The Crossroads of a Dream

 

By Linda S. Barth

 

(This story takes place within the episode "A Fair and Perfect Knight." It begins after Vincent and Michael's confrontation in the Whispering Gallery but before Vincent goes Above to see Catherine.)

***

 

The coffee shop a few blocks from the urban campus of Braefield College was nearly deserted in the mid-afternoon lull, its booths and tables awaiting the rush of students and professors who would grab a quick bite to eat before evening classes began. Looking up from her task of organizing the lunchtime receipts, a young waitress eyed with interest the restaurant's sole occupants, a couple seated at a small corner table, and wondered who the handsome, dark-haired man might be. Although she hadn't seen him around campus the previous semester, it was obvious from the pile of books at his feet that he was a student, and, she realized happily, it would be easy enough to run into him again. Before forcing her attention back to her work, she cast an  appraising glance at his companion, satisfied that her earlier assumption of the woman as an older sister or perhaps an aunt seemed to be the correct one.

 

Oblivious to the scrutiny from across the room, Michael raised his mug and swallowed hard, wishing the strong, hot coffee could dissolve the palpable fear that constricted his chest. His hand shook slightly as he lowered the mug to the worn vinyl tabletop, and he stared down at it for several seconds, unable to meet the eyes of the woman who sat opposite him. Finally, he cleared his throat nervously and forced himself to look at her.

 

"I'm sorry, Catherine," he began, his voice low and rushed. "I don't know exactly what to say to you other than I'm so sorry for what I did, and I just hope that you and Vincent can forgive me." Catherine heard the remains of remorse and guilt in the young man's words, and with them the sound of another voice echoing with deeper anguish and greater shame.

 

My thoughts shame me -- they're poisonous! What you shared, I envied. I betrayed Michael. I betrayed you -- everything I hold dear...

 

"Catherine, do you think you can forgive me? And can we still be friends?"

 

The uncertain tremor in Michael's voice drew Catherine's focus back to the worried face of the young man before her. As she looked at him, her soft smile was unforced, but there was a clouded sadness in her eyes that she could not disguise. She reached out and patted him gently on the arm.

 

 "Of course, we're still friends, Michael. You and Vincent and me." She shook her head slightly, emphasizing her words as she continued. "And there's nothing to forgive."

 

Michael's laugh was short and bitter. "That's what Vincent said, too. But I can't believe it."

 

"You must believe it, Michael," Catherine replied, her mouth tightening with concern. "We would never lie to you. It -- "

 

"I know that," he interrupted, anxious to make clear his words. "And I do believe you, both of you. What I can't do, not yet anyway, is forgive myself. Ever since I came to live Below, Vincent has been like a big brother to me, or a father really, the father I wish I'd had. He's always believed in me. He's had more faith in me than I ever had in myself. And how do I repay him? By betraying his trust the first chance I get." He looked away then, afraid he would see in her face evidence that would prove his worst fears were real.

 

"You didn't betray his trust, Michael." Catherine's lowered tones underscored her belief in her own words and the need to make him believe them, too. "And you did nothing purposely wrong. What happened at that reception was devastating for you. So many hopes were tied up in that meeting with your father, maybe even more than you realized. And when he reacted as he did..." Catherine let her voice trail away, unwilling to add greater pain to the young man's memories. Then she tightened her grasp on his arm and continued, "Michael, no one blames you for what happened afterwards. You were scared and confused. You only looked for someone to comfort you and to let you know you weren't alone. It was nothing more. We both know that -- and so does Vincent." Michael heard the unmistakable truth in Catherine's words, words that -- unknown to her -- had echoed Vincent's own when they'd finally talked together in the Whispering Gallery two nights ago. He sighed heavily and felt the shuddering sound rumble through him. It seemed to scatter away some of his lingering pain in its wake, and finally he looked back at her, a small smile beginning to ease the tension in his young face.

 

"Vincent said the same thing," he told her quietly. "In almost the same words."

 

"He did?" Catherine knew she shouldn't be surprised, and in a heartbeat realized she really wasn't; yet she felt an inordinate sense of happiness at Michael's statement.

 

Michael watched as heartfelt joy transcended the sadness in Catherine's eyes and  illuminated the beauty of her face. For just a moment, he felt a pang of despair, wondering when a woman would think of him in just that way; yet he knew in his heart that woman would never be Catherine, nor would he want it to be.

 

"Yes," he answered, nodding in affirmation as his smile grew brighter. "Almost word for word."

 

"What else did he tell you?" Catherine began, leaning forward slightly, her posture revealing the longing she hadn't intended to display. Then, as if suddenly hearing her own voice, she shook her head in a swift, abrupt motion and pushed herself back against the hard surface of the booth's highbacked bench. "No, that's none of my business. I'm sorry, Michael. I shouldn't have asked you that."

 

Grateful to be given the opportunity to do something for her, for all of them, his answer was quick and eager. "It's okay, really, and I wanted to tell you anyway."

 

But before he could say another word, Catherine stopped him, even though she could not stop the wave of regret and remembrance that swept over her. Only two nights earlier in his chamber, Vincent had revealed so much of his heart to her in the bittersweet pain of their shared confession, but since then he had distanced himself completely. Her awareness of their bond had grown over recent months, but now even that faint thrumming within her had been suppressed, and she knew Vincent had made it so. She understood, too, the cause of his painful and thorough absence from her. Once again he was unwilling and unable to face her until he had resolved those tumultuous emotional issues. And he would force himself to do it alone, without the help she willingly offered.

 

Yet despite all Catherine had learned of him over time, the agonizing depth of his self-doubts and the painstakingly ingrained power of his self-control, she had expected more from him this time. As it always had, her love for Vincent and her understanding of his pain overrode her disappointment, but she felt an inner sense of discord, as if they were at a crossroads, sure of the only direction they must take, yet unable to begin the journey. She knew that she had made her choice, had acted upon it although he had not, and that this time he must come to her. She knew, too, that she would wait for him no matter how long it took.

 

 Still, she was starved to learn anything she could of his confrontation with Michael, and it was only with great effort that she was able to turn away from that information's only available source.

 

"Michael, I'm not sure Vincent would welcome your telling me anything else that he said to you. He might feel it was too personal, that the words were meant just for you." She smiled, but the gesture was shaded with sadness. "Maybe when he's ready, he'll share this with me, but until then..." She shrugged slightly, knowing there was nothing more she could say.

 

Michael hesitated for only a few seconds, swiftly weighing the consequences of his actions and deciding that the chance to repay even a small amount of the kindness and caring Vincent and Catherine had shown him, would far surpass any angry or hurt feelings which might also arise. Taking a deep, steady breath, he answered, saying the words she longed to hear despite her protest. "No, Catherine, I think you should know. And I think I should tell you." He paused, gauging her reaction.

 

Her response was a rush of bittersweet honesty. "You mean in case Vincent won't."

 

"Well, yes, in a way," Michael answered, somewhat disconcerted by her candor, even though it was only a truthful reiteration of what his own words had implied. "I mean, I don't want to talk behind his back, but you know Vincent, he always puts his own feelings aside when someone else needs him, and, well, this time I think he's the one who needs help. And I can be the one to help him."

 

For just a moment Catherine felt a brief, hot burst of anger and she knew it was directed at Michael. You should have thought of that before, she raged within, before you hurt Vincent like you did! You may have his compassion, but you don't have his sensitivity, not yet, maybe not ever. So many of the things he'll never have are yours for the taking, and that's because of him, because of his generosity, his love for you. You should have thought of that before you ran to him, looking for forgiveness, crying for him to make everything right again at the cost of his own pain. You should have...

 

As suddenly as it had arisen, Catherine's wrath disintegrated like steamy vapor blown apart by a colder wind. He's only a boy, she reminded herself wearily, and he only did what a boy -- a son -- in such terrible pain would do. He went to the one person who would truly understand, the one person who could help him begin to heal from all the hurt, no matter how much he, too, had been hurt in the process.

 

"Catherine? Is something wrong? If you think this really is a bad idea, I won't say anything more." Michael's voice was threaded with worry and self-doubt. "We don't have to talk about Vincent like this if you don't want to..."

 

A soft sigh underscored Catherine's self-conscious smile, and she set aside her disquieting thoughts about the younger man, instead concentrating on the earlier direction of their conversation. "I'm not used to being able to talk to anyone about Vincent like this, Michael. It isn't easy for me – or for you. He's such a private person in many ways, very vulnerable and trusting...and very easily hurt. He cares so deeply about the people he loves, but sometimes...sometimes..." She hesitated, fumbling for words which would not reveal too much, yet saying everything by her very actions.

