Chapter One

Rhonda Collins

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Prologue

This story begins after Diana is captured during a case and tortured, resulting in the loss of her empathy. She and Vincent had been beginning to become very close, their shared empathy tying them together – sometimes more closely than they’d liked. Now, however, the loss of that shared empathy is causing an entirely different set of problems.

Chapter 1

The tension crackled in the air between Vincent and his father, and Diana was acutely ashamed of being the cause of the dissention. ‘All I wanted was to move Below for a while—to stay with Vincent—at least until he and I were more comfortable with the loss of our empathy.’ The incessant banging of the pipes in the background jangled Diana’s already shredded nerves. She hadn’t anticipated Jacob Well’s unsympathetic attitude. ‘I could kick myself. I should’ve known how he’d react. It was stupid to think he’d react much differently than my own Dad would’ve’.’

Vincent stood stiffly silent, staring directly down at the gray-haired tunnel patriarch. Diana was fiercely proud of Vincent: there was no hesitancy in his eyes or manner. Eventually it was Father who dropped his eyes, and Diana drew in a deep, cleansing breath as she saw the rigid muscles in Vincent's shoulders relax. But the battle wasn't over, and she knew it: Jacob Wells hadn't built a world--along with all the customs and laws that entailed--merely to have his son flout those accepted customs. And Diana had no intention of allowing Vincent to do just that, or of being the reason behind it. ‘I should've thought this out more. Talked it over with Vincent before just showing up down here with the assumption it'd be all right just to move down here--share his chamber.’

In the silence Diana cleared her throat to draw the men's attention. She felt more awkward and stilted around Father now than at any other time since she'd first met him. When they both looked her way, she shrugged apologetically. "Look. It's not important. I miscalculated. Didn't figure a few things."

Vincent looked indignant--Father relieved. Before Vincent could begin the argument again, Diana smiled at him and shook her head. He closed his mouth and his expression changed from indignation to puzzlement. Turning back to Father, Diana tried smoothing things over. "The guest chamber will be fine...um...Father. I appreciate your hospitality." At the moment, Diana felt odd calling Jacob Wells, ‘Father.’ All sense of familiarity with the man was gone, as was their usual easy friendship. Things had suddenly changed, and Diana felt the loss acutely.

Running his hands through his hair, Jacob Wells looked away a moment, then met Diana's eyes. His gratitude for the reprieve was plain. Hitching his hip to stand a little straighter, the old man limped to his desk and lowered himself carefully into his chair. The hesitant glance he spared his son spoke volumes. "I'll ask Mary and Livvy to make certain the chamber is supplied and ready for you." He smiled at Diana and nodded. "We'll discuss this with more—civility--later. After we've all had more time to think about the various problems involved."

Diana had to force her own smile. She felt less than happy right now. "Yeah. Sure thing." Taking Vincent's arm, she steered him toward the stairs, then followed him up and out of the chamber. He was remarkably quiet--even for Vincent--but he slipped an arm around her waist as they walked slowly to the Mirror Pool where they sat beside the still water and silently watched the moon rise.

Vincent lay with his head in Diana's lap watching the reflection of the moon in the water. He still hadn't said much, and to pass the time, Diana had carefully worked free three long strands of his mane and woven them together into a long braid that she now wound gently around and through her fingers.

Finally, Vincent spoke. "Diana."

"Yeah?" she asked cautiously, knowing what was coming.

"I thought you wanted to stay with me in my chamber. I thought that was the reason you came Below--to be with me. We agreed."

He sounded puzzled and a little hurt, and Diana wasn't sure how to make it better. Frustrated at her lack of empathy, she merely shrugged. "I did. I do. But I realized after we started talking to Father that as much as I--we--want that, we shouldn't." When Vincent shifted around so he could see her, Diana found herself embarrassed enough to look away. Staring out over the pool, she murmured gently: "See...in my world, just movin' in with your lover is pretty much accepted nowdays. Nobody thinks too much about it--or if they do, they're usually pretty quiet about it." She lowered her eyes to his and smiled as she thought about Father's reaction to their plans. "Except family, of course," she qualified, "who'll generally have somethin' to say about most anything." Vincent's small, amused smile encouraged her. "Anyway, I don't have much close family left--except for Susan--so I'm not used to bein' censured for what I do. But here, it's like everybody's family. And I realized kind of belatedly that just movin' in with your lover isn't generally done. The culture's different. It's like...like movin' to another planet or something."

