To Hope Anew

Chapter Thirteen


The rosebush, to everyone's astonishment, had flourished in the filtered light by the river, as Diana had predicted. The day after she had returned Above, Vincent had carried the pot to its present location. Far from bringing him pain, the beautiful flowers seemed destined to hold the sweetness of his love for Catherine close within his reach. At the same time, they spoke of renewed promise, of the possibilities of life resurrected, and of the patient, gentle, tender hand that had brought them back from certain, languishing death.

Catherine's rosebush had not been the only thing Diana's vision had rescued from oblivion: Vincent gave her full credit for his renewed belief and hope in life.

That belief, at last, espoused the simple truth he had been carrying in his heart for months -- Diana's presence in his life was a gift. The fiercely held hopes she sheltered within her for him could become realities if only he could look upon them without fear.

But, time slipped past them, between them, still too relentlessly.

Diana's recovery Above from her injuries had been long and difficult. She had been kept from returning Below for months -- until Winterfest, actually. And Vincent had not ventured to meet her Above before then, relying on Laura's reports of her progressive healing as his only source of connection to the young policewoman.

Painful as it was, they both admitted that the separation was necessary between them, were they ever to respond with some sort of sanity and freedom to their ever more entwining hearts. Too much was happening too soon. The need to meld his very soul to hers was still so precariously new, so vulnerable to guilt and fear. The added dimension of their breathlessly expectant humanity was so frightening and yet so beguilling.

Distance was the only answer they both trusted.

So, the long weeks had only been brightened for Diana by her renewed visits from Samantha and Jacob at her loft, as well as the considerate care of Jerry, Laura, and Peter. Slowly, she had regained the full use of her leg, remarkably without further surgery, but she was left a constant measure of now familiar pain in the limb, something she simply accepted as fact in her life. She knew enough of the spiritual kind already.

The last year had been passed with growing disillusionment with the world Above, too.

Her life as a police profiler and investigator took Diana constantly to the darkest reaches of the pulsating city's terrors, places she found increasingly difficult to pull her sensitive, intuitive soul from. Yet, it was her work, her way of fighting the good fight, against even the most insurmountable of odds. When things got too painful, too confused and hopeless, she allowed herself the luxury of temporarily recuperating in the blessed peace of the world Below for an evening or two. Those times always seemed to renew her flagging spirit, give her courage to take up her quest for justice again.

Still, the moments Below were not without their own painful disappointments, Vincent reminded himself as he took in the wondrous sight of the falls cascading over the cliff ledges. Without even actually agreeing to it, he and Diana had indeed left their hearts in suspended anticipation on the great Spiral Staircase. They rejoiced in each other's company, still, sought out each other's counsel and encouragement, but they had anxiously buried their heartstopping need for one another in that part of their souls that would see the light of day only under extraordinary besiegement.

The thought, the promise of closer communion, would remain a beautiful mystery too overwhelming to touch to at this precarious moment in their lives. Because each knew the other was suddenly so willing to believe in its promise.

Even so, their experience of one another could not remain static for long, despite their best efforts to shelter their hearts from the onslaught of sweet agony their dreams could plunge them into.

When they finally allowed themselves their destinies again, they found the limits, fears, and uncertainties falling by the wayside with desperate abandon. They'd been willing to hope. Vincent had ached to offer her more than mere hope. Diana had been more than willing to accept that hope in the place of conscious reality.

Now, in a few hour's time, that hope would come face to face with the truth of who he was. Whether that truth could be as tenderly welcomed between them still remained painfully uncertain.

One truth was startlingly clear, though: Vincent's life would be complete only with the incomprehensible enigma of a woman by his side. She had envisioned a garden, born of rock and shadow, both physically in his world, and in his heart as well, and she had worked to see her vision through. His life, as a result, was so much brighter, and promising because of it.

Nothing on earth could possibly keep her from working her miracle on his soul, Vincent knew, not even his own turmoil and resistance.

He thanked heaven for that as well.

Coming to his feet, Vincent skirted the bench and trees to make his way up to the children's pool. His path was brightened by the potted plants and flowers that had accumulated in the makeshift garden over the past year and a half. Diana's idea had touched upon a deeply felt need of the community as a whole: That, while they cherished the unique, rocky beauty of their own world, the opportunity to share in a little natural enclave of green within their own safe boundaries would be a rare blessing.

He knew, too, that Diana saw the small space of verdant welcome as a gift of peace she could still offer him, an expression of the love she'd been long forced to contain against its will, a sheltered world of beauty he could share in safety with Jacob. With her. And the community seemed to embrace the opportunity to make that garden of possibilities bloom for their beloved protector, too.

Thus, it had become an unofficial tradition for all -- whenever a baby was born, an anniversary celebrated, even a difficult series of school papers completed with success --

a new pot of greenery appeard in the little park to commemorate the event. Everyone took turns watering and tending the garden and grass, and Helpers were more than willing to provide suitable additions along with their more practical gifts of supplies, helping to nurture the spirit of the community as well as its physical needs.

The place Vincent had once regretfully described as his tomb became a living embodiment of love and care again.

The garden was the one spot in which Vincent surrendered to the delicious freedom of simply enjoying life with his child. More and more often, those moments were also shared with Diana, times of gentle nurturing of their tested spirits, moments when life could actually be as it should be.

