"City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style..." Catherine sang to herself as she was swept along with the crowds up Fifth Avenue. It was, indeed, beginning to feel a lot like Christmas New York-style, with lavish window displays and "SALE! SALE!! SALE!!!" signs everywhere you looked. All around her, shoppers pushed past each other, dragging bags of holiday loot.

Catherine spared a moment to gloat with superior self-righteousness, knowing that she had already done all her shopping, then squashed the feeling before Vincent could pick up on it. With the Tunnel society such a polyglot of different beliefs (and lack thereof), it was their tradition to give presents at Winterfest rather than coordinate all the religious winter holidays. And since Winterfest was held early in December, and these days most of Catherine's friends lived Below, well, she was never going to be staggering frantically into a major department store on December 24th ever again.

Actually, she didn't do a lot of department store shopping these days. Just three Winterfests with the world Below had opened her eyes to so many things, not the least of which was the power of the right gift, as opposed to the expensive gift. For example, the right gift to the community as a whole was getting William the ingredients for some dishes that he rarely got the chance to make - and fresh food, she had discovered, cost less than a third of the catered meals she was used to eating. And some gifts didn't require money or wrapping at all. Samantha, just turning 13 and convinced she was now a young woman, was going to be in seventh heaven when Catherine gave her a manicure and pedicure.

Okay, even in the Tunnels sometimes a little frivolous vanity was just the ticket.

But now, it was time to give someone else a present that didn't come in wrappings... well, not in too many wrappings. Time to open someone else's eyes to new possibilities. Time to teach a certain overly solemn someone that there was a time and a place -- and a right -- to have some really serious frivolity.

Catherine's smile got a little wider as she walked into Victoria's Secret.


Four years. Such a very short time in his life... no, in his existence, for what life had he had before Catherine came along? An endless cycle of books and chess games and nameless longings for things that could never be. But now one tiny Topsider had filled his life with wonder after wonder. Experiences that had once been empty words were now magical memories; pleasures as small as takeout food and a VHS movie, pleasures as large as holding the woman he loved.

Kissing the woman he loved.

She had been the first to kiss, friendly little pecks on his cheek or the corner of his mouth in gratitude and love. It had taken him so very long to respond, to even dare think he could kiss her back...

And then one day he had. Catherine was looking up at him so longingly, so lovingly, so closely, and he'd done it. He'd kissed her. And the world hadn't ended.

Father didn't even have a cardiac arrest!

But even though Catherine wanted more, even though HE wanted more, things had gone no further. To truly... join... with Catherine... that had to be absolutely perfect. She deserved no less. And that would be a daunting prospect even for someone who had experience with courtship and women -- two things Vincent decidedly lacked.

Frankly, he wasn't sure he was up to it.

Hopefully, he'd be up to whatever Catherine wanted for her Winterfest present. He'd been agonizing over what he could give her this year, when she dropped the hint that there was something she wanted him to do for her. "Anything," he'd told her, and meant it. He would empty the ponds in Central Park with a teacup - in broad daylight! - if she asked it of him.

But all she'd asked was that he come to her apartment, promising to explain it more when he arrived. She'd offered to give him his Winterfest present then too, as if he needed any other reward than to spend time with her.

Dusk might come early in the winter, but nightfall couldn't come early enough!


As always, Catherine's heart jumped with joy at the sight of that familiar silhouette as Vincent loomed in the French doors. Once she would have had to go out to greet him, even in the cold of midwinter, but after a lot of talking and reassurance, she'd convinced him that he was as welcome in her apartment as she was in his chamber. And at long last, he'd learned to believe her. Vincent opened the French door, smiling at her as he shook a few flakes of snow off his mane, and stepped inside.

May all the barriers be crossed so freely tonight, Catherine thought as she stepped forward to greet him with a wordless hug and kiss.

"So," Vincent said when they finally parted. "There's something you want me to do for you?"

"Actually, Vincent... it's something I want you to do for us."

He cocked his head, puzzled. Catherine took him by the hand and led him to the sofa. "Vincent," she asked as they sat, "do you trust me?"

"Of course!"

"How much do you trust me?"

He didn't hesitate. "With my life."

"And I trust you implicitly."

"I could never hurt you!"

"I know. But... Vincent, there's one thing I want that you have never given me. Because you -- YOU! -- think you'll hurt me. And by denying me what I want - what we both want - you are not only hurting me, you're hurting yourself."

