Alex Reynard

The Library

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Junella ran her paw along her dome. The old familiar grooves were back, smooth and waxy as they should be, but also a new addition. Her scarf was still her stripe-and-mane-in-one, but she'd let herself grow a few stylish shards that poked slightly to the right like a tuft of hair. She didn't know how her younger self had been able to stand combing all that cotton candy every damn morning, but just a bit was nice.

The others took turns all seeing how much they could squeeze her. They chattered a million miles a minute, saying how glad they were to see her, how they liked her new look, etc. Junella was still enough of a stone cold badass to flinch a bit at so much open affection, but she was deeply appreciative of it too. Glad for friends who knew that sometimes she needed a hug no matter how much she squirmed. More than just the taunting memories of her prison room, she realized now, in the return of what had been absent, that the loneliness had been driving her mad as well.

Toby stood a few feet away and watched his friends be happy. The lamps he'd made for their campsite cast a yellow glow that was fittingly warm. Toby was pleased to see them like this.

And yet, there was a hollowness in his own heart. He was happy for them. But when he searched inside himself, the honest confession was that he couldn't share in it.

He had been feeling like this for quite a while.

He could project surface happiness, and even feel it a little. But it was a paper mask over a deep well. This was the real reason he'd hurried away from Zinc, then Piffle, rather than stay around for hugs and happiness. He scuttled away to lose himself in the next task, figuring that surely he was just preoccupied. Surely, once all three were rescued, the stony grip on his heart would relent and he'd be allowed to feel joy again. Or at least relief.

Instead, looking at his four companions huddling close and smiling bright, Toby felt almost nothing. Nothing but a tension in the muscles of his chest. He shivered, like a January wind had blown through. He stared at his celebrating friends and tried to will warmth and good cheer into his heart. Dumbfound it. No results. His ribcage was an empty shelf. And it wasn't just fatigue. Yes, he'd been awake since Dysphoria (despite his repeated attempts to sleep, his mind would not stop buzzing with preparations) and yes he'd been doing a hell of a lot of throwing his will around. He was exhausted. But that alone wouldn't have made him need to put on a false smile to not let Junella down in her moment of reunion.

He realized now. He'd said it a moment ago to her. It had gone almost unnoticed by both of them. He had not done this for her out of purehearted altruism. That was one part, yes. But another was that he needed all of them to help him get revenge on Scaphis.

Toby looked into his friends' faces and saw their happy tears. Heard their laughter.

'I pulled them out of relative safety, to join me in fighting a god.'

Back when he'd been circling Rhinolith, Toby had switched his thinking to view the whole of Phobiopolis as potential pieces of his Rube Goldberg scheme. He had done the same with his friends. His friends. He was treating them like soldiers. And the worst part was, these thoughts alone couldn't stop him from continuing. He had told Junella the truth: he did need her. And George. And Zinc. And Piffle. They were indispensable to his battle plan.

'And I can't guarantee any of us will live through this,' he realized, the final nail sinking in. 'I've drafted them for a suicide mission.'

Suddenly, all Toby wanted to do was turn away and walk several miles across the sea of rock pillars, find a quiet spot, and fall asleep forever. He didn't want a world where he had to treat the people who loved him like chess pieces.

But he had to. That caused the most pain. There was no choice to be made. Scaphis had forced this on him. She was not going to vanish when they turned their backs and walked home. She was going to keep growing until something stopped her. They could fight her now, or they could run and fight her later. Unprepared. Unguarded. With her having the element of surprise instead of them. Bad tactics. It had to be here and now. And whether one little mouse was happy about it didn't matter.

Piffle's left antenna twitched at the sound of a swallow. She turned her head and looked quizzically to see Toby standing alone.

"Don't be a wallflower, Toby. You got us all out!" She waved him closer. "Join us!"

"Okay, Piffle." Needing to keep up appearances, he trotted over. She giggled as she pulled him into their group squeeze. Toby draped his arms across her shoulders and Zinc's wrenches, feeling the familiar softness of Junella's scarf touch his nose.

Their warmth and joy passed through him as he completed the circuit, and all he could think was, 'I feel like a killer.'


There followed a suitably long period of rejoicing. Everyone squoze, nuzzled, back-patted, or kissed everyone else. As if from a distance, Toby watched the others reconnect. Saw their eyes light up with 'Aha!' moments as they sparked off one another's lost memories. Saw the chest-hitching relief of knowing they'd all made it through. Piffle was stuttering from how quickly she was babbling out her elation. Zinc was making light of their travails with wry jokes. George was switching his attention between all three with the rapidity of a spectator at a ping pong match. Junella allowed herself to enjoy the physical affection for as long as she deemed within her character, then started slapping their huggy paws away.

