Fever Trace

valjean

Catherine was especially happy today, anticipating her visit Below. She had two huge shopping bags filled with children’s art materials that she was eager to deliver. Also - her mind was made up – Vincent was well now and she would tell him about the baby tonight! With a radiant smile and a light laugh, she performed a little waltz step across her apartment.

At the balcony door, she paused. She stepped up and touched the drapes softly, peering out over the evening cityscape, remembering . . .

The ringing of the telephone jolted Catherine from her thoughts. "Well, Peter, hello!" she replied to his introduction. "It’s been a while!"

"Too long, honey," Peter agreed, then, "listen – I’m heading Below tonight – some supplies for Father. I thought you . . . ah, I mean, why don’t you come with me?"

"Well, I would be glad to!" Catherine responded. "I was going tonight myself. Where shall I meet you?"

"Lin and Henry’s restaurant – we’ll use their entrance."

"Those tunnels lead right to the hospital chamber," Catherine said brightly, proud of her knowledge of Vincent’s world.

"Yes," Peter said tentatively. "I have those supplies for Father . . ."

Within the hour, Catherine joined Peter, Lin and Henry in the restaurant basement. After hugs all around, Catherine gathered her totes, preparing to go Below.

"Catherine . . ." Peter put his hand on her arm. "Wait just a moment – I have something to tell you."

Henry’s expression was unreadable, Lin seemed close to tears. Catherine looked from one to the other in the dark little cellar. She became afraid. She inhaled sharply, a knot of anxiety forming around her heart.

"Vincent is ill," Peter stated, his voice low with concern. "A fever. We don’t know what it is. He is . . . unresponsive. We are doing our best . . . for him."

"How long has he been like this?" Catherine demanded, trying to take some control of the situation.

"This is the third day," Peter answered. "We didn’t want to alarm everyone . . ."

"Peter! How could you?!" Catherine was outraged. She had hoped to never feel this afraid again in her life.

Catherine’s gaze swept crazily over the boxes loaded on the handcarts Peter had brought: intravenous fluids and supplies, antibiotics, cooler chests filled with ice. Dread permeated her awareness as she took it all in. She was shaking with emotion. She vividly remembered Vincent’s ordeal, what he had suffered in that cavern. He was so innocent! No, no! Not now! When all was finally well again, when she had such happy news! Immediately, she felt ashamed for focusing on her own needs, when Vincent could be . . .

* * *

As Peter and Catherine entered the hospital chamber, they observed Father, Mary, Jamie, and Lena turning Vincent in bed and applying ice packs over his large body. Catherine was shocked to see the giant lifeless form. The eerie scene was like a wake, a funeral. Catherine was terrified.

Vincent lay on his back, nude under a thin white sheet, on a hospital bed lined with canvas and towels, which were changed frequently. His fever resulted in the bed being continually drenched with sweat. His golden mane was swept up over the towel-lined pillow with an ice pack placed against the nape of his neck. Ice was placed at all his pulse points – under his arms, at his groin, and against his feet – the locations rotated by dedicated members of the community every hour. Transparent vinyl tubing coiled up from gauze-wrapped venous access sites in his forearms to the glass bottles suspended from the metal racks above, infusing hydrating fluids.

Father stepped away from the bed, wiping angrily at his tears, and exhaled in frustration. "This damned fever! What could be causing it?" He seemed to be talking to himself, thinking out loud. He turned to face Peter, arms outstretched, pleading. "There’s no identified pathogen . . . so, then, antibiotics may not even be indicated! Vincent’s biochemistry is so . . . different . . !" Father felt keenly that memory of helplessness, when all his knowledge and all his skills were not enough . . .

"Thankfully, Jacob, there’s no physical agitation this time," said Peter, gripping his friend’s arm. "I doubt we could restrain him as we did years ago."

Father sat down heavily in a chair by the bed, lines of exhaustion and worry etched in his face. Gazing at his extraordinary son with fear and love, he recited, prayerfully, "Free us from all weariness, fever, and fret – life’s fitful fever!"

"We’ll just go with the IV fluids for now," said Peter, taking charge. "He’s in some form of metabolic shock. That slow pulse worries me, though, with the fever burning his oxygen . . ."

"Yes . . ." said Father, his head in his hands. "I have no way of knowing his kidney function – he could go into failure! He’s dehydrated. He’s losing all his fluids as quickly as we can administer them!"

