FULL CIRCLE

Fall 2022 - Spring 2031

 

A hundred little things make likenesses

In brethren born, and show the father's blood.

Euripides, Electra

 

 

Always when he counted his blessings, Vincent put his family at the top. Though the joys were marked, here and there, with sorrow and tragedy, as in the death of youngest son Evan and his wife in a plane crash only a few months before, Vincent found things to be grateful for. Tonight, the family gathered for a shared meal, and that was a blessing in itself.

A barely checked excitement bubbled beneath the friendly banter, but Vincent wasn't able to pinpoint the source until Jacob tapped his water glass, making it chime.

"I have an announcement to make," Jacob said, when he had everyone's attention. "Well, actually, Amanda and I have an announcement to make." He reached for his wife's hand. "We're going to have a baby."

The electrified thrill that coursed the room was palpable, at least to Vincent. Catherine, he knew, was delighted at the thought of a grandchild.

There was a second thread of excitement running beneath the flood of emotions in the room, though, and after the hubbub died down, Vincent wasn't surprised when Carey remained on his feet, his hands on Vicky's shoulders.

"We weren't going to say anything for a while," Carey began, sounding apologetic. "And we certainly don't mean to steal your thunder, here," he said to Amanda and Jacob, "but..."

"You, too?" Jacob exclaimed, and Carey nodded sheepishly.

There was another flurry of excitement. Vincent was perhaps the only one who noticed that Charles had not left his seat either time, and that there was a grimness underlying his forced smile.

Vincent kissed his daughter's cheek, as he had kissed his daughter-in-law's only moments before, and returned to his chair, where he reached for Catherine's hand. "I believe Charles has something to tell us, as well," he said, quelling the other voices.

"What is it, Charles?" Catherine asked.

Charles's gaze lingered on each face as he looked around the table. "I had a breakthrough in my private research this week," he told them slowly.

Something powerful froze each of them into place.

"You've been working on that for years," Vicky said at last, softly.

"Since college," Charles agreed.

"What kind of breakthrough did you have?" Catherine asked him.

"I isolated the gene."

"The one we all carry?" Jacob asked, his glance taking in his father and sister.

"That's one of the things I found out," Charles said, and now he wasn't meeting anyone's eyes. "We don't all carry it. It's gender related."

"What do you mean?" Vicky asked, her voice small in the sudden hush.

"It seems to be very much like hemophilia, or red-green color blindness," Charles explained. "It occurs only in males." He glanced at Vincent, who met his look with all the serenity he could muster. "And is transmitted only by females."

Vicky never flinched. "Go on," she said steadily.

"I haven't been able to determine if the sterility in most of the males tested is related," Charles continued in a scientific drone that fooled no one. Everyone present knew Charles himself was sterile, and that before his death, Evan had tested as sterile, too. Only Jacob's tests had shown signs of sperm production, although the count was so low that Charles had pronounced Jacob's chances of fathering a child as 'extremely low.' "The sterility shouldn't be related, since as males, none of us have the affected X chromosome. It also shouldn't have anything to do with the cleft lip Jacob was born with, but there may be some other factor at work. I don't know yet."

"But what does it mean?" Vicky asked, her mouth taking on a stubborn set.

"It means," Charles told her, "that Jacob's and Amanda's baby will be perfectly normal, at least where this particular gene is concerned. It won't have it."

"What about our child?" Carey asked quietly.

"If Vicky's actually a carrier - and I haven't been able to determine that yet - and the child is a girl, she will be normal in appearance, and have a fifty/fifty chance of being a carrier herself. If it's a boy, there's a fifty/fifty chance he will carry the gene. If he does..." He broke off and looked at Vincent.

"The child will look like me," Vincent said.

Charles nodded.

Vincent freed his hand from Catherine's hold and moved to his daughter's side. Vicky looked up at him, her green eyes wide with uncertainty.

"I'm sorry, Victoria."

She came to her feet and caught hold of his vest with both hands. "Don't ever say that," she told him fiercely. "Don't ever be sorry. Not about being you." She opened her heart and the conviction behind her words poured into him as she put her arms around his neck. "I love you, Daddy," she whispered in his ear.

Gradually, her habitual barriers closed, shutting him out of her consciousness. Only then did he become aware of a new, barely perceptible sensation. He closed his eyes, blocking out distraction. Yes, it was there, clearly recognizable after seeing Catherine through four pregnancies. He stepped back and met Vicky's inquiring gaze.

"It seems you have a legacy from your mother's family, as well," he said. "I believe you're carrying twins."

 

To Vincent's way of thinking, Carey and Vicky should have been concerned, worried, even. But they weren't. It puzzled him.

"Do you think," he asked Catherine later, as she brushed out her hair, "it's wrong of me to hope that Victoria's children are daughters?"

Catherine paused in mid-stroke and looked at him. "I'm not worried about that," she answered. "I just want them to be healthy." Her voice dropped. "To survive."

Unlike identical twins, fraternal twins ran in families, and specifically, in Catherine's family. Catherine's mother had been a fraternal twin whose sister had been stillborn. Catherine's own twin pregnancy had resulted in Jacob and a daughter who died only a few minutes after birth. No wonder she feared for this pregnancy.

Vincent swallowed back the memory of the small, lifeless weight of his firstborn daughter, the pale, faintly unreal look of her delicately drawn features, composed in eternal sleep. "Victoria's children will be fine," he said strongly.

"Whoever they look like," she answered him, with conviction.

Her eyes asked a question and he nodded briefly, sealing the bargain. He would try not to dwell on his greatest fear for their grandchildren, and she would attempt to be brave about hers.

 

The pregnancies, closely monitored by Charles and Samantha, both doctors, and Lena, the tunnel midwife, progressed normally. Vicky, taller than Catherine and less delicately made, had an easier time carrying the bulk of twins. She stubbornly refused any tests that might reveal the babies' sexes, or even to determine if she carried what Vincent persisted in thinking of as the defective gene. "We'll wait 'til they're born," she insisted with an infuriating serenity that seemed to go along with being pregnant.

Charles's discovery posed a different problem, though, since Vicky lived in her mother's world.

"There's a one in four chance that at least one child will be a boy and have the gene," Charles reminded her. "You can't go to a hospital to have your babies. If one of your children is different, you can't live up by Columbia in that dinky apartment with no tunnel access."

"We're planning on moving, Charles," Carey answered. "We just haven't figured out where, yet."

"And I know I can't go to the hospital when my time comes," Vicky added, rubbing her distended abdomen. She wrinkled her nose. "Though I'm not enthusiastic about going Below to have my babies, either."

"Why not?" Catherine asked, surprised. "I had mine there. Except Evan, who always had to be different." The little bubble of pain that surfaced in all of them when Evan's name was mentioned came and went, honored by the briefest of pauses.

"I know," Vicky answered. "Since I was born there, you'd think I'd be more comfortable, wouldn't you? But the truth is, I want my babies to have sunlight, and air, and openness. All the things missing from down there." Her voice dropped. "Even if one or both of them can never have it again."

"You're talking about a home birth," Charles said.

"I guess I am," she agreed.

"That's safe, isn't it, Charles?" Carey asked.

"There's no reason why a home birth Above can't be as safe as one Below," Charles answered. "Depending, of course, on what your home consists of."

"Your new home will need more space than you currently have," Vincent pointed out. "As well as tunnel access, should one of the babies be affected."

"We know," Carey said, exchanging a meaningful glance with Vicky. "We've been talking about it, and we've come up with a couple of possibilities. One's more attractive than the other, though, and we wanted to discuss it with you."

This last was said to Catherine, who nodded surprised encouragement. "What is it?"

"What we need, as Charles said, is a place big enough for four, with tunnel access. What he didn't mention is that it also needs to be affordable for a not-yet-tenured history professor. And his wife, who, despite a law degree and a modest number of even more modest parts in off-Broadway productions, doesn't contribute much to the family coffers."

Everyone laughed. Vicky's stage work was intermittent and paid only scale. Her legal work, thus far limited to acting as plaintiff's attorney in a few civil cases, generated even less income; as her clients were poor and amounts awarded minor, she generally waived her fees.

"You've got this big house," Carey went on. "Most of it's been empty since we all got married and moved out. The third floor would make a great apartment. What we're hoping is that you'll let us move in, at least until we see what our needs are. The only thing is, you may be used to the peace and quiet, now, and unwilling to give it up. In which case, we do have another plan."

Catherine glanced at Vincent, and he gave a tiny shake of his head. It might be his home, but it was her house. He never forgot that. The decision would be hers. He had no objections, however, and communicated that with a squeeze of her hand.

"We'd love to have you up there," she answered. "Carey and Evan's old room would make a good kitchen, don't you think? Or you could just use the one downstairs..."

Over the course of several weeks the details were worked out, and Carey and Vicky moved in. Vicky's old room served as their bedroom, while the room formerly Jacob's was converted to a comfortable sitting room, should Carey and Vicky wish to be alone. Charles's old room would be the nursery. They put a microwave and a small refrigerator in what was once Carey and Evan's room for snacks and such, but didn't convert it further. The kitchen downstairs, Carey affirmed, was sufficient.

Catherine, already overjoyed at the prospect of grandchildren, was elated over having two-thirds of them living just upstairs. "I can spoil them rotten," she said happily, and made a good start by buying so many toys and clothes that one would have thought they were expecting a dozen babies, instead of only three.