When the moment petered out and Toby began noticing the others glancing around with, 'What do we do next?' glances, he gave a nod to George.

The black steed nudged chairs towards the others. "Please sit. There are gaps in your knowledge that require filling, and your own memories do not contain the necessary elements." He herded them like a border collie, then sat down gracefully beside them on the carpet.

The trio parked their bottoms in a line: Piffle, Zinc, Junella. Toby was standing a few feet away at parade rest. They gave him their full attention.

Toby cleared his throat. Despite everything else weighing on him, there was a bit of amusement to be found in getting to speak such a cliche old line. "I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here today."

"Heh. I got some ideas," Zinc said.

Piffle folded her paws on her lap, then folded her other paws on top of them. "Zinc and Junella said we've been in there for months. Are you gonna tell us what you've been up to, Toby?"

"I'd been wondering about your ribbon," Junella pointed out.

Toby reflexively gave it a rub. The touch of crinkled silk helped calm him a little. "Yes, I think I'll start with that."

So Toby took them back in time with him to the sea of endless corpses. To Scarlatina, the cliffside village of furlessness and peace. Toby told them about Skeeto and Tak and Kat (and his voice only cracked a few times). He told them how willing he'd been to stay there forever, until a single name from a traveling peddler had obliterated that hope. He told them of trading L'roon blood for transportation, of the huddled masses at the gates of Lalochezia, and the struggling shopkeeps there. Of Poubelle and After, and the revelations their free dessert had opened his mind to. Of Tif Tif, and the gnarled, sooty sphere he'd bought from her.

"Sire Toby! May I take up the tale from here?" George asked eagerly.

Toby bowed to him, then dumbfounded himself a chair so he could vacate the stage.

George was delighted to continue. He described their battle in rapid-fire detail, reconstructing it from what his master had described. Thereafter he related the cowardice of L'roon, the road to Rhinolith, the clash of construct cars, the brawl of bonecuddies, and the furious grief of Vienna Tusk.

Toby noticed that George was merely recounting the events, leaving out all details of Scaphis and the plan for dealing with her. He was leaving this to Toby. And as the construct finished up at the walls of Phlegmasia, he passed the torch back with a nod of acknowledgment. Toby sent him a quiet, 'Thank you' as the construct sat and got comfy again.

The tired mouse pulled himself to his feet. His limbs felt suddenly like stone. There was a part of him that wanted to just keep sitting. Maybe nod off. Maybe pass out. He took his position again in front of his friends, and their expectant gazes hurt. He made a decision then and there. "I'm not going to tell you about Scaphis. Not yet."

Three puzzled expressions.

"The news is bad," he said. "Bad enough that I don't want to put that weight on you just yet. It can wait. We're all together now. Let's concentrate on that, for a little while at least. There's nothing we can do about her right this moment anyway." He could see they were not at all reassured by this, but there were no protests either, no demands for the brutal truth. They trusted him on this. Toby was glad for that.

Junella had a nitpick though. "I'll take your word, Toby, but I wanna know two things first. One: is there anything left of the world worth saving?"

"Yes," he was glad to report. "There's time. She hasn't conquered the whole of Phobiopolis yet. Not even half." Toby grimaced. That was saying too much.

Zinc grimaced too. "Still an awful big chunk."

Toby shook his head. "The furthest she's gotten is Marasmus, and that was specifically to take out Gilla-Gilla."

The canine's eyes went wide. "Gilla's gone!? DAMMIT!!" he yelped in sorrow.

"He is not dead, merely incapacitated," George quickly pointed out. "And she only accomplished his defeat through means of a craven ambush."

"Well, she'd have to. No one could scratch Gilla from head-on." He growled. "I guess we accidentally taught her that." He leaned his head on his folded wrench-arms.

Toby's anxiety started to grip him, feeling like he was letting them fall to despair already. "I'm sorry, Zinc. I'm terrible at being reassuring."

"No, no," Junella interjected softly. "These are bad times. You're trying your best. And to get off that topic, the second thing I was gonna ask is, if she's such a boogeyman, how'd you steal us away from her? I doubt she just tossed us out the window too."

Toby had earlier confessed to them his unsanitary method of escaping her clutch at Anasarca. Piffle and Zinc had wrinkled their noses, but Junella just gave him a 'whatever works' shrug. "She didn't. But to explain that part, first I have to ask, do you know where we are right now?"

Zinc raised his hand. "First thing I assumed was the moon. But I'm pretty sure I'm wrong on that."

"It's not a bad guess," Toby said. "Maybe I can help you figure it out. I'm, ah, actually kind of proud of the idea." He blushed.

