Catherine knew the exact moment their friendship had ended. "Kiss me Vincent!" The words flew back into her mind from the cavern where they had spent many petrifying hours. Those were the words; the death knell of the friendship they had shared for almost three years. And the myriad of words that followed–his and hers–she shuddered now to think of those words that had so quickly and abruptly come to an end and been replaced by this unbearable, uncomfortable, unfamiliar politeness. It was as if those words were still floating down in that cavern, embarrassingly irretrievable, and for some reason, she so desperately wanted to take them all back. But why? Why would she take any of it back? She had meant all of it. All she had wanted for so long was to tell Vincent her true feelings and have him return to her those same emotions. "Be careful what you wish for," she thought wryly, "you just might get it." The old warning came back to haunt her as she agonized over what she knew she would have to do now. Standing on the edge of the abyss, she looked down, wondering how she had come to this point.
Six days earlier Catherine couldn’t have been happier. She had finally gotten a genuine vacation from the DA’s office–one whole week–and she knew exactly what she was going to do with it. Vincent had been working in the lower levels for the past ten days to assuage the spring flooding and she’d desperately missed him. If it hadn’t been so busy at her office, she’d have been helping too, but she was assured by Father, during her only brief trip below that the efforts of the tunnel dwellers were keeping ahead of the melting and the spring rains were uncommonly light. Although she had had a short visit with Mary on that trip, Vincent was working far away from the main living area and so could not have stopped to visit even though the flooding was considered under control for the moment. By the time Catherine’s vacation began, it had been two weeks, two days, six hours, and nine minutes since she had seen Vincent, and she was suffering what could only be described as withdrawal. Desperate for a fix, she headed below with a messily packed bag of clothes and no plan to leave until she got what she needed.
By the time she arrived outside Vincent’s chamber, the pipes had announced her arrival and Pascal was there to meet her and tell her that Vincent was not yet back but was on his way and would be there in a couple of hours.
"It’s lunch time. How about joining me?" Pascal asked with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
"And who’s on the pipes while you try to woo me with food?" Catherine replied teasingly as they walked toward the dining chamber. Catherine knew she was a favorite among the single men of the tunnels, but considering herself most definitely "taken" she felt free to play gently with those who dared to dream the impossible dream. For Pascal, though, it was all a big show. She got the definite feeling he was in practice for someone else.
"Who cares?" he answered, looking at her with an exaggerated dreamy expression on his face, "Vincent’s miles away, and I’ve got you all to myself now."
"You might want to revise that statement," answered the amused voice of Father who had somehow silently walked up behind them, "considering that there are twenty other people in the dining chamber already." Father’s face showed that he was in an unusually good mood, as was everyone in the tunnels this afternoon. The flooding had been contained with minimal damage, the weather report looked good for at least the next four days, the laundry (the bane of any spring) was caught up for the moment, and they were more rested than they had ever been during any spring in the past. It was indeed a good spring.
Catherine marveled at the elated mood she felt in the dining area and had to admit she was feeling it too, though for a different reason. Her excitement was growing with every tick of the clock. After a big meal and lots of spirited conversation, Pascal leaned over and whispered, "Did you hear that?"
"The pipes say he’s back. We’d better not be seen together."
"Don’t be silly," Catherine retorted in a mock conspiring tone, "he has to bathe first, doesn’t he?"
Before he could tell her that Vincent had been seen coming from the bathing chambers, Catherine leaned over and gave a little squeeze to Pascal’s knee. Catherine had only recently found out that Pascal was extremely ticklish, and he let out a yelp that made everyone look at him in shock. Catherine looked back with a completely innocent expression on her face which made Pascal completely lose his composure and laugh like a little boy. His laugh was contagious and the mood so high that very quickly everyone in the dining chamber was laughing without even having a reason.
Just then, Vincent walked in with some of the other men from the lower tunnels and Catherine flew into his arms. Greetings and hugs followed and everyone calmed slightly. Vincent felt like he’d been away for years instead of days. Now he reveled in the feeling of her soft arms around his neck and spent several more seconds than his usually allotted time drinking in her scent. She was more beautiful than ever and he wondered how much more her appearance could improve in his opinion before doing damage to his insides. Perhaps the damage was already done. He didn’t care. When Vincent greeted the others and then asked what everyone was laughing about, the chorus of laughter started up again. Catherine was wildly amused by this, but Vincent couldn’t see what all the fuss was about and looked at Father suspiciously just as the elder man wiped a tear from his eye. Despite his ignorance of the source of everyone’s amusement, Vincent loved the sound of Catherine’s laughter. It reminded him of the time that they were in their music chamber and it began to rain. Her fun-loving spirit was contagious and he began to wonder if she had bewitched the entire tunnel community.
