There are two versions of "The Mirror": this is the first. It is a Classic story that was written during the second season, when I first dreamed up the character Victoire. A second version came to be after the third season, when I began wondering what would happen if it were Diana who met Victoire first. While the settings, the time, and even Vincent's moods are different in each story, the fundamental interactions between Vincent & Victoire are similar - at some points, identical. And for them, the outcome is the same, no matter what else goes on around them. "Kindred Spirits" is rated PG.


THE MIRROR - KINDRED SPIRITS

By C. B. McWhorter

Across the world, in a circus tent outside Marseilles, a crowd sits in delighted distraction, "oo-ing" and "ah-ing" over the feats in the single ring. This is a typical European circus: one ring, a small audience, a small band, and impeccable acrobatics. A typical French crowd jams the wobbly bleachers: all ages, entire families, young couples on dates, bunches of young men, all enjoying the show with typical French verve. In the ring, the acrobats are finishing up their performance. They are dressed in tawny red and gold and black Spandex, covered with sequins, glitter in their hair and on their faces. One woman, four men, she all red and gold, they striped like tigers. As they execute one wild flight after another, they shriek and whoop with excitement, and their enthusiasm goads the audience to even greater heights. There is jungle music, tom toms and wild pipes, and occasionally, a lion's roar. This isn't the usual acrobatic show. These artists have designed something different, very fast, bewildering in the way each stunt gives way to another.

And then they stop, a man at each corner of the ring, the girl balanced on the trapeze in the center. The drums beat louder and louder for several heartbeats, until the girl gives a thrilling shriek, and all the acrobats snap into action: the men at each corner fly diagonally, somersaulting, to change places. They look as if they will collide in the center, all four of them, but worse, just as they have launched themselves towards the center, the girl has dropped from her perch, spinning in a triple twist on her way to the net beneath her. She threads the center of the paths of the men as they fly past her, straight as an arrow, and bounces gracefully back up from the net as the men light on their corners. The audience cries out in fear, and then in admiration, as these madmen barely avoid disaster mid-air.

In the shadows of the tunnel that leads into the ring, an old man leans against the wall, smoking nervously. He hasn't taken a breath from the moment the drums began their crescendo, and now that the stunt is done - and, oh!, how it was done! - he gasps for air, not so much with delight as relief.

The men drop from their ladders into the net, and bounce off to join their queen on the sawdust of the ring, bowing to thunderous applause. They are all handsome and well made, but all eyes are on her, with her graceful movements, and her glowing red mane. The ringmaster bellows into the microphone: " Mesdames et Messieurs, Leonie and her Flying Tigers!" But the man cannot be heard over the applause, and the performers seem to like it that way. After all, they're sure that the people know who they are.

As the elephants, trick horses and clowns take the ring for the final promenade, the acrobats dash down the tunnel. Leonie runs lightly up to the old man.

"Well?" The costume mistress hurries up to her with a golden satin cape, which she begins to attach to her shoulders.

"Eh, bien ", the old man smiles. "The routine is nearly perfect. Next week, you show America how to fly!"

The men are also getting into capes, and others are bringing horses into the tunnel. As a horse is brought up to her, she tells him, "I'm getting more and more excited about this tour."

"You want to play in the Florida sun? What is wrong with our Riviera?"

She laughs down at him from the horse. "Florida! Phaugh! It's New York I want to see again."

"Are you ready for New York?"

She becomes grave for just a moment. "Yes, at last." She wheels her horse to lead her men out of the tunnel, and calls back at him: "I'll make you proud!"

He watches her ride out into the parade around the ring, and relishes the screams of the audience as the Flying Lion and Her Amazing Acrobats wave and bow. "I am always proud," he says to himself. "Never more than now."

As he wanders back towards the costume tent, he leaves behind the poster on the wall, the first poster for the Flying Tigers nine years ago. It has her likeness on it, very well done: the flaming hair, the blue eyes, and the face that sparks so much controversy. Does she really look like this? The beautiful cat-like face mocks the viewer: this is fantasy, she says. Watch the flying, dream, and wonder.

*****

Catherine sits with her feet up on her desk, reading the paper, drinking coffee. It is a rare morning, one with some free moments, and she is shamelessly taking advantage. She sets down her mug, and turns a page, and stops short. She drops her feet to the floor, and spreads the paper on the desk. Staring out at her is Vincent, in female form: the wild mane, the piercing gaze, the long nose and curving mouth. Why would someone choose this make-up for a gimmick, of all things? Finally, she studies the ad: "Leonie and the Flying Tigers! Four shows only! The famous French troupe!" The lion goddess is surrounded by tiger-faced men, all drawn with impossibly handsome bodies. Well, Europeans have dramatic tastes, certainly. In America, a similar group would probably dress up as aliens.

As she muses over this ad, Joe wanders up to her desk. "What are you doing?" He looks over her shoulder.

She starts a little as he leans on the desk. "Oh, hi!...I'm looking for something to do this week-end."

"I don't know, Radcliffe. Are tumblers your thing?"

"I love the circus! Clowns and elephants and the daring young man on the flying trapeze..."

"Yeah, well, this looks more like the daring young babe. Wonder what she really looks like. You know, show biz hasn't been the same since Cats. Hey. Get to work."

He leaves, and Catherine goes back to staring at the ad.


SATURDAY

The cavern backstage is dark, chilly, and noisy. Stage equipment and acrobatic props are scattered about the floor, and people bustle about, many of them shouting to each other in French. Hollow booms come from the direction of the stage as parts of the scaffolding are rearranged. Catherine carefully wanders through the mess. She clutches a backstage pass, which she was able to get rather easily from the theater manager, an old friend of her college room-mate's. She stops a young man.

"Excuse me? Where can I find Mr. Bishop?"

The man points out into the stage area. "Glenn!" he hollers. "Company!"

The theater manager sees her and waves, then holds up a finger: wait. Catherine backs up against a wall, and allows turmoil to reign around her. She's having serious second thoughts about this. She'd come this far on impulse. Now what was she supposed to say? Glenn comes over to her.

"Ready to meet the stars?"

She nods uncertainly. He gallantly offers his arm, and leads her towards the dressing rooms. There is a small crowd of people standing in the corridor, which gives Catherine some relief. She won't feel so foolish in a crowd.

*****

Inside the dressing room, the old man from the circus is shuffling papers. "What do you want to do tomorrow?" he calls, in French. Leonie comes out of the bathroom, where she has been combing her hair. She is dressed in gabardine trousers, a man-tailored silk shirt, and short boots.

"The Met", she says, stuffing a cosmetics bag into a leather duffel.

"L'Opera? The museum? Or baseball?"

She laughs. "Silly. The opera is not in town. And the baseball team didn't make it to the playoffs." A knock at the door interrupts her. Glenn Bishop pokes in his head.

"Mlle. Dedeaux? Are you ready to meet some fans?"

"Of course. Where are the boys?" Her English is oddly accented, a little French, a little Anglicized.

"They're on the way out, I assume."

"Allons". The door closes, and opens again to admit about a dozen people, adults and children. Among them is an older couple, she comfortably plump, with salt-and-pepper hair, he of medium height and stocky in build. He has a shock of white hair that makes him look a little like Albert Einstein - if Einstein combed his hair. They look at Leonie with impish delight, and she cries out when she sees them, greeting them in German, and kissing both cheeks. They chatter back, with obvious affection, and then turn to the older man. The children stare at the golden woman, a few mothers whisper sternly in their offspring's' ears. Next the Lioness drops to her knees in front of the smallest girl.

"What a pretty little girl you are! Do you like gymnastics?" Star-struck, the little girl can only nod. "I started tumbling when I was about your age."

"All the gymnasts and acrobats on TV are her idols," the child's mother says.

"As they should be", says the acrobat. "And what is your name?"

"Lacey", the child finally says.

"I like that name. And who are you, dear boy?" At which point, the theater manager starts wholesale introductions.

"Oh, Mlle. Dedeaux, this is Mayor Giuliani of New York, and Mrs. Giuliani...And Scott and Laura Finch and their children..."

The Frenchwoman greets everyone warmly and in turn, casting out French charm like fairy dust. She flirts charmingly with the Mayor, coos over his wife, and presents real affection for the children. "My real name is Victoire", she says.

"Are you for real?" one brazen boy demands.

"Are you?" she returns with a wicked grin.

"Yeah."

"Are you sure?"

The Flying Lions come into the room, and more introductions are made. The young men also make much over the children. Catherine has been staying in the back of the group, stunned for reasons no one else can fathom. She knows, as other visitors cannot, that the woman she sees is not cosmetically or surgically altered. She knows the curve of the nose, the shape of the forehead well. Fortunately, Victoire Dedeaux has been too preoccupied with the others to notice her last visitor's confusion. Shortly after Catherine is able to stop staring, Victoire turns to her. "Hello."

Glenn steps in: "This is Catherine Chandler. She serves the city as one of our District Attorneys."

"Oh, Cathy!" exclaims the Mayor as Victoire & Catherine shake hands. "I didn't see you. How are you?"

Almost grateful for the diversion, Catherine greets the Mayor and his wife. The rest of the visit passes with small talk, and a lot of attention focused on the children by Victoire. She is in so many ways Vincent's opposite: vivacious, almost flamboyant, chatty, and oh-so-French. And yet so many of his mannerisms show up when she talks, and moves, and especially when she stops to listen to someone. She becomes still, the way Vincent does, focusing totally on the other person, with such gentleness and strength that she captivates in ways that her outgoing charm never could. Catherine also watches the older man with her, whom Victoire introduces as her uncle Jean-Luc Dedeaux, the owner of the Cirque de Joie, which Victoire calls "our parent company", an unusual term to use about a circus, Catherine thinks. Jean-Luc sits on the sofa, watching his niece with undisguised pride. She's seen that look on Father's face, when he was looking at Vincent, and Vincent wasn't watching him. She caught that look on her own father's face, sometimes. The thought gives her a moment of pain, and even envy.

Soon enough, the crowd takes their leave. She's exchanged two words with the lion goddess, and observed her for half an hour. She has so much to tell Vincent: she is convinced that, whatever the explanation may be, he is not alone. Here is someone else just like him. They shake hands good-bye, and Catherine is startled to see that the claws of Victoire's long fingers are painted bright red. Well, why not? she thinks, and leaves the room. She thanks Glenn for his kindness, and turns to find the door to the street, her mind working furiously - how can she show this amazing woman to Vincent? - when the Mayor calls her name. They stand by the backstage door for some time, talking about an upcoming embezzlement case dear to his heart, before she can go to her car.

*****

Back in the dressing room, Victoire rummages in the little closet for her coat. "That wasn't too long", she says. "I'm starved. Where shall we eat?"

"Oh, for me, it's enough to go back to the hotel," says her uncle. "I'm tired, and I think I have heartburn. This American food has never agreed with me."

She gives him a closer look. "Lu-Lu, you don't look well at all."

"I told you, I'm tired."

Unconvinced, she watches him in the mirror as she packs her duffel bag. "What's wrong with you?"

"I tell you, I'm fine."

"No, you're not." She goes to the door, looks out into the hall. "Etienne! Paul! Venez!"

"Oh, Vicki, don't bother them..." But he is looking worse each moment, pale and clammy, and he rubs at his chest fretfully. Etienne & Paul appear at the door.

"Mon Dieu, what is it?" says one. Victoire picks up the phone, and dials 911.

*****

As Catherine finally gets to her car, she sees an ambulance pull into the alley by the stage door. Curious, she gets back out, and follows the EMT's into the theater. She sees Glenn standing anxiously outside Victoire's dressing room door. She touches his arm.

"What's going on?"

"You're still here? The old man is ill, it seems."

Catherine pushes into the room in time to see the EMT's strap Jean-Luc onto the gurney. He mumbles through the oxygen mask as one of the men tries to start an IV on his left arm. Another is one his radio, reeling off a list of vital signs and physical findings. Both EMT's are barely succeeding is ignoring Victoire as she hovers nearby. She gets to her knees next to Jean-Luc when he tries to pull his arm away from the paramedic, and scolds him in French. Then she turns to the man with the radio.

"I am his niece. I want to come with him."

"I'm sorry ma'am, there isn't room in the ambulance. But we're taking him to City General; you can follow us." He starts to put away his radio. "You'll want to take off that make-up first."

Helpless, a little tremulous, she watches them wheel him out. Catherine approaches her. "Victoire?" The lioness regards her with a little shock. "Let me take you to the hospital." Victoire stares at her a moment.

"All right. Thank you." She turns to her men, again in command. "I'll call you at the hotel."

As the women leave the room, Etienne catches Catherine by the arm. "Don't leave her," he says, almost fiercely. She gives him a reassuring shake of the head.

*****

The emergency room has just begun its Saturday night business, so that there are people in the waiting room, but not yet a crowd. Victoire & Catherine come in the door and stop at the security guard's desk. He doesn't look up as Catherine asks him: "A man was just brought in by ambulance: Jean-Luc Dedeaux?"

He glances up at her, doesn't notice Victoire, and dials a phone. "Yeah, you got a De-do back there?" He nods to Catherine. "OK, yeah." And he hangs up the phone. "Either one of you speak French? They say he doesn't understand them. Oh, Jesus..."

Catherine glances over her shoulder at Victoire. She wears a black denim coat, generously cut, with a dramatic hood that either hides or frames her face, depending on the angle of view. From the guard's point of view, he has the full treat of Victoire's alien face, and her remarkable eyes. She returns his gaze as impassively as any girl accustomed to having her beauty admired by a man. "I am his niece", she says, "and I speak French."

"Uh, hang on," he says. "Why don't you have a seat inside?" He reaches again for the phone as they turn away. Catherine wonders if they might try to keep Victoire out. If she's likely to cause a commotion, it would happen in the waiting room as well as anywhere else. She watches Victoire pace to a chair, and try to sit. But she's too anxious, and she rises, and paces back & forth. How many times has Catherine seen Vincent do this? The denim coat billows about her as she walks. While the effect is reminiscent, the cut of the coat, and the movement of its wearer, are thoroughly feminine. Catherine glances covertly at the other people in the room. To her surprise, no one really seems to notice the unusual woman pacing before them. One little boy watches her, fascinated, until his mother pokes him & hisses at him not to stare. The mother casts a curious glance Victoire's way, and then turns resolutely away. Presently, Victoire sits next to Catherine.