Jamie and Mary stepped to either side of Father, taking his arms. "Come walk with us," said Mary with quiet authority.

"Yes, Jacob, let’s walk . . ." added Peter. The four of them went out into the passageways.

Lena was arranging the towels and the ice packs as Catherine approached Vincent’s bedside. Lena had become Mary’s apprentice and was developing into a competent nurse.

"You’re good at this," Catherine remarked softly.

"Let me show you," Lena offered. "We’ll do his mouth care now."

Catherine hesitantly gathered the tools as Lena directed her. Rounded wooden blades wrapped in gauze, a bottle of sterile salt water, a small jar of salve, and a clean towel. Lena took Vincent’s face in her hands, Catherine watching with interest. Lena gently opened Vincent’s mouth by applying light pressure to his jaws with her thumbs and then carefully positioned his head to the side. The significance of Lena’s learned ability – the sublimation of her desire for Vincent - was not lost on Catherine.

Following Lena’s gesture, Catherine placed the towel across Vincent’s chest. "Wet the swabs in the saline – the salt water," Lena said. Catherine did so and began to wipe the inside of Vincent’s mouth. Though she was carrying his child, she felt she had never been this intimate with him. His teeth were white and strong, the four long canines, the incisors, the molars. She studied him, remembering not the snarling attacks, but the way his mouth felt on her own. She swabbed his tongue, applied moisturizing salve to his lips. She felt suspended, along with Vincent, suspended between life and death.

"You did good with that," Lena remarked, picking up the supplies. "Can you stay with him a while?"

"Of course," Catherine answered, sinking down on a small stool by the bed and taking Vincent’s hand in both of hers.

Alone with him in the candle-lit chamber, Catherine closed her eyes, leaning over him, breathing in his scent. She rested her head lightly on his chest, listening to the slow thud of his heart. She was alarmed by the long silent pauses between the heartbeats. Just as she felt a scream for help rising up in her throat - the next beat occurred - and her cry died back down.

Catherine sat up, straightened herself, wiping tears from her cheeks. She regarded Vincent’s big body, stretched out on the bed. How tall is he, she wondered, and how much does he weigh?

Slowly, Catherine drew back the sheet.

Vincent’s anatomy was chiseled, the long muscles rising passively under the copper skin. His arms rested loosely beside his torso, the hands relaxed on the bed, palms up. His body hair was thickest over his hands, and across his chest; and finer along his limbs; all curling with the moisture of his perspiration. A soft, reddish growth trailed down his hard, sculpted belly, over his pubic mound, to the dark gold thatch of soft fur between his thighs.

His masculine body was completely revealed to her. Catherine felt intrusive and entitled. She had never felt so in love with him. She felt protective and desirous. His body was a beautiful blend of colors – shades of red and gold, the color of dark honey or sand – in the candle light and wet with sweat.

She placed one hand ever so lightly on his abdomen, near the umbilical scar. He was burning hot. She remembered his words: I was born and I survived.

His phallus rested against his right thigh, in its wheat-colored sheath. She touched gently up his length to the golden crown; then, down and under to cup the velvet pouch. Their bodies had been joined! Oh, Vincent – !

She gazed down his lower extremities. His strong thighs tapered in at the knees and swelled again over the calves. His feet were large and wide with lean lines from ankles to toes. Covered in red-gold hair, like his hands, with smooth strong nails, his feet arched highly and were incredibly sexy.

Catherine pulled the sheet gently back over Vincent’s silent form. She rose to her feet and went outside the chamber where she broke down sobbing.

As Catherine was struggling to regain her composure, Lena returned. Lena went to the water pitcher and bowl on the bedside stand and washed her hands. From her pocket, she produced a tiny bottle with a dropper top. "Eye drops," she explained. Kneeling by the bed, Lena carefully swept the edge of her thumb under Vincent’s eye lashes, opening his eyes just enough to place one drop in each. "His pupils react to light," she said, replacing the top on the bottle. "That’s a good sign."

"It takes four of us to turn him," said Lena, straightening Vincent’s sheets. "Mary, Father, Peter, and myself – Jamie and Kipper help us, and Pascal, too – William keeps us fed - but we try to keep the community in their routines and not focused on Vincent’s illness. We give them progress reports each day. . ." Lena turned to face Catherine. "Do you want to stay here tonight?" she asked directly.

