For the Greater Good


A note, if it should be mentioned:   This is between the episodes, "The Watcher" and "A Distant Shore".


It was the second day in a row that Catherine had felt this sluggishness in her muscles, not to mention having woken up rather queasy.  Something she picked up, maybe?  In a city of over eight-million people it was difficult *not* to catch whatever was currently making the rounds.

Of course, leave it to Joe to make the wisecracks, trying to cheer her up that morning with a well-placed quack diagnosis. -- -- 'If you actually had a social life, Radcliffe, I'd wonder if you were pregnant,' he'd quipped ... to which she'd responded with a sarcastic purse of her lips.

Yes, she had a social life, even if none of her friends above were privy to it.  But no, she wasn't pregnant unless the Earth was witnessing an immaculate conception.  Something was wrong though.  Even the morning coffee she sat drinking at her desk tasted ... 'off'.

"Mid-morning snacks, ladies and gents," came a voice booming into the room.  It was the candy and snack vendor, making an early pass through the office.  In he strolled, pushing a cart of sickeningly sweet chocolate bars, plastic tubes of salty nuts, and colorful little bags of greasy, artery-clogging chips.  At the moment, with the way her stomach felt, it almost made Catherine want to double over.

"Bag of pretzels?" the salesman asked as he approached Catherine's desk.  He knew her tastes -- she was one of his regular customers.

"Oh God no," she groaned, her face grimacing in disgust.  "And if you're smart, you'll stay far away from me."

"Stomach flu, lady?" he asked with some genuine concern.

Catherine shook her head in the negative.  "Probably just something I ate.  But I think I'll wait ‘til lunch to risk any food."

The vendor came closer, extending a crinkly bag of pretzels anyway.  "On the house," he assured, then laid the package on her desk.  Quite specifically, he tapped the label with his index finger.  "Toast, crackers, and pretzels is what my mama always suggested.  Hope you feel better soon."

After he left, calling out to his next potential customers, Catherine took a closer look at that little crinkly bag.  That's when she saw it.  Why had he foisted the snack upon her?  And why had he so purposefully pointed to its label?  Answer ... because the label was not merely a label.  A message had been jotted in the margins. -- -- 'Must see you.  Of some urgency.  Father.'

The fact that it was from the father rather than his son, worried her.  The use of the word 'urgency' -- that just set her adrenaline flowing.  With no more mind to her own queasiness, she closed the deposition she'd been reading and grabbed her purse.  She would tell Joe it was getting worse and she needed to go home sick.

And she would take the pretzels too.  At this rate, she'd need to get her energy from somewhere.


"Ah, Catherine," Father greeted when she came hurrying into the patriarch's study.  "Good, I'm glad you're here."

"There's something wrong with Vincent, isn't there," she concluded with mounting concern.  That pretzel bag was no longer the only clue.  She'd been met at her apartment building's tunnel entrance by Mouse.  A slightly pale Mouse, actually.

"First let me ask how *you're* doing," Father countered, his medically trained eyes already taking in the washed-out tint to her face.  "Are you experiencing any nausea, vomiting ... anything like that?"

"A little," she affirmed, slightly taken aback.  "Why?  What's happened?"

"A similar sickness seems to have broken out down here as well," he replied.  "We've determined that it's not contagious though, as of this morning, which is why I finally sent for you.  I know you were down here two nights ago, and that seems to be the timeframe the problem originates from.  More precisely, those who ate at the common dinner."

"And Vincent?" she pushed.  Yes indeed, she had shared dinner below two nights ago -- seated right next to her beau in the main dining hall.  He'd even eaten some food off her plate.  So if *she* was suffering ... ...

"It's affecting him more harshly than the others.  Which is the other reason I sent for you.  He's in his chamber."

Her eyes widened as she tried to decipher Father's true level of worry.  "Thank you," she finally stammered, and made an exit even more hasty than her entrance.


"I told Father not to send for you," came Vincent's apologetic voice before she'd even crossed the threshold into his chamber.

He'd felt her presence growing stronger for almost an hour already, as well as a low-grade sensation of her fear.  He knew when the first message had reached his beloved, despite his pleas that Father not worry her unnecessarily.

"Then it's a good thing he didn't listen," she replied when she finally caught sight of Vincent.  Instantly, a thread of relief.  Yes, he was in bed.  And yes, his skin was lacking some of its normal, dark tawny coloring.  But his eyes were alight at her arrival.

Her purse found itself dropped unceremoniously on the table as she made her way to the side of his sick bed.  Vincent's hand shyly smoothed a spot on the blanket, silently inviting her to sit.  The idea of inhabiting his bed at the same time as his beloved was much less intimidating at the moment, when he knew he was far too weak to pose much of a danger to anyone ... even Catherine.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, her mood easing with every step closer.  Fortunately, he didn't look excessively ill.  And more importantly, she was here now. 

Carefully, she sat down beside him, one set of fingers twining easily with his while her other hand reached for his forehead.  "Any fever?"  She wasn't entirely sure what a fever would feel like on this man, but if nothing else, it was an excuse to stroke his forehead. -- -- A touch of comfort for them both.

He shook his head briefly, tired eyes closing at the brush of her hand.  The shiver it sent through his nervous system almost made him forget the pain in his stomach.  "It's centered down here," he explained, his free hand splaying gingerly across his abdomen.

"Father says your reaction is worse than the others," she hushed fretfully.  "Be honest with me."

