch other people’s dreams rather than their own.

Once she was far enough removed from the nightmare, Max was willing to be led back to bed. Pascal was extra gentle with her on nights like this. He made sure every touch was as soft as breath and that he listened with his body as well as his heart. Physically, he was very strong and sometimes, it was easy to go too far too fast. He loved the effort it took not to allow this to happen; and Max loved him for it.

"Gentle," Max whispered. "Go gently, my sweet Pascal."

Pascal lowered his face to hers and kissed her tenderly. He let his tongue dance over her lips and softly touch the tip of hers. He longed to taste her deeply, but he didn’t dare. Max was too fragile. He tasted it on her breath. So he kissed her with years of saved up tenderness.

Max responded with equal tenderness, and her touches made him ache. The way she kissed him back made him ache. Their bodies and their hearts fit together seamlessly.

Pascal quickly learned to wall off parts of his mind. He learned that he could think beneath the beautiful layers of emotion; he cherished thought in this place without hurt. Tonight, he didn’t go there to think. He only hoped that Max would share a little of her pain. He was strong. He could take her pain… He blanketed her with his body and his need. He touched her softly with his lips and tongue and breath and made her dance beneath him. He sang to her in a voice that he allowed no one else to hear.

 

Storms never last, do they, baby?

Bad times all pass with the wind.

Max slid her hands beneath his flannel nightshirt and ran her fingertips up his spine. She brought her hands to the back of his neck and cradled his head. Her cool touch burned his sensitive scalp. He wanted to love her deeply.

Pascal held his own wants close to his heart. He gentled her until he heard her song, low and sweet; and her kisses became another kind of dance.

"I love you," he whispered.

Max was beyond answering. He loved that, too.

The pipemaster was deeply, profoundly aroused by her pleasure. He’d waited all his life for a lover as gentle as he was. With Max, there was never any ‘harder, Pascal’ or worse ‘can’t you be rough for once?’ None of that. Max moved with him, answered him, held him as though she thought he could break. And tonight, she lost control first --; and yet, he still moved with excruciating tenderness.

Suddenly, something washed over him in the night. It hit him like a tidal wave. Pascal instinctively accepted it for what it was. Wordless and without thought, Max’s pain ebbed and vanished like the tide and in its place came arousal unlike anything he’d ever known. Max pulled him to her, kissed him, gave herself to him.

"Now, Ben," she begged. "Now."

Pascal moaned. He took her fluid hands in his and did as she asked. He could no longer differentiate their cries. Nor did he care to.

"Marry me, Max," he said.

 

Yes, she answered against his palm.

Pascal held himself away from her willing body and fought his intense desire to take her. "When?" he asked. "When will you marry, my love?"

Max’s eyes were wide with need and with love. "When do you want me to?" she asked. She tried to pull him down against her but he was strong. Very strong.

"Sunday," he said. Resisting her pull was something he could barely manage.

"Yes," Max whimpered.

"Say it again," he hissed.

"Yes."

"When?" Pascal asked.

"Sunday," she whispered. "Now, if you want me to."

This time, when she pulled him, Pascal didn’t resist. He locked into their shared rhythm and he took her.

Max slept, but Pascal could not. The after images from the movie disturbed him. They made him think, and that wasn’t something he was prepared to do right now. Instead, he rolled over and watched Max dream.

She slept on her back with her arm flung over her head, as though she was expecting a fight. The pipemaster didn’t want a fight; he wanted only to extend comfort --; and himself.

Pascal softly tapped her name inside her quiet palm. Gradually, Max returned to consciousness and smiled at him.

"Yes?" she asked, stretching. "You rang?"

"Max, I need to know something," Pascal told her, softly. "And I really want you to tell me the truth."

She looked a little confused. "I always tell the you truth, Hobbit," she said.

"Max, why did you close the door?" Pascal asked. He ran his fingers across her furrowed brow.

"I closed it because I had to," Max replied.

"Did you close it out of anger?"

She reached for him and held him close. "Is that what you think?" she asked, her hands framing his face.

Pascal shook his head No.

"No," he said. "I don’t think you‘d ever do anything like that."

Max slid her arms around his thin shoulders and soothed his aching muscles with her touch.

Pascal responded to her caress. He smoothed the curls out of her eyes and said, "Your hair is getting so long." He let the curls trail through his fingers and back across her forehead; and he traced the curve of eyebrows. "Why did you close the door so soon?"

"I had to make a choice," Max said. Her eyes never left his. "So I chose. That’s all there is to it."

"Did somebody make you choose, Max?"

Pinned beneath his body, she had nowhere to go, so she looked away.

"Max," he said. "Who made you choose?"

"I chose," she said, still looking away. "Let’s leave it at that."

Pascal put his fingers beneath her chin and gently turned her face to his. When he kissed her, he tasted her fear. "You don’t have to tell me," he whispered. "I’m pretty smart. I can figure things out for myself."

