THAT UNDEVELOPED FLOWER


 

"NO!"

 

The normally shy and reserved Geoffrey was adamant. And Catherine had never seen him quite so upset. "Just tell me why, sweetheart?"

 

His Mom's confusion was plain to the boy, but he couldn't explain further. How could he make her understand? "Just....no, Mom. Can't we leave it at that?"

 

Pressing her lips together to keep from saying more, Catherine nodded once, abruptly. If that's what he wanted, that's what would be. She wasn't going to force him, for heaven's sake!

 

When she'd brought up the idea of having their portraits painted, she'd thought he would readily agree. It seemed a perfect gift for Winterfest, one Vincent would treasure. She had an artist friend Above who had agreed to do the painting and they were due for their first sitting in a few hours. But when she'd told him of her plans and suggested he let her trim his hair, he'd grown sullen. He'd allowed the haircut, but balked at dressing in the clothes she'd set out for him, and in the ensuing -- and highly unusual -- argument which followed, his distress level had risen until he'd literally shouted at her. She was still amazed that he'd done that. It was the first time he had ever screamed his defiance in her face.

 

Realizing he'd gone too far, Geoffrey closed the distance between them and clumsily hugged her. He was in a somewhat gawky growth stage, when his hands and feet seemed too big for his body, and every graceful thing about him was lost in the ungainly mass of elbows and knees he seemed to have sprouted. The changes were most apparent in his face, which was losing the flawless smoothness of childhood. Up close, Catherine could see the peachfuzz on his upper lip, and a blemish or two peeked out at his hairline. She ached for him, knowing he was a bit uncomfortable in his own skin these days. But this...open rebellion was so out of character, she couldn't imagine where it had come from.

 

In a choked whisper, he managed to blurt out his apology. "I'm sorry. But...I just don't want to do this. Please, don't be mad?" His voice cracked, not entirely due to his emotional state. He was going through so many changes these days.

 

She held him close, rubbing his back until she felt the tension begin to leave his body. "Oh, honey, it doesn't matter." She felt him hug her more tightly. Feeling peace had been made, she ventured to say, "I just wish I knew why you didn't want to sit for the portrait."

 

At her last comment, he stiffened and pulled away from her. His eyes held some unnamed pain as he looked at her hard, then he turned and ran out of the room.

 

_ _ _

 

Catherine had decided to go Above and pose for a portrait anyway. Vincent would still be happy with the gift, even if it was only of her. But during the sitting, her mind kept probing the dilemma of Geoffrey's reaction. What was there about sitting for a portrait that was so upsetting to him?

 

She continued to ruminate as she returned to the Hub. Although he would normally be the first and only person she'd turn to, she couldn't discuss Geoffrey's odd behavior with Vincent. She'd have to reveal the reason for the argument, and that she wasn't prepared to do. No, it had to be someone else this time. And Catherine knew of no one who had as much experience raising children as Mary. That gentle soul was almost literally Mother to dozens of orphans who had thrived in the Tunnels under her loving eye. Her advice would be a godsend. With sudden purpose, she turned and headed for Mary's chamber. At this hour of the afternoon, the older woman would likely be catching up on her mending, which allowed her a chance to get off her feet for a while after a long day caring for the children.

 

"Mary?" Catherine called out and, receiving the expected invitation, she entered the cozy chamber. Its inhabitant was rocking contentedly in a massive, intricately carved rocking chair, a gift from Cullen several Winterfests ago. He had told her that she must have rocked her way twice around the world in that old rocker of hers, and she deserved a new one for the next batch of babies who would need that rhythmic comfort in addition to Mary's warmth and love to get them to sleep at night. This afternoon she held a dozing youngster in her lap, and she whispered her greeting to Catherine, looking up at her quizzically.

 

Catherine knelt by the rocker and stroked the sleeping baby's mass of curls as, in a low murmur, she told the older woman why she had come. "I have a problem, Mary. One I hope you've seen before and can help me with."

 

"Geoffrey...or Vincent?" Mary asked, with a twinkle in her eye.

 

"Oh, I think I can handle Vincent these days!" Catherine smiled warmly as she thought of her beloved, but the smile left her face as she turned her attention to her immediate problem. "It's Geoffrey I've come to see you about." She paused, sighing, unsure even now what the matter was. "We never fight...I mean, rarely. It's not that we never have differences of opinion, but we never...yell at each other. But today...." She related her tale and its unexpected outcome, then sat back on her heels, hoping for Mary's wisdom to make it all clear to her.