Vincent caught her second hand as it fluttered toward his abdomen, then folded them both within his own.  "Please don't worry, Catherine.  Whatever is causing this, you know I'm stronger." ... The reassurance in his voice was bested only by that in his bashful smile. ... "I worry over you as well.  You've fallen ill too, haven't you."

Catherine's mouth opened in disbelief.  "You mean you can feel it?"

He nodded.  "It's different in form than my own affliction.  And weaker.  But it's there. ... ... I regret having coaxed you to our dinner the other evening. I'm sorry I brought this to you as well."

"*Don't* say that," she demanded gently.  Such dinner invitations had only begun recently as their time together continued to grow.  She was *not* going to give up their progress just because of a stomach bug.  "Do *not* say it.  Things like this happen.  I could just as easily have gotten sick at a restaurant above.  I suspect William's kitchen is far more sanitary than some of those the health department has yet to catch up with."

Vincent chuckled lightly in defeat.  He wasn't going to argue. -- -- He didn't have the extra energy, and he knew he wouldn't win anyway.  "All right," he relented.  "Well then at least promise me that you'll take some rest too."

"I will." she agreed with a healthy dose of resolve, "because I'm staying right here." 


Indeed, that's exactly what she did for the rest of the day.

Father knew of her presence, but if he had any complaints he didn't voice them.  Perhaps he saw the advantage of the sickest tunnel dweller -- the patriarch's own son -- having a dedicated, personal attendant.

The couple read for the most part.  Or rather, she read and he listened.

It was an interesting turn of events, disturbingly reminiscent of those first days together ... ... when it was she in this bed, blind behind tightly wrapped bandages, while he read to her from "Great Expectations".  Now however, Vincent was not blind, and he watched her so silently ... so lovingly ... while she read that very same book.  Too many times she wondered what was going on behind those pensive, feline eyes, but decided such conversations were probably best left for when they were both in better equilibrium.

Eventually, his normal sleep patterns took over and the sick, leonine man dozed off.  He was accustomed to wandering the park at night ... or visiting his beloved's balcony ... then making up for it with naps while the sun was up.  And staying awake -- while his body was weakened by the sickness and his heart lulled by the woman he loved -- was next to impossible.

Catherine waited until she was sure he was under, then quietly took her leave.  She was actually starting to feel better, her stomach settled.  Even to the point of hunger pangs.  Now was a good opportunity for a quick trip to the kitchens.


"Jacob, I'm telling you, I've been through every tub of leftovers William gave me.  There's nothing wrong with them.  Nothing is even remotely off.  And the concentration of salmonella or e-coli required to cause such a widespread outbreak would certainly leave traces.  I'm finding *nothing*."

Catherine recognized the adamant voice that was currently lecturing Father, emanating from the study as she returned to Vincent's chamber.  She carried a tray of herbal tea and muffins, hoping her beau would be able to down at least some of the warm liquid.

The voice was that of Peter Alcott.

"If it's not food poisoning," argued Father, as Catherine tiptoed into the study, "then why did it start after dinner two nights ago?  And now I'm beginning to feel the symptoms as well, despite not having eaten with the others that night.  I *have*, however, eaten from the kitchens since then.  No, I tell you, there's something in there that ..."

"There *is* one more possibility," Peter replied solemnly.  "Although I truly hope I'm wrong."

Father noticed Catherine as she stepped further into the room, but gave her only the briefest nod of acknowledgement.  "Go on," he coaxed his old medical school classmate.

"You're not remembering your toxins very well, Jacob.  A metallic poison.  Antimony; arsenic; barium.  Something no microscope would detect.  And if it were water-soluble ... ... ... we don't know where these underground rivers are coming from.  Where your water supply ultimately originates.  Quite honestly, I'm wondering if it isn't something in your drinking water."

Father's brow lowered and his eyes widened in fearful surprise.

"Now I'm not suggesting foul play," Peter reassured, raising his hands and trying to rein in his friend's shock.  "Who knows what ores run through this seaboard, and at what depths.  I'm simply saying that it would explain the symptoms; it would offer a plausible source -- even boiling wouldn't precipitate out all of the contaminant; and it would explain why more people are now feeling the effects.  Different people would be ingesting different amounts, and different bodies would remove it at different rates."

He paused, then broached an even more delicate subject.  "In fact," he continued, "it might even explain why Vincent is reacting more strongly than the rest.  You and I had the same biology seminars, Jacob.  You know as well as I do that certain species have a more difficult time ridding the body of metals and the heavier poisons.  And you know the big cats are among that group."

Another look of shock crossed Father's face.  Everything Peter stated was true.  Simple, basic knowledge.  There was no escape from it, whether the patriarch liked it or not.  At last, finally, he nodded, forcing himself back into control.  Retaking his stirrups as leader of the community.  "Yes.  You're right, Peter.  We'll need to have the area tested. ... In the meantime ..."

"Bottled water," Catherine interjected.  Her attention was glued to the teapot she carried, realization washing over her that she had been about to take more of the potential poison to her beloved.  She was even going to coax him to drink it.  Carefully, fighting off the tremble that had begun in her hands, she put the tray down on a nearby table.  Then her eyes went to Father as she too found her footing.  "I'll get bottled water down here as fast as I can.  Is anyone strong enough to help me?"