They splashed in the pool, built sandcastles in the children's play area, read to Jacob in turn for hours. Sometimes, they just lay in the grass, surrounded by the warm reflected sunlight and the sweet fragrance of the damp and green space. Vincent's heart stood awestruck at the power of the love that would materialize such a forbidden pleasure for him, allowing him to smile at Jacob chasing barefoot in the grass beneath a stone sky that lacked only clouds to be complete. Even that want could be overlooked: He and Jacob simply looked to the outcroppings of rock around them to imagine shapes and figures, instead of to the clouds. Never again would his heart break because of the limitations forced around him and his child.

Those limits remained only around two like hearts that prayed for similar release.

On one afternoon early last fall, Vincent remembered now, the cost to Diana because of those limits had become painfully clear to him.

They had been enjoying their time in the garden on that particular day, Jacob having found himself powerless to resist the effects of his boundless energy and the warm sunlight. The child had fallen asleep blissfully on the grass after an abundant picnic lunch, William's effort among many, to provide a bit of a normalcy and sweet indulgence into the pained relationship between his two dear friends.

Diana had cuddled close to the little boy naturally, listening as Vincent continued to read softly from "Pooh". It wasn't long before the fatiguing reality of her current work

circumstances caught up with the young police woman, too, and she was soon asleep as well, the rhythm of her breathing sharing that of the child's, her arms sheltering the little boy carefully.

When Vincent realized he was actually reading only to himself, he stopped, and felt irresistibly drawn to the sight of the two precious souls before him. A sweep of wonder

spilled over his heart, as he held to the beauty he'd cherish with his last breath: his son, and the amber-haired angel who appeared very much to be his loving guardian at the moment.

Almost as if he felt his father's tender scrutiny, Jacob turned in his repose just then, to face Diana, making himself completely comfortable on her arm, his small hand resting on her cheek easily. If one was not aware the child had been bereft of his mother since birth, the sweet, sheltering communion between the little boy and Diana cradling him could have been mistaken for nothing less than the portrait of motherly love incarnate.

Watching them gratefully, with an awareness of the peace and acceptance each soul had for the other, Vincent felt the gentle devotion radiating out to him, too. There was a place for him, also, that their loving hearts called his own to acknowledge, right beside them. Their glowing communion of spirit was there for him to share as well. Even if the relationship between the woman and child was only a reflection of the truth -- as was the sunlight flooding the cavern around them.

Vincent came to his feet and brought over to the sleeping figures the light blanket they had carried with them, gently setting it over Diana and Jacob lest they become chilled in the cool, humid air. Gazing long into the young woman's ethereal features, he realized, with a start, that there were dark circles showing through the pearly skin around her eyes. She was immediately so deeply asleep that the exhaustion, mental and physical, she had been grappling with for weeks, was evident even now in her rest.

She looked so vulnerable. And so beautiful.

Vincent let his overwhelming need to reach out to her overcome his self-imposed restraints on his heart. He eased his body down alongside hers softly and set a sheltering arm over Diana's slender figure, his hand resting at her waist. He kissed her hair.

At any other moment in their turbulent experience of one another, just holding her near would have been a threat to his fiercely controlled, fiercely denied, humanity Vincent wasn't certain he could easily have mastered. Yet, at that instant it felt so totally -- right --

to be enveloping her, and his child, with his protective presence.

It was as if they had always had the freedom to touch to the oneness they all shared thus: long-standing, comfort-giving, not erotic, but deeply holding to a profound communion of souls. It was a blessed moment of long sought peace, for all three of them.

When Diana stirred awake momentarily, to find herself sheltered in Vincent's arms, she merely let her green eyes shine up to him, gratefully, with an open trust that could have been experienced only by time-tested lovers who had weathered life's turmoil together for years. It had felt so right, so blessedly right, to be together then. He'd felt no fear, dreaded no darkness overcoming them.

It would be the same way for them tonight, as they began their new life as one, he knew. Or, more truthfully, Vincent prayed it would be so. For Diana's sake.

Reaching the pool, the powerful figure came down on his knees to rest beside a much smaller, quite wet one, hopelessly visited by mischevious giggles. Jamie had another two urchins on her side of the pool. "I don't know why we even try to keep them dry," she called out amid a shower of kicked up water, her words not cross, but patiently born of happy and resigned experience. Jacob turned to throw his arms around his father's neck.

"Is it time already, Father?" he asked in that exasperated voice children reserve for all the ridiculous restraints adults would place on their uninhibited fun. Vincent attempted to let the tone of voice slip past him without smiling too obviously. His little boy was growing too quickly for his tastes.

Drying Jacob off as best as he could under the precipitating circumstances, Vincent responded kindly. "Yes, we must be getting back, Jacob. Grandfather will be looking for us and we must get ready."

The innately kindhearted child would never wish to keep his beloved grandparent waiting, so he quickly resigned himself to the fact that playtime was over for the moment. After a long five minutes of searching for and sorting out shoes and socks, and replacing them on reluctant little feet, the small party was ready to head back to the central chambers.

