To Hope Anew - Part Two

Living the Promise

by Rosa N. Tadeo


"Afterwards, when we have slept, paradise-comaed, and woken, we lie a long time looking at each other. I do not know what he sees, but I see eyes of surpassing tenderness and calm, a calm like the dignity of matter. I love the open ocean blue-grey-green of his iris, I love the curve of it against the white, that curve the sight of what has caused me to come, when he's quite still, deep inside me . . .

"I don't know where he got his kindness without self-regard, almost without self, and yet he chose one woman, instead of the others . . . Sometimes he is slightly smiling, but mostly he just gazes at me gazing, his entire face lit. I love to see it change if I cry -- there is no worry, no pity, a graver radiance . . .

"I am so lucky that I can know him. This is the only way to know him. I am the only one who knows him.

"When I wake again, he is still looking at me, as if he is eternal. For an hour we wake and doze, and slowly I know that though we are sated, though we are hardly touching, this is the coming the other coming brought us to the edge of -- we are entering, deeper and deeper, gaze by gaze, this place beyond the other places, beyond the body itself, we are making love."

-- The Knowing -- by Sharon Olds

 


Chapter One

 

Carefully, Vincent reached down and pulled the covers up higher over Diana's left shoulder against the usual early morning chill in the tunnels. She nestled her head a bit more closely to his neck in response, but did not awaken. Vincent rested a kiss onto her hair and closed his eyes again in peaceful, wondrous contemplation.

These moments had become his favorite time of day, the quiet, still dreamy hours before the constraints of daily life intruded ever insistently, the moments when he could bless heaven and touch to the miracles in his life.

As always, he first reached his heart out to the sweet spirit that was his son within him.

Jacob lay asleep in his new "big boy's" bed in the little alcove of their chamber, the child's even breathing and serene heart both easily taken note of by his father.

A month had already passed since Diana and he had safely guided the little child through the momentous experience of giving up his crib. Vincent's heart warmed at the thought of Jacob's eager and willing acceptance of Diana's presence in his daily life, even at such a challenging occasion.

When Zack had officially moved out of the boys' dormitory and into the pipe chamber as Pascal's assistant, the bed that had been freed up had been moved into the alcove with great ceremony for Jacob's use, at Diana's direction. It had only taken four or five nights for the brave-spirited little boy to familiarize himself to the new arrangement, but on the first night, not even the welcome presence of his beloved bunny was enough to comfort the child through the transition.

Vincent had come awake from an unaccustomed deep sleep to the disquieting greeting of Jacob's tears and fright in his bonded heart. Yet, when he came to his feet quickly in the semi-darkened chamber to reach the boy, he realized, with a tender comfort, that his momentary panic was uncalled for.

Looking around the screen partition, Vincent was greeted with the sweet sight of Diana, nestling close to the child in his new small bed, arms enveloping him dearly.

"I wasn't sure where I was, father," came the still shaky little voice in explanation. Vincent bent to kiss the child on his cheek, then settled closer within reach the little bunny who was leaning precariously over the edge of the unsided bed.

"You are still safe, here with us, Jacob."

"I know that now. You and Mama are near." A small, cool hand pressed up against Diana's soft cheek.

Vincent let the grateful wonder in his heart reach out to both his child and his wife. Then he eased his body down to the stone floor of the room and rested against the side of the bed, one unearthly hand clasping a little one always willing to be sheltered.

Diana began to sing softly, brushing the golden amber curls of her young son protectively. It was Jacob's favorite lullaby -- "Puff the Magic Dragon" -- and a belovedly new and blessed ritual that united the little boy's heart totally to his new mother's. What a gift to him, the sensitive child understood, to have now beside him a like heart that could understand the wonder of strings and sealing wax , and the uncertain anxiousness of things unknown.

With gentle kindness, the sweet generosity of a beloved heart, the child's pain had been turned to comfort.

As Vincent's own had.

The mythic protector of an underground haven a magical dragon himself might have visited, opened his eyes again, and let his gaze slip with lingering tenderness over the figure of his wife lying close beside him. That single reality, holding his enchanting soulmate in his arms as she slept, was a miracle of wonder and hope in itself, the new truth of lives entwined and sanctified.

It had taken Diana and him three years to find the courage to reach out to one another at last in need, and acknowledge the simple, profound certainty that neither of them could continue in their pain-riddled lives without the other's merciful, sustaining presence.

It had taken only three months for them to fashion a generous, gifting and supporting family life together.

Strange, how natural it all seemed, as though it had always been there for them to embrace. But, Vincent knew his once again hopeful, believing heart had only broken free of its anguishing bondage because of the stubborn, selfless love he now cradled in his arms.

Gently, so as not to disturb her, Vincent set his own hand over Diana's where it rested on his chest . . . holding his heart in place . . . he had told her one morning. She had smiled then, a shy and sweet girl's smile, as though he had just paid her her first woman's compliment instead of voicing a compelling truth not to be denied.

And her quiet presence in his life had brought so many more truths never expected, too, so much gentle wonder, tender support, and even heart-brightening good humor: Quiet conversations long into the dark of night, sharing the day's experiences; a nurturing woman's hand to lend support and balance to a sometimes stark existence; a lively intelligence that continually was ready to challenge and enrich; and, as always, Diana's intuitive ability to feel, and understand, and bring about welcome change that seemed consistently as though to have been there in the first place.

Those were all gifts, too, that found their way with welcome into Vincent's day to day existence, along with her ability to turn sometimes trying circumstances into unexpectedly breathtaking ones.

One such situation, which he happened to be enduring at that very moment, remained in Vincent's spirit with radiating warmth: He had come to quickly realize that the simple act of sharing his bed with Diana would be a contradictory delight any other man might have considered a bit daunting even under the most loving of circumstances.

In her life Above, she had been used to collapsing into her bed exhausted, both mentally and physically, from her spirit-crushing work, to drop into a fitful sleep flat on her stomach, most times clutching at her pillow, hugging it tight, like a reluctant anchor of security in her harrowing world. The pain found its way even into her dreams so often, robbing her of rest, subjecting her relentlessly to the shadows of madness she battled so fervantly in her work. There had never been anything, or anyone, she could reach out to for support in those pulse-racing moments when she'd awakened in cold-sweat fear, feeling so totally alone, and so totally vulnerable.

But things had changed for her, now, and that reality had become as much a treasured gift for her as it had been for Vincent himself, for he found, suddenly, that he had become the unexpected source of Diana's nighttime comfort.

Vincent smiled softly at the thought. No matter in what relatively benign position she would fall asleep in, Diana somehow always managed to find her way to his body for solace in the dark, the feeling of him near, the shelter of his arms about her her very source of consolation in the hours of the night, even if she was no longer haunted by the pain of her life Above. Reassuring her thus was a cherished duty her new husband would never want to be relieved of, finding himself drawn deeply into the serenity and comfort of her nearness as well, blessing heaven that he could allow her some measure of tranquility, grateful for his own gifting in her total trust.

So often, he confessed with astounding honesty to himself, that comfort easily evolved into heartstopping tenderness between them.

Diana's burnished hair would flow over his bare skin with welcome abandon as she would invariably come to find and rest her head on his chest. The cool environment of their rocky home was easily endured, they'd found, without need of layers of nighttime clothing. Instead, her slender body wound be easily, gratefully, draped against and on top of his own powerful one for its entire beguiling length beneath the quilts, in a genuine, trusting shelter that was at once endearing, and more than slightly seductive -- a welcome, or tormenting gift for Vincent to hold, depending on how deeply asleep Jacob was across the room, or how early the day's duties would come to call.

The solace and gifting trust that was ever the truth between them freed them both to pass the nights in deep, restful sleep, unhaunted by terrors or pain, as well as in nights of quietly enriching tenderness that had grown more precious and confident with each touch shared, each kiss welcomed.

It was impossible for Vincent to keep from carrying an awesome wonder straight to his heart at that last thought. He and Diana had not found their roles as immediate, newlywed

parents all that inhibiting to their now so easily and naturally embraced physical expressions of love. Tender moments had somehow been stolen, despite the largely casual definitions of privacy within the close confines of the Underworld community, as well as the mischevious, sensitive, persistent presence of an ever-active three year old with an astounding capability of sharing in another's state of heart.

