Catherine spent the next morning helping Rebecca in the candle shop, stirring wax and trimming wicks - and worrying about her class.
The children who arrived at her chamber at two o'clock were in their teens and included many of the young people she'd known before: Kipper, Samantha, Eric and Lana, Dustin and Geoffrey. She quickly learned the names of the others and took a deep breath, still wondering quite where to begin.
And then Eric solved her problem neatly by raising his hand and asking, in a voice that occasionally slipped to a deeper register, "What do we do if we get arrested?"
Catherine kept her jaw from dropping by great strength of will; it seemed Father was more accurate than he knew. "Excuse me?"
"Like Mouse did, that time. You remember, Catherine. You got him out."
"Yes, well, Mouse wasn't precisely arrested..."
"What was he, then?" asked another boy. "He said there were policemen."
"They weren't police, they were security guards," Catherine explained. "But in any case, Mouse did the right thing. He asked to speak to an attorney."
"An attorney?" one of the younger girls asked, rolling the unfamiliar word on her tongue. "What's that?"
"It's like a lawyer," Samantha advised. "Isn't it?" She appealed to Catherine for confirmation.
"That's right. An attorney is a lawyer."
"Catherine's an attorney," Geoffrey informed the rest of the room.
"Too bad you don't live up there, still," Eric said. "We could call you. Like Mouse did."
Eric's unexpected remark sent a chill down Catherine's spine. "Well, I'm not," she said briskly, to cover her reaction. "Ask for an attorney. If you can afford it, you can choose your own, and if not, the court will assign one."
They were deep in a discussion of post-arrest booking procedures when class time ended. "I'll see all of you tomorrow," she said, as the young people gathered up pens and paper and prepared to depart. "And until then, try not to get arrested!"
Nicholas's friendship with Brian grew, and it soon became customary for Catherine to keep both boys in the mornings when Natalie taught her primary class. Natalie would join them for lunch and afterwards would take the boys, leaving Catherine's afternoon free for her own class.
In the evenings, Catherine and Nicholas shared most meals with Vincent and sometimes Father; afterwards, Vincent accompanied them to their chamber in order to take part in Nicholas's bedtime.
Catherine learned the teenagers considered it a privilege to be permitted to watch Nicholas, so there was never a shortage of young volunteers on the evenings she and Vincent spent together, though there were also evenings when Vincent's duties called.
She missed his company at those times, but she wasn't lonely. Not the way she'd been before, living alone, afraid for her life and for her son's life. Visitors stopped by: Natalie, Mary, sometimes Jamie or Brooke or Rebecca or even Mouse. And even quiet evenings reading were pleasant, accompanied as they were by stirrings in the passage outside, and the constant, comforting sound of messages on the pipes.
Vincent developed the habit, on the nights they didn't spend together, of stopping by to say goodnight. She began to count on his hug, and the kiss, no longer shy or tentative, he always placed on her cheek.
If he noticed there were things she didn't tell him, topics she shied away from, he didn't say, and with the determination that had brought her through so many things in the past, Catherine threw herself into being happy.
But time alone meant time to think, and that brought memories back to haunt her. And soon the deep, dreamless sleeps she'd enjoyed since coming back gave way to fitful, fearful dreams.
"Vincent. I need a favor." She paused inside his chamber door.
He looked up from his journal. "Of course."
She sank into a chair beside him and displayed a neatly addressed envelope. "Is it possible to have this mailed... from somewhere far away from New York?"
The look he gave her was keen. "Would St. Louis do?"
She nodded. "St. Louis would be fine. Make sure whoever mails it there uses a post office or mailbox away from their home and where they work."
After the briefest of pauses while he assimilated her request, he held out his hand. "I'll see to it."
She put the letter in his hand, and reflexively, he glanced at the address. She saw his mouth tighten almost imperceptibly.
"It's a letter," she hastened to explain. "To my friend Rick in Spokane. He was good to me, Vincent. He'll be worried."
