“Close your eyes,” Vincent’s voice said from above and beyond her.
They were standing in a dark narrow passageway, barely the width of Vincent’s shoulders; Catherine had already turned off her flashlight so as not to disturb the bats Vincent told her were nearby. “Why?” she asked.
The quick flash of his amusement reached her through their bond. “Trust me. Close your eyes and take my hand.”
She grasped Vincent's hand, feeling the strength there of muscle and sinew and bone. “Where are we going?”
“Forward, Catherine,” he replied, smiling. “Forward.”
And she closed her eyes and let him lead her once more through the dark.
“Watch your footing here,” Vincent said, turning slightly to brace her in case she did slip. Catherine heard the dry crunch of gravel under his boots as he moved. “It’s not far.”
“What’s not far?” Catherine asked.
“Patience, love. You’ll see…soon.” His softly graveled voice echoed slightly as he spoke. “Open your eyes, Catherine.”
There were crystals everywhere, in all colors—fluorite, aragonite, quartz, amethyst---and crystals Catherine had never seen before and could not name. They covered the walls and the ceiling in such numbers that it might have been some illustration in a fantasy. Vincent had placed her flashlight on a low ledge, she saw, angling it slightly so that its light was refracted throughout the cavern. The effect was as if they were standing in a muted rainbow. “Vincent, I....this is beautiful.”
The same wonder and awe of this place that she felt was on his face as well. “I know,” he said simply. “I've never seen anything like this anywhere else in our world.” Vincent held out his hand. “Come, there's more.”
“There's more?” she said, astonished.
Vincent took her hand and led her down a mild grade through a short, winding path, relighting two of the torches as they walked. Finally they came to a curtained entrance and just as Catherine was beginning to wonder why there was a curtain here, he reached out to brush it aside. “You'll understand,” he said, one hand gentle at her back as he followed her inside.
There was a bathing pool inside, edged with thick white candles that she'd seen in almost every room Below. Just beyond the bathing pool was a small, slightly raised flat area where unlit candles waited in their sconces and thick cushions---the same ones she'd been unable to find when trying to pad the floor of the hidden room at the Chamber of the Falls---carpeted it. She smiled at the thought that she and Vincent, in their different ways, had each been trying to prepare a secret place. Like minds, she thought. “Vincent,” she said, realizing suddenly why he'd looked so tired when he'd helped her pack just a few days before their wedding, “how did you manage to do all this?”
His eyes, blue as the crystals around them, smiled into hers. “Mouse,” Vincent replied, “but then I had to cover some of his duties in order to get things done on time.” He chuckled. “I have seldom wished more for a twin than I did last week.”
“Oh, I bet,” she replied, loving the happy, content rumble of his laughter under her ear. “How far back does this cavern go?”
“I believe it goes back quite far,” Vincent replied, arms warm and solid as he enfolded her. “I didn't have as much chance to explore it the last time I was here as I would have liked but now....we have three days.”
Three days, alone with Vincent, alone with her husband, separated from both their worlds. “It seems like paradise.”
“Yes,” he breathed against her hair.
They made camp and set up a small fire outside the cave to cook their dinner. While they waited for William's thick stew to reheat, Vincent was not surprised to find his wife lean against him. “Are you tired?” he asked, breathing in the scent of her and noting with some astonishment that her skin was beginning to carry the same undertones of candle-smoke as every other tunnel-dweller. The thought pleased him. One of us. One of...mine.
Catherine yawned. “Yeah, a bit. It was the same way when I would go camping with Gertrude and her daughters; we'd all be excited and awake throughout the day but once we made camp for the night....phooey.”
“'Phooey?'” Vincent asked dryly. “That hardly sounds like a scientific description, my wife.”
“Oh, you,” she replied, chuckling, “if I had enough energy to get one of those pillows, I'd throw it at you.” She yawned again and stirred against him. “I better sit up, love. I don't want to fall asleep in my stew; William would never forgive me.”
“No,” Vincent agreed, releasing her and standing to stir the stew. It was beginning to bubble and gurgle in the small pot, the smell of the thick spicy brew rising. “It'll be ready in about five or ten minutes.”
“Good,” Catherine said, “I'm starving.”
