To Hope Anew

Chapter 15

"Father? Are you here? Vincent called out into the large chamber.

"Where on earth have you been, Vincent?" came the sound of a distinguished voice with a more than slightly irritated tone to it. Vincent and Jacob followed the sound from the book-filled study to Father's private quarters. The elder man was just pulling on his long wool and suede dress coat, about the color of his greying sandy hair. Strong grey eyes read his son's beloved, unique face easily.

"You'll never be ready in time! Diana will be at the Great Hall before you're even dressed!"

About ready to attempt to ease his parent's anxiety with a short reassurance, Vincent was instead interrupted by his young son. "Diana is just now getting ready, too, Grandfather."

The elder man stooped down slightly on his walking stick towards his grandson. "Is that so, Jacob? How do you know?" he asked in a bit of a conspiritorial whisper. Vincent knew he had no chance of defending himself now without revealing all the details of the morning, once the two comrades -- grandfather and grandson -- began their speculations.

"We just left her. I went to show Diana my new boots. Aren't they fine, Grandfather?" One little foot was raised off the stone floor and balanced unsteadily before the elder man for his approval.

"They are fine indeed, Jacob."

"Father needed to talk to Diana even if he wasn't to see her this morning." The innocent little voice carried the accusation straight to the heart of the conversation. Vincent began earnestly thinking that perhaps it was time to become a bit more selective about letting the child in on any more adult matters.

"Was there anything wrong, Vincent?" came the inevitable inquiry.

"We simply needed to reassure each other, Father. That is all." Turning to the beloved urchin who would revel in playing spy for his grandfather, Vincent took the little boy by the hand and maneuvered him into a large worn armchair before a pile of books on a low table next to the wall.

"Why don't you find a story or two you can bring to the Great Hall for later, Jacob?"

"Yes, Father," came the compliant reply.

In another moment, the powerful man found himself standing in the scrutinizing gaze of his own father. "You know, you have an unfair advantage over me now. Jacob loves to keep you informed of all the details of our lives." There was a definite emphasis on the "all."

"Don't fault an old man for his concern, Vincent."

A soft smile eased over the son's features and he easily reached his strong arm around the older man with a warm embrace. "I can never fault you for your love, Father."

"Well, then, we'd better get on with it. Your things are hanging in the wardrobe there. Oh, and before I forget and we are all searching madly for it later, here is the ring."

Vincent turned from reaching into the huge oak cabinet that stored Father's few articles of special importance, pulling out several garments carefully hung and setting them onto the bed. Then he accepted the small velvet-covered box from the elder man's hand.

"Peter found it?" he asked hopefully, as he opened the jeweler's box . Inside, the gleam of gold shone brightly from a wedding band he'd prayed he'd be able to provide his bride with this day, a ring as special as their shared souls. The slender band was indeed finely worked, just as he'd envisioned it: The Irish Claddagh -- two hands holding one crowned heart, the ancient Celtic symbol of love and welcome.

"Yes, Peter did find it exactly as you requested. And he also returned these to you." Father motioned over to a cardboard box on the bedside chair filled with a dozen venerable, leather-bound books. They had been some of Vincent's personal volumes.

"My books... But, those were for payment for the ring. I don't understand."

"Peter said he wanted you and Diana to accept the ring as his wedding gift. As for the books, he also said that you needed to pass them along to Jacob, not ransom them."

Vincent held the box with the small gold band for a long moment, acknowledging what it all meant at such a moment. Dr. Peter Alcott had been Father's trusted colleague and friend since medical school Above, a Helper from the very beginning times of the community. He had also been, through some miraculous twist of Fate, Catherine's personal physician and family friend.

Two years had passed before Peter and Catherine had ever come to realize that they both sheltered the treasured secret of the Underworld within their hearts. Once it became know between them, Peter had become Catherine's confidant as well, the one person in the world Above whom she could trust with her involvement with the Utopian society he had helped to flourish for so many years. Knowing that the young woman he had literally brought into the world had linked her heart with the mythic, beyond human soul that he had also helped nurture from his very first days had given Peter no end of satisfaction and joy. His grief at Catherine's loss, and Vincent's pain in that loss, was nearly as great as Father's own.

