This Last Hour of Sunset


Special notes: This one kept me awake one night, forming in my head. I spent that fitful morning and afternoon writing it down. Drove me crazy.


Mondays are traditionally bad -- a rule known to modern man for generations. Especially modern working man. Or even modern working woman. And this particular Monday was no exception.

The last thing Catherine Chandler ever expected to see on her desk when she arrived that morning, was a multi-page memo whose cover was decorated with a rough, crude map of where she'd just spent her entire weekend ... ... the tunnels beneath Manhattan. She picked it up, her stomach already hitting the floor, and began leafing through it.

"Joe?!" she called out, her voice filtering into her superior's office. Her tone fought bravely not to falter ... disinterest would have to be well feigned.

"Oh, yeah, you found it," came his reply, having come up behind her. He let out a him, this was a matter of simple but high frustration. "Get ready for one hell of a week, Radcliffe. We have a meeting at 10:00 over this, and don't expect an early lunch."

Catherine shook her head in confusion, her panic rising. "But what is it?" The printed words weren't making sense. She was left to flip back and forth between the pages, searching for any sign of hope that this was not as bad as her instincts were already screaming.

Joe Maxwell tossed two more stacks of paper on her desk -- more work for an already busy week. "The rapes in Central Park?" he began. "We finally got a witness."

Yes ... she knew that topic. In the past two weeks, the park had seen two rapes, both ending in murder. Both were at night: one, a female pedestrian whose purpose in the park was never deduced; and the other, a midnight jogger ... a promising young college student whose schedule had apparently driven her to odd hours. Both lives cut short, and quite brutally at that.

Police were taking up watch in the area, but the NYPD was stretched notoriously thin. So most people were simply avoiding the park, fearful and frightened. Even her extended family below had begun avoiding the area. ... ... Even her own mate, who she knew had always so enjoyed his time wandering that dark, peaceful sanctuary.

Catherine's brain was beginning to focus, having found a string of thought to cling to. "Do they have a suspect?" she asked.

"Try three. The semen analysis only gave us proof of two, but yeah, the witness claims he saw three perpetrators. All males, all disappearing into the sewers. The cops are amassing for a full-scale search on Friday."

Her next breath was consciously forced, and she only hoped her superior didn't notice. Rapists and murderers were an atrocity to civilization to begin with. Put them in Vincent's peaceful park, and it got worse. Put them in the tunnels and it became a nightmare. Send the police down too, and it was ... well ... the end of their world.

"Personally," Joe continued with amused sarcasm, "I don't think it's gonna do any good. So we found their escape route. Big deal. What are the chances anyone would actually want to stay down there?"

Catherine bit both her tongue and her lip, keeping her eyes on that memo's horrific map so Joe wouldn't see the terror she was feeling. Then, with the most casual voice she could muster, she tried an innocent reply ... "Yeah. What are the chances."


"Is there no way they can be dissuaded?" Father asked anxiously, that evening at an impromptu meeting of Council. Nine people filled his study. -- -- The council eight, of which he and his son comprised two, and his daughter-in-law, Catherine.

"This is moving up the priority list." she answered. "Even the mob hits on the docks are taking a back seat. The witness is reliable, there's no doubt about that. He's a professor from CUNY ... luckily not the girl's professor though. He was gathering some botanical samples when he heard distant screaming, then later saw three men dropping into a sewer grate. The police believe him, and they're going to follow any leads they can."

Harlan, one of the newest council members, took inevitable offense in his panic over the situation. "Well it's none of us." he insisted. "The people down here are just as scared as those above."

"That's not what she's saying," Vincent cut in. "Every civilized person wants these men caught. Our community even more so, I would think, given the circumstances. Given what they're about to bring down on our heads."

"But surely we'd have heard something," Mary argued. "It's nearly impossible for strangers to wander down here and not be seen or heard. I have more faith in our security than that. Especially in the areas beneath the park."

"Perhaps they too have some knowledge of our tunnels," Vincent suggested. "There are those above who have done maintenance or construction in this maze. Likewise, there are those who have spent time here, then returned to the world above. There are even those who simply know of these paths academically. Those who have seen maps, as evidenced by the memo Catherine brings us." He turned to his mate to offer one more fruitless plea. -- -- "Is there really no way such a search can be delayed?"