 

Vincent's opportunities to help came in other, smaller ways. He was relaxing beside the Mirror Pool one bright afternoon, watching the pattern of sunlight on the water and letting his mind wander, when Jacob came in.

"May I join you?"

It was an odd request, coming as it did from Jacob, who never seemed to have time to sit and think. Vincent nodded toward a nearby rock and Jacob took a seat, leaning over to dip his fingers in the water.

"It's nice here," Jacob said presently. "Peaceful."

"Unlike your chamber, or the study?" Vincent asked.

Jacob grinned. In recent years, he'd assumed much of the responsibility that had once been Vincent's, and Father's. It left him little time for leisure. "It's rare for five minutes to pass without someone coming in," he admitted.

"Yes," Vincent agreed. But Jacob hadn't come to talk about the peacefulness of the Mirror Pool. "How is Amanda?" he asked, though he'd seen her himself not an hour before.

"Fine," Jacob answered. "She's great, really. Kind of anxious for the baby to come."

"Yes. And you?"

Jacob gave a sheepish grin. "I'm not so good. I mean, I'm happy about the baby and ready for it to be here, but..."

Vincent waited patiently for Jacob to go on.

"I'm worried, Dad. About Amanda. She's so little, and Lena says the baby's pretty big. Over seven pounds, probably."

"Your mother isn't a large woman, and Charles and Evan each weighed over eight pounds at birth," Vincent said gently.

"I know," Jacob admitted. "Lena says that, too. But, Dad, I know it's going to hurt, and it's probably going to take a long time..."

"Most births do," Vincent agreed.

"I'm so scared, Dad. If something happens to Amanda..."

"I know," Vincent said softly, remembering.

"But you went through it four times, Dad. Four times."

Vincent spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "Your mother wanted children. What do you imagine she would have said if I had told her there would be no more because I feared for her?"

A slow smile crept across Jacob's face. "I don't know, but I'll bet it would have been loud and emphatic."

Loud and emphatic was probably an understatement, but Vincent merely nodded agreement. "Amanda is in excellent hands," he said. "Lena assisted at her first birth before you were born. She knows what to do. Amanda is going to be fine."

"I know," Jacob admitted, and got to his feet. "I just needed to be reminded. Thanks, Dad."

 

It was only a few days later that a messenger came, summoning them Below. Amanda had started labor. Vincent wondered, as he and Catherine made their way down, how Jacob was holding up. He had no doubts about his daughter-in-law. She was strong and determined. Like Catherine.

They waited in Vincent's chamber to afford the prospective parents some privacy. It was some twenty hours after the initial summons that Lena's daughter Caty, a midwife herself and her mother's assistant, came for them.

"Congratulations," she said, beaming. "You're grandparents."

"Amanda?" Vincent asked quickly. "And the child?"

"Both fine," Caty answered. "Jacob, too," she added with a smile.

Catherine had been lying down, trying to rest, but popped up when Caty entered. "Is it a girl or a boy?" she asked now.

But Caty wouldn't tell them. Instead, she led the way to Jacob and Amanda's chamber and stepped aside to let them enter first.

Amanda was propped up on pillows, a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. Jacob was beside her, but slid off the bed when they came in.

"Come see him," he said eagerly.

"A boy?" Vincent asked.

Jacob nodded, bursting with a weary pride tinged with relief at an ordeal endured. Vincent spared him a sympathetic look before bending to his grandson.

"Look," Catherine whispered. "I'd forgotten how little they are. May I hold him?"

"Of course." Amanda passed the infant over and Catherine brought him around where Vincent could see him more easily.

His face was red, and wizened so as to make the detection of any family resemblance difficult. Tufts of lightish hair stuck up on top of his head. He had a fist in his mouth and was sucking noisily.

"Is he hungry?" Vincent asked.

"We don't think so," Jacob answered. "Amanda tried to feed him, but he wasn't much interested. Lena says some babies just like to suck on their fingers or thumbs."

"That's true," Catherine agreed. "Vicky sucked her thumb for a long time." She looked up at Vincent. "Want to hold him?"

Vincent accepted the precious bundle carefully. It had been years since he'd held a newborn baby and he felt a brief awkwardness before the infant settled himself comfortably in the crook of his arm. Remarkable to think that this child, this tiny new scrap of humanity, was his blood, his flesh. His grandson.

The baby took his fist from his mouth and waved it damply, wrinkling his nose and squinching his eyes. Vincent smiled. "Has he a name?" he asked. "Or must we wait for his naming ceremony?"

"You don't have to wait," Amanda answered. "It's Daniel. After my father."

Vincent looked down and addressed his grandson solemnly. "Welcome, Daniel."

Daniel yawned mightily, and went to sleep.

 

Three weeks later it was Vicky's turn. She was attended not only by Lena and Caty, but by Samantha and Charles, as well. If something had gone wrong during Daniel's birth, Amanda could have been taken to a hospital. Vicky, with the uncertain heritage her children carried, didn't have that option.

Vincent and Catherine, alerted when labor began, waited downstairs in the study.

"You know, I think it's much easier to be the one having the baby," Catherine commented as the hours passed.

"It's certainly easier to be a part of things," Vincent agreed. He was trying hard not to pace the floor. The motion soothed him, but Catherine found it agitating. "But I would not like to see you endure childbirth again."

"No," she answered, smiling. "I suppose not."

Vicky was effectively blocking off their connection, but suddenly he felt it shift, a swift, undefinable feeling that was quickly gone. He lifted his head and listened. Faintly, audible only to his more sensitive ears, came the high-pitched wail of a newborn infant.

"There's one," he said softly, and Catherine came to her feet and reached for his hand. Minutes later, another cry joined the first.

"Both infants cried," he told her, and she answered with a smile. Another quarter of an hour passed, though, before Caty came to fetch them.

They passed Charles and Samantha on the stairs. "Perfectly normal births, both of them," Charles said. "Lena and Caty did everything. I'll take Dr. Sam home and be back."

Catherine only nodded, anxious to get upstairs and meet her newest grandchildren. Vincent paused long enough to express his thanks before he followed her.

"Mother and both children doing fine," Lena informed them as they came in. She nodded toward the bed, where each proud parent held a child. The blanket-swathed bundle Vicky held was quiet, but Carey was patting and murmuring, trying to soothe the fretful infant in his arms.

Vincent paused, glancing from one baby to the other.

"You should meet them one at a time," Vicky said.

"In order of appearance," Carey added, raising his voice to be heard. "Start over there."

They were both so obviously pleased and proud that Vincent relaxed, letting the long-held tension drain away from shoulders and back, neck and jaw. Catherine was already sitting on the edge of the bed and he moved to stand beside her.

"This is your granddaughter," Vicky told them, and surrendered the infant to Catherine. "She's Catherine, but to avoid confusion, we'll call her Kate."

Baby Kate was a perfect miniature of her mother, with sparse strawberry fuzz across the top of her head. Her eyes were newborn-dark, wide and unfocused. Vincent offered her a finger and she grasped it strongly.

"She's lovely," Catherine said, beaming.

"Well-behaved, too," Carey commented. The child he held was still giving off intermittent squawks and wails.

"You should let Daddy hold him," Vicky said. "Babies never cry when he holds them."

The second child was a boy, then. Catherine passed Kate back to her mother and stood beside Vincent as Carey approached and laid the unhappy infant into his arms.

The child quieted at once, gazing up at him with wide, dark eyes. It was like looking into a distorted mirror. The small face, topped by an astounding mass of shaggy dark hair, was a near replica of Vincent's own. Dark fuzz shadowed the flattened nose, flaring into finely arched brows. The upper lip was split and delicately padded, like a cat's.

"Look at his hands," Catherine whispered, beside him.

The baby's tiny fist was clenched. She took it gently and coaxed it open. Each finger was tipped with a tiny, pointed talon, damp and paper-thin. When they dried and hardened, they'd be razor sharp.

"Do you suppose," Catherine murmured, "that you looked like this?"

"I must have," he answered, and wondered how Father could have taken in such an alien being. As if sensing his disquiet, the baby began to wail.

"I'll take him," Catherine said, and lifted him into her own arms.

Vincent observed the ease with which she handled him, putting him to her shoulder and patting his back. Catherine, at least, had no doubts about this strange little newcomer.

"What's his name?" she asked.

"We wanted to call him after Evan," Vicky said. "But we didn't actually want to name him Evan."

"Evan is the Welsh form of John," Vincent observed.

"We know. But we didn't want to call him John, either. So we've named him Ian."

"Ian," Catherine murmured into the baby's ear.

"The Gaelic form. It's a good name," Vincent approved. "A strong name."

Ian still fussed noisily, despite Catherine's best efforts to soothe him.

"He was born crying," Vicky offered.

"So was Charles," Catherine answered. "But he didn't keep on like this. None of you did when you were this little."

"Samantha and Charles examined him," Carey said doubtfully. "They both said he was fine."

"Perhaps," Vincent said quietly, "he understands how different he is. How he will be set apart, always."

There was a brief, shocked silence, broken by Catherine - Catherine, who knew all the dark, hurting places inside him.

"No," she said firmly. "It's not like that for him. He's been loved from the moment he was born. No one is going to take him away from here. No one is going to abandon him. No one is going to leave him alone, to die."

