To Hope Anew

Chapter 19


Jacob's snow angel lay comfortably several dozen feet away from the tunnel entrance at the park. He stood proudly admiring his efforts in the deepening darkness of the early winter evening. "Is it right, Father?" came the expectant little voice awaiting a critical observation.

Vincent surveyed the little imprint on the fresh snowfall with careful scrutiny. Jacob had not lifted both arms equally as he had swept them over the surface of the snow. Thus, one "wing" of his angel had a bit of a tipped-over look to it, not quite completely unfurled. It was the perfect image of a 27-month old angel.

"It is lovely, Jacob," Vincent pronounced, then proceeded to sweep his little boy up off the ground in a grand gesture of freedom, letting the child come to close proximity of a banked collection of snow in a brush-sheltered corner. He slipped Jacob through the pile of snow to the sound of delighted giggles. But not without cost to himself.

The little boy squirmed rather easily out of his father's hold and began tossing double handfuls of snow over the golden-haired head bending down to him. Before long, snow, and laughter, happily lifted around father and child, until each began to feel the effects of the cold moisture on bare faces and tingling fingertips.

Winter was God's blessing to Vincent.

The nights came early and stayed long. Everyone was heavily layered in clothing that nearly concealed their forms. And for once, the comfort and warmth of the days could be more easily found within the confines of the rock chambers and tunnels than out and about in the city.

"Time to come in, son. You'll be cold before long." A small bundle of mis-matched woolens and boots a size too large reluctantly came to the tunnel entrance after his father.

"May we come tomorrow?" asked the slightly muffled voice.

Vincent knelt down to his child and knocked some lingering whiteness off the back of his coat. "I'm certain the rest of the children will want to come out again tomorrow after lessons. You may join them."

Jacob took his father's hand easily. The older boys and girls had always been generous enough to include him in their play as well as they could, along with Katy and Luke who were older than him but not yet in school. Samantha always made certain she took him along for some sunshine whenever she could. But that wasn't what the little boy had actually requested of his father.

"Will you come with me again?" That was the important part of the question. Vincent smiled from his heart at God's other blessing to him. The little boy would see to it that life would remain dear to him always.

"I have some work to help Cullen with tomorrow after school, but I believe we can leave the evening for some snowy fun again. That is, if it doesn't melt by then."

Little arms came easily around Vincent's neck, and the rosy glow of cold cheeks warmed his spirit completely. He drew the child up into his arms and carried him into the tunnel.

"Thank you, Father. I love the snow!"

"So do I," came the easy reply. "But, do you know what I love to do after a snowy frolic?"

Limpid blue eyes brightened mischeviously. "Have some hot chocolate!" Jacob answered with a laugh.

"Let's see if we can make some before those little fingers of yours get too cold."

The distance back through the tunnels to the kitchen seemed unusually short. Vincent felt an ease within him that he had not experienced in a long time. It was strange. He'd felt almost . . . compelled . . . to bring Jacob out into the snow this evening, even though the hour was still somewhat early. The simple freedom of playing with his child thus had been a deep and so gratefully accepted expression of his present state of heart.

Diana was going to join them in the morning.

She'd sent word that she'd completed her work on the harrowing case that had consumed her for the past two months and was in need of what she called, "down time."

What a contradiction in terms! Having Diana near would be anything but a "down" time, Vincent admitted to himself. It would lift him, lift his heart.

He was so relieved that Diana was at last freed of her involvement with the murder case she'd spoken to him briefly about on one or two occasions. Over the course of their relationship, he'd at times questioned her motivation for immersing herself into her work as completely as she did. He feared for her, not so much because of any physical peril she was placing herself in, as Catherine had so often found herself in her work, but because of the emotional toll her devotion to her calling was exacting from her, the mental toll.

She was more fragile than she'd let anyone guess.

Vincent had caught sight of it in her eyes more than once, in the things she refused to share with him as much as in the details she did. Her compassion linked itself so completely to the victims she sought to serve, to the point of feeling herself -- responsible-- for their vindication, their last hope for justice in a world too quick to discard human life and pain.

Time and again, he'd found himself thinking that her commitment to that vindication was overriding her own desperate search for peace. She could hardly reach for her own needs in life when there was so much anguish she could do little to set to right.

It grieved Vincent desperately that the resolute, hopeful spirit that had gently taken hold of his own in his darkest moments must be plunged into so much pain day in and day out. Her brilliant mind could so easily help create wonder, promise, a better tomorrow for those around her. Her generous, deeply trusting heart could love and nurture.

She needed frolics in the snow more than she needed evidence of a teeming city's hellish underpinnings. So did he.

"Perhaps Diana would like to join us tomorrow evening." Vincent's unvoiced hope carried over into his comment to the little boy in his arms.

"Does she love snow, too, Father?"

It was a simple enough question, but in his unexpected introspection of the moment, Vincent found himself uncertain of the answer. He'd known Diana for over two years now; they'd shared terror and heartache, guilt and tenderness on levels that would have been staggering to the most courageous of hearts. Yet, he actually knew very little of the small details that made up her personality, her character, little things that even casual friends would get to know about one another: What her favorite color was; did she really prefer tea to coffee, or was she just being polite when she came Below; was winter actually a time she enjoyed, or did she simply endure it like so many New Yorkers?

"I believe Diana loves snow also, Jacob."

 

The warm milk having chased away any chill lingering from the frosty adventure, Jacob settled into his favorite place -- under the thick covers on his father's large bed. Even though he felt comfortable and safe in his crib, he still loved being close enough to his father's strong body to reach out to him and touch him, feel him near, whenever he needed to. Vincent had been on the search for a small bed for the child, now that he was older than two, but with the expanding population of youngsters in the Underworld, all the extra beds were in use in the children's dormitories. Jacob would simply have to wait.

