Love is the most terrible, and also the most generous of the passions; it is the only one that includes in its dreams the happiness of someone else.

- J.A. Karr

Dates of Birth

Charles Vincent Chandler January 6, 1991

Jacob Winslow Chandler August 18, 1994

Evan Joseph Chandler October 11, 1996

Victoria Catherine Chandler September 16, 1997

Carey Allen Wells May 11, 1997


AT THE DARK'S EDGE

*August 1991*

 

"You look like hell, Radcliffe."

Catherine looked up slowly to find Joe Maxwell scowling at her and smiled wanly. "Gee, thanks, Joe. You sure know how to brighten a person's afternoon."

He ignored her attempt at their usual banter. "I mean it, Cathy. You look awful." Leaning across the desk, he put a hand to her cheek. "You have a fever," he accused.

"It's just a cold, Joe," she said defensively. "I'm okay."

Joe didn't look skeptical; he looked flatly disbelieving. "I can hear your cough all the way from my office," he said bluntly, coming around her desk and pulling her to her feet. "You shouldn't have tried to come back so soon. Come on, you're going home."

"Joe, I can't," she objected reflexively. As usual, there was more to do than hands to do it and she was swamped with paperwork.

"Cathy, you're sick. Probably contagious as hell," Joe countered. "The work will get done; it always does. I want you to go home and go to bed. Don't come in tomorrow. You hear me?" He found her purse and thrust it into her hands. "Go home," he repeated sternly.

"All right." Catherine capitulated. Her cold seemed to have taken a sudden turn for the worse; she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt this bad. "Thank you, Joe."

Outside, the August heat was soothing, warming her as she waved for a cab and climbed in; the ride home seemed to take only minutes. Once inside the brownstone, she swallowed some aspirin and crawled into bed.

*I must have a fever*, she thought, *or I wouldn't be so cold.* Shivering, she burrowed under the covers. Her head ached and her chest was starting to hurt.

*If I don't feel better tomorrow, I'll go to the doctor*, she promised herself hazily, and fell asleep.

 

"Vincent, get the other end of that beam, will you?" Quinn asked. When there was no response, he turned. "Vincent? You okay?"

At the touch on his arm, Vincent shook himself free of his troubled thoughts and met the solicitous eyes of his friend. "Yes, Quinn, I'm fine," he answered.

"Sure? For a minute there, you were miles away."

Vincent forced a small smile. "Not that far," he said.

Quinn grinned. "Catherine?"

"Yes," Vincent acknowledged. He reached for the end of the stout timber at his feet, lifting it over his head and holding it steady while Quinn propped upright supports at each end and used a sledgehammer to drive them into place. When he finished, the crossbeam was held fast between the fractured rock ceiling and the heavy uprights.

There were seven workers here - Kanin, Mouse, Matthew, Owen, Timothy, Quinn, and Vincent - all intent on their task; shoring up this section of tunnel before it collapsed on someone's head. Sometimes the disturbances caused by construction in the city above created fractures in the rock. When the fractures were many, and came too near one of the passages Below, a hazard was formed. If a passage was remote and little used, it was simply sealed off, but this particular tunnel was a major path to the northern part of the city. Doing without it would cause undue hardship to those who travelled this way, so, after much discussion and planning, not to mention scrounging of materials, the walls and ceiling for a forty-foot stretch were being heavily reinforced.

Vincent turned to the next beam and waited for Quinn to signal for it.

"Is she feeling better?" the other man asked over his shoulder.

Vincent, lost in thought once more, only half heard the words. "I beg your pardon?"

"Catherine. Earlier in the week, you said she was sick. Is she better?"

Vincent rested one booted foot on the beam and sighed. "It's difficult to tell," he confessed. "I know she's been uncomfortable, but she insists it is only a cold, or perhaps the flu."

Quinn grinned. "You don't know how fortunate you are to have never experienced the common cold, Vincent," he said lightly. "She probably aches, can't breathe properly and feels generally miserable."

Vincent managed a smile. "I'm sure that's it," he agreed. "Only..."

"Only, what?"

"She insisted on going to work this morning, but I believe she's home now, and she seems... confused," he said. "It troubles me."

"If she's home sleeping, it's probably the best thing for her, Vincent," Quinn told him. "We're going to run out of spikes in about half-an-hour, and you can go see how she's doing."

