Ch6.46 Trust

“But it’s a dry heat.” They say that’s a damnfool thing to say – hot’s still hot, after all. But there is a difference. Three Rats isn’t always hot, but when it is, it sure isn’t dry. The humidity sucks the energy out of you, leaving you like a wet towel tossed into the street.

But this place, it’s hot like an oven. Heck, it’s hotter than Three Rats ever gets. So hot, Old Scratch his own self would sublet it as an annex for the really bad souls in Hell. But Cherry feels like she’s in Heaven. She’s sitting on a grass-covered rise looking over a gently rolling plain. The horizon is impossibly distant – compared to living on the side of a titanic mountain, everything here is just so flat. The sky overhead is almost oppressive in its immensity, so huge and blue and dotted with cute little sheep-clouds wandering across it, Cherry feels the urge to dig her fingers into the turf to keep herself from falling up into it. And the sun, right overhead where the sky becomes its deepest blue, doesn’t seem to be any kind of god in a fiery chariot, but just some far-away big ball of fire, baking her to the bones.

And she loves it. It feels fantastic. The arid heat, the breeze, the smell of the grass mingled with the perfume of the wildflowers: bluebonnets, winecups, greenthreads, red paintbrushes, Indian blankets. Even the cacti are blooming, big yellow and purple flowers on the prickly pears, hot pink on the beehive cacti, red on the scarlet hedgehogs. A few lonely mesquite trees dot the plain here and there, and overhead a pair of turkey buzzards, the tips of their big wings like spread fingers, drift lazily, circling, wondering if she’s maybe going to be dinner later on.

Didn’t she live in a dream for more than twenty years? Of course she knows one when she sees it. But to her, dreams can be just as real as the waking world. Dreams can be home. And this place feels like home. It pulls her with an irresistible strength. This dirt her fingers are digging into, that soil is part of her. Somehow, she doesn’t know how, but somehow she knows that this is where she was born.

The wind picks up a little and she puts her hand on her hat to keep it from blowing off. And she can hear them now. Yes, definitely horses. They’d been coming her way for a few minutes, at first just a mass that was hard to make out, so distant they were, but now she’s sure, they’re no cattle. She’d known anyway. How, she couldn’t say. Not like she’s ever really seen a herd of cattle or horses on the plains. She’s a city girl, a bar owner, not the cowgirl she’s dressed as right now. She stands and stretches, admiring the soft denim jeans she’s wearing, fitting her like a second skin and faded naturally from years of wear, the turquoise-and-silver belt, the hand-stitched cowboy boots, the cotton work shirt. She reaches up to remove the hat, a little tricky due to the slits that let her ears poke through the brim, but she slips it off and smiles at the simple but skilled straw construction and the beautiful red-green-blue pattern of the feather hatband. But those big far-sighted eyes of hers just can’t take so much sun, and she puts it back on, settling it over her thick curls, at the moment pulled back into a ponytail, or rather, in her case, a pony-puff that kind of matches the bunny-tail down below.

The sound of the mustangs’ hooves reaches her, and a distant whinny from them is answered by a loud neigh right behind her. She nearly jumps out of her skin, and does literally spring into the air, spinning in mid-jump like an armadillo that hears something sneaking up behind it, to land facing…what?

It takes her a long stare to figure out exactly what she’s looking at. This is no scruffy wild mustang that’s somehow tiptoed up behind her to go “Boo!” This is a huge, majestic stallion, blacker than black, like a hole cut in the universe, a doorway to another world, filled with stars, but the next moment he is solid, his black and white mane and tail blowing in the breeze. His head, raised to call out to the mustangs, lowers to sniff the ground, and then he swings his big head to the left and turns to walk away.

“That does it,” she murmurs to herself. “No more experimentin’ with cocktails before bed.” But she knows better than to deny dream logic. She jogs after the horse, saying “Hey, whoa! Hold up there, big fella!”

The horse stops and looks up at the sky. His mane billows across Cherry’s vision, and the sun is replaced by the moon, full and silvery, the sky a deep black broken only by ten thousand stars, most of them concentrated in a wide river swerving from horizon to horizon. He turns to look at her, once again appearing like a stallion-shaped opening in Reality, though his eyes regard her calmly, blinking once.

Cherry shakes her head at the sudden change, pulling her eyes from the fantastic sky to look at the transformed landscape, repainted in silver and black. “Well now ain’t that somethin’?” A crazy side-thought has her worrying about rattlers in the grass. Her left hand brushes something metal, like a tool on her belt. She looks down and sees she’s now wearing a sword, a rapier with a simple curved-bar guard, and beside it a long dagger with a matching guard. “Huh? Well that’ll do for a snake in a pinch, that’s for sure.” She looks at the weapons on her belt, then at the horse. “I can just imagine what a head-shrinker would make of all this. You got a name?”

The stallion lowers his great head, apparently back to being more on the solid side. Everything has a name, little Cherish. Even I.

Cherry feels the hat shift back on her head as her ears go down. “Whoa! I was just kiddin’.” She approaches closer. She looks at him for permission, and when she feels she has it, reaches out to touch his neck. “You…you ain’t just part of my imagination, are you? This is one a’ them deep dreams.”

It is a dream. And you are awake in it. In charge of all your thoughts.

Stroking his neck, then shoulder, feeling the sleek hair, the powerful muscles, she asks, “So who are you? You know my name. And nobody knows my real name ‘cept Merri.”

I have known your name for as long as you have had it. My name is Arion. I am a Void Rider from beyond the Insula. He looks up. Above, in the sky, the stars seem to dance, rippling as something invisible moves past them. Something that, from the distortions, seems distinctly horse-shaped.

“Ghost riders in the sky,” Cherry whispers, agape at the beauty. She looks back at him. “Arion… Alma told us about you. You’re…our, uh, our father.”

He turns his nose to her, breathing warm, moist, pleasant-smelling air against her face. I am. Your mother told me you were eager to meet me.

The Bunny puts her hands on his big cheek muscles. “Is it…really you then?”

It is. Inasmuch as newly created life forms have parents, you have them in your mother and I. It has been a long time, since I have last stood this close to you. Then, you fit in your mother’s arms with room to spare.

Long-pent feelings start to break free like a flash flood roaring down an arroyo. “You…did you…did you ever hold me?”

Of course. I have held all of you. At least once. Baby Bunnies…so fragile you were. As if a touch could break you. Or a whisper could blow you away.

He turns his head slightly, and Cherry’s eyes follow to see a strange scene taking place on the landscape, within a nimbus of wavering light. A couple, young and visibly nervous, look at the bundles they hold in their arms and smile. The man is tall and dark-tanned, with flowing black hair and a several locks of white. But Cherry’s eyes are on the white-haired woman, apparently younger than Cherry, in her early twenties perhaps, midway in appearance between the child that is Tulip and the mature cop Alma.

Cherry gasps. She hesitates, but can’t resist moving closer, wanting to see what they are holding. The woman looks incredulous but happy, doting on her cargo, holding it close to her chest. She lowers her arms, as if she can see the grown Bunny before her. Cherry sees a glimpse of light-brown skin, two long black-furred ears contrasted against the light-colored blanket, a nearly bald head with just a few swirls of black hair looking almost painted on. The eyes are closed and the plump-cheeked face is in repose, but the little mouth opens wide in a yawn.

And the man slips the other bundled infant into Alma’s arms – for surely it is Alma – and Cherry sees the pink face of another sleeping babe, reddish fuzz on her head, rust-furred ears quite short for a Bunny. Cherry feels tears spilling over her cheeks. She’s never even thought to see her dear Rosemary like this, at the moment of her creation, so tiny and perfect, from a time she doesn’t have the slightest memory of. She takes a step away and feels her back touch Arion, then turns and puts her arms around him. But she feels arms around her, big strong arms, safe arms, and realizes with a shock that she’s holding a human waist rather than the expected equine neck.

She looks up to see the same man that had been holding Merri moments before, looking not a bit older. His fingertips stroke her cheek, wiping away a tear, radiating old power, peace and wisdom despite his youthful appearance. I hope there can be joy behind your tears, little one.

She nods, and presses the side of her face against his chest, holding him tighter. “There is…it’s good to finally see you and hold you.” But then she takes a step back and slaps her hand against his chest, lightly. “But where the heck have you been all this time? If you can go into dreams, how come we didn’t have you with us all those years? We may’ve been livin’ in dreams, but they weren’t always nice ones!”

Arion looks at her with an expression that looks so ancient and far away that Cherry feels like there’s a canyon between them so deep and wide that no bridge could ever be built across it. I have always been closer than you knew, watching over you. As your mother watched over your bodies, I saw to it that your minds would have room to develop in stasis. Alas, there are rules that even I must follow in the Dreamlands. And not making myself known was one of them.

Cherry grabs her hat off her head and throws it on the ground, boiling over with anger. She turns away, mouth set hard to keep in words that she knows she’d regret letting loose, and crosses her arms. But when he puts those big hands on her shoulders, her body slumps a little. What’s the use of bein’ mad? she asks herself. Instead, she lets herself lean back against him, and then finds herself horizontal, lying on the grass and wildflowers, her head on his lap as he sits cross-legged. He’s stroking her curls gently, and she says, “I don’t understand any of that stuff. But…when it comes to gods, I figure I just gotta be okay with not understandin’.”

Cherry’s been lucky. Most of the gods she’s known are pretty down-to-earth, not setting themselves up as the natural masters of mortals. And even this god, so far above her that even many gods shake in their boots at the thought of him, doesn’t make her feel like a fool. If her confusion amuses Arion, as it would so many gods, stuck-up and mightier-than-thou as they tend to be, he shows no signs of it. It is all right for you to be angry at me, little Cherish. At your mother, at the Council, at Fate… I imagine that all of this feels utterly bewildering to you, not just as a mortal but as a child. And whether things could have been done differently or better, that is not for me to say. All I can do is focus on the present day and hope I will not make a bad job of it.

She closes her eyes and just tries to forget everything else, and just enjoy the simple pleasure of her daddy petting her hair. She does her best to push away regrets about time lost, and the suspicion that she’s not likely to see him again for a long time. And for a little while, it works. She feels she could almost fall asleep like this.

She murmurs, “So you visitin’ all the others too, tonight?”

No, Cherish. Tonight is your night.

“Aww…” She takes one of his big hands in her slender one, and squeezes affectionately. “Thank you.” She opens her eyes and cranes her head back a little. “You know I ain’t really got a good look at you in human form.” She sees, reversed, the long, handsome face, the flowing black hair with white locks, braided loosely and hanging over one shoulder. A stray thought crosses her mind and makes her giggle. Funny how Somrak’s got a white lock of hair now. Oh! Hope Arion didn’t hear that! She tries to quickly change the stream of her thoughts, just in case. “I don’t even know where to start with the questions. Do you have, like, hobbies? Probably not…”

Arion chuckles, light and easy, smiling down at her. The chasm between them might be wide, but just for the moment, they’re on the same side of it. I do. Watching over you is one of them. And that is why I am going to need you to wake up, now.

Cherry sits bolt upright and twists at the hip to look at him, her face consternated. “But…but why?”

Trust me, little one. There is something happening in the Waking World that you will not want to miss. I do not want you angry at me for keeping you from it.

“Uh oh. Is ice cream gonna be involved?” Now why the heck did I say that?

Arion laughs, short and whickering like a horse. No… He leans forward and cups her face in his hands, suddenly serious but tender. But tears might. He gives her a gentle kiss on the her forehead.

“No…wait!” But the sound of her voice makes her realize she’s no longer under the wide-open sky, but in her own room, sitting upright and twisted, trying to look behind her at a father who is, again, gone. Beside her, Merri stops her gentle snoring but just squirms a little for comfort and continues her usual stone-like sleep. Cherry looks down at Merri’s tousled red hair and disarrayed fleece pajamas, and smiles at how Merri refuses to believe she snores. But it’s the music Cherry falls asleep to. She wishes Merri could’ve been there with Arion, with her, together. Maybe next time.

And thinking of that…Cherry looks around. Where the hey did May get to? When Cherry had fallen asleep, May had been with them, joining them for a goodbye. Merri had been so upset about May leaving the day after tomorrow. Well, tomorrow now. And Cherry had to admit she’d gotten a little weepy too. She felt bad, knowing May probably wanted to be with Sky, but dang it, they needed May too. Sky could have her tomorrow night. Maybe that big lunkhead would finally take her to bed. Takin’ it slow…that’s just plain silly.

In the silence, Cherry’s ears twitch, catching the sound of Lexie’s meowing. Lexie don’t meow all by herself, Cherry thinks. And the furious whispers that follow confirm that someone’s being sneaky in the bar. Cherry slips out of bed to see what’s up.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Look at her, sneaking about like a common criminal trying to get out of jail. Wait, she is a common criminal trying to get out of jail! Fine, so…not a common criminal. More like a very specialized criminal. A very specialized criminal trying to get out of jail. Well, not jail, exactly. Technically not jail. The building adjacent to the jail. With a bar in it.

Ah, screw it! Saira doesn’t need a metaphor, anyway. What she needs is to get out of this damned nuthouse! Seriously, what’s wrong with these people, taking in killers from the street and bringing them into the family as if it were the most natural thing ever? Inviting them for parties and handing out family jewels with portraits and all? You’d think they’re on their way to including her in their wills and giving her the family name! Crazy folks…

The bar is quiet. Really quiet. The gift-giving party ended a few hours ago and everyone has either gone home, carrying insane amounts of food with them, or turned in and carefully left the cleaning up for tomorrow morning. The Bunnies are all burrowing in their rooms or in each other’s rooms or wherever it is they like to hide when they’re not in sight. Thankfully, none of them thought to spend tonight in Alma’s room. Sneaking past those furry ears is tougher than getting a banshee to screech in tune.

Not that sneaking past Alma herself is any easier but she’s not sleeping at her place tonight either. She might be out on her ghoulish rounds or she’ll be happily snuggling in the arms of Mister Hazel Eyes as a nice little cap to the special day. But probably out. It’s Dion’s shift, after all. Hopefully out. Hopefully not just about to enter the bar. Because Saira is about to leave.

It’s all just too much. They’re trying to adopt her! Her! For crying out loud! But…well, it was nice…wasn’t it? The sleeping in safety every night, the not having to worry about food or shelter. Being taken care of and made to feel like here is a place she can belong.

Stop it Saira, this is not you! she admonishes herself. You belong out there, not here on a leash!

Yes, she has to go before this pink-clouds-and-unicorns place causes irreversible damage to her finely honed mind. It was just a matter of time before she left, right? Everyone knew she was going to, no? Everyone knew. It’s who she is, a fleeting, deadly breeze blowing through the shadows, quick as a crossbow bolt, free and unstoppable. Free…

She sneaks past the staircase that leads upstairs, tiptoes past the kitchen entrance. Good, good. No sudden arrivals, no signs of anyone catching her mid-sneak. All’s good. Perfect so far.