Vincent gave Jamie an appreciative hug for her endurance with good humor in the company of the children. She'd become quite skillful in caring for the younger members of the community, to everyone's surprise, especially her own. Vincent smiled to himself as he thought of the way she even managed to survive Mouse's chaotic personality with spirit. The fact that their resident engineering genius had suddenly begun looking upon his childhood companion with a blushingly appraising heart was becoming evident to all in the community as well.

It appeared the confused circumstances of a relationship attempting to overcome odds was not only in the realm of Vincent's and Diana's experience alone.

On the way back through the meandering tunnels that the children were already adept at following confidently, Jacob paused to take his father's hand momentarily. Vincent stooped down to one knee at the questioning touch. "What is it, Jacob?" he asked.

The little boy's bright face became as serious as it could remain, evidence that he had been pondering important concepts in his little heart as well as splashing in the pool. "Today Diana becomes my mother?" he asked slowly, working out the idea as he spoke the words.

The powerful figure bent to his level paused a moment before responding. Vincent had always been totally honest with the child, the little boy's precocious intelligence urging him to share his heart and mind with his son in welcome understanding. The circumstances of Jacob's birth, however, and his mother's death, were burdened memories Vincent had struggled to place into perspective for the little boy in terms he could comprehend. What his son was asking now was genuinely difficult for him to explain without pain, even though he had already broached the subject with the boy a number of times before.

Kissing his child on the forehead softly, Vincent rubbed the sturdy little back for a moment, hoping the words would come to him again. "She will be the mother who loves and cares for you every day here in our world, Jacob, as her own child. She has been doing so for a very long time, almost since the day you were born."

"Then I will have two mothers? My angel mother in heaven, Catherine, and my own earth mother, Diana?"

The child's conclusion stunned Vincent with its remarkable clarity. He felt a knot rising in his throat, robbing him of his voice momentarily, not because of any sudden pain at the words, but at the wonder of the child's heart. Vincent knew without a doubt that his world would be gifted in future years by the boy's generous, sensitive vision and care.

"Yes, Jacob. You will be blessed with two mothers in your life." And he would be blessed with a new opportunity to live his own life in promise.

The little boy let his face glow at the thought of his gift. "I am so lucky, father!" he exclaimed, then he quit his father's hand to run up ahead with Luke and Katy. Jamie smiled back at Vincent, then proceeded to toussle the nearest youngster's hair.

"We both are so lucky, Jacob," Vincent whispered as he came back up to his feet.

 

"Is there anything else that needs to go?" Rebecca asked brightly, returning from her second trip down the rock corridors. Diana was pulling the quilt up smoothly on the bed. She turned to the young woman who had joined her again in the guest chamber.

"There's only that box there, but I can carry it."

"Sorry. I can't let you do that. You might run into Vincent and that will be bad luck before the ceremony." A mockly serious expression accompanied the reply.

"Honestly, Rebecca, you don't believe that, do you?" Diana asked with a smile.

"Of course not, but I was sworn upon pain of kitchen duty for the next month to keep you out of Vincent's chamber this morning." Rebecca made a "cross my heart, hope to die" pledge as she spoke her oath. Both women burst out laughing.

"All right, I won't spoil whatever it is that you all are planning to spring on me today."

Diana gave the pillows on the bed one last fluffing.

"Oh, but that is only the first part of today's special circumstances for you, Diana. As soon as you are done here you must join us all at Mary's chamber for breakfast."

"Mary's chamber?" Diana questioned, surprised. Meals were always taken in common in the community whenever possible. Only the ill were treated to the luxury of meals brought into their rooms.

Rebecca read the sudden concern in Diana's face and reassured her quickly. "Don't worry. Mary's fine. It's just a tradition we have here in the community on a wedding day. We treat the new bride to a few surprises."

Smoothing out the pillows, Diana let a warm ease fill her at the thought of the day to come, and how everyone in the Underworld seemed so eager to consider her one of their own. Her earlier feelings of uncertain disquiet evaporated in the brightness of Rebecca's sincere smile.

The young candle maker of the community took up the final collection of her companion's belongings, then paused before heading out the doorway of the chamber again. Her attention had been captured by a small box wrapped in flowery white paper that rested on the top of the pile she was carrying. A tag taped to the top read, "Don't open 'til

you're in your new home," in a neat, masculine hand.

Rebecca had to ask, her curiosity piqued, as she was secure in the friendship she shared with the bride-to-be. "Is this a gift, Diana?"

Coming over to the box, the red-haired woman lifted the small package up and into her hands. "I almost forgot about this. It's from Joe. It came to my loft just while I was packing up, so I set it in that box."

"Joe?" A sudden pang of protective alarm rose up inside Rebecca. She wasn't aware Diana had been close to anyone else, any other man, except Vincent. That thought brought to mind how much turmoil Catherine's continued, intermittent, relationship with Elliot Burch had brought Vincent. In his loving selflessness, her childhood friend would never admit it to anyone, but Rebecca had picked up on Vincent's quiet suffering nevertheless, the pain of a life that he could never offer Catherine so easily causing guilt and shame.

Diana had freed the tag from the box, and holding it in one hand she brought her attention to Rebecca's unspoken anxiety that was quickly evident in her face. "Joe Maxwell. District Attorney. I work with him."

