by Rosemarie Hauer
"Catherine!" His breath was a white cloud before his heated face as he scaled the wall of her apartment building, hurrying to reach the source of horror and despair that threatened to tear him apart from inside. She'd been having these nightmares for weeks now, but never before had it been this terrible. When he swung his legs over the balcony wall, his stomach contracted violently, leaving him shaken and breathless as he staggered toward the glass doors which led to her bedroom. He could see her now, tossing and turning in her bed, the pillows and blankets a tangled mess around her. Sometimes, his mere presence had sufficed to calm her, and she'd quieted without awakening. Tonight, though, every bit of calm he might have had to offer, shattered beneath the onslaught of terror and pain that those dark dreams evoked in her. Hesitantly, his hand reached for the door knob. Never before had it occurred to him to enter her bedroom, let alone while she was asleep and unaware of his intrusion, but this time there was no other way of reaching her, of breaking through the barriers of a nightmare which imprisoned and isolated her with its devastating force. The door was not locked. It never was, and he had always been aware of it, yet he had never made any use of that knowledge--until now. With two long strides he was at her bedside, kneeling down and touching her fevered forehead with his trembling hand.
"Catherine!" He had to wake her, had to free her from whoever it was she was fighting against with a vigor fit to destroy either her invisible enemy or herself. Suddenly it dawned on him how well he knew this kind of rage, and panic-stricken, he seized her slim shoulders, shaking her resolutely. She struggled to open her eyes, but it took a couple of long moments until she recognized him and moaned his name exhaustedly.
He held her to his chest, cradling her head in one large hand, and rubbed his cheek soothingly against her damp hair.
"Tell me, Catherine," he whispered. "That will make it easier for you to get rid of it."
Desperately, she clutched the seam of his cloak, burying her face in its folds, but she was still unable to find words for what she had just gone through. Her teeth chattered uncontrollably and the shivers that ran through her body wouldn't stop. Tightening his grip around her waist, he noticed that her nightgown was damp with perspiration and he knew that, somehow, he had to make her change into something dry and warm.
"Catherine," he started again, leaning back slightly in a futile attempt to find her gaze with his. He shifted his position then, intending to stand up and get a washcloth and a towel from the bathroom to wipe the sweat from her face and neck. But she clung to him fiercely, suddenly finding her voice.
"Vincent," she begged breathlessly, "please don't go. Please..."
He knelt down again, certain that she would hear him now. "Catherine, look at me! Catherine?" She lifted sleep-clouded eyes to his, tears still glittering on her lashes. "Speak to me, Catherine," he demanded softly, stroking her cheek reassuringly with the pad of his thumb.
She sighed and buried her face against his neck. "Maybe later," she whispered, "first I'd like to have a shower and a change of clothes." He released her and helped her to her feet.
"Are you sure you can manage?" he asked doubtfully, when she headed for the bathroom door on wobbly legs. Never before had her smile seemed more beautiful to him than at that moment, telling him that she was back to her old self again.
And wasn't there even an impish glint in her eyes when she retorted, "Regrettably, I think I can." Normally he would have dropped his gaze under her gentle teasing, at a loss as to how to deal with the implications of such a remark. And later, as he listened to the soft rustling noises inside the bathroom, he couldn't have told what had possessed him at that moment, when he'd met her intent gaze and held it, if even just for an instant.
When Catherine returned from the bathroom, Vincent saw her eyes wandering to his cloak, neatly folded and lying across the foot of her bed. Her face lit with a smile, and he wondered, fleetingly, why such a simple thing should give her so much pleasure.
"I thought you might like some tea," he offered as she turned toward him.
"You'll never cease to amaze me," she answered gratefully.
They walked into the living room and settled down on one of Catherine's small couches. For a moment, Vincent almost expected her to lean against his shoulder. But there was an urgency about her, caused by something she had to tell him, because she needed advice -- advice she knew only he could give her.
"You've been feeling those nightmares within me for quite some time now, haven't you?" she asked He nodded mutely, not wanting to interrupt her in any way. "And you've been wondering why I never told you anything about them. Right?"
