Author: Athea (
Fandom: Beauty and the Beast (TV version)
Note: In this universe, Catherine is indeed dead and Vincenthas rescued his son from Gabriel. But a stranger in the Tunnels catcheshis attention.
Note 2: Shakespeare really does know everything and sonnet 73is a masterpiece.
Date: Originally posted in the zine called 'Different Seasons' editedby Gloria Jones in 1999 but revised and updated on 8 April 2001.
Strength, part one

Midnight and Vincent still couldn't sleep. He buried his facein his hands and stifled a groan. His journal lay unopened on thetable before him. It had been two weeks since he had returned withhis son and still his hands were not yet healed enough to hold a pen. He needed the solace that only writing could bring but would have to waitfor the electrical burns to cease irritating his nerve endings.

Flexing his hands, he stoically stretched his fingers again and again. It was down to a dull ache now. And the rest of his life had settledto a numbing routine. Vincent sighed wearily and rose to go to bed. But his muscles ached from disuse and suddenly thoughts of the hot poolsflooded his brain. Small Jacob was with Mary this night so he wasfree to indulge himself with a long soak.

Leaving his cloak behind and taking only a lantern, Vincent strode outof Home territory to the farthest cave of hot springs. The Tunnelswere empty and silent. Like his life, he thought resignedly. The last cave was in sight when a faint light from within halted his forwardprogress. He wondered who would be up this late. Quietly, hepaced up to the entrance and rested the lantern in the niche cut into thestone.

Curious now, Vincent moved silently forward in time to see a tall darkman settle into the steaming water. To any other eye there wouldhave been too little light to see but Vincent's eyes were sharper thanmost and he saw clearly. It was Alexander Gray, a recluse who helpedKanin create new chambers. He rarely came to the Home caves exceptwhen there was great need. Vincent had been too caught up in thesearch for his son to find out much about the newcomer except that he kepthimself to himself.

He was tall with broad shoulders and a chest devoid of hair. Musclesrippled under fair skin when he stretched and settled on the low ledgeabout two feet below the surface of the bubbling water. Just thenhe laid his head back and the long black hair fell away from the left sideof his face and neck. Vincent couldn't keep back a small gasp atthe sight of the scars that laced his face and shoulder. The bathersnapped alert and started to stand up, reaching for the towel by the sideand turning his head away from the entrance.

"Please, don't get out. I'm sorry that I didn't announce myselfsooner." Vincent stepped forward, hand outstretched in an unconsciouscalming motion.

The man's voice was deep with a husky rasp that raised the hair on theback of Vincent's neck. "Not your fault. I thought everyonewas asleep. I didn't mean to frighten you."

Vincent realized with a shock that the man was apologizing for his appearance. "Normally, I'm the one who has to say that. I'd be the last personin the Tunnels that you would have to worry about, Alexander."

His head slowly turned but he kept his hair casually falling over theleft side of his face. "Vincent. Because of your features? There's a difference between being exotic and being frightening. I tend to frighten women and children."

"I am neither. We all of us carry scars. Most of mine areon the inside. It would be easier if mine were flesh and might somedayheal." Vincent stayed by the entrance, afraid of startling Alexanderfurther.

His eyes were deep violet and he seemed to look into Vincent's soulbefore a half smile crossed his lips and he nodded. "Inner scarsnever really heal. They just scab over until the next time someonewants to rip out your heart. My scars are as healed as they are evergoing to be. I am willing to share ..." His gesture took in thehot pool and the welcoming steam.

Vincent hesitated but he was determined not to give Alexander the impressionthat he didn't want his company. Those eyes were closed now, givinghim the privacy he needed to strip off his clothes and ease into the heatedwater. The silence might have been oppressive but somehow, it wasn't. Instead, Vincent felt a sense of companionship that had been missing inhis life.

For a few moments, Vincent sat tensely, waiting for the questions thatit seemed everyone asked sooner or later. How are you, Vincent? How is little Jacob? How soon are you going to put Catherine behindyou and join in again? Not that they ever asked the last question,except with their eyes. But Alexander had the gift of silence andgradually Vincent relaxed into the steaming water.

After ten minutes had passed, he felt those eyes on him again. He met the gaze openly and got a half smile in return, the husky murmurlike the water that bubbled from below. "The sooner you can joinus in the lower chambers, the better, Vincent. I can only hew somuch rock. Kanin is needed in the repairs to the Great Hall. He says you're worth your weight in muscle and now that I've seen you,I think he may be right."

