Caroline & The Nightmare

Caroline & The Nightmare

Rated 'PG'

By: Jana~

~~Disclaimer~~

*****~*****

--Caroline buzzed about as she got ready for the work day. She wasn't exactly sure why, but she found herself looking forward to the work day in recent weeks like she hadn't remembered doing before. Sure, she enjoyed her old assistant Jeannie's company, and they had lots of fun together, but her newest assistant... Richard. An anomaly in most definitions of the word, yet, there was something else there as well. Something amazing and wonderful. In some of the rarest of moments, Richard gave her glimpses into his abysmal soul, and she felt honored, knowing what trust he must have in her to do so.

She started to make the coffee, only partly listening to the sounds of sirens that could be heard in the distance. It was an every day noise living in New York, so she paid it little mind... even as it got closer. She only showed slight curiosity as the sirens seemed to approach her street and stop nearby, and she barely looked up at Annie as she entered the loft, too busy sifting through the finished panels of the strip to see the expression on Annie's face.

"Hey Annie. What's up? Sirens wake you?"

"No, I was already awake..." Annie's voice sounded odd...

Caroline chuckled... "Rough night?"

Annie shook her head silently and touched Caroline's arm, causing her to turn and look at her... "No. Caroline... listen... there's something I have to tell you..."

Caroline could now see the concern in her eyes and hear the uneasiness in her voice.

"What's going on? What's wrong?"

Annie took her gently by the shoulders and tried to get her to sit down, but Caroline resisted... she wanted to stand. Terror shot through her as she watched Annie trying to gather her thoughts... to say the words that Caroline was now certain were of the utmost importance.

"It's about Richie..." Annie said, then hesitated.

Caroline could feel her stomach drop to her feet.

"He's been in an accident..."

"What?" Caroline whispered, too many emotions to think of anything else to say.

"He was hit by a car... a taxi. The sirens... outside..." Annie didn't even get the sentence out when Caroline ran for the door...

"Oh my God!" Caroline called out as she sprinted towards the stairs...

"Caroline! Wait up!"

*****~*****

--Caroline made her way through the crowd of lookee-loos and to Richard's side as the paramedics loaded him onto the ambulance.

"Oh my God... Richard..." Caroline reached out to touch him, but the paramedic held his hand up to stop her...

"Please don't touch the patient."

"But he's... he's my..." Caroline was at a loss for how to finish that statement. He was so much more than an employee... and more than just a simple friend.

"Are you family?"

Caroline couldn't think... *Family?* she asked herself. In a lot of ways he was like family. Without further hesitation she nodded in response.

The paramedic escorted Caroline to the front of the ambulance and gestured for her to get in.

"I'll meet you there Caroline!" Annie called out as Caroline disappeared into the vehicle.

*****~*****

--Caroline paced back and forth in the cold hospital's waiting room as Annie and Del watched her helplessly. Hours went by with no word about Richard's condition, except for the occasional placating words spoken by the administration staff. Caroline was beside herself with worry, and her anxiety seemed to climb with every passing minute.

"Caroline, please sit down. This isn't doing you any good..." Annie pleaded.

"I can't Annie. I can't just sit there. Why aren't they telling us anything? Why haven't they come to let us know how he's doing?"

"I don't know sweetie..."

"Something's wrong. I just know it..." Caroline said as she clutched her stomach, all the worry and anxiety causing her to be nauseous.

"Caroline, don't borrow trouble. They're doing everything they can for him..." Del assured her.

"I know, I know. I just... I just don't know what I'll do if anything--... If he--..."

Just then the doctor entered the room...

"How is he?!" Caroline nearly attacked him, desperate for word on Richard's condition.

"I'm not going to lie to you, it doesn't look good."

Caroline felt extreme fear wash over her as she listened to the doctor explain all that was wrong. That he was now on life support to keep him alive. That he would likely not survive. It almost seemed surreal to her. Caroline couldn't speak, and she was unable to stop the flow of tears and sobs as the doctor finished his diagnosis. Del held her, trying to comfort her and Annie stood silent, tears falling as fast as she could wipe them away...

"So, that's it?" Annie asked, her voice strained with emotion.

"I'm afraid so..." the doctor replied... "I'm so very sorry..."

"Can I see him?" Caroline asked, her voice nearly gone.

"Yes, of course..."

Caroline handed Annie her address book out of her purse... "Call his father for me? He'll know how to get ahold of his mother..."

