A Parody by Lady UndeTramp*

As Catherine climbed down the basement ladder that separated her world from Vincent's, her thoughts were filled with plans for the evening ahead. It wasn't often when she visited Below that she and Vincent managed to be alone. And the way things had gone the past few months sometimes made her wonder if a cosmic conspiracy was working to keep them apart, truly apart.

She dropped lightly to the ground - not an easy task considering she was wearing five-inch heels - as a frown creased the forehead of her perfectly proportioned face. Every time it looked as if she and Vincent might steal a few minutes of privacy, Kipper would intrude to ask for help with his homework, or Mouse would appear seeking advice on thermonuclear technology, or Father would toddle in with an obscure medieval manuscript which he insisted had to be translated immediately.

But tonight things will be different, Catherine vowed, squaring her shoulders. Tonight there will be no interruptions.

For weeks, Father had been planning a one-man show featuring Elizabethan poetry for the enjoyment of the adult members of the community. In the beginning there had been a distinct lack of interest and even rumors of a mutiny. However, when Father explained that anyone not present would be assigned to the sewer-cleaning detail for six months, there had been a dramatic increase in promised attendance. The only person excluded was Olivia, who had won the latest -- and most popular ever -- tunnel world sweepstakes. The much-coveted first prize was the privilege of babysitting all the tunnel children the night of Father’s performance. William still could be heard grumbling that the contest had been rigged, and Kanin wasn't speaking to his wife since she refused to share the prize with him.

Upon learning of the upcoming extravaganza, Catherine immediately began plotting a way to turn it to her advantage. Possessing a keen intellect and the benefits of an expensive private school education, she quickly realized this presented a golden opportunity to be alone with Vincent. She began her campaign one evening about a week before the recital, while lounging on her balcony in an extremely flimsy negligee. She had taken fate - among other things - into her hands as she snuggled into Vincent's warm embrace and softly murmured, nibbled, and nuzzled her desire for a romantic picnic for two.

At first Vincent had been reluctant to miss an opportunity to listen to hours and hours of Father's dulcet tones, but after a little gentle encouragement, he had eventually groaned and panted his agreement.

Remembering how well her strategy had worked, Catherine smiled to herself -- a habit she wondered if she should discuss with her therapist -- and picked up the picnic basked she'd lowered earlier. This would be an evening neither she nor Vincent would ever forget. She had selected a very short-skirted dress of tight black silk that revealed all of her back and most of her front. Jet and crystal earrings dangled to her bare shoulders, and her hair was piled on top of her head in a careless style that had taken three hours to achieve. Around her neck was the crystal necklace Vincent had given her.

She sighed happily. If all went as planned, this finally would be the night she'd peel layer after layer of wool, leather, denim, flannel, and God only knows what else from Vincent's muscular body. Then like an overexcited child on Christmas morning, she would eagerly ransack the treasures hidden under all that intricate wrapping.

Catherine knew if her carefully constructed plans, not to mention an outfit that would make a Victoria's Secret model blush, didn't do the trick, she wouldn't have the strength to go on, regardless of Vincent's never-ending praise of her phenomenal fortitude, amazing courage, generous heart, and various other virtues.

"Virtue be damned!" she muttered under her breath. "I've had the patience of a saint and more tolerance than Ghandi. What I haven't had is Vincent!"

She reached into the picnic basket and pulled out a crisp Porthault linen napkin, careful not to snag a nail on its Bergdorf's price tag. Crumpling the cloth in her fist, she frantically began to wipe away the beads of perspiration gathering on her forehead, neck, and sundry other parts of her anatomy.

"I can't take much more," she complained with a low groan. "It's gotten so that all I need is one tiny thought about Vincent and I'm ready to melt. A few more weeks of this and even Al "The Weasel" Roscoe down at City Jail is going to start looking good to me."

Renewed determination spurred her onward. Still smiling happily, Catherine stepped through the jagged brick opening leading into the tunnels.

"Hello, dear."

"Mary!" The basket dropped from Catherine's nerveless fingers as she hurried forward. "What's wrong? Has something happened to Vincent? Has he been trapped in a cave-in, blinded by an explosion, or captured by a mad scientist who plans to do evil experiments on him?"

"Not this week," Mary said soothingly. "I'm afraid it's Father who's a little under the weather. Vincent asked if I would come and meet you while he copes with things."

Catherine went back and picked up the basket, ignoring the wine now seeping through the wicker. "What's wrong with Father?" she asked in a genuinely concerned voice. If he’s done anything to ruin my plans…Catherine seethed inwardly, falling into place beside the older woman as they made their way through the dimly lit corridor followed by a trail of Chardonnay.

"I'm not sure," Mary admitted. "He was fine this morning. Then this afternoon he suddenly came down with the worst case of laryngitis I've ever seen."

"He must be very upset about having to call off his show." Catherine sighed with true regret. No matter how upset Father might be, he couldn't regret this cancellation half as much as she did. She could see one more opportunity to be alone with Vincent vanishing as surely as if it had been hurled into the Abyss. Oh well, she tried to console herself, maybe there was still a chance to grab a few quiet minutes alone together. Not that minutes were what she'd hoped to grab.

"Oh, he wouldn't let us postpone it," Mary said with a laugh. "Everyone worked so hard on the costumes and sets, and it was too late to cancel our invitations to the Helpers. So, Father convinced Vincent to stand in for him."

Checkmate. Catherine felt her stomach clench in rage at Father’s clever counterattack. Soon they'd be surrounded by everyone who lived Below and most of the Helpers from the city Above. All things considered, they’d probably have more privacy if they arranged to meet in the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve. She sighed with regret once again. It was a shame she hadn't left Father to rot in jail when she'd had the chance. Oh well, no use brooding over missed opportunities. She'd know better next time.