The room was quiet. Even Ian had stopped crying.

"He won't be set apart, Vincent," Catherine went on. "He has parents who love him, aunts and uncles, a sister, a cousin. He has you, Vincent. He will never be alone."

 

The stories said that as an infant newly arrived in the tunnels, Vincent had cried for three days and three nights. Ian outdid him.

"At least he stops when he sleeps," Carey said wearily, when the twins were a week old.

"If only he'd sleep longer than two hours at a stretch," Vicky added. "Kate does, thank goodness."

Vicky looked tired, but then, they all did. Ian cried in bursts lasting anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours. They all took turns trying to soothe him. Vicky rocked him; Carey walked him back and forth; Catherine took him on tours of the house, showing him anything bright or shiny or apt to catch his curiosity, even if only for a moment. But what seemed most effective was when Vincent took him for walks in the tunnels. He'd follow a long, circuitous route, keeping to the upper passages, explaining each of the twists, turns, and offshoots, talking of the places they led. Just as if Ian could understand.

Perhaps Father had taken Vincent for walks during those first three days, or later. If he had, Vincent wondered if Father had ever spoken of the wonders to be found beyond. He still thought it possible that Ian cried because he somehow knew of the aloneness he would someday bear, and wondered if he, himself, had understood that, too. Perhaps he had somehow known that at that moment, in the whole great world, there was no one for him. For there was that brief, half-remembered time at the beginning of his life when he had lived in a world in which Catherine did not exist.

 

Time passed, and Vincent wondered if he could ever have imagined such happiness. Once, he had been certain his life was to be a lonely one. Now he watched Catherine, surrounded by their grandchildren, and remembered the words he had spoken forty years before, on the day they were married. "...that with that fair form forever our destiny must be entwined; that there is no more joy but in her joy, no sorrow but when she grieves..." His destiny and Catherine's were inextricably linked now. Her joy was his joy, always; her grief, when it came, was his grief. They were one.

Their surviving children were settled in fulfilling lives. Charles and Elizabeth lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village. Charles was one of the few city dwellers who commuted off the island each morning, travelling across the Hudson River to the New Jersey Institute of Medical Research in Jersey City, while Elizabeth divided her time between home and archaeological digs abroad. With no children of their own, they were all too willing to play doting aunt and uncle.

Jacob and Amanda lived Below, where Jacob, chronicler of tunnel history, legends, and stories, had also taken on most of the duties of administrating that world with patience and wisdom. Amanda, shy as ever, was content to sew and knit and raise her son.

Carey and Vicky still lived on the top floor of the townhouse. Carey was now tenured in the history department at Columbia. Vicky's succession of parts, small and large, in off Broadway theater kept her from giving full attention to her law career, though it didn't prevent her from occasionally twitting her mother by threatening to join the public defender's office.

While these marriages were not as blissful, perhaps, as Vincent's own, he understood that his union with Catherine was a rare and precious thing, not easily duplicated. What mattered was that his children were happy, that they loved and were loved.

His grandchildren had grown and changed, developing into distinct individuals. Vincent delighted in each of them, loving them as he had loved his children.

Daniel was sandy haired and green-eyed, his delicate features saved from prettiness by his long, square, stubborn jaw. He was gentle and thoughtful, and already showed signs of his father's wisdom and quiet courage. Daniel would be a leader someday, a strong one. Whether he chose to try his wings in his parents' world or in the world Above was still uncertain, but Vincent liked to think of Daniel following in Jacob's footsteps someday, guiding the tunnel community with patience and care. Daniel lived with his parents in the tunnel community, but as he grew older, he began spending weekends at the townhouse to allow him to experience the different environment and enjoy occasional topside excursions.

Kate was like her mother - bright and mercurial, occasionally imperious. Her hair was the bright strawberry Vicky's had once been, her eyes a clear, vivid blue. With her mother's wilfulness, she bossed her playmates until they refused to obey, and then changed tactics, coaxing and pleading prettily. Sometimes it worked. When it didn't, she sulked and pouted. Kate, Vincent recognized, would never live in his world. Already she was impatient with limits. Kate longed to fly, and someday, maybe she would.

Vincent didn't worry about Kate or Daniel.

But Ian. Ian had grown from fretful infant to defiant toddler to contentious child, and regularly tried the patience of all who knew him. He had the sharp, feline face Vincent had as a boy, made all the more startling by the vivid contrast of dark fur on nose and hands. His shaggy dark mane was cut short because he wouldn't brush it and shrieked when his mother tried to do so. Nearly as wilful as his sister, he was restless and reckless and stubborn, all traits that marked him as Devin's grandson. Like Kate, Ian longed to stretch himself, to try new things, but unlike Kate, Ian's choices were limited by who he was.

Ian chafed at restrictions imposed, and would, Vincent feared, all his life, even more than Vincent himself had done. Ian would someday defy the very boundaries of safety. Vincent worried about Ian.

When Kate and Ian were very small, Vicky stayed home with them. As they grew older, Vincent took them Below, where they played in the nursery as his own children had done.

When they became old enough for school, Kate was enrolled Above. Ian cried when Kate left him behind that first morning. When that didn't bring her back, or cause him to be included, he found scissors and cut the ears off all her stuffed animals, and made her cry, too.

"It's not Kate's fault you can't go to school," Carey tried to explain to him.

Carey was so much the image of his paternal grandfather that sometimes Vincent ached with it. Carey had Father's wisdom, but more important, he had the patience Father had never been able to summon when dealing with Devin. With Carey to help, Vincent could hope that as he grew, Ian would come to understand his differences, and why they must set him apart.

That was the year Vincent began taking Ian to the park at night. Vicky argued against it, fiercely, a mother protecting her cub, but Carey and Catherine both spoke to her and finally, grudgingly, she relented.

For Ian, the park was like a treasure trove where he found something new, something fascinating, each time he went. Endowed with preternatural senses, he quickly learned to detect interlopers, to melt into the shadows without being seen.

Kate and Daniel were not, to their mutual annoyance, permitted to go on these outings. This was more from a sense of fairness than anything else; after all, it was Ian who sulked by the windows when Kate and Daniel played outside on temperate days.

Vincent wanted to think of Daniel as Ian's Devin, but it didn't work; Daniel was too quiet - and Ian most definitely had a strong streak of Devin, himself. Still, as had been the case two generations earlier, and again with Carey and Evan, the two were fast friends.

 

One Saturday when the grandchildren were seven, Catherine and Vicky took Kate out for lunch and an afternoon of shopping. Girl stuff, Ian said derisively, but Vincent knew he felt left out.

Daniel came, though, and the boys settled down to play cards in a corner of the study. Carey sprawled on the couch, his feet propped on the coffee table, devouring a history of the French Revolution.

Vincent relaxed at his desk, leafing through old journals. He was engrossed in his own description of a boyhood Winterfest, smiling at the memories it provoked, when the sounds of quarrelling reached his ears.

"I did not!" Daniel said hotly, pushing aside a tumble of playing cards and coming to his feet.

"You did too! I saw you!" Ian scrambled up, too.

"You couldn't see me, because I didn't do it!" Daniel snapped.

Ian fairly seethed with frustration. "You did, too!" he shouted, and pushed Daniel hard in the chest.

Daniel, bigger and heavier, shoved back harder, and Ian stumbled backwards and nearly fell. He came up with a low, vicious snarl and drew his hand back to strike.

Vincent was still struggling from his chair when Carey caught Ian's arm and pulled him away. Carey knelt, speaking to Ian fast and furious, his voice too low to hear.

Vincent beckoned to Daniel, who was backed against the fireplace, his face ashen. The boy came quickly, giving Ian a wide berth.

"Did you see that, Grandfather?" Daniel whispered. "He was going to hit me."

"I think perhaps he was," Vincent admitted. "He was very angry."

"He said I cheated, but I didn't. There was a card under my leg, but I think I must have dropped it. I didn't put it there on purpose."

Far easier to suspect Ian, or even Kate, of such duplicity. Daniel never lied, not even to protect himself. "I am certain you didn't," he assured Daniel now. "And when Ian calms down, he'll realize it, too."

"Okay." Some of Daniel's defensive bristling began to subside. "Do you think he really would have hit me?"

"I'm very much afraid he would have."

"He's stronger than me, you know," Daniel confided. "He could probably beat me up."

"He could hurt you badly, Daniel, if he forgot himself," Vincent said. "You must always remember that. I know he pushed you first, but perhaps, next time, you should refrain from pushing back."

"My dad wouldn't like me fighting, anyway," Daniel confessed. "He says words are stronger than fists."

"He's right," Vincent agreed, and brought Daniel close enough to kiss his brow. "While your uncle Carey speaks to Ian, perhaps you should get your things together. It will be time to go home soon."

Daniel nodded and went to pick up the scattered cards.

Carey and Ian had moved to the wall where family photographs were displayed. Carey spoke rapidly, emphatically; Ian nodded frightened agreement. "I know you will," Vincent heard Carey say, finally. He ruffled his son's hair and kissed him before crossing the room to speak with Daniel.

Ian stared at the photographs a moment longer, then came to Vincent's side.

"Daddy says I might have hurt Daniel," he began, without preamble.

"Yes," Vincent agreed quietly.

