Title: Hell of Heaven

Author: Dream Writer 4 Life/ BeckyB

Rating: R/NC-17

Author's Note: For ImAmandaJulius: thanks. No really. Thanks a lot.

Hell of Heaven

The amount of blood astounded him. Astounded, horrified, terrified, shocked him stock-still. Surely, the amount of blood contained in one person could not equal that. A severed limb or perhaps a sliced gullet like the pigs' in the slaughterhouse could produce as much blood, but this. . . . It was inconceivable. Moses's plague could not have delivered as much blood. The Boston Massacre could not have split as much blood. The piked heads of the French monarchy could not have secreted as much blood. He felt his own blood drain from his face.

The atmosphere veritably crackled with silence, with the absence of sound that should have been piercing his ears. The hallway before him seemed to stretch out into eternity like a perspective trick in a painting by one of those Italian masters. He knew he should return to his apartments or at least the study to await the official verdict, but something very akin to fear and the deepest despair rooted him to the carpet beneath his feet. Maybe if he reached out, he could tip over the canvas and reveal reality—

But instead of colliding with rigid roughness, he nearly beheaded a maid as she approached from behind him, in her arms a large, slotted, wooden crate the kitchen maids used to transport eggs from the Pemberley coup. Such was his surprise that it actually registered on his face in the form of a slightly raised eyebrow. The maid's downcast and averted eyes could not help but radiate shock at his presence as well, but she did her duty: unwrapping the rag soaked with blood (dry by now, he guessed bitterly) from the extinguished sconce beside the heavy door, she placed it in her basket and, pointedly ignoring his presence much like he had done to her for years, knocked.

The door cracked nearly before she had finished the single motion, and through it appeared a stained red arm to thrust something into the crate. The maid's slight affront from one of her own he noticed not; instead, his eyes focussed on the new occupier of the crate. The sopping fabric folded in upon itself matched the colour of Her Twelfth Night gown, and for a moment, he expected the folds to shift and a bejewelled neckline to appear. They did shift, but instead he caught a glimpse of more rags, darker and significantly wetter than the first. Remembering her orders, the maid shielded the crate from view by resting it on her right hip.

Blood. So much blood.

When the door opened again, the Mistress's lady maid appeared with her arms full of fabric the colour of Her gown. Unceremoniously, she practically threw them at the other maid for her to catch with the crate. "Burn them." Her voice popped with such an amalgamation of emotions that it almost wrenched his eyes away from the macabre bundle she delivered. As it was, she too ignored his presence as she swiftly turned and slammed the door, no longer needing to mind the sensibilities of the sick.

That cloth had been used far beyond its abilities, far beyond its saturation point. In its folds pooled the actual substance, and as the maid turned on her heel and headed towards the kitchens, the crate leaked and drops of life slid to the carpet and spattered, the fibres drinking what the fabric could not.

It dripped all the way to the stairs.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice noted that he would have to have the carpet removed by the end of the day.

But he could not keep his brain from focussing on one fact:

A body could not lose so much blood and live.

Even asleep, his body knew when his bed was empty. So it was a rather grumpy Fitzwilliam Darcy who awoke groping to his left for his wife of fourteen months. Emerging empty-handed from the bedclothes, he issued a mental huff and peered about the room with all the hauteur and indignation such a naked master of his domain could muster. The dying embers in the fireplace illuminated two empty armchairs, and he frowned heavily at them in a rebuke for not keeping his love warm if he could not. Her third favourite haunt (next to those chairs and their bed, of course) proved more fruitful.

The summer curtains — newly changed for the approaching spring at Elizabeth's insistence — merely whispered movement, doing absolutely nothing to hide her presence on the balcony. Their diaphanous fluidity filtered the full moon's harshness and allowed through only soft lumination and the outline of her alluring figure leaning heavily on the stone balustrade as if deep in thought. Somehow finding his dressing robe amidst the pile of clothes on the floor, he found himself braced against the solid doorframe without conscious memory of ever moving. She, too, was clad only in her dressing gown, and that thought made something within him lurch with arousal. Her hair, which had started the evening in a pert braid, now waved back at him on the slight breeze, tempting him with its light undulations. His favourite forelock curl separated itself from the flock, and he could not overcome the power of its siren song; again, he found himself directly behind her without ever giving his feet direction. His hands immediately found her hips as he pressed his face directly into the cascade of chocolate to murmur a lingering kiss on the back of her neck.