 

"Sometimes he can't let himself tell the person he loves most what she means to him," Michael suggested softly.

 

His heartfelt insight and the courage it took to speak of it, brought sudden tears to Catherine's eyes. "He tells me in so many ways, Michael...but you're right. Sometimes he can't say the words. And I need to hear them."

 

A ragged pain ate at Michael's heart, not for himself, but for the friends he loved, and he knew he had to help make things right. "Then maybe my telling you what we talked about will help, Catherine. I know it's not enough, but maybe there's something there that you could discuss with him. I'm not afraid of his finding out that we talked about this. He'll know we did it for his own good."

 

Catherine closed her eyes for a moment, needing time to set aside her doubts as to the rightness of what they were about to do, and when she opened them again, the uncertainty was gone. She knew the value of what might be gained would far surpass anything that might be lost. "Some risks are worth taking," she murmured, almost unaware she had voiced the words.

 

Michael nodded and, taking another deep breath, began. "After the reception, when I ran away, all I could think about was going Below, going home. Part of me wanted to hide, but part of me wanted to find Vincent. I didn't want to tell him what I'd done -- but I had to tell him. Without even thinking about it, I knew that I could never heal, never be whole again without hearing him tell me that he understood, that it was all right." His eyes hardened for a moment with the pain of self- recrimination. "I had to make my confession to him, so that I could gain his forgiveness, even though I knew it would hurt him to hear me say it."

 

"He thinks of you as a son, Michael," Catherine reassured him, her earlier anger fading to nothingness. "He was confused and upset, but he would have wanted you to come to him, no matter the cost to himself."

 

 "I know that," Michael admitted. "And that's why I want to try and repay him now, to give back some of the love and understanding he's always given me. To be a son who deserves a father like Vincent."

 

They looked at each other in silent understanding before Michael continued. "It's because of him that I have a chance to create a life that I thought couldn't happen for me. All the things he wants, too, all the things he can never have -- he gave me the courage and the strength to go after them even though he can't. And he was happy for me! How can anyone be so unselfish, so giving?"

 

"It's because he loves you, Michael. Nothing can change that. He only wants what's best for you."

 

 "I know," he answered. "Even when I told him I'd betrayed him because of my feelings for you, that I'd ruined everything, he only wanted to help me, to tell me that everything was okay. I thought my whole world was coming to an end, but he didn't see it that way at all." A sense of wonderment filled his voice and he paused, replaying the moments in his heart and mind.

 

Catherine's voice drew him back, winding its way through his memories. "I know. He told me, too. He said -- " She paused, needing to choose her words carefully, unwilling to give up all of the intimacy she'd shared with Vincent. It was too rare, too precious to surrender entirely, even now, even for this, and yet she had to go on. "He said he knew of the pain and emptiness you were feeling and that you had needed to be healed by what he called my 'tenderness,' but that his own needs made him envy what we'd shared. He loves you, he loves both of us, but he yearns for things he thinks he cannot and should not have. And he believes those feelings of envy were a betrayal of all he holds dear."

 

"But he's wrong!" Michael said, completely accepting the truth in her words, but overcome with a need to refute them. "Vincent's wrong! Doesn't he see that he deserves these things as much -- no, more than anyone else?"

 

Catherine blinked back a hot rush of tears, but Michael heard them in her voice, just as Vincent had that night in his chamber. "No, he doesn't see that. I think in his heart he is beginning to understand that it's true, but he can't face it, can't admit it. I've tried and tried to tell him, to show him, but for every step forward we take, somehow we lose ground. And I -- I just don't know what more I can do."

 

Michael reached out and gently took one of Catherine's hands in his. "Someday things will change, Catherine. I know they will."

 

She laughed abruptly, a sad, harsh sound, and with her free hand wiped away her tears. "I know. I have to believe that or there's nothing left for us." Twining her fingers with his, she squeezed Michael's hand and then withdrew from his comforting grasp. "I'm sorry, Michael. Maybe I shouldn't have gone on like this. I've probably said too much."

 

He shook his head. "No, you haven't. And I haven't said enough."

 

There was confusion in her voice and eyes, and an undying flicker of hope. "What do you mean?"

 

"There's something else Vincent told me when we finally talked together that night. Something you should know. He told me he knew I really had loved you, that what I felt was true. And he told me I was entitled to love and to be loved, that those things were a part of my destiny."

 

Catherine felt her heart constrict with pain unlike anything she'd ever known. "Then why can't he realize that he's entitled to love and be loved, too, that it's his destiny just like yours or mine or anyone else's!"

 

 "That's just it," Michael answered excitedly. "I think he does realize it. He --"

 

"How can you say that!" Catherine interrupted, renewed anger and hurt lacing her voice. "I thought you understood."

 

The young man's voice was firm and sure. "I do. Listen, Catherine, there's something else he said. I think he was trying to convince himself at the same time he was trying to convince me."

 

"As if saying the words out loud would somehow begin to make them real," she offered, her voice softening with ever-present faith, trembling with lingering fear.

 

Michael nodded eagerly. "Yes, exactly! He was talking about himself as much as about me, I'm sure of it now. He wants to believe there's a place in his life for love, for real love, the same kind he said will be in mine. He loves you, Catherine, and he knows you love him, even if he can't talk about it to you. He told me so."

 

Her voice was so low and breathless, he almost couldn't hear it. "Oh, Michael, what else did he say? Tell me."

 

Michael smiled, hearing Vincent's essence echoing in her words, and he knew then that their love for him was a precious gift which would guide him all his life, one he eagerly returned to them now.

 

 "He said, 'And how could anyone not love her?'"

 

 

********************

 

 

Evening shadows were lengthening as Catherine walked several blocks from the college campus toward her apartment on the Upper East Side. Upon leaving Michael outside the old, renovated highrise that served as Braefield's dorm, her first -- and almost irresistible impulse – had been to run Below, to see Vincent, and to help him find a way to speak aloud all the beautiful, wondrous words he kept imprisoned in his heart. But then she remembered her earlier promise, one she'd made to herself and, although he had no way of knowing, to Vincent as well. This time he would have to come to her, for until he found the strength and the courage to take that step, there was little else she could do.

 

Catherine gazed up at the sky, its pale, late winter greyness still lightening long, rectangular spaces between the tall buildings as it slowly darkened into night. It was too early to even hope that Vincent might be waiting for her on her balcony; and she was reluctant to return home just yet, knowing if he stayed away once more, she would only stand before the glass-paned doors and watch her tearful reflection become more and more sharply defined as the opaque blackness of night became a mirror of all her despair.

 

Shaking herself from her dismal musing, Catherine noticed that she was nearing a branch of the Whitney Museum, one which was open late on certain weeknights. Hoping this was one of them, she approached the still brightly lit building, read the posted schedule, and drew a relieved breath as she pushed the revolving doors and went inside.

 

She didn't really care about the works of art she was about to see, only that she had someplace to go for a little while that might take her mind from the gloominess and gravity of her current thoughts. A small, wry smile crinkled the corners of her mouth as she waited for the elevator which would take her up to one of the galleries that housed special exhibits. No matter who or what the subject, she knew there was little likelihood anything could divert her for long, but despite her own misgivings, she was glad to know she still had the determination to try.

 

 The elevator doors slid open on silent tracks, and along with several other late day visitors to the museum, Catherine emerged into a spacious gallery. Its stark, light grey walls and partitions were adorned with large paintings of cityscapes and seaside scenes, their display strikingly augmented by selections of poetry arranged at various, appropriate intervals. Disinterestedly, Catherine forced herself to walk toward the closest painting, a summer scene of an old white clapboard house gleaming in the morning sunlight at the edge of an amber-hued marsh. Staring outward from a bay window was a chestnut-haired woman, apparently in her mid-thirties, wearing a faded housedress in a style popular forty years earlier. Although she'd never seen that particular painting, Catherine knew immediately by the style and subject that it was created by Edward Hopper, one of his series painted on Cape Cod. She moved closer, caught by the powerful contrast of light and shadow and the ambiguous expression on the woman's face as she gazed into the strength of the shimmering summer day. At first glance the woman seemed a picture of impassivity, almost boredom, but in her eyes and mouth was a depth of harnessed desperation.

 

Sighing heavily, Catherine turned away. This isn't helping, she told herself. Hopper's one of my favorite artists, but maybe this isn't such a good idea after all.

 

Still she found herself wandering farther into the gallery, pausing for a few moments in front of various paintings that depicted the city scenes for which Hopper was best known --"Nighthawks," “Morning in the City," "Room in New York." Yet urban or rural, the setting didn't matter, for in gazing at each painting, Catherine was acutely aware of a sense of unfulfilled hope, impermanence, momentary escape that only led back to enervating entrapment.

