ROSE ON THE GREY
I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grey,
The more I get of you, stranger it feels...
(Seal, Kiss From a Rose)
Vincent soaked at his leisure, watching the grey dust embedded in his fur wash away with each swirl of warm water. The only other person with access to this bathing chamber - a warm mineral spring - was Father, who had been bandaged and bundled into bed by Mary. That Father had accepted her ministrations without complaint was a measure of his shock and exhaustion. Vincent knew it would take some time to recover from the cave-in that had nearly taken both their lives.
Vincent was still feeling shaken himself. He’d lived Below his entire life, but never had the rock walls of his home pressed so frighteningly close as they had today in the Maze. He was amazed to be in one piece, and felt almost grateful for the bruises and abrasions that proved he wasn’t dreaming...or dead.
And that it should be Catherine who had saved him...
Vincent sighed, and the rock dust still clinging to his throat made the sound more gravelly than usual. It was an irrational feeling, but somehow Catherine’s heroics on his behalf left him a little undone. In the short time he had known her, Vincent had saved her life on several occasions, and once his gut-wrenching fear for her had subsided and the gore had been washed from his hands, he had been secretly - pathetically - grateful for the opportunities. Vincent knew all too well that he had neither the right nor the ability to court her in any acceptable fashion, so he courted her the only way he knew how: by preserving her life at any cost. A small price to pay for having her in his restricted existence.
But Catherine had gone and turned it all upside-down today, and now Vincent had not only to be grateful for her presence in his life, but for the life itself. He didn’t know the full story behind his and Father’s rescue, but one thing was apparent; Winslow’s brawn, Mouse’s ingenuity, and indeed the entire community’s efforts would have counted for nothing had Catherine not bullied and beguiled them into an effective, cohesive whole. She’d somehow provided the means to blast through solid rock - not to mention blasting away the stubbornness, doubt and panic that had so paralyzed the community. Vincent felt humbled by her courageous love. That she should take up the cudgels on his behalf, when he lived and breathed now just for her...
Vincent’s weary blue eyes closed slowly, his eyelids heavy with exhaustion.
Catherine smiled happily as she sat sipping her tea in Father’s library. She was surrounded by her newfound friends Below; their automatic suspicion of Topsiders had been tempered by her obvious concern for Vincent and Father, and was overcome entirely by her crucial role in their rescue.
Catherine felt welcomed now by the entire community. When he’d been pulled from his tomb, Father had said that were no words to thank her, and she’d almost wept to see the approval in his eyes. Maybe there were no words, but Father’s people had found plenty of ways to show their gratitude, showering Catherine with tea and cookies and laughter. Apart from Pascal, who had returned to his pipes to spread the good news, and Mary, who was tending Father, it seemed as if the entire Tunnel community had crowded into the library to take comfort in each other’s company. Even young Eric was hobbling about on his bad ankle, looking terribly sorry for the trouble he’d so inadvertently caused. Catherine held him comfortingly, soothing him with gentle words before Sara coaxed him to bed with the other children.
The numbers slowly thinned as the evening wore on. Jamie asked if she’d like a guest chamber made up for her, but Catherine, observing the girl’s worn features, refused the offer. Eventually she found herself alone in the library, waiting with increasing impatience for Vincent to reappear; Catherine had received many impulsive embraces that night, but it was Vincent’s strong arms that she needed around her most of all.
"Where could he be?" she asked herself softly. Making her way through still unfamiliar passages, Catherine found herself in Vincent’s chamber. Lit only by the candles behind the stained glass window, the room was empty.
Catherine was beginning to feel a little anxious. It had been hours since Vincent had stumbled off on unsteady legs to bathe. He had appeared tired but unhurt, and Catherine had expected him to return and lead her Above. She knew he wouldn’t forget her; thanks to the mysterious bond they shared, Vincent was incapable of putting her from his mind, even had he wanted to. But what if he was ill? Or had a concussion? In the quiet of the chamber, broken only by the tapping of pipes, Catherine listened carefully until she heard the faint murmur of running water. Tamping down her rising uneasiness, she followed the sound with determination.
Through a twisted, downward-leading passage, Catherine emerged into a natural chamber, at the far edge of which lay a pool. Water reflected in sparkling patterns on the rough stone walls, and a moist, golden haze veiled the chamber. As Catherine’s eyes adjusted to the candlelit mist, they followed a dusty trail of clothing to the pool’s edge, where they beheld a magnificent sight.
