A new chapter before the weekend? Why not? May 7th is Candy's birthday, so I thought it would be appropriate to publish the chapter to commemorate the special day.

I hope you enjoy this long chapter and find it entertaining.

I do have to warn you that you may want to buckle up. It'll be a bumpy ride ahead. :D

Disclaimer: I don't own Candy Candy manga and all the characters in it, but the talented Kyoko Mizuki does. This fic is a product of my own twisted imagination and inspired by Mizuki's masterpiece. If any of the plots, specific scenes, or dialogues appears to be similar to that from another fic or story, it is purely unintentional and coincidental. 'Great minds think alike', after all.

The characterization in the fic is based on the Manga and not the Anime.

Acknowledgement: Thank you all for your continued support and encouragement, and for all your faves and follows. Truly appreciate them from the bottom of my heart.

And I can't thank my betas enough for their diligence and invaluable inputs. It's a super long chapter, but they managed to have it done quickly. Thank you both of you. :D

Shout out to kellyelin, Candy Bert, Josie, and KeilaNt. Thank you for the reviews and messages. My heartfelt gratitude to you all.

Without further ado, please enjoy the new chapter!


Awakening

By forever

Chapter 11

The early evening breeze blew cool air from the lake, susurrating through new leaves that sparsely covered the branches of cypress and sycamore trees. Distant laughter and cheer of children playing baseball in the nearby field intermittently broke through the steady flow of indistinct murmurs of neighbors chatting merrily in their front yards. It wasn't exactly a balmy summer day for an outdoor activity, but a clear, sunny day was always embraced with hopeful enthusiasm, especially after the recent freezing spell from a few days ago.

Not minding the cheerfulness all around her, Candy tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear as she watched the small, red pebble she had kicked land with a crisp thunk on the bed of gravels. With the tip of her boot, she dug at the pile of dirt and searched for more pebbles. Feeling the sunrays searing the skin of her uncovered nape, she became acutely aware of the amount of time she had spent loitering in the vacant lot across the street from the Magnolia Apartment, as though she had nothing better to do, when in reality someone was probably anxiously awaiting her return.

No, she wasn't hiding from Albert. She wouldn't be here if she were—she would be far away, inside a place like the Barlow's Manor.

So why was she here again then? She was waiting for courage to return. Right… courage. That sounded ridiculous even to herself.

Okay, maybe she was stalling a little. She didn't want to go home yet. She wasn't ready to see Albert.

It had seemed easy in the beginning. The lingering doubts and uncertainty that had infiltrated her mind and turned her into an inept nurse yesterday had been mostly absent. Work had kept her on her toes that she couldn't remain idle a second too long to allow any unbidden thought to sneak in. Since morning, only minutes after she had arrived at the clinic, patients had poured in nonstop until near closing time. It was as if everyone had picked today of all days to become sick or injure themselves, and that had thrown the clinic into a state of near chaos. Naturally, Dr. Martin had relied on her to assist him, and Candy knew she couldn't afford to make the same mistakes she had yesterday, or the outcome would be detrimental. Hence, she had devoted all her energy and wits into every task assigned to her. All in all—except during the brief period she had spent with Tina, whereupon she had been presented with another dilemma that she really didn't want to deal with right now—she had managed to end her day at work without squandering a minute of her time to ruminate about Albert and her burgeoning feelings for him.

However, it had all changed the minute she had walked out of the clinic and started her trek home. Thoughts of Albert and her imminent meeting with him bombarded her mind, and the next thing she knew, she was reliving yesterday all over again. Anxiety had mercilessly pestered her all along the way, tormenting her with conflicting emotions and taunting her with never-ending what ifs. Then, when she had raised her head and inadvertently caught a glimpse of Albert's back inside the apartment through the window, her courage that had shrunken to mere pea sized was trampled into a pulp.

"Are you going to kick pebbles all night long? Why haven't you come inside?"

A familiar deep voice bored through the chaotic jungle of her thoughts, and Candy twirled around, squinting at the tall figure silhouetted against the blinding glare of the setting sun. Her heart leaped. "Albert…" His name escaped her mouth in a soft, guilt-laden whisper.

He advanced a step and bent down to pick up the purse she had carelessly thrown on the ground earlier. "I was beginning to think you were going to ditch me again."

"WHAT?! NO…" Candy blurted out in vehement denial. "I wouldn't do that to you," she added, her voice dropping to a low mumble, her gaze straying to the ground. That was the truth. She wasn't very proud of the cowardice act she had done yesterday and had resolved not to repeat it—but she wasn't sure Albert believed her. Seeing him sauntering toward her from out of the corner of her eye, she steered her gaze back to him, but the intensity of the sunlight forced her to squint until it was blocked completely from her line of sight when he stood in front of her.

Albert extended his hand out to pass the purse to her, his blue gaze fastened on her, searching the veracity of her statement. "Then what are you doing here?"

Candy swiftly glanced down and took the purse from him. "I… Umm… I was enjoying the beautiful weather and lost track of time. I'm sorry…" Her gaze rose to meet his timidly, and she restrained the urge to whip her head back down when she discerned a trace of disappointment beneath the delicate twitches at the edge of his mouth. Instead she offered him an apologetic smile that withered halfway before it blossomed into a real smile, her hands wringing the leather strap of her purse.

"Is that so?" Albert's dubious tone pricked at her, and she expected him to prod her further. He didn't, only keeping mum, but his penetrating gaze never veered from her, which unnerved her to no end. A few moments passed in complete silence before he finally looked away and heaved a long sigh in resignation. "I suppose we can talk more later. Are you hungry?"

Quietly expiring the air from her lungs in relief, Candy nodded at once.

Albert smiled at her eagerness. "I'm hungry too. Let's get something to eat." He spun around and began walking, shoving both hands into his trousers pockets.

Candy noted he didn't cross the street toward the apartment as she had expected. Confused, she slipped the strap of her purse over her shoulder and followed him. "Where are we going? Aren't we going to eat at home?"

Albert's step halted, and he swiveled halfway to look at her as she approached him. "It was a bit hectic at work, so I didn't have time to buy anything earlier. I thought we could have dinner in a restaurant—it's my treat, of course. What do you think?"

Candy raised her hands and shook them in front of her. "Oh, no... you shouldn't do that. I mean you don't need to treat me. I can—" She abruptly stopped and sighed aloud. Really. There was no reason for her to decline his generosity. Besides, it wasn't as though there were other choices, unless she wouldn't mind having breakfast for dinner. "I guess I should just say yes." She lowered her head slightly, maintaining her gaze on him, a bashful smile on her lips.

Albert chuckled. "Yup, that would be good."

They decided to go to Milly's, a modest family eatery owned by a German couple, which had become the local townspeople's favorite. The walk to the restaurant took approximately fifteen minutes during which the sun continued its descent into the horizon, dragging its resplendent cloak across the cloudless blue sky and over the land beneath, shrouding it with warm glow. It really was a beautiful day, abound with the presence of spring. Newly formed blades of grass breathed life to the weary ground, splashing vivid green over the muddy brown. Vibrant lavender and daffodil buds nestled among the tall bushes swayed in the breeze while quivering butterflies performed their graceful dance rituals above.

But Candy was too absorbed in her attempt to pacify the tumultuous thumping inside her chest to be able to enjoy the splendor of nature. With head dipped, her gaze low, she walked alongside Albert, mostly keeping to herself. She was nervous. This was the first time, since the fateful kiss, they would be together for an extended period. The several minutes they had spent earlier in the morning hadn't provided them with adequate time to delve into a serious conversation, whereas now they could.

Albert, on the other hand, appeared composed and unaffected, talking in his steady, baritone voice. Once in a while, his deep chuckle merging with his words rumbled in her ears. As she listened to him talking at length about Pouppe, she noticed how smooth and rich his voice was, like a steady, mellifluous hum in her ears. Somehow, she vaguely remembered hearing the same voice humming a sweet lullaby to her in one of her dreams. Could it be that it wasn't a dream at all and that he had really serenaded her to sleep, just like she had kissed him last night?

