FOR ALWAYS

Debbie Ristick

The children surrounded her in comfortable, companionable silence - the first time they had actually behaved themselves since her arrival - though she would never have said they were actually naughty. Their adoring, eager faces turned toward her in expectation; a smile left her lips as Catherine flipped the page. ''Well,'' she said gently, ''that's enough for me tonight. I think we'll just leave the next chapter for another day." She closed the book lightly, only to hear a combined chorus of ''Just one more chapter," or ''Come on, Catherine,'' or ''You promised, Catherine,'' and she heaved an exasperated sigh.

As though on cue, Vincent entered the chamber and rescued her from their clutches like some mythical Prince Charming. Turning to the children with a frown on his face, he opened his arms in supplication. ''Now you know Catherine has worked all day and is probably tired. Instead of behaving like this, why don't you thank her for the time she has spent with you, then ask if she might continue the story on another day?"

There were grumbles from the audience, but one by the one the group agreed, then departed the chamber, giving her their well-wishes and thanks.

When they were finally alone, Catherine lifted thankful green eyes to him and smiled contentedly. ''Thanks for the reprieve, Vincent. I am pretty tired tonight. I guess I had a rough day. I had to take four depositions and feel like I've seen the entire city from the back seat of a cab - and let me tell you something: it's not a pretty sight." With a deep sigh, she shrugged her shoulders. "Itís pretty late; will you walk me home?"

''Of course I will,'' he replied gently, his golden eyebrows drooping as though suddenly disappointed. ''I'm sorry you're tired," he began, turning toward the tunnel beyond. "I had thought we might see something special tonight - a surprise I had in mind for you. But if you're really too tired..."

Whirling to look at him, Catherine saw his eyes bright and eager with a love he finally recognized as right. No longer did he deny what was between them - and never again would she watch him flee from her when his emotions became too difficult to deal with. There was something about him now, something mystifying to her; she knew no matter how tired she felt, if he wanted her to stay Below with him for a while, she would.

His expression was almost shy as he stood there awaiting her answer, not at all like the loving man she'd come to know. It had been only a short time since they had finally become lovers, time spent in discovery, celebrating the joy this new intimacy between them caused. In that time, his attitude toward her had never faltered, his demands had never increased - he was the same person she'd grown to love and learned to cherish.

In the flickering torchlight of the tunnel, he was so utterly sensual as his eyes met hers; she was reminded of the night - the first time they had stayed together. That night the walls he'd built around himself had crumbled; he'd surrendered to her love like the night before the morning sun. When he was finally hers, he'd been eager, yet hesitant; the culmination of their physical love proved to him finally that all she had ever promised was true. Still, for a time, he'd been so uncertain of it all. The evening had its awkward moments, but they had awakened on the morning after happy, each secure in the knowledge that they had just spent the most magnificent night in their lives. Now, as she caught another glimpse into his eyes, the only thing that mattered to her anymore was that he was hers!

''I'm not that tired, Vincent. Iíll stay," she whispered expectantly. "So, tell me. Where shall we go?"

Closing his eyes in noticeable relief, Vincent exhaled slowly. ''Come,'' he said, extending a large, fur-covered hand toward her. "Iíll show you."

The tunnels were a magical place filled with wondrous things - majestic sights and unheard-of beauties. Catherine had seen too many of its treasures to think this world was anything other than heaven on earth. As they walked, she felt a warmth encircle her heart; she was filled with peace, contentment. She basked in the serenity of this happiness; as all those feelings enveloped her, she knew they emanated from the unique man walking beside her.

Since the night of his surrender to love, their bond had grown stronger and clearer.

She could sense him, feel him, know what he was thinking. This knowledge gave her such a sense of unity to him, of oneness with him. It was more than she could ever have hoped for or imagined.

"Does it give you so much joy, then,'' he asked suddenly as they entered a tunnel she'd never seen before, ''to know my thoughts?"

