By Kimberly T. (email: kimbertow at yahoo dot com)
Author's note: Those characters that aren't owned by The Almighty Mouse belong to Christine Morgan, not me. This vignette takes place in her timeline, and may be considered a prequel to both her "Shameless Plug III: Labyrinth", and the 2005 "Hill People" segment of Christine's 3-in-1 story "Not Forgotten". Rated a strong PG-13 for violence and mature themes.August 2004
"Dee? Sweetie?" Elisa called out, searching the castle for her niece. "Where are you?"
Elisa finally found seven-year-old Dee curled up inside the linen closet, clutching her old worn 'blankie' to her and rocking herself back and forth, with evidence of dried tears on her furry cheeks.
"Aw, sweetie…" Elisa came into the closet and sat down beside her, hugging her close. "It'll be okay; you'll see."
"It's not okay!" Dee said in a voice shrill with hurt anger. "It's not okay, and it's not fair! I don't want to move! Tom doesn't want to either; he said so! So why do we have to go!"
Elisa couldn't answer her. It really didn't seem fair, and Dee wasn't the only one who was unhappy about the mutates moving back to the Labyrinth…
It had all started seven days ago, when the castle had received a call from Ruth Harris, one of the Labyrinth's permanent residents. Ruth's common-law husband Amos had been stabbed in the back, and was in the Intensive Care Unit of Manhattan Medical. Since she and Amos had never officially been married, the hospital was adhering to their ICU policy of "family only" and not letting her see him. In tears, Ruth had begged the castle residents to find a way to let her in to see her man.
And within three hours, Amos Dawson had his common-law wife in to see him, as well as several other visitors. Xanatos had not only cut through the red tape, he'd taken a chainsaw to it, and gotten the hospital to admit not only Ruth and Elisa but all the adult mutates and the gargoyle Delilah in to the ICU as well. Though everyone had to be sterilized and/or covered in approved hospital scrubs first; that had been a real pain for all the furred folk and not much fun for Delilah either, who'd ended up with no less than six sterile booties on (one taped over each toe-talon of her feet.) But they'd all gone in to see him, and after receiving reassurances that the surgery had been successful and he had excellent chances of recovery, Talon had asked bluntly (his voice muffled by the surgical mask tied over his muzzle), "How did this happen, Amos?"
"Tried to tell a crack dealer that… he wasn't going to get… any of the Labyrinth kids to be his 'mules'," Amos had said slowly and painfully. "He didn't like… anyone telling him 'no'…"
Amidst a rising chorus of growls from mutate and gargoyle throats, Elisa had demanded, "A crack dealer, in the Labyrinth! Dammit, the Labyrinth is supposed to be one of the city's best 'drug-free' homeless shelters!"
"It used to be," Ruth had admitted, wringing her handkerchief. "But in the last couple of years, things have gone downhill… "
"Ruth, why didn't you say anything to us?" Talon had asked in outrage.
"Well… we figured you were better off in that castle now, and wouldn't want to come back. And at first, we thought we could handle it… But after word had gotten around that there weren't no more mutates or gargoyles living there and keeping an eye on the place, well, the dealers just aren't that afraid of us plain ol' humans. We've run off a few of them, but more keep coming in, using the outlying empty rooms to set up their drug labs and stuff. And lately, some of them have been getting bolder and coming into the common areas…"
Talon had turned to the others in the room and declared, "We're going back. Back to the Labyrinth, to clean house."
And they had. And not only the mutates; over half the clan had joined in on 'Operation Clean House', to clear all the criminal element out of the Labyrinth. For this operation, Goliath had willingly turned over command to Talon, who had directed teams of gargoyles and mutates to sweep through the Labyrinth in sections. Bronx had turned out to be a drug-sniffer hound par excellence; with the help of his keen nose, they found no less than six drug dens and eighteen dealers, and cleared out all of them.
The clan had also discovered and cleared out two illegal arms dealers, and a prostitution ring that had made use of illegal aliens from China, Mexico and other countries. Claw had been solely responsible for busting up the latter, though Elisa still didn't know how he'd done it.
On the first day of the massive cleanup operation, they'd found a young Hispanic girl with bruises on her wrists crying in an empty chamber, one who hadn't spoken a word of English or responded to any of Elisa and Talon's queries in their rusty Spanish. Claw had hunkered down beside her and held her hand until she'd calmed down, then stalked out… and returned an hour later with four unconscious men either slung over his shoulders or being dragged by their heels through the corridors, and eleven barely-dressed ladies dazedly trailing along behind him.