"I will," Peter replied, then turned to Father.  "Tell Pascal to put the word out:  no one drink the water or consume anything made with it.  I'd even hesitate with regard to washing or bathing, until we know what we have.  Some compounds can be absorbed directly through the skin.  And I also have a thought as to who might be able to test a subterranean environment like this.  We can't put it through just any lab, for fear they'll alert the city if they find something reportable.  Just give me a little time."

Father nodded, still a little too shocked at what he'd been told.  The tunnels were, quite simply, sanctuary.  The idea that they may now contain a poison ... ... it was horrifying.

"Come on, Cathy," Peter urged.  "Let's go."


It was a big task, but with the assistance of some helpers above and what muscle power the tunnel community could put together, the job was accomplished in a matter of hours.

By 9:00pm, fifty gallons of drinking water lined the main dining hall, with another fifty being transported the final distance.  With rationing, it was enough to last the entire community about two days.  Meanwhile, William and some of the children were disposing of any contaminated food, replacing it with groceries Catherine and other helpers had purchased in a supermarket flurry.

Either way, the problem should now be under control.  Whether it was food-spoilage that had simply escaped detection, or a toxic contaminant in the water, the dangerous goods should now be replaced with safe.

So it was with a safe pot of tea, a safe glass of juice, and a safe pair of muffins, that Catherine finally returned to Vincent's chamber.

He was lying in bed when she entered, his expression a strange mix of pride and chagrin.  "That was not the rest I suggested you take," he scolded gently.

"Father's been giving you reports?" she surmised, placing the tray on his table.

"The pipes have also told the story."  His finger pointed toward the clanging metal communication system that ran through the room.  "It has proven to be quite an exciting evening."

Sitting down beside him, she tapped his abdomen gently ... the same spot he had claimed to hold the pain.  "But the problem should be solved now.  One way or the other."

He took her hand, thoughtfully running his fingers through hers.  "You really *should* get some rest, Catherine.  Please.  I believe I'm prepared to beg if need be."

Her eyes closed for a moment, her deep breath turning into a yawn.  How in the world did he do that?  Make her body agree with him despite the speed at which her mind still ran?  "All right." she agreed.  "Father said he would have one of the guest chambers ready for me."

"Mary saw to it," Vincent assured.  "She was here earlier, planning to adjourn early for the night.  I'm afraid she's fighting off this illness as well."

Catherine nodded sadly.  "Well, at least it should all be over soon.  Peter says one of the helpers has a friend who teaches in geology.  This helper seems to think he's trustworthy.  They're asking him to check the river, or look for anything that might be leeching a toxin.  If the water's contaminated, it's coming from somewhere down there."

Silently, Vincent's hand squeezed hers ... pleased that the problem was being solved, but more concerned at the moment with the situation sitting literally right before him.  "I'll drink and eat, Catherine, I promise.  But *you* must rest too."

It was that kind of persistence that always warmed her ... a delightful sensation that momentarily overwhelmed any waves of nausea.  "I will." she yielded, bringing his hand to her face for one brief kiss of a claw-tipped finger.  "I'll see you in the morning."

And with one more pat of his poor abdomen, she rose and made her exit.


It was 3:00am when Vincent next heard from his love.  He'd felt her nearby presence throughout the night, helping to ease his own condition.  Even the flipping and turning of his stomach had a hard time overshadowing the peace that came from knowing she was safe in one of the guest chambers.

But now, in these early hours of the morning, he'd also felt her sickness returning.  And even more so, her presence was growing closer.

She was approaching.

"I'm awake," he whispered into the darkness.  Feline eyes saw well through even the dimmest candlelight.

Ten seconds later she appeared like a ghost in his doorway.  She was dressed in a cream colored tunnel nightgown, her face equally pale.

He reached to his nightstand, using his one lit candle to ignite two more.  An attempt at a clearer visual assessment of his beloved.  "You're having a relapse," he concluded sadly.

"I'm not surprised," she tried to smile.  "I ate and drank from the kitchens yesterday, just before Peter made his diagnosis.  It took a few hours to catch up with me, I guess. ... ... I can't sleep at the moment.  Thought I'd check how you were doing."

It was with surprisingly little trepidation that he raised one arm and motioned her closer.  "Come," he coaxed.

She did so, and in the process worried him even more.  A pale ghost gliding across his floor.  It made him all the more anxious to touch her ... prove to himself that she was real.  And somehow, in some equally ethereal way, he knew her recovery would be assured if she could just make it into his arms.

While she placed her candle carefully beside the others, he slid himself over in the bed and reached for yet another blanket.  His chills were no longer merely his own ... he could feel hers as well.  Now they would both seek some warmth.

Of course, he would never be risking this -- tempting himself in such a way -- if they weren't both so infirm.  Catherine knew that.  But my, how good it felt to accept the invitation and crawl in beside him.

Had she always been able to move this smoothly, he found himself wondering?  Even with her eyes closed, she effortlessly fit herself against him.  Almost -- he dared to admit -- as though the action were meant to be.  Another moment to suggest that maybe, just maybe, his dreams could someday be reality.

She squirmed once more, blithely burrowing further into his arms.  And if he harbored any resistance within him, it refused to come forth.  He simply pressed a kiss to her head, smiling at how wonderful this felt.  "Sleep, dearest," he whispered.  "Sleep."

 ... ...

Maybe she heard him.  Maybe she didn't.  Maybe it didn't matter.

Her discomfort was easing -- he could sense it already -- overpowered by her joy at being within his embrace.  The ghost was fading, transforming back into his warm, life-filled beloved. ... ... And soon she was asleep.