"Would it sound hysterical if I said that I've had a bad feeling all day?" she says. Catherine shakes her head no. "Today has been very strange," Victoire goes on. "Sometimes I think something awful is coming. Then I think something wonderful is waiting to shock me." She gives a very Gallic shrug. "It occurs to me that I should make a phone call."

She goes to the phones on the wall, and after some fumbling in her purse, she finds a book and dials a number. She speaks in German for a while, and presently returns to Catherine. "A friend of my uncle's is a physician here in New York."

"Is he coming in?"

"It's late, and I asked him not to, but he will make some phone calls. I suppose here it is like everywhere: who you know..."

"Always."

"Is there someone here for Jean-Luc Dedeaux?" someone calls, pronouncing the name so badly that Catherine winces. A young man in a white coat stands at the door to the treatment area.

Victoire stands. "I am Victoire Dedeaux."

"Oh," he says, a little weakly. He stares at Victoire as she walks up to him. Catherine follows her, and the poor young man looks from one woman to the other. "He..he may be having a heart attack," he says. "It's a little early to tell. I, um, think he's asking for you." He clearly has doubts about letting Victoire into the back, and he doesn't know what to do.

Catherine watches with admiration as Victoire quietly assumes control of the situation. "He very likely is asking for me, " she says. "I also have the insurance cards for the person who handles such things, if you will have them come back. Where is my uncle?" And she sweeps past him with aplomb. The man points to the right.

"Room three," he says, and lets her go.

*****

Two hours later, Jean-Luc is installed in an ICU bed, looking somewhat better, and quite grouchy. His nurse bustles about the room. She doesn't appear to be the least bit impressed by Victoire, and she's made it clear that she and Catherine have ten minutes to visit, no more. She has secured the phone numbers of Victoire's hotel, her beeper, and her satellite cell phone, and reassures her that she will keep her informed of everything that happens.

Victoire kisses her uncle good-bye. "Don't you dare worry. I'll take care of everything. You know I can."

He chuckles. "Little One, you've taken care of everything for years. Don't think I don't know that you only let me think I run everything. No, it's me I'm worried about."

"Me, too. But you know, I think it will be OK."

He searches her face, and seems to relax. "Well, if you say so. I love you, Little One. A demain."

As they walk down the hallway towards the elevator, Victoire casts an appraising glance at Catherine. "You're awfully quiet."

"I went through this not long ago, with my father. Only that story didn't end so well. I think I know how scared you are."

Victoire turns to look at Catherine with an expression of great compassion, and her resemblance to Vincent is so striking that Catherine nearly catches her breath. "I'm so sorry," Victoire says.

"He died in that room back there," Catherine points. To her surprise, Victoire puts her arm around her shoulders, again, reminding Catherine so much of Vincent that for a moment, she doesn't know what to say. And then she smiles at her. "I'm OK," she says. "And Jean-Luc will be, too."

"I know. But he won't like this." Somehow, that's funny.

*****

"OK," says Catherine. "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry."

"Yes!"

"And tired."

"Yes."

"I have an idea. My apartment isn't far, and there's a Chinese take-out place around the corner. Right by the back door, actually. What if we went there, and ate it at my place with our feet up."

"I should really get back to the hotel."

"At this hour, the room service kitchen is closed."

"Oh, why not? It isn't as if I'll sleep."

This plan settled upon, Catherine starts her car, and heads for home. She tries not to think that her motives are ulterior. That she knows that Vincent could well be waiting on her terrace, and that she wants to see him, and that, yes, she wants him to see Victoire. The scenario of his meeting Victoire doesn't form in her mind - she can't admit to herself that he'd want to reveal himself. But she wants him to see her, to know about her, and she wants to know more about her as well. But she won't allow these thoughts to come to the surface; it makes her feel a little too conniving to admit anything except that she wants to see Vincent soon.

"You didn't really tell him the truth, did you?" she asks.

"My uncle? You mean, when I told him he'd be OK?"

Catherine nods. "He's counting on your second sight."

"Which is why I had to tell him that... Wait, what do you know about my second sight?"

Caught. Why did she assume this? Just because Vincent does this doesn't mean that Victoire does. And yet, she does. "I sort of assumed that was what that exchange was about," she says. She pretends not to notice that Victoire is watching her rather hard.

*****

Presently, as promised, she pulls into her garage. Catherine wonders if Vincent has come to the garage to wait for her - sometimes, when there's a chill on the terrace, he comes down to the garage to meet her when she drives in.

They get out, and go to the trunk to get Victoire's bag. They have not noticed a man lurking behind a pillar, until they hear a small shuffle behind them. Catherine is the first to turn, and see the knife. "Stop!" she cries.

The man was in no way prepared for what happens next. The woman in black spins around, and seeing him, snarls horribly, and lunges at him. He screams, drops his knife, and runs, Victoire hard on his heels. She grabs his arm and flips him so that he lands hard on his shoulder. Terrified by her roar, he scrambles to his feet and runs hell-bent-for-leather up the ramp. He never notices that she follows him just a few steps.

Vincent has indeed been waiting in the garage, more than a little worried. He still chafes under the loss of his sense of her. He hates not knowing. Stranger still to see her drive in with someone in her car. He is about to withdraw when he sees the man approach them. Just as Victoire lunges at the man, he begins to run towards them. If the would-be attacker is amazed at what he sees, Vincent is dumbfounded. So much so that he stops in the middle of the garage, exposed to view. Catherine sees him and gestures at him to go, a movement he barely notices. The woman stands with her back to him, watching the mugger run away, her hands on her hips, head back, hair blowing everywhere, coat swirling around her. She is laughing.

As she turns back to Catherine, she says: "I hope I didn't alarm you."

"Not at all. I'm used to it," Catherine says absently. Vincent still stands, staring at Victoire, and Catherine can't think what to do about this.

Victoire is about to question Catherine about her being 'used to it', when she sees the direction of her gaze, and follows it. For several long moments, there is only the sound of distant traffic. No one is even breathing. Shocked, the twins stare at each other, as alike as two people of a species could be, one very masculine, the other irresistibly feminine. Finally, they begin to approach each other, very cautiously. They stand nearly eye to eye, two paces apart, and still they are barely breathing.

Catherine watches, breathless as well, and suddenly filled with a very feminine sense of danger. If she could ever have hopeless competition, this is it, and she has brought her to him.

"Mais," Victoire breathes. "Je reve."

"I, too," he answers.

All three turn in alarm when running footsteps approach down the ramp.

"Vincent!" Catherine hisses. "Go!"

"Come!" he says, and taking Victoire's hand, leads her around the corner.

"What!" she exclaims. "Why?" But she runs with him anyway.

The garage watchman reaches the bottom of the ramp in time to see Catherine lifting a bag out of the trunk of her car. "Ms. Chandler! Are you all right? This guy came running out like a crazy man, babbling about monsters. He says there's a woman down here in danger..."

"That might be me. He was weird, wasn't he? I think his original intent was to hold me up, but then he got goofy. How'd he get in here, anyway?"

"I'm sorry, Ms. Chandler, he got right by me somehow. Let me take that for you."

"No, thank you, I'm all right." It seems like forever before he'll leave, and in the end, he does carry the bag to the elevator, and waits till she gets on it, never dreaming it's the last thing she wants to do.

*****

Vincent has pulled Victoire into the tiny passage that leads to the underground tunnel under Catherine's laundry room. They stand staring at each other again.

"Vincent?" she whispers. "Is that it?"

"Yes. And you?"

"Victoire." Spellbound, she reaches up to touch his face. He catches sight of her hand, snatches it into his own, staring at their hands together. Her face opens up into surprise. "Vincent, you do not think.. You cannot doubt! What else could it be?" She pulls open the collar of her shirt. "Look! It is real. I'm real!"

"You know my thoughts."

She frowns. "You do not know mine."

"Until a few months ago, I would have. But something happened..."

"Something awful."

"Yes."

She strokes his face. "I will feel for both of us."

"All these years."

"All my life, I thought I was alone."

"And then sometimes, I thought it wasn't supposed to be that way."

"We've been here all along."

They embrace, finally. She has tears in her eyes. When she raises her head to look at him, they kiss, passionately.

*****

Catherine has ridden the elevator all the way to her floor, and back down, feeling a little foolish. She heads through the laundry room.

*****

The twins have separated, guiltily on Vincent's part. And yet, he cannot let her go; their arms still intertwine.

"You love her so much," she says, a simple statement of fact.

"Yes."

She smiles a little wryly. "I cannot believe in one moment I have found and lost you."

He shakes his head. "Never lost."

Somewhere inside her, at the crossroads she'd met when he came into her mind, she makes a choice. For a few wild minutes, she'd savored the possibilities of making him hers, knowing that, right or wrong, she could at least try. Now she makes a different choice, resolutely, and without regret. Even without his gift, he watches her choose, and the admiration he gains binds him to her more tightly than any other decision could have.

"Vincent!"

He turns towards the stair. "Here." And he still cannot let go of Victoire's hand. He leads her to meet Catherine at the bottom of the ladder.

"All right?" she asks. They nod. "I convinced the guard there was only me. He insisted on escorting me onto the elevator. I left your bag in my apartment."

"Why don't I meet you up there?" Vincent asks.

"Where do you have to go?" asks Victoire.

"I do not go among the public," he replies.

"Why not?"

"Vincent's existence is a secret," says Catherine. "Only a few people know him."

"How do you live?"

"You are on my front doorstep. I live here."

Victoire scans the bare walls with thinly disguised horror. "Under the ground? All alone?"

"No, not alone. There is a great story to tell, and I will meet you upstairs."

Regretting even the few moments of separation, the women climb the ladder into the building, and Vincent watches them go. Victoire follows Catherine to the elevator, and watches her new friend's face for a bit. "You came to meet me because of him."

"Yes."

"But I don't think you planned to tell me about him."

"That would have been his choice to make."

"I think, Catherine Chandler, you are a braver woman than most." A look of comprehension passes between them, and for the first time in several long minutes, Catherine smiles.


SUNDAY

The early morning sun penetrates the sheer curtains of the balcony, and Victoire stretches on the couch in the living room. Catherine still sleeps on the loveseat. Vincent is long gone. They had talked long into the night, learning almost ravenously about each other, while Catherine watched quietly, feeling as if they forgot she was there.

They talked of how Vincent found Catherine in the Park, and how they have grown since then. He told her the story of the Tunnel World, but he left out how it was he came to that world, not realizing she saw the omission. They told her the story of Paracelsus, and how he nearly destroyed their home, their lives, and Vincent's sanity. There were tears in her eyes, which surprised Catherine. He has not admitted to Catherine the loss of his bond to her, so she cannot know how deeply Vincent mourns its loss. Victoire can. It is not only that he grieves for his connection with Catherine, but he has lost touch with a large part of himself, a center he'd never realized was so vital until this. "It cannot last forever," she said. "You will recover."

"If it takes another minute, it is too long," he replied. Catherine knew that she did not fully understand the meaning of that exchange.

And then it was Victoire's turn.

"Jean-Luc and Emilie Dedeaux raised me as their own daughter, " she started.

"What of your own parents?"

A small hesitation. Someone else might not have noticed, but Catherine did. "Who knows? I never knew my parents. I.. was an orphan, and to be honest, the story has gone through so many changes, I can't tell you how it all started."

"I think I could say the same thing," he said, somewhat sourly. "And so?"

"So I was a bohemian child. The Cirque de Joie was a very small one in the beginning, and quite average. We had dwarves and acrobats and trick ponies and clowns. We also had oddities: the bearded lady, the sword swallower, and such. Later on, Lu-Lu.." she caught a quizzical look "that's what I call Jean-Luc - added tigers, and a trainer. Then we had bears. We don't anymore - they cost more than they really bring in, and we have changed our format.

"But I digress. I suppose the point is that I fit in. I was carefully shielded as a child, to be sure, as we all were, and I knew all the children around me. European circuses are still a lot like American circuses once were: very small, and limited in their activity. The show travels in the summer, and stays in our home town during the winter. We live in a town near Nice. Many of us have second businesses there, and the children go to school there. Families stay behind even in the summer. Some children are too young to go with the show, or people stay to keep the shops open, and so forth. It's home, and it's safe."

"But no one ever kept you hidden?"

Another tiny hesitation. "No. What was a lion child among the dwarves and bearded ladies? I occasionally was teased in school, but the circus children kept together. Even the children of the trainers and acrobats - the "normal" children, if you will - were sometimes troubled by the other children. After all, we were different. We were bohemians, circus people. We learned to defend ourselves, and we also learned how to break down barriers and make friends."

"Defend yourselves?"

She shrugged. "At one point our another, all our fathers taught us how to fight. Me especially."

"They teased you more?"

"No. I was a troublesome child, with a vicious temper. Me, Lu-Lu had to teach how to... how to... Ooof, English fails me at last. Not be so hard. Be careful. He sent me to learn Savate."

"What is that?"

"It is a fighting, um, martial art. I guess you could call it French karate. It's taught me more than self control. It's taught me how to control a fight, physical or verbal. Lots of things. Lu-Lu also started me tumbling earlier than the other children. Anything to channel all that energy."

Vincent nodded. "My Father had me reading books, and studying anything he could get to take my interest." And shattering passages and rooms out of granite. Some things are not everything they seem, he thought.

"We started a fashion, Lu-Lu and me," she continued. "Pretty soon all the circus kids went to learn. It's useful for them, too. Life on the road isn't always safe."

"I can't believe you've been all over the world."

"All over? I haven't. Most of Europe. Now America. I went to school in England..."

"School?" said Catherine.

"College."

"You went to college?" the dreaminess in his voice was not lost on her, nor was the wistfulness he felt. "In England?"

And so the conversation flowed, for hours. They talked of dreams they had as children, and how they learned to accept that some of them would never come true. Or that they would come true in ways they couldn't expect.