Catherine shrugged helplessly. "I was in that meeting for nearly three hours. The commissioner was there, plus two chief detectives, all reviewing this case." Her expression grew sad, grieving that she had to deliver this news not only to all those people who had accepted her below, but to her own beloved. "I tried everything I could think of, until Joe was cracking inane jokes about me being part ferret and wanting to run down rabbit holes. I've already piqued their suspicion ... and they didn't back down one inch."

Vincent nodded. Yes, he understood. And now she too was receiving the brunt end of jokes, all because she'd accepted this community as her home. He had noted her painful cringe as she'd muttered the word 'ferret'. "I believe you." he replied with the utmost sincerity, then wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.

Nearby, Father collapsed sullenly into a chair. "So this is how the world ends." he opined in a morose, loose quotation of Eliot. "Not with a bang but a whimper."

"The world is not ending, Father." came Vincent's automatic rebuttal. "We have survived worse, and we will survive it again."

... ...

Silent moments passed while the will to fight grew in all present.

"So what do we do?" Mary asked. "Send out the word for all to pack? There are still three days, we might be able to find shelter elsewhere ... at least temporarily."

A murmur of agreement went through a few of the council members, but it was up to Harlan -- in his zeal to protect the community for whom he had so recently become responsible -- to voice the one idea that was no doubt occurring to some of the others as well, including Vincent and Catherine. ... ... Especially Vincent and Catherine.

"Or," Harlan opined, "we catch them ourselves."


While Monday had been a day of shock, Tuesday became a day of work.

Above, between the glass and steel offices of the District Attorney, and the frantic rush of the NYPD's Manhattan headquarters, Catherine collected as much information as she could. Remaining inconspicuous in her curiosity was far from easy, but with care and determination, she was successful.

Now she knew where the cops would begin their search, as well as the expanse and depth they were currently planning to cover. It didn't look good. Not good at all. But there was always hope, and she passed the information down into the tunnels as quickly as she could.

Below, Mary and Father were organizing a frantic move of the entire community -- one of the most monumental endeavors they'd ever undertaken. Catherine's flow of knowledge painted a sobering picture of exactly how far they'd have to go, making their way into distant passages.

But even that was not the worst issue. Evidence, in this scenario, would be a factor. If the police came low enough to stumble across a neatly furnished room, what would they think? How far would their piqued curiosity prompt them to delve, even beyond their intended search for the criminals? They had no choice ... the unfortunate decision was made ... even the community's remnants would have to be destroyed and removed, as thoroughly as possible, as a last ditch effort on their final day. Until then, they would hope against hope that such painful endings could be prevented.

And it was to that end that a small group of the most able-bodied men hatched another plan, Vincent as their organizer.

They would watch the park in the evenings; in the dark of night; even in the dawning hours. In shifts as needed, but as vigilantly and thoroughly as possible. There were still three nights before the invasion of their world would begin, and Catherine's office believed the three perpetrators were due for another attack. If these three set foot in the area, Vincent's group was determined to find them.


That first night ... that first shift's patrol of the park ... was remarkably uneventful. The citizens above were frightened, almost unanimously avoiding the area.

There were still a few wanderers of course. Police, obviously. But Catherine had already warned her family how many policemen to watch for ... particularly those disguised in plain clothing.

Then there was s prostitute that they coaxed gently from the area. A group of foolhardy teenage boys, roller-skating by, proving their courage to themselves as they laughed brazenly against the dangers. Even a group of four homeless men, escorted to sanctuary by the members of that first shift before they returned below.

And the second shift ... that was even more barren. Another prostitute, offering love in all the wrong places. Then a former helper taking a shortcut through the park, feeling a sense of security from his knowledge of those who dwelt secretly beneath his feet.


It was that second shift that Vincent led, into the deepest hours of night. Catherine remained awake while he was gone, running on coffee, adrenaline, and worry. Her evening had been spent beginning the packing of their chamber, then helping Father do likewise. Now she lay awake, dwelling on the collapse that surrounded her.

5:00am, Vincent finally crawled into bed, spooning himself around her with an exhausted sigh.

"I'll take that to mean you didn't have much success." she whispered, when his only proffered communication was a nuzzle of her neck.

Still, though, he didn't answer.

"Vincent," she soothed. Gently, she lifted his hand from her midriff and gave it a kiss of solidarity, finally returning it to its chosen spot with an endearing squeeze. "We'll win this, in the end. One way or another. Even if it means following through with the move. A community is made of its people. We'll all go together, and we'll all return together."

