Cyril and Alma

By David Leemhuis


Chapter 1 - Seeking shelter

Winter in Thorn Valley!

It was indeed a momentous occasion, for the simple reason that it was the first many of its citizens were experiencing here. In the months leading up to its onset, there was some uncertainty, in that this would prove to be the definitive test to prove whether or not these creatures—the Rats of Thorn Valley, they informally called themselves—could truly make it on their own. They were the products of human experimentation that boosted their intelligence and lifespans, enabling them to escape captivity, after which they set out to make their way in the world. Needing a place to settle as their numbers grew, the Original 22—the twenty rats and the two mice that escaped with them—at first chose a lifestyle that involved using a human farmer’s resources to sustain them. They gradually found that this did not sit too well with them morally, and so they soon initiated a plan that would lessen the chance of human discovery and enable them to live self-sufficiently as well. The Plan succeeded despite some opposition which led to the loss of the Rats’ beloved leader.

In their new environs, they were succeeding exceptionally well, growing their own food and overall providing well for everyone, as well as Nicodemus had envisioned. But winter was soon to be upon them, and all knew it could prove to be a challenge. The previous winter, the advance crew headed up by their chief engineer Arthur was busily preparing this new colony for everyone else, building everything up from scratch. Their experience had been invaluable as a test of how well they could survive out here, not only far away from human civilization but during a more difficult season as well. The fact that they had made it through relatively unscathed proved an enormous morale booster for this year’s winter.

Still, nothing was being taken for granted. Though winters in this part of the country were, by and large, relatively mild compared to areas further north, colder temperatures accompanied by snow and ice, possibly more serious than last winter, were to be anticipated. Accordingly, plenty of supplies were being laid in for winter. Their efforts were vindicated when a snowstorm, greater than any in recent memory, dumped some five inches of snow on Thorn Valley in the space of a single day in January.

It had begun in midday, with wet, heavy flakes quickly accumulating, the kind that typically accompany temperatures that hover around the freezing mark. While there was still daylight, children—and many adults as well—seized the opportunity. In short order, the area in front of the Rat colony—the “front yard”—became dotted with igloos and snow sculptures of every kind. Two sloping areas were quickly designated as sledding runs, and though there were specially-built sleds and toboggans made for that express purpose, they were quickly becoming in-demand items and in short supply as more and more sought to join in the fun. So many made do with their own cobbled-together versions built of wood scrap and other materials like carpet remnant. As darkness fell, many were reluctant to come back inside and had to be literally dragged and carried. Guard Rats made sure everyone was rounded up and accounted for, for the usual reasons of extra caution after dark; but they also reminded everyone that in days to come, there was a possibility of predators making their way back into the area in search of food if these weather conditions persisted.

For certain of the community’s citizens—the “minority community” of Mice—that change meant a bit of difficulty in their comings and goings between the Rat colony and their own homes. Johnathan Brisby and his family, and Mr. Ages, who headed up the medical department, lived in quarters separate from the Rats, as was their decisions upon joining the community. It was an arrangement they’d always felt comfortable with, but it was now proving to have its downside. The Brisbys—Johnathan, his wife Madeline, and their children Teresa, Martin, Timothy, Cynthia, Lyndon and Shawna—had already spent most of the day inside the Rat community when the storm hit, and so they opted to stay overnight, sleeping over with friends. The radio broadcasts that they routinely monitored had forecast the storm to pass overnight with clear and sunny conditions prevailing the next day, so the going should be easier then.

On the other hand, Mr. Ages—despite warnings from his friends and coworkers—opted to brave the elements and slog through the approximately one hundred twenty feet’s worth of snow and slush that lay between the Rats’ southernmost service entrance and his own home. When word got out, two of the Guard volunteered to see him home safely—though not without trying to persuade him to stay overnight. Still he insisted, and they didn’t question why; though there was a bit of grumbling on their return trip.

Mr. Ages’s quarters were, by the standards of most in the Thorn Valley community, spartan and utilitarian, mainly for sleeping, bathing and occasionally reading and writing. There was only one actual room, furnished with a bed, a small sofa, a table, a desk; two chairs and an ottoman; a walk-in shower and three oil lamps. There had been many days, in his first few months here, when he’d used it very little, spending most of his time at the Rat colony, with many a night spent sleeping in his office. It was no secret how much the new medical department was his pride and joy; and the fact that it was now well underway and running smoothly provided a handy enough explanation to his friends and coworkers as to why he wasn’t staying there nearly so late lately, though he’d never really said as much.

It was entirely possible, though, that even if they were to ask him, he wouldn’t be able to give a concrete answer. Oh, it was true that, lately, he had neglected his own quarters to a degree and that a bit of housecleaning was in order. He had always seen to it that the medical department would be well organized, neat and clean; to the point where his private quarters were, by contrast, left wanting for the same degree of attention.

So now, armed with a broom, feather duster and dustpan, he occupied himself with this task, feeling a degree of contentment simply by keeping busy. Yet, once he’d done as much as he reasonably could and prepared to go to sleep, he felt a sense of disquietude creep upon him, especially after he’d settled into bed. It was, in fact, a feeling that had been building, growing within him for some time now, much as he’d been loath to admit it; and if he were pressed, even by Johnathan, who was the closest to being his confidant, he’d most likely reply that he was fine, that nothing was amiss.

For certain, his service to this community with his knowledge and skills in medicine and chemistry made him feel fulfilled and that he was contributing to the well-being of everyone here. But if he were inclined to articulate this “creeping” feeling in the broadest terms, he would say that his profession, for all it made him feel content, just wasn’t enough, not quite; there should be more to his life. Perhaps he even knew, deep down, precisely what it was. But, largely because he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone, now he once again dismissed it as “silly nonsense,” pushing back this feeling as best he could, as he had so often recently.

And yet…there were those conversations with Johnathan—at least three of them since he and his family joined this community—in which he would subject his friend to a near-lecture about “carrying on the legacy,” which he felt was important since the two of them were the only two “advanced” mice to survive what they’d come to call the Airshaft Massacre, that tragic event that came in the midst of their escape from NIMH, that had claimed the lives of those nine fellow captive mice—though, of course, Madeline had long been one of them as well, having been made so apparently by sole virtue of being Johnathan’s mate. The theory had been put forth that if Ages were to take a natural female as his mate, he might be able to influence her in the same way—all the more reason, Johnathan argued, that he shouldn’t put off finding a mate forever.

Ages dismissed such talk outright the first time; as much as he knew Johnathan was making logical sense, he would simply say that such a life was not for him. In later conversations, he would be less dismissive but still not inclined to agree wholeheartedly. He would not tell Johnathan outright to stop pestering him over the matter, though; somehow, he just couldn’t find it within him. Still, he would continue to tell himself that it was not a matter that had any real relevance with him.

And yet, these conversations with Johnathan weren’t the only factors contributing to this feeling. After becoming reacquainted with Madeline and the Brisby children—especially the children, while Madeline and the others were off searching for Johnathan—Ages found himself actually enjoying their company to a degree. And on the occasion of their grand reunion, he found within him a degree of vicarious pleasure; and perhaps even a touch of envy, though he would never admit it out loud, even to Johnathan.

So it was that this night, he again dismissed this feeling that was so out of place, that had no business occupying his thoughts when there were more important matters calling for his attention these days. Right now, the most important one was a good night’s sleep; so he breathed in deep, head settling against his pillow, preparing his mind and body for slumber.

Just as it was coming upon him, it was abruptly interrupted. His eyes snapped open, his regular breathing giving way to a snort. He growled to himself; was that a knock on his front door, or a half-formed dream? He half-sat up, listening for any out-of-place sound, and lay back down; but no sooner did head meet pillow when it sounded again. He was definitely about to receive a visitor, and at the most inopportune moment—as if there were an opportune moment with him, some might add.

At one time, he might have dismissed any visitor with a shouted “Go away!” even before knowing his or her identity; but, given the time of day, this one was unusual enough that he needed to satisfy his curiosity, if nothing else. So he got up out of bed, grumbling, putting on a robe, ready to give somebody a piece of his mind. Another knock sounded on his way to the door. “All right, I’m coming!” he replied irritably as he lit the oil lamp next to the door.

Upon opening it, he half-expected to see Johnathan, or his wife or one of his children; but though it was a mouse, it was one not immediately familiar to him. She looked up at him, huddled on all fours at his stoop, shivering, eyes pleading.

“M-Mister Ages? Is-is it you?”

“Er…yes, I am he. What do you want?” He said this knowing that her business with him had to be the most basic need for shelter.

“I-I got lost in the snow. I’ve been wandering around ever since, I…I don’t know how to get home. Please…please help me.” She sounded almost ready to break down crying.

Ages’s first inclination was to tell her that his neighbors the Brisbys lived a short ways from there and that they’d be better able to accommodate her; and then he remembered that none of them were home, the entire family having opted to stay overnight at the Rat Colony. So instead, he offered his hand to her.

“Come…come in, girl. You must be freezing out here.”

Some might be surprised at such a show of generosity; indeed, he would later question it himself. But those who knew him best were aware of his compassion for his fellow beings; he’d already gained a still-growing reputation among the natural mice in the area, treating them as he would the colony residents, and would not turn away anyone outright if there was a need for his services.

She looked at him with immense relief and gratitude as she straightened, taking his hand and letting him lead her inside. He quickly closed the door and steered her toward the sofa, telling her to stand by a moment while he brought her a blanket. He wrapped her in it and sat her down on the sofa, feeling her continue to tremble. He put on another lamp and brought her a cup of leftover tea.

“Here, drink this. It’s only lukewarm, but it’ll help.”

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Ages. Thank you so much.” She took a sip.

“You’re…you’re welcome. Now I’ll need to look at your hands and feet. You could have caught some serious frostbite out there.”

He began his examination with her feet, which were still trembling. She took another sip and said, “I…don’t suppose you’d remember me…”

He looked up in surprise at the words’ familiarity. “Yes, I…believe I do. I’m afraid your name slips my mind right now, but I was with the Brisbys a month or so ago when we met.”

“Y-yes. My name’s Alma. You w-were going around to other m-mice in the valley…just to-to meet them, to show that…you wanted to be good neighbors.” She took another sip of tea.

“Ah, yes, that’s right.” Ages recalled the day trip—essentially a “goodwill tour”—that they’d taken around a wide swath of territory at Thorn Valley’s north end, ingratiating themselves to the locals, hoping to foster improved relations, something the Rats hadn’t made their greatest priority. He’d gone along with some reluctance but had to admit afterwards that it was good to be out in different surroundings and that the tour was overall worthwhile.

Alma continued to sit quietly, sipping her tea, looking upon Ages appreciatively as he continued his examination mostly in silence.

“Well, Alma,” he announced at length, “it looks like you found shelter in the nick of time. Your hands and feet should be better if you…just keep them wrapped up and warm overnight.” He felt a measure of reluctance just at saying this, knowing that it would mean he wouldn’t be sending her out again, to the Brisby home or otherwise.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much, sir. May I stay here tonight?” Alma drew her feet up onto the sofa cushions and tucked them underneath her, her shivering visibly lessened. She looked as one all too happy to settle in right there.

“Er…yes, I suppose that’s best. It certainly wouldn’t be worth your while to go back outside now.” Ages sighed, unable to shake a feeling of regret, for all he took her in voluntarily. After all, she was about to catch her death out there; what else could he do? “All right then, Alma. I guess, if you don’t mind sleeping right here on the sofa…”

“No, of course not. Thank you.” Alma sighed as she rubbed her feet gently. She yawned, already feeling much more relaxed, and lay down on her side. “Oh, it’s so nice and warm in here,” she said, sighing contentedly.

Ages reacted in kind, raising a small laugh from her. He felt himself blush, then collected himself. “Well…if you’re comfortable, then…I-I’ll be getting back to bed myself. Good night, Alma.” He nodded courteously to her before putting out both lamps and returning to his bed. He removed his robe and settled in, welcoming the returning warmth after drawing the covers over himself.