Elizabeth Darcy flinched only out of surprise, the shock of being so pleasantly startled from her thoughts. She leaned her head to the side as her husband swept away the cascade, littering slow and sleepy caresses below her ear. His thumbs rubbed circles through her gown. "Come back to bed, Lizzy," he whispered, voice so low and husky that she almost relented.

Instead, she righted her head again, staring out over their grounds glittering in the ethereal illumination. "Tonight is the full moon." Even to her, the remark seemed far away.

His lips' ministrations slowed to a stop as realisation set in, but his hands never left her hips. "Forgive me," he answered, still whispering. "There was no blood in our bed. I figured—"

"'Tis the full moon," she repeated, stronger this time, "and there is no blood." A tiny smile played about the corner of her lips, and she gave way to its power. "In fact, there will be no blood for many a month." She quickly turned in his embrace, eager to see his reaction.

For a moment, the world stopped short. All that existed was, the sparkle in her bottomless eyes, her curving softness filling his palms, and (apparently) a small life growing in her womb. One that he helped create. His gaze drifted down to her mid-section as if to see the life forming inside of her. His hands drifted over the same spot, tracing the new subtle curvature of her stomach, and a tingling sensation crawled from his fingers into his own stomach, finally pooling as a heavier emotion slightly lower. As disguise of every sort was his abhorrence, he displayed his feelings on the matter without further delay: his mouth soundly engulfed hers as men violently in love are wont to do.

Those hands slid every which way until the encountered the knot of her dressing gown. That obstacle destroyed forthwith, he found her bottom and pulled, making sure she knew exactly how pleased he was with her announcement. (The flimsy material of his own robe helped matters a little.) Such was their joy that they almost consummated it there on the cold stone underneath the stars, but by a superhuman endeavour, they ended their peak high atop their bed, the one where they may (might, maybe, could, well, it was a possibility) have conceived their child. Remaining intimately intertwined, one of them floated off to sleep with a burden lifted.

The other cupped his hand around his wife's bare stomach while a sense of foreboding settled around him.

He donned his black without further instruction. His valet found him staring blankly at the full wardrobe, seeing something other than finely brocaded waistcoats. Gently guided to stand before the mirror, he lifted his arms automatically so the valet could go about his work unimpeded. He stared at his twin in the glass, not blinking, until well after his vision blurred; he watched as the colours blended from green and beige to white to peach then straight to black. He wondered when exactly the valet had dipped one of his shirts and one of his cravats. He wondered how many more would have to be dipped.

Such a shallow thought lasted only as briefly as its depth: he blinked finally, and everything came into sharp focus.

The majority of his body blended into his heavy surroundings, into the shadows that crawled across the room to settle in his mien. The lighting maid had yet to reach his chambers, so the only sources of light were the soft fire below the mantle and the candles the valet had lit out of frustration. He watched as seemingly disembodied hands tugged at pure blackness, his head floating in midair. And the circles beneath his eyes . . . They almost bled into the sharp hollows of his cheeks. His eyes glared back at him devoid of any sparkle, any glimmer, any hint of life. Only black.

What he saw reflected what he felt. His heart, his gut did not exist anymore: only a hole, yawning to swallow only blackness. His head swirled in spirals, existing only to remind him of his grief, of the way it used to be. He felt he was a part of the night, one in the same as the new moon, like he could no longer relate to the rest of the diurnal, functioning, feeling human population. He could not relate to Them anymore, not without happiness. He felt like the space between the stars on a night without the moon.

At least he looked the part.

