Inner Circle

By Janus Melina



The ground was still wet and squishy as her rodent feet got sucked into the fragrant soil with each step she attempted to make. A murky sunrise helped her navigate the debris in the field. Large splinters of wood and mud caked lengths of rope, which looked like corpses of mutant earthworms littered the immediate landscape. She tried to take a careful step over a rather big piece of damp equipment before deciding on a decent hiding spot. She figured it better to watch the activity around her rather than try to drift through the site and not have the reserves to protect herself. As s he was ducking out on the action, someone caught sight of her, but since he wasn't sure if what he was seeing, he rubbed his eyes and stared her way again. You don't see me... I am not here... She said these words to herself while gritting her teeth and trying not to stare straight back at him. This made her head hurt...At least during the excitement that previous evening, she'd been able to take advantage of the chaos, relieving some of the stress on herself. After several hours, she was finally satisfied they were al gone and drew herself up out of the crouching position which made her hips crack.

She made her return to a key scene from the night before and nearly choked. There was supposed to be a body lying before her in the muck, or at least the tell tale signs of a recovery crew having come and hauled it away on a stretcher. This made her want to growl; especially as she analyzed the give away evidence that this "body" had dragged itself to safety and then miraculously walked away between the witching hour and the first rays of dawn. "Alright you sonofabitch," she swore to the nothingness and cool spring air around her. "The chase is on, and this time your sorry ass is mine." She clenched her fist and shook it for emphasis. Breathe, she had to remind herself as the anger/dread swelled inside her.

"Hel-hello?" A quiet female voice called. "Justin, is that you?"

Unclenching her fist, she turned toward the sound. Her guard was so low that even if she tried to "hide," the woman touring the garden would have found her anyway. She needed to rest and make up for the weakness she was experiencing. When that woman asked her if she was Justin, her heart jumped up into her throat, nearly drawing tears. "I'm not Justin, " she said, her voice mucousy from the lack of use.

"Obviously not," the lady mouse said in response to seeing the rat's plainly female anatomy. "I'm sorry, you're working. You're all in such a hurry to pack and get away from the rosebush and..." Her voice grew much quieter. "And NIMH."

"Oh, that's okay. I'm just, ah," she ran her hand up her forehead and pressed heard, hoping the pressure would displace the headache for just long enough as she could draw back the hood on her ratty brown cloak. Against better judgement, she pulled back her hood. "There's supposed to be a body there." She pointed to a spot on the ground. "I stripped it down last night."


"Yes." She was forced to squint to see well enough to actually capture some of the individual physical details of the person she was addressing. She very quickly realized that she was speaking to none other than Jonathan Brisby's widow. "And I don't imagine that you were in any condition to tell me how Jenner," the name tasted of bile when it rolled off her tongue, "moved."

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Thank you Mrs. Brisby. I should let you get back to tending your family."

"Oh yes, of course..." Brisby caught herself on the words, not sure as to how she should address this strange rat. "I'll notify Justin and the others if I find or remember anything, Miss? Ah?"

"Please, do not. And you can call me--" She stopped and thought for a moment. "Call me Bicker for the time being." She had barely resisted the urge to rush and blurt out "Victoria."

Brisby stood blinking. "Bicker" sounded more like some silly childhood nickname than a title that anybody went by. "It's been a pleasure to meet another of the Rats of Nimh."

"And it's been a great pleasure to finally meet you, Elizabeth." Victoria politely bowed and walked away. The woman's hands were burned and newly wrapped, leaving a shake out of the question.

Elizabeth Brisby watched in silence as the rat blurred into the horizon. "Bicker" was quite possible the strangest rat she'd seen next to the late Nicodemus. Bicker had long hair which grew from her scalp just as the ex-leader had, rather than the gray fur she'd seen on most of the other rats. It lay in a dark braid that ran down the back of her neck and over her shoulder, nearly dangling to elbow length. Elizabeth doubted that Bicker even realized how pretty she actually was...After those thoughts, her mind immediately jumped to what on earth would anyone want with the dead body of a murderer anyway? She seriously contemplated contacting the rats at their new home to figure out the whole situation, but being the single parent of four children and attempting to move to summer quarters weighed more heavily on her mind.

Chapter One

Weddings were always the most formal affairs to grace the colony, and this particular ceremony would prove to be spectacular. It wasn't every day that the admired and respected leader was sealing his fate and future with the sacramental vows of marriage. Justin sighed as he approached the mirror, which was leaned against the wall of his living room. He looked a little worn, but was feeling better than he had three night ago. He still sported a white bandage on his arm, covering the place where Jenner's sword had made a cut. He blinked and swallowed hard, half wondering just what in the hell he was doing. "In just over three hours, you will finally be a married man..."

He wanted to smile, tried to feign a feeling of happiness, but it wasn't working. He proceeded to make a weak attempt at convincing himself that this was what he wanted, what was best for him. Doubt clouded his consciousness. What he really wanted was to make a cry for help. "Cold feet... They say all grooms get cold feet," he said to his reflection. "That's it...Cold feet."

Justin fastened the last button on his shirt, draped his bow tie around his neck, and grabbed his jacked (complete with tails) and put it on. He half wasn't sure where he was going in his state of mind and having stepped out into a hallway that he was not too familiar with. After almost getting lost a couple of times, he found the doorstep of his best friend and best man. He knocked, almost hesitantly.

"Come on in!"
"Arthur," he jokingly pleaded. "I can't get this tie to save my life."

"Don't ask me. I had to have Bianca do mine up for me." Arthur stuck his finger into his starched collar and tugged out. "Damned things are out to strangle us." He forced a smile. "Joke? Funny... . No?" He held up his paws in surrender.

"I'm making a mistake."

Arthur made no comment except to cough and clear his throat.

"I'd be better off asking Elora to reschedule, so we can all get settled in a little more. That way we all won't feel so rushed. Once the community is stable and a new routine is set, then we can think--"

"I think you need to call the whole thing off." Arthur's glum mood saturated his words.

"Arthur, I can't."

"Why? Why the hell not?"

Justin stared fixedly ahead, struggling to come up with a decent answer. "I..."

"It's not like you even know her Justin." Arthur turned and stepped directly in front of his friend. "Do you love her?"

"I'm marrying her, aren't I?" Justin was taken back.

"Why?" Arthur badgered.


"Because the colony's most eligible bachelor needs to "settle down" and make everybody else happy?" Arthur was angry and it was the kind of anger reserved for a friend who was making a terrible mistake and throwing his life away. "You can't love her Justin. You don't even know her."

"Yes, I do--"

"You can't even handle being around her. Besides, it seems like the only way you communicate is through her parents. You sit on opposite sides of her folks and then Nora and Kyle do all of the talking."


"Hold on Man, I'm not done with you yet." Arthur opened a box that lay in a corner and rifled through some papers. "What about--" He started to shout then hushed his voice. "What about your past?" Then he neared his friend and flicked him in the head. "What about that?" He dropped a pencil sketch in Justin's lap.

Tendrils of anger creeped throughout Justin's consciousness and body. "I didn't come here to get a lecture from a friend." He feverently brushed the picture away and bounded up out of the seat he'd never realized he'd taken.

"I'm trying to help--"

"I'll see you at noon." Justin said coolly.

"There's my future Son-in-law!" Nora said while she rushed up to Justin. "Oh dear, you silly men just can't seem to figure these things out. Kyle got his fingers caught up in his this morning... ." She grabbed at the hanging ends of Justin's tie and had him gasping for breath in mere seconds. "See, now there you go!"

"Thank you Ma'am," Justin said politely.

"Why, you're welcome Dear."

He felt like he was suffocating on so many levels that he'd lost control of his life. He went down to the kitchen to get something to drink, leaving Nora and her grabby "let's brush the non-existent lint off your shoulders" hands away from him. He made it to the other side of the cafeteria and knocked on the door. It opened up a crack, where a girl squinted out through the strip of open space. "Justin!"

He edged his way into the kitchen. "Can I trouble you ladies for a glass of water?"

"Anything--" One of them said as she went to the sink, while all but one of them chortled a laugh. Any one of them would have given him the world if he'd asked for it. "--for you Justin."

The scowling one, Bianca, approached as she did, he noticed a garment bag and a sword propped up in a far corner. "Well, " he tried to sound like he wasn't scared of her. "Looks like the catering is coming along quite well."

"Oh yeah, it's great." She spat.

Justin didn't know whether to be offended or downright fearful of her. Even though he and Bianca were friends turned occasional acquaintances (since she'd gotten married) he didn't feel he needed to receive any more abuse from people he was close to. "Bianca, is there something wrong?"

"Howdja' guess?" Her voice stayed nasty as she let a huge butcher knife fall through something green and leafy. She left the knife to stick out of the wooden cutting board. All she did was glare at him has if to say: How could you?

"Here's your water, Justin." A woman named Kathy handed him a glass.

"Thank you."

She tried not to get too flirty. "Have you picked a new Captain yet?"

"I have," Justin said calmly.

"Ooooh, who is it?"

"You'll know tonight at the reception." He smiled in a teasing manner.

"Oh, you can tell us," Kathy said while she giggled. "We'll keep it a secret."

"We promise," a couple of adolescent girls chimed in.

"Leave the man alone!" Bianca snapped in an authoritative manner. "Get out of her Justin."

"Bianca, what has gotten into you?" Kathy wondered.

"Have a good day ladies," he said while attempting to slip away without falling into Nora's claws.


"Yes, Nora." He smiled as though she were his favorite rat in the whole world.

"I just got back from Elora's dressing room... She's so beautiful." As she spoke, tears rose to her eyes. "You have no idea what a lucky man you are."

"You couldn't be more correct," he said as his mind slipped back to the face in the picture Arthur had dropped on him. He couldn't stop a brick that walled his past and his heart from falling away, nor could he keep pictures from that part of his life from surfacing. His mind floated into the images.


He nearly spooked when Nora set her hand on this shoulder. "Yes?"

"Are you doing alright? You looked ill for a moment there."

"I'm fine," he lied.

She exploded into a sparkling smile. "Good."

"I'm going to join the other men." Which was by far the last thing he wanted to do, but it got rid of Nora.

"Wonderful. Kyle and everyone else is in the large conference room." She patted him on the back. "Don't worry honey. Everything is gonna turn out just fine."

Justin drifted out the south doorway and headed toward the gathering. The sounds of laughing and the boisterous rumble of masculine voices drifted down the hallway. He came close to actually going back to his quarters, but forced his way past his hesitations.

"Hey! If it isn't our man of the hour!"

Justin tried very hard to not look so disconnected from the world. He observed his physical surroundings and noticed that this room was actually very close to being done. "You're not drinking already--"

"This one's for you Cap...I mean ...Oh hell, congratulations!"

"Thanks Mitch." Justin enjoyed the pleasant mood of his fellow Guard and accepted the offering. He drank deeply, wanting the strawberry-rhubarb wine to thaw his cold feet. He felt like he was sentenced to say "thank you" all day. Jokes and grounds of congrats were offered. Friends and colleagues made comments of admiration toward his bride. Justin was forced to admit that Elora was, well, she was perfect. She was smart, charming, great with children, and possessed a very glowing manner, all on top of being the head schoolteacher. The other rats adored Elora. Her father had been with Justin at NIMH. He took another drink. "Everybody loves Elora..." He muttered.

"But do you?"

Justin looked up to see his friend. "I'm not sure."

Arthur gave him a probing look. "Do you know her hobbies?"

"Arthur, not now."

"Her favorite color, book, food--" He badgered.

"Arthur, please."

"What her routine is when she gets up for work?"

"No," Justin said, hoping that Arthur would give up and go away.

"Come on Justin."

He hushed his voice. "Arthur, you are my best friend and my best man. You off all people should be supporting me in this."

Arthur glanced away for a quick second. "I should, but I just can't."

That comment stung. Friends were supposed to be there for one another. "I need to speak with Kyle."

"Be my guest," Arthur continued on his sour mood.

Kyle was actually one of the oldest rats of the original twenty. Justin wasn't sure if he was actually older than Nicodemus, but was quite certain that they were about the same age. Of course, Kyle had aged much more gracefully than Justin's former mentor had. "Are you nervous yet?"

Justin wiped at his brow. "Oh, I think that I'm pretty close."

"I tell you what. I was ready to take on Dragon rather than face Nora on my wedding day." He handed Justin another drink. "I find it rather ambitious that that two of you have decided to stick to your original plans, even in the face of-- Well," he said in a rather grandfatherly tone. "I think it's what we all need anyway, to have someone stand up in the aftermath of adversity and show the community that we can and will move on. Oh, and another thing, I'd have a few more glasses of wine if I were you."

"I'll keep that in mind Kyle." Justin watched as the older rat went back to swapping stories with his buddies. He stared at the burgundy colored liquid and quickly set the drink on the table. This was one of the moments were he wondered why he was in charge of the destiny of every other life in the room, that he wasn't the one who was in control of his own fate? In a room full of people he felt distant and alone, separateded from the life and the joy in the air right then. Arthur was right, he wasn't doing this for him; it was for them. At that moment it didn't seem like such a massive sacrifice to make if it was for the overall good of his people. So what if he didn't really know Elora... Many marriages of many of the human world's great leaders were based on couples having fully arranged marriages and no real knowledge of one another until the wedding ceremony itself... She was a good woman. The colony liked the idea of them together. He'd make it work!

A quiet slip of a long distant memory floated to the surface of Justin's mind. He heard two children, singing a silly song and whispering about the fantastic day they had had with one another. Voices tickled his mind... .The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up as his autonomic nervous system engaged and brought up his fight or flight reactions. "Who said that?"

Kyle suspiciously looked at him. "Who said what, Justin?"

Another rat came forward, having noticed the expression of panic on his leader's face. "Are you okay Sir?"

"Man, you act like you've just been visited by a ghost," the best man whispered.

"I'm fine," Justin said, quickly pretending to recover. "Great, actually," he lied and glanced accusingly to Arthur. Justin hadn't seen a ghost per say, but he was pretty damned sure he heard one.

"Well, all I gotta say right now is that we better head out the grove." Arthur's shoulders slumped as he turned toward the door.

Spring was such a beautiful season, especially in the forest. Elora insisted on a spring wedding. Initially they were going to hold it in the glade not too far in the forest from the rosebush. The oak grove was just as lovely a location. The sun shone through cotton fiber clouds and the warmth it carried made the air light and crisp. A happy chatter floated through the guests. The entire colony was outside, eagerly awaiting a moment they 'd all wanted to bear witness to for years. A few members of the audience were nearly as ambivalent as Arthur and Bianca, remembering a time when Justin had forever pledged his heart to another, but much of the colony was simply too young to recall that time, or her. There was an underlying faith that she'd made it, escaping what was inevitable one of Jenner's deadly tirades.