Sleep eluded him for a while longer, though, owing largely to the presence of his unexpected guest, even though she’d uttered hardly a sound since they’d said their goodnights. Not since he’d shared quarters with Johnathan had anyone stayed under the same roof with him overnight. But he also couldn’t help wondering why he’d been so willing to welcome a relative stranger into his home. He tried to brush aside the thought. She needed shelter, and you took her in. It’s as simple as that. Now let’s get some sleep.

Soon he was nodding off again; and in short order, he was again jolted back to wakefulness. This time it took the form not of an urgent rapping upon his door, but of something even more unexpected: someone was pulling aside the covers of his bed!

He turned his head quickly to see Alma at his bedside. “I-I’m still feeling…a bit chilly, Mr. Ages. May I get into bed with you? I’m sorry, I should have asked first…”

He was so taken aback that he was speechless, barely able to utter a sound, even to save his life; and Alma, mistaking his silence for his unqualified consent, climbed right in.

“Thank you so much, sir. I know I’ll warm right up this way.” She snuggled right up to his back, pressing her body against his, sighing contentedly as she placed an arm around his torso.

Finding his voice, Ages stammered, “N-now see here, girl. I…I didn’t…”

“Yes, Mr. Ages?”

“Uhbm…er…n-nothing. Good…good night, Alma…again.”

“Good night,” she said, sounding completely relaxed. “Thanks again.”

Ages, however, didn’t quite share the feeling. He lay there on his side, body tense and starting to sweat, utterly at a loss for what to say or do. On one hand he felt like berating her for her presumptuousness and ordering her to get back to the sofa; but on the other, his more practical side was telling him that she still needed to recover from her ordeal and that sharing his body heat with her would help speed the process—a perfectly logical plan. But actually allowing her to share his bed? Not since the Wandering Days following the escape of himself and the other Original 22 from NIMH had he done so; since then, it was never…necessary. Was it?

He continued to feel as if he were right on the verge of ordering her, or at least politely asking her to return to the sofa. Yet, as he continued to wrestle with how to deal with this strange and awkward situation, he realized that he was actually starting to feel…comfortable. But how could he, when she just barged in without asking? But then, she did ask, actually, didn’t she? And he never told her no, did he?

Eventually he resigned himself to spending the rest of the night like this. At this point, he couldn’t just kick her out, could he? Especially as he realized that she’d already fallen asleep while pressed up against him. And could he rightfully deny, in all truthfulness, that, in spite of himself…it actually felt good having her here in his bed. She had a very pleasant scent, her warm exhaled breath on his back felt almost comforting, and her body’s warmth was actually helping him to relax. It felt wrong, out of place, nothing that he ever would have planned for, and yet…there was, paradoxically, something right, appropriate about it as well. Sooner than he would have ever believed if he lived to be a thousand, he again began slipping into slumber; and abruptly, awareness of this strange situation caused him to snap awake again. Am I actually getting comfortable like this? he asked himself. And yet again, he began slipping under, sleep overtaking him completely this time.

Chapter 2 - Lost and found

The door opened, and the pair was greeted by the morning sun in a gloriously blue sky, reflecting brightly on yesterday’s snow-cover. Both were forced to shade their eyes from the glare, but it was a welcome sight.

“Well, Alma,” said Ages, “you shouldn’t have any trouble finding your way home now.”

“Oh, I know I will.” Alma breathed in deep. “Such a beautiful morning.” She turned to him. “Well, I’ve got a long walk ahead of me, so I’d better get going.” She looked off toward Lake Nicodemus, beyond which her home lay.

Ages made to say something; a request, actually, but somehow it died before he could voice it. Instead he said, “All right, then. Let’s both be off now, we…we all have places we need to be.”

“Of course. Thank you again, Mr. Ages. I…I won’t forget this.”

“You’re welcome, Alma.” He half-mumbled this last statement, though he managed a small smile; but then Alma surprised him by turning back to him and giving him a hug. She drew back, smiling radiantly, and then turned and dashed off across the snow on all fours.

He watched her receding figure until he caught himself, realizing two things: that it was nearly a minute he’d just spent watching her leave, and that, despite the sudden exposure to the cold, he was sweating. He shook his head, looking toward the north, and started off along the trail which would take him back to the Rat community, made clear last night through the snow by the Guard rats.

As he did, he couldn’t suppress a yawn, and it reminded him of last night: more specifically, the fact that Alma had shared his bed the entire night. But whereas she’d arisen this morning feeling thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated, he had awakened several times. He had become so accustomed to sleeping alone that every time she moved in her sleep, even slightly, she jogged him awake. After they’d both risen at dawn and were preparing for the day ahead, he’d tried his best to maintain the appearance of having had adequate sleep, but it was difficult; and at one point he had to fight back the impulse to actually level a complaint against her for keeping him awake. He’d instantly chastised himself, reminding himself that he had the chance to ask her to return to the sofa before she fell asleep, or he could have gotten up at any time and spent the rest of the night on the sofa himself.

So why, he now asked himself, didn’t he do either? Because he couldn’t rightfully deny that he genuinely liked having her there, in spite of the disruptions to his sleep. She seemed completely innocent, her manner pleasant and inoffensive, in spite of her not asking permission beforehand to share his bed; and so he’d wished not to offend her in any way—and there was a chance she would have felt hurt, had he moved to the sofa. Though the two seemed to have little in common, he actually enjoyed her company. He paused, looking off toward the lake again, hoping she’d have no trouble getting home. All at once he felt regret: Why didn’t I invite her to have breakfast with me, instead of just simply seeing her off? It would have been the right thing, wouldn’t it? Ages sighed. He’d come close to asking her that very question just before she’d left, only to have the question die on his lips, making an excuse that it wasn’t that important. Johnathan and Madeline would say it would have been the gentlemanly thing to do. Regret gave way to near-dismay; then he shook his head and continued his journey, determined not to feel guilty. There’s nothing to keep her from returning this way again if she wants to; she knows the way now. Feeling vindicated, or a close approximation thereof, he reviewed in his head what was on the agenda for today.

By the time the Rat colony’s entrance came into sight, he again thought of his friends the Brisbys, and whether or not to tell them about what happened last night, since, after all, they knew Alma and so would be interested. Yet, by the time he was inside and on his way to the dining hall, he decided to keep it to himself, at least for the time being.

He joined the Brisbys, who welcomed him at their usual sized-down tables. Many of their Rat friends were there as well, and the main topic of conversation was still the visit the family had recently made to the home of their friend and benefactor Gwinthrayle, with whom Johnathan had spent ten months of his life, “exiled” on the extradimensional world of Lahaikshe until his return this past summer. The visit ended three days ago, but all they’d experienced—especially the children—was still keeping the excitement level high for them.

Ages was as genuinely curious as anyone to hear more details, so he mostly sat back and listened, able to largely put last night in the back of his mind. At one point he was unable to suppress a yawn, and Johnathan jokingly asked him if the story was boring him. He replied without elaborating that it had been a bit of a sleepless night for him, managing to avoid sounding irritated by the question.

At meal’s end everyone set out for the day’s tasks, and Johnathan and Madeline embraced and kissed before going their separate ways. It was a sight everyone was familiar with, and Ages was no exception; but seeing it this time had an effect on him he couldn’t articulate. Seeing them together since their reunion and the family’s move to Thorn Valley had always brought a small amount of vicarious pleasure to him, something that wasn’t exactly a secret to them; so why should it be different now? Somehow the thought brought him back to last night, and the return of a feeling of regret that he hadn’t confided in his friends about Alma, and that he hadn’t invited her to join him for breakfast.

Trying to shrug it off, he began making his way to Medical, forcing himself back to the subject of today’s important tasks, suddenly feeling the need to immerse himself in his regular routine.

* * *

The day had passed with no new snow, as had been forecast; and as Mr. Ages prepared to return home, he paused to watch some Rat youngsters and adults playing in the snow in front of the Rat colony, even allowing a chuckle or two before setting off.

On the way, he reflected on the day past. Though, in his estimation, a goodly amount was accomplished, he’d found his mind returning, time and again, to thinking about Alma. On one occasion he was asked by Bernadette, his good right hand, what was going on, giving him a start; and he realized, with no small embarrassment, that he’d been sitting at his desk staring into space for a good two minutes. Characteristically, he told her it was nothing, and she knew better than to press him for more details, though she let him know as always that if he wanted to open up more, any such details would stay between the two of them.

As he made his way along, he again thought of Alma, wondering what she might be doing right now, hoping she made her way home safely. He answered himself: Oh, stop worrying, of course she’s all right. She made it all the way here, didn’t she? And that was after dark, yet. Out of the blue, he wondered: Did she really just lose her way, or was there another reason she was in the area? Well, if so, he rationalized, it might have been to see the Brisbys. It couldn’t have been…

He paused, looking out toward the lake. Shaking his head, he resumed the walk home. Why, the very idea that she could have been there for the express purpose of… “Aagh…silly nonsense,” he muttered.

As he drew up to his front door, he paused again. He thought he caught a familiar scent—really just the hint of one—and reached for the doorknob. He paused again. Why should she be on my mind so much? Could she really have affected me as much as…Regina? I didn’t dislike having her here, but… Trying to dismiss the thought, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. Oh, it’s not as if she’s here, right behind the—

“Mr. Ages! Welcome home!”

He was caught literally off-balance, almost stumbling backwards. He shook his head in disbelief at the sight of the one before him, looking pleased to see him, as if innocently unaware of any impropriety she may have committed. “Alma,” he was finally able to say, “just what do you…how did…” He was able to tone down his exasperation slightly, enough to ask, “Are you here because you’re hurt, or need some kind of medical help?”

“No,” she replied, a bit taken aback by his tone. “I guess…I should have waited outside, shouldn’t I.”

“Well, I should say so! You don’t just barge into someone’s house without permission, it just isn’t done.”

“I’m sorry, I guess I…” Alma sighed. “I just wanted to surprise you, I…” Tears began welling. “I…I’ll just go now.”

She moved past him for the door, and Ages made no move to detain her as she headed out alone into the early evening. Just before she was out of his sight, though, he made to call after her; then he sighed and closed the door. He removed his coat, the look on Alma’s face returning to him as he hung it on its hook. Well, it’s not my fault. She should have known better. Even if she is a natural, she still…

Trying to bury the thought, he headed for the sofa, looking at the half-finished book he’d intended to resume reading; but just as he prepared to light the nearby lamp, he again stopped. If she meant to come here, just to see me, then…

Abruptly he threw up his hands. Ages, you insufferable cretin! What were you thinking? She came all this way to see you, for whatever reason, and you just turn her out like…like she’s nothing! He looked toward the door; then, his decision made, he reached for his coat, put it back on and headed out into the evening, the sun having already set behind Thorn Valley’s western cliffs.

As he headed for the trail that would take him around the south tip of Lake Nicodemus, he continued chastising himself. At this time of day yet, you turn her out! You could have at least let her explain why, and now… He fought back any worry for her safety he might have and tried to estimate how soon he’d catch up with her. It wasn’t even five minutes, so she couldn’t have gotten too great a lead on him. He was never the fastest on his feet, even before last year’s accident that gave him a fractured tibia, but still…

He made to call for her, and then hesitated; if anyone else were out and about, he didn’t want to involve them. He was sure he could still catch up with her without drawing anyone’s attention; all the same, he hoped he wouldn’t run into any Guard rats on patrol.

Then, just after rounding a young spruce, he saw her, having apparently just stopped in her tracks…as if she had second thoughts, as he did? He called out quietly to her, and she turned, expression still reflecting her earlier upset, but with some relief showing through.

“Mr. Ages,” Alma said as he caught up to her. “I didn’t think…that you…”

“Alma, please forgive me,” he said, drawing up to her and gently clasping her shoulders. “You just…caught me at a bad time, I guess. It’s been a…strange day for me, and I’m such a creature of habit, and so I wasn’t expecting…well…” He couldn’t admit, at least not yet, that it was she who had made it a strange day for him. Aware that his attempted explanation was a bit incoherent, he added, “…now I just want to tell you I’m sorry and…I hope you’ll forgive me.”

She looked ambivalent for a moment, then she smiled and nodded. “Yes…I forgive you. But…what do you want me to do now?”

Ages was momentarily stuck for an answer. All right then, he thought decisively. The ball’s in my court, as Johnathan would say. “Alma, I…I’d like you to come back with me. Please.”