They watched the fire for a time as it crackled. Vincent could sense the greying river of Catherine's tiredness through their bond and was reminded of the one other time they'd shared a fire together, when he'd rescued her from Paracelsus. Then, he had forced himself to stay awake despite his own exhaustion, afraid of his desires, wanting only to cling to her fiercely and terrified of what could happen if he did.
Her green eyes, luminous in the firelight, sought his own. “You were so afraid for so long,” Catherine said, sensing the direction of his thoughts. “I always knew you could never hurt me, but I couldn't convince you of that. Not then.”
Vincent shook his head. “No. I was stubborn and afraid and....wrong. To think of all that time wasted.”
“No, love,” Catherine replied, taking his hand. “Not wasted. You had to be ready for this, for us. And we're here now. Nothing else matters.”
Dinner eaten, they carefully banked the fire and rinsed their dishes in the nearby creek. Returning to the interior of the cavern, Vincent busied himself unfolding their sleeping bag and getting ready for the night while Catherine changed into her sweatpants and a Columbia Law School t-shirt. Vincent took off his cloak and folded it to be used as a pillow as he undressed. “I don't think I'll ever get used to how warm you are,” Catherine said, as he removed his last layer of clothing and lay beside her. Pulling the extra length of the sleeping bag over them, he drew her close and breathed in the soft, sweet scent of her hair.
“I know,” Vincent replied. “Devin used to complain it was like sleeping next to a heater.” He laughed, remembering. “He had cold feet and he used to wake me up by putting them on me.”
“That sounds like him,” Catherine said, chuckling herself. She yawned and rested her head on his shoulder, her tiredness pulling her under.
“Rest now, love,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Heartbeats. Heartbeats in the ground, the dull thudding rumbling under his feet. The darkness enclosing, waiting...finding...
They gathered here...they came....they are.
They are here. Waiting.
Heartbeats. Heartbeats in the ground and the distant echo of a beating drum.
Vincent's eyes snapped open at the same time Catherine's hand clasped his---in fear for him, he thought. “Are you all right?” she asked, the surge of concern flooding their bond.
He sat up, disoriented and hearing the echo of the drums as a pounding, ancient rhythm in his blood. “Yes...no. I'm not sure,” he replied, dazed and uncertain.
Vincent felt the cool touch of Catherine's hands on his neck. “You're clammy, love. Did you have a bad dream?”
He nodded, shivering as the cavern air hit his damp skin. “Did you sense it?” Vincent asked.
“I didn't think so, but...I kept hearing a heartbeat. I thought it was yours,” Catherine said, bemused. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“There's not much to tell,” he replied, feeling his sense of reality returning as the whispers of the dream receded. “There was a...gathering of some sort in a cavern, people waiting for something. Then I woke up.”
“That doesn't sound all that bad, then,” she replied, and he knew she was remembering all the other ominous, disturbing dreams he'd had.
“No,” he said. “It wasn't. But it was mysterious. I don't know...Catherine, I've never had a dream like that before.”
Catherine rubbed his back, a gentle, soothing motion. “Will you sleep now, or should I make some tea?”
He ran a hand through his hair, considering, wondering if the heartbeats would return. “I believe I can sleep now,” Vincent replied.
“If you're sure,” Catherine said, sounding dubious.
“I am,” Vincent said, stretching out beside her once again and closing his eyes.
But he did not follow into her dreams that night.
“You didn't sleep well, did you?” Catherine asked the next morning, pouring him a cup of coffee as they sat around the fire.
“No,” Vincent said. “I couldn't.” He took the mug from her hand and nearly choked as he drank.
“Sorry, did I make it too strong?” she asked.
He coughed, the sharp, acid taste burning. “No, really.”
Catherine smiled. “Yes, really. I'm sorry...I haven't made coffee over a campfire for a long time.”
He drank another cautious sip, finding that it was helping to clear at least some of the fog from his mind. “It's all right.”
She gazed at him and he had the feeling she was picking her words carefully. “Vincent, last night, you said you'd never had a dream like that. What made it different?” Her hand clasped his and through the physical contact, Vincent sensed how truly worried she was.
Vincent considered. “There was a terrible desperate...need behind the gathering, Catherine. When I woke up, I could still feel it.”
