Living the Promise: Chapter Fourteen


 

Joe stammered out the name of the newly arrived figure now towering over him, "Vincent!" Somehow, he gently settled Diana down to the tunnel floor and out of his embrace, then struggled to his feet, though his legs threatened to betray him. There was something about the mythic apparition who'd at last joined them that caused the DA to want very much to be on as level a footing with it as he could be.

In the long moment of silence that passed between them, Joe Maxwell wasn't certain he hadn't dropped into the midst of some surreal fairy tale. Part of him was ready to judge, with extreme prejudice, the mysterious presence that was Diana's husband, in light of his anxious musings of the past few minutes. But the astonishing reality of the man took hold of Joe and drew him totally beyond suspicion and blame, setting him up instead for overwhelming, awestruck, acceptance.

His investigative mindset tried to surface, take in details, process them, but his attempt failed in a heartbeat. The . . . man . . . before him was beyond description, even though the DA had caught sight of enough of Vincent's extraordinary reality that night at the cemetary at Catherine's grave not to be totally surprised at his presence.

Darkly cloaked, and unnervingly still, the figure stood fully a head taller than him, and Joe guessed, conservatively, carried at least 50 pounds more, too, that appeared to be nothing short of muscle and sinew. He seemed to fill up the space, his presence overwhelmingly permeating the instant with power and force.

But what was even more arresting than the sheer intense reality of the man was the fact that the particulars of his features were unlike anything Joe'd ever witnessed, clearly, in truth, beyond human: Upswept brows, pronounced, high cheekbones, an upper lip that was cleft, and more muzzle than mouth -- these were all the dramatic and majestic details expected in a . . . lion's face . . . framed by a thick golden mane of cascading hair, and not a description of a man's visage.

Yet, the unique, unhuman characteristics were melded somehow into a face that was terrifyingly, heartstoppingly, beyond human, the awe-inspiring features of an avenging protector of mythic legend.

And then there were Jacob's eyes.

An astonishing blue, like the little boy's, but a half dozen times more intense, lit from deep within by an unshakable force of truthful clarity and challenge that made Joe swallow hard: He'd realized, at that moment, that the very depths of his soul would be totally revealed to one mere observant glance from the limpid depths studying him in wordless confidence.

Joe was literally struck dumb at the moment, unable to form another word, held speechless with amazement, disbelief, unexpected relief, reassurance, and not a little incidence of cold-sweat . . . fear. Still, the gracious . . . humanity . . . in those eyes before him reached far into his heart and generously planted a seed of trust he'd never expected, nor would be able to deny.

"Samantha has told me of your help, Mr. Maxwell. How can I ever thank you for coming to Diana's aid?"

The words were soft and earnest, ringing with true, uncolored, gratitude. Joe took them to heart, instantly, in spite of himself, letting them override any prior doubts he might have still harbored. He miraculously found his voice. "I'm just glad she could get hold of me when she needed help. We're friends. I couldn't turn my back on her."

There was more defensive explanation than humility in his reply, he was startled to own up to. Still, when Joe heard Diana's labored exclamation of Vincent's name a second later, the DA knew surely there was nothing whatever left to doubt or fear. Her voice, calling her husband's name, resonated with total, complete, trust, and undying love.

Vincent quit his place near their unexpected companion and came to Diana's side in one fluid, graceful sweep of cloak and obviously compelling devotion. Joe felt his heart undeniably swell with conflicting emotion at the sight of the astounding figure gently, softly, gathering the young mother in an embrace to his powerful body, kissing first her damp forehead and cheeks with eloquent reassurance, then accepting the sweet tenderness of her expectant mouth in a cherished and apparently familiar physical gifting that took Joe's breath away. He had to turn aside at that, his sympathetic spirit urging him to leave the two of them some momentary privacy in their relieved, intimate, acknowledgement of one another.

These were two souls who would live and die in the shelter of each other's love.

There was no other conclusion for the DA to draw from the moment.

Diana became totally renewed in her husband's arms, speaking in a torrent of words she'd had no energy to form just a few minutes ago. "I didn't know what to do . . . I wasn't certain the baby was coming until it was too late to get back on our own. Oh, Vincent! I'm so glad you're here!"

Long-fingered, fur-covered, and taloned, hands, gently stroked back her disarrayed auburn hair from her ethereal face with love. That silken voice whispered understanding reassurances in a steadying rhythm of comfort. "It's all right, Diana. Our little one is simply in a hurry to be with us. We'll be able to help her along her way here. All that matters is that you both, and Jacob and Samantha, are safe." Then, with a truly penitent, downcast glance, he offered, "If there is blame to place, it is mine to accept. I urged you to go Above."

Another contraction swept over Diana even as her husband held her in his embrace. He pulled her close, lifted her arms around his neck, trying to draw her past her distress. "Don't be afraid, my love." Vincent's eyes caressed hers, sought to will her strength. "Let me share this with you. Hold tight to me. Don't bear the pain alone -- I'm here."

The relief, even in the midst of her pain, was undeniable, as Diana drew her trembling hand over the majestic, concerned features holding hers with so much sweetness. "I was afraid . . . you'd not make it here . . . before the baby."

"I would have done anything to be here for you," came the quiet reply that was unshakable in its commitment. Joe swallowed hard..

For a long, trembling instant, Diana was totally overwhelmed by the strengthening power of the natural forces within her weary and spent body. The emerald eyes darkened with undeniable pain and anxiety, but then, somehow, she managed to give herself over to the soothing sound of her husband's voice, the comfort of his touch, and the trembling left her. Vincent gently eased her back down to the floor, kissed her hand in his, and set it softly back onto their child.

"How far apart are the contractions?" Joe found himself being addressed by an unexpectedly assured voice.

"Maybe two, three minutes now. They've gotten longer, too." He couldn't help the anxiety seeping into his words. "They've been intense all along."

"Then we'll simply have to bring this little one into the world right here," came the matter-of-fact conclusion. Still, it was followed by a hopeful plea. "Joe, I could use your help."

The DA was close to speechless again, after being so pointedly, and trustingly, addressed. Any last vestiges of hesitation and uncertainty were instantly sent their way out of his spirit. "What can I do?"

"Give me a minute to get Diana a bit more settled, and I'll show you." Vincent turned back to his wife.

At the quiet request, the DA took a few steps further down the tunnel, marveling inwardly at a presence that could take into consideration his wife's modesty at such a chaotic moment. The part of himself that still was overwhelmed by the unreality of it all caused Joe to look back over his shoulder despite the request for space, as he sought to find some evidence that all this was indeed happening where it was happening, how it was happening, and to whom it was happening. Along with the fact that he himself had been thrust by Fate into the midst of it.

Yet, if Joe required some proof of the beyond reality of it all, he was offered nothing less than a purely beautiful, human, and, real, sight to ponder over: He beheld a husband, only a husband, bent over his laboring wife in tender, solicitious care.

Vincent slid the generous folds of his heavy cloak from off his shoulders, then swept it over Diana's weary form. She let the familiar scent of it soothe her, the warmth envelope her softly. With quiet patience, her husband slipped her leather boots off her feet, then gently eased her out of her long skirt. Her bare, coltish legs, beneath his own garment, were cold, and trembling, a sure sign of advanced labor.

A moment later, Joe was called back to the foot of the stairway. He noticed Vincent obviously favoring his left side in his movements now, something that hadn't been apparent before. Joe felt compelled to ask, a sudden wave of unaccustomed sympathy for this remarkable figure washing over him. "Are you all right?"

A gentle, warm liveliness filled the breathtaking eyes, carrying them beyond evident pain. "I will be, as soon as this child is safely delivered."

The words were shaded with just the barest evidence of uncertain exasperation that Joe wasn't quite sure he'd actually heard what he had: The comment was that of any anxious father-to-be, eager to get past the emotional onslaught of birth himself. Nothing more threatening, or unearthly, than that.

"You know what you're doing then," came the automatic reply, born of Joe's own abundant frustration with the whole situation.

