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from SHADOW DANCERS

Story by Rhonda Collins

Based on the series created by Ron Koslow


IMPACT

poem by Nan Dibble


Sometimes I want to love you right through the middle
and out the other side. But I never can get quite through.
It's not the impact that hurts--it's the bouncing back.


CHAPTER ONE: IMPACT

Diana's steps slowed as she and Vincent reached the end of their trip: the manhole where she would leave his world and emerge into her own was directly above her. There was a sense of unreality about the moment--as though the fabric of the two worlds was somehow torn, and she was about to step through. She turned to him and stated flatly in the first words either of them had spoken for hours: "I don't want to go back."

The gentle voice that answered her held a touch of sorrow. "I know. But you must."

A glance upward into the darkness showed her very little--a darker shadow among other shadows. Vincent stood there, head bowed--discernible to Diana more through the oddity of the new inner sense she'd found in the bond than through any sight of the eyes.

They'd been traveling in darkness or near darkness for the last full day, even avoiding the inhabited tunnels in their trip to the surface: both of them unwilling to distract themselves from their discoveries. The bond sang between them, soft and sweet. A dark melody that knew few boundaries...indeed, allowed. few.

"I don't know if I can do it, Vincent." She took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. "It's like asking me to cut off my arm."

Diana felt Vincent's hand on her face, tracing along her jawline...then his thumb gliding over her lips. The touch was gentle, but through it she could feel the strength flowing into her: the bond was intensified by touch. She knew then that she could do it. He believed she could, therefore she could.I think, therefore I am. Believe in courage and it exists..

Moving into his arms, she lay against his chest listening to the strong, steady beat of his heart while she tried to calm herself.

"It's dark Above, Diana." he said softly. "Do you wish for me to accompany you?"

She moved her head slightly against the leather of his vest. "No. Then it'll just be harder for you, leaving me. It'smy world up there. My place. Vacation's over and I've gotta get back to work."

"I will still be with you. It is only your choice that keeps us separate. Whenever you look for me, I will be with you."

"You make it sound as though I don't want this," she commented a little resentfully.

Vincent chuckled then. "Youdon't....not always." He was quiet for a long moment before continuing. "It will be difficult, Diana. For both of us. Living our separate lives--in our own worlds--will be far different now that we have both experienced what we have in the closeness of the bond."

She moved from his embrace and stood a little apart. "Guess in the end we reallydon't. have much choice, huh?"

"In this, no. I think not."

------------

Vincent watched as Diana ascended into her world and sighed deeply as he pulled the manhole cover closed afterward. He tried to pull himself out of their connection enough to turn away toward home.She must do this and I cannot stand in her way. She has only now learned to allow our connection to exist. Now we must both learn to exist apart from one another.

Vincent traveled slowly back toward the Hub. Toward his home in the tunnels below the city. He'd been gone for the last several days and knew that he, too, must return to his responsibilities. He and Diana, forced by their increasing awareness of one another--both physically and empathically--had retreated far below the inhabited areas of his world to a place of quiet darkness to learn if they could accept the bond between them.

For Vincent, the main difficulty had been in risking another bond at all. When his bond with Catherine had been broken, the consequences had been disastrous. Diana's concerns had been far different. She'd had to learn to give up the total control she kept of her life and voluntarily release it--not to another, but to the bond itself. Both had feared their own inner darknesses: parts of themselves they'd kept hidden for so long. The issues that had forced their hand may have been originally about choices and control, but it was love and trust that brought them through the darkness to the light.

In the end, the trip raised more questions than it answered, and Vincent wondered if their problems had only begun.

He'd traveled but a short distance when he stopped, closed his eyes and drew a deep cleansing breath.Warmth. Comfort. The sensation of warm water on bare skin. Diana was showering. Vincent let himself be drawn into the sensation, enjoying the freedom to do so without fighting the desire it evoked. This desire was not the spiraling vortex they'd experienced before, but was quieter, more manageable. He found himself wishing he hadn't left her alone...and was astonished at his own acceptance of his feelings.

As Diana finished her shower, Vincent was reminded of his own need to be clean. Their trip together had been made with few amenities and little time for bathing in the icy river below them.

Rather than brave a cold shower after such a pleasant interlude, Vincent stopped by the bathing pool to bathe quickly before picking up Jacob and seeing Father.

When he felt clean again he headed for the nursery, where he was greeted joyously by his son. "Up! Up, up up!" Jacob danced in the crib, his small arms held high as he waited for his father.

Mary beamed as Vincent shifted his pack to the other shoulder and lifted the child. "He's missed you dreadfully, Vincent. He was asleep earlier, but he must have known you were coming. He woke a short time ago calling for you."

"I know. Thank you for keeping him, Mary. I will keep him with me, tonight."

Jacob's strangle hold around Vincent's neck was almost painful, but the love radiating from the child more than made up for any discomfort. Jacob settled quickly once he knew his father was not leaving him again. His hold relaxed and the small head rested quietly on Vincent's broad shoulder. Even before Vincent reached Father's study, the child was asleep again.

Standing at the top of the iron staircase with his son asleep on his shoulder, Vincent watched his foster-father as the older man studied plans laid out on the cluttered desk before him. Vincent slowly descended the stairs and called softly to him.

Father glanced with surprise up over the rim of his glasses, then set them aside as he pushed back from the desk. "Vincent! You're back! Where's Diana?"

Vincent spoke very quietly to avoid waking Jacob. "Diana is home. And well."

Taking his cue from his son, Father too, lowered his voice to a near whisper. "The trip...did it go well?"

"Well enough." At Father's curious expression, Vincent shrugged. The trip had been an intensely personal experience, yet he wished to ease Father's mind. Father cared for Diana, and Vincent knew he'd been concerned about both of them and about their decision to confront themselves within the bond. To face their fears of exposure and loss of self...their fears of harming one another. "It went well, Father, but there's still much for us to learn. Adjust to."

