A SAFE PLACE

Lea


"Catherine!"

His roaring scream of despair woke him up and his suddenly wide open eyes slowly focused on Father's worried face.

"Vincent, it's all right! It was only a dream, you've had another of your nightmares!"

He sat up on his bed, shuddering. A dream…was it only a dream? He could still feel the weight of Catherine's limp body in his arms as life slipped away from her, hear the faint sound of her voice as she whispered her last words… During his recovery, his nights had been troubled by frequent and vivid nightmares, but none that could compare to this…

Suddenly he realized Father and he weren't alone in the chamber. When he met Narcissa's eyes, he knew it had been no ordinary dream. A cold and dark wave of fear swept over him, leaving him with only one thought, one single-minded urgency: he had to see Catherine, if only to make sure she was safe. He had to find Catherine, right now!

*****

"Oh God, Joe! What..?"

"We don't have much time, Kiddo, they've given me a sedative. Look in my briefcase. See the black book? You take it and go hide somewhere!"

"Joe, what…?"

"Listen, Radcliffe, it's hot stuff! Lost a friend because of it today, don't want to lose another. So you don't try to do anything about it, not before I've figured out just how big the whole thing is. Don't trust anybody! Do you have a place you can go to, somewhere safe, that can't be connected with you? I could give you a few names, but I'm not even sure…"

"Don't worry, Joe. I know where to go. A place where I can't be found."

"I thought so…" he said with a weak smile

That startled her. "Joe, what do you mean?"

"Cathy, sometimes you just seem to disappear, nobody knows where you are. I don't know what's so special with that place you go to, but it's exactly what you need right now." He looked straight into her eyes and added. "That… and someone strong to watch over you."

She gasped. "Joe!"

He was making an effort to stay awake.

"Weird details in some of your cases, Radcliffe…all the times you should have gotten yourself killed but somehow got out of it…bad guys' bodies with the same strange forensic evidence… as if someone… or something…had been around protecting you …"

"Joe…"

"Shh, Cathy, I don't want to know. I trust you…and right now you can use that kind of protection…Don't reappear before I tell you…How …?"

"Peter Alcott, my doctor…no, forget about him, he could be connected with me. I'll let you know of a safer way."

"Just be careful, Kiddo…." He could not fight sleep any longer and his eyes closed. She bent and kissed his cheek.

"Be well, Joe, take care."

Going out of the room she nearly bumped into someone and gasped.

"Jamie, what's wrong? Has anything happened?"

"Catherine, you must come with me, you're in danger!" Jamie whispered urgently.

"Yes, I know, but how do you…?"

"Later! Just come, Vincent is waiting!"

Somewhat mystified, Catherine followed the girl down several flight of stairs, to the subbasement of the hospital. In a remote, obviously seldom used, storage room, Jamie pushed a few wooden cases out of the way and banged on a rusty iron door which opened with a creak, revealing a tall shape.

"Catherine!" She flew into his waiting arms and he almost crushed her in a fierce embrace. "Oh Catherine, you are here, you are safe, I was so afraid!"

She pulled away slightly to look at him, puzzled. "But why, Vincent, why were you afraid? How could you know I was in danger before I knew it myself. The bond? Has the bond…?"

"No. Or maybe in some new way. I had a dream, Catherine…"

"Close the door, Vincent." Jamie interrupted. "I'll push the boxes back into place and come Below through another entrance."

"Better not, Jamie!" Catherine warned. You've asked for Joe's room and been seen leaving with me. It would be wiser to stay Below until all this is over."

"All what?"

"I'll explain later, just try to pull these boxes as close as possible, and come with us."

"One of our Helpers works here, he'll come and put them back if we ask him."

"OK, then let's go!"

Jamie tapped a short message on the pipes to announce their return, and they set on their way, Vincent had his arm around Catherine's shoulders and held her tight, reluctant to lose contact with the comforting reality of her. She boldly ventured her arm under his cloak to circle his waist, and was delighted when his only reaction was to pull her closer. He was usually so careful never to show any possessiveness toward her. He must have been very scared indeed!

"Now Vincent, will you tell me what this is all about?"

"Are you really in danger, Catherine?"

"I might have been if I had stayed Above. Joe gave me a book." She felt Vincent's arm stiffen, but he said nothing and she went on. "Highly sensitive stuff. He told me to do absolutely nothing. Just hide somewhere safe and wait till he figures things out."

Vincent frowned. "How could he put you in such danger?"

"I think I'm the only one he really trusts…and he seemed to know I had a safe place to go to."

"How can that be?"

"Joe's not stupid, Vincent, and he cares for me. He was bound to notice that sometimes I just vanish out of sight. He assumed I must go somewhere my usual friends and acquaintances don't know about, a place I keep secret for some reasons of mine. He said such a place was 'just what I needed right now'."

She noticed Jamie was listening intently and saved the part about her "protector" for later, when she would be alone with Vincent.

"Now tell me about that dream, Vincent!"

She felt him shudder. "It was devastating, Catherine, and it felt so real! In my dream Joe did give you a book, but before you could get Below you were kidnapped and locked up somewhere. I kept searching for you everywhere, for months, but without our bond to help me I found you too late…"he stopped to look at her with tears in his eyes, and his voice broke "…only to see you…die… in my arms. Oh, Catherine!"

She snuggled closer to him. "It's all right, Vincent, I'm here now! It was only a dream!" She felt a light kiss on the top of her head and he went on, his voice still hoarse with emotion.

"I woke up screaming…to find Narcissa standing near my bed. She said that a vision had brought her to me, that my dream was a warning about what could be. She urged me to bring you Below as soon as I could. Father was reluctant to believe her, as usual, but I knew better. We were going to send everyone in search for you, then Jamie arrived with your message about Joe… Fortunately the hospital has a tunnel access, and we were able to reach you in time."