Now, the physician had made a gift of a wedding band, to another young woman brave enough to dream of promise in the arms of the man she loved. The generosity that Peter had shown towards Diana, and indeed, towards himself, was a treasure Vincent understood and cherished.

"I'll never be able to thank Peter enough for his kindness."

Father came over to his son's side and patted him on the shoulder. "He believes in the dream, Vincent, in the possibility of today. We all do. For you both."

The feelings echoed in those words were the ones he'd only a few minutes before offered to Diana in her lapse of certainty. Even Peter and Father had reason to see promise and possibility in the day for them. Vincent prayed silently that heaven would allow him to keep hold of that conviction.

"May I help you get ready, too, Father?" came a small voice nearby. "I've found my stories."

Vincent lifted the little boy up onto a chair, easily. "Of course you may, Jacob. You must be certain that I will be presentable."

"And not unruly." The sound of two male voices sharing warm laughter soon filled the room, but Father was left out of the mirth without a clue. Vincent caught his parent's confusion and explained.

"We had a bit of a time getting Jacob dressed properly this morning." "Now it is your turn, Father." The little boy carefully reached over to the neat pile of garments on the bed.

Patiently accepting his child's help, and his father's encouragement, Vincent exchanged his everyday layers of heavy work clothing for his very best garments, packed away only for special occasions. He actually could not remember the last time he'd worn these particular articles and knew that Mary had undoubtedly gone over them meticulously to be certain of their state.

Patched jeans gave way to a pair of well-fitting wool trousers in a heathered grey. A soft, cream-hued linen shirt, tied at the neck and banded at the cuffs, replaced the sweater and flannel shirt. Over it, Vincent eased on a long, brushed suede doublet of charcoal color that tied across the front with three leather laces. Finally, sitting on the bed, Vincent pulled on a pair of fine dress boots, made of heavy black leather. They came to his knees in buffed elegance.

Father suddenly found himself growing misty-eyed as he watched his son buckle on a intricate metal and leather belt over his vest. A remembered glimpse at a deep-eyed eight year old hiding shyly behind a fall of golden hair came into the older man's heart. Vincent raised his head in time to catch the tear forming in the physician's eye.

"I've helped many a young man prepare for his wedding day in thirty-eight years. I never thought that one of them would be you, Vincent."

As the distinguished leader of the Underworld sat on the bed next to his grown son, he felt a pair of little arms wrap themselves around his neck from behind. Jacob had clambered onto the bed as well to join them. "Why are you crying, Grandfather? Aren't you happy today?"

"I'm very happy, Jacob, for your father, and for you. I'm just remembering the little boy that your father once was, and seeing the splendid man he's become."

"You can both help me get ready for my wedding day when I'm grown."

There were gentle, hopeful smiles exchanged between the two men at that. Then Vincent felt a lump come up into his throat. He swallowed hard, taking the elder man's healing hand into his own.

"Father, I can't thank you, ever, for all you've done for me, given me. The times you've stood by my side, the counsel and encouragement. The love. I only pray I can be as good a father to this little one here as you have always been to me."

Jacob Wells took hold of the other-worldly hand sheltering his own with the devotion he'd always shown its owner for so long. "Vincent, I wish I could have indeed been as good a father to you as you are now proving to be to your child."

Another male voice sounded a bit self-consciously at the entryway to Father's room. It was Pascal. "Excuse me, Father, Vincent. Is Jacob ready to come?" Vincent rose to meet him.

"Yes, we are all ready. Please join us, Pascal."

The slight pipe master, usually so reserved, felt a wealth of warmth overcome him at the sight of the three men before him: the far-sighted leader of their community, that community's long-tested protector, and the young embodiment of their world's very future. There was actually a quiet sensation of pervading... joy... true joy... emanating from the three of them that Pascal felt blessed to witness. To think, it had taken a quick-tempered, hell-defying slip of a woman to work such a miracle. Pascal came over to take Jacob's small hand in his, easily.

