Ch7.05 Revelations

There is an intrinsic belief to most intelligent creatures that every creature’s path is anything but lonesome. We are connected to others, through blood, through emotion, through responsibility. And every now and again, through something more. There are souls meant to cross our path and leave it almost immediately, shockingly sometimes. Earth-shaking, life-altering contacts. Other souls, however, are meant to stay. They are meant to walk the path with us, to guide us sometimes. To follow, sometimes. To walk side by side until the inevitable end. To be our soulmates.

And while this is true, the assumption that tends to follow – that soulmates are a once-in-a-lifetime event – is not. That they are to be romantic partners is not true either. The truth is that soulmates come in the most variable shapes and sizes. Skin, fur, feather, scale, spirit. Friend, family, lover. Companion. Love has but the shape we give it.

And it may come from the most unexpected places. At least for some. It is a strange thing for some, Alma knows, the relationship she has with Starfax. It is not a vocal love – Starfax does not speak, at least in any form of speech understood to most – not a physical one – the elusive phoenix rarely seeks petting – but it is, nonetheless, a loyal, companionable friendship. It is an understanding, of neither dominance or ownership between two souls who are better together than apart. A quiet, reassuring love that rests on the knowledge that this other being has chosen to follow the same path and won’t leave but for some unpredictable tragedy.

Starfax has always been there. Egg to hatchling to blossoming adulthood, she has always been free to leave, the bars of her cage a meaningless obstacle for the ethereal phoenix, meant more to ensure the peace, safety and privacy of a hiding place than to keep her from leaving. And Starfax has never left. Never judged.

Through fevers and depression and pointless wandering from station to station, all the way down to dark Three Rats, she has followed Alma’s path. And though she has mostly stayed out of the way of the Bunnies and even of Gwydion’s sight whenever he visits Alma’s sanctum, the goddess knows her best friend, her soulmate of decades, has accepted them as new features in Alma’s life.

Which is all to the goddess’ happiness, what little of it she has found in her heart in these last few days since Sky’s abduction and extraction from Nua’s malevolent talons. “Life as normal” has not been an easy thing to deal with. In spite of Arion’s promise of help, the nightmares have been a constant. And though her family treats her no differently – albeit with an obvious increase in the number of daily hugs and odd glances her way in search of reassurance – Alma still feels like a detached, almost alien presence in her own body. The frayed edges of her soul, torn by the power of the godbinding spell and then by Nua’s desperate attacks, refuse to grab a firm hold of her corporeal self. She is attached to her body only by tendrils, she knows, a gentle hold she might accept more easily if not for the stupid, mind-numbing fear that some part of Nua is still left in her, biding for a moment of distraction to finish what she started.

The thought terrifies Alma. And not just her. Gwydion as well. She has caught him glancing her way more than once with a look about him of careful, fearful examination. In the worst of her moments, she has thought of leaving, of sparing everyone the uncertainty, of sparing him the dread. She has mostly opted to hide away somewhere and cry the breath out of her lungs in those moments, hating herself for her own cowardice in longing to make herself disappear for good. Permanently.

And certain as three after two, Starfax has been there, perching nearby, watching in silence. Guarding her friend. Ready to go wherever Alma goes. Even those times when Gwydion has not managed to find her, when his arms haven’t embraced her and pulled her close and held her tightly, breaking any resolve to leave with that silent plea for her to stay.

How can he love her still? How can he still want her by his side in the safety and sanctity of his bed every night and come looking for her in a panic if for some reason she’s not there when he wakes? How can he hesitate before every kiss but still kiss her? The lips that have smiled at his screams of pain…

It’s the touch of Starfax’s cheek to her own that makes Alma realize she was crying yet again. The goddess smiles at the phoenix, perching on the bedside table by where Alma has laid open the one piece of luggage she is packing to take to Gwydion’s parents’ estate for this dreadful vacation she can’t help but wish she had never agreed to. Yet another emotional blow for Gwydion in such a short period of time, in a house none of them knows, that might even be dangerous – she is not sure can handle it all. But she will have to. For him and for her children, who desperately need a stress-free vacation.

“It won’t be as frightening if you’re there too,” she says, scratching the back of Starfax’s head before her hand slides down to pick up the cord around the phoenix’s neck, to which a brown jewel is attached. Nekh’s soul-gem, that Alma has entrusted to Starfax’s safe-keeping for the past two weeks. “Soon you won’t have this burdening you anymore.”