“All right,” she replied simply, looking pleased; and Ages found himself feeling more pleased than he would have believed over this turn of events. The two turned back toward his home. Along the way, she gently took his arm, a gesture he didn’t discourage; though he still hoped no one would see them like this. He didn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression about what was going on, especially since he wasn’t certain himself. He was nervous, unsure of what he’d say to her once they were behind closed doors, but he silently swore he wouldn’t back down. He owed her that much, after he’d treated her as he did.

“Well…here we are again,” he said as he opened his door, allowing her inside first. Oh, lord, did you actually say that? Pushing the thought back, he again took off his coat and placed it on its hook. “Are you hungry at all? I have only a little food here, but I don’t normally keep much here; though given yesterday’s storm, I probably should have some emergency provisions…” He unaccountably felt some embarrassment at the admission as he lit the doorway lamp.

“No, I’m all right,” she said.

“Well, then…” He breathed in deep. “Sit down, please, Alma.” He directed her to the sofa and lit the nearby lamp. He looked upon her sitting there, looking up at him, her face full of expectation, the lamplight highlighting the side of her face. How lovely she is, he found himself thinking.

Feeling a sudden attack of self-consciousness, he began to pace the floor in front of her. “I…I’d like to…to be able to explain my actions, but there’s no excuse for my treating you like I did. It’s just…well, as I tried to say out there…I’ve become such a creature of habit, that I don’t like it when someone…invades my private space. Oh, I suppose ‘invade’ is too strong a word. But…this place I’ve come to regard as my…sanctuary, I guess, and…even if it’s someone like you, who…” He paused in his pacing, breathing in deep. “I know you didn’t mean any harm, Alma, it’s just that…” He threw up his arms, at a loss for how to explain further.

“I…think I understand, Mr. Ages. I knew someone kind of like you once, and he always seemed to want to be left alone. I thought it was kind of funny at the time, but…since then I’ve felt sorry for him.”

He stopped cold at these words, staring at Alma. Is that how she thinks of me? A bitter old man, someone to be pitied? He felt an edge of anger and almost asked her this aloud, point-blank; then he thought better of it, still certain she didn’t mean any harm. Then he remembered that she hadn’t yet told him why she came back. “Alma…you said before, didn’t you, that…you wanted to surprise me.”

“Yes, I did. And I guess I did surprise you. Didn’t I?” She laughed nervously.

Ages couldn’t help chuckling himself. With some of the tension off, he said, “Well, that you did. But you must have had a specific reason for coming back.” To see me again, to spend more time with me… He felt his heart rise in anticipation of the possibility.

“I guess…I was curious. I just wanted to find out more about you. Back when you and Mr. and Mrs. Brisby visited me, I learned that you help those rat friends of yours when they get sick or hurt. It really fascinated me. I wasn’t sure I’d see you again, but…last night I really did get lost in the snow trying to find my way home. And then I just happened to find my way to your door. I…suppose you might not believe that part, but I swear it’s true.”

Ages looked thoughtfully at her, scratching his chin, poring over the events of last night. “No, it’s all right, Alma, I believe you. Under the circumstances, it makes sense. But you asked me…if I was Mr. Ages, like you weren’t sure…”

“Yes, it was just so cold, and it had been a while…”

“Of course, Alma. You were at the end of your rope. Well, believe me, I was glad to help you, even if it didn’t seem much like it.” With hardly another thought he took his place on the sofa beside her. Her nearness, her scent, her smile and gentle manner seemed to fill his entire being so that his next words to her escaped him. Again he could only gaze upon her, realizing that he didn’t feel so inclined to conceal his admiration now. And…could it be that he held the same fascination for her? Was it even possible?

A thought that had crossed his mind earlier, just as he’d first reached his front door today, returned; and, again feeling decisive, he said to her, “Alma, there’s…something I…feel I should tell you. Something that might help us both understand better…what’s been happening.”

Alma’s expression was full of curiosity, and for a moment Ages wondered at her sincerity. Banishing the thought, he began: “I don’t know how much of this story you may have heard already, but…we, that is, Johnathan and I, and the elder Rats…came from a place where humans experimented upon us and made us what we are now, different in many ways from mice like yourself.”

“Yes, Mr. Brisby did tell me some of that. A place called…NIMH, I think?”

“Aah, yes, very good,” said Ages, genuinely impressed. “You have an excellent memory. So…before the humans captured us, we were all much as you are now. Most of us didn’t even know each other until we were all at NIMH together, and I hadn’t met any of the others yet. I lived in a field, a vacant lot, really. From a very early age, I’d…been solitary, living on my own. I had yet to…to find a mate, I could not seem to…”

He looked away, sighing, appearing unable to continue for a moment; then he looked apologetic and resumed. “Anyhow…one day I was out, just foraging…when…she approached me.” He paused again, sighing, looking wistful. “Her name…was Regina. At first I tried to pretend she wasn’t there, because I couldn’t believe, honestly, that she, or anyone, could be interested in me, actually wanted to…be in my company.”

As he paused again, Alma asked, “Why?” in complete earnestness and innocence.

Ages looked at her in disbelief. How can she not see? He nearly asked it aloud, but her expression still registered complete sincerity, reflecting the tone of her question perfectly. He reminded himself that he wanted to share this with her—something he still couldn’t explain, precisely—and so should have been prepared for such questions. And she wanted to be here too, still giving every indication of such.

“I guess,” he went on, “it was because I’d become so accustomed to…being shunned by other mice, especially females. Though I suppose…” He inhaled deeply. “…there wasn’t much effort on my part, not as much as…I could have made.” Momentarily he reflected on the admission he’d just made to her, a deeply personal one that he’d never made to anyone, not even Johnathan.

“So…” he continued, “when Regina came up to me, telling me her name and asking about mine, I was suspicious. I couldn’t believe she was sincere. I think I even told her at least once to go away. But she stayed put, not giving up. Given what happened later, perhaps it would have been better if…” Again his expression grew distant, distracted.

“And then what did you do?” asked Alma; and Ages again found himself encouraged by her genuine interest in hearing the rest of his story.

“Well…she kept after me, and…I found myself wanting her to stay. She got me to open up, and I started telling her more about myself, and she told me about herself. But after a while she said, right out of the blue, that she had to leave, and she did with no explanation. I was curious and started to follow her; but then I thought better of it.

“I went home and thought about her actions. Was there someone, her mother perhaps, who wouldn’t have approved of her being with me? Could she have been only stringing me along? Before I went to sleep, I resolved to try to see her again, and get some definite answers. I’d never felt so determined about anything before, or anyone. Even then, I wondered why. What was she to me? I had to find out.”

Ages paused again, feeling self-conscious over having admitted this much; but Alma was still clearly interested. He cleared his throat. “So…the next day I returned to the same location at about the same time, and…I could hardly believe it. There she was! I tried not to let my disbelief show, but it didn’t take long for me to believe that she really was there because she wanted to be with me. For the next few minutes—I’m still not sure how many—we continued getting to know each other. I didn’t even think to ask why she’d left so abruptly before. I was…starting to feel so close to her, wanting to…to get to know her in every way. And…I was right on the verge of telling her so, when…” He paused, closing his eyes and bringing a hand to his forehead as if in genuine pain. “…they struck.” He fairly spit the words out.

“Was it…the humans?” ventured Alma.

Ages nodded, momentarily reluctant to continue. He breathed in deeply. “It was right at dusk. We saw them coming, but we didn’t take care as much as we should have. We figured they were just passing through, since humans don’t generally pay much attention to mice. But it turned out they actually were there for us.

“We heard one say, ‘Over there!’ Even then, we didn’t react too quickly, because we still didn’t believe we were in any real danger; then, all at once, one of them was looming over us. I cried out, ‘Run!’ Regina ran off in one direction, I in another, and…that was the last we ever laid eyes on each other.”

Again Ages paused; it was abundantly clear to Alma why he’d find difficulty in relating this part of the story. With hardly a thought, she placed her hand on his, looking upon him consolingly. He looked up in surprise but didn’t draw away, even managing a small smile. He nodded and continued.

“The next minute was like a blur, everything changed so fast. I found myself unable to move; a net had been thrown over me. One of them picked me up with a gloved hand, and struggle as I might, as much as I wanted to bite my way free, I was completely helpless. Next thing I knew, I was no longer surrounded by the net, but now it was a cold metal enclosure with bars that restricted me. A cage, and I knew I hadn’t a prayer of escaping it.” He paused again, sighing.

“It seems odd to say it now, but…it wasn’t until then that I thought of Regina again. Did she get away, or was she captured too? Then suddenly, there was a loud rumbling sound, like thunder. It seemed to come from everywhere, all around me. I soon realized it was one of their motor vehicles I was aboard, and that it was soon in motion. When I realized that, I found myself hoping that Regina had been captured with me; of course it would be better if we were both free, but at least that way there’d be a chance we could be together.

“I found that there were other cages besides mine, so I began calling Regina’s name. Another mouse’s voice answered, from the cage next to mine: ‘Hello? My name is Johnathan. Who are you?’”

“And that was how you met Mr. Brisby?” Alma said, absorbed and fascinated by the story so far.

“Yes, at least voice to voice; it would still be a considerable amount of time before he and I would actually meet face to face. There were others there as well, males and females alike: Morley, Kimball, Delilah were the names I heard first. ‘Is there one named Regina here?’ I called out. I felt…desperate, almost, I had to know. But I soon realized that she must have escaped after all. I was angry, pulling and tugging at the bars of my cage. But I soon resigned myself to having no hope of escape, at least for the time being, and I realized that it was just as well that Regina had managed to avoid capture, even if it meant we couldn’t be together.

“So…the minutes ticked by, and Johnathan and I continued exchanging words, mostly speculating about where we were going and what they wanted with us. But Regina was never far from my thoughts. Despite how hopeless our situation appeared, I wasn’t yet ready to accept that I, or my fellow captives, wouldn’t yet escape it. I still pictured myself being reunited with Regina, she and I picking up where we left off—a naïve hope, I suppose, but it was all I had.

“But…all too soon, I had to accept the impossibility of it. The trip ended with our being taken into a building, and then to a room that would be our home for some three years. The humans transferred us to different cages, one for each of us, and injected us with chemical compounds, put us through test after test…and in the end, we were transformed from what we were: all eleven of us mice, and the twenty rats who had also become subjects for their experiments. Among other things, we were now longer-lived than our natural counterparts…and I knew, beyond a doubt now, that I had to abandon any hope I may have harbored of ever seeing Regina again. It had been…such a long time that, surely, she’d have…been dead by then.”

Ages’ throat tightened and he became unable to keep the tears from his eyes, lowering his head into his hands. Alma placed her arm around his shoulders and stroked his arm gently. When he felt more composed, he looked at her, managing a small smile, and wiped his tears on his sleeve. Still he couldn’t help feeling some embarrassment, irrational as he knew it to be.

“Mr. Ages, I’m so sorry. It had to be terrible for you. But…you did escape?”

“Yes, we did, Alma, and…thank you.” He inhaled deeply. “All of the rats; but unfortunately, only two of us out of the mice, Johnathan and me. By that time, as I said, I’d given up the idea of ever seeing Regina again. But being free, liberated at long last…it was so exhilarating, it felt almost like a miracle just to be out in the world again. And yet…”

Ages shook his head, looking as if his next words were the most difficult he’d ever had to say aloud; and still Alma just sat beside him patiently. “It’s…never been easy for me to…to articulate my feelings to others, Alma. I’d…held in so much back then, and since; but…losing those nine mice affected me more than I’d let on to anyone. But whereas Johnathan expressed his feelings openly, and the rats too, it’s never been as easy for me. I’d never told anyone—not even Johnathan, who was the nearest to a confidant that I had—how deeply it hurt. When the prospect of freedom loomed, I’d started believing it possible that one of the females could…become my mate, and I knew Johnathan felt the same. I didn’t have any one of them in mind, specifically, but…we both knew, as did the rats, that we weren’t the same as before and that there was no chance of returning to our old way of life. We were now an entirely new race of people, or rather pair of races, completely on our own. And yet certain things hadn’t changed: for me, all the old feelings returned, of…of being alone in the world.”