"I dreamed of roaming the world. My brother Devin and I used to lie awake at night and talk of all the things we would do."

"Your brother?"

"My foster brother. His father raised me."

"Ah. So, you were an orphan?"

"Yes." She waited, but he offered nothing more.

"And what does Devin do now?"

He sat quietly for a long moment. "He does all the things we said we would do."

She felt the ripples of regret flow away from him, and some sorrow.

"He went without you." He shrugged in answer.

"The wild romance Devin seeks came to you, didn't it?"

He'd smiled at Catherine, sitting bundled in her favorite old sweater, her hands wrapped around a mug. She smiled back. "And probably a good bit of the adventure," she added. What would Devin have done about Paracelsus?

Victoire settled into the cushions on the couch. "I wanted to be someone I could never be," she said.

"And who might that be?"

"Cybil Sheperd."

Catherine chuckled.

"Who?" asked Vincent.

"You really don't know?" He shook his head. "She was a great passion in France when I was a young teen. The ultimate American girl: blonde, sexy, beautiful flawless face, long legs. Desired by one and all." She shrugged. "What girl doesn't want that?"

"Let me guess. Her teeth were all the same length."

"Brilliant, Holmes." Her grin bared her teeth - especially the long ones. "How was I to know that I was to be a sex symbol of my era? That the same French magazines that went on about her regimen for her clear skin would spend as much space speculating on the appearance of mine? That others would devote a spread to my work-out secrets?"

"Work-out secrets? Stand on a scaffold and leap?" said Catherine.

"With the greatest of ease."

They touched on the difficulties of being alone among so many, even if those people are loved ones.

"I know there are times that I have regretted being what I am, but my true regret is that I don't know why," he said. "It nags at me sometimes: why this? What sort of genetic twist, or fantastic story resulted in me ?" She became very still, within. She seemed almost opaque to Catherine, and her withdrawal alarmed her. "Do you ever wonder?", he asked.

"All the time," she murmured. She slipped away into some melancholy thoughts, but then returned, and smiled. "Given a chance, I could drive myself mad with it. You mean, you have no clue? No fantasy about it all?"

"Have you?"

"I don't let myself fantasize about it any more. I just accept that the best and the worst of me, no matter what I look like, lies in my humanity. It doesn't seem it can come from anywhere else..."

"What do you mean?"

She turned her gaze on him, her eyes searching his. To Catherine, it seemed that she was debating with herself, that there was something she wanted to say. And as Catherine watched, Victoire thought better of whatever it was, and smiled. "Never mind." She reached over and took his hand in hers, played with his fingers. Her delight in him was obvious, and his delight no less. Catherine looked on with growing anxiety, all the time unaware that Victoire heard her fears.

"Catherine said that very few people know that you exist. You live in hiding?"

"Yes."

She hated it. Something about that shuddered in her soul so deeply that both Catherine and Vincent actually felt it, and nearly hated it, too. For the first time in months, he finds an urge to defend the darkness of his home. He said: "Hiding isn't the same as confinement." After all, he clearly goes where he pleases. She saw the adventure there.

"And so you live in hiding, but not in confinement, under the ground? What is this place like?"

"Perhaps I need to show you rather than tell you. Can you meet me tomorrow?"

"Tell me where."

Victoire rises, and goes to the balcony doors. She opens them, and steps out into the cold morning air. She leans on the wall, looks out over the park, and down at the street, and over the parapet where Vincent disappeared before dawn. Unbelievable. That such a gift should land in her lap, and on a night she should remember with nothing but fear. Life is funny like that. But she has a very passive attitude towards the shocks life can bring her. She knows that she cannot stop them, and that the art is all in how she takes the shocks. She faces trouble with as much equanimity she can muster, and with as much determination. She accepts life's gifts with gratitude. Vincent is a gift that brings a great deal of gratitude indeed.

She turns as the door creaks behind her. "Good morning."

"Want some coffee?" Catherine asks, still drowsy.

"Mm. The stronger the better."

"I'll get out the espresso machine." Victoire follows Catherine into the apartment.

"He loves you very much", she says, with her customary bluntness.

Catherine blushes. "He's the center of my life."

"I admit I envy him that. My love-life has not been as blessed. I've been in love half a dozen times. Never was it as beautiful as what you seem to have. Perhaps I didn't open myself to it well enough."

"Why not?"

"You know why. Caution is the best word for it, I suppose. And there are so many reasons to be careful. I have to maintain a relationship with two strikes against me. There, I did a very American analogy, didn't I?"

"Two?"

"Being involved with such an unusual-looking person is one thing. Being involved with a celebrity is another. But when your lover is both..." She makes her a very French gesture.

"Lover?" The word is out of Catherine's mouth before she thinks.

Victoire smiles wryly. "I don't look like the sort of girl who'd save herself for marriage, do I?" She completely misinterprets the odd look on Catherine's face. "Oh, I'm sorry. Are you..?"

"Huh? Oh! No. No, not really..."

She bends over the espresso machine, blushing deeply, and reality dawns on Victoire. "You mean, you haven't... You two have a love that fills a room with rainbows, and... I don't understand."

"Vincent is afraid that... Oh, I don't know. There was a girl, when he was young, and..."

"And what?"

"I think it should be his story to tell."

Her discomfort is acute now, and Victoire lets it go. "Perhaps it is. You don't work today, do you?"

"Um, no, not officially. But I brought plenty home to do anyway. I always seem to have to do that."

"I must go soon." Gratefully, she accepts a cup of coffee. "I have a matinee, and I suppose I'd better get some sleep first."

"You're welcome to do that here. I'm going for a run now, and then I have to get groceries."

"Thank you. But if I don't show up at the hotel soon, my partners will panic." She consults her watch. "Come to think of it, if I get in within the hour, they probably won't know I was gone."

*****

Later that morning, Victoire sits at Jean-Luc's bedside, reading the reviews of their show to him from the paper, translating as she goes. They are good reviews, and the two gloat together. "'By far the most breathtaking moment in theater history - this season - is the African Star: a feat that should be tried only by madmen, or consummate professionals.' There. We are both, I think."

"What does he mean - this season? That stunt is the greatest example of brave folly ever invented!"

"Well, Uncle, Americans like to think they are jaded."

"The French really are jaded, and they acknowledge the greatness of the African Star."

"And there is the difference."

They are interrupted by a young man in a white coat. He appears ill at ease, and not a little fascinated with Victoire as he introduces himself as Dr. Hotchkiss. Jean-Luc & Victoire exchange glances as he confesses that he is not here to see Mr. Dedeaux, but Ms. Dedeaux.

"Encore un fois," Jean-Luc murmurs to her.

"I don't suppose I'm the first person to come to you. I'm a geneticist. Um, I do research here, and... Oh, that isn't coming out right..."

"Never mind", she says, gently. "It never does."

"I don't suppose."

"Is my appearance native, so to speak, or enhanced by plastic surgery?"

"Well.."

"And if it were surgery, would you then pass my name along to a psychiatrist friend of yours who has an interest in people who disfigure themselves?" This shocks him. She rises and advances on him, using the sinuous walk that has distracted many men from purer thoughts. And it distracts him, as Jean-Luc nearly laughs out loud. "Oh, that's happened before. And you're right, it's happened before that someone wanted to examine my anatomy, physiology, metabolism, and whatever. It is a topic of terrific controversy in France what I might really look like. The tabloids are filled with supposed pictures of my 'real face'. And I do nothing to stop them."

"Of course, you're a famous person..."

"With a face that sold hundreds of thousands of tickets," adds Jean-Luc.

"If I let anyone know who asked ..."

"Terrible business" her uncle finishes.

"But you aren't enhanced," the young doctor says. "Aren't you curious...?"

"No. I know who and what I am. I'm a woman with a job, a family, friends. I work, I sleep, I eat, I go dancing. People stare, bien sur. And I smile for the camera. I know what I need to know." She releases him from the tension she has created by turning back to her uncle. She leans on the bed rails and smiles at him.

"Have you ever met anyone else like yourself?" She whirls on Hotchkiss with such alarm that he recoils.

"Mon Dieu, young man, don't say that!" Jean-Luc cries. "It could destroy us! And don't look like that. She hasn't mauled anyone in years."

"Lu-Lu!"

He laughs at both of them.

"Look, Doctor, you can't say that examining her skin and bones will make any difference to mankind."

"But you'd know."

"Know what?" she asks. "How it happened? What would you do, hold a seance to conjure up the past & learn how such a one as me could have been conceived? Do you want to fantasize that I am some simple genetic throwback, one gene out of whack, and presto! The Lion Queen?"

He gives up. Certainly, if there were genetic history to be made, someone else would have made it by now, and he knows that there is nothing about her in the literature, and that she's right: there is no simple answer, like there was for the Wolf Boys of Mexico, or the Elephant Man. "Well, at least I got to meet you," he says. "I guess I'm one of the starers. Sorry to intrude."

"At least, after all, you are a nice intruder", she says, and the look she gives him makes him distinctly uncomfortable in the most pleasant way. She reaches to shake his hand. He can't help himself, he looks at her hand when he takes it, turns it over , and then he blushes.

"Huh. Wild. I'm sorry. Good-bye." And he stumbles out of the room before he makes more of a fool of himself.

"That wasn't so bad," Jean-Luc says. "Why did you nearly jump at him?"

"Did I?"

*****

Pandemonium reigns inside a deli as Catherine waits for her order. She passes the time by reading the Times, but she is distracted by two young women behind her in line, chatting.

"So, wait a minute," says one. "Whatever happened to what's-his-name, Jim?"

"Oh, God, you wouldn't believe," her friend replies. "I was so stupid. I figured it was time for him to meet my friends. You know my friend Isabel I told you about? She's a journalist? Anyway, I started by introducing him to her; I thought they'd get along, he'd think I had smart friends. He's a reporter, she's a reporter. Makes sense, right? Too much sense. They're living together now."

"Oh, my God, I'm so sorry."

"Well, I've got Jerry, now."

"He sounds really great. Is it really serious, do you think? Yeah? When do I get to meet him?"

"Are you kidding? He's not meeting anyone!"

This story has cut up whatever peace of mind Catherine has held on to. Someone yells her number. She grabs her bag and runs.

*****

Later in the afternoon, after a well-received matinee, Victoire emerges from the theater. She almost blends in as she walks purposefully down the busy side walk, a graceful young woman in a long suede skirt, boots and a short swing coat. Her hair blows around her head, and only people who look straight at her notice her face. One man stops and turns to look, but people on the streets of New York are famous for ignoring each other. It's a long walk, made longer by the temptations to be seen in store windows on a bright spring day. She makes it to Catherine's apartment building without incident. The doorman remembers her from the morning, and ushers her in. She crosses the empty lobby, and proceeds to the basement.

Vincent is waiting as she comes out of the shaft of light, and smiling, walks into his arms. They kiss again, but this time less passionately, like they've known each other a long time. She settles into him. "We've been obsessed with each other all day."

He plays with her corkscrew curls. "Did you sleep?"

"Mmm. Had to. I have a show tonight."

"How long do you have?"

"A couple of hours."

"There's someplace I'd like to show you."

*****

He takes her to the Painted Tunnels, hoping that they might simplify some of the telling of the story. And perhaps they do, in ways he can't anticipate. He still hasn't fathomed how much of his thoughts and feelings she knows. And that she sees how tight a rein he keeps on himself.

"There's Catherine," she says, pointing to the portrait of Catherine in the white dress she wore to Winterfest, the night Paracelsus nearly killed them all.

"Yes."

"She's beautiful, Vincent. You could love her for her face alone."

He smiles at that, remembering what her face was like when they met.

She moves on. "Who's that?"

"That was Paracelsus."

"Humph. After all that, he just looks like a man."

"After all that, he couldn't escape that that was all he was."

"Human nature at it's finest..." she muses. "And they'd call us the beasts."

"We are not spotless," he protests.

"Of course not. But the worst in me is most assuredly from my human side, of that I have no doubt."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Look at him. How can you not be sure?"

They wander through the gallery, he tells her various stories about the Tunnel World, shows her pictures of its residents. She pauses before the portrait of young Father holding the infant Vincent.

"So, you were born here?"

"No. I was brought here by Father when I was an infant."

"He knew your parents?"

"No."

Another tiny beat, "You were an orphan?"

"I assume so. Father found me in a trash heap outside a hospital."

Her reaction surprises him: something leaps in her, emotions fly across her face as if she's wracked to her own depths, and the mix of horror, shock, and delight confuses him enormously. It is so strong that he wonders if he has not only seen it on her face, but also felt it from her heart. "What is it?"

"Thrown away in the trash?" She is regrouping beneath his inquiry, showing him now only sorrow and outrage.

"So the story goes."

"That's hideous. Who would do such a thing?"

His shrug is sad. "Any answer is possible. Perhaps even understandable."

"Oh? You think someone could have birthed a baby and been so horrified that she left it to die?" In the face of her indignation, all he can do is nod. "Do you really think that someone could sink to that level of depravity?"

"You know someone could."

"And you call that understandable?" She turns him to face her. "You don't think..." She caresses his face, a gesture that she has made entirely her own: no one has touched him just this way, and no one else ever will. "You think it could be justified, that on seeing you, someone could leave you to die?"

He crosses the tunnel to seat himself against the wall, slumping in near despair. He's so tired, and still so confused. She kneels next to him. He knows that she feels his turmoil, but he can't tell how much. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't been found." He drops his face into his hands only to avoid her gaze. It doesn't work. She pulls his hands into her own, makes him look into the mirror of her eyes. "It wasn't the creature that I was as a child that I find so difficult to understand. You don't know what I've done," he says. "I have killed so many..."

She gasps a little. This she has never done, although she's injured a few, and badly. She waits. Haltingly, he tells her, the parts of the story she did not hear last night, beginning with that first terrible afternoon in the brownstone where the men who had dumped Catherine at his feet returned to kill her. He can enumerate every kill, every screaming face, but the ones brought to him by Paracelsus are harder to speak of: men who were, if not innocent, certainly unwitting of the doom they were sent to meet. There were others, predators who invaded the Tunnels to kill those in his world. They were horrible, but not the same, and somehow, he feels guilty over his lack of remorse for them. Last. The final blow that sent his mind spinning into an Abyss of its own, into terrors he's not yet described to anyone: killing Paracelsus, and believing, dear God, that it was Father he was striking down!