There was a brief, thoughtful silence. "Did you really do that?" Ian asked finally. "Did you really make those marks on my other grandfather's face?"

So that's what Carey had been telling him. Vincent nodded confirmation. "Yes, Ian. I really did." He looked down at his hands. "I was angry, just as you were with Daniel a moment ago. I struck out in that anger, but it was your grandfather who paid the price. He wore the scars I gave him until the day he died."

"Daddy says I have to learn to control my temper," Ian confessed. "He says I can't strike out when I get angry. Someone might get hurt."

"That's true," Vincent told him. "You are already stronger than some men, Ian." He cupped Ian's hands between his own. "Your hands have the capacity to do great harm. You must always be careful. You must always maintain control."

"Daddy said to think how I would feel if I hurt Daniel."

"How would you feel?"

"Bad. Really bad. I'm going to try, Grandfather. Really hard. Daddy says he'll help me."

As Father helped me, Vincent thought.

"I'm never going to hurt anybody," Ian vowed. "Never."

Vincent laid a hand on his desk and placed one of Ian's beside it. His own was large, broad-palmed and long-fingered. Thick fur, faded from the dark reddish gold it had once been, covered the back, and a deadly talon tipped each finger.

Ian's was smaller, slimmer, the back sprinkled only lightly with dark hair. Only later, when he reached puberty, would the dense fur come. It could have been any boy's hand... except for the fine, needle-sharp claws.

Vincent knew the horror of discovering what his hands could do, knew the grim necessity of using them.

"There may come a time," he told Ian slowly, "when someone you love is threatened."

"Like when that bad man stole my mom's purse?" Ian asked. Vicky's purse had been snatched only a few weeks earlier, and the incident was fresh in Ian's mind.

"Yes," Vincent agreed. "Like that. Or worse. You may need these hands to protect the ones you love, perhaps even our world. It is a great burden, Ian. A great responsibility."

Ian gazed at him, his expression serious, giving Vincent hope that his words were penetrating.

"When that time comes, if it comes, a darkness may rise up. It may frighten you."

"I'm not afraid of the dark," Ian asserted.

"This is a different kind of dark. It comes from inside and it is a dreadful, powerful thing. But you are stronger, Ian. Always remember that. You control the darkness."

Ian nodded solemnly, his dark eyes wide, and a little puzzled.

"You must not be afraid to use your strength to protect those you love," Vincent went on.

"Like Mommy and Daddy," Ian said confidently. "And Gran."

"And Kate," Vincent agreed. "And Daniel. Your friends. Someday, Ian, there may even be a girl."

Ian's small nose wrinkled. "A girl?"

Vincent smiled. "When I was your age, I felt as you do. But I grew up. Now, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without your grandmother to love, and to love me." He grasped Ian's wrists, turning the hands palm up. "Someday, you may hold the most precious of all things, a woman's heart. You may hold your own child. Never forget that these hands that protect may also love."

Ian nodded. "I won't."

"These are my journals, Ian," Vincent went on, pointing out two shelves of little volumes. "I began writing in them when I was not much older than you."

"I've seen you write in the one you have now."

"There is much of me in them, Ian. My thoughts, my feelings. My most desperate moments. All saved here, on these pages."

Ian nodded again, his face puckered in a small frown.

"I want you to have them. Perhaps knowing the difficulties I faced while growing up will help you."

"Okay," Ian said, eyeing the volumes doubtfully. After sixty years, there were nearly a hundred journals. Reading them all would be a formidable task for anyone.

"You needn't read all of them," Vincent told him, and was rewarded by the look of relief that Ian couldn't hide. "But when something troubles you, try to think if the same thing might have troubled me. If it did, I wrote of it."

"And I could read about it and it might help me," Ian said, his face brightening.

"It might," Vincent agreed.

"Grandfather?"

"Yes, Ian?"

"Which book has the part about where you scratched my other grandfather's face?"

Vincent reached back and touched the spine of the appropriate volume. "This one."

Ian nodded with a transparently feigned indifference and scooted across the room to help Daniel pick up the last of the scattered cards; only later, when he thought no one was looking, did he slip the little volume out and carry it off. It reappeared on the shelf a few days later and Ian never spoke of it, but Vincent noticed the barest edge of new-found maturity.

 

Only days later, as Vincent and Ian made their nightly trek from the tunnel world to the townhouse, Vincent stumbled to a halt. "Ian. Wait."

The boy turned back. "What's wrong?"

Vincent leaned against the tunnel wall, breathing hard. There didn't seem to be enough air in the close confines of the tunnel to fill his lungs.

"Are you all right, Grandfather?" Ian asked, sounding suddenly anxious. "Are you sick?"

"I'll be fine," he managed. "I just need a short rest."

Ian's small face puckered in a frown. "You never needed a rest before."

The tightness in his chest was easing and he pushed away from the wall. "I needed one then," he told Ian, "but that was enough. Let's go on."

Usually Ian scampered ahead, but now he hovered at Vincent's elbow, looking worried. Ahead loomed a rough, sloping passage. The incline wasn't steep and Vincent had climbed it almost daily for the past forty years, but today it looked formidable. He paused, gathering his strength, and Ian moved into position beside him.

"Put your hand on my shoulder," Ian advised, looking suddenly wise beyond his years. "I'll help you."

There was a certain indignity in accepting assistance from a seven year old child, but as they mounted the rise, Vincent was grateful for his grandson's help. "Thank you, Ian," he said when they reached level going.

"I really helped, didn't I?"

"You did," Vincent confirmed. "May I ask another favor?"

Ian puffed out his chest importantly. "Sure!"

"Don't tell your grandmother of this."

Ian's eyes widened. "Don't tell her I helped you?"

Vincent nodded.

"Why not?"

"It would upset her needlessly," he explained.

"Why?"

Vincent sighed. A child's insatiable curiosity was all well and good, but there were times he could do without it. "She might think I'm ill. It would worry her."

"But you don't get sick," Ian reminded him. "Just like I don't get sick. Because we're different."

Vincent stopped in mid-passage and regarded his grandson balefully. "Why can't you remember that when you're in the park and someone comes?"

Ian grinned impishly, showing the gap where he'd recently lost a front tooth. "Because I don't want to, then. You're not really sick, are you, Grandfather?"

"No." At least, he didn't think so. Not the way Ian meant.

"I'm not supposed to keep secrets, you know," Ian went on, challenging.

"You're willing enough for me to keep them for you," Vincent reminded him.

Ian scowled. "You wouldn't really tell my dad about that time in the park, would you?"

"If I did, he might forbid you to go again."

"If I tell Gran about you getting tired, she might forbid you to go again," Ian countered.

"And if I cannot go, you can't either."

Ian could think of no reply for that. He stuck out his lower lip. "Okay," he conceded, grudgingly. "I won't tell."

Vincent reached out and ruffled the thick mass of dark hair. "Scamp," he said, with affection. "Have I told you there's a great deal of your other grandfather in you?"

"All the time," Ian sighed, and ran ahead to open the barrier separating the tunnels from home.

 

Ian helped him up the two flights of steps hidden behind a false wall. At the top, Vincent paused to hang up his cloak. Ian, unfettered, pushed open the sliding panel and plunged happily into the bedroom.

"Hi, Gran," he said cheerily.

"Hello, Ian," she answered. "How was your day?"

Vincent stepped into the room, carefully avoiding Ian's eye, and turned to close the panel.

"Pretty good," Ian answered. "In science, we're learning about different kinds of rocks."

"That sounds interesting."

"Yeah," Ian agreed. "I like mica the best, because you can peel it off and look through the pieces."

"I remember that about mica," Catherine said. "I've always been fond of quartz, myself."

Ian grinned. "That's because quartz comes in crystals," he accused, and Catherine's hand went to her necklace.

"I suppose you're right," she told him, and kissed his hair. "Run on upstairs, now. Your mother's there, and Kate."

"My dad's not here yet?"

"Not yet."

"Oh." Disappointed, Ian went out.

While Catherine was distracted, Vincent made his way to a chair near the carefully-curtained window. By the time she turned her attention in his direction, he'd arranged himself comfortably and caught his breath. She paused to kiss him, then kicked off her shoes and began to remove the carefully tailored suit she wore.

Vincent watched her. Her greyed head was bent, but he didn't need to see her face. Couldn't have seen it clearly from this distance, anyway. Not anymore. But it didn't matter. He knew every line, every crease, every soft fold of skin. And he knew, an instant before it happened, that she was about to lift her head, to smile at him.

He felt her joy clearly; it was the one sense that was still undimmed by age - his sense of her. It was difficult, sometimes, for him to believe that it had been forty-three years since that cold April night when he'd found a young woman bleeding to death in the park. Forty-three years. It was a long time.

He knew her intimately, body and mind, heart and soul. Despite the fact that she moved more slowly nowadays, or that her joints ached in the mornings, despite the silver in her hair and the lines on her face, Vincent never thought of Catherine as old. What he saw was her smile when he entered a room, the way her eyes shone with love. What he knew was that she was beautiful.

What still staggered him, even after all these years, was that she felt the same about him. He could see, on the rare occasions when he consulted a mirror, that his once golden mane was mostly silver now. His face, despite its oddities, showed his age. But Catherine never seemed to notice. In her eyes, he, too, was beautiful.