Relief spilled over Rebecca as she recognized the name, and the fact that the young DA was held in high regard within even their own community, without ever having had the opportunity of finding himself in their midst. "He was Catherine's friend also, wasn't he? He helped you after she was . . . killed."

"Yes," Diana replied quietly, feeling herself thrust into those maddening weeks when she'd been compelled to throw herself, body and soul, into an investigation that would change her life. "Joe let me work my own way, without questions, when I had to keep him from knowing about everything here -- everyone. He trusted me when I wasn't certain I had the sense to trust myself."

"Father believes him to be a good man."

Nodding in agreement, Diana continued. "I think one of the few real regrets I have about leaving the world Above is the fact that I haven't been able to tell him anything about what was really going on then. He's one of the few people I've ever known with total integrity. That's why I hated keeping the truth from him."

"Maybe Father will let you tell him about us. We could use more Helpers who care.

And I'm certain he could propably use a safe place himself, at times." Touching a reassuring hand to Diana's arm, Rebecca smiled. "At any rate, I'll take these things and let you have a few more minutes to yourself. Join us when you're ready."

"Thanks," Diana offered. Once her companion had quit the room, she sat back down on the side of the bed and pulled the wrapping paper off the box in her hands. Opening the lid of the box, a warm smile radiated from deep within her as she took in the contents of the gift from the man she'd come to consider as a trusted friend.

It was a beautiful stationery set of vellum paper tinged with subtle, hand-applied colors. A pen and pencil resting in a small wooden box with an intricate mosaic design completed the set. Once she'd put aside the tasteful writing implements, Diana found herself laughing freely when she retrieved another, second box camouflaged within the tissue paper remaining in the gift: It was a travel-sized version of a "Ouija Board." Another note was tucked in the very bottom of the box:

"These are so you can reach me in whatever way you need to, whenever you need to, Bennet. I'll be there for you, if you ever need a friend. Remember that, Diana.

Thanks for everything . . . Joe."

Diana shook her head as she held the note, almost seeing the dark eyes challenging her to refuse his offer of continued friendship. He'd once accused her of drawing her conclusions in her work as a result of the questionable divining devise, the witching board. She had to admit that he'd had to swallow a lot of conflicting circumstances in his dealings with her. God, she did regret having to lie to him! He deserved better. They may have had their differences initially, but he never abandoned her to the fatal bureaucracy of their world no matter how far from the norm she was forced to stray in her work or her embattled personal life.

Joe must have gotten used to accepting imponderables as facts, Diana thought with honest gratitude, from his dealings with Catherine's involvement with the Underworld. Despite all the missing pieces, all the explanations that just wouldn't add up, he had put himself at risk, setting aside his common sense so often to help Catherine, without exactly knowing the reasons why it was necessary.

Diana had guessed immediately that Joe's complete trust of his co-worker was only an outgrowth of the love he felt for her. It must have been so difficult for Catherine to keep him in the dark about her life away from her job, too.

It had been difficult for Diana to tell him of her own decision to quit her work as well.

She'd gone to his office last week, not exactly certain of what she was going to say to him. The truth, of course, was impossible, no matter how worthy she knew him to be entrusted with it. Still, Diana had a very real sense that the DA already knew more of it than he would admit to her, not because of any failure on her part to keep her involvement with the Underworld hidden, but because he, himself, had been so closely skirting that involvement over the past six years, first through Catherine, and then through herself.

Luckily for them both, Joe Maxwell had decided somewhere in that time that for each of the women, the mysteries surrounding their personal lives were too deep and too fiercely protected to become a threat to anyone other than themselves and their own peace of mind. He may have guessed at the particulars, but Diana felt he might not have really wanted to know the truth.

Yet, the young police woman couldn't simply vanish from the face of the earth. She knew he cared too deeply for her to let her disappear without expending all of his considerable energies on finding her. That had been quickly proven when she had been stranded Below for three weeks as a result of the flood.

So, Diana had arranged to meet Joe after work last Friday evening at his office, to explain her actions as nearly as she could.

"Don't I usually call you on the carpet, Bennet?" he had joked when she had come through his door. It was still hard for her to actually place him in the thoroughly

"lawyer-ly" environment of his office -- the leather chairs, the bookcases overflowing with thick volumes.

Even after having won the right to the office on his own merits in the election two years ago, he seemed slightly ill-at-ease in his circumstances, telling her once that he'd dreamed of sitting behind the DA's desk, but never wanting to have inherited the position because of the betrayal of it former occupant. John Moreno had been Joe's mentor. Knowing that he'd sold out to Gabriel for his own place within the bloody international drug syndicate, that Moreno had handed Cathy over to the madman that would murder her, had been the ultimate blow to Joe's sense of decency and justice.

Since Catherine's death, Diana had watched, in pain, the young DA's cynicism grow. He may have thrown himself whole-heartedly, defensively, into his work, but she doubted that he'd ever again feel one person was capable of making a difference in the world. His position meant little to him, on so many days, she knew, offered little that showed it was possible to hold on to his convictions and morals. He seemed very much more comfortable sitting at her kitchen table in a sweatshirt, throwing leads at her on cases they were working on together with offhand expertise. At least, if they worked hard, they might be able to accomplish something lasting.

