The Tunnels were quite amazing but then so were its unique denizens. Illya rested on top a stool by a table laden with maps. Vincent was tracing a route that they used to reach the south side of the city. His attention at the moment was on the nail that extended slightly from the finger before him, not quite a claw but much harder and narrower than his own. He wondered if he had to clip them often or perhaps used a steel file to blunt them.
"Illya?" The leonine head tilted questioningly towards him.
"Sorry, Vincent, I got distracted. May I ask you a personal question?" Blue eyes met blue for a moment before Vincent nodded. "Thank you. Did Mr. Wells ever search for your mother after he found you?"
"The winter was a severe one and just staying alive took most of our people's time and energy. But some of those more comfortable with the outer world did inquire at the hospital about births ... and deaths. Nothing was ever discovered. I am afraid that Twelfth Night that year was a time of mystery." The slight shrug of the massive shoulders told Illya more than anything else of how accepting the gentle man was of the unknown past.
"Do you want to know or is the past simply that -- the past?" Illya could see the slight shimmer of blue over Vincent's left shoulder that he'd been determinedly not looking directly at. It was the soft blue of morning glories at dawn or the sea on a calm day.
"For myself, I have a slight curiosity but for Catherine's sake," he sighed and dropped his eyes to the map unrolled before them. "If Catherine and I are to continue down this frightening path of love, I wish to know that I won't hurt her even unknowingly."
Illya smiled and touched lightly the hand before him. "Love is indeed a rather scary notion but one that none of us can live without. I tried, my friend. But it is the pain of not loving that is truly frightening. I thought I was unlovable and Napoleon showed me that I was wrong. If you will give me the date of your birth, I will quietly do some research and present the findings to you."
Vincent nodded slowly and told him the date. Illya made a mental note and then changed the subject. They were hard at work tracing alternate routes to the docks when Vincent looked up and smiled. A moment later, Catherine and Napoleon entered the map room. The petite blonde came to Vincent's side instantly just as his partner came to his. Illya wondered if acute hearing was the answer or just a bond so strong that it kept them tethered to each other.
But Napoleon was coming to stand right next to him, invading his personal space and releasing the scent that Illya craved above all others. The husky voice told him that Napoleon was still a little uncertain. "Find out anything?"
"We have just begun but I fear that THRUSH is indeed preparing to move in." Illya leaned ever so slightly into the arm next to him. "How is Mr. Waverly getting along with Mr. Wells?"
"It was pretty frosty for a while until they discovered that they both love to play chess. When we left them half an hour ago, it looked like the battle lines were being drawn." He returned the gesture and upped it with a slow licking of his lips.
Illya smiled and let his hand gently tap on the back of Napoleon's hand, rubbing lightly in concentric circles. "That sounds promising, Pasha. Perhaps then we will not be missed when Vincent takes us on a visit to one of their scenic wonders?"
"The Falls, Vincent?" Catherine asked excitedly and Illya watched her try to squeeze a little more of her lover. "We could take a picnic basket with us. I'll go ask William." And in a flash she was off.
Napoleon chuckled. "She has a lot of energy to burn. My congratulations, Vincent."
The leonine man blushed and dropped his head just enough to let his hair become a shield for his embarrassment. "Catherine is my greatest blessing."
Illya leaned harder into his lover's arm. "Does she have any belief in the paranormal, Vincent?"
The blond head tilted inquiringly. "No, Illya, not even when given proof. Why?"
Napoleon had given in and brought his arm around him completely, rubbing Illya's upper arm with soothing strokes. Illya sighed a little and opened himself to that other realm that seemed to be his peculiar gift. Impressions of youth and shining beauty overlaid with sadness so great it would have crushed less blithe a spirit, came into his mind. An urgent need to tell him something beat at the walls of his defenses but the match was not there.
He could not bring their mind together like he had with young Willim.
"Illya?" Napoleon's voice sounded agitated and he came back into the worldly realm with a rush that jarred him.
"Pasha, I'm all right." Illya opened his eyes and blinked into his partner's concerned gaze. "I'm just a little dizzy. I think it must be time for lunch."
