Such Devoted Sisters

By Paul S. Gibbs


Taking place somewhere between “Rats of Thorn Valley” and “Second in Command,” this tale is told by Eileen, one of Paul’s original rat characters. Unfortunately, there are only two chapters to this story, which was unreleased at the time that the archive went down in 2001.

Chapter 1

I woke to sunshine and birdsong.

That was still a novel experience, and I lingered to savor it, lying flat on my stomach with the pillows cradling my chin. Soft mattress, clean sheets, warm blankets...a girl could get used to this.

But time--and breakfast--wait for no rat, and finally I kicked aside the covers and rose, stoically ignoring a twinge from my splinted right arm. Crossing the room, I opened the curtains, and threw wide a window that had previously been merely ajar. Another brilliant, cloudless day: the new-risen sun glinted from the lake at the base of the long grassy slope, and the dark hills to the west seemed close enough to touch. As yet the air felt slightly cool, but not for long: by midday it would be hot, and the swimming hole would be seething, full of kids and adults both. I might have considered joining them--if not for the small matter of a fractured wrist. There are any number of ways to disembark from a helicopter, I suppose--but "head first" is not one of the best.

I drew in several deep breaths of fresh, flower-scented air--a girl could definitely get used to this--then turned to the wardrobe cabinet. The clothes therein were brand-new, the ones I'd been wearing when I arrived in the valley, exactly a week ago, having hopefully been taken out and burned. My choices were therefore somewhat limited. Mindful of the weather forecast, I selected a light cotton skirt, mustard-yellow, and a sleeveless, yellow-and-white striped blouse. They hung loose on me, having been made to my previous measure. Though I'd been eating like a plague of locust, I still wasn't back to my ideal weight, and I was painfully aware how bony my arms, legs and tail remained. Time--and calories--would cure.

I brushed my sort-of-beige fur as best I could, one-handed; dressed, and settled my arm in its sling. Then I left my apartment, those two pitifully-bare rooms that still contained nothing more than the bare essentials. Time to mingle with the crowd: friends, family--and other strangers.

At the end of the service line I paused, confronted yet again with the exasperating reality of a heavily-laden tray and only one working arm. I glanced around, seeking succor--and it wasn't long in arriving. He rose smiling from a table near the windows, and threaded his way quickly through the crowd to where I was rapidly becoming a hazard to navigation. "May I help you, lovely lady?" he asked, with a deep, courtly bow.

I flashed a lopsided grin. "You may," I said, "but only if you cut the knight-errant bit."

"Fair enough," he replied, and hefted the tray. I followed him across the dining hall, a flush of self-consciousness burning my ears and tail. Had I actually been wearing a sandwich board that read "Make Fun of the Cripple," I could not have felt much more conspicuous--though in point of fact, I doubt anyone was paying that much attention.

"Care to join me?" Philip asked, already angling toward the table he'd just quitted.

As if you're giving me a choice, I thought. But as it happened, I did. "Please."

He deposited my tray opposite his, and I dropped into the table's only other chair. Settling in across from me, he reapplied himself immediately to the remains of a huge meal. I did the same, before the food could get cold--and because I suddenly, uncharacteristically found myself at a loss for words. As usual, the meal was good enough to bring tears to my eyes. Oatmeal, thick and steaming; fresh bread with preserves; grains for the teeth; tea with honey...if I kept eating like this, very soon I'd be worried about taking weight off, not putting it on. I stirred my cereal, tossed in a spoonful of brown sugar, and for a few minutes gave myself unashamedly to the manifold pleasures of pure gluttony. And as I did, I studied my dining companion through half-lidded eyes.

Tall, brown-furred and dark-eyed, broad-shouldered and muscular, Philip was good-looking by anyone's standards, in spite of a long ragged scar that ran from his right temple down the side of his face to vanish beneath his shirt-collar. The injury that caused it occurred early in our recently-concluded expedition, when one of our makeshift ladders through the air-conditioning ducts collapsed, leading him to a close encounter with the business end of a sheet-metal screw. He'd been lucky not to lose an eye. The scar was already fading, and would soon be gone; that's one of the better (or worse, depending on your point of view) things about our much-modified genes.

That morning, as always, he wore a white long-sleeved shirt and a dark-blue tunic; both clean, but somewhat less than crisp. Seeing that, and the tiredness in his eyes, I realized that for him this meal wasn't breakfast--not exactly, anyway. "Been standing the night-watch again?" I asked, and he nodded glumly.

"Yes," he said, taking a sip of tea. "I'm off to bed now." He shook his head. "Those months at NIMH put me in the nocturnal mode, and I can't seem to shift back. Mark and David can't either--but they don't seem to care. They prefer the graveyard shift."

"They would," I observed. I shook my head. "That hasn't been a problem for me," I went on. "I was plenty tired that first night, after we arrived home--and the dose of painkiller Alice gave me put me out like a light. That seems to have reset my clock, so to speak."

Philip smiled. "You're lucky." His eyes shifted, and he lowered his voice. "I think even he's been having trouble."

He pointed, and I glanced back over my shoulder, already knowing full well who he was. The Brisby family had arrived. Their meals were served on specially-sized dishware, and were carried on specially-sized trays to their specially-sized table, a little removed from the others. Chatting with his wife, riding herd over their children, Jonathan--our commando squad's fearful leader--managed to appear simultaneously wonderful and awful. He looked like someone deeply in love--which, of course, he was--and also like someone from whose shoulders an enormous weight had been lifted. But at the same time he was still thin and wan, and his sagging whiskers, drooping eyes and dragging tail proved that he too had been having difficulty sleeping.