As if she could read his thoughts, she hung her suit jacket in the closet and crossed to kneel at his side. "We're so lucky, Vincent," she said. "Do you ever stop to think how lucky we are?"

"Every day of my life," he answered, and pressed a kiss into her hair. "Every day."

 

After a good night's sleep, he felt marginally better. It was Saturday, which meant Catherine would be home all day. Carey and Vicky had plans for the afternoon, but the grandchildren would be here, even Daniel. He looked forward to it.

After breakfast and a leisurely hour over the morning paper, he crossed the hall to the bedroom. It was a lovely place in the daytime. French doors faced south, opening onto a wide, sunlit terrace. Today, with spring stirring, the doors stood open to admit a fresh-scented breeze.

Kate sat at Catherine's dressing table, watching in the mirror as Catherine braided her hair. Vincent lingered in the doorway unobserved, watching them, storing the sight away against a time when he might need it to comfort him.

Catherine tied the last ribbon and finished off with a hug. "Thank you, Gran," Kate said, and slipped down from the chair. "Hi, Grandfather," she greeted him, skipping past. "'Bye."

"Goodbye, Kate," he answered, and watched her run upstairs.

Catherine smiled and held out her hand. "Come here. I want to show you something."

He allowed her to lead him toward the open french doors, stopping automatically at the imaginary line separating safety from risk.

The terrace was crowded with large pots and planters of shrubs and climbing vines in various stages of growth. Catherine pointed toward one in a fat clay pot. "Look."

The bush there was fuller than the others. Even from here, he could see a handful of buds. One, half-hidden by a profusion of leaves, was beginning to open.

"The first rose of the year," he murmured.

She touched his arm. "Wait here." Out in the sunshine, she bent over the little bush, returning a moment later with a pale pink bud in her hand. "For you." She tucked the stem into the weave of his sweater, like a boutonniere.

He touched the soft, warm petals. "It's lovely. Thank you."

"It doesn't have much scent yet," she confessed. "I'll get you a better one, later in the season."

"It's early for roses," he consoled her, and looked beyond, at the sundrenched terrace. "I wish, just once, we could stand out there together," he added wistfully. "In the sun."

Her flaring burst of longing was swiftly squelched. "So do I," she admitted sadly. "But at least we can share this." She fingered the rosebud on his chest.

"And we can stand here together and see spring coming to the trees, hear the birds, feel the soft breeze." As they had done each spring for the past forty years.

She nodded agreement and tucked herself under his arm. "Of course we can."

Vincent could have stood there forever with his cheek against Catherine's hair, watching the sun glinting on newly opened leaves swaying in the breeze, but after a while she stirred.

"Joe called this morning," she said. "He sounded lonely so I invited him for dinner."

"Joe's a fine man," Vincent answered.

She shot him a curious look. "Yes, he is."

"And Elliot."

"Elliot, too, but we're not having him for dinner. He can go to Charles and Liz's if he's lonely." A small frown of puzzlement marred her face. "What are you trying to say, Vincent?"

"We aren't as young as we once were," he pointed out.

"You don't need to remind me," she answered. "My mirror does that, every morning."

He kissed her hair. "You're lovely."

"Even now, with my hair gone gray and the rest of me wrinkled and sagging?" she asked wryly.

"'When you have loved as she has loved, you grow old beautifully,'" he said softly, quoting Somerset Maugham. "I don't see those things."

She smiled and kissed his chin. "I know you don't. What does all of this have to do with Joe and Elliot? Who are also getting older."

"If something should ever happen to me..."

Her arms around him tightened convulsively. "Nothing's going to happen."

"Catherine," he reproved, gently. "None of us are immortal. If something should happen to me, I want your promise."

He could feel the resistance in her. "What?"

"That you will keep yourself open to possibilities."

"Possibilities?" she echoed, in horror. "You mean like Joe? Or Elliot?"

"Please. It's important to me. That you not shut yourself away."

"You're being silly," she said emphatically. Denial flared through their connection. "I'll probably go first, anyway. I've already outlived both my parents."

"Didn't you have a great-grandmother who lived to be ninety-seven?"

She nodded reluctantly. "My mother's grandmother."

"You could have many years before you, Catherine."

"And I want to spend them with you. Not with Joe. Or Elliot."

"I want that, too," he admitted, and did not tell her of his growing belief that it was not to be.

 

That same afternoon, Vincent was reading when Kate came in from the alcove where the toys were kept. Her face was a study of unhappiness.

At the other end of the couch, Catherine looked up from her own book. "What's the matter?"

If Kate's lower lip had drooped any more, she'd have tripped on it. "The boys are building a castle," she complained. "With the blocks."

"Won't they let you help?" Vincent asked.

Kate sighed theatrically. "They would," she admitted, "but I don't want to. Blocks are boring."

"Why don't you play with Jennifer?" Catherine suggested. Jennifer was Kate's doll, and a beloved companion.

Kate sighed again. "Jennifer's lonely," she said. "She doesn't have any friends."

"I thought you were her friend," Vincent said.

Kate scowled at him. "I'm her mommy. I think Jennifer needs a sister, but Mommy says I can't have another doll until Winterfest. That's months away from now."

"Yes, it is," Catherine agreed solemnly. "But you know what? I think I might be able to help."

Kate brightened visibly. "Really? Can we go to the store, right now, and pick out a new doll?"

"No. I don't think your parents would like that very much," Catherine said, and Kate's face fell. "But if your grandfather helps, I think I can solve your problem."

She stood up and waited while Vincent got to his feet. It was a more involved process than it used to be. His body, which used to feel light and powerful, now felt heavy and clumsy. Standing was more effort than he allowed Catherine to know.

In the basement, she pointed to a trio of cardboard cartons on a high shelf. "What I'm looking for is in one of those," she said, "but I can't remember which one."

"You want them down so you can look," he guessed, and she smiled and nodded her reply.

"Catherine, those cartons have been there for years," he pointed out. "Look at the dust."

"I know. They came from my apartment. They're the ones I want."

As an explanation, it wasn't much, but it was evidently all he was going to get. He reached overhead for the first box and lifted it down. Catherine knelt beside it, brushed away the years' accumulation of dust, and delved inside.

What she looked for wasn't there. Patiently Vincent put the carton back and reached for the next one.

He didn't think the second box was actually heavier, but it felt that way. The once powerful muscles across his back and shoulders burned with effort.

"I'm sorry, Vincent," Catherine apologized, after looking through it. "It must be in the last one."

He nodded and picked up the carton, holding it against his chest as he gathered his strength. The effort required to lift it smoothly and push it into place on the shelf brought a sudden flush of perspiration to his forehead and the back of his neck. He paused, breathing deeply, before taking hold of the final box.

He got it down and leaned against the wall while Catherine and Kate bent over it. Catherine dug for a moment and gave a small cry of satisfaction as she removed a roughly cylindrical object wrapped in a yellowed shawl.

Tenderly, she unwrapped the shawl; inside was a doll. "She's pretty, Gran!" Kate cried in delight. "Can I hold her?"

"You may." Catherine passed the doll over with a care similar to that with which she treated a small child. Kate accepted the doll with equal care, cradling it against her heart.

"What's her name?" she whispered.

"I called her Adele," Catherine answered, "but that's old fashioned now. You can change it, if you like."

Kate looked up in astonishment. "You mean, she's mine?"

"If you want her." Catherine's smile was wistful. "I always hoped I'd have a little girl who would love her as much as I did, but your mother never liked to play with dolls."

"I do," Kate reminded her. "Oh, thank you, Gran! I'll take care of her, I promise. I'll call her Addie. That way she can still be Adele, but not sound so old." She started toward the stairs, calling back over her shoulder. "I have to show Jennifer her new sister!"

"You've made her very happy," Vincent said, watching Catherine rearrange the items remaining in the box before closing the flaps.

The brief rest gave him hope that he could restore the box to its place on the shelf, but as he lifted it above shoulder height, his strength failed. The box wobbled and he tried to bring it down, to pull it against his chest and regain control. It was too heavy, too awkward. It twisted out of his grip, striking his shoulder heavily on the way down. Something inside shattered when it hit the cement floor, and he tried to gasp words of apology, of regret.

Catherine was beside him, steadying him. "Vincent? Are you all right?" She shook him, and he blinked hard to clear whatever was clouding his vision. His brow was damp with perspiration and his lungs couldn't draw in enough air.

Catherine's concern escalated into alarm. He knew it, felt it keenly, but was helpless to reassure her. It required all his strength to simply remain standing.

Her arms were around him, her own frail body holding him up. "It's all right," he heard her say, though he knew she didn't believe it. "It's going to be all right. Just rest a minute. You're going to be okay."

She might have been comforting a child with a scraped knee. The idea made him want to smile, but he didn't have the energy. Not yet. But his breathing was slowing and the trembling was gone from his arms and legs.

Catherine looked up, peering desperately into his face. "Are you all right?"

He managed a nod. "Give me a moment," he gasped out. "To catch my breath."

She nodded, obviously frightened, and then cocked her head. Vincent listened hard, but could hear nothing beyond the harsh sound of his own breathing. "Carey and Vicky are home," she said. "I heard them come in. Will you be all right if I leave you for a moment?"

He nodded again, reaching behind to brace himself with the wall. She hurried across the basement and was back a moment later with Carey and Vicky in tow. They looked apprehensive, but already he'd regained enough strength to stand on his own, to offer a reassuring smile.