Father smiled and pointed to Jacob. "That young man has missed his father." Father glanced up at Vincent, meeting his eyes. "We'veall missed you. And I, in particular, am glad the trip went well. No more dreams?"

Vincent smiled a little, feeling a sudden rush of warmth. A mixture of love from Father blended with his lingering sense of Diana...and perhaps a little embarrassment as well. "Many dreams, Father. But now perhaps we will face them with more understanding." He looked down at his son. "I think perhaps I need to put Jacob to bed. Goodnight, Father."

"Goodnight, Vincent. Sleep well."

It was only a short distance from Father's study to his own chamber, and a few minutes later Vincent was laying Jacob in his crib. He stroked his son's soft, amber curls very gently and covered him against the chill.

Once Jacob was settled, Vincent stood a moment in the middle of his chamber, weaving a little, not quite certain what to do. He was very weary...almost totally exhausted, in fact. The long trip and the emotional load were wearing on him. He sat on the edge of his bed and rummaged in his pack. Finding his journal, he walked to his desk, lit the stub of candle and seated himself to write.

It was difficult leaving Diana tonight. She phrased it well when she said it was like cutting off her arm to leave. It was the same for me. What we did was needful. We had to place ourselves totally within the bond to see if we could tolerate the closeness. But now.... Now there are other questions. Other problems. Diana cannot live here, Below. Her life is Above. Nor can I live Above. And we cannot allow the bond to rule us. To take away our choices. We must remain separate...individual...in our daily lives or we will be unable to function.

Vincent sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes. "Catherine. Is there no end?" He smiled, then, as he thought of what Catherine would most likely have told him. He could almost hear her lilting voice as she teased:Love has no ending. "No. No ending, Catherine. But no end to the problems, either." Closing the journal, Vincent blew out the candle and stripped for bed.

Sliding between the cool, well-worn sheets Vincent heaved a grateful sigh and closed his eyes. He dreamed of a slow-moving dark river and Diana's presence around him, gentle and giving. Their desire wove them together in a slow dance of love that brought with it a strong sense of belonging.

----------------

When Diana entered her loft after leaving Vincent, the first thing she saw was the light on her answering machine blinking, but she wasn't ready to face the reality of her world yet.Whatever is on there can just wait until morning.

Stripping off her soiled jeans and sweatshirt, she took a long, hot shower, letting the sensations flow through her and into Vincent--just as the hot water streamed through her long, red hair--and felt his reciprocal appreciation. The simple, sensual delight of sharing the shower with him was unspoiled by any hesitation from either side. There was desire in the sharing, but it was muted after the intensity of their prior sharing, Below--a gentle and sensual blending--as though for the moment all the tension was burned away. The shower and the continued connection with Vincent calmed Diana considerably and gave her strength to face the next day. And reality.

After her shower Diana pulled on a clean pair of sweats then brushed her hair dry, using the hairdryer intermittently. All the while she thought about the last few days she'd spent with Vincent.It's so strange. I feel as though I've grown another arm, or maybe another head. An extension of some sort. She sighed, wishing they were back Below. Somehow, everything up here seems unreal...not quite as "there." Underneath all of her perceptions was the steady beat of Vincent's heart and the gentle peace they'd established between themselves. She tried focusing on that and found it settled her a little, though she was still too restless to sleep.

Wandering her loft, she finally pulled up her computer and sat to record her thoughts in her journal.

The trip was a success, I guess. I feel much less apprehensive about the bond and he seems to feel less worried about harming me. So I suppose we accomplished a lot. Strangest thing is, though, that neither of us is really sure if we actually made love or not. Some of our "dreams" became so intense that later neither of us knew  what we'd done. We had a rather weird discussion about that on the way back. He says it hardly matters. Now me, if I make love to somebody, I damn well want to know it! He just finds it amusing. Even with the bond, sometimes I wonder if I'll ever completely understand him. I know some of it was real...but how much was real and how much was imagination?

Once we started back, we realized that the hardest part is yet to come. We still don't really have that much control over the bond...especially not at night. And I don't care how accepting we both are, it's going to cause problems. We can't just be dumping on each other every night all our hopes and dreams, our fears and our deepest, innermost private feelings. I don't know about him, but there's still a lot about me that I don't feel comfortable sharing.

Diana sighed and saved the file then exited. Flipping of the power switch, she headed for bed.We'll work it out. There's too much good in this relationship to let a few snags ruin it. She smiled as she thought of the dreams of the last few days...and nights. Yeah. There's a whole lot of good.

Slowly braiding her hair into a loose braid, she wandered toward the bedroom and bed. The mattress seemed sinfully luxurious after sleeping in the sleeping bag on rocks for several days.

Diana dreamed she was back below the Catacombs in the vast caverns of darkness that were neither Vincent's world, nor her own, but entirely theirs, together. And Vincent was with her in the dream. They were floating down the dark river on a raft of swirling color and sensation, the darkness around them somehow enhanced by the vividness of themselves. There were no true images, but merely a profound sense of watchfulness--of waiting for a fulfillment yet to come...something yearned for, yet purposely kept separate from. There was no haste now...no desperate need urging them on. They were merely waiting to be filled with themselves. They were content.

---------------

Vincent spent most of the following morning trying to separate himself from Diana's emotions. It was difficult to bring himself back to reality and the tasks at hand. The dream he'd shared with Diana the night before was still pleasantly on his mind, as well.

After breakfast, Vincent stood patiently trying to pay attention to Father's explanation of Mouse's plans, which were unrolled on the desk before them. Father leaned heavily on his cane as he traced the route of the new tunnel which would be opened. Vincent, Cullen, Marcus and Mouse were scheduled to spend the next few weeks on an ambitious excavation project which they hoped would prevent future flooding from Above. The last time the city Above had flooded, it had been a disaster Below.

