“A Crisis of Confidence”

A Beauty and the Beast Fan Fiction

By Linda White

Catherine had never felt so helpless. Her beloved Vincent was gripped in a paroxysm of madness from which there seemed no escape. It had been growing steadily worse for days and she feared she would lose him forever. Would all those wonderful golden moments they had shared be lost to him forever? Was he to become trapped in a hell within his own mind?

And then, two days ago, in his last lucid moments, fearing for those he loved, he had sequestered himself far below the main tunnels into a labyrinth of caverns in the deepest bowels of the world Below.

The worst part was that she felt their connection slipping away as the madness gripped him ever tighter. How to reach him? That was the question that plagued her. Her mind and heart reached out to him but she found only emptiness and it was ripping her apart. Why couldn’t she sense him any longer? Why couldn’t he sense her?

And then there were the feelings of guilt washing over her as she realized that she, herself, might in some way be at least partially responsible. Vincent had rushed to her rescue so many times in the last two years allowing the beast within free rein to mete out justice in his uniquely primal way. Perhaps in doing so, he was beginning to slip permanently into that part of his persona, a part that, until now, he had kept under tight control. Had she been careless of her own safety to the point where she simply expected him to show up whenever she was in peril?

But, far more than that, there had been the recent shock to him in having learned of his own origins from the evil Paracelsus. That revelation had caused Vincent so much inner turmoil and pain in the deepest part of his being that Catherine feared for his very soul. She knew that the story was a falsehood because she and Elliot Burch, along with a detective hired by Burch, had found Father, tortured, beaten, and locked in a closet in a penthouse in the city. A penthouse that had been rented by Paracelsus himself. When they found him, he told Catherine the true story.

Paracelsus meanwhile, had disguised himself as Father, and had infiltrated the Tunnels, and while in that guise, had told the most monstrous lie to Vincent. He told Vincent that he had torn his way free of his mother’s body at birth, thus killing her in a gruesome and violent way.

The truth was, Paracelsus, whose real name was John Pater, was married to a woman name Anna. Anna lost a baby in her third month of pregnancy. Later, she found an abandoned baby in the world Above near St. Vincent’s Hospital. A baby with an unusual little lion’s face. She brought the baby Below and tried to care for him, but John Pater began to be obsessed by this child. He began confusing him with the child he and Anna had lost, even to the point of thinking himself the father. Anna began to fear for the child and brought him to Father for the sake of his safety. In a rage, John Pater murdered Anna by giving her poison.

Tears gathered in Catherine’s eyes as she remembered Vincent’s shocked reaction and ensuing excruciating pain when Paracelsus had presented his lurid fiction to him, and she was filled with anger!

It made her furious that anyone could have caused her beloved Vincent such anguish, and she secretly cursed Paracelsus to the deepest depths of Hell for perpetrating such a monstrous lie. How could anyone purposely torment a soul so pure, so giving, so selfless and so filled with goodness? The worst part of it was that Vincent had slipped completely over the edge before she or Father had had the chance to explain the truth to him.

She had to help him. Had to! There was simply no question about it. She would give her life gladly to save his just as he had saved her life countless times.

But how? He was far below locked in a punishing rage, and if it didn't stop soon it would kill him. Of this she was certain.

And then it hit her. She knew exactly what she must do.

Catherine exited Vincent’s chamber where she had been staying the last three nights, and made her way to Father’s library where she found him with his head bent over a large medical book. She knew he was searching for something – anything that would offer a clue … some way that could help Vincent.

"Father, have you found anything useful?"

"I'm afraid not, Catherine. Seems the more I search, the less I find." Catherine could hear the disappointment and sadness in his voice.

"Father, I need someone to guide me into the deep cavern where Vincent has sequestered himself. I’ve learned the upper tunnels quite well, but know little of the deeper ones."

"What? You can't go down there, Catherine. Vincent is not himself. He's in a highly irrational state and could hurt you. It's too risky."

"Father, I must. I owe Vincent my life a dozen times over, and I think I know a way to help him, a way in which he might find his way back to rationality."

Father looked at Catherine with doubt but also with hope. "What way do you mean, Catherine? Your connection with Vincent is broken, yes?"

"Yes, but I think it will return if I can reestablish physical contact with him. Do you remember the first time I learned of Paracelsus? It was that time when he was circulating that horrible drug into the city and affecting so many people … some who died?”

“I remember, Catherine.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about that incident and if you’ll recall, Vincent became affected by the drug when Paracelsus tossed a quantity of it into the air directly in Vincent’s path, the result being that Vincent went temporarily insane. It was only when I approached him and touched him that he regained himself.

“Vincent was alone with Paracelsus a few days ago believing he was you. I think Paracelsus either rubbed some of that drug into Vincent’s skin or managed to inject him with it, probably both. On top of that, I think he infused the drug with some kind of slow release agent so that Vincent, once infected, would begin a slow build-up of madness and suffer for many days before it finally killed him. I think that’s why the madness came over Vincent in increments building to a crescendo.”

Father considered her words carefully. “I suppose that’s possible, in fact, highly likely” he said. “Vincent might not have noticed a syringe or even felt it. Paracelsus has been known to have a retractable blade concealed on his arm. He could easily have concealed a syringe in its place. If what you say is correct, Catherine, then Vincent has already been under the influence of the drug for several days and strong as he is, cannot hold out much longer.”

“Yes, Father. This is what I’m terrified of. Here’s my thought and my hope: Vincent and I have not had contact of any kind since the onset of the growing madness. In fact, I think he may have purposely cut himself off from me knowing of our connection. It was his way of protecting me. At any rate, I think that might be when our empathic connection shut itself off … like a circuit breaker going out. I believe I need only touch him and the connection will be restored … just like last time. Surely it is worth the risk. We both know that if this punishing madness continues unabated, he'll die."

“Ah, but, Catherine, how to get close enough for contact? And even then, it might not work."

"I know, Father, I know. But I have to try. I'm the only one who can do this. You must let me try."

Catherine could see the war raging inside of Father’s head. He cared so deeply for Vincent, yet as a doctor and leader of the underground community, he had a duty to all and he did not want her to be harmed. But in the end, he succumbed to the possibility of hope.” All right, Catherine, I'll have Mouse guide you. Be careful.”

"Thank you, Father. I'll be careful. I’ll go as soon as Mouse is here."

"Ah, speaking of the little devil, here he is now. Mouse, I need you to guide Catherine down to the deep caverns where Vincent has gone. She is going to try to help him.”

Mouse never questioned Catherine’s motives or her safety. He simply replied. "OK good. OK fine. Mouse will take you.”

Father patted Mouse’s shoulder several times and then hugged Catherine, wishing her Godspeed, and then she and Mouse set off.