He is beyond tears. Victoire pulls him into her arms, and rocks him as if he is crying. She reaches into him, searching for the well-spring of grief, thinking she can help more if she knows more, but she finds such a yawning cavern of despair that she pulls back in alarm. What can she do in the face of this?

Unbidden, anger rises in her throat. She blames Catherine - if she had not come into his life, so much of this would not have happened. She blames Father, a man she's never met, for ... what? She takes a breath, and puts it all away. The worst of it would have come no matter what. Paracelsus would have tried to hurt them, no matter what. He used Catherine as bait because he could. Had she not been there, he would have thought of something else. And perhaps, without Catherine's love to sustain him, and without the lessons he'd learned with her, Vincent might have succumbed to Paracelsus' madness for good. She sighs. Why is life so very weird?

She finds him staring at Elizabeth's painting of himself as a child. "If they had known what it was I would become, would they have taken me in?" he murmurs. She watches the images on the wall as if she expects them to answer him. "I have heard so many versions of the story that I don't know the truth. When I last met with Paracelsus, he imitated Father so well, and told me so convincingly of a birth that was hideous..." He looks up at her. "I still see it in my dreams: a woman screaming in agony as some hell-made creature claws his way through her. I go to her tomb, and imagine I can hear her screams still."

"But, my love, it is not so!"

"So Father tells me. He tells me that Paracelsus slew his own wife - over me. No matter how hard I try, Victoire, there has been death and madness in my life, even from the beginning."

She seems to go a long way away from him now, staring into herself as if she's seen an old truth in a new light. "Some destinies are like that."

He leans his head against the wall. "It's hard to believe in destiny when I don't know the truth about my past."

At last, here in one thing she can answer. "Listen to me." She turns his face to hers. "I promise you: there is nothing there that is demon-born. Nothing."

"How can you be sure?"

She smiles at him with a spark of love the likes of which he's never seen before. There is a proprietary nature to it that his heart leaps to answer. "I'm sure," she says. And for no reason he can understand, it is enough.

She settles on the ground next to him, snuggling into his shoulder. "How can anyone live to adulthood and not have actions of which they are ashamed? And how can anyone live into adulthood and not have to face difficult choices?"

"Most people don't have to face killing someone."

"No. But there are other choices, other crimes. How can we avoid making mistakes? There are always crossroads at which both paths are repugnant. And once such a crossroads is reached, and a path chosen, what else is there to do but live the best we can with the choice?" She takes his hand. "It's over. Paracelsus is gone. I think he committed suicide, for twisted reasons of his own that we'll never really know. You don't need to know, not now. Ruminating over the past will not change it. You must decide how you will live from now on."

"Most people who commit crimes are asked to atone for them."

She can't help a sarcastic chuckle. "I'm not so sure about that. You must decide whether they were crimes at all. Is it truly guilt you should be feeling, or isn't the revulsion such an act brings enough? The men who would have killed Catherine, and you: are you guilty of their deaths? Or are you culpable? And if you had stayed your arm, what would have happened?"

"Have you ever ...?"

"No. I've wanted to, been angry enough to. But the training has saved me from my temper. On the other hand, I have done a few people some grievous harm in the name of self defense. I put a man into a wheelchair."

"How did that affect you?"

"Badly. I went around feeling dirty for quite some time. For years I thought I should not have struck as hard as I did; and had I been more experienced, I'd probably have taken a different attack. But I also remember that my choice at the time was him or me. The critical choice before that was his: it was he who assaulted us, he who set the events into motion. I could not change that. All I can do is live as well and as fairly as I can after it all."

He gives this long consideration. And takes a deep breath. There is so much truth in what she says. Every day can be a day of atonement. Every day is the rest of his life. He has to move on. There are other choices in his future that will demand his attention, whether he is prepared to leave this past or not. And yet... "There are 36," he says.

"Thirty six?"

"Lives. Thirty six men whose blood is on my hands."

"Looks like you have a lot of living to do." She consults her watch, and stands with reluctance. "I have to go." He rises, takes her hand, and leads her down the passage. "I wish you could see us."

"Oh! I will."

"And how is that?"

"I have my ways. You'll see."

****

About an hour before the evening curtain, a tall cloaked figure emerges from a trap door in the floor of the Walden theater basement. Carefully, he pulls himself through the hole, closes the trapdoor, and slips against the wall, next to boxes. He listens for a long time, learning the rhythm of the movements above him, before he moves on. Hisses & clanks come from a door labeled 'Boiler Room'. Vincent tries the door. It's locked. He surveys the basement again, looking for a partly remembered place. No. It was definitely through the boiler room door. He forces the old lock easily, and with surprisingly little noise. The sounds and smells of the boiler room overwhelm him a bit. He closes the door behind him, and waits for any sound to warn him of people. Creeping quietly, he paces around the cluttered room, and nearly jumps out of his skin when a valve near his head discharges with a loud squeal. He finally finds the trap door in the ceiling he remembers, with the ladder rungs embedded in the wall. Will those rusty bars hold his adult weight? He tries the first, then the next, ready to jump away to the ground if he needs to. The odd little latch on the trap door is rusty, but it turns, and he can pop the trap a bit. Dust sifts down onto his face, and he resists the urge to sneeze. Again, he listens, then dares to open the door up all the way: the space is unchanged. A small dark corridor, separated from the stage by a false wall built many years ago when the theater was renovated, runs the depth of the stage. On the other side of flimsy sheetrock, he can hear people moving about, talking. The space is much narrower than he remembers, but he searches, moving quietly, and finds the catwalk ladder. Again, a moment of doubt: will the old metal hold him? He starts the climb, and breathes a deep sigh of relief when he reaches the top. He sits above the highest catwalks at this point, looking down onto the stage. A large scaffold is set up, and mats laid out on the floor. Four men in tights and sweatshirts are warming up, and Victoire in beat up tights and leotard is with them. When he first sees her, she's finishing off a series of somersaults across the floor, and she waits for one of her partners to catch up with her. She slides down into a split, throws her head back in a stretch, and looks straight up at the catwalk where Vincent stands. She grins up at him, and continues on. He waves down at her, but he's come to the realization that, although his perch is removed from the commonly used catwalks, he is exposed here. He looks about. So, how did they get to the light bays, all those years ago? He traces the steps and bridges he sees, until he can find one near him. But something has changed. There could never have been this leap between bridges for them as children. He clambers back down the ladder to find another, and after shuffling up and down the length of the stage more than once, he sees it. The first bar breaks off in his hand, but when he jumps for the second it holds, and he climbs up again. This time he finds a door that leads into the narrow walkway behind the light bays. He creeps down that passage, freezing again when he hears voices below him.

"Blues calibrated?"

"Got it."

"Pin spot?"

"Yep."

There must be a light control room here. He creeps past the area, and finds a light bay. Its doors are closed. He moves on. The next bay is also closed. As is the next. He makes his way forward again, to the spot above the control board.

"Go ahead & open the bays", he hears, and the passage behind him fills with a faint light as the bays open up. He settles into the one farthest forward, careful to stay out of the way of the door. It wouldn't do to have it close & trap him somehow.

*****

Alone in her apartment, Catherine sits in a brown study. She's curled up on the couch before the fireplace, nursing a glass of wine. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is on the stereo. Her eyes are red. She's cried out.

She had not had this in mind when she so recklessly went to learn the truth about Victoire.

She remembers meeting Elliott Burch, how she nearly fell in love with him. Vincent tried to hide his hurt at the time, but it was obvious. She should have seen it for what it was. Instead, she only saw what she wanted. She wanted to have it all, Vincent and Elliott both, and thought she could get it by pretending Vincent wasn't as much in love as he seemed, or worse, wasn't a man she could love. How stupid she must have sounded, telling Vincent that nothing would change if a romance with Elliott were to develop. Spoiled and vain, and he never let her see that, never thought of anything but what could make her happy.

She'd told Victoire that his reticence came from his encounter with Lisa. What if that weren't all of it? What if, even now, he holds himself apart from her because he still feels she should find a better love? Someone of her own kind. He's said it before, that she needed a man who could give her more than he could. He couched it in terms of the world Above, but he really meant that she would be happier with a man who could show his face to that world. She's tried so many times to show him that she doesn't want that kind of man, or that kind of world. And finally, perhaps, she has gotten him to see. But if she had seen what he was from the very beginning, if she had taken him from the start, without hesitation... How much time she has wasted!

He's different since Paracelsus. Even now that the scars are healing, he's not the same. Perhaps someone like Victoire is more what he needs now. He had been ready to step aside when Elliott was in her life. She should be willing to make the same sacrifice for him.

But she can't.

*****

The African Star is an amazement. Unbeknownst to him, Vincent's breathlessness as it unfolds is exactly like Jean-Luc's, and his mixed relief and pride is no less. The audience below him surges to their feet. The acrobats bow again and again.

As she has done several times this evening, Victoire looks straight up at Vincent, but for the first time, she blows him a kiss, and he laughs.

*****

The show is over. The last of the paperwork is finished, and she gives them into the theater manager's hands. She meets up with two of her fellow acrobats as they leave via the stage door. "Odd," says Etienne. "No paparazzi tonight."

"Oh, and we do miss them," says Yusef.

"Are you coming with us to the clubs tonight?" Etienne asks Victoire.

"Sorry. I have plans."

"Plans? What plans? Who in the world do you know in New York?"

"Believe it or not, there are people we know in New York."

"What are you going to do tomorrow?"

"You mean, after you all leave? I'm moving out of the hotel, and staying with friends."

"Who?"

"Eti, who are you, my father?"

"All right, fine. Does Lu-Lu know where you will be?"

"Of course he knows! Look, would you calm down?"

"I wish you'd let me stay."

She takes his arm fondly, and casts a glance at Yusef, who is steadfastly staying out of this. "I'll be fine, Eti. And Lu-Lu will be fine, or he'll have to answer to me. And I'll bring him home as soon as I can."

Yusef speaks up. "Are we going to walk all the way to the hotel, or does anyone want to fight in a cab?"

*****

After saying good night at the elevators, Victoire runs into her room and empties her duffel. Working quickly, she refills it with a change of clothes, nightclothes, and a few other items. Then quietly, she slips out of the room and down the hall to the stairs.

Moments later, she opens the door by the silent loading dock, and peers out into the alley. No one. An eerie noise rings up the alley as a nearby manhole cover begins to move. She descends the stairs, and glides over to crouch next to the floating metal disk. When the opening is clear, she pauses to grin at Vincent below her before she drops into his arms.

*****

They come to the Whispering Gallery. She eyes the boards of the bridge with mistrust, but follows Vincent onto its span. Faint sounds of traffic filter into the chamber. As she looks over the rail at the endless drop, she's startled by the sounds of a large group of people laughing.

"What in the world?"

"Somehow, sounds from the world above echo down in here. When we were studying physics, my friends and I tried many different experiments to determine the origins of the noises. All we could learn for certain was that the nature of the echoes varies with wind direction."

"How could you forget where you parked the car?" a woman's voice says. Victoire spins to look directly behind her, for it certainly sounded like that's where the voice came from, but there is no one there. And then a boombox wanders by, fading as distance takes it.

"Bizarre," she says. He holds out his hand to her, and she takes it. "What's down below?" she asks.

"No one knows."

*****

In Father's chamber, Father and Mary are sitting on opposite sides of his desk, she with a list, he with a ledger.

"All right," he says. "A little bit more before we call it a night. What is the expiration date on the Augmentin?"

She consults her list. "August '93"

"We'll have used it by then. The Keflex?"

"May of this year."

"We can eke another 6 months out of that if we have to..." He looks up as Vincent enters the room. "Vincent." He knows his son's face too well. "What is it? You have someone with you. Who?"

"I don't think I know where to begin. But there's someone I want you to know." He turns towards the chamber door. "Her name is Victoire."

Even with the cryptic messages on the pipes, even with the way they have come to accept that inexplicable things surround Vincent, they are not prepared for the black-cloaked woman who enters the room. She stops at the top of the short stair, and raises her furred hands to sweep the hood back from her face. Her gaze sweeps the room, and she appraises both Father and Mary with great gravity. But when her eyes meet Vincent's, she smiles.

"My God!" Father murmurs. Mary remains speechless.

"Father," Victoire says. "And Mary, I presume."

"Yes", Mary breathes, and then she realizes she is staring. She puts away her list, and rises from her chair as Victoire descends the stairs and comes to Vincent's side.

Father sits weakly in his chair, and then falls back on the comfortable automatisms of manners. "Please, have a seat."

By the time Vincent and Victoire have pulled up chairs, the others have regained some composure. "Two mysteries", Father says. "Never in my life could I have thought there would be two."

"Victoire has an acrobatic company that is visiting New York from France," Vincent begins. "Catherine went to see them, and somehow managed to meet Victoire, and, well...."

"Acrobats?" Father says.

"France?" Mary breathes.

At this point, Victoire begins to laugh. "Have I shocked you horribly?"

"I'm not sure," says Father. "How many of you are there?"

"Until last night, I thought I was the only one in the world", says Victoire.

They are distracted by a small shuffle in the tunnel. "Who's out there?" Vincent says, and Samantha and Jaimie appear at the door, looking rather sheepish.

"Excuse us," Jamie begins. "Kipper said..."

"Never mind," Father says. "Come in and meet Victoire."

They run down the stair, and into the room, introducing themselves all at once, and trying to be cool. At which point Pascal comes in. He says nothing, but stops and stares at Victoire in fascination.

"Pascal," Father says. "Just how many people do you think we may expect?"

"The pipes are still being rather mysterious," Pascal says. "I came because I was standing watch. Should I put out the word that Vincent's ... twin is here?"

Vincent and Victoire are both absorbed in Pascal's word "twin", when Mary says, "Victoire, are you ready to meet a crowd?"

