A GIFT OF DREAMS

JoAnn Baca

The dream was always the same.

For the past ten nights it had pursued him, leaving him breathless and confused when he awoke. With each night that passed, he remembered more and more details. He was rushing headlong down an invisible path, pulled forward inexorably by...something. An apparition took shape in the distance, enveloped in a circle of light, and he ran toward it, his lungs nearly exploding with the effort to reach it. It emerged from the luminous fog which everywhere encompassed him, growing steadily more defined through the glowing haze. Then finally the apparition resolved itself into a figure - a human figure, he felt sure.

The face was a woman’s, but he couldn’t see her features clearly - they were hidden within the blaze of brilliant white light. Something about her was familiar, though, and it pricked his memory mercilessly as he tried without success to identify her. She was young; her posture was that of a woman in the fresh bloom of womanhood. Young...and sad. Although he couldn’t really see her face, somehow he knew that her eyes held an ineffable sadness. One of her arms was extended toward him, and he couldn’t decide if it was to ward him off or to call him toward her, although the urgency to draw near her seemed to support the latter perception.

So much about the dream was bewildering, yet the sense of expectation within his heart when he awoke confused him the most. Was this dream wraith trying to tell him something, and why did the prospect of such a message excite him so?

He told no one about the dream. From long experience, he knew that Father would dismiss it as some fancy of his overactive imagination, which he was certain it was not. It had elements of a memory attached to it, by why, he couldn’t say. And Catherine - even if he wanted to share it with her, what could he tell her? I think I’m losing my mind - I’m seeing a strange but somehow familiar woman in my dreams who is either calling to me or fending me off, and it excites me every time? Impossible.

The dream began to prey on his waking mind more and more as the days progressed, until it reached a level of obsession which frightened him. He developed a compulsion to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable which bordered on mania. He somehow sensed that it was vitally important that he understand what the dream meant. For the dream was...he searched his vocabulary and could only come up with the word persistent. Yes. That was its primary quality. It was persistent. Perhaps it could even be characterized as stubborn - and that, too, was familiar.

Struggling with his disjointed, fragmented memory of the dream, Vincent recalled how once, as a youngster, he and Devin had found an abandoned but functioning transistor radio in the park on a late night forage. They took their treasure Below and spent fruitless hours trying to pick up a transmission. All they managed was static, with occasional tantalizing snatches of music to spur them on. Finally, both the battery and their enthusiasm had given out. Much later, Vincent came to understand that radio waves couldn’t easily penetrate the layers of rock to reach him in his underground home. This dream was like that long-ago radio - the transmission was fuzzy, intermittent...and he couldn’t seem to find the right channel to pull it in with clarity. It frustrated him, but he was much more tenacious these days than he’d been as a child, and he redoubled his efforts to piece together the puzzle of the message the dream contained.

* * *

Running...feet pounding relentlessly...lungs laboring...on and on down a dark and endless corridor. Then, finally...light. A glimmer grew into a beacon that burgeoned into a dazzling halo of shimmering light. And a pull...a pull like no other he’d known in his life. No, like...one other. Yes! It was something like the Bond he shared with Catherine - undefinable, intangible, but undeniably there. And it was...yes!...it was not just pulling him, it was calling him. So! That much was resolved. The woman was not holding out her arm to deflect his approach, she was urging him to her, entreating him to come closer.

Satisfied to have at least this much of the dream clarified, Vincent opened his eyes and stretched, a mighty convulsing of muscles that told him just how long he’d sat, unmoving, while his mind had examined and deconstructed the dream images.

He glanced at the candles on his writing table. They were mere stubs. Catherine! He’d promised to visit her tonight, but he’d become so wrapped up in his musings that he’d allowed the night to slip away. Now it was too late - in the world Above, Catherine was sure to have given up waiting and gone to sleep. Bitter regret tore at him. They had so little time together, and he had thrown away a rare opportunity to spend what little they did have together. And how was he to explain his failure to appear? No emergency had kept him Below, only his insistent desire to figure out what this troublesome recurring dream meant - something he could have done anytime. It was no excuse, no explanation, no reason for not going to her balcony, for not spending time with her as planned.

Sighing gustily, Vincent slapped the arms of his chair in a rare expression of frustration. This obsession was making him forget even the most important things. He had to pull himself together, had to gain some perspective. And there was one way he knew of that always worked, no matter how weary he was, no matter how cluttered his mind became with mundane worries: he reached for Catherine through their Bond.

His first touch was tentative, light. He tried never to overwhelm her with their connection, and in large part he was successful, for only when he was in severe distress could she truly sense him within her mind, her heart. She didn’t know how closely he held their connection closed to her, but he had no choice. It was bad enough that he knew so keenly how she felt about him. If she ever gained a true picture of his own deep feelings for her.... No, he must never let that happen.

He’d decided long ago that she must remain free - free of him, to the extent that was possible, given the emotional attachment she already had to him. Free to embrace...other opportunities. Free to resume the life that he had altered when he had imposed himself into it, complicating it immeasurably, confusing her, drawing her away from the path she would have chosen had he not entered her life. This was a problem more thorny than his dream, for he had been struggling with it for years, since he had visited her that night so long ago to tell her - more fool he! - that he had to forget the dream of being a part of her. As if he could! But ever since, he had shouldered the grim task of conceiving of a way to render himself obsolete in her life, so that she could turn away from him without regret and live the rich, full life she was always meant to have.

