Saturday morning began much like any other: the warmth of Vincent as he snuggled against her, the slow utter joy upon awakening, realizing that she had no place to go and no other duties except whatever unfolded in the rest of the day. It wouldn't always be that way, Catherine knew; once the Avery case fully began, she would be spending a lot of weekends preparing for trial. But for now, with Avery yet to be even extradited, she was enjoying the luxury of having very little to do. She'd begun reviewing the witness testimony and was beginning to get at least a rough outline of her prosecution strategy...the rest would have to wait until Monday.
“Your mind is racing,” Vincent murmured against her hair. “It's Saturday, Catherine. Even here.”
She chuckled, her hand toying with a lock of his wild amber mane. “You're telling me to relax, are you?”
Vincent's head moved and his blue eyes, still a touch bleary with sleep, met hers. “I'm suggesting it, yes. Or else I shall have to...convince you.”
The slow warmth uncoiled in her belly; she knew that tone, knew it very well indeed. “And how would you...convince me?” Catherine asked.
It had been chilly the night before, and Catherine had remarked there might be ice in the dry sink when she awoke. Vincent had chuckled when she told him this, pulling her closer. “Some of our other chambers get colder, but it rarely gets below 50 degrees in most of them,” he explained. She noticed now that he was right; the brazier kept the worst of the chill out of the air, but still, Catherine was grateful she'd donned a borrowed flannel nightgown. Between the nightgown and Vincent's own body temperature, which seemed to be warmer than her own, it was comfortable under the nestled quilts.
The nightgown had fine embroidered ribbon ties lacing the neck and in her sleep, the ties had come loose. Catherine wasn't startled to find a gentle clawed hand unlacing the ties the rest of the way, the fur a gentle brushing against her skin. “Are you...convinced?” Vincent asked.
“Mmmm...perhaps,” Catherine said, though his touch was raising gooseflesh on her skin and doing funny things to her heartbeat. “Try a little harder. I'm stubborn, you know.”
There was a roguish glint to his eyes that Catherine loved to see; it was one of the most lasting reminders of Connecticut, that he could love and let himself take joy in the loving without any fears of his differences intruding. “Stubborn?” Vincent said, and there was a faint purr of enjoyment under his words.
“Stubborn,” she repeated, running her hands through his thick, dense mane and feeling his own breath start to stutter when she touched the back of his neck. Vincent made a soft, hungry sound, the pulse jumping along his neck like a wild thing, skittish. Catherine touched that leaping pulse, soothing it with her mouth, and the needy growl grew louder. There was the lightest tinge of embarrassment through their bond; he was still not completely used to these sounds, but her touch reassured him and the feeling of chagrin retreated as if it had never been. “You are so beautiful,” she murmured against his hot, flushed skin, tasting the spice of him on her lips.
The expression in Vincent's eyes when he turned his head to look at her was nothing Catherine had seen before or could put a name to: a fierce want, mixed with love and passion and joy and something else, altogether undefinable, wild and untamed and him. “Catherine, I...” he said, and his voice was deep and hoarse.
With a gentle finger to his mouth, she shushed him. “No words,” Catherine said. “Only this: that I love you.” She drew his head down, wanting only to kiss him, but his hungry gaze fastened instead on her breasts, now partially visible through the unlaced gown. “Yes,” she murmured, sitting up slightly to pull the nightgown off. His fur was gilded in the candlelight as he took the gown from her and threw it over a chair.
Vincent's amber mane cascaded around them both as he moved against her, his touch searing. There was a raspy undertone to his breathing that was almost a purr as his mouth touched her breasts, the light rumbling vibrating against her skin. Her hands wound in his thick mane, stroking the broad shoulders and loving the flex and play of muscle under her hands. A low groan began in her own throat as he loved her, gently, but with a hunger that would not be denied. Long legs intertwined with her own and Catherine gasped at the feel of him. “I need you,” she murmured.
He pulled his head up to kiss her. In the second before he made them one, Vincent murmured against her mouth, smiling, “Relax.”
The world shattered around them, and was remade in a heartbeat's song of joy.
They had nestled together, dozing and content, until Vincent's time sense—and the clanking of messages on the pipes, growing louder as more people awoke---told him it was late morning. “Are you hungry?” he asked, loving the smell of her, of their loving, as it hung in the cool air.
There was a muffled sound against his chest; it might have been “coffee” but he wasn't sure. He chuckled. “There will be that too, yes,” Vincent said.
Catherine sat up then, pushing her blonde hair out of her eyes. “I'm all for it, then.” She yawned. “So, what do you have planned today?”
For a moment, Vincent was startled, mesmerized as he'd been by the play of candlelight on her hair, her bare shoulders. He pulled his mind back to the practicalities. “Father wanted to see us to discuss the wedding ceremony, and I agreed to teach Cullen's woodcarving class this afternoon.”
“Sounds like my kind of day,” Catherine replied, smiling. “Nothing too busy.”
“No,” Vincent agreed. “Though anything could happen.”