And he saw no ending in sight. As far as he was concerned, never would his period of mourning end. He would feel the loss of her until the blackness ate the rest of him. At the moment, it seemed a distinct possibility.

To make up for that lost moment where his world stopped, time flew by at twice its regular speed: seven days compressed into one, a fortnight into just one week, until he expected to see grey hair and wrinkles gleaming back at him from the next mirror he passed. The more he wished an event not to come to fruition, the more quickly it arrived on his doorstep. Traction eluded him, like when he was a boy running the grounds when the dew still wet the grass. At least Elizabeth's condition excused them from taking the Season in Town; he could entrench himself firmly in his malaise without the added pressure of masking himself and attending soirees at night.

That foreboding grew to be as tangible as the clothes on his back; Darcy could practically weigh it in his hands, heft it on his shoulders, taste it in her kisses. It blossomed as readily and as heartily as did Elizabeth's belly, neither of which he could have stopped even if he had wanted to. And as this subtle sense of impending doom overtook his rational thoughts, his emotions threatened to bubble to the surface at the strangest of times, and whilst usually he could regulate these decidedly husbandly urges, there were times when the Master of Pemberley excused his servants from the room even more abruptly than was his wont. No maids' sensibilities were (horribly) sullied, but his moods confused more than just his wife: he himself could not decipher his behaviour.

Because those amorous rites would usually follow his taciturn fits. Then his descent into happiness would trigger his niggling unease, and the cycle would repeat.

One such time occurred towards the middle of Elizabeth's term. Her girth became too great to hide within the folds of shawl or gown, giving the Darcys permission to withdraw from society and thus allowing Darcy to happily expel and refuse any unwanted guests from Pemberley's grounds without causing offense. However glad Darcy was to finally rid his hearth of the spectre of Mr Collins, he could not muster enough equanimity to see the Collins' off alongside his wife — especially not after what the good Vicar of Rosings related to him over breakfast that morning. Instead, he simply imagined the Collins' genuflecting horses as he poured over the plans for a new irrigation ditch with a frown, those words echoing in his ears just to feed his anger.

As the carriage rambled away down the lane (minus the genuflecting equine), Elizabeth entered into his study without so much as a knock, resting one arm absently on top of her bulge whilst the other cradled a volume of Milton, more for appearance than function. Closing the door softly, she advanced to stand before his desk with calculated strides. Without even glancing up, he could tell she rose an analytical brow at the top of his bent head. His ire rose as well. "Pray, husband, I know the very rich can afford to give offense wherever they go, but to do so in one's own home seems somewhat gratuitous."

Her pert comment roiled his stomach. Still glaring unseeingly at the papers and maps before him, he replied, "If the Collins' suffered any particular offense, they may join their illustrious patroness, the noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in her boycott of Pemberley. To me, the issue is neither here nor there."

In the tense silence that followed, he knew she could not fail to interpret his dry sarcasm correctly. How she would respond, however, eluded his powers of divination, so when she laid the book atop his papers and folded both arms over her belly, he acknowledged her play with the removal of his gaze from the work. "I spoke not of our guests, sir; I refer only to myself." Even though he opened his mouth for a rebuttal, she continued on, "You bade me suffer Mr Collins without accompanying me! I do not believe such a penance should be suffered by anyone, let alone a most beloved wife."

His hot stomach now boiled his blood in more ways than one. How that eyebrow cultivated his ardour, she could never fully comprehend. In the middle of this battle of wits, his hands itched to caress her. "I apologize, madam, for any offense I may have given you, for I assure you that was not my intent. But I weighed the consequences, and I came to the conclusion that the rudeness I would have loosed upon the unfortunate man outdistanced the rudeness incurred by my absence by many miles." When her second eyebrow joined the first, he was lost. "Come to me, my love."