He'd never trust the power of the DA's office completely, again, even with himself at the helm. But, an unimpeachable honesty and quiet integrity still shone out of his beleaguered spirit, as he attempted to convince himself that justice could indeed work in the city around him.

The weight of the world hanging heavily on his shoulders so often, Joe was nevertheless happy to see his companion, a young woman he considered one of those few still fearless souls insane enough to believe in right and wrong. At the moment, seeing her usually supremely contained and confidant manner wavering for some unforseen reason, the DA decided to relish his role, for once, as her demanding boss. It afforded him the rare opportunity to attempt to shake her unflappable control. But his efforts were not bearing fruit today.

"I don't think I'm guilty of any infractions of the law, counselor, nor of any particular police procedures," Diana replied with that hint of a smile that always told Joe he was being precisely outmaneuvered.

"That means I'm the one in trouble, I guess," Joe decided with his own smile, gesturing for Diana to sit in the chair before his desk. He came around the massive oak table himself and sat on the corner, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar like a schoolboy finally allowed some small measure of freedom from the restraints of civility.

Diana looked down at her hands in her lap a minute, trying to gather her thoughts. The difficulty she was having was apparent to her superior. He quickly decided to become only her friend.

"What is it, Diana?"

She raised her eyes to him for a long moment, and Joe suddenly realized how . . . beautiful . . . she really was, once she set aside her protective outer toughness. . . and how important her friendship had become to him.

Seeking out the breathtaking contrasts he usually was struck by of her enigmatic presence -- the fragile strength, the vulnerable fire, the radiant ice -- Joe was startled by the fact that, for once, she seemed uncertain of herself, anxious and unsure. He'd been worried about her the past few months, and now that worry set off alarms in his head, and in his heart.

Even though she was one of the police department's best profilers and investigators, he'd become increasingly selective about which of the special cases he would refer to her superiors for her assignment. Her methods of working, totally placing herself within a case, indeed, within a victim, within a suspect, seemed to be taking more and more of her own sense of self away from her. The De Salvo case last fall had been the one that had really heightened his anxiety for her. Though she'd never admitted it to him, he'd felt that the case had brought her to the breaking point.

Yet, when he'd been most worried for her, she suddenly seemed to have undergone a quiet transformation. Sure, she still looked like she didn't sleep much or eat well for weeks at a time when she worked, she could probably have used a forced banishment to an upstate cabin with no phone, no television and no human interference, but there was something . . . peaceful . . . about her that belied any momentary confusion he might be causing her. The fragile, almost haunted look behind her eyes was gone. There was the faintest tinge of color in her cheeks that no makeup brush could master. And her soft smile truly seemed to originate from the heart.

Something was helping her find her way back to herself, Joe decided, gratefully. Or, more than likely, someone. He mentally catalogued the men in her division on the force he judged could remotely withstand her tempered steel nature. They were a small and unconvincing number. Maybe he didn't know her as well as he thought he did, he conceded. Not even another cop could put up with the madness she had to drag herself through because of her work.

The green eyes raised up to him were lively, yet questioning. He was certain, now, that he'd never be able to gauge the mercurial soul before him for sure. Her words to him only served to emphasize that fact. "I don't know how to say this, Joe, except to just come right out with it." She stopped a moment to take in the sudden look of concern that came over the young DA's face. She shook her head. "Don't worry. It's not that bad. Actually, I'm doing you a favor . . . I'm . . . quitting . . . my job, effective next Wednesday."

Joe looked long at the woman before him, picking up a paper clip off his desk without even noticing it and rubbing it between his fingers absently. "You're serious." It was a question as much as a statement. Cops like her could literally kill themselves before they'd pull back, he knew. He'd seen too many of them crash and burn, their personal lives a shambles, all because of their relentless dedication to a justice that would be sold down the river with the first plea-bargain within reach. He'd been set to bullying her into scaling back her work, for her own sake. Now, here she was telling him she already had.

"The cases have been burying me, Joe, taking me apart, piece by piece. I can't go on with them, but I don't know any other way of working them effectively." The words were as near to apologetic as she'd ever come with him, under any circumstances. It threw him off balance. He didn't want her feeling guilty for valuing her sanity.

"I know, Diana. I've watched you work, remember? And I know that you're right. You've put in your time. You need to think about yourself, take care of yourself." He realized her face was full of gratitude, unembarassed. Cathy had a way of looking at him like that, of saying so much more with her eyes than her words did.

"So, where are you transfering in the department?" he asked lightly, happy to have been relieved of a duty he wasn't certain he'd been able to adequately handle. "I'll need to keep tabs on you, warn your unsuspecting new superiors . . . "

The thought wasn't quite finished because Diana broke in with her explanation. "Joe, I'm not just quitting my cases . . . I'm quitting the force . . . completely. Captain Philips got my resignation last Monday. I'm out of police work as of next week."

Joe looked into the clear, deep eyes meeting his and tried desperately to find where he had missed about a half hour's worth of explanation on her part which just might have clarified that statement.

Sure, she'd had it rough lately with her caseload. She deserved a less agonizing way to make a living. They all did in their line of work. But, she was a damn good cop, even aside from her profiling expertise. She'd bucked all sorts of odds to do what she did and become so good at it. Her father had been a cop, a man she revered. Now she was giving it all up? For what?

