Virtual Canvas Ch. 09bybrightlyiburn©
At some point he became aware of something missing. The comforting warmth that had been curled up against his side, the weight of Kateri's head on his chest, the tickle of her hair, the sound of her breathing—all had disappeared sometime while he slept.
Nolan sat up abruptly, shaking off sleep. Patches of silver stretched across the room: early moonlight, still low in the sky. Something rustled; he looked toward the end of the bed and saw Kateri sitting there. She wore a silk robe, a saffron in color that look golden beneath the light. With her legs drawn up against her chest and her hair a curtain around her face, she looked very small.
Nolan climbed out from beneath the covers and went to her. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. She sighed, leaned into him gratefully.
"What's wrong, princess?" he asked. He brushed her hair back from her cheek and kissed her.
"Just...a lot on my mind," she murmured in response. "Tomorrow is...you know, the anniversary."
"Ah. I see."
He held her tight and said no more; if she wanted to speak, she would. Already she'd told him more than she'd told anyone in years, shown him more trust than anyone had a right to expect from her. He refused to push her.
You have truly lost your mind, he told himself. Not that he cared. Nolan buried his nose under Kateri's sweet-smelling hair and sighed contentedly. She could probably wrap him around her little finger if she wanted to, but she didn't come across as that kind of woman. Rather she huddled in his arms as if they were the only safe place in the world, demanding nothing from him but comfort.
After a while he spoke, hoping to lighten the mood some. "Kateri is an interesting name. Where does it come from?"
"It's Greek by way of Native American, actually."
She chuckled and turned to face him more. "My mom's side of the family is Greek through and through. My grandparents on my father's side were Native American, though. Mohawk, to be precise.
"Both of my grandmothers were...stubborn. It wouldn't do for Grandma Chloe that I didn't have a Greek name, and Grandma Ari wanted me to have a Mohawk name, even though traditional ones have kinda fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, there was a solution: Kateri. For the Greek Aikaterine." She sighed. "Poor Grams would be heartbroken if she knew we don't pronounce it correctly."
"It's true! Mom couldn't pronounce it, Dad barely could, the staff certainly couldn't, not my teachers or other students..." Kateri ticked them off on her fingers. "Everyone gave up even trying by the time I was five."
"And your grandmother?"
Kateri's face fell. "She died not long after I was born. I never really got to know her. Everyone always said she was really kind, though—stubborn streak and all. I wanted to be like her."
Nolan turned her further, until she was facing him completely. He caught her wrists, pulled her arms around his neck. She leaned into him, expression brightening again, eyes going silver blue in the moonlight. He kissed her slowly, tenderly, letting his lips linger over hers, feeling the warmth of her breath on his skin. He drew her with him as he leaned back, stretching out across the mattress.
"I think your grandmother would be proud of you," he said softly.
"Maybe." She settled across his hips, hunched over and precarious. "Nolan, I can't—I don't know if I can do this with my hands like they are."
He reached up, tugged on the delicate cinch holding her robe closed. The saffron silk slid back, baring her shoulders, her breasts. He ran his hands along her sides, pushing the robe back, tracing the curve of her hips, the softness of her belly. She sighed, relaxing beneath his touch. His body stirred. What he felt for her was no mere wanting; it was a craving, so strong he had to clench his teeth to fight it.
"I've got you, sweetheart," he assured her. "If your hands aren't enough, use mine."
He held them out to her. She studied his face, her lips parted, her breath slightly rough. Nolan swallowed hard as she moved against him, her eyes watching him, full of eagerness. She placed her hands in his, gripped as tightly as she could. In one fluid motion she shifted position, raising her hips, settling on him. He stifled a groan as she slid down the length of him, enveloping him in heat.
With only the slightest hesitation—probably because of her hands—Kateri began to move. Years may have passed but she hadn't forgotten; the body never forgets.
Once she seemed more secure, she removed her hands from his. Nolan touched her eagerly, stroking her arms, cupping her breasts, teasing her nipples. She leaned into his touch, arching her back. He lifted his hips to meet her, groaning as she tightened around him. Kateri laughed softly and gazed down at him.
"I forgot how this feels," she murmured, catching one of his hands between hers. "Mmm..."
"Now you're just teasing me," Nolan panted as she slowed her pace.