The twins exchange a glance. "Actually," Vincent says slowly. "I asked Victoire to stay the night. Perhaps we can meet everyone in the morning."

Father coughs at this, but he recovers. "Vincent told you his story, and ours, I suppose?" he says. Victoire nods. "Will you tell us yours?"

"I saw your ad in the paper," Samantha says. "I thought it was make-up."

"Lots of people do," Victoire says. "I'm a foundling, like Vincent. Only I grew up in France, and Jean-Luc, whom I call Uncle, had a circus. It was perfect for me. But more than that, he and my Tante Emilie took me to their hearts, since they had no children of their own."

"So you grew up in the circus?" says Jamie, who is obviously more than a little taken with the romance of that thought.

"Sounds like fun, doesn't it?" the girls nod. "It was. We went to school in the small town where the circus wintered, and in the summer, the older children traveled with the circus all over France, and sometimes all over Europe. I began tumbling lessons when I was very young, and I was performing with the troupe by the time I was 12."

"But now you have a different act," Father says.

"Yes. After I finished college, I thought it was time to branch out. Two of my partners and I had come up with a new act for the circus, and we just expanded it for the stage. It started small." She shrugs and smiles. "It hasn't stayed that way."

"Did you say college?" Mary says.

"Yes. I went to a small school in the South of England."

"What did you study?" asks Father.

"Business."

"Business!" this is not what Father had envisioned.

"Of course. I am to assume the control of a growing entertainment concern. What else would I study?"

"How can you be sure your act will always be so popular?" Jamie asks.

Victoire nods approvingly. "You can't, and we don't count on it. There's more to it than that. We have a school of gymnastics. And one of my partners, Etienne, has a degree in engineering. A few years ago, he and I worked up a system for scaffolding that is portable and strong, but lightweight. We had a local manufacturer make it up for us, and we patented it. We arranged with the factory to sell the product, and then, Lu-Lu bought the factory last year. So far, it's doing well, and we are thinking of new products to add. One can fly only so long. It's a retirement plan, when our joints won't climb the rig anymore." She becomes solemn. "I suppose that now, I will be spending even more time on administrative things. Lu-Lu had a heart attack last night. Catherine was there, and I'm sure the angels sent her, because she was an enormous help to me."

"Is your uncle all right?" asks Mary.

"They say that he will be. They did some more tests today, and they won't say when they will let him go home."

Father leans forward in his chair. "Tell me, Victoire. You go all over the world. You went to school. Even in a circus, you had to stand out. Aren't you taking risks? How do you handle the exposure?"

She smiles apologetically. "I'm afraid I exploit the exposure," she says. "When I first started touring with the summer show, we made a point of making up the whole acrobatic team to look like me, and Lu-Lu had at least one other person in cat-face whenever we went out. I believed it was for my protection, but later, I that he wasn't above using a gimmick. We carried cards for the show with us wherever we went, and when someone gawked at us, we handed them a card, and told then to come see us.

"I exploited the same trick when we started the stage troupe. The press became interested in me, and we marketed the "mystery of Leonie" until we were blue in the face. Once people came to see us, we knew we had to give them a good show - but that was the easy part. The first job was to get everyone's attention."

"Has no one ever wanted to... to study you?"

A hesitation, small, but there. "Perhaps, when I was small. I wouldn't know. Lord knows, in my profession, I need a lot of doctoring, spraining and breaking things. The company doctor knows me well."

"And he does not reveal what he knows to the press?" Vincent asks. She shakes her head.

"But," says Samantha. "The press know about you already."

"They know what I look like. They think it's make-up, or that I've had some sort of plastic surgery. The big desire is to catch a photograph of my 'real' face."

"And so the press follow you everywhere," Mary says.

"Quite so."

"That seems horrible to me," says Father.

"It brought an audience into the theater," she says. "It made us famous. It gave us the chance to show what we could do."

"It's the opposite of the life Vincent has lead," says Father. "On the other hand, if there were a soul who knows why you are the way you are, he would have come forward by now."

Another hesitation. "I'm not sure that would be good for business."

*****

It's late when they wander to the guest chamber. In the course of the late evening, they had been joined by Pascal, and William, and Rebecca, and half a dozen others who found an excuse to come say good night to Father that night. The resulting impromptu party went on till after midnight. "What a family," she says. "You are lucky."

"Yes." They smile at each other. "Now more then ever," he says. "You know, perhaps our childhoods weren't so different. I had a group of friends who knew me, and accepted me for what I am. We had countless adventures down here, and Above, at night. And they protected me from the World Above, when we went too far, and risked meeting people who could cause us - me - harm. When it came to the World Above, none of us really fit in there. Our World was so much safer, to us."

"We had sawdust and trapezes. You had tunnels and darkness."

"Darkness isn't so bad."

"Nor are trapezes. But plenty of people are afraid of them."

"Just so."

Now what? They stand at a crossroads they hadn't anticipated. Parting. She moves into his arms, and feels the power of his thoughts surge through her. And she feels a happiness that echoes her own. She's been poised all night, but now... now she is awkward, and so is he. When she leaves his embrace, he stands still, and easily, as if he's always watched her walk away. Just as she has schooled herself to control her anger, he has learned to master his impulses, restrain his happiness. Catherine hardly feels his yearning when she turns away from him to climb that ladder, but Victoire is not Catherine. She sees the effort in his apparent calm. And it brings her back into his arms. "Dream of me," she whispers, and he chuckles.

"How can I not?"

And she breaks away from him to enter her room. His footsteps recede down the passage as she stands inside the doorway and listens. She takes stock of the chamber, warm with candle light, and almost filled with the old oak bed. She pulls her clothes off absently, and then dives into her bag.

Minutes later, she is perched cross-legged on the bed, brushing her hair. She is dressed in satin pajamas the color of autumn leaves, and the matching robe lies across the coverlet next to her. She can feel him moving about his own chamber, readying for bed. She can feel his wistfulness, matching hers. Perhaps it's a strange blessing that he cannot feel her as she feels him. The power is still there in him, broken, but healing. If his sense was as strong as hers, they could move into each other's souls with much too much ease, and then what? Both of them such strong individuals, how would they do, drowning in each other? On the one hand, the thought is romantic, and draws her. On the other, she finds the logical extreme daunting. There are depths to him that frighten her, just as she yearns to explore them.

She leaves the bed, and seats herself upon the cold stone floor. Long ago, she learned that she could clear her mind while she stretched her muscles, and she would slip into a near-meditation when she warmed up for practice. She adopted the habit when she needed to calm fears, or restore order to her thoughts, and now she slides into the routine, stretching over her knees and listening to her heart beat, and the air move through her body. One with her world, she lets the world slip through her limbs, and out into the ether.

 

In his chamber, he settles into his bed. Through walls of rock, he imagines that he feels Victoire, as he felt Catherine when she was in that room.

"I will feel for both of us," she'd said. And she has, sliding through his thoughts with a tenderness and understanding that no one else could give him - not even Catherine, who could love him with all her heart and soul, and accept him utterly, but never could she know what Victoire knows. More than this: he cannot shake the conviction that somehow, she knows why she is the way she is. She knows where she's come from. And she has hidden that from him, although he can't imagine why she would.

He sits up to rest his head on his knees, and reaches for Catherine, as his habit has been for years. But she's too far away. Sometimes, when he has her in his arms, he thinks there could be stirrings of the bond, but here, Below, it's as if she doesn't exist. Last night, with Victoire and Catherine together, he could almost believe that the old power could come back, as if he could channel it through Victoire.

There's a lot that comes from Victoire. So much of what she said today made sense to him. And she struck a cord within him that has shown him a chance for peace. She is so like him. And so different. How has he lived all his life without her? And how will he bear it when she leaves?

 

She sits up abruptly. She heard that cry in his heart. How will he bear it? How will she? When she leaves, it will be the effort of her will that will carry her away from him, not his. And then she makes a decision.

 

He raises his head as she enters his chamber. She stops next to the bed, tosses her robe across its foot. "All my life, you've been half a world away, and now I cannot bear to have you a few feet down the corridor. Move over. I'm staying here"

He reaches to stop her as she pulls back the covers. "Victoire, you can't..."

"Shhh!", she says. He watches in surprise as she curls up next to him, her back to him. "Go to sleep!" After a moment's consideration, he lies beside her, snuggles in spoon-style. When he throws his arm around her, she accepts him with a sigh. He can't resist the thoughts he'd had earlier.

"When are you going to tell me?"

"When I'm sure."

It is enough. Before he knows it, he is asleep.

*****

Late in the night, Victoire is awakened by a dream of horror: a far off voice, low and menacing, uttering muffled words that sizzle with venom. And near-by, a child cries in fear and betrayal, begging, begging: "Daddy! No!", with such anguish that she is awakened by her desire to go to that child. As she struggles to consciousness, she realizes that it isn't even her dream that has pierced her so, but Vincent's, and he is still in its grip.

She leans over him, caresses his face, whispers his name, but he does not wake. Just as she's about to shake him, he jolts up, gasping. She catches him in her arms. "Vincent!"

Panicked, he grips her with a short snarl, but she shakes him. "It's me!"

He stares at her in the dim light from the stained glass window. "Victoire?"

"What did you dream?"

"God, no! I can't..."

"Darling, tell me. What else am I here for? Tell me."

He props his arms on his knees, and rests his head on his hands, trying to slow his racing heart. "Nightmares are a fact of life," he says.

She waits.

"They used to be continuous, sometimes so much so that I didn't know if I was asleep and dreaming, or awake and hallucinating. And it was always the same sort of thing: killing and more killing. The smell of terror and blood, and their screams in my head, and that horrible sickening feeling of life draining away under my hands..."

"Is that what you just dreamed?" she asks, knowing that it wasn't.

He shakes his head. "No. Lately, it's more often ... What I told you about my last confrontation with Paracelsus, what was said, what he did. .. I don't remember any of it when I'm awake. I try to recall just how it all happened. I can't. But in my dreams... What I told you was what I recall from my dreams."

She fights the tears that are in her eyes. He is the child she heard, begging his father not to tell him these lies, not to tell him what he does not want to hear. Begging for love, and safety, and trust, and hearing only betrayal and death. She pulls him into her arms, brings him to lie with his head on her shoulder.

"I know I killed him. And I know that, somehow he goaded me to it. But I don't know why, Victoire. I can't be sure why. And in the dreams, Victoire, it isn't Paracelsus that I see, even at the end. It's always Father. It doesn't matter who was really there. I slaughtered my own Father. You can't imagine what it felt like to see him pull off that mask, and to turn around and see Father, alive, and whole, and... horrified, standing there, watching Paracelsus die..." Finally, tears come. Have they ever come till now? It doesn't matter. She holds him tightly until her arms ache. She does not try to quiet him - he's silenced himself for so long.

Eventually, he falls asleep, and she can feel that it is a true sleep this time. She lies awake longer, staring at the patterns of the golden window.


MONDAY

Jean-Luc Dedeaux looks up as Catherine enters his room. He smiles gratefully. "Ah! Mlle. Chandler! How kind of you to come visit an old man!"

"You remember me?"

"You speak French? Wonderful! Of course I remember you! I've had a heart attack, not a stroke! How could I forget such a lovely face?"

"How, indeed? Tell me how you're feeling."

"I am a pincushion! Look!" he holds up an arm with an IV, another with Band-Aids from blood-drawing. "And still they insist that all this is to save my life!" he takes her hand. "I must thank you for looking after my little Vicki. It gives me great peace of mind that she has found a friend."

"I'm glad I can help."

Something else occurs to him, and he sits bolt upright, setting off beeps and chimes. "Do you know what else they told me?"

"What?"

"I must stop smoking! Who ever heard of such a thing? I've been smoking for almost fifty years!"

"Fifty years! That long?"

"Yes. And they think I should stop."

"Well, I don't know M. Dedeaux. After fifty years of doing something, you must have it right. Isn't it time to do something else?"

He laughs at her, and pats her hand. "Tell me. What has happened to Victoire?"

"What do you mean? Was she supposed to come this morning?"

"No, no. Suddenly, she's so different. So alive. Almost as if she is in love." He doesn't notice that Catherine looks as she's been struck. "And she's keeping a secret from me. She never does that. If there's something she doesn't want me to know, Vicki is the sort to come right out and tell me so."

"She was scared to death for you. Perhaps she's happy about how well you're doing."

*****

Later, Victoire breezes into Jean-Luc's room, bearing flowers and a French newspaper. She kisses him soundly. "Did you sleep?"

"Have you ever tried to sleep in one if these places?"

"Er, no. That bad, eh?"

"I want to go home."

"Well, the good news is that they say you'll live to do that."

"Are the others off?"

"Their plane leaves at five. I went to the theater to see to the packing up of the equipment, and it's all loaded up. I think that rear scaffold needs to be redesigned. It doesn't fold up the way we'd planned."

"What are you going to do when the others are gone? Is Etienne staying with you?"

"No, I made him go. It will be just you and me. I'm moving out of the hotel, though."

"And going where?"

She sits in the chair next to the bed, and thinks for a moment. "There's something you should know."

"Ah! Here it comes!"

"Here comes what?"

"Little One, you can't hide anything from me. I raised you. You've had something under your hat for two days now."

She smiles at him so fondly that they almost forget what they are discussing. But then: "I don't know where to begin," she says.

"Perhaps from the beginning?"

"That would take too long. Remember I told you that I felt that something was waiting in New York?"

"Yes."

"Well, it wasn't something, it was someone."

"And you are in love?"

"Always the romantic. Not exactly. Lu-Lu, he is my double."

"Another lion?"

She nods.

"And this is good?"

She laughs. "Don't worry, he isn't publicity minded."

"Good, because it would never do if the press..."

"Stop! Everything isn't the business, Lu-Lu. Sometimes there's the rest of life, you know."

"Who says?"

A knock at the door interrupts them. When it opens, it is the white-haired man who had been at the theater.

"Helmutt!" Jean-Luc cries.

"Good afternoon." The man crosses the room to warmly shake Jean-Luc's hand, and then gives Victoire a huge hug.

