One Final Gift
He moved slowly through the deepest, darkest parts of the tunnels,far beneath the catacombs. Making his way as he did each year at thistime, the cavernous area he sought out as dark and full of holes ashis memory of what had transpired there.
Yet he was always drawn back. To where his life had both begun andended in a single moment. The place where his one reason forremaining on this earth &endash; his son, Jacob &endash; was created;a creation occurring in an event that, even to this day, he had norecollection of.
The light from his torch bounced off the tunnel walls, castinglong, menacing shadows all around him. Shadows that seemed to reachout for him, mocking him, whispering of secrets that he should, butdid not know. Riddles that they had kept locked away all these years,taunting him at every turn, but not divulging them to his achingheart. And so he returned again and again, hoping to finally discoverthose secrets and ease his tormented soul.
He turned a corner, a vision of his young son's face appearingbefore him, asking again why his father made this yearly journey. Whyhe took this pilgrimage alone, sometimes spending days away from hisloved ones. Pilgrimage. A smile briefly tugged at the corners of hismouth at the pronunciation his son gave the word, realizing its usehad to be the result of one of Father's talks with the boy. He'dtried to gently explain his reasoning for the yearly treks that tookhim far from their home but how do you make a twelve-year-oldboy understand such a complex thing? Even a boy as remarkably giftedas Jacob?
Finally he entered the darkened chamber &endash; the end of hislong journey &endash; and placed his torch in the holder carved intothe wall. The chamber had been used once, years ago, abandoned longbefore he had any memory of anyone living there. But someone musthave had use of it &endash; for why else would it be there?
His mind drifted to his first excursion into this deep, dark chasmafter Catherine's death. He'd fought with himself when his dark sidethreatened, as did his grief, to consume him. The beast withintaunted him, the sound of its evil laughter echoed in his head as ifit had actually bounced off the cavern walls. He had collapsed to thedirt floor, fighting against an invisible force whose only wish wasto devour him.
Defeated and alone, he'd nearly given up to that fiercecreature and then, in the flickering torchlight, he'd spied it.A luminescent object lying on the floor before him, half hidden bythe dirt. Her crystal pendant &endash; the necklace he'd presentedher on the first anniversary of their meeting. Catherine had reachedto him from Beyond, her warmth surrounding him as the memory of herlast words to him brought him something he'd thought he had lostforever &endash; hope. "We loved " As he heard her callout to him, telling him of the new life they'd created, he knew thenthat she would always be with him. Just as he knew she was with himnow.
While he loved Jacob with a passion paralleled only by his lovefor the boy's mother, still there was a void in his life. Anemptiness at the very core of his being that he somehow hoped couldbe lessened if only he could retain some memory of what happenedthat day all those years ago. The day that he'd been given the giftof Jacob and the day he'd lost the greatest gift he everreceived &endash; his bond with Catherine. The connection they'dshared &endash; the way they'd always known what the other wasfeeling and wanting &endash; had been irrevocably destroyed duringthat dark time in his life.
"Catherine," he whispered reverently as he sank to his knees inthe middle of the chamber. "Please " he pleaded softly, notquite certain just what he was begging for. His long fingers fumbledfor the leather pouch that never left his possession. Inside heretrieved the ivory rose she had gifted him in exchange for thecrystal pendant. He had always considered his gift from her to be themore precious of the two &endash; though all he had truly needed wasthe love he had seen shimmering in her eyes.
He cradled the carved piece of ivory gently in his large andpowerful hands, his fingers tracing lightly over the rose's raisededges. Its edges were worn and discolored from the loving attentionhe'd lavished upon it in all the years passed. He sighed heavily,feeling the crushing weight of his sorrow once again overpoweringhim. Tears fell from his cerulean blue eyes to rest upon bronzecheeks and he wondered if he would ever be able to recall Catherinewithout the intense pain he now felt. If only he could remember thelove they had shared in this cavern; perhaps then he could find thestrength to let go.