The answer never came, and the question was soon forgotten when they entered the village center that was aglow with flickers and sparkles against the fading trails of dusk. Lights spilled out of store windows onto the sidewalk, and one by one the streetlamps that lined the promenade were lit.

They stepped into Milly's to find the place bustling to capacity with dinnertime patrons and had to wait about fifteen minutes before they were ushered to their seats in the middle of the crowded dining area. With the constant, loud buzzing of random noises coalescing together, it was challenging to carry a lengthy, meaningful conversation inside the restaurant, so they both resorted to eat their meals without much talking, except for exchanging occasional brief, general comments. Candy was totally fine with that arrangement, as she wasn't in a talkative mood. Plus, at least for the time being, she didn't need to worry about Albert broaching nerve-wracking matters.

Yet there was one thing Candy hadn't counted she would be doing during dinner. She hadn't noticed it before, when they had been outside—now she sure had and couldn't stop stealing small glimpses of Albert from across the table. To be caught by him would be terribly embarrassing, as she could attest from the experience in the morning—but she just couldn't help herself.

She had acknowledged that Albert was a good-looking man, but tonight he looked exceptionally handsome. He had traded the casual outfit from the morning for something more appealing, a crisp white button down shirt layered with a dark navy knit sweater. The hue from the sweater accentuated the blue tint in his irises, adding a touch of radiance to his already dazzling pair of orbs, his hair shimmering like a mass of gold threads against the dark colored fabric.

From the coy smiles their waitress flashed at him and the appraising glances a handful of other women threw in his direction, she could see she wasn't the only one entranced by his appeal.

Leaving the succulent, maple glazed pork roast on her plate barely eaten, Candy sneaked yet another glance toward Albert and saw the flutter of his long, dark lashes beneath his wispy bangs as he looked down at his plate, the seam between his lips spreading ever so slightly to allow a piece of meat to pass through. There was finesse in his every move that if she hadn't focused on the lower part of his face, she couldn't tell he was chewing his food. She had never paid attention to how Albert ate before. Now that she had, juxtaposed to the elegant way he chewed his food and the refined way his long, slender fingers curling around the silverwares maneuvered a clean slice across the meat, she felt like an uncouth country bumpkin.

Obviously such an impeccable display of polished table manners couldn't be born out of thin air. It was something that must have been instilled in him since he was a child, something akin to the strict etiquette training typically imposed in upper class homes. The idea that Albert came from an affluent family had crossed her mind during Archie's party, and what she had observed of him ever since then made her believe that it might very well be the case. The reason why he had hidden his true identity and pretended to be a hobo was still a big giant question mark, and there was the possibility that she might never find out, especially if he decided to leave her.

Candy lifted her gaze slowly and nearly gasped out loud to find Albert's blue eyes assessing her intently.

"I thought you said you were hungry…" Albert commented, his voice nearly swallowed by the loud drone of chatter and laughter around them. "Why aren't you eating? You don't like the food?" he asked with a raised voice, leaning toward her.

She brushed aside the worry on his face with a cursory smile and dropped her gaze down to her plate, poking at her food with the fork. "No, the pork is amazingly tender and delicious. I'm…I'm just thirsty," she blurted out the first thing that popped in her mind and cast him an entreating grin. "Can we order some drinks?"

Albert eyed the untouched glass of water next to her plate and cocked a skeptical eyebrow at her.

"Uhmmm…. I want something else other than water," she quickly supplied.

Despite the unsure look Albert wore on his face, he didn't question her and signaled for the waitress.

When Candy saw him ordering a glass of beer, under his slanted brow, she eagerly requested the waitress to bring another glass for her as well. From the look he gave her, she knew Albert wasn't entirely pleased she had ordered the beer and had braced herself for a reproach from him. Much to her surprise, the reproach never came, and he didn't even utter a single word, neither to comment nor to discourage her.

Soon their waitress returned to their table with their order and placed the two glasses of beer on the table. Candy inspected the tall glass in front of her curiously. It was filled with cloudy, light amber liquid topped with thick, white froth rising above its rim. She had never drunk beer before—this would be her first time. So far, her exposure to alcohol containing beverage had been limited to the wine that had been served at different parties she was fortunate enough to attend, including the New Year's party aboard the ship that had transported her across the Atlantic to London. She had no idea how beer tasted, and whether it would be something she could handle. Would it make her drunk? Every time she drunk wine, she would get dizzy after a few sips. Would beer have the same effect on her?

"Are you sure you're going to drink that?" Albert asked with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes.

Any wavering vanished upon his taunting. Candy grabbed her glass and took a mouthful of beer, swallowing the liquid in one gulp.

Albert's brows shot up in surprise.

Candy chuckled quietly seeing the goofy expression of disbelief persist on Albert's face, even after she had set the glass down on the table. Albert probably had thought she wouldn't dare drinking the beer. Well, he was wrong. She had taken that one large gulp just to disprove the notion. An immature thing to do—she admitted, but she couldn't help it.

Without saying anything, she reverted her focus to her plate, tucking her lips in her mouth and licking them clean from the beer residue.

Beer wasn't bad at all. If anything, it tasted better than wine. The bitterness was less pronounced, and the liquid didn't burn her throat. Plus, the subtle, unique aftertaste of a blend of burnt caramel and banana was something she could appreciate more than the tannicity in wine. Although she was somewhat disappointed for not being able to feel the mollifying effect from the beer, unlike wine that seemed to work at the first sip.

As she resumed eating her food, she flicked her gaze up to Albert, who coincidentally had his gaze directed toward her. For a moment, neither of them moved nor said anything.

Then, in a moment that took her breath away, he smiled, his blue eyes twinkling in the dim light. "How's the beer?"

"Umm… not bad," she remarked with a nervous smile. Feeling the gush of heat on her face, she suddenly needed to cool herself and hastily drank from her glass.

Her second sip of beer—but other than the lingering taste of burnt bread on her mouth, she didn't feel anything. The third sip didn't have any impact on her either. It wasn't until the fifth sip when she finally started to feel something, as she found herself smiling and laughing more often, throwing remarks here and there.

Then as she tipped her glass up for another quick swig, bringing the content to half of the glass, everything around her seemed brighter while she felt lighter, warmer, and perhaps even happier? But she was still a bit nervous too. Maybe she was nervously happy—she couldn't tell. It didn't matter much anyway as long as she could laugh with ease without feeling like she had to force herself.

Albert lifted a brow at her, and she grinned back in return. "What?" she asked.

"Umm… you have some foam on your face, Candy…" Albert said after having remained mute for some time, only responding with a smile every time she had mentioned something to him.

"Really? Let me see…" Candy raised her knife close to her face and checked the distorted reflection of herself on the shiny surface. Noting the white froth that clung to the perimeter of her upper lip immediately, she burst out laughing. "You're right. Hey! I have a mustache now! I look like Dr. Martin with his white mustache!"

Albert laughed.

Candy quickly smothered her laughter and used the napkin on her lap to wipe the foam. Somehow the way he laughed with the gleam in his eyes softening into a tender gaze made Candy feel self-conscious. Normally he would've guffawed without restraint and might have even added a quip or two. "I'm being silly, aren't I?" she smiled sheepishly, her cheeks warm.

"Not really…" he replied, an amused wistful smile carving out a dimple at the corner of his lips. "I haven't seen you laugh like that for a long while. So it's all good."

The truth in Albert's words twisted a knot around her stomach. It reminded her of her current plight, the struggles and battles she was facing—and just like that, her mood dampened. "Yeah… It's certainly been a while…"

Her hand reached for her glass, but Albert snatched it away before she could even touch it. "That's enough for tonight, missy." The admonition was clear in his voice in spite of the teasing smile on his face.

Fully aware that an argument with Albert would possibly ruin the rest of their dinner and could lead to more tension and awkwardness later, Candy relented without a fuss, "Oh, all right. I'm not thirsty anymore."

Thereafter, they spent the rest of their dinner in silence, immersed in their own thoughts.

