A Happy New Year
by Rosemarie Hauer

Along with darkness, the storm had come. That was not unusual for this time of year. In the fireplace, the flames flickered wildly, casting a restless dance of light and shadows across the room.

Catherine let the book, she had been reading in, sink to her lap. It was hopeless, she couldn´t concentrate on the story. She felt a restlessness permeating the air and her very soul. She couldn´t quite tell what she had expected to find here in Connecticut, in the house where she had spent so many happy summers of her childhood. She only knew that she had needed the tranquility of this place, hoping to gather new strength and energy for the new year. The last two days here had helped her restore the peace of her heart to some extent, but this new year´s eve promised to become pretty turbu­ent. Well, she still would have the next day. Joe expected her back at the office on January 2nd. She smiled as she recalled his worried face when she had told him she needed a few days off.

The storm was still ragging around the cabin, and Catherine wondered fleetingly what might happen if the snowfalls were to continue throughout the night. But she knew that Carl would come to look after her in the morning. He always did. He war the personification of reliability and had been keeping this house in an excellent condition ever since she could remember.

Suddenly she caught herself pacing the room and it amused her to no end that keeping a journal was not the only habit she had taken over from Vincent.

Vincent! The thought of him made her stop and close her eyes, recalling the expression on his face when she had told him she would leave New York for a few days to be alone. Of course he had been aware of her inner turmoil and he had been correct in assuming that he had something to do with her decision. Lately there had been a certain tenseness between them, taking away the ease that had dominated their time together before. Oh, how he had tried to hide his concern, wanting to make her feel free, even though it meant free from him. Lost in thoughts of him, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

Suddenly the lights went out. The storm must have wrought some damage out there. In the dim light of the fireplace Catherine made sure that her flashlight was within reach, wrapped herself up in a quilt and sat down on the couch to begin her vigil. She loved nights like this, sitting in the comforting stillness of the dark, thinking and letting her emotions flow freely.
The dance of lights and shadows on the rug in front of the fireplace and the compelling song of the wind outside gradually faded from her mind, as the interior images of her soul took form and came to life.

Vincent's eyes  within them lay her world. Trust and security shone from them, when he looked at her, but they immediately clouded with uncertainty and doubt whenever his thoughts turned to himself. Throughout the years she had developed a deep understanding for his fears, and her heart constricted with the pain that went hand in hand with them. She realized that someone so powerful and at the same time so vulnerable would always torture himself with self­doubts. Only Father and she knew about the terrible fight his soul fought against the darkness that lurked within the question "Am I a man?" If she could only make him believe that he was the most human being that she had ever met. Vincent was the man she loved, for whom she longed with all her heart, and with whom she wanted to share everything ... if he only let her!

Unshed tears burned in her eyes. She felt so selfish with all her wishes and desires, while he had to endure so much to find and keep the fragile balance that allowed him to survive in an ocean of raging emotions. How could she demand something that he kept restrained within himself with all his strength lest it destroy what he held most dear in his life - her love.

Despite all of the barriers and limits that kept them apart, Vincent´s love for her and hers for him was the most wonderful and magical thing that had ever happened to either of them. This love had become the source of their lives, an interior light that enabled them to grow and that showed them their way. And all the pain, all of the difficulties, were thorns along that way, and among them the most beautiful of roses ...

"Catherine, your hand!"  The soft and warm touch of his lips on her skin; his sharp intake of breath; the precious moment when his soul, so full of longing, lay undisguised in his eyes ...

Catherine rose with a start. She must have fallen asleep. It was time to tend to the fireplace. The logs had burned down considerably. Outside the storm was still raging. Carefully, she searched her heart for the tenuous images of a fading dream. Yes, it had been a good decision to come to this place. Looking at Vincent and not wishing to touch him as well, to stroke his face, to run her fingers through his hair, had become harder and harder, lately. She had spent her Christmas holidays Below, together with his large family that had also become hers, somehow. And though they had barely found time to be alone the closeness and familiarity between them had even intensified. Many a time, she had felt it so clearly, the desire to reach out for something that belonged to them anyway. And, at the same time, she had sensed how much it tortured him. It had been at a moment like this when she had resolved to retreat for a while, to give him the chance to ...

... to do what, precisely? What exactly had she been expecting? Should they go back to a state where the limits and confinements of their relationship were defined more clearly and more - strictly? Could something like that ever be a solution? Or maybe there was a slight chance of moving forward, that wouldn´t toss them inevitably into an unfathomable vortex of crumbling ideals and convictions.

