The Brisby Beginning

By David Leemhuis


This story is set in the early days of the Rats' original Rosebush colony, when Johnathan Brisby was roommate to Mr. Ages and was very much at loose ends. An unabashed love story, as Johnathan meets the one who would come to be at the center of the entire "NIMH" saga.


The original version of this story was written between November 1991 and February 1992.  It wasn’t my first fan-fiction but is set the earliest chronologically, so I thought it the best choice for posting first.  Most of it is little changed from my first draft, other than a little more on Johnathan’s background in Chapter 4, and more significant changes in Chapter 8, made necessary by major alterations I decided to make in my overall storyline.

I‘ve always had a fascination for Johnathan, and it became the impetus for my first “NIMH” sequel in 1986.  Therein, I gave the basics of how Johnathan met his future bride, and eventually I got brave enough to tell the tale in greater detail.  This story was the result.

Not much more to say at this point except: thanks to Simon for being so welcoming and accommodating since I first posted to the forum, and for his patience as I worked out my email hassles; and to fellow “NIMH” fans for their welcome-aboards and encouragement as well.  I hope you all enjoy my first posted fan-fiction.  As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated, even if you think I didn’t quite nail it.

So here’s my take on the beginnings of the “NIMH” saga, or more specifically…

The Brisby Beginning.

Chapter 1 - What's Missing?

The cool breeze wafted across the hayfield, long since gone fallow, and through the threshing machine in its midst, also abandoned.  Upon it were carried the fragrances of spring, all new blossoms and new life.  Some of them reached far into the depths of the machine, where there was a small but constant bustle of activity.  Two mice, one gray with dark brown patches, the other pale gray and white, were moving a variety of goods from chamber to chamber.

Actually, the bulk of the labor was being conducted by one of them, the gray and white one.  The other seemed to make little more than a token effort to lend a hand, as if distracted; perhaps some of those errant odors, working their way down to where the mice were working, contributed to his distraction.

“Johnathan!”  the gray and white one finally said impatiently, putting down the bundle of twigs he’d been carrying.  “Confound it, are you going to help me or not?”

Johnathan’s attention was grabbed, though he wasn’t really startled.  “Oh, c’mon, Ages, I thought you said you didn’t need any help.”  He’d spent the past minute just inside the entranceway of this chamber, leaning against the wall and thinking.

“Well, if you’re going to hang around, then either lend a hand or else stay out of the way!”

Now, Johnathan Brisby was hardly a stranger to this kind of tone from Cyril Ages, since the two were hardly strangers to each other, having been friends for years; and Johnathan had always taken his gruffness and occasional lack of tact in stride, with a grain of salt, knowing that underneath that crusty exterior, Ages was genuinely concerned.  This time, though, he found himself feeling strangely troubled by Ages’s sharpness, and he wondered why.

However, he chose to reply as if nothing bothered him.  “Sounds like a fair choice,” Johnathan said with a smile.  “In fact, why don’t I go out for a while, maybe clear some cobwebs…”

“Yes, maybe you should.  It would be better than your just sitting around here moping, and would get you out of my hair for awhile.”  Ages bent over to regather the twigs.

“Yes, you’re right.  It is a splendid idea.”  Johnathan gave a sly wink and turned toward one of the tunnels.  “Don’t wait up.”  Ages just grumbled, hefting his bundle toward the storeroom.

This tunnel was one of two routes that provided access to this place the two mice called home.  There was the route that led from the upper part of the thresher down into its lower depths, most easily accessible by the pulley-rope-and-basket system they’d recently installed.  The tunnel had two outlets: one directly outside, about 25 feet away from the thresher; and the other taking a much longer route, leading to the colony of their friends the Rats of NIMH, just inside their main entrance under a huge, spreading rosebush outside the farmhouse of the Fitzgibbons family.  The two mice had lived in the Rats’ colony previously, for about eight months after it had been established, before moving out, though they stayed within the general area of the farm in their search for suitable lodgings.  They soon found it in the abandoned thresher, or rather beneath it, determining that in time, the farmer might choose to put this section of land back into use, and that would certainly include hauling the old thresher out, but hopefully leaving their home undisturbed.

These matters, and others closely related, were on Johnathan’s mind now as he made his way along.  He soon came to the fork in the tunnel, where one passage led to the outside about three feet further, and the other to the Rats’ foyer.  Without hesitation he chose the former; since he set out, and increasingly so in just the few minutes since, he felt the need to be alone.

Shortly he was in daylight.  He climbed a nearby sumac, up to where he could view his surroundings all around.  No immediate sign of Dragon, the farm cat, or any other predators; not that that was an absolute guarantee of safety, of course.  As always, it was something he’d have to be constantly on guard for if he was to spend any amount of time in the open.  Johnathan descended to the ground, confident that this would pose no problem, no matter how far his mind wandered to other matters.

He set out anew, with no particular route in mind.  As long as he kept on the move, that was the main thing.  He’d found that taking long walks like these relaxed him when he felt troubled, and lately he’d felt the need more and more, though the opportunity wasn’t always there.

So…what was troubling him lately, he asked himself.  Maybe a preoccupation would better describe it; either way, the answer—at least to this question—was quite simple: something was missing in his life.  But what?

He thought back to those early days when he, Cyril Ages, nine other mice and many of the Rats—the Original Twenty—were captives at the NIMH laboratory, the subjects of an experiment in artificially boosting intelligence and lifespan—an experiment that succeeded too well, enabling them to plot their own escape right out from under the scientists’ noses.  It succeeded for all but those nine other mice, who were given up for lost in the building’s ventilation system.

Johnathan thought about those fallen comrades, of the friendships, and perhaps more, that had arisen during their time together. Farley, Merisa, Kimball, Delilah… How he wished they could all be here now, to share in this new life they’d made for themselves here. Vincent, Patricia, Julianne… He could still recite all their names, picture them in his mind’s eye, “feel” their personalities, as if it were yesterday and not three years since they’d parted. Morley, Claudia… He looked up at the almost-overcast sky, and felt close to weeping. It was the first in a long while that he’d thought this much about those nine mice, and he was now surprised at just how much he missed them.

Was this what was missing, then: others like himself and Ages?  Certainly there was no shortage of rats like them, who were different from their fellows, who were now more than rats and as intelligent as humans, perhaps more so.  They’d all been the best of friends and allies since the Escape, constantly looking out for each other, facing everything together, good times and bad; through their travels which led to founding the rosebush colony some twenty months ago, and since then.  Yet, for all that, Johnathan and Ages did move out of the colony, after eight months of living and working alongside the Rats.  The reason was one felt on very much an instinctive level, for all their sophistication; one which, when brought before them, was understood very well by everyone.  Simply put, the two mice felt out of place among the rats.  It felt strange to associate exclusively with rats, simply because they were different species.  It was different while they were travelling; then, they all had to concentrate on putting distance between themselves and NIMH, with great reliance on each individual’s talents and abilities.  They’d become, in that time, a tenacious and wary band, always looking out for each other, forging lasting bonds transcending mere friendship and camaraderie.  And yet…after they’d become more settled in their new lodgings and lifestyle, they found things to not be the same.  There was no less a need for teamwork and cooperation on everyone’s part, nor were their bonds any less strong; but the fact that they were no longer nomadic wanderers seemed to make a big difference in the mice’s relationship with the rats.  It was understood completely and implicitly by all, and so the mice agreed that while they would seek separate lodgings, they wouldn’t be far away; and they’d always be around to help out when needed, or just to visit.

So…was it lack of other of the mice from NIMH that weighed upon him lately?  No, Johnathan decided; that was certainly a contributing factor, but it couldn’t be the whole picture.  No, what was missing was a lack of direction.  What had he really done since moving out almost a year ago?  He’d moved in with Ages because, essentially, he felt he had no place else to go.  It was Ages who’d decided upon the location of their home, since he’d thought it most suitable for his own needs, as a laboratory and workshop for his interests in medicine and chemistry, for which he’d developed quite an aptitude in recent months.  Ages seemed to welcome Johnathan’s company, or at the very least didn’t seem to resent it.  But in recent days it had become clear that, though Ages never stated it in so many words, he really preferred to live and work alone.  Johnathan didn’t take this personally, since he’d long known Ages to be a shy and private mouse who preferred solitude.  In spite of this, Ages was wholly committed to using his knowledge and talents to help out his fellow creatures—other animals of the field as well as the Rats, and he’d already earned a steadily-growing reputation.  Compared to that, Johnathan now asked himself, what had he done?  Of course he’d continued to lend aid to the Rats, in his own way, but it just wasn’t enough.  The irony wasn’t lost on him, that Ages, who preferred solitude and often came across as brusque and unfriendly, was probably doing more for his fellow creatures than he was.  Yet…Ages was certainly doing this just as much for himself.  Perhaps, Johnathan thought, he should concentrate more along those lines in trying to work out his present dilemma.  And what was the most important thing he could do to help himself, that would give his life direction, or would at least help?

It took only a few seconds for an answer to present itself.  If there was one overriding feeling in his life lately, it was of loneliness.  He needed someone to share his life with, one who could provide the kind of companionship that couldn’t be provided by…

A quail suddenly broke cover, bursting from the tall grass and flying straight up and away, not one foot in front of Johnathan, who gave a start; then he tensed, freezing momentarily.  Sensing nothing amiss, he laughed quietly to himself, shaking his head.  Serves you right, old son, he thought.  Shows what happens when you get so preoccupied that a flushing quail makes you jump.

Realizing that he didn’t immediately recognize the area he was now in, he looked around for something he could climb.  Spotting a horsetail, he made for it, hopeful that he’d be able to get his bearings from atop it.  He ascended the stalk quietly, cautiously, till he was near the top of the flowered crest.  There was the farmhouse, the rosebush…the thresher, the old mill…all familiar to him by sight, but not from this vantage point.  Nearby was a small shrub, a hollow log…no doubt, this was an area he hadn’t visited before.  So much for being able to divide my concentration; just look at how far I got!  Maybe that’s enough for one day, he concluded. There was something of a resolution, after all, and…

He picked up his previous train of thought for all of two seconds; only to lose it again as an advancing figure, moving slowly but deliberately, appeared in his peripheral vision.  Dragon?  In an instant, he’d confirmed it and had reacted accordingly, dropping straight to the ground and making for a small hollow he’d seen before climbing the stalk.  Once well within, Johnathan again froze, mind racing.  Had the cat seen him?  Or had he been stalking the quail?  He waited silently, listening to Dragon’s further movements through the grass.  Soon the massive, two-tone-gray-furred feline was passing directly in front of him, moving more swiftly now.  But he passed Johnathan right by.  Something else had definitely captured his attention.  Naturally Johnathan was relieved, but if Dragon wasn’t after him or the quail, since he had to have seen it fly off, then what was his quarry?

His curiosity getting the better of him, Johnathan emerged from his hiding place and followed, once sure he was well out of Dragon’s sight.  He made sure not to follow directly behind, keeping the cat in his sight as much as he could.  Soon, directly ahead, the small shrub he’d seen from atop the horsetail came into view.  Momentarily he lost sight of Dragon; when he regained it, the cat was no longer moving forward.  He was now crouching low, tail switching.

Johnathan’s curiosity was heightened now that Dragon was this close to his quarry.  He felt strangely compelled to learn exactly what it was—something he wouldn’t have been able to explain, at least not entirely—and so cautiously approached the shrub.  Keeping one eye on Dragon, alert for the slightest movement that could indicate a change in the object of his attention, he ascended quickly and silently.

Once high enough, Johnathan scanned the area directly in front of Dragon, especially low to the ground.  There…was there something moving, ever so slightly, in that small hollow?  Yes…that must be it right there; it was directly in Dragon’s line of sight, hunkered down low.

Then, Dragon began creeping forward slowly, attention unwavering from that one spot.  He stopped again, little more than a foot from it, then began moving his hindquarters to and fro, getting ready to pounce.

For a brief instant, something akin to panic crossed Johnathan’s mind.  Should he do something right now, with that poor creature’s life surely in peril?  And yet, what could he do?  For the moment, reason prevailed, though he still wanted very much to help.

Suddenly a small, obviously frightened bundle of brown fur broke from its cover and scrambled frantically away from Dragon.  Just as Johnathan suspected, it was another mouse.  He was able to keep it in sight and saw a hollow log, the one he’d seen earlier, directly in its headlong path.  Dragon, after a few seconds, gave chase, and Johnathan’s heart leaped.  Would it reach safety in time?  The next second or two would provide the answer, and again Johnathan felt he should do something.

Then, Dragon stopped short of the log and was now concentrating on one small hole; obviously, the mouse had made it inside in time.  Dragon immediately started groping about inside with a forepaw, trying to snatch his quarry.

Later Johnathan would question why he was so drawn to this stranger’s plight when it was surely doomed; but whereas others might resign themselves to being able only to do naught but observe helplessly, right now Johnathan knew that there was much he could and would do.  Many a thought passed through his mind in the following seconds: first and foremost, he couldn’t sit idly by while one of his own kind was in mortal danger; rather mischievously, he’d wanted a good excuse just to antagonize Dragon; he assessed how rotten the log was, especially the area around the hole, and how soon Dragon would succeed in getting inside.  Then, with an impulsiveness that had already been, and would continue to be regarded as near-legendary, Johnathan sprang from the shrub, hit the ground running, and raced forward.

Chapter 2 - Johnathan vs. Dragon

Dragon didn’t appear to notice Johnathan’s approach; all the better, he thought; and then he gave a leap, landing squarely on Dragon’s tail!  Gripping the fur tightly, he began biting down upon it fiercely and rapidly.

Dragon wheeled around, pulling his paw out of the hole and screeching angrily, more from the indignity of such an act than from any actual pain.  Upon seeing Johnathan, who by now had leaped away, he seemed to completely forget his previous quarry and gave pursuit.

But Johnathan wasn’t new to this game.  He’d succeeded many times in leading Dragon on and then giving him the slip.  Usually this would take the form of Johnathan razzing and taunting him and then slipping instantly away to safety, but this was the first time he’d been so bold as to engage the cat in such an up-close-and-personal fashion.

He leaped into the tall grass, keeping as low as possible, moving in a sideways direction that Dragon wouldn’t likely follow, or at least not catch on to right away.  His goal was to get back to the shrub, where Dragon’s greater bulk would make it difficult for him to follow.  He took a serpentine path toward it, not looking back but keeping track aurally of how close Dragon was.

Just short of the shrub, he paused and glanced around; he’d hoped once Dragon lost sight of him initially, the cat would forget him and the other mouse, and move on.  But Dragon had him in his sights again, and Johnathan realized it was a pretty unlikely hope, considering how mad he’d just made him.  He leaped for the shrub as Dragon closed in, placing himself well within its close-set branches and climbing as high as he could.

