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So it Shall be Told, Generation Unto Generation

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You ever have one of those days so weird you think about discussing it online, and then you think, "Why bother? No one would believe it anyway." And you think about the shit people do believe, but you still know you're right, so instead of blogging you crack out the hard stuff and watch terrible movies with your friends?

Yeah.

--From Hail to the King, the blog of Shaun Mason. April 26, 2039. Unpublished.

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...but in the end, you know what it comes down to? If you can't say something nice and don't want anyone to know what's going on in your nasty little mind, keep your mouth shut. If you want to be reported on favorably, don't do bad things where reporters can see you. It's not rocket science.

And that's the last bit of attention this blog is giving to that particularly sordid scandal, until such time as the councilman might like to come forward for an interview. My virtual door is always open.

In more interesting news, which I say with an entirely-warranted lack of sarcasm: For those awaiting my brother's morning update, Shaun sends his sincerest regrets from the depths of an epic hangover. His explanation included the word "vacation", but he was mumbling from underneath the pillow he has on top of his head and I missed most of it. What I can say for sure is that he will be making his regularly-scheduled evening post. Not even whisky can keep him from sticks and dead things for a whole day, never fear.

--From Images May Disturb You, the blog of Georgia Mason. 09:14 A.M., April 27, 2039.

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Hey, audience, how's it hanging? I see my darling sister has her usual lack of respect for my dignity, but I'll grant her that if I don't want my hangovers reported on, I shouldn't live with another reporter. Or myself, technically, because since when have I ever had much respect for my dignity?

Let's just say yesterday was a good day, guys. And it's okay, whisky: I know you only hurt the ones you love. How about you stay here and think about what you've done while coffee and I go find ourselves some dead pals?

--From Hail to the King, the blog of Shaun Mason. 05:34 P.M., April 27, 2039.

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January 2040

There are a variety of reasons to skim back over our old blog archives, starting with reminding ourselves of exactly when we were doing what. Usually I only have to read one or two sentences to bring it all back. If my memory isn't jogged within a paragraph, I stop trying to figure out what was going on then from the actual post, because the information I want is probably in what we weren't talking about.

On the drive out to Maggie's place for our second-ever visit, I couldn't remember for the life of me what we'd posted during the first one. Shaun obligingly pulled out his laptop and began reading the relevant posts to me from the passenger seat. He didn't make it very far before getting distracted by both the ridiculousness of it all and the memory of Maggie's Scotch, but he read enough to remind me of the municipal scandal I'd been covering and how relieved I'd been to have something I could report on with my eyes closed, since I couldn't talk about what was actually going on.

That first visit had been back in April, a few months before we'd applied for the Ryman campaign job. Buffy had wanted to introduce us to her in person, and she'd waltzed us through the security rigmarole like it was old hat, which it probably was, other than the trouble my eyes gave the scanners. After all, Buffy's social life consists of me and Shaun--which doesn't say a lot for how often she gets out of the house--plus her roommate, her rotating cast of paramours, and Maggie. It's not at all unusual for her to just vanish to Weed for the weekend, and then video chat with us from there.

It made sense that she'd wanted all of us to meet: the three of us were her best friends. But socializing has never been my forte, and no matter how great Buffy's friend Maggie might be, she was also Magdalene Grace Garcia, and "befriending an heiress" has never been on my list of life goals, no matter how pleasant this one seemed when we chatted online. Shaun had practically had to drag me along.

The three days we'd spent visiting had gone well. Better than well. Maggie in person was warm and gracious and funny and managed to get under my guard in a way that made Shaun sit up and stare, although not disapprovingly. When we landed the job with Senator Ryman and Buffy said she wanted to bring Maggie on with After the End Times, we didn't think twice before agreeing.

Maggie's general awesomeness hadn't kept me from feeling off balance in her home. It was huge. It was full of hiding places and windows and tiny creatures underfoot. The teacup bulldogs had been one thing; I wasn't used to being around dogs, but Maggie's pack of them was affectionate and utterly ridiculous, and while I didn't learn to navigate through the sea of warm, fuzzy bodies with the grace that Maggie and Buffy had, I managed not to step on them or laugh too hard at Shaun when he wound up sprawled on the floor letting a bunch of them gnaw at his arms.

Then there were the mice.

We'd had to sign NDAs before visiting, which I hadn't much liked but could understand. A family like the Garcias would be justifiably paranoid about pharmaceutical trade secrets. So imagine our surprise when we arrived and came face to face with the actual reason for the secrecy: Maggie didn't want us doing some kind of exposé on the colony of sapient mice living in her home.

