Decadent

By Kay Starwell

Late February danced like an icy witch across Catherine’s balcony.  A witch whose wind-whipped skirts drove the inhabitants of New York inside.

For all the weather’s bluster, it was companionable winter’s evening indoors, for Vincent and Catherine.  They had listened to music, talked about his day in the tunnels and hers at the office.  They’d had something warm to drink, and enjoyed a fire in the grate.  Due to the frigid air, they sat near her hearth.  A rare occurrence most months, but not a rare one, lately.

Ice frosted the windows of the terrace doors, making patterns on the glass.  Sleet tapped on the panes.  Vincent had brought a book from one of the Bronte sisters, but it sat unopened as he and Catherine chatted on her blanket-covered floor.

"Freezing again, tonight.  Seems like its been a very long winter," Catherine complained, knowing the forecast called for no change the next week.  She rubbed her arms against a cold she couldn’t actually feel.  It was warm, inside her apartment.  It was uncommon that the weather actually drove them in.  But it had happened more than one evening, this month.

"February is a cold month.  Spring will come, Catherine."  Vincent gave her one of his soft smiles.

She itched for spring.  For the warmer weather, and the lighter clothing.

They were on the floor, leaning against the front of one of her sofas.  The room was cozy, as it kept the New York winter at bay.  She pulled her bare feet up, and perched them almost teasingly, atop his corduroy-clad thigh.  "Tell that to my feet.  I had to wear my highest-heeled boots to court, today.  It was awful."

He gently took one of her tender appendages between his own large palms.  Sore feet were a common complaint for Catherine, especially on court days.  She always felt she needed to wear heels to argue a case.  Something about being shorter than most of the other attorneys putting her at a disadvantage, in the eyes of the jury.

"You know, there are more sensible shoes," he chided her for not the first, fifth or seventh time.  It was an old joke between them.  A pair of impossibly high pumps, shoes he had privately nicknamed her “Opening and Closing Argument Shoes,” sat on the floor near her bedroom door.  The boots she’d worn today lay near the front door, dripping snow on the indoor mat.  Any addition to her height seemed inversely proportional to the decrease in her comfort level.

"I need to be taller when I argue a case.”  It was her standard reply.  She wiggled her toes as he gently stroked them.  "Lord, that feels good."  She sighed, and leaned back, as he rubbed her left foot between his palms.

"Yes, Catherine,” he humored.  He enjoyed her obvious pleasure as he continued massaging her instep.  She had never asked him to do this for her, before.  She groaned.  "Okay.  That feels good.  Criminally good.”  She slid down the makeshift backrest of the couch, slightly.  "Oooohhhhhhh."  Her head was thrown back, resting on the cushioned seat.

Vincent continued to smile, slightly.  He noises were starting to sound sexual, though of course she had not removed a stitch, other than her shoes and socks.

"Temples should be built to you," she moaned, switching her left foot for the right.

He began the same ministrations on that foot.

"And altars consecrated."  She slid down a little further.  "That feels so good, Vincent."

He dropped his head, and accepted her praise, stroking her toes to their French pedicures.  "You are welcome, Catherine."

"If it was spring, I could wear sandals," she sighed.

"High-heeled ones?”  She could hear the smile in his voice.  She kept her eyes closed, in delight. 

"Yes.  But open toes are more comfortable than boots or pumps.  Ask anyone."

He chuckled at the image she suggested.  "That is not a poll I can see myself taking any time soon, my Catherine." 

Now she chuckled, too.  "Okay.  I admit that would look a bit odd if you were to start asking.  Especially Father."

She opened her eyes and looked at him.  He’d moved to accommodate her feet, and was framed by firelight.  Warm light painted his hair.  He was perfect.

“Father might become a bit curious, too,” he said.

Her foot was so small, the arch so … delicate.  Strong fingers used to both moving stone and cradling infants with deft ease pulled the tension out of her digits.

"This may sound like an insensitive question, but do they ever get spring fever in the tunnels?" she asked, gently pulling her foot back.

Vincent thought a moment.  "Sometimes.  The children itch to go up to the park when the weather is good, or have the taste of strawberries, again.  Some days they are hard pressed to concentrate on their studies, though if the weather is to blame, well," he shrugged good humoredly, "that is uncertain.  Perhaps it is just the subject.  Or their teacher, being boring,” he said, self-effacingly.  He moved to sit back beside her.  “Even in the tunnels, the temperature changes some, summer to winter.”

“It must be worse, near the entrances.”

“It’s why most of the chambers aren’t occupied until you are well back of the doorways.”  He liked sitting near her fire, even though he missed the great open sky.  She was not the only one wishing for spring.

 “But we have many places that don't change all year, of course,” he said.  “The Chamber of the Winds.  The Crystal Cavern.  And of course, the Hot Springs makes swimming possible all year."

She tilted her head to the side, considering.  "A hot springs.  Who'd have ever thought it, in New York?"

 

"Pascal says there is a thermal vent the water must pass near, then rise.  But Cullen says perhaps it’s just that the water runs near the heated pipes a long time, then pools.  The water there is very warm, year round.  Kanin carved bench seats into the rocks, and the smaller bathing pools in those chambers are really just offshoots of the main Springs.  You've seen it, before."

"Yes, but I've never gone in."

"You know you are always welcome to, Catherine."

"I know," she answered.  "But it seems like such a...a place for all of you.  My health club has a heated pool I could use, if I wanted."

"Peter Alcott soaks in the springs at least twice a year,” Vincent replied.  “He says it's much better than the water in a swimming pool.  Father swears by it, for his arthritis."

"Good for sore feet, huh?"

"Very good, I should think.”  He gave her the shy grin he always seemed to wear, near her.

They bid each other good night a short time later, Vincent pulling his cape down against the cold as well as against prying eyes.  Maybe someday he would take her to the Springs, though instinctively, they both doubted it.  As she said, she had the use of a heated pool any time she cared to swim in one.  And, well… swimming was a thing they’d never done, together.  As benign a thing as it was, there was an… intimate aspect to it.  One they’d avoided, so far.

He swore the sleet increased in tempo, a bit, as he went out into the frigid night.

--

Almost ten days later, and with no end to the bone-chilling weather in sight, the routine of sitting near the fire and massaging Catherine's feet was becoming a not uncommon one.  Below-normal temperatures had New York in a death grip, and the hard, cold air made staying indoors all but a must.

 Vincent loved the excuse to touch her bare skin, loved the moaning response it wrung from her, and the praise it earned for him.  He was beginning to think she wore the ridiculous heels as an excuse for a massage.  Not that he minded.

She had even offered to return the favor, but he had declined.  His feet were somewhat hairy, and had hard nails similar to those on his hands.  She had had occasion to see him barefoot, a time or two, when he had been ill.  But it wasn't a luxury he afforded himself, often.

"See, when we're old, you can do this for me.  Only we'll be in rocking chairs, by then."  She sighed, now in her standard position, reclined against the sofa while he sat, one foot between his palms.  A heavy grey wool dress had kept her warm that day, while the Opening and Closing Argument Shoes sat near the door, defrosting.

"When we're old?" he inquired.  He’d never heard her discuss such a thing, before.

"Yes.  I like thinking about when we're old, together.  Don't you?  We'll have rocking chairs on the balcony, instead of regular ones.  It's an old-people thing.  And you can read the sonnets to me again, because I will have forgotten them, by then.  Lord, that feels good."

Her words painted a calm picture as he squeezed her instep.  She wiggled her toes, then changed feet and continued:  "And below, all the children will be grown up.  We'll be raising Jamie's children by then.  And Brooke's."

He almost blinked, at the picture.  But not ours, his mind finished, silently.

"And Mary will have made me a shawl.  She'll be so old, by then.  And we'll still use Rebecca's candles at Winterfest.  And William will have taught me how to make something, and I'll help with the feast."

Clearly, she'd thought of their golden years in some detail.  All this actually sounded like some sort of… plan she’d concocted.

And, as lovely a picture as it was, he realized she seldom spoke of their present in such glowing, dreamlike terms.

And why should she?  This was their present.  It was full of work for them both, polite chats, listening to music, reading books…  With a start, Vincent realized they were already old, as far as what they were doing was concerned.  He wanted her to remember her youth with him as something a bit more... he struggled to find the word...decadent?

He ventured the subject to her.  Having no better word than that one, it was the one he used.

“It seems we should have something a bit more… decadent to remember, when the time comes for rocking chairs.”  He wasn’t sure why he was bothered.  But he was.  Distinctly.

"Decadent?  Hmmm.”  Her voice was half idle, clearly not quite picking up on his protest against her imaginings.  She wiggled her toes, again, musing.  “I don't know.  What kind of decadent things could we do, now?"

It was a testament to the limits he'd placed on their relationship that she was seriously asking that question aloud.

 

"Chocolate."  She snapped her fingers.  "Chocolate is decadent.  We've been decadent with chocolate and strawberries."

They had shared bowls of it last spring.  Now he really was getting spring fever.

"Music.  The music feels decadent, sometimes."  He was struggling to think of anything.  "Winterfest,” he added.  “The dancing, the feasting, the presents.  That is decadent."

“And it wasn’t even that long ago,” she agreed.

Still, it sounded as if they were both trying to talk themselves into something which neither of them felt. 

He reached a decision.

"The Hot Springs at night.  The Hot Springs at night are decadent.  Come with me, Catherine."  He rose from the floor, a study in fluid grace.

"Are we about to be decadent?"  Her eyes widened as he handed her a reasonably heeled pair of boots and a coat.

"Extremely," he assured her.

--

They crossed the icy park bundled in sweaters, her coat, his cape, boots, gloves, and scarves.  A late snowfall had melted and then froze again, overnight.  It left a thin sheet of ice, everywhere.  What grass there was crunched underfoot.

His pace was quick, and purposeful.  She had to take long strides to keep up.  That was all right.  The fast pace kept her warmer.

 

Down through the tunnels there were few to greet them but the sentries.  Kanin was returning from the pantry with a late snack.  Cullen gave them a nod, as he carried a basket of kindling back to his chamber.  Few others.

"The Hot Springs are deserted at night?" she whispered.
"Usually," he answered.  Picking up a torch from a basket along the way, they entered the Chamber of the Springs.  Several wall sconces waited to be set alight, and before long, the water shimmered, and looked unbelievably inviting.  Humid air made the walls damp with moisture.  Baskets of towels, and even soap and shampoo, sat waiting to be used.

Vincent set an unlit lantern in the hall.  It was a request for privacy to the others.  He knew they would understand.

Catherine tucked her gloves into her coat pockets, then removed her coat, and laid it on a stone “table” of sorts.