He shook himself. Those thoughts would only darken his mood further. The mere thought of being apart from her forever caused his soul to shrivel, his heart to gasp in denial. But in his mind, always, he steeled himself to accept the inevitable...even to plan for it. It had to be done.

Their connection thrummed, and he turned his concentration to the oh, so welcome feel of her within him, that ethereal cord which tied him inextricably to the light of love and hope, that tied him to his Catherine. Although their Bond always reflected myriad shadings of emotion, he expected to find primarily the undulating blue wave patterns of sleep when he merged his self with her in that moment. But no - she was still awake. Shimmering tendrils of deep rose and warm burgundy entered his heart, wrapped themselves tightly around his soul. Her love - always present, nearly palpable. How desperately he craved these colors within himself, colors he otherwise lacked in such depth, such abundance, no matter how much his family cared for him. Their colors - even Father’s - were as pale pastels compared to the rich, heady hues of Catherine’s emotions. His eyelids drifted shut in spellbound gratitude and he willingly gave up his heart to her, as if he hadn’t already done it a thousand times before.

Now, beneath the loving thoughts, Vincent sense a growing sadness in her. Not disappointment exactly, more of a dejection - as if without him, her day was somehow unfulfilled. Well, this, at least, he could allay.

Standing suddenly, he strode to his chamber entry, not missing a step as he reached for his cloak on his way out.

* * *

The embrace was fervent, intense. She held him with all her strength, and he felt the bud of happiness which had welled within her at her first sight of him blossom into an elation so strong it nearly took his breath away. It always amazed him how his mere presence could have such an effect on her. It had nothing to do with anything he brought to their relationship, he felt sure - for he had nothing unique to offer, nothing but his own heart...nothing at all, really. Yet she was so compassionate, so giving, it seemed not to matter to her. He couldn’t help but feel guilty for accepting - for needing - what she so freely gave to him, all the while knowing he should be disengaging, refusing, even denying it all, if that’s what it took to set her back on the path of light from which she’d tumbled on that April night - right into his arms.

He whispered hoarsely against her ear, "I apologize, Catherine. I have no excuse. I let the time...slip away from me."

She smiled tenderly, joyfully, pulling back within his arms to look up at him. "You’re here now. That’s all that matters."

Amazed at her instant forgiveness despite such an unsatisfactory explanation, he gazed at her, rapt as always whenever he looked into those mesmerizing green eyes - so deep, so sincere, so loving. They seemed to tell him that his presence now erased all disappointments, that this moment was all, that the time they spent together counted for more than the countless hours they were apart.

Despite her unreserved forgiveness, he felt the loss of the last hours keenly, hours which he could have treasured later, in the long, lonely future he envisioned once she could finally be convinced to leave him behind. For each moment...each second...of time they shared was precious, to be hoarded and remembered and savored. The miracle of Catherine’s love was something he never took for granted, for it was a source of constant amazement to him. For however long she offered it, he knew he would cherish it beyond thought, beyond measure.

Even knowing she demanded no further explanation, he came to a decision. She deserved the truth. He’d kept knowledge of this dream from her, but now that he’d recognized the vague Bond-like sensations it evoked, he realized it was long past time that he revealed the source of his distraction. But as much as he now wished to tell her of his dream, a certain hesitancy crept into his voice as he said, "I need to...to share something with you, Catherine. It’s the reason I’ve been so preoccupied lately, even to the point of forgetting our appointment tonight."

Catherine motioned to the wrought iron love seat beside her. "Sit. I’m listening."

Gingerly he perched on the edge of the seat, uncomfortable sitting so close to her - not because he didn’t want to, but because he wanted to so much. These past months, since she’d told him that what they had was worth everything (and how it had electrified him to hear those words from her lips!), being close to her without revealing his desire had become next to impossible. Yet that dark time in their relationship had proven to him that he had already waited too long to sever their connection. He had thought he’d done it - been compelled to by the weight of the burden on Catherine’s heart - but somehow in the course of only a few days, she’d turned that burden into a joy, and he couldn’t deny her again so soon. But the time had to come, and before too long, because their connection was already too deep, too intense. The pain at the next - the final - parting would be overwhelming. He didn’t know if he’d survive it. Of course, his survival didn’t matter. If he had to live the rest of his life without her, he’d just as soon it not be for long. No, what mattered was hers. Yet...God, how he longed to hold her as tightly as she clung to him, to bury himself in her sweetness, to taste her mouth and know the joy of her body.... And so, whenever he was close to her, it was almost more than he could do to refrain from acting on the impulses which coursed through him, as now.

When she put her hand on his arm, his whole being jerked perceptibly. He knew he couldn’t concentrate if she touched him while he spoke. So he rose and began to pace as he formulated his thoughts. When he had them in rough order, he began, "I’ve been having dreams. Actually, the same dream...every night. It never varies, although each morning when I awake I can recall more and more of it. It’s...troubling. I...can’t...." He sighed, frustrated. "Its meaning is obscure."

