Author: Athea (
Fandom: Beauty and the Beast (TV version)
Note: Catherine is dead in this universe and Vincent has found a newfriend.
Date: Originally published in 1999 in a zine 'Different Seasons butrevised and updated 14 April 2001
Strength, part two

Vincent rolled over and slowly opened his eyes. The dream fadedfrom his mind even while he tried to catch the images and impress theminto his memory. A hand, strong and sure. A deep voice callinghis name. He looked about his room as if he'd never seen it before. The dishes were still on the table and he watched a small gray mouse scurryacross the oak with a few precious crumbs bulging out his cheeks. Smiling, he stretched and realized that most of the kinks from his wrestlingsession were gone.

He grew solemn when he thought about ... what could he call what happenedthe night before. Breakdown? Therapy? One friend listeningto another? He probed the memory like someone might probe a soretooth with his tongue ... nothing. The events of the last few monthswere just pictures in his mind. Something that happened, no morepain or guilt, just memories.

Sighing, he threw back the covers and swung his legs out of bed. Sitting there, he contemplated his feet and calves. They were hairierthan most but not really animal-like. His toenails were clipped shortand the faint downy hairs that dusted the tops of his feet looked goldenagainst his pale skin. Flexing his feet made the muscles in his calvesstretch too. At least his knees weren't bony.

Vincent slid his feet into his slippers and reached for his robe. He should be thinking about his lessons for this morning's class but hisbrain kept coming back to that clear space in his mind, the one left fromthe cleaning away of all the fear and guilt. The lovely freedom thatwas so new. He washed his face at the bowl on the stand and wishedfor the first time in his life that he had a mirror. Brushing histeeth, he wondered what he really looked like when he smiled. Didit frighten people to see his long incisors? They'd never scaredCatherine. She'd always tried to coax him to smile.

Stripping away his nightshirt, he glanced down at his chest and stomach. A fine layer of baby soft golden fur arrowed down to his groin where redgold curls surrounded his manhood. Uncircumcised, the tender skincovered his penis in a sheath of flesh. It wasn't like the sharp,clean look of Alexander's organ that nestled among his sable curls.

Vincent blushed and stopped that train of thought, hurriedly lookingthrough his armoire for a clean shirt. He kept his mind focused ongetting dressed and succeeded in banishing all other thoughts until hewas on his way to the kitchens with the dirty dishes from last night'sdinner. William accepted the dishes with a gruff smile and a fullplate of eggs and toast. He joined Father at his table, setting downhis breakfast before swinging his son up into a hug.

"Good morning, Vincent. Young Jacob knew you were coming at leastfive minutes ago. Do you think he heard you coming?" The dryscholar's tone alerted his son to his curiosity.

"Perhaps, Father." He handed the baby back and sat down to eat. "Some of his senses seem to be more active than the average child his age. According to the stories of my youth, I had hypersensitive hearing andsmell at an early age."

"Yes, we'll have to be on the look out for that." Father peeredover his glasses at him and pursed his lips. "He cried for half anhour last night and not even Mary could get him to stop."

"Really?" Vincent pondered the link between father and son. How close was it when the father was having a catharsis of conscious? "Were there any ill effects?"

"None. He stopped crying and went right to sleep, sleeping thenight through." He drank from his teacup while Vincent kept eatingand trying to think of a plausible story.

"Perhaps, he has begun the teething process? Did Mary check forreddened gums?"

"I did, remembering the days when you began teething. Such miseryyou endured, we all walked miles with you until that first tooth brokethrough. Motion was the only thing that kept you from crying." A fond smile crossed his lips and he dropped a quick kiss on the goldencurls under his chin.

"I must have been a sore trial, Father. Perhaps Jacob will havean easier time of it." Vincent smiled and drank the last of his tea. "I have class again this morning. Do you mind watching him for me?"

Father managed to look offended and pleased at the same time. "Of course, it's no trouble at all."

