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.