Everyone knows who the Garcias are. I didn't find out until I went looking later that hardly anyone knows anything about Maggie's mother, who it turns out is excellent at playing to people's expectations and coming across like she's never been anything other than her wealthy husband's wife. According to Maggie, her mom comes from a family that's spent generations dealing with critters a lot weirder than zombies. When the Rising came, they basically took out the same guns they would've used on any other day and set out to save as many folks as possible. My later investigations turned up dozens of stories of Maggie's relatives being heroic, but it took enough digging that I suspected those stories had been professionally scrubbed from the well-traveled parts of the internet.

Maggie mostly won't talk about what her relatives do now. She hasn't followed the family trade, at least not exactly; instead, she does her part by doing documentation and incident tracking regarding non-zombie things that go bump in the night, and by caring for the mice that have lived with her family basically forever.

During that first visit she told us the bare minimum she could get away with, and by sheer force of will she made things as normal as possible under conditions that involved crashing at a gigantic house inhabited by intelligent creatures that flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about the world. We spent those three days letting Maggie show us her favorite movies, eating the kind of obscenely good food that the ludicrously wealthy can have on hand, and trying not to jump out of our skin every time the Aeslin mice appeared in their brightly-colored scraps of clothing, whether it was to celebrate an esoteric religious rite or to get in on some popcorn action. They were deeply curious, scrupulously polite, and obsessed with cake.

They'd been fascinated by my eyes, which came to their attention when they noticed that, unlike everyone else, I didn't turn lights on when I went into darkened rooms. Unfortunately for my heart, they made that discovery because two of them were in the bathroom I went into in the middle of the night, when the minuscule sliver of moonlight coming in through the seriously disconcerting window offered me more than enough to see by.

I don't faze easily, but an unexpected, high-pitched voice earnestly directing me to the light switch at 3 AM in what I'd thought was an empty room had made me yelp loudly enough that Shaun was awake and at the door by the time I'd managed to persuade the mice to vacate the premises.

All in all, it had been the most surreal few days of my life. Shaun and I spent the next few weeks staring at each other and mouthing "did that really happen?" an awful lot. I was almost grateful for the NDAs--as it was, I kept trying to think of how I could possibly frame the story and coming up blank.

----------

This second visit was different. We were halfway through our very brief window of preparation time before hitting the road with Peter Ryman's election campaign. I hadn't slept more than five hours a night since we'd gotten the nod, and the only reason Shaun was doing slightly better on that front was that he just plain doesn't hold up as well as I do with sleep dep and I'd been packing him off to bed on nights before he was going out to do field work. Heading up to Maggie's had been the last thing on either of our minds.

Buffy had laid out a compelling case for going to Weed. My work is eminently portable, and the visit would let Shaun research a bonus installment in his series of reports comparing the qualifications, backgrounds, and weapons choices of people who went into different subsets of the security industry. Maggie's security ninjas weren't quite as tempting as, say, airline security--Shaun had been dreaming about getting an interview with an airline higher-up for months, and the Ryman campaign would probably give him the clout to land one when we got home--but they were more than enough to sway him.

Buffy herself had two reasons for going. First, having just hired Maggie for our Fictional division, with our full blessing, she was eager to have a chance to coordinate in person before we headed out. Second, she insisted there was a techie reason that she wanted us to see.

It all sounded straightforward. I felt like I'd even had enough time since our first visit to get used to the idea of the mice, as long as I didn't think about them too hard. I certainly had enough on my mind now that it seemed like I could probably manage the cognitive dissonance without too much difficulty.

It was a nice theory. It didn't survive past the front door, where Maggie met us with an uncharacteristically awkward look on her face.

"Hey, guys," she said, stepping back to let us in. "I need to warn you that the mice are out."

"Okay," I said cautiously. We already knew from our first visit that we should watch what we said when Aeslin mice were around. It didn't explain her expression.

"I--" She sighed, rubbing her eyes. "I'm sorry, Georgia. This is weird even for them."

That was worrying. "What is, Maggie?"

Whatever she was going to say, she didn't have time. The mice, clearly not inclined to wait for the new arrivals--us--to get all the way inside, appeared in the doorway in a furry, brilliantly-adorned swarm.

"HAIL!" they sang out. "HAIL THE SEER-IN-DARKNESS AND HER CONSORT!"

I stopped breathing. That was...all kinds of things. All kinds of bad things.