Vincent knelt down to his child for a moment, reminding him of his responsibilities for the day. "Grandfather and I will be coming to the Great Hall shortly. Remember you will have an important part in today's ceremony, too."

"I know", came the eager and proud reply.

Turning his attention to the man with whom he'd shared a trusted friendship since they were both toddlers, Vincent offered with sincerity," I am grateful to you, Pascal, for standing with me, today."

The response from his companion was immediate. "I wouldn't have missed this celebration for the world!"

Bending back down to his son again, Vincent kissed the little boy softly on the cheek. "Now you mind Pascal."

"Yes, Father, I will."

The small velvet box was pressed into the communications master's hand. "Here is the ring." The slight, shy man smiled widely at his childhood friend.

"I'll keep track of it, and Jacob. Don't worry." Then as he turned to leave the room with the child, Pascal stopped a moment, giving voice to his own feelings with uncharacteristic forwardness. "Vincent, I can't tell you how happy I am for you. Diana is a truly special person. I wish you all the happiness you both deserve."

A strong clasp around the shoulders told Pascal everything that was in Vincent's heart, too. Like everyone else in the community, the dedicated pipe master had done everything he could to support and encourage Vincent from the earliest moments of his darkest days. "Thank you, my friend," was all that was needed to express that realization.

When Pascal and Jacob quit their company, Vincent came back to seat himself beside his father, a most welcome place for him ever since he could remember. Even as an adult, with a star-crossed existence his destiny, Vincent had always relied on his father's total trust in him, sought out his counsel. They had had their moments of turmoil between them as well, a common enough situation between fathers and sons through the ages, but those times had only served to deepen the respect and admiration each man felt for the other.

Now, at this point in time, Jacob Wells found it to be once again a father's place to offer his son the guidance of experience, though he highly doubted the powerful, graceful figure beside him was in need of paternal counsel. Still, there was something that was yet obviously -- reaching -- to him from his son with hesitant appeal. Father recognized the need Vincent had to talk with him.

"Is there something of concern to you, Vincent?" came the gentle inquiry. "I can't believe you need to hear my standard soliloquy on the profound commitment of marriage that I normally subject our young grooms to."

A soft smile played across the exotic features of his son, but Father noticed the warmth did not seem to make it all the way to the soul-revealing blue eyes. He felt his spirit stumble momentarily. "Or perhaps you do."

Vincent seemed unexpectedly intent on the pattern of the braided rug beneath their feet, just then, taking a long moment before raising his eyes back to his father. For one instant, a flash of uncertain -- pain -- revealed itself in the depths of those eyes. Father watched as Vincent fought visibly to subdue it, disguise it. Then he surrendered his struggle and instead quietly gave voice to it.

"Not about the commitments, Father, but about what those commitments might entail, the sacrifices. The... disappointments."

Vincent came to his feet and began pacing slowly across the room. The controlled power of his figure suddenly seemed very much in contrast to the hesitant words spoken.

"Why did you really need to see Diana this morning?" Father traced the unexpected chill he felt to the unease in his son's manner.

"I felt she was in turmoil."

"About marrying you?" The older man could not keep the incredulous tone out of his voice at that thought. He knew how deeply, desperately in love the young woman they were speaking about was with his son, how long she had struggled to help him through his pain. She couldn't be doubting herself now?

"No, Father, not about marrying me, exactly." Vincent stopped before his father's wardrobe and let his hand work its way over the worn pattern of the wood beneath it. He'd both cursed and blessed the reality of that unearthly hand this morning.

Pascal's words to him rang in his heart: The happiness he and Diana deserved. He'd been so certain, holding her in his arms that morning, that he could offer her what she truly deserved, the totality of the love she truly believed possible between them, without putting her at risk of more than merely spiritual and emotional harm. Even now he could touch to the tender wonder she carried within her own heart... and the fact that she clung to his reassurance with a force of will that lit the fires of promise in their entwined souls with a reckless abandon he'd believed insanity only a short while ago.