The one who could speak English the best had explained how Claw had busted down the door to their outlying chamber, sweeping in like a hurricane wrapped in striped fur. Within moments he'd disarmed the two pimps and beaten them unconscious, as well as the two 'johns' who'd been present at the time; then he'd snapped the handcuffs and chains tying the women to their beds like they were made of cheap plastic. Elisa had asked him how he'd known, but Claw had just shrugged at her after piling the pimps and johns on the floor for cuffing and hauling away. And Talon had said sagely, "Might as well save your breath, Sis; I've never been able to get an answer out of him either. Except that Claw really, really doesn't like pimps or rapists."
It had taken only three days and nights to completely clear out the criminals that had taken up residence in the Labyrinth's vast network of tunnels; three days and nights, and that included all the paperwork that Elisa and her team of police officers had to do for processing all the criminals and evidence that were found. But at the end of the third night, Talon had looked at an empty set of rooms and said, "This one will do for me and the kids. Claw, do you want the room next door?" That had been the first inkling for most of the clan that Talon intended to go back to the Labyrinth to stay; to make it his home again.
This decision was not greeted with joy by most of the clan. And particularly not by Dee and Tom, Talon's children; they most definitely didn't want to leave the castle! They might have been spent the first four years of their life down in the Labyrinth, but they'd been living in the castle for the last three years and considered it their home now. And Amber didn't want her cousins to leave, either; they were her only winged playmates!
But Talon had been adamant, and Claw had indicated his willingness to go along. And even Samson and Delilah had agreed to go back to the Labyrinth to live. As Delilah had explained to Elisa and Angela, "Samson is not all happy in the castle. He… he needs room to walk, room to stretch his big legs. Central Park is good for walking, but we cannot go there every night. Below, in Labyrinth, there is much room for walking, all the time…"
"But what about your eggs?" Angela had asked, looking over at Delilah's nest from where she was still crouching protectively beside her own egg, keeping a wing extended over it. "You can't be thinking of taking them down to the Labyrinth with you!"
"The eggs stay here; we come visit them often," Delilah had reassured her. "And when we not here, you protect them for us, yes? When they hatch, maybe we come back up here to live. But for now… Samson needs room, and Talon's children need babysitters sometimes. So we go."
And after other discussions, the rest of the clan had reluctantly agreed that Talon and the others had the right to live where they pleased, and now that the criminal element had been cleared out, the Labyrinth should be a good place to live again. But the children were still unconvinced.
Now, sitting beside Dee, Elisa tried to explain. "Dee, your father… he's used to being a leader, but he can't lead the clan, because that's Goliath and Brooklyn's jobs. Up here in the castle, he's been feeling useless… but in the Labyrinth, he feels needed. He has a purpose down there, and everyone should have a purpose in life."
Dee looked at Elisa doubtfully. "What's your purpose?"
"To keep the city safe from criminals; the streets safe for citizens to walk down without fear," Elisa had answered without hesitation. That's every police officer's purpose. And your dad used to be a police officer; didn't I tell you that? And he was a good one, too. Down in the Labyrinth, he can fulfill that purpose again, by keeping it safe from criminals ever coming back."
And there were other reasons, but Elisa didn't want to go into them right now. She didn't want to bring up the fact that, even after all these years, her brother still harbored an intense dislike for David Xanatos. For the sake of peace within the castle walls, he didn't express it often, and certainly not in front of the children… but Elisa had seen all too often how the fur on his hackles had risen and his eyes had narrowed to fiery slits at some smooth or sly remark that the castle owner had made, on whatever subject was at hand.
It wasn't just the fact that Xanatos had initially used Derek as a bargaining chip against Elisa and the clan's interference in his operations; it wasn't just the fact that Xanatos had cold-bloodedly had him mutated into Talon. Elisa thought Derek might eventually have forgiven that, in time and after the many sincere regrets Xanatos had expressed.
But what Derek would never forgive Xanatos for was the fact that his beloved children were not, and would never be, human. Never able to walk down the street without drawing stares or worse. Never able to do so many things that the average New Yorker took for granted, like finding clothes off the rack and shoes that fit. And it was all too likely that they'd never be able to have children of their own, since they were the only mutate children in existence. In short, they would never be normal.
But how could Elisa explain that to Dee and Tom, who thought that they were 'normal'? Who had been shielded all their lives from discrimination against their differences?
