And Count the Moments

Heather Andrews

 

There hollow sounds arous'd me, and I sigh'd
To faint once more by looking on my bliss—
I was distracted; madly did I kiss
The wooing arms which held me, and did give
My eyes at once to death: but 'twas to live,
To take in draughts of life from the gold fount
Of kind and passionate looks; to count, and count
The moments, by some greedy help that seem'd
A second self, that each might be redeem'd
And plunder'd of its load of blessedness.
Ah, desperate mortal! I ev'n dar'd to press
Her very cheek against my crowned lip,
And, at that moment, felt my body dip
Into a warmer air…

~~ from Endymion, Book I by John Keats

It was the sound of his name being tapped in the unique tunnel code that roused Vincent, and he opened his eyes to the dim light of one candle. At the same moment he became aware of another rhythmic sound, one dearer to him than any other. It was right above him, and accompanying it were other sensations, those of sight and scent and touch; all senses spoke to him, unequivocally, of her. However, the unlikely conjunction of all those sensations, especially in the context of the familiar dim lighting and candlesmoke aroma of Below, confused him.

He could not recall how he had come to be in this position, in this place. In fact, the last thing he remembered was preparing for bed. He opened his mind to the Bond, and received the soothing waves of calm that he usually associated with her sleeping state. But how could that be? She was obviously not asleep, not if she was here, holding him, caressing his cheek, staring at Kristopher’s painting with wistful eyes.

He must be dreaming. That was the only explanation that made sense. He was asleep, Catherine was asleep, and he was dreaming of lying on his bed with his head in her lap. The vague fogginess of his mind, his inability to clearly determine the situation, and the somnolent state of Catherine’s mind were all a confirmation. That had to be it. It was only a dream.

He sighed, and even he was not sure if it was an indication of relief or dismay. It felt so wonderful to just be with her. If only it could be real. The despair that he often felt when thinking of the future, of their dream, began to flow over and consume the feelings of peace that he had been experiencing.

No! he thought in rebellion. No! I will not deny myself this. At least in my dreams I will have that happiness which I can never have in reality. He pushed the despair away and took a deep breath. He glanced once again at Catherine, and realized that her eyes were now on him. She smiled a slow, loving smile and opened her mouth as if she were about to speak.

Vincent lifted his arm and placed one finger on her lips.

"Catherine…oh, Catherine!" he whispered, and the hand that had gently silenced his love slid to her cheek, to rest ever so softly against the smoothness of her skin. Vincent brought his other hand toward his own face and grasped Catherine’s hand, the one that had been so tenderly stroking his cheek a few moments before. He spread her fingers wider and kissed her palm, then pulled her hand closer to him and kissed the inside of her wrist. He felt her still completely, even to holding her breath, and became aware at that instant that he could feel the pulse through her delicate flesh. He repeated the motion, his lips alighting on her lower arm for only a moment before removing themselves and moving up to the tender skin of her inner elbow. Catherine gasped as his lips touched the sensitive spot.

Vincent gently laid Catherine’s hand on his chest. Then once again reaching upward, he adjusted his hand to fit the sweet curve of the back of her neck. It took almost no effort at all to pull her head down and bring her lips to his.

He had kissed Catherine before, so the feel of her lips pressed against his was not a new one, but the act had not been so often repeated that he could really be said to be accustomed to it. And this particular configuration of lips to lips, with his upper lip resting against her lower one, seemed to add another stimulating element. That, plus the liberating knowledge that this was a dream, provoked him into something he had never permitted himself before; he allowed his passion to control the kiss. In the past, he had allowed love and tenderness to rule their infrequent kisses. Even, once, a honey-sweet trickle of desire. But not this overwhelming flood of passion, this volcanic fountain of effervescent life!

He moaned as his blood seemed to catch fire with longing. Catherine, too, let loose a moaning sigh as she pulled away just long enough to catch her breath.

"Vincent?!" Her voice seemed to hold a myriad of emotions as she leaned back down to his waiting lips. Vincent reestablished his hold on her neck, and used it to pull her even farther down. He lifted up his head so she could remove her thighs from beneath it, and she swung her lower body away so she could lie beside him.