Annie took the book and nodded, then Caroline followed the doctor to Richard's room.

*****~*****

--Caroline sat silent as she looked at Richard. Except for the bruises and tubes, he almost looked like he was sleeping. She took his hand, tears falling down her cheeks and to his bed...

"They say it doesn't look good... but they don't know you like I do..." she said softly to him, gently touching his cheek.

"You can't leave me Richard... you just can't. You mean so much to me... so very much to me..."

Her voice caught on a sob and she took his hand and placed it on her cheek, holding it firmly to her face.

"Please Richard... if you can hear me... please, don't die..."

Caroline felt a hand on her shoulder and it startled her. She whipped around, dropping Richard's hand from her face, but continuing to hold it, and saw his father standing there.

"Ben..." she whispered, standing to hug him. "He's--... they say he might..."

"I know. They told me..." Ben held her tight, his eyes red from crying. "Thank you for being here. You know, he cares deeply for you..."

Caroline just nodded. She knew he cared for her on some level, but sometimes she wondered just how much. He usually seemed irritated with her, and with his job, but as time went on and she got to know him better, she realized that it was just his way. Distance and sarcasm was his way of protecting himself from getting hurt, so he used it with her to prevent emotional pain. Caroline sometimes wondered why he was so sure she would or could hurt him, but dismissed it as a part of his complex emotional side that he rarely showed her.

"I know he isn't very good at showing emotions... and that's partly my fault. I wasn't a very good father..."

Caroline started to defend Ben, but he stopped her and continued...

"No, I know I wasn't a very good father. I tried to be... but I failed. Maybe if I had been a better father, he wouldn't have such a hard time expressing himself with words. Maybe he would be able to TALK about his feelings, instead of painting nightmarish pictures..."

"He's very talented..." Caroline interjected.

"Oh, I know he is! I wish I had told him that though. I wish I had told him so many things..."

"Tell him now."

Ben looked at her with an odd expression, so Caroline quickly explained...

"They say people who are unconscious can hear what people around them are saying. It's worth a try..."

Ben took a step towards the bed and Caroline took a step towards the door...

"I'll just leave you two alone..."

*****~*****

--Caroline felt numb as she sat in the little waiting room, sipping her coffee. Annie sat to her left, silent and looking tired. Del sat to her right, exhaustion finally taking its toll as he rested his head on his hand and closed his eyes. Caroline yawned as she watched Del trying to get comfortable and Annie yawned in response.

"Why don't you go home Annie..." Caroline suggested as she rubbed her tired eyes.

"No. Not unless you come too..." Annie bargained.

"I can't Annie. What if while I'm at home, he--..."

She couldn't finish that sentence, and fresh tears splashed down her face and she tried in vain to wipe them away. Annie rubbed Caroline's back and pulled her close...

"Then I'm not leaving either..."

"Thanks Annie..."

Caroline tried a tiny smile, but that slight effort quickly dropped from her face...

"What am I going to do Annie? What am I going to do if he doesn't make it?"

"I don't know sweetie..."

"He can't die... he just can't..." Caroline sobbed, waking Del from his partial sleep...

"What? What happened?"

"Nothing Del..." Annie replied in a whisper... "Go back to sleep..."

*****~*****

--Caroline couldn't believe what she was hearing. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real.

"To keep him on life support will only prolong the inevitable." the doctor explained as Ben and Natalie Karinsky looked on.

"How could you? He's your son!" Caroline barked at Richard's parents, only to get no response. "Don't you care about him?"

"Of course we do darling..." Natalie replied... "We're thinking of what his wishes would be."

"He wouldn't want to live like this. To have us... to have YOU... see him like this." Ben added.

Caroline could only cry, speaking would have been impossible at that moment.

"I know how hard it is to let go of a loved one..." the doctor stated... "But to keep him alive like this would only help you, not him. We have to think of him. What would he want..."

"It's better this way..." Natalie added.

Caroline just nodded. She knew they were right, but she couldn't stand the thought of losing him. Her insides ached and she tried to speak, the only sound coming out was small squeaks and sobs...

"Can I... see him first? Before..."

"Of course..." the doctor said with compassion, then handed the forms to the Karinskys to end life support on their son.

--Caroline stood and walked out the door and to Richard's room. Her head and stomach ached from all the crying, and that along with knowing what she was about to do... what was about to happen... she felt like she was going to be sick. She sat on the bed beside Richard...

