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.

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