It was almost stuffy, in here.  The temperature of the water created a naturally warmer chamber, and the firelight augmented that.  Candles clustered on a small outcropping of rock near the pool, and Vincent lit these, as well.  After placing a large wicker basket of towels near the stone steps leading into the water, Vincent removed his cloak, then set about taking off his boots and socks.

"I can't believe how warm it is in here."  Catherine began to speak normally, then lowered her voice, almost on reflex.  The chamber echoed more than most

Her scarf was now making her neck uncomfortable.  A few moments before, she had been freezing.  The scarf joined their outer clothing, and she began to follow Vincent's lead, removing her boots.

 

He spread a towel out on the rocks near the pool, gesturing that she should sit.  Since she'd worn the calf-length, wool-blend dress, that day, she complied, simply hiking up the hem, allowing her legs to dangle over the sides and into the water. 

It was heaven.  The heat seeped up through her calves, erasing what had been a very long day, near the end of a very long week.  Beside her, Vincent rolled up his pant legs, and did the same.  She sighed, kicking her legs through the water.  It felt like a summer day.  Sultry, humid and warm.  It was wonderful.

Vincent was the first to chafe at the heat.  After a few moments, he undid the buttons of his vest, allowing it to hang open.  Catherine, similarly, unbuttoned her cuffs and rolled up her sleeves.  The material was stiff and heavy, so she could only cuff them twice or so, but it helped.

Neither wanted to leave the Springs, but it was obvious that to stay was to be uncomfortable.  In addition, Vincent decided that soaking one's feet was to decadence, what vanilla was to ice cream.  It was nice, but it was hardly the stuff of legend.  He felt the perspiration caused by the humid, warm air, and rued his thermal shirt.  The same shirt that had seemed so necessary, when he’d gone to see her this evening.

We'll be old, and sitting in rocking chairs.  You can read to me.

Remembering the conversation in her apartment, he stood, and began unbuttoning the shirt that had been closed to the neck.

"I am going in," he declared, before he could lose his nerve.  He said it as if that had always been his intention, which, in a way, it had, though he could never admit that, not even to himself.  "You are welcome to join me," he invited.

Say what?  Catherine watched him step away, a bit.  She blinked, in surprise.  This was Vincent?  Apparently, it was.

He walked a good distance from her and shrugged out of the vest and top shirt in one motion.  The thermal shirt was next.  He kept his back to her, for all of it.

She was thrilled to see the long, muscular line of his well-formed back.  His body hair there slanted toward his spine, a vee of reddish-gold hair, much the same color as the hair on his head.  It disappeared inside his waistband, intriguingly.

Clad only in his rolled-up jeans, he entered the water, still keeping his back to her.

Catherine exhaled, slowly, not sure if it was in relief or disappointment.  For a moment, she had wondered if he was about to strip down to briefs, even as she realized that was a ridiculous hope.  She knew many in the tunnels did not use bathing clothes.  But Vincent, of course, had reason to value his privacy more than most.  Either he wore no underwear, or he wasn't comfortable with removing his pants.

Whichever fact had governed his choices, he was far more comfortable than she was, right now.

Vincent waded away from her, giving her time to adjust to the fact that he'd just dared to remove his shirt in front of her.  He had been modest to this point.  And more than a little guarded about what her reaction to his body hair might be.  He knew he was unattractive, knew that the more of him that was covered, the better.  The “safety” of clothing was that it covered differences he’d long ago determined to be bestial.  But the heat in the room was oppressive, and perspiration would soak his fur beneath his clothes, anyway.

He also wanted to know if he could remove this much clothing without repelling her.  The bottoms would stay on, no question.  And though the wet denim was hardly comfortable, it was preferable to being nude, with her nearby.  She’d had occasion to see his torso before, anyway.  He took comfort from that fact.

 Still, he wondered at her reaction to him, and checked their bond, knowing it was a “cheat” of sorts, but also knowing that he needed it.  What was that, she felt?  He couldn't quite define the emotions he sensed buzzing through her.  She felt uncomfortable.  Should he collect his shirt, and put it back on?  No...  The discomfort was because she was sweating in the now too-heavy dress, not because he was swimming, some fifty yards from her.

No, that fact caused her to feel ...curious?  Satisfied?  Something.  Something he couldn't quite name, but it wasn't revulsion or distaste.  She liked his shoulders.  She'd unwittingly telegraphed that information the moment he'd removed his vest and shirt.  He shrugged a little, at the information.  The tops of his shoulders were not as hirsute as the rest of him.

She looked longingly at the water, and he immediately realized her predicament.  She had no way to come swimming without removing a considerable portion of her clothing.  It was a one-piece dress, the kind that buttoned down the front.  It had a wide belt at the waist and long sleeves, for warmth.

He watched her, expectantly.  Daring.  As if to say, from the depths of the water, “I did it.  Now you."

"So, what do you think?" she asked, as he waded nearer.  "Decadent?"

"Very decadent.  Better than chocolate."  With the right company, his mind added.

He knew they'd just crossed a very important line.  But this was swimming, not … something more intimate.  He could retreat to that fact, if he had to.  Besides, he reasoned, she'd half-carried him with Father to the hospital chamber, after the Silks had had at him.  He'd been burned, and beaten.  She'd seen his injured torso ... and it had looked in much worse shape than it did, now.

The ball for what happened next was now in Catherine's court.  It was either undress or leave the chamber.  The sauna-like atmosphere offered no other option.  Perspiration dampened her hair, and trickled down her scar.

The choice, for Catherine, was not a difficult one.  Leave, while a half-naked Vincent stood only a few yards from her?  Was she insane?  Realizing he'd never before encouraged such revelations to her hungry eyes, she decided two things:  One, that she could not pass up this chance, and two, that she was dying to get out of this dress.

When she stood, he wasn't sure if she wasn't about to simply leave.  There were perspiration stains beneath her arms, and her bangs stuck to her forehead.

As he had done, she turned her back while she unbuttoned the dress to the waist.  When she unbelted and stepped clear of it, he was staring openly.  Her looks had been a bit more surreptitious.  Well, not much, he admitted, but some.

As most expensive wool dresses are, it was fully lined.  She needed no undergarments save the bare minimum.  A pair of beige panties and a matching bra all worn under a longish beige-colored camisole were all she sported beneath the winter dress.

Vincent gasped.  When she had first undressed, the color was so close to that of her own skin, he'd nearly thought she was nude.

She waded in, not meeting his eyes until she'd gone far enough to cover her breasts.  She'd seen skimpier swimsuits.  Much.  But that was little help for the molten look he'd cast her way.

Good, she thought, hoping she'd made him at least as uncomfortable as he was making her.  Serves him right.  Besides, it felt heavenly just to be free of the dress.  Heavenly.  Decadent.

After a moment, the deep heat of the warm water penetrated her muscles.  It felt divine, and she dunked her head under the water as she'd seen him do.  This was much better than a regular pool.  No smell of chlorine.

She listened to the soft lapping of the deep, spring-fed pool, the sound nourishing something in her soul.  Vincent was right.  Doing this in winter felt different than it would have in the summer.  Decadent.  The word kept whispering its way across her consciousness.

The bottom was like a deep bowl, shallower on the sides, moving deeper in toward the center.  There were indeed benches carved in the sides.  Kanin was a genius.  She sat on one, decently covered, as the water lapped at her shoulders.  Vincent came near, standing on the increasingly shallow bottom.  The sight of his damp chest was doing things to her libido she needed to ignore.

"Does it drop off, toward the middle?"  Catherine asked as she lazed, closing her eyes and leaning backward.  If she stared, she’d only make him self-conscious. 

"Yes.  Deeply.  Winslow set a grate there many years ago, to keep the more curious children from trying to touch bottom and getting caught in the rocks.  They know they can’t come in here without an adult."

He hoped that answer was coherent.  He was watching her raise her hands above her head, to slick back her hair.  Her breasts rose, with the motion.  They were barely half-submerged, the camisole clinging enticingly to her skin.

He walked to the side to fetch a bottle of shampoo and some soap, both of which floated on the water as he used them.

"We can bathe, in here?" she asked.

"The current takes it out, after a while.  Eventually it joins the nameless river, and flows out to the sea."  Catherine realized there were several carved “vents” in the walls of the pool, and that water was indeed flowing through them, though slowly.

He dunked, lathered his shoulders, and then submerged.  The scent that reached her nostrils was one she realized she had always identified with him.  Oatmeal soap combined with something vaguely woodsy and masculine-smelling.  A scent that always hovered near him, on his skin.

"There is a rose fragrance, if you'd like."  He offered to go get it for her.

"Enjoy yourself.  I'll get it," she replied.

He wondered if she realized those two sentences combined, perfectly.  He did indeed enjoy watching her “get it.”  To reach the basket of rose soap, she had to rise up so that her torso was at least half-clear of the water, and stretch to bring the basket toward her.  Her wet hair looked longer, and darker.  However, it stopped a good bit short of the back fastening of her bra, the line of which was clearly visible beneath the wet camisole  The drenched cloth was almost sheer, and amazingly clingy.  More seductive than had she simply stripped it away.  He wondered, if she rose from the water entirely, what he would see.

Decadent.

The word was thrumming through his brain and was starting to thrum someplace else on him, as well.  With long practice at self-denial, he pushed the sensation aside.  He was an adult male.  He knew when to stop, when to dress and leave.  If there was one thing he had copious experience with, it was not letting his desires dictate his actions.  But the time to call a halt to this had not yet come.

She was working the soap into a lather, and bathing her arms.  He chafed, again, at the jeans that bound his sex, wishing he had been bold enough to go in without them, or thought to simply have her turn her back while he stripped, completely, and turn around after he had already gained the cover of the water.  But he hadn't thought of that, and now he was uncomfortable.  Not that he would trade that for anything he was experiencing, anything he was seeing, now.

He saw the perfect outline of her back nearly to her waist through the wet camisole until she returned back to the deeper water.  Catherine brought the mauve soap to her nose, unaware of the picture she painted.  He could smell the soft fragrance from here, wondering why it seemed to smell so differently on Catherine’s skin than it did, say, on Mary’s or Olivia’s.

Catherine inhaled it again, appreciatively.  The soap did indeed smell like tea roses.  More of Rebecca's magic, she wondered?  Or someone else's?

She dropped low in the water, until she could move away from the shallow edge enough to stand, comfortably.  Once lathered, the soap felt like lotion in her hands.  She washed her neck and face, and turning her back to him, part of her chest. 