Moments later, once they had taken the last bites out of their chocolate cakes and sipped the last drop of their tea, they filed out of the restaurant and walked down the promenade. Candy couldn't be happier to be outside, away from all the noises and free from the confines of the overcrowded restaurant. The breeze, stronger but not much colder than before, felt nice on her feverish skin while the faint smell of cypress mixed with sweet, newly blooming lavender permeating the air induced a tranquilizing effect on her. Above her, the sky was a breathtaking sight of a glittering black canvas of myriad twinkling stars and a shining, near perfectly round moon.

All in all, it was a lovely night for a stroll. Couples, young and old, could be seen ambling along the promenade. Witnessing one particular older couple reveling in such simple delight of just being together, holding hands while talking intimately and exchanging gleeful, loving glances, stirred a longing in Candy's heart. Would she ever be so lucky enough to experience a profound love that lasted through decades? Her gaze drifted toward the man walking next to her, who seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, oblivious to her presence, and she smiled sadly. It didn't appear that she was even close to finding her true love. She had conceded that Albert would never reciprocate her feelings, so she should abide by that and stop her daydreaming now.

As they continued to move farther from the downtown area and entered the quiet residential clusters, Candy felt anxiety coiling around her and tightening its hold with every passing moment. She had no idea what would happen next, but the writhing in her gut told her that they wouldn't go home and retire straight for bed. With everything that had transpired between them, they certainly had a lot to talk about. So far though, since they had left the restaurant, they had kept their chitchat to a minimum, staying on relatively innocuous topics.

"I can't believe how warm tonight is compared to that night after Archie's party."

Candy flinched, staring at Albert's profile. With his neck craned, his chin tipped up high, he seemed to be peering at the stars above, imparting nonchalance. But, however trivial and casual it might sound, his comment was packed with more purpose and meaning than any other words he had uttered the entire day—this was the first time he had mentioned anything about that night. Were they going to finally talk about what had happened between them, about the kiss?

"Yeah…" she mumbled absently, surveying their surroundings. From the narrow bridge several feet ahead, she knew they were less than a block away from the Magnolia Apartment. "Thank you for dinner, Albert. Next time, it should be my turn to treat you. You treated me twice already this month." She turned to him.

Swiveling his head toward her, he smiled faintly, his blue eyes twinkling in the pale light of the streetlamp. "You don't need to do that, Candy. Please don't ever think you owe me anything, ever. Considering all the accommodations you have provided me, I'm the one with a huge debt to repay. But…" His expression shifted to serious, his brows puckered in a frown below his fluttering bangs. "May I ask you something? Why did you order beer when you know you have low tolerance for alcohol?"

She briskly glanced away, feeling suddenly irritated by his blunt query. Why did he have to bring that up now? "No reason. I can do whatever I want. I'm not a little kid anymore, you know."

"I know you're not," he murmured, his tone uncertain.

"So don't treat me as one," she snapped, earning a bewildered look from him.

"I don't," came his firm denial. He ceased in his track abruptly, affixing his gaze to her. "What's going on, Candy?" he asked, a blend of impatience leaking off his voice. "You haven't been yourself since this morning. Are you upset with me?"

Candy didn't answer, and instead, moving past him toward the bridge in slow, lingering steps, she pressed on, her tone a mixture between apathetic and sardonic, "All this irksome awkwardness and tension between us—it's all because of that kiss, isn't it?" The sneer on her face quickly disintegrated into a grimace as she felt the twinge piercing through her chest, but she disregarded it and forced herself to continue, "That kiss was a grave mistake. We shouldn't have done that." She halted her step and leaned against the wooden railing of the bridge, gazing down at the creek below, at the reflection of the moon rippling on its surface, cool breeze blowing gently against her face.

Her rapid breathing slowly returned to normal, but the hard pounding against her chest persisted, and so was the dull pain in her heart. She had done it—she had said what should've been said two days ago even though every part of her wished she had uttered the complete opposite. It astonished her how she had managed to do it without fumbling over her words. Perhaps it was the alcohol in her system that silenced her conscience and lent her the strength to betray her own heart.

"Is that really what you think?" Albert's deep voice floated through the soft purling sound of streaming water in the creek, and for a second, she thought she heard a faint whimper of hurt in it. "That it was a mistake?"

She spun around, a strained rueful smile on her face. "What else should I think? We both were drunk that night."

Albert stepped forward to stand in front of her. "And you made yourself drunk again tonight so that you could make the same mistake?" he scoffed. "I shouldn't have let you order that beer earlier."

"No…" Candy muttered under her breath, giving the strap of her purse a vigorous tug as she felt herself begin to simmer in anger, fueled by pent up annoyance and frustration that had accumulated for the last few days. "I'm not drunk. A bit dizzy—but not drunk." Then in a louder voice, she added, "And please stop acting like you're responsible over my well being. You're not my guardian." Her face contorted into a glower as she delivered her final statement, "You're not my Uncle William."

Albert recoiled. His mouth snapped open, as though he would contradict her, but he immediately clamped it shut, staring at her in consternation. Candy discerned a faint flicker of hurt in his eyes and felt a pang of guilt. However, it disappeared as quickly as she could blink, and the next thing she saw was the clenching of his jaw as his face hardened into an impenetrable veneer. "It would be best if we continue this conversation once your mind is clear," he finally said after a brief moment of silence.

If there was any guilty feeling remaining in her, it all evaporated by now.

No, he couldn't do this to her!

She wouldn't stop and wouldn't be deterred, especially not when she finally had the elusive courage back in her clutch. She was tired of all the tension and awkwardness and wished for all to end soon, even if it meant she would have her heart shattered to pieces. "But my mind is clear, Albert. You said I was avoiding you. How about you?" Her eyes scrutinized his face, searching for any shift in his expression. She found none. "That night, after we kissed, you pushed me away when I tried to approach you, to talk to you. You were detached and evasive, and even a bit standoffish. Clearly, you thought the kiss was a mistake."

Her lips curled up in a sad sneer as she noticed the deep creases between his brows in a frown, seemingly in objection to her claim, but she didn't stop and continued talking with increasing vigor. "You regretted it happened and felt guilty that you let it happen. I also know you slept outside the bedroom that night. You did it because you don't want to be close to me— you don't want to be near me. You're afraid that I might…" she trailed, sinking into soft panting as she attempted to catch her breath, staring at him. Unsure if she could even continue, she whirled away from him, facing the creek again. Even though she was still uncertain about many things, of one thing she was sure—she absolutely had no intention to divulge her feelings to him. Not tonight, not ever.

"About that night…" Albert began with a long sigh, occupying the space next to her. Candy, noting his hand only inches away from hers resting atop the wooden railing, had to forcefully repress the urge to peek a glance at him. "Yes, it's true. I can't lie. I was trying to distance myself from you," he admitted in a remorseful tone before quickly adding, "but not for the reason you think. The actual reason is umm… a bit complicated. It's possible you might have made the wrong assumption."

There, she had heard the truth directly from his mouth. She had expected it—but… It was still agonizingly painful. Disregarding the stinging around her face from tears that began to develop, Candy lowered her head and watched their reflections in the dark water. With the moon casting a gentle glow as the backdrop behind them, they looked like a couple basking in a romantic moment. Sadly, there wasn't an iota of romance in their current situation.

"Candy…" Albert's voice, kind and gentle as usual, beckoned her. "It's getting late. We should head back now… We could resume our talk later in the apartment…" He paused for a short moment, as though pondering about something, and then asked, "Do you really want to know why I avoided you that night?"

An ironic chuckle escaped her lips. "What's there to talk about, Albert?" She took a deep breath, blinking back tears that threatened to spill out. "I thought it's very clear, even without you telling me."

A small gasp flew out of her mouth when Albert suddenly seized her hand, forcing her to face him. "I don't think so, Candy. I don't think you understand at all…" His gaze hard with conviction riveted to her. "If you did, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now."

Candy scowled at him with no regard to the tears that had leaked out of the corner of her eye and flowed into rivulets on her cheeks or the aghast look on his face. This was much harder than she thought, and he surely didn't make it any easier on her. Yes, she already accepted that he didn't reciprocate her feelings—but must he insist that she heard it from himself?