Still, if Vincent would have even contemplated the possibility of the joy he was now carrying within his own heart at the knowledge of what those tender moments had already wrought, he would have seriously questioned his grip on reality.

But, the source of that wonder truly was real, the most blessed manifestation of the power of love.

Vincent lightly ran his hand over Diana's beloved body with a possessive familiary that would have stunned him in past days. He drew her closer in his embrace, holding her to his heart, the angel, and her miracle.

At first, he couldn't trust himself to be certain. Now, though, Vincent knew he had to be right -- he had caught the unbelieving wonder she still guarded closely within her heart, as she was not quite sure herself, yet, that she was correctly reading her inner perceptions. Still, her body was not so willing to hold its secret long, communicating it to him in subtle, but unmistakable ways.

The first evidence he had discovered had quite surprisingly contributed to that contradictory attraction he now found her body bewitching him with: Diana was becoming more sensuously provocative at the very instant that he was compelled to feel most protective of her, and her cherished secret.

Vincent slipped his hand along her shoulder and down to Diana's breast without a hesitation. The soft weight of it nearly filled his large hand now. A gentle, breathed sigh escaped Diana's lips at his loving touch, even in her sleep. He brought his tender exploration then to rest lower on the linen gown sheltering her body, down to her abdomen. It was not easily noticeable, but to a hand that had memorized every breath of her beguiling flesh, Vincent could tell the difference even beneath the concealing fabric:

The normally well-tightened muscles of her slender body there had yielded a bit.

Keeping his hand resting lightly on Diana's cherished figure, Vincent closed his eyes again and emptied his mind completely. It was not an easy task, for his sweet devotion to his wife's enchanting presence beside him had lit a welcome, distracting warmth deep inside his own formidible body, a cherished ache that held nothing but treasured communion within its stirring depths. After a moment's centering meditation, though, he was able to touch to the sensations within him that he recognized and sought.

Jacob's heartbeat he perceived instantly, peaceful in its rhythm, bringing him solace and hope. The child's blessed connnection to him had been the very light that had held his soul safe from the suffocating blackness of grief and remorse. It continued to bless him with promise and wonder.

Diana's pulse, strong and sheltering, was what Vincent focused on next, its presence in his heart no longer limited only to moments of overwhelming turmoil and need. Since the night of their marriage, indeed, since the moment of their consumated love, that essence had become a soft, reassuring, ever-reachable strength within him, one more gifting wonder he'd never dreamed could be his.

Beyond those two most cherished treasures in Vincent's spirit, there now was another

reality that he had been astonished to recognize within his soul. It was still quite faint and distant, and he needed to concentrate all of his empathic powers to it before he could even touch it. But, once it was within his spiritual reach, the new sound flooded within him with tearful amazement: It was the fluttering, quick-rhythmed heartbeat of a tiny new life.

Vincent blessed heaven for the gift, another outpouring of mercy in their so long tested existences.

"Is Mama still asleep?" came the sweet sound of a little voice at Vincent's side, trying very hard to be a whisper. An unearthly hand left one tiny child then with an acknowledging, sheltering caress, to rest upon the golden curls of another child in love.

"Good morning, Jacob," Vincent responded softly, drawing the little boy close to his side. "Yes, she is still sleeping. It is quite early yet."

A definite look of pensive concern covered the child's face. He placed his own small hand on Diana's. "She isn't ill, is she, Father? She sleeps so much longer now."

The serious tone of voice coming from the little three year old betrayed a very real sense of anxiety. Vincent wondered at his son's already frequently evident empathic and intuitive abilities.

The child was undeniably, totally bonded to Diana's spirit, and probably had been so for a much longer period of time than his father had found himself. The little boy had had no fearful turmoil to overcome from within his heart before he could reach out and accept the generous, tender embrace of nuturing communion offered him from the very depths of her soul. He had been able to easily recognize her love, a mother's love, accept it, and treasure it for the blessing it was.

With one strong arm, Vincent scooped his young son up off the floor and settled him onto the bed beside him. He touched a gentle hand to the child's furrowed features and whispered in reassurance, "Don't worry, Jacob. Mama is not ill. She just needs a bit more rest these days. We need to help her take care of herself."

Jacob seemed satisfied with the explanation, and Vincent was grateful, for he wanted to allow Diana the pleasure of explaining the wondrous mercy she would soon be gifting their family with to the little boy herself. He wanted to give her the joy of revealing her precious secret to him as well, knowing how happily the mere thought of such an opportunity was holding her generous spirit with tender anticipation.

For a long moment father and son lost themselves in the sheltering solace of each other's presence, and of the beloved heart that had so abundantly changed their lives for the better. A little hand slid gently over burnished tresses as lovingly as Vincent's every could. "Mama is a beautiful angel, isn't she?"

The child's quietly whispered words of innocent awe could have easily pierced his father's heart with unendurable pain only a few short months ago. But Vincent knew that Jacob's comment was only the child's tenderly voiced certainty of wonder, the simple truth of what the little boy perceived as the reality of the circumstances that had blessed his life with the amber-haired beauty he loved with every fiber of his small, noble heart.

For somewhere in the overwhelming flood of pain, uncertainty, history, emotion, and reality that had battered the child's spirit as surely as it had his father's, Jacob had melded the image and thought of an angel mother watching over him from heaven with the loving, sheltering, earthbound mother of his day-to-day world now Below. That combined fusion of endearing radiance had filled his little soul.

Vincent smiled gratefully at the boy's observation, so wise and true. "She is beautiful, Jacob," he agreed, blessing heaven for the mercy that had brought one of its own into his life in the beguiling guise of tender humanity.

A stirring of the tousled, amber locks across his chest told Vincent that his wife was coming awake, despite the hushed tones of the conversation around her. He watched as shimmering emerald eyes slowly came open to hold his arresting blue ones in joyful acknowledgement, that part of her soul that remained human and womanly very much delighted to find herself enshrouded in early morning love.

The part of Vincent that cherished her humanity, and its gifting, uplifting joy, couldn't help but challenge her heavenly patience with him at that young hour of the day -- he spoke to Jacob again, to continue his thought in a rather un-hushed whisper, "but she is bearable only when she sleeps."

A carefully aimed elbow found its way decidedly to his ribs; Vincent was forced to breathe a startled gasp that nevertheless continued into a heartfelt laugh. He deserved her response, after all. Jacob giggled as well, when long, slender fingers snaked across his father's chest to unerringly find the little boy's tummy.

"Well, I'm awake now, aren't I?" came the mockly menacing reply, as the bed erupted into a confusion of laughter, limbs, and dawn-time delight. A tickling battle ensued, first concentrated on one amber-haired angel for a victim, then, by mutual consent between mother and child, turned its attentions to a very vulnerable and suddenly far from mythic figure of a father.

"Peace! I beg mercy and surrender!" The hoarse voice brought a triumphant smile to Jacob's face. Diana managed one last assault on her victim before withdrawing, running a less than innocent hand along Vincent's compellingly powerful body beneath the quilts that reminded him instantly of how enticing a few moments alone with his enigmatic wife could be. He battled her attentions with his own final offensive, holding her to him with an equally less than innocent kiss that left Diana wanting for anything but mercy. Then, he swept Jacob off the bed with him to dress for the day.

 

"Let's get these costumes on properly and head down to the river for rehearsal. Who needs help? Hurry, now."

Samantha's easily instructing voice was heard over the chatter and excited giggles of a half dozen of her youngest literature students. With Mary's and Diana's help, the little performers were being transformed into fairies for a selection of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," at the community's annual summer festival.

Costumes were nothing more than a few yards of recycled and draped cloth, sheets mostly, that needed to be pinned or tied or gathered around little waists for the proper effect, as well as cardboard wings painted soft pastel colors for a truly ethereal look. But, the young actors were all eager to share their dramatic abilities with the community at the festival.

Meeting in Mary's chamber for the final costume fitting, the children greeted Vincent who had joined them with Jacob. The little boy was present for his wings as well. At the sight of her beloved mentor, Samantha added to the excitement with a teasing invitation.

"You know, Diana, I had hoped that you and Vincent would have joined us in a performance."

