Living the Promise: Chapter Twelve


"Vincent, I never believed I'd be saying this to you, but there is something in your life that has suffered immeasurably since Diana has become a part of it."

The concerned tones of his father's voice caused Vincent to pull his attention from the chess board in front of him to the elder man's distinguished, careworn features. "What on earth could that be, Father?" he questioned in obvious disbelief, for he knew the leader of their community and his firebrand wife had long ago forged an equally respectful and affectionate bond. He picked up his rook and placed it into a new, defensive position with concentrated observation.

Jacob Wells smiled softly at the placement, in spite of himself. He reached across the board and moved his own knight to capture the rook. "Checkmate," he offered, unable to stifle a bit of glee that crept into his voice. Then, by way of explanation, he continued: "What has suffered, my son, is your scope of concentration when she is away from your side. It has made you, dare I say it now? a rather poor and distracted chess player of late!"

Vincent drew himself up out of his chair, shaking his head, and raised a strong arm around his parent's shoulders. "Well, Father, such a disadvantage hasn't obviously conflicted your conscience any, when it comes to the timing of our games. I believe that the only opportunities that we do play now are when Diana is otherwise occuppied."

Father patted his son's arm and attempted to defend himself. "Do you think you'd be able to do any better with your lovely bride in the room when we play?"

Smiling softly, Vincent agreed with the truth of the elder man's words. He knew exactly what Father meant. "Diana is a distraction I'm grateful to be troubled by under any circumstances."

The elder physician chuckled to himself with deepfelt ease of heart, at his son's unashamed admission. He began to pack the chess pieces away.

It was remarkable.

That was the only word for it -- the relationship his son shared with the bright-haired and gentle-spirited woman who had become his wife, and its effects on him the past nine months. There was so much closeness between the two of them that Father could see, such similar strengths they shared. Yet, at the same time, there were such unique shadings in each of their hearts that, once they had been melded together at last, had seemed to bring to life a wondrously complex and beautiful whole of loving commitment and gifting promise beyond description.

Not even Catherine had been able to bring such treasures to his cherished son, Father realized once again. Their love had been on such a different plane of reality . . . so exulted, and yet, at the same time, so . . . burdened . . . the cause of such fearful turmoil and pain they'd never dreamed they could, or should, ever attempt to reach past, such uncertainty that he, himself, had helped fester and grow within their hearts.

Thankfully, Diana had flung their fears into their faces, and unmasked them for the lies that they truly were. Jacob Wells smiled again to himself. The fierce intensity of the young woman's commitment to his son, and her hopes and beliefs for him, should have sent his own protective apprehensions into overload most of their first months together. But somehow even he understood that Vincent's only salvation rested within the hands of the mercurial young woman that would give her life and soul to set him free.

And who could have ever imagined that the simple truths and humanity of love, its very earthbound tenderness and shelter, could have become the lifeline that had breathed hope back into his son's so tested soul?

The elder man held the mythic figure of his son in quiet observation now as Vincent came to sit on the edge of his bed, and his appearance touched the physician with a pang of protective concern of his own. The strength was always evident in the coiled power of the young man's body, but Jacob could see that his son was still recuperating from his wounds. His breath came, occasionally, in shortened gasps, and the sweeping grace of his movements had been pulled into a more confined scope in even the simplest of actions.

Because of it, Father had insisted on Vincent remaining, if not in bed, at least within close proximity of his chamber. His heavy doublet and sweater, his cloak, had all been shed for a long-sleeved chambray shirt and jeans so that his wounds, breathing, and pulse could more easily be checked several times a day. The forced transformation even of his usually striking garb made the physician see his son, at the moment, so much the hesitant adolescent: quiet, shy, hiding behind a fall of golden hair.

Despite the still rather vulnerable state of his physical health, Jacob could discern only a wealth of vitality in his child's spirit of late . . . and peace . . . blessed, so long denied peace. From the rather distant and wistful look in Vincent's arresting blue eyes, Father also noted where that spirit was resting.

"Diana is enjoying her time Above?" The question drew his son's attention back from a cherished heart in a separate world, and into the rocky, candlelit chamber.

What a miracle of love that gift was, too: the power of two hearts able to link themselves to one another, beyond the realms of the ordinarily possible reaches of time and space.

To be loved like that.

To love like that.

Father had long ago ceased questioning such realities he considered to be glimpses of heaven itself. All he knew was that a spirit desolate and consumed by regretful grief was now capable of accepting the promise of tomorrow in hope. Because of the gentle, stubborn, unflinchingly honest heart of an amber-haired angel.

Vincent took hold of his father's walking stick as the elder man eased himself onto the bed next to him. A tender smile lit his unique features softly.

"There is a wealth of emotion channeling itself to me from her heart. Yes, she is happy, filled with warm, sweet memories, making new ones, sharing them with the women Above, with Jacob. And with me."

Those last three words were quietly awestruck and Father guessed why. Diana was not only giving her husband the gift of her happy experiences of the day through their bonded hearts. She had completely opened that heart to him in total, trusting communion, inviting him into the recesses of her spirit with a fearless certainty of love. That his son was capable of sharing in such a bond of expectant tenderness with another heart left Jacob near to speechless, as always.

"Are you truly able to touch to even her memories, Vincent, at the moment?" The words were incredulous. Vincent had to smile at the wonder in his Father's voice. It almost sounded like little Jacob's.

"Yes, even her memories. She's holding nothing back from me Father, her heart is filled with all that she is experiencing. I am there with her.

"The smell of cinnamon and ginger are in the warm air, the sound of bright laughter at a shared remembrance -- a Christmas pageant of children. Jacob is finding his new family members wondrously interesting, too. There is a closeness, a strength of love reaching between everyone in a bright kitchen -- Laura and Samantha, too. There is an ease of heart, a tender resurrection of promise."

Father slid a practiced hand gently over the cascade of golden hair half concealing his son's face. He marveled at the generosity of love he was witness to. Anyone else would have been hardpressed not to feel . . . regret . . . at having to remain apart from such gently nurturing experiences. "You've given Diana a wonderful gift, Vincent. She's been burdened and overwhelmed these past two weeks. You were so right to offer her a chance for some simple, welcome, familial warmth."

Vincent turned his soft gaze back to his father. "The gift was from you as much as me. I know how important it is to consider the safety and security of our world for you, Father. That you would allow Maureen the opportunity to share in our community, without ever having actually met her . . . "

"Well, I believe we can trust Diana's judgment of her own sister," came the immediate comment. "At any rate, I was only considering the needs of our community with the invitation. Maureen's design expertise may just come in handy."

A sudden, incongruous picture appeared in Vincent's mind that caused him to smile and shake his head in disbelief, an action that was not missed by his father. "Don't tell me, let me guess what put such a look on your face just now . . . you had a flash of what might happen if Maureen's architecture background were ever to meet up with Mouse's engineering expertise."

Vincent laughed outright. "God help us! That could get interesting."

"Well, then, we'd best limit Mouse's access to her, at least on her first moments with us when she does come. We don't want to terrify the poor woman right from the start, now do we?"

"Somehow I believe she would take it in stride, if she is at all like Diana."

Sharing some trepidatious laughter between them at the thought, Father finally drew himself back up off Vincent's bed, mustering up his medical and parental authority as best he could. "You've been on your feet long enough today. Diana won't be back for several hours yet, so, since I can't exhort her to caution, I'll need to demand your cooperation. Why don't you get some rest before dinner?"

"Father, I'm fine. All I did was teach one literature class today, right here in this chamber. You'll have me atrophying to stone, soon." The response was patiently tolerant. Father, though, would not be swayed so easily.

"One literature class . . . and helped the children practice their readings for Christmas services . . . and packed Winterfest candles with Rebecca, not to mention peeling apples for William's dumplings in the kitchen! That does not sound like much bed rest to me."

Vincent wondered at how his parent had been able to keep such a close watch on his day's activities with his favorite little espionage agent gone Above for the day with Diana. He suspected every soul in the Underworld was out watching for his well-being. Whether he felt it necessary or not. But, it was all done out of simple, loving concern.

"You left out suffering through a game of chess with an unscrupulous opponent."

Father let that last remark go right past him, innocently. "You'll be craving rest soon enough when the new baby awakens at all hours."

Vincent smiled at his parent mischeviously. "My one consolation in that will be that your chamber is close enough so you'll be awakened too, Father."

