Author: Athea (
Series: Beauty and the Beast
Date: 9 December 2000, revised 14 April 2001
Note: The characters from the TV show don't belong to me but I'm treatingthem a lot better than those writers ever did. But the original charactersyou'll find are mine and I'd prefer that you don't use them without permission.
Part three

Vincent sat down slowly and rested his head against the high-backedchair. It had been a long three days of digging but the damage fromthe minor quake that had shaken their world was now repaired. Replayingthe events of the last seventy-two hours, he found himself frowning. Something wasn't right. Someone was missing. In the uproarfollowing the quake, they had done a count of their community. Everyonewas present and accounted for except for those Above.

Good heavens, Alexander.

He sprang up and headed for the door. The pools first thenhe'd check his rooms down on C level. How could he have forgottenthe look of fear on his friend's face? How could he have let himgo without a comforting word or a thank you for his bravery? Hadhe gotten so callused that he just assumed that everyone would react theway he did?

Those uncomfortable questions plagued him all the way down tothe hot springs where a large number of the tunnel dwellers had taken refuge. Too many people. Alexander would seek the quiet places, the darkcorners of which his world had many. Closing his eyes, he sent outhis senses but everywhere was noise, talk, chatter and even singing.

Farther below, in the calm unlit tunnels, some still unexploredby even him. That's where Alexander would go. He strode out,content in his knowledge that Father and Mary would keep small Jacob safe,even if he had to be gone all night. He was not leaving Alexanderalone with his demons. Pausing at Paschal's rooms, Vincent gave himthe message he was to send if anyone asked for him and asked if he'd heardanything on the pipes about his missing friend.

Paschal shrugged helplessly and shook his head. Vincentkept back a sigh and left for level C. Why was it that everyone wasalways forgetting about Alexander? More of them knew where Narcissa'srooms were than where their resident explosives expert made his home. He'd tried to correct that a little by mentioning his work and remindingthe others of how much easier he made some of their excavations. But their normal response to that was a blank look or one of those statementsthat Catherine had always called a 'that's nice, dear' comment.

It angered him and saddened him at the same time. He spokenof it to Father but the patriarch had counseled him to be patient and letthe others get to know him on his terms. But aside from the occasionaldinner with Kanin and Olivia, Alexander never ventured into the more settledtunnels. But when something went wrong, he always came and helpeduntil the emergency was over before disappearing again.

Reaching the chamber of the winds, Vincent took a deep breathand let it out into the cacophony of noise that roared here. He alwaysfelt so free here. Free of the expectations of the others, free ofthe hundred and one things that needed to be done; free of the ghosts thatcrowded the tunnels. He felt younger here somehow as if here he couldplay the way he'd played as a boy with Devon. At the foot of thesteps, he paused.

Did he see Alexander as a substitute for his foster brother?

He thought for a long moment, his hearing not picking up any humansounds. No, he decided, Devon and Alexander were both dark-complectedbut there the resemblance ended. In fact, he couldn't think of anyonemore unlike his brother than the scarred man who was so silent about hisfeelings. So why did he persist in drawing him into his life?

My friend.

It all came down to that. Alexander was his friend and thedark explosive expert had been one of the catalysts in bringing him backto life after Catherine's death. His friendship was precious andhe'd been through too much in his life for Vincent to leave him on hisown now.

But his rooms were dark and empty.

Vincent thought for a long moment. In the six months sincehe'd met Alexander in the hot springs, they had spoken often and visitedmost of the sights of the Tunnels. Alexander had an affinity to waterand he'd once mentioned the underground river that Vincent remembered witha shudder. Could he have gone that deep?

A whisper of humming came from further down the dark tunnel outsideof Alexander's door. He cocked his head towards it and thought itsounded like his oldest friend, Narcissa. Might Alexander have takenrefuge with her? Vincent began the long descent to her familiar chambers. As a boy, he'd often fled to the elderly black woman forsolace from teasing or stories of the spirit world or just to sit withher and listen to the winds that whispered through her rooms.

The lantern he carried was the only spark of light down here. The chill was constant now and he was glad that his cloak was heavy. Catherine had always teased him about all of his layers. For a moment,he could almost hear her laughter and he smiled at the sweet memory. There was still so much of that dark time before her death that he couldn'tremember.

The humming was louder now and he recognized the lullaby thatCatherine had sung to Ellie before her death. How had Narcissa heardit? He often found himself humming it to small Jacob so the babywould have something of Catherine to go to sleep with. That and herrabbit that he was finally able to clutch to himself were two of the giftsthat his mother had left him.

The entrance to Narcissa's chamber loomed up and he stopped justoutside.

"Come in, Veen-cent. It is good that you come." Herfamiliar voice came from the darkness and he stepped inside to see thesmall fire in the middle of the room. She sat in a low chair likea queen of the night, straight-backed and with her head held high. Her sightless eyes came to him as they always did. "What do you seek,Veen-cent?"

"My friend, Alexander. He was upset when he left us andI need to know that he's all right." Vincent knelt on the other sideof the fire across from her.

"Fear. Fear and loss. Those are the demons that rulea shackled heart. Have you ever been afraid, child?" Her headtilted and Vincent remembered how he'd always thought that the spiritswere speaking to her.