"I've come to say good-bye Richard. They say you're not even in there anymore... but in case you can hear me..."

Caroline hesitated, trying to gather her thoughts, and trying to gather her composure...

"You mean a great deal to me. You are more than just an employee, and you're more than just a friend. So much more. You are the most confusing and difficult man I have ever known, but that's what makes you so wonderful. Every day I look forward to you coming into work..."

She started sobbing so hard she couldn't speak, but she took a deep breath, determined to finish.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do without you Richard. Sometimes, I wonder if you and me--... if WE--..."

Caroline shook her head and sighed...

"I don't know... but I know I was afraid to say anything. Afraid of how you'd react. Afraid you would run away again. Now I wish more than anything that--... I just wish I had told you about how I feel. And now it's too late. In just a few minutes they're going to come in here and turn off all these machines. They say you're already dead, but the machines are keeping you alive. When they turn them off... that will be it. I don't want to lose you... but I don't want to hold on to you like this... if there's no hope. Your parents think it's for the best, and so does the doctor. They'll be here any minute now, so, I need to tell you one more thing Richard... before they get here..."

She took a deep breath and grabbed ahold of his hand...

"I love you. I think I have since the day I met you, but I didn't admit it to myself. Then you went to Paris... and I knew. I guess I will never know how you felt about me, but I will always think I meant something to you. At least I hope I meant something to you..."

Just then the doctor, nurse, and Ben and Natalie Karinsky came into the room. Caroline acknowledged their presence, then turned back to Richard...

"I have to say good-bye now Richard. If you CAN hear me... just know... I will always love you."

She kissed his cheek, then slowly let go of his hand while walking away from the bed. The doctor and nurse then approached Richard as Caroline stood beside his parents. The nurse started turning off machines while the doctor took the ventilator tube out of his throat... but they left the heart monitor hooked up and operating. Almost immediately, Richard's heartbeat started to slow. It steadily beat slower and slower till... flatline. Caroline started to sob and Ben held her and Natalie both. The doctor called the time of death, and the nurse placed the sheet over his face.

*****~*****

--Caroline sat on Richard's murphy bed, feeling almost detached from the situation as Annie and Del sifted through his belongings...

"What about this?" Annie asked, holding up clothes for Caroline to inspect.

"No... that's no good either..." Caroline replied softly.

"Well, there's nothing left in here..."

"I'll just have to buy him a suit." Caroline informed as she wiped away the small tear that trickled down her cheek.

"Why?" Del asked... "No one will be able to see it once he's in the ground."

Annie took 2 long strides and smacked him hard across the face. There was a deafening silence along with the thick tension in the room as all three just stared at each other...

"I'm sorry..." Annie apologized first...

"No, I'm sorry." Del apologized, to both Annie and Caroline... "That was completely insensitive. I don't always think before I speak..."

"It's alright Del. I know you didn't mean anything by it. But... still... Richard should be buried in something nice."

"So, what do we do with all these clothes?" Annie asked, changing the subject.

"Give them to charity I guess." Caroline suggested.

"What about his paintings?" Del asked, thumbing through the stack of paintings leaning against the wall.

"I want them."

"Why? You're not into abstract art..." Annie asked Caroline as she bagged up Richard's clothes.

"He was so incredibly talented. A real artist. He always wanted his paintings to be seen... and noticed... and appreciated... and understood... and enjoyed. I'm going to see to it that THAT happens."

*****~*****

--The day of the funeral was hard. Richard's lifeless body lay in the casket, with make-up on his face to make him look more 'alive'. It didn't work, and all Caroline could think about was how much Richard would have hated all of it. Then her thoughts drifted back to a time not too long ago when she had helped him fake his death to get a certain art critics attention. She wished it was that time... that day. That this was all just an elaborate plot to be recognized as an artist, and that he would just sit up and get out of the casket, mumbling and complaining about his existence. Annie touched her shoulder, causing her to jump...

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you..." Annie apologized.

"It's ok." Caroline voice was quiet and sad.

"How ya doin?"

"I'm numb. I've cried so much over the past few days... and now I'm just... numb..."

"I know sweetie..."

"He became such an important person in my life, so quickly. And now he's gone." Caroline started to sob softly... "He's gone Annie. Why? Why him?"

"I don't know..."

"I'm sorry..." Caroline apologized, trying to regain some composure.