He affirmed that with another nod.
"I must admit," she continued, "that I was terribly confused when those dreams began. I was reluctant to open up a subject that might be better left closed." She dropped her eyes and he could sense her unease all too clearly. He wanted so much to hold her, to make it easier for her, but something in her gestures, in her voice, held him back.
"In those dreams," she went on, " I find myself overcome by ... strong emotions, Vincent, so intense that they tear me apart, and I'm scared -- terribly scared because I'm losing myself."
When she fell silent, he drew her into his embrace, murmuring, "Maybe I know what you're talking about, Catherine."
"It makes me feel so helpless," she whispered against his shoulder, seeking his gaze, and as he nodded she continued, "Tonight, it was worse than ever before. I really thought I was going to die, Vincent, and the worst thing was that dying felt so utterly lonely. Never to be able to reach you again..." Her voice broke, and her tears fell freely now. He pressed small kisses into her hair, drawing her closer to his body to give her some of his strength, his solidity, his warmth.
"I know," he said. "Believe me, Catherine, I know." She lifted incredulous eyes to his face, begging him silently to explain.
He sighed, not knowing where to begin. There was so much that had happened between them and, he admitted sadly to himself, so much that had not. How should he tell her of his repeated dreams in which it had been...too late. Too late to live, too late to love, too late to even say good bye. He fought back his tears and cleared his throat.
"I have faced death several times throughout the last few years, and each time the hardest thing was..." He swallowed hard before he went on,"...the thought of going away from you without ... without having told you how deeply I love you." His heart hammered against his ribs with this intimate confession and, holding his breath, he awaited her reaction.
Wordlessly, she looked at him, lifting one trembling hand and lightly stroking his cheek. He shuddered under her tentative caress, knowing he had to stop her and yet unable to keep himself from leaning into her soft touch.
"I love you, too, Vincent," she whispered at last, extending her gentle stroking to his temple and his brow. Her voice was very low when she finally withdrew her hand and went on, "Earlier, when I was dreaming, I felt myself leave my body, not knowing where to turn without it. Everything was so empty and cold. A strange wind tried to sweep me away and I struggled to fight it with my last bit of strength. It was then that I cried out your name. It was all I could do, and a nagging little voice inside me repeated over and over again, Too late, too late."
Vincent reached out to draw her into the warm circle of his arms. "It's over now," he soothed, "I'm here."
She pulled back slightly to look up at him. "Vincent, someone once said that there is only one thing worth living for -- and that is to love as fully as you can. Only then, knowing that you have given all you've had to give, you can go in peace when your time comes."
At Catherine's words, Vincent felt a sudden heat rush through his veins. Oh God, how often had he been thinking exactly the same thoughts, wondering desperately what was his to give and what to withhold. He dropped his flushed face to her shoulder to escape the question in her pleading eyes. His pulse pounded in his ears and the uncertainties of a lifetime closed in on him like ocean waves above a drowning man. He felt her arms stealing around his neck, hugging him close, and he was lost in her comfort and her warmth.
"Oh, Catherine," he moaned, lifting his head to search for her gaze. "I don't know where to begin. There are so many things I have been longing to tell you, so many things I..."
A tender touch of her fingers against his lips silenced him. "You have already begun," he heard her whisper and his eyes filled with tears. She kissed them away, her lips supple and warm on his skin, and he thought that his heart must surely burst with the intensity of the sensation.
Suddenly she stopped, her mouth only inches away from his. Her breath caressed his face as she whispered, "Love me, Vincent. Please make love to me."
He gasped at her words. How desperately he longed to do as she asked, and for the first time he began to question the things that had always kept him from loving Catherine with all that he was. The pain at the thought of never knowing how it felt to hold her body close, to feel the heat of her skin and the pleasure of her touch, took his breath away. Wasn't she right? How could he possibly live with the knowledge that he had not dared to reach for the best that life had ever offered him?
Slowly he leaned toward her....