The formalities began the Guard arrived, brandishing full dress uniforms, marching band style hats complete with plumes, capes, and newly polished swords which gleamed in that charming spring sun. They lined the isle where they waited for the bridal procession to line up, where they would then form a tunnel of sorts for the bride. The children's choir lined up in their place, and Philippe, the head historian, took his station, as he was the rat who was going to perform the ceremony for Justin and Elora. The Captain of the Guard or leader of the colony was usually the one who performed such duties. . . .but Justin was obviously indisposed for such an activity.

"Hello Arthur."

"Howdy Philippe. How're things going in your department?"

Philippe looked slightly depressed. "I was going over parts of her logs when we evacuated. Even though those logs aren't supposed to be personal, they are, people write them. Oh, Arthur, she loves him so much..."

"I've been trying to talk him out of it, but the community is holding him to it...He can't bear to let them down."

"Well, he may have--" Philippe's voice nearly cracked. "Good afternoon Justin."

Justin meekly looked and the historian. "It is beautiful, isn't it?"

"Yes, my friend, it is."

Justin touched his fingers to his chin. "But it's not right... " he whispered.

"Only you can make that call," the historian responded.

Heavenly music initiated the start of the ceremony. The Guard stood at perfect attention until Elora's friends, the bride's maids, walked down the isle. The children began to sing different song whey Kyle and Elora made their way along in the processional. The "shink" of twenty swords and the brilliant rays of the sun which gleamed from them merely added to the beauty of the bride. She smiled sweetly at Justin as she watched him through the fog of the veil. She stood across from him when the singing ended and looked down her nose, to the grass and clover on the ground.

All Justin would really see of her has she moved toward him was a pretty dress, long, flowing, hand beaded and embroidered...and all he could think were tempting wishes of another woman wearing those clothes. When she avoided his eyes, the pains in his heart compounded. He longed for the living memory of a woman who'd whispered and sang with him when he was a child.

The Drill Major sounded off and the Guard's re-sheathed their swords at her command. The guests took their seats, and after a mother hushed her crying baby, and Nora began to sob, Philippe began to speak.

Chapter Two

Bianca swore as the rear exit to the kitchen closed behind her. Those silly women! If Kathy wasn't careful, she'd find out what had gotten into Bianca in a real hurry. After lighting the small lantern on the wall in a nearby maintenance closed, Bianca leaned her sword against a shelf and pulled the garment bag off her uniform. She smiled with satisfaction. She, Bianca, mother of three and current cook, was one of the original members of the Guard. All she prayed right then was that the blue and ivory garment wasn't moth eaten from years in storage. Her husband, Frank, had ridiculed her forever to get ride of it, wondering why she'd ever kept the thing. Her consistent response had been "Just in case." Too bad just in case happened to be in order to save her friend for sacrificing his heart.

The cloth only smelled must from hanging in a closet for so long. It had been a long time since she'd felt any kind of self worth or drive to empathize for anyone else. As she fastened her belt, she remembered how the last time she'd worn the outfit that she'd almost been too pregnant to pull it around herself. She wanted a mirror to look in, just to add a little bit more to her pride. She decided against strapping on her sword and decided to keep it in the scabbard and carry it under her arm. She also grabbed a fairly hefty backpack.

Bianca gathered her gumption and walked out the pantry/non-perishable food warehouse's freight door. It was the easiest way to get to the grove and not have the few rats that stayed behind on Guard duty question her. As one of the only rats that really knew that the kitchen freight doors existed as of yet, there would be many that wondered just where in hell she'd come from.

The oak grove was crowded, but there weren't any rats that were looking in her direction. She heard the children singing. She had to get close enough to hear Phillipe. She moved quietly, but chances were high that she could have walked over there like nobody's business and not have caught anyone's attention.

"I ask you Elora...Do you take Justin to be your husband, your one true love, to remain faithfully devoted for as long as you both shall walk the earth?"

"I do."

Bianca's ears pounded with the sound of her heart racing. She had to do something now!

"...And for as long as you both shall walk this earth?"

Justin gasped. He stood there, speechless.

"Justin?" Phillipe questioned.

"I...I--" He blinked, tried to breathe and absolutely wanted to pass out.

"Do you take Elora as your wife?"

"I--" His head felt as though it were going to explode the pressure was so great.

Elora kept mouthing "I do."

"I'd--" Justin stuttered.


The guests, who'd been getting slightly restless as Justin's indecision kept on, silenced themselves when Bianca marched onto the scene. She stomped up the isle, flailing her sword with a rusty but fully experienced hand. "If you say yes Justin, I'll cut your balls off right here."

Justin remained speechless.

"All I want to know is what the hell you were thinking when you decided to, or should I say when Kyle and Nora decided to marry you off to their daughter? Did you honestly think that no one would notice something smelly?" Bianca stopped swinging the weapon around and pulled an envelope out of her backpack. "Victoria would--"

"Victoria is dead." Justin stated.

"No, Justin."

"She's dead." He shouted.

"You know she can't be." Bianca retorted in a nasty tone. "You of all people would have felt her death." Bianca handed the envelope to her friend. He eyed it suspiciously before taking it.

"Don't open it." Elora said gently. "Let's just get on with the wedding." She turned to Phillipe, hoping to draw a little order back into the situation, wishing too that the Drill Major would send a couple of her Guards to call off that damned cook.

"Justin, the letter is from Victoria." Bianca nearly shouted.

"Yeah man, it came in on the night before we moved the Brisby's home." Arthur came over and put a hand on Justin's shoulder. "We were gonna give it to you that next evening when your shift was up. . . .But, we all know what happened." He didn't tell his friend how the envelope nearly got lost in the shuffle out to the valley.

That letter turned into a priceless substance when he looked at the writing close enough to see that it was indeed Victoria's. He flipped it over and tore open the seal...

"And when you're done, we have some things you need to hear." Bianca spoke, knowing that he wasn't paying her the slightest bit of attention.

His eyes poured over the words, while his soul devoured them. He completely tuned out the rapid-fire voices of his constituents and lost himself in the sweet song of her voice.

Dear Justin,

I hope this letter finds you well and I pray this does not find you lonely. I wish that I could have come straight to you, but Nicodemus and I decided that it was in everyone's best interest that I stay with Mr. Ages for a couple of days to help him recuperate from his bout with Dragon. That way the cranky old doctor could get some medical attention for once rather than be the one who constantly doles it out.

I have quite the tale to relay, one that takes me from the farm to more than halfway across the continent, and my two-year journey back East, back home, back to you Justin. Let me say that I am shameless to admit that my thoughts and memories of you were strong enough to bring me home. Without you, I believe that I would have given up. After all, the community is perfectly capable of functioning without me.

Along with the letter, I have enclosed my journal, a very important newspaper clipping from the Baltimore Sun, and the keys to the chest that has the microcassettes and the recorder.

Also, for you, my Beloved, I send kisses along the wind, best wishes in my dreams, and love.

I shall see you soon.


When he brought the letter down, there were tears wetting the fur on his cheeks. He was purely overwhelmed with the prospect of holding the love of his life in his arms again. He enjoyed these tears. They swept away some of the bottled anger and anguish that came with the day they decided that she wasn't likely to return... Victoria, Bretta, and James had gone on a two-week run of the mill information reconnaissance mission at the municipal library in the town closest to Fitzgibbon's farm. Those two weeks came and went. A search was waged, and the decomposed corpses of James and Bretta were all that turned up. Victoria had gone missing..."I need to make an announcement!"

Without the Drill Major's help, Justin would never have been heard. "This letter is from the most important person in my life...For those of you who are old enough to remember the original Captain of the Guard, the rat I have been temporarily covering the post for...Victoria is alive."

Several gasps and happy cheers broke out amongst the older members of the Guard; there were even some tears shed. Many adults were blown away, yet quite pleased by the news. Out of the surviving Originals, only Kyle was not showing any form of spirit. If anything, Kyle looked ready to break something.

"--And." Justin cupped Elora's hands. "I hope you understand if I--"

Elora lifted her veil to reveal her smile. "You have just reached out..."

Justin waited for the wrath of a woman to come down upon him at full speed.

"...And plucked the weight of the world off of my shoulders." She allowed the wave of relief to wash over her features. "We were pushed into this..."

Justin resisted the urge to chuckle. "We were, weren't we?"

"Besides, you love this Victoria of yours so much that a blind man could see." She continued to smile.

Justin leaned forward and kissed Elora on the forehead. "No hard feelings?"

"None from me," Elora said with a giggle.

"Thank you," Justin said. For the first time all day, he didn't feel like a chump. He closed his eyes and held the letter to his brows, remembering the joy of Victoria's embrace, while the colony exploded into a sea of questions and memories all around.


"Here's all of the materials you requested." Phillipe hung back near the doorway to Justin's office.

"Great," Justin said with a yawn.

"It's nearly three in the morning. I just want to know when you're planning on getting any sleep?"

"I should be asking you the same thing my friend."

"But Justin, I'm not the man in charge of the Colony. You need to get some Z's while you can--"

Justin folded his hands and sighed. "All I need is to finish her journal."

"And then you'll move on to all of the things you had me pull for you." Phillipe pestered. "I'll come back tomorrow afternoon and find you fast asleep in one of the Chronicles."

Justin decided not to argue. The Historian was correct. "Damn, it is late."

"Why don't you go and dream about her? Besides, squinting in candle light isn't very good for your eyes."

"Yeah..." He got up and closed the journal over his thumb. "I can't wait until the crews get the electric up and running."

"Um, I don't think so, " Phillipe said as he grabbed Justin by the wrist as he was leaving. "The idea is for you to get some sleep."

"Come on, give it back." Justin was too tired to play any games.

"Go to bed Justin. She'll still be on your desk in the morning." Phillipe went and set the volume back down on the desk.

"Yes Mother." Justin teased.

"I'll catch you and your charming sense of humor tomorrow."

"Good night, Phillipe."

"Yes, good night."

Justin started out walking toward his apartment, but wasn�t necessarily interested in going that way. He wound up migrating toward the cafeteria. After not having eaten all day, he was famished. He could have joined in of the food that was prepared for the wedding feast, but found himself hiding in his office instead. He hadn't even started to read her journal yet, nor open the other items she'd sent his way. Instead, he'd spent several hours just waiting for the shock of the whole such wonderful news to integrate into the already hectic events to recently scar his life.

The kitchen staff always left a few items out for the midnight snackers and night Guard shift. He walked in to find the remains of a tiered wedding cake and a massive bowl of punch. He helped himself and settled down into a chair. There was little else but food and Victoria on his mind.

"I knew you'd show up in here sooner or later you nite-owl."


"Who else is allowed to harass you like I do?" She stepped into the light of the one lantern allowed to burn through the night as a safety measure.

Justin was taken back. When he laid eyes on her, he automatically prayed that what he saw was a product of the poor lighting in the room. Her left eye was nearly swollen shut and there was a smattering of blood on her blue and ivory uniform. "Why--"

She cut him off in a hurry. "Frank tried to put me back in my place again today. Even my Guard training has never been able to save me from him. He's twice my size and strong as a bulldozer."

"But why--" Justin interjected.

"I have a family to think about."

Justin's appetite was gone. "Do you need me--"

"I've told you no for years Justin." She took a seat. "The deck is in my hands now. Just watch."

It was time to change the subject. "You know Bianca, you are one of a small handful of people who can cut me off like that." It was rare that he allowed someone to jump in.

"I know. It's 'cuz I'm one of the folks you've actually allowed to get to know you." She reached out and gave him a playful clap on the shoulder. "That cake is way too dry."

"I don't think it's all that bad." He'd not taken any notice. He was too hungry to care.

Bianca pulled out a key ring. "Let's get you something decent for supper."

"You really shouldn't give me preferential treatment."

"I know, but you're my friend. Besides, that cake really is terrible. Kathy can't bake to save her life." Bianca unlocked the kitchen door disappeared. She opened the oven door and used the dying embers as a guiding point. After getting a lantern lit, she got a nice plate of things put together.

"This is wonderful," Justin said, while drizzling some honey on a roll.

"I tell you what. If it weren't for me and the kitchen keys, Arthur would have starved to death years ago."

"Really?" Justin was amused.

"He certainly can't be expected to totally look after himself. It's like leaving a child unattended indefinitely." She had a sparkle in her eye as she spoke of Arthur. "I'm sorry about today."

"Me too."

"I just couldn't have let you do that, not with good conscious, especially with that letter showing up out of the blue."

"How did it get past me? As Captain, I should have known, since items of that nature always cross my desk first."

Bianca sighed. "Victoria talked Brutus into letting her slip through to Nicodemus. She left those things with him after quite a lengthy conversation were you had to be dissuaded from the area, in case you saw her. She then went ahead and got in touch with her partner in crime..."

"Arthur," Justin said with a smile in his voice.

"Oh yeah." A flash of brilliant memory traveled through her eyes. "And they must have had one hell of a think tank going for a little while, because by the time I saw them, they had that crazed look in their eyes we always used to see when they hit on something big. Naturally, they didn't clue me in on anything."

Justin looked hurt, as though he'd been singled out and ignored, shunned by the woman he loved.

"Oh Justin, she had her reasons. You know how she and Nicodemus had that clairvoyant thing going for them...She gave one of her cryptic speeches, something about you reaching the pennacle, how you had to face it alone, with nothing to stand between you and an all consuming void but your sword. She knew about your upcoming battle with Jenner." Bianca tried to sound upbeat at that point. "Somehow, she's always known a lot of messed up crap like that, and she's never been wrong. Seamus does the same thing with the weather, and he's never wrong either."

"She didn't want to avoid me." Justin said, his soul lifting. "She had to." There were times in his life since that rat's liberation from NIMH, where he was in absolute awe of some of the results. Nicodemus, Victoria, and some others had come out of the ordeal possessing abilities that could only be described as supernatural. They manipulated energy, space, and the mundane items around themselves with their minds. For them a thought could open a door from the very far side of a room...They felt the emotions of those around them, sometimes seeing naked thoughts... .They could communicate to one another, never using their given voices. At times, their minds even touched the unknown realm of the future. There had been nights where Justin awoke to find Victoria madly scribbling down details of a premonition; the events revealed were enough to make her skin pallor and ashen. It wasn't until her visions played out in real life that Justin had truly noticed how much further NIMH's experimentation hand driven her, and everyone, to evolve into so much more than anyone had ever dreamed. Sometimes such thoughts scarred him.