"I'm glad you did. All this is beginning to really scare me!"

"You will listen to what Joe told you, and not try anything, promise me, Catherine!"

She smiled, Vincent knew very well how stubborn she could get when her job was involved, but this time she would take no risk. She might have been careless with her life in the past, but now she had another life to care about . She surreptitiously put her free hand on her stomach. Certainly she would do nothing that could endanger her baby…Vincent's baby. How was he going to react when she told him? It probably would scare him silly at first … but she believed he would finally overcome his fears, and be as happy as she was.

"Don't worry, Vincent, I won't do anything about that book. Cathy Chandler, A.D.A. didn't come down to the tunnels. I'll just be Catherine, a woman of Below. I'll help Rebecca with the candles, read to the children, play chess with Father and walk to the Chamber of the Falls with you. And it will be heaven! Joe will let me know when he wants his book back."

"How will he do that?" Jamie inquired suspiciously.

"We must provide him with a safe way. Joe can be trusted, Jamie. And Peter should be warned not to come Below. As one of my friends, he might be watched."

Vincent had not really been listening to that last exchange, still under the spell of what Catherine had said before. She had described herself as a woman of Below, and compared the life there to heaven. Could she really have meant it? After his terrible dream, there was nothing he could want more than to keep her Below forever, safe under his vigilant guard. And he discovered he was not afraid any more of what could happen between them if he had her that close to him for a long time. The devastating sense of loss that had torn his soul when he had seen her die was still too present in his mind to leave any room for another fear. He tightened his arm around her warm, supple body. She was alive! She was alive and she could be his, he had known it for long now, though it was the first time he admitted it to himself. Not only did Catherine love him, she wanted him! Even without the bond to convey her feelings, her desire could be clearly seen in her eyes. If he asked her, she would gladly come to his arms, to his bed, and forsake her life Above to stay with him forever. He only had to ask… Just a few hours before, he wouldn't have allowed himself to even consider this possibility, but now he lingered on it. She was alive, yes, and so was he…

*****

"Alone at last!"

Catherine sat down on Vincent's bed while he took place in his chair. The news had spread fast and at supper she had been the center of attention. Then there had been a short Council meeting, mostly a formality, as nobody would have thought of denying Catherine the right to claim shelter Below. And though the discussion about Joe and the book had been a bit more animated, Jamie already had a few ideas, and a safe way of contact would certainly be found.

But Father had kept a stern face. He was obviously worried about the effect Catherine's presence Below would have on his son and tried every possible way, even almost childish ones, to put distance between them. The guest chamber assigned to Catherine was as far of Vincent's as could be managed while still being in the inhabited Tunnels. He had even attempted, to everybody's amusement, to sit between them at supper, and had spent the meeting glaring at their tightly clasped hands. He had gone on afterwards, trying to send Catherine to bed and coax his son into a game of chess, until Vincent had made it clear, with the slightest hint of a growl in his voice, that he and Catherine had to talk and didn't want to be disturbed.

"Father would not be glad to see me here, not after trying so desperately to keep us apart."

He shrugged and smiled indulgently.

"Be not too hard, Catherine, he thinks he is acting for the best. He will get used to your presence Below after some time."

"He'd better!" she looked at him intently" Because maybe I'll be here for longer than he thinks."

Her words and the look on her face filled Vincent with a sudden flare of hope.

"What do you mean, Catherine?"

"I learned something today…I was coming to tell you when Joe…Oh, Vincent!…"

"Catherine? Tell me!"

She smiled radiantly at him, her eyes shining with love and joy.

"I'm pregnant, Vincent!"

He gasped. "You…are.." An expression of intense grief on his face, he jumped from his chair and turned away from her.

First astonished, she suddenly realized, of course, how stupid of her! She ran to him, taking him in her arms, her head on his shoulder.

"Don't, my love! It's your child! Yours, Vincent! Whose else? I could never have anybody's child but yours!"

He turned slowly and gazed into her eyes, desperately wanting to believe her even though what she said could and must not be.

"Mine, Catherine? This cannot be! We never…"

"Yes, we did…" she whispered "but you don't remember it."

"The cavern!" the tortured look reappeared in his eyes. The few blurred memories he kept from that place were of uncontrolled rage and roaring violence. "Did it happen then? Oh, Catherine what did I…?"

She framed his face with her hands. "Shh, Vincent. Just look at me and listen! You didn't rape me! You didn't hurt me in any way! We made love, and it was wonderful.!"

"But I was…"

"You didn't hurt me, Vincent. You can't hurt me. I could have stopped you…if I had wanted to. But that was the last thing I wanted. Oh, my love, for a terrible moment I thought I had lost you, I couldn't feel your breath or your heartbeats any more. I screamed at you, you just couldn't do that to me! I took you in my arms, and kissed you, and willed you back with all my love."

"Catherine…" He took her in his arms and she leaned gratefully into his strong embrace." I had no idea, Catherine…" He felt her tremble and sat back in his chair, pulling her on his lap. After a while she went on, her face in the smooth softness of his throat. " You came back to me. I felt you respond to my kiss, I felt your arms around me, and nothing could have prevented what happened then. You were so sweet, my darling, so eager and trusting! I knew you were not fully conscious, but I could not stop. I wanted you so, Vincent! I needed to have you in my arms, in my body, I wanted your weight on me. I needed to feel that you were real, that you were alive!"

He drew back slightly to look at her, his blue gaze almost frighteningly intense. For a second she thought her words had been too much and he was going to back away as he had done so many times, but to her surprise he slowly nodded his understanding.

"Yes, Catherine, we are alive…and life… is so precious!" he whispered huskily. He cupped her face in his hands, his thumbs gently caressing her, and slowly lowered his mouth on hers.