"Will he be all right, do you think?" Philip asked anxiously.

"I'd like to believe so," I replied, peering sidelong at the familiar small grey-furred form, shoveling down oatmeal now as if stoking a boiler. He was far older than either Philip or me, and at the moment he looked it--but the spark of vitality had returned to his soulful brown eyes, and that made all the difference in the world. During those terrible months I'd seen it nearly flicker out, many times, as he simply lost interest in living. "Jonathan will always be Jonathan," I went on. "He'll always wear his emotions on his sleeve..."

Philip grinned. "How well we know that."

"...And he and his family have a lot to work out. He's made some really dumb choices, and now he has to deal with the consequences." As I spoke I nodded at Martin, Jonathan's elder son, who--not coincidentally--was seated on the opposite side of the table, as far from his father as he could get. "But given time, yes, I think he'll be fine."

"Depending, of course," Philip pointed out, "on what happens to her."

"Her" was Mrs. Brisby--no, Elizabeth, I corrected myself sharply. These days she insisted on being on a first-name basis with everyone. She was that rarest of things, a genuine, untarnished hero--and if she'd declared herself Queen of Thorn Valley, I really think my fellow rats would have gone ahead and crowned her. We owed her literally everything: our homes, our freedom, our very lives. "She says she wants the treatment," I said. "And Ages should be here any day. If we did our job right..."

"We'd better have," Philip said softly.

I slathered a slab of bread with raspberry preserves, and took a bite. "Speaking of 'jobs...'" I said wickedly.

Philip shook his head. "Please, don't remind me." He sighed. "Thomas still insists he wants to step down in my favor. And the other members of the Guard seem to think it's a good idea."

"But you don't?"

"I'm...conflicted," he said with a faint smile. "On the one hand, I'm reasonably sure I can do the job. I've had enough training. And maybe it would be a good thing. I won't say Thomas is 'fussy'..."

"How about 'details-oriented'?" I supplied blandly, and he nodded.

"That'll do," he said. "Anyway, the Captain of the Guard can't afford that; he has to keep his mind on the proverbial Big Picture. So maybe Thomas would be more effective as First Lieutenant--the one who handles the minutiae."

"But--?" I prompted.

"But," he said heavily, "I can't say I feel good about waltzing in and taking someone's job away--even if it is what everyone wants." He paused. "Anyway, the final decision rests with Justin--and he, apparently, is leaning toward accepting Thomas' resignation."

"So when--?"

"Not for another few weeks, at very least," Philip said. "I still have a lot to learn about the way things are done here. This ain't the rosebush, that's for sure."

"True enough."

He quirked an eyebrow. "And what about you?" he asked. "Technically speaking, you're still a member of the Guard..."

I nodded. "I know," I said. "But I've pretty well decided that part of my life is over." I shifted my damaged arm. "Even before this happened, I knew. Our mission changed all of us, in many ways. I know I want something different--I just don't know what it is yet."

He grinned. "Too bad," he said. "You were always pretty good with a sword."

I matched his smile. "Good enough to whip your sorry butt a time or two, as I recall," I said. "That's over too. I imagine the boss-man will have some ideas..."

"...But he won't be pressuring you to choose anytime soon." He leaned back, his hands behind his head. "I don't suppose Arthur could invent a steam-powered microprocessor..."

I grimaced. "By the time I get my hands on another computer," I said, "I won't even know how to operate it." I shook my head sadly. "Just my luck to have a 21st-Century mind in a 19th-Century community."

"Be thankful you had a community to come back to," he said seriously.

"Oh, I am," I assured him. "Doesn't stop me from complaining, though."

"Few things do, I've noticed."

For a time then we sat silent, finishing our meals, watching the comings and goings and listening to the soft buzz of conversation and the clink of cups and dishes. Then Philip said softly, "Eileen--I'm sorry we haven't been able to spend more time together since we got back..."

A sinking feeling occurred in the pit of my stomach. I'd been afraid the conversation would turn in that direction, while hoping fervently it wouldn't. "That...might not have been entirely a bad thing."

His eyes widened, and I cursed myself for my reflexive directness, which--not for the first time--had crossed the line into tactlessness. His whiskers drooping, he turned away. "I see--" he began, but I interrupted.

"No," I said firmly. "You don't. I do care for you, Philip. Very much. But things are different now. We got to know each other--if that's the right way to put it--under stressful circumstances. I honestly don't know how much of what I felt for you was based on the fact that I was scared out of my wits twenty-four hours a day. Maybe none at all; maybe a lot. And now we're under stress again. We have to learn how to live in this valley, and how to relate to people who've spent months believing us dead. Do you understand? I need to find out where I'm headed before I make any commitments."

He nodded sadly. "Yes," he said. "I understand." He smiled. "But that doesn't rule out the occasional walk under the stars, does it?"

I reached across to stroke his cheek. "Call me," I told him, "at the next new moon."

The Thorn Valley community might actually start feeling like home--if I could stop getting lost in it.

Four levels, endless meandering corridors, dozens if not hundreds of rooms, public and otherwise... Arthur designed the place well, I had to admit, and the execution was little short of incredible, especially considering the time factor. But while most of the inhabitants had had several months to get used to the place, I'd been thrust into it suddenly, like it or not, for better or worse, sink or swim, do or die--choose your favorite cliché. It was a utilitarian dwelling, plain but comfortable, and had none of the ostentatious opulence--decadence, even--of our old home. That, I could respect, even like. But at the moment its complexity was frustratingly confusing.