"You know Victoria would never avoid you without a very good reason." Bianca reassured.

"I know." He responded. "But it hurts."

"And I imagine that it pained her even more."

"I..." He began to speak, but his voice just stayed there in his throat. The night before the Brisby fiasco, he'd had they most beautiful and erotic dream. He launched into the story for Bianca. There was a warm wind blowing over a grassy hill where a knotted old tree grew at the top. He was making love to Victoria, beneath the cotton candy pink and lavender blue blanket of a wicked sunset. At some point, Victoria had leaned over him, wherein a lock of her hair fell on his forehead and her soft, velvety warm lips sensually touched his cheek in a delicate kiss. "It was so real. I felt the heat of her body, her breath tickling my whiskers, the touch of her lips, her smell...Oh, I could even smell her."

"Justin, that kiss was real."


"I was with her when she let herself into your apartment." Bianca elaborated. "If you'd woken up, you couldn't have seen her, so I was there to stall you, as I was looking for some paperwork."

"I almost feel like I've been blindfolded for the past week." He held his hand over his heart. "I love her so much, it pains me to think of not having her here."

"Hey, at least that "dream" of yours cheered you up some that next day. I hear you nearly charmed the fuzz off Jonathan's widow."

"I guess I was a ham that day." He confirmed.

"Up until then you'd been a real bear to deal with. You work to hard..." Bianca commented.

"I suppose that's my cue to get some sleep."

"Sure thing sweet-ums. It's two hours until you're supposed to be up and answering questions about the mess we had today." Bianca stood and pushed in her chair. "I'll even walk you home to make sure you get there this time."

Once in bed, Justin didn't go right to sleep. He daydreamed. He wanted to run his fingers through Victoria's hair and listen to hear heart beat as he lay his head on her chest.

Chapter Three

"Holy crap! You are sooo right!" the young Guard, Robbie, said to his friend Troy as they were gearing up to swap places as Troy's shift was up and he was assigned to that location. The rear exit had to be the most boring post there was, therefore a little gossip and idle speculation helped roll things along.

"Yeah, well, I almost can't help but feel sorry for her." Robbie added. "She's real nice to look at, but doesn't always have a lot of time. She's so lonely."

"Poor gal...If I weren't already married... " Troy muttered.

"I don't think you'd survive a night with her. I guess one of the dates Travis set up for her wound up giving her the name of Attila the Nun."

Troy's face wrinkled with laughter. He wanted to keep a straight face, but his sense of ha-ha won out in the end. He laughed so hard he fell to the ground. "Attila the Nun! Ha!"

"I heard that." A voice came from the shadows.

"Oh shit..." Troy was sure that he was screwed. It didn't look good to be making fun of one's commanding officer, let alone get caught doing it.

"Don't worry Troy. I was actual on my way to show you something."

That didn't mean he wasn't scared.

"Everyone else has gotten to see it, save for you two clowns." Victoria stepped into the light. Troy's mouth dropped and his eyes bulged. Perched atop her head was a plastic Viking helmet complete with the horns! He didn't give himself the opportunity to laugh before landing on the ground, tears squeezing out the corners of his eyes. "Knew you'd like it."

She smiled and walked back toward the Guard Room. Several rats gave her odd looks as she made her voyage down the passageways. All the Guards back at the rat's equivalent of a station house whooped and cheered her as she stepped in.

"Did you manage to catch Robbie and Troy?" Travis said, while trying not to spray tea all over himself.

"Yep. I think Troy liked it a tad bit too much." She took the helmet off and tucked it under her left arm. "Oh, and ah, Trav?"


"We need to talk. Ten minutes?" She pointed to the wall clock. "My office."

"Sure thing," Travis said as he got himself a napkin to wipe up the dribbles.

The Guard's office space was a fairly large room, set up very close to the style of many human police squad rooms. There were ten desks which shifts shared on rotation to finish up their paper work. An eleventh desk was a bit off to the side. A hard working clerk named Justin usually occupied that station for most hours of the day. A small kitchenette that never seem to be clean or in working order was nestled in the corner closest to Victoria's office. The blue carpeting was only a year old and appeared geriatric. Hand made posters and schematics lined the walls, but no amount of paper would hide the fact that the walls had accidentally been painted carnation pink. The door on the exact opposite side of the room from the Captain's office was the entrance to the locker room, and on the other side of that facility lay a gymnasium of sorts that had its own general public access. Victoria was glad to see that things were running in decent order for a few moments at any rate. The only bothersome thing about her entire day was how Justin was looking at her, how he had been looking at her all day. He of course tried to hide the fact that he was looking. "What's up Cookie?"

Justin snapped out of his trance. "Oh, ah, not a whole lot Captain."

"You're not formulating or using any more of those wild acronyms that make my life a million times harder, are you?" She figured she'd take advantage of the moment to at least worry that much information out of him.

"Ah, not really..." Justin tried his best to pretend that he'd eliminated his own system.

Victoria rolled her eyes and laughed while she slipped into her office. She immediately pulled the curtains across the windows, which peered, into the main room. Travis slipped in as soon as she hung the Viking helmet on her coat rack and snatched a nervous look out toward the wall clock before shutting the door. "Don't worry Trav, I'll make it fast."

"I'm in no hurry," he half lied.

"Bull. You're off in ten minutes and you haven't seen your wife and kids in two days." She sank down into her chair and scowled at the amount of paper that cluttered her desk. "We need to move Justin into the rotations and off that damned desk."

Victoria's comment was of little shock value to Travis. She talked of such things on many occasions. "He likes his job though."

"Oh yeah? Well, if he's my file clerk for much longer, I'll kill him! I swear to you." She untwined her fingers and cleared a spot on the desk so she could at least have a place to set her hands.

"You know he's not all that interested in being a Guard." Travis spoke in a mellow tone, trying to humor his boss. "He'd be happy as the proverbial canned ham if he could just land one of the administration slots."

"He'll have to wait for one of those desk jockeys to up and croak before he could ever land one of those jobs. Kramer, Phillipe, and Randal aren't going anywhere soon." She leaned over the desk. "You're not the one who has to deal with the bulk of Justin's work."

Travis was instantly on the defense of the other rat. "He does a good job, gets everything done and then some, folks like him, and he's always here when he's supposed to be. He even cleans the damned kitchen when it gets too nasty for anyone to stand."

"You didn't hear me Travis." Victoria responded, hoping she didn't sound like too huge of a bitch. "You don't have to deal with the complete mess he makes of our files. He's got some strange acronym system that he uses along with an incomprehensible filing method that only he, in his infinite wisdom, can figure out. I can never find a damned thing around here."

Travis' facial expression showed concern. "So, what exactly did you have in mind for him?"

"He passed his physical tests with flying colors. He's functional with a sword. He's good with people, you said so yourself Travis... He's incredibly intelligent ..."

"Yes, he's all that and a pacifistic paper chaser who loves his lot in life."

Victoria stifled a yawn. It was too early for her to feel so tired already. "Starting next week, Justin will no longer be the Guard's paper chaser."

"Oh, Victoria. You really are heartless sometimes. You can't fire him." Travis was a bit shocked.

She was truly taken back. "I may be Attila the Nun, but I am not that cruel. Trav, I'll be rotating him out to some of the low maintenance areas until I can get him trained enough for some of our more dangerous activities."


"Well, he is a Guard," Victoria said with a light sprinkle of sarcasm. "I'm not going to let a man with Justin's potential go to waste. He has far to much going for him in other fields to spend the rest of his life scutting about as my secretary."

"I'm not sure--" Travis interjected.

"It'll be alright."

"It better be." He was concerned about Justin's welfare. He was such a quiet rat that Travis wasn't sure how he'd take a transition like going full bore into the Guard.

"Get out of here Travis." Victoria made a sweeping gesture with her paw. "Go make love to your wife."

Travis smiled and turned to leave.

"New schedule for next week is posted. Everyone should take a good look. The Cap and I have made some major changes." Travis tacked the paper to the wall and quickly fell out, before he was mobbed by a crowd of rats that rushed to see the new listings.

Justin, who believed himself immune to such things as newly posted schedules, made no attempt at all to struggle over toward the wall and look. He knew when he worked. His schedule had not changed once since he started on with the Guards. He made himself a cup of tea and went back to work. His monthly "Departmental Progress Report" was due to the Captain by the end of the next day. If it wasn't on her desk by five sharp, he'd be in a world of hurt. He paid no attention to the rats that cast strange glances in his direction. He blocked out the world and went about his job.

Arthur, the loud mouthed and boisterous Chief Engineer, sauntered into the Guard Room like he owned the place. This event didn't bother anyone; after all, he was a trained and sworn member of the Guard. He wasn't full time. He put in one shift a week, usually at night, was on the emergency call list, and was almost always on the out-of-rosebush missions. He bellied up to the schedule. Since it had been up for a few hours, and he was on break from his real job, he had a few opportune moments to find out what night he got to saddle up into his uniform. As his eyes roamed the sheet of paper, he hit on a spectacular sight. "Well, I'll be damned!" He turned and faced Justin, who was in the midst of writing up a report. "Captain musta done some pretty good begging to get you out on the rotation."

The pen fell out of Justin's hand. "What did you did you say?" He frantically looked to Arthur.

"Or she did just what I thought she'd eventually do...And ah, not tell you." Arthur tried to smile.

"Tell me what?"

"Shit, Man. Don't you ever read the schedule?" Arthur touched his fingers to his brow and shook his head. "Uh-oh," he whispered to himself.

Innocently, Justin spoke. "I don't have to. My schedule has been set in stone since I started here."

Arthur laughed. "Not anymore."

Justin pushed himself out from his desk and approached the posting. He ran his finger down the list until coming upon his own name. As he followed the blocks across the sheet, his knees gelatinized. He blinked a couple of times to make sure he wasn't accidentally reading Troy's line. Unfortunately, it never changed. It read: Justin: Full Week [10:00 am to 6:00 pm] Check Station Four. He wanted to throw up.

"You look like someone just came up and pissed in your face," Arthur commented. "You should be happy."

"I--" Justin stuttered.

"Hey Man, are you gonna be alright?" Arthur poked him in the shoulder, trying to elicit a response from his friend.

"As soon as I speak to the Captain about her mistake... .How am I supposed to do all that and my regular job? She had to have made an error on the sheet." He tried to make the situation make some sense.

"Keep saying that to yourself until you believe it."

"And what do you mean by that?"

"That piece of paper ain't no mistake Buddy." Arthur grinned and grabbed his greasy work gloves. "I gotta go back down to my cave. Have fun."

Victoria had someone in her office when Justin approached the door. He recognized the muffle voice of the doctor, Mr. Ages. Once the mouse left, Justin waited and additional five minutes before knocking.

"Come on in!" She hollered.

"Captain," Justin said, quite formally.

"Justin, I've been waiting for you to pop in here all day." He voice was sweet, as though she was trying to console him. He noticed right away that her hair was down today, falling over her shoulders and back. A deeply hidden part of his mind wanted him to reach out and touch it.

"I have a concern about the schedule. There's been a mistake."

"There are no mistakes in that posting," she said in a firm tone.

"But I'm your administrative--" He began to affirm.

"Not any more Cookie." Her face melted into a smile. He too fell into a memory of hot summer days in the city, before NIMH, when they were childhood playmates, splashing in the puddles created by a leaking pipe above their back alley homes. She'd called him Cookie, the first word he'd ever learned to say. He had called her Bicker, since he had such a difficult time saying her name when he was very small. "You're sounding like I'm punishing you for something."

"Well, you are. Aren't you?" He questioned in a nearly timid tone.

She drew her hair out of her face. "Oh, heavens no."

"I've always tried the best I could. I've never been late on a single project or even a memo. All of my stats and figures are correct--" He stopped to breathe.

Victoria held up her hand. "You're very efficient. I won't challenge you on that. Now, I'm going to be very honest with you Justin."


"I hate all of your weird little acronyms in things. I don't like walking into the file room and having a red, yellow, and blue section and having things repeating and overlapping, not finding things that I desperately need for Council meetings because the reports I need on vacation requests aren't filed under "V" but are under "R" for recreation. Why can't things be in normal alphabetical order? You seem to think that things like the front entrance day logs need to be subdivided..."She took a deep breath, wondering if her rant was even making any sense. "Why all of the bullshit? It doesn't make any sense, plus, who besides you has any idea in hell what C.F.E.D.L. means?"

"Complete Front Exit Day Logs," Justin responded.

"I think that's the only one I know for sure, and you've got hundreds of the damned things." She absentmindedly pulled her dagger out of the sheath on her belt. "It drives me crazy, which is why I'm having Jesse and Craig take over for you, so I can have things done the way I wanted them done in the first place." She set the double-edged knife down. "I'm sorry Justin. Your way of doing things just isn't working out for me or anyone here. That's why I put you out on the rotation. You have the potential to become an excellent Guard."

"I don't think so." Justin said softly.

"Why?" Victoria nudged.

"It's not the kind of career I have in mind for myself."

"You're great with people. You're strong, charming, and have a hell of a lot more going for you than spending the rest of your natural life holed up here in the Guard Room." She began to back off, as he looked hurt to the point of tears. "I don't want you to think that I'm out to get you or anything like that. I never wanted to hurt your feelings. All I ask of you is a tiny bit of cooperation from you for a little while. If things don't work out, I'll help you find another job posting outside of the Guard."

He wasn't quite sure what to say. Since the beginning of their lives in the rosebush, all he'd wanted was a simple existence where he had a satisfying job, a roof over his head, and perhaps a wife. He liked to lay low and stay out of people's ways. A nice exciting evening for Justin was to wrap up in his big fuzzy blanket and read an adventure novel. He did not picture himself as the knight in shining armor type that most of the Guards were.

"And after reviewing your file," the Captain continued. "You're a prime candidate to advance quite far in this field. I mean hell, you're young, healthy, and single, with nothing holding you back."

He saw a bright pang of loneliness in her face at the mention of the last couple of comments. She hadn't meant for him to see that. Justin half wanted to lie and say he had a girlfriend to detract from his suitability for the job.

"Can I safely say that I will see you next Tuesday morning in my office so that we can start training you into your new position?"

Justin swallowed his objections. "Yes, Captain."

"My god Arthur! What have I said yes to?" Justin was absolutely beside himself that evening.

"A great occupation with sweet benefits," the engineer replied while coolly sipping his drink.

"I've signed my live away," Justin uttered.

Arthur chuckled and held up one hand to question with. "Justin...What life?"

Justin looked fairly annoyed at his friend's indifference to his grave situation. "That's not a fair question."