She did feel better the next morning.  Good thing, because she was able to escape the bed before Father made any impromptu visits.

Like the last two mornings she remained queasy, but at least she now had an idea what had caused it.  She never should have taken that meal yesterday from the kitchens.  Unfortunately, only hindsight is 20/20.

There was no point in going above.  At least not to work.  She would only end up sitting there listening to her stomach churn.  Once she was up and about though, she discovered she was to be given a different task for the day.  The helper's geologist friend was being briefed and Catherine was to help run interference.

Telling a new person of the world below was always a delicate and risky endeavor.  At the moment, however, that world below clearly had its back to the wall.  It needed help and needed it direly.  The traditional screening process would have to be shortened.

The helper was meeting with his trusted friend in the morning, insisting that the situation was most urgent.  If agreeable, the geologist -- a professor at a university in New Jersey -- would be asked to a second meeting with Catherine later in the day.  It would be *above*, of course, where the concept of a subterranean civilization could be further softened and explained.  Then, and only then, would Catherine lead the man below.  He could test the water, test the environment if need be, or look for any potential sources of danger.  And if they were lucky, he would be able to properly diagnose their situation.

She accepted the task willingly, anxious to help in any way she could.  It wouldn't be dangerous, even with her protective beau still sick in bed.  And so she spent her day getting herself together.  Quieting her stomach, spending some time with Vincent, then finally crawling up through her apartment building's basement, readying herself for coffee with the stranger.


"Miss Chandler?" came a voice from a booth near the back of the diner.

"Dr. Auroleus?"  The man had an incredibly covert look about him.  As if he were waiting for the police to come swarming in and arrest him for pouring too much sugar in his coffee.

At her smile of greeting he rose, extending his hand as Catherine took a seat.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Chandler.  I wasn't expecting someone quite so lovely."

Catherine lowered her eyes politely.  It wasn't exactly the greeting she'd been expecting, but the circumstances weren't the most normal either.  Besides, she'd received her share of slightly off-the-mark compliments in the past.

"I'm sorry," he amended quickly, noting her discomfort.  "I didn't mean to embarrass you.  It's just that from the stories Daniel has told me, I guess I was expecting someone a bit more ... well ... pale.  Whether from the illness I gather you're experiencing, or just from such a secluded, subterranean life."

Again Catherine felt taken aback, although she recovered as quickly as she could.  My,   but this man was forward.

"I was paler a few hours ago, I assure you," she replied with a congeniality tinged by sarcasm.  "What you see is the wonder of modern make-up.  But that's only because," ... she paused as the waitress brought her a cup of coffee ... "that's only because I've been sick.  The people in the community you've been told about are not the pale, ghostly reflections I fear you're implying."

"Oh no, no," he waved his hands in the negative.  "I certainly didn't mean anything by the remark.  It's just that ... you must admit, it's a bit of a shock to discover people living beneath the Earth."

Catherine tilted her head thoughtfully.  In that light, yes, she could see his point.  She'd been equally surprised upon making the same discovery, just over two years ago.  But now she had the benefit of knowing and loving this extended family.  She would use that to ensure that their honor was defended. -- -- "It's an amazing community.  Some of the best people to reside on this Earth, dwell there.  I, myself, remain above."  She glanced around at this world she had always claimed as her own.  "But to be honest, there's been more than one occasion where I was tempted to just move to that heaven myself.  That heaven in the tunnels.  And now they need help."

Dr. Auroleus nodded in understanding, then smiled so optimistically.  "Of course.  As I told Daniel, I'd be delighted to offer my assistance.  To help restore this underground utopia to as it should be.  I'm at your service."

Carefully, his forearm slid across the table, his finger reaching to pet Catherine's wrist.  "And if getting to know such a lovely lady becomes an additional perk, all the better."

Of course.  She should have known from his first words.

With feminine politeness she removed her arm, anxious not to offend lest she lose one of the few people capable of solving the problem below.  At the same time though, the game he was suggesting she certainly would not play.

"I'm sorry," she shook her head, "but one of the reasons I'm so attached to the tunnels, is my involvement with a man who lives within them."

Dr. Auroleus appeared ... disappointed, for one ... maybe even a bit offended.  Perhaps allowing him to state his intentions so completely before properly dissuading him was not her most forthright behavior.  "I'm sorry," she apologized again, trying her best to remain in his good graces.

A smile crept back onto his face.  "I understand, Miss Chandler."  He sat back, reaching for his cup.  "Now why don't you tell me about this river I'm supposed to examine."


All in all, the meeting went quite well, Catherine even learning some geology along the way.  Based on what Dr. Auroleus said, Peter may have been more correct than he realized.  Arsenic in particular -- a poison that matched their symptoms quite well -- was commonly found in the Earth's crust.  Who knew what was hiding down there, or what the water may have tapped into.  And the side effects would certainly affect the tunnel community long before impacting the city above.  The city health department was unlikely to come down and test the area simply on a whim.

It was knowledge she shared with her beloved once she'd returned below.  Dr. Auroleus was delivered to Father's study, from whence he would be guided to the river in question.

"He sounds like quite a knowledgeable man," Vincent observed, sitting up in bed.  He was finally improving.  Still far from his normal self, but most definitely, most thankfully, improving.

"A little eccentric," Catherine qualified, raising one eyebrow.  "But I do think he has the expertise we need.  Hopefully, this will all be a bad memory soon.  And if we don't come out of it with a new helper, at least we'll know where to go if something like this ever happens again."