"I don't know what you're..." Vincent's protest broke off in a squeak when Catherine squeezed his knee. "Catherine! You know we can never--"

"Yes! We can! There was a time when you thought we could never have any relationship. When you thought you could never visit me, or never come in here. When you thought we could never kiss. All of those 'nevers' have gone away, and we're not only still together, we're happier than we ever thought we could be."

Vincent sighed, bowing his head as his shoulders slumped. "This is what you want, then? For me to make love to you as your Winterfest present."

"Not quite." That brought his head up with a snap! Catherine smiled gently at him, stroking his cheek and taking heart when he didn't flinch away. "You're always so serious! So worried about doing things the right way, making sure everything's perfect... and as you keep telling me, everything you know, you learned from books. Well, if there's one things that books always get wrong, Vincent, it's sex! They make it sound like some solemn rite, like it's illegal to actually be having fun. Or worse, they make it sound so... effortless! How many stories have you read where the couple had never done anything like it before but they 'just knew' what to do?"


"Right. Let me guess, you were reading and thinking 'but I don't! What if I do it wrong?'"

"I plead the Fifth," Vincent said with as much dignity as he could muster, but she could see the faintest glimmer of laughter kindling in his eyes.

"Well, even if you won't admit it, that's sure what I thought when I first read stories like that! Vincent, I've had sex, and you know what? That isn't it!"

He cocked his head. "Then what is it?"

"Fun. Not perfect - never perfect, I think - but with someone you love, who loves you back - lots of fun."

"Was that to be your Winterfest present to me? Fun?"

"Yes! But not necessarily what you're thinking." She reached over, pulling one of his unresisting hands to the tie of her wrap-around dress. "Vincent, my Winterfest present to you is my body, but you don't have to have sex with me. What I want - what I'm offering - is a chance to look. Explore. Touch. Taste. Play. But no pressure. I don't want you to feel that you have to make love to me tonight. This is YOUR present. You don't have to worry about satisfying me, you don't even need to worry about pleasing me. This is YOUR night to do anything you ever wanted to do."

"But... what is in this for you? If I... and then I don't... won't you just be more frustrated?"

"Vincent, when I dream of a lover, I don't dream of some perfect, scripted sex. How boring! Books talk about women as if we're interchangeable and we all like the same things. Well, I've had some pretty graphic discussions with my girlfriends, and I promise you, that's not true! So when I dream of a man who has taken the time to find out what he likes, too, and will show me,  frustration along the way will be more than paid back later." She laughed. "Besides, I don't think you're going to leave me high and dry. I trust you."

Vincent stared at the cord in his hand as if it were a snake about to bite him. "I don't trust me."

"I'm not Lisa, Vincent. I'm not going to tease and then try to run away. I mean this. If we're going to be lovers, then we need to be comfortable with each other. What better way than to play like this? You know my emotions. You know I love you. You have to know how willing I am to do this."

He was still hypnotized by the cord. "If this is your present to me, and I do not need to... please... you, then what is my present to you supposed to be?"

"Your trust." Catherine leaned forward, kissing him gently on the corner of the mouth. "Your willingness to try." She kissed the other corner. "Your willingness to let me explore in my turn." She kissed him full on. "Are you willing?"

Her answer was a warm hand on the back of her neck, drawing her down for another kiss.

Catherine opened her mouth as their lips met again, and for a split second, Vincent panicked. But his beloved didn't force the issue. It was hard to  read her emotions past the chaos of his own, but as he leaned into the kiss,  daring to finally slip his tongue past her lips, he felt nothing but welcome and joyous surrender.

Unsure of what to do, he ran his tongue along hers. She had been eating chocolate and wine before he came; tastes so rare in his world and so delicious. He suddenly realized he was lapping at her mouth, trying to get every last bit. Chocolate was a precious thing, saved for the children when they got it, and Vincent had been "too old" to share for decades. Embarrassed, he was about to break contact - but then he realized through the bond that she was amused!

He licked her more slowly this time, running just the tip of his tongue along her lips before slowly moving forward to fill her mouth again. Catherine made a sound half chuckle and half moan, throwing back her head to give him full access. This was a dream, this was surely a dream, just as all the other times had been. He could not really be here, tasting his beloved,
feeling her melt against his body. Any minute now, Father would appear and start lecturing him or something. His dreams had become so... Freudian... of late. He was in his chamber dreaming, and Catherine was... Catherine was...

Catherine was warm and willing in his arms, and she wasn't just amused. She was beginning to be aroused.

And so was he.