Diana couldn't help but laugh outright at the suggestion, as she caught her husband's almost persuaded face. "O, heavens, no, Samantha! The only Shakespeare I've ever handled was a high school production of 'The Taming of the Shrew'." She bent to tie a flower bedecked cord gathering Katy's robe together.

Vincent was about to innocently ask her what part she could have possibly played when his wife threw daggers at him from the depths of her green eyes. His silent guess was right after all it would seem, a warmth and radiance of easy good humor lighting his own gaze.

Samantha caught the sparkling exchange between the two people she loved dearly and felt her own heart brighten with unburdened joy. It had been so long since she had seen her cherished teacher so obviously blessed with abundant, hopeful promise. It made her feel touched by heaven as well.

"I was more thinking along the lines of 'Romeo and Juliet' actually for the two of you," she continued easily. "You know it, Vincent . . . the moment they first meet at the Capulet's ball."

Vincent stepped over to Diana's side with grace. She was, at the moment, engulfed with children bouncing, fabric draping uncooperatively, and safety pins that were proving not at all that benign. It was the perfect setting, he thought, to offer his beleaguered, beloved wife a bit of loving support.

 

- "'O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear --

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.'"

 

The children stopped their chattering long enough to drink in the melodious sound of Vincent's voice, a familiar and yet all too infrequent dramatic treat these days. Diana was transfixed.

 

"'So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows

As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.

The measure done, I'll watch her place to stand

And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.'"

 

Lifting his otherworldly hand before Diana's, Vincent gracefully implored contact. Without question, their spirits caressed in that instant just as readily as their hands. Shakespeare really did know everything.

 

"'Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight.

For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.'"

 

Mary felt a lump come up into her throat at the impromptu performance. The tender wonder reaching out between the two players, so easily discernible upon their undisguised features despite the commotion of children and costumes, was a blessing she also thanked heaven for.

Diana folded her fingers around the cherished ones sheltering hers. In a gentle voice tinged with playful confidence as well as acknowledging sweetness, she continued the drama, much to the surprise of her captive audience.

 

"'Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion showes in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrim's hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss.'"

 

The astonishment in his face showed unmistakably that Vincent's total connection to his mercurial wife had still aparently left him in the dark about a few little details that contributed to the sum total of her indescribable personality. He never knew her well-read

background included performing Shakespeare, and bewitchingly well at that. He decided to offer Diana more of the Bard's words, that easily described his present state of spirit.

 

"'O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!'"

 

The kiss that was shared so easily and freely was not only a stage direction memorized. It was broken only by the children's laughter and applause.

"I thought you couldn't handle Shakespeare, Diana! That was beautifully done," Samantha complimented genuinely. A sudden blush colored Juliet's pale complexion, as she held Romeo's delighted features.

"Inspiration from the proper leading man can work wonders, I guess," came the slightly flustered reply.

"Diana, Diana, my wings won't stay on straight." Little Miranda re-emphasized who would be the performers for today's production, however, as she pulled on the former leading lady's skirt. Diana stooped over to help the child collect her askew wings patiently.

"Just a moment, Mandy. Hold still. Your ribbon has come undone." With an expert hand, Diana retied the questionable device holding the wings in place on a decidedly flitty fairy. Well, at least the little girl had the spirit of her own performance down right, if not exactly all the dialogue.

At Samantha's urging, all her small charges followed her from Mary's room and on their way to the river park to brush up on their lines. Vincent leaned another reassuring kiss to Diana's bowed head where she remained bending to the floor, attempting to retrieve lost pins and bits of ribbon and silk flowers.

"I will be setting up tables with William if anyone needs me." Vincent managed to make himself heard over the retreating din of the would-be fairies, before he, too, left the room for the river. Diana returned to her pin hunting after giving Jacob a hug and kiss.

"This should be a wondrous summer celebration," Mary commented, as she folded up the remnants of cloth left over from the children's costumes. "Luke, Katy, and now even Jacob . . . they were all just babies a little while ago, and now they will be performing at the festival. I can't believe how quickly the time has flown."

"The children's enthusiasm should make for . . . " Diana did not complete her observation as an unexpected wave of nauseuous lightheadedness suddenly hit her the moment she straightened up from the floor to come to her feet. The pin box dropped from her hand and its contents scattered once more.

Mary blanched herself, a moment, at the sight of a very unsteady Diana. Quickly, she

reached a supporting arm around the young woman's shoulders, leading her to the worn reading chair nearby. With a few groping attempts to balance herself again, Diana was able to sit heavily onto the chair.

"What is it, dear? Are you all right? Should I call Vincent back?"

"No, Mary, don't worry. I'm fine." The words meant to reassure did not. "I just got a little dizzy. I must have stood up too quickly."

The elder woman pulled a straightback chair from beneath her small table so she could sit closely to her shakey companion. Reaching onto Diana's lap, she took one of the young woman's hands into hers, then promptly began to time her pulse at her wrist.

When she at last felt the agitated heartbeat realign itself into a steady rhythm, Mary released Diana's arm, and ran a soft, workworn touch over her flushed cheeks.

"Have you told Vincent yet?" came the quiet inquiry.

For a moment, Mary's charge wasn't certain at all what the elder woman was referring to. "Told Vincent what?"

A beautiful, knowing smile radiated completely over Mary's face. "That you are carrying his child."

Diana lifted incredulous eyes to her dear friend, but was hardly surprised at the fact that the deeply treasured secret she wasn't even certain of believing herself would have been revealed so easily to the caring woman.

Mary followed exactly what she was thinking. "I've been helping bring new lives into this community for over 23 years. It's not that difficult to pick up when a young woman is pregnant, Diana.

"I've come to realize that there are really only two moments in a woman's life when she holds the radiance of heaven itself in her eyes," the gentle voice continued with experienced familiarity. "The first is when she knows for certain that she is truly loved by the man she loves. The second is when she knows she is carrying his child." Mary smoothed back a lock of Diana's errant amber hair with maternal ease.

"You've been wearing that radiance in your eyes for a while, my dear, and I'm certain that Vincent's tenderness is not the only reason it is shining with such beauty."

An almost relieved smile also brightened the mother-to-be's still fragile features. She shook her head slowly, a bit fearful of having to undergo another bout of vertigo. "I haven't exactly told Vincent yet, though I wouldn't be surprise if he already sensed it. He's been so much more -- protective -- of me lately."

"You mean moreso that usual?" came the bright inquiry.

A bit of a patient laugh told Mary Diana's usual good spirits were returning. "To tell you the truth, I'm not certain I believe it myself."

"Well, we'll take care of that soon enough. I'll have Father give you a good exam and then . . ."

"No, Mary, please, don't tell Father yet."

The matriarch of the Underworld community immediately caught the thread of anxiety in Diana's response, and realized it had nothing whatever to do with the fact that Jacob Wells would most likely be totally incapable of keeping such wondrous news to himself for very long. Not when it would be the very answer to his past prayers for his own beloved child. The gentle lady brushed her hand over the bright hair of her dearly cared for near- daughter.

"You aren't worried to tell Vincent, are you, child?"

Diana held the warm hazel eyes, a mother's eyes, that reached out to her in gentle reassurance, joy and hope. She'd always felt so at ease, sharing her heart with Mary. She knew that the loving woman would understand what even she herself couldn't quite come to describe that was taking hold of her heart.

"Oh no, Mary! I think being able to tell Vincent this news is just about the most wondrous thing I could ever do. It is just . . . unbelievable . . . I mean, when I spoke with you on our wedding day, I was near to despairing, even then, that Vincent and I could ever truly find our way completely to one another, past all the pain and uncertainty."

"And here you are, holding a miracle within you, already."

"That is the word for it, isn't it?" There was a real awe and wonder in Diana's voice. A radiant glow filled her delicately featured face. Without even thinking, she ran a hand gently over her abdomen in a sheltering embrace for the child she was carrying.

"But you must tell Vincent as soon as you are able to, dear." The maternal concern for her own beloved foster son led Mary to sense the hesitation in the young mother's heart.

"You can't be afraid he won't be overjoyed at the news . . . "

The sublimely giving relationship Vincent shared with Jacob was only evidence of the blessed and loving welcome this tiny little miracle was certain to receive: Mary could fathom no other response from the child's father with such a revelation.