Catherine knew Vincent had gone deep and that it would take at least an hour, perhaps more, to reach the cavern. Over her shoulders, she hoisted a light backpack in which she had packed a few supplies, gauze, bandages and antiseptic, and other first aid items. Also, a couple of flashlights. She didn't know how dark it might be down there. A few small tools just in case and some granola bars and bottles of clean water. There was also one book! Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities … one of Vincent’s favorites. She hoped it might jar a memory if she could just get him into a calm state. She prayed there would be enough time for her to touch him … just one touch. She was pinning all her hopes on that!

And now there was nothing more to do but soldier on.

After walking some moments in silence, Catherine turned to Mouse and said, “Mouse, listen to me. When we reach the cavern, you are to stay well back. You will need to report back to Father if anything goes wrong. Do you understand?”

“Mouse understands.”

They walked again for what seemed a long time but finally came to a place Catherine had seen once before. They had reached The Cave of Winds. Catherine knew this part of their journey led down a long stairway carved into the native rock and wondered who had created it eons ago.

Her thought was interrupted by the loud snarling of unmistakable fury and she knew they were at last nearing the deep cavern where Vincent had retreated. Catherine was suddenly gripped with fear even though her heart hated the thought of ever harboring fear of her beloved Vincent. Still, she knew that in this condition he might be very dangerous.

Mouse pointed to an opening down a narrow tunnel and said in a voice filled with apprehension, “It is there, Catherine. Not too late to turn back.”

For a long moment, Catherine wondered if all was lost and they should turn back. The sounds emanating from the niche at the end of that tunnel were so alien, so filled with wild rage. Was he truly lost? But she knew in her heart that it didn’t matter. She would do what she must.

“I can’t go back, Mouse. I have to do this. It is what he would do for me if the situation were reversed.”

“OK good. OK fine. Will wait as long as I can. Good luck.”

Catherine set her backpack down, hugged Mouse and walked forward slow step by slow step toward the rocky niche. She barely dared to breathe. When she was a mere few steps away, she called out to him, “Vincent! It’s me, Catherine. Can you hear me?”

A pause in the roaring was the only answer followed by a low-pitched growling sound. She knew that he sensed someone nearby, but was not sure if he understood who approached. She tried to make her voice as soothing as possible. “Vincent, please, just let me come in and make sure you’re all right. I brought a favorite book. Will you let me read to you?”

There followed more low-pitched growling, and Catherine was trying desperately to hold back fear. She’d always heard animals can sense fear and while her mind did not ever want to think of Vincent as an animal, she had to be realistic in understanding that some small part of his DNA was in fact, animal. It was the part that was human she wanted to reach.

In her job as Assistant District Attorney she had witnessed and dealt with many truly brutal and disturbed people … people whose DNA was one hundred percent human, yet they were worse than any animal. The irony was that Vincent was the most humane person she had ever known whatever his DNA said about him and she was willing to risk her life to help him.

“Vincent, I’m coming in. I want to help you. Won’t you let me come to you?”

The growling seemed to lessen for a moment, almost as though he was thinking over her words. Did he still have some lucidity? Had he understood her intentions? She took a couple of small tentative steps forward again. She had to get within range of being able to physically touch him.

And then she saw him, illuminated by the few remaining guttering candles, crouched in a corner, ragged, dirty, with wariness in his eyes and muscles tensed to strike. Somewhere in the back of her mind, for all the dirt and grime, she could not help but admire the magnificent lines of his human yet leonine form.

Catherine slowly took another step. Two more and she’d be close enough. Another slow step. The growling began to build. One more. Vincent started to rise from the crouching position. It was now or never.

Catherine rushed forward and reached out, grabbing him by his clawed hand. She’d done it. She was touching him, but in that exact same moment the other clawed hand was already in motion and as though she were seeing it in slow motion, she knew it would strike her. She automatically raised her other arm to thwart the blow but it was too late. “Vincent …” was all she managed out loud before the force of the blow made contact and she was thrown back, her slender body slamming into the rock wall.

A million stars burst in front of Catherine’s eyes but in that one tiny fraction of a second before she succumbed, she knew they had reestablished their Bond. A faint smile played across her lips. She could die happy. “I love you, Vincent,” she thought to him. And then she knew no more.

“Catherine!” Vincent’s’ agonized cry echoed into the farthest depths of the cavern. “Catherine!” He screamed again. “What have I done? What have I done?” He was fully cognizant, the madness gone, but in its place, terrible fear. Fear that he had killed her. There was blood flowing down the side of her arm, the arm she had tried to shield herself with and the force of his blow had rendered her unconscious.

And then Mouse, completely ignoring Catherine’s instructions, came rushing in. “Vincent, Mouse heard you screaming for Catherine. Are you yourself? What has happened?”

“Mouse, quick, help me.” Vincent’s voice, hoarse from days of growling and fevered rage, was grief-stricken. “We must get this bleeding stopped and then we must get her out of here.”

“She has stuff in backpack, Vincent. First aid stuff.”Mouse tore into the backpack while Vincent felt for a pulse and nearly sobbed with relief when he found it. They worked feverishly together to get the bleeding under control using the supplies from Catherine’s pack.

“Mouse, you must go back and find Father, and Dr. Alcott if he is available, and bring them to that big alcove near the end of the long stairway. It’s less windy in that spot. I will take Catherine there. Get to the level of the pipes and tap out a message to Pascal and have them meet you halfway. It will save time.”

“What about you, Vincent? You don’t look so well.”

“You are quite correct, I am very weak and don’t think I can make it up the long stairway carrying Catherine, yet we must get help to her as soon as possible. Tell Father and Dr. Alcott to bring a litter down here so we can carry Catherine safely back to the upper tunnels. Hurry, Mouse.”

“OK good. OK fine. I go fast, Vincent. For Catherine.”

Mouse took off at top speed, while Vincent, though weakened, very gently took Catherine into his arms, fearful of loosening the bandages, but they seemed to be holding, at least for the moment. By the time he reached the sheltered alcove his legs felt like rubber, but his only concern was for her. “Stay with me, Catherine,” Vincent pleaded over her limp body. “I am so sorry, so sorry. The madness just took me and I couldn’t seem to make it stop, but if I were to lose you, I truly would go mad with grief.”

And then, miraculously, her beautiful eyes slowly opened and immediately sought his own. Their Bond was so deep, soul to soul. And in her eyes, there was no blame, no regret, just deep abiding love. Vincent’s heart was filled to the brim with boundless love. She was a miracle. His miracle. “I love you, Catherine. Words will never be enough to express how much I regret hurting you. Please forgive me, forgive me.”

“It’s all right, Vincent. I am just so thankful you have found the light again.”

“Yes, thanks to you. Hold on, Catherine. Hold on. Help is coming.”

Catherine’s eyes closed again, but this time she slept. Vincent curled up next to her, sheltering her body so as to provide warmth, and then he too, exhausted from days of mindless rage, slept.