"Or to another time?" Vincent reached up and wound his fingers in her long hair, pulling her down to him for a gentle kiss. His lips moved over hers softly and she felt the tension leave her. ‘It's going to be all right,’ she thought with sudden relief.

Diana sighed as she sat up straighter, leaning against the boulder behind her, hitching a little to avoid a rough bump. Vincent merely snuggled deeper, more comfortably into her lap. "You're right, of course," he admitted. "Both of us should have anticipated Father's reaction. Even without our empathy. Myself most especially."

A small giggle bubbled its way up and Diana rubbed her nose to stifle it. "Guess as the heir apparent around here, you're expected to set examples, and that's not one Father wants to encourage."

"No. I expect not." Vincent's eyes danced with undisguised mischief.

"Just tell me," she asked him with a grin, "are we gonna have to get council approval every time we want to make love?"

***

Vincent's light-hearted mood lasted until they reached his chamber to retrieve Diana's things. Leaning against the wall, he watched her gather up her few personal belongings and repack them into the small valise she’d brought them in. He knew she was right: neither of them had thought things through. ‘This is a new world for her, and she must adjust to it--not it to her. She is a stranger in a strange land. I knew better. Knew our customs. No wonder Father was so appalled. I can’t imagine what I was thinking. I wasn't very fair to him.’

Diana shoved the last piece of clothing back into the suitcase and turned to him. "You're awfully quiet."

As she followed him into the passageway, he sighed and told her, "I find I was more... prepared...to share this chamber with you than I thought I was. It will be difficult not having you here."

Without looking up, Diana murmured: "Maybe I should just forget the whole thing...I mean...if I'm not staying with you, then I might as well just move back into the loft."

Appalled--more distressed then he felt he should be--Vincent hesitated, then told her gently, "You came here for refuge, Diana. For a place to think...and rest. To heal. Not merely to be with me." Diana's eyes swung to meet his, her gaze intense, and he rushed ahead. "Besides...that decision must always be yours."

With a frown, Diana stopped and planted her hands on her hips. "Can't you just once say, what you want?"

As Diana's tone raised, Vincent glanced hastily up and down the corridor, then ushered her into the guest chamber. He didn't feel like having an argument in the middle of the public passageway.

"Well?" she asked insistently as she shook his hand off. "And quit pushing!"

"I'm not pushing," he protested mildly. Dropping the suitcase, he took Diana in his arms and held her close until he felt her relax against him. Burying his face in her hair, breathing in the sunshine scent of it, he whispered, "I want you here. If not in my chamber then here...Below." When he released her, he added, "But more than that--always--I want your happiness. That’s all I meant."

Obviously mollified, Diana shrugged. "Just wanted to make sure. I mean...you're not real easy to read anymore. It's not the same. And you're so damned good at hiding yourself...."

Diana's voice trailed away as Vincent shook his head. "I know. It's difficult for me, too, Diana. I'll try to do better. I'm not accustomed to telling people how I feel...what I want. You know that. But if there's one thing I learned from my relationship with Catherine, it's that love isn't enough, no matter how great that love might be. I know now that if I'd only opened up to Catherine more, talked to her about what was really important...about what we both wanted--about what was happening between us with...the killing--then perhaps many things would have been different." Disturbed by his own words and by the intensity of Diana's gaze, Vincent looked away. Gesturing to the chamber behind her, he changed the subject, pointing out to her gently, "It seems that Mary has already been here." The candles were lit and the bed freshly made. The chamber looked warm and inviting.

Moving to the side of the bed, Diana smoothed the worn quilts with one hand as she glanced back over her shoulder at him. "Maybe Father knows what he's doing, Vincent. We've both got a lot to get used to. A lot of changes. Maybe we have been moving too fast."

"I've found that Father is right far more often than he's wrong...but Diana...sometimes his vision can be a bit narrow." Vincent felt awkward suddenly. Everything was so new: his relationship with Diana, the loss of their shared empathy and having to learn to deal with each other without it, and now the newness of her move Below. Even if it was likely the move was only temporary. They stood quite still for a few moments, both at a loss for words, then a train rattled past somewhere overhead and broke the stillness. Vincent tried a smile. "I think I'll leave you to settle in. William serves evening meal at...about seven. Will you accompany me?"

