Catherine smiled to herself, then whispered his name one more time. "Vincent!"
... ... No response.
She twisted within his arms, trying to glance over her shoulder at the man spooned along her back. He was sleeping so soundly. So peacefully. The furred body he'd bashfully hidden for so long wrapped tightly around hers.
The turning of her head dislodged his face from its chosen niche, and she watched as he shifted on the pillow, then nuzzled his way back into her hair. How many times had she hoped and prayed for a moment even half as wonderful as this? And now she had to break the spell.
"I have to get up, Vincent." she whispered, rubbing his arms where they wrapped around her midriff. The touch must have reached his subconscious, because he did respond ... ... but only to stubbornly strengthen his grip.
Well, if one must fight dirty, then one must fight dirty. Squirming around, she turned just enough to find his lips with her own. That got through the haze, and within seconds he was smiling against her.
"I have to get up," she repeated with a laugh. The escape was getting harder and harder as he formed himself around her anew.
His first waking words came with a twinge of disappointment. -- -- "Has morning come already?" The few nights they'd stolen together had included a sleep more sound than he could ever remember. He would have expected to remain lying awake, worrying over any number of things. Instead, she brought such a warm, soothing peace to his bed, he'd found himself sleeping through 'til early morning.
Of course, early morning now also contained a note of sadness. In days past, he would often awake with the knowledge that he would be visiting her balcony later that day. Or perhaps awaiting her arrival for an evening together. Now, morning only meant her departure, slipping away as best she could in the hopes that no one would notice. She hadn't even planned on staying this night. But then one thing had led to another, and ... ...
People would need to be told soon, obviously. But he wasn't entirely sure what the disclosure should be ... primarily because he didn't know what words she would choose. It was an issue they'd managed to avoid for days now.
Catherine squinted toward the little wind-up clock on the nearby table. "It's barely two in the morning. I just need to get up for a minute. Nature calls."
A smirk threatened on his lips and he considered quipping that 'nature' had called a few hours earlier as well, with a far different yet just as primal urge ... hence her presence here now. Every thought seemed to gravitate in that direction lately, bursting with amazement that such urges were actually being answered.
Silently, he watched as she sat up ... the blanket pulling back to reveal the smooth, pale length of her. Her feet swung to the floor, and she gave him the shyest look from behind her hair's cascade.
"I won't be long. You go back to sleep."
His fingers alighted on her hip, offering the gentlest squeeze. "Upon your return, then I will sleep." It was the simple truth, nothing more, but it earned him another kiss and the promise that she would hurry.
Over the edge of the bed was draped his nightshirt, and she grabbed it as she rose. It was too big of course, and she had to clutch it around her shoulders lest either side plummet down her arm. A view -- and a fashion statement -- that left Vincent smiling as she slipped on her shoes and made hastily for the chamber's exit.
The bathrooms for this particular area were only a short distance away -- a few turns and two short tunnels. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, they were constructed quite near the patriarch's study.
No problem though. No one was up and about at this hour of the night. At least that's what she thought when she was finished, and emerged back into the tunnel for her return trip to her mate.
"Vincent?" came Father's voice from the distance. "Is that you?"
Catherine froze, her fingers digging in where she held the extra fabric pleated across her chest. The temptation to flee was high. After all, he apparently wasn't entirely sure what he'd seen. Could she make it back to Vincent's chamber, throw the nightshirt on her beau, and shove him out into the tunnels fast enough to look convincing?
"Vincent?" came the repeated inquiry.
She had no choice.
Turning, she walked hesitantly toward the study, only a matter of steps before she saw Father sitting at his desk. His leg was elevated, his crutch propped nearby as he was known to do when the old wound was especially aggravating. And the look on his face was priceless.
"Oh," he stammered, studying her up and down in that special, shocked sort of way that made her want to disappear right into the floor. "I saw your," ... his finger waved indicatively toward the white woolen fabric hanging right down to her ankles. "Or rather his," ... he hesitated again, finding it difficult to candidly acknowledge that the woman was wearing his son's traditional bedtime dressing gown.
Catherine tried to chuckle in a disarming way, but sounded instead as though she were being strangled. "I guess this is a bit of a surprise."
The patriarch shook his head, then tried to answer matter-of-factly. "No, a surprise would imply a certain level of confusion or disorientation. I don't think I'm confused, and I feel perfectly well-oriented, despite the late hour."