 

She paused to read an excerpt from a poem by Roethke:

 

Rising or falling's all one discipline;

The line of my horizon's growing thin --

Which is the way? I cry to the dread black,

The shifting shade, the cinders at my back.

Which is the way? I ask, and turn to go,

As a man turns to face on-coming snow.

 

 

Feeling her own sense of emotional balance sliding dangerously back toward despair, Catherine began retracing her steps toward the elevator, only to find her way blocked by an unwieldy group of tourists herded by an enthusiastic docent. Spinning in the opposite direction, Catherine circumvented the group and moved quickly past several more partitions, heading toward the elevator from another angle. Almost there, she told herself, feeling suddenly anxious to be out in the fresh, chilled air and away from this painted collection of quiet grief.

 

Then, she found her steps slowing, her gaze riveted on the words of a poem printed in large compelling script alongside a final painting. Tearing her eyes from the printed words, Catherine stared at a painting of the night city, its large canvas full of stark shadows and hidden angles and the figure of a man just turning away, merging with the darkness yet not entirely a part of it. His face, almost hidden from the observer, was hauntingly illuminated, and, like nearly all of Hopper's subjects, he was an image of isolation and loneliness, a man who believed himself alien to his own world.

 

Immediately Catherine heard two long-ago words echo within her, and the sound of Vincent's voice filled her with pain. My aloneness. This is how he always feels, she told herself sorrowfully. Even when he's happy, it never really ends, this feeling of always being alone. Her gaze returned to the words that had first halted her footsteps, and as she read them silently, her saddened eyes flickering over the lines of Frost's poetry, she heard the precious sound of Vincent's rich evocative voice as he'd read this very poem to her several weeks earlier, telling her it was one that spoke to a place so deep within him that it was truly a part of all that he was.

 

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

 

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

 

And further still at an unearthly height

One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

 

 

It seemed to Catherine that time had stopped, that she was alone in a vacuum where nothing existed but herself, this poem and painting, and his aloneness. The painted face before her was his face turning inward, turning away, and the printed words were his words, voicing fatalistic acceptance, hoping for nothing more than what he already knew could never exist. Only a single shaft of light streaked through a splintered section of the dark canvas, illuminating something hopeful, something unknown, offering a promise, if only the figure would finally turn and at last reach out for it.

 

 Without warning Catherine felt something shatter inside the deepest part of herself, yet there was no sensation of pain. Inexplicably she knew a tremendous sense of freedom, as if a terrible enchantment had been lifted or the glass walls of a prison had been broken apart into irreparable shards, releasing the one who had forever gazed with such longing at a world he'd despaired of claiming.

 

Reflexively, she pressed her hand hard against her heart and felt it beat with a strong, throbbing cadence. "Vincent," she whispered hoarsely. "Vincent." At that moment she knew their bond had been restored to its fullest potency and that he would no longer withhold that miraculous connection from her.

 

Nor would he withhold himself. He was waiting for her now, at once anxious and eager, at that crossroads she had pictured in her mind just a few hours earlier. But this time he was waiting only for her to join him, so that they might at last move forward together toward love. She was certain of it, of him, of their bond which resonated with their hearts' song. Unmindful of the curious glances she received from a few of the museum's patrons who rapidly shifted out her way, Catherine nearly ran past the elevators, unwilling to wait a second longer, and plunged down the wide, slate steps to the ground floor and out onto the sidewalk. Almost immediately, she was in a taxi, urging the driver to speed her homeward through the now darkened night city to where Vincent awaited her.

 

The short cab ride seemed to take hours, but at last it pulled to the curb in front of her building and Catherine fled inside. Minutes later she shoved shut the door to her apartment, barely taking the time to lock it behind her, and then turned breathlessly toward the glass doors leading to her balcony, fully expecting to see Vincent silhouetted against the sheer ivory curtains, city lights and moonrise silvering the darkened figure whose heart still beat in rapid cadence with hers.

 

Instead she found only a pale, blank space of opaque emptiness. Her pulse fluttering ominously, Catherine felt herself moving forward, eager hope warring with sudden reluctance as she reached for the brass handles of the glass doors and slowly pulled them forward. Then, as she stepped across the threshold, she knew at once that she'd opened up a vista that held nothing of her hopes. Even the darkest corners of the balcony were deserted; its shadows were only shadows after all, turning it from starlit sanctuary to desolate moonscape before her eyes. It was a place of dreams...dreams and nothing more.

 

With a shuddering sigh, Catherine turned and went back inside, no longer willing to trust her heart, no longer able to withstand the pain of the lies it whispered to her. In her darkened bedroom, she undressed, letting her clothes fall in a heap to the plush-carpeted floor. Blindly she reached into her closet for a nightgown and robe and then shuddered again as she felt their cold satiny lengths drape over her chilled flesh. Shivering, she swayed toward the bed, settling herself carefully onto its smooth, hard surface as if she feared a sudden movement might make her shatter from within.

 

The only sound in the cold, still room was a single trembling sob as Catherine curled on her side and turned away from the sterile moonlight still stealing across the floor toward her. She closed her eyes against the barren night, and then there was only silence.

 

********************

 

Hours passed in dreamless sleep, and somewhere in Catherine's heart she was grateful for the trance-like numbness it offered. Then, as the late winter moon began its descent, she slowly awakened to the unmistakable awareness of an entreaty she could not resist. It filled her with a restiveness and pulled her from the slate-colored blanket of a slumber that had offered neither warmth nor renewal but only short-lived escape. And now, she realized wearily as she struggled against total wakefulness, even that respite was denied her.

 

Her whole body felt leaden as she pushed herself to a sitting position at the edge of the bed; bracing her feet on the floor, she leaned forward, her arms clasped around herself in a futile gesture of self-protection. It was then she heard in reality the outward signs of the supplication that had summoned her from sleep -- a gentle but relentless tapping of claw-tipped fingers against glass, the pulsating sound imitating the unceasing rhythm of his heartbeat joined with hers. Almost before she was aware of it, Catherine found herself again reaching for the handles of the balcony doors to pull open the tall, glass-paned barriers, but this time she knew she would find more than unfulfilled hopes and vanishing dreams. This time she would find him.

 

"Vincent." She was afraid to look away, afraid he would retreat once more into shadows and secrets. "Vincent, you're here."

 

The sound of her words echoed through the night-darkened space to touch him deep within, their simple eloquence telling of answered prayers. All they had shared only two nights earlier had begun to erode the protective walls Vincent kept around his heart. Nearly all his life he had held them in place, believing he could not survive without them, but they were crumbling now and he stood before her vulnerable and uncertain. For long moments he gazed at her in silence, but the voice of his heart was in the clear blue depths of his eyes, speaking of trust and fear and hope, speaking of nothing so much as love. She moved closer and looked up into those eyes, seeing everything but unable to stop wanting more, and she felt their bond shudder with his answer even before he voiced the words.

 

"Catherine, I'm sorry." The husky reverberation trembled on the chilled air, warming the night and her soul with the still-harnessed fever that burned within him. "I know," she whispered. "I know." Forcing herself to look away, she turned and, bracing her hands on the railing of the balcony, gazed out at the illuminated cityscape before them, trying to concentrate on some unknown pocket of darkness far below in the park, but watching from the corner of her eye as his motions paralleled hers.

 

Desperate to fill the silence that threatened to suffocate them, she found herself murmuring meaningless words. "The lights are so beautiful tonight."

 

 The effort it had taken to speak rippled through her voice, turning its softness to trembling silk that seemed to flow over him, and she felt him shiver under its weightless intensity. Yet unable to do more, he simply answered her. "Yes."

 

Then, unable to resist, she glanced up at him, meeting his startled gaze and the cacophony of emotions she found there. They resounded through the bond, jolting her to the soul, but above their voices she heard the remembered promise of her own. This time she would wait; this time he must come to her.

 

She tore her gaze away and again stared sightlessly into the night. The frosty air swirled around them, fluttering the sapphire and indigo mosaic of Catherine's satin robe and lifting errant strands of Vincent's wind-ruffled hair. They stood so close that the amber strands brushed lightly against Catherine's face, but she did not reach to touch them lovingly. She held herself as still as a statue made of ice, one that would melt only with a lover's touch. She waited for that touch, almost afraid to breathe too deeply, knowing that if she did, she might scream with the intensity it took to keep herself away from him.