"Yes, I have been afraid." He acknowledged. "Afraidof myself, that I might hurt others. Afraid that I hurt Catherineand led her to her death. Afraid that I will hurt others with mybestial side."

"The beast, Veen-cent, who is he?"

And Vincent sat on the ground by her fire and said his worst fearout loud. "He is myself, the part of me that must never be allowedto see the light of day."

Her chuckle sounded very loud. "We all have beasts insideof us, child. And some beasts are terr-r-rible creatures. Butour beasts are a part of us. They give us strength when our fearis overpowering. When all hope is gone, then the beast will havehis day. Is all your hope gone, Veen-cent?"

"No, Narcissa, Catherine left me a fine son and he is the hopeof my future."

"And how was he conceived, child? Out of fear or out oflove?"

Vincent swallowed hard. "As she lay dying, she said thatwe had ... loved."

"Did she lie?"

"I don't know. I don't remember any of it." Vincentbowed his head and let his hair cover his face.

"But it was the beast in the cave, wasn't it, the part of youthat you hate and fear? How could he have loved your Catherine?" Her words brought up his deepest fear.

"I don't know, Narcissa. I don't know."

"Don't taunt him, Narcissa. He has burdens enough." Another voice came wearily into the room and Vincent saw the dim shapeof his friend join them from the back room of Narcissa's cave.

Her chuckle raised the hairs on the back of Vincent's neck. "Two of you, two fears and two souls that battle dark beasts. Wouldyou be rid of them, Veen-cent and Alex-a-a-ander?"

"Is there a way to remember what is lost?" Vincent kepthis eyes on his old friend, only noticing out of the corner that Alexanderlooked drawn and haggard.

"Nothing is ever completely lost, child. But there is aprice, all things have a price." She nodded beneath her gaily-coloredturban, her white-filmed eyes staring into the everlasting dark. "And what of you, dark one, would you pay a price?"

"I pay every hour of every day for my mistake." Alexandersaid wearily.

"No, would you pay for Veen-cent to be free of his fear?"

Vincent saw the dark head come up and look at him, his violeteyes almost black in the dim light. "What do you mean?"

"And Veen-cent, would you pay for Alex-a-a-ander to be free ofhis fear?"

"Is it possible, Narcissa?" Vincent's eyes would not letthe other's go. "If I could take the regret and pain from him, thenyes, I would."

"Would it bring back Vincent's memories of the time he loved Catherine?" The husky voice was uncertain for the first time since he'd met the explosiveexpert.

"With love, all things are possible, children. Do you makethis bargain equally, to share the other's fear as if it were your own? To take it from the other, never to return?"

"I would spare you the pain of my mistakes, Vincent." Alexanderrubbed his eyes and sighed. "But if it brought you the memories youseek then I will share them."

"If I could relieve the aching longing that I see in your eyeswhen you look at a child and your horror at failing again what you couldnot control, then I am willing for you to see the worst of who I am." Vincent was afraid, more deeply afraid then when he'd first heard the soundof another heartbeat echoing in his mind and realized that it was his son's.

"Good, a bargain is made. Friend will help friend and fearwill be shared. Sit you, side by side." She directed them andAlexander moved a foot so he was at Vincent's side. Vincent sat cross-legged,his knee almost touching Alexander's.

"What do we have to do, Narcissa?" Alexander asked quietly.

"Nothing. Your guides will come to show you the way. They are familiar spirits who wish to leave you a gift. Breathe deepand relax. Watch the fire, there are only weary souls here, longingfor peace." Her eyes closed and Vincent could have sworn he heardher chuckle.

"Well, it is past time, my husband, for you to acknowledgeme."

Vincent heard the bell-like tones of a laughing voice and feltAlexander shudder beside him. Reaching out a hand, he laid it gentlyon the knee beside his.

"Ming, I didn't think I'd ever hear your voice again." Therewas so much pain in the husky voice and Vincent suddenly saw an explosionof fire, red flames and black smoke with heat that singed heart and lungs. Nuns holding children, small children crying and holding onto the nearestskirt, a young Alexander in uniform and short hair holding two childrenwhile herding three others towards a grove of ragged looking trees.

"I love you dearly, my Alexander but I'd rather be rememberedwith joy than with guilt and pain. It was not your fault that Jamesand I died. I went back in knowing it was dangerous, if any bearguilt it is me."

Alexander shook his head. "Not your fault, little Ming,mine for not working faster and getting you and James out of Vietnam."

"Sweet love, you worked night and day to get our papers. You could have slipped us across the border at least twice but I was theone who wouldn't go. Did I ever tell you why, my Alexander?"

The soft voice sounded as if it were right beside them and Vincentcould have sworn that he felt the brush of silk against his cheek.

"My sister was one of the nuns at the orphanage where we waited. She was trying to get the children out of the country and I was helpingher. We were so close when the final attack happened. She wasone of the first to die that day and in my grief, I lost sight of James. He knew that his Aunt Li was inside the building and that I was cryingfor her. So, he went back in to bring her out to me. It wastruly my fault that he went back. In my grief and terror, I triedto save him and instead lost both of you that day. I watched youyear after year, grieving for me and bitterly closing yourself off fromlove. Oh, my Alexander, if I could have only spoken to you then,let you see that it was not your fault."