Another thirty seconds she waited, until she finally received an answer.

"That is not the problem, Catherine," he hushed into her neck. "Something happened tonight. ... ... Something that I can barely even say."

She began to shift, planning to turn and face him. Whatever was wrong, the tone in his voice assured that it was bad. Maybe even worse than bad, given the strength with which his embrace stopped her movement. He wouldn't -- or couldn't -- discuss this face to face.

"What is it?" she whispered with rising trepidation. "Please, Vincent. Tell me what's wrong."

His face buried farther into her hair, finding a safe place in which to speak the horrible truth. ... ... ... "There was a helper we met, walking briskly through the park. A former helper. ... ... A friend, he has always been to us. He said he was returning home."

Catherine's brow furrowed, failing to see the problem but knowing it was there. "Go on," she encouraged softly.

More seconds passed, before Vincent finally whispered the ugly truth. -- -- "The others will think me insane, if I tell them. ... Or worse, I do not know what they will think of me. ... But I cannot deny what happened." His voice hitched, and he said four words that set him apart from everyone else in his life. "I could smell it."

... ...

Catherine didn't understand, obviously. But she finally succeeded in turning her head to ask a very confused: "You could smell what?"

... ...

"Blood. ... ... On the helper."

... ...

"The blood of one of the girls?" she asked, her brain finally piecing together the unbelievable horror he was suggesting.

"I don't know," he answered, at least finding a modicum of solace in having set the words free. "But it was there. No ... 'human' ... eyes could see it. Even mine couldn't see it. ... But I could smell it. Deep in his clothing. ... ... ... I could smell it."


To say that the next morning's emergency council meeting was congregated at phenomenal speed, would have been a gross understatement.

Mary was absent, returning to her frenzied work of organizing the impending move. The other members were there though, complete with a sleep-deprived Vincent.

He stood silently in a corner, his wife's hand in his, allowing her to relay the truth to the rest of the council. He didn't enjoy being the accuser, and hated even more the fact that it was his own differentness that had done the accusing. ... ... That hurt, despite Catherine's best attempts to smooth away the barbs.

"I believe him." she stated confidently, referring to Vincent's claim. "And I think it's worth checking into."

"Edmund Stelldecker has been out of contact with our community for years." Father stated helplessly. "We know little more of him than the world above does at this point."

"Well the rest of the world must have gotten to him," Catherine returned. "Two party-happy thugs, in particular, according to the witness."

"It would explain their use of our tunnels," observed another elderly gentleman on the council. "And what’s more, they probably assume we would think nothing of running across them. Just an old helper dropping by ... that would have been their excuse."

Vincent looked up, relieved to find not only belief in his terrible, animalistic accusations, but a lack of judgment as well. "Thank you, Stuart," he stated sincerely to his fellow council member. "What you say is especially reasonable. Edmund practically admitted as much last night. He claimed to be fearless of the park, knowing his friends lived right below."

"He's fearless," Catherine interjected, "because he knows he and his friends are the ones behind it."

"Can your police do something, based on this?" Harlan asked.

Catherine shook her head in the negative. "As much as we may believe, how would we convince a police investigator? It would be an anonymous tip at best, and that would only get this 'Edmund' brought in for questioning. And then only if we can find him. Vincent says he claimed to be moving around quite a bit. Nearly transient. And who are his two accomplices? There's no way this could be anywhere near sorted out before the planned search of the tunnels."

"So," Stuart replied in dejection. "We're back to square one."

... ...

Silence, as the members exchanged glances.

Then Harlan, his confidence and determination growing still further, set forth a most risky suggestion. ... ... "We keep packing. We keep moving. And at the same time, we catch them. We set a trap, and we catch them."

"A trap?!" Father asked sarcastically, as if he thought the notion crazy.

"If the police above can't do it, then it's up to us." Harlan argued.

"And how, exactly, do you propose we do this?" came Father's challenge.

Harlan looked around, fidgeting as he suddenly found all eyes upon him. "Catherine said these criminals are overdue for another attack. We have two more nights. We give them a," ... ... his words faltered as he realized exactly what he was suggesting ... ... "a target. And when they try something, we stop them. And we do it with prejudice."

... ...