Vincent. He was semi-reclined in the water, his powerful, well-muscled body largely submerged. His rugged arms were bare, lying outstretched along the rock ledge against which he leant. Catherine’s avid gaze followed the line of his limbs from the sharp tips of his claws to the massive set of his shoulders. He was facing away from her, but his golden head had tipped back and she could see that he had fallen into a deep sleep. Drops of moisture clung to his forehead, and Catherine felt perspiration bead her own brow as
she drank in his overwhelming presence.
The temptation was irresistible. Catherine undressed quickly and quietly, letting her dirty clothes join his on the ground. Vincent showed no sign of stirring; his sleep was profound and healing. She eased into the pool beside him, pleased - and rather stunned - to have breached all his usual defenses. She only hoped he wouldn’t die of embarrassment upon waking.
Vincent came to awareness slowly, his normally quick reflexes checked by tiredness and a feeling of well-being. He’d dreamt of Catherine. He’d been drowning in a grey, fathomless lake until she took his hands. Suddenly he could breathe - even underwater - and they had swum together to the surface, emerging into vivid sunlight such as he had never before seen.
Vincent’s eyes opened to discover a lovely, muted echo of his dream: he and Catherine, awash with a golden glow, bathing together in soothingly warm water. Catherine had found the soap in a small recess and was lathering up, the action so prosaic that Vincent knew he must be awake.
"Catherine?" he whispered, his tone full of wonder.
Catherine smiled at the dazed expression in his sleepy blue eyes. "I hope you don’t mind if I join you. I’m a bit grimy after all that hard rock mining." Feeling absurdly shy all of a sudden, she had to fight the urge to
duck her head beneath the water; Vincent had undoubtedly seen all there was to see of her last April, when he’d first saved her life.
Vincent could’ve relieved her of that notion had he known of it; his recollections of that awful time were a jumble, his empathy tested to the limit by a broken, bleeding stranger whose pain seemed to sink into his own flesh. He had helped Father clean her wounds and strap her cracked ribs, learning her body intimately - and later he would have been hard-pressed to provide any satisfactory description of her.
Now, seeing her face crease into a captivating smile and her flushed pink breasts bob so enticingly on the water’s surface, his eyes felt permanently scorched by the image; this was a memory that would stay with him always, its clarity untainted by pain. But how could she be here in this place...with him? It was wonderful...unthinkable!
Catherine leant a little closer, and Vincent tried not to flinch as the air between them became electrified. His body seemed to be filled with wanting, the tension - desire - so strong he felt almost physically ill. There were two equal and opposite urges fighting for dominance within him. The first - to hold Catherine, crush her against his body - was powerful, but no more so than the second - to flee, and thus protect her from himself.
Vincent felt at odds with himself on a fundamental level. This was a battle He’d been waging since she first entered his life, and denial had become a part of his everyday existence. Yet he was so completely unequal to the task of leaving her now - her presence such an unexpected and perilous pleasure! - that he was paralyzed.
Catherine beamed her approval. She guessed something of his indecision; the disquiet in his expression was all too obvious. The smoldering heat beneath the anxiety was less evident, but she recognized it anyhow - despite his attempts to hide his need for her - and knew a powerful relief at his continued presence. A rejection from Vincent tonight, after she’d struggled so long and hard to free him from danger, would have been devastating to both of them. Yet he was usually so careful to avoid any hint of physical entanglement – ‘for her own good’, of course, as if it had ever done her any good to be apart from Vincent - and she knew that under any other circumstances...
But the rules seemed to have been suspended, and Catherine was feeling brave enough to take advantage. She decided to take his stillness as invitation to further intimacy. Driven by almost irresistible curiosity, her fingers reached for the broad expanse of his chest, eager to lather her soap into his fur and find the tender flesh beneath. She buried her hands in his thick pelt, and immediately became aware of the strong, tantalizing scent rising from his overheated body. It was a scent she’d long been aware of, but only
in a rather vague way; it usually eluded her beneath the physical barriers Vincent placed between them. Now it filled her nostrils, stronger by far than the soap she wielded with such deftness, and she wondered how she could have ever resisted his potent allure for so long.
Catherine leant over Vincent, careful not to crowd him, although the urge to plaster herself against his body was hard to subdue. She pressed her face lightly against his chest, inhaling the smoky salt scent that rose above his heart; his was an alluring fragrance that had haunted her for months, and it seemed almost decadent to bask in it this way. Catherine’s nose rubbed insistently against his hard sternum, and her hands stroked soothingly over his breast as he took gulping breaths of air. Questing lips moved slowly up the valley of his torso, bisecting its muscular symmetry; Catherine smiled at the delicious tickle of his moist hair against her skin.
