Virtual Canvas Ch. 03bybrightlyiburn©
Of all the things Nolan would have expected to feel, when he arrived at the studio to find Kateri absent, disappointment wasn't one of them.
Sure, he liked looking at her; that didn't mean he liked her. I'm not fifteen anymore, he reminded himself, not for the first time. And I'm definitely not in awe of her anymore. And truth to tell, it wasn't her art or her personality that kept creeping back up on him. He kept wondering about the curves hidden beneath her too large hoodie. Which was bad, really bad. Those kinds of thoughts got him into trouble.
Perky blond trouble named Tina, for example.
"Hey Nolan," Tina said, smiling as he settled on his stool next to her.
She had to be one of the sweetest people he'd ever met in his life. So sweet, in fact, that he'd tried a few dates with her, even though they had nothing in common outside of art. No matter how hard Nolan tried, he didn't feel enough spark. Not even in bed.
"Hey," he responded. "Um..."
"You know, you can stop jumping every time I say your name," Tina teased. "This is not Fatal Attraction and I don't like you quite that much."
Nolan winced. "Sorry. I didn't mean to...it's just..." He sighed. "I'm a total dope when it comes to women, I guess."
"Be grateful you're a cute dope."
Oh, I am, he thought. For whatever reason, women found him attractive, and a good thing for him; he usually wasn't good enough with words to attract them that way. Unless he focused carefully, the dumbest stuff tended to come out of his mouth before he could stop it.
He was considering—very carefully, of course—what to say in response when the studio door rattled and opened. Before he could stop himself he turned. Kateri stepped through the doorway, her hands as ever in her pockets. Her hoodie this time was pink and a bit less slouchy, actually clinging somewhat to her frame. Her hair hung over her shoulder and down to her hips in a hasty ponytail. Oh yes, he'd get himself into a lot of trouble if he wasn't careful.
Tina sighed. "Tell me you're not that much of a dope."
"I'm afraid I might be."
Maybe she'd heard them. Kateri looked their way as she paced slowly across the studio. Her lips curled gently at the corners and her eyes appeared more blue than gray with the light of her smile. She looked straight at him for a long moment, gracing him with the full strength of her regard. Nolan swallowed hard and reminded himself, yet again, that he was twenty-six, not sixteen.
Tina's stool scraped across the floor. "She likes you," she hissed in his ear.
He started. "What? No—" He realized how loud he was speaking and lowered his voice. "No she doesn't."
"Oh yes, she does. Nolan, she doesn't smile at anybody."
He considered that. It is true, he had to admit to himself. But even so... Part of him, the part that was still a sixteen-year-old boy—and that was a large part on most men, wasn't it?—felt a thrill at the thought.
Tina smiled gently. "Haven't you noticed the way her father acts towards her? Like she's...a thing, an award that's supposed to sit on his mantel. I think she gets a lot of that. Except from you. You're too much of a dope to think of treating her that way."
He wasn't sure if he should take that as a compliment or an insult. And he wanted to protest, to insist that Joseph Mayfair—his hero for so long—wasn't like that. But he watched the man frown at his daughter and wondered if there might be something to Tina's words. No time to wonder about it now, he scolded himself. Class is beginning. And after yesterday he didn't want to piss Mayfair off more.
Nolan focused his attention on his canvas. Though they were supposed to be doing more classical work, he never could quite get his own to fit that model. Always the lines wanted to be sharper, the colors louder. He sank into the work, forgetting to care that what he did was all wrong; in the midst of painting, he couldn't bring himself to care about anything else.
As time passed—he knew not how long—he became aware of someone behind him, watching over his shoulder. Slowly he pulled himself from the artist's fog, as he thought of it, and peered over his shoulder. There stood Mayfair, studying the canvas, his brows drawn down sharply. Nolan braced himself for another verbal lashing.
"You just don't seem to get it, do you, Mr. Adaire? This is not what we're trying to achieve here."