His kiss was sweet and soft, with a shy but unmistakable touch of sensuality. After a few seconds, Catherine's stunned brain started to function again and she responded in the same way, with all her love, but careful not to scare him with too much intensity. Vincent had taken the lead, moving things on faster than she had expected, and she would do nothing that could shatter his newfound confidence. She melted trustingly against him, letting her lips and her body convey her silent message: she would gladly follow him wherever he wanted to take her. As if Vincent had needed this reassurance to move forward, his hands left her face to travel slowly down her shoulders, caress her back and pull her closer to him, while his tongue started a tentative exploration of her slightly parted lips. She resisted the burning need to deepen the kiss, letting him taste her in his own way. He went on for a seemingly endless time without probing any further, driving her almost crazy with the gentle touches of his slightly raspy tongue, until she couldn't help a soft moan.

He slowly drew away and she searched his face, worried that her reaction might have frightened him, but his blue eyes held nothing but love and joy, with a touch of wonder…and an unexpected spark of pride.

"Oh, Catherine, I love you so! You are my life! You have given me so much…and now…" he ventured a shy hand on her still flat stomach. "Is it…certain? Did you…"

She smiled. "Yes, certain! I don't know how I didn't think about it before, I guess I was so worried about you I just ignored any symptoms there may have been… I went to see a doctor this morning, not Peter, I didn't want anyone to know yet, another doctor. She examined me, ran some tests, even made an ultrasound. I'm nearly at the end of my third month, and everything is all right. A perfectly healthy and normal pregnancy." She slightly stressed the word 'normal'. "I was so happy, I wanted to run Below and tell you…even if I was a bit worried of your reaction. " She grinned somewhat mischievously. "Apparently, it's not as bad as I'd feared, or you're hiding it very well."

He surprised her with a soft chuckle. "You expected me to be terrified… Yesterday I would have been...and I probably should be. It raises so many questions, about what I am, about what this child could be…it touches some very deep and ancient fears in me. But after what I experienced in my dream, those fears seem to have lost much of their importance."

He buried his face in her silky hair and went on. "I can only feel glad that you are carrying my child, Catherine. Glad, and proud… Long ago when I spoke of 'the children that are yet to be', deep inside I desperately longed for these children to be mine, even if I was sure such a thing must never be. And when you told me you were pregnant…when for a second I thought another man…"

She hugged him. "Oh, my love, I'm sorry, I was so happy, I forgot you didn't know.."

"You never told me…"

"You were recovering, I didn't want to distress you, or make you feel guilty. I thought your memories would come back. I would have told you, eventually… It was so wonderful, Vincent!"

He pulled away slightly to look down at her." Was it? I so wish I could remember… Did you…" he stopped and she stroked his cheek lightly, encouraging him.

" Yes? What is it you want to know, Vincent?"

He lowered his gaze and brought it back to hers before asking in a very low voice. "Did I…did I give you…pleasure, Catherine?"

The question was so unexpected she would have giggled with delighted surprise but for Vincent's anxious face. She smiled tenderly, letting her love shine in her eyes. "Yes, Vincent, you did!" she whispered. "You gave me more pleasure than I would ever have thought possible." She saw the joy and pride in his eyes, and went on with an impish grin. " And if you really want to know…it seemed to me I wasn't the only one to enjoy it…"

With a low growl he buried his face against her neck, holding her so tight she could hardly breathe.

"Oh, Catherine. I have no doubt that it was the greatest of joys for me. I wanted you so much…" his lips left the hollow of her throat to travel slowly up her neck and jaw, his hot breath leaving a trail of fire on her skin. " My Catherine!" he whispered huskily, before claiming her lips.

He kissed her hungrily, reaching for all she had to give. All his restraints seemed to have gone and his hands ran eagerly on her body, grasping her waist, kneading her breasts, fumbling with her clothes to reach her bare skin. Her own desire flared up and she answered with equal passion, but when he rose, holding her in his arms, and headed for the bed, she suddenly had doubts. This was happening too quickly, too much like it had in the cavern, and she didn't want it to happen like that a second time. Vincent didn't seem to be completely himself, and if he was going to make love to her again, it had to be because he wanted to, not because he couldn't help it! She pulled back from his lips and he let her go reluctantly. She looked into his darkened eyes.

"Vincent she said softly, Vincent, are you sure?"

He looked at her as if he was awakening from a dream, and silently put her back on her feet. Straightening her clothes, she went to sit in his chair, while he settled on the edge of the bed, still slightly panting, his head down. Finally he spoke, avoiding her eyes.

"Forgive me ,Catherine, I lost myself, I did not mean to..."

"I did! "she retorted, grinning.

" Catherine…" she felt his unease.

"I'm sorry, Vincent, I didn't intend to shock you. I'll try to behave. I'll be here for a long time and I wouldn't want you to feel uncomfortable with my presence Below."

" A long time, Catherine?" he enquired cautiously.

"Well, I haven't had much time to think things over yet, but…we both know this baby should be born Below"

He bowed his head. "Catherine, the risks for you…all because this child is mine and could..."

"Vincent, don't you dare blame yourself! Not for being you! I want this child because it's yours, and I wouldn't have it another way! Besides, I don't see what risks you're talking about. Mary is a very competent midwife…and I'll have the two best doctors in the world to watch over me."

"I know that, Catherine, but…"

"No buts! Everything will be all right, I promise you! Don't you trust me, Vincent?"

He couldn't help smiling. "Yes, I do, my Catherine, I trust you."

"Good! Now as soon as Joe gets out of the hospital I'm going to send him my letter of resignation."

" You cannot give up your job! I know how important it is to you."

"Nothing is more important to me than you, and our child!" she saw the look in his eyes and mellowed." But if it can make you feel better, I can ask for an indefinite leave of absence, for 'personal reasons'. But I can't risk being seen Above for at least six months. The less people there will know about my pregnancy, the better!"