“And had you been to that cavern before?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “But I believe it's near here.”
Catherine absorbed this in silence for a bit. Vincent could feel the quick flow of her thoughts, measuring, assessing, deciding. “Are you afraid to stay?”
“I am not,” he replied; the resonance from the dream had held no sense of impending doom for them. “It's not a dream of something that will happen. It didn't have that...flavor, for lack of a better term.” Vincent tilted his head and studied his wife, watching the flickering fire dance over her face. “You...accept this?”
“Vincent, I trust you. If you told me we had to break camp and return to the hub now, I'd listen.”
That struck him with all the force of a thunderbolt. Vincent was used to having to explain and defend the odder facets of his abilities, even among friends and family. “What a wonder you are,” he said.
Catherine shook her head, smiling ruefully. “Once I should have trusted you and I didn't. The cost for us both was almost too high. I'm not perfect, Vincent, but I'd like to think I wouldn't make the same mistake twice.” She drank the rest of her coffee and handed him a bowl of oatmeal. “Eat that and we can figure out what to do from there.”
“So what would you like to do?” she asked once breakfast was done and the dishes washed.
Vincent struggled mightily to hold back a yawn. “I'm sorry, Catherine. I had planned on exploring the other caves, but...”
“But you'd really like a lazy day?” she asked, smiling. “Don't worry. I could do with some laziness myself. About the only thing I want to do is try out that bathing pool. What do you say?”
Visions of Catherine, rising from the bathing pool, burst into his tired brain with all the force of a hurricane. “I...yes, I'd like that.”
Her glance was amused as if she'd sensed his reaction and was enjoying it. Catherine stood then, and held out her hand. “Come, love. The fire's banked, so we can go back inside.”
He rose and clasped her hand, thinking of other fires that were only barely banked, and followed his wife back into the cavern.
Catherine eyed her husband as he undressed. Vincent's dream last night, for all that it had not been one of his precognitive ones, had left him unnerved just the same, try though he might to hide it. The faint preoccupation, as his agile mind tried to analyze the dream, colored the impressions she received in their bond. “Vincent,” she said, as he reached deep into his pack for his wide-toothed comb, “relax, please. Don't you think that the meaning of that dream—if there is one---will reveal itself eventually?”
He breathed out once. “I know you're right,” Vincent agreed. “I just can't let go of the feeling that there was some message I was supposed to understand, some understanding I've missed.”
In the muted light of the cavern, he was a tall column of bronze and amber, the lit candles highlighting the red in his dense mane and gilding him with fire. Catherine stood and wrapped her arms around him. “Beloved, there might have been a message. Or there might not. But right now, the only message I want you to understand is how much I love you and how much I want you.”
They had been lovers for just a couple of months, but her words still had the power to thrill him, and she wondered if they always would. His hand cupped her chin, the claws gentle against her skin, and his blue eyes had gone very dark. “Thank you,” Vincent murmured.
“For what?” Catherine asked, loving the feel of his touch.
“For reminding me to stay in the moment,” he replied. His long hair brushed her bare shoulders as he kissed her.
The feel of his mouth on hers, the gentle prickling of his claws at her back, his heartbeat's judder against her chest, the softness of the hair at the base of his neck----everything about loving Vincent was a feast for the senses. He stepped back slightly with a low moan and gazed down at her. “Perhaps we should...bathe first?” he managed, voice gone more raspy. Only she had ever heard that particular change in his voice, Catherine knew, and that, too, was part of the joy of loving him.
Catherine raised her eyebrows. “We'll have to bathe later anyway,” she reminded him. “Why bathe twice?”
Vincent grinned, showing all his fangs. “Most...economical.”
He drew her down beside him and they rested there for a time, nestled together. The fur on his chest was soft against her cheek as she looked up at him. “Vincent, if you're tired, we don't have to....”
Catherine felt rather than heard his low chuff of amusement. “My wife, I am tired. But I would have to be in a coma not to want this, not to want you.”
“If you're sure,” she said, nuzzling the long column of his neck.
The skip and jump of his pulse under her lips was all the answer Catherine needed. His arms closed around her, the silken fur brushing her side and back and making her shiver. “Are you cold?” Vincent asked, the mischievous light dancing in his eyes.