Catherine rose, too, and stood at the balcony’s edge; she leaned her back against the balustrade. She didn’t respond, only nodded at him to continue, an expression of intense interest on her face.

Her calm acceptance lent him the strength to continue, to try to explain the inexplicable. "There’s a sense of desperation. A need to rush to meet...something. I’m in the dark, running...running. A light appears far ahead. When I reach it, there’s an ephemeral figure facing me, reaching out to me. I can’t.... Her face hasn’t been revealed to me, but she seems familiar somehow. Yet I cannot place her. She doesn’t speak, yet I sense she has called me to that place. And within me I feel...." Again words began to fail him. "Her message must be important because...." He faltered to a stop, unable to articulate the odd sense of excitement that was the baffling undercurrent of the dream.

In a hushed, strained voice, Catherine finished for him, "Because you want so very much to hear it, to understand it, it’s almost a physical thrill?"

He stared at her in astonishment. "Yes! How did you know?"

Catherine shook her head, slightly dazed. "I...feel it...here." She touched her chest with the fingers of one hand. "And here." She moved her hand, tapping lightly at her temple. "Our Bond?" She uttered the last with a kind of stunned amazement, as if realizing only as she said it the correctness of her guess.

Vincent froze. God, he was falling apart. He hadn’t known he was broadcasting his response to the dream through their Bond. Quickly, almost savagely, he clamped down on the connection. He could tell by the look on Catherine’s face that her sense of their Bond had been snapped off like a light. A puzzled look crossed her face, to be replaced a moment later by a dawning comprehension...and then by a shocked stillness.

"You did it." It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact. Her voice was the merest whisper in the night air.

Numbly, he nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, to try to explain, but she shook her head, silencing him. When she spoke again, it was as if their last exchange hadn’t occurred. "This woman seems familiar, but you’re fairly sure it’s no one Below, no Helper, no one you have routine contact with?"

He shook his head. "No. Of that, I’m sure. But I do recognize her...from somewhere."

"Where else could you meet someone?" Catherine ticked off the possibilities on her fingers. "Could it be she reminds you of someone whose picture you might have seen in the newspaper? An illustration in a book? A politician or actress? A work of art?"

He considered these, then slowly shook his head again. "No. She’s not famous, not a symbol. She’s real...to me."

"Real..to you?" Catherine repeated, baffled by his choice of words. "That almost sounds as if she were a ghost to others."

Astonishment staggered him. Her comment had triggered a dormant memory, one shunted aside after the traumatic events of one horrible night had been cast from his conscious mind as too terrible, too inexplicable to be viewed in the cool, calm light of reason. He knew now, with sudden insight and certainty, who the woman was.

Catherine saw his reaction and knew he had discovered the identity of the mystery figure. "Who is it?" she asked, eager to know.

He shook his head distractedly. "Not now...not yet. Forgive me, Catherine, but...I need some time to...."

Obviously swallowing her curiosity, she managed to nod once, briskly, and reply only, "All right." Approaching him, she reached out and grasped his arm, squeezing it in reassurance.

An electric jolt ran through him at her touch. He wondered if a time would come in the near future when the merest brush of her hand would become too much for him to bear. He desired her so much...so much....

Groaning inwardly, he spun from her, murmuring, "I must go." Quickly he ascended to the rooftop. He heard her rushed whisper of inquiry, "When will I see you again?" He could have pretended he hadn’t heard her, but instead he replied with an entirely inadequate, "Soon."

* * *

Caroline Chandler. The woman in his dream was the woman who had been reaching out for Catherine on the night the Watcher had stolen her away...and from whom he himself had then stolen Catherine, just as she was about to be enclosed by the Light from which the spirit of her mother had emerged. It all made perfect sense. Relief coursed through him. Now he could concentrate on her message, instead of pondering the who and the what.

Vincent readied himself for bed, then slipped beneath the quilts and comforters, anxious to sleep...anxious to dream. But the night grew long and all he did was toss in his bed, unable to relax, unable to claim the gift of Morpheus. When the sentry tapped out the morning report on the pipes, he was still awake. No dream would come to him this night.

* * *

For four nights, Vincent did not sleep. He was weary to his marrow, but he could...not...sleep. His brain would not disengage, his eyes refused to stay shut, his limbs jerked and quivered as he tried in vain to relax. Father began to remark on his haggard appearance, on the dark stains under his eyes, but all Vincent could say was that sleep eluded him...he couldn’t tell Father why.

He hadn’t contacted Catherine since the night he’d rushed from her balcony in such haste. He could feel her rising anxiety, which she tried without success to quell. He could also sense her increasing impatience as night after night passed with no word from him. But he couldn’t go to her, not yet. He had to find out what Caroline Chandler wanted of him before he could face Catherine again.

* * *

Yet a fifth night was passing and still sleep eluded him. Although he usually needed only a few hours of rest each night to restore himself and awake refreshed, he'd never before suffered from insomnia. It frustrated and baffled him - he was desperately tired, willing to sleep...why wouldn't sleep come?