Eventually, Catherine reluctantly extricated herself from Vincent’s embrace and sat back down. Watching Vincent eat while most of the other tunnel dwellers were leaving the dining area for some play time, Catherine made small talk about the dryer-than-usual weather Above and how much the children seemed to have grown in only two weeks. Vincent just listened and ate ravenously.
"Didn’t they feed you down there?"
"We didn’t get much time to eat." Vincent replied through a mouth full of bread and an apologetic smile. For a moment, he looked more like an errant schoolboy than the grown man she had come to love. It only made her love him more. His hair was still damp from bathing and she ran her hands through it in a motherly way to show affection for this man who was so childlike in some ways and so manly in others. She could feel a shudder run through him in response to her touch and through their bond she could feel his desire for those comforting strokes to continue.
"I missed you." she said. The simple words were so deeply felt that they surprised him in their ardor. He stopped eating and looked at her. Deep into those grey-green eyes he saw an intensity he hadn’t seen before. It excited him. It fueled his own passion. It frightened him. The meaning of the emotions would have been clear to him if they had been his, but coming from Catherine, he was confused. "Perhaps I am confusing my own feelings with hers" he thought,," or mixing them somehow."
"I missed you, too."
She could feel the mood becoming too much for him. So often she was tempted to continue feeding him her heightened emotions despite his discomfort, but she was so afraid she would scare him away. So, as was her habit, she lightened the mood, calmed her inner turmoil and smiled. "What should we read tonight?"
Once again he felt Catherine’s emotions return to her normal restful state and Vincent relaxed. He was always mystified by her brief forays into more passionate displays, but chalked it up to her not having anyone else to display it with. After all, she didn’t have a lover. "You choose," he finally answered, noticing she was still waiting.
"Okay," she replied, "how about a comedy? Much Ado About Nothing or Taming of the Shrew?"
"Hmm," Vincent, looking a little pained, not being as fond of the comedies as a good tragedy, but loathe to refuse Catherine, replied, "If you wish."
Catherine knew that Vincent had a sense of humor. It was just a little hard to find sometimes. Well, she was determined to bring it out and refine it and nothing worked better than a good Shakespeare comedy for getting one in the mood for playing silly games. "All right then, Much Ado it is." she firmly declared.
William was hard at work directing the youngsters assigned to kitchen duty that evening. But he managed a glance or two in the direction of Catherine and Vincent to watch their progress. Shaking his head, he wondered if they would ever stop dancing around each other and dive in like most couples do. But he knew Vincent. Ever the cautious one; always afraid of overstepping boundaries—real or imagined—Vincent might take ten more years to express in words what was clearly written on his face. William marveled at the patience Catherine had.
Back in Vincent’s chamber, they both sat on the bed, he at the head, she at the foot while she started reading about the comic trials and tribulations of Beatrice, Benedick, Claudio, and Hero. Vincent found himself caught up in the story despite his momentary protestations. The character of the prince, Don Pedro, was especially compelling to Vincent. He woos a woman only to give her to another man, he proposes to another woman only to lose her as well, and he ends up alone and melancholy. Is this the kind of life that awaited Vincent himself? Would Catherine eventually become the wife of another? He couldn’t bear the thought of it. Suddenly Vincent jumped off the bed. Catherine could feel his rising agitation but was at a loss to account for it.
Looking at him confusedly, she asked, "What is it, Vincent?"
Suddenly feeling foolish, he sat back down on the bed, and looked down at his hands. I...I’m feeling rather restless. So much activity, I believe it’s difficult to follow it so soon with complete inactivity.
"Of course. Perhaps we should go for a walk."
The idea appealed to him and so, by way of reply, he grabbed his cloak and held out his hand for her. She picked up her jacket and they walked out together almost toppling into Father and Mary in the hall outside.
"Oh Vincent, I was hoping to discuss the work rotation with you. We’ll still need to send men down to the lower level tomorrow, mostly to keep watch."
"Yes, Father, we should discuss this. Catherine and I are going for a short walk first. Can I meet you in your chamber at 8:30?"
"That’ll be fine. We’ll talk then. Have a nice walk."