As the cat drew near, Johnathan froze, hoping the relative dimness of the skies would combine with the concealment provided by the leaves and branches to keep Dragon from spotting him.  But Dragon pushed himself into the shrub, rearing up, coming within a few inches of Johnathan.  Brave as he was—foolhardy, to some—it was an effort to keep from shaking with fear.  Simultaneously, though, he realized that it was close to Dragon’s regular mealtime.  Sometimes Mrs. Fitzgibbons would call for him if he wasn’t close by the house.  If only this was one of those times, then…

Dragon retreated abruptly, backing down and pausing to lick his paw, trying to look nonchalant.  Johnathan was relieved but still kept an eye on him.  He hadn’t forgotten the reason for this undertaking, and that other mouse wouldn’t be out of danger until Dragon was gone.

Sure enough, Dragon hadn’t forgotten the other mouse either and returned his attention to the log.  Still determined to keep the cat from there—assuming the other mouse was still holed up there—Johnathan made his way down and followed quickly and quietly.  Dragon was again closing in on the log, and Johnathan was determined not to let him come so close this time.

Just a little closer…closer…then, once within range, Johnathan made a flying leap and landed directly on top of the log, further down from the hole.  Dragon instantly saw him, hissed, and made to leap after him.  Johnathan gave a taunting gesture and jumped down to the other side.  Instantly, he found a gap underneath the log to squeeze under, and so was out of sight by the time Dragon reached the spot.  The cat instantly began searching along where log met ground; and Johnathan, though confident that he could continue eluding Dragon like this a while longer, hoped it wouldn’t be too long.  He tried to tuck himself as far back into the recess as possible, then he again froze.  Come on, Mrs. F, get the lead out, he thought.

Dragon brought his search closer, and Johnathan could hear him sniffing and scratching almost directly outside his hiding place.  Then, he could hear…a human voice, calling out…Was that “Dragon” he heard?  Yes, it had to be.  Okay, any time now…

He continued listening intently for another minute… Was Dragon still there?  He made to peek out, take a quick look around; simultaneously, though, he realized that he probably would have heard Dragon move away.  He poked his head out anyway, thinking it couldn’t hurt, and immediately regretted it.  There was Dragon, crouching about a foot away, not directly facing Johnathan at first but quickly taking notice.  Johnathan ducked back in, cursing himself, expecting the worst, and in seconds it came.  Johnathan drew in breath sharply through his teeth as a huge forepaw began groping about, swinging wildly, on one swipe coming within an eighth of an inch of Johnathan, who could do naught but plaster himself to a corner of the chamber and continue to curse himself for being so overconfident.

Then, once again, that voice…Dragon’s paw slowed its groping, as if its owner were suddenly faced with a dilemma.  Then it pulled out; and this time, Johnathan could definitely hear Dragon moving about in the tall grass just outside the log, then moving up onto the log.  Okay, immediate crisis averted, he thought, heart still beating like a triphammer, but he knew it wasn’t time to be relieved yet.  He emerged, this time more cautiously, deliberately.  Dragon may not be right outside like before, but he could still be on top of the log, or on the other side, molesting the other mouse again.  He’d certainly been torn between pursuing this matter further and the thought of his supper waiting for him, but did he give in to the latter desire?

Johnathan knew he had to make his mind up fast, if he was still determined to keep the other mouse from harm.  It didn’t take long, and so again he poked his head out, looked all around.  No Dragon on the ground.  He ventured further out, looking up.  No Dragon on the log.  Emboldened, he made his way up, where he was just in time for a welcome sight.  Looking towards the farmhouse, he saw Dragon making his way toward it through the grass, his tail intermittently visible, then gone from sight altogether.

Now was the time to feel relief, and so Johnathan gave a huge grin and began breathing a lot more easily.  Now to check on this poor guy, he thought; and as he made his way over to the log’s opposite side, he wondered briefly: why had he gone to such trouble, risked his neck for a total stranger?  Was it just because this was the first time he’d been in the position to do so?  He’d been witness to such scenes before, involving Dragon or other predators, but it was either indirect, usually after the fact, or it was from too great a distance to make a difference.  He brushed the matter aside; whatever the reason, the important thing now was to see to the other mouse’s welfare, if he hadn’t slipped out of there by now.  One way to find out, and so Johnathan made his way to the hole.

Perched on the rim, he called out quietly:  “Hello! Are you all right in there, friend?”  There was no audible reply.  He climbed inside, where his vision quickly adjusted to the dimness.  Then he saw, huddled further back in the hollow, the other mouse, still petrified with fright, face hidden in its arms.

“It’s all right,” said Johnathan gently.  “Dragon’s gone back to the farmhouse.  It’s safe to come out now.”

The mouse lowered arms only slightly, and opened the eye that faced Johnathan.

“Really, it’s okay now.  Oh, my name’s Johnathan Brisby.  What’s yours?”

The other mouse lowered arms more and stared round-eyed at Johnathan.  “M-Madeline,” came the tremulous reply.  “I-I’m Madeline.”

Chapter 3 - Madeline

Johnathan was dumbstruck for a moment.  He realized how foolish he was to have assumed the other mouse was male; but overriding it was a stranger, more indefinable feeling that came over him in a rush.  Just hearing this soft, feminine voice seemed to be enough to trigger it.  Later he’d be more able to describe it, know it for what it truly was.  For now, though, he tried to brush it aside as much as possible.

“I…was just out here, Madeline, and I noticed Dragon was after you.  I wanted to help, so I…distracted him, kept him away from you.  I’m still not sure why, but…well, here we are.”  He gave a small laugh.  He was close enough now to see how much she was trembling.  “Hey, he really shook you up, didn’t he?”

He came up closer still, placing a hand on her shoulder.  The strange feeling returned to the fore again, unbidden; suddenly, he wanted nothing more but to hold her close to him, to soothe and comfort her.  But instead, he sat down beside her and took her hand in his.  She looked squarely at him, managing a smile.  “I’m sorry, Johnathan, to…to be such a bother…”

“What makes you think that?”

“I mean…acting so scared, after you told me what you’d just done…”

“Hey, it’s all right to be scared.  Dragon’s one mean customer, he’ll do that to anybody.  I don’t blame you at all, Madeline.  And I was glad to help you.”

A look of immense gratitude crossed her features, and suddenly she threw her arms around him, pulling him close to her.  “Oh, Johnathan, thank you so much!” she said haltingly.

Johnathan held her in turn and found himself wishing they could stay here like this the rest of the day, or even longer.  Just then a shaft of sunlight, escaping through a gap in the clouds low in the western sky, shone directly through the hole, illuminating the spot where the two mice sat.  They looked at each other, and a thought flitted briefly through Johnathan’s mind:  Is this a sign of some kind? Whether it was or not, both knew beyond a doubt what a special moment this was, one they’d always remember.

After a minute the sunlight retreated, and it was another minute before either broke the silence; neither wanted to at first.  “Well, Madeline, I…guess you should be heading for home pretty soon…”

“Yes, I know, but…”  She looked at him again, not wanting to admit outright that she still wasn’t completely over her fear.  “Johnathan, tell me…more about what happened out there, what you did.”

Johnathan did so, beginning with the moment he first saw Dragon stalking something, and ending with his checking up on her.  He refrained from saying more about himself, about where he was from, or about the Rats of NIMH.  Even then, he felt sure that there would be plenty of time to do so.

At the story’s conclusion, Madeline shook her head incredulously.  “It seems so…unbelievable, Johnathan.  Dragon holds such terror for all of us, he’s so powerful, and we’re so small.  How can…how can a mere mouse…”  She suddenly looked apologetic.  “Oh, Johnathan, I’m so sorry.  I know it sounds like I’m saying you lied, but…”

“That’s all right, no need to apologize.  I don’t blame your being skeptical.  If I weren’t so sure of my own senses, I’d find it hard to believe too.  But looking at you now, I know that…it was all worth it.”

Madeline again looked upon him with gratitude and embraced him.  “You…you did it all for me.  For me!  I…just don’t know how to thank you.”

“You’ve done plenty already, Madeline.  And I like helping others; it’s just who I am.  Now…do you think you’re ready to go now?”

“I think so.”  She stood up, a bit shakily, and moved cautiously to the hole first, eager to show that she’d overcome the greater part of her fear and reluctance to leave.

Johnathan followed her and squeezed her hand.  “After you, my good lady.”

She smiled, still finding it hard to believe that he was doing so much all for her.  Then she turned and exited the log, jumping the few inches to the ground. Johnathan immediately followed.

They paused to look all around, regarding the escaping daylight.  “Sure got dark in a hurry,” said Johnathan; then, another shaft of sunlight shone through, bathing them in orange.  They looked upon each other again.  Johnathan could see more clearly Madeline’s slim, graceful figure and petite, upturned nose, her eyes of blue; and to Madeline, though Johnathan seemed not especially handsome by mouse standards, just looking at him now added to the fascination he’d already greatly held for her.

“Well,” she said, “I guess I should be going now…”

Johnathan noticed the hesitancy in her voice; was she reluctant to go home by herself just yet, or to leave him?  He believed the former, but either way…  “Can I see you home?  That is, if you don’t mind.”

“Why, no, Johnathan, but…I wouldn’t want to take up any more of your time…”

“It’s no bother at all, Madeline, believe me.  I like doing things for you.  I like you.  So…if you’ll lead the way…”

“Well…all right, Johnathan.”  They started off together.  “And…I like you, too.  I’ve never known anyone like you, who would do anything like you just did…”  The full impact of what he’d just done with Dragon was only now dawning on her.  “Dragon…brrr!  It still sounds so unbelievable, Johnathan, and yet…”  She looked squarely at him.  “I feel I can trust you, in anything you say and do.  I can’t say how, but…”  She took his hand.  “Please, Johnathan, tell me more about yourself.”

“Well, as you could probably tell, Madeline, I’m not originally from around here.  I came down from…a little ways to the north.  I heard the food situation was better here, closer to the farm.”  He found himself wanting to be completely open and honest with her, tell her everything about his time at NIMH, about the Rats and their colony; but for now at least, thought it better to keep all that secret.  Again he thought there’d be plenty of time for that; he had every intention of becoming better acquainted with her.  “Well…your turn.”

“Oh…ah, well…I’ve always lived around here.  I’ve…been on my own since last fall, when…when my parents died.”  Johnathan was greatly surprised at this, but kept silent as she continued.  “I never knew…just what happened to them; I was home at the time, and they were both out and didn’t return when they should have.”  She breathed in deep.  “Then I started hearing they were gone, killed by…either Dragon, or some other predator.  Either way, I knew for sure they weren’t coming back.  I was still just a child, really, and suddenly I was all alone…”

Both paused in their tracks.  “Madeline, I’m so sorry.  That must have been terrible for you.”  Johnathan realized full well the differences between ordinary mice and himself when it came to losing loved ones; along with the increased intelligence he and the Rats had received at NIMH, they now had more complex and humanlike emotions as well.  A mouse’s life is filled with so much danger that it’s commonplace to lose friends and family in an instant, but one has to get on with his or her own life, since it’s so relatively brief, and not spend a lot of time in mourning.  Even knowing this, Johnathan still found it hard to believe that she could relate her parents’ deaths so matter-of-factly, with little obvious emotion.

“It was terrible, Johnathan.  But I…soon got over it.  And Auntie was a great help in getting me settled again.”


“Well, she’s not really my aunt; she’s not even related to me.  But she helps out a lot of us.  No one really knows why, but we’re all grateful for her.”

“She sounds like one in a million.”  It occurred to Johnathan that someone with a reputation like that of “Auntie” should surely have come to his attention by now, in the time he’d been living on the farm.  He realized just how little traffic with the local field residents he’d had thus far, as had the rats; in their case, it had stemmed from several factors, most notably their wish to keep their activities as great a secret as possible.  Johnathan had gone along with them on this, mostly out of loyalty and habit, but he’d realized more lately how he’d be able to blend in more easily with ordinary mice, than would the Rats with their ordinary counterparts.

They continued on, conversing quietly about many things: favorite foods and things to do, observations about their fellow creatures, the plants, the rocks, the soil.  They found some of those favorite foods along the way, including some wild strawberries, sharing them as they moved along.  Throughout it all, Johnathan continued to feel almost as if he were under a kind of spell, apparently just from being in this lady’s company.  It wasn’t distracting to the point of making him forget what he wanted to say or not hear what Madeline was saying to him; indeed, he listened intently to her every word.  Still, it was a feeling he was constantly aware of, and he was already silently questioning what it all meant.

The pair moved on, quickening their pace as the skies steadily darkened.  Madeline led Johnathan to another area of the field unfamiliar to him, where there were old treestumps, some uprooted, and logs scattered about; along with much tangled brush, some in larger piles, some scattered.  This area, Madeline explained, was the site of an old cherry orchard that her parents had remembered when they were young, which was partially cleared out but then apparently left to itself, for reasons unknown.  It was a safer area in which to live, with much cover, though she had to go a little further to find much of her food.

“I take it that’s what you were involved in when Dragon saw you.”

“Yes.  Oh, I feel so foolish, not taking greater care to look out for him, and letting him chase me so far.  And yet, if all that never happened…”  They paused, and Madeline looked at him, again at a loss for words.

“Oh, I’m sure we’d have run into each other eventually, if that had never happened.”  Even as he spoke these words, Johnathan was indeed feeling that it was something akin to destiny that had brought the two of them together.  He decided that for the moment, though, it was best not to push the idea.  “Well…we’d best keep moving.  Don’t want Auntie to worry too much…”

They resumed their faster pace.  “Oh, I don’t think she’ll be too terribly worried; but if I know her, she’ll probably be waiting for me, even though we don’t live together.”

Presently they approached one still-rooted stump with an especially large and tangled brush-pile next to it.  “Here we are,” Madeline announced.  “It’s right under there, though the entrance is a bit hard to get to.”

“Sounds pretty smart to me,” remarked Johnathan as they negotiated their way through the tangle.  They paused before the entrance hole to look upon each other, smiling, both feeling a bit awkward and reluctant to part company so soon.

“Well,” Madeline began, “I guess you should be going now, Johnathan, it’s…getting pretty dark.  Thank you for seeing me home, and…and everything else.”

“Oh, it was nothing.  I’d gladly do it all over again.  But you’re right, I’d better get a move on.  First, though, I…thought I’d ask you if…well…”

“Yes, Johnathan?”

“Madeline!  There you are, child!  Why, didn’t you realize how late it was getting, and with you out there all by yourself?”

The two mice turned toward the new voice.  Approaching them through the tangle was a plump shrew of indeterminate age, a long shawl wrapped around her shoulders and arms.

“I’m sorry, Auntie, I’d have been back sooner, but I…ran into a bit of trouble.”

Johnathan blinked and stared, trying not to let too much of his disbelief show.  This was Auntie? He almost said it aloud.

“Hmph!  Well, I should think so!”  The shrew seemed to notice Johnathan for the first time.  “So!  Who’s this, then?  Was he the one giving you the trouble?”