Once, the little boy thought it would be exciting to sleep with the other children in the dorm. The thought of companionship with Jeffrey and Zack and the other big boys was enticing, but then the sensitive child realized that those boys were together because they didn't have parents to live with in a family chamber.

Jacob realized how lucky, how blessed, he truly was. He and Luke and Katy had parents, or, at least, a parent, to be especially near to them. And even though everyone in the community was a family member to everyone else, there was something so truly special about having a father or mother to love you as their own child.

Vincent tucked the blankets behind Jacob so he would not become chilled from the stone wall the bed was pushed up against. He cherished this time with his little boy, feeling him cuddle close, sharing a story with him, helping him slip peacefully into the comfort of untroubled sleep. At times, he even felt himself drifting away to the Hundred Acre Wood with Jacob and Christopher Robin.

But, tonight, Vincent found it suddenly difficult to concentrate on the story. He read the words from the pages of the well-worn book, but they didn't seem to find their way truly into his concentration or heart. Something else was already there, and enlarging its hold on him.

Feelings, emotions, sensations, began to swirl around his spirit.

Though he continued to read the story to his child, Vincent seemed to have totally lost touch with the meanings of those words, and instead had been urged to attach his consciousness to the phantom . . . essence . . . that had seemed to invade his own.

Tenderness, warmth, the breath of a touch.

It was Diana within him, suddenly. He could see her so clearly now, see them. The image leapt into his mind with a will of its own -- trees, the night sky, Diana beside him --

no, beneath him, lying beneath him. The air around them was brisk and cool. He felt the rough texture of a blanket pull across his neck, beneath his hair. But, Diana was not cold. He was shielding her from the night air with his body, slipping heated hands without fear over opalescent skin showing through an unbuttoned blouse, an inviting intimacy calling to him from emerald eyes filled with yearning tenderness . . .

. . . "What is it, Father?" Jacob's small voice pulled him back to the reality of the moment -- his chamber, his child, a storybook being shared. A little hand reached for his cheek. "You stopped reading."

Vincent shook his head, trying to lift himself free of his mind's images. Where had they come from? They must have been Diana's experience, chanelling itself to him with overwhelming force, he concluded in unsteady decision. Part of him denied that such an intimate bonding between them even existed, but so much more of him knew the truth.

It wasn't the first time he had met up with Diana's spirit within him. Vincent had always somehow been linked to the young police woman's soul, on one level or another, since they'd first set eyes on one another. Even before that. But, their link was not like anything he and Catherine had experienced, the comforting, affirming, shared responses of their hearts to one another.

The link Vincent seemed to share now with Diana was almost like a -- safety valve -- a release for her spirit to unburden itself to his when she felt overwhelmed. He wasn't even certain she was aware of it. She seemed to give no indication that she knew it existed, that their hearts had become bonded even though they'd fought the growing attachment between them on every conscious level they could.

But, Vincent blessed heaven for her seeming lack of knowledge, realizing at once that had Diana been aware that her tested soul had been reaching out to him on an unconsicous plane, she would have immediately drawn back from him, wanting never to burden him with her struggles.

Those struggles had been fierce lately, in many different aspects of her life, he'd come to see. She was formidible, strong, relentless in her honesty, never once holding back from anything life threw at her. Outwardly.

Inwardly, though, when her spirit reached that point of endurance past which lay only pain and disillusionment and tears, something that occured with unsettling frequency of late, he discovered, her essence channeled itself away from the threat -- and to him, unbelievably to him. She had done so much for him, risked so much for him, and he'd never been able to even remotely repay her for it. Until he realized that she was willing to let him shelter her soul from total oblivion.

So, he had found her emotions, her fears, her unattainable hopes, resting hesitantly within his own heart, until she discovered anew some untapped reservoir of strength that gave her the courage to bring them back into her own experience.

While those emotions, those truthful realities of her soul, were with him, Vincent treasured them for the trust they carried, the vulnerable, poignant need she'd never confess to him aloud. When it was time to let those truths return to their source, he grieved for their loss, knowing he could never bring himself to openly accept the awesome responsibility of sheltering her heart within his own as she ached for him to do.

Tonight's sensations, though, were powerfully different, unexplanably so. Vincent knew the images in his mind, the emotions in his heart, were not his alone, beguiling as they seemed. Still, they were not completely Diana's, either. He was certain of it. She appeared to be as . . . confused . . . about the images as he, and now even growing ever more . . . frightened.

Jacob was confused and frightened as well. The little boy could scarcely understand the turmoil in his father's face, let alone his heart. Vincent pulled himself forcefully back into the solid reality of his chamber and wrapped his arms around his son.

"I'm sorry, Jacob. I must have been more tired than I thought. I've lost track of the story. Can we continue tomorrow night?"

The small hand on his cheek was suddenly so reassuring. "Yes, Father. I'm sleepy now."

Vincent moved over to his son's crib and pulled back the covers. Then he gathered Jacob gently in his arms, to settle him in his own bed carefully. The little Velveteen Rabbit was still a welcome friend during the night: The small fellow was also satisfactorily tucked in. As he had done every night since Jacob's rescue, Vincent set the child within the protection of Providence's tender mercy. "Good night, my little one. Heaven's angels watch over thee till the morning light."

The sweet sound of a little voice offering his litany of "God blesses" managed to ease Vincent's anxiety a fraction. He climbed back under the covers of his bed and blew out all but the night candle left lit in front of the stained glass window of his chamber.