"Diana was in turmoil about a promise we'd made to one another regarding our marriage."

"Tell me." Those two words always served to invite his son into safely revealing his heart. And Jacob Wells knew without a doubt that his son's heart was far from at peace at the moment, despite his reassurances. What in God's name was actually going on between these two souls on the verge of publicly committing themselves to one another? He had to find out and set it to right before even today's promising joy could evaporate into chilling uncertainty.

Father relied on one thing he knew could see him through the present situation with some sense of possibility: He'd always been able to get Vincent to talk through anything with him. Over the course of their cherished relationship, father and son had been able to share just about anything between them -- hopes, fears, dreams shattered, anguishes suffered, and triumphs finally won. They'd always been able to find in their communion a sheltering and nurturing support that could touch to even the most profound pain. Father prayed that gifting reality would prove true once again, that he could understand, help his son understand, what it was that could cloud a heart at the very moment of its most long sought fulfillment.

Vincent came back over to his father's side on the bed at the quiet invitation to share his anxiety. A part of him kept telling himself that there was nothing to fear, nothing to dread, that part of his spirit that had drawn itself totally beyond his uncertainties to rest without guilt beside Diana's own conviction of spirit. But years of denial were not that easily set aside, even in the face of such bewitching enticements as love freely accepted between two souls linked for eternity.

When words took a long time to find their way from his son's thoughts, Father rested a reassuring arm around the strong shoulders that seemed now to stoop slightly.

"Diana's love is a powerful force that has managed to sustain me in spite of my anguish these past three years. With it she has literally pulled me from the black despair of loss."

"She is a formidable young woman," Father agreed easily, praying that his concern for the moment was totally unfounded. His son seemed capable of at least voicing what seemed to stagger his hope in the possibilities of the day.

"Despite her strength of spirit, though, her heart is very vulnerable, fragile even, at times, because she feels things with such intensity. Her heart cherishes hopes and tendernesses that can help sustain her through that vulnerability. She believes totally, without wavering, in the power of love."

"I thought that was something you espoused as well, my son."

Turning a countenance awash with both hope and fear to the elder man, Vincent continued. "Father, that is a belief any man is willing to espouse, especially when it can be shared with a heart as profoundly trusting and hopeful as Diana's."

Something of the tone those words were spoken in caught at Father's own heart. He did not mistake the emphasis on the word, "man." The physician suddenly understood his son's pain, and despaired that it should ever manifest itself with such infernal consequence within a heart so undeserving of anguish.

Vincent held to the rightness of his fears as he read the concern in his father's face. He had spoken to Diana of hope and possibility, let his heart revel for an instant in the freedom and humanity of loving without question or doubt. Were they fools to consider the risk past them?

"Diana's total commitment to our love means her total belief in the possibilities of that love for us. She looks at me through the eyes of that love." Unconsciously, Vincent raised his hand before him, taking in the sight of it, weighing it against what his heart would have him believe, what Diana's heart would believe. He hung his head down with his hand, as the words came out with a quiet shame he'd almost felt long left him. "I'm afraid of what reality, beyond that love, will truly show her of me."

"I see." Father's words nearly caught in his throat. He'd expected such a confession. "And the promise made between you?" He could almost guess. It was the "truth" that he'd ingrained within a mystically beautiful soul that left it questioning its very worth for the past twenty-some odd years.

"To live our married life within certain -- limits -- that we will not test until we are sure we can walk beyond them without peril."

Father closed his eyes momentarily to allow the meaning of the words to settle into his heart. After all, what else did he expect his son to tell him? Not even Vincent's love for Catherine had had the power to reveal the lie for what it was. Not even the birth of his son had done away with the terror. Indeed, the uncertain circumstances of that angelic little soul's conception had accomplished just the opposite, fueling doubt and fear instead of letting it all finally be set to rest.