Carey relaxed, but Vicky scowled, looking remarkably like her son when she did so. "Let me in," she demanded.

"Victoria," he began, keeping his voice low, husbanding his meager reserves.

"I mean it, Daddy," she said, her very presence commanding. "Right now. I want to see if you're really okay."

She did mean it, that much was clear. He could keep her out, of course. After thirty years, it was so automatic that the effort it required was next to nothing, but Vicky was persistent. She could wear him down in other ways. And besides, his very refusal was an admission. Slowly, reluctantly, he lowered his empathic barriers and let her touch him.

She caught her breath, and quick tears sprang to her eyes. "Oh, Daddy," she whispered, and put her arms around him.

He hugged her gently and kissed her hair. "I'm all right, Tinkerbell," he murmured. "I'm just not young anymore."

"No," she agreed sadly. "You aren't."

 

Catherine called Charles. "Dr. Sam will be here as soon as she's done at the hospital," he said briskly, when he arrived. "Tell me what happened."

"It's nothing, Charles," Vincent said from the chair in the bedroom. He'd steadfastly resisted Catherine's attempts to put him to bed.

"It's not nothing," she countered swiftly. "He nearly collapsed. He seemed to have trouble with his breathing, his balance. He dropped a box that I could have lifted if I was a little younger. Now I think he has a fever."

Charles folded his arms and leaned against the dresser. "That hardly sounds insignificant, Father," he chided. "Don't you think an examination is in order?"

Carey had taken the children off to play, but the members of the family here - Charles, Catherine, and Vicky - were all giving Vincent implacably stubborn looks.

He sighed. "All right, Charles. You may examine me." Brushing off anxious efforts to help him, he pushed himself to his feet and began unlacing his vest. Vicky discreetly vanished, closing the door behind her.

He could ask Catherine to leave, but he wasn't certain she'd go; though she put on a brave front, she was clearly worried about him. He stripped to his trousers and Charles began to poke and prod.

"Are you finding anything?" Catherine asked after a while.

Charles removed the stethoscope from Vincent's chest and added a careful note to a growing list. "I don't know yet." He offered a wry smile. "Too many years in research have eroded my diagnostic skills."

A knock on the door heralded Samantha's arrival. She breezed in wearing a white lab coat and greeted Catherine with a hug and Vincent with an affectionate kiss before plunking herself down beside him on the bed. Charles handed her the record he'd made of his examination.

"Hmmm. Temp's slightly elevated; rales in the left lung..." she trailed off, reading silently to herself. Finally she put the makeshift chart down, frowning, and put a cool hand to Vincent's forehead.

"Very clinical, Doctor," Charles teased her.

"He's awfully warm. Vincent, how do you feel?" She fixed him with a steely, brown-eyed look. "And don't tell me 'fine.'"

"I feel chilled," he admitted. "Breathing is more difficult than usual. I tire easily."

"Catherine said you had trouble with your balance?"

He shook his head. "No. I had trouble standing because my legs were suddenly very weak."

"I'm not surprised," she answered. "Do you need help getting into your nightclothes?"

"I'm not going to bed."

"Yes, you are. You're sick."

"Vincent never gets sick," Catherine protested. "Never."

"I know," Samantha answered. "But he's sick now."

 

Charles helped him into his nightshirt and leggings and pulled back the covers on the bed. Vincent wanted to protest, but Catherine was watching him, her expression a mixture of implacable firmness and outright terror. Sparing her more distress seemed the important thing now, so he lay back reluctantly and allowed her to smooth the quilt over his chest.

Samantha approached with a needle and some small glass tubes. "Give me your arm, Vincent," she instructed. "I want to get some blood." She glanced over her shoulder at Charles. "You can do the lab work, can't you?"

"Sure," he agreed, his voice sounding faintly unsettled. "Samantha?"

She paused and looked at him expectantly.

"Get a couple extra for me, would you?"

 

Samantha's tentative diagnosis was bronchitis. "I don't want to give him any medication right now," she told Catherine. "We don't know how he'd react. He needs lots of rest, lots of fluids. I'll come by tomorrow to check on him."

Sometimes, he had a hard time seeing Samantha as the competent doctor she was; he kept remembering her at twelve, quarrelling with Geoffrey or charming Father. When she turned a speculative gaze his way, he returned it sternly.

She grinned back, undaunted. "Father always said you were a terrible patient," she told him.

"Do you think I should stay?" Charles asked. "In case?"

"I don't see the need," Samantha answered. "I'm sure Catherine and Vicky will take good care of him. Besides, I want you to get busy on that blood work."

Despite his protests to the contrary, the day's activity had tired him and Vincent slumped back on the pillows while Catherine saw Charles and Samantha out. Catherine was back a moment later, though, seating herself gingerly on the bed beside him, stroking his brow with her hand.

"Don't worry, Catherine. I'll be fine."

The little pucker between her eyebrows didn't go away. "You've never been truly sick. Not in all the years I've known you."

He managed a smile. "There's always a first time."

She gave him a wan smile. "Can I get you anything? Some juice?"

There was a little refrigerator in the alcove, put there a few years ago when Catherine decided they were too old to trot downstairs every time one of them wanted a cold drink. It was stocked, he knew, with fruit juice for the children.

He nodded. "Some pineapple juice. But first..."

She paused expectantly. "Yes?"

"A kiss."

Her smile broadened, and much of the anxiety slipped away. She leaned forward and pressed her lips against the corner of his mouth. "I love you, Vincent."

 

He sipped some chilled pineapple juice, then took a nap, quite against his will. When he woke, Vicky was beside him, reading. She looked up when he stirred.

"Am I so ill? That I must be watched?" he demanded.

"I don't think so," she told him. "But Mom does. She wouldn't go downstairs to eat unless I promised to sit with you. She should be back soon. Do you need anything?"

"No." He lay back and, after observing him a moment, Vicky returned to her book.

The nap didn't seem to have helped. He felt worse now than before. He was chilled, and ached all over.

"Victoria."

She looked up quickly. "Yes, Daddy? Do you need something?"

"Just the answer to a question."

"If I know it," she temporized.

"Is it usual to feel so badly," he asked, hearing the plaintive note in his voice but unable to prevent it, "when one is ill?"

He hadn't known it was possible to look simultaneously alarmed and amused, but Vicky managed. "I don't know. How bad do you feel?"

In answer, he opened their connection to let her experience it for herself. "Hmmm," she said, absorbing what he gave her. She laid a hand on his forehead. "Drawing strictly on my experience as a former sick person, I'd say you're mostly feeling the fever. Do any of the common fever reducers work for you?"

"It's been years since I had fever," he told her stiffly, and groaned as his aching body protested a shift in position.

"Don't evade the question," she instructed sternly. "Have you ever taken aspirin? Or Tylenol?"

"Aspirin gives me a headache," he said, and was rewarded by her incredulous smile.

"You're kidding."

"No. It truly does. But I can take Tylenol. Father used to give it to me sometimes..." He trailed off. A recital of the times he'd needed a pain reliever might frighten her.

"We have some," she told him. "I'll get it." She went into the bathroom and returned with two red-and-yellow coated tablets in her hand.

Catherine came in as he was settling back into his pillows.

Vicky murmured an excuse and went out; Catherine took her place in the chair. "You're awake," she said softly. "How do you feel?" As Vicky had done, she laid a diagnostic hand on his forehead.

"Victoria tells me my symptoms are typical of this kind of illness," he said. "She gave me Tylenol for my fever."

Catherine frowned. "Was that wise? Samantha said..."

"I've used it before," he interrupted, reassuring her. "Long ago. It's effective, and I suffer no side effects."

"You should feel better soon, then," she told him. "You always read to me when I'm sick. Shall I read to you?"

She looked so earnest, so tender, that he wanted to smile. Instead, he nodded. "Please."

"Do you have a preference? Or shall I choose something?"

"The Maze in the Heart of the Castle," he answered.

She frowned. "What?"

"The book I want. It's called The Maze in the Heart of the Castle."

"I never heard of it."

"It's in the study. In the children's section, on one of the middle shelves. The spine is black."

She went through the door that led to the alcove, which in turn opened onto the study, and returned a moment later with the book in her hand. "I haven't seen this before," she commented. "Where'd we get it?"

"Devin gave it to Evan for Winterfest one year. It's the book Evan always wanted me to read when he was sick."

She read the blurb on the dust jacket. "Haunted castle? Wizard? Even a maze. Sounds fascinating."

"It's a tale of high adventure." It was also a tale of grief, and of overcoming that grief, but he would let her see that for herself. He turned on his side and adjusted the pillows so that he could watch her face. "Go ahead."

*"'Colin was sixteen, a golden boy, when his mother and father died, both on the same day. Some said it was by a magic spell...'"

He loved listening to her, the rhythm and flow of her voice; he loved watching the expression on her face change with the mood of the book. Her very presence soothed him. After a while, he floated to sleep on a sea of words.

 

After three days, he'd made only marginal progress in his recovery. Enforced bed rest made him feel stronger, but his chest was still congested and his fever soared without medication.

With Charles assisting, Samantha examined him again, more rigorously this time. She brought portable machines along to measure virtually all his bodily functions and carried away samples of most of his body's fluids.

