It had happened quietly. It had happened almost as an afterthought one late spring night after a concert in the park, when Vincent was escorting Catherine back to her basement threshold. It was as natural as it was unexpected, and looking back, Catherine realized it was the culmination of months (years, really!) of determination, of discussion, of desperation. Either she had worn down Vincent’s resistance, or he had simply grown used to the idea that she was his. Which it was no longer mattered.
He had stopped their progress mid-way between the home tunnels and her basement entrance, turned to her, and gently kissed her lips. He had done it with no romantic preliminaries, with no prior hint as to his intentions, so that she had been caught entirely off-guard. She hadn’t even had the presence of mind to kiss him back, so stunned had she been by the casual way he had approached her.
After the kiss, he had calmly taken her hand and continued to walk with her, picking up the thread of their conversation with complete ease. She, however, was incapable of responding with any coherent thought. Finally, she dug in her heels and pulled him to a stop with the hand he held.
“What just happened, Vincent?”
“I should think it was obvious.” He grinned mischievously at her -- a little boy who has just stolen a cookie from the jar and is not at all repentant.
“I know what happened, I mean...WHAT HAPPENED?”
Vincent became thoughtful. He didn’t respond for so long that she was afraid he’d shied from what he’d done and was trying to come up with a reason why it should never happen again. Finally, he looked at her.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you for a very long time, Catherine. I’ve tried to summon the courage before, but could never muster enough. I’d look at you, standing before me, so beautiful and so desirable, and I would freeze...lose my nerve. You have been so patient...and I have been so...frightened. Somehow, tonight, I knew I would be able to move through my fear, but when the realization set in, I also realized I couldn’t postpone it for a more opportune moment, or the fear might take hold again.” He paused and smiled again, this time in apology. “I’m sorry if I startled you. It wasn’t my intention to do so. Forgive me?”
As he asked forgiveness, Vincent tilted his head to the side, a gesture Catherine could not resist. She laughed, then threw her arms about his neck. “Well, now that I’m ready for it, do you supposed you could kiss me again?”
Gravely, he answered. “Certainly, Catherine, if you wish.”
And he did.
And so it had begun.
* * *
He was actually quite wonderful at it, considering his initial lack of experience. Catherine had known he was a conscientious learner and a quick study in everything he set his mind to, so it should have come as no surprise when he shortly mastered the intricacies of the kiss in all its permutations, and invented a few just for her.
He had even agreed to enter her apartment on occasion, and, although he could not bring himself to enter her bedroom, he was getting comfortable with the idea of sitting in her living room, even of sitting beside her on one of the small couches which framed her fireplace. Occasionally now, they would sit by the fire and talk, or hold each other and share delicious, languorous kisses.
Still, things weren’t perfect. She knew that, despite his assertions that he had conquered his fears, there was much work to be done...or undone, considering the mess Father had unwittingly made of Vincent’s psyche. Kissing was one thing... making love was quite another.
Vincent wanted her, she knew that. He had taken a bold first step by moving their relationship into the realm of the physical. And while she didn’t want to push him into anything he didn’t feel comfortable with, she also did not want to stall out at a comfortable level of intimacy. For years, short embraces were all he would allow. Now, he had broadened that acceptance level to include kissing and a few tentative caresses. She was determined that the next step not be equally long in coming.
Surprisingly, Vincent’s fears did not center on what physical intimacy could bring out in him. That “dark beast” had not surfaced during their moments of passionate kissing, and intellectually, at least, he understood that he would not hurt her through any loss of control. Still very careful of inadvertent injury -- through a careless stroke of his nails against her skin, or an incautious nuzzle with his sharp teeth -- he was vigilant, almost deliberate in his caresses. Catherine believed -- hoped! -- that he would relax his vigilance once he was more comfortable in his role of lover. But for now, they had found a happy medium and they both found pleasure in their activities, somewhat constrained though they were.
No, fear of losing control was not the problem. What seemed to be the sticking point now was her potential reaction to him. She was fairly certain he comprehended that she loved his hands and found his face beautiful -- she told him often, and he had to admit she was not fearful of his touch, nor was she loath to kiss or stroke his face. Constant reassurance over the years followed by recent ardent demonstration had forced him to understand that. But how could she convince him that his as-yet-unrevealed body would be equally pleasing to her? He was still stubborn in his insistence that she would find his body hideous, grotesque. And the fear that such a revelation would end their dreams of a happy life together was so paralyzing to him that, for all her words of assurance and gentle urging, he could not accede to even her smallest request.