Dark eyes told him with just the lift of an eyebrow that he hadn't been believed. "Then it's a good thing that Catherine went to get a picnic basket. How far is it to the Falls, Vincent?"
"About half an hour's walk, Mr. Solo. If the two of you would like to start, you follow the 'f' corridors at each junction. I will help Catherine carry down our lunch." Vincent divided his look between them and Illya could almost see his brain piecing together what had just happened.
"Good idea, Vincent." Illya slid off the stool and stood swaying a moment before his sense of balance came back. "Let us start, Napoleon."
"Stubborn." Napoleon muttered and followed him from the map room, staying close to him and grabbing a lantern from the outer wall to light their way.
Illya kept a close eye on the walls of the tunnel they were in. Manmade not natural and yet they had been fashioned by the people of over a hundred years ago. At the first junction, they studied the chiseled letters and took the left-hand corridor. He noticed the difference at once. Rushing water over a very long space of time had hollowed out this pathway.
The cool air seemed to follow him and he shivered a little even though he was wearing three layers. Napoleon looked at him sharply. "We should have worn another layer or two. I wondered why everybody was so heavily dressed and now I know why."
"I'm fine, Pasha, just a little chill." Illya let his hand stray to his partners and sighed at the warmth of Napoleon's hand.
"It's just a damn good thing that I'm the hot-blooded one in this partnership." He chided him gently but kept hold of his hand.
"I thank God for you every day, Pasha." Illya walked a little closer to him and enjoyed the warm air that seemed to always surround him.
"I do too, Illyusha. Now, are you going to tell me what happened back there?"
Illya sighed. "I tried to mesh with Vincent's guardian but it didn't work. And if Catherine doesn't believe in the supernatural then she won't be able to either."
"Damn it, Illya, you need to tell me before you try that." Napoleon was plainly upset and his grip tightened on the hand in his. "What if something had gone wrong and we couldn't reach you?"
"I am fine, Pasha. Lunch will replenish any energy I might have lost in my attempt." Illya returned the squeeze. "Vincent needs to know from whom he came if they are ever to consummate the bond I see shining between them. It's beautiful to see the golden cords woven so strongly between them. But he will never give into the passion unless he knows that he won't hurt her."
"So now we're advisors to the lovelorn?" Napoleon scowled at him.
Illya just smiled up at him. "Who better than a pair of lovers who also face a disbelieving world?"
The scowl quickly faded to the soft look Illya loved seeing on his lover's face. It was the one that made him look ridiculously young and at peace with the world around him. The quick hard kiss that followed warmed him all the way down to his toes. Then they were continuing towards the sound that had been on the periphery of their hearing for the last few minutes.
Walking through the opening cut in stone, they entered a fantasy world. The three falls seemed to cascade for miles through the mist filled air. The sound roared in their ears with quiet thunder. Moss covered rocks led up to a stone wall at the edge of what appeared to be a cliff. Illya wasn't even surprised to find an elderly woman sitting there as if she was waiting for them.
"Hello, Illya, Vincent has spoken of you. My name is Mary." The madonna's face was lined with the wrinkles of many hard years and yet he thought her tranquillity was real and hard-won.
"Mary, it is a pleasure to meet you." Illya sat by her side, aware that Napoleon had followed him down. "Have you seen her then, by Vincent's side?"
"Since I walked him night after night when Jacob first brought him below, I've felt her presence near him. I would open myself to her but it was as if an invisible door stood between us and neither of us could open it." The faded blue eyes searched his. "You are the one."
Illya nodded. "I can not quite touch her but I can open that door for her to come through if you will allow her to speak with your voice."
"Yes, those poor two children deserve to know the truth about their love and Vincent's origins." Mary nodded decisively. "They're coming now."
"Pasha, I need you to loan me your strength when I open myself." Illya looked into his lover's eyes and saw the fear there. "I promise that nothing will happen that will hurt any of us. I'll just be loaning my energy to her."
"You're sure?" Napoleon asked before nodding in resignation. "I'll watch your back."