"Maybe a little."
She smiled, a decidedly Cheshire expression. Nolan raised an eyebrow but her smile simply widened.
A spark of mischief flared up in him. Using all his strength he surged upward, startling a yelp from her. Once he was sitting up he wrapped his arms around her, drawing her against his chest. She wound her arms around him in turn; her hair fell across them both like a curtain. Laughing, Kateri tossed it back, out of her face and out of their way.
"You truly are a barbarian," she teased.
Nolan nuzzled her breasts. "Mmmhmm..."
He moved, eliciting a moan from her. Nolan pressed his face against her neck, held onto her tight as her body caused a glorious friction around his. Her fingers tangled in his hair, her lips pressed against the curve of his ear. He thrust into her and she met him each time, gasping and moaning softly. Time seemed to suspend; the rest of the world fell away in his senses, leaving only him and her, only the taste and feel of her.
His climax, when it hit, shook him right down to his core. He wound his fingers in her hair, pressed his forehead to her shoulder and breathed heavily, trembling. Kateri shuddered, whimpering his name softly. He felt her flex around him, felt the faint quivering of the aftershocks of her orgasm. Then she relaxed, going limp against his chest.
Tired now, Nolan stretched out on the bed with her still on top of him. She shifted off him, curling up against his side. He tugged a blanket over them, stroked her hair back from her face, kissed her forehead before settling in.
"Love you," she murmured sleepily.
"Nope. Don't lie."
Nolan's heart sped up. He caught her beneath the chin and tilted her head up. "Are you serious?"
She blinked at him. "Yeah. But I might change my mind if you don't let me sleep."
"I'm not just saying it because I'm tired. Okay? I'm not saying you have to feel the same, either."
Nolan rolled his eyes. "Oh, shut up and sleep, princess. Of course I love you."
She grinned, then rested her head back on his chest. He lay awake, listening to her breathing evening out in sleep, stroking her hair and watching the dark strands slide between his fingers. Guess I rescued the princess from the tower after all, he thought, smiling to himself. Of course, it helped that she'd been willing to do half the work herself, but he wouldn't want any other kind of princess.
This one, though, he thought, closing his eyes at last, is just perfect.
Since it was ten o'clock in the morning, Nolan figured he was well within his rights to wake Kateri up. Granted, he wasn't waking her up directly, but all the noise he was making—coupled with his whistling rendition of My Girl—would probably make her stir.
He adjusted the temperature on her stove, lifted the frying pan, and flipped the pancake he was working on. He'd had to go out to get supplies for them—which meant, of course, a few taunting grins from Marnie, though fortunately the woman hadn't put him through any interrogation. Or more butt checks.
As he was depositing the latest pancake on the plate, Kateri came wandering down the hallway, wearing her saffron robe, her hair pulled aside in a hasty ponytail. A stormy expression knitted her brows, but it disappeared quickly when she caught the scent of breakfast. She came into the kitchen, a smile warming her eyes to an almost sunny sky blue. Moment of truth, Nolan realized. Does she even remember what she said to me last night?
"That smells divine," she declared. "What is it?"
"Raspberry pancakes," he replied as he poured more batter into the pan.
"And coffee. I smell coffee." Her smile broadened to a grin. "You found the French press, I see."
"Yeah, did a little poking around for the things I need. You don't mind?"
"For pancakes and coffee? That I don't have to make myself? Hell no," Kateri assured him. "Um, Nolan..."
Here it comes, he thought.
"Did you mean it, last night? I mean...what you said? You know."
He stared. "Of course I did. Did you?"
She stared back. "Well, duh. I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it."
Nolan laughed. Guess a few things will still be awkward for a while, he thought, plopping the final pancake atop the rest of the stack. He could deal with that.
He set the pancake plate down on the counter; she didn't actually have a kitchen table, something that would need to be remedied. Kateri perched on the same stool she'd sat on the night he made sushi and eyed the pancakes hungrily. Nolan brought over forks and butter knives, butter, plates, mugs for the coffee, and the sweet, vanilla whipped cream he'd made to go atop the pancakes. Finally he settled down on the stool next to hers.
"Help yourself," he said, gesturing to the pancakes.
Kateri grabbed her fork and snagged two pancakes from the plate.