Take off my vest? No, Catherine, it’s better that these layers protect you from the reality of me. Allow you to slip your hand beneath my shirt? No, Catherine, believe me when I tell you that my body is not like other men’s.
She wanted to scream in frustration. But that would solve nothing, and would only cause Vincent pain, knowing that he was the source of so much disappointment.
She would not be deterred. She would not be discouraged. She would find a way.
* * *
As the intensity of their kiss deepened, Catherine’s feeling
of trepidation grew. Vincent sensed this and, ever concerned for
her comfort, he reluctantly but insistently pulled away from her.
She opened her eyes and gave him a puzzled look.
“That’s what I was going to ask. I feel a deep anxiety rising within you, Catherine. Please tell me...are you having...second thoughts about...this?”
She looked at him in shock. “This, Vincent, is what I’ve wished for more than anything! This is the fulfillment of my...of our...dreams!”
Guardedly, he replied, “And yet...I sense in you a...hesitation...a reluctance...having to do specifically with...this.”
Catherine sighed and this time it was she who pulled away. She rose from the couch and, in unconscious imitation of Vincent’s nervous habit, began to pace the room, her body a study in tension and anxiety.
His heart sank. So...this is where our dreams divide, he thought. He was devastated, but he had to compose himself so that Catherine would never know. I must make this easy for her, he thought. She has given me so much -- so much! -- I cannot blame her, or let her blame herself, if she realizes now that loving me is too great a burden to carry. Oh, God, Catherine, he cried inside. How can I bear the thought of never being this close to you again?
She turned finally, gave him an inscrutable glance, then moved to sit by him again, but...not too close. She looked down at her hands; her nervous energy was manifested there now, as she twisted them in her lap, and she struggled for the words.
Before she could express the feelings their Bond had already made known to him, Vincent placed his hand upon her entwining ones and squeezed them to gain her silence and attention.
He took a shaky breath. One thought was uppermost in his mind: this had been inevitable. “There is no need to speak the words. I understand, truly. Don’t struggle, Catherine. I promise, we can go on as...as before and let this memory fade. I...don’t expect the impossible. The fact of your love sustains me. I have always known the limitations. I...”
She gently removed one hand from beneath his restraining grasp and placed an index finger against his unique and so delectable lips, effectively stopping his desperately noble speech.
Tenderly she murmured, “Oh, no, Vincent. It’s not what you imagine. It could never be that. Please believe me.” She gazed fervently into his eyes. “ Please know that your love...every aspect of your love...means more to me than I can say. It feels so right to be in your arms, to hold you close, to finally allow my hands and lips to say what my words cannot convey, and to know that your hands and lips want to ‘speak’ to me in return.” She shook her head adamantly. “It’s not that.”
Then, finally allowing the trepidation to show fully in her expression, she admitted, “But...yes, I have been hiding a ...discomfort. It was wrong of me not to speak of it sooner. And I realize now that I have foolishly caused you distress when the last thing I ever want is to hurt you. Forgive me!”
After asking his pardon, she looked away, staring into the fire as if the glowing embers held some fascination for her. In truth, she was gathering herself, trying to summon the words, the nerve, to say and do what she needed to now.
As she spoke, denying his furtive fears, the relief Vincent felt was so tremendous he trembled inwardly with its release. It would be all right. Whatever it was, Catherine still wanted to be with him, to give...and receive...the kisses and caresses he was desperate for...that he was unable to live without. But now it was his turn to offer reassurance.
“You must know you can tell me anything. Please, just get it out any way you can. I don’t want you to ever feel anxious or nervous about anything when you’re with me. If I can help, you know I’ll do whatever you require of me. Tell me.”
She turned to face him, glancing up at him with uncharacteristic shyness, then looked down at his hand upon hers and spoke to it instead of to his face. “It’s foolish of me, really, Vincent. Yet, there it is.” A pause, then, “I know you look at me and think me beautiful.”
Within their Bond he felt her reluctance to believe, and he rushed to dispel any question she might have. “You are beautiful, Catherine, and not just to me. Everyone who knows you feels your beauty. A blind man would know it -- it is in your heart, your soul, in your voice and touch. Your beauty shines from you like an aura. My constant amazement is that you choose to shine it upon me.”
At this fervent defense, she looked up briefly into his eyes...those incredible eyes!...and smiled a self-mocking smile. “Vincent, you see me through the eyes of love, and I am grateful for it, believe me. I hold it dear to me that you feel the way you do. But, in a way, that’s where my uneasiness lies. We are so close...so close to sharing...everything. And my pride is getting the better of me, because I want you always to think me so perfect, but soon you won’t.”