"I am so glad to see you," she says.

"Are you, my dear?"

"Of course I am."

"It's taken you a long time to come to America."

"I know, and that was silly of me. But I've gotten over it well."

"And taken New York by storm." He turns back to Jean-Luc. "And so, my friend, how are you?"

"They try to tell me that I have to stop smoking!"

"And well they should."

"There is no one who will give me sympathy on this."

"Not in this hospital. Now, Vicki. What are you doing while Lu-Lu is convalescing? Could you bear to stay with Mama Edna and me?"

"Thank you, Papa, but I have made arrangements to stay with a friend."

"She won't tell me who," say Jean-Luc.

"Not so. But I'm glad you're here now, because I have some questions about the age-old topic. With a new twist."

"You know I'll tell you anything I can, but I think there can't be much more."

"About me? Nothing more. It's about the other baby..."

*****

Catherine drops a stack of files on her desk and sinks into the chair with a sigh. So she had a sleepless night. And she's feeling pretty insecure. Nice she can count on the pace at work to keep her distracted from her troubles. She runs her finger down the tabs on the files, frowning at the labels. Which one to choose first?

Her phone rings. Saved by the bell. "This is Catherine Chandler."

"Ms. Chandler? This is Sgt. Miller at the front desk downstairs." Sgt. Miller sounds definitely uncomfortable. "You, um, have a visitor, ma'am, um..." His voice disappears and Catherine can hear the receiver travel.

"Catherine?"

"Victoire?"

"Are you too busy for a brief break?"

"Of course not! Let me tell the Sergeant to let you upstairs." This was going to be interesting. She glances around the room at all the people going about routine duties as she walks over to the elevator. It would probably be best if she took Victoire to the conference room. The elevator opens, and there's Victoire.

Something changes in the air as she greets the lion goddess. The rattle of keyboards has faded. An intern stares open-mouthed.

Catherine can't help but laugh as Victoire makes her way across the din of curiosity, chatting to Catherine as if she's never noticed that she's caused a stir. The denim coat swirls around her as she walks, and Catherine wonders if Victoire has found a way to make it do that. She leads her into the conference room, and firmly closes the door on all the faces outside. "What brings you here?" she asks.

"Oh, I came to cause trouble." Victoire seats herself, drops the coat over the back of the chair, fluffs her hair.

"Really? Well, you have caused a quiet riot," says Catherine. "You'll be the talk of the place all week."

"Think they'd buy tickets if we came back next year?"

"I'm pretty sure."

"I brought you something," says Victoire. She draws a heavy paper sack from the folds of the coat, and sets in on the table. "I guessed you might not have had much good for lunch..."

"Oh, my God! What have you done?" Catherine drawls as she recognizes the printing on the sack.

Victoire pulls an ice cream sundae concoction out and hands it to Catherine. "I succumbed to temptation." She produces another for herself, and spoons.

Catherine inspects the temptation with glee. "You're right. This is lunch. Thank you so much!"

The next few moments are devoted to the adoration of ice cream for both of them. Presently Catherine asks quietly, and in French: "Did you go Below last night?"

"Yes, after the show. And I met Father and Mary and a dozen others last night. This morning, at breakfast.." All she can do is make a helpless gesture.

Catherine chuckles. "Mob scene?"

"Am I expected to remember everyone's name?"

"I'm afraid so. You'll do fine."

"Everyone was so warm, and kind. And the children are wonderful. It's an unimaginable community. There may be nothing new under the sun - but under the earth... Strange that that was where they had to go to make such a home."

Catherine peers at her over the rim of her ice cream cup, suspicion growing. "You didn't like it..."

"Is that horrible of me?" Victoire looks worried. "I could not live there forever - never see the sun. I'd go mad, wonderful as everyone is. Their hospitality is a dream! ... Am I horrible?"

Catherine smiles. "No. Does Vincent know?"

"Heavens, no! I'll never say so. And I don't mind going there, at all. I just couldn't live there."

"How long do you think you might stay?"

Victoire shakes her head sadly. "I have my work, and my gymnastics school, and I must go back." She looks a little helpless. "How am I going to do that?"

Catherine finds a stab of jealousy conflicting with her sympathy. "I thought of moving away from him once," she says. "I couldn't do it."

"You'd better not!" Catherine blinks questioningly at her. "I don't think he could survive without you," says Victoire. She puts her sundae down on the table with some resolution. "Look. It isn't just the Hell that Paracelsus put him through. He's driving himself with guilt over every life he's taken. Every violent encounter grows in his mind until he's sure that he deserves nothing good. But he lives for you. I think you're the only reason he's alive right now."

Catherine contemplates this with mixed feelings. "Most of those violent encounters were because of me. I seem to be unable to stay out of harm's way - and sometimes I think that I take risks because I know he'll be there to help me."

"Perhaps you do. And maybe it's time for you to change how you take those risks. But don't spend too much time worrying about the past. It's done - and it isn't as if those lives were lost frivolously. He needs to find a safer way to express his love for you. It's been said that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for others. Perhaps there is one greater thing: to kill for a loved one. But that can only go on for so long. He needs to know that he can stop."

"I've been thinking along the same lines."

"There is something I can do for him."

"What is that?"

"Can you come Below tonight? Before dinner?"

"Of course," mystified. Is this a change of subject?

Victoire smiles at her puzzled frown. "He needs you there when he hears this."

*****

Victoire steps from a taxi. She strikes out for an address - if it can be called an address - where she means to meet Vincent. She passes two ratty-looking young men, who see her face, and grin at each other. They have found some sport. They start to follow her. She is aware of them, and is wary, but something in her manner is a little disdainful. They catch up with her as she reaches an alley, and flank her.

"Hey, funky lady. Aren't you a little far from the Village in that get-up?"

"Don't feel bad if you are. We like a little wild life."

They find themselves amusing. She gives them a cold glance, and walks on, but they block her way.

"Don't be so cold, baby. We wanna invite you for a party."

"Whatsa matter? Cat got your tongue?"

Her scorn becomes intense, and she pushes the first one out of her way. He experiences a moment of doubt when he feels the strength in her arm, but his buddy pulls her down the alley, and he goes along.

"Come with us a minute," says the second man.

"You won't like it", she says. The deadly quiet of her voice should be warning enough, but they are too cocky, and too drunk, to notice.

"Oh, yeah? Get this, man, and what you gonna do?"

"Let go of me."

The second man shoves her against a wall. "When I'm ready." He grabs her face roughly, and moves in to kiss, when she snarls at him. It gives him pause, but not enough. He moves toward her again, when she roars, and he jerks as if something has happened to his midsection. And indeed, it has. She has raked her claws through his clothes, and serrated the skin of his side. He clutches at the wound, and then he finds himself flying across the alley, hitting the wall hard. He slumps to the ground, and looks at his bloody hands. The first man pulls a knife. He'd run, but Victoire is between him and freedom. When he lunges clumsily for her, she grabs the knife hand and swings him around, roaring in his ear. She throws him on top of his friend, and he finds he has embedded his knife in his own thigh. They try to scramble to their feet, and the first man makes to move towards her, but she starts at them, flinging her arms in the air, and snarling like some monster out of B-grade horror movie. They fall back on each other, then they start crawling for the street in a blind panic. She advances on them as they go, snarling softly. At the very edge of the alley, one of them looks back at her, and his face registers a look of greater terror. He screams, staggers to his feet, and runs. She watches them run down the street, with her hands on her hips, and an attitude like that of a lady shooing small boys away from her apple tree.

Then she turns and smiles at Vincent. He had burst into the foot of the alley in time to see Victoire throw a grown man through the air, and he stopped when he realized that she was not the one in danger. He watched in fascination as she drove them away, and as his own appearance sent the last man out in blind panic.

She saunters up to him, still smiling. "Good afternoon. Friendly people you have here in New York."

"We need to get out of sight," he says, and taking her hand, he leads her down a staircase into a basement. He leads her through a hole in the basement wall, and into the tunnels.

"Where are we going today?"

"I have somewhere to show you."

*****

They sit on a rock outcropping in the waterfall chamber. She has her head on his shoulder, and he has his arm around her. The sight of the glittering water, and the river, fills her with quiet awe that she waits a long time to explain.

"I have seen this before", she finally says. "In my dreams, when times are bad. I dream I am here, listening to the water, except in my dream I can feel the spray on my face. And I always wake up feeling better."

"This is a part of our world I especially love." He falls silent for a while, watching the water, feeling her warmth next to him. She sees his waterfall. The meaning of this grows on him, and his amazement distracts him until she pokes him in the side.

"You're keeping me in suspense!" she laughs.

He smiles. "I dream of a garden, and a bench under a tree. I think it's a lemon tree." He can feel her smile. "And a white house with red tile roof, and flowers everywhere."

"Like a Van Gogh painting?" He nods. "Vincent, that's the garden of my house."

They sit up, and look at each other. Finally he grunts, "huh", and they laugh.

"All along," she says. "We've been here all along." She settles against his shoulder again, and starts to play with his hand. "How I wish you could really see it." She looks up at him, ready to beg him to come with her - but no. "Let's not talk about it."

"There's something I would like to talk about."

"And what is that?"

"Those men in the alley..."

"Hardly worth the effort of thought. That sort exists all over the world."

'The thing is... I couldn't help but think..."

"What?"

"You enjoyed that."

"Once it became inevitable, I suppose I did. Drunks can be so stupid."

"Were you afraid that you could have killed them?"

"I never intended to. Fools learn more from terror than actual harm. Of course, one does have a knife wound that will likely need attention. I wonder what the doctor will think of his story?" She smiles up at Vincent. He remains unhappy. "What is it?"

"It was like I was watching myself, there in that alley. And you were holding back..." He turns to face her. "I know the power in the wellspring of anger. Blackness rises in my mind - it blocks all other thought, until it seems I'm entranced by it. For me, the only thing to follow is self-hatred. But you. You reveled in it. And you controlled it."

"Yes."

"Why do I find that in itself frightening?"

"I learned early about my strength, and I learned early to control my miserable temper. The discipline of Savate is.. well, a discipline. Just as I had to defend myself, I had to learn how to brake my anger, how to command it, and not be commanded by it.

"I think, my darling, you have never learned that the violence of your anger can be controlled, even as you let it loose. You keep such a terrible rein on yourself that you don't know how to deal with a very basic emotion when it presents itself. To you, it's all or nothing, non ?"

He ponders this. "Most of the time." Those times he stalked men in the tunnels who came to deal death to his family, however repugnant to him now, were taken with method, and no emotion. He has mulled over these memories for several moments before he realizes her presence, not just beside him, but within him, watching some part of his memories with understanding. For a moment, he realizes that this is what Catherine has experienced when he has been in her thoughts - but it seems to him that Victoire can probe deeper than he could. How far can she take this?

She reaches for him, and pulls him into herself, almost as if she intends to remove his misery by her touch. He buries his head into her shoulder.

"I'm afraid, Victoire. I don't understand what happens when that black tide carries me beyond... I loathe myself."

"You let your passion frighten you."

"Why shouldn't it?"

"It isn't for you to fear it. Rage, and your strength, are your servants to command. They deserve no respect from you, only from those you oppose. If you respect and fear your own anger, it gets away from you: what good is your action if the first person you frighten is yourself? If you're into a fray, there must be reason, and there must be something important at stake. Why waste time with philosophy? It is battle, and battle is best engaged with a strategy in mind."

She says all this so simply, with the straightforward grace he has heard from himself. He looks to her to see if she is joking, but she returns his gaze, with all the blue-eyed serenity they share.

"And sometimes, when you are out in the world, no matter how strong your principles, or your will, some stranger will force you to violence. That happens to anyone, you know. Some people succumb, and are hurt or killed. Some fight back."

"But when we fight back, we have an unfair advantage."

"There are no unfair advantages in war," she retorts sharply. "There is nothing unfair about defense. If there is a choice between the health and welfare of someone who means me harm, and the welfare of my self or someone I love - phaugh! That is not a choice! There is one regret that is impossible to swallow: hanging back and allowing evil to occur."

"You truly believe the evil is not in yourself?"

She smiles sadly. "There is evil in everyone, Vincent. How can there not be? But that evil does not lie in our shape. It lies in our minds, and our hearts. It isn't my claws that make me good or bad. It is, indeed, in how I use them. The same goes for you. I told you, my love. All that is the best, and the worst in me lies in my humanity, nowhere else. It doesn't need to be anywhere else."

"I wish I could be as sure."

"Trust me. Not only that, but the rage you fear doesn't have the power you imagine that it does. There is only one emotion that can so consume a mind that it removes all self control, all awareness of anything but the self. And rage is not it."

"What is?"

"Joy, my love. Joy."

He absorbs this with some doubt. "I've forgotten joy. I don't even know that I recall rage anymore."

"You feel numb inside?" His answer is a dull nod. "It isn't just that you can't feel your loved ones, but that you can't seem to feel you own feelings?"

He stares at her with incomprehension. She smiles. "I went through a rather bad depression some years ago," she says. "I thought I'd lost myself forever. I couldn't think right. I couldn't feel - except despair. It was awful. And it ended."

"Do you know what ... sent you there?"

She shrugs. "It started right after Tante Emilie died. Fortunately, Lu-Lu knew what to do. And there are medicines. Still, it was a bad winter. And it was only a winter." She smiles again. "As I said: it ends."

*****

Catherine steps over the threshold beneath her building, and into Vincent's arms. She clings to him, and realizes that he allows a greater intimacy in the embrace than she's ever felt before. She nuzzles into the folds of his cloak to stifle a small irrational sob of relief.

"What is it?" he asks.

She shakes her head. "Honestly, nothing."

"Catherine."

"Honestly. I just had a thought that..." This is embarrassing.

"What?"

"That now that Victoire is here, you could forget me." She raises her head to glance shyly at him. Tenderly, he lays his fingers against her cheek. She leans into his hand, savoring a touch he's never braved before.

"I could never do that."