“Meow?”

The call sounds so loud, she nearly hits her head against the ceiling with fright. So that is what a heart attack feels like…

Saira looks down and frowns in irritation at a very calm, inquisitive Lexie. “You stupid cat!” she hisses. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?! Stop giving me away!”

The large, fat cat with long hair that makes her look like a giant ball of fuzz tilts her head and looks up at Saira with huge yellow-green eyes that are mostly black right now due to the pale, weak moonlight that filters in through the windows. A silvery ball shines amidst the fur on the cat’s neck, a bell that Sage found for her in some shop and proceeded to attach to a nice black leather collar. Lexie had hated the thing at first. Man, how she had raced across the bar, half-crazed with the jingle that she couldn’t shake off, no matter how hard she tried! Now, that had been funny!

But now the bloody cat is moving without ringing the bell! What kind of hellish critter learns to do that so quickly?!

Lexie purrs, loud as a chainsaw, and rubs her head against Saira’s legs. “Meow?”

Saira nudges the cat away with a foot. “Shhhhh!! Stop doing that! You’re gonna get me caught!” She takes a few more steps toward the door but much to her desperation, Lexie follows her, trotting gingerly and making the bell around her neck ring like some fat old man dressed in red has just landed on the roof. “Oh, for the love of – No! You stay here. With Sage and the others. Go try to bite the tail off Starfax!”

“Caught? Are you…are you sneakin’ out?” a voice chimes from the stairs leading up to the first floor.

Ah crap. Saira hangs her head as she recognizes it as Cherry’s voice. Here comes the drama.

This is exactly the kind of thing that she was trying to avoid. Cherry descends the stairs, looking at her with big, shiny eyes and laid-back ears. Saira hasn’t even answered the question and Cherry already looks like she’s about to cry.

“Nope!” the woman lies. “No. Was just… gonna get the last piece of cake, that’s all.”

It’s a lame lie. No one sneaks out of bed to steal cake and takes the time to get dressed in street clothes and boots in the process. They certainly don’t take a crossbow and quiver with them either, unless it’s really great cake. Cherry’s full lips tremble with a whimper.

“Oh hon… Why? Why are you leavin’?” she asks in a tiny voice, moving closer to Saira to take the woman’s hand and look up at her in heartbreaking pleading. “Don’t go.”

Saira looks at the Bunny in silence for a moment. It’s a full show of misery that Cherry is putting up to convince Saira to stay. The woman knows she is being bullied into staying. Because yes, it’s bullying when someone throws their emotions at you and makes you feel horrible about yourself as if your thoughts and feelings didn’t matter a damned thing when held against theirs. And that makes Saira fume.

Which is probably the exact opposite of what Cherry intended but screw that! So, people are gonna be sad to see her go but she’s not gonna be happy staying either. Her place is outside, living her merry little life. And she has the right to want that. Unless someone will throw her in a cell or bind her in shackles, she is free to leave. So…

“Let me go!” Saira whispers, shaking off Cherry’s hold on her hand, ignoring the Bunny’s hurt expression at that. No more cutesy, hugsy, we love you so much, how can you do this to us mind tactics! Enough is enough! “I don’t belong here. This…” She gestures vaguely at the bar. “Is not me. I belong out there, runnin’ free, not here with twenty moms constantly looking over shoulder at what I do and don’t do and making paper thingies and pretendin’ my whole life has been like this. This is not me. And I can’t take it anymore. This is just too much! Even the stupid cat won’t get off my back!”

She nudges Lexie away with her foot again for show and while the cat takes a quick step back in surprise, she’s back to sniffing and marking Saira’s boot with the underside of her chin a few seconds later.

Cherry looks at Saira in silence. The Bunny seems to be struggling to absorb the full meaning of the woman’s words. Of course, she can’t. She never will. Their lives have been too different, their circumstances just too far apart to allow for comprehension. Cherry will never appreciate solitude or the thrill of uncertainty and danger. And Saira can’t make her understand. It would be like trying to explain what purple tastes like.

At the end of all that silence, Cherry sighs and looks down in defeat. “Will you let me get you that last piece of cake? Just…just for a few minutes? I’ll make you some coffee to go with it.”

Oh man… Just let me go already!

“I can’t take too long or people will start gettin’ back from their shifts and then it’ll be tougher to just go,” Saira tries to explain. “Sunshine, why are you doin’ this?”

“Cause I just don’t want you disappearin’ forever!” Cherry snaps, thankfully keeping her voice at an impassioned whisper. “Come on…just sit with me for a few minutes? Please? We could…we could go up on the rooftop. You can make your getaway from there.”

Saira looks at her, trying to find a good excuse to just bolt. But she can’t find any. Better to admit defeat and then just jump off the roof if that’s what it takes. “Fine…”

Damned Bunnies and their cute faces and RAIOS PARTAM ESSA GENTE TODA!

Apparently forgetting the coffee and cake thing, Cherry just turns towards the stairs, moving quietly in her bare feet, peeking behind her to make sure that Saira is not just going to sneak out of the bar behind her back. Lexie follows them up the stairs, quiet as a mouse. They walk down the hall, past rooms full with six sleeping Bunnies (and one gryphon), then up another set of stairs, through a trap door, and onto the flat roof of the Burrow.

Cherry heads over to the chimney, by far the best place to sit, with something to lean back against, and sits, looking at Saira as if the woman might disappear if she glances away.

She waits until Saira sits before she unleashes her sermon. “Look…I get it. You’re feelin’ all hemmed in. But…hon, you ain’t got no home out there!”

Saira breathes deeply and shakes her head. Predictable. Sooo predictable. “You don’t get it. You think you do but you don’t. You’re tryin’ to convince a sewer rat to behave like a hamster. Not gonna happen. This ain’t about home.” She focuses her eyes, cold and hard, the same eyes that have stared down hitmen and watched as they took their last breath, on Cherry. “I’m a killer, Cherry. Always have been, can’t shake it off. I’ve killed more people than you’ve probably met since comin’ to Three Rats. Heck, probably more than you’ve ever met ever. It’s what I’m good at. Not this whole home business.”

“Yeah but…you only kill people that deserve it…” Cherry argues weakly and Saira can see it in her eyes, how she’s struggling to fit the image of Saira, her patient, with Saira, the assassin, and use the first to forgive the latter. “But…Alma and Sky and them, they can’t just let you keep doin’ that, can they?”

Saira almost tells her about her agreement with Sky, that he had promised never to go after her for killing former Dukaines provided she cooperated with him, but stops herself. No point in tainting Sky’s image for someone who thinks of him as an example of virtue. “I’ll figure it out. There’s other wards. The Dukaines were everywhere in the Fourth Ring. And there’s always people lookin’ to hire someone like me. I’ll be fine.”

“You’re gonna leave the ward??” Now Cherry looks even more miserable. She puts her head down against her knees, hugging her legs, then looks up, eyes shiny with pent-up liquid. “What about next time somethin’ goes wrong? What if you get hurt again? The thought of you bleedin’ somewhere and we don’t even know about it…” Tears spill over as her voice breaks.

Saira pats her back awkwardly. It’s probably not a very reassuring gesture but at least Cherry won’t be choking anytime soon. “Ya know, I did make it fine for the last twenty-odd years without Bunny babysitters… Give me some credit, will ya?” She chuckles nervously.

“Don’t laugh! Just…” Cherry swallows, then chokes out a little sniffly laugh herself as Lexie rubs her face against Saira’s arm and makes her jump slightly.

Saira absentmindedly pets the cat, who is currently, and very slowly, making her way onto the woman’s legs. “I’ll be fine, Cherry. And… I’ll keep an eye on you, guys. Every now and again.”

She says that more because it’s what Cherry wants to hear than because it’s an actual plan. Saira’s reputation and livelihood have been severely threatened with her long absence. The first few weeks will probably be spent just getting her life back on track. But hey, it’s whatever works right now.

“You know they ain’t gonna look for you too hard, if some bad guys turn up shot fulla arrows,” Cherry says, reaching over to scratch Lexie in that spot at the base of her tail that she likes to be scratched for precisely eight seconds before she stops liking it. “I…I don’t want you to go at all. But…okay, I get it. Sorta. Just…come back sometimes? Thought of never seein’ you again…that just kills me, sweetie. Promise me?”

Oh, come on! Now I gotta promise?!

“See why I was just gonna sneak out?” Saira mutters. But a look at Cherry’s serious and heartbroken face has her hanging her head in defeat. It’s whatever works… “Fine… I promise… But you’re owin’ me cake!”

Cherry throws her arms around Saira, holding her tight. “You can have all the cake you want!”

Saira gasps. Cherry’s hug is nothing short of a golem’s death-grip. “Air… Sun…shine… air….”

Cherry releases her immediately, eyes wide in alarm. “Sorry! Merri says I don’t know my own strength…” She smooths Saira’s hair with a sigh. All that need for touching is really getting on Saira’s nerves but she does her best not to flinch away. “I never had a patient before. Not for any length of time anyway. It’s hard to let go. When you came in here… Anyway, I don’t want you to go, not even a little bit. But you…” Her voice breaks and she looks away. “You, uh, you be careful! And you come back!”

A few heartbeats and the Bunny’s head shoots back to look at Saira. But the woman is no longer there. From a rooftop nearby, Saira watches as Cherry looks to her side, then around the rooftop, the ward. Finally, Cherry hangs her head and slowly gets up to return inside.

The image leaves a bitter taste in Saira’s mouth but it is as it has to be. Her life’s purpose is out here and everything else will have to wait until she can call her task complete.

She exhales deeply and leans down to scratch Lexie behind the ears, regretting immediately that she brought the cat with her but knowing that she would not have been able to leave so smoothly and silently if she had left Lexie complaining behind her. The cat looks at her, head tilted in that upsettingly intelligent quizzical expression of hers.

“Meow?”

Saira jerks her head at Lexie. “Come on, you silly cat. Let’s go home.” She starts walking, cat at her heel. “And you better be good at huntin’ ‘cuz I ain’t feedin’ ya!”

Ch6.45 Trust

The bar is filled with music. Most of the people who can sing (and definitely all the ones who can’t) have joined in Kyri’s musical challenge and are happily singing holiday tunes of all sorts and origins, from the sweet and soft Hail the Lord of Heavens kind of tune that some more monotheistic wards tend to favor to a couple of songs that Breowan has brought into the ensemble, reminiscent of a cat being shaved with barbed wire.

Alma, on the other hand, is struggling to keep up with the rest of the partiers. Her family has never been one to sing much about things like the Year’s End (or any other thing, truth be told) and the quarter of a century she has spent outside the walls of her father’s estate has lead to so much moving around from ward to ward as Sergeants and Inspectors strove to make her some other station’s problem that she has somehow managed to bypass Year’s End celebrations in most of them. So she does not know the lyrics or melody to most of the songs being sung which has her mostly humming to the tunes and being content with watching the others having fun and laughing at her younger Bunnies’ attempts at learning the lyrics to all of these new songs in record time.

“Hey, Mom!” Tulip’s sudden, loud voice in her ear makes Alma jump in her chair. The young Bunny is still trying to master her inside voice but, apparently, not trying too hard. Still, Alma refrains from scolding her, not wanting to sour the party for anyone. She looks quizzically at Tulip, who is holding a sheet of paper, one of the many she has been handing around, and looking somewhere between confused and concerned. “Where’s Uncle Som? I wanna show him the drawing I made of Uncle Sky.”

“Well, he was just here a few minutes ago…” The question makes Alma look around the room. Where is Somrak? She had left him attacking the food trays and half expected that he would be sharing a drink with Sky by now. But Sky is happily talking and exchanging sweet caresses with Mayumi by the bar and Somrak is nowhere to be seen. An instinctive feeling in her chest has her looking toward the door that leads to the breezeway. “He may have gone out for a moment. Let me go check.”

“I’ll go!” Tulip volunteers immediately.

But Alma manages to grab her by the wrist before the Bunny dashes off. “Tulip, no,” she says quietly but firmly. “Let me, yes? Uncle Somrak might want to be alone.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop slightly in disappointment with a hint of worry. “Is he…all right?”

Alma struggles to answer the simple question without lying. Somrak is wounded in more ways than one, and their short conversation before had left her heart heavy with concern for the rogue fire god. But she does not want Tulip to worry. Considering how Bunny psyche tends to handle such situations, Somrak might find himself at the bottom of an overwhelming, long-eared pile of affection instead of enjoying the quiet solitude that she suspects he is craving right now. “He will be. Don’t worry about that. I will be right back.”

She rises from her chair and crosses the room toward the door, glancing behind her to make sure that Tulip won’t follow. She sees the Bunny looking at her uncertainly but nonetheless taking the chair that Alma was occupying before and joining again in Kyri’s musical merrymaking.

She steps outside. To the right of her, Somrak is leaning against the wall of the bar, weight on one leg, the other crossing at the ankle. A fine cigar is hanging loosely from his fingers, a long stream of aromatic smoke slithering slowly from his lips. The back of his head resting against the wall, he has his eyes raised to the strip of night sky framed by the tops of the station and the bar. The sun has set quickly since the fire god’s arrival at the party. The sound of the door closing behind her makes his eyes swivel in her direction. He lowers his head slowly, lazily turning it to look at Alma. The nightly shadows heighten his gaunt appearance, darkening the edges of his bruises, sinking his eyes deeper into their sockets. He looks surprised and uncomfortable at first, perhaps not expecting that his absence would be noted, but then his gaze softens and the smoke-filled breath he had been holding is gently released in a more relaxed acknowledgment of her presence.

Alma stands by the now closed door, looking at him, uncertain of what to do or say. She is torn between wanting him to exorcise whatever demons are haunting him tonight and leaving him alone with his thoughts. Who is she to impose her presence in his life? What does she know of him, who is she to him that she can possibly claim the right to intervene? Maybe she should just let Sky talk to his old partner and deal with things in whatever way has worked for them in so many decades.

And yet…yet she feels the calling to reach out to him, a palpable need to say something, whatever it is, to drive his pain away, if only for a moment. The way he held her when he arrived, when she said those silly little words “Welcome home”, not even knowing why she was saying them to someone like him… She felt his heart begin to pound against her chest then and she can almost feel the same strangled sensation now as he looks at her. If he rejects her help, sends her away without so much as an explanation, that will be his right. But it is her hope that he won’t.

His eyes are becoming worried now. She realizes how long it has been that they have both been silently gazing at each other. What to say? “Needed some fresh air?”

Fresh air? With that cigar puffing ash into his lungs? her conniving thoughts betray her. Good thing that gods are not prone to disease.

