A MATTER OF PLACE (THE WORLD BEYOND)

By Nightwalker87

Author's Note: This piece was the result of a challenge issued by my friend, De, who introduced me to the series. It started out as ten pages and kept growing. I hope you enjoy the final product.


CHAPTER ONE

If we only have love*

To embrace without fear

We will kiss with our eyes

We will sleep without tears

The picture ended, and, as the credits rolled, the audience gathered their things. Murmurs of conversations could be heard beneath the Dolby sound of the movie's theme music. A small, chestnut-haired young woman grabbed the blue trench coat she had fling earlier across the vacant seat next to her. Giving it a vigorous shake, she turned to her companion.

"Ready, Cathy?" No response. "Cathy?" she repeated a little louder when the woman failed to move.

"Earth to Catherine Chandler. The movie is over. You have regained control of your mind. You may leave. Now!" Jenny Aaronson commanded in an authoritative voice, barely smothering a giggle.

"Huh?..." Catherine Chandler slowly responded while shaking her head to distill the sense of awakening from a drugged sleep.

"Is the movie over?"

"Yes, Cath, it's over. Has been for ten minutes."

Leaning over, Jenny softly punched her friend in the left shoulder. "Obviously, you were so enthralled by it, you wanted it to go on and on and on. Now that you've rejoined the rest of us, can we go? I'm starved."

As if on cue, a low rumble emerged from the region of her stomach. Clutching her mid-section in mock pain, she snarled, "If I don't get something to eat in 3 minutes, I will self-destruct. And you will never forgive yourself."

Hastily, Catherine stood and slipped her arms through the green wool coat that had rested on her lap throughout the show. Ignoring the buttons, she pulled it tightly around her slender body and grabbed her purse.

Turning to her friend, she slipped an arm around Jenny's shoulder, "Let's go put some food in you. And just maybe you won't self-destruct for say..., " she glanced at her watch, pretending to gravely consider the matter. "...Two hours," she finally concluded and then grinned brightly.

Too brightly thought Jenny as they moved up the aisle and through the lobby. Outside, Catherine handed Jenny her purse as she silently buttoned her coat. Jenny did not attempt to break the silence with her usual light-hearted banter. She intently watched her friend, noting the jerkiness of her movements; the slight slump to her shoulders and the aura of tiredness. No, not tiredness, Jenny mentally corrected herself but something else.

"What is it, Cath?" her voice floated gently through the September evening.

Catherine debated whether to ignore the question by pretending she did not hear it. However, she knew her college friend well. If she did not respond, Jenny would only persist until she did. Without looking at her friend, she retrieved her purse.

"It's nothing, Jen," she mumbled as she turned and headed east on Third Avenue. She had walked a few paces before the other woman fell in step beside her.

"Sure, Cathy, nothing." Jenny didn't bother to hide her disbelief.

They walked the four block to Nadine's, their favorite bistro on the eastside in silence. Around them, fellow New Yorkers hurried by at the clipped, impatient pace only true New Yorkers walked. Now and then, a male pedestrian paused a moment to observe the two as they passed.

In height, they were about the same, 5'51/2". Both carried the unmistakable air of successful, career women at home with themselves. Slender bodies were propelled forth by commanding strides. Neither looked left nor right out of choice, not fear. This was their city-a city with which they had come to terms and vice versa. There the resemblance ended.

Jenny had chestnut-colored hair styled in riotous curls around her face. Her eyes were brown and her nose a tad too small for the round face. Openness, the bedrock of her personality, was stamped on her features. It was a friendly face, prone to an easy smile; the laugh lines around her small mouth an immediate confirmation of that. Catherine's brownish blonde hair barely brushed her shoulders while framing an oval face. Hair and eyes blended well with a nose that was a shade shy of being short. High cheekbones coupled with grayish green eyes and full lips made her the more striking of the two.

When men looked at Jenny, they smiled and frequently asked her out. When they looked at Catherine, something about the face--the look of the eyes--made they hesitate and then reject the impulse. If asked, they were at a loss to explain the hesitation.

The two women entered the bistro and were immediately seated by the maitre d'. Once seated, they shrugged out of their coats and then scanned the place for familiar faces. As always on Saturday nights, the place was crowded. Every white-clothed table was full and the lines were three deep around the big mahogany bar running the length of the room. Here and there, mahogany beans sprouted from floor to ceiling. Each beam had a cluster of people surrounding it. The brick-faced walls and early American lighting gave the room, despite the crowd, an air of intimacy. Soft music--a mixture of jazz, classical, and pop--enhanced the overall effect of restfulness.

"Evening, Zack, " each responded while opening the menu.

Zack stayed long enough to pour them glasses of wine from a carafe of spitzers.

Catherine pretended to study the menu then finally gave up. Closing it, she began to tap the it against the bottom edge of the table. She didn't become aware of the action until Jenny gently but firmly took the folder out of her hands.

"Oh, Jen. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to annoy you. I..."

"You didn't annoy me, Cath. I already know what I'm ordering. However, I am annoyed because something is bothering you. Why don't you tell me about it?"

"Jen...," Catherine began, only to be interrupted by Zack's return.

"Ladies, tonight's specials are..."

"Don't bother, Zack. We'll both have small Caesar salads and chicken almondine," ordered Jenny, after a glance at Catherine.

After Zack's departure, Jenny quickly returned to the conversation.

"Cathy, what is it?"

Catherine stared into the worried eyes of friend then down at the table.

"That's just it, Jen. I don't know...," she haltingly stated. "Everything is alright at the job and I can't complain about my home life. Yet I feelÖ"

"Tired?"

"No, not tired. Or sad. Or unhappy."

"Then what?" Jenny was perplexed and it showed.

"I don't know. Restless, perhaps. No, edgy. No, that's not it either." Sighing, she cradled her head in her hands.

"I feel like I'm standing atop of a precipice with a foot on the edge. Behind me is the known and a head of me. A head of me...I don't know."

Frustrated because she could not explain, she slapped her palms against the table and then clenched her fists.

Jenny reached across the small space and grasped the fists in her hands. She rubbed the skin drawn tight across the knuckles.

"Cathy, I don't pretend to understand what is going on with you. Just know that I love you and I'm hear if you need me."

Catherine forced her fingers to relax and grasped the warmth cushioning her hands. Looking up, she managed a genuine smile.

"Believe me, Jen, I know that and I appreciate it. I rely on it. Don't worry, everything will sort itself out. Who knows, maybe, I'm going through menopause," she ended on a teasing note.

The other woman smiled and relaxed, pleased to see the return of her old friend. Turning her head, she spied Zack heading toward them.

Releasing Catherine hands, she gleefully rubbed her own together and remarked, "Ah, food. At last.."

Jenny's rapt expression caused Catherine to chuckle and quip, "Are you sure it's the food? Perhaps Zack is making you salivate like that."

"Zack? Never. I only salivate for food"

The waiter placed the salads on the table, breathing an inward sigh of relief. The air of doom and gloom had lifted. The two women looked relaxed which meant a good tip for him. Perhaps, he could replenish his dwindling art supply. Smiling broadly, he retrieved a basket of warm petit French loaves and placed them in the middle of the table.

"All set for now, ladies? I'll return with the rest of the order as soon as it' s ready."

Once he was gone, the two women proceeded to analyze the movie. They decided it hadn't been worth the $7.00 admission and debated at great length how much it had been worth.

Deep beneath the city streets, Vincent's pen halted in mid-word. He cocked his head as though listening to something far off then chuckled softly. He could sense Catherine's merriment and was pleased that she was finally enjoying the evening with Jenny.

The chuckle died and a frown creased his face. Something was troubling her. Tonight was a much-needed reprieve but that was all it was. Placing the pen on the paper, he continued the entry in his diary.

CHAPTER TWO

Catherine unlatched the door and crossed the threshold of her apartment. Turning, she then locked it. With each click of the four latches, the good feeling generated by an evening spend with Jenny slowly evaporated.

As she hung her coat in the closet, she swore aloud "Dammit, what's wrong with me?" She desperately recalled the events of the evening, trying to recapture its pleasure. Momentarily, her dark mood lifted and she laughed while recalling Jen's imitation of the lead actor's idea of toughness; a cross between Rambo, Robocop, and the Terminator. Her own imitation of the heroine--a combination of Wonder Woman, Riley, and Supergirl--had sent them both into gales of laughter. An argument then ensued regarding who had selected the movie and why. Finally, a truce was declared after each acknowledged that the selection had been the fault of the feature's stars--two well-know actors who had made bad choices and even worse chemistry on scene.

The light-hearted mood continued as she showered, donned a gown and got into bed. Yawning, she turned on her side and fell asleep, only to awaken an hour later in a cold sweat. Her palms were clammy; her heart beat accelerated. Shakily, she pushed hair out of her eyes and tried to bring her trembling body under control. Throwing the bed covers aside, she swung her legs over the edge and sat, head cupped in her hands. An unsteady hand snagged the matching velour robe of her gown from a nearby chair. She got up and put the robe on, snapping the buttons all the way down. Barefoot, she patted into the kitchen to make some tea. With deft movements, she put water in the kettle and placed it on the burner. Once kettle started whistling, she placed a mug with herbal tea in it on the counter. Using a potholder, she poured the hot water into the mug and returned the kettle to the stove. Picking up the mug in one hand, she turned the burner and overhead light off with the other, plunging the apartment once more into a total darkness that seemed to be closing in on her.

Air, she thought, I need air. She left the kitchen and quickly moved across the living room and bounded up the three steps to the dining area and the terrace beyond. She paused momentarily to place the mug on the dining table and then hurriedly pushed open the French doors and stepped onto the balcony.

The September night was soothing to her. She retrieved the tea, took a sip and then placed the mug on the small iron-wrought table next to the lounger. For a moment, she was indecisive about what to do next. She couldn't go back inside, it was too oppressive. On the terrace, she could breathe. She retrieved the down comforter from the foot of her bed and returned to the balcony. She lay down on the lounger and drew the comforter around her.