"I want to stay here till he’s well!" said Catherine with conviction, her heart in her throat.

Lena looked at her with compassion. "We have sleeping areas off this main chamber and we take turns staying awake with him . . ." she said. "Peter can relieve you at midnight. Will you be all right?"

"Yes. Thank you, Lena," Catherine said sincerely. Lena nodded and left her alone with Vincent.

Catherine looked uneasily upon her beloved. How he had suffered in his life! Lines from Edgar Allen Poe swept through her mind:

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream

Catherine took a seat at Vincent’s bedside. She reminisced about that first night, when Vincent saved her life. Her life was supposed to come to an end that night – Catherine was sure about that. But Vincent had changed her destiny.

Her face had been surgically fixed. Her physical appearance - did it really represent her? Was it who she really was? Vincent had honored her in spite of her appearance.

Then, after her reconstructive surgery, after she was "fixed," with her new/old face visible once again to the world, Vincent had come to see her, meaning to stay away, unable to stay away.

Oh, when had she first heard his voice and detected that subtle scent that clung to him? How had she first come to know him?

It had been her impulsive touch to his hand as he fed her that provided the sightless introduction. She had withdrawn in surprise – immediately regretting her behavior. She had reached out for him again right away – but he was gone. How she had ached for him!

Their embrace goodbye at the lower entrance to her building. Her face still in painful sutures and her spirit in turmoil. She knew then that she had met the man she had always loved; the man she would love forever.

Months later, on her balcony, his hand had closed on hers. His hands. His terrible, beautiful hands . . . She had kissed his hands tenderly after he confessed his history with Lisa. She had kissed his face after he had been her rock when her father died. Even in panic or in half-sleep, she had felt his kiss against her hair on several occasions . . .

What had he once said? Something about "the children inside you, waiting to be born - "

They had worked together for the children of Ridley Hall. Their mutual love of children – the vulnerable, the dependent – it was a time when they learned so much about each other.

"Oh, Vincent," she whispered. "There is a child now, waiting to be born!"

Random memories began to tumble in Catherine’s mind. Her life with Vincent. She remembered so many true friends who had accepted him. People who had survived horror and heartbreak, struggled and sacrificed for what they believed in. Vincent admired those qualities, loved those people.

Looking around the candle-lit chamber, Catherine felt the power of fear and doubt. She clutched Vincent’s hand in desperation. "Oh, please, please, Vincent! Don’t leave me! After all we’ve been through! When we have so much to live for!"

When Paracelsus was burned after Vincent confronted him, Catherine feared Paracelsus would exact his revenge. She feared that still . . . Maybe this burning fever was some leftover curse from Paracelsus! No, no! She mustn’t think like that –

Catherine looked at her wristwatch. 11:30. A half hour till Peter would be there, and it would be time to turn Vincent and reapply the ice packs.

Her thoughts changed direction to their April 12th anniversary – surrounded on her balcony with dancing light. So many memories! Devin back in Tunnels – and simultaneously, in Catherine’s world. Deceitful! Yet, he did make a contribution. Vincent’s brother! Imagine – the two of them. Catherine smiled and combed Vincent’s wet locks with her fingers. He looked like such a child – sleeping there - like Tony, tough, vulnerable Gypsy asleep on Catherine’s sofa. Like leather on satin.

Candle light brightened the chamber as Lena, Mary and Peter approached to help with Vincent’s care. Catherine assisted them to reposition him, change the sheets, and place the ice packs. She could feel the heat rising from him. Father was right – how could he lose this much body fluid and not be harmed? Her fear was like a metallic taste in her mouth, a stabbing pain in her heart.

Peter put his arm around Catherine and she wept on his shoulder. "Why don’t you try to sleep some?" he asked. "There’s a cot made up in the next chamber. I’ll wake you if there’s any change."

"I can’t leave him!" Catherine sobbed. "It’s like he’s slipping away from me! Oh, Peter, what can we do?" She looked up to see Lena and Mary bringing the cot to place it beside Vincent’s bed.

"Go ahead and lie down here, child," said Mary soothingly. "We finally got Father to get into bed for a while. We all have to keep up our strength for Vincent."

Peter stood up to change the IV bottles and listen to Vincent’s chest with his stethoscope. Catherine lay down on the cot, sick with worry. The chamber grew dim as Mary and Lena went to their beds, leaving Peter to sit with his book, keeping watch.

