by Rosemarie Hauer

Catherine sighed as the tranquil atmosphere of her apartment enveloped her at last. She locked and secured the door behind her and wearily leaned against it. In her mind, she could still see snowflakes tumbling down all around her. How long had it been since she´d laughed with delight when it snowed on Christmas Eve? Things changed. People changed, and the capability to feel joy at Christmas time got dimmed with the years. Pushing away from the door, Catherine discarded her damp coat and toed off her boots. Maybe it hadn´t been such a good idea to take the day off from work. Work wouldn´t have been half as draining as the tasks she´d absolved today. If she was completely honest with herself, she hadn´t felt up to the high Christmas spirits she would have encountered at the office. She´d thought if she did something different altogether on this Christmas Eve, the sadness about this first Christmas without her father might not weigh all that heavy. 

She´d been on her feet practically all day long, starting with visiting the children´s ward at St. Vincent´s Hospital in the morning. Being with the children had been stimulating and pleasant despite the sad fact that they weren´t able to spend Christmas at home with their families. Reading stories to the little ones had reminded her of Below, and a bittersweet feeling had woven around her heart. Afterwards she had been in charge at the homeless shelter, serving food to people who lived on the street, people who belonged nowhere and to whom loneliness often was the only familiarity they knew. With every spoonful of soup she´d passed out, she had thought of the people Below and how lucky they were to have one another. Every time she´d met the closed expression on a worn and wrinkled face, she couldn´t help but wish there was a place for everyone, a shoulder to lean on, and a pair of arms to hold them. 

Her heart was still heavy with those impressions. At last she´d spent several hours on the phone at the Crisis Center hotline, listening to voices that pulled her even deeper into a vortex of sadness and despair. Catherine couldn´t shake the feeling that she hadn´t been of much help today. Those people needed someone who was able to give them their undivided attention, something she hadn´t been able to do today. Her thoughts had kept revolving around her own sorrows and the ache inside her heart. Catherine sat down on the couch and massaged her sore feet. She knew she had tried to drown out her own feeling of loneliness by taking on more duties than she actually could fulfill. 

Catherine leaned back against a throw pillow and closed her eyes, conceding to herself that she couldn´t simply avoid the memories of past Christmases -- memories of a time of sharing, of belonging. She would have to face them in order to be able to let go of her grief eventually. Determined to do something, Catherine scrambled to her feet and went to her bedroom to get the winterfest candle Vincent had given her one year ago. Carefully, she unwrapped the precious keepsake and ran her fingers reverently across its smooth surface. How proud she had been to receive this gift from him; how touched that his family wanted her to be with them at a very special time of celebration. She had decided then and there that she´d never light the candle. The mere thought of seeing it dissolve beneath a flame brought about a sense of panic, as if something precious within her might disappear along with the colored wax. Yet, Catherine realized, the candle had been made to give light. Its very nature was to be consumed in order to radiate light and warmth. To keep it in a drawer, no matter how safely it was wrapped and how fondly thought of, meant to keep it from serving its true purpose. 

Returning to the living room, Catherine put the candle in a candle holder and placed it in the middle of the coffee table. Fetching a box of matches from the kitchen, she hesitated for a moment before she struck a match and held it to the wick. Instantly the flame sprang to life and sent a ray of joy directly into Catherine´s heart. The warmth that spread through her body had little to do with the fire of the flame. It was more like receiving the intimate gaze of a lover, a delicate wink of beloved eyes that held a world of meaning which couldn´t be put into words. 

Catherine reclined against the backrest of the couch and surrendered to the thoughts she´d meant to avoid all evening. Thoughts of Vincent, of her longing to be with him, to have him take away the sadness and the pain through his mere presence. The knowledge that soon she would see him anyway, that she would spend Christmas Day Below, was barely any consolation at the moment. Why was it that Christmas Eve always made her feel so vulnerable? Maybe because in her family it had been the most intimate evening of the holidays. An evening of cozy moments, of stories, of simply being together. Just like it was for Vincent and the community Below on this special night. That was why he wasn´t here, why he wouldn´t come. Because he had promised the children to be with them as he always had been in the past. 

Catherine straightened and opened her eyes. The candleflame flickered briefly before it resumed its calm and steady glow. Of course, Vincent had invited her to share in his evening with the children, but she had declined. She didn´t want to take away from what the children needed just as badly as she did: Vincent´s attention, his time, his nearness. Tears pooled in her eyes and she shook her head to free herself from the feeling of self-pity that threatened to wash over her. She leaned closer to the candle, extending her hand to feel the heat of the flame, making it dance with her breath. 