 

Then when it seemed that the coldness of fear would leave them isolated yet again, Catherine felt their bond flare with a warmth so intense that the iciness threatening to encase her completely melted away to nothingness. In a careful but unhesitating motion, Vincent raised his left arm and, with a large hand that trembled only slightly, he gently but firmly encircled her body near her waist and pulled her to him. A long sigh shuddered from her, blending seamlessly with the raspy sound of his own exhaled breath, as she leaned into him, resting her head against his shoulder. When the moments passed and he showed no sign of withdrawing from her again, Catherine quickly but gently tugged aside the folds of his ebony cloak where it rested between their bodies and slid her arm around his waist, winding her fingers around the woven leather belt she found there as if to bind herself to him in body as she had in heart. And when he still did not pull away, she let herself ease into the moment, drifting into their dream.

 

For long, uncounted minutes, they stayed just as they were, letting their bond speak the words of their hearts, for now needing no others. Then as Catherine felt the strength of her happiness welling up inside her, she knew she could not remain silent any longer. Unwrapping her fingers from their grip on his belt, she turned and with reluctance stepped backwards, feeling his arm hesitate uncertainly before slipping from her. Immediately she grasped his large hand in both of hers, anxious to keep him from departing in the mistaken belief that she would want it so.

 

"No, Vincent, don't leave! I --" She had every intention of continuing to speak, but instead found herself almost mesmerized by the sensation of his hand in hers. Such a simple thing, she mused distractedly as she looked down at the golden-furred hand she grasped as if it were a priceless treasure, but so beautiful. She twined the small fingers of one hand with the strong, slender length of his, and then with the other she delicately traced their claw-tilted edges, shivering slightly as she could not help but imagine them tracing patterns of sensual delight over her naked, heated skin, touching her everywhere. Those imaginings had filled her dreams time and time again, making promises she prayed he would fulfill.

 

At Vincent's sharp intake of breath, her eyes darted up to meet his, and she knew in an instant he had followed the erotic path of this unexpected interlude. Warily she watched as his emotions flashed across his face, but when he made no attempt to distance himself from her, she took her own strength from his courage and continued.

 

"Vincent, we need to talk," she began. "But it's too cold out here on the balcony. Will you come inside -- just for a little while?"

 

 Immediately he tensed and she knew the effort it took for him not to pull his hand from her tightened grasp, to keep from uttering yet another excuse to vanish into the night, leaving her alone in what he still thought of as "her world."

 

 "Please, Vincent, for just a little while," she repeated, feeling not at all ashamed of the pleading note in her voice.

 

At last, he nodded once in a gesture of guarded acceptance, and then allowed her to lead him toward the open doors of her bedroom. At that virginal threshold, she dropped his hand and stood to one side, clearly indicating that he should proceed her into the silent warmth of her home. Catherine felt the tremors of uncertainty and fear that jolted through him and her heart ached for his pain, but she forced the feelings aside, emphatically reminding herself that although she would make the way as easy as possible for him, this night he must be the one to move forward toward love, toward the destination she had already claimed for both of them.

 

"Catherine, I..." His voice was hesitant and she heard the confusion there, as if he could not form the words of compromise or, worse, of retreat. And she knew she must not give him time to find a way to speak them.

 

She gestured toward the far side of the room and the louvered doors that led away from the source of his unease. "Through there," she said, her voice soft but encouraging. "We can talk in the living room. I'll make some hot chocolate and we can sit by the fire."

 

Again he nodded his acceptance, as if afraid that in speaking it he would say too much. With characteristic fluid grace, he strode inside, descending the two shallow steps and moving across the carpeted floor without hesitation. Yet Catherine saw the brief, uncontrolled turn of his head and heard the faint, harsh intake of his breath as he passed by her bed and took in the softly rumpled comforter and disarrayed pillow that still held the faintest traces of her tears. Again the bond whispered when he could not and its message seared through her, a secret no more. I wish... And she answered him with the bond's heartsong, knowing words would be too much, too soon. Yes, my love, yes...

 

Carried by this promise, Catherine followed him into the living room and stopped beside him as his slowing steps brought them to the fireplace. He looked down at the carefully constructed stack of wood that waited in its brick depths, and his relief at finding something else upon which to direct their attention was almost palpable.

 

"Shall I light the fire for you?" he asked, his low voice carefully controlled.

 

Needing to help him feel as comfortable as possible in this unfamiliar world that he'd found the courage to enter, Catherine answered quickly and calmly. "Yes, thanks. You'll find matches in that box on the mantel." She stepped aside to allow him room to reach for the box and then watched as he drew aside the fireplace screen and started to crouch down to begin the task.

 

Acting purely on instinct, she reached out and clasped a restraining hand on his arm. "Wait, Vincent!" she urged, tugging at his arm as he straightened and looked at her inquiringly. "You should take off your cloak before you start. It might be dangerous otherwise."

 

For just a moment he tilted his head at her and she felt certain she saw a spark of amusement dance in his eyes, but then the moment was gone, and he unfastened the voluminous garment to let it slide from his wide shoulders into her outstretched arms.

 

"Thank you," he said, his voice guardedly even as he once again turned away from her toward the fireplace. "I'll be careful."

 

Well, not too careful, she warned silently, smothering a small, nervous laugh in the ebony folds of the cloak she clutched in her arms. At once, all traces of her edgy humor vanished as she breathed in the heavily evocative scents that clung to the woolen garment -- soft clouds of candlesmoke, faint traces of minerals and earth, the lingering freshness of the wintery night air, and through it all, permeating the thick fabric as it pervaded her hungry senses was the dangerously provocative essence of Vincent himself.

 

Although she could not see his face, Catherine knew from the tensed lines of Vincent's body that he had heard her quick gasp and had felt the uncontrolled tremors of her desire as they vibrated across the tautened cords of their bond. And she knew as well that she needed to distance herself from him this very moment.

 

Draping the cloak over the back of a nearby couch, Catherine moved quickly to the narrow doorway leading to the apartment's small kitchen. She paused at the entrance and turned back toward Vincent, forcing herself to breathe evenly so that her voice would not betray her further. "I'm going to make the hot chocolate now," she said cautiously. "Or would you rather have tea?"

 

He did not turn to look at her and instead made small, unnecessary adjustments to the preparation of the fire. "Either one would be fine," he replied. "Please don't go to any unnecessary trouble for me."

 

His polite words brought a somber chill to Catherine's heart. We sound like strangers, not lovers, she acknowledged sadly. Courteous but uncaring.

 

 For several minutes she moved around the kitchen like a robot, automatically reaching for the things she needed, feeling her hopeful spirits begin another downward spiral toward dejection as she anticipated how the evening would likely end. Another stalemate, another series of halting steps forward that somehow always managed to end in bittersweet denial and retreat.

 

 Suddenly, she slammed the canister of hot chocolate mix onto the counter, rattling the spoons that rested on a tray next to two oversized mugs. Her eyes narrowed ominously and her jaw tightened with determination as she poured boiling water onto the dark sweet powder in the mugs, and then stirred the rich mixture with a controlled vehemence that matched the focused strength of the renewed feelings coursing through her.

 

"No," she said aloud, her voice subdued but sure. "Not again. Not this time." She picked up the tray and carried it into the living room to set it on the narrow golden oak table between the paired couches. Straightening, she allowed herself to look at Vincent for the first time since she'd returned to the living room, and found him almost as she'd left him, standing now but still staring down into the fireplace where he had set alight the banked sticks of firewood. The controlled flames sent light and shadow flickering across the floor and walls in vaguely disturbing patterns, and for a moment Catherine felt strangely disoriented in her own home. She watched as the firelight gilded the edges of Vincent's hair and outlined his strong muscled frame in a golden gleam, delineating his body in stark relief but showing nothing of the face that was still turned away from her. The fire crackled as some unseen resin was touched with flame, shooting flaring flashes of light into the room to further unsettle her faltering equilibrium.

 

Catherine realized with sudden, shocking clarity that here in the familiar haven of her own home, she had never felt more alone in all her life. The realization shook her with physical strength, clearing away the haze that had clouded her inner vision, and she knew that she had to escape from that terrifying aloneness. She could wait no longer. She needed Vincent now, needed him with a depth that brought pain knifing through her, a pain that only deepened when she realized that he had not turned to face her even though he had undoubtedly felt every shading of her emotions through their bond. Tears filled her eyes as she called his name in a voice so low and longing that it revealed far more than she had intended.