Vincent brought his hands out of the water and flexed them. "Theburns are healing but slowly. It will still be two weeks or morebefore I can be of any use."

"Oh, I don't know. Kanin says you can feel the rock and how itlies. There's something ..." Alexander's voice trailed off.

"I need no hands to come and look over your current location." Vincent welcomed the spark of curiosity that he hadn't felt for a longtime.

Alexander cocked his head, the black curtain of hair sliding away fromthe scars. "It would be good to have a second opinion. I hesitateto use the explosives that I normally would. The stone feels . .. different."

"What level are you working?"

"D level, beyond the Cavern of Winds."

"I hadn't realized we'd gone so low." Vincent was beginning towonder what else he'd missed in his grieving.

Alexander shrugged with that half grin that Vincent was beginning torecognize. "Good storage there. The temperature never goesabove fifty degrees."

"You're not living down there, are you?" Vincent only realizedhow personal the question was after he couldn't take it back. Henever asked questions like that. What was wrong with him?

"Not quite." Alexander chuckled. "But I'm not far off theCavern of Winds. I hollowed out a very snug barrow on level C, justoff the main staircase. Not much foot traffic out my way and it'squiet."

"Something the Home Chambers are not?" It was not really a questionand they shared a companionable smile.

Half an hour later, Vincent was on his way back to bed, already planninga trip to the lower levels the next day. Settling under the pileof blankets, he fell asleep for the first time in months without any tossingand turning.


He awoke with a feeling of anticipation but for a moment he couldn'tremember why. Then the memory of his soak with Alexander came tothe fore and he felt again the stirring of curiosity about the stranger. He needed to ask Kanin about his helper. Checking on his son, hefed him his breakfast of mashed bananas. He dealt with his dutieswith a vigor that had been lacking for weeks before leaving small Jacobwith Mary and heading to the Great Hall.

Kanin was working on the rear wall where a series of cracks had startedto appear. He was carefully applying cement and inserting steel pitonsat the stress points. "Vincent, it's good to see you."

"I brought you some of Olivia's muffins. She is worried that youare working too hard." Vincent laid the well-filled basket on thetable and gestured towards the bench.

"Ah, she knows my weakness, Vincent." Kanin laid down his hammerand joined him.

Vincent knew the mason's eyes were assessing him, much as he would assessa stone before he stressed it. "I am better, Kanin, a little bettereach day. But I must admit it is my curiosity that brings me heretoday."

"It's about time." Kanin grinned at Vincent's startled look. "You've been in a daze for months now. We've all been tempting youwith this and that but up to now, nothing's worked. What got yourattention?"

Vincent explained his meeting with Alexander and watched a rueful smilecross Kanin's lips. "I should have known. He's a bit of a mystery,an old Marine friend of helper Jack Nebbins. We needed some explosivesand Jack was our main handler. But when he broke his leg, Jack couldn'tget to us. Alex was in town and at a loose end so Jack proposed himfor helper status. Joe Maxwell checked him out for us and he cameup clean."

Kanin took a muffin apart and chewed slowly while Vincent waited impatiently. "Jack told him about us and he agreed to help. It was that levelB problem with the West Side subway conduit. Alex came down and spentabout a week with me. Ate and slept at the site. I've neverseen anyone so single-minded, except for you, of course."

Vincent wrinkled his nose at his old friend. "A positive trait,Kanin, especially when one is an explosives expert."

Kanin laughed. "And he is that. He solved the problem veryelegantly and with a minimum of effort and fuss. A little C4 in twoplaces and we blocked the corridor that could have given us big troublebut without losing access to the tunnel just beyond. After that,he asked Father's permission to explore below and I volunteered to be hissponsor. We can always use another pair of hands to carve out newrooms."

"But why level C for his living quarters? With you as sponsor,he could have settled near you."

Kanin chewed reflectively for a long moment. "You've seen hisscars, an explosion gone wrong many years ago. I got the impressionthat since he left the service, he's been drifting about and looking forthe same feeling of family that he had there. But Above goes a lotby appearances and his is against him. He feels safe here but stillvery sensitive about how he appears to others."

