She'd thought Father's party would take place after the evening meal, but instead, William and what must have been an army of assistants prepared platter after platter of above-style hors 'doerves, cold cuts, fresh vegetables and fruits. The sumptuous array was a far cry from usual tunnel fare; Catherine suspected Peter's largesse was behind it.
"Of course," he confirmed later, after he'd enveloped her in a tight bear hug. He'd held her for an inordinate amount of time and when he released her, his eyes were suspiciously moist. "This is a time for celebration." He looked down. "And who is this young man?"
Nicholas, seized with a fit of shyness, shuffled back behind her. Vincent drew him out with a gentle hand on his shoulder. "This is Nicholas," he said, his voice filled with quiet pride. "Nicholas, can you say how do you do to Peter?"
Nicholas shrank back and shook his head timidly.
Peter crouched down in front of him and offered a disarming smile. "Did you know," he said, conversationally, "that I knew your mother when she was your age?"
Nicholas shook his head.
"In fact, I was there when she was born," Peter went on, his eyes twinkling.
"Peter." Catherine thought she saw what was coming, and put all the warning she could muster into her voice.
Peter grinned and held his hands about a foot and a half apart. "She was only this big," he said.
Nicholas looked at her as if trying to imagine her that small. "Really?" he asked cautiously.
"Really," Peter confirmed. "And I'll tell you something else."
He ignored her. "She was all red, and yelling like somebody'd stuck her with a pin. You could hear her all over the hospital."
That did it. Nicholas broke into a wide smile and tugged at her hand. "Did you really, Mommy?"
"I don't know, Nick," she told him fondly. "I can't remember. Can you remember when you were born?"
His brow puckered for a moment, and he shook his head.
"Well, I'm not surprised," Peter said. "My job is helping babies to be born, and none of them ever remembers it afterwards. I suppose they're just too small."
Nicholas nodded agreement. "I was too small," he confirmed, and looked up. "Mommy, did Peter help me be born, too?"
Catherine shook her head and stole a glance at Vincent. He stood stolidly, arms folded now that Nicholas had gotten over his unaccustomed shyness, watching. "No, Nick. He wasn't there."
"Oh." Nicholas lost interest as Olivia and Kanin entered the chamber. "Look, Mommy," he said. "That's Luke. He let me play with his truck."
Catherine looked. Luke, who'd been barely toddling last time she'd seen him, now came to Olivia's waist. He must be five now, she guessed. "I remember," she said to Nicholas. "Do you want to go say hi?"
He nodded and darted across the room. Vincent glanced her way, as if asking permission, and followed.
The room was filling rapidly. When it seemed that everyone had arrived, Father made his way to the center of the room and thumped his cane on the stone floor for silence. The babble of voices died obediently.
"As I'm sure you're all aware," he began a bit pompously, "we're here to welcome Catherine back to our community. And to celebrate Nicholas's presence among us. Though he's a bit old for a naming ceremony, don't you think?"
Onlookers chuckled politely at his small joke. Nicholas, across the chamber and perched on Vincent's arm, whispered something into his daddy's ear; Vincent listened intently for a moment and then whispered a reply.
"We want you to know, Catherine," Father continued, "how very glad we are to have you return to us safely." He crossed the floor and bent to give her a ceremonious kiss on the cheek. "Welcome home."
He retreated and Catherine was deluged with an onslaught of wellwishers. Peter remained staunchly at her side and she was grateful for his presence as she was greeted effusively and shyly by turns. As with Luke, it was the children who surprised her the most. It was one thing to understand that more than three years had passed, but quite another to find herself greeting Samantha, poised and lovely at sixteen, to look up at Kipper, now taller than she. Geoffrey, whom she remembered as a shy ten year old, was gangly and awkward, with arms and legs that seemed to go on forever. His freckles and his sweet smile were the same, though, and she greeted him warmly.
"I'm glad you're back," he said, blushing furiously in the wake of the hug she'd given him. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too, Geoffrey," she said. "You're what, thirteen now?"