Picking up the now lukewarm tea, she relaxed into the back of the lounger and stared into the darkness. It was a moonless night with thousands of twinkling lights patterning the sky. As can often happen in September, it was warmer now than it had been earlier in the evening. Between her nightwear, the comforter, and the tea, she felt cozily warm. Placing the mug back on the table, she stretched out, her eyes heavy with sleep. She slowly drifted off, cocooned by the city night. Gradually as she slept, the warm coziness was replaced by a cold darkness from which she could not escape.

A figure slipped out of the shadows and rushed to the woman writhing on the lounger.

Vincent knelt beside Catherine and shook her gently. "Catherine, it is only a dream," he whispered in a raspy and soothing voice.

She didn't seem to hear him as she began to sob--woeful sounds of unbridled fear. All the while, she thrashed about in the comforter, which in sleep, had twisted around her body, trapping her.

"Catherine, wake up!" Vincent commanded loudly. Turning her to the side, he pulled on the bedding, releasing it. Throwing it down, he laid Catherine on her back and shook her again.

"Catherine. Catherine, you're free. Wake up." His words had no effect and he sensed her slipping deeper into terror. Gathering her to him, he stretched out on the settee. Throwing his cloak over them both, he ran his arms up and down her chilled back several times. He continued to speak softly to her, "Come back, Catherine. It's just a dream."

The warmth of his body and the sound of his voice gradually penetrated the terror and her sobbing lessened and then ceased. Her tightly curled fists relaxed and, blindly, she clung to him. Feeling her return to consciousness, he held her tighter and sighed.

"Oh, Catherine."

Cloistered in his arms, Catherine smelled the leather of the tunic he wore and his own smoky scent. She inhaled deeply; trying to draw the scent within her essence, knowing it was her only salvation. Eyes closed, she felt the muscles of his thighs against her own and the softness of the fur beneath his cheek. It was then that she realized they were intertwined. She felt winded as though she had run a great distance. Disoriented, she opened her eyes and looked up at Vincent. The concern in his eyes puzzled her.

"Vincent? What happened? The last thing I remember is falling a sleep."

"You dreamt, Catherine. A nightmare."

She blanched as the response. Recalling the terror of the dream, she began to tremble.

"Catherine, what is it? Tell me."

Drawing out of his embrace, she got up and moved to lean against on the low-bricked wall of the terrace. Propping her arms against the edge, she dropped her head onto them.

He watched her go, not concerned at the lack of response. He felt her gather her strength taking back control of her environment. After a moment, he followed in her path and stood next to her. As always, when he was this close, the familiar tug on his body grew stronger. He ruthlessly squelched it and concentrated only on her. He waited patiently, his face turned to view her profile. He could see a muscle tighten on her jaw.

A slight shift of her head and she would see a man who was more than a man. A person whose leonine features that would frighten the world. Moreover, in its fright, the world would overlook the blue eyes--mirrors to the soul within. It would only see the red gold mane falling below his shoulders or the claw-like hands and canine teeth. It would not see Vincent. Not as she, and all who loved him, saw him. At 6'2", he towered over her yet she had never felt overwhelmed by his height. Right now, she found comfort in it.

"I dreamed of him...the watcher." Her voice flowed softly towards him although she had not turned. " The one who stalked me in April. Only this time, he won. I couldn't get out. The water got higher and higher. I couldn't breathe and I died," the last words were a murmur, ribbed with fear.

"Catherine, it's over. He cannot harm you. You are alive and here...with me."

"I know, I know. But it was so real...," her voiced trailed off and she shuddered. "So close. So very close."

Vincent took her in his arms. "Yes, close, but you survived."

She felt his hands in her hair, stroking; his touch was comforting. Closing her eyes, she gave herself over to the feeling of security. She felt his fingers work their way down the sides of her head until his warm palms cupped her face. The tactile message was loud and clear: She was safe and warm. Warm...

He sensed it as she knew he would. Exerting slight pressure, he forced her to look up at him. Gray green eyes met sapphire blue and time stood still. Two pairs of eyes met and what had gone before was forgotten; banished to the nether world of what had been or could have been. As though a camera shutter clicked, the scene changed. The terrace and the September night disappeared. There was only Catherine. Only Vincent. There was only rushing needs, full-blown and demanding.

She needed a touch he alone could provide. The gray disappeared from her eyes and the green deepened to the color of emeralds.

Sapphire-colored eyes became the purest shade of that gemstone as his need for a touch from her took command, trampling all other considerations.

She was his. He was hers. It was as simple and complex as that.

Her lips parted and a soft breath trickled out, the sound ruthlessly drawing him further into the maelstrom. He watched her lips part and, inexorably, his head was drawn downward. The pull he continually fought around Catherine was more potent then ever before. Perhaps this moment had been impregnated that April night when he had almost lost her. The time since then an incubation to now. Her earlier nightmare, a reminder of the slenderness of life. He didn't know. It didn't matter. As he reached for her lips, he didn't care.

Catherine needed the touch of his lips to banish the nightmare. She needed to know that she would not die without having known what he could give. To hold him yet not touch him; not feel his lips against hers, his breath intermingled with hers, was no longer bearable. She could not remember why it had taken so long to get to this place.

Just before her lips touched his, he turned his head and her lips landed on his jaw.

"No." The pain of regret resounded in the word as Vincent broke the embrace and stepped out of her arms. Involuntarily, he backed away from her until he was braced against a terrace wall. His eyes never left her left hers as he fought to regain command of the sensations whirling through him. The efforts sent chills through him and his body became rigid. His breathing was ragged as he shook his head; the gesture a plea.

She felt bereaved as she fought to contain her raging passion. Like him, she drew deep, painful breaths. It didn't seem to help much. It was as though the Pandora's Box that housed her needs had broken open.

"Catherine."

The appeal in his voice was unmistakable and it touched her. She determinedly forced the traitorous needs down and cleared her mind of everything but Vincent. The effort drained her. She folded her arms across her body in a vain attempt to stem the cold seeping into her bones.

Vincent relaxed although he made no effort to go to her. The situation was too volatile as the need hung in the air between them. He retrieved his cloak from the lounger and put it on.

"I think I had better go," he whispered while pulling the hood up.

She nodded in agreement. "Good night, Vincent."

She turned and left the terrace, her steps lethargic.

Feeling her weariness and underlining sadness, he started to follow but stopped. He could almost hear her plea to be left alone. He turned away from the terrace doors and moved to the far end of the balcony. Moments later, he disappeared into the night.

In the apartment, Catherine sat in the darkened living room, praying for the rays of a new day.

"Hey, Radcliffe, is that deposition ready yet?" Joe Maxwell asked as he pulled on his suit jacket. Not waiting for a reply, he walked over to her desk.

"Uh, no, Joe. But, I'm almost done." Catherine replied without looking up. Her desk was cluttered with law books and depositions.

Joe impatiently fixed his tie and ran a hand absently through his dark hair. "Radcliffe, I need that deposition."

"Yes, I know. However, you don't need it until Wednesday. It will be done, " she snapped as she threw the pen down and glared at him.

Joe held up his hands up as though fighting off a blow. "Easy, Chandler. I was just asking. My, my, we are in a mood," he teased.

He's right, Catherine thought, I am in a mood. She sheepishly grinned, easing the momentary tension.

"Ah, that's better. Remember, Chandler, I'm on your side." His boyish grin was infectious and she laughed.

"There are times when I'm not so sure. Seriously, I will have it ready in time."

Maxwell studied the woman seated before him. There was an air of strain about her. The circles beneath her eyes spoke volumes about lack of sleep. Despite the terra cotta colored sweater and skirt, she looked drained; washed out.

"Cathy, is there something you want to talk about? Something wrong?"

He watched her close up. Her animated face lost all emotion.

"No, Joe. Why do you ask?" was the guarded response.

"I don't know. You seem...tired somehow. Cathy, I 'm not trying to pry...," his discomfort was apparent, "...but, if you need..."

"Ready, Joe?" a perky voice queried just behind him.

Gina Barrett, a slender, brunette, flashed a smile of hello to Cathy as she joined Joe. Slipping an arm through his, she tugged playfully.

"Come on, Joe. You were supposed to meet me downstairs ten minutes ago. How's it going Cath?"

"Okay, Gina. Where are you two going tonight?"

"First, dinner. There's this little Egyptian restaurant in the Village. I hear the food is great and spicy. Then, I am going to drag him off to hear a group called Marble Heads."

Joe grimaced. Listening to some group named "Marble Head" did not bode well for the evening. On the other hand, Gina had good if somewhat eclectic musical tastes and her business instincts were very sharp. Feigning a groan, he pulled her towards the doors. "Come on. If I have to listen to them, the food at this restaurant had better be fantastic! Night, Cathy."

Catherine chuckled. "Night, guys. Have fun."

She returned to the deposition, her thoughts still on Joe and Gina. They were quite a pair. Though they had met under tragic conditions, the resulting relationship was ample compensation. Both were happy and it showed. Why shouldn't it? she thought. Being in love should make one happy. I am not going to go there, she silently affirmed and resolutely returned her attention to papers on the desk.

"Vincent. Vincent, it's your move." Father chided, gesturing towards the chessboard.

Vincent stared at the board, his thoughts elsewhere, and blindly moved a piece.

Father sighed. The move was a gross mistake. Obviously, your attention is not completely focused on the game, Father muttered to himself.

"Vincent, I don't believe you are concentrating. Perhaps we would continue this another time."

"You're right, Father. Another time would be better."

Vincent stretched as Father moved the board out of the way. The older man then reached across the space between them and covered one of Vincent's hands.

"It's Catherine, isn't it?"

Vincent nodded then tilted his head slightly, listening to some distant sound.

A smile briefly lit his features, softening them. It disappeared. Confusion and sadness were written in the eyes that turned to Father.

"Something is wrong. I can feel it. I just don't know what it is. Lately, there has been a ...distance."

"Is something wrong with your bond? Is it weakening?"