"Yes," Vincent agreed, turning back to the work. In little more than the predicted half-hour, Quinn drove the last of the giant nails that held the massive beams together.

"Getting close to quittin' time, anyway," Kanin grinned after they'd set their tools aside and started the long walk home. Filthy from the shower of fine rock dust that constantly rained down from the damaged ceiling, they headed straight for the bathing chambers.

Vincent hesitated, reaching out along the bond to Catherine. He found her sleeping, and decided to take time to wash before going home to her.

 

Catherine woke from feverishly vivid dreams, disoriented and childishly wanting comfort. "Daddy?" she called weakly. She lay still, trying to organize her incoherent thoughts. "Vincent? I need you." As she mumbled the words, a deep, harsh cough that tore at her lungs. When no one came, she pushed herself up on the pillows and looked toward the windows. *Of course*, she thought in confusion. *It's still daylight. Vincent can't come now. Someone might see him*.

Shakily, she got out of bed. Shivering from the fever and enduring an occasional weak cough, she dragged on pants, boots and a warm shirt and stumbled toward the door. She made her way downstairs on unsteady legs and found the tunnel entrance.

*I don't live in my apartment anymore*, she remembered fuzzily. *I must have been dreaming*.

She peered down the empty passage. *He knows I'm sick*, she thought with sudden clarity. *He's coming*.

Coughing, she braced one hand against the tunnel wall for support and started out to meet him.

 

A natural warm spring fed the stone pool where Vincent had been bathing. Stepping out, he rubbed himself cursorily with a towel, pulling his clothes on before he was completely dry. Catherine was awake now and he was sensing a fuzziness that troubled him. It wasn't their bond; that was crystal clear and strong. The cloudiness originated in Catherine; in a way, it reminded him of the disorientation she'd experienced during the final stages of childbirth.

Swinging his cloak over his shoulders, he strode along quickly. As her thoughts cleared, he was left with only the newly familiar sensation of discomfort that he had learned to associate with illness.

He had nearly reached their home when he rounded a corner and came upon her huddled form on the cold tunnel floor. Horrified, Vincent dropped beside her and touched her face. It was hot, and her cheeks were unnaturally flushed when she looked at him.

"I'm cold, Vincent. So cold." She shivered and he swept his cloak from his shoulders and wrapped it around her. When he tried to help her to her feet, she stumbled, swaying against him.

"Wait," she mumbled, clutching at his shirt. "I just need to rest a minute..."

Bending, Vincent lifted her in his arms. "You need a doctor," he said.

"Don't want one," she mumbled thickly. "Only you."

This had been a recurrent argument during the past few days, and Vincent couldn't help a small smile. "You'll always have me, Catherine," he said, "but I'm not a doctor. You're ill."

She didn't answer, and, looking down, he saw that her eyes had closed. Cradling her close, he carried her back toward the hub. He thought Catherine had fallen asleep in his arms, but after a few minutes she roused enough to look at him.

"Vincent?" she murmured.

"Hush. I'm here." He shifted her weight in his arms, feeling the heat from her body even through the layers of fabric between them.

She coughed, deep, tearing sounds that shook her slight frame; half-sobbing, she spoke his name again.

"I'm here," he said, sensing her need to be comforted. "You're going to be all right."

Taking her into his chamber, he disregarded her protests and laid her on the bed.

"I'm all right, Vincent," she argued, between coughs. "Really."

"Catherine, we both know you are not well." His mild gaze challenged her rebellious one and after a moment, her eyes dropped.

"I've felt better," she admitted.

"Stay here while I get Father."

"Vincent, no..."

"Catherine, we will not discuss this any further." His tone brooked no argument. "You've been ill for a week. This morning you claimed to be better and now you are worse."

"All right," she murmured sullenly. "You win."

Vincent didn't want to win, he just wanted Catherine to be well, but he didn't stop to dispute the point, going instead to bring Father. Catherine was still cross when they came into the chamber.

"Well, Catherine," Father began, sitting on the bed beside her. "Tell me how you're feeling."

"Lousy," she mumbled, shooting Vincent an aggrieved glance.

When he didn't react, she sighed and offered specifics. "I'm cold. I'm coughing. My head hurts and there's an elephant sitting on my chest."