She hesitated only a moment before rounding the desk and settling herself between his knees and within his outstretched arms. The jarring emotions inside him quelled for a time as he hugged her, laying his head atop her belly and between her breasts. Just this superficial contact allayed his unease, and he suddenly felt the urge to be enveloped by her in every possible way, to bury himself within her until neither knew where the other began. On a whim, he hoisted her skirts above her protruding navel and laid a kiss upon where he fancied their child's brow pressed back at him while one of his hands ventured on a decidedly less chaste journey. She gasped and gripped the edge of the desk as his knowledgeable fingers found her pleasure, dipping briefly within her before rubbing with the briefest of pressures against what could quickly become the only pinpoint of her existence. A slow grin spread his lips as her eyelids drooped with arousal and her hips sought more contact with him. He could smell her, but before he got too drunk off of the vision of his wife in full-cry, he bade himself retreat to a safe distance and ask of her, "Pray, are you too sore for me, my love? For if we go on much longer, I fear I will not be able to keep myself from taking you."

Her response consisted off unbuttoning his breeches.

Even as she gripped him, hard and hot, within her palm, she asked, "Should we not go upstairs?"

Too concentrated on the pleasure of her stroking to answer anything but that movement, he groaned, "Yes," but neither even glanced at the door. She climbed astride his lap facing away from him to accommodate her girth (not a new position of late) and sunk down onto him with a mutual moan of passion. She made to lean forward upon his knees and begin rocking gently, but he instead reclined her onto his chest, wanting to be as close to her warm, supple body as possible, and thrust up into her. They intertwined their hands over their unborn child, the product of a similar act of love.

Completely oblivious to anything but the warm friction of their bodies, he did not realise he murmured into the small ear so near his lips: snatches of French phrases, endearments both crude and chaste, nonsensical words strung together by the unbearable need to lay his mind and soul as bare as his body. And his wife would not have taken note — her passion-induced haze being almost as thick as his — had he not mentioned a very strange phrase amidst his exultation of her still snug womanhood.

'The darkness ebbs when I'm inside you.'

The nature of their activity, however, did not allow for much thought let alone philosophical contemplation, so Elizabeth Darcy can be forgiven if such a strange muttering, in the midst of conjugal embrace, remained unpondered. As his thrusts sped towards conclusion with fervour and lust, he tilted his hips slightly, and she imploded around him, his cry joining hers as he found release well within her depths.

As he floated back down from his high, his gaze also drifted down the length of his wife's body, coming to a disgruntled rest on her tight bodice. Even though he had just thoroughly relished that same body without complaint, now the reminder of her maternal enhancements inspired his previously dormant distress-flavoured ire. Probably more sharply than he intended, he remarked, "Mrs Darcy, does your seamstress not provide adequate leeway for your condition?"

More than a little taken aback, she disengaged from his body and smoothed over her skirts with no small amount of indignation. "I beg your pardon, sir, for I have weighed the consequences, and I have come to the conclusion that I will only feed your obvious ill humour if I answer, and merely leave you to stew if I do not. Therefore, stew you shall, as I choose to leave without further comment."

The door had barely slammed behind her before he launched his pen at the floor in frustration, barely restraining a curse from dropping as well. With the self-imposed solitude returned Mr Collins' words, and he again revisited his work with the same unseeing glare.

"My dear Mr Darcy," the toadying Vicar had said, "if my cousin Elizabeth does happen to die in childbirth, I will be happy to perform both the baptism and the funeral services for the same fee. Granted, of course, that the child survives its mother."

His black successfully donned, he began his trek down to the study to await the confirmation of what he already knew. But an inexplicable tug in his gut tore him away from his consciously chosen path and instead led him towards one of the two places he fervently wished not to be: the nursery.

The austere room was as silent as the rest of the grand house; the nursery maid or wet nurse or some other maid must have spirited the babe away from the family. It occurred to him that he had no guess as to the child's sex. The musing seemed almost a secondary thought as he caught a glimpse of himself in a cheval mirror in the corner; black was no colour for any infant's chamber. He fancied himself an intruder (this was a woman's domain), yet he could not tear himself away.

