Someone was there.
It was not sound that betrayed their presence. No rustle of fabric. No shifting movements, no soft breathing in the darkness. There was no sound. No, it was the scent that had awakened her, pulled her from confused dreams. The fragrance of roses heavy in the air that told her with absolute certainty she was not alone.
Movement beside the door, barely visible. “I’m here.”
Evey relaxed. His voice was calm, hardly more than a whisper. There was no danger, then. No threat from Above.
“Why were you watching me sleep?” she asked, pulling the heavy down blanket around her body as she sat up. She heard, rather than saw, him come across the room. There were no windows, and with the heavy door closed, no light. Almost true darkness.
“I was just checking in. I…have something for you, and had hoped that you were not sleeping,” came the reply. Evey tried to track the progress of his voice with her eyes, but the reverberations from the stone ceiling made it difficult.
A match flared to life closer than Evey expected. She jumped, startled at the noise. The flickering light threw odd shadows on V’s mask, exaggerating the moulded smile. He lit an old oil lamp on her bedside table, and stood, waiting, regarding her (so it seemed) with some quiet thoughtfulness.
“Violet Carsons,” he said, and Evey saw that he held one of his treasured roses. “I’ve grown them for years, and never seen one like this.” He laid the flower in Evey’s lap. With the flickering lamplight playing over it, the rose looked much the same as the hundreds of other Violet Carsons she had seen. Yet…something odd…
She picked up the rose, and then she saw it. The color. Though it resolved into deep pink at the tips of the petals as usual, the rest of the flower was white. It was only the firelight that gave the impression of the familiar pinkish yellow glow.
“A mutation, no doubt,” V said. “Or perhaps my Violet Carsons did not come from as pure a stock as I thought.”
Evey noted that as her eyes grew used to the firelight, she could make out more of the rose’s detail. It wasn’t pure white, as she had first thought. Faint yellow trails made their way down the length of the petals, like tiny scratches, the center of the rose so deep in color it was almost red.
“Some might be disappointed at that thought,” V continued. “Might even be tempted to destroy the entire rose bush. But I thought it beautiful.”
“It is beautiful,” Evey replied, as V took the rose from her, placed it in the glass of water beside the lamp. “Strange though, how it can come from the same parent plant as all the other roses. It’s exactly the same as the others, but it’s a new thing entirely.”
“I thought you would like it.” V said. Evey, having been regarding the rose still, looked up, trying to decipher the tone, to read the face hidden behind the mask. No use.
It was V who moved first, breaking her gaze to pick a battered paperback from the edge of her bed. Still open to the page she’d been reading when she fell asleep.
“The Golden Ass,” he murmured. “Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” He glanced at the page she’d been reading. “Cupid and Psyche. Do you like myths, Evey?”
“I do.” There was a pause. A sudden thought crossing her mind. “Would you read to me V? Just for a little while? Like you did when you first brought me here?”
V grew still, thoughtful. “All right,” he replied, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Just for a little while. Where did you leave off?”
“Top of the page,” Evey replied, settling back against her pillows. “Just read.”
“…At her sisters’ words, Psyche’s heart grew heavy with dread. ‘Oh my sisters,’ she cried, ‘I fear you speak the truth! For never have I seen my husband, nor do I know from whence he came. He only comes to me under cover of darkness! I know nothing of him, save that he seems to despise the light of day. He must be a monster! I fear to see him, for he threatens dire consequences if I but try. Please! Tell me how I might scheme to discover his identity!
And so together they devised a plan. Psyche was to wait until her husband came to her chambers as was his habit each night. Once he slept soundly, she would take a lighted oil lamp, and silently cast its light over his features. If indeed he be a demon, she would cut the head from his shoulders and escape. That very evening she set her plan in motion.
Her husband sleeping soundly, Psyche crept upon him with her lighted lamp, carefully casting the light on his face. And Lo! It revealed not a demon, but a god! Eros! Gentle Cupid! The bearer of love, who had made her his bride. Yet even as she stood enraptured, some oil fell from the lamp, and burned the god. Awakened, he leapt to his feet and cried out, ‘Oh foolish Psyche! One thing alone I asked of you. One thing alone was forbidden to you. And you could not do even this one thing for me. And because of one thing, you have lost it all. Farewell.’ The god turned, and was gone in a rush of wind and wings, leaving Psyche alone, weeping, the lamp in her hand still burning brightly.”
V shut the book. Set it back on the dresser.
“Why did you stop there?” Evey asked. “That’s not a happy place to end it.”
She sensed V’s smile. “I only promised to read for a little while. And myths rarely have happy endings, sweet Eve.”
“But this one does,” she replied.
V looked at her for a long while, but did not reply. Then, suddenly, he reached out, and extinguished the lamp on the bedside table.
“V! What are you doing?” Evey exclaimed, startled. She reached blindly for the electric reading lamp, but was stopped by a hand on her wrist.