He paused again, and for a moment Alma thought he’d break down again; but in fact Ages surprised himself with how easily he was able to carry on. “Of course, I wasn’t really alone; among the 22 of us, there was an ever-increasing sense of camaraderie that kept all of us together, going from day to day. And yet…for Johnathan and me, things were so much different than they were for the rats. Thoughts of what Regina and I could have had intruded on me time and again; and though I was well aware that both of us could take natural females as wives, I could not shake the feeling, not completely, that I had missed my one chance, as irrational as I knew it to be. And I would stubbornly refuse to confide in anyone, including Johnathan, only adding to my reputation as…irascible, unsociable; but none knew the…depths of the turmoil I was in.

“I’d never seriously considered taking my own life, Alma, but I spent many an hour contemplating what I could possibly do with the rest of it. And in time I resolved that whatever I decided to do, I needed to rid myself of the anger, the resentment.

“And, even before the time we had founded our first community, I’d found within me an avid interest in medicine and chemistry. And before I knew it, I was treating the Rats’ cuts and scrapes, fixing powders and potions to lessen their cold symptoms, even helping to deliver their babies.” He paused to chuckle. “Less than a year before, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

He faced Alma directly. “I had found myself a true calling, Alma, something that gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction. But though I’d been telling myself that this was enough, even after we’d all moved out here to Thorn Valley, deep down I realized that…just perhaps, it wasn’t, that there were other changes in my life that were possible, even...even necessary.

“I guess it really began when Madeline Brisby arrived here this past summer with her children; and she and three of the rats left to bring Johnathan back from the other world he’d been sent to unwillingly.”

“Oh, yes. They told me about that too, though it was hard to understand.”

Ages nodded approvingly. “So, of course, their mission was successful, and…when Johnathan was at long last reunited with his children, I could only look upon the sight, and…well, it had quite an effect on me. I was well aware of how much he loved them; and, in fact, I had of late grown closer to them myself. I had stayed behind on the farm a little longer to see to Timothy Brisby’s recovery from his illness, and…I grew quite fond of the boy, though I’d never admitted it out loud to his mother. And when he and his siblings came out here, I ended up becoming one of those helping to look after them. Cynthia, in particular, grew somewhat attached to me; why I didn’t really understand. I always tried to be patient with them and was never short with them, or spoke harshly; but even so, it was almost as if she were immune to my…well, usual tendencies. Timothy as well. And in spite of myself, I’d become fond of her as well, as much as Timothy, as if they were my own…”

Ages caught himself again. “Well…when I witnessed this grand reunion, I…as I had so many times, I would not reveal just how profoundly I was affected. But I believe I knew deep down, even then, that there would be changes in my life; even as my role here, as part of the Rats’ society, was rapidly changing, with the new medical facilities, a project I willingly threw myself into.”

As he paused again, Alma asked tentatively, “Did you…ever think about Regina again?”

For a moment she wondered if she’d crossed a line; but Ages was actually pleased and impressed that she’d asked. “I was just about to say, my…Alma. Thoughts of her had been coming to me far less frequently since our days on the Fitzgibbons farm; I believe the most I’d thought about her was the day Johnathan went to propose to Madeline. But…after their reunion, I’d find myself thinking about her more and more, completely unbidden. I’ve had more than one night lately where sleep didn’t…come as quickly as it did usually; no actual sleepless nights, mind you, but still…”

He took a deep breath, suddenly feeling the need to get to the point—the point he knew, even more strongly now than when he’d started, needed to be made. “Alma,” he began, “I’d been so badly hurt at losing Regina, before I’d even had the chance to really know her; and then we’d lost the other mice at NIMH, before I’d had the chance to know any of them better. After all this, I’d convinced myself that I would never…find another one that made me…feel as I did with her—Regina, I mean. But now…”

Ages turned, looking at Alma squarely, hands on her shoulders. “Alma, I could very well have asked you to leave last night, when you came seeking shelter. I might have redirected you to the Brisbys, who are practically next door, but they weren’t home and…well, it might have seemed unkind even if they were. Even now, I can’t explain it all, but I…”

Suddenly he got to his feet and began pacing the floor. Alma could only watch curiously, head bobbing to and fro with his movements. “I…thought this would be so much easier, that I’d be able to…” He suddenly felt a sense almost of humiliation, turning away from Alma. “Perhaps…you’d best go now. I don’t know what…I can…” He inhaled deeply, barely noticing how Alma, who hadn’t hesitated to comment before, was silent now.

Then the voice that was becoming increasingly familiar to him sounded from behind his right shoulder: “Mr. Ages, please tell me how I can help.” She gently pressed herself up close to his back, leaning her head against his shoulder.

His immediate impulse was to pull away; he was unable to focus his thoughts, his emotions aswirl. Then he forced himself to remember: You invited her to stay, you bloody fool! You wanted her here! And she wanted to be here! He turned to face her. “Alma, I don’t know how you can still give me such…such attention like this. After all I…” He gazed into her eyes, eyes that spoke of only sympathy—and more, he believed, even hoped. Certainly they reflected the truth and sincerity in her words that he wanted to believe were there.

“No,” he said decisively, “I do want you to stay, Alma. Please.” He took her into his arms, a gesture that felt so natural, so right to him it was startling, though not enough to let go, mostly because she’d settled so comfortably into his embrace. He invited her to sit with him again.

“Alma, I’ve begun to feel…things that I haven’t felt since…that last time I was…with Regina.” He paused to catch his breath, hand over his heart, feeling more nervous than he’d ever been in his entire life, he’d realize later. “And…it’s you that’s…making me feel this way. There, I said it!”

Alma placed a hand over her own heart, her expression soon becoming one of sheer delight.

“I tried to deny it. I…was almost ready to turn you out again, because…I was scared, it had been so long since…I never thought that…anyone could…”

“Oh, Mr. Ages! I…I do want to stay here, with you. I think…I love you.”

For a moment Ages could only gape speechless, utterly at a loss for how to reply; then, abruptly, unaccountably, he felt his nervous quaking lessen. Again he gently clasped her shoulders. “Alma,” he declared with no trace of self-doubt, “Call me Cyril. This is what people do when…they’re in love. Or at least, when they think…they’re…”

Any further words failed him. Later he would be better able to articulate his feelings; but now, his entire world was this girl, sitting with arms outstretched before him, her smile radiant. There was a mercifully brief moment, a feeling of unreality: Is this actually happening? Then they gently embraced, neither feeling the need for words…only their breaths on each other’s skin, the warmth they felt radiating from each other’s touch.

Ages thought back to the story he’d just related to her, especially how Regina hadn’t wavered in her attraction to him, and how he’d initially rebuffed her. And now, in the warmth of Alma’s embrace, he half-believed that if their budding relationship hadn’t been interrupted by his capture, that this, this beautiful moment right here and now, would have been the result. But could Alma truly replace Regina in his memory, in his heart? Was that truly what was happening here?

The two would spend much time this night examining these and other questions and overall becoming better acquainted with each other, and would look back upon it as the most important day of their lives.

Chapter 3 - Sharing the news

Johnathan and Madeline Brisby tiptoed out of the bedroom where their two youngest, Lyndon and Shawna, were already drifting off to dreamland. They smiled at each other after closing the door silently, and, upon returning to the living room, sat down together on the divan, where Madeline settled easily onto Johnathan’s lap.

They snuggled together mostly silently, kissing and sighing in each other’s arms. They always enjoyed these quiet moments just after tucking in their youngsters and before the older children returned home from spending time with friends at the Rat colony. In the weeks just after the family had made their new home in Thorn Valley, Teresa, Martin, Timothy and Cynthia were spending progressively less time in their new home, though they all openly expressed their love for it. Naturally their parents were proud of the fact that their children had been accepted and were making friends so easily here; yet, they couldn’t help feeling somewhat disheartened, for all they were aware that time was marching on and they were growing more and more independent.

But the fact that they had two new babies to care for was making the adjustment easier. They were born some seven weeks after their parents were happily reunited following Johnathan’s “exile” on Lahaikshe, and their arrival was just the latest chapter in the pair’s new life together. It was a time of renewal, of new beginnings, one they looked back upon now with the utmost fondness with their rediscovery of each other. It was a giddy, crazy time, as much as it could be for two so deeply in love. Certainly they were in love in the “old days,” but it was so much better now, following the full disclosure of Johnathan’s past life to Madeline and the children and with no more secrets between them, their newfound emotional rapport helping considerably.

Lyndon and Shawna were four months old now, and for them too, time was moving right along. They were mostly weaned and just starting to eat solid food, and growing increasingly energetic and rambunctious. Having new little ones to raise was an integral part of this new chapter of their lives, a role they were happy to revisit; and the older children were thrilled at being able to help raise them. But for all the joy they brought to everyone’s lives, none would deny that times such as these, after they had settled down, brought a certain amount of relief to those immediately in charge of them.

And so their parents were relishing this quiet moment, mostly maintaining the near-silence, breaking it with the occasional sound of their lips meeting, followed by quiet laughter, cooing and purring. To the uninitiated, they would be easily mistaken for a couple only recently in love for the first time.

After some ten minutes, though, they felt compelled to begin discussing quietly this day’s events and what they could expect in those to come. Much of it concerned one particular event, low-key but most unusual, from this morning and what ensued throughout the day. As they were on their way to the Rat colony, their friend Mr. Ages called to them from just outside the doorway of his home. He asked them, with an air of preoccupation, to pass on to Bernadette and Jemial that he wouldn’t be in at his usual time today, and quite possibly not at all until the next day. It was so uncharacteristic of him that they asked him if he was feeling ill, the absurdity of the question occurring almost as soon as they’d uttered it. “No,” he replied, “nothing of the sort. Will you do this for me?” Hardly any sooner had he gotten their promise to pass on this information when he gave the briefest of thank-yous and ducked back inside. Of course they were greatly curious but as always agreed to respect his privacy. Inevitably it prompted much discussion, at first limited to Ages’s coworkers but quickly spreading as others learned of his absence, just because it was so unusual for him to be very far from his work.

“You know,” said Johnathan now, “it almost seemed as if…”

“As if what, dear?”

“Oh, you’ll think it’s silly…”

“Oh, you’re silly, Johnathan. Come on, what is it?”

“Well…when he met us outside his door, it almost seemed—almost—that there was another scent there. Faint, but I’m sure it was there.”

Madeline’s eyes widened. “You know, you’re right, now that you mention it. It seemed like a female scent, too, didn’t it?”

“Yes! And we both thought so, but…it’s a little funny that we didn’t talk about it till now. I guess…we both found it hard to believe, that he’d actually…you know, have female company.”

“Well, I can’t deny it, but…there’d have to be more than one reason, wouldn’t there? He could have been—”

There was a knock at the door, making both of them jump. Both of them instantly got to their feet, wondering who it could be at this hour. Generally no one just dropped by uninvited; and though they knew their children were safe among the Rats, there was always the chance of an emergency. But there was another possibility, one that occurred to both en route to the door.

The next moment confirmed their suspicion but didn’t lessen their surprise. Before them stood the familiar figure of their closest neighbor, Cyril Ages, and a less familiar one accompanying him, holding his arm. “Well, Cyril!” greeted Johnathan. “And…I don’t believe we’ve met—”

“Why, Alma!” said Madeline. “It’s been a while. How are you?”

“Very good, Mrs. Brisby.”

“Nice to see you again, Alma,” said Johnathan. “Sorry for not recognizing you right away.”

“Quite all right, Johnathan,” said Ages with an unexpectedly cheerful tone. “You are going to invite us in, aren’t you?” he asked with a wink.

“Oh, uh, sure. Come on in.” He and Madeline stood aside, bemused as their two guests, neither of whom were complete strangers but never expected to be seen together, filed in and sat together on the living room sofa.

Their hosts joined them, neither knowing quite where to begin. Soon Madeline said, “You know, Cyril… Johnathan and I were just…well…” She felt herself blush.

“…talking about me?” said Ages. “That’s quite all right, Madeline. I don’t blame you, after yesterday and…well, what little you saw of me today.” He chuckled, and then breathed in deep, finding some unexpected amusement in his hosts’ expressions, burning with curiosity.

