The Bluebird’s Tale
Once upon a time a young man walked the streets of New York. He was a cheerful, optimistic man by nature, but there was little cause for cheer this night, and even less for hope. It was dark and cold and he had nothing left but the clothes on his back, and those were threadbare and worn. He’d never minded that before, indeed had never given it much thought. They were insignificant, really, when a world of light and color, of motion and life stood before him on canvas; a world of his imagination and making.
But that, too, was gone now, and the meagerness of his clothing could no longer be ignored as the biting winds swirled about him. It was early April, but the warm breezes had made no appearance yet. The winter winds still clung to the ground like tempestuous, angry spirits who would not be displaced, as if determined not to give way to the approaching spring and the life it brought.
A few blocks down from where he stood was the coffee shop he had frequented so often in the years past, and he hesitated, staring toward it in indecision. But no, there would be no welcome for him there, not again. He didn’t even have any of his paintings left to barter for a hot cup of coffee, black, much less the decadent cappuccinos and cannollis he so loved. With one last look of regret he turned down a side street and scanned for some retreat from the bitter winds. Halfway down the block he found a recessed stairway, ending about four feet down from street level. There were no lights at the windows nearby, and the cinder blocks of the wall provided a windbreak of sorts, though there was no escaping the cold.
Still, it wasn’t quite so bad now. He tugged his baseball cap down, as if that action alone might somehow provide some warmth to his exposed ears, and huddled in the corner, hugging himself tight against the cold. With no studio, no materials and no model, there was very little chance his most recent project would ever be completed, but he contemplated it nonetheless, seeing it as a work in progress, imagining the next step, and then the next, until he could clearly see the end result in his mind’s eye. It was beautiful...so beautiful...
Everything was peaceful and calm, and suddenly he was no longer cold -- not at all. How strange. A sensation of lightness and well-being filled him and he laughed out loud with delight. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like this, so strong and sure and utterly carefree. The lightness within him was suddenly too much to be contained and he gasped as he felt himself lifted and floating free. The city drew back beneath him and he watched it recede with curiosity and amazement. He was floating -- how odd. But then again, maybe it wasn’t so odd. The world was a magical place -- he’d always known that.
He was light and shadow, but no longer alone. Soft whispers surrounded him, and he let them wash over and through him, not needing to hear the words. There were multitudes about and within him, and it seemed right that it should be so. His motion felt aimless, beyond control, but there was a purpose, he sensed it dimly. He released himself to that design and felt what he hadn’t before, a tugging sensation leading... Well, he didn’t know where it led, but it was definitely there and he didn’t struggle against it, not at first.
Then something caught his attention. Something out there; down, below...from the park, yes, from the park. His curiosity thus caught, he was helpless to resist. He couldn’t exactly see it or hear it; it was both simpler and yet much more complex than that. It was a power greater than any he’d ever felt before, greater even than what he experienced now. It started out small and dense, but was growing even now, burgeoning outward to cover the city and beyond, as far as he could see or sense. It had no boundaries and no limits, none whatsoever. That radiant energy drew him irresistibly, an insatiable curiosity building within him to know it, to draw closer to its source. He pulled toward the origin of that power, away from the tugging sensation above him, and with an almost perceptible ‘pop’ felt himself freed of that taut line. Without hesitation he moved downward, directly into the expanding field, and was immediately surrounded by a wealth of sensations, warmth, happiness and joy overwhelming him. It was complete and utter love and it washed over him in waves, lapping against him to fill him completely.
Beautiful...so beautiful. Like the most beautiful painting he’d ever imagined or seen, better even that Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’. Better than anything. He had to know more. He drew closer yet to the source, and when he reached the ground he was in the park, behind a tree. Before him crouched a figure shrouded in shadows. No, it wasn’t one, but two, two figures. The cloaked one rose, the other one cradled in his arms, and began to move away from him, down the grassy slope. The smaller figure was so quiet, so still...too still.
But no, even now he could sense the fragile flicker of life in that slight form, could sense the waiting stillness surrounding them both, the encompassing force somehow quiet, almost dormant this close to them, now, so early in its formation. The shadowy figures disappeared through a circular, tunnel-like opening and he followed, for just a moment.
A moment was all it took. This place was one he’d never seen before, never suspected could possibly exist in this city he knew so well. But he felt it immediately; the familiarity and comfort, the sense of ‘home’. It was the same feeling he had whenever he walked among the cozy stacks of books at 777. The thought of that place and its owner distracted him, and he decided to go there next.
With nothing more than that thought he felt himself rising until once again, without effort, he was above the park, swirling and floating among the mists of the swelling, burgeoning tide surrounding this place, surrounding them, until he was immersed entirely in the sensations there. He sighed in ecstasy; this was a pleasure beyond description! Oh yes, there was a fascinating tale to be told here and a picture to be made, there was no doubt about that. He had to put this story on canvas, to make it immortal in his beloved oils. He had to. Everything else would just have to wait.
* * *
Two Years Later
“This way, Vincent, it’s here.”
Kristopher led him toward a far corner of the warehouse, in the opposite direction from the area they’d explored so recently. Their first meeting four days ago had been everything Vincent had grown to expect over the days preceding it. Narcissa was right; strange things walked the world, both Above and Below. Catherine didn’t yet accept it, that much was plain, but he had known stranger things during the course of his life, not the least of which was his own, unexplainable existence.
The warehouse was lighter now than he remembered and a fine mist permeated the area, almost as if it were at the very edges of his perception, yet somehow this difference was familiar, too. They reached the far wall and the slight young man tugged at a heavy stack of boxes, to no avail. Vincent reached in past him, pulling them aside effortlessly and Kristopher laughed with delight, admiration and awe plain upon his face and in his eyes. They both turned to the spot now uncovered. Against the wall leaned a long, narrow package. It was wrapped in some sort of canvas and Vincent felt sure it was another of Kristopher’s paintings. At the corner of the package a scrap of torn vellum dangled from a piece of dirty, knotted string. He reached for the fragile tag and held it gingerly between two fingers. Upon it, in a barely legible pencil scrawl, was written the name ‘Catherine Chandler’.
“For you, Vincent. For you and Catherine.”
Vincent woke with a start, the dream clear in his mind. Kristopher had something else he wanted to show him, something important...
No, it was nothing, only a dream...just a dream. He settled back against the pillows and closed his eyes, willing sleep to return once more. He had an early class to teach tomorrow, followed by an afternoon and evening in the newest chamber area, working with Kanin. Teaching was his primary responsibility, but like all the others he put in his fair share of time with the construction and maintenance of their home. And he had learned early on that the most difficult tasks were often set aside to wait for his involvement, the strength he had well beyond that of the others. He knew he would need his rest tonight for the work at hand tomorrow.
But it was useless. The dream intruded constantly, as if Kristopher himself were at his elbow urging him on with that constant, endless energy of his. Finally he threw the covers aside with resignation and quickly dressed.
The warehouse was several miles from the home tunnels and it was two o’clock before he arrived there. He stood quietly for a moment, absorbing the sounds around him, wondering if Kristopher would appear. Nothing. He turned and moved unerringly toward the area of this night’s dream. There were the boxes, just as he’d remembered them. He pulled them aside and the weight he felt there, the very action itself, was familiar to him. Turning back he found...nothing. The wall was bare, nothing at all similar to the rectangular package of his dreams. He searched about the area, but he knew it was futile. It had been here in the dream, here. If the dream had any meaning at all it would be here still. He stared at the wall for a few minutes more nonetheless, then turned quickly and made his way to the area that he, Catherine and Kristopher had investigated four nights ago. The chest was still there, as were the crayons and coloring books, but the paintings were gone. All of them...gone.
* * *
It was just past midnight and Catherine stood motionless in her living room, still dressed in her evening clothes and staring at the large package before her. Somehow she’d managed to get it home using one of the several vans the gallery owned for transporting art pieces for their shows. It now rested against the pale pastel of her wall in its burlap wrapping, all five by two-plus feet of it, and she chewed her lip as she contemplated what to do with it, as she had for the better part of the last thirty minutes.
‘Well, open it, of course, you big baby’, said a taunting voice inside. But she couldn’t do it. Too much had happened lately, and now all she could think about was what else that exasperating imp Kristopher had in store for her. Her stillness ended abruptly and she turned to stride into her bedroom. Twenty minutes later she emerged in jeans and a pullover. She resolutely grabbed the unwieldy package and maneuvered it through the door and into the elevator, pushing the LL button with much more force than was required for that simple operating mechanism.
As she suspected, no one else was in the basement area at this time of night, and she was spared the necessity of using the small ‘storage’ lie she kept handy for these occasions. With one final, searching check of the cluttered room, she slipped through a little used door and into the dustier, less known storage space beyond. She moved to the far wall, pulled the boxes away from the tunnel access area and swung the hidden door open. Luckily the entrance was a good three feet wide and the package went through easily. She lowered it slowly, wondering how she was going to get it down the last few feet without dropping it, when suddenly the pulling weight of it was gone from her arms.