She sighed and found herself pacing the room again. She couldn´t quite explain her unrest. The unrestrained force of the storm seemed to rage inside her as well. There was a sudden fear, and a chill that made her shiver violently. Catherine began to worry that she was coming down with something. Her heart beat wildly and her body ached with exhaustion. She just wanted to drag herself back to the couch, when she heard a muffled thud against the door. Strangely, all of her symptoms were suddenly gone, leaving behind only a great weariness. There was not the slightest trace of fear within her as she went to the door to open it.

She only had to turn the handle a bit and the wind managed the rest. The door sprang open and a whirling mass of snow greeted her. The panting breath of the dark figure on the threshold was all but lost in the storm, and she caught for a moment the violent heaving and sagging of his shoulders before he collapsed at her feet, her name on his lips.

"Catherine."

There was no time for asking how that might be possible. Catherine had her hands full with rallying his last strengths, for without his help she saw no chance of moving him inside. It worked better than one would have expected under the circumstances, but he leaned heavily against her and she swayed under his weight.

As soon as he rested securely on the couch she hurried to shut the door and stop the avalanche of snow that was still invading the room. Then she turned to her chilled guest who seemed to gradually regain his breath. Ice and snow crystals on his hair, his brows and  nose began to melt and ran in glistening drops across his face. Resolutely, Catherine freed Vincent of his heavy cloak, wet gloves and soaked boots. Then she ran to the bathroom to get some towels. Rubbing his face and his mane thoroughly, she became aware of his shaking body. She knew that she had to remove his damp cloths. That promised complications, but she had no choice. She knelt before him and took his face between her hands.
 

"Vincent! Please look at me. Vincent, do you hear me?"

The familiar sound of her voice finally penetrated the heavy veil of exhaustion and fatigue that clouded his mind. With effort, he opened his eyes. She smiled at him and continued,
"Vincent, you must take off your wet clothes. Do you understand? Please try! I´ll go get you something dry to change. Okay?"

To her great relief, he nodded and and rose trembling fingers to the laces of his vest. Catherine hastily rummaged through her father´s drawer chest in search of something that would fit Vincent. No easy task, but eventually she produced a heavy woolen sweater - fortunately those things always were to large for their owners - a pair of worn out jogging pants and thick woolen socks.

Having helped nurse Vincent back to health earlier, it was not for the first time that she had seen his bared chest, but again there was no time to enjoy the sight. She disciplined her thoughts to remain with the task at hand. She helped him pull the heavy sweater over his head and reminded him softly, but with unmistakable urgency, that he also had to change his pants.

Could that have been a smile that played across his mouth for the fraction of a moment? No time to pursue that question either. Vincent´s body shivered so violently that any purposeful activity became nearly impossible. She helped him open his belt, handed him the dry pants, and then turned away to give him privacy. With his last bit of strength, he changed and then sank back into the pillows. He left it to her to remove his soaked socks. She didn´t care if it was trust or just exhaustion on his part that allowed her this almost intimate task.

Regarding his clawed hands, she had asked herself many times what his feet might be like. Now that she held the answer in her hands, a tender smile was lighting her face. The shape of his toenails was a bit unusual, but they could not be called claws. The hair on his feet was of the same color and sleekness as that on his hands, only shorter, and she couldn´t resist the impulse of stroking it gently. The intimacy of this small gesture was overwhelming, and she wasn´t surprised to find him gazing at her as she raised her eyes. Those vulnerable eyes that she so loved, met hers openly and trustingly, and as she continued stroking his feet, his shivering ebbed away and finally subsided. Vincent´s eyelids sagged and he couldn´t refrain from falling asleep any longer. Catherine was overcome by a wild tenderness as she tucked him in to keep him warm. She would have loved doing nothing else but watch his relaxed face, but there was so much to do for her. She retrieved the wet pieces of clothing from the floor to dry them by the fire, and then went to prepare some tea. It was long past midnight as she made the tea, and with tears in her eyes she realized that this was the most beautiful beginning of a year that she had ever experienced.

The first thing that reached Vincent´s awareness when he awoke was the warmth that engulfed and permeated him. Then he heard someone rattling with dishes and the fragrant smell of herb tea teased his nose.

Catherine! He had made it. He was here, with her! There had been moments out there in the storm when he had doubted that he would ever reach her. But then he had felt her again, deeply inside him, and the source of this feeling had seen him safely through the night, through the cold, through the relentless storm.

Now she came to him, a steaming mug in her hands, and she smiled - no, she beamed - at him when she saw that he was awake. Slowly, he sat up. She placed the mug on the low glass table beside the couch and hurried to support him with cushions.