“Well…obviously, you never expected to see this young lady in my company.” He reached over to squeeze Alma’s hand. She beamed back, content to let him do all the talking, at least for now.

“Well, I think both of us knew we’d be in for something unexpected,” said Johnathan. “And I should probably shut up and let you tell us all about it.”

“An excellent choice,” said Ages, smiling. He paused as he realized his own double meaning. “So…after I arrived home two nights ago, I thought I’d do a little overdue housecleaning before turning in…”

He went on to tell how Alma had turned up on his doorstep in need of shelter, and subsequent events up to her unexpected return the following evening. Throughout, his hosts listened silently, astounded at the amount of detail, especially at how Ages described his own emotional reactions; and feeling the need to rein in their amusement at how Alma had climbed into bed with him. He also substantiated an unconfirmed rumor that had found its way to his friends’ ears: that he had shown up still rather early in the morning at the dining hall, leaving with a bag slung over his shoulder that had to have contained more than a single meal’s worth of food. It was all surprising enough, but it was only the beginning.

With barely a pause, Ages went on: “And now, my friends…what I’m about to tell you I’ve only told to one other: this young lady here.” If all he’d already related wasn’t surprising—even shocking—enough, it paled in comparison to what followed.

Alma watched with great interest at the Brisbys’ reactions to Cyril’s account of love lost before it had truly begun. Though he’d told her that he’d never told the story to anyone else, even his closest friends, their surprise was still surprising to her. As he did for Alma, he described for them the emotional trauma he’d experienced following his unwilling separation from Regina, from which he’d never completely recovered.

By the time he’d reached the part where his friends’ reunion helped inspire him to make this change in his life, Madeline was almost weeping in Johnathan’s arms, and he was close to tears himself. Though he and Ages had been friends a long time, it was so unexpected to hear him pour out his heart like this; and this was a major part of why his story had such an emotional impact on his friends.

“Cyril,” Johnathan finally said, “I wish you’d told us this sooner. You could have confided this to me years ago, you know I would have kept it between us if you’d asked.”

“Yes, yes,” Ages said a bit wearily, patting Johnathan’s shoulder. “I suppose…I thought it wouldn’t have done any good, because it couldn’t change what happened…and that since it didn’t involve you or any of the Rats directly, it was no one else’s business.”

“I know,” Madeline said as she wiped away a tear, “that it’s never been easy for you, Cyril, sharing your feelings with others. Believe me, I understand.”

“Thank you, my dear.” Ages looked over to Alma, who was sitting closer to him and leaning on his shoulder. Tears had come to her eyes as well, but she was beaming with pride at him. He kissed her forehead, a gesture surprising to the Brisbys but also totally fitting to them.

“So…” he resumed, “after I’d finished telling the story to Alma, I tried…articulating how I felt about her, and…it was difficult. I panicked and almost told her to leave, but…” He sighed, looking upon her again. “God love her, she wouldn’t give up. Suddenly there was a moment when…it all felt right. And then…I took her in my arms, it just felt…so natural. I barely gave any more thought to…how absurd it would have looked to anyone watching. The more I was with her, the more it didn’t matter.”

“And I suppose…you can tell the rest for yourselves. We spent the rest of that night talking and…getting to know each other as best we could. And yes, she stayed overnight with me again. And then, this morning, well…”

“We found we…weren’t ready to be apart yet,” said Alma. “We…had a lot more to say to each other.” She laughed gently and kissed Cyril.

It was still such an unusual sight that Johnathan and Madeline still felt, momentarily, like they were dreaming. But their disbelief was quickly giving way to the vicarious pleasure one gets at seeing a friend find happiness.

“So,” said Madeline a bit awkwardly, “are you both sure that, well…oh, I suppose that’s a silly question…”

But Ages just chuckled and reached over to touch her arm. “Oh, I know it’s still hard to believe: that grumpy old Mister Ages could even be capable of being in love. Well, believe me, it is possible.”

Both Brisbys looked at each other and at him, nonplussed. “Cyril, we never thought you incapable,” said Johnathan, his wife nodding vigorously. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have discussed it with you as often as I did.”

“Of course, you could be grumpy sometimes,” said Madeline, laughing. “But we’ve seen the other side of you, the care you’ve given to others. We’ve long known it was your passion to heal others, to take care of all our ills; but we’ve always believed that, if you only gave yourself a chance, you could…take just as good care of your own needs, both physically and emotionally.”

Johnathan nodded. “And as for the ‘old’ part: though neither of us know our precise ages, I’ve always believed you’re not that much older than me. And even back when you and I were roommates, I believed, especially after I’d met Maddie, that you’d want to seek out a mate someday, despite all that show of irritability toward my having ‘my head in the clouds’ over all my ‘silly nonsense.’”

Ages chuckled. “Oh, I do remember it well, my friend. But what you may not be aware of is that when you left to propose to her, I honestly wished you good luck, even if I couldn’t admit it to your face.”

“Actually…I can’t say I’m surprised.” Johnathan patted his old friend’s shoulder. “So…was there one ‘shining moment’ for both of you, when you realized that it was the real thing, that you really were in love?”

“Well,” began Ages, “for me at least, I still can’t say if it went all the way back to when you and I first met her out there, or if it started when she first showed up at my doorstep, or after she’d spent the night…in my bed.” He still, unaccountably, felt some embarrassment at recounting this last detail. “But, Johnathan, Madeline…my feelings for her couldn’t be clearer now. They’re as clear as yours when you first met, of this I’m positive. I think that, even earlier today, I still wasn’t done questioning myself: was Alma really the one who could…live up to the memory of Regina, and what we could have had? My friends…the more time I spend with her, the more convinced I am that it’s true. This young lady has…truly stolen my heart.” They kissed again.

The Brisbys looked upon the unlikely-seeming lovers silently, admiringly for a moment. Then Alma said, “For me, I…can’t really say when it began exactly. But I do know that when you all visited me out there, I was fascinated by you and your ways. Maybe I was even…a little scared somehow, I don’t know why. But I do know I planned to come here to visit all of you someday. I didn’t…plan on it being now, at least…I’m pretty sure I didn’t. But I guess that doesn’t matter now, does it?”

“With results like these, I guess not.” Johnathan couldn’t help wondering, though, if she had, without consciously realizing it, meant to come here, even if she had genuinely gotten lost in the snowstorm. But then, what did it matter now?

“So,” said Madeline, “what are your plans now?”

“And,” added Johnathan, “considering how you’ve wanted to keep this under wraps so far, what do we tell everyone else?”

“Oh, we’ve given those matters plenty of thought,” said Ages. “I’d already asked Alma to share quarters with me, and…she’s accepted. She’s all but moved in with me already, so…” He paused to chuckle, stroking Alma’s arm and shoulder. “And from there we’ll take it one day at a time before…you know, making things more official.”

The Brisbys looked at each other, delighted at the thought of this unlikely-seeming pair being married. “So,” said Johnathan, “what about the ‘rest of the world’? We can keep this between us for now, but…”

“Yes, yes, we could hardly keep it secret much longer, the way the rumor mill turns around here. We have every intention of letting ourselves be seen together tomorrow.” Ages paused to sigh, obviously not looking forward to facing everyone’s questions and who-would-have-imagined-it comments.

“I’m a little nervous about that,” confessed Alma. “I’ve never been to the Rats’ community before.”

“Well, my dear, let me assure you you’ll be treated as an honored guest,” said Johnathan. “There may be some who’ll find it hard to believe that you—”

“Mommy?” a faint, plaintive voice from the bedroom wing called out, interrupting him.

The four adults looked around at each other. “We were getting a bit loud,” whispered Madeline, getting up to look in on Lyndon and Shawna.

“Can I meet them?” asked Alma. Madeline gave her approval, and Johnathan directed Cyril toward the front door.

Out in the courtyard, the two continued their conversation. “You know, Cyril…I’m actually tempted to give you the old I-told-you-so, but…” He paused to laugh, shaking his head. “I’m just too happy for you. Really.” He gave Ages an affectionate shoulder-squeeze.

“Thank you, Johnathan.” The pair brought themselves to the leaning rock. “I’ll admit to a little uncertainty, just because this is so sudden and such a big change. But…” He paused, sighing. “All the old feelings have definitely returned, even stronger than…that brief time I spent with Regina. And…I have no doubt that she feels the same way about me. As strange as it seems to admit it, even to myself…I’m ready for this, Johnathan, I truly am.”

“I’m glad.” After a pause, he said, “You know…if you had told me all that about Regina earlier, I could have used the Stone to…you know, check up on her, at least give you a chance to see her again.”

Ages nodded thoughtfully. “Oh, I had considered the possibility, not long after you’d moved here. But…I guess I thought it wouldn’t have done any good, because it had been so long.”

“I know. Well…if you should ever have second thoughts, all you need is to ask. On checking up on Regina, of course, not on Alma.”

“I know, Johnathan, thank you. But I’m feeling more and more, hoping even, that I’ll never need to.” The two steered the discussion toward the new couple’s possible plans for the immediate future.

* * *

After Madeline closed the bedroom door, she and Alma returned to the living room sofa.

“They’re beautiful children, Madeline. You and Johnathan must be proud.”

“We are, Alma, thank you. I don’t believe you’ve met our older children yet. Two of them are staying over at the Rat colony tonight, but the other two should be back any time now.”

The two continued to chat for a few more minutes before Johnathan and Cyril came back inside.

“…she will love it, Cyril, I guarantee you,” Johnathan said just outside of the women’s earshot.

“Well, I’ll, heh, keep that in mind, Johnathan.”

“Looks like you men had a lively conversation,” said Madeline with a laugh.

“Oh, just passing on a little friendly advice,” said Johnathan with a knowing wink.

“Ahem, well, I wouldn’t call it bad advice, by any—” Ages was interrupted by the front door opening behind them. They all turned to see Timothy and Cynthia enter.

“’Bye, Melvin,” said Timothy before closing the door. “Thanks for seeing us home.” He and Cynthia greeted their parents and Mr. Ages, noticing the fourth adult mouse in the room with curiosity. But hardly any sooner was Alma introduced to the children when Ages called them to his side. This wasn’t terribly surprising, but they were nonplussed when he gave both of them a big hug.

They looked at him, regarding with astonishment the smile on his face, wider than they’d seen on him in ages—as Timothy or their father might say in jest—though they were hardly displeased.

“Thank you, Mr. Ages,” Cynthia said with a tone of wonderment. “What was that for?”

“Oh, just for you two being yourselves,” he said. “And perhaps…for helping to inspire me.”

“Well, we’re always glad to help,” said Timothy curiously. “What’d we do?”

Ages laughed. “What you and your sister have done, my good lad, is to help me see that I needed to take one more step to…to…” He shook his head. “Oh…I’ll be better able to explain it later, I assure you.”

“When we’re older…” Timothy quipped with an eye-roll, making him and Cynthia giggle.

“Ahem, yes. But for now…I can tell you that this young lady and I are in love, and may soon be married.” This was the first time since he’d come here that he’d stated it in so many words, and he reached over to take Alma’s hand, feeling a strong sense of exhilaration as he looked upon her smiling face.

Cynthia inhaled rapidly, bringing her hands to her face as if to suppress a scream. Timothy’s jaw dropped and both looked at each other, first in disbelief, then in amazement and joy. Their parents gestured for them to keep quiet in deference to their young siblings; and after all went back outside to the courtyard, Timothy and Cynthia rushed to hug the new couple, bubbling their congratulations and peppering them with questions. They answered the most basic of them, of how they’d met and how long they’d known each other; and that this, Ages confirmed, was why no one had seen very much of him today. Of course the children wondered if anyone else knew this, and the adults made sure they would all leave it to Ages and Alma to spread the word themselves at the colony tomorrow.

All too quickly it was past everyone’s usual bedtime; and so, after one last caution to insure that the children would not spill the beans prematurely, they parted ways for the night.

On the way to the Ages home—which would soon be their home, as it was in fact already, informally—the new couple continued discussing this new chapter of their lives, in mostly practical terms. Johnathan had already offered to use the Stone to expand the Ages home to accommodate two or more, and Cyril explained this in greater detail to Alma.

“So that means we could have another room for a bedroom, like the Brisbys have,” said Alma as she surveyed the interior of their presently small accommodations. “That’d be nice.”