Vincent looked up from where he held Diana's arm, taking her pulse, and read, at once, the apprehension in the other man's face. He nodded in reassurance. "I've helped deliver several of the children in our community."

Joe flustered a moment at his obvious lapse of trust, but surprisingly, it was Diana who comforted him with gentle words. "I'm in good hands, Maxwell, between the two of you."

Kneeling beside her then as well, the DA took heart. "What do you need me to do, Vincent?"

Releasing Diana's wrist, the mythic figure began to roll up the sleeves of his shirt. Joe's eyes couldn't help but settle onto the arms and hands fully revealed by his companion's movements. The fingers quickly rolling the fabric up forearms covered in coarse, auburn hair, were tipped with -- claws -- the only way to describe the strong, pointed nails.

The thought passed through Joe's mind, unbidden, that those hands and nails had been capable of . . . shredding . . . human flesh. The moment, though, that Vincent had ceased working up his sleeves, he settled one of those deadly hands onto the pale porcelain of Diana's cheek. She received the caress with tender gratitude, turning her face into it. Joe's thoughts pulled free of the past of their own volition at the sight.

"I know you are beyond exhaustion, Diana, but we'll need you to find some strength to push when the time comes." The words were gently urging and understanding.

"I'll try." The steady response took new strength.

"We'll need something warm to wrap the baby in." Joe realized Vincent was ticking off aloud his mental preparation for one of life's more chaotic, uncontrollable events with cool professionalism. It eased his own colliding emotions, clearing his thinking. Taking note then that the heavy cloak was already in use, as was his own coat, and that Diana's skirt was soaked, Joe drew off his suit jacket and folded it up into a nesting garment.

"Here, you can use this." Handing it over to the powerful figure now stooped over his wife's side, the DA was graced with another acknowledging look of grateful respect. The jacket was carefully set down on an edge of the cloak. Joe's own sleeves then came up his arms as he rolled them out of the way, too.

"We'll need to make Diana's pushing as effective as possible. She won't be able to stand too much of it in her present state." Carefully lifting the young mother partially off the tunnel floor, Vincent resettled her into his companion's arms. "When she pushes, help her to raise herself up. She can grip my hands for leverage, and hopefully we can keep her focused and progressing. It won't be long now, I'm sure. She's fully dilated."

All Joe could manage to say was, "right," as he found himself marveling at what was obviously a situation Vincent was completely knowledgeable of. There was nothing but trust in Diana's emerald eyes, shining now from more than just sheer exhaustion and pain. The connection between her and her husband, unspoken and profound, was totally apparent at the moment.

Vincent was pulling the shoelace from his heavy boot when the first expelling contraction coursed through Diana's body. Joe felt her stiffen in his arms, a ragged gasp releasing from her throat. Her husband caught both her hands, small and slender, into his great ones.

"That's it, Diana, let your body do its work. Come on, my love. Find your strength."

Suddenly, the weary, frail body pulled itself fully out of Joe's arms, holding fast to Vincent's hands in trembling exertion. Joe quickly shifted his position to support her. "Oh, God!" he heard her exclaim at the onslaught of new sensations.

The DA suddenly couldn't bring himself to hold sight of the struggling mother. The sheer force of her overwhelming physical besiegement was more than he could bear. He closed his eyes and instinctively whispered a plea to the heavens for help, not exactly certain whether it was for Diana's benefit or his own. The unexpected realization that he might, himself, at some future point in time, be sharing such an intimately terrifying, incredulous moment with Rita as his wife, urged him, however, to take heart. At least he'd be initiated into the unstoppable wonder of nature's most miraculous process, he thought in his defensive humor.

Forcing his attention back to the moment at hand, Joe felt Diana slump heavily against him as the contraction lessened its hold on her. That she'd even survived the onslaught to her now, seemingly, so frail body was beyond comprehension. Yet, there was an expectant, though weary, hope, shining through her eyes. Hell, Joe thought, she's not even letting this all terrify her anymore. He felt he discovered the elusive reason why when he let his gaze rest on Vincent opposite her, still holding both her hands.

There was the unmistakable sheen of perspiration moistening his unique features, a barely discernible trembling coursing through his powerful form. He closed his own intense eyes and took in a deep, steadying breath . . . and Joe felt that, for all the world, Vincent appeared as though he'd just actually, bodily, shared in his wife's pain.

The breath, though, promptly stopped Vincent short in abbreviated besiegement of his own. It took a long moment before the mystical face returned to a calm deliberateness. Leaning then close to Diana's exhausted form, he spoke softly to her. "That was good, my love. Rest a minute now. You're doing fine."

A shaking, long-fingered hand took hold of his taloned one on her wet cheek with the grateful abandon of a drowning man being offered a passing branch just within reach that he could hold fast to. Diana drew strength from the contact, but Joe noted, in apprehension, that Vincent's own body still seemed assailed by involuntary tremors of obvious distress.

The force with which the young mother had pulled herself up with his arms must have aggravated Vincent's wounds, the DA guessed, preferring to settle onto the most plausible explanation of what he'd just witnessed transpire between the couple before him. Joe was about to suggest that he should be allowed to become Diana's point of leverage, bearing the brunt of the physical exertion in her next contraction, and thus, save her injured husband further strain on his obviously still tenuous state of health. But a clear plea for silence took hold of Joe's attention from the depths of those azure eyes.

They spoke an unmistakable appeal to keep his pain from his wife's awareness. Joe never considered saying another word about it, stunned into silence at the selfless love exhibited by a beyond human being for an amber-haired angel in distress.

A moment or two later, Vincent's own turmoil had been pulled under his control, finally, leaving behind little evidence of its passage beyond a continued tentativeness in his movements. Quickly he examined the baby's progress from the contraction, but as he was doing so, Diana was hit, full force, by another erratic spasm that tore into her body. "It's all right, Diana. Let it come. Take my arm."

The seemingly fragile young woman heaved her until then limp form up to a near-sitting position by drawing herself forcefully onto her husband's right arm. Vincent urged her gently, insistently, with his reassuring words: "Exhale deeply. Work with the force."

Letting the sound of his voice guide her, Vincent centered his observation now on the new life working its way to join them. An almost incredulous acknowledgement announced his child's state. "The baby's crowning! You're doing fine, Diana. Hold on as long as you can."

A sudden and unexpected sound -- pain, fear, exhaustion, broken by wonderfilled -- relief -- pulled free from Diana's throat. She echoed her husband's words softly, in gratitude, "The baby's crowning." A look of blessed anticipation swept over her ravaged features.

Yet, while the sound of Diana's joy still filled his heart, Joe watched, in startled, panicked . . . horror . . . as the color suddenly drained completely out of Vincent's face.

Diana collapsed back down against the DA's embrace again, and Joe prayed a silent, grateful supplication of his own, for the fact she'd not apparently seen her husband's reaction to whatever it was he now had perceived in her, and the baby's condition, in plainly visible, desperate . . . fear.

"Joe, I need you here beside me. Now." The tone of voice was controlled and quietly instructing, giving nothing away, but the look on Vincent's face about took Joe's soul from out of his being. The DA passed a worried glance to Diana as he set her down completely to the floor, but her enveloping weariness had caused her to momentarily withdraw deeply within herself once more, mercifully so.

Vincent's attention again became intent on what he was perceiving within the birth process of his child. He wouldn't simply trust his sight to give him the details he needed, having, at this point in the labor, to actually feel, gently, but anxiously, the baby's true position to confirm his conclusion. The long-fingered hands probed softly, and then he found himself swallowing hard at what he'd detected. The azure eyes closed an instant as he sought to steady his heart.

Coming to crouch beside the powerful figure that had called to him, Joe was shocked to find his hand grasped, insistently, and guided to beneath the wool cloak blanketing Diana's form. "Take gentle hold here, Joe. Even pressure," came the hoarse instructions the DA wasn't certain he understood.