"Thank you, Father"
As Vincent and Catherine walked away, Father shook his head. God knows he had interfered with that couple enough. Their love had managed to grow in the fire and he was done trying to put it out. He smiled at the thought of his son settling down with a life mate. It was a little sad to be losing him. He himself would be alone then and there was no getting around that. But his son would be happy, how could he begrudge him that?
A gentle touch on his arm woke him from his reverie, "What are you thinking about, Jacob?"
"Oh, Mary," He sighed, laying a hand over hers and looking at her gentle face, "old man thoughts, just old man thoughts."
Vincent sighed in relief as Father and Mary watched them leave and slowly became farther away. He just needed to be with Catherine in silence. She knew how he felt through the bond. For so long this bond was a mystery to her–a one-way connection where Vincent could feel her feelings–but lately, during the last three or four months especially, she had realized, or learned was probably more accurate a term, how to tune into this bond herself, leaving her wondering just where the bond originated–Vincent, herself, or both of them together. Now, she knew he did not want to talk. He desperately wanted her presence, as someone wants air to breathe. But he wanted to think while he was breathing her in. She was content just to hold his hand and be near him. And so they walked aimlessly in comfortable silence together.
Vincent had much to think about. For some time, his empathic connection with Catherine had been a one-way flow. But that was changing and he knew it was due to him. Vincent had not yet told Catherine that their connection was a two-way bond, not wanting to frighten her with many of his darkest emotions. Therefore, he had always kept a tight reign on his side of the bond so that she could not pick up on it. But something was happening lately. Something was making it more and more difficult to do and he only could speculate about the cause. He was in love; more so than ever. His own makeup; his unique physiology, would not allow him to close a bond between himself and his chosen mate for such an extended period. "His chosen mate," he scoffed. Yes, he had chosen her. He had to admit that. But how could he limit her to this existence. Now he was even limiting her mind to an existence within his repulsive and seedy desires. He would not have it! He must fight for her freedom, even if it meant fighting himself. But was he fighting for her or for himself? Lately, her emotions were getting harder to read. Because he’d been cutting her off from his own, it was becoming more difficult to distinguish whose emotions he was picking up. The simple ones, yes—fear, sadness, disappointment, anxiety. Perhaps he was reading them on her face more than in her heart. She did always show her feelings easily. It’s one of the things he loved about her. But the more complex emotions he was feeling lately Vincent took to be a combination of his darker emotions wrapped in her friendship for him. He silently reproached himself for thinking that she could have deeper feelings for him, chalking it up to wishful thinking and the dream that he spoke of but she rarely brought up in those terms.
Catherine wondered what he could possibly be thinking. His emotions, though still a struggle to pick up, were now clear enough to distinguish—uncertainty, helplessness, determination, confusion, love, disgust, and hopelessness all within a short period of time. He felt miles away in thought, while his emotions were closer than ever. All the while they kept walking.
After some time, they were in a large cavern walking along a four-foot ledge circling a deep chasm that she didn’t recognize. It had been quite some time since they had passed any of the tunnel family. The cavern was dark and cold. For some reason, the light didn’t reflect on the walls here as it usually did throughout the tunnels.
"Vincent, where are we?" Catherine finally asked. She didn’t recognize the route anymore. She was pretty sure these were not tunnels that she had ever explored with Vincent before.
Waking from his reverie, Vincent looked slightly dazed. He looked around as if to get his bearings and for one tiny moment Catherine had the distinct feeling that they were lost. A wave of fright washed over her but then he said with a small smile, "Have no fear, I know where we are. This is one of the unimproved tunnels. It’s the shortcut we’ve been taking to the flooded lower levels. We don’t use these areas for much because they’re more dirt than rock and we’ve never been sure they’d stand up to the wear and tear of regular habitation." Looking up he touched the muddy walls and stated vaguely, "they seem to be in pretty good shape despite the spring rains. Come, let’s turn around and go back the way we came. These walls are a bit too muddy for my taste. I don’t want you to get dirty."
Just then, as if in response to Vincent’s statement, a big clod of mud fell from above them straight on top of Catherine’s head and dripped down into her hair and onto her face. "Oh yuck!" she shouted as she reached up to remove the big chunk.
"Catherine! Are you all right?" Vincent was concerned that there may be rocks in the mud but Catherine put his mind at ease.
"You were right Vincent," she assured him, "It is all mud."