He rolled onto his side so he could see her, then levered himself up on one elbow so he could once again gain access to her beautiful lips. He felt the gentle exhalation of her breath briefly before his lips touched hers, and he thought it was the most erotic thing he had ever felt. They were sharing the very air that they breathed—and it felt like the breath of life to Vincent’s suffocated soul.

He pressed his lips to Catherine’s, feeling the cleft of his lip spread just slightly with the pressure. He thought his heart would stop when Catherine’s moan vibrated that sensitive flesh. He felt her tongue flick out and brush against the cleft, and his moaning sigh took over where the fading sound of Catherine’s left off.

His moan seemed to encourage her to further bold acts, as she took that opportunity to press her body up against his; temporarily his lips were dislodged from their placement against hers. He thought that he could even feel the heat radiating off her body, and a small part of him marveled at how detailed the dream was, even as he allowed himself to get carried away in a current of lust.

His right hand encouraged her head to move closer yet, then pulled it back so that her smooth, pale throat was exposed. She allowed her head to tip back even further in surrender, and Vincent felt his lips pull away from his teeth as a soft growl of dominance rolled out of his mouth.

He settled his teeth across her yielding throat, the pointed tips pressing in just slightly. He felt her shiver and let out a gusting breath (which ruffled through the short wisps of hair that reposed in unusual disarray on his brow), and he placed his tongue flat against her skin. She tasted sweet and salty at the same time, and he couldn’t help aiding the sensation by drawing in a breath of Catherine-scented air.

A moment later, he came back to himself and started working his lips, kiss by kiss, down Catherine’s luxurious throat. He could feel and hear little moans vibrating along that same length of taut cartilage and flesh; too soon for his enjoyment, he reached the base of her throat and stopped.

Despite the desire urging him on, he paused for a moment to glance up at Catherine. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks were flushed a becoming pale rose color, and she was breathing quickly and shallowly through her open mouth.

He’d never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life.

With his eyes fixed on the vision before him, his stillness allowed an influx from his other senses. Slowly he became aware of the sound of those quick, panting breaths flowing over Catherine’s lips and the rapid beating of her heart, the feel of the heat pouring off her body and the heaving of her chest against his (oh, Heaven!), the lavender scent of Catherine’s shampoo and a deeper, muskier scent which before he had only ever caught just the edges of before losing any trace of it.

He breathed deeply, trying to trace the new odor. It seemed to come from Catherine’s body, lower down than his pausing point at the base of her throat. He nudged his nose into the v-neck of her blouse, taking in great draughts of air in order to follow the scent. It was stronger there, so he nuzzled lower until he was stopped by the top button. After a still moment of confusion, he felt Catherine raise her hands toward her chest and slowly undo the buttons.

With the path cleared before him, he let his nose be his guide. He vaguely recognized that there was possibly something he should be paying attention to along the way, but the scent he was following called to him with a strength he could not deny.

Inevitably, the path came to an end. For a full minute, he stared without comprehension at the waistband of Catherine’s trousers. Finally, a soft voice broke him out of his trance-like state.

"Vincent…Vincent...my love?"

Vincent blinked, and suddenly the fogginess of his mind started to clear. He abruptly became aware of more than just the physical sensations he had been caught in. The Bond was speaking to him now, and Catherine—Catherine was most definitely NOT asleep! And she was most definitely here in his chamber with him! Caught in that split-second revelation, he almost missed the fact that his nose was practically buried in Catherine’s navel.

Almost. But his sense of smell was still working rather well, informing him of his nose’s placement. He pulled back from Catherine with a gasp, and as his head rose, his eyes traced back up the path that he had followed only a few minutes before.

He was torn between horror and embarrassment, and did the first thing he could think of. He blocked his awareness of Catherine through the Bond. He couldn’t bear to feel what she must be feeling right now.