Vincent nodded thoughtfully, his eyes watching her in a most unusual way.  "He's quite fond of you," he observed carefully.  His hand reached out, fingers gently touching her wrist in the same way Dr. Auroleus had done.

"Felt that too, did you," she smiled knowingly.  She should have expected as much.  "I do admit I like intelligent men.  I prefer them a bit more thoughtful though.  A bit more down to Earth."  Her smiled quirked as she remembered Joe's ironic comment from months ago.  How much more down to Earth could you get, than living *beneath* it?

Her hand moved, gently flipping his touch off her wrist, twining her fingers into his instead.  "I know what I want," she murmured, staring at the combination their hands made.  "And you know what it is, I hasten to guess, or you wouldn't have brought the subject up so easily."

Vincent smiled, knowing he'd been caught.  Indeed, she had a point.  "Yes, Catherine, I believe I do."

And then ...

"Well, I believe we should have our answer soon," came Father's booming announcement as he came through the tunnel into his son's chamber.

In an encouraging reversal of standard fortune, it was Vincent's fingers who pinched Catherine's, ensuring that she would neither pull away nor plan on taking her leave too soon.  "This expert is taking his samples?" the son asked his father.  "Has he estimated how long it will take for results?"

"By morning, he says," Father replied hopefully.  "Now ... how are you two fairing?  Any improvement yet?"

Catherine turned to her beau first, knowing he was the worse off.

"The pain is lessening," Vincent reassured them both.  "Though I still have moments of dizziness and nausea."

"Your musculature?" Father prompted.

"Achy.  But the chills have also relented a bit."

"Excellent.  And you, Catherine?"

At the moment, she was just too relieved to hear that Vincent was finally improving.  "Better," she answered, dragging her eyes away from her beau's to smile up at Father.  "A little nausea, but I feel better knowing it should be over soon.  It's amazing what a positive attitude and mind-over-matter can do."

"Good, good.  Will you be staying with us again tonight?"

This time she shook her head in the negative.  "I probably should go back above.  Get into the office tomorrow and try to catch up."  Turning her attention back to Vincent, she added, "But I'd love to stay for dinner."

Vincent smiled and gave her fingers another secret squeeze.  Yes, he remembered her reaction the day before ... when he'd apologized for the dinner invitation that had brought her into this sickness.  Quite clearly, it was the type of familiarity that she would not let fall victim to a mere case of toxic poisoning.  How stubborn she could be, when it was for him.

"Well," Father continued.  "I guess you two will be eating in here then?"

Catherine nodded and forced herself to rise.  "I'll go see to it."

She knew the medical doctor was anxious to check his son over properly, and she was in silent agreement.  They were, after all, in search of the same thing. -- -- Anything to get Vincent healthy and back on his feet.


The next morning she did make her way into the office, completing her abandoned task of two days prior.  Her colleagues, however, hadn't expected her appearance.  By coincidence, a stomach flu actually was circulating through the city, fortuitously camouflaging her own situation.

So when it was suggested that she return to sick leave -- -- primarily, she suspected, because they didn't want to risk her presumed contagiousness -- -- she readily accepted the offer.

Down she went, back into the tunnels, arriving just in time to hear the end of Dr. Auroleus's conclusions.

"I've tested for most of the common, water-soluble toxins found naturally in the Earth's crust," he was telling Father and Peter as Catherine entered the study.  "A few show the smallest trace amounts, but no where near the levels required to cause concern.  I'm running some gas chromatographs on one or two air samples as well, but that may take a bit longer.  Certainly nothing definitive yet."

Peter shook his head in frustration.  "I was certain that was it.  There've been no new cases since we've restricted everyone to the external water supply, but so many are still recovering -- and at such different rates -- it's hard to get a true handle on how successful we've been."

"Depending on its source, this may not be easily remedied," Dr. Auroleus pointed out.  "Some areas simply are not inhabitable -- -- Mother Nature does not bow to the wishes of men.  You may be forced to vacate."

Father was staunch ... "Moving would be a major undertaking.  Especially if people are ill, and we don't even know which source needs to be avoided.  The margin of error on your analyses ... is there any chance there could be a false negative?"

Dr. Auroleus sighed.  "It's possible of course.  I could re-run the tests ... do some more ... I still have my supplies."  He held up his satchel, filled with all sorts of little glass collection tubes.

Father agreed solemnly.  "Yes, I would very much appreciate that.  I'll have Zach show you down again."

"Oh don't worry," their guest replied.  "I think I can find it.  I have to admit, I rather enjoyed the trip yesterday.  Marvelous rock formations and anomalies.  I'm a bit of a spelunker in my spare time, you know.  I'm quite at home in the winding caverns."  He turned, already making his exit.

"Are you certain?" Father called after him, a bit taken aback.

Dr. Auroleus waved his hand just before he disappeared through the doorway.  "I'll be fine, my good man."

"I should be going too, Jacob," Peter prompted, nodding his goodbye to Catherine then retrieving his own medical bag.  He'd been checking some of the patients that morning, offering a second opinion and collecting blood samples for his own tests.  "I'll let you know if I come up with anything, but I'm not expecting any better results.  Depending on what it is, it could very well be undetectable.  And the way our luck is going at the moment ..."

Father gripped Peter's shoulder in gratitude.  "As always, dear friend, you have my thanks.  We need to solve this, and soon.  Or the entire community could be in dire straits."