*****

In the several weeks following the incidents in the lower caverns, Catherine had barely seen Vincent at all, and she knew why, so she chose to give him the space he seemed to need. She knew he still felt tremendous guilt at having violently injured her even though he had regained his grip on sanity at almost the same instant. Catherine was sure he now had a deep fear that he could lose his grip again at any time. She also sensed that Vincent was considering the idea of making a clean break from her, so deep was his remorse at having hurt her.

But, she was not one to give up easily. She had sent a message earlier that morning through one of the Helpers to Vincent asking him to meet her on the balcony of her apartment that evening and now she was there waiting to see if he would come.

Nine-thirty rolled around and still no sign of him. It was starting to get a bit chilly. She went inside to get a sweater and when she stepped back out onto her balcony, she saw him standing in the shadows.

“Vincent, I thought you might not come, but I am glad you did.”

“Catherine.” Just her name but the word was filled with apprehension.

“Vincent, will you come inside and sit with me awhile? I have some things I want to discuss with you.”

He paused for a second and Catherine had the distinct impression he might flee, but he seemed to think better of it and simply nodded.

They went inside. Catherine closed the patio doors and drew the curtains closed as well. Vincent raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

“Would you like a glass of wine, Vincent?”

“Thank you, Catherine. Wine would be nice.”

Catherine busied herself for a few moments pouring out two goblets of wine and handed one to Vincent. They sipped in silence for a time. Then, abruptly, she came right to the point. No sense dancing around. “Vincent, do you love me?”

He never hesitated for even a fraction of an instant and simply said. “To the deepest part of my soul, Catherine.”

“Then you are not allowed to break up with me,” she cried with passion.

“What?” came his surprised reaction. “What made you …?”He couldn’t finish the sentence. He hung his head in shame. A racking sob shook him and suddenly she was there beside him, hugging him.

“Let it go, Vincent. Please, just let it go.”

He nestled his head on her shoulder and the shame and grief poured out in a flood of emotion. She simply held him, whispering soft endearments. After a time, he seemed to get a grip on himself.

“I’m sorry, Catherine. I did not mean to break down like that.”

“It’s perfectly all right, Vincent. Sometimes emotions grip us so hard, we just need to release them. I have felt your distress for many days now and I know why you have stayed away. It’s guilt, isn’t it? You feel guilty for hurting me.”

“I hurt you so badly, Catherine. Peter said it took twenty-nine stitches to sew up the gashes on your arm! He said it would have been even worse but your jacket took some of the damage. It made me feel like I was no better than the monsters who had slashed your face the night I first found you. I’ve been so terrified the madness will come back and that I could hurt you again.”

“Vincent, I beg you to listen to me. This is important. The madness wasn’t your fault! Father and I believe that Paracelsus managed to inject you with a very heavy dose of that horrible street drug that he used so effectively in the past and that it was the drug that brought the madness on. Do you understand? The madness was not you, Vincent! It was the drug!

“He must have improved the formula since that first distribution and in this newer version, he laced it with a time release agent so that it would build up slowly causing increasingly nightmarish visions before you finally succumbed to full blown madness and eventual death. A very effective and insidious weapon, for that’s what it was, make no mistake! You were already in a highly charged emotional state, on top of the fact that your genetic makeup is slightly different so it was doubly effective on you. Truly Vincent, the madness was not your fault! Please believe that.

“Do you really think so, Catherine? Is it possible?

“More than possible. Highly probable. Peter took a sample of your blood during one of your earlier, slightly less violent episodes before you retreated Below and he found evidence of the drug, although he didn’t catch it right away.”

“By the way, that dreadful story told to you by Paracelsus was a blatant lie. Anna was not your birth mother, Vincent, although she tried very hard to be a mother to you. She lost her own baby when she was three months along and only found you later near St. Vincent’s Hospital, just as Father said. She paid for her kindness with her life. Paracelsus poisoned her. He simply couldn’t stand the idea that Anna gave you to Father knowing you’d be safe and loved instead of experimented on.

“I am so sorry for what you have endured, Vincent, but let’s be honest. After being told such a monstrous lie, you were feeling as though you were some kind of monster, a deviant of nature, and while those feelings were exacerbated by the drug, they were there to begin with. Am I right?”

Once again, Vincent hung his head in shame. “I suppose that is true. Sometimes it’s so very hard to reconcile what I am. I’ve had to hide all my life, Catherine, never able to just get up on a fine morning and go for a walk in the sunshine without fear of scaring someone. Do you know what it’s like to fear being seen? To live in the shadows away from the world? To think of my face as some sort of hideous apparition, or to fear that if seen, I might be captured and displayed like a sideshow freak?”

“Is that how you think I see you, Vincent? As a sideshow freak? I hope you know me better than that.”

Vincent looked at her with haunted eyes. “Of course I know you don’t think of me that way, Catherine. I know you accept me, even love me, but when I look in the mirror, it is still hard at times to reconcile how that could be.”

“Come here, Vincent … into my bedroom.” They stepped into her bedroom. “Now, look in my dresser mirror. Look at your reflection with your mind open while I tell you what I see every time I look at you.”

He obeyed and gazed into her mirror.

“When I look at you, Vincent, I see the most intriguing man I have ever beheld, for you are unlike any other. When I look at you, I see a man well over six feet tall with a fine masculine build. Strong, vibrant … a man well made. And then I look at his face, yes, your face, Vincent, with distinct leonine features to be sure, but utterly handsome for all that the face is so different from other men’s faces. And I see much more. I see beautiful blue eyes that seem to be the windows into the depths of your soul. I see reflected in your features compassion, gentleness, intelligence, and so many other qualities. I see someone who shares my deep love of literature and music, someone who helps allay my fears and someone who willingly puts himself in jeopardy time and time again to protect me from harm. I see someone I can open my heart to. And then there is your voice! It was your voice alone that I first came to know when you saved me that terrible night when those monsters slashed my face. I awoke in pain, to find my whole face, except my mouth, covered in bandages, and I had only your voice to comfort me, and comfort me it did! Your voice makes my heart melt, Vincent. It has such a deep, resonant quality. Any actor would sell his soul to perdition for that voice. I could happily sit and let you read me a grocery list, but when you read poetry to me, it is like listening to a Stradivarius! These are all the parts of you that I love so much and my fondest wish would be to wake up and behold your face and hear your voice every day for the rest of my life”

Vincent was stunned! “Is this true Catherine? This is truly how you see me … and hear me? And do you really think me handsome?”