*****

Victoire sits at the table in Vincent's chamber, engrossed in the laptop computer she has propped in front of her. She drums her lacquered claws on the table top, frowning at the spreadsheet on the screen. Father stops at the door of the chamber to take in this sight. How many times has he seen Vincent seated, deep in thought, in just that chair? She looks so like him, the way she leans her head on her hand. And yet, she carries an air of strangeness that jars Father - and the bit of advanced technology that sits before her isn't all there is to it. She turns and smiles at him - Vincent's smile, surely, and yet with a feminine flair that makes him blush.

"Do I disturb you?" he asks.

"You are a welcome disturbance," she says. "I'm mulling over the accounts for the tour, and at the moment, they make little sense."

"Let me see this contraption you have here," he says. "What is that?"

"It's a personal computer," she says. "It's been very good to have, to keep track of all those millions of things I need to know to keep this company running."

She smiles at his fascinated stare. "How is it powered?" he asks.

"There's a battery that holds its charge for several hours. I plug it into any electrical outlet to recharge it."

"And you keep your accounts on it?"

She shuts down the spreadsheet program. "Accounts. Correspondence. And other things." She opens up a program and smiles up at him.

"Chess!"

"Indeed. Care to give it a try?"

"Do you ever win?"

"Sometimes."

He pulls up a chair, and sits. "What do I do?"

Half an hour and two very short beginner's-level games later, he sits back in consternation. "And you say you can beat this thing?"

"Sometimes."

"I confess to a great deal of admiration for your prowess."

"Of course, the format could also throw you off your game."

"In which case, allow me to challenge you to an old-fashioned game, on a board that doesn't glow."

"I'd love to, but may I ask that it be later? Vincent will be here soon, and there's something I want to discuss with you before dinner."

"Where is Vincent?"

"He's gone to meet Catherine."

Almost as if on cue, Vincent and Catherine appear in the chamber door, with Mary.

"Ah, Vincent! Victoire has been showing me new ways to lose at chess!" says Father. He rises to embrace Catherine, murmuring in her ear: "Just what I needed."

Vincent gazes at the game set up on Victoire's screen. "How can you win against a computer?"

"With difficulty," Victoire replies, shutting the computer down. "But I've done it."

"Victoire says she wants to talk to us before dinner," says Father.

Vincent gives her a searching look. "You've learned what you wanted to know?"

"Yes." She sits on the bed, props herself against the pillows at its head. The others take seats as well. Victoire gathers her thoughts for a moment, and then she begins: "You assume that I was born in France because I said I was raised there. Well. I was born here. In New York City. The story of that birth has always been a close secret - first to protect someone, then to enhance the box office, so to speak. Although, truth be told, the true story of why I am Leonie would cause quite a stir." She settles into the pillows at the head of the bed. "I'm not sure it would be a good stir.

"I spent the first six years of my life in the home of a Dr. Helmutt Brauhier."

"I think I know that name," says Father.

Victoire nods. "Well you might. He an obstetrician, about your age, and a geneticist, and the chairman of the Genetics Department at one of the Universities here. I've long thought he was the greatest victim of this story. Now I think he may be the only one.

"When I was six, he took me to Europe. His intention was to take me to family he had in Austria, where I could grow up in relative obscurity. But we stopped in Paris, and I changed his plans rather radically.

"I was quite adventurous, and rebellious even then. I ran away, for a lark, and I got lost. Jean-Luc Dedeaux found me. The rest you can guess. It took poor Papa Helmutt two years to find me."

"Why so long?" asks Catherine.

"Well, as far as anyone else knew, I didn't exist. He couldn't go to the police and ask for help. He couldn't let anyone know what I was like. It was a challenge. I thought he did rather well finding me at all. I found out today that Lu-Lu had actually written to him and told him where I was. The rat - he never told me that."

"Why do you object to that?" asks Vincent.

"Oh. I don't mind that he contacted Papa. I mind that he never told me. At any rate, Papa came to the South of France to see me that summer, and I was simply hateful to him. When I lived in his house, I'd been kept hidden. He and his wife were so afraid that my discovery would cause trouble - for him and for me. I was a great threat to his career, you see. Even at that age, I needed my freedom.

"I'm rambling. On my sixteenth birthday, Papa sent me a letter describing the circumstances of my birth. The original is in a safe in France. I keep a copy with me when I travel. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is for you to read this, Vincent." She pulls a thick envelope from her purse, and hands it to Vincent. "It also applies to you."

His hand trembles a little as he opens the envelope, and slowly unfolds the papers. "It's your copy," Victoire says.

"This is.." he says, and falters.

"This is it, my love. The fantastic story that resulted in...us."

He's almost afraid. He looks into her eyes for a long moment, trying to find some hint. Then she smiles at him. "Just read it."

And he does. "My dear Vicki," it begins.

"I want to wish a very Happy Sixteenth Birthday! I think that this is the birthday upon which you deserve to learn how you came to be as you are. Keep this letter safe. It may be a help to you. It may also do you great harm.

"When I was just starting my career, I did a great deal of research on early embryonic development. The techniques for maintaining cells alive in culture - living in a test tube - were just new then, and we were learning how to maintain embryos in culture, at least for a short while. My partner was a brilliant geneticist and veterinarian named Patrick Meecham. Together we studied the earliest form of the embryo, called the morula, which has 16 cells or fewer. (You may have already studied about this in school: the fertilized egg divides into two cells, then four, then eight, and so on. At those stages, the embryo remains a solid ball. After the sixteen-cell stage, it starts to organize its parts into a different configuration.) We used anything we could get: chicks, rats. Sometimes we fertilized the eggs in a petri dish. Meecham became very good at that technique. We watched the clusters of cells organize themselves and migrate around as they tried to form a new creature, and we took notes on everything we saw."

"Meecham," says Father. "I remember that name, too. It isn't very common for a veterinarian to come to medical society meetings, but he did. I guess he came with Brauhier."

"You remember him?" asks Victoire.

"He was hard to forget. He was a tall charismatic Irishman, all red hair and ruddy cheeks, full of bluster and yarns. Held his whisky rather well, and yes, he was a genius. A loud one. Some people didn't like him much, because he was so.. Oh, all I can think of is 'over-the-top'. But he was brilliant. I think I could recognize Brauhier, now, too."

"Really?"

"Yes. A bit taller than I am. Broad-shouldered. German accent. Rather shy, especially compared to Meecham."

"Yes."

"I didn't know you were interested in reproductive sciences, Father," says Vincent.

"The medical community was smaller then, especially among the basic scientists. We had some rather eclectic meetings. Never mind that. Go on."

And Vincent reads on: "I had finished my residency in Obstetrics, and I was just starting out in my own practice. In the course of patient treatment, in a day when our treatment options were few, I performed hysterectomies on many young women. Careful pathologic examination of the organs I removed from these women produced, every so often, an egg in the Fallopian tube. These finds I stored, frozen, not knowing what else to do with them.

"My partner knew about them, since I kept them at the lab we shared, but we never discussed them. I never dreamt that they might be viable, but Meecham thought otherwise. He was the staff veterinarian at the zoo, and he had had to perform a hysterectomy on a lioness who turned out to be pregnant. He salvaged eight embryos from the uterus, and froze them next to my human eggs.

"I think what happened next may have been triggered by the tragic loss of Pat Meecham's little sister, who died of kidney failure. She was a good ten years younger than he was, and he adored her. He kept talking about how he should have known how to save her life. I suppose I should have thought that something beyond normal grief was at work, but I missed the signs. God forgive me, Meecham was going mad before my eyes, and I never noticed until it was too late.

"As I said, maintaining embryonic tissue in culture was new. The techniques that became the almost routine methods for in vitro fertilization, and surrogate gestation, were things of which we only dreamed. Some researchers have done experiments wherein they fused embryos from two different individuals, and incubated them to their complete forms. These mixed forms are called 'mosaics'. The best known of these experiments involved differing species of salamanders, but to date, there are no published efforts involving mammals. Meecham not only dreamed of artificial gestation, he planned techniques. He also overstepped the bounds of ethics.

"He later told me that his fantasy was to develop a method of creating organs that could be transplanted into those in need, like his sister. He dreamed of a safe, plentiful supply of donor organs, and he thought he'd found a way to achieve this. Unbeknownst to me, he began a series of experiments involving his lion embryos - and my frozen human ova. There is a way to separate the cells in a morula. If ones does so, and allows the separate cells to sit, they divide on as if they are newly fertilized eggs themselves. And form new, identical, individuals. You know this happens in nature from time to time, and a woman will bear identical twins.

"Meecham fused the cells of human and lion embryos, thinking that the lesser life form would act as a vehicle for the human organs, serving as an incubator of sorts until the vehicle was sacrificed to give up the donor organ. I don't know how many of his initial attempts failed, but he finally found a way to produce a viable product.

"The first batch of successes, Meecham implanted in a lioness at the zoo. How he thought he could risk the life of one his charges without having to answer a lot of questions later, I'll never know. He was behaving pretty strangely by that time, and I worried a little about him, but I was also seeing very little of him. The unfortunate lioness suffered a prolonged gestation, and a difficult delivery of three badly deformed, nonviable cubs. He wrapped them up, and brought them to our lab. While walking in from his car, he feared that someone was following him, and he hide the most unusual cub - one shaped not like a cat, but like a human baby - in some debris under a dumpster outside the hospital where our lab was."

Vincent's voice fails at this point. He stares into space, stunned. Finally, he looks to Victoire, and then to Father, who has tears in his eyes. "Dear God," he whispers. He looks back at the page in his trembling hand, and then gives it to Catherine. "Please," he says, "will you?"

She takes the sheaf of papers, and reads: "When he went back to retrieve the corpse of that failure, he could not find it. He assumed that some wandering dog had taken it. I remember I found him in the lab that morning, very distressed, alternately raging and weeping. I thought that the loss of these lion cubs reminded him somehow of his dead sister, and I begged him to go home. I never examined the little corpses. I never questioned.

"Meecham had time to try once more before he went perfectly mad. This time, he found a human surrogate mother, a young woman whom he promised a large sum of money. Who knows what he told her, but he impregnated her with his last unbelievable experiment, and shortly afterwards, suffered a complete breakdown of mania."

"Oh, no," murmurs Father.

"A few weeks later, the woman came to the lab, at first demanding her money, and then begging for help. I had no idea what she was talking about, and she had no clue what she carried.

"I went to the asylum to see if I could learn anything from Meecham, and it was then that I learned of the incredible things he had done. Alternating between grandiose triumph, and wild despair, he told me the whole story. He told me where his notebooks were hidden, and even begged me to carry on in his place! The interview ended with his obsessing on the whereabouts of the biped cub's corpse - there was an element of paranoia that some unseen rival had purloined the specimen, and was even "beating him to it", whatever that was.

" I remember telling the psychiatrist at the asylum that I could not make heads or tails of Meecham's ramblings. It's a wonder I didn't suffer a breakdown of my own at that point. My partner in research had endangered a young woman's life after nearly killing a lioness, and losing lives that were half human anyway. That young woman was wandering around the city - I was nearly frantic with fear that she would go into labor and go to a hospital - and then what? If this became public knowledge, my career would be ruined. Guilt by association, and Meecham was not able to answer for his own crimes.

"Secretly, and terrified, I delivered that second baby - you, Vicki. Your first few days were tenuous at best, but you rallied, and you throve, the world's only living human mosaic.

"I never told him about your birth. I lacked the courage, and when I did go to see him, he'd become nearly mute as he descended onto the depressive phase of his illness. He occasionally mumbled some words, most often calling his sister's name. I didn't admit to anyone that I knew what the rest was about. Not long after, he managed to kill himself, even in the asylum.

"As you grew, I constantly marveled at your intelligence. Edna and I may have made a mistake in keeping you so closely guarded, but we meant to do right by you. I admit, I think of you now, and I cannot think of Patrick Meecham's effort as a total failure, or even as evil. That isn't possible.

"This is your story, my dear. Write to me with your questions. Mama Edna and I want to come to France in the summer. Perhaps we will see you then."

Catherine stops reading. They sit in a shocked silence.

"So, my love, that's what you are", says Victoire. "Not some hell-born demon. Just one of earth's creatures. Born of two of earth's creatures, like me. A commonplace human. A commonplace lion."

"A remarkable result," say Father.

"But not mysterious. Not even a new species."

Vincent says nothing.

"Can you tell," asks Mary, "which part of you is from which..."

"Donor? Most definitely. I've learned a bit more embryology in my day than the average aerialist. After the morula stage, the embryo starts to flatten out, and the cells wind up in sheets." She holds her hands out, one on top of the other. "The cells move about, and, since there are so few of them, a single cell can give rise to an entire organ. The cells on top make the nervous system. The middle cells form heart and muscle. The inner cells form the gut, and so forth. Wherever one of those 16 cells goes, it stays, and contributes to specific parts of the body. Very few of my organ systems are mixed. My heart and kidneys are leonine, my gut and liver are human. And, obviously, my brain is human."

"How do you know?" asks Catherine. "About your heart and liver, I mean?"

"For the heart, mostly by the shape. And then there's the labwork. My liver functions are perfectly normal for a human, and my kidneys function along lion parameters."

"Well that would explain Vincent's unusual physiology. It's probably quite normal," says Father. "If we just knew what we were looking at."

"What keeps your body from rejecting organs?" asks Mary.

"I have bone marrow from both sides, and have had from the beginning. So I have white cells from each species that recognize both sets of native organs. That is one of the happier things. What germs the human cells are susceptible to, the lion cells are not, and vice versa. I'm rarely sick."

"Neither is Vincent," says Mary.

"Vincent," says Catherine. "Say something."

He shakes himself. "It explains why.. I'm not sure how to say it. I've always felt that a part of me didn't belong... to me."

Victoire nods. "Me, too. It wasn't just that I didn't fit in with everyone else. I didn't fit in with me." She takes a breath. "I saw Papa Helmutt today, and I had quite few questions to ask him about the baby that was lost by the dumpster. I must tell you that, when he asked my why I was interested in that, I told him you live."

Father and Mary look a little alarmed at this, but Vincent nods. "What did he say?"