"It's ok hun... I understand..."

"Thanks for making all the arrangements for this... I don't think I could have..."

"No problem. My family has been in this business a long time... if it's one thing us Spadaros are good for, it's planning a funeral."

"I just... I just keep expecting him to get up... and..."

"But, he's not going to sweetie... you know that, right?"

"I know Annie... I know." Caroline wiped her face and sighed deeply... "Can I help you with anything?"

"No, we have everything taken care of."

"Ok. I'll just... practice the eulogy then."

*****~*****

--The pastor introduced Caroline and she stood, wiping her tears as she headed for the podium. She cleared her throat and took a deep breath, trying to recover her ability to speak.

"Thank you all for coming today to honor Richard. I will keep this brief, because to try to explain Richard in length would take longer than we have here today. Richard was a complex man, and one of the best human beings I have ever known, and will probably ever know. I met Richard the day he applied for a job as my colorist, and although it was obvious to both of us that he was far too talented for the job, he took it. He needed the money. He was hard to know at first, he kept himself locked up within himself very tightly, but slowly, he let me in. I considered it very special when he would let me see into the man he protected so fervently, and he became very important to me. Slowly, we became friends, and all too soon I found myself caring deeply for this man. Richard was actually quite the romantic, few people know that about him. He sometimes talked about finding 'sincere amore'... a love you never have to question, and I just know that under his hardened exterior was a very loving, passionate man that any woman would have been lucky to have. He was a true and loyal friend, someone who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, but would never admit to it if you didn't need it. His humorous side was not evident to everyone, his humor was more sarcastic than anything else. The people he teased and ridiculed the most were the people he cared the most about. His artistic talent was incredible, and, I believe if he wasn't so afraid of failure, he would have been recognized and celebrated as a great artist a long time ago. His life ended tragically and far too soon, leaving those closest to him wishing we'd had more time with this incredible man. I don't think a lifetime would've been enough time to truly understand Richard Karinsky, but I would have liked the chance to find that out. Still, I am grateful for the time I did have with Richard, and will always and forever cherish the memories."

Caroline wiped the tears from her face and walked over to the casket. She kissed her fingers, then touched them to Richard's lips...

"I will miss you.. and I will always love you. Good-bye."

Caroline took her seat, not even trying to stop the flow of tears any longer... it was a futile effort. There wasn't a dry eye in the place, and Annie put her arm around Caroline, trying to offer her some comfort.

*****~*****

--Caroline was where she had been every day since the funeral, on the couch wrapped in blankets when Annie entered her loft...

"Caroline..." Annie said as she stood towering over Caroline... "You can't do this to yourself! You have to get on with your life!"

Caroline just shook her head and covered her head with the blankets.

"This isn't healthy Caroline! You're not the one who died." Annie announced sternly, but her tone quickly softened... "I know you're sad... I know that. But you can't stop living! You can't spend every day on the couch buried in blankets, ignoring the strip... your family... your friends..."

"Go away Annie..." Caroline grumbled sadly.

"No! I'm worried about you! I want you to get up off this couch and get back into your life!"

"I can't! Not yet. You don't understand..."

"Yes, I do. I understand that you're upset, and in mourning--"

"It's not just about that Annie..." Caroline interrupted...

"Then tell me... what is it about?"

"I think Richard might have been 'the one'..."

"What?"

"I was in love with him..."

"Since when?"

"I was in love with him, but I didn't say anything. I didn't tell him how much I cared about him. I didn't tell him about my feelings for him, and now he's gone. Now I'll never get to tell him. I'll never know if he felt that way about me... or could've EVER felt that way about me..."

"Sweetie, doing this to yourself won't change any of that..."

"Please Annie... just leave me alone. I need more time... more time to grieve..."

"Ok... ok. But I'm coming back to check on you later..."

Caroline just nodded beneath the blankets.

*****~*****

--Caroline had fallen asleep on the couch... again. The only time she wasn't overwhelmed with sadness and depression was when she was asleep, so she slept almost constantly since the day of the funeral. She was sound asleep when a noise at the door started to wake her. It sounded like Annie letting herself in, so she just ignored it for the most part. She heard the door open and then footsteps walking into the loft...

"Oh great! You're still asleep? Which means there's no coffee... right?"

Caroline bolted upright at the sound of his voice...

"Richard?"