“Absolutely, Vincent. Don’t you see? You are quite different, yes, but the more I came to know the myriad facets of your personality, the more I understood the depth of your compassion. I found myself admiring you beyond anyone I have ever known and you became attractive to me. It is your face I see in my dreams, Vincent. It’s true we share an empathic Bond and perhaps in some way, this Bond influences my perceptions but truly, this is how I see you. You have such a majestic quality about you, such a presence. It radiates in all you do. Don’t you see, all the people who care about you – Father, Mouse, Jamie, Mary and the others – they’ve accepted you as you are, and love you. They know you are different but they also know you! They know your heart. And they have no fear at all. Yes, you will always have to remain hidden from society at large as the world still has so much fear of the unknown or of anything different and there are still so many who are cruel and would hurt you or exploit you, but to those of us who know the real you, you are a marvel. You are far more human than any human I have ever known. You are like no other. You are unique, and I think you are beautiful.”

Vincent looked at his reflection in Catherine’s mirror for a long time, and then he looked at Catherine’s reflection next to his own and saw complete sincerity on her face. He studied the two reflections side by side. Slowly, almost imperceptibly he stood a little taller, his stance a little prouder. His eyes began to shine with renewed confidence. And the crisis of confidence, the many weeks of anger, fear and doubt melted away.

Catherine smiled at him. “Are we not a truly handsome couple, Vincent? Look again. I would not have you any other way. I love you just as you are.”

He turned to the real Catherine and pulled her into his embrace. He held her close, and in a voice choked with emotion, he whispered, “As so often happens, Catherine, you seem to know me better than I know myself. Your love and understanding is a precious gift and I have been foolish to allow my doubts and fears to drag me into despair, and worse – allow those doubts to come into our relationship. I apologize. You have in just these few moments shown me a part of myself I never considered before and the picture is a wonderful one. I have always known I was different of course, but never have I ever thought myself handsome. Your perception of me fills me with joy.”

“Every part of the person you are makes you the prince of my heart, Vincent. When I behold you, the man I see fills my heart with boundless love and gladness, and to be in your arms is my comforting shelter. I do not believe we could have ever formed such a deep Bond otherwise.”

Vincent hugged her again, holding her for a long time. He murmured, “Your words have enabled me to see myself as I have never seen myself before, Catherine. Thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” She said it and she meant it. “And now, if you will bear with me, there is something else I would very much like to talk to you about.”

“You are filled with surprises tonight, Catherine.”

Catherine took a deep breath. “I hardly know where to start, because there is a lot, but I guess it’s just best to plunge right in. It all started with some ideas bubbling around in my head a few weeks after my father passed on. It was such a sad time and I admit I was in turmoil during those dark days.”

“I remember, Catherine. You were devastated.”

“Yes, I was. You helped me so much then, Vincent. I don’t think I could have gotten through it without you. If I never told you thank you before, I am telling you now.”

“You’re welcome, Catherine.”

“Anyway, as time passed, and I could think a little more clearly, my thoughts and ideas began to coalesce, partly because I was forced to deal with a lot of legal matters in the wake of his passing. Without Dad in my world and with no other relatives, I realized I didn’t have much of a world anymore at all. Oh, I had my work, but the job was beginning to weigh heavily on my reserves. Sure, I was occasionally able to help people, and that was rewarding, but I was starting to lose myself in the process and I was getting so tired from the long hours and the stress … so very tired.

“And then it occurred to me that the only time I was truly happy was when I was with you, fleeting though those moments are. It was then that I began to logically examine my options. Was there something I could do to make things different, and more importantly, better? I realized there was. The most obvious way to do that, and the one that is the most empowering, is that I don’t need to work. Having gone through all those weeks of sifting through my Father’s documents and sitting with his lawyers and so on was what began to open my eyes.

“My father left me a very large inheritance, Vincent. Dad also made many investments over the years that have done extremely well, and those have all been passed to me. I also inherited money from my mother when she passed years ago, and I inherited money from my Aunt Catherine, for whom I was named. In other words, I guess you could say I’m wealthy enough to live well and to do as I please. So, what to do with all that money?”

“There are many who could be helped with such a fortune, Catherine.”

“Funny you should say that, Vincent. For many weeks now, I have slowly, quietly begun to alter my life in ways that do exactly that, and last Friday, finally, I resigned from my job. Joe was shocked and devastated of course, but he knew the work was wearing me down. The interesting thing, Vincent, is that I think my money will work every bit as hard as I did with a whole lot less wear and tear on me physically and perhaps psychologically as well. I have given a huge research grant to our dear friend Dr. Peter Alcott and he is helping me with some of the other charities as he is well connected with organizations that provide help to those in need. I have also established a trust fund for all our loved ones Below, and I am working on setting up some other charitable works.”

Vincent was astonished! “There is a saying, Catherine, that money is the root of all evil, but it is obvious that in the right hands it can be an instrument of boundless generosity.”

“Yes, and the wonderful part is that a large portion of my fortune is invested in ways that make more money. I’ll be able to continue to do good works and help others for a very long time. Best of all, I can accomplish this without constantly putting myself and more often than not, you, in danger!”

“I get the feeling you’re leading up to something even more momentous, Catherine.”

She laughed. “You read me so well, Vincent. Yes, there is more. You see, while I am happy to have found ways to put my resources to beneficial use, my main objective, self-serving though it may be, was to be in a situation that brings me a little happiness. Is this not what most people strive for after all? And in my case, the goal was to find a way to be with you more often, but in a safe environment, of course. And I think at last, after weeks of trying to figure out how that might be possible, there does exist a way. Ironically, I found it in the most unlikely of places.”

“Catherine, if you have found a way to safely increase our time together, I assure you, I want to hear about it.”

“Well, here’s where it gets interesting, Vincent. The answer was right under my nose all along. You see, I recently got a phone call from a man who identified himself as a contractor and he asked me if I intended to have work resumed on a wine cellar at my Dad’s townhouse. The truth is, I’ve been procrastinating for months on what to do about that property and had sort of put decision making aside. Anyway, the phone call came as a surprise because I didn’t even know Dad had intended to put in a wine cellar. I told the contractor I’d get back to him.

“I thought I’d better go have a look and see if I should finish the project. When I got over there, I went down to the basement and sure enough, there was some evidence of preliminary work having been done, but nowhere near enough, at least in my mind, to bear the expense of finishing it off. I decided to abandon the project and was getting ready to leave when I noticed something I had never noticed before. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was in the habit of hanging around in Dad’s basement if you see what I mean.

“In an alcove near the water heater and furnace was a metal utility door. I was curious as to what it was for so I opened it, and was surprised to discover a passageway cut right into the rocky foundations under the house. I ran and got a flashlight and went back through the door.

“I followed the passageway for about ten feet where it suddenly turned and sloped downward for another few feet and was utterly shocked to discover the passage came out into a natural cavern down there with a small underground stream running nearby. I followed the path next to the stream for perhaps another thirty feet and was abruptly halted by a large iron gate with a padlock on it. The padlock had a red tag that said 114.”