Looking down, she realized the bra was sheer now, in some parts, and clinging wet, everywhere.  She was grateful that the water was a little murky, thanks to the mineral content, and not perfectly clear.  The camisole clung in a nearly sheer swatch across her torso, but there was no help for that.  It was what it was.

She would have to ask him to get out and dress, then let her do the same.  As it was, she was going to have to remove her wet underthings before she put her dress back on.  There was no way she could walk back home through the park.  She'd need to make her way back home by way of her basement entrance.

Vincent watched her dunk herself to rinse the soap.  She seemed unaware of how lovely she truly was.  He was so glad he had suggested this.  So glad he hadn't let the voices of prudence and caution stop him from this ... luxury.

He wanted to add something to the utterly sinful flavor of the evening, and he had an idea.  Making his way toward the steps, he rose.  Catherine was fascinated.  His hair had darkened to the color of old gold, and water sluiced off his muscular frame.  He looked like a pagan god, rising from the sea.  The denim at his hips was now so dark a blue as to be nearly black, and it sat low, on his long frame.  His body hair was plastered to his skin, laying down across the broad musculature of his abdomen.

Then he turned toward her and playfully shattered the image.

Crouching near the pool’s edge, he smiled and gave her a come-hither motion, with his finger.  Curious, she half-swam, half-waded over to him.  There was a grin on his face and a twinkle in his blue eyes.  "I'm going to get something.  Stay right here." he dropped a quick, wet kiss on her cheek.

She laughed, his good humor infectious.  "And where would I go, looking like this?  To Father's for a game of chess?"

He chuckled at her jest, rose, and was gone through the door at an easy trot that consumed the ground.  Even soaking wet, he moved quickly for a big man.  Catherine realized he ran like the powerful athlete he was, the long, muscled legs making his gait look easy.  The wet jeans were noisy, and he left a trail of water behind him.

Catherine shampooed her hair and had barely rinsed it by the time he returned, a basket covered by a cloth napkin in one hand.  He settled near the pool's edge.  She swam over.  He sat on the same towel they had used earlier, his denim-clad legs dangling in the water, again. 

"Taste."  He commanded. 

Fresh bread smeared with strawberry jam.  In the middle of a winter frost, he had brought her strawberries.  It was amazing.  Sweet, sticky…  A taste of spring, and a gift from her love.

"Mmmmmmm," she appreciated, licking her lips. 

"It's not strawberries dipped in chocolate, but it's close," he tempted her.  On so many levels.  She smiled, picking a crusty piece of jam-covered bread out of the basket and held it out to him.  "Your turn," she encouraged.

He took a small bite, barely stopping to savor the taste.  Aside from times of illness, he realized she had rarely fed him, before.  No one had.  He had not realized what an intimate thing it was, to be fed by a woman.  His woman.  It fed more than his stomach.  He took the rest of what she offered.  The feeling of intimacy didn’t lessen, for having been repeated.

She was helping herself to a second piece, then he helped her to a third.  "I just realized I skipped lunch.  I think you just rescued me, again," she said.  She licked jam from her thumb.  He wasn't sure he'd ever seen a more unselfconsciously sensual gesture.  The desire to keep her near him began to circle, in his awareness.  Like his other wants, this too, was pushed aside.  She had to return home.  Soon.

He sat comfortably, drawing out their time together as much as he dared.  He knew he would need to begin drying before she did, thanks to his wealth of body hair.  It was an unavoidable part of being who he was.

Sensing it was time to draw the amazing evening to a close, he padded over to the basket of fresh towels, and began applying one.

Catherine tried not to stare.  Sometimes, she wasn’t sure she was successful at that, but she tried.

His chest.  My god, his chest.  The wet hair laid flat against burnished skin the shade of warm copper.  The musculature there would have put a stonemason’s to shame.  Powerful shoulders melded into taut arms.  His stomach was a study in abdominal muscles.  It was flat, toned, and, she realized, more slender than she had previously supposed.  The several layers of clothing he always wore effectively hid much of his true form.  Being wet made the hair on his body lay flat, defining his torso all the more.

The hair she’d rarely glimpsed looked soft, thickest at the center of his chest, thinnest across his ribs, and intriguingly silky as it slipped beneath the waistband of his jeans.  She sighed, finishing her impromptu dinner.  He'd forgotten to be self-conscious about his form, for a minute.  It was a night for counting one's blessings.

He watched her studying him, a little, as he ran the thick towel across the mane on his head, and down his arms.  It felt good to be at least partially dry, and nothing in her gaze gave him cause to think she was put off by his bare chest.  Others had seen it, as had she, before.  She may as well see it again.  He’d quietly checked her feelings through the bond.  Nothing there told him she was repelled, in any way.  Aware she was staring, she turned back toward the water, and pretended to need to rinse her hair, once more.

He watched her as she moved.  He was not entirely comfortable with this level of exposure, for himself.  As always, she was clearly trying to make him unselfconscious about his differences.  It was that kindness in her nature that drew him to her, among other things.

"I'm starting to shrivel.  I guess I better get out, too.”  She collected their soap and shampoo bottles, and replaced them in the basket.  Before she made it half-way up the steps, Vincent was standing in ankle deep water, his hand extended.  "Sometimes the steps get slippery," he explained, guiding her out.

He handed her a towel and used one on his chest.  His thick mane, she realized, would take a long time to dry, down here.  "Would you like me to help you dry your back?" she offered.  Then she wished she hadn't.  His body froze.  Uncertain.

She would...touch him?  That was different from just seeing him.  He’d spent much of the evening more than half-submerged, and only above the water for a short time, comparatively.  She’d fed him, yes, and that had been novel.  But to touch his bare torso…

He was uncertain how to either accept the offer, or how to gracefully decline it.  Yes, it took him longer to towel himself dry than it did a normal man, thanks to the wealth of ... fur.  It could only be called "fur," especially when it was wet, like this.  It was silky, and thick, especially across his chest.  An Irish setter's coat, or some other silky haired retriever's, he thought.  His back was not so bad, but it was there.  He sighed.  Perhaps she would not mind.

Slowly, he turned his back to her, holding himself perfectly still.

Now she was very close to him, a towel in her hands.  There was no murky water or distance in the pool separating them.  Now he knew she would see him clearly from pretty much every angle, and realize the thickness of the pelt that covered his frame.

Worse, she had offered to touch him.  He could think of no reason a mass of wet body hair would be considered attractive, either by her or by anyone.

Would she rescind the offer, or grit her way through it? 

It wasn't that Vincent felt he was hideous, per se.  It was that he knew his differences all combined to make something...unacceptable to the world Above.  It was why he lived Below, to begin with.  Why all infants had to be introduced to him if they were going to remain Below, so they could grow up unafraid.  Why any and every new tunnel applicant was actually accepted or rejected as much on the basis of how they might react to him, rather than on many other criteria.

Differences were the foundation of his shyness.  Seeing them was one thing.  Touching them was quite another.  Especially by her.

Still...  It was either accept or be rude, and she was waiting.

“Thank you, Catherine.”  He said it softly as he inclined his head, giving her permission to proceed.

He held his arms out, his back straight, his demeanor one of stiff determination.  If she were to reject being near him, it might as well be now.

The soft towel blotted the moisture from the center of his back, just below where the hair on his head fell.  She then moved the fabric to either side, burnishing his skin as she went. 

Small.  Her hands felt so small, against him.  Is that how it would be, to be touched by her?  Such sweet fingers.  Delicate.  He’d felt them before, on his arm, his hand, or against his chest, through his shirts.  But this seemed different, somehow.  Far more intimate a thing.

She gathered his hair in the towel and squeezed, pulling some of the water away.  She rubbed down his shoulders.  He closed his eyes.  It felt marvelous.  She moved her hands in large, sometimes almost rough circles, pausing to slip the towel farther down in her hands, to keep the driest part of the fabric on him.  It was a magnificent massage, especially considering that the water, like the room, was warm.

And it was her.  Her hands.  Hands he was familiar with, yet now, strangely, discovering for the first time.  He’d been massaging her feet, lately.  But he’d turned down every offer by her to do the same.  He realized how often he did that, rejected any effort by her to touch or hold part of him, especially when she wasn’t wearing gloves.  Even now, the towel between them kept her apart from him.  He wished it wasn’t there, even though it felt good, and was doing something necessary. 

Again, the wish that the evening not be drawing to a close was a keen one.

Catherine felt his back muscles begin to relax.  He'd originally had no small amount of trepidation at her offer.  Now, he was enjoying it.  He made a soft, almost subconscious noise of contentment in his throat.  A noise not unlike the one she made, when he massaged her feet.  She realized that as hard as he worked, and as much as he lifted, there was no one to rub his back for him, no one to dry him, or to massage a day's labors from his skin.  She slowed her movements a little, wanting to prolong this, both for his sake, and for hers. 

He’d been drying his chest, but she realized the towel he held had stopped moving a while ago.  He bent his knees a little, so she could reach the tops of his shoulders more comfortably.

He had a sort of mane, she realized, running down the length of his spine.  A protective line of hair that followed his backbone from a spot under his neck to ...well, who knew where it stopped, exactly?  When his hair was wet, the soft, thin pelt was darker, and more noticeable.  When it was dry, the reddish hairs blended more with the color of his skin.  It was very sexy.

Still wanting to draw out the contact a little, she dried the back of his arms, as well.  His eyes remained shut, in pleasure.

When he realized there was no more to be done, thanks to the dripping wet denim, he sighed.

"May I dry your back as well, Catherine?”  He offered to return the favor.

"I...um...well, that is, I actually need to peel out of this undershirt and my other things.  I can't put my dress back on with everything soaked, the way it is.  It would drench my clothes from the inside out."

He was admittedly startled, his relaxed muscles and her massage making his brain slow.  He had not thought of that when he’d challenged her to come swimming.

"I will leave you to your privacy, then."  He gathered his things from the pile of clothing mixed with hers (how intimate that looked), and made his way to the doorway. 

Wouldn't he be dreadfully cold, running wet and half-naked through the chilly tunnels?  Catherine wondered.  Probably.  But considering he'd run all the way to the kitchen area for bread and jam, it wouldn't be the first time, this evening.  And his chambers were a lot closer.

"I will dress in my chambers and meet you at the hub.  Would that be all right?" he asked, at the doorway.

"Of course.  May I borrow one of these towels to wrap my wet things in?  I promise to return it as soon as it's washed."

"You are more than welcome to it, Catherine,” Vincent answered, leaving her to her solitude.

She wished she'd simply accepted his invitation to dry her back.  She'd liked to have felt his hands on her, even through the towel.  Not to mention she’d have enjoyed any level of temptation that might have given him.  But she didn't feel quite brave enough to peel down to her bra and panties this night, and ... well... that was that.