Father's outward demeanor didn't change, but Vincent sensed a stirring of concern as Catherine submitted grudgingly to Father's examination.

When he finished, Father sat back and sighed. Catherine huddled into the folds of Vincent's cloak and glared. "What?"

"You have a temperature of a hundred and two," he informed her dispassionately. "I hear fluid in your lungs. Coupled with the symptoms you've described, my diagnosis is pneumonia."

"Is it serious, Father?" Vincent asked, suppressing a swift surge of alarm and forcing his voice to maintain its usual serenity.

Father looked at him mildly. "It can be," he said. "Pneumonia is not a disease to be taken lightly. I'll take specimens and send them to Peter for some laboratory tests that will be more definitive; meanwhile, we'll start her on antibiotics."

He prepared an injection and Vincent helped Catherine roll onto her side, steadying her as Father bared her hip and swabbed it with alcohol. Both winced when the needle went in and Catherine managed a weak laugh.

"That hurt you... as much as me?" she guessed in between coughs, and Vincent nodded sheepishly.

"Catherine, I want you to rest," Father instructed gruffly. "Sleep if you can, and drink plenty of liquids. Mary will bring you juice, or water. The children are waiting for me now, but I'll be back to check on you as soon as I can."

"Thank you, Father," she whispered. After he left, she turned her head to Vincent. "Where's Charles?"

"In the nursery," he answered.

"I want to see him."

"Catherine, you're ill."

"I want my baby," she insisted. Her eyes were bright with fever and Vincent could only suppose it was the discomfort of her illness that made her so uncharacteristically petulant.

"I'll send for him," he said, and went out into the passage. When he returned a moment later, she had crossed the room to his bureau and was hunched over it, clutching the top for support.

"Catherine?" He moved to her side swiftly and gathered her close. "Father told you to rest," he reproached.

"Just wanted a nightgown," she said hoarsely, pointing to the drawer where she kept a few things.

"I'll get it for you," he said. She let him help her back to the bed and even permitted him to help her change into the long, warm gown he brought from the drawer.

"Where's Charles?" she demanded after he tucked her under the blankets.

"Someone is bringing him," Vincent soothed, and a moment later Brooke came in carrying the baby, and put him into Catherine's outstretched arms.

Now seven months old and newly mobile, Charles wasn't happy for long; soon he began to squirm. After only a few moments of contending with his energy, Catherine's strength was drained, and she gestured for Vincent to take him. He handed the child back to Brooke, who carried him out.

Sinking back onto the pillows, Catherine stifled a cough and blinked back weak tears. "What kind of mother am I?" she whispered. "Can't even take care of my baby."

"Catherine, you're ill," Vincent reminded her yet again. "Your strength has limits." He sat on the bed beside her. "Brooke will take Charles to Olivia. She will take care of him, while I take care of you." He kissed her cheek. "You're a wonderful mother."

"Yeah." Suddenly all the spirit went out of her. "So tired," she murmured.

"Yes," Vincent agreed tenderly. "Sleep now."

He tended her through the night. A cot was brought in and placed beside the bed; Vincent stretched out on it from time to time, but didn't sleep.

Catherine's rest was uneasy, broken by fever. Vincent was tireless, offering orange juice and holding the cup while she sipped, supporting her during spells of coughing, and even helping her to the bathroom when her unsteady legs refused to carry her.

"This is humiliating," she muttered the second time he thus escorted her. "If only I weren't so dizzy."

"Catherine, I don't mind helping you." He tried to appease her and was rewarded with a scowl.

"I mind," she insisted. "I don't want to be like this."

She stopped in the passage, squinting at him in the flickering light of a nearby torch.

"What is it?" he asked, perplexed.

"Nothing," she said, shaking her head. Another spasm of coughing took her, and Vincent picked her up and carried her the few steps back to the chamber.

By morning, even Vincent's untrained eye could see that Catherine's condition had worsened. Father had been in several times during the night to check on her, and he made another appearance as the tunnels began to stir with the morning. Peter came in only moments later and Father and Vincent turned expectant faces toward him.

"How is she?" were Peter's first words, and Vincent allowed Father to answer.

"Not well," was the older man's terse reply. "Peter, what did the lab say?"

"That the primary infection is viral. There is a secondary bacterial infection. The oxygen level in the blood you drew last night was adequate, but I'd like to take another sample this morning."