"Never. No, Mary. It is what we've both prayed for, dreamed of -- our own child."

Diana's luminece face, though, was suddenly confused, disturbed at how her words might have sounded. She explained herself anxiously. "I love Jacob more than I could ever show him in a dozen lifetimes! He will always be my beloved little boy . . . "

" . . . But a child born of your own body, of Vincent's love for you -- that is a true gift, a mercy to you both." The quiet words were so understanding. Diana was relieved.

"Yes, Mary. A mercy."

"And the fear?"

How could Diana place into words the firestorm of emotions that had been swirling about her heart since the first moments she had actually realized what her body had been attempting to tell her in recent weeks. A child of their own, a new life born of their love --

there could have been no greater treasure for her and Vincent to share. Indeed, it was as

if she'd known such a gift had become their blessing from the moment they'd consumated their love, the sublime, trusting communion they'd shared embodied into life itself.

Still, would they be free to accept it, truly, as a gift and blessing, without the agonies of the past threatening to rob them of their joy? That was where the pain, the fear, lay, within Diana's heart.

"I just pray, Mary, that this can be a time Vincent can cherish without having to find himself overwhelmed with heartache again." Diana held to the length of ribbon in her hand distractedly. "He wasn't able to . . . be there for . . . Catherine . . . and Jacob," she spoke quietly. "I guess I'm just afraid that telling Vincent of our baby will bring him as much pain as it will joy, that it will bring back all the grief and desperation he was nearly lost to before."

She knew her concerns were irrational, in the deepest part of her heart. Yet, that heart had only been freed of guilty turmoil for a relatively short time. Her husband's had been tormented for an eternity. "It's already cost us so much pain and fear, Mary, Vincent's past with Catherine. This is something we should be able to share without fear, in joy. I want him so very much to experience what this could be for us, free of the past. I want us just to be a man and a woman expecting our baby."

The green eyes, honest with their anxious uncertainty, reached out for some reassurance and hope, to Mary's heart. The elder woman responded immediately. She kissed Diana gently on the forehead, wiping away a single tear that had slipped across her cheek, and did not hesitate to offer her the benefit of her loving guidance.

"Tell Vincent, Diana, today, if you can. Don't wait. Share your news with him. Yes, he wasn't able to be at Catherine's side when she was carrying Jacob; the nightmare that had taken her from him kept him from her side. But that is all the more reason you must let him know your news. Catherine was lost to him, but you are here. You are his wife. He and Jacob adore you.

"Don't let fear rob him of the chance to do for you what he was not able to do for Catherine. It will strengthen you both, child, not threaten you. Believe that, Diana. Your gift to him is already here. Don't be afraid to need him."

"I know, Mary, what you are saying. I guess I'm just afraid of needing him too much, of overwhelming him even before I'm ready to believe this all myself. I'm scared, Mary."

The softly truthful words held the elder woman's spirit. "Every new mother is frightened, Diana. Let Vincent be scared with you. Let him share in the miracle from this very moment, dear, the things that will keep you up nights as well as the wonders that you can marvel in together. Don't be afraid to need him.

"Let him shelter you, protect you. Let him help you put up with morning sickness and swollen feet and an aching back. Let him dream with you and worry with you. Let him be your husband in this. He never had the chance to before. And you will be blessed because of it."

The tears began to fall in earnest then, from Diana's emerald eyes. She recalled how difficult it had been for her to try to understand how Catherine could have hesitated telling Vincent about Jacob. She still hadn't been able to reconcile that reality within her own heart. Only the fear of causing her husband pain, by plunging him back into his finally diffused agonies of the past, had kept Diana from sharing her own wonder with him.

She would have melted into the sweetness of his tenderness and care, feeling the wealth of radiant devotion for her he would have poured from his heart into hers at such news, days, weeks ago, indeed, at the very first moment the thought even actually formed within her mind that perhaps, just perhaps . . . She would have revelled in the astonished joy and precious awe she would have seen in his face . . . She would have blessed heaven for the opportunity to help him reinforce his own belief in the miracle that was his humanity. Only the shadows of the past had kept her from it all.

Cathy, I'll never understand what was in your heart at that moment, she reiterated to herself silently, what held you back from telling Vincent about Jacob; but I am pregnant with my husband's child, now, and I am going to let him share it all with me. We need to be there for each other, and I know he is ready to keep the past as the past.

Touching to her hope and conviction within her own love, Diana smiled at last, softly, and with shy expectation. Mary's serious countenance also brightened at the sight of her friend's renewed hope. "I'd like it to be a special moment for us, Mary, when I tell him," she explained, a tender blush coloring her translucent skin.

Mary lifted her hand to Diana's chin with motherly care. "Of, course, dear. Just let me know when you need me to take Jacob."

It had been her intention to protest the need for keeping the little boy in the dark as of yet, but the sparkling brightness in the hazel eyes urging her onwards towards hope deepened the blush on Diana's pale cheeks. "That won't be necessary, Mary."

"Nonsense, child. There's no reason such wondrous news can't be revealed within the context of a quiet, romantic evening, just the two of you together. Both you and Vincent have been flooded with responsibilities lately. You need some time to yourselves. God knows there will be precious little of it when the baby arrives!" An almost mischevious

turn of Mary's usually demure manner nearly stunned Diana. "Besides, there are some very worthwhile advantages to a loving relationship that a woman with child can offer her husband, my dear."

Finally getting past the fact that it was Mary who was giving voice to her own romantic hopes in their conversation, Diana admitted it to herself -- The thought was so beguiling --

Some time together with her beloved husband alone. She could count on the fingers of her one hand how many uninterrupted evenings of peace they'd been able to share since their wedding night.

Perhaps after the festival tonight, she could suggest the idea to Vincent, Diana thought with a sudden warm ease of heart. That is, if Mary hadn't already.

Diana found herself wondering how on earth Father had remained apparently immune to that gentle lady's loving and wise heart for so long.

 

The sight that met Vincent and Diana once they left the dim light of the tunnels for the bright expanse of the Chamber of the Falls and down the steep path to the riverbank below was an incongruous combination of delights -- medieval in its appearance, Victorian in its formality, but with a Norman Rockwell type of familial spirit enveloping and enlivening the total picture.

On the riverbank park, among the green potted plants and bright splashes of flowers in flea-market containers, the Underworld community was celebrating a season it had relatively little actual experience of . . . summer. In the city Above, business-suited commuters sweltered between taxi stops and air conditioned office buildings, asphalt-confined youngsters took their refreshing plunges in legally and semi-legally pirated fire hydrant flows, and the city skyline trembled in the optical illusions of searing heat waves radiating from concrete and steel and glass: summer in New York City.

For the tunnel community, the season was usually barely noticeable beyond the tracking of a calendar. While temperatures soared to vaporizing heights Above, the environment among the stone chambers was little altered beyond a rise of a half dozen degrees or so, most discernible in the relatively bright expanse of the river chasm. The light in that vast, remarkable location would indeed take on a sort of warmth in itself that mimicked quite successfully the radiant heat of a mid-May day rather than one in mid summer.

But, for the men, women, and children of the Underworld, it was enough of a change to revel in with simple delights -- Festival Week. The tradition denoted a time when school work gave way to excited amateur presentations of the various arts; the day to day labors of supporting a subsistence lifestyle were momentarily set aside for family time; and community activities were interspersed with spirit-enriching excursions into the natural wonders of their magical world.

"I am always amazed at the sights of these days," Diana observed brightly as she leaned against Vincent in a moment of contemplation before they, too, joined the encompassing crowd of family before them.

"We are a wonder as a community," came the gentle, appreciative reply from her side.

It had been too long since Vincent had been able to once again rejoice in the uniquely nurturing environment that was his home. He credited his beloved wife's extraordiary, hopeful soul fully with that transformation within him.

The transformation also included most of the community at the moment, it would seem, as the heavy, serious garments of both body and spirit gave way temporarily to the lightness of summer. Evidence of life in its fullness tumbled over itself all around them.