It was Vincent that finally addressed that choice of words. "A 'target'?" he asked in disbelief. "Are you suggesting we send a woman into their clutches?"

Harlan met Vincent's eyes with as much conviction as he could find. "They're not known to go after men. I'm afraid that rather goes with their crime. ... ... It's either deal with them ourselves, or finish this immense relocation that, to me, seems about as impossible as it gets."

"He's right." came Catherine's voice, suddenly joining the fray. "We have to lure them out. We need to get all three of them, and we need to be sure they're the right ones. Innocent until proven guilty, right? The law above. The law below. ... ... Let them prove their guilt, then stop them. Like Harlan says -- 'with prejudice'."

"And who, exactly," Vincent addressed Harlan in a low, deadly serious voice, "do you expect to volunteer for this foolish endeavor?"

... ...

Vincent should have known, shouldn't he. Everyone in that chamber should have known. All should have foreseen the next moment.

"Me." Catherine answered.

Her mate turned to her in absolute horror, as did Father.

"Well they're not going to go after a tunnel dweller, right?" she defended. "Not if this 'Edmund' thinks he still has some twisted alliance as a former helper. How many other women are there down here that he doesn't know?"

"Catherine." ... Vincent's voice was low, almost bordering on a growl. If she wouldn't keep herself safe, he most certainly would, even if it meant arguing her into it.

"I don't exactly think news of you and me together has hit the streets, do you?" she challenged. "They wouldn't know who I am. They wouldn't think I come from below. And they sure as heck wouldn't think you'd be right behind me." Vincent stared at her for what seemed like endless minutes ... wide eyes pleading with his wife. "No, Catherine." he whispered in quiet despair. "Please not you."

She stepped closer, trying to achieve some privacy despite the surrounding council members. "You'll be there." she soothed. "And with others. I'll be completely safe ... I have absolutely no fear of that. And if we're lucky, together, maybe we can save this world. Our world. ... ... We have to do this."

His silent plea continued, even though he knew he wouldn't win. She was determined. -- -- A determination he usually admired. But this. ... ...

"We'll man the tunnel exits." Harlan encouraged. "We'll put sentries in the trees. We'll be ready, Vincent. I promise you."

Vincent's eyes met Harlan's, then settled once again on his mate's. ... ... ... "If it must be," he finally murmured in defeat, "then I suppose it must be."


"I despise myself for allowing this." Vincent stated, early that evening as he assisted his wife with their packing.

His afternoon had been spent helping the rest of the community, just as Catherine's had been spent at her office, fighting one last ditch effort to either locate the criminals from above, or at least delay the search of the tunnels. In both attempts, she had been unsuccessful.

Rising from a crate of books, she turned and approached her mate. He opened his arms, offering what he knew would be the best balm during this last hour of sunset.

"Do you despise me too?" she asked, mirroring his own self-deprecating statement as she stepped into his embrace. "For volunteering?"

"Oh Catherine," he hushed across her hair. "Such a moment could never come. You know that. ... ... It is I that I blame. ... This is not the way I've vowed to protect you. ... This is not the way a husband protects his wife."

"No," she disagreed earnestly. "It's the way we protect each other. ... I'm not doing this for my job. Or the world above. Or even, at the heart of it, the world below. ... ... I'm doing it so we can keep our life. The life we both want."

Around her and above her, Vincent indulged in a heavy sigh. She was right. He knew it. As much as he hated it, he still knew it. "Just be careful tonight, Catherine, my love." he begged, wrapping his hand tightly into her neck and pressing a prayerful kiss to her head. "Just be so very careful."


It really was eerily quiet that night in the park. No sounds of distant laughter. Even the ubiquitous noise of traffic seemed muted.

Alone, Catherine walked out into the cool night air. Winter was coming soon, and she could see her breath form a cloud to precede her. And under her feet, fallen leaves, drying and crisp, carpeted her path. It was a healthy reminder of why she was doing this. In another week it would be Thanksgiving. Her first as an official tunnel resident, and that's exactly where she wanted to spend it -- in their official tunnels.

She knew where the watch sentries were hidden. Harlan had pointed out the chosen trees to her as soon as she'd come home that afternoon. Likewise, she knew where six men from below were stationed ... two beneath one tunnel entrance, two in an alcove behind an ornate statue, and another two beneath a tarp strategically placed near a pile of leaves.

And Vincent ... ...