"Of course," Father concurred.

"Peter, if Catherine's illness is caused by a virus, that means the antibiotics Father's been giving her won't help," Vincent said, half hoping to be refuted, but knowing too much to expect it.

"That's right," Peter said. "The antibiotics will take care of the secondary infection, though." He shook his head. "Viral pneumonia is unusual in healthy young people, but I suppose she's been wearing herself out with her usual twelve hour days since she's gone back to work."

Peter came closer and put his hand on Vincent's shoulder. "We're going to take good care of her, Vincent," he said. "All of us. Don't worry."

Vincent managed a small, ironic smile. "I can't help but worry," he said softly. "She is everything."

"We know that, Vincent," Father answered gently. "Now stand back and let Peter have a look."

Catherine's fever was up this morning, and without the comfort of Vincent's touch, she began to struggle weakly, fighting Peter's attempts to examine her. "No. Leave me alone," she mumbled.

Peter restrained her hands and spoke her name sternly. When her eyes met his with glazed defiance instead of recognition, he sighed. "Vincent, see if you can quiet her, please," he said, releasing her.

Vincent knelt beside the bed, cupping Catherine's flushed face in his hand and speaking her name quietly. She relaxed at once, turning her head and pressing her cheek into his palm. "Vincent?" she asked plaintively, her face troubled.

"It's all right," he soothed. "Peter's here." He glanced at their friend, who had taken the opportunity to begin his examination.

Catherine's eyes drifted closed and Vincent stroked her forehead as Peter bent over the bed with his stethoscope, intent on the sound of her laborious breathing. Finally he straightened, pulling the instrument down around his neck and frowning.

"Father? Peter?"

Both men turned to meet Vincent's anxious eyes.

"Yes, Vincent?" Father asked kindly.

The question seemed to be difficult for Vincent to voice, and they had to strain to hear it. "Should she be taken Above?"

"No!" Catherine's swift cry was weak but determined and she opened her eyes, fixing Vincent with a completely coherent, ferocious glare.

Father smiled faintly. "I believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, to take her there," he replied. He had learned long ago that Catherine was not easily dissuaded.

Vincent had learned that, too, and attempted a small smile of his own. "Catherine, perhaps..." he began, but she cut him off with an almost imperceptible shake of her head.

"No," she insisted. "I want to be with you."

Vincent wanted that, too, but he also wanted Catherine to have the best possible care. He looked at Father helplessly.

Father did what he could to offer reassurance. "Peter will bring the drugs we need, and truthfully, it's the fever that concerns me more right now. If we can bring that down and monitor her condition, I see no reason why she can't remain right here."

Vincent looked at Peter, who nodded his agreement, and then at Catherine, who seemed to have drifted back into troubled sleep. "All right," he whispered.

Father placed a hand on his son's shoulder and turned to Mary, who had just come in. "We need to bring her temperature down, Mary."

"I'll see to it, Father," Mary assured him.

Father left the chamber and Vincent bent over Catherine, bringing her hand to his mouth. She opened her eyes at the feel of his lips on her fingers, looked at him, and frowned.

"Catherine?"

"Your face," she muttered, sounding troubled.

Vincent straightened a little in surprise. "My face?" he repeated dumbly.

She looked away from him, closing her eyes. "It's wrong," she answered dully.

Speechless, he could only stare at her. Mary, coming from behind, leaned over his shoulder.

"What's wrong with Vincent's face, Catherine?" she asked soothingly.

Catherine opened her eyes again. "It's wrong," she repeated, sounding like an unhappy child.

"Why?" Mary persisted. "What makes it wrong?"

"It's not right," Catherine insisted. Her voice, weak though it was, was becoming shrill. "It's... smooth." Evidently satisfied that she had clarified the problem at last, Catherine sank into her pillows and turned her face away. "Don't like it."

Unexpectedly, Mary laughed. "That's the fever changing the way you see things," she explained. "The distortion will go away when the fever does."

Blinking, Catherine turned back, fighting to keep her eyes open as she examined first Vincent, then Mary. "Good," she said finally, subsiding.

As Catherine relaxed into sleep, Mary continued to carry out Father's instructions. She set a basin of water by the bed and reached to turn back the blankets.

Vincent stopped her. "Thank you, Mary," he said gently, "but I will do what must be done. Tell me how."