....and sat up abruptly, finding himself in the familiar surroundings of his own chamber. The realization of what had just happened made him throw back his head and groan in frustration. His head spun as he tried to focus his thoughts on reality again.
It was true that he had faced death several times of late. It was also true that he had always felt a deep despair at all the lost and wasted possibilities in his life. But nothing was as painful as the knowledge that he would never know the completeness of Catherine's love.
Oh, yes, she cared for him, trusted him, relied on him, and even simply enjoyed his company. He knew that, and he kept telling himself that it was sufficient, that it was even more than he had ever dared hope for.
And yet, ever since he had taken her back to the threshold in the basement of her apartment building almost one year ago -- after he had nursed her back to health in his chamber, in this very bed -- he knew that his feelings for her exceeded mere friendship by far. From the moment she had leaned against him, gently stroking his hair where it spilled over his shoulder and chest, he could no longer deny that he was falling in love, hopelessly and irrevocably. He recalled how his breath had caught and his blood had quickened when he felt the weight of her head on his chest. He still wondered how he had found the courage to lift his hand and softly pull her against him.
He released a deep sigh. That moment had been incredibly intense and beautiful, and yet it had been the beginning of his greatest torment as well. Ever since that moment he'd had to force himself to carefully hide his true feelings from her, because -- and remembering that brought a gnawing ache to his stomach -- there was something within him he had to protect her from. At any cost.
Shaking his head in order to dispel these thoughts, he reminded himself of her involvement with Elliot Burch a few months before. That time had shown Vincent all too clearly that she considered him a friend, nothing more, but -- and he drew some comfort from that notion -- nothing less either. She'd actually told him back then that she didn't want to lose him, although she thought it possible that she loved Elliot. And as much as he would have liked to make himself believe otherwise, she had only broken up with Elliot Burch because he had disappointed her, not because she loved him, Vincent, more.
And then there was her dream about him, when she lay in the hospital after she had been shot by Mitch Denton. He could still hear her exhausted whisper as she told him how they had walked in the sunshine, how he had bought her ice cream, and that no one had looked twice. As innocent as that dream seemed, it told him a lot about Catherine's hopes and expectations, whether he liked it or not. That dream made it clear to him that he could never live up to what she wanted, what she needed him to be.
No, not him -- but the man whom she would love one day. And that could never be him. Never. Because...he was not...a man.
"You appear to be quite distracted tonight, my son. I dare say that this last move was hardly like you. Check...and mate."
Vincent raised his eyes from the chess board to Father's smug face and managed a wry smile. " I don't mean to spoil your triumph, Father, but I'm afraid you're right."
Father leaned back in his chair. "Do you want to talk about it, Vincent?"
Vincent dropped his gaze to his hands and shook his head uncertainly. "I don't think there is anything to talk about," he replied hesitantly.
"It's about Catherine, that much is for sure. Don't you think..."
"Please, Father, not again," Vincent interrupted him brusquely. "I know your opinion on that matter, and I really don't want to hear any more about how dangerous Catherine is for me and that I should let her go her own way."
Vincent shifted his weight in order to push himself to his feet, but Father's hand came up to gently hold him in place.
"I won't say any such thing tonight, Vincent. I promise. Please...."
With a sigh of resignation Vincent leaned back again, pulling his hand from beneath Father's touch to rest it in his lap. His voice was hoarse and guarded when he answered. "What would you have me say, Father? That I feel about Catherine like a man feels about the woman he loves? That what I long for is something which can never be? Don't worry, I know that all too well."
The silence that followed was heavy with emotions kept in check in order to spare the other any hurtful outburst. It was Father who cautiously resumed their conversation.
"What exactly is it that you long for?"
Vincent's mind raced. How could he tell Father, of all people, what it did to him when Catherine smiled at him, when she touched him, when she finally left him to return to her world where he could not keep her safe? He was truly at a loss for words.
Father rose from his chair and limped around the table to place a comforting and reassuring hand on Vincent's shoulder.
"I didn't mean for you to answer that question to me, Vincent. Just answer it to yourself, honestly and without holding anything back. That's all I ask of you."