Without saying anything, she whisked her hand free from his grip and ran off toward the apartment, roughly brushing the tears from her eyes with the sleeves of her coat. She didn't slow down until she stood in front of the door to her apartment, panting from all the running. For whatever reason, Albert hadn't pursued her. With his longer legs and stronger physique, he could've easily caught up with her but he hadn't. In fact, he hadn't even called after her. It certainly felt like he had deliberately kept his distance.

Yet she knew Albert had followed right behind her and would be here any minute. Hurriedly she unlocked the door, flung it open, and stormed inside the dark apartment, purposefully leaving the door open. She threw her purse carelessly on the table and strode to the kitchen without bothering to switch on the light, nearly tripping over Pouppe that had skittered from out of nowhere into her path.

Then, just as she made it to stand by the sink, Albert's voice reached her, "Candy, I don't—"

"Why do things have to change?" she asked in a near whimper, as though she hadn't heard him. "Why must there be something between us? Why can't we have fun anymore? Why can't we remain like how we used to be, just being Albert and Candy? Why can't we become best friends for life?" Then as an afterthought, she added, "Why do you have to leave?"

There was no answer.

The door closed with a muted click, and a moment later, following an evenly timed tapping of shoes against the hardwood, another muted click tore through the silent air then yellow light flooded the entire space.

Following a deep sigh, Albert finally replied, "I already told you the reason why I need to leave eventually. As for your other questions… Is that really what you want? For us to be best friends for life?"

Candy stared hard at her fingers that curved around the edge of the porcelain sink, her knuckles white as she held onto it for dear life, struggling to fight another wave of tears. "Isn't that what you want?"

It wasn't a question, and she didn't expect him to answer.

"Candy…"

She whipped her body around but seeing the pained expression on his face made her want to turn away at once. "No, Albert. Please let me say this once for all before I lose my wits and courage again." He didn't reply and only encouraged her to continue with an attentive look, so she began, "I know I've changed. My feelings have changed. But you see… I don't want to feel like this—but I can't. I tried. God knows how hard I tried." By this time, she felt like she was about to cry and took a deep breath to regain her composure, hanging with all her might onto her withering courage. "But I just can't," she continued in a despondent manner. "The feelings just won't stop coming. Then that kiss happened, and now I just… I just…" She hung her head in dejection, fidgeting with her fingers.

Albert approached her, determination reflecting in the steady pacing of his stride. "Candy, you should know that I—"

"Albert, please…" Candy jerked her head up, bringing his step to an abrupt halt a few feet away from her. "Please don't say it. I know how you feel about me, and I'm fine with that. I'm fine…"

"You're fine?" he repeated, as if to himself, his gaze dimming with uncertainty. "What do you mean you're—wait a minute…" His mouth set in a grim line. "Are you absolutely sure you know how I feel about you?" He trod the remaining distance between them and outstretched his hands to grasp hers. "Frankly, I don't think you know at all…"

Overwhelmed by the barrage of negative emotions that began to suffocate her, Candy brusquely stepped aside to dodge him, giving her back to him. Why couldn't he just let it go? Was he trying to make her confess to him? For what? So he could laugh at her? Or worse, pity her?

"You're wrong… I do... I do know. I know that no matter what you'll never lo—" She halted abruptly, the words 'love me as I love you' dangling at the tip of her tongue. Swallowing the words back, she curled her fingers into tight fists until the sharp nails cut into her palms and the pain from it prevailed over the one that was ripping at her heart. "Maybe… I should stop this while I still can before it goes out of control… and I ruin everything. Maybe... Maybe it'll be better if you leave. I don't know for how much longer I can bear this… This awfully ludicrous feeling. I don't know if I… If I…" She wheezed sharply and fell into broken pants, as though she had run out of breath, her mind a whirlwind of chaotic thoughts.

A hand landed on her shoulder, and she flinched.

"Candy—"

"I think you should leave now!" she blurted out loud, her words tearing and slashing viciously against the blanket of silence that enveloped the tiny kitchen, taunting, mocking back at her.

Stones, hard and cold like solid block of ice, filled her chest cavity, spreading chills along her body down to the bones. She slapped both hands over her mouth. Oh God… What had she done?

"I see…" Albert uttered coolly, retracting his hand. "If that's what you wish, I'll leave—"

Albert had barely pivoted on his heel when Candy suddenly hurled herself onto his back, her arms roping around his waist. Her body shuddered with sobs. "No… I'm sorry… I'm sorry… I'm so sorry…"

Standing as still as an inanimate statue, Albert didn't move while Candy continued clinging to him, as if he were her lifeline, her cries muffled in the folds of his sweater. All her feelings gushed out in the relentless dribbles of tears. She cried for her inability to be honest with him, for her failure in reining in her emotions, for the excruciating pain she had to endure from her unrequited feelings for him, for the possibility of losing him for good due to her own foolishness, for everything.

Once her sobs began to subside into intermittent, feeble mewls, Albert gripped her hands and gently coaxed her to loosen her hold around him. "Candy…" He rotated in his spot to face her and slipped both hands below her jaw to cup her bowed head, gingerly lifting it up so that she gazed right into his eyes.

Candy held her breath at the tender smile before her. A searing pain coursed through her as she recalled all the harsh words she had tossed to him without the slightest consideration. Those scathing words—how could she even say those things to him? How could she have been so callous? "I'm sorry…" She drew back a sniffle. "I…"

Albert wiped her tears with a light brushing of his knuckles over her skin. "It's okay, you know... I understand. If my presence here makes you feel uncomfortable, I can move out…"

"But I don't want you to move out," she countered in earnest, her eyes pleading. "Albert, you must believe me. I didn't mean any of those words."

He stopped wiping her face and rested his hand on her shoulder. "Then do you want to tell me what has been bothering you?"

Candy shook her head weakly. "I don't think I can."

He sighed, seemingly grappling to contain his frustration. "I understand how it can be difficult, but it's clearly tormenting you. And I really want to help you. Perhaps you could at least try."

"Ummm… Perhaps…" she echoed unsurely, her eyes, blurred with tears, scanning his face and taking in all the features, thoroughly, unhurriedly, from the pair of shapely eyebrows veiled beneath wispy strands of blond hair, to the sapphire gems, the exquisitely sculpted nose, and the pair of thin strips of soft, pinkish flesh that formed alluring masculine lips. "Why are you so kind to me, Albert? Do you know that it only makes it harder for me to…" She hesitated, looking at him anxiously.

"To what?" he cajoled in a whisper, placing a hand on her cheek. "You know you can tell me anything."

The corner of her lips fluttered in faint acknowledgment.

"What are you so afraid of, Candy? Is it me? Are you afraid of me?" His gaze fixed on hers, imploring her to confide to him, soft fingertips skimming over her skin in feather-light caresses. "Have I done anything to hurt you?"

Her breathing turned shallow and raspy at his gentle ministration. "No…" she shook her head.

"So… Would you tell me more about this feeling that seems to overwhelm you? Maybe we could try to sort through it together. I care a lot about you, Candy, but there's nothing I could do if you don't share what has been troubling you."

His gentle voice lulled her mind like a soothing balm, and she found herself eyeing his lips, imagining their softness against hers. "I know, but…" she murmured absently. Her hand rose of its own accord toward his face and settled against the curve of his cheek, her thumb grazing his cheekbone. "… I…"

His hand covered hers, pressing it against his cheek and enveloping it in its warmth. "Candy... "

She lifted her eyes, and upon looking into a pair of blue eyes radiating with kindness, she brought her face closer to his before she suddenly froze.

What was she doing? Was she thinking of kissing him? That was just plain wrong! How could she be thinking of something so indecent when he was doing his best to console her, as a caring friend?

Pulling her hand out of his grasp and letting it fall limply to her side, Candy scoffed, mostly at herself. "This isn't working…" She scraped at her bottom lip with the sharp edges of her teeth as freshly materialized tears pricked behind her eyelids. Albert withdrew his hand from her, the crinkles on his brows casting trepidation over his once calm façade. "I just can't do this anymore. I have no control over myself." Her head shook in futile resignation. Then, passing him a dismal smile with her heart torn and bleeding, bared for him to see, she scurried to the bedroom and slammed the door close behind her, securing it against her back.