She'd imagined her characterization of Rick as friend would relieve the tension; instead, Vincent rose abruptly and put the letter on a shelf.
"Vincent?" she asked, uncertainly. "Is something wrong?"
"No," he said, but his voice was rough and the answer was a touch too long in coming.
"Something is wrong," she said. "Please."
He shook his head vigorously. "No. Please, Catherine. Let it be."
"If something's bothering you, Vincent, I want to know it. I want to help. Is it Rick?"
He shook his head again. "No. I am pleased you had friends."
"That's all he is," she said softly, trying to reassure. "My friend."
"But you are concerned," he spat, whirling to face her, his eyes sparking with sudden fury. "Concerned that he may be concerned."
She blinked in confusion, taken aback by his surprising anger. "Well, yes. But I don't understand..."
He braced his hands on the table and leaned forward so aggressively that she drew back. "Three years, Catherine. For three years I did not know where you were. Did not know if you were safe. Did not even know if you lived. Were you concerned for me?"
Understanding broke over her and with it came a cold fury. She drew herself up rigidly. "How do you know what I felt in those years, Vincent? How do you know what I endured?"
"I don't," he answered crisply. "I can't. You have not told me. I know only that you were gone. And now, after only a few weeks, you write to your friend so he will not be alarmed."
He moved away from the table, his form blurring into a pool of shadow lurking beyond the candles. The blistering retort on her tongue died unspoken. He always took refuge in shadows.
Unbidden, her imagination flicked to an image of herself, waiting through long years for Vincent, vanished without a trace. As suddenly as it had come, her defensive anger vanished. "Oh, Vincent," she said softly. "I'm so sorry. And I knew, even then, what you must be thinking, what you must be enduring. There was nothing I wanted more than to reach out to you. You must know that."
He half turned, letting the light catch his shoulders, his hair. His bowed head hid his profile from her, and she wished she could see his eyes. "But you did not," he said, his voice so soft she could scarcely hear him. "Why?"
"One day," she said, her voice trembling, "only a few days before Nicholas was born, I stood on Fifth Avenue, across from the park. I could see the trees and the grass. I could see the path where it turned toward the tunnel. I was scared, Vincent. I'd been out of Gabriel's clutches for little more than twelve hours then. They were hunting me, all over the city. I wanted to come to you. I wanted, so badly, to be in your arms, to be safe. And it was all I could do to turn away, to keep going. Keep running. Keep hiding."
She had his full attention now. His eyes, wide and blue, were fixed on her face. "You should have come."
She shook her head. "No," she said, conviction adding strength to her voice. "I shouldn't have. Because they might have seen me. They might have followed me. I might have led them right to you, to your world. And Gabriel would have destroyed it." She waved her hand, the gesture encompassing the room. "He would have destroyed all this. And he would have destroyed you."
"You sacrificed yourself."
Her mind shied away from the notion of sacrifice. She'd simply done what was necessary. "I couldn't lead him to you, Vincent. I wouldn't."
"And later? After you left the city?"
"I could never know how close he was. Whether he might be watching. The simplest thing... a letter, a phone call, anything might have pointed to you. Or to someone who could be coerced into betraying us. Rick's not a target, Vincent, but you are. As much as Gabriel wants our son, he wants you. And a risk to you is a risk to this world, to all your family. I couldn't take that chance."
The memories of those days reached for her, shockingly vivid. She suppressed a shudder, pushed the memories back, and avoided his gaze, afraid he would see the things she wanted to forget. "I didn't know what you thought," she said. "I thought you must have found peace, must have found a way to deal with it. If you knew what those years were like, Vincent, knew of the fear, and the running, and all the time worried for Nicky, for what would become of him..."
His hand gripped her shoulder, drawing her up. "Never again," he murmured, crushing her against his chest. "You're safe here. You'll always be safe."
She almost believed him. But there was a current of fear, never truly vanquished, still tugging at her senses, and when he bent his head to brush his lips against her cheek, she reacted instinctively, turning her face towards his.