"You go right ahead and feel proud, Toby," Piffle said. "You haven't even told us your big plan yet, but already, your other stories were full of swell ideas. You've got a good brain on your shoulders."

He nibbled his lip. "Thank you. So, um, where was I? Here. I, uh, realized that Scaphis might be powerful, but so far she's been thinking entirely laterally."

"You mean 'literally'?" Junella asked.

"No," Toby said simply. "I realized that the best place to hide from her, and yet stay close for when we want to begin the attack, is right where she's never bothered to look."

It was actually Zinc who caught on first. But it was so impossible, he clamped his lips shut and let Toby keep going.

Toby pointed above them to the starlit reaches. "Look up. See if you notice anything unusual."

Piffle's sharp vision caught it a moment before Junella did. "Over there! There's a big dark spot where there aren't any stars!"

"Well done," Toby said, sounding unintentionally like his first grade teacher. "I'm thinking of calling it Avulsion. You guys said that people get to name any place that hasn't been discovered before."

Zinc looked stricken. "Then I'm right. Holy Jesus! And yeah, Toby, people've poked their heads around there, but I don't think anyone's ever bothered to name it. So the claim's yours if you want it."

The shards on Junella's head stood straight up. "Then that's-!?" She turned in her seat 180 degrees to look in the exact opposite direction. There was an identical starless patch. Perfectly mirrored.

"It's the underside of Phobiopolis," Toby said.

Junella gaped. It wasn't just a patch: it was a ring. Tapering almost to invisibility in the middle, but unmistakably a cosmic-sized circle. She knew there was only one place the realm where a vantage like this was possible.

Piffle couldn't quite wrap her mind around it. "So we're on an asteroid then?"

Zinc shook his head, looking queasy. "Hold on to your antennas, kid, we're on the bottom of Anasarca!"

"What!?" Piffle reflexively spread her wings and clutched the seat of her chair.

Junella kept looking up and down (and realized those words no longer meant much). "How'd you know there'd be gravity here!?" she asked Toby.

The mouse shrugged. "I didn't. I just assumed. But I also figured, people walk around on the 'underside' of the Earth all the time. It seems like the top to them. Plus we're spirits anyway. Why should it matter?" Toby was not consciously aware the extent to which spending years reading sci-fi books had prepped him for an afterlife in Phobiopolis.

George was highly amused to see the looks of bewilderment on the others' faces. "If you like, you can tie yourselves to a stalactite tonight so you don't float away in your sleep." He snickered.

Zinc was not laughing. "So she's right above us? Or below? Or whatthefuckever?"

Toby nodded gravely. "Yes, but this is perfect. We're in her shadow. Her blind spot."

"We made sure to scout around first," George said reassuringly. "No trace of her influence. We could likely make camp here forever without ever attracting her notice."

"We could," Toby said, and hated acknowledging that such a tempting, easy option existed. He walked over to one of the pillars. "Something I hadn't expected was what this whole place is made of. Call it an unexpected bonus." He unsheathed his hammer and gave the rock a mid-strength tap. The grey mineral shattered easily, cracking and flaking away to reveal that it was only the skin of a shimmering column. A whitish crystal that flickered with iridescence.

The trio leaned forward in their seats.

Zinc stared at the sparkle, then looked down at his feet. "We're sitting on..."

Junella finished the thought for him, her voice a disbelieving rasp, "...a motherlode of imaginite that'd make the bank at EC look like pocket change."

Piffle let out a whoop of excitement. Unable to contain herself, she sprinted over to Toby and wrapped a hand around the crack in the rock he'd exposed. With a little bit of will, she was soon holding a mug of warm milk with cinnamon. She inhaled the steam, then took a sip. "Oh, this is fantastic! Toby, try some!"

It did smell good. And when a swallow warmed its way down his throat, he actually felt his mood lighten.

Piffle buzzed back to her seat to share some with Zinc too.

The mutt gazed out across the seemingly-infinite plane of pillars, knowing that each one hid a sweet candy surprise inside, just waiting to be cracked open.

Junella was already thinking logistically. "We can build anything we want here. Anything. We can make an arsenal that'd take down Godzilla. We could turn the Fearsleigher into a battleship with tank treads. We could make an a-bomb!!"

Zinc patted her on the shoulder before she got too carried away.

Toby rejoined them, looking a little sheepish. "I really wish I'd known about this at the start. Otherwise I wouldn't have had to go to Rhinolith and bankrupt them. But, y'know, you make your plans with the info you've got. At least I know how to pay them back after we're all done."