He sighed, and nodded his approval. She was right of course, brooding was no use, now they had to think of what was best for their child…and for them. Emboldened by this thought, he softly ventured a question.

"And, after that, what will you do, Catherine?"

He had surprised her again. She hadn't expected that subject to come up so soon and a sudden flare of hope made her catch her breath. Could he really mean…? She looked at him intently, trying to read his face. She tried to keep her voice steady as she answered carefully.

"After that, we will have very important choices to make. For us, for our child." She hesitated briefly and went on. "I know what I want to do, I've known it for a long time, and now I'm even more sure about it…but it has to be our decision, not mine alone." She searched his eyes but found no hint of a reaction, he was waiting for her to continue. "We don't have to hurry anything, take all the time you need to think it over…All I ask of you is to be fair to yourself, Vincent. Listen to what your heart tells you…and when you feel sure of what you really want our life to be, we'll talk about it again."

He felt tears burning his eyes. She wanted to stay! She was ready to share her life with him, and the only reason she hadn't said it in so many words was to allow him time to wrestle with his doubts. Such love and acceptance washed away his last hesitations. He wouldn't deny her anymore, nor would he deny himself. All he had always wanted was now his for the taking, and the fulfillment of their dream was at hand. He only had to take one final step toward love. He only had to ask.

Rising swiftly, he came to kneel in front of her, holding her expectant eyes.

" Stay, Catherine!" he whispered. Sitting back on his heels he circled her waist and buried his face against her stomach. "Please, stay!"

He heard her gasp with incredulous joy and felt the caress of her hands in his hair, then she gently pushed him back up to face her. " Why, Vincent?" she asked softly, "Why are you asking me to stay Below? Please, I need to know."

He nodded, but remained silent for a few seconds, that seemed an eternity to Catherine. Finally he spoke, his voice deep and throaty. "I am asking you to stay Below, Catherine, because here I can watch over you, over both of you, and keep you safe from harm." He saw the disappointment in her eyes and smiled tenderly. "It is one reason, it is not the only one…" He lay a gentle hand on her abdomen." Our child will need the presence and love of both his parents. I am asking you to stay Below so that we can raise it together…so that we can be…a family."

She beamed and nodded, but still looked at him expectantly. He took her hand, his blue gaze luminous with emotion. "But most of all, Catherine, I am asking you to stay because I love you, and I cannot stand to live without you any longer. I need you here, in my world, in my life. Now we can be together, truly together, at last, as we have dreamed to be, and I want to watch over you, care for you, and love you until my last breath…if you will have me."

Her only answer was an inarticulate moan as she fell on his chest and clung to him, crying tears of joy and relief. Much as she had craved for him to say these words, she hadn't expected him to come to terms with his doubts so easily, and she marveled at the quiet confidence in his voice as he acknowledged and expressed his deepest longings. He held her for a long time, whispering her name again and again as she sobbed quietly. Finally she found her voice. "If I will have you! Oh, Vincent, how could you ever doubt it? There's nothing I could want more than to stay here with you and our child for the rest of my life."

They gazed at each other, their hearts brimming with happiness, and slowly their lips came together. Their kiss was long and deep, tinged with passion, but without the urgency they had felt before. They had all the time in the world, now.

Vincent drew slowly and reluctantly away and got up. "Catherine, it is late, and you are tired. Let me walk you back to your chamber."

In a second she was up on her feet, and indignant look on her face.

"Vincent! You're not sending me away again, are you? You may have misunderstood, but when I agreed to stay here, I meant right here, in your…our chamber."

"Catherine…"

" My dearest love, we're going to spend our whole lives together. Surely you don't expect it to be on a platonic basis? I tell you, Vincent, that's not an option!"

He couldn't help smiling. "Definitely not, Catherine, as I certainly could not stand it…but we have something else to consider." He put a loving hand on her stomach. "In your condition, you have to be careful…and I cannot trust myself completely …if I ever were to…"his face became grim.

It was her turn to smile. "So that's why? I should have guessed. It's only normal that you should feel that fear, I think all expectant fathers do, at some level…but most of the time their fear is unfounded. If the pregnancy's normal, and mine is, there's no particular risk to the baby… or very few of them would ever be born! Do you think other couples stay away from each other for nine months? She chuckled softly. "My friend Nancy Tucker even told me once that was when she'd felt at her best for it!"

"Catherine!"

"It's logical, Vincent, a woman's body has been made to bear children, and to be loved by a man."

"Catherine, I am not…like other men…"

She looked straight into his eyes.

"In this particular aspect, my love, you are! Sorry if I shock you, but on a…strictly technical point of view, I didn't notice any outstanding differences…at least not any that weren't in your favor…" she added with a mischievous grin.

He averted his eyes and blushed slightly. "Oh, Catherine, if only I could be sure…"

"I know you'd like to have medical confirmation first, but I'm not sure Father's advice would be completely unbiased on this particular issue."

"We should tell him."

"We will, but it'll take him some time to get over the shock, and even more to be able to reconsider his cherished certainties. Peter's opinion would be better, but he's not available for the moment. We'll ask Mary. Will you believe her if she tells you it's all right?"

He nodded and blushed again at the idea of discussing such a subject with Mary. Catherine seemed to be so matter-of-fact about it… She put her arms around his neck. "But please, let me sleep here with you tonight. That chamber Father gave me is about two miles away, and I'm tired. I promise you I'll behave. I just don't want to be apart from you any more!"

With a sigh he surrendered to her pleading eyes and pulled her into his warm embrace. "Neither do I, my Catherine. This chamber is now yours too, and will be forever." She rewarded him with a gentle kiss.

