Just as Catherine finished pulling her hair into a loose ponytail, the soft knocking against the stone alerted her that Marisol had arrived. “Have fun,” Vincent said and kissed her goodbye.
Dropping the heavy tapestry closed behind her, she emerged to find Marisol grinning at her. “I think I recognize those ‘clothes you won’t mind getting dirty.’ Are you sure Vincent won’t mind?” she asked as they began to walk.
“Very sure,” Catherine said, laughing. Tugging at the green woven pullover, which looked like it had been the battleground for several different species of moths, she asked, “How old do you think he was when he wore this?”
“Mmm, I’d guess in his early teens. I didn't live here then but I can’t imagine him wearing that as an adult, can you?”
Catherine shook her head. The jeans were her own, frayed at the knee and paint-splattered, as was the turtleneck, stained helping Nancy and Paul paint their first apartment. Marisol handed her a worn red bandana. “You’ll need this too. Tunnel dust where we’re going is like no other kind of dust; if it gets in your hair, you’ll be fighting to get it out for days.”
She hadn’t worn such a thing since college, but pulling her ponytail higher, she fastened the bandana around her head. “Will that work?”
“Perfectly,” Marisol replied. “Practicalities first. You've found where the kitchen and the commons are, of course. Has Vincent shown you the laundry?”
Catherine fought to keep the blush from rising but knew it was a failing battle. “No. We…uh…haven’t had much time.”
“Imagine that,” Marisol said dryly, smiling. “You know the largest bathing chamber?”
“I do,” Catherine replied. “That’s the one with the hottest water, right?”
Marisol nodded. “The laundry's on the other side of that wall. Let's start there and I'll show you the system and then we'll be off.”
The pathways were becoming familiar; Catherine was beginning to recognize the different colorations of the rock enough to find her way. There was a slight grayish tinge at the corner junction that led to the commons, the rust striping that marked the walls of the corridors near Mary’s chamber and the purpled hues near Kanin and Olivia’s. They neared the subtle marbled pattern nearest the shower and Marisol turned left instead of right to enter. “It’s through here,” she said, gesturing.
The laundry was a large, high-ceilinged chamber, lined with thick pipes. A constant draft ruffled the edges of Catherine's bandana. Clothes were pinned to dry on lines strung across the room, taking advantage of the breeze, and the washing machines---clearly cobbled together from parts of many different machines---hummed in the background. “How does all of this work?” Catherine asked, thinking of the hours spent at her college laundromat.
Marisol grinned. “I was stunned the first time Mary showed it to me...it seems so modern compared to everything else, like we've left Shakespeare's England and suddenly walked into the 20th century. As far as the how of it, you'd have to ask Mouse and I wish you good luck in understanding the answer. He's an awesome engineer but his explanations can be...”
“Cryptic?” Catherine replied, smiling. “It's enough that he understands it, I suppose.” She glanced up at the clotheslines. “So what's the system? Is there a time that everyone does laundry or...?”
“Well, everyone does their own, for starters,” Marisol explained. “If there's a large maintenance project going on, then a group handles the crew's laundry. Generally, families cluster in here on the weekends, single men and women in the middle of the week, and teenagers at the end. But there's no real schedule, it's just how things developed.”
“No dryers, though?” Catherine asked.
“No,” Marisol said, gazing up at the flannel shirts, the patched and darned dresses and pants, billowing in the draft. “You'll find that when clothes are hung up there they dry pretty quickly. But if you have something that really needs to be dried fast, then it's best to go Above.” At Catherine's startled look, she laughed. “We use the telephone too, sometimes. And ride the bus. We're a part of that world too.”
“I know,” Catherine replied, laughing herself at the visual of Vincent boarding a subway train the usual way. “Everything just seems so....removed.”
“Oh, I understand,” Marisol said. “And in many ways, it is. When I go to the co-op, or to pick up supplies, I wonder which world is more real---but then I come back to the candlelight and Miguel and our life here, and I don't wonder anymore.” As she spoke, her hand rested lightly on the curve of her abdomen. She met Catherine's gaze and smiled. “Yes. In the spring-time, Father says.”
