=== A Salvation Army Shelter ===

The last thing happening the night before still in Peyton's memory was how he cowered in front of a shop window and watched the artificial skin of his face dissolve and expose the disfigured features behind.

When he regained consciousness, he lay in a shelter of the Salvation Army. It was midday. No one had brought him back to the hospital or had him reported to the police, obviously. So no one was looking for him. As expected, they were glad he was gone and spared them further trouble. Probably Frank Deveraux congratulated himself that his little deal had turned out even better than planned…

It was as he had told Claire once, Peyton thought. The worst demons were hiding inside men. The demons of selfishness, greed and arrogance, which lead their hosts away from the path of human compassion, made them believe they could buy everything with their money, and exonerate themselves from everything. In fact, these people were more wretched than the gang members of Durant he had hunted down ten years ago. These criminals knew they stood outside the society. But men like Frank Deveraux thought themselves good citizens, proper businessmen, patriots. And yet they were ready to kill another man's last hope and this with a nonchalant smile and a shrug.

Peyton closed his hands around the half empty soup cup and leaned back again. That he was able to keep the normal nutrition in his stomach, he took as a good sign. His body had endured the stress he had imposed himself yesterday. The pain in his chest was still nagging, but he considered this a minor issue. If he would suffer from internal bleeding, the pain certainly would be much greater and he would probably have lost consciousness again.

So all I need is some rest and I can go back to my old live!

My old life…

The bitterness gave way to a new wave of pain, not the one from his wound, but the one deep inside. Claire. Now she was out of reach again, in an undefined distance. Would she worry about him? For sure. He had to contact her… say Good-Bye at least. He loved her far too much to burden her with the man he was now for thinking of any other possibility.

My old life…There was no way getting out of the darkness and into the light, to make his cherished dreams a reality.

In musing about this, he let his gaze wander through the room. It was a large hall with old wooden tables and chairs, cushions on some of them. Other homeless sat here eating or sleeping on the spot, some of their bags in the arms like a lover his sweetheart. Old newspapers lay crumbled on the ground; a skinny dog sniffed through them. Peyton thought of Jerky, Smokey and the other cats. Another pain inside him.

Then his eyes were caught by a framed photograph on the wall. It showed two Salvation Army officers and another man, whom they thanked for a donation. 'We thank for the magnanimity which gave us the opportunity to help those in need'.

Westlake stared at the line. Claire's voice sounded through his mind "You must go back to the University, Peyton! Think of the many people you can help with your research!" Yes, it was not only about him! Frank Deveraux in his damned arrogance had not only cut HIS lifeline, but the one of many other burn victims, too!

These people need you… You have to go back…"

Slowly, an idea formed in his mind. If Deveraux could play mean – yes, he could do the same! He was ready to fight!

=== New York Underground / Later the day ===

Peyton had asked one of the Salvation Army officers to give him some bandages for his head, and then to take him along to Grand Central. From there he entered the underground again and headed towards his old refuge - with longer and longer pauses in between. But he managed to walk further, driven by a new-found confidence. With the calculations done after reading some of Varinapam's papers; with the basics for a molecular structure in his mind he was now closer to a solution than all the years before. He needed access to the computer files; to the samples used by Varinapam, the RNA - sequences of the deep sea species! Success was not a vague dream anymore; it had become a realistic option. And he would not allow men like Deveraux to ruin not only his life completely, but also those of thousands of other victims. He would fight!

He had reached his old realm, switched the lights on and gave the destruction a wry smile. Home sweet home…

Certainly, it would take some time to get the equipment working again. He needed at least one sample of his creation… With his sleeve, he shoved some of the debris from the desk. Somehow he thought he could control the bursts of anger and violence better. He was not sure why; it was simply the feeling to regain control. He had seen the bottom of the abyss of 'human' arrogance and selfishness – and rage was nothing what could fight this. It only made him like them… Nevertheless, first he had to recover himself!

A little bit shaky, Peyton crawled into his wagon – shelter and stopped when he discovered the figure on the mattress. Claire? Was he hallucinating? "Claire…?"

No, the figure moved quite natural, looked up to him and then embraced him. No hallucination, no dream! " 'hat are you doing here?"

"Searching for you!" She put the blanket around him. "I thought you might come back… but I almost lost hope! What happened? Why did you leave the hospital? You are not well at all…" She was loosening the bandages from his head. "You really must be crazy!"

"Had no other choice…"

Claire listened and began feeling ice cold. "I can't believe Dad did such a thing…" she whispered. No, this was not true. In fact, she could very well imagine her parents doing this. With this realization, the last sympathy for their decisions was gone. Did they KNOW what they had done? Did they POSSIBLY know? Claire held Peyton very close and felt bad only because she was the daughter of such beings. "We will go to another University," she said then. "You can start there anew. I come with you! I don't care, if it takes a bit longer until you are successful, until you get your face back! I don't care at all! As long as you are alive, and I'm with you, it doesn't matter how you look! Do you understand? They can all… all go to hell!" She started crying.