A sound from the balcony diverted her attention and she flinched as the flame all but burned her skin, but she hardly noticed the pain. Her heart was suddenly beating so fast that she almost forgot how to breathe. 

"Vincent?" she whispered to herself as she jumped up and hurriedly crossed the room to push open the terrace doors. Her heart sank when he wasn´t there, and just when she was about to return inside, she heard his resonant voice softly calling her name. She pivoted and flew into his arms. "You came," she whispered breathlessly. "I´m so glad you´re here." His arms tightened about her body, and she reveled in the feel of his solid strength against her. 

"I felt your sadness," Vincent observed huskily, and she pulled back a little to look up into his face. 

"Is that why you came?" she asked. "I´m sorry, Vincent. I didn´t mean to draw you here. I didn´t want to intrude upon your time with the children." 

He returned her gaze silently, bringing up his hand to smooth the frown from her forehead with the pad of his thumb. "You didn´t," he replied softly. "It was their idea that I come to you tonight." 

She arched one eyebrow in surprise. "The children suggested you come?" 

He nodded. "I suppose they didn´t want to put up with my absentmindedness any longer," he remarked with a twinkle in his eyes. "They probably decided that I might just as well go to where my mind dwelled anyway." 

Catherine laughed and hugged him tighter. "How wise of them," she said, "and how generous." 

Suddenly she felt his fingers beneath her chin as he tilted up her face so that she had to meet his eyes. She waited for him to say something, but he didn´t. He just gazed at her wordlessly and then tucked her close again. 

"You´re cold," he whispered against the crown of her head. "Maybe we should...go inside." 

Catherine noted fleetingly that she wasn´t even overly surprised by his suggestion. After all, this was Christmas Eve, a proper time for miracles. She preceded him into the living room and when she turned around, she caught him regarding the burning candle on the table. "I think I´ve saved it for a special moment like this," she said quietly. One corner of his mouth lifted in a gentle half-smile and he nodded. 

Catherine´s heart turned over at the sight of him, a tall shadow in the middle of her living room, not quite belonging here but not really out of place, either. He shrugged out of his cloak and she took it, automatically putting it over a chair as if she´d done it a thousand times. They settled on the couches on either side of the coffee table and watched the silent dance of the flame. 

"You´re hurt," Vincent said suddenly. 

Only now Catherine became aware of the pricking sensation on the skin of her palm. "It´s nothing," she said. "I didn´t pay attention and got too close to the flame." 

"Please show me," he demanded and she extended her hand obediently. Cautiously, as if she were made of fragile porcelain, he cradled her fingers between his palms and studied her hand intently. 

"It´s nothing," she repeated, but he kept looking at her hand thoughtfully. "What?" she asked finally, slightly puzzled by his behavior. 

"Why did you do it?" he asked. 

"Do what?" she replied. 

"Why did you reach for the flame?" 

Slowly she withdrew her hand and rested it in her lap. "I don´t think I had a particular reason," she said at last, lowering her gaze. She felt his eyes on her as he waited, and finally she lifted her head to meet his silent look. "Maybe I craved the warmth so much that I was heedless of the pain heat can bring," she confessed reluctantly. 

He said nothing, but she caught a brief flicker in his gaze before he looked away. She rose and walked around the table to sit beside him. "What´s upsetting you so, Vincent?" she asked softly. 

"It´s my fault," he replied, "because I don´t give you all the warmth you deserve." 

"Don´t be silly," she chided gently. "No one ever gave me more warmth and comfort than you." 

"And yet it is not enough," he murmured, still avoiding her eyes. 

"You give me everything I need," she insisted. 

Groaning softly, Vincent threw back his head and stared up at the ceiling. "There are things one needs," he replied, slowly turning his eyes on her, "and things one might wish for." 

She seized his hand and squeezed it tenderly. "That´s true," she conceded, feeling him flinch at her candid admission. 

"You crave the warmth, but the heat may hurt," he warned. 

Wordlessly, she lifted his hand to her mouth and when she felt no resistance from him, she pressed a gentle kiss on his palm. He sat very still and she barely dared look at him, afraid of seeing his reaction. "Did that hurt?" she asked, slowly raising her gaze to his as she released his hand. His mouth curved in a smile and he shook his head which seemed rather like a gesture of indulgence than negation. "How did it feel?" she insisted. 

Vincent stared at her without saying anything for a long moment, and she was just about to accept his silence when his low voice sent a shiver down her spine. "Too close to the flame." 