"I—I know, sir," Nolan began hesitantly. "I just..."
"I like this," a third voice put in. Kateri stepped up beside her father. "So what if it's not a perfect mimicry of Renaissance work?" She snorted. "I prefer something like this over a—a facsimile of a clone of a copy."
Mayfair drew himself up, indignant. "The old masters—"
"Barely had an original thought to rub together between the lot of them," she snapped. "Do you want me here to help, father, or should I leave?"
Mayfair stood for a long moment in silence. The entire class had turned from their canvases to stare in open-mouthed amazement. Nolan huddled low on his stool, embarrassed and pleased all at once. As Mayfair turned on his heel and stalked away, Kateri remained where she stood, her eyes on his canvas. She took a few steps forward, until she was close enough to lean over his shoulder.
See, he thought, this is no big deal. I'm not even really attracted to... The smell of peaches drifted from her hair, teasing his senses. She leaned into him, pressed her chest against his shoulder, supporting some of her weight on him. Nolan swallowed hard; he could feel the gentle curve of her breast even through her hoodie. So maybe not so indifferent to her as all that, then.
"You remind me a bit of the Impressionists," she said quietly.
He couldn't help himself. He turned to her and grinned broadly. "Thanks. That means a lot, coming from you."
Kateri pulled back a little, her expression faltering. "From me?"
"Uh, well, yeah. I mean, I've always thought you..." Nolan cringed inwardly. "Just that you're amazing, is all. Your art. Anyway, um, thanks. Like I said."
He turned back to his canvas before he could put his foot in it any further. Kateri remained there a moment longer, close enough that her breath was warm on his ear. Then finally she straightened and moved away.
Nolan watched from the corner of his eye as she moved over to Tina's canvas. Tina sat bolt upright, her eyes going wide, as Kateri leaned in.
"Very nice," Kateri remarked. "It's classical, but it has its own expression."
Tina glowed. Kateri said no more, but it didn't seem to matter; Tina settled back to work, humming softly. Her father never says things like that, Nolan realized. Even when he does give praise, it's very...reserved. Usually Mayfair gave a nod or a vaguely approving grunt. He was a brilliant artist, but a bit rough around the edges as a teacher. Kateri, on the other hand...Nolan watched her go around the room, listened to the murmur of her voice, firm, encouraging, critical but not rude.
"Try toning this red down just a little," he heard her say. "It's a bit too heavily saturated."
"I'm sorry," a meek voice chimed in response.
Kateri laughed. "Don't be sorry. I love red too. But there's a time for temperance even in art."
Nolan shook his head and forced his attention back to his own work. He didn't know what had gotten into her, but he liked it.
A delicious, cool breeze came in through the windows, teasing the hairs on the back of Kateri's neck. She sighed and shifted, wishing she could pull her hands out of her pockets. It was too warm to be so stifled.
The blond girl who sat next to Nolan—Tina, she thought she'd heard her called—passed by her, flashing a smile. Kateri smiled tentatively in return. Most of the students had gone; only Nolan was left, still cleaning up his station. He moved slowly, not lazy, just laid back. Her father had stormed off as soon as class was over, annoyed with her. Well, I don't care, she decided. He's the one who insisted I join him here.
She hesitated near the door, wondering if she should leave. Her eyes kept being drawn back to Nolan. Maybe she'd been wrong about him. She'd thought he didn't like her anymore, but the last couple of lessons he'd been kind. And he still stumbled over his words like he had when they were younger. For some reason she found it cute.
Nolan put his canvas in the backroom, where it could stand safely while the paint finished drying. Kateri could have bolted then but instead she waited, fiddling at the insides of her pockets with her battered hands. When he came back out and saw her he smiled, that broad, boyish smile he favored. A strange feeling ran through her, something that made her heart beat a little faster and her pulse rush unsettlingly.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey." She dug at the floor with the toe of her sandals. "Um..."