“Now, see here, Madam—“

“Oh, no, Auntie, this is Johnathan.  And if it weren’t for him…well…”  She again looked upon him fondly.

“Let’s just say you might have had a longer wait,” finished Johnathan.  “And I’m very pleased to meet you, Auntie.  Madeline’s said a lot of good things about you.”

“We all just call her Auntie Shrew,” said Madeline with a small laugh.

Auntie seemed taken aback by Johnathan’s disarming manner, but only for a moment.  “Hmph…I’ve never seen you around here before.”

Johnathan repeated what he’d previously told Madeline regarding his origins; but afterwards, the shrew still eyed him suspiciously.  Then Madeline spoke up.  “He saved my life tonight, Auntie.  And he’s really kind, and...and I trust him.  I just know I can.”

Auntie seemed momentarily pacified by Madeline’s simple earnestness, and just grumbled in reply, still not looking ready to pledge the same amount of trust in Johnathan.

“Well, I have to be heading back, but it was nice to meet you, Auntie.”  Johnathan found himself genuinely wanting to get on the shrew’s good side.  Turning to Madeline, he added, “And…as I was starting to say…I’d really like to see you again, Madeline…if you don’t mind.”

She seemed genuinely surprised by the suggestion.  “Oh, Johnathan, I didn’t think that you’d…I mean…ah…yes, of course, I’d like that.  Very much.”

“Great.  How about I meet you here around…oh, say, midafternoon tomorrow?”

“That’d be fine, Johnathan.  I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me, too.  Well, it’s been an interesting evening…”

Madeline looked confused.  “Interesting?  I’d think it’d be more like…oh, I…think I see what you mean.”  She gave a small laugh.  “Yes, it was interesting, wasn’t it?”

“That it was.  Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.  Good night, Madeline.”  He took her hands in his.

“Good night, Johnathan.  Be careful.”

“I will.  Good night to you too, Auntie.”  The shrew just looked on, still silently scrutinizing this stranger.

And so they parted for the night, Madeline watching his receding figure through the brush-tangle, silently reflecting on the evening’s remarkable events.

Auntie Shrew shook her head.  “I still don’t trust him, child.  And I think you’re being far too naïve, placing so much trust in him like that.”

“Oh, Auntie, I…I know he seems a little strange to you, but…I can’t explain it.  In fact…he seems strange to me, too, but…only in good ways.”  Madeline sighed and started down her den’s entrance-hole, the shrew following close behind.  “And even if he didn’t really save my life, like he said, he was still so kind to me, and…”

“He told you that?  How?  What did happen to you out there, Madeline?”

Madeline took this line of questioning in stride, accustomed to Auntie Shrew’s tendency to be so single-minded in her own views as to apparently not listen to all of what others were saying.  Madeline was sure that Auntie had heard her earlier mention of Johnathan saving her life, but wasn’t bothered by her subsequent disregard of it; she knew Auntie did that with everyone.  So, once all the way inside, the two sat down, Madeline relating the evening’s events, including her own experiences and all that Johnathan had told her.

Chapter 4 - Worlds Shared

Johnathan made his way along in the gathering dusk, constantly aware of his surroundings and the increased chance of hidden dangers, but also of the route he and Madeline had just taken, which he now retraced. By now much more aware of the locations of the site of his conflict with Dragon and the route he’d taken prior to it in relation to the areas he was more familiar with, he was certain he could deviate from the previous route and thereby shorten his way home. Soon he reached what he estimated to be the right point with which to begin his shortcut.

As aware as he was of all these here-and-now concerns, his mind was never far from the events of this “interesting evening.” The greater part of reflection and sorting of feelings would come later, but there was that image, returning time and again, of this shy and lovely creature whose simple ways and manner were having such a profound effect on him. As ordinary mice go, certainly there was nothing especially remarkable or unique about Madeline; and yet, just being with her was doing things to him that he’d never before experienced. He thought of her back there, and wondered what she was thinking about him right now. He had half an impulse to turn back; but by now he was most of the way home, and more practical considerations took precedence. It was now completely dark, and the first, low clap of thunder resounded in the western sky. He’d known that was coming, so he continued steadily along, trying harder to postpone any further musings until he was in more secure surroundings. He felt the first droplets of rain just as he approached the hidden tunnel entrance.

“Well, it’s about time! Do you have any idea how late it is?”

“Gee, I dunno. How ’bout you give me a clue.” Though Ages confronted him abruptly, shortly after he emerged from the tunnel, Johnathan as usual took it casually. The sense of preoccupation present before he’d left had quickly returned, his thoughts now dominated by reflections on this evening’s experiences. Otherwise, he might have questioned why Ages sounded so concerned about his being out so late, knowing full well how capable Johnathan was of taking care of himself when out after dark.

However, it wasn’t so much concern that prompted Ages’s present bit of criticism. “You know, I could have used a hand about a half hour ago. Oh, sure, it was nothing I couldn’t have handled myself, but…” He grumbled inarticulately and started to turn.

Abruptly Johnathan whirled. “I don’t believe this! First you can’t wait for me to get out of your hair, and now you complain that I’m not around to help you! Just what does it take to satisfy you, anyway?”

Ages was so taken aback by this uncharacteristic outburst that he actually gave a small jump backward. Johnathan just glared at him for a moment, then he turned and stalked off toward his private quarters. Ages continued to stare after him silently for another moment, perplexed; then he turned, shaking his head, and returned to his workshop.

About five minutes later, Ages was well involved in his work again, grinding dried leaves and stems into powder, when he heard the door open. He turned to see Johnathan in the doorway.

“Er…mind if I come in?”

“Why, no, Johnathan, of course not.” Ages walked away from his worktable, and Johnathan sat down on a nearby bench.

“Listen, Ages, ah…” Johnathan began as his friend joined him on the bench, “I’m sorry I blew up at you like I did. I’ve never raised my voice like that to anyone before. It’s just that these past few hours have been just…just crazy, my mind’s been going in a million directions. Like I was just saying to someone else, it’s been an interesting evening…”

“I accept your apology, Johnathan, but…just what did happen to you today?”

“Hmmm…I wasn’t really counting on talking about it now, but I suppose it’ll help, and I guess I owe you that much.” He breathed in deep. “Well, I started out on my walk, with no real direction in mind, but I thought it would help, with all the thinking I had to do…about what I’d done with my life, what was missing from it.” He refrained from going into more detail about his thoughts at the time, and went on to describe his discovery of his own whereabouts, Dragon’s entrance, and how he felt compelled to find out what the cat was chasing. As he described how he’d distracted Dragon from the other mouse, Ages twice interrupted him outright to express his disbelief. Johnathan continued on undaunted each time; and when he got to his first meeting with Madeline, he avoided any real description of his feelings at the time, or since, at least at first.

“…and then, after we’d said goodnight, I started for home, and…” Johnathan paused, sighing deeply. “Now…I just can’t get her out of my mind. I close my eyes, and…” He shook his head. “From the moment we first laid eyes upon each other, she…just has this effect on me, I can’t explain it. And here I was, just before that, trying to figure out what was missing in my life, where I should go from here. Just…just what is she to me? It’s got to all mean something.”

They were both silent for a moment, Ages fiddling with his chin-whiskers. Then he said, “Well…I’m not sure I’m qualified to give any advice regarding your lady-friend, Johnathan. I’m sure you’ll be able to work that out for yourself. But as for the rest of your tale, well…preposterous as it all sounds, I’ve never known you to lie or exaggerate. Heh…and I can certainly appreciate the idea of someone giving Dragon a hard time; it sounds like something you’d do, after all.”

Johnathan gave a wry smile. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Well…” He got up and yawned. “Guess I’ll call it a day. See you tomorrow. G’night.” He headed for the door.

“Ah…just a minute, Johnathan,” Ages called out suddenly, bringing Johnathan back into the room. “There’s one more thing I wanted to say. It’s about…what I said to you when you first came in. I should apologize for that, as well. I realize that since we’ve been living here, I’ve probably been taking you for granted, even though I’ve made no demands of you. You’ve volunteered your help many times without my asking. But now, well…I admit that I’ve forgotten that you have your own life to live, and I know you said at the beginning that you didn’t expect to stay here forever, so…”

“So in other words, you want me out of here as soon as possible,” Johnathan said half-seriously.

“I’m not pressuring you, Johnathan,” Ages said quickly, taking the remark more literally than he should have, “or placing any demands on you, of any kind. When you’re ready, just do as you see fit.”

“Well…I know you’d rather be living and working alone; that’s just you. As for me, I’d been thinking along those lines myself, and one of these days, maybe sooner than either of us think…” Johnathan paused, momentarily lost in thought; then he laughed and said, “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

“Well, all right. Good night, Johnathan.”

Johnathan would note later that this was probably the most civil and forthcoming he’d seen Ages in a long time, and so he’d certainly savor the moment. For now, though, as he lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling, his thoughts almost immediately returned to Madeline. He imagined her standing before him; he could smell her scent, hear her soft voice. Questions about what this all meant, why and in what precise way she affected him were for the most part forgotten. For now, he simply looked forward to their meeting tomorrow. Earlier, he’d supposed that he might have trouble sleeping tonight, but he drifted off surprisingly quickly.

* * *

Around two o’clock the next afternoon, Johnathan carefully retraced the more direct route he’d taken the night before between the threshing machine and Madeline’s home. Since rising this morning, he’d tried to continue avoiding the larger questions concerning what seemed to be developing between himself and her, and for the most part he’d succeeded. Yet, time and again, he wondered: how did she really feel about him? Did she really like him as much as she seemed to, or was she merely grateful to him? Almost immediately, he’d realize the folly of such questioning. After all, they’d only just met, and there should be plenty of time for definite answers to come forth, as they will. And how did he feel about her, he would also ask himself. He still couldn’t say exactly, though he was sure that would be clear in time as well. In the meantime, he’d spend as much time with Madeline as he could.

Soon he reached the abandoned orchard. He wended his way around and through the old stumps and overgrown patches, pausing now and then to confirm that this was the correct route, until he finally approached his goal, smiling in anticipation.

“Johnathan!” he heard before reaching the thicket. He looked up to see Madeline waving; she’d been waiting for him on the opposite side of the treestump. He dashed over to her, taking her hands in his. “Madeline…hi. I hope you weren’t waiting out here too long.”

“No, not long. Only a few minutes.”

“Good. Ah…can we go inside and talk? That is, if it’s okay with you-know-who…”

Madeline laughed. “You mean Auntie Shrew? Oh, it’s all right, she won’t mind. Besides, it’s not really like that with her, like she was my mother.” She led Johnathan around to the thicket, and they continued to converse as they made their way down to the den entrance.

“I’m not exactly up there on her list of favorite people, am I?”

“Well, she still doesn’t seem to think you can be trusted too much. I don’t really know why. In fact, if I know her, she’s probably watching us right now. She knew you were coming around this time.”

“Did you tell her all about what happened, with Dragon?”

“Yes, I told her all about Dragon chasing me into the log, and the scuffling sounds I could hear, and then your coming in, and everything you told me…and how kind you were to me and everything. But she didn’t seem to believe a word of it. I mean, she didn’t doubt my side of the story, but yours…I’m sorry I couldn’t be more convincing, Johnathan.”

“That’s all right, Madeline, you did the best you could. In fact, I can’t really blame her. If I were her, I wouldn’t believe me either.”

Madeline laughed. “Well, I do hope that…oh, here we are.” They emerged from the short tunnel into her small, primitively-furnished but cozy den, the roots from the above stump providing a roof with plenty of headroom. There was only a little light from the tunnel, and their eyes adjusted quickly to the dimness, enabling Johnathan to see a bed-mat of straw and feathers on one side, a small food cache on the other, flat stones for sitting, and really not a lot more. She definitely deserves better than this, thought Johnathan, and perhaps soon, I just may…

“I hope she won’t be that way for long,” Madeline continued, interrupting Johnathan’s musings. “Just before she left last night, she said I should be extra careful, that you were up to something.” They sat down together on one of the flat stones.

“I can’t imagine what she thinks that would be, but I’ll certainly do all I can to get her to like me. In the meantime…well…you’ve got a nice little place here.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I guess…what I really want to talk about, Madeline, is you and me. I…really like you. I want to keep on seeing you. I need to know that…it’s all right with you.”

“Oh, Johnathan…of course it is. I like you too, and it’s not just because of what you did yesterday. You really fascinate me. I guess it’s because you’re so unlike any other mouse I’ve known.”

“Well, I guess I can take that as a compliment. Although it’s probably for the same reason that your Auntie Shrew distrusts me. I admit it, though; I’m not like other mice. I’m…not really sure why. I guess I just see things differently.” Again there was much more he wanted to tell her, but mostly out of loyalty and old habits, he refrained, even though it was hardly likely that her knowing would jeopardize his friends in any way. Still and all, what harm could there be in sharing with her some of what he did know?

They continued to converse the afternoon away, though it was Johnathan who did most of the talking, about many things, starting with more of his background, though still avoiding any mention of NIMH and the Rats. He described some of his early life: his parents Timothy and Cynthia, his many siblings, none of whom he’d seen in “a very long time.” He didn’t elaborate on exactly how long, or on the probability that none of them were likely to yet be alive; and thankfully Madeline didn’t question him on it.

“Dad could really tell stories, just amazing stuff.” Johnathan sighed at the memory. “He’d entertain us for hours. I still don’t know where he got it all. Mom thought they were all tall tales, and maybe she was right; but I know she got a kick out of them as much as us kids. Especially the one where he claimed to travel with a circus.”

“A what?”

“A circus. It’s something humans do for entertainment, making animals perform tricks and stuff.”

“Ooh…that doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“Well, the way he told it, it was other animals that were made to do tricks, like the elephants he befriended…”  He laughed. “Or so he claimed.”

Of course, Madeline had no idea what an elephant was, so Johnathan enlightened her, on this and many other things, almost all of which were unfamiliar or totally alien to her: how the sun, moon and stars were not just points of light in the sky, but actual, distant objects like the earth they walked and lived upon; how there were many different landforms in the world outside this area: forests, deserts, wetlands, prairies; about humans, none of which Madeline had yet seen up close, and many of the aspects of their world; things which made their lives easier, like electricity and machines; how they had a language that was written as well as spoken, the concept of which Madeline found especially hard to grasp.

All this and more Madeline took in with keen, unbridled interest; and though this served all the more to maintain her fascination of Johnathan, and possibly more, little did she know that she held great fascination for him as well. Her simplicity—but not simplemindedness—endeared him to her in ways he couldn’t articulate, certainly as much as his worldliness and depth of knowledge did to her. She couldn’t be more than just an ordinary, average mouse; and yet, so much about her drew him to her like a duck to water. He remembered the moment yesterday, when his thoughts were interrupted by that flushing quail, and the conclusion he seemed to have worked out: that someone to share his life and love with, a mate, was what he needed in his life most of all. Was she the one, then? He just couldn’t be sure right now.