He sighed and finished his muffin. "It doesn't help that one ofthe first people he met after he'd been here a day was Sally Green. She reacted to him like he was the Devil himself, screaming and cringing. So far, Alex has been to my home once for dinner and once to the dispensaryfor Father to dress a cut. But that's it. I didn't even knowhe knew about the Hot Pool."

Vincent drank a cup of tea from the flask that Olivia had thoughtfullyprovided. Mrs. Green was a relative newcomer to the Tunnels herselfand it was unfortunate that she'd been allowed to scare Alexander away.

"Now, what's this about level D?" Kanin broke into his thoughts.

"I'm going down after English class. He said he didn't know thestone and he hesitated to use explosives. I admit to being curious." He smiled shyly as if admitting a great sin.

"Good. That will save me a trip. Let me know what you findout. I should be done here in another two days. Tell him I'llbe down to help then."


Vincent strode briskly down the staircase in the Chamber of Winds, afterstanding at the top to savor the tornado of wind and wound for a long moment. When was the last time he had visited here just to feel the power of thisplace? He felt the wind scouring him clean of all the sorrow andpain of loss. Following the directions that Alexander had given him,he soon heard the tapping of a rock hammer. A single lantern turnedlow was all the illumination available in the side tunnel. Alexanderknelt by an outcropping of pinkish gray stone, gathering chips into a cottonbag.

"Hello, Vincent." The husky voice greeted him without its ownerturning his head.

Vincent wondered just how good his hearing was. People rarelyheard his approach unless he wanted them to. And why did he keepthe lights so low? He remembered the single candle of the night before. But all he said was, "I brought lunch."

Alexander turned and the violet eyes laughed up at him. "Well,then I can quit this sample taking and do something useful, like help youlighten your load. Back up a bit and we can eat it in the new storagechamber."

Retracing his steps, Vincent stooped to enter the freshly cut openingin the sidewall and set down he basket for a good look. The chamberwas roughly twelve feet by twelve feet but the height was barely six inchesabove his head. It had been swept out and looked ready for use. Alexander followed him and Vincent realized with a start that he was agood inch taller than he was. His head seemed to brush the ceilingbut his eyes were half closed and Vincent turned down the lantern beforesetting it by the basket.

"Thanks, I'm a little light sensitive. Another reason for stayingaway from the Home hub."

"No problem, Alexander. I spoke with Kanin and he will be joiningyou in about two days. What do you plan for a door here?" Vincentsat down to unpack the basket, motioning Alexander to join him.

He folded gracefully to the floor and sat cross-legged. "Good,Kanin said you have a carpenter who could make a door. I'll sendthe measurements back with you." He took the empty plate that Vincenthanded him. "Goodness, it's a feast. This beats an MRE anyday of the week."

Vincent hesitated while lifting out the fried chicken. "MRE?"

Alexander grinned. "Military slang, MRE stands for Meals Readyto Eat. Processed and packaged for eating in the field without heating. They can sit on the shelf for years and still be ready to eat."

Vincent thought about that while unpacking the spring water, glasses,salad and cookies. "And are they edible ... these MRE's?"

"When you're cold, wet and hungry, they're the best things you everate, much better than dead bugs or raw meat."" Alexander shook his headsolemnly; his black hair swirling over his shoulders then laughed at thelook on Vincent's face. "They were adequate, Vincent."

Ducking his head, Vincent smiled, enjoying the teasing tone. "Ithink you will find William's chicken and salad much better eating. Samantha made the cookies and will expect a fell report. She's beenexperimenting and I'm afraid that I don't know what kind they are."

"Very, very like the MREs." Alexander said with his half-smile. "I was never sure what they were supposed to be either."

They fell to with appetites that left nothing uneaten. Vincentleaned back against the wall and stretched his long legs out before him. It had been a long time since he'd enjoyed a meal like this. Thecompany had something to do with it; Alexander had no hidden agendas orquestions. They simply shared a conversation about the history ofthis part of the Tunnels and the nature of stone.

"Tell Samantha that they should be called rangers, spicy sweet withraisins. They're an interesting combination, she can experiment anytime." Alexander leaned on one knee with the other stretched outbefore him. His jeans were patched in a dozen places and Vincentdecided they were his own repairs.

Alexander shrugged when he caught his eye. "I'm pretty much a do-it-yourselfkind of guy, Vincent. Even while I was on active duty, I was prettymuch a loner. The scars and my specialty kept most of my compatriotsat a distance except when we needed to work together. If I hadn'thad a talent for blowing things up, I'd have probably gravitated towardsthe work anyway."

