To Hope Anew

Chapter Twelve


"Never knew flowers were so heavy." Mouse came up to his feet and shook the lingering soil from off his hands.

Diana came slowly over to his side, leaning on her crutch. It was still difficult for her to move about, even with the walking cast. She reached her free arm up to the young man's shoulder. It, too, still bore its own cast, though she could at least lift it, now. "Thank you for your help, Mouse, very much."

"Happy to help. Not happy to see you go. Come back soon?"

The abbreviated request brought a gentle smile to her face. She'd been hearing those words all day.

"I'll be back down again as soon as Peter says its okay."

With the broad youngster's grin that was uniquely his, Mouse turned out the guest chamber door.

Taking a few more unsteady steps, Diana managed to pull the straightbacked chair in the chamber to the position she required. Then she gently swung a light quilt over its back and onto the small table behind it, feeling more than a little foolish for her caution, but she would gauge her circumstances before she'd plunge headlong into this. The sound of a deep voice clearing its throat almost stopped her heart as she turned.

But it was William, out of his kitchen, at this time of day, with the night's supper requiring all his attention. Diana motioned him into the room with a relieved smile.

"Ahem, I, ah, I brought you something to tide you over Above." He handed her a small cardboard box carefully lined with a cotton kitchen towel. It felt warm.

Diana pulled back the top of the towel and discovered a half dozen of his fresh, fluffy buttermilk biscuits. All for her. They were such a popular item on the community menu that even Father had been limited to two per meal.

"Oh, William. What a treat! Thank you so much." She reached her one arm as far as she could around the kind-hearted cook's great girth. He fumbled a moment, then returned her hug carefully, with an endearing shyness. Diana graced him with a warm smile. "I'll find that recipe for you of my grandmother's soda bread, I promise."

"You do that now. And make certain that you eat right, up there. Have to keep up your strength." With a bit of camouflaging bluster, the large man also left her chamber.

Diana set the box cover back onto the biscuits and placed the parcel beside the small overnight bag she had packed with her return belongings.

It was going to be so hard to leave.

Even though only three weeks had passed, she felt as if she was leaving her beloved home for the great, frightening unknown. It was so strange. The circumstances that had stranded her Below had been terrifying, but the fear and pain of the flood she had been caught in with the children had become a distant memory, a sort of vaguely recalled trial by fire, or in this case, water, that had at last opened up to her a whole new promising world. The only shadow veiling her heart, now, would be leaving that world behind.

And leaving Vincent behind. With very little resolved between them.

She sat heavily on the bed, already tired from spending too much time on her feet. But she had busied herself with so many time-consuming details of the day today, all in the hopes of keeping her mind occupied and her heart sheltered: A single free moment alone and she would have been powerless to withstand the onslaught of pain she knew awaited her.

Since their excursion down to the riverbank on Friday, Diana had been haunted by an unnamed presence within her hert, originating, she knew, from deep within Vincent himself. It was at once tender but anxiously restrained, hopeful, but so desperately weighted down. She'd been afraid that her barely concealed emotions towards him had only served to send him further into his suffocating grief.

So, she had almost been relieved when Mary had come into her chamber early Saturday morning with little Jacob in her arms, and notified her that Vincent had gone off by himself to the farther reaches of the river below where he would often do his soul-searching in solitude.

Diana wasn't certain she could bear to be near him that day -- Jacob's birthday -- the day of Catherine's death -- knowing that she'd been unable to offer him anything beyond the faintest sort of concrete evidence that life could indeed go on. She understoond his struggle with the loss and regret, felt it to the core of her own soul, but she knew, too, that his struggle of heart was as much her fault as it was Fate's: He was struggling with the seemingly treacherous instincts of his heart that would let another's essence find its way into a soul where only Catherine's bright presence had been sheltered. He could, perhaps, find a way to live in peace without his beloved in his life. But he decried the thought that he could ever live in peace with another's heart touching his own.

Diana would have done anything to share his pain, carry his burden, but she'd been relieved he'd banished himself to his memories alone. For all her courage, she'd found herself a coward in the face of his turmoil, suddenly uncertain that she had done the right thing in revealing her own heart to him, even unintentionally.

The community had passed a subdued, mundane existence all that day. Very few words had been exchanged aloud, but clouded countenances, shaking heads, and sympathetic glances her way had all proven the fact the so many of those Below shared in the futility of attempting to make life livable once again for their so beloved protector.

Diana had passed an hour in Samantha's company, working on lesson plans for the coming week. When the girl's quiet sorrow became too much to bear, Diana had excused herself under the pretext of feeling tired and buried her suddenly very weary body beneath the extra quilts on her bed.

Remaining alone, though, did nothing to ease her anxious mind and heart. She had finally broken down and asked Cullen if he could help her to one or the other of the common workrooms where she might have made herself at least somewhat useful.

The carpenter had brought her to the community sewing chamber where she was able to pass a few more hours with Rebecca, Brook and Mary, helping to inventory the precious store of fabric and garments before the rush of winter preparations.

The women divided many-times mended clothes into sizes and season-weights, tucked small packets of dried lavender and cedar shavings between the layers of fabrics to keep them fresh, and spoke about how difficult it was to keep up with the growing children and their clothing needs. Simple pleasantries were exchanged, and Diana felt momentarily comforted and balanced. But the pregnant pauses in conversation and activity became more frequent as time passed, reminders of the fact that all their minds were very far away, deep below, following a forgotten river through dark rock chambers.

When evening finally came, Olivia brought Jacob to Diana's room after supper, with an apology.

"Diana, I'm sorry, but I can't get Jacob to settle down for the night. I had him in his crib in Vincent's chamber, waiting for Jamie to stay with him, but he's done nothing but call your name."

The tested young mother gently ran a loving hand over the little boy's sturdy back, which was, at the moment, shuddering with recently shed tears. He was clutching a small quilt and his little bunny, an unsettling, far-away look in his sweet face. Diana reached up to hold him.

"That's all right, Livy. I'll take him." She carefully wrapped her arms around the child and slipped her fingers over his soft curls. The child settled against her breast, letting go of the blanket he held for the shawl that was thrown over Diana's shoulders, his small hand holding to it for dear life, it seemed. When Diana raised her eyes from him back to Olivia, there were tears collecting in both the women's eyes.

Olivia seemed reluctant to leave the little boy, even after she'd seen him somewhat comforted. Diana touched her arm. "What is it, Livy?" she asked quietly.

"I think Jacob's bond with Vincent is getting stronger. He's always seemed to be able to sense his father's emotions and respond to them, but lately I just think he's been feeling them, too -- I mean really feeling the same things."

"We know what's going through Vincent's heart tonight." -- And how it must be affecting the child -- Diana had whispered the words more to herself than to the woman in the room with her.

"Jamie or I'll come back for him a bit later." Olivia extended a gentle mother's touch to the little shoulder and the bunny crushed between the boy and his amber-haired guardian. He seemed not even to notice the contact, nestling only closer to Diana's heart. A lump came into the young woman's throat, as she realized the little boy was far removed tonight from the happy, exploring, soon-to-be-toddler he'd always been. Instead, he was somehow very withdrawn deep within himself, confusion, and even pain, clouding his usually limpid eyes.

It would have further crucified Vincent to know how deeply his own sorrows were actually affecting his little boy, despite his best efforts to shield him.

Diana read the concern in Olivia's face for the child she'd so often shared her maternal tenderness with. "Let him stay with me tonight, Livy. We'll be okay. You've got your hands full with Luke."

"Thank you, Diana." With a squeeze to her hand, the woman left the chamber, wiping her eyes as she did so.