She takes the jewel for now. It will be needed for the conversation she has scheduled for–

“Alma?” Gwydion’s voice cuts through her train of thought.

Alma closes her hand around the jewel, then closes her suitcase. “I am almost ready.”

“Come on,” he says gently, kneeling behind her and resting hands on her shoulders. “Everyone is ready and I’m afraid Merri is about to get a hand’s width shorter under the weight of all the luggage she’s bringing along.”

The thought makes Alma snort as she leans back against him. “Who would have guessed she’s that type of girl? And it’s not like she is particularly fashion-centered on a daily basis.”

The subdued humor of Gwydion’s quiet chuckling is as much a pleasure as the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in a little squeezing embrace before he loosens his hold. “Maybe she’s just anxious.”

“She’s not the only one,” Alma notes, twisting a little to look at his face sideways. “You barely slept last night.”

He looks pained. “And I kept you awake…I’m sorry for that.”

With a little more twisting and adjusting, she manages to shift sideways fully, so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to miss the nightmares I didn’t have because I was awake.” She closes her eyes as he strokes her hair. “And at least awake I could keep you company and be there for you.”

He doesn’t reply but keeps petting her for a moment. Intimacy has not been easy, not with the ghost of Nua tearing a gash of trauma and uncertainty between them. Since the night before their rescue of Sky, their essences have not been closer than the moderate closeness a kiss allows. Their walls are raised, not just against each other but against the world, a disheartening scar that has Alma fearing for the future of their relationship. Though they hold on, fiercely, to each other, hoping they can heal together.

“Maybe we can both get some sleep this week,” Gwydion breathes, kissing the side of her head before rising to his feet. “Come on…”

Alma rises as well after closing her suitcase. “Could you take my bag upstairs, please? There is a book I want to take with me…”

“Of course,” he replies, reaching to pick up her suitcase and looking mildly surprised at its lightness. “Don’t be long. The portal is scheduled to open in five minutes.”

“I will be right out,” Alma assures him, feeling a little pang of guilt at the little grain of truth she is not quite telling him.

He nods and leaves, closing the door behind him. And immediately, the room feels colder, the air drier, the light duller, lifeless. Not because he is gone. Because someone else has stepped in.

“A touching scene,” her father says with that mild intonation of humor he puts into every sentence, as if the world exists to amuse him. “If not for your failure to mention our scheduled appointment.”

“He has enough on his mind already,” Alma says, turning to face her father, currently sitting on the edge of the bed. “He certainly does not need to have this weighing on it.”

Death tilts his head and smiles. Just smiles. And in Alma’s mind his unspoken accusation blooms, He doesn’t need to know you never told him about Nekh’s soul.

The thought chills her. It’s no work of telepathy or suggestion. It is merely the product of years upon years of his shaping touch on her. On the part of her that she fears is just like him, cold and calculating and ruthless. Useful, oh so very useful. Cut Fates, oh so very costly…

She keeps her faint smile set, her expression carefully blank. “Thank you for coming, Father.”

His lip twitches with a grin. “My pleasure, I am sure. And why am I here?”

Alma holds a hand up in front of her, letting Nekh’s soul-gem dangle from it on its cord like an enticing prize. “Let us say you have something I want.”

Death’s grin grows with unrestrained pleasure. “It was only a matter of time. Was it not?”


Ch7.04 Revelations

The moment Somrak enters the station, there he is: Sergeant Edison Machado, Three Rats Station’s ranking Popula officer. The powerfully built man looks like he could break Somrak in half, if he could catch him. His hairless, dark-brown, bullet-shaped head turns and, even under his Guardia jacket, Machado’s burly shoulders strain the material as they flex at the sight of the gracile fire god. His eyes, slightly yellowed at the edges, lock onto Somrak’s, his expression betraying a continued lack of trust.

Somrak smirks and holds up two fingers to give a jaunty little wave. My friend, are you in for a surprise. Aloud, he says, “Boa tarde, Sergeant. Como vai?

Tudo tranquilo…” Machado growls, turning as Somrak slips past him and proceeds up the stairs.

Lindo!” Somrak knocks on the door to Alma and Dion’s office.

“Come in, Somrak.” Alma’s voice is muffled by the door, but comes through clearly.

As he opens and steps through, he asks, “Was it my cheerful stride on the steps that tipped you off?” He closes the door behind him. “Your aunt is stalking me.”