The night dragged on and Catherine tossed and slept between nightmares and dreams. In the nightmares, she clung to Vincent’s body, screaming and raging over his death. In her dreams, she languished in his arms, thrilling to his soft kisses over her throat, her shoulders, her breasts. Her dreams replayed the events in the cavern, after Vincent had collapsed from his frenzy, when she pulled away their clothing to position herself on top of him. Her breathing deepened and slowed in her sleep as she relived that moment when he became aware, when he responded, when they two moved as one. And yet, his memory of that time was lost . . .

Through the shutters of sleep, a low deep voice was softly calling her name, drawing her, like a magnet, back to reality. "Catherine, you are dreaming and you must wake."

* * *

Catherine awoke abruptly to find herself alone with Vincent, who was, amazingly, sitting on the side of the bed. The IV tubing was looped over the stand and the ice packs and sheets were neatly stacked to the side. A lone candle burned in a holder by the bed.

Vincent was dressed in a white linen tunic open at the neck, and loose drawstring pants over soft suede boots. Was he an angel? What was happening?

"I’ve been to the bathing chambers," he said matter-of-factly, as if nothing was critical, nothing had life-or-death importance. "My illness has passed. I have so much . . . to be thankful for . . . once again."

Feeling that she was still dreaming, Catherine leaned in toward him, her eyes closed, her lips parted. Her breasts lifted as her nostrils flared slightly, breathing him in. There was a coolness about him now. She detected his unique scent, but also something else; another fragrance, maybe something he bathed in – cedar or eucalyptus. She opened her eyes. She could not speak, afraid to break this magic spell. His golden hair fell full and damp around his face and shoulders. His crystal blue eyes were open, calm, and clear. Catherine desired him beyond reason.

Just then, Peter and Father rushed into the chamber. "Vincent!" Father cried, trembling with emotion. "You look wonderful! Oh, my son, I feared . . .!" He grabbed Vincent in a powerful embrace.

William appeared at the chamber entrance, grinning broadly and bearing a tray with vegetable broth and lemon tea. Suddenly, people seemed to be everywhere, lighting candles, crowding the hospital chamber, celebrating Vincent’s revival.

After a reasonable time, Father commanded everyone’s attention: "We are all grateful for Vincent’s recovery!" he said. "Let us retire to our respective chambers – and allow him to do the same – then, let us reassemble in the Great Hall tomorrow morning for a full community welcome!"

Cheers resounded all around and the group members went their own way, leaving Father, Catherine and Vincent alone in the hospital chamber.

Father took Vincent’s face in his hands. "Vincent, how I love you!" Father said with strong emotion. "And I you, Father," Vincent replied. The two men stood facing each other; then, gruffly thumped each other’s backs, embraced vigorously, and parted, with a loving glance.

"See you in the morning," Father said, nodding toward Catherine and walking out of the chamber.

Vincent caught Catherine’s hands, pulling her to him. He was looking at her so intently. She was hesitant to ask, but she needed to know. "Vincent . . . are you able to . . . I mean, can you . . . remember . . .?"

He lowered his face to her face, breathing against her cheek. "Catherine, I remember . . . everything. Both of us . . . heart to heart. Completely, together . . ."

Nothing could have prepared Catherine for his next comment.

"I know there is a child . . ."

She gazed up at him, speechless, afraid to breathe. "How – how do you know that?" she gasped.

"The bond has returned to me – as you predicted," he said, drawing her even closer. "There is a change – a gift – also as you predicted."

Catherine felt a bright happiness radiating from her very core, rising through her heart.

"Our bond has a new energy," Vincent went on. "Its source is not you – nor me, yet . . . we share in it, and in it, we are shared. It is something new, and something familiar . . . fearless, powerful, wonderful." He moved back from her, his head tilted slightly, as he explained, "There was no other answer."

"And I know it is true . . . ," he continued softly, "because of the way you are looking at me now . . . with the love a woman has for the father of her child."

Tears spilled from Catherine’s eyes. She struggled to comprehend all that she was hearing. Then, "I want to kiss you," she murmured, feeling her need greatly.

He steadied himself as she lifted her mouth, their lips touched, and his kiss had a shyness that moved her.

"It’s all right . . ." she whispered.