A tear was trickling down the scarred face. "I got lostsomewhere along the way, Ming. Every time I saw a child or hearda laughing baby, I'd freeze inside. Then, two days ago, I had torescue one of the tunnel children and I almost didn't. I almost frozeagain and let another child die."

"Oh, my love. Did you think that James does not knowhow much you loved him? That he blamed you for letting him die? Oh, Alexander, he loves you, as do I. Let the fear go and let thechildren back in. You didn't fail James and you didn't fail littleOliver. Come and feel again."

Vincent felt a sudden lift of spirits and closed his eyes. Afterwards he tried to remember what he had seen but all that was leftwas a wash of color and light that lit up the room like a rainbow afterthe storm. He heard a child's chortle and Ming's laughter mix withthe deep chuckle that he'd only heard twice since meeting Alexander.

He was smiling and crying at the same time when he opened hiseyes, looking at Alexander and seeing the same expression that he knewwas on his face. The violet eyes opened and looked at him. Shaking his head, his husky voice had healing tears in it. "I loveyou, Ming. Take care of James and one of these days we'll meet againin the light."

"We love you too, my Alexander. Don't be in a hurry. We have all the time in eternity. You promise not to brood, my darkknight?"

He ducked his head and smiled. "I promise not to brood .. . too much."

"I couldn't ask for more. And now, a friend of mine wouldlike to speak with her Vincent. And Alexander, don't forget to lovebecause someone needs you. Sweet dreams, my dark knight."

Vincent trembled and Alexander's hand dropped over his, warminghim with his strength. "Catherine?"

"Vincent. Thank you for finding Jacob. You're doingsuch a good job with him. He's loved and happy. His brightspirit shines in these dark tunnels with such joy that it's a pleasureto see him. Are you finally ready to know what happened?"Her voice was as he remembered it, sweet and gentle with so much love init that he could have wept.

"Probably not, but I need to know. You said we loved, Catherine. Did we truly?"

"Oh, sweetheart, of course we did. You could never hurtme, Vincent. When you split yourself in two with the impossible taskof keeping all emotion under strict control, you created a schism thatalmost destroyed you. But do you know what brought you back? Love did. The one you called the beast, was just the part of youthat needed and wanted. You both loved me, though and when I wentin after you, I was met by the man I loved with all my heart and soul. You were in terrible condition but ready to kill yourself rather than hurtme. So, I gave myself to you and when we lay together, you gave bothof you to me. Maybe I should have not taken you physically but .. . oh, Vincent, I loved you so much that I couldn't pass up the chanceto make love. Please say you forgive me."

"I forgive you freely, Catherine." Vincent stopped to wipehis eyes with the hand that Alexander wasn't holding. "But why can'tI remember? Why would I wipe out the memory of loving and joy?"

"Sweetheart, you are still trying to deny the emotions thatfrighten you. Love is a pretty scary business, Vincent and sometimesyou can lose control. And that is your greatest fear, love, thatyou will lose control and hurt someone. But you lost control thatnight and you didn't hurt me in the least. In fact, you gave me mygreatest blessing. Jacob is worth everything that happened. And now, I need your forgiveness, Vincent."

"Anything, Catherine, but you did nothing wrong." Vincentfelt a cool breeze touch his cheek and almost he could feel her lips onhis cheek.

"Yes, I did, Vincent. I kept investigating that damnblack book even after I knew how dangerous it was. I had to provemyself and fight back against the corruption that was invading the DA'soffice. Even after I knew I was pregnant, I kept on fighting. And for that, I need your forgiveness. I should have come Below,thrown myself on Father's mercy and had our son in safety. But Ileft it too late and almost destroyed you both."

Vincent felt his emotions swirl in a tidal pool of feeling, firstone way then another until he felt dizzy. "I don't know what mighthave been, Catherine. You did what you thought right and you madethat decision believing that ... no one Below would help you. Father'sanimosity denied you the place you should have had by my side. Mybattle with myself denied you my love and memory. You investigatedand were taken by an evil man who thought he was God. But if youtruly think you need my forgiveness then it is yours, freely and openly. But only if you forgive me for trying to deny my love for you."

"Oh Vincent, my sweet love. Look and see what you forgot."

He felt her hand in his and his eyes closed tight while her lipscovered his, teasing his mouth open for their tongues. And then againstthe backdrop of his eyelids, he saw them together. In the dim lightof the single lantern, he saw himself rush at her and stop, a look of indecisionon his face. He saw her reach for him and watched the dark beastfall into her arms, bearing them both to the ground.

His dark brother held her and wouldn't let go, all the while shewhispered to him, words he no longer understood. Watched as she kissedhim over and over, her hands checking his body for wounds. Theirclothing was pushed aside and he watched his brother's hands touch herbreast as if he'd never seen one before.

"Not your brother, Vincent, it is you. Can you finallysee?"

"Let go, Vincent, I'll catch you when you fall." Alexander'svoice was strong and he gave a sob ...

... and let himself become his dark brother. Catherine'sflesh was warm and he was so cold. Her words crooned and piercedhis heart with the love he heard there. Her hands stroked him, toldhim that she loved him with every soft caress. His hands were clumsybut they didn't hurt her, instead they made her gasp and moan his name. She was open to him and when she pushed him onto his back and freed hissex, he shivered. But then his hard flesh was sliding into her andhe'd never felt anything like it before.