"You mentioned Impressionists earlier," Nolan said, rescuing her from a long, awkward silence. "Do you have a favorite?"
Relieved, she took a few steps away from the door, relaxing a little. Nolan leaned up against one of the large tables near the opposite wall, arms folded loosely, watching her with a pleasant but unreadable expression.
"Well, it's kind of cliché," she replied, "but Monet. I've always loved Water Lilies."
"More or less than Almond Branches in Bloom?"
"Hmm...I've never thought about it before."
He grinned and she smiled back. She found herself suddenly wondering about him, about what had changed over the years. Kateri sauntered over to the nearest table and leaned against it, echoing his position—minus, of course, her hands.
"So...what do you do?" she asked. "I mean, aside from art..."
One brow quirked curiously. "Me? Oh, you know...stuff. I mean, I fix cars for a bit of extra cash, and my buddy and me, we're doing our own comic book."
"Oh...you're into comics?"
"Not exactly. He's nuts about 'em, but well, they're fun to draw."
Oh god, this is so awkward, Kateri thought. Maybe I should just go... But Nolan was still smiling, a little uncertainly, and she wasn't sure she really wanted to go. She just didn't know how to speak to him. In truth, she'd forgotten how to speak to most people. Her life was spent closed up, hidden away from others as much as possible. Thinking on it now, she realized how little actual life she had left.
A feeling grabbed her, a sudden stab of desperation that went straight through her heart. Nolan stood there, watching her with a smile, a reminder of the normal life she could—should—have. And she wanted it, wanted it so much that it shook her down to her core. She took a step away from the table, towards him.
"Could I...ask you something?" Nolan began hesitantly.
Kateri froze. "I—I guess so..."
"What really happened? Why'd you give it up?"
She'd feared that question more than any other. The first time he'd asked, she'd snapped at him. This time she looked away. "You wouldn't understand."
"Maybe not. You're...you were the most amazing artist I've ever seen. And then you just...quit. I don't get it."
"I have my reasons."
"But what are they?" Nolan insisted. "Come on, Kateri. There's got to be more of a reason than simply because. I hadn't taken you for—for a spoiled brat."
"Maybe I just got sick of it!" she snapped. "Why can't that be enough? Why does everyone want something of me that I'm not willing to give?"
Years of anger and pain flooded her at once. Every memory of that horrible night came back then: the agony of her shattered hands, the blur of terror as hands pulled at her clothing, the mixture of relief and humiliation when her parents returned—too late to save her hands, though. Furious, and a little frightened, she stormed across the studio towards Nolan. His eyes widened as she bore down on him. She jabbed him in the chest with a finger and glowered up at him.
"You have no idea—none—what I've been through! You don't have a clue what happened to me and what I've had to deal with since!
"Believe me, you can't begin to imagine what it's like. To have to relearn how to lace your own shoes...to be unable to wear clothing with buttons. To be unable to do so many things you loved to do. It was bad enough I couldn't draw anymore or paint or anything like that. Bad enough that my father looked at me like...like I was a broken tool.
"But the other things I loved...I can't ride a horse anymore, my hands don't have the strength. I can't swim, either; I don't know if my fingers will move the right way. My father and I used to take vacations in Tokyo—we love sushi. But I sure as hell can't use chopsticks anymore. There's so many things I miss, and then I have people like you giving me shit when you don't even know what you're talking about!"
Nolan stared at her, eyes wide. No, not at her—at her hands. Kateri drew back, horrified. She hadn't meant to show him. She never wanted to show anyone. The few who knew looked at her the way he was doing now.
She turned and ran. As she came bursting out the door, Robert glanced up with a start. He moved swiftly to open the car door. Kateri dove inside and landed in a heap on the backseat. She squeezed her eyes shut and ignored everything around her. This was a stupid idea, she thought as Robert drove out of the parking lot. I should've just said no when dad asked... Now someone else knew. Her pulse raced; what would Nolan do with the knowledge?
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