"...and the runoff should be set at least thirty degrees... Vincent?" Father's voice held an edge of annoyance.

"I'm sorry, Father. Please, continue."

"You haven't heard a word I've said in the last ten minutes, Vincent. This drainage project must be completed before we get any further flooding. Understanding these plans is vital if you intend on accomplishing anything and finishing in time."

Vincent forced himself to attend. "I know." Bending over the plans that Mouse had sketched out, Vincent traced the line of the tunnel which was yet to be carved...which would connect the old drainage system to the underground river. "Here..." he said, "...then again, here, the excavation will be hazardous. To manage the thirty degrees necessary for the runoff we will have to brace these sections...."

Vincent lost the thread of Diana's consciousness as he purposefully devoted all his attention to the plans. He was only vaguely aware that Diana was well and eventually was able to put aside his immediate sense of her as he and the others started their work.

It was not until much later in the afternoon that he began sensing her stress and unease and knew she'd been assigned another case.

-------------

Vincent was right, Diana thought miserably.It is harder, now.

She sat at her desk staring at the computer. She'd been transferring files from the police network for the last hour. Greg Hughes and Joe Maxwell had been delighted when she'd returned from her trip Below with Vincent. They'd been looking for her for days, wanting her to take on a multiple rape/murder case. There'd been five messages from Greg and four from Joe on her machine when she'd finally listened to it. There probably would've been more, but between their calls and the calls from Susan, the machine ran out of tape.

Without ever going into the station, Diana started the case, transferring files via modem from the network. Greg had thoughtfully dropped off the two boxes of material that now sat on her kitchen table.

Apparently cases of rape and murder had been turning up in New York and the surrounding areas. Only now were law enforcement officials realizing that the M.O. was similar to other unsolved cases in the past. This whole thing really bothered Diana and made her nervous in some manner that she didn't understand.It's just another case, Bennett, she told herself sternly as she tried to chase the "willies."

She sighed as she glanced up at the clerestory windows. My concentration's shot. Vincent was as tense as she was. She knew it--could feel it--and it bothered her. Everything she was feeling about this case was transmitting down through the bond to him. Not the details, but just thefeeling. She knew he'd be here as soon as it got dark, and she wasn't sure what to do about it. I can't keep feeding this garbage to him. He's not going to be able to function, and neither am I..

Vincent had told her that he would be working on an excavation in a hazardous area of the tunnels, trying to rework a drainage system. It was necessary work that had been postponed too many times. She knew he didn't need to be distracted by worry over her, but she wasn't sure what to do about it. She was still sitting, chewing her thumbnail and staring at a digitized picture of the last victim when she heard the soft tap on her window and felt the nearness of his presence. With a huge sigh, she cleared the screen and started up the stairs to meet him.

When she opened the roof door and saw him, she knew she was going to have a rough night. From this distance, the sympathy and concern emanating from him were almost overpowering. "Hi," she said gently, smiling and trying to calm herself.

"What is it, Diana, that has you so upset?"

No preamble. Nope. Right for the throat. There are disadvantages to this "honesty" business.. She shrugged. "Just a case. Y'know how it is. Real sticky one, this time, though."

Vincent didn't answer, nor did he move toward her. He just stared out over the city and settled his broad shoulders solidly against the brick wall. The faint light from the open door picked up glinting highlights in his hair.

"So. How's Jacob?"

Gleaming eyes turned to her and she could feel his indignation at her obvious attempt to change the subject. "Jacob is well," he answered. "He misses you."

"Yeah. Well, I miss him too." She moved over to the parapet and sat facing him. "How's the work going?"

"It's progressing slowly. The rock has been there since the beginning of time; one cannot expect it to yield overnight. Why are you doing this, Diana?"

"Doing what? Asking about your son? Your work?"

"Avoiding the issue."

"There is no issue, Vincent," Diana said with frustration. "Just a case. Like any other case. And the fact that we're too close, now, for our own good." She shook her head when he started to respond. "Look. Seriously. This case is gonna be a monster. Youknow. what that does to me. But it's the way I work. It's the way I've always. worked. The only way I can. work." She stared hard into his eyes and let him feel her concern for him. "I'm used to it, Vincent. But you're not. I deal with it in my own way. I can't keep it all away from you, but I can't let it all come through, either, or you're not going to be able to do your own work, keep up with all your responsibilities."

"You're planning on blocking again."

"You knew I'd have to some of the time, anyway."

He sighed and looked away.

"You knew it, Vincent," she insisted. "So did I. I can't live up here and not block. I can't work and let it all in." Frustrated, she indicated the vast city below them with a sweep of her arm. "I can't even go out into the city without blocking. At least not for long." She jerked her thumb back toward her loft, through the open door. "That's the only place I can stay completely open. There, and Below, with you. That's just the way it is."

"I know. But this time, you're blocking to protect me."

"It's not like it's the first time," she shot back, thinking of the months she'd hidden behind her barriers to keep him from suspecting that she, too, was an empath...to give him time to deal with his grief over Catherine's death. To avoid adding to his problems.

"No." His tone was a little bitter.

"We can't distract each other right now, Vincent. People are depending on us. Both of us."

Vincent opened his arms for her, but Diana hesitated, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. She shook her head firmly. "Can't." At his hurt expression--the pain he felt--she continued swiftly: "I'm sorry. But I just can't.. We're too close, now. If I touch you it'll be worse. I don't want you involved in this one. At least not right now. You can't help, and we can only hurt each other. In fact, I think it'd be best if you stay Below for now."

For the first time in many days there was a wall between them. One built of barriers of restraint. Diana hadn't blocked yet, but still the barrier was there. An emotional barrier of their pain and concern. Each for the other.

Finally Vincent looked away and sighed. "Perhaps you're right, Diana. But if you need me...?"