“Evey. Please. Leave the light alone,” V replied. The room suddenly too dark for Evey, eyes having grown accustomed to the lamplight. There was a rattling sound. V shaking the matchbox. The slightest of noises as he set it down on the table beside the bed. In her mind’s eye, she saw where it lay. She felt him settle back down on the bed.
Though she could not see, she could feel him watching her. She was puzzled, confused, but not afraid.
She sensed movement, heard fabric rustling, but could not imagine what V was doing.
“Hold out your hands, Evey,” he said finally. She did. Something heavy and warm was placed in her grasp. It took her only a moment.
“Oh God,” she whispered, blindly staring into the darkness where V sat. Trying to catch some glimpse of his figure, some hint of profile. Suddenly very aware of him, of his closeness, of the man sitting on her bed.
She’d known it was metal, yet sill the mask’s weight surprised her. Trembling fingers traced the familiar outline, finding eyes, lips, cheeks, nose in the dark. On an impulse she held it up to her own face, looking with blind eyes through the slit-openings. It was claustrophobic. She could not imagine…
“It’s so heavy,” Evey whispered. “It has to be such a burden.”
The mask, at first so warm it seemed to possess life of its own, was already cooling in her hands. Glancing up, she stared before her, where she knew he sat. The mask slipped from her hands, fell to the blankets.
She reached towards him. Stopped. Not afraid, but hesitant. Reached again. Stopped herself once more.
“It’s all right, Evey,” V said softly. “Give me your hand.”
Gloved fingers brushed against hers, his hand neatly wrapping around hers. Guided her in the dark, but stopped, hovering so close to his face she could feel the heat radiating from his skin. His hand dropped away. And she understood.
It took Evey perhaps half a minute to convince herself to closer that last bit of space. The seconds stretched an eternity, her heart pounding in her chest. V sat, infinitely patient. She knew if she could not, it was over. The mask back on, and whatever opportunity laying before her lost. V would undoubtedly never speak of it. Be gracious, courteous. But she would know. And she could not live with that.
She lay her hand upon his cheek. The skin beneath her palm was smooth, but uneven. In her mind she saw his hands, ungloved as he cooked. Scarred. Burned.
In the darkness, she placed her other hand upon his face. Found that his other cheek had been burned as well. Bad, but not as bad as she had expected, as she had feared. With cautions fingers she traced his eyes, lips, nose….was she surprised at that? Had she expected the burns to be that severe? Caressed cheeks, jaw, forehead. Tried to form a mental picture to no avail. Tried to find some outstanding feature – something that identified itself with V. Some remarkable feature that clearly marked him as something more. There was nothing.
“Do you see?” V asked.
“Yes,” Evey whispered. Before she realized she’d done it, she had leaned forward, kissed V on the forehead, scarred skin strangely smooth beneath her lips. She pulled back, lay her head against his. “I know.”
She found the mask in the dark, handed it over. There was a rustle of fabric as V tied it back into place. As he was doing so, Evey took the matches from the bedside table. When his movement had stopped, she struck one, lighting the oil lamp again. Turned. Stared at V and his painted smile. Tried to remember the face beneath the mask.
She could not.
It did not matter.
“You never reached for the light,” V said, voice again muffled.
“I am not Psyche,” she said.
“No. You’re Eve.” V replied. Though she could not tell, beneath his mask, Evey sensed a smile.
He stood suddenly, straightening his black tunic, adjusting his gloves. Turned to leave.
“V?” Evey asked suddenly.
“Yes?” he asked
“The rose,” she replied. “You picked it for me. It’s going to die.”
“Yes,” V replied. “But knowing that…knowing that it must die…will make you enjoy its beauty while it is alive all the more. And every other rose will call this one to mind…this one which for a brief moment, shared its beauty with you.”
Evey nodded, putting out the lamp. “You’re right,” she murmured, snuggling beneath the blankets. V opened the door to leave, casting the room in a soft glow.
“Good night, V,” Evey said.
“Good night, Evey,” came the reply. The door started to close.
“V?” she asked. The movement stopped.
“Stay with me until I sleep? Just this once?” she whispered.
There was no reply. She heard the door close, leaving the room in darkness once more. Then, movement as V sat beside the place she lay.
“Of course, sweet Eve,” he said.
“Thank you,” Evey murmured, already slipping into sleep.
She was sleeping soundly in minutes, breathing deep and rhythmic. As she slept, V watched her, reached out, caressed a lock of her short short hair. It’s never too late. Cupped her cheek with his palm.
“I’m so sorry,” V whispered.
Evey did not hear of course. She never knew when he tucked the blankets snugly around her sleeping form. Was not aware of the exact moment V left, shutting the door silently behind him. She never suspected that her request had been needless.
She never knew that V stayed with her every night.