Enclosing the troubled child with a tender embrace, Diana attempted to ease his anxiety

with a forced brightness she could never sustain. "Would you like me to read you a story, Jacob?" Picking up a small volume on butterflies that rested on the little table closest to her, Diana began to share the book with the child, pointing out the beautiful colors and bright patterns of the insects and flowers to him. Ordinarily, Jacob would constantly be interrupting her reading with his own baby observations and words, reaching over the illustrations to touch and explore.

Diana saw that the little boy was not even looking at the pictures, probably not evern hearing her words. He was only clutching the well-loved, very real, bunny, and seemingly holding all of his attention on some unseen force or figure somewhere beyond the room.

The book was set aside and Diana instead gathered Jacob closer to her body, settling the little blanket over his lengthening limbs. She could only imagine the intensity of what the child was connecting to, in some far-off twilight below them -- an anguish that would not be quelled. Especially not on this night.

Yet, it wasn't only an imagining.

Within her own heart, Diana could feel a deep and profound uncertainty, a vulnerable confusion infused with pain. When she looked into the little boy's usually bright blue eyes, she saw the tears falling slowly, silently, from them and down onto his cheeks. They were not the sobbing, vocal tears of a child in distress. Instead they seemed to be the desolate, hopelessness bleeding from the depths of an embattled heart.

Not certain of what exactly she could do to comfort and strengthen the child through his unsought burden, Diana's own tears began to fall in overwhelming frustration. Trying to steady herself for the little boy's sake, she momentarily entertained the idea of getting some help, and bringing Jacob back to his own bed, thinking that the more familiar surroundings could help to soothe him some small bit. The thought of being in Vincent's chamber with the child, however, would have been of little comfort to her, she confessed to herself. And she reasoned that Jacob was very little aware of his environment at the moment. Another room would make no difference.

He needed the shelter of a human heart . . . and he'd been calling for hers.

Letting all her reasonable defenses crumble round about her, she offered her loving care without reservation to the small boy, drawing his pain to herself, holding his essense within hers with a fiercely protective abandon. "It's all right, Jacob. I know . . . I feel it, too . . . He'll come back soon. I'll wait with you, angel."

With a gentle hand, she brushed over his golden curls. "I'm here with you. Don't be afraid, Jacob." In the tenderest of mother's comforts, she softly touched a kiss to his forehead, the agony she was absorbing within her, setting her own slender form to trembling.

The little boy's attention suddenly locked onto the lovely, pained face close to his own in recognition at last. Despite the tears still streaming silently down his own cheeks, he raised his small hand up to her, brushing it across her mouth. Diana caught it and pressed her lips to it. "Rest, angel," she breathed against the soft warmth of the little palm. "I won't let you be alone in this."

Pulling his bunny closer to him under the blanket, Jacob at last closed his eyes, a gentle wash of peace slowly overtaking the anxiety etched into his face. Diana held his one hand closely in hers and rocked softly on the chair, cradling him, letting every breath of her love wash away his fearful turmoil. She began to hum unconsciously, as any mother rocking a frightened child might. Gaining courage then, she gave voice to the lilting tune with a beautiful resonance she hadn't heard or used in ages: The Gaelic lullaby her grandmother loved. Diana had asked to hear it, hear all the old songs, time and again, even when she was too old for bedtime stories and songs. Now she willed Jacob to accept the peace and warmth she'd always been sheltered with whenever she'd heard those sweet strains herself.

Finally, the little boy's even breathing told Diana that he was at last close to falling asleep, gratefully, in her arms. She began one last song she remembered taking to heart, both the words and melody so much like her grandmother's cherished tunes, tender, hopeful, sad, and loving, a modern rendition of a troubador's tale:

 

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

Remember me to one who lives there.

She was once a true love of mine."

 

 

Vincent was within the dream once again, but this time it was not merely a dream. The reality of the anguish had battered him with the same unbearable force he had felt that night, that black, cursed night. He was there, on the top of that wind-swept tower, his knees buckling beneath him as the slight weight of her near-lifeless body overwhelmed his strength. She labored to speak to him, expended the last traces of her sapped courage to cling to him, desperate to hold on to life, to have him understand.

He had agonized with each of her final breaths, aching to offer her his own ragged ones, but she could not accept them. He would have torn out his own heart to give her, willing her faltering one to draw on his for strength. But, he only felt her drift farther and farther from him. She was aching to remain with him, dream with him, hope with him, yet he only felt her soul brush past his own, linger the faintest instant, and slip beyond his reach.

And when he gathered the beloved body to his own, as he had never had the courage to before, he realized in agony that it was indeed Catherine . . . gone . . . lost to him . . . forever.

 

"Oh God, Catherine, forgive me!"

His powerful form crumpled to the cold, hard surface of the rock beneath his feet. "Forgive me for letting you die . . . forgive me for letting you dream . . . alone."

There was only a dark and cold emptiness that responded to his anguish, tearing through his body with a force that engulfed him. He longed only to give himself up to that force, let it surround him and obliterate any trace of life without her . . . without Catherine.

. . . There could be no life without Catherine.

The tears streaming from his eyes did nothing to wash away the pain. He lay heavily on the rock floor, conscious only of the cold coming from it and through even his layers of woolen clothing. There was no one to cling to for support, nothing to believe in. Only blackness, formed of loss, regret, and the terrible aloneness he'd prayed would never overcome his soul again.

Then, it was there, suddenly, reaching out to him -- a touch. The softest touch, barely a breath, resting at his temple an instant, then smoothing gently, lovingly, over the locks of his hair strewn wildly over his face. It pulled hesitantly away from him.

Vincent felt his heart stop.

He came to his knees, searching through the semi-darkness around him. There was only the flame of his torch reflected on the nearby waters of the river.

Yet, someone was there with him, now, someone's essence softly enveloping him, just beyond his consciousness. Then, another touch, brushing this time against his forehead, gentle, reassuring, like the tenderest whisper of a -- kiss.

Vincent reached his hand unsteadily before him, trying to contact the loving presence. He closed his eyes and attempted to see with only the power of his heart's empathic sight.

A drift of fragrance stole around him, unmistakable in its clean simplicity -- lavender. Where had it come from? He felt a tracing of silken hair slip over his cheek, long, and heavy, not his own. With maddening uncertainty he suddenly must know what color it was -- he couldn't tell in the dim light. But he believed he knew.

The sound of words, unfamiliar at first until he realized they were in a foreign fairy tongue, tripped gracefully through a beguiling melody that echoed as much off the rock walls surrounding him as within his own heart. That tune changed to one he did recognize, the words ringing sweetly, expectantly within his spirit, the ache it raised inside him as compelling as it was sad. He lay back onto the cold stone beneath him and let the tenderness draw the desolation from his soul.

 

"May we come in?" Vincent had waited a moment before announcing his presence, with Jacob, at the guest chamber entry. Diana was seated on the bed, her eyes closed. She seemed far away, deep in thought, or turmoil. He could touch her disquiet spirit within his own heart. She was wrestling with some anxious imponderables battling within her and he longed to ease her way, as she had done for him. But he couldn't bring himself to it. She would only, in the end, pay for his unguarded emotions with her own peace of mind. It would offer nothing to either of them besides more aching confusion of heart, and the ever-present reality of the dark places within his soul.

Still, she had risked that turmoil to reach out to him, again, despite his efforts to distance himself from her, that night when he'd been at the river below in grief-stricken solitude. He wasn't certain that she was aware of it.

Catherine had been with him there, he knew. He had felt her soul caress his own, lovingly; and he had found it slipping away, but, miraculously, not to some unreachable black emptiness that would forever keep them apart. He'd felt her soul find a safe refuge, at last, in a deep place of his heart, a place he could easily reach into and draw the wonder of their love to him for comfort.

