To Hope Anew

Chapter Seven

The sound of Mary's quiet voice was soothing. It was a comforting mother's voice, and Diana needed comfort at the moment, terribly.

Her entire body was wrapped in dull pain and she felt totally emptied, devoid of any strength or energy whatever. She attempted to piece together the events that led up to her present condition but they were really nothing more than a blur of cold, anguish, and fear. Not wanting to die. Wishing only to remain in the warm comfort of strong arms sheltering her. Then pain, unendurable pain, overwhelming her, crushing her, carrying her away.

Mary was running a small brush through her hair. She was humming now. The melody was familiar. What was it? Where had she heard it before? The brush smoothing through her hair soothingly, made her feel like a little girl: She'd been sick in bed for a week, some childhood ailment keeping her from school, friends, and rest. Then her mother's voice, "Here, DiDi, let me do something with that hair of yours. It will make you feel better."

It was making her feel better, now, the brush running through her hair, strewn across the pillow she was lying heavily upon. There was a pleasant, light fragrance lifting itself around her, so different from the cold, musty smell of the water she'd been forced to endure.

And the song Mary was humming. She knew where the melody came from now. "Scarborough Fair," she spoke quietly, the words sounding distant in her ears.

"Yes. It's one of my favorites," came Mary's voice, more distinctly now. "I've used it as a lullaby for the children. They love the song."

"I didn't know you were familiar with Simon and Garfunkel." Diana opened her eyes with some effort as she spoke slowly. Yes, that was the melody. Her sister loved to play that album when she was in high school. The two of them would listen intently to the lyrical words of all the songs for hours together.

Funny, that Mary should know it, down here. What was she saying?

"A Helper friend brought me a recording of it as a gift for some sewing I helped her with years ago. I'm afraid the old phonograph I had to play it has long broken. Mouse has tried to fix it but he can't find the proper parts."

Mary held the young woman's face with a patient smile. She was so glad to see her awake and lucid. It had been terribly frightening to watch Father, assist him, as he had worked on her shattered leg late last night. Seeing her recovering was a prayer answered, though there was still the very evident trace of pain making its way across the young woman's lovely features. Father had prescribed medication for her, but with their limited supply, her dosage was just enough to take the worst edge off the pain. Still, Diana had not uttered a breath of impatience or complaint.

"My sister and I loved to hear that song when we were teens."

Returning a gentle, reassuring hand to Diana, Mary suddenly realized that the young woman's face was undergoing a rapid transformation before her eyes, even as she spoke. The pain was being replaced with a grateful peace, the still slightly clouded eyes now shimmered from their green depths, no longer focusing on her. Instead they were being now held by something behind Mary. Or someone.

Waiting, instinctively, a minute before turning around, Mary gave Diana an instant longer to carry that blessed transformation on her features. And allowed Vincent one more moment to behold it discreetly as well.

"Good morning, Vincent," Mary greeted. She had been right, and now watched a similar play of emotions heralding itself on the face she treasured as a son's. Vincent did not seem to hear her greeting at first, his attention totally absorbed by the bedridden figure before him.

Mary read a very real and deep sorrow in his face, something painfully familiar, but a reality that had somehow been momentarily displaced by a tender . . . longing . . . she had not recognized in months. It was just such an embodiment of cherished, aching -- love -- that she had caught sight of in Vincent's eyes every time Catherine had come Below. Mary had concluded sadly that she would never see such a look, mirroring Vincent's heart, again. No one would every be capable of placing it within him again.

Could she have been wrong?

The look was buried, forcefully, deep within Vincent's soul in a matter of heartbeats, replaced by his usual calm. Had she truly seen it, or was she only imagining it?

No, the look had been real, and profound. Mary realized it when she turned back to Diana. The young woman's face fairly glowed, like a Botticelli angel. There wasn't a trace of pain, hesitation, or confusion to be found.

Her soul had locked onto that momentary revelation, and soared.

"Hello, Mary," came the delayed reply from behind her in a serene voice betraying no emotion. "I've come to see how Diana is doing." Vincent stepped up closer, to stand beside Mary nearer the bed. He turned a soft smile to the young woman lying there.

"All things considered, I believe she is holding her own today." Mary patted Diana's hand. Her patient shook her head slightly and let a trace of a smile color her face.

"Mary is much too cautious," she replied slowly, taking hold of the older woman's hand. "I'm doing fine. Just sore, and tired."

"You must regain your strength as well as let your bones heal. That will take some time." Vincent's voice carried a breath of admonishment, care.

''Father says at least three weeks, here." Diana's pronouncement was a little unsteady, as though she were not certain she'd welcome or curse the circumstances. Vincent looked away from the young woman's eyes to the stone floor, weighing his own reaction to the reality facing him. He looked no less -- confused -- than Diana.

"By then you will already be a full-fledged member of the community, I'll guess," Mary interjected brightly, "though it should have been under less painful conditions."