 

The sad, seductive sound drew him irresistibly and he turned to her immediately, his face etched in shared torment and broken dreams that all the stark firelight and shrouded shadows could not hide. And in that moment, Catherine knew at once the source of her anguish. "The painting," she murmured hoarsely, not realizing she had spoken aloud, seeing once again the vision of Vincent she'd found on the walls of the museum. It seemed to come to life before her in all the terrible desolation and aloneness she had felt from him earlier that night and had shared again with him now. Yet this was no painted image; this was Vincent -- her Vincent -- who despite all his tremendous efforts to deny it, needed her desperately, needed her with the consuming hunger of a man whose love would defy all odds and overcome all obstacles to be with her, surmounting even the strongest barriers which he himself had erected. More than anything imaginable, he wanted to see his long lifetime of aloneness come to an end, and yet the fears that clawed ceaselessly at his heart would not let him go, no matter how hard he struggled against them. The truth was there in the frantically controlled stance of his body, the harsh cadence of his breathing, the depth of despair in the heartbreaking beauty of his face.

 

 Without words he told her everything, and that was all that mattered to her now. But still she waited for him to take even a single step forward into the life they both knew was meant to be, if only they were willing to walk its path and test its limits together. She could not, would not go on alone any longer, following dreams without substance, not even for the one dream that meant everything to her, not even for him.

 

The seconds ticked by like the pulsation of an uncertain life until at last he opened his arms and his heart to her, calling out her name in a voice rasped with yearning and long-denied hope. "Catherine...Catherine!"

 

She needed nothing more. She rushed into his arms even as he moved forward to hold her and felt their bodies meld together, drawn by the irresistible force of their love. She clung to him, her arms around his neck and shoulders as he pulled her closer, and his large hands splayed against her back, holding her as if he would never let her go. She heard him murmur her name over and over as he nuzzled his face into the silky strands of her hair, and her heart beat erratically at the pleasure that familiar gesture evoked. It will be all right now, she told herself joyfully, everything will be all right.

 

Through a haze of relief and delight, Catherine realized Vincent was speaking to her and she leaned back to look at him, anxious to see his beloved face as she listened to his words. She let her hands slide down onto his shoulders and felt a welcome pressure at her waist as he clasped his hands behind her, as unwilling and unable to be parted from her as she was from him. "I'm sorry for what I put you through, Catherine," he began, his voice hoarse with tension and the depth of his feelings. "For exposing you to my anger, my envy. I should not have --"

 

She shook her head and interrupted him with a gentle smile. "I'm not sorry," she told him softly. "I'm glad it happened."

 

He tilted his head toward her, the confusion at her words evident in the narrowing of his eyes and the furrowing of his wide forehead. "You're glad?" he echoed in disbelief. "How can that be?"

 

"Because you let me get closer to you. You told me things about yourself I'd only guessed at but had never known for sure. Those moments of anger and pain hurt both of us, but it was worth it because through them you truly opened your heart to me."

 

Shaking his head, Vincent closed his eyes for just a moment, and when he opened them again, Catherine saw the truth before she heard the words. "Yes, I suppose they did," he said quietly. "And how like you to turn a moment of such pain into something of beauty and worth."

 

Her smile grew luminous, for in the deepest part of herself she knew they had found one another again and they would not be parted. "It's all because of you," she told him, her voice sweet and sure. "And because of who we are together. Vincent, you taught me how to find courage and love within myself. To want what's truly best in life. I learned that from you. And when we talked that night, I told you not to be afraid to want these things, too, if only for yourself. You deserve to have your hopes and dreams come true. You deserve everything!"

 

Even while a shadow of uncertainty flickered across his face, Catherine saw the courage and conviction there, too, and knew them to be stronger than any of his doubts. "I listened to your words, Catherine," he answered, his hands tightening slightly around her waist. "I've thought of little else since then...And I am trying to find the courage -- your courage – to believe in them."

 

"Then you will find it, I know you will."

 

His unique mouth hinted at a small, hopeful smile. "If I do, it will be because of you and your faith in me."

 

Catherine smiled back at him, feeling her heart grow stronger. "Will you tell me of your dreams someday, Vincent? Will you tell me what it is you hope for?"

 

For long moments he only gazed at her, his face a mystery of beautiful secrets and

sensations. "Yes, someday, when the time is right, I'll tell you of my hopes and dreams." So much was left unsaid, but she knew it must be enough for now.

 

"Come, let's sit by the fire. There are still things we need to talk about tonight." She ran her hands along the length of his arms in a gentle but unmistakable caress and then grasped his hands to urge him forward with her.

 

A small satisfied smile played across her lips when she felt his reluctance to let her go as she pulled her hands from his. "Here, take these," she began, tugging at the cushions of the couch. "We can sit on the floor near the fire." Cautiously she looked up at him through lowered lashes and was pleased to see he had not hesitated. She moved the tray of hot chocolate onto the fireplace lintel where it would be close at hand. Together, they arranged several cushions on the floor and then, sitting side by side, they leaned back against the end of one of the couches, finding comfort and ease in the familiar pose which mirrored their frequent times together on the balcony. "Mmm, this is nice, isn't it?" Catherine murmured, resting her head on Vincent's shoulder and snuggling a bit closer as he gently put his arm around her. "I've missed this, I've missed you."  She heard the unmistakable undercurrents of tension and happiness in his quiet reply. "It's only been two days, Catherine."

 

 "Two days, two weeks, two years -- it doesn't matter," she told him with firm contentment. "It was too long."

 

"I know," he murmured, the soft huskiness in his voice making her feel as if she were melting from within. "I felt it, too. No matter how much time we have together, it's never enough...I...I always want more."

 

Catherine sat up and turned to face him, looking at him with eyes wide with pleasure and surprise. "And you're not afraid of those feelings now, Vincent?"

 

He shook his head. "No, not like before. I've always believed it was wrong to feel this way about you, about the limits of our time together. That it wasn't right for me to feel so selfish...so possessive of you. But, Catherine, you've shown me that those feelings really are another side of love, maybe not love at its best or most noble, but they are a part of love...of the love I feel for you."

 

It took every bit of effort within her not to reach for him then, but she knew there was so much more they needed to say. "You do know, Vincent, that this is how I feel, too?" At his nod, she continued. "I told you that there are times when I'm jealous of Father and Mary and the others, even the children, who can spend so much time with you. They see you every day, and you share with them all the little things that make up your life. They know so much about you, things I have no knowledge of."

 

 A look of wonderment and still hesitant denial crossed his face. "Perhaps they know things about me that you would not wish to know."

 

 She shook her head vehemently. "No! I want to know everything about you -- everything!"

 

"Catherine, you don't realize what you're saying. There are things about me that you would not find so...appealing. Things I've done. Things you could not love."

 

She knew she had to help him vanquish the inner doubts that still resurfaced so readily.

 

"Maybe," she agreed, her voice strong and sure. "But that's true of everyone. We're all mixtures of good and bad, dark and bright. And people come into our lives and love us just the same."

 

As was his way, he tried to set aside her argument with logic and denial. "Perhaps, but those people are not strangers. They're people close to us, our families, people who have grown to love us over time. They've found ways to understand or overlook our weaknesses, and they're the ones who love us despite our faults."

 

Her heart was in her voice and, caught up in their truth and passion, she forgot all need for caution as the words tumbled from her. "How could anyone not love you, Vincent?!" His harsh intake of breath and the darkening disbelief in his blue eyes told her in a heartbeat that he recognized his own words. "Michael. Michael told you what I said?" It was not really a question, for they both knew the answer.

 

She took a deep breath. "Yes, he did. We talked together -- about what happened, about you. And we decided that if we were to help you, the need to be completely honest was more important than maintaining a sense of privacy. Please don't be angry, Vincent. We did what we thought was best for you, for all of us."

 

For long moments the only sound in the quiet room was the hushed harshness of his breathing and the soft crackling of the burning firewood, and Catherine knew she had no choice but to wait for him to come to her. At last his breathing evened and he looked up at her, his expression almost unreadable, and yet something there gave her renewed hope.

 

"I'm not angry," he began. "I know you only did what you thought was right and that you did it to help me. But that doesn't change the fact that what I said to Michael was the truth. It would be impossible for anyone not to love you, Catherine, but how can you believe that to be true of me?"

 

She reached forward to take his hand in hers, needing to anchor herself to the reality of his body as she spoke to his heart. "Because it is true of you, Vincent, much more so than of anyone else." She tightened her grip on his hand when he began to protest her words. "No, listen. You told Michael that it would be impossible not to love me. You know that's not true -- not of me," she shrugged and smiled up at him, "probably not of anyone really, although you do come pretty close! No one is universally loved -- it's just not possible. There will always be people we meet who don't love us for various reasons, and that's fine, that's just part of life. But you don't believe that about me, do you?"