But, sleep would not come.

Diana's spirit was opened to him as never before, and he struggled to make sense of the images, the sensations, cascading over him because of it. Vincent attempted fervantly to understand if she was being threatened or was in need of help, but the vision of tender lovemaking in the park still held his heart.

What had triggered it within her tonight? He had felt a flood of sensual longing within him more than once in the past few weeks that he knew for certain had originated inside Diana's restless heart. It astonished him that he was not startled in the least by such a presence within her, nor by the fact that he was coming to cherish those experiences she was unconsciously willing to share with him in aching wonder, and painful denial.

Tonight's connection with her spirit, though, was powerful and intensely real, his own body acutely attuned to the sensations of tenderness shared without guilt or limitations. He knew the feeling of her fair skin beneath his fingertips, heard her pulse racing to his own, tasted warm lips that caressed with sweet hunger. Then, unbelievably, a sense of fear and foreboding permeated his very soul.

Desperately, Vincent sought to understand the intruding emotions shaking him to his very core. Diana's tender hopes had always been layered, he knew, within feelings of guilt-burdened expectation, yes, but the implied -- threat -- that seemed to hover over the visions in his mind and heart also seemed too real to be simply dismissed away as her usual state of spirit within their stormy relationship.

Vincent wondered in confusing anxiety if there wasn't another catalyst igniting those feelings within him and Diana, the persistent presence of -- darkness -- was so strongly projected to his thoughts.

Besieged by the turmoil within him, Vincent found himself drained and exhausted, for no apparent physical reason, suddenly battered in body as much as he was in spirit. When he felt his reserves of strength completely vanish from within him, he was thrown violently into the sensations surrounding him again, actually feeling bodily assaulted by an unseen force intent on doing him harm.

Sitting bolt upright on his bed, Vincent peered into the darkened chamber, not exactly certain of what he would see. Jacob was fast asleep. All was stillness.

Then he felt an unnamed, unseen, terror, grip him with superhuman force. It slammed against him, inside him, tearing the breath from his lungs.

At first, he was certain the force was his own darkness, assaulting him when he had felt most at peace with his life. The earlier images still surrounded him, though, within the chamber, and he knew he was back in Diana's experience and not in some purgatory battling for his humanity once again.

Yet, was that the reality in truth?

He could see Diana, at that very instant, trembling, a look of sheer agonized terror on her face, her mouth open as if she would scream, but unable to do so. Her heart was pounding as though it would explode from the pain inside her. And she was covered in blood, splashed onto her face, smeared against the pale skin of her chest, the blouse she was wearing soaked with it.

Vincent clutched at his own chest, frantic to reconcile the two sets of images that had invaded his mind. At first there had been tenderness, welcome communion, her body beneath his, silky flesh soft beneath his hands as he never dreamed he could feel.

Then there was pain, violence, blood, and an unseen dread, shrouding Diana, consuming her.

Throwing himself onto his pillow, Vincent pounded the bed with his fists in comprehending agony that was stifled only in fear of terrifying his child who lay sleeping a few feet away. He understood the images now, oh God, why must he understand them? Diana had been dreaming of their consumated love, he realized in shameful horror, an unvoiced dream she'd been cherishing deep inside her soul for weeks, months, he knew.

Its tender hunger, its honest need, had more than once stolen its guilt-riddled way into his own heart, a dream he could no sooner accept than he could bring himself to deny, uplifting, yet overpowering in its unknown depths. A siren song that coursed through his body as willingly as it coursed through his spirit.

But, that dream, Diana's sweet desire, had been violated, profaned, by . . . by what? By his dark soul? By the inhuman essence he had thought finally vanquished?

God forgive him! No, God never could. He never could forgive himself, for, somehow, he had let horror and bestiality devour the gentlest, most trusting of human hearts in its need for acknowledgement.

Diana had had a vision of what lay in store for them, of the reality of what loving him, body and soul, really meant. It was the only explanation for the images, the emotions, coursing through him now with fearful abandon.

He was breathing heavily, his forehead beaded with perspiration, his hands shaking, hands he'd seen too often covered in blood. Why? Why did it have to come to this? They'd so carefully set aside their powerful physical need for one another the last few months. He'd believed they'd almost succeeded in erasing its dangerous intoxication from their yearning love. But now, tonight, the moment it had resurfaced in Diana's heart forcefully enough for him to become aware of it, that sensual longing had been visited by bloody hell. Why?

He had no answer, only an imperative need to get to Diana, seek her out, find out for certain what the visions meant to her. He knew he risked further terrorizing her if, in fact, her phantom experience of violence had been caused by his own dark depths revealed to her. She may very well recoil from him in total, desperately accurate rejection, but he knew he had to see her, see for himself, what sort of state she was in and why.

Throwing an anxious glance towards Jacob's crib, he saw that the child was now restless in his sleep, having undoubtedly touched to the anguish in his father's spirit even in his slumber. Forcing himself to steady his breathing, Vincent got up and set a gentling hand onto the little boy's forehead, trying to will that hand from trembling to offering his son a touch of silent assurance. That same hand that could have turned tenderness to terror.

After a moment, Jacob rolled over onto his side, clutching his little bunny to him. His father softly pulled the covers up over the small shoulders and waited for a long moment to be certain he had withdrawn his anxiety from the child's consciousness. When the gentle breathing settled back into a quiet cadence, Vincent came back to his own bed.