Moments later they entered Father's book-filled study. Catherine blinked in disbelief as she caught sight of Rebecca hurrying toward them. Normally neat and well-groomed, even while working in the hot chamber where she made candles, Rebecca tonight was a walking disaster. Her hair looked as if Arthur had been nesting in it for a week, her blouse was rumpled and half-hanging out of her skirt, and her eyes were filled with a look of wild desperation.

She skittered to a halt in front of Mary. "It just can't be done," she wailed as she grabbed the edges of Mary's shawl and began to shake the older woman back and forth. "There's no way costumes designed for Father can be altered to fit Vincent. The tunic is way too short, the shirt sleeves are halfway up his arms, and I'll bet he's not even going to be able to get the trousers past his knees. When I left him, he had his old bathrobe on over the shirt and a pair of tights, and he said he's not going to take that ratty old thing off!"

Mary gently loosened Rebecca's grip with a right hook to the sternum and then smiled benignly as she always did when coping with cataclysmic disasters. "Calm down, dear. Don't upset yourself so. You'll break out in spots and everyone will think you've had a relapse of that nasty rash. You know – the one you caught the last time Devin visited."

"I told you that thing with Devin was just a coincidence," Rebecca hissed, a modest blush staining her cheeks. "I'm allergic to strawberries. That's what caused the rash."

Catherine glanced at Mary who was shaking her head in bewilderment. "That's strange, dear. I don't remember you having any problem with the strawberry ice cream Catherine brought us. Or the strawberry jam William made. Or the strawberry cake we had for Samantha's birthday. Or the strawberry Margaritas that..."

"Never mind! Could we please get back to the original subject?!"

Shifting her gaze back to Rebecca, Catherine sighed with vexation. It was obvious her imagination was playing tricks on her again. Not only had the sweet-natured candlemaker's tone sounded belligerent, bordering on hostile, it also seemed as if she had changed clothes and fixed her hair during the few seconds Catherine had looked away.

She made a mental note to discuss with Vincent the uncanny ability he and Rebecca seemed to share that enabled them to change their attire in the blink of an eye. Then again, Catherine thought, maybe it was a subject that was best left alone. If they discussed why Vincent changed clothes so many times, it might lead to a discussion as to why Father, Pascal, and some of the others rarely, if ever, changed outfits. That was a topic Catherine wasn't sure she wanted to learn more about.

Catherine's speculation about tunnel attire was interrupted abruptly by the arrival of Jamie. "Hi, Catherine. I've been looking everywhere for you. Vincent asked me to find a seat down front for you, so I saved you the chair next to Father."

"Thanks." Catherine's smile was warm -- and more than slightly forced. Okay, so she'd rather stock the Mirror Pool with sharks and then go skinny-dipping. It was the thought that counted and Jamie was only trying to be considerate.

"That's okay. No one else wanted to sit by him anyway," Jamie said with a shrug as she shoved her hands deep into her pockets. "He's mad because he knows everyone's glad Vincent is doing the show instead of him."

"Jamie!" Mary interrupted hastily. "Why don't you show Catherine to her chair while Rebecca and I see what we can do to help Vincent backstage." She turned toward their reluctant guest. "And dear, that dress of yours is so very lovely and so becoming, but you're going to be cold in that old theatre chamber. Sometimes there's a dreadful draft in there. Here, take my shawl. I can knit another one for myself in a jiffy. I do it all the time, you know."

No kidding, Catherine thought, surreptitiously rolling her eyes as Mary draped the shawl over her shoulders. The voluminous woolen garment effectively concealed every hint of her seductive finery. "How kind of you," Catherine managed weakly. "Thanks so much."

"It's the least I can do. Now hurry along." Mary smiled in satisfaction. She knew on the best of days, she was a long shot, but there was no sense in further jeopardizing her chances with Father by seating a gorgeous, half-naked, highly frustrated younger woman next to him for several hours.

Catherine obediently abandoned the picnic basket she'd been holding and pushed it under a table with the toe of her shoe. From the corner of her eye she could see Arthur, who was perched on Mouse's shoulder, lift his head and sniff the air as the fruity scent of Chardonnay reached his eagerly twitching nose. Suddenly, the raccoon scrambled down Mouse's body and headed toward the basket at a fast waddle.

Catherine tried to hold back a smile as she followed Jamie out of the chamber. With any luck at all, Arthur would have a few belts and then cause complete pandemonium. The evening might not be a total loss after all.

As she and Jamie entered the theatre chamber, Catherine spotted Father in his front row seat. Considering the number of people crowding the room, the area around the tunnel patriarch was remarkably empty.

"See you later," Jamie said, casting a pitying glance at Catherine before rushing to make her escape.

Catherine watched the girl melt into the crowd. Taking a deep breath, she turned back toward Father. As she made her way across the room, the milling throng of tunnel dwellers and guests from Above parted helpfully. With effort she dismissed a mental image of leather and wool-clad rats deserting a sinking luxury liner, and then edged cautiously into her seat.

Seconds later, a bloodcurdling roar ripped through the smoky air. She froze and swiveled her head in the direction of the sound, shivering as the deafening roars gradually gave way to a series of hoarse, high-pitched whimpers.

Now what was that all about, she wondered. I know I've heard that particular roar of his before. Let's see - despair? No. Pain? Uh-uh. Rage? Maybe, but not exactly. Hmmm, fear? No. Indigestion? Probably not. Maybe passion? How the hell would I know that!

She shrugged her shoulders, sure that all would be revealed in due time. Most likely in less than 48 to 52 minutes. Even sooner if it was Sweeps Week.

She glanced over at Father. Aside from a whispered "Dear God" or two, he hadn't even flinched. You have to admire that kind of poise and self-control in a man of his age and temperament, Catherine admitted grudgingly. Even though he makes me feel more like the main attraction at a human sacrifice than an invited guest at a poetry reading.

"I was very sorry to hear that you aren't feeling well, Father," Catherine began. A sudden vision of the way she had anticipated spending the evening drifted temptingly through her mind and set her teeth on edge. "I've been looking forward to this night for weeks."