A blush stained her cheeks as she looked down. Sometimes she forgot how well he read her through the bond, how well he knew her. His gaze upon her was filled with amusement, mischief, but there was a part of him she could tell was curious. His eyes danced with unbridled emotions; he already knew her answer.

"I don't know what to say, Vincent,'' she replied, her voice faltering as he took a step closer to her in the darkness of the tunnel. ''I'd always wondered what it was like for you...how you felt and what you sensed. Now I know what it means, how it feels.'' She seemed to consider for a moment. "Yes,'' she nodded, searching his face. "It gives me great joy to know you, to know how being with me makes you feel. The reality of our bond has always been a truth - a tremendous pleasure to me. But now," she began, hesitating, ''since we've...since you...Vincent, I can feel you in my heart. I feel you close to me always. It's a wonderful sensation".

With a smile, Vincent sighed, pleased. The emotions she stirred in him were absolutely thrilling, the desire he had finally allowed himself to feel overwhelming. As he listened to her words, he met her eyes. Suddenly, he found it hard to breathe. The tunnel around them blurred in his mind; all he could see before him was Catherine. Her beauty staggered him, as did the jolt her touch sent through his body. Their faces, only inches apart, came together breathlessly as they tumbled against the tunnel wall. Their kiss was sweet, deep, alive. The outer world ceased to exist for them both; time stood still. In the darkness surrounding them, they felt protected as the hunger each felt for the other swirled around them. Unconsciously, they became lost in it, and in each other.

Though committed to him and the desire he awoke in her, Catherine sighed as she remembered where they were. She worried that they would be observed and that Vincent would be embarrassed. With reluctance, she pushed her hands gently against his chest. ''Vincent...."

As those feelings washed over her, her sense of fear washed over Vincent, and with great effort, he lifted his face from hers, looking around wildly, trying to assure himself that they were still alone. Once satisfied, he straightened, offering his hand to her." Come with me, Catherine,'' he whispered, ''come with me...''

The passion he'd awakened in her with just one kiss made her breathing heavy; his voice, also rough and breathless, conveyed clear intentions. A rumble began deep in her chest: she wanted him, needed him with a soul-deep ferocity that she had never before known in herself. ''I'm sorry," she started softly, still unable to get her breath. "I was afraid...'' The face he presented to her was stricken with fear at what her next words would be, and she stopped him, stepping into his path." I was afraid we'd be seen, Vincent - that's all,'' she assured him. "I don't want you to be uncomfortable in this new relationship. Don't worry, take me with you; I do want to go..."

Her words touched him, reassured him, and served as a catalyst, spreading the heat already raging in his blood more quickly than before. If only he'd known how true, how beautiful love was - how wonderful and powerful love was. If he had, those years of senseless denial would never have occurred. Now, it seemed as though waiting to be together took forever, the minutes stretching mindlessly to hours, the hours turning endlessly to days.

In his dreams, he had always called out to her, appealed to her for help; she had always answered. Now, she was here beside him; her touch was a soothing balm to the inferno of his soul, at once healing and intoxicating, driving him to the edge of sanity for the need of her. In his mind he could feel her skin against his already, could hear her voice encourage him, could smell her hair. He wanted her, to hold her close, become one with her and listen as she cried out his name. He wanted to feel the closeness of her, experience the sensation of her nails raking trails across his back, gaze into her sated eyes. These visions stimulated him, heightening his already potent desires; as his mind brought him back to the present, his fists clenched tightly while the urge to drop to the tunnel floor with her coursed through his veins like white-hot fire.

''Catherine," he began, his breath ragged as he fought for control of this newly realized need. He needed her. She was willing to be with him. She was so beautiful...

''Shhh,'' she whispered, knowing the consuming nature of this force within him, also knowing that in anyone else, she might be driven to fear by such a display of passion. "I love you, Vincent," she whispered. ''Take me with you. I will not refuse you."

As reason took control, Vincent took a deep breath and shivered. "Yes," he answered, calming as his vision cleared. "I know." Grabbing her hand, he pressed a kiss into her open palm, then sighed. "I allow myself to lose control easily when you're near and we're alone. We must learn to be more cautious in the future - especially so close to the hub. Come. Let us continue on our way before we lose ourselves again..."