Awkwardly he dressed once again, the force of will that had calmed his spirit for his child's protection now deserting him back to tremors of anxious pain. He took hold of his cloak and swept it over his shoulders as he left the room for Mary's chamber, intent on asking her to watch over Jacob in his absence. Much as he hated to disturb her, and frighten her at the late hour, he knew that her gentle spirit would very much understand his yearning need to seek out Diana better than his own father would.

Vincent needed to face whatever desolation he had caused Diana, certain that their relationship had reached a point of reckoning neither one would have expected nor believed they could survive this night.

 

The cold night air seemed to temporarily relieve his desperate turmoil. The reality of the cold, the snow crunching beneath his heavy boots, brought him back to some semblance of balance, of what actually existed at the moment around him. But, every step he took brought him closer to a nightmare that even reason and reality rebelled against acceptance. There had to be some other explanation to the frightening experiences chanelled to him this night, he prayed with a pleading heart.

Diana's note had sounded so relieved and . . . hopeful. She was prepared to settle her tested spirit within his world once again, even if it would be only for a few short days. They could have touched to promise and possibility between them somehow; he felt the longing reaching out to him in that note, as distinctly as he knew his own aching need for her.

For her, for Diana, for all of her . . . heart, mind, spirit, soul . . . and body. He loved all of her. He needed all of her. He would have found the courage to tell her somehow.

Until the reality of that need had seemingly murdered all hope within her tonight, with its deadly images.

Vincent was as fearful of reaching Diana's loft as he had been of remaining in his own chamber drowning in the shameful pain that his presence within her had wrought. He needed to find the truth out, and yet was terrified that he would.

Coming over the parapet of Diana's rooftop, Vincent was startled by a square of glowing light brightening a corner of the snow-covered surface. The door leading down into her loft was thrown wide open. Immediately, Vincent gazed anxiously round about him for signs of Diana's presence, or anyone else's, for that matter. He saw none.

Making his way across the distance from the edge wall to the door, Vincent began to feel the icy fingers of fear reach up his back. Looking carefully through the skylight windows that had been left bare of their usual drawn curtains, he saw that the light on Diana's desk was on, its brightness reaching across the room.

Papers and folders were scattered about on the desk. A coffee cup lay on its side at the edge of the table: The possible signs of a struggle?

Stepping into the doorway, Vincent intended to enter the apartment, but he stopped short when he picked out tracks in the snow. The elevator shaft of the building jutted out alongside the doorway and kept any light filtering up from the apartment to the small area immediately in front of the entryway. The rest of the rooftop was in relative darkness, except nearest the clestory windows. Still, he could make out the tracks now.

Coming to his knees in the snow that had accumulated on the rooftop to about two or three inches, Vincent saw the clear imprint of footsteps beginning up out of the apartment at the entryway and crossing the roof into the darkness right up against the wall. The steps headed only in one direction, away from the door and towards the far side of the building. And they were barefoot.

Pulling up closely against the brick wall, Vincent slowly followed the prints in the snow, his eyes accustomed to the dark. The trail completely circled around the perimeter of the parapet and ended up against the steepled rooftop of the next building.

Vincent stopped his own movements abruptly when that rooftop came into view. He had caught sight of -- something -- up against the far wall, pressed into the corner where the two buildings met, on the snow.

It took a moment before he was able to discern what he was looking at, and when he did, his blood ran as cold as the snow beneath his feet.

"My God!" The exclamation pulled free of his heart with pain, searing, grief-laden pain. The shadowed form lying on the snow was -- Diana.

In an instant, Vincent was beside her, down on his knees again. She was pulled into a fetal position on her right side. Her long, coltish legs were bare to the thigh in the cold, the rest of her body barely covered by a worn terrycloth bathrobe that was totally soaked, and indeed, nearly frozen to her pale skin.

Vincent swept wet hair from off her face that fairly crackled with the motion. He sought a pulse at her throat, even as he felt his own falter. It was there, faint and erratic, but there. His own heart did stop when he looked more closely at her face in the dim light: Her eyes were fixed wide open, and seemed totally unseeing.

Without a second thought, Vincent drew his cloak from off his shoulders and draped it over the frail body, wrapping her completely within the garment. Bending to her, he gathered her to his chest, coming back up to his feet. She seemed to weigh next to nothing.

For a moment, Vincent stood holding her, uncertain as to whether he should bring her into her own apartment or attempt to carry her Below for Father's help. He judged that she probably needed to be treated for exposure to the cold first, and quickly, so he headed towards the entryway to her apartment, praying that her state was not anything beyond his immediate capabilities to address.

Once within the loft, Vincent carried Diana into her bedroom. The covers had already been pulled back on the bed. It looked as though she had been in bed but had not remained there. A copy of a Christmas gift catalog was half buried in the covers.

Gently, he set his burden down onto the bed, calling softly to her. There was no response, not even a glimmer of acknowledgement in her green eyes. A cold ache gripped him in the pit of his stomach, but Vincent forced it from his mind. He needed a level head to help her at the moment.

He rememberd her robe had been nearly stiff with frozen wetness around her, up on the roof. He had to get her dry and warm. A sudden memory of her pain-ravaged body in the flood Below came to his mind. She'd been so vulnerable to the cold ever since.

Carefully he pulled his cloak partially free from her slight weight. Though the garment was heavy and would have warmed her well, her own wet robe was still wrapped around her slender form. He had no choice but to remove it if he was to warm her at all.

Letting his cloak rest beneath her, Vincent began to free Diana from her own garment. Unknotting the frozen belt of the terry robe was not easy, though. His fingers began to tingle from the cold wetness immediately. God knew how long she'd been subjected to it against her bare skin.

All the while he attempted to free her, Vincent continued to call out to her, but there was no indication Diana could even hear him.