Vincent listened intently but he must have shown his puzzlement becauseAlexander expanded on his statement. "I didn't blow myself up, Vincent. I went into a building after someone ran back in. I got caught insomebody else's explosion."

His look was grim and he gazed at the basket although Vincent was quitesure he didn't see it. With his voice barely a whisper, he asked,"And the other?"

"He died. I sacrificed myself for nothing." His voice wassteady without the horror he must have once felt.

"At least you tried. You can't always save the innocent ...sometimes they die." Vincent matched his steadiness with an effort.

Alexander nodded once and gazed at him calmly. "Like I said, Ihave a talent for blowing things up. Come and look at the rock. Tell me what it is and what its properties are so I'll have a better ideahow to handle it."

Vincent spent the next hour examining samples and walking the stonecorridors to get a feel of the area. He could name the stone buthe also agreed to do more research in Father's library. They didn'tset another time to meet but Vincent was already planning another tripbefore the week was out.

5 weeks later

Vincent walked slowly back after taking Diana home. He felt agreat relief at Father's safety and the renewed security of the Tunnels. His chat with Diana had been most interesting. She was a very intelligentwoman who was going to make a very good Helper. Now, if only Fatherhad no long-term side effects to being buried alive.

But there was something nagging at the back of his mind, an emptinessthat grew with every step towards the Home hub. Someone was proppedagainst the wall at the junction between the outer and inner tunnels. Hands in the pockets of an old black leather jacket, one leg propped againstthe wall, Alexander waited with the stillness of a stone statue. His head turned at Vincent's approach, his hair whispering over the scruffyleather.

"Everything okay?" His deep voice traveled no farther than Vincent. And suddenly the empty spot was gone and Vincent remembered his promiseto research stone. Building anew and creating from raw stone newchambers to hold life instead of death. All work that he could do,had done in the past and would do again soon.

Jeffrey Coyne was a deadly reminder of the past but Alexander belongedto the present and future. His throat felt tight and he nodded. Alexander smiled and turned to go. But Vincent couldn't let him gojust yet. "Wait."

Alexander raised an eyebrow and waited but Vincent couldn't think ofanything to say. "Nervous energy?" Quiet humor lightened Alexander'stones. Vincent thought for a moment then nodded vigorously. "I have just the outlet you need. Come on down to the Chamber ofWinds. I'll be you've never wrestled with an expert."

His voice was deep and teasing. Vincent shook his head. "Wrestling? I might hurt you."

Turning, Alexander smiled. "I very much doubt it, Vincent. Of course, I expect I could hurt you. So maybe it is a bad idea. Unless," he paused, "I could promise to go easy on you?"

Vincent's thoughts whirled. Father wouldn't approve at all. And what if he did hurt Alexander? Why was the dark man so sure thathe wouldn't get hurt? Maybe a try wouldn't hurt? Vincent slowlynodded and Alexander grinned before starting off again. Vincent caughtup and walked alongside of him. After all, how bad could it be?


Vincent rolled over with a groan. Every muscle in his body hurt. Lying there under the covers, he flexed his extremities one by one, catalogingthe pain. The friendly wrestling bout had lasted half an hour. Alexander had led him to a side chamber off the Cavern of Wind, one witha sandy floor that provided a flexible surface to work on.

He'd stripped off his shirt and boots, leaving only his jeans on. Vincent had removed his vest and boots but left on everything else. Up close and without the distraction of the steaming water, Alexander'sscars stood out in long sinuous lines of puckered flesh up and down hisleft side. He'd shrugged and dismissed them, beckoning Vincent tocome closer.

The first fall had to have been a fluke, Vincent thought. Thesecond approach was different but the results had been the same. After half an hour of being thrown to the ground, Alexander had calleda halt with the prediction that Vincent was going to be sore in the morning. Well, he was right. It took all his will power to sit up and swinghis legs over the side of the bed.

Cooing sounds came from the cradle behind the screen in the corner. Jacob was awake. Getting up slowly, Vincent crossed to this son andpicked him up out of his warm nest. Jacob laughed and reached forhis father's hair, yanking on the bright golden strands. That smallpain was nothing amid the various aches of Vincent's well-exercised body.