Diana nodded carefully in agreement. Her eyes never strayed far from her visitor's face. Mary suddenly decided she needed to do something with an instinctive understanding born of her years of caring within the community. "Well, I smell some of William's fresh biscuits. If you don't mind, I would like to stretch my legs a bit and see if I can catch one for breakfast before they are all gone."

"Mary, you don't have to stay and watch over me. I'll be fine," Diana replied.

"Nevertheless, Rebecca will be by a little later. Doctor's orders."

Diana sighed, unaccustomed to causing such protective concern in anyone. Still, she was happy for the welcome company promised, and for Mary's warm, reassuring touch.

With a look of understanding, the elder woman extended a hand out to Vincent's arm, too, then walked out of the small chamber.

"She is such a wondrous woman," Diana commented without hesitation as she kept her gaze on the curtained doorway where Mary had just exited.

"Father may be the head of our community, our guiding spirit, but Mary is very much our heart." Vincent came around the chair left beside Diana's bed and sat down. There was a momentary silence as each of the souls in the small room attempted to gain some neutral footing on which to continue their encounter, unwilling to admit how welcome an instant alone together felt.

Diana found herself momentarily transfixed by the figure seated to her side. Up until now, she had always seen Vincent protectively shrouded in his cloak and enveloped by layers of heavy garments. At present he was beside her, sheltered only by a chambray shirt and patched jeans. Though no less powerful and arresting in his appearance, he looked, somehow, vulnerable, as well, and much younger than he ordinarily seemed.

Her gaze fell onto the bandage on his shoulder, showing from under his shirt. "You're hurt," she said quietly, the thought of him enduring any more pain a silent torment for her as well.

"Only a small cut. I bumped up against something in the crawl space tunnel when we were moving you out."

He was hurt because of her. That was all she could think of, never mind that he'd dismissed it as a mere scratch. Her heart took an unexpected stumble at the thought, and at the look on his face as she felt him running his eyes with concern, tender concern, over her.

Another pause. Vincent could not help but note how frail Diana seemed, lying in the bed before him. Her right arm, nearest him, was in a cast to the elbow. Her left was stuck with an IV needle. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her opalescent skin seemed almost parchment thin and transparent. Beneath the covers, he knew her left leg was swathed in elastic bandages around the knee while her entire right leg was encased in plaster.

She seemed a battered china doll having barely survived the ravages of a child's willful tantrum. Vincent could not keep his heart from reaching out to her. He read the startled gratitude in her eyes.

Diana managed to find her voice again first. "Where is Jacob?" Back to safe, neutral ground.

"He has just finished breakfast. I left him with Olivia as I wasn't certain you were up to tolerating his energy this morning."

Diana let a genuine warmth fill her at last at the thought of the little boy. "I love tolerating his energy, any day. I never got the chance to tell you, Vincent. Jacob was almost walking on his own in my apartment. Samantha could barely keep up with him yesterday."

A bright, paternal pride lightened Vincent's features at the news. "I've noticed his eagerness lately. He will be walking soon."

"Probably before I will." Diana made the remark only to attest to the child's anxious capabilities, but her spirit shuddered at the fact that Vincent pulled his eyes away from her to rest somewhere across the room. Anywhere except on her, at the moment. Why was she so damnably prone to saying things in his presence that only seemed to cause him pain? When he drew his eyes back to her again, they were deep, anxious, and uncertain.

"Diana, I owe you Jacob's life. Again. And Samantha's. All your suffering, all your pain . . . you kept the children safe. I will never be able to repay you for your courage."

A lump came into Diana's throat. "And you have kept me safe. I owe you my life as well, Vincent. There is no debt for you to repay."

Oh, but there is, his heart called out. Acknowledging all that she had given him would be the sweetest burden he could ever take upon himself. But it was too soon.

"Are you still in much pain?"

Diana took a breath before responding to the question. She knew that the powerful figure before her was weighed down with as much spiritual anguish as she had physical pain at the moment. There had been times when she watched him struggle through it, clutching at the barest shreds of hope, attempting to place it all behind him, step by hesitant step. Now she'd been thrust into his world, into his day to day heartache.

Would her presence ever serve to bring him, finally, to firmer ground? Or would he find himself drowning in even more pain? Part of her, the deepest part that believed in the wonder and redeeming power of love, couldn't help but hope. But most of her felt like the proverbial fool, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

"I can manage to put up with it," came her soft words. The physical pain, yes, she could come to grips with it, place her consciousness into another reality devoid of it. Yet, what of the pain her own heart was absorbing from his? Could she endure that?

She would bear any burden, if it meant healing his heart. Even the sweet agony of having him so near to her now. And not being able to hold him.

Vincent eased out of the chair reluctantly, acutely aware of the throbbing tension in the room between them, only partly resulting from pain and uncertainty. There was so much they needed to say to each other, but the words did not yet exist.

"The children's service will be beginning soon. I promised them I would help them get ready."