Father's expression brightened. At last, someone who was suitably impressed by his extraordinary oratory expertise and masterful artistic interpretations. Catherine's insight was amazing. Until this moment, he never would have suspected that she was a connoisseur of fine dramatic performances.

He pointed toward his throat, grimacing painfully, not only to make sure Catherine believed he was quite impaired but also to gain an extra bit of sympathy. "I'm sure Vincent will make a splendid job of it," he whispered hoarsely.

It was a shame Catherine would have to settle for less than the best, Father lamented silently. Oh, Vincent had some basic talent, there was no denying that, but his attributes clearly lay in other areas. And even if that were not the case, one could hardly expect the boy to give a performance the same caliber as his mentor.

If only Mouse hadn't let it slip that Vincent was planning to skip the performance and take Catherine on a romantic picnic for two, Father thought with an inward sigh of regret. He had planned a performance that would have kept people talking for years. Why, just selecting the material had taken hours and hours of his time as he'd wanted to be sure the presentation would have the proper grandeur and magnificence befitting his talents. Now, here he was stuck on the sidelines, forced to pretend he had laryngitis just to keep Vincent out of Catherine's clutches for at least one more night. It was a shame really.

Still, Father knew it was his duty as the fearless leader of the tunnels to make sure his children stayed out of mischief. And heaven alone knew how much mischief Vincent and Catherine would have gotten into if left alone for more than thirty seconds, let alone a whole evening. The amount of energy he had spent on those two over the years would have daunted a lesser man. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

Completely absorbed in his own thoughts, Father was unaware of Catherine's slowly stiffening posture and the fact that she was clasping her hands tightly together in her lap, fighting the urge to wrap her fingers around his neck and squeeze until his face turned the color of an eggplant.

Obviously, Vincent had never revealed the fact that as the bond grew stronger between them, so had her empathic abilities. And while it was true that she possessed only a fraction of his innate talent, it was more than enough to give her access to the satisfied musings of the man sitting beside her.

Visions of retribution danced through Catherine's mind, ranging from kicking Father’s cane out from under him to asking Narcissa to turn him into a toad. A big, warty toad that she could take up to the Park and leave in some appropriate spot -- like the middle of the roller blade arena on the junior high's next day off. She shifted in her chair and cast a murderous glance at her companion. The toad idea was the most appealing, but it still didn't seem to be quite what she was looking for. She'd have to give this one some very careful consideration.

As she contemplated the various fiends and felons she’d met on the job who just might provide of assistance in dealing with Father, she became aware of Kipper and Eric rushing around the chamber extinguishing most of the candles.

Oh well, she promised herself, even if the selections Father is forcing on us tonight are particularly boring, I can just enjoy looking at Vincent and I can concentrate on planning my revenge. She chuckled softly and let her imagination take flight.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Father and his captive audience, a melodrama of far greater proportions was taking place just a few yards away behind a pair of moth-eaten velvet curtains.

In the very tight quarters of the wings of the makeshift stage, Mary, Mouse, and Rebecca crowded around Vincent who stood rooted to the spot in front of a large free-standing mirror. The trio watched in fascination as his normally pale skin rapidly turned the very unbecoming shade of an over-ripe tomato.

"Oh, my," Mary began, her voice quavering a bit. "Is something wrong, dear?"

He turned on her like a wounded rhino making its final death charge. "Is something wrong?" he bellowed, tearing off his bathrobe and spreading out his heavily muscled arms in emphasis. "How can you even ask such a thing! Just look at me!"

Every gaze immediately traveled the length of the impressive figure raging before them. Within seconds, at least two of them had identified the sizable source of Vincent's concern.

Effectively silencing Rebecca's appreciative giggle with a sharp elbow to the midsection, Mary instinctively reached toward Vincent. After only the barest hint of hesitation, her hand rose to the level of his heaving shoulders. "Now, now, dear, I'm sure you're overemphasizing the problem."

"Noooo, I don't think so, Mary," Rebecca commented. "It looks pretty big to me."

"Go get Catherine," Mouse offered, looking from one to the other. He was sure that no matter how large Vincent's problem was, Catherine could find a solution.

"NO!" Vincent and Mary chorused.

Mary cleared her throat. "I'm afraid Catherine isn't the answer to this particular problem."

Rebecca grinned her agreement. "She might even make it bigger than it already is."

Shooting a withering glare at the younger woman, Mary continued. "Come now, surely there's something we can do to help."

"There's only one thing," Vincent replied, clasping his hands low in front of himself in the time-honored gesture of masculine self-protection. "Call off this performance!"

"Nonsense," Mary blustered onward. "You'll be a huge success. What I mean to say is that your performance will be massive – I mean magnificent! Uh – tremendous! No, no, it'll be fine! That's it - just fine! You're only having a little problem with stage fright."

"I don't think that's it," Vincent muttered darkly.

"Of course, it is. Just go over your opening lines with us. Now what wonderful part are you giving us first? I know it's bound to be impressive! It'll catch everyone's attention right away!"

Vincent hesitated, his eyes narrowing as he searched Mary's cheerfully reassuring expression. If he didn't know better.....

Shaking his head, he sighed heavily. "It's one of Father's favorites -- a speech from Act II, Scene 5 of Twelfth Night."

"Come on now, give it to us," Mary urged firmly.

Vincent took a deep breath. "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

Rebecca's uncontrollable screech of laughter rivaled Pascal's pipes in their ability to deliver a message in no uncertain terms.

"That's it!" Vincent roared. "It's over! I cannot appear in front of everyone saying such things, dressed like this!"

"Sure you can, Vincent!" Mouse offered cheerfully. "Sound good! Look good, too! Gooder than good. Just like that guy in the movie we snuck in to see. Robin Hood!"

"No way, Mouse," Rebecca snickered. "Kevin Costner is just small potatoes compared to Vincent."

"Please, Rebecca, no more," Vincent pleaded. "You must not do this!"