She admonishes herself for the thought immediately. It is a sad truth that even with Nekh gone from her mind, the echoes of his caustic presence still taint her thoughts. But Somrak seems to share in her mind’s humor.

He raises the cigar, a smirk dancing on his lips. “Yeah, but… This somehow found me instead.”

He turns the unburning end of it in her direction, in a silent offering, but Alma is not a big fan of such things, preferring water pipes herself if smoking is of the essence, and so she just waves her hand in a gentle no.

“Thank you. I favor other bad habits.”

She takes a couple of steps towards him and leans against the wall just by his left. The silence that falls between them is crammed with unspoken words but it somehow feels comfortable enough that she can relax in his company. She breathes deeply, her eyes closed, letting the vibrant agitation that has surrounded this whole day flow out of her, driven away by the cool night air. She turns her head upward, to look at the stars. Somewhere among them, godly horses gallop through the endless Void, looking down on the celebrating Insula. Will Arion be watching his children, even if he has failed to keep his promise to meet them?

For a moment, she is barely aware of Somrak still leaning against the wall by her side, of how he casually extinguishes his cigar by putting his index finger on its smoldering tip before slipping it back into the silver case that Sky gave him, and tucking the whole thing away in a jacket pocket.

He does not press for a conversation but Alma cannot help herself from saying what she has not dared confess to anyone yet. “Twenty-four years…” Her own voice sounds old and tired to her. “I have waited twenty-four years for this day. And I have spent most of it trying to convince myself that it is real. A part of me just wants to run away before it all comes tumbling down to rubble.”

She can see him studying her face through the corner of her eye. “You run away, and it’s guaranteed to turn to rubble.”

She nods, chuckling quietly, bitterly. “I know. I am still here, aren’t I?” She turns her head to face him. “It is just that some days, I get tired of fighting. And others…” she turns to glance at the door. “I remember what I’m fighting for. And on days like this…”

Words evade her. What can she say? That she is scared? That all of this feels too good to be true, to be hers? That for all her outward strength, she is still a terrified young girl with a couple of newborn babies in her arms and the world spinning under her feet?

And why tell him this? Why not Sky or Gwydion? Why even say it? Just admitting to it feels like such a betrayal to the family she has worked so hard on protecting, on bringing together. It shames her to feel this way. To be frightened of her own happiness when so many people would steal and kill for a single, remote shot at it.

A gentle touch to her hand makes her turn her eyes to him again. His fingers are wrapping around hers, squeezing them softly. His eyes close for a second, betraying the pain that his shattered arm causes him. When he opens them again, she sees it. His pain. Not the pain in his body but the one that torments his soul. For that moment that the eyelids take to rise fully, his defenses fail him and the turmoil in his mind flares like a comet’s tail.

And even though he remains silent, she cannot resist the urge to detach herself from the wall and stand closer, in front of him, her right hand still in his, but the left stroking the marks of newly-healed cuts on his face, the bruises that mar his handsome features. “What have they done to you, Somrak?” Her voice is very soft, almost a whisper. As if anything above that could scare him away. “There is so much pain, so much anguish in you.”

Somrak’s eyes are on her face, half shut at her touch. Her question makes him sigh, draw a shuddery breath. “I had to kill someone.” He looks down as if he cannot bear to look at her. “Someone I knew. Someone on my team.”

Alma tries to keep any accusation away from her voice as she asks, “Why?”

He shakes his head. “That…is classified. But.” He shrugs. “She betrayed us. Murdered her partner, who trusted her so much that she tried to give her a chance.” Another sigh. “Even so, I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been trying to kill your aunt.”

Alma tries to wrap her head around the concept of being desperate or foolish enough to attack the Fencer. By Guardia standards, that is the very definition of suicide by cop. “If she did that then you must know…the Fencer would have not let her live anyway.” She tries to bring some light into both their moods. “Did my aunt like the tiger?”

The flash of grief that crosses Somrak’s face immediately makes her regret that question. “Yeah. She loves the tiger. Named him Khun. Gets all gooey over him and then looks at me like she’s going to kill me if I ever tell anyone.”

Alma cannot help but chuckle. “Ah, yes…Welcome to life with Varah.” The joke makes him snort, which brings a smile to her face. She releases her right hand from his gentle grip to wrap both arms around him, closely though minding his wounds, and presses her forehead against his. “It will be all right. Maybe not perfect, maybe not good. But it will be all right. Yes?”

His forehead rests on hers fully, as if he is too tired to keep his head hanging straight. “I don’t expect perfection. I don’t expect good, either, except in moments. But yes,” his right hand reaches up to stroke her hair, cup the back of her head. They stand quietly, noses touching, sharing in each other’s breath. He feels pleasantly warm against her as the scent of his skin, of the tobacco he usually smokes, creeps into her senses, stroking nerves, ancient, primal parts of her brain. And for some reason, it makes her feel safe. Cared for. The fear of upcoming misery in her heart settles for a moment.

She understands all at once why Sky finds this kind of thing so sacred and intimate. “It’s over now,” she whispers to Somrak, almost unthinkingly. “You are home.”

His frame shakes with a half-choked breath. “I don’t know…how to be home, Alma.”

“You’re not the only one,” she concedes. “I’m…we’re all still learning. All I know is that there’s warmth and safety and always someone to make me believe that it can be all right. And I don’t have to run anymore.” It is almost painful but she forces herself to pull away just enough that she can look at him. “Do you not want that for yourself?”

He looks back at her, all the pain in the world seemingly pouring into those deep, black eyes. “I do. I just…”

She can almost see his thoughts engraved in his expression. His mind is torn by the concept of someone like him being permanently bound to a station. Stifling a sigh, she touches two fingers to his chin, to hold his head up before he can hang it down. Her eyes lock on his in what she hopes shows sincerity, not aggression. “You don’t have to stay here. Home is people, Somrak. Just…don’t let go of us. And you’ll always have us to come home to.”

He holds her gaze, questioning, doubting. She knows that look well. It is the look of someone who has learned to believe that he is not entitled to bliss and who is just now struggling to hope that maybe, this time, if only just this once…he could be wrong. His left hand rises toward her cheek. As his fingertips graze her skin, the smallest of flinches betrays his pain at raising his injured arm that high.

Alma takes his hand and brings it lower before moving her own to his left upper arm. For as much as she has been trying to let him regain his mental strength and decide himself when to be healed, she can no longer pretend to ignore how bad his injuries are.

“May I?” she asks softly.

He nods, looking almost frightened at the prospect of a healing. That makes her hesitate for a moment. Healing is as painful and uncomfortable as it is pleasurable. Anyone who has ever been injured knows that. The pain, the itching, the sting of exposed flesh, the pulling of scars. And then the absence of pain, the relief as the body becomes whole again. But all those sensations are drawn out, taking days, months, years to show and resolve themselves, allowing the body time to adapt and become almost numb to them. A magical healing is a brutal fast-forwarding of all those events, speeding them along, reducing days to minutes and giving the body no chance to be even fully aware of all that is going on.

A poorly-skilled healer can cause so much pain that healing quickly becomes a nightmare compared to a natural mend. There has to be balance between pain and pleasure, to numb discomfort with relief. And though good healers cannot eliminate pain altogether, they can leave such a blissful aftertaste to their actions that the memory of pain is completely erased, exhilaration left in its place. Alma knows that, after years of experience and care, her skill in healing has reached that plateau.

So why is he so worried? Has she not healed and left him elated before?

“I will take it gently,” she reassures him.

He nods again and straightens, resting his hands on her back. Again, she presses her forehead against his, her eyes flaring the reddish-gold glimmer of her life sphere, scents of spring and of cool nights invading the air as she calls upon her healing power. Her magic begins to pour into him, slowly, scouting out what is broken, torn and bruised, what is misplaced and healing in the wrong position. Her senses know him well by now, the memory of his previous healing still fresh in Alma’s mind. She reminds herself to leave his facial scar in place but everything else, all the marks of horrible aggression, of crushed bone and cut skin and bruised internal organs are flagged to disappear.

Her energy courses through him, renewing fractures to shift bone fragments into their proper positions, stretching tendons and nerves to pull them back into their natural grooves, rechanneling the blood vessels that had been grown to replace ones that had been destroyed. His hands grip her tightly, breath shuddering at the pain that she cannot avoid causing him. But pain is not all he feels. At each necessary aggression, she responds by urging his body to produce substances that induce pleasure. She uses the relief of tension on previously distended tendons and tissues no longer being compressed by bone fragments, the local cooling as inflammation is reduced and cancelled. She overwhelms his brain with signals from all over his body to distract it from the pain.

He raises his head to the sky, eyes transfixed, mouth gaping open as his breath catches in his lungs. Soon, it is done. His hands release her and he falls against the wall, leaning his weight against it, breathing heavily, shaking. He looks at her, eyes wide and searing, paralyzing her with their intensity. She wonders if her skills have failed her this time.

And suddenly, his hand is cupping her cheek, the other pressing the small of her back, pulling her toward him. His lips are pressed against hers. She stiffens, surprised at the sudden kiss, at the hunger with which he tries to compel her to join him. She takes his invitation. His need, the dark mood of their conversation, the lightheadedness of the deep healing…she kisses him back with the passion of her own fears. She cannot resist this rogue, this daredevil who toys with his own demise, whose mere existence taunts her very essence, who offers himself to her and begs her to take him with a kiss that threatens to consume her.

It is frightening and exhilarating and all she wants is more of it. She wants to hold on to him and heal the wounds in his soul. Show him that he is not alone in the dark. But something inside her is screaming in alarm, begging her to stop. The part of her that is always watching is begging her to pay attention, to see that this is not right. That Somrak is not acting like himself. Is he just kissing her because of the healing? Is she taking advantage of him?

She tries to pull away, managing just enough breath to call his name. “Somrak…”

“Shhh…” his lips cover hers again.

“Somrak…” she breathes amidst kisses.

Oh gods, he is not making this any easier on her. She has to pry herself from the exquisite warmth of his mouth. “You’re not…” she fights for breath, “thinking straight.”

His eyes are glazed, as if he has a fever. And considering how hot his body feels against hers, he just might. “Like I care.”

He kisses her with renewed passion. She can taste his anguish mixed in with the smoky aroma of his tongue as it strokes hers, sparking bolts of pleasure that course through her, shutting down her better sense. She feels the world twirl around her with dizzying speed. And then she feels the solidity of a wall pressed against her back, the fit frame of his body pressed to her front, pinning her in place. His hands are on her sides now, strong and hungry, pulling, always pulling her to him. Her own hands are on his back, relishing in the feel of his muscles, of how his body craves for her and offers itself to her touch. His heart pounds strong, leaping deerlike against her chest as if trying to invade it.

Memories of such desperate need awaken the darkness in her. She feels the shadows in her own soul creep forth, stretching to merge with his, luring him further into her hold, enveloping them both in their cloak. He is a daredevil and she is death incarnate. And she will devour him whole for toying with her and making her want him so badly. He cannot escape and neither can she.

A faint sound of wood knocking softly against wood rings in her ears with the intensity of a whole building crumbling to the ground. It is like ice cold water poured down her spine. The bar door. Must have been.

Her eyes shoot open, the blackness in them winking out of existence. What is she doing? This… No, this is not how things are done. This is not who she is.

She pulls away, what little she can pull away considering he has her trapped against the wall, and touches her fingers to his lips to stop his next kiss. “Wait. Please,” she nearly begs. She is lightheaded, fighting for breath. Her body feels weak under her weight.

He pauses and opens his eyes, looking at her as if he is just waking up from a fugue, just now realizing the world exists outside of the two of them. He looks shocked to see the wall behind her. He must not have realized before, how in his need, he reversed their positions to stop her from pulling away.

Trembling, he forces himself to loosen his hold on her, to pull himself away just enough to give her room to stand straight. His hands move to her shoulders and stay there, his craving for her touch not entirely sated. He looks at her in confusion.

She looks at him, her fingers gently grazing the skin on his chin and throat as they travel to rest on his collarbone. Though she is fighting the impulse to kiss him again, she feels their moment of passion already fading away. Her thoughts have settled back into their axis. What her inner self had been trying so desperately to tell her before becomes clear in her mind.

“You’re not thinking straight, dear,” she says. “And I don’t want to wrong you.”

“Wrong me?” He shakes his head as if to clear it, blinking in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, for one, taking advantage of a patient,” she says with a meaningful look at his left arm. “And second…” She exhales deeply, knowing that she has to tell him about Gwydion. “There is someone else.”

He seems even more confused for a moment, looking at her, then shaking his head. Eventually, confusion fades, replaced by…guilt? regret? He meets her eyes again. “Dion?”

His voice is weak, almost fearful. “Yes,” she confirms with a nod. “We keep it secret and non-exclusive but…we have been together since our return from the First Ring.”

Probably the worst kept secret in all of Three Rats, considering how many people know about it by now, she cannot help but muse.

He drops his head so that his chin nearly touches his chest. A single almost-silent bark of laughter shakes him for an instant. “I…have been blind. I saw it and discounted it.” He shakes his head, muttering, “Amazing what desire can do.”

His words have her intrigued. It is not surprising that Somrak would have missed it. He had only spent a week in Three Rats and it is not like anyone would have said anything. So… “What did you see?”

“When Dion confronted me over Rio Novo,” Somrak explains. “We…well we had a very brief ‘who’s the bigger dog’ moment.”

“Oh gods,” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes at what might be coming next.

“I’m afraid your desk may have been slightly scorched,” Somrak says with a sly grin that still manages to be somewhat apologetic.

“Somrak!” she hisses, lightly smacking his shoulder.

He breathes a soft chuckle. “Dion repaired it. But I noticed he was very careful not to repair anything that had been there before. All the little marks and dings that made it your desk.”

Which would explain why she did not notice anything different with her desk other than it being extremely and unusually clean.

“I just thought he was an obsessive perfectionist at the time,” Somrak notes with a shrug. “You know…wizards.”

“He does that sometimes, when he thinks no one is paying attention,” Alma says, incapable of keeping her affection for Gwydion away from her voice. “These incredibly sweet things that you wouldn’t notice unless you know what to look for.”

The way Somrak’s expression softens and saddens, makes her cheeks flush with remorse at the her own words. It is never pleasant to hear from the lips of someone you want for yourself that he or she loves another. And though Alma is free to accept Somrak’s affections, though their kiss was not wrong or unwanted, she knows that she must let him down.

“I care for you, Somrak,” she says, looking into his eyes, hoping he will believe her. “But everything is so recent, so fragile. And even if keeping you would not be cheating Gwydion, it would hurt him. And I would not be able to stand that.”

She lowers her gaze to her hand, resting on his chest. “It has taken me over two decades to remember…how good it feels to allow someone so close to me. To give myself in return.” She touches his face and looks into his eyes again. “I don’t want to cheat you. I’m sorry.”