 

The matriarch of the Tunnels shrugged, and Catherine's heart sank. It seemed her hoped-for easy resolution was not to be. "I don't know what to tell you, child. Sometimes... well, sometimes youngsters need to rebel, to define themselves as separate from their parents. They may seem irrational or unreasonable because that's the only way they can distinguish themselves from their authority figures." Mary paused, then admitted, "But...your Geoffrey never seemed the type of child who would need to fight for his individuality."

 

Catherine reflected, then shook her head. "No, he doesn't need to fight us. He's already got an extraordinary amount of freedom, as all of the children here do. And Vincent and I have always encouraged him to think for himself. He's learning to be his own person. And we're learning, too -- to let go, bit by bit." She smiled ruefully. "It's hard."

 

Mary nodded, smiling. "Yes, I know. A part of you mourns for the child you lose when the adult breaks through."

 

Catherine sighed. "So...if it's not rebellion, what else could have caused his resistance to such a simple request?"

 

A brief frown flitted across the older woman's brow. "Well...he is at that...awkward stage, my dear. He's all hormones and knobby knees. Not that he's an unattractive child, even with the changes he's going through. In fact..." she smiled, then said, "...he seems to be getting better looking despite it all! But...perhaps he sees himself as unattractive right now. And as a result, he doesn't want to be memorialized in his current state -- pimples and peachfuzz, you know."

 

Catherine considered this. She supposed it was a possibility, although Geoffrey had never been a vain child, and didn't seem to be overly conscious of his appearance. In fact, despite his gawkiness and his embarrassment when his voice cracked, mostly he seemed to be taking his physical changes in stride, with a quiet confidence she knew she had lacked at his age. Still, Mary had been through this stage with so many children, and if she thought this might be the cause....

 

"You may be right, however...." Just then the child woke and began fussing. Catherine lapsed into silence, knowing that the baby needed Mary's complete attention right now. The older woman shifted the youngster on her lap and cooed quietly to her until the cries became gurgles of delight. Catherine watched in amazement, wondering what Mary's secret was -- she just had a way with children; they all responded to her as if she were a combination of Santa Claus and the Fairy Godmother. Clearly, the older woman was absorbed in this new task, and Catherine was loathe to press her to return to their discussion.

 

She wasn't entirely sure that Mary's explanation solved her dilemma, but she didn't have anything else to go on. Besides, she'd come for advice, and she'd gotten it. Who was she to contradict the woman whose counsel she had sought? Expert testimony was supposed to be relied upon -- whether in court Above or in less formal circumstances Below. So, instead of arguing the point further, she rose and kissed the older woman on the cheek. "Thank you, Mary. I'll talk to him about it as soon as I can. Is there anything I can do for you before I leave?"

 

Mary looked up at her distractedly, then shook her head. "No, child, nothing. I'm quite content. These quiet afternoons are very special to me, you know."

 

"Considering what your life is like most of the time, I imagine so! Goodbye...and thank you again."

 

As she left the cozy chamber, she turned to blow a kiss to her old friend, but Mary had obviously already forgotten her. She was nuzzling the little one in her arms, blissfully unaware of the erstwhile intruder. Catherine shook her head, smiling, and slipped out the entrance unobserved.

 

_ _ _

 

"Hey, Sweetcheeks!" A wet sloppy kiss was deposited on the teenager's brow in bold disregard of his assembled friends.

 

Geoffrey shook his head and rolled his eyes, as if to say, "What can I do with her? She's too old to change."

 

The other boys laughed. This was an old habit between their pal and his Mom. They'd learned long ago that Catherine and Geoffrey shared a special connection which allowed even such outrageous behavior to go unchallenged. They had come to expect it over the years -- even to anticipate and enjoy it. Especially because they knew what would come next....

 

"Eric. Kipper. Zak." Each received a somewhat more modest kiss in their turn, for Catherine was always conscious of the children's feelings and didn't want any of them to feel left out, unloved, or unappreciated. They had all turned to her at one time or another in their formative years, relying on her counsel, seeking her help with homework, crying on her shoulder, sharing secrets. She kept all confidences, respected all boundaries, and as a result, was adored by all the children Below.