"Your father is an idiot, Jacob." Vincent crossed to where theformula was kept. The baby cooed in response. "It's not likehe didn't warn me. 'Better not take a chance,' he said. Butno-o-o-o, I had to try. And now it feels like I got caught in a rockslide." Mixing the formula one handed had become second nature. He did it while keeping a running commentary with Jacob. Soon theywere both settled in Vincent's great chair, although he had winced whenthey sat down. Jacob was busy sucking down breakfast when a soundin the outer corridor brought Vincent's head up.

"Vincent, are you awake?" Mary's voice asked permission to enter.

"Come in, Mary. Jacob is just eating." Vincent greeted hisold friend.

Mary looked tired, joining him at the table and wearily sitting down. "I've been up most of the night with your father. He's having littlenightmares when he does get to sleep."

Vincent immediately felt guilty at his own deep sleep after the violentexercise. He hadn't spared another thought for the after effect ofFather's being buried alive. "I'm sorry, Mary. I should haverealized that would happen. You could have awakened me, I would havewatched him."

"Nonsense." Her wise eyes gazed at him. "You needed thesleep, too. I checked on you late last night and you were dead tothe world. That hasn't happened very often, has it?"

Vincent thought back over the last few months and nodded slowly. He'd been so afraid that he wouldn't hear Jacob cry that he'd taken towaking up every hour to listen for him.

"You and the baby are going to be just fine, Vincent. And so willthat stubborn father of yours." Mary smiled impishly. "I finallygot the last word last night when I ordered him to bed. I stayedwith him so I could be sure he stayed there. I rather enjoyed havinghim be so docile. It won't last of course but I plan on savoringevery minute."

Vincent chuckled at the look of satisfaction on her face. "Doyou think Father is up to enjoying some of his namesake's company? I slept a little later than normal and I need to get to class. IfI take Jacob, we won't get any work done at all."

"They never get enough of holding him, do they?" Mary smiled atJacob's loud belch from over Vincent's shoulder. "I think he's justwhat the doctor ordered. A morning of play will do wonders for themboth. Let me take him now so you can get ready. You're feelingbetter, aren't you? I don't think you've ever been this comfortablewith me under these conditions."

Vincent realized for the first time that he was still in his nightshirtand slippers. He hadn't even noticed that he wasn't dressed. "I guess I am. I'm sorry, Mary ..."

She laughed and rounded the table. Reaching for Jacob, who cameto her joyfully, she gazed down on Vincent's surprised face. "I'mnot, Vincent. I think that all our roles are being redefined afterthese horrible last few months. Who we are -- how we see ourselves-- how we see each other. It's all changing, I think, for the better."

And with that astounding statement, she leaned down and gently kissedhis cheek before carrying young Jacob out of his chambers. He touchedhis cheek and smiled. Change, perhaps it wasn't so frightening afterall. With a wince, he stood up and began to prepare for the day. His class was planned and afterwards he was going to investigate the libraryfor books on wrestling. If he were going to wrestle again, he wouldknow the rules, not to mention some of those holds.

Six hours later, he was glad he couldn't blush. The large paperbackwith all the pictures of high school wrestlers was a revelation. Some of the holds were highly personal and looked quite uncomfortable. The 'crotch take-down' looked too intimate to be allowed in public. However, Vincent remembered a fall that felt suspiciously like the picturelooked. This was going to take more study. Filling out hisname and the title of the book in the library log on Father's desk, hetucked it under his arm and strolled to the nursery to collect his son.

Mary finished burping Jacob and handed him over with a smile. "He was good as gold, Vincent. Your father managed a nap withoutdreams with small Jacob curled up beside him. So, they're both feelingfrisky now. Take this one for a long walk and show him some of ourbeautiful world."

"And Father?" Vincent removed Jacob's grip on his hair with amock frown.

"Oh, I expect that I can wear him out between now and bedtime." Mary's expression could only be considered smug. Vincent decidednot to inquire how. He had the feeling the answer really would makehim blush.

His feet took him to the Cavern of Winds. Young Jacob laughedout loud at the tumultuous cacophony of the whirling dervishes that swirledaround them. Flinging out his hands, he tried to catch the wind. Vincent flash-backed to the first visit he remembered with Devin holdingonto him while his younger self tried to catch the invisible storm of soundand pressure. Descending the stairs, he discovered his steps leadingtowards the room where he'd wrestled last night.