Limits. Dear God! He'd even succeeded in having his son describe the death sentence he'd hung around a noble and worthy heart years ago in quietly benign terms. Well, today would see the end to that travesty. Jacob Wells swore it with every breath of a father's guilty heart.

"You would build a cherished existence together in love, of shared commitments, as partners in a marriage, as soulmates, as parents to your child, but you would not accept the free expression of that love between the two of you?"

A pleading for understanding filled Vincent's eyes just then, as he heard his father's description of the reality he and Diana had been willing to consider accepting in their new life together. Even to him, the decision now sounded byzantine and inhumane, a solution of medieval proportions that totally discounted the gifting needs of the human heart.

Yet, there were reasons, terrifying ones, that had had to be considered, reasons Father had himself forced him to accept and acknowledge over the years. How could he be questioning him so now? Vincent found himself in the seemingly incomprehensible position of having to defend his terrors to the very man that had continually pointed out their need in his life.

"Father, Diana has given me so much with her heart; the ability to believe in life once more, the capacity to dream of a life of promise. But she has also touched a part of me that I had no idea I could... accept... with such... welcome... a part of me that I have always believed I had no... right... to share with someone I loved."

"Your human response to that love."

Every bit of his soul was completely bared inVincent's face at the moment, the turmoil he'd believed he'd been able to settle within his heart, the ache for guidance, for assurance that the specter of pain would not again touch someone he loved on his account.

"She awakens within me, tender, powerfully needful -- emotions -- that have become too precious to me, feelings I dare not believe I can share with her without placing her in real danger. More and more I find myself longing to offer those emotions to her, share them with her as readily as she can offer them to me. She calls them out from within me with her slightest touch."

Those last words were spoken with such quiet contrition that Father came to his feet, needing very much to distance himself from his son's distress momentarily to regain his own composure, cursing himself for the damaged he'd done. He walked slowly across the room to the shelf overflowing with books, evidence of his scholarship. What possible good could come of scholarship when he could not even recognize the profound depths of the human heart?

Turning, finally, he took in the troubled figure of his son. It seemed an eternity since the warmth that had surrounded him as he'd dressed for his wedding day, a young man like so many others of the community ready to commit himself to the wonders of love and shared dreams. Father seemed suddenly to find himself transported to a similar scene in this very room which had transpired years ago between them. He never dreamed that what he believed had been a decision made in love then could have caused such rancor and devastation till now within the cherished soul of his child. This had to end.

"Vincent, you are sitting here before me, guiltily confessing your physical attraction to the young woman who will become your bride in half an hour. It is no sin to find joy and pleasure in having a beloved woman share in your heart. It is no shame to feel the tide of emotions flood over you at her touch, because that flood is your love for her, and hers for you. The needs she is willing to let you fulfill are only her own expressions of the love and trust she has for you."

"But those needs cannot be met between us without my endangering her very life. They are needs to be cherished between a man and woman, not, not -- myself -- and Diana. How can you possibly overlook that reality? You've seen yourself what can be the result."

The stumbling path that Vincent's words took as he fought to express them cut Father to his soul. He came over to his beloved child again and pulled him close in an embrace.

"Vincent, if I have one regret in my life that I will take to my grave it is the part I had to play in causing you to doubt your humanity."

When his son quickly sought to deny any such actuality, Father continued, undeterred. "When you needed to be reassured of it so long ago, when you were a young adolescent just beginning to walk the convoluted path towards manhood, I made a decision that I can see now tore your very soul in two. It was done out of love, out of the hope of protecting you, but I see its consequences are even now threatening what should have been a blessed day of renewal for you, a day of hope and joy for a young woman who deserves your love, all of your love, in its every expression and wonder."

"You had no part in... "

A silencing hand on his brought Vincent up short. It seemed that Father was at the moment the one in need of unburdening his heart.

"Let me finish, please, because if I don't I will cause both you and Diana even more pain. When I sent Lisa away when you were a boy, it was because I was seeking to protect you from what I believed would become for you certain anguish."