Coming off the desk corner, Joe began to pace the room. "And what are you going to do instead?" came his more than slightly incredible inquiry.

A feeling of relief swept through Diana. She smiled evenly at her co-worker's consternation, certain she was going to get the better of him in this conversation after all. Still, she had to choose her words carefully, knowing Joe the way that she did.

"I've been offered a . . . teaching job . . . at a small, private school for gifted students. I'll be working up a whole new humanities curriculum for them." The truth, but not exactly. Diana offered a silent prayer that the DA would take her at her word, for once.

Joe stopped his pacing long enough to quickly review the past three years of her life as he was aware of them and managed to put two and two together. He understood everything now, even if all those alarms inside him were threatening to short circuit his control. "This school wouldn't happen to be Samantha's school, now, would it?"

Diana's heart sank, conceeding she was walking through a mine field . How in hell did Catherine manage to do it? she wondered.

The truth was that Catherine never had to have this conversation with Joe.

Taking a deep breath, Diana decided on her course of action. She knew she couldn't leave too many details of her change in lifestyle dangling because Joe was too good of an investigator himself to simply let them pass. He was also too good a friend to leave without some plausible attempt at explanation and reassurance. And he seemed, at the moment, quite intent upon discovering her motivations, drawing on three years of evasions and circuitous logic to fuel his probing.

"Yes. It is Samanatha's school." The one thing Diana was certain of at the moment was the fact that she trusted Joe implicitely. Maybe this was something meant to be, after all. Maybe Joe was meant to hear it all, at last, from her.

Joe read the quiet pleading that accompanied the words of Diana's explanation. She was asking him to be satisfied with her answer and to just leave it at that. Not this time, he told her with his own wordless challenge. His silent acquiescence to the mysteries surrounding Catherine's private life had helped get her killed. He was convinced of that. The same thing was not going to happen to the young woman before him.

"Samantha's school?" he questioned again, watching the green eyes turn from pleading to searing. Letting his own anger rise freely within him, barely in check, he no longer cared that she was drilling him with that laser intensity she was capable of at her most outraged. This was her safety and well-being they were hashing out here.

He filtered the facts through his mind as she had presented them to him over the course of the last several months. Samantha's school, her home, was apparently in some remote little corner of the world, as he understood it. Every time he'd met the sweet-tempered girl in Diana's company, she'd managed to also deflect his inquiries about her real home. Joe liked the girl too much to press her for answers she seemed not prepared to give, but it all started to fit together for him now. Diana would be teaching in this place, she would have him believe, this nameless, featureless, directionless place. Wherever the hell it was. Why couldn't she just trust him with it all?

Inwardly, though, Joe knew exactly why Diana would not offer him the whole truth.

"So, does this mean you're moving out of the city, too?" The question was meant to rankle his companion's composure, but it came out with an unmistakable undercurrent of disappointment as much as challenge. Neither Joe nor Diana herself had counted on what that feeling meant to their experiences of one another. It was going to be as painful for the DA to contemplate losing her friendship as it was for the police woman to do so. Knowing that his questioning was only coming about because of his care for her, Diana continued to answer as truthfully as she could.

"I'll be leaving the city, too."

Joe came back to the edge of the desk, but didn't really look at her as much as through her. He seemed to be working up to his questions with as much difficulty as she was having to find answers. Diana wished fervently that she could just tell him everything and set his mind at ease. Finally he focused on her and spoke quietly. "New career. New home. That's quite a leap of circumstances, Bennet. You sure it's what you want to do with your life now?"

"Yes, Joe. It's what I want. I'll take molding the bright young minds of some pretty exceptional kids to drowning in the psychoses of a serial killer any day."

When she put it that way, Joe found he almost wished he had the guts to do the same, grab hold of a dream and commit to it no matter what. But he was too far entrenched in the war to give it all up. His tone softened perceptively, as he continued to wonder at her courage. "Then if it's really what you want, Diana, I wish you the best, honestly. I may have given you a hard time in the past, but you've kind of grown on me, you know? Where the devil am I ever going to find someone to replace you?"

Smiling at the conciliatory words, Diana came to her feet and gave Joe an easy hug. If there was anyone in this city that could use the restorative nurturing of the tunnel world, it was the young DA. She resolved that he would not have to struggle in vain, if she had anything to do about it.

"I'm sure you'll find someone else in the department to harangue officially. As for personally, I'll stay in touch. You've been a good friend, Joe. I don't want to lose that. We won't need to lose that."

The DA held on to her hand a long moment, and Diana realized their conversation was still not going to end on that uncomplicated note. He wasn't going to let the opportunity pass this time, sensing the struggle he was enmeshed within to both protect a valued friend and leave that friend to her own wildly incomprehensible privacy. She prepared herself for the questions Joe had been working up the courage to ask her for the past three years. They were coming for sure. And he deserved the answers. He was no threat.