Their lips touched and Vincent paused, his breath catching sharply. And then he was kissing her as he'd been too ill and disoriented to do in the cavern, as he'd been too fearful to do before and too gentlemanly since. His kiss robbed her of breath, and blessedly, of her memories. She leaned into him, acutely aware his hold had changed from one of fiercely protective comfort to something altogether different. Her body pressed his intimately, hip, thigh, and breast.
It was long moments later when he dragged his mouth from hers and pressed her head hard against his chest, his breathing harsh and ragged.
She leaned against him, listening as the beat of his heart slowed beneath her cheek. His hands, no longer urgent, stroked her hair. When her trembling eased, he moved her away from him, his hands on her shoulders.
They'd taken a quantum step in their newly revived relationship, and she could see, in his eyes, how shaken he was.
Time. They both needed time, to assimilate what had happened, to put it into perspective. She took a deep breath and summoned a light smile. "Nicky's birthday is next week," she said. "I wondered if we could have a party for him, but I don't know your customs here."
He needed a long breath before he answered, but when he spoke, his voice was steady. "Parties for the children are usual. William will be glad to provide a cake and proper refreshments."
"Should I have it in my chamber?"
"Or here, if you prefer."
She smiled. "Cake ground into your carpets by a bunch of preschoolers? It doesn't seem appropriate."
"I don't mind, Catherine," he replied. "He's my son, too."
She gripped his arms. "Of course he is. I don't forget that."
"No. What day..." His voice faltered. "I wondered what day, exactly, is his birthday?"
She stared blankly for a moment. "I haven't told you?"
He shook his head; unspoken sorrow touched his eyes and the set of his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Vincent. He'll be three on Thursday. Next Thursday."
"Yes." His gaze seemed to turn inward.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Something... unusual, I think."
She frowned in puzzlement and he disengaged himself gently from her hands and moved to pluck a small book from a shelf near his bed. He brought it back and laid it in her hands.
She ran reverent fingers over the embossed leather binding. "The journal I gave you after your illness," she whispered, and opened the cover to read the inscription there. With love, all things are possible. Forever, Catherine. "It seems so long ago that I wrote those words."
"Yes," he agreed, and took the small volume from her to page through the closely written pages. "Look at this."
He handed the volume back, opened near the middle. The date at the top was that of Nicholas's birth, and she looked up quickly.
"Go ahead," he urged softly. "Read it."
There is a disturbance tonight, greater than the turmoil that accompanies my every breath. Something is wrong. I know it, sense it. I am afraid it's Catherine, but I can't be sure. It's so distant, so far away. I can't even tell where it's coming from. It just is. It comes in a surge, a strange, distressing restlessness, and ebbs just as quickly.
I don't know if it is Catherine. It is not the same as the connection that is lost now... I have no sense of her... only the disturbing sense of something wrong.
Later - it comes more often now, and lasts longer. I can't be still. I must keep moving, to use the restlessness before it consumes me. I don't know what is happening.
Still later - It's gone now. It seemed to peak, rolling over me in waves... and now there's nothing but a sort of tranquility. It frightens me. I try to rejoice. If it is Catherine, then she is at peace now. No longer troubled. But I fear what that may mean...
She looked up to find him watching her quietly.
He made a small, acquiescent movement of his head. "It seems that I did," he agreed, and swallowed visibly. "I thought you must be dead," he finished, flatly.
She closed her eyes against his pain. "I'm so sorry, Vincent. I never dreamed you would sense anything. Not from so far away. Not after so long. Our bond..."
"I don't believe it was you I sensed," he said. "I think it was Nicholas."
"Nicky?" She stared, incredulous. "Can you feel him?"
"No. Not now. Not usually. If he were very distressed, I might."
She offered a shaky smile. "It's all so strange, isn't it? The way we're bound together."
"Strange enough," he agreed.
She closed the small book and offered it back to him.
"No," he said. "Take it with you. It chronicles my search. My desperation. I want you to read it."
"Oh." She stared at him, rather stupidly, she thought, and then cradled the small volume against her chest. "All right."