“Mmmm....hmmm,” she replied, loving the clean, spicy scent of him. “Warm me up?”
Vincent bent his mouth to hers again. “My pleasure.”
They had dozed a little bit after, though Catherine knew---through the deepening of their bond---that Vincent was a long way from sleep. His skin was damp, though not with the clammy chill of the aftermath of his dream. One clawed hand lightly brushed her backside as she lay curled against him. “Feel better?” she asked.
She felt Vincent's slow smile as he kissed the top of her head. “Yes,” he replied, “but if you don't mind, I won't mention it to Father as a cure for illness. He worries enough about a population boom Below.”
Catherine laughed. “It'll be our secret, then.” She yawned and stretched, feeling the pull and ache of long-unused muscles. Though she had once gone camping regularly, it had been years since she'd slept on the ground, and that, combined with their other activities, reminded her that she should use the heated waters of the bathing pool if she didn't want to be one giant walking ache.
As had happened in Connecticut, as was happening here, so far away from anyone else, their thoughts joined and merged through their bond. I agree, Catherine, Vincent's mental voice said. Sleeping on the ground was a lot easier when I was a boy.
Still, Vincent sat up with his usual feline grace and standing, held out his hand to help her up. Catherine chuckled, knowing that her own lurch to sit up was not nearly as graceful. She reached for one of their towels. “Last one in is a rotten egg,” she said
Catherine was not surprised at all when Vincent entered the pool first.
The water in the bathing pool was hot, steaming slightly, but not uncomfortably so and soon, they were drifting in a delicious lassitude, relaxed and calm. “I could stay here forever,” Catherine said, “but I'd get all pruny and then what would you think?”
The question was not at all serious---her mirth through their bond told him that---but Vincent felt the pull to answer it as if it was. “That you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, wrinkled or not.”
She blushed. “Oh, Vincent.” She reached up to touch the wet strands of his mane behind his ears and he relaxed further, knowing that here was the one person who had seen all that he was and wasn't, and accepted...everything. The water moved in small spreading circles as Catherine moved closer. “I was remembering Connecticut,” she said.
Vincent smiled. “Of course. What were you remembering?” Every moment, every breath and taste and touch and sound of that trip was permanently engraved in his memory, upon his heart.
Her knee brushed his leg as she turned to face him, the contact stirring him again. “I was remembering you in the kitchen the first morning after we arrived; you'd tied your hair back and it was so red where the sunlight touched it.” Catherine paused, playing with the wet strands of his hair that floated in the water. “I'd never seen you tie your hair back before.”
Vincent raised his eyebrows, grinning. “There were a lot of things we did in Connecticut that you never saw me do before, my wife.”
She patted the rock bench next to them, an echo of his own roguish grin on her face. “Well, at least there won't be any splinters on our trip this time. Or cougars. Or carsickness.”
“No, none of that Below,” he agreed. “Still, I find myself looking forward to our next trip to Connecticut.”
Her face was framed in the damp darkness of her wet hair; it brushed Vincent's shoulders as Catherine turned to look at him. “You really want to go again?”
“Of course,” Vincent replied. “Don't you?”
Catherine nodded. “Yes, of course I do, but...” She bit her lip, trailing off. “I'm being silly.”
“Never that,” he said, smiling, placing a gentle hand against her face and loving the softness of her skin against his work-roughened palm. “What is it?”
“Sometimes...I don't know...I have a hard time believing all this is real, that I won't wake up one morning and find that we've never gone to Connecticut, that we're not married, that nothing at all has changed.” She shrugged. “We've come so far that it's hard to believe this isn't a dream.”
He traced the faint line of the scar in front of her ear; the one remaining visible evidence of her assault. “Love,” Vincent said finally, sending all the reassurance and love he could through their bond, “if it is a dream, then I'm dreaming it with you.”
Her head came to rest on his shoulder. “If it is,” Catherine said, “don't wake me.”
“Never,” Vincent said, and held her close.
Click here for Chapter 17...
 "Simple Gifts," Shaker hymn. "When we come down to the place that's right/we'll be in the valley of love and delight."