"I won't," she stated firmly as his head swung heavily toward her...before he could come up with another argument. "I'm not in danger, Vincent. It's just...complicated. It's the hardest case to deal with that I've had since...."

"Catherine," Vincent said softly. Diana's life had turned upside down when she began searching for Catherine's killer...and for the mysterious man she'd loved. Before that time, Diana had been content with her life and totally in control of it. Since then--since she'd learned of Vincent's existence--she'd lived on the ragged edge of sanity at times. She'd broken off her relationship with her lover, risked her career, compromised her beliefs...and committed murder. Most of it directly for him. Saying her life had been complicated by his presence was hardly a strong enough statement.

"Yeah," she agreed quietly.

"Very well," he said, giving in reluctantly. I will stay away. For a time. Diana...."

Vincent's eyes...his expression...told her as much as the rush of love that came across the bond to her. It took all her control to keep from throwing herself at him and burying her face in that fall of golden mane. "I know," she said softly. "Me, too."

In moments Vincent was gone--over the edge of the building--and Diana was left alone staring out into the darkness. Carefully shielding herself, she turned resolutely toward the open door of the loft and the madness that lay inside.

----------

The two men laughed as they walked away from their victim, leaving her tied and gagged. Naked and vulnerable to the elements.

"I'll bet they don't find her. Fifty bucks says they don't find her in time."

"You're on." The thin man laughed raucously. "Damn. It gets better and better, Bull."

"Ah. Yes. You're learning, my friend." The cold mist swirled around them as they walked the deserted alleyways. A stray cat dodged out of the way as the big man--called Bull by his companion--aimed a kick. "Now we watch...and wait. That's part of it, too, you know. Seeing who'll live and who'll die. Knowing that even if they live, they've learned not to talk."

The thin man shivered. "Shit, man. It's gettin' cold. Maybe I ought to double the bet. A hundred bucks says they don't find her in time."

Bull laughed and slapped his companion on the back. "What the hell. The bet's part of the game. You're on."

The conversation continued as they walked easily, unhurried, through the cold mist and fog toward the subways.

-------------

There'd only been one victim in the city itself at the time Diana took the case. A week later there was another, and the woman lived. Diana spent a week of sleepless nights trying to make things fit. There seemed to be no connection between victim and rapist, and the girl wouldn't talk. She was utterly terrified. She was in therapy and Diana hoped it would help her regain some of her self-esteem and ease some of the fear. Diana spent hours trying to understand what it was the men were trying to gain from their systematic destruction of other human beings.

One morning at 3:00 am after a long bout of trying to psych herself into the rapists' mindset, she found herself on her rooftop watching over the city that never slept. She watched the slow crawl of the traffic beneath the lights and felt the pulse of the city. It never rests. Never stops,. she thought. She brushed her heavy hair back out of her face and wrapped her coat tighter as she looked out at the mad twinkle of lights. And felt the current of life and death that flowed beneath them. I try to understand, but nothing makes sense anymore. Despair swept over her momentarily, but she clamped down on it ruthlessly. Despair wouldn't help her find the men doing this and it wouldn't help Vincent sleep, either.

With a sigh, Diana left her roof and trudged downstairs. For the first time in ten days she looked around her loft and it became real to her. Psych books and papers were everywhere, littering the floor, the table, the couch. There were dirty coffee cups everywhere as well. The rumpled pile of afghans and pillow on her battered couch gave evidence to the fact that too many times she'd fallen asleep there.It's just another case,. Diana muttered rebelliously.Looks normal to me.

She made a half-hearted try at picking up coffee cups, dumping them in the sink and running some soapy dishwater. While the sink was filling, she leaned on the drainboard and her mind drifted back to the case. The hot, soapy water overflowing the sink onto her hands and feet snapped her back to reality. "Oh, dammit!" She slammed the water off, then surveyed the floor. She wriggled her toes in her soaked socks and sighed with exhaustion. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

-----------------

Vincent threw himself into his work with a will that bordered on desperation as he tried to ignore Diana's continued stress and confusion. As in the past, he found that the heavy, physical labor distracted his mind and kept him too exhausted to think about much else. Even so, it didn't block all of Diana's anxiety and stress from her case. Cullen, Marcus and Mouse struggled to keep pace with him as they worked long hours day after day chipping away at the stone.

Angling his chisel and hammer just so, Vincent struck a single blow that splintered and split the rockface. Years of working with rock had taught him how to find the weaknesses in the stone. Still, he wished for Old Sam or Kanin, who knew far more about this kind of work than he did. Old Sam, who was dead now, and Kanin, who was still in prison. Cullen knew wood--the grain, the resiliency--not stone, which was unforgiving of mistakes. Marcus, who had taken over the forge after Winslow's death, knew metals and steel--how to temper it, mold it--not stone, from which one could only subtract from the whole to leave the shape one wished. As in the case of this project, Mouse knew best how to get from point A to point B and knew instinctively how to plan such things, but the actual mechanics of it were sometimes lost to him...unless it involved machinery. So Vincent carried the load. Telling each person where to work and how. He knew he wasn't the best person for the job. But he also knew he was the only person available. His companions were eager learners, though unskilled. Fortunately each was able to apply what they did know and take directions on what they didn't.

Sweat trickled uncomfortably down Vincent's neck into his shirt and down his forehead into his eyes. He wiped at it automatically with his forearm. The other men were stripped to the waist, but Vincent refused to expose his differences any more than he had to. Even in his home, with his friends.

A lantern appeared in the darkness, casting dancing shadows on the walls. Vincent paused as Rebecca and Brooke brought their lunch. Jamie accompanied them, also bringing along with her some of the older children to help with hauling off debris to help clear the slowly enlarging passageway.

Jamie ordered the children like a general organizing a small army. With her improvised miner's helmet and old, battered leather jacket, she appeared very determined. The children were efficient. It amused Vincent momentarily. Jamie appeared more like a mother hen than a general, although he knew it would distress her to know it.