The elder man walked slowly out of the room with his chess set under one arm, muttering loud enough to be heard. "Honestly, I don't know how Diana puts up with you!

She must truly be an angel to suffer such obstinance . . . "

Letting the gentle harrangue fill his heart with fillial devotion for a long moment, Vincent realized that Father would never admit to him the terror he'd faced in almost losing his son to a simple accident two weeks ago. Vincent understood the pain -- he was a father himself. And he prayed he could be half the parent to his own children as Jacob Wells had been to him.

His children . . . Easing down to the welcome rest of his pillows, Vincent let that awe-inspiring image fill his heart . . . His children.

Jacob had been a miracle of life in the midst of madness and death and grief. Now, soon, another miracle, of love and hope embraced, would become a part of his life, because Diana saw enough promise in a shattered heart to take hold of it with fierce, protective possession, and offered it back to him with the sweetest and most tender of humanity's truths -- the gifting wonder of love between man and wife.

She was Above, in a world ever destined to be only a place of danger and limitations for him. His only experience of that world, with her, would forever be only beneath darkened skies or on shadowed rooftops, the only brightness allowed them just within the safe confines of Helpers' homes. But that world was not the center of her existence any longer, had ceased to be, from the moment she had first taken up her investigation into Catherine's death. Soon, Diana would be returning home, to him, with his children, home, to the stark and candlelit stone chambers that were his only sanctuary. It was her own.

Vincent let his bonded heart drift back to Diana's as sleep quickly began to overtake his weary body. He was tired, he had to admit, still robbed of the complete scope of his physical capabilities. Yet, his spirit was soaring.

Diana had just turned her thoughts specifically back to him, with gratitude and near-tearful wonder. Now the tears were indeed falling, he could tell, gentle, warm tears of joy and love. She must have just given Maureen the Winterfest candle.

Such a small, insignificant gesture to deserve such grateful devotion, he thought as he drifted off. It was only a little gift of time spent with welcome company, and the promise of even more. He'd only spoken a few words on her behalf, to Father and the Council, quelled the physician's reservations about her going Above only two weeks before the baby was due to be born, reassured the others that Diana's sister was worthy of their trust. Just a tiny acknowledgement of love.

What marvelous gifts had she offered him during the past three years? Only his soul recovered, his son safe, his humanity welcomed. She'd only brought him her own dreams, her trust, her very self, body, mind, and heart. And soon, their second child. Such blessings . . . his.

The bright, cool crispness of snowflakes against bare cheeks made Vincent smile once again, as he let love gently surround him. Jacob's child's delight filled his heart as well, now. It must have begun to snow Above. The flakes were drifting quietly, clinging to Diana's burnished hair, too, he felt. She was happy, serenely, innocently, completely happy.

 

"Samantha, look at this one. It's all pointy. And this one is very round. Aren't they beautiful?" Jacob was contemplating the wonder of snowflakes that were kept from melting on his woolen scarf long enough to tolerate a three and a half year old's awestruck observations. Diana smiled as the children walked ahead of her in the snow.

Her little boy was not above rolling those tender snowflakes into a ball to fling at his cherished young nanny, either! Such a wonder of combined personality traits, she thought with understanding -- a little boy's natural mischeviousness, his father's gentle-spirited soul, an angelic empathy for anyone and anything around him. She slipped a soft hand over her greatly enlarged belly, shielded by her trench coat just barely able to be buttoned over her figure these days. Diana whispered to herself, "You'll have a wondrous big brother to share life with, my little one."

Setting down the shopping bag that carefully transported the day's cookie production as well as the numerous gift packages being sent back to the underworld community, Diana took a moment to attempt to stretch out the painful kinks in her back.

She had thought the discomfort had only been a result of stooping over the cookie sheets for half the day, but her spine still endured the dull, settling ache even now. Samantha looked behind her and noticed that the young mother had stopped. She scooped Jacob up into her arms, eliciting a surprised and delighted squeal, and turned back to Diana.

"Are you all right?" she asked quietly, the concern for her dear companion immediately evident in her sweet face. Jacob also turned his attention from the falling snow to his mother with care.

"Mama, is something wrong?"

Diana smiled at her two protectors. "I'm just a little sore. My back has about had it for today, that's all."

"Should we just get home then, Diana? We can stop in and see Jeannie another day. You must be so tired."

For an instant, a tiny portion of her mind counseled her to agree with Samantha's urgings, but practicality quickly worked its way past. It was only a bit of a backache, after all, nothing more than that. The baby wasn't due for another two weeks, and their next stop was only one more block down the street.

A reassuring hand brushed over Samantha's rosy cheeks. How dear the girl had become to her, Diana thought, too, so much more a younger sister than merely a friend. And that sister's dark, trusting eyes were suddenly anxious.

"We'll be very busy Below with Christmas preparations and lessons. It's only another block to the shelter, and Jeannie and the girls will enjoy the cookies tonight as much as we will. I'll be fine, Samantha."

"All right, but let me have that bag, Diana. And lean on my arm if you need to."

"Yes, Mama. Take my hand, too." Jacob reached up to his mother with loving concern also. Diana couldn't help but accept their efforts on her part. She gave Samantha the bag, although the girl was also already burdened by a backback of gifts and Jacob's things. She let the little boy carefully guide her steps over the accumulating snow on the sidewalks of an unexpectedly quiet New York winter twilight.

Samantha cast an anxious glance over to her companion every five or six steps, concern filling her heart despite Diana's best efforts to reassure her. She had given Vincent her word, early that morning: If his beloved was in the least showing any signs of excessive fatigue or discomfort, she would get her back home to the safety of the tunnels as quickly as possible.

Knowing that Diana's protective care for her unborn child was unwavering, the girl also understood that her friend would easily set aside her own needs to assure the gifting of others. Jacob was at present enjoying the winter frolic immensely. Jeannie could more than likely use a bit of spirit-lifting company, too, so Diana would be more inclined to overlook any warning signals from her body that she'd done too much, if she were eager to please those that she cared for and loved.

She appeared fine, if a bit tired at this point in the day. Samantha judged that at least Diana would be able to get off her feet for a while at the shelter house and rest again a little there. Once they were back in the tunnel confines, the girl decided that she would get them some help. She'd signal for Cullen or Kanin to come and carry Diana home, though she knew Vincent would surely answer the call instantly, despite his own tentative state of health.

Well, she'd just have to count on Father's ability to keep Vincent in his chamber, if need be. Samantha smiled softly at the thought that even her cherished mentor couldn't always skirt Father's authority. The elder physician could be as stern with his mythic figure of a son as he was with Jeffrey or Zack in their adolescent lapses of good sense. She would be certain that Vincent's trust in her would not be found lacking.

Samantha had sworn to herself long ago, in the flooded, collapsed chamber that had trapped her, Jacob, and Diana, that her beloved teacher would never again have to endure pain beyond telling because of tragedy touching the woman he loved. Or his child.

Or his children, the girl corrected herself, taking in the beautiful figure of Diana. Not if she could do anything about it.

Looking up into the lovely face of her companion, Samantha let a bit of settling warmth wash over her heart at that last thought -- Vincent's children -- a new baby, born of love undeniable. Diana always seemed so at peace now, radiating love and protection and fulfillment. Someday, perhaps, the young lady dreamed, there'd be someone for her, too, to love, to trust, someone whose love for her could even embody itself as a child. It would be the sweetest gift she could ever be given, and knowing that Vincent and Diana now shared in that reality lit a beautiful peace within her own generous, tender heart.

Diana noticed her companion's sudden silence as they made their way through the Chelsea neighborhood nearing their destination. She wrapped a reassuring arm around the girl's shoulder. "I'm glad you could be with me today, Samantha."

The dark-eyed teen smiled in response, cherishing the acknowledgement. "I really enjoyed the day. William never has time to make fancy cookies for Christmas, and the few times he's let any of the children into his kitchen to do so have been disasters! Cleaning up took forever."

Diana laughed at the honest remarks, thinking, suddenly, that the girl beside her no longer could be judged simply one of the children of the community. She was fourteen, a teacher already, confident, bright, and on her way to becoming a truly lovely young woman. Vincent was so right in his judgment of his beloved, prized student: Their world would be reeling with the effects of Samantha's maturity in the community, happily so.