He had seen her standing beside the cradle or at the window, sitting in the nursery chair, or peering about silently from the centre of the room enough to conjure up the image of her before him. It was her hand that traced the gold inlay on the headboard opposite the Darcy crest. It was her arm beating the heavy curtains to rid them of dust. She that arranged the worn toys on the top of the wardrobe. She that bent to run a palm across the carpet to assure its softness for young hands and knees.

Not him. He would look preposterous. He merely observed from his station at the window.

But then he blinked, and the vision disappeared like a mirage on the horizon.

She was never going to come back.

And whilst he knew he would be in mourning for ever, he also knew he needed to at least repress this tendency for all-consuming melancholia if not for his own well-being then for the small child for whom she died.

"Pray, Mrs Reynolds, where is Mrs Darcy?"

The old housekeeper smiled inwardly at the anxiety in the young man's voice. Any other father-to-be would feel exactly the same way a short two weeks before his wife's expected lying-in. She curtseyed and answered, "Mrs Darcy is in the nursery, sir." She curtseyed again to his retreating back as he climbed the stairs two by two and returned to work with a knowing smile stringing across her lips.

He knew his moods had worsened over the course of her confinement, exponentially so during the past month, but he cared little for the rhyme or reason. Elizabeth was the sole occupier of his conscience, and as long as she stood, sat, or lay within his sight, he seemed to revert almost to his previous level of reticence. (Sudden moves in her direction, however, could still end with a brandished candlestick in one's face.) But when carrying out estate business upon the lands, being the harvest season that it was, Darcy visibly soured until the time when he could return to the house. He even offered to drive her along with him in the curricle, eschewing his beloved mount, but she had overtly rolled her eyes and continued writing her correspondence without a verbal answer. The steward had raised the issue with Mrs Reynolds, but she waved the man away, denying him an audience with the Mistress; Mrs Darcy knew her husband's moods, and if she had spoken to the Master, and they continued to persist, there would be no solution until her culmination.

Normally, Darcy would see such abominable behaviour as a romantic flight of fancy of which even the poets had yet to conceive. Normally, he would internally berate himself for this overindulgence in his wife's condition — perhaps in the midst of his toilette; baths were always a prime time for solid reflection — and then return to his normal self. But a part of his brain reminded him that normally his Elizabeth could not be taken to the straw and consequently taken from him at any day now. So he continued in this humour regardless of others, society, logic, or even reason.

Now, if he had been in the habit of analysing character, as his wife was, perhaps he could have shined those abilities internally and discovered the reason for such unaccommodating comportment. As it was, he merely stewed in his misery and despair, worry and anxiety, in complete silence, and as he accompanied his wife more often than not, he accidentally unleashed her considerable powers of character analysis upon himself. (The coming child had more blankets and caps than it would ever know how to deal with; she completed all her outstanding correspondence; her considerable bulk could no longer perch comfortably behind the pianoforte to practise; and she categorically refused to submit herself to another reading of Shakespeare by her husband. Whilst she liked the Bard's plays tolerably well, and she loved Darcy beyond all measure, his rendition of even Hamlet could never replace silent contemplation.) Within the first half day of her self-assigned task, she stumbled upon the perfect albeit bittersweet answer. Because whilst she knew what troubled Darcy, Elizabeth now had no choice but to submit to more readings. At least she could choose Swift's A Modest Proposal, and then he would frown and leave her to her own, quiet devices.

Darcy did find Elizabeth in the nursery. He paused in the doorway, leaning heavily against the frame as he observed her rearranging all and sundry. She directed a pair of footmen in the placement of some large object, and when they vacated the room, in their stead stood—

The Darcy cradle.

His spine immediately straightened, whatever small amount of equanimity he gathered shattered. In three strides, he crossed the room to her side, and she peered up at him with a warm smile despite the dour, practically seething expression on his mien. "Mr Darcy, what a pleasant surprise. We were just reorganising the room for the addition of your—"

"Leave." The vocal command only accompanied the wave of his hand by merit of excusing non-servants as well. Mrs Bingley and Mrs Bennet, both here to assist Elizabeth's lying -in, floated from the room silently, the second more reluctant than the first, but Jane knew of Darcy's moods and had no desire to actually live through one of his swings.