“Marisol, that's wonderful! I'm so happy for you,” Catherine replied.
“Thank you,” Marisol said, fairly glowing with joy. “We weren't sure it would be possible for us but this world makes you believe that anything can happen.”
“I understand,” Catherine said through a sudden lump in her throat, remembering, wondering....
“I know you do,” Marisol said, pushing aside the curtain of the chamber opening. “Let's go to the place I really wanted you to see.”
The route they took was an unfamiliar one, down a length of tunnel Catherine had passed many times but had never walked with Vincent. They traveled down a gradual grade and the path appeared to end abruptly at a heavy mahogany door, not unlike the one that barred the small chamber where Brian had been held.
There didn't seem to be any way for it to be opened, especially not by someone as slight as Marisol. But she pressed a faint depression in the rock and the door swung open gently to reveal another narrow passage, coated with thick grey dust which was disturbed in places by footprints but---to judge by the cobwebs---hadn't been used regularly. “Jamie found it a few years back,” Marisol said. “When she discovered it, she all but dragged Mary and me through the door. We couldn't believe it.”
“Believe what?” Catherine asked. All she could see was the dirt and the cobwebs, nothing particularly remarkable.
The passage ended before a thick velvet curtain. “This,” Marisol said and pulled it aside.
The cavern was unlike any Catherine had seen in the inhabited areas of the hub---lined not with the rust colored rock of all the other chambers but with a pale milky stone she couldn't immediately identify. Thick white candles, more fragrant than the utilitarian candles seen in every chamber Below, reflected a mellow light. There was a low bookshelf between two overstuffed couches---clearly rescued from some thrift store above but given new life with quilts and tapestry pillows. An old Victrola phonograph rested on top of the bookshelf.
At the far end of the room, a small cascade trickled into a bathing pool, the sound of the water faintly musical. The more common tunnel sounds---the tapping of the pipes, the rattle of the overhead trains---were completely absent. When Catherine found her voice again, she turned to Marisol. “What is this?”
Marisol sat down on a worn tufted velvet ottoman, its purple color startling against the pale walls. “I like to think of it as a combination spa and coffee klatch,” she said. “Mary says it's a place to go and just...think.” She gestured to a basket propped against one corner, where a rainbow of yarn nearly exploded from the top. “I've seen Olivia in here knitting, since she can get it done without Luke pulling on her stitches. For Jamie, it's a girls' only retreat. No matter who's right, this is our place, a woman's place. Oh, the guys know about it,” she said, brushing some of the silvered dust off on her patched jeans. “You'll find there's a lot of things we...choose not to notice. We couldn't live any other way.”
“Amazing,” Catherine said. “And only the women use it?”
“Officially, yes,” Marisol replied. “It wasn't as though we tried to set it up that way.” She turned to look at Catherine and her gaze was serious. “The hardest thing to get used to when you live here isn't the work, or the fact that Pascal isn't really needed because gossip travels faster. It's the fact that everyone is so close. Sometimes it gets suffocating, or annoying, particularly when you're used to no one caring or noticing what you do or how you're feeling. This room...gives us space, and we treasure it.”
Used to hearing paragraphs lying in wait behind unspoken words, Catherine knew she wasn't being asked not to say anything. But she was being asked---trusted---to guard her knowledge of the cavern, to keep it as a place of rest and peace for those who might need it. “Thank you,” she replied.
“You're welcome,” Marisol said, smiling.
Vincent looked up from his book as his wife entered their bedroom. “Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked, hiding a smile at her appearance. She was covered in a light coating of grey dust, turning the green of her pullover nearly silver. He recognized the color of the dust and knew perfectly well where she'd been---Moonstone Cavern.