"The nightgown Mary lent me must be in that faraway chamber, do you think I could borrow one of your shirts?" Without answering, he went to a closet and fumbled in a drawer to retrieve something hidden at the bottom. He handed it to her with a somewhat sheepish smile. "This was waiting for you." he said softly.

With a small cry of surprise she unfolded the gown she had been wearing while he nursed her after her attack.

"Vincent, you kept it!"

"I found myself unable to part from it…" She only nodded, not sure if she wanted to burst into tears or rape him on the spot, and hastily headed for the adjacent bathing chamber. When she came back he had his nightshirt on and was writing in his journal. He watched her climb on his bed -their bed- and slip under the covers with a contented sigh. He could hardly believe it was true, and his mind reeled at the thought that from now on, it would be the same every night. He recapped his pen and closed his journal, he had been unable to write a word, the events of the day would take some pondering before he could lay them on the paper. He rose and went to the entrance to close the curtain that shut it from the passage. Then he went around the chamber to blow the candles, progressively getting closer to the bed where the woman he loved was waiting for him. Her luminous eyes never left him, her serene smile silently promising him that it was all right, that everything was as it was meant to be.

The chamber gradually disappeared in the shadows, until all the light and warmth in the world seemed to center on the bed, and Catherine on it, bathed in the flickering golden glow of the stained glass window. He remained still, filling his eyes with the heavenly vision, not daring to move for fear it would vanish.

"Vincent?"

Slowly, almost reverently, he eased himself into the bed, trying not to touch her, but she instantly closed the distance between them and snuggled against him.

"Catherine!" he moaned.

She felt him tense as he fought to control the immediate reaction of his body, and soothingly stroked his chest.

"Shh, it's all right, darling. I promised to behave and I will, I just need to feel your arms around me."

She held perfectly still, not wanting to make things too difficult for him, keeping a firm hold on her own desire. She relaxed in his arms, enjoying his closeness and the exhilarating certitude to be at last where she truly belonged, and she could feel his tension ease gradually, until his breathing and heartbeats came back to a normal rhythm.

Vincent was grateful for her immobility. Mastering his body's desires was something he'd become an expert at ever since he'd met Catherine, but since his illness he had found it increasingly difficult, and now he understood why. Somehow his body must have remembered, a part of him knew they could be together that way. Maybe soon they would… he pushed away the thought as it did nothing to help his self-control. Right now he was content to have her in his arms. She loved him, she was his, she never was going to go away! This knowledge and the contact of her warm trusting body were enough to fulfill his deepest longings, heal his oldest wounds. Never since the happy days of his early childhood had Vincent felt so at peace with himself.

Rising from a deep forgotten place, a low rumbling sound started in his throat, gradually building into a loud purr of contentment. He didn't realize it until Catherine's delighted chuckle startled him to a stop.

"I didn't know you could do that, Vincent!"

"I…I was not aware of it…it has not happened to me for many years." He was a bit embarrassed by what he thought an 'animal-like' display, but she snuggled closer.

"Please don't stop! I love it…I love you!"

He gently kissed the top of her head.

"I love you, Catherine, sleep, now."

Holding his love close, he let the deep soothing sound rise again, to lull them both into a peaceful sleep.

*****

Catherine woke up slowly, reluctant to let go of what she thought was a wonderful dream, only to find herself in an even more wonderful reality. She was in Vincent’s bed, in Vincent’s arms, she could feel the silky fur of his chest under her cheek, and the unique musky scent of his filled her lungs. She had never felt so close to him, and not only physically. She was bathed in warm feelings of love and contentment, as if he held her soul itself in his loving embrace, as if his heart was beating in her own chest…as if they were one…

He pulled her closer and she felt kisses on her hair and brow, while a hot wave of desire swept over her. His desire. She was feeling Vincent’s emotions! She lifted her head to face him and met his darkened eyes.

"Vincent, I…" He trailed a caressing finger across her lips.

"Shh! Later." He husked. His mouth came down upon hers in a gentle kiss while his hands started a slow exploration of her body. The growing passion she felt in him left no doubt about his intentions, and she was elated he had overcome his lingering fears, and was at last going to make love to her. Her own desire quickly flared up and she tried to keep a firm hold on it, careful not to crowd Vincent, as his restraint, and the bond, told her of his need to take it slow, to remain in full control. Not so much, she realized, for fear some dark power might still lurk in the depths of his passion for her, but more because this time he wanted to love her in complete awareness, and savor every moment of it. This time would not be hurried…

She relaxed trustingly in his arms and opened herself fully to the sensations his mouth and hands evoked in her, knowing he shared every one of them, feeling his joy and pride at her responses, and his own pleasure at discovering her.

Soon their nightclothes were discarded, and for the first time they drank in the sight of each other. As Vincent’s confidence grew, his hands and mouth demanding more, his voice whispering soft words of love and desire in her ear, Catherine felt her consciousness slowly dissolve into a warm golden haze, aware only of Vincent, of his hard body against hers, of his love flowing on her through the bond, of the passion steadily growing in both of them, and she wanted only to feel him closer still, to drown herself into him.. Then, knowing neither of them could wait any more, he joined their bodies at last and led them as one into the golden light.

For a long time afterwards they remained silent, holding each other close, while their breathing and heartbeats slowly came back to a normal rhythm. There was nothing they could have said that didn’t already vibrate through their bond, and what they had just experienced was beyond words.

Finally Catherine spoke, remembering the question she had been about to ask just before… "Vincent, how…?"

" I don’t know, Catherine. When I woke up, a little before you did, I realized our connection was back, even stronger that it was before. I suppose I had been unconsciously blocking it since my illness, as I did with my memories…probably so I would not have to face what had happened…"

" But now I can feel you too!"