Vincent sat bolt upright and exclaimed. “114! I know that gate! Father keeps a written log of every entrance that we know of in the world Below. A red tag indicates a tunnel that is currently not in use.”

“I knew it!” she exclaimed. “I suspected that this cavern had some connection to your world the moment I discovered it, Vincent. I think you can guess what my intentions for my dad’s townhouse are now if Father will sanction the reopening of that gate!”

The significance of this was not lost on Vincent. “I think I can guarantee 114 will be opened by tomorrow night, Catherine, even if I have to tear the lock off with my bare hands.”

“Then, will you come tomorrow evening at about 8:30?” Catherine asked. “I want to show the townhouse to you because that gate changes everything! That house is where I intend to live!”

“I’ll be there,” he promised.

*****

Sometime later, back in his chambers, Vincent prepared for sleep, but sleep did not come right away. His thoughts raced. She had said he was handsome! She had compared his voice to a Stradivarius. He felt a warm glow remembering her words. All those stories he had read as a child where beauteous maidens fell in love with handsome princes came back to him. He had never thought a beauteous maiden would choose him, much less think of him as handsome, yet Catherine did! His heart swelled with pride and with love. He wondered what it would be like to live with her in an actual house in the world Above. A house with hot and cold running water at your fingertips. A house where you could listen to music on a stereo and not have to hide in a tunnel under an amphitheater. A house where you could flip on a light to read by and not have to light a dozen candles. So many luxuries close to hand.

Yet, he and the dwellers in the world Below had managed to live as well as they could and in peaceful harmony for a long time. He suddenly realized it would not be easy to give up the world he knew, the world that had sheltered him and cared for him.

And then he smiled, because he knew Catherine would never ask him to give that up. She knew and understood that the world Below was a part of him. Catherine would never impose any expectations on him. She would simply allow him the freedom to come and go as he pleased, to enjoy her world as much or as little as he wished. And she would still spend time with him Below as well. Her only goal was that they have a secure place in her world where they might be together in perfect privacy and safety … his safety! And in that moment, he loved her all the more. She truly was the beauteous maiden of legend, a true princess.

“I love you, Catherine,” he thought to her, and then he drifted into peaceful sleep.

*****

The following evening, Vincent came through the utility door in the basement of Catherine’s new home. He called out, “Catherine!”

“Coming, Vincent.” He heard her footsteps on the stairs. She flew into his arms and he hugged her tenderly. “Welcome to my new home! I’ve been running around all day trying to accomplish a million things and probably accomplishing very little.” She laughed. “Moving can be such an ordeal, but I’ve managed to engage a moving company and they will be bringing my furniture from the apartment.”

“I should probably have Father seal the tunnel under that apartment building once you’re completely moved out of your old place, Catherine. That one was always risky.”

“I agree. I always feared being seen and followed, or worse, having someone see you, when using that one. This house’s hidden entrance will be so much safer.”

Vincent nodded agreement. “When will they bring your belongings?”

“Tuesday of this coming week. You should avoid coming around on that day! Speaking of furniture, once my own furniture is here, I was thinking of donating some of Dad’s furniture … not my taste, but I had a thought. Do you think our friends Below would like any of it? I think Father particularly would like Dad’s desk.”

“That’s very generous of you, Catherine. I’m sure it can be put to good use. I’ll get Mouse and Pascal to help me measure the passageways to make sure there’s enough room to move the items through the tunnels safely.”

“Wonderful. Well then, before I am run away with myself, let’s have our tour.” She laughed again. “This is obviously the basement.”

Vincent nodded.

“I know, pretty boring huh?” She intoned. “Next floor gets better if you’ll follow me up.”

They walked up the stairs to a carpeted landing. “This room I think you’ll really like.” They headed to the left side of the landing and went through double paneled doors.

“A library!” Vincent murmured appreciatively. His eyes travelled up and down the many rows of books on beautiful mahogany shelving.

“A lot of the books are Dad’s law books and those I will donate to a law school, but there are many others as well. Over there,” she waved her arms again, “are chairs and tables for reading and studying.” Vincent saw the plush wing chairs and very fine writing desks and tables with lamps.

“This is a wonderful room Catherine,” he said longingly. “I could spend many happy hours here.”

“Shall I just leave you here and show you the rest later?” She smiled.

“No, no. I want to see the rest.” He took a last lingering look at the library and sighed.

They went back to the landing and Catherine pointed again. “There’s a bathroom on this floor as well as a guest bedroom, just there down that hall. The bathroom is not as fancy as the upstairs baths but convenient.”

They climbed the plush stairs to the core of the house. “There are six sections on this floor,” Catherine said. “Living room, dining room, media room, breakfast room, kitchen, and a half bath. Why don’t you explore while I make some tea?”

Left to his own devices, Vincent wandered, marveling at each discovery. When he got to the media room, he was astonished to discover a huge TV, as well as all kinds of stereo equipment, and shelf after shelf of music and movies. He noticed one entire shelf was dedicated to Bach and Beethoven. He sighed!

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Catherine’s voice came from behind him. She held a tray with cookies, sandwiches, two teacups and a pot of fragrant tea. She set the tea things down on a small table. “Here, let me show you.”

Catherine grabbed the TV remote and showed him the dials for the various functions. In a few seconds, the screen came to life with a sports program. She showed him how to flip the channels. Then she turned the TV off and went for the stereo remote. Vincent let out an astonished gasp when she turned this on because the sound seemed to emanate from the whole room. “This is surround sound. I’m sure you’ve heard of it,” she said. “It’s supposed to make you feel as though you’re sitting in the middle of the action. It’s particularly effective when viewing a movie,” and she showed him how both the TV and stereo could work through the same speaker system. “Some movies have such deep stereophonic sound it’s almost scary. The entertainment industry tries very hard to keep us all absorbed.”

“Indeed, I’ve read of such things and seen advertisements in magazines that we find discarded, but I had no idea of how rich the sound can be.”

“There’s a really nice pair of headphones too for private listening.”

“Private?”

“Oh yes, you know, so you don’t disturb other people when you want to listen by yourself. Here, put these on!” She gave him the headphones and then popped a Beethoven sonata in the player. The look on Vincent’s face was one of pure rapture.

She let him listen while she ate her sandwich and had some of the tea. Reluctantly he gave her back the headphones after a time knowing she still had more to show him.

“Vincent, these are things I feel particularly happy to share with you knowing how much you appreciate music. I think you’ll enjoy some of the movies too. One of these afternoons sometime soon, you’ll have to sit and watch Ben Hur with me. I mention that one particularly because I know you’ve read the book. So, when you not only see the action that you’re familiar with in the story, but hear the thundering hooves of horses going around that racetrack or the oarsman pounding out ramming speed on the Roman galley, it’s almost as if you’re there. By the way, Dad really loved classic old movies, so there are a lot of the oldies but goodies on the shelves.”