Thanking the women for bringing their lunch, Vincent gratefully called a halt to the work and the men discussed their progress as they watched the children clear the area. Jamie worked with them, hauling the rock away. The loose rock would be used as fill for low areas and as material in conjunction with mortar to form dams and walls. Nothing would be wasted.

As the others talked, Vincent stared off into the darkness beyond the torches and lamps. Thinking of Diana. Sensing her anger and frustration with her case; an almost feral seeking that brooked no opposition. A shadow separated itself from the outer darkness. The Other gestured to Vincent.

She's hunting. Without you. She doesn't want you. She needs me!

Vincent looked down and closed his eyes wearily, then looked back. Go away, he thought furiously. Leave it be. She does not need either of us.

The Other paced the border of light restlessly for a few more moments, then disappeared. Vincent rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep his mind off Diana's misery. She alternated between empathizing with the victims and trying to put herself into the mindset of the rapists. She shut herself off from him most of the time during the day--and at night when she was working--but the brief times when she slept her dreams were chaotic. A cacophony of clashing emotions and violent images that only served to stir the Other to life.

"Vincent?"

Vincent startled and glanced up into Mouse's questioning gaze. Pulling himself away from his thoughts with difficulty, he rose.

Mouse inquired anxiously, "Not going to eat?"

Vincent glanced down at his half-eaten sandwich. "No. It's all right, Mouse. I'm just not very hungry."

The area was clear of debris and it was time to get back to work. The men settled without discussion back into their respective work areas. They'd only been back at their tasks for a short time when Mouse's chisel slipped and gouged his palm. Crying out in pain, the young man dropped his chisel and hammer.

Vincent rushed immediately to his aid. Cullen hurriedly tore a piece of cloth from his shirt for Vincent to wrap the hand with. It was bleeding profusely.

"Damn, Mouse!" Cullen said with a low whistle. "You really did it this time." He patted Mouse's shoulder reassuringly and sympathized. "I did the same thing last year, remember? When I was carving that rocking horse for the kids?"

Mouse nodded, his face slick with sweat, his eyes wide as saucers. He kept staring at the spreading blood.

"Mouse. I need to get you to Father," Vincent stated flatly as he tried to ignore the acrid scent of Mouse's blood. " This is going to need stitches."

Mouse's wide eyes showed his terror. "Not needle, Vincent."

"It's all right. I'll be there. It needs to be done, Mouse."

Placing one hand firmly on Mouse's back, Vincent guided his young friend through the long corridors, steadying him as they went. Behind him, Marcus and Cullen picked up their tools and continued working.

-------------

It took Vincent longer than he'd anticipated to accompany Mouse to the hospital chamber and stay with him while Father treated his wound. Mouse was terrified, and Vincent couldn't leave him.

Mouse sat stiffly on the cot in the hospital chamber while Father prepared to suture the gash. His innocent blue eyes grew wider by the moment as he watched, and Vincent tried to reassure him. "It will be all right, Mouse. Father has done this a few times before, you know."

Mouse's eyes rolled wildly up toward Vincent as Father prepared the syringe of Lidocaine for anesthetizing the site. The young man tried to jump off the table, but Vincent anticipated the move and caught him, holding him firmly.

"It will hurt a little, Mouse," Father said gently, patting the young man on the arm. "It won't hurt but for a few moments, then the medicine will make the hand numb. You will barely feel it when I stitch it, I promise."

Mouse tried to be brave, but at the first stitch, he passed out and Vincent stood by, holding his other hand and watching as Father stitched the gash closed. By the time Mouse came around, the gash was neatly sutured and Father bandaged it for him. "Now. No more rock-cutting until this is well-healed."

Mouse complained, "Have to help, Father. No one else."

"We'll manage, Mouse, " Vincent offered. "It will just take longer, is all. Far better that your hand should heal." Vincent smiled down at his friend. "You can be working on new projects while we finish this one."

That thought seemed to cheer Mouse considerably. "Did have idea...." Mouse hopped down off the cot and wandered off, his mind already on whatever obscure path it had taken.

Father just smiled and shook his head. "It doesn't take much to distract him."

"No. But he is correct. The project will take much longer without him. He wasn't merely another hand for the cutting, Father. We consulted with him constantly on angle and stress levels. Perhaps we could allow him to assist in that fashion...?"

"Absolutely not!" Father was adamant. "He'll try to do too much. You know it. As it is, it's a good thing the boy's right-handed, because you know he's already tinkering."

Vincent sighed. Father was right. He knew it. But he hated to have this project drag on. In another couple of months the spring rains would start. If they weren't finished with the drainage tunnel they would have to evacuate the five families located on those lower levels near the project to higher ground.

"It will be all right, Vincent," Father commented. "We've endured floods and evacuations before. If the project isn't finished, it's just not. The important thing is that no one else be injured."

Vincent nodded silently, then turned toward the chamber door. "I must get back. Cullen and Marcus will need further supervision."

Returning to the work site, Vincent worked several more hours. Much later, weary after his long day, Vincent settled his son for the night and finally tried to sleep himself. Overtired from the long day and still intermittently sensing Diana's uneasiness, he slept restlessly.

Images flashed of men with no faces--large, heavy hands. Intense feelings of pain, more emotional than physical. Rage, overwhelming shame. A sense of loss and helplessness.

Vincent jolted awake, shuddering--the contact broken as Diana woke. He rolled over, then lay staring into the darkness. The sick feeling of the dream slowly dissipated. He raked his fingers through his mane, pulling the long hair back out of his eyes. He wished desperately that there was some way he could help Diana cope with this case. But there was nothing he could do as long as she so adamantly shut him out.

After Vincent's stomach settled and he no longer felt that any sudden movement would cause him to retch, he tossed the covers back and moved to his desk. Lighting one small candle, he opened his journal.