“Yes, it would,” agreed Cyril a bit distractedly.

“Is there…something bothering you, Cyril?” Alma asked, taking his arm with both hands.

“Oh, it’s…a bit silly, I suppose, but…I’m not exactly looking forward to…the attention we’re bound to attract tomorrow.” He sighed.

Alma looked baffled. “Why? Aren’t we happy together? Don’t we want all your friends to know it?”

“Oh, of course, Alma.” He took her in his arms. “But…you remember what I told you today, don’t you? That I’m just not comfortable being…the center of attention, at least…not in such a personal way.”

“Yes, I remember. But I’ll be with you the whole time. It’ll be all right.”

“I know, Alma, I know.” He kissed her lightly, then again a bit longer. “And I know,” he said as he cupped her face with both hands, “that you’re nervous, too, about being around so many rats. We’ll help each other get through this…together.”

“Yes, Cyril. Together.” They kissed again before making preparations for bed.

As he did when they’d first shared a bed, Cyril continued lying awake after Alma slipped into slumber, his thoughts on many things, all related to this great change in their lives. He reflected on their visit to the Brisbys, realizing that he’d never felt closer to them, and that he’d never enjoyed their company as much as he had tonight. Feeling his love’s body warm and near beside his, he felt like laughing out loud as he thought about how this very arrangement was exactly the same as it was two nights ago and yet so much different. But, after a second night and virtually an entire day spent finding their true mutual feelings and getting to know all about each other in every way, nothing could ever again be the same for either of them. Almost inevitably, he thought about she might age faster than him; and again he thought back to their visit tonight, and felt a surge of confidence that he and Alma would have as long and happy a union as their friends.

Before falling asleep, he thought about tomorrow, and felt far less apprehensive about sharing the news with the rest of the colony.

Chapter 4 - The big day

The following morning a party of eight mice made their way to the Rat colony for breakfast. Along the way the Brisby children became better acquainted with Alma, who seemed less anxious than Cyril about making their good news public. The Brisbys promised to stand by them all the way, but Cyril insisted that they needn’t feel they had to “protect” them, positive by now that it wouldn’t be as bad as he’d believed last night.

As anticipated, those Rats they met along the way greeted them as courteously as usual but with curiosity over the Mice’s guest. As agreed, those who specifically wanted to meet her were introduced to her, not only by name but also as the one Cyril Ages was in love with. As anticipated, such statements met with great surprise, but no outright disbelief, at least not outwardly. In turn, this came as something of a surprise to Cyril, and with encouragement from the others he felt any leftover apprehension vanish almost completely. Johnathan suggested that they’d be giving everyone “something to talk about.”

“So let them,” Ages replied with a laugh.

This was borne out as more and more saw them at breakfast with a guest mouse, obviously a natural. At first their reactions appeared born of simple curiosity, but well before the meal was finished it became clear that the information passed on to those who’d inquired earlier was spreading quickly. Some had observed how Teresa, after she and Martin had joined them from their overnight sleepovers, reacted noticeably to what seemed to be a particular bit of good news. It was well known that Ages didn’t take well to being disturbed during mealtimes, and this one was no exception. But he and the Brisbys were well aware of the stir they were creating, and knew they’d have to satisfy everyone’s curiosity soon.

Accordingly, by meal’s end Cyril, nervous but determined, called the attentions of everyone present to announce that the rumors many had already heard were true, and that they could expect him to be keeping company with “this young lady” for the foreseeable future. Congratulations abounded, of course, but after only about a minute and to the surprise of few, Ages announced that he was leaving to begin his day’s work. After bidding everyone good day, he did so with Alma on his arm.

Alma spent the next several hours—Cyril’s regular “office hours”—observing him at work. His assistants Bernadette and Jemial immediately conveyed their congratulations to the new couple upon their arrival. It was a pretty routine day overall: a few regularly-scheduled physical exams and a few who came in for treatment of minor injuries. Alma watched it all with keen fascination, her presence having a calming effect upon Cyril, especially noticeable by his staff. They would agree, in later discussion, to some fascination of their own in the change in him, marked by greater patience and more kind words to his patients than usual.

During a lull, Justin and Isabella, who hadn’t the chance to talk to the new couple at breakfast, dropped by, bringing their two-month old twins Ferdinand and Greta with them. After the “first couple” offered their own congratulations, Justin took Ages aside for a private meeting.

Inside Ages’ office, Justin surprised him by drawing the mouse to him in one of his patented bear-hugs. Cyril reacted with predictable exasperation, but still accepted it gracefully enough.

“Cyril,” said Justin after releasing him, “I just wanted to say that I never gave up on you. I always knew you had it in you. Maybe it’s because we have that much in common: both of us waited longer than we should have, perhaps, before finding our special someones.”

“Well, thank you, Justin,” said Ages, adjusting his lab-smock. They both sat on the sofa. “I suppose…it was seeing you and Isabella getting married and having children that helped to inspire me, at least in part. That, and seeing Johnathan back with his family. Oh, I can’t explain it all, but…I’m definitely looking forward to spending much, much more time with Alma.”

Justin nodded, visibly impressed. “The rest of your life, perhaps?”

Ages looked almost taken by surprise. “Oh, I’m…we’re still taking it a day at a time, but…believe me, you’ll be the first to know on that front.” He looked directly at Justin. “I know, you probably still can’t believe it: Mr. Ages, the old curmudgeon, actually finding someone who…truly loves him. I have to admit, I’m not completely over my own disbelief. I’m…still wrestling with it.”

“Well…I suppose Johnathan’s already given you plenty of advice, but…you keep treating Alma the way you want to be treated, and consider her your best friend and partner as well as your lover, and everything should be all right.”

“Oh, I know, Justin, and I’m giving it my all, believe me. I do want…us to work.” The two continued the discussion for a few more minutes; and though Ages wasn’t ready to confide in Justin as many details of how he and Alma arrived at their mutual feelings as he did the Brisbys, the two felt more like true friends than they ever had by the time they’d finished.

* * *

The ensuing days proved to be a test for both the new couple and the doubters—those who had been skeptical of their relationship working, or even workable. Yet, every day they were seen together in public they were, by all appearances, a happy couple. They weren’t especially demonstrative—certainly not to the degree of the Brisbys—though a few times they could be observed kissing lightly in the corridors. This proves that it’ll work, some insisted; but others, knowing that Ages didn’t exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve, thought they could be only trying to keep up appearances, perhaps even having difficulties but keeping them private. But, the counter-argument went, that doesn’t mean Alma would have to be following his lead, since she was still largely unknown in the colony, her habits and tendencies still coming to be known.

The Brisbys, however, wouldn’t be deceived. They were positive that the new couple was experiencing just as much of a “giddy, crazy time” as they had following their reunion last summer; and though they kept this point to themselves, not wanting to embarrass their friends, they couldn’t help feeling some resentment whenever anyone expressed an opinion along the lines of “It’ll never last.”

But the Brisbys and anyone else that believed as they did were vindicated when the day came, only ten days after Cyril Ages made his pairing with Alma public, when it was announced that they had set a date: yes, a date to be married, it was specified for those remaining skeptics.

And so it was that, on January 28th, only 17 days after she had shown up on his doorstep, neither of them suspecting what the very near future held in store, that a very large crowd gathered in Oak Park to witness the launch of this major new chapter in their lives.

They’d been prepared to hold the event indoors in case of inclement weather, but conditions had been highly and obligingly favorable, most of the snow from earlier in the month having melted, with mostly-clear skies and temperatures in the lower 50s Fahrenheit prevailing. A handful of hardy souls even braved a frigid swim in Lake Nicodemus this day and yesterday. The last few weddings had been held indoors, so everyone was ready for another outside ceremony, with no one complaining about the weather.

As with many other couples in the community, these two opted for a basic no-frills ceremony: to the disappointment of some who thought something a bit more ostentatious would be in order, given his status, but to little surprise for those who knew him best. Basic or fancy, it didn’t stop this from becoming the best-attended event yet in Oak Park—in the middle of winter, at that. No one, it seemed, wanted to miss the wedding of one who had been a prominent citizen of Thorn Valley but also notoriously private—one who, it had been widely assumed, would always lead a single, celibate life. Even those few remaining doubters were amazed at the change in him. Some, however, still asked themselves, even now, if this could be too fast or too big a change.

Those same doubters might feel vindicated if they could see Cyril Ages as he was undergoing final preparations for the ceremony inside one of the two tents set up in the park for that purpose. He’d been mostly silent as two rats from the tailor shop made final adjustments on his formal jacket—basically a long dark tunic—but as soon as they were finished, he asked them to leave so he could talk to his closest friend alone.

“I must confess, Johnathan,” he said after taking a deep breath, “that I’m still…oh, I still can’t believe I’m actually going through with this.”

Johnathan smiled, patting Cyril’s shoulder. He’d seen this coming and was prepared to deal with his friend’s last-minute jitters. “Cyril…this is as big a life-change as anyone could be undergoing, and for you I know it has to be enormous. You just need to ask yourself: Do you love Alma? Do you want her in your life?”

“Yes, of course I do. I have no doubts about that. I suppose…if it’s anything, it’s that…” He sighed and looked squarely at Johnathan. “I remember well how troubled you were by…Madeline’s growing older than you, especially in those last months before you left us. It turned out not to be true, thankfully, but… Oh, I’m sure I needn’t spell the rest out for you.”

“Of course. But I was well aware of our differences beforehand, and I didn’t let it stop me. I realized it was still well worth it, even if I thought I’d outlive her. I hadn’t intended to put off telling her like I did, but…you’ve already leveled with Alma. She knows you might outlive her, and she still loves you and wants to go through with this.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” He began walking in circles around the tent’s interior. “‘Might’ outlive her… Do you still believe that’s possible, Johnathan? That I’ll be able to influence her as you did Madeline?”

“I do. And it may have already started. Maddie and I have both spent time with her, and we’ve been surprised by some of the things she’s said and expressed. We can’t say for sure that it’s solely due to her relationship with you, since we didn’t really know her that well before; but the point is…it would be the height of foolishness to pass up this opportunity for happiness. You know we all want this for you.”

“I know, Johnathan, I know. And…thank you.” Ages stopped pacing and looked at the tent entrance. “Well, then…” He abruptly turned toward Johnathan, looking determined, and to his friend’s surprise gave him a quick hug. Pulling away, he took a moment to relish the look of surprise on Johnathan’s face before saying, “Wish me luck.”

Johnathan did so and both of them headed outside.

Not far away, the bride was undergoing last-minute preparations in her tent. Thus far she hadn’t expressed any outward reluctance or second thoughts, and had been happy and smiling almost nonstop the whole day. Even now, she was looking radiant in her simple but elegant white wedding gown, and was amazed at how she looked in it, continually looking at herself in the mirror, turning from side to side. Now, though, as Madeline and Teresa were going over last-minute details with her, Alma sighed and looked downcast.

“Alma? Honey, what is it?” Madeline asked, taking her arm.

“Oh, it’s just…I just wish that more of my family were here.” Any of the natural mice living in the north end of Thorn Valley had been invited to attend this event, and a few accepted, though most were reluctant to mingle very freely, opting to be spectators on the outer fringes of the crowd. Only one of Alma’s relatives, her sister Trudi, had shown up so far; and when Alma had talked to others of her family yesterday, they’d expressed reluctance, still maintaining that those “unusual” rats and mice made them uneasy. However, none of them, almost paradoxically, outright disapproved of Alma associating with them or even becoming the mate of one of them.

“I didn’t think…it would bother me this much. I’ve wanted to…be with Cyril from…the day I came to his door. I hardly…thought twice about moving away from my old life to a new one with him. But now…” She sat down, Madeline and Teresa joining her on either side. “I still want to marry Cyril, I love him very much. I’m just afraid that…I’ll never see my parents or siblings again after this.”

For Madeline, the words resonated deeply, instantly bringing to mind how her own emotional reactions had changed and broadened soon after becoming acquainted with Johnathan. She’d been well aware of those changes at the time and had accepted them wholeheartedly as part and parcel of her new, happy life; but it would be over three years before she understood more fully the reason why. Now, hearing Alma describe a strikingly similar change in her emotional makeup, she was all but ready to declare that Alma was indeed experiencing the same kind of changes by virtue of being mated to Cyril Ages.