I'd learned the way to the lounge, though, and that was where I headed after breakfast, feeling not a little guilty as I passed my fellow citizens hurrying toward their various jobs. Philip was right: no one, least of all Justin, was in the mood to pressure my former companions and me to go back to work. Not after what we'd been through. But as it happened, three of the five of us had anyway. Mark and David had gravitated to the night-shift at the main entrance, more or less automatically, and the insomnia-stricken Philip had joined them, while waiting for his promotion to become official. Jonathan was still immersed in family matters--but he'd also been seen engaged in long discussions with Justin, presumably on weighty matters of policy and governance. Which left only lil' ol' me at loose ends, utterly bereft of anything constructive to do. Perhaps "temporarily disabled" might be the most charitable way to describe my current condition--much nicer than "worthless parasite," certainly.

I found the lounge nearly deserted, as I'd expected. A few rats were scattered around the sofas and easy chairs, talking, playing board or card games, or simply relaxing. Off to the right, a pair of Arthur's workers were assembling a small stage for a musical performance the next evening--the first, in fact, since the invasion. They worked quietly, but nevertheless made a certain amount of noise, and I took a seat as far from them as possible, in the front left corner near the windows. I curled myself up on a small couch with my legs tucked beneath me, and settled my arm in a semi-comfortable position across my stomach. Closing my eyes, I leaned my head back against the cushions. Not for the first time, I had some serious thinking to do.

It would be neither accurate nor fair to say that I'd been avoiding Philip since our return from NIMH. Our paths had simply failed to intersect, for reasons that had more to do with him and his sleeping disorder than me. But at the same time, I'd made no special effort to seek him out--and that, most definitely, was my fault.

We'd grown close during the expedition, he and I, in a way very different from the just-one-of-the-guys camaraderie I felt for Mark and David, or the strangely maternal relationship that had sprung up between me and Jonathan. Under the circumstances, certainly we hadn't taken it very far--no farther, in fact, than the occasional snuggle and kiss when our companions weren't around. We'd had a job to do; anything else was extraneous, foolish even--especially when any of us could have ended up dead, or worse, at any time. Neither he nor I had ever said anything about "love." And yet I couldn't help recalling the words we'd exchanged, after I did my one-and-a-half gainer out of the helicopter...

He's handsome, I reminded myself. And strong, and healthy--and apparently willing to put up with your many eccentricities. Better yet, he was available--but for how long? Thorn Valley was loaded with unattached females, any one of whom would be more than happy to take him off my hands. And might, should he decide to construe wait as stop...


I sat up quickly, my eyes snapping open. The voice was quiet, hesitant--and less familiar than it should have been, considering that it belonged to my little sister.

Kimberly--Kim--was the youngest of my six siblings, and probably the last child Henry and Margaret would choose to have. Such was the difference in our ages, I'd always felt more like her aunt--and in many ways that's how I'd treated her. When I departed for NIMH, she was little more than a toddler; now she stood at the cusp of adolescence, and would soon have to start carrying a stick to fend off the young males who'd be clustering around her. She resembled Father more than Mother, having medium-brown fur, a narrow face apt to smiling, and large, dark, expressive eyes that gazed upon me now with an expression of diffidence. She wore a dark-blue skirt and a sleeveless white blouse, knotted to leave her midriff bare, and to her chest she clutched a much-used, dog-eared notebook. A pencil was parked behind her right ear. I smiled--but deep inside I was cursing myself for missing so much of her childhood. We were virtual strangers, she and I--and that was a shame.

"Hey, kiddo," I said, with forced breeziness. "What's up? And why aren't you in school?"

Her answering smile was a little shy. "I'm on independent study," she said--which surprised me not at all. "And I need your help. If you have time, that is," she added quickly.

"Nothing but," I assured her. I scooted over, and she rather stiffly settled in next to me. Briefly I debated draping my arm around her shoulders, but decided against it--and not only because she was sitting to my right. "What can I do for you?"

Sighing tragically, she opened the notebook into her lap. "Help me figure out geometry, before I kill myself."

"That sounds doable," I said dryly. I glanced down at the rows of neatly-copied problems. Her handwriting was excellent--Spencerian, even--one thing we had in common, anyway. "Doesn't look too bad," I went on. "With my help, you'll be lucid as Euclid in less than an hour."

She stifled a giggle. "Thanks," she said. "I guess."

In fact I always had been rather good at math, which helped immeasurably during my recently-concluded career as a mild-mannered cyber-criminal--by fostering a logical and methodical turn of mind, if for no other reason. And though it had been some time since matters Pythagorean had occupied my thoughts, I should indeed be able to dispense a few pearls of wisdom. "Let's see here..."

...I very soon began to suspect, however, that polygons and oblique angles weren't uppermost in the my baby sister's mind. She was attentive enough, certainly, and the depth of her questions proved that she had a better grasp of the material than she'd led me to believe--better, maybe, than she herself knew. But at the same time she seemed distracted, and as we worked she kept glancing at me sidelong, as if either sizing me up or nerving herself to speak. Finally, just as we'd finished the last problems, she seemed to reach a decision. "Eileen?"

"Yes, sweetie?"

My use of what is commonly known as a "term of endearment" seemed to surprise her--no less than it did me. Such words were seldom part of my vocabulary. "I've been wondering," she said. Grinding to a halt, she turned away, her ears reddening. I waited patiently, and finally she cleared her throat and went on, "Can you tell me--would you tell me--why you had to leave?"

For the second time in less than an hour, my heart sank. "That's complicated--" I began, and she chuckled bitterly.

"That's just what Mom and Dad keep telling me," she observed. She peered up at me, and in her eyes was an intensity that I found a little unsettling. "But I think I deserve a better answer. Don't I?"