Vincent knew he'd only managed to postpone more questions and sooneror later he'd have to come up with some answers for his father. Butnot just yet, not until he discovered what those answers were for himself. His class was eager to take up where they'd left off the day before andthe morning passed quickly. The afternoon was spent bringing suppliesdown from the warehouse where several of their helpers had left them.

His mind achieved a certain degree of calm during the muscle intensivelabor. He even found the banter between Cullen and Mouse amusing,surprising them by laughing out loud at a particularly silly quip. They'd beamed at him and redoubled their efforts. All in all, itwas not a bad way to spend the day. Dinner was devoted to listeningto Father and Mary wrangle about whether he was well enough to start teachingagain.

When finally he was asked his opinion, he came down solidly on Mary'sside. Father scowled at them both but not before Vincent caught atwinkle in the faded blue eyes. Mary winked at him from behind Fatherand he was hard pressed to keep a straight face, gathering up his son andbending to kiss his father good night.

"Sleep well, Father. I'm going to take Jacob to the waterfalloverlook. He's never seen it and I think it's time." He pauseda moment before bending to kiss Mary as well. "If he gives you anytrouble, I'd take away his cane."

Mary twinkled and barely hid a smile at Jacob's snort. Vincentstrode from the dining hall, knowing that he left behind some very puzzledinhabitants. Gathering young Jacob's bag of supplies, he carriedhis son along the route that he and Catherine had taken so many times. It seemed that she walked with him this evening, listening while he talkedto Jacob about these particular tunnels.

Settling them on the cliff above the falls, he watched while the baby'seyes darted from one part of the landscape to another. The whitewater foaming down the cliff seemed particularly to fascinate him. Clapping his hands, he seemed to feel the display was meant just for him. Vincent chuckled and the baby chortled along with him. Sudden tearsfilled his eyes when he thought of how much Catherine would have enjoyedthis impromptu picnic at her favorite site Below. Little Jacob felthis father's emotion and patted Vincent's face gently.

The low-level noise of the falling water masked Vincent's whisper whilehe poured forth his memories of Catherine for her son. The baby listenedintently, sometimes laughing with Vincent and sometimes sharing his tears. Gradually his words slowed and small Jacob nestled his head against Vincent'sthroat, his tiny hand tangled in his father's hair while he drifted offto sleep. They stayed like that for another hour with Vincent castinghis senses out into the soothing sounds of the cascading falls.

The lightness of the night before remained in that clear unclutteredplace in his soul. Such a gift the dark stranger had given him. He considered Alexander while he strolled back to his chamber, absentmindedlyacknowledging the greetings of those he met on the way. What didhe really know about him? A former soldier, explosive expert, a manwho bore his own scars yet could still reach out to another.

He found his steps leading him to Kanin and Olivia's quarters. For a moment, he felt Catherine's presence, remembering how they had preparedthe rooms for the couple. A good memory to treasure and tell Jacobwhen he was older. Knocking on the door, he wondered for the firsttime why he was visiting at this hour.

"Vincent, I'm glad you came. You must be psychic, I was just thinkingabout you." Kanin opened wide the door and urged him inside. "Olivia's just putting the little one to bed. Why don't you put Jacobin the cradle so he can keep on napping? Then we can all gather aroundthe table and talk."

The teakettle was put on to heat and some of Olivia's scones set outwith a dish of honey to drizzle over them. When she joined them,Kanin got right down to his questions. "We've got a proposal to harnessthe energy of the waterfalls. Mouse came across an old book aboutwaterpower and I have to admit that it sounds intriguing. Of coursethe book has a copyright date of 1933 so there's sure to be newer information. Alexander volunteered to go above to do some more research for us." Kanin poured another cup of tea. "He should be back in a couple ofdays."

Vincent stilled. Alexander was gone. Why did that fact makehim feel so cold? He shook himself free of the sudden fear that he'dnever see him again and asked a question to cover his lapse of attention. Kanin happily expounded on the project and what it might entail. Vincent nodded in all the right places before slipping in the questionthat most bothered him.

"Does Alexander have a safe place to stay Above?"