Junella had noticed earlier that Toby had never exactly explained what he'd been doing there. "I'm gonna take a wild guess: Scaphis put her flag there. I doubt they'd let you stroll in the front door and take their shit unless the joint was abandoned."

'Not exactly abandoned,' Toby thought. "I'll admit, yes."

She nodded. "I'll stop pokin'. You said you wanted to wait till later to get into all the stinking details about her." Toby was grateful for that. "I'll just concentrate on our windfall here."

"I actually have a theory about why there's so much," Toby said idly, then wondered if he should've mentioned it. "It's just a guess. I don't have any evidence."

"Hey, it's prolly worth a listen. Your instincts've been good about a lot of things so far," Junella said.

He acknowledged her encouragement with a shy nod. "So, the imaginite. I think Aldridge makes it."

Zinc sat up and cocked his head. "You'd think he might've mentioned that at some point."

"If he does I don't think he's aware of it," Toby said. "Maybe it's just his presence. Like, wherever he walks, something about his angelic nature does something to the soil. Maybe it's a gradual effect. He did say he's been in Phobiopolis longer than anyone else. And if it's true, it'd explain why there's more here than anywhere else: we're right under his house."

Junella rubbed her chin. "That holds water." She considered the possibility for a few seconds more, until another struck her like a bolt from the blue. "You said Scaphis is here. We're in her shadow. She never left, because she's just petty enough to want to kick the wiz out of his castle and make herself at home. And this is all imaginite. So you burrowed up from underneath like a jackrabbit, didn't you? That's how you got us out! Easiest thing in the world, just will the hole to open in front of you!" She looked down at the carpet, wondering if the passage was right underneath.

Toby blinked in surprise. "That's not a bad idea! Just, not correct."

The skunk pouted.

"I considered it. My main worry was, I had no idea where I'd pop out. It might be right underneath her and then she'd catch me and it'd all be over."

Junella bit her index finger. "Right, right."

Zinc was trying to puzzle it out too. "This has something to do with us all bein' transformed, doesn't it?"

Junella had not heard of this yet. "'Scuse me?"

"When Toby sprung me, George said I'd been a doormat. And you 'n Piff were both, uh, 'household objects' as well," he said delicately. Then he sneered. "That means... Aw, cripes, Toby! You crawled up our bellybuttons!! Fuckaduck, that's nasty!!" He shivered in revulsion.

Toby was confused for a bit, before remembering that Phobiopolans seemed to have a thing about bellybutton embarrassment. "It got you back, didn't it?"

Zinc uneasily agreed. "Yeah, yeah. But that's like finding out I had someone wiggling around in my asshole. It ain't a nice thought!"

Piffle was blushing.

Junella narrowed her eyes. "So... what was I?" She glared at Zinc, Toby, and George, knowing she could coax an answer out of one of them.

George it was. "A footstool, Madam Brox," he sheepishly admitted.

Her face screwed up into an incredibly ugly pucker.

"A quite stylish footstool," the construct added.

"Still an assault on my friggin' dignity," she grumbled through gritted teeth.

Piffle leaned over in her chair to ask George, "So what'd Doll make me into?" She didn't seem insulted so much as curious.

"I regret to inform you, that her choice for you, Madam McPerricone, was," he hesitated, embarrassed on her behalf, "a toilet seat."

"Oh!" Piffle laughed. "Well, I like being sat on." She laughed again. But this time there was a crack in it. She settled back in her seat and got quiet. The others noticed.

Junella reached past Zinc to pat her knee. "Must be hard realizing that someone you cared for so much'd do something that cruel to you, yeah?"

"Yeah," Piffle said very softly, kneading her paws in her lap.

Just seeing Little Miss Sunshine so sad added even more kindling to Junella's inner fire. "I got a theory of my own about that no-good, no-faced pisspile. She doesn't understand her own powers."

"How ya figure that?" Zinc asked, intrigued.

"Think about it." Junella pointed to him and Piffle. "From what you both said, your dreamworlds didn't sound any worse than mine. Meaning they could have been a hell of a lot worse. She could have put us in shackles, or prison, or even that place between Coryza 'n EC where you're afraid of everything all the time."

"Amaurosis Fugax," George supplied.

"Thank you, George," Junella acknowledged, then got back on track. "Instead, we were back in our pasts, complete with all the tragedies and comforts. So I ask: does that sound like the decision of someone so sadistic she'd turn poor sweet Piffle into a shit seat?"

Toby's eyebrows went up. "That... yeah. That does make a lot of sense. She transformed you for her own rotten amusement and probably didn't even know you were conscious inside." He gave her a 'good thinking' gesture. "That angle never occurred to me."

The skunk smirked. "No fault of yours, mouse. I might've had a bit more time on my hands to mull over the possibilities."