He bent to place a gentle kiss on Vincent's head before he left the chamber.
Sleep would not come that night. No matter how desperately Vincent tossed and turned in his bed, the answers he was seeking eluded him.
What exactly was it he longed for, after all? The only answer he had ever given himself to that question was...Catherine.
Father's words "...honestly and without holding anything back..." danced through his mind. Why did these words sting so badly? Was he not being honest with himself? In what way could he be deceiving himself?
He sat up abruptly and buried his face in the palms of his hands. A nagging suspicion was surging against the barriers he had carefully erected to protect...whom? Was it really Catherine he protected by refraining from any expression of what he was truly feeling? To be honest, he had to admit that he was protecting himself as well -- from being rejected, from being pitied, from being...just tolerated.
And yet there had been such breathtakingly intense moments between them, like the one on Catherine's balcony after he had crushed Alexander Ross' shell in his hand and had thrown it out into the night. Never before had it been harder for him not to follow his impulse to draw her into his arms and kiss her. She had been so beautiful and so terribly fragile at that moment, and he almost felt as if she had been wanting him to touch her, to kiss her. Yet he couldn't clearly perceive what she was feeling when he was in an emotional turmoil himself. But he knew how guilty she felt for all the things she had said to him while she was under the spell of Ross' drug. He wondered briefly how far she would have gone to make up for it, to "thank" him, and the thought made him sick to his stomach.
With great effort he resisted the urge to give in to that feeling and forced himself to dig deeper still.
He repeated the question in his mind: What was it that he was longing for?
Catherine's love. But what exactly did that mean? Sighing, he let himself sink back onto his pillow.
He knew he had her friendship, her trust, her joy at having him in her life. Once she had even said that it was love, not courage, which had given her the strength to carry on and do everything, even humiliate herself by begging for Elliot's help, to rescue Father and him when they had been hopelessly trapped in a cave-in. He recalled her gaze at that moment, and he thought he had never been happier in his life. So why did it still leave a part of him empty and unfulfilled?
He didn't remember leaving his bed, and when he found himself pacing back and forth between his armoire and his table, he realized that he had arrived at another barrier which he must tear down, if he were ever to succeed at being completely truthful.
The truth was that he could neither believe, nor accept, that Catherine might love him any other way than as a friend.
He stopped his pacing and dropped himself heavily into his reading chair, cradling his forehead in one hand. He knew he craved nothing more than being loved for all that he was -- and that was the greatest impossibility he had to face. He could think of no reason at all why she might ever fall in love with him -- but of a hundred reasons why she never would. So what he had to do was let go of that longing, to banish it from his soul once and for all, lest he spoil their precious moments together and eventually drive her away.
Slowly he rose from the chair and walked over to his bed. Pausing briefly before he lay down, he thought how simple the answer had been after all -- and yet, how very difficult to face.
Catherine's eyes traced the bluish patterns that the faint city lights painted on her ceiling. Usually she found it rather annoying when she was unable to sleep, and she would blame some unsolved problem tied to her work, or a late cup of coffee. But tonight she felt calm, and at the same time a little excited, because her thoughts kept returning to Vincent seemingly of their own volition.
She thought of how much she loved being with him, having him near, talking with him. She appreciated his innate wisdom and the unobtrusive way he bestowed it to others. What a delight to watch him with the children of his world, to see their eyes glow with love and respect for him. As silly as it suddenly felt to her, she could not deny that she was very proud of him, of his unconditional friendship and quiet adoration.
Lately she had not been able, though, to dismiss the impression that there was something distant about him. He appeared almost withdrawn when they were together, especially when they were alone. She had noticed that he carefully avoided any touching between them, although in the beginning he had always accepted her embraces.
She smiled, recalling how at those moments he would tense with a short intake of breath, and then gradually relax against her, exhaling softly. But lately he seemed to sense her intent to touch him, even before she was aware of it, and thus he was able to avoid any physical display of affection on her part before she could make a move to initiate it.