A soft roaring sound, like the rush of water, started to build inthe small room. Vincent's brow furrowed as he tried to determine thesource. As each second passed, the sound grew in intensity, becominglouder and more violent and he came to the shocking realization ofwhat the sound was. It was him &endash; or rather an echo of himselffrom when he'd gone into seclusion in this chamber. The snarls grewso deafening that he threw his hands over his ears to try and escapethe sound.
Sensing a presence in the chamber entrance, he glanced up. He sawCatherine standing in the archway, seeming so real that he nearlyrose to his feet to go to her. The growling came from behind him now,and he turned, stunned to see an image of what had been. Unkempt andferal, the beast before him paced and snarled, lashing out at everyturn. Vincent's eyes widened in terror, seeing his fear mirrored inCatherine's eyes as the beast spied her.
"Vincent!" Growling and baring its teeth the monstrous creaturelunged for her. It raised its arm as if to strike. "VINCENT!"
Vincent watched as the beast paused &endash; he had difficultyreconciling himself to the knowledge that the creature he saw was, infact, a reflection of what he'd been on that fateful day. Thecreature's eyes blinked, taking on a confused look, and the armslowly moved downward. He felt his own heartbeat slow as he watchedhis former self fall forward, Catherine stumbling under the deadweight suddenly thrust upon her.
She gently placed the limp figure on the ground. The beats cameslower and slower until they stopped altogether; Vincent gulped inhuge breaths of air, alarmed by the deafening silence. Catherinegazed fretfully at the prone form in front of her, her eyes driftingacross his face.
HIS face! Vincent suddenly found himself lying beside her &endash;taking the place of the creature in his vision. Though he knew hiseyes were closed, still he saw her face as she gazed down at him,concern in her eyes.
"Vincent " Catherine whispered, the sound barely escaping herthroat. On her knees beside him, her hand pressed against his chest,feeling frantically for a heartbeat that was no longer there."No " she cried, shaking her head. One ear dropped to his chestand she gripped both shoulders tightly. "No!" she said morevehemently.
Her face came back up into Vincent's field of vision and he felt ahand at his throat, once again searching for a pulse. "No!" Catherinepleaded again, her head dropping to his chest in despair. "NO!" sheuttered one final time, the word coming out as a low pain-filledgrowl. Her head rose once more to gaze upon his face.
"Vincent Vincent! You can't!" she commanded, her eyessearching for something &endash; anything &endash; that might let herknow he heard her. "You can't! Not without me! I won't let you!"Vincent felt her head fall against his chest, her arms wrappingthemselves about his large frame. "I won't let you "
Catherine's face once again moved into his field of vision, paleand drawn, her eyes haunted as she gazed down upon him. Her face fellout of focus as it dropped down toward his own and Vincent felt herlips brush across his. Light at first, and then harder &endash; as ifshe were trying to force her own life-force into him, trying to bringhim back to her.
thump-thump. Vincent heard the faint sound of a heartbeat&endash; felt it stir within his own chest. thump-thump. Thesound grew louder and a warmth began to envelop him; a tingling thatbegan at his lips and quickly spread throughout his body.Thump-thump. Catherine's body pressed against him, he felt herhands gently caressing his cheeks as she continued to kiss him.Vincent's lips parted and he drew her lower lip into his mouth,lightly sucking on it.
His arm wrapped around her when, startled, she attempted to pullaway; his hand wove its way into the silkiness of her hair, holdingher mouth firmly on his as he tentatively stroked across her lipswith the tip of his tongue. 'I've waited too long for this&endash; too long,' he thought wildly. 'And I'll be damned if I'lldeny myself this any longer.'
Were those thoughts from long ago that filtered through his mind,he briefly wondered, or what he was feeling now. Deep down, somesmall part of him knew that all he was experiencing was but amemory but he could feel her, could smellher, could taste her &endash; as if Catherine were truly inhis arms again. Incredible sensations flowed through every inch ofhis body, stirring him, until he no longer could differentiatebetween past and present.
Nor did he wish to. However it had happened, Catherine was herewith him, and she was as real as she had ever been. He could feel theweight of her body as she lay across him, could feel strands of herhair between his fingers; her hands gripping his shoulders as sheopened her mouth to allow his eager tongue to slip inside. This wasall he'd ever imagined it could be and more, and he felt all hisfears about what he might have done to her fall away in that moment.Catherine was here &endash; in his arms &endash; her lips readilyaccepting the attention he was lavishing upon them.
