by JoAnn Baca
Originally appeared as the "clean" treasure at WFOL2009
Father had barely gotten the words out when he choked, then became consumed by a coughing fit. Vincent and Cullen eyed the throbbing vein standing out on Father’s forehead with concern, but it subsided as the coughing fit passed.
It was 3:00 a.m., and neither Vincent nor Cullen had expected the patriarch of the Tunnels to be hovering near his chamber entryway as they furtively made their way back home. Nor had either man expected Father’s old ears to be so acute that he could catch the substance of their whispered conversation...the contents of which Vincent had hoped could be kept a secret between himself and his companion for...well, he realized that “forever” had been too much to hope for.
As Father drew another breath to continue speaking, Vincent spoke up in an attempt to forestall the inevitable lecture. “It was my decision, Father. Cullen merely accompanied me...at my request.”
Father’s face was still flushed red in apoplexy, and before Vincent could say more, he shouted, “Are you MAD?! What were you thinking? Well, you weren’t thinking, that’s obvious.” The older man turned on Vincent’s companion, who was trying to edge out of sight. When Father’s gaze snapped to his, Cullen stopped cold. Caught.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” Father spat scornfully. “Frankly, Cullen, you have never been the best of role models for the children Below; and I include Vincent in this instance, since he apparently has behaved in the most childish manner imaginable.”
Cullen thrust his chin out, obstinate in the face of what he felt was an unjust attack. “Vincent’s no kid, he’s well grown and far beyond needing you to tell him what he should and shouldn’t be doing! Besides,” his eyes cut over to glance at Vincent’s clad arm for an instant, “it looks nice.” Rebellion always made him feel good, especially against an indefensible argument. Anyway, supporting Vincent was the right thing to do. He just hoped he wouldn’t get tossed out of the Tunnels for it!
“What?!” Father’s eyes threatened to bulge out of their sockets. He wasn’t used to being sassed by the younger members of the community, much less those in their middle years.
“Father, please...calm yourself,” Vincent murmured, taking the Tunnel patriarch by the elbow and guiding him to his favorite chair. With ill humor, Father allowed himself to be drawn to a seat, then sat down hard and yanked his elbow out of his son’s grip.
“Explain yourself,” he demanded, imperious and still very, very angry.
With one short nod at Cullen, both of the younger men sat, and Vincent began, “You know Peggy, she’s a Helper of long standing. Cullen has...developed a...very close relationship with her.”
Seeing Vincent struggle over the description, Cullen cut in, “She and I have been talking about moving in together.” Father’s eyebrows rose at the admission. Hurriedly, Cullen added, “Anyway, I got a tattoo of her name on my arm, and Vincent saw it the other day. He asked about it, and we got to talkin’ and he decided,” his eyes flashed a warning as Father started to speak, and when the old man backed down, Cullen continued, “...he decided to get one, too.”
Father stared first at Cullen, then Vincent, disbelief in his eyes.
“It’s true, Father,” Vincent confirmed. “The idea of Catherine’s name being an indelible part of me, part of my own flesh...well....” He blushed hard and couldn’t finish his thought, but what he’d left unexpressed was clear to both of the other men in the chamber.
In the sudden silence, Cullen spoke again. “We went to Smitty, the Helper over in Brooklyn who runs a tattoo parlor. He’s a real artist...he did mine. Vincent doesn’t know him well, so I went along to smooth the way. He did a bang-up job...really.”
Father lifted his right arm and rotated his hand in a circle impatiently, indicating his son should reveal this “bang-up job” that Cullen had described.
Despite being reluctant to disrobe when anyone could walk into the chamber, Vincent grimly divested himself of his outer layers of clothing, finally pulling his thermal shirt off over his head and gingerly rolling up the left sleeve of his work shirt.
Although the flesh on the upper part of his arm was ruddy and swollen from the recent work, the image imbedded in the newly shaved skin was clear and...even Father had to admit...quite beautiful. The tattoo artist had considerable skill and had applied an intricate interwoven rose and thorn design in an oval on Vincent’s well-developed bicep. Within the oval the name of the woman Vincent loved was written in elaborate script.