He couldn’t imagine what she meant. She was Catherine...his Catherine, he thought with an internal blush of proprietary pride. What could make him think less of her? Caught up in his temporary introspection, he almost missed the small voice when she resumed speaking.
“Vincent, my ...concern...is....well...when I was shot...” A delicate shudder vibrated through her small frame, companion to the one which tore through him as she mentioned that terrible moment. “Thankfully, you were close by and got me to the hospital quickly. But...you know better than anyone how close to death I was that night.” Her eyes filled with tears, remembering the terror...and the darkness. “Between you and the doctors, my life was saved. My gratitude is overwhelming...to all of you. However, as a result of that surgery...”
She couldn’t find a “nice” way of saying it, so instead she took a deep breath and blurted it out. “When the doctors rushed me to emergency surgery, they couldn’t afford the time for such niceties as minimizing potential scarring. They had to get inside quickly to remove the bullet, to stop internal bleeding and stabilize me. I certainly don’t blame them. But...I’m worried about your reaction when you see the scars. They are long and ugly and still an angry red, although the doctor has assured me they’ll fade in time. They haven’t faded yet, and I’m embarrassed to have you see them.
“As often as I’ve fantasized about our...first time, it’s never included imagining your reaction to my scars. Fantasies are safe that way. But since my fantasies have begun to come true...” She looked up briefly with a rueful smile, then continued, “I’m forced to consider such things. I desperately don’t want to disappoint you. Nor do I want to turn you off. Frankly, I’m worried that I don’t look very desirable... naked.”
Now that she had come to the most shameful part of her confession, she forced herself to look him squarely in the eye. “Vincent, I so want to be the perfect woman for you. Intellectually, I know that you’d accept me and love me anyway. I know that. But emotionally, I’m frightened. If I disappointed you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Vincent was flabbergasted. He had spent years worried about this exact thing, yet hearing it from Catherine’s mouth, he realized what a shallow worry it really was. He knew that her scars would matter nothing to him, that the beauty he saw in her, knew was her, didn’t depend on physical perfection. With that realization came the startling insight that Catherine must feel the same way about him. His fears of revealing himself to her, of her possible reaction to his physical differences, his paralysis at the thought of rejection, were all mirrored in her just-expressed fears. And in that mirror, his reflection mocked him.
She had no doubts - had never had them - about his worthiness to be loved...in every way. She had always told him that he was...desirable. He was the one who always assumed she’d reject him, or be unable to make love to him after she got a good look at what he spent his life trying to hide away from others. Yet all of him...all he’d allowed her to share...so far...she had found beautiful. She’d insisted these differences in no way intimidated or repelled her, and he had to admit that, as he slowly revealed himself to her, he could detect no lessening of her love or even her passion for him. Yet he could never quite believe her.
Now he saw himself in her ridiculous concern about scars. Did he appear this unknowing to her when he hesitated out of concern for her sensibilities? He realized now how foolish he was. He couldn’t let her worry another moment.
“Catherine, I must apologize to you. I have allowed my pride...and concerns about my appearance...to affect your perception of what I feel is important. By focusing on my fears about showing myself to you, I've made you believe that how you look is of inordinate concern to me. That’s my fault, and I see it now for petty arrogance on my part.
“You have always tried to show me, in every way possible, that you love and accept me -- all of me. I will always be sorry that I did not listen with my heart and realize the truth of what you felt long before now. And the poison of my fears leeched to you, so that you now fear my reaction to what you perceive as your imperfection.”
He grasped her hands tightly in his, then bent to place a fervent kiss on each of her palms. She stared longingly at the strong, furred, work-roughened hands holding hers so protectively, so lovingly, as he continued, “I hope you can believe me when I tell you that I love and accept you as you are, that nothing can change that, that you are perfect to me because our love is perfect, and our dream is perfect. Please, Catherine, know this: you are my deepest desire, my inestimable joy -- my life. What are a few scars compared to these?”
She pondered his words for a few moments. Before she met his eyes she allowed herself a small smile. Deep inside of herself, in a small corner where Vincent wouldn’t see, she claimed her silent victory. He would never again pull away from her in fear. He knew, he truly understood now. One tiny deception for a good cause she could live with. She would have to. Perhaps one day she could share it with him, but that day would be long from now.
Slowly, she raised her head and looked up at him. He is truly magnificent, she thought. Maybe someday he’ll see himself through my eyes. Contemplating the future that now spread out so limitlessly before them, her lips curved upward.
Her smile was all the answer Vincent needed. Then she put her arms around his neck, looked at him with all the passion and tenderness within her, and whispered, “Now, where were we?