She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and sat down next to him on the bed. “Very much.” She tugged at the end of her bandana and watched as a cloud of fine debris landed on the rock floor. “I need to take another shower, though.”
The vision of her, of the soap bubbles pale against her skin, pearling, wet...rose before his mind's eye and he shifted slightly. “Mmmm....yes,” Vincent said, folding his book and placing it in his lap. “You're dirty. Do you need some help?”
“Being dirty?” Catherine asked, grinning. “I think I have that one covered. But I would like some... help...getting clean.”
He smiled, noticing her knowing glance. “You would?”
She laughed, a full wicked sound that gave him joy to hear. “Oh, yes.” Her hand brushed aside the book. “Well, it appears you need some help too.”
Vincent chuckled, half-heartedly capturing her wandering hands. “I believe the bathing chamber is empty right now.”
“The one nearest ours?” she asked, evading his light grasp.
'The very one,” he said. “Or we could use our shower. Your choice.”
She released the top button on his fly, then sat back on her heels. “Mmmm...what do you think?”
Vincent placed an unlit lantern on the floor at the entrance to the baths. “I don't think anyone will come in---this isn't well-known or often used---but....”
“But you'd rather not give the tunnel children a live sex ed demonstration?” Catherine quipped. “I agree.”
Vincent coughed, knowing the heat was flooding his neck, and met her teasing look with one of his own. “I thought we were just going to....get clean.”
“Yes, but...I have to get wet first,” she purred, tugging him through the hidden door and leaning up against the wall of the corridor.
His hand brushed the bare skin of her back, feeling the warmth of her, the thrill she enjoyed at his touch. His. The nails of his free hand touched the brick, bringing back a temporary awareness. He could not take her here. “Come,” he said, stepping back and taking her hand.
Catherine chuckled, a rich, loving sound. “My pleasure.”
Inside the chamber, Catherine watched as Vincent placed their clean clothes on a low ledge and retrieved thick towels from a shelf. He removed his light vest and patched shirt, then took his rose off and folded the pouch inside it, well away from any dampness. His jeans and socks and shoes soon followed, handled with the same care.
She drew in a quick breath; she'd seen him undress many times since Connecticut but each time, she was mesmerized by the turn and flow of muscle, the silken covering of his fur, the utter and unknowing grace in his movements, the lines of bone and tendon in the tender strength of his hands. His hands.... “Um, is it hot in here?” she asked. Her skin flushed with a heat that had nothing at all to do with the temperature of the room.
Vincent grinned. “Join me in the water and find out.”
Catherine removed her own clothes with decidedly less grace and stepped into the larger of the pools. The water was hot, but not uncomfortably so. She ducked her head to get her hair wet and reached for the shampoo just behind her. “Wait,” he said, “let me.” He drew some of the fragrant shampoo---one of Rebecca's preparations, she'd since learned---and massaged it gently into her scalp. The touch of his clawed hands, gently rubbing, caused little shivers to jump and skitter along her spine. “That feels good,” she murmured.
“Does it?” he said.
She gasped as his fingers traced a path down her neck, her breasts. “You have to ask?”
“No,” he said and kissed her.
Vincent watched as Catherine stepped back, the water caressing every hidden curve as she moved. She sank beneath the waters of the pool, emerging with her hair free of bubbles, and he was reminded of tales of the Nereids, the sea nymphs of old legends.
He reached for the soft washcloth and the cake of herbal soap, dampening both in the water. “May I?” he asked.
Her assent was the low groan of his name and her desire, her need, flooded their bond. He had done nothing more than wash her hair but it was his actions, the work of the hands he'd once despised, that thrilled her so. Catherine gasped as the damp cloth caressed her, the soap beading like the rarest of jewels around her neck...her breasts rose, insistent, against his hand, her breath coming faster.
He stilled her with a gentle touch against the strong, delicate lines of her collarbone and she subsided. “Wait,” he said.
“Call me a temptress,” Catherine murmured.
Vincent smoothed the wet silken hair back from her face and smiled. “I do.”