"Hm-m-m?" Kanin looked up from his notes. "I think so. He'll probably stay with Jack, you know, Jack Nebbins, the Helper who introducedhim. He's got an Internet connection and Alexander said there wasa lot of information available out there." He shook his head. "Amazing how advanced computers have gotten these days. It wouldbe nice if we had one down here. Keep us in touch with the worldwithout having to venture out into the dangerous parts."

Olivia snorted. "And some of the tales I've heard tell about theInternet say it has its dangerous side too. Give me a book any day. I like my information in black and white with footnotes so I know whereit came from."

Kanin grinned. "Point taken, love. But Alexander will knowif the information is good or not. He's too intelligent to be takenin by false data. Remember that he's got those two degrees."

Vincent perked up. "Degrees?"

Kanin's mouth was full so Olivia answered him. "When he came todinner, he let slip that he had a degree in engineering from MIT and amasters degree from CalTech. He said it had taken him most of histwenty years in the military to finish them but the Marines paid for allof it."

Vincent nodded. That must be why he didn't have time for muchliterature. He was busy studying the sciences.

"He's got a lot of ideas if we can just make him feel comfortable enoughto share them with us. I'm afraid he feels a bit like an outsiderright now. Your friendship is helping, Vincent." Kanin smiled. "You've been seen together and that's been talked about. But he'svery shy around the others, except for Mouse, of course. He's sopatient with that young man."

"Actually, he's very good for Mouse." Olivia added. "Heunderstands what that boy is talking about and can translate it for therest of us. Mouse never seems to mind when Alexander corrects himor suggests a different approach. He's a good listener and a goodman, even if he is afraid of children."

"What?" The question escaped before Vincent could stop himself.

Olivia giggled and cast a laughing look at her husband. "Whenhe came for dinner, the baby was crawling around and headed straight forAlexander. He pulled himself up by tugging on his pant legs and thepoor man went literally rigid. He was so pale that I was afraid thathe'd pass out. So I rescued him and put the little imp to bed. He didn't relax for almost half an hour."

Kanin sighed and put his hand over Olivia's. "I'm afraid his phobiais deep. When I mentioned it to Jack a week or so later, he toldme why Alexander reacted the way he did."

He swallowed the last of his tea and Olivia poured him some more whileVincent waited impatiently for the rest of his story.

"When Alexander was a young man in Vietnam, he married and had a child. It was just before the fall of Saigon and he was trying to get papers toget them both to safety before the south was overrun by the north. They were staying in a mission outside of Saigon with some Catholic nuns,which served as an orphanage for children of mixed birth. He thoughtthey were safe there but the Viet Cong had infiltrated that far south andon his last visit, they began blowing up the buildings. While heand his wife were trying to help evacuate all the children, they discoveredtheir son was missing. He'd crawled away in the confusion and backinto the building."

Vincent felt a creeping cold spread throughout his body while he listenedto his friend. His vivid imagination painted the picture in his mindwith copious detail. He shivered when he thought of what was coming.

"Alexander saw his wife running back into the building and he followedher. But it was already too late. Explosions ripped throughthe structure and shredded everyone who was too close." Kanin's eyeswere haunted. "They both died and Alexander was left with the scarsyou can see."

"And those you can't." Vincent murmured and closed his eyes againstthe horrific visions of noise and fire and death. Now he understoodwhat Alexander meant when he'd said 'inner scars never really heal -- theyjust scab over until the next time someone wants to rip out your heart.'

"Oh, sweetheart, why didn't you tell me?" Olivia wiped away atear and then another.

"Well ... he's such a private man. It didn't seem right untiljust now, with the two of you here." Kanin leaned over and kissedher cheek.

Vincent cradled his teacup and fought back a sudden need to see andtouch the dark man who'd held him the night before. Had someone beenthere for him the aftermath of so much devastation? Besides his katainstructor? Who had he leaned on ... or had he just kept it allinside? The way that Vincent had done until offered a broad shoulderand an echoing memory of pain.

"Thank you, Kanin. It ... explains some of his reactions, bothto me and to certain events." Vincent needed some space and he neededit now. "Thank you both, I'm very lucky to have two such good friends."