"Would you like to try doing something special with your hair for Christmas?" Diana ran a gentle hand over the girl's snowflake-laden braid peeking out from beneath her muffler. The dark eyes lit up immediately.

"Could you help me, maybe? I thought I'd like to wear it down somehow, but I have to keep it out of my way, too."

The practicalities of living in the Underworld made the young mother-to-be smile. She knew how a simple, new hairstyle could become a treasured source of individuality for the girl. And a few pointers on how to hold a certain young man's attention away from the chess board would also be a welcome secret shared, she guessed.

"I'll be happy to. We could experiment tomorrow after lessons. And maybe you can help me get used to putting my hair up, too. Mary's shown me a dozen times, but my hair never wants to cooperate. I end up using pins all over the place to tame it. It'll be sure to fall out the first time the baby tugs on it!"

Samantha smiled. "I think Mary has had lots more practice doing it, but I'll see if I can help you, Diana." Then a sweet blush of color touched the girl's cheeks, beyond the brisk, snow-laden effects of the wind whipping around them. She quickly looked away from her

companion's face.

"What is it, Samantha?" Diana questioned softly, taking in her friend's suddenly shy attitude.

"Vincent likes your hair, doesn't he?"

Diana found herself quietly blushing, too, at the girl's words, recalling what had caused the comment.

The other night, Samantha had brought Jacob back to their chamber from a round of practicing for the Christmas pageant in Father's study. When the young woman had followed the child in his easy, exhuberant arrival through the entryway of his home, she'd inadvertantly walked in on a tender moment between her two dear friends: Diana had been in the process of brushing out her hair for the night, seated on the edge of their bed, when Vincent had sat down beside her, gently taken the silver brush out of her hand, and begun to smooth the burnished locks for her himself, even though he had to keep his movements a bit abreviated, because of his still-recovering side.

It was a testament to how far he'd accepted and welcomed the humanity of their love, that her husband had merely graced the girl with a smile and words of thanks without interrupting the cherished duty he was momentarily involved in.

Diana reached another hug around Samantha's shoulders now, in response, blessing heaven for the girl's sweet friendship.

By the time they'd reached the nondescript brownstone at the end of the city block that they sought, Diana's back seemed to be feeling better, and her companion's concerns could be allayed with some certainty. Because of that fact, Jacob felt at ease showering them both with handsful of snow from off the railings along the stairway they were climbing, which caught both women completely off guard -- delightfully so. The child did not come out of the unexpected assault unscathed, though, as he found that his mother and friend were just as adept at tossing snow as he was.

For a moment, all three arrivals ended up knocking off their whitened coats for each other before pushing open the outer door of the house. Once within the building, they were surrounded by an engaging confusion of chattering voices and proudly off-keyed Christmas caroling that drew them happily within the depths of the room -- a large, high-ceilinged, parlor-type space. Though minimally furnished with several unmatched upholstered chairs and a large, comfortably worn couch, the room was alive with unexpected warmth, coming directly to them from its inhabitants.

Half a dozen young women, varying in age from fifteen to their early twenties, were engaged in decorating a decidedly unrobust Christmas tree. Several areas of the evergreen were less than full, but they were being successfully camouflaged by drapes of popcorn strings by two girls dressed in jeans and sweaters. Another girl was carefully hanging an eclectic array of glass balls on the branches. Above all this, on a short ladder and entwined with only partially lit Christmas lights, stood Teresa Salazar -- Doctor Teresa Salazar, the director of Magdalen House.

"Diana, Samantha, what on earth are you doing here tonight? It's snowing like crazy!" The newly arrived women smiled up at the obviously besieged sociologist tottering precariously atop her perch. Samantha quickly moved to free up an end of the lights that had caught itself on the edge of the ladder's top rung, threatening to pull Teresa off her foothold.

"Thanks, Samantha," she replied gratefully, then continued in obvious exasperation, "Why do lights always go out after you already have them up on the tree?"

"I've often asked myself the same question," Diana commented brightly, as she reached a hand up to steady Teresa's descent. Thankfully, the tree Below, alight with reflected candleglow, never became a chore to decorate, she realized with warm satisfaction.

Teresa extended an unselfconscious hand over Diana's ripe figure, with gentle care. "Your husband let you roam the streets at night, alone, in the snow?" she teased. Diana offered her friend a reassuring hug.

"We were visiting family and are right now on our way home. But, if you'd rather not take our Christmas treats and shoo us away instead, we'll just leave."

"Wait a minute -- you didn't say anything about any Christmas treat."

"We made lots of cookies today, Terry, and we've brought you all some, too." Jacob's warm announcement easily carried across the room, and in a moment, uncooperative decorations had been set aside for the more satisfying sampling of a large tin of assorted treats. Several other girls drifted into the room and joined the group, the cookies making a large appreciative circuit amidst them all.

Surveying the congregating girls who were now eagerly engaging Samantha and Jacob in conversation, Dr. Salazar leaned gently against her companion to whisper, "It looks like a sorority in here, doesn't it?"

Diana gazed over the faces of the young women in observation. She knew they were young because she was familiar with their ages. Teresa had told her. But several of them looked older than even the doctor's thirty-seven years, despite their present, spirited demeanors.

With a pang, Diana recognized the eyes that spoke powerfully of long battles with pain and fear and hopelessness, even now finding it difficult to take courage in their nurturing surroundings. She'd seen too many such girls in her police work, lost, struggling, and forgotten. Too many of them dead.

Through some mercy of heaven, though, there actually seemed to be a tentative feeling of . . . safety . . . within the confines of the room.

"This is no sorority, Terry. That's too superficial a description for what you're doing here. This is a community. A family."

The usually quick-witted doctor held quietly to the words of the young woman who'd become her friend over the past few months. She knew very little of the generous-hearted mother-to-be, except that she came from a group of concerned souls who were willing to help the shelter in its work, even if their means appeared to be only meager at best. The support they, Diana, had given in encouragement and hope, though, over the past several months, was worth an immeasurable value to the girls in the room.

"Jacob's getting bigger every time I see him. And Samantha . . . well, I've had a few of the girls ask about her after she's come by with one of you. They don't come right out and say it, but I think they are amazed by her."

Smiling softly at the words, Diana understood how the comment mirrored the hope that was evident around them. Here were a group of young women robbed of promise for so long, by circumstances they often had very little control over. So many of them old before their time. And they were intrigued and taken by a girl like Samantha, a self-assured, giving, ever-hopeful teenager who, but for the grace of God and the tender care of the Underworld community, could have easily become one of their number.

That thought prompted Diana to survey the faces again, seeking out one in particular. "Jeannie's not gone, is she?"

"No, she's upstairs, finishing up on some studying." Teresa's features shadowed perceptively as she spoke. "Actually, I think she's just avoiding joining in the decorating. I didn't want to press her. Holidays can be hell on a kid like her."

"Then you've enrolled her in school? She won't be going back to Minnesota?" Diana asked.

"We found out she'd run away from three foster homes there. She has no one left. Her stepfather's in prison for beating her mother to death when they were both drunk. Social services back there basically said we're welcome to her and better luck with her than they had. They're more equipped to handle younger kids, I guess."

Diana's heart shrank at the sad narrative. She'd come across so many youngsters like Jeannie . . . who'd become victims one last time . . . victims of the streets and the inhuman madness that could be drawn to a young girl on her own. She whispered a quiet prayer that this particular struggling soul might at last be finding its way to a safe and possible future.

"Do you think she'd mind if we went up to say 'hi'?" Teresa smiled gently, but the weariness in her face could not be completely discounted.

"She's let you get closer to her than anyone else here, Diana. I'm sure she'll welcome your visit."

A moment later, the creaky steps of the house brought Diana and the children up to the second floor dorm area. Softly, she knocked on the first door to the right of the staircase, then gave Samantha a gentle squeeze of her hand as they waited for a response.

The door opened a moment later, and the drawn features of a little girl, struggling to survive in a defiant adolescent's spirit peered around it. Diana swallowed the tears that came instantly to her eyes.

"Hello, Jeannie. We were nearby and thought we'd stop and see how you were doing."

The cautious young girl took in the still snowflake dampened hair of her three visitors, and smiled softly, unexpectedly. "Is it snowing outside? There's no window in this bedroom."

"Really big snowflakes, Jeannie, coming down in bunches." Jacob's enthusiastic response caused the door to come open wider. Jeannie bent down to Jacob, kindly, and stretched out her hand. Diana's heart stumbled at the sight, in gratitude.