She sat on a rock ledge inside the pool, beckoning. “What about you?”
“What about me?” he asked.
“You need to...clean up too,” she purred.
“I wasn't dirty when I got into the pool,” he replied.
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh?” With a small shove of her arms, she pushed the water towards him. It didn't come close to drowning him, or make him more damp than he already was, but he chuckled, appreciating the attempt, and sank beneath the water. When he emerged, his hair clung to him like heavy cording, dripping into his eyes. He shook his head slightly; it would take quite a lot of combing and conditioner to get rid of the tangles.
“Sit here next to me, love,” Catherine said.
Vincent nodded, the smell of the mineral salts in the water rising as he moved. “Better?” he asked.
He was not at all surprised to feel Catherine's hands in his hair, pulling his head down for a kiss.
Catherine found the large cake of soap and the washcloth. “May I?” she asked.
His eyebrows rose. After years of believing himself too monstrous, too hairy, too other for any woman, the idea that Catherine would want to bathe him...touch him....that she enjoyed the very thought...The evolving facets of their loving remained a source of awe and delight. “Yes,” he said, through a throat gone suddenly dry. “Oh, yes.”
The caress of the soap along the muscles of chest and shoulder and back caused him to shiver, little flames dancing. When she followed the longer line of fur that traced his spine, he felt himself stiffen and their passion, temporarily banked, flared into life again.
She knew; it was impossible for her not to have known and her gamin grin was bright in the dimness of the cavern. “You seem to have a...very large problem,” she said, rinsing the soap off her hands, then touching him.
Vincent growled low in his throat, a sound of frustration and need and desire, emerging almost before conscious thought. He would have been ashamed of those sounds once, but the sparking of Catherine's delight squelched any chagrin he once would have felt. He moved closer, capturing her wandering hands with more intent than he had before. “Wait,” he said again and she nodded.
He lifted her to the dry smooth edge of the pool; her breath of surprise was warm against his neck. He knelt before her on the seat they'd vacated and bent his mouth to one firm breast. She arched against him, her hands tangling in his hair, a hushed groan of her own emerging.
Her skin had a taste, and he craved it, the scent...the joy...of her wanting him. She tasted of salt and sunlight and...him. Them. His mate. Her scent, his...together. Vincent glanced at her and knew what she wanted, as clear as if she'd spoken aloud. Gently, he lifted her off the dry ledge and lowered her into the embrace of the water.
Catherine's mouth met his in a groaning sigh; his hands sought and found the curve of her hips and held her, suspended, as he joined them together. The water cradled them both as he moved within her, her hands clutching at the long muscles of his back and shoulders. Their bond expanded as their souls merged and he lost himself...feeling her joy and love dancing within his own.
When it was over, he lowered her once again to the watery bench. “Vincent,” Catherine began, “that was...”
“Yes,” he replied. It was all he could manage.
She kissed him, their passion gone milder now, a gentle wave rather than a fierce-running river. “Your hair is tangled, love. Shall I brush it?”
“You can't,” Vincent replied, kissing her back. “I'll have to wash and shampoo it again. It'll be impossible to get a brush or a comb through it otherwise.”
“Damn,” she said, mock pouting. “We'll have to stay in here for a while then, won't we?”
He nodded and stirred again as she touched him. “I'm afraid so.”
Catherine grinned. “Well, some sacrifices are necessary.”
“Is that what they're calling it now?” Vincent asked, unable to keep the smile off his face. “A sacrifice?”
She nodded, her serious expression belied by the mirth in their bond. “It'll be difficult...but I'm sure I can manage.”
“If you're sure it won't be too...hard,” he replied, waggling his eyebrows in a way he knew made her laugh.
“Oh, it'll be...hard. That, I can promise you,” Catherine chuckled. She tilted her head, once again the mischievous, seductive Nereid of all his dreams and desires. “Vincent?”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
Click here for Chapter 21...
 “The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart,” by William Butler Yeats