"Actually," Catherine corrected, "I meant for myself." Carefully, she descended the short metal stairway, hoping to face Father on truer, more level ground ... both figuratively and literally.
Father nodded with a grin of repressed amusement.
"Maybe," she amended, "I should simply say that this must look pretty bad."
"It looks different, certainly. I have to admit I've never seen anyone else taking a nighttime stroll in Vincent's clothing."
Shyly, she pulled it tighter, trying with all her might not to let the patriarch detect how unbelievably shaken she was. As always, she fell back on the same, single, truthful explanation she'd been issuing for months. ... "I love him, Father. We love each *other*. There's really nothing else I can ..."
"I know that, Catherine," he answered with surprising understanding. "Believe me, I know that. And in the interest of time and brevity, I'll be blunt. Yes, I know you love him." His head tilted in admission, as he continued, "I used to doubt your sincerity. I used to fear it was an infatuation or curiosity. But I have long since reversed my opinion on that. Yes, my dear Catherine ... I know you love him. I just want to make sure that you've faced the cold, hard truth. For your own sake as well as his."
It was an odd statement, and truly piqued her curiosity. -- -- "Yes?" she prompted.
Father fixed her with a deadly serious stare, then visibly steadied himself as he spoke the words. -- -- "That he was born in the shadows, and one day he will die in the shadows."
Catherine's recoil was instant, physical, and strong. Hearing such words about anyone, would have been painful. Hearing them in reference to her mate was like a knife. And hearing them from *Father* ... ...
"It's harsh, I know," the patriarch conceded. "And it's unbelievably difficult to say about one's own son. It's something that stubbornly defies acceptance." He glanced into the distance for a moment. Remembering. "Something you grieve over, rail against, bargain with, but finally must learn to accept. Because in the end, it is the cold, hard truth. And if you plan on sharing his life ... which, given recent developments, I will assume is your chosen path ... then many of your own joys will have to be hidden in those same shadows. Moments of happiness that normal human nature dictates be shared with everyone around you ... many times, above, you'll have to swallow those jubilations and triumphs. Moments that change your life and affect you to the core ... they cannot be revealed, because he cannot be revealed. ... ... Consider that. And do it honestly. ... ... This isn't something you can change, any more than you can change the very structure of his bones. Nor is it something from which you can rescue him."
Solemnly, Father shook his head, praying the woman who had finally won his son's miraculous heart was listening. Hoping she was taking this as sincere advice, rather than mere criticism. "There can be no fanciful illusions," he continued. "No fairytale dreams of magical transformations, even in the depths of your mind. You must accept reality. Embrace it and build on it, but accept it nonetheless. ... ... Believe it or not, my goal is not to dissuade you. I only wish to ensure that you take this path with your eyes wide open to the truth."
Catherine listened to his plea, touched that the words showed concern for her as well, not to mention acceptance. And yes, it was the truth. -- -- Cold and harsh, but the truth nonetheless. It was not said with ease, nor had Father buffered his words. But when was Father ever known for buffering his words? It did sound, however, as though she and Father were finally beginning to stand for the same side. And her answer contained her appreciation.
"Those are wise words, Father. And I understand your concern ... for both of us. I can only assure you that I do know this." She nodded, trying to contain the exhilaration that ran through her veins at these words finally being given voice. "I know what my life is becoming, and far from fearing it, or kidding myself over it, I celebrate it. The few sorrows are nothing ... *nothing* ... compared to the joys."
Shaking her head, she issued the easiest assurance in the world. -- -- "I no longer carry the childish beliefs of a little girl. I do know what I want for my life, and what's important. And that's him. It's honestly that simple. ... ... And I gladly accept anything and everything that entails."
"Do you mean that?" came a low, hopeful voice from behind her. It startled her just as much as it startled Father, and she pivoted around.
Vincent stepped from the concealment of the tunnel. His hair was still tousled and his underclothing had obviously been pulled on quite hastily -- his shirt having ended up inside-out. He had probably come looking for her, perhaps having heard voices in the distance and grown concerned. Whatever the cause, there was no telling how long he'd been standing there.
"Yes, Vincent," she replied softly. "You know I do."