Inwardly I smiled. Yes, she's my sister! "You're right," I said. "You do. And I'm sorry I haven't given you one before now." I paused, gathering my thoughts, and went on, "First you have to understand: there was an important job to be done..."

Kim nodded. "I know," she said. "And it had to be kept secret, because Jenner might have tried to sabotage it if he'd known." She sighed, and that tragic exhalation contained a world of sadness. She really had missed me, it seemed--far more than I would have believed possible. I couldn't decide whether that made me feel guilty or gratified, so I settled for both, simultaneously.

"But," she went on, "did it have to be you who did it?"

"At the time, I thought it did," I said. "And Nicodemus agreed." I shook my head. "Would I have been so eager, if I'd known how long it would take or how difficult and dangerous it would be? Probably not--but I would have gone anyway. All of us would have. We had a...duty. I know how corny that sounds, but it's exactly how we felt. We honestly, absolutely believed in what we were doing. I still do, despite everything. Especially now that I know who the main beneficiary will be."

She looked up at me quickly, and then--catching my meaning--she nodded and smiled faintly. "I can't argue with that."

"...And anyway," I went on, "that's all water under the bridge now, isn't it? I went, for whatever reason; I lived through it; and now I'm back." I held up my injured arm. "And only a little the worse for wear."

Kim gazed for a time at the bright, rapidly-warming midmorning, her eyes following the slow movements of a group of farm-workers across a fresh-plowed field. Finally she said, very softly, "Mother isn't sure you are back."

"And what does that mean?" I demanded. I'd spoken rather more harshly than I meant to, and Kim's eyes widened in alarm.

"I heard her talking to Father a few days ago," she said. "She told him she doesn't know who you are any more."

I stiffened as if shot, and Kim drew back. "I'm sorry--" she began, but I waved that off, and forced a smile.

"That's all right," I assured her. I paused. "In fact I'm glad you told me." I chuckled bitterly. "And as it happens, she has a point. I don't suppose anyone else could be expected to know who I am--since I don't know myself."

"I think she's upset that you haven't spent much time with the family since you got back..."

I sighed. That, I could never explain to my little sister's satisfaction--because I couldn't even explain it to my own. I'd told myself I needed to re-inject myself into society slowly--but was that just a rationalization? Was it possible that the Eileen who existed now had somehow outgrown her own parents and siblings? And if so, was the rift a permanent one? No. Unthinkable.

And so I merely nodded and said, "I know"--and those two syllables would have to suffice, because I honestly don't know what I could have added to them.

Kim gazed at me quizzically, but--fortunately for both of us--decided against voicing the questions that whirled behind her eyes. "One thing for certain," she said. "You're nothing like what I expected."

I smiled and cocked an eyebrow. "And that was?" I asked, dead-pan.

Once again her ears and nose turned bright crimson. "I guess...I was afraid you'd be like Judith."

I nodded ruefully. "I understand," I said--and to my sorrow, I did. As with the rest of my family, my dealings with my identical twin had been practically nil since my return. I'd heard stories, though, plenty of them, and I knew that--for some bizarre reason--Judith had chosen to cut herself off from almost all social contact. Even her professional manner was terse to the point of rudeness. Rumor had it there was just one person in all of Thorn Valley that she liked, even respected: Elizabeth Brisby. Which, to be honest, was hardly strange. My erstwhile commandant's formidable wife did have that effect on people.

"She doesn't treat you badly, does she?" I asked darkly, and Kim shook her head.

"Not really, no," she admitted. She flashed an impish grin. "Actually, she hardly pays attention to me at all. She doesn't seem to have much time for anyone, family or otherwise."

Poor kid, I thought, with sudden understanding. No wonder she was so hesitant to approach me. I reached across to tousle her hair playfully. "I don't know what's gotten into her," I said. "But I sincerely hope I'm nothing like what she's become."

"No," Kim agreed, once again peering intently into my eyes. "I don't think you are."

"Thanks," I said wryly, but my mind was elsewhere, drifting through the faraway days of my childhood, long before Kim was even a gleam in our father's eye. We were inseparable, Judith and I; and we shared literally everything, from our clothing to our bed. Born during the rats' stressful Wandering Days, we nonetheless managed to be carefree and mischievous, in a way that drove our elders crazy. We played every trick, pulled every prank, that a set of identical twins can, sometimes exchanging identities for hours, even days, at a time. More than one person had been heard to comment that it was almost impossible to know where Eileen left off and Judith began. Perhaps that's normal for twins; I can't say. So far we were the only pair among the Rats of NIMH.

But eventually we grew up, and in doing so developed our own identities, our own interests. I can't judge my own personality, despite Socrates' dictum nosce te ipsum--but the Judith I remembered was neither rude nor antisocial. What had caused her to change so radically? Was it merely the pressure of her job, one of the most demanding in the community? Or...could it possibly have been my departure? I hadn't been able to tell her where I was going; almost certainly she'd believed me dead, along with everyone else. Was that the genesis of the emotional armor she'd so firmly strapped on? If so, then I owed her an explanation--and an apology too. But getting her to listen...that could be the tricky part.

"I've been wondering too," Kim was saying, "what it's like--being at NIMH." She gazed up at me, a half-pleading, half-fearful look in her eyes. "Can about it? Are you able to?"

I thought about that for a moment...and then nodded. "Yes," I said quietly. "I think I am."

Chapter 2

Portrait of a Mouse, Sleeping.