"Very good. You answered correctly..." Richard quipped sarcastically... "Now, for bonus points you need to answer the following question: Where's the coffee?"

Caroline was in shock. What was going on? She had no idea...

"What are you--? You were-- Am I--?" her incomplete and choppy sentences making her sound confused and upset.

"Caroline? Is something wrong?" Richard asked as he walked towards her with a worried expression on his face.

"What day is it?" Caroline asked abruptly, looking around like she was lost.

"What?"

"What's the date?!"

"It's Tuesday... the 11th..."

"The 11th?"

"Yeah. What's going on Caroline?"

Caroline's mind raced frantically, trying to answer that question. What WAS going on?! Was he a dream? She didn't think so... but just to be sure, she pinched herself. She felt it and it hurt. Rubbing her arm she moved on to other possibilities... it was Richard's ghost maybe. No, he didn't seem 'unreal' to her at all. Him dying was a dream. That made the most sense...

"I'm not dreaming, am I?" she asked...

"No..."

"You're not a ghost... right?"

"A ghost?! What has gotten into you?"

Caroline quickly approached him and threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly to her. To her surprise, he didn't pull away... he actually hugged her back. Caroline started to sob and Richard pulled back and looked at her face...

"Caroline... what's going on? What's wrong? Why are you acting like this?"

Caroline wiped the tears from her eyes and embraced him again...

"I had a nightmare... that you died. You were hit by a taxi... on the way to work." she said quietly, her voice almost nonexistent. "It was so real Richard..."

"Shhh, it's ok... I'm not dead. Although sometimes I wish I were..." he joked. Caroline pulled back and looked at him sternly...

"Don't say that! Don't EVER say that! You can't die!"

"Ever?"

"Don't joke Richard! I mean it! I don't want to lose you!"

"Lose me? You're not going to 'lose' me Caroline..." Richard's voice was both confused and sympathetic, and he held her tight, giving her the comfort she needed.

"I completely fell apart Richard... in the dream... when you died..."

"Why?"

"Why??"

"Yeah. Why? Why did you fall apart?"

"You really have no idea how much you mean to me... do you?"

Richard just shrugged his shoulders.

"Richard... you are VERY important to me..."

"Oh, c'mon Caroline... anyone could color the strip..."

"I'm not talking about the strip Richard. I'm talking about YOU. You mean a great deal to me! Every day, I look forward to you coming into work, and every night... I miss you when you leave..."

Caroline felt new tears splash down her face and Richard wiped them away...

"I feel the same way about you..." Richard admitted.

"You do?"

"Yeah. I do."

Caroline took a deep breath... "Richard, I think I--..." she stopped abruptly.

"You what?" he asked compassionately.

"I think I'm in love with you." Caroline quickly looked to the floor, she couldn't look at his eyes... she was afraid of what they would show her. That they would show disgust, or worse... pity.

*Oh, why did I say it?! Why?!* Caroline ridiculed herself.

"I'm sorry, Richard... I..."

Richard cut her off by lifting her chin and kissing her lips tenderly. She responded immediately, and the kiss quickly became very passionate.

--Suddenly, Caroline found herself bundled up in blankets on the couch, the sound of keys in the door seemingly awakening her from her sleep. She bolted upright, trying to achieve lucidness, holding her head as dizziness came over her from such an abrupt action.

Richard walked through the door and Caroline looked at him skeptically...

"What?" Richard asked, noticing the odd expression on her face.

"You..." was all she could think of to say.

"Me?"

"Yeah. Were you--? Did we just--?"

"What?"

Caroline looked around for a moment, then shook her head...

"Nothing. Never mind..." Caroline replied, confused.

Richard just shook his head and hung up his coat, then headed for the kitchen.

"Oh, great. No coffee. You know, I should just go get a job at Starbucks!" he complained as he started to make the coffee.

"Richard?"

"What?"

"What day is it today?"

"Tuesday..."

"Tuesday...??" Caroline asked, indicating she wanted more than that simple answer.

"Tuesday the 11th. You know, you oughta invest in those little things people call 'calendars'. They're amazing! They tell you what day it is EVERY day!" Richard quipped sarcastically.

Caroline couldn't help but smirk at his little wisecrack...

"Very funny Richard. I just... I just had the strangest dream... I think..."

"You think?"

"I'm just, still really disoriented..."

"What was it about?" he asked absently as he finished making the coffee.

"Huh?"

"The dream, Caroline. What was it about?"