The candlemaker shook her head as she vainly tried to smother a huge grin. "I'm sorry, Vincent. I just can't seem to stop myself."

"That seems to be a chronic problem of yours, young lady," Mary retorted. "And, by the way, Kipper brought a message down for you earlier. It seems the people at the free clinic - you know, the one Devin always speaks so highly of - want to see you first thing tomorrow morning."

With a loud gasp, Rebecca whirled around and rushed from the chamber.

"My, my, that girl is becoming very flighty lately, don't you think?" Mary's kindly face constricted with concern. "I wonder what's gotten into her now?"

"I'm sure I have no idea," Vincent growled. "Never mind her - what about this performance? Are you going to tell Father it must be cancelled?"

The older woman's tight expression melted quicker than a candle stub at the Winterfest closing ceremonies. "I can't do that!" she whined. "He's counting on you, Vincent. You owe him your loyalty. You must not let him down. It's your responsibility. Your lot in life. Your reason for being. Your supreme and sacred duty. Your --"

"Not this time it isn't! If you won't tell him, I'll do it myself." Kicking aside the shredded remnants of his bathrobe, he quickly scanned the room for a more concealing garment. "My cloak - where is it?"

"Took it to your chamber. Knew you wouldn't need it for the show," Mouse answered helpfully.

Groaning loudly, Vincent began to reach upwards to clasp his head in his hands. But following a quick glance downward, his hands shot back to their former position. Rebecca might have left the room, but there was no sense taking any chances with his remaining companions.

"Do something!" he wailed. "Anything!"

Unseen by one and all, Arthur chose that very moment to stagger backstage. His muzzle was coated with smears of pilfered picnic delicacies and his damp fur reeked of Chardonnay, caviar, and oysters. Blinking blearily, he stumbled toward what appeared to his booze-beady eyes to be a thick braid of his favorite butterscotch taffy. With the unerring accuracy of a determined thief, he pounced and sunk his claws deep into his prey, chattering loudly in satisfaction.

The familiar sound drew Mouse's attention. "Arthur, no! Bad! Badder than bad!"

Much too late, Mouse lunged for his pet in a hopeless attempt to untangle the frantic raccoon's stranglehold on the rope that controlled the stage curtains. In a flash, the animal tore himself loose and scrambled away, leaving Mouse clinging heavily to the rope as he swung wildly back and forth like some tunnel-dwelling Tarzan.

To his eternal horror Vincent watched over his shoulder as the curtains slowly parted to reveal a sea of faces all staring straight at him. Like a beacon, his gaze was drawn unerringly to Catherine, seated next to Father, front row center.

What an odd way to begin the performance, Father mused, a puzzled look crinkling his face. A very non-traditional stance with his backside to the audience like that. And why has he asked Mary to stand there with her mouth hanging open? I wonder which character she is to portray. Certainly not Juliet, but perhaps Rosalind or Imogen or Maria -- I do like those names. Pity Lena couldn't see the charm in them.

His rambling thoughts eventually wandered back to Vincent. Still, I've trained him well and perhaps this is merely an innovative approach he wishes to offer simply to show his devotion to the craft and, of course, to my exemplary training.

He glanced at Catherine, hoping she was not already disappointed by this less than auspicious beginning. Oh, dear, he thought, look at the expression on her face. Such a pity! She simply can't believe her eyes.

Catherine's normally large green eyes widened alarmingly. They quickly took on a neon glow that put to shame the myriad city lights which could be viewed from one of the multiple vistas offered by the apparently revolving balcony of her apartment.

"Oh -- my -- God," she whispered hoarsely.

"Yes, my dear, what is it?" Father replied. "Did you call me?"

When he touched her arm to draw her attention, she shrugged him off like a bug. It took all her concentration just to continue breathing. As her gaze traveled up and down the magnificent view arrayed before her, her thoughts were a jumble of sensations that threatened to overwhelm her. Never had she seen such a sight, not even when the American Bar Association held their recent Ladies' Night at Chippendale's.

No wonder that tramp Lisa was so anxious to get him into a pair of tights, she mused heatedly. She probably couldn't have cared less about the ballet! What a cheap trick just to get a better look at Vincent's -- uhh, talent. Her eyes narrowed as she snorted her anger while the infuriating thoughts continued. And why can't I ever come up with an idea like that?! When I think of all the times I've contrived to follow behind him on our walks in the tunnels just to sneak a peek when he's not wearing that damned cloak, I could just scream! But ooh, baby, it sure was worth it!

With that thought every ounce of her attention immediately returned to the subject at hand. Well, not exactly at hand -- yet. Her gaze riveted on a rear view of Vincent that until now had achieved a starring role only in her dreams. Once again, Catherine's expression bordered on the catatonic, but she couldn't have cared less.

Father looked at her in some concern. Poor thing, he worried. She seems to be in a state of shock. What a pity I'm not on stage tonight to really do the part justice. Oh well, nothing to be done now, he concluded as he settled back in his chair to enjoy the show.

As his two favorite people in the world made their highly individual assessments of his entrance, Vincent himself was in a state of chaos. His mind screamed out survival instructions. Run, hide, leap over a subway track, ride the rails out of town, jump in the Abyss, escape to the Nameless River or to one of those remote lower levels of the tunnels the zine writers are so fond of mentioning!

But he did none of those things. Instead his strong rational side took over and he made his move with the feline strength and grace for which he was endlessly known. With one unerring swipe, he snagged his claws in the crocheted edge of Mary's latest shawl and ripped the wooly garment from her body. In a heartbeat, he'd fastened it diagonally across his Massive Chest in a wide sash from one Broad Shoulder past a Narrow Hip and down to his Ample Thighs. He looked down at himself carefully and sighed in relief upon discovering that his primary assets had been effectively concealed.

Catherine's heart plummeted. Wouldn't you know he'd think of something like that, she moaned inwardly. I want a few words with the costume crew the minute this is over! Maybe a bribe in the right place, say a job on the next Cameron film, and we'll see how many shawls, cloaks, blankets, and movers' pads show up next week!