He sighed. " Maybe you always could. Maybe I was the one…"

She knew he was right. As long as Vincent loathed and distrusted a part of himself, how could he have let her see into his innermost soul ? His unconscious mind had blocked that part of their bond to protect her from his "Beast" side… and to protect himself from a possible rejection. But that protection was no more necessary now he seemed to have come to terms with his old fears.

He rose on an elbow to gaze down into her eyes.

" Your love, Catherine, your love made me whole, your acceptance of me made me able to fully accept what I am…for I love you with all of what I am, I know that now. I know what you always knew, that no part of me would ever hurt you. I remember, now, I remember what happened in the cavern. I had stopped fighting, the darkness had taken over, and when I felt your presence, there was only one way I could protect you from myself…"

She clung to him, tears in her eyes. "Oh, Vincent, if I had lost you…"

He kissed her softly. "But something held me from falling. Something was tugging at me, pulling me back, I recognized your voice calling me, I felt your anguish. There was no way I could resist it…" a hint of a smile came on his lips "…and neither could I resist what happened afterwards. Our love saved me, Catherine, and logically claimed it’s fulfillment…" his smile widened "You were right, it was wonderful…and I did enjoy it very much…so much that when I remembered about it…I just had to love you again!"

She snuggled against him with a suggestive sigh. " And that was even more wonderful, my love!"

He caressed her stomach. "Now I can trust myself not to hurt our child. I am connected to it too, Catherine, I can feel it’s presence!"

She felt his love and wonder as he evoked the tiny life that was now a part of him, too, and it moved her deeply. "I love you, Vincent!"

" Catherine…there is a question I want to ask you, a question I should have asked long ago, but though part of me wanted to, I never felt I had the right…"

"You know you can ask me anything!"

"Will you marry me, Catherine?"

The wave of stunned joy that swept over him gave him the answer before she did. " Yes, yes, of course I will! Oh, Vincent…"

Before the passionate kiss that followed could develop into anything more, Vincent reluctantly drew away.

" I do not want to, but…we should get up. It will soon be breakfast time, and I think it would be a good idea to go there together…and let everyone know."

She kissed him briefly and got up to retrieve her gown on the floor. "All right…but shouldn’t we tell Father, first?"

He smiled. "I am sure we will meet him on the way. In fact, I am almost surprised he has not shown up yet."

She smiled. "Well, let's hope he hasn’t… Anyway I’d better get washed and dressed, I’ll be right back."

They had just finished getting ready and were heading for the entrance when Father came in. He frowned when he found them together and eyed them suspiciously. "Catherine? I didn’t expect to find you here at such an early time!"

Vincent looked straight into his father's eyes.

" You will get used to it, Father, as this chamber is now Catherine’s as well as mine. There is no reason for us to be apart any longer." He said in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone.

Father nearly choked. "Vincent! Are you out of your mind? Catherine is welcome Below, for as long as her safety will require, but you very well know that you can't…"

"Of course we can!" Catherine cut in with force." We did." She added, exchanging a loving, laughing look with Vincent. "Sorry if we didn't ask for your permission first!"

"Catherine…" said Vincent softly.

She calmed down immediately. "Sorry, Father, I know you're concerned about us…but you know I've always thought your fears were unfounded…"

"And I finally came to share her point of view." Vincent added with a smile. "My only regret is that it took me so much time to be able to overcome my fears, and trust what my heart was telling me. We could have spared ourselves a lot of pain, and avoided many a dramatic event."

She put a finger on his lips, so much love in her eyes and smile it tore at Father's heart.

"Shh, my love, it's over now, it's all in our past, we have the present to enjoy, and the future to care about."

Stunned as he was, Jacob Wells was not yet out of arguments.

"Well, I'm glad to know no harm was caused by…er… this change in your relationship, but you must be aware that other problems may arise."

"If they do, we will face them together, Father."

"Together? You don't seem to realize that you belong to different worlds, one day Catherine will have to go back Above, and it will be harder on both of you."

Catherine's chin went up and she faced the old man, a fierce look in her eyes.

"Is this really what you think of me, Father? Don't you know me any better by now? Can't you trust me just a little? Do you really think I could go back to my life Above as if nothing had happened?"

Vincent said nothing, but his eyes told he shared Catherine's indignation. Jacob Wells mellowed.

"No, of course, my dear, I know you truly care for Vincent, you proved it more than once, I just said it was not going to be easy."

"Nothing in our relationship ever was, Father, but after all we went through, Vincent and I deserve to be happy together at last…and we've decided that we will, whatever it takes!"

"I have asked Catherine to marry me, and she has accepted."

Father’s mind reeled. Vincent, married! That was unthinkable, but when he looked at the two of them, standing in front of him, the love between them shining forth like a thousand candles, it seemed so right…His certainties were weakening. Had he, of all people, been doubting his son’s essential humanity, and denying him the basic rights of every man because of his differences? Catherine had never had such doubts, neither had Devin, or, he now realized, the other Tunnel dwellers. Only a stubborn old man…

" I don’t know what to say…I suppose you know what you are doing…"

They had expected one of his legendary outbursts, and cast him a surprised and slightly concerned look. That was so little like him, and he suddenly looked old, and sad. They exchanged a glance, not sure of the effect their next piece of news would have on him.

"Father, there is something else that you don't know. We have only learned about it recently, and it will affect all the decisions we have to make about our future life." He tightened his arm around Catherine and straightened his shoulders with a proud smile.

"Catherine is pregnant with my child. Father, you are going to be a grandfather!"

*****

Joe Maxwell peeped through a crack in the screen that isolated the top of the stairs from the rest of the Great Hall. People kept arriving into the huge but already crowded cavern. Ordinary Topside citizens in their Sunday best, and Tunnel people with their beautiful middle-agish clothing, thousands of candles and flowers everywhere, the Great Hall was a sight! Joe still found it difficult to believe such a place could exist under the streets of Manhattan.