 

She watched as he shook his head. "And in much the same way, I don't believe it about you either. And I think you know why." She paused, hoping he would say the words, even while knowing that it was still too soon for him, still too new and unexpected. Her soft sigh was imperceptible save for its small whisper through their bond, yet it did nothing to dim the strength of the light in her eyes, the light that was the mirror image of his. "The reason we believe these things about each other, Vincent, is because of our love. I do love you, so much so that it's almost impossible for me to imagine anyone not loving you and all that you are." She shook her head in gentle understanding. "You don't have to say anything more, not now, not yet. I know what's in your heart."

 

His voice resonated with all the strength of his love for her, the love for which he would someday find the words. "Catherine, you are the best part of my life, the best part of my dreams."

 

"As you are of mine. And someday there will be so much more than dreams for us. We're getting closer all the time, Vincent. We'll find our way. I know it -- I feel it here inside me." She raised their clasped hands and for a brief heart-stopping moment Vincent allowed her to hold his hand to the softness of her breast, to feel the strong cadence of her heartbeat as it pulsed in rhythm with his own, and then he carefully withdrew his hand from her grasp.

 

"There is still something I cannot resolve within myself." His voice was heavy and the seriousness of his tone stirred a prickling of fear in her, one which he was quick to sense and try to allay. "No, don't be afraid. I'm not going to leave you." And his heart whispered, Not now, not ever, but those words were yet to come.

 

"What I cannot resolve is the guilt I feel for not being able to let you go. Once I thought -- no, I knew -- I could find the strength to encourage you to leave me, to find another love, someone who can give you everything you deserve."

 

 Her green eyes clouded with tears. "Vincent, don't you know how much it hurts me to hear you say that? To know that you would want me to leave you, to be with some other man --"

 

"No!" His vehemence surprised both of them. "No! That's not what I want!" The careful modulation of his voice had taken on a roughness edged with his own tears, unleashed by his own desires. "I cannot bear even the thought of that -- of another man touching you...being with you..."

 

His passion gentled her soul and rekindled the warmth in her heart. "Then don't think of it, Vincent. It will never happen! There can be no one else for either of us. I don't want anyone else -- only you. We both know that..."

 

Some small part of his ragged heart was left unconvinced even now. "But I should be able to rejoice if you were to find love with someone who could give you everything you deserve." He looked up at her, wordlessly begging her to prove him wrong once and for all.

 

"Then rejoice with me now, love, for I've already found that someone. A man who can give me everything and who someday will...I found you."

 

 They gazed into each other's eyes, seeing everything, knowing everything, all the beautiful things that had come to life for them, and all that was yet to be wondrously discovered. Through the bond they felt the very edges of their souls touch in joy and hope.

 

Gradually Catherine found the words she needed to bring them yet another step closer to the fulfillment of their dream. "Vincent, we've come so far together and resolved so much, but we've still so far to go. We need to find a way to have more time together.   I don't want to go on feeling envious of Father and Samantha and Mouse." Her mouth curved in a smile that went straight to his heart. "I want to be more like them."

 

 "Catherine?" It was all he could say, but they both heard the encouragement in that single questioning, hope-filled word.

 

"They're with you during all the times I can't be," she continued in earnest. "The happy times, the sad times, the minutes that make up each day of your life. All the ordinary moments people share with their families -- taking care of one another, loving one another. Building a real life together..." As if suddenly hearing her own words, Catherine let her voice trail away for a moment. She watched him with a feeling of wariness, wondering if perhaps she'd said too much after all. Then, to her heartfelt wonder and joy, he surprised her once again. "Is that what you want for us? Is that what you truly wish for?"

 

There was no hesitation in her reply. "Yes, that's what I wish for, more than anything. That we can be together in every way, through all the days of our lives... But you must tell me if that's what you want, too."

 

 Catherine knew his answer even before he formed the words, but still she was uncertain if he would be able to utter them. Again the image of a crossroads arose in her mind, and she waited for him to truly choose the path destiny had opened to them, the path that led to her.

 

"Catherine," he began, his voice deepening with the impact of the things he had to tell her. "This is not easy for me. Nearly all my life, I've believed this choice you're offering me, this gift, would never be given to me, that I would never be allowed to make these decisions, no matter how much I might yearn for them. You've shown me in so many ways that I was wrong, that..." He paused, overwhelmed with what he was about to say.

 

For a brief moment Vincent closed his eyes and bowed his head, exhaling a short, raspy sigh through parted lips. With gentle care, Catherine reached for his hand, offering him a tangible lifeline that would guide him to their safe haven. He looked up at her then, his eyes alight with the truth of his passion for her, for what their lives could be together.

 

Taking a deep breath, he began again. "Catherine, I do want to be with you. To share a life with you. I never dreamed that it would be a possibility for me, but you've taught me that even I have the right to love and be loved...by you."

 

The relief and joy she felt washed through her in waves so strong that they were overwhelming. Leaning forward into his outstretched arms, she collapsed against his wide chest, feeling her tears fall freely onto the soft, coarse wool of his sweater. His arms cradled her with gentle strength, and she felt the warmth of his breath ruffle her hair as he murmured to her in low, husky tones.

 

"Don't cry, Catherine, don't cry," he whispered, needing to reassure her even though he felt her happiness coursing through their bond, streaming into him in palpable torrents of light and heat. Long moments later, Catherine carefully braced her hands against his chest and pushed herself up to a sitting position. Vincent leaned back against one end of the couch and, facing the fireplace, bent one leg upward, clasping a large hand around his knee. So that she would be facing him, Catherine turned her back to her fire and, curving her legs to one side, she leaned against him, lightly pressing her body against the slope of his thigh. Easily supporting her slight weight, Vincent welcomed the warmth and softness of his Catherine, the very lines of her body reflecting the trust and joy he saw in the expression on her face. With gentle fingers, he reached forward with his free hand and softly wiped away the tears that lingered on her delicate skin.

 

Catherine's sigh was a small breathy sound of pure pleasure as he touched her face with such care and tenderness, and when she felt him start to withdraw, she raised her hand to cup the silken-furred back of his. Pressing his palm against her cheek, she smiled at him, a dream-filled smile that promised so much more, and then turned her face so that her mouth might caress him.

 

She felt a delicious shiver tingle through her as the softness of her lips met his work-roughened skin. His throaty gasp of surprise only spurred her forward and she nuzzled closer, pressing tiny kisses onto his warming flesh, until at last with gentle firmness he forced himself to pull his hand away and she reluctantly let him go.

 

"Catherine, when you touch me like that, I..." He lowered his head, retreating behind a curtain of bronze hair, burnished by firelight.

 

The words left her lips before she had time to think about them. "Vincent, how did you know that Michael kissed me?"

 

His head snapped up, astonishment at her question transparent in his voice and eyes. "I don't know, Catherine, I don't understand it. Maybe it was the bond. Sometimes -- on very rare occasions -- I can perceive things about you, something more than your emotions." He shook his head, struggling for the words to explain the phenomenon which neither entirely understood. "It's like a strong, sharp flash of understanding, and then it's gone."

 

"Maybe this time it was because of your closeness to Michael, too," she suggested quietly as she sat up straighter, still leaning lightly against him.

 

"Yes," he agreed, his voice lowering slightly. "Maybe it was."

 

She knew immediately the path his thoughts had taken. "Vincent, you know that nothing really happened, that the only thing Michael and I share is our friendship."

 

"Yes, I know that." He looked at her carefully, his gaze unwavering. "I know that you did nothing to encourage his feelings for you...but I was envious and angry -- angry at myself -- that he was able to acknowledge those feelings, to express them in that way... when I cannot..."

 

She felt her heart race out of control, and when she spoke its tumultuous quickening was in her voice. "You can, Vincent." His face was a portrait of hope and longing and its desperate beauty drew a quick trembling gasp from her as she continued. "I won't push you -- I know you need time to think this through -- but you must know it's what I want, too, what I've wanted for so long."

 

There was little hesitation in his answer. "Yes, I do know that. And I share in it... Catherine, I know you're not afraid, but a part of me still is and I need time to move past those fears."

 

"We'll do that together," she promised, her voice sure and strong. "There's nothing we can't do as long as we're together."

 

His mouth curved in a whispered smile. "You have so much trust, so much faith in me...in us. My life would be empty without you."

 

The look they shared spoke of love and all its possibilities, and for long moments they were content to rest within its promise. Then Vincent's smile faded and his face hardened ominously. "I can't lose you again, not to a man like Elliot Burch, not even to someone like Michael."