Securing the shawl with his harness and tack belt, Vincent turned gracefully and faced his audience, prepared for an ordeal like none he'd ever known. He gazed steadfastly at a spot in the darkness beyond Catherine and began his opening speech.

"Be not afraid of greatness..." he recited, growing more confident as the seconds passed without incident.

The audience broke into belated entrance applause, and he bowed graciously, carefully clutching the shawl into immobility. Perhaps I will be able to carry this off, he told himself hopefully.

"Yea verily, methinks 'tis true."

Vincent swung around and stared at Mary, who remained trapped on stage and whom he had completely forgotten. "Good morrow, wench," he ad-libbed, cringing slightly at Mary's raised eyebrow reaction to his choice of words. "How come thee here to trod these boards?"

"Thou know quite well, kind sir," she hissed. "'T'was the tempest tantrum of a great, large lout who hath now forsaken me."

"Odds bodkins! Name the cur and I shall deal with him in a trice!"

Mary glared at him, seething as she watched him become caught up in the histrionic lure of the theatre, abandoning her in the process. He certainly is his father's son! I'll get the two of them one of these days and they'll both be hey-nonny-nonnying out the other sides of their mouths!

Her voice was poisonously sweet. "Mayhap 't'will be I who can act upon that matter, and, mark me well, 't'will be no comedy of errors when I do!"

"Gadzooks! Then all's well that ends well!" Vincent cried out happily, gesturing widely toward the wings. "Now take thy leave, fair maid, and get thee to a nunnery right quickly!"

With a small, tight curtsey toward the audience, Mary swept from the stage, managing to discretely kick Vincent in his unprotected shin on the way.

"Forsooth that maid hath a mighty temper," he muttered painfully. "Perhaps she is the shrew of Padua of whom much has been written, and quite rightly, too."

"Shrew?!" Mary's muffled shriek from backstage could be heard clearly past the first several rows of seats. Only Rebecca's restraining grasp kept her from rushing back on stage to enact her revenge then and there.

"Let go of me," she warned Rebecca. "Or I'll take you down with the rest of them!"

"Have you lost your mind once and for all?!" the younger woman demanded. "You've escaped -- now let's go out in the audience and enjoy this."

Immediately regaining her typical aplomb, Mary smoothed her hair and her skirt and followed Rebecca's lead. "Of course, dear, you're quite right. It's all beneath my usual demure dignity, restraint, and ladylike behavior anyway. And as far as I'm concerned, it'll be all well and good if Vincent is hung from the rafters by the end of this performance."

"I'd say he had the well-hung part mastered way before this performance began," Rebecca whispered with another giggle, skillfully sidestepping Mary's backhand. "Come on, here's two seats on the side. We can see the show and watch Father and Catherine's reactions at the same time."

Mary grinned at her newfound partner in crime. You never know when things will take a turn for the better now, do you? she asked herself with satisfaction.

Onstage, Vincent had reverted to Father's original choice of material and had presented two very dignified selections describing Elizabethan tributes to spiritual love. However, Father still considered himself quite the rogue beneath his bristly patriarchal front, and, rationalizing that the audience would be all adults, he had spiced his performance with just a few – a very few -- mildly suggestive poems for which the Elizabethans were justly known.

Vincent, with one hand pressed dramatically against his chest, began to recite Robert Herrick's "The Primrose":

"Ask me why I send you here
This sweet infanta of the year?
Ask me why I send to you
This primrose, thus bepearled with dew?
I will whisper to your ears,
The sweets of love are mixed with tears.
Ask me why this flower does show
So yellow-green and sickly too?
Ask me why the stalk is weak
And bending (yet it doth not break?),
I will answer: There discover
What fainting hopes are in a lover."

During the previous, more serious selections, Catherine had effectively zoned out and had put her time to good use staring at Vincent's thighs and hips, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was still hidden behind Mary's infernal shawl. Yet several words in the last selection managed to catch her attention, and she stifled a snickering laugh as her thoughts took flight. Excuse me, but a lover talking about his 'stalk'? That's a pretty risque choice Father made. And I'm really surprised Vincent went along with it. Then again, knowing him, there’s a good chance he didn’t even get the point, or if he did, he just chose to ignore it – as usual.

She concentrated but could detect no reaction from him through their bond, so she let her thoughts continued unchecked. Hmmm, I can think of a few 'hopes' I'd like to discover in a certain lover, and, believe me, they wouldn't be weak or bending if I can help it!

Unknown to Catherine, Vincent was very much aware of the ribald tone of the last poem. However, since it had been Father's choice, he decided to muster on with it despite the dangers it presented. He knew Catherine's libido was a powder keg that needed only the slightest spark to explode in a fiery inferno; he knew, too, that, given half a chance, he would eagerly dive into the flames to join her. So, just to be on the safe side, he determinedly blocked off the bond. He dared only a single glance at Catherine and noted with a sigh of relief that she seemed quite relaxed and unperturbed by what he considered his daring presentation.

But suddenly his relief turned to concern and then annoyance. Reciting even such a mildly suggestive poem had taken a lot of courage on his part and Catherine hadn't even reacted to it. Maybe she wasn't as interested as he'd always assumed she was. He paused, hoping the audience would interpret it as a dramatic effect not unlike the long silences, meaningful glances, and smoldering sighs Catherine and he exchanged on a regular basis.

His sudden thought had both scared and angered him. After all, it wasn't as if he didn't want to! It was all he could do to hide his ever-growing 'interest' from her every time they met. Why did she think he always wore about nine hundred layers of clothing, with extra insulation below the waist, and kept that damned cloak bound around his hips like a woolen chastity belt? It sure as hell wasn't for warmth! Cautiously he opened the bond and like a lightning bolt received Catherine's giggling reaction to her visual image of the aforementioned weak stalk.