It had been his desperate grief, his anguished longing to cling to the lost possibilities in their lives that had somehow made it impossible for him to hold Catherine in that place within him before, for him to open his heart for her and accept the cherished gift of peace that memory could offer him. It had been so fearfully difficult to acknowledge, so painful to accept: that need to exchange future hopes for past remembrances, but somehow he had managed to find the courage to take those first steps -- to release his love for Catherine from the restraints and expectations of this world and all its loss and confusion.

With that courage steadying his aching spirit, he'd been able to find that place in his heart where she could always rest, where nothing could touch her to cause her pain, not even him; where he could touch again the sweetness of what they had shared and carry it with him as the fulfillment it truly had been.

He'd been able to take those first steps towards true healing for only one reason: When he'd been engulfed by pain, overwhelmed by his loss, despairing of ever knowing peace again, a gentle hand had reached out to him from the darkness, a generous and loving spirit had touched his soul with the promise of hope.

She was now sitting before him on the bed.

The luminous green eyes opened slowly and clung to his, shining with deep emotion. But only for a moment. She forced the light out of them, pulled her level of communion with him vehemently to a less profound plane. He recognized her struggle immediately. He'd had to battle the same forces near the end with Catherine's heart. He'd had to pretend that nothing was happening to his lifelong defenses, that his heart didn't leap into his throat at her merest touch, that his mind didn't whirl at the realization of all that the longing in her eyes meant, promised.

He'd been able to deny her, deny Catherine for so long.

Yet, he'd been slipping precariously at the end, and the terrors that could be unleashed because of it had become too easily forgotten. Had he not lost her . . .

Now Diana was visibly struggling to reign in her heart in just such a desperate fashion, so startling to him after her near-convincing arguments with him last Friday. She was denying her own heart, not because of any physical nightmares she could have feared, but because of his own fragile state of spirit. He could read it within her, felt it within her: She was willing her own desires away, ruthlessly, because she feared for his state of mind and soul.

Vincent chastised himself for that reality, in heavy guilt, now, too. He'd succeeded in making her feel her own dreams had been only selfish unrealities. He'd reached out to her in his unguarded moments, knowing instinctively that she could guide him through his pain, yet, he'd still condemned her for own crumbling defenses, with his hesitancy, his fears. He'd managed to bury his own needs, shroud his own desires for his questionable humanity for an eternity of a lifetime. But, it hadn't kept Catherine alive. And now it would cost Diana's own bright hopes.

Still, it would keep her safe, in the end.

A fleeting smile forced across her face said she was capable of being approached now. There would be no dangerous entanglements luring their hearts.

He welcomed her detachment, because the reality was that he was aching at the thought of her returning Above.

The pleasant informality of casual friendship was thrown up like a shield between them, protecting them both. "Everyone else in this community has been through that doorway today. I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever show up."

The words were her cool, unemotional demeanor from Above. He tried to let them set the tone for their present encounter, for her sake. "It's going to be an adjustment for everyone, not having you here with us."

The detachment had slipped from its place between them despite his best efforts. He couldn't let her leave with another burden of sorrow to carry, the thought that he could so willingly shut her out of his life.

Her own defenses faltered as she reached over to Jacob. Vincent set the little boy down to the floor and let him take his hand, leading him to her side. When he was within reach, Diana swept the child up to her lap. "I'm going to miss having time to spend every day with this little one, that's for sure."

Jacob graced her with an unburdened smile that radiated from his little soul. Since the night he had spent sheltered in his fears within her loving care, he had seemed to react to her presence with an even greater brightness of heart, so very conscious, despite his tender age, of her role in easing his frightening anxiety. The child recognized her deep love and commitment to him and responded in kind, without fears or restraints.

Vincent sat on the bed beside the amber-haired woman and took in the sight of his child resting on her lap. She looked so naturally at ease with the little boy in her arms. Her eyes shone with tender acknowledgment of his small presence. Vincent wished with all his heart that he could in some way offer her that same unburdened love. She deserved it.

"He will miss you, as well. When you are up to it, Samantha can bring him to you once more, if you wish."

Diana merely nodded as she watched the little boy occupy himself with a small wooden airplane he was clutching. The softly anxious care she felt holding to her heart, drove her to the truth. She couldn't put off the inevitable any longer.

Vincent watched her work her courage up for a long moment and couldn't seem to reason why. It was more than their imminent parting that was hurting her so, but he only felt her inner turmoil and caught its reflection in eyes she was not able to completely shield from offering revelation.

"What are you struggling with, Diana?"

The soft caring in that question nearly caused her to lose her conviction again. She almost caught his offer of a reassuring touch then, before he banished the thought from his mind. It was so painful to bear: Several times during the course of the past three weeks he had allowed himself the frightening freedom of reaching out to her physically, to share with her the tenderest of human attentions when she had least expected him to. But now, when she was visibly troubled and it would have been so natural to reach out to her in closeness, he could not seem to find the strength to do so. Diana only kept her attention on Jacob. She couldn't put it off any longer.

"I have something of yours here that I need to return to you."

The mythic figure beside her caught the brightness of tears beginning to form in her eyes, but he could not find the reason they were threatening to be shed. Then Diana raised a shaky hand to point across the chamber.

Coming to his feet slowly, Vincent held her face in his gaze a long moment before turning to follow the direction of her hand. Why was she in such turmoil? He ached to relieve her, but she only dropped her own gaze from his.

With measured steps, Vincent crossed the small room to stand beside the chair near the far wall. A light blanket had been flung over its back and tented across the table that was behind it. He reached a tentative hand to the blanket, not having a clue as to what it hid, only aware of the fact that whatever was sheltered there was something capable of reducing the fiery spirit of the young woman in the room with him to tears.

Lifting the blanket away in one sweeping motion, Vincent could not seem to fathom what it was he was actually looking at, what could cause such pain. But then recognition, for the rosebush in full bloom, and for what it meant to him, made Diana's anxiety startlingly clear.

He couldn't speak for the longest instant, suddenly finding himself propelled to Catherine's balcony and a moment of electrically charged intimacy he'd truly had no intention of initiating. He'd only offered his beloved a simple, innocent physical contact, a loving, though sweetly archaic gesture meant to convey comfort and care, but it had swept the reality of the forces acting between them deeply into his suddenly vulnerable spirit.

Every breath of sensation was with Vincent now from that moment: The welcome feel of her hand sheltered in his, the recognition of her slight injury and the needful and protective urge within him to relieve her of any breath of threat or pain. The terrifying comprehension that his kiss of comfort to her hand had taken on a sudden, control-shattering sensuality he'd long thought himself well-defended against.

And he could see Catherine's face -- startled, but unafraid, a deepening look of wondrous acknowledgment and undisguised longing immediately overcoming her beautiful features.

"Fada?" Only Jacob's voice managed to call Vincent back from that evening's crossroads, to the guest chamber and the rest of its occupants. He turned towards Diana slowly, attempting to understand what her role in his intimate memory could be.

"Catherine's rosebush?" he finally asked in a soft voice that nearly carried a rebuke.

Diana worked to steady the pounding of her heart. She'd told herself this was not going to be easy, but she had underestimated Vincent's ability to lock his empathic sensitivities to the deepest portions of her own soul. Her hope to simply assuage her conscience crumbled with the pain she read in those heart-stopping blue eyes. She was going to have to touch to everything between them again, because she couldn't keep her own fearful uncertainties from him. Forging ahead, she yet lost her conviction of the rightness of her actions.

"I've had it at my loft since I took on . . . the . . . investigation. I asked Mouse to bring it down for me this morning."

"But that bush had to have been next to dead. It had been neglected for months when Catherine disappeared." One look back at the overflowing blossoms in the terra-cotta pot did little to clear up the circumstances of the plant's survival. Still, it had to be the same one. Red blossoms and white ones, together, sharing one vibrant existence.