None of it—none of it!—had been a dream. How could he have let this happen? What must Catherine think of him? How could she just be lying there, so calmly, with her br—with her blouse open like that? Not even trying to cover up? She must cover herself, or he didn’t know what would happen. He had to say something, get control of the situation. He had to leave.

"Catherine—oh, Catherine, I—I don’t know what came over me, I thought this was a dream, I thought you were safely Above…" He tried to sit up the rest of the way, but a wave of vertigo made him close his eyes and take a deep breath, and he leaned back onto the bed in confusion.

He felt Catherine’s hand on his shoulder and tried to pull away, but she wouldn’t allow her hold to be shaken off.

"Vincent. It’s all right. Don’t try to leave the bed. I—I can go get Father, if you’d like, or I can just leave. But you’ve been hurt, and you’re not supposed to get out of bed."

He heard the worry in Catherine’s voice, and wondered how she could feel that way for him after what he’d done. She even sounded like she didn’t want to leave him, despite the revulsion she must no doubt be feeling. There was just no way that she could be feeling anything else, with how he had behaved. He had been like…like an…an animal. But her voice, and the fact that she hadn’t made a move to leave yet… His indecision caused him to rethink his blocking of the Bond. He had to know what she was thinking, what she felt. He allowed himself to re-open the Bond.

And discovered, to his dismay, that it wasn’t going to be as helpful as he’d hoped.

In fact, her feelings were such a jumble that he would just get a hold of one and begin to follow it to its source, when it would become tangled up with another, like a snarled ball of yarn. He recognized the worry (overlaid by a confused picture of a rockslide), but it twisted itself into a knot of fear (with a brief impression of complete and final aloneness). Finding another trail of emotion, he realized that it was a trace of despair (accompanied by the flavor of loneliness), which was soon crossed by another channel, this one of irritation and impatience (with an odd, spicy heat). He puzzled over these findings, for none of them were the revulsion which he was sure had to be there. But then he realized that he had not yet followed the largest thread of feeling, which was wrapped around the whole knot of the others. Readying his heart for the crushing blow which would undoubtedly follow, he traced the path of the thread over, under, around, and through the tangle of all of Catherine’s other emotions.

It wasn’t what he expected. In shock at the astonishing turn of events, his mind froze for a moment. And then he recognized it. Like a cool, refreshing drink from one of the underground springs far below the inhabited tunnels, the feeling flowed into him, quenching his parched soul and washing away all his doubts. It was clear to him now.

She loved him. In all the ways it was possible to love, she loved him. And oh, there were so many ways! Respect, trust, friendship, admiration, tenderness, and even, he realized, desire… He was awed that he had never before recognized all she felt for him. He ashamedly admitted to himself that he had been afraid to find out what feelings lurked deep within Catherine’s soul.

"Vincent?" Catherine’s voice sounded strained, and Vincent realized that he had still not shared his epiphany. His eyes were still closed; remembering what the view had been before they had shut, he was unsure if he should open them again. But now that he was paying attention to the Bond, he realized that Catherine was really beginning to feel fear for him. In the back of his mind, he happily realized that he could indeed distinguish that the fear was for his well-being, and not that she was afraid of him.

Taking a fortifying breath, he slowly opened his eyes. Catherine was leaning toward him, but was trying not to obviously hover. Vincent could feel that she was unsure of his state of mind. A quick glance reassured him that Catherine had rebuttoned her blouse, and he breathed a sigh of relief, then gingerly sat up. The slow motion didn’t cause the dizziness that his earlier move had caused.

"Catherine…" He hesitantly reached out and cupped her jaw and cheek in his palm. When her only response was to part her lips and quickly inhale (he still half-expected her to pull away), he dared to stroke his thumb across those same lips.

Catherine closed her eyes and shakily, slowly, exhaled. He could feel the humid breath leaving her lips and caressing his thumb, and it sent a shiver through his body. The feeling reawakened the heat that had earlier suffused his entire being, and in remembered panic he began to pull his hand away from Catherine’s face.