"Yes . . ." he responded, as they closed the space between them, embracing.

They stood together for a few moments, absorbing their many blessings. Then, Vincent’s arms tightened around her.

"Let me come to you Above, after sunset," he said with quiet urgency. "Stay the night with you . . . be with you," he said, his voice dropping into those low tones that melted her heart.

"Yes! Oh, yes, Vincent!" she answered, catching her breath, her body vibrating with emotion. She stepped away from him, feeling light enough to soar.

Hastily, she gathered up her minimal belongings, then turned to leave, looking one more time over her shoulder at this incredible man who had stepped lightly from the brink of death and was now holding her life in his hands.

Catherine scurried through the tunnels as fast as Mouse or Kipper ever did.

Reaching her apartment, she struggled with the multiple locks on the door then flopped down on the sofa, flinging her head back, ready to cry and scream and laugh all at once. How could all this be happening? Vincent ill – maybe dying – now well again, as if nothing had threatened him! Vincent with full memory of the night in the cavern – Vincent with full knowledge of the baby! Vincent coming to her apartment tonight!

Vincent coming to her apartment tonight! Oh, she must get ready! Excitement seized her. She should shower, choose her attire – lingerie or soft, casual wear? How should she fix her hair? The sheets on the bed, the music on the stereo, candles -

Should she open wine or put the kettle on for tea? Would he want something to eat? She hadn’t been to the store . . . Should she wear fragrance?

She stood up quickly, then sat down again, feeling dizzy. She swept her hair away from her face, exhaled sharply. ‘Be still a moment and think!’ she told herself. She kicked off her boots, pulled off her jacket, reached under her sweatshirt and removed her bra. She laid her head against the armrest of the sofa, sighing slowly, trying to quiet herself –

* * *

What was that tapping? Catherine pushed up from the sofa in the dark room, squinting at the clock. Ten o’clock. Ten o’clock? Ten o’clock! Vincent!

She flew to the balcony entry, yanking the drapes aside, tugging the heavy glass door open. The night air rushed in, moist and cool.

He was there – in all his majestic presence, his strong arms around her, his mouth against her mouth. He was kissing her! All thoughts of preparations drained from Catherine’s mind as her body melded with his. There was no awareness except Vincent and his hot, sweet mouth and his binding embrace.

"Catherine," he growled, "I was trying to get back to you . . ." His mouth traveled down her throat to her collar bone. "There was an expanse between us . . . I could not cross it . . ." His kiss was at the top of her breast. "Something was . . . burning . . . through me . . ." Her sweatshirt slipped off one shoulder, and his kisses continued along her bare skin.

In Catherine’s blurred consciousness, she worried that she was still in the same clothes she had worn all last night in Tunnels. She had wanted tonight to be special. As she responded to Vincent’s mouth and hands, she realized tonight was special - beyond imagining.

Somehow, they were now on the floor by the fireplace. Vincent’s cloak was draped across the sofa. The buckles on his vest pressed against her, and Catherine pushed them open and slipped the garment off his shoulders. She felt his broad chest beneath his tunic and thermal shirt.

He sat cross-legged, cradling her on his lap, her head against his chest. "I felt you tending me," he said. She snuggled into him, wanting this single moment to never end.

"I dreamed that we would lie together," Vincent said, as if confessing. "I dreamed it . . . and feared it. I always believed that if I ever lost you . . . if you chose another . . . then, at least, we would not have become . . . connected . . . in that way." He shifted her in his arms, resting his cheek against her hair. "Physical expression of our bond would leave no level untouched between us. And I could not bear the loss of . . . that much."

"Why can’t you trust that I’ll always be in your life?" Catherine asked against his chest.

He paused; then said, "I don’t deserve - I could so easily destroy - " She felt his heart rate increase. "The violence that overtakes me - "

"Vincent," she said, pulling back to look into his face. "It wasn’t violence that created this child."

His hands cradled her belly. "No," he agreed. "Our love . . ."

"Not rage, only love . . ." Catherine replied, thrusting her hands into his hair.

They regarded each other, spellbound. His crystal blue eyes burned into her like ice.

"Our relationship is not easily defined, Vincent," she said. "Whether it lasts a lifetime or an hour – it is everything to me - "

"Every day that I know you, I love you with more of myself," he said.

"I will love you my whole life," she answered. "You and no other. . . forever . . . always."