“Must be your animal magnetism,” Dion replies from his desk, where he is leaning back in the chair, loosely holding a pen pinched between his finger and thumb as if he has paused in writing a report. “Maybe you should adjust it to attract something a little less threatening instead…like a chimera.”

Ah, that winning Dion smile! Yet Somrak catches a hint around the eyes of the same soul-shredding pain that Somrak himself is constantly straining to ignore, caused by the same godbound whip. “Seeing as she’s also gone insane, I think I’d be better off dating fully grown dragons.” He takes a seat on the sofa, resting his elbows on his thighs. “I have good news, and I have strange news.”

Alma and Dion look at him, then at each other, then back at him, quizzically. The shared look of a couple. Alma says, “I hope you’re not announcing your joining my clan, Somrak. You have your charms but I doubt Fencer would leave the Commander for you.”

“Commander?” Dion looks shocked and shakes his head in incredulity. “Well, that explains quite a lot…”

Somrak chuckles at Dion’s surprise. “Well, would that be so bad? I could be the God of Cremations.” He shakes his head and takes a deep breath, the grins brightly and spreads his hands. “You two are going on vacation!” His voice suddenly takes on a hint of a carnival huckster announcing a big winner. “I have no idea where, but you’re going. Tomorrow. Portal opens at ten bells. With all the Bunnies, apparently. Well, not May. I don’t think May, anyway. But yes, vacation time!”

Alma looks surprised, but Dion just nods. “Yes, we know where we are going. An estate I inherited just recently. But it is not like my uncle to give such short notice of something like this.”

“I don’t know about that, but, uh, congratulations on the estate.” Somrak feels even more disconnected from reality. Now Dion is a landed aristo? He shakes it off. “So you might be wondering who is going to be running this place while you’re gone.”

“We…did set that as a prerequisite for accepting this week of absence,” Dion agrees.

Somrak eyes him suspiciously. “You didn’t happen to request anyone, did you?”

He shifts his accusatory gaze to Alma as well, just in case, prompting her to raise her hands, excusing herself from blame. “Math only spoke to Gwydion about this.”

Somrak turns his gaze on Dion, one eyebrow slightly higher. “Anyone mentioned to your uncle? Because otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to like this any more than I do.”

“We did not go as far as discussing possible temporary placements,” Dion says. “And considering he offered a permanent reassignment at first, I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind to go into such details.” He narrows his eyes. “Just who is being assigned here?”

“You’re looking at him,” Somrak says, drily. He lets it sink in for a moment. “And yes, I’ll be in command.”

Their eyes go wide in shock. Dion absently whispers, “He really did it…”

Alma sits. If her chair hadn’t been right there, Somrak thinks she would’ve fallen to the floor. She leans back in her seat, elbow propped on the arm of the chair, softly biting her knuckle. “I…” She looks at Dion. “We have been managing to recover here…”

“Now that the initial shock is gone…maybe we don’t need to go on this vacation,” Dion adds in agreement.

Somrak rolls his eyes and flops back on the sofa, almost bashing his head against the wall. “Oh, thanks! Can’t really blame you – I’ve been thinking the same myself. Oh!” He sits up again, with a You’re gonna love this look on his face. “That’s not even the weirdest news! Guess who’s going to be taking up residence, to ‘keep an eye on me’, which I assume means ‘chortle with glee as I flail about’.”

“Calamari Cal,” Dion suggests, deadpan, making Alma burst into a short bout of laughter.

“And here I thought there weren’t any weirder possibilities,” Somrak says. “No, it’s Fencer. She’s not going to help by the way. Just watch.”

Alma’s eyes widen in even greater worry. “Oh dear… We should definitely stay. This is too flammable a place for the two of you put together.”

Dion, less serious, looks around and sighs. “I did like this old building… Perhaps they are trying to convince us to leave by making sure there will be nothing to return to.”

Somrak glares at the two gods until they look mildly sheepish. It’s easy to forget that despite his careless attitude and youthful good looks, he is decades older and carrying several times as much experience as a cop – even if his experience is all on the unconventional side. “All right, listen. It’s orders. And whatever Fencer’s or whoever’s plan is, I’m not following their little ‘Somrak is a screwup’ script. You’re going to go. I’m going to do my job. And you’re not going to come back to a smoking crater. Got it? I’m going to tell them to go to Hell by being the best – by not being the worst commanding officer.”