But Catherine was having none of that. Her eyes flew open and she hastily reached up and held his hand in place, then leaned into it. As the pad of his thumb once again brushed against her lips, she parted them and pressed a loving kiss to his flesh.

Vincent was overwhelmed by the softness of Catherine. Her lips, her cheek, the whisper of breath coming from between her lips, the brush of her hair against his fingertips, the scent of her lavender shampoo, the candlelight reflecting in her eyes, the gentle thump of her heart, the yielding tilt of her head into his palm, the warm feelings that were carried along the Bond to him.

A feeling of wonder crept into his heart. Did Catherine know what she was giving him?

She must have seen something in his eyes, or perhaps she, too, could feel something from the Bond. Either way, she answered his unspoken question.

She replied in something just above a whisper, and the tenor of her voice absolutely convinced him that she spoke nothing but the truth. "Vincent…I know that you have held back all this time because you wanted me to find someone to love me—to give me all the ‘things’ I need. And I know that you were only concerned for my happiness. But what you need to understand—what you need to know—is that I will never, ever, find anyone else to make me happy. I have no space left in me for anyone else. You are…everywhere…in me. You are in my thoughts every second. I feel you racing around in my veins with every beat of my heart. Every breath I take, I breathe you in. No other man could ever find one unoccupied space in me for himself."

He caught his breath. She did know; she did understand. He had never been able to express his feelings for her, for fear that she would choose him out of some misguided gratitude, or worse, that she would be disgusted by the thought of him feeling that way. But now, she was telling him that she felt the same way. Without coming right out and saying it, she was giving him permission to take what he wanted. She was gifting herself to him.

He felt his eyes widen. And indeed, she must have been reading something along the Bond, because he was confronted by a serious sea-green gaze. She nodded slowly, once.

"Everything I am, Vincent."

He exhaled abruptly, realizing only then that he had been holding his breath. His gaze was still locked with Catherine’s, so he saw her decision flash in her eyes a split second before she acted on it.

Her hand had still been holding his palm against her cheek and jaw, but now it pulled his hand gradually lower, over her chin and down her throat. Her eyes held his as she slowly tilted her head back; his hand settled loosely around the base of her throat. Deliberately, she closed her eyes and surrendered control to him.

His heart didn’t know what to do. For a moment it seemed to stop beating (in shock, he thought briefly), then it rapidly began thumping at almost twice its normal rate. He took a deep breath to calm it, then carefully thought back. In only moments, he had examined all he remembered of the previous day or so, all he knew or suspected about how he came to be in the "dream" situation in the first place, and the feelings that still flowed smoothly to him over the Bond.

He remembered, now, that he had gone to bed the previous night, then been wakened in the early morning to the sound of an emergency message on the pipes. There had been a break in a water main on one of the lower levels, and all able-bodied workers were being called to help repair the damage before it got worse. Unfortunately, the break had been worse than was first suspected, and the water, unbeknownst to the workers, had been flowing into a short, unused branch of tunnel that dead-ended in a rockslide.

Vincent had been acutely conscious of the safety of the others, so he went to check on the damage alone. He remembered hearing an odd watery sound coming from behind the rockslide and telling everyone to stay back. The last thing he remembered was a rumbling under his feet and a loud grinding noise, and then a hard, wet impact as something hit his head.

He surmised that the others had been able to remove him from the rocks and water, and he must have been knocked unconscious. Catherine had planned to spend the day Below and must have shown up soon after the incident occurred. And then she must have stayed with him to take care of him, which led to the odd situation that he had believed to be a dream.

He cringed inwardly at the memory of his actions during the "dream," but then the memory of Catherine’s actions also surfaced, and he allowed his eyes to focus on her face, her eyes still closed, once again. Catherine had known the whole time that it wasn’t a dream, and still she had allowed him to—

He gulped as he realized what Catherine had been about to let him do. He let his eyes stray to the sight of his powerful hand wrapped, albeit tenderly, halfway around her throat. And what she obviously expects me to continue doing.