"How are you, Vincent?" she asked.

"Much better, thank you", he answered.

She reached for the mug, sat down beside him, and handed it to him. He took it from her hands and curled his long fingers around it, gratefully absorbing the warmth that it offered. But this was nothing compared to the warmth that her eyes radiated to him.

"I can hardly believe that you are here, Vincent", she began.

He merely nodded and she knew that he felt the same.

"But how ...? No, I´d rather not know. Father must be sick with worry."

"I must admit that he was not pleased when I told him of my decision."

Laughing, she shook her head. "I´m certain that this is the understatement of the year, isn´t it?"

There it was, this sparse smile on his face. Catherine dared not move and gazed at him silently, lest she drive it away.

Carefully, Vincent sipped on the hot tea.

"I couldn´t let you alone in this", he said then.

"Alone in what? What do you mean?"

He put the mug on the table and turned to face her.

"I know why you wanted to be for yourself, why you went away - from me. You thought you had to protect me, to spare me your inner turmoil."

Gently, she placed her hand on his forearm.

"Vincent, I did not go away from you. You may be right that I thought we both could need a break. We seemed to run in circles. We ..."

"We felt as if something was driving us toward each other and, at the same time, was trying to keep us apart."

She looked at him, eyes wide with surprise. She couldn´t quite believe that this conversation was real. Only someone who knew Vincent as well as she did, could know that talking about this was not easy on him. She was at a loss for words to express what it did to her hearing him approach this subject that he had been avoiding successfully until now.

"I felt it, too, Catherine."

It was only her gaze that asked what."

He dropped his eyes and continued, "We have grown so close that the caution and the restraint, that has been necessary between us, suddenly seems so ... unnatural. It has become almost impossible to live with it, now."

Slowly, he lifted his gaze and searched for her eyes.

"I tortured us, Catherine. Whenever I was looking at you, I wanted to extend my hand and touch you, draw you to me and never let you go. Those longings frightened me. I didn´t know how handle them. And the most bewildering fact was that..."

He paused, and for an instant, Catherine felt as if Vincent´s confusion and his helplessness were whirling through her own mind. Her heart constricted with empathy and love for him. Slowly, she leaned forward and touched her forehead to his reassuringly. His voice was barely more than a whisper as he continued.

"... I knew that you were feeling the same." His voice trailed off, and they sat together in silence, listening to the inner voices of their hearts that were telling of souls touching and permeating one another and finally becoming one.

Catherine was thrilled that she could  feel Vincent so clearly within her. She embraced him and whispered against his ear, "I was aware of your presence out there in the storm before I knew that you were there, Vincent. It was like then, when Father and you were in that cave-in, but it was much clearer this time. I sensed your exhaustion, your despair. You know what? I believe that our bond is growing stronger every day, and maybe one day I´ll be able to feel you as strongly within me as you can feel me. That is something I have been wishing for ever since."

He withdrew from their embrace and drooped his head, suddenly unable to meet her gaze.
"Yes, I know, Catherine. This is something I owe you an explanation for and I hope ..."

As he grew silent, she gently touched his chin to make him look at her. Her eyes implored him to confide this hope to her. He sighed deeply, and then continued, "I hope with all my heart that you will forgive me."

Puzzled, she shook her head. "I don´t understand. What should I have to forgive you?"

She noticed that he had to force himself to keep his eyes connected to hers, but she steadfastly held on, and he exhaled slowly, asking, "Please tell me what you are feeling within me right now."

She placed her hand on his and closed her eyes. First, she was only aware of her own restless thoughts that dealt with the question what it was that he was trying to say to her by all this and why he felt so bad about it, so ... guilty. Suddenly his emotions came to her and she could grasp them clearly: There was deep regret and ... shame.

Alarmed, she opened her eyes. "What is it, Vincent? Please!"

"I came here to tell you something that is not easy for me. But I know that I have to, at last. Catherine, there is something I have kept from you from the very beginning of our relationship, something that has stood between us, and it is my fault."

Overwhelmed by the whirlwind of emotions that were surging against her soul, Catherine closed her eyes. What was happening? And why? "Tell me, Vincent!"

"Until now...", he sighed, "I have shut myself off, Catherine. I shut you out."

Suddenly, she felt unable to comprehend what he had just said. "How do you mean?"

"Our bond ... I broke it purposefully. I disconnected you from my emotions."

She looked at him, unsure whether she understood what he was telling her.

"You mean you cut off our bond? All those years, you pretended that I wasn´t able to ..."