Elizabeth dipped her chin, accepting that her assumption had been correct as well as the battle that was to come. As the various doors to the room closed, he powered over to the window and gazed out, more of habit than pleasure. She chose her words carefully. "Mr Darcy, if it is I who inspire your ill will, pray do not take it out on our guests; soon there will be none left for you to offend."

"Do not trifle with me, Elizabeth." To her surprise, his voice seemed tired as well as angry. "The cradle cannot be used."

Acknowledging the breech of the subject if not her method, she waddled (for as graceful as she attempted to be, even she could not call her action a walk) to the head of the cradle. From this position, she could at least catch a glimpse of his profile. "What would you bid me use in its stead? Another cannot be sent for and made in time, and surely the child cannot be held for all hours of the day. Such abuse of our staff's sensibilities, I fear, they would never forgive."

He rolled his eyes, too livid to recognise her teasing anymore. "The wet nurse will have to do until another bedding can arrive. If need be, I will relinquish my place in your bed until it does, but that cradle simply cannot be used."

"Why be so recalcitrant on this point?" Her tone belied her exasperation, and to soften it, she laid her hand upon her husband's arm. She felt his trembling through his coat. "Pray, tell me what troubles you, Darcy; pain shared is pain halved. I merely desire to use this specific cradle because you used it. They placed Georgiana—"

"My mother died to fill that cradle!"

As soon as he spoke the words, he understood they were the source of his unease, his fatigue, his ill humour. For the past nigh three-quarter-year, the niggling fear manifested itself in his heart and in his actions. And accompanying this realisation, this breaking of the dam, words that he had never expressed out loud let alone to anyone coursed over his tongue. "My mother died giving birth to Georgiana. She died doing her duty to marriage and society. And when she died, I promised that no one would ever use this cradle again, because it's cursed beyond any point of use, and I will not have you suffer the same fate. I will not have it. You shall not use this cradle for your baby, Mrs Darcy."

An interminable pause followed.

"'Tis a pity, your opinion. For I shall use it for our baby, Mr Darcy, as there is no other viable alternative; you have assured the situation. I have made my decision, and you will find I am quite immovable on the subject."

Finding himself backed into a corner was not a familiar position for Fitzwilliam Darcy. Therefore, he burst out of that corner and the conversation itself, exciting the room with a rather grandiose harrumph to exercise away his anger. A ride to survey the harvest would do him some good.

He buried his head within Pemberley's soil throughout the remainder of the morning, supervising the harvest from atop his mount, and was seriously considering skipping his midday meal when his steward spied a horse (or, more specifically, a cloud of dust) approaching the pair. Upon seeing that the rider was the footman assigned to watch Elizabeth in his absence, his considerable well of fear boiled over and nearly drowned him. Before he knew what he was doing, he found himself well on his way down the road back to the house. Only one though echoed around in his ears:

If his Elizabeth died, the last words he spoke to her would have been in anger.

And he would not allow that to happen. He would not.

His crop, gloves, hat, and great coat all marked his progress from the courtyard, into the entrance hall, and up the stairs to the room prepared for her labour. When he arrived, the moans from behind the closed door strangled his heart and made his stomach lurch. At least he was not too late. . . .

Issuing a brief knock, Elizabeth's lady maid answered immediately but remained to block the doorframe. With her eyes downcast, she said, "'Scuse me, Mr Darcy, sir, but Mrs Darcy said she don't want anyone else but Mrs Bingley in with her—"

"Has the midwife been called?" She shook her head once. "Well then call her!" She scuttled out of the room and towards the staircase. "And the doctor too!"

"The doctor? Mr Darcy, I am all astonishment that your wife should cause all of this bother." As his anxious gaze lit upon Elizabeth, she smiled weakly back and beckoned him to her bedside with an outstretched hand. "You cannot throw money at my condition and expect the situation to resolve itself. If this child is anything like its father, he will not capitulate to such inducement and greet us in his own due time regardless. Indeed, any mix of our dispositions does not portend well: he may in fact out stubborn us both."