Alma looks down and is silent for a moment. Quietly, seriously, she says, “I am afraid about something else, Somrak. Sky…what if…what if I turn my back for a week and return to find Sky mysteriously gone or fallen to his wounds…”

They both know what she really means. Somrak has long held the job of Sky’s executioner, should the devil-in-god-guise ‘lose control’, or fall into the wrong hands, or become a broken tool, no longer useful. The Council, fearful of a scandal, could order the Commander to order Somrak to carry out this duty at any moment.

Somrak rises and steps around Alma’s desk. She looks up, her expression apprehensive, as he kneels beside her chair. He takes her left hand in both of his and looks into her eyes.

“I will keep an eye on Sky,” Somrak promises, his voice soft and serious. “If the Commander got the order, he would tell me first, even if he was told to give the job to someone else. He would tell me so I could get Sky away. But just in case…Doria has assured me that I’ll know instantly if anyone tries to enter the Oracle’s grotto with ill intent.” At her sad but reassured smile, his heart nearly stops, but he tries to hide the effect she has on him behind a carefree smile, squeezing her hand before letting it go and standing. “And I’ll have a second-in-command Dei. Don’t know who, yet, but Fencer says I know whoever it is.” He wrinkles his brow and looks over at Dion. “Which could mean a whole lot of people. Hopefully not one who hates me.”

“Well,” Dion reasons, looking as if he’s running through some old acquaintances’ names as well, “we should talk to Machado about these orders and then get to packing. We only have so many hours to prepare, considering it’s evening already.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Alma says. “He won’t question orders from the mouth of a Guardia Dei Subcommander herself, but it’s still best to break it to him gently.” She sighs. “This was supposed to be a week to relax.”

“You can relax!” Somrak insists. “I’m the one who’s not going to relax. Things will be fine! That will be my mission: keeping things fine. And I will do it just to piss off your aunt.” He gives a little smirk. “All right, I’ll do it so you two can stop worrying, too. You’ll see. It’ll be great.”

“And you will make sure to water and feed Lexie too, while we’re away?” Alma asks, a hint of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

“The cat? I gotta take care of the cat? Right, deal’s off…” Somrak smiles to give the lie to his affronted countenance. “Of course I’ll take care of Lexie. Lexie loves me. I’m all warm. I can’t even sit down before she tries to jump on my lap.”

“Like I said, animal magnetism,” Dion notes with that brilliant, charming smile of his. “Perhaps you should try scratching Fencer behind the ears too. Or rub her belly.”

Somrak holds out his hands and shakes them. “Uh-uh! She’s the kind of cat, she loves having her belly rubbed for about three seconds, then she rips your arm off.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, looking at both of them. “So…there’s more weird news.” He waits until they look at him uneasily. “I can’t be sure of his schedule, which is always changing, but you may get a visit from somebody there. After he visits me here.”

“And who would this be?” Dion asks, suspicious at the sound of dread in Somrak’s voice.

The fire god struggles with just how to say it. “In the off-blues, you know we have a healer. Not a very good one. But for…special cases, we have an outside contractor.” He leans against the wall and folds his arms, looking at nothing in particular. “Sometimes we have secrets we need sealed away, so that they can’t be gotten at even under torture or mental invasion. And…sometimes we have memories that aren’t doing us any good. Sky called them ‘shrapnel in a wound’. Memories that refuse to shut up. Memories that don’t teach us or help us avoid making dumb mistakes again. They do nothing but hurt us.” He looks up at them. “That’s the kind of healer this guy is.”

He sees that while he was speaking, both of them have looked away, down, like him, and the haunted look on their faces surely mirror his own. They know exactly what kind of memories he’s talking about.

“I’m not sure anyone can just come in and heal a mind,” Alma says, skeptical.

Somrak nods. “He doesn’t, exactly. But he makes it possible to heal on its own. Personally I’ve resisted ever using him, but…it’s different this time. It can take multiple sessions. He’s very concerned about…being invasive. He’s just about the most discreet god on the Insula, too, or we wouldn’t use him. His mind is safe from being opened up through magic or interrogation or anything. Just…if I can get him to drop by your estate, will you talk to him? It’s your decision whether to use him.”

“Manipulating memory…it’s rarely a good idea,” Dion murmurs. “And these are very dangerous memories. We’re already walking the tightrope. If we take a wrong step and cause a scandal…”

“Yeah…” Somrak spreads his hands. “I’ve contacted him, and he’s coming to talk to me. Which is pretty nice, seeing as I’m not offblue anymore. From what I’m told, he erases nothing. It’s…well, better to let him explain it. I’ll just say that if you decide to go for it, you can trust him.”