Now, Vincent had had a particularly bad day. First the ruined picnic plans had destroyed his hopes that this would finally be The Big Night; then he discovered he had been elected Father's stand-in; followed by the costume fiasco; and now this. Compared to this ordeal, Dr. Hughes, the Tong, and even Paracelsus had been a walk in the park.

It was more than even he could endure. She wants to see if I've got what it takes, does she? Well, forget about that Dark Side I'm supposed to have, he decided vehemently. I can guarantee that tonight she's going to see a side of me even her imagination never came up with!

Vincent strode purposefully to center stage, halting under a bright spotlight. Stretching out his arms as if in masterful entreaty, he looked straight at Catherine and began to recite in low, purring tones.

"Beauty, since you so much desire
To know the place of Cupid's fire,
About you somewhere doth it rest,
Yet never harbour'd in your breast,
Nor gout-like in your heel or toe, --
What fool would seek Love's flame so low?
There, there, O there lies Cupid's fire."

He paused for just a moment, and then wanted to shout with victory as he took in the incredulous look on Catherine's face as she listened to his particular spin on Herrick’s lines. She blinked her eyes several times in disbelief as she sat up straighter, then shook her head hard, wondering if two years of acute sexual frustration had finally pushed her over the edge and she'd started hearing things.

Vincent's chest swelled in satisfaction, and, trying not to gloat too much, he continued.

"Think not, when Cupid most you scorn,
Men judge that you of ice were born;
For though you cast love at your heel,
His fury yet sometimes you feel:
And whereabout if you would know,
I tell you still not in your toe:
But a little higher, but a little higher,
There, there, O there lies Cupid's fire."

Catherine didn't need a Tunnel map to locate the exact source of Cupid's fire, not when she was feeling sensations in its surging locale that left her red-faced and breathless. Her thoughts heated higher as she continued to stare at Vincent in fascination. I can't believe it, she told herself, this is absolutely incredible! It took him long enough to get started, but I can't wait to see what he does next!

Vincent finished his recitation with a deep bow from the waist, never breaking eye contact with Catherine. With satisfaction, he took in the sight of her flushed face and rapid breathing. He didn't need the bond to know his impromptu moves were working, but he couldn't resist the temptation and opened his thoughts to hers.

What next, Catherine? his thoughts echoed hers. If I have my way, this time it'll be you instead of me running to the Great Falls for an ice cold shower.

He grinned wickedly and paused for a moment as he contemplated his next presentation. As Vincent never did anything without a great deal of deliberation - except, of course, for leaping up and racing off to parts unknown every time Catherine so much as broke a fingernail - the audience waited contentedly for him to continue.

Most of the audience, that is. Rustling through the twenty-eight pockets in the seventeen garments he was wearing, Father searched frantically for his program notes. He was absolutely positive that last selection had not been on the agenda. At last he pulled the crumpled paper from the fourteenth pocket of his third tunic and quickly scanned its contents. Scowling furiously, he sent his son a withering glare that the younger man totally ignored.

Just what does Vincent think he's up to? Father demanded silently. He'd better not pull another stunt like this or I'll have something to say about it...Oh, dear God, I can't! I'm supposed to have laryngitis. Why that ungrateful wretch! I'll wring his fuzzy neck!

He glanced at the other members of the audience. No one seemed terribly concerned, although Brooke was sitting rather close to her boyfriend Michael, who had a somewhat strained look on his reddened face. But before Father could figure out a plan of action, Vincent launched into his next selection.

Slinking closer to the edge of the stage, Vincent stared pointedly into Catherine's glazed eyes. He reached across his body and slowly inserted his clawed fingers beneath the edge of the shawl where it was fastened at his shoulder. With slow, deliberate seductiveness, he ran a firm hand downward over his Massively Muscular chest until it came to rest at the belt's barricade. Then, reluctantly breaking their eye contact, he turned away for just a moment, and with his back to the largely appreciative audience, he yanked the shawl from the belt. Making sure the wooly material was still secured at his Wide Shoulder, he swiveled to face frontward again. The fabric rippled across his Heaving Torso and Twitching Hips, like a gently swaying curtain only just concealing a garden of delights.

His eyes narrowed as he let his gaze wander up and down Catherine's body. In the back of his mind, he hadn’t been entirely sure he was doing it all correctly, but one look at Catherine proved that he certainly was. Suddenly, she flung away the weighty wool shawl Mary had forced on her and frantically waved a trembling hand toward her face, hoping to catch a cooling breeze before she passed out from heat stroke.

Vincent grinned like a lion with a mouth full of flamingo. Perfect. Just perfect. And I’m just getting warmed up.

"My Love in her attire doth show her wit,
It doth so well become her;
For every season she hath dressings fit,
For Winter, Spring, and Summer.
No beauty doth she miss
When all her robes are on:
But Beauty's self she is
When all her robes are gone."

Father thought he might go into cardiac arrest right then and there. Vincent had lunged way over the limit with that one, but Father knew that unless he revealed his own deception in the plot, he had no choice other than to grin and bear it.

Catherine had a lot to grin about, too, but her smile was more like Mouse's whenever he happened upon a particularly exciting and valuable "find." Oh, this is just too much, she thought dazedly. How can he do this to me?!

Getting rid of Mary's shawl hadn't helped at all. Every inch of her clothing, starting with her extremely expensive silk underwear, was drenched and she wouldn't have been surprised to find a large puddle forming near, as the Bard himself might have said, her nether regions. She glanced around nervously, hoping no one else had noticed.

That's funny, she puzzled. I could have sworn Jamie and Mouse were sitting right over in the fifth row and now they're gone. As a matter of fact, half the audience is gone. How could they leave when – oh…

Smirking, she turned back toward the stage, accidentally brushing against Father's arm in the process. She watched as he reached for a handkerchief and wiped away the large damp patch she had left on his sleeve.

"Catherine, you seem to be perspiring rather heavily. Are you feeling well?" he rasped dramatically.

"I'm fine!" she snapped. "Just watch the show and leave me alone!"