"I've been studying your old medical records," she said before she left. "It looks like Father did find some antibiotics you could tolerate. I'm going to leave you some."

Catherine, who had scarcely left his side the past three days, ensured that he swallowed the innocuous-looking capsules faithfully. By the time Charles and Samantha returned a few days later with the results of the tests, he was feeling better. Enough better that, over Catherine's half-hearted protests, he had dressed and was reading in the study for the first time in a week.

He and Catherine were the only ones home. Carey and Vicky had taken the children Below, to a marionette show of, improbably enough, Great Expectations.

Charles and Samantha refused Catherine's offer of something to drink; to Vincent, each was clearly disturbed, though Catherine seemed unaware of it. They glanced at one another uneasily.

"Say it, Charles," Vincent advised his son. "There is no way to ease it."

Charles slumped on the edge of one of the big chairs, elbows on knees and hands knotted in front of him, and studied his fingers with inordinate interest. He needed a haircut and his shirt collar was rucked up on one side. Vincent wondered if that was a product of the news he was about to deliver, or just the result of Elizabeth's month-long absence on a dig in Spain.

Beside him, Catherine stirred restlessly and slid her hand into his. "Tell us, Charles," she urged.

Charles lifted his head, unable to hide the sorrow in his eyes; Catherine's grip tightened on Vincent's hand. "You're dying, Father."

Catherine quivered slightly, but curiously little response reached him through their bond.

Vincent nodded slowly. Charles's words only confirmed what he'd already instinctively known.

His calm acceptance encouraged Charles to speak more freely. "It's not any one thing," he explained. "Your body's systems are shutting down, all at once. Your heart rate's down, your pulmonary capacity is diminished..."

"His heart rate's always been abnormally slow," Catherine said. Grasping at straws, Vincent knew.

"We know that, Mother," Charles answered gently. "Last time we examined him, eight years ago, it was twenty-nine beats per minute. Now it's down to twenty-four. His respiration is up. With the decreased heart function, he's not getting enough oxygen. That's why he gets so tired. And look at his immune system. That's obviously failing, or he never would have gotten sick. His muscle tissue is breaking down; there are signs his kidneys are failing."

"But why?" she whispered. "Why now and all at once?"

"Charles thinks he has the answer to that," Samantha said.

Charles nodded. "It's the gene. You know, I've learned a lot about it since I isolated it..."

"Yes," Vincent encouraged him. "I know."

"There are lots of theories on aging," Charles began. "And none of them are proven yet. But one of the more popular ones is that we're all genetically programmed to die. After a while, we just wear out. In humans, it seems to happen slowly. Over decades. But in some species, the Pacific salmon, for example, it happens much more quickly. That's what I think is happening to you."

"My genetic program has triggered these changes in my body?" Vincent asked.

"I believe so."

"Is there any way to reverse the process?" Catherine asked, her voice little more than a whisper. "Stop it?"

Charles shook his head slowly. "I can't even isolate the process yet, Mother. So, no. There's not."

 

Later, in bed, Vincent braced himself on one elbow and leaned over her. Her face, lit only by the pale moonlight streaming in the french doors, was indistinct to him now, but it didn't matter. He knew it as intimately as he knew his own hand.

He touched her cheek and she turned her head to kiss his palm. "I love you, Vincent." Her murmur was low, heartfelt, suffused with grief and shock.

"I know." He smoothed her hair back and kissed her. She answered his kiss gently, but when his hand drifted down, touching her, she stiffened.

"No, Vincent," she whispered. "Please."

He drew his hand back instantly. "What is it?"

She shook her head. "You're ill," she reminded him, and looked away.

He laid his palm against her cheek and brought her back to face him. "If you truly do not wish it, you know you have only to say so," he said softly. "But I am not so ill that I cannot love you. That I do not wish to love you."

He wondered what she saw as she gazed at him through the silvered darkness, and then she brought her mouth to his and there was no more thought.

 

The news spread quickly. Soon every member of the tunnel community, all the helpers, and even the few friends who were neither, like Joe Maxwell and Elliot Burch, knew of his illness. Vincent found his friends regarded him differently now, springing to assist him when once they would have enlisted his help.

And Catherine. Catherine wanted, he knew, to restructure her life around him, to spend every moment, waking and asleep, by his side, but he wouldn't allow it. When he was gone, she would need the comfort of a life, a rhythm, a routine. She would need her friends.

And so they compromised. Mornings were spent together. Afternoons, he went Below and Catherine went out. Sometimes she met a friend for lunch. Other times, she went by the small office she and Vicky shared with two other part-time attorneys, doing pro bono work. Always, she hurried home for dinner.

Their evenings were sometimes spent alone, but more often they were joined by Charles, and Elizabeth, who was home now from Spain, or by Carey and Vicky. Joe Maxwell dropped in at least once a week. Even Elliot Burch, whose relationship with Vincent was one of guarded respect, made excuses to visit.

 

It was dark when he woke, the moon's pale light gone from the night sky. Something was wrong and it took only an instant to identify it.

He had no sense of Catherine.

She was always his first awareness upon waking, and now she was gone, utterly and completely. He put out his hand and found she was absent from their bed, as well.

He paused long enough to pull on his socks, because it would upset her if he wandered about the house barefoot. He padded into the hall and stopped there, listening, trying to locate her and trying harder not to fear that this severing of their bond was permanent - a result of his illness. A soft, muffled sound told him where she was and he turned toward the study.

She had drawn the drapes back from one tall window and stood before it, arms crossed as she hugged herself, rocking slightly. He approached silently, not wanting to disturb her if she was merely lost in thought. The soft sound reached him again, and he realized she was crying.

A faint wash of peach colored light came from a streetlamp down the block; its glow was enough for him to see the gleam of silent tears.

He paused uncertainly; she didn't see him and she wouldn't have crept so silently from their bed if she hadn't wished to hide her pain. Her breath caught in a painful half-sob, deciding him.

"Catherine." His voice was low, pitched so as to barely carry across the space between them, but still she jumped. She choked back a sob and ducked her head, swiping furtively at her cheeks.

"Vincent. I didn't hear you come in." Something about the way she stood, half turned from him, kept him from approaching her.

"Are you all right?" he asked, feeling faintly awkward without the bond to guide him.

She nodded, too vigorously. "I'm fine. Really."

"You've been crying." He stated the obvious, hoping it would trigger a confidence. "Catherine, I am not so old nor so frail that I cannot listen to what's troubling you."

"No." Her stance was rigid, unforgiving, her breathing harsh and unsteady.

"I don't know how to help you, Catherine," he pleaded. "I don't know what you're feeling."

She looked at him then, a quick, furtive glance that spoke of surprise.

"Our bond. It's gone now." He paused; she seemed to be listening, though she didn't speak. "I miss it," he finished softly.

She flinched. "I'm sorry, Vincent," she whispered, and a breath of that sorrow touched him briefly before fading away. "I never meant..."

The shock staggered him. It was Catherine. Not his illness at all.

He reached out blindly, catching her arm and turning her toward him. "Don't," he pleaded. "Don't shut me out."

She tried unsuccessfully to extricate herself from his grasp. "Please, Vincent," she whispered. "Please. Let me go."

Stung, he released her. She moved away and stood trembling before the window. Even without their connection, he felt her pain. "Catherine. Don't do this. Let me help you."

She rocked herself silently, giving the impression of one fighting a fierce inner battle. "Oh, Vincent," she burst out, finally. "I'm so ashamed."

He stared at her, too astonished to move. "Ashamed?" he repeated. "You?"

She nodded miserably and he quelled an impulse to go to her. "Why?"

She was a long time answering. "I have been... so angry."

"Angry," he repeated. She'd never, by word or action, given any sign. There'd only been the gradual, intermittent dimming of their bond. He'd put it down to his illness, but now he knew better. "At me."

She nodded. "As if you were doing it on purpose. As if you had a choice."

"Catherine..." She flinched and he stopped.

"Don't. Don't be kind. Don't be forgiving. What I've been feeling isn't fair to you, Vincent. Be hurt. Be angry with me, too."

He watched her standing there, an indistinct blur in the shadows of the room, and spread his hands helplessly. "I can't."

A shudder swept her, shaking her in violent tremors visible even in this murky light. He went to her, and as he brought her against his heart, she melted against him. Once he would have lifted her into his arms. Now he simply guided her to the nearest chair and drew her into his lap.

He stroked her back and kissed her hair while she wept. She murmured something, so low he had to bend his head to catch it. It was his name, and she was repeating it over and over.

"Hush," he soothed, rocking her. "I'm here. I won't let you go."

At last the storm subsided and she was left trembling but breathing quietly, both hands clutching his shirt. He no longer wondered what troubled her; their bond had sprung back to life when he'd touched her, flooding him with overwhelming grief.

"What will I do?" she asked now, her face still buried against his chest. "Without you. You've been a part of me for so long. How can I be without you?"

He felt her desolation, her sense of loss, and pressed a kiss into her hair. "You're strong," he told her. "You're the strongest person I've ever known, did you know that?"

She made a sound that was half-sob, half-laugh, and shook her head.

"You are. You can do anything you choose to do, Catherine. I know you."

"I can't. Not this."

"Yes, you can. You won't be alone. You'll have our children. Our grandchildren. Your friends."

"I won't have you."