"No. I 'ont 'ait longer than necessary!" He took her hands which she had put around his face. "The research is nearly co'lete. It CAN 'e done! I only need the right equi'ent! I'll go 'u'lic with this, I'll go to a TV station. Tell the' 'hat I could reach, how 'any men I could hel' to lead a normal li'e!" The prospect let his exhaustion fade. "I thank Mr. De'eraux loud and clear 'or his generosity to 'und this 'roject! He 'ont deny his su'ort, Claire, or he'll loose his 'ace in quite another 'ay!"

"I help you," she promised and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Whatever it might take! I even know someone from CNN… a friend of a friend. If he's back from Washington, then…"

"You 'ust go 'ack, Claire. You can't stay here. Your 'arents 'ill initiate a search 'or you; they'll think I kidna'ed you."

"So I call Jenna and let her know where I am. Tell her to inform Mom and Dad." The young woman was that angry and disappointed her parents had taken refuge to such intrigues. She did not want to talk to them herself. Right now she was not sure if she ever wanted to talk to them again! No way would she leave!

He enjoyed resting in her arms. I've never thought I could feel this again… I've never thought I could have this again… Suddenly, everything seemed possible.

=== Two weeks later / Bay Ridge / Claire's home ===

"… artificial skin on the base of own tissue, with perfect cellular bonding on molecular scale. For it had been impossible until now to create samples with sufficient UV-resistance outside of lab conditions, this discovery is the most promising fact in this research. I'm sure we will have applicable results within the next year, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Frank Deveraux, who kindly –"

Anna Deveraux switched the TV off and sighed. "I still cannot believe how this man is able to extort the money and blackmail you, Frank!" she said, turning to her husband. "After all we wanted to do for him so he could live a decent life! It is exactly as my mother said: give a man a hand, and he wants all you have!"

Frank Deveraux did not answer. He was a passionate chess player. He had thought to get Peyton Westlake out of his daughter's life with a simple move. Just wave with a buck in front of a poor man's nose and he'll do everything! However, he had to admit now a total misjudgment of the situation and his 'opponents', including Claire. The stubborn little girl had grown up into a very determined young woman, while he was sitting in his office. A woman who did not need his guidance anymore… when this had happened? He could not imagine; it seemed only yesterday he drove her to first grade school. And this Westlake? Well, if the situation would be another, he would've admired the man for his endurance and determination.

"Frank, what do we do now?"

"What we do?" He went to the house bar - a way he had taken often lately. "I cannot go and shoot him, can I? We have to arrange with the situation. Everything else would be bad publicity. Senator Beckman would freeze his support, and this, I assure you, the President wouldn't find amusing at all!" He filled a glass with Tequila. "This was a very smart move from Westlake. I can only use it to my advantage, or I loose. More than our daughter!"

"But Frank! Our little baby! What if he –"

"It's Claire's decision." Frank Deveraux emptied the glass. "And for now he hasn't done anything of your nightmares. Neither mistreated nor kidnapped her, not even asked her for huge sums of money."

"This sounds as if you give a damn about your daughter in the hands of a… a… a psycho freak!"

The evening ended in dissent.

=== Medical Department of the "Columbia" ===

Robert Collins, Dean of the Medical Department, handed out a folder with the appointment papers to the man standing in front of him. "Dr. Westlake, this was a… uhm… hazardous adventure, I may say; calling a press conference without anyone's knowledge here at the Department! You got us funding for the next years, though… if you weren't as brilliant as I know you are…" He left the rest suspended and took Peyton's hand. "Welcome back!"

The first weeks became very difficult for Westlake. He was not used anymore to work with other people, despite his wishes all those years to do so again. It frustrated him to repeat again and again what he wanted, because the others didn't understand his speech. And he sensed the uneasiness his colleagues felt in his presence. They tried hiding it, and some did a better job than others. However he could discern they didn't want to express their pity aloud, but couldn't manage to treat him normally, too. Some even felt uncomfortable being alone with him, as if the subject of conversation would suddenly change in a direction they did not want and then there would be no escape. Appointed head of this project or not, he rested a freak at the edge of the normal life. Sometimes he needed all his effort to control threatening outbursts of rage. It went too slow! Why it went that slow? Who had typed in the wrong set of numbers at the sequencer? Who had forgotten to turn off the lights and thus killed the sensitive cultures? Why the new material from New Zealand hadn't arrived yet?

The progress the team made was smaller than expected, even though Peyton worked double shifts himself. On another front he had to arrange with the facts, too. A neurological expert had told him he would never regain complete sensitivity again. It was a rare development that some parts of his spinothalamic tract obviously had 'reconnected' themselves. A 'wonder' happening once in a million. But he couldn't hope for much more. It seemed a part of him would stay the Darkman forever.