 

After she'd dispensed her affectionate greetings, she said to her son, "When you guys are done, I'd like a moment with you, honey. No rush."

 

His buddies emitted a long, drawn-out "Oooohhh!" compelling Catherine to reply archly, "He's not in any trouble, if that's what you're hoping!"

 

As she turned and walked out of his chamber, Eric looked over at his friend and asked, "Do you think you should go talk to her now? We can wait."

Geoffrey considered what the conversation might be about and replied, "Nah. Later's fine. So, anyway, Michael told me about this movie he saw which sounded so cool...."

 

_ _ _

 

"Mom?"

 

He heard an aggravated voice reply, "I'm in the bedchamber, honey. You can come in."

 

He found his Mom on her knees before the armoire she used for clothes storage. She had the bottom drawer pulled open and was madly ferreting through the garments there. She looked flushed and frustrated.

 

Concerned, he offered, "Can I help?"

 

As she shoved items back and forth, she exclaimed, "I'm looking for...a particular sweater...that Olivia knitted for me....Darn! It's not here!" She shoved the drawer closed in disgust. "Where could I have put it?"

 

Amused at her predicament, he asked, "Mom...are you looking for that real pretty blue pullover? The one with the rose embroidered on the front?"

 

She smiled in triumph. "That's it! Have you seen it lately?"

 

He nodded. "I'm pretty sure you left it in the apartment. Remember, last time we went Above to check your mail and messages, we sat out on the balcony and it got kind of warm? You took the sweater off and laid it on the bed, but I don't think you put it back on when we left."

 

Catherine clapped her hands together. "Yes! Oh, thank you, sweetheart. That would have bothered me for hours, until I finally figured it out."

 

Hopeful, Geoffrey asked, "Is...that all you wanted....?"

 

Suddenly serious, she replied, "No, it wasn't. There's something else." His Mom rose and plopped onto the bed, scooting back until she could sit cross-legged against the chamber wall. She patted the patched quilt beside her. "Come here, sweetheart. We need to talk."

 

Instead of coming closer, he started to edge out of the chamber. "Mom...this isn't a good time. I should...I've gotta be...."

 

"It's Sunday and you don't 'gotta be' anywhere, Geoffrey." Her gently chiding tone left her voice as she pleaded, "Honey, we need to talk."

Sighing, he reluctantly approached the bed and sat on the edge, half-turned away from her.

 

"Geoffrey...." Her warning tone urged him to sit closer and face her. He complied, hunching over his crossed legs in a picture of dejection.

 

Catherine watched him for a moment. What could have caused him to become so uncomfortable so quickly? She resolved to get it out of him, if at all possible. Best to just jump right in. "I went Above yesterday and sat for the portrait."

 

He raised his head and shook it, beginning to protest, but she held up her hand to silence him.

 

"It's OK, honey, I'm not going to ask you to go with me again. You made it clear it's...not something you want to do."

 

He subsided, his shoulders slumping again, and he avoided her eyes.

 

Leaning toward him, she put her hand on his knee and squeezed it. "Can you...can you tell me why?"

 

He didn't look up or reply.

 

Stymied, after a moment she asked, "If you have another idea for a gift for your Dad...or if ...oh, I don't know, Geoffrey! I'm trying to understand, but I can't!" Her frustration was causing her voice to rise. Deliberately, she took a deep breath to calm herself, then, anxious not to hurt him, continued in a softer voice. "Are you....are you...embarrassed because you're...breaking out? Or because...you're starting to grow a mustache? You know...the artist can...paint around those things if...." He stiffened and she saw that her questions had offended him.

 

"You....you think I'm...ugly?!" He was mortified. His Mom was...ashamed of the way he looked?

 

Shocked by the stunned look on his face, knowing she'd put it there by her inartfully chosen words, Catherine tried to explain. "Oh, God...no, Geoffrey! I'm just trying to figure out what reason you might have for.... We had that awful argument, and I don't understand.... I couldn't imagine why you wouldn't want to be in a family portrait.... When I talked to Mary, she thought...." Catherine's sentences all trailed to an end. She'd made a complete mess of what she'd hoped would be a gentle inquiry. Now she had insulted and hurt her son, and she was no closer to understanding his motivations than before. And what was worse, she didn't know how to make it better.