"Come anytime, Vincent. If you ever need a sitter, just let meknow. Two babies are no more trouble than one." Olivia smiledgently and touched his hand.

Kanin snorted once before turning an innocent look at his wife. "I'll let you know when Alexander comes back with his research. We'llneed to go over together before we mention it to the Council."

"Agreed." Vincent rose and gathered up his son. The babysnuggled into his neck and went right back to sleep. "I will seeyou both soon."

Their goodnights echoed quietly after him when they shut the door behindhim. His thoughts darted from one subject to another. But theone thing they all had in common was his new friend, Alexander. Rememberingthe pattern of scarring, he must have had his left side to the buildingwhen it exploded. Had he found his child or wife and been tryingto shield them?

He died. I sacrificed myself for nothing. Alexander'swords echoed in his head, his son. But what of his wife? Perhapsshe hadn't died. Then why weren't they together? So many puzzlesand mysteries in his life but then he might feel the same way about Vincent'spast. Of course, he knew a lot more since Vincent's tortured outpouringof grief.

He puttered about his chamber after putting Jacob to bed. It tookhim almost an hour to write down his feelings about what he'd learned abouthimself and Alexander. Sighing, he laid down his pen and stretched. Removing his robe, he blew out the last candle and slid into bed, pullingthe covers up to his chin with another sigh. Tomorrow, he'd thinkabout all of this tomorrow.

And using all the discipline he was capable of, he fell asleep betweenone thought and the next.


Five long days later, Vincent looked up from the table where he waspreparing his next lesson and found Alexander lounging in his doorway. He looked ... tired and perhaps a little sad, Vincent decided while hewas rising to greet him.

"Welcome back, Alexander. Kanin told me of your research trip. Did you find anything?" He came around the table and motioned himfurther into the room. "The teapot is still warm if you would likea cup."

Alexander came in and sat with a brief nod. Vincent hid a frownof concern. He looked so pale, perhaps he was coming down with something. Grabbing the tin off of the side table, he opened it and offered him someof Samantha's latest batch of cookies.

"Thank you, it's good to be back." His voice sounded huskier thanusual. "I accessed a computer database from the University of Washingtonwhich had quite a bit of new info on some projects that have been goingon in some of their rivers."

He took a sip of tea and half-closed his eyes against the light. Vincent quickly extinguished several of the candles and watched him sigh. "Were you able to ... is download the correct term?"

Alexander smiled and drank the rest of his tea in two gulps. "Verygood, Vincent, I was able to download and print off the files that willbe useful to us. I made three copies of each one so they could beshared among everyone who might be involved in this project. He acceptedanother cup of tea and just as quickly drank it down.

"Are you feeling all right, Alexander?" Vincent rose to fill histeakettle with more water for heating on the small propane stove at theside table.

"Just a bit dehydrated, Vincent." He leaned his head against thechair back. "A couple of old friends visited Jack while I was there. I overindulged a bit yesterday. I'm getting too old for this."

"You ate too much?" Vincent tried to understand.

A husky chuckle and a full-fledged grin provoked an answering smile. "Not exactly, my friend. Too much liquid and not enough food, I havegot to stop drinking tequila."

"Ah-h-h, a hangover. Father has a very good remedy for that. He usually has to bring it out after Winterfest for one or two of our visitors." Vincent settled back in his own chair and waited for the water to boil. "Kanin is very excited about generating our own power. I must admit,it would be nice to be able to have more light in the class rooms and Williamwould love cooking on an electric stove."

"If we had more electricity, what else would you like to have?" Alexander asked while reaching for a cookie. "How about a computerto teach the young ones the skills they will need Above?"

Vincent nodded and started making a fresh pot of tea. "I mustadmit to curiosity about the Internet. Someone told me once thatyou can send a message to someone on the other side of the world and theycould reply, all in the same day."

Alexander chuckled again and began to explain e-mail and how the WorldWide Web was revolutionizing the way the world communicated. He finishedthree more cups of tea and several ginger cookies. To Vincent's eye,his color looked better then when he'd arrived.