Catherine toweled off quickly, bundled her drenched belongings into one of the white towels Vincent had left, put on her dress and boots, and braved the tunnel air.  It was fine until she walked more than a few feet away from the chamber entrance.  It was then she shouldered her way into her coat, and was glad she could at least towel dry her hair, a little.  She would definitely go home by way of the entrance in her apartment basement, rather than through the park, even though the walk was longer.

Though late, it had been an amazing evening.

--

She would be naked under the dress.  It was the only sentence Vincent could think of, as he peeled out of his sodden blue jeans, hurriedly toweled his legs, and dove into a clean, threadbare-at-the-knees pair of jeans that were soft as a baby's behind.  Multiple washings had made them sky blue.  He pulled on his shirts and vest.  His back felt marvelous where she had touched him.

 And...  and she would be completely nude under her dress.  She had to be.  She would be carrying her wet underthings in a rolled-up towel, he realized.

The image shouldn't bother him, but it did.  More than the sight of her swimming, and that was saying something.  Several times this evening he'd been thrilled by the beauty of her form without becoming obsessed by it.

But...it was her dress.  And she was naked beneath it.  Knowing that was doing interesting things to his insides.  He kept trying to swat down the fixation, dismiss it as juvenile.  It kept not working.  It wasn’t so much the fact of her nudity.  It was the sheer intimacy of knowing that was staying with him, refusing to be ignored.  He grabbed his cape as he went to meet her.

She was waiting for him at the hub.  That fact alone told him how long he'd stayed in his chambers, obsessing over her current state of undress.  He should have beaten her here by a few minutes, at least.

She looked, to the world, like nothing was amiss.  From boots to a neck scarf she was currently using to cover her damp hair, from wrist to just where her collarbones met at her throat, she was decently covered. In fact, she was covered twice.  Her cranberry-colored coat was on as well, keeping back the chill of the tunnels against her open pores from the bath.  But the coat was unbuttoned, and the dress was... well, the dress was buttoned, but he knew what lay, or what did not lay, beneath it.  A rolled-up towel nestled under her arm.  She smiled at his entrance.

She looked strangely vulnerable to him, without those interesting wisps of clothing he couldn’t see, but knew weren’t there.  He wondered if she felt that way, too.  Vulnerable.  Soft.  Hesitant.  He enfolded her in his arms, feeling the warmth of her, placing a soft kiss on her head.  He could tell she wore no bra.  Even through the thick layers of clothing, he could tell.  The shape of her, under her clothing, was slightly different.  And even through the coat, he could both see it, in her slight change of shape, and feel it.  The line he normally felt beneath his hand as he touched her back was not there.  Even through her coat, he swore he could feel the difference.

"Shall we go?”  It was her voice, turning toward the passage that would lead her to her basement.  It was the longer walk than the straighter stroll through the park.  He was glad of that, and didn’t stop to question “why.”  He knew.

He took a lantern, walking slightly behind her, at first.  She looked somehow different from that angle, too, though he knew the thought was absurd.

She slowed to link her hand through his arm at the elbow.  When she said something, he responded.  He wanted to draw out the moments, will her to be with him just a bit longer.  Though he had warmed his room with the brazier, back in his chambers, the space suddenly seemed barren and uninviting, to him. 

They were getting closer to her exit.  Her footsteps were so light.  Almost dream-like.  Sometimes he felt she was hardly more than a dream in more ways than one.

He was aware of her sexually, though he was not fully aroused.  The vulnerability caused by her state of partial undress struck a protective chord with him, and increased the desire to keep her near, keep her close.  Again, it was the sheer intimacy of the knowing, that moved him.

But more than that, the entire night had been a feast for his senses.  They’d done something unexpected, and revealing.  Something almost secret, yet not.  Something… decadent.

She smelled of the rose soap and shampoo.  She was his Catherine.  She had her hand at his proffered elbow, as she often did, especially when the ground became a bit uneven.  After the next bend in the path, she would see her ladder.  Would bid him good night.  He would tell her to sleep well, and they would part.

"Stop."  It was his voice.  She complied, of course.  She had been holding his arm, and his feet had stopped moving.  She simply followed suit.

"Vincent?"  She looked up at him, quizzically.

"Stop.  Don't go."  He held the lantern up to see her face, unaware that he was revealing his own, as well.

Need.  Loneliness.  The need for companionship.  It was marked into his face as though years of desolation and sorrow had left it there for her to read.  Which in a way, they had.  He set the lantern down on a nearby ledge.  "I just...  I just don't want it to end yet," he faltered, trying to keep the intensity of the things he felt from his voice.  "Just… not yet."  He set the lantern down.

She reached up to cup his cheek in her hand.  It seemed a very innocent gesture, considering she had actually seen him wet and shirtless, this evening.  He echoed her gesture, and leaned his forehead so it touched hers.  "Don't leave, yet," he asked, softly.

She realized she still hadn't answered him.

"Of course I won't," she replied.

"Don't leave," he repeated, as though she hadn't spoken.  He brushed her lips with his, a nuzzle of supplication.  "Don't leave," he repeated again, and again, a soft kiss, for her eyes.  His other hand came up to frame her face.

"I won't."  She said it, but knew he only half-heard her.

"Don't leave me.”

She closed her eyes against tears and returned his soft, pleading kiss.

In the next instant, her feet left the ground as he scooped her up against his chest.  She carried the lantern as his long strides ate the stone and sand floor.  He carried her effortlessly back through the tunnels, the hub, and down the path to his chambers.  He kissed her, and she tucked her head into his neck, nuzzling.  He liked that.  She felt it from him.

His chamber was warm from the glowing embers in the brazier.  He set her feet on the ground and helped her remove her coat as he set his cloak beside it, on the chair.  They look like a couple, she thought.

He dropped the heavy rug doorway so that it was a closed, private space.  It was a thing Vincent seldom did, but it was understood that he was not to be interrupted unless the matter was extremely urgent.

She stood near the foot of his bed, wondering at his sudden desire for nearness, for contact.  Somehow, that word "decadent" had inspired him to take chances he seldom did, normally. 

He crossed to where she stood, and kept a hand on her arm, not wanting to break contact, completely.  She felt him relax, some, once he began moving around his chamber.  Familiar surroundings.  Her, with him.  Lamplight on the tables and warmth in the room.  She sensed it calming the somewhat desperate tone she felt from him when they were back in the tunnels, near her exit.  He did not want the night to end.  She couldn't say she blamed him.  Or, for that matter, felt any different.

"Catherine, are you warm enough?" he asked, seeing if she wanted perhaps a blanket for her lap.

She settled herself on the edge of his huge bed, the stained glass cozily lit, from within.  "Yes.  The fire is lovely.  It's very nice in here," she answered softly.  "May I borrow a comb?  My hair is still damp under the scarf."  She pulled the soggy fabric down.

He tugged her over to his chair so she could sit nearer the brazier.  Her tiny hand was swallowed in his broad one.  He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb.  She wasn't sure he was even aware he was doing it.  It was as if swimming with her, seeing her as she had been, and knowing what he knew of her now all combined to create an almost undeniable need to keep his hands in contact with her.  Or to at least keep her near.

Handing her a comb from his bureau, he watched, fascinated as she sat near the fire in his chair, and smoothed the dark honey mass that normally swung near her shoulders.  She likes this, he realized, watching her comb her hair.  It soothes her.  Again, this seemed like a strangely intimate thing to watch, almost as if he were watching her dress.

Every time she lifted her right arm to apply the comb, Vincent noticed her right breast rise against the fabric of her dress.  He felt guilty asking her to stay, not remembering she had no way to even repair the tangles in her hair, properly.

 Standing behind her, he asked her for the comb with an open-palm gesture.  She handed it to him, and he spent the next several minutes combing every lock of her hair, loving the intimacy of the gesture.  By the time he was done, it was smooth as silk, and nearly dry.  She sat calmly as he did it, an air of peace pervading the space.

He returned the comb to where he kept it.  Seeing her there in front of the brazier caused his heart to squeeze.  He knelt, beside the embers, and stirred them, to warm the room some more. 

He seemed to be trying to decide whether or not to say something, and how to put it if he did.  He studied the tiny flames he’d created, realizing he’d done that in more ways than one.  Staying where he was, he barely turned his head in her direction.  Finally, he simply asked her, "Catherine.  May I...see...you?”

Did he actually just say out loud what he’d been thinking for… all evening?  Longer?

She blinked, but did not pretend to misunderstand.  "Of course," she whispered so low only his ears could ever have heard it.  She toed out of her boots, stood, unbuckled the belt, and slowly undid the coat-like buttons on her dress.

His sapphire eyes never left her form.  A strip of cream-colored skin revealed itself down the center of her body as the buttons gradually came undone.  The space between her breasts, her torso, her navel, a little more.  When the dress was unfastened to past the waist, she simply shrugged it open and let it drop, slowly, down her arms and past her hips, to pool at her feet.

Breath left him as though he had been struck hard, in the stomach.  He stayed on his knees, because that seemed only fitting.  Beautiful.  So amazingly, transcendentally beautiful.  Her skin was the color of fine alabaster.  Her breasts were ripe globes that curved more strongly near her arm than inside, near the center of her chest.  Her nipples were small, round, and soft coral.  Her torso seemed unbelievably long, uninterrupted by the line of her clothing.  Her navel genuflected inward. 

Her misty green eyes watched him steadily as he took in her sylph-like form.  He tried to maintain a slow perusal, but found he simply couldn’t.  Did she know how … unreal, she looked to him, right now?  Could she possibly?

Her candlelight-traced skin pinked, a little.  She was blushing, and trying not to.  It only made her impossibly more dear.

He knew he shut his eyes a moment, almost against something like pain, when he trailed his gaze across her torso to the soft brown diamond shape of her sex, down her legs to her pedicured feet.  How could she be so lovely?

"Temples should be built," he whispered.  "Altars should be consecrated."  He opened his eyes and shook his head, as if trying to see all of her at once was impossible.  It couldn’t be done.  Not by him, at least.

"Too beautiful."  He held his eyes shut tight, again, and finally simply bent over, bracing himself on his fists, staring at the ground.  He could not take her in.  It was simply too much, at one time.

"It's like trying to look at the sun for too long," he rasped, knowing he would not look up again until she were covered.  Catherine seemed to understand.  Too much, too fast.  She should have done this more slowly.  But she had done exactly as he had wanted; neither of them could have foreseen his reaction.  She was humbled, just as he was awed.

She pulled the dress back up, putting her arms back in the sleeves.  "It's all right,” she soothed.  “That was too much, too quickly."