Finally, having managed to untie the frozen robe, Vincent had to stop a moment to gather himself. He was startled to realize that the bath garment was the only thing she had on. And that there were blood stains dripped across the front of it.

Aching panic held Vincent until he realized the blood appeared to be coming only from her right hand, which was clenched into a tight fist and bleeding profusely.

"Diana, you're hurt," he observed aloud to her, hoping to draw some respose. There was none, not even when he took her hand into his. Something metalic slapped against his arm as he did so -- a chain, a necklace chain.

Vincent drew his cloak back over her, now concerned as well for her apparent injury. She didn't need the further shock of blood loss to her body. "Let me see what you have, Diana, please. You are bleeding. Whatever you are holding has wounded your hand."

Only the far-off stare of her eyes met his. Slowly, Vincent pulled on her fisted hand, attempting to get her to loosen her grip on whatever she held so fiercely. He couldn't seem to do it. That small, slender hand was suddenly as strong as a vice. And the blood continued to drip into his own hand.

The warmth of the room had begun thawing out the robe somewhat as he had attempted to examine Diana's injured hand. She had begun to shiver, evidence of the cold she had endured making itself known. Thus, Vincent was still faced with the prospect of removing the source of the cold from her vulnerable form, despite her hand injury.

"You need to get dry and warm. I only want to help you. I won't hurt you, Diana. Do you understand me?" he spoke softly to her when he released her hand. There was no sign that Diana was even aware of where she was or who she was with. Vincent wasn't even certain she could see him.

Forcing himself to look past the possible reasons for her catatonic state, Vincent directed his efforts into trying to warm and comfort her. It wasn't enough for her simply to be sheltered by his cloak with the wet robe still clinging to her. With trembling hands beneath his cloak, he carefully drew her own wet garment from around her body and dropped it to the floor. Then he returned his attention to her hand.

Searching about momentarily to get his bearings in the room, Vincent caught sight of the vanity in the bathroom visible through the partially opened door. He came to his feet quickly off the bed and entered the bathroom, looking for some first aid supplies.

A haphazard pile of Diana's clothing lay in the center of the floor. It seemed oddly out of place. She was a very organized person, her apartment neat and well-maintained. A sudden anguish gripped him: The apparent struggle in the outer room, the disheveled state of the bathroom, the unmade bed, her unseeing state and obvious flight from the apartment. Then the thought, dreaded, and heart-numbing -- an assault?

Vincent quelled the images coming into his mind even before they were completely formed. He needed to help her physical state at the moment and keep his mind from the agonies materializing within it. They would be of no help to her. Looking back through the storage areas of the medicine cabinet and vanity, he came upon a well-equipped first aid kit in a drawer with gauzes and adhesive, and the other necessary supplies he was looking for. Grabbing a dry towel as well, Vincent returned to the bed.

He took her hand up again from beneath his cloak. "Diana, will you let me see what you have?" The hand remained closed tight, still dripping blood into his. A whispered prayer gave Vincent guidance as he responded to the aching need to reach her that had welled up within his heart.

Gently, tenderly, he brought the wounded fist to his mouth and he kissed the clenched fingers softly, one by one, finally resting a breath of a caress onto the underside of her hand. The searingly painful taste of her blood on his lips was heart-shattering. Yet, some whisper of recognition struggled to pull free of her benumbed state: The hand opened hesitantly, a fraction.

That was when a golden cross dropped onto the covers of the bed.

Its imprint, Vincent noted with sudden shock, was imbedded in her palm.

Slowly, speaking reassuringly of what he was doing, Vincent tended to her wounded hand, cleansing where the edges of the cross had pierced fragile flesh and drawn blood. He quickly wrapped the wound, tears misting his eyes.

Even though she had let her hand be wrapped like an obedient little child, there still was no indication that Diana knew what was happening to her. Vincent took in a shaky breath, before his tears could fall. He tried to let Father's training hold him to the physical needs of her condition, but his heart was too full of the pain of seeing her as she was. He reached his hand over her still wet hair and down to her cheek. It was like ice, as was her arm. Not even his cloak seemed to be warming her enough.

Trying to assess her needs in his mounting frustration and uncertainty, Vincent pulled his gaze from her vulnerable form. He caught sight of an oversized cotton shirt resting across the back of the stuffed chair to one side of her bed. Guessing that the interior lining of his cloak had become wet as well from her thawing robe, he realized she'd stand a better chance of getting warmed up if she was in her own clothes under the thick comforter of the bed. He drew the shirt from the chair to within his reach on the covers.

"You are still so cold. Let me help you, Diana," he pleaded quietly, feeling his soul tear in two at the thought of what he needed to do.

A throbbing pain encircled his heart as he drew her slender body up against his, leaning her against his chest. Setting a gentle kiss onto her hair, without even thinking of its implications, Vincent pulled his heavy cloak down off her shoulders and from around her body, swallowing the lump that came up into his throat as he fought the aching tenderness that filled his heart with his actions.

. . . It should have been another moment between them. He couldn't help but feel it. For an instant it was . . . when she'd been stranded Below after the flood and he had so tenderly cared for her.

. . . It should have been a prelude to the yearning completion they both harbored guiltfully, needfully, within their hearts, a cherished act of trusting and profound love between two souls denied their peace for an eternity.

Instead, Vincent felt he was violating a ghost . . .

Only the very real prospect of Diana's possible physical suffering gave him the strength to continue his ministrations to her now.

Lightly, Vincent pulled the towel he had brought out of the bathroom over her still wet back and shoulders, along her scarred legs. He fixed his eyes on the wall across from the bed, defensively, as he did so. There was a framed picture there -- a sheet of plain white writing paper covered with multicolored squiggles of crayon.