"Oh..." Caroline hesitated, not sure if she should tell him what the dream was about. *Or should I say nightmare?* she asked herself as she stalled for time.

"Hello?"

Richard was now in front of her, and his closeness startled her. She had been so deep in her thoughts, she didn't even see him approach her.

"Richard..." Caroline whispered, the emotion in her voice and eyes that did not go unnoticed by Richard.

"Caroline? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just--..."

Richard grabbed her shoulders, forcing her to look him in the eyes...

"Something is wrong, I can tell. You're upset about something..."

"No..."

"Is it because of the dream?"

"Ummm... yeah..."

"What was it about?"

"I dreamt you died..." Caroline stated softly.

"Huh. Interesting..."

"Yeah, in a frightening kind of way."

"Then what happened?" Richard asked inquisitively.

"What?"

Richard shook his head... "In the dream Caroline... what happened next? Or did the dream abruptly end when I dropped dead?"

"Not exactly..."

"Ok... so, then what happened?" he asked again patiently.

"Well, we went to your funeral..."

"We? All 3 people I know? Including my student loan officer?"

Caroline ignored his joke and continued...

"Well, then I was lying on the couch sleeping, when suddenly, I woke up and you were alive... in the dream..."

"You dreamt that you had a dream of me dying? So, it was a dream inside a dream?"

"Yeah. Now I'm wondering if this is real..."

Richard reached out and pinched her.

"Ouch!"

"It's real." Richard said as he started to walk away.

"Well, I pinched myself in my dream and I felt it... and it hurt!"

"You can't pinch yourself. Someone else has to pinch you."

"What? Why?"

"Cause, if you pinch yourself in your dream, you may pinch yourself in your sleep, and then you would feel it! It would incorporate itself into the dream..." he informed... "If someone else pinches you and you feel it, you are not asleep."

"Oh. I didn't know that..."

"Now you do. So, are we gonna get any work done here today?"

"Yeah. Just let me get some coffee... and maybe change my clothes..."

Richard tossed his hands up in resignation as Caroline climbed the stairs to her room.

--As she got dressed she thought long and hard about the dream she'd had.

*It was for a reason... I'm sure of it...*

The voice in her head was struggling, trying to determine what the reason could be.

*Could it be that I'm in love with Richard?*

That thought buzzed around in her head, and made her stomach feel like it was full of butterflies.

*Ok...* she admitted to herself... *I have feelings for him. But, he doesn't have feelings for me. At least he doesn't act like he does...*

She started thinking about the kiss between them... the kiss from the dream...

*But that was just a dream!* she argued with herself... *I gotta just... forget about it...*

--Caroline walked downstairs to see Richard hard at work at the desk. She paused on the steps, watching him intently. She saw him in a whole new light now... since the dream, and it confused her.

"What?" Richard asked, not even looking up from his task.

"What??" Caroline snapped out of her thoughts and back into the moment.

"You're staring at me... why?"

"Oh. Sorry Richard, I was just thinking..."

"Don't hurt yourself..."

Caroline chuckled softly as she walked into the living room... "Ha, ha."

"What were you thinking?" Richard asked seriously, putting his colored pencil away and giving Caroline his undivided attention.

Caroline froze. She didn't dare tell him. What would he say? He would most likely make one of his sarcastic comments, or maybe laugh at her. She shuddered at the thought, and Richard noticed.

"Are you cold?" he asked her thoughtfully.

"No. Why?"

"You shivered..."

"I did?"

"Yeah..."

Richard got up from his seat and walked towards Caroline. Him approaching her made her nervous and she quickly debated whether or not to bolt. He stood in front of her and reached out to touch the back of his hand to her forehead.

"What are you doing?" Caroline asked skittishly.

"I was going to check to see if you had a fever. Sometimes, when you have a fever, the rest of the world seems very cold... causing you to shiver..."

He touched her forehead, then a concerned look came over him.

"What?" Caroline asked... "Do I feel warm?"

"No... but you're trembling..."

"I'm just hungry!" she reasoned... "And I need coffee..."

She quickly went into the kitchen and busied herself getting a poptart and some coffee. Richard very slowly walked towards the kitchen, watching her with concern. By the time she had her breakfast toasted and the coffee in the mug and ready to drink, Richard was in the kitchen beside her. Caroline stopped fluttering about and stood still, feeling as if his intense stare was trying to decipher her actions. After a moment of silence that seemed like an eternity, she looked up at him and into his eyes. Richard gently took the poptart and coffee out of her hands and set them on the counter, then he took her hands in his...