"Fourteen next week," he said. "I saw your little boy over there with Vincent." He pointed. "He's cute."
"Thanks. Is Vincent getting him something to eat?"
"I think so." He glanced at her empty hands. "Did you eat yet? I could get you a plate..."
Catherine had been too busy fielding warm welcomes to think of eating, but at Geoffrey's mention of food, she was suddenly ravenous. "Would you? I'd be grateful."
"Sure." She watched him cross the room with a confidence he wouldn't have had three years ago, then sighed and turned to greet the next well-wisher.
But instead, Mary stood there. "I've run them all off," she announced. "You need a moment to gather yourself, Catherine. Come sit down."
Catherine sank gratefully into the offered chair. "Thank you, Mary. It's lovely to have been missed, but it is wearying, as well."
"Of course it is," Mary agreed. "Has anyone thought to bring you something to eat?"
"As a matter of fact, Geoffrey just offered to get me a plate. The children amaze me," she admitted, as Mary pulled her own chair close. "They've grown so. Changed."
"We've all changed, Catherine," Mary said. "Time does that to all of us."
"Yes, I suppose it does," Catherine reflected. "I wonder what it's done to me."
Mary regarded her thoughtfully. "You're more tense than you used to be. Wary, almost. You watch the entrances, the people." She smiled. "And it's nearly killing you to have Nicholas on the other side of the chamber."
"I'm used to him being within arm's length," Catherine admitted with an embarrassed laugh. "I know he's safe with Vincent, but part of me can't help wondering how I'd get to him if we had to get out fast."
"Habits are hard to break," Mary said. "I know. But you're safe here, Catherine. Ah, here's Geoffrey with your dinner."
"I didn't know what you liked," Geoffrey said, placing a steaming plate in her lap. "So I got you some of everything. And a napkin and some silverware and some lemonade."
"That's perfect, Geoffrey. Thank you." Only when he was safely out of earshot did she lean toward Mary in dismay. "What'll I do?" she asked, pitching her voice low so it wouldn't carry. "I couldn't eat this much in two meals!"
Mary glanced at the heaping plate and smiled. "He's a growing boy," she said. "With a growing boy's appetite. He'd wolf that down and go back for seconds. Eat what you can, Catherine, and don't worry about the rest."
"But the waste!"
"There's no help for it. If you put any of it back, it would hurt Geoffrey's feelings. Besides, our helpers sent so much food for this, we're in danger of the excess spoiling before we can use it up. Please, don't worry." She smiled. "If it will make you feel better, we'll offer it to Mouse, for Arthur."
The thought of some of William's best dishes ending up as Arthur's dinner was mildly appalling, but Mary was right; she couldn't hurt Geoffrey by rejecting what he'd brought. Bravely, she picked up her fork and dug in.
Whether by tacit agreement or because she had finally spoken with everyone present, the press around her eased and the others began talking and mingling among themselves. Peter had excused himself halfway through, murmuring something unintelligible, but he returned as she set her plate, still half-full, aside.
"Sorry, Cathy," he apologized. "For weeks I've been meaning to speak with Jacob about his supply of antibiotics, and I was afraid, if I didn't do it right then, I'd forget again."
"It's fine, Peter," she assured him. "Geoffrey brought me something to eat, and Mary sat with me."
"And now that you're back, Peter, it's past time for the children to be in bed." Mary bustled off, calling the younger children by name.
Peter sank into the vacated chair. "I am sorry, Cathy," he apologized again. "Are you having a good time?"
Her shrug was noncommittal. "It's good to see so many old friends and acquaintances," she said. "But draining."
"You've had a long, stressful day," Peter sympathized.
Catherine nodded agreement. "There's nothing I'd like better right now than to tumble into bed and sleep twelve hours," she admitted. "But I'm the guest of honor here. It would be rude to duck out early."
"Not at all," Peter said firmly. "You've been through a great deal, Cathy. No one expects you to exhaust yourself for the sake of form." He turned and snagged one of the children walking by. "Jason. Run get Vincent for me, will you?"