"It sure is Man. Look at yourself and what's around you. You work twelve to sixteen hour days, six days a week. Your apartment resembles a cross between, oh I don't know, a mausoleum and a library... And need I remind you about..." He politely coughed, thinking that his companion would catch the slight hint.

Justin was so involved with the now, that he wasn't following Arthur's train of thought. "Remind me about what?"

"That you are the only person who sleeps in your bed," Arthur said with a touch of pure sass. "The way women look at you my virginal friend, it amazes me that you don't have a line out your door and around the corner. Least you could do is toss your inhibitions to the side every once in a blue and have a good time."

Justin swilled his drink, suddenly very interested in moving on to a different subject matter than his sexual inexperience. "Arthur, can we--" He sneezed so hard and so fast he was instantly dizzy. "Maybe I'm allergic to the alcohol."

"If only we could be so lucky," Arthur said as he tossed back the last of his glass, letting the burning liquid tickle his throat.

"You know, I don't like any of the women who hit on me." Justin offered. He began to talk, needing to get a few issues off his chest and into the light. His burning desire to change conversational gears changed. "Every last one of them seems so artificial."

"'Course it is. That's how a lot of them test out the waters."

"All they're after is a trophy," Justin said, with a dash of bitterness in his tone.

"And you'd make a good one. The way they talk about you is scandalous." Arthur looked down to the bottom of his empty tumbler. "And as far as the Guard is concerned, I think you'll like it. Night Missions are my personal favorites, dangerous, but very cool."

"I'm having trouble warming up to the idea." Justin set his lukewarm drink on a table.

"You'll love it."

Justin wished he could be so sure. Long after Arthur left for the night and far before Justin ever managed to get to sleep, there was only one thing on Justin's mind: the Captain. In all honesty, he was half scared of her. As a child, he'd loved her as a friend, back when they were both Cookie and Bicker, a couple of simple young sewer rats. Until the night he, Arthur, and a rat who turned out to be her went to explore the air ducts from their NIMH lab, he had never known her fate. He'd not felt a surge of joy so powerful in his entire existence as when he found a beloved soul in a crowd of strangers. He finally drifted into sleep with her face floating in his dreams.

Chapter Four

Justin's first day as a real Guard was an absolute disaster from many points, and the Captain knew that it would be, long before she ever placed him into the duty rotation.

"Why in all of the gods on Olympus do you keep staring at that clock?" Mr. Ages pestered as she was not paying express attention to him.

"It's eleven thirty two," she said in a half whisper.

The cranky old doctor was a bit more irritated right then for some unknown reason than usual. He had never been fond of it when people's attention spans drifted away from the task that he was working on. "And just what signifigance is that supposed to have on our day?"

She looked at Ages as though he should somehow know. "He's been on for an hour and thirty two minutes."

"Who?" Ages peered over the top of his glasses.

"Justin," she said.

"Oh, oh yes, that boy who does the lousy job with your files." It seemed to him suddenly that her paranoia was making a bit of sense.

"That's him alright. And he's hardly a boy." She took another good look at the timepiece affixed to the laboratory wall.

"What!" Ages croaked impatiently. "You waiting for something more important than our work?"

She pulled her lab coat a bit tighter around herself. "Yes... I'm waiting for the fire alarm."

"The fire alarm?" He was incredulous.

"That's the one." She glanced again before grabbing a test tube and placing it in the incubator. She laughed when Ages sighed, thinking that she was crazy. "You watch. It'll happen. That's why I made sure that I assigned him to Section Four. I can keep an eye on him today, plus he's in a very mellow post."

"The labs are a very low traffic area." Ages concurred.

"That's the point," she said, stifling a smile.

"I can't understand why you've decided to waste so much time on him." He shrugged and pulled a flask of brownish liquid off a burner.

"I'm not wasting my time..." Victoria spoke in defense of her childhood friend.

Right as Ages was firing up that negative mouth of his, the sharp klaxon of the fire alarm pierced the quiet morning. "Well Madam, I certainly beg to differ!"

Victoria couldn't keep herself from laughing. "Don't worry Ages, I already warned everyone what was going to happen! I'm gonna go and get this damned thing shut off!"

Mr. Ages muttered and grumbled as she drifted out the door, still laughing. Even after all of the time that he had worked with her, he was still befuddled as to what made that woman tick. Victoria was a truly strange one... As the Captain of the Guard, she was in charge of security for the colony and enforcement of the rules, not to mention once Travis' family came along, she took over his spot on the Council as the Guard's representative. Every once in a blue moon, she would volunteer some time to Arthur and the Corps of Engineers, just in case that Mad Hatter, Arthur, wanted an amature opinion on something. Ages had decided to train her to become something of a doctor so that her men didn't always have to rely on him so much for their medical attention. Ages wasn't fond of the Recon and Recovery missions where most major injuries took place. The Guards needed someone out there who could help them. He wondered why she would ever have wanted to be in something like the Guard when she had a very keen grasp on molecular biology. He wanted her working for him, but she said no. It was already too much most weeks for her to make her "doctor lessons." Work and Council were her life. She didn't really need anything else to occupy her time with. Besides, with Nicodemus' health slowly deteriorating, she didn't have time to sleep let alone be a lab assistant.

It was no secret in Nicodemus' inner circle that she was his hand picked choice to take over for him when he died. Though the very last thing in the world she wanted was to find herself in charge of all aspects of the colony, Ages honestly believed that she need to hurry up and get Travis ready to take her place as Captain...

"It's the blue button!" Victoria shouted as she neared Justin's post, watching as he frantically tried to silence the alarm. He opened the switchbox again and finally pressed the right one. Victoria leaned against the wall; a grin peeled across her face. "Don't worry, it happens a lot. The communication buttons are right below the alarm buttons...Not my design," she added.

He was so flustered that he wanted to hide from her. "I'm sorry, Captain."

"Don't appologise, just make sure that you don't do it again." She opened the switchbox and pretended to look. "Mistakes happen, okay?"

"Yes Ma'am—Sorry Captain!" He quickly corrected himself. Victoria insisted on being called "Sir," or "Captain." Her logic was that she basically only had men under her command and that it was better not to distinguish herself from them any further.

"Good save," she commented. "We're still getting together at 7:00 at the gym, right?"

"Yes Sir."

"Then I'll see you later Guard."

Justin's mind swarmed when she returned to the lab. He'd rarely seen her garbed in anything other than the blue and ivory of her uniforms. Even in a reddish colored shirt and a white lab coat, she still held quite the aire of command. It was how she carried herself, very sure of her actions and decisions. He thought for a moment and let a bit of pride well within himself; he was going to be like her one day.

At least the rest of his shift went without any more major catastrophies. He did manage to get a couple of rats lost in Section Four, interrupt a class, and kill the electricity in the hallway. Beyond that, he had what could pass as a normal day, even though he thought of it as a great disaster. Others didn't let things like that happen. If Troy had been on Section Four, none of that crap would have taken place. Also, Troy wouldn't have had carnal thoughts about the Captain.

"What we need is to figure out how best to replicate the rest of the human technology that they use to identify antibody reactions." Victoria felt like she was talking to a wall as she flipped through the pages of the text book that Ages was having her read.

"Yes, yes..." Ages humored her, not quite sure of what she had spouted off about this time.

"With a humoral antibody identification system, we could learn how to do blood transfusions...Think about it! We wouldn't have to worry about cross reactions, rejection... You know, major histocompatability complex..."

"Wha?" He'd lost her, and knew that he'd probably get called on it.

"Blood typing, Ages," she said, feigning disgust.


"We could perform some forms of major surgery." She cracked a smile.


"Jupiter, yes." She started to hum and flipped another page.

"You don't know what you're talking about." He said and continued to grumble under his breath.

"Oh, I don't? What about when Miriam bled to death two years ago? Ages, we could have saved her! If we get a type and a bank, all we have to do is get a cross and transfuse... If we could come up with a more powerful centrifuge, we could even separate platelets well enough to run those too." Victoria had a daydream look on her face.

"Snap out of it woman."

"You just don't know when to admit that I'm right." She stuck out her tongue as a tease. Of course such technology for the rats was several generations away.

"This isn't about me trying to figure out the morals of your pipe dreams. I just don't see something like that as being feasible." He sighed and pushed his glasses up.

"Jealous that you didn't think of it first?"

"No," he huffed.

"I don't think you're being honest with me." She was being playfull now, simply taking advantage of goading her friend. When a buzzer sounded, she jumped up to get away from that book and over to get a vial of Ages' microbial soup. "Now, looking at this would be much easier if we had a 100x lense..."

"Don't start with me again!"

"I just like watching you squirm." She set the vial in the rack, grabbed a dropper and set it next to the sink. She slid a tray of stains that way and set out the slides on a little metal rack that spanned the sink. "Get your whiney carcass over here and do some Gram staining with me. It is your project after all." She needed to be done with her doctor lesson by five.

"You know that you can leave anytime you want." He drew a deep breath to amend his word. "Once we're done."

"Thanks Ages, I didn't know that." She looked at him, eyebrows raised. "And you want to know why I'd give up such a lovely evening to spend it here in a freezing cold lab with you?"

"Absolutely not," he muttered.

"You two sound like you've been married for a century."

Victoria's already charming mood picked up even higher when she heard that comment. "Well, well, if it isn't Jonathan Brisby come to grace us with his presence."

"I was noticing what time it was getting to be and wondered if I could bring you anything for supper." His eyes twinkled as he spoke.

"Ages is leaving soon, and I'm out of here by five today. Thanks for the offer."

Jonathan climbed up onto one of the stools for a moment at watches as she dropped little blops of blue dye on the slides. "You must have something of dire importance to get out of here on time."

"Yeah, I'm giving Justin a crash course on playing with big knives and not getting himself killed." She put the dropper down.

"Sword practice...I remember watching you help Travis. If you'd had real swords, you would have cut him to ribbons." Jonathan was curious about the slides, but didn't dare to get much closer than he already was from across the bench.

"Ah, but Travis learned." She said.

"That," he paused for effect. "Is quite true." Jonathan slid back down to the floor. "Well, I must be on my way to meet Nicodemus."

"Alright Jon, I'll catch you later." Victoria waved and went back to rinsing her slides. After he was completely gone, she turned to Ages. "Did he tell you about his girlfriend?"

"You of all people should know better than to gossip," he retorted.

"Ages! I have a real concern here." She dropped the volume of her voice quite considerably. "The way he talks, they're going to take the plunge, which means. ..."

"Jonathan Brisby's personal life is none of our concern." He wanted that to end that conversation. It was ample time for a new topic.

"But Ages, we need to convince him to tell her about us before they get married."

The mouse fought with his glasses for a moment. "Like I said, what business is it of ours?"

"He might listen to you." She ran some water to make a futile attempt at washing the stain out of her skin. "I may as well be talking to a table leg when I approach the subject with him."

Ages understood her concern. Jonathan was his friend too. "I'll see what I can do...No promises."

"Nothing but sunshine and rainbows out of you huh, Ages?"

"It's five," he said deliberately. "Now I believe it's time for you to go."

Victoria smiled, and walked over to the text and layed the cover shut.

Victoria had her hair tied back out of her face and plodded into the gymnasium. It wasn't busy since she her timing put her in the room just following the shift exchange and right during dinner. She warmed her body up with some stretches and martial arts before walking over to the mats and grabbing up a fencing foil. She held the lightweight piece of metal and whipped it around, liking the sound that it made. She turned on the flood lamp that was on the wall so she could watch her form in the shadow.

"Ah, sorry I'm late Captain."

"Don't appologise. Get your act together and get over here."

Justin complied and took one of the foils and pretended not to look at her in any manner that suggested unprofessional thoughts.

"Are you ready?" She stood in a manner that reminded him of a dancer.

"Yeah, I think so."

A flash of irritation ran through her eyes. "You either are or you aren't. Which is it?"

He fought the urge to blush. "Yes, I'm ready."

Sweet hell, he's so polite, Victoria thought. "So stand on your mark."

"Go!" She snapped, and let him make the first move. She analyzed him, knowing immediately where his major flaws were. Victoria quickly and easily dodged his flailing weapon and marked him right over the heart. "You're dead."

"That wasn't even ten seconds." He seemed shocked.


"Yes ..."

"Go!" He didn't ever realized they'd started until he felt the tip of the foil in his chest again. "You're dead."

"Wait, I wasn't ready."

"As a Guard you always have to be ready, ready for anything that that happens to come your way." She blew a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. "Not to mention you said that you were good to go."

Justin sighed. "Okay, I'm ready now—"

"You're dead."

"Damn!" He cursed. He was going to be ready this time to defend himself. He started by holding his weapon up toward his chest. "Ready."

This time, he managed to block off a couple of hits before her sweet voice said he was dead. After an hour of loosing within fifteen seconds of starting a bout, Justin's chest hurt in the three places she kept hitting him. He was being a good sport about the whole thing, even though he kept loosing.

"Ready to give up yet?"

"No!" He was getting into it, a surge of adrenaline was rushing into his veins. He'd even started to notice how she began her attacks, countering her moves as best he could until she inevitably hit him. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and his arm was sore, but he just wanted to try and prove himself to her, and try to make it so that he wasn't completely humiliated should he fight against anyone else in the near future. Loosing to Victoria was not truly considered a defeat by many, as she was the best swordsman in the colony. She had to be, and even Jenner, who considered himself to be a worthy contender with a blade had not beaten her yet.

"You're dead!"

Justin broke out into a stunning smile and clutched his chest.

"Next time I'll work with you on some technique, then we can start on some strategy." She grabbed her towel and dabbed at her face.

"Sounds great." He wanted to wince, those places where she'd hit were already bruising. It almost hurt to breathe. "I'll see you tomorrow Captain."

She waved him out and proceeded to lace up a pair of boxing gloves and go for a bout with the punching bag. Yeah, I'll catch you tomorrow too, she thought happily to herself.

"Have you come up with a diagnosis?" Nicodemus questioned Mr. Ages from his desk in the corner of the room.

Victoria sat with Ages and and self-conciously smoothed down the front of her vest. Even though she saw Nicodemus most every day, she shuddered at the idea of not being at the very top of her forum. "It's not real good news, but it's not horrible either."

Ages huffed. He certainly didn't take Victoria's more optimistic look on things. She was certain they'd find a cure. As he and his student had prepared to offer their best explaination to their leader, she consistently threw ideas at him to make things not as bad as they were. Perhaps she was in denial... At least it would be better on Nicodemus to have someone a bit more upbeat deliver the diagnosis.

"After several weeks, we've come down to the conclusion that you're likely suffering from a combination of autoimmunity and immune complex disease." From her seat beside the venerable leader's beautifully carved "throne" she got up and convinced him to leave his work alone for a moment and come over to listen to them. She reached over and took one of his hands. "Remember that first winter out of the laboratory, that one time you became so sick?"