"I never meant to imply that you couldn’t," Max replied, softly. She buried her face in the crook of his neck. Her breathing was very shallow. "Just know that in any given situation, I will choose you over all else."

"And I you," Pascal replied. He slid his arms beneath her back and held her very close. He rolled them both, so that Max was lying on top of him. He reached back and arranged their pillows; and he invited her closeness with a leading caress.

Max settled into the crook of his arm and gently rested her hand over his heart. I love you, she coded. I just love you. And she smiled with her fingertips, the way she did the first time they touched.

Pascal smiled with his whole being. He brought his hand up and lightly placed it over hers. I love you, too, Moxie.

"I like it when you call me that," she whispered, nuzzling his neck.

"It suits you," Pascal replied, laughing. "Do you know what it means?"

"I think it was a soft drink," she said.

"That too," the pipemaster replied. "But it’s old slang for guts or more aptly chutzpah." And courage, he thought. Which you seem to have in abundance.

Max laughed. Laughing, she kissed him.

Pascal still tasted fear, but not as strongly. He sighed and gentled her into his embrace and pulled the quilts up around them. "You sleep now," he told her. "I’ll lie awake and chase away the nightmares."

"Yes, Ben," she murmured. "Please do that."

Gradually, the fear left her body and Max fell asleep with her head on his chest and the rest of her sprawled more or less on top of him.

Pascal would never ask again, because deep down in his heart he knew. Father used the lead pipe failure to corner Max and force her hand --; literally. The pipemaster held that hand in his and wondered how many doors she closed for him; and he prayed he was worth it.

Max smiled in her sleep.

Pascal stopped by Vincent’s chamber after his second shift on the line. He quietly asked his friend to perform the ceremony. This was highly irregular, but not unheard of. Father wasn’t all together liked.

"I just can’t make Max stand in front of the old man," the pipemaster said. "It would hurt her. I won’t be party to that."

Vincent nodded. "I understand," he replied. His eyes were very sad. "I’ll do this for you."

For a brief moment, Pascal wondered if he wasn’t the only one who felt Max’s pain in the night. He shrugged the thought away.

"Father can be harsh," Vincent said. "And he and Max seem to have agreed to not to agree, so to speak."

The pipemaster shuddered.

"You’re cold!" Vincent said. "Have some tea."

Pascal wasn’t cold, but he accepted the tea anyway. "Vincent, what if the pipes were knocked out of alignment on purpose?" he asked.

"Why on earth would anybody do that?"

"I don’t know," Pascal replied. "But what if, Vincent? What if?"

At three o’clock on the morning of the wedding, Pascal found himself trying to explain that some traditions couldn’t be broken. "I’m not supposed to see you in your dress before the ceremony," he told her. "It’s bad luck."

"It’s only a dress, Pascal," she snapped. "It’s not like you haven’t seen it before."

"It’s tradition, Max," he replied, firmly.

"But this is tradition, too! And who will paint my hands?" Max wailed. "It’s supposed to be done by my closest relative --; and you’re the closest thing to a relative I’ve got!" She was in such obvious distress that Pascal couldn’t say no.

All of his life, he’d hated the smell of henna. It made him think of the days when Mary used to dye faded jeans in a huge vat. They came out a hideous blue earth color that didn’t show dirt but also dyed everything else they came into contact with --; including skin. The concept of painting Max’s beautiful hands with the stuff bordered on travesty.

She opened a book that appeared to be written in Sanskrit and pointed at an elaborate Celtic design. "It’s simple," she said, tapping the page. "Make them look like that."

"Max, I work with pipes," Pascal said. "I’m not an artist."

She slipped her dress over her head and said something about "anybody can paint swirls."

"If you say so."

Max swiftly buttoned the approximately two million buttons that ran up the side of the dress and looked at him as though he was being impossibly recalcitrant and impossibly male. "Pascal, just make filigree gloves on the backs of my hands," she said.

She did not mention that the fact said "gloves" would take weeks to wear off and therefore had to be passably attractive.

"You paint it on and then set it with the hair dryer," Max told him. "It’s not like I’m asking you to perform brain surgery."

She spread out a layer of newspapers on top of the writing table and set the paint and brushes out on top of it. She pulled up two chairs and sat down in one of them expectantly.

Pascal sat next to her and touched her face lightly. "I like your hands the way they are, Max," he said. "Is this so important to you?"

Max gave him one of her devastating smiles and he knew he’d give in. He argued a little more, but he gave in. He even had to admit that there was something intensely erotic about painting her hands.

"That’s because you’re symbolically sealing the power in," she told him. "My palms are unencumbered but I give them only to you. In my world, the tattoos would communicate that to other techs."

"Oh," said Pascal. He was blushing, because he did understand. Implicitly.