She let her body relax alongside Vincent’s, her head falling upon his right shoulder. With the soap she traced the letter ‘C’ across his wildly beating heart, and her mark was clearly delineated. She met his gaze to find recognition of her possessive act; Vincent’s stunned eyes acknowledged the branding. After placing the soap on the ledge behind them, she used bare fingers to erase the mark, confident that Vincent would nonetheless feel it there always.
"I’ve been longing to touch you like this," Catherine murmured finally, her right hand tangled in his chest hair, and her curious nose nuzzling his underarm.
Vincent’s flesh was quivering beneath her gentle onslaught, muscles taut and ready to bolt. "I...I know," he said hoarsely. Their bond vibrated with want, and it wasn’t all his, not by a long shot - it was a want that seemed to fill the world. Surely he had to know that! But... "But why, Catherine?"
Catherine smiled and shook her head at this obtuseness, her lips brushing across the soft skin of his underarm; she was perplexed and delighted to find that here, where any other man might proudly carry his most abundant hair growth, Vincent was virtually bare. His arms were still outstretched and tense as he permitted her delicate exploration. "You want to run, don’t you?"
Catherine’s words fluttered against quavering skin, and she could feel Vincent swallow hard before muttering, "Yes...no...I don’t know..."
"Oh, you want to run, Vincent. I can tell." Her right arm crept further across his body to touch an enormous, bunched bicep. She could feel the muscles so tense and ready to thrust her away, to flee. Ready to grab her and hold on forever. Contradictory impulses were holding him immobile, and Catherine could only feel grateful. "You want to stay, too, don’t you?"
Vincent’s only reply was a shuddering groan. God, what she was doing to him! Did she realize? Could she possibly comprehend the extent of the craving she provoked with these caresses? As Catherine trailed velvety kisses across his body, she was chuckling a little - though the humour was shadowed by the
terrors of the day. "Oh, how I need to touch you tonight, Vincent," she said. "To know you’re really here, and not buried beneath a ton of bedrock." Her hands clutched at him compulsively, and although blood coursed wildly through his veins, creating an almost deafening roar in his ears, her soft voice reached him still. "I was in agony all day. You seemed so immeasurably far away. I never want to feel that fear again."
Vincent’s head fell slightly, enough to brush his cheek comfortingly against her hair; it was the barest motion he would allow his covetous, craving body. He knew about fear... "Now I know how it feels to fight for a life, Vincent," Catherine continued, her words underscored by those whispered kisses which shook him to the marrow. "Just as you’ve fought for mine, again and again." Impossible to steady his erratic pulse, but his hands remained stubbornly clenched at the rock ledge, the rough stone pressing into his flesh a reminder of the need to be still. What was she saying? "I sweat blood and tears for you today, Vincent. Even sold my soul to Elliot, and I don’t mind, not a bit. Just to have this feeling of..." Her head shook slowly as she gathered her thoughts, the contemplative motion drawing her lips back and forth across his right nipple in a devastating manner. "Possession," she said finally, drawing his nipple inside her hot mouth briefly before releasing it. "For hours I thought of nothing but saving your life - and consequently my own. Does that make me selfish?" He shook his head, unable to speak, but eager to reassure her, for he understood all too well the tyranny of this love they shared, how it eclipsed every feeling that had ever come before. "We truly belong to each other now, Vincent."
With those words, Catherine felt her lingering fear dissipate into the mist, replaced by an enveloping calm. Extricating her reluctant body from his, she sat up and reached for the pail on the ledge. Warm water was soon splashing down gently upon his head, where the hair was still streaked grey with dust; she wondered if this was how he’d look in twenty years’ time, and promised herself that she’d be there to see it - she could hardly wait. She washed his mane thoroughly, combing her fingers through his tresses, and untangling the knots with a gentle stubbornness, whilst Vincent endured her ministrations in a state of brutal bliss. Although his head ducked almost shamefully to hide their foreignness, her massage soon uncovered the sweet mystery of his ears, and she traced their fine, rather feline outline, first with eager fingertips, and finally with ardent lips. It was a blessing to know this about him.