Just then the disgusted look on her face while she picked the mud from her hair struck him as one of the funniest sights he had ever seen. She truly did show what she was feeling on her face. He had to use all his self-control not to laugh out loud. But it was to no avail. The bond had betrayed him. She stopped and looked at him with suspicious eyes. "Vincent, what exactly are you finding so amusing about this situation?" She asked with exaggerated indignation.
Her question undid him completely and he could no longer hold in the laughter. His laugh was almost a giggle and it delighted her from head to toe. There was the sense of humor she was looking to encourage. But he would also need to learn to laugh at himself, not just at her. She was formulating a plan. Vincent, aware of her intentions, began backing away. Placing the torch in a holder, he began readying himself for a showdown.
"Oh, no you don’t," Vincent said in his best warning tone through tears of laughter, "I don’t need a bond to know what you’re thinking Catherine Chandler."
She removed a clod of mud from the wall and aimed very carefully, winding up with her left hand to throw it. Just then, Vincent was hit right on the forehead with mud, seemingly from above. It was a perfect underhand arc from Catherine’s right hand.
"Did you forget I’m not left-handed Vincent?" Catherine asked teasingly. The look of surprise on Vincent’s face sent her into frenzy of giggles.
After that it was a mud free-for-all with each of them trying to be the winner with the least amount of mud on them in the end. Soon they were both uncontrollably laughing and neither of them could throw straight. They fell back against each other while they wound down, Catherine getting in her parting shot by placing the left-handed clod she still held gently atop Vincent’s head and giggling again at the ludicrous gesture. His hair was already caked with more mud than she’d ever seen.
"I’ve never had this much fun getting dirty," she said with a residual unladylike snort.
"Me neither. Now I’m ready to sit down and read without jumping around. Apparently I just needed a good mud fight."
"Hmm, And another bath." Catherine felt his heart had lightened and hers had also as a result. If only that feeling could have lasted.
In an instant it was all gone, replaced by a sickening dread as the ledge began to collapse on all sides around them. Vincent reacted quickly grabbing Catherine so swiftly that it was painful. There was only one outcropping of rock that he could see and he made for it as the entire ledge that they had just been playing on plunged into the chasm beneath them.
The two-foot square that he leaped onto was no guarantee of safety. It might have been held only by more crumbling mud, but it was their only hope. Around them mud fell with sickening slurping noises for several minutes. They were being pummeled by mounds of mud from above but Vincent held them fast to the rock ledge. Intermittent flashes of light between intense darkness told them that the mud had not fallen onto the torch. When the mudslide finally came to an abrupt halt, they could see again, but what they saw was terrifying. The vertical walls had held where they had been, but the horizontal ledge was all but gone. The only section left was the rock outcropping on which Catherine and Vincent now stood. Underneath them was the pitch black chasm. Twelve feet behind Vincent was the passage they had entered through, thirty feet behind Catherine was another way out to more unimproved tunnels and more muddy danger. Neither of the passages nor the pipes was reachable from where they stood and no one knew or probably would even guess where they had walked.
Catherine trembled as Vincent held her tightly, trying hard not to move their feet from their positions. She could see almost nothing but the torchlight near the entrance tunnel behind Vincent. She felt more than saw that the ledge they were standing on measured only about as large as their feet put together. There was nothing but cold air on either side of where their feet rested. Neither of them could step back more than an inch, maybe two.
Catherine breathed heavily and Vincent came to the sudden realization that she was in pain. "Catherine, what hurts?"
"It’s my shoulder. It’s nothing, Vincent. Really."
He slowly moved his hand up to her shoulder, gently feeling the joint and bone, ascertaining the extent of damage. It was dislocated and he quickly realized he himself had done the damage when he’d grabbed her toward the ledge. He groaned, guilt washing over him as he replayed his violent reaction to the disaster that had so narrowly been averted. He had hurt his beloved Catherine.
Knowing his thoughts, she spoke them out loud, "You saved me, Vincent. That’s all that matters now. This will heal." Then, quickly moving on to more practical matters, she asked, "Can you jump to the ledge behind you?" Catherine was not usually one to bring up Vincent’s differences, but in this case, it might be a blessing that he could do things no other human could.
However, Vincent seemed uncomfortable with her question and simply answered, "No."
"Don’t be modest. I’ve seen you jump farther Vincent."
"When I’m running, Catherine. But I can hardly get a running start here. Besides, I’m not leaving you."
She was about to protest when his final excuse came. "And I might knock you off this ledge with any attempt to do so."
Silently agreeing that it might not be the best idea for him to be leaping from a ledge she had to stand on, Catherine changed the subject. "How long do you think it will take for them to find us?"