They are silent for a moment, considering. Then they look at each other, tentative, seeking reassurance that they are in agreement. Alma says, “Well, I suppose we can always talk to him. That much shouldn’t hurt.” Her voice rises slightly at the end of each statement, almost making them into questions.

Dion nods. He looks at Somrak and tries to recover his smile. “I’ll leave you with indications on how to get to the estate.”

“Thanks. Might need to run up there in an emergency anyway.” Somrak takes a breath, letting it out with puffed cheeks. “Right…this is really happening, isn’t it? I swear, if they turn me into a regular station-bound Guardia… Eh, I’d probably be glad for the change.”

“Let us get your station up to speed, then, Inspector Somrak.” Alma rises from her chair. “This should be interesting.”

Ch7.03 Revelations

The server, a slightly hunched and thin-cheeked woman named Rajani, with grey in her very long hair and a red bindi mark on her forehead, takes Somrak’s menu and gives him a tall glass of cold lassi with a sprig of mint garnishing it. “Please be patient, Oh Holy One,” she says. “As you can see, we are crowded today, and our kitchen is small. But we are always grateful for your blessing on our fire. Please accept this gift of thanks.”

“Just…stop calling me Holy One and we’ll call it even,” Somrak says, but he knows it’s useless. He sighs as she genuflects and retreats. The place serves great curry, just the way he likes it, and then he made the mistake of revealing he’s a god. The cheap gas range they use was sputtering and flaring, so he did his good deed for the day and fixed it – by blessing their fire. What does he know about fixing gas ranges? If he tried to solve the problem mechanically, he’d probably blow the place up. So…magic. He’s a fire god, which in his case includes kitchen god, and now they never have any problems. But now they know what he is and…they won’t take his money. Fates, he’ll have to renew that fire blessing soon, too. And he doesn’t even live here. Crap…

Well, he lives here for now. Until he receives orders otherwise, which may not be anytime soon. Lives here but doesn’t work here. On indefinite suspension, pending investigation and trial. And so for now his job is…babysitting.

All right, maybe that’s too strong. There’s no actual babies involved. But plenty of sitting. Here he is, Somrak, one of the deadliest, craftiest, craziest agents in the entire Guardia, the Dei responsible for taking down the Tolleride Gang single-handedly, the guy who foiled a plot to blow up the Curia and then quietly assassinated the senator who had arranged it, the guy who can actually say he’s probably changed the course of history once or twice, and now he’s stuck helping a devil recover from torture. Plus he’s keeping an eye on Bunnies, and wandering around Three Rats ward, just praying to witness a crime in progress so he can make a citizen’s arrest, preferably with extreme punching involved.

If he really is pressed to admit it, there are some pleasures. It’s agony, watching Sky trying and failing to regain his human form, and the rage this sends him into, but sitting and talking with the big ugly weirdo is relaxing. Amazing how little they’ve revealed to each other in all the years they’ve worked together. And then there’s having a nice drink on the roof with Cherry as the sun sets, and Tulip coming in for a cuddle before bed, and being able to talk to Alma… But she’s clinging to Dion for support. Of course. And he’s not going to try to muscle his way in between them, for sure. He sure wouldn’t mind if she clung to him once in awhile, though.

And he has to admit, he could stand to do some clinging, himself. You don’t get lashed with a godbound soul-whip and just shrug it off. Even fixing this shop’s little kitchen flame made him break out in a sweat. His powers are only slowly returning, and he’s nowhere near back to fighting shape. All those he’s supposedly babysitting? Funny how they look at him like he’s the one who needs their help.

Case in point: Not quite an hour ago, Sky telling Somrak, “You need to contact Wasure.”

Somrak was quiet for a moment before murmuring, “Yeah…maybe he can help Alma and Dion.”

In the shadows, Sky rumbled, “Not just them, my friend.”

“You think I need… “ Somrak dismissed it with a shake of his head. “Come on.”

Sky raised his heavy vulpine head, the curved-back horns gleaming red-black in the dim lighting. “You can look upon my true face without fear because you know it is the face of a brother. But you have seen the face of a Prince of Hell. You were moments away from killing two of the people you love, to save their souls from torment without end. Your soul is deeply wounded. And memory of that face is like shrapnel in the wound. It needs to be removed for healing to begin.”

Somrak glared at him. “I respect what Wasure does. But I’ve never used him before and I never want to. My memories are what I am!”