Catherine’s hands lowered to knead the tight tendons of his neck. Her thumbs pressed lightly along the sides where bare skin lay flushed and glistening, whilst her fingers tangled in the long hair at the back where Vincent’s mane spread inexorably down his body. Had anyone ever touched him thus? Her virtual stranglehold should have made him feel intensely vulnerable, but instead seemed a mark of both her trust and his, and he accepted the touch gladly. And when her fingernails scraped delicately at his nape, he let
forth a shivery sigh...how did she know? The expression on Catherine’s face was growing increasingly dreamy as she bathed him...and it made Vincent dream too.
Urging him forward a little, Catherine poured water down his broad back. The movement brought them closer, and Vincent finally let go of the ledge and allowed his arms to fall beneath the surface. His right hand brushed against her body in passing, making them both gasp softly, but she continued washing his back as though the touch had never been. Watching her through the cover of damp bangs, studying the play of moisture against her skin and the fluttering pulse at her neck, Vincent wondered whether he would ever sleep again when such dreams as this were to be had in the waking world. His eyes would not be denied this sight.
Catherine knew from the tilt of his head that he was watching her. Again and again she lifted the pail in her right hand to create a cascade down his back, whilst her left enlaced in the long, silky hair she found there, determined to learn him by heart. The movements made her muscles flex and her breasts tremble, and all the while he watched beneath hooded eyelids...she had never felt so intimately aware of another’s perusal.
Feeling a blush creep uncontrollably across her body once more, she nonetheless let her hand move lower and deeper until she discovered the tight curve of his buttocks and the tempting gap between. Before she had time to even bite her bottom lip in anticipation though, Vincent fell back against the ledge with a low growl.
"Too much?" she asked softly, hardly expecting a reply. Their humming bond spoke silently of his longing, and she could only hope that her own pleasure in these caresses reached him in return. She eased the fringe from his face to find blue eyes flashing almost dangerously, though she felt little anxiety for his sake and none at all for her own. Vincent was panting audibly now, the glint of sharp incisors wordless proof of an arousal engendered for once by passion rather than peril. Running a thumb soothingly across his lips, she felt his urgent huffs of breath press against her sensitive pad, and cried out at the darting, almost supplicatory rasp of his tongue.
The intimacy shook them both. Tension still gripped Vincent’s body, but any urge he’d had to run had long since faded away, the miracle of Catherine’s loving touch imbuing him with a growing persuasion that he could be with her this way...perhaps touch her...without losing control. Yet until the persuasion became conviction, he thought grimly, he must keep his invisible tethers in place. So long as doubt remained - even the smallest uncertainty - these hands would not be allowed their longed-for freedom.
Catherine’s hands knew no such uncertainty. Whilst his own hands clenched in frustration, claws biting into his palms, hers wandered at will across his body. The muscled planes of his chest held firm beneath her touches though he shuddered with need as she caught his nipples between her fingers. Suppressing the urge to touch her mouth to him again - once had been a miracle, and a second time might send them both flying apart - she instead let her hands trail beneath the water to sear a path down his taut abdomen. The dim light denied her the yearned-for sight of his submerged lower body, but touch supplemented her starved imagination. Lost in a wet and distractingly virile forest of hair, her delving fingers found his navel -
he was an outie, she was charmed to discover - before tracing a path along his hipbones.
The massage sent currents of pleasure jolting through Vincent’s helpless body. She had glanced at him rather mischievously after teasing his navel, but he could barely breathe much less respond. Now, as she moved away slightly to stroke the length of his trunklike legs, he felt an almost ungovernable impulse to pull her back towards him. Fighting the urge with all his strength - would there ever come a time when he would feel free to surrender? - he sustained her attack on his overwrought senses in breathless, desperate immobility.
His legs, though suspended by the water, lay heavily in her hands. Catherine thought longingly of the time when she would feel these great slabs of flesh pressed between her own trembling legs; the image made her thighs quiver in anticipation. Looking up into his intent expression, she knew he had caught the drift of her covetous thoughts and was indulging in a few disquieting dreams himself; the tension that refused to be coaxed from his body told her they would remain dreams awhile longer.
Catherine felt no disappointment; content to explore his body, she didn’t mind if it took ten years before he felt sanguine about discovering hers. Their time would come. To sit naked with him this way, massaging his weary feet - they were heavily furred, with nails that felt fatally sharp - was an unexpected wonder to be cherished. There was trust implicit in his stillness, and greater faith was sure to come. She could wait.