Mary hesitated only a second before yielding to the unspoken plea in his eyes. "Of course, Vincent. I was just going to sponge her off to lower her temperature."

Vincent nodded in silent understanding and, murmuring something about helping Father, Mary excused herself and went out.

With loving hands, Vincent pulled the blankets away and began to remove Catherine's nightgown. When the cool air of the chamber touched her fevered skin she shivered and tried to push his hands away. "Don't," she mumbled. "Cold."

"Catherine, it's the fever that makes you feel cold," he explained gently.

She managed a nebulous smile. "Take care of me?" she whispered hoarsely.

"Yes. You know I will." Removing the last of her clothing, he reached for the cloth Mary had brought and dipped it into the cool water in the basin. Catherine shivered when he began to bathe her face and reached up to stop him.

"Catherine, you must let me," he said, restraining her hands. "You're burning with fever."

*You're burning up*. Dimly, he heard the echo of his words in her voice and remembered her, bent over him as he lay ill on the floor of her apartment. He had nearly died then; Catherine had pulled him back from the darkness by sheer strength of will.

To see her now, helpless in the grip of something he couldn't battle, was as devastating as it was difficult to comprehend. Only yesterday she had been unwell but still capable of arguing with him about whether to return to work. He had conceded, mostly because she seemed so certain that her illness was minor and he disliked quarreling. Now he wished he had been more insistent, but even if he had, would it have made a difference?

She whimpered softly as he brought the moist cloth down between her breasts. He could feel the heat radiating from her feverish body; she looked delicate and entirely too fragile beneath his hands.

When he finished sponging her, she felt cooler to his touch and he slipped a fresh nightgown over her head, cradling her against his chest. She roused enough to slip her arms through the sleeves and attempt a smile.

"...love you..." she whispered, and broke off to cough painfully.

He supported her while she tried to clear her lungs and lowered her gently to the pillows when she finally relaxed. "I know you do," he answered, stroking back her hair.

Soon Father reappeared. Catherine seemed more lucid with her fever lowered by the sponge bath, submitting to his brief examination without a struggle.

"How do you feel, Catherine?"

"Hurts to breathe," she whispered.

Father pressed the hand he held. "I know," he said. "But your fever's down a degree and a half. That's encouraging."

"Aspirin," she murmured. "And Vincent bathed me."

He smiled. "I'm sure that helped," he agreed and leaned forward to kiss her cheek.

As the day wore on, Catherine's condition continued to deteriorate. She slept much of the time; when her eyes did open, they seemed hazy and unfocused. Several times, Vincent looked up to find her staring at him, frowning; he wondered what distortions the fever was producing now, and wished fervently that he could take it all away.

"How is she, Vincent?" Father's voice was hushed in the quiet of early evening. Everyone else was at dinner, but Father felt the need to look in on his patient.

"She's feverish and restless. I think she may be delirious," Vincent said anxiously. "She's shivering, and her lips are blue."

"Blue?" Father moved closer and lifted a candle for a better look. "So they are," he agreed, and stepped with alacrity into the passage, where Vincent could hear him tapping out a message for Mary.

"What is it, Father?" he asked when his parent re-entered the chamber.

"Her lips aren't blue because she's cold, Vincent. It's because she's becoming cyanotic. Not enough oxygen in the blood."

Mary bustled in and Father turned. "We're going to have to put her on oxygen, Mary," he said crisply.

"Yes, Father." From a corner of the chamber, she produced a battered green oxygen tank and set it up beside the bed with quick, competent motions.

People had been in and out of his chamber both last night and today, but Vincent had been so preoccupied that he hadn't noticed when the tank was brought in. As Mary and Father fussed over Catherine, he wondered what other medical equipment might lurk in that darkened corner. There was no room for him at Catherine's side right now, so he took two steps away for a better look. Something else, small and square, was there.

"A respirator," Father explained quietly, seeing his look. "Peter sent it down in case we need it. Mouse has set up a generator out in the passage, and it will run on car batteries, if necessary."

Vincent knew what a respirator was. He had seen Catherine's father hooked to one, and knew how it worked. The thought of his Catherine with a tube in her throat while a machine pumped air in and out of her lungs was horrifying.

Father was quick to reassure him. "A last resort, Vincent," he said. "Peter and I thought it best to be prepared, that's all."