Turning onto her side and hugging her pillow close, she released a sigh. A wave of love for the amazing spirit and gentle soul that was Vincent spread through her and warmed her from within, and if she was to be completely honest with herself, she had to admit that now there was something else as well. Being near him thrilled her in a way she had thought impossible after the assault by Martin Belmont and his men who had raped her and slashed her face.
She shuddered at the thought and quickly pushed it aside, returning to the memory of Vincent's gentle presence and the enigmatic aura of masculinity that surrounded him.
Had he noticed how her feelings for him had shifted lately? She had tried so hard to suppress them, to be what she had always been to him, a friend whom he trusted not to hurt him. She knew how fragile his sense of self was regarding his outward appearance. If she stirred feelings and desires she was not sure she could really handle as yet, she might easily hurt him -- and lose him.
Remembering her brief involvement with Elliot Burch, Catherine felt shame welling up inside her. How careless she had been with Vincent's feelings back then. And with Elliot's, at that. Her reasons for flirting with him, she admitted to herself, had been more than shallow. As if the attention of a good-looking, wealthy man with power and influence could have healed her tattered sense of self.
She wondered fleetingly whether Vincent, or anybody Below, knew about the rape. If they did, they avoided mentioning it, and for that she was grateful.
During her first ten days Below, those terrible memories had been blurred, shoved aside to make her physical healing possible; and eventually, when her nightmares had begun, she had fought them with every ounce of her strength to keep her own horror away from Vincent. Whether or not she had been entirely successful, she could not tell, and suddenly an irrational thought crossed her mind before she was able to suppress it. If he knew, could that possibly be the reason why he withdrew from her?
That's nonsense, she told herself. No one, and Vincent least of all, would think that she was tainted because of what those men had done to her, even though that was how she felt sometimes.
Since there was no chance of falling asleep anyway, Catherine told herself that she might as well get up and do something sensible. That would help to pull her thoughts away from the direction they had taken. Still reluctant to leave the warmth of her bed, she sat up and her eyes fell upon the small volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets on the nightstand. Tenderly she reached over and traced the back of the book with one finger.
"With love's light wings..." she recited quietly. Oh, yes, Vincent loved her as she loved him. She was just not sure if they were both ready to face the implications of their love as well.
An uneasy foreboding made Vincent move even more carefully as he left the entrance beneath the building next to Catherine's. The streets were flooded with people, obviously onlookers at the scene of a crime, since he could see the headlights of police cars. Briefly his heart constricted with fear, but the bond reassured him that Catherine was safe and calm.
After a quick assessment of the situation, he decided that he could not use his usual route to Catherine's balcony this night. Judging from the number of police cars, he suspected that an army of police officers must be in the building as well, certainly watching the elevators and staircases.
Fleetingly the thought crossed his mind that retreating to the tunnels would be the wise thing to do, but at the same time he knew that he had to see with his own eyes that Catherine was well. Resolutely he turned back to make his way to the roof of one of the adjoining buildings. He had leapt from roof to roof before. It was hazardous but a risk he could take. He would only have to pray that there were not too many police on the roof of Catherine's apartment building.
Catherine's heart stood still when she heard a clumsy thump outside her balcony doors. The sound was so strange that her first impulse was to call back the police officer who had just left her apartment. But then she heard the familiar tapping against the windowpane and hurried to pull Vincent into the apartment, quickly shutting the doors behind him.
"Didn't you see the police all around the building?" she chided. "How could you endanger yourself so badly by coming here tonight? You should..."
Taking in Vincent's disheveled appearance, she forgot what she had wanted to say and reached out to touch the wrist he was cradling protectively against his body.
"You're hurt," she stated solicitously.
He shook his head as if to deny that fact, but she would have no such thing. Determinedly she led him to one of her small couches and reached for his cloak. With a fluid movement of his uninjured arm, he handed it to her and stood indecisively, waiting for her to speak again.
"Please have a seat, Vincent," she said, sitting down herself and indicating the spot beside her.
Lowering himself hesitantly, he asked, "Catherine, what happened? Why all the police?"