And she was stirring his senses in such a way that he'd never felt&endash; before or since. Not Lena, not Diana, not even Lisa had everenflamed him as the woman in his arms now did. He wanted her, neededher; no other woman would ever fill the space in his heart and soulthat belonged solely to her. His Catherine.
Firm but gentle hands pushed at his shoulders and Vincentreluctantly let his arms slip from around her. "Don't leave me," heheard his own voice plead, weak and gravelly. She sat beside him andgazed down into his eyes, smiling tenderly, her expression full oflove.
"Never," Catherine whispered to him, brushing a hand tenderlyacross his golden head. "All I wish for is to be at your side,Vincent. Always and forever." She shrugged her overcoat off andsnuggled down next to him, her arms slipping about his waist,contented with just holding him close to her.
But for him it was not enough. He longed for more and sensed thatshe did as well, though she would never admit it. He tilted her faceup to meet his own and his mouth found hers, his thumb and forefingergently gripping her chin. A soft moan slipped from her mouth to his,and she seemed to melt into him, the two becoming one. Vincentfeasted upon her lips, his hand moving across her cheek to cradle herhead in his large palm. A soft growl rose in his throat as she drewaway from him a second time.
"Are you sure?" Catherine asked softly, raising a hand to brushhair from his eyes. It glided across his temple and down his cheek.Vincent's arms slipped around her waist and, shifting slightly, hepulled her atop him. His gaze fixed on hers, he held her tightlyagainst him, proving to her just how certain he was.
"But, Vincent " Catherine protested weakly; Vincent saw herconcern for him in her eyes, yet there was a fire there also &endash;one that would not be stamped out this time. Not if he could help it.He lifted his head, seeking out and capturing her mouth once again.His arms wrapped firmly around her, Vincent turned, until they layside-by-side. He would have continued, wanting to feel her bodybeneath him, but she stopped him, her strength surprisinglygreat.
"No," she admonished gently, kissing his cheek before leaning into whisper in his ear, "Together. Always, Vincent, we travel thisroad together." It took him a moment to realize what Catherine meant&endash; this was to be a joint effort, neither taking the dominantrole &endash; and he sighed, appreciating that her worry had yet tocompletely abate. He felt her lips at his throat as she placedfeathery light kisses to the sensitive flesh between neck andshoulder. He tightened his grip on her, wanting to mold her body tohis.
Catherine was right, he realized this was more than just thejoining of their bodies &endash; more than a physical comingtogether. Their two souls, though already bonded, were now to becomeone. This was where their two roads merged &endash; what he couldhave had long ago, if only he hadn't given in to his own fears. He'dallowed that fear to control him, nearly depriving himself of thegreatest gift that love can give.
Cupping her face in his powerful, but gentle hands, Vincent liftedher gaze up to meet his own. Catherine's love for him shone in thedepths of her green eyes and he felt as if he were being drawn intothem. His lips melded with hers; one taloned hand moved into her softhair and held her mouth tightly against his own.
Catherine moaned into his mouth; one arm slipped around his waistas she snuggled tight against him. His free hand moved slowly downher back until it reached the hem of her sweater. He hesitated only amoment before allowing the hand to drift underneath and he tracedsmall circles into the small of her back. Catherine's back arched,trying to move into the caress and a soft sigh escaped from herlips.
One small hand slipped between them; Vincent felt the slenderfingers make their way up his chest before brushing across his cheek.He leaned into the hand and pressed his lips to her palm. Both of hishands slipped beneath her sweater and stroked her back; his long,tapered nails &endash; deadly when used in anger - pressed gentlyinto her skin as they traced her spine.
Cradling his face in her hands, Catherine pulled back and lookedlongingly into his eyes. "I love you, Vincent," she whisperedreverently, her green eyes brimming with tears. She swallowed hard,her eyes fluttering closed and Vincent leaned in to bestow a kissupon each moist eyelid, tasting the saltiness of her tears.