"No, that's not it." Vincent stood and began to pace. "The bond is strong. However, it's as though a barrier has been placed within it. Previously, what Catherine felt flowed through me like a river. Something has slowed the currents of her feelings. I can't explain it any better."

"Have you spoken with Catherine about it?"

The negative response elicited a sound of exasperation from Father. "For God's sake, why not?"

Vincent stopped pacing to place a hand on a small figurine of a woman. He caressed it, drawing some solace from its coolness.

"Because I believe the barrier is of Catherine's making." He replied in a slightly shaky voice.

The magnitude of the statement was not lost on either man. From the beginning, the bond had flowed unimpeded between Catherine and Vincent. Through it, he experienced her joy, anger, compassion and fear. Except for the incident with Paracelsus, she had never attempted to hamper the connection. It had never entered any one's mind that she might wish otherwise.

Vincent rested his bowed frame against the table. Father rose and went to him. Cupping a shoulder, he tried to reassure his son. "I am sure it's nothing, Vincent. You know that Catherine loves you. When she is ready, she will tell you. I am certain of it."

"Yes, I know."

The fear of what she might tell him was evident in his blue eyes and reflected in the older man's gray ones.

"Meanwhile, try not to brood over it. Ah, Henry, you're just the person I need to see." he said, addressing the young man entering the chamber. "Vincent, would you get the plans for the new chambers and point out the weaknesses you found?"

"Yes, Father." He retrieved the plans from a cabinet in the rear of the study and joined the others at the table. Unrolling the charts, he proceeded to outline the problems with the structure in the new living areas.

CHAPTER THREE

Time moved relentlessly forward. September slipped into October and then it, too, was gone. By November, the trees were stripped bare of the leaves of summer. The green grass had become barren brown earth and the chilliness of October had eroded into the coldness of the forthcoming winter.

As the seasons change, so do relationships. The relationship between Catherine and Vincent subtlety altered as the weeks passed. There was always the loved; that could not be denied. However, there was also a restraint as though a 50-watt light bulb had replaced the 100-watt that was the electricity of their union. Together or a part, there was a pallor to both. The pleasure-pain of their relationship seemed to have tilted towards pain. Catherine would not speak of it. Vincent could not. And the impasse continued.

"Catherine Chandler here."

"Cathy, hi. It's Nancy."

"Nance, hello. What's up?" Catherine cradled the phone against her neck as she searched the messy desk for yet another deposition.

"Nothing. Just called to make certain you're coming up tomorrow."

"Of course. When have I ever turned down a Thanksgiving dinner at your home? Beside, Jenny would kill me if I backed out now."

Nancy's laughter flowed through the telephone line. "That's true. You know for someone who love's to eat, Jenny is one lousy cook. Almost as bad as you."

"Come on, Nancy, I'm not that bad. As least I know how to make melon balls."

"Yes. That and boil an egg. The extent of your culinary abilities."

Catherine laughed and didn't bother to deny the truth of her friend's statement. The two chatted a few minutes longer then hung up. A smile hovered on Catherine's face reflecting the bubble of excitement and delight within. It would be good to get away for a few days. She eagerly anticipated being drawn into Nancy's geniality and that of her husband and children. Besides, her friend was a great cook and she could use a good meal. The glow faded as Catherine ruefully admitted to herself that, of late, she had not been eating well. Additionally, she was almost an insomniac. The combination had left her drawn and wan. Joe came out of his office, buttoning up his trench coat. The air of expectancy around him was palpable. Watching him, Catherine knew it meant only one thing--Gina was on her way back.

"Hey, Joe. What time does Gina's plane land?" She called out just as he got to the door.

"In about two hours, if the U. S. Air flight from LA lands on time. I'm on the way to LaGuardia now. Enjoy Thanksgiving, kiddo. See you Monday."

He was gone. Catherine shook her head at the image left in his wake. The man could be a barracuda in the courtroom; cold, unbending. Yet, he'd rushed out of the office like a sixteen-year-old on a hot date.

Three hours later, she unlocked the door to her condo and entered. Automatically, she flicked the nearby switch bathing the room in soft lights. Shedding her trench coat, she hung it in the closet and double-checked the door's lock. Moving into the kitchen, she put the kettle on for tea and switched on the radio, twilling the dial to her favorite music station.

The strands of a Beethoven sonata filled the small kitchen. It was soothing and the tension of the previous weeks began to ease. The sonata ended and the news came on.

"An hour ago, U S Air Flight #533 from Los Angeles crashed while landing at LaGuardia Airport. Survivors have been taken to Hillcrest General Hospital. The plane was carrying 355 people..." The announcer droned on but Catherine was no longer listening.

She stood frozen in shock and disbelief. It wasn't possible, she thought. Gina is on that flight. Gina. Joe. She ran into the living room where she picked up the purse that she'd so recently discarded. Yanking open the closet door, she grabbed her coat and rushed out of the apartment. On the street, she hailed a cab and jumped in.

"Hillcrest General Hospital," she informed the driver after slamming the door.

"Lady, that's in Queens. I don't go to Queens," he snarled in a Brooklyn twang.

"You'll go to Queens or lose your license. I work with the DA's office and I'll make damn sure of it!" she snapped.

The driver glanced in the cab's rearview mirror. He saw the determination and anger in her face. Hell, she probably can, he thought. Shrugging, he started the cab and headed to Queens.

It was Saturday night. Catherine looked at the reflection in the mirror, noting the strain of the last 72 hours; knowing the hours would be etched in her mind forever. Turning on the hair dryer, she absently moved it through her hair as the memories of the past three days washed over her...

The trip to Hillcrest had taken forever. When she arrived, the place was in a state of controlled chaos. Doctors and nurses rushed around the endless stream of gurneys. Moan and groans seemed to be everywhere. In the midst of all this, relatives searched frantically for someone to tell them if their loved ones were among the living. It had taken her almost 90 minutes to find Joe. His anguished expression stopped her heart. Praying, she had rushed to his side to be told that Gina was barely alive. The waiting and praying for her recovery began. Periodically, the doctors taking care of Gina updated them.

As Wednesday night turned into Thursday afternoon, Catherine forced Joe down to the hospital cafeteria where both pretended to eat the lumps that passed for steak and potatoes. Throughout the ordeal, Joe had half-heartedly encouraged Catherine to go home. He would telephone her when something happened. Her refusal was quietly and firmly stated every time. Somewhere between Wednesday and Thursday, she remembered to call Jenny and explain the situation. Her friend was solicitous and, although she had never met Gina, she sent her prayers for a safe recovery.

Throughout the long hours, the waiting continued. Each time a voice steeped in grief carried over the sounds of people quietly talking , they had cringed. Each time a door opened and a figure in white moved in their direction, they shrank back only to breathe a sigh of relief when the person passed by. Finally, the waiting ended. Dr. Campbell, head of the team treating Gina, emerged from her room. Smiling, she informed them that the crisis had passed. Gina would fully recover in time. After thanking him, Joe then Catherine had briefly visited the unconscious woman.

As the memories faded, Catherine shut off the dryer and ran a hand through her hair. In the end, it had turned out all right. This time, an insistent voice kept reminding her. This time. Impatiently, she went into the bedroom where she exchanged the gray caftan for jeans and a blouse. Grabbing a short brown leather jacket from the closet and her keys, she left. In the basement, she passed through the hidden entrance and stepped down the ladder. At the bottom of the shaft, she moved out of the light that perpetually shined in the area and into the darkness. Into his arm.

"Catherine, it is over. Let it out," he implored.

Clinging tightly to him, she cried out the tension and worry of the latest crisis in her life. She sobbed in relief that Gina was recovering and grieved for those who had not survived.

"She almost didn't make it, Vincent," she repeated the phrase as though it was a mantra while sobbing uncontrollably.

At last, the crying ended but she didn't move out of his embrace and he did not attempt to end it. For Catherine, it was a time of revelations. The persistent voice whispered through her consciousness--this time. This time. How many "this times" had there been for her. For Vincent. How many more yet to come? And, when there were no more "this time," what then? How would she meet it? On my own terms, the voice whispered, with no regrets. No regrets for what might have been.

No regrets. And she dropped the barrier she had so painstakingly placed in their bond weeks ago. She let the need grow and swell like a balloon within her. She heard Vincent inhale sharply as her buried passion caught him off guard and smashed through his defenses. She felt the tremors go through his body as he tightened the embrace. She lifted her head and gasped. His eyes were twin bluish flames; she could not recall them ever being so blue. The sight sent her emotions whirling upward and a burning sensation began in the pit of her stomach and expanded outward.

"Catherine?" he whispered raggedly, his eyes on her parted lips; his expression wild.

"Yes, Vincent, yes." She was barely able to form the words needed to answer the unspoken question. She could feel his breath rush out, warm across her face and she wanted it. She wanted to take it within her lips, feel it on her tongue, swallow it.

Now, now, her mind screamed. Or had she spoken it aloud?. She didn't know and it didn't matter. As his head descended, she closed her eyes.

His lips grazed her jaw line. "No Catherine," he croaked as he lifted his head. Straightening to his full height, he stepped back.

Catherine stared at him in disbelief. A part of her was stunned. This is not happening, she thought. Not again. How could he deny this? She dropped her arms and stepped towards him. Recoiling, he turned away but not before she read the confusion, longing, and shame in his expression. She did not move towards him again.

"Why not, Vincent? There is no shame in what we are feeling."

"For me, there is. We both know that," he mumbled without turning.

"No, Vincent. That's not true," she insisted.

He shook his head. "It is true. For me, we both know it is. I hurt Lisa..."

"Lisa. Lisa is the past," she interrupted with irritation. "Vincent, look at me, please."

A brief hesitation and he faced her; body tight as a violin string; muscles tensed for flight. Through his golden mane, she could see the pulse throbbing wildly in his throat.

"I love you, Vincent. You love me. You could never hurt me. I know that."

"Catherine, I can't take that risk. I can't. If I hurt you, I...," a muscle worked in his jaw as he failed to put the nameless dread into words.

"If, if, if. Vincent, you are talking about ifs. We can't live our lives on ifs. It's not fair to us. To you. To me. I can't live my life on ifs anymore."