Unsure of what was happening, but nevertheless acutely aware of the urgency in Vincent's manner, Joe asked quietly, "What is it? What's wrong?" even as he felt the furred hand close his own fingers around . . . something . . . a quivering, warm, smooth, cordlike extension . . . of flesh.

Recoiling a moment at the unexpected sensation, he let go, but then felt Vincent's powerful grip urge his own again around the cord. It was difficult for him to do, keep hold of the unfamiliar protusion, as there seemed to be a great deal of tension on it, pulling it back away from him, and his own hand with it. There seemed to be barely enough give for Joe's two fingers and thumb to take gentle hold of it.

Looking up into the deep eyes now obviously shadowed with anxiety, the DA sought an explanation wordlessly, knowing somehow already that Vincent was attempting not to alarm Diana. Luckily she was still deep within herself at the moment: Joe doubted she barely still knew where she was, let alone was capable of hearing what was being said in hurried, anxious whispers between the two men.

"The cord has prolapsed."

Seeing the bewildered look in Joe's face, Vincent explained himself without the medical terminology. "The umbilical cord has dropped into the birth canal ahead of the baby. It usually simply trails out behind."

Joe felt the tension on his fingertips ease a bit as Vincent's own fingers sought to follow just how the cord lay across the child's emerging body. Then came a further explanation which the unlikely medical assistant could have done without. "It is impeding the progress of the labor, collapsing with every contraction."

A return of pressure came to his hand as Vincent withdrew his own from his gentle probing. The pain in the father's eyes said everything he could not find the courage to say. Joe had to seek out the words, instead, which he fought to utter: "The baby's in trouble?"

Vincent nodded slowly and Joe felt his heart snap in two when he caught sight of tears shimmering in the limpid blue eyes before him. "The compresions cut off the baby's blood, and oxygen, supply."

A nauseous wave of cold comprehension battered Joe at that instant, as the reality of the situation forced its way into his understanding. Every inch of progress the child was making towards delivery was being turned, instead, into a threat, robbing the baby of its very life's breath.

"Can you do anything?" came the question that couldn't help but sound pleadingly.

Vincent looked long at the spent form of his beloved wife, then closed his eyes and released an anguished sigh. "Ordinarily, if the impediment of labor is seriousness enough, a Ceasarean would be performed to take the child."

A surgical procedure. Down here, in a drainage tunnel. Joe's own blood turned to ice at the obvious impossibility of that scenario. Then the continued explanation caught him totally off guard. "If we were close enough to get Diana to the hospital chamber quickly, there would be little risk. Father has delivered one or two of our children in such a manner. But here . . . "

Pulling himself past the surprising reality that somewhere down here there was a doctor, and a hospital, of sorts, Joe questioned with quiet anxiousness, "Is there something else that can be done?"

"We can try to keep the baby from entangling itself in the cord, help the bloodflow from becoming compressed with the contractions." Another look of . . . desperate . . . anguish was lifted to Diana's exhausted form. "She is in so much pain with each spasm," Vincent whispered, barely holding back the tears in his eyes. "The cord must be already quite shortened, without enough give. It is tearing her up inside."

For an instant, what was left unsaid reverberated with deafening horror against the stone walls surrounding them. Both men sought to take hold of their respectively shattering hearts at the thought neither would voice: the fact that Diana could be in as much jeopardy as her baby.

"Vincent!" Diana's hoarse, but insistent call pulled the men back from the overwhelming thoughts of impending threat that each was battling in his own way. In a moment, a besieged father, coming to grips with the possibility of loss once again, came to kneel beside his cherished wife, taking her clutching hand and drawing it close to his heart.

"Vincent, something's wrong, isn't it? Something's wrong with the baby." The soft, pleading voice took wrenching hold of her husband's heart.

"She's going to need some help, Diana." Before another word could pass between them, a startling slash of pain tore through the young mother's womb again, signalling yet one more attempt from her body to bring her child to birth. The agony was evident within the astonished emerald eyes that bled tears echoing her pain, but Diana fought past her own anguish to make herself heard to her husband at her side.

"The baby's dying! God, Vincent, I can . . . feel her . . . struggling! Please help her!"

In total abandoned despair, the young woman clasped her husband's arm with a deathgrip of her own, releasing a scream that echoed down the tunnels and shattered into sobbing tears.

"Joe, try to keep a clearance for the cord!" came the urgent direction at the confounded DA equally anxious to be of some small measure of help. "Try to keep the slack from being taken back up. We must relieve the child." Joe immediately did as he was told, gently holding the pulsing cord as best as he could away from the compressing pressure working against it. He could feel the baby's body straining.

A moment later, the power of the contraction heaved Diana off the tunnel floor. Vincent took possession of both her shoulders forcefully. "Listen to me, Diana!" came the desperate plea that was barely heard over a mother's terror. "You must not push with this contraction. We have to try to let the baby free herself up."

The trembling young woman was frantic with fear. "Vincent she can't breathe. I can feel it!"

Her husband shook her once, aching to turn her from her anguish. "Listen to me! You have to absorb this contraction, Diana. Don't push!"

"I haven't the strength to hold it back," came the weary, whispered confession, heavy with guilt. The tears were streaming down Diana's chalky white cheeks. She clung in panic to her husband's arms, barely able to withstand the forces of inhibited nature attempting wildly to pull free from within her. The pain convulsed her until she could bear it no longer, another scream of her own anguish her only release.

Still holding to the cord, trying to allow it some freedom of passage with his fingers, Joe was thrown into his own nightmarish confusion, as the tension working against him became tight enough to make the pulse in his own fingertips stand out throbbing. He could actually feel the baby's downy hair against the cord where he held it, evidence that the child's emergence was, at the very least, pushing right against its own lifeline. But there was nowhere that Joe could feel he could slip the cord past the baby's way. It was too tightly held back. "Vincent, I can't free it up at all."

The powerful figure kept the slender, trembling form of his grief-stricken wife in a fierce embrace at the words. "You can do this, Diana," he ordered her to believe. "Look at me!"

The pain-glazed eyes darkened with hopelessness, then somehow managed to latch on to the raw power of her husband's gaze. That gaze softened perceptively when he realized he'd gained her attention totally at last.

"Give me your pain, my love, please! Let me help you bear it."

The words were cracking with emotion. A shaking nod of her head was his response.

Joe couldn't believe he was witnessing what he was, at the moment, either, his attention torn between the ever-tightening cord cutting off his, and the baby's pulse, and the compelling, near-mystical drama being played out before his eyes:

Vincent locked his heartstopping gaze to his wife's, willing her attempt to diffuse the power of the contraction away from her distressed child. She was shuddering violently, gripping his shirt fiercely, but she held to her husband's intense gaze as she would to a lifeline, for both her child and herself.

After a moment, Vincent's eyes slowly released hers. As they came completely closed, she watched the golden-maned head drop wearily against her own sweat-drenched brow. Joe was transfixed at the exchange between husband and wife -- The shuddering pain seemed to be visibly, in stages, drawing itself from the battered woman's body to find its way into the forceful figure of her husband.

The tense endurance left Diana's pale features slowly, as she felt the agony pull away from her battered body, to be replaced within her beloved's exotic, love-washed form. A soft warmth, instead, took its place, slowly, sheltering her. Her erratic breathing settled at last, as Vincent's own became ragged. A gentle, besieged . . . peace . . . returned to her features as her husband's body fought to find strength to accept the burden he'd begged her to share with him.

After an eternity of a moment, Joe felt the tension of the throbbing cord ease back from his hand, and the baby's body. "It's loosening up," he announced, in exhausted relief himself.

Vincent gently eased Diana back down to the tunnel floor with trembling tenderness at the pronouncement. She cupped both her hands around his beloved face, the reality of what he had helped her endure evident in his strained features. Somehow she was able to at last form the words: "I can feel her heart again. She's okay. Our baby's okay."

"Yes . . . I can feel it, too," Vincent sighed in total, grateful release. He took only a few seconds to attempt to gather himself back to the necessity at hand. Kissing Diana delicately on the forehead, he then pulled himself with evident painful effort back to Joe's side.