"Lizzy, do not jest so," he whispered, resting his forehead against her own and wincing at the clamminess he felt. He took her hand between both of his. "You know I would spare no expense if it meant ensuring your safety and your life. You must know that."

"I do, dearest. And I love you so very much for it."

He closed his eyes as he began to pepper kisses about her pale face. "I apologise for my temper, my love. I should not have raised my voice or taken leave or burdened you with such ghosts from the past. If I startled you into this early lying-in—"

"Startled me?" That eyebrow again. "Dearest, even you cannot pretend to know God's will. Yes, 'tis early, but not too early; Jane's first lying-in preceded mine by a week. Do not fret on that account." Seeing that the rumple in his brow did not depart, she cupped his cheek in her hand, bidding him to gaze upon her eyes full of honesty. "I will not lie to you: I am scared. The only one of us who was old enough to remember such an event suffered a loss at its conclusion. But Darcy, I am not your mother. I am young and stronger and healthy, and I am ready to put up a fight for both our child and my right to smother it with all sorts of motherly affection. Remember what I told you before we married? Think of the past only as it gives you pleasure. Georgiana arose from that horrific event; concentrate on that. Besides," she added, a wink shining through despite the beginnings of another pain, "you cannot rid yourself of me that easily. I ensnared you fair and square, and I intend to reap the benefits of my impertinent wiles for a long time to come."

"Good," he sighed into her loose hair spilling in the well-worn cascade over the white pillows. "For I intend to keep you for life."

The spasms within her grew too painful to be ignored any longer. In a strained voice, she commanded, "Then think of it no more. Now, however, I need Jane, and she will send you word of the birth."

After the moment they had shared, he would not be dismissed so readily. "But I wish to remain. I wish to help you."

The hand still encased in his own began to shake, and her chest heaved as she turned her face into the pillow to muffle her cries. From within its depths, she called, "You cannot help. I must suffer this alone. For our child. Now where is Jane?"

"Here, dear sister! And I have Mrs Nesbitt and Dr Sidney as well." A small party rushed into the room, forcing Darcy away from his wife's bedside. He still hovered around the doorway until Elizabeth glanced over and waved him away, Jane quietly assuring him that she was in good hands.

He trudged slowly down to the library, where he could hear Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam toasting already. To his surprise, Mr and Mrs Bennet also occupied the room, which was almost enough to send him away again, but Bingley caught sight of him and bade him take up his place as the roundly soused father-to-be. And whilst he did accept a glass of port and an armchair by the fire, he did not participate in conversation; he only swirled the liquid and worried.

As afternoon bled into night without word of progress, Elizabeth's assurances now echoed within him. He knew better than anyone of her heartiness and fitness for the physical trial ahead of her. He knew her to be quite sturdy and adaptable. He knew of her stubbornness in the face of anything that might oppose her. But he also remembered her propensity for rejecting help from others even when she obviously needed it. That was why he needed to be in there! to remind her that this fight was not hers alone, no mater who physically bore their child. For his mother's screams and wails still lurked in his memory as well as the deathly silence that followed her— And she had taken a long time as well—

Darcy did not realise he spoke aloud until Mrs Bennet responded to him. In a display of her considerable womanly knowledge — easily misconstrued as an uncharacteristic fit of compassion for another human being — she laid her hand gently upon his forearm and cooed, "Oh, Mr Darcy, of course it is taking an inordinate amount of time! This is our darling Lizzy's first child, and she is narrow — no doubt a pleasure for you, sir, but 'tis an unfortunate obstacle for the birthing of children!"

Despite her attempt at reassurance, Darcy inevitably decided to quit the room in order to avoid more intimate talk of his wife's . . . person. Instead, he took up one of his well-worn nervous habits: he paced outside his wife's room of labour. Even though her wails of pain tore at his heart, nerves, and resolve, he saw them as proof that she continued to draw breath, that she still lived.