He shifted uneasily. "What are you saying, Catherine?"

"I love you, Vincent, but I can't go on loving you on these terms. There's you. There's me. And there's us. What we have is very special. But, there is so much more. We can't have it unless both of us are willing to move towards it...together."

"Catherine, I only want what is best for you."

"But I want what's best for US, Vincent. Don't you see that? You deserve it all. We deserve it all."

Desperate to reach through to him, she clutched his arm and felt the muscles stiffen. His face softened and deep within the azure eyes, passion flared. Then his expression hardened, erasing the momentary lapse.

"I can't."

"Can't or won't? Which is it?"

The question echoed in the chasm separating them. Then he shrugged, the gesture a statement that the difference between the two words was immaterial.

"That's not an answer," she angrily snapped.

"What will you have me tell you, Catherine?"

"The truth."

"Does it matter? The outcome is the same," he responded impatiently while beginning to pace.

"Yes, it does matter and the outcome is not the same. Can't implies lack of choice through one's inability. Won't is the decision not to although one has the ability." She paused to allow the statement to sink in.

"Vincent, we both know you are capable. If you say or think otherwise, you're not being truthful."

The statement stopped him cold. Her logic had trapped him as much as his physical reactions to her touch. He knew it. In desperation, he frantically searched for a third alternative; one that would halt the confrontation he feared would change their relationship forever. But there was none.

"All right, the answer is won't..., "he acknowledge without facing her, "and we both know why."

"No, Vincent, we do not. Not really."

Her denial surprised him. "Catherine?!"

She interrupted, "Lisa? I 've told you how I feel about something that happened between two adolescents years ago." With a wave of her hand, she dismissed Lisa and firmly shut the door on the incident.

She began to pace while he watched her through narrowed eyes, annoyed at her dismissal of that painful incident. He felt her agitation but made no move to soothe her because he did not know how. And because of the precarious state of his own emotions. As she began to speak again, he braced himself as though to defend against an attack.

Catherine squared her shoulders and moved to stand in front of him with her head slightly tilted. Her expression was thoughtful as she addressed him.

"Vincent, you have overcome much in your life. For example, your fight with Devin. Although the scars are a constant reminder, you and he have a good relationship. Over the years, you've developed other solid relationships of friendship and love. But the incident with Lisa is somehow different. The incident left no permanent scars on her. Yet, because of it, you would deny all that you are capable of becoming. I wonder why that is?" she mused, her tone reflective. It was as if she was thinking aloud, his presence forgotten.

"I have told you why. However, I suspect you have a different answer." His voice was curt, whether in pain or anger, she could not say. At the moment, she did not care.

"I believe Lisa is an excuse. You always speak of 'losing control.' But you are not afraid of losing control to your other self. Subconsciously, you're really afraid of losing control of this relationship."

"Catherine, no!" he gasped, astonished by her analysis.

"Yes," she sadly affirmed. "How else would you explain your choices. You choose to deny a relationship we both want. It was your choice that I not come below when Spirco threatened you. Just as it was your choice to separate yourself from the Community, from me, when you were ill."

"You are wrong, Catherine. What I have done has been because of you. For you," he rasped.

"Perhaps, in part. Mostly, Vincent, it's been done for you. By you. For you alone. And I am partly to blame because I let you."

She was hurting him but she knew there was no other way. His actions and hers had forced them to this point. There was no turning back for either of them. She paused, drained by the revelations. Unconsciously, she clutched her waist as if chilled or in pain.

"I let you because I love you and I though it was the right thing to do."

"Obviously you no longer think that."

"No. I'm not sure it was ever right. Anyway, I've grown and changed so much in the last two year. I have learned to be strong and to give and receive love. There was a Catherine who didn't want to make choices. Didn't want to stand alone. Didn't really understand what love was. That Catherine needed someone like Tom. She doesn't exist anymore. This Catherine could not tolerate the type of controlling relationship that Tom offered. She will not, I will not tolerate it from you."

He fell heavily against the tunnel wall. "Catherine, are you saying I am like Tom?"

"In a way, Vincent. Your style is subtler but the end is just the same, control and--through that control--limitations. I won't accept limitations on your love. Limitations that you have set. I once told you that I would accept this as my fate gladly. But I don't believe it is my fate. Or yours."

"You're wrong, Catherine. It is not as you think."

"Yes, it is, Vincent, even if you can't see it. It is and it must end. Each time you pull away, we die a little. Each time the desire for you swells and I have to repress it, we die a little. I won't live my life like this any longer. Nor will I be satisfied with someday. A someday that will never happen as long as you insist on putting controls on what we have. I would rather face the reality of what is than bask in the false hope of what could be. Do you understand what I am saying, Vincent?" She didn't bother to stop the tears rolling silently down her cheeks or shield him from her terrible, gnawing pain.

Each word had been a needle prick and he was in agony. "Yes, Catherine, I understand. Find someone else. Dream another dream. "

She shook her head sadly. "If you can say that then you truly do not understand. I love you. You are my dream. I will find no one else. I will dream no other dream. But, at the end of my life, I will have no regrets for dreaming of something that could never be."

She walked away. At the top of the ladder, she heard his growl of anguish and held tight to the rung to prevent herself from going to him.

Below, he collapsed on the tunnel floor. A second roar echoed through the passageway and he dissolved into tears; the silent weeping testament to the depth of his despair.

CHAPTER FOUR

November slide into December and the winter settled in. Winterfest and Christmas came and went. Church bells ushered in the New Year along with the bitter cold and snow.

In the days following the conversation with Vincent, Catherine had nourished a small hope that he would reconsider his decision and look at their relationship through her eyes. It had not happened. At first, her grief had gone too deep for tears and so there were none. She survived the days on the job and nights alone through an anesthetized shell. She barely noticed the world around her. Midway through December the shell cracked and crumbled and the pain erupted. She cried nonstop for almost two weeks. The physical drain coupled with her emotional turmoil took her to the brink of collapse.

Often, through the crying spells, a figure stood in the shadows of her terrace and wept as well. It did not disappear until she had fallen asleep exhausted inside and out.

In desperation, she marched into Joe's office and demanded time off. He took one look at her face; the swollen, red-rimmed eyes, the shallow skin, and lackluster hair, and ordered her out of the office for at least two weeks.

As she turned to leave, he spoke. "Cathy, I don't know what's wrong. Whatever it is, it's eating you alive. You need to solve whatever it is before it kills you. Take all the time you need. Radcliffe, if you want to talk about it, I'm here."

"Thanks, Joe, I know that," was barely audible as she left her office. Gathering her things, she went home where she called Nancy and invited herself to Connecticut. Nancy, sensing something was wrong, eagerly told her to come. Two hours later, she was packed and driving on the New England turnpike.

The chimes had barely faded as Nancy rushed to the door and threw it open. One look at her friend and the hearty greeting she'd readied died on her lips. The woman who stood before her bore little resemblance to the Cathy Chandler she knew. What stood before her was an empty shell.

"Hi, Nance," Catherine said without enthusiasm. The look on her friend's face spoke volumes. She didn't need a mirror to know she looked like a survivor of the concentration camps. The winter coat was too large as were the turtleneck and slacks she wore beneath it. Although she had tried, she knew no amount of makeup could hide the dark, purple circles under her eyes that had become permanent fixtures. She had brushed and re-brushed her hair until her arms hurt to no avail; the sheen was gone from her hair. It now hung as listless as she felt.

"Damn you, Catherine Chandler. Get in here," shouted Nancy as she dragged her friend into the hall and enveloped her in a hug. Catherine tried and failed to put any warmth in the return squeeze. It required something she just didn't seem to have.

"Here, let me take your coat," Nancy clucked like a mother hen as she stripped the coat off her friend and pushed the other woman towards the living room.

Catherine sluggishly moved forward to stand just inside the living room arch. A fire was blazing in the hearth and she dimly knew she should move towards it but the effort was too great. Nancy gathered her by the shoulders and led her to the love seat facing the hearth. She gently shoved her down and stood a moment, studying the figure dejectedly seated before her. She reminds me of a broken doll or lost child Nancy thought.

"I'll be right back. Don't move," she ordered although she doubted if her friend had the energy to go anywhere.

At the sideboard along the rear left side of the room, she poured a large quantity of brandy into a glass.

Returning to the loveseat, she wrapped Catherine's fingers around the glass and said, "Sip this. I'm going to get your luggage. Back in a minute."

While Nancy was gone, Catherine sipped on the brandy. It made a fiery path down her throat and settled in her midsection. Slowly, the cold center, her companion for weeks, began to thaw. A few minutes later, Nancy returned to sit next to her.

Nancy noted the slight flush to her friend's cheeks and nodded. At least she no longer looks like a corpse, she thought. There was silence in the room as the two sipped their drinks and stared into the fire. Finally, Catherine roused herself enough to ask about Paul and their children.

"They're still in Orlando with Paul's parents. Their Christmas gift to the children was a trip to Walt Disney World. You know Paul is just a kid at heart so he invited himself along. I would have gone too but I'm freelancing and I had a deadline to meet. I turned the project in yesterday. So, my friend, it's just you and me for the next week."

Catherine began to chuckle only to have it turn into a sob. Nancy placed Catherine's drink then her own on the coffee table in front of them. Laying her hands on the other's shoulders, she forced Catherine to face her. Grey green eyes that were normally spirited were devoid of life.

"It's Vincent, isn't it?," she asked in a low-keyed voice, already knowing the answer.

The little control Catherine had shattered and she began to weep while clutching her friend closely. Nancy suffered the stranglehold while realizing she was the lifeline to her friend surviving the moment; the ordeal.

Outside, the winter shadows lengthened as the last of the day slide beneath the two-story colonial house. Inside, the house was dark except for the light cast by the fire. Catherine's reality narrowed to the woman who held her and the room bathe in firelight. Gradually her sobs ceased and she pulled out of her friend's grasp.

"Tell me all of it," Nancy somberly stated.