Warmth, wetness and tight constriction that massaged him intoan excitement that he feared. But she gentled him with her voiceand hands while taking all of him inside of her. Then she began tomove and that was even better because she was smiling down at him and thejoy on her face came from him. He knew that because she told himand he felt it with every pulse of his sex. Then she was moaningand he thrust up once and watched her shiver into a climax that rippledaround his organ and ripped his release from him at the same moment.

She collapsed onto his chest and he held her close, whisperinghis love to her and hearing her love returned to him. The cave nolonger felt so cold and he sighed as he fell asleep.

Opening his eyes, he remembered every moment of the cave and thelove that they shared. Looking at Alexander, he saw the smile onhis face that must be on his own. "We loved. I didn't hurther."

"I know. I told you that it wasn't in you." The violeteyes wrinkled in silent laughter and Vincent blushed.

"Vincent, accept yourself as you are. Please rememberthat you created Jacob with love and tenderness. Let yourself loveagain. Don't deny that great, strong heart that you carry insideof you. I will always love you and Jacob."

"Catherine, I will always hold you in my heart. I promisethat Jacob will know that we loved." Vincent felt a soft kiss onhis lips.

"Love isn't that far away, Vincent. Open your heart-sightand take a good look at someone who loves you for who you really are. Wherever I am, I'll be loving you and wishing you joy. 'Parting issuch sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight 'til it be morrow.' Shakespeare was right, my love. We'll meet again in the light."

Another swirl of warmth and Vincent felt Catherine's last kissbefore she was gone. But some of the warmth stayed behind and heopened his eyes to look into Alexander's smiling gaze. "Were theyreally here?"

Narcissa's chuckle reminded him that they weren't alone. "Spirits come as they will, Veen-cent. Love will always win whenyour heart is open. Alex-a-a-ander, take this little one away withyou. The past is no longer an enemy."

"Thank you, Narcissa." Alexander squeezed Vincent's handonce before letting him go and standing. "I appreciate your hospitality."

"Hah! Not often this old lady gets such pretty company,child. Remember the way." She bowed her head and he bowed backbefore heading to the corner of the cave.

Vincent stood as well, feeling for the first time in a long timethat he was whole and complete. "No more missing memories, Narcissa,that is one of the best gifts you could have given me."

"Not me, child, your heart summoned and they answered. Now,go and leave this old woman to get her rest." She leaned back againstthe chair and waved them away. "Alex-a-a-ander, don't forget thesprings I showed you."

"I won't, Narcissa. Good night." He joined Vincent,carrying his battered backpack over one shoulder.

"There is a hot spring down this far?" Vincent asked him.

"It's this way, Vincent. Did you really come down here tolook for me?" The violet gaze slipped sideways to meet his.

"You are my friend, Alexander and I couldn't leave you hurtingif there was something that I could do to relieve the pain." Vincenthad never felt so light. "But I was the one in pain and now's gone."

Alexander chuckled. "It feels like a sore tooth has finallybeen pulled. I keep expecting it to be there and when I look forit, all I find is a bright space filled with love."

Vincent blinked back tears at the note of wonder in his friend'svoice. "I know. Instead of a blank wall, I find memories ofjoy and love that I never expected to see."

"Narcissa is a very special lady. She likes Cadbury chocolateso every couple of months I bring her down some of the little ladyfingersthat she enjoys. When the emergency was over, I headed deep to burythe pain again and found my way to her." Alexander led the way downa side corridor and Vincent heard a sound he'd never heard this deep before.

Gurgling water.

They left the narrow slit in the rock and came out into a grottoof unsurpassed beauty. The rocks seemed to glow with phosphorescenceand Vincent gazed about him with delight. The pool was about twentyfeet across and a miniature waterfall fell down the rocks at the back. The lantern he carried shed light only a few feet out but his keen eyescould see the shadows at the rear of the pool.

"It's beautiful, Alexander."

"It is indeed, my friend. I've been coming here for thelast two months when the noise near the Home Center gets to be too much. So, we have towels and even a change of clothing if you're willing to spendthe time." His voice was hopeful.

"More than willing especially after the last few hours." Vincent was no longer so shy about undressing in front of his friend andhe eyed the slightly steaming water with longing.

Alexander chuckled and began to undress. "Yes, we need totalk but at the moment that spring is calling my name and I need to soakaway some of the tension that remains."

The next few moments were spent undressing and sliding into thehundred-degree water. There was only one shelf at the right heightto serve as a seat for men of their size so they sat side by side and relaxedagainst the slightly curved stone at the edge of the pool. Vincentcould feel his muscles lengthen and grow heavy while the water swirledaround his body.

Little bubbles burst against his skin and he found himself smilingat the effervescence. "This feels even more decadent than the homepools."

"I think there's some mineral in the water that acts like a giantfizzy when it's forced up through the bottom of the pool. The moreyou move, the more it explodes against your skin. Decadent describesit pretty well." Alexander's eyes were closed but his lips were curvedin a larger smile than Vincent had ever seen before.