I thought when we returned from our trip below the Catacombs that our relationship would improve: that Diana had accepted our bond and the needs we both have of that intimacy. In that much, perhaps I was correct. Diana does seem to accept the bond more freely now. But I find that other problems engendered by the bond are just as severe. She insists upon protecting me from the negative emotions--the evil--that she deals with in her cases. She will not share her struggle with me, nor allow me to help. And she buries herself deeper every day in a morass of the pain of the victims and the evil of the ones she hunts. I fear for her sanity. But the dreams she cannot control, and I hesitate to let her know how much is coming through to me for fear she will once more resort to drugs to mask them, as she has in the past.

Vincent rubbed at his tired eyes. Tomorrow I will see her and will not allow her to send me away. There must be something I can do to ease this for her. He sighed and returned to his journal.

Despite our need for "separateness," I find it difficult to remain separate from her emotionally. In any relationship there must be an ability to remain separate and individual. There must be privacy. That has come to be almost impossible for us. I find it interesting, though--the differences in our perceptions of both the bond and the possibilities of a sexual relationship between us. To Diana, a physical relationship is the easy part. She is afraid of the more intimate giving that the bond allows. For myself, it is still the act of physical love that disturbs me. I still do not trust the Other, though Diana does. For I know all that he is capable of. Diana does not, for all she believes she does. For now, since Diana is no longer denying me the intimacy of the bond, my desire is controlled. Yet I feel it is only a matter of time. Both of us have been alone for far too long. We must both struggle to find a balance.

Vincent closed his journal, blew out the candle and undressed for bed. He hoped Diana would sleep more restfully until morning. He wished there was some way he could assure that she would.

-----------

Greg called Diana early the following afternoon. There had been another victim.

An hour later, Diana stalked a damp, stinking alley, digging through the refuse, hoping to find something--anything--that could provide a clue. She looked up as the forensics team moved past her on their way back to their car. The stretcher with the body bag on it followed after. Diana didn't look at it. She'd already examined the woman. Dead of exposure after being left tied in the old building. The temperature had dropped to eighteen degrees for two days. She hadn't had a chance.

Only with a few of the victims had the men Diana hunted gone so far that the woman had died before help reached her. The men usually left the victims in abandoned buildings where almost inevitably one of the homeless would find them in their own search for shelter. The men always left them tied, naked and helpless against whatever would come. For this one, help came too late. The only cases have been in the winter...never in summer weather. Almost as though that's part of the "game."

Returning her attention to the trash-littered room, Diana waited until everyone left, then removed her gloves so her sense of touch could open her up better for impressions. What she got when she touched the bed forced her to shut down almost immediately. She gagged from the sheer pain and sense of helplessness she picked up. Literally sick with her own anger and disgust as well as the lingering impressions of pain, Diana was too hesitant to even try again.

Wearily shoving a strand of loose hair back, she knelt and began making notes. Her fingers were freezing and she angrily stuck them back into the gloves, then found she couldn't write.

"Damn." She swayed as she stood, a second wave of nausea almost overcoming her. She leaned against the peeling plaster of the wall and stared around the room. "Who are you? Who the hell are you? Why can't I figure you out?"

Whenever she'd picked up impressions from the men it had been of a sick hunger...a need to give pain and a desire to simply own someone else. Another form of power-hunger: she sensed that often in her cases. But this was different. Usually Diana could tack together the shattered pieces of mismatched information and her impressions and come up with something that could help find her prey--but this time she kept hitting a blank wall. The rest of the detectives on the team weren't doing any better: they kept looking to her for miracles.

Diana was the only woman on the task force, and this time, because of her prior record, she was heading it. In rape cases it was always helpful to have a woman on the case.

At the last late-night session Grady Wilkes had talked about using a woman for a decoy, but Diana vetoed it. "It won't work," she'd answered. "We don't even know enough about them to know what they're looking for."

Abandoning her efforts to pick up impressions, Diana wandered through the room, digging listlessly with the toe of her boot at the debris on floor. As she pushed at a pile of papers something caught her eye. She stooped and picked up a Polaroid picture. It was dirty and a little wet. It might have been there for a long while, but as soon as Diana picked it up--delicately handling only the edges--she felt it was important. The picture was upside down, and she turned it over, drawing in a sharp breath as she saw the image. There was a man in the photo--turned away with only part of his back showing. He was wearing a Tee-shirt that said BULL in big red letters across the back. There was a woman in the background tied to a bed. Diana didn't recognize her as one of the known victims, but she recognized the fear in the girl's eyes.

"Bingo," she whispered.

Diana opened her carryall and pulled out a plastic bag zip-lock bag, then carefully placed the photo inside. Maybe forensics can find prints.

After a little more digging, Diana decided there wasn't much else of use, and she returned to the precinct...but on the way she stopped at the house of the one victim who was still alive and at all functional. The girl refused to say anything when Diana showed her the photo, but Diana could see the fear in her eyes.

-----------

Once Diana made it back to the lab, she had forensics check the photo for prints: there weren't any. She had them shoot a negative of it so they could distribute copies to the rest of the team. She was certain the man in the photo was one of the men they were hunting.

"Bull, huh?" Diana slung her heavy carryall over her shoulder and started out the door. "I'll find you. And when I do, there'll be a few alterations made. We'll see how you like being a steer."

That night, Diana again dug through her abnormal psych books--still trying to find answers as to what drove men to seek power over others...especially women--it didn't help much. Didn't tell her anything she didn't already know. She sighed and rubbed eyes that were grainy from lack of sleep. Power is a drug for some men. So's pain...as long as that pain is somebody else's. Maybe the were abused as children and are perpetuating the pain...it happens all the time. Maybe they've just learned to like the taste of someone else's fear. She sighed and put her head back on the couch pillow: she didn't care anymore how they got that way. She just wanted it to stop.