There was one small mercy: Buffy and Maggie didn't seem to notice I'd frozen in my tracks, because Shaun guffawed behind me and started laughing so hard he slumped against the wall for support. I turned to stare at him. If he was playing it up to cover for my lapse, even I couldn't tell. He slid down the wall to sit on the floor, which incited several of the mice to approach him with what I could only interpret as looks of concern. Shaun flailed a hand at them in a way that they probably didn't realize meant "I'm okay", which didn't help at all. Some of them looked over at Maggie as if for guidance.

Since it seemed evident that he wasn't going to calm down any time soon, I faced Maggie too. "'Consort'," I said. "That's, uh...interesting."

She looked deeply apologetic, although Shaun's hysterics weren't helping her contrition. "I'm sorry. Once they get ideas in their heads..."

"They're unshakable, I know. You've said."

Shaun regained the power of speech long enough to say, "I don't know, George. At least they can see who's the boss in this relationship."

"The person who's going to kick your ass?"

"Yes," he said, earnest except for the glint in his eyes. "Yeah, exactly." And he cracked up again, making "go on without me" gestures.

Buffy and Maggie traded looks, and when I nodded, the three of us headed into the house, leaving Shaun chortling helplessly in the hallway, surrounded by worried Aeslin mice.

----------

There was one pleasant side effect of the whole (not-)misunderstanding: Maggie, when Buffy confirmed that Shaun and I sincerely didn't mind sharing a room, gave us the option of doing so. This seemed to placate the mice, who remembered as clearly as we did that during our first and until now only visit we'd been in rooms across the hall from each other, and who apparently disapproved of that arrangement.

It occurred to me to wonder whether they'd somehow noticed that Shaun and I had spent both of those nights sleeping with our ear cuffs on so we could hear each other breathing. We sleep separately most of the time, and practically speaking, two closed doors and a hallway between us isn't much more than the single door between our rooms, but at home we're also at home. It doesn't take a lot for me to be able to sleep well, but "Shaun and/or my own bed" is a bare minimum.

Maggie wore a long-suffering look as she led us up the stairs, explaining as we walked that the mice had surprisingly strong feelings on the subject of human interpersonal relations. "They won't go into your room," she hastened to add. "They're not so big on giving me privacy, but I'm--" She stopped, as if not sure what words she wanted. "I'm theirs. They understand that guests have different needs."

Halfway through her telling us that we could, if we wanted, arrange to have another bed or something brought in, she opened the door to the room in question. Shaun interrupted her with a low whistle at the sight of the bed, which was, if not the largest bed I'd ever seen in my life, certainly the largest I'd ever been expected to sleep in.

"Damn, Maggie," he said. "You could host an orgy in that thing. Two orgies." He went in and dropped our suitcase--one of five that had made the trip, but the only one that held our personal effects--on the floor. "I'm pretty sure I can keep from getting all up in George's personal space."

"And you're sure you don't mind--"

"It's fine, really," I told her. "We shared a bedroom for half our lives."

That took her aback. "Why?"

"The more we could take care of each other, the less our parents had to bother," Shaun said cheerfully. "Like if one of us had a nightmare or something."

"In practice, that means Shaun used to try to make me pretend to believe there were monsters under my bed so he could hunt them," I added.

Maggie gave us a wry look. "Sometimes there are. It's just a lot rarer since the Rising. Most of the city-dwelling species of cryptids withdrew completely from human turf when we started zombifying."

Shaun wheeled around, a wild light dawning in his eyes. "George."

"Yeah?"

"Some of those cryptid-thingies are mammals. Like the mice."

"Yes, and...?"

In a reverent, hushed tone most people would reserve for church, he said, "Zombie Sasquatch."

"That just occurred to you now? What kind of Irwin are you?"

"The kind that got fixated on 'dragons are real'!" A dreamy expression crossed his face. "Zombie. Sasquatch," he repeated. "Fuck. Wow." Apparently sufficient awe could erode his ability to form sentences.

Buffy, who was across the hall from us this time, poked her head in. "Are you guys still up here? The servers won't assemble themselves."

"Like you're going to let us help?" I asked, but we followed her downstairs.

We'd brought what Buffy regarded as the bare minimum of hardware we'd need to work on the road, which meant approximately twice as much as just about anyone else would consider reasonable. Given that she probably could have assembled at least four fully functional systems from what we had with us, I couldn't imagine what kind of "techie thing" she was so adamant about us seeing in person.