"Here's your copy, Vincent. I'm going to drop off a copy for Kaninand one for Mouse." Alexander arose and leaned against the tablefor a moment. "That's it, never again do I go drink-for-drink withmy old friends. You're my witness, Vincent. Not even if I'minvited to Winterfest, do I drink again."

"All Below are invited to Winterfest." Vincent hastened to reassurehim. "Our festivities are open to Helpers Above who receive our candles. You ceased to be a Helper and became one of us when you moved here."

"And if I left?" Alexander asked from the doorway.

Vincent froze for a moment then cast a quick look at the dark man. "You will always be one of us, the way all who have come down and sharedtheir lives. Below will always be a safe haven especially for thoseof us who can't live anywhere else."

"A haven, indeed." And with his familiar half smile, Alexanderdeparted silently, leaving Vincent feeling that he'd missed something inthe conversation.


A week later, Vincent chose to go Above to retrieve further informationfrom Jack. It had been a while since he'd walked the back streetsat midnight and he savored the fresh cool air of late Fall. The crispbreeze made him glad of his warm cloak and he held it close about him whilehe climbed the fire escape to Jack's apartment. With a tap at theglass, he was welcomed in by the explosive expert.

"Thank you, Jack. We got word that you had further informationon the hydroelectric project." Vincent carefully checked his surroundingswith his sensitive hearing. He never felt quite safe when enclosedin semi-familiar places. It was a phobia compounded in equal portionsof being within four walls and perhaps paradoxically of being in the openspace that was New York.

"Yep, Alex left me his password and I've been checking his e-mail forhim. He signed up for some discussion list that talks about alternativepower sources. And boy, do they talk and talk and talk." Jackrolled his eyes and brought out a denim backpack stuffed full of paper,setting it by his guest before heading for the kitchen.

Vincent's eyes widened, wondering just how many pages there were butJack was still talking from the other room. "Seems there's some differenceof opinion about how best to accomplish their twin goals of using a renewableresource with the least amount of interference in the natural scheme ofthings. Jesus, can they talk around the subject! There's twocamps and they've been going at it hammer and tongs lately."

He came back in with a tray of cookies and tea. "It's kind offun listening in on their discussion. The computer gurus call it'lurking' and that's kind of what it feels like." He paused to pourthe tea and offer the biggest mug to Vincent. It was the one withthe over-sized handle that allowed him to get two fingers through.

"We certainly appreciate your continuing willingness to monitor theinformation. You can imagine that we have our own rather ... heateddiscussion going on Below." Vincent chose his words carefully andhid a smile at Jack's snort of derision.

"You guys can talk a subject plumb to death down there. I'll wagerAlex isn't taking any part in it. That boy is too quiet for his owngood. I'd like to thank you for taking him under your wing, Vincent." Jack smiled approvingly at him.

"I think you have it turned around, Jack. He's been a true friendto me. Without his help, I think I would still be mourning for Catherine. He lanced my grief and showed me that it was time to let go of the pain." Vincent gripped his cup and spoke earnestly to the gruff old man who watchedhim closely.

Jack smiled and nodded. "I expect that Kanin told you about Alex'spast?" He waited for Vincent's nod before continuing. "I methim in a class I was teaching at Langley where I was teaching spies toblow thing up. I knew a little of what happened to him because hisold sergeant had given me a call on what to expect. That boy wasso quiet and closed up inside that all you saw were the scars. Theywere newer then and hideous. He always sat in the back on the leftside so his right was presented to the other students."

His eyes unfocused while he traveled back in time. "Gunny toldme about the death of his boy and the fact that his wife was a vegetablein a Hong Kong hospital. He plumb worshipped her and every threemonths, he flew over and visited her even though she was in a coma anddidn't know him. He'd spend twenty-four hours telling her what washappening in his life and how much he missed her and needed her to wakeup. But, she never did. She lasted most of five years beforeshe died, never knowing that he still visited her."

He took a sip of tea and refocused on Vincent. "That was abouttwo weeks into my class. He went on a bender of gigantic proportionsafter he buried her. I never saw anybody put away so much liquorin complete silence. Until the third bottle when it all poured outof him like water from a faucet. How much he loved her and how itwas his fault that she and the baby had died."