Emotions play over his face: denial, shame, humor, pain, anger, all momentarily surfacing and fading. In the end, what is left is a small smile over a mask of deep regret. “You don’t need to apologize. I blinded myself.”

His hands briefly squeeze her shoulders before he lets go of her. He holds up his fully healed left hand, flexes his fingers, looking at it, then at her. He seems about to say something but the words die before they exit his throat. After a couple of heartbeats, he says, “Alma…I have nothing but gratitude for you.”

“I don’t want to be the one who drives you away,” she breathes, surprising herself with how broken her voice sounds.

He touches her cheek, smiling sadly as his fingers stroke it. “I’m ready to return whenever you need me.” A pause as he raises two fingers before her but not so close that the flame that erupts from them can harm her face. In its wake, a small white card bearing a single, mystical glyph flashes into existence. “If you ever need me to come back, burn this. Write a message on it if you have one for me, but message or not, I will come running.”

She raises a hand. Her fingers wrap around his and the card. Her lips curl into a smile. Somehow, this small gift is so much more meaningful than the daggers or the shirt. For as much as those reminded her of the complicity of shared jokes, this little card is a promise and an assurance that he will not vanish from her life.

“How long do the rules say I should wait before I call?” she can’t help but jest.

He shakes his head, rolling his eyes slightly at the obvious joke. “Keep that for a rainy day, sweetheart,” he replies, prompting a chuckle from her. “Or for when you find that necromancer. I want to be there when that happens. In the meantime…take care of Sky. You’re good for him.”

A sudden impulse has her wrapping her arms around him tightly, her forehead pressed against his. “Take care of yourself. And remember to come home. Every once in awhile. Please?”

He nods, his eyes closed, arms holding her closely to him. “I promise.” His voice is rough with emotion. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he loosens his embrace, moving his hands to touch her upper arms and very lightly push her away. He straightens, takes a deep breath, and smiles. “There’s some presents for the Bunnies under the tree. Only Tulip got hers so far. And, uh…” He reaches into the ever-present satchel that he didn’t bother to put down since his arrival, to remove a small, engraved wooden charm hanging from a satin ribbon and hand it to Alma. “This is for Saira. I’m going to…”

A jerk of his hand indicates that he is leaving. Alma does not even bother trying to keep the sadness and guilt to see him leaving so soon and because of her, away from her face. Still, she nods and lets him go, saying, “I understand.”

“Hey…” He smiles encouragingly at her, reaching to stroke her hair. “No being sad for the New Sun. It’s bad luck.”

She smiles weakly back at him. “It’s the Year’s End for me. Tomorrow, all that is dead will be gone for good to give way to new life.” She sighs and shakes her head, keeping her fatalistic thoughts to herself. “Stay safe, Somrak. And tell your go-to healer to come see me for a few lessons in doing his job right.”

Somrak smirks at that. “Now that I would like to see.”

The smirk fades and he stands looking at her in silence. For just a fraction of an instant, she can see his pain again, loss stealing across his features. And then he is turning away and walking down the breezeway and turning the corner without even a look back at her.

Alma watches him go with a heavy heart, saddened and worried and remorseful. Finally, he disappears from sight and she sighs her acceptance of what must be. She could not have handled this any other way, even though she wishes she could. She walks to the door that leads into the bar, breathes deeply, puts on her mask of all is well, and returns to the party.

Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.

Ch6.42 Trust

It is one of those warm, sunny days when working seems like a sin and staying inside is a veritable attempt to destroy one’s joie de vivre. The river and pools at the base of the waterfall at the Oracle’s grotto bring a pleasant freshness to the little patch of grass-green land bathed the afternoon sun.

The picnic has entered that lazy phase of all get-togethers when people settle into small groups or even alone to enjoy a swim in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall from which a swift, young river rushes toward Rio Novo, the patch of rock and pebble-filled bank crawling with little freshwater crabs that Sage and Aliyah are trying to teach Chime and Tulip how to catch, the tree-lined sloping hill where May, Kumiko, Ewá and Cherry are sitting, sunbathing and exchanging the occasional piece of conversation. At the top of the hill, on a ridge, by a flat rock that overlooks the pool, Pak and Nevieve are speaking with a nonchalance that hints at many years of shared experiences. And on the rock, Sky is preparing to dive into the water. A short, running jump is enough to see the god falling clear into the pool, with a couple of somersaults and a flawless entry that would look suspiciously like showing off if anyone but Dion were paying attention to Sky.

But the only other people in the pool are Kori and his apparently new best friend, Max, both of them too entertained in a little splash war to see Sky diving and surfacing, moving through the water with remarkable grace for his size, just the upper half of his head visible and looking at the two boys like a sea lion seeing a pair of fat, juicy fish. Dion senses the god’s magical influence blooming as a pair of waves rises gently to lift Kori and Max, gently moving them in a circle so that the boys orbit each other. Confused at first but quickly accepting and laughing of the harmless prank, the boys continue their splash fight from atop the magical waves, cajoling each other and making Dion chuckle at some of their more outrageous words of challenge.

“Now, look at ye, all alone in the corner,” Merri’s voice chimes by his right ear.

He turns away from the splash fest to look at her. “Ah, but now I’m not alone anymore,” he replies with a smile. “And I couldn’t possibly ask for better company.”

The Bunny, sporting a flattering green plaid-patterned swimsuit, with a low back and a single shoulder strap, that sets off her red hair and her shiny emerald eyes, giggles at the shameless flirtation. “I ken very well what kind of company ye’d prefer to be havin’.”

For all of Dion’s fame as a conquistador, he has never actually tried to lure any of the Bunnies to his bed. Not only would that be extremely bad for his short-term health and long-term survival, considering who their mother is, but, he must admit, the Bunnies did not feel quite like…people to him when he first met them. They were fascinating, obviously pleasant to look at but just animalistic enough that sleeping with them would equate, in his own mind, with bestiality, a venue of sex that Dion has never been interested in exploring. But as their personalities blossomed, so did Dion’s fascination and empathy. By the time the whole prophecy situation came to be, Dion was already convinced of their value as sentient beings and of the blind cruelty in destroying them. Since then, he has often surprised himself with how much he has come to care for them all and how attentively he finds himself keeping track of their different wants and likes. In just a few months, they have become more of a family to him than he has ever found with his Uncle Math.

Yet even if Dion were not to be involved with their lovely and loving mother, he simply does not see himself pursuing any of them. Cherry and Merri feel no inhibition in flirting with him but, for some reason, their flirting has never carried a promise of anything more, especially where the magic god is concerned. Perhaps they sensed from early on the attraction that Dion and Alma had at first dismissed? Mayumi has been distant, formal, and until recently has always looked at him with a coolness that invited little affection. Tulip…there’s an exception. Dion would not so much have to try to bring her into his bed but to keep her out of it. Her insistence on capturing his attention is annoying. Dion has always been an only child but he has seen the little sisters of some of his friends behave in that fashion with their older brothers. Of course, little sisters don’t usually try to slip into bed with their older brothers…

A sudden choked scream from Merri awakes Dion from his wonderings. He barely sees her stumble back and away from him before a wall of water hits him full force, making him gasp for breath. He closes his eyes and grips the bank’s grassy edge in a desperate, reflexive attempt to stay afloat and not be dragged by the receding wave. Around him, the world gasps and falls silent. It takes Dion almost a full minute to recover enough from his body’s panic at nearly drowning.

Silence gives way to laughter. Dion looks up to see Merri laughing, snorting like an asthmatic walrus at his drenched face, his usually carefully groomed hair plastered against his skull. She points a finger at a point behind him and he turns to see Kori and Max laughing so hard they have to hold onto a rock to stay afloat. Not far away from them, Sky is looking at Dion with an apologetic grin that is dangerously tilting toward a laugh.

The Inspector stands, suddenly only chest-deep in the water, and starts to call out, “Sor–”

But he interrupts himself with his own laughter at the disheveled look on Dion’s face and any apologies he might have been planning to make are drowned amidst the mockery. Dion narrows his eyes at him, a dangerous grin on his face. He is nowhere near used to being the court jester, especially at the expense of looking like he was just licked by a rabid cow.

You do realize what this means, Inspector… he thinks as his mind bends around a family of spells he has not cast in a while.

Summoning and manipulating the elements was never his main interest at the Academy of Magic but illusion, transformation and translocation, by far his favorites, can have a surprising number of applications. The last few months of breaking into gang hideouts and capturing lawless divines have proved so beyond any doubt. And Dion has always had a very pliable, creative mind when it comes to magic…

His eyes flash golden as he makes a slithering gesture with his arm. Not all magic needs words. The water’s surface ripples, bulging and bending into a slender, cylindrical shape that glides elegantly and silently in Sky’s direction. By the time the god of rebellion notices it, a large, serpentine head is already rising out of the water, towering over him, opening massive watery jaws in a silent hiss. Clear eyes like air bubbles flash as the beast strikes, quick as lightning, and swallows the god. The water-snake’s transparent body offers a warped view of Sky travelling down its faux intestine, bound under water. Satisfied with his revenge, Dion dismisses the snake with a wave of his hand and casually combs his hair with his fingers to give it some sort of style before turning back to Merri, who is now gasping and giggling for a completely different reason.

“Now, where were we?” he asks.

But Merri is suddenly not laughing anymore. “I don’t think ye want t’be lookin’ away so soon, dear!”

She points beyond Dion again, making him turn in that direction. Sky is rising from the water, his eyes closed, his shoulders hunched. He snorts a mist of water droplets and opens his eyes, which are glowing with an ominous blue-green light.

He straightens and stretches out his arms, making the water around him rise and fall in a perfect circle, in a foretelling exhibition of power.

He gives Dion a challenging smile, waggles his eyebrows, and announces, “It’s on…”

Behind the magic god, Merri squeaks and scrambles to her feet, rushing to go and enjoy the grass over by Cherry, where the chances of major aquatic phenomena are much lower and where Sage, Chime, Tulip and Aliyah have joined May and the others, all of them now very keen on watching the goings-on in the pool, while avoiding the water altogether. Kori and Max have already climbed out of the water and onto the safety of the rocks, where a gap between two boulders offers a comfortable splash-free place to watch the fight that is about to happen. Up on the slope, Pak has stopped talking to the Oracle and is now watching the two quarrelling gods with interest, evaluating the unconventional battle.

Dion is barely aware of all this, his eyes focused on Sky, his thoughts already revolving around defense and counterattack. “Why, Inspector,” he says with a grin, his body straightening in anticipation. “Let’s see what you have.”

Sky straightens and stretches out his arms, and swiftly assumes a combat stance, his right hand forward and open, his left hand back and closed into a fist. And as he does so, the water bursts away from him in a shockwave. Sky moves his hands in a swirling gesture, and the water that blasted away from him turns into a vortex that spins in place, faster and faster, until he thrusts both palms toward Dion, sending a waterspout twisting at the god of magic.

A heartbeat, two, and the waterspout has reached Dion. He raises his arms in reflex, summoning a protective wall of water to rise between him and the spout. But that does little to stop and nothing much to delay the whirling mass of water that hits the wall and defeats its inertia, making it twist and bulge dangerously toward the god. With a whispered command, he conjures the water to solidify, pursing his lips at how long the liquid swirling liquid resists his influence. Still, it obeys. Wall and waterspout solidify in a gelatinous watery sculpture on the surface of the pool, just a finger’s length from him. He looks at it curiously and pokes the squishy thing with a finger.

Hmm… Isn’t that interesting?

An unusual idea sparks in his mind. He taps the gelatin wall and it flies off toward Sky, plunging into the water on its way. Soon, the water around Sky is rippling and bulging, and the god is looking wildly around him, trying to figure out what Dion’s counterattack will shape up to be.

A jelly tentacle shoots out of the water. And then another and another. The three of them tower over Sky for half a second and then clash together, squeezing the god in a squishing hug. And then… he is gone. Sucked underwater, Sky disappears, consumed by Dion’s squid-shaped attack.

Silence.

Many of the observers lean forward slightly to try and divine Sky’s shape in the water. Dion chuckles at this. He cancels his spell to allow Sky his return to the surface and a long enough breath to admit defeat. But his victory is short. Suddenly, the water explodes in a massive wave. Something shoots out of it. Laughing like a maniac, Sky appears wrapped in the transparent tentacles of a squid made of water. Dion’s jaw drops for a moment. How can it be? He cancelled his spell!

No time to think. Dion finds his ankles yanked from under him, and he is pulled underwater, remembering at the last moment to take a deep breath and hold it in. His mind works at an incredible pace, trying to make heads or tails of his situation. Of course…Sky must have reproduced his jelly squid, using only water. Dion is fighting the god of rebellion in his own turf, after all. And he seriously needs to rethink his strategy. Pak must already be preparing a sermon on it to use in the next class.

The tentacles flail about, pulling him in all directions, shaking the breath from his lungs. Just as Dion starts going through his sadly very short ‘breathe underwater’ list of spells, he feels himself being pulled, upside down, toward the surface and above it.

Up there, Sky is in waiting, wrapped in the tentacled embrace of a squid even larger than Dion’s, something more like a kraken made purely of liquid. The creature flails around, turning this way and that, looking extremely confused at suddenly finding itself in such a small pool for its size. Caught in the beast’s watery body, schools of fish swim in erratic patterns, desperate to find a way out. And Sky is having the time of his life!

A sudden sound. Like an underwater hiccup. The creature jerks once…and explodes into a billion droplets. Hovering midair for just a fraction of a second, Dion sees Sky flip like a dolphin and dive smoothly into the deepest part of the pool. And then gravity remembers to pull again and Dion finds himself falling and hitting the water surface full force, shoulders first, with a huge, altogether ungraceful splash.

He surfaces almost immediately, rubbing the burning sensation off his shoulder and coughing out what feels like the water equivalent to his full lung capacity. “Well…” he manages not to wheeze, “that was unnecessary.”

Sky is emerging as well, looking honestly concerned at the possibility of Dion being hurt. “Oh, Dion, I’m sorry. Are you all–”

A water dolphin jumps out of the water and slaps Sky in the face with its tail, at Dion’s command. To Hell and its servants if he is going to lose this now! Oh, this picnic is turning out to be a lot more fun than predicted…

The dolphin dives back smoothly only to surface again, head above the water just for long enough to cackle that echolocating call that sounds so much like laughter to human ears. Then, it jumps again gracefully out of the water, shining in the sunlight and causing more than a few mouths to gape at its beauty, before diving again for good.