Catherine surfaced from restless, dream-filled sleep, blinking hazily in the light of the single candle flame.
The voice came again, plaintive and edged with genuine distress. "Mommy!"
Pushing aside the covers, she slid out of bed and padded barefoot into the little cubicle where Nicholas slept. The smell assailed her as she pushed back the curtain. She lit one of the tapers on a shelf over his bed and quickly transferred the flame to other waiting wicks.
A glance confirmed what she already suspected; Nicholas had become ill and had vomited all over himself and his bed. His hands were smeared and his pajamas soaked. His lower lip quivered at her involuntary groan of dismay.
"I'm sorry, Mommy," he said, his voice trembling. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, Nicky. It's not your fault. It's okay. Come here." Carefully she folded back his blankets and helped him stand, keeping a reassuring hand on his shoulder - one of the few parts of him still clean. She pressed her palm to his forehead; he felt cool. "Do you feel sick?"
He shook his head and she noticed his hair hadn't escaped soiling. "Not anymore."
"Does your tummy hurt?"
"Not even a little bit?"
"Well, that's good, anyway." She breathed carefully through her mouth - the pungent odor threatened to make her gag.
Despite her best efforts, Nicholas noticed. "I'm sorry, Mommy," he said again, plaintively. "I didn't mean to." The sorrow in his voice was heartbreaking.
"I know you didn't. Let's get you out of those pajamas." She turned and was reaching for a towel to stand him on when the whisper of cloth on cloth and the soft sound of hurrying footsteps made her look up. Vincent, looking rumpled and mussed from sleep, halted in the doorway.
"What is it?" he asked anxiously. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sick, Daddy," Nicholas announced, his voice stronger and sounding much like his healthy self. "I threw up."
Vincent surveyed the bed and their son in alarm.
"It isn't serious," she assured him quickly.
"You're sure? I can get Father..."
"Unless he wants to help clean up, it isn't necessary. I promise."
He wavered a moment, then let out a long breath of relief. "What can I do?"
The offer of an extra pair of hands was a blessing. "If you could give him a bath..."
Vincent didn't hesitate. "Of course." He held out his hand to Nicholas.
"Wait," she said, and spread the towel on the carpet. "Here, Nicky, stand on this while I take your pajama shirt off."
Nicholas obliged, wincing as she carefully extricated him from the caked pullover shirt.
"Go with Daddy," she instructed. "When you get back, I'll have your bed all cleaned up."
He took Vincent's proffered hand and they left the chamber. Catherine took a moment to wonder where Vincent would find hot water at this time of night, then turned to the bed. Everything would have to be laundered, she saw, and set about stripping the bed, folding the sheets and blankets toward the middle to contain the mess. She added the towel and Nicholas's pajama top to the pile and bundled it into a corner. Fresh sheets and clean blankets and quilts were stored in a trunk in her own chamber and she fetched them, making up the bed quickly and efficiently. She took the basin from her washstand and set it on Nicholas's small bedside table in case he should be sick again. Everything was ready when Vincent carried Nicholas back, damply clean and wrapped in an oversized towel.
"We forgot clean pajamas," he explained ruefully.
Catherine managed a smile at the charming sight of the small, damp head nestled beside the larger, disheveled one, and produced fresh nightwear from a drawer. "Can you stay with him for a little while?" she asked.
"Of course," Vincent answered, surprised. "Where will you be?"
She waved toward the bundle of soiled linen. "If I don't rinse those things out now, they'll be crusted and stained in the morning and it'll be impossible."
His response was to deposit Nicholas into her arms. "I'll do it."
"Vincent, please," she protested. "It's not necessary."
"I'll do it," he said again, and gathered up the bundle. "I'll be back shortly."
She managed a flustered nod. "All right. If you insist."
He went out and she put Nicholas down. He swayed sleepily and she steadied him with one hand while she dressed him with the other. He didn't protest when she carried him to bed and tucked him between clean sheets.
"'Night, Mommy," he murmured.