Incredulously, she shook her head. "I can´t believe it. I don´t want to believe it."

He reached out for her, but she recoiled and leapt to her feet. There was no anger within her, only pain. He could feel it, and he understood. Oh, he understood all too well.

She went over to the window, staring out into the inky darkness. Her mind reeled with disconcerting thoughts. Why did it hurt so much? So deeply as if she had been cheated out of something she had been searching for throughout all those years so desperately.

His voice came from close behind her, but she continued staring out into the night.

"Catherine, please forgive me."

Suddenly, she felt empty. Her thoughts cleared, and her wounded soul grew silent. She stood there, motionless, and the silence within her reflected Vincent and all that he was, all that he meant to her, like a perfect mirror. She sensed the pain he had suffered in solitude, his deep regret about what he had done, but also his trust - in her, in their love.

She slowly turned around, tears in her eyes, and sank into his arms. She burrowed her face against his neck and ran her fingers through his heavy hair. The happiness and the relief she found when she reached his heart, took her breath away. Leaning back her head, she gazed at him solemnly. The dim light of the dying fire cast deep shadows over his face. Carefully, she freed her hands from his hair and began tracing the lines and contours of his features with trembling fingers. His face was an intriguing mixture of varying textures, rough and soft, wild and gentle. And all those sensations mingled with his emotions, his joy, his excitement. Tenderly, she stroked his lower lip with her thumb, and he bowed his head to bestow a first shy kiss. So gentle, so delicate. His lips were warm and soft, and she bathed in the sensations that her caresses evoked in him.
There, suddenly a slight hesitation, and the old doubt rose its dusty head. She withdrew from his embrace a little, leaning back and searching his eyes. What it must have cost him to give himself completely into her hands, allowing her into places of his soul, that he would have rather avoided himself! She could see his struggles, clearly written on his forehead - in deep furrows. Tenderly, she pulled his head to her and kissed him between his brows.

"Please don´t worry, Vincent", she whispered softly. "It´s all so new, for both of us" And, smiling, she added, "we are just setting out."

She realized that she would give anything, anytime, for the smile that played across his face at that. And yet, she had to break the spell.

"I guess we should put some more logs on the fire. It will be a cold night."

Only now, she became fully aware of his overwhelming fatigue. Every line around his eyes, his entire posture spoke of his weariness. But she couldn´t keep him from tending to the fire himself.

"You´d better go to bed now, Vincent. Come, I´ll show you where you can sleep."

From the heaviness of his footsteps, as he followed her upstairs, she could tell how tired he was. It was about time that he got some sleep. She led him to her bedroom and went to pull back the covers on the comfortable french bed.

His voice was low and rumbling, "This is your bed, Catherine. You will sleep in it."

"But it´s the only bed. My father´s old bedroom  is about to be renovated. We can´t use it. It´s no problem. Really. I´ll be sleeping downstairs on the couch."

"I shall sleep on the couch."

She had already suspected that this wouldn´t be easy, but she was not willing to give in. "That´s nonsense. The couch is too short for you, Vincent."

"Your bed is big enough for both of us, Catherine."

"And by the way ... what?" She stared at him, no quite trusting her ears.

He smiled. "I think, your bed is big enough for both of us", he repeated.

Heaving a sigh of relief, she returned his smile, kissed his cheek and went to get him a fresh towel.

"The bathroom is over there", she said, before she left the room.

With a flashlight in her hand Catherine made her way from the bathroom back to Vincent. The first thing she saw, when she entered the bedroom, was the woolen sweater, neatly folded and hung over the back of a chair. Involuntarily, she raised an eyebrow and her heartbeat accelerated just a bit.

From under the covers, Vincent met her gaze with perfect innocence.

"The pullover itched terribly", he said apologetically.

Laughing, she nudged him playfully, turned off the flashlight and slid into the bed to lay beside him. What a strange feeling to have him this near. Every part of her being was aware of his overwhelming presence. She barely dared to breathe.

So, they lay side by side for a while, carefully avoiding any movement, and thus, any touching. Finally, he whispered hoarsely, "I am afraid our attempts to avoid each other in this bed will keep us awake for the rest of the night."

At that, she laughingly fell into his arms. He was so warm and he smelled so good, and the beat of his heart sounded so comforting. Burrowing her face against his chest, she felt his hands and his lips on her hair. This time, he held nothing back, he didn´t even shut himself off as a flood of desire engulfed him. She responded to him with all the warmth of her heart. He pulled her tighter, and she bathed in the tenderness and gratitude he felt. But soon fatigue enveloped his body and mind and, gradually, he drifted off in to sleep.