She just couldn't. Even if the kids might well end up running into intolerance down in the Labyrinth, she just couldn't explain it now, and crack that precious innocence herself. So instead she said, "And don't think you'll never see us again! Goliath and I already decided that we'll be coming down to see you all at least once a week, so you and Amber can play together. And down in the Labyrinth, you'll have lots of kids to play with; while I was down there I saw at least four families with kids your age. And then there'll be going on adventures when you're old enough, exploring the tunnels, just like Tom Sawyer and Becky did… it'll be fun!"
Dee was thoroughly unconvinced. But at least she finally agreed to follow Elisa out of the closet and back to her room, where her bags were already being packed for her.
Two weeks later…
Well, their new home didn't totally suck. Dee and Tom had to agree that they had a lot more friends down here than they did in the castle. Two of the seven kids down here that were about their age just stared at them, but the rest thought wings and fur were cool and were happy to play games with them. It helped that Mr. Xanatos had sent down a whole roomful of new toys and games and books and stuffed animals for them to share with the other kids; there was always something to have fun with.
But there wasn't always anyone to share the fun with; not in what Ms. Ruth called "the wee small hours." Back in the castle, they'd been used to Alexander going to bed long before midnight, but they'd still had Amber to play with until their own bedtime, around 3 a.m. But here in the Labyrinth, all the other kids were in bed by 10 o'clock; when the night had hardly started yet! The only kids they could play with after that were each other, and tonight, Tom didn't want to play Chutes-n-Ladders while Dee didn't want to play Transformers. They couldn't play with any of the adults, either; their dad was in a meeting with some sentries about some problem at the docks entrance, and Uncle Samson and Aunt Delilah had put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on their door again. So they were bored, bored, bored, and it was still hours before their bedtime.
Then someone knocked on the playroom door, and Uncle Claw stuck his head in and beckoned to them. Both Dee and Tom perked up, though neither of them said anything like "What's up?" It was silly to ask anything when he couldn't answer; so the thing to do was follow him and find out.
Uncle Claw led them to an empty room nearby, brought them inside and shut the door. Well, it wasn't totally empty; there were a couple of old chairs and a table that was missing a leg. And an overturned crate in one corner, one that was making squeaking and chittering sounds. And as soon as the door was shut, Uncle Claw went over to the crate, lifted it up—and out came half a dozen rats!
"EWWW!" "GROSS!" Dee and Tom jumped back and looked around for cover, but there was nothing except the broken table and the chairs; Tom jumped up on a chair anyway, and Dee would have jumped up on the other one but it tipped over and she fell down instead. She yelped and scrambled to her feet, backing into a corner, as far away from the rats as she could get as she cried, "Uncle Claw, this isn't funny! Stop it; get them out of here!"
Uncle Claw gave both of them one of those adult looks and shook his head, as if he was disappointed in them. Then he got down on all fours, like he was a real tiger… and he began moving really sneaky-like towards the rats, which had found some moldy old bread crusts to eat.
The rats started squeaking really loud and running away from him… and he jumped on one of them, like Cagney used to do with her catnip mousie! The rat gave a final squeak as he ripped its head off—oh, gross, all that blood! And then he got up and went after another rat!
"Stop it!" Dee shrieked, shaking all over. "Stop it, please!"
And Uncle Claw stopped, backing away from the rats instead of pouncing on another one. He slowly backed up until he was next to Dee, while the rats kept scurrying around madly for a little while before settling down. Two of them went back to eating the moldy bread… but the other three were sniffing at the dead rat—oh geez, they were eating it!
Uncle Claw wiped his hands on a rag he'd had tucked into his belt, then pointed at the rats that were eating their fellow rat. Then he pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket, and crouched down to draw on the floor with it. First he drew a sort-of rat; then he drew a frowny-face that pointed to the rat.
"Rats are bad?" Dee guessed aloud. Uncle Claw nodded vigorously, then went back to drawing while she complained, "Well, we already knew that! You didn't have to drag us in here, to…" Her voice trailed away, as she looked at what else he was drawing. Another animal, bigger, with pointy ears and whiskers… "A cat?" she guessed aloud again. And her uncle nodded vigorously and gave her a smile, before drawing an arrow from the cat to the rat he'd drawn… then crossing out the rat, and drawing a big smiley-face over the cat.
"Cats kill rats, right?" Tom asked from where he was still standing on the chair. Uncle Claw nodded and smiled at him… then tapped his own chest with a claw, before tapping the drawing of the cat. Then he pointed at Dee and Tom, before tapping the drawing again.
"We are NOT cats!" Tom howled in outrage. "Just because we have fur, and fangs, and stuff…"
"Well… we kind-of are," Dee said slowly, reluctantly. "Dad and Dr. Masters said we have some big-cat stuff inside us, including some of their...in-stinks? …the thingies that make it so hard to sleep at night."