That reluctant assistant knelt, momentarily spellbound, at the display of empathic devotion he'd just witnessed. He couldn't have seen what he had, yet, there was no way to deny what had happened. Silently, Joe berated himself for misjudging Diana's situation earlier in the evening.

He had been so wrong, so completely wrong, concluding that there might not be any sort of connection between the two souls before him. My God! he realized in disbelieving humility: Vincent had actually been able to draw within himself his wife's physical pain. The two of them had even touched to the essence of their unborn child between them, Diana, as much as her husband. Did words even exist for him to describe such a shared awareness of love?

Vincent sighed softly as he again took in the baby's position. "We'll need to cut the cord with the next contraction," he announced, almost reluctantly.

"Why not now?" the DA couldn't help but ask, the thought of the struggling child sending his heart lurching. Why couldn't they just free the baby, now that they knew she was momentarily safe?

"The child hasn't progressed far enough to assure delivery without intervention. If we cut the cord before time, she can still slip back into the birth canal . . . and then she'd be left without her . . . lifesource . . . as well."

The quiet words were ones that Joe had never even considered, and he couldn't believe that Vincent had found the strength to speak them aloud. It was still possible to lose the baby, no matter what they'd be able to do. Joe felt his throat constrict. They were God knew how far from a doctor, with only their wits and their courage left to offer a struggling new life . . . and they could still lose her. He found the tears beginning to sting within his own eyes, and he silently prayed that Vincent would be able to do the right thing for his child when the time came.

The DA had little opportunity to contemplate just when that moment might be, because his reverie was interrupted by Diana's gasp at the beginning of yet another devastating contraction. This time Vincent did not try to keep her from pushing with her natural instincts.

"It's all right, Diana. Let it come now," he called to her, without losing sight of what he was quickly, expertly in the process of doing: tying off the somewhat slackened cord between Joe's splayed fingers, in two places, with his shoelace. As the power of the contraction continued to gain its force, and the baby's emergent straining became aparent once more, Vincent shut his eyes an instance, taking hold of his courage. Then, with the skill of a surgeon wielding a scalpel, he slit through the cord at the small place that had been freed of tension, with the sharp claw of his left index finger.

For a terrifying moment, the baby's tiny shoulders slid into, and then back out of, Vincent's gentle grasp, but then the coursing muscle spasm of the contraction expelled the child freely at last. Vincent took hold of the small body tenderly, and pulled the baby into his awaiting arms.

Diana's pleading came the instant she caught her breath enough to speak. "Is she all right? Is she, Vincent?"

There was no response.

Dragging herself up to a sitting position, Diana reached out to cling to Joe's arm. He immediately threw his embrace completely about her, drawing her to his body, in an attempt to keep her from seeing what he himself couldn't find the power to bear. But the young mother pushed herself forcefully, desperately, from his sheltering arms . . .

. . . To watch her husband gently unwrapping the umbilical cord from round their baby's neck.

It was the reason that the cord had been so tense and short during her labor: The length of it was looped around the child's throat.

Words, hoarsely whispered, not to be believed, echoed the devastation within a mother's heart. "No . . . God, no . . . You can't . . . why? . . . God, why? . . . "

Why?

Could a reason even exist to explain why yet another blow had been leveled at the besieged spirits, husband and wife, that remained heart-shattered and stunned in a stone tunnel far beneath a city's streets? Was there actually a necessity that could be understood for ending a tiny life that spoke nothing but hope to those that had anticipated its arrival with so much love and joy?

Joe's shattered heart stumbled itself in its automatic attempt to reach a tiny bit of comfort out to the ravaged young woman he sheltered in his embrace. But his conscious attention was rivetted onto Vincent . . . and the still, blue body of his child in his careful grasp.

It was a little girl.

A beautiful, healthy-sized little baby girl, with long strong limbs and an unexpected halo of downy, golden red hair. She would have looked like a little china doll, except that she was totally still, cold, and devoid of any sign of life whatever.

Slow, silent tears slipped down a beyond human face, etched with so much grief and pain it was physically unendurable to behold. For the longest moment, Vincent knelt, staring down at the little body he cradled gently in his powerful grasp. Unable to come to terms with what he knew he was seeing. He gasped for breath at last, threw his head back to plead at the stone ceiling above them, and then simply closed his eyes in resigned, aching loss.

Another heartbeat stilled. Another beloved soul wrenched from his loving shelter.

This time he would let his own heart follow the tiny one into silence. Begged deaf heaven for it to follow. God . . . still mine too!

Why struggle to hope any longer? It had all only been an impossible dream. He'd believed his existence had at last been blessed by the peaceful fulfillment of love and humanity and gifting life, but the illusion had been snatched away again.

And he didn't have the strength to fight the hopeless desolation any longer, a desperate weariness of his very soul taking hold of him and shaking him to his depths. He willed his heart to be still.

Then it would ache no longer.

But as he let his anguished spirit begin to pull away from the pain, slip silently into welcomed, crushing, oblivion, Vincent felt an agony as intense as his own reach out to him, take possesion of his heart, searching for release. It was Diana's pain, the profound reaches of her spirit infused with an anguish he couldn't believe was able to exist.

It was a mother's pain, and its depths reached so far within his cherished wife's essence that it stood ready to annihilate her very soul .

She had lost her child, the life that she'd tenderly nurtured within her own body for nine months. The pleading ache, bereft of all hope, pierced his heart, drew him from beyond his own pain. He'd never known such loss, felt such devastation, even within his own agonized grief for Catherine.

Diana would be drowned within it.

At the empathic evidence of his wife's desperation, Vincent willed his heart to pull back a breath from his own pain, sought to touch her soul instead with some tiny particle of relief. He would not let his need for solace and rest rob him of Diana's care, of his chance to hold her heart to him in her need. She'd not let him surrender to desolation. Now was his opportunity to do the same for her. And in doing so, he acknowledged the fact that he might yet be able to reach life back out to the tiny soul resting in his arms as well.

Some guiding angel of heaven helped him to gather his besieged spirit back from its anguished reality, forcing it, instead, into a fervant, not-to-be-denied battle for life.

For all of them. A whispered prayer brought his mind back into the practical responses his emergency training had, until a few moment before, helped him see Diana through the unexpected traumas of her labor ordeal.

There was still a chance.

Only a moment or two had actually elapsed since he'd taken hold of his little one, though the anguish of heart of her apparent loss had made it seem like an eternity.

He took a deep, mind-clearing breath, and casting a quick gaze about him, Vincent caught sight of the handkerchief Joe had used to wipe the blood from Diana's cut lip earlier. He knew what he could try . . . a little soul still would not let go of his hope.

Gently cradling the baby into the crook of his arm, he quickly wrapped his littlest finger on one hand with the cloth several times, carefully covering the sharp tip of his nail. Then he eased back the baby's head a bit and slowly slipped his finger into the little girl's mouth, using the fabric to wipe out the mucus that was still obstructing the child's airway.

With an unwhispered prayer, Vincent then softly lowered his golden head to the baby's tiny form, covering its mouth and nose with his cleft lips, puffing gently into the child's mouth, offering her his own life-giving breath.

Joe felt the tears race down his cheeks as he held tightly to Diana's spent, sobbing form in his arms. "Please God, let him bring her back," he prayed fervantly, with every fiber of his tested soul, knowing for certain that his plea was echoing that within both the other hearts there with him.

The little chest visibly rose and fell, but only in response to her father's breathing. Vincent continued his rescuing efforts undeterred, forcing his attention to remain focused beyond his grief and to the life-giving intervention he was attempting at hand. He offered his baby one small breath, then another, and another, feeling Diana's trembling soul hold to his in fearful expectation as well.

Then . . . finally . . . he felt the . . . miracle.

His daughter's little heart clamoring within his own once more, as it had been so easily evident within his awareness all the months that Diana's body had sheltered her.

The baby spasmed in his arms.