Children in coveralls and light cotton dresses were romping about in the now quite luxuriant growth of grass that rimmed the river bank for a freedom-reinforcing stretch of a hundred feet. Long-burdening layers of heavy fabrics were shed for a stunning juxtaposition of garments among tunnel dwellers of every age, all geared to one purpose -- enjoying the relative warmth and brightness of the light. Wool trousers gave way to twill pants, sweaters and tunics were replaced by cotton shirts, heavy boots were actually pulled off and replaced by comfortable moccasins, and, for the truly adventurous, walking sandals.

Even the more conservative of the women who were still in dresses had found ways to enjoy the summer brightness, not in enveloping layers of homespun and recycled fabrics, but wearing charming, nostalgic light-weighted garments, "housedresses" and jumpers that lent a gentle aire of civility to the boisterous activity.

The bravest souls of the lot -- the adolescents and young adults of the community, were enjoying summer in the river itself, swimming, in a faded assortment of leggings and shirts hardly sheltering them from the still relatively chill water. Still, it was summer, and a time to enjoy one another's company in good spirits and with warm hearts.

Even Diana and Vincent had succumbed to the enticing invitation of warm brightness radiating down over them: Diana had exchanged her wool tunic and skirt for a softly gathered cotton dress in a muted floral print of greens and blues. The colors played off her braided russet hair and bright emerald eyes beautifully, lending a gentle, reminiscent aura of femininity to her open features.

Vincent was not immune to the temptations of sunlight this day, either. He wore only a long-sleeved muslin shirt and jeans that had acquired a comfortable fit on his powerful body. His cloak had been left behind in their chamber, the warm brightness of his surroundings free to glisten in his golden hair and over his captivating features, something that was not overlooked by Diana's soaring heart this particular day.

Once the majority of the community had assembled, the planned activities of the day were announced by Pascal -- a sand castle building for teams of adults and children, relay races and tests of skill, a miniature sailboat race across the small lagoon pond, and, of course, a picnic feast William could justly be proud of.

The prelude to all the activities, though, would be the long awaited for, much rehearsed, children's production of literary highlights.

Vincent and Diana made their way to an open spot beneath one of the thriving ficus trees where Rebecca, Jaimie, and Mouse waited for them, seated on a blanket. Getting comfortable at their places, the late-arriving husband and wife were greeted with numerous salutations from all those around.

"Should have joined us for a swim. Water's good, today," Mouse explained, his still-wet hair attesting to the young engineer's fondness for the water. Vincent smiled to himself at the sight, remembering how he'd had to teach the young man to swim only three or four years ago. Somehow, Mouse had always evaded the swimming lessons urged upon all the children of the community, as much for their own protection as for their enjoyment in the rugged terrain of their environment and the constant presence of water within it.

Mouse had reached his twenties without the benefit of a single guiding instruction when he took an unexpected dousing in the Mirror Pool while repairing an aqueduct pipe overhead. Far from raising fear in the young man's heart, the experience had compelled him instead to seek Vincent out for immediate help with the skills required. He had, since then, become quite an avid and competent swimmer.

"Perhaps later we shall take Jacob in," Vincent responded, with a bit of a daring glance back to Diana. He knew what her comment was likely to be.

"I'll turn into an icicle and you'll have to rescue me instead of enjoying yourselves."

"Someday, I will get you into that water, Diana, and you will enjoy it," came the easy reply, accompanied by a mischevious glint in unearthly blue eyes that threatened, or promised, an experience Diana would be certain to remember.

"We'll see," was her simple conclusion, though she could think of no more welcome way to spend a languid evening in Vincent's company. Still, that damnably cold water always froze her best intentions of joining her husband in an activity he obviously enjoyed.

Vincent's strength made him a powerful swimmer, graceful and lithe in the water, with a natural skill and ability. He'd long ago accustomed himself to the unwelcoming temperature of the water in the world Below, and had often begun his day with a swim in the Mirror Pool or even here down at the river.

Diana, though, couldn't quite bring herself to tolerate the extreme conditions. She had only managed to join her husband in the water for a few moments at a time on odd occasions. Vincent had curtailed his own enjoyment of the river, then, simply because he hated to have to exclude her participation. Their free time together was so precious to them both that he wanted to make certain Diana had every opportunity of joining him in his activities where his abbreviated leisure time allowed.

Still, perhaps tonight would be different, he thought with yet-shy expectation. She had wanted a special time for them both. He had read it in Diana's heart today, and he wondered at how perfectly her unexpressed wish would meld with his special plan. Touching to his extraordinary link with his wife's heart hadn't even been necessary for Vincent to recognize the need they were both reluctantly enduring at the moment -- the unavoidable lack of time together alone that a communal existence, and a young child, had forced on them. But, hopefully, that particular situation would be soon remedied. Diana's spirit within him was close to breathless with anticipation that warmed his own soul.

With a tender embrace, Vincent pulled Diana to rest closely against him, as they listened to Samantha introducing the children's production. Diana smiled softly and easily leaned her body against his in its cherished shelter. Vincent never tired of holding her near--she, of being held near.

"We would like to present you with a special version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'." The bright pride in Samantha's voice held her teacher's attention momentarily away from the tender comfort he would readily yield himself to. Even across the crowd of family, the young girl was able to pick out the reassuring acknowledgement coming at her from Vincent's beloved features, urging her on to the success he knew would be hers in all her endeavors. At that moment, the anxious young dramatist knew all would be well.

In a moment, a delightful array of fairy folk trouped over to a clearing among the crowd that would be their stage. The children ranged in age from seven year old veteran actors, to Jacob's nearly three. Each child immediately searched the crowd for familiar, reassuring faces, too.

Katy smiled over to her mother Lena and Dominic, the young man who would, no doubt, become her new father soon. Luke waved to his parents with grateful joy playing across his gentle features . . . Kanin had returned to their midst, at last a free man, and Olivia blessed heaven without ceasing for having been given the strength to endure his heartbreaking absence.

In the very front of the crowd of children was, of course, Jacob, as he was the youngest performer today. The seriousness that marked the little actor's manner was captivating as he took his place. But, the moment he caught sight of his parents, he, too, let the inner light of joyous, exhuberant childhood radiate out to Diana and Vincent with welcome and encompassing generosity.

A sudden tear, the breathless realization of how quickly the little boy was growing, threatened to trail across his father's mythic features that would have been totally at home in Oberon's kingdom.

Well coached as to the need for proper dramatic delivery, the children began in loud, yet typically sweet sing-song voices:

 

"'Over hill, over dale,

Thorough bush, thorough brier,

Over park, over pale,

Thorough flood, thorough fire,

 

"'I do wander everywhere

Swifter than the moon's sphere;

And I serve the faery queen,

To dew her orbs upon the green.'"

 

The opening having been enthusiastically related in relatively harmonious time, despite the somewhat overwhelming vocabulary, each of the children then stepped forward to offer their own personal line, complete with appropriate mannerisms and actions.

 

"'The cowslips tall her pensioners be:

In their gold coats spots you see;

Those be rubies, fairy favours,

In those freckles live their savours:'"

 

Here, a general wave of mirth swept over the crowd because little Miranda delivered the last line, and her bright, strawberry blonde hair and freckles were all the reinforcing mannerisms necessary to get her point across to the audience. Katy continued, then,

 

"'I must go seek some dew-drops here,'"

 

And, at last, Jacob, in his sweet, serious voice,

 

"'And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.'"

 

The smile that beamed over the child's face, knowing that he'd spoken his line without error, was completely infectious. This time Diana was the parent with the misting eyes. To end in chorus, the children all chimed the final lines,

 

"'Farewell thou lob of spirits, I'll be gone:

Our queen and all our elves come here anon.'"

 

With a scurry in various directions to set to their fairy tasks, the children all scattered off into the audience to seek their elders, each bringing along a little nosegay of flowers as a gift. The performance received an approporiately enthusiastic round of applause. Little fairies bowed and curtsied through the crowd in acknowledgement.

Jacob made his way over to the ficus tree and stood offering his pansies to Diana. She accepted them with a heartfelt embrace, wrapping the little boy up in her love. Truly, she would need a dozen lifetimes to be able to express all the child meant to her.

Vincent offered Jacob his lap and kissed his young son easily. "How wonderfully well you performed, Jacob! You all must have worked very hard. You should be proud."