He wondered if he could really go through with it, but then wryly remembered what he had been doing during the course of the "dream." He could definitely go through with it, but the question really was should he go through with it? He could feel Catherine’s faith and love through the Bond even now. She had made it perfectly clear earlier that she would accept no one else. So do I doom her to a life without physical love, or do I give her what she wants? What I want, too, he finally admitted to himself.

In the end, there really was no choice to be made. With a deep breath in followed by a shuddering exhalation, he acted on his decision.

He allowed his hand to slide down from its resting position at the base of Catherine’s throat until he could feel her collarbone. Listening to the Bond, and acutely aware of every motion of Catherine’s body, he realized that his move released some tension that had held her taut. She had apparently been worried that he still would not accept her gift.

Well, she deserves everything I can give her, and part of that is for her to know that I do cherish and value the gift—all the gifts—that she has given me. He was determined that he would not do this halfway. With that thought in mind, he put all of himself into the moment.

He raised his other hand and gently began unbuttoning her blouse. When he reached the last button, he didn’t open it or push it off her shoulders, but merely looked up at her face again. Her eyes were open, and they met his with such a warm look of love that he once again felt as if his heart had stopped. He couldn’t resist running the backs of his fingers along her cheek in a tender caress.

The time had come for him to show her that he had firmly planted his feet on their new path. He began to unfasten the ties that held his shirt closed. The gesture was not lost on Catherine. He saw a tear roll down one cheek as she avidly watched him undress.

He could hear her heartbeat quicken and her breath come faster. As he moved to pull his shirt off, she reached out and placed her hand lightly on his, halting the motion. Then she grabbed the back of his neck with her other hand and pulled him toward her. Her lips met his in a rush of passion that threatened to wash away his patience just as surely as the water this morning had washed away the rockslide.

Vincent savored the sensation for a few moments, but then he regretfully pushed Catherine away, sternly telling his body to slow down and be patient. At her puzzled look, he gave her a gentle smile. "I’m going to do this right, Catherine."

Strangely, he realized that he felt none of the fierce urgency that had controlled his actions earlier. Rather, he felt a more subtle yearning that was just as strong, but less obvious. Like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes...

The realization gave him the confidence to remove Catherine’s hand from his chest and finish pulling off his shirt. He tossed it to the end of the bed. Then he placed his hands on the two halves of Catherine’s blouse and curled his fingers around the edges. "May I, Catherine?"

She met his eyes and nodded, adding belatedly, "Oh, yes. Yes."

He pulled the blouse open, feasting his eyes on the pale flesh that was revealed. He lifted the fabric over her shoulders, then slid it down her arms. Without looking to see where it landed, he tossed it away to join his shirt.

As he held Catherine’s gaze, Vincent noticed that she was reaching around her back. A moment later, she brought her arms forward again. With a flick of her fingers, she popped her bra straps off her shoulders. Vincent followed the undergarment’s motion with his eyes; it stopped its fall when the straps caught at the crooks of Catherine’s elbows. He rescued it from its hang-up, only to throw it to join its fellow garments in the growing pile.

He could not keep himself from reaching out with both hands to caress the pale breasts that were now exposed. Starting with a shallow cupping motion underneath the orbs, he slowly ran his palms upward.

Simultaneous with his awareness of the hardening nipples drawing a path across his palms, Vincent heard Catherine rapidly inhale and felt her desire explode through the Bond. His heart pounded in wonder at this undeniable evidence that she really wanted him.

He could scarcely believe that he was here now with the woman he loved more than life. He drew her into his arms, needing to feel her near. As she leaned toward him, he felt for the first time her bare flesh pressing against his.

He heard her gasp near his ear at the exquisite pleasure of their bodies pressed together. "Vincent!"

Needing no more encouragement, Vincent leaned her back to rest on the bed. Glancing down at her feet, he realized that she wasn’t wearing shoes. The lack puzzled him for a moment, but then he remembered that she had been sitting on his bed with his head in her lap. Of course she would have removed her shoes before getting into that position.