"I´m sorry," Catherine murmured, "for playing with fire. I don´t know what I was thinking. I just...wish so much that..." Suddenly she wasn´t certain anymore if she sould pursue the topic at all, but to her surprise she felt Vincent´s hand on hers. 

"Yes?" he coaxed gently. 

Her heart skipped a beat as she met his crystal clear gaze. It was impossible to hide anything from those eyes. "I wish we could share more of the warmth," she whispered, "but it´s also beautiful to simply look at the light." 

Holding her gaze, he brought up her hand and smoothed open her palm. Slowly his head came down until she felt the touch of his mouth as he tasted her briefly with his tongue. Involuntarily, Catherine closed her eyes. She wasn´t prepared for the softness of his lips, the incredible intimacy of the gesture. A sudden heat gathered in the pit of her stomach and she gasped helplessly with the intensity of it. 

His arms came up and he pulled her against him, breathing a small kiss on top of her head. "The light seems so distant sometimes," he said, "and the darkness so close." 

The hopelessness in his voice pierced her heart. "Even in the longest nights the light is never far away," she replied. 

Vincent didn´t respond right away, and for a long while they simply sat together, watching the dancing flame of the candle before them. Catherine listened to the steady ebb and flow of Vincent´s breathing, grateful for the closeness he permitted on this night, this very special night. As if he had read her thought, he spoke into the silence, "Christmas is a time for wishes." 

Catherine felt her heartbeat accelerate and she gently wriggled free from his tight hold to get a look at his face. He held her gaze with his, and as if drawn by invisible forces they leaned toward each other until their lips were only a breath apart. "A time to share the light," she whispered. 

"And to give warmth," he breathed before he closed the remaining distance between them. 

His kiss was soft and hesitant, yet she could feel his soul in it, his incredible tenderness, and an unmistakable spark of desire. For an instant he paused, and she parted her lips slightly to give him space to pull back, but he didn´t. She felt his fingers tremble as he wove them through her hair, cradling the back of her head with his palm as he drew her closer still. To have him touch her like this, so confidently and intimately, made her giddy with happiness and she felt like bursting with joy. He released her then, regarding her with a wistful smile. 

"Too close to the flame?" she asked breathlessly. 

"Just right," he replied solemnly, "for now." 

His thoughtful expression made her a little apprehensive. What if he regretted the step they had just taken? "Please tell me what you´re thinking," she demanded carefully. 

"Once you asked me something, Catherine," he began slowly. "You asked if we would ever be together, truly together." 

"I remember," she said, trying to ignore the rapid thumping of her heart. He looked at her silently for a moment before lowering his eyes as he asked, "How close do you wish us to be?" 

Catherine felt tears pool in her eyes. "Very close," she whispered, cupping his cheek with her hand as she guided his gaze back to hers. 

He seized her wrist and leaned into her touch. "Be careful what you wish for, Catherine, because you might get it." 

Catherine felt a tingling sensation spreading through her body as the implications of his remark sank in. "Because it is Christmas?" she asked. His eyes were dark and deep as he leaned toward her, and she savored his cool breath on her heated face. 

"Because I love you," came his low reply, and she welcomed the velvety touch of his lips as he kissed her again. 

He tasted of a winter breeze carrying the promise of snow. She inhaled deeply to take in as much of him as possible while she gently nibbled his lower lip. He gasped sharply as she released her breath into his slightly opened mouth. Suddenly Catherine felt herself being pulled into his lap. His large, warm hands caressed her back in slow, kneading motions, and she couldn´t help but imagine his palms on her naked skin. She sighed, and his movements stopped abruptly. When her eyes opened into his, she caught him studying her intently. Sliding off his lap, Catherine knelt down between his legs and looked up at him. 

"Tell me, Vincent," she demanded softly, "how much warmth do you think you can stand?" 

He tilted his head to one side and cast down his gaze, but his hands seized her shoulders to pull her back up in his lap. She encircled his neck with her arms, moved beyond words when he buried his face in the folds of her sweater, murmuring, "I honestly don´t know." 

Pressing a reassuring kiss on the crown of his head, she replied, "Do you think we could try to find out?" 

At that, he flung back his head and Catherine thought she detected the hint of a grin on his face as he cast her a sidelong glance. 

"Okay then," she said, kissing his creased forehead, "let´s work on it." 

His features sobered, and his hand came up to cup the back of her head as he pulled her to him for another kiss. This time, he was the one who made a move forward by gently thrusting his tongue between her lips. Helpless to stifle a moan, she opened up to him, welcoming him as he explored her with complete abandon. Suddenly she felt the slight pressure of his thumb on her bottom lip. 