"Yes," Vincent agreed, heavily. "Of course."

"I'll want to start an I.V., too, Mary," Father said, switching smoothly from parent to doctor. "We don't want her becoming dehydrated."

"Yes, Father."

At last they finished and Vincent could once again take his place at Catherine's bedside. The oxygen tube in her nose and the I.V. needle in her arm made her seem fragile and he bent forward to touch her cheek.

Behind him, Father and Mary held a whispered consultation, and after a moment, Father left the chamber and Mary sat down quietly, trying to be unobtrusive. From then on, Vincent was not left alone with Catherine; either Father, Peter or Mary remained in the room, constantly monitoring Catherine's condition.

Thus began a long, dark vigil. Catherine's fever rose even more over the next hours and her breathing was labored as she struggled for air. The oxygen had helped at first, but gradually the bluish tinge crept back to her lips. Cool water sponge baths were no longer effective against the fever, and Mouse and Jamie were dispatched to the surface to find ice.

"Lots of ice," Peter said. "We'll pack her in it..."

"Father," Vincent said quietly, as his parent completed yet another in an interminable series of physical examinations.

"Yes, Vincent?" Father's weariness showed on his face as he rubbed his forehead. "What is it?"

Vincent did not look up; his voice was unnaturally steady. "Is Catherine going to die?"

Father hesitated, and his reluctance sounded a knell in Vincent's ears.

Vincent's head bent even lower over the small, fevered hand he cradled between his larger ones. "It's all right, Father," he whispered, trying even now to lighten the burdens of others. "You don't have to answer."

Drawing up a chair, Father sat heavily and regarded his son with sorrow. "I don't know the answer to that, Vincent," he answered at last. "Catherine is very ill; I know you can see that. But there are factors in her favor. You must know that, too. She is young and strong, and she has always had a tenacious will to live. She has so much to live for, Vincent!" Reaching out, he tried to give Vincent hope and strength, but his own faith faltered, and he couldn't be certain of his success.

Vincent's vigil continued as he sat silently at Catherine's side, refusing now to get up even to stretch. Toward dawn, Mary approached him and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Why don't you lie down for a bit, Vincent?" she suggested timidly. "You're exhausted. I can sit with her... I'll call you if anything happens."

"No, thank you, Mary," Vincent said slowly. His voice was heavy, laced with pain. "I want to be with her when... if..." He left the rest of the sentence unspoken.

"All right, Vincent," she said quietly. "I'm here, if you change your mind."

Vincent didn't answer, and Mary moved back to her rocking chair. Father and Peter, standing together on the far side of the chamber, overheard the exchange.

"She's dying, Peter," Father said hoarsely.

"Don't give up yet, Jacob," Peter counseled quietly. "Cathy hasn't."

Father looked toward the small figure in the bed and the larger one bowed over her. "Are we right to keep her here? Our resources are so limited... perhaps she would receive better care in a hospital..."

"Jacob, I'm at the hospital almost every day. I see the care given there, and believe me, they can't do anything up there that we can't do for her here."

"But the technology..." Father said, doubting.

"Is limited to intravenous fluids, oxygen, a respirator if she stops breathing. We have those things here, Jacob. We have the antibiotics for the secondary infection. The only thing we don't have is easy access to a lab to monitor her blood gases." Taking Father's arm, he turned him toward the bed. "Look at them. You can't tell me she doesn't know he's there. Modern medical knowledge and technology have reached their limits. We aren't keeping her alive, Jacob. He is. And only a fool would take that lifeline away from her."

Father exhaled slowly. "I wish I could be certain you are right, Peter." His voice was fraught with a terrible, desperate exhaustion.

"So do I," Peter answered softly. "So do I."

 

As the world Above woke to a new day, so the people of Vincent's world began to stir. Word of Catherine's condition passed quickly by word-of-mouth and pipes. By common, unspoken agreement, no one used the passage outside Vincent's chamber, and Pascal tried to route pipe messages along other paths, so Vincent's chamber was unusually quiet.

Peter had other patients, other lives needing him, and excused himself quietly after extracting Father's promise to let him know the moment there was a change. Father and Mary stayed in the chamber. Time passed, and Catherine remained precariously balanced on the thin line separating life and death.

