Most nights, Octavius heard Jedediah's voice long before he caught sight of the man. Jedediah talked constantly, and generally didn't appear to be listening to half of what he said. Night after night for fifty years Octavius had listened to a prattling cowboy driving his fellow citizens on to a variety of activities; urging them to continue work on the perpetually half-finished railroad, cajoling them into games of chance down at the saloon, or just singing, off-tune and unconcerned, long rambling songs about horses and cattle and vast empty plains, with the occasional song about young women drowning mixed in for variety.
In the past, the sound of Jedediah's aimless babble had irritated Octavius, and had only strengthened his conviction that the drawling buffoons in the neighboring display were crying out for the order and discipline of Roman rule. Lately, though, the chatter had begun to grow familiar, and more often than not, was addressed to Octavius himself rather than the world at large.
Tonight, before Octavius had even fully gained his bearings upon waking up, Jedediah's voice had echoed out into the vast room. "Hey, 'Tavius! You hyper-organized spear-pushers awake over there?"
"Of course we are," Octavius called back, affronted. His men had been awake less than a minute and were already forming into ranks out in the forum. Octavius took some time to confer with his lieutenants, giving them instructions for the night's work; it took far more directed effort to keep his people occupied these days. He felt a bit guilty when he found himself thinking back fondly on the rivalry with their neighbors, but it had certainly provided a clear purpose for any given evening. Without the standard fallback activities of drilling for defense against an attack, or planning ever more elaborate attacks of their own, Octavius needed to find new outlets for his soldiers' energies. Perhaps he should consult with Larry and see if there were any delicate jobs around the museum that could use the immaculate touch of Roman craftsmanship...
Octavius heard the thin scrabbling sound coming from behind him just in time to turn and see Jedediah heaving himself up over the edge. He sensed several of his lieutenants tensing as the outsider approached, and heard the scraping of numerous boots as the ranks of soldiers picked up the cue from their seniors.
"Hold," Octavius said in his best I'm the general, I know what's going on here tone. The tension didn't evaporate entirely, but it certainly eased. Being in charge was pretty great sometimes.
Jedediah appeared not to have noticed the posturing. Octavius knew better by now than to fall for this feigned unawareness, but his men didn't, and they bristled as Jedediah strode up and clapped Octavius on the back. "Hey, buddy," he said, smiling around at the circle, "Hey, guys, how's the standing in lines and holding spears? Better than last night?"
"Excuse me for just one moment," Octavius stepped in before anyone could reply with words or weapons, both equally likely responses at this juncture. Simply because he was growing used to Jedediah's odd manner didn't mean anyone else was quite prepared to handle such blatant mockery after fifty years of hostility. "Jedediah," Octavius said quietly, drawing the chuckling cowboy aside, "I've asked you not to bait the men. They all know we're not to fight anymore, but you must understand how it rankles to have you come onto our land and poke fun at our way of life."
"Right, right. Sorry," Jedediah said, sounding genuinely penitent. Octavius looked at him suspiciously, but the man appeared to be sincere. "What? I get it! I remember when you came through town with me and the miners got all shifty. It's hard for people to adjust. Plus, we haven't actually got any mines, so they don't have a whole lot to keep them busy apart from, you know, hating you guys."
Octavius grimaced; the memory of his most recent visit to Jedediah's territory, even with the ipso facto armistice effected by their friendship, was hardly a pleasant one. The miners' response had been the least of it; they'd stopped at the trading post so Jedediah could take care of some vital business Octavius had not understood in the least, and the sight of the stockades had unnerved him terribly. At the time he'd tried to hide his reaction from Jedediah, but something must have showed on his face at the recollection.
Jedediah stepped closer and said, voice low, "Hey, did I ever say I was sorry about that whole throwing-you-in-the-stockade deal?"
"No," Octavius said, doing his best to sound unconcerned. "And you have no reason to apologize; a leader must protect his people from threat of invasion. I'd have done the same to you had you been unwise enough to venture into my territory."
Jedediah looked around the forum, intrigued. "You guys have stockades?"
"Er, no. I suppose I would have had you thrown to the lions."
"Lions!" Few people would sound that excited at the prospect of being eaten alive by a large, blood-thirsty feline. "You guys have lions?"
"Well," Octavius was forced to admit, "Lion. She's not particularly mean either. And she doesn't actually like to chase people. She's much happier to sit and have her ears scratched. It's rather embarrassing, really."