Joe picked up his thread of anxious probing again with the usual roundabout, casual humor he always disguised his heartfelt thoughts with. "Yeah, right. You'll stay in touch -- A letter every six months, a Christmas card once a year, a rumor on the police grapevine that you've joined a Buddhist monastery as a nun. Or worse yet -- Next thing I know you'll be sending me some other cryptic message by carrier pigeon telling me you've gone domestic and are actually settling down with some poor, deluded soul incapable of resisting your considerable charms."

So that was it.

Diana could follow his train of thought: The only reason she could possibly be packing up her life at this moment in time was because of her heart -- not her mental health. And she guessed Joe was pretty certain where that heart lay. She thought she could diffuse the statement and all it's connotations, but thought better of it. He needed to hear the truth, or as near the truth as she could offer him, without compromising the trust that had been placed in her by an extraordinary soul she would protect with her dying breath.

"I am settling down, Joe. I'm getting married. That's why I'm leaving."

Her besieged companion let that response settle into his awareness a minute. It wasn't the one he'd expected to hear, God knows. It didn't fit with the dark, phantom images that coursed through his mind at the mere thought of what she could actually be involved in.

Or of whom she could be involved with.

Still, she was being unusually open with him, despite her obvious struggle at the whole process. This was something that held onto a deep and profound part of her, he judged. He truly didn't want to cause her any pain, just keep her from walking into a heartache that could even cost her her life. And everything about this decision pointed to plenty of heartache for her, he believed. What in hell was she thinking of doing here? Not even Catherine had contemplated such action. Or had she?

It wasn't that Joe felt himself romantically linked to the young police woman before him. There wasn't much of his own heart left, after losing Cathy, to link to anyone else. Still, Diana was young, beautiful, vibrant, and startlingly gifted in her spirit and intellect. He knew without question that she was someone who'd put her life on the line when it really counted for someone. If he'd been smart, he would have opened his heart to her and saved them both a lot of grief and guilt the past three years. But, obviously someone else already had.

Joe let his mind drift as he took in her features, so open and quietly determined. There was a delicate blush coming over her face that he thought had gone out of style with the girls at his parish grade school, the sort of gentle warmth that hinted at deeply felt and cherished emotions.

God, she really was in love, he thought with a start. Enough to pack up, lock, stock, and badge, and head to the ends of the earth to be with him. Whoever he was.

No, that wasn't right . . . Joe knew who he was. And Diana knew that he did, too, all along . . . Vincent.

. . . That time she'd disappeared for three weeks -- she'd come back to his office one Monday afternoon on crutches with little more than an "I'm back" to explain her absence. When the casts came off her arm and leg, and the scars and bruises gave evidence to a harrowing ordeal, she had seemed no worse for the trauma. In fact, aside from a quiet kind of -- sadness -- she carried around with her daily, she seemed to harbor some treasured secret she could touch to when things got particularly tough.

Then her eyes would sparkle and her skin glow, and her face told him she had completely, mercifully, slipped away from the stark realitities of her life to a place of shining promise.

. . . Or to someone she loved.

Damn it! Cathy had been capable of just such a transformation as well. From the frenzied realities of life in the churning, devouring city, to the peace and solace of someone she loved -- Vincent.

But, how could it possibly be? The thought of the shadowy figure conjured up all manner of horrors, still, for Joe: Bone-chilling police photos, a phantom too terrifying to show his face in the light of day . . . A creature of dark places and even darker urges.

Three years had passed since Cathy's death, and he still could not reconcile himself to the thought that such a nightmarish figure could ever have claimed her heart.

Now, Diana seemed ready to succumb to that same, foreboding, mysterious fate. Willingly. Gratefully. With tenderness shining in her eyes. She'd completely taken leave of her senses, the DA concluded with exasperation.

"Married . . . well . . . Congratulations, Bennet. Do I get an invitation to the wedding, or is it close family only?"

Diana noted, with a pang, that Joe's humor had a distinct edge to it. Ordinarily she would have bristled at him questioning her decisions, but, at the moment, she felt only disappointment at the thought they would spend their last moments of close contact battling conflicting conclusions. There wasn't much she could do about it. Joe was certain she was throwing her life away at this point, and he cared too much about her to let her do it without at least reading her down.

What was really making him angry, Diana understood, was her willingness, apparently, to give herself over to the unknown, placing herself beyond his reach to protect. He felt threatened by the same helplessness as had overwhelmed him when Catherine had disappeared. There wasn't a damn thing he could do to find his co-worker then. Where in God's name was Diana willing to disappear to, that he couldn't reach, either?

Disturbed as much as she that they were parting company with tension and anxiety between them, Joe drew in his colliding emotions as much as possible. His tone softened again, wanting only for her to see that life could be a treacherous pathway for the unsuspecting idealist. He'd learned that himself, too late.

"Career change, a new home, marriage -- That doesn't leave much else for you to experience, I'd say, except maybe motherhood."

The words were again light and casual -- and probing as deeply as he still had the courage to. He couldn't let her go unless he was sure she wouldn't regret it for the rest of her life.

Diana read his desperate concern, knowing precisely where he was heading. She had to reassure him, praying that she'd be able to defend her actions to Father later.

"I've got that one covered, too," she responded quietly.

Joe looked at her and read her calm features, though he guessed at the defiant turmoil she must have been keeping a tight hold on. For heaven's sake, Maxwell, he berated himself, she's a grown woman who's stood her ground with the scum of the earth on a regular basis. Give her some credit.

