Caline woke with a gasp, her heart hammering fit to break through her chest. She scrambled for the lamp on the nightstand. A sigh of relief pushed past her lips when it snapped on, its meager light pooling around one side of the bed. The corners of her mouth drew down uncontrollably and the first tears of the night darkened her duvet cover.
Caline’s chin trembled as she tried to push them back. It had been months. Months! She’d completed her recommended counseling, made all of her apologies, and moved on with a smile. She’d been conscientious with her students and careful of their feelings. I’m doing everything right, she fumed, sniffling. Why do they keep coming?
The nightmares visited her at least three times a week. Her counselor assured her they would fade with time, but Caline wasn’t so confident. Each one filled her with a sick, twisting fear as she relived the events of her own akumatization - events she could barely remember when awake, but which gained a vivid, lurid realism as her unconscious mind played them out.
Caline drew her knees up and hugged herself. That woman wasn’t me, not even deep down. That woman was manipulated and twisted by magic. The reassurances didn’t help. Zombizou had been her, on some level. Saying the opposite didn’t take away that truth. She laid her cheek on her knees and glanced at her clock. 1:23 am.
She brushed away a tear and reached for her cell phone. She bit her lip, worrying even as she unlocked it. If Jean was asleep, he just wouldn’t get the message, right? They both had work in the morning; she didn’t want to mess with his already demanding schedule.
Had another nightmare, Caline texted. They really suck. Talk to you this evening?
Her phone plinked a confirmation of the send. She set it aside and knuckled sleep out of her eyes. Her heart rate was still high; maybe she should get all the way up and get a glass of water.
The phone beeped and she grabbed it, surprised.
10 minutes, the response read.
Caline put it back down, puzzled. Ten minutes until what? She calmed down? Should she try meditating that long? Or maybe just lay down and relax? Jean was generally terse in his texts; he didn’t have much time to spare, with his position at Le Grande Paris. She shrugged and decided meditation wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe she’d actually get a little more sleep before her work day began.
Besides, the fact that he’d responded at all set her more at ease. Caline breathed in deeply through her nose, exhaled through her mouth. A different kind of butterfly fluttered about her battered heart.
Jean kept his knock polite and very, very quiet. If Caline had gone back to sleep, he didn’t want to bother her. She’d given him the code to her building several weeks ago and he hoped he wasn’t abusing the trust. He blinked back a yawn, trying to convince himself he felt more awake than his body wanted.
The door opened a crack and Jean couldn’t help the smile that flashed across his features. He hadn’t seen Caline in days, at least. It was too early in the morning to try and count, but he’d missed her. So much.
The door widened to reveal his redheaded beauty wearing a bewildered expression and pajamas more appropriate to her teenage students.
“Am I disturbing you?” Jean asked, concerned.
“Jean! No! Ah, come in.”
Caline stepped aside and he entered. He’d been to her apartment one time before, when she’d made him dinner. It had been sparkling and neat. Now, he could see laundry tossed hither and yon over the furniture and dishes piled up in the kitchenette. The contrast was charming.
Jean turned just in time to catch Caline yawning as she scrubbed both hands through her tousled hair.
“My text was unclear, wasn’t it?” he observed.
He tried not to let chagrin enter his voice. He was used to texting a staff that was intimately familiar with his obscure directions, to the point that they had a code specifically tailored to Bourgeois family “emergencies.”
“Not your fault,” Caline yawned. “I’m sorry I bothered you. You didn’t need to come over.”
There was a smallness - no, a meekness - in her voice that made Jean set down the bag he carried and cross directly to her. She stepped back, her eyes wide. Jean reached past her and pushed the door shut, continuing his advance until her back was pressed against it. This close, he could smell the fading perfume of her shampoo, something flowery. Caline’s face flushed as her emerald eyes rose to meet his.
“I really wanted to,” Jean murmured.
Her pink lips parted, but all that came out was a quiet breath. Jean felt dizzy. He’d thought about those lips for days. He leaned forward, pulling in another fragrant breath, but hesitated.
“You’re so damn polite,” Caline replied, no trace of a smile on her face. “Please.”