The boy, no more than eight, with shaggy dark hair shielding wary eyes, nodded and hurried across the chamber like a broken-field runner, dodging people in his path.
A moment later he returned with Vincent, Nicholas half-asleep on his shoulder, in his wake. "Here," the boy announced with the air of one who's performed a tedious duty.
"Thank you, Jason," Peter said, and grinned at Vincent as the boy moved off into the crowd. "One of these days he'll get into the spirit of helping," he said. "We hope."
"Jason's life has been difficult," Vincent replied. "He's doing well. What did you need, Peter?"
"Cathy's exhausted," Peter answered. "As her physician, I'm sending her off to bed, but I didn't think she'd go without him." He pointed to the drowsy child on Vincent's shoulder.
Nicholas straightened abruptly, his eyes artificially wide. "I don't want to go to bed," he announced. "I want to stay here."
"You were up late last night, Nicky," Catherine objected. "You need your sleep."
"But Mommy," he began, a tired whine creeping into his voice.
Motherly instinct kicked in and she stood up. "Sorry, Nick," she said. "You are going straight to bed."
"Come," Vincent said, overriding them both. "Your mother's right, Nicholas. It has been a long and tiring day and you need your rest."
Nicholas looked sullen, but Vincent's calm directive quelled further argument. Catherine made cursory goodbyes to those close enough to notice their leaving, and hugged Peter tightly, with a whispered promise to spend time with him soon.
Vincent carried Nicholas to her chamber and set him down. Nicholas kept a firm hold of his hand. "Stay, Daddy," he ordered.
Catherine brought pajamas from a drawer. "Here, Nicky," she said. "Let's get these on you."
"No!" he said, and squirmed away from her outstretched hands. "I want my daddy to do it."
Catherine let her hands drop. "All right," she acceded, with a glance at Vincent to be sure he was amenable. "Your daddy can help you."
She busied herself dampening a washcloth and putting a dab of toothpaste on Nicholas's toothbrush, all the while listening to the voices and occasional squeals of laughter from behind her. When she turned, Nicholas was properly attired in his blue pajamas, his hair tousled from pulling the shirt over his head.
"Good boy," she praised him. "Now come brush your teeth. All of them," she reminded, as he took the brush and began to scrub at his front ones. "I'll wash your face when you're done."
Vincent observed all this in silence. When Nicholas's ablutions were finished, he scampered across the floor and climbed into his small bed. "Tell me a story, Daddy," he demanded.
Vincent obligingly pulled a chair beside Nicholas's cot. Catherine sank onto the edge of her bed to listen.
"Once upon a time," he began, "these tunnels and chambers, the very ones you see here, and all around you," his wide gesture took in their surroundings, "were empty. No one lived here, and the smallest sounds made lonesome echoes against the rock. And then, one day..."
Catherine listened as Vincent recounted the founding of his world. Nicholas was rapt, his eyes never leaving his father's face. "That's nice," he murmured, when the story ended. "I'm glad there are people here now."
Vincent smoothed back his hair and planted a kiss on his brow. "So am I, Nicholas. Sleep well..." he hesitated, his glance meeting hers fleetingly before he finished. "My son."
"'Kay," Nicholas agreed sleepily. "'Night, Daddy. Mommy? I need a kiss."
Grateful he hadn't forgotten her entirely, Catherine moved forward for her own goodnight, kissing his cheek and tucking the blankets in around him. "Good night, Nicky," she whispered. "I love you."
"...love you, too," he murmured, his eyes already closing.
She moved away quietly, to where Vincent waited.
"Catherine," he said, his voice colored with regret.
But she'd already known he wouldn't stay. She nodded in resignation. "I know, Vincent. I'll be all right."
He touched her cheek. "Will you?"
She lifted her chin and smiled. "Yes. I will. You forget, Nicky and I have been alone together for a long time now."
He flinched. "Catherine..."