"It was so much fun, Father! And Samantha had to remind us only once to be fairies and not imps."

The honesty of the little actor's statement made Vincent laugh outright, as he could easily identify with what the young teacher had had to endure. So, it came as a surprise to no one except Samantha herself, when she was urged to the stage clearing once again by Pascal's invitation, to accept a bouquet of summer flowers presented to her by Luke on behalf of all the children. The wondrous pride and accomplishment on the young girl's face was enough to keep lifted everyone's spirits for the entire rest of the day.

Once the performers were resettled within the audience, Pascal introduced the older children who were to offer selections of music that were appropriate to the season on their various instruments. Soon, the lyrical sounds of Vivaldi and Mozart echoed brightly off the stone cliffs of the cavern, to mingle with the soothing power of the falls and the river beyond.

The audience fell into a welcome revelry with the music, and Diana let her gaze pass easily over the assembled community with gentle affection, a community she was now so happy to be able to consider her own loved ones.

Kanin and Olivia were sitting closely together at the edge of the grass, with Luke between them, a family once again. The tender warmth enveloping them all was a mercy to behold. They would have so much time to catch up to, but their love needed no such refreshment. It was deep and gentle, and wonderfilled, as always, the painful separation they'd all endured only strengthening their ties to one another and making them ever so much more cherished and sweet.

Diana couldn't keep from setting a sheltering hand onto her waistline, over the baby she was nurturing within her. A soft smile stole across her lips. Mary didn't know it yet, but she would soon have two mothers-to-be under her care. Olivia had shared her joyous news with Diana just the other night, as the two of them were working in the kitchen after supper, that news a blessing indeed for the tested family. Again, she let her mind drift to

welcome thoughts of her own happy news, and the hope she'd be able to offer it to Vincent this evening as they shared some welcome, special time together at last.

The community itself was also the recipient of numerous recent blessings, too, this summer. Michael had completed his teaching degree with honors Above. He had returned home for the summer to share his experiences and his knowledge with the Underworld's educators, Vincent and Diana included, preparing for the coming school terms. And, of course, he would be spending time with Brooke, time that was becoming sweeter and more precious by the minute. It was obvious that although he treasured his opportunities in the world Above, Michael's heart and soul still remained with the community that had sheltered and nurtured him for so long.

In the fall, he would take a position teaching at a beleagured school in the South Bronx, living there as well, working to share his zest for learning with children desperate for hope, but he would be returning each weekend to be among his family members and friends.

Vincent had been understandably proud at the success and selflessness of his former pupil, and he prayed that the young man would be able to take hold of some special hope in his own life, beyond his commitment to his new vocation. Brooke's tender heart would be very much a gift for the young teacher, he knew.

One result of Michael's temporay return to the community was the incredible offering he had made to his home for its own teaching mission. He had come Below with boxes of textbooks and supporting materials for many subject areas. Having worked parttime on reconstruction crews that were remodelling an elementary school near his college, after hours, Michael had carefully gone through cabinets and closets full of discarded, but still usable materials, and had assembled a wondrous gift for the scholars back home.

Vincent had spent no less time organizing the materials once they were brought Below.

More than once, Diana had found her husband pouring over volumes, taking copious notes and formulating lession plans even after having put in a full day's work in the stone chambers beforehand, all in preparation for the next terms of classes for the tunnel children. It had been another joy for her to experience with her beloved, as they shared ideas and information between them, she, finally able to use her bright and insightful intelligence in such positive, promising work. It was such a far cry from her spirit-sapping

days in the world of criminal justice in the city Above them.

Diana's quiet contemplation of the gathered family members finally fell on what she considered to be the most wondrous blessing they could all rejoice in: To the rear of the assembled crowd, sharing a bench set up before a stately Norfolk Pine, were Father and Mary, surveying their beloved community as well, and enjoying the peaceful, enveloping tones of the children's music.

It was a heartwarming sight: The two elder leaders of the Underworld were much in a similar position as most of the couples scattered about the audience -- leaning against one another in easy, confortable repose. Father had one sheltering arm gently about Mary's shoulders.

The look of sheer bliss on the beautiful, careworn features of the older woman caught a lump in Diana's throat. Though she tried to clear it to call to her own husband close beside her, she only managed to gently nudge Vincent's attention away from the muscians and over to his father. Finally, Diana whispered a sweet, heartfelt, "Look."

Vincent followed her direction to the pine, and the radiant portrait of mature love that met his eyes. He let a sigh of wonder and gratitude slip from his heart. "It would appear they have found one another. At last," he whispered.

The tenderness that reached out to him from his foster father and mother warmed Vincent to his very soul. Ever since he was a boy, and old enough to understand the heart's sometimes indecipherable needs, he had watched the complex interaction between Jacob Wells and Mary.

They'd shared the heartaches and disappointments and tragedies of 23 years as unacknowledged soulmates within the community, yet, neither had ever made a move to accept their shared spirits in a word they embodied as no other -- love.

But, it was love that they shared -- tested, resilient, pained, but true. Over the years, Mary had reconciled herself to the fact that she would forever be at the distinguished physician's side, but never in his arms. He had found temporary solace in the arms of another, but never would be able to share his world with her at his side.

Yet, somehow, in past months, even they had made their way to one another. Vincent found it comforting to guess at the reason why with some confidence: If he and Diana had been able to forge a blessed relationship in total, committed love, why couldn't they?

Vincent gently kissed his beloved wife on the cheek, then gave Jacob a similar acknowledgement on his golden red curls. Thanks to heaven's mercy, he had been able to finally relinquish his terrors of heart for the unburdened freedom of love, of loving Diana. A gentle smile crossed his wife's ethereal face, as though she had read his heart in that instant. He had no doubt that she did.

"What brings such a look to your face, my love?" he asked quietly.

"That could have been us, you know . . . apart for decades before we could find our way to each other."

Vincent shook his head. "I would have never survived decades of your temperament, Diana. It would hardly have been long-suffering and quietly resigned as Mary's has been over the years."

The definite challenge in those quiet observations begged to be taken up. Diana's green eyes flashed in familiar defiance. "Is that so? Well, I pray that Jacob hasn't inherited the bedeviling trait that you Wells men seem to have nurtured into an art."

"And what bedeviling trait is that?" Vincent continued, attempting to keep a serious and injured look about him.

"The need to reject love for an eternity when it is so plainly and generously offered by a companion heart!"

The encompassing smile that lit Vincent's unique features told his wife she had made her point, painlessly. "Jacob wil be tormented by no such ill inheritance. Hopefully, between the two of us, we will be able to help him learn to recognize love and move towards it always in hope. You were able to teach me."

Diana lifted her husband's hand from where it rested on her sleeve and set a tender kiss to its work-roughened palm. The ache to offer him more was suddenly lit within her heart. She knew he read it there from the sweetly possessive shift in his embrace. It may have taken them the turmoil of years to find their pain-riddled way to one another, but they could touch to each other's souls quite readily by now. And accept, quite readily, the gifts of love within.

Once the musical selections were completed, the crowd of tunnel residents dispersed to any number of activities offered before lunch. A series of swimming heats enticed Mouse and Jamie back into the water, along with numerous other brave participants. Vincent and Diana took Jacob over to the lagoon pond where he could test his sailing skills against some of the other youngsters.

Small crafts of various designs and materials were all urged across the little pond with shouts and arm-wavings and individual sail-blowing techniques. There was much laughter as well as good-natured cheers.

Jacob's little boat was pitted against Katy's for one race, and was a length behind when the little boy found his second wind and brought the small boat to within striking distance. With about a foot of water to go, the two boats were in a dead heat, and the cheers and urgings of onlookers grew to a wondrous tumult. Finally, Katy's boat touched land a breath before Jacob's. True to his generous disposition, the little boy complimented his playmate's accomplishment.

"You're a good sailor, Katy, for a girl."

"Ah, and now it begins: The battle of the sexes," Diana observed with patient good humor to Lena. Both mothers laughed.

After the races, the sand castle competition began with teams being allowed 1/2 hour

to construct their buildings using similar tools. Samantha joined Vincent, Diana and Jacob, and the construction began in earnest. In no time, a striking concoction of towers, moats, and walls took shape with generous abandon and imagination.