For a brief moment, Madeline debated with herself over whether to bring up that very point; then it occurred to her she could avoid it and still compare her past situation to Alma’s. So she told her about how she’d lost her own parents not long before she and Johnathan met; and though she still missed them after that and did still, the love she’d found with Johnathan helped assuage her grief enormously.

“I may have lost my family, my old family…but before I knew it, I had a new family with Johnathan.” She paused, placing her hand on Alma’s. Teresa did the same. “And it can be the same with you and Cyril.”

“That’s right,” added Teresa, “and your family is still alive. You can still visit them, and I bet they’ll want to come around here after a while. Maybe they just need more time.”

Madeline looked over to Teresa, beaming with pride at her eldest daughter; and Alma thanked both of them for their encouragement, giving each a hug.

“So…” said Madeline, getting to her feet, “how about we get you married now?” Teresa followed, and mother and daughter each took a hand of the bride-to-be, gently pulling her to her own feet. Alma laughed, pretending to put up resistance before the three left the tent together.

With the appearance of both bride and groom from their tents, the musicians, led by Kevin and Lol, took their cue; and in short order, the ceremony began with a melodic flourish. The bride and groom proceeded from different directions toward the flowered arch where Justin awaited to recite the words that would unite them in matrimony. This is really it, he thought—as did many others, not the least of whom were the bride and groom. There had been times, Cyril’s friends had observed, when he seemed almost to regret coming to Thorn Valley to live, without expressing it in so many words. None, himself included, would have guessed how drastically his life would be changed here. If told that it was he who had made these changes come about, entirely from within, he’d likely argue the point, that it was Alma who had made him a new and better person. But he wouldn’t be where he was now without a desire of his own to share his life with someone—a desire that had lain dormant for years. Thus far, Cyril had shared his story about Regina only with Johnathan and Madeline, so Justin and many others wouldn’t know for some time, if ever, the full story behind his transformation.

As they laid eyes on each other’s approach toward Justin and the arch, both felt some lingering nervousness, but neither was about to turn back. They both stopped at the altar, the music stopped, and Justin began his opening address: “Citizens of Thorn Valley…we are all gathered here on this extraordinarily and thankfully mild winter’s day to bear witness to the union of our friends Cyril and Alma in matrimony. This is a day many of us thought would never arrive, but now that it has…let us proceed toward that golden moment.”

The two faced each other, smiling, both feeling any lingering nervousness fall away. As agreed, Alma began.

“Before I met Cyril…my life was different, so different that…I feel like I’m not even the same person as I was then. It’s like I’m seeing and hearing and feeling everything differently than before.”

At these words Cyril felt, ever more strongly, that Johnathan’s earlier words of encouragement reflected the absolute truth. His spirits soaring, he took in the remainder of Alma’s vow, eager to follow it with his own.

“…And not just differently, but better, because I’ve come to know this man for what he truly is: kind, gentle, always wanting to help his fellow mice…and rats. This is what fascinated me about him when we first met, and…that fascination turned to love. Now I want us to be together always.”

As she reached for his hand, Alma gazed upon him with the most adoring and desirous look he’d seen on her features yet, and Cyril felt all the more emboldened. Any remaining doubts he may have had, about not being worthy of her love, that this was a mistake, that they weren’t right for each other for any reason, fell away; and, exhilarated, he began his own vow. The words spilled out nearly spontaneously; he hadn’t made any notes or rehearsed.

“It’s no secret to anyone that…I was never expected to marry. And…honestly, I was no exception. But now…I am ready and willing to…to leave that part of my life behind for good…and for better. This young woman is…the first to truly find that special place in my heart since…what was almost literally a lifetime ago. And she is the one, beyond a doubt, that I love and want for my own.”

The two joined hands crosswise, as had become the custom, and looked toward Justin, smiling.

Justin allowed himself one more brief moment of disbelief before speaking the words that would finalize the ceremony: very much the standard question asked by countless human clergymen and judges—for richer, for poorer, etc.—and which Justin, and occasionally Johnathan, had intoned on other such occasions since last summer, when formal wedding ceremonies had begun here. But this one, many knew even now, would stand out in particular in their memories.

After the pair said their “I do’s,” Justin said, “Cyril…Alma…are you ready to begin this new chapter of your lives?” They both nodded and answered yes.

“Then, by the power invested in me by the good people of Thorn Valley, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Now…cross the threshold into your new life together.”

The newlyweds walked arm-in-arm under the flowered archway, then kissed briefly and embraced, to everyone’s cheers and applause. Throughout the crowd, there were many shouted congratulations…as well as the occasional sign that bets were being settled.

One of Ages’s colleagues, Jemial, said to his friend Clayton, “Well, have fun scrubbing those pots and pans tomorrow.”

Clayton just grumbled in reply. Everyone in the colony, including the elders, helped out in the kitchen and dining hall on a rotating basis; and now Jemial, quietly satisfied that he’d won his bet, got up to give his own congratulations to the new couple. Nearby, Bernadette, who had heard the exchange without knowing beforehand about her colleague’s bet, made a sour face. She didn’t generally approve of this kind of gambling, even though the stakes weren’t especially high, but was nonetheless glad about its outcome.

The newlyweds accepted everyone’s good wishes with many handshakes and hugs, though it was apparent to nearly everyone that, for Cyril, it was a something of a test of his endurance. He faced it all with great stoicism, and after some minutes he announced that he and the lady would like a few more minutes alone.

As they moved away from the greater part of the crowd, they were approached by Alma’s sister Trudi, who looked as one who’d been desperate for her chance to meet the couple. They’d noticed that she’d been one of those reluctant to get too close to the ceremony and assured her that no one here, mouse or rat, would ever mean her harm. Trudi agreed to remember that and try harder to be at ease among them. The Brisby family, who hadn’t actually talked with her at length yet, approached them, and Madeline and Teresa offered to show her around.

Many of the guests had begun heading back to the colony, and others had begun breaking down the arch and other decorations. The two tents, as well, were being prepared for dismantling until Ages approached the two rats who were beginning to take down one of them and asked them to hold off a few minutes.

After leading Alma inside, he almost immediately took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly. Alma was a bit surprised but quickly went with the moment, sighing contentedly.

Almost a minute later, Cyril pulled away to look upon his bride’s smiling face. “Alma, my darling…would you mind if we consider this our first kiss as a married couple?”

“No, I’d like that. Was it because…everyone was watching us out there?”

Cyril sighed. “Yes, I…I guess I’m still not comfortable with a big crowd watching. Even though everyone knows how I feel about you, it’s just…I don’t know, it’s kind of silly…”

“Oh, no, Cyril, it’s fine, I understand. I know Johnathan and Madeline don’t mind if anyone sees them getting lovey-dovey, but…I could tell from our first day together that you’d rather be more private about it.”

Cyril beamed, pleased at how well the two of them had come to know each other. “Yes, that’s right. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Oh, no, Cyril. You do and say so much to let me know how much you care. That’s all I need.”

“Well, then…that’s all I need too.” He kissed her again.

Before they were finished, both saw, in their peripheral vision, a figure at the tent-flap and saying “Oh” quietly before letting it fall back in place. Ages smiled and said, “It’s all right, Trudi, come on in.”

Trudi pushed aside the flap again, peering in shyly but also looking as one with important business. “What is it, sweetie?” said Alma as she approached her sister.

“Alma…they…they came!” When everyone was outside, “they” were positively identified as Alma’s parents, Jesse and Mona, and one of her brothers, Zack, along with Madeline and Teresa. Many introductions followed—actually reintroductions, since Ages had met her family on the goodwill tour two months past—and everyone, including the Brisby females, went back inside the tent. They were all, including Trudi, obviously still ill at ease among these unusual mice, but clearly maintaining a brave front for Alma’s sake.

Before any real discussion began, Johnathan joined them. When word had gotten around that more of Alma’s family had shown up, Justin had offered to accompany Johnathan to this meeting; but Johnathan believed that, for now at least, it should be mice-only. Though the Rats had actively tried to foster friendly relations with the locals since their arrival last spring, the results were a mixed bag. Some, like the Brisbys’ mouse friends Eric and Sarah, were comfortable around and even socialized with the newcomers (though primarily with the Brisbys and Ages); but many, like their mother Audrey, still kept their distance, regarding them with unease and distrust, with few if any able to articulate exactly why.

There was awkward near-silence in the tent for another minute, with Jesse and Mona saying they remembered Ages and the Brisbys from their visit weeks before, and appearing to be at a loss for anything else to say. Johnathan started to make the offer to take them on a tour of the colony, but Jesse cut him off in midsentence, appearing to all but ignore him.

“Alma, if you want to remain with these creatures, you may, but you will not be welcome in our home again.”

Alma’s jaw dropped in shock, and her new husband and friends and neighbors looked around at each other in disbelief. “But…but, Father…how…why?”

“Their…their ways are too strange, we don’t trust them, the way they just came into this land and took over, and drove out everyone.” Mona just nodded silently, apparently in complete agreement.

Johnathan and Madeline looked at each other, both having noticed the apprehension in Jesse’s voice. It certainly matched the attitudes they’d been met with from other natural mice, though to a higher degree than most. Neither could resist feeling some frustration, for all they’d expected this possibility.

Jesse continued: “If you’re mated to one of them now, then you can’t be one of us. Now…” He looked around at Mona and Zack and Trudi. “…we have to go.” Immediately he got to his feet, the others following suit.

Teresa was reminded of their old babysitter Auntie Shrew’s dismissal of the Rats as thieves and scoundrels, and began feeling almost angry at Jesse’s equally irrational declaration. She was on the verge of speaking up now, as she did with the Shrew during the family’s last meeting with her months ago; but instead turned to her mother, her expression matching her mood. Madeline recognized it and urged her to silence as Johnathan made ready to speak.

“Jesse,” he began as Alma’s father headed for the tent-flap, “we’re not monsters, we’re mice like you.” Jesse paused, appearing willing to listen.

“Sure, we have different ways than you, but we just want to be friendly. And that goes for the Rats, too. We want to be good friends and neighbors to everyone here. Yes, it’s true that we, or rather the Rats, may have forced some creatures to move; but there’s plenty of room for all. We’re perfectly willing to share this land with you.” He strove to sound as cheerful and earnest and unintimidating as possible, uncertain at this point whether he could truly win them over, but not yet ready to give up trying.

He was about to bring up the point about predators being driven out of the area when Jesse cut him off again. “You’re…you’re just too different, too strange. This…wedding, you call it? It’s the last straw. Come on, Mona, Zack, Trudi. We’re going home.” He glanced at Alma, face betraying no emotion; then all four mice went back outside. Trudi was the only one who looked back briefly, looking regretful, apologetic.

Alma could only stare at the tent-flap in mute shock, unable to believe any of this could happen on what started out as the happiest day of her life. Cyril took her in his arms, and she clung tightly to him, sobbing on his shoulder. He glanced at Johnathan, expression filled with frustration at what he couldn’t prevent. Madeline went to them to lend additional comfort.

“I…I wanted to say something, Dad,” said Teresa, with tears in her eyes as well, “but it probably wouldn’t have done any good. I…felt so angry, I would have just made it worse.”

“It’s all right, sweetheart, I don’t blame you.” Johnathan kissed her forehead, showing little of the frustration he felt over Jesse’s total dismissal of his words. Both of them went to help reassure Alma.

After another minute, Alma managed to say, “Thank you…all of you. I know Father thought…all of you were…strange, unusual; but I never expected him to…be so…so…” She looked at Teresa, smiling through her tears. “I remember what you said, Teresa. Maybe…do you still think that…they could come around?”

Teresa almost said that, given what they’d all just witnessed, there was probably little if any chance; but instead she said, “I guess…anything’s possible, Alma.”

“Yes,” agreed Madeline, embracing the new bride. “And in the meantime, you have all of us…especially Cyril.” Alma’s new husband spoke his quiet agreement, stroking her shoulder gently. There was more he wanted to say right then, but he decided it was best left for later.