Uncle Claw nodded really hard at that, then tapped the chalk drawings again. Then he got down on all fours, and went after the rats again.
Dee stayed rooted in the corner, but she couldn't help staring as Uncle Claw stalked after the fleeing rats, then pounced on another one—but instead of ripping it apart, he just swatted it so hard that it flew across the room and into the wall. It hit a good three feet up with a sickening thud, and slid down to land on the floor in a lump of matted fur.
Angus and Gabriel killed rabbits and deer, when they were out in the country looking for other gargoyles, a little voice inside Dee's head spoke up as she watched her uncle go after another rat. And everyone said that was okay… and rats are lots meaner than rabbits…
Two more rats died from crushing blows or being ripped apart, till only two were left in the room. And then Uncle Claw began… playing with one of them, jumping after it so it scurried this way and that, squeaking as it dashed back and forth…
Until it made a mad dash towards Tom's chair.
And Tom jumped off his chair with a snarl, to pounce on the rat just like Uncle Claw had done! Except he let some electricity go too; when he grabbed it, it sparked and jerked before going limp, and its fur smelled burnt as he held it up with a triumphant whoop. "I got it!"
Uncle Claw gave Tom two thumbs up before clapping as hard as he could; he was proud! Then he looked at Dee, a question in his eyes… as he pointed to the last rat, cowering in the far corner by the overturned crate.
Dee could only shake her head, mute with horror and disgust. She couldn't do that! She couldn't just…
"Can I get it?" Tom asked eagerly after dropping his fried rat, tiny sparks dancing in his hands.
Claw nodded to him, then held up a hand to pause him, before stroking at the fur on his own forearm; smoothing it down. Then he pointed to Tom's hands and arms, with the fur still on end from the sparks.
"No sparks? Okay," Tom agreed, and took a couple of deep breaths like their daddy had taught them, until the sparks went away and his fur settled down. Then he went down on all fours just like Uncle Claw had been doing, saying with a gleeful growl, "Here, ratty ratty…"
Uncle Claw backed into the far corner, making it clear he was leaving that rat all to Tom. And as far as Dee was concerned, he could have it, too!
But the rat dodged just as Tom pounced on it, and got away by a whisker. Tom used one of the words that they weren't supposed to know yet, then ran after the rat, but it kept dodging away from him, time after time. Then it ran right past Dee—
And the next thing she knew, she was staring down at a smoking rat's corpse in her claws.
"Hey, no fair! I called that one! And Uncle Claw said we're not supposed to use sparks!" Tom complained. But Uncle Claw was applauding her, and smiling; he thought she'd done good!
And… something inside her was really excited about what she'd done…
"Can we go get some more rats?" Tom asked, and Uncle Claw nodded before leading them out the door, and out to the outer tunnels. The ones that their daddy had said they couldn't go into without adult supervision… but Uncle Claw was an adult, so it was okay, right?
And half an hour later, wiping blood from her claws, Dee finally admitted… this was fun!
Two weeks later…
It was almost dawn, but Claw still lay wide awake on his bundles-of-rags mattress, staring at the far wall. It was one of those times when he just couldn't sleep.
In the last month, everyone else had settled into the Labyrinth just fine and dandy. Talon had resumed his role as Leader of the Labyrinth with almost no problems; there'd been that one guy who'd said flat-out that he wouldn't take orders from a furry freak, but after three other people had pointedly left empty bags and battered suitcases inside his room, he'd taken the hint, packed his bags and left for another shelter.
Samson and Delilah were back to being preferred babysitters and "playground supervisors" for the Labyrinth littluns, like they had been before moving to the castle in 2001. Kids seemed to instinctively know at first sight that giant Samson would never hurt them, and Delilah's careful and kinda funny way of talking usually won them over in just a few seconds. Parents sometimes took a little longer to be convinced that Samson and Delilah were safe for their littluns to be around, but never more than an hour or so of watching them supervise games of King of the Mountain or Freeze Tag. The two of them just loved kids, and everyone knew it. Claw idly wondered if, when the eggs hatched in 2010, they'd choose to move up to the castle again, or bring their littluns down here to play with everyone else.
Dee and Tom had settled in best of all; not only to the Labyrinth's environment and daily routine, but to their feline instincts, too. Lately they'd been begging for Claw to take them on rat-hunts as soon as the human littluns were all asleep in their beds.
Samson and Talon had been none too happy with Claw when they'd found out what he'd done, breaking them in on rat-killing like that; Samson because he wouldn't hurt a fly except in self-defense, and Talon because it wasn't at all what Maggie would have wanted.