His hands trailed down her spine to the small of her back and thencurled around her hips, bringing her flush against him. Catherine'seyes flew open and she gazed into Vincent's blue eyes, their ceruleandepths darkened by desire. Large furred hands found her waist and asoft smile rose to Catherine's face as those hands fumbled nervouslywith the fastenings of her slacks.
"Vincent " she whispered, her hand moving to cover his. Theirgazes locked upon each other's and, though she did not speak it,Vincent could clearly hear her say, 'Let me.'
She sat up momentarily and glanced around the room, causingVincent to wonder if she had changed her mind. Then she smiled again,her eyes lighting up as if just making a great discovery, and shereached behind her for her discarded overcoat. Vincent's brows drewtogether and he sighed.
Noticing his forlorn expression, Catherine bent down to sweep ahand across the side of his face, her thumb gently tracing his lowerlip. She gazed longingly at him as she opened her coat and spread itout on the ground beside him and knelt down upon it.
"You didn't think I would leave you?" she asked softly. "Alwaysand forever, Vincent remember?" She slipped her pumps off herfeet and Vincent grinned in spite of himself at the sight of herwriggling her toes. "Habit," she said with a smile. She bent down andhelped him move onto one side of the blanket she had made of hercoat.
Catherine paused, suddenly seeming a bit uncertain and nervous.Vincent knew what she was feeling, for, he too, was experiencing thesame emotions. They had already gone, in the last few moments, muchfarther than they had ever before. But, this last step &endash; therewas no turning back once they crossed this threshold.
He gazed up at the face of the woman he loved as she knelt besidehim, looked into the depths of her green eyes and knew that this feltright. All of his doubts melted away at the sight of the love inthose eyes, eyes that had seen him at his darkest and had not turnedaway. She'd stood her ground &endash; even as he'd prepared to attack&endash; because she trusted that, deep down, he would never hurther.
He felt so undeserving of that trust, undeserving of her love. Forwhat did he know of love, other than that which he had read in books?He knew of the love of a parent to a child &endash; for that is whatFather had bestowed upon him from the start. He knew of a child'slove &endash; for the children of the tunnels gave that to him inabundance. And the love of a friend &endash; friends &endash; for allof the tunnel dwellers and their Helpers looked out for him, as wellas for each other.
But this love, this was a far different &endash; all-consuming&endash; love. Full of powerful emotions that had been so heady andfearsome while he'd been growing into adulthood. When he had beenunable to handle them with Lisa. He'd not understood what washappening to him &endash; only that, in the end, both he and Lisa hadbeen frightened beyond words. And Father unknowingly compounded thosefears by sending Lisa away.
"Vincent." He blinked, Catherine's voice bringing him out of hisreverie. The uncertainty that had marked her face was gone, replacedby determination and love. The love was always there, had alwaysbeen there.
When they'd first met, he had been the teacher. Showing her thatshe had survived &endash; could survive; teaching her to trust again,in herself and others. Now they had come to a place where Vincent hadto let Catherine take the lead &endash; let her teach him. Just asshe had taught him how to dream dream of a life they couldshare, a love they could share.
And now that love was about to take one final step. Vincentwatched as his love, Catherine, a tender smile still upon her face,slowly shed her clothing and came to lie beside him. Nervous, hisgaze stayed focused upon her face, but for a few quick and fleetingglimpses of her slender form.
Lying on her side next to him, Catherine propped herself up on herright arm, her hand resting underneath her cheek, and leaned towardhim. "You do blush," she whispered with a small chuckle. "I'dwondered " Leaning a bit further, so that she was slightly overhim, she bent down and brushed across his lips with her own. She tookhis right hand and brought it over to rest on her hip; Vincentreflexively drew it back quickly, his face flushing even more.
"Vincent, it's okay to touch me," she chided gently. Taking hishand again, she brought it up to her face, brushing the back of itagainst her cheek. "I won't break I promise."
Catherine released his hand and it hovered there a moment, Vincentfeeling the silky softness of the cheek beneath his touch, before heslowly traced down her jaw line with his fingertips. They traileddown the length of her neck and across her bare shoulder and shesighed, her eyes closed. Then his fingers closed around her upper armand he felt her tremble.