He gently captured her lips with his. They were as soft and sweet as he remembered. He’d wanted to kiss her so badly. Unable to resist, he closed the space between them and pulled her in, one arm around her waist. He pressed his fingers into the unbound hair that fell in waves nearly to her waist. It was soft, soft as feathers.
Caline wrapped both arms around Jean’s neck, her meekness gone. She melted into their warm embrace, pressing closer as she tilted her head and kissed him more deeply. Her skin felt hot beneath the thin material of her tank top. Jean gripped the shirt’s hem for dear life as Caline pressed her tongue against his.
Without breaking contact, Jean brought both hands to her slender waist and lifted her up. Caline hooked her legs securely around his hips. He carried her to her couch and leaned forward to lay her down.
Caline pulled her mouth away, her luminous eyes questioning.
“Jean?” she whispered.
Jean quirked a small smile. “I’m here to stay with you, however you want me to.”
The sleepy, trusting smile she returned made him feel like he could break the Eiffel Tower in half with his bare hands. Caline scrunched down into the cushions and pulled at his t-shirt to bring him up to her. He lay next to her and kicked off his slippers, tangling his pajama-clad legs with hers. She deposited a light kiss at the corner of his lips, then trailed kisses along his jaw that made his ears go hot.
“How did I ever find you?” he breathed.
The combination of her kisses on his neck and her delicate hands on his shuddering spine erased anything else he could think to say.
A scream brought Caline to wakefulness, and it took several moments to comprehend that she was the one screaming. The room around her slid into focus, most notably Jean’s worried brow, and she realized he was holding her. Her students’ terrified faces receded from her vision. Caline ran out of breath. She closed her mouth, afraid that another scream might emerge. Jean sat them both up on the couch and gently ran his hands down her arms. He pried open her closed fists, massaging her palms with strong thumbs.
“It’s over. It wasn’t real,” he told her and leaned in to kiss her.
“No! Get away from me!” Caline cried.
She clapped a hand over her mouth and scooted to the other end of the couch. Then reality truly set in and her eyes welled up with tears. Her Zombizou memories faded like fiction, leaving her to ponder her now-inexplicable racing heart and panting breath.
“Oh, Jean, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I-I thought I was still...her.” Caline dropped her eyes guiltily.
“It’s not your fault. None of it was your fault. Caline, look at me.”
She did and found herself lost in the warmth of his gaze. His keen eyes had fascinated her since the day she met him. Something within her eased, then let go altogether. The rampaging heartbeat in her ears receded.
Jean tipped her chin up with one finger. He palmed away a tear that had spilled over.
“It. Is. Not. Your. Fault. Do you believe me?” He said the words slowly, never breaking eye contact.
“I do,” she replied.
It was the honest truth. Her head at least believed it. Her heart wasn’t fully convinced.
“The nightmare made you afraid to kiss me?” Jean asked.
His mustache gave a small twitch as he spoke. She hadn’t fully deciphered the twitch vocabulary yet. This one meant he either found it funny, or felt concern for her. Likely the latter.
A smile tugged at her lips. “Not afraid to kiss you, just afraid to hurt you. Dream logic. I didn’t want to infect you and turn you into a zombie. God, it’s strange not to be able to remember it - when I’m awake, that is.”
Another mustache twitch, and she knew for sure that this one was humor.
“I completely understand.”
Caline looked at a clock on her wall. She still had about half an hour before she needed to get up. “Anyway, I guess you need to get back to Le Grande Paris?”
“Mmmm.” Jean pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped out a message. “Not anymore.”
Caline lifted one eyebrow. “Just like that?”
“Just like that. You know, there are schools of thought that say the best thing to do after falling off a horse is to get right back on.” Jean relaxed against her couch, one arm spread negligently across the back.
Caline’s brow furrowed. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, it seems to me that if you’re worried about kissing, perhaps some extra practice would help you move past it.” Jean grinned at her, a rakish look completely at odds with his normally deferential demeanor.
A blush erupted from the roots of Caline’s hair and spread down to her neck. She giggled uncontrollably as Jean wiggled his eyebrows. He couldn’t fool her completely, though. The tips of his ears were bright red. She rolled forward from her cross-legged posture and knee-walked over to his inviting embrace.
“It’s worth a shot, I suppose,” she murmured.