“What you are is hurt, more deeply than ever before,” Sky insisted. “You know how Wasure does his work. You will lose nothing of who you are. And you will be far better able to convince Alma and Dion to accept his help if you make use of it yourself.”

Somrak thought it over. “Fine,” he groused. “I’ll contact him. But what about you?”

Sky head withdrew back into the shadows. “Wasure cannot help me.”

And then someone is scraping the chair across from him and sitting. Somrak has to force himself not to strike, hard and full-force, as he is pulled back to the present and the little curry restaurant. Nobody should be able to sneak up on him like that! Nobody who doesn’t intend to kill him. But he sees the flash of crimson hair, and the mismatched eyes, one red, the other milky white, and he forces the tension away.

“Great. What now? Am I under arrest?” He picks up his glass of yoghurt and swirls it before taking a sip.

Fencer shrugs her compact, muscular shoulders. “Depends on whether or not you’re planning on paying for your meal.” She looks around at the pictures of the all-vegetarian dishes on the wall, ignoring the shocked, worried expressions of the staff and other patrons. The names and descriptions are written in Urbia, the local ward’s dialect, and some language he’s not even sure the name of, but whose script bears a vague resemblance to the one used in his own fiery birth-ward. “Bunny chow? Have those long-eared nuisances managed to reach as far as restaurant menus?”

“This place serves chicken to the heathens, if you ask special” Somrak says to Subcommander-at-Large Varah, one of the five subcommanders of the Guardia and the one with the deadliest reputation. “So what’s got you stalking me? Is it the leather? It’s the leather, isn’t it?”

She makes a show of looking him up and down. “It’s not even good leather. Won’t fit me, either. I think I’ll let you keep it.”

“Not good leather?” Somrak looks down at the handsome black-and-crimson of his outfit, exquisitely cut to fit him perfectly, accentuating his own trim musculature without ever binding or even creaking. That craftsmanship, along with the enchantments to turn blades, soften the impact of bludgeons, wrap shadows around him at need, and the many pockets that are larger on the inside, had easily cost him a year’s pay. True, this is his second-best suit, the best one having been destroyed in the mission to rescue Sky, but still, come on. “Now you’re just being ornery. So if it’s not that, then what’s up? I recommend the masala, by the way. It’s made with a weird spice since they can’t get the usual one here, but that just makes it unique.”

“I’m not here to eat.” She leans back in her chair, the back resting against the wall while the two front legs rise from the floor. “I’m here to give you your orders. Math threw a wrench in our machinery. You are being taken out of suspension.”

Somrak raises his eyebrows. “And thrown into what?”

She raises her hands, palms up, and indicates their surroundings. “Here. Your favorite playground as of a few months ago. You are being stationed with the Three Rats Dei force again.” Then she grins, something that looks far too unsettling for a smile. He recognizes it from long familiarity on another god’s face, and wonders if Fencer started smiling like that because of the Commander, or if the Commander picked it up from her. Or maybe they both have always smiled like that and that’s what made them fall for each other. Then she delivers the the diabolical sentence she was holding back. “You will head it. For a whole week.”

He just stares back at her, watching her grin only increase at having finally made him speechless. “Ah…” he begins, then closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I must be going deaf or something. I thought you said I would ‘head it’. Like, be in command? Of…the station?”

She nods, leaning back a little more, savoring his distress. “You will have one other Dei under your command and, of course, the Popula. Not the best of situations but since Archon Boss of Us All insisted on his favorite nephew taking a vacation…” She sneers at what she surely considers the pampering of the spoiled Guardia brat. The one who’s won the heart of her favorite niece.

“Dion is going on vacation?” He shakes his head again and puts out one hand, as if warding off a blow. “Hold on! Why am I in charge? Why not Alma? She was in charge before when I was here!”

Fencer simply looks at him, still smiling humorlessly, waiting for him to reach the obvious, logical conclusion.

His heart sinks. For one moment he had fooled himself into thinking that he and Alma might be left alone together for a few days. The image of the two of them in each other’s arms, comforting each other, blows away like smoke. “Oh…she’s going with him. And…oh great, am I in charge of the Bunnies too?” Not that he doesn’t want to Bunnies around, but they surely seem to have no difficulty in finding trouble.

Fencer shakes her head, still with the cruel grin. “Hoppers are going along with them, it seems. So you are truly flying solo. Well…nearly solo.” Her grin broadens, truly a death’s-head smile. “I’ll be there to watch over you.”