“I’ve got it, Catherine.”
Vincent. His voice was a low, husky whisper. It sent shivers up her spine, as it always did. She couldn’t see him from this angle, but she released the package immediately, then swung her legs through the opening and pulled the door shut behind her. A few seconds later she stood on the floor near their threshold. When she turned, she found Vincent staring in bemusement at the package as it leaned against the brick wall. He held the attached tag tilted toward the little bit of light which leaked down from her apartment’s storage basement.
“Catherine Chandler.” The words were spoken lowly, as if mused only to himself.
“The gallery found this in...”
“In the warehouse. Yes, I know.” He still stared at the rectangular shape before him, but his eyes had a distant look, as if he were someplace else.
“You saw it, then, a week ago? I never noticed it. Of course that’s not surprising, all things considered.”
“No, Catherine, not a week ago. Three nights ago, late Tuesday evening.”
“That’s impossible, Vincent. The gallery employees went through the warehouse Tuesday afternoon. They took everything then, including this one.”
The look he gave her made her shiver. It was a level, steady gaze and she’d seen it before.
A muffled sound originating somewhere above them stopped her next words, and they both glanced up guiltily.
“Not here, Catherine. Come.” He held out one hand to her and with the other rearranged the package to hold it at the center of one of the long edges. He carried it easily and they moved quickly toward the home tunnels.
They didn’t speak at all during the ten minute walk, and Catherine’s thoughts swirled within her, curiosity and trepidation fighting for dominance. Her thoughts occupied her almost entirely, though she was ever aware of the firm touch of his hand holding hers and the sway of his cloak as it brushed against her side. Now and then, when the corridors narrowed, she felt the solid length of his shoulder, hip and leg against her, each contact setting up the inevitable tremor she’d grown to expect from his touch.
So engrossed was she in these sensations and thoughts that the appearance of his chamber entrance before her stunned her with its unexpected presence. He dropped her hand -- quite reluctantly, she felt it clearly -- to allow her to precede him through the narrower opening, then moved directly to the small writing table at the center of the room and set the package on the floor before it. He moved smoothly about the chamber, removing his cloak and taking her jacket to hang them both over a wrought iron and enamel hook attached to the side of his wardrobe. The chamber was dimly lit, as it usually was in his absence, and he took a small, flickering taper from his bedside table and used it to light several candle clusters. Soon the chamber glowed with a golden aura. Catherine waited patiently to hear the remainder of his story, but that patience was beginning to wear thin, and he turned to her from across the room as if he’d sensed her thoughts.
“I saw this in a dream, Catherine. I was in the warehouse with Kristopher. He led me to a spot, not near where we’d been before, and showed me...this.” He moved toward the package and gestured to it, almost hypnotically.”
Skepticism was evident in her voice, and he clearly heard the words left unspoken; A dream...only a dream.
“The package was there. It was this one, the very same. The tag was the same, as was the name upon it.”
She gasped at those last words and turned to look at it once more.
When she turned back to him, he could see the trepidation in her eyes. Not fear, not exactly, but rather an anxiety that she was about to hear something she’d rather not. When she spoke her voice had a slightly sarcastic edge, though he knew it wasn’t directed at him. Behind the sarcasm he clearly heard the tremor there.
“What did Kristopher tell you this time?”
“He said this was for us. Nothing more.”
She stared at the package until he finally broke their silence.
“Catherine, when I woke from the dream I went to the warehouse. I went to the spot he’d shown me.”
“It wasn’t there. The others were gone, too.”
“Then how can you be sure it ever was?”
He didn’t answer, but simply gestured elegantly at the rectangular package before them.
She drew in a deep breath, then let it go, pushing her hair back in a restless, aimless way. “So what do we do now?”
He shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands, as if all of this were beyond their control. “Open it.”
“Yes, of course, you’re right.” But she made no move toward it. After a few minutes she spoke again. “You do it, Vincent.”
He nodded. The burlap covering was actually stitched together at several points, the threads barely more than a loose basting. He slit them easily with a sharp nail and the coarse fabric fell silently to the chamber floor. A gasp escaped him and he stepped back, stunned at the image before him.
It was indeed a painting -- of Catherine and him. She wore a red velvet dress, cut low, the swell of her breasts clearly revealed to him. The dress was sumptuous, rich and sensual. He almost thought he could feel the luxurious texture of it beneath his hand. In the painting he stood behind her, enclosing her completely in his embrace. His right arm crossed over her chest, his gloved hand upon her, touching her intimately. The painting breathed, it moved. His palm lay upon the lush swell of her breast and he could swear his fingers moved in a caressing stroke against her upper arm and down along the rich velvet clinging to the soft curve of her bosom. His left hand cupped hers and their arms were in motion, as if he swung them upward to rest together at her waist. His cheek pressed against the silky hair at the crown of her head and they both gazed outward, as if someone stood before them.
Their pose was shocking enough to Vincent, but it was the expression he wore in the painting that shook him to the very core of his foundation. That expression said it all so clearly; Mine...she’s mine. His hold upon her was fiercely possessive and protective, as if daring anyone or anything to come between them. And Catherine... In the painting she didn’t simply stand before him, she leaned back into his body with complete trust and utter surrender, one hand in his, at her waist, the other resting against his encircling arm, near her throat. Her expression was one of total love, a sensuality there that was impossible to misread. His, always his. The words whispered out from the canvas, absolute and undeniable.
There could be no doubt that Kristopher had painted them as lovers.
Vincent stood frozen, unable to face her with this image before them. What did she think of it, of him, holding her so possessively, so...? Oh god, what did she think? With an iron will he brought the chaotic emotions swirling inside him under control. He directed his concentration into the thread of their bond and ‘listened’ closely.
No. It couldn’t be. He moved deeper into that beguiling stream and those emotions were confirmed. He turned then, trepidation in his eyes, but her expression caught him completely, displacing all his fears with a tender yet fierce love. She stared at the picture with utter infatuation, the image there holding her completely. Finally she spoke, though her gaze stayed pinned on the vision before them.
His breath released with a mighty rush, and the sudden absence of the constricting tightness about his heart left him loosely weak with relief.
“It’s wonderful, Vincent. It’s us.”
He stared in amazement at her, turned to the painting for a long perusal, then back to her. She truly saw them as they were, while he saw only what might yet be, the possibilities awaiting them. That thought both terrified and drew him, but he couldn’t afford to pursue that line of logic, not now. It would have to be saved for later. Now he could only be immensely relieved that her perception of the picture apparently didn’t quite match his own. That there would be no discussion about the relationship implied upon the canvas, not yet at least.
And with that knowledge he felt his guard drop, just a little. He turned back to the painting and let the image wash over him. He surrendered to it and was within it, with Catherine, while yet they stood before it. Some time unknown passed before the silence was broken, Catherine’s words low and hushed.
“He had his sketch of me to work from, I suppose, but he must have painted you from memory. Astonishing, isn’t it?”
“You might even say magical.” The shared humor those words evoked relaxed him further, and he glanced at her profile with the barest hint of a teasing smile.
“Now you’re beginning to sound like Kristopher,” she said with a rueful grin.
“Am I?” Their eyes met and they were both caught. The teasing in his own disappeared, falling away in the presence of her searching gaze. Finally he was able to draw away from the incandescent gray that seemed to see deep within him and turned back to the painting. He reached out and scraped a sharp nail carefully along the upper edge of the canvas, then made a ‘hmmp’ sound, so quiet she almost missed it.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Kristopher worked only in oils.”
His gaze was pinned upon the canvas now, and she turned her full concentration there, trying to see the meaning behind his words.
What was it about oils? What did he see that she didn’t?
“Oils take months to dry completely, Catherine, sometimes years. This canvas...”
“Don’t say it.” Comprehension flooded through her and she finally turned to him once more. “I have to hold on to some of my certainties, don’t I?”
They stared at each other and he nodded slightly, a tender understanding in his eyes, as if accepting for now that this was as far as she could go. Vincent well understood that feeling himself; he had encountered it all too often since he’d found her. They turned their gazes back to the image before them and a moment later he felt her soft weight lean into him. Without thought his arm rose to hold her. Her cheek came to rest against his shoulder, the rough silk of his hair a blanket beneath her, and his own came down to press against the crown of her head, her scent surrounding and enfolding him with wispy tendrils that held him tight. He didn’t know how much time passed, but their reverie was broken suddenly by her sighing breath.
“I should go, Vincent. Tomorrow’s Saturday, but I have to meet with Joe to go over some strategy for the case they’re trying. It shouldn’t take long, and I’d like to come Below afterwards, to spend the day. Will you be free?”
He wondered if it would be wise, so soon after this astonishing, upsetting discovery, but in an instant knew he couldn’t refuse her, or himself. He needed her near, perhaps now more than ever. “I’ll be working in the lower levels in the morning, but should be done by early afternoon, two at the latest. We’ll have the rest of the day to ourselves.”