Dion smirks at his own artistry and focuses on Sky. The Dei Inspector is slumped against the rocky side of the bank, his face frozen for a moment in a stunned expression that makes Dion laugh quietly. He knows Sky is not hurt. The spell was crafted to be harmless. And the way Sky’s expression smoothly turns into a mischievous smile just a few breaths later leaves it clear that the god of rebellion is taking as much pleasure in this impromptu battle of wits as Dion.

His smile boding nothing good, Sky sinks into the pool again, until only the top half of his head is visible above water. Bubbles begin to blow from his mouth.

But nothing happens. The water doesn’t move, the pool gives no sign of disturbance. Dion tilts his head quizzically at Sky. What is he doing?

And that is when he feels a nip on his knee as if a very tiny, toothless mouth were trying to bite him. His hand moves automatically to his leg to scratch it but finds nothing unusual there. Then he feels it again, on his waist, tickling his skin. And another on his arm. And on his leg. And on his chest. And then he is being swarmed, as all the fish of the pool team up to assault him like a school of tickling piranhas, pinching his skin, harmlessly but hilariously until Dion cannot control his laughter. The water around him boils with fish jumping and slithering against each other to reach the god, flopping free of the water momentarily to rub against him. All that is exposed skin is prey to them. They are even trying to squirm into his swim trunks!

Laughing becomes painful. Breathing, nearly impossible. Dion bends himself double, hands clenching his abdomen, face hurting with the pull of laughter. He wheezes, trying to think. Here is a situation where his love spells definitely wouldn’t work. The fish love him too much already.

What eats river fish? What eats river fish?!

A sudden idea and Dion casts a desperate spell at a leaping fish. A golden light surrounds it, making it glow, changing its outline, its shape. And suddenly…the fish is an otter. A very, very confused otter. It lands in the water, in the middle of all the other fish. And the fish go crazy with panic!

Well, some of the fish. Not all of them are that fast on the uptake. So much for natural selection… Dion casts the same spell, again and again, until the tickling is almost gone and most of the fish are either transformed into otters or running away from their new natural predators. The transformed fish, though, are all but happy at their newfound ottery shape. They are actually swimming toward Sky, chattering at him, leaping at him like fish would do, rubbing against him and trying to clamber over him, their minds adapting to their new shape just enough to allow them control over paws instead of fins. It is almost as if they are asking for help (or maybe even complaining) about their new bodies.

Sky laughs, under the most adorable assault imaginable, being tickled to breathlessness by the otters. And now Dion can breathe. The influx of oxygen to his brain sparks a mischievous idea. Transformation is one of his favorites, after all.

He prepares to boost his spell, intent on transforming all the fish that managed to escape his magic before into otters and give Sky a massive dose of his own medicine. Dion raises a hand, summons his power…

A large shape sweeps just above him, throwing him in shadow. A blood-curdling shriek cuts through the air, bounces off the stone walls that line the sides of the pool, sending ice down spines, making people drop to the ground.

Dion plasters himself against the river bank, paralyzed. Caught in mid-cast, his spell shoots uncontrolled from his hand. He curses silently at that as he looks up at the winged, leonine body lazily lowering itself to land on a rock by the water.

“Geryon!” he scolds the gryphon. “What a way to scare everyone!”

“In my defense, it did make for quite the entrance,” Geryon replies nonchalantly, landing softly on the rocky outcrop by Dion’s left.

Around them, the gods and humans are already recovering from the fright but the Bunnies are taking longer, still lying on the ground, their ears plastered back in fear of a threat their bodies know much better than their minds.

Of course… Dion thinks. Rabbits are prey to eagles in nature. Some part of the Bunnies must maintain that instinctive fear.

“You idiot, look at what you did to the Bunnies!” Dion exclaims.

Geryon looks around in what looks like honest surprise. Putting a paw against his heart, he cries, “I would never hurt them! I merely wanted to announce my return from the First Ring in style!”

Dion opens his mouth to growl at him that there are hundreds of other ways to do that but another cry pierces the air.

“Mother!”

It is Merri’s voice. Fear mixed with shock. Dion’s head shoots in her direction to see her running towards where he had set up the portal to the station, May following right behind her. She gasps and stops by a white and blue shape that certainly wasn’t there before.

“Oh, Mother! Are ye…”

And then she starts to laugh, uncontrollably, falling back and clutching her belly against the effort. By her side, May is bending over, reaching out to touch whatever the white thing is.

“Are you all right?” she asks, sounding deeply concerned.

Dion is already running toward her. Merri’s mention of her mother was enough for him to shoot out of the water like a lightning bolt. All he could see from the pond was white against blue. Had Alma somehow been hurt and fallen? Is she all right?

He reaches May to find that the blue shadow on the ground is made of fabric. A dress, one of Alma’s. But instead of the goddess, all he finds is…an otter?

A pure-white otter with cream-colored fur on its belly and blue eyes like sapphires is standing on all fours and looking at him with a dumbfounded expression that would be hilarious if Dion weren’t feeling frozen with sudden fear.

“Alma?” he asks in a voice much smaller than his usual baritone.

The otter’s brows furrow in a way no otter should be able to. It starts screeching a complaint that tingles in Dion’s eardrums and makes May and Merri lower their ears back in agony.

“Eep! High-pitch! High-pitch!” Merri complains.

The otter stops and Dion kneels by it, very slowly, feeling a cold dread trickle down his spine. Geryon had made him lose control of his spell and it had shot toward… somewhere to Dion’s right. Had Alma had the terrible luck of exiting the portal just then? All the other fish-otters are the typical ottery brown and grey. Only this one is the same white color as Alma’s silken hair, with eyes that are so much like hers. And, truthfully, the pile of clothes that the creature is still trying to shake off is a dead giveaway.

This is Alma, turned into an otter. She stands on her haunches, head tilted, looking a question at him. He scoops her up in his arms, holding her closely, his heartbeat much slower than usual but pounding in his chest. She looks up at him. Is that fear he sees in her eyes? He has already turned Geryon into a gryphon and failed to turn him back. The thought of doing the same to Alma… His heart sinks.

No, no, don’t think about those things, he scolds himself. Be rational, Gwydion!

Gods are much more resistant to that type of magic than are humans. And besides, the spell is a fairly simple one, the type that only lasts a certain amount of time before normality reclaims its place. Surely none of this will be permanent. Right?

May must catch the fear in his attitude, for she places a hand on his arm and asks, “Is she going to be all right?”

“A moment, please,” he asks.

His eyes flash golden for a moment as he looks at the shape-shifted Alma with magical senses. Much to his relief, he can see the shadows of her true form within the otter body and feel the familiar, gradual weakening of a limited-time spell. He can’t help but smile in relief at that and pet her adorable little head before replying to May.

“She will be just fine,” he reassures her. “The spell doesn’t last very long. No need to cancel it at all. I’ll just let it run its course.”

That has Alma chattering angrily again.

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” he complains. “Yell at Geryon for distracting me and making me lose control of the spell.” He glares at Geryon, lying comfortably upon his rocky perch, head on his forepaws. The gryphon merely smirks at him. “Besides…” he starts stroking Alma’s back. “This new look suits you. Why not enjoy it for a while?”

She frowns at that and digs her nails into his chest. When the god grunts and loosens his hold on her, she starts struggling to free herself from his grip but all she manages to do is turn and hang vertically, head and left forepaw over Dion’s arm, right forelimb caught against his chest, her hind limbs and tail hanging limply in the most perfect illustration of adorable frustration and helplessness that nature has ever seen. She blows out a sigh and lets her head fall on his arm.

Dion chuckles and starts petting her head, tilting her so that May and Merri can pet her too. Then, followed closely by the two Bunnies, he moves closer to the edge of the pool. Sage, Aliyah, Tulip and Chime are already moving closer. Doria, who had left for a moment to attend to some mysterious duty in the grotto, is now back and already in the water, by Sky. The Inspector and his otter fanclub are all watching Dion and his precious cargo. From their rocky hideout, Kori and Max are watching as well.

Dion gently lowers Alma down to the ground. She turns her head left and right to look around the pool and the bank, then stands on her haunches, tilting her head back to look up at him and almost falling on her backside because of it.

He smiles at her encouragingly, speaking to her in a whisper “All is well. You are safe. Enjoy yourself a little.” He strokes the bridge of her nose with a finger. “You need it.”

At a little gesture from Sky, the other otters break away from the god and, swimming and breaching like a school of furry little whales, form a half-circle in the water around the little patch of grass where Alma is now standing. They look up at her eagerly, almost worshipfully, chattering at her in welcome.

She looks intently at the otter army and welcome reception, chattering…something back at them. Then, she drops to all fours and runs around in small circles, almost as if chasing her own tail but keeping her eyes on her furry worshippers. The otters chatter at her and start rolling in the water, over and over again. She stops, starts running in the opposite direction and they roll the other way. She stands and the otters turn belly up. She drops down and they roll belly down. The adorable, little furry spectacle makes everyone laugh and seems to entertain Alma immensely.

She rushes to the water and swims into the middle of her ottery fanclub, diving and rolling and twirling with them, swimming away while they follow her every movement and pirouette in the water, showing off their skills to the exotically furred, blue-eyed otter whose attention they desperately try to capture.

“And thus, a new cult is born,” Geryon announces sarcastically.

Sky’s laughter is loud and hearty at the sight of Alma floating belly up and grooming her cheeks with stubby otter forepaws. Another otter is already trying to groom her underside for her, scratching her and making her leg jerk reflexively. Apart from Ewá, May (who has since returned to her sitting spot on the grassy slope) and the kunoichi Kumiko, the not-so-water-friendly Geryon and the more solemn Pak and Nevieve, everyone is now in the water, laughing at Alma’s dalliances and looking eagerly at the otters as they swirl past them, reaching their hands out to stroke the sleek animals as they zip past. Alma herself guides the other otters towards Bunnies and humans, rubbing against her children, allowing them to hold her as if she were a furry baby and pet her without reserve. They all seem delighted with the experience, stroking her and kissing her and squeezing her in their arms amidst much cooing and banter. The temporary otter goddess looks extremely contented, closing her eyes in deep relaxation. The other otters are enjoying a similar treatment to Alma’s. Everyone seems to have picked one or two of the furry creatures to cuddle, except for Geryon, who seems satisfied in teasing a poor otter into chasing his puffy lion tail, hanging over the water, into exhaustion. Dion himself currently has one docked against him, its furry head placed on his forearm and enjoying some scratching behind the ears.

After quite a bit of struggling, Alma manages to release herself from Tulip’s loving death-grip and swim toward Sky. Three otters, that had been testing the god’s ability to scratch three bodies at once using only two hands, part to let her through, swimming away and into the squeezing arms of the youngest of the Bunnies. Alma lets Sky scoop her into his long arms and stroke her soft, sleek back, stretching to touch her wet nose to his chin. Dion can’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort at the tender look Sky gives her as he leans down to press his cheek against her head. She turns to press her nose against his cheek, then pulls back, chattering at him in what might almost pass for a conversational tone in an otter.

Sky looks as if he’s listening intently to everything she is saying, which causes some laughter from Sage and Cherry, who are following the scene closely.

Suddenly, his face lights up and he nods, rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh of course!”

He moves his arm, making her fall into the crook of it, holding her like a baby while he sloshes to the bank and strides up to the portal to the Three Rats Guardia Station. She lies still, looking up at him, unbothered by all the movement while Sky turns to make a small announcement.

“Alma reminds me of my duties.” He turns toward Dion. “Dion, sorry for that accident but it was a pleasure. Sometime soon we’ll have to have a rematch.” The god of magic chuckles and salutes at him, making Sky smile. “Everyone else, have a good time!”

Then, he shifts Alma to his hands and holds her in front of his face, rubbing the tip of his nose against hers. “And you…” He glances down at her clothes, which are still pooled on the ground, then looks at her again. “Don’t forget where these are when the spell wears off.” He grins and sets her down and waves a goodbye to everyone as he goes through the portal.

Alma stands up to watch him go, but soon she is scurrying over to where May, Kumiko and Ewá are still resisting the appeal of cool water teeming with friendly otters on a warm, sunny day. She climbs over Ewá’s long, shapely legs, poking the demigoddess with her furry head and rubbing her cheek against Ewá’s shoulder. Ewá laughs at the goddess-turned-otter’s shenanigans with a freedom and a contentment that Dion has never really seen in her. In fact, the former Eye of the Council seems to have gained as much in joy as she has gained in work after becoming a part-time Voice of Defense and full-time foster parent.

Alma is now evading Ewá’s attempts to pet her, teasing the demigoddess by running up to her and then running away, toward the pool, only to return again to Ewá’s side.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” Ewá exclaims as she rises and walks over to the edge of the water, where Alma finally allows her to stroke that wet, ottery fur.

As soon as Ewá dives in, the white otter is running again, swift and sure, this time toward Mayumi and Kumiko. She stops just in front of the human girl and stands on her haunches, looking intently, first at Kumiko, then at May. Then, she goes down on all fours again and turns to face the pool before turning to face them again. She runs towards them and scrambles over their legs, much to May’s laughter and Kumiko’s befuddlement, before running away and into the water. A quick dive and she rushes out once more, back to the girls. This time, she runs around them in a circle and stops in front of them to chatter what sounds like a challenge.

Mayumi smiles and nods at her mother before looking at Kumiko. “Come on…”

The girl looks reluctant, but allows herself to be cajoled by May into walking to up the slope, which rises toward the diving rock on the top of the hill. They stand there, looking down at the water. May turns to Kumiko, Kumiko looks back at her. Though Dion cannot see her expression from here, he can tell she does not resist May when she takes her hand. They take a step back, then run and leap together into the water with a loud splash, making people laugh.

Dion chuckles and looks at the bank, where Otter Alma is just leaving the water after a quick dive. Her ear twitches and she turns to tilt her head at him, blue eyes flashing briefly. Is that a smile he sees on her fur-lined lips?

And suddenly, she is scurrying up the hill, to where Pak and Nevieve are still sitting. From this far away, Dion can see her stop and stand, her back turned to the magic god, her head tilted at the Oracle and the former Academy instructor. Nevieve laughs immediately and pets her head with two olive-colored fingers.

“Go on, now, firefly,” she says brightly, jerking her head at the pool. “Go play with your friends. I will join you in a moment.”

Alma turns and takes a couple of steps away but then stops and turns back, this time facing Pak. She seems to hesitate for a moment, then moves closer to him and, without warning, starts shaking herself like a dog just out of the rain. Water splashes in all directions, sprinkling the old master, who turns his head and raises his arms to protect himself.

“Gah! You unruly little – Is that a way to treat an old man?!” he scolds her.

Nevieve’s musical, watery laughter chimes loudly by his side. The Oracle looks like she is about to tumble from the convulsive effort of laughing. Dion’s jaw is hanging from its hinges. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed! Showering Pak like that…oh, Alma will be having many a date with the hardwood sword in the upcoming lessons at the master’s dojo. Not that the prank wasn’t well worth it. Dion is still quite cross with Pak regarding the whole Kumiko issue, which could have sent the magic god’s blooming relationship with Alma into an early grave.