There was no delay in Albert's reaction as she could hear his hoarse breathing through the door right away. "Candy—open the door," he pleaded in earnest, any trace of calm in his voice vanished. "Please…"

Candy twisted halfway and leaned one shoulder against the door. "No... " she whispered weakly, hoping with all her heart he would let her be. She was already on the verge of losing herself—teetering at the end of the rope.

"What's going on, Candy?" he questioned, his tone unexpectedly reverting to gentle. "Why are you running away from me again? If there's anything that I—"

"Leave me alone, Albert," she insisted in a desperate half yell. "You don't understand... I did something bad... Something really bad. I'm so ashamed of myself. I should be stoned to death."

Her breath skidded into a sharp wheeze as it dawned on her what she had just revealed to him, albeit unwittingly.

"What?!" Albert exclaimed in panic "Quit joking around—it's not at all funny. Please open the door. I beg you."

"NO…" she declared firmly, her voice reverberating in the dark room. She had gone too far. It was too late to turn back now. He wouldn't let her, even if she tried. There was no way out for her except telling him the truth. She turned to face the door, splaying her hands against the hard surface, and squeezed her eyes shut, her heart pounding in her ears. "You see, I can't. I'm... I feel so ashamed of myself. I'm a filthy human being. I'm so dirty you shouldn't come near me, or I would ruin you too."

"What are you talking about?" Albert's voice jumped an octave with incredulous apprehension. "You are NOT," he asserted. "Candy, please... just open the door first. Then we can talk. Please…"

"But I am!" she contended, her eyes flying open. There was an inexplicable ire building in her and if anything, it only goaded her to continue. "God... I shouldn't have read that book, but it's too late now... Curse Tina and her wicked book…" she sneered. "If only..."

"What book?" Albert interrupted her pondering in a clipped tone, sounding as if running low in patience, and she could almost see him gritting his teeth. "What book are you talking about?"

"Tina's book. A cursed book." Candy huffed, recalling the moment she had agreed to read the scandalous book. "You see, it poisoned my mind and skewed my perceptions of many things. And now I have these vile thoughts… And these vile thoughts are… all about you." Her voice sank into a reflective whisper as her mind wandered, sifting through a collection of fragmented memories, searching for the exact moment when it all started, the precise time when she had fallen for him. "Thoughts that I shouldn't have harbored for a friend, forbidden fantasies and desire. It's maddening, but I can't stop them. They keep coming. Every time. Like what happened just now, while you were comforting me, all I wanted to do was to… touch you… to kiss you… to…"

Only then Candy noted how quiet it had become, not even the faintest sigh could be heard. Albert must have been so appalled by her and left. Still, there was a part of her that stubbornly clung to the belief that he wouldn't leave her in such a brusque manner regardless of how disappointed he was with her.

Swallowing the huge lump in her throat, she opened the door, slowly, hesitantly, just allowing a tiny crack. With one eye, she peered through the narrow slit and could see the table and chairs that occupied the living quarter, the window on the opposite wall with Pouppe curling on the floor right underneath it, and…

Her heart dropped to her stomach at the jarring realization. Albert wasn't there—but he could be in the kitchen, her mind quickly supplied. Flinging the door open with an urgent swiftness that caused it to slam against the wall, she careened out of the room into the living room and stumbled to a halt by the table, her fingers clenching around its rounded edge, her pulse jumping, her breathing raucous against the peacefulness of the night. She didn't dare direct her gaze to the kitchen, for the possibility of not finding him there would crush her to naught.

Then she heard it. A faint rustle behind her. She whirled around and froze in an instant, eyes wide in stunned silence.

Albert hadn't left. In fact, he seemed to be waiting for her, leaning against the wall next to the bedroom, assuming a relaxed stance, his arms folded across his chest, one leg crossed over the other.

"Do you think I'd leave after hearing what you just told me?" he asked in a placid tone, his face shrouded in shadow.

"I don't know…" she answered absentmindedly, still reeling from the shock of seeing him. "I thought you'd be disgusted. I will go to hell for harboring those dirty thoughts about you."

Albert erupted into a sarcastic chuckle, a harsh sound, biting painfully at her ears. "Then we both will go to hell."

Her heart stuttered. "What do you mean?"

Albert moved away from the wall and stood upright. "Just as you said," he simply replied, without explaining further, his gaze never diverting from her as he stepped toward her and emerged from the shadow.

Candy's mouth turned dry at the pair of eyes that watched her with keen interest. They looked familiar yet oddly enthralling that she couldn't tear her gaze away from them. The usual gentle gleam was nowhere to be found; in its stead was a fiery blaze, intense and wild.

It wasn't anger—it was desire, unrestrained and untamed, demanding to be satisfied.

Her heart leaped into furious thumping at the realization that she was the subject of such raw hunger. All the warning bells rang inside her head, her conscience screaming at her to flee, but Candy couldn't seem to make herself move an inch, her feet rooted to the ground, her arms hanging dormant to her sides as she watched Albert advance toward her in slow, measured steps, like a lion stalking on its prey. She gulped, growing weak in the knees with every passing second, heat swirling and lashing in the pit of her stomach.

He halted in front of her; his eyes had darkened into deep cobalt, holding hers captive. "Candy…" Her heart gave a violent lurch at the way he called her name with a voice that had dipped low into a husky whisper. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't make your fantasies come true right at this minute."

A reverberating visceral gasp bursting out of her throat, Candy felt dizzy from the sudden rush of air into her lungs, her vision blurry.

But she was never granted a chance to recover, for in the next instant, the smoothness of Albert's palm grazing her cheek stilled the breath inside her chest and rendered her numb from head to toe. Long fingers swept over and beneath her jaw to grip her chin lightly and tilted it up at an angle. Two beats flitted. Then his mouth crushed down on hers, fusing them into one, igniting every cell in her body into a fiery ball.

She responded instantly, molding her soft frame against his hard one, even when her sluggish mind was still trying to process what was happening. By the fifth second, any remnant of coherent thoughts, of propriety and sensibility, was banished. Nothing mattered but the gratifying sensation of Albert's insistent lips kneading against hers, smooth as velvet and wonderfully warm just as she remembered them.

Her fingers fisted at his sweater, bunching the fabric in a desperate clutch. The desire to be as close as possible to him nearly made her wail. She wanted to engulf herself in his heat, and like the attentive man he always was, Albert complied with her tacit plea and deepened the kiss.

The feel of wet tongue gliding against the seam of her lips shook her body with tremor. It was beyond scandalous to have a man's tongue inside her mouth—but by golly, she yearned for it, she wanted to taste it, she wanted to feel it. She opened her mouth to welcome Albert's tongue with a tentative stroke of her own. It felt strange at the first brush of tongue against tongue. The weird sensation, however, quickly subsided, chased away by a deep-seated craving under her belly that demanded to be quenched as his tongue lured hers in a battle of fervent caresses, his hot mouth firmly adhered to hers. God this was exponentially better than a kiss on the lips. She was soaring!

Not wanting the wondrous feelings to stop, Candy clung to Albert's neck and pressed herself into him desperately. He groaned against her mouth in response. And soon she was really soaring when she found herself being lifted by the hips and hoisted onto the table behind her. Her eyelids slid open halfway in a surprised trance and then dropped shut as he released her lips and dragged his own across her cheek to behind her ear and down to the underside of her jaw, lavishing her skin with moist, tiny kisses that tickled.

Candy moaned and threw her head back, arching her neck to expose her throat to him. He took her invitation without a hint of hesitation. Moving one hand that was on her hip to grip her shoulder, he showered the span of skin from under her chin to the area above the clavicle with generous open mouthed kisses and light nibbles that turned her breath into harsh, fragmented gasps, his thumb slipping under the lapel of her coat, inching it off her shoulder.