Father was overcome by the look on Vincent’s face as his son gazed down upon the inscribed, indelible ink...truly, the metaphor was astonishing. Father gulped. His son would carry Catherine to his grave, now literally as well as figuratively.
Moved by the thought, and embarrassed by the tears that suddenly threatened to fall, he nodded, then quickly rose and turned away, barking gruffly over his shoulder, “You will mention this to no one else. I don’t want a rush of foolish children going to Brooklyn to follow in your footsteps.” Without waiting for their response, he left the chamber.
Vincent and Cullen looked at each other and each let out a long, relieved breath.
Night. It was both the best and worst of times for him. He looked forward to the night because it brought his Catherine within reach. But once he left her, the remainder of the evening stretched out, long and lonely, interminable, with no comfort other than the thought that on another night soon, he could again be with her. This dichotomy he willingly lived with. She was his shining star in the night sky, his beacon of light in the darkness. She was...everything. But still...he loved and hated the nights.
As he trod reluctantly away from the basement entry to her apartment building, Vincent’s thoughts were heavy. He considered the long hours ahead, less easy to bear because he hadn’t been able to spend much time with Catherine this night. She’d had unexpected company. He’d waited impatiently above her balcony, cold and miserable, and heard her try to urge her companion to the door with various excuses, but the man had been deaf to her entreaties, asking for a cup of coffee, starting a new story...until it was so late that Catherine was beyond exhausted by the time he left. Vincent had dropped to her balcony as the door finally closed behind the unwanted visitor, but all he had shared with Catherine was the briefest embrace and a promise to meet again soon.
He turned a final corner and entered his gloomy chamber. Alone. This night would be remembered as one of frustrated waiting, punctuated by the span of only a few heartbeats in Catherine’s presence. With a disgusted sweep of his left arm, he pulled off his cloak and tossed it across the closest chair. As he did so, he became aware of the gentle throbbing which reminded him once more of the secret engraved on his bicep. His mood changed in an instant. A small smile quirked his lips and, more eagerly now, he continued to undress until he stood in the light of a single sputtering candle, inspecting the still-healing tattoo.
The colors were more evident now that the skin beneath was less inflamed, and he marveled anew at the artistry of the grizzled old man who had beckoned him forward and promised to do something special for him. “You’re in good hands, boy,” the tattoo artist had informed him, and it had been true - the tattoo was nothing less than a work of art, as if the old man had imbued his colors with the very passion which Vincent felt for his Beloved. The intricate swirls and curves reminded him of Catherine’s shoulders, her neck, her hands...the delicate shadings reminded him of the blush of her cheeks, the rose of her lips. Even the script spelling out her name was special, an antique design now rarely used, the tattoo artist had said; he was one of the few who could reproduce it well. He had...and the letters seemed to float and shimmer before his eyes...or perhaps that was because, whenever he gazed at it, his eyes filled with tears as he contemplated the name that was dearest to his heart.
Vincent’s biceps were among the few parts of his body that were relatively free of the thick covering of hair which grew especially profusely on his forearms, chest, calves and shins, and had been a natural choice for the tattoo. The tattoo artist had created his design specifically so that Vincent could view it easily, at the latter’s request. Now, deliberately setting aside his nightshirt, he drew on only his pajama bottoms and lay half-naked upon his bed, regarding the tattoo at close range. With trembling fingers he delicately traced first the oval of roses and thorns, then the bold script...and his thoughts flew to Catherine, her emotions as close within his soul as the tattoo was engraved upon his arm. He felt her dreamless sleeping state and let it flow over him, calming him, while he gazed at the letters etched into his living flesh...a mantra for his lifetime...one word...
“I appreciate the help, Cullen,” Catherine called out at the Tunnel denizen’s unexpected approach, for it was he who was answering her tapped-out request for assistance with some bulky items.