His eyes raised to hers, and he nodded, both relieved and hugely disappointed to see her back in the grey wool frock.  He stood.

"Don't," he begged her, as she went to re-button the shirt portion of the dress.  Her fingers stopped.  She wondered if he was even aware that he’d been asking for things he wanted since he’d declared they were going to the Hot Springs.  That was almost out of character, for him.  Usually he waited for others to indicate their needs or wants.  Something this evening had pushed him to … this.

As he gently tugged her back toward his bed, Catherine could not imagine exactly what he had in mind next.  He kept his eyes pinned low, at the strip of skin that now showed most of the way down her torso. 

She sat near the middle of the bed.  He sat next to her, regaining his balance, looking hungrily at the rise and fall of her chest.  Sensing what he wanted, and that he needed to be the one to determine it, she brought his left hand, the hand he wrote with, up to her right breast.  She shrugged open the dress again, until her right breast was clearly in view.

He sighed deeply, cradling its weight, feeling the warmth of her skin.  The nipple seemed to beg to be kissed, so he leaned downward, and testingly, took the dusky-skinned tip into his mouth.

Reaction slammed into him, and the feelings were caught somewhere between the need for something carnal and the need for something that felt more like sheer comfort.

 He lapped at the skin, experimental touches turning more demanding, as he lingered.  Soft sounds came from his throat as he took her pebbling flesh full into his mouth.  His hands pressed the soft globe of her breast rhythmically.  He bent his nails down to his palms so that he pushed against her lightly with his knuckles.  He did not seem to want to move to the other breast.  He did not seem to want to stop laving this one, with his tongue.

Catherine held his head, recognizing his actions as something between nursing and seduction.  She knew that he had never had a mother to hold him to her breast.  That something instinctive in him had always wanted this chance.  She was sorry she had no milk he could taste.  She cradled his head tenderly, while he suckled.  It was the only word for it, at this point. 

His moaning sounds grew deeper, more satisfied.  He planted kisses all over the round flesh.  Above the nipple, on the underside, around the outside curve.  Hand, lips, tongue…  Never had her breast been explored more thoroughly.  She felt a sensual tug on her center and ignored it.  This was his time.

He covered her right breast before lavishing identical attention on the left.  She sat back in the middle of the mattress, allowing him to sit more comfortably, half across her lap, before he continued.  He seemed unable to bare both her breasts at once, this first time.  Instinctively, she knew it was like seeing her nude.  Somehow, it was “too much.”

Vincent felt sensations thrum through him, and mirror, through her.  Warmth.  Sweetness.  The soft pull of desire, shrouded inside an even softer pull of love.  Echoes of want bounced between them, and gave him both the courage and permission to continue.

Her skin tasted different dark to light.  It was subtle, but it was there.  He wondered if he would ever tell her.  When the darker skin grew turgid, it felt different, in his mouth.  It was a difference he wanted to explore, forever.  He settled her pebbled flesh instinctively into the cleft of his upper lip and passed his tongue over the sensitive place again and again, mesmerized. 

He felt his erection but didn't care that he had one.  He felt no need to either acknowledge it or be embarrassed by it.  He wanted this.  Just this, for now.  He wanted her skin under his mouth, her hand at the back of his head, and both were there.

Her breath caught when he drew on the soft flesh.  Caught some more when he licked and nuzzled the underside, the outside, then returned to the nipple.  Time spun out, and slowed.

He cupped one breast while he finished suckling the other.  He pulled the edges of her dress back together, but didn't button them.  His eyes stayed closed, his breathing shallow, as he held the sides of her dress together.  He was breathing her in.  Memorizing, and holding scent, in his mind.  Beautiful.  Decadent.  It was a word that simply wouldn’t leave his brain alone.

Her voice, when it came, was close to his ear.

"May I see you again?  Touch you as you just touched me?”  Her voice was a ragged whisper.

Belatedly, Vincent realized he had been absorbed by the sensations shimmering inside him.  He almost had not heard her, at first.  Then he did.  And understood what it meant, for both of them.

"You would want such a thing?”  He met the green of her eyes with wonder.

"Very much.  If you would allow it."

He still was not quite certain of her reaction to him, but by the time he removed his vest and loosened his shirt, the look in her eyes was one of unmistakable desire.

He bared his center strip of his chest and watched, fascinated as she lowered her head to rest against his torso, brushing the fabric even farther open.  Stroking the muscles with the flat of her palm and tips of her fingers, she drew forth the pebbled flesh of his male nipple, making motions like a sorceress bringing forth a spell as she traced her way across his skin.

 Palm resting under his breast, atop his firm ribs, she licked her lips a moment before she settled them warmly on the flesh at his chest.  He groaned, and held her head there, savoring.  A woman could suckle, too?  He hadn’t known.

Did it feel like this for her?  How had she borne it, if it had?  It was exquisite to the point of pain.  He remembered that she had indeed shivered once, and he had slowed, thinking perhaps he had been too rough, but not wanting to give up his prize.  Now he knew that had not been the case.  Sometimes, it was just that a mouth gave too much pleasure.  Now he knew that.

She shifted just as he grew sensitive to the point of discomfort, and treated his other breast similarly.  As he had done, she kissed the area across his chest, nuzzling her way from one goal to the other, then back again.  He panted for a few seconds, and she slowed, seeming to realize he needed a moment to breathe.  Settling herself against the exposed flesh between the sides of his shirt, she stroked the skin at his chest gently, slowing her breathing, forcing her muscles to relax against him.

He held her, and they sat like that a long while, both of them marveling at what had just happened.

"Thank you."  His voice was raspy to his own ears.

"Mmm."  She snuggled her head against his chest, unwilling to give up what was about to become her favorite pillow.  Her fingers twined in the hair, idly.  “Thank you,” she replied.

"May I ask you something?”  His voice was honey in whiskey.

"Anything."

"I think...I know now, I would never hurt you, Catherine."  It was a huge admission, for him.  "That is, I didn't, did I?"

Relief flooded her.  Then joy.  No.  First, it was joy.  No.  First, it was...

"You were gentle.  Wonderful and gentle.  I think sometimes that's the trick, there.”  She kept her voice low, her eyes away from his.  It seemed easier to talk, this way.  "Sometimes the barest touch there, can be too much.  It's like you need less than a touch."

He moved his hand under the dress to her shoulder, and pushed the right side open, again. 

"Less than a touch.  Like...." he moved across to her breast and she was stunned to feel his next ministration.  He did not touch her.  He exhaled over the now sensitive skin.

She shuddered.  "Ye-ess." her voice was deep.  Shattered.  "Like that."

She could bear no more.  He knew she could bear no more.

He stopped, and sat up, tucking her head beneath his chin, memorizing the reaction he had just elicited.

"When I… kissed you there…It felt...like it was one thing, then something else.  Is it always like that?"

He was referring to the difference between “comfort” and “desire.”  And the layers that existed between the two.

She smiled, not trying to completely understand what he was trying to say, so much as what he meant.

"It might be that way, between us.  We'll have to see.  I know for me, it was...I wanted you against me."

"I don't repel you, then?  At least, not yet?"

"No.”  She bit her tongue to avoid adding “of course not.”  She knew he had reasons for his… trepidation, and she didn’t want to make light of those reasons.  “But, if I stare, I don't want you to think I'm judging.  It's more like that I'm ...fascinated," she tried to clarify. 

"I felt that."  His soft baritone was ... amazed, as he held her.  "I think I have a hard time, still, believing it."

"You will learn to. “  She said it so simply he could not help but believe.

"Now can I ask you?"  Her voice had the question in it, for him.

"Anything.  Always."  He was positive it was true.

"I have an instinct to...stroke your skin."  She demonstrated, running her palm across his chest, along the line the hair grew.  He made a low sound of approval that rumbled under her ear and under her hand.

"But I don't want you to think I'm stroking you like a... an animal or something.  So I started to, but then I stopped.”  She looked up, but then lowered her eyes.  “I so don't want to offend you, Vincent."

He kissed her fingertips and placed them back on his chest.  "Please stroke any part of me you see fit to, Catherine."  He put his hand over hers.  He felt her smile against his chest as she simply cuddled there, listening to his heartbeat.

Lord, she was so easy to please.  And he'd done it by allowing her to touch him freely?  He’d never realized how much he had denied her.  Now he realized how much all the walls he had put up to protect himself had indeed resulted in her not being able to touch him.  How he had used that as a protection, of sorts.

He would have told anyone who asked there was nothing he would not do for her, nothing he would not give her, if it were in his power to do so.  He realized just how incorrect that might have been.

He began to realize his shyness had cost them much.  Perhaps even hurt them, in a way.

Still see us in a rocking chair, Catherine?  He thought it, but didn’t say it.

She moved her hand across his chest idly, then settled it at the center.  He sighed deeply, happiness moving through him like a gentle tide.  Neither of them seemed inclined to take their intimacy any further.  But the connection between them now was undeniably strong, and immutably sensual.

Dimly, underneath the strong layer of contentment and happiness, he sensed her encroaching weariness.

"I've kept you from your bed, and now you'll be tired, tomorrow."  He felt a pang of guilt, but it was a distant one.

"Not for the world would I have missed this evening,” she replied.  She made no move to leave, obviously trying to decide how to say something of her own.

"Tell me.”  It was the constant request.  Of course, he would say it here.

"Before, when something like this happened between us... and I don't even know how to call it that because nothing like this ever happened, before...” she kept her eyes away from his again, head tucked beneath his chin.  "Are you going to go away for a while, again?"

His brow furrowed slightly, as if he had trouble processing her meaning.  Ah.  The rather unsettling habit he'd developed of needing time to sort himself out any time their relationship had seemed to be growing more intimate.

It wasn't a rejection of her, or of them.  It was an admission that he had no experience in this area, a feeling that he needed time to understand what was happening.  In the beginning, it was partly an understanding that his fears paralleled Father's.  That, for whatever reason, Catherine would be a temporary fixture in his life, though he would love her always.

"I will come to you tomorrow as soon as I can, if you will allow it," he replied.  "But for now, we must get you Above."

They both knew it was true, and Catherine was happy at his promise.

In a few minutes, she was before the ladder that led to her basement.  Again.

His voice was nearly contrite.  "You will get almost no sleep."  It was close to three in the morning.

"Yes.  But on the good side, I've already had my bath and shampoo," she answered, teasing.

He swept her up in his arms and pulled her slight form against him in a nearly crushing embrace.  He still loved the lack of a line across her back where her bra usually ran.  "Tomorrow.  As soon as I can get there," he vowed.