Thoughts on this or any other subject were postponed when a voice, by now familiar to both, was heard from the entrance: “Madeline! Madeline? Are you there, child?”

Johnathan rolled his eyes. Well, at least she waited this long before making her entrance.

“I’ve had such a day,” Auntie Shrew was heard to say before she emerged into the den. “So busy making sure everyone’s coming along, I’ve had no time to see if you…” She paused as she entered, appearing surprised at seeing Johnathan. “Oh! I see you’re here again…”

Johnathan just nodded and smiled, believing, as did Madeline, that Auntie Shrew probably knew all along that he was here.

“Well, Madeline, I hope you’re not allowing yourself to be swayed by his deceptive ways, all his honeyed words…hmph!”

“I assure you, my good lady, that I have nothing but the utmost respect and concern for Madeline’s well-being. I wouldn’t do or say anything that would harm her in any way.” It was an effort for Johnathan to maintain such a polite and unruffled stance when facing totally unwarranted accusations like this from one who didn’t even know him, especially when she behaved as if he weren’t there.

“He’s right,” added Madeline. “Please give him a chance. I know he seems strange to you, but he’s been very good to me, and I like him, and I want you to like him, too.”

Johnathan felt like saying that nothing or no one would bar them from continuing to see each other, but decided that for now, Madeline should be the one to make such pronouncements, since she knew the shrew better. He was also reminded of how dark it was becoming outside, and felt almost grateful for Auntie Shrew‘s interruption.

"Well, since it’s getting pretty late, I guess I’d better get a move on.  So, Madeline…same time, same place tomorrow?”

“Of course, Johnathan.” The two embraced. Auntie Shrew, seated near the entrance, just grumbled, arms folded, shaking her head.

Chapter 5 - "Is she really the one?"

After saying their goodnights, including Johnathan’s usual courteous adieu to Auntie Shrew, he left, feeling a little troubled about leaving so abruptly, and imagined the lecture Madeline was receiving right now.  Certainly it was very close to what he’d thought to be the best time of day to depart anyway, but he didn’t want it to look as if he’d been driven off by the shrew.  He could certainly stand up to her and handle anything she could dish out.  He wondered, though, if she could possibly cause Madeline to become disinclined toward continuing their relationship, in spite of the sureness about continuing it that both had shown openly thus far.  No, it was silly to think that a problem.  Just got to keep saying it, that there’ll be plenty of time for definite answers.

There was something else, though, at the back of his mind, a nagging feeling that there was some matter that could possibly pose a problem but which he couldn’t put a finger on. He was sure it had nothing to do with the shrew, but nonetheless was something that could pose a problem, if he and Madeline were starting to mean as much to each other as he believed.  He dismissed it, knowing well his own predilection for worry, and figuring this to be another case of his mind inventing things to cause him chagrin when there was no good cause.

That night, Johnathan lay awake for a longer period of time.  For much of it, he thought of his friends the Rats of NIMH, and how they handled matters of love, marriage and family.  He thought of how Jenner and Matilda were the first of them, several months before settling at the farm, to “officially” choose each other as mates for life.  All of them had realized by that time how much more complex their emotional makeup had become; but at that time, these two had learned just how much had changed where love was concerned.  It had begun as simply a mating urge for them both, at least at first.  After giving in to it, though, they quickly realized how much deeper their feelings ran.  It was no longer simply a matter of propagating the species, but also of the joy of being near each other, of just being together.  There was a much greater awareness of the importance of doing and saying kind things for each other, more consideration for the other’s feelings.  The act of mating itself was now as much for the mutual pleasure of it as for producing offspring, and could be done more slowly, with more tenderness.  They’d known, from the books they’d read, of love and sexual behavior in human society, and had found the term “making love” to be especially appealing.

There also came with it the sense that such activities be done in as much privacy as possible; and for a short time, Jenner and Matilda kept their liaisons a secret from the others, until the occasion when Justin unwittingly stumbled upon them, catching them in “the act.”  He was surprised, of course, but it was as much from his own reaction as from the discovery itself; he found himself wanting to leave the two of them alone, and actually felt some embarrassment.  He did feel obligated to tell Nicodemus, their leader, about this; and though he wasn’t displeased, it had been hoped that any propagating among them would be delayed until after they’d become more settled, since having young to watch over now would certainly complicate things.

The new couple, though, proved to be not all shy about sharing how deeply they felt for each other; and after this occasion, they told everyone about their affair, and the discoveries they’d made; and how they’d been secretive about it at first because they weren’t quite sure how to tell the others, but later because they simply wanted to make a game of keeping it their “little secret” as long as possible.  But since they were aware that Justin had seen them, they knew the secret was out, and so decided to come forward.  It wasn’t long before many of the other rats had made similar discoveries among themselves; and most of them, in ensuing weeks, had paired off, developing relationships that quickly became exclusively monogamous.

As expected, Jenner and Matilda soon became parents, and the first second-generation Rats of NIMH were named George and Melvin.  Their arrival was greeted with joy, of course, but not without some additional surprises: not only was it only a double birth instead of a full litter, but it had followed a longer gestation period, almost twice that of normal rats; the babies were born more fully developed, some with fur, almost miniatures of their parents.  When more children were born, a pattern was definitely established, that a slowed birthrate among them, with virtually all the females not becoming pregnant as easily or readily, and producing smaller litters with twins becoming the norm, had been another change wrought by the treatments at NIMH.  Two other couples—Norriss and Charlotte, and Tallus and Angeline—also became parents shortly thereafter.

Of course, more children to care for also meant they had to hasten their search for permanent lodgings all the more; and soon, luckily, they came upon the Fitzgibbons farm and saw that it would suit their needs most adequately.  In the months since, all the mated couples had had children, bringing the new colony’s population to 58.

Four of the Original Twenty—Nicodemus, Justin, Arthur, and Anna—hadn’t as yet chosen mates, although Nicodemus and Anna did have one child together.  In part it was because of the unequal ratio—eleven males to nine females—and of the desire of everyone, by this time, to keep their relationships monogamous.  For the three unmarried male rats, especially Arthur, their highest priority was the day-to-day running of the young colony; indeed, getting this new society of theirs—such as it was increasingly recognized to be—up and running.  In the case of Nicodemus and Anna, they’d had a private arrangement—of which only Johnathan was privy to the details—which resulted in a child which Anna was now raising largely by herself, with plenty of help from friends.  Any emotional connection between the two, other than the bond they’d all had since the Escape, had never developed.  Surprisingly—at least from a human perspective—no one was especially judgmental over the matter.  The reason could be best attributed to the fact that the Rats were still in the very early stages of their development as a society, and social mores and attitudes were still being formed; and that it was viewed as a privilege on the part of Nicodemus, by virtue of his being leader, though he had not—by any means—forced Anna into the arrangement.  As a result of all this, there was virtually no pressure on them to make their pairing more permanent.  A formal marriage ceremony, as humans know it, was not even part of their culture as yet.  Under different circumstances, there would certainly be pressure put on Anna especially, since she had three males, including their leader, to choose from.  Since settling here, it had been unanimously agreed that there would be a great amount of free choice in many aspects of their lives, so long as it didn’t harm anyone or jeopardize the community as a whole.

Thinking back on all this now, Johnathan wondered if this hadn’t influenced his decision to seek out separate lodgings when he did.  Seeing all this love in bloom among the Rats—Nicodemus and Anna’s situation notwithstanding—may have inspired him, on an unconscious level, to seek out his own love.  Whether or not this was the case then, he had no doubt that this was what he wanted most of all now.  Once more the questions came forth, of whether Madeline was truly the one, what his precise feelings for her were, and hers for him; and once more he told himself that there would be plenty of time to find out.

Again, as on the way home, there was that feeling that there was something else, in the back of his mind, some other important element to all this that he hadn’t yet taken into account and couldn’t put into words.

And then, all it once, it hit him.  He sat bolt upright, silent but with mind and heart racing.  How could he have overlooked something like this, something so vital?  How could he have been so blind?  He thought back to when this all started—could it have been only yesterday afternoon?—when he reminisced about his lost mouse comrades from NIMH, how he wished they could still be alive and here now.  If they were, he surely would have taken one of them as his mate by now.  But he and Cyril Ages were the only ones of their kind to survive.  They and the rats were longer-lived than their ordinary counterparts, a fact they’d gleaned from the NIMH scientists, and which seemed to have been borne out since the Escape, since none could see or feel himself or herself aging.  But whereas the Rats could choose mates that they could spend the remainder of their days with, who wouldn’t grow older while they remained young, Johnathan had no such choice.  His need for a mate was every bit as strong as theirs, but any one that he’d choose, whether it turned out to be Madeline or not, would have to be “ordinary,” one who would age faster than he.

All this he realized in seconds; he shook his head, and lay back down.  What was he to do?  Perhaps, when he’d see Madeline tomorrow, he’d tell her about their aging difference, which would mean disclosing everything else about his origins, and that of the Rats.  Then she could choose for herself whether or not they should continue seeing each other.  He felt the need to be as honest and upfront as possible with her, and yet…what if she did choose to end it?  Or wouldn’t it matter to her if they aged differently?

He caught himself.  Why should he be considering these matters to be so vital, unless…he really cared for her more than he’d yet acknowledged, to himself or her?  After all, he wouldn’t be so concerned about their aging difference if he only wanted her for a friend.  “Is she really the one?” he asked aloud into the dark.  Perhaps…he should cancel his visit tomorrow, give himself more time to think this through.  No, he couldn’t do that.  He promised her he’d come, he wasn’t about to go back on his word; and besides, the more time they spent together, the faster he should know how he really felt.  Yet, what if her feelings for him didn’t go beyond simple gratitude?  No, that’s silly; he knew she was quite fond of him.  But there was still this aging difference; what might that do to…

Again he caught himself.  It had long been a habit of his to rub and fiddle with his whiskers when trying to work out a complex or difficult problem, and now he realized he’d been doing it for several minutes.  Well, he thought, it wouldn’t do to let her see me with whiskers bent and twisted, would it?  He sighed.  Let’s just try to sleep on it, he decided, it’s got to all look clearer in the morning.  He yawned and closed his eyes.  It was all relatively simple yesterday; all at once it had become so complicated.  Still, he tried to relax, keep from thinking about her, or about anything.  It wasn’t easy, and it was almost two hours more before he was able to drop off to sleep.

* * *

A short distance away, at least by human standards, Madeline also lay awake on her bed-mat.  It had been an hour since Auntie Shrew had left, and some of the words she said—almost all concerning Johnathan—wouldn’t leave her.  Could some of them be true?  It really wasn’t anything new:  “He’s not to be trusted,” “He’s up to no good”; but when asked exactly what she thought Johnathan was up to, her reply was initially upsetting: “He’s only after you for his own selfish pleasures.  He’ll have his way with you a few times, then leave, and you’ll never see him again.”  No, she protested, that’s not the way he is at all; she refused to believe it then, and still did.  But wasn’t there still the possibility of such a thing?  Auntie didn’t really know him, it was true; but did she really know him either?

She thought about the times they’d spent together thus far, all that he’d done and said, recalling many of their conversations almost verbatim; and concluded that there couldn’t possibly be any ulterior motive on Johnathan’s part.  Certainly he was unusual in many ways; but all of them she found strangely compelling and endearing.  She couldn’t believe that he’d been anything but totally honest with her, and that he genuinely enjoyed being with her.  And if he did want to “have his way with her,” wouldn’t he have done so by now?  The notion was a bit silly, as the most important reason to distrust him; certainly some males were like that, but most do mate for life; and from what she could see of him so far, he had to be one of the latter category.  She wondered if that was how he saw her; certainly, her main feelings for him were of fascination, and gratitude for saving her life.  She hoped he wouldn’t feel too let down, if he did want her for a mate.  Despite this conclusion, she greatly looked forward to their meeting tomorrow and could think of little else.  She again recalled the things they’d discussed, including her mention of how she’d lost her parents last year.

Suddenly, a deep sadness rose within her, and she found herself weeping openly, unreservedly.  After about three minutes the worst of it was over, and she wondered what could have brought it on.  It was the first time in months she’d thought this much about losing her parents, and she realized that she’d never been affected this strongly by it before, not even at the time it happened.  Somehow, she knew: Johnathan was responsible.  Perhaps not directly, but just since they’d met, she’d been feeling things she never had before, as if just being with him was influencing her feelings, broadening her emotional range.  She also realized just how lonely she’d felt lately, and wondered if her feelings for Johnathan really did run deeper than she’d thought.  Did she really look upon him as husband material, after all?  Though she was mature enough, she’d made little effort to seek out a mate.  Was it because she was more shy than other mice she’d known, or…was she waiting, unknowingly, for someone like Johnathan to come along?

She yawned, trying to put the matter aside, and curled up in a ball.  She closed her eyes, feeling more and more sleepy, but simultaneously seeing him in front of her, hearing his laughter, smelling his scent, feeling him holding her close to him.  In spite of what she’d just experienced—or perhaps because of it—she now felt quite content, even relieved, and soon was sound asleep.

Chapter 6 - Two halves of a whole

The next morning, Johnathan felt no closer to a solution for his dilemma.  He again argued with himself over whether or not to visit Madeline today, and leaned toward going ahead with it.  He had promised her, and he didn’t want her to worry.  But what to tell her about the differences between them: the real ones, not the vague half-truths he’d told her about where he was from and why he was so unusual for a mouse?

Throughout the day, he volunteered to help Ages out in any way he could, hoping that an answer may present itself in the process.  It didn’t work too well, and it soon began to tell on the quality of his work.  Not that Ages was a taskmaster, but he held little patience for the frequent breaks Johnathan took, usually characterized by his stopping or sitting down at a moment’s notice, and just staring off into space.

Finally, on one such occasion, Ages came up to him and blurted out, “Oh, confound it, Johnathan, why don’t you just go see the girl, and get whatever this is that’s bugging you out of your system?”  Without waiting for an answer from a startled Johnathan, he turned and started to walk away.  “Thought I’d seen the last of your moping about with your head in the clouds,” he grumbled half-under his breath.

Recovering quickly, Johnathan gave a small smile.  He hadn’t discussed aloud any aspects of the dilemma he found himself in last night; but not only did Ages hit the nail squarely on the head about what was bothering him—hardly a formidable task, given Johnathan’s mood in recent days—but now felt that Ages had the right idea.  He started after him.  “I think you’re right.  I thought helping you would help me, but…”  He described his dilemma to Ages, who appeared impatient and only mildly interested, but Johnathan recognized the genuine interest in him.  Afterwards, he said, “Well, I guess there’s no time like the present.”  He turned to leave.  “Don’t wait up for me.”

“All right, Johnathan.  Good luck.”  Ages sighed and added, “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with this kind of silly nonsense.”