"You will. Do you think I could ever truly leave you? I'll be here, Catherine, in your heart. For always."

There was a long silence and he could sense her thinking about that, imagining it. "I know," she admitted at last, and he tactfully ignored the trembling in her voice.

"Why were you here? By yourself?" he asked instead.

It was a long moment before she answered. "I didn't want you to know."

"How much you hurt?"

She nodded; he felt the movement of her head against his chest.

"I already know," he said gently. "Even without our bond. Because I know how it would hurt if I were the one left behind."

 

Carey began walking down in the late afternoons, meeting Vincent and Ian halfway, but even with his help, the journey was becoming increasingly impossible for Vincent's failing body.

He gave up his afternoon poetry class and began taking naps instead. At last came a day when he knew he could make the trip no longer.

Carey helped him upstairs and onto the bed that last afternoon and pulled off his boots so he could rest. He was still lying there when Catherine came home.

"Kate tells me I have to be quiet so you can rest," she greeted him. She bent to kiss him before sitting on the edge of the bed and taking his hand. "Are you all right?"

He spent a moment just gazing at her in the waning rays of afternoon sun, knowing he would never do so again. "When I go down tomorrow," he told her finally, "it will be for the last time."

 

Much later, she lay beside him, breathing quietly. He knew she didn't sleep, though it was late, and reached for her hand in the darkness.

She laced her fingers with his and squeezed. "Forty years we've slept together in this bed," she murmured. "It's hard to believe we'll never sleep in it again."

"We'll have nights together Below," he reminded her. "In my chamber. We've spent many nights together there, as well."

She released a soft sigh of reluctant assent. "I'm thinking about looking for an apartment," she said presently. "After."

He wanted to roll toward her, to look into her face, but lacked both the strength and the agility. Instead, he turned his head on the pillow. "You love this house," he said. "It's your home."

"It's been my home, but I'm not sure I can bear to sleep here by myself," she admitted. "I think I might be more comfortable someplace else. Someplace neutral."

"And leave all the memories behind?"

"I wouldn't be losing them, Vincent. Vicky and Carey would be here. I could come whenever I wanted. Besides," her voice dropped so he could scarcely hear it. "My memories will be with me wherever I go."

Now he did turn on his side, slow lumbering process that it was. When he was settled, she came to him, putting her arms around his body and burying her face in his neck. He held her close, until at last, sleep claimed her.

 

Vincent's chamber had changed little since his youth. The books were more varied, and took up more space, even spilling onto the floor in the corners. His mantel held a row of small bottles, each one containing soil, sand, or silt from a far away place. The bed was wider, to more easily hold two people, and on the shelf beside it stood a framed photograph, taken by Evan, of their family.

He and Catherine settled quickly into life Below. Catherine chose to wear the clothing of his world here, something she had not done for years, and he thought of how much more they suited her now, than when she was young.

Without the long journey twice a day, he had more energy. His mornings were spent teaching literature to the older children. In the afternoons, his grandsons came to visit; more often than not, Kate joined them after school. The evenings generally brought one or more of his children, or old friends like Pascal and Joe Maxwell.

The nights were for Catherine. His nights had always been for Catherine. She would bring him his nightclothes and turn her back so as not to see how his hands trembled when he worked the fastenings on his clothes, or notice how often he had to stop to rest. When he was changed, she brushed his heavy mane free of tangles.

Sometimes, as they lay together in the light of a single candle, her defenses broke down and she wept. Those nights he gathered her close and stroked her hair.

"My Catherine," he murmured one night, and felt her smile through her tears.

"You so seldom call me that," she whispered.

"Do you mind?"

"Of course not. I like belonging to you. It makes me feel... honored."

"My Catherine," he repeated, softly. "Don't you know? The honor has always been mine..."

"I've often thought," she said, "that it should be my epitaph."

"What? 'My Catherine'?" he teased.

She lifted her head from the pillow and quoted softly:

 

Twas my one glory

Let it be

Remembered

I was owned of Thee.

 

He recognized the quote. "Emily Dickinson."

"Yes."

"You mean that. Truly."

She turned her face up to him in the dim, guttering light of the chamber's single candle. Her eyes were shining with infinite love. "Emily knew everything," she told him. "Yes, I mean it."

 

He woke only slowly, sluggishly. His eyelids seemed too heavy to lift. Someone somewhere moaned softly, as if in pain. In the bed beside him, Catherine stirred, and he sensed her bending over him, felt her hand on his arm.

"Vincent?" She whispered it low, in his ear. "Are you all right?"

He could sense her distress, but try as he might, he couldn't force his sluggish body to respond. And then he must have slept, because when he came to awareness again, his children were there. He could sense their worry, their grief. With a supreme effort, he opened his eyes to find them pressed close around the bed. Charles's was the first face he saw, smiling sadly.

"My son," he managed, his voice weak and thready. His gaze moved to include them all. "My children. I love you all. So much."

He closed his eyes, husbanding his meager strength. Breathing was painful now, each breath an effort. "Where's your mother?"

"She's right here," Jacob answered.

"I want... to be with her."

"Of course," Charles answered smoothly. "She can sit with you."

Charles bent to press a filial kiss against his brow. "Goodbye, Father," he whispered in a voice intended for no one else to hear. "I love you."

One by one his children - by birth and by marriage - kissed him.

Jacob's goodbye was wordless, choked by grief, but eloquent nonetheless as he squeezed Vincent's hand.

Vicky wept softly and he lifted a hand to touch her cheek. "Don't cry, Victoria," he managed. "I've had a good life."

She sniffled. "I know, Daddy. I love you."

The children filed out and Catherine took up her now-customary place in the chair beside the bed, taking his hand and pressing it to her cheek.

Words were not necessary between them. They simply gazed at one another, until, quite against his will, his eyes drifted shut.

 

"Vincent."

He didn't recognize the voice. It was low-pitched, but somehow insistent and reluctantly he opened his eyes. The chamber was quiet, lit by only a few fat candles. Catherine sat beside him, cradling his hand in both of hers.

"Vincent. It's time."

"What?" He thought he asked it aloud, but Catherine didn't stir. She looked tired, her face drawn with the certainty of impending sorrow. He wanted to reach up, to touch her, but his hand wouldn't respond.

"Vincent," the voice said, more urgently. "You must come. Now."

"I can't leave Catherine. She needs me."

"She's strong, Vincent. You know that, better than anyone. Catherine will continue. Come."

He rose obediently, unsurprised that his body obeyed him so easily; after all, it always had. He paused in the doorway to look back.

Catherine still sat in her chair, holding his hand. Her head was bowed, and she was weeping. He started back, but the voice checked him.

"You cannot help her now."

"Not even to say goodbye?"

"No, Vincent," the voice said kindly. "You must come now. They're waiting."

"Who? Who's waiting?" He lingered in the entry; Catherine knew, already, that he had left her.

"Your father. Your brother. Your son. Your daughter. Your friends."

He swung toward the voice, astonished. "Father? Devin and Evan. And baby Rose."

"Yes. All waiting."

He couldn't forget Catherine, but the voice was right; he couldn't help her now. For the last time, he stepped through the narrow adit.

Instead of the passage outside his chamber, he found himself in Father's Study. His surviving children were gathered there. As he watched, Vicky gave a small cry of despair and crumpled into her husband's arms.

"He's gone," Charles said, half-questioning.

"Yes," Carey affirmed, and bowed his head.

Amanda and Jacob turned to each other; Elizabeth moved behind Charles's chair and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, bending to press her cheek to his.

"Come," the voice said. "We must go."

Vincent hesitated. "You're certain they'll be all right?" he asked the voice.

"Quite certain," said the voice.

"But how can I be sure?" Vincent argued. "I have to be sure."

"Come," the voice told him. "I'll show you."

The space before him misted and shifted, dissolving into new shapes, new angles of light. Vincent stood now in a corner of the study. Catherine was there, visibly older, more tired. The grandchildren gathered around her had changed, too. They'd grown. Ian had his front teeth back now, while Kate had gaps where hers used to be. Daniel's hair was longer, tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong.

His children were there, too. His family, together. Without him.

"I miss Grandfather," Kate said sadly.

"We all miss him," Daniel pointed out. "But we can make him alive again when we remember him, can't we, Gran?"

Catherine smiled at him fondly. "Yes, Daniel," she said softly. "We can. I remember him every day."

"What do you remember, Gran?" Kate asked.

"Things we did together. Things he said. Sometimes I remember what he looked like."

"I remember his stories," Ian said. "He told the best stories."

"You know his stories, though, don't you, Gran?" Daniel asked.

"I know some of them," she answered. "Not all."

"Tell us one you know," Daniel urged.

"One with Grandfather in it," Kate added. "From the olden days before my mom was born."

Across the room, Vicky smiled.

"All right," Catherine agreed, and waited as they settled themselves to listen. "Have you ever heard the story of how your grandfather and I met?"

The grown children exchanged knowing glances; the grandchildren shook their heads. "Tell us."

Catherine drew in a deep breath and her face softened with tenderness, and memory. "Once upon a time," she began, "in the city of New York..."

 

God's finger touched him, and he slept.

- Tennyson

 

 


*Excerpt is from "The Maze in the Heart of the Castle," by Dorothy Gilman.

The End, of the story, of the 'zine, and of the series. Thank you for reading!