"Goodnight, Nicky," she whispered, stroking his head. "Sleep well."
He was asleep within moments and she returned to the larger chamber where she hesitated, wondering if Vincent would come back, or if he would simply return to his own chamber after rinsing the linens.
He'd probably come back, she decided, to be sure Nicholas was all right. She made a circuit of the room, lighting candles to replace the ones she'd extinguished in Nicholas's alcove. She was circling the bed when she stubbed a bare toe on something that slid away from her on the threadbare carpet.
Holding the candle in her hand upright so it wouldn't drip wax, she bent to retrieve the object.
Vincent's journal. She'd been reading it in bed and remembered placing it beside her on the quilt, thinking she'd close her tired eyes for just a moment. The next thing she remembered was Nicholas crying out. The journal must have fallen to the floor when she pushed the covers back.
She set the candle down and sank onto the edge of the bed, fingering the embossed cover of the journal thoughtfully. She'd read well past her own abduction, experiencing Vincent's panic and horror and, as pages turned, his growing desperation.
The entries changed after the ones chronicling Nicholas's birth. The frantic quality gradually vanished, replaced by a deep, sorrowful resignation.
That's where she'd fallen asleep and it explained the sense of half-guilty dreams half-remembered. Her going had caused Vincent untold anguish, and even though it hadn't been her fault, she felt responsible.
Her feet were cold, so she drew them up and tucked them under the rumpled bedclothes.
She'd hurt him terribly by her absence and for an unhappy moment, she wondered if she could ever make it up to him. Then Nicholas turned in his sleep, drawing her attention to his curtained alcove, and she knew she already had.
It must be very late, she guessed. Or early. Her sense of time was dulled down here, away from the rhythms of the sun and moon, so she couldn't be sure. There were hours left in the usual sleeping period, though. She was sure of that.
The soft sound of her name jerked her upright and she blinked rapidly in the flickering candlelight. "What? Yes, I'm here." Half-drunk with sleep, she was babbling, trying to regain some sense of equilibrium.
Vincent appeared in the doorway, his eyes shadowed. "I'm sorry. Did I wake you?"
Catherine pushed her hair back vigorously, hoping to drive away some of the disorientation. "No. I mean, yes, I guess you did. I didn't mean to fall asleep, but I think I must have."
The bare glimmering of the tips of his long, pointed teeth showed he was smiling. "I'll leave you, then."
"No!" She called him back hastily, without thought. "I mean, please don't go."
He let his breath out in a long, quiet sigh, and stepped forward. "I'm here."
She touched the journal that still lay in her lap. "I've been reading..."
"Yes," he agreed, his glance flicking downward to the book. "I know."
"I thought I understood what I put you through," she said. "But I see now that I was wrong. I didn't begin to understand. I'm so sorry I hurt you."
"No apology is necessary, Catherine," he answered. "You did what you believed necessary."
"It was necessary," she said, her voice low. "I will always believe that."
"Then I believe it, too," he said.
She stirred restlessly. "It's hard to think, now, that your connection is with Nicky," she said wistfully. "Not with me."
Surprise showed plainly on his face. "Who told you that?"
"You did. This afternoon, and in here." She pointed to the journal.
"Because I sensed his birth?"
She nodded. "And because you came tonight, when he was sick."
His laugh was so soft she barely heard it. "Catherine, it wasn't Nicholas's distress that drew me just now. It was yours."
Her breath caught painfully in her chest. "Mine?" she whispered, echoing him.
He gave a tiny nod. "It's been growing slowly since your return. It's been tenuous... sometimes I wasn't even sure. But tonight, I felt it cleanly. There was no uncertainty."
"And you came."
"I will always come, Catherine, you know that."
She closed her eyes, briefly envisioning those long, painful months when he hadn't come. "I know," she whispered, forcing the words through a constricted throat.
His hand on her shoulder made her eyes fly open again and he drew her up and cradled her against his chest. "Never again," he promised softly. "I'll never not come again."