"Somebody broke into an apartment on the second floor. The tenant, an elderly woman, was robbed and injured. The police assume that the robber may still be in the building. They've been searching through all of the apartments. Fortunately, they searched mine about half an hour ago, so I think you'll be safe here with me. But how did you get here without being seen in the first place?"
"There are only a few men posted on the roof. It was not too difficult to by-pass them, since they didn't expect anybody to cross from roof to roof by ... jumping."
"You JUMPED? Vincent, you mean you ... I don't believe this. Was that how you got hurt?"
He nodded. "I think I landed a little awkwardly."
She could tell from the way he tilted his head that this was not even half of the truth, but she didn't prompt him to be more specific.
"It is a sprain, nothing serious," he added carefully.
"Serious enough for you to not risk that leap again," she insisted.
Her stern tone seemed to amuse him, for a slight smile played across his features, but at least he nodded, graceful in defeat. She headed for the bathroom to get a wet cloth in order to soothe his wrist.
"I guess that means that you're stuck here with me for a while," she observed when she returned, noting something akin to a faint blush coloring his cheeks. "I hope that doesn't make you feel too uncomfortable?"
At that he turned to face her more fully, while she wound the wet towel around his injured wrist. "Catherine, it was quite selfish of me to come here tonight," he began. "I wanted to see you, to talk with you, and not even the obviously dangerous situation I had to face when I arrived could keep me from my initial intention. I don't even have the excuse that I needed to see if you were well. I knew that."
"Through our bond," she said, watching the emotions that played across his face while he was speaking.
"Yes," he affirmed quietly.
"Sometimes I wonder how much you are able to perceive through that connection of ours. I imagine that it could be quite a burden to have someone flood your mind with their thoughts and emotions all the time."
"I do feel some of your emotions, Catherine, but never your thoughts. I am not telepathic. And the emotions I am able to discern are only the strongest ones, like spontaneous fear or joy for example. With moods it is different, because it often takes me quite a while until I realize that it is your mood I am feeling, and not my own. I can feel other people's emotions, too, but not so strongly, and I could never confuse them with my own as it sometimes happens with yours. But, Catherine, please believe me that it is not a burden for me to feel you inside me. I ... cherish everything about you."
With those words he averted his face, avoiding her eyes. " I'm afraid I have been talking too much," he added, embarrassment tingeing his voice.
Catherine felt tears sting her eyes at his quiet admission, and yet she felt it might make him too uneasy if she told him that this was exactly the way she felt about him as well. Since she had come to know him she couldn't even pass steam grates or manhole covers without looking at them fondly. She just wished she could feel Vincent's emotions as he could feel hers. Pensively, she removed the now tepid towel and went to cool it once more in the bathroom.
When she knelt down and took his hand to tend to his wrist, she felt a slight tremor run through him. Her heart went out to him and she cursed herself for being unable to take him into her arms and show him how much she loved him. Was she really afraid of how he might possibly react? What if he hugged her back? What if he drew her close and she panicked? He would no doubt believe that it was about him, that she was afraid of him.
At that moment she decided that she had to tell him everything. He didn't deserve being hurt, not even inadvertently.
The way he looked at her told her that he had been sensing some of what was going on inside her, but that he had difficulty interpreting its meaning. Rising from her knees and sitting beside him again, she searched for the right words to begin. There was no other way than to be completely honest with him.
"Vincent, there is something I should have told you long ago," she said, studying her hands. He remained silent, and she felt his eyes on her without having to look at him. "Just a few moments ago, I wanted so badly to put my arms around you, but I didn't dare for fear I might hurt you somehow."
His growing puzzlement was an almost palpable thing between them, and she lifted her head to meet his gaze.
"Did you know that the men who slashed my face raped me as well?" she asked suddenly.
He did not take his eyes from hers as he softly answered, "Yes."
She was not really surprised by his reply, and yet words failed her for a moment before she was able to continue. "And that's behind me now. It's just that sometimes I tend to react irrationally when a man approaches me. But it was always different with you, Vincent. I like being near you. You've always made me feel safe, but now..."