The sound of feet moving slowly in the sand slowed his approach. At the doorway, he stopped and watched in fascination. Alexanderwas moving in rhythmic patterns that flowed from high to low, using everypart of his body. His skin gleamed with sweat but his breathing wassteady. His hands moved in complex movements, which caught and heldthe eye. A low humming on the fringe of Vincent's hearing made himturn his head to listen better.

Looking down at Jacob, he surprised a look of intense concentrationon the baby's face. His eyes focused on the moving figure; Jacobfollowed Alexander's every move. Watching the muscles ripple beneaththe fair skin, Vincent realized that Alexander was only wearing a loincloth. He tried to avert his eyes but they kept being drawn back to the long leanlines of the body moving across the sand.

He was all muscle from his strongly arched feet up the bunched calvesto the rock hard thighs and narrow hips. His stomach was flat andVincent's gaze traveled up to the broad chest and rippling pectorals. He was completely hairless and Vincent couldn't help comparing himselfto the man who moved so gracefully before him. Vincent was awarethat others found him excessively hairy. He tried to keep coveredup but he'd overheard a comment or two that still made him sigh. Alexander looked like a Greek god come to life. Apollo or Poseidon. Or perhaps Hephaestus, the crippled god of fire. The scars were silverand laced over his side like a multi-stranded web of fine lines in an endlesslyrepeated pattern.

"Hello, Vincent. I didn't think I'd see you again for a day orso." Alexander's voice startled him.

Vincent ducked his head. He'd been so caught up in his thoughtsthat he hadn't even noticed that the subject of those thoughts had stoppedmoving. "I'm sorry, Alexander. I should have said somethingwhen we first got here but I've never seen anything like that. Isit like tai chi?"

Alexander nodded briefly before turning away to grab a towel and blotthe sweat from his body. "Something like that, I learned it whenI was seventeen in Vietnam."

"During the war." Vincent didn't quite ask a question.

Alexander pulled on a pair of jeans. "Yes, my first tour in Nam. I had three tours before Saigon fell. My first sergeant sent me toa little old man to toughen me up. Master Wang threw me around likeI was a sack of popcorn. He taught me what real strength is and howto use it. This kata is a relaxing one. There are others thatare more active with kicks and lunges. I found I needed a littlerelaxation tonight."

That was when Vincent noticed the darkening bruise on Alexander's rightshoulder. "Did I do that last night?"

"What?" Alexander followed his look. "No, Vincent, I gotcaught in a minor rock fall this afternoon." He shrugged into a shirtwith only a brief catch in his movements.

Vincent opened his mouth to question him further but he recognized theunmistakable signs warning him off. "Well, I think we could bothuse the hot springs tonight. Would you care to join me?"

Alexander paused and gazed at Vincent. A long pause stretchedbetween them until Jacob gave a coo and a bright smile to the dark man. He gave the half smile that Vincent was coming to expect. "Thanks,that would be nice."

"Supper in my chambers, first? Jacob will need to eat soon. And I admit to being hungry too. Are you ready now?"

He blew out the lantern and gestured for Vincent to lead the way. "Let's go."

They walked back in silence. Vincent had never met anyone so quiet. Alexander was like a deep well whose depths could only be guessed at. They entered the darkened chamber to find Samantha lighting the table candles.

"Hi, Vincent, I was hoping that I could help feel Jacob tonight." She halted in confusion at the sight of the stranger.

"Thank you, Samantha, that would be very helpful. This is Alexander. He's the one who named your last batch of cookies." Vincent watchedthe two of them nod to each other.

"You had just the right amount of cinnamon in the rangers. I enjoyedthem very much." Alexander's deep voice seemed to startle her.

She blushed and ducked her head. "Thank you, Alexander. I'll be making some more tomorrow if you'd like to try them again.

He chuckled. "I'll look forward to them."

Samantha smiled and turned to Vincent. "How about I take Jacobwith me? Are you going to eat in the dining hall?"

Vincent caught Alexander's sudden flinch out of the corner of his eyes. "No, I think we'll eat here. I'll come with you and bring the foodback. Please make yourself at home, Alexander. Perhaps you'denjoy looking over my small library?"

Without giving him a chance to disagree, Vincent shooed Samantha outand grabbed the bag of Jacob's changing things. Following her outwith a smile for his guest, he planned what he would tell William. But he found he didn't have to explain anything. Making up a trayfor them seemed to be just what the burly cook wanted to do. Shakinghis head, Vincent left young Jacob to his admiring fans and carried thetray back to his chambers.