And she did. When she was through, the darkness was firmly entrenched around them. Throughout the recitation, Nancy had not spoken.

"Oh, Cath. Why didn't you call me? Why did you think you could go through this alone?" she chided.

"Because I thought I could. No, because I didn't really believe I would have to," she responded, trying to be honest with herself and her friend.

"Why not?"

"Because I believed what we had could overcome all his doubts, his inhibitions. The control he placed on himself and on me," was the self-mocking response. "I was wrong."

"Obviously." Nancy replied without a hint of sarcasm. "Now what?"

"I don't know."

Nancy pulled on the beige blouse soaked through with Catherine's tears. "Well I do. You and I are going to change, eat, and talk some more. In that order."

For the first time since arriving, Catherine genuinely laughed. "Has anyone told you that marriage and motherhood have turned you into a bully?"

"Yes, Paul. Frequently. You know what, Cath, it's the only way to get anything done. Why don't you go up and rest. Take a bath. I'll meet you in the kitchen in 45 minutes."

"Yes, I could do with a change," Catherine agreed as she got up. Retrieving her glass of brandy, she walked out the living.

Nancy watched her friend depart a look of deep concern etched in her face. She remained motionless, lost in thought over Catherine and Vincent. She stood up and stoked the fire then moved determinedly towards the stairs. Over the years, she and Catherine had weathered much. Together, they would endure and get through this.

Catherine, freshly changed, joined Nancy in the kitchen an hour later, after taking a long, leisurely bath. The two worked side by side preparing a simple dinner of brown rice layered with stir-fried Chinese vegetables and roast chicken. By unspoken agreement, Catherine's problem with Vincent was not discussed. Rather, they talked about mutual friends, the holiday missed with each other, and Nancy's recent assignment. To Catherine's surprise, she cleared her plate; the appetite that had disappeared weeks ago reappeared in the nurturing environment.

Over coffee, Nancy broached the unspoken topic again. "Tell what you're feeling, Cath."

Catherine didn't pretend not to understand the question. Dumping a third teaspoon of sugar into her coffee, she slowly stirred it.

"I feel...I feel as though I'm slowly bleeding to death," she poignantly responded. "I feel like half of me is missing. I know where it is but I can't get to it." Sighing, she lifted the cup to her lips and drank, relishing the strong brew.

"Nance, I look at myself but I'm not all there. You know what I mean?" Glancing at the woman sitting across from her, she was pleased to see Nancy's nod of understanding.

"Yes, Cath, I believe I do. But, how do you feel about your decision now."

For the first time, Catherine was animated in her response. "Nance, it was the right decision. For him. For me. For us. I would be a fool if I didn't acknowledge that it hurts. It hurts like hell and perhaps I haven't handled it as well as I could have. However, it was...is the right decision. Vincent once said the one either moves towards love or away. That there is no other way. I agree. We must either move towards it--all of it--or away. The way he'd chosen was not towards it." She could not keep the bitterness out of her voice. "I had hoped he would see it. He didn't."

She shrugged and then continued, "So I grieve. Hopefully I will then get on with my life."

"Does that mean letting someone else in?"

Catherine recoiled. The cup she held trembled violently and she almost dropped it. Her repulsion at the thought of another man holding her, touching her, was obvious.

Nancy, observing the violence of her reaction, inwardly cringed. Catherine Chandler had in indeed fallen deeply and irrevocably in love. A part of her understood and agreed with her college friend. Like Catherine, she'd met the passion of her life, Paul. The thought of anyone other him holding her in the night or kissing her in the dawn was abhorrent. Unlike Catherine, however, she had Paul. Together, they had their children. A tear slipped out and rolled down her cheek as she mourned all that Catherine would not have.

Seeing the tear, Catherine reached across the table to stroke her friend's hand. She who had needed comforting earlier was now the one comforting.

"Nance, don't. Please don't. I have loved and been loved as no other could possibly be. It really will be all right. I just need time. It will be okay. I will be okay."

"Sure it will, Cath. I know you will be," Nancy responded, giving her friend a watery smile.

Catherine stretched and yawned, the fatigue at last descending upon her. "I'm really tired. I think I'll turn in, if you don't mind."

"No, of course not. Go ahead I'll clean up the kitchen."

Catherine started out the room and then stopped. Retracing her steps, she leaned down and hugged her friend.

"Thanks, Nancy. Thanks for listening. I really needed this. And don't worry I'll survive. I really will."

A note of cautious confidence was there. It warmed and reassured Nancy. Perhaps everything would work out.

Over the next week, the two talked about the past, the present, and the future. They visited flea markets and yard sales near Westport. Sometimes they browsed. Other times, they bought the proffered wares while Nancy complained that Paul would certainly divorce her after learning of her newest acquisitions. On Wednesday, they took a train to New York City to see a Broadway play. Staying over at Catherine's apartment, they spent Thursday shopping along Fifth Avenue. They giggled at the outrageous prices of various outlandish outfits. As they shopped, Catherine shared with Nancy all her hopes and aspirations regarding Vincent and what could be. At days' end, they returned to Connecticut, pleasantly tired but happy.

On Saturday, the day before the return of Nancy's family, Catherine packed up and went home. The wound was raw but the healing had begun.

Devin Wells was deeply concerned. His surprise visit to the Community for Winterfest was going well. Father was pleased to see his wandering son and his presence had enhanced the festive occasion. For Devin, the visit was a time to renew old acquaintances and to reminisce. His stories of childhood antics, many of which had involved Vincent much to Father's consternation, had rekindled echoes of a past time--harsh, yet endearing. Most of the Community recalled the devilish, strong-willed boy who had inspired many adventures and mis-adventures. Father pretended to be dismayed after realizing the extent of the mischief of the children under Devin's leadership. That the children had survived to become responsible, adult leaders he labeled a miracle.

The pleasure of the holiday was marred only by the absence of Catherine and Vincent's unusual quietness. It was obvious to everyone that his heart was elsewhere. Devin had made overtures to the younger man, trying to ferret out the problem. Vincent had been unwilling to talk and Devin, out of respect, had not pushed the issue. Two days after Winterfest, his patience had disappeared. The time for tiptoeing around Vincent had elapsed. A man of action, Devin went in search of answers.

He located his brother at the Great Falls. Vincent stood on a slanting bank with his head bent, and his arms clasped across his chest. As Devin approached, he gave no indication of awareness of his older brother's presence.

"Vincent, can I talk to you?"

"Of course, Devin. What is it?" Vincent responded without turning.

"It's you. To be blunt, it's you and Catherine. What's going on?"

As he spoke, Devin reached out and grasped Vincent's shoulders, forcing the younger man to turn towards him or forcefully break the contact. Vincent chose the latter although he would not make eye contact; his mane serving as an impenetrable wall.

"Devin, it is of no concern. Please do not worry."

"No concern! Vincent, don't be absurd! Father says you're not sleeping. Something is tearing you apart and I know it has to do with Catherine. What's happened?" he persisted.

The tone more than the words told Vincent he was fighting a losing battle. Devin would persist until he had an answer. Further, Father had given every indication that he, too, wanted answers. Sighing, Vincent lifted his head to focus on a spot on the chamber wall just over Devin's left shoulder.

"Yes, it is Catherine. She will not be visiting the tunnels again."

"What do you mean--again? She's not coming back for a while...or forever?"

"Forever." The word, despite the rumbling of the falls, seemed to reverberate throughout the chamber; the finality it implied ringing loudly.

Vincent stared at Devin, watching his facial expression change as the full import of his statement sank in. Devin's eyes widened in amazement. "What! I don't believe it."

"It's true."

Although he spoke calmly, Devin could read the pain in Vincent's eyes.

"I...we decided it was for the best," he stammered.

"Hmm," Devin responded while groping to read between the lines. He knew there was more to the story. Vincent, what don't you start from the beginning?"

It was the request he had dreaded. He was not ready to openly discuss it; not when the wounds were still fresh. The look of grim determination on Devin's face told him that evasiveness would not be tolerated. He had only to choices: tell Devin now or Father later. His brother seemed a better option.

"Very well but can we sit down?" Vincent asked, turning towards a cluster of boulders near the chamber's entrance.

Devin agreed and the two settled on the boulders. Haltingly, Vincent disclosed the quarrel that had precipitated his estrangement from Catherine. Devin didn't interrupt the narrative, sensing his brother's need to complete the story as quickly as possible. Periodically, unnoticed by Vincent, he nodded or smiled slightly.

Several minutes passed after Vincent finished his story. Catherine Chandler is a good mate for my brother, Devin thought as he contemplated all that had been told. She understands Vincent better than Father. She, too, had seen through the facade of excuses that trapped Vincent outside any semblance of a normal life. He frowned as he pondered the magnitude of the task before him: how to make Vincent understand Catherine's position. By nature, his brother was stubborn. When he was certain he was right, he was intractable.

"What are you going to do?" Devin asked.

"Do? There is nothing to do. It is over."

"Just like that, it's over?" Devin's voice was carefully devoid of any emotion although his stomach coiled in apprehension at the note of defeat in his brother's voice. Vincent was a fighter and had been all his life. Yet, now, when he had everything to fight for, he was capitulating without a struggle.

"No, Devin, not just like that. However, I believe it is best for Catherine."

"There you go doing exactly what she said you do. You believe that it's right for her. Catherine has told you what is right for her. You've ignored that and decided otherwise. Again."

Vincent turned to him in confusion. "Is it so wrong to want what is best for those you love?"

"No and yes. Not, it's not wrong .to want what's best. It is wrong if you do not leave the final decision to the individual involved. In this case, Catherine."

"She doesn't understand the full power of...the other part of me. What if I hurt her?"

Devin chose his words with deliberation, knowing the wrong statement would send Vincent scurrying the other way.

"Doesn't she? Vincent, I have seen your lady in action. She's no fool. She is a woman quite capable of making decisions for herself. She is a person of great love and courage who loves you. All of you."

"I know Catherine has great courage. But what she wants...needs, I cannot give her. The risks are too great."