Their bodies sought to merge, as their two spirits had come together upon that midnight mist. Passionate kisses became urgent, needs intensified. They parted, breathless, heated, fixed on each other.

"Let me go turn the bed down," Catherine whispered, rising from the floor and moving toward the bedroom. Vincent stood and shed his tunic and boots, then followed her.

She lit candles on the two bedside stands and drew back the bedspread. She stepped out of her clothes and stood by the bed, the candlelight flickering across her skin.

He entered the bedroom, drawing his shirt off over his head, stopping to unfasten his trousers. They stood on opposite sides of the bed, opposite sides of the universe. A symphony of passion played silently between them. He was enchanted with her beauty.

Splendid and vulnerable, open, honest, unafraid, he approached her. The candlelight produced his silhouette, moving over her, a phantom, her shadow lover. She felt the heat of his touch, not fever now, but electricity.

He took her down to the bed slow and easy, a new quiet confidence about him. Carefully, he touched her where he would fill her.

Vincent did not know how a woman felt to a man, but he knew how Catherine felt to him. As she reclined against the pillows, he traced the lines of her body with his fingertips, claws drawing gently along her skin. His chest rumbled with a low purring growl, vibrating her body, arousing her. His wide hot tongue lapped at her skin, caressing her, exciting her. His heated breath whuffed against her throat, extracting a twin exhalation from her in response.

His kisses were deep and hot, his large hands cupped her breasts, her buttocks. His erection pressed against her belly, creating a stimulating friction. She thrust her hands down to his privates, realizing his sheer length would call for a measure of patience. The beginnings of his passion spilled out against her skin and they pressed together over the lovers’ wine, taking pleasure in this evidence of their love.

He knew her now. She was all awareness. His soundless roar ate up her moans, as he leaned into her, every inch of his body pressed into hers. She opened her legs wide and he came into her thick and hot as he kissed her, with long, slow thrusts, each one a flare of pleasure. He pressed in, withdrew empty, and pressed in again, the fullness of his dimensions opening her depth. She pushed back with equal force, gasping with the pressure, the near-pain, the ultimate pleasure.

He reveled in her sleekness. She gripped him tightly, her legs locked behind his hips. They whipped each other from within, churning their love into a fury.

He reached behind her shoulders, lifting her gently, without effort, over his body to ride his erection. "So near . . ." he murmured. "Control your pleasure, as much as you can bear!" He moved in her until he felt her respond, then he lolled passively beneath her as she finished, crying out in ecstasy, as he emptied into her again.

They rested after, candles flickering. Catherine whispered, "I love you," snuggling against the beating of Vincent’s heart. Curling into one another, they slept.

* * *

In fact, they slept the entire next day. When next they woke, rose and gold and burnt orange streaked across the evening sky. "Vincent! Wake up, it’s tomorrow!" said Catherine, shaking his sleeping form and laughing. Vincent rolled over in Catherine’s bed, reaching for her, gathering her to him like a satin quilt, nuzzling her throat and stroking her flanks with his large hands. She moaned against his touch, searching for his mouth, and, finding it, tasted his passion all over again. They tussled in the bedclothes like teasing children, he purring and growling, she giggling and gasping for breath.

They took time to go into the bathroom to refresh themselves, then returned to bed. "Aren’t you hungry?" Catherine asked. "For you - !" Vincent replied, reaching for her. She swatted at him playfully. "I’m ordering Thai delivery," she stated, grabbing for the telephone.

Later, bare-footed and dressed only in their shirts, they sat at Catherine’s dining table, digging into little containers for the fish, vegetable, and noodle dishes, flavored with basil, lemongrass, and Thai ginger. Serving from a large spoon, they sampled each dish individually with mounds of fragrant rice on the side. Fresh pineapple and carved hot pepper flowers provided dessert, along with colorful rice cakes.

After the meal, they sat by the fireplace with their tea, and Vincent lit the kindling under the logs. The flames blazed up behind the andirons, charming and warming them.

"Could you ever have predicted we would be here – now – like this?" Catherine asked him.

"Only in my dreams," Vincent replied, gazing at her. He reached for her teacup, taking it from her hand and setting it down on the hearth. She gave way to his advance, relaxing against the cushions on the floor, embracing him as he leaned in over her.