 

In the D.A.'s office, Joe Maxwell listened to only the beginning of the recorded message on the other end before slamming his phone down in frustration. After a moment's thought, he picked it up again, dialing a different number this time. "Jenny Aronson, please. No, I can't leave a message. This is Joe Maxwell at the District Attorney's office. Tell her this is an emergency."

He heard clicks as his call was transferred and Jenny came on the line, sounding worried. "Joe? What's wrong?"

"Jenny, listen, I'm sorry if I dragged you away from something..."

"No, it's okay, Joe. Did something happen to Cathy?"

He twisted the phone cord, wondering if he might have overreacted. "I don't know," he confessed. "I'm worried."

"I dreamed about her last night," Jenny said. "I should have known something was wrong. Is she there?"

"No, that's why I'm worried. She was running a fever, so I sent her home two days ago. I didn't expect her in yesterday, but she didn't call, and didn't call again today... I've tried to call her six times this morning and all I get is her machine."

Jenny hesitated. "Joe, listen, I might know where she is. Let me check it out and I'll call you, okay?"

Joe didn't like it, but guessed it would have to do. "Okay. Don't forget."

"I won't," she promised. "Give me a couple of hours."

It was almost exactly two hours later when Joe snatched up the phone and heard Jenny's voice on the other end. "Did you find her?" he demanded.

She was slow in answering. "Yes."

Relief flooded through him. "Where is she? Is she okay?"

Again the answer was slow in coming. "No, she's not okay," Jenny said finally. "I talked to her doctor. She has pneumonia, Joe."

"What hospital is she in?" Joe asked, panicked. "Can I see her?"

"No hospital," Jenny answered. "Charles's father is with her... she's with his family."

"Why isn't she in a hospital?"

"It's okay, Joe," Jenny tried to reassure him. "She's getting the best possible care, round the clock nursing, everything. She's on oxygen and an I.V., and they have a respirator just in case..."

"Oh, God." Joe sank into his chair and resisted the urge to bury his face in his arms and cry. "Call me, Jenny, will you? Whatever happens?"

"Whatever happens, Joe," she confirmed. "And Joe?"

"Yeah, Jenny?"

"Say a prayer for her."

 

Below, in Vincent's chamber, the unnatural hush of the sickroom was broken only by the constant murmur that came from Catherine's bedside.

Denying her own exhaustion, Mary watched from across the chamber. "It's so unfair," she whispered to Father as he came up behind her. "All his life, Vincent has believed that there were things he didn't deserve, things he didn't dare to reach for... and now, when dreams have finally come true for him...." She couldn't bring herself to complete the thought.

"To have it end so soon after it begins," Father agreed, softly. "How can a merciful God give him so much joy, only to snatch it so quickly away?"

"Perhaps He won't," Mary said after a moment. "She's still fighting, Father, and Vincent's still fighting with her."

Vincent had become oblivious to their presence in the room; all his energy was focused on Catherine. "I love you," he whispered for her ears only. "You are my heart, and my joy. You bring such peace to my existence, Catherine. The gifts you have given are endless. I love you."

She lay still and pale against the pillows, her rapid breathing harsh and labored. He had been speaking for hours, telling her, over and over, of his love and gratitude for all that had passed between them, but their bond was growing thinner and he no longer knew if she heard him. Still he continued, offering his words as a litany against despair.

 

Hazily, Catherine struggled up from the warm cocoon of black velvet that held her. It was hard to breathe and she struggled instinctively to draw in more air. Something was across her face, but she lacked the strength to raise a hand and push it away. Somewhere, distantly, she could hear the steady, comforting sound of someone speaking, but making sense of the words was too much effort. Exhausted, she slipped back into the blackness.

The next time she surfaced, the lifeline of softly murmured words that had anchored her for so long had stopped. Slowly she was able to force her eyes open. They wouldn't focus properly, but she could see something above her, glowing with a soft, golden light.

*Vincent's window*, she thought vaguely. With an effort, she turned her head a few inches and squinted, forcing her blurred vision to clear. Vincent was beside her, eyes closed as he half-dozed in exhaustion. *He looks so tired*, she thought. *Sad*. She tried to say his name and succeeded only in mouthing the first syllable before her meager strength failed.

His eyes snapped open, instantly alert. "Catherine?"

She wanted to touch him, to give him comfort, but had to settle for a fragile smile.