Johnathan just smiled and nodded, and made for the tunnel to the outside.  That last comment was made quietly as Ages was turning back to his work, and probably not meant for Johnathan to catch so easily, but Johnathan wasn’t bothered by it at all.  He even wondered if Ages really meant it sincerely.  Certainly his work was his greatest passion, and that was fine if it made him feel satisfied and fulfilled.  But wasn’t it possible that, deep down, Ages would want to seek out a mate himself one day?  Certainly it wasn’t a matter of his being too old; though none, Ages perhaps included, were certain of just how old he was, Johnathan strongly suspected him to be not much older than himself.

Well, at any rate, that’s not up to me, he thought as he made his way through the tunnel.  He had enough on his hands as it was with Madeline, and what they meant to each other.  As he approached the tunnel fork, he paused briefly; should he go to the Rats, ask some of them for advice?  Certainly some, or even most of them, were better qualified to give it than Ages; but he decided it best not to involve them at this point, and so he resumed his journey, taking the branch to the outside.  He wouldn’t have admitted it out loud right then, but he also felt that before he’d tell the rats about any of this, he should have some news of a more definite nature first, something really worth announcing.

Upon emerging, he realized just how much later in the afternoon than yesterday he was making his visit; about an hour or so, though there’d be plenty of daylight left.  He wondered if Madeline did get a bit worried, or had even set out to look for him; he hoped they wouldn’t be wandering around the rest of the day looking for each other.

He ascended the sumac as usual, saw nothing amiss, and so resumed his journey, with mind again very much on his surroundings but also on what to tell Madeline.

Within the next few minutes, he’d made his decision.  For the time being, he wouldn’t tell her about the aging difference, the most important and immediate matter being exactly where they stood with each other.   But there was also the notion—possibly even the fear—that Madeline would reject him if she knew the full truth.  It was something else he wouldn’t admit aloud, and would likely deny if one asked him, but it was there.

When he reached her home, he called out for her through the brushy tangle but got no answer.  He quickly made his way down, continuing to call out, only to find her gone.  Most likely she’d set out to look for him, he figured, and he couldn’t help feeling concerned; even as he knew that she’d survived this long without him and would probably meet up with no danger now, or else elude it successfully if it did come up.

Still, what was he to do now?  Simply wait here for her return?  It was the most logical choice, but Johnathan wasn’t motivated by logic just then.  He went back outside and looked around for a good vantage point.  Spying one nearby cherry-tree stump that rose higher than most, he made for it, ascended it and looked the area over, alert to the slightest movement, from the sky as well as the ground.

He spent about two minutes there before moving on to another stump, where he repeated the procedure.  There!  A rustling down in the grass a few feet away.  He climbed down quickly, and as he approached the spot, called out anew.

“Madeline!  It’s me, Johnathan, I’m over…here…”  The mouse he approached paused to stare at him bemused, then resumed his own journey.

“Sorry.  Mistaken identity, you know.  Carry on.”  Johnathan did the same, a bit embarrassed, and looked around for another good vantage point.

He repeated the procedure four more times, making as wide a sweep of the area as possible before seeing another sign of life, another slight rustling of grass.  Preparing to investigate it, he glanced upward once more, just in time before having to descend quickly, with a single leap.  He lay low, tense, as the kestrel, which he’d glanced just in time to see hovering directly above him, made its own descent, coming into contact with the stump upon which he’d perched seconds before.  Would it give up or try to search further for him?  Fortunately the kestrel, small for a bird of prey but still not to be disregarded as deadly, opted for the former, taking wing again to hunt for easier prey.

Johnathan recovered quickly, and once making doubly sure the kestrel was gone, he made for the spot where he’d seen the movement in the grass.  Again he called out, this time receiving the answer he’d wanted, even longed to hear.  As he approached her, he saw how Madeline had been shaken by the kestrel’s near-strike, but only slightly compared to the encounter with Dragon.

“Are you all right?” he asked impulsively but unnecessarily.

“Yes, of course, Johnathan.  But how are you?  I saw you up there just as the hawk dived at you.  My heart just leaped…ooohh!”  The two embraced, and Madeline could feel Johnathan trembling slightly as well, belying his calm appearance.

“Well, that’s all past now.  So…I guess I owe you an explanation about why I’m so late.”  They moved to a more secluded area within a nearby vine canopy.

“Oh, that’s all right, Johnathan, you don’t have to.  I’m sure you had your reasons.”

Johnathan would realize later that keeping a strict schedule was not a high priority with her; but right then, other matters took precedence.  “Yes, I…suppose so, but wasn’t my being late the reason for your being out here?  I got to your place and you weren’t home, so I thought you’d gone looking for me.”

“Oh, no, I’ve been out here over an hour, because, well…I thought that Auntie Shrew might try to keep us from seeing each other, so I left before she made her visit.  I know I probably should’ve stayed put, but I just wanted to avoid any trouble between you and her.”

“Madeline, I appreciate the effort, really.  But you didn’t have to go to so much trouble.  I’d have been able to handle any problem with her.”

“I feel a little silly now; I know that after Dragon, Auntie Shrew couldn’t be a problem for you.  But I also thought I could maybe find you out here, like I’d just happen to run into you.  I guess I didn’t think much about what you’d do when you didn’t find me at home.  I’m sorry I led you on such a wild goose chase.”

“Oh, that’s all right, Maddie.  In fact, I could just as easily have stayed right there instead of coming back here to look for you, but…well, I couldn’t help worrying a bit.  Anyway, I couldn’t think of a prettier wild goose to chase.”

Madeline laughed.  “That’s really sweet of you, Johnathan.  Ah…you called me ‘Maddie’…”

“You…don’t mind, do you?”

“No, of course not.  Did I tell you that’s what Daddy called me?”

“No, you didn’t.  I’m glad you like it, it suits you.  So…do you really think that Auntie Shrew would try that hard to keep us from each other?”

“Well, maybe not, but…since my parents died, she’s taken, I think, more of an interest in my welfare than anyone else’s around here.  I’m not really sure why, but she’s really taken me under her wing; not as much as if I were her own daughter, but close.  I love her for that, and I’ll always be grateful, but…I don’t know, sometimes I wish she weren’t so much…like she is.”

“Well, maybe she just has trouble accepting your growing older, and…” Johnathan paused, having unintentionally reminded himself of the matter that had been his greatest concern since last night, and that was part of the real reason for his being late.  He suddenly remembered where he was and fumbled to return to their conversation, hoping Madeline wouldn’t think much of the break in it.  “Ah, and…and that you’re old enough to make decisions on your own.”

“I guess so.  I just have such a hard time saying no to her.  I want to, especially now, but…I guess I feel I owe her so much, after all she’s done for me.”

“Maddie, you need to really make her understand that though you’ll always be grateful, you’ve got your own life to live now, to be where you want, with whomever you want.”

“I’ll try, Johnathan, I really will.”

“I know you will.  You know, I thought earlier that we could possibly have a regular meeting place, other than your home, where she wouldn’t find us, and where we’d have more privacy, but…no, if there are any problems with her, we should confront them head on instead of avoiding them.  Besides…I think if I lay a little more of the old Johnathan Brisby charm on her, she’ll see things more our way.”

They both laughed, then gazed upon each other silently for a moment; then Johnathan said, “You know…Maddie, I…I’ve realized that, though we’ve discussed a lot about our being together, and how we don’t want anything or anyone to prevent that, we haven’t really talked about…how we really feel about each other.  For my part, at least, I…guess it’s not surprising, because…well, I’m not absolutely sure myself.  I mean, I’m sure that I’m very fond of you, that I enjoy every second I spend with you.  But anything more than that…I don’t know, I guess because this is all so new to me.  I’ve never felt like this about anyone before.  I know I’m rambling, but…I’m very sure that the more time I spend with you, the sooner I’ll know for sure.”

“I’d like that, Johnathan.”

“Great.  Well…your turn.”

“Oh, ah…of course.”  She looked upon him fondly.  “I’m not sure I can describe it, Johnathan, but…ever since we met, I’ve felt things that I’d never felt before, that I never thought I could.  It almost seems as if…I’m the first one who has ever felt this way; the first mouse, I mean.  I know that sounds a little silly, but I really get that feeling.”

“No, Maddie, that’s not silly, not at all.”  Johnathan moved closer, drawing an arm around her, and wondered: could what she said be literally true, somehow?

Madeline went on to describe some of what she’d experienced last night, including how the remembrance of her parents’ demise affected her, and it seemed to reinforce the idea.  She also reiterated how she’d realized how lonely she’d felt lately; and Johnathan suddenly and wordlessly held her closer still.  Madeline gave a deep sigh and held him in turn.  Soon she began crying softly.

“Maddie, is…anything wrong?”

“Oh, no, Johnathan, nothing’s…ah…oh, I don’t know.  It’s just…oh, everything’s happening so…so fast, and it’s all so new to me, just like…like with you.”

“I know exactly what you mean.  It’s like we’re…no longer individual people, but…two halves of a whole, each one needing the other…”

For several more minutes they sat thusly, speaking not a word, needing only the closeness of each other.  There was little thought of the days before they’d met, nor of what may lay ahead.  Later they’d look back on this moment as the point of no return, perhaps even more so than the moment they’d first met, the one that would change their lives permanently.  For now, though, there was only the pleasure of each other’s company, the feeling of bodies pressed close, the mutual caressing and nuzzling.

Soon, of course, more practical and immediate concerns again gained their attention.  “Well, Maddie, it’s getting dark again.  I guess we both know what that means…”

Madeline drew back to face him, expression almost alarmed.  “Oh, Johnathan, please don’t leave now.  Come home with me, stay with me tonight.”

“Oh, Maddie…baby, I’d love to, but…well, there are still things I need to take care of.”

“Then let me come with you.  You can take me to your place.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’d care for that too much.  Yours is much nicer.  But I don’t think I’ll be there much longer.”  Johnathan stopped short of saying that his next home would be made with her, though he knew full well that was inevitable; that before too long, she would be his wife.

She appeared to understand his meaning full well, though.  “Well…Johnathan, you just go on ahead, and do what you have to do.  I guess I was mainly hoping that if Auntie Shrew were waiting for me, that you’d…well, that both of us could talk to her.”

Johnathan had to admit that he’d almost forgotten about this possible obstacle to their being together.  He said so, adding, “Maddie, I don’t want to look as if I’m trying to avoid confronting her, but…I know you can stand up to her yourself.  I know I said that we should confront any problems together, but now I think that if she sees how certain you are on your own of our relationship, it’ll have more of an impact on her.  She’d be less apt to think that I’m influencing you in a bad way, or forcing you to say those things.  Like I said, you really need to let her know that this is your life, and there are some decisions she can’t make for you.  You can do it.”

“Oh, Johnathan, I do want to, but…I just don’t know if I’m that strong.”

“But you are, believe me.  Haven’t you already told her, again and again, how sure you are about me, and our continuing to see each other?  I just know if you keep working on her, keep hammering that point home, that she’ll eventually come around.  Just keep letting her know that nothing’s going to change your mind.”

“You make it sound so easy, Johnathan.  But you don’t know her like I do, or know how convincing she can be…”

“Well, I think I can be pretty convincing myself.  Besides…look at it this way: what’s the worst she could do, keep you prisoner, tied to your bed or something?”

Madeline laughed at the absurd image.  “Of course not, Johnathan, that’s silly.  All right, I’ll try my best.”

“I know you will.  After all, you are sure now, aren’t you?  About us?”

“Of course, Johnathan.  I feel…just like you said, that we need each other now.  Well…all right, I guess we both should be going.  I…”  Madeline looked at him squarely.  “I love you, Johnathan.”

“Oh, Madeline….” Johnathan embraced her.  “I love you.”  He kissed her lightly on the ear, and suddenly found it just as difficult for them to part.  Though this sudden, mutual declaration of their love was arguably poorly timed, it was another moment they’d treasure.

After almost a minute, he reluctantly pulled himself away from her. “All right, for sure this time,” Johnathan said with a laugh. “and I’ll definitely see you tomorrow. Say, around noon?”

“Of course, that’s fine.”

“All right.  Now don’t forget what I told you about Auntie.  Good luck.”

“I won’t, Johnathan.  And thank you for encouraging me.”  She took a deep breath, steeling herself both to parting with him and confronting the shrew.

They left the canopy together, said their goodbyes, and began making their separate ways through the twilight, minds reeling from the evening’s events, and anticipating those to come with both gladness and uneasiness.  For Madeline, it was mainly from more immediate concerns; but for Johnathan, it was from the more long-range ones: the life they’d build together, the children they’d raise.  But there was still the aging difference, and something that hadn’t occurred to him until now: how their children would turn out.  Would they inherit some or all of the artificially-enhanced qualities of their father, or be more like their mother?  The more positive aspects of their prospective union won out for now, and Johnathan felt like shouting and singing out loud, giddy from the realization that Madeline was indeed meant for him, as if by destiny.  How could he have denied it until now?  He’d loved her right from the start; he knew that now, that the strange feeling that had come over him upon hearing her sweet voice for the first time was the onset of his love for her.

He thought about sharing the good news with the Rats right away; after all, this certainly qualified as news of a more definite nature.  But he decided to give it a bit more of a wait, after he and Madeline had made it more official, after he’d asked her to be his lifemate.  Tomorrow, definitely, this would all happen, with only one possible obstacle.  Johnathan thought about Madeline confronting Auntie Shrew, hoping all would go well.  He felt a small pang of guilt for leaving her to the task alone, and again fought back a strong urge to turn back; but after tonight, he would definitely be at her side should any further problems with the shrew arise.  This one time, at least, he was confident that Madeline was up to the task.  And should the shrew remain unconvinced, it wouldn’t matter.  He’d have Madeline as his wife, with or without Auntie Shrew’s blessing.

Again, just before reaching the tunnel entrance, he thought about the aging difference.  He still thought it best to not tell her about it now, that doing so might affect her feelings for him.  And he couldn’t take chances on that, not now; but he would tell her one day.  Certainly he’d have to, as the differences became more obvious.  But no, he should be able to level with her before it got to that point.  Sure.  For the time being, that wasn’t a problem.  After all, they’d still have plenty of time together, even if it wouldn’t be as long as his Rat contemporaries.

* * *

Johnathan’s thoughts were still, of course, very much on Madeline as he settled into bed.  Such big plans he had, some of which he’d already told Ages, whose outward reaction was mainly of relief that there would finally be a resolution to all his dragging himself around and moping about.  Tomorrow he’d pack a few things, what little he really needed to bring, and meet with Madeline, declare his desire to make her his wife.