The mystery was solved when Maggie threw open a door adjacent to the living room, pointed at the closet full of rack-mount servers and RAID arrays and other things I couldn't look at too closely for fear of hyperventilating over the cost, and said, "Have fun!"

In lieu of freaking out over our finances, I raised an eyebrow. "Dedicated offsite backup in a Garcia Pharmaceuticals-secured location?"

"You can never have too many backups, Georgia," Buffy said absently, already lost in assessing the situation.

"Did you sign off on this?" I asked Shaun. It was rhetorical. Neither of us would ever in a million years authorize an expenditure that size without both of us agonizing over it for a week. For that matter, neither of us could release that much of our site capital without the other's approval--assuming we could purchase what we were looking at with all of our savings.

Maggie had made herself comfortable on a nearby couch and was covered in tiny bulldogs. "No discussion, guys. I felt like it. Pretend I bought the hardware as a present for Buffy if it makes you happy." Shaun mimicked my raised brow. "But your names are all on it," she added. "It's After the End Times property, free and clear." The smile she gave us was more than a little rueful. "At this point, call it a 'please don't hate me' token for the fact that you're now recorded as a couple in the epic histories of the Aeslin mice. You'll be remembered for generations."

"Lovely," I said, flopping into an armchair and opening my laptop.

"It's like she's ashamed of me or something," Shaun complained.

I pointed to the half of the couch not occupied by Maggie or bulldogs. "Work."

He snapped me a military-grade salute. "Yes, my lady."

"And thanks, Maggie."

She smiled again. "I said no discussion, boss."

I kept my head down when a rousing cheer went up in the kitchen, where the mice were apparently congregating. Keeping our heads down seemed like an excellent idea just then.

----------

By the time Buffy had everything up and running to her satisfaction, the only small things underfoot were the dogs. "The mice go off and do their own thing," Maggie said. "Sometimes I only see them when they want me to get stuff out of the fridge."

"How the hell do you manage those parties of yours?" I asked.

"I consult the priests about their schedule in advance. It's basically impossible to find a day when they're not celebrating something, but they can always tell me if the rituals will involve leaving the attic. And then I make sure to take their food up to them."

"So you don't tell most people about the mice, but you told us?" I said.

"Well, everyone who comes in here signs NDAs, same as you guys. But I usually work pretty hard to keep the Aeslin out of sight."

"Why us, then?" Shaun had migrated to the floor, where he'd acquired an entourage of bulldogs to rival Maggie's. One dog was enthusiastically worrying at his combat boot, which was fine when it was attacking the steel toes, but it kept returning to the laces. Shaun didn't seem to care; it seemed likely he'd already decided the laces were an acceptable write-off.

Maggie laughed. "Because if there's one person I trust to keep her mouth shut when she says she will, it's your sister. And Buffy swore Georgia could keep your mouth shut."

Unfazed, Shaun nodded. "See, George? That's why you get the fancy title and I get to be the consort."

"Oh, God, give it a rest." I ran a hand through my hair. "Seriously, Shaun. Not cool."

"Not cool," he agreed. "But hilarious. And they're mice. Don't let it get to you." He shut his laptop with a clack. "So what about you, Buffster? How'd you get into the exclusive club?"

Buffy, who was sprawled on her back with her laptop balanced on her hips while she typed, didn't look away from her screen. "Special dispensation from the priestess."

"What does that even mean?" he asked. Buffy didn't reply, either distracted by her poetry or judiciously ignoring the question.

----------

We didn't see the mice again for the rest of the day, which didn't keep Shaun from very loudly and formally--and firmly--escorting me to bed at three in the morning. Buffy and Maggie were still wide awake, which was disconcerting. Usually Shaun and I are the most nocturnal people in any given situation.

"You are having way too much fun with this," I said when we were safely tucked into the obscenely huge bed.

"And you have this fucked-up idea that there's such a thing as 'too much fun'," he replied. "Come here."

"Come where?"

He answered by tossing the blanket up over our heads, cocooning us in darkness so complete I couldn't see a thing. "Where I can kiss you goodnight."

"If anyone or anything is watching this room, a blanket isn't going to fool them," I said.

"I know. But it's fun."

"Stop saying that." I kissed him preemptively, which both shut him up and made him squirm. I'd tease him for being so stereotypically male about abandoning other thoughts in favor of making out, but since I'm equally vulnerable, it would be breathtaking hypocrisy--not to mention counterproductive to tease him for behavior I love.