"Sleep well, Vincent", she whispered.

"A happy New Year, Catherine", came the murmured reply.

Everything was so light in her dream, and so full of beauty. She was surrounded by water, and the waves swayed her gently up and down. Sunbeams caressed her skin and warmed her with their subtle light. And the colors ... those beautiful colors ... blue and gold. A gentle breeze stroked her face, and she met soft lips and searching hands. There was fire in her body, a hot wave that was about to carry her away. Suddenly, her heart beat so loudly that she thought it would burst.
The knocking sound grew louder and more demanding. Not yet fully awake, Catherine tried to pull the the pillow over her head. But then came the voice,"Miss Chandler, are you there? Miss Chandler!" And then again loud knocks.

She jolted upright in her bed. Bright daylight poured into the room. Her searching eyes found Vincent pressed against the bedroom wall, staring at her wide-eyed and panic-stricken.

"It´s okay, Vincent. It´s only Carl. I'll go tell him that I´m all right and send him away. Please come back to bed. It´s okay. Trust me."

The voice from below would not be stilled. "Miss Chandler? Are you okay?"

She jumped to her feet, grabbed her robe, threw Vincent an encouraging look and hurried downstairs.

"Yes, Carl, I´m okay. Cool down!"

She opened the door and he stomped into the room with heavy boots.

"There you are. Thank God! What a storm, huh? Do you need any help?"

"No, really, I´m fine. No need to be upset. I have been sleeping, that's all."

"You are remarkable, Miss Chandler. The worst storm in centuries and you sleep like a baby!"

His eyes wandered over the room and stopped at the clothes that hang still over chairs in front of the fireplace.

Her only response to his puzzled expression was an enigmatic smile.

"Well, I better go now. I see that I needn't worry about you. Have a nice day and a happy New Year!" With that, he was gone so quickly that she couldn´t even thank him.

Catherine looked out into the morning. The sight was overwhelmingly beautiful. Snow crystals glistened in the winter­sun and everything was so quiet and peaceful. She knew that he had stepped behind her, though he hadn´t even caused the slightest noise.

"Isn´t that beautiful, Vincent?"

There was no need to wait for his answer. She could sense his emotions clearly. His soul was like an open book that spoke to her of unending wonders and joy. She turned and, smiling up at him, she lay her arms around his waist. "You are right, Vincent. This sweater does itch."

Having breakfast with Vincent was a unique experience. There hadn´t been many occasions of taking a meal together. While they were eating in companionable silence, fragments of her dream struggled to surface in Catherine´s mind. She was certain that water and sun had been interior images, but what about those lips and hands? She began to wonder what might have awakened her if Carl hadn´t shown up. Pondering those lost possibilities, she became aware of Vincent´s gaze wandering longingly out of the window and over the landscape.

"Would you care for a little walk?" she offered.

For an instant, he hesitated before he said, "I don´t like the thought of causing Carl sleepless nights by leaving mysterious footprints around your house, Catherine."

"You needn´t worry about that, Vincent. You already ruined my good reputation."

His puzzled gaze followed her eyes over to the chairs in front of the fireplace. She could watch the realization dawn on his face, what Carl must have thought at the sight of Vincent´s clothes hanging there. Seldom before had they laughed together so wholeheartedly.

"Well, Catherine, under these circumstances a few footprints won´t do no further harm."

Catherine couldn´t take her eyes off his face. One day, she would tell him how irresistible he looked when he laughed. And he would believe her.

The forest seemed to be right out of a fairy tale book and Vincent enjoyed it thoroughly. Everything they encountered along the way had to be scrutinized by him, and Catherine thought how much she loved watching him. The view over the snowy mountains on the other side of the valley left him almost breathless. He reached for her hand and then stood still, absorbing the pristine beauty of the sight before him. His emotions reached her with astounding clarity. "So much beauty", he whispered, "so much light..."

She put her arms around his waist and leaned against him, asking, "Why then do I sense such sadness in you?"

"I was thinking of Lena. Once she confided to me her innermost dream. She longed so much to see the mountains, the snow-covered mountains."

Catherine leaned her head against his shoulder. "Lena bore within her heart an immense yearning for beauty and light, Vincent. That´s why she fell in love with you."

The colors of a flawless winter sky danced in his eyes as he smiled down on her.