Turning back, he met Cathy's eyes and smiled to her. Sitting on a chair, she was feeding baby Jacob, and that, too, was a sight. He'd never seen her looking more beautiful. With those strange tapestries behind her, her white Tunnel-style dress, the flowers in her hair, and her serene, tender smile as she turned her face to her son, she looked just like a Madonna, and as different from the old business-like, always in a hurry, and occasionally short-tempered Cathy Chandler as it was possible. He sat down and closed his eyes, remembering the events that had led him there.

Shortly after he'd left the hospital, he'd had a surprise when buying himself a hot-dog on the street. His favorite vendor (Cathy's too, he'd realized) had slipped him a note, with only two words on it: "Same way" signed with a R, for Radcliffe.

It had been a difficult period for him. He was cautiously investigating, knowing he was being followed, not sure if he could trust anyone. He'd found evidence that his office, and his apartment, had been searched, and maybe even bugged. They were looking for that book, and he hoped Chandler had found herself a really safe place.

It had been a shock to find out the man called Gabriel had moles in the DA's office, and Moreno himself could not be trusted. After a few weeks, when he'd been sure he'd figured it out, he had asked for the book back, needing it as a proof. When Gabriel, Moreno, and quite a few others had been safely behind bars, he'd sent word to Cathy that she could reappear.

The answer had been of an unexpected sort. An invitation to dinner, in a small restaurant in Chinatown.

When he arrived, the owners, a young man named Henry Pei and his wife, greeted him warmly and led him…to the basement. In a small room a table was laid for three people, and Cathy was waiting for him. When she got up to greet him, he had the shock of his life. She was pregnant! Then she introduced him to the child's father, and that had been another kind of shock…

Joe sighed. He still felt a little uneasy about that part. One look at Vincent's hands had been enough to make him sure he'd found Cathy's mysterious and ruthless protector. During the meal they told him the whole story, and he wasn't really able to appreciate Henry's excellent cooking, torn between contradictory thoughts. Vincent had killed to protect Cathy, something Joe himself would had done without hesitation, if it had come to it. Only Vincent didn't need a gun, did that make a difference? It certainly did for Vincent, who obviously wasn't happy with that wild side of him…Legally speaking, Vincent was a murderer, but then what could Joe do? Take him to court? That would mean his death, or even worse, and Joe was under the strong impression that Chandler would kill anyone, or die herself, before she let such a thing happen. Apparently she'd risked her own life several times in the past to save Vincent.

Cathy was trusting Joe with her secret because she knew he'd never betray her. And she was right, so he'd laid his professional qualms to rest. Vincent was a fine guy, once you got over his intimidating looks, and it was obvious he and Cathy were madly in love. From what they'd told him, he could have a guess at all they'd been through… To think of Cathy keeping that secret for such a long time!

They told him of their intention to get married. The wedding was to take place after the birth, because Cathy didn't want to marry in a pregnancy dress, or 'waddle to the altar like a duck' as she'd laughingly said. She surprised Joe by asking him to give her away. As a friend of her parents', Peter Alcott would have been the obvious choice, but she insisted, adding with a mysterious smile that he and the black book had played a great part into bringing her and Vincent together at last…
 
 

He looked idly at the tapestries in front of him. What a strange, wonderful place these tunnels were! He remembered the first time they'd taken him down here, to meet a frowning old man everyone called Father, who had obviously been disagreeing with Vincent and Cathy's decision. When he knew him a little better, Joe was able to convince him this was a secret he'd have no trouble keeping. Things were very well as they were. Joe shuddered at the thought of the nightmare it would be for the City's law-enforcement people if the existence of the tunnels came to be widely known. Of all the gangs and criminals who'd use them as their refuge or their headquarters, of all the people who'd go down there for fun and get lost or injured, needing to be rescued, of the tremendous number of cops necessary to patrol only a small part of that endless maze…

The people who lived here did no harm. If anything, they made the City above a safer and sounder place, by the heavy maintenance work they did on that sometimes crumbling labyrinth, and the vigilant guard they kept against intruders.

And they'd built something beautiful, something that worked.

Joe did his best in his job, and so did a lot of people, but he didn't have too many illusions about it. The City was still a jungle, where the weak sometimes got crushed, and the bureaucratic system meant to help them often proved inefficient, at best. Particularly for the children…Those the Tunnel dwellers took in grew up surrounded by the love of a warm and caring extended family. They were obviously healthy, well fed, happy, and received a very high-standard education. It was certainly illegal, strictly speaking, but Joe could not make himself consider it as wrong! These people here respected the spirit of the law he'd sworn to uphold, if not it's letter, and it comforted him to know there was a place where the ideals he valued really applied, even on a small scale. Certainly he'd do nothing that could destroy it, or take away from fine people the only safe place they'd ever had, Vincent most of all.

In the last months, he'd often come to visit, and sometimes, while Cathy was resting, Vincent would take him around, showing him the wonders of his world. They'd talked, only superficially at first, cautiously establishing the ground for their relationship, but as Vincent felt more at ease with Joe, he finally told him of something that was bothering him. Even knowing Cathy was happy Below, he still felt guilty of robbing her of her life Above in the sunshine. Joe himself was not too happy with the idea of Cathy burying herself underground for the rest of her life, but as Vincent needed the protection of the tunnels, there was nothing much that could be done about that.

He changed his mind some time later, while casually talking with Jenny Aaronson, Cathy's friend, who'd also been let in on the Big Secret. From a few words she said, he gathered Chandler had similar worries, but concerning Vincent. Since she'd come to live Below, he'd given up wandering Above in the night to stay with her, and she feared he would eventually feel trapped in the tunnels, without even her balcony to escape to. What those two needed was a place of their own, a safe place that could be a bridge between the two worlds, just as their unique couple was. When they discussed it with them Vincent and Cathy agreed that might be a solution, if such a thing as a safe place could be found Above.