I stumbled across him--almost literally--that noontime, stretched out on a patch of grass in the shade of a straggly bush, not far from the sun-washed and crowded swimming beach. He lay flat on his stomach atop a blanket, his head cradled in his arms and his clothing--a white shirt and a dark-green tunic--folded neatly beside him. His eyes were closed, and his shoulders rose and fell steadily with his deep, slow breathing. I smiled to see that--and also that his patchy fur had begun to fill in, deepening the distinctive dark patches on his shoulder and hip. I circled around him, moving quietly (though if he could sleep through the screams and splashes of a dozen young rats trying to drown one another, I was unlikely to wake him) and sat down crossed-legged a little distance away, setting my picnic basket beside me.

Even in the shade, the air was oppressively warm, and I immediately began to envy my companion's au natural turnout. For a minute I hesitated, gnawing my lip in indecision...then I shrugged. Why not? Spreading blanket across the softest-looking rectangle of ground in the vicinity, I stripped off my skirt and blouse, folded them, and set them aside. For a time I stretched out on my back with my good arm behind my head, the breeze ruffling my fur--but then my stomach rumbled painfully, and I sighed. Helping your little sister with her geometry is hungry work, it seems. Levering myself upright, I rummaged one-handed through the basket.

I don't know if it was the faint crackle of waxed paper that did it, or if he smelled the peanut butter; but no sooner than I'd unwrapped the first sandwich, Jonathan woke. I heard a catch in his breathing, and glanced over to see his whiskers twitch and his eyes slowly drift open. Vague and unfocused at first, they soon found me, and he smiled. "Hacker," he said indistinctly, using a nickname that--by rights--should have died with our mission. Not that I really minded--but it did tend to remind me of what I'd lost. "What brings you out here?"

"Lunch," I said simply. "It's too nice a day to stay indoors."

"That it is," he agreed. He sat up, ran a hand across his scalp, and dug his knuckles into his eyes. "Must have dozed off," he said. "I've been having a little trouble sleeping at night..."

"Seems to be going around," I said dryly.

"A regular mini-epidemic," he agreed. Eyeing the basket, he grinned sheepishly. "I don't suppose..."

I waved my hand. "Help yourself," I said. "There's far more than I can eat."

He did, eagerly locating another sandwich, and for a few minutes we ate in silence, watching the kids churn up the waterhole. Finally he said, softly, "It's okay, though--not being able to sleep. It's enough just to lie there and hold her in my arms. I never expected to have the chance again."

I could think of nothing to say, so instead I passed him the water bottle. He took a swig, and fastidiously wiped the rim on his blanket before handing it back. "Speaking of which," I said, "where is your better half?"

"Working in the kitchen, I think," he said. He pointed at the basket. "She might even have packed your lunch."

I chuckled. Given the amount of food the basket contained--enough for an entire regiment of rats--I wouldn't have been surprised. By all accounts, Elizabeth Brisby did tend to be a bit of a den-mother. "I'm surprised she's not sharing the sunshine with you," I commented.

Jonathan shook his head. "Not today," he replied. "That's one of the mistakes I made before: I smothered her. I never let her be her own person, or live her own life. Not any more, though." He grinned ruefully. "Not that she'd let me. Justin was right: she has grown."

"I'll have to take your word for that," I said. I glanced into the basket. "Raisin?"


When we'd finished our meal--when, that is, we'd eaten enough between us to sink a medium-sized ocean liner--we stretched out on our backs, using our folded clothing as pillows. Gazing up through the gently-waving branches, Jonathan said dreamily, "You know, if anyone had told me a month ago that I'd be sitting here in the fresh air and sunshine having a picnic..."

I nodded. "I hear you," I said. "To be honest, a month ago I didn't even remember what fresh air was, let alone sunshine. I was beginning to believe that I'd been born in a storeroom, and that I'd die there."

"I was born in a storeroom," he said. "And I grew up in a cage. In a way, though, that mission was worse than being a prisoner. When you're a lab animal, at least you're reasonably certain where your next meal is coming from."

"Even if you have to run a maze and receive electric shocks to get it," I put in dryly.

"Oh, you get used to that," he assured me. "Eventually."

"I hope to God I'll never have to," I said seriously. "I hope none of us do."

"Me too," Jonathan said. "More than you can possibly imagine." He paused. "I have a feeling we won't, though. Not you, nor me, nor any of our descendants."

"Meaning--?" I prompted.

"I have no idea," he confessed, flashing an embarrassed grin. "Just a gut feeling. I think the Rats of NIMH are destined for something else--not experimentation, or extermination. I just hope I'm around to find out what it is."

"No reason you shouldn't be--now."

"True," he agreed. "And to be honest, I've never been sure whether that's heartening or frightening."

"A little of both, I'd say. Like most things."

He raised his head to look into my eyes. "You and I," he announced, "understand each other far too well." He took a deep breath. "But I'm not in the mood for pop philosophy today. The past is over and done with, and the future is yet to come. Leave it at that."

If only I could. "Jonathan?"

"Yes, Hacker?"

I cleared my throat. "Jonathan, you know my parents--"

He chuckled. "I hope so."

"That's not what I meant," I said testily. "I mean you really know them--as friends, traveling companions, fellow fugitives. That sort of thing."

"I daresay," he agreed. "So--?"

"Do you think," I began, and trailed off. Swallowing hard, I tried again. "Do you think I'm a disappointment to them?"

He levered himself up onto his elbows. "I hope you're joking."

I shook my head. "I'm not," I replied. "Or--I don't think I am. I don't really know. Sometimes I think I haven't done as much with my life as they would have liked. First I joined the Guard, and played toy solider; then I ran off on a damn-fool suicide mission..."