“You? You are going to serving in freaking Three Rats for a week?” He’s starting to wonder if someone spiked his lassi. “And I’m in charge? Of you?” He starts to imagine that he’s been kidnapped and placed in some false reality for interrogation purposes, and looks around for flaws.

Fencer snorts. Sounds just like Alma, the thinks. “Me? Serve under you? I haven’t served in a station in…ever.” She crosses her legs, relaxed as a cat. “I’ll just be the ever-present shadow in your daily life. I have paperwork and other issues of my own to take care of. Like preparing for your friends’ impending trial.”

He looks at her for a long while, thinking it through. “They’re getting a nice vacation. Must not be anything too bad waiting for them. And I’m being taken off suspension already. I’m guessing Prettyboy’s uncle is spinning this as a punishment? Which it is, no doubt, but… They’re going to be all right, aren’t they?”

Fencer shrugs, no longer grinning, no longer looking at him. He can tell she’s not entirely without worry. “I don’t know. Depends on how many tricks Math has up his sleeve. It’s all still up in the air. Council has their robes all riding up whatever uncomfortable crevices they have. You’ll have to testify, Alma will have to testify as she was second-in-command. Don’t know if Prettyboy will be made to do the same. Anyway… it should be a boredom- and anticipation-packed next few weeks. But for now, you’re telling your friends that their vacation starts tomorrow and so does your assignment. Their express portal opens midmorning, ten bells precisely, and they’d better be ready.”

Externally, his shoulders slump, a reflection of the internal subsidence of his spirit. “I’m in charge, I have some unnamed sidekick, and I have you supervising me. You. Who has even less station experience than I do, despite being older than most of the stations on this hunk of rock. Hey, no offense, you look great. For your age. So are these just verbal orders, or do I hand something over?”

Not paying the least attention to his needling, Fencer assures him, “I’ll be there tomorrow to commandeer the station, so to speak. And you do know your sidekick. You should be pleased with my pick for once.” She rises from her seat and leans over him, a hand on his shoulder, iron fingers digging into his muscle. Her voice growls low with an edge of amusement. “And the next time you question my competence, Ponytail, you better be willing to put some actual muscle where your mouth is.”

Somrak smiles up at her, ignoring the pain. “I love it when you talk dirty. Right then, I’ll see you tomorrow for the beginning of this insane farce.”

“Sweet dreams, Ponytail.” She releases her grip and straightens. “Enjoy the meal.”

Ch7.02 Revelations

Following a soft knock on the door, Merri turns the knob and opens it into the Bunnies’ first home in the waking world, the calm and beautiful sanctum of their mother, Alma. She pokes her head in, red curls brushing the partially opened door beside one russet ear and the doorframe beside the other. Nobody in the bed, which is really what Merri expected, Dion being on duty and the location of the other Bunnies being known to her, but still she cannot help but feel a pang of disappointment. How lovely it would have been had Sky been lying there, recuperating from his mysterious fate in the tender, healing arms of their mother. Sure and it would’ve been an unlikely event, but in a world where even impossible events are a regular occurrence, how can you blame a simple Bunny for hoping for the merely unlikely?

Cherry puts her hands on Merri’s shoulders from behind and rests her chin on top of Merri’s head. The pale redhead grins and twitches her ears so they flick Cherry’s tawny cheeks. Oh, it feels good to smile, just smile, those muscles so unused lately. Merri knows that someday she’ll have a million smile wrinkles, and she doesn’t mind a bit. But these last few days, ever since the end of the Year’s End celebration, really, have been so awfully sorrow-filled. Merri resists the urge to turn and hug Cherry for making her smile, and instead follows where she can feel Cherry’s chin pointing, past the curtain of hanging purple-flowered wisteria vines, past the bed, toward the sound of water sloshing in the fountain pool at the center of the room.

“Yes, my dears?” comes Alma’s voice from that direction. Of course she knows it’s the two of them. She would, wouldn’t she? It’s her home, her sacred sanctum.

The two Bunnies enter, slipping off their shoes, and quickly move to the pool where they have bathed many a time. This was their home. It is still, in a way, their home, even though they have moved out into their own small shared room upstairs. At first, on waking to this world and discovering that their dreams-within-dreams of a family had come true, they had wanted nothing more than to sleep with everyone in the same bed, every night, in communal bliss. But even Bunnies long for a little privacy, a place very slightly separated from others to have some peace and quiet now and again. And that bed certainly was crowded. And, well, Merri and Cherry had lived together just the two of them their whole dream-lives, and as much as they both love Sage and May, the oldest pair of Bunnies would always be most closely attached to each other. Sometimes they just need to be with each other and no one else.