They went back into the living room, sat down and finished eating their sandwiches and sipped the tea for a time. Catherine asked, “Are you ready for the upper floors?”

“Indeed yes,” came Vincent’s reply.

“I thought we’d skip the next floor up for the moment. It’s just bedrooms, an office and bathrooms up there. I want to take you to the roof. I think you’ll like it up there.”

Vincent’s eyebrows rose quizzically.

“Don’t worry. It’s safe. Let’s take the elevator this time.” They walked down the hallway to the elevator. Catherine pushed the up button and the elevator dinged its acceptance. The door opened with a soft whoosh. They entered the car and the doors closed. Catherine pushed the button. The elevator car made a slight jolt and they felt the car going up.

Nature smells filled Vincent’s nostrils the moment the elevator doors opened, and he beheld a veritable fairy garden all contained within what seemed to be a huge greenhouse. But this was not any ordinary greenhouse. Every single glass panel was a work of art in stained glass. He knew that in the daylight, this would be a wonder to behold.

“This was my mother’s special place, Vincent. She designed every single panel and the glass artisans she worked with did them all by hand. It took nearly two years for all the glasswork to be done and another year to get all the plantings, misters and other paraphernalia to be put in place. I especially love the sections in the corners that look like Monet’s water lilies.”

“Extraordinary!” Vincent breathed. “Your mother was a truly gifted woman. The light coming through the glass in the daytime must be stunning.”

“And you shall see it in daylight whenever you wish Vincent. The beauty of stained glass of course, is that it is opaque. No one from a neighboring building, nor anyone from a helicopter or plane can see into the greenhouse from above. It will be quite safe for you to come up here in brightest daylight. Perhaps not quite as good as being outdoors in the sunlight, but close. Sometimes, during the full moon, it is relatively bright in here as well, but with a soft, almost ethereal glow.”

“I hear the trickling of water,” he said with surprise.

“Yes, there are three fountains. My favorite is among the ferns. Come, I’ll show you.” They walked hand in hand through the lovely rooftop garden marveling at the flowers and small trees.

“I smell roses,” he said with delight.

“Yes, Mom loved roses. The white ones were her favorites and if you look at that small Grecian style urn on the pedestal over there among them, those are her ashes. She was cremated when she died and wanted to be here among her flowers.”

“Catherine, this greenhouse and garden is a wonderful remembrance of your mother. I only wish …” His face clouded over in a wistful expression and she knew he was thinking of Anna.

“Vincent, do you know where Anna’s remains are? If so, would you like to have her brought here to share this lovely garden with my mother? She tried her best to be the mother you needed and Father said she loved you.”

“You would do that for her, Catherine? Do that for me?”

“Of course I would. She deserves to have a place of honor among things of beauty.”

“Then I will speak to Father about having her remains brought here. Thank you, Catherine. This would be a lovely place for her eternal rest. I am sorry your own mother was taken from you when you were so young, but this garden was her legacy and it is beautiful. Your father must have loved her very much to keep it preserved and maintained for so many years.”

“They were indeed a loving couple and loving parents. That is my best memory of the two of them, and speaking of maintaining this garden, I shall have to find someone to help me with the upkeep, indeed help for the whole house, but especially this garden. It’s one of the reasons I’ve held off selling this house. I hated the thought of my mother’s garden going to someone else!”

“Some of our helpers may be able to assist with that, Catherine.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, Vincent. Will you help me with that?”

“Of course I will.”

“Well, only one floor left to see and it will probably be quite boring after the roof garden,” said Catherine wryly. “You might find the master bathroom quite the thing though.” She laughed.

They went back to the elevator and rode it one level down. The doors whooshed open again and they stepped out onto the thickly carpeted landing. “If you’ll follow me to the right, this is the master bedroom and adjoining bath. The other bedroom, office and bath are on the opposite side of the hall.”

They walked into the large, luxurious suite. “Keep in mind that most of these furnishings will be replaced by my own stuff. My two sofas from the apartment will go into that little sitting room off to the side. The master bath is through that doorway.” She waved toward the doorway in question. Vincent followed her gesture and walked into the bathroom. There immediately followed a sharp intake of breath. Surely this was the height of luxury in the Above world. The real surprise was not lost on him, however. A large oval tub reminiscent of a rock pool occupied one whole corner of the large bathroom suite, and next to it an adjacent shower alcove that was modeled after the kind of rock grotto you might find in a natural cave. Vincent laughed out loud.

“This looks for all the world like a grotto from the world Below,” he said. “Although, I am sure those taps are hot and cold.

“Not just hot and cold but every kind of spray effect imaginable, from a gentle mist, to a springtime rain shower, to a pulsating massage. I thought you might find the irony of a grotto amusing, Vincent. Dad wanted something that resembled a setting from nature and even had the flooring beneath reinforced to support the weight of the tub and grotto wall. I think Mom would have preferred something a little more feminine but since Dad had indulged her so much with the greenhouse, she felt this bathroom was the least she could agree to in return. I showered in there myself last night and probably used the entire sixty-gallon capacity of the water heater before I wanted to come out. I was playing around with all the different water effects.”

“Did you stay here last night, Catherine?” Vincent was surprised.

“Yes. I was tired after all the running around I did yesterday. I did manage to bring some of my clothes from the old place and hang them up in the closet, and I stopped at the market and put some food in the pantry and refrigerator. I was thinking I might stay again tonight … you know, start getting used to being here. I thought I might cook some dinner and then watch a movie. Would you like to stay and join me, Vincent? I’d love to cook dinner for you.”

“Cook? For me?” Vincent’s face was a sudden blank.

“Why, yes. I can cook, you know! I don’t get to do it very often, or at least I didn’t when working all those crazy hours at the DA’s office, but I hope in future I can do so more often. I love to cook.”

And then it hit Catherine that perhaps Vincent felt as though he was suddenly in a fair way to be tamed and domesticated. Was showing him the house and offering to cook for him too much? He’d been through such a tidal wave of emotional events in the last several months. She burst into tears. “I’m sorry, Vincent, so sorry.” She sobbed. “This feels all wrong for you, doesn’t it? I never meant to make you feel as though I were trying to lure you into a world of domestic bliss. Maybe keeping this house is a bad idea. I admit I was so excited when I discovered that hidden entrance to the world Below. It seemed like providence.”

“Catherine, Catherine, Catherine,” he murmured softly and pulled her into his arms. “Do not stress yourself so. You simply took me by complete surprise, that’s all. No one has ever cooked a dinner especially for me before. And while this is all new and feels decidedly odd at moments, I am enjoying this time with you. What will you cook for this dinner?”

Catherine sniffed and grabbed a tissue, blowing her nose. “Thank you, Vincent. It’s better now. I feel silly losing it like that. Sometimes I think I try too hard. As for dinner, I’m a fair hand at Chateaubriand, and I did pick up some nice tenderloins at the market and a very nice red wine. I’ll make some roasted vegetables on the side. Does that sound OK to you?”