Vincent protesting murmur made him pause. "I know. It wasn'treally his fault, no more than Catherine getting kidnapped was yours, butguilt doesn't obey logic. Does it?" His wise eyes gazed compassionatelyat his guest. "He wanted to die in the worst way but he had a dutyto perform. He was in my class to learn how to blow things up betterthan he already knew how and safely so no one else would ever be harmedagain. 'Course, explosives are a death waiting to happen and theblow-er all too often gets killed at one point or another because he getscareless or an unknown factor is involved."

"Like rock that you're not sure of." Vincent murmured, thinkingback to when they'd first met.

"Exactly. I kept my eye on him after that. I figured hewas heading for a suicide mission that would put him out of his misery. But time went on and he settled down, had a fling or two. He showedme that he hadn't given up on the gentler emotions, although he did swearoff women. Said they hurt too much and men were easier to love andlet go when they moved on."

Vincent choked on his tea when his hearing caught up with his comprehension. Staring wide-eyed at his old friend, he caught the appraising look in thedark brown eyes. "He's bisexual, Vincent, and has been for twelveyears now. Do you think that would cause him a problem Below? Is it going to cause a problem with your friendship?"

Vincent's thoughts whirled while he rearranged his beliefs and ideasto insert these strange new ones. "I ... I do not think so, Jack. He is ... himself. This is simply a facet that I never saw before. He is still ... Alexander and my friend."

Jack sighed quietly and poured some more tea. "I was hoping you'dsay that, Vincent. It's bound to come out sooner or later and I knowthat his friendship with you is something that he holds dear. He'sgot so few real friends that know him truly that I would hate for him tolose one."

Vincent drank his freshly poured tea too quickly and almost scaldedhis tongue. "I do not know much about these matters, Jack. I still have no memory of Catherine and I."

Jack nodded. "It's all right, Vincent. I've always saidthat it's the heart that matters not the body that it's housed in. You loved Catherine and she loved you. You figured out how to makelove and that sweet boy of yours is the result. Alex just discoveredthat making love with a man was as satisfying as making love with a woman. Love is love and that's the important thing."

Vincent nodded while trying to keep from asking questions that wouldonly embarrass them both. Like how and what went where? Andwas it pleasurable? He could feel himself blushing and hoped thatthe dim light in the living room hid the tide of red creeping up to hishairline. All the questions he'd never been able to ask Father aboutmaking love to a woman, paled next to what he would say if he asked himhow men made love together.

Jack went back to their original conversation as if they'd never talkedabout anything else. "It'll probably be another week or so beforethere's more data to pick up. Why don't we make a date to meet again? But this time, I'll come below. I don't want to risk you to thesemean streets too often."

Vincent pulled himself together and agreed. Hoisting the backpackover one shoulder, he followed Jack down to the basement and the secretentrance that led to a little used section of tunnels. Saying hisgood-byes, he automatically followed the forks that would lead him to theHome Tunnels while all the time his thoughts spun around in circles. He dropped off the pack at Kanin's and collected his cranky son. His spurious use of teething to hide his own turmoil had proven propheticand Jacob was running a slight fever while his first tooth tried to pokethrough. He grizzled into his father's neck, gnawing on the leathertie of his cloak with soft whimpers.

Olivia had rubbed his gums with chamomile and clove oil salve. Giving him a chilled pacifier to chew on, she instructed Vincent to re-chillit in ice water whenever it stopped its numbing effect. Reachinghis chamber, he set about putting Jacob to bed with only half his mindon the familiar routine. Unfamiliar feelings surged to the surfaceof his emotions and he had to calm himself, lest his son pick up on themand grow agitated in return. Part of him was matter-of-factly acceptingAlexander's bi-sexuality while another part of his mind kept wonderinghow men made love to other men. He at least knew how men and womenfit together anatomically.