She drew in a sharp, deep draught of her father's breath . . . and expelled it at last on her own, with the familiar, high-pitched, vibrating cry of a newborn.

Diana drew her head from Joe's chest at the sound, afraid to believe she'd heard it. But, as she raised her tear-blurred gaze to her husband, she felt the heartbeat within her, too, and saw, actually was able to gaze at, a shuddering little body that he cradled pulling itself, indeed, into the world of the living.

A mother's desperation was turned to grateful, ecstatic abandon with that heartbeat, and Vincent blessed heaven that he'd been able to both draw his tiny daughter back to life as well as hold his beloved soulmate safe from anguish.

The baby's color began to brighten instantly, progressing from the terrifying purple to a soon noticeably flushed pink. Her cries, loud, insistent, and filling with energy, proved, too, her undeniable arrival into their midst. The tears streaming from Diana's eyes were a flood of joy that found an echoing kinship in those gently slipping from her husband's azure ones.

Quickly, deadly, taloned hands carefully settled the little girl into a suitcoat that would serve as her swaddling. But those same hands that had been steady as any neurosurgeon's at Columbia, only minutes before, unexpectedly trembled as Vincent sought to retie his daughter's umbilical closer to her small body. Joe leaned over them both and knotted the shoelace farther up, without a word. A look of quiet gratitude passed from mythic features to the unashamedly concerned ones, then another, more steady attempt recut the child's cord properly with a sharp nail.

A tender kiss to a small, furrowed brow, and a new father wrapped his youngest child up to stay warm, offered her the most hopeful words he could ever have imagined uttering at that moment: "Welcome, little angel."

The lung-expanding protests, voicing her displeasure at her rudely ushered entrance into the world, were the sweetest sounds created, to Vincent's ears. Softly he placed his precious bundle into her mother's awaiting arms, the reassuring touch of a clawed, furred hand over warm, silky baby fat, the warmth of a mother's familiar, sheltering body, quieting the child in a matter of moments. Brilliant, blue-green eyes opened wide, in silent observation of her new surroundings.

"Oh, she's beautiful, Vincent. Isn't she?" Diana asked in totally unobjective wonder, punctuated by both tears and joy.

"Just like her mother," came the softly voiced observation, equally tinged with tender awe. Vincent came to sit beside his wife and child, then, gathering them both into his arms. He kissed Diana's auburn-crowned head.

"This little lady will count herself doubly blessed in life," Joe commented, reaching a hand out to the now robustly-blushed cheek of the child he'd helped deliver. "She can thank both her mother, and her father, for giving her life."

Diana took in the tender, acknowledging hope in her friend's words. "And she can thank her wonderful godfather, too, " she smiled. Vincent nodded in agreement.

For a long few moments, the three adult souls did their best to gather their besieged

wits about them, past fear, pain, and total, sheer, exhaustion. The soft cooing of another, smaller soul, sounded as balm to their tested spirits.

"Dear Lord!" came an accented voice from down the tunnel a way. Joe couldn't quite place the distinguished tones drawing slowly nearer, but he knew, without a doubt, that the voie was not foreign to him. Pulling himself reluctantly away from the tunnel wall, he peered down into the softly lit reaches beyond them.

An older man, dressed in piecemeal, but somehow, elegant, medieval-looking attire, was leaning on a walking crutch, making his way to them. He was closely followed by two younger men carrying a litter, similarly dressed, and a middle-aged woman with knotted greying hair and quiet, gentle features.

The elder man turned to the woman in incredulous realization. "I told you, Mary, that I heard a baby's cry. Good heavens! The child is born already."

Joe knew now from where the familiar voice rested in his memory: Three years ago, an eccentric, elder man in a 35-year old suit, had twice approached him with cryptic information early in the investigation of Catherine's death. He'd even appeared to assure the DA of Diana's safety, directing him to her, after she'd disappeared at gunpoint with Gabriel's men one night.

Jacob Wells.

"Father. Come see your new granddaughter," Diana urged with quiet pride.

Their new arrival immediately struggled down to the floor of the tunnel beside Diana, at the moment oblivious to everything other than the baby in her arms. A warm, paternal smile graced the careworn features as he gently slipped a loving hand over the little girl's downy amber hair. About to say something, he couldn't quite come up with the words, so many emotions converging within him, knotting up his stomach. Joe caught sight of grey eyes misting over suddenly without shame.

The sweet-spirited older woman leaned beside Jacob's shoulder, though, grasping it with gentle possession, then proceeded to obviously speak for the both of them. "Oh, she's a little lamb, Diana! What a treasure, Vincent!"

At mention of the new father's name, the older man pulled free from the hypnotic joy of holding the child in his gaze, resting it instead, immediately, onto the exotic features of Vincent's weary face with an uninhibited scowl.

"And what in heaven's name are you doing all the way here? You are supposed to be recuperating, resting, not . . . "

" . . . not bringing my child into the world?" came an unexpectedly, quietly challenging tone. The older man was about to protest the obvious afront to his authority when he broke out into an infectious laugh that was part mumbled reprimand, and part distinctly British humor.

"I suppose we'll need to overlook your lapse in good sense, then, won't we?"

Finally seeming to take in Joe's presence within the aparently familial group, Jacob addressed him, too. "Mr. Maxwell. It's obvious we need to acknowledge your part in this unexpected drama, as well. Thank you for your help, truly. Samantha told us of how you came to care for Diana Above."

Joe felt a warmth drift over him at the accepting reception he was receiving from these people, strangers, in fact, under the most chaotic of circumstances, but offering him a sense of acknowledging welcome that he could scarcely put into words. "I'm glad I could be there for her," was all he could say.

Nodding, Father turned back to the older woman he'd addressed as, "Mary, " and had her hand him a venerable, old-fashioned medical bag. "We'd better check these two ladies out, make certain everyone is all right." Fitting a stethoscope around his neck, he turned to the baby held closely in Diana's arms. "Any problems with the delivery?" he asked automatically.

For an instant, Vincent and his beloved looked deeply into each other's gaze. Joe watched as tears began to form in his colleague's eyes, but a tender hand, otherworldly, stroked her cheek in quiet reassurance. "We had to coax her into breathing for a moment or two. The cord prolapsed."

Father stopped in mid-action as he was uncovering the little girl from the jacket swaddling her. It was then that he took in a startled breath, his trained eyes not missing the faint bruising around the baby's neck. Turning a suddenly anquished gaze to his son, the physician asked in an unsteady whisper, "Was she in distress long?"

Vincent only managed to close his eyes defensively against the image of his lifeless child in his hands. It was Diana who responded softly, "Vincent rescussitated her."

Quickly, adept hands went over the little girl, meticulously examining her state. Mary eased over to Vincent's side then and pressed a gentle, reassuring grasp onto his arm. "She seems fine now. That's what is important. And Diana, dear child! You must be completely exhausted. We need to get you both home and settled. Here, let me help you."

With gentle expertise of her own, the caring elder woman reached into a basket of her supplies, withdrawing a sealed flask of water which she used to moisten a small towel, slipping it tenderly over Diana's drawn face. She didn't miss the total weariness of the young mother's demeanor, despite her obvious joy at her child's safe delivery. It spoke of pain beyond that normal and expected in childbirth. Another clean, cool cloth offered a bit of water to parched lips, one of which was even cut and swollen.

"I believe we'll need to keep an eye on both mother and daughter for a few days, just to be safe," came Father's directive, as he took Diana's blood pressure. There was a generous current of tender, respectful affection in his gentle ministrations to the young mother who'd just withstood the trauma of a crisis delivery. She responded silently in kind, and the elder physician found himself needing very much to be cloaked within his parental and medical authority lest he totally lose his composure.

"You'll need complete bed rest, my child, and not a protesting peep out of you," he admonished quickly, glaring at her husband, nevertheless blessing heaven that his headstrong son had circumvented his directives this evening to come to the young woman's aid.

Meekly, but gratefully, Diana replied, "Yes, Father."