His mind, as it so often did in the depths of the night, turned to Catherine. He sought her now. Perhaps the calming vibrations of her own rest would lull him into relaxation, into a state of mind which would encourage sleep. The sentry's all clear tapped gently at 2:00 a.m. just as he reached across their Bond to her.

She wasn't asleep. In fact, she wasn't even Above.

At almost the same instant, Vincent heard soft footfalls outside his chamber. All he had time for was a quick intake of breath before her whispered request for entry reached his ears. He uttered a hoarse, "Come in," and then she was there, standing framed in his chamber entrance, holding a lantern aloft.

Vincent sat up in bed at her approach, clutching the bedclothes around his waist. He was distinctly aware that in his sleeplessness, his nightshirt had come unfastened. In fact, it was hanging loosely open from his shoulders to his stomach, the ties askew, his copious chest hair exposed to the night chill.

As Catherine approached the bed and set the lantern down, he lifted one hand and ineffectively curled his fingers into the edges of the shirt, trying to pull it together. Sitting beside him, Catherine brushed his hand away, then slowly and methodically re-threaded the ties and put his nightshirt back into order. She gave the top tie a gentle pat as she finished, then rose and stood by the bed. He relaxed once she got up; he'd been holding his breath all the while.

Catherine regarded him speculatively. "I couldn't sleep. I've been...concerned about you. Are you well?"

Vincent sat up straighter. If he looked half as distracted and disheveled as he felt.... His consternation grew, making him grasp at inanities. "It's 2:00 a.m., Catherine. Could your inquiry as to my health not have waited until later?"

Accepting the criticism with good grace, aware that it came from his embarrassment, Catherine merely smiled. "You sound like Father!"

Vincent felt his face grow hot. He couldn't believe it, but it was true. He was blushing. His mortification grew exponentially.

If Catherine noticed, she didn't mention it. Instead she said, "It's been so long. I thought I could just sneak in to check on you. If you’d been sleeping, I would have tiptoed out again and you'd never have known I was here."

A small smile quirked his unique mouth, and despite everything, he felt his tension begin to ease. "The sentries would have reported your presence at shift change," he reminded her.

"Oh. Well....." Catherine tossed her head. "So sue me!"

His smile grew broader. He relaxed against his pillows, shaking his head. "How do you do it, Catherine?"

Pretending not to understand, she asked sweetly, "Do what?"

He regarded her lovingly, aware she was being silly to put him at ease. But after a moment, the light of laughter faded from his eyes. He threw the covers off and swung his legs out of the bed. Reaching for his robe, he stood and began to put it on.

"What are you doing?" Catherine tugged at the robe as he struggled to slide his arm into a sleeve.

"I'm dressing." He looked at her quizzically.

"Why? You need rest. Why weren't you asleep?" Her concern more evident now, she pulled the robe out of his now-unresisting fingers and neatly folded it again. "Get back into bed."

Vincent stood still, dumbfounded. "I should escort you back to..."

She settled herself with great ceremony on the large velvet-covered chair by his bedside. "I'm not going anywhere. But you are - to sleep."

He sat back onto the bed, his body slumped, leaning his forearms on his knees. Even in the dim light of the chamber, Catherine could see the dark smudges under Vincent’s eyes.

"How long has it been since you've slept properly?" she asked, her voice soft but insistent.

Vincent replied guardedly, "A while."

"How long a while?" she persisted, leaning forward, her brow wrinkled in concern.

He stared at her for a moment, considering what to do, what to say. But this was Catherine - he couldn't hide this from her. His shoulders sagged further, and all resistance left him. Cradling his head in his hands in a gesture of defeat, he admitted, "This is the fifth night."

Shocked surprise was evident on Catherine's face. "That means you haven't slept since I last saw you!"

"Yes." It felt good to tell her, better than he expected. Sharing his frustrations was still a strange experience - he usually hid them from her. And sharing his weaknesses? Those even more than his frustrations he usually kept to himself. But now that he'd done it, he felt oddly...lighter. He lifted his head and regarded her intently. Now that he'd admitted it, what would she do?

"Get into bed, Vincent. Let me stay with you until you drop off to sleep at least. Please?" As she said it, she stood up and leaned over to lift the edge of the covers he'd thrown back just a few minutes earlier. Then she turned to him expectantly.

Shocked, he rose hastily and simply stared at her. "You'll...stay?" he managed to ask.

"If you'll let me." Still he stared, and still she held the bedclothes in her hand. "You need rest," she begged. "Maybe I can help."

He shook his head. "That is...doubtful, Catherine. When you are near...." He stopped himself, appalled. He'd almost admitted how she affected him, how her mere presence set the blood in his veins singing and his body into war with itself.

Tenderly, she regarded him, a compassionate smile on her face. "I understand, Vincent. Believe me, more than you know." Her smile turned sardonic for a brief moment. "But...sleeping alone has obviously not been working. So perhaps...just this once...my presence might serve the turn." She added, almost as an afterthought, "It couldn't hurt."