He closed his eyes again and felt his own smile grow. Theybasked for a long time until Vincent felt the need to talk about what they'dboth seen and heard. "May we talk now, Alexander? I was wonderingif you saw the pictures of my memories the way I think I saw yours?"

His head turned towards Vincent and the violet eyes opened togaze into his. "I saw you darkened and disheveled with your clothesin tatters and almost no sanity left in your face. And I saw Catherinelike a bright light holding out her arms and taking you in with no fearin her. Your loving was beautiful and something I had no businessseeing."

Vincent blushed but couldn't drop his eyes. "I saw buildingsexploding, nuns holding children, you in uniform with short hair holdingtwo children and trying to bring order out of chaos. And I wishedonly that I could take the pain of that memory away."

"Did you see Ming or James?"

"I heard her and maybe felt her but James was a joyful light thatmade me smile and want to hold onto the memory."

Tears slipped down Alexander's cheeks. "He was indeed abright light and a joyful spirit. Still is if tonight is any indication. I fought against feeling joy for so long that I cut myself off from allchildren. Turned it into a phobia that almost cost that little boyhis life."

Vincent couldn't stand to see that remnant of fear and his handcame out to touch the scarred cheek and wipe away the tears. "Butyou overcame the fear and still rescued him. He's alive and wellat home."

Alexander closed his eyes and seemed to retreat inside himself. "I knew that you'd go in if I didn't and I won't let anything happen toyou, Vincent."

He thought about that statement, wondering why his friend seemedto fear making it. Helping each other was just what friends did. No matter the reason, Alexander had saved the child and that was the importantthing. 'I won't let anything happen to you'. It gave him awarm sense of being cared for that he didn't usually get from the others. Not since he was very small and since Catherine died had he felt that lovingcare.

Loving care.

His eyes widened and he thought back over the last few months. The times that Alexander had made him laugh, given him something to thinkabout, wrestled him into a physical release of tension, reminded him ofa life outside the tunnels and challenged him to prove that a four hundredyear old poet/play write could still be relevant today.

"Well, Vincent, it looks like we'll be prunes if we don't getout now." The brisk tones told him that his friend was in full retreatmode. "I'll just get out and find the towels for ..."

Vincent's hand came up and held onto Alexander's arm, haltinghim in mid sentence. "I know that I can be oblivious to others andthat I can be a little ... backward when it comes to relationships butby any chance ... are you attracted to me?"

A sigh was his only answer.

"Because if you were ..." Vincent took a deep breath that trembled. "If you were, I think I would have to say that," his voice dropped to whisper,"that I am too."

The muscles in the arm beneath his hand were tense and he wonderedwhat his friend would do, while hoping with all his heart that he was readinghim correctly.

"It's too soon, Vincent. You just got your memories backand need time to reconcile your past and your present." Alexander'svoice was uncertain and the eyes that finally met his showed only despair. "Rebounds are dangerous things and I don't want you to do something you'llregret."

"I regret a great many things in my life, Alexander but your friendshipis not one of them. My love for Catherine will always be a part ofmy soul but if she taught me anything, she taught me that a heart growsto accommodate the love it needs. Over the last six months, you gaveme unconditional support and love that I depend on."

"That's friendship, Vincent, not the kind of love we're talkingabout." The humorous twist to his lips belied the pain that lurkedbeneath.

"I have many friends, Alexander but I have never been temptedto kiss them. In fact, except for an old flame and Catherine, I'venever kissed anyone." Vincent could still see indecision on his friend'sface and gathering his courage, he leaned forward and brushed his lipsover the corner of the scarred mouth.

Alexander shook as if he'd contracted a chill. "Are youjust experimenting, Vincent? Satisfying your curiosity about maleloving?"

"No, I'm trying to satisfy my curiosity about Alexander-loving." Vincent wanted more than anything for his friend to turn and look at him. "I know that I'm woefully inexperienced and it might not be a path thatwe'll choose to take very far. But I finally feel free of all thepast and I'd like to see where my future will take me."

The thin lips quirked up just a little and Vincent watched hopefullyas the dark head turned towards him. "Alexander-loving, that soundslike something I'd given up hoping for. We'll take it slow and steady. And I'll try to satisfy our curiosity without messing up our friendship. Deal?"

Vincent blushed and nodded. Alexander looked at him steadily,the violet gaze searching his for some answer, that he seemed to find,because he was finally leaning towards him and in sheer nervousness, Vincentclosed his eyes. The first touch of lips against his was just a brushthen another and another until the tip of a tongue reached out to tastehim and he had to gasp at the feeling.

The lips on his smiled and the tongue darted out again to tracea pattern of warmth on his that he'd never felt before. He wantedmore so he parted his lips and the tongue brushed inside like a heat thatexploded against his tongue and brought forth a moan that shocked him. And the warm mouth left his instantly, forcing his eyes open to look intoan unsure gaze.

"Maybe that's enough for now, Vincent. This might not bethe best place to experiment." Alexander's hand cupped his face anda broad thumb caressed his lower lip. "Being naked and wet is sendingall kinds of impossible thoughts through my mind."

But Vincent didn't want to stop now. "I've quit too manytimes before. Denied myself because I thought I'd hurt someone, forcedmy love into a mold that couldn't hold it, and tried to stop feeling becauseFather taught me that was unwise for someone like me. Please don'tstop."