His kisses traveled over her face, to her lips, to her throat, to her breasts, then biting gently through the fabric of her shirt till she writhed beneath him. They wound around each other, reaching, kissing, stroking, until they lay inverted along each others’ bodies. Vincent nuzzled between her thighs, as she cuddled his full arousal against her cheek.

Carefully, he kissed her womanly body, caressing her soft tissues with his tongue. She cried out sharply, then found the top of his swollen sex with her mouth, bathing him with her open mouth.

"Let me please you," Vincent said, demanding and requesting at once. She pushed up onto the sofa, her hips near the edge of the seat, her knees flexed and apart. He sprawled on the floor, his head between her thighs, his arms under her hips, his hands against her back. His searching mouth found her center; gently, his lips pushed back the clitoral hood. With his tongue, he bathed the clitoral bud in tighter and tighter circles, until she squirmed under his caress, panting and whimpering.

Her heels dug into his shoulders, her fingers gripped his thick mane as she moaned. "Oh yes! Oh, now!" she gasped, shuddering and tossing her head. He finished her with gentle kisses, vibrating her quivering labia with his exhalations.

Vincent scooped her from the sofa, as she melted into his embrace. He rocked her slowly in his arms, to the beat of his heart.

After a moment, Catherine shook her head, rousing herself. "Now, for you . . ." she said, pushing out of his arms to position herself between his legs.

"Catherine . . ." he admonished her lovingly, reaching to stop her, "there’s no need . . ."

"No need?" she questioned, catching hold of his hands. "No need to show you my love? No need for your pleasure – as much as you have given me?"

He acquiesced, reclining against the cushions, allowing her to caress him. She gripped his erection with both hands, one over the other, still with the engorged tip above her grasp. She started with a kiss against his heated flesh, then opened her mouth to take him in, to the best of her ability. She worked her tongue over and around his rigid column, up and down the length of him. He began to thrust against her kisses, then, suddenly, he reached down, under her arms to lift her up into the air, up and onto his lap, penetrating her with one smooth motion, as she cried out and wrapped her arms around his neck.

Their pleasure escalated as they moved together until both released again with muffled cries of delight. Falling together, kissing and clutching one another, wet with passion, they languished in loving alignment, tasting their distinct flavors upon each others’ lips. They stretched out exhausted before the fire, feeling their concurrent breathing and heartbeats. A drowsiness settled over them and they rested in silence.

Suddenly, Catherine sat up and began to cry. Vincent gathered her into his embrace and she wept against his chest. "Vincent, you almost died!" she sobbed.

The anger component of grief and near-loss erupted from her. "You almost died, Vincent!" she repeated vehemently. Abruptly, Catherine began to drum her fists against Vincent’s body, her anger and her fear fully displayed. She beat him fiercely, her cries turning to screams, until she was railing, attacking, protesting with extreme emotion. "You almost left me – left us!" Her tone was accusatory, desperate.

Vincent clung to her, tolerating her outburst, preoccupied with another thought. He knew he would soon be explaining to Father why Catherine was now a permanent part of their world.

Catherine wilted in his arms, her anger spent. She took a deep breath, collapsing against him. She began to consider how she would get Peter to help her convince Joe why she had to quit her job and move to a secret place.

What would she say to Jenny? Jenny wanted only happiness for Catherine. Jenny would understand – wouldn’t she? It was a project, something Catherine would have to figure out.

Catherine knew she would be explaining to Nancy about the man she loved, the father of her child. Nancy had children. She would understand how a woman would need to be with her child’s father . . .

"Vincent, I’m sorry . . ." Catherine said in a small voice, coming back to the present and feeling uncomfortable.

"She has a thousand virtues and not one acknowledged sin," Vincent answered poetically, and Catherine could hear the lightness in his voice.

She looked up at him. "Are you making fun of me?" she asked, beginning to smile herself.

"A good indignation brings out all one's powers," he quoted, cupping her face in his hands and looking at her adoringly.

"We can speak the truth to each other, can’t we, Vincent?" Catherine replied, seeking validation.

"Always," he responded, growing serious now. "The truth of our rage, the truth of our longing, the truth of our tears and our laughter, the truth of our smallest fears and our grandest dreams."

"Yes," she answered, thankfully.

Peace settled upon them as, for now, in this instant, Vincent and Catherine rested as one. With only the traces of rage or fever, all their anguish, and all their joy was to be divided and shared . . . enduring . . . into forever . . .