 

Her answer was immediate. "Oh, Vincent, you never lost me, you never will! Elliot is only a friend, nothing more than that. I don't love him, I never did. How could I fall in love with him, with any other man, after knowing you?"

 

Like spring sunlight renewing the earth, his smile slowly returned and his face relaxed again. Catherine sighed with renewed relief. "And I think of Michael as a little brother -- or maybe as a son I might have someday." She did not pause to let him dispute the words she'd dared to say. "But I understand the feelings you had when you realized what had happened that night. I would have felt the same way if some other woman had kissed you, even if it were for the same reasons Michael had when he kissed me."

 

Vincent exhaled a short sigh, harsh with self-deprecation. "That's not likely to happen."

 

"Don't be too sure of that," she warned, watching with satisfaction as he stared at her in amazement. "I think there would have been plenty of opportunities if you had been open to them -- "

 

"No, Catherine, there were no opportunities," he interrupted decisively. Then traces of bittersweet memories whispered through him, bringing remembrance of Lena's wishes and of once, long ago, a dream of someone else.

 

Catherine saw the shadows cloud his face for just a moment before he pushed them away, and with real effort she smothered her questions, knowing they must wait for another day. Instead, she continued, drawing them back to her original train of thought, hoping against hope it might take them farther on their journey.

 

"Vincent, when you were a little boy, did Father hold you in his lap and read to you at night?"

 

Tilting his head in the way she so loved, he looked quizzically at her, but readily replied to her question, relieved their conversation seemed to be leading them away from what was still very shaky ground. "Yes. He has always read bedtime stories to the children for as long as I can remember. And for many years I, as the smallest child, was given the privilege of sitting on his lap in the big rocking chair in the children's chambers while he read to us. Stories of great adventures and faraway places. Myths and fables, poetry and fairy tales. Stories of magic and wonder – Treasure Island, Gulliver's Travels, The Arabian Nights. Legends about brave quests -- dragons and battles, knights and fair ladies."

 

His smile warmed her to the heart, showing her a glimpse of the child he'd once been. "And beyond the stories themselves, what did you like best about those moments?"

 

"I suppose it was the closeness we all shared," he answered, his voice thoughtful and honest. "In our imaginations we lived the lives of the characters and had the amazing adventures Father read about, but in reality we were safe and warm in the arms of our family and our home."

 

Catherine nodded in understanding. "I felt the same way when my mother read to me each night. I'd lay in my bed, snuggled under the covers with my favorite stuffed toy, and I'd listen until I couldn't stay awake anymore. Sometimes I would dream wonderful dreams about the stories she had read, but I always woke up feeling safe and loved. I think it's because the last thing I remembered every night before I fell asleep was my mother kissing me on the cheek and wishing me sweet dreams."

 

"It was the same for me." Vincent's eyes softened with the memory. "Mary would make sure every child was tucked into bed each night. But Father always checked on me -- at least until I was about six or seven and told him I was too grown up for such things." His laugh was a low, husky sound that murmured over Catherine in warm, wonderful waves. "And every night he would kiss my forehead and tell me all was well, that he would be waiting for me in the morning. In a way, I know he still does even though we don't speak of it now."

 

"He loves you very much," Catherine said, her heart in her words. "And Mary, too, and the others."

 

"Yes," he acknowledged softly. "As I love them."

 

The silence that drifted around them was one of serenity and warmth, yet both sensed the undercurrents of something left unsaid. And in moments, Catherine continued. "But you've never questioned their love for you, never doubted the rightness of it?"

 

"No," he admitted carefully. "It has always been one of the best parts of my life, of who I am."

 

"And yet you question our love -- not the rightness of it, but the place it has in our lives...and your right to want it for yourself, for both of us. Why can't you accept our love and all that it can be, the same way you accept the love of your family and your friends as such a beautiful part of your life?"

 

She knew he heard her heartfelt yearning, all the longing that still throbbed painfully within her and which she could no longer disguise. And she knew that he, too, had endured all its torment and desire within himself.

 

"It's not the same, Catherine," he rasped, an edge of desperation roughening his husky tones. "The love we share goes well beyond the love of family and friends -- we both know that."

 

Tears burned in her eyes. "But then why does it have to cause us so much pain?"

 

His answer was immediate, his voice strong and sure through the waves of emotion billowing between them. "Because of its power and its strength. It's beyond anything I'd ever dreamed of. But, while there has been pain -- for both of us -- know that within our love I have found more pleasure than I'd ever expected, more than I believed could possibly exist. My life has been nurtured by the love of my family and friends, but your love, Catherine, our love...it is all my joy, all my hope and my dreams."

 

Her clouded tears of sorrow transformed at once to a glowing reflection of the happiness that shimmered through their bond. There were no other words except the ones of her heart. "I love you so much, Vincent. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to tell you or show you just how much I love you."

 

The warmth in his voice was a simmering heat tempered only by the last, lingering remains of the profound self-control that had shaped his adult life. "You tell me with every word you speak. You show me with everything you do..."

 

The look they shared spoke of all the things their hearts already knew. Suddenly the immensity of all they had gone through together made its impact on Vincent, and he leaned back against the heaped cushions, feeling close to exhaustion and yet curiously energized. Catherine smiled in understanding and for many moments they were content to drift in the shared contentment of promises made and dreams which would someday come true. Feeling her entire body relax languorously, Catherine leaned back against Vincent's leg and let her head rest once more against his knee. Her eyes half-closed, she concentrated on letting all the happiness she felt ripple to him through the bond, knowing how its heat and light would warm him to the soul. In return she experienced the joy of his identical feelings touching her so deeply that she felt close to tears again at their impact.

 

Yet as the minutes passed, something subtle and strong began to stir within her, responding to the desires, sensual and still unspoken, they both felt with ever-increasing power and need. Their familiar voices urged her onward, but Catherine tried not to listen, loathe to do anything that might upset the tranquillity they'd achieved. With effort, she subdued their strength, but she could not ignore them entirely -- nor did she want to. And now she knew that he did not want her to either. Understanding there were still limits beyond which they would not venture this night, she opened their bond just a bit more and moved into its light, bringing Vincent with her.

 

Without warning, Vincent felt himself surrounded by softness and warmth, its delicious pressure unlike anything he'd ever known. Determined not to give him time enough to protest,  Catherine gently but firmly pushed him farther down upon the mounded pile of cushions and then slid forward into his arms, resting across his massive chest, their bodies pressed together from waist to shoulder. Keeping her legs curled to one side, she nestled her hip into the narrow indentation of his waist and made herself more than comfortable in his surprised embrace.

 

As she looked into his startled and now wide-awake eyes, she knew, however, that comfort would soon be the last thing on their minds. They both wanted this physical closeness, needed it, and for now the time for careful conversation and cautious near-intimacy had ended. Just this once, Catherine told herself determinedly, there will be more for us. It's what we want and what we deserve. At least we can try...

 

With a slow, languid motion, she raised one hand and began to stroke aside the tousled golden hair that had drifted over his forehead. She smoothed the strands with slow, gentle fingers, lightly brushing over his skin.

 

"Catherine?" Vincent's questioning tone revealed a simmering mixture of tension and hunger. "Catherine, what are you doing?" His tensed voice sounded odd to his own ears, but Catherine didn't seem to mind.

 

"When you were a little boy, did Mary do this for you when you couldn't sleep?" she asked, a warm, wondering tone to her voice.

 

He swallowed hard as her small fingers continued to move over him in a featherlight touch that he felt down to his toes. "Yes," he managed. "Yes, she did."

 

"And did it help you relax and fall asleep?" she continued, slowly moving her hand lower to stroke a flowing, circular pattern over his high cheekbones and up to the silken hair at his temple and then back again. "And did you have pleasant dreams?"

 

"Yes," he rasped softly. "Very pleasant."

 

She knew his thoughts were far from the contemplation of past maternal comforting, and the realization brought a knowing glow to her eyes, one he could not mistake for exactly what it was.

 

"Mmmm," she continued, never ceasing the soft, sensual motion of her hand. "I thought so..."

 

For just a moment Vincent closed his eyes, then realized too late his mistake as he felt Catherine's nimble fingers swiftly unlace the leather thongs of his vest and push it open to uncover the sweater beneath. His eyes snapped open and he tilted his head up to look at her. "Catherine, I'm not sure --"

 

Smiling sweetly, she pressed her fingertips against his mouth, effectively silencing his hoarse protest. "Then, you should just think about it for a while until you are sure," she offered, the innocence of her smile belying the sensual tone of her voice. "Take all the time you need."