"Come on inside and see what I've been doing, Jacob." The little boy let the girl guide him across the room, to a battered student's desk piled with textbooks and papers. Part of the desktop was littered with an accumulation of tiny bits of recycled office paper, next to a stack of beautifully cut out snowflakes in a myriad of shapes.

"Have you ever made paper snowflakes?"

Jacob's eyes lit up, their celestial blue radiating. "Oh, yes! Mama and Samantha and Luke and Katy and I made ever so many of them these last few days, for decorations."

"My fingers got sore from the scissors," Samantha confessed easily.

Jeannie handed Jacob a folded triangular piece of paper and a small scissor from her desk. "Since you are such an expert then, how about making one for me? Be careful, though. Those scissors have a pointy edge, not rounded."

Jacob easily plopped himself down to the floor of the room and began to cut patterns into the blank shape happily. Jeannie returned her attention to the women. "I love making snowflakes. You never know what they'll look like until you open them up."

Diana smiled softly. There was an almost . . . hopeful . . . quality to the young girl's voice. She hadn't expected to hear that. Perhaps Jeannie was indeed finding her way back from hell in time, she thought with relief. "Teresa says you'll be starting back in school in January."

"Yeah. She said I have to graduate or I'll never be able to really help myself." Gesturing Diana and Samantha to join her, Jeannie sat down on her quilt covered bed. Samantha was glad to see Diana accept the restful spot.

"It won't be easy, I'm sure," the red-haired woman noted. Jeannie nodded in agreement.

"I know. I'm so far behind. Terry's been giving me some help, and so have some of the other girls, but it's been a while since I've had to concentrate on books and classes. History's especially hard. I can never keep all those dates straight."

Samantha reached over to the high school world history text left open on the bed. "Science is my problem. I hate to try to explain things in logical order; you know, proofs and such. I mean, sometimes things just -- happen -- they're beyond explanation."

Suddenly, all three women laughed at the remark, warmly. Diana understood what Samantha was trying to say. Like her dear young friend, she herself was such an . . .

instinctive . . . person. Rational, logical order were difficult barriers to contemplate, even though her work Above had constantly demanded her dealings with them. Sometimes things really did just . . . happen. And the world was a better place for it.

Like the warm friendship she realized could just be beginning to take shape between two so dissimilar girls from opposite ends of the human spectrum.

"Jeannie, maybe you could use some regular study help."

Samantha looked up at Diana, and immediately followed her lead -- and her heart. "If it's all right, maybe I could come and help you study for a while, until you get caught up."

"Samantha's an excellent tutor."

"Even in history?" came the expectant inquiry.

"History's one of my favorite subjects!"

Jacob came over from his snowflake construction and eagerly handed Jeannie his creation. "Samantha's a really good teacher, Jeannie. She even helps the big boys and girls with their work at home."

The young educator in question blushed softly at the effusion of praise on her behalf, and Jeannie suddenly couldn't help but hope at the generous gesture she was being offered, which, she somehow knew, went beyond the simple opportunity of remedial school help. There was a genuine warmth and caring obviously reaching out between the two women and herself that she really, unexpectedly, longed to take hold of.

It had been so long, so very long, since she'd been able to trust, to feel.

"You'd spend time with me studying?" she asked Samantha, not quite certain she should expect an affirmative response.

Diana found her observation drawing comparisons between the two girls. Jeannie was only about a year and a half older than Samantha, but she'd already been witness to more heartache, futility, and desperation than a dozen lifetimes could be burdened by. Yet, at the same time, there was still a childlike vulnerability struggling to survive within her.

Samantha had led the sheltered, nurturing life of a tunnel dweller since she was no more than a baby. Still, her strength of spirit and maturity went far beyond those of her own age in the world Above.

The older woman knew how her young friend would answer a plea for help.

"I'd be happy to. As long as it's all right with Dr. Salazar, and everyone else."

The girl's emphasis on the "everyone else" part of her sentence made Diana's hope for the plan take a momentary reality check. Father was so very cautious about allowing the youngsters of the tunnel community interaction with the world Above, not so much because he wished to stifle hopes, as much as he was desperate to keep those he loved safe. Still, she knew that the leader of the Underworld would not turn aside an opportunity to reach out to someone truly in need, even if that person lived beyond the sheltered confines of their own world, in the teeming city, so long as the security of the tunnel community was not compromised.

Vincent had long ago convinced the patriarch that although their world was separate and apart from the one Above, that didn't mean the responsibility each community member had to the struggling of that world had been voided.

The shy happiness coming over a teenaged former prostitute's features underlied that fact: It was possible to make a difference in the world, one soul at a time. That was a cornerstone of the Underworld community's spirit, Diana realized once again, in quiet satisfaction. How blessed her baby would be to be surrounded by such a nurturing spirit from its very first moments! She'd had her own soul restored.

Thoughts of her child pulled the older woman back to the reality of the winter evening getting along quickly. Vincent was expecting them home for supper. It was getting late, and they still had half a dozen blocks to walk before reaching their closest tunnel access point. "We'd better get going," Diana announced as she came awkwardly to her feet from off the bed.

A sudden surge of pain up her spine caused her to wince, something Samantha didn't let pass her own attention. Catching her companion's momentary concern, Diana attempted to stretch herself out of the discomfort. "I'm going to need a good back rub, tonight!" she announced with a sigh.

Jeannie began walking them all to her door, then called a halt. "Wait, please." She returned to her desk and picked up two of her snowflakes, handing one to Jacob, and another to Samantha. "You gave me yours, Jacob. Please take one of mine. You, too, Samantha."

The youngsters thanked the girl for her gift, and Diana thanked heaven that the sudden hopeful promise she'd caught sight of in a tested sixteen year old was only the beginning to a new life for her. She was assured of it when Jeannie returned to her with something special in her hand.

"I'd like you to have this, Diana. I've made a few for our tree downstairs. Your quilt helped me remember what my grandma showed me."

The small gift was a tiny quilt square of fabric, with a brightly pieced star in the middle. Diana found herself marveling at the work involved in the hand stitching appreciatively. "Jeannie, this is beautiful. Thank you."

Now it was Samantha's time to be awed by her new friend's expertise. Though the young tunnel dweller was well versed in the sewing arts, by necessity, she'd never really found that she could sit still long enough to tackle anything beyond the mundane mending and piecing of their tunnel garments. "Did you stitch this, Jeannie? Really?"

"Yeah. My grandma made wonderful quilts when I was little. She helped me do a few easy things."

Samantha traced her fingers carefully over the tiny, clean stitching. "I'd never have the patience to do something like this. This is great!"

Shyly, Jeannie made an offer that confirmed Diana's hope for her. "Maybe when you come back sometime, we could set aside a bit of sewing time as well as studying. I could help you make one. It's really not too hard, just like piecing a puzzle."

A radiant smile accepted the offer to help. "I'd love that."

Several moments later, Jeannie was settled into the parlor, too, hanging up her paper snowflakes and fabric stars on the now quite respectable tree. And Jacob, Samantha, and Diana once again found themselves deliciously awash with the real thing -- blowing snowflakes, setting a gentle, bright-spirited expectation to the normal chaos of the city.

 

The wind kicked up along the streets and people hurried by the two women and the little boy with collars upturned, needing to distance themselves from the snowstorm's effects as quickly as possible. The tunnel dwellers, though, found that they were enjoying being about in the swirling whiteness. The lights decorating the windows of the chic boutiques they were passing by made the frosty covering come alive with chilled color. Jacob was in a wonderland, running ahead of Samantha to stop at window displays, throwing his head back to let the snow cover his lashes and cheeks with welcome.

"Oh, Mama, I hope Father can feel what I'm feeling right now!" The child's exclamation caught at Diana's heart as she watched Samantha lift him higher to a window so he could see the animated Christmas figures -- a penguin skating party -- without obstruction.

Jacob understood now, Diana knew, that he shared a special bond with his father's heart, though neither of his parents had actually sought to explain the indecipherable wonder to him. In the past, Vincent had sought fervantly to keep that connection turned only into one direction, away from his child, because of the morass of pain, regret, and guilt his own heart had been struggling with for so long. He'd accepted with eager, relieved, cherishing the tender care and bonding the child's innocent spirit had offered him, clinging to it as a lifeline of hope for his desperately tested spirit. Yet, he'd always taken ruthless hold of his own turbulent state of heart before that turmoil could reach its anguish to his son's awareness.