They were at the Commons, enjoying a late breakfast with Marisol, chatting over coffee and one of William's scones, when a klaxon rang out on the pipes. Its pattern was different than any Catherine had ever heard, but if that hadn’t been clue enough that something was very wrong, Vincent’s sudden tense stillness would have been. “Warning signal,” Marisol said, eyes wide and round, and set her mug of coffee so hard on the table that the liquid sloshed over the side.
“There’s been a rock-slide,” Vincent said, translating and Catherine was glad for it. The taps were so fast that she couldn't make out individual words or phrases. “They’re asking for help.” All around them, people stood and abandoned their plates where they lay, and rushed out into the corridor. Catherine followed just behind Vincent’s longer strides.
“Who’s injured?” Father asked when they arrived, his doctor's bag braced on the handle of his cane. “Do we know?”
“Cullen,” a woman about Catherine’s age gasped. “He was helping to carve out my chamber and the wall just collapsed.” Tears stood bright in her eyes, and Mary gathered her close. “Come now, child,” she said, pulling the other woman aside. “This wasn’t your fault.”
The anguish in the woman’s gaze told Catherine much about her relationship with Cullen. “But it’s Cullen,” she replied, but allowed herself to be led to the side.
“It doesn’t seem to be a big rock-slide, as these things go,” Father said briskly. “We should be able to get Cullen out fairly soon, Valerie.”
It took the rest of the morning, but with everyone pitching in to shove aside boulders and reinforce the weakened section of the corridor, Cullen was soon rescued, dazed and bruised, but alive. Father and some of the other men bustled Cullen onto a stretcher for further examination, while a worried Valerie clung alongside. Watching her, at the way she held Cullen's hand, Catherine bit her lip in sympathy. She had been that woman before, worried for a injured man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The rescuers dispersed for the hub and she and Vincent followed, falling farther and father behind as his step slowed. "Do you think he'll be all right?" Catherine asked
Vincent didn't answer for a time, still lost in his own thoughts. He looked, Catherine decided, quite as awful as she felt, covered in mud and dust and drawn with worry. Finally, he said, “I believe so. Everyone got to him in time.”
A sudden rush of guilt flooded their bond. “What is it?”
“It’s nothing,” Vincent replied as they entered their chamber
She raised her eyebrows and dropped the curtain behind them. “Really? It doesn’t seem like nothing.”
Vincent sat down on the bed and leaned his head forward onto his hands. “Cullen wasn’t supposed to be working there this morning. He and I…switched assignments. I wanted more time with you today and he…”
Catherine knelt in front of him and took his hands, forcing them to unclench. “Oh, Vincent. That wasn’t your fault, any more than it was Valerie’s because it was her chamber he was working on. Cullen wanted to spend time with Valerie; will you blame him for that too?”
“No, of course not, Catherine. It's just that...” his voice trailed off.
“Vincent, you can't carry this world on your shoulders no matter how well it fits there,” Catherine replied, keeping her voice soothing. “You can't control everything.”
“I know,” Vincent said. “But if I'd done what I was assigned to do---”
“----you'd have been in that rock-slide,” Catherine finished. “And nothing against Cullen, but I'm glad you weren't. One cave-in per lifetime is your limit.”
At that, Vincent smiled. “I'm being foolish,” he said.
She shook her head. “No, you're not. Just...too responsible. Let it go, love.”
“I don't know how,” Vincent replied, leaning forward to touch his forehead to her. “Will you show me?”
“Always,” she said, and kissed him.
His hands twined in her hair, and he pulled back a bit at the unfamiliar substance in her hair. “You’ve got mud in your hair.”
Catherine retrieved a thick clot of it out of his mane. “So you do you.”
“Come,” Vincent said, standing. “There’s a place I meant to show you tonight, but now is as good a time as any. I think you’ll find it…useful.”
They walked for a time down a corridor Catherine wasn’t immediately familiar with; it was a distance from the chamber she thought of as “the shower room,” where the water was hottest early in the morning and where only someone with Mouse’s ingenuity could have contrived plumbing. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” Vincent said, slanting a wry glance at her from under the tangled, muddied strands of his mane. He led her down a hairpin turn so well hidden as it branched from the main corridor that she might have missed it altogether if Vincent hadn’t been her guide. The turn ended in what looked like a dead-end, but Catherine had the suspicion that---like so much else in this world---it wasn’t what it appeared to be.
Vincent released her hand and pressed twice at the upper and lower ends of what appeared to be a random rock. The rock slid aside to reveal a narrow domed entrance layered with bricks. Vincent clasped her hand again. “Go ahead,” he said quietly. “The passage is only wide enough for one of us to enter at a time. It’s lit inside.”
And it was; the orange light from the torches set into iron brackets in the walls reflected quartz and peridot fragments in the rock walls, casting everything in a warm glow. There was the faint hissing of steam and the gurgling of water. “What is this place?” Catherine murmured, breathing in the moist air, rich with a dry, earthen scent.
“Mineral springs,” Vincent replied, voice no louder than the water. “I found it some years ago when I went exploring after Devin…left.” He took one of the torches from the wall and took her hand in the other. “Come,” he said. “There’s more.”