Vincent considered her words. It was very true that every morning for nearly a week he'd risen from his bed weary and frustrated, no better off than if he'd paced the tunnel corridors all night. Surely one more night of sleeplessness could be tolerated. And if, despite his misgivings, he actually could fall asleep with her in the chamber...well...then it would have been worth the try. So, taking a deep breath, he nodded, acquiescing.

With a meekness that surprised Catherine, Vincent climbed back into his bed and allowed her to tuck the covers securely around his shoulders. But he tensed considerably as she then bent to the lantern to blow out the candle within it, and proceeded to sit beside him and tug off her tennis shoes.

"Catherine?" The alarm in his voice was clear.

"I'm going to lie down beside you...on top of the covers." So saying, she slid onto the bed and burrowed her legs under the topmost quilt covering him. Vincent moved over on the bed to allow her a more comfortable space in which to lie, but she followed him, molding herself against his side, laying one arm across his chest to his shoulder and hugging him to her lightly. And then, in the gentle darkness surrounding them, he heard her softly humming her mother's lullaby.

Vincent's entire body was clenched in an effort to deny the physical reactions Catherine aroused in him. His breathing was harsh and irregular, his heart was hammering wildly. She was...right...there beside him, so near he could feel the hairs of her head tickling his chin, smell the beguiling fragrance of her shampoo, of her perfume...of her dear, sweet body. She was everything to him...and now she was practically in his arms, lying here in the dark, with no one else around and hours before anyone would be stirring....

This was madness! He could never sleep with her pressed close this way!

She seemed completely oblivious to his dilemma. She must be able to feel the pounding of his heart, must hear his panting breaths, must sense the tension in his arms and chest...yet she continued to lie there, draped loosely over him, humming that lulling tune close to his ear.

He remembered hearing her sing it to Ellie so long ago. The words had charmed him. Her voice - untrained, slightly off-key - had nonetheless been the sweetest sound he'd ever heard. It had soothed him even then, just as it had calmed many who lay on cots near Ellie in that terrible sickroom. Now he closed his eyes and allowed the lullaby to wash over him, through him. He'd never be able to sleep, but at least he could try to relax a bit.

Catherine continued to hum the lullaby, half under her breath, half tunefully. She could feel the tautness and tension slowly, in the tiniest increments, leave Vincent's body. She could hear his breathing become less of a harsh panting, so gradually...so gradually. After nearly half an hour, she felt him shift the slightest bit, turning toward her, into her light embrace. A heavy sigh followed. Then slow, shallow, regular breaths....

Soon after, in the silent night surrounding them, Catherine heard the subtle purring rumble of sleep from him. Satisfied, she ceased her humming. She pressed the lightest of kisses on her Beloved’s softly bristled chin, closed her eyes, and drifted off herself.

* * *

It began as always...a desperate race through darkness, following an unseen path to an irresistible end - the lady in the light. Vincent began to toss in his sleep as his body reacted to the demands of his dream. His restlessness awoke Catherine immediately, and she half-rose in concern. She realized at once what was happening and nestled closer to him, crooning low - soft words of love, of encouragement.

The apparition loomed before him, her features still obscured by the bright light. But this time, as she reached for him, he took her hand - took it and pressed a reverent kiss upon it. He could hear her soft gasp of surprise. When he addressed her, it was with a purpose.

"I know you’re Catherine's mother. Tell me what I can do to put you at rest. I will do whatever you ask, in honor of your memory and for Catherine's sake."

The wraith stepped forward, to the very edge of the circle of light. Her face came into view for the first time. Vincent marveled at her beauty - more delicate than Catherine's, more fragile, yet with the same strength of character and shining intelligence...and the same compelling green eyes.

She regarded him solemnly, without speaking, for several heartbeats. Vincent didn't let go of her hand.

When she spoke, her soft cadences and gentle tone again reminded him of Catherine. Mother and daughter were so much alike in so many ways! It thrilled him to be in possession of such an insight, to understand more clearly the subtle interplay of mother and father which had blended into the unique soul of his Beloved.

"You struggle, Brave One," she said. The words startled him - they were not what he had expected.

"You war within yourself - your desire versus her fate, your worth versus her choice, your need versus her freedom. You force her to struggle with you. But hers is a different struggle - to prove that her fate and yours are one, that her choice is the worthiest of men, that her freedom lies in the right to make a choice."

Stung by her rebuke, he replied, "Catherine deserves so much more than I can ever offer. I am...less than a man, and she...she is everything good and beautiful and worthy. How can I allow her to throw her life away on me?" It had hurt him to put his deepest feelings into words, but they had to be said. Surely she must know this already - why force him to acknowledge his inadequacy before her?

The spirit smiled and shook her head, squeezing his hand in sympathy. "Brave One, you are wrong. They say that love is blind; if it is, it's because you will not see the truth of what lies before you. You are a man - the man my Catherine needs, the only man for her. You yourself are good...and so very beautiful...and worthy of everything life can hold. You are the perfect companion for her soul - why else do you think I forged the Bond between you? I knew you would need more than the evidence of your own heart and hers to convince you of this, yet still you resist.