The sinking sun was painting long shadows in the snow when Catherine and Vincent began their descent. Playfully, Catherine let herself glide from tree to tree, seeking hold wherever she could find it. Vincent followed her with cat-like grace, never sliding, never stumbling. At least until that fatal moment when she crossed his way abruptly. She tried to hold on to him, but it was to late. A tangle of legs and arms, they rolled down the hill, until they came to a halt in a snow- cornice. When Catherine opened her eyes she met his surprised gaze, looking down on her worriedly.

"It´s all right, Vincent. Really. I´m fine", she reassured him.

At that, he shook his head, smil­ing."You should have warned me about yourself, Catherine."

That made her laugh, but then she became aware of the pressure of Vincent´s body against hers, as he lay above her, and her thoughts took an entirely different direction. Forgotten was the chill, forgotten the snow that was creeping through even the smallest opening in her clothing. She saw only his eyes, felt the beat of his heart, and met willingly his searching lips - so soft and warm amid all the ice and snow that surrounded them.

It was only with reluctance that she let go of him as he finally rose and offered his hand to help her to her feet. "I do hope there are enough dry clothes for both of us in your house", he said casually.

She began to get used to the sight of Vincent in that heavy woolen sweater and her father´s old pants. His long hair fell in disheveled strands about his shoulders, while he was tending to the fire. The moment had something familiar to it that made her feel as though they had been together like this, forever. He seemed to be perfectly at ease - here - with her. Why then all those months and years of reserve and denial? So many lonely nights, cold nights on her balcony, nights full of unfulfilled dreams. Why then this ... lie? For it was a lie. The sharp ache that flashed through her soul at the memory left no doubt about the fact that he had been less than truthful with her.

Sensing her trail of thought, Vincent came over to her across the room. The expression on his face betrayed that he was aware of what was going on inside her. He didn´t say a word, only gazed at her silently, without touching her. She could feel that he was at a loss as to how to deal with this.

"Vincent, please believe me", she began, "I´m glad that you are here with me. And I´m grateful that you trust me enough not to shut yourself off from me any longer..."

"But?" he coaxed gently.

"...but it still hurts. All those years..."

He dropped his gaze and heaved a deep breath, as he used to do when he was about to make a decision. Then he took her hands in his and searched for her gaze again. Tenderly, his thumbs stroked her fingers as he began to speak.

"When I was little, Catherine, my favorite books were those that contained love stories. Needless to say that the books I read tended to take a highly idealized position on the matter of love and relationships.  Devin began to tease me about it and so I would read those stories secretly. I never talked with anybody about it, and gradually, deep within me the faith was nurtured that love between man and woman must be something holy and eternal, pre-destined by fate from time immemorial. Reverently, I held on to my belief that man and woman were destined to become one in an act of sheer beauty and spiritual purity.

I had no idea of my dark side, then. I liked the girls I grew up with, and I enjoyed their company. I would watch them furtively, pondering who would be their other half, and if mine was already among them. When Lisa came to us, the rest of my life seemed clear to me. I would be her friend until we were old enough to become one. Only the incident with Devin made me realize that there was something within me that I couldn´t quite control.

The incident with Lisa happened a few years after Devin had left the Tunnels. What shocked me the most was not the fact that I had scratched her. It was the realization that I had something within me that wasn´t the self I was familiar with, that shook me to the bottom of my soul. That part of me wanted to touch Lisa, to press her against me, to feel her body, without even knowing what exactly I wanted from her. That was not the way I had read about it. It was overpowering and disconcerting. I was about seventeen then, and quite naive where sexual matters were concerned. Years after that, Father confessed to me that he felt rather guilty about not having prepared me sufficiently for the changes that took place in my body when I grew up. I did have biology lessons, of course, but with me, Father always did his best to avoid matters of sexuality.

We both know his reasons. He thought that was something I could never have, and therefore would never need to know, anyway. After my illness he felt the necessity of making up for his cowardice, but I refused to listen. I didn´t want to hear anything about it. He admitted, that he had accepted that all too willingly then."

Catherine was surprised and deeply touched by the glimpses Vincent allowed her into his past. She sat down, without taking her eyes off his face, not even for a moment, and drew him down to sit beside her.

"Do you think that shock was the reason for your illness then?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I believe it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. But there was something else. It happened only a short time after Lisa had left. I was roaming a section of the tunnel system that Father called "the forbidden tunnels", because it was not safe to pass through them. From time to time there were cave-ins. He was very strict about those tunnels. Not heeding his instructions always meant troubles and therefore I hid in an niche when I heard voices coming toward me. It was a man and a woman from our community. You don´t know them, they don´t live with us anymore. When I realized why those two had been seeking the solitude of the forbidden tunnels it was too late to disappear unnoticed. You could say that was the night when I lost my innocence. I had to witness how they ... mated... so full of greed and lust! Even though I closed my eyes and pressed my ears shut I couldn´t prevent myself from facing the disillusioning reality. That day, my world crumbled, and my dreams with it."