"I felt as though it had life in it still when I found it. I thought it might offer me some sense of what you and Catherine shared together, so I could understand." Diana could not hold Vincent's gaze for long. It was an overwhelming succession of disbelief, wonder, guilt, pain, and anger. What she'd feared had happened: She'd lost whatever minute, fragile, communion she had been able to draw from his burdened spirit. That was the risk, she knew. To help him believe again in life she'd placed her own position in his heart in jeopardy.

"Why didn't you tell me before now?"

That was the question she really could not find the answer to at the moment. It had been clear to her once, the need to protect him from further memories and pain, keep his

battered soul from falling over the edge into total desolation. But the weeks had slipped into months, and the once mysterious and shadowy avenger of her investigations had become the beloved guardian and embodiment of her most cherish and fragile dreams of fulfillment.

Now, the soul-searching azure eyes were accusing, despite his softly contained words.

"I don't know why, Vincent. I guess I was just afraid, at first, that seeing it would bring you more pain than comfort."

The need to protect. That was one of the driving forces behind his own anguish where Catherine had been concerned. How could he chastise Diana now when he'd been so guilty of the same instinctive actions himself? His gaze lost its edge and finally returned to a deep and concerned blue. "What made you feel I could handle its revelation now?"

"You were desperate for some peace with Catherine's memory. What you told me about that evening, I thought, could bring you some cherished remembrance. I know to you it meant only a breach in your control, that intimacy. But to Catherine . . . It must have been such a wondrous and sweet moment, one that brought her great hope. I thought that perhaps you could touch to that hope yourself and feel some peace."

Vincent stood before Diana in concentrated observation of her. How could she possibly know what Catherine had felt that evening light-years ago? How could she even venture to propose that a moment which had caused him so much painful soul-searching could have possibly brought his beloved anything like the promising feelings Diana was describing?

In truthfulness, though, Vincent knew the real reasons for his resistance to Diana's conclusions: She was not using her intuitive powers alone to place herself within that lost instant. She was using her heart. Her eyes, lifted uncertainly to him now, had been left unguarded again, open to him, revealing her soul. She may have been begging him to understand Catherine's reaction to his unexpected slip of control, but what her eyes said to him was more an unashamed pleading on her own behalf. And his.

Taking in a ragged breath, Vincent tried to clear his thinking, discover her motivations. But he knew, without question now, the fearful truth: Had their places been exchanged, had Diana been the recipient of his unshielded attentions that night as Catherine had been, she would never have let the moment pass beyond them, no matter what the intrusions of the outside world upon them. She would have undeniably seen it as a beautiful, wondrous

gifting hope to share between them.

And he would never have found himself in agony over his fall into the beguiling temptations of loving her.

But love, spiritual and chaste or physical and human, was not the only reality they'd have to contend with. His own reality of uncertain essence was ever near, no matter what twists of Fate any of them was willing to accept.

Coming slowly to his knees, Vincent let his indescribable hand slip over the petals of one flower in a tender caress. It should have been Catherine's hand he was gracing with his loving and free acknowledgment. Diana swallowed hard, realizing that within his heart it probably was Catherine's hand he'd touched. She'd prayed to be able to bring him back his sweetest memories. She hadn't counted on how painful it would be for her to realize those memories wore another beloved's face.

"Red roses and white. Love's passion and purity, flourishing side by side. For all eternity." The words were so quiet Diana wasn't even certain they'd been directed at her. then the arresting blue eyes were turned to capture her heart. "It is a beautiful, impossible dream, Diana."

"Catherine believed in it."

Again the words, offered him with so much conviction. How could she possibly know Catherine's dreams? Because they were not so different from her own. He read it in her face.

"It can never be my dream, Diana. It is the sweetest hope of a human heart."

The emphasis of his voice was on the word, "human." Diana's flagging spirit bridled at the thought he could even question his own humanity in such a way. She was ready to hurtle the disbelieving reproach she felt rising within her when Jacob suddenly scooted off her lap and down to the floor in a quick movement she could not keep up with.

Afraid the little boy was ready to tumble to the floor, Diana called out to him as she attempted to steady him with her hand. But he had already stepped beyond her reach on his own, small arms outstretched before him.

At the sound of Diana's alarmed reaction to his child, Vincent pulled his attention away from the flowers in time to catch sight of his son's first steps towards him. Diana had thrown her hands up to her mouth, lest another surprised crying out should startle the child. Her eyes were full of tears still, but they also shimmered with surprise and delight.

Vincent stretched one hand out to the approaching child who was calling to him over and over again, "Fada, Fada." It took all his strength of will not to shorten the distance between him and his son. Instead, he found his voice and steadied the child with gentle encouragement.

"You can do it, Jacob. Come to me now, son. Just a few more steps."

The look of sheer exuberant accomplishment that radiated from the little boy's face when he at last threw himself into his father's awaiting arms was enough to brighten the chamber's softly lit confines like a shower of sunbeams. Yet, the child quickly wriggled his way free from even his father's treasured embrace to concentrate his attention to the rose bush in front of him.

"Pretty flowah, Fada, pretty." With the joyous abandon that only children can allow themselves, Jacob then buried his little face into the mound of blossoms and buds and drank in their fragrance deeply with a delighted giggle.

Vincent caught the little boy in his arms again before he tumbled into the bush with his enthusiasm, and kissed the curly head in amazed gratitude. "Yes, Jacob, the flowers are lovely." As lovely as a treasured moment of completeness. He could see that now. But how could it possibly survive within his shadowy world? Like the rosebush, hope seemed out of its element within his existence. He lifted his gaze from the angelic child to the equally unearthly young woman before him.

"Jacob needs that dream as much as you or Catherine ever did. Life can begin again. Like that rosebush, Vincent."

For an eternal moment Diana felt the powerful blue eyes within her. She held fast to the aching longing in her soul before it dared to touch him and destroy the precarious hold on promise he had somehow found to cling to in the last few moments. Whether that hope would shelter her heart or not, she no longer cared. All that mattered was that it could support his spirit.

Vincent read the generous courage that was so integral to Diana's essence. That had been the key to his tentative attempt to reach out and take hold of a life in which Catherine would be only a sweet and cherished memory. It was such a frightening though, living in that reality. He could still feel her touch, long to run his hand over her soft brown hair, draw her petite form close to him and feel as one. Catherine was still so close to him, so overwhelmingly enveloping his heart, the truth of his life.

But she was . . . dead . . . And he and Jacob were not.

Sweeping Jacob up to his shoulder, Vincent strode back over to Diana's bed where he set the child to playing with his toy. Then he came directly before the enigmatic young woman and knelt in front of her, taking both her hands gently into his, the deep pools of his eyes never leaving hers. She may have given his lost soul direction at last, but he must make her see the true risk she'd opened herself up to in making his pain her own.

"The only reason that rosebush survived, Diana, is because you believed it could, and you worked to make it possible. But it is a thing of beauty from the world Above. How could it possibly flourish in a world of shadow?"

Diana knew he was not only referring to Catherine's plant alone. Her entire future, within or without his heart, had suddenly slipped into the conversation, his entire future, blessed by new beginnings or shadowed only by lost dreams. He was asking for her guidance.

"You could bring it down to the riverbank. The light there is bright and warm." As warm as the tenderness within her own heart. That was the only reality that could possibly

shelter their needs -- a new place within the protective confines of his world, yet still graced with its own rendering of what was good from the world Above. A place with both shadows and sunshine.