He arrived at the junction and they quickly loaded the cart he had brought with him. “Sorry, but Vincent’s working in the lower tunnels today,” he advised, which didn’t entirely explain why a few of the children had not come instead, as was the usual practice in Vincent’s absence. At her nod, he added, “It’s real nice of you to do this, Catherine. William was really needing these things - I guess Winterfest depleted his supplies more than he realized.”
“It’s no trouble. I’m happy to do it,” she replied, smiling shyly.
He smiled in return, understanding without her having to say it that she was willing to do anything...everything...for her family Below. Her selflessness was one of the things he most admired about her - above and beyond the fact that she had brought such happiness to his friend.
For most of the time he’d known Vincent, the younger man’s eyes had reflected a kind of resigned desperation that Cullen had recognized. It was the same look he knew he’d had for years after his wife had died. It was a manifestation of a bitter loneliness that could not be hidden, and that even the closest of family could not assuage. Cullen had remembered the look...and the feelings behind it...very well; and he’d been sad for his friend, believing that, for a man like Vincent, it was unlikely anyone would ever come along to relieve his aloneness. And no one had, for years...until Catherine. Vincent’s eyes might reflect frustration these days, or yearning, or even angst...but no longer did they hold that deep well of despair.
Cullen looked at Catherine as she walked beside him and congratulated himself on finding the perfect opportunity to betray his dear friend...for his own good.
Conversationally, he asked, “D’you know Peggy?”
Catherine’s brow furrowed for a moment, then cleared as she recalled the name. “The Helper?”
“I met her at Winterfest. We chatted briefly...she was about to retire from the post office, if I remember correctly. Why do you ask?”
Cullen shrugged, then replied, “No particular reason.” He walked on for a few steps, then added, “Well, I’m thinking of asking her to move Below, live with me.”
“That’s wonderful!” Catherine smiled. “I recall now, she danced nearly every dance with you.”
“Yup, that’s her,” he confirmed. “I’ve been sweet on her for a while, and I guess she isn’t too smart if she likes hanging around with the likes of me.” His grin belied his words.
Catherine hid her smile. “Good thing she’s that dumb,” she agreed, then burst into laughter.
He joined her, and they chuckled together for a moment, until he added, “I must be serious, ‘cause I got this tattoo of her name on my arm...just like Vincent.”
Catherine narrowed her eyes. “Just like...Vincent?”
This is too easy, Cullen thought to himself. Aloud he answered, “You didn’t know? Father does and I just thought, well, if he knew, you certainly must.” He shrugged. “I suppose the cat’s outta the bag now.”
Catherine stopped walking and grabbed at Cullen’s arm. “Tell me, please,” she begged.
He pretended for a moment that he was struggling with his conscience before he gave up and told her what he’d intended to from the beginning. “Uhhh...well...see...I got Peggy’s name tattooed on my arm to show her how much I care, and...well, Vincent liked the idea, and he got a tattoo of your name. Looks real good, too.”
Catherine’s hand went slack on his arm, but she didn’t move on. “Where?” she asked.
“Tattoo parlor in Brooklyn,” he replied innocently, only slightly ashamed at how much he was enjoying himself.
“No,” Catherine huffed impatiently, “where...on his...?” She raised and lowered both arms, indicating with her hands everywhere from shoulder to hip.
“Oh! On his arm...his bicep, actually. Left one. Big oval of roses and thorns and your name in the middle. The guy is a real artist, did a fantastic job.” Cullen was so proud of himself, he could have skipped back to the Home Tunnels. The big guy would be ticked at him when he found out, but it was worth it. This nice woman deserved to know.
Catherine turned back to the cart, looking dazed. Cullen resumed pushing it, a big smile plastered on his face, and they walked the rest of the distance to the storeroom in silence.
Vincent was in heaven. He had a whole evening to look forward to with Catherine. She was Below now, and soon would be in his chamber, and the night was his favorite time once more. He turned as she entered; and as always, he was captivated by her presence. She wore simple clothing - jeans and a warm sweater - but to him she was ethereal, beautiful beyond words. His heart stuttered in his chest as she rushed to him, entering his waiting arms and filling them as she filled his heart.