Vincent did the main shaping with Jacob carefully digging the interconnecting waterways to his little heart's content. Diana and Samantha concentrated on the finishing aspects of the design with the towers and added bits of detail -- stones and sticks for paths and decor, and even a large ivy leaf for a flying standard. When time was called, everyone was quite satisfied with their endeavors.

And, true to the comunity's spirit, every building and team was singled out for its own merits and achievements: tallest, largest, most towers, best decorated, and so on. The judging team of Elizabeth, Cullen, and Father presented a ribbon for "Most Imaginative Use of Waterways" to Jacob and his fellow builders. The castles were left to be admired for the rest of the day with their prizes proudly showing.

Finally, William's contribution to the day had all the community flocking to the tables for a picnic feast -- cold meats and salads, rolls and breads in abundance, cheese and fruits and even chunks of watermelon which everyone relished with gusto.

Vincent and Diana returned to their blanket to enjoy the meal leisurely with Jacob. "I guess family time in summer is the same wherever we go," Diana observed, smiling as Jacob battled his slippery pieces of melon.

"Your experience of summer must have been a bit different, I'd guess," Vincent returned, the thought of a young Diana with her family filling his mind with warm and tender images.

"Maybe the particular circumstances were different, but the feelings never change. I always felt so close to my family when we were free to spend a few days together with laughter and dreams and s'mores over a campfire."

"Some more's?" came the inevitable question. The totally perplexed look crossing Vincent's unique face was enchanting.

"S'mores. You've never had them? I suppose not -- I think they were a Girl Scout invention."

"And you, no doubt, were a Girl Scout." Vincent gave his wife an incredulous smile.

"Of course. Both Maureen and I were, all the way through to Senior Scouts and camp counselors. We made the best s'mores you could ever hope for." Diana was relishing her selective answers to her husband's inquires. He'd only rarely ever asked her about her life Above before they knew one another, never wanting to cause her any pang of loss for a world she'd left behind, for him. But she cherished being able to open all that she was, and had been, to him, in complete trust.

Vincent still had not received a satisfactory reply to his perplexed question, this time, though, so he continued on. "And these . . . some mores . . . were made how?"

"Yes, Mama, how did you make them?" The little voice that asked so seriously melted Diana's resolve instantly. She may have enjoyed challenging her husband, but she would never leave Jacob in the dark about important details of her childhood. Vincent's patience with her teasing good humor had earned him his answers, also.

"Well, when you have a good campfire going, you toast marshmallows on the end of a stick. Then you pull them off the stick with a piece of chocolate bar and two graham crackers. When they are stuck together and gooey, you have a s'more."

"They sound yummy, Mama. Maybe you can make them some time."

Jacob's lapse in vocabulary made his mother smile. She promised, "If we ever have a campfire going, and I can find the ingredients, I'd be happy to make some for you both."

"It seems as though you enjoyed being away from the city as a child," Vincent noted as he sought to help Jacob clean himself up from his run-in with the uncooperative melon.

"Oh, I did. We could never afford any fancy vacation, and my Dad always found it hard to take time off duty for too long. But, his sister lived in Massachusetts and every year we'd spend two weeks up there. It was a quiet little town and there were lots of trees and trails. My sister and my cousins and I would pack some sandwiches and lemonade and ride our bikes or hike for hours.

"There was a little park nearby, marking some local Revolutionary War history. We'd spend the day sometimes dropping rocks off a bridge into the stream, or exploring trails, pretending we were Minutemen fighting the British. Most days were just spent lying in the grass in the sun and looking up into the trees and the blue sky. It made coming back to the city a bit more endurable."

The easy reminiscences of Diana's experiences filled her with warmth and joy. But a sudden pang of guilt clouded her heart, as she realized how distant such memories must still seem to her love.

Vincent read the fear of inadvertantly causing him pain immediately. He drew Diana close and lifted her gaze gently up to his own untroubled one. "Those are beautiful moments to carry through your life, Diana. Don't bury them because of me."

"I know your experiences have been so much more limited than mine," came the soft response.

"Not so limited. Only different, Diana. And in their own way, beautiful to remember, as well."

Diana pressed a gentle, grateful kiss to her husband's lips. She'd long known how painful it had been for Vincent to realized he'd never be able to share Catherine's world with her. The ache of their always separated paths had brought him nothing but the reality of what they could never experience together, an anguish that had blinded him to the truth of all they could have indeed shared, in his world. A nurturing, loving, environment of magical natural beauty was no longer his home, his place of refuge. It became, in his own words, his tomb.

Yet, one of the blessed gifts that their own love had restored Vincent, Diana was quick to comprehend, was his wonder and love for his own world. He had taken so many opportunities to open that world up to her, giving her the very real treasure that was his home, as her own.

Knowing that she could consider his world as her own beloved home had made it so much easier for him to believe and hope in their love and commitment to one another. He'd never feared he was condemning her to a life of hardship and stark tribulation. He was welcoming her, instead, to his refuge. He was welcoming himself.

Leaning back against the sheltering power of his body, Diana closed her eyes for a moment, her mind full of the wonders that had enriched her life since she had bound it to her beloved's. Cathy, she asked quietly within her heart, did you ever really know what you were giving up by staying Above? It was infinitely so much more than what I've supposedly lost coming Below. And look at what was waiting here.

The reaffirmation of her heart's desire was both grateful and brushed with awesome wonder. The threads of destiny again . . . This time, their fragile weaving had proven so heart-gifting and a true blessing. A marvelous world had been opened up to her, a place of promise and possibility, that gave her beloved the freedom of a treasured, fulfilling existence. She longed for the quiet respite of the coming night so that she might offer the compelling, nurturing soul that was her husband the evidence of her own solace and wonder with her present state of heart.

Stunning sapphire depths held her own eyes when she opened them again, with loving commitment. She could read that Vincent asked for no more sweet repose, either, sharing in their gifted oneness in the blessed confines of their own home. Had he ever truly refused his humanity in agonized guilt and fear? It couldn't have been possible. There was only hope and promise alive between them now. And such a gift, Diana thought in wonder, holding fast to the joy of her treasured secret, a gift she'd reveal to him with every breath of love that quietly warmed her heart and body with gentle anticipation.

A commotion around the picnic tables drew both Diana's and Vincent's attention from the growing and every more welcome tenderness of their joined spirits. With much fanfare, William was urging all the community back to the meal tables for a special and very mysterious dessert treat. The lighthearted invitation pulled Diana reluctantly back from her profound thoughts. Vincent seemed equally pleased to remain within the breathless tenderness of each other's presence. But, there would be plenty of time for that precious gift, he mused, with easy contentment. Especially for this night.

"I wonder what the surprise could be?" Diana questioned.

Vincent gathered Jacob up into his arms, then lent Diana a hand up from the ground. "I have no idea at all."

Father and Mary had, by then, reached the young family and joined in the speculation. "Do you know anything about this, Vincent?" The earnest features of his Father were warmed by a bright and slightly bewildered smile.

"All I know is that Henry and Lin wished to treat everyone and sent some mysterious containers from their restaurant for today. Since they couldn't join us, they offered their good wishes and this inclusion for our meal."

At the main tables, William was in his glory directing the milling crowd into several lines before him. It appeared that Rebecca, Brooke, and Samantha were also in on the subterfuge, and were placed along the tables at the heads of the lines.

When William caught sight of Mary, he quickly waved her before him. "Here, Mary, you get to inaugurate our treat."

The quiet, gentle lady, hardly used to being singled out in the crowd, fairly blushed at having been thrust into the center of the mystery. With a grand flourish, William lifted the lid off the large, round, waxed cardboard container before him, then reached into another box to his side.

"Oh my gracious! Ice cream cones?" Mary's surprised outburst sent everyone to laughing, at both the delight of the rare treat, and the elder lady's own childlike response to its revelation.

The mystery was, indeed, that foreign delight -- vanilla ice cream, scooped out of the abundance of the restaurant containers and into the crisp sugar cones everyone remembered from childhood, enough for every single person gathered for the festival. Oh, the community had occasionally partaked of such a treat in the past, especially the children, but the simple delight had always been reserved for small portions on infrequent occasions -- a birthday, a sore throat -- never on such a grand scale, and with such flamboyant fun.