"No," she said quickly. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. I just meant I'm used to it. I'm strong, Vincent. You know that. You taught me that. I'll be all right." She took his hand between both of hers. "I needed you last night. Things were happening too quickly, and I needed you to anchor me. You did that, even though I know it wasn't comfortable for you, and I'm grateful. But I'm okay now."
The look he gave her was long and intense, but finally he nodded acceptance. "Yes," he agreed, and turned to go. At the chamber's entrance, he paused.
She braced herself as he turned back.
"I know time has passed, and things are not as they were."
"But once, we would not have parted in this way." He lifted his head and met her eyes. "Would it be too much to ask for a proper goodnight?"
His expression was wistful and a little uncertain.
"No," she whispered. "It's not too much to ask." He opened his arms and she went to him, pressing her face into his shoulder, her arms tight around his waist. It felt like going home. She was sorry when he finally released her.
"Goodnight, Catherine," he said. "Sleep well."
For the second night in a row, Catherine's sleep was deep and dreamless, a vivid contrast to the restless, listening half-sleep she'd adopted over the past years.
She woke to someone tugging on her arm. Nicholas knelt beside her on the bed.
"Wake up, Mommy," he said insistently. "It's morning. Wake up."
She blinked at him groggily. "What?"
"It's morning," he repeated. "I want to get up."
"Oh." She sat up and rubbed at her eyes. "It doesn't feel like morning, Nick."
"Yes, it does," he argued. "There are people outside. Listen."
She concentrated and indeed, the sound of muted voices carried down the passage outside the chamber. "Well, maybe it is morning," she conceded. "Okay. I'm up."
She crossed to the basin and splashed water on her face. "How long have you been awake?" she asked, groping for a towel.
"A long time. See? I already got dressed."
She lowered the towel and looked. Sure enough, he'd put on jeans, a t-shirt, and a sweater. His feet were bare, though, and his discarded pajamas made a blue puddle on the floor.
"Very good. Now find some socks and put your pajamas away while I get dressed."
"Okay," he said agreeably. "Hurry up."
"Hurry up, please?" she suggested gently.
"Hurry up, please," he repeated. "I'm hungry."
Catherine dressed quickly and made her bed. Nicholas pulled up the blankets on his cot; she didn't have the heart to discourage him by smoothing out the wrinkles or straightening the covers so they didn't droop to the floor on one side.
"Ready?" she asked brightly.
His impatient scowl answered her.
"I want to thank you," she said as they walked toward the dining chamber, "for waiting for me this morning. I worry that you might get impatient and wander off by yourself. I'm glad you didn't do that."
He shook his head solemnly. "I won't. My daddy made me promise."
"He did? When?"
"Yesterday. There are dangerous places here." He pronounced the long word carefully, each syllable separate and distinct.
Catherine suppressed a smile. "Yes, there are," she agreed, trying to match his solemnity. "Just like in Spokane, remember?"
"I couldn't go in the street," he recalled. "Because the cars might run over me."
"That's right. Here, there are steep places where you might fall down, or places with lots and lots of rooms and tunnels where you could get lost."
He nodded sagely. "My daddy told me."
They turned into the dining chamber. Most of the community had already eaten, but there were a few stragglers who looked up and smiled a greeting.
Nicholas tugged at her sleeve. "Will my daddy be here?" he whispered urgently.
"I don't think so, Nick. He probably ate his breakfast a long time ago."
"You talking about Vincent?" William asked from his place behind the serving table. "He was in a couple of hours ago. They're changing the ways again and he and Mouse have been planning a new kind of false wall they wanted to test."
"Yes," Catherine confirmed. "He'll be gone all day, then."
"Most likely," William agreed. "Here, youngster, you want a pancake?"
Catherine carried their plates to a nearby table; Nicholas followed with forks and napkins.
"Sit here, Nick," Catherine said. "You start on your pancakes while I go get us something to drink."
"Here," said an unfamiliar voice. "You look like you could use this." A dark hand placed a steaming cup on the table. Catherine looked up and met dark eyes shining from a dark face.
"Hello," she said, in surprise.