Jonathan speared me with his stern, steady gaze. "Eileen," he said softly, "I can tell you with absolute certainty that Henry and Margaret are not disappointed in you. Very much the opposite, in fact. And I'll go even farther. As difficult as it is to believe, I'm old enough to be your father myself. And if such a thing were possible, I would be very proud to have you as my daughter."

I smiled and reached across to grasp his hand. "Thanks," I said. "That helps."

He cocked a curious eyebrow. "What's gotten into you, anyway?" he asked. "Where's my self-confident, never-at-a-loss-for-an-answer Hacker?"

"I...think she's gone," I told him. "Along with Eileen the Guardsman, and Judith's marauding twin. I'm not certain who's left."

"I understand," he said. "Believe me, I do." For a second his face wore an expression of infinite sadness, and his whiskers drooped. Then he shook himself, and brightened like a hundred-watt bulb. "I might be able to help, though," he went on. "I've been meaning to discuss this with Elizabeth, but I haven't had a chance yet. I'll just have to assume she'll agree--though she'll probably kill me anyway..."

"Or I will," I said blandly. "If you don't get to the point."

"Uh--yes. I'm sure you know by now that my family and I have decided to stay in Thorn Valley..."

"Do tell," I said dryly. As if there was ever any doubt...

He grinned. "Well taken. Unfortunately, we have a small problem: my kids. Their education is badly lacking." He shook his head mournfully. "My fault, I fear--"

"But that's past history too," I interrupted

He nodded gratefully. "Whatever the reason, they're far behind their peers. They're aware of that, of course, and they've been working on their own to catch up, with Alice's encouragement. But she doesn't believe that's enough, and I have to agree."

"And that involves me how, exactly--?"

"I'm getting to that," he promised. "If you're willing, I'd like you to tutor them."

I sat up quickly, making myself dizzy. "You want me to what?"

"Tutor them," he repeated.

"In what?"

He shrugged. "Whatever they need. They're like anyone else; they each have strengths and weaknesses. Timothy doesn't need any help with math, but he does with history. Teresa is just the opposite. That will be one of your jobs: finding out exactly where they need a boost."

A strange tingling sensation began in the pit of my stomach and spread quickly through my body: either I was growing excited, or I was about to throw up. "And what makes you think I'm qualified?"

He beamed that famous irresistibly-charming smile of his, which in recent months I'd despaired of ever seeing again. "I'll assume that's a rhetorical question," he said. He paused. "So--will you?"

"I...don't know," I said uncertainly. "I've never thought of myself as a teacher..."

"You don't have to be," Jonathan assured me. "Not as such. You just have to steer them in the right direction, answer their questions, and help them find the materials they need. They'll do the rest."

For a moment I sat silent, staring into space. It was indeed a tempting offer. It would be something to occupy my time while my arm healed--and while I figured out where my life was headed. And while working with Kim that morning I'd realized, a little to my surprise, that I actually enjoyed the process of imparting my boundless knowledge. And more importantly, my little sister truly had departed with a greater understanding of geometry than she'd possessed before. So I must have been doing something right. "Has Justin--?" I began, and Jonathan nodded.

"He has," he said. "And he's completely in favor. He agrees it would be pointless and demeaning to force my kids into classrooms with children far younger than they." He paused and smiled. "Believe me, Hacker, all four of them want to learn--they're desperate to, in fact. They know what it takes to be productive members of this community. They just need the tools."

He's really counting on this, I realized, gazing at the hopeful, almost pleading expression in his big brown eyes. And that being the case, I could not possibly disappoint him.

...And so I smiled and shook his hand. "You've got yourself a tutor."

"Thank you," he said, in tones of infinite gratitude--not to mention relief. "You have no idea what that means to me."

Better save that, I thought wryly, until they've passed their exams.

That evening, with my fresh-minted Purpose clutched shield-like to my bosom, I went to see my parents--which was not, I'm sorry to say, one of the best decisions I've ever made. It wasn't even in the top twenty. Here's what happened:

Henry (never "Hank") and Margaret (sometimes "Meg") were of course members of the Original 22, the rats and mice who broke free from NIMH way back in the dim and misty. And as such, they endured privations that made my recent experiences look like an ice-cream social. Their romance (one might even say their marriage) began long before their escape, when they shared adjoining cages--and they'd been deeply, irrevocably in love ever since. (I've often wondered, by the way, why Dr. Schultz never took his experiment to the next logical level: breeding his hyperintelligent rodents to see what their offspring would be like. Perhaps that was on the "Things to Do" page of his day-planner. But I digress.) During our rosebush days, my father was in charge of the gathering (a.k.a. "stealing") teams; he often referred to himself ruefully as the "chief thief." These days he had a much more satisfying--and honorable--profession, overseeing the workshop that turned cotton, flax, hemp and jute into cloth, yarn, thread and rope, and thence into clothing, blankets, towels, rugs and upholstery. Mother, as she had been for some considerable time, was in charge of the kitchen; responsible, in other words, for feeding three square meals a day to more than two hundred ravenous rats. Considering what she had to work with, it was a task that required a sense of humor, infinite patience, and a large measure of imagination.

For the most part they were kind and loving parents, especially considering the circumstances under which my siblings and I were born; and while no relationship is ever absolutely perfect, I'd never been able to generate much Freudian resentment toward either of them.

...But that was then, and a whole ocean had since flowed over that particular dam. Both of them had spent months mourning me, and had become somewhat reconciled to my "death"--as much as any parent can ever be. Was it possible they might be a little resentful to find me still alive and kicking? Or was that my hyperactive imagination at work again?