Vincent’s guilt once again surfaced, this time with a vengeance, as he realized his thoughtless, meandering steps had led them down here to where no one would think to look. He tried to make his reply as encouraging as possible without an outright lie. "Well, I was supposed to meet Father at 8:30 and it is now about 8:45. So they already know something has happened to make me late. But I don’t know if that’s enough to make them worry yet. Although it’s unusual for me to be late, where you’re concerned, it’s not unheard of. They will likely begin looking for us before bedtime though. It’s not like us to stay out without at least notifying them on the pipes. And they saw us head below, not above, so I’d say there’s a good chance there’ll be a search for us starting some time tonight."
Catherine tried to take courage from that guess, but she knew, and cursed her own inconsistencies, that the tunnel dwellers were familiar with Vincent’s loss of routine when it came to her visits. She was not even that confident. Nevertheless, she smiled at Vincent, knowing he would see her face better than she could see his. However, the smile faded quickly as the effects of the long walk, the mud fight, and the pain in her arm started to take their toll. Vincent noticed immediately.
"You should sleep, Catherine. You’re tired."
"I couldn’t possibly sleep standing up. Besides, how can I leave you alone."
"I’ll be fine."
"No. I’m fine."
"Catherine. . ."
"Really, Vincent, I’m okay."
"Listen to me!" his voice, rougher than he’d intended, now softened, as Catherine’s head snapped up, "I have to stay awake to keep us on this ledge. We may be here for several hours yet. Right now, I’m quite all right, but I will likely need someone to keep me awake later. The best way for you to do that is to get some rest while I can assure you that I will not fall asleep. That means now. Can you do this for me?"
His commanding tone took her by surprise. His argument was too logical. His plea was impossible to fight against. And he was absolutely right. She found a kind of power in him that she had not known he possessed. It was very reassuring, very comforting, very alluring.
But suddenly she was exhausted and she knew she could easily fall asleep standing up as long as he was holding her. She nodded in answer to his question and rested her weight against him. His arms went around her waist and she attempted to reach up around his neck, but then pain shot through her like an arrow. Gasping for air, she thought perhaps she wouldn’t sleep after all. Several attempts at other resting positions caused more pain. There seemed to be no way of getting comfortable with a dislocated arm and there was no room for him to fix it and keep them both on the ledge. Finally, after trying a few more shifts, Vincent carefully leaned down until his face was next to hers and said in a reluctant grumble, "I have an idea."
She gasped as he then gently reached under her buttocks and lifted her like a child. Spreading her thighs apart, he placed one of her legs on each of his hips and leaned her against the mud wall. Facing Catherine, Vincent leaned into her in order to keep them both safely on the ledge now that their center of gravity had shifted up. Her one good arm she wrapped around his neck and the other remained folded between them as comfortable as it could be. His proximity was unnerving and intoxicating at the same time. Her heart quickened as she took in his scent. He smelled so good—a combination of mud, sweat, and man. Her legs being spread wide and wrapped around him gave her a heady feeling and her body responded naturally to the stimuli it was receiving. There was absolutely nothing she could do to stop it. Hearing the beginning of a low growl from Vincent, Catherine knew her physical reaction was being detected. She didn’t care. She wanted to move her hips and unconsciously started to clench long unused muscles and moan softly. She had an itch that desperately needed to be scratched.
"Be still," Vincent’s soft reply to her moans reminded her that she dare not move. Their position on the ledge was just too precarious. Instead she leaned her head on Vincent’s shoulder, moaned again happily, and fell into a swirling dream of wonderful sensations.
Vincent had felt her physical reaction to their positions and immediately regretted his choice. But there seemed little he could do. He concentrated hard to control his own reaction while desperately wanting to move against her. Her skin was so soft under the single layer of clothing she’d worn Below. His hands started a kneading motion on her back, wanting more of that softness. Her scent, always delicious, became intoxicating as her arousal increased. He had the urge to bury his face in the source of that scent, to open her up and find the heart of it, to wrap himself in that essence and roll in it forever. Everything seemed to move in slow motion for a moment and a low growl started deep in his throat. When he realized what he was doing, he stopped. A sickening dread came over him at what he had almost allowed. He could not touch Catherine with his base desires. He must never let her know that he thought such things. With disgust and self-loathing came composure. His warning to "be still" was as much for himself as for her. His outward control remained relatively intact, and he was grateful that she seemed to fall asleep quickly.