"The beginning of your garden." Vincent looked down at the slender-fingered hands enclasped within his own, one still bearing a cast from her injuries. It had taken an act of violence to bring Catherine into his life, so very long ago it seemed. Perhaps it had also taken an act of God to bring Diana closer to his soul, to the place where she could nurture her hope within him, creating a new reality that could gift them both. Miracles . . . He had once believed in them . . . Sometimes even miracles needed help to flourish.

"You will have your work cut out for you when you are well enough to return."

The barely disguised promise in the words made Diana's heart leap into her throat. "I hope it can be soon." She didn't care if he could read the hardley sheltered ache she carried within her at that instant to rest her head on his powerful chest, close her eyes, and dream. An extra pressure on her hands from his was unmistakable. for an instant she thought he was going to lift them both to his lips, longed for him to do so. that miracle would have to wait, however.

"I hope so, too." The quiet confession, spoken with so much hesitant shyness, carried Diana's heart away just as breathlessly as any physical communion between them could. She would survive Above without him now for half an eternity, with those words alone to carry her faltering hopes along.

Still she prayed it would not take half an eternity before they both could share in the wondrous beauty of a garden born of shadow, rock, and reflected light. For Vincent, the very thought of opening his heart once again to receive the tender wonder reaching out to him suddenly seemed a miracle that could some day touch him as well, with a new hope he would be unafraid to hold.

 

"Don't forget that you have an appointment with Peter at his office on Monday at 10:00. He already has all of your charts."

Father took in the lovely presence of his patient with wise eyes and concluded there was something different about her, something different about the way she stood beside his son.

Could it be the miracle he'd prayed for for so long? Up until yesterday, he'd yet been able to catch sight of the very distinct boundaries there had been in place around each of the young people before him, whenever they were in the room together. They may have stood side by side, but it had been as if a glass bubble kept each of them separate from the other

Not even the frequent close contact that had been forced upon them because of her injured state had done anything to change that invisible barrier.

More than once, the elder man had watched his beloved child carry the young woman in his arms, and the fleeting thought that perhaps a moment of promising peace could bind the two of them had hung expectantly about them. But even though the barrier between them was as transparent as glass, it proved to be as strong as tempered steel.

There had been no movement towards a more hopeful experience of one another.

Despite his own deep affection for Catherine, that realization had been a sad one for Father, for he did not need an empathic bond to read his son's troubled heart. It had been, for months, on the verge of losing any minute ground it might have gained on the path towards healing. The child he loved so much because of the so generous hope in his soul had become buried within the overwhelming pain of loss that now marked his life as a man.

Still, Father had been hopeful.

An act of Providence had sent the fiery-haired and quicksilver-tempered young woman into Vincent's life. Diana was so strong in her own right, confident of her own soul . . . and so very deeply in love with his son. It was visible to everyone Below, and yes, even welcomed, despite their own sense of loss at Catherine's death. The community had been wounded as deeply as Vincent, not only because of the tragedy of Catherine's murder, but because of what that loss had been doing to Vincent's own soul.

A flicker of hope had suddenly shone -- in the bright and unexpected presence of Diana. Yet, even that promise had seemed to falter, the victim of an unquenchable grief that would allow Vincent no peace. Diana's love for him, the hope that love could again offer him, was so evident to everyone. Except Vincent, himself, it seemed.

Father shook his head unconsciously at the thought. How could his son not see the beauty of the gift the fragile-hearted police woman was reaching out to him? Knowing his son as he did, though, told Jacob Wells the truth of the situation: Vincent was completely aware of how Diana felt about him. The distance he'd continued to throw up between them could only be manufactured from that awareness. He knew she loved him. Perhaps he also knew that he loved her

And that reality must have proven as terrifying and painful as anything brought about by Catherine's loss to him.

Just when Father had begun to lose his hope for his son, he'd been blessed by this evening's wondrous sight: Vincent and Diana standing side by side in his chamber, suddenly bereft of their self-imposed defenses and barriers.

It was almost imperceptible, and most people would have missed it,but Father had been observing hearts and reading dreams for over 35 years now, his own son's included. And what he managed to catch at the moment was an unexpected -- entwining -- of that son's spirit with that of the indecipherable young woman at his side. It was there. He could see it. They were standing apart from one another, but their hearts were reaching out towards each other, their eyes linking momentarily and offering one another a breath of rest.

"I'll be fine, Father. Don't worry."

"Laura and Jerry will stop by regularly to make certain you have everything you need." Mary had joined the conversation with just the same hope of future promise in her observations of the extraordinary man she considered her son as well, and the bright-spirited woman who was very much his kindred soul. The maternal head of the underground community may not have had the courage to claim her own opportunity for fulfillment, but she could still delight in the knowledge that perhaps Diana would manage to find hers, and through that courageous fulfillment, bring Vincent to the happiness he deserved.

It would still be such a struggle, she knew, for both of them. They were both so compelled to protect each other from their dreams, from their needs. But, at least it appeared at the moment, they would be struggling to find their paths towards one another and not distancing themselves any longer.

"We had better be on our way."

Vincent bent down to retrieve Diana's small bag of belongings. She slowly stepped over to Father and Mary and left them each with a tender embrace. "I'll never be able to thank you enough for taking care of me."

Father felt a sudden lump in his throat as the young woman released him from her farewell. "Nonsense, child. You are one of us. Now take good care of yourself Above. See that you don't try to overdo things."

"I'll remember, Father," came the grateful reply.

"You can't leave without this, Diana." Samantha's sudden breathless appearance in the room caused everyone to smile. She handed Diana a copy of Ivanhoe, well-worn and obviously much-read. "Our advanced literature classes will be working on this during the next weeks. You could read along with us Above and then share your ideas when I come to see you with Jacob."

Diana took the book from the girl's hand with a grateful hug, wondering at the same time how much of the idea was hers, and how much had been her teacher's. Vincent, for his part, betrayed nothing, but Diana threw him a grateful glance, for the opportunity to remain within the community's activities despite her necessary departure.

"I guess we'd better get going. It will take me forever in this state." Reluctantly, Diana tucked the book into her bag, then turned to follow Vincent out of the entryway of Father's chamber, on her way back to the strange world Above.

 

Where the passageways were wider and more level, they walked beside one another, talking quietly about upcoming activities Below, Jacob's latest accomplishment, and her own rather anxious return to life in the city. The going was slow and measured because of her leg, even though she'd been walking daily in the tunnels ever since she'd gotten her cast

replaced with a less cumbersome one. She was determined to heal as quickly as possible, the length of her confinement a true trial for her independence.

But, Diana would have been the first to admit she was in no hurry to leave this place of solace and promise. It was going to be weeks before she would be healed, even with her total commitment to rehabilitation, weeks before she could handle the torturous pathways and labyrinths of the tunnel world on her own, weeks without the day to day loving support of the community she longed to call her own family.

It would be weeks without the everyday blessings of having Vincent and Jacob near.

Maybe it was better, this separation from the compelling figure beside her, at just this time. She felt that they had already covered a great deal of ground keeping them apart in only the past few hours. They needed to get their bearings.

She sensed that Vincent had been able to come to some tentative reconciliation with his burdened soul that night at the river below, some fragile sort of completion, and she would gladly banish her own precarious hold on hope before she would cause him any more anguish of heart. Diana simply prayed that the separation would end in their renewed and shared closeness. She needed to understand her expectations as much as he needed to acknowledge his.

The way up to the secondary tunnels seemed interminable, especially because several routes were now inaccessible because of flood damage still unresolved. Diana grew very tired, leaning heavily on her one crutch. Still, the longer it took for her to reach access to Above, the longer she had to spend in Vincent's quiet, beguiling presence. She wondered to herself accusingly if her insistence on walking the route on her own had not been decided for just such ulterior motives. Yet, the alternative had been a terrifyingly sweet danger: Spending the long minutes in Vincent's arms as he carried her Above.