And then silence.

The seconds that followed nearly crushed him. Anxiety in the form of bile rose dangerously high within his throat, and he almost went so far as to press his ear to the heavy door — or even slaughter every rule of propriety and burst inside the room. His entire body quivered. His brain began to lose control, his heart spasmed, his soul felt as if it would fly apart at any moment—

Then he heard it.

The very healthy wail of a tiny infant.

And the tired exclamation of joy that followed.

If the door had not opened at that very moment, he would have collapsed on the floor in relief. As it was, he slouched against the wall as Jane appeared, wiping her bloodied hands on a cloth and toting a large (even for her) smile.

"They both live."

As much as his mind felt like it swam through a bog, his body retained the crisp movements of happier times. Mrs Reynolds silently showed him into the study, her black already upon her back as well.

The lighting maid must have already made her rounds to the room, because it was too purposely dark to have been ignored. Only the fire in the hearth lit the room, seeming to throw shadows about regardless of objects to cast them. Despite the warm summer night, someone had drawn the heavy draperies across the windows, effectively dashing any hope of relief from the oppressive atmosphere. Two armchairs squatted by the mantle facing one another. One spoke.

"Come. Sit across from me, my boy."

Feeling like he trudged through a swamp, he found he could not advance but a few paces. The chair sighed, a mixture of exhaustion, sadness, and resignation.

"Your mother is dead, but the child lives. Her name is Georgiana." A slight hitching breath. "The shroud shall be prepared, and three days hence, she shall be buried. If you wish to see her before she is laid out—" a gulp "—she is still in the labour room. I cannot move her." Without warning, the occupier of the chair rose and exited, his heavy boots clunking on the stairs as he ascended quickly and unevenly.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, aged one and ten years, strode to the fireplace, emanating an equanimity that he did not feel. He had a new sister for whom he had traded his mother. His father, if the half empty carafe of scotch was any indicator, was a broken man, and would hide the shattered pieces of his soul in order to run his family and his estate with the efficiency of before. And nothing would ever be the same again.

He glanced between his father's recently vacated chair and the tantalising window, unsure of his place. The window reminded him of the nursery, and the chair of the darkness that gnawed on the fringes of his being. Eschewing both, he leaned one arm against the mantelpiece and glared into the fire.

"You are not very angry with me, are you, my love?"

"Why, whatever for, Lizzy?"

"I bore you a daughter, not a son. You require an heir, and she has not the . . . appendages."

Darcy gazed down upon the loosely wrapped babe in his arms. He though that upon the breached permutation, the broken pattern of one he would return to his normal self. Not true. The dark-haired, button-nosed, ten-fingered, and ten-toed minuscule human being before him inspired emotions that he could only dream of before. As she returned his gaze with the Darcy stare, he felt something akin to pride and overwhelming joy spill from his heart into the rest of his body. He saw the rest of his life. And as the wet nurse approached to relieve him of his happy burden, a protective instinct in the form of a snarl unleashed itself. She retreated from the room with the shake of her head and a barely repressed smile. Turning back to the child, he finally replied, "There is no possible way that I could be angry with perfection, Lizzy. You have given me two gifts: yourself and this child. Grateful is not a strong enough term to express what I feel." He carefully laid the small bundle between them on the suddenly very large bed. "Angry? Never. I should be content to stand watch over my two girls forever."

Elizabeth smoothed away a curl from the child's brow. "Jane Anne Darcy, you are already the apple of your father's eye. I don't even stand a chance."

Darcy gathered his wife closer to his side, finally tearing his eyes away from the small girl (who had become fascinated with the swinging ties on her mother's gown). "Not so. We still need that heir. But, before that is accomplished, I believe much practise is in order."

She raised an eyebrow. "And this you choose to practise?! Teasing, incorrigible man!"

Jane Anne cooed in concurrence, and her parents blithely laughed, chasing the final speck of blackness from Pemberley at least for the day.