"Father, I am the one who caused the anguish then," came the burdened reply, calling up pain and shame within him that Vincent had felt had been deeply buried in his heart. "I am the one who turned a moment of sweet acknowledging love into an ordeal of terror!"

"No!" The vehemence with which that one word was spoken caused Vincent to look up at his father with astonishment.

"You were a young boy, trusting and open in your affections, and innocent of any of the manipulations Lisa was capable of constructing. You looked at her yourself through the eyes of love, and saw only a beautiful young girl who was unbelievably capable of accepting your love without reservations or fear.

"What you didn't see were Lisa's recklessness, and her total insensitivity to the depths of your feelings for her. She reveled in knowing the power she had over you. It would be so for any woman to realize she could hold a man's heart within her hands and do with it what she willed. But for Lisa it wasn't a gentle reinforcement of her self-confidence. It was a heartless game that would only end up in costing you your heart."

With aching remembrance Vincent felt thrust into the chaos and fear of those moments so long ago. Father's words could not have been true. What he recalled of the incident was only the shame and regret of having caused pain, the reality of his existence that could turn a childhood friendship into fear and loathing because he had dared to reach for more. That was the truth, not Father's.

About to protest as much to his parent, Vincent found another insistent memory fighting its way into his consciousness. This time he recalled Lisa's reappearance into his life when Catherine was still alive, years after the pain that had driven her away from her Underworld home. He had attempted, time and again, to share with her the regret he felt at having forced her away from the sanctuary of the tunnel world, his shame and guilt at having caused her physical harm in a frightening moment when he'd lost control of his emerging strength and power.

Lisa had only impatiently turned away his soul-baring confessions with the off-hand explanation that cut his heart in two: What they'd shared had merely been "child's play" that he'd held to with painful reverence for too long.

That "child's play" she could dismiss with a wave of her elegant hand had very nearly cost him his soul.

Still, even if Father was right in his judgment of Lisa's motivations, even if his own heart had told him that the depth of feeling he'd been willing to offer Lisa had been nowhere near to the reality of her own for him; nothing could change the agonizing truth that was his everlasting, tormenting memory of the moment for him: That of Lisa's blood on his hands.

Whether he'd been manipulated into it or stumbled into it out of adolescent inexperience, that reality would ever be there -- His hesitant, first attempt at expressing physical passion in his love for a treasured young woman had ended in her pain. The untested limits of his own strength, the forceful capabilities of his powerful body, and the control-shattering recesses of his dually-instinctive nature made for a terrifying peril he could neither will away nor forget.

Lisa had physically suffered through it, even if the wounds had only been superficial cuts no worse than some they had both endured in the rambunctuous exhuberance of childhood. Yet, the scars left on a young woman's shoulder were only a breath of the searing laceration the incident drew across Vincent's guilty conscience and heart. With a super-human effort that nearly had cost him his sanity, he had come to subdue the reality deep within his soul.

Still, the nightmarish agonies the memory could conjure up had touched even his love for Catherine. Because of it, he knew he could never trust himself, he could never be free to lose himself in the full intensity of his emotions, whether they were the welcomed and cherished radiances of love or the protective and defensive rages of instinctive survival. To give himself over to that intensity completely would mean giving over the control of his very soul to dark and deadly forces he could never fully understand at work within him. There could be no other conclusion.

Diana, however, would not believe in her own peril.

Catherine had learned to live with it, the certainty of darkness between them. She had nobly relinquished her own dreams in the face of it. He had held his humanity hostage to it. But with Catherine, the sacrifice had almost been unnecessary. The radiance of their relationship had transcended all the rules of the physical world. They could share their emotions within the the mystical sanctity of their bonded hearts, drawing peace and fulfillment in ways that could not be described except as "blessed."

Vincent had barely dreamed of the physically gifting nature of love when there was so much of the cherished gifts of the spiritual within their reach. He and Catherine together had been a wondrous embodiment of spiritual love that existed on a plane all to itself, needing no other expression of its awesome miracle.