He spoke her name again and raised her hand, cradled between his, to his lips, kissing it tenderly. "Father," he called over his shoulder, without taking his eyes from hers. "Come quickly!"

Responding to Vincent's urgency, Father was there in a matter of seconds, in time to see Catherine's eyes close wearily. "What is it, Vincent?" he asked, fearing the worst.

"She knew me, Father," Vincent said, his hushed voice a blend of fear and hope. "She smiled at me."

Father performed a swift examination; when he straightened, he was smiling. "Her fever's down, her lungs seem clearer, and she's breathing easier," he said. "I'll want some blood samples to send up with Peter, of course..."

The rest of what he said was lost. Relief and a directionless, immeasurable gratitude swept Vincent and he turned instinctively to Mary, standing beside his chair. Her arms went around his head, cradling it, while he buried his face against her skirt and cried.

 

When Catherine forced her eyes open again, Vincent was gone. This time she was able to turn her head, and she tried to lift herself to look for him.

"Don't, Catherine." Suddenly Mary was there, smiling gently. "You must save your strength," she said.

"Vincent?" Catherine's whisper was barely audible.

Mary pressed a silencing finger to her lips and gestured. "He's here," she said softly. "He nursed you for two days, Catherine. He wouldn't rest until he knew you were better."

Mary helped Catherine roll onto her side so she could see Vincent stretched out on a cot beside her, fast asleep.

"He looks so tired," Catherine whispered, wishing he was close enough to touch.

Mary took Catherine's hand in hers. "You've been very ill," she explained. "For a time, Father and Peter weren't certain we weren't going to lose you." She glanced toward Vincent. "He had braced himself for your death, Catherine."

"No!" Catherine could only imagine the despair he must have felt.

"It's all right," Mary soothed. "You're going to be all right, Father says."

Their hushed voices must have penetrated Vincent's exhausted sleep, for he went from sound sleep to full alertness in the space of a heartbeat, rolling swiftly off the cot and coming to kneel by Catherine's bedside. Mary took one look at his face and made a strategic retreat.

"Catherine. You're awake." His eyes devoured her. She was pale, her face drawn from illness, but her eyes were clear and focused and her voice steady.

"Vincent, I'm sorry."

"For what?" His bewilderment showed clearly.

"For frightening you. Mary told me..."

"No, Catherine, please. You were ill, that's all." He bent his head, raising her hand and stroking the back of her fingers with the silky roughness of his cheek.

Catherine watched him, liking the sensation, but after a moment she frowned. "Vincent, your face..."

He stopped. "What?" Anxiously, he touched her forehead. "Catherine, your fever..."

"No." She shook her head. "It's gone, I think. Mostly, anyway." She brushed his cheek with the tips of her fingers.

"Is my face still... wrong?" Vincent asked gently. "Do you remember saying that? I couldn't understand what you meant."

"I don't remember saying it," she answered, watching her own fingers drift down his cheek and linger on his chin. "I remember how it looked, though. It was flat - two-dimensional - and had no texture. It looked so smooth... not like you at all. It scared me."

He captured her hand, pressing her palm against his lips. "Is it all right now?"

She nodded slowly. "You look like my Vincent again," she whispered. "I love you."

Whatever answer he meant to make was lost in her sudden spasm of coughing. Vincent held her shoulders, supporting her, and when the coughing eased, Mary was there.

"That's enough," she scolded gently. "Vincent, if you don't let her rest, she'll have a relapse."

It was the most effective warning she could make, and Vincent obediently moved back, but stopped when Catherine clutched his hand convulsively. "Don't leave me."

"Catherine, please. Mary's right. You must rest," Vincent argued gently.

"Stay with me," Catherine pleaded, still gripping his hand. "I'll sleep if you'll stay with me. Please."

Vincent gave Mary a helpless look, and she threw up her hands in surrender. "Go ahead," she said. "You'll both sleep better, anyway. Just be careful of the IV." Tactfully, she left the chamber, and Vincent helped Catherine slide over, making room for himself in the wide bed. The IV that still dripped vital fluids into Catherine's arm was on the other side, and he was careful to drape the line so it wouldn't snag before easing himself onto the bed.

Catherine, thin and frail from her illness, snuggled into his arms, closed her eyes and slept.

 

The quick brief cry of memory, that knows

At the dark's edge how great the darkness is.

- Conrad Aiken