His preliminary exams complete, Jacob indicated that the two young men who'd accompanied him should now bring the litter to within reach. Vincent knelt closely beside Diana then, and before anyone else could reach a hand out to her, he'd lifted his beloved onto the stretcher, a caress to her face gently expressing everything within his heart to her. Mary settled the baby safely beside her, in her sheltering embrace. The sight of relieved wonder across ethereal features took Vincent's breath away. Only his heart spoke the words to her, feeling them echoing back to him: "I love you."

As the litter bearers began to make their way back down the tunnel, Mary turned to address Joe with confident ease. "You will come along with us, Mr. Maxwell? You must be tired, and hungry, too."

Joe was at a loss for an immediate answer. As far as he could understand it, the mystery of this tunnel world had been kept from him for a good six years, first by Catherine, and then by Diana herself. Now he was being casually asked to delve deeper into God knew where by a woman who looked so much like his great aunt Serafina and sounded so much like his mother admonishing him to take better care of himself? He did the only thing he could, at the moment: He looked to Vincent for an answer.

And the powerful, mythic being that once had haunted Joe's consciousness as a shadowy avenger actually needed to look to Jacob Wells -- to his father -- for permission to respond in the affirmative -- a man half his size and twice his age, with all the intimidating presence about him of an Oxford professor in his twilight years. But, obviously, "Father" was indeed capable of inspiring even a mythic protector's respect, though Joe got the feeling that Mary could sweetly work her way around even that patriarch's authority at will. After all, it was she who had issued the invitation.

The elder physician let a soft, welcoming smile radiate out to the DA after just a moment's calm contemplation. He knew where he really stood, after all, within the hierarchy of the tunnel community. "I believe it is past time you became acquainted with our world, Mr. Maxwell. Yes, please, you must join us tonight."

Suddenly, the guest found that his usual quick wit had failed. There was an actual lump forming in his throat instead of a quip, at the significance of such an invitation. "I'd like that very much. Thank you," he answered sincerely.

Thus, the small entourage began its journey, the litter bearers with Diana and her child, followed by Father and Mary. Joe turned to Vincent, who'd remained on his knees since he'd lifted his wife onto the stretcher. The DA took immediate note that the powerful figure beside him had made no attempt to come to his feet and join the retreating group. Giving the others a moment or two to get ahead of them, Joe then reached his arm down to Vincent.

The fur-backed hand took quick hold of the offered arm, welcoming the steadying presence unselfconsciously.

"You shouldn't have lifted Diana," came Joe's unexpected, at ease, admonishment.

The blue eyes that held the DA's dark ones brightened in surprised kinship. "There are a lot of things none of us should have done this evening. And so many more that needed to be done."

"I guess that the Fates were pointing us all into the same direction all along."

"We must be grateful that was the case. As I must be grateful for your help. Your trust, Joe. I'll never be able to thank you enough."

The DA looked long into the exotic features before him, the truth taking hold in his heart without question. "I think the trust has come totally from your side, Vincent, tonight." A gentle rebuke from unearthly blue eyes contradicted Joe's conclusion, setting his heart to warm comfort. He was suddenly so relieved to know that Diana's own fate-steered existence had crossed her life's path with that of a beyond human protector's far beneath the city's streets.

Pushing himself off the supporting wall, Vincent took as deep a breath as he could manage, which wasn't too deep at the moment. He wasn't startled when Joe took hold of his right arm and drew it over his own shoulder, running his left arm around Vincent's waist in support. "I'll be all right in a few minutes," he explained with a bit of

embarassment. "I just need to catch my breath."

"After an episode like that, so do I," came Joe's immediate response. "And I'm not even nursing a collapsed lung."

An upswept eyebrow arched even more in surprised emphasis as Vincent gazed down questioningly at the man helping to steady his steps. Obviously Diana had filled Joe in on some of their recently past experiences, speaking of her total trust in the DA. With that realization, the new father urged softly, "We'd better not get too far behind. Father will become suspicious and I'll spend the next month in bed!"

The unexpected trepidation in those last words broke a smile over Joe's face as they continued walking slowly. "Jacob will dress you down then, will he?"

Vincent nodded solemnly, but with a hint of mischief in his deep blue eyes. "I've been able to dodge most of his admonishments of late where the state of my recovery has been concerned, so I'm certain there would be an accumulation of medical and parental ire to deal with if he even thinks I'm still in pain."

The DA stopped their progress for a moment so that he could look at Vincent directly. "It wouldn't be totally your fault that you are," he pronounced quietly, not exactly certain if he should dare to ask for an explanation. "You took on a healthy dose of Diana's pain, too. Your little girl is alive and safe because of it." The words came out as if they were the most normal observation Joe could have made of his mythic companion, and that otherworldly figure's inexplicable bonding to both the woman and the child he loved.

Vincent took in another deep breath, tentatively, before replying. Looking into Joe's earnest face an instant, he realized, with wonder, that the man he'd only come to meet an hour ago, searching now for answers he could understand and accept, was one that he could trust with his life. He'd already trusted the DA with Diana's life, and his children's.

"She would have endured her agony alone, would never want to threaten anyone she loved with her own pain. She is so strong. But, sometimes, love calls us to be vulnerable, so that those we care about can touch our hearts with their own strength."

"And then miracles happen."

"Yes . . . miracles."

Continuing their steps down the tunnel, just beyond sight of the small medical party ahead of them, the two men allowed themselves the luxury of accepting the quickly-forged kinship that had settled itself between them without hesitation or doubt. Vincent felt his breathing improving as he took his supported steps gratefully. The slighter man helping steady him carried his own compelling form of inner strength quietly within him. Diana's judgment of the DA's heart could not be faulted, he knew for certain.

The labyrinth of passageways and tunnels apparently chiseled out of the living rock seemed to go on forever as the stretcher party made its steady way within a world of fairy tale legend. The farther the small entourage walked, the more frequent, and welcoming, the light sources amazingly became, throwing the stone walls into a warm glow with the light from scores of candles and torches. The sound of voices ahead of them were not only those of Father and Mary. Vincent pulled himself free of Joe's support, at that realization, his taxed strength mostly resettled.

As the group came to a halt before what seemed to be an entryway to a room, Samantha's voice was heard from within, in obvious breathless anticipation. "Oh, Diana, you're all right!" she spoke with delight. "And the baby . . . she's like a little doll!"

The weary mother raised her one free arm to the young girl who took it quickly, gratefully against her. "We're all well, Samantha," she pronounced softly, "and we have you to thank for it, too." A sweet blush of color overcame the girl's features as she was held momentarily speechless with relief.

Mary then addressed her. "Why don't you take the baby, dear, while we get Diana settled into bed?" The blush radiated into visible wonder at the task required. Gently, Samantha bent down to the little bundle.

"May I, Diana?"

The generous welcome the red-haired mother had for her young friend's appeal was genuine and heartfelt. "Of course you may," she quietly pronounced.

With an easy, experienced touch, the dark-haired girl gathered the baby into her arms, letting the stretcher pass her into the room beyond with Father's urgings. Samantha turned to Vincent with loving, awestruck wonder. "She's an angel, Vincent . . . I'm so happy for you!"

A taloned hand drifted softly over the girl's braided hair with obvious, cherished care. "That this little one, and Diana, are safely back home now has a great deal to do with your protective care, Samantha."

The girl's warm features were glowing as she fitted a finger into the baby's tiny fist. A sweet smile radiated completely over her beautifully maturing face. She raised eyes brimming with tender acknowledgement to the powerful figure before her. "You asked me to watch over Diana for you."

Joe swallowed at the girl's reply and manner, taking note of the total, love-washed devotion directed at Vincent from her. He got the immediate feeling that there was something intangibly . . . beautiful . . . between the girl and the mystical presence she was addressing . . . complete, utterly undying, trust. It took his breath away.

After a moment, Mary came back out into the tunnel, very much in easy control of the situation. "Samantha, would you like to come in and help me get Diana and the baby comfortable?" she asked with warm invitation. The girl gently carried off the little bundle in her arms, so happy with her responsibility. In the meantime, the tunnel matriarch's attention had been turned onto the new father. "Why don't you give us a few minutes, dear? You both can get washed up in Father's study."