She clung to his words as she clutched at the loose folds of his sleeping tunic. There was safety and comfort in both and she let herself be lost in them. "I told you," she said suddenly.
"Told me what?" he asked, into her hair. "When?"
"Before. When you were recovering from your illness."
"Ah." He chuckled. "'Have faith that it will,'" he quoted.
"Yes," she agreed. "And I was right, too. Our bond is back. Strong as ever?"
"I believe so," he said. "I haven't tested it."
"Don't," she told him. "I don't want you to go that far away."
"I won't," he promised. "I'll be here always."
In the morning, Nicholas felt fine, but Father came to examine him anyway.
"There you go," he said when he finished, and patted Nicholas on the head. "You can put your shirt back on."
"This is my pajama shirt," Nicholas complained. "I want my dinosaur shirt."
"Well, certainly, if you like," Father agreed. "But cover up; we don't want you to catch cold on top of everything else."
"What is it, Father?" Vincent asked, a thin thread of anxiety coloring his voice.
Father stepped to the waiting basin of warm water and washed his hands briskly. "He's fine, Vincent. Perhaps a touch of virus, but he's certainly showing no ill effects today."
"I'm hungry, Daddy," Nicholas said. "Can we go to breakfast?"
Father shook his head. "I'm sorry, Nicholas. I think it's best if we keep you away from the other children today. We don't want them to get sick, do we?"
Nicholas's lower lip crept out, but he shook his head. "No," he said. "I guess not."
"Your daddy can bring you something to eat," Father suggested. "What would you like?"
"Oatmeal!" proclaimed Nicholas, pleased to be the center of so much attention. "And scrambled eggs and toast and muffins and waffles."
"Nicky," Catherine protested. "You couldn't possibly eat all that."
"Yes, I could," he maintained stoutly. "I threw up," he added, in case she'd forgotten. "All over my bed. I'm really hungry."
"No doubt," Vincent agreed. "I'll see what William has available. Catherine? Shall I bring you a tray?"
"Please," she answered. "And something for yourself, if you haven't already eaten."
Vincent nodded briefly and went out. Father turned from drying his hands.
"Vincent seems to have slipped into his role as father quite easily," he commented.
"Yes, he has," she agreed. "I think Nicky scared him a little, last night, but he handled it well."
"Our children are seldom ill," Father explained. "Isolated as they are, they don't come in contact with many forms of infection."
Catherine frowned. "I don't know where Nicky got this. He's been down here for nearly four weeks. That's too long for him to have caught it up top, isn't it?"
Father nodded. "It may not even be a virus. Children his age eat all sorts of things they shouldn't. The isolation is merely a precaution."
Catherine glanced toward Nicholas, who was energetically struggling into his favorite blue sweatshirt emblazoned on the front with a realistic drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in full battle mode. "I'm sure he'll be fine," she agreed.
"Quite." Father tucked his stethoscope into his black leather bag and snapped it closed. "Have I told you, Catherine, how very much your coming back has affected Vincent?"
"No," she said, long-held caution rising defensively. "In what way?"
Father folded his hands on top of the bag and smiled. "He's relaxed, he's cheerful, he's full of joy. Kanin claims to have heard him humming last week on a work detail. I don't think I've ever seen him quite so happy."
Catherine relaxed. "It's Nicky," she said. "They're so wrapped up in each other..."
"Of course it's Nicholas," Father agreed. "His mere presence has done more for Vincent than I could ever have imagined. Not that I'd ever imagined Vincent fathering a child in the first place."
Father brought his hand up and cupped her cheek gently in its palm. "But it's you, too," he said. "The walks you take, the books you read to one another. The hours you spend together in the Whispering Gallery, or here, or in his chamber."
"You forgot the Mirror Pool," she said lightly.
"The Mirror Pool, too, I've no doubt," he agreed. "I've seen what that's done for him, Catherine, having you near. He seems years younger, and the terrible weight he seemed to carry for so long, even before you left us, seems to have vanished."
"And you think I did that?"
He bent to press an affectionate kiss to her cheek. "I am certain of it."