He heard her sigh of relief and was amazed, as always, at the happiness she felt at the very thought of them spending time together. Another question intruded and he hesitated a moment before giving it voice.
“Catherine, what do you want to do with the painting? Where...?” He couldn’t finish the thought. They both knew where it must stay. ‘Where Below?’ was the only real question.
“Here, Vincent, in your chamber.” She immediately jumped to the heart of his question. The others can come here to see it, but...I want it here.”
She blushed and he immediately knew it was at the thought that this might appear to be selfishness on her part, not that she was concerned by the content of the picture, which was much more on his mind. He nodded in understanding, accepting her decision, at one with it for his own selfish ends. He shuddered, though, to think of the conversation with Father that loomed in his immediate future.
“Come, Catherine. I’ll walk you back.” He collected her jacket and helped her into it before pulling his own cloak about his broad shoulders. She gave one last, long glance at the painting, as if she couldn’t bear to be parted from it, then tucked her hand in his and left his chamber.
* * *
The sensations were barely there at first, just a tingling surrounding him, as though from a psychic aura. There was nothing visual, but suddenly there were scents; roses and sandalwood, yarrow and vanilla and beneath it all something else, something more compelling than all the rest...Catherine. The textural sensations came next; soft, silky, rich, sensuous. Everything began to gel together and in a moment reality solidified about him.
He stood somewhere... Where? There were sounds in the background, but they were no more than a buzzing, chaotic jumble which couldn’t quite be sorted out. He knew this place, but it wouldn’t come into focus, not quite, and at any rate he had more important things to think about.
Catherine stood before him, leaned against him really, pressing back to sway gently against the full length of his body. His arms surrounded her, his hold tighter than he had ever allowed himself in the past. He tried to loosen his clasp on her, but the hand in his tightened at her waist and the other pressed firmly against his arm where it crossed her chest, resisting that retreat. He gave in immediately and pressed a fervid kiss against her temple. She wore a deep, ruby red velvet gown, her only ornament his crystal. It glittered like fire against the curve of her breast, above the low-cut décolletage of her dress. His palm and fingers moved lightly, seeking to caress her silken skin, but he wore gloves, and that contact was felt only in his mind. The emotions filling him were so strong, so pure; a fierce yet tender love, possessive, protective and eternal. She was his, yes, his...
A mist began to enfold them and the sensations were slipping away. Everything was leaving him now, except the love he felt for her. That would never end, never. Catherine...Catherine...
Vincent woke with a start, gasping for breath in the dimly lit comfort of his chamber. Before him, on the wall across from the foot of his bed, hung Kristopher’s painting of them. He’d placed it there last night, after he’d returned from the threshold at Catherine’s apartment. The image there was exactly that of this night’s dream, but the sensations had been real...so real. He could still feel her body against his, so warm, so...
He jumped from the bed and paced about the worn carpet for a few minutes. Finally he took his journal from the shelf that ran before the stained glass inset and then sat at the small, circular writing table in the center of the room. The painting hung before him and he stared at it for several long minutes, the dream fresh in his mind, before he began to write.
April 4th, 1989
My Dearest Catherine,
I can think of little else but you this night, my love. Our bond, always present, seems stronger yet, as if Kristopher’s presence had laid some dream spell upon us. If this is a dream, I wish never to wake.
How can I describe my thoughts, my feelings upon first sight of his painting of us? Oh, Catherine, the look on your face... I want so much to see that there, to be the one that brings you that happiness, that joy.
And yet I was ashamed, too. Ashamed that I should wear such a look of possession. It’s what I’ve always feared, Catherine, that my need for you would grow beyond my ability to control or contain it. I can’t let that happen...I can’t.
But oh, how I wish things were otherwise. How I wish we could live in the world that Kristopher paints for us.
Where does reality end and dreams begin?
I dreamt of us tonight. We stood together, just as we do on Kristopher’s canvas. You were so warm against me, so soft and yielding. If I could, I would keep you with me like that. I would hold you close, safe and cherished...forever.
I love you so, Catherine. I always will.
* * *
Catherine peered into Vincent’s chamber from the dim outer passageway. Empty, just as she’d expected. It was almost one-thirty, but if Vincent had been through with his work he would have met her at the threshold, or somewhere along the way. But he hadn’t. It had been a late night last night and an early, busy morning with Joe. She felt like she’d accomplished a full day’s work already on this Saturday, and was ready to indulge herself a little this afternoon. She wanted nothing more than to spend a quiet day with Vincent, doing absolutely nothing. She’d enjoyed her solitary walk through the tunnels, stopping to talk with her friends here and there, almost as if she were one of them, as if she belonged here. It gave her a warm feeling inside, one that defied description.
As usual, in his absence only one candle was lit, the twenty-four hour one he kept behind the stained glass inset at the far side of the bed. She stepped into the chamber slowly and moved to its center, near his writing table, then closed her eyes to absorb the sense of him there with a freedom she rarely had in this place, in his presence. He was usually so cautious around her, so reserved, so careful to control his words and responses to her.
But there was none of that now. Just a peaceful calm that was saturated with the heady sense of him, here in his own room. Finally she opened her eyes. A gasp was drawn from her at the image just ten feet away from where she stood; Kristopher’s painting. It hung on the wall directly across from her, across from the foot of his bed. She moved slowly toward that inviting expanse, but her eyes never left the picture. When she bumped up against the mattress, she eased herself down upon the covers, moved to the center, then leaned back into the pillows with a blissful sigh. His scent surrounded her now, and before her was their image, his embrace so fierce and yet so tender. It would be the first thing he saw each morning, his last image before closing his eyes each night. Oh, yes, it was perfect, just perfect...
It was so relaxing here, Below. Sometimes it seemed that time had stopped altogether. She’d gotten very little sleep last night and now, suddenly, fatigue washed over her. She gave in to it immediately, for once no concern more pressing than that of the comfort of Vincent surrounding her, here in his chamber. Her eyes fluttered closed, and sleep enfolded her.
Vincent’s steps slowed as he approached his chamber. He had felt Catherine here, Below, half an hour ago. But the sense of her now was quiet and still. Had she left? No. The sensation he had wasn’t of distance, but rather of...sleep. He drew in a deep breath and stepped through his chamber entrance.
It was as he’d left it, the dim light leaving the barest golden glow to lowly illuminate the cozy, enclosed space. Only one thing was changed. Catherine lay curled on her side in the center of his bed, facing away from him, fast asleep. He couldn’t contain a wistful, ragged sigh at the sight of her there, where he had lain so few hours before.
From that sight, his gaze was inexorably drawn to Kristopher’s painting near the foot of the bed. Too close... Catherine here, like this, in his bed, brought the sensations of that picture strongly into focus, here, now. He turned back to her slight form and his eyes traced down along the slim outline of her body. The tender curve of her spine and shallow dip of her waist, the womanly roundness of her hip sloping down to the smooth line of her thigh, her calf...even her stocking-clad foot. Everything about her brought out his deepest, strongest emotions.
“Oh, Catherine.” His voice was a husky whisper, full of longing...and pain.
He was tired suddenly, physically and emotionally drained from the events of the past few days and the labors of this morning. He closed his eyes and let his emotions merge with hers, consciously seeking out the comforting stream of their bond in a way he rarely had in the past, except in times of dire need. Even in sleep she eased his tired spirit, bathing him in a peaceful serenity he could find nowhere else but in her, only her.
A need filled him and he moved forward slowly, unable to resist the urgings of their bond. He reached the side of his bed and eased down gingerly next to her slumbering form. He lay on his back, a good foot separating them and gazed at the image of them on the far wall. Catherine...his Catherine. Weariness washed over him and he began to sink down into their bond, into the warmth awaiting him. A moment later, without thought, he turned over onto his side, his length spooning hers. His arm slid around her waist and he pulled her close. Burrowing deep into the silken hair and skin at the nape of her neck he sighed with pleasure, the bond radiating a blissful, perfect peace between them.
* * *
The tunnels echoed quietly with the sounds of life, muted but vibrant. It was a peaceful afternoon, most of the normal weekend work and chores completed now. The low hum surrounding the hub was comforting and familiar, people relaxing with their loved ones, children playing. Life, as Jacob Wells had come to know and cherish it over the past thirty-eight years, filled the chambers, halls and tunnels all about him. Just now, for instance, as he approached a side tunnel opening to his left which led to the kitchen area, he heard the clatter of pans amidst the warm baritone of William’s voice as he prepared their evening meal. For William, cooking was relaxation. He paused there for a moment and enjoyed a verse of ‘Annie Laurie’ -- one of William’s favorite songs. Finally he moved on.
He took the next side tunnel to his right, the one that led to his son’s chamber. Vincent’s chamber and his were connected, in a way. Ostensibly they were down two different side tunnels along the main pathway of the hub, separated by about seventy yards. But both side tunnels curved inward toward each other slightly, and met, about fifty yards back from the main thoroughfare, in a bathing chamber which they shared. Their private rooms were each about twenty yards from this common chamber, allowing them the privacy they needed, while yet being close, which was of great comfort to them both.