"I recall that bout of illness all to well, my child." Nicodemus, who was very intelligent himself, wasn't making the connection between being sick years ago and why he was seemingly falling apart at the seams now. The symptoms of the two malaises were far too different.

"Well, that "cold" was most likely a virulent streptococcal infection." She concentrated on the feeling of the swollen joints in his fingers while she cradled his hand. "One of the problems with strep is that it can carry a large amount of immune-mediated sequelae—" She mentally cursed herself. She was sounding like one of Ages' text books. "—Follow up diseases, and situations where a local infection dessimates and causes long term damage without a person know about it..." Damn it! Why couldn't Ages have done this part? He had the bedside manner of a stump, and didn't show how upset he was. She was on the verge of tears! It was a healer's job to be strong.

Victoria fought to keep her emotions in check. "You have rheumatoid arthritis, which is a condition where bacteria have gotten into your joints. Once the little buggers got in there, they called antibodies to the sites and the proceded to call in other defensive cells that got so fired up, they damaged the tissues in the joints and the surrounding areas. All of those antibody cells basically clump together and fall out of suspension, like too much sugar in a punch bowl. That's part of the swelling, and it's continuous." She was tearing herself apart. It pained her greatly to have to tell the man she reguarded as her father that he was sick, sick for the rest of his life, with no chance for a full recovery. "That's the immune complex side of it, Sir."

Nicodemus took a deep breath inward. He'd heard of the effects rheumatoid arthritis had on humans. They became debilitated and trapped within their malfunctioning bodies when they would otherwise be relatively young and healthy, unable to enjoy the prime of their lives. He tried to hide the fear in his voice. "Go on."

"As for autoimmunity, that Sir, is your body having an immune reaction to itself... It too can be traced back to severe streptococcal infection." She mumbled a few words together. "Neoantigens, damage to your DNA from the disease process," she said quickly, unsure if she could go on. She and Ages had spent countless hours researching the neoantigen diagnosis as some strange and unexpected side effect from their treatment at NIMH. Nicodemus' autoimmune disorder was likely caused by a strange cross- reaction between the strep infection and the original genes in his NIMH- altered genome, especially since what he was diagnosed with was a disease of humans. That thought kept her awake some nights, her mind swimming with theories and second guesses on what Dr. Schultz had wanted with the rats. "Have you ever heard of Systemic Lupus Erythematosis?"

"No, I have not." Nor did he want to hear about it.

"Because you have suffered from unexplained fevers, fatigue, weaknesses, those strange spells of alopecia, joint and muscle swelling and pain..." She left off with that list and finished compiling his symptoms in her head. The purple color in his nail beds, the strange scaly red rash on his face that came and went, and the extreme photophobia... "There is not a cure... But that in no way means that you can't lead a happy and relatively normal life with proper treatment."

At that precise moment, Victoria watched Nicodemus' spirit blow out and die like wind killing the flame of a candle. She then turned and tucked her other hand beneath his warm palm and stretched the tendrils of her mind out to him. He was feeling very small and alone. (Nicodemus,) she said, directly into his mind.

(Yes,) he responded almost timidly.

(I want you to know that I am here for you Sir.) They looked one another straight in the eye. (You won't have to face any of this alone.)

(Thank you Victoria. Thank you.)

"What we've decided to do," she broke off in the middle of her sentence, as her physical voice was quite inadequate at the moment.

"What we though would be in your best interests is to leave you with all of the information we've been able to find, including our latest run from the Clarkston City Library." Ages decided it was his turn to speak. "This gives you time to yourself to access the whole situation...or..." he said with a frog in his throat. "You can try to seek a second opinion out of someone who knows something about medical microbial agents."

"Or," Victoria piped in. "We can stay as long as you need us. Facing a life altering illness can be stressful, and no matter what you decide Sir, Ages and I will be right her at 2:00 tomorrow afternoon."

Nicodemus leaned back into his chair and re-arranged a lock of longish chestnut colored human-like hair which sprouted from his head. He would have clasped his hands together as he enjoyed doing when he settled in for a good think, save that the joints were too swollen to do such an activity with any comfort. Honestly, he wanted to find a dark closet and hide, hoping that he would wake up next Tuesday and just be Nicodemus, Leader of the Rats of NIMH. Instead, he was going to rise in the morn as Nicodemus the Infirm and Incapacitated... .the more he thought, the more angry he became. "I think I need some solitude. After all, I do have a lot of reading to get done."

"Good night Nicodemus."

"Good night, Russ—"

Ages visibly paled upon hearing just that sliver of his first name spoken. "If you weren't who you are..." He muttered as he exited out into the hall.

(Please inform the others at the Council meeting tonight that I am a bit under the weather.) The leader sighed like a sick child who wanted to be out in the sandbox with his friends.

(I shall,) she spoke as she too headed toward the door. (And I won't tell anyone of your illness until you've had some time to yourself.)

(Remember, don't let Jenner get too wound up.)

(Do I ever?) That comment stifled a laugh out of him. (I'll see you tomorrow.)

She looked at the door and thought it open. To any bystander who didn't understand that she had any special abilities, the whole movement seemed magic. She caught herself between a yawn and a sigh.

Once in her apartment, she flicked on the living room light, which revealed a coating of dust on most everything. She disrobed, killed the light, and walked into her bedroom hoping to score a short nap. All she really wanted at that point was a magic wand, first so that she could heal Nicodemus, and second, to have somebody love her for all that she have somebody who shared her behemouth four poster bed and kissed her goodnight. The only thing that kept her from dreaming something wonderful was her alarm clock. She rolled over to look at the night stand after what seemed to be only ten or fifteen minutes. Victoria stretched and went to her closet for her Council robes. It was circus time!

Chapter Five

Justin awoke with a startle to an empty bed in an otherwise unfurnished room. It was time for his tender dreams of Victoria to conclude and have reality begin. One look at the clock showed that he'd overslept by a good two hours! He cussed at himself as she dragged his feet over to the pile of clothes in front of the closet. He pulled on one of the few items he owned that was not a piece of a uniform. The cranberry colored shirt had been a gift from Troy some years back and the patchwork vest...That, Victoria had made by hand. He hadn't worn this particular outfit in probably over a year. He went to the mirror in the living room, which would probably never leave from that place where it leaned up against the wall.

"Knock knock! Hope you're decent!" Arthur flung open the door. "Good, you're up." He stopped dead in his tracks. "Nice threads, man."

"Same to you buddy." Justin tried to hide his eyes.

Arthur walked up and stood by Justin where his loud flower and parrot print aloha shirt nearly broke the mirror in contrast with the rich colors of Justin's clothes. "Man, we are gonna blind people today."

Justin squinted at the reflection. "I think you're right."

"Breakfast? Bianca will still serve us." Arthur smiled at the image in the mirror.

Justin's stomach growled. "Absolutely."

The cafeteria was nearly dead with only a few stray rats sitting at the various tables. No one looked up when Justin and Arthur entered. That was probably for the better.

"Good God you two!" Bianca called the moment she got a good look at them. "Did you dress each other?"

"No, Doll, we simultaneously made this fashion mistake all by our lonesome selves," Arthur crooned.

She pushed the swinging doors from the kitchen open with her back and carried two trays of food to the closest table. "I shouldn't have done this for you two clowns...From now on, get here on time or show up for lunch."

Justin gave a gentle smile. "Thank you for your courtesy Bianca."

She smiled back and batted her eyes at him. "You're welcome Justin."

"Thanks Babe," Arthur said before nearly diving head first into his plate.

"Uh huh," she mutter back to him and swaggered back into the kitchen.

"Damn, I love her," Arthur said as he planted a heaping spoonful of honey nut oatmeal in his mouth. "If only she could get rid of that looser of a husband..."

Upon that comment, Justin noted that Bianca had done a very good job of covering up the evidence of the beating Frank had given her last night. "I couldn't agree with you more."

After only about ten minutes of a nice quiet meal, Robbie walked in with a clipboard under his arm. "Good morning Sirs," he said, his tone quite chipper.

"What's the bad news?" Justin questioned automatically. It seemed that most every morning for the past two years, either Robbie or Troy showed up with that damned clipboard to give reminders of the day's "Must Not Be Missed Events." Justin recalled mornings where Victoria would try to hide from Travis and Buck to avoid The List.

"Well, not much since we're still settling in and folks are trying out their new job assignments to make sure they're in the right activity. You have to name your replacement for Captain, and look over the materials from yesterday's insanity...Schedule the next community meeting for sometime this week, and get all the files and paper goods from the rosebush finally organized and put away. And for a lot of the Guard's material, you're the only one who can do it." Even years off the job as Guard secretary, the files were still an amazing mess, all thanks to him. "I think they make perfect sense."

Arthur nearly choked on his oatmeal. "Oh, I bet they do."

Justin shook his head. It was an ingenious system! "Well, the day doesn't sound too awful bad."

Arthur cracked his knuckles after setting down his spoon. "I'll catch you two kids later, cus I gotta get over to the maintenance shop and the rest of those windows ready to install."

Justin tried his best to smile and took the sheet of paper from Robbie. It really wasn't a horrible list after all, he mused. One thing that was very fortunate, was that other than carpets, moldings, electricity, and somewhere in the neighborhood of half the windows, Thorn Valley was ready to go. It was basic, but fully habitable, still quite spartan on furnishings and vanity items, but no one was truly uncomfortable. One of Victoria's insights years back had been to try and get the valley settlement done as far ahead of schedule as it could be pushed, as if she had comprehended an early exodus from the rosebush. With Jonathan Brisby's help, a measure got pushed through the Council (much to Jenner's utter dismay) that every able bodied adult outside of security and construction/engineering had to try and spend 3-4 weeks a year helping with the preparations in the valley itself. Having many extra people augmenting the already hardworking labor crews made all of the difference in the end. Without that help, Justin was sure they'd still be digging tunnels into the mountainside and living in tents out on the meadow. "I'll be in my office if you need me, Robbie."

Justin was sure that he had let Robbie down. He'd worked so hard, especially in the last eighteen months since Travis had gotten killed in a freak accident. It was Robbie who'd unofficially filled the Commander's void and it seemed right that he should be the next in line for the Captaincy. Justin shook his head; he was a bit lost of what he should do.

Victoria's journal was still on his desk. He set the list on top of the book. He would have loved to have turned the reigns over to Robbie by now except there was one thing in the way. Victoria was still rightfully the Captain, since Justin was merely filling in for her...still. He didn't have the power to change things like that around. It would take a whole lot of wrestling with the Council to re-write the rules. Now that it just happened to be that she was still alive, he was in that proverbial hard place...Justin crossed the first item off the list.

He picked up her book. He recognized it the second Bianca had thrust it toward him. Victoria had started it about four or five months before disappearing. She wrote in it probably every other night before she went to sleep. The green cloth of the cover was battered and worn now, showing the two years that had passed. He flipped to the page he left off at, an entry where she'd still been in his life, but for some reason, he didn't have the heart to go on yet. He grabbed the keys she'd given him and the envelope they were taped to.

The micro-cassettes were one of Arthur's pet projects that he got Victoria in on. The two of them had forever been fascinated with recordings. Justin though the whole process was a bit unnatural, capturing time like that had to have repercussions somewhere...Arthur had come upon the tapes and the device that played them during an early mission retrieving Christmas lights from the human's shrubbery. A shoebox full of the cassettes, along with four recorders was found in a garbage can. It turned out the equipment belonged to a journalist who'd died of a heart attack and his wife threw away all of his worldly belongings.

Phillipe kept track of that equipment since the recordings Victoria and Arthur made were considered historical documents. Justin was in a rather good mood for him when he entered the back offices of the library where Phillipe wielded his trade. Justin was standing on a chair when the Historian came in.

"Good day Sir." He wasn't amused. "You can get off my chair now."

"I thought you said you were going to catch me and my sense of humor today..." Justin's smile was very much like that of a little boy. "Did you make me climb up here for nothing?"

The Historian chucked and waved a brown paper package at Justin. "Do you have those keys?"

"Right here," Justin patted at the bag he had slung over his shoulder.

"Let's go and take a listen to this tape...if the batteries decided to hold their charge from before the move." He didn�t sound very optimistic.

The recorders were kept in trunks when not in use and Victoria had all of the keys when she left. Phillipe let Justin handle the locks while he unwrapped a tape. "Ages gave this to me about seven months ago. Said he'd found it one time when he was out scouting medicinal plants. I never thought anything of it until a couple of weeks ago, when we moved this stuff."

"These are pretty lame locks. You could have crow barred these open years ago."

"I've never much cared for these things. Arthur and El Capitan were the ones in charge of this waste of space." Phil sighed. "But you know those two..."

Justin was still smiling. "Oh yeah."

"Separately, they're incredible geniuses. Put them and their overactive minds together...they're downright dangerous." Phillipe wasn't trying to be funny, but in a way, it was the absolute truth. He walked over to the open trunk and hauled the thing out and got the batteries installed. He then opened the lid to the tape deck and in inserted the tape. "Well, here goes nothing."

Justin looked at the muddy, weathered, nearly destroyed tape and wondered if it was even capable of retaining any information. Phillipe hit the play button and they both hung back as the black pieces of plastic began to turn the spools.

"Hello, this is Captain of the Guard, Victoria, and Guards Bretta and James leaving a message, since we've got this thing out here. We are on our way to Clarkston, to the library, so we can browse the shelves for new information." The quality was poor, and in some spots, nearly impossible to hear.

Justin's heart melted at the sound of her voice. This was the first time he thought of the tapes as a good idea. He remembered now, that one of the four recorders was at one time positioned at what the Guard had called Checkpoint One. It was the first major landmark beyond the distinctive gate of the Fitzgibbon's driveway that the rats passed. He kept listening to the boring narrative explanation of the mission until he heard a whip- like sound and a storm of screams.

"You're finally mine you overstepping, loud-mouthed, argumentative bitch!"

Justin's hand flew to the stop button. "Jenner...That Bastard!" He very quickly had to grasp an inanimate object before his emotions grabbed all hold of him. "If the son of a bitch weren't already dead--"

Phillipe was immediately concerned. "Justin, you haven't even heard the whole tape yet."

"I don't need to here it." He suppressed a growl. "We, the adults who can attend, need to meet." Justin popped his knuckles. "How quickly do you think you could get this stuff down to the main meeting hall?"

"How fast do you need it?"