The aching need to be with his wife and child held Vincent rooted to the spot for an extra few seconds, as he considered his foster mother's words reluctantly. She, though, took the situation in hand and literally turned the imposing presence around, giving him a pronounced, motherly shove to urge him on his way. "You can be with your ladies in a little while. Now, off with you!. We'll call when we're ready. And take Joe with you."

There was little either man could do in the face of such maternal direction but comply. Joe found that he was delightfully fascinated by the elder woman who could so easily admonish a formidible, mythic presence such as Vincent with so much ease of conviction. The feeling of kinship that had sprouted so strongly between the two men was being reinforced with every passing experience of the evening for the DA.

Having conceded that he was going to have to wait before he could return to Diana's side, Vincent turned to lead the way down the tunnel and away from his chamber. Joe followed his large form silently for a dozen yards along the stone passageways, until he was amazed to notice that more people were streaming into the small spaces before them, all with hugs and hand-clasps and bright joyous faces for the new father.

There was a girl, probably in her early twenties with a quietly challenging, confident aire about her; a young man, also of about the same age, with unruly blonde hair and a strangely abbreviated speech pattern; another thin man carrying a carpenter's apron in his hands; and, finally, a gentle-featured, dark-haired woman, about 35, and obviously pregnant.

Amazingly, everyone that greeted Vincent with hearty and relieved congratulations also extended their hands, and obviously their hearts as well, to Joe, too. He could hardly accept that the outpouring of loving emotion should so easily include himself.

"Now, we can all greet Vincent and talk to him later. Let the poor man recover for a few minutes!" The dark-haired mother-to-be scolded her companions who laughingly agreed. The crowd dispersed into a half dozen different directions at once, seemingly into the stone itself.

"Thank you, Livy. I desperately need a cup of tea at the moment," came Vincent's grateful reply as he followed the woman into a large chamber hewn out of the rock, urging Joe to follow.

"Tea's already waiting, and there's warm water for you. Here you are, Mr. Maxwell." Joe was handed a small hand towel as he wondered why everyone in this subterranean world already knew his name. Vincent began to pour water from a large, porcelain pitcher into a basin on a very old looking chest of drawers. The DA let his attention run over the incredulous sight of the room they were in.

It was piled high with books, ancient, rare-looking volumes in battered, leather bindings. The space was crammed, too, with an unbelievable collection of eclectic articles that boggled the mind: furnishings that were heavy and highly polished, like his mother's precious sideboard, always lovingly cared for; a ship's wheel hanging near a twisting iron staircase; a tryptic icon that looked like it belonged in St. Basil's Cathedral; and candles, candles everywhere, lighting the amazing space with a warm, soft glow.

"Why don't you clean up first, Joe?" Vincent's words finally pulled the DA's attention back to the water basin. He came over to it and set the towel down beside it, finding himself momentarily confused as to how to wash up without a tap. Then he pushed his already rolled sleeves up a bit more on his arms and slid his hands into the warm water in the basin.

The feeling of welcome relief he unexpectedly experienced from that simple act was so difficult to describe. It was as if all his anxiety and disquiet of the evening just melted away into the warmth. Lathering up with a large, coarse bar of soap, Joe was surprised to find more clean water poured out over his hands from the pitcher -- by Vincent -- helping him negotiate the uncharacteristically foreign ritual. To the DA, it felt, somehow, like a very intimate reach into his spirit, from the mystic figure across the basin from him, a quietly comforting act, offering him reassurance. He wasn't certain the warmth beginning to fill him came only as a result of the soothing water.

Once Joe had dried his hands, Vincent then quickly washed up too, and his companion's focus again came to rest on those undeniably unhuman hands. But, instead of the nightmarish flash of blood he'd found his thoughts settling on unbidden earlier that evening, Joe could only picture a little girl coming back to life within that easily deadly grasp, startlingly blessed by a golden wedding band that didn't even seem out of place now.

His own washing completed, Vincent turned momentarily back into a great wooden wardrobe and retrieved a heavy pullover sweater, holding it out to his companion with an explanation: "You'll probably be more comfortable with something warmer on down here. It is rather cool in our chambers, especially in winter."

Joe took the offered garment and pulled it over his head, realizing that he'd all but forgotten about his own warm clothes. But, his coat had been left to pillow Diana on the stretcher, and his suit jacket had lastly been warming the baby. "Thanks. That feels much better," he pronounced easily.

With a gracious sweep of his arm, Vincent directed his guest to a large table where Livy was pouring steaming cups of tea, on a small area of the surface that had been pushed free of what looked like positively archaic blueprints of the city Above. He accepted the steaming cup offered him from the woman's hand and settled into a large, worn armchair, gratefully.

They'd hardly enjoyed two sips from their refreshments, though, before the sound of small, hurried footsteps echoed down the tunnel they'd entered the room from. Livy looked up from her tidying at the washbasin with the long-patient attitude of a mother of boys. "That would be Jacob," she concluded, easily.

Sure enough, the little boy came bounding into the room and straight across the crowded width of the space to his father's awaiting embrace. Which was not an easy action, either, seeing as how the child was all but engulfed by a beautiful bouquet of mixed flowers and ferns: colorful plantian lilies, cyclamen nodding on slender stems, astilbe, and, in the center of the bunch, an amazing, full-blown rose, white, with swirling red sweeps across its ruffled petals.

The little boy set the flowers immediately down on the table, miraculously between the teacups, and threw his arms around his father's neck in relieved abandon. Vincent's hold on the child was just as enthusiastic, as he listened patiently to a flood of questions, all pronounced breathlessly, and without punctuation.

"Father, you're here! Are you well? Is Mama? And the baby? I felt that you all were very frightened earlier, and I've been terribly worried ever since!"

Vincent set a kiss on the child's forehead as he gently clasped the golden curled head between his two great hands. "We are all safe and well, Jacob. Mama and your new little sister are being attended to in our chamber now by Mary and Grandfather and Samantha."

The limpid sapphire eyes the little boy shared with his father widened perceptively with wonder at his father's words. "A little sister? Oh, Father, really?"

"Yes, Jacob. You have a little sister. You are a big brother now, and your new sister has been very lucky to have had you watching over her from her first moments with us."

Jacob threw his small arms as far as he could manage around his father's formidible frame again, which wasn't far, but the little arms encircling him gave Vincent a peaceful radiance of spirit from within their joined hearts that he cherished beyond words. Joe couldn't resist reaching out to tousle the child's golden hair at the moment, too, in acknowledgement. "Jacob helped Samantha lead his mother to safety without a second thought." The child accepted the beaming compliment easily, knowing it came sincerely from a worthy heart.

Vincent reached his hand over to the bunch of flowers lying on the table before him. "I see that you've been down to the river garden."

"Jamie took me down while we were waiting for you to return. She said that some flowers would be a lovely gift for Mama and the baby." Suddenly, the little boy's expression turned momentarily questioning and unsure. "We picked one of Mama's special roses, too, Father." A little hand softly indicated the unusual blossom in the center of the bouquet. "Mama has said she wishes to save those roses for very special times. Was it all right that we picked one now?"

For a moment, Vincent simply held the child quietly, without responding to his question, then he drew the boy back into an unexpectedly fervent embrace. Gently running his hand over his son's sturdy little shoulders, he softly replied, "The birth of a child is a very special, blessed time, Jacob, perfect for such a flower gift. Mama will be very happy."

Joe caught sight of the momentary . . . anguish . . . in the exotic face pressed close to the little boy's. Jacob pulled back an instant from his father's arms, reaching a small hand to the softly bristled face. A silent communion passed between parent and child that was outwardly apparent to even the DA, a deep, nurturing connection that spoke of both reassurance . . . and pain . . . undying love . . . and loss.

Livy's kind words helped temper the fragile moment. "Here, Jacob, let's get those flowers into some water so they'll stay fresh."