 

She reached for him then, desperately, but he evaded her grasp and groped his way off the bed, sudden tears blinding him. He ran from the bedchamber, out of their common room, down the access tunnel and away.

 

_ _ _

 

Vincent entered his old chamber -- now used as a classroom -- to gather some materials for a class. Intent on his mission, he did not immediately notice his son sitting in the semi-darkness against the far chamber wall, head hanging down. Now, in the deep gloom, he caught sight of him...and noticed the dejected slump of the teenager's shoulders.

 

"Geoffrey?"

 

Vincent's gentle inquiry roused him from his misery. He looked up and found his Dad staring in surprise at him.

 

In a flat voice, he replied, "Hi, Dad. Need something?"

 

Automatically, Vincent began to respond, "I came in to retrieve some textbooks for...." He stopped, concerned at this unexpected and unusual encounter. "Geoffrey, what is it? What's wrong?"

 

At first, the youngster didn't think he could reply. But finally, utterly miserable, he managed to mutter bitterly, "Mom...Mom...thinks...I'm ugly."

 

Astonished, Vincent approached the boy and sat beside him on the cold stone floor. "That cannot be, Geoffrey, surely."

 

The flustered Geoffrey put one hand over his eyes, hiding his face from his Dad's sympathetic stare. "We argued...and later she...she asked me if I was 'embarrassed' about my...about how I look these days."

 

Baffled, Vincent asked, "In what context did this...question of your Mother's come up?"

 

Suddenly realizing he would spill the beans about his Mom's Winterfest surprise if he responded, Geoffrey bit his lip, wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut to start with. Unfortunately, his Dad now knew that something was obviously troubling him, and he could be amazingly persistent when it came to his son's happiness. Sometimes, he thought grimly, concerned parents can make life more complicated than it already is.

 

Not wanting to lie, instead Geoffrey asked the question which had been on his mind since he'd left his Mom. "Why would she ask that if she didn't think there was something wrong with the way I look?"

Vincent wasn't sure exactly why his Bondmate was discussing such an irrelevant matter as Geoffrey's appearance. He knew she felt as he did -- that their son was growing into a fine young man. He had every quality in which a parent could take pride. What did it matter to anyone -- least of all his parents -- what he looked like?

 

Despite the strangeness of the boy's question, there was one thing of which he was positive. "Geoffrey," he responded firmly, "If your Mother thinks there is nothing 'wrong' with the way I look...certainly she could not think there is anything 'wrong' with you."

 

Geoffrey looked up, startled by the comparison. He had to admit that his Dad had a point -- not that he thought his Dad was ugly in any way, but he was unusual-looking...and he knew it had never made the least bit of difference to his Mom. In fact, she usually had that goofy adoring look on her face whenever she even glanced his way -- as though she thought he was the most good-looking guy in the known universe.

 

And as for himself, well...she did always called him her "beautiful boy" -- and there was that ridiculous but endearing nickname "Sweetcheeks." That one had started years ago as she was telling him all the things she loved about him -- and ended by saying he had the sweetest cheeks she'd ever seen. In fact, she'd used that endearment just today.

 

He began to color as he realized that his reaction to her questions about his looks had upset her. She had tried to explain herself but he had cut her off, too hurt to listen. Now he began to consider his Mom's comments in a more rational, less emotional way. She had said something about speaking to Mary. Maybe she could help him understand what his Mom had been trying to say.

 

Vincent was silent, assessing his son's response to his remark about "looks." Watching the play of emotions on the youngster's face, he realized the boy was working things out for himself. Vincent didn't want to intrude on that process. So he waited patiently, until finally Geoffrey glanced down at his hands and said enigmatically, "Thanks, Dad. I...think I need to go see Mary."

 

Vincent nodded and reached out to capture the boy's shoulder with one powerful hand, giving it a brief, encouraging squeeze. His parental concern warred with his desire for his son to stand on his own. He would prefer to continue the conversation, to help Geoffrey through whatever was causing him misery. But plainly the boy had his own plan for dealing with this situation. It would perhaps be best to let him try to resolve matters on his own first. Besides, Geoffrey knew his Father would be available to talk further if counsel was needed.