"Catherine you're chilled."
"It's okay, Vincent. I won't be for long." His blush threatened todeepen as he came to understand the meaning of her words. Blue eyeslooked into green and he saw her slight nod, a silent and gentleurging for him to continue his exploration.
His hand traveled the length of her arm, pausing as their fingersentwined and she squeezed them gently. Catherine leaned into him ashis fingers traced her hip, causing his hand to caress the soft curveof her behind. Vincent's eyes widened at the sound of her breathcatching, concerned for a second that he had done something wrong.Then he saw the smile on her face and relaxed.
"Vincent?" she questioned softly as he felt her slender fingersbrush across his waist. He saw the hunger in her eyes, knowing itmatched his own, and mutely nodded, afraid that speaking his assentaloud would somehow break the spell.
Catherine worked on unfastening his pants, Vincent lifting his hipfrom the ground as she slipped them off him. He drew in a sharpbreath of his own as her hands brushed across his hips and behind asshe did so. His hair was finer there than on the rest of his body,yet still more prominent than that of other men, and he couldn't helpbut wonder what Catherine would think.
Catherine removed the pants and drew his lower leg forwardslightly, a shudder running through him as her fingers traced thehair on the back of his calves. Straightening his left arm so it layflat across the floor, she moved up and rested her cheek on hisbicep, tilting her gaze until it met his. She leaned into him andtheir lips met in a kiss. She snuggled up against him, her right handflat against his chest as her left one wound itself into his goldenmane.
"Catherine " Vincent groaned as their bodies pressedtogether. His skin felt aflame where it touched hers; he felt hisheart beat faster under the warm pressure of her hand. He shudderedinvoluntarily as her hand sifted through his long hair and drifteddown his back, slipping underneath his shirt to stroke the soft downof fur on his back.
For her part, Catherine showed no outward reaction to thedifferences between Vincent and the other men she'd been with in herlife. If anything, she seemed more determined to get closer to him,her hand gently squeezing the muscles of his back and sides. Sherained kisses upon his face and mouth; all the while her body beganto slowly rock against his.
"Shh " Catherine replied, her mouth turned up into a tendersmile. Leaning his body back slightly, she draped her left leg overhis hip and carefully guided him inside her. She gasped softly as herbody adjusted to his size, then moved against him, coaxing him into aslow and gentle rhythm.
Vincent reveled in the feel of her body joining with his, thewarmth of her leg across his hip. He exhaled sharply as the legtightened around his backside, drawing him further into her.Instinctively his arms encircled her; the left hand curling into hersoft tresses as the right one dared to drift down her back to thecurve of her behind.
Catherine moaned softly as his fingers squeezed the soft flesh;she nuzzled his neck, her lips finding the tender spot between neckand shoulder. The hand at the back of her head tilted her face towardVincent's and he captured her lips with his own in a searing kiss. Akiss filled with long-repressed passion.
Their passion building, their bodies moved faster, clingingtightly to one another as the fire consumed them both. Again andagain their bodies met, Catherine whimpering softly against Vincent'smouth. Their breaths came hard and fast; their heartbeats racing intandem, as though the two hearts had become one.
The fire burning within him grew; the soft sounds emanating fromCatherine telling him that she too was nearing the culmination ofeverything they shared together. Burying her head against hisshoulder she cried out softly, her body tensing in his embrace.Catherine's actions triggered his own release and Vincent drew herclose to him as he rode the wave that engulfed him.
"Catherine " he murmured her name as he nuzzled her hair,planting a tender kiss to the top of her head. He collapsed on hisback, drawing her on top of him, unwilling to let her go now thatthey were finally joined. The only sound in the chamber was that oftheir heavy breathing. Catherine's hand, having moved to his chest ashe'd rolled onto his back, was now gently circling through the softhair there, her head resting upon his other shoulder.
Vincent groaned softly as she slipped from his body to lie at hisside, her hands moving from his chest and encircling his waist. Hisheart rate slowly returning to normal, Vincent's eyes flutteredheavily. He was tired but it was a pleasant feeling, warm andsoft like the woman at his side. His woman &endash; hislove his Catherine.
