She was his lodestone, the light in his darkness. As the haze of dust cleared from the collapsed tunnel, as he and Father were swarmed by the other members of the community, Vincent had eyes only for his Catherine.
His. When had that happened? When had he begun to think of her as…part of himself? He shook his head, but succeeded only in disturbing thick clots of dust which fell into his eyes. “Oh, Vincent,” Catherine murmured from just beyond him. Reaching toward him. Needing him.
He coughed, feeling the rumble deep in his chest. One of the other tunnel-dwellers, a man named Alex, rushed up to meet him as they stepped back from Father, his stethoscope in hand. “Take care of Father first,” Vincent instructed.
Alex had been a paramedic Above; his pale green eyes narrowed. “He's being taken care of. And you’ll come to the hospital chamber? I can hear the wheeze in your lungs from here.”
Catherine’s concern flared through their bond. No, she must not worry so, not on top of all the other worries he’d burdened her with this day. “I’ll come. Please, take care of Father.”
“I will. Get yourself out of here and get away from this dust,” Alex retorted. “Oh, and Vincent? If I don’t see you in the hospital chamber PDQ, I’m coming to get you.”
Vincent smiled. Alex was easily a foot shorter and likely a third of his weight, but his glower was matched only by Father’s. “Very well.”
Catherine led him to the corridor. Her hand clung fiercely to his, her fear and worry like ice in their bond. “I’m going to be all right,” Vincent said. “Really, Catherine.” For the first time in what felt like eons, he looked at her…really looked. And saw the dirt and dust and debris that coated the gentle planes of her face, the exhaustion and the fear which had driven deep furrows around her mouth and eyes. She was filthy, exhausted, bedraggled…but she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
He led her to his chamber---where else? “Is there anything I can get for you?” Vincent asked.
She might have laughed, but the sound which emerged seemed choked-off. Forced. “Vincent, are you serious? You and Father survived being trapped in the Maze---you nearly suffocated and you're asking me if there's anything I need?”
I have what I need, here in front of me, Vincent thought but did not say. Surely if he told her, if he said the words, she would shy away. “I did ask,” he said instead.
Catherine managed a tired smile. At length, she said, “Is there someplace I could wash my face? My eyes feel pretty gritty right now.”
Vincent nodded. “Of course. Please sit while I get it set up for you.”
She stared at him. “Vincent---really, I can handle it if you’ll just show me where everything is. There’s no need to…”
“Please. Let me help you. It’s…the least I can do.”
“And then you’ll rest.”
“Yes,” he said.
Catherine watched as Vincent moved around the cluttered chamber, finding unerringly what he sought. A large cake of soap lurked in the bottom of a dresser drawer; water poured from a hidden swan’s head spigot next to his dry sink. Towels of a surprising thickness emerged from yet another drawer. She smiled. There was so much here that was hidden and unexpected, much like Vincent himself.
He filled the pitcher with water and placed it carefully back in its bowl. “It’s ready,” he told her. “I hope the water isn’t too hot.”
She decided not to mention that she often took steaming hot showers…though imagining his reaction to that bit of news did have its charms. “Thank you so much.” She walked over to the dry sink and filled the bowl with water. Steam coiled in the cool air. “The water feels lovely.”
“I’m glad,” Vincent replied, sitting in a chair opposite her.
Catherine dampened a washcloth in the basin, then rubbed the soap---an herbal preparation of some kind---over the cloth, only to watch as the soap slipped out of her grasp and into the water. She picked it up, and the soap fell again. And again and again. “Dammit,” she muttered under her breath. Tears sprang to her eyes and she impatiently dashed them away. This is stupid. Getting angry with a bar of slippery soap.
A large furred hand closed over hers. “Catherine. I feel your frustration. You’re tired and you’ve had…a difficult day.”
She smiled at him. “You’re a master of understatement.”
With a gentle touch which should have been incongruous given how strong his hands were, Vincent retrieved the soap. “Please. Will you…let me?”
The glimmering thought came in the instant between one breath and the next with a force she’d never before experienced: I would trust you to do anything. I love you. The realization rocked her and she wondered what Vincent felt. She met his eyes, a wide, darker blue, and felt his instinctive clasp of her hands. “Catherine, I…”
“Don’t, Vincent,” she murmured. “Don’t say anything now.” She thought he might have fled if he could have mustered up the energy, but he was very nearly at the limits of his own endurance after the endless hours of worry and fear.
He ducked his head under his dust-streaked mane and when he met her eyes again, there was no sign that he meant to continue his flight. “Yes. I…will you let me help you?”
Catherine smiled. “Yes. It seems I…need it.” I need you.
Vincent retrieved the washcloth and slippery soap and wondered at his own daring. To touch her…to touch Catherine…in such a way, to admit the craving that made one part of him want to cling to her even as another part wanted to bolt…it was wondrous. And terrifying. He reached up to touch her face with the soapy cloth, saw Catherine half-close her eyes and lean into his touch.
She trusted him. She loved him. Him.
Vincent washed the dirt and mud, the detritus of hours of worry and outright terror, from her face until her skin once again glowed a pale rose. He rinsed out the last of the dirt from the washcloth and the water turned grey. “All done,” he said quietly.
She opened her eyes fully. “Thank you, Vincent. I---"
A message rang out on the pipes: Alex, asking him to come to the hospital chamber. “It’s Alex,” Vincent said. “I…I should go.”
Catherine closed her eyes briefly and nodded. “Will you…do you feel up to walking me to the threshold tonight?”
He swallowed. He could, he knew, have let her return Above alone, pleading the urgency of Alex’s message as an excuse. But the craving need to touch her, to be near her, if only for a few more minutes, overrode all other considerations. “Yes, of course.”
As they turned to leave his chamber, Catherine’s voice stopped him. “Vincent?”
“I could have washed my face on my own, you know.”
Vincent smiled. I trust you is what he heard.