"There are risks, of course. But, risk of what? That you would hurt her? I don't believe that and I don't think you really believe either," Devin stated emphatically.

At the statement, Vincent's eyes narrowed in irritation. "Then you agree with Catherine. You truly believe that fear of the other is not the reason for ...limitations. Devin, you, all people, know the consequences of my losing control."

Devin ran his fingers lightly over the three deep scars on his face, lasting proof of the power that Vincent could unleash.

"I do know. Vincent, what happened then was between two children a long time ago. We're no longer children governed by uncontrolled emotions. We are men who, through experience and time, have learned self-discipline. You above all others. Besides, you struck out because I hurt you with my words...my actions. Vincent, there are indeed risks. In that you are right..."

Vincent's puzzlement was evident in his expression and voice, "I don't understand. You agree there are risks yet you think Catherine is right? How can that be?"

"You didn't let me finish. There are risks...but not to Catherine. The risks have never been to Catherine. The risks are to you."

"Me! Devin, what risks are there to me? Catherine could never hurt me."

"No, Catherine could never hurt you. Opening to her, completely opening to her, could. A physical relationship with Catherine would mean unlocking all the doors. It means all the barriers come down and she becomes a part of you in a way no one else can. If that happens, you would totally need her ...depend on her. And you've never really wanted that...not from a woman," he finished softly.

Vincent's head snapped up and he angrily stared at his brother. Devin didn't flinch or turn away. He returned the look, his expression placid. In Vincent's eyes, he saw anger, fear, and that nameless pain he'd often seen when they were growing up. A pain not rooted in the taunts of the tunnel children or the limitations placed on Vincent's exposure to the World Above. It had taken Devin years to identify the pain's roots.

"What do you mean?" whispered Vincent, as he resumed his examination of the Great Falls. His body was tense and his mane had fallen forward again, shielding his face from view.

"You know what I mean. Vincent, we can't undo the past no matter how much we may wish to. All we can do is learn from it, grow from it. Let it guide but not rule us."

Devin knew by Vincent's posture that he had his full attention. He stood and brushed bits of dirt from his jeans. Walking towards the entrance, he stopped and softly spoke, "One more thing, Vincent. You have always been a big believer in courage. Well, it takes courage to love, truly love, another person. To do so requires forfeiting all rights to one's protective armor. It means walking naked through a minefield of potential pain, sorrow, joy and happiness. Catherine has that courage. Do you?"

He departed, leaving a confused and hurting Vincent perched on a precipice. He could step forward into the unknown or remain on the firm ground he had treaded all his life.

CHAPTER FIVE

February was a bland month. It carried neither the lingering good cheer of Christmas that January inherited nor the promise of spring bestowed by March. It was quite simply a month to be endured: the unending cold, gray skies, snow and occasional ice storm. In New York, as elsewhere, people grumbled their way through the month, their only solace its shortness. Tempers flared with greater frequency and politeness was simply a word in the dictionary.

For Catherine Chandler, February was a month of renewal--of herself. The visit with Nancy had been an excellent antidote. Her appetite increased and her energy returned. While her steps lacked bounce, there was some spring in them. With the passing of each day, she became stronger. If there remained a brittleness to her posture, no one noticed or commented.

She resumed the weekly get-togethers with Jenny; a ritual that had vanished after the near tragedy in November. They frequently went to the movies and spent the time afterwards blasting the scripts, actors and directors of the features. They also frequented art openings and concerts. Sometimes, Gina and Joe joined them. Gina had fully recovered from the accident. In January, Joe proposed and she accepted. Catherine had wholeheartedly wished the couple well, pleased that she could relish their happiness without wishing the same for herself.

She thought of Vincent often. The searing pain that had marked the early days of their breakup was gone, but the love remained and she knew it always would. The pain of his decision and her anguish over what could have been had diminished although their bite could occasionally be felt. A reminder occurred towards the end of the month.

She met Jenny at Carnegie Hall for a Boston Symphony performance. Vivaldi's Concerto in B Minor was on the program. Somehow, she managed to sit through the piece although she had begged off dinner. She rushed home, locked her doors, closed her curtains and cried. She cried for the music of his favorite composer, for him, for herself. Fortunately, the crying binges were rare.

As March began, her life settled into a pattern more reflective of the living. Colleagues and friends noticed the changes in her and initially were pleased. As time passed, a disturbing quirk in her actions made them uneasy. Catherine would go out in a group or with Jenny, Joe and Gina, or Nancy. Otherwise, she didn't date. Forays into the New York City nightlife without her friends were nonexistent or infrequent. If required to attend some unavoidable function, she arrived alone and left the same way. Jenny's attempts to match make were dismissal failures. After several aborted efforts, she gave up after realizing that Catherine was simply not interested. Nancy, of course, understood her friend's action although she prayed that time would change her behavior.

The Monday after St. Patrick's Day, Joe summoned Catherine to his office where he handed her a folder. After reading through it, she mentally groaned although her expression did not change.

"Radcliffe, I know you're swamped but this may be a good one. We've got an informant name of Clarence Van Buren. He says he can give us a manufacturer of the drug Ice.

"Are you sure, Joe?" she couldn't contain her excitement.

Joe smiled. Chandler was one of the best people he had. She thrived on the challenges thrown at her. Miraculously, she inevitably delivered; although more often than not, it was dead bodies. In Joe's books, it balanced. Dead the slime balls they dealt with had no chance of slipping through the system on a technicality. Or, of being paroled after serving a fraction of their time for the heinous pain they had inflicted.

"Yes, I'm sure Cathy. If we can turn this guy, we can put a temporary dent in the trade. He wants you to meet him tonight at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. On Tillman, just off Myrtle at 1:00 a.m."

She paused. That was a deserted area. On one side loomed the warehouses of the dismantled U. S. Navy Yard. Overhead was an access route to the Manhattan Bridge. The area across from the yard was composed of low income housing whose inhabitants were poor people who heard no evil and never saw it.

"Cathy, if you rather I send someone else...," Joe's voice trailed into silence although the doubts he had about sending her there remained.

"No, Joe. I'll be okay," she stated firmly as though speaking the words was a talisman.

For a moment, he studied her, then shrugged. " Okay, Cathy. Just be careful. If something happens to you, Gina will personally drop me in the murky Hudson." He pretended to shudder at the thought. Catherine chuckled then turned to leave.

As she moved through the door, Joe cautioned her once more. "Cathy, don't take any chances, okay?"

"Don't worry, I won't. At the first sign of trouble, I'm gone," she reassured him before closing the door.

An hour beyond midnight, Catherine was standing in the cold on the corner of Tillman and Myrtle. The streets were devoid of life and traffic was nonexistent except for the rumbling of the cars and trucks on the overhead route to Manhattan. She checked her watch. It was 1:10 am and the informant had not appeared.

"Damn you, Clarence. Five minutes more and I'm leaving," she muttered.

A figure abruptly materialized in the darkness and started towards her; the sound of his footsteps amplified by the surrounding emptiness. When he moved into view, she closely examined the source of her present discomfort. He was not much taller than she, perhaps 5'8, with a shock of flaming red hair was. In the streetlight illuminating his features, she saw pale green eyes and a riotous pattern of freckles across a blunt nose.

My God, she thought, he can't be more than eighteen.

He was mere inches from her when a car careened around Tillman, splintering the silence. Instinctively, both turned toward the sound of the screeching tires. They then looked at each. Without exchanging a word, both sprinted in the direction of the abandoned Navy Yard. As they ran, they heard a cacophony of footsteps pursing them.

In the yard, they stopped to rest. Up close, Catherine could read the stark fear in the youngster's eyes.

"Friends of your?" she quipped, scanning the area for a way out.

"My former friends, the Jackhammers," the youth retorted, his calm voice a contradiction to the terror in his eyes.

"Jackhammers. Sounds like the name of a heavy metal group," she replied in a humorous tone.

Pulling her purse off a shoulder, Catherine quickly unzipped it and reached in. Taking a .38 calibre gun out, she closed the bag and shoved it back on her shoulder out of the way. Clarence's eyes widened at the sight of the gun and Catherine realized that he was a novice at all of this. How he had gotten involved in drugs was something she would speculate on later; assuming there was a later.

"Let's move!" she commanded, pushing him forward. They had only gone 20 feet when she shoved him down between two heavy crates. "No matter what happens, you stay here," she ordered without preamble.

Not waiting for a response, she sprinted in the direction from which they had come and turned sharply to the right, away from Clarence. She continued to run, damning her lack of direction because of the unknown territory. Seconds later, an Uzi sprayed a barrage of bullets behind her, hitting the spot she'd occupied thirty seconds ago. A .38 is no match for that, she thought as she slowed down. Cautiously, she inched along the pier on hands and knees. If all else failed, she concluded, a dip in the dirty East River might be necessary although she did not relish the idea. Still, she ruefully admitted, it was infinitely better than dying.

Using the crates and rusty machinery as cover, she gradually made her way forward. A sudden spray of bullets erupted in front of her. It was followed by a second bombardment behind her, forcing her to retreat behind a crate. She was trapped in a crossfire. Whoever the Jackhammers were, they had anticipated her actions.

She scrutinized her surroundings. Behind her was a solid wall of crates. No way she could reach the river through them. She couldn't crawl over them for they were too high. The crossfire prevented her from going left or right. There was no escape. In the night air, her hearing sharpened and the sound of expensive leather slapping against the ground grew louder.

Catherine realized that she'd run the gambit. Her "this times" were gone; the "sooner or later" that was always on the fringes of her awareness had become now. She grimly acknowledged that tonight she would die. She crouched, gun cocked, ready to take others with her.

Then she heard the sound; an ear-splitting roar followed by hacking noises and howls of pain. Not certain of his location, she held her position fearful of putting him in further danger. It was over in minutes. The subsequent silence, after the sounds of the previous 15 minutes, was unnatural. Hearing his soft footfall on the concrete, she stood.

He rounded a corner and faced her.