 

Geoffrey accepted his Dad's physical assurance gratefully, wordlessly, then he rose and left the chamber.

 

Wondering about Catherine's odd question and reflecting upon the pleasures and pains of parenthood, Vincent sat for a long while before rising to his feet and collecting the books he sought.

 

_ _ _

 

Hesitantly, the youngster stammered, "Mary...could you tell me...what did you and Mom talk about?"

 

When the boy had tracked her down coming out of the laundry chamber, he'd immediately relieved her of the large basket of freshly washed baby clothes she'd been taking back to her own chamber to sort and mend. He had deposited the burden on her bed and then assisted her in checking the clothing and setting aside the items which needed attention. Between them, they had made quick work of the pile of laundry, and the neatly folded stacks within the old wicker basket were testament to their efforts.

 

All of this had been accomplished with a minimum of conversation. Yet Geoffrey's question did not take the older woman by surprise. Mary had been content to wait for the boy to come to the point of his visit. After all these years, she knew her children so well. Now, finally, he had managed to blurt it out.

 

Looking up into the youngster's earnest brown eyes -- when had he grown so tall? -- she replied, "She came to me because she was...concerned about an argument the two of you had. She was...well, she said you two had never exchanged such harsh words, and she asked for my advice."

 

He bent his head in shame, then sat on Mary's bed, eyes focusing on the contents of the basket instead of the older woman's face. He idly stroked the laundry with one hand while he thought of what to say. "Mom didn't exchange any harsh words, Mary -- it was only me," he admitted. "I felt terrible afterwards."

 

Mary caressed his thick brown hair, combing back the lustrous curls which had tumbled across his forehead. "Do you know why you did that, child? That's what we were trying to puzzle out."

 

Instead of explaining himself, he told her what she already knew. "She wanted me...wanted us...to sit for a portrait. For a gift. For Dad. For Winterfest."

 

"Yes?" she murmured encouragingly.

 

More of the story she had already heard came out. "I...I didn't want to. That's why we...fought."

 

Patiently, she probed further. "And why didn't you want to?"

 

He snorted, still stung by the implication of his Mom's questions. "Not because I thought I was ugly."

 

"Why, whoever said you were?" Mary was horrified.

 

He could barely admit it, it hurt so much, but he finally managed one strangled word: "Mom." Desperate for another woman's opinion, he asked hesitantly, "Am I?" His voice was just above a whisper, but it held all the trepidation and supplication in his heart.

 

Taking his chin in her cupped hand, she lifted his face and forced him to see the truth in her eyes. "No, Geoffrey, you are not ugly. You are far from it. And that's not just my opinion. Your Mother feels that way, too." She tenderly brushed away the tears which had begun to trail down his cheeks, then reached out to hug him against her. She let his quiet weeping subside before she asked, "Why did you say your Mother thinks you're ugly?"

 

His voice was muffled against her skirts as he replied, "Because...she told me so."

 

Letting go of him in her surprise, she remarked, "No, you can't have heard her correctly. What exactly did she say?"

 

Geoffrey looked up at her. She could see he was trying to recall his Mother's exact words. Eventually, he said, "We were talking about why I wouldn't sit for that portrait. She asked if I was embarrassed about...about my...about the way I looked...." He really couldn't go into it further. It was all so humiliating.

 

"Oh, my goodness!" The light dawned in Mary's mind. "Oh, Geoffrey, honey, I'm so sorry. She never would have asked you that question...if it wasn't for something I said to her."

 

Aghast, he stood up suddenly. "What?!"

 

Since she was standing in front of him, she was able to get hold of his arms before he would have fled from her. "Sit down, please, child. There has been an awful misunderstanding." When she was certain he wouldn't bolt, she continued, a bit abashed, "Your Mother came to me confused. She really wanted to have that portrait painted, you see, and it hurt her that you wouldn't agree to it. But she didn't ask me how to convince you to go with her, she just needed to understand why you wouldn't. I began to mention a couple of possibilities -- reasons why young men your age might defy a parent's request -- one being that you were acting out in order to establish yourself as your own person. You know, rebelling."

 

Geoffrey stared at her in frank astonishment. "Rebelling? Against what? Mom's the best."