His son had been busy of late, and they hadn’t seen much of each other in the last few days. Tunnel matters and responsibilities had grown more hectic as the lower activity levels common to the winter months shifted suddenly to erupt in a flurry of energy with the approaching spring. He’d been in the hospital chambers checking up on the few remaining cases of the flu which always struck at the young and the elderly of the tunnel inhabitants each winter when the message had been relayed over the pipes. The work crew had returned from the lower levels, all of them accounted for.
This was a precaution strictly adhered to since that terrible day thirty-five years ago when one of their members had been lost on just such an expedition, his absence unnoticed until more than twelve hours later. They found his body at the bottom of a shallow ravine and Jacob had never fully recovered from the guilt and sorrow of that episode. For Alan hadn’t died from the fall alone, not instantly. He had a broken arm and a broken leg, prohibiting any attempt to climb off the craggy ledge where he’d landed. Loss of blood from several cuts, most notably a head injury, were the primary cause of death. Jacob was convinced that had they found him even six hours earlier he might have survived.
It was a hard lesson they’d learned that day, but one they’d never forgotten since. They depended on each other not only for the maintenance of the tunnel infrastructure they called home and the comfort their society brought, but for their very lives. The rules which defined them as a group, as a society interwoven by need, trust and love, could be traced directly to that incident. Vincent was only a few weeks old then, and he became the rallying point around which they all reconfirmed their commitment to this world they had founded, and to each other. They had held their first Winterfest a week later, a need to formalize this new understanding among them all, inhabitants and helpers alike. Life and hope had sprung from death and despair, a lesson he held with him always now.
Life and hope... Those words distracted him from the poignant memories of so long ago, bringing him back to the here and now. Vincent and Catherine... What would become of them? The thought of Vincent being hurt, the idea that another might repeat the damage done so irreparably to him almost twenty years ago by Lisa, ate at him. He couldn’t stand by and see that happen again. No. It was difficult, especially of late, but his resolve was firm in this regard; he would protect his son at all costs.
Still... Catherine was no longer a stranger nor the distrusted intruder she once had been. She was a loyal helper, a valued member of their community, and someone he now cared for very deeply. Below those thoughts a quieter voice whispered words he tried hard to ignore; She is the woman your son loves. He sighed, a turbulent confusion filling him, as it always did when he thought on this problem.
With a firm determination he shook off those worries. He wouldn’t think about that now. He would visit with his son, perhaps they would play a game of chess while sharing the details of the days past. It was always a renewal for him, these discourses, and his step lightened at he approached the dim light of the chamber opening just ahead. He walked through the entrance and stopped short with disappointment. His son was fast asleep, his broad back turned to him. The disappointment was there for a moment only, replaced quickly by the poignant sight of him safely home and comfortably ensconced in the shelter of this cozy, familiar place. He turned to leave and was frozen in his tracks at the image on the wall before him, a gasp of disbelief escaping him.
A painting. A painting of Vincent and Catherine. And the look upon their faces, the intimate pose of their embrace... For a moment the more practical matter of how such an object had come to be was completely displaced by the thoughts their image brought forth. Lovers, they were definitely painted as lovers on this canvas, there could be no doubt about that. Dear god, what was the meaning of this?! He backed up a step in shock and felt a solid strength behind him, blocking his retreat. He knew that presence instantly -- Vincent. Jacob drew in a shuddering breath in an attempt to calm the chaos within him and felt his churning emotions settle down somewhat. Finally he turned to face his son.
The look he encountered might almost have made him laugh, except he found nothing humorous in this situation, nothing at all. Trepidation and anxiety mixed with a stubborn obstinacy. He’d seen that same blend of emotions on his son’s face many times before, images called to mind of when he and Devin had been caught in some mischief. Now there was a difference though. Vincent was no longer a child. He was a man, fully grown, with a strength of intellect and will Jacob had never seen matched in any of his sixty-some years. Even as he stared at his son, he saw the hesitant uncertainty there clearing. His gaze was no longer on Jacob, but instead directed over his shoulder, at the painting behind him. The emotions which appeared now were impossible to misinterpret; a tenuous hope amidst the love that was ever-present, ever since Catherine had entered his life. Jacob glanced away, feeling the need to give him some privacy in the midst of such intimate emotions, and his eyes fell upon the bed once more. Catherine! He hadn’t been able to see her before, but there she slept, completely oblivious to the turbulent but silent tableau playing out just ten feet from her.
Vincent heard the shocked gasp, as he had moments before upon Father’s first view of the painting. With some difficulty he withdrew his gaze from the portrait and turned his attention back to the older man who stood stunned before him, his eyes locked in amazement upon the slight form of Catherine curled up asleep in his bed. His own gaze was held there for a moment, amazement, disbelief and a yearning hunger at war within him. What had he been thinking of to allow that to happen? Thank god nothing had happened! Catherine still slept soundly in the middle of the bed, on the warm, rumpled covers, and he suspected she might not even have known that he had joined her there, on that inviting expanse, for a few short, blissful hours. The rhythm of his heart, usually so deep and strong, fluttered weakly as the sensations experienced so recently filled him again:
Catherine in his arms as they lay upon his bed. Catherine tucked up close and tight to him, the heat of their bodies blending and shared. Catherine...the feel of her, soft and real, beneath his hand. A hazy memory swept over him then, and somehow, despite the vagueness of it, he knew it was a true recollection from several hours ago. Sleep was claiming him, the warm glow of their bond drawing him down. In the midst of that golden haze, his hand stroked tenderly along her torso, caressing her sleeping form without hesitation or question. The slim length of her thigh passed under his palm, followed by the soft slope of her belly, the supple indentation of her waist, and the curving, intricate textures of her abdomen and ribs. His hand finally reached her breasts and he caressed the soft fullness there with a gentle, comforting touch. His last conscious sensation before sinking down into oblivion was the feel of her cupped warmly in his palm, her tender peak resting softly at the center of his hand. Her heartbeat was comforting and clear against the stroking caress of his thumb, near the hollow between her breasts. Withdrawing his intimate touch from her had never entered his mind in those last, barely conscious moments before sleep had claimed him completely.
A shudder quivered through him as those memories played themselves out, and it took a strong force of will to pull away from them and the chaotic thoughts they inspired. He raised a trembling hand to his father’s shoulder, drawing his attention back, then gestured silently toward the chamber door. Father hesitated a moment, then nodded curtly, and they turned as one and left the chamber. Once in the outer passageway they automatically turned left, taking the shortcut route which led to Father’s study and bedchamber. It took only a minute to reach the bathing chamber they shared, and they passed through it and back into the other side tunnel silently. Within minutes they stood in Father’s bedchamber. They passed through it, too, and entered his study, moving to sit at the large, circular conference table in the center of the room. Vincent didn’t know where to begin, and waited silently for Father to articulate the questions roiling so visibly in him.
“Tell me, Vincent.”
Vincent sighed at the familiarity of those words. The simple two words he used so often himself now, especially with Catherine. She always knew what he meant, just as he always knew what Father asked with those same words. Catherine had acquired the habit from him, the resonance so clear and strong between them now that sometimes even those simple words seemed superfluous. He was having a more difficult time then usual keeping his thoughts off her, he realized with chagrin, and steadied his attention upon his father once more. The older man sat tensely beside him, hands clasped stiffly on the table, his gaze pinned inexorably upon him.
“The painting came from Kristopher.”
The words were simple, but the explanation certainly was not. Father’s response made that clear.
“Kristopher?! Not Kristopher Gentian?! The one who watched you in the park? The one who Catherine says is... Vincent, what is the meaning of this?!”
“I know you’ll find this hard to believe, Father, but it was painted by Kristopher Gentian, whoever you accept that to be. His name is on the canvas, in the oils of the painting. It was found in the warehouse among his other works, by the gallery owners who put on a showing at Catherine’s request.”
Father’s gasp of shock and outrage stopped his words immediately.
“Showing?! Are you telling me this painting was seen by the public? Above?!”
Vincent hurried to reassure him.
“No, Father. The tag made it clear it belonged to Catherine. It was given to her, still wrapped in its original burlap covering. No one has seen it but Catherine and I...and now you.”
Jacob’s ragged sigh of relief was just as audible as the gasp heard moments ago.
“Thank god! What might have happened...” He shuddered visibly at that thought.
“Nothing happened, Father. Our world is safe, believe me.”
His words reached through the stunned fog surrounding the older man and he refocused his gaze upon his son with a vehemence that shocked him.
“Nothing?! How can you say that, Vincent? A stranger, a topsider has seen you, and in all likelihood knows where you come from. He might even know, or at least suspect that there are others in this place. He’s followed Catherine, and painted a picture of you both. And that picture... The likeness of you both, the details...”
His voice trailed off, thoughts of their expression and embrace clear in his mind.
“He sketched Catherine one evening while they had coffee. But he couldn’t have seen more than a glimpse of me that night in the park. You must believe me, Father, I would never trust a stranger with the secrets of our world. You know I protect this place and all within it. I would never betray our home or your trust, never!”