And that had resulted in Joe and Jenny going house-hunting. As if an overworked, freshly promoted DA had time to spare for that kind of thing! But it had been fun. Being with Jenny was fun… His eyes found her, sitting near Cathy, and she winked at him. She wore flowers in her hair, too, and looked lovely in her pale blue tunnel style dress, the same as the other bridesmaid, Jamie. He winked back, determined that he'd dance with her as often as he could, tonight…

Fun as they were, their expeditions had been unsuccessful at first, until a Helper signaled that a family he'd been doing small maintenance jobs for was moving to California, and their house, in which he'd noticed a tunnel entrance, was on sale. It was exactly what they'd been looking for. The house, a brownstone, was close to the Park. It was big enough for a family -apparently Cathy intended to have several other children and Vincent didn't seem to object- and had a second, smaller staircase that could be hidden, giving Vincent a safe access to the tunnels from any level. It also owned a tiny garden, protected by high walls, and the master bedroom opened on a balcony…The price was something, but Catherine Chandler could afford it, and soon the small family would move into it's new home. Cathy would have her life in the sunshine, after all…and so would Vincent.

Jacob Wells had been the hardest to convince, as usual. But he'd finally had to admit that Vincent would be safe there…and that all children had to leave home one day to lead their own life, even his very special son.
 
 

Little Jacob was through nursing, and his mother handed him to Mary. He was a cute kid, big and strong, with Vincent's blue eyes and blond hair, but that was apparently all he'd taken from his father. Vincent was relieved his son didn't look like him, but Joe knew Cathy would have been just as happy if he had. She'd never shared Vincent's worries about that, or about anything else concerning the baby, always serenely convinced everything would be all right.

She'd kept that serenity throughout a pregnancy that had driven the two family doctors frantic, as they'd thought it impossible to happen in the first place, because of some differences in Vincent's metabolism. Well, the very existence of Jacob proved those differences weren't so big, after all! But that didn't calm Peter Alcott and Jacob Wells. They insisted the pregnancy should be closely watched, and submitted Cathy to all sorts of tests, making poor Vincent almost crazy with worry, while Mary, who knew a healthy pregnant woman when she saw one, smiled and shrugged.

Peter had planned to have some emergency equipment brought Below, in case a Cesarean would be needed, still increasing Vincent's anxiety, and his guilty feelings about Cathy not giving birth in a hospital because of him.

Finally, Cathy momentarily lost her serenity and made it clear, in her most Chandler-like way – Joe regretted he'd not been there to witness that, it must have been something – that she was not the subject of some medical experiment, that all that agitation and worry were no good for her and the baby, and disastrous for Vincent, and that from then on Mary would take care of her, under the supervision of the two physicians. She held on to it, and the events proved her and Mary right, she gave birth without problem to a perfectly healthy child.

She recovered quickly, and a few weeks afterwards she showed up at the DA's office, Jacob in her arms as an evident explanation for her long absence. While the baby passed from arms to arms she chatted with her friends, deftly fending off questions about the child's father and where she'd spent the last months. She was still officially on leave, and when Edie asked her when she was coming back, something in her expression led Joe to hope he might be able to talk her back to his office some day, if only part time, and for desk work. As long as it involved no more danger Vincent wouldn't object, he knew how much she liked her job, and wanted her to have as normal a life as possible.

Catherine's head perked up. "Vincent's coming!" Joe shook his head. That bond of theirs was something he hadn't got used to yet, and maybe he never would…As an echo to Cathy's words steps hurried up the wooden stairs, and little Samantha appeared. "They'll soon be here, Father wants to know if you're ready!"

"Another two minutes!" answered Jenny, busying herself with Jamie around Cathy for a few last touches on her dress, hair, and make-up The child scurried out and Mary followed her, carrying the sleeping baby.

Joe looked into the Great Hall, now full with people. Some helpers and former tunnel dwellers had come from very far away to witness that major event, one that for them had the importance of a royal wedding . The kind of royal wedding you found at the end of fairytales, Joe mused… Vincent was the Prince of that underground kingdom, and the love Cathy and he shared had become a legend. Today, having overcome all the obstacles and fought all the dragons, they were at last going to be wed…and live happily ever after.

Suddenly music started, announcing the bridegroom's arrival. Everybody hushed and all the heads turned to the entrance. From where he was Joe couldn't see much, but the rumor running through the crowd told him Vincent had appeared. He finally caught a glimpse of him, golden and magnificent in his beautiful romantic clothes. Just behind him were that weird boy Mouse, almost behaving himself for once, and someone Joe had briefly known some time ago as Jeff Radler, and who'd turned out to be Vincent's brother, and best man, Devin Wells.

They were already halfway down the Hall, and Joe turned back to Cathy to get ready for their own entrance. She was literally shining with joy and happiness, and so radiantly beautiful he couldn't help a small wistful twinge. Vincent was one lucky guy…She came close to straighten his tie, and for a fleeting second he felt her lips on his, a touch so feathery light it could have been a dream. " Thanks for all, Joe." She whispered.

He smiled sheepishly, knowing Vincent must have been aware of that, wondering how he would react. He averted his eyes and met Jenny's mischievous grin. She knew, of course, that girl had a way of seeing through people that was almost frightening. She knew and didn't mind, as love for Cathy was something they had in common. He smiled back to her, Vincent wasn't the only lucky guy…

He offered Catherine his arm and they took place at the top of the stairs, the two girls behind them. The music changed to a triumphant march , and Joe led Catherine down the stairs to the Great Hall, where Vincent was waiting for her.
 
 

THE END