Alexander was seated with an open volume before him on the table. Vincent waved him back to his chair and set down the tray of steaming food. William had exceeded his expectations. Succulent ham with sweet potatoes,fluffy biscuits with a bowl of honey on the side and a romaine salad completedthe menu. Alexander helped clear the table before sitting down again. For a few moments, hunger held sway and both men tucked into dinner.

But Vincent's sharp eyes had noticed the title of the book that hadbeen laid aside. "Do you enjoy Shakespeare?"

Alexander's gaze contemplated the black leather binding. "Thetexture appealed to my fingers, so soft and supple. I've never readhis sonnets, just a couple of his historical plays. Henry V, KingLear, Romeo and Juliet. I picked one at random, sonnet 73."

"Ah, that's one of my favorites." Vincent nodded in appreciation.

'That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.'

Alexander listened, his eyes on the biscuit in his hand.

'In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all in rest.'

Those violet eyes came up and contemplated him. Vincent kept uphis quiet recitation.

'In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by."

The eyes went unfocused and Vincent had the feeling that he was faraway in both space and time.

'This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.'

The silence stretched between them, Vincent wondering where Alexander'sspirit traveled. At the look of pain and sorrow in those eyes, Vincentcast his own gaze back down to his plate. A soft sigh came from theother side of the table.

"Thank you, Vincent. Your reading made it more real than the printedpage could ever be." Alexander went back to eating.

"One of the great pleasures here is reading aloud to each other andsharing our thoughts and interpretations of what we read."

"Reading as a group activity? Interesting, it's always been asolitary pursuit for me."

"Your parents never read aloud to you?" Vincent asked.

"Which set of parents?" Alexander shook his head, the familiarhalf smile appearing. "I had six sets of foster parents between birthand seventeen. The last ones signed me up for the marines and heaveda sigh of relief when I left. The people who took me in gave me foodand shelter and very little else. The public library where ever Iwas gave me all the books that I cared to read. The joy of readingcame later in my life. I was too busy growing up and learning tosurvive to really care about books."

"Father found me abandoned a few hours after my birth. He readto me often and instilled in me the same love and passion for books, whichhe feels. I am a lucky man although sometimes I forget that." Vincent smiled across the table at the enigmatic man whose eyes studiedhim so intently.

They discussed Shakespeare for the remainder of the meal, specifically,the play Henry V. Alexander described a modern film version he'dseen recently. Not for the first time, Vincent wished he could seesome of the movies that others spoke of with such passion. Mary stoppedby and informed Vincent that young Jacob would be staying with his grandfatherthat night.

Her pleasure in seeing Alexander brought another smile to the thin lips. She patted his shoulder and thanked him for the material he'd brought downfrom Above. Vincent held back from asking what material but it washard. He'd never had such trouble in keeping from asking personalquestions before. His curiosity about Alexander grew by the moment. Why was he so fascinated by this man? His dark good looks remindedhim just a little of Devin but his silence was nothing like his brother'stalkative nature.

He realized that Mary had left and his guest had asked him a question. "I'm sorry, Alexander. What did you ask?"

"I asked about the hot pool but you look tired. Perhaps anothertime?"

Vincent sat up straight and smiled ruefully. "No, I'm sorry Iwas so inattentive. I've been looking forward to the springs eversince I rolled over this morning and found a dozen aches."

"Wrestling can do that to you." Alexander chuckled and pushedback his chair. "After the little accident this afternoon, I findmyself looking forward to it as well. Should we clean up our dishes?"

"No, I'll take them down in the morning. We didn't leave anythingbut bare plates. Let me get a couple of towels to take down withus."

The walk down to the pool was made in companionable silence. Oncein the chamber, Vincent took a deep breath and began to undress. His fingers shook a little a when he finished removing his shirt. Keeping his eyes down, he bent to remove his boots. Small rustlingsounds told him that Alexander was also undressing.

"Oh, no." A warm hand gently touched the bare skin of his rightshoulder blade. He froze at the unaccustomed feeling. "You'vegot a bad bruise here. I must have done it last night."

Vincent craned his head around to try and see it but his eyes met Alexander'sand the concern there warmed him even more than the touch. "I'vehad worse. Don't worry about it."

