You never thought you’d have the chance to meet her again, but there she was, holding her children’s hands and ushering them through the city streets as if the last few weeks had not occurred. She looked so different—well, what did you expect after nearly ninety years?—but there was the same courage and strength behind her eyes, the same mischievous curve to her smile, and there was no doubt in your mind that this Alma was the same Alma…your Alma. You hung back, watching them from a distance, before they disappeared into a complex of dingy apartments.
Others might have given up then, resolving to come back the next day or find out where they were lodging, but you knew the ymbryne better than that. You crept down the alleyway beside the complex and found a safe spot on the fire escape, right outside an obviously empty apartment; it was only a matter of minutes before the sun set, casting an odd tawny glow over the alleyway, and you saw the falcon’s silhouette gliding swiftly over the neighboring buildings. She took her time, searching the area in neat circles, then landed on the fire escape.
She was always a beautiful bird—and you hated saying that, because she was so much more, even when you stripped away her abilities as an ymbryne and her subsequent character. You felt that sentiment now more than ever…But it was true. She was breath-taking, with large, expressive eyes and a certain dignity that no other ymbryne could replicate.
“Hello,” you whispered. You could feel the blood rushing to your cheeks. “May I come in?”
The falcon turned her head at a sharp angle, pointing at her apartment with her beak while keeping her eyes somehow on you; no words were exchanged, but you understood. With a nod, she jumped from the railing and sailed down, only to hook herself on a subtle breeze and glide back up toward the fourth floor, several units to the left of where you now stood. By the time you had climbed down one fire escape and up to another, she had already transformed into her human self, gotten dressed, and was waiting for you beside the window.
After Caul’s death, and the subsequent genesis from the wights’ loop, most of the ymbrynes had managed to find living spaces within London; they stayed there for the time, taking care of their own children while also dealing with the rush of newly-discovered and abused Peculiars who’d been enslaved or otherwise trapped in that horrid year. It was why Alma was still here, in this small apartment—by what you could see, there were only three rooms off the den, where you now stood, one of which was most likely a restroom, the other two bedrooms for the children—rather than creating a time loop back on Cairnholm. It was also why you were here, in London, instead of running back home.
You had considered all this while climbing up the ladder and through the open window, but, as you spotted Alma’s soft smile and tearful eyes, those thoughts fled your mind, immediately replaced by happy memories of your time together before she left to fulfil her duties as an ymbryne.
“It looks like I’m in charge now,” Alma teased. “How old are you? Twenty-six, twenty-seven?”
You felt the first tear hit your cheek, but you didn’t notice; Alma was crying, too. In a moment, you were by her side, taking her into your arms. She rested her head on your shoulder and wrapped an arm around your waist.
“You’re still the Little One, Alma,” you whispered, and you could feel her smile against your skin. “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.”
“You look so different,” you admitted later that evening, long after all the children had fallen asleep and Alma had calmed, preparing you each some tea.
“And you look almost exactly how I remember you,” she answered. “A little taller, perhaps.”
“Perhaps…” Your voice trailed off. You could think of nothing else to say, so resorted to the one thought that had come to dominate your mind: “My Little One grew up.”
“Your Little One?” she chuckled.
You couldn’t help but laugh with her.
Then the laughter died down, almost at once, and she said something quietly beneath the last few giggles; her hand covered her mouth, as if to hide a yawn, but you knew she had spoken.
“What’s that?” you asked.
“It’s a bit embarrassing…” Alma paused to contemplate what she was about to say, then, without looking you in the eye, muttered, “I liked you. It may sound foolish, but, when we were younger, I was quite taken with you.”
“And I, you.”
Silence settled in the room; Alma and you both froze, staring at one another for reassurance. For a moment, you thought this confession would result in the usual, romantic nostalgia, but the quiet lingered much longer than you’d supposed and it soon became clear that, while it was so long ago, there were still some unresolved feelings on either side.
“I was always too afraid to tell you,” she said, shifting to look at you straight on. “You were the mature one, the older one…I thought I would never be more than a little sister to you.”
“And I was always afraid of seeming…irresponsible. You were only fifteen…”
Alma ran a hand through her dark hair, which was normally kept in a bun, but now hung loosely around her shoulders. She was thinking, hard, her gaze distant and soft.
You weren’t entirely certain what you were asking, but Alma received it well enough. She looked towards the bedrooms, then down at the couch—which, you realized, she had been using as a bed—and finally at you.
“Now,” she whispered, “my brothers are dead, Peculiardom is in chaos, and my children…”
She paused, and you thought she was about to reject you; you had never expected to even discuss that childhood crush that had lingered so long in your heart, but you had wanted, at least, to reconnect with her after such tragic loss. You stood, expecting to be told good-night and leave the apartment feeling as if you should never have provoked her; however, rather than ask you to leave so that she could rest, Alma stood and began to pull the cushions out, turning her couch into a makeshift bed.
“So, if you don’t mind,” she said, “we’ll have to share the sofa.”