“It sounds wonderful. Can we watch Ben Hur and hear the thundering hooves after dinner?” Vincent asked.

That brought a smile to her face again.

“Absolutely!’

Sometime later, they returned to the media room. Catherine cued up the movie and they settled in on the plush sofa. Vincent stretched his long legs out on the adjacent ottoman. While the overture played, Vincent said. “Thank you for the truly delicious dinner, Catherine. I learned a wonderful new thing about you. You can indeed cook!”

“You’re welcome, Vincent. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

The movie began and Vincent sat with rapt attention as the sights and sounds filled the room just as Catherine had said it would. When the movie broke in the middle for intermission they both jumped up, ready for a bathroom break. They laughed at each other. I’ll get the one upstairs,” he said and made for the stairs while she ran for the one around the corner. That handled, they settled back in for the remainder of the film.

Catherine curled up in the crook of Vincent’s arm and let loose with a huge yawn. “I hope I can stay awake till the end,” she said. “I was up early this morning and did a lot today. Guess I’m a little tired.”

“Do you want to stop?” he asked.

“No, no. Don’t be silly. If I doze off, just wake me at the end.”

“Ok, if you’re sure. This is pretty exciting stuff.”

Catherine managed to stay awake for a while longer but did nod off before the end. When it ended, Vincent hit power off. The house grew quiet and he was about to wake Catherine, but he chanced to look at her as she lay curled in his arms like a sleeping angel. She was so beautiful. He didn’t have the heart to awaken her so he simply let her sleep, holding her tenderly. He watched her for a long time, his heart beating in rhythm with hers, until he too leaned back into the soft cushions and fell asleep.

Vincent awoke to the sound and smell of sizzling bacon. He wandered into the kitchen to find Catherine cooking breakfast. “Apparently, we both crashed before the movie ended last night, Vincent. You must be hungry.”

He didn’t bother correcting her version of events. “Famished!” he said.

She heaped a plate with bacon, eggs, hash browns, and toast and set it before him. “Do you want coffee or orange juice or both?”

“Coffee would be welcome,” he replied eagerly.

She brought the carafe to the table along with two mugs, sugar and cream.

“You will spoil me with your culinary witchcraft,” he teased.

“Well, they do say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

“You already have my heart and now my stomach is your willing slave. Did you sleep well?” he asked shyly.

“Better than I have for a very long time.” She blushed. “I was a little surprised to wake up in your arms, but it was a pleasant moment, I assure you.”

“Then I will make a point to watch many more movies with you when you are very tired Catherine.” He smiled his most beguiling smile. I should return to the world Below this morning, however.”

“Of course. Father will be missing you, and I have many things to accomplish today. But just one more suggestion before you go.”

“Yes?”

“You must feel pretty rumpled after sleeping on the couch all night. Would you like to try the grotto shower? I’m sure I can find a clean pair of sweats in Dad’s closet that you can put on afterwards. I think he was close to your height and had the same general build as you, although you are more … um, buff.”

“Sweats? Buff?” Vincent was at a loss.

“Er, yes. Sweats are casual, very soft, loose clothing with drawstring pants, long sleeve shirt and lined with a kind of fuzzy stuff called fleece … intended for comfort. Buff means you are well muscled.” She blushed.

“I see.”

Catherine could swear he was blushing, too.

“Will you show me these … sweats?

“Of course. Come with me, oh majestic one. You will find fleece more wondrous than the finest kingly raiment.”

Forty minutes later, Vincent, freshly showered and decked out in NYU sweats returned to the kitchen, his mane-like hair still slightly damp.

“Feel better?”

“You were right, Catherine. The grotto shower is the absolute height of luxury. I feel like a new man. And sweats are …” He searched for a word.

“Like pajamas?” She prompted.

He laughed. “Yes, like pajamas, only better. And now, I really must get going. Can I come over later this evening?”

“Of course. Just come up whenever you want. The utility door will be open.”

He hugged her and headed for the stairs. “I’ll see you this evening.”

*****

Back in the world Below, Vincent made his way to his chamber and was surprised to find Father there waiting for him.

“I suppose you were with Catherine all night?” Father said in an acerbic tone. “And what are those ridiculous clothes you have on?”

The tone and sarcasm in the question annoyed Vincent but he kept his own tone even. “Yes, with Catherine. And these are called sweats. She gave them to me so I could shower at her house this morning. It was wonderful. Hot steamy water, soap, shampoo, fluffy towels. But I digress. Come, there is much to tell you.” And Vincent brought Father up to speed on all the important things Catherine had shared with him. He of course kept the personal things to himself.

Father remarked, “So I suppose you’ll be spending a lot more time with her now, even staying the night and showering at her place. Do you think that’s wise? There’s bound to be gossip.”

Vincent was flabbergasted. “Gossip? Down here? Are you serious? And, what do I care about gossip?”

“Vincent, you’re from the world Below. Catherine’s world is Above. You can’t just move into this townhouse with her and play at husband and wife.”

And suddenly, Vincent let loose with a thunderous roar. He was now not just annoyed. He was furious.

“Listen to me Father and listen well.” Vincent’s voice carried dark anger. “Have you heard nothing of what I just told you of all the things Catherine has caused to come to pass in the last several months? Do you not recall how it was she who found the means to free us when we were trapped in the cave-in last year? Do you not remember how very recently she saved me from terrible madness at the risk of her own life? How she saved me when I had been captured by crazed lunatics? Did you not hear me say she has set up a trust fund for all of us Below? Were you not listening when I told you how she endows charities? What part of Catherine’s goodness did you miss? Catherine gives and gives, yet asks for so little in return. Her only wish for herself was to find a safe way for us to be able to spend more time together. And she wished it because she loves me. Is that so hard to comprehend? By a happy accident she found the safe haven she was looking for in her own father’s house, and I will not let anyone, even you, Father, take that happiness away from her. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

Father was aghast and knew he had erred badly. “I am sorry, Vincent, so sorry. I thought perhaps Catherine was using this townhouse of hers to set up a fool’s paradise. I was unfeeling, unthinking and glib and have completely misjudged her. In my desire to protect you as I did when you were young, I sometimes forget you are now a grown man and able to make judgments for yourself. Please forgive me”

Vincent seemed somewhat mollified. “You know, Father, I used to think sometimes that I was cursed. It was Catherine who made me see that while there is good reason to remain hidden I did not have to fear the essence of who I was. I tell you, whoever the deities are that brought this woman into my life, I will always be grateful. She sees the real me both inside and out and she loves me without conditions, judgments or reservations. I could ask for no greater gift.”

“Then perhaps it was these same deities who answered Catherine’s prayer to find the haven she so ardently wished for.”