Diana was, though, very much a force of nature within his life from the first moments they'd shared -- an indescribable fusion of intellect, emotion and heart that drew from him very different needs rooted in the physical world, the natural world, a world of feelings and sensations shared, of desires and treasured hopes in a present existence that meant only the most human and welcomingly familiar expressions of love between two like hearts.

It was purely, love between man and woman, as much as it was love between trusted soulmates. They'd endured every nightmare the fates had thrust up before them, including their own denials of each other's hearts. Only the tangible reality of having been there for each other through it all had sustained them. Only the tangible reality of awakening in one another's arms would suffice as the truth of the love between them.

Vincent's unexpected response to that force of natural love which drew him to Diana inexorably had left him stunned -- and enticed -- by an aspect of his soul he had never dared touch to without fear. Passion had always only been rooted in defensive rage, in the need to protect at all costs. Yet, with a single touch of a slender hand, with the breathless sweetness of warm lips pressed against his own, Vincent had been awestruck to realize that passion could also encompass tenderness and love.

" I don't know how to answer the imponderables in this situation with Diana and myself. All I know is that I was fearful of losing her when we made that promise to one another six months ago. As I was this morning when I knew she was asking herself the same questions I was.

"I love her. I never believed I could ever let anyone else into my heart after Catherine. I had no heart left to offer anyone. Yet, Diana came into my life and brought me back my heart as though she had been its guardian since my first breath on earth. She... completes... me as though we were ever one. I will need her strength and tenderness till my last breath in life.

"This morning when I sought her out I was ready to condemn us both as fools for even thinking we could share a life, any kind of a life, within any type of limits, or without, simply because I found myself doubting my own humanity and her ability to accept me within those boundaries I have always known as my limitations. But the realities of our love held me fast from that condemnation.

"I could see the ache, the longing in her eyes for the chance at freedom in our love, the freedom that speaks our love. I could see how my own doubts reduced her hopes, diminished her dreams ruthlessly, without consideration. Yet, she was still so willing to trust in me, in our love, in what it could be.

"And I am still so willing to let her."

Blue eyes that shone with deep emotion, finally only partly fear and uncertainty, held the elder physician with pleading. "The thought of endangering Diana for a mere instant of physical passion between us is unthinkable. Yet, would it be only for that? Father, I find myself denying my very humanity, still, by denying her the tenderness, the emotion, the freedom she needs. In denying her that, what am I condeming her to? What am I condemning us to?"

"You are condemning yourselves to a vision of your nature that is nothing but a lie, fabricated only by fear and misplaced interference. A fear I will be eternally guilty of fostering within you, Vincent. You thanked me for all I've done for you a little while ago, for all I've given you. Well, my son, what I have given you, in truth, is a terror of your very self, a terror that would urge you to throw away your one hope for happiness in life in the face of a lie."

The older man turned wearily to gaze on his reflection in the cloudy mirror beside his wardrobe. He couldn't seem to hold that reflection for more than a moment or two. Instead he sank heavily onto a straight-backed chair that rested beside the dresser and ran a hand through his greying hair with impatience.

Vincent came over to kneel before his father, taking in the distinguished and cherished features for a long moment before speaking. "What you did you did out of love."

"The greatest crimes are commited in the name of love. Remember that, Vincent. You reminded me of it once."

"Subjecting Diana to danger for a few selfish moments of intimacy would be a crime I could not bear the guilt of."

"Vincent, the two of you love each other. Reducing that love to a phantom terror would be the greater crime you could commit against Diana. And against yourself."

"Then, what are we to do, Father? Dismiss all reason to mere emotion?"

"No, my son. Trust in Diana and your love. Let it guide you both to whatever is the right resolution for you. You felt that you needed her as part of your life to make it complete. You opened your very self to her and she cherishes that gift, taking your heart as her own. At some point in time you believed enough in the promise of your love to ask her to share your life. Touch back to that moment and find your way from there, together. Without the fear."

"I want so desperately to do that. Diana believes I am able to do that."