"You look like a coffee sort of person," the woman told her. She smiled at Nicholas. "And you look as if you'd enjoy a glass of milk."
Before he could answer, she produced one and set it before him. With a nod that might pass as sketchy thanks, he picked it up in both hands and took a deep swallow.
"Thank you," Catherine said. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"I'm Natalie," the woman said. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Please." Catherine indicated a chair. "I'm Catherine, and this is Nicholas."
"Oh, I know that," Natalie said airily.
"I suppose you do," Catherine said, embarrassed.
"You two are celebrities around here," Natalie said. "Everyone knows you, everyone's talking about you."
Catherine glanced around the chamber. "You think so?"
"I know so. Don't worry, though. The excitement will die down soon and people will get used to you being here."
"I hope so," Catherine said. "Nicky, use your napkin."
Nicholas smeared a dribble of syrup across his chin. "Do you know my daddy?" he asked Natalie.
"Yes, I do," she answered him. "In fact, he asked me to watch out for you today."
"He did?" Nicholas asked, in surprise. "Why?"
"Because I have a little boy," Natalie said. "His name's Brian, and he's only a little bit older than you are. He just turned three."
"Oh," Nicholas said. "I'll be three pretty soon. Next week, I think."
"In four weeks, Nick," Catherine corrected. His concept of time wasn't clear yet; to him, all future events were either "tomorrow" or "next week."
"Oh," he said. "Okay. Where is your little boy?" he asked of Natalie.
"He's with his grandmother right now. She's watching him while I come and talk to you."
Nicholas's gaze went to Catherine. "Do I have a grandmother?" he inquired.
"No, honey. My mother died when I was still a little girl, and nobody knows who your daddy's mother was."
"Oh." Nicholas frowned a little.
"You know what?" Natalie said, to distract him. "Vincent... your daddy... thought that maybe, if it's okay with your mother, you might be able to play with Brian today."
Nicholas's eyes lit up. "Can I, Mommy?"
"May I," she corrected automatically, and eyed Natalie carefully. The young woman seemed warm and open and generous in her welcome, but something inside Catherine stuck at the thought of sending Nicholas off with her.
"You can come, too," Natalie said. "We can visit or something, while the boys play."
Catherine relaxed and permitted a smile. "I'd like that."
"My mama's Ruth," Natalie explained a few minutes later, leading the way down a long corridor.
"I remember Ruth," Catherine said. "From before. I didn't know her very well. I didn't know she had children."
"Two of us," Natalie said. "Me and my brother David. David's an accountant, of all things. Lives in Newark."
"Do you see him often?" Catherine inquired politely.
"Often enough," Natalie said. "He comes down three, four times a year to visit us and his friends. And he never forgets Christmas, or Mama's birthday."
They reached Ruth's chamber and went inside. Ruth was busy at a tall loom set up in a corner of the chamber, but she stopped her work when they came in.
"Catherine," she said, and came forward to offer work-roughened hands.
Catherine took them warmly. "Hello, Ruth. It's good to see you."
"Good to have you back, girl," Ruth answered. "Natalie and me, we saw you last night, but you looked so tired, we just thought we'd wait and welcome you back some other time."
"I was tired," Catherine admitted. "But it was good to see everyone. I'm sorry I missed you."
Ruth gave a snort. "Don't you worry about it." She turned. "Brian! Get your things and come on, now. Your mama's here to get you."
A boy Nicholas's size with chocolate brown skin and soft, liquid eyes bounded out from behind the loom. He stopped stockstill at sight of Nicholas.
"Brian, this is Nicholas," Natalie told him. "Are you ready to go home?"
Brian nodded, his gaze still fixed on Nicholas, who stared back.
"Say goodbye to Grandma Ruth," Natalie prompted him.
"'Bye, Grandma," Brian said. "See you later."
"See you later, Brian."
Natalie and Catherine started out, herding the boys in front of them. From the sound, Ruth returned to her loom and the half-woven blanket before they even reached the corridor. "My chamber's down just a little way," Natalie explained. "Right in here."