Another bit of uneasiness came over him.  Did he really make it clear to her that this was his intention?  She seemed very sure, by her words, that she felt the same, and yet…he hadn’t come right and said it.  Oh, come off it, Johnathan, he thought, of course she knows I’ll ask her; and she will say yes.  There’s still you-know-who, of course, but would she really be that big a problem?  No, let’s not worry about her until necessary.  No, make that if necessary.  After about forty minutes he drifted into sleep, thoughts of his paramour carrying over almost immediately into his dreams.  He found them both walking hand-in-hand through a strange and beautiful pastel-colored landscape.

Chapter 7 - Proposal

Johnathan arose in the morning to find that the situation had changed slightly.  He was still looking forward to seeing Madeline again; and yet, as he gathered his belongings together, he couldn’t help feeling some trepidation over what he was embarking upon.  It wasn’t so much attributable to any doubt that she’d accept his proposal, since he was now certain that there were no doubts on her part that this was the right thing to do.  He concluded that it had to be mostly due to the fact that this was such a big change in his life, second only to the changes made at NIMH.

“Well, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.  Wish me luck.”

“All right, Johnathan.”  Ages ceased his work for a moment.

“I just hope it all goes smoothly, that that bloody shrew doesn’t give us any trouble…”  Johnathan added, more under his breath: “…and that she’ll say yes…”

Ages gave a “tsk” of exasperation. “Great Jupiter, Johnathan, just get on with it, and stop worrying! For the life of me, I can’t understand why you’d rather ruminate over and over like this, instead of going out and getting things settled.” He shook his head, throwing hands up.

“Ages…Cyril…maybe someday, you’ll understand.  But you’re right.  And I am as ready as I’ll ever be.  Well, I guess this is goodbye, then.”  Johnathan adjusted the strap of the satchel he carried; then, without warning, gave the older mouse a brisk hug.

“Oh, it’s not like we’ll never see each other again,” said Ages irritably, pushing Johnathan away, though not forcefully.  “Now, go on with you!  Shoo, shoo…”  He motioned with his hands.

Johnathan grinned.  “I’m really gonna miss our little relationship.  Later, okay?”  As he turned to leave, Ages just gave his usual inarticulate grumble; but once his friend was out of earshot, he smiled to himself.

“Good luck, Johnathan,” he said quietly, and returned to his work.

It was the first Johnathan had been outside today, and he was delighted to find how warm it had become.  He paused atop the sumac a bit longer this time, luxuriating in the feel of the sun through his fur and musing on what a perfect day this was so far.  Now, if all went correctly, it would really… But no, he decided, forget the “if” stuff.  He climbed back down and set out, maintaining a brisk and steady pace, rehearsing his lines to himself.  He was surprised to find how hard it was to find just the right words; but soon he realized this was unnecessary, that he’d know what to say when the moment came.  It was just another case of his mind inventing things to worry about, he decided.

As on previous visits, Johnathan followed the same route, and soon it brought him close to the vine canopy where they’d met yesterday.  It was already quite a special location, certainly as much for her as for him, as much as where they’d first met.  On impulse, he decided to swing by it, in case he never passed that way again, though he didn’t really believe that.

As he approached the spot, he recalled fondly the events that culminated in their declaration of love for each other.  There was still a tinge of anxiety in his musings for what was to come, but it was abruptly overshadowed by surprise as a familiar face suddenly poked from the foliage.


“Madeline?  What are you doing here?  Not that I’m not glad to see you, but…”

“I know it seems strange, but…well, at the time I thought…”  She paused, sighing deeply as Johnathan embraced her after joining her under the canopy.

After about half a minute, Johnathan drew back to face her.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

“Oh, that’s all right, Johnathan, I don’t mind.  But I do owe you an explanation.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with you-know-who, would it?”

“Well, you see, Johnathan…last night, I came home to find her waiting for me, just outside my door.  Of course, she wanted to know where I’d been, so I told her straight out that I’d been with you.  She said ‘Hmph!  Will there never be an end to that…’  What was that word she used…reprobate, that was it.  ‘…to that reprobate’s attempts to delude you?  Mark my words, child, he’s…’  Then I almost shouted at her to please not say another word until we were all the way inside, and could sit down.  After we did, I said, ‘Auntie Shrew, I know you don’t trust Johnathan, and I don’t know why, but…tonight, he told me he loved me, and I realized how much I love him too.’  ‘Love, hmph!’ she said.  ‘He’s putting all kinds of ideas in your head.’  ‘No,’ I said, ‘don’t you understand?  This is me, this is my life!  This is how I feel!  I’m not a child anymore, Auntie Shrew, I can make my own decisions!  Johnathan truly loves me, I know this.  And I love him. Please…don’t make me choose between you and him.  I want you both in my life.”

Tears began welling in her eyes, and she gratefully accepted the comfort of Johnathan’s arms.  “A-after that, she just sat there silent for a while; then she got up and asked me if I was really serious about all this.  I said yes, and then as she was leaving she said, ‘Well, we’ll just see about that.’  And that was that.”  She sighed.

“What exactly do you think she meant?”

“Well, at the time I could only think the worst, that she might actually try to keep us apart somehow.  It kept me awake half the night.  Since then, I thought that it probably wouldn’t be anything drastic.  But I still thought that…maybe I shouldn’t take chances, and so I left before she came by today; I don’t want to call it ‘sneaking out,’ but that’s really what it was.  I guess I did take a chance that you’d come here again.  I’m glad you did, but…I’m sorry, Johnathan, I feel like I let you down, after all the encouragement you gave me.”

Johnathan kissed her forehead.  “That’s all right, Maddie, you did all you could.  And you really did stand up to her.  I’m proud of you.  I think it’s time we all had a showdown, all right.  But first…there’s something I really need to do now.”  He breathed in deep; now was the time.  “Madeline…these past few days I’ve thought of nothing but you, and being with you.”

“Oh, Johnathan, I’ve felt the same way.  It’s been so strange, but so wonderful, too.”

“Do you remember…what I said yesterday, about our…needing each other, being two parts of a whole?”

“Yes, of course.”

Johnathan sighed.  “Oh, I can’t beat around the bush anymore.”  He looked her straight in the eye.  “Madeline…I want us to be mates for life.  Will you marry me?”

There was a moment, it seemed to him, of uncertainty in her, as she momentarily glanced downward; then she looked at him and gently smiled, as if she’d known he’d ask her all the time.  “Yes, Johnathan.  Oh, yes!”  They threw their arms around each other, laughing and sighing with both joy and relief.

“There were times…last night and this morning, when I wasn’t sure that…that you’d…”

Madeline looked at him, genuinely surprised.  “Oh, Johnathan, don’t be silly!  How could I not?  I love you.”

“I know.  I’m just a chronic worrier, I guess.  And I love you.”  He stood up, readjusting his satchel.  “Come on.  We’ve got a lot to do.”

“Yes, of course.  Ah…I just noticed the bag you’re carrying.  I guess you really did expect me to say yes, after all.”

Johnathan laughed.  “Yeah, well…couldn’t waste a trip, could I?”  He rubbed noses with her.

As they left the canopy, Madeline asked, “Have you thought about where we’ll live, Johnathan?  I mean, my place is all right now, but eventually…it won’t be just us.”

“I’ve thought about that, too.  We’ll look for someplace larger, with more room to grow, later on.  I’ve already got a couple of good locations in mind.  For now, though, I think we’ve got all we need.”

“I guess so.  Oh…I almost forgot about Auntie Shrew.”

“She’s not going to stop us, Maddie,” Johnathan said quickly.  “Don’t forget that.  No matter how she reacts to the news.  I do hope we can settle things with her right away, though.”

They said little more as they strolled arm-in-arm on the way to Madeline’s den, each silently exulting in the other’s presence and reflecting on what lay ahead for them.  Neither was surprised when they found, just outside the entrance tunnel, Auntie Shrew standing with arms folded, regarding the two of them together with her usual look of disapproval.  “Hmph!  I figured as much…” she said with a tone almost of resignation.

That tone was lost on Johnathan, however, who acted on his impulse to speak up before the shrew could say anything else that might spoil this day.  “Auntie Shrew, Madeline and I have made our decision, and there’s nothing—not a thing—that’s going to sway us.  Lord knows I’ve bent over backwards to accommodate you, to get on your good side, but you still don’t trust me, or seem to think that I’m good enough for Madeline.  Well, I’ve had it up to here!  She and I are going to live together, we’re going to stay together, we’re going to raise a family together; and if you’ve got a problem with that—”


“—then it’s your problem only!  We—”

“Johnathan!”  Madeline said more emphatically.


“I…don’t think that’s why she’s here.”

The shrew had been quite taken aback by Johnathan’s tirade, and for another moment, remained silent; then she said, “Are you quite through…Johnathan?”

Now it was Johnathan’s turn to be taken aback.  “Uhm…er…yes.”  He’d become suddenly and uncharacteristically flustered, mostly from the unexpectedness of hearing her actually address him by name.

“I only came by to wish you two luck, and…congratulations on your marriage.  Heaven knows I still don’t entirely approve, but I’ll not try to come between you again.  I realized, Madeline, after I left last night, that you really wanted this.  I’d grown quite fond of you these past few months; I guess you know you’d become my favorite in that time, since your parents died.  But I’ll not be around forever, and I know you’ve got to be free to make your own decisions, and make your own mistakes.”

“This isn’t a mistake, Auntie.”  Madeline clasped her hands in Johnathan’s.  “And thank you.”

“She’s right.  We’re going to take very good care of each other.  You’ll…er…just see about that, won’t you?”

“Hmph…indeed!  Well…I guess I’m not needed here right now.  I’ll be by later.  Good day to you both.”

As she departed, grousing to herself again, Johnathan added, “Much later, I hope.  Still, I have to admit she took it pretty well.  I’m sorry I blew up at her like I did.  But not too much, after the way she’d been treating me.”

“She doesn’t really mean any harm, Johnathan.”

“I know.  Still, I didn’t take my own advice too seriously with her, about catching more flies with honey than vinegar.  Oh, well…enough about her.  I guess I should make myself at home, eh?”

“This is yours and mine now, Johnathan.”

“It’ll take some getting used to, all right.”  He gazed about the room.  Certainly these were more primitive living conditions than what he’d been used to, but he knew he’d adjust; and they’d already agreed that, with the prospects of a growing family, these would be temporary anyway.  “Wow…a week ago, if anybody’d told me that I’d…be where I am now…”  He turned to Madeline, drawing her to him.  “Oh, Maddie, you’ve made me the happiest mouse on Earth.  I love you so much…”

“I love you, Johnathan.  I…didn’t realize just how much until now, with the way you fought for us, for our life together…even if it wasn’t really necessary.”

“We both did that, sweetheart.  You told her last night, you really let her know how you felt.”  He nuzzled her ear.  “And things are only going to get better for us.”

* * *

They spent the next few hours getting acclimated to their new situation.  They unpacked Johnathan’s things and rearranged the den to better accommodate two.  They made a couple of food-gathering trips to replenish their stock, returning with some more wild strawberries—the first food they’d shared together, from the same patch as before—mushrooms, and an assortment of seeds.  They agreed to overall concentrate on more practical concerns before dark, after which they’d relax and unwind, and concentrate on the more serious loveplay.

They ate a sumptuous, celebratory dinner, after which they went outside to gaze at the night sky.  It was an extremely clear night, the moon and stars especially clear and sharp.  Madeline found it all quite breathtaking; it was the first she’d really paid more than passing attention to things celestial.  Johnathan pointed out some specific sky objects to her; and mentioned, in passing, how moonlight and the beauty of a starry sky often have a romantic effect upon humans.  They discussed other things, of course, primary among them the locations Johnathan had in mind for their next home.  Soon though, they both realized how much, and in what way, this night had indeed inspired them.

After several more minutes of mostly silent stargazing, Madeline suddenly got up and quietly began urging Johnathan to join her inside, tugging at his hand and smiling shyly but suggestively.  Johnathan immediately understood and followed her inside.

She led him straight to her bed—or rather, their bed—and paused to embrace him.  Then, silently—but with smiles and gestures that spoke very eloquently—she sank down on the bed, arms outstretched to receive him.  Johnathan happily responded, sinking down beside her and taking her in his arms.  Both felt a bit nervous, and could feel each other’s hearts beating faster, but the deep feelings they already had for each other, the comfort they took in each other’s company made any nervousness they might have seem insignificant and irrelevant, as they felt any inhibitions they yet had drop away.

All mice go through fertile cycles, when receptivity to mating is at its highest, and these two were no exception.  But whereas love is certainly present in ordinary mice, for these two the experience of mating took on added dimensions, with the deeper and wider range of Johnathan’s emotional makeup, a legacy of the NIMH experiments, and with that of Madeline, which strangely seemed to be gaining an increasingly similar range, as she’d herself observed earlier.

Anyone who were to observe them now, as subjects of scientific study, would be hard pressed to remain clinical and detached in describing their behavior, with all the mutual tenderness they showed; the touching, caressing, and nuzzling that formed such a large part of the whole experience, culminating in the actual mating.  It couldn’t be referred to as anything but “making love.”

Afterwards, they lay together silently, limbs still entwined, Johnathan stroking the back of Madeline’s head.  After a few minutes, Madeline began crying softly.

“Maddie, what…what’s wrong?”

“Oh, ah…nothing, really, Johnathan.  It’s just that…I never knew it could be like…like this.  And…and not just our mating, either.  That was wonderful, but…Oh, Johnathan, I don’t know how to describe it.  I said before how… I felt as if I were the first mouse to feel what I’ve felt.  Well…it’s like it’s even more so now.  I can’t say how or why…but I just know that…it’s from you, it all comes from you!  Oh, Johnathan…”

“Maddie, I can’t explain it either, but…I do know it was meant to be.  All of this was.  I felt it from the moment you first spoke to me.  I didn’t recognize it for what it was then, but now…”

From that moment on, for the rest of this night, hardly another word was spoken between them, as they drifted freely, several times throughout, between sleeping and lovemaking.  At times neither were entirely certain if they were awake or dreaming, but this night would live on in the memories of them both, for the rest of their days, as if it were only the day before.

Chapter 8 - Sharing the news

Johnathan awoke in late morning, around 10:30.  He yawned, stretched limbs, and spent several minutes gazing at his wife, still slumbering away beside him, her lissome body curled up, though not tightly, in a ball.  He shook his head, smiling, still finding it hard to believe the way things had turned, how fortunate he was.  She was everything to him now, all he lived for; one for whom he would gladly give his own life if necessary.  He caught himself; should he be thinking this way, this soon, having known her for so short a time?  But then, he decided, why not?  As sure as he was about how much they loved each other, it was only fitting and proper.  Then, too, there was that all-important aging difference; it made the situation all the more poignant, that their time together would be so relatively short.  He felt a pang of uneasiness; he wished that this weren’t an issue, that he didn’t have to think about it at all.  But it was there, and he’d have to level with her about it sooner or later.