"I take it by the half-and-half I found in your fridge you're not one of those freaks who drinks her coffee black."
"Nope. I'm a freak for other reasons." She grinned.
Nolan leaned down to kiss her cheek before getting some pancakes of his own. "I like this side of you, princess. The sense of humor suits you well."
"Yeah, well, it's kinda new," she admitted, turning in her seat. "It's all thanks to dealing with..."
She was off the stool so fast that it fell over. Startled, Nolan dropped his fork and leapt to his feet. He followed Kateri as she rushed across the living room to her computer desk. Her empty computer desk.
"Where is it?" she demanded, her voice thick with threatening tears.
"Easy," Nolan soothed, taking her by the shoulders. "Look—Kateri, look at me."
She spun to face him. "Did you take it?"
"Of course not! But...then who did? No one could have gotten in here, could they? Not without one of us knowing. Marnie, at the very least."
She bit her lip. Her nose had gone red and several fat tears tracked down her cheeks. Nolan glanced at the computer desk, where Virtual Canvas was supposed to be. Had it been there when he left to get groceries this morning? He hadn't really looked. But it didn't make sense that someone had taken it. Who would break into Kateri's apartment—without anyone else noticing—to take only a laptop?
Kateri sniffed. She seemed a little calmer, but the tears were still going. Nolan bent and gently kissed a couple of them away.
"It doesn't make sense," she said quietly, her voice still choked. "It—it can't just be gone. Computers don't just disappear into thin air. How can it—I don't even know where it came from to begin with! How will I find a new one?"
"Maybe you don't need a new one."
She blinked up at him, her eyelashes wet and spiky from the tears. Nolan took a deep breath, trying not to think too hard about how strange this was. The whole computer was strange, with its eerily realistic mascot and the effect it had on Kateri.
He put an arm around her shoulders and urged her back towards the counter, where their food and coffee was getting cold. After last night everything seemed to be going so well; he couldn't let this ruin that. She's finally happy again, he thought, righting her stool and helping her back onto it. I won't let anything take that away. If she couldn't get over losing the computer, he'd just have to figure out a way to find another one. But he had to try talking her down first.
"What will I do without it?" she asked, voice barely above a whisper.
"The same thing we did yesterday," Nolan replied. "Paint. Yeah, the computer is useful, and I'm sure we can find another one you like to work with. But you can work on real canvases, Kateri, and you should."
"But my father—"
"Screw your father. And the goddamn high horse he rode in on. I don't care how brilliant an artist he is, he's still an asshole. What you can do now is just as good as what you used to do—it's just different, that's all. If he can't accept that, he can go take a nice long walk off a short pier. I like what you do, I like you just the way you are, and I don't care if you use a computer or paintbrushes or a damn paintball gun, as long as you're happy. So forget your father. Do what's good for you."
Kateri stared at him, her mouth slightly open. Nolan flushed. Lord, didn't mean to make a speech, he thought. Though...think that's the most I've ever gotten out of my mouth without stumbling over my words... Now he just had to hope he hadn't put his foot in it—again. No matter what she might say, Kateri loved her father. The last thing he needed now was to make her angry at him for talking trash.
She turned slowly, her expression still stunned. After a moment—an unbearably long moment, the silence stretching out between them—she picked up her fork and focused on her pancakes. Nolan let out a sigh of relief and retrieved his own fork.
"I'll need your help," she murmured, staring down at her plate. "I—I don't know how hard this will be, trying to be an artist again. Especially without—Icelos. I'm not sure I can do this..."
"Well, I'm sure you can," Nolan said, reaching for the French press. "And eventually you'll see that I'm right."
And she looked at him, a brave, slightly watery smile on her face. "Yeah, well...law of averages. It has to happen eventually."
Kateri leaned her shoulder into the studio door, pushing it open. She knew as soon as she looked inside that it would be a showdown. Every face in the studio turned to look at her, including, of course, her father. He wore a smug smile—natch.
"Well, Mr. Adaire, late as..." He trailed off, his smile fading away to shock.
"Mornin', pops," Kateri said brightly. She pushed the door back, allowing Nolan to cart in the giant canvas. "Sorry, but I borrowed Nolan this morning. Well, actually last night," she paused a heartbeat to grin at the other students, "but I needed him today too. Figured you wouldn't mind."