Her chamber was larger than the one Catherine and Nicholas shared, with a carved wooden screen to partition off a large corner. "This is my room," Brian told Nicholas importantly, and led him behind the screen. "These are my toys."
"Wow," Nicholas said, from Brian's corner.
"You can play with this," Brian was heard to offer.
Natalie raised her eyebrows. "Sounds like they've decided to be friends," she said. "Want some coffee?"
Catherine had drunk only one cup with her hurried breakfast, and the aroma coming from a battered tin pot steaming on a hot plate was too good to refuse. "I'd love some."
Natalie brought it in two thick mugs. "Sit down, please," she invited. "We'll talk."
Catherine sat at a small round table; Natalie took a seat opposite.
Catherine studied the other woman briefly. "I'm sorry," she apologized, after a moment. "I keep thinking you look familiar, but if we've met, I don't recall it."
Natalie smiled. "Once. At Winterfest. I didn't live here then. I was going to college in Pennsylvania, but I came home for Winterfest. Always came home for Winterfest. That was before Brian," she added matter-of-factly. "When I found out about Brian, I thought my boyfriend would offer to marry me. Instead, he told me he was too young to be a daddy. He quit school and moved away, and I haven't seen him since."
"Don't be. I thought he was the kind of man I could spend my life with, but after what he did, I think I'm better off without him. Anyway, I have Brian."
"You gave up school?"
"Only temporarily. I came down here to have him, and I just never went back. Maybe I will, someday. Right now, Brian and I have a home, I'm with my mama. I'm useful here. I teach the children and help in the nursery and the kitchen and the candle shop."
"I need to be useful, too," Catherine said. "I guess I should talk to Father about that."
"Mary would be better," Natalie advised. "Unless you want to go out on some of the work details like Jamie does, and fix leaky pipes and build new chambers and help change the ways."
Catherine smiled. "I think I'd prefer to stay closer to home," she said. "Besides, Nicholas needs me. I'll speak to Mary."
She waited while Natalie refilled their coffee cups and returned to the table.
"You've known Vincent a long time," she observed.
"Since I was a little girl," Natalie confirmed. "He used to babysit me and my brother sometimes when my mama had to go somewhere. I adored him."
"Then you know... what it was like for him." Catherine paused and swallowed hard. "When I was gone."
"These past three years? Yes." Natalie toyed with her cup. "He was frantic at first. He looked for you. He made all of us look for you. For months."
"Father told me that," Catherine whispered.
"We were all ready to give up months before Vincent got discouraged," Natalie went on. "I'm sorry. We just... we were sure you must be dead. We all felt badly for him. Hurt for him. But we went through the motions because he needed us to. And because we didn't want to give up and find out later we'd been wrong."
Catherine nodded faintly. "I can understand that."
"And then one day, Father said we could all return to our usual duties. No more scrambling to get the usual work done in our spare time. He said we should stay alert, just in case something should come up, but..."
"Yes. And Vincent?"
"Vincent still went topside every night. But he seemed to draw in on himself. It was almost as if he was smaller, diminished, you know? Like the spark inside of him had gone out. He even stopped participating in our social activities."
"How do you mean?"
"Poetry readings, concerts, parties. Before, he was always there, in the thick of things. Helping plan, helping set up. Reading passages from Shakespeare. But after you left, he started finding excuses, thinking of reasons why he couldn't come. He even stopped coming to Winterfest. He said he wouldn't come until you were back. Until you could come with him."
"And he hasn't been back since?"
Natalie looked uncomfortable. "Well, not exactly. He missed three years. Wouldn't budge, no matter how much Father argued. And we all know Father argued, especially the third year. But he came to the last Winterfest. Last month." She frowned. "He stood on the side with his arms folded and watched. Watching the dancing, mostly, with this hurt, wistful sort of look in his eyes. He left early, before the circle, and we all wondered if he'd be able to come next year." She glanced at Catherine. "But I guess he will."
"I hope so," Catherine said softly. "I hope so."