A nod. "You certainly did."

Zinc wordlessly put an arm around her waist.

She looked at him kindly, then rested her head on his shoulder, mindful of her new hair-shards. "Anyway, we're drifting again. How'd you fetch us away from her, Toby?" She winced. "Besides the bellybutton thing. Don't ever do that again, by the way," she said with dark intonations of violence.

"I can't imagine having another reason to," Toby quickly responded. "But, back to topic, I wonder if you guys remember what happened after we visited Gilla? When we all got in the tub and you went to the market and I got lost?"

Junella frowned. "Are we gonna play guessing game again? Can't you just spill the beans?"

George intervened on his master's behalf. "It is the prerogative of the storyteller to tell the story any way he so chooses."

The skunk glared flatly at him.

Toby looked bashful. "Admittedly, it's pretty cool watching you guys figure it out for yourselves. Here, I'll make it easier." He held up a finger for their patience. Then he took a step back, into a calm, silent stance. His face showed deep concentration. As the others watched, Toby slowly lifted a hand to his throat and felt around, searching for something.

Piffle gasped when a silver chain emerged into existence around his throat.

Toby felt it melt into reality under his touch. He nodded in a 'good, it's still there' way. Then he came closer to let his friends see. They craned their necks. "Remember this?" he asked.

It was a necklace. A simple metal chain with a tarnished silver emblem dangling from its center. The symbol had once been painted green, but now only a few traces of its color remained. It was in the shape of a circular spiral, with two waves extending from the center like bird's wings.

Piffle clapped her paws and pointed at it. "We were out shopping and then suddenly, vwawoosh! We were waking up in the desert and you were there with Mister L'roon! You said he sold you a wishing amulet and you wished for us."

Toby nodded. "Exactly."

Junella cast a skeptical eye at the trinket. "He also said it was a piece of junk."

Toby held up a finger. "Not quite. He said it'd been used before. But since I didn't know that, it might work again for me. And it did." He held the amulet up to his face, wondering again why its silver felt uncomfortably familiar. "When I needed a way to get you free from Scaphis, everything I thought of was just variations on sneaking under her feet and ending up caught. None of my ideas had a decent risk-to-success ratio. Until I remembered this." He twirled the chain around his finger.

Junella's scowl deepened. "But you used it up."

Toby looked almost cocky as he responded. "Again, not quite. L'roon told me I could only make two wishes. I figured, why couldn't I make those same two wishes over again?"

Zinc and Piffle looked at each other, both mighty vexed.

George attempted to make it clear. "Sire Toby reinterpreted the condition: 'it can only be used for two wishes', not to mean two in quantity, but two in function."

Junella looked like she'd been goosed. "Are you SERIOUS!? That is the fussiest, nerdiest, technicality bullshit I have ever heard in my life!"

The skunk's reaction amused the stallion. "Sir Zinc. Your personal shotgun has two uses as a weapon: firing at an enemy, or using it as a club. Two uses. But this does not mean it can only be used two times."

The canine started to go cross-eyed. Abruptly he turned to Toby. "Can I just say that sometimes you're so smart it scares the pants off me!?"

He looked away. "I'm not, really, I just had a lot of time to think it over and-"

"Oh shush. You're a regular Einstein." Piffle got up and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Toby wriggled in bashfulness so hard he almost imploded. "Ah, thanks, Piffle. Thank you. Um. But yeah, I'm not trying to brag. The idea just hit me out of the blue and before I could let myself think of why it wouldn't work, I just convinced myself, 'There's no reason it shouldn't'."

Piffle applauded. "And everything runs on will here, so it did! Bravo!"

"The trickiest part was remembering exactly what I'd said the first time, I had a feeling it wouldn't work unless I got it down to the letter. So I just rolled the dice and tried my best. First I wished you were here." Toby deliberately avoided using the correct words this time, for fear the amulet would kill them again. "Suddenly, there was this blackened, bloody heap of furniture bits in front of me. My second wish had been to fix the first one. 'I want all my friends and all our stuff to be here AND totally unharmed'. I hoped like hell that'd be enough. But I watched your bodies jump and convulse all over the place, and I guess the amulet's magic was doing battle with whatever hex Scaphis put on you. So the best it could do was bring you back to being a mat, a seat, and a footstool."

"A minor discouragement," George assessed, "but Sire Toby swiftly put his mind to work and unraveled this snag as well. He has proven his proficiency at that."

"George..." Toby whimpered.