Earlier, Diana had ordered up a pizza and the box still sat unopened on the table. Her appetite had diminished to almost nothing, and forcing herself to eat was difficult, but she knew she had to. Reluctantly, she stuck a piece in the microwave and warmed it, then carried it with her to the computer. She was still there when she heard Vincent's tap on the window. She glanced down at her plate: the pizza was cold and untouched. She groaned. Vincent's gonna be furious with me.

Yanking the rubber band off her ponytail, Diana grabbed her brush off the counter and made a few swipes at her hair on the way to the stairs, then chucked the brush across the room onto the couch. It's useless, anyway.

When Diana opened the door to the roof, Vincent was waiting. He took one look at her and turned her back toward the loft, pushing gently. "Go back inside, Diana. Out of the cold." He followed her down the steps, then pointed to the couch. "Sit."

As she sat watching him, Vincent went to the kitchen and warmed a piece of pizza, poured her a glass of milk and brought them to her. "Now. Eat."

"I'm not hungry, really," she protested.

"You will eat or I will take you Below."

Anger flared between them. "You don't tell me what to do. Not ever. Understood?"

He nodded mildly. "Yes. Now eat."

Their eyes met in challenge for a moment, then Diana laughed shakily. "Okay. You win."

Once she began eating, Diana found she was ravenous. Vincent warmed three more pieces of pizza for her before she was finished. As she drained a second glass of milk, she noticed that Vincent's eyes had shadowed to the deeper gray-blue of worry.

"Must I stay here to make sure you eat?"

She shook her head and raised her fingers in the girl-scout salute. "No. I promise. I'll do better. I just get so...."

"Involved," he stated flatly.

"Yeah." She gestured toward the computer and stood...hoping he'd take the hint and leave. "I've got a lot to do."

Instead of leaving, Vincent settled back into the couch cushions and picked up one of her psych books. "Very well."

Diana stared down at him as he oh-so-innocently flipped pages and ignored her. He was here to babysit and it infuriated her. "Gee," she snarled sarcastically. "I don't

know how I ever managed from day to day without you to hold my hand."

Without looking up, Vincent simply said, "Neither do I."

When he glanced up and met her eyes, they both laughed. Diana laughed until her eyes teared, then sat on the couch beside him, curling against him. "God, you're good for me."

"Then I may stay?"

She shook her head. "Only for a while. I really do have to get back to work. We found their latest victim today. Dead. She wasn't found in time and the weather...."

Vincent put the book aside and brushed at Diana's loose wisps of hair. "You need to rest, Diana. You cannot continue like this. You're burning yourself up from inside--with anger and determination--and it cannot last."

"I have to last long enough to get these animals, Vincent. They've gotta be taken down. And I can't expend energy on anything else right now."

"If you keep this up, you won't have any energy left."

"Don't do this, okay?" Diana simply didn't feel capable of dealing with Vincent's protect mode. "If you really want to help, tell me about what's goin' on Below--where it's sane. How's Jacob...and Father...and Mouse and Jamie." At his look, Diana shrugged apologetically. "I know. But I'm not avoiding the issue, just side-stepping a little. I really want to know. It helps to know that there's someplace that makes sense."

"Very well." Vincent sighed and drew her back down to rest against him. She settled her head on his shoulder as he talked. "Jacob is fine. He's not only walking, but running, now. Mary has had her hands full, with me working on the excavation project. Jamie has threatened to put him on a leash."

Diana laughed. "I hear they have those for kids now. Not a bad idea, really."

"Mary would most likely agree." Vincent shifted and his thigh brushed against hers. For a moment, both of them were silent as all else slid to the background except the current that hummed between them.

Diana placed her palm on the smooth, broad surface of Vincent's thigh and brushed the corduroy softly, and with a catch of breath, he placed his own hand over hers, stilling it. Vincent continued with his narrative, his voice betraying his state of mind. "Father...Father is well. Peter was down last week and saw to Father's hip, which was troubling him. He...is improved." Shifting once more, to sit a little more distant from her, Vincent brushed her cheek with the fur on the back of his hand...an apology of sorts. "The excavation is progressing, but slowly. Mouse slipped and injured his hand today...."

"Is he okay?" Diana questioned anxiously.

"The gash required stitches, but he'll be fine, Diana. Do not be concerned for him. Father has banned him from the work site for fear he would forget and reopen the

V/D Jan's with her holding his face

wound." Vincent sighed. "I fear his absence will slow the work. We are unable to consult him about the plans...and the spring rains will begin soon."

Vincent's voice faltered a moment as Diana reached under his mane to rub the back of his neck, scratching the ridge of stiffer mane underneath. He closed his eyes and leaned back into the massage. Diana loved watching his face...watching the emotions move across the leonine features. The peace lasted a few moments, then he sat up abruptly. "Diana. I cannot...."

Diana smiled and snuggled in closer, looking up at him innocently. "You can't what?" Diana had closed down on their connection a little, to make things more tolerable for Vincent, but she couldn't help teasing him. They'd realized that the only way to learn to control their desire instead of letting it control them was to work by stages. Desensitization, Devin called it. It seemed to be working: they played their games with one another, trying each time to become a little more in control. At least now they could tolerate some sexual byplay without a total emotional overload. "Are you ready for a baby step?"

Diana could see both frustration and anticipation reflected on Vincent's face. It was almost funny. He was saved from having to make a decision when the phone rang stridently.

"Damn!" Diana rolled away and picked up the phone. "Bennett here."

She closed her eyes and groaned as she heard Greg Hughes' voice: all the pleasure of the evening drained away. "Greg. Not another one already."