His other hand sneaked in underneath her coat and ascended in languorous caresses along the side of her body, acquainting itself to her feminine contour, sending a wave of delicious quivers down her spine. Such leisurely intimate exploration only managed to excite her more and impelled her hands to begin their own quests, traversing across his broad shoulders and down the expanse of his back, wrapping around his slender waist, then back up again to the shoulders. She repeated the stroking, feeling the ripple of muscles through the material of his clothes as the unbidden image of his glistening, bare back bathed in the moonlight flickered in her mind.

Apparently, Albert appreciated what she was doing very much. In no time, his mouth reclaimed hers with renewed passion, swallowing all the strange noises emitted by her throat, before it sought her neck again and commenced a gentle assault, leaving a trail of molten flame on her skin.

When she felt the pad of his finger grazing over her clothed breast, a strangled gasp rushed out of her. Albert aroused in her the disreputable feeling of heady lust she never thought of its existence until now. What felt like an unintentional, accidental brush had churned her insides into fiery liquid. She bit her lips, secretly wishing for him to do it again. He did, deliberately, with growing confidence, again and again and again until the sensitive peak on her breast turned as rigid as a button beneath his fondling fingertip, protruding through the material of her dress. Swept by the powerful tide of intense pleasure that deluged her over and over, she whimpered, grabbing unto him as tight as humanly possible, blindly sinking her hands into the mass of lush, wavy hair, as she felt his lips descend lower.

Suddenly, in a moment that Candy thought she would combust, she felt Albert stiffen, his head propped against her shoulder with his nose pushed into her collarbone, his mouth puffing hot air onto her heated skin, his hands resting still where they were. Then in a slow, almost reluctant, gradual manner, he retreated. His hands moved to rest on either side of her on the table, his head abandoning its perch on her shoulder. He hovered in front of her with head bowed, and after a moment of absolute stillness, he stepped back, straightening to his full height.

Candy could only stare at him with dazed eyes. Her whole body shivering with protest from the abrupt loss of contact, her mind a blank slate, she slid herself off the table to stand on her feet, nearly toppling to the floor when her legs wobbled.

"God… I don't know what I'm doing anymore…" Albert whipped his head to the side, raking a trembling hand over his disheveled hair in a careless sweep, his wry chuckle interwoven with his heavy panting. "We should stop this madness at once, or we both will end up regretting it tomorrow morning. I don't know… Maybe… Maybe we had too much to drink earlier." His mouth snapped close, and he was quiet for a moment, his eyes drawn shut, his jaw clenching and unclenching as he inhaled deeply.

By the time his eyes slid open again, the blaze of desire had fizzled, replaced by the calm gleam that usually resided in their depths. "I'm going out for a walk," he continued in a more sedate tone, nearly back to his normal voice. "I need to clear my head, and you probably need some time for yourself also. I won't be long, and once I'm back…" He drew in a deep breath, pinning her with a beseeching gaze that brooked no argument from her, causing her pulse to jump. "Let's try to talk again. This time we'll do it calmly, thoroughly, and soberly. For the sakes of our sanity—my sanity, I don't want to delay this any longer. I hope you agree." He swallowed. "Would that be okay, Candy?"

"Umm… yeah…" Candy heard herself emitting a weak murmur in assent.

A fleeting smile on his thin lips, and then he was gone.

The instant the door shut to a click behind her, her shaking knees knocked against each other, and Candy collapsed on the floor in a useless, torpid heap, heart pounding, skin burning, lips tingling. Her arms crossed over her chest, fingers digging into the flesh of her upper arms. The echo of her own panting filled her ears, racing against the excited drumming of her heartbeat. Everything around her appeared soft and blurry, as though they were swathed in white haze.

All of a sudden, something furry tickling her arm propelled her to sit bolt upright. Candy jerked her head sideways and laughed out loud when she saw it was only Pouppe.

She couldn't tell how long she had stayed frozen in her awkward position, sitting on the floor with her legs bent away from her body. It must have been more than just a few minutes, she surmised based on the persistent pricking around her legs. She gathered Pouppe into her arm and propping herself on one hand, she attempted to heft herself off the floor. Amazingly she managed to do it without stumbling, and it was a mystery how she could actually stand on her feet without tottering. But when she took a step, the throbbing pain on her two knees sent her hobbling to the closest chair.

The bruises she had acquired last night hadn't even begun to heal yet, and now she had added more injury to her knees. Wonderful.

But the sore in her knees was soon a forgotten matter of trivial importance when her mind was suddenly inundated with scene from her intimate encounter with Albert being replayed in vivid details, his smooth, moist lips gliding across her skin, his nimble hand tracing her curves, his hot tongue…

Oh God…

Her mouth snapped open gasping for air as she found herself hyperventilating, her body thrumming with desire. By golly! Had Albert delivered the promise of making her fantasy a reality or what?! No, he hadn't just delivered—he had blown off all of her fantasies to dust. Those fell short to the real experience—not even close. She felt herself growing hot again just thinking about that experience. The heat that was generated from their passionate exchange could certainly set a building on fire.

Her gaze fell to her lap, and she saw Pouppe observing her. "Pouppe, what should I do now?" Lifting Pouppe by the torso, she placed the skunk in front of her on the table. Pouppe stood up on its hind legs and sniffed at her curiously. Candy giggled, tapping Poupee's nose lightly. "Albert…" She took a deep breath and released it in a long, drawn out contented sigh. "He kissed me, again, and… Sweet Mother Mary, what a passionate kiss it was! I liked it a lot! No, I loved it! I loved it so much I wished for him to kiss me again and again and again… Goodness… That sounds so brazen and inappropriate…" She laughed bashfully, burying her face in her hands. Her laughter diminished as another thought crossed her mind. "Does this mean he loves me as I love him? Does this mean that we…" She removed her hands from her face and clasped them to her chest, smiling dreamily into space.

Albert and her as a couple—Candy could hardly contain her excitement at the possibility, real possibility, not a fantasy. No doubt, it would alter so many things in her life, hopefully it would be something permanent that would continue into the future. Yes, there were still questions that needed answers. At least, the dreadful question from two nights ago 'now what?' was not one of them. And that other woman she had seen with him? She knew Albert well enough to proclaim with absolute certainty that he was not the type of man who would kiss any woman on a whim. She trusted him. Although there hadn't been any love declaration from him, she knew he wouldn't have kissed her, especially not in the ardent manner he had done, if he was in love with another woman.

So…

There was no reason for her to keep hiding her feelings, was there? She would tell him. She would tell him everything. Once he returned, she would confess to him. She would tell him she loved him. And this time she wouldn't need to worry about ole courage abandoning her.

Without warning the light suddenly flickered, causing Candy to snap her gaze up to the pendant lamp hanging above the table. Was something wrong with the bulb? She couldn't recall when was the last time they replaced it. Albert might know. Making a mental note to remind herself to ask Albert about the lamp later, she extended her arms over the table to reach for her purse when the light gave another flicker again. Then just as she hooked her fingers around the strap of her purse, the light went off completely, throwing a blanket of darkness over her.

Candy sat erect in alarm, dread crawling up her spine and turning her entire back as rigid as a wooden board.

Silence slithered across her mind like a poisonous serpent closing in on its target and spread foreboding chills into nerves, muscles, and joints.

Then like the ferocious roar of a thunder, a bellow of "FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" blasted through the wall and was immediately followed by a violent eruption of jumbled noises of frantic tramping of footsteps and panicked screaming.

The irony of what was happening made her want to laugh. It was funny, creepy, and mind boggling all at the same time. What were the odds for something that had passed her mind as a mere fleeting thought just seconds ago to actually occur now? And it had to happen after her kiss with Albert. While their first kiss had occurred during a blizzard, this one seemed to have sparked a fire.