Diana had nearly forgotten the passage of time in the candlelit reaches of the tunnels. It was actually Sunday morning, wasn't it? Even here Below.

She had prepared herself to deal with the total dissimilarities of her world and his, bracing herself to have to endure a lifestyle not even her heart would be willing to adapt to. Instead she'd come up against softly familiar ballads and children's Sunday services.

Would life here Below be so foreign to her then? She was going to have an unexpectedly extended taste of it under the most trying of situations. Would it be so difficult for her to find her place among these loving people in an enchanted refuge that would keep him forever safe? She didn't dare let her heart linger amongst those possibilities, beguiling as they seemed. She would only become a part of his world for a short time, because of a catastrophe that plunged her into it. It was most likely going to be her only time. Reality shook her spirit into quiet, believable acceptance of her fate.

"You shouldn't keep them waiting, then."

Before turning to leave the room, Vincent bravely centered his attention squarely onto her. Any struggles had been banished to his inner depths. He would not inflict them upon her. There was only attentive friendship to contend with now between them.

"Is there anything you need before I go, anything I can do for you?"

Diana's sore muscles responded to the inquiry immediately for her. The debilitated condition she was left in had kept her lying heavily, flat on her back, throughout the night. Those parts of her body not saddled with pain were nearly numbed asleep. It was almost more than she could tolerate.

"To tell you the truth, there is something," she began, in spite of herself. "I've been prone on my back for what seems ages. Can I just sit up a bit more somehow? I sleep on my stomach, actually, and three weeks of this position will just about drive me insane."

Vincent let a gentle smile light his face at the request and its impassioned supplicant. Father had been right: It would be a real challenge to help Diana survive her confinement with her sanity, and theirs, intact.

"I'm certain we can come up with something more comfortable." He moved over to a battered wooden cupboard that served as a linen closet for the little hospital chamber and retrieved a second pillow in a well-worn, but snowy-clean pillowcase. "Jacob seems to be more inclined to sleeping on his stomach, too. He is forever knotting himself in his covers."

Coming over back to her bedside as he spoke, Vincent paused an instant as he realized how much intervention was going to be required to help Diana change her position. Diana came to the same conclusion, too late. She had already made the request, and he was present to assist in his usual easy kindness. But she was not going to be able to do much for herself in the process: Her right arm was in a cast, her left, immobilized by the IV drip. She couldn't push herself up on her legs, either. She was, literally, flat on her back, resting heavily on the one pillow.

It took a moment for Vincent to gather his courage and place his consciousness beyond his suddenly unsteady heart. She was, after all, in need of help. That was all that was important.

Gently he slipped his left arm beneath her shoulders, gathering her up to his chest, where she automatically lifted her right arm to rest. His flowing hair brushed softly against her cheek. It smelled unexpectedly of cedar, and candleflame. Her own auburn locks draped over his arm in luxurious abandon. They were both actually holding their breaths, each afraid to breathe, afraid that the other might hear the pounding of their heart.

Taking the second pillow in his free hand, Vincent settled it down behind Diana's back. He barely felt her weight on his arm as he held her, the fresh smell of their homemade lavender soap in her own hair enveloping his senses. The unmistakable feeling of her body trembling in his embrace attested to the fact that his gentle act of kindness had suddenly become the heartstopping battle they both feared it would.

Easing her slim frame b Jš to the pillows, Vincent tried desperately to hold her eyes without emotion, but it was an impossible task. Her hand against his chest lingered a breath, the long fingers actually reaching out from the cast and touching the bandage showing over his shoulder. The touch was so much a fearful caress that Vincent felt his heart snap.

When he was finally able to free himself from the sweet burden of her body, he fought to endure the painful contact with her vulnerable spirit, lying revealed and unsheltered in the green depths of her eyes. The loving gratitude in them was beyond endurance.

He had discovered, then, the only repayment her heart was willing to accept, after all. Yet his own heart would never survive such a debt, intact. He would either lose it to her completely, or defensively so deaden it that he would be incapable of feeling much of anything within it ever again, beyond pain, regret, and the desolate cold pangs of eternal loneliness.

The second reality would be no more frightening than the first, he confessed to himself. "Rest now, Diana." With his indescribable hand, he lifted a single stray lock of hair from off her forehead. Diana closed her eyes against the flood of tender sensuality that tiny acknowledgment suddenly poured through her. She could only nod her head at his direction, and pray, that she could hold her eyes closed until he was gone. It took all of her depleted physical energy to keep from taking hold of his hand with her own, cast and all, to keep from turning her face into the palm and brushing it with her lips in fearful, aching communion.

When she finally did find the courage to open her eyes again, Vincent was gone. With him dressed as simply as he had been, she hadn't even heard the whisper of his sweeping cloak as she was accustomed to at his leave-takings, the familiar soft creaking of leather. He had simply vanished from the room. Mercifully so.

To lean heavily in the passageway beyond, begging heaven for mercy, himself.

Continued in Chapter 8