"Talk to me Caroline..." he said softly, with a hint of insistence.

Caroline didn't know what to say. She tried to look away, but Richard moved his head to recapture her gaze...

"Please?" he asked with regard.

Without thinking, Caroline leaned in and reached for his lips, kissing him tenderly. Richard, although shocked at first, quickly responded, kissing her passionately.

Suddenly, Caroline jumped back and away from him...

"What?" Richard asked, confused.

"I'm sorry Richard. I don't know why-- I'm so... confused right now..."

"You and me both. Why did you kiss me?"

"You kissed back!" Caroline almost snapped at him, embarrassed by her actions.

A slight smile crossed Richard's lips...

"I know I did... but why did you kiss me?"

"Why did you kiss back?"

"I asked you first." Richard replied with a slight chuckle.

"Oh, that's mature..."

"And you are the model of maturity here?"

Caroline shook her head... she did not want to answer the question, but she knew she couldn't just say nothing.

Richard sighed, then led her to the couch, gesturing for her to sit down, joining beside her.

"Tell me about the dream Caroline."

--Caroline explained the entire dream. All of it... every detail...

"Wow..." Richard whispered as he looked to the floor... "What do you suppose it meant?"

"Honestly?" Caroline asked hesitantly.

"No..." Richard quipped... "Lie to me. I enjoy being lied to..."

Caroline chuckled softly, then took a deep breath, preparing for the biggest admittance of her life...

"I think the dream was trying to get me to admit my feelings for you..."

"Which are?"

"I think I'm in love with you Richard."

Richard sat silent, causing Caroline to become distraught.

*I shouldn't have said it... oh, God, why did I open my big mouth? Stupid, stupid, stupid...*

"I'm sorry Richard..."

"For what?" he asked as he looked up at her.

"For saying that. I put you in an awkward position..."

"No, Caroline... it's alright. I'm glad you said it."

"You are? Why?"

Richard took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He shut his eyes tightly and softly blurted out: "I feel the same way about you. I have ever since the day I first took this screwy job... I just didn't know how to tell you."

"Oh my God... you mean, all this time...??"

Richard just nodded. Caroline leaned in to kiss him and he met her lips with his, kissing her sweetly, passionately, wantonly. Slowly, Richard broke away and embraced her...

"Caroline?"

"Mmm-hmm?"

"Can we--? I mean, do you want to... maybe...?"

"What?"

"Do you want to...?" he asked again, looking at her, then towards her bedroom upstairs.

Caroline smiled, then took Richard's hand and headed for the stairs.

"Caroline, are you sure?"

"Are you?"

Richard smiled and nodded... "I've never been more sure about anything in my life..."

"Same here." she admitted, then proceeded to climb the stairs, with Richard close behind...

"Wait." Richard said, stopping in his tracks... "What about the strip?"

"It can wait. We've spent too much time avoiding our feelings... there's nothing else I want to be doing right now..."

*****~*****

--Caroline awoke from a blissful sleep, snuggled up in warm blankets on her bed. Slowly, the realization of what had transpired started to drift into her mind, and she reached over to feel for Richard beside her. But, he wasn't there. She quickly sat up and called to him...

"Richard?"

No answer...

"Richard?" she called a little louder. Still no answer.

She got out of bed and wandered downstairs...

"Richard??"

Again, no answer. Caroline was starting to get worried. Just then, Richard came walking through the door.

"Hi." Richard said as he entered the loft and saw Caroline... "I got us sandwiches from the Bleeker Deli."

He entered the kitchen and started taking food out of the bags.

"Richard... were we--?? Did you--?? Did you and I--??" she sounded confused, and Richard stopped what he was doing and looked up at her...

"What?"

"Oh God! Not again!" Caroline cried out, dropping to the couch and putting her face in her hands.

"What?? What's wrong?"

Caroline just shook her head and Richard watched her for a moment, then smiled as he realized what her anguish was about. He went to her side and knelt down, placing his hand on her knee...

"Caroline..."

She dropped her hands and looked into his loving eyes...

"It wasn't a dream Caroline..." he whispered, then cupped her face in his hands and kissed her lovingly. She melted into him, relieved that this time, it wasn't a dream... or was it?

THE END