"Oh, Vincent, unwise it might be but I want this too. I'mjust not sure that this mold will fit you either." He leaned in andkissed him again, this time deepening it a little and Vincent opened widerto get more of him inside.

Their tongues rubbed together and Vincent shivered from head totoe at the sensations rippling through him. Warmth, spice and somethingthat tasted like his friend, filled his senses and his hands came up totouch the body beside him. But the ledge wasn't wide enough for histurn and he felt himself slipping off their seat.

But strong arms caught him and then they were both standing inthe middle of the pool, chest to chest and for the first time in his life,Vincent felt another male erection pressed against his. Alexandertouched him gently and brought his eyes open. "This can be enoughfor now, Vincent. Or I can bring us both release while we kiss. Your choice."

"I want release but I feel like I'm falling." He was embarrassedby his lack of control but not fearful and that brought a smile to hisface that sparked a smile from Alexander.

"I told you I'd catch you. Close your eyes and let it happen." The husky voice sparked a warmth inside of Vincent that turned into a roaringfire when a strong hand gathered both of them into a firm grip and beganto rub.

Vincent was panting into their kiss and when Alexander's tongueretreated, his tongue followed. This was a whole new playing fieldand he explored the hot wet space that tasted so strongly of his friend. But all the time, he felt himself expanding while the hand stroked himintimately. All too soon, he fell over the precipice with a moanand felt Alexander catch him.

A few moments later, he raised his head from the broad shoulderand smiled at the man holding him. "That was wonderful, Alexander. When can we do it again?"

The dark man began to laugh and Vincent held on to his body withboth hands and enjoyed the sound. Finally tapering off, Alexandershook his head ruefully. "I haven't been that quick off the markfor a very long time. We'll need some recovery time, Vincent. First, we need to get out and dry. Then we can go back to my roomsor stay here. I found a nice little cave just around the bend andbrought down a few things so I could stay overnight once in a while."

"When the noise got to be too much?" Vincent asked tentatively.

"Exactly. The mattress is a single but if we sleep ...close, that shouldn't be a problem."

Vincent thought about his obligations and then about the man who'djust brought him so much pleasure. "Here. And when we go back,we'll make a ... a date to meet at your rooms."

The quick smile was his reward and Alexander ducked his head almostshyly. "If you ever get a door, Vincent then we'll see about yourchambers. But now, come out before you turn into a prune."

He went first and knelt on the side to extend a hand up for Vincentwho was too busy looking his fill of the muscular body to feel embarrassedat also being seen. The towels were large, almost bath sheet sizeand their warmth was welcome in the chilly humid air of the cave. They dried themselves quickly and only stopped to grab their clothes andthe lantern before heading thirty feet down the corridor to the small cavebarely ten feet across where they had to duck to enter.

"Don't stand up straight, Vincent or you'll hit your head. It's small but that makes it easier to heat. Hold the lantern forme and you'll see." Alexander handed off their light and pulled downan insulated blanket over the entrance, tying it down so the room immediatelybecame cozier.

Vincent looked at the long mattress that stood on two wooden palletsto keep it from the floor. The heap of quilts promised warmth andan oak bookcase filled with tins told him that his growling stomach wouldn'tgo hungry. A five-gallon water jug stood in a stand at the side ofthe entrance and it looked full.

"I even have tea, my friend." The husky voice had an uncertainnote in it that made Vincent want to hold him until it went away.

So he did. The bath sheets were all that kept them fromtouching all along their length. This kiss was a promise that Vincentgave freely, a promise that there would be time for more. When theybroke apart this time, Alexander looked calmer and he cupped Vincent'scheek again.

"Your instincts are impeccable, Vincent. This will takesome getting used to but never doubt that I want it more than I've everwanted anything. Why don't you fix the bed while I unpack the backpackand get some tea? We'll have to share a cup." He smiled. "I wasn't expecting company."

"This was a place of retreat for you." Vincent paused butAlexander's lips took the rest of his question from him.

"Never doubt that you are welcome. I've dreamed of you herebut never thought that dream might come true." He shrugged ruefullyand stepped away to pick up the backpack.

Vincent forced himself to move to the bed, straightening the quiltsand folding them at the foot of the flannel clad mattress. Sittingcross-legged on the sheets, he watched the graceful movements of the other. The bath towel had dropped to the floor and he let himself look his fillinstead of the sneak peeks he'd taken before. The scars were stillextensive but they weren't what drew his eyes. The organ that nestledbetween the long legs kept his attention while he replayed their lovemakingin the hot springs.

"Vincent, if you keep looking at him like that, he's going torise again to play some more." The husky chuckle didn't even embarrasshim because he had permission to look and touch. "Wrap those sexyhands around your tea before you think about wrapping them around anythingelse."

And that did make him blush when he took the cup of tea from Alexander'shand. "Catherine was the first one who told me my hands were beautiful. They were always the outward symbol of my ... my otherness."

The dark man knelt and stroked a gentle finger from wrist to fingertip. "Exotic, Vincent, along with your furry face that feels so good to my handsand your eyeteeth that stroke my tongue when you invite me inside. We're all different to each other but I'd rather celebrate our differencesthen decry them."