 

Vincent fought his ongoing inner battle between desire and denial, one that this time was quickly declared a draw. He leaned back against the cushions again, his body feeling strangely but wonderfully content. Warily he wondered what Catherine would do next, but soon found he didn't have long to wait. She slid down a bit on his chest, drawing a quick harsh breath from him as his increasingly heightened senses took in the soft, firm pressure of her breasts moving against the hard-muscled planes of his body. Almost before he had time to think about this new sensation, another one began, this time in the touch of her hand at his throat. Over and over she stroked her fingers from the hollow at the base of his throat, up the corded length of his neck to his jaw and back again, all the while murmuring soft, soothing sounds deep in her throat.

 

Unconsciously, he leaned his head back to ease and insure the continued movement of her hands over his heated flesh, savoring sensations he had never felt before. With each stroking of her hand upon him, Vincent felt himself sinking deeper and deeper into a sensual lassitude, one from which he began to hope he'd never awaken. Then her voice filtered into his dreamlike state and brought him to increasingly vivid awareness.

 

"Vincent?" she murmured. "Are you falling asleep?"

 

He opened heavy-lidded eyes to see her leaning over him. "No," he muttered, swallowing hard. "No, I'm not asleep."

 

"Good." She smiled, tilting her head to one side, as her fingers resumed their alluring massage of his neck and throat. "I have something else I want to ask you. I know if you're sick or injured, Father takes care of you, doesn't he?" When Vincent seemed to have trouble answering her, she continued easily, "But that's just for serious things. So when your throat is sore or if your neck and shoulder muscles are tired from working too hard, is there someone Below to do this for you?"

 

"No, Catherine, of course not," he answered in a strained voice. "No."

 

Her pouty smile sent another shudder of desire rumbling through him. "I didn't really think so...and I'm glad..."

 

Never before had he wanted to kiss her with the depth of desire he now felt. So many times in the past, he had extinguished those feelings almost before they made themselves known to his body and mind. But this time it was different; this time he felt almost free. It was all he could do to keep from pulling her hand away from his neck and shoulders so that he could lean closer to the moist softness of her mouth, but the things she was doing to him felt too good and instead he stayed as he was, eager for her to continue despite the internal censors which were screaming that they must stop.

 

Catherine watched his face with vivid interest as his emotions vibrated through her within the bond, and she did not resist the impulse to open herself further to him, hoping he would hear all the urgent yearnings of her heart, too. Then she drew her hand once more along the sturdy length of his neck and stopped abruptly. For several moments Vincent almost believed she had sensed his inner conflict and was respecting wishes he'd begun to regret he'd ever made. But then his other prayers were answered.

 

Before he could think of stopping her, Catherine unfastened several buttons of his sweater and folded the edges aside. Then the lips he'd so coveted only moments earlier began touching his jaw, pressing soft moist kisses along the same pathway her fingers had taken. Vincent held his breath waiting for something he was unsure of, until at last she reached the rapidly beating pulse at the base of his throat. Once there he felt the heated moistness of her soft lips and tongue moving over his uncovered flesh, lightly suckling against the throbbing skin until he thought he might die from the intensity of the pleasure she brought him. Again a sense of lassitude seemed to invade his entire body and he was aware only of a sensation nearing euphoria, one he'd never known before, and he drifted willingly, eagerly into it.

 

Through the bond, Catherine sensed with growing acuity his every response to her gently persistent seduction. She had half-expected him to retreat from her long before this, and the delight that he had not sparkled through her veins with diamond sharp intensity, spurring her to continue. Scooting down a little farther, she carefully levered herself slightly upward, just far enough so that she was able to bring both hands to the open neck of Vincent's sweater. The opening extended only five or six inches, but it was enough to reveal a wealth of burnished golden hair and Catherine's fingers ached to bury themselves in its silky lushness. Yet she paused for a moment to gaze at his face and the expression she found there was one she knew she would never forget.

 

He had opened his eyes to watch her, revealing in their luminous depths an awareness of the sensual delight his new-found freedom was giving Catherine. That it should mean so much to her just to touch him like this, moved him beyond shadings of lust and desire to a place where their love grew even stronger. He could not hide this wonder from her; he did not want to.

 

A trembling gasp rushed from Catherine's lips. Never had she seen him so at ease with her, so undeniably free to let his emotions play across that unique face, revealing all the pleasure and passion he found in her, all the feelings he'd always kept hidden away. It was more than she'd thought possible this night; it was all that she had hoped for. Still, she could not resist one final step forward; and knowing that despite the wishes they shared, he would not allow this interlude to continue much longer, Catherine did not wait.

 

Holding his smoky gaze with hers, she slowly glided the fingers of one hand into the opening of his sweater, pushing aside the knitted woolen edges to reach the thick silky hair and taut muscled skin beneath. Concentrating on this small part of his wide chest, Catherine moved her hand over him with firm, searching strokes as far as she could reach, wishing irrationally that she would never have to stop. She knew in an instant that no one had ever touched him like this, that he had never felt a lover's caress eagerly offered, willingly given. The realization brought an ache to her heart that she knew must match the despair he'd lived with nearly every day of his life, and she swore to herself, to both of them, that he would never know such pain again.

 

As she continued to touch him, she became inevitably aware that the heavy rise and fall of his rapidly escalating breathing matched her own, and she saw his eyes darken with a bittersweet blending of strong desire and still-lingering fear. This time for them was over. They both knew it and they both wished they were wrong; yet they could not deny the truth. With trembling hands Catherine smoothed down the edges of Vincent's sweater rebuttoning it with difficulty, and then retied the leather thongs of his vest before sitting up once again. Seconds later he had pushed himself back to a sitting position, too, and looked down at her, telling her everything she needed to know in the cherished voice of his eyes.

 

Neither wished to spoil the moment with unnecessary words and suddenly they grinned at each other, inordinately happier than they had been in a very long time. Laughing lightly, Catherine reached for her mug of now very cold chocolate and raised it to her lips. Vincent watched as she drank deeply and then did the same with his own. Standing up, they set the empty mugs on the coffee table, and as one, moved into a loving embrace, their arms clasped loosely around each other's waists. As he looked down at Catherine's beloved face, Vincent felt his mouth curve into another smile.

 

"What's the matter?" Catherine asked lightly, feeling her heart began to race as she noted the way he seemed to be concentrating his gaze on her mouth. "Is something wrong?"

 

"The foam from the chocolate, Catherine," he said, his voice roughening slightly despite his efforts to control the simmering fever that caused it. "It's..." Unable to finish the sentence, Vincent astounded them both by reaching forward with one finger to wipe away the remains of the chocolatey treat from Catherine's softly trembling bottom lip. And then he took them one step farther. Slowly, sensuously he licked the foam from his fingertip, deeply enjoying the gasping response he heard from Catherine's parted lips and the lightning-like bolt of pure desire flaring at him through their bond.

 

To Catherine it seemed beyond belief that they had come so far in so short a time, but she wasn't about to waste a moment of it. She held his heavy-lidded gaze for a long moment and then watched his eyes again focus hazily on her soft mouth as she slowly swirled her tongue over her lips in a lazy, searching motion. "Mmmm," she purred deep in her throat, half-closing her smoky green eyes as her lips curved in a suggestive smile. "Delicious."

 

Vincent's arms tightened reflexively around the firm, pliant curves of her body, as he felt an answering shudder rumble heatedly through him. "The chocolate?" he asked, already knowing the answer he would receive, but lowering his head to hear it just the same.

 

Catherine leaned closer until the moist heat of their mouths barely touched. She shook her head slowly, moving her lips across his in a sensuous caress. "No," she murmured, filling his mouth with the warmth and sweetness of her breath before pulling back slightly to look into his eyes. What she saw there sent waves of pleasure through every part of her. All the unguarded desire she had ever dreamed of burned in the cobalt fire of Vincent's eyes and she knew she would willingly walk through their flames forever.

 

Her mouth curved in a smile of blatant seduction, but she waited just long enough to add the words that would further sweeten the reply he still awaited with an eagerness he no longer tried to disguise. "Not the chocolate, Vincent..." she paused for just a moment, as they both savored the longed-awaited sensations of taste and touch, sight and sound. "...just you..."

 

His hungry moan was muffled low in his chest as their mouths came together in a kiss that deepened with a gentle intensity and sent ripples of ecstasy throughout their entire bodies. They parted breathlessly and once again looked into each other's eyes, finding all the rapture they had known in this sensuous interlude mirrored there, chasing away the sorrow and fear that had haunted them for so long. Both realized the wondrous sensations they had shared were only a hint of all they would discover together when the time was right for them, and until that time they would hold to the promises made this night.

 

 

Published Summer, 1996 -- Bondstories - Volume X