That's gratitude for you, he bristled. After all I've done to - I mean - for her over the past two years!

Vincent had enjoyed observing the interplay before him and now stood back contentedly, with Muscular Arms crossed over his Massive Chest and Narrow Hips thrust slightly forward. My name doesn't mean "conqueror" for nothing, he told himself with satisfaction. And I'm still perfectly in control.

Feeling that perhaps in this situation, more was more, he wasted no time in offering another of Herrick's greatest hits.

"Show me those fleshly principalities; thy thighs,
Show me those fleshly principalities;
Show me that hill where smiling love doth sit,
Having a living fountain under it;
Show me thy waist, then let me therewithal,
By the assentation of thy lawn, see all."

A constricted gasp emanated from the direction of Father's gaping mouth. "Ahhrrwr- wrrahhwrrr," he garbled hoarsely. "Urrrhhhrrrrhhhgrrrrr!"

Catherine turned on him like a lioness launching a fatal attack toward tonight's dinner on the hoof. "SHUT UP!! If you make me miss any of this, I'll strangle you with my bare hands!"

He glared at her, defeated only for the moment, and continued to make sputtering noises, albeit much quieter ones.

Vincent had rarely -- if ever -- known quite this level of satisfaction. Only just resisting the urge to strut back and forth across the stage like a rooster advancing on the hen house, he reflected on the reactions erupting in Catherine as a result of his amazingly effective selection of poetry. And just think, he told himself, I did it all on the spur of the moment. And it was all so easy. Or as the Elizabethans -- and most of the writers on Harlequin's bestseller list -- might have said, it was as smooth as thrusting a fine, large sword into a silken sheath. Ah, the things one can do when one sets one's mind to it!

In the flush of victory, Vincent had overlooked Catherine's newly acquired prowess with the bond, and, more foolishly, her moral creed: I don't get mad -- I get even. It took less than a moment for her to rally her considerable -- albeit steamy -- strength and begin a counterattack.

She thought back to his last poetic offering. 'Show me those fleshly principalities,' huh? Okay, Vincent, you asked for it!

She stretched out one slender leg and then lifted it slowly to cross over its mate, silently wishing she had thought of Sharon Stone's finest role when she'd dressed earlier that evening. With the tips of her manicured nails, she grasped the edge of her damp silk dress and pulled. To her satisfaction, Vincent's eyes snapped wide open and then nearly rolled out of his head as he watched the shimmering fabric glide upwards until most of her shapely thighs were exposed to his view. Since the dress had only about a yard of fabric in it anyway, this meant quite a lot of Catherine's rosy, gleaming flesh was now beckoning to him like a torch to a swarm of luna moths.

Now that's more like it, she thought with satisfaction as she watched beads of perspiration immediately gather across his brow.

Vincent swallowed hard, barely managing to maintain his self-control, as Catherine made her next move. As if needing to relieve the pressure of stiff muscles – hers, not Vincent’s – yet -- she braced her arms on the seat of her chair and thrust her shoulders back. The motion effectively arched her glistening, barely covered breasts forward and upward in the direction of Vincent's now open, panting mouth.

For several moments he wasn't sure if he could keep from erupting off the stage and launching himself at her like a heat-seeking missile. He watched in lusty disbelief as she closed her eyes and let her head tilt backwards slowly on the flushed column of her neck. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, she relaxed back in her chair and looked up at him through heavy, half-closed eyelids. Her full lips opened slightly in a moist, pouting smile as her gaze settled on the area of Vincent's hips. With great satisfaction, she took in the pointedly thrusting movement that now strained the confines of the shawl he still wore like a wooly shield.

Catching her intent, Vincent looked down at himself and felt a quick surge of panic. He'd been so mesmerized by Catherine's performance that he hadn't noticed the impressive role his own body had taken on. Why hadn't they included the traditional codpiece with this get-up, he asked silently. Of course, it would have been made for Father and would have been way too small for me to use anyway. He shrugged his shoulders, further disturbing the distended fabric, much to Catherine's loud, appreciative sighs.

Okay good, okay fine, Vincent told himself, mustering his wildly fluctuating thoughts. Enough's enough. It's time for this program to reach a climax!

Carefully, if not a bit painfully, advancing to the very brink of the stage, he addressed what remained of his audience, many of its former members having long since gone off to enjoy their own interpretations of Elizabethan poetry. His voice was thick with checked emotion. "For my final selection, I would like to ask a volunteer from the audience to join me on stage. That'd be you, Catherine! Will you please come here -- now!"

As Catherine lunged upward from her chair, Father shot out a restraining hand and grasped her arm tightly. "Now, Catherine, do you think this is wise? I simply will not tolerate any untoward behavior! I want you to stay right where you are and --"

His croaking order ended in a painful yelp as Catherine snatched her arm away and then grabbed a fistful of his collar, twisting it into a tight stranglehold around his neck. "Listen to me, you pious, conceited tyrant! I've waited way too long for this and no one is going to get in my way now! So give it up, old man, or live to regret it!"

Father was a lot of things, but stupid wasn't one of them. He saw the menacing fire in Catherine's eyes and quickly recalled the demonstration she’d once offered at Tunnel Amateur Hour. She had shown the techniques she’d learned at Isaac's self-defense studio, some of which had required a "victim." Poor William. He’d spent about a month in traction.

A sheepish smile curved Father's mouth as he tried to pat Catherine's vise-like fist at his neck. With what was left of the air in his lungs, he whispered his agreement to her suggestion and then collapsed in his chair, although not until she’d shaken him several times like a tabby with a rat.

Catherine reached up for Vincent's outstretched hand and then, like a bolt of lightning, leaped to the stage where they stood facing each other. Her back was toward the audience, which now consisted solely of Father, Mary, and Rebecca, the latter of whom were nearly out of their minds with self-satisfied laughter.