Peter returned the encouragement, patting Father's arm.  "We'll figure it out, Jacob.  Don't worry."


It was left to Catherine to deliver the news to Vincent.  He sighed heavily, as she expected he would.  He was already expecting the worst, wondering how the community could ever relocate.  More so than the other tunnel dwellers, he considered this home to be his lifeline.  To pick up and move would be horrendous, both physically and emotionally.

Fortunately, beneath it all was a bit of good news as well.  He was finally regaining some of his strength, and when she arrived he was standing beside the bed, slowly folding clean nightshirts as they talked.

"Have hope," she urged.  "He's taking more samples.  Nothing's been completely ruled out yet."

It was then that a new voice came cautiously into the room.

"Vincent?  Need to talk."

It was Mouse, edging through the doorway and hoping he wasn't interrupting anything.  Catherine hadn't even realized he was there.  How good he was at blending into the background.

So good, it turned out, that he too had heard the entire conversation between Father, Peter, and Dr. Auroleus.

"Come in Mouse," Vincent invited.  "Is something wrong?  Are you getting worse?"

"Mouse good, Mouse fine." he assured, nervously fidgeting his hands together.  "Heard scientist.  Not the truth."

The couple glanced at each other in confusion.  Catherine had relayed the story as best as she could remember.  What could have been untrue?

"Put something in the water," Mouse continued apprehensively.  As if he feared he wouldn't be believed.

"Who put something in the water?" Catherine demanded anxiously.

"Scientist.  Followed him yesterday."  The boy leaned forward as if relaying a secret.  "Zach left, then scientist put something in the water."

"No, no," Catherine smiled.  "He was taking samples.  Those were test tubes in which to store ..."

"Tubes, yes.  Glass tubes for water and air.  But then a packet.  White powder."  He demonstrated with his hands, pretending to open and dump out a bag of significant size.  "Put in the water.  Mouse followed in the secret tunnel.  Only wanted to see."

Catherine's eyes flew to her beau's as the meaning of Mouse's words sank in.

"Have you told anyone?" Vincent asked.

Mouse shook his head guiltily.  "Telling now."

"Oh my God," Catherine murmured.  "If he did something. ... ... And he's down there now again. ..."

Vincent turned, grabbing for a pair of trousers.  "We must follow him.  Go alert Father."

"Vincent!" she protested, "You're barely moving!  You're in no condition to ..."

"I am in condition," he interrupted forcefully.  "Go find Father."


"But why didn't you tell anyone yesterday?" Father was asking five minutes later.  Mouse and Catherine had found him still in his study.

"Would you have believed him?" countered Vincent as he entered the room.  He was moving as fast as he could, but far from his usual, energetic pace.

The patriarch gave his son a look.  "Our helper, Daniel, has known this man for decades, and has the utmost confidence in him."

"People turn," Catherine replied.  "People change.  And not always in ways that others can detect."

Father shook his head.  Maybe he felt bound by his faith in his helpers.  Maybe he felt bound to trust a fellow man of science.  Or maybe he just couldn’t bear to think of the implications in what Mouse had reported.  Either way, his resistance continued.  "This illness began two days before this man was even contacted."

"Nevertheless," Vincent interjected, "I believe Mouse to be truthful.  And if there is foul-play at work, we must know."

Mouse cast his friend a look of silent gratitude.  "Mouse can show.  Know short-cut."

Whether it was due to the boy's insistence, the anxiety on Catherine's face, or Vincent's determination as the leonine son strode purposefully toward Mouse ... Father finally relented.  "All right.  Show us the way, Mouse."


While a bit more treacherous, Mouse's short-cut was indeed shorter.  Not much of a trade-off though, once Vincent's fatigue and Father's cane were factored in.  Still, they arrived in time to find Dr. Auroleus still working in a cavern through which the river ran.

The group approached cautiously, hoping to retain the element of surprise.  Mouse, meanwhile, crept off on his own, slinking through a fissure in the rock wall.  That, as far as Vincent was concerned, lent credence to his tale.  There wasn't a tunnel or crawlspace down here that this boy didn't know.

And what they found should not have surprised anyone, but it sent a wave of adrenaline through each and every one of them.  Dr. Auroleus knelt beside the flowing water, his satchel lying open to reveal a large bag of whitish grey powder.  And in his hands, being emptied into the water, was a second bag ... the particulate gathering like snow on the water's surface, then melting down to disappear completely.  Whatever it was, it was not a very safe material -- -- the gloves and respiratory mask the doctor wore proved that.

"Would you mind telling me what you're doing?" came Father's voice.  Containing his anger was not easy as he stepped around a pillar into plain sight.  Vincent stayed behind -- hidden -- his dulled reflexes unable to catch his beloved who also stepped out from the other direction.  Protectively, she followed the patriarch.

Dr. Auroleus looked up, then casually -- as if not the least bit upset at having been caught -- folded the empty bag into a second protective covering.  That too was placed in his satchel, before he granted Father even the courtesy of proper acknowledgement.

One gloved hand pulled down his respiratory mask to reveal a chillingly twisted smirk.  "Took you this long, did it?" he questioned sarcastically.  "Well, at least you're a bit quicker at falling ill."  His eyes shifted to the woman standing a few feet away, and his tone took on a lilt of nauseating cordiality.  "Miss Chandler.  As always, it's a delight.  Although I must say again, it really is a surprise to find someone so lovely down here in the sewers."