"My daughter - your Catherine - loves you; she has chosen you. Her fate is linked to yours. You already know this deep inside, yet you deny it, fight the truth of it. Stop fighting, Brave One. Let your Bond open between you, share yourself with her as she has shared her innermost being with you. You have the power. You hold her very future in your hands. Be wise, Brave One. Lose the battle within yourself...and gain the world."

She gently disengaged her hand from his and for the space of several heartbeats only stared deeply into his eyes. As if in afterthought, she leaned forward suddenly and whispered something in his ear, something that from his frown of concentration it was clear he didn't understand. Then she took a step back and disappeared into the light once again. He stood transfixed as the brightness slowly diminished and then suddenly winked out, leaving him in complete darkness.

He started. The contact had been broken - the thread of compulsion to get to this place had been abruptly cut off. At first he felt utterly alone, bereft, adrift in the blackness of his dreamscape. Then he realized he was not alone, not adrift - a sweet, urgent tug on his heart reminded him of all he had waiting for him back in the world of the waking.

His Catherine.

She was everything.

* * *

Catherine was becoming frantic. Vincent's heart rate had accelerated alarmingly and the pounding in his veins was almost palpable. He couldn't be getting any rest this way! Perhaps she had been wrong to urge him to sleep, if this was what sleep brought him to.

How long he struggled, she didn't know, but she didn't stop caressing him or talking to him. She wanted him to carry her love as a shield into whatever battle was raging in his unconscious mind. She wanted to be there, by his side, so badly, and cursed the gods that she couldn't follow him through their Bond as he might have been able to do for her.

Why did he insist on denying her their Bond? She hadn't known he was doing that until the last time she had seen him, when it was suddenly clear that their connection was being deliberately blocked by him. How like him to want to protect her from his own emotions while making himself completely available to deal with hers!

She had been shocked when she'd realized it, but in the same instant, she'd known that, as unnecessary...and unacceptable...as it was, he'd done it solely out of love for her. She couldn't be angry with him for that, much as she was frustrated by his actions. She'd just have to find a way to make him understand that she craved that connection with him, needed it, and that to withhold it was as bad as withholding the full measure of his love from her - another thing she had to work on, she thought ruefully. But her love for him was strong enough to overcome even these problems. They were only setbacks, to be resolved with love and patience...and more time, if that's what it took. She remained hopeful. Hope was all she had.

He was calming beneath her now, beginning to awaken.

* * *

Vincent opened his eyes to see a pair of very frightened, concerned green eyes staring anxiously into his. He felt her hands cupping his cheeks, felt the wetness of the tears she'd shed upon his face.

He shifted and, as if suddenly realizing she was practically on top of him, holding him down, she pulled back, sitting up beside him and gazing at him expectantly, wiping distractedly at her wet cheeks. He rose to a sitting position as well, but instead of speaking, he reached down to take up the edge of a quilt and wrap it about her shoulders. She smiled her silent gratitude for his thoughtfulness, but he didn't see it, as he had already begun looking down at his hands, absorbed in his consideration of the dream. She sat beside him quietly, even though every atom of her being was crying out in impatience to beg him to tell her what had transpired in his dream.

For a while, the only sound in the chamber was the sputtering of the night candle, nearly extinguished now as it neared dawn. Then finally, after what seemed to Catherine to be an hour, Vincent looked up into her face again, and began to speak.

"I finally met the woman in my dream. She was...your mother, Catherine."

Shocked surprise registered on her face. How did he know it was her?

He let out a deep sigh. "It's something I never told you. When you...almost drowned, I.... I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but I followed you...your spirit...to the very edge of life. You were nearly swallowed up by a great light. But I stole you back. Right there, at the vortex of the light, your parents were waiting for you. Your mother had already extended her hand to greet you.

"It was her I saw in my dream, her I was trying to recall. When you mentioned that perhaps this apparition was a ghost, I suddenly knew who she was."

"Did you.... Did she...speak to you?" Her voice was a hushed, awed whisper.

He nodded. "I'm still trying to come to terms with what she told me, Catherine. I don't think.... I can't...." His brow creased with his frustration, as words once again failed him when he tried to describe his dream.

With all the composure she could muster, Catherine replied, "It's all right. When you can, I'll be ready to listen."

He looked at her incredulously. "How can you be so understanding? I can feel your intense desire to know what she said. Yet you make it so easy for me when I tell you I need more time."

She smiled tenderly. Her voice was hoarse and low as she said, "I love you, Vincent. I'm willing to wait."

Thinking of what her mother had told him, he snorted in self-derision. "I don't know how I've deserved your patience all these years. There's been so much I've kept from you, so much I've...denied you. Yet you stay, you continue to love...continue to hope."

She bent to him and deposited an achingly tender kiss upon his cheek. "If you don't know why by now..." she murmured. When she pulled back, her eyes were bright with tears.

He stared at her in astonishment for a moment, then leaned forward and enveloped her in a gentle embrace.