He watched her intently at first, completely oblivious to his own father sitting just yards away. His attention was more focused than ever before ... going right through her ... seeing things that the thick, far-too-big nightshirt she wore could never hide. The decision was made, and dream finally became reality.
"Then you belong here, Catherine." His steps began, taking great care as he descended the stairway, lest his legs buckle from the dizzying power of what he was about to say. "Not as a helper. Not as a friend. Nor even a paramour."
At last he reached her, coaxing her into his embrace ... beguiled even further by her continued, modest clutch of the woolen fabric just below her neck. "You should be here, love, as a wife. I could have no deeper wish, nor be blessed with any higher honor."
He probably would have appreciated an actual, verbal answer. Something he could replay in his mind for time eternal. Nothing would cooperate though ... neither her lungs nor her throat. Even her lower lip was surrendering to a tremble. ... ... And thank God for his grip, or there was no telling how fast she might have puddled to the floor.
The best she could do was the most excited nod of her head -- an exuberant flex of her whole body in fact -- and a gasp that couldn't decide if it wanted to be a gulp of oxygen, or the happiest exclamation of her life. Then, suddenly, she found her feet again, propelling herself upward into his arms. And the word he longed for finally came ... a 'yes', repeated over and over in his ear, in a voice so choked with emotion he would be the only one to ever hear it. That made it even more special though. -- -- Only for him -- -- All for him. And if he still doubted his worthiness, he was at least learning joyous acceptance.
"As soon as possible," he spoke vehemently. "Not a moment more wasted, Catherine. Not one more lost minute, or one more lost night."
"Never again." she cooed in ecstatic agreement. "Never apart again."
She squirmed and pulled against his arms, reminding him of the similar, heavenly movements she'd woken him with only a short time earlier. But the kiss she angled to bestow now, was filled with such fervor and devotion ... to a degree she had only recently, and only rarely, risked divulging.
From the other end of the room, a throat was cleared in embarrassment, cautious concern that the couple not forget the patriarch’s presence. Catherine's nightshirt had already worked its way off one shoulder, and the pair appeared to be rapidly spinning their own little cocoon.
Vincent at last answered with a question, although his gaze remained steadfast on the lover in his arms. -- -- "Is the Common Meeting still scheduled for five days hence, Father?"
"Yes," the older man replied in bemusement, then reached for his cane and began hoisting himself to his feet. "Shall I presume then, dear son, that you'd like to officially request some time on the agenda for more ... 'personal' business?
"Indeed I would." he replied, then lowered his voice for a plea to his intended. "Then, Catherine. Let us do it then. When all can share our happiness, and I will pledge myself as you rightfully deserve."
"As we both deserve," she lovingly amended, fingertips caressing down the line of his face.
"Yes," he smiled, his breath catching in a puff of delight. "As we both deserve."
Father had steadied himself upright and began making his way to the opposite tunnel exit. "I'll see to it in the morning. And in the meantime," ... he glanced down, cleared his throat, and chastely phrased his next suggestion ... "perhaps you might consider being a bit more vigilant in your nighttime attire. Children running about, you know."
Catherine broke from a tender kiss, long enough to issue an apology. "I'm sorry, Father."
The patriarch had to suppress his chuckle, working to maintain his position of parental dignity. "I was thinking of Vincent's inside-out shirt as well. ... ... Goodnight, you two."
"I love you." the leonine son vowed, as soon as his father had granted them their privacy. He cupped her face, basking in the glow from these soft, feminine eyes, that would now shine their light on the rest of his days. "Completely, and utterly without exception."
"Oh Vincent," came her murmured reply. "I love you too. And at last you finally see it. -- -- Yes, I do belong here. Right here."
Solemnly, and with the fullest heart he'd ever experienced, he nodded his agreement. His eyes drank in the vision again -- from the love in her eyes, to the supple, pale skin that dipped down from her neck, abandoned by the drooped nightshirt, but protected and shielded far more safely by the press of his own body. "Yes." he whispered, leaning forward to claim another kiss, and punctuating it with a unique emphasis. -- -- "Right here."
Indeed, 'here' no longer denoted a place as simple or as vague as merely 'below'. ... No longer a place as expansive as this underground labyrinth, nor as large as the welcoming family that lived within. It was the singular space. The one space. Her space. Right there, in the circle of his arms.