"Then you must trust in her belief. You've said yourself she seems to know you better than you do, that she is capable of finding her way into your very essence and touch to the truth and hope you have buried there. Let her love guide you. It hasn't failed you yet, has it?"

With a faint hint of promise, Vincent shook his head. "No, it hasn't. In spite of myself, she has managed to dare me to live a life of possibility once more." An unexpected smile finally made its way across unique features at the thought of the woman he loved. "I swear, at times, that she is an irresistible force of nature that works the world around to her own rhythms and patterns against every obstacle that is placed in her way."

"Must be the obstinant red-head in her."

Vincent threw his powerful arms around his beloved parent at the incongruous observation. It was exactly what was needed to place the earth-shattering discussion they had just survived into perspective. Here the two men had been debating the very essence of Vincent's nature, and they had managed to come to the same conclusion from different directions: Diana held the key.

Her fragile, ethereal grace disguised a spirit of fire, water, and pure steel. She was far from terrorized at the thought of living a free and totally shared existence as his wife. She could touch to a tender and longing expression of love that lay deep within his heart, waiting to welcome her.

She could believe the unbelievable -- that beyond the childhood enchantments that colored his existence, there beat a very real, and very human heart, capable of loving a woman in human terms, and of being loved as a man.

Coming to his feet, Vincent helped Father steady himself on his walking stick. There was only one thing that he could do in the face of such bewitching certainty. "We'd better get to the Great Hall, Father. God help us, but we've a wedding to celebrate this day."

The leader of the Underworld patted the powerful arm that gave him strength. He blinked away the misting tears still threatening to fall from his eys and took in the arresting figure of his son's presence. Within that powerful, supremely controlled grace and intellect there was still very much a shy young boy hiding quietly behind a fall of golden hair, wanting only to be loved and accepted, to give love and trust.

Father found himself thinking out what should have been the only blessed resolution to his son's pain: He needed, at 15, to have fallen in love with Diana as a young daughter of the Underworld. There would have been no anguishing self-doubt, no terror of a less than human soul. Diana would have been as openly accepting of Vincent's love then as she was now, and as fearlessly protective of it. They would have grown together in love and shared a happy life. And Jacob would now be the young man grappling with emerging maturity.

The thought of the alternate reality played a smile over Father's face that Vincent caught sight of. "What on earth could you be imagining that is so amusing?"

"I've only just now realized what your life will be like with Diana sharing in it day by day: An irresistible force meeting an immovable object."

"I don't suppose I need to ask which I've been destined to be," came the inevitable response.

"Which do you think?" was the question that was more than a bit amused, in light of the painful discussion they'd only now completed.

Vincent shook his head, not wishing for a moment to let his father get the upper hand. He'd lost too many such philosophical arguments with Diana lately. "And what of the results of that meeting?" he proposed to his parent.

"Think back to your physics lessons, Vincent. Perhaps they will help you deal with your situation."

Uncertain if he was willing to make light of his concerns, Vincent nevertheless was finally able to follow his father's train of thought. The elder physician still argued like a Jesuit, his bemused son conceeded. "Even a drop of water can carve a hole into a rock if it keeps dripping long enough."

"I'd say that drop has been working about three years now, wouldn't you?" With a thoroughly self-satisfied aire about him that spoke of a renewed sense of hope, Father left the support of his son's arm to walk the tunnel under his own power, slowly, but steadily.

Vincent shoke his head in disbelief. But even he had to admit it now: When he'd told Diana this morning that the day would be about the possibilities in their life and not the limits, he truly had believed it from the very depths of his soul.

It might take every breath of his courage to keep that belief alive, in the wake of life's possibly painful realities, but Father semed to believe he was capable of just such an epic endeavor. Diana only doubted it for an instant.

A misty vision of the amber-haired angel, standing in the candlelight of the bathing chamber, tenderly real, and awaiting his acknowledging touch, permeated his very soul. This time he did not fight its agonizingly sweet journey through his suddenly so receptive heart. He let it drift over him with welcome, feeling Diana catch her breath, gratefully, at the reality of his touch within her heart.

Continued in Chapter 16