"What are you *doing*?!" she barked, plainly ignoring everything he'd said.

"Exactly what you *asked* me to do," he countered smugly.  "Restore the 'heaven' underground.  Isn't that what you requested?  Heaven," ... it was the word she'd used just the day before, repeated now with dripping sarcasm ... "is not created by those who tunnel into the Earth, destroying the fragile, unique eco-system as they go.  Heaven is not found in the spoilage of natural wonders, millions of years in their creation.  Oh yes, I've known about you sewer rats for some time.  These caves are my world too.  I've known them and explored them longer than you think.  I just hold them in the proper regard.  A few well-placed questions to Daniel and it wasn't difficult to deduce the infestation occurring down here.  It only required time to find the solution."

Catherine shook her head in sheer astonishment at this man's cruel insanity.  "And that solution is to *poison* people?!"  Gesturing frantically at the water, she continued, "You're trying to *kill* people here!  You're poisoning their world!  The same place you claim you want to save!"

"Arsenic is not a poison as far as Mother Nature is concerned.  And besides, the river will clean itself over time.  A small price to pay, for the greater good.  Now if you'll excuse me," ... he bent down slowly ... "I have one more batch to distribute for the day."

He picked up the second bag, moving it closer to the water.  Bait, that Catherine unfortunately took.

She lunged forward, thinking she could grab it.  After all, he appeared so lost in his psychosis that he didn't even expect to be stopped.  It was exactly as he planned, and he grabbed her arm with lightning speed.  Whipping her around, he yanked her roughly with one arm beneath her neck, his other hand delving into his pocket to produce a small pistol.  Instantly, it was pointed at Catherine's head.  The bag of poison landed in the water with a splash, the impact bursting the seal and the powder exploding everywhere.

And in the same instant came an equally explosive roar.  Summoning his energy, Vincent sprang out from behind the pillar, rushing toward the scene.

Dr. Auroleus was surprised, certainly, but not nearly as frightened as some assailants had been in the past.  He jerked Catherine back, retaining the wherewithal to dig the gun muzzle into her temple.  She gasped in pain ... a pain that Vincent felt too.  It stopped him dead in his tracks, only his snarl left to express his fury.

Shaken, Dr. Auroleus grew even more maniacal; his grip on Catherine even more vicious.  "Yeah, I knew there'd be freaks hiding away down here," he spat, emphasizing the offensive word.  "You -- especially -- don't belong in Mother Nature's plans."  Tilting his face toward Catherine's, he mocked, "Please don't tell me he's the one you're down here for."

Vincent's roar echoed through the chamber again, at such torment being visited upon his beloved.  He moved again, his father's arm extending quickly to block his progress while the villain dragged Catherine another step backward.

"What do you want," Father bargained as clearly and calmly as he could.

"Well to begin with, I'll be leaving," Dr. Auroleus announced.  "And with the accompaniment of the lovely lady.  Then, as for the rest of you tunnel rats," ...

He was interrupted ... not by any verbal protests, but by the small rock that sailed past his ear, clattering to the floor a few yards distant.  It was Mouse at work, Father and Vincent catching a glimpse of his arm as it retracted through a distant disconnect in the rock wall.

While it missed its intended target, it provided enough of a distraction for Catherine to plant her elbow well into Dr. Auroleus's ribs.  He doubled over, lurching them both forward.

Vincent also made his move, reaching to grab the villain.  Unfortunately, Catherine's next swing -- the goal being to wrench herself out from beneath the doctor's arm -- threw the pair off balance.  Down they went, plunging into the river with a violent splash.

For Catherine, it was an instant moment of horror.  Flashbacks to a flooding trunk; a white light; were blindingly vivid in her mind's eye.  Regardless of her assailant ... regardless of the pistol ... regardless of the arsenic freshly distributed in the water around her ... she began flailing wildly, gulping for air and scrambling with unbearable panic to find the surface.  The man with the gun was just the man with the gun.  The water, was death.

Vincent had leapt in too, and found his struggle to be just as much with Catherine as with Dr. Auroleus.  Both men were trying desperately to achieve a grasp on the woman, and both were being beaten and pulled under.  It lasted for mere seconds, but seemed like an eternity to the father who looked on helplessly.

The break finally came with another splash ... Mouse jumping into the fray.  Once the boy grabbed the villain's arm, it provided the leverage Vincent needed to pull Catherine free from the deadly grip.  Even then, she fought her beloved just as hard as Dr. Auroleus was now fighting Mouse.

"Helping!" shouted Mouse to his opponent, in explanation that he was actually trying to save them both.  Dr. Auroleus, however, either didn't understand or didn't care, struggling harder than ever as if to drown the boy.  Over and over Mouse bobbed for air, horrified as his opponent tried to push him beneath the surface.

A few feet away, Vincent had finally subdued his own charge, and was lifting her up onto the stone shore.  Father pulled her the rest of the way, while Vincent reached a hand back to Mouse.

The boy kicked once more ... one more valiant attempt at lifting both himself and his opponent to safety.  It failed miserably, and his reward was to be shoved into the water yet again.  He had no choice, despite his best intentions.  Somehow, with his last burst of energy, he slammed a fist into the villain's skull.