Vincent glanced down at Father and felt a momentary twinge of pity. The feeling was rapidly followed by a flashing mental montage of each and every time the older man had managed to interrupt and destroy a rendezvous he'd planned with Catherine. He muttered a very un-Vincent-like oath as he tightened his grasp on Catherine's hands. Then gulping for much-needed oxygen, he began. "Catherine, this work of art is called The Vine. The poet wrote the poem for his Lucia, but with your permission, I shall address it to you."

"Great, fine, sure! Just get on with it," she panted, frantically trying to extricate her hands from his grip so that she could put them to far better use. "Come on -- I can't wait much longer!"

Her words sent fresh waves of lust surging through him, but, luckily, they found a place to rest in the part of him that had been surging for quite some time now. Catherine didn't miss the reaction and moaned loudly. It didn't look like he'd be able to wait much longer either, and she had no intentions of losing out on this extremely rare opportunity. "Will you please get on with it!!" she shrieked.

Smiling, he gave her his most incendiary look and then began.

"I dream'd this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphos'd to a Vine;
Which crawling one and every way,
Enthralled my dainty Catherine.
Me thought, her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise;
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waist
By my soft Nerv'lets were embrac'd;"

Pausing, he shook his head in reproach. "Catherine, if you don't stop moaning like that, you'll never hear all the words. Please let me continue."

"About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Catherine seem'd to me
Young Bacchus ravisht by his tree."

Again, he paused, but this time Catherine's guttural sounds were overwhelmed by the rasping and gasping that foamed from Father's direction. "Please, Father," Vincent admonished. "I am reciting a poem!"

"My curles about her neck did crawl;
And arms and hands they did enthrall:
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner.)"

Once more he paused in his recitation, but before he could say a word, Catherine yanked hard on his hands and panted out a protest. "If this is your idea of foreplay, Vincent, it's been great -- but I want the main event and I want it NOW!"

"And you shall have it," he replied, pivoting their bodies so that he now had his back to the audience and she faced it. "As soon as I finish the poem:

"But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy'd,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stalk, than like a Vine."

With his final lines, he released Catherine's hands and then snatched away the concealing shawl to display a 'stalk' that, had Herrick possessed it, he would have termed a 'branch'. A redwood at the very least. At Catherine's loud, heated gasp of admiration, Vincent hurled the crocheted garment behind him, not caring where it landed, and, with hands on hips, indulged in a mighty pelvic thrust -- purely for dramatic effect, of course.

Its effect on Catherine was quite gratifying. Finally finding her voice, she declared, "This Stalk is beautiful! This is my Stalk!" She reached eager hands forward to claim her prize, when suddenly a large, ranting, wooly lump descended on them like a rabid escapee from the local sheep herd.

Unwrapping Mary's shawl from his head and shoulders where it had landed moments earlier, Father advanced toward them on the stage. "Stop right there, young lady! Don't move! I'll have none of this!"

"Damn right," Catherine retorted, inching closer to the object of her desire. "Not that getting some yourself wouldn't do you a world of good!"

Vincent enthusiastically nodded his agreement and then cocked his head at his parent. "I thought you were suffering from laryngitis, Father. You sound fine now."

Father's eyes squinted to slits as he glared at the two of them over the rims of his glasses. "No doubt it's a miracle brought about by your outrageous performance!" he barked. Not surprisingly, his eyes were drawn to Vincent's unmistakably enthusiastic piece de resistance. Up close and personal the sight was daunting, and, assuming his best dictatorial stance, Father was moved to a poetry recitation of his own after all:

"Down, wanton, down! Have you no shame
That at the whisper of Love's name,
Or Beauty's, presto! up you raise
Your angry head and stand at gaze?
Love may be blind, but Love at least
Knows what is man and what mere beast;
Or Beauty wayward, but requires
More delicacy from her squires.
Tell me, my witless, whose one boast
Could be your staunchness at the post,
When were you made a man of parts
To think fine and profess the arts?
Will many-gifted Beauty come
Bowing to your bald rule of thumb,
Or Love swear loyalty to your crown?
Be gone, have done! Down, wanton, down!"

Panting with exertion, Father finished issuing his commands and looked at the two before him, fully expecting abject apologies at the very least. What he got instead finally pushed him over edge.

"The only thing this wayward Beauty requires," Catherine said with a grin, "is for you to move out of the way so Vincent and I can get out of here and find some privacy! We really don't need an audience for what we’ve got planned."

Vincent snickered loudly. "And by the way, Father, wasn't that poem of yours written by Robert Graves? He wasn't Elizabethan, you know."

"Nineteenth century," Mary called out when she had breath to speak. Then she dissolved into hysteria again as Father sank to the stage floor and buried his head in his hands, alternately whimpering and sputtering with enraged defeat.

Vincent and Catherine smiled at each other. "May I offer you my arm?" he asked, anticipating her reply.

"Sure," she answered. "But just to start with. Where shall we go?"

His grin widened as they strolled off the stage and entered a nearby tunnel. "Everywhere. I want to show you everything..."

Back in the theatre chamber, Mary and Rebecca wiped their streaming eyes and sighed in exhausted satisfaction.

"What a show!" Rebecca crowed. "We should have thought of this ages ago! It's just a shame Devin had to miss it."

"That's about the only thing he's missed when it comes to you," Mary commented wryly. "But don't you think this extravaganza needs a final comment? Come on."

Rebecca followed Mary onto the stage. They stood on either side of the fallen Father and gazed out at the deserted rows of theatre seats. Mary glanced sidelong at Rebecca as she nudged Father with her foot and waited for him to glare up at her.

"I think Shakespeare said it best in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, don't you?"

Father's response was a tight-lipped grimace that gave new meaning to the phrase "if looks could kill," but Rebecca nodded and grinned in agreement as Mary led them in the familiar verse:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

-- THE END --

(*Linda S. Barth and Jessie Gurner would like to thank the writers of the Whoopi Goldberg film "Jumpin' Jack Flash" for "lending" them the perfect pseudonym for this parody.)