"Well, nothing for several moments. I think he was near tears. He always carried a burden of guilt about that child. He was so relieved to learn that you survived, and that you grew. I didn't tell him where you live - actually, I said you grew up outside the city." There's some laughter at this. "But I did tell him your name. He said it was so odd that we'd have such similar names. And he wants you to know that you may write to him in complete confidence. He'll never give you away."

"Why were two babies quadruped and two biped?" asks Catherine.

"Because two have lion brains, and two have human brains." This is met with confused looks all around. "The development of the skeleton and muscles is governed by the growth of the nervous system. There were experiments done in the 70's that proved that if the nerve bud to a limb of a developing fetus was microsurgically removed, that limb would not develop. The experiments were done in lizards, but it is assumed that the same is true of mammals. I guess you and I prove that, Vincent. We may have feline muscle and bone, but we stand upright."

"That must be why you are so strong," says Mary. "And I guess it explains your profession."

"Acrobatics?" laughs Victoire. "No. I am very strong, but I don't think that's where the grace required comes from. Do you think Vincent could tumble?"

Vincent answers that with an emphatic "No!"

"I know that my human mother was a ballerina. It more likely comes from her."

"How do you know that?" asks Father.

"There were only two eggs left when Meecham made his last attempt. One was from a 44 year old black woman with fibroid tumors. The other was from a dancer in her twenties, who was quite fair." She pulls up her sleeve. There is a stripe of golden fur running down its side, and next to it, creamy human skin, dotted with a few freckles. "My human skin isn't dark. So it must be the dancer. She had uterine cancer. This sounds very strange, but she died before I was born." She becomes wistful.

"Why are there patches like that?" asks Mary, almost as if looking for a distraction.

"The skin is mixed like the bone marrow. And I am female, which means that coloration and such can vary in asymmetric ways they don't for a male. So I guess that I am calico."

"Um," Catherine starts, and then she loses her nerve.

"What?"

"Never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about."

"Perhaps you do."

No use for it. Someone would have to ask at some time. "It was eggs Meecham stole from Brauhier. Not embryos."

"That's right."

"He had to fertilize them."

"Yes."

"Oh, dear," says Father. "I don't want to ask the next question."

"Then don't," says Victoire. She looks at Vincent. His face is unreadable, but she doesn't need to read it. "There are worse things than being Patrick Meecham's children. I liked it when Pascal called us "twins". In an odd way, I think that exactly describes what we are. And we are, on the lion side, anyway."

"One bright twin, and one dark twin," he says bleakly.

Victoire perches on the arm of his chair. "Which one am I?"

"Don't. You know I'm not like you." She stares him down. "Victoire, please."

"Please, what?" She jumps up, and turns to blockade him in his chair, her face thrust into his. "Please allow you to dive deeper into your despair? Don't you understand that the legacy of Patrick Meecham's madness is not violence? It is the despair. If you give in to that, you allow the very thing that destroyed him to destroy you." She settles back on her heels. "Welcome to the human race, my love."

"Human?" he snaps.

She stands up between his knees, still dominating him. "Yes, human! You think that you have more lion cells in you than I do, and that makes you worse somehow? Think! It's your brain - your mind and your soul - that is human! What other creature ever made a career of revenge? What other creature commits premeditated murder for the sake of jealousy? What other creature could ever exalt the act of killing to a thing of glory? Believe me, in the animal kingdom, it is a matter of need, hunger, and nothing more.

"Meecham was mad, no doubt. But he was a genius. And his incredible hubris stemmed only partly from vanity. His ultimate desire was to save lives. Where is the evil in that?"

Why in the world is he fighting this? It is the one thing that he's silently desired his whole life - and more. More than just the knowledge of what he is, but the guarantee that he is a man like others in the ways that it matters. And yet, he fights it. The dreams that destroy his nights and haunt his days, the memories that shatter his peace mock this. The last thing he can do now is join the human race.

Victoire grasps his hands, and pulls him to his feet, against her chest. "You and I share the same genes, three times over. And there is a connection between us that is part of the legacy of our human father. I know it's only a thread to you, but listen to it, Vincent. Feel it. How could it be possible that you could have some fantastic curse of evil, and I wouldn't share it? Wouldn't you feel it? Try, Vincent! Look a me. I am your mirror. Listen to us! Do you sense any breath of it from me? Does one demonic note resonate from me to you?" He stares down at her. She shakes him. "ANSWER ME!"

He exhales, as if something has left him, and then very small: "No." He buries his head in her shoulder.

"You had me worried, my love. I was afraid I was going to have to choke it out of you." Somehow, he finds this funny. "Are you all right, now?" she asks him.

He sinks into the chair. "I think so."

TUESDAY

"Father?"

"Good afternoon, Victoire! How is your uncle?"

"Doing better, thank you. They are moving him to a cardiac rehabilitation center tomorrow."

"A what?"

"Normally, they have their patients come in from their homes, but since we are from elsewhere, he will be staying there."

"Pardon me, but what is cardiac rehabilitation?"

"It's a program of exercise and endurance training for people who have suffered a heart attack."

"In my day, they put those people to bed for 6 weeks."

"Not any more." She cruises the nearest bookshelf for a while. And then: "Fancy that game of chess?"

"Splendid!"

He sets up the game pieces as she settles into the chair usually occupied by Vincent. Fortunately for Father's peace of mind, this game lasts longer than the ones on the computer. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the information you have shared with us," says Father, eventually.

"I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found Vincent," she replies. And she takes his knight. He winces. "The oddly fun part is to guess which part of him is what," she continues.

"How do you know?" he asks.

"Blood tests. X-rays. If the parameters match those of a lion, then it's probably lion. And so forth. Some things are more obvious than others." She pauses to allow him to study the board for several minutes and make a move. Then she promptly takes a bishop.

"I'm beginning to see how you beat the computer," he says. He settles into another long study. Which she follows with a somewhat longer contemplation of her own next move that he suspects is out of deference to his feelings.

"For the most part," she says, after a bit, "I'm rather pleased with the distribution I was given. You know, whatever was lion, whatever was human. I do hope that Vincent doesn't have the same disappointment that I did in one area, though."

"And what is that?"

"My reproductive system is lion. It's taken me years to come to terms with the fact that I could never have a child of my own. Honestly, it still grieves me."

Father stares at her with some apprehension. She goes on. "There was one man who wanted to marry me - and I very much wanted to marry him. I loved him so. But when I told him I am, in effect barren, he changed his mind. Thank God I didn't tell him why - the things he said were hurtful enough."

"If you don't mind my saying so, but he doesn't sound quite worthy."

She smiles gratefully. "Perhaps not."

"Forgive me for prying, but you have had relationships?" says Father, very awkwardly.

"Of course."

"Weren't there difficulties related to your... er..."

"Difference?"

He nods rather sheepishly.

"Certainly. Some men aren't very honest. I learned early how to tell the difference between one who really wanted to know me, and one who wanted to bed me as a novelty."

"Er..", he begins, with some embarrassment. "I meant difficulties with intimacy..."

She chuckles. "You sound like Lu-Lu. He was afraid I'd have an unnatural lust for lions. No, it doesn't work that way. Passion and the sex drive are truly matters of the mind, you know." She moves a pawn.

Father sits in some consternation. She lets him stew for a while. "It's your move," she says gently.

"Oh. So it is. I'm not paying attention."

"What's bothering you?"

"Perhaps Vincent is lion, too. And perhaps it's different for a male.."

"What is?"

He looks miserable. "When Vincent was a teenager, he had an encounter with a girl for whom he had...feelings. He scratched her, in his ardor. I feared he could hurt a, a partner, and I told him that this is a form of, of contact he should avoid..."

"You're joking."

He looks up to find her, sitting in Vincent's chair, looking so like Vincent, regarding him with an expression he's never seen on Vincent's face. There is such censure in her eyes that he nearly wants to cry. He collects himself. Nothing for it but to forge on. "The mating behaviors of cats are somewhat more .. aggressive than humans indulge in. Perhaps..."

"Mating behaviors come from circuits in the brain, not from the genitals," she says briskly. "And the mating behaviors of teenaged boys are usually not reflective of wisdom. Most of them don't know their own strength. Gentleness - and lovemaking - must both be learned. The first teenaged boy who ever kissed me, bit me. And put a bruise on my arm. I doubt his father took him aside and told him he was unfit for feminine company. I admit there are some men I wish their fathers had done just that." The look has faded from her eyes, but she goes on with firmness. "But I don't base that bit of censure on how sweetly or roughly they make love. I base it on their qualities as men. And Vincent is a very good man. There is a great deal there for a woman, on every level. Catherine certainly sees that. You can't mean to tell me that you have discouraged him from the most fundamental and precious communication two people in love can have?" Father cannot meet her gaze. Just as well, the censure is back in her eyes, and a little bit of anger. "Well," she continues softly. "Perhaps sometimes it's been hard to see him as really other than a beast."

He looks at her as if she's slapped him. "Good God! I never... His differences could not be ignored - they are part of him no matter what. But I have always loved him as my own son. I only thought to spare him..." But the introspection has already started. Just how much has dwelt on the dangerous parts of Vincent? What other mistakes has he made?

"You did without the advantages that Lu-Lu & Tante Emilie had. They knew what I was." Victoire feels a small stab of guilt at having distressed him. After all, he is a good man himself. She indulges in a bit of amusement. "Let's hope that he's grown to keep his own counsel," she says. "In the absence of a child of my own, I'd love to spoil a niece or a nephew." She watches him sit in anxiety. "Father. It's still your move."

Outside the door, Vincent had stopped, afraid of interrupting a private conversation. And once stopped, he could not bring himself to walk away. And so he's committed the sin of eavesdropping, and chastises himself for it. But he cannot walk in at this point. He may not be able to feel Father's embarrassment, but he knows it. And there's a good bit of food for thought for him in this exchange. He slips away.

Not even a flicker of her eyelids gives away the fact that Victoire has known he was there all along.


SUNDAY

"You're worried about tomorrow's flight, aren't you?"

"I can't help it. It's so long - and it isn't as if we can take rest stops. But we have no choice. And we'll spend a couple of days in Paris if we have to."

"He'll do fine."

Victoire smiles at her brother with the look he cannot get used to - a look that marks him as hers in a way he never thought he'd see. Funny how he never dreamt of this. He'd dreamt hopelessly of love - a dream that came true in spite of himself, it seems. He had at times thought that the dream of the garden connected to Catherine somehow - after all, she was his fantasy. But that it meant a family of his own was something he couldn't have imagined. His own flesh and blood, and unbeknownst to him, she's been here all along, some odd tiny part of her, deep in his mind, with a dream all her own. From the other side of the world, she's always come to him, and he's gone to her, although neither of them knew that was what they were doing.

And now she looks at him with sibling ownership that no one else can claim. He pulls her into his arms, claiming his own in return. "I can't believe how much I shall miss you," he says.

"Me, too," she says. "Soon. I'll write soon. And I'll come. Besides, you have Catherine, who'd better keep your mind occupied."

"I hear my name," says Catherine, stepping through the doorway of the terrace. "More wine?'

Victoire holds up her glass. "I admit to some terribly chauvinistic surprise at the California vintages," she says. "I like this cabernet. Please don't tell my uncle I said that."

"My lips are sealed," says Catherine. "It's late, and I have work tomorrow. Would you two consider me a terrible hostess if I went to bed?"

Vincent rises to embrace her. "Sleep well," he says.

She kisses his cheek. "See you in the morning," she says to Victoire, and vanishes into her room.

The twins sit in silence, looking at the stars and listening to the murmur of traffic below. Victoire reaches for his hand. "You're struggling," she says.

He twines his fingers through hers. "My heart should be singing."

"Perhaps it is. You just can't hear it."

"I don't think I'll ever find my way out of this."

"You will. Give it time."

"How long?"

"Too."

"And in the meantime," he says. "What?"

"You live one day at a time. And you decide what you will do with each of those days. Some days will be bad. Some less so. You simply go forward, and make the best of what there is."

"I have so much."

"Focus on that. And don't be afraid to ask for help. You don't have to do this alone. And one of these days, I'll be thinking of you, and you'll feel it."

"I felt Catherine when she was in California," he says wistfully.

"It will come back," she says.


MONDAY

Catherine swings open the terrace door, and pulls Vincent into the room. "It's raining," she says. She helps him off with his cloak, and goes to hang it in the bathroom. When she returns, she walks straight into his embrace.

"I love you," she says.

"I love you, " he replies, marveling at the beauty of these words. He leans his cheek against her hair. She smells of roses. "Did Victoire's plane leave on time?" he asks.

"Yes. I don't think she really wanted to leave."

He presses her closer to him. It's a simple concept, but his heart is so full, he can find no words. In a little over a week, his world has opened so many things to him - so much goodness. So much love. And the most wonderful possibilities, the most wonderful of which is in his arms.

"Come," she takes his hand. "Sit." And he does, without hesitation. When did he start that?, she wonders with delight. At what point did he decide that he could take the right to come into her home without doubt? " I have a book of essays by M.F.K. Fisher," she says. "Interested?"

"You've done it. You've stumped me," he says. "Who is M.F.K. Fisher?"

"She wrote about food and travel - particularly in France in the forties."

"Intriguing."

Two hours later, after stories about bakeries, and the roofs of Burgundy, and cheeses, and trains, they close the book. "You know what I did?" she asks him.

"What?"

"I took tomorrow off."

"You did? Why?"

"So I wouldn't have to leave here, if I didn't want to." And she holds her breath.

"Even to go Below?"

"I might not want to go Below if you were still here..."

He reaches for her hand, and carries it to his lips. A moment of masculine self-doubt flashes through his mind. But it's only a moment. He's able to keep his own counsel. He looks deep into her eyes, and nearly loses himself. Perhaps he should say something. Such as what?

In the end, he decides that rather than speak, he should act.

 

THE END


C. B. McWhorter has been a passionate devotee of BatB since its beginning, but she only came to find the wonderful fanfic websites in 1998! She wrote stories to amuse (and console) herself during the intervening years. This is one of the first. She'd be interested in feedback: mcwhorterstl@yahoo.com, if you feel so inclined.