Vincent sighed and Catherine could perceive the anguish of that memory pass through him anew. Tenderly, she stroked the back of his hand, wishing that she could take the pain away from him somehow. He closed his eyes before he continued.

"I sat there alone in the dark for a long time, after the couple had left, and asked myself, how I should live with the terrible truth that the incident had shown me; with the knowledge that one part of me had been excited and even aroused by what the other part detested vigorously.
I couldn´t forget about that split in my personality, and I think that, eventually, this might have caused the seizures and the illness. It started with nightmares that left me crying and sweating in their wake, but relieved that I had only scratched Lisa. Now I thought I knew what that part of me had wanted to do to her then. It was a terrible time, but one day it was over. I made a vow that I would never love a woman, not in this way, not as a man. And all the stories of my childhood faded away and sank into oblivion, together with the dreams of my youth.

When you came into my life, Catherine, you reopened the doors to the enchanted places in my soul. I was aware of the symptoms, I knew that I was falling in love. From the very beginning, you were so close to me like no one ever before. I could feel what you felt, even when we were not together. It was miraculous and overwhelming. And then, one day ... I returned from an errand and caught you at your first attempt to explore my chamber, your eyes still bandaged. I knew with absolute certainty that I hadn´t caused any noise, and yet, you suddenly froze and turned around toward me. You told me I could come to you, you knew that I was there. It was then that I realized that you had it to, the ability to sense me within your soul. The thought of what you might discover if you read my feelings, frightened me. I knew that I couldn´t trust myself because of that part in me that tried to make me a slave to its instincts and that I struggled so desperately to restrain.

That was when I decided to shut myself off from you. I knew I mustn't let that part get in touch with you. With you, all that I had lost and banished from my life, had returned. Hope ... and faith in love..."

Catherine touched the tears on his face. Silently, her lips formed his name. She drew him in her arms then, and held him close. Trustingly, he lay his head on her shoulder, and she thought how much she loved the weight of his body against hers.

"How was it possible", she ventured softly, "to suppress something as vibrant and vivid as our bond? How could you endure that?"

"You know how. You did it yourself", he answered.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"At that time, when Paracelsus held you prisoner to lure me into his dark realm, you said that ..."

"... that I would sacrifice everything for you. Yes. Oh, Vincent, now I see. Why didn´t you tell me then? I would have understood."

"Then was not the time, Catherine. I would never have dreamed that I could ever be this close to you as I am now."

He rubbed his cheek against her shoulder and added softly, "Right now."

She smiled at that and stroked his back. Slowly, he lifted his head and sought her eyes."I thought I could buy your freedom and your happiness by putting chains around my soul. I had to hide behind the walls I had erected in order to protect you. Your love and your trust shamed me, Catherine, for I had not been truthful with you."

He raised his hand to wipe off the tears she was unable to hold back now. Her voice barely obeyed her, when she began to speak. "And yet you found the strength to come to me and tell me at last. That makes me very happy, Vincent. It means everything to me. Everything. What gave you the strength finally? Can you tell me?"

He reclined against the pillows and stared into the fire. "I had a dream, Catherine. I stood before you, but there were walls around my body. Only my head and my arms were free. You wanted to touch me, but I recoiled. You wanted to embrace me, but I rejected you. Yet you went on, unerringly. You started removing stone after stone, although I tried to send you away. When the wall was finally gone, there was nothing left of me. Suddenly I had no body at all. I desperately called your name and asked you if you could see me. And you said, No, but I feel you within me."

The look on his face when he turned toward her again seemed to ask for her interpretation.

"It´s true, Vincent. I can feel you within me now, but ..."

"But?"

"...but besides, I find it wonderful that I can see your body as well."

That was one of the rare occasions when Vincent laughed, head thrown back and uninhibited. But quickly he grew serious again. "You like this body, Catherine?"

"I love this body, Vincent. I love you."

He gazed at her silently, and in his eyes lay a world full of possibilities and wonders. Gently he stroked her cheek with the downy back of his index finger. There was so much tenderness in that small gesture, that Catherine felt her tears well up again. She took his hands and put a warm kiss on each palm. He tilted his head in the familiar way that she loved so much, and said with a tremor in his voice, "It was an incredible sensation, Catherine. We were two souls, and yet one being. There was nothing that separated us. And suddenly I knew that everything I had believed in as a child was true. Everything ... and more. Love is always true. Love can never be scaring. I know that now."