Shaun was more serious after we reluctantly stopped. We've learned to err on the side of caution, as well as always making sure to discuss logistics before clothes start coming off; the probable consequences of being found out are severe enough that we simply don't ever let ourselves get too caught up in the moment unless we're home and sure we're alone in the house. Avoiding spontaneous sex is a no-brainer, but accidentally getting ourselves too turned on and then not being in a position to do much about it? Been there, done that, spent the next day with both of us underslept and irritable. Not fun.

"I don't see how this can actually go wrong," he murmured, barely audible even with his lips against my ear.

"And yet you accuse me of having no imagination."

"Buffy and Maggie think the mice have the wrong idea, so as long as we don't do anything incriminating, why would they change their minds?"

"Unless I'm right and Buffy already knows," I replied.

He sighed into my hair. "If she knows, she knows. If she's suspicious, I can't see freaky sentient mice being the thing that tips her over the edge."

"What're we going to do if she ever asks us?"

Shaun had the sense to not say "lie". The fact that we're more than siblings may be the only thing in the world I'm willing to lie about if I have to, but it's always been abstract, and the idea of lying to a friend horrifies me. I just haven't managed to think of a positive alternative.

"We'll deal with it," he said.

----------

When we came downstairs not long after dawn, neither of us were particularly coherent yet. Maggie and Buffy were both in the kitchen, looking slightly more conscious; I suspected they simply hadn't been to bed and would be out cold by noon. Not our business, since the Fictional section of the site was coming together as quickly as the Factual and Action News divisions. Buffy can keep pace with us, which is more than most people can say, so she can also keep whatever hours she pleases.

Despite our varying states of grogginess, the kitchen was alive with chatter and activity. Maggie was in the process of fishing a variety of cheeses out of the fridge and handing them over to the mice, who were in full regalia but seemed to have put any rituals on hold while having breakfast. I claimed a stool at the breakfast counter and stared blankly at the pastries that were laid out, trying to calculate the odds that the mice had touched them and also whether I cared. Ordinarily I would've been thinking that they were a bit on the sweet side for so early in the day, but the un-iced layer cake that was clearly intended for the Aeslin made chocolate danishes seem downright healthy by comparison.

I was just barely awake enough to be aggravated by how awake I wasn't. Having landed our dream job was amazing and exciting, but for the first half hour of approximate consciousness each day I couldn't help feeling nostalgic for those wonderful nights when I'd still been routinely getting a luxurious six hours of sleep.

Oh, well. Three weeks of questionable sleep down, only another ten or eleven months to go. I could still hope we'd get more rest on the road.

The mice were studying me intently, so I roused myself enough to ask, "What are you celebrating today?" They weren't the best conversationalists, in my opinion--I don't have much use for religious fervor in anyone, human or rodent--but it seemed only courteous, and any answer would be more interesting than a typical North American holiday like "Christmas".

The nearest mouse sketched an unmistakable bow in my direction. "Hail, Seer!" it announced. Shaun appeared beside me, clutching a mug of pitch-black coffee. "Hail, Bearer of a Multitude of Guns, Consort of the Seer-in-Darkness!"

"Hail," Shaun said, with a deadpan I couldn't help admiring, at least until he set the mug down and tossed his arms around me, resting his chin on top of my head.

"Off," I said, without much heat. It was nice to have him leaning against me, but it also made my skin prickle in alarm.

"I don't want them to think I'm inadequately affectionate," he protested, nuzzling my hair in what I suspected was an effort to hide that he was laughing, as if Buffy and Maggie couldn't tell. Buffy was gazing out the window, but there was no chance she wasn't paying attention, and Maggie was watching with apparent amusement. "What if they decide I'm not treating you right? They've already passed judgment on our sleeping arrangements!"

"Today is the second day of the celebration of 'How Many Knives Are You Wearing, Woman?!'," the mouse said piously, ignoring Shaun's commentary in favor of answering my question--and also, I couldn't help noticing, failing to confirm or deny his assessment of the situation. "It will be followed on the morrow with the celebration of 'Why Don't You Come Over Here and Try To Find Out?'"

"I like this religion." Shaun let go of me and reclaimed his coffee. "It has its priorities straight. I bet they always know where their exits are."

"Hail the exits!" came the unasked-for response.

"You should see how fast they can vacate a room," Maggie chimed in. "Or invade one. That gets scary if you're not expecting it."

"Shaun, if you convert to the mouse religion I'm disowning you," I said. "Fair warning."

"They're probably cuddlier than you," he replied.

"Undoubtedly."

Three mice chorused, "Hail the cuddliness!"