Catherine crept up to curl into the curve of Vincent’s body, resting her flushed face against the corded muscles of his chest. The rock beneath them was smooth and comfortable, and as she felt his right arm encircle her – so tentative, yet with an undeniable underlying possessiveness - she thought wistfully of staying there all night, just listening to his heartbeat. As her hand idled in his lap, she found him aroused and disconcertingly large; the implication sent flutters of excitement and trepidation through her. She stroked him to completion with gentle determination, memorizing his size and shape in the drowsy twilight before she fell asleep, lulled by the deep, rumbling purr beneath her cheek.
Vincent held her for a long time, absorbed in the comfort of her nearness. His purr was slow to subside, so utterly content did he feel - a sort of burbling happiness unknown since his carefree childhood, before he’d
realised he was different. Perhaps he wasn’t so different after all. Catherine’s courage - and audacity - were wonderful to him. Through their bond he had sensed many things in her tonight - tenderness, curiosity, desire - but above all he had felt her love for him, so strong that it had broken those dull grey chains of inhibition that separated them. No, they weren’t so different after all. His heart recognised and shared her every emotion. And soon...soon he would find the courage to respond in kind, with everything that he had.
Catherine’s sleep seemed tranquil now, unlike the frustrated, broken rest he so often sensed in her after he had pulled away from her embrace yet again. To think that she could find such peace in his arms! In finding the strength to give her this time, this touch - this trust - he was receiving so much in return, so many unimaginably wonderful gifts. There was no telling where her joy ended and his began, and that was the real beauty of their emotional connection. They were truly becoming one. Vincent stood up, carrying her lax body with him. Catherine’s slight weight was nothing to him after the rock pinnacles he’d borne across his back today, but it was a precious weight nonetheless and he cradled her carefully. Water streamed noisily from their bodies as he rose, creating a sparkling spectacle in the gloom, but Catherine didn’t stir. He wrapped a warm towel around her as best he could - unwilling as he was to let her go for even a moment - and savored the sensation as she nestled against the material...nestled against him. Her small nose was pressed into his chest whilst her fingers tangled in his fur, and he wondered if he would ever be able to receive her touch with any semblance of composure; there was undoubtedly a long and wondrous road to travel before he could reach such a point, and for the first time he felt ready to face it, even embrace it.
Vincent carried Catherine up the short passage to his chamber, imagining with a certain bemusement what sort of pagan picture they made. A bedraggled one, assuredly! He entered the chamber and lay her across his bed. The sight of her there stirred him on an elemental level. From the moment he’d first found her dying in the park and brought her to this bed, it was as if her life had belonged to him...just as his soul was hers. And what had begun as a state of helpless, hopeless symbiosis seemed to be developing its own sort
of synergy. He was finally starting to understand that they could not part...nor should they.
Ignoring his own damp body, he towelled her dry with loving caresses. Opening a drawer, he found her old nightgown where he’d hidden it beneath his own clothes - Mary, understanding him all too well, had never requested its return - and drew it out, welcoming the chance to once again see Catherine in the clothing of his world.
Vincent knelt naked beside the bed, almost in prayer. The flushed pink of Catherine’s skin was slowly surrendering to gooseflesh, and he eased her into the nightgown, covering her soft flesh and rosebud nipples with reluctance. She murmured a little in her sleep at his touch but was otherwise still, the day’s anxieties and exertions having caught her up with a vengeance. He tucked her under his myriad blankets, intensely gratified as she made herself at home in his bed once more. Everything was as it should be.
He sank onto a chair to dry off his still dripping coat. It was a task Vincent would normally undertake with rough vigour - his fur was absorbent, and somewhat slow to dry - but he wanted to savour the remembered sensation of Catherine’s hands on him. She had made him feel so well loved with her care for his body. It was a unique feeling for Vincent - almost as though he was a rosebud himself, ripe and ready to unfurl - and he was reluctant to scourge himself as usual now that he was beginning to believe in this love, this desire, that Catherine felt for him. Wasn’t it madness to hate and scorn that which she craved? He was feeling many tumultuous emotions right now, but madness wasn’t amongst them, so he towelled himself as gently as she might have, and watched as flickering colours from the stained-glass window played lovingly across her sleeping face.
Once dry, Vincent slipped on a nightshirt and crept into bed beside her, tucking his body protectively around hers. His pulse quivered at the contact, but soon slowed to match hers, and he cuddled her closer as sleep swept over him. Colour danced over them both in ever more fantastical movements as the candles guttered in the night, lulling the pair into rosy dreams...dreams in which they shared a happy life...dreams in which they were one.