After another minute of near-silent reassurance, the tent-flap opened. The other three older Brisby children, unable to contain their curiosity any longer, poured through. “Was that Alma’s family that just left?” asked Timothy. Johnathan looked up at them, nodding.

“Yeah, what happened?” asked Martin, scratching his head. “They looked kind of…” He paused as Teresa gave him a stern look. He looked back out past the tent-flap, looking for the departing family of mice, but was unable to see them.

Johnathan stepped in quickly to explain as best he could how Alma’s family had all but disowned her for marrying Mr. Ages. Cynthia immediately went to help reassure her.

Martin again looked at Teresa, as frustrated as her. Like the rest of his family, he’d taken a liking to Alma and now felt his anger rise, as much as Teresa did. “It’s not fair,” he said quietly to Timothy. “Why would they do that to her?”

Timothy sighed. “I guess some naturals are just…”

“…just gonna be that way. I know.” Martin looked back outside, fighting the urge to go out and find Alma’s family and give them a piece of his mind.

Timothy looked at Johnathan and asked, “That’s it, isn’t it, Dad? They distrust us just because we’re different from them?” He spoke with an air of resignation; though he knew this wasn’t the case with all naturals, as did his sibs, it was still disillusioning each time it happened.

Certainly they were aware of all this already and didn’t need further explanation, but all the same Johnathan spoke encouragingly to his sons, emphasizing the point that not all naturals rejected them, reminding them of their old creekside neighbors—Kory, Janice and their children—as well as Eric and Sarah. Martin and Timothy listened patiently; and though neither would admit it to each other, both couldn’t help wondering if a similar situation could occur in the future, involving either of them directly.

Presently Cyril asked to be left alone with his bride for a while. When it was just the two of them in the tent, they just embraced quietly for another minute. “Alma…my dear, sweet girl…I’m so sorry I…couldn’t do anything to…to prevent what happened.” He drew back to face her. “I feel like I should have been able to…I don’t know, do something. I knew I’d probably have to deal with your family, but I never wanted any of this to happen to you.” He realized that this was the first time rejection by naturals had bothered him this much, and that it was all the more significant because it was on behalf of one he loved rather than himself—something he wouldn’t have been able to say only a month ago.

Alma smiled through her tears. “Cyril…my love…I’m not sure that you could have…done anything. It’s sweet of you, but…I knew there was a chance this could happen. Father’s always been so stubborn. In fact…”

She swallowed hard, looking as one on the verge of a major confession. “…on the night I came to your door…or rather, earlier that day…I’d had an argument with him over…those ‘strange’ mice that had visited us, and what they were really all about, what they wanted here, and why they were friends with those rats. He didn’t really…forbid me to see them…or you. But…ooh! I just got so tired of him going on and on like he did, just ranting, saying things about you that…I knew couldn’t be true. And Mother, and Zack and Trudi just sat there, not saying anything, just going along with him. I just couldn’t take any more of it, I had to get away from them for a while. So I just went for a walk, and I didn’t really care where I was going, or that the weather was getting bad.”

“And…you got misdirected, and eventually found your way to me.” Cyril was actually not terribly surprised at her confession.

“Yes. I guess that…I thought I might run into the Brisbys, or just one of them, or you…or even some of the Rats, and tell them what Father was saying. I wanted so much to hear someone tell me that none of those things were true.” She sighed, looking out toward the tent-flap.

“Alma…maybe they will accept you into their lives again. But until then…you are accepted here, in my world. And as long as…both of us are alive, that’s how it will always be.”

She looked at him, again smiling radiantly through her tears. She took his face in both hands and kissed him. “Cyril…Mr. Ages…let’s go home now.”

Cyril grinned broadly. “Very well…Mrs. Ages.” They left the tent together. The crew of Rats who had already dismantled the other tent asked if they were through, then congratulated the new couple again and resumed their work.

Chapter 5 - A new family

Over the ensuing weeks, the new couple settled very easily into married life. The changes others observed in Cyril continued to surprise and amaze, manifesting mainly in greater patience, a more easygoing manner, and overall softening of his rougher edges. Some of them remained, of course, but all would find the “new” Mr. Ages much more to their liking. But if all this was surprising to the citizens of the Thorn Valley colony, it was doubly so for Cyril, who would often pause to reflect on how married life had changed him—and for the better, he would readily admit.

They received no visits from Alma’s family during this period, and also made no attempts to visit them. For her part, Alma, by all appearances, seemed to miss her family less and less. Even when asked—by her husband and any of her new friends—she’d tell them she was happy and satisfied with their company and her new life.

Ages would go on to be not terribly demonstrative in showing affection when he and Alma were in public, though those who knew him best would recognize the more subtle signs that indicated his true feelings. Alma, likewise, respected his wishes publicly; but behind closed doors he showered as much love and affection on his mate as any of his contemporaries did on theirs.

It was about six weeks after the wedding when Alma began showing all the classic symptoms, especially increased appetite, mood swings and occasional abdominal discomfort; and shortly after came the public announcement that the new mouse couple would soon experience a blessed event. Cyril confided to the Brisbys that when his wife’s pregnancy was confirmed, he experienced a small amount of disbelief, in spite of how well aware he was that it was entirely possible. When Johnathan jokingly questioned how one in his profession could be surprised, Cyril replied—non-irritably—that yes, of course he knew; it’s just that he’d never pictured himself as being a parent. But, he was quick to add, he was greatly looking forward to it, as was Alma; and his friends were ready and eager to help both of them into their new roles.

The happy day arrived in mid-March. Alma had been advised to expect the birth to be a bit difficult, as had long been the norm for these advanced Rats and Mice, whose babies were born larger and better developed; and so she was prepared to deal with the added effort it would take—though she did admit that she hoped it would be over with fairly quickly.

After Alma was brought to the medical ward, though, Cyril was all but ready to sit out the birth and leave it to Bernadette to supervise, since he was nervous and even a bit fearful at its outcome. The Brisbys prevailed upon him, though, especially Madeline, who reminded him of two occasions in the past year when she had to call upon reserves of courage she didn’t show she possessed. And Johnathan reminded him of his own experience with childbirth, especially the fact that he’d singlehandedly guided his four oldest into the world, adding that he was willing and able to help him with Alma now.

Thus encouraged, Cyril was quickly back in “the ring,” both of the Brisbys ready to assist; and Alma gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, which the new parents named Turlough and Regina, as planned. Lovely names, all agreed; but only a select few were aware—or would be for quite some time—of the inspiration for their new daughter’s name. They’d discussed it at length since her pregnancy was confirmed, Alma actually being the first to suggest it, believing it a most fitting tribute to Cyril’s would-be lost love.

Once it had been verified that Turlough and Regina’s vital signs were normal, the two new and proud parents were left alone with their newborns. Cyril looked upon his wife, lying in bed, propped up by fluffed pillows, tired but beaming as their offspring received their all-important first feeding; and he experienced a moment—actually the latest of a series in recent weeks—when the tableau before him seemed unreal, or as if he were viewing it through another’s eyes. Then the new mother looked up at him adoringly and the spell was broken. Without another word he sat himself in bed beside his new family, kissing Alma’s forehead and letting her lean against him as he stroked her arm and shoulder.

He had, in fact, already confessed to Alma that he’d been experiencing these “unreal” flashes; but she’d taken them rather casually, since this was, after all, an entirely new set of life experiences for both of them. Still, he felt a need to apologize for this one, since this was such a momentous occasion; it’s almost as if he were thinking that these two new little lives weren’t actual, legitimate creatures as they. But still Alma was understanding, telling him that as long as he loved and respected her and them, the rest didn’t matter. Cyril replied that he was determined to have their marriage be as rich and rewarding as their friends the Brisbys; and that whether or not she turned out to have as long a life as Madeline, he would always strive to be as good a husband to her as—allowing a little rare humor—“humanly” possible.

The two continued talking quietly after the twins finished their first meal and were placed in their specially-made cradle, where they quickly went to sleep. As Alma rested for a time, Cyril just silently looked upon his son and daughter, moved beyond words at how incredible they were and how the vagaries of fate could bring such extremes to one’s life: from moments of great joy to great sorrow. He silently prayed that any further developments would favor the former extreme.

He looked at Alma resting quietly and thought back to what Johnathan had told him on his wedding day: that she may well have already benefited from being mated to him, by virtue of the ways she had already seemed to have changed, just as Madeline had with Johnathan. Again he prayed that it would be so. But he had no doubt of one thing: that she had changed him, and for the better.

He looked back at Turlough and Regina and tried to picture them weeks, months and years from now, speculating on who their friends would be, what natural talents would emerge, what they would excel in academically. The first point was the easiest to predict: the youngest Brisby children would be most likely to be their natural playmates, at least in the beginning.

Presently Jemial quietly interrupted his reverie, announcing that their late boxed dinners had arrived. Cyril gently woke Alma, and they continued discussing their future together as they ate. Since it had been rather late in the day when she gave birth, Alma would be kept here in medical overnight, and Cyril would stay at her side the whole time; and barring further complications, she and the twins would go home the next day. They did, however, allow time for a few brief visits from well-wishers, who were dying for the chance to see the colony’s two newest citizens.

The next morning, more time was allowed for visitors, a virtual parade of them; something the infants’ father couldn’t help feeling a little chagrined about, for all he knew everyone would be eager to see them. Over the ensuing hours, Turlough and Regina were given a clean bill of health, and the proud parents brought them to their new home.

Arthur and Johnathan—with help from the Stone—had in recent weeks supervised the expansion of Cyril’s original “bachelor pad” to accommodate two, and then more after Alma’s pregnancy was confirmed. And so now the new family spent the afternoon settling into this new living situation, concentrating on mostly practical details like arranging their furnishings to better accommodate the new arrivals, though they briefly talked about the possibility of even further additions to their family later on—something which, in fact, had already been taken into account in Arthur and Johnathan’s last expansion.

That night, the two stayed up after putting the twins to bed, talking for over an hour on many subjects, but perhaps most notably on Alma’s family. Cyril had noticed that she had continued to seem to not miss them at all, even since yesterday; and he thought it a bit odd, considering that Regina and Turlough were just as much a part of that family. But still she assured him that it didn’t bother her. If they wanted to visit, once word about their new grandchildren reached them, she would welcome them; but if not, she swore it wouldn’t bother her. Maybe she would call on them in the future, if they didn’t contact her first; but for now, it was this new life of hers that made her feel complete and fulfilled.

She stated all of this with a quiet insistence that was enough to all but silence her husband, at least on this subject. It seemed to reinforce the idea that she was becoming more like him and less like a natural. But whether she was or not, he figured that, well, if she was content, so was he; and he decided that he wouldn’t broach the subject unless she did first, or if her family were to actively reach out to them.

* * *

Over the ensuing months, the two newest mouse residents of the Thorn Valley colony naturally gravitated toward the youngest Brisby children as playmates, as their father had predicted; and even before the year once again gave way to winter, both families further contributed to the colony’s growing mouse population. The Brisbys welcomed one more set of twins, Vanessa and Kirk; and the Ageses, to their astonishment, gained not two, but three new offspring, which they named Celia, Paul and Milo.

Cyril had vowed from the start that he’d do his best to strike the right balance between work and family, and though it had gotten off to a somewhat rocky start, he found it increasingly easy as he absorbed advice—which he gladly welcomed—from friends, especially the Brisbys, and his medical staff, all of whom already had families. He would tell anyone who asked that, as dedicated as he was to his work, Alma and the children were equally important to him these days.

There was much talk of a growing “mouse colony”, in spite of there being only two families of advanced mice in Thorn Valley. There would likely be intermarriage between the two in the future; but as to the matter of other such mice being brought into the fold, none could see that happening for the obvious reason: there were no other such mice left alive, and unless the formula that had made Johnathan and Cyril what they are now were to be replicated, there was categorically no chance of establishing a real colony of mice here as there was a colony of rats.

Of course, none could see the future with precision, whether it was one day or one year hence. For the time being, all in the Thorn Valley colony would continue to live, love, work and play together for the betterment of all. As for Mr. and Mrs. Ages, there were no further naysayers on the success of their marriage, as they grew to know each other more and more deeply and experienced all the joys and pains of new parenthood. For now, they were content with that.