"I'm not sure if I'm more disturbed by the talking or the flawless unison," Buffy said, blowing steam off her tea to watch it drift against the foggy window. "The talking is just strange. The unison is kinda creepy."

I slid my sunglasses off, closing my eyes as tightly as I could so I could rub them. "The mice are eating cake and cheese for breakfast, so no one gets to look at me funny for having Coke with mine."

"Deal," Shaun said. I put my sunglasses back on in time to see him fish a can of soda out of his pocket. "I figured you'd need that."

"I'll never understand how you can be so thoughtful and yet have so much fun at my expense."

"I'm a creature of contradictions."

"Isn't that the truth."

"Hail the contradictions!" said every mouse that didn't have its mouth full.

"...and we're done talking now," I told him. Buffy was right; the perfect unison made it that much worse.

----------

A working trip is a working trip, no matter how bizarre the circumstances. If we'd been under less time pressure--Senator Ryman's campaign was revving up in less than three weeks--I could have thrown Shaun out of the house to go find something dead to distract him from pestering me, but we couldn't spare the time.

I had plenty to do, between being in charge of most of the administrative work for After the End Times, staying on top of my regular articles and blog posts, doing intensive research on everyone I could possibly think of who might figure into the presidential race, and giving my four remaining beta Newsies meticulous critiques on their work. I'd started with seven, giving them an initial two-week "probationary period" that we all knew was an audition. I'd been up front with all of them about the fact that there were four actual positions in the budget, and also that one of those positions was essentially filled already. If any of the six in active competition had thought that was only because Mahir Gowda was already my friend, they'd been disabused of that notion by two days in. Anyone too dim to recognize how good his work is wouldn't be someone who'd make it anywhere near that far in my hiring process.

Shaun was just as busy, which might surprise anyone who doesn't think about an Irwin's job beyond the obvious video results. He had his own content to generate, and his blog posts usually take longer to put together than mine, since for most of them he has to gear up and go find himself some trouble. He'd sacrificed spontaneity for time in the name of making this trip, stockpiling hours of footage the previous week and turning it into a series. He also had his own staff to train, and I imagine it was a shock to his betas' systems to discover that Shaun Mason, dedicated goofball showoff, has standards as exacting as mine.

Since most of that work required computer time, same as mine, it meant I couldn't banish him when he did things like sit lengthwise on the couch we were sharing and tuck his toes under my thigh. He was very, very careful to play everything as a wink-and-nod to the mice's sensibilities, and equally careful not to quite cross the line into making me actually angry at him. When Buffy eyed us, he lifted one hand off his keyboard and waggled his fingers. "Bad circulation. I'm keeping my extremities warm."

"It is not cold in here," I informed him. "And I'm sure Maggie has a blanket if you need one. Or a spare bulldog that'd be willing to sleep on your feet."

"The mice will judge you," he said portentously. "Do you want them to cast judgment on you? I bet having a consort means you have responsibilities."

"If you don't watch it, the next big Aeslin festival is going to be a remembrance of the day the Seer-in-Darkness buried her consort in a shallow grave."

"You have no sense of humor, George."

"Can't you find any actual news to report?"

He grinned, entirely unrepentant. "In Weed? Seriously?"

I grabbed the closest thing to hand--an aptly-named throw pillow--and flung it at his head. Shaun's grin didn't waver as he batted it away. "A non-aerodynamic squishy object is the best you can do? You're way off your game."

"I'm using everything else for the work you're not letting me do, and if I throw any of it at you, you might not give it back."

Two passing mice, clearly aiming for the kitchen, paused and stood to their full height to bow politely at us. "Look, George," Shaun said, giving them a deep nod. "That is the face of judgment."

I glanced at the mice, who as far as I could tell seemed perfectly approving. Then again, I was sitting in physical contact with my brother, who was clearly happy as a clam. I looked at Shaun, and back at the mice, and finally at Maggie, who was curled up with a lap full of tiny dogs. Buffy had long since fallen asleep in an armchair.

"Maggie?" I said. She lifted her head, flipping her braid back, and waited for me to continue. "It's really lovely of you to have us, I swear. But I think no more working visits where I can't toss Shaun outside on his ear."

Maggie perked up, and the mice did the same. "But you'll come back?" she asked.

Shaun gave me a "pleeeeease" face. Dear God. "Yeah, we'll come back."

The two Aeslin mice positively beamed. "HAIL YOUR RETURN!" they cheered. With a swish of their tails, they continued on their way.