Beneath the strength of his voice, Jacob heard the tremor of outrage and hurt feelings. Painful regret surged through him. He quickly covered his son’s rigidly clasped hands with his own and hurried to reassure him.
“Forgive me, Vincent. Of course, you wouldn’t, I know that. I just don’t know what to think of this man. And his painting...” He couldn’t finish the thought again, not knowing how to broach this sensitive topic.
“I know, Father. But I wish you would trust me on this. Kristopher won’t hurt us, I know that. You didn’t get a chance to look closely at the painting. If you had you would have noticed what I did last night.”
“And that is?”
“The oils are dry. Completely dry.”
A shocked silence greeted his words and Father stared at him in stunned astonishment.
“Dry?! Are you certain?”
“Yes, I’m certain.”
“But then it had to have been painted months ago at the very least!”
Father stared at him, not knowing what to say first. Finally he shook his head in disbelief and denial. “Vincent, that doesn’t seem possible. Are you saying this man has been spying on you two for months, perhaps longer, without your being aware of it at all? And the pose he painted you in...” He stammered at the articulation of the thought he’d been struggling with since first seeing that picture on Vincent’s chamber wall.
Vincent flushed darkly, and answered, though he ignored that last, partially finished sentence.
“I don’t know when he painted the picture, or when he first began to watch us. ‘There are stranger things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies...’” He stared out into space, his words unfinished. Father’s response burst forth, calling him back once more.
“Nonsense! Narcissa’s wild imaginings, nothing more. Why do you give it such credence? There’s a rational explanation for it all, there has to be.”
“That’s what Catherine says, but I think that perhaps Narcissa is right. Strange things walk this earth, surely you of all people know that.” He clearly referred to his own existence. Father snorted dismissively, but Vincent ignored him, stating with an emphatic certainty, “I would have known it if anyone had been observing us that closely, Father, you know that. And this painting...”
Like his father, he stopped at that point too, unable to continue on to this disturbing realm. Oddly enough, his mention of it gave Jacob the resolve that had eluded him since the start of their conversation.
“The painting, yes. And why did he paint you two...like that?”
The flush that had receded so few minutes ago reappeared, sweeping up over Vincent’s throat to cover his face completely. But he didn’t try to pretend not to understand his father’s words. He met that questioning gaze squarely, though uncertainty was evident in the blue depths of his eyes.
“I don’t know. I think perhaps he painted us as he saw us in his own mind. Or perhaps he painted us as he thinks we...might yet be.” The first two sentences were spoken with a hesitant speculation, but a trembling quiver appeared at his last words.
“As you might yet be.” Jacob’s voice repeated those words in a low whisper, considering the possibilities inherent there. He shook off that hazy fog and focused a steely gaze upon his son, his voice suddenly strong and resolute.
“Vincent, you cannot allow this incident, this unexplainable event, to direct the course of your future actions. It would be foolish and dangerous to drop your vigilance now, purely on the whims of some stranger and his reckless intrusion into your life. Promise me, Vincent!”
His son jumped to his feet at that last demand and began pacing anxiously about the study. He threw his next words over his shoulder to his waiting parent, an angry response that Jacob hadn’t expected at all.
“Promise you what, Father? That I will stop loving Catherine or that I will not allow our relationship to leave the safe constraints you have so clearly set for us? What, Father? What is it you want of me?!”
The bitter words burned him, but Jacob knew his demand was necessary, as was the course of vigilant caution he had set in place for his son twenty years ago.
He got no further, the sudden absence of motion around him almost making him dizzy. Vincent stared at him intently, his words cutting off any response.
“No! No more, Father. I love Catherine, and what our relationship will be is for us to decide. I will not let anyone, not even you, take away the happiness we’ve found together. Only we will decide if there is more yet for us. Only Catherine and I.” He turned and strode through the study and bedchamber, exiting through the narrow pathway of the side tunnel.
Father hurried up to that opening, calling through it to the figure fast disappearing from sight.
“Vincent, come back!”
He knew his son heard his words, just as surely as he knew there would be no return, not this night.
Vincent resolutely ignored his father’s voice, striding swiftly through the bathing chamber and the side tunnel that led back to his own chamber...back to Catherine. His motion came to an abrupt halt when he entered that room. Catherine was awake. She was still curled up on her side on the bed, but she faced him now, the pillow he’d rested upon earlier clutched tightly to her body, her face buried in the patchwork fabric encasing it. He gasped at the sight of her lost in that intimate moment and thought about retreating before she knew he was there. But she must have heard something, for at that precise moment she looked up to find him standing before her. A mix of emotions tumbled across her face; surprise giving way to a surge of pleasure, which in turn vanished as embarrassment and fear overwhelmed all else.
Fear? He could understand the other emotions easily enough, given the circumstances, but fear? He was stunned, his mind desperately searching for some reason that emotion might be present with the others.
“I... You should have woken me, Vincent. I feel so rested, it must be late.”
She pushed the pillow aside and scrambled to a sitting position of sorts, trying to compose her face and her emotions, rigidly controlling them both. The stream of their bond slowed to a trickle, then finally stopped altogether, only a dim, muted echo left of it. Suddenly he knew what her stammering confusion of words and her stilted, stiff behavior was meant to cover. She felt she needed to hide her desire from him, as he did his from her. That if she didn’t he would leave her, hoping she would seek out another, Above. One who could give her all that he could not.
Anguish, sorrow and regret washed through him at the sight of her. How well it had spread, his guilt and fear. It covered all he touched now, most of all the one he loved more than life itself. She held herself so stiffly still, as if one motion was all it would take to crumble the wall of restraint surrounding her. But no matter how hard she tried to hide her feelings from him, even from the bond itself, he knew. Her lower lip trembled and he sensed an almost vibratory wave coming off her, tension filling the room. He was responsible for this.
Suddenly he couldn’t stand it a moment longer. With three long strides he reached her, then sat down upon the bed and pulled her forward into his arms, his hold tight upon her. She struggled weakly in resistance and he felt the shaking along her length, only sensed before. He held her tighter still, rocking their bodies together in a comforting motion.
“Shhh, Catherine, shhh. I’m here.”
The vibration along the muscles of her torso and back escalated to a fierce shudder and she ceased her struggle, a mewling cry pulled from deep within. She buried her face against the curve of his neck and shoulder, gripping him to her with a strength that astonished him.
“I’m sorry, Vincent, I’m sorry.”
He thought his heart would break with those words, their poignancy and her fear generating a sorrow that was unbearable. Tears filled his eyes and traced down his cheeks and where her face was pressed against the bare skin of his throat he felt the heat and wetness of her own.
“Don’t, please don’t. I’m the one...” His voice choked and the words faltered. Even now, in the midst of her turmoil and pain, he was unable to face his fears, to face what they represented.
But Catherine clearly sensed the meaning behind those words, and felt the anguished emotions in him as well. And though he had come to comfort her, their roles were suddenly reversed. She quieted in his arms, stroking his back and arms tenderly as he wept. Over and over again she whispered the words he craved and needed, despite all his resolute denials. “It’s all right, everything will be all right. I’m here, Vincent, and I’ll never leave you. I promise, my love, I promise.”
She pulled him in closer to her waiting warmth and he immediately gave in to that urging, collapsing against her and holding her tight.
They stayed that way for a long time, and when her words and their bond finally calmed him, he pulled back with regret and their eyes met. There was no hiding the anxiety that still lingered in his, but she knew he couldn’t yet bring himself to discuss this issue in any detail with her, and so she said nothing. Instead she gently caressed his brow with trembling fingers, pushing back some errant strands of golden hair and shivering at the sensation of rough silk against her palm. Those emotions led to other, more dangerous realms, and she restrained them with a will of iron, determined to cause him no more pain this night.
She did understand, he knew that, but he also knew this wasn’t yet over. She was controlling her emotions now, for his sake, but he knew they would return all too soon, to test his resolve once more. It had to stop...
He veered away from that thought almost immediately. This passion between them, even held back and denied as they both did, was the sweetest pleasure he had ever known. How could he live without it? Hard on the heels of that thought another more insidious one whispered seductively to him; what would that passion be like if set free? A shudder swept through him, and he knew Catherine not only sensed it through their bond, but felt it beneath her hands as well. But she said nothing, and neither did he. Finally she sighed and looked down at her watch.
“It’s late, Vincent, I should get back. There are some files I have to go over this evening for the case they’re trying on Monday.”
He was grateful for her casual break from their most recent visit to that traumatic place he couldn’t yet face. “Eat first, Catherine. William should have supper prepared by now. You need to take better care of yourself.”
She smiled at the care and concern in his voice for her and immediately capitulated, happy for the opportunity to be by his side for yet a while longer, among the friends and family of his world.