“Oh, Vincent,” she murmured against his chest. “It’s been too long...too long.”
After placing a surreptitious kiss on the top of her head, he nuzzled against her hair as he replied with a slow, sibilant, “Yes.”
They stood together in silence for a long moment, each savoring the other’s warmth, scent and nearness. Finally, Catherine pulled back a slight bit within his arms and gazed up at him, contemplating what she would say. She’d worked it all out beforehand, but now that she was here...the words didn’t seem right. He was looking quizzically at her, so she banished the idea of raising the subject of his tattoo for the time being. Instead, she smiled and asked, “Are you ready to go?”
Their evening had been wonderful. Abandoning their initial plan to “attend” a concert beneath the Central Park band shell, they instead had wandered far into and then back from the lower tunnels, walking hand in hand, discussing small matters, until they found themselves in the tunnelway leading to Catherine’s basement. It was very late, and Catherine had an early deposition in the morning. The time had come to part.
She had waited and waited for the right moment to bring up the tattoo, but none had presented itself. Now, as they said their goodbyes, she ran her fingers lightly over his left bicep, then softly patted his arm there as she looked up at him through her eyelashes. “Vincent,” she whispered, and stroked his arm again, “thank you for this.” She kissed his bicep through the layers of clothing, pressing her lips warmly above the spot which Cullen had described, the place where her name was marked upon his skin. Then she turned quickly and ran up the path before he could respond.
Vincent watched her go, but his mind wasn’t on her retreating form. Instead, her last words rang through his stunned mind like an echo...thank you for this...thank you for this...thank you for this....
He looked down in awe as he saw the slightest trace of her lip print on the sleeve of his suede shirt...right over the tattoo of her name....
It had been more than two weeks since the night Catherine had revealed that she knew about the tattoo, and for a variety of reasons, they had not seen each other since. Vincent had been involved in a work detail carving out new living quarters beneath the Serpentine, Catherine had traveled to Albany for a case, and in between, other obligations had conspired to keep them apart. Tonight Vincent had returned from his work in the lower tunnels to find a note from Catherine telling him she would be Below soon. He had bathed and then quickly dressed, for he felt her nearing. He was anxious that she arrive, to enlighten him regarding some odd emotional resonances he had felt within their Bond during their time apart. The unusual emotions were unsettling enough, but what had alarmed him were the clear indications that, at times, Catherine had been in significant pain, and in fact still felt discomfort. Yet he had not sensed any threat to her well-being - there had been no accompanying impulse to rush to her defense, to protect her...for the pain was something she was strangely euphoric about. It was all very confusing, and he was glad that soon he could ask her about it.
Suddenly a vision appeared before him wrapped in a low-cut maroon velvet dress, and for a moment he forgot to breathe. The dress barely clung to her shoulders, tightened around her midriff, then flowed and swirled around her hips and legs, giving her the semblance of a coiled rosebud nearly ready to burst into bloom. He was so astonished by the sight of her, it barely registered with him that she bore a scar...or...not a scar really, but a bruise...well, not exactly a bruise either...but a smudge of...something upon the swell of her left breast. After a few heartbeats he awakened to the realization, and moved quickly toward her to inspect this mar upon her flawless beauty.
Catherine stepped forward to meet him halfway, and before he could get more than a quick glimpse of the something, he found himself wrapped in a warm embrace...an embrace he returned immediately, fully and gratefully, nearly groaning with relief that Catherine was once more close and safe and all his.
“I missed you...so much,” she said, and gasped as she clutched him even closer. He clearly felt the twinge of pain that accompanied her intake of breath.
“Are you well?” he asked worriedly, even as he pulled her deeper into his embrace.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Her nose sought the folds of the thick sweater he wore and she nuzzled into his chest, taking deep breaths to inhale his scent, the unique aroma she missed so much...too much...when they were apart. “But it’s getting harder and harder to be away from you.”