"No, amigo..." Zinc reached out to gently clamp his hand on his mouse friend's shoulder. His face was as somber as Toby had ever seen it. "George is right. You ARE good at this. It wasn't a fluke, you finding your way out of the forest with a paint can. Or tellin' us we oughtta stop that runaway ferris wheel. Or winning the trial for us. You've got some kinda knack for bending this world over your knee and spanking it till it does what you want. Toby... I don't know jack shit about magic besides mindfucking up the occasional hard boiled egg, but you... You are going to be one of the greatest magicians this world has ever known."

Toby was utterly speechless. Zinc had said it with such conviction. The absolute assurance of a foregone conclusion. "I- I'm not even trying to be. I just wanted you back."

Junella put her other paw on his shoulder. "Necessity is the mother of invention."

"I..." Toby felt a lump in his throat. He suddenly couldn't face them.

"Hey." Zinc tipped the mouse's head up. "The carpet's down there. I'm over here. And I realized something else a moment ago. You didn't just get us out away from here by beating reality over the head with your nutty-ass logic."

Toby chuckled lightly.

"You had to get here first. You said you were at the wall. Anasarca's across the asteroids from it. Toby..." He turned his head. "George too. You guys went through Dysphoria for us."

Piffle and Junella both jolted in their seats. This truth was self-apparent, but the enormity of it hadn't registered yet. They both stared at the mouse and construct.

Toby found himself trembling. "It wasn't- I mean, George did most of the work."

"How in the fuck!?" Junella snapped. "And you're still SANE!? You were a wreck the first time! We all were!"

"Like I said, George-"

The stallion cut him off. "Sire Toby, without your brilliantly simple idea, it would have been impossible."

The others looked at him. Toby was stiff as a board. Now he felt a tear in his eye. "I... I..." he stammered.

George saw that he would have to explain. "Sire Toby requested from Sir L'roon a potion that would give me wings." There was another component to it, but explaining it here and now would be complicated. "This proved a highly efficient way to travel across the lands of Phobiopolis, as well as being an intense delight for me."

"I'm sure you look very handsome with them," Piffle said.

"A thousand thanks, Miss McPerricone," George said with a nod, then looked at Toby as if to say, 'that's how you accept a compliment, Sire.' "As we ascertained on our previous jaunt through that horrible place, I was afflicted to a lesser degree than the rest of you. So it was decided that I should navigate while Sire Toby did his best to hold on."

"All the way through!?" Junella shrieked.

"Not through, Madam Brox!" George corrected brightly. "Underneath!"

She blinked.

Toby nibbled his lip. "You guys said Aldridge used to fly over. So I knew that was possible. And since 'over' and 'under' are interchangeable concepts in a weightless environment like outer space... It was a pretty simple idea, really."

George would not let his master get away with such modesty. "With Sire Toby held safely inside me," George tapped his ribcage with a hoof, "I simply stepped off the edge and let myself fall. I adjusted my innerluminations to pure white, and against the twinkle of the stars I was a nigh-invisible phantom. I flew in an elegant parabola, testing the limits of Dysphoria's influence by gauging my own sense of madness. Sire Toby unfortunately took it worse. I will not dishonor him by repeating anything that he screamed."

"Thank you, George."

"Toby, do you realize what this means?" Zinc yelped. "You 'n George are the only two people to ever get across Dysphoria twice! That's like jumpin' off the moon, landing in a kiddie pool, and getting up with a somersault!!"

Toby looked down at his feet. "Someone's done it before with Aldridge's help, I'm sure. Law of probability," he muttered,

"Who fucking cares!?" Zinc blew up. "It's still monumental! Somethin' to be proud of! Shit, if it were me I'd never shut up bragging! I'd be using it to get free drinks till I dropped dead. Instead you're actin' like your chin's magnetized to your chest. What gives, man!?"

"I think he's feeling overwhelmed," Piffle said. "He's not used to being told he did a good job. I can understand. I used to be like that sometimes."

Toby sighed. He looked down at his hands and saw they were trembling. "It's more than that, Piffle. But thank you for trying to empathize."

"What then?" She leaned over and patted his headfur.

"I just..." He spoke so low he realized there was no way they could hear him. So he forced his head and his voice to raise. "I don't want to feel like a hero about this. It's not like I set out to do anything monumental. It was desperation. I had to."

Piffle smiled. "You had to see us again."

"No!" Toby said suddenly. He hid his face behind his arm, feeling the wetness of warm tears splash his fur

there. "I mean yes! I did need to see you. All of you! I was going insane without you, thinking of what she might be doing to you! But... Oh hell, I can't even make myself say it."

Junella was firm. "Toby, we know all each other's secrets by now. One more is not likely to make a difference."

Toby shut his eyes so tight it hurt. He spoke before he could let anxiety hold it in any longer. "I brought you back so I wouldn't have to fight her alone. I drafted you."