He idly touched her tail, and she stirred a bit.  It pulled out from under his hand, as if by its own volition, and curled around her.  Suddenly, impulsively, he reached out to touch the side of her face.  Her whiskers twitched and eyelids fluttered, then she opened her eyes fully and looked over to Johnathan, smiling contentedly.  “Johnathan…good morning.”

“Good morning, sweetheart.”  Johnathan leaned over to embrace her.  He pulled away, and after she yawned and stretched, he helped her to an upright position.

“Ohh…what time is it?”

“Kind of late, about elevenish.  Ah…Maddie, before we do anything else, there’s…something I need to say right now.”

“What is it, Johnathan?”

He breathed in deep.  “Well, it’s…like this.  I…”  Suddenly he could only stare blankly at her, unable to make the words form; then he continued: “I just wanted to say…how much you mean to me.  Last night was just so…so special, so wonderful.  I realize now, even more than yesterday, how much we were meant for each other.”

“Oh, so do I, Johnathan.”  She took his hands and smiled warmly.  Abruptly the mood was broken by Johnathan’s stomach very audibly growling.  They both laughed, acknowledging how hungry both of them were.  They immediately started preparing breakfast.

After eating heartily, Johnathan told Madeline that he still had some business to take care of, loose ends to tie up.  Surprisingly to him, she agreed quite readily and told him to hurry back.

As he made his way along, Johnathan still found it surprising at how easily Madeline had just let him go, with virtually no questions asked.  He realized that it was just her nature to not be especially inquisitive; noting how she’d seemed to accept all he’d told her about his origins and where he’d gotten so much knowledge on subjects not usually known by mice, even when his own statements were vague and evasive, even to himself.

This contentment in her, this willingness to accept things as they are, troubled Johnathan all the more for his not leveling with her on everything, especially the aging difference.  He’d come so close to spilling everything, just after she woke up, and now felt almost like a coward.  But, he rationalized, perhaps telling her now wouldn’t be wise.  As deep in love as they were now, it could damage things irreparably for them; surely she’d be heartbroken to learn such a thing.  On the other hand, if he waited weeks or months from now, she could be angry or resentful for his not telling her sooner, though it was hard for him to imagine Madeline angry.  It was a dilemma, all right, but it was his decision, and his alone, to not tell her right away.  Perhaps that wasn’t the wisest choice, but it was too late now.  Both of them could only keep going forward.

In the meantime, there was that business for which he’d so abruptly left her.  In truth, it wasn’t so much a matter that needed resolving, but just simply sharing good news with friends.  He quickened his pace toward the access tunnel which would take him to them.

* * *

“Johnathan!  It’s been a while, my friend.  How have you been?”

“Great, Tallus, just great.  That’s actually why I dropped by, in fact.  If everyone’s not too busy, I’ll have some good news to tell, once we get everyone together.”

Tallus, who had a photographic memory that served him well as the colony’s archivist, went on to show and tell Johnathan what had been done in the colony since his last visit about three weeks before.  There’d been, for instance, extensive work on larger living quarters to make room for newly-born colony members.  Along the way, other Rats joined them; word of Johnathan’s arrival had spread quickly.  Tallus’s wife, Angeline, and her friend Simone told Johnathan of how their plans for a school were progressing; it was almost ready for its formal grand opening.  The children were growing quickly, and this had been deemed necessary for their development.  Already it seemed that they could very well be inheriting all their parents’ advanced characteristics; though they were growing quickly, it was still not with the speed of ordinary rats, and they were all quick to learn more complex ideas and concepts.

Arthur, whose specialty was engineering and machines and consequently was a major force in the colony’s design and getting it up and running, pointed out for Johnathan more recent improvements and described some still on the drawing board, including an elevator and a proposed system for utilizing the nearby abandoned mill, or rather the waterway that had formed at its foundation, for transporting goods.

Soon everyone was gathered in a large chamber that was their main meeting hall.  Here were Jenner and Matilda and their children, George and Melvin, who were larger than Johnathan now, greeting him delightedly, and their latest arrival, Melinda, who was born not long after they’d settled here.  Many others brought youngsters with them, some still nursing.  Here was Justin, whom Johnathan counted as his best friend among the rats; he was the youngest of the Original Twenty, and they’d estimated each other to be very close to each other in age.

Soon all but one was present, and the buzz of conversation died down as he entered, the one whom Johnathan had felt should especially be present: the Rats of NIMH’s ever-enigmatic leader Nicodemus, tall and dignified, very much the commanding presence.

Johnathan then said right out to everyone that he’d found a mate, one who’d become the most important person in his life.  After many congratulations—including a lengthy bear-hug from Justin—he told his story in detail, though he left out his concerns over the aging difference.  If anyone thought of it during his narrative, he or she didn’t bring it up.

“…and after last night, well…it took quite a bit to leave and come here, even for this short while.  Guess you guys won’t be seeing me nearly as often from now on.”

“That’s quite all right, Johnathan,” said Nicodemus.  “You just do whatever makes you happy.  And we’re all very happy for you.”

“That’s right,” added Jenner, “and don’t worry about us.  We’re all doing just fine right here.”

“So I see.”  Johnathan paused.  Was there something there, something in Jenner’s tone…he quickly dismissed the thought.  “Well…I’d really like to stick around longer, but I did promise her I’d be back as soon as possible.  I’ll still drop by whenever I can, though.”

“Great.  Say, Johnathan,” said Colbert, “when will we meet this lady of yours?”

“Oh, ah…well, I thought that for now, at least, it’d be best if she doesn’t know about all of you.  I know you’ve wanted to be as secretive as possible about your lives here…”

“But surely,”  suggested Simone, “she could be trusted to keep our secrets safe.  As long as she’s discreet about her comings and goings…”

“I’m not sure I like that idea,” said Sullivan.  “Nothing personal, Johnathan.”

“No offense taken,” said Johnathan.  “But there’ll be plenty of time to decide.  Right now…”  He got up and approached Nicodemus.  “…there’s one more bit of business I’d like to take care of.  Nicodemus, can we meet in your office?”

“Of course, Johnathan.”

Just as the two made ready to leave the chamber, Justin spoke.  “Say, Johnathan, you were just kidding about Dragon, right?  You actually chomped on his tail?”

“You’re not calling our Johnathan a liar, are you, Justin?” said Norriss with a chuckle.  “After all, it does sound very much like something he would do.”

“It’s okay, Norriss, I can’t blame Justin’s skepticism.  I still find it hard to believe myself.  Have to admit, though, I’d probably do it all again.  Well…be seeing you, everyone.  Take care.”

As he and Nicodemus left the chamber, they left behind further discussion on his behalf: “Say, he never told us her name.”  “None of us asked, either.  But maybe he’s got his reasons for that, too.”  “He was a bit cryptic about her.  Maybe that’s what he’s going to discuss with Nicodemus.”  “What he couldn’t share with everyone?  I don’t see why…”  “Leave him his privacy, he doesn’t owe us anything.” Eventually all this speculation reached the point where it was generally agreed that, though there was still much curiosity, Johnathan had his own life to live, and the degree with which he wanted to share it with them was his concern alone.

Johnathan was indeed aware of how cryptic he’d been, and of the fact that he’d created something of a stir back there.  Nicodemus was aware as well, but he reserved any comment until they had more privacy.  On the way, he showed Johnathan firsthand more of their recent accomplishments, and described further their plans for the old mill, for which service tunnels connecting it to the colony were already under construction.

Once inside Nicodemus’s office, Johnathan said, “I really do need to get back soon, but…I also have a few things I really need to get off my chest, and…well, I didn’t want everyone to hear…”

“Ah…it’s about your lady-love, I gather.”

Johnathan nodded, sighing. “It’s strange, isn’t it? I’ve told myself so many times that she’s just an ordinary, average mouse; but whenever I’m with her, or even think about her, I see this…rare, precious jewel, the most beautiful thing ever created. I love her, Nicodemus; more than my own life.”

“Well, you know how happy I am for you, Johnathan; but I trust you’ve taken other factors into consideration.”

“I think I know where you’re going, but…go on.”

“Well, since she is an ordinary mouse—that is, as opposed to us—you will almost certainly outlive her, if our estimations about our own rate of aging are accurate.”

“It’s been on my mind almost constantly, for the last two days.  But it’s been difficult bringing myself to tell her.  How would she react?  I just don’t know.  That’s what I couldn’t say in front of the others.  How would that look?  Big brave Johnathan, unafraid of anything that moves…though I can’t say that reputation is really deserved.  But he can’t level with one little mouse about the truth about himself.  I feel like a coward.”

“Johnathan, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.  You did what you felt was best.  In your heart, you will know when the time is right to tell her.”

“That’s just it, though.  What if the best time has already come and gone?  I keep thinking I should have told her right away, when I first realized I was in love with her.  Obviously I can only hope for the best results when I do tell her.  And I will, one of these days.  You can count on it.”

“I know you will, Johnathan.  And I assume you’ve also considered that when you do, it will mean telling everything about us, as well?”

“I have, and I know you’ve already figured out that’s why I hadn’t brought her to meet all of you.  I guess what I said to Colbert, about maintaining secrecy, is true to a small degree, too.”

“And the matter of telling us her name?”  Nicodemus gave a small smile.

Johnathan put a hand to his forehead.  “I guess I don’t have much of an excuse for that one.  Now that I think about it, though, I think it would be best if I save that for when I actually introduce her to all of you.”

“If that’s your desire, Johnathan.” As sure as Johnathan sounded about all this, Nicodemus could sense some reluctance in him about settling this matter with his mate. It was present in his voice and gestures, though he himself was probably unaware of it. It was understandable, to be sure, but he hoped Johnathan wouldn’t withhold so vital a matter from her for too long.

Still, he wasn’t about to lecture his friend about it, and so he diverted the subject. “Ah…with children certainly in the offing, Johnathan, I’m sure you’ve considered how they may turn out, given their…well, ‘mixed’ parentage.”

“Whether or not my genetic characteristics will be dominant, you mean.  Well, of course I hope so, but…any way they turn out, I’ll love them just the same.  The important thing is, I’ve found what was missing in my life; everything else is secondary.”

“Well…there’s not much more for me to say now, except to wish you and your lady every happiness.”

“Thanks, Nicodemus, but…there is something else I thought I should bring up.” Johnathan described how his mate seemed influenced by him in certain ways, especially in regard to her emotional makeup, as if it had been entirely rebuilt; something she herself acknowledged.

“That’s most fascinating, Johnathan. It is possible that this is an ability within you, possibly a unique one, the same way each of us has a particular talent or aptitude, all likely attributable to the same genetic changes that gave us greater intelligence and lifespans.”

“You mean like Tallus’s photographic memory, and Arthur’s talent toward engineering and machines, and your…talents; I’m still not sure how to describe them.”

Nicodemus took the comment casually, even chuckling. “Exactly. Apparently you’re able to influence ordinary mice—or perhaps just this one—to be more like ourselves in some ways, by your close physical and emotional contact. Whether or not this is really unique to yourself remains to be seen, of course.”

“Of course. It’s a lot to think about. In fact…maybe there’s something unique about her, too, I don’t know. All I can say for sure right now is that…we’re perfect for each other, like we were made for other.” Johnathan sighed, smiling wistfully. “And I don’t ever want to lose her, not until one of us breathes our last.”

“And may that day be in the distant future, my friend, with only the best of luck and good fortune for the both of you.”

“Thank you so much, Nicodemus.” The two friends embraced. “Well…enough about me. How are you feeling lately? Do you still feel like you’re…”

“…aging faster than the rest of us,” finished Nicodemus, sounding as one resigned to his fate. “Feeling more aches and pains, tiring a bit faster…and as you’ve probably noticed, a few more grey hairs.” He looked at Johnathan, smiling sympathetically. “Oh, I understand your reluctance to broach the subject, my friend. I still cannot say whether it’s…my abilities that are the cause, or not. But thus far no others seem to be experiencing this effect: as if the effects of the NIMH treatments worked not quite as well with me, or they’re being slowly counteracted. I fear that is the explanation I’ll need to give to everyone once it becomes more obvious.”

“Maybe…it won’t get much worse than…how you are now.”

“One can always hope, Johnathan. But I have resigned myself to the worst fate; which, of course, is no worse than life’s natural course.”

Johnathan could think of nothing to add at that moment, so he just laid his hand on Nicodemus’s forearm.  Clearly, both of them had a problem involving aging; yet, whose was the worst?  He stood to lose the one he suddenly found to be the love of his life in, perhaps, three years at the most; but Nicodemus would, in quite possibly the same time-frame, be mourned by all of the Rats of NIMH and Johnathan alike.  And he had every intention of leveling with everyone eventually; could Johnathan do no less with Madeline?  There will be a right time, Johnathan vowed silently.  When it comes, I will know it.

A change of subject was clearly in order, he felt.  “So…about these abilities of yours…are you any clearer on where they came from?”

“No more than before, I’m afraid.  If it’s simply a delayed effect of the serum interacting with my body chemistry, then it’s certainly the most unique any of us have experienced thus far.”  Nicodemus “aimed” his outstretched palm toward a chair on the opposite side of the office, and it glided smoothly across the floor toward them.

“That is…definitely unique,” said Johnathan, shaking his head as he sat in the chair, Nicodemus doing likewise in the one in front of his desk.

“The human scientific community at large doesn’t recognize an ability like this, but there are those who believe it exists, that some humans do possess it.”

Well both of them remembered the books on psychic phenomena they’d read at the Boniface estate’s extensive library, as well as those on magic and mysticism.  Some of the other Rats, and Cyril Ages, thought it strange and odd that these two seemed so fascinated by subjects that human science couldn’t definitively prove existed; and they considered themselves very much creatures of science.  Their defense was that humans would not be writing volume upon volume about these subjects, over many decades and centuries, if they were purely the stuff of fantasy and imagination; plus their science couldn’t definitively disprove their existence.

It wasn’t until some five weeks after they’d departed the estate that these abilities manifested in Nicodemus for the first time.  The group had stopped over for the night at the edge of a wooded area, and Nicodemus and Johnathan had stepped away from the others for a private discussion.  It was a windy night, and the pair was a little too involved in their conversation to notice how ominously the branches directly above them were swaying.  Without warning, Nicodemus interrupted their talk, pushed Johnathan to one side, looked up, raised one hand, and the heavy limb that had just broken loose and was descending straight for him suddenly veered away in mid-plunge, landing harmlessly a few feet away.

Neither knew what to make of the incident, which Johnathan would later call a “two-pronged defense,” because two distinct abilities manifested: the telekinetic repelling of the tree limb and the premonition that preceded it.  The others responded to the commotion, but Nicodemus would only tell them it was a close call and nothing more.  In private discussion later, he told Johnathan he’d prefer to keep any such “extra” abilities a secret for the time being, at the time unsure of how openness about them might affect his leadership status.  He would confess, in ensuing weeks, how the sudden onset of these abilities, while not inspiring fear in him, gave him a degree of uncertainty and uneasiness; but before long use of these abilities came to feel more and more natural to him, a genuine part of him.  By the time they’d begun to establish the Rosebush Colony, he’d disclosed them to the others, testing his telekinetic abilities in open demonstrations, even using them in building operations.  By and large, his new abilities were accepted readily by his fellow Rats of NIMH and presented no obstacle to his continued leadership.