"Thank you, Pasha." Illya leaned in and kissed him tenderly, needing a quick reassurance of his own connections before opening himself to a strange spirit.
Napoleon gave him his strength immediately and with passion that might have grown too fast but for the sounds of Catherine's laughter. They broke apart slowly and Napoleon made sure that Illya was steady before letting him go. Mary smiled on them and looked up in time to greet the last two of their party.
"Mary, how nice that you're here." Catherine smiled happily. "William packed enough food for an army so you can help us eat it all."
Vincent nodded slowly, his eyes moving between them with questioning eyes. They sat down and began to unpack their lunch. Conversation was general with Mary telling tales from Vincent's childhood while Catherine hung on every word. After they had eaten and were sitting half-reclined against the stones and each other, Vincent asked the question that Illya had been waiting for.
"Why did you ask about Catherine's belief in the paranormal, Illya?" Those blue eyes were soft as if already in wonder at the answer.
"Ever since we met, Vincent, I've seen a shimmer of blue behind your left shoulder. Since my years in the gulag, I have been able to see the ... others who live beside us." Illya chose his words carefully knowing what a shock this would be for Catherine. He felt Napoleon giving him his strength right behind him. "I believe it to be your mother who is watching over you. I can not reach her and be her conduit but Mary can and has said that she is willing. Do you want to know?"
This silence was filled with emotion and Illya watched the leonine man he'd been so drawn to, pull into himself. Catherine looked angry and anxious at the same time. But she stayed silent, pressing against him as if to give him her strength. Mary watched them all with her gentle smile and Illya decided that she already knew his answer when she touched his arm and nodded.
"Yes," the whisper could barely be heard over the roar of the Falls.
Illya nodded once, settling back against Napoleon and holding out his hand to Mary. Closing his eyes, he opened himself, as he hadn't ever thought to do again. The tingling energy of the falling water felt like fuzzy tendrils bearing him up under the weight of the past that rushed at him. Using the image of a door, he opened it and braced against the weight of memories.
"Ah, me beautiful boy, how I've longed to tell you how much I love you." The lilting Irish tones fell on his ears faintly from the distant space he now inhabited. "Vincent is a fine name though not the one I had picked out. You were Herne's son from the moment I knew that I was quickening with new life. My miracle child and heart's promise, I called you when I awoke from our loving alone."
"Eileen O'Shaunessy, little love, that was the name they gave me at my birth. I was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter so the family always knew that I wasn't meant for the usual. It was at Beltane in my seventeenth year that I first walked between the worlds. Leaping the fire, I landed in what I suppose you might call a parallel world, Herne's world, the world of faerie and legend."
"Parallel universes?" Catherine's voice wavered between scorn and disbelief.
"She's a feisty one, Vincent, you'll need a strong hand with her." Mary/Eileen chuckled. "She reminds me of meself in some ways. You've already met Kristopher, Catherine so you're aware that more exists than just what you can see and touch. Your children will need both of your best selves. Vincent will give them the touch of fantasy and Catherine will be giving them the knowledge of the world and the way it works. Neither one is more important than the other."
"Mother, what happened?" Vincent asked quietly.
"Devil's work, my son. When me grandfather knew that I carried a child, he shipped me off to this great cold city of yours to stay with my Aunt Bridgett until you were born. She was a great believer in sin, that one and me being unwed meant that I was a sinner in need of shriving. The last four months I carried you inside of me were some of the most miserable in my life. She prayed over me day and night keeping me locked in the back bedroom of her apartment. Father O'Connor was just like her and between the two of them I was like to go crazy."
Mary/Eileen sighed and wiped away a tear. "When labor started, Aunt Bridgett wouldn't get a doctor for me for fear he'd know my shame. But when it looked like we might both die, she let the midwife in. I'd been losing blood steadily and had no more strength to push when she finally saw your wee head crowning. With the very last of my will, I felt you slide from me. Aunt Bridgett gasped and fled the room while I whispered to the nice woman who was holding you. She lay you in my arms and you wailed like the banshee was after you. I saw that you were truly Herne's son and so I named you to her."