With his renewed hope in life, in the peace that he had found in their existence together, Vincent had at last been able to unshackle the complete marvel that was his bond to his child's heart, not only accepting the little boy's sustaining connection, but offering his own emotions freely to Jacob, letting the child link his awareness deeply to a heart whose nobility and generosity existed beyond boundaries.

And the little boy had happily become an eager guide, also, to the mystical power of that life-giving force between them.

So many times when she and Jacob returned home after a period of time Above, the little boy would hurry over to his father and breathlessly question him about the experiences of the day he'd attempted to selflessly share with him. It brought a wealth of wonder to Diana's own spirit she could never even begin to describe.

"Did you feel how bright the sun was on my face in the park, Father?" would come the sweet and eager words. "Could you hear the ducks quacking in the pond? When they all took off to fly, I could hear the wind of their wings! Did you hear it that way, too?"

With awe, Diana had realized that the little boy always made it a point to carry his father's spirit with him now, whenever he ventured beyond the tunnel's confines.

Not once did he question why Vincent never accompanied them Above on their adventures, why he could share the wonders of the park with his father only late at night. Diana suspected that it was because the little boy could also feel her husband's pain, without the need for explanation, at the exclusion. That her beloved was unafraid to reveal such still spirit-diminishing pain to his son was a miracle of itself, the unmasked vulnerability of his heart serving only to heighten the child's miraculously unselfish empathic powers. Feeling that he could, indeed, be gifting his father with a priceless treasure of awareness, made Jacob's own sense of worth soar.

Yet, Vincent never sought to keep his child from experiencing the world Above. On the contrary, he encouraged Diana's time alone with Jacob in the city, his moments with the other children, with Samantha. And somehow, understanding the immense gift of . . . freedom . . . his father was willing to offer the little boy, Jacob would always seek to recompense the gift with his own: He'd drink in every opportunity, revel in every delight, observe with minute, detailed concentration, every event, so that he might share them all with his beloved father, in his words and descriptions, yes, but so much more so in their bonded hearts.

Thus, despite the fact that Diana was beginning to feel a gripping fatigue overtake her, she sought to give Jacob as much time as he wished in exploring the wonders of the holiday city around him. She remembered how her own Dad had understood the magic of the great metropolis at Christmastime, how he'd always made it a point to bring her and Maureen into the heart of the city and let them live the benign fantasies of a childhood winter wonderland for at least a few moments. Even though he was completely aware of the fact that just beyond the twinkling lights, the delightful displays, the shimmering abundance, lay a reality that could become dark and menacing with little provocation or conscience.

As Jacob and Samantha stopped to watch in delight a display of dolls and wind-up toys in a charming antique shop window, Diana found the semi-sheltered entryway of the building and leaned against the doorframe for a moment, catching her breath.

A small part of her own inner consciousness had begun to center itself around the unfamiliar sensations she was now beginning to acknowledge within her body, and Diana conceded that, perhaps, Samantha's concern might have some foundation. That suddenly unsettling possibility caused the young mother to attempt to read her own inner state at the moment, anxiously.

For, a wondrous connection linking lovingly empathic hearts was not only limited to the miracle that existed between her husband and her son. Diana knew that her own interior workings were just as capable of being channeled to Vincent's awareness, their boundless devotion to one another melding the reality of both their souls to each other's sheltering awareness with equally gifting power.

Defensively, Diana sought to draw her feelings beyond the tiny, nagging prospect that counseled her to give in to fear, knowing that her state of heart was completely open to her beloved in the tunnels Below. She forced herself past the momentary -- panic -- of finding herself far from the protective boundaries of their world at such a vulnerable instant, her intensely guardian nature unwilling to allow anything to pass through her heart that might feed itself into Vincent's awareness with alarm.

She'd sworn a silent oath on their wedding night that she'd never do anything, place herself anywhere, allow herself to become embroiled in anything, anything, that could even remotely draw Vincent protectively to her into the dangerous city.

That had happened only once, one time, when she'd found herself a breath away from death, a gun savagely raised to her head, just within the tunnel entrance in the park. She'd come there seeking out the desperate, shattered soul who had refused her help, Vincent, the indescribable being that had instantly taken hold of her heart's compassionate tenderness. Instead, she had stumbled upon drug-maddened vagrants holed up within those dark confines, who'd not even hesitated a heartbeat to thrust her, face down, into the dirt, a bullet ready to be fired only a centimeter from her brain.

Vincent had saved her then, dispatching her murderous captors with protective fury. Afterwards, she'd realized she'd just watched another piece of his own humanity ripped to shreds. He hadn't even reached a hand down to her to help her up, hadn't even dared thought of holding her to him in comfort, sought to understand if she'd been injured somehow or been miraculously spared, unwilling to let a touch damned with blood come anywhere near her.

He'd only stared at the body at his feet, pronounced, coldly, to her, "So, now you've seen", and turned, in silent torment to stalk away from her, into the dark. She'd watched a part of him die there, too, knowing that she'd seen him at his instinctively savage worst.

It made no matter to him that he'd just saved her life. Neither he, nor she, had had the courage to accept the fact that he'd come to her aid because he'd been able to read her heart, feel her terror. As he had always felt Catherine's, calling out to him, pleadingly, too many times.

Diana had made it clear to him, that night, that she would never let him be responsible for her safety, that she would never expect him to be, never accept his risking his soul for her.

And she had sworn it to the Almighty Himself, on their wedding night, the sight of bullet wounds marring the otherworldly beauty of her husband's body stopping her heart: She would die before she'd ever lead Vincent back into the insidiously treacherous capabilities of his fiercely protective instinct. Knowing his presently still-recovering state of health only steeled, further, her resolve to keep him far from the city's jeopardy, whatever the cost.

As it was, though, at that moment, she was able to take a long instant to resettle her spirit, forcing herself to think rationally past her own formidibly sheltering essence. No one needed to be in danger, here, she knew. Even if the sensations within her were signalling the early onslaught of labor, she didn't need to give in to alarm. They'd taken generously reasonable precautions for her trip Above today. Samantha was with her. They only needed to walk a few more blocks before they could lower themselves into the safe confines of the tunnels. If things should start to happen too quickly, they'd have the pipes to signal their situation for help. And first babies always took their time, Mary had reassured her.

Finding comfort again in the actual reality of the situation, Diana let herself breathe a bit more easily, praying that her turbulent emotions had not revealed themselves to her husband's awareness of her. If she wasn't careful, she rebuked herself silently, she'd let her own protective urges draw Vincent Above this night. The sound of Jacob's laughter at the delightful display he was taking in helped to refocus his mother's attention.

Diana let her gaze rest on the shop's windows, too, doing her best to return her heart back to its quietly hopeful grounding, and, at last, felt an easing of both her spirit and the pain that had taken hold of her body. Immediately, she ran a comforting hand over the baby within her. "If you're determined to join us tonight, angel, just, please, let us get back home. Your father will want to hold you from your first breath. I'll want to set you in his arms from that instant. Let him know that moment, my sweet angel. He'd give his life for you. For us all."

The shop's assortment of items visible to her from a second nearby window at last held Diana's attention with gentle appreciation. There were some beautiful pieces of old furniture displayed, finely worked. Each was tagged with the exhorbitant prices that were a given in the upscaled shops of the area.

Diana wondered to herself with bemusement: Her own vanity Below was probably of the same historical period as those furnishings in the window, yet she had come to prize it solely for the sweet gift of acceptance and welcome that it mirrored from Vincent's love for her, offered to her as a cherished wedding gift. The Stickley table in Father's chamber was a study in utility, its functional beauty as gathering place for community discussion respected for its own worth.

Both furnishings would have been reduced to status-raising price tags in the world here Above.

Settling herself a bit nearer against the door of the closed shop, Diana was startled a moment to realize that a fashionably dressed young woman from within the store was staring at her, then at the children who were still taking in the toy display. Diana smiled easily at the woman, acknowledging her with a nod of her head, then returned her attention to a collection of antique ladies' appointments set out on a shelf in the window nearest her.

There were gloves and beaded purses and jewelry, among other small, personal items. When her gaze settled onto a series of extravagant hat pins held in a porcelain container, she smiled to herself. Grandma Annie had a hat pin that she'd let her and Maureen admire on numerous occasions when they were just little girls.