"My people are very superstitious," Max went on. "When a tech marries, it’s said that the hands seal the bond. And the tattoos seal the power."

He nodded and thought how amazingly beautiful her hand looked under the tip of his brush --; and how the rich dark filigree seemed to become part of her lace sleeve and how he was the painter and she was the canvas.

"I told you it was simple," she said, watching the effect slowly spread.

"It’s not simple, Max," Pascal replied. "It’s sensual."

Max leaned in and kissed him.

He laughed and said: "Do you want me to finish this or do you want to make mad monkey love? The choice is yours."

After pretending to give the question much thought, she raised her eyebrow and said: "Finish the tattoos."

"All right, then. Let’s keep it professional, Maxine."

Max pressed her knees lightly against his and smiled. Pascal smiled back; and he kissed her. After that, they both fell into a warm silence that filled the room and deepened as the hours passed. The pipemaster understood that he was painting a memory; and that the memory would last for the rest of their lives.

"You really do have beautiful hands," Pascal told her, softly.

She trembled under his touch. "Thank you, Ben, " she replied.

"Max, you’re blushing."

"I am?"

"It’s okay. So am I."

The vows were simple. Vincent read them in his calm, beautiful voice, but Pascal did not hear them. His ears and his eyes and his heart were full of Max and the way she smiled when he slipped the ring on her henna-laced finger. Entire worlds lived inside that smile.

"You’re so beautiful," she said. And she kissed him.

Everybody in the room cheered. Even Father.

Pascal wanted the moment to go on forever; and it almost did. Max smiled as she kissed him. Time opened and they disappeared inside. He looked at his world from another, warmer place. He thought he saw people in the mist --; faces from the past and from the future. He imagined they were smiling.

"Pascal, are you happy?" Max asked.

"Yes," Pascal replied.

And she kissed him.

There was cake, of course, and there was music. And for an afternoon, the tunnels over-flowed with joy.

Pascal knew it was late. He knew he should be asleep, but it was so sweet to lie awake and dream. Max slept in his arms, her fingertips coding something undecipherable against his shoulder. He caught her hand and brought it to his lips. He kissed her palm and felt it grow warm under his tongued caress. He felt her awaken and move into his touch.

"What a nice way to wake up," Max murmured. "So gentle."

The way she said the word gentle aroused him. Max was the only woman Pascal had ever known who found his gentleness erotic. She didn’t fight it. Instead, she met it, and answered him in kind. Loss of control was no longer something to be feared but to be treasured. Max rolled on top of him and he felt her heart pounding against his chest.

"Did you really marry me today?" she asked. Her voice was so warm and so low.

"Yes," Pascal answered. "Oh, yes." He kissed Max with a passion that came from deep inside; it was a passion untapped until he first gave himself to her. He trailed his hands down her sides in rhythm with his tongue and tried not to shudder when she slid her hands beneath his back and lifted him to her. "I love how you touch me," he whispered.

Max answered with a kiss so soft he lost control.

Pascal heard himself plead, heard his voice beg her to take him. He was crying. And Max was tasting his tears, caressing him with her tongue and fingers and breath. Her body accepted his as if she had been made for him. He rode the waves of shared passion with hunger and with love.

Pascal felt so light, he could float a way. The only thing holding him earthbound was the soft weight of Max’s slight being and her love. It had always been her love. It liberated him and it chained him to her. Only to her.

He was vaguely aware of her hands lightly holding his. He felt warmth escalate to heat. He tasted her sweet breath. Now, he thought. Now. Pascal’s small body was wracked with undeniable pleasure.

Inside the palm of his hand, he heard her words. I love you.

Unable to form rational thought, he tightened his hand around hers, caught her gaze, and tried to convey with all his heart that he felt the same way about her.

Max smiled and kissed him so very deeply he began to cry again. His need was so great and her tongue was so perfect against his. He could no longer hold back his passion and he took her.

Gently, he took her. Deeply, he took her. And he gave himself to her completely.

Pascal shuddered uncontrollably beneath her and cried out her name. Her hands came to his comfort and to his rescue. Her touch brought to the surface all the words he wanted to say and could not.

"I love you, Max," he said or thought or said. "I’ve never been this happy in my life. I want to give myself to you until there’s nothing left inside."

He felt her lips on his. And her words cascaded over him like warm, gentle rain. He couldn’t understand them, but he knew they were beautiful.


1Must Have Lost My Heart by Steve Hardin ©1997 by Old Slowpoke Music.

2"Walkin' Blues" by Robert Johnson.

3Ballad of Lucy Jordan by Shel Silverstein. Published by Essex Music. ©1974

4Too Much Water ©1993 by C.Caffey, R. Caffey & B. Carlisle. Virgin Music.

5Air You Breathe by David White and Donna Weiss, Warner Chappell Music ©1992 by Virgin Records Limited.

6Storms Never Last words and music by Jessi Colter. ©1978