Illya could feel the emotions pouring through the link he was holding open and he trembled with the pain of loss.
"She nodded and I begged her to get you away to a safe place while my aunt was gone. She'd have named you demon's child if she could and I feared for your life. I already knew that I was dying and wouldn't be there to protect you from them. She hesitated only a moment before wrapping you in me nightshirt and taking you down the fire escape. Not a moment too soon, either. Me aunt and Father O'Connor burst into the room as if the hounds of hell were at their heels but all they found was me a'lying there almost dead of blood loss." Mary/Eileen took a deep breath. "It was not your fault, my beautiful son. Nothing you did ever hurt me, 'twas the primitive conditions and Aunt Bridgett who signed me death warrant. The priest gave me last rites before they left me alone to die."
Catherine was crying against Vincent's shoulder and he was weeping slowly, the tears running down his furry cheeks.
"I never gave them a second thought then for me spirit was so light that I felt like dancing around the room. And that's when he found me after searching long and far. Your father and my only love, Herne, the hunter."
"Herne? As in the antler headed god from Celtic myth?" Vincent looked a little dazed.
"Aye, the laws in some of the parallel worlds that exist on Earth vary from line to line. When I leaped over the bonfire at Beltane, I leapt into his world. He was a fearsome sight when we first met in his sacred grove but I soon saw into the heart of him and when we loved, he was gentle as could be with me virgin self. But the rules of our worlds gave us only a single night before parting."
Illya was tiring but he wanted some answers himself and he stirred a bit to draw attention to their current situation.
"The Gatekeeper is growing tired, children. Know only that Herne came for me while I was dying and in the moment of death, your world's rules ceased to affect me. Now I am safe and loved in his world. Travel is not quite forbidden for us since the ties of mother and child hold strong no matter when we are. There is great danger coming to the Tunnels. The Gatekeeper will know what to do. Guard him closely, children, for he is the door and he holds the key that will save your world."
"Know that we love you, Vincent. You were the first of our beloved children and all of your brothers and sisters send you their love, too. We will speak again, little one. I love you." And the door closed in Illya's mind while he slumped against Napoleon.
He was so cold. He could feel Napoleon holding him tight, frantically frictioning his hands but nothing seemed to be working. Then a thick layer of warmth covered him and he felt Vincent's hands cradling his head while it felt like the entire power of the Falls rushed through him. His eyes snapped open and met the shining blue gaze of Herne's son.
"Thank you, Illya. Rest now. We can talk later." Vincent ordered softly and Illya slipped into a deep sleep, still feeling Napoleon's hands holding him close.
He was cradled in strong arms under a heavy weight that spoke of comfort and love. Illya thought back to what he last remembered and his eyes popped open to see Napoleon's dark head on the same pillow. The arms around him were his and the great weight was what appeared to be five or six quilts. The room was cool but their bed was nice and toasty.
"Illya, how do you feel?" Napoleon's eyes had popped open and he smiled up into the beloved face.
"I am fine. Whatever it was that Vincent did, worked. I'm tired but no longer drained. How is Mary?" Illya suddenly remembered the gentle woman who'd been Eileen's voice.
"She's fine. It didn't drain her ... only you." Napoleon looked stormy.
"It's because I was holding open the door. I didn't realize that it wasn't the simple door between living and dead but the gate between the worlds." Illya shrugged. "I'll know next time."
"There won't be a next time, Illyusha. Somebody else can take over this job. I don't want you anywhere near this whole damn thing." Napoleon was adamant.
"We may not have a choice, Pasha. For better or for worse, I'm the only Gatekeeper we have. And the danger isn't just for the Tunnel dwellers but for all of us. THRUSH has plans that we need to thwart." Illya snuggled closer and let his hands wander over Napoleon's skin.
"Damn. I was afraid that would occur to you." Napoleon pushed him onto his back and glared down at Illya.
"Make love to me, Pasha. Remind me how lucky we are to love each other." Illya allowed all of his love to show on his face and he watched Napoleon's face crumble. "Hush, love, we'll be all right. I promise that we'll be just fine."
And Illya hoped that he was right.
End part six