Since rounding up the community at large could prove to be a time consuming activity, Justin figured that right after lunch would be the best possible time he could call an impromptu meeting. "I'll see you then." He took off in a run for his office. He needed to read the rest of that journal as fast as his eyes would let him do it.

"What's up with this, Man?" Arthur had come down to Justin's office as soon as he felt comfortable leaving all of those new windows in the hands of his crews.

Justin was visibly pale as though some creature had sneaked up behind him and sucked the very life from his body. Victoria's journal was clutched tightly in his arms as if to protect it from the monster which had consumed him.

"Dude? What's wrong?" Arthur was a bit scared.

"I've already called a meeting... "

"No kidding. The whole place is in a near uproar." Arthur set his level down on the desk. "You look like you're gonna puke."

"Nothing left in my stomach to throw up," he said wearily. He'd read the book then gone back to actually listen to the rest of the tape. That's when he'd lost his breakfast.

Arthur put a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "Can I do anything for you?"

Justin looked up at him. He had to stop and think for a moment. "Yes, yes you can... Tell Emmett to bring his works from the time we settled on the farm until--" His voice broke. "Until they went missing."

"Alrighty." He stopped just short of the door. "Can I snag you a lunch tray?"

"No." He knew he'd get one anyway.

Emmett drew and painted portraits when he was not drafting or sketching designs for technical projects. He was busily working at a three- dimensional view of a small motor when Arthur, his boss, came trooping in.

"Good, I caught you before you left for lunch." Arthur was winded.

The draftsman put his pencil to the side. "Oh, I'm on a roll here. I'm not taking a break. I'll make it until supper."

"Justin needs you to get into the portrait archive."

Emmett was immediately interested. "I thought we were waiting until the walls were finished and all of the windows were in before we started to hand those up?"

"He needs them for the emergency meeting at one."

He reluctantly slid off his stool and walked out of the room with Arthur. He hadn't planned on attending, but it looked like his sketch of that motor was going to have to wait. "Seems a bit odd if you ask me."

"Yeah, I know. I don't have any of the details, only that this meeting was called and it's a real emergency. Whatever was in Victoria's journal and on one of those old tapes has got Justin pretty rattled. He wouldn't talk to me about it." Arthur opened the door to what he hoped was the right storage unit.

Emmett quickly forgot about his work and went into the dark little cave. He had to come back out for a candle since he'd forgotten that these rooms didn't have lights yet. "I think Phillipe has most of the formal paintings." He approached a small human sized accordion style folder and untied the string. "What do you suppose she told him?"

"I'm not at liberty to divulge my crackpot theories on the matter." Arthur had a dark lump in the pit of his soul. Whatever it was, she hadn't told him during her brief visit to the rosebush. He stayed quiet as the other rat looked through and for various pictures.

"Damn..." Emmett said and followed it with a whistle. "I'd be willing to walk out on someone for her too. What a woman..." The painting he'd pulled out was a watercolor of Victoria in a dark blue evening gown that had sparkles woven into the fabric. She was standing next to Justin, who'd been quite fashionable in his tuxedo too. "What a night..." He referred to the party the scene was from.

Arthur actually felt an emotional yearning so moving that it neared physical pain. He'd hurt nearly as bad a Justin when was suddenly gone. Victoria was Arthur's best friend and partner in crime. He took a good look at the painting. It was done the night of the last "Taste of Things To Come" banquet and expo. One of the ways of helping the community accept the eventual move, and a fun way of illustrating the Plan, was to present it through recreational settings. He remembered that particular one as the evening the three dimensional model of the Thorn Valley nest and the new dessert menu was introduced. The honey currant bars had been particularly good.

A stop in the archives got Emmett and Arthur the rest of the goods they'd sought. While Emmett organized the pictures, Arthur made a quick jaunt through the cafeteria to be sure Justin got something in his system to keep from collapsing. The Leader was in complete overdrive.

"Got your pictures found, and your lunch." Arthur barged into Justin's office and set the tray down on top of an end table that wasn't too cluttered.

"I didn't want any food."

"Fine. It'll still be here when you're done." Arthur shoved a pile out of the way on the desk and sat down on the corner. He noticed two more volumes of Victoria's journals sitting there. "See ya' in a few."

Justin didn't even seem to notice the man or the brightness of his shirt leave the room. He swallowed hard and prayed he could keep his composure in front of his peers. He was thankful for a private entrance to the stage area of the meeting hall, where he didn't have to face an immediate barrage of questions. He simply walked into the short hallway and onto a stage where he was surrounded on three sides by a sea of faces. Unfortunately one o'clock came sooner than he wanted it to.

"Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen." He couldn't remember getting onto the stage, just suddenly being there. He was grateful that the planners had decided not to go with stadium seating for this room. "I assure you that there is a just cause to have called you away from your posts this afternoon. But, as it is stated in our laws, all cases of criminality must first be placed by the Leader of the Rats or the Council." His audience was captive, for they were riveted by the prospect of a rule-breaking member of their society. "We are all here today because you deserve to know why two people are dead and why another was presumed dead for two years." He had Phillipe hit the play button and braced himself, thinking of the clouds he saw drifting across the sky through the plate glass skylights.

"--argumentative bitch!"

"Jenner! What are you doing?" James questioned.

Bretta followed suit. "Let us down out of this, this trap!"

"You are in no position to demand anything right now." Jenner responded coolly to his captives. "If I let all of you out, my lesson in humility will be wasted on your beloved Captain. And we couldn't have that."

The sounds of someone being beaten came from the background as Jenner went on. "I find it amazing that you walked into these snares in just the way we would have liked. Odd, how some things just work out in my favor."

The recording went on to reveal the actions of Jenner's men as they bound and gagged James and Victoria so they could witness the beating and brutal rape of Bretta before James mercifully had his throat cut out, but only after having received the beating of his life and watching the complete violation of his spouse. Lastly, Victoria's gag was removed.

"How does it feel to be utterly powerless?"

Tears and mucous distorted her voice. "How could you do that to them? How could you do that when what you're really after is me?"

"It's all part of your lesson Little Sis." Jenner's words were cold and smooth, like the surface of an ice rink.

"You're insane, Jen." She snapped back.

"I'm quite sane, thank you very much. I am just making things the way they should be. And you, my irritating sibling, are just not in the equation." He stopped to cough. "You do get a consolation prize though...I'm feeling generous today... Since you will never bend on your stand concerning this fucking Plan, you must be removed. But, I am fulfilling one of your darkest wishes first.

A thick coat of disgust/anger coated her response. "Oh, I seriously doubt that."

"I have arranged so that you don't have to die a virgin," Jenner snorted. "She's all yours Kyle."

The meeting hall nearly exploded into a rage of voices while they endured her continued torture.

"Well." Jenner was heard hissing. "You've had enough time!"

"I can't do it Jenner." Kyle's voice rang with embarrassment.

"Well Sis, it looks like I lied. " The sound of a sword being unsheathed quickly followed. "Okay you impotent fool, if you can't fuck her, you can be the one to finish her off."

Victoria growled as the sword impaled her. She was too angry to scream. More minutes passed.

"What should we do with the bodies?" A voice identified as Sullivan's said.

"Our happy couple can be ditched in the woods. You and Derek can figure that one out. Kyle and I will dispose of this one--" He kick Victoria as hard as he could in the gut. She almost didn't give him the satisfaction of groaning. "--on the freight train."

Justin motioned for Phillipe to cut the power. The rest of the tape had nothing on it but the sound of a train moving off in the distance before it was stopped, taken out of the machine, and hurled into the woods, instead of easily destroyed.

The rats sat in silence until it rang in their ears. Brutus, an imposing rat who towered over his colony mates, was heard gasping for air, sobs wracked his body so hard. Arthur, who was crying as well, jumped from the stage to comfort his fellow Guard. Before he could make it that far, Brutus had jumped up and charged toward the seat where Kyle sat cowering.

"Brutus! Don't hurt him!" Arthur shouted.

Brutus hovered above Kyle, his fist balled, and his mind raging. His mouth opened, but muteness, an affliction of a particularly rough birth, but could not tell Kyle his feelings about the attempted murder of the woman who'd practically raised him. He hung his head low and took Arthur's advice.

Several Guards had mobilized. Justin waved them off. "I have also read Victoria's journal where she had recovered to the point where she could write about the incident. In her thoughts about the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, she as well as I, insist on pursuing justice through our written rules." He stood and wiped the moisture from his face. He never imagined that in his role as a leader, that he would be put in such a situation ever, let alone bare days into his term. He wanted to start the trials for Kyle and Derek right then and there. "There will be no preferential treatment for the murders."

Brutus released his hold on Arthur as the engineer made a move to stand up. "I move that we set a trial date and Brutus here passes a second."

Carla, James and Bretta's oldest child jumped from her chair. "You knew about this!" She screamed and pointed toward Nora. "How could you not turn him and his friends it! My parents are dead and you could have done something!"

"Nora was in league with Jenner as well!" Marley, one of Carla's younger siblings shouted. "And Jenner's people only look out for their own," he glowered.

Justin was forced to yell above the explosion of voices. "Please, we need to be rational about this matter."

"How can you talk about rationality at a time like this? Justin, that son of a bitch tried to rape your fianc�e before he ran a double edged sword through her chest!" Carla was livid and stomped over to Kyle, where she spit at him then slapped him in the face. "And you deserve to die a slow and horrible death."

"It is my job as the leader of the rats to see that Kyle and Derek receive a fair hearing." Justin forced himself to say those words even though he wanted to follow his gut and banish them that very instant.

"We all know they're guilty!" Carla was outraged to the point her ears were a bright red. "We heard it. Something needs to be done now."

"She's right," a random audience member said.

"They need to answer for their actions."

"We should at least hear what they have to say!" A hoarse female voice cut thought the crowd. "Jenner had a very seductive way of making people do things they normally wouldn't do." Jenner's estranged widow, Corinne, stated. She was an expert on Jenner's eccentricities. "At least let Derek and Kyle speak."

Justin jumped the gun and made a motion to set a trial date in order to keep the meeting from lasting until all hours of the night. That gave people the time to start the gossip for the next day behind closed doors for a much more sensational set of stories.

Jarvis, the king of Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure, and Speaker of the Council wasn't being picky that afternoon and responded with an "All For?"

Every arm in the room shot into the air.

"All Against?" Jarvis offered the other option as a formality. Not a soul fidgeted. "Motion Carried." A tentative date was set for two weeks from that day. Jarvis turned the floor back over to Justin.

"Our returning Captain of the Guard also passed some rather interesting information on to me." He pulled folded Baltimore Sun clippings out of the envelope that had come with the trunk keys.

The headline on the first read: Scientist Commits Suicide in Government Lab. The second was an obituary for one David Allen Schultz M.D. Ph.D., age 56. As it turned out, the man who'd been behind the project that had made Justin and the other rats into what they were, had killed himself five weeks after the rat's escape from NIMH. According to the articles, Dr. Schultz had been severely depressed for a couple of years and the disaster with his gene therapy experiments had driven him over the edge. Victoria's prim handwriting filled the margins of the first clipping. She said, "George Harlow Ph.D. and Juliet Masterson M.S. have kept tabs on us. They're not out to hurt us. They simply want to see what's become of us. Objectives: to prove we are not a threat. Capture of at least one specimen in order to put closure to Schultz's project. Chances of them following us to the Valley: highly unlikely. Schultz's former assistants never appeared too keen on his project and still aren't. Don't believe we need to be concerned. They've only followed as far as Fitzgibbons in order to give their journal articles a closing paragraph...even Ages agrees with me...We're just worried about the ones who do read these obscures articles who may be interested. " The last two lines had been added recently. The ink was a different color...

Following the revelation of that news, spirits had raised a small bit. Justin dismissed the congregation at that point. Within ten minutes, everyone save for Arthur and Brutus had left. Justin was on his way back to his office when he noticed the scragglers.

"Man, you did a good job up there." Arthur said in a supportive tone, which suggested some hints of pride.

"I hope so." Justin's voice was flat.

"The whole thing could have turned into a mob lynching. Kyle and Derek would be dead right now. Not saying that they shouldn't be." Even saying the names gave Arthur a bad taste in his mouth.

"Are you going to be okay?" Justin questioned Brutus.

The large rat looked toward the man in charge, an expression of sheer and utter inundation washed over his features.

"She's still with us, my friend..." Justin said, wavering from the pain in Brutus' stare. "And nothing will excuse those men for what they did to any of them."

"They'll get what they deserve...Don't know 'bout you Man, but I'm glad this is over with for now." Arthur gave a sheepish grin to his friends. "You big fella need to be with your family and take your mind off this depressing stuff. And you," he pointed straight at Justin. "You need to go back and eat the stuff on that tray that I snagged for you. And I, I shall go back to work. Did I ever tell you how much I love windows?"

Dana was on the couch finishing her inventory paperwork when somebody knocked on the door. Not wanting to shout, she got up, tied the belt around her robe, and opened the door. "Please Dear, come in." After the event, which had played out that afternoon, she was not surprised to see her firstborn at the door.

Brutus was on his way to work when he decided to seek his mother out. Perhaps she'd be able to talk to him and help him shed some of the horrible things he was feeling. He needed to cool the murderous rage that held him captive. He was ready to go out on a rampage of his own and hunt down any of Jenner's followers and run them through on his pole axe. It wasn't just because of what they'd done to the Captain. James and Bretta had been his co-workers, and his friends too.

"The night that you were born my son, Victoria was the one who held onto my hand and talked me through it all, in the end, getting us both out alive. Ages was almost sure that we were going to die. It was a horrible, long labor, and when you finally came, you were a breech baby, and the cord was caught around your neck. She kept me calm and lucid. After we finally got you breathing, she helped the doctor keep me from bleeding to death. I'd started to hemorrhage..." Dana took her son's hand. "Of course, you were a difficult baby; you didn't have a voice, but you were like Nicodemus and Victoria. Your voice was in your mind. Your father and I couldn't hear you. Victoria could." Victoria had stepped in a Dana and Steven's request to help them with the baby. She'd been more than happy to help and eventually found herself in a position where she was sort of a single mother and heading up the newly created Guard. Nicodemus started retaining her as something of an adviser. She was busy, but she was the only person who could teach Brutus how to use the special abilities he had been born with. "The happiest moment of my life was when she taught you how to communicate with us."

(Mother,) he whispered.

"Yes, Brutus?"

(I wanted to kill those men. If it weren't for Arthur stepping in today, I would have knocked Kyle into the afterlife.)

Dana drew back, surprised to hear her boy talk like that. Yes, he was a Guard, and could be downright mean when he had to be, but that was just part of the job sometimes. Any other time or place, he was a very reserved and gentle person. "Think of what would have happened if you had hurt Kyle? What would Carrie and the kids have done?"