Claire had rented an apartment, until he had enough money from advance payments for a small house in New Jersey, where the pets could stay in the little garden. She was wonderful, the greatest gift of all. In the beginning, she had helped him cleaning the mess in the underground, to repair his equipment. She had arranged the press conference in using God knows which contacts. She was there, when he came home late at night; she was always there with her warmth and strength. But the months passed by without the final result he wanted, and he was getting afraid of loosing her. She said she would wait… but how long? And he did not want to wait either. He wanted to really love her, with whole body and soul, not only dream…

He opened the little box with the engagement ring he had bought already weeks ago, and stared at the jewelry again.

"…Don't you want to go home today?"

Peyton looked up and saw Hendrik Reinitzer standing in the door of the office. He had been the one feeling the most discomfort in the beginning and had been ready to quit the project, until the Dean spoke to him. Meanwhile the German scientist had become the closest equivalent to a friend Westlake could have under the circumstances.

"I'm not 'inished yet."

"It's past 2 am, you know, and you are here since 8 am yesterday. You can check the results of the tests if you come back after some hours of sleep."

Westlake stared at the ring again as if the other man was not in the room anymore.

"Peyton, I lost my wife due to these damned night shifts," Reinitzer continued. "I always thought, only some minutes more, only one hour, only one test – and one night I came home and she was gone, leaving me a note she don't want to be married to a phone saying 'I'll be late'."

You lost your wife, but I will never have one, if I won't be successful! Don't you understand? He left the words unspoken and had his gaze still fixed on the jewelry.

The jewelry.

The crystal structure.

The structure…

Westlake jumped from his seat and nearly pushed Reinitzer aside.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to upset-"

"I need the sam'les from test line 256 – B!"

Hendrik Reinitzer tried to collect himself and to adjust to the sudden change of subject, while his colleague ran past him into the laboratory. The place was empty at this hour; they were the only two people still working. But within the next minutes, it became as busy here as if the whole staff was on duty.

=== Next night / New Jersey ===

The sun was setting and Claire looked out of the window, watching the cats coming to their feeding place in the garden and waiting for Peyton either to arrive or to call. He hadn't been home for two days now, and she began worrying. Of course, she knew how he buried himself in his work, she knew how determined and stubborn he could be – he had to be. She didn't reprimand this, but she was worried. The more she was longing for him, the rarer he was at home at all.

Claire had met her father once since she moved out of the house of her parents; at an official date concerning the 'kind donation' for the Medical Department. They hadn't talked much, however the young woman had the impression Frank Deveraux searched a way to say sorry without giving up too much. She didn't know how to react. If he didn't say at least a little word, she couldn't move on as if nothing had happened! Concerning her mother, Claire only knew she refused to see her. Jenna had told her to have heard Anna Deveraux saying she did not want to watch her 'little baby withering away' and 'locked up in solitude'. Her mother didn't understand anything. Claire began to wonder, if she had ever tried to understand. As for the solitude… well, she had been to some invitations by Jenna or other friends, but she had discovered she had not much in common with them anymore. The time when she hang out in the scene-clubs with them and went shopping in the expensive lanes seemed that far away! Did she regret it? No, she answered herself. And the opinions of her family or some of her acquaintances did not interest her.

She sensed a cold wet nose in her hand and padded Jerky.

Time for his little evening workout! The dog answered with a happy barking.

Somewhat before midnight, Claire had fallen asleep a book in her hands and still waiting for a call from the laboratory. She dreamt of a walk on the beach and deep kisses in the sunset…

Slowly she woke up, pulled by the gentle touch of lips not belonging to the hazy realm of fantasies, but to reality. Opening her eyes, and blinking against the light, she discovered Peyton kneeling at her side. His face was whole and unmarred, with that smile she loved so much. She reached out and followed his traits with her hand, just to make sure it was reality.

"You've made it! This is so… amazing!"

He kissed her again. "I worked on it for the last two days and nights. A simple molecular bridge was all that was still missing, but I had to find it!"

"You didn't say a word you were that close!"

"I wanted it to be a surprise. … Claire, Claire, my love…" For a long moment, they just rested there, arms put around each other.

Then he took the little box with the ring out of his pocket and opened it. He had waited so long, he had imagined this moment for so long. But now he nearly stumbled over the words, though, and had the impression to sound like a stupid schoolboy. "Claire… do you want… to marry me?"

"I will," she whispered, "of course I will!"

He put the ring onto her finger, and they both radiated with joy. The dream had finally broken through into the reality, and spread its light all over the remnants of darkness.

"So, search something gorgeous to dress in; we will go out!"

"Uh – whereto?"

"Anywhere you want, and as long as you want!"

...THE END...

(Well, I hope, this ending is romantic enough….)