The girls and William were soon hard at work spooning up the treats and passing out the cones. Father was as incredulous as Mary had been. "Good heavens. I haven't had one of these in ages!"

"Isn't quite summer without a stroll and an ice cream cone," boomed William's enthusiastic voice.

As Father took hold of his cone, he graced Mary with a gentle, mischevious invitation, hinting at the charm and graciousness inherent in his nature that a lifetime of sometimes burdening leadership had never quite extinguished. "A stroll. Yes, that is the perfect accompaniment. Will you join me, Mary?"

A bit flustered at having been so publicly acknowledged, the quiet, reticent lady gently took the arm offered her, looking back at Diana with a tender smile. "I believe a walk will be grand, Jacob. Thank you."

With easy, confident steps never once betraying his beleaguered hip, Father guided Mary through the throng of community and up to the river edge, where they slowly moved along the narrow path, reveling in the natural wonder about them, in the delicious indulgence of the ice cream, and in the sheltering presence of each other's hearts.

When Vincent drew his grateful gaze from the elder couple, Diana realized there was the brightness of relief, joy, and filial love showing quite openly in his arresting face. She set her head to his shoulder gently.

"I don't think I've ever heard Mary call Father by his first name in my entire life," came the wonderfilled words quietly from above her.

 

As they enjoyed the unexpected treat seated in the grass, commenting with those around them on the happy activities of the day, Diana soon realized that there suddenly seemed to be a great deal of whispering going on between Vincent and Jacob. The little boy appeared to be asking his father numerous questions of great importance, occasionally keeping his mother in complete sight as he listened to his responses with apparent satisfaction.

"All right. What is going on now? Didn't anyone ever teach you two that it isn't polite to whisper and tell secrets in front of people?"

"We aren't telling secrets, Mama, just finishing up plans," came the all too innocent reply.

Diana knew she was in trouble at the sound of that one. Her husband and son looked, for all the world, like a pair of Cheshire cats, and she realized she was in for something completely unexpected. Probably a dousing in the river, she thought with a shudder. When Vincent drew his arms about her closely, and Jacob began to giggle, Diana fully believed herself on the way to a cold plunge, and was ready to consider her revenge.

"Jacob and I have a bit of a surprise for you as well, Diana." The warm, low tones of Vincent's voice were at once teasing and promising. The eloquence of his caressing gaze caused her to rethink the possibility of retribution. Her surprise might just be something she'd not want to resist.

"Whatever are you two hatching? Out with it." A sudden jump in her heartbeat had all the makings of a promising response that she was already blessing the mysterious plans with.

"Father thought you'd like to go on a hike with him since you couldn't go the other day when he took Samantha and Jeffrey and Zack to the Crystal Cavern." The little boy's breathless delivery of his messaage made it all the more endearing. And the fact that Vincent had presented his plan to her by way of their little son was equally as inviting. How could she possibly resist anything he might be considering?

"Is that what Father thought?" came the to-be-expected, knowing, reply. Vincent's own heart leaped at the unqualified affirmation he read in his wife's spirited, beautiful features, despite her need to prolong his expectation with the contrary independence he treasured within her.

"You've never really had much opportunity to explore our world beyond the river here. It's become a tradition for Festival Week among us to take time out and share in the wonder of our surroundings as well as in the wonder of our community life."

The earnest words were gently pleading, as if Vincent needed to convince her of the welcome promise of his offer. He was still so very much in awe of their love fulfilled, of the fact that it was truly theirs at last, that he still hardly ever claimed anything of it for himself, asked anything of it for himself.

Diana knew his offer for what it was -- the shyly proposed possibility of time alone together. It was a response to her own unvoiced needs of the heart. Still, he'd only gift himself by gifting her.

She would see to it that he would be gifted.

"We can't overlook tradition then, can we?" she replied, her heart skipping a beat at the softly embered warmth she read in sapphire eyes that held her own. Its revelation momentarily scattered her thoughts into a dozen beguiling prospects before the practicalities of such an activity came into her mother's awareness.

"I would love to join you, Vincent, on an exploration, but what about Jacob?" Was there any doubt, though, in her mind at that instant, that everything had already been planned out for them?

"Olivia and Kanin have said I can stay with them and Luke until Sunday. Kanin is going to show us the chambers Below were he and Father are working, and Luke said we could build another boat that will beat Katy's."

"Till Sunday?" Diana couldn't quite believe her ears. Two nights and three days? Since their wedding night, she and Vincent had only managed a free evening to themselves every other week when Mary and Father would take their little boy for a special time with his elders that the child truly relished. But, even then, his parents had found themselves feeling more than a bit guilty about expecting the time for themselves as a couple, even though they knew how treasured, and important, a tender nurturing of their hearts in each other's breathless acceptance must be.

"Are you sure it won't be imposing on Olivia and Kanin? They've only just now been reunited."

"They suggested it themselves, Diana, or I would never have asked."

She knew Vincent was telling her the truth. Kanin and Olivia had been apart for three and a half years. Who knew better than they what it meant for a marriage to embrace precious time to share together as a husband and wife? Diana and Vincent had themselves taken in Luke for just such a remarkable gift to the tested, beloved couple, several weeks after Kanin had returned. They all understood the ache of separation, and the duality of life as parents as well as lovers.

"Since everything seems to be arranged, then, I simply have to agree, don't I?" came the offhand, bright response. But Vincent read the expectant gratitude overflowing from her heart with joy. "So, when do we leave?"

"As soon as you are ready," came the unexpected reply.

Diana was perplexed. A trip for three days in their rugged environment -- Wouldn't that require a bit of planning, some supplies?

Gentle blue eyes met hers with soft amusement at her confusion. "Don't worry. We have everything we'll need already along the way. I brought extra provisions along when I went with the older children. You'll only need to change your clothes and bring your own things."

Diana had to smile at her husband's certainty. It was hardly a characteristic she was familiar with in him when it came down to his interactions with her over the stormy course of their past days together. It spoke volumes to her of how far they'd come in their relationship, how well they understood one another's hearts -- and how easily they were now willing to respond to the needs of those hearts.

She had wanted a special time in which to tell Vincent of the wondrous mercy they would be gifted by from heaven itself, although she was almost certain he knew of her condition already, felt the tender awe she carried within her as well as their child. What better place could she find to share her news with him than in the deep and beautiful mysteries of his world in his arms?

But, suddenly, the thought crossed her mind -- if this outting had already been apparently planned for days, could he have truly known what she longed to share with him? She hadn't really been certain herself about being with child until a few days ago. She'd only told Mary this morning, and Olivia the other night.

"Tell me one thing, though, Vincent: How could you have been so certain I'd want to come along that you planned out extra supplies on your last trip down? When did you decide all this?"

He was entirely capable of entering her heart, wasn't he, joining his essence to hers as one, she recognized with tender wonder . . . To be loved like that . . . finally like that.

Vincent graced his enigmatic wife with a radiant smile that was the tiniest bit triumphant, as well, at her expense. He'd confounded her again, and she blessed heaven for the evidence of his continued delight in the humanity they now could so easily, guiltlessly share, crave, and share.

He brought Diana gently into his arms and kissed her softly, then tousled Jacob's angelic curls as he drew the child into his embrace as well. The little boy answered her question with a bright laugh.

"Last week, after the main steam pipe broke for the third time."

Diana laughed outright, too, as she recalled those nights when Mouse repeatedly had to burst in on them in the wee hours of the night because of the demonically possessed pipe that refused to stay repaired. The young engineer's obviously over-apologetic intrusions had been at once endearing as well as exasperating.

Vincent concluded his motivation for his now completely reassured and visibly expectant wife. "After three nights of Mouse's companionship at two in the morning, no matter how much I treasure his friendship, I believed you and I needed some time away.

Deserved it, actually."

The softly challenging, and promising, radiance in the certainty of that reply warmed Diana's spirit to its very depths, as did the rest of her husband's hardly hesitant explanation. "I'd rather be awakened by your tender presence at such an ungodly hour than Mouse's headlamps any day."

"I'll be ready in fifteen minutes." Diana's fervant response was all that was required.

 


Continued in Chapter 2