But sweet Maggie had never really taken to her own feline side; in the years between their first moving down to the Labyrinth to live, and that fight with Jericho that had left Claw in a coma, he'd never once seen her kill a rat on her own. She'd always left that to Talon and Claw, though she hadn't objected much to the end result of having more meat in the stewpot, during the lean times when they couldn't scavenge enough food from the city above.
No, Maggie had never accepted being part cat. And who could blame her for that? This hadn't been anyone's choice for a way to live; except for Fang, who'd been creepy anyway, they all would have welcomed a way to be turned back to normal.
But like his Ma had always said, there's a bright side to everything if you look hard enough. It had been pretty durn hard to find a bright side to being mutated, but after leaving Xanatos and setting up in the Labyrinth, Claw had figured out that the changes in him had turned him into a much better hunter than he'd ever been as Beau Ellis.
Little Beau had been a sure shot with a slingshot, bringing home squirrels and possums for the family stewpot, from 'bout the time he'd reached Dee and Tom's age if not a little sooner. And his Pa had handed down his very own .22 to Beau when he'd turned 10 years old, so Beau could start going after bigger and faster game and contribute even more to keeping the family fed. He could still remember the way his heart had swelled with pride, bringing home a great big buck rabbit that had been plumb juicy with meat instead of stringy, and hearing his parents' words of praise for the way he'd killed it clean with just one shot. That was 'bout his best memory ever, and almost his last good memory. Because just a week after that, Buster McGill…
Stop that, Beau, he scolded himself. No thinking about the bad stuff when you're trying to sleep. But it wasn't easy; there'd been so much bad stuff in his life since then.
He rolled over and thought as hard as he could about that one great memory; pictured his Ma's face in his mind, saw her smiling at him for being her good boy. And he held tight to that memory, until finally he fell asleep.
And woke up with a start a half-hour later. MA?
He'd dreamed… dreamed of his Ma, as an old woman! Alive, not dead! For years he'd thought she and Pa were both dead, because that doctor at the asylum had told him that some letter asking permission to do some new experiment on him had come back saying "addressee deceased." (So they'd figured they could do as they pleased, since no one was going to say no to them on his behalf. That's when the really bad stuff had started…) He'd thought she was dead, but that dream… that hadn't been no dream! That had been a vision, an honest-to-God vision like his Ma had seen all the time with her witchy powers! And he'd seen her, seen his Ma! Looking old as the Hills themselves with her hair gone white and wrinkles aplenty on her face, and her eyes all clouded over like she'd gone blind, but she was alive!
He jumped out of bed, filled with sudden urgency. He had to get back to the Hills; had to see her with his own eyes instead of just his heart!
But at the doorway he stopped, appalled to realize… he didn't know how to get to the Hills from here! Dr. Sevarius might have stuffed him full of parts from tigers, bats and electric eels, but the doc hadn't put in nothing from a homing pigeon.
Well… he might be dumb for talking, but he wasn't dumb for thinking; especially not since he'd finally gotten them alphabet letters figgered out! He'd been able to read for over a year now, having finally gotten a handle on how letters turned into words from listening in on Dee and Tom's lessons. And when no one was watching, he even borrowed their books to read (that Dr. Seuss fella made some right funny rhymes!)
So now he'd just get himself one of those big books of maps, and look through it until he saw "Vicker's Glen" on a map somewhere. That was the name of the town in the valley right below where he'd lived; he remembered that as sure as he remembered the Ellis family home. Then once he found his hometown, he'd figure out a way to get there from Manhattan.
It'd probably be best to travel and sneak in on his own, rather than try to get Xanatos or one of their human friends to give him bus tickets there. Manhattan might be thinking kindly of people with wings these days, but he knew durn well he'd be seen as a demon or monster to a lot of folks elsewhere, no matter what the city slickers said about him. And he had no desire to get shot at by someone thinkin' they were doing a service to God, thank ye kindly. So that meant traveling mostly at night, till he got to the woods at least. It meant stocking up on provisions for traveling, too; he couldn't count on getting rats and other game for supper all the way there.
It might take a while to find his way, and collect everything he needed. And there was the fact that he didn't really want to leave his family down here, not just yet; for one thing, the littluns just weren't ready to go hunting on their own yet. Since Delilah was okay with rat-hunting, maybe she'd be willing to take the kids on hunts, or maybe he could convince Talon that it was his fatherly duty. He'd wait until he was sure that the littluns' hunter training was in good hands, before heading out.
But by God, someday soon… He was going Home!