Her smile was less tentative now. "I'd like that."

"Very well. I'll meet you here, then."

"Sure."

***

Diana watched as Vincent left the guest chamber--her chamber, now--then slumped back onto the bed. ‘This is gonna be harder than I thought’. She sighed deeply as she listened to the rhythmic clanging of the pipes. Some of the repeated tones and patterns were becoming familiar, but she still didn't know what they meant. Trying to get her mind off her problems, she forced herself to listen even more intently, trying to identify words, sequences she knew. ‘Maybe I'll get Pascal to help me do some intensive studying of pipe code. That might be fun.’ With some goal, however tenuous in mind, Diana felt better. She had to have goals in her life--challenges--in order to be happy. Turning to the wash table, she automatically looked for a tap to turn on the water, then remembered that she'd have to settle for water poured from a pitcher into a basin. Staring at her pale image in the old, cracked mirror, she smiled wryly at herself. ‘As if learning to live--empathically blind--in a whole new culture isn't challenge enough!’

Carefully pouring some water into the hand-crafted ceramic basin, Diana gingerly washed her face then took her braid down so she could brush her hair. There was a soft, scuffling sound at the threshold and she turned to see Jamie hovering hesitantly just outside the chamber. The teenager seemed embarrassed, and Diana wondered why. She and Jamie had always gotten along well. Jamie had even come to Diana with questions about her blossoming relationship with Mouse, so the girl's embarrassment now seemed especially odd to Diana. Putting her brush on the table beside the basin, Diana waved to the girl. "Hi, Jamie. C'mon in."

Jamie glanced both ways down the corridor outside, then took a couple of uneasy steps into the chamber. Thumbs hooked in the belt-loops of her jeans, the girl lifted her eyes to Diana's. "Is it true?" she asked.

‘News travels fast around here,’ was Diana’s first thought. "Depends on what you're askin'," she replied, cautiously. "Why don't you just ask me what you really want to know, Jamie?"

Lifting her chin, Jamie blurted out: "Is it true you're going to stay...for good? Marry Vincent? Cullen says...."

"Whoa, whoa," Diana interrupted with a wave. Irritated, puzzled and curious, she asked impatiently: "Cullen says? Jamie..." suddenly Diana laughed, "What does Cullen say...exactly?"

It was obvious Jamie wanted to slink away or melt into the floor, but while Diana's eyes pinned the girl to the spot, the laughter seemed to reassure her. Shrugging a little and easing a couple of feet closer, Jamie smiled at Diana, and her smile seemed easier. "Nothing much, really. Just that you were moving down here to be with him."

Diana had to look away from Jamie's eyes momentarily. She sat on the bed and patted the quilt for the eager youngster to join her. When she looked up into Jamie's questioning face, she shrugged. "Well, that much is true, at least. I did come down here to be with Vincent. But I also came down here--where it's peaceful and I'm with friends--to...well...to heal after what happened Above. I have a lot of questions in my life right now and so does Vincent. But I don't know right now if I'm gonna be here permanently, Jamie. I don't know yet if I want to go back to my job--or even if I can. Vincent and I haven't made each other any promises."

Jamie looked predictably disappointed. "Oh."

Diana opened her arms and hugged her friend, acutely sympathetic with the girl’s disappointment. "Yeah. Oh."

***

After leaving Diana, Vincent turned back toward Father's chamber. He'd been silent after Diana agreed to move to the guest chamber, not wishing to re-start the argument, but he felt he still needed to speak privately with Father. Upon reaching the entrance to Father's study, Vincent hesitated--taking a moment to settle himself--then moved into the threshold.

Father glanced up from the ledger he was working on.

"Father. May I speak with you a moment?"

Removing his glasses and setting them aside, the old man nodded and gestured to the chair opposite his desk. "Certainly. Is Diana settled in the guest chamber?"

Lowering himself slowly into the heavy oak chair--his customary seat for his and Father's conflicts over chess--Vincent nodded. "I left her there to allow her some time before evening meal. Father..." he began. "I'm sorry, Father. Neither Diana or I thought further than the moment."