She studied the figure silhouetted against the night sky; the one person she had hoped to yet dreaded meeting for the last four months. Her examination swept upward and she noted the corded, muscular legs encased in well-worn jeans. His chest was as wide as she remembered the biceps as large. Her scrutiny ended at his beautiful face. The mane was still tawny and long but it lacked luster. Before, it had been a majestic crown; sign of the heir apparent to the world Below. Now it shaggily hung like the fur of a malnourished dog. His face was leaner; the planes and angles more pronounced giving him a gaunt appearance. He stopped in front of her and she found herself staring into eyes that were lifeless. Where once sapphires burned fiercely, his eyes were now the dull colors of the polluted Atlantic Ocean.

"Catherine, you are safe." His statement was flat and lacked emotion.

The bond was there but it no longer sizzled and hummed like a high voltage cable. Like the couple facing each other, it was a shadow of what had once been.

"Thank you, Vincent," she coolly uttered.

He looked at her a moment longer and then wordlessly disappeared into the shadows.

She refused to dwell on the encounter. But, as she hurried back to Clarence, she wondered what they had done to each other. A part of her mourned for what they had been and wept for what they had become. Reaching the youth's hiding place, she called out.

"Clarence. It's over. You can come out now."

Seconds later, the redheaded informer appeared, grinning as he flashed "V" for victory signs on both hands.

Catherine shook her head at the sight. God protect the young, she prayed as she brusquely ushered him out of the yard and into her car. She drove towards Manhattan, wondering how to stem the bleeding of wounds re-opened by the encounter with Vincent. She had no answer and, in frustration, she silently cursed Joe Maxwell and Clarence Van Buren.

Deep within the intestines of Manhattan, Vincent left the cut-off tunnel from lower Brooklyn. His strength, which had gradually dwindled over the last four months, gave out and he slumped against a tunnel wall. After all this time, her fear had reached across the chasm to him. He had been unable to resist its call as the need to protect propelled him to her. Rounding the corner, Catherine's appearance had saddened him. She was an echo of herself although the gritty determination was still there. Like him, she was going through the motions of living.

Catherine, he mused, what have I done to you--to us--but create a death slower than either of us could have imagined. Can you feel it, Catherine? Feel the vultures hovering around us?

Mouse, out on a nocturnal journey, interrupted his musings. The blond, stocky youth almost stumbled over Vincent's outstretched legs.

"Vincent, what's wrong?"

"Nothing, Mouse. I'm just tired. Please help me to my chamber."

Mouse helped his mentor to stand. As they moved in the direction of the inner chambers, he spoke. "Vincent, sick. Sick for Catherine. Mouse knows. So does Father. Why not Vincent?"

The subterranean waterfall in the world Below was one of Father's favorites. He was uncertain if it was because of the fall's intrinsic value to him or because Vincent loved it.

Father sat on a boulder near the falls, certain of very little in his world. He was convinced, however, that Vincent would be lost to the community if the impasse with Catherine was not resolved. If that happened, the world that he had painstakingly built would in all likelihood end with Father. Vincent's combination of compassion, wisdom, and strength was unique and irreplaceable. The Community continued survival needed Vincent's leadership.

Before leaving, Devin had shared with him the conversation with Vincent. Once Father would have unerringly supported his son's position. Now he truly believed Vincent was wrong. In the last two years, Catherine had proven herself again and again. Her bravery equaled that of his son as did her willingness to sacrifice all for this world. The joy she brought to Vincent could not be ignored nor minimized. Her love for him was indisputable and Father believed they belonged together.

Twenty years later, he bitterly regretted the actions that had separated Vincent and Lisa after the unfortunate incident. It was apparent to him that the episode had left an indelible mark on his son. It had produced within Vincent an insurmountable barrier. A barrier that would not give in the face of the obvious: Catherine was not Lisa.

Lisa had been and was a shallow, self-centered individual concerned only with her dancing. Her recent visit had confirmed this. It had also torn open old wounds in Vincent and Father while creating new ones for Catherine. Lisa had blithely gone her way, oblivious and unwilling to discuss the past. In his ignorance, Father had believed her departure, to testify against a former lover, had solved the problem. How could I have deluded myself, he wondered for the hundredth time. How? Why didn't I see the potential impact of Lisa's return on Vincent? I should have known it would have repercussions on his relationship with Catherine. His self-recriminations were interrupted by Mary's arrival.

The statuesque woman with graying hair was the epitome of nurturing. Mary had been with since the beginning. Over the years, she had become Father's confidante and the voice of compassion when he needed it. She had raised most of the adults in the community, including Vincent. Along with everyone else, she had watched his relationship with Catherine grow and blossom. The present state of affairs saddened and worried her as much as it did Father.

"Father." She entered and sat beside him on the boulder. "I came to tell you that Vincent is back. It was on the pipes. He collapsed just inside the cut-off from Brooklyn and Mouse had to help him to his chamber. I just checked on him. He's asleep but the tray William prepared for him was untouched."

The news did not surprise Father. For weeks, he watched his son's stamina and appetite diminish. Dispirited, he continued to stare into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, seeking answers.

"Father, I'm very worried. He's not eating and he sleeps very little. And he walks around as though he were lost. I suspect Catherine is in no better condition."

"I agree, Mary. But there is nothing we can do. Each time I broach the topic of Catherine, Vincent refuses to talk about her or he leaves. They will have to sort this out themselves."

"And if they can't?" Mary asked, a thread of fear in the question.

Father could not lie to her. "If they cannot, then they will be lost to each other...and the Community. I doubt we or they could survive the loss."

Father scowled in frustration at the impotency of his position. He despised being helpless.

CHAPTER SIX

Vincent rolled on his back and threw an arm over his eyes. Scenes of the last six torturous months paraded across his closed lids: Catherine that dreadful November night. Catherine in the Brooklyn Navy Yard two months ago. The conversation with Devin. The arguments with Father. Catherine in the rain. Catherine on her balcony. It was an endless film relentlessly reminding him of what had been.

Sighing, he rubbed his eyes with clawed hands, trying to erase the feel of grittiness behind them, the byproduct of sleeplessness. It didn't help as nothing had helped in a long while. He stared at the ceiling of the chamber while the sound of thundering water roared off to his left. Lost in thought, the roaring barely impinged on his consciousness. Deep within himself, he felt the anger well up again. He didn't fight it, hadn't fought it since coming to the grotto almost four weeks ago.

It engulfed him and he gave himself over to it. Large sobs racked his body while he rhythmically beat closed fists against his chest. In his mind, he screamed his anger and pain to the unknown person who had bore him; only to leave him to die. Why? Why did you leave me? Why? I hate you for leaving me! I hate you! I hate you! It became a litany that could not be contained and he shouted the words aloud in the cavern. Over and over until the echoes clashed with the rapidity of the chant. Clashed, too, with the sounds of painful sobbing. The reverberations grew becoming painful to his ears yet he made no attempt to block the words out. Rather, they fed his rage and his continued pouring out his anguish. Having lost his internal clock, he could not tell how long his wailing lasted. Finally, the echoes died away, leaving him mentally and physically exhausted. His voice was hoarse from shouting and his chest heaved as he drew deep breaths into lungs burning for oxygen.

With his remaining energy, he managed to make a fire and spread out blankets near it. Going to the nearby pool, he deeply drank of the cool water. Returning to the fire, he laid down. As he slipped into sleep, he promised himself that he would eat the next day.

When he awakened, the fire was no more than cold ashes. Throwing off the blankets, he stretched muscles that had tightened in his sleep. Sitting up, he vigorously rubbed his face, erasing the last remnants of a long, fatigue-induced sleep. Through his internal clock, he surmised that he had slept for sixteen hours. Rising, he went through his morning rituals and then changed clothes. After laying a new fire, he found he was ravenous and he prepared and ate a large, simple meal. Throughout the whole process, he was aware of the change within. For the first time in his life, he was at peace with himself. And, in that peace, he found a perspective that he had previously avoided. Sitting on the edge of the pool, he examined it closely.

Us. Catherine had spoken of us. Had he ever thought in terms of us? Two as one? Had he ever truly thought of Catherine as the other half of himself? No, a voice within answered. She was Catherine--his Catherine and the love of his life. That the reverse was also true, he had never really considered. Nor had he contemplated the implications of a love as great as his own. Her love had changed his world; changed him. That his love had done the same for her had seemed..? Unimaginable, he admitted to himself. Why? He ruthlessly asked himself. Because of who I am. What I am. Really? He winced at his own sarcasm. No, that is not true, he acknowledged. It is only unimaginable to me because I would not allow myself to imagine, to dream. Because I believed she would ultimately abandon me. Abandon me as Lisa had. As my mother had.

As the revelation sank in, he studied it in microscopic detail. Despite Catherine's proclamations as well as what he felt through their bond and saw in her eyes, he had believed that she would someday leave him. In fear of that occurrence, he had carefully controlled the direction of their relationship. He had funneled his love through a glass tube; a tube he had erected to protect himself from the pain of another abandonment. Catherine had shattered the tube to reach within to him. For him. She was right; their relationship had been unequal. How could it be otherwise? From the beginning, he had placed himself out side a lover's reach. Devin was right. He had let the past lead him. And in doing so, he had overlooked one sanguine fact: Catherine loved him. He loved her. It was as complex as that because love is a complexity composed of needs, desires, and risks. It was as simple as that because love provides the strength, faith, and courage to face the needs, desires, and risks. Through the combinations, two people arrived at a place that was theirs alone.

He stood and quickly broke camp. He methodically repacked his gear and supplies and doused the fire. Outwardly, he appeared calm, almost placid. However, a study of his face would reveal eyes that once more burned brightly with hopes and dreams.

At the threshold of the grotto, he paused to slowly examine the area, forever burning into his memory the place and what had occurred here. As he began the four-day trek homeward, he considered returning there someday. Somehow, he knew he would not. It had served it purpose and was part of the past.

Four days later, he returned home where he rested for two. At the close of the second day, his internal clock told him it was night in the world Above. Slipping into his cloak, he hurried out. At the bend in the tunnel that he led to Catherine's apartment, he paused to tap out a message to Father. Minutes later, he stood in the shadows on her balcony.