"W-What?" her father stammered.
"Where do you want this?" Nolan asked.
"Oh, towards the back, so we won't interfere with everyone else." She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Thanks, love."
While Nolan set up her spot, she headed across the studio floor. Though she'd left her hoodie behind today, she had her hands jammed in the pockets of her jean shorts. Kateri worked to appear cool, calm, even though on the inside her stomach churned with fear. Could she really do this? She looked at Nolan, who chose that moment to glance up from his work and smile encouragingly. Yes, she thought, breathing easier. Yes, I can do this.
Icelos would tell her she could, as well. Though she didn't quite understand what had happened—where Virtual Canvas came from, where it disappeared to—she couldn't live as if it had never been in her life. She didn't believe too much in the supernatural usually, but no one could've stolen the computer. It had entered and exited her life—somehow—of its own accord and she'd have to deny its existence entirely to deny that.
Her father moved to intercept her—no surprise there. Like with everything else in his—and her—life, he wanted desperately to control the situation. Must be hard on him, Kateri thought, knowing that he's losing control completely now. Yet again she looked at Nolan; not for what to do, just for reassurance. There was at least one person in the room who would back her up.
"What are you doing?" her father hissed, glowering.
"Knitting?" Kateri suggested, smiling sweetly. "I'd think it would be obvious, dad."
His eyes widened. He darted a glance around the room, horrified by how loud she spoke. "Keep your voice down! Kateri, you cannot—"
"Yes, yes I can," she retorted, not lowering her voice even a smidgen. "What are you so afraid of, dad? That I might do, oh, this?"
She took a deep breath and drew her hands from her pockets. Most of the class tried to stifle their gasps; few succeeded. Her father looked absolutely apoplectic. He shifted from foot to foot, staring at her wide-eyed, gazing at her hands as if he wanted to cover them up but couldn't bear the idea of touching them. Kateri turned to the students and raised her hands, making sure they could all see.
"Sometimes in life bad things happen. We all know that," she said. "And sometimes people do bad things to others. This is what someone did to me. For three years I let it stop me from doing what I love most. I let people," here she shot a look at her father, "beat me down long after the attack was over. That ends today."
She dropped her hands. Suddenly she felt lighter, as if all the weight had been taken from her shoulders. She smiled back at all the shocked faces, then spun on her heel and went to Nolan, to her canvas. Nolan watched her, a broad, cat-that-ate-the-canary grin on his face. He pulled a spare bandana from his pocket as she approached.
Her father came after her, sputtering. "You—you—this boy!" he snarled, pointing a finger at Nolan. "He's a bad influence!"
Nolan pointed at himself, his brows knit in an expression of mock indignation, and mouthed 'Me?' at Kateri's father.
"Whoa, dad, chill," Kateri said, shaking her head. "Unfortunately for you, I'm not a kid anymore, and that means I can have whatever bad influence I want."
"You say the sweetest things," Nolan said with a chuckle. He began pulling her hair back with the bandana.
"You—if it weren't for him, you would never—"
"Stop listening to you? Have a mind—a life—of my own again? Maybe, maybe not."
Her father stood a step back, still wild-eyed and desperate. "This—you can't just—I won't have you—you should not be..."
"It's none of your goddamn business," Kateri snapped, her patience worn thin. "Enough is enough. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do and you have a class to teach. And you know what they say, dad: Those who can't do, teach. So go do what you're capable of and leave me be."
She turned away. Nolan got dragged along with her, grumbling as he tried to get the bandana tied. Kateri heard whispers, heard her father behind her still trying to find words. Finally she heard him walking away and felt a surge of triumph. After all these years under his thumb, she was back in control. Pleased, she reached for a tube of the brightest yellow paint she had; Nolan had helped her find it at the art store earlier that day.
One of her father's students—a woman, she thought, but couldn't be sure—shouted, "You go, girl."
The entire room broke into applause. Kateri peered over her shoulder at them in amazement. They quieted quickly, of course, when her father glowed at them. But she noticed Tina give her a quick thumbs-up before turning back to her canvas.
"I am so proud of you," Nolan murmured in her ear. He squeezed yellow paint onto the palette and pushed it into her reach.
"Yep." She grinned. "Hey, look at that, Nolan. You were right. I could do this after all."