"Tomorrow.  Which is really later today.”  She set her forehead against his, in a kind of nuzzling embrace she realized he favored.  It was a promise.

---

“...so Radcliffe, I'll get Karen, and you and Edie will meet us there.  Right?”  Joe handed her a very fancy envelope, her ticket inside.

Right.  It was a black tie dinner that she had forgotten completely about.  A hundred dollars a plate and the tickets already bought and paid for by a retired judge.  Begging off was not even an option.

"See you there, Joe."  Catherine collected her handbag and briefcase, tiredly.

After all, that's why they made under-eye concealer.

---

She remembered about the Friday night dinner engagement earlier in the week.  But the extra cases, the general hurly burly of the week, and then...Thursday.  Vincent.  She had hoped to come in, work the day, then get home early enough to take a nap before Vincent came.  No luck.

When Vincent rapped on the balcony door, she was elegantly dressed in formal evening attire, her face a study in contrition.

"You are going out, this evening?" he asked, eyeing the black satin wrap and evening bag tossed carelessly across the sofa.

Her face, her beautiful, artfully made-up face, was a humble.  "Vincent, I am so sorry.  I completely forgot.  I would get out of it, but it’s a charity function the DA's office has to attend.  The tickets are paid for."  She held his hands in hers.  "I am so, so sorry."

"Perhaps it is I who should apologize, for keeping you up so late."  He took in the dark circles under her eyes that the cosmetics could not quite camouflage.


"Don't.  Not ever, will you apologize for that.  But I will be gone a few hours, at least, plus the ride over and back.  I so wanted to be with you this evening."

She was fretting.  And looking gorgeous while she did it.  Diamonds winked at her ears.

He smiled.  Her distress was palpable.  She was so lovely, a vision in a white tulle gown with a black lace overlay that began under her bust and ended near her thighs.  She rushed between the bathroom and her bedroom, putting an atomizer of perfume in the bag.

"You look beautiful.  May I borrow one of your books?  Mark Twain?"

"Of course."  She checked her watch.  "Oh, Lord.  Joe and Edie are going to kill me."  She pushed her feet into the impossibly high heels, again.  The kind that were going to kill her feet, after an hour.

"Help yourself.  Please, please forgive me."

He inclined his head at her, indicating apologies were not necessary.

"Do you mind if I read here a while?" he asked.

Would he actually wait for her, if she weren't long?

"Of course you can.  I just don't know how long I'll be.”  She shook her well-coifed head and gathered her coat.

"Have a fine evening and I will see you later,” he called after her as she dashed out the door

---

Eleven thirty.  It was eleven thirty.  Okay, eleven forty.  Two.  She’d given up on being able to see him more than an hour ago.  Catherine turned the key in the lock, her tiny evening bag feeling like it weighed ten pounds on her wrist.  Three hours and ten minutes of cab rides, glad-handing, a nice but unwelcome speech, and listening to Joe talk sports, criminal law, and the qualifications of the new medical examiner with everyone nearby.  Which, judging by the turnout, was everyone in New York.  Good for the charity, but terrible for being able to get a cab.

Bed never sounded so good.

When she entered her apartment, he was waiting.  Okay, maybe bed, later.

The smell of tea and the sight of soft candlelight greeted her.

"Come.”  He pulled her inside and closed the door behind her.

"Now, I am going to take care of you."  He picked her right up off the floor and deposited her on her bed. 

"Vincent?  You mean you waited all this time?"

"I decided to do my reading in the living room."  He sat in the chair next to her bed as he gestured for her foot.  "I hope you don't mind."

"Mind?  I’m so happy to see you!” she enthused.

He removed her heels, and sent them dropping to the carpet.  "You and these shoes."

"I know.  In my next life, I want to be five foot ten."

He chuckled.  "Get ready for bed and I'll bring you tea.  Chamomile, so you can sleep."

Catherine excused herself to her bathroom, washed her face and donned a simple cotton sleep shirt.  It felt good just to get undressed.  Having Vincent here made her feel that much better.

When she re-entered the bedroom, he was placing a tray on the bed.  He set her shoes in the rack, and handed her the large coat hanger her dress had been on.  As she hung the lovely frock, he brought the satin wrap to her, so she could settle it on the hanger.

"Off your feet, Cinderella."  He swept her up, again.

"It's not midnight."  She checked the bedside digital clock.

"It’s close enough."  He settled her on the mattress, of the now turned-down bed, tucking the sheet and comforter around her.  She felt utterly pampered.  When she was all settled, he placed the mug of sweet tea with milk in her hand.

"You spoil me."

"A cup of tea hardly qualifies as a spoiling."  He kissed her forehead, then lifted a mug of his own to sip.

But it did.  It did qualify.  Though Tom had been attentive while they were dating, and Steven... intense, in his way, she could picture neither of them waiting up late for her, ready with a turned-down bed, a mug of tea, no demands on her, and offering little but candlelight and good companionship.

"Tom Sawyer?”  Catherine guessed, seeing Mark Twain's name on the binding of the book.  She sank back into the pillows.  It felt heavenly.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.”  Vincent showed her the cover.

"You know, you haven't had any more sleep than I have."

"Actually, I took a nap late this afternoon," he confessed.

"Work in the tunnels is far more forgiving than working for the DA's office," she groused, enjoying the decadent feel of her fluffed pillow as she leaned back.

"Apparently."  He watched her sip her tea, felt her relaxing.

"Sleep."  He took the mug.  "I will sit with you a while."  He removed the tray and sat companionably in the chair beside her bed.

"You are a marvel."  She smiled at him, then slid down the pillows, feeling exhaustion claim her.

He turned off the bedside lamp.  The dancing shimmer of a pillar candle flickered, casting his features in soft light.

His beloved face.  She knew she would never tire of looking at it.  I wonder if I’ll ever not be surprised to see you standing there.  

He didn’t know what she was thinking, exactly, but he felt her hold a memory, inside their bond.  A good one.  Something from a while ago.  Something that made her happy.  Her face still contained a ghost of a smile, as she began to drift down.

 Catherine meant to stay awake a while longer, just to be with him.  But when her eyes closed, her consciousness began to tumble.  His soft kiss brushed her forehead.

Vincent sat for several long minutes, watching her fall asleep.  He felt her contentment through their bond.  Not that he couldn't see it on her face.  I am so in love with you, he thought, settling back in the chair, the leather cover of the book tucked in one hand under his chin.  He'd wanted to be near her this evening, even if it were only for a few moments.

Watching her rest was a bit like being near her the first week they’d met.  She had slept then, too, though her face had been wrapped, for much of it.  He had constantly been nearby, and had felt the first whispers of the bond opening, between them.

They had come so far from that day to this.  She looked young, her face fresh-scrubbed and sleep-gentled.  He realized how content he felt, at this moment.  If only it could last, he sighed wistfully.  He settled back to read.

----

Catherine's eyes drowsed open.  He was ensconced in her chair, the book more than half read.  The clock said it was after three a.m.  Something about that number.  It was when they'd parted, last night.  He looked up when he felt her stir.  She knew he would be there.  Had sensed him during the night, at one point.

"I love you," she whispered.

"And I love you." he replied.

"I feel guilty.  I slept."

"There is nothing I would rather you had done.  I ... just wanted to be near you, Catherine.  After last night."

He brushed the hair back from her face softly, and she understood.

The numbers on her bedside clock flipped over, and he stifled a yawn.

"Now it's your turn to go sleep,” she said.  “Will you be all right?"  She knew it was a silly question, but it seemed something had shifted, and changed, between them.

"I spent a soft night watching you dream, and reading Twain.  A fantasy in each place, for me."  His low voice painted the picture of a man full of his contentment.  God, he was so easy to please.

She tugged him down for a gentle kiss.  One of their nearly chaste ones, letting him know that she, like he, required nothing more from this night than his nearness.

"So beautiful," he told her, brushing her ear.

His kiss to her forehead was a sweet brushing of skin as he blew out the candle.  She watched his shadowy preparations for departure, feeling unbelievably happy.

He shrugged into his cape, and carried the memory of her resting near him in his mind's eye, as he slipped out her balcony door, and into the cold night.

Once back in his chambers, he found he still couldn't sleep.  He wasn't tired.

He loved her.  He knew it irrevocably, as he probably always had.  The knowledge sang in his veins.  He opened his journal.

I love her.  There can be no doubt of it now, not that there ever was.  She is all to me.  Beautiful.  Brilliant.  Passionate.  Can I truly show her the monster that I am?  Will she not recoil in fear?  Dare I hope?

He settled the pen in the crease of the binding, leaving the rest of the page blank.

He was nervous, and still unaccountably shy, even as he remembered all that had passed between them, recently.  He could not write of that, here.  Something would not let him.

Had Thursday night really happened?  It had.  He had taken her to the pool in the Hot Springs.  Shown her his back and chest, seen her swim and bathe.  She had dried his back, massaged his skin.  He had suckled and aroused her, and she had done the same for him.  Had it really happened?  It had.

He was torn between wanting to spirit her away to the deepest recesses of the tunnels, or planning an evening with her in her apartment, where it was more comfortable, and at least as private.  He could barely choose, on the one hand.  And barely was sure he should proceed, on the other.

After a long while, the matter still unresolved, he finally went to bed.

---

The soft thread of simply ... being, was still there, still stretched between them, the next night.  Things still felt somehow different.  More intimate.  Closer.  Decadence, it seemed, paid dividends.

"You were so sweet to me."  She drew him inside, speaking as if they'd never parted.

"I missed you, today.  The sun doesn't set quickly enough, now that spring is coming."  He embraced her, February’s last kiss woven into the folds of his cape.  It didn't feel like spring was coming.  It felt like winter would never loosen its grip, even though he was right, the days were getting longer.

They reclined on the floor in front of her couch as they had been, drawing inexorably closer to each other as the minutes ticked by.  After an hour, neither could pretend they didn't want to touch the other. 

This time was different than before, though it began much the same.  He opened his shirt and vest to allow her access to the skin, there.  She had purposely worn a soft pullover with no bra underneath so she could feel his hands on her breasts.  This time, however, there was no comforting suckling, no soft sighs drifting away to nothing.  The heat was there.  The heat she knew that had always simmered between them.  She tugged off his boots and socks as she kicked her way clear of her slippers.  He pulled her into his lap, and she felt his erection after a few moments of breathless kisses.  She squirmed against him, and he smelled her scent, feeling the warmth of her through his jeans.

  After a few moments, they were panting.  So, this is desire.  He thought he knew, then realized he hadn’t.  It felt so different with her near, as he let the need run rather than reining it in or pushing it aside.  This was more … insistent a sensation.  He felt its nudge, first, and then felt its whip.