* * *
The sensations were familiar, a shivery tingling surrounding him as if it emanated from their bond, as if the energy within it were trickling outward to encompass and enclose him in an ever-expanding aura. The flickering lights congealed and reality settled about him. He was in the Great Hall, and it was full of music and people. What were they all doing here? The weight in his gloved hands distracted him suddenly and he glanced down. Ice. He turned to the table behind him and set the large frozen chunk in the small steel tub which held various bottles, jars and jugs of beverages brought down by their helpers. Thus unburdened, he looked searchingly about him once more. Father and Peter sat in a corner playing chess, and across the way he saw Sebastian, entertaining the children with his magic tricks. Glancing up he saw the numerous candelabra glowing with the orange, yellow and white candles of Winterfest.
Winterfest...it was Winterfest. When? How? His thoughts flew furiously, but they scattered abruptly, one question displacing all the others. Where was Catherine?! He glanced around frantically, but calmed almost immediately, the bond sensation of her communicating itself to him instantly. He strode through the crowd in the direction of that sensation and suddenly he saw her, leaning against the far wall of the large chamber, partially hidden in a dimly lit corner.
She wore a long, low-cut red velvet gown, its lines somehow both concealing and revealing at the same time. It draped heavily about her yet clung beguilingly to her slim curves. He could tell it would be a rich, lush fabric and his hands ached to touch it and her. She stood in profile to him, listening to someone, that much was clear, but he couldn’t see who it was, his view blocked by a small group in conversation before him. He began to move around them, toward Catherine, when a strong surge of emotion washed over the bond. It was a strange mix of irritation and humor. He finally emerged from the mingling crowd and his eyes immediately found her in the darkly shadowed corner, searching out the companion who inspired those peculiar emotions.
David. The son of long-time helpers, he had left the city fifteen years ago to attend college in California. Like Catherine, he too was a lawyer, but his practice was of a considerably different kind, focusing instead on what she would do doubt think of as frivolous and perhaps even verging on the fraudulent. He lived in Seatle now, and hadn’t returned except for short visits to his parents. Vincent couldn’t say that he’d missed him. David was near him in age, but they had little else in common. He had been a callow and thoughtless youth, attentive only to his own needs, and he had changed little in manhood. He wasn’t malicious, not like Mitch, but he was shallow and vain, in disquieting contrast to the loyal, loving parents who had raised him. Still, though he was of very little help to them -- or anyone else, Vincent wryly suspected -- he had never betrayed the trust of their community.
He stood quietly, about twenty feet behind them, and observed their interaction through David’s facial expressions and the bond he shared with Catherine. He leaned in toward her confidently, regaling her with some story. By contrast, she almost seemed to be leaning away from him, a feeling of disquiet and distaste growing through their bond. Vincent waited a moment more, but when David’s eyes scanned down her body admiringly he started forward, a low, almost inaudible growl rumbling in his chest.
As Vincent approached them, David’s eyes flickered back up, drawn to the imposing figure now standing behind the object of his desires. An impatient look filled them and his words were curt, though spoken with a well-practiced, boyish charm.
“Vincent, it’s been a long time. Four years, right?”
“Five, I believe. How are you, David?”
Catherine stood in silence through this exchange, but Vincent could feel her sudden relaxation and relief through their bond. He felt her weight lean imperceptibly back against him and his hand slid unseen to nestle between her left arm and the curve of her waist, his fingers curling about that tender indentation protectively. His attention was focused almost entirely on her, but his eyes never left the man who stood before her.
“When did you start getting such beautiful helpers, Vincent?” His gaze swung teasingly down to Catherine again. “Dance with me, Cathy.” He reached for her left hand, only to find it held tightly in Vincent’s. His startled eyes rose to meet those of the man before him and he stepped back in surprise at the fierce light there. He stood frozen helplessly as Vincent’s right hand traced up her arm and across her chest, finally coming to rest intimately upon her, near her upper arm. Another motion drew him and he glanced down to see their left arms sweeping upward to rest across her waist, Vincent’s hand cupping hers. The larger man enclosed her now in a possessive, protective embrace, his hold tightening upon her even as David watched. The woman remained silent, but the sudden change in her demeanor caught him by surprise. Her eyes glowed with a tender light, love and desire plain to see. Her body surrendered to his touch completely, her right hand rising to press against his arm, near her throat. Vincent’s low, husky whisper startled him back to the face above.
“Yes, beautiful.” He pressed a fervent kiss against Catherine’s temple, then rubbed his cheek against the silky hair at the crown of her head. He said no more, but simply stared at the smaller, suddenly frightened man before him.
“Yes...well... I...I just remembered I promised to play a game of chess with Rebecca. I’ll see you two later.”
He backed away from them with haste, then fled into the waiting crowd.
Vincent stood watching his retreat, a perfect stillness enclosing him. It was only when David was well and truly gone that the boldness of his behavior burst upon him. He felt a tremble set up along his length, released her and stepped back with a gasp, appalled by his barbaric display. Catherine turned immediately to face him but he couldn’t meet her eyes, so distressed was he by his actions, by what she must think of them, of him. She stood still before him, though, and finally he had no choice. His gaze rose to hers and he took another, involuntary step backward into the waiting shadows, stunned by the look she wore. She followed this time, and he was trapped, the rocky corner at his back effectively blocking any retreat he might otherwise have made. She left nothing to chance, however, pressing both hands firmly upon his chest, as if her slender arms alone could hold him there.
“I’m sorry, Catherine. I had no right... I didn’t mean...” His composure was completely lost, the look in her eyes more than he could bear.
Catherine interrupted his stammering, chaotic words, tenderly pressing her fingers against his lips. She didn’t even try to answer his spoken concerns, going instead directly to the heart of the matter.
“I am yours, Vincent. We both know it’s true.”
“No...no...” The words were barely more than a whisper and he shook his head in denial, waves of distress emanating off him.
“Yes. Always and forever, I’m yours, only yours.”
She leaned toward him slowly, inexorably with those words, her eyes drifting shut.
Vincent’s eyes widened with shocked disbelief. Catherine was going to kiss him, here, in this dim corner of the Great Hall, surrounded by his family and friends, tunnel-dwellers and helpers alike! He had to leave her, now! But he made no move at all, and a moment later her lips settled over his, soft as gossamer.
Oh, god! So silky, so soft, so warm...
The scent of her breath pulsed against his lips, sending a tingling vibration that gathered in the hidden cleft of his sensitive upper lip, then quickly spilled down his spine in a flow of blissful rapture. A low groan left him, the surrounding crowds gone completely from his thoughts. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight into the heat of his body, kissing her with a desperate passion that could no longer be denied. When he pulled his mouth from hers his eyes glowed with a fierce light.
“Yes, you’re mine!”, he growled, his voice raspy and intense.
He pulled her back into his strong arms and held her tight, absorbing the sensation of her body along the aroused length of his own.
Catherine yielded to his demanding strength gladly, joyfully, pressing against him with a yearning hunger, long confined, but now set free. She nuzzled into the soft skin at the hollow of his neck, her murmuring words setting up a vibration that shuddered through him with a wildly erotic force. “I love you so, Vincent, I love you...”
He was drawn from the dream abruptly, his heart pounding, his breath a panting gasp he couldn’t control. His body ached with unfulfilled passion and he leaned forward rest his trembling arms upon his upraised knees, willing the heat to leave his yearning flesh. It took a level of control he hadn’t known he possessed, but finally he felt his desire contained once more. He reached back for his journal and left the bed, for once not even attempting to pace off the tension filling him. He threw himself down into his chair and began to write with an almost frantic haste.
April 5th, 1989
My Dearest Catherine,
Oh my love, my love... My need for you is always great, but tonight, tonight I don’t think I could resist that urgent call if you were here. Thank god you’re not here!
What’s happening to us, Catherine? Where will this lead us? This future Kristopher paints for us must not be, yet I feel us drawn toward it with an unstoppable force. This afternoon I told Father that only you and I would decide the course of our destiny, but I couldn’t admit that to you, coward that I am. It’s too much for me to imagine, too much to accept. This was not meant to be, not for me, never for me!
But you... I can’t bear the thought of you living the barren life which is my lot. You were never meant for that.
I know your fears, Catherine. I know you’re afraid I’ll send you away, to find the fulfillment I cannot give you. And you are right to fear that. It is what I should do, what I should...
Impossible, unthinkable! To live without you would be no life at all. To know that some other man touches you as I long to do, to feel that... How could I bear such a thing? The thought of it is beyond pain, beyond imagining.
And yet there are other fears which we dare not ignore. The risk is too great. This barrier between us is necessary, yet you refuse to accept it. I feel you within me, beating against it daily, wearing down my resistance and control. You must not, my love, you must not! You must know this cannot be between us. Though it is beyond me to speak of these things with you, surely you must know...
Oh Catherine, what will we do? How can I be what you need when it is the very thing that must be kept from you, the very thing I trust least of all? And yet despite that, despite it all, everything within me cries out for you and it grows harder and harder to ignore that plea. It breaks my heart to deny you, to deny us what we so long for.
Oh my love, what will become of us?