She knew he was out here too, although she didn't know exactly where -- -- and that was directly by her own request.

If this was going to work, they would only have one chance. ... One chance to get all three. ... And she could not risk it by looking toward Vincent at the first sign of trouble. He needed the element of surprise, and for that, he needed to be a surprise to her too.

She could feel his eyes on her though. The entire time. Covering her like a warm, protective blanket.

... ...

Another hundred yards she covered, keeping her path within sight of the hidden men. She met no one though, nor heard any sound beyond the rustling of leaves.

... Until. ... ...

From a path to her left, came a young man on roller-skates. Little more than a boy, really, although his outfit of leather and chains made it clear that he considered himself to be older than his years.

"Hi." he greeted, when Catherine stopped hesitantly. "You shouldn't be out here, lady. Didn't you hear about the murders?"

Nervously, she glanced around. No one else was visible ... neither friend nor foe. Maybe this was one of the teenage boys that some of the men had noted the previous night.

"Murders?" she asked innocently, her calm politeness amazing. "Maybe I'm in the wrong place. I'm supposed to be meeting a friend here, but I'm not too familiar with the park layout. Maybe you could point me toward Bethesda Terrace?"

The boy laughed. Then smiled. Then ... ... smirked.

And then they came, seemingly out of nowhere. Another on roller-skates, and the third on a skateboard. The first bought time for the latter two, grabbing Catherine's arms and throwing both her and himself to the ground. His grip was strong with the vigor of youth, and he laughed as he held her down to the paved path.

"Hey baby!" cackled the one on the skateboard. "Are we gonna have fun with you!" His voice sounded a little older ... a little gravellier ... but she could discern nothing of his face. The face didn't matter though, once he had leapt from the rolling board. It was his hands that threatened the most, grabbing her ankles while she let out a scream.

The third, still on his skates, circled around, then slid into the grass above her head.

It was only mere seconds since that first innocent-looking boy's smirk had begun. Barely enough time for her to register what was happening. But already there were hands on her knees ... hands ripping at her blouse ... fingers, wrapping ominously around her throat.


It was all so fast that she was only beginning to taste the emotion, when a snarl came echoing off the surrounding trees, a large, dark shadow leaping through the air.

He landed somewhere to her left, a roar bellowing into the night while the strange hands at her throat were unceremoniously yanked away. Then a tearing, and a gurgling sound of death that she neither recognized, nor wanted to.

The first skater -- the one who had smirked so confidently -- was next, jarred away from her and literally thrown full force into a nearby tree. Faintly, Catherine heard an exclamation from what she thought was Harlan, probably ducking out of the way of the flying body. It ended ... with the thud of a cracking skull.

And the third -- the skateboarder who'd begun his assault by grappling her legs ... ... she was finally able to kick him off. He had caught sight of the raging Vincent and was frozen in terror, neither able to release her ankles, nor run for his life. But at least Catherine could struggle to sit up, able to witness her husband as he towered over this last attacker.

Vincent's arm rose, and he let out a deafening roar as the man looked up with wide, terrified eyes. And on Vincent's face, Catherine finally saw it. And she knew.

Her mate's anger was at a crescendo, and not merely because of the initial assault. Here was an additional betrayal. Here was someone Vincent knew, threatening to rape and kill his wife.

Here was Edmund Stelldecker.

Claws rose, then came down with a muffled thump that blurred into a crackling tear. Edmund Stelldecker, like his accomplices, was no more.


The return to the tunnels was ... victorious ... in a way. Relief shown on so many faces, with an additional hint of pride on Harlan's. The community was safe. The packing, the moving ... it could all stop.

Catherine had wrapped herself in Vincent's offered cloak, shielding her torn blouse. There was no time to waste, however, and she stayed bundled as such while she worked with Pascal and the children, sending messages out by foot and by pipe. A helper above would make the anonymous tip. Someone to inform the police that the rapists had been witnessed again, this time in the midst of a scuffle.

Some scuffle. ... ... Their bodies now lay dead in the Central Park grass.

"You're certain this will prevent the police from searching?" Father asked Catherine with frank seriousness, when she passed him and Mary in one of the community areas, on her return from her meeting with Pascal.

"I'm certain." she replied somberly. "They have physical evidence from the second victim. A fast DNA test will provide the proof on two of the men. And the third ... well ... they won't question it. It all fits too well." Pressing one hand reassuringly to Mary's shoulder, she added, "Really. I wouldn't worry. When I go in to the office tomorrow morning, I'm sure I'll be sending down word that the search has been canceled."