"The feel of you," he mumbled against her mouth and she relished the warmth of his breath on her face. "It makes me hunger for you even more." Heat centered in her belly at his words, and the way he brushed his fingers over her lips in feathery touches left her breathless with desire. 

"Vincent," she groaned, noting a desperate edge in her own voice. His mouth came down on hers again while his hand moved to her throat, encompassing it tenderly. He exuded no pressure, just rested his palm against the skin of her neck, and she felt her pulse accelerate even further as it fluttered against his warm touch. Without taking his lips from hers, he ran his hand along her shoulder and arm and pushed her carefully back on the couch, placing her amid the throw pillows as he shifted his weight to move above her. She threw her arms around his neck to pull him closer still, but he resisted gently. 

Grasping her hand, he held it against his chest. "Feel my heart," he demanded in a raspy voice. "It pounds as if it would burst." 

Smiling, she returned the gesture, pulling his hand to her breast. "Mine too," she whispered, and the way he looked down at the point of contact where he was touching her brough tears to her eyes. There was wonderment in his gaze, and awe, but a trace of fear as well, and she hastened to reassure him by lifting his hand and weaving her fingers through his. "Come here," she crooned, pulling him to her and cradling his head in the curve of her neck. With slow and tender brushes she stroked his hair until she felt him relax against her. His arms tightened around her body, and he buried his nose in the hollow at the base of her throat, breathing her name. His softly bristled upper lip tickled her skin as he started nuzzling her neck. She sighed, and her resolve to take things slowly for a while melted away like snow in the sun. His actions aroused her to the point of pain, and her breath caught in her throat as she felt his raspy tongue on her skin, licking her languidly and thoroughly until she thought she´d go crazy with wanting him. 

Gently bracing her hands against his shoulders, she whispered his name, and he froze, looking down at her contritely. She cupped his cheek and gave him a shaky smile. "It´s all right," she said huskily. "I just need you to be sure you really want to go where you´re leading us." 

For a long, fragile moment he stared down at her wordlessly. Then he dropped his head to her chest, exhaling forcefully. "I´m sorry," he murmured. "I wasn´t aware what I was doing. I...couldn´t resist...your responses to me." After another moment of silence, he added shyly, "I never thought that I were able to affect you like this." 

She expelled a brief, shaky laugh. "Believe me, Vincent, your effect on me is quite devastating." 

That brought a smile from him, but he sat up nonetheless to distance himself a little from her. She followed him up, linking her arm through his as she leaned her head against his shoulder. "I didn´t want you to stop," she told him quietly. "You know that, don´t you?" 

Vincent nodded slowly. "I´m grateful you kept a clear head," he said. 

"Now, that´s a vast exaggeration," she retorted, grinning up at him just as he turned his head to cast her an amused glance. Growing serious again, she continued, "I just didn´t want to pull you into anything you might not feel ready for." 

His eyes remained locked to hers as he asked, "Are you certain that you are ready, Catherine?" 

Her heart constricted with the implications of his words. "Yes," she whispered, not caring that her voice was trembling. 

Heaving a sigh, he lowered his gaze and studied the furred backs of his hands. "I wish I could be certain that these..." 

"I am certain," she replied to his unfinished thought, rubbing his back soothingly. "We don´t have to rush this, Vincent. We have all the time in the world." 

The light of the candle caught in his eyes as his head came up. He didn´t dare look at her, but his words shook her to the core. "I want you so much that it frightens me, Catherine. If I were to act on those feelings, to give in to the overwhelming desire I feel..." 

She sat up straight and brushed a kiss on his cheek. "Don´t torture yourself so," she said. "Try not to fight your feelings. Things will happen in time." 

Slowly his head swung around, his face only inches from hers. "Things...?" he said in a questioning tone, letting his voice trail away as he arched an eyebrow. 

"Yes, things," she confirmed with a smile, poking his side playfully. He inclined his head, and his eyes conveyed a wealth of emotions before he averted them. "How about some tea?" she suggested, squeezing his arm affectionately. 

"Yes, please," he said quietly, and the relief in his voice didn´t go unnoticed by her. 

As Catherine went through the routine of preparing tea, her mind kept revolving around the enormity of the step Vincent had taken tonight. That he had come to her, even inside her apartment, that he had kissed her, was telling her everything about his trust in her and his faith in their love. He had come so far, had taken so many hurdles, just because he had chosen to acknowledge her deepest wishes. And it touched her even more that he had come despite the fact that those wishes triggered the very fears in him which had kept them apart for so long. Tears formed in her eyes, and she reached blindly for the kettle with boiling water to pour it over the tea leaves. Suddenly his hand was there, supporting her before taking the kettle from her and setting it down on the kitchen counter. Catherine turned and stepped gladly into his arms which closed around her instantly as he drew her into a comforting embrace. 