 

Seeing that he was willing to listen, she relaxed her grip on his arms just a little, one hand lifting to pat his cheek. "We rejected that idea immediately." She smiled. "We both knew you had no need to rebel against her."

 

Her face took on an apologetic look. "The next suggestion I made was what...apparently caused this terrible muddle. We began to discuss it, but we got interrupted and never returned to the subject. The way it was left between us, perhaps she thought that was my opinion. It truly wasn't, but I never got the chance to explain that."

 

Taking a deep breath, she plunged ahead. "I mentioned to your Mother that...perhaps you didn't want to pose now...while you were...between a boy and a man." Flustered at such frank talk, Mary lowered her gaze, finding the laundry basket easier to look at than the face of the youngster before her. Speaking to his Mother about him was one thing, but speaking to him of the same things....

 

Resolutely, she finished her thought. He had to understand what was in her heart. "I was about to add that you are much too self-possessed a young man to think such a silly thing, and that therefore it had to be something else altogether...something you perhaps were not comfortable talking to her about. But I never did. So your Mother left here thinking that I believed...that you were upset about your appearance." Tears stood in her eyes as she begged his forgiveness. "I'm so sorry, child."

 

So, Mom never thought I was ugly at all, Geoffrey realized. And dear, sweet Mary -- Mary, who wouldn't hurt a fly -- she didn't either. No one did. But everyone...including me...thought someone else did. And now Mary's upset, and Mom's upset....and I got Vincent all worried.... Aloud, he said only, "Please don't cry, Mary. I understand now." He hugged the distressed woman warmly, stroking her back in an attempt to calm her. As he did so, he thought back on the whole confusing day...and started to smile. It was so ridiculous, once he thought about it -- all these loving, concerned adults getting hopelessly mixed up trying to figure him out. Suddenly, he began to laugh.

 

Mary, surprised, risked a glance at him. He was almost convulsing in laughter now. She smiled herself, although confused. "So...you aren't...angry with me?"

 

Wiping his eyes, he gradually got control of himself and assured her, "No way. You are the most wonderful.... I love you, Mary." He hugged the astonished woman again, hard, then lifted her easily in his arms and swung her around once before setting her back on her feet.

 

Completely bewildered now, Mary smoothed her skirt and patted her hair, flustered by the strange turn of events. "Well! Geoffrey, child...I...I love you, too!" She had a bemused smile on her face as he ran out of her chamber. Somehow, she sensed that everything was fine now, but she couldn't say exactly why.

 

_ _ _

 

Coming to the heart of his disturbing conversation with their son, Vincent advised Catherine, "He told me that you said...that he is...ugly."

 

"Oh, no! Oh, Vincent, how could it all have gotten so out of hand?" His Bondmate's distress was clear, but she would not explain herself further.

 

Vincent was mystified. Catherine had never failed to share her concerns about Geoffrey with him before. But she would tell him nothing of her disagreement with their son, nor of why the boy thought she had disparaged his appearance.

 

They both turned as they heard the sound of pounding footsteps in the tunnel outside their common chamber. Someone was running hard toward them. All at once, Geoffrey popped into view, grabbed the side of the entry, pulled himself to a stop and swung inside all in one movement. Breathlessly, he demanded, "Mom! We've gotta talk."

 

Startled, she threw a wild-eyed glance at her Bondmate, then stammered, "Of...of course. But I...."

 

Geoffrey raised a hand to hush her. "Not here." He, too, glanced at Vincent. "I'm sorry, Dad. Alone."

 

Vincent nodded, unsure what was occurring. "Perhaps...the two of you should go to your chamber, Geoffrey?"

 

"Great idea! C'mon, Mom!" Grasping her hand firmly, the teenager herded his Mother out of the chamber ahead of him, then tugged her with him in great haste, not relinquishing her hand until he had seated her on his own bed. "Sit quietly, please," he commanded.

 

Stunned, Catherine just nodded. Clearly, whatever was going on here, her son was in charge.

 

Hands on hips, he looked down into his Mother's beloved face, the worry clearly etched on her brow. He had to smooth those cares away, and right now. "Mom...first of all...I love you."

 

She smiled and he could see the lines of her face relax.

 

"I just talked to Mary. She...explained everything. She felt so bad, and she was so sweet about it...but I understand now, about why you said what you did. I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions. I mean, I know I'm...well, I'm not your cute little boy anymore...."