Diana could feel Vincent's eyes on her, sense his frustration blending with her own dissatisfaction, but she forced herself to think about the case and pay attention to Greg. She shook her head, though she knew Greg couldn't see. "Too bad we couldn't keep it under wraps a little longer, but I understand why you had to make the announcement. Now every woman in the area will know to be careful. As for having anything, no. Just the photo, Greg." The anger was back. "Damn. If we could just get a witness."

There was another long pause as Diana listened to Greg. "I'm sorry, Greg. It's just not comin' this time. The pieces aren't there. There's nuthin' to shuffle...no edges to fit together. These guys are control freaks and sadists. They really enjoy what they're doin' and they're careful. The guy in the photo matches the name on the shirt. He's built like a bull...at least from behind. Massive shoulders and well-muscled back...longish hair, brown. But it doesn't show his face and no distinguishing marks." She got up, dragging the phone with her over to the cardboard box near the computer. She talked as she dug through the photos for the photo. "Forensics dusted the picture for prints and didn't find anything usable. Tell the boys to watch for the Tee-shirt and someone with that build and long hair. I had the lab make copies to pass out. Now me, I figure someone with that build, maybe he's a weight lifter or wrestler. I can check around some of the gyms, show the picture. But that's all we've got, Greg. Until we get somebody who'll talk."

When Diana hung up the phone a few minutes later, Vincent crossed the room and came to her, then stood beside her as she stared down at the battered Polaroid photo. "Is this one of the men?"

She nodded numbly, then looked up as the wave of anger from Vincent rocked her. She closed down on their connection immediately--reflexively--as she felt her own anger spiral. The intensity frightened her. He held out his hand, and she gave him the photo. Her hands shook a little as she handed it over. "I found it today at the scene."

Diana paced around the counter to the kitchen and began making coffee. It was going to be a long night. "I've gotta get back to work. No time for playing around, enjoyable as it would be."

Vincent leaned a shoulder against the wall and eyed her silently. With the bond still closed down, Diana could feel nothing from him. The light next to the couch cast deep shadows over his face and eyes, making it even harder to read his expression. She tilted her head and asked, curiously: "You okay?"

He nodded. "Are you?"

Confused and with her mind still mostly on the case, she nodded abstractedly and muttered: "Sure."

"Before we were interrupted we were...." Vincent's voice trailed off and he looked away. His expression was hidden by a fall of honey-colored hair.

Diana put the coffee on and went to him, touching his shoulder lightly. "Sorry. Oh damn. I'm sorry. You can't just turn it off.... I can...sometimes. It's just this case, Vincent." As he glanced up, his expression dubious, she shrugged. "No. That's not true. It's any case. When I'm working I can't think about anything else. This one's just worse than most."

He shook his head. "It's not what you think, Diana. When you became distracted from the bond, my desire, my need diminished. It was your anger reflecting my own rage that concerned me. You shut down...."

"Reflex." She shrugged again, dismissing his concern for her. "I'm okay. I guess I couldn't handle all your anger and mine, too."

Vincent watched her for a moment, a strange look on his face. "I suppose so." He gestured toward the work-space. "Can I help in any way?"

Diana shook her head. "No. 'Fraid not. Besides, it's gonna be another all-nighter and you need to get some rest." She went to him and hugged him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist. "At least with me awake you should be able to rest."

"You need rest, Diana. You cannot continue like this."

Releasing him suddenly and backing off, Diana glared. "Dammit! I know what I can do and can't do. You don't. When I reach my limit I'll collapse, then you can tend me all you like. You can even take me home and let Father fuss. But for now, just go home and let me do my thing. When I catch these bastards then I'll rest. You go cut rock and I'll do my own kind of excavating."

"Diana...." Vincent began.

Diana stopped him with a look. "It's my work, Vincent. It's who I am. Take it or leave it."

They were silent a long moment, then Vincent nodded. "Walk with me to the roof?"

"Sure." Slipping her arm around him under his cloak, Diana tried joking a little. "The N.Y.P.D. motto, 'To protect and serve' might as well be tattooed across both of our foreheads."

-------------

After leaving Diana, Vincent took to the streets. The dark alleyways and deserted back streets were a second home for him. It had been far too long since he'd spent time simply watching the city. Avoiding areas he knew to be trouble spots, Vincent found one of the tall, older buildings and began climbing. The more ornate architecture allowed better handholds for climbing and he soon found himself a perch far enough above the city to watch the lights and the traffic.

Sitting with his fur-booted legs dangling over the edge and the wind teasing his hair, Vincent tasted the wind. Here, above the traffic, the air was sharper and cleaner. And the city lights were beautiful. He thought about Diana's parting comment. To protect and to serve. She is so right. That is what we do, both of us. Who we are. If that were taken from us....

------------

Vincent stared out over the jeweled city lights and watched the traffic moving far beneath him. This...this bright city was more Catherine's than Diana's. The dark alleyways and tenements were Diana's. And the darkness behind the lights. Yet, because of Catherine, the lights of the city belonged to Vincent, too. Diana had reminded him of that. Perhaps someday I'll be able to help her find the brightness of the city again. He worried briefly about the sudden flare of rage that sparked between them tonight. Diana had closed down, instinctively. I wonder if that instinctive blocking is to be welcomed or feared? On one hand, if Diana blocked when the Other flared to the surface, it could help in controlling the one thing Vincent feared the most: losing control of the Other. On the other hand, if Diana were to block an overload instinctively, could it once more cause the backlash that had taken Vincent's empathic sense once before, when he'd made love to Catherine? Diana claimed the Other was not empathic. Vincent had his doubts about that. When the Other had killed for Catherine, Vincent knew that the bond had been present then. Vincent sighed, but looked back out over the brightness of the city and refused--at least for tonight--to believe in the darkness.

Vincent sat with his cape billowing from the wind and his hair straying across his face from time to time. The few pigeons he'd disturbed strutted about for a time, then found other resting places as he kept his silent vigil over the busy city. Wishing he could keep such a vigil over Diana ...and knowing he could not.


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