He'd never even stopped long enough to think of his wife and family, not to mention how ashamed Victoria would be when she returned to find her godson had committed a murder to avenge her. (I am so very sorry, Mother.)

"I am too, Sweetie."

By this time, Steven had woken up and decided to see why his wife was still in the main room. He immediately noticed the blue and ivory uniform, and once he got his glasses on, realized that his son was in for a visit. "I hate to say this, but it was almost easier having her dead than knowing what she suffered through."

(When she first came back, she wouldn't tell me anything at all. She only wanted to see Nicodemus. I wish she'd told me then.) His spirit sank a little deeper. (It would have made it even easier to watch Jenner and Sullivan die.) That had been a horrible thing to say.

"Just remember your family."

"Absolutely," Steven commented too.

(I just pray that neither Kyle nor Derek happed to come my way tonight.) Brutus got up so he could sign in and start his shift. (Do you mind if I borrow a notebook?)

Steven grabbed a blank one out of an end table drawer. "It's yours."

(I need to write some new music...) Anything to calm his nerves. (Maybe we can all have supper tomorrow night?)

Dana smiled. "That would be wonderful."

Brutus bid good evening to his parents and headed to the Guard Room. He hoped Carrie was doing well, and with the new baby on the way, it was rough for him to be working nights. Since Justin was pretty much off the roster, Brutus was faced with little choice in scheduling. He did as best he could to ready himself for a long night.

Chapter Six

"Of all the rubbish I have ever heard! I daresay, that you, my scaly tailed friend, are full of shit."

"Please lady, help me," a weak and scratchy voice responded to the nasty woman.

"Absolutely not!" The shrew huffed. "If the rats left you here in this garden patch to die, you must not be all that deserving of help." She stabbed her walking stick into the ground and tisked at him. "How in hell you didn't get chewed up by the tractor yesterday is frankly beyond me."

"Oh, please." Sullivan was desperate. He'd managed his way out of delirium just long enough to ask for help, only to have some idiot old maid refuse to do so. She marched up and thumped him on the head with the butt of that damned stick she kept waving around. "Ouch, you old sow."

"They're all gone. Every last one of those filthy beasts has left. I don't suppose there's anyone her who could help you, other than the humans who bulldozed that blasted rosebush to kingdom come. I don't imagine you'd want their help."

"Lady," he gasped. "Get Ages."

"Ha! That old buffoon... I'd rather take my chances with the humans. . . . I bid you good day..." She turned and left him to suffer in the mid day sun.

Sullivan growled, as he watched the shrew walk away, then he passed out again.

"Brisby!" She bellowed as she neared the recently moved cinderblock. "Brisby!" She rounded a large clump of earth the hollered at the top of her lungs. "Rats!"

"Auntie Shrew!" Elizabeth Brisby popped her head out of her doorway. "What's wrong?"

"Every time I turn around there's more of those godforsaken creatures!"

"What are you talking about?" Brisby was wondering if the Shrew had finally lost her mind.

"Freeloading beasts are everywhere." She pointed toward the two rodent shaped shadows that continued to near them. The shrew held her breath until Victoria and Mr. Ages finally materialized from the shadows.

"Is everything okay?" Victoria questioned. "I heard a lot of yelling."

The Shrew seemed to pale when she saw the sword strapped the to woman rat's hip. "You rats are horrible creatures."

"What, this?" Victoria motioned to her weapon, it's blade gleaming in the sun. "It's the only thing we could think of to arm ourselves individually against Dragon, weasels, other nasty critters invading the nest, and unfortunately, sometimes, each other." She took her hand away from the sword. "Plus, for me, this big knife is part of my job description."

Elizabeth's jaw dropped. It was then that she noticed that "Bicker" was garbed like Justin had been. "You're a member of the Guard?"

Ages chimed in. "She's not just a member of the Guard, she's the rightful Captain, having returned from a very long journey."

"But, I thought Justin was the Captain." Brisby was visibly confused.

"Oh, he's the one I left in charge when I was--"

"Out of commission," Ages finished off. "Now, I'm here to check on Timothy, not prattle on about your career."

Victoria resisted making a face at the old doctor and grinned instead.

Elizabeth smiled. "You have a very pretty name."

"Yours is quite lovely as well." Victoria watched as Ages tugged on Elizabeth's cape and they both disappeared into the cinderblock house. This left Victoria alone outside with Auntie Shrew. She held out her hand. "Hello, I'm Victoria."

"I'm..." The Shrew stalled as she looked up at the rat. "I'm Jeannie."

"Pleasure to meet you Jeannie." She held her hand out until Jeannie reluctantly shook it.

Mr. Ages was quick to come back out of the house. "Victoria?"

She turned to him. "What can I do ya' for?"

"I need your--Ah, I forgot my astringent." He paused to push his glasses back up.

Victoria hesitated for a moment before realizing what he wanted and pulled a small flask of whisky out of the inside pocket of her vest and handed it over. The Shrew looked at her, eyebrows raised. "That Jeannie, is to keep me warm on those nights when I realize how painfully empty my bed is." She tried to say it in a joking tone, but it was far too serious.

Jeannie burst out laughing. "I think I know where you're coming from on that one."

The rat turned toward the house to heckle the doctor. "Ages! You're not getting that poor kid drunk are you!"

"Wouldn't put it past the old coot," Jeannie huffed.

"Chug-a-lug Ages!" Victoria shouted.

"Confounded! Captain, I implore you to please--"

"Now, tell me that you miss working with me," she said, a huge smile on her face. "You must have missed me good, cuz you moved out after I was gone."

"I--" He was flustered.

"You missed me."

"I--" It was beginning to turn into frustration.

She chuckled. "You know you did." Her tone suggested a bit more seriousness than a mere tease.

Ages was pretty irritated by that point, even if she was being genuine. "Alright, I missed you."

"Now, go tend to your patient." She reached out as he tossed the silver flask back to her. As she tucked it into her vest, she noticed the clink of her engagement ring against the metal. She stared right at the silver band inlaid with a white diamond Justin had salvaged from a piece of human jewelry.

"What's wrong?" The Shrew questioned at Victoria's immediate change in mood from rather silly to somber.

"Sometimes I wonder if I should just take it off." She sighed.

"It's quite beautiful." Jeannie had never seen jewelry crafted for creatures other than humans.

"I got it from Justin when he asked me to marry him... " She trailed off, not wanting to push the subject. "I've been dead to him for two years now..." She forced herself to pep up immediately. "Ages!" There was no sense in getting depressed over circumstances beyond her control.

"What!" He shouted.

"Are you ready? We need to start our search."

"I'll be out when I'm done!"

She neared the doorway so she wouldn't have to shout. "Longer we dawdle Mr. Broken Ankle, the less of a chance we have of finding them."

"I know!"

The Shrew smirked. "He's a cranky one today."

"Jeannie, if you only knew the half of it." When Ages finished up his exam of Timmy, she jumped, reared and ready. "Well, it was a pleasure. Hope we get to chat again one of these days."

"Yes," the Shrew complimented. "It's good to have a nice conversation, which is more than I cans say for that character of your kind I came across this morning."

The expression on Victoria's face became quite serious. "Are you saying that you found someone?"

"On the Northern edge of the plot." She stabbed her walking stick into the ground. "He was the most impolite creature I've ever met."

"I imagine so... Ages, you stay here until I get back." She quickly re- bound her hair into a ponytail. "If I were a betting man, I'd say that our friend her has found that fat, blithering, moron...Sullivan..."

Chapter Seven

Justin fell to his knees to block the sword, which was sailing dangerously close to his head.  He felt a thump on his shoulder.

"You loose, Man." Arthur said as he pulled his "dud" weapon off his friend.

"Was that a legal move?" 

Arthur raised an eyebrow.  "In a real fight, believe me, it wouldn't matter."  He coughed and stretched his arms.  "I tell you what, Captain's managed to knock some fighter into you."

"Gee, thanks."  He toweled off his face and wished that he'd never been promoted to his new position.  He was giving serious thought to becoming a teacher.  At least that didn't seem as dangerous as what he had to do now.

"You on tonight?"  Arthur asked.

"No, thankfully."  Every muscle in Justin's body screamed for a hot bath and a massage.

"Good.  Then I can expect you at my place at nine tonight?"

Justin didn't even think about it.  There was no way he could say no, no matter how bad he hurt.  "Okay.  I'll see you then."

Even though the cafeteria had closed its doors for regular dining hours, the crowd hadn't thinned out quite yet.  Carrie was sitting at a table with her friends, who, like she, had just recently been declared an adult in the rat's society.    Carrie found it unnerving that she was supposed to be a "grown up."  It felt like it was entirely too soon, especially when she was with her friends.  It was difficult to not revert into a state of childishness when associating with them.  Her on again off again lover, Joey, was harassing her as to why she was so quiet.

"I--I don't know."  She glanced past Marco and Lilly to the loneliest person she knew of in the entire colony.  Brutus was one of the rats born during the Wandering (the immediate time after the rat's escape from NIMH, but before they'd come across the rosebush.)  He wasn't much older than Carrie and her friends, but they never associated with him.  In fact, no one went out of their way to make Brutus a part of anything save for his fellow Guard members.  The only reason for that, to quote her charming friend Joey, that Brutus was even a Guard was because "no other respectable group or person would want a huge, mute, dumb-ass like that hanging around.  If it weren't because he's the Captian's godson, even the Guard wouldn't have taken him."

"Carrie. ...Carrie, did you hear a word I just said?"  Joey was growing impatient.

"Yeah, are you okay Care?"  Lilly asked.

"Do you ever wonder if he's lonely?"  Carrie asked in a low tone.

Lilly regarded her friend a though she'd gone crazy.  "Earth to Carrie--"

"I think I'm going to go talk to him..."  Carrie continued to mutter.

"Who--" Joey butted in.

Carrie wrung her hands.  "Brutus."

Joey and Marco laughed.  "Why the hell would you want to talk to him?"

"Don't suppose it'd be a very stimulating discussion."  Marco popped off.

"Marco, you're such an ass!"  Carrie retorted.

"Oh, come on Carrie!"

She untangled her wandering fingers from her long hair.  "He always looks so lonely.  Maybe if we--"

Joey made a choking sound.  "Don't pull any of this we crap.  I don't want to have anything to do with that silent lummox."

Carrie glared at Joey.  "You're such an asshole sometimes."  She turned and got ready to leave her charming friends.  This was working Joey into a real huff.  "He's not stupid.  I know he writes music.  It gets performed at the talent shows."

"Ohh, he's a real brainiac.  Why don't you and I head back to my place and make a little noise?"  Joey was being overly smug.

Carrie let a sly and snide smile creep across her face before taking what remained of a glass of apple juice she hadn't finished.  She raised it up and he just watched her, not reacting until she emptied it completely onto his crotch.  "How about not?"

Lilly and Marco took that act as their cue to leave.  Joey, only after wiping himself up as best he could, popped up out of his seat and kicked it under the edge of the table.  Carrie, on the other hand, remained calmly in her seat.

"Well?"  Joey sniped.  "Are you coming?"

"No Joey, I'm not."  She didn't even fake a smile for him.  "I'll see you around."

Carrie was relieved to see them all leave.  They were so heartless, every last one of them.  Though Lilly never said very much, her thoughts were inseparable from those of Marco and Joey.  They'd never differentiated themselves from the other who'd not been born in the rosebush, only Brutus.  She pulled her burgundy wine colored hair off her shoulders and walked across the dining hall toward the huge young man, who was sitting in a corner all by himself with nothing but a book for company.  "Um, hello..."

Brutus looked up from his reading, not used to being interrupted when he was at the supper table.  He was totally unsure as to how he should respond.  He marked his spot and set the volume down.  When he noticed just who had walked into his solace, his heart skipped a beat.

"Can I sit down?" She asked a bit timidly.

He immediately nodded a yes.  He was more than happy to share his empty table with someone. 

"It's got to be horribly lonely to be so alone all of the time."  Carrie was instantly embarrassed.  She was diving into this man's personal life when it was really not any of her business.  While she'd spoken, her eyes had wandered his well-developed body.  She had never realized how very handsome he was until now.

Brutus mouthed, "very lonely."

"Yeah. ..."  An idea flashed in her mind.  Carrie was very intrigued by Brutus, and desperately wanted to have a full-fledged conversation with him.  She wanted to truly get to know him.  "I know you don't have a voice, but you do speak to some people, like your parents, and the Captain.  How do you do it?"

He always kept a pencil and small pad of paper in his vest pocket.  He scribbled one word on the pad and slid it toward her. 

"Telepathy," she whispered as she read the single word.  "You communicate mind to mind?"

He nodded another yes.

"Nicodemus and some of the others are like that too ..."

Brutus nodded again.  He was amazed at himself.  This was probably the first almost real conversation he'd had with someone new in months.

She had the same spark in her eye as a child does when consumed by infinite curiosity.  "I know you write music." She spoke sweetly.  "Do you play it as well?"

He grabbed the pad and pencil back and wrote as fast as he could keep the words legible.  He was tickled pink that he was even being asked these questions.  He slid the pad across to her.

Carrie grasped it in both hands and read the message aloud.  "Yes, I play the mandolin.  Would you like to hear something?"  She set the paper down.  "Oh...I'd love to!"

"You've been actin' strange on me here lately, Justin."  Arthur prodded.  "You're not sick or anything."

"Define strange."  Justin stayed where he was and flicked at one of the buttons on his vest.

"My god!  The way you've been looking at the Captain here recently...You are consumed by a primal lust which you need to redirect to another woman, one more in your league."  Arthur clicked his tongue.  "An, oh, if you don't stop messing with that button, I'll tie your hands behind your back."

"Okay."  He stopped, but need some other way to satisfy his need to fidget.

"You want Victoria so bad you can taste her.  I see it in the way you trail her around like a lost child."  Arthur was happy to see that his nearly asexual friend was finally starting to show that he had a pulse.  "Look, all I'm saying is that for the sake of your sanity, it would probably be a good thing to back off--"

"Are you jealous?"

"Ah, no."  Arthur found that question appalling, since he equated lusting after the Captain like wanting to sleep with his sister.  "I'm trying to look out for you...I mean, don't get me wrong, she's a great person, and you two would probably work well for one another.  I just don't think that it's meant to be in this lifetime."

"Then what would you say to this?"  A huge grin shot across Justin's face.  "I am head over heals in love with her."  He jumped up out of his chair to help prove his point.  "I want to run my hands through her hair.  Years from now, I want to see our grandchildren playing in our living room..."