He rose to his feet abruptly, clenching his hands into taut fists, and his words tumbled out in a rush. "I am so sorry, Catherine. I never intended to feel about you as I do. I never meant for you to know it either. I don't know what I did to betray your trust, but I would give anything to make you feel safe with me again."
His outburst left her momentarily stunned, but then it dawned on her that he had misunderstood the entire situation and, taking his hand to make him sit with her again, she hurried to set things right. "No, Vincent, you didn't do anything to betray my trust. I've never felt anything but safe with you. What I was trying to say is that my feelings for you have changed. The longer I knew you the more I fell in love with you, and one day I found that I craved your closeness, that I longed to touch you -- even though you seemed no longer willing to tolerate my embrace. But I was uncertain how I would react to being touched, afraid that I might hurt you by reacting unpredictably if I instigated any touching between us. Believe me, Vincent, hurting you is the last thing I want."
He was silent for so long that she almost flinched when he finally spoke. "Catherine, please don't hide your feelings from me. Maybe I can help you endure the pain by sharing it. Maybe I..."
"Please hold me, Vincent," she interrupted him pleadingly. "Please..."
Her words were muffled by his padded vest as he drew her close, cradling her head in his palm. Slowly she put her arms around his waist, hugging him firmly and fighting back the sobs that threatened to shake her. But he rocked her softly, whispering, "Just cry, Catherine, just cry."
And she felt the terror and the pain of her memories drain from her with the tears that ran down her cheeks, unheeded.
A slight noise awakened him and Vincent leaned up on one elbow in the bed Catherine had prepared for him in her living room. His eyes searched the semi-darkness of her apartment to find her standing by the glass door that led to the balcony, looking over at him pensively. His movement had obviously broken her reverie, for she took a step toward him -- and then another one.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," she apologized softly.
The bond gave no clue as to why she had been standing there, watching him sleep; so he slowly sat up, trying to find the right words to formulate a question which would not leave her with the impression that her actions bothered him in any way. His thoughts were interrupted when she started to speak again.
"It's just that I woke up earlier and thought that I had only been dreaming all this. So I got up to see for myself that you are really here. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?"
He shook his head. "No, it doesn't. I can understand you all too well. Somehow this is indeed a little like a dream."
Like one I had not too long ago, he added inwardly. He was not sure whether the shudder that ran down his spine was a pleasant or an apprehensive one. He knew for certain, though, that he would be more than disappointed if this were a dream and he had to awaken now.
"Would you mind if I ... touched you?" she asked quietly. "Just to make sure?"
He threw back his blanket to get to his feet, but her voice halted him.
"No, please stay ... where you are. I would like to ... come to you," she murmured. And then everything fell into place within his mind. He understood with absolute clarity what she needed from him right now. He just hoped that his self-control would be strong enough not to desert him.
Slowly leaning back against the pillows, he made room for her to sit beside him, and she complied gladly.
They did not speak. No words were needed when her hands said it all. They spoke of incredible tenderness when she ran them through his hair and across his face; of unveiled desire when they traveled along his neck down to the opening in his shirt, deftly undoing the lacing to caress his chest; and of limitless trust when they found their way under his shirt to stroke his warm skin exploringly. And her lips, when they met his, spoke of unconditional, all-encompassing love.
His heart raced in his chest, but he dared not move for fear of startling her away. He calmed the passion rising within him by listening intently to Catherine's feelings that came across the bond. Her desire to touch him without being touched in return was so fragile, and he knew that one sudden movement, one spontaneous action on his part, might crush it completely. So he lay motionless, loving her with every breath he took that carried her fragrance, with every beat of his heart against the chest she was touching so reverently, with every sensation that flooded his body and soul with unbearable bliss.
When she slipped under the blanket beside him, nestling against him and peacefully falling asleep in his arms, he knew that some day soon she would want him to touch her the way she had touched him tonight.
She stirred in her sleep and he kissed the top of her head, smiling.
The End . . .