Smiling gently, Father reached across the desk and patted his son's hand. "I thought not. You know, of course, that I have no reservations about Diana herself or of your relationship with her?" When Vincent snorted derisively at that blatant fib--that both of them were aware of--Father laughed. "Very well...I do have some reservations. But that isn't the reason behind my refusal to allow her to simply move into your chamber with you. You know that, don't you?"

"Of course. Diana--and I--realized that almost immediately. Truthfully, I think I knew even before we came here that you would object. Perhaps my resistance was...."

"Token? Perhaps a little for Diana's benefit?"

Vincent shrugged uneasily, suddenly embarrassed at Father’s accurate observation. "Perhaps. It is very difficult, Father...I knew how much she wanted this. Perhaps I simply didn't wish to be the one to deny her."

"Ah. Simple cowardice, then." Father laughed, then sobered. "Vincent...did you not wish for Diana to--share your chamber?"

Startled, Vincent shook his head. "No...no. I want her there more than I can say, Father. Perhaps that is what frightens me." He looked away from Father into the flickering light of a candle. The pipes rattled out their usual messages into the silence--barely noticed by either of them. Without looking up, Vincent studied his hands as he spoke--startled at noticing their appearance for the first time in weeks. His relationship with Diana had so changed his own perceptions about how he saw himself that he'd almost begun to take his appearance for granted and think of himself as merely a man, with a man's hopes for a possible future with her. The fact that he noticed these differences now reminded him once again of the obstacles in their relationship and his inability to share Diana’s life Above. "I've never before been so close to realizing my dreams, Father. I never came so close with Catherine, and that was partly my own fault. Diana has refused to allow me to make the same mistakes again. But there are so many other things to consider and so many other possible mistakes. I worry about what will happen when she leaves to return to her life Above. As I know she will. As she must."

Father sighed heavily and Vincent lifted his eyes to his parent's. Again--and with a little more confidence--Father patted the hand in front of him. "At least you're aware of the possibilities...both good and bad." He looked away, no longer meeting his son’s eyes. "I worried--with Catherine--that you'd both allowed yourselves to become blinded by your emotions. Your hopes. Diana is a fine, sensible woman, Vincent. Not," he hurried on to say, "that Catherine was not. But they’re very different. And now...you're older. More experienced. I have more confidence that this time you will consider carefully before making life-changing decisions. When you and Diana came here earlier you were so antagonistic the moment you walked into this chamber, I knew you were aware you were making the wrong decision. I merely needed to point it out to you. Take the time to get to know one another again. Let her at least try to live here." He smiled finally and Vincent could see a glimmer of humor in his eyes. "Besides," Father said, "It would have been an extraordinarily bad example for the children. They look up to you, you know, and you know I've always encouraged commitment to our values."

Rising slowly, Vincent nodded a bit reluctantly. "I’m sure you're right, Father. And we will proceed more carefully." Vincent turned toward the stairs, but he stopped and looked back at the man who carried the weight of their world upon his shoulders. Father merely smiled back at him.

***

The rumble of the 6:45 train running far above the nursery reminded Vincent it was time to pick Diana up for evening meal. After leaving Father, Vincent had come to the nursery to get his son ready for supper and the toddler was currently playing peek-a-boo with him. There was a bed in the chamber that Mary used when there was a sick child, and currently, Vincent squatted silently waiting for the golden curled head to pop up on the other side of the bed.

"Pee-BOO!" Jacob squealed, then ducked down again.

Vincent laughed easily. There was no one here to see his teeth except Jacob, and his son was the exception to all rules. Standing, Vincent walked around the bed and scooped the child up, settling the squirming bundle in his arms. "Are you ready to eat, Jacob?"

The boy bobbed his head happily.

"I have a surprise for you." Jacob's eyes danced as he listened to Vincent. He loved his father's surprises. "Diana is here, Jacob. She's going to stay for a while."

"Danana?" Jacob eagerly flung his tiny arms around his father's neck and snuggled deeply into Vincent's mane. He patted Vincent's back as he wriggled into position for the ride. "Go!"

Vincent was encouraged by his son's enthusiasm.

~