I arrived at their apartment about an hour after dinner, just as the early-summer sun was dipping below the western ridge. I hesitated for a long time before that big purple (my mother's favorite color) door, my knees suddenly shaking and my palms damp. I'd passed through that portal exactly once before, the day after my return--an event which could best be described as "emotional." No doubt this would be a less traumatic experience; but even so I felt a strange, inexplicable reluctance. It was all I could do to keep myself from fleeing. For heaven's sake, I told myself sharply. They're your parents! The authors of your genes, the ones who raised and nurtured you--and the ones who changed your diapers. Finally, almost with a mind of its own, my good hand rose, drew back...and knocked.

"Come in!" I heard immediately: that familiar, clear, baritone voice, which could range from soft to strident--sometimes in the space of a single sentence. It was the voice of many a bedtime story--and many a sharp reprimand too, usually well-deserved. During those months at NIMH, it was my father's voice I heard most often in my dreams; seldom, for some reason, my mother's.

I took a deep breath, and from somewhere in my costume trunk I found and donned a broad beaming smile. I opened the door then, just a little, and peeked inside. "Hi, folks," I said breezily.

Like my own, my parents' Thorn Valley apartment was modest but comfortable, with a large living room and two bedrooms--one for them and one for Kim, the last of their children still at home. The furnishings were a collection of old and new: the large sofa, the coffee table and the desk had come all the way from the rosebush, but the smaller sofa, the pair of easy chairs, and the brightly-colored rug on the floor were recent additions. Many things had been left behind during that final mad rush to evacuate, so I'd been told--including, unfortunately, everything I'd ever owned. Such is the price of being missing and presumed dead.

Father sprawled comfortably in a big tweedy chair near the fireplace, a book in his lap and reading glasses perched on the end of his substantial nose. He wore a grey tunic, unbuttoned nearly to the waist, and an immaculate white pullover shirt. He was sturdily built, not tall but solid, with muscular arms and large, capable hands. His fur was greyish-brown, with a beige stripe that began under his chin and (so I recalled) extended down his chest and belly. He gazed at me over the top of his glasses, and his eyes widened; setting aside his book, he rose quickly, a smile lighting up his broad face.

Mother sat on the smaller sofa--the type generally known as a "love seat"--her legs tucked beneath her. She wore a sage-green skirt and a sleeveless blouse a shade lighter, and a pale-yellow silk scarf was tied around her neck. Her fur was dark grey, bordering on black, her muzzle small and her eyes large and expressive. As she saw me, she leaped to her feet with an unmistakable cry of delight.

"Can I come in?" I asked.

A step ahead of Father, Mother drew me into her ample embrace. "Of course you may," she said. "Please, sit down. We were just talking about you."

Nothing good, I'm sure--but I decided against uttering that tired old quip. Instead, I peered closely at the two of them, really seeing them for the first time since my return. Though by all outward appearances they were young and strong, they--along with Justin, Jonathan and the other surviving members of the Original 22--had an indefinable air of age about them, a quiet dignity that stopped somewhere short of world-weariness. They'd done it all, seen it all--and lived to tell about it. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I understood what that meant.

I let Mother lead me to the love seat--and as she did, I realized with a start that we weren't alone.

Kim, of course, I might have expected to be there: it was, after all, her home too. She was curled up in one corner of the big sofa, and had traded in her school outfit for shorts and a halter. She grinned and winked, and the look of self-congratulation on her face told me she knew that she was the major reason why I'd decided to pay this visit. And of course she was right--though I hated to be quite that predictable.

The room's other occupant was my brother Calvin, or Cal, the next in line above Kim. An adolescent when I left, he'd since grown up--and then some. He worked as a field-supervisor on the farm, and certainly looked capable of tossing around hay-bales all day. Large, brown-furred and bright-eyed, he wore a loose shirt of unbleached cotton and a brown vest. He rose smiling from his chair to clasp my hand. "I haven't seen much of you since you got back," he said, in a voice just a fraction of an octave higher than Father's, and rough-edged. "Welcome home."

I reached up to kiss his cheek. "Thank you."

I glanced back at my mother then--and my heart sank when I saw that her eyes were brimming over with tears. "Mom--" I began, but she waved me off with a watery smile, searching through her pockets for a handkerchief.

"I'm fine," she assured me. "I was just remembering the night you...left. We had dinner together--the whole family..."

I nodded slowly. That was a memory I didn't call upon very often: it was far too painful. "I didn't want to," I said. "But there was no way I could say no." I quirked a grin. "It was the last good meal I had for months."

"You seemed nervous," Mom said wistfully. "I never knew why. But I remembered--and I always wondered if Nicodemus had told us the whole truth about what happened to you. It seemed so strange that you, and Philip, and Mark, and David, would vanish the same night Jonathan 'died'..." She trailed off then, and shook herself, and turned to peer deep into my eyes. What I saw in her gaze both dismayed and (in an odd way) pleased me. Obviously, though, I would be a very, very long time making this up to her; and to my father and brother as well. Only Kim seemed satisfied; the result, no doubt, of our talk that morning.

"But we'll not speak of that any more," Mom said brightly. "What brings you here this evening, dear?"

I'd been asking myself the same question--and I still had no good answer, at least none that I cared to voice. I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat, and forced another smile. "I didn't used to need a reason."

"You still don't," Dad said firmly. "Our door is open to you always--you know that." He paused. "How's your arm, honey?"

I chuckled as I shifted the damaged limb within its sling. "An infernal nuisance," I said. "But it's mending. Alice wants Ages to take a look at it when he arrives, though."