It accomplished the goal, the man reeling back and loosening his grip on the boy.  And with one mighty grab, Vincent caught his friend's other hand, wrenching him free from the attacker.  Mouse could finally breathe again, coughing out an enormous volume of water as he was hauled to safety

And Dr. Auroleus?  Perhaps he was woozy from his punch to the head.  Or perhaps he was simply stupefied at the concept of having lost.  But his fight was finished too, as the river he'd poisoned -- the river he'd claimed to love -- carried him away into the depths of the Earth.


The trip back up to the main tunnels was hurried and clumsy, both Mouse and Catherine shaking from their immersion in the cold water.  As soon as word could be tapped out on the pipes, it was ... calling for assistance, calling for Mary to prepare, calling for Peter to be found and informed. 

They knew the toxin now -- arsenic, as proclaimed by Dr. Auroleus himself.  While Vincent's superior lung capacity and accomplished skill in the water had protected him from ingesting the freshly contaminated water, Catherine and Mouse had swallowed mouthful after mouthful.  How much, was unknown.  But if either faced acute arsenic poisoning, there was a treatment, and Father was anxious to commence with it.

Fortunately, Peter was indeed found, already on his way back down to check on the community's recovery.  Side by side, the two physicians set to work.


"How many more?" Catherine asked as she climbed down from the examination table.  Mary supported one of her arms, Vincent the other.

"Two or three," Father replied nonchalantly, playing it down like only a doctor can.  "We won't put you through a full-scale treatment of course, but still.  We don't know how much you swallowed.  Better safe than sorry."  He motioned to his nurse.  "Take her to the guest chamber, won't you Mary?"

Vincent leaned down, pressing a faint kiss to the temple where a gun had so recently threatened.  "I'll be there soon."  She nodded and smiled weakly, letting Vincent's touch fall away as she moved off with Mary.

"She'll be fine," Father assured his son, as they watched the pair leave.  "I really don't think she's taken enough for any significant damage.  But this," ... he held up the syringe" ... should take care of it either way.  She probably, however, will not escape the nausea for another day or two."

"May she stay here?"

Father's expression was one of surprise, even a bit ashamed that it was probably his own previous behavior that prompted such a question.  "Of course she can," he insisted.  "Let Mary settle her in, and then I assume you'll be looking after her?"

Vincent nodded shyly, then squeezed his father's shoulder in appreciation.  "I believe I'll check on Mouse yet, while Mary finishes her work."


Atop another table in the hospital rooms sat Mouse, getting poked and prodded by Peter.

"Ouch.  Hate needles," the boy was complaining, rubbing his arm morosely.

"It will make you better," Vincent pointed out in greeting.

"Feel sick again," Mouse further grumbled, rubbing his stomach as he looked back and forth between his friends.

"You will," Peter agreed.  "For a few days yet."  He gave Mouse a proud pat on the back.  "You'll survive.  You've already proven yourself a fighter."  The boy smiled, flattered, as Vincent stepped closer.

"What can I say?" the leonine man offered humbly.  "You have my deepest, most sincere gratitude."

Mouse looked down, then modestly tilted his head from side to side as his smile grew.  "Catherine good friend. ... ... Catherine good for Vincent too."

Vincent grinned and extended his hand.  A grip was exchanged -- not merely of thanks, but of brothers in arms.

"One thing though," Mouse added humorously. "Need more swimming lessons."


Finally, after Mary had left her first patient, Vincent returned to his beloved.  She was under the covers ... exhausted, sighing, and absently rubbing her tummy through the blanket.  The first waves of queasiness were returning.  Hopefully, however, this would herald the last round of it.

Vincent's hand covered hers as he sat down on the bed's edge.  His long fingers extended beyond her own, his claws dropping down to offer an additional, infinitely soft caress of her abdomen

"It's beginning again," he observed.  "My own pain has subsided.  Now it's your discomfort I feel."

Catherine smiled weakly.  "Sorry about that."

"Shhh," he hushed.  "I would have it no other way."

Combined with the sheer love and concern in his eyes, it made her glance away for a moment, busying herself instead with the edge of her blanket.  "You're all right?" she questioned.

Vincent nodded.  "I didn't take in the water you unfortunately did.  My injuries are more of the heart than the body. ... We were naive. ... *I* was naive."  He shook his head, still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that this Dr. Auroleus had been targeting them all along.  "To see such anger toward our community.  Toward our very existence."

"He was insane," she hastened to remind her shaken beau.  "Ruthless and amoral beyond measure ... a horrible combination.  Unlike you, he possessed no heart to injure."

Sadly, Vincent bowed his head.  All these years, and the world above never ceased to amaze him ... both the good and the bad.

"Vincent," she whispered, her hand reaching up to stroke lightly down his cheek.  She tried to sit up, but his touch moved to her shoulder, his head shaking as he gently dissuaded her.  "Don't be pained by what he said." she continued.  "Please.  This is heaven down here.  Those were my words to him, and I meant them. ... Maybe he even knew it, and maybe that's why he was so anxious to destroy it."

Vincent gave her the slightest nod, finding a new butterfly in his stomach at the feel of his cheek nuzzling into the softness of her palm.

"And you," she added, her voice dropping with sorrow.  "You're not a freak.  Don't ever listen to something like that."

This time he smiled ... slightly, but more than she'd expected.  "I know that," he reassured.  "Every time I'm blessed to find you looking at me. ... I know."

It stole any reply she might have mustered, and she sank further into the pillows ... her eyes glassing with emotion as he leaned down.

Feather-light, his lips brushed once more across her temple.  "Rest," he whispered, ending with the same promise she had made over his own sick bed. -- -- "I'm staying right here."