Vincent looked in awe at the man who accepted him and manageda strangled whisper. "Thank you."

"You're most assuredly welcome. Now move over and let mein, my feet are freezing." The dark haired man smiled and joinedhim on the bed. The pallets creaked ominously and their eyes metuntil Alexander grinned. "Well, I've never broken a bed making lovebefore but there's always a first time."

Vincent was in the middle of taking a sip of tea and he barelyrestrained himself from spraying it onto the man next to him. Butwhen Alexander just laughed, he let his own smile out. They tookturns drinking from the cup and Vincent thought it one of the most intimatethings he'd ever done. When the tea was finished, he laid the cupaside and did what he'd always wanted to do, touch Alexander's hair.

"It's so soft and silky." He said in astonishment. "It always reminded me of the horse in the children's story, Black Beauty. I wondered what it would feel like."

Alexander reached over and threaded his fingers through the goldencurls that rested on Vincent's shoulders. "I could say the same,my lion. When we were wrestling, I kept getting distracted by thefeel of your hair on my skin, like a soft caress."

Vincent was entranced by the curve of the broad shoulder and tooka moment to run his fingers along the lean muscles that connected to thepectorals on Alexander's chest. "I kept getting distracted by theplay of these muscles under your skin. They always felt so aliveto me when they flexed and rippled."

A lean hand plucked his from his explorations and brought it towarm lips. "These fascinated me and I took every excuse I could toget their touch on my skin." Turning it, he traced the lines in thepalm with the tip of his tongue. "But I never thought I'd be ableto investigate them so closely. Thank you, Vincent."

"I think I'm the one who should be saying that," Vincent couldn'tcontrol his shiver at the strange sensation. "Oh."

"Oh indeed. Lie with me, Vincent?" Alex leaned backand pulled him down on top of him. "Let me hold you and feel younext to me?"

"Yes, please." Vincent had never lain with another withoutlayers of cloth in between and his skin was so busy cataloging all thedifferent textures that he almost didn't notice that Alexander was pullingthe quilts over them, wrapping them in a small cocoon of warmth. "Oh, that feels so good."

"Indeed it does ... explore away, my friend. Do you mindif I touch you too?"

Vincent wiggled just a little at the soft touch of hands at hiswaist. And that made something very interesting happen between theirgroins. "May I ..."

Alexander chuckled and moved them to their sides, one of his handssliding over Vincent's hip and around to the beginning-to-harden organ. "Touch certainly and probably taste as well. Only you could bringme back so quickly. Let me show you an old trick that Ming taughtme."

Vincent gasped at the firm grip that started at the tip and pushedback the foreskin down to the root. Then Alexander disappeared beneaththe quilt and soon his warm, wet mouth was taking in the flared crown ofVincent's organ. He shook with the unexpectedness of the action andfelt his friend's talented tongue trace a pattern around the entire headbefore engulfing him completely.

He couldn't help his moan but this time Alexander didn't stopwhat he was doing. Instead, he chuckled around his mouthful and didsomething ... that tightened all of Vincent's muscles and tried to movehis hips up into the delightful torment. But Alexander wasn't donewith him yet and slowly Vincent felt his entire organ taken into the heatof his lover's keeping.

Gentle fingers rolled his sac between them and Vincent began totremble all over. His hands found the dark silk that was teasinghis groin and they held the head with unbelieving fingers while he triedto sort out all the impressions that were bombarding him.








And finally it was all too much and he felt himself release intoAlexander's avidly sucking mouth. His whole body jerked with spasmsand his hands fell to the mattress as all his strength left him. For a moment, he felt so light that he might have floated from the mattressbut Alexander's body kept him tethered to earth. The broad tonguekept lapping up the evidence of his climax and Vincent shivered with theneed to hold him.

"Alexander, please." His hands tugged on the broad shouldersand his lover obediently slid up to cover him with his warmth. "Kissme?"

A smiling mouth slanted over his and for the first time, Vincenttasted himself. He tried to analyze it but Alexander's erection waspoking him in the stomach and he reached a hand between them to touch himgently. He'd never held another man's organ before and his fingersslid down the shaft with questioning strokes.

Alexander pulled away to breathe and his violet eyes blazed downinto Vincent's. "Keep doing that and I'm going to come all over yourhand." An almost feline hiss came from between his smiling lips whenVincent closed his hand further around the thick organ. "Yes, that... do that again. Oh god, love, that feels so good."

And Vincent felt a flush of pride that it was his touch that wasbringing his lover such enjoyment. So he did it again and again,stroking a little harder each time and feeling the tiny movements of Alexander'ships rocking against him. His other hand stroked the soft skin ofhis lover's lower back and the flex of the long muscles there fascinatedhim. So much smoother than his own and this side had no scarringso no puckers impeded his exploration.

He hummed to himself while Alexander's thrusting quickened andwhen he tightened his grip just a little, the dark man froze and swelledin his hand before bursting silently in long pulses against Vincent's groin. Another flash of pride filled him and he found himself smiling into Alexander'shair when his head slumped onto his shoulder.

"So very good, my lion. You have a magic touch." Thehusky murmur swelled his heart further.

"I shall become prideful, Alexander, if you keep complimentingme." He dared to tease the man in his arms.