No matter. Just makes this easier. He carefully grasped the button at Catherine’s waist and unbuttoned her pants, then dragged the zipper down, too. She raised her pelvis up off the bed, and Vincent drew her pants down her legs, tossing them to join the pile. He focused on her socks, the tops of which began a few inches above her ankles. Endeavoring to remove them without damage, he gingerly worked one finger under the stretchy material.

Catherine made an unidentifiable noise and Vincent felt a burst of exasperation over the Bond. She impatiently pushed his hand away and grabbed the sock, removing it without care. The second quickly followed. They were the first of the garments to end up on the floor. Catherine, apparently, was past caring if their clothing survived the next few moments.

Vincent couldn’t keep a little chuckle from escaping. "Impatient, my love?"

"YES!" Catherine grinned at him, then nodded toward his pants. "I want those off," she announced in no uncertain terms.

He reached out and cupped her cheek for a moment, cherishing the pressure as she briefly leaned into his hand. Then she pulled back and looked at him sternly. Pointing at his waist, she reminded him, "OFF!"

Vincent grinned, not caring that his sharp canines were exposed. He gave his head a little shake and followed orders. Mindful of his head injury from early that morning, he carefully climbed off the bed before unbuttoning his pants.

He did not see her expression when his pants were finally dropped past his knees. But he heard her gasp and felt her appreciation through the Bond, which gave him the courage to look up once more. She was yearningly holding out one hand toward him, and her expression warmed him almost past bearing. He stepped out of the pants and climbed, naked, back onto the bed, one knee at a time.

Catherine’s outstretched hand copied his earlier action and cupped his cheek and jaw. Vincent saw a tender smile grace her mouth as she rubbed her thumb across his lips. He kissed the pad of her thumb as she had done earlier, then pulled her hand away. Leaning forward, he planted a quick kiss on her lips, then smiled bashfully as he glanced down at her panties.

"And now…you?"

Catherine smiled serenely back at him and nodded in agreement. She moved past him toward the edge of the bed, swung her legs over the side, and stood up. Hooking her thumbs into the waistband of her panties, she gave them a swift tug and they, too, were discarded onto the floor.

Vincent took a deep breath at the vision before him. All his fantasies, all his dreams, had coalesced into this one moment. They were here in his chamber, naked. Catherine’s eyes were all for him, and his for her. They were both breathing heavily. And his nose once again picked up the scent that had driven him wild earlier.

He recognized it now as the evidence of Catherine’s desire for him. He drew in another draught of air, savoring the smell. The scent deepened as Catherine realized what he was doing. He watched a shudder pass through her body, and she closed her eyes for a moment, apparently overcome by desire. A few seconds later, she opened them again and climbed back onto the bed.

Vincent laid her back onto the mattress, then did the same himself. He pushed her hair off her forehead in order to see her more clearly, and she met his eyes. He groaned as he saw the fire glinting in their green depths, and was unable to keep from dragging his hand down her cheek, past her throat, to caress the length of her body.

It was her turn to moan, and she inclined her entire body toward him, seemingly unable to get enough of his touch. Then another sound was torn from his throat—half moan, half low growl—as he felt her hand run down his chest and pause at his waist.

He held his breath as he waited to see what she would do next.

The sound that next came from him was definitely a growl, but he supposed he could be forgiven for the utterance. Catherine’s hand had wrapped itself around his erection.

Oh, God…I don’t know if I can wait much longer, he thought through a flood of ecstasy.

Catherine’s whisper somehow reached him through the haze that was fogging his brain. "Vincent, please. I need you. Now!" Her plea was emphasized by a tug on his shaft, and a flash of intense heat coursed through his body. An unfamiliar tension began to build in him, and he knew that he couldn’t hold out any longer.

He removed Catherine’s hand from his person—ah, such sweet sorrow! –and positioned himself above her. She made room for him between her thighs while staring frantically into his eyes.

"Vincent, oh, my love, please!"

He positioned himself at her entrance, supporting himself above her on his forearms. His lips brushed her cheek, then his cheek pressed against hers to position his mouth next to her ear. At the moment he slipped into her warmth and they became one, he uttered the words she had been longing to hear.

"I love you."