Jedediah's eyes were wide. "Can I see her?"
Octavius sighed. Then he realized his lieutenants were all pretending not to be eavesdropping on his conversation. He straightened up and turned on them, trying to salvage what little air of authority he could. "You have your orders," he told them. As they marched off to gather their troops, he turned back to Jedediah. "We'll visit the lion another time. I assume there was some reason you came rushing over here in such haste tonight."
Jedediah's expression shifted from abject disappointment back to wide-eyed glee in an instant. "Oh man!" He caught Octavius by the arm and wrenched him around, pulling him toward the edge. "You're gonna love this." There wasn't much hope of maintaining his dignity while being steered around like a child, so Octavius focused instead on not tripping over any small rocks or toppling over the edge when Jedediah drew to an abrupt halt. "Look!" Jedediah crowed, finally releasing Octavius' captive limb so he could gesture properly with both of his. Octavius peered down over the edge, not entirely sure what he would be seeing, though he did have an inkling of what might drive Jedediah into such a frenzy.
Two weeks before, in an ill-fated incident involving a ramp, a water feature in the Hall of African Mammals, and an unexpected rhinoceros, their prized vehicle had met an unfortunate end. Larry had been less sympathetic about the destruction of this vehicle than their first, which admittedly had been lost in pursuit of a far nobler goal. Though Larry had promised to provide them with a new vehicle, it had so far not been forthcoming. Their job keeping the dinosaur occupied had been reassigned to Attila the Hun and his comrades after an attempt to keep ahead of the Tyrannosaur in a horse drawn chariot had failed rather spectacularly.
Jedediah had taken the loss quite hard, and though they had made forays out into the wider room and even into the hallways on horseback and, on one memorable occasion, in a covered wagon, no form of conveyance native to either of their worlds could afford them the same power to roam as far and wide as they pleased in the short time they were granted for their own purposes. The limitations of life in the museum were more than worth it, of course; eternal life naturally came with a cost. But the sense of confinement had only grown now that they knew what lay beyond the narrow borders of their small worlds.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" Jedediah was looking at him expectantly. From this high up, all Octavius could discern was a green, boxy shape on the floor below, but the mere physical appearance of whatever car Larry had seen fit to gift them was immaterial. What the car stood for, now...
"She is," Octavius answered, finding himself smiling widely over at the cowboy. Apparently Jedediah's excitement was catching.
"Heck, wait 'til you see her up close," Jedediah said, slapping Octavius on the shoulder and heading for the rope. They descended quickly, practiced hands by now at the controlled plummet from the world they knew into the great unknown.
Standing beside the car, Octavius was better able to evaluate Jedediah's judgment. Though larger than their most recent model, this vehicle was still more reasonably sized than the beast they had driven out in the snow beyond the museum walls. Dark green and rather box-shaped, it looked like a sturdy mode of transport.
"Larry left a note," Jedediah was saying as he led Octavius around to the rear compartment, where there was indeed an enormous sheet of paper affixed to the vehicle. Octavius scanned the missive while Jedediah provided running commentary. "He says it's called a Jeep, which sounds like a pretty stupid name to me. I was thinking we should call her Mabel. Or maybe Judith."
Octavius looked at Jedediah, steeling himself as though for battle. "I believe it's my turn to choose a name. The late, lamented Abigail could attest to that."
Jedediah eyed him thoughtfully, likely weighing the benefits of giving in and getting on with the evening against the sheer fun of arguing. Uncharacteristically, the former won out, as evidenced by Jedediah's short nod. Octavius found this deeply suspicious, but he was quickly distracted by the prospect of actually getting his way with the cowboy for a change. He took a turn around the car, considering her form and function, assessing her strength and character.
"Well, come on," Jedediah urged after waiting calmly for a full thirty seconds, "Pick a doggone name already. We've got places to go, things to do! I'm not getting any younger over here!"
"You're not getting any older either," Octavius responded automatically, most of his cognitive processes still involved in identifying the perfect name. He reached out a hand to trail along the slick plastic of her hood, the dark glossy green gleaming in the light. "Meliora," he said finally, casting Jedediah a look that dared him to object.
Jedediah narrowed his eyes, but offered no formal complaint. "Fine," he said, beginning to tug ineffectually at the giant note still marring Meliora's appearance, "but I'm calling her Mel."