Mary nodded with a smile, then gave Catherine a brief hug of gratitude. Likewise, Father's "Thank you" was expressed just as deeply.

"Is Vincent in our chamber?" she asked hopefully. The entire entourage had returned to the main living areas together, Vincent pulling her into one final hug when she expressed her anxiousness to communicate the next step to the helpers above. She could still hear his whispered "I'm proud of you, my love" hushed into her ear as they'd parted.

Father hesitated a moment, then replied ... "He's probably down in the bathing pool. He was ... a bit shaken up. I think he would benefit from your return."

Catherine nodded, pulling the cloak more snugly around herself. "Yes." she agreed. "I think we both would."


He was exactly as Father predicted, waist deep in their family's small bathing pool. Clean clothing was stacked loosely on the surrounding rocks, the bloodied garments tossed in a haphazard pile. He had a sponge in his hand, and was cleaning one set of fingers when he caught sight of her arrival.

Nothing was said as she too disrobed, placing his cloak with his intended clothing, then dropping her ripped blouse in a spot all by its lonesome. She would probably discard it, even if it were mendable. No need to keep the memory of what those rips so clearly portended. The horror that could have been, had the plan not played out so successfully.

His silence was disconcerting, to a point. She understood it though. Only a few months ago, he would have been shying away in modest bashfulness, especially when she waded in beside him. This though ... this was far deeper than any superficial physical differences. This was about what had happened out there on that dark pathway.

Moving closer, she touched his arm. "Are you all right, Vincent?"

He stilled his hands for a moment, purposefully giving her the opportunity to see the task he had been performing so diligently.

Blood, beneath one set of claws. The blood of a former friend. The blood of violent criminals who had wreaked havoc on the world above, on the world below, and sealed their own fate when they tried to take his mate. Evil blood. ... ... ... But blood nonetheless, that had to be cleaned from his person before he could once again feel like the man he knew she loved.

"I'm sorry, Catherine." he murmured, working at one particular claw.

"Oh, Vincent," she soothed, pressing her cheek to his shoulder and wrapping her hands around one muscular bicep. "There's nothing to be sorry for. You were remarkable out there. We saved our community tonight. As well as more than a few unknowing women who might have been their next victims." It was with great purpose that she'd chosen the word 'we'. ... He would be made to know that she shouldered the night's events just as much as he did. "We saved innocence tonight." she added. "In many ways."

He nodded somberly. "Yes. ... ... I can accept that. ... ... I only hope that you do not think I went too far in my anger. Especially toward one who had once been a helper. ... One who had once been a friend."

"He wasn't a friend anymore." she replied. "And how could I blame you? You were protecting me. I love you for that, just as always."

His eyes watched her silently, finding and retrieving his own assurance that her words were the simple truth. He would offer one more explanation for both of their benefit. -- -- A fear that would begin to heal as soon as he gave it the freeing wings of voice, and an awareness that would hopefully further her knowledge of her mate.

"My temper," he began, then faltered and tried again. "My control ... ... I lost myself to a degree, tonight. But I don't want you to fear, Catherine. It's important that you understand."

His use of the sponge halted, the fingers he'd been cleaning rising to caress gently along the line of her jaw ... onward to her ear and down the slope of her neck. It was the same curve into which he'd made that embarrassing, personal admission the night before. It was also where vile, strange fingers had curled no more than an hour earlier.

"I saw their hands on you." he husked. "That ... triggered something. Previous crimes, friend or foe ... such details no longer mattered." Courage was found in words already spoken, and he risked more clarification. "Their hands on you with an intent ... many intents ... that should never be."

Silently, her hands caught his, and she drew his fingers up for a string of kisses. "I know," she replied. "I know. And I understand. ... ... I have all along."

Then she retrieved the sponge, pressing it purposefully into his roughened palm. One by one she curled his fingers around it, pushing them in so the bloodied claws he'd been washing could soak in the sponge's absorbed water. And then, finally, she drew his hand back to the curve of her neck, her fingers around his, gently wiping the sponge were those horrible, vulgar fingers had held her down.

"We'll clean it all away." she murmured, stepping closer ... seeking out his body's warmth amidst the cool water. "Together. ... We'll clean it all away."