When they'd asked her how it was used, the dear lady had explained its dual capacity with nonchalance -- it held a proper lady's hat in place atop her knotted hair, and it also could be used as a very effective deterrent to any unwanted attention. Her father, she remembered, had loudly protested such a revelation as an archane bit of nonsense, but Diana had taken the unqualified blessing to keep herself responsible for her own safety to heart, even back then. One made use of whatever advantage one had.

That thought held her own spirit as she continued to appraise the display of beautiful articles before her. Diana's attention returned to a silver hair comb that had probably helped hold a Gibson bun in place on top of some stylish, turn of the century lady's head, without the hat or requisite pin. The ornate silver detailing on the comb very nearly matched the intricate pattern of her own vanity set Below, she was surprised to note, the one Vincent had given her along with the use of the dressing table.

Her train of thought still flowing from her grandmother's scandalously confident manner, the young mother-to-be found herself thinking that such a comb could also become a very functional accessory in a woman's wardrobe, an unexpectedly tantalizing

one, especially if it helped to tame an abundance of amber locks that a certain mythic figure of a husband had a true affection for. What goes up, must come down, she thought, mischeviously . . . Mary knew how to get it right -- all of her long hair simply twisted and knotted, to be held in place with a minimal number of pins. A little drama with a hair comb could come in handy some time. Maybe she could borrow one from the tunnel matriarch.

Marveling at her perfectly outrageous turn of mind, Diana berated herself at the thought of what Vincent must be attempting to decipher as her state of heart at the moment. She'd gone from panicked to fiercely protective to downright disreputable in a matter of minutes, and she was certain to find herself brought to task because of it when she was back home.

Shaking her head in amused compassion, she conceded that her husband had no way of knowing what sort of lighthearted mischief her unburdened heart was capable of. It was a true gift, after the pain and terror of almost losing her beloved that she'd been agonized by only a few days ago.

She'd have to make it up to him upon her return, Diana promised herself. Vincent had been so solicitous of her, as the burden of her pregnancy had literally weighed down on her more and more. His tender touch had eased her aching back, his gentle caution had urged him to protectively share in her moments at the bathing pool, he'd brushed her hair for her and tied her shoes and the sweet radiance of care that those intimate instances of devotion were evidence of only helped her spirit soar.

Just as she was thinking about how she could possibly get Father to ease up a bit on his stern vigilance for Vincent's recovery, that had them both sighing in reluctant acquiescence when all they wished to do was lose themselves within each other's tenderness, Diana was suddenly overcome by a stab of pain that nearly doubled her over, almost as though it were a reminder of the tentative state of her own present health, as well as that of her husband. She clutched at her swollen belly instinctively with one hand, the other catching at the metal railing to keep herself upright.

All of her attention was fused to that sensation at the moment, as the pain radiated from her spine to below her abdomen, forcing a chill that was both sensation, and fear, through her. Diana closed her eyes and sought to understand what was happening to her. Contractions? Was she in labor? It was possible, but nothing she was feeling seemed to correspond with what Mary had attempted to described to her as the early stages of childbirth. There was no slowly increasing perception of constricting muscles, no cramping. This was just sheer, unadulterated, pain, and far from remaining somewhat centered on her abdomen, the feeling was coursing throughout her body at once.

Then, after a minute, it stopped. Completely. No lingering, telltake after effects, except for the thin sheen of perspiration that had settled over her face, despite the cold wind whipping around her.

Diana realized she needed to get back home, now, get back to Vincent. Even though she was still two weeks from her due date, the baby was definitely in charge of her body at the moment, and she wasn't certain why.

The rising threads of panic had begun overtaking her again, as she watched the children still enjoying the toy display in the window. Trying to assess their situation calmly, she knew that they were at least four blocks away from their nearest tunnel access point, on the route that had partially collapsed during the flooding over two years ago. That meant that even within the relative safety of the tunnels, it would take another three or four blocks of walking before they could reach an area where the pipes used for communication were still completely intact and they could call for help, if necessary. The sentry posts on that route had also been moved because of the damage.

A call for help would certainly bring Vincent, too, she knew, risking his own recovering state of health to reassure himself of hers. The long journey through the maze of tunnels would surely task his tentative strength. Father had allowed his son only a very limited amount of walking the past few days, carefully balancing his patient's need for exercise with the threat of relapse into a precarious state of health that had almost claimed his life.

That realization left Diana with one avenue of response to her present uncertain circumstances: She would simply refuse to let fear and panic overtake her, and channel themselves to Vincent's sense of her. They would just get home on their own, she and the children, and once there, she'd give herself over to Father's medical expertise and Vincent's loving, protected, care.

After all, she told herself with growing confidence, even if she was in labor, first babies take their time. Her sister was in labor for hours before she even had to get to the hospital when she delivered Alex. It was simply a natural process women have been enduring for eons. She'd be fine. They'd get home. Father and Mary would be besides themselves in their care of her and the baby. And Vincent would be safely at her side without tempting fate.

Consciously, Diana forced herself to close her eyes again and breathe deeply and rhythmically. She let her thoughts slip back through the pleasantries of the day, attempting to quell her anxiousness and uncertainty. When she felt her control return somewhat, she again rested in quiet observation of Samantha and Jacob still at the window display, hoping that she wouldn't need to alarm them, either, unnecessarily.

"You'll have to move on from there."

A curt, female voice behind her caused Diana to turn around, startled, shakey as she still was. In the shop doorway stood the woman she had seen staring at her before, now peering around the half-opened door she gripped with a generously jeweled hand.

Not exactly certain she had heard all the woman had said to her in her preoccuppied state, Diana simply replied, "Excuse me?" with quiet inquiry.

The woman pointed to Samantha and Jacob and then continued to address Diana, an obvious distate showing in her carefully made up face. "You'll have to move on, with your . . . children . . . too. I can't have my doorway blocked by you people. Customers have to get in."

Diana pulled herself up slowly from against the door frame where she was leaning, about ready to point out to the woman that her shop was closed and that no "customers" were about to trip over her in their effort to enter the store. But the children heard the voices behind them and they turned, too, from the display.

Wearily, the young mother reached to the nearby railing to steady herself again. "I'm sorry. I was only resting. The chidren were admiring your display."

"Well, go and 'rest' somewhere else, before I call the police," came the astonishingly cold reply, before the door slammed shut in Diana's face.

Samantha drew Jacob to her and collected the bags she was carrying. The children moved to join their companion in startled amazement. Diana said nothing, but let Samantha ease her steps from the stoop back to the street itself, wondering silently what sort of attitude the woman would have had towards her and the children if she still carried her police seargent's shield with her.

Shaking her head with incredulous disbelief, she took hold of Jacob's hand, letting a look pass between herself and Samantha that said everything, acknowledging the cold-heartedness that so many of the tunnel world's inhabitants had had to endure in their lives Above. Only Jacob was uncertain as to what had just occurred, his guileless little heart confused.

"Mama, why was that lady cross with you?" he asked innocently, never once believing ill of anyone without explanation. Diana bent over her son gently, taking in the overcoat which was a size too large for the little boy, and the carefully knitted muffler and cap that helped to keep him warm in the blowing snow.

"The lady was just ready to lock her doors, angel. I was standing in her way."

"She could have been polite and asked to be excused."

"Some people are too busy to remember being polite, Jacob. Now we'd better head home. Father and Grandfather and Mary will be waiting to hear all about our adventures today."

The little boy accepted his mother's words, but, instead of continuing on his bright exploration of the city streets, he clung to Diana's hand and held it tightly. "I want to go back home," he announced quietly.

Continuing on the sidewalk, Samantha leaned against Diana a moment and whispered softly, "That woman wasn't too busy to judge others, though, was she? She thought we were street people, didn't she?"

Diana took in the young girl's figure a long moment. Though the wool coat she wore was a bit short in the sleeves, it was spotlessly clean. A snuggly scarf was pulled over her dark, braided hair and around her neck. The parcels she was carrying were carefully packed into a backpack and a plain, handled shopping bag. The girl may not have been one of the vapid fashion ingenues making their anonymous way across the streets, but she was clearly no urchin, either.