Dad nodded. "Sensible." He removed his glasses, peered through them, and polished the lenses on his sleeve. "Justin came to see us, several days ago," he went on softly. "And so did Jonathan. We understand why you went on that mission, Eileen--and why it had to be kept secret." He shook his head. "I can't say I agree, but I understand. As your mother said, there's no need for us to go into any of that. But perhaps you can answer one question--?"

I nodded. "If I'm able."

"Now that you're home--" he began. He saw my sardonic grin, and nodded. "I know," he said. "We're only now getting used to the place too. But it is home, and will be for the foreseeable future..."

"Thanks to Elizabeth Brisby," I put in.

"Exactly," Dad agreed. "But that's not my point. Now that you're here--presumably to stay--what are you going to do with yourself?" He glanced at Mom. "Your mother and I weren't altogether happy when you joined the Guard..."

"--Because that's man's work?" I asked challengingly, and he shook his head.

"Not at all," he insisted. "With a few obvious exceptions, I've never believed in those sorts of divisions. We simply felt--still feel--that you weren't living up to your potential. " He held up his hand. "I know, I know, it's your life. Certainly we respect that." He smiled. "But we are your parents. Worrying is part of the job description."

I bit back the sarcastic rejoinder that rose unbidden to my lips. There's a time and place for flippancy--and this wasn't it. And anyway, I had an uncomfortable feeling that in a similar situation I'd be saying exactly the same thing. Maybe someday I'd find out. "For the moment," I told him, "I think I've got it covered. I'll be--"

I never got the chance to say what, though, because at that moment there was a knock on the door--one which interrupted me and (incidentally) entirely ruined my burgeoning good mood.

"Come in!" Dad called, with the barest touch of irritation--and the door opened upon my mirror image.

In our youth, we were indistinguishable, she and I--but after what I'd been through, that was no longer quite true. She was now considerably heavier than me, for one thing--and it's a good measure of how skinny I still was, that she managed to far outweigh me and remain slim. She had two working arms as well. I was amused to note, though, that our taste in clothing remained similar. Like me, she wore a light skirt and a sleeveless blouse--though in tones of blue rather than yellow. It made a nice change from her usual uniform of patched coveralls, flannel shirt and tool-belt. Something that could almost be called a smile played across her face as she entered; but then she caught sight of me, and froze in her tracks.

"Judith!" Mom said in tones of delight. She lifted her hands. "Please come in, dear. Sit down."

My twin let the door close behind her, but made no move to sit. "I came to ask you what herbs you need tomorrow," she said. Her voice, so I'd always been told, was eerily similar to my own. But never--or so I hoped--had my tone been quite that clipped or biting. "But it appears I'm intruding."

"Not at all," Dad said. "What makes you think that?"

She flashed a brief, canary-swallowing grin. "You mean this isn't a belated welcome-home celebration for the conquering hero?"

She spoke bitterly--more so, perhaps, than even she realized--and at that moment I began to have an inkling as to what was really bothering her. Only an inkling, though, and I could easily be wrong. For the moment I'd keep my suspicions to myself--because feet don't taste very good.

"No," Mom said softly. She glanced from Judith to me and back again, a look of perplexity on her face. I fought to keep my own expression neutral--and thereby to maintain the moral high ground. "Eileen simply decided to visit us," she went on. She pointed to the sofa. "Please, dear, sit down. We'd like to talk to you..."

Judith shook her head. "No thanks," she said. "I won't be staying."

By now, Cal and Kim were staring, their eyes wide with trepidation. I could scarcely blame them. The waves of hostility radiating from my dear twin were quite palpable, obvious in the set of her jaw, her flicking tail and her bristling whiskers. In other circumstances, I might have felt an answering surge of anger within myself--but somehow, all I could muster was sadness. This was wrong, all wrong--and as far as I could tell, entirely my fault.

Dad set aside his glasses, and there was a dangerous edge in his voice as he said, "I don't understand this, Judith. Aren't you glad to see your sister?"

She peered at me--and in the depths of her eyes, so like my own, I saw an undercurrent of what could only be pain. Which is it? I wondered. Was she jealous of me because I'd "died," and thus drawn away our parents' attention at a time when she was beginning to forge her own identity, her own accomplishments? Or was she angry because, in leaving, I'd deprived her of a part of herself? Identical twins are formed from the splitting of a single fertilized egg; is it any wonder we had sometimes felt like two halves of one person? Or was it something else entirely?

I returned her gaze in silent appeal--but finally, deliberately, she turned away. "Should I be?" she asked coldly.

"Of course you should!" Father thundered. "I mean, my God--!"

I held up my hand. "Don't bother, Dad," I said. "After all, she's entitled to her opinion."

Judith smiled nastily. "That's right," she said. "I am." She leaned forward. "And if I say I was perfectly happy when you were dead, that's my 'opinion' too, isn't it?"

Mom and Kim gasped, and Cal leaped to his feet, with clenched fists and fire in his eye. "That was uncalled for--" he began, but Judith cut him off with a mocking laugh.

"Oh please," she said. "We're beyond that kind of hypocrisy. Aren't we, 'Hacker'?"

"It appears so," I said heavily. "Though I like to think I'm not beyond civility. But as long as we're being brutally honest..." I paused, and swallowed. "I did miss you, Judith--a lot. And I loved you, when I still knew who you were. I don't love what you seem to have become."

"Get used to it," she said shortly. "It's the new improved Judith." She glanced around. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I have things to do. I'll stop by your office in the morning, Mother--when we can discuss business."

With that she departed, leaving behind a stunned and heavy silence. For a moment we sat staring at each other, my family and me; then I cleared my throat. "Well," I observed, "that's put a damper on the evening, hasn't it?"