Zinc gawked at him. "Is that ALL!? You had me worried, you asswipe!! I was ready to do that anyway!"

"You didn't even have to ask me," Junella noted. She gave Piffle a sidelong 'don't you have something to add?' look.

"Um." Piffle's wings fluttered nervously. She was not the type to choose violence if there were other options available. And this was Doll they were talking about. Doll, who she had cradled, and brushed her hair, and dressed her, and tried to fix her face and...

A weight landed on her heart.

"I'll fight, Toby," she said abruptly. Her tone was grave. "I loved her, but someone who'd be so heartless to me, well... what wouldn't she do to someone else? Anyone else?"

Zinc nodded in appreciation of her bravery.

"We have to stop her," Piffle said resolutely.

"We do," Zinc agreed. "Toby, like you said, ain't a choice about it." He rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck. "And yeah, I ain't feelin' 100% tip-top at the moment, but if you need me to go fist-to-face with her right now-"

Toby's head popped up in alarm. "Of course not!" he said. "I was going to say at the end, we ought to spend a few days here first. Even if she is gaining power all the time, we have to be our best if we're going to have any chance at her. We've all been through hell. We all need to rest."

"You keep having good ideas," Junella said, a little challengingly.

He winced.

"Sire Toby," George said gently, "there is no reason to feel as you do. We are all in agreement. You have done us no wrong." He nuzzled the mouse's ear. "Personally, I have considered it a fair trade. You freed me from mental enslavement. It is only natural I would feel obligated to aid you in battle."

Toby looked like he'd been hit. "I don't want anyone to feel obligated to me," he whispered.

"Too late, mouse," Junella said with an affectionate scowl. "You freed us too. We're at your side, for better or worse."

He took a deep breath to steady himself. Then felt his emotional clouds part just enough to let a ray of clarity through. "Maybe it's more than just what I said. I don't want you guys to feel indebted to me. You're my friends, for crying out loud. Friends don't... own each other like that."

"It is my own freely-made choice to feel this way, Sire Toby," George pointed out.

"Same here," Zinc said.

Toby took another deep breath. "Yes. Thank you. I think I can accept that now. But more than that, I just... I don't want to be in charge. I don't want to be brilliant. I don't want to fight an all-powerful monster. I'm not supposed to be this. I'm supposed to be at home in bed, reading books. I'm... stretched thin. And I've been like that for too long."

"Your tank's empty," Zinc said. "You're running on fumes."

"Exactly," Toby agreed.

"Hey, it's fine." He gave his mouse pal a hearty wrench-whack. "Go take a siesta. We'll be alright here."

"I still have so much else to do," he said weakly.

Junella put her hands on her hips. "Weren't you the one tellin' us just a second ago that we needed to take a few days off? Doctor Brox says you'd better follow your own advice. Take five, Toby. Or do I have to beat you unconscious first?"

Toby actually laughed slightly. "Yes sir."

With a sigh, he got to his feet. He was hit by a wave of lightheadedness and Piffle had to catch him before he stumbled over. "Easy does it!" she said.

Zinc indicated the area isolated by a curtain at the edge of the carpet. "There's beds over there, I'm guessing?"

"Yeah," Toby said absently. It was all hitting him in a rush now. Suddenly it took almost all the effort in his body just to speak or take a step.

Piffle was happy to play nursemaid, guiding him across the carpet and giving his paw soft squeezes.

Zinc ran ahead to pull the curtain back, and was not expecting to find other people sleeping there. Three beds, three unconscious fursons. A female frog, a male beaver, and a male cat. All looked as emaciated as dungeon prisoners. They slept like corpses, stiff on their backs. Their faces were creased with a thousand wrinkles of torment, suggesting unimaginable suffering.

Zinc thought the cat looked familiar. Then all his fur stood on end.

Piffle and Junella held Toby between them like a marionette. "Here we go, little mouse. Time for sweet dreams and a soft pillow," Piffle sing-songed to him.

"I'd like to rest, thank you," he mumbled. He could barely keep his eyes open. "But I still have things to tell you. We have to prepare..."

"Later," Junella said. She noticed Zinc was standing like a statue and looked past him to their three comatose guests. She didn't waste time wondering who they were, she calculated that three people in three beds meant no room for Toby. So she gave the nearest rock pillar a bash with the butt of her cutlass. Putting her paw around the exposed imaginite core, she willed it into a bed. With the fluffiest blankets and cushiest mattress she could conjure.

As Piffle laid Toby down while cooing softly in his ear, Zinc tugged Junella's arm.

"What's got you bug-eyed!?" she asked.