As her eyes adjusted to the light, Catherine saw what he meant. There were three connecting pools, one apparently shallow, two others much deeper. The larger of the pools was connected by what looked like a natural rock formation in the shape of a bridge, arching between them. Carved into the walls were shelves of varying heights and depths; resting in one such shelf was a collection of toiletries she recognized as hers, on the other was Vincent’s wide toothed comb, shampoo and---Catherine smothered a grin---a large bottle of detangling conditioner.
He followed her gaze and grinned at her. “Well, it does help. Quite a bit, actually.”
Catherine chuckled. “I'd imagine so. Vincent, this is a wonderful place. Did someone build it?”
Vincent shook his head. “Like so much in our world, we don't really know. Father theorizes—and I agree with him---that we weren't the first inhabitants here. But who those others were...we've never known.” He knelt before the shallower of the three pools and touched one hand to the water there. “This one is quite warm, if you'd like to bathe.” Vincent grinned, a rakish, boyish grin. “I know I would.”
Catherine laughed. “Then why are we still dressed?”
“This is lovely,” Catherine said later, leaning her head against Vincent's arm.
“It is,” he said, watching the play of torchlight reflected in her dark green eyes, echoing in the ripples of the water as they breathed. He saw a bruise blooming high on her shoulder. “Catherine, what is this?” Vincent asked, touching the area gently.
“Oh, that,” Catherine said, wincing a bit when he touched the bruise. “I think I got it when we were pulling Cullen out. Don't you have some bruises?”
“A few,” Vincent replied, but his eyes kept being drawn to that darkening bruise on her fair skin.
“I've been thinking,” she began.
“You have?” he asked, pressing a kiss to the dark dampness of her hair, trying to push the visual of her being hurt---hurt Below---out of his mind.
“Yes, I have,” Catherine said, grinning at him “If we decide to buy the house, I want to live below while it's being renovated.”
“Well, yes, Vincent,” Catherine said. “We'll be married then. Do you think I want to live apart from you that whole time?”
“No, it's just...I...you have the apartment,” he finished, knowing his response sounded lame even to his own ears. He spread his hands. “I'm not explaining this very well.”
Catherine's green eyes narrowed and he felt the first flicker of her anger cross their bond. “You're right, you're not.” She took a deep breath, clearly forcing calm. “Let's start at the beginning. We're getting married soon. I am joining my life with yours. Why would I not live here while our home is being renovated?”
He leaned his head back against the rock rim of the pool, searching for words, any words, to make this less awkward. “Tunnel life is perhaps not as you've imagined it, Catherine.”
“Oh?” she retorted, backing away from him and folding her arms. Her eyes were as stony as the walls around them. “It's not leaking pipes and rock-slides and hard work and friends and family and you? What is it, then?”
“That's not what I meant,” Vincent said, battling the urge to pace, even here in this place of water. “Catherine, you've never lived Below.”
“No, I haven't. But I've spent weekends here, and most of my nights here since we returned from Connecticut.” Her voice fell, anguished and raw. “Unless you don't want me here?”
Want her? His days and nights were consumed with the want of her, in one form or another. “We're misunderstanding each other,” Vincent said softly, and it was true. The bond between them was flooded with so many confused emotions that he could hardly sort them out. He opened his arms. “Come, let's talk.”
“What's there to talk about, Vincent? Dammit, I love you! I thought we were past all this two-stepping.”
“Two-stepping?” he asked as his arms enfolded her, the water buffering them as she moved.
“You know,” Catherine said against his chest. “One step forward, two steps back. Sometimes,” and she raised her head to meet his eyes, “you don't make it easy to love you.”
He nodded, acknowledging the truth of this. “I know. And I'm sorry. What I mean is, I'm afraid,” Vincent said.
Catherine gazed at him. “I want to understand,” she replied. “Tell me.”
“I am afraid,” Vincent said, “that you will come below and be injured or hurt. Or...disappointed by what you find. That you will regret the choice to be here.” With me, he thought but could not bring himself to say.
“Vincent, that's....oh, I don't even know what to call it, but I love you. These people are family. Maybe I don't know what living Below is really like, but do you think I could ever regret this, regret us?”
It was an echo of his words in Connecticut, when much the same doubts had entered her mind and almost against his will, a smile touched his face. They truly were a well-matched pair. “No. It's...I'm being stupid.”
She nodded. “Yes. But I still love you. And I want to be here with you. There are no guarantees, Vincent, none. I could go Above tomorrow and be hit by a bus. It could have been you in that rock-slide, not Cullen, and the rock-slide itself could have been far worse than it was. The only thing we can do, is live as fully as we can as long as we can.”
“You're right,” he acknowledged, feeling foolish that he'd let his worries overcome him, when the reality of her was in his arms. “Forgive me for worrying so,” Vincent said against her hair.
“No, I won't,” Catherine murmured. “Those things too are the other side of love.” She turned again to look up at him. “So...can I move below if we decide to buy that house?”
There were a dozen things he could have said, teasing, but because he held his world in his arms...because he had chosen everything, Vincent chose again. “Yes.”
Click here for Chapter 7....
 “Tie Your Heart at Night to Mine, Love,” by Pablo Neruda