“Perhaps. I would very much like to believe that Catherine’s wishes take priority above all others.”

*****

The housewarming party was in full swing. Vincent had brought the first group of their friends from the world Below through the secret utility door at around 2:30, and then gone back to escort another group and then another after that. He and Catherine had decided to start in the afternoon so that all their friends could see the full effect of the stained-glass greenhouse on the roof.

The rest of the townhouse glowed with candles and soft lights. Vases of fragrant flowers were everywhere and trays laden with party food seemed to be on every other table. Catherine smiled to herself when she spotted Mouse pocketing small candies and tidbits to be savored later.

She was joined in the living room by Father, who had just come down from the rooftop garden. “Did you enjoy the greenhouse, Father?”

“It’s wonderful, Catherine. A true work of art. Your mother was a remarkable woman.”

“Indeed she was, and beautiful, too.”

“I noticed that you and Vincent put Anna’s urn next to your own mother’s urn and had a lovely plaque inscribed. That was a wonderful and healing thing you did for him, Catherine. I could tell he was pleased when he showed it to me.”

Catherine blushed. “It was a small enough thing I could do for him and it made him happy.”

“He is happy. I can see that now and I must apologize for having my doubts early on. Can you forgive an old fool?”

“Of course, Father.” She hugged him.

They were joined by Vincent who had just come from showing the fabulous grotto shower to a group of their friends.

“I think Pascal wanted to tear the walls out to see where all the pipes went,” Vincent laughed. “Are you enjoying yourself, Father?”

“Indeed. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. I do not often come up from Below, but on this occasion, it is well worth it. That being said, I think I will just go over there and partake of some of the excellent food. Excuse me.” He wandered off.

Vincent remarked, “You look beautiful Catherine. That is, you always look beautiful but especially so today. That deep green color you’re wearing is lovely.”

“And you are very handsome too, my dashing cavalier! Is that a new tunic? I like the dark blue. It makes the blue of your eyes stand out. It is interesting the different effects colors can have.”

“Yes, a new tunic, but I must admit I am sometimes liking sweats. Do they come in dark blue, perchance?”

Catherine giggled. “Yes, they come in dark blue and you shall have as many as you like. Come, handsome host, we must see to our guests, although I think all the younger ones are in the media room playing video games, and I’m sure I saw Peter downstairs in the library. Wouldn’t be surprised if Father ends up in there as well.”

“Before we join them, I want to say something to you.”

“What is it, Vincent?”

“This is a wonderful thing you thought of … inviting all our friends from Below into your home for this housewarming as you call it.”

“I had a purely selfish motive, Vincent. I wanted to show them that I can be a trustworthy Helper and friend from the upper world and that my home is a safe and welcoming place should they ever need to seek refuge here.”

“Catherine, you probably don’t realize it, but I think almost everyone from our world thinks of you as our very best friend. And you are much, much more than that to me. You are the world to me. I love you with my whole heart, mind and soul.”

“And I you, Vincent.”

For the rest of the day and long into the evening, the party lingered on. Everyone was having such a good time, but eventually the crowd started to thin. The Helpers who lived in the Above world left by the front door and those who dwelt Below left by the secret utility door in the basement. Vincent and Catherine found themselves alone at last.

“You were wonderful, Vincent! The perfect host. It is just as I told you before. All the people who know you adore you.”

“I have had good practice for many years at Winterfest, Catherine, helping Father and the Elders host our yearly celebration. As for the rest, I only care if you adore me!”

“I do adore you.”

“Then, may I kiss you, Catherine?”

“Oh, Vincent, to be kissed by you would make me very happy.” She melted into his arms.

He gathered her to himself so tenderly, mindful of his strength and then he gently pressed his mouth to her soft lips, also mindful of his leonine fangs.

And then a miraculous thing happened. As he pressed his lips together with hers, he found that both the fangs and the claws on his hands were retracting. Experimentally, being ever so careful, he deepened the kiss and was surprised to find that the fangs did not reappear in the act of kissing. They stayed fully retracted. A soul shuddering wave of deep satisfaction wrapped itself around his heart. Why had he ever hesitated to kiss her before? He loved her so much.

After what seemed a long time, they broke apart, each of them breathless. Catherine sighed deeply, and spoke in a soft whisper. “Vincent, I never knew it could be like this.”

“Nor I, Catherine. I truly had no idea the fangs could retract. They never have before. The most I hoped for this evening was to press our lips together in a chaste kiss. You have done so much for me and for those we love in these last few months that I just wanted for once to express my love for you with more than a hug.”

Catherine grew thoughtful and said, “Perhaps nature, in its infinite wisdom, gives precedence to acts of love, Vincent. Maybe we should test the theory again to be certain of its validity.”

“By all means,” he murmured. “Definitely an experiment worth conducting.” He gathered her into the protective shelter of his arms once more. “I love you Catherine,” he said and pressed his lips to hers. Instantly the fang teeth retracted as did his claws. His kiss carried all the searing passion that he’d held in check for so long.

After another long moment, he reluctantly broke off with a need to breathe. The fang teeth stayed in the retracted position. “Catherine, I think I begin to understand this,” he said excitedly.

“Whatever it is, Vincent, it’s wonderful.” Her eyes sparkled with happiness.

“There has never been another like me, at least that I know of, so there was no frame of reference, no way to know what might be possible, but perhaps this could be some sort of adrenaline surge. All this time I’ve gone under the assumption the claws and teeth would hinder lovemaking … that I could never share physical love with another even though I am, er … normal in every other way. I think perhaps this experience changes my preconceived notions!”

They looked at each other with dawning awareness, the implications of their discovery deep and profound. There was a moment of awkward shyness, yet also of longing. They had both always been so careful not to cross a certain threshold of physicality, but now, quite suddenly, all things seemed possible.

It was Catherine who broke the silence. “I feel like we have just entered the realm of fairy tales Vincent, where a hero’s kiss broke an enchanted spell.”

“Indeed, Catherine. The moment did have a magical quality to it, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, but have often dreamed of.”

“And in those dreams, Vincent, was there anything beyond a kiss?”

“Yes, Catherine,” he replied huskily. “Much more.”

“Then perhaps at last, the time has come to make our mutual dreams a reality. To connect on a deeper level than we have ever dared before,” she said with intensity.

He looked deeply into her eyes and saw the fires burning within, the same fires burning in his own soul … fires that had been dormant embers lying in wait for so long and now suddenly ablaze. His heart swelled and he was nearly overwhelmed with happiness. And something else. Desire. “You are the epitome of all that is wondrous and beautiful, Catherine.”

And with that, he lifted her easily into his strong arms and carried her up the stairs.

*****

Sometime later, wrapped in a gossamer haze of half wakefulness, Catherine felt a soft rumbling and whispered, “Vincent, are you purring?”

“Mmmmm,” came his languorous reply. “I believe I am.”