"Juney..." he pointed to the orange tabby in the third bed. His voice was a wavering whisper. "Tell me I'm not hallucinating. Tell me you see it too."

She rolled her eyes at his melodramatics, then squinted.

Then she clapped both hands over her mouth to keep from shrieking.

Zinc just nodded. "Uh-huh."

She didn't need to confirm it with words. Her expression told him everything. They knew this guy. Very well, in fact. They had memorized the photograph his family had given them. His name had been Julius Ounce. They had been promised a king's ransom in imaginite to bring him back. But Dysphoria does not give back what it takes. They had gone in after their bounty and returned with only a fraction of their sanity.

Junella turned and gaped in amazement at Toby. He had accomplished something they had nearly lost their lives failing at. And he hadn't even mentioned it.

Even with his head sideways on the pillow, Toby could see what they were losing their minds over. "I can't take credit. George's idea," he muttered.

The construct nodded at Zinc and Junella's awestruck looks. "From my vantage point on our flight over, I was able to view Dysphoria without illusion. An unfortunate many souls floated inside among the asteroids. And though it increased the mental strain upon myself and especially Sire Toby, I couldn't allow myself to do nothing. Those who floated close, I made a grab for. I dared not try twice. A few did slip from my clutch, which is a regret which will haunt me forever. But I caught three. They may never wake up, but at least their nightmares are their own now."

Junella let out a low whistle. "George, you and I are going to have to discuss this at length."

Zinc's mind spun towards the future. "We could fly out there with the harpoon gun... Spear 'em like cocktail wieners. Bring 'em all home."

Junella turned to him, dazed. "Jesus, we could... And think of the reward money!!"

"You two will have to do your mad scheming someplace else," Piffle told them firmly. She fluffed Toby's pillow and tucked him in. "A certain brave mouse needs his rest."

"M'not brave," Toby mumbled.

"Shush," she said, and kissed his ear. Then she hustled the others away with a satisfied smile and pulled the curtain closed.

The light from the lamps went away. Toby's eyes were now touched only by moonlight. The bed Junella had made for him was implausibly comfy. Magically soft. The mattress was so squishy, it felt like it might just swallow him up like quicksand. And that sounded pretty damn nice, actually.

He heard Piffle's gentle, musical voice wish him goodnight. Then there was only the hushed whispers of Junella, Zinc, and George walking away to continue their talk, and the pitter-pat of Piffle's paws following behind.

Toby's eyelids weighed as much as the world. Now that he had finally stopped pushing forward, he realized he'd run out of energy a long time ago. He had been coasting on pure purpose. Pushing himself beyond his limits. He'd read about marathon runners doing something similar.

He wanted very much to sleep. But he had to do one last thing first.

Just one, he promised himself. No 'one more thing' after that. Just this.

And it wasn't even anything important. Nothing earthshaking. Just a curiosity that had come to him sometime during the rescues of his three friends. Toby sat up in bed.

He couldn't see them past the curtain, but they were there. 'I did it,' he let himself acknowledge. 'This is reality. I'm not dreaming it. We're all here, and we're okay, and we're still friends.' His eyes began to moisten.

He felt a little dizzy just from sitting up. Better get this done before consciousness yanked the rug out from under him. Toby pulled open his vest and looked down at his bellybutton.

He wanted to see it one more time. He wanted to know if it had changed. His old room. Would it seem like a haven to him now, or a nightmare? Or would he simply see it as it really was? As both.

He let himself fall forward.


He was not where he expected.

The room was dark, but much smaller than he remembered. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, as the only light came from a cracked-open door and a lamp in the hallway. Toby turned around, letting the shapes emerge out of the shadows and become recognizable.

There was no sickbed. No shelves of vinyl books. No pill bottles lined up in rows.

This was a messy, lived-in little bedroom. Small and warm. There were posters on the carved-rock walls and toys on the floor. There was a folded-away hang glider propped against the wall beside the closet. In the air were smells of pottery and home cooking. And splayed in the bottom bunk of a double decker bed was a young furless kitten, snoring. Toby could see the green ribbon on his wrist.

'He's even loud when he sleeps,' he thought fondly.


The small mouse emerged, back in the bed behind the curtain. It would have been nice to stay a while longer, but he knew he would have been spat back out eventually. And it was only an illusion. A nice one. It was enough to see, and to know. He didn't know when it had changed. But it made sense. It was still a portal to his bedroom. Just, his proper one now.

Sighing, feeling the last knots of tension unclench from his overtaxed muscles, Toby slumped and let his head hit the pillow. He fell almost immediately into a much-needed ten hour coma.

He didn't dream anything. It was great.


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