"I´m so sorry," she whispered. "This has to be so difficult for you." 

He shook his head, causing strands of his long hair to fall across her face. "I would hardly call it a sacrifice," he replied. 

She looked up to search his face for any trace of bitterness, but his eyes were clear and serene, and a wistful smile played across the corners of his mouth. 

"I love you," she whispered, "and I never meant to cause you any pain by feeling about you the way I do." 

He bent close and placed a sweetly innocent kiss on her lips. "That we learn to live our fully as we can...means everything to me," he said in a low voice. "Precious gems are deeply buried in the earth and can only be extracted at the expense of great labor. I´m not afraid of pain as long as I am the one who bears it. But if I ever were to..." His voice broke and he buried his face in her hair. Finally he added quietly, "Sometimes I think that you must be terribly disappointed, Catherine." 

Her heart went out to him as he stood there, head bowed, and momentarily unwilling to meet her eyes. "Never," she said entreatingly. "No one in this world knows my heart better than you, but Vincent, I don´t expect you to fulfill every single wish you sense in me. As long as I know that I have your love, I don´t miss anything." 

She felt the movement of his head as he shook it in denial. "Sometimes I´ve got a feeling," he whispered hoarsely, "as if I wasted precious time by...hesitating. I feel as if I were stealing it away from you life." 

She tilted her face upward, needing to see his eyes. "You told me once," she began carefully, "that we were setting out on a path none have ever taken. I believe that on a path like ours there can be no waste of time. Even the smallest step toward love will give you all the protection you need against doubts and fears." She cupped her hands on his jaw a moment, then ran them through his hair before placing them on his shoulders. "Let me be there for you, Vincent," she pleaded. "I want to protect you from fears -- always." 

His shoulders fell as he let out a great breath. A shudder ran through his body, and she hugged him to her again to still the tremors that shook him. They stood together in silence, and Catherine felt peace and contentment flood her soul as she listened to the ebb and flow of Vincent´s breathing and the steady rhythm of his heart. 

Vincent leaned back on one of the couches in the living room and watched fondly as Catherine poured them some tea. They had both laughingly agreed it didn´t matter that it had steeped a little too long. He sighed, grateful to be here with her, to be wrapped in her understanding and the current of desire that throbbed gently, but persistently, just beneath the surface of their peaceful togetherness. He watched with rapt attention as she handed him the sugar, and felt a pleasant spark of electricity course through his veins as his hands brushed against hers when he took the delicate bowl. He marveled that such a small thing could still affect him so after what they had shared earlier this evening. The memory of their ardent, intimate kisses drove a blush up across his neck and face, and he was glad that it wasn´t likely to be visible to Catherine. She settled herself comfortably on the couch opposite him and regarded him calmly. He reached for his tea, dismayed that his hand was still shaking a little as he brought the cup to his mouth and took a sip of the hot, spicy liquid. Putting down the cup, he looked up to meet Catherine´s heavy-lidded gaze. 

"You must be tired," he observed solicitously. "You´ve been on your feet all day long." She cast him an alarmed look, and he glanced away briefly, watching the silent dance of the candle flame between them. "I felt your distress," he admitted at last, "and your fatigue." 

Catherine set down her mug and came over to sit beside him. "But I´m not tired anymore," she said, "not one bit." 

He smiled indulgently. "I didn´t mean to leave," he reassured her. Her features brightened, and she slid over against his side. He took her hand in a gentle clasp, stifling a gasp when her fingers interlaced with his. This sharing of touches, the sensation of skin on skin was still overwhelmingly new to him. Having her so close affected him strongly; she was so...willing and ready, eager for any kind of intimacy he might allow. Sensing her eyes on him, he made a study of their joined hands. He wanted so much to kiss her, to pull her close to his body and give in to the rush of heat that filled the pit of the stomach, steadily spreading outward, downward, to finally, inevitably, center in his groin. Catherine flexed her fingers as if to withdraw them, but he maintained his hold on her, looking at her at last. At the slightest tug of his hand, she came into his lap, curling up against him and tucking her head beneath his jaw. He held her like that for a long while, savoring the tingling sensation the pressure of her slight weight caused in his lower body. 

"Vincent," she said suddenly, "you fulfilled one of my most dearest dreams tonight. What about your secret wishes? I can´t look inside you as clearly as you can do with me, so I need your help in this."