But he never would have pulled such a blatant prank on him. He feels sorry for a moment, that Sky cannot be here to see it. He knows the Dei Inspector would have loved to watch the much-feared Pak get showered like that.

Alma is just turning to scurry away but the old instructor is faster, much faster than he looks. He scoops her off her feet and holds her tightly to him with a cry of “Oh, no you don’t! You are going to learn respect for your elders, you insolent child!”

Uh oh…

And then… he runs to the diving stone and jumps off the ridge, cannonballing into the water, still fully dressed, otter held firmly in his arms. Bunnies, humans, divines, gryphon, everyone gets splashed by the massive wave that rises in his wake.

Alma surfaces first, swimming swiftly and diving again, away from the spot where Pak emerges just a few seconds later. On the bank, Nevieve is walking calmly toward the water, still chuckling at Alma and Pak’s quarrels. A couple of otters are already swimming to greet her.

Alma, on her hand, is swimming at full speed toward Dion, diving and pirouetting as she does so, in sheer ottery glee. His former furry companion long gone to find cuddling elsewhere, the god stretches both arms to bring her closer into a light embrace. She places her forepaws on his chest, looking up at him.

“That was…I need to start being more careful when I tell you to have fun,” he whispers, smiling brightly at her.

She rubs her cheek against his chest and rolls onto her back, eyes closed, happily grooming her cheeks. He strokes her belly, glad for having the perfect excuse to be affectionate in public but hesitating in leaning closer to press his forehead against her head or kissing the bridge of her nose. He would love to do it, and even more if she weren’t in this furry form, but too many eyes are watching. He curses their secrecy pact for maybe the fiftieth time since it was struck.

Alma is lying still, looking at his face with a serene, happy expression in those round, shiny blue eyes. He strokes her between the ears, trying very hard to hold back the silly smile he knows is threatening to bloom on his lips.

And suddenly, she is rolling over his arm and diving underwater to disappear for almost a full minute. She returns holding something orange-green in her teeth. Is that a…crab? She has a pebble caught between her forepaws and is just rolling on her back to place the stone on her belly. Then she holds the crab and starts banging it viciously against the stone.

“Oh look! Snack time!” Doria points out, laughing.

The others laugh too, watching in delight as the pale otter breaks the crab’s shell against the pebble and starts biting into the poor creature’s whitish flesh.

“She is starting to act a bit too much like an otter, don’t you think?” Nevieve notes.

“Yes,” Dion agrees. “Need to stop her before she accuses me of ruining her diet. Alma! Come here.”

Alma’s head shoots to look at him and she turns belly down again, crab held between her teeth, to swim toward the magic god. She reaches him and he tries to take the crab from her mouth but before he can grab a hold of it, she is already clutching the shelled morsel between her forepaws and banging the already half-dismembered crab against Dion’s chest as if the god were a giant pebble.

“Ow, Ow, OW!” Dion complains, prompting another round of generalized laughter.

Alma stops banging, rolls belly up and reaches up, offering him the crab. “Uhm… Thank you. But I don’t feel like seafood,” he says, taking the crab away from her and discreetly throwing it toward Geryon, who snatches it from the air with a snap of his beak.

A familiar tingle in the god’s senses makes his brow rise. He looks intently at all the otters in the pool until he sees what he is looking for. One of them is already changing back. The spell has run its course and now all the otters will be fish again.

Except for one. Dion holds Alma closer to him, adjusting his grip so her belly is pressed against his, the underside of her chin on his chest.

“Time to come back to normal,” he tells her.

She looks at him and then closes her eyes. Behind her, all over the pool, the otters are turning back into fish. In Dion’s arms, otter Alma begins to glow, her shape warping, stretching, soft fur replaced with soft skin, sleek lines replaced with pleasant curves. Soon, her beautiful face is raising an eyebrow at the god in mock scolding, her humanoid body pressing tantalizingly against his to hide her nudity.

He grins at her and raises his hands slowly out of the water in a mocking show of decorum meant for their audience. “Like I said, don’t look at me. It was Geryon’s fault.”

She does not say anything but her half-shut eyes speak volumes. Those and her hands on his sides, hidden underwater, nails grazing slowly against his skin, making it shiver with delight. She is just teasing him, he knows, making use of this perfect little excuse to taunt him, a very small punishment for not cancelling the spell earlier.

She grins and, in his mind’s eye, he can see her draping her arms over his shoulders, leaning in to kiss him. He can almost taste her wet lips, hear the mumbling of the people watching them intently muffled by the sweet, exhilarating sensation of her body pressed against his. If she were to kiss him now…oh, that pact would go out the window and into a bottomless pit.

Is she taunting him into doing just that? Right here, in front of everyone?

His heart pounds, hammering against the inside of his chest. Surely, she must feel that. Her hands tighten their grip on him. His are diving slowly underwater. Her eyes are staring into his and he cannot tear himself away from them.

But then, Alma looks away and raises a hand out of the water, with a word of “Thank you.”

Dion looks up, to his right, to find Cherry and Merri there, each holding a piece of moss-green cloth. They must have left the water and fetched Alma’s bikini while Dion was distracted. They smile at him, wink and scamper away. Alma, on the other hand, tilts her head and pulls away from him, swimming closer to the bank and turning her back to the pool to put the bikini on.

Dion chuckles and shakes his head. Fortunately, most of the others are too busy watching what are now very confused fish jumping out of the water and trying to roll on their backs, to notice what is going on with the gods.

Ewá seems to be teaching the others a song of some sort. Dion can only make out about half of the words in the language that about half of the people in Three Rats tend to fall back to after every three or four words in Urbia.

Vem peixe qu’é peixe do rio.
Vem peixe qu’é peixe do mar.
Hoje canta sereia,
Hoje canta Iemanjá.

Already dressed, Alma sits by him. Her hand finds his underwater and he holds it, thrilling at that simple touch.

Sai barco. Sai pescador.
Vai na praia p’a pescar
Tua mãe, tua mãe é onda.
Tua mãe vai-lhe ajudar.

The fish leap higher and higher, the water boiling with them.

Pega ‘ssa pedra branca
Vai no terreiro dançar
Teu pé descalço na areia
Sua onda vai acalmar

And then Doria joins in, much to Ewá’s surprise.

Joga ‘ssa rede ao largo,
Não vai a lugar nenhum,
Que o peixe vem no cabelo
Que é da filha de Olokun.

This time, Nevieve’s voice rises in song, clear and perfect.

No mar tem onda grande,
Se é brava de não voltar,
O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

Ewá and Doria look at each other and smile before echoing in a final chorus,

O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

An explosion of applause fills the pool. Dion catches Max, Ewá’s mortal ward looking at his foster parent with newfound admiration. It is unlikely he will be wanting to leave her care any time soon.

Convinced that they are, in fact, fish, the fish seem to relax and dive back into the depths. Chatter and banter return to the pool as the various groups of people resume conversations and start playing games. By Dion’s side, Alma has tilted her head back and is basking in the sunlight, her eyes closed at its warming rays.

Suddenly, a shape shoots out of the water, just past the god. A huge fish, bigger than any of the others and shining with a curious reddish glow, leaps up toward Geryon and slaps the gryphon’s face with its tail before diving back into the water.

“OW!” Geryon complains, shaking his head and turning it toward Dion. “Oh, as if that was necessary!”

“What?! It wasn’t me!” the god exclaims.

A sudden thought makes him look to his right. Alma is still catching the sun with her eyes closed, looking suspiciously innocent. She lets out a small sigh and smiles in satisfaction.

Dion chuckles. It seems that a happy death goddess is just as dangerous as an angry one.

Ch6.41 Trust

The first day of Year’s End, and the Sun overhead seems well aware of it. The Urbis is awash with clashing traditions, but most of them agree that this day, the first of five, is a day for eating outdoors. Perhaps somewhere over the Insula, storm gods are mischievously ruining someone’s fun, but here in Three Rats they have stayed away, and today’s Sun seems determined to make the residents know that She is there with them.

She? Mayumi pushes her hair back from where it has fallen across her face and wipes the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Everyone around here thinks of the Sun as male, and it’s true, the greater portion of those gods are. But where she grew up, in a quiet dream-district that had once been part of a land called Nihon, the Sun was worshipped as female. Mayumi, her knowledge of the nature of the Urbis Caelestis limited to little more than the people and the handful of gods of her ward, had not even realized that there was an entire clan of sun gods until her recent arrival in the waking world, suddenly finding herself in daily contact with people from very different cultures and beliefs and levels of knowledge about the nature of this bizarre mountain-universe. The fact that many of those people are members of her own family left her for some time even more off-balance, but she has, after many difficulties, come to a degree of peace with it.

And just in time to upend it all by leaving. As she unpacks the wicker basket filled with delicious rye sandwiches, empanadas of various kinds, still-warm potatoes wrapped in foil, fat triangles of onigiri riceballs, deep-fried acarajé, bowls filled with cut-up chunks of fruit, savory vada donuts, and more, she pauses to watch Kori and Chime kicking around a worn-out ball with their bare feet, Merri dashing between them to intercept and giving them a surprisingly good run for their money. Sky arrives through a magical portal that has been set up, wearing dark-green shorts and a flowery shirt, bearing with ease two huge watermelons, one on each shoulder. He smiles at her and she returns it, but that only provides a contrast to the melancholy she feels at the thought she will soon be leaving all this for six-tenths of a year, in pursuit of a dream of becoming Guardia.

Then as she watches the ball shoots right between Sky’s legs, closely pursued by Merri, Kori, and Chime. Sky spins like a drunk trying to dance, actually going up on one leg as Chime dashes beneath him. Mayumi bursts into laughter as the tall god barely recovers enough so as not to drop a melon.

“I have a feeling we could feed a small army with all we’ve brought.” Mayumi turns to look at Alma, bent to help her unpack the food and lay it out on a sheet. The goddess grins at her, with a brief glance toward Sky. “I’ll take care of this, Mayumi. It looks like Sky needs some help.”

Mayumi looks gratefully into her mother’s eyes. She knows what Alma is doing. Despite the goddess’ misgivings about her mortal child being involved with an immortal, she wants Mayumi’s happiness, and the Bunny doesn’t have much time before she leaves. Still, she hesitates until Alma insists. “Go on!” With a smile, Mayumi obeys.

“Need some help?” she asks Sky as she approaches.

The tall god looks happy to see her. “Just trying to figure out where’s best to put these. In the water?”

Mayumi nods. “If we put them there,” she says, pointing to the edge of the falls, where two rocks create a miniature pool big enough for the two melons, “they won’t float off and they will be cool until we’re ready to smash them.”

He follows her toward the waterfall. “Smash them? Not slice them up?”

“Oh we can slice them,” she says. “But when I was a child, we always took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to hit the watermelon with a stick to break it open.”

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

“It is a little messy,” she agrees. She pulls her lightweight dress off over her head, folding it simply and setting it on the grass. The grey bathing outfit she is wearing underneath is not the one Cherry picked out for her. That one was tiny and…well she was going to keep it for some other time, when it is just family. Though as Cherry reasonably pointed out, why bother wearing anything at all in that case? But no, today she has on a more reasonable swimsuit, with a top more like a jogging bra and a bottom that provides a bit more coverage than the strings-and-a-scrap-of-cloth that Cherry favored.

She steps into the pool and reaches up to take the melon. Sky looks doubtful – each melon is almost as long as her torso – but he slips the first one off his shoulder and, bending to the side, lets her take it. Something about the way their muscles connect makes Bunnies stronger than humans of a similar size would be, especially in the legs, and while she does grunt with the effort, she manages to lower the melon safely into the water. The next one is easier, as Sky can use both hands.

As he helps her out of the water, her ears catch Cherry’s arrival through the portal, the Bunny complaining about the weight of the cooler full of beer and ice she is carrying. But Cherry is the strongest of them all, and isn’t really having trouble.

Suddenly a webbed hand grasps her ankle from beneath. A moment of childhood fear about the kappa, a carnivorous water spirit like a cross between a turtle and a duck, flashes through her, but surely the Oracle would not let such a creature live in her waters. Resisting the urge to kick, she looks back and sees a familiar face rising from the water.

“Boo!” Doria, half-naiad priestess of the Oracle, laughs and releases Mayumi’s leg.

“Priestess!” Mayumi is delighted to see her. Doria had been briefly a guest in Alma’s living quarters, back when all the Bunnies lived there together.

“Please, May – call me Doria. Hello, Inspector!” She smiles flirtatiously at Sky.

“A pleasure to see you again, Doria.” Sky’s voice is warm. “Is the Oracle joining us?”

“Of course she is.” A penetrating voice unfamiliar to Mayumi, bearing echoes of centuries that make the light fur on Mayumi’s forearms stand on end, emerges through the falls. A tall otherworldly figure follows it, her eyes white but not seeming the least bit blind, her skin showing fine iridescent scales at the curve of her jawline and on her temples, blue-green hair falling down past her shoulders and concealing her breasts. A diaphanous, scaly wrap skirt hanging loosely on her hips is her only clothing, aside from jewelry of gold and gems on her forearms and throat. “It seems we are late already.”

“The Oracle, late?” Doria asks with mock astonishment as she smoothly mounts the shore. “Impossible!”

“Oracle…” Sky’s voice is filled with respect. “Thank you for letting us hold our picnic here.”

“Oh, Tuma-Sukai,” she says with a laugh. “After what you did for me, and this ward? I owe you far more. And who is this?”

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

Mayumi bows. “It is an honor to meet you,” she says humbly. She has heard that this is one of the most ancient goddesses still active on the Insula. Although she had heard that the Oracle took the form of a fish-tailed siren.

The Oracle must have caught Mayumi looking at her legs. Or perhaps Mayumi’s thoughts are easily snatched from the air by such a powerful goddess. In an amused voice, the Oracle says, “Taking on more form than one is not a rare ability for such as we.” It takes a moment for Mayumi to realize that the Oracle is speaking to her in the language of her childhood, with an easy fluency and a somewhat archaic dialect.

Sumimasen,” Mayumi says with a bow to apologize, though exactly for what she was not entirely sure. It’s just…how she was raised. When in doubt, apologize. Cherry makes fun of her for it, but Merri thinks it’s sweet. Mayumi herself sometimes finds it annoying, how easily she does it.

“Such a polite young woman,” a creaking, sardonic voice calls out. She turns and sees a face she has noticed on the streets of Three Rats more than once, but she has never done more than nod to this wizened, scraggle-bearded elder. She has noticed, however, that he resembles less a native son of Three Rats – as variegated as the residents of Three Rats are – and more a wise man straight from the ancient scrolls of her own ward.