It was a "picture" Jacob had drawn for her at some point in time over the course of the last six months. Diana had framed it and put it up on her bedroom wall.

The tears began to stream down Vincent's cheeks at the discovery, mercifully, blurring his vision in the process. With a trembling hand, he gently slipped the towel across the front of the precious body in his arms, along Diana's throat and down over her breasts and abdomen. She didn't even resist his touch, her wide-eyed stare crucifying him.

Why heaven had seen fit to torment him with the task of rescuing her fragile body thus, he could not even begin to remotely fathom. He only prayed the agony would soon end.

It did. He managed to pull the cotton shirt onto her arms and up over her shoulders, fastening the front buttons one-handed. Freed from the damp cloak at last, Vincent gently settled Diana back down onto a dry section of her bed, retrieving his garment, and pulling the comforter well up around her. Still, the emerald eyes did not show any sign of awareness and only his pounding heart knew what pain, guilt, and need had coursed through it in the last five minutes.

Vincent remained seated at the edge of the bed then, suddenly totally engrossed with the small medical kit in his hands. His mind raced for instruction, for logical action to meet this so unreasonable situation. Except for the wounded hand, Diana seemed relatively whole, if he could get her past the effects of being out in the snow unprotected. But her mental state: He feared it would even be beyond Father's abilities to treat.

An unexpected gust of cold air reminded him that the door to her rooftop had remained open. Vincent came slowly off the bed and turned to face Diana. His words were gentle and soft, but he knew she didn't hear them. "I'm only going to shut the rooftop door. I will come back and stay with you in a moment. Don't be afraid."

On the stairway up to the roof, Vincent found himself shaking with engulfing emotion, robbing him of the usual dependability of his strength. He literally had to pull his body up the steps to reach and close the door, his legs felt so unsteady.

The full weight of Diana's present condition hung itself around him like a millstone that would drown him in despair once again. Any flicker of hope, any flame of welcomed, soul-sharing tenderness, died out in him with the light extinguished from her green eyes.

After he'd secured the rooftop door, Vincent leaned against the stairway wall to gather his strength against the pain. Slowly he returned to the kitchen of the apartment.

It hit him suddenly that he hadn't been inside Diana's home since she had brought him there after Catherine's death.

They'd shared her rooftop dozens of times in the ensuing two and one half years, but he had never come within the warm confines of her loft again. Even on winter nights when they'd been together, Diana had let herself become chilled to the bone, understanding somehow that he couldn't find it within himself to break the relative tranquility of her home again.

Perhaps if he would have let the barely disguised expectation in her eyes convince him otherwise, she might not have come to this moment in her life. He'd left her, time and again, knowing how she'd ached to have him acknowledge her heart, the power of her vulnerability frightening him in its intensity.

A moment of promise shared: Could it have saved her, given her the strength to keep believing, shored up her shaky hold on her spirit?

Vincent prayed heaven as he stepped slowly back into her bedroom. He never was one to bargain with Providence. The depth and honesty of his soul had given him the courage to accept all that had been allotted him in life. Even the most agonizing pain, the most heart-wrenching loss.

He knew that he had managed to embrace it all lately so much because of the patient and fearless love Diana held for him, love born of desolation, fear and guilt. Now, he prayed heaven that he could reach that love, touch it within her somehow, and guide her back from whatever nightmare she found herself plunged into. Let him carry the burden for her. He'd find the strength. A bare whisper of a soul had borne him up till now.

He'd help her find her way out of hell, or he'd join her there.

Providence seemed eager to test his vow from the very instant he made it: When he came back into the bedroom, Diana was not to be seen. The bed covers had been flung back and his cloak lay on the floor at his feet. A cold panic took hold of him, as, for an instant, he feared she'd fled the apartment, but he was certain he hadn't heard the elevator.

Coming around the bed, Vincent thought of the bathroom, instead. The door was still open as he had left it when he'd found the medical supplies. But gathered in a tight and terrified posture, Diana sat in the doorway, backed up against the door frame, her arms around her bent knees, hugging them tightly.

Vincent had seen the position before -- in the frightened children that had been brought Below for refuge -- on guard, ready for flight, but, at the same time, devastated by fear and weariness. The eyes that had looked upon him with such loving mercy were no longer unseeing, but they showed no recognition, either.

Slowly, he eased himself down to a crouched position, bringing his considerable height to a less threatening limit. Though his voice caught in his throat, Vincent managed a gentle whisper and called to her. "Diana, don't be afraid. It's Vincent. I won't hurt you. I'd never hurt you."

The green eyes darted from his face to the small room behind her. Something instinctive told her she'd be cornered there if she moved from her present spot. She only drew her legs up tighter under her shirt and hugged them. Vincent could see the scars from her injuries in the flood. It suddenly seemed light-years since then, and any connection to her was fast leaving him behind also.

He wasn't ready to lose her.

"Why don't you come back up to the bed, Diana? You must still be so cold. I'll pull the covers around you and keep you safe so you may rest. Please."

Something about the sound of his voice filtered into her confused mind and Diana began to cry, great, silent tears running down her pale cheeks one after another. Vincent could not bear to see her. She'd only let tears fall when she was totally overwhelmed. He ached now for her pain, for the evidence of her fear.

Yet, Vincent had no sense of her within him any longer. It was as if their link to one another had never existed -- or that he was now only reaching out to a total stranger and not the angel of hope his heart had bonded itself to so willingly.