She nodded at that. "And anything else ... simply isn´t love."

Suddenly he became very silent. His gaze returned to the glowing embers of the fireplace, and she could sense clearly that the old wound in his soul began to ache again. Yet, there was a resistance in him now, a resolve not to run from this pain - and at the same time from her. She squeezed his hand gently before she stood up in order to tend to the fire. If not for the peace and the confidence that reached her from him, she would have been afraid that he had withdrawn from her once more.

He must have felt her tentative exploration of his feelings, for he lifted his head and met her gaze. Words were no longer necessary. She felt his smile in her heart before she could see it play across his features. In a single graceful motion he arose and came over to where she was standing. His arms closed around her body and she felt his breath in her hair, as he whispered, "Thank you, Catherine."

It was so wonderful to be with him, to be silent with him. The bond that connected their souls vibrated in that silence. They shared their evening meal like something precious and unique, and Catherine began to ask herself, how she had been able to endure being beside him instead of within him. His love enveloped and warmed her, and she found comfort in the thought that throughout all those months and years with their bond going only one way, her love had surrounded him like that. She knew now how it felt for him to be loved and there was nothing that could have fulfilled her more. She could not interpret everything that she met in the depth of his soul, not yet, but the promises she found there spoke to her heart in a way that needed no explanation. The restless yearning for physical intimacy had given way to the certainty of resting safely within him and always finding him in the core of her being.

They cleared the table and straightened the kitchen in companionable silence. Not even the knowledge that, in a few hours, they would be on their way back to their separate worlds could disturb the tranquil joy in their hearts.

Suddenly, Vincent reached for her and drew her toward him. He brushed her forehead with his lips. His voice was throaty when he finally spoke to her. "Catherine, you should try to get some sleep before we have to go."

She gazed up at him and mutely nodded her agreement. She felt that his eyes were following her as she ascended the stairs, but she didn´t turn back. That would have equaled the question: Don´t you want come too? She knew all too well how fragile that new intensity between them still was, and that it would be wrong to coax him into anything. She had the strength to be patient. Vincent had given it to her. He had opened every hidden door to his innermost being, had overcome guilt and shame - all for her. There could be nothing more intimate than this.

Her bed seemed much to wide as she lay on her back, staring into the darkness. Actually, it was not entirely dark. The starry sky and the light of the moon cast a soft blue light upon the snowy landscape outside and fell in milky beams through the window into the room.

Catherine couldn´t sleep. Her heart was so full of love and tenderness - and gratitude. She caught herself smiling at the thought what she and Vincent had shared, here in the solitude amid the snow covered mountains. And suddenly she knew that he would come to her, for her smile already mirrored in his pounding heart.

Without having caused the slightest noise, he stood in the door. The moonlight got caught in his hair and made it shine softly. The flow of his feelings was warm and steady. Slowly, she sat up as he came over to the bed and sat down beside her. He took her small hands in his and silently gazed into her eyes. She couldn´t see him clearly. His eyes were hidden in deep shadows, but everything she needed to know was written in his heart, and the meaning of what she could read there warmed her heart and made her body tremble. He was trembling too. She could feel it as she came to her knees and into his waiting arms. This kiss was different from his other kisses. There was a freedom around him that allowed his passion to be wild and demanding in all its gentleness. Her hand found its way under the heavy sweater. She freed her lips from his searching mouth, just long enough for her to whisper, "This pull-over..."

"...itches terribly", he continued, smiling.

With a deft movement he removed it. Then he stood up and drew her with him. Reverently, he cupped her face with his hands, before he let them glide down her neck and her shoulders, a silent plea in his eyes. She opened the fastenings of her nightgown and let it slip to the ground.

Everything was so bright and clear inside him when his eyes caressed her beauty with awe and tenderness. She knew that there could never be any fear between them and it filled her with joy to know that he knew it too. He opened his arms and she came to him, raising on tiptoes to kiss the tears from his face. His warmth engulfed her and her softness became his as he loved her with the faith of his childhood, with the dreams of his youth, and with trust in the man that he was. She could feel his rebirth within her and the sweetest truth that could possibly exist was the truth of never having to part with him again.

"Catherine..."
 

"Hmmm?"
"It´s time. We must go."

"Vincent?"

"Yes?"

"This is the happiest New Year of my life."

"It is the happiest New Year of our life, Catherine. And now come!"

The End . . .