He is approaching in the company of Alma, and shadowing them is a young woman who does not look happy to be there. She certainly looks like she could have grown up with Mayumi. Indeed, they are roughly the same age, though the woman is taller and lacks Mayumi’s non-human ears and tail. But the face is similar, and the woman is looking toward Mayumi with a similar curiosity.

Sky turns and says with a moderate bow, “Master Pak, welcome.”

Alma introduces the Oracle and Doria. Before she can introduce Mayumi, Pak interrupts her. “Ah, who does not know of Nevieve, the Oracle? It is a privilege to meet you.” He bows to her, but Mayumi cannot shake the feeling that his amused tone speaks of a shared joke between Pak and the Oracle, as if they have really known each other for quite some time.

She feels a cool hand on her shoulder. The Oracle says, “I might well say the same of you, Pak. But let me introduce my new-met acquaintance, Mayumi, who I believe will soon be a student at your old Academy.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. How does she know…? She dismisses the thought. Of course the Oracle knows. Mayumi bows and expresses her sense of honor at meeting a Guardia Academy instructor.

Pak smiles and then looks annoyed at Alma and Sky. “Why did you not tell me you had a recruit for the Academy? I could have trained her. Well, this is Kumiko. The Sergeant and the Inspector have already met her at my home. I believe she and Miss Mayumi speak the same tongue. Perhaps they would enjoy conversing in their native language.”

And with that the gods begin talking about the current state of affairs in Three Rats – though is Pak a god? It is hard to tell. Mayumi is tempted to stay nearby to listen in, but she can tell when the mortals are being dismissed. It is annoying but…Pak is right. She and Sky speak her language together sometimes, but he is rusty and inelegant, though his mistakes are often hilarious. It would be nice to talk with another native speaker.

She and Kumiko go off a little way, and Mayumi bows and introduces herself politely, to which Kumiko gives the correct response, her voice low. “Have you met any of the others?” Mayumi asks. When Kumiko shakes her head, Mayumi takes her toward the sheet of food. “How long have you been in Three Rats?”

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

She seems uncomfortable, her words blunt, so Mayumi does not press for more information in that direction, instead opening the cooler. “Like something to drink? A beer?”

Kumiko looks at her quizzically. “You’re old enough to drink beer?” She has a rough way of speaking that makes Mayumi think she grew up in more difficult circumstances than herself. Her accent, too, is different from Mayumi’s. She adds ‘sa’ to the ends of sentences, something Mayumi has never heard before. A dialect of some kind.

“I’m not a child. Just shorter than most humans. Here.” She hands Kumiko a bottle after lifting the cap off with an opener, and opens one for herself. “Kanpai.

Kumiko raises her bottle in salute. “Kanpai.” As she takes a drink, Kori and Max, a human boy Mayumi knows from helping out at the orphanage, go running past them both, laughing, and leap into the water, making huge splashes. Ewá Nanã, smiling in the way she only smiles around the children under her protection, watches as she walks past Mayumi to go speak with the other gods nearer the falls. Merri and Cherry are prying Tulip away from Dion, who seems to want to join Alma, and getting her to join them in swimming. Sage and Aliyah are off to one side, kicking around Kori’s football and taunting each other.

Mayumi’s ears twitch back toward the waterfall. She turns her head a little to glance that way while sipping her beer. “Nothing better for a child who has grown too fast than a child who is yet to grow,” she hears Alma say. The goddess has left the little knot of immortals and is talking with Ewá Nanã, the two of them watching Kori and Max splashing around. “You look happier yourself,” Alma says to the tall lawyer-turned-foster-parent.

“I am,” Ewá replies. “But tired. I am glad we could place all the children with families just for a day or two of the New Year, and I’ve already heard that two will not be leaving those homes to return to us. Well, the family who had agreed to take in Max changed their minds… He has had a difficult time.”

“It cannot be easy at times, to be looking after so many children. But what you are doing is important.”

Ewá looks at Alma with a small smile. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But at moments like this,” She looks back to see Max and Kori clambering out of the water and joining in on Aliyah and Sage’s game of ball, “it is the most satisfying.”

Alma squeezes Ewá’s hand. “I must return to the station now. We can’t leave it without a Dei presence for too long. But please enjoy yourself, and I will be back in a couple of hours.”

As Alma breaks away to walk toward the portal, the Bunny sees past Alma’s shoulder. Ewá is watching the goddess, knowing Alma can’t see her. Not aware she is being observed, Ewá gives a little sigh of longing and a rueful shake of her head. Oh… thinks Mayumi. Well. She manages to keep her giggle internal as she turns back to Kumiko. “Like to swim?” she asks.

Kumiko looks at Mayumi’s swimsuit. “Didn’t bring anything to wear.” She has on a loose blouse and a pair of shorts.

“We could go back to the station and get you something,” Mayumi suggests. “Merri has something that might–”

“No. I don’t want to swim.” Kumiko pauses for a moment and adds, “Pardon me,” though it does little to soften the abruptness.

“That’s all right.” Mayumi’s voice is a little smaller. But she feels a kinship with Kumiko that goes beyond language. The woman’s discomfort and resentment at having to be here reminds Mayumi of how she felt for weeks after waking in Three Rats – a feeling that has never entirely disappeared, though the love of those here have made it less painful. If that kinship will ever be more than a feeling… “Kumiko-san, this is the first time I’ve met anyone in this world who speaks my language as a native. Please…where do you come from?”

Kumiko looks at her as if evaluating, measuring. Mayumi wonders if she will measure up. But before Kumiko can decide how to answer, if at all, the gods from near the falls are returning. Gwydion says, “Excuse me, May,” as he reaches past her to fish two beers from the cooler, handing one to Sky and the other to Pak.

“Oh!” Mayumi grabs the bottle opener and hands it to him, then gets two more beers, giving one to Dion. The Sergeant tips it towards her in thanks as he, Sky, and Pak walk off, continuing to talk.

She offers the other to the Oracle – Nevieve? – who wraps her hand around Mayumi’s on the bottle. The Bunny feels a mild jolt, like a buzz passing through the goddess into her. She looks up to see the Oracle’s eyes glowing white.

Doria sees this and chuckles. “It’s normal to ask the Oracle a question, after giving her a gift.”

Mayumi cannot look away from Nevieve’s captivating eyes. They seem to fill her whole world, and she cannot think about what she wants to ask. So she simply asks without thought.

“Will I be with my family, after the Academy?”

As she hears her own words, she realizes that they spring from her fear that she will be assigned far away. But Three Rats needs Guardia, desperately, and the Guardia command usually honor requests to be stationed at hard-luck assignments like Three Rats, where nobody but a local would ask to be assigned.

Nevieve seems to enter a trance, her eyes glowing brighter. When she speaks, the words carry a deepening of that otherworldly, alien quality than before.

“You will be separated from them, but one will go with you. You will not return home until his child arrives.”

The light fades, and Nevieve blinks her white eyes as if she was unaware of her own prophecy.

Mayumi gapes at her. Then she remembers to breathe. “Ch-child?” It’s not possible. The Bunnies are all infertile, by order of the Council. And…separated? But someone…Sky? Am I going to have a child with him? It is not something she has seriously considered. They haven’t even made love, no more than kissing and cuddling and napping together on his sofa. Cherry and Merri couldn’t believe it when she told them, but going slowly has been a pleasure, infused with frustration though it has been. Agreeing to wait until after her graduation from the Academy – that has been harder. But there is a pleasure in delaying gratification as well. The lip-biting frustration, the restrained passion, has been, in its way, excruciatingly delicious.

She looks for him. There he is, Sky, laughing with Gwydion, practicing some kind of combat block while trying not to spill his beer, while Pak observes. He doesn’t seem to have overheard. Only the Oracle and Doria have heard…and Kumiko. The human woman is looking more uncomfortable than ever, her carefully neutral expression not quite successfully covering up a look of despair at being an unwilling eavesdropper.

The Oracle nods. “A child, yes. I am afraid I know no more than that. There were no details other than what I told you.”

It seems like a boilerplate answer that she has given thousands of times before. She must be used to seekers of prophecy who demand explanations. And so Mayumi holds her tongue, though she feels about to burst with questions, harsh, angry questions. Instead, she chokes out a thank you, then turns and ascends a slope to a ridge that leans almost over the water, little more than a body-length above it.

She sits, putting her forearms on her knees, resting her chin on her arms, staring out over the water where Merri and Cherry and Tulip are playing, but seeing nothing really, her thoughts in turmoil. Just as they escape one prophecy by fulfilling it – “In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon” – now here is another. Granted, it is much smaller. It will not get them executed. Or will it? A chill freezes her heart. A Bunny having a child without the permission of the Council…that could be enough to cause the Archons to vote for extermination. She groans and hangs her head, putting her forehead on her arms.

“Want to finish your beer?” The words are in Japanese. Mayumi lifts her head to see Kumiko, offering a half-finished bottle of beer with her left hand, holding her own in her right. Kumiko makes a subtle gesture, asking for permission to sit. Mayumi nods, and the woman sits beside her, putting a hand slightly behind her on the grass, legs stretched out straight.

They sit in silence for a time, taking the occasional sip. Then out of nowhere Kumiko says, “A Fourth Ring ward, far from here. About a quarter of the way around the Insula, maybe, to windward. My father refused to pay the gangsters.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Baka…” Fool. “They made an example of my family. Only reason I’m alive is I wasn’t home.”

Mayumi stays quiet, listening, watching. Kumiko isn’t looking at her. She takes another drink of beer, draining the bottle. For a moment she looks as if she’s going to throw the bottle, but she drops it next to her, on the grass.

“Then they did it again.” Kumiko’s voice is as neutral as she can make it, but the rage is there, like a roaring blaze hidden on the other side of a locked door. “Here, in Three Rats. Another gang. Killed my friends. Almost killed me.”

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

“I’m going away,” Mayumi says. “In a few days, I’m leaving.”

Kumiko looks at her, her eyebrows slightly raised to ask why Mayumi is mentioning this.

Mayumi shakes her head. “The people here…they care.”

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

Mayumi says nothing to this. She knows that Kumiko knows it is not entirely true. That she is here, sitting with her, gives the lie to it.

She finishes her beer. To Kumiko she asks, “Okawari?” Another? The woman looks a puzzled for a moment. Perhaps they don’t say that where she comes from. But she seems to understand after a second, and she shakes her head. Mayumi nods.

They remain next to each other, listening to the joking and the laughter and the playful screams, around and below their island of now-comfortable silence.

Ch6.40 Trust

“All right, that should take care of your gift problems,” Lyria announces cheerfully.

“Yes, and of the carpeting problems I did not know I had,” Alma notes, looking down at her bedroom floor.

Where there once was good, solid stone, now there is fresh green grass just tall enough to make a soft, fluffy mat that covers most of the floor. The scent of it must have captured Lexie’s attention, because she has woken up from her daily nineteen hours of sleep and is now trying to stretch herself all the way down to the floor without actually leaving the safety and warmth of the bed covers. Both forepaws on the edge of the bed, the cat sniffs suspiciously at this strange, new green thing that was definitely not there this morning. Hopefully she will not interpret this as an extension to her personal little litter box.

“Well, you needed some way to practice, did you not?” Lyria counters. She takes a deep whiff at the certainly fresher, greener scent in the room. “Oh, that smells wonderful! All that vibrant new life! Ah… Bare stone floors are a thing of mausoleums, if you ask me.”

Alma chuckles and grazes her sole of her bare foot against the grass. The sensation she gets is that of walking barefoot in a lawn, without the unsavory effects of getting one’s feet covered in dirt or rubbed against slithery creatures. Maintaining it will be a slight extra drain on Alma’s mana reserves, but not so very much. In fact, Lyria’s little lesson has been mostly about teaching the young goddess how to use her life sphere more efficiently, spending less mana to achieve the same results. And some of the things Lyria has shown her… Alma had never even considered such things were available to her, let alone attempted them herself. There will be hours of practice to follow up with it, that is certain.

“It is…strange. But not at all unpleasant,” she concedes. “If the Bunnies like it, I just might keep it.”

Lyria’s face lights up at the mention of the Bunnies. “Oh yes! Time to go see my grandchildren!” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have another project to keep me stuffed away in here?”

Poor little Lyria… Alma thinks as she chuckles. “But I thought you were too busy with the Dawning to stay for long, Mother,” she notes in sweet tones, a grin blossoming on her lips at Lyria’s obvious look of irritation. “Come, let us go see what your grandchildren are up to.”

A short pause to put her shoes on (Alma had discarded them at Lyria’s command) and the young goddess guides her mother to the door. As soon as they open it, they hear a commotion of voices from above. Cherry’s voice…and Rosemary’s as well. Alma and Lyria exchange a confused glance and swiftly climb the stairs, past the bar and straight to the first floor. Whatever is happening, it is happening in one of the Bunnies’ bedrooms. They can hear Tulip’s voice now, annoyed and whining. Cherry’s and Rosemary’s are distorted with laughter.

What on the Insula is going on?

The goddesses arrive in Tulip’s room just as the youngest of the Bunnies is darting out the door. Her head turned back to glare at her siblings, caught between laughter and cries of “Aww, is nae so bad!”, Tulip nearly rams into Alma as she stomps her way down the hall.

“Careful, little one!” Alma exclaims, gently holding Tulip by the shoulders. “What is going on here?”

“Oh, you gotta see this!” Cherry cries, looming by Tulip’s bedroom door. “Look at her face!”

Alma looks down at Tulip. “What is wrong with your face, dear?”

But Tulip just lowers her head further and looks away, seemingly hiding her visage from Alma’s sight. With a confused look at Lyria, the goddess kneels and cups the Bunny’s cheek with her hand, gently bringing Tulip’s face up toward her mother’s. The sight is something between shocking and hilarious. Tulip’s face is covered in makeup of all types and colors, everything spread and blended so chaotically that the Bunny looks like a canvas for an abstract piece of art. Dark rouge is spread along her pale forehead, eyeshadow is smeared in various shades across her eyelids and the bridge of her nose. Bright red lipstick is pretty much everywhere. There is even some makeup on her ears!

Surprise quickly gives way to an almost overwhelming urge to laugh. It takes all the self-control in Alma’s body to keep her amusement down to a smile. “Oh Tulip…”

She tips Tulip’s chin up so that Lyria can see what is going on. A soft gasp and almost immediate giggling fill the hallway.

“I just wanted to see if it’d make me look better!” Tulip protests, frowning and nearly crying, her hands clenched in fists, her long ears plastered back in anger at being laughed at.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s soft, white hair to soothe her. “Well, you may have overdone it just a little bit. Where did you get all that makeup, anyway?”