A sniff of something burning galvanized her and she stumbled out of her seat, knocking the chair down to the floor, fingers still clutching the strap of her purse. What was she doing? This wasn't the time for her to ponder over such matters. There was no time to waste—she had to leave the building as fast as she could. Her heart pounded in her chest as she gazed around the dark room anxiously, searching for any valuable she could carry with her. A hesitant squeak prompted her to look down, and she found a pair of small, round eyes staring at her. Pouppe! She couldn't abandon her here—Albert would be inconsolable if something were to happen to his beloved pet, and she would live carrying the burden of guilt for the rest of her life. Scooping Pouppe from the table swiftly with one hand and slinging her purse strap over her shoulder with the other, she made a mad dash for the door and wrenched it open.

The sight that greeted her made her freeze in her spot. Never had she imagined for such a chaotic scene to occur in this peaceful place she had called home for more than a year.

It was pure pandemonium. The dark, narrow corridor that was usually a desolate area was now a tangled web of confusion, fear, shock, anger and sadness. Doors were left ajar as her neighbors rushed out and filed into the narrow hallway. A few were exchanging slurs in frustration and anger while some were scurrying around in frenzy, hauling boxes and other items out of their apartment units, and they were all scrambling toward the stairway, the only way to exit the building.

All the while smoke continued to roll in, permeating every empty space with haze and burning smell.

"Candice! What are you doing dawdling there?! We've got no time to waste!"

Candy flinched, staring at the retreating group of people before her. Impelled by the sudden urgency to follow them, she hugged Pouppe tightly to her chest and swung a leg forward, adding a burst of energy with each step. Her pace slowed as she approached the landing, trailing behind an old lady who had lumbered in from the opposite end of the corridor. Candy knew her. It was Mrs. Collins, a kind lady who had occasionally visited Dr. Martin for her chronic hip pain.

Candy stepped forward to walk next to the older woman. "Mrs. Collins, let me help you with—"

Her words were cut off abruptly when a cat tucked in between Mrs. Collins arms and chest—a cat she hadn't noticed before—suddenly whipped out its sharp claws and brandished them at Pouppe.

Pouppe clung to her shoulder in fear while the cat gave out a slew of threatening angry hisses, baring its fangs.

"Is that a SKUNK?" Mrs. Collins's bewildered shriek rang through all the commotion around them, causing Pouppe to leap off her shoulder and fall on the floor on its sides.

Candy dropped down to a squatting position to retrieve the poor skunk, but she was a second too late. Pouppe had scampered away, clambering up the stairs, and she could only gape in horror as the skunk disappeared into the dark and smoky hallway.

"POUPPE!" Candy cried out in desperation, begging for the skunk to return—of course, that didn't happen.

Seconds ticked by. Candy felt at a loss of what to do. There was not much time left before the raging fire swallowed the whole building and burned everything in it into ashes. No, she couldn't leave Pouppe here. She couldn't let her perish. She had to find her. With firm resolve, she whirled around and ran up the stairs.

"CANDICE—where do you think you're going?"

"Are you stupid or what?!"

Ignoring the bewildered yelling mixed with string of insulting remarks, Candy drew a deep breath and crossed the landing, and as soon as she entered the dark, smoky corridor, the noises behind her dissipated until the only sound she could hear was the tapping of her own boots and the vigorous thudding of her heart. The descent into silence proved that she was indeed alone, still lingering inside a burning building that could erupt into a ball of flame at any second. But despite the desperate scream of her conscience ordering her to turn around, she fixed her gaze straight to the front and continued to advance forward. She could do this. Pouppe couldn't have gone too far. There was no doubt in her mind that the frightened skunk had run back to their place, and there was exactly where she needed to go.

To reach their apartment unit, which was located at the far corner of the building, took more efforts and time than she anticipated, and she had stumbled more than twice, tottering along the corridor with palms pressed firmly to the lower part of her face. The entire space of the narrow corridor was engulfed in smoke that had thickened into dense fog, reducing the visibility to almost nothing and depleting the supply of fresh air. It was impossible to see through the thick smoke, and she had relied solely on her instinct to lead her.

At long last, after what felt like traveling through a never-ending tunnel, her eyes stinging from the smoke, lungs burning from the lack of oxygen, she reached her destination. For all the time she had lived here, Candy had never felt as relieved as she was now to see the entryway of her apartment. She staggered inside, her heavy panting echoing across the room. She didn't think she would be this exhausted—but she was, completely bereft of energy, as though she had run at top speed for several hours nonstop.

"Pouppe," she called, her voice weak, weaving in and out through raspy heaving, eyes scanning her surroundings.

Interestingly, inside the apartment unit, the smoke was not as thick as it was in the corridor, and the gentle streams of moonlight passing through the window and filtering through the wispy layers of smoke afforded her a whole view of the room.

Candy took slow steps toward the table in the middle of the room, straining her ears for any hint of squeaking noise and stretching her eyes as wide as possible for any sign of movement. "Pouppe…"

For a reason unknown to her, with each step she took, she grew disoriented and her body felt as though it was made of lead.

Another step, and everything around her began to spin, and she couldn't see where she was going anymore.

She swayed and tottered.

A surprised yelp escaped her when something solid caught her ankle and impeded her from moving farther. Frantically, she twisted and yanked at her leg but ended up losing her footing completely. Her arms flailed about as she tried to grab onto the table next to her. Just when she thought she had the table within her grasp, her vision suddenly swirled, and she caught handfuls of air instead and struck the side of her head against the edge of the table before tumbling onto the hard floorboards in a resounding thump. Her voice lodged in her throat in a strangled moan as a wave of searing pain flooded her. Almost concurrently a drowsy spell was cast on her, and she became extremely sleepy. She fought hard to keep her eyes open but it was no use—her eyelids had become so heavy that they snapped shut. In the brief moment she grappled to grasp on to the last shred of her consciousness, her thoughts drifted to Albert and his smiling face, and how she would miss him terribly much.

"I'm sorry, Albert…"

Then there was nothing but boundless, starless, black sky gaping at her.

*********ccccccc*********

"CANDY!"

Where was she? Someone was calling her. Who was that?

She pried her eyes open with force and found herself sprawled on the wooden floor, enveloped in inky darkness. The ferocious pounding in her head made her wince. Had she fallen asleep on the floor? How long had she been sleeping? She raised her head up from the floor and let her gaze roam. Only then she noted that everything around her appeared hazy, saturated with myriad of tiny, black particles swirling in the air. A strong burning smell invaded her nostrils, causing her to convulse into fits of hacking cough.

"CANDY!"

The same voice was shouting her name again. Now she could tell it was a male voice, a very familiar male voice. This time it was followed by frenetic running footsteps that sounded like they were moving closer toward where she was.

Then she sensed it. Someone was behind her.

Swiveling her head to look over her back, she peered through the gray haze at the figure shrouded in shadow that hovered by the threshold.

"Candy… Thank God… You're okay... You're okay..." His voice was a mixture of whimper and laughter stifled behind the piece of cloth that concealed more than half of his face, his chest jerking up and down in frantic panting.

He must be the one who had been calling her. He knew her name, so she must have known him too. Who could it be?

Then, as though there was something that spurred him on, he lurched forward in a sprint and skidded to a halt in front of the window, blocking the streams of light with his body. For a moment the silhouette of his back was the only thing she could see as a swift flick and a shrieking sliding sound of the window being shoved all the way up cut through the silence in the room before he suddenly stepped back, allowing slivers of light to pass through. With a whip of his hand, he wrenched the cloth off his face.

Her breath caught as she stared at the glistening blond hair and a pair of stunning midnight blue eyes.

Blond hair and blue eyes… She knew him!

There was only one person who was in possession of such striking features. Anthony… But why was he here? Was he here to save her? Had Neil and Eliza trapped her again and locked her in an abandoned room?

Ignoring the painful throbbing in her head that seemed to have intensified, she exerted all her power and weight onto her elbows in an attempt to hoist herself up the floor.

But before she could even raise her torso, strong arms had roped around her from the back, and she was whisked off the floor, propped onto a warm, sturdy body. The abrupt movement made her dizzy, and she grabbed onto the solid frame against her for support. The warmth that pervaded her was comfortingly familiar that she could feel herself drift off into a lull, her eyes heavy.