"Oh, Jacob. I can't even check the library for books because I'venever seen anything like that on the shelves and I've seen all ofthem at least one." He sighed and patted the little back under hishand while Jacob squirmed around getting comfortable. He used a comfortingmurmur to soothe his son to sleep. "And what about AIDS? Ishe at risk of that disease like young Simon who came Below to die? Father said that it was because he was gay that he contracted the disease. I am so tired of questions without answers."

"I see Jack has been explaining my life again." The husky voicefrom the doorway startled him into an upright stance facing the entrancewhere the lean dark shape stood.

Thinking more quickly than he ever had in his life, Vincent blushedand spoke the truth. "I think he was afraid that the news of yourbisexuality would hurt you here Below. He asked me if it would affectour friendship and I said no."

"But you have questions?" Alexander hovered near the doorway asif unsure whether to stay or to go.

"I always have questions. I know very little about ... makinglove to anyone. I still have no memories of my time with Catherine. I ... I don't think I hurt her." He spoke aloud the fear that hauntedhim. "On the roof while she lay dying, she told me that we loved. She always chose her words so carefully. If I'd ... raped her,surely she wouldn't have used the word love?"

Alexander sighed and ran his hand through his dark hair. Comingon into the room, he extinguished a couple of the candles and sat downat the table with a gesture for Vincent to join him. "The consensusBelow is that while you were delirious, she kept you alive anyway she could. The women are all pretty sure that you'd been the one holding back andwhile you were out of your senses, she took charge and initiated the lovemaking. The men all tend to think that you came to yourself and decided to makeup for lost time. Stop me if you've heard any of this before."

Vincent felt his mouth drop open while he sat down heavily at the oldoak table and stared across the scarred surface at the tired face. He couldn't for the life of him figure out how to answer the question ofhow much he'd heard of the speculation about his love life since it hadnever occurred to him that anyone might be speculating.

"Oh, my friend, if you could see your face." Alexander finallysmiled and leaned his arms on the tabletop. "The only person moreinnocent down here, excepting some of the children, is Mouse. Youreally do have questions to ask, don't you? Why don't I start andyou can ask when something doesn't make sense? I'll answer the bestI can."

Vincent nodded and listened intently to Alexander's matter-of-fact accountof male on male love. He laid out the risks, the benefits, the variationsand the differences between men loving men and men loving women. The brief digression in women loving other women widened Vincent's eyes. Alexander was as frank as he needed to be; reminding him of one of theanatomy texts that Vincent had read in Father's library. Tea wasmade and consumed while Vincent asked his shy questions and Alexander patientlyanswered.

They fell silent after almost an hour of talking and Vincent sighed. Why do questions always bring more questions?

"I should let you get some sleep, Vincent. We can talk again later... when you've thought up more questions." He teased him lightly.

"Thank you." Vincent walked him to the door and laid a gentlehand on his arm, unsure if his touch would be welcome. "This doesn'tchange our friendship, Alexander. I am very glad that you've beenso patient with me."

"Remember what I said about being strong?" Alexander paused inthe doorway and covered Vincent's hand with his own. "It goes bothways, my friend. Someday I may need a shoulder to cry on."

Vincent nodded. "I'll be here."

Alexander smiled a quiet good night and moved soundlessly away downthe dark tunnel without even a candle to guide him. Vincent wentback into his chamber and mechanically undressed. Checking on Jacob,he recovered the sleeping baby. His mind stilled into silence. But what kind of silence, he asked himself.

Stunned disbelief? Disgusted repugnance? Joyful acceptance? He crawled into bed and pulled the covers high, rolling onto one side andbunching the pillow into just the right shape. Acceptance, at thevery least, and certainty of the facts for sure. Some of it stillmade no sense to him but of one thing he was perfectly clear.

My friend.

It had given him such a warm feeling to hear himself described thatway. He'd used the same phrase to Jack about Alexander and now ithad been applied to him and that felt better than good. He ponderedthe feeling for a long moment and realized that it was because they werenow on an equal footing. They both knew about each other's pastsand accepted them. That felt incredibly liberating, Vincent decidedwhile his eyes closed.

My friend.

End part two