“There are times,” Nicodemus now said, “that I’ve speculated whether or not my fascination on those subjects was a factor in how I came by these abilities; or perhaps via some other means entirely, completely unrelated to the treatments at NIMH; something that may have come later.”

“Like, from something you ate or drank, maybe?” suggested Johnathan half-seriously.

“Possibly.  It’s at least equally likely that these abilities may be, in part, connected to the accelerated aging.  Whether there’s a genuine cause-and-effect relationship there, I cannot yet say.  If there is a creator, an entity responsible for this world, everything and everyone upon it, perhaps only he, or she, or it can say.”

The two friends spent a few more minutes discussing other, less weighty subjects.  “I saw Anna with your son back there,” remarked Johnathan.  “He sure is an armful; almost too big for her to carry now.”

“Indeed he is,” answered Nicodemus with a note of pride in his voice.  “He’ll be…eight months old next Tuesday.  I can already picture him when he’s grown: a master builder like Arthur; or perhaps a sentry, guarding the colony against intruders.  Of course, I can’t actually see that far into the future.”

“And perhaps,” Johnathan said, a more serious tone returning, “that’s just as well.”  He looked up at the ceiling, suddenly remembering his greatest priority.  “Well, I guess I’d better push off now.  The next thing you hear from me should be about where we’re moving to.”  They both stood up and embraced.  “So this is goodbye for now.”

They started toward the door, and just outside Johnathan paused.  “By the way…it’s Madeline. Her name’s Madeline.  I thought you at least should know.  You’ll keep it a secret, won’t you, until she comes here?”

“I’ll remember, Johnathan. Now, go on.  She’s waiting for you.”

“Of course.  Okay, I’m off.  Goodbye!”

“Godspeed, Johnathan.”  He paused before reentering his office to watch Johnathan race down the corridor toward the access tunnel that brought him here.  How full of anticipation and joie de vivre he is, Nicodemus pondered, not even allowing his anxiety over the aging difference to dampen his spirits.

Yet…he couldn’t help but feel that something could come along, some event that could cause everything to come crashing down, not only upon Johnathan, but on himself and the Rats as well.  It was baffling to him, because it was so nebulous and undefined, so unlike the premonitions he’d experienced which accurately predicted events in the very near future.  It was so unlike him to be pessimistic either.  Could this be…a change, a shift in the nature of this ability?  There was no reason to believe that its precise nature would stay the same, especially considering his own imprecise understanding of its origins.  Perhaps, he decided, it would be best to bide his time, wait for something more concrete and specific to present itself.  He didn’t relish the thought, but knew there was little choice.

Time, of course, would provide answers.  For now, he knew nothing of red amulets or mysterious barely-glimpsed strangers or the treachery of former friends—all things which would take the lives of himself and his friends and loved ones in new directions, even ones fraught with tragedy and anguish.

Sitting down at his desk again, he again contemplated Johnathan’s new situation and how finding his love had made such a positive change in him. He was so looking forward to building a life with Madeline, having children, passing on his legacy and bloodline. His mind again returned to the matter of his accelerated aging; more specifically, to how it had inspired him, last year, to approach Anna with the proposition that he father her child, even though they hadn’t chosen each other. In retrospect, it was remarkable that she’d agreed so readily, since he hadn’t pressured her at all; nor had he mentioned the signs of aging he’d already begun to feel—something which, even now, he’d only confided to Johnathan—and how that had been the foremost reason for it: that if he were to age more quickly and pass on before his fellows, he would not leave this world childless. This reason, too, he’d confided to Johnathan.

Mulling over the matter further, he quickly came to a decision: that one other be brought in on it besides Johnathan, and that it should be Justin. He’d already been considering candidates for his successor, and thus far Justin had seemed the best choice for that as well. If that proved to be his final decision, it would no doubt be cause for chagrin in some, especially in Jenner. But he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. He also considered, and not for the first time: should he also go to Anna, ask her to be his wife, make their union official? But no, he again decided, he could not—at this point, if ever—be a proper husband and father. And if she were to approach him on the subject of marriage, this is what he’d tell her: that though he cared for her and little Brutus, it would be next to impossible for them to be a true family. Perhaps this was another premonition; but for now, he decided, the present concerns of the colony should be attended to.

He got up and left the office to look for Justin.

Chapter 9 - On the dawn of a new life

As Johnathan hurriedly made his way home, he felt that he’d perhaps taken longer than he should have, though he was well aware it had only been a little over two hours since he’d left.  Many of Nicodemus’s thoughts were echoed in him now, especially the knowledge that though some uncertainties lay ahead, he knew he had much to look forward to.  He hurried through the branching tunnel, and then out into the open, through the clear spring afternoon, not even stopping to climb the sumac for his usual quick look around.  He was too impatient to get back to his new home and the arms of his beloved.

* * *

“How long has it been now, Madeline?  Two and a half hours?  Three?”

“I think it’s been about two, Auntie.”

“Hmph!  Mind you, I did say he’d leave once he’d had from you what he wanted…”

“Yes, you did, several times,” Madeline said patiently.  “And I still don’t believe it.  He will be back.”

“Deny the truth as you will, child, but someday you’ll see the error of your ways and tell me…”

“Oh, honey!  I’m home!”

Were it not for her modest nature, Madeline might have made more of a scene right then, emphasizing how right she’d been; but instead, she dashed delightedly past Auntie Shrew, rushing into Johnathan’s arms as he appeared at the entrance, and once again leaving her self-appointed guardian in open-mouthed silence.

The young lovers greeted each other un-self-consciously, then came all the way back inside, Johnathan noticing the shrew for the first time.  “Well, Auntie.  Nice of you to drop by.”  He knew full well why she was here, and resisted the urge to very loudly tell her how wrong she’d been about him—again.

As for Auntie Shrew, she got up, spluttered, “Well, I…guess you…I’ve got others who I need to…urhm…good day, Madeline… Johnathan,” and headed out the door abruptly.  Johnathan continued to restrain himself in his reaction, but couldn’t stifle laughter completely.

“What’s so funny, Johnathan?”

“She’s been bending your ear again about how I was gonna ‘love you and leave you’, hasn’t she?”

“It wasn’t like that; well, maybe it was a little, but mostly she was just making her usual visit.”

“Just the same, it had to be much on her mind.  Look at how fast she took off.  She surely doesn’t like being proven wrong.  She must have been embarrassed, too, after giving her approval yesterday.”

“Yes.  Ah…I thought maybe you’d be a bit mad seeing her now, after yesterday…”

“Oh, no.  I’ve since realized that it would be a waste of time trying to change her, or her way of thinking, about me or anything else; so I might as well just try to live with her little quirks.  Better to laugh about it than complain, I always say.”  Certainly a very idiosyncratic personality like Auntie Shrew’s wouldn’t be difficult for Johnathan to deal with, after having known Cyril Ages for so long.

“Yes.  Oh, it’ll take a while for her to accept you completely, but she will.”

“I guess she still has trouble dealing with the fact that she’s not the most important person in your life anymore.”

“Yes.  But I don’t.”  Madeline smiled warmly and embraced him, nuzzling his ear.  “I knew you’d come back today, Johnathan.  I never doubted you for a minute.”

As he held her, Johnathan was again reminded of how lucky he was, what a rare jewel Madeline was.  He determined right then, silently, that he’d do everything in his power to keep her from harm.  Since there was nothing he could do to make her live as long as himself, he’d do all he could to keep her at his side for as long as possible, so that she’d be able to grow old and pass on as peacefully as possible.

* * *

In the ensuing days and weeks, the two hardly spent a moment apart, as they learned more and more about each other, finding more and more to endear one to the other, never tiring of each other’s company. With mice and rats, even these advanced ones, there is little of the boredom factor so prevalent in the interpersonal relationships of humans. There is less a tendency to grow tired of the company of one friend or loved one, though there is still the occasional need for solitude.

The Brisbys very quickly settled into married life; and though the strongly passionate “honeymoon” stage was pretty much over after the first week, their love remained steady and undiminished and continued to show in nearly everything they said and did. They continued to live in Madeline’s orchard burrow; though both looked forward to moving into new lodgings, they were in no great hurry either.

Johnathan’s earlier private vow was already manifesting itself in unsubtle ways. He convinced Madeline that he be the one to do the greater part of the food-gathering and other outside activities. His main reasoning, which he expressed aloud to her, was that they had to be sure she and the babies she could be carrying any time now received the greatest protection possible. He felt, at first, a pang of guilt over this, that he was “keeping her down,” not letting her do all that she might want to do. Yet, for her part, Madeline seemed to readily accept it. She certainly enjoyed the pampering, how Johnathan doted on her, though it didn’t reach the point of his waiting on her hand and foot, or not letting her do anything for herself. Johnathan was also very careful not to make her feel as if he were keeping her prisoner in her own home.

They discussed moving, though they made no definite plans nor felt any great inclination to do so as yet. Together they explored possible locations that were known to either or both of them; but during this period, another matter was of greater concern to them, one that was resolved some six weeks after their marriage.

One day in midafternoon, Madeline announced that she was with child, which naturally was extremely pleasing and joyful news; and for Johnathan, even relieving. They’d been greatly concerned about her seeming inability to become pregnant these past weeks; but to Johnathan, it seemed to fit the pattern that had already been set with the Rats of NIMH, with their lower birthrate. Whatever the case, it triggered in Johnathan an even greater sense of protectiveness. Now, it was much closer to a waiting-on-hand-and-foot situation. During this period, Madeline would sometimes remark that Johnathan need not treat her as if she were helpless, but nonetheless did little to resist, again quite readily accepting the situation. Though he spent as much time as possible with her, he managed to find the time to visit the Rats again to share this latest bit of good news. Any great amount of travel for Madeline, of course, was out of the question, and so they agreed that moving would be best delayed until after she’d given birth. A regrettable situation, to be sure, especially on Johnathan’s part; it was another thing he was putting off, one which would have been much more easily resolved. This delay would mean they’d have to bring one or more infants along in their move, which could be a difficult, even nerve-wracking procedure.

Auntie Shrew continued making her regular almost-daily visits, though they were generally shorter these days.  She never said it straight out, but she seemed pleased about their impending new arrival, and she continued to offer her help in any way.

Finally, the day came, somewhat later than expected, especially for her. Johnathan returned to the den after a food-gathering trip to find Madeline already in labor. She managed to laugh about the state of near-panic he instantly fell into, but he quickly settled down and stayed at her side to assist, as planned. The moment arrived soon, and Madeline gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The circumstances of their birth had further fit the pattern established by the Rats’ new arrivals, as Johnathan had already anticipated from the longer-than-normal gestation period: not only in that it was a double birth, but they were born more fully developed as well—a detail that Madeline recognized as unusual, but not of great concern to her. Otherwise, they were entirely normal and healthy, and the new father was unable to hold back the tears at their children’s safe arrival into the world, and at Madeline’s coming through it as safely.

The two precious, damp bundles were dried off, and once it was certain they were breathing normally, were soon taking in their first milk. As they suckled, the new parents discussed names, and quickly settled upon Martin, who was born first, named after Madeline’s father; and Teresa, after her mother. Next time, Johnathan promised, they’d use names taken from his past loved ones; by that time, he hoped to have told Madeline enough to give any stories about his past a more solid foundation and lot more credibility, at least to himself.

Auntie Shrew made her regular visit, and though she regretted not having been there earlier, she was assured that everyone was doing just fine. She congratulated the Brisbys on their new arrivals; and for the first time, it seemed to Johnathan, she seemed to wholly accept him as a part of Madeline’s life, as if the fact that he was now a father legitimized him more.

Once again, Johnathan found the time to share the news with his old friends. Afterwards, though, he felt frustrated that they couldn’t all share in their good fortune together, and again decided to try telling all to Madeline. When he got home, though, he again backed down. Time and again, he’d debate with himself that one who was very accepting of circumstances as she was would have no trouble with the knowledge. But there was always that small element of doubt that prevented him.

One other important matter wasn’t put off much longer, though. When the twins were about four weeks old, they and all their parents’ belongings were bundled up and prepared for the trek to the new home they’d decided upon. It was in an area known to them both before they’d met: by the creek bank, quite a ways downstream from the mill, and just into the area where deeper forest began. It was an ideal day, coming at the end of July, with partly cloudy skies. In recent weeks, Madeline had made a few friends and acquaintances among the local mice, and she and Johnathan had managed to enlist the aid of two of them in helping them move. Again Johnathan had informed the Rats about their plans, the day before, and naturally they’d offered to help; but Johnathan had told them he felt he still wasn’t ready to reveal any connection with them to her, and so he’d regretfully declined.

The new parents had devised a harness, one for each of them, for carrying the children during the trip; and so, with their two friends carrying their other small bundles, off they went. Unbeknownst to them all, three of the Rats were overseeing the move, staying just out of sight but ready to lend aid or act as decoys if danger threatened.

The entire trip was made quickly but not too hurriedly, taking less than an hour, with one break to rest and eat, and allow the youngsters to nurse and get a little exercise. At one point Madeline remarked that she felt quite safe on this trip, almost as if someone were watching over them. Johnathan wondered if it weren’t true, and it didn’t take long to guess who the “watchers” might be, though he wouldn’t know for sure until his next visit to them.

Any such visits over the ensuing months would be fewer and farther between, as Johnathan and his family quickly settled into their new home. Their new home was, as planned, much more spacious than Madeline’s orchard den, situated underneath the roots of a giant oak close by the creek; and after an hour’s work of clearing out and tidying up, it proved to be perfect for their needs. They quickly fell in love with both their new home and the area though they knew that as long as they had very young children around, they’d have to be extra watchful to keep them from venturing too close to the water.

It was a near-idyllic life the new family led here in the following months; though the following winter, their first together, would have its difficulties. The following year two more children were born, and Johnathan was especially pleased that they were again a boy and girl, because it enabled him to use both of the names he’d hoped to use: Cynthia and Timothy, after his parents. He still hadn’t told Madeline the full details of his early life, though he had told her that he’d been separated from his parents while still quite young, and even went so far as to say he’d been captured by humans and then escaped later; and she didn’t press him for more details, seeming satisfied with that for the time being. Despite this, Johnathan knew he couldn’t leave it at that forever, and he continued to vow that he’d tell all in time.

He couldn’t know, of course, that in time she would learn all, but under very different circumstances. Nor could he know how much his life would again be closely intertwined with that of the Rats, as they began plans to remove themselves more thoroughly from the attentions of human civilization; nor of how other elements, as yet unforeseen, would so strongly affect his life.

But for now, he was content.