She wasn't certain she could sensibly maintain her hold on her heart if her final moments Below were spent enveloped in his embrace.

After one last turn down the narrowing rock chambers, Diana was confronted with the very real and very intimidating curling expanse of the great Spiral Stairway. Its filigreed wrought-ironwork deserved an honored place in some country manor home, she'd long ago decided. It gave the world Below a magical doorway, she always felt, a sort of unanchored bridge between the unimaginative reality of the city and the candlelit promise of an underground Shangri-la.

However, at this moment in time, the stairway was a stark obstacle three stories tall that she was being forced to climb after a fifty minute trek on a crutch and a walking cast. Grasping the lowest end of the bannister in her left hand, she failed to pull herself up onto the first step without stopping to release a burdened sigh.

"Just how many stairways are there here Below, anyway?" she turned to ask Vincent as the ache in her leg pounded. He swept easily to her side, not the barest indication in his breathing or manner that they had probably covered close to two miles of twisting tunnels.

"Knowing the number would bring you little relief," came the reply, spoken in the mildly rebuking tones he had the courage to address her in. Vincent had been set to argue her point in walking the distance on her own, but if he had learned anything at all about the red-haired woman before him in the past year, it had been that he would never win a confrontation with her when she was convinced that she was right. The best he could hope for was to work around her when she was ready to let him.

The exhaustion playing across her beautiful face told Vincent she had reached that point in their journey. As he knew she would.

"Sit down for a few moments and I'll bring your things up. Then I'll come back for you."

There was no polite offer in his tone; it was firm instruction. She knew she had to follow it or risk collapsing. That possibility was one she wasn't about to encourage. The feeling of his body enveloping hers was a treasure she cherished too much to invite unconsciousness by her stubbornness. If he was going to have to carry her up three stories, she was going to be fully capable of holding to those beloved sensations, knowing she'd need them to survive the long, grey hours Above without him.

Diana came slowly to rest on the second stair, slipping her right leg more completely out before her to see if she could relieve some of the pain. Her limb was throbbing beneath the cast, and she cursed her willful nature, silently. Hopefully the long walk had not set her recovery back too much. She'd only have herself to blame if it did.

Vincent reached out and took the crutch she'd removed from under her arm. Retrieving her bag, he swept past her easily, the full, graceful folds of wool and leather of his cloak brushing her shoulder as he climbed. Her heart took an unexpected leap.

Slowing his pace a bit, Vincent negotiated the stairway at a steady climb, taking far more time than he would normally to reach the upper confines of his world. He wanted to give Diana time to rest without being too obvious about it. She was clearly exhausted by the walk, but the thought of having to carry her all the way to their destination had been a volatile option he'd not felt capable of handling.

Knowing he would be carrying her away from his world, even if it would be for only a relatively short period of time, would have been as heartbreaking to him as the sensations of her slim form in his arms would have been heart-stopping. Climbing, now, he prepared himself for the risk-charged reality he would have no way of circumventing when he would have to at last take up his precious burden.

Vincent's mind fixed itself onto the experiences they'd shared the past three weeks, attempting to make some sense of it all that he could accept. Over that period of time, Diana had done nothing less than resurrect his love for Catherine from the black shroud of anguishing regret he'd nearly smothered it with. She had helped him remember the sweetness, the promise of that love, and bring it close and safe within the shelter of his heart again.

During that time, there had been very little acknowledgement of her own place within his existence, despite the fact he had watched Diana struggle with it desperately in her unguarded moments. In amazement, he realized she had taken every opportunity she could to remind him of his beloved existence with Catherine and had simply allowed her own cherished dreams to remain mute and deeply hidden within her own soul.

But, every now and again, she'd been helpless to keep her heart from revealing itself to him. And he had been helpless to keep from reaching to it with an unnerving, ever deepening, physical melding of his essence with hers.

That was the fearful wonder of it all.

That he was already bound to Diana emotionally, and spiritually, was a given he was prepared to acknowledge easily. She was a trusted friend, a soulmate who could share his pain and understand his terrors. He harbored very little turmoil with his entwining experience of Diana on those levels.

The frightening part of it all, though, was the fact that their relationship had progressed in an entirely tangent direction from the emotional and spiritual into a realm of physical depth he'd never even considered possible. Or, more truthfully, had always considered to be only anguishingly forbidden his uncertain humanity.

It had taken Catherine and him the maturity of three years in one another's blessed communion to even dare consider that such a sensual aspect to their relationship could be something they might ever long for as an expression of the love between them. His bond with Catherine had been on such an elevated plane that it had actually transcended such needs between them.

Or so he had thought.

With Diana's deserving soul making its pain-riddled way towards his own, it was as if their hesitant, guilt-laden paths were fated to cross in the most human of terms, destined to be burdened, and allowed to soar, with the most human of emotions, dreams and expectations.

Such a path would have been tortuous enough in its own right. It was made terrifying because of the reality of his inner self. Diana may have been reaching out to him with fearfully tender humanity, but he was cursed with more than mere humanity. And he would gladly turn that curse upon himself, be swallowed up forever within its darkness, before he would allow the faintest breath of it to touch her. It didn't matter what sweetness would be lost to him because of that vigilance.

Diana watched as the cloud of dark fabric swept around her once again from Vincent's graceful movements, returning him back down to her, his cloak sheltering her momentarily. That was all their experience of one another had been for most of the past year she thought suddenly, painfully: moments of burden eased too infrequently by instances of sheltering promise. Still, the time that she had spent Below in his so treasured presence these past weeks had more than adequately evened up the tally, at least for her. His nourishing and nurturing generosity towards her had given her so much to believe in, despite his own uncertainties and hers.

As he towered above her on the stair, an elemental embodiment of nature at its most arresting, Diana felt the sudden need to acknowledge his gifts to her in this quiet place, the childhood flights of fancy he had helped to put within her grasp as realities.

She motioned for him to join her on the stair. Despite his unsteady spirit, he did so without hesitation.

"Vincent, I want to say this to you now while we still have a moment to ourselves."

The green eyes he was gazing deeply into caressed his own. She made no effort to conceal it.

"I don't know how to thank you for these past three weeks. I could have died back there. You kept me safe. Everyone helped me heal. I'll never be able to repay you all, repay you, for everything."

"Diana, you've long ago become a cherished member of this community. We were only caring for someone . . . we . . . loved."

The plural in that last sentence was so typical of him, she thought, not angrily, but with sadness. It spoke of the miles they still had to travel between them. But they had also covered miles in the last few seconds: With her intuitive sensitivies acutely attuned to her sense of him, Diana felt no walls thrown up to isolate their hearts from one another. An unspoken promise seemed to linger in his eyes, in the vulnerable nearness of his powerful body to hers. Her courage shaken, she attempted to draw herself back into a safely neutral experience of him.

"That someone you all loved wasn't exactly the easiest person to deal with, I know," she

observed with self-effacing humor. "I can be abrupt and impatient, and I always push too hard. Certainly not the type of person you are used to." Certainly not the type of person Catherine was, her unflinching honesty with herself pointed out. She needed to remind herself of how far apart their dreams still were, no matter how hopeful of someday reaching them they might be.

Vincent took her hand up into his from her lap. "You left out stubborn and quick-tempered," he responded evenly, looking her directly in the eye with a hint of challenge sparkling within his gaze.

It didn't take more than a second for her head to come up and her eyes to shift from caressing to expressing outraged injury. But, the very thought that he could even manage to interject a few words of unburdened humor into their experience of one another, was well worth the outrage. She smiled sheepishly, then, locking her attention on the improbable sight of their so dissimilar hands entwining on her lap.