Risking her alarm, Vincent moved a few inches closer to her, keeping himself crouched low, on her level. She looked around the room fearfully, searching for a way out, like a trapped animal. He could see her breathing quicken, her chest rising and falling in anxious respiration. But through some mercy, she let him lock his heart-searching eyes onto hers without struggle. The faintest glimpse of pleading met his gaze.

Another few inches closer, and Vincent slowly stretched out his hand towards her.

She backed away visibly, attempting to fuse her slender body to the door frame on which she rested. Still, she kept her eyes in communion with his. Was there a tiny glimmer of trust there?

"Diana, let me help you. Come back to me . . . please . . . find your way back to me."

His words were as pained as the truth that reached out from him to her. "I . . . love . . . you."

She let his hand come to within a breath of her cheek, never taking her eyes off his face now suffused with deep emotion. When he finally rested his shaking hand onto her skin, she closed her eyes, holding to the feeling with some unconscious recognition. The work-roughened palm was warm, tender, and somehow, at last, familiar, beloved. When he cupped his hand at her cheek and wiped the tears away with his thumb, she turned her face to his palm, leaning into it gratefully.

A tremor of relieved tenderness ran through him at the contact and her spirit suddenly materialized within him again in connection. Vincent blessed heaven for the step she had taken back from the edge. Without even thinking, he slipped his hands from her face into her hair, letting his fingers run through the luxurious amber locks possesively. An instant of insane freedom took hold of his heart, and he was ready to draw her into his arms, hold her to him gratefully . . . guiltlessly. Instead, he heard her gasp in renewed, startled fright.

The eyes she turned to him then were no longer pleading with gentle want, but desperate with anguished . . . terror. He had seen that look before, the fearful panic that had once fought its way out of tenderness to tear his soul in two. A scream of spiritual pain tearing from her lungs was every bit echoed within his own heart. When Diana suddenly dove at him with every sapped ounce of her strength, he was left unexpectedly reeling in confusion and pain.

Denial was shrill from her voice, "No, no, no," yet the sounds were more from a terrified child than a usually poised and collected young woman. A blow following her lurching movement against him hit Vincent full force against his chest, the small hands at that instant of his confusion capable of pushing him off balance and sending him backwards hard against the bed. His head hit the metal side rail hard enough to momentarily stun him.

It was the instant that she had needed.

Like a fury released from the hell she'd stumbled into, Diana threw herself bodily onto Vincent's semi-prone form. He was up on one elbow, attempting to clear his head from the effects of the first blow when he felt a pure agony unleash itself against him. The slight body he had sought to bring close in acknowledging shelter was now battling him with fists and knees and feet, raining punishment without stopping. All the while, the pain-cracked voice cried out, "No, no, no."

Fearful of hurting her, Vincent did little to protect himself from her blows, attempting only to reach Diana with the sound of his voice calling her name again and again. There was no end to her battling, though. Her left hand finally landed a powerful hit open-fisted just below his eye. In an instant he felt her fingernails digging down his cheek and across his jaw.

Despite the startling pain, he caught hold of her then. Pinning her close to his body with one arm, he rolled her over and beneath him, catching both her hands and raising them up above her head with his other arm.

The blows momentarily subsided, and Vincent was stricken with guilt at the sight of Diana's flushed face draining suddenly of color. She'd turned her head away from him with a cry, and he realized how intimately imprisoned by his body she now was. He eased away from her slightly, his heart aching at the thought that she believed him capable of doing her harm.

Feeling his weight drawing away from her, Diana struck out again in renewed vehemence, using her still free legs to kick and twist her way out of his strong hold on her.

Desperate to reach past her terrified fury, Vincent kept calling to her. "Diana, stop! I don't want to hurt you." Finally he was able to pin her down again, holding her flailing legs down with his knee, capturing her completely underneath him.

Her battling ceased, and for one instant they stared into each other's eyes in mutual recognition, their breathing coming hard and ragged, from their confrontation, surely, as well as from the stunning thought that formed within both their minds: Their intimate positions should have been a loving possession between them. Instead, drops of his blood stained her shirt where they had fallen from his cheek.

The fragile moment mercifully came to an end, but it was replaced by one equally as heart-breaking: The tears overflowed from Diana's tender eyes again, her gaze became confused, and she cried out in a hoarse, cracked voice, "Don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me. Don't hurt me . . . Daddy. . . please stop."

Vincent pulled himself up slowly from off Diana's weary body, shivering with the realization of what he had just heard. Even when he released her arms and legs, she didn't make a move to begin her assailing confrontation with him again. She simply lay on the floor, wracked by sobs and tears . . . pleading for mercy.

In quiet terror himself, Vincent understood what was happening at last, and that comprehension exhibited to him a reality as horrible as what he had imagined back in his chamber earlier that night.

Reaching out to Diana, slowly, gently, he gathered her up into his arms, clasping her to his chest. She did not resist his hold this time, and he leaned with her against the side of the bed, rocking her softly in her pain.

"It's all right . . . Connie. You're safe. I'll keep you safe, child."

The tears falling now were his, too, mingling with those of a murdered teenager.

The name he had remembered from one of the few times Diana had actually found the strength to speak to him about the horrific investigation she'd been obsessed with for months. He remembered, too, that the young girl she had described with such compassionate kinship had been killed in the park with her young sweetheart, as they lay in each other's arms, one brisk fall night.

With anguishing tenderness, Vincent soothed the crying girl in his arms with soft words of reassurance she had never in truth heard from a hellishly vindictive father. Diana was nowhere to be found in the room. Only Connie DeSalvo clung to him with a force born of terror, until she at last fell deeply asleep in his arms.