He recalled a time when such feelings had overwhelmed her, a time when they had parted - thankfully, only for a while - to allow her to come to terms with the deluge of emotion that had been threatening to tear her apart. He didn’t believe he could survive another such a sundering...perhaps a permanent one this time...but they seemed to be moving ever closer to that inevitable point, even as their Bond grew ever more intricately interwoven, their lives ever more inextricably linked.... “We’ve spoken of this before, Catherine. You have....”
“No, don’t say it,” she pleaded. “You are my life. You are an indelible part of me.”
Smiling into her hair, he relished the feel of her within his arms, and knew that for him, life and Catherine were synonymous.
Perhaps...just perhaps...if it was true for him....
Reluctantly, he pulled away from her. He couldn’t let such thoughts overtake him. Catherine had a life Above she was destined to live. He had to remind her...remind them both...and keep doing so until she at last believed him. Loving someone enough to let them go was pure torment, but in her case, it was imperative. He knew it. She had to be made to see it.
He opened his mouth to reiterate his feelings on the matter, despite her refusal to hear them. But as he was about to utter them, the words died in his throat. For he finally got a clear look at the something which had worried him before.
It wasn’t a scar.
It wasn’t a bruise.
It was...a tattoo.
It was an exquisitely rendered tattoo of a heart made of tiny entwined roses and thorns, and within the heart were two delicately inscribed words: Vincent and Always.
He stared in horror at the sight. Her flesh was still tender, still irritated where the cruel machine had pierced her flesh to embed the colored ink into her skin. The thought of his name causing her pain pierced him as sharply as the machine had pierced her. What had she done?!
He took two steps away from her, his eyes staring fixedly at the soft curve of her left breast. Although almost healed, clearly it still troubled her, as evidenced by the gasp she had uttered when he’d embraced her in greeting. Her beautiful flesh was now marred. His thoughts flew to the scar she still bore from her attack on that long-ago April night. She had been disfigured then...and she was disfigured now - by his name.
“No!” he uttered in shock. His gaze locked on hers. “Catherine, no!”
She regarded him with a serene expression, seemingly unconcerned that he was so upset. In truth, her insides were like jelly, but she clamped down hard on her emotional response - she wasn’t going to let him feel her nervousness in the face of his reaction.
In a voice tender with wonder, she replied, “When I found out you had a tattoo of my name, it moved me more than I can express. To know that you would carry me with you always, not just in your heart, but in your very flesh.... It made me feel...amazing! So well loved...so honored.” Her face reflected her exhilaration. “And I knew I had to do the same for you, so that you would finally understand how real my love for you is...how solid...how lasting....”
She approached him softly, putting her hand out to stroke his left bicep. “I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s there.” The look she gave him was full of all the love in her heart. “You gave me this wonderful gift, Vincent. And this is my gift in return.” She touched her breast. “These are the most important words in my world.” Reaching up to caress his face, she added, “You are my world. You are a part of me, just like this tattoo.”
He shook his head wildly, as if willing her words away. But she stood tall before him, undeterred. “You can no more deny my feelings than I can erase these words. They will both last a lifetime...and beyond. Believe in them, Vincent. Believe in me. Believe in us.”
Vincent turned away, bending over his writing desk, his hands fisted upon its surface. For the longest time, all she heard were his panting breaths as he warred within himself. She despaired as she realized that damned wall of restraint and denial that Father had so unceasingly urged him to build was thick and strong...and she had only words to use to tear it down...words from her heart...and words now indelibly written in her flesh. Would they be enough? She could only watch and wait.
Thoughts swirled and collided in Vincent’s head...
...sweet dreams of the someday which he’d never envisioned actually coming true...
...the dire warnings of a lifetime...
...the image of the words etched upon her skin...
...the abject denial and pain of long nights alone...
...the thrill he felt whenever he glanced at his tattoo...
...the image of the words etched upon her skin...
...every paralyzing doubt about the risks of the unknown...
...Catherine’s stubborn insistence on believing in a future with him...
...the image of the words etched upon her skin...
...the image of the words etched upon her skin....
Slowly, Vincent’s breathing eased. His fists unclenched. He turned back to Catherine, a look of intense despair on his face. Their gazes met. Something momentous was occurring, and she knew that this time, whatever happened between them would be very, very final.