"You can worry about hurting me but I'm not supposed to worry abouthurting you?" His tones were dry and his hand fell away.

He opened his mouth but couldn't think of anything to say. Hisgaze was caught by the long lean lines of Alexander's body, glowing palein the flickering candlelight. Even the loincloth had been discardedand Vincent's eyes swept from his feet up to his head without any impediment. Vincent blushed hard and dropped his eyes. He'd rarely seen anyonenaked before, brief glimpses in the hot pools but never so clearly.

Curiosity sparked and he struggled not to ask the question that rosewhen he saw the other's groin. He'd always wondered what circumcisionwould look like and now he knew. Alexander stepped into the pool,the long muscles in his back and buttocks flexing. And Vincent blushedagain, hurriedly finishing his undressing. What was wrong with him? He'd been ogling another man's body. His sense of the sanctity ofanother's privacy seemed to have been suspended with his new friend.

Joining him in the pool, he sighed at the welcome warmth of the bubblingwater. Finally deciding what to say, he looked up into the half-closedeyes across from him. "I've always been the strong one. I'mnot used to another matching my strength. Sometimes, I ... hurtothers ... when I lost control."

"So you try to never lose control."

Vincent ducked his head and nodded. The silence was filled withthe memories of all the people he'd hurt over the years. Why couldn'the be more controlled? His mind whispered to him, 'like Alexander'.

"That must be incredibly painful, Vincent." His voice was warmand brought Vincent's head up in astonishment. "Have you never allowedyourself to simply let go and just feel the moment? Are the othershere so weak that they must fear your strength?"

"No." Vincent's thoughts whirled in confusion. "Father isa very strong minded man."

"I expect that holds true for Mary as well. She strikes me asa very strong woman." His voice was gentle.

"Like my Catherine," Vincent said sadly, his memory replaying all thetimes she'd fought back against injustice and an uncaring system.

"Sometimes control is highly over-rated, Vincent. It becomes astraight-jacket that forces you to act a certain way when it would be betterif you just let it go ... let someone else be strong for a while."

Vincent caught his breath and remembered the cave where he and Catherinehad loved. He'd finally let go all his control and she'd .. . He wished he could remember what they had done. "I did that once. It ended up killing Catherine."

"I never said it wouldn't hurt. But if rumor has it right, italso brought you your son." Alexander leaned forward and touchedhis knee gently. "Why did you forget the breakdown and everythingthat came after?"

The events of the last year swirled through his mind in a broken patternof fragmentary memories like a kaleidoscope. He must have gaspedout loud because the warm hand moved up to his and gripped him firmly. "Let it out, Vincent. I'm strong enough to bear it."

And from the depths of his despair, Vincent felt the words flow outfrom him. By the time he was done, his voice had gone husky and hishead rested on Alexander'' broad shoulder. Strong arms cradled himwhile broad hands stroked his back in long soothing slides. He feltlighter than air, the only thing tethering him to earth was the man besidehim.

"Feel better?" Warm air gusted into his ear and Vincent shivered,part of him wanting to purr. "Come on, big guy, let's get you outof here before we both turn into prunes." Alexander chuckled andpulled back far enough so he could brush the long hair from Vincent's face. The violet eyes looked deep into his and whatever he saw there must havereassured him. "Thank you for letting me be the strong one tonight. How do you feel?"

Vincent thought about it while they climbed from the pool and he driedhimself shakily. "Empty ... but it's a good empty like a wine gobletwaiting for a bottle of wine to be opened."

Alexander's chuckle echoed in the chamber while he pulled on his jeans. "You have a way with words, Vincent. I envy you that."

They finished dressing and walked slowly back to Vincent's chambers. The silence was companionable again, filling up the empty spaces with quietlooks that comforted and soothed. At the chamber entrance, Vincentstopped Alexander's leave taking with a single touch. "Thank you. How did you know?"

Alexander shook his head. "I've been where you are. Themaster I told you about, who taught me about strength? He was therein my moment of deepest despair. He told me that another would needme as I had needed him. And half a world away, here we are. Good night, Vincent, pleasant dreams."

Vincent watched him disappear into the shadows of the tunnel beforeentering his chamber and blowing out all the candles but one. Tootired to even write in his journal, he undressed and crawled into bed. Wearily, he watched the candle flame flicker on his table before slidinginto a profound sleep where all his dreams were bright.

End Strength, part one