 

More than an hour passed. Vincent had spent most of it staring at the beloved young woman he held who was no longer Diana -- and praying. He kept watch over her breathing, making certain she was still alive, for she seemed so profoundly asleep he feared he'd lost her completely.

Reaching up behind him, he managed to pull the comforter off the bed and around her body for warmth, at least. Perhaps that small comfort might reach her and soothe her, whoever she now was -- a murdered girl's soul in the fragile body of the woman he loved.

Vincent sought forgiveness in his prayers, too, at that realization.

It had taken a catastrophe of desperation to bring him to admit how much he loved Diana, truly loved her, to admit how welcome her profound love for him was. He'd had two and one half years of opportunities to bless her with the acknowledgement, but he'd only been able to confess it now when he was in danger of losing her to some anguishing oblivion of the soul.

She'd been a gift he'd refused, the very reason he was still living and breathing and capable of holding body, mind, and soul together these days, and he had shut himself off from her, cloaking himself in his fear, denying the wonder that she'd offered him in total, selfless, loving trust.

Looking down at the body he held like a child in need of sheltering as the moments ticked by, Vincent found his heart opening to her at the same instant that it was being shattered again in grief. He sought out all the little things he knew added up to the sum total of the indecipherable enigma that was Diana, the devastating truth blanketing his very soul: He might never see her look at him in loving recognition again.

Her heart had always been completely in her face, in her eyes. She'd never been able to keep anything she felt totally from him because it was always there in the green depths that were so totally honest they took his breath away.

Vincent looked down at her now with a loving, acknowledging, tenderness he'd never given himself permission to free before, seeing Diana through the eyes of a beloved, fearless to cherish what he'd believed could never be his. Silently he chastised himself with heavy guilt: He could only free that love when he was in danger of losing her.

With that love he tried to hold fast to the totality of his wonder for her before the Fates would shatter his heart again, taking a loved one from his side and casting him again into the infinite darkness he so feared.

He held her in his arms and every breath of his love caressed her, rested tenderly on every minute fraction of what he loved about her, how she spoke, what she thought, even how she looked: Diana's hair had dried, for the most part, at last, hanging heavy, and enticing, he confessed, over his arm, wispy tendrils of curls framing around her translucent porcelain face. Vincent had never seen such contradictory beauty in his life -- it was fire and ice all at once -- and it lit an awesome wonder within him that she'd ever looked into his own cursed visage with love.

There was nothing fabricated about her, nothing that was less than honest, nothing pretentious, not in her appearance, nor in her manner, nor in her heart. What she seemed was truly what she was. Everything about her simply added up to who she was.

Even that bewitching hair of hers, Vincent thought suddenly, as he softly, courageously, blessed it with a kiss. More than once she had decried her burden of red hair with long-suffering acceptance, but knowing her now as he did, he could not have imagined her with any other color hair, treasuring the spirit that was as fiery as her locks.

A spirit that had fought him for his soul as often as it had comforted him; confronted and argued with him as often as it had dared him to believe he was worth her struggle of heart.

He could not imagine not listening to her grapple with the words she needed to say, either, in those battles for his hope.

Though she was brilliant and articulate, Diana sometimes stumbled over her words when she spoke to him because of the simple fact that there were too many facets of her thoughts that she needed to offer him to properly project her feelings with. She would begin a sentence and then pause in anxious contemplation; then she would begin again from a different point or thought as the essence of what she was trying to say would become more clear to her.

The process drew Vincent to her with a powerful gratitude, for he understood that the reality of her struggle was that she was totally incapable of coloring or masking her feelings. She needed exactly the right words to describe her thoughts because she never wanted them to be less than honest.

But, he'd been less than honest with her, the truth evolving out of his painful contemplation of her gifts to him, gifts of the spirit, gifts of the soul, gifts of the humanity of her love.

Vincent told himself he'd had his reasons for denying her the truth of his heart . . . his

desperate grief for Catherine's loss . . . his loyalty to her memory . . . his need to protect those he loved.

The reality was nothing more, and nothing less, than fear . . . the fear to need anyone ever again, the fear of touching a heart that was fearless and willing to dream . . . the fear of knowing he wanted to stop being afraid.

Cradling Diana now with such agonizing, possesive tenderness, Vincent accepted the truth -- that the more unencumbered Diana's feelings had become for him over the last few months, the more he had shrouded his own with denial, with shadows, defending his familiar pain against her reaching love that would have taken hold of his soul and justifiably shaken it to its core.

In that ceaseless hour in which he cradled what remained of Diana to him, Vincent made his confession to Providence as well as himself: He ached with the love he carried for her. He ached with the need to have her near, rest his tested soul beside hers for all of his days, loving her as she deserved to be loved. He ached with the devastating knowledge that he might never be able to tell her, show her, accept from her what she'd never denied was in her own heart for him.

Gently, Vincent took hold of her hand with his, drawing it up from under the blanket to press it closely to his heart. He held it there, willing it to shelter, knowing she'd done nothing less than that for him all these past days -- held his heart, lifted it from grief-strangled oblivion to the warmth of her own nourishing love.

Now, though, there seemed no strength left within that hand, that touch, that love, for it to hold its place on its own. Diana's life circumstances in the world away from him had very little to do with that distressing fact, he knew.

Just as he knew what he had to do to reach her now, draw her back from the cold darkness that had quite possibly cost her her soul: Vincent slipped his own hand over hers, supporting it over his heart.

Damning himself for ever refusing its tender communion.

He didn't need to be condemned to hellfire for his punishment to begin, Vincent conceeded. He was already burning from the knowledge he'd turned Diana's own gentle, hopeful commitment to him into ash.

 


Continued in Chapter 20