Vincent’s gaze shifted from her eyes to the words now gracing her body. Catherine held her breath as she watched his face. Amazingly, the despairing look began to melt away. He straightened...took one halting step towards her, then another. One trembling hand reached out to her, index finger outstretched. With a careful claw tip, Vincent stroked his inked name...once...twice...three times. He looked into her eyes, speechless, and she smiled gently and reminded him of the other word. “Always,” she murmured. “Always, Vincent, always.”
A shudder wracked his frame then, and he expelled a long sigh. His outstretched hand now clasped her shoulder and drew her to him, and in a heartbeat she was enveloped in his arms. Nearly sobbing with relief, Catherine clung to him, still whispering the word which had finally broken through to him. “Always, always, my love. Always, Vincent, always.”
The merest breath of sound carried to her ears, sweet as an angel’s echo. “Always.”
Vincent held her near, but tenderly, aware that she still felt pain from her tattoo. It took all the strength he could muster, for he wanted to give in to her, to pull her tightly inside his arms, to imprint her indelibly against himself, just as her name was imprinted on his body.
That imprint.... He thought of her tattoo again. His mind spun as he realized the pain he’d felt Catherine experiencing had been caused by his name...a pain she’d willingly suffered...to prove her love to him, because he wasn’t willing to accept the truth of it, the confirmation so obvious within their Bond. Thinking this, he began to murmur, “I’m sorry, Catherine...I’m so sorry....” He pulled back, ignoring her protests, to gaze down at her. “I’m ashamed you felt you needed to go through this....”
She shook her head, offended. “No, it wasn’t like that! I did it because I loved how it made me feel, knowing you had done it for me! I want you to have the same wonderful feeling. Please, don’t apologize...it wasn’t an act of desperation, it was an act of love!” Tears slipped from her eyes, sliding down her flushed cheeks...and several drops fell to the still-tender flesh with his name permanently inked upon it.
He stared in fascination as the tears washed across his name...and the word below it. Always. He considered Catherine’s avowal. She didn’t think of the tattoo as something disfiguring. It was deliberately placed, prominent, not concealed...so she must be unashamed for others to see it, even proud of what it proclaimed. It was an act of love, she’d said. I want you to have the same wonderful feeling....
As he’d reached out once before, he did so again, this time sliding the pads of his fingers across the flushed skin, brushing away the evidence of her tears. Her skin there - still slightly inflamed - was hot to the touch. The words seemed to burn into him...his own name and the other word...the word that meant everything...to her...and to him.
He admitted it to himself, finally. Always. It was not his own name, but that word which coursed through his veins, which thrilled him to the core.
Always. Her vow...her promise...her indelible gift to him.
Suddenly, he knew he needed to honor that gift.
Without a second thought, he lifted her in his arms and strode the short steps to his bed. Sitting with his precious burden, he settled her carefully on his lap, his eyes never once leaving the inked script upon her breast. And then, slowly, reverently...he bowed his head and brushed trembling lips across the words.
Catherine, moved beyond speech, wrapped her arms around him, holding him closer, and bent to rest her cheek against the top of his inclined head. She felt his soft sigh gusting warm breath against her breast, felt his bones melt as he relaxed completely into her embrace.
All around them, as if in tune with the sudden serenity within their Bond, the world fell into a deep silence - no voices penetrated their sanctum, the pipes for once were quiet, no subway trains passed overhead. It was as if a fierce storm had finally blown over, leaving behind a hushed stillness...quiet waters and tranquil shores.
Something had changed between them and both were aware of it. An understanding had silently been reached. A barrier had been irrevocably breached, and a new life awaited - it was within their grasp, they only had to claim it. But now that the awareness was upon them, the moment to come could wait...just a little longer. For now they just sat holding each other, cherishing each other, his lips nuzzling the marks on her skin that declared her love for him, her hands stroking his back with loving caresses.
Words that had once been written only on their hearts were now inked on their flesh, binding them in subtle new ways...proclaiming their love for all to see in all ways and for always.