Arthur was shocked.  He could have sworn that his mild mannered friend had much more sense than that.  "Woah!"

"What?"  Justin was somewhere beyond smitten.

"That's a bad idea."


Arthur was nearly choking.  "You want to live a low profile existence, right?"

Justin half-contemplated his answer.  "Well, yeah."

"Do you realize that if you hook up with her, the anonymity of your ideal existence flies right out the window, right?"

He stopped.  "I never--"

"She's the Captain of the Guard.  She got suckered into taking Trav's place on the Council, and Nicodemus sees her as some sort of second man in charge.  She's a prominent and extremely busy member of the community.  You ever stop to think about that?"

Justin made a flick at his button.  "No."

"You'd get sucked up into all of that shit.  She's under a microscope, and you'd be right there with her."

"So," Justin mumbled.  He was upset that Arthur was breathing down his neck.  The engineer continued to burst his bubble. 

"Travis set her up on a date with Merritt tonight."  

Justin's eyes crossed.  "Merritt, the farm researcher?"

Arthur shrugged.  "Yep, the one and only."

"She'll never go for a guy like that."  He prayed, hoped, and crossed all of his fingers and toes.

"Couldn't say."  He responded in a neutral tone.

"Oh no."  Justin was very depressed all of the sudden.  For the first time in months, he wasn't looking forward to seeing his crush the next day when he clocked in.

A few doors down from Arthur's quarters, Brutus shut the door to his own rooms.  He was the happiest he believed he'd ever been in his whole life.  She'd smiled so brightly at the music he played, and there were parts during his private concert where the pure emotion of the music had brought them near tears.  He had never had an evening like that before, where someone other than his parents or the guys from his shift sought him out.  The entire time, she treated him as a person, rather than a shadow as so many of the others did.  She saw his intelligence where most everyone else equated a misfortune of a rough birth as meaning he was mentally retarded.  Save for those he was very close to, he was a mute sentinel.  He found himself holding his breath, hoping that the evening was real, and not a figment of his very wishful imagination.  There were times when she'd almost gotten close enough to touch him!

He was intoxicated by the pleasure she'd given him.  As he pulled his nightshirt on, he wondered if this had been a one time thing that maybe her friends has put her up to, or if she was merely satisfying some morbid curiosity of her own.  He didn't have to wait very long to find out.  Someone knocked at his door as he was turning out the lights.  He was willing to bet it was a night Guard, probably Robbie, wanting help with something or other.  He neared the door apprehensively, just wanting at least one evening that week where his brute strength wasn't need for something or other.  His mind sensed a different presence on the other side.  He opened it a crack.  It was Carrie!

"May I come in?"  She was smiling.

He nearly panicked and had to pinch himself as he watched the beautiful girl with the long burgundy wine colored hair take a seat on his sofa.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to sleep..."

He gave a nod and shut the door.  When he blocked out the light from the hall, he noticed the room had an almost romantic glow to it.  That made him nervous.  He didn't want her to get the wrong idea about him.

Carrie was dazzling.  "Brutus, I need to ask you a question."

He stopped right as he got to the switch for the overhead light.  He gave another nod, before blushing as he realized he was in his nightclothes.

"Will you..." She trailed off, as though she was hesitant out of fear of his answer.  "Will you speak telepathically to me?"

Brutus felt his heart sink into his toes and immediately mouthed  "No!"

She startled and drew back.  "Can I ask why?"

He held his hand to his head as though his cranium was going to explode.  He had a notebook on the end table on the other side of the sofa and a pencil in the drawer.  It took several seconds for him to write his reasons.

"I'm saying no because for me to do that, I would invade your most sacred and private place, your mind.  I could never hurt you like that."  Carrie looked up into his eyes as she lay the paper down in her lap.  "How could it hurt me?"

He wrote,"It's quite invasive."

"I don't care."

He took a deep breath and startled as she ran her fingers over his hand as he started to write again.  "Carrie, I don't want you to--" He'd already scribbled out, but she read it anyway. 

"You don't want me to make a mistake..."  She looked confused.  "And since when is wanting to use a proper means to have a decent conversation with an interesting person a mistake?"  She was quite serious about that.  "Though, I do appreciate your sincerity..."

Brutus nearly jumped out of his skin when she placed her soft hand on his forearm.  He'd gasped so hard he was desperate for breath.

The expression on her face softened and a gentle kind of concern showed.  "It's okay," she whispered.  "You've never been in a situation like this before, have you?"

"No," he mouthed as he penciled "I'm scared," on his notebook.

"I understand."  She reached out with her free hand and cupped his writing hand.  "But, you don't have to be."

He was amazed as she scooted closer to him, intensifying his fears.  The women who didn't think he was mean or as dumb as a box of rocks, were so intimidated by his size that he'd never been the subject of a female's pursuit.  He'd learned quite some time ago to try and deny his sexuality.  He'd found that if he believed he was incapable of having sexual feelings, that he could function while being abjectly and utterly ignored by the opposite sex.  He tried his damnedest to fight his body and his hormones.

She moved one of her hands up behind his head and repositioned his face.  Then before he could clear his consciousness enough to stop her, he felt her palms on his cheeks drawing him closer to her.  He felt the warmth of her breath on his skin, tingling sensitive nerve endings ...  "Nobody has ever kissed you?"

"No," the silent word passed his lips.  Then he felt her muzzle brush his followed by a soft peck, which was immediately followed by the opening of their mouths and the sweet mingling of their tongues.

He didn't want to let the kiss end and dare to wish for more.  He leaned in for another and felt his excitement build as her hands danced down his back.  He wanted to know what to do, as he was so inexperienced.  He wrapped his arms around her and melted into the embrace.

"Are you still scared?"  Carrie questioned as she went to give him sweet little kisses all up and down his neck.  She could see it in his face, of course, he was still scared.  Never before in his life had he been touched in such ways...Anyone would have been nervous.  She remembered her heart jumping into her throat her first time.  "You don't have to be scared..."

He nodded and closed his eyes, trying to absorb as much as he could since a dark corner of his mind nagged at him, saying that he'd never be able to do this again.  He grabbed her hands to stop her as she began to undo the buttons on his nightshirt.

"Am I doing something wrong?"

He shrugged.

"Speak to me..." She whispered and launched a new barrage of kisses at him.  She took one of his hands and placed it on her chest.

Brutus totally withdrew from her and re-did his buttons.  He grabbed the pencil and paper, which had been sent to the wayside.  "We should stop."

Carrie was very ashamed.  "But why?"

"I don't want either one of us to get hurt."  His handwriting wavered.

She sighed.  She felt something driving her to peruse him.  Carrie knew that this night was going to be the beginning of the rest of their lives together.  "No one is going to get hurt... ."

He wrote some more.  His gaze blurred and his heart began to ache.  "Maybe you should go... "

"Oh Brutus...I'm sorry."  It pained her greatly to find herself in this situation, but she knew that she'd scared the begeese out of him.  "I'm sorry."  She got up and left, gently closing the door behind herself.

The second the portal closed, Brutus trudged into his bedroom and began to cry.  He didn't want to chase her away, but that little voice inside him insisted that he was going to get used.  He would have given anything to not have answered to those internal pleas.  He wiped his face, set the alarm, and crawled beneath the blankets.

Carrie hadn't even made it three steps down the hall before she slid down the wall and buried her face in her hands.  She was drawn to this man like she was in some kind of magnetic pull.  She needed to go back in there and talk to him.  The entire apartment was dark, but she knew he wasn't asleep when she heard his soft sobs.

"Brutus. ..."  She said lightly.

He jumped and turned the bedside lamp on.  Even if he could have talked, he wouldn't have known what to say to her.

She came over to the bed and sat down.  "I just want you to know that I'd really like to get to know you, beyond our discussion tonight, if that's alright with you?"

He smiled at her and took her hand.  He'd love to let her get to know him.  He just didn't want things to get too crazy...He didn't realize that she moved up on him until they were engaged in a deep kiss.  He wanted this he realized, and decided not to fight her this time.  He savored the touch of her hands as she opened the buttons on his shirt.  He wanted to ask if he could free her of her clothing, but he didn't need to ask as she pulled her shirt over her head.  He reached up and removed the barrette from her hair.  It fell over her shoulders and the ends lay on his chest.  He couldn't stop touching or kissing her.  He touched her everywhere and shuddered when her hands made it to the forbidden places on his body.

"Should I stop?"  She read the fear and apprehension that still lingered in his eyes.

He answered with a kiss, which she gladly accepted and passionately returned.  She broke off and lifted her leg over him.  Carrie lay down against him to listen to his heartbeat faster and quicker.  She moved her hand over the smooth fur on his face and smiled as he closed his eyes in sheer pleasure.

"Brutus," she whispered as she kissed his eyelids.  She gyrated her hips a bit.  "Can I?"

He opened his eyes at her question and opened his mind a little.  His hormones and emotions had totally carried him away from reality.  He wanted to try and read her, just to shut up that little voice, which wouldn't take the hint and go away.  It kept saying that he needed to protect himself.  Subconsciously, fine tendrils of his mind drifted out of his control, seeking the reassurance that everything was going to be okay.  He needed the help he was desperately seeking to make sure that he didn't hurt her with his telepathy, which he knew he wasn't going to be able to control for much longer with all the sweet distraction. 

Carrie whispered his name again.  "Should I stop?"

"No," he mouthed.  He pulled her into a kiss as she used her free hand to position their bodies...  He was full of questions, once more wanting know what to do, and how to do it, praying that she would be patient and teach him.  He was willing to die for the physical voice that would allow him to ask...When she tensed her body, he was afraid that he'd done something wrong.

"You're fine," she whispered in a sultry tone.  "Now push..."

He did as she said, moving slowly, and barely applying the pressure necessary to breech the opening.  Then she began to apply her own body weight, absorbing him until they became flush with one another.  She stayed there, straddling him until he got used to the feeling and held his tremoring hands.  Her movements were minimal at first and he was sure that his heart was on the verge of exploding.  The divine sensations carried him to another level of existence.  Carrie made love to him in such a tender manner that his apprehensiveness and misgivings about his performance fell to the wayside.

"Please, talk to me Brutus."  She held his hands over her heart.  "You can't hurt me... you can't hurt me," she spoke in a harsh whisper.

As he lay back, hearing her plea, he intertwined his fingers with hers.  In his state, he wasn't sure if he could control himself, especially when speaking into the mind of a stranger.  His nerves were a storm of electric fire from his nose to his heels.  He was more scared than ever because he knew that catering to her request would leave her with permanent effects.

"Please--" She gasped in a shiver of pure carnal delight.  "I need to hear you.  I want to hear you."  Her grasp on reality began to escape her.  She begged and pleaded and screamed out his name.

He moved his hands to the sides of her face.  Oh, how he wished he could scream with her, rather than hear the gurgling sound of air rushing through his useless vocal cords.  He was going to be as gentle as he possibly could while reaping the purity of her mind.  He sweated and shivered as she began to make their encounter even more intense.

"Let me hear you!"

He closed his eyes and held his breath in anticipation and spoke the one word she had to hear.  (...Carrie...)

She screamed at a pitch somewhere near blood curdling.  Her mind opened to him like her body and welcomed him completely.  "Again," she whispered in a desperate tone.


Brutus had fallen into her consciousness as though he'd always been a part of it and pierced her with an intense meld.  He left behind a mark that would stay with the both of them for the rest of their lives.  He spoke her name again and they felt their bodies simultaneously detonate into rapturous delirium which was doubly amplified through Brutus' telepathic link.  He knew his body had been driven to a point somewhere so far beyond overstimulation that felt the overwhelming need to pass out.

Carrie moved off him to move up and cradle him and kiss his cheeks.  His eyelids fluttered and he focused on speaking to her one more time before losing consciousness.  (Thank you...) 

She hugged him tight after he gently placed those words into her brain.  "No, thank you," she whispered before her exhaustion also lulled her into a deep sleep.

Victoria stared dead ahead at her office door.  She looked and felt something like she'd been run over by a lawnmower.  Travis had to knock three times before she knew what was going on enough to tell him to come in.

"Captain, are you sick?"  He was quite concerned to find her in such a dazed state.

"No," she said truthfully enough.

He took his usual seat and looked hard at her.  "Something's wrong."

She tried to smile, to prove that she was doing okay.  "Yeah, my head is killing me..."

"Can I--"

"There's nothing you can do for me."  She dearly appreciated his concern.  "I had to deal with some particularly rough telepathy last night."

"Oh," he responded.  She was right, there was not much of anything he could get for her.  "Did you have an argument with Nicodemus?"

She opened her mouth, but stopped for a moment before speaking.  "Brutus lost his virginity last night..."

Travis didn't know what to say.  He never imagined he'd hear those words.  It wasn't that Brutus was a bad guy... He just never really held any appeal to the ladies beyond his family members.  Travis hated the words that came out of his mouth next.  "Well, I pray that what happened last night was not a mercy fuck."

"Me too, for his sake, me too..." She mumbled while burying her head again.  "He couldn't handle it all by himself, Trav."


"Sex with a stranger.  Hell, sex in general.  It was too much for him to take on so spontaneously.  He used me to relieve some of the pressure."  She rubbed her eyes. "And boy do I have a headache."

"Do you need the rest of your shift off?"  Travis figured he'd see if he could help that way.  "You've been on since five this morning."

"And it's eleven now...I'll make it Trav.  Thanks."  She grabbed her hat.  "I've gotta do rounds."

Out in the Guard room, Justin and Arthur hovered over a tray of stale cookies on the kitchenette counter.  "Hey Vicky!"

"Don't start on me today, Art."  She wasn't playing nice that morning.

Arthur tossed down his cookie.  "Rough night?"  He hadn't lost his sense of humor yet.

She stifled a yawn.  "I guess you could say that."

"Ol' Merritt musta been one helluva date to leave you that exhausted."  Arthur gave a couple of pelvic thrusts to be sure that his obnoxiousness was complete.

Victoria was far from being entertained, and nearly laughed when she saw the paleness in Justin's grim face.  "You and I wish!  What a miserable date.  All that man wants in a woman is a silent baby making machine."

"Oh, that's not good."  Travis would have to make sure that he chose the Captain's dates a bit more carefully.

"No, it's not."  She stopped just short of finally getting out the door when she turned to face the populace of the room.  "Any of you seen Brutus?"

Over in the far corner, Craig shook his head no.

"Uh, no," Arthur said.  "I just thought that I missed him this morning--Wait!  I was called in to fill his spot, nevermind."

Justin, who was looking quite relieved, hadn't seen him either.

"Alright, it looks like I'll keep my eye out during rounds."  She waved to her men and started on her last official duty for the shift.

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