The lean body shook silently and Vincent smiled smugly to himself. He liked releasing the laughter from his friend. But the softeningorgan in his hand reminded him that he had something else to try and heregretfully let it go so he could bring his hand to his lips. Alexanderhad drunk him down and now he wanted to know what he tasted like.

Slightly bitter and a little salty, he decided, going back foranother lick of his fingers.

"That is one of the most erotic things I've ever seen, Vincent. What do you think of me?" Alexander shifted them so they were ontheir sides again.

"You taste good. More bitter than me, I think but a littlesalty like I was."

"Everyone tastes a little different depending on their diet. You taste sweeter than anything I've ever tasted." Alexander smiledat him and pulled him closer so they lay skin to skin. "I can seethat I'll soon become addicted to your fur, Vincent. You're likea small furnace, warming me from head to toe."

"Catherine always used to say that I was the perfect radiator." Vincent returned the smile before a thought struck him. "You don'tmind that I speak of her so often?"

A kiss was his answer and it went on until they had to breathe. "She was your love and the mother of your son, my lion. If you don'tmind, I'd like to speak of Ming when I need to. That won't botheryou, will it?"

"No, I like to hear of her and your life before you came here. Why do you call me 'my lion'?"

"Well, I can't call you Vinny. And we haven't been togetherlong enough for me to call you 'my love'. It fits your unique personality. Do you mind?" Alexander gazed into his eyes.

"No, it sounds ... right, somehow. You're not repulsedby my 'fur' or claws or fangs." Vincent had never felt so sure before,not with anyone.

"They're just part of what make you so special, Vincent. I'm a very lucky man to have you to hold and love."

The simple words brought tears to his eyes and he tried to smilebut failed. The other man held him closer and sprinkled little kissesover his cheeks and nose, making sure to kiss away any tears that madetheir way out of his tightly shut eyes. "It's all right, my lion,you're safe here and it's all right to let go. It's been one hellof a day and we're both a little punchy."

Vincent sighed and relaxed into the warm arms that held him safe. He didn't have to be the strong one now, didn't have to put on a frontor pretend that he wasn't feeling bewildering emotions. The softcrooning in his ear soothed him and he held onto his new lover while helet all he was feeling out into the chill air of the small cave.

Some time later, he felt Alexander rouse and turn to extinguishthe light. When he came back under the quilts, they curled aroundeach other as if they'd always fallen asleep that way. Vincent madea solemn vow to himself to work at this relationship the way he hadn'twith Catherine. This time, he would not forego the love because ofpublic opinion.

Love isn't that far away, Vincent. Parting is such sweetsorrow that I shall say goodnight 'til it be morrow.

As always, Catherine and Shakespeare were right.


"Right here, Cullen. I'll hold it while you drill the holes." Vincent politely but firmly directed the craftsman in the proper placingof the large wooden door.

"You're sure, big guy? What brought this on? You'venever had a door to your quarters in your life." His furtive side-lookamused Vincent but he kept his face serene.

"Then it's about time, I had one. Don't you think so, Cullen?"

"Right. Well, hold it steady." The whine of the cordlessdrill biting into the solid rock finished conversation quite effectivelyand Vincent kept smiling thorough the entire procedure of fitting the hingesand closing bolt then hanging the door in place.

Finally, he was taking control of his own space, his own bodyand his own life. He'd grown up enough to make his own decisionsand although Father had taken to eyeing him cautiously and asking hesitantquestions about his health, he'd pleasantly turned back any and all inquiriesinto what he was doing.

He taught his classes, helped Kanin in constructing new rooms,played chess with Father and took care of small Jacob with unceasing goodhumor. The installation of the door was just one of the outward signsthat something had changed. He was aware of the speculations thatwent on between the tunnel dwellers. Mary was a good source for thelatest gossip because she'd embraced the changes in his life wholeheartedlyand delighted in passing on the more bizarre rumors.

Leaving the door open for now, he waited for Alexander to returnfrom what they'd taken to calling 'his phobia therapy'. Small Jacobwas pounding his cup on the highchair tray in anticipation of afternoonmilk and cookies when he stopped and called out, "'Der, 'Der, 'Der."

"Hi, piggle-wiggle." The dark haired man was dressed moreformally than usual and Vincent finished putting the teapot on the tablebefore sticking the warm milk bottle in his son's hands. "Nice additionto the décor, Vincent."

"I seem to remember something being said about my room, a doorand staying over." Vincent almost blushed at the heated look he receivedand he watched Alexander close the door behind him and push the bolt home. "How did everything go Above?"

"Well, I didn't lose anybody. Nobody threw up. Everybodywent into the museum and came back out again. No displays were destroyedalthough Mouse had a really great idea for rearranging the atomic clockmodel." Alexander's voice never varied its tone or cadence and Vincentwas having a hard time containing his laughter. "Don't hold back,my lion, you'll do damage."

Vincent coughed and poured the tea, meeting the dead pan gazewith twinkling blue eyes.

"Shall I tell you what Mouse did to the salad bar at lunch?"

And Vincent lost complete control and roared his laughter outloud. Every time he looked at Alexander, a raised eyebrow would starthim off again until finally he was down to a chuckle. Life was goodand if the heated look in Alexander's eyes was a promise, there were moregood things still to come.

End Strength III