* * *

Catherine couldn't sleep. She hadn’t had an unbroken night's rest since the night she'd spent watching over Vincent - she was much too anxious to find out what his dream about her mother meant. Why her mother, of all people? And why dream of the night she'd almost died...was it some sort of hideous omen? Yet Vincent didn't seem upset by what he'd learned from the dream. It made no sense to her. And so her mind struggled through the nights as she pondered the significance of what she did know about the dream - which wasn't much.

Finally throwing off the comforter in disgust after several sleepless hours, Catherine rose, stalked to the French doors and let herself out onto the balcony. As she yanked the doors open, the chill night breeze whipped the light curtains into a frenzy, and the damp air caused goosebumps to rise on her skin, but she didn't let that deter her. If she couldn't sleep, then perhaps the cold air would revive her, clear her head, so that she could think better.

Her bare feet encountered the cool flagstone, setting off a shivering response which seemed to center in her stomach. She knew she was being foolish - all this would accomplish would be to make her miserable, and once she sought her bed again, she would lie freezing upon the cold sheets until her body heat could warm them again. Stupid, Chandler, she scolded herself.

The light swoosh of fabric was all the notice she had before Vincent's great arms wrapped themselves protectively around her from behind.

"Catherine, what are you doing out here? You aren't dressed for this weather."

Sheepishly, she responded, "I know. I'm crazy. Your dream is driving me crazy!"

"Come inside and I'll tell you about it," he offered.

Surprised, she turned to look at him. Had she heard him correctly? He was planning to come inside himself?

Noting her astonished gape, Vincent smiled shyly, then bent to catch her up in his arms. Striding into her bedroom more confidently than he felt, he toed the doors closed against the chill night air, then deposited her gently on her bed.

Catherine’s cold hands and feet were forgotten in the excitement of finally having Vincent inside her apartment, but she tried to focus on what had brought him here, knowing that dwelling on her surprise would just make him uncomfortable. "The dream. Tell me!"

Vincent had believed he was ready to enter Catherine's apartment, but being in her bedroom affected him more strongly than he had anticipated. He began to regret the impulse to carry her to her bed. Perhaps if he'd brought her to her living room instead, the tension within him wouldn’t be so great. His breathing grew erratic as he fought to control the almost irresistible impulse to leave.

Catherine sensed his extreme discomfort even without the clues their Bond could have given her. He was fidgeting, something he never did, and seemed almost ready to flee. Dismissing her question - the dream had been a mystery this long, her curiosity could wait a few minutes longer - she quickly remarked, "I'm still cold, and you must be, too. Let me make us something warm to drink." As nonchalantly as she could, she slipped her robe and slippers on, then rose and walked to the louvered doors which separated her bedroom from the rest of the apartment. Looking over her shoulder, she asked, "Are you coming?"

The question got Vincent to move from the spot he'd seemed rooted to. Quickly he followed her, immensely grateful when Catherine shut the interior doors firmly behind him after he'd left her bedroom. That bed - rumpled and cozy-looking, which Catherine had been lying in tonight, clad only in a thin slip of silk... How often had he dreamed of coming to her in that bed, of pulling the sheets away to reveal her lissome form, so warm and supple, so desirable, so...

He shook his head to clear it, then followed Catherine into the kitchen.

* * *

Despite the lateness of the hour, they had built a small fire in the fireplace to warm them on the outside while the enormous mugs of hot cocoa Catherine had made warmed them on the inside. They didn't speak, only sat staring into the flames as they drank.

When he finished, Vincent licked his lips, unconscious of Catherine's stare as his long pink tongue lapped all traces of chocolate away. He caught her staring, and she blushed prettily. Fascinated, he tilted his head and gazed at her. His eyes strayed to her lips. Her heart skipped a beat. Then he raised a hand and brushed a drop of hot chocolate from the corner of her mouth.

He heard a tiny whimper from her and felt a corresponding shimmer within their Bond, a sparkling tendril of vivid crimson, overlapping the constant ruby-colored radiance of her love for him. It warmed him, enveloping his heart with more evidence - though none was needed - of her deep feelings for him.

It was time.

Looking down into her eyes, he murmured, "I'm ready to tell you now."

She nodded, silent and attentive.

He began, "The dream was unlike any I've ever had. I feel as if...as if I actually met your mother."

Catherine smiled, a fleeting sadness reflected in her eyes.

Vincent focused on his inward eye as he declared, "She was quite beautiful." He glanced at Catherine again and added, "You have her eyes - expressive, vibrant...so green."

Her face reflected her sudden surprise. The only pictures she'd ever shown him of her mother had been black and white: a formal wedding portrait taken 35 years earlier, and another of her holding a baby Catherine just months after her birth. She was sure the color of her mother's eyes had never come up. An odd tingling began to grow within her as she considered the possibilities.

"What she said to me..." He paused, then remarked wryly, "She sounded a bit like Father. Very protective, very sure of herself."

His aside drew another smile from Catherine - one of fond remembrance.

"What she told me I already knew...but when I heard it from her lips, I think I finally admitted the truth of it." He took a deep breath, then took both of Catherine's hands in his own. He looked at the contrast between them - his so large, rough and heavily furred, hers so delicate, the fingers slender. Yet he knew them to have a tenacious strength, just like the woman they served.