He sat up with her, after a time spent with his hands touching every place they’d touched, before.  "Catherine.  This thing that you want…  I want it, too.  You cannot imagine how much."  His voice was unsteady.  He set her away from him, just as unsteadily.  But the look in his eyes was a mixed one.  Passion was there, yes.  So was a healthy dose of trepidation.

Then what?  Her eyes were imploring.

He rose from the floor, and entered her bedroom, bringing her along with the barest touch of his fingers entwined with hers.  He faced the bed as if it were some sort of sentence he could no longer avoid.  Perhaps it was.

He shrugged out of his shirt so he was bare to the waist, turned his back to her, to unbuckle his belt.  The jangling sound seemed harsh in the room, and she could tell by his body language that he did not want her touch, just then.  She stood near the bedroom doorway, simply watching.  The belt dropped to the floor, a soft "thump" on the carpet.  He held himself still.

The pause was long, but she watched from behind as he slowly fumbled with the fastenings of his trousers.  Taking down his jeans, his muscular buttocks came into view, moderately furred, strong, a natural extension of his amazingly powerful thighs.  He let the denim drop, then stepped out of it.

She thought he would turn to her then, albeit slowly.  She was wrong.

He climbed onto her bed and lay belly down, upon it.  His head rested on his folded arms, facing away from her.

Clearly, he was not comfortable with this.  Was she supposed to...?  Was this because he was embarrassed?  She carefully lay down beside him on the remaining space. 

He did not move, other than to become more tense, if that were possible.  "I'm not..." there was a tremor in his voice.  "like others.”  The whisper was raw and full of fear.

She brushed the bow of his back, soothingly.  It did little to help.  "I'm used to it."  He still spoke into his folded arms, his face still away from hers.  "Time passes, and I even forget, sometimes."

She reached over and turned out the bedside lamp for him, sensing that whatever this was, it was best handled in darkness, for his sake.  The bathroom light cast a spare sliver of illumination into the room.

He sighed, a world of misery in the sound.

She let her palm rest at the low part of his back.  She'd touched him there before, the night she'd dried him with the towel.  Now she let her bare palm touch him, moving her hand in random circles, stroking, meaning to comfort, more than to arouse. 

She felt his hips flex, as he groaned.  Clearly, her effect was sensual to him.  And she realized with an odd kind of certainty that this was perhaps the only position from which he'd ever had an orgasm.  That whatever this was, face down to the mattress, unseen by anyone, felt...tolerable, to him.

Was she supposed to ask?  After a moment, she realized the answer to that was “no.”

"When I was young, it wasn't as noticeable, really.  But then puberty came, and...  all the changes with it."

Changes.  Puberty changes.  Changes in body hair, the depth of voice.  Testosterone levels raging.  Muscle structure changing.  Genitals changing.  All the things every teenage boy in the world had to endure on the way to manhood, so much worse, for him.

His voice continued.  "But then I bathe or swim in the main tunnels, or something happens and I see someone else, and I remember... how much I am not like others.”

 She had no idea, specifically, what he spoke of.  None at all.  And clearly, whatever it was, he did not wish her to see, either.

His voice was so soft she had to bend to hear.

"I'm more like...a dog... than a man, that way.  Catherine, I'm so sorry."

Dog.  A...what?  Catherine searched her mind, struggling to picture what he was trying to say.  Animals like dogs and big cats had penises and scrotums just like most any other mammal.  When they were erect, they were erect.  She had felt his, pressed against her.  At least twice, now.  It felt… normal, for lack of any other word, through his clothes.  Her lawyer’s mind struggled.

But when dogs weren't erect...  She remembered the line of hair on his backbone, like a thin mane.  Tried to picture what he was trying to say.  She pictured a male dog, as it walked.  Most animals had a protective line of skin that kept their sex near their bellies, covered their... ah.

He was not built the same as average human males.  Of course.

An image suddenly came to Catherine's mind of the arrow of hair near Vincent's navel, so like other men's.  She tried to imagine how it continued, as it lowered.  When he'd climbed on the bed, she'd caught the barest glimpse of his testicles, between his legs.  Furred, they were where any man's would be, and much as she’d imagined them.

She trailed her fingers low on his back across the tense muscles of his buttocks, neither idly wandering nor certain of her purpose.  She did not go lower.  He didn't seem to want her to.

He could say no more.  Whatever this confession was, for whatever it had cost him, he was done with it.  Even in the near dark, she could see that his complexion was hot and red, with his embarrassment.  His misery was complete.

Her mind worked to frame his statement.  She had felt his erection against her when they kissed, tonight.  Strong, fairly large, and straight against his stomach.  Whatever this was, she felt reasonably sure it could be overcome.  He was shy, by nature.  Shy enough to be mortified, right now.  Thinking there was no way she would want to touch him.  Half wishing she wouldn’t.  More than half wishing she would, though that math didn’t work.  Gratefully, it was not a time for math.

She lay a bit across his back, letting him feel her nearness, and her acceptance.  One leg drew across the small of his back, nearly straddling him.  "I won't look, if it hurts too much," she whispered into his ear.  Of all the differences he bore, this was the one that had kept them apart, for so long.

She brushed the firm muscles of his shoulder blades until he relaxed, at least slightly, sighing.  He was desperately sad.  Another night spent with the twin companion of his desire:  denial of his passions and acceptance that there would be no relief for him, ever.  She let her right hand wander lower, simply trying to take some of his misery into herself.

She shifted and paused, setting her hands at his hips.  Low on his hips.  "Lift up.  Just a little.  You can do it, Vincent."

He knew they would reach this place.  It was as unavoidable as the sunrise, and just as unwelcome.  Sunrise.  The thing that always drove him back down, into low places.  He greatly feared this would be another thing that did that.  But he was resigned to it.  She could feel it in every line of his frame.

Vincent gathered his arms beneath him, and tensed the muscles in his legs, preparing to lift, slightly.  It was time she understood.

He still could not face her.  Every line in his body poised for flight, out of fear, of humiliation, of incoming rejection.  But she had a right to know why.  A right to know why he knew himself to be more animal than human.  A right to know why they could never be, that way, and why she must, in time, seek someone else.  Perhaps she would let him please her, somehow, and that would be enough.  If that was all they could have, it would be more than enough, for him.  He was a mendicant, willing to take scraps from her table.

Before he offered her that, though, he had to show her why.  His weight rose on his knees.  Barely.

Her hand slid beneath him, gently seeking. His stomach was taut and tense.  The hair below his navel the soft, almost silky texture she had anticipated.  Then....

She felt it.  And her mind had to draw what her fingers told her.

His penis was encased vertically, in a long soft foreskin sprinkled by the same texture of hair that radiated down from his navel.  In the dark, she could not see its color, but she could feel its length.  It was similar to the hair that whorled near his navel.  A soft, thin line but definitely “there,” as it trailed down.  A spare bit of skin kept the lowest few inches of his sex snug against his belly, when he was flaccid, like now.  To whatever extent it could, it kept him protected from harm.

Her hands made him jump, and she realized that the dread of this moment had caused him to shrink back to his pre-aroused size.  The ridge in his jeans had been unmistakable.  But it was now unmistakably absent.  Like any other foreskin, it could be pushed down and out of the way, she reasoned.

Her fingers trailed up to the opening, understanding that the foreskin she felt was just that.  That it was just a thin, silky, protective covering for a manhood that even now was beginning to respond to her touch.

"Shhhh," she instructed as he jumped against her hand involuntarily.  "I want to touch you."  She began to massage him, lightly.  He groaned.

He was being tortured between rejection and desire.  He feared her reaction, and he couldn't stop his own.  Finally, at her urging, he began to pant, the head of his erection coming forth as it always must.  Her hand pushed down the extra bit of flesh, and she caressed him, wet and rigid.  He now felt very human.  And very aroused.  Very male.

"Turn.”  She said it softly.

He shook his head.

"Vincent.  I mean to take you inside of me.  Please turn."

The invitation was a rocking spasm to his system.  With excruciating slowness, he moved to his side, then his back.  He was now fully erect, and very human.

If he had any doubt he was a man, she no longer did, not that she ever had.  It occurred to her that with all the clothing she'd ever been aware of, on him, he never wore any kind of briefs.  He simply didn't need them.  His own body kept his sex very well protected.

The tumescent, mushroom-shaped head was well clear of the protective skin, and Catherine fought a profound desire to kiss him there.

He still kept his head turned, eyes closed, away from her.  Waiting for the rejection that would come like a hard slap.  Dreading it, even as his hips lifted, with want.  He had been mad to consider this.  At least before, he had her in his life in some fashion.  Now he was about to lose her forever.  Please, just a moment more.  Her hand felt so good.

She straddled his stomach, deftly, making him aware that she wore nothing, underneath.  It was like the other night, the night that had fascinated him to the point of action.

He moaned, feeling his sex against hers, no barrier of clothing between them.  She feels soft.  Wet.  Warm.  Her weight bore down on him, and the burden was welcome, since it kept them together.  Again, his hips lifted, with the instinct to mate.  He forced them back down, struggling to ask for nothing.  She felt him thrash as she lifted away a little, lying full atop his chest.  His heart was a trip-hammer against her ear.  He was at her entrance, and they both knew it.  When he felt her begin to enclose him, he shuddered, with reaction.

“Try not to push, not yet,” she whispered into an ear that could barely hear, for the sound of pounding blood.  He nodded, barely, and held himself so still she swore he barely drew breath.

In the next few moments, she slid herself down upon him, taking him in as her own.  She coaxed him past a muscular ring of tension inside her, affirmation that she’d taken no one to her bed for a long time.  She sighed against his chest, and completed their union.

For Vincent, the moment felt not so much like a sigh as like a scream.  Shock.  Utter shock.  Following her instruction not to push, his shoulders came up off the mattress.  His knees half bent in panic, he lifted his feet so that he would not drive upward, in reflex.  Nerve endings never stimulated like this before were scrambling to send relevant information to a brain that had been half-poised between flight and despair.  This was not the instinct to flee.  This was another instinct, entirely.

"Catherine!"  He said the only word that made sense.

She locked her hands around his neck, urging him to scoot backward so that he reclined against the head of the bed.  She held onto him, nuzzling the side of his neck.

"Later,” she said, not having any clear idea of what she promised.  "Right now, I'm busy loving you."  She paused only long enough to remove her sweater.  Sans any form of underthings, her long skirt was trapped around her waist until she simply tugged it upward, and over her head.  Elastic waistband.