"I'm sorry… I shouldn't have left you." The arms that held her tightened as she felt him shudder against her. "I'm so sorry…" His hand cradled the back of her head, drawing her even closer so that she was wedged against him, her nose pressed into the crook of his shoulder.

"Anthony…" the name left her mouth in a sigh, and she felt him tense; his hold around her slackened slightly.

A calming masculine scent penetrated through the smell of smoke and wafted into her nose, triggering a flash of recognition in her brain. In that split second, images rained down on her, like a cascading waterfall—and she remembered. The impromptu dinner at Milly's. The nerve-wracking confrontation that had followed and culminated in a passionate kiss. And then… the fire.

Had it all been real? She wasn't dreaming, was she?

Then the man who was holding her was…

Dazedly, reluctantly, she extracted herself from the warm embrace that surrounded her and examined the face before her. Anxious eyes regarded her. "No you're not Anthony…" she whispered in awe, overwhelmed by the flood of relief and happiness, her fingers pushing away wispy tendrils of blond hair from his forehead. "You're Albert…" She smiled, blinking away tears from her eyes. "I knew you would come for me. I knew you would. You always have." She choked back a sob, but the tears just wouldn't stop trickling. "Always… Always…" Her other hand, thoroughly covered with ashes and dust, moved to rest on his cheek, framing his face.

The soft pad of his thumb dabbed at the tears that had slid to below her cheekbone, his lips quivering in a fleeting smile. "Candy… We can talk later, okay?"

Upon the nodding of her head, Albert wrapped his arms around her securely, coaxing her to nestle into him. Then he propelled himself up to his feet. "Hang on!" That was all the warning he gave her before the rush of air struck her face as he dashed out of the room into the dark, smoky corridor.

Candy burrowed her face deep into Albert's neck, looping her arms tightly around him. Despite the varying degree of pain that invaded every part of her body and the suffocating sensation from the acrid burning smell, she felt completely at ease, free of worry and fear, because she knew as long as she was with Albert, she would be safe, she would be fine. Nothing else mattered.

A moment later, she felt him begin treading down the stairs at a slower pace. His heavy panting sliced through the murmur of indistinct noises. She turned her head slightly off him and noted through the haze they were moving closer toward the ajar main door.

"We made it…" Albert breathed. "I don't know what would've happened if I had come too late, or if the fire had spread…" He glanced down at her.

Her breath hitched in her throat. She had never seen him like this, looking so frightened, completely at a loss, his eyes veiled by the dark cloud of terror—and it was all because of her. Her heart squeezed at the crushing thought that she had been the cause of his pain, and she wanted nothing more than to erase all the unsightly marks of agony that marred his face—she would do anything to make them disappear. Her fingers traveled the length of his shoulders and latched themselves behind his neck, beneath the soft tendrils of hair at the nape.

"Thank God they managed to douse the fi—"

His words left hanging, Albert snapped his eyes wide when Candy suddenly yanked herself up to him and kissed him on the lips. She withdrew, creating a narrow space between them, only wide enough to detach her lips from his. The shock was apparent on his face as he stared at her blankly, but there was no trace of panic in his expression. Gradually, the glint in his eyes softened with tenderness, sending butterflies fluttering in her stomach, the edges around his lips, ever so slightly, curving up. She sighed and couldn't stop herself from smiling in return. His gaze drifted down to her lips, and she found her own gaze fixed on his lips, her heart beating fast in heady anticipation. Then, bit-by-bit, the void space between them shrank until there was nothing left but the heavenly feel of his warm, soft lips pressing onto hers and brushing against them in a gentle, lingering kiss.

He pulled away. Her eyes darted up just as his dropped to meet hers.

It was in that brief glance, in the fraction of a smile, she finally comprehended what he had been trying to tell her all along—ever since that time when he had surprised her with a chaste kiss at the train station and before that, when he had asked her to dance with him at Archie's farewell party. Probably even prior to that, when he had brushed her hair, surprised her with the journal, treated her to her favorite dessert, and perhaps even way before that, when he had searched for her in the woods, thrown himself in front of her to shield her from the lion's claws…

Everything… He had done everything for her, saving her, comforting her, making her happy. All for her. Only her.

How could she have not realized it until now? That this amazing man… This wonderfully, magnificent, amazing man loved her.

As he resumed his step, she nuzzled against his neck, smiling and weeping at the same time. "I love you… Albert…" she told him, her voice a near inaudible whisper, muffled by his warm skin, her eyes closing as exhaustion returned and dragged her along to float off to deep slumber.

If this was dream, she never wanted to wake up. Surely, not from this one.

To Be Continued


Author's Remark:

Heh! I seriously thought of ending the chapter after Candy collapses inside the burning building. But I'm not that evil :D It's Candy's birthday after all.

As I mentioned earlier, ch 10 and 11 were originally one chapter. But due to the length (I actually blew the 20k word length! Can you believe it?), I decided to split it into two chapters. So you may want to re-read ch 10, especially the beginning parts to refresh your memory.

So what do you think of the chapter?

I did warn you that it'd be a bumpy ride, or should I say blazing? :D

It focuses solely on Albert and Candy, but I have a feeling you don't mind that at all. And yep, I've turned up the heat by a notch or two, literally and figuratively. A slow progression continuing from the last chapter that escalates into a fiery climax in this one with plenty of body heat and flames to bring up the temperature.

I hope you're not upset that I decided to burn the Magnolia Apartment. Well, it needs to be done for the story to continue.

Quick recap: What a night for Candy. Following an awkward dinner date, she and Albert finally have the TALK, well sort of, before Albert gives up (because she manages to push all his hot buttons :D) and just shows her instead. Then there's fire. And she finally realizes Albert's feelings for her. Surely, there shouldn't be anymore misunderstanding between them. But... Where will Albert take her? What will happen to them now that they don't have a place to live anymore? Will Albert still leave her?

Next chapter: the sober talk, George and Uncle William, Tina's insight, a wonderful week, a beautiful ring, and Lakewood.

This chapter takes us to the climax of the first arc, and the next chapter will be the conclusion of the first arc before we move on to the second arc of the story. Unfortunately, I can't tell you when the next chapter will be ready. Rest assured, I'll keep working on it, and hopefully I can release it around summer time.

Time to address some comments:

kellyelin: Of course, George is one dashing man, a true gentleman just like Albert. But Tina, well, her mind is a bit twisted. As for Cassandras' betrothed, I won't say anything yet-but it should be obvious ;) Regardless of the identity of her fiance, it's clear in the chapter that Albert only wants one woman, and it's not Cassandra for sure. Thanks for reading and writing a review.

Josie: You're in luck! You got all your wishes in this chapter. Albert lost his self control completely and for once let instincts take over, and a sleepy Candy declared her feelings to him. Should I give you a brownie point for 'guessing' correctly? ;) Clearly, Albert just likes to be near to Candy whether she's sleepy or not, and after this chapter, Candy will be less shy to him. We'll see what they'll do next-what he'll do next. Thanks for reading and writing a review.

Candy Bert: Here's another long chapter for you :D I'm glad you didn't find the previous chapter boring. Albert has an amazing restraint and self control, don't you think? In this chapter, though, Candy managed to break them. Regardless of his noble intentions, he's still human after all. They finally manage to have the TALK somehow but then things kind of spin out of control. Mostly, it is due to Candy's agitation, yet at the same time he's also near his wits' end trying to figure out what Candy really wants. There's no Tina and George in this chapter. You're right though. Their personalities complement each other nicely, and Tina seems quite fond of George even though she hasn't admitted it yet. We'll see how their relationship evolves. Tina has a lot of baggage while George is still too cautious. Thanks for reading and writing a review.

KeilaNt: Albert leaving before the TALK? Nah... He makes sure they have the TALK in this chapter and makes a point to clarify it to Candy-but ended up showing it instead of talking to her. LOL. Still, there's a problem he needs to solve right away-where are they going to live now? Thanks for reading and writing a review.

Many hugs and kisses for the kudos, faves, follows, and comments.

Stay tuned for chapter 12

Till next time

-forever-

side note: I haven't forgotten about All I Want. It's coming, I promise.