"Since the night I found you, Catherine, our fates have been inextricably intertwined. There is no going back to what we were before, and no going forward without each other. I can't deny the truth of that any longer."

He felt their Bond flood with amazement and joy from Catherine's heart - sharp, piercing hues of saffron and turquoise rose and exploded like starbursts in his mind. Yet her face was a mask of expectant stillness, as if she was willing herself to hold back until he had told her all.

"She also told me that my struggle...our struggle...should end, that you wished me to share all that I am with you."

There, he’d told her everything. He exhaled a rough sigh, immeasurably relieved, and despite all logic, willing to trust in Fate and Caroline Chandler.

Catherine's gaze, intensely inquisitive, locked onto his as she asked in a thick, low voice, "And what did you decide?"

He lifted her hands to his lips, pressing a tender kiss upon her fingers, his eyes never leaving hers. "There’s so much that’s difficult for me to accept...about myself, about my place in your life. But if you want me, Catherine...I am yours."

He heard the sharp intake of her breath. Her eyelids fluttered closed. When she opened her eyes again, tears glistened within them. In a choked, nearly breathless voice, she managed only one word, but it was enough. "Always!"

He absorbed that word: Always. It trembled within his mind, sent tremors through his flesh, suffused his blood with heated expectancy, poured like a balm into his hungry soul. She wanted him...always.

Shaking fingers brushed the tears from Catherine's cheeks, then tentatively slid to her lips, tracing them in awe. She pressed a kiss to them, and something within him broke free.

Always....

He bent to where his fingers were, replacing them with his lips - and hovered just at that point of contact, as if afraid to presume. Catherine’s lips, so warm and inviting, nuzzled tenderly against his. She breathed the word again on a blissful sigh, and before the sigh died away, he took it into himself, savoring the word as he did the exquisite taste of her mouth, treasuring both as equal miracles.

Without thought, his arms came up to clasp her close. Catherine melted into his embrace, her own arms lifting to wrap around his neck. He felt her delicate fingers burrow into the thickness of unruly curls at his nape, cupping his head and holding him to her. Knowing she wanted him closer electrified him - if her words had breeched the defenses he’d built around his desire for her, her actions were tearing that wall down with a finality that left him breathless. She wanted him...to kiss...to hold...to love.

Giving in was easier than he’d imagined...giving in to her yearning and his own. All else fell away - the night, the doubts, time itself, as they were immersed in each other, making love with all the passion and intensity within their hearts. As if parted halves of one whole, they came together effortlessly, clung together, matched curve to plane, need for need, a soaring ecstasy of desire and urgency which outlasted the stars.

* * *

They lay entangled, limbs wreathed together, in a drowsy, sated state of bliss. The night was still deep, but dawn began to hint at the very edges of their consciousness. Soon enough, it would be time for them to part - but now, the parting would be only temporary. They had much to discuss, much to plan. But all that could wait until the new day. Now they were content just to float in that in-between of waking and sleeping, knowing that rest would come to them soon enough. The time for restless, wakeful nights was over for both of them...forever.

Catherine mused languidly, then asked in a husky whisper, "Do you think it really was my mother you saw in your dream, or was her image your psyche's way of helping you come to a decision about us?" She trailed one finger lazily through the dense fur covering his chest, loving the freedom to caress him as she wished.

Vincent nuzzled against the fragrant cloud of her hair, kissing her softly. Her touch was driving him to distraction, but he tried to concentrate on her question. "I feel somehow that it was her. For one thing, the vision said something to me that I didn't understand, something I cannot reconcile with anything else she spoke of...and it still makes no sense to me."

Curious, she rose on one elbow and regarded him. "What was it?"

He folded his arms behind his head, resting on his clasped fingers. His brow creased as he tried to recall the exact sequence of the dream. "She had finished speaking and was about to leave when she stopped and whispered in my ear. The words...perhaps I didn't recall them correctly, because the reference is unknown to me from either literature or experience, but... I believe she said, 'Brown suede becomes it more than red silk.' Strange, isn't it? Perhaps it wasn't...."

He stopped speaking. Catherine had suddenly gone pale, the blood draining from her face in an instant. "What, Catherine? Tell me!"

She began to tremble, and soft tears gathered and fell from her eyes. Hesitantly, almost fearfully, she reached over with a shaking hand and gathered up the suede pouch which lay beside them, the one she had sewn for him, the one which contained her mother's rose. "I never told you, did I...where Mother kept this rose before she gave it to me?"

He stared down at the pouch in her hand in amazement. She loosened the ties and removed the delicate ivory rose, placing it reverently into her palm.

His eyes widened as he anticipated her revelation. "No, you never did."

She nodded, still looking at the rose in awe. "The artist who’d carved it had placed it in a pouch when he sold it to Daddy." Her eyes lifted to his. "It was made of...."

"Red silk," he finished for her.

"The bag got lost after she died. I'd forgotten all about it until this moment." She gazed into his eyes. "There's no way your subconscious mind could have known."

He smiled and shook his head, then lifted his gaze to the coming dawn, past the pink-tinged sky, past the last stars, into the heavens themselves. "Caroline Chandler, it was an honor to meet you."