Then his thoughts turned to the final piece in the convoluted puzzle of her recent life --

the little boy he'd seen her with on numerous occasions the past two years -- Jacob. The little boy she obviously loved as her own child. He simply could not quit his questioning without settling that last bit of indecipherable reality.

On the odd weekends he'd had to corner her at her home with some information that couldn't wait, the child, and his ever-present young guardian, Samantha, had been casually inhabiting her apartment with the easy familiarity of a long-standing routine. It was obvious the children were close to her, and she to them, especially so to the small boy who was growing into a startlingly bright and devoted soul.

Joe had guessed how the children fit into the picture of Diana's private life. He had also guessed at Jacob's parentage, with incredulous shock. How could the angelic child have been fathered by a creature of the night that Joe's sensitivities had painted the shadowy Vincent as? There had to have been some . . . love . . . between the little boy's mother and that primordial being . . . Catherine would have borne a child in love. There had to be some redeeming answer to it all, something to suggest now that Diana wasn't destined for pain and nightmares alone.

"Jacob must be very happy," he said carefully, watching for Diana's reaction. She'd not come right out with the identity of her future husband. Diana only turned honest eyes of hope to Joe.

"I believe he really is. I can't imagine finally being with him every day. I love him so much, Joe. He's such a precious little soul."

She'd made no attempt to evade his conclusions. Her face was glowing at the thought of the child.

In conceeding guilt, Joe admitted to himself that he was being protectively paranoid, grilling his companion relentlessly as though she were some suspect off the street instead of a dearly trusted and valued friend. She was happy. Somehow, in all the byzantine twists of her life of late, she had found what she needed to make life worth living. Give her the chance to be happy, the DA urged his inner self.

But he had to be sure.

"And Jacob's -- father?" Joe asked coolly, determined that it would be his last challenge to her sanity.

Diana locked her green eyes onto his dark ones before responding. There was nothing that angered her now. Joe was simply a damn good investigator. And a damn good friend looking out for her, whether she wanted him to or not.

"I love him, Joe," came the soft reply he knew was the only one he would hear from her. "More than I thought I could ever love anyone. He loves me. It's been long and painful and hard in coming, but it's real and deep and true. I could want nothing else in life."

Her face had that gentle blush about it again. There was no mistaking it now. This was a hard-boiled cop sitting in front of him who'd witnessed murder and mayhem and had come dangerously close to losing herself within them more than once. But here she was, touching tenderly to her future, linking her dreams to someone who could quite possibly not be entirely of this realm of life.

He should be so lucky, Joe suddenly thought.

Pulling Diana into a close and warm embrace, the DA said, "You're giving everything up, Bennet, for a dream. Is it worth it?"

She nodded her head without hesitation. He envied her conviction. "Joe, everything else in my life pales in comparison." He believed her then, totally, at last.

"Well, I'm happy for you, Diana, if that's the case. Really." He gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. "But, if you ever need anything, if you ever find yourself in trouble . . . "

" . . . If I ever miss your off-hand humor or your impeccable judgment of character, I'll get in touch. I promise." He knew she would.

"You are full of surprises, Bennet," he called out to her as she turned to leave him. She smiled back at him.

"Anything to keep you on your toes, Maxwell."

 

Somehow, Diana had managed to bring Joe out past his fears for her that day. He trusted that what she carried in her hert was true and valued, worth the risk of pain and hardship. He might have hated giving up their tested friendship, but he'd been willing to trust that her decisions were important and precious to her.

Replacing the lid on the small gift box, Diana smiled softly. Joe truly did have the spirit and heart of a member of the Underworld community. He'd probably feel right at home here Below and everyone would surely welcome him. It was sad, though, that he was so fervantly needed in the world Above, his work for the truth, for justice in a city so sorely lacking in them too often these days.

Joe deserved to find his own peace in the warm, candlelit shelter of the tunnel community.

Maybe Rebecca was right -- Perhaps Father would approve of his being welcomed into their midst as a valued Helper some day soon. She'd treasure the look of abject confusion his face would be bound to register the first time he'd lay eyes on the rocky chambers of the Underworld. It would truly be worth seeing.

And to have him finally meet Vincent face to face . . . that would be a moment to remember.

Time was slipping past this morning so quickly, and Diana came to her feet off the bed. She recognized, with grateful satisfaction, that these would be her last moments in the guest chamber. In a few hours' time, there would not be any further reason for her to be housed in a room such as this. She would become a true member of the Underground family. She'd felt as such from the first moments she'd been ushered into the fantastic utopia that was this mythic place of rock and candlelight.

In a few hours' time she would become a bride . . . Vincent's bride.

The sweet, confusing reality of that wonder overcame her momentarily with a startling flood of emotions almost too intense to be merely her own. There was joy, surely, deep and welcome, relief and gratitude as well. But at the same time, there was a hesitant expectation that was both filled with tender yearning as well as shadowed by fear and uncertainty. She prayed her heart would survive the day intact. And something told her that Vincent must be feeling the same way, too.

Gathering the small gift box to her once again, she left the guest chamber for Mary's quarters. There was no putting Fate off any longer.


Continued in Chapter 14