Tulip looks down, ears drooping, shoulders hanging low, all of the anger gone from her frame and replaced by a different type of nervousness. This is clearly an uncomfortable question and Alma already suspects the answer. Even if she does not wear makeup with any level of frequency, the goddess has always somehow felt an urge to keep a box of it close. Just a silly instinct, as if it were almost expected of her to do so. Tulip must have taken it. She could have kept it for months before Alma eventually found it missing.

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

Alma cannot help but smile and wrap her arms around the Bunny, careful to keep all of that makeup away from her clothing. “You could have just asked me, little one. Now, why don’t you go wash your face and I will show you how to do it, if you like?”

She feels Tulip’s hug tighten around her before the Bunny releases her and steps back. A quick kiss from Lyria to Tulip’s forehead and the young Bunny dashes off happily toward the bathroom. Cherry and Rosemary are just now moving closer, having witnessed the exchange from Tulip’s bedroom. Eyes held down, ears at half perk, they look abashed before the goddesses, probably as much from witnessing Tulip’s anger and hurt feelings as from the scolding look Alma is giving them both. The oldest of her Bunnies can be rather childish in some respects. This is one of those times that puts forward so clearly the fact that, albeit being twenty-four years in age, the twins have only been awake to rationality for half of that time. They are grown-up children. And children can be so cruel…

“You two…” Alma whispers, shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t be too harsh on them,” Lyria intervenes. “It’s clear they already feel bad enough about it.”

The older goddess opens her arms to her granddaughters and the Bunnies rush to hug her tightly in a double-sided embrace that brings a warm, contented smile to Lyria’s face.

“Why don’t the three of us go downstairs and you can meet us there when little Tulip is done washing?” she asks.

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

Cherry and Rosemary do not follow Lyria right away but pause to hug Alma. She holds them tightly. “Silly Bunnies” she whispers. “Go on, now.”

That earns her two bright smiles and soon she can hear Lyria chatting happily with the twins as they move downstairs. Done with the herculean task of removing all that makeup from her skin, Tulip eventually joins her mother, and looks at her expectantly. Alma tells her to go fetch the box of makeup. She could have easily gotten it from the little Bunny’s room but a childhood spent in a house where privacy was something that happened to other people has taught her the value in respecting some boundaries. Tulip’s room is meant to be her little haven and, without a proper reason or the Bunny’s approval, invading it would feel a bit like breaking and entering.

Makeup kit safely held in her hands, Tulip follows her mother downstairs, where the lighting is better. Cherry and Rosemary seem to have disappeared into the kitchen. Lyria already sitting on the sofa, apparently caught in the middle of a lively chat with Nataniel, who is sitting with Syron, at a table nearby. Alma catches but the end of that conversation but it seems to be about some sort of plant extract. The way Syron is paying such close attention to it has Alma wondering what exactly the extract is meant to do but she does not get a chance to figure it out. As soon as they notice her presence, goddess and mortals fall silent and turn to look at her.

“Ah, much better!” Lyria cries, putting her hands together. “Ready for your first makeover, Tulip?”

Tulip nods and takes a seat at a table, halfway between the sofa and Nataniel’s table. She opens the makeup box, spreading all the pencils and brushes and the various pull-out drawers of compressed powders and waxy pigments with great care. Then she waits, looking intently at Alma as the goddess picks a chair and brings it closer to the Bunny’s. Cherry and Rosemary choose that moment to leave the kitchen carrying trays with juice glasses and pieces of a delightfully fragrant carrot cake. Tulip’s head shoots to glare at them but Alma gently brings the Bunny’s face to look straight ahead. The older Bunnies serve Nataniel and Syron with soft-spoken words of friendliness and, with glances at Tulip and Alma, sit down by Lyria, one on each side of the goddess and holding a treat for their grandmother.

Alma picks a soft, wide brush from her array of tools and strokes Tulip’s cheeks with it, making the Bunny giggle with its tickling touch. Then she dips it in a faintly tan powder and starts applying it close to Tulip’s jaw, to accentuate her delicate frame, still too round and childlike.

“Tell me, dear, why the sudden urge to experiment with makeup?” the goddess asks, picking a slightly different shade that will go on the cheeks.

“I don’t want to look like a kid, anymore!” Tulip replies with an energy that nearly has her headbutting the brush off Alma’s hand. “I want to be pretty.”

Alma tilts her head at this. At her young age, Tulip is already stunning. Of course, she is a stunning child but her features are all promising of a budding beauty that will probably capture many a man and woman’s fantasies. Almost an exact copy of Alma at the beginning of her transition into adulthood, even prettier for the healthy light and warmth that radiates from a child never burdened with chronic, life-threatening fevers, Tulip has nothing to complain about in the beauty department. “But you are pretty. You are, in fact, quite beautiful.”

Tulip scowls at that. “I’m pretty sure you have to say that, being my mom and all,” she mutters

Lyria’s laughter erupts at the swift response from the Bunny, bringing to Alma’s mind some old conversations from her own childhood, around this same issue. For as much as Alma is aware of her beauty and form now, this was not always the case. Lyria is probably enjoying seeing the proverbial shoe being shoved over the other foot.

With a slight glance at her mother that has both goddesses rolling their eyes and smiling in sympathy with each other, Alma stops applying the powder meant to highlight the softness of Tulip’s forehead. “Don’t scowl, please.” She looks intently at Tulip as she waits patiently for the Bunny to relax her face. “Why would I say it, unless it was true?”

“And it is true, guapa,” Nataniel volunteers.

Tulip turns her head to shower him with a bright smile. The soft-spoken mortal doctor is a favorite among the younger Bunnies, doting on them and spending time showing them some of the more mundane wonders of nature whenever his work-filled schedule allows. Although extremely careful not to step over his limits, Nataniel has thus far revealed a talent for storytelling, using old tales to teach the Bunnies important lessons about life and mindfulness of others. If spoken in the right tone, his words carry the weight of law with them.

So Alma does not take it amiss when Tulip seems to accept his comment so readily after dismissing hers with barely a thought.

“Did you look like me when you were my age?” the Bunny asks, turning back to Alma.

“No, I looked much younger at age 13,” the goddess replies, glancing at Lyria. “Mother?”

“Oh yes. Much, much younger,” Lyria confirms with a nod. “Why, it took her decades to look like you, Tulip.”

Not turning so that Alma can apply the eyeshadow, Tulip nevertheless narrows her eyes, making Alma exhale in mild frustration. “How old were you, then, mom?”

Alma tries to remember exactly how long it has been since she last looked that young. “Hmm… I had probably seen a little over thirty – maybe forty turns of the year by then.”

Tulip’s eyes widen in shock. Alma can barely avoid poking her in the eye with makeup brush. “Forty?! How old are you now?”

“Tulip!!” Cherry cries, fanning her face in simulated shock over a background of Lyria and Rosemary’s laughter. “A proper lady don’t ask those things!”

“It’s fine,” Alma replies, chuckling herself. “I am one hundred fifty-three years old, little one.”

“Wow…” Tulip whispers, making the goddess smear the lipstick she was trying to apply on the Bunny’s lips.

“Tulip…” Alma breathes, licking her thumb to wipe the peachy pigment off her daughter’s cheek.

“Sorry…” Tulip apologizes. “Just, that’s really, really, really old.”

That makes Alma chuckle. She looks at Lyria intently. “I am really, really, really old.”

“Oh, dear me!” Lyria jests, the back of her hand pressed dramatically against her forehead. “I do not dare think how many more reallies I would warrant at my age.”

“Och, but ye two look so young!” Rosemary coos.

“Yeah, how do you manage?” Cherry asks.

Just as Alma is about to answer that, she hears a soft mutter from her left. She looks a question at Nataniel, who very subtly jerks his head in Syron’s direction. The technician-slash-scientist is not even looking at Alma or at any other person in the room, for that matter. His eyes are distant, as if he was thinking about something else and simply happened to react at some word that caught his attention.

“Syron?”

He looks at her, seemingly returning from so faraway place. “Species-linked metabolic divergence.”

Silence spreads around the bar. Six pairs of eyes focus on the man, all probably waiting for him to start to make sense.

Syron rolls his eyes and breathes deeply. The kind yet often cluelessly dangerous genius is used to speaking to audiences that do not understand him.

“If I may, lady,” he starts. “The prevailing theory around that is of species-linked metabolic divergence. It is quite a fascinating comparative work on the life expectancies of different species. Imagine a…” He seems to hesitate for a moment. “A rat! And a man. Anyone will rush to say that the average man lives longer than the average rat. But take that man and that rodent and count the number of times each of their hearts beats in a minute, an hour, a day. Now, multiply it by the number of days their lifetime lasts. You will find that the final number you obtain is similar.” His fingers tap the wooden table, punctuating his words. “Conception, gestation, birth, growth, mating, reproduction, aging and death, they all fit in a rat’s two years just as well as they do in a man’s seventy. So it is my understanding, and that of some esteemed colleagues, that rats don’t live shorter lives. They live faster lives, exhausting themselves in less time than men. The same happens between men and gods, where men are the proverbial rats. Gods only seem to live much longer lives than us, maturing slower, aging slower, effectively living slower.” He looks meaningfully at Alma. “Is this not what happened to you, lady?”

Alma smiles at him. The mortal scientist can barely be bothered to treat anyone by their Guardia rank titles, usually addressing his fellow mortals by their first names. But when it comes to gods, and especially to Alma, the inveterate atheist has always shown a delicate reverence, all the more charming because he barely seems to be aware of it.

Sadly, she cannot confirm his strange theories. “Not entirely so, I’m afraid. Gods age pretty much at their leisure. Some never do. Some are created fully grown. To a god born of gods, age does not necessarily link to maturity or physical appearance. We may age overnight, go from young to wrinkled in minutes.” She turns to face Tulip again. “I looked very much like you for a long time. And younger than I look now until Cherry and Rosemary were born.”

“What happened?” Tulip asks. On the sofa, Cherry and Rosemary are looking expectantly at Alma, hanging from her every word.

The young goddess looks at them, lowering her gaze as she moves from one to the other to avoid locking eyes with Lyria. With a sigh, she replies, “I realized that I was not a child anymore? There was no pregnancy, no time to adapt. Suddenly, I had two babies in my arms, whose safety and well being depended on my being able to take good care of them.” She puts the makeup brush down. “I was forced to grow up, and so I did. My face soon followed my mind in that aspect. In a few months, I was looking years older.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop at the melancholy in Alma’s voice.

Cherry and Rosemary are both holding Lyria but Alma does not look at her mother. Lyria was there, the day Arion left the Insula. She knows better than anyone about the original deals struck to ensure the Bunnies’ safety, about Death’s anger at knowing that his daughter had once again created forbidden life forms. And Alma knows what she will see in her mother’s eyes if she looks that way: empathy, regret, disappointment and a bitter, hardened pride.

The young goddess smiles softly at her youngest child. “I am very glad I grew up. It brought me here.” Her smile widens at the sight of Tulip’s ears slowly perking up. Alma strokes her cheek to remove a little speck of misplaced makeup. “There, all done.”

Tulip’s eyes widen and she rushes to pick up the makeup box so that she can see herself in the mirror. Her jaw drops, making Alma chuckle. “Wow… I look…”

“The way you will look in a few years, most likely,” the goddess completes the sentence. “And those years will pass in the blink of an eye, little Tulip. There is no point in rushing them.”

“But I look…beautiful!” Tulip insists, turning to look at Lyria. “Don’t I?”

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

“Dang, you look gorgeous, girl!” Cherry chimes in.

“Ah, little one, you have always been beautiful!” Lyria exclaims with a giggle at the Bunny’s enthusiasm. “Even without the makeup.”

“Well…” Tulip hesitates, looking at herself in the mirror again.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s hair, wanting to freeze this moment in time, to keep her little Tulip always this age, always this innocent and sweet. And yet, at the same time she is curious to take the rest of the journey with the young Bunny, eager to watch Tulip blossom into her early adulthood. What will that be like? Who will Tulip become? She catches movement at the edge of her sight and looks in the direction of the kitchen to sees Gwydion entering the bar, coming from his room, looking like someone still trying to drown away the sweet sirens of slumber.

“Ask Gwydion if you don’t believe us, little one,” the goddess suggests, jerking her head at him. “I know you treasure his opinion.”

Tulip’s head shoots back to spot Gwydion, nearly turning 180 degrees in the process. The young Bunny dashes off to stand just in front of him, hands clenched behind her back, face looking up at him with intense anticipation. “Hi…”

Gwydion smiles pleasantly at her, although Alma detect some hints of uncertainty in that smile. “Hello, flower.”

“Notice something different?” Tulip asks, standing on tiptoes to bring the god’s attention to her face.

Gwydion’s expression freezes suddenly. Any man who has ever interacted with women for any given amount of time will know and dread moments like this. He looks at her appraisingly for a long time, inspecting her clothing, apparently sniffing the air around her. Alma tries to signal to him but he seems too focused on his inspection to notice her.

Finally, he speaks, “Hmm… is it the hair?”

Alma cringes even before Tulip’s cry pierces through the room. “No! I’m wearing makeup!” Her ears droop in a most heart-wrenching fashion. “You don’t think I look better than before?”

Gwydion glances at Alma, who smiles and shrugs helplessly at him. “I can’t quite tell. You have always looked absolutely stunning.” He recovers with barely a pause. “However…”

“Yes?” Tulip squeaks, beaming at the compliment.

“It is never pleasant to kiss a cheek that tastes of makeup,” Gwydion notes. “You look older than your years. It seems to me that the makeup robs you of that vital part of your natural beauty, your youth.”

“But I look like a kid!” Tulip shrieks, flailing madly.

“No,” the god states firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder and raising her chin with the other, so that the Bunny focuses on him. “You look like a young lady. And soon, you will look like a grown woman and then like an old woman. I would understand it if you tried to look younger then than older now.”

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

“You already know what you will look like,” Gwydion notes in those soft, charming tones of his as he guides the Bunny’s face to look at Alma. “Look at your mother. It will not be long before you look like her without need for any makeup.”

“Yeah, but…How old will you be by then?” Tulip argues meekly.

Gwydion seems to consider this. “Hmm… Not much older than I am now, it seems. A decade, maybe?” He looks at Alma for confirmation and she nods at him. “It may seem like a long time to you but it will go by in an instant to me.”

Tulip looks somewhere between confused and slightly hopeful. “Oh…” She shrugs. “Well, this all seems like too much trouble to put on every day, anyway.”

“Now, there’s a smart girl!” Cherry quips.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t wear any makeup either!” Tulip retorts.

“Does it look like I need it?” Cherry replies. She immediately adds. “Don’t anybody answer that!”

The room explodes with laughter. In a glance, Alma catches Gwydion looking inquisitively at her and makes a little mental note to reward the god later for his outstanding performance.