* * *
The ringing of the doorbell corresponded with Catherine’s emergence from the steamy glass enclosure of her shower. She pulled on a silky robe and ran out of the bathroom, her hair still dripping wet, to peer through the spy-piece at the center of her door. The man standing there wore the outfit of a city courier service, one she had used often herself on routine matters at the DA’s office. After a careful assessment she decided he was probably legit, though she couldn’t imagine what might be coming to her here, at her own home, on a Sunday evening.
He was a young man, with shy brown eyes, and at first sight of the disheveled woman before him broke into a blush which made Catherine smile quite impishly. “Miss Chandler? Catherine Chandler?” He peered down at the clipboard in his hand, then back up at her, his composure regained somewhat.
“I’m Catherine Chandler.”
“Would you sign here, ma’am?”
Catherine’s smile disappeared and she sighed -- so much for his tip. She took his pen, signed the invoice and found a large box pressed into her hands.
“Wait here a minute.” Okay, okay, so he used the dreaded ma’am, the poor guy had to make a living, didn’t he? She dropped the box on a couch and rummaged through the pocket of the jacket she’d left laying over the padded arm. She found a five there and returned to the door.
“Here you go.”
He had barely turned for the elevator when she had the door shut and bolted and stood holding the package once more. The address on the label was one she recognized instantly; she’d worked there for over six years, after all. What could be coming from her father’s old law firm? The box was about thirty inches long, eighteen inches wide and six inches deep, but it felt fairly light despite those dimensions. After a few minutes of thought, she carried it into her darkened bedroom, set it down upon the bed and retrieved a steel emery board from her dressing table, turning on a small lamp there in passing. She returned to the bed and sat down beside the box, then carefully slit the taped edges on all sides.
When she removed the lid, she found that the contents were obscured by a manila envelope which rested upon a layer of tissue paper. She pulled out the envelope, scrutinized it curiously for a moment, then set it aside. When the layers of tissue paper were parted, she gasped in disbelief. The red dress of Kristopher’s painting! It was folded neatly, just the front bodice and empire seams visible, but she recognized it instantly. Her mind screamed out in denial, but it was a useless thought. This was the dress she wore in Kristopher’s painting, there was no doubt of that, none at all. Slowly, almost hypnotically, she reached out to stroke the ruby red velvet. In an almost distant sort of way she noted the trembling of her hand in the midst of that act. It was lush and rich and oh, so soft. She slipped a finger along the edge of the low neckline and traced along the inner lining. Silk.
This gown would feel decadently sensuous upon her body, she knew that instantly, and suddenly the image flashed in her mind of Kristopher’s painting. For just a moment she felt herself within the picture, within the gown...within Vincent’s arms. The fabric was richly sensuous against her skin, as she’d known it would be, but it was nothing compared to the sensation of Vincent’s seductive hold upon her, possessive and complete. The image wavered before her, then finally dissolved, and she sighed with regretful longing. Her gaze cleared and she turned back to the box at her side to find her hand still stroking unconsciously along the rich texture of the velvet.
It was difficult to draw away but finally she did, covering the beautiful dress with a layer of tissue paper before picking up the manila envelope that had come with the package. She slit it open with the emery board and a business-size envelope slid out. There was nothing on it except for her name, but she recognized the handwriting instantly. Her father had written this. With trembling hands she slit open this last envelope and withdrew the single sheet of paper within. It took her only a minute to read the contents there, but she read it again after that, and then once more. Emotions swirled within her too numerous to count.
Vincent’s voice startled her, as did his touch upon her cheek. He knelt before her, looking up at her with confusion and concern. She was stunned. He was here, in her apartment, in her bedroom! He never entered this place unless there was a dire need. What could have brought him to cross the threshold he had so studiously avoided in the past? His fingers rose from her cheek to tenderly wipe away the tears which still coursed down her face, and she had her answer. She hadn’t even been aware that she’d been crying until that moment. His tender touch and the love in his eyes mixed with the other emotions in her and she whispered his name almost wordlessly before sinking to her knees before him and wrapping her arms around him tight. She held him as if she’d never let him go, and for once he didn’t fight her, giving in to her embrace. Perhaps he sensed how much she needed that solid contact from him now, or perhaps, this once, he couldn’t resist the pleasure and comfort that always awaited them in each other’s arms, but which was so often denied them by his own restraint and control. She didn’t care, not now, not when she could hold him like this, when she could feel his strong arms encompassing her completely. Oh... It was heaven, pure heaven.
They stayed that way for a long time, their bodies pressed together tight, and now and then Catherine felt a conscious sense of wonder flash through the haze enfolding her; this wasn’t a dream, he was really here. Finally she felt a change. His hand cupped her cheek and turned her face up to his, though his other arm still held her tight and close, a marvel she still found difficult to comprehend.
Though she could hardly bear it, she leaned away from him to sit back on her heels. She was stunned though when some small part of her brain felt a slight resistance from him at that withdrawal, filing the information away for later perusal. She reached up onto the bed and found the sheet of paper there, sitting next to the box, and held it out to him.
“This came for me a few minutes ago. It’s from my father.”
“Your father? When...?”
“He wrote it a few months before he died, but it must have gotten misplaced at the firm somehow. It should have been with the rest of his things when we closed out the estate last month.”
Vincent glanced at the letter hesitantly, then back to Catherine.
“Read it, Vincent.”
He nodded and began to slowly read aloud the words written there:
Jan. 12th 1989
I should have given this to you long ago, but I just couldn't bear to be parted from it. Since you're reading this letter, it means I'm with your mother again, and this now belongs with you.
I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the dead of winter, January 26th, 1955. I was new to the law firm, and didn't know anyone in New York. One of the junior partners, George Rivers, invited me to a family gathering. His family was small, but very close, and every January they met together to 'push back the winter', as they liked to say.
George's sister, Ruth, came home from Vassar for this gathering and brought her roommate along. Caroline. Your mother. I've never seen anything, before or since, as beautiful as she was that night. The moment I laid eyes on her I knew; she was the one I would love forever. My life changed that night, and I was never the same.
Love does that. It changes all it touches until everything is coated with magic, with an almost invisible crystal dust that binds two people together. When you were born, less than two years later, you became a part of that connection. Through you, your mother was with me always, even during those years when we were parted.
Don't be sad, Cathy. Your mother and I are together again, I truly believe that, and it means so much to me. My only regret is leaving you there, alone. More than anything I pray you will find the great love your mother and I shared. When you do, don't pass it by. Grab it and hold it tight, no matter the obstacles or difficulties. It's worth everything.
Remember Cathy, I'll always be with you.
Your Loving Father,
When Vincent reached the end of the letter he pulled her close once more, and she let her thinly-clad body lean against his, enjoying the rarity of this intimate touch between them. He didn’t speak though, the sentiments of that last paragraph and their correlation to him beyond misunderstanding. Catherine recognized that hesitancy. She knew how hard it was for him to accept that she didn’t just love him, but was in love with him. That he was her choice, irrevocable and final. But there was more, and she suspected he hadn’t seen it all.
“Vincent, he wrote it on January twelfth, the anniversary of the day they found you.”
“Yes, you’re right. I hadn’t noticed...”
She interrupted his softly spoken words.
“They met at a winter gathering, on January twenty-sixth, 1955. Don’t you see? That was the very year, the very month they found you, Vincent. It must have been just about the time of the very first Winterfest held Below, isn’t that right?”
“Yes. They held the first Winterfest celebration two weeks after they found me.” He did indeed seem to be struck by this correlation. “But Catherine, you mustn’t read more into this than there is. We’ve always known you are almost two years younger than I, and you’ve always known that your parents met in January of 1955. This isn’t really new information, it just seems so striking because it appears written together, here, now. It’s simply a coincidence, nothing more.”
“No, Vincent. It’s more than that.” She turned in his arms and reached up to pull the box off her bed and into her lap. She felt him peering over her shoulder curiously, his arms still comfortingly about her. Her fingers rested upon the tissue, and he couldn’t miss the trembling there. “The letter was delivered with this.”
She drew apart the delicate paper to expose the red velvet gown and felt him stiffen behind her, a loud gasp drawn from him at that unexpected sight. The rich fabric called to her, and her fingers stroked along its sensuous surface once more.
“This was the dress my mother wore at that winter gathering, the night she met my father, the night they fell in love. This is the dress I’m wearing in Kristopher’s painting.”
Vincent stared at the dress, but he didn’t see it in the here and now. Instead the memory of his dream filled him, of he and Catherine in the Great Hall, celebrating Winterfest, celebrating the start of something more... He was speechless. Catherine had definitely let go of some of her certainties with the appearance of this gown, but what would she think if she knew of his dream?
No. He couldn’t tell her, not yet. The revelation contained within it was too disturbing for him. He wasn’t yet ready to admit that the contents of his dream might be more than just a fevered fantasy, that they might, just might contain the elements of...destiny.
A ragged sigh escaped him at that thought, of what it might ultimately mean for them. Was it possible? Could it truly be that a life together awaited them? The sensations of the dream filled him fully, and he felt Catherine in his arms, kissing him once more. Oh, god, to feel her like that, her lips touching his with a lover’s caress, her body pressed tightly, invitingly to his. Oh, god...