"An acceptable compromise," Octavius agreed graciously, stepping up beside Jedediah to lend assistance. The tape Larry had used to attach the paper to the car held fast. Octavius drew his sword and, taking care not to damage Mel's surface, slit the paper from the tape on both sides. Jedediah pulled the paper away and dragged it over to lean against the wall, and then together they attempted to pull the tape away from the car's side panel. When they finally gave up, sore and panting and nowhere near rid of the adhesive menace, Octavius carefully trimmed away what he could with his blade, and they decided to leave the rest alone until they could make Larry take care of it.
"It's his fault that stuff's on there anyway," Jedediah reasoned, taking a sip from his canteen before replacing the cap and tossing it over to Octavius. Refreshed and still energized from the struggle, they clambered into the car. Only after he had settled down into the passenger seat and tossed his helmet and sword and the canteen into the spacious rear seat of the car did it occur to Octavius that he had missed his opportunity to insist on driving. He'd only wrestled away driving privileges from Jedediah on one occasion - not during the rhinoceros incident, thank you very much - but he had to admit he hadn't enjoyed the experience in the same profound way it seemed Jedediah did. Perhaps it was just as well this way; Jedediah already appeared to be bonding with the new car, humming softly to himself as he examined the controls.
"And where are we headed this evening?" Octavius asked, feeling like he had interrupted an intimate conversation when Jedediah looked up distractedly, a bit of a flush showing high on his cheeks.
"Oh," Jedediah said, and if anything his face grew redder. He looked away, shrugging his shoulders stiffly. "Hadn't given it much thought. Probably just take her around nearby, run her down a couple hallways and see what she can do."
Translation: race down the hallways at ridiculous speeds and hope to trip Larry coming around one of the corners. Octavius grinned widely. "Then what are we waiting for?" Jedediah glanced over at him, sharing his smile. "Onward!"
Ten minutes later, after startling several of the bronze statues in the adjacent hallway and reaching some inadvisable speeds near the stairway, Octavius looked out his window and found that they were entering a section of the museum he didn't recognize. The hall grew darker as they proceeded toward what looked like a towering door. "Jedediah - "
"I told you, call me Jed," came the familiar reply.
"Jed," Octavius tried again, speaking carefully, unable to shake the sense of disrespect at so foreshortening a proud man's name, even at the insistence of the man himself. "Jed, are you quite certain you know where we are?"
"No need to fret," Jedediah said, waving a hand at Octavius to ward off any further fretting he might be tempted to do. "You'll like this, I know it." Octavius settled back, trying very hard to feel reassured as they headed deeper into the darkening halls. He could only faintly make out the walls in the faint, silvery light by the time Jedediah finally drew to a halt.
"Now will you - " Octavius began, but Jedediah cut him off.
"Would you just get out of the car already?"
Octavius was halfway out the door when the hindmost part of his brain sounded a faint alarm, and quiet ding ding ding warning him that perhaps he hadn't examined this man's motivations quite closely enough. His brain screamed at his body to seize up and lunge for his sword - why had he been foolish enough to remove his weapon? How had he been drawn in so completely by charm and apparent friendliness? - but his body refused, and Octavius found himself tensed and breathing hard in the dimly lit hall.
"Look up," Jedediah said, his voice quite close by, and even as Octavius' brain instructed him to lash out, to protect himself at any cost, his head tilted back and he saw...
"Stars." It took a long moment for Octavius to realize that he had spoken the word aloud. He knew what stars were, of course, had a precise, inexplicable cultural memory of the phenomenon, but of course he had never actually seen the night sky. The only time he had properly been outside under the sky had been on a clouded, snowy night, and he'd been far too wrapped up in other concerns at the time to even properly lament the missed opportunity. "Thank you," Octavius said, settling back against the car door and letting the images on the vast, vaulted ceiling fill his entire field of view.
"You're welcome," he heard Jed answer from still closer, and then he felt Jed's shoulder brush his as he leaned up against the car too. "It ain't fair, only ever being alive at night but never getting to see stars."
Octavius could dimly recall hearing Jed sing a song, once, something about stars that might have been a light and airy tune in anyone else's mouth, but in Jed's it had been a song of longing, of disappointment.
"Thank you," Octavius said again, and when he felt Jed shift beside him, a sure sign that the man was about to start talking again for lack of a better occupation, he slid his hand up and circled his fingers around Jed's wrist. Jed stilled at his touch, and Octavius turned to slide his other hand up to Jed's neck, steadying his jaw. It seemed that Octavius hadn't been listening to half of what Jed said either, but he was listening now.