 

Unable to let such a disparaging comment stand uncorrected, Catherine disobeyed a direct order and contradicted him, outraged. "Who says?"

 

He grinned. "It's OK, Mom."

 

Gathering steam now, she overrode his dismissal. "No, it's not! You're my beautiful boy. I won't hear you say you're not!"

 

Geoffrey gently placed an index finger against her lips, effectively silencing her. Trying to suppress his amusement, he pressed his point. "It's OK, really. I kinda...don't want to be considered 'cute'...or 'little'...or a 'boy' anymore, if you know what I mean."

 

Catherine's maternal dander subsided as she realized he wasn't putting himself down, just forcing her to see him as he was -- a son on the brink of manhood. With some chagrin, she remarked, "OK. Sorry. Go on."

 

Laughing openly now, he said, "You should have seen your face just now! A lioness protecting her cub couldn't look fiercer! It's...well, it's nice to know."

 

She grumbled good-naturedly at him, pleased that he was pleased.

 

Then his eyes turned solemn and he began his apology...and his long-delayed explanation. "Anyway...I'm sorry. About everything -- about yelling, about not telling you why I didn't want to be in that picture...about getting upset today.... Here's the thing. You called it a 'family portrait' and...well...the more I thought about it, the more I didn't like the idea. It isn't a 'family' portrait. Dad's not in it. I got to thinking how he'd feel, left out and all. Here we are, going Above and sitting for a friend of yours. When we give the painting to Dad, won't it be like rubbing his nose in it, that he can't go Above, like he's not a real part of the family? I just don't want to hurt him like that."

 

Catherine sat quietly, absorbing the well-meaning concern of her son for his Father. She knew that Vincent would treasure a portrait of the two of them -- and not feel left out. She and her own Mother had sat for just such a portrait as a gift for her Dad several years before her Mother's untimely death, and it had been one of her Dad's most prized possessions ever since. In fact, that memory was, in part, what had spurred her to arrange for the gift which was causing her son such turmoil.

 

"Geoffrey, sweetheart...." She sighed, her eyes bright with tears. "I have to thank you for being so concerned about your Dad's feelings. But...will you trust me to know that this gift would give him great pleasure -- and no pain? It would be from the two of us -- of the two of us -- and he will understand and accept it as such."

 

"Really?" He seemed unconvinced. But looking into her eyes, he saw the calm conviction shining there, and he was, finally, reassured. He plopped onto the bed beside her and leaned into her shoulder, happy and relieved.

 

Catherine wrapped an arm around his shoulder, giving him a companionable squeeze. She thought back on what had apparently started this whole misunderstanding. "Perhaps I made a mistake in how I referred to it, making you think it was something which it isn't. You're right that it isn't a 'family' portrait, but...if you like we can ask Elizabeth to do one of those for us on one of her blank walls? She's always looking for new ideas."

 

He nodded enthusiastically. "I'd really like that...and...maybe...." He looked at her hopefully. "Maybe Dad would, too?"

 

"I'm sure of it," she confirmed. "But...we'll ask after Winterfest, OK? Let's give him our gift first?"

 

"Sure!"

 

She nodded her head once, to show the decision was now made. Then she reached up to tenderly stroke his face, feeling the short wiry hairs which poked out intermittently along his cheek. "You know...you truly are my beautiful boy." She adored him, and she let that fact communicate itself through her fingertips.

 

Finally, Catherine rose and looked compellingly into his gentle, honest eyes. "Please, honey, next time you feel strongly that something I'm doing is wrong...tell me. Don't stew about it and make me guess? I know that sometimes I can be stubborn...." They both smiled in acknowledgment of that bit of truth. "But sit me down and force me to listen if you have to, OK?! It's always better to lay things out in the open and deal with them calmly and rationally, explain our differing feelings and go from there."

 

He nodded, shy now in the face of his Mom's frankness and acceptance. He hugged her tightly around the waist, relieved that their brief estrangement was over.

 

They clung to each other in silent mutual apology and support for a moment more, then Catherine raised her head from his shoulder and, with a wry smile on her lips, advised him, "Now, you've got to help me figure out something."

 

He looked quizzically at her. "What?"

 

"How to talk ourselves out of this situation your Father stumbled into!"