An impish grin caught Catherine's mouth; she pushed herself away from the protective wall of the tunnel and into its pathway. To be here with him, to have him know and feel the truth of the love between them, was more than she'd ever dared to dream. This man and this place were her life now, the reason she lived. If not for him - no, she couldn't allow herself to think about that anymore. The emptiness she'd known before the knife attack was over, the shallowness of that former existence gone like some bad dream. Vincent was everything to her; he brought her so much joy. He protected her, loved and cherished her. They had been through so much.

After walking in silence for another few minutes, Vincent slowed his pace and tilted his head, listening to something she couldn't hear. A slight tremor of anticipation washed through her as he turned to face her. "Can you hear it?"

Shaking her head, Catherine frowned. ''No. What is it?"

"We're near the upper levels of the falls," he answered softly, turning back to the passageway before them. "There's a place here, a quiet place to be alone.''

"The upper levels?"Uunbridled expectancy filled her and, hurrying to follow him, she entered the alcove behind him, and was instantly taken aback at the beauty of the hidden chamber and the view of the falls beyond .The room was not too small, just a bit smaller than Vincent's chamber. There were several quilts folded neatly in the corner - beautiful works of art painstakingly sewn together with the love of many. There were large pillows as well, stuffed with leftover scraps of material not large enough for any other purpose. Near the mouth of the cell sat a writing desk upon which lay the book of poetry she'd given him one dark night, shortly after Lisa Campbell disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.

Then, she sighed, her emotions quivering, there were candles; at least fifteen candles of varying size and width adorned the natural rock shelves, each glowing warmly in the dimness of the room. As she looked around in disbelief, one thought entered her mind: it was perfect.

Turning to look into her lover's hopeful eyes, Catherine was seized by the sudden knowledge of his goal from the beginning of this evening below. He'd wanted to bring her here, wanted to be alone with her, to love her. A smile lifted the corners of her mouth; she closed the distance between them, took his hands and squeezed them tightly. ''You didn't have to go to so much trouble to get me alone, Vincent. All you had to do was ask me to stay."

"I did ask you to stay," he whispered softly as his arms went around her. ''It is still so hard for me to tell you how I'm feeling inside, but I must try." Looking away for a moment, he seemed to hesitate, then turned to face her again. "I need you, Catherine. I need what we have, what we've shared, more than anything. I wanted to do this for you, give you a safe place to be. I found this chamber and thought it might be just the place. I love coming Above to you, to be with you under the stars, but it will not always be the safest place. I thought for a while about it, then brought these things here from my chamber. I want you to be comfortable.

"I did this because there's been no place Below for us to be together, no safe place where we would not be interrupted.''

With his words, she pulled away slightly to look at him. His head had dropped back; his eyes were closed. He was still so uncertain, still so unsure of himself, she saw.

"I've always wanted you, Vincent, always wanted to be with you and share these feelings we have. This is a beautiful place, and your efforts are appreciated. I've always imagined that we could be together like this, and I spent countless nights wondering what it might be like.

"You've become part of me. I can't live without you. I love you so much; I want you to know Iíll love you for always.''

''Catherine,'' he said, her name catching in his throat as he met her eyes. The fire he'd quenched in the outer tunnels was returning rapidly, and the passion he felt for her danced in his eyes. "I will love you forever, for always.''

Molding herself to the hard planes of his body, Catherine felt the certainty of a love tested and proved embrace her. Surrender would be simple; in the span of a heartbeat, she knew it was going to be a long time before she would want to return Above. Feeling Vincent's mouth on hers, his kiss deep and demanding, her knees buckled briefly, sagging against him only to be scooped up in his arms. Relaxing against him as he carried her to the waiting quilts, she murmured his name softly against his ear, feeling his need heighten right along with her own.

The excitement they had allowed themselves to realize was all-consuming, and now, in this hidden place he'd made for the two of them, it was time for them to give it peace and make it right, for always.