And Diana, herself, was in her dark trench coat and leather boots, scarfed and muffled against the cold. She was only obviously pregnant, not looking for a hand out. But, what if they had been three poor souls in need, she thought, suddenly, without a warm, safe place to call home, or family and friends to love and care about them?

Letting a reassuring hand slip over Samantha's snowflake laden shoulders, she observed quietly, "You know, I wonder if Mary and Joseph would have even found a place to rest in Manhattan."

The young girl understood. "I'd like to think we'd offer them one."

Smiling softly in agreement, Diana believed that was the truth, a real gift that had become a part of her life. She suddenly felt just as she guessed Jacob did now. The magical, wonderfilled city had just revealed its cold and compassionless heart, and she wished very much to find herself encircled by the loving warmth of her home and her beloved, at that instant, in the true reality of her cherished home Below.

The gifting reassurance that came to her with that knowledge was forced to give way to anxiousness once again, as another pang of pain caught hold of Diana, forcing the breath nearly completely out of her lungs. She couldn't keep from squeezing Samantha's hand at the urgent force of it, and the girl immediately stopped to gaze into her companion's face with deep concern.

She was about to ask Diana what was wrong when she caught sight of a pleading that directed itself to Jacob with wordless request. Samantha understood that the child would be alarmed and that his mother wished to protect him as long as she could, but, still, the young girl was at a loss about how to help her friend who was in obvious distress.

Some alarmed mental calculations brought Samantha to within sight of their situation, revealing it to be precarious. It was just as long a walk back to the shelter house as it was on to their tunnel access. Dr. Salazar wasn't a medical doctor, but she could have helped, if Diana was indeed in labor. Yet, they would be beyond the safe confines of their tunnel world, even within Magadalen House's doors.

Silently she recalled the pleading trust Vincent had left her with that morning. He had urged her to get Diana Below at the first sign of complication. His quiet concern, though, did not hide from her his real fear for his beloved in such a situation that the young girl's sensitive heart had read in his eyes: Within the tunnel's boundaries, both Diana, and their baby, would be safe.

Their baby . . . the very embodiment of a compellingly beautiful love, unlike any other.

Its father . . . the mythic protector of a secret world; a cherished, miraculous, being . . . unlike any other.

Samantha decided that she'd have to get them all to the access area. It was the only thing that they could do and safeguard themselves against the cold, conscienceless reality of the city they had just been unexpectedly subjected to. Even as they walked onward, though, the young guardian realized that getting to safety would be an equally trying objective at the moment. Diana was visibly tiring.

"Would you like to rest again for a few minutes, Diana?" she asked, as she caught sight of a small coffee shop on the next corner. The tremor she felt running through her friend subsided a bit and finally, the quickly exhausting mother managed to find her voice. She attempted to urge it into a bit of bright confidence.

"Yes, why don't we stop a minute for some hot chocolate? What do you think, Jacob?"

The little boy looked long into his mother's face, attempting to read her emotional state, and Diana found she had to force herself to appear casual and undisturbed to the child. She knew that Jacob's empathic abilities were becoming more sensitive as he grew, and he was particularly attuned to the reality of her own emotions, not as completely bonded to them as he was to his father's spirit, but close enough just the same to draw a long look of confused concern across his gentle, trusting face.

"If you need to rest, Mama, yes, that would be nice, too," he answered with genuine care.

Leading the way into the shop, Samantha found a small table in a quiet corner near the windows. Jacob clambored up onto a chair and Diana slowly lowered herself down to another. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a long moment, finally able to center her consciousness past the diminishing pain.

Trying to make some casual observations then with the children, Diana looked around at the ambiance of the shop, and suddenly realized they'd stopped in one of those upscale coffee boutiques where a cup of cocoa was liable to be rather expensive. Not wanting to cause further concern to Jacob by getting up and leaving again, Diana dug into her shoulder bag and retrieved her wallet, something she was no longer used to carrying.

Opening it up, she noted that she had only five dollars in singles, and about another dollar in change -- emergency and telephone money, if needed, that all the tunnel dwellers carried around with them Above. She never had use, now, to be concerned for much of anything else.

Glancing up to the menu board behind the counter, she decided there was enough money for two cups of cocoa, for the children. She'd be happy just to sit and rest again, while they enjoyed their treat, gathering her reserves of strength and determination about her for the continued trek home.

In a moment, a middle-aged woman with a warm smile came over to their table to take their order. Diana felt she knew her from somewhere, her face open and bright. She looked a lot like her aunt, her father's sister, whom they'd visited summers when she was a little girl. The woman's friendly manner helped to dispel both Samantha's and Diana's anxiousness.

"What can I get you ladies this evening?" she asked easily, and then, spying Jacob beneath his layers of winter garments, she smiled genuinely. "Well, I thought that was just a bundle of woolies there, but I guess someone's inside, too! What can I help you with, young man, is it?"

Jacob smiled in return, and momentarily unwound his muffler from his neck, removed his snowy hat, and revealed his wealth of reddish blonde curls. Looking to Diana for permission, he then carefully addressed the woman. "Please, may I have a cup of hot chocolate?"

"You certainly may, young sir," came the eager reply, with a hint of amusement at the gravely proper tones coming from the little boy. "With marshmallows, or without?"

The little boy's eyes lit up perceptively, and his manner disintegrated quickly back into that of an exhuberant child's. "Oh, with, please! I love marshmallows!"

With a laugh, the waitress wrote down the order, then turned her attention to Samantha. "And what about you, miss?" The girl warmed instantly at the pointedly respectful greeting. The woman's demeanor was in sharp contrast to the antique shop owner's that was for certain.

"I would like the same, too, please."

"Two hot chocolates, heavy on the marshmallows," came the repeated order. Then, finally, the woman looked up to Diana, questioning.

"Nothing for me. I'm fine, thank you."

"Are you sure, dear? You're obviously eating for two. How about a glass of milk and a muffin? Have to watch the caffeine when you're expecting."

Diana silently calculated her funds, and her state of questionable digestion, and declined again. "No really. The children just need to warm up. I'm fine."

Nodding in agreement, the waitress disappeared around the counter.

The few moments that elapsed until their refreshments arrived were passed with pleasant recollections of the day's activities, but Samantha's attention was rivetted on Diana's face, which appeared more and more fragile and weary as they sat. She wondered how she'd ever be able to help her friend even walk the distance to the tunnel access now, though Diana was keeping a protective hold on her emotions, obviously willing herself to find some reserves of strength.

"Do you think there'll be enough snow to build a snowman, Samantha?" Jacob questioned eagerly.

"Maybe, if it keeps up all night," came his response, but the young nanny's attention was still drawn to the features of the red-haired mother sitting across from her.

A moment later, the waitress returned with two mugs of steaming hot chocolate, each sporting a flotilla of tiny marshmallows, and decorated with a candy cane stirrer. Jacob was delighted. Diana smiled an acknowledgement to their hostess, then was momentarily taken aback when a large glass of warm milk, and an entire basketful of miniature muffins-

blueberry, apple, banana, and cranberry - was settled onto the table before them.

Just as Diana was about to protest that she'd not ordered anything for herself, the waitress began a hurried and . . . unconvincing . . . explanation. "I nearly forgot we run our special after five o'clock: Any two mugs'll get you a third. And our muffin basket is just a Christmas treat for our late evening customers, too. Otherwise, the hour before we close, I have to wrap all our leftovers up, take them home . . . it's just a nuisance. We just set them out for everyone."

A gentle smile directed at her warmed Samantha's heart, and Diana's was restored back to its faith in humanity. She took note that another waitress was setting baskets of muffins onto the other occuppied table of the little shop. Quietly, she reached into her wallet and handed their hostess four of the five singles she had as she spoke. "That's a very generous special to run."

"Anything to warm the customers on a snowy, cold night." And as Diana still handed out the money to her, the waitress took only one of the bills, though the prices on the menu clearly indicated the cocoa was $l.50 a mug. Then she closed Diana's hand around the remaining bills, gently. "Merry Christmas."

Stunned, Diana looked deeply into the soft brown eyes of the woman. They were eager and warm, and quietly reassuring. So much like Mary's eyes, Below, a mother's eyes. "You're very kind. Thank you . . . "

" . . . Clare. My name is Clare, like the shop."

With that Diana realized that the woman was the owner of the shop, waiting on tables herself. "Thank you very much, Clare. I'm Diana, and this is Jacob, and Samantha."