"Thank you for seeing me home. Good night," Catherine said over her shoulder while stepping into the elevator. The doors whooshed close and she exhaled in gladness that the interminable evening had ended. The function had been an unavoidable charity event. The man, an old colleague from her day in corporate law, she dismissed as a reminder of the hazards of attending such functions alone. Time had not changed him; he was still falsely amorous because of his looks and fiercely ambitious, the byproduct of an Ivy League education.

When the doors opened on her floor, she dragged herself the short distance to the apartment. Weariness made her clumsy and she fumbled with the keys. Once inside, she secured the locks, her mind already on a long, hot bubble bath to soothe her haggard nerves. She turned towards the living room and went rigid with shock. Candles were everywhere: the mantle, dining room table, and table stands. Through the open terrace door, she could see candles on balcony table as well. Off to the left, she perceived shadows on the bedroom wall cast by wavering twinkles of light. The scene brought tears of remembrance of the world she had not visited in months. She flew through the width of the room, up the stairs and onto the balcony. There she halted, searching for him. He stood in the corner nearest the doors leading to her bedroom.

She whispered in disbelief, "Vincent? Here? Why?"

He didn't respond as he moved towards her, his eyes never leaving her face. Stopping an arm's length in front of her, he drank in the sight of the face he had desperately missed through the long, bleak months.

"Because there is no other place, Catherine," he answered in a raspy voice.

She was caught off guard and wary. She had not expected him and wasn't sure she wanted him here after months of absence. Not after she had accepted that what she needed most in her universe was not hers to have.

He stood before her--tense, nervous, uncertain, and wondering. Had he waited too long? Had the scars inflicted by their impasse scabbed over? Was it too late?

"Come with me, Catherine. Come with me to our place," he beseeched, his voice strained by the waiting, the wanting, the needing. He held out his hand, "Please."

Blue eyes bore into green before she looked down at the hand reaching towards her--for her. Distantly, she noted the blond red fur that covered the back of the hand and the sharp finger nails; claws that could hold a child tenderly or violently shred someone. This was Vincent, her Vincent, and he was like no other in the world.

Her hesitation caused him to falter. He dropped his hand and turned away, the action acknowledging defeat. He had lost her. He had finally arrived at the place where she was only to discover emptiness. A dull throb of devastation began deep in his chest. He jerkily walked towards the balcony doors. Her choice was made and he had to escape before he shattered completely. Find somewhere private to allow the growing pain to engulf and destroy him. His cloak was in the bedroom on a chair placed near the balcony doors. He had to reach the cloak, disappear into it and away from her. Turning, he moved through the doorway.

He was so concentrated on the seemingly impossible task that the bond failed him. The arms circling his waist were a surprise. Those arms were gentle bands of steel holding him capture. Through the link, he finally felt the unfurling of her love and passion. Like a bud unfolding, her feelings surged through him. Turning within the embrace, he read the confirmation in her face and clutched her tightly.

Her body was warm against his. He felt her softness touch his hardness--plane for plane, angle for angle. She was woman and he was man. Rock against river, they flowed.

"Catherine," he stammered, overcome by the look in her eyes, overwhelmed more by his need of her. He loved her. He wanted her. He brought his lips down and pressed them insistently against hers.

To Catherine, his lips were softer and hotter than she had imagined, their unusual shape enhancing her pleasure. Over and over, he kissed her until she gasped with delight. His tongue, wet and warm, slipped into her open mouth.

Tongue battle tongue. Breath battled breath as one sighed and the other sucked it in. He repeatedly invaded her mouth seeking the warmth within, taking in her essence as she took in his. She felt flushed and disoriented. Her arms tightened around his broad back, drawing him nearer. His scent reached her---intoxicating her. She could not get enough of him as her teeth gently nibbled the inside of his lower lip. Closer her mind screamed. Closer.

A groan escaped him and he was lost in her. He wanted, needed her closer. Restlessly, his hands roamed her slight figure to her hips. There, he pressed her tightly to him so she would know. Would understand.

She understood and accepted. He had made the decision. It was right. For him. For her. For them. She felt his burgeoning desire and her own intensified; she felt her core flooding in warm response.

She groaned, but he ignored it savoring his Catherine. He shuddered trying to contain the wildness rising within. The hands caressing her hair suddenly became demanding as his stroking increased and his fingers tangled in the silky locks. He broke the kiss to inhale deeply of her shampoo of spring flowers.

She ran her tongue along his jawline, liking the feel of it. Her hands moved over his back in a circular motion than down his hips, pulling them hard against her.

The action ignited him and he felt scorched by the heat rising within himself. One hand cupped her face as the other removed the beaded comb perched precariously atop her hair. It tumbled into his hands, longer than he remembered. She reached towards the heat of his palm, rubbing her cheek sensuously against it. She exhaled, her warmth floating over his hand and he shivered.

"Come with me," he passionately repeated.

"Always," she heatedly responded.

Stepping back, he reached down and slowly unbuttoned the black cape she wore. It feel to the floor; an unnoticed black pool on the pearl gray carpet of the bedroom. She stood before him in a sleeveless, white chiffon dress. The soft material gracefully hugged her curves. To Vincent, she looked stunning and his breath quickened. Without thought, he flipped one thin strap off her shoulder needing to touch, to taste the skin beneath. Placing his mouth in the spot vacated by the strap, he slowly ran his tongue along her skin.

The moist, fiery feel of his lips made her tremble. As he blazed a trail of soft, wet kisses down her shoulder and up her neck, she felt rationality slipping away into the realm of sensation. She cried out in pleasure when he ran a hand across the top of her breasts, his touch feather light. Her nipples puckered and strained against the constraining fabric when he repeated the motion.

"Ah, Vincent," she hissed on an involuntary breath of longing. "Please," she begged, her breathing shallow and harsh.

In one swift movement, he placed his open mouth on one breast, wetting the bodice and what lay beneath with is sucking. She moaned in satisfaction while pressing his hungry, questing lips closer. he then moved to her other nipple as his fingers fondled the first through the moistened fabric. She soared, as did he. It was more than either had ever imagined. It flowed around them, through them; the primitive need of man and woman. One for the other.

The fierceness of what they were feeling threatened to drown them. As though each sensed it, they shifted to face one another and their eyes locked. In his, she saw the journey's end. The agonizing trip to this place--their place--was over. She raised trembling fingers to his cheek. Her fingertips traced the unhealthy leanness she found there. Tears sprang to her eyes at this sign of the journey's price. As they rolled silently down her face, he leaned over and slowly licked them away--the action comforting and arousing.

Within the bond, she felt his reaction, a mirror to her own. Beyond that, she felt his passion and was not surprised when he pushed the bodice of her dress down exposing her breasts. Leaning down, he nestled in the valley between them. Turning, he took a hardened nipple into his mouth. He sucked on it as a child would, the motion causing her to moan his name.

Under his sensual onslaught, she could not remain motionless. Reaching down, she stroked, him with one hand, though his jeans. She stroked as he sucked--each torturing the other. As he pulled, she lightly ran the fingertips of her other hand through his mane and down his neck. Her fingertips were soft--the touch a trickle of warm water on his neck and back. The sensation sent a tremor through him. The furry skin beneath her hand was downy soft like cashmere and her tactile sense reviled in the feeling.

Exerting pressure, she caused the two to tumble onto the nearby bed where Vincent laid, arms still intertwined around her. She looked at him sprawled on the bed, his face a vision of passion, and his golden mane spilling around his head. Her eyes filled with tears of joy and relief.

"Catherine?" he questioned, concern evident in his voice.

She shook her head and shakily smiled. "It's nothing. It's just that I... I..."

"I know, I know. But, it is over. It begins."

"Yes, it begins," she agreed as she unlaced his vest and he shook it off. She lifted his shirt to nuzzle his chest. His head began to spin wildly as the tension, a warm feeling, built in his stomach and liquid fire roared through his body.

He barely had the strength to raise his arms so she could pull the shirt completely over his head. She discarded it and ran her hands lovingly over the broad expanse of his chest. The feeling of fuzzy down tickled the nerves of her fingers. Impulsively, she bent and rubbed her face in his chest, evoking grasps of pleasure. Duplicating his earlier actions, she lightly skimmed her knuckles across the flat, male nipples. When she placed cool lips against one nipple and gently tugged, his control evaporated.

Roughly, he pulled the dress completely off her body as she, with shaking fingers, undid his belt and pants. Their remaining clothes were quickly stripped away. Finally, they lay naked, facing each other within the circle of their love.

He ran his hands over her legs, pausing to stroke her inner thighs then moving to cup her buttocks, gently rubbing her against his maleness.

Catherine felt her center turn into molten honey from the intimate contact. She tightened her thighs around him, enjoying the feel of softness against hardness. She felt the tremors coursing through his body as, beneath her, he thrashed his head from side to side.

A low growl rumbled from his chest. "Catherine, I need you...Now!" the imperious male demanded of his mate, his other half.

"I need you, Vincent, she responded, " she responded, a demand as ancient as time in her voice.

Gently, she guided his entrance into her wet, waiting core; the place made ready for him so long ago. The two merged and sighed in unison at the feat. As he began the ritual born between man and woman centuries before, sizzling sapphire met fiery emerald eyes. Trust, love, desire, and hope were reflected in each as two became one.

In that oneness, an unequivocal truth was disclosed: She had her place in the world Above. He had his in the world Below. Together, they had their own place beyond Above and Below.

If we only have love...

Then will nothing at all

But the little we are

We'll have conquered all time

All space, the sun and the stars

THE END

*Excerpts from "If We Only Have Love," recorded by Johnny Mathis, Feelings album, 1975, Columbia Records.


This story is part of an anthology entitled "All That Matters: Tales of Beauty and the Beast." I started the anthology in January 1990 after the series ended. As real life got in the way and the fandom dwindled, I put it away. Recently, I discovered via the web that BATB lives! I pulled out my files and decided to submit the completed stories. Thanks to the positive feedback on the other pieces, I may yet finish it.