Her head resting firmly on his shoulder, Catherine tilted her gazeto look upon his leonine features. Her hand moved from his waist tobrush through his long, golden locks. His eyes opened and foundhers.
"Catherine " he started, wondering how he could ever trulyexpress what he was feeling.
"Shh " Catherine replied, placing her hand to his lips. Sherose up, her mouth drawing his into a soft kiss. Gently strokingacross his cheek with her thumb, she whispered, "Rest now, my love."Vincent's heart pounded at the words she spoke. She swept her handsoftly through his hair, leaning down to kiss his eyelids as theyclosed.
"I love you, Catherine," he said quietly, his words slurredslightly as he drifted towards sleep.
"And I love you, Vincent," Catherine responded, her hand stillstroking his soft mane of hair. She kissed him tenderly."Always."
"Catherine!" Vincent bolted upright, glancing frantically aroundthe dimly lit chamber. She had seemed so real &endash; he could stillfeel the softness of her skin, could still smell the sweet fragranceof her hair. His head bowed, a single tear glided down one cheek.Once again, he was alone.
"Always and forever, Vincent remember?" Her voice rangout in the quiet and he felt a weight being lifted from his heart. Hesmiled through his tears.
"Always and forever, Catherine."
Father paced in his library, growing increasingly more worried asVincent's scheduled return had come and gone some time ago. He'dthought, foolishly perhaps, that as the years passed Vincent would nolonger feel the need to immerse himself in solitude on theanniversary of Jacob's conception. Had hoped his son could come toterms with his loss.
He knew there were days when the melancholy would strike, as itdid for him on what would be his own anniversary with his dearMargaret. But, for Vincent, the pain always seemed so fresh. Hesighed heavily, and the pacing continued.
"You worry far too much, Father."
"Vincent!" the older man cried, moving to embrace the man he washonored to call 'son'. "Thank God!"
"Is something wrong?" Vincent asked, concern in his voice.
"No no. I am just glad that you have returned." Father saidquickly. "Vincent, I just do not understand why you insist on theseyearly pilgrimages. Why must you torture yourself " he paused ashe noticed the expression on the younger man's face. "Vincent? Areyou all right? You seem different." He sat down in his favoritechair, Vincent sitting down across from him.
"I feel different, Father," Vincent admitted softly. Hesighed, a tender smile lighting up his face. "Catherine " hestarted, words catching in his throat as he tried to figure out howto explain what he had experienced. "I could see her face, could feelthe warmth of her in my arms I can't explain how or why, Father,but somehow, Catherine was there with me."
"I remembered, Father," Vincent broke in, not allowing the olderman's doubts to creep into his mind. "Catherine gifted me with themost amazing &endash; the most treasured memory I shall everpossess."
"You remembered?" Father asked incredulously. "You andCatherine? You remembered what happened there?"
"Yes," Vincent responded, a sense of peace washing over hisfeatures. "It was remarkable and beautiful and beyond anydescription I could ever articulate in words."
Jacob Wells looked at his son, the fine and noble man he hadnurtured and loved from a small babe, and marveled again at theextraordinary love he and Catherine had shared. How could he denyVincent's claim &endash; so many times their love had far exceededthe limits society had dictated for it. So many times had he seenjust what that love could accomplish. So how could he doubt that whathis son was telling him now was anything but the truth?
He placed a comforting hand on Vincent's shoulder. "I'm so pleasedfor you, my son. But why now? Why, after all these years havepassed, did your memory of this time return now?"
Vincent sat silently for a long moment, his eyes focused onsomething only they could see. "I do not know for certain, Father,why Catherine chose this moment to reveal this memory to me. I canonly hazard a guess "
"Which is?" Father gently prodded.
"Catherine held onto this memory &endash; this gift &endash; forso long because before now, I was unwilling to accept it. Shewaited all these years until she felt I was ready, was worthy ofsuch a gift." Vincent smiled. "Catherine's final gift was a reminderof something I had all along, though I often failed to seeit Her love."