"Nice to meet you all. Enjoy, now." With a bustling purposefulness, Clare turned to attend to the other few customers in the shop. There weren't more than five or six, Diana noted, as everyone was in a hurry to get where they needed to go on this snowy Friday evening three days before Christmas. But, in the generosity she had extended to two cold children and a very pregnant young woman, Clare had also included those few patrons in her shop.

"May we have a muffin, Mama?" came Jacob's eager request. Diana nodded. The little boy was constantly hungry these days, his long legs and boundless energy attesting to the seemingly permanent growth spurt he was engaged in. Samantha also reached for a hot treat.

"I believe Clare would offer shelter, too, don't you think, Diana?"

Her companion nodded in quiet agreement, then took a long sip of the warm milk, hoping to settle her suddenly rebellious digestive system a bit before having to move on. The food and momentary rest seemed to do the trick, as Diana felt the wave of fatigue pull back somewhat from her. She drifted into a calming warmth that overtook her, which didn't actually seem to be coming from the refreshments alone, though. Diana closed her eyes a moment and let her spirit seek out its longed-for comfort: Vincent's loving essence within her.

He must have sensed her anxiety, she thought, and the wealth of solace she was feeling surrounding her suddenly became words in her mind . . . "My love, I'm with you. Let me be with you in this."

Diana felt tears lifting into her eyes. She'd always done her best to protect the compelling, yet fragile, wonder, that was her beloved's heart and existence, doing it instinctively, like a mother in the wild, fighting to the death to protect her young. But now Vincent's spirit was seeking hers out, nevertheless, past her own attempts to place protective barriers between them. It was pleading for less protection from her, and more trust.

Mary's words to her, when she first told the dear lady that she was carrying Vincent's child, echoed through her thoughts now, too. "Don't be afraid to need him. Let him be your husband in this."

Suddenly, desperately, she needed her husband, to see her through this, help her through the fear and uncertainty and pain, to be there and take his newborn child in his arms from its very first breath. The thought that they might be kept from one another, divided by the ruthless, cold-hearted reality of a world that would ever remain a danger to her beloved, was more than she could bear alone. She would give her life for him, but she was carrying life within her now, the life of their child. And she was scared, weary, and so very much alone, despite the comforting presence of Samantha and Jacob at her side.

With nothing but trusting need urging her onward, Diana opened her heart totally to the loving presence within her, holding nothing back, as she had been doing without hesitation earlier that afternoon in Laura's home. Sharing her fear with her love, drawing him near to her in spirit, accepting his care. "Oh Vincent, I need you so," her heart pleaded silently. "Help me get home to you. Let me lean on your strength. Don't you dare even think of leaving the tunnels because of me! but, please, just send me your care. We'll get back to you, the children, the baby, and I."

The words were barely voiced in her heart, when another surge of pain coursed through her tired body. In reaching to grip the table sides, Diana knocked over her still half full glass of milk. Its shattering clamor set all eyes in the coffee shop on her.

Samantha was immediately on her knees at her side, Jacob right behind her, holding her trembling arm. Clare came to the table, too, and stopped to drape a steadying arm around the young woman's shoulders.

"Honey, you're having that baby now, aren't you?" she asked with quiet determination. An agitated nod was her response, even before Diana found the strength to speak.

"Oh God! . . . I'm not due for another two weeks . . . "

"That's all right, dear. Babies have their own idea of time. Here. Come with me. There's a chair that might be a bit more comfortable in the office there. We can put your feet up, too, then see about getting you some help. Can you walk?"

A young man from behind the counter quickly came to their side, as did nearly everyone else that was left in the small shop, each carefully urging the mother on. Clare directed her assistant into the office with Diana leaning on his arm. She gathered Jacob and Samantha along. "Don't worry, kids, we'll help your Mom."

Between them all, they got Diana situated on a padded desk chair and slipped a cardboard box of office supplies beneath her feet. Jacob held her hand on one side, Samantha on the other, brushing her hair out of her face softly. She noted that the mother's forehead was cold and clammy.

Clare leaned against the desk in the small room, scrutinizing Diana's face in assessment. "The contractions coming quickly?" she asked.

"Maybe less than ten minutes apart," was the shaky reply, "but they are so intense. I didn't expect them to be so intense so early."

With a confused frown, the older woman looked from each of the children and back to Diana's drawn features. "This is your first baby, then, dear?" she questioned.

"Yes."

A bit of relief spread across Clare's face at that response, realizing she must have misjudged Diana's circumstances. The little boy and the girl may have been her children, but she'd apparently not given birth to them. No wonder the poor woman was terrified, she thought, kindly -- a new mother.

"Then, you have a little time yet, Diana. Don't be scared. First babies usual put you through plenty, but they like to take it slow, and labor can be nothing short of bewildering, if you don't know what to expect. Each baby's different."

"You've had children, Clare," Samantha observed, with a bit of hopeful pleading in her usually so self-assured words. She rested her hand over Diana's on the baby, softly, protectively, for them both.

"Oh, gosh, yes, I've had four kids! Most natural thing in the world, honey. Don't be scared for your Mom."

Turning back to Diana, Clare stroked a reassuring caress over her cheek. "Now tell me, how far is home? Can we call your husband to come get you? Is he home from work?"

A furtive look passed between Diana and the children before she replied. "We have another hour's walk home . . . and my husband . . . can't be reached. He's . . . he'll meet me at home. I need to get home."

"Well, an hour's gonna see that baby born for sure. You're in no shape for a walk like that." Clare stood silently a moment, recalling how she'd noticed Diana counting out her money before ordering their refreshments earlier. "Let's get you into a cab and to your hospital then, honey, my treat. You'll need to be there soon enough."

Without warning, Diana struggled to her feet. "No, I can't go to a hospital! I have to go home, Clare. I need to get home. And a cab won't do it."

Taken aback by the desperation in her voice, and the look of anguish on her face, the elder woman set a gentling hand onto the agitated mother's shoulder, urging her back down onto the chair. No money, probably no insurance, either, she thought, maybe not even a husband. Kids not her own, and pretty advanced in labor -- The young woman surely did find herself in a hell of a situation, Clare judged. She obviously was frightened, though attempting, with only minimal success, to put on a brave front for the children. The older

woman knew she simply had to lend a hand, somehow.

"All right, dear, don't worry. We'll get you home. Do you know anyone you could call, someone who'll come for you and get you where you need to be?"

Diana closed her eyes as another wave of pain hit her full force. Jacob, still holding to her hand in his two little ones, pressed it gently to his cheek. The gesture pulled Diana back from her pain enough that she opened her eyes -- and saw Vincent's blue ones holding hers tenderly in his child's presence. "Mama don't be frightened." The words held her heart.

"Mr. Maxwell can help. We can call him, Diana," Samantha announced decidedly, and a second later, Jacob concurred.

Working fervantly to draw her awareness from the painful sensations coursing through her body, Diana attempted to guide her foggy, panic-edged thinking through the reality of her options. Laura and Jerry had already left for their holiday trip by now, she guessed. A few of the other Helpers that she knew she wasn't certain of how to contact quickly. The tunnel community kept in touch with them through notes and letter, and personal contacts, not phone calls.

Peter was gone, too. The doctor had left for Santa Fe to spend Christmas with his daughter. He'd planned on being back in the city the day after the holiday, so that he'd be close by, in case Father needed him for her delivery. Neither physician had expected an early labor any longer, not since her condition had returned itself back into the more familiar circumstances of a normal, healthy, pregnancy. If they had, Father would never have consented to her going Above today.

That seemed only to leave -- Joe. Knowing the DA, he'd probably still be at his desk, working late. They might be able to reach him. And Diana trusted him implicitly. He'd understand why it was vital for her not to be anywhere near a hospital up top when her baby was born.

Clare looked questioningly at Diana, awaiting her response. As the final strength of the contraction wore off, the young woman quietly recited a phone number which Clare dialed. Handing her the receiver, the hostess backed out of the small room, leaving Diana and the children to some privacy. "I'll be right out here if you need me."

The ringing of the phone seemed interminable, as Diana realized her call was being automatically routed from one switchboard to another at the Criminal Justice building after hours. God, she hoped she was right about Joe! This was no time for him to compromise his workaholic attitude on her. She was about ready to hang up and try his home number.

Then, finally, the sound of her call being answered gave Diana's heart an unexpected start.


Continued in Chapter 13