"Will you hold that against me? They are my two strongest character traits, I've always been told."

"I believe I can learn to live with such characteristics, if it ever becomes necessary."

His eyes still a shimmering blue, Diana would have given her life just then to help them remain so bright and full of life, so different from the agonized, accepting desolation he'd long carried within him. For once he seemed freed of pain as well, open to reading the possibilities in her heart. Then his features became serious and earnestly focused on her.

"You left out some other traits, too: Your generosity of spirit, your caring, sensitive heart, your courage to dream."

Diana wasn't certain she could trust herself to speak. There would be so much time placed between them when she returned Above, time that could erode her hopes, time that could sweeten his memories beyond any tiny fraction of possibility she might be able to offer him at some undetermined moment in the capricious future. She ached to leave him something of herself, take something of him, while she could still touch to the possibilities.

"If I've pushed too much, if I've forced my beliefs too often, Vincent, it is because I can't stand by and watch someone I . . . care . . . about struggle in pain without attempting to do something about it."

She'd been so cautious in her choice of words to him just then, not wanting to voice the truth of her heart aloud for fear of causing him more confusion and pain. Vincent held her eyes until she could no longer trust herself with their tenderness. He ached at the thought she would still be forced to bury her hopes because of him.

"You've done more than you ever will know," he whispered softly. "You've drawn my heart back into the light."

And beyond my reach.

The thought formed in her mind like a blow striking her. But, the moment she accepted that conclusion was the moment it disappeared -- at the touch of his hand lifting her chin, bringing her face at a level plane to his own.

Vincent let his profoundly arresting eyes linger over her features a long, breathless moment, as though he were committing every inch of her face to memory: the vivid green eyes, the pearlescent skin blushed with the faintest hint of color, the few stray, curling, tendrils of deep auburn hair that always slipped free from her braid.

Her entire heart was in her face, undisguised, open, waiting.

"What do you see in the light?" she whispered in a shaken voice, afraid of hearing her response.

He didn't look away from her. "A future I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge. A long, and anxious journey towards it . . . The uncertainty of being able to . . . accept . . . what I find there." He released his gentle hold on her face and looked deeply into the flame of the wall torch on the rock across from them.

"You could find the courage to dream." Where had her own courage come from just then, to voice such an observation? She wouldn't let him slip back into heart-numbing misery again. "The future could be promising."

"Finding the ability to move away from the past will not be an easy thing." Vincent's words were spoken more to himself than to her, Diana realized. For all his powerful strength and depth of spirit, his heart was still so fragile. She needed to help him find his dreams once more, in whatever direction they might lead him.

"Vincent, all you can do is take one step, and then another, day by day."

"Yes, I suppose that is the answer, isn't it?"

Pulling himself from his thoughts, Vincent came to his feet in one graceful motion and extended his hand down to Diana again. The parting could be put off no longer.

That, too, would be a step in his journey: Seeing if his heart could survive the distance it would now be banished to with her departure.

"We had better begin climbing. Laura and Jerry will meet us shortly."

Nodding her head, Diana let herself be pulled to her feet by his strong arm. She stood unsteadily without her crutch for a moment, before he bent down to her. Then she felt his powerful arm ease across her back, and the other slip behind her knees. A second later she was swept up into his arms, and the breathtaking sensuality that was the truth of their longing hearts would not be denied.

Drawing her left arm around his neck, the sleeve of her middleweight sweater pulled up to the elbow with her movements, and her bare skin was left to endure the caress of the silken drape that was his hair. Diana fought fervantly to keep her hand out of it and flat against the massive, cloaked expanse of his back, willing herself to accept the gift of his nearness without losing hold of her heart.

Not burdened in the least by the weight of her slight frame, even with the leg and arm casts, Vincent turned and began to slowly climb the stairway with careful, surefooted steps. He kept his eyes on the wrought iron above him, but he was totally aware of every inch of the lovely body resting now with such ease against his own. He was encompassed, as always, by layers of wool and leather and cotton, as she was also sheltered by the sweater and a pair of her khaki pants adapted to fit over her leg cast by Mary. Yet, Vincent confessed, with startling honesty to himself, that the fabrics did little to dampen the sensations of body welcomed against body.

For three weeks he'd helped to carry her about as a result of her injuries, and he'd been able to surround himself with his usual calm detatchment at the intimacy thrust upon them because of it. Yet, at this particular moment, achingly aware that she would no longer grace the candlelit chambers of his world as a regular inhabitant, Vincent let his own guard slip, despite the fact he could sense Diana's struggle to contain her tender need.

The risk blessed them both with the sweetest communion they had shared yet, momentarily freed of fear and analysis.

As they climbed the stairway, Diana felt her hold on the realities of the moment faltering with frightening abandon, choosing only to hold to the present promise linking them body and soul as they had never allowed themselves to be. She simply let herself rest gratefully against him, needing to know the compelling power that drew them to one another despite their frantic efforts to deny its force. Loosening her restraint enough to gather in the wonder of the moment in courage, she set her head down onto his shoulder.

The wool and leather of his cloak beneath her cheek were surprisingly warm, and soft. It almost felt like the palm of his hand, when he had risked drawing it against her face that afternoon down by the river, their movements now up the stairway causing a similar caress against her skin from the garment. The tender shelter of that sensation soothed her careening emotions.

With even more courage than she'd believed herself possessing at the moment, Diana raised her right hand and settled it hesitantly over the fabric, too, on his chest. She felt the rhythmic beating of his heart beneath her fingertips showing out from the cast on her arm. The perception reassured her that he was indeed real, the moment between them was indeed real.

She had done that once before -- rested her head, her hand, on his chest, to listen for his heart -- the night she had brought him half-dead to her loft. When she had been relieved to hear its throbbing, she had seriously questioned whether her own pulse was functioning, itself.

In the weeks of her investigation, she had felt his powerful, compelling presence ever closer. When she finally set eyes on him that night, she knew he was beyond imagining. She knew the love he carried for the murdered woman she had come to know in bits and pieces was beyond imagining. Still, faced with such truths, she had not even been amazed that her own turbulent heart had reached out to his with immediate recognition and need.

Now, a year later, she was surrounded by his overwhelming essence, and still fighting a losing battle against her heart. But, at this moment in time, she risked surrender in that fight with no regret, risked relinquishing control of the instant to the terrifying, beautiful wonder of her body aching to follow her heart, into the tender promise she'd hold out to his soul.

Her hand on his heart became more a lifeline, then, for her, than a simple means to probe the reality of his presence.

Vincent could feel his pulse quicken at her poignant touch, even if it rested above layers of wool and sheer force of will. He knew she felt the change of rhythm, his own surrender to the moment, when he saw her gentle eyes close slowly, holding only to the vision playing across her heart. Her head rested lightly just below his jaw, the smooth softness of her burnished hair mixing with his own, rubbing softly against his neck.

Without a conscious decision or thought, Vincent gave his heart the permission to dream, finally, to surround itself only with the overwhelming wonder of he (ýss, in a moment of insane truthfulness. He let his face hover a breath above her resting head, and then brought his lips to the soft brightness of her hair.

The fragrance of lavender was suddenly so fresh and sweetly within his senses, as it had been that night below at the river. It was in her hair.

How strange . . . Along with cedar, earth, and candlewax, the fragrance was one that was deeply rooted to his sensations of home in the Underground. The women used lavender and cedar to keep the linens and stored clothing smelling fresh in the cool, sometimes damp confines of their world. The smells had surrounded him since he was a child. Even their homemade soaps were often scented with lavender, from bunches that were grown in the rooftop garden of an elderly Helper.

He'd never really taken much note of the essence . . . till now. . . with it drifting sweetly from Diana's hair.