The child slowly quit his father's embrace to gather up the flowers, but his gaze was still entwined with the heartstopping depths holding him in love . . . and grief. Finally he turned to the woman across the room to care for his gift.

Joe suddenly could no longer keep Vincent's presence in his own gaze. He looked deeply into the teacup he was holding, a pronounced ache in his chest readily discernible.

"I wasn't with Catherine when Jacob was born."

The words were quietly agonized, still so pained, as Vincent kept his child's actions in his sight across the room. Livy was helping him carefully place the flowers into a large water tumbler.

Joe at last found the courage to lift his own gaze to his companion's, his heart clamoring with disquiet turmoil of its own, at both his remembered sense of loss, and the visible evidences of it washing over the arresting figure across from him.

"She labored alone to bring our son into the world . . . surrounded by hellish evil. The first hand that held Jacob . . . was probably the one that helped . . . murder . . . his mother."

The DA felt a surge of anguish rush through him at Vincent's confession, so quietly desperate, and still full of remorse and guilt. Joe remembered his own feelings, swelling up with a vengeance, coming into Catherine's apartment that morning her body had been found: He'd actually stumbled into the apartment, dazed and grief-numbed, happening into the rooms as his co-worker's body was being coldly prepared for removal from her bed, to the officers present simply another victim of the city's violence.

His heart had dropped out of his chest then . . . as it had the morning Diana had revealed to him the medical examiner's report on Cathy's death -- that she'd delivered a child moments before she'd been executed. The pain, the loss and futility had been overwhelming then to the DA, as he tried to reconcile the circumstances presented to him with the vibrant, giving young woman he'd loved as a friend . . . and beyond.

How much more acute, how much more devastating, would the pain, the loss, have been for the man seated across from him now, the father of that stolen child, the soulmate of that radiant presence that had been Catherine?

And how much more anguishing had the past two hours been for that fate-shadowed being tonight, when destiny had threatened to repeat itself with yet another felling blow of loss ready to claim his heart?

Joe set his hand onto the powerful arm of the man beside him, in reassuring, trusting understanding. He may have had his doubts as to the sane reality of the circumstances he'd found himself thrust into this night, but he was certain of one thing at that moment: The soul lying revealed and vulnerable to his scrutiny was one who had touched the hearts of two very special women he cared for himself, gifting them with a share of passionate devotion into eternity.

As impossible as it all seemed, both he and Vincent had somehow both come to love the same two remarkable women, though each in their own uniquely profound way. That astounding revelation only accentuated now the powerful forces of connection Joe had felt forging themselves between him and the mystical protector sharing a cup of tea at his side. Both Catherine, and Diana, had deserved the depths of devotion offered them from that otherworldly heart. And Vincent himself, Joe concluded without doubt, wa beyond worthy of the love offered him.

"Vincent, you were with Diana. She's safe and well, and your daughter's first breath was from you."

The soul-searching azure eyes held him in quiet gratitude, and a soft smile slowly drew itself across features that would be commonplace only in the epic legends of long ago. Yet, that face also became the gently wonderfilled gaze of a father contemplating his gifts from heaven itself -- a tenderly earnest and delightfully spirited little boy, and a small angel of a redhead who gave every indication of being as formidible a soul as her parents.

"Yes, it is a blessed moment, now, isn't it?" came the softly pronounced return to hope.

"Well, Diana and my granddaughter are ready to receive some company, though we'll need to limit it to worried fathers and helpful godfathers at the moment."

Jacob Wells came slowly into the room and when he stood behind the large chair where his son was seated, he rested a loving hand onto the great shoulders. Once they had been small and prone to stooping, to hide a unique face behind a fall of golden hair. Vincent turned at the paternal acknowledgement and set his own taloned hand over the physician's.

"You'll forgive me, then, if I abandon you and Joe, Father? Jacob and I will be rather poor company until we can see our ladies for ourselves."

The elder man looked patiently over to the DA with a bit of a gleam in his kind eyes. "Don't you think you ought to eat something first? And show our guest around a bit?" The look of pained exasperation was exactly what the elder man expected. "No, I suppose not . . . then go on with you both. Diana's better equipped to handle your impudence than I, even in her exhausted state. And you can stand some rest yourself."

Vincent let that last remark pass him without acknowledgement as Jacob quickly gathered his bouquet of flowers, fairly flying over to his father and grandfather at the table. "Excuse us, Mr. Maxwell, but we have to go see Mama and my new sister." Then with the impatient urgings of a child, he tugged mightily on his father's hand, hoping to move him more satisfactorily along to the desired destination.

Father laughed out loud at the child's eagerness, then sriously admonished him, "We'll have to see how long it is before that new sister of yours is tearing about after you, young man."

The warm smile turned on the elder man and Joe from the father and son spoke a wealth of heartfelt emotion that was long on relieved joy and, at last, far from remembered pain. Vincent excused himself to the DA, then let the little boy draw him out of the room and into the tunnel beyond.

Pulling his patiently acknowledging gaze from the sight of his retreating son and grandson, Jacob Wells turned to Joe with quiet inquiry in his cultured tone of voice. "Something tells me there was more than a simple coaxing of that baby's breath involved back in that tunnel."

The DA responded as gently as he could to the older man's query. "Your granddaughter's alive because of her father."

Jacob nodded his head slowly, then came to sit on the large, once elegant chair his son had just quit. "I thought so. Dear God, I'll never understand where he finds his strength! The circumstances of Jacob's birth couldn't have been too far from his mind."

Joe read the sorrow and care in the older man's quietly worn features, a father's face, confronting a child's pain, even if that child was a grown man himself. And that pain had loomed so tellingly only a short hour ago. "It was pretty serious, wasn't it? Diana was in trouble, too, wasn't she?"

The elder physician was not surprised to note a very real anxiety in the earnest features of the young man seated before him either. Mary had been right to include him within their midst tonight.

"Her blood pressure is still a bit on the low side. She's lost more blood already than is usual for an uncomplicated delivery." A quiet darkness suddenly took hold of the kind grey eyes before Father continued speaking. His words were in a noticeably softer tone, drawn from a deep memory that could yet cause pain. "In the old days, a woman struggling alone in such a childbirth might have been lost, as well, with the baby."

Seeming to suddenly catch his embattled train of thought at last, the elder man ran a hand through his hair in a gesture that released his tension. The past, it seemed, sought to remain insistantly close to the surface of everyone's heart on a night such as this. But, there was so much more that was calling those hearts, too, back into hope.

"Thank God you and Vincent were able to help them both! Diana should bounce back within a few days, I'm certain. Any woman's scope of recovery is amazing, when faced with the need to care for her child. Diana's force of will is astonishing."

Without even having to think about his own reply, Joe Maxwell responded, "So is the power of their love."

The awe-tinged words confirmed to Father what he'd suspected: That Joe had witnessed within that tunnel drama something far beyond his own plane of experience that was carefully rooted in rational reality. "Yes. They have something very special between them, Diana and my son. It defies my understanding, but I'll never stop thanking heaven for it. And we now have a beautiful new addition to our family because .êJoe smiled in agreement, then found that radiating warmth fill him again with the elder man's continued explanation. "We can also welcome you, Mr. Maxwell, to our family. As a trusted friend. That is something very special as well. Come, now, let's see if we can find you some dinner."

Getting back up to his feet with decision, the patriarch of an unimagined society beneath the streets of New York City, reached out to take hold of his guest's arm. "You deserve some recovery time, too, I dare say, Joe," he offered with bright caring. The DA's besieged body, as well as spirit, welcomed Father's obvious concern. And with the elder man's final comment to him, Joe Maxwell knew he'd truly, unexpectedly, found his way back home again within a subterranean labyrinth of stone chambers:

"I might just be able to scare up a bit of cooking sherry to toast my new granddaughter with you, in William's kitchen, at that. You don't look like you're too familiar with the comforting properties of a good cup of tea."

 


Continued in Chapter 15 (coming soon)