Steel arms clamped around her thighs, willing her to stay.  He would not let her draw herself back up his length.  Instinct.  The one to keep her from escaping.  He forced himself to loosen his grip on her, making soft noises into the side of her neck as he nuzzled her there.  Pleasure.  Pleading.  Something else.

"He still thinks I'm going to leave.  Leave in disgust.  Leave him wanting.  Leave before he comes.  He’s terrified I’ll draw away.”

She was aware of his size, large, though not so much as to make joining with him a problem.  She stroked and petted his head, neck and shoulders, letting her hands trail down his massive arms.  He was hers.  It would be all right.  Soft kisses traced where her fingers touched.  She stayed astride him, not trying to move, trying to let him know she was not about to end this.

"Go your own pace, love.  I'm right here.  I'm not going anywhere,” she crooned, flexing the muscles along her stomach until he could feel the reaction inside her.  He cried out, and began to pant.

Panic.  Frustration.  Desire so hot it burned.  He was inside her.  She had taken him in.  She had touched him.  She knew.  She had released him from the confines of his body and right now she was...she was...she was… oh, lord, squeezing him, with internal muscles.

Head thrown back, he forgot to hold her thighs down to prevent escape.

She began to thrust on him, in earnest.  Her friction was going to kill him.  "Hold my back.”  Her voice was the only sound in the universe.  “Tell me when to push hard," she commanded, feeling him already tense.

His hands complied as he felt the weight of his testes lift, and tighten.

He dropped his head against her shoulder, and simply let himself feel.  What else could he do?  Their combined scent reached his nose, along with the wet sounds they made, together.  The rocking sensation that begged his hips to thrust, and now seemed allowed...  It was not going to take long, and it was not going to be artistic.  But it was going to be his climax, inside a woman, for the first time in his life.  He made a low, almost growling noise in his throat.  It was all the warning he could give her.

"Now.”  She said it, feeling his hips cant to a certain angle.

She knew.  She just did.  Either by experience, or empathy, she knew.

He couldn't speak.  Had no way to speak.  His hands tightened when her muscles did, and his orgasm burst forth in a hard, hot stream.

Her body moved up and down his shaft a moment longer, taking in the aftershocks that followed.  He collapsed backward against the headboard, pulling her body with him, brushing her back with his huge, claw-tipped hands.  He bucked his hips into her twice more, emptying a scrotum so tight it felt pleasure, then pain, then pleasure again, as it squeezed forth his response to her.

His mind felt as shattered as his body.  Either he couldn't find the bond, anymore, or he was wrapped inside it.  He had no idea which statement was more true.  Both.  Neither.  It didn’t matter, as the sensations seemed to go on, forever.

"I love you.  Love you.  Love you.  Love you...”  He half-spoke, half-whispered the words into the crook of her shoulder, once speech was possible, again.

"And I love you.  And if you ever compare yourself to a dog, or any other kind of animal again, you and I are going to have words."  She kept her weight softly against his chest.

Leave it to Catherine to pick a fight, from this position.  Leave it to her to banish a dread he’d carried for longer than he remembered not carrying it.

He began to shake, and after a moment, Catherine realized he was weeping, silently, into her hair.  She wondered what to do: if she should try to speak to him or simply hold him through this latest storm and let it be, go get him something....  In the end, she just stayed astride him, cradling.  His now flaccid penis stayed inside her, as she soothed him, letting him vent years of grief and doubt that this moment would ever happen for him.

"You let me."  He drew back, and his eyes searched her face in the dim light, then looked at their still joined bodies, between them.  "I can't believe you just did that."

Let him?  She'd practically made him.

She brushed the dampness from his cheeks.  "I rather insisted upon it, I think.  Though you can tell the story differently, in years to come, if it suits you."  She smiled at him, willing him to see some kind, any kind, of humor in their situation.  It would be all right if she could get him to understand that while his fears were understandable, they were groundless, with her.

But he was in no mood for humor, however wry or gently intended.  Like the moment when she had been completely nude in his chamber, he had been bombarded by too many emotions in the last hour.  He could not add one more to the mix, or sort them out, effectively.

"But you didn't...."  He realized she had not climaxed, while he had.  He felt it was embarrassingly late to do anything about that.

"I didn't need to.  You did," she replied, nuzzling his cheek.

Whoof.  So suddenly she couldn’t have said how, she was flat on her back with an agitated blue-eyed male poised over her, and, for that matter, still inside her.

"I will be serving in hell the day I ever take that from you again, and leave you wanting."

His voice was soft steel and anger.  Anger at himself.  Had he been utterly mad?  That she would give him...everything, and he would only take?

Belatedly, she realized his erection was returning.  And he was beginning to move.

"Vincent, I..."

"Shh," he instructed, shortly.  His gaze was intense, blue, and brooked no argument.  "I need to learn how to… feel you.  How to know.”

Light from the bathroom lent her some ability to discern his features.  His face was one of concentration, as he felt her along the length of his newly engorged manhood. 

He rocked inside her as they had done before.  He pulled back, slowly.  Returned just as slowly.  Ahhh.  There it was.  There she was.  Her groan was audible, the feeling palpable.  She began to push, against him.  He did it again.  Three times, just as slowly.  The fourth time he pulled back, he stayed poised, just barely touching her inside, until she began to thrash, beg for his presence.  Teasing.  He was teasing her.  He understood it.  Not well enough to master it, but well enough to realize what it was.  He had not been able to do that, before.  He nuzzled her neck.

"Show me.  Take me where you need."  He ordered it.

She reached between them and held him a second, shifting her weight just barely to the left.  This time, when he re-entered, he heard as well as felt her reaction.  "The...ere.”  Her voice broke on the one syllable word and exhaled along his cheek.  "Oh, Vincent, there.  Please, there."

 His mind was going numb and he felt the subtle difference the slight shift had made for her.  He was now lined up perfectly with her cervix, the muscles there working against his shaft, especially when he lay fully inside, or the opposite, barely inside, as she tried to coax him back.

She set her hands at his back, and drew up her legs.

What was this?  He realized it was increasing her pleasure.

"Huge.”  She whispered the word hotly into his ear.  "You feel huge.  I can feel you...," she pushed against him hard, the feminine muscles inside her tensing, then releasing, "everywhere," she concluded.

For the first time in his life, Vincent felt pride at his sex, and his size.  More than pride.  More than acceptance.  Power.  The masculine power a man feels when his partner is feeling her pleasure, and about to come.  Hard.  All over him.  And she was.

He rotated his hips, carefully.  Slowly.  She moaned.

He withdrew until she whimpered in frustration, and he returned, the most glacially slow forward stroke she had ever experienced.

"Teach me,” he begged.  "Teach me about you."

Her legs and arms clutched his back, forbidding him to withdraw, again.  “Stay,” she whispered, giving him the instruction he needed.

He rocked inside her, again, feeling the tension in her muscles.  "I won't take it away.  I won't come too soon.  I swear.”  He whispered the molten words into her ear.  She nuzzled his face in wordless appreciation as one arm wrapped around his head, holding him close.

The gesture told him that somehow, at some other time, she had simply been left wanting; that such a thing had perhaps even become what she was used to, at some point.

He began to stroke inside her, neither too fast nor too slow.  Slow enough so she could push against him, when she wanted.  Fast enough to provide her with the heat of friction.  When it was too much to bear, she screamed his name in broken syllables, and dug her hands like claws into the skin over his ribs.  She'd marked him, whether she meant to or not.

He plunged deep, continuing to push forward though he was already all the way in, the rocking motion seeming to be what she needed to bring her across, again.

The spasms that shook her, that fluttered and grasped along his sex, fascinated him.  Giving himself over to it, he dropped his hips, withdrew just a bit and returned hard, one last time, ejaculating again, eyes unfocussed and body spent. 

He had enough understanding left to ease his weight to the side, to avoid crushing her into the firm mattress.  He had little else.

"Mmmm-noooo" she moaned, as his spent sex slipped out of her warmth, after a few moments.

"Insatiable."

He teased her.  He teased her.  Had he really just done that?

She chuckled.  Such a feminine sound, right now.  He kept his arm across her, and pulled her into a warm embrace.  He kissed her shoulder.

Bare to the air and the dark, they lay on the bed, recovering.  Her eyes trailed down his long, muscled torso, to his now flaccid flesh.  His softly furred testicles were low.  His shaft, encased again.  The thin, lightly furred foreskin protecting his sex nestled him roughly half-way up, until a very artful, masculine proof of his gender made itself known.  She cradled his sex for a moment, gently letting him know she adored this about him, as she adored every other difference he possessed.

"I would not change one thing about you."  Her voice carried deep meaning.  "I don't mean that I wouldn't have wished things to be so much easier than they were.  Just that...."

"I know what you mean."  He moved her hand, and brushed her shoulder with another kiss.

"You've been worried about this," she said softly, brushing the hair from his face.  "Worried, and you couldn't say anything."

"I have wanted to touch you for longer than I can remember," he said.  "I just...”  He didn't even know how to finish the sentence.

"You have a fold of skin that holds you close."  She put the contour of him into words.  She nestled her body up against his, belly to belly, so they were touching.  "Now you have a whole person that does that."

His now-satisfied sex was pressed against the warmth of her stomach, just as it was lightly nestled against the low part of his, for the most part.  If she kept that up, he would rouse, again.

But this didn't quite feel like that, especially not when he was so thoroughly sated.  This felt like it had before, when they'd caressed, but gone no further.  Like when he'd nuzzled her breasts, or she'd dried his back.  He wondered what this was, this feeling between arousal and utter completion.  Before he could even wonder if she felt it, too, he knew she did.  It wasn’t the bond, though that was there.  Peace radiated from her.  So did the undercurrent of her desire for him.

Very belatedly, and mostly thanks to a complete lack of exposure, Vincent realized that the physical world between two people in love was an incredibly rich and varied place.  It was not only possible to hold onto two sensations at once, it seemed almost required.  He nuzzled the soft fall of her hair, appreciating it.  All of it.

"I want you to dry my back again," he said.  After the sentence left him, he realized that the next time that happened, she would likely dry much more of him.  Achingly more.

"I want to sleep near you, all night."  She returned want for want, knowing that “sleep” would be only part of how the night got spent.

"Mmm," was his agreement.  Every cell in his body felt replete.  Twice.

"Will you still rub my feet, sometimes?" she asked, rubbing her instep up his muscular calf.  He'd give her a hundred years to stop that.

"Of course," his honeyed baritone rumbled.

"And bring me bread and jam?"  She smiled the request.

He kept her wrapped in his arms, the promise of everything they were about to become spreading out before him like the richest buffet.  "Of course I will, my Catherine.  Anything less would not be..." he searched for the word...

"Decadent."

---fin---