Her next words broke through the cloudy haze surrounding him.
“A week from today is our second anniversary, Vincent.”
He swallowed hard, the poignant mix of emotions brought forth from those words almost overwhelming him. Not a day went by when he didn’t think on that night two years ago when he found her...when his life truly began. But he couldn’t really dwell on those thoughts, for a stream of questions had now presented themselves and he grasped at them with a vengeance. Perhaps it hadn’t been destiny at all, but simply a dream, only a dream. If she wore the dress next week, then perhaps all his fears for them might be resolved. He stared at her intently, willing her to say the words, sparing two simple ones only to urge her on.
“I don’t want you to be disappointed or wonder why, so I’ll tell you now; I won’t be wearing this gown next Sunday when you come to my balcony. I’m going to save it for next year’s Winterfest.”
Though he should have known they would come, her words were completely unexpected, and he stared down at her in shock. But there was no misunderstanding her meaning, and she made no attempt to soften her words with her luminous gaze. It was all there, and all too easy to read.
“January twenty-sixth will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of the night my parents met and fell in love. January twenty-sixth is when Winterfest will be held next year. It’s already on my calendar. I’m going to wear this gown for you that night, Vincent...for us.”
“Next week, Catherine, would be...”
“Shhh.” She turned in his arms until she faced him and pressed a finger against his lips. Her finger stroked the silky down of his upper lip and he gasped, pulling back from that simple touch and the erotic memories of that troubling dream. But she wouldn’t be denied. She followed his retreat and brushed her lips against his in a fleeting caress, as she had done that night at their threshold a month ago. She buried her face against his neck then, and wrapped her arms around him.
His throat was tight and dry and his heart pounded. The feel of her body against his hands, beneath the thin silk of her robe, was plain, those sensations coming to the fore now that the earlier confusion of her emotions was no longer preoccupying him. He knew he should pull away and tell her what could and couldn’t be between them, no matter their wants and needs, but he couldn’t do it. His arms surrounded her and held her close, absorbing the strangely erotic comfort of her touch into his trembling muscles. Catherine went on with a steadiness and determination in her voice which surprised him.
“I know you’re not ready to talk about this with me, not yet, but I want you to know that I understand, at least as much as I can. What I don’t understand...someday you’re going to have to find the strength to share that with me, Vincent. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t leave you, no matter how much you try to push me away in your fear. There is no one else for me but you, and I know that you feel the same way about me, even if you won’t admit it. I’ll be as patient as I can, but you know I’ve never been much good at that. There will be times, like yesterday afternoon in your chamber, when I won’t be able to hide my feelings for you. I know that makes you uncomfortable, and I’ll try, Vincent, I’ll really try to do my best, but you should be prepared to experience some things from me through the bond that you haven’t before. I’ve been able to control most of those stronger thoughts and emotions in the past, but it’s just getting too difficult now. And I’m beginning to think that perhaps I’ve done more harm than good by allowing you to believe that those feelings don’t exist.”
He didn’t know what he could possibly say in the face of that bold declaration, only that he had to say something, that he had to regain control of this situation, and soon, before it went beyond his reach and reason, before it went beyond his will.
“Shhh.” She interrupted him once again, stopping those chaotic thoughts before they’d fully formed. “I know you’re not prepared right now to do anything but deny what I’ve said, to ask me not to pursue this course. Don’t, Vincent. Don’t ask that of me. Don’t ask me to deny my feelings for you any longer. I would do anything for you, Vincent, anything you ask, but I’m begging you not to ask this of me again.”
She stared up at him, the gray depths of her eyes compelling him with an irresistible force. The words she’d spoken pierced him with an agonizing pain. She was begging him... oh, god, how had it come to this? And how could he deny her plea? There was no way, none at all. He pulled her back into his warmth and held her tight, for once letting the sensations of her body mingle consciously with the love he felt from her over their bond. It was so sweet...so sweet. Her voice trembled against his ear, husky and low, sending a shivery vibration of anxiety throughout him...and something else he resolutely ignored.
“We have to start somewhere, Vincent. I’ve given you everything, even though you can’t accept it yet. But take what you can of me, please. I need so much to give you pleasure, to feel it in you and know that I’m its cause. I want to feel your needs, to be the one that fills them, just as I need you to fulfill my own. Someday, Vincent, someday soon you’ll tell me of your deepest fears and your deepest dreams, and we will be everything to each other...everything.”
* * *
Vincent entered his chamber, still in a daze. He lit the candle cluster upon his writing table, retrieved his journal from the bedside table, and immediately sat down to write. Kristopher’s painting hung before him and he gazed at it for a few, precious minutes, letting his thoughts take form before he began to put words to paper:
April 5th, 1989
My Dearest Catherine,
These thoughts within me cannot be contained, try as I might. I’ve always held them back before, but now, tonight, it seems impossible. I’ve just returned from Above, from your apartment. The words spoken there still ring in my ears and I fear they may never give me peace, not until we finally resolve this issue between us.
What does it all mean, Catherine? Kristopher, his painting, your father’s letter and your mother’s dress? The logic of it defies me, yet somehow, deep inside, I know that logic is not the answer. We are the answer. I know that simple truth, even if I don’t yet know what it means for us or for our future.
Nine months from now, nine short months from now... We are changing, even I can no longer deny it. In nine months a new life can form from no more than a seed of thought. In nine months a fruition of miraculous proportions can take place. Will we see such a change, Catherine?
I still don’t know how this can be, still feel the fears and uncertainties I always have, but there is something else now, something more. Something which tempers my fear with hope. In my dream it was Winterfest. You wore a red velvet gown and kissed me. In my dream I knew that all of our dreams would come true.
Oh, Catherine, can this be? Is it possible? What you said this evening frightens me, and yet I feel an almost indescribable thrill of anticipation. I have denied my deepest feelings for you, and in that process have demanded the same of you. What you cannot know, my love, what I’ve struggled so hard to hide from you is how I crave to feel those emotions from you, to know the certainty of your love through our bond first, where we are always safe.
Madness. Madness to even write those words, much less consider them. These are thoughts I’ve kept deep inside, hidden even from myself on some level. We are changing, Catherine, I feel it so clearly.
You said that one day I would find the strength to speak these thoughts aloud to you, to tell you of my deepest fears...and my deepest dreams. It always seemed impossible that I could ever do such a thing, but I wonder now if that is true. Now, today, it seems just as impossible that I can keep them from you much longer. I’m terrified of what that revelation will hold for us, but even more than that I want no more secrets between us.
What will I feel from you in the months ahead, Catherine? What will be revealed to me? I’m filled with dread at that thought, but also with a trembling anticipation, and longing. I need you so, but how, how will I find the strength...the courage...to show you those needs. To show you my desire? It seems impossible, and yet...
Oh, my love, I get nowhere in this argument with myself, yet somehow it no longer seems important. Nothing matters tonight but my love for you and yours for me. Tonight I will try to take that first step you ask of me. I will let the dreams of you come to me, as they always do, but tonight I will not deny them. Will you feel my passion for you through our bond? Will you share that dream with me? I shudder to imagine it, yet I will not let those fears stop me, not tonight. Tonight, my love, I give myself over to your tender care.
* * *
Well, well, well. Things were just as they should be here, just as he’d always known they would, of course. There was never really any doubt -- none at all. For a moment he allowed himself to dwell on the intermingling details and timelines that had woven and crossed paths, allowing -- no demanding -- the advent of that crucial event just two years before. It gave him a headache trying to figure it all out. Luckily, he felt no real need to do that. Some things were meant to be. Some things just were.
He sighed with satisfaction and began to pull back from the cozy image before him, of Vincent writing to his Catherine, the image he had painted clearly the inspiration for the words flowing to paper now. One day -- one day soon -- Catherine would read those words, and all the others. There would be no more secrets between them then. He grinned impishly at the thought of what awaited them.
It had been an amazing thing to be a part of the story that enfolded them, even if only in the most indirect, peripheral way. Life was wondrous. A sudden image filled him then of his childhood, of the coloring books and crayons, the storybooks and fairytales that had meant so much to him. All his favorite stories had ended the same way, and he had never grown tired of that, had never been willing to accept less simply to have something different. No, it wasn’t a true fairytale without those final words on the last page, and he heard them now as he twisted and floated in the blissful currents of their bond, borne on a whispered breeze barely more than thought, if indeed they were even that: ...And they lived happily ever after...
No, there was no doubt in his mind about the ending of this story, none at all. Though he had once thought that nothing lasts forever, he now knew that wasn’t so. Catherine was right; artists did live on in their works, and some stories had no end.
We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk
And see the jewel in the toad’s head.
Champing his gilded oats,
The hippogryph will stand in our stalls,
And over our heads will float the blue bird
Singing of beautiful and impossible things,
Of things that are lovely and never happen,
Of things that are not, and that should be.
-- Oscar Wilde