. . . He would never be able to experience the fragrance again without thinking of her, and wanting to hold her in his arms.

Then the heartstopping thought formed in his mind with dangerous invitation -- where else did the innocent fragrance cling to her body?

He never dreamed he could form such a control-shattering thought, let alone allow himself to be drawn into the beguiling mystery so willingly. Sanity took hold of him again,

with that thought, the sanity that reminded him he could kill her with a touch.

Mercifully, the long expanse of the stairway was coming to an end before them. A few more steps and they would be back on level ground, in more ways than one, he prayed. Finally, they set foot in a large pipe tunnel of the upper reaches of his world.

The reality of parting had become unbearable to them both.

Diana locked her gaze on his incredibly exotic features, trying desperately to hold to the sweet ache washing over her, wanting to make certain she could carry every breath of his presence with her Above. Not willing to trust her confounded insticts at the moment, she couldn't believe what she thought she'd caught sight of in his eyes, suddenly so deeply blue they seemed to go on forever: The longing he had silently revealed to her in her first conscious moments in the hospital chamber three weeks ago. That tenderness, that struggle to reach out to her, in . . . love . . . was so unsure and pleading, so burdened, but so breathlessly real.

She never believed it could be there for her, that depth of feeling bared and vulnerable

in its honesty. Knowing he carried it within his heart would make their separation even more anguishing.

The truth of their need hanging by a tenuous breath between them, Vincent forced reality back between them, compelling them to choose the path of safety and rationality.

Close enough to the tunnel wall for her to reach for support, Vincent bent down to let Diana's feet touch the ground, releasing his hold of her legs with a careful concentration he didn't believe he could manage at the moment.

But, as he straightened to his full height, the movement brought both their bodies into even more intimate contact despite his vigilance. The fall of his thick, golden hair swept around her face, smelling of earth and fire. Her lips were so enticingly near to his throat, to the pulse that raced visibly there. His arm held her still so miraculously close.

Reluctantly aware of the depths of his struggle, Diana pulled her arm from around his neck, realizing that his superior height would have lifted her off the ground again had she clung to him. Yet, the profound azure eyes still holding fast to hers, the sudden awareness that she could almost hear his heart pounding in time to hers, drew her without mercy towards the tenderness she'd ached for from him for so long.

She let her arm draw free from his neck, then, in a lingering, and pulse-stopping caress, long and slow, her slender fingers reveling in the blessing of heavy silk hair and gently stubbled skin. Panic tightened his face at the touch, but then gave way to grateful wonder and acknowledgement, in spite of himself. He'd been aching for her sweet touch, as well; there was no denying it; a breath of tenderness that was cool and possessive and intimately promising.

At the curve of his strong jaw, Diana lifted her hand lightly, barely brushing it past his lips to rest on his cheek, her thumb stroking hesitantly, following the upsweep of his cheekbone.

If she was never to share in a passionate moment of physical communion with him, she would steal a heart-wrenchingly tender one, at least, all caution and sanity thrown to the winds.

Diana was astounded that she did not have to resort to thievery.

Holding fast his incredible eyes to hers, Vincent reached an unsteady hand over her smaller one, enveloping it totally. At first, her heart lurched in pain, suddenly aware that he could very well mean to break her sensual hold on him in sensible rejection. She was almost certain that would be the case when she felt his fingers curl round hers to ease her hand away from his face.

But there was no rejection.

Instead, Vincent softly cradled her slender hand in both of his own unearthly ones. Leaning slowly down to it, he breathed an unburdened kiss onto the palm, holding it, pressing it, to his mouth.

Her legs going weak beneath her, she had to tell him then. The words were in her throat of their own volition, materializing from her heart in an instant. Even though he knew the truth, she had never given him the words for that truth, never believed herself worthy of them, never believed him capable of accepting them. But, he must hear it now.

She thought herself only capable of forming the words in a whisper, yet they came out strong and sure: "Vincent . . . I . . . love . . . "

. . . The last word was never spoken. One of his hands pulled swiftly free from hers and came to her lips to gently, but unmistakably, silence her.

Diana tried to read what was in his heart, through his trembling touch, through the wonder . . . and pain . . . in his face, but she was suddenly fearful that she had overwhelmed the fragile nature of their relationship in a moment of uninhibited honesty.

She was reassured that had not occurred in the next instant.

Vincent bowed his head down to hers, resting his forehead against her own, his attention totally focused on her small hand which he still held, trying to find the strength to deal with the yearning he felt washing over his soul from hers.

They were words he could not hear yet, even though the truth of their revelation was something he already well knew. Yet, to know how she longed to speak them to him, to feel the hope and sweet aching reach out to him; she could have given him no more profoundly hoped-for promise. Perhaps, someday, that promise would actually be a gift he could hold with acceptance, as he now held her hand. For now, the blessing of her care must remain only a beautiful dream.

"I will . . . miss . . . you . . . Diana." His own words were hesitant, because they were so new, his courage and belief was so new. He let his head rest against hers for an eternity of a moment, torturously aware of the mere inches her mouth was away from his, never once fighting the sweep of tenderness rushing through him, yet still holding to his protective caution and denial. He felt Diana steady her own heart after a mighty struggle as well, acknowledging his words silently with an acceptance that made his soul stumble. He prayed God that they'd both survive the terrible wonder of need holding them fast to one another that instant.

When he finally pulled himself away from the sweet shelter of her body, it was very much a physical act tearing them apart. They could have quit each other's breathless communion in no other gentle fashion.

The sound of footsteps was becoming discernible from down the tunnel, coming closer and closer. Vincent handed Diana her crutch from where he had set it and then visibly backed away from her several steps, compelling the detachment necessary between them

before he lost his hold completely on the moment. Diana somehow was able to settle herself onto her crutch despite the trembling that now overtook her body.

"We didn't think you'd be coming this far." Jerry's easy, casual voice echoed in the tunnel as he and his young wife appeared around a turn in the pipe. When Laura was close enough to her beloved teacher, she swept a hug around him as was her usual fashion, but was startled to find Vincent barely controlling tears in his arresting eyes when she smiled up to him. Turning to Diana, she understood at once her mentor's turmoil. The young police woman was holding fast to her own tears, her face a confusion of tenderness and pain.

Jerry's helpful courtesy, directed at Diana, cut through the tension in the air in innocent

ignorance. "You must be tired. Let me give you some help."

Before the young man even laid a hand on her, Diana responded with profuse denial.

"No thanks. I'll be fine. Need to get used to walking again, anyway." She reached her bag over to him instead, relieved that he didn't press her further. The very thought of anyone other than Vincent touching her just then, churning as blasphemy within her unsteady spirit.

Knowing acutely that she needed to diffuse the electricity throbbing between them, Diana turned casually to the man she loved, but must leave behind. "Thank you again, Vincent, for everything. I'll let Father know how I'm getting along." Then she set out ahead of her escorting friends, on her way down the tunnels.

While she still had the courage to leave.

Laura and Jerry called their farewells to Vincent, obviously a bit taken aback at the abrupt departure they'd been forced into. But the young deaf woman turned impulsively around as she walked away from her teacher, and caught sight of the powerful figure standing forelornly behind them, his golden head hung down. Had the girl not been hearing impaired, she would have heard Vincent whisper softly, "Be well, Diana." She read it on his lips, though, and in his eyes, when he lifted his head back up again, forcing himself to watch the three figures retreating further and further away from him.

When he was certain they had all taken the turn in the tunnel ahead, Vincent returned to the topmost step of the Spiral Staircase. Beginning his descent, he gripped the railing with a force that was not ordinarily required to negotiate the steps. It was the only thing that was keeping him on his feet.

 


Continued in Chapter 13