“We dinnae wanna interrupt your bath, Mum,” Merri says as the round the bed and see Alma in the bath, turned toward them, her elbows on the edge of the pool and her long white hair wet against her head and shoulders and floating in the water.

She looks so beautiful yet so tired, Merri thinks. So very sad at all that she’s been through. But still Alma tries to smile and says, with a little chuckle in her voice, “It’d be a rare thing, a bath that doesn’t get interrupted for one reason or another. Come in. Everything all right?”

Cherry says, “Well…we got a question or three.”

They both go to her and sit on the edge of the pool on either side of Alma, letting their legs dangle in the warm water. Merri holds up a pale-blue envelope with the seal of the Guardia Academy printed on it. One end is neatly sliced open. That’s Cherry – she always uses scissors to open envelopes, while Merri just tears the flap open. Cherry is so neat and tidy in some ways, like envelopes and bottles and cocktail utensils, but such a hopeless mess when it comes to folding clothes or even putting dirty ones in the hamper.

Merri can see by her eyes that Alma recognizes from whom the envelope has come. Cherry speaks up. “We gotta write back to May, but…”

“She’s no’ worried yet,” Merri says. She gestures with the envelope. “She sent this express. I dinnae ken why but…she must’a been longing for home. But Sky gave her that magical stationery an’aw, an’ it’s supposed t’be fast, an’ she will’ve nae heard back from him, right? She’s nae worried yet, but it willnae be long. And we got some drawin’s that Tulip did and Grandmama’s present and the like that we can send her, but when it comes time to write…”

“We can’t think of nothin’ to say,” Cherry almost whispers. Merri looks at her with concern.

Their mother takes a deep breath and sinks a little further into the water. The pool is shallow, and they can see her long pale form under the surface, wavering with the ripples, as Alma’s chin comes to rest on her forearms.

“I know,” she says. “This is not easy. My first impulse is to make certain all my children are together and safe, but I told Mayumi that she would get her shot at becoming Guardia. I’m afraid that if I say anything to make her worry, she will just speed back here as fast as she can. And then, imagine, could she just stay here for a day or two before returning to her studies? No…she would turn her back on the Academy, give up her place there this term in order to stay with her family. I sincerely doubt she would ever get another chance if she did so.”

Merri looks at Cherry. This is something they’ve discussed. “And we do no’ want that.” Her voice is firm.

Cherry’s black-furred ears are already down, one down the back of her neck, the other angled off to the side, both making dents in her loosely curled afro. “I know.” Her voice is subdued. “But everything we think of to tell her is scary and sad! Demons attacked us, and Sky disappeared. And you and Dion and Sommy were hurt. And…” She closes her eyes tightly and whispers, “Saira.”

Alma reaches out and rests a hand on Cherry’s thigh, stroking it. “I know, little one. I don’t want to ask you to lie or keep secrets. But I need you to understand, because Mayumi surely would not, that there is nothing she can do here to change any of those things. The only thing she would achieve by leaving the Academy at this point would be the death of her dream.” Alma sighs. “I will be writing back to her as well. If anyone has to bend the truth here, it will be me. All I ask is that you don’t write anything that might contradict what I will say.”

Cherry takes her mother’s pale hand in her own and holds it. “Guess we oughta let you read ours before we send it.”

“We can write about positive things!” Merri insists. “The lovely garden that Grandmama gave us in the bar. The wine cellar…”

“She already knows about that, baby,” Cherry says, looking at her.

“…right.” Merri’s own ears, normally so perky, fall back. To her mother, she says, “She’ll know we’re holdin’ things back. At least she has nae started askin’ about Sky yet.”

“But she will, if she don’t hear from him,” Cherry says. “Is he gonna be able to write her? And…we don’t really know what’s goin’ on there ourselves.” She sounds as if she’s bursting to ask questions.

Alma looks even more exhausted, and Merri is about to suggest talking about it later, but she herself is dying, dying to know what has happened to their dear, patient, sometimes-grumpy protector, Sky. They’ve hesitated in asking for days now, and the pain of not knowing is becoming agony.

Alma starts slowly. “I can’t really tell you all of it but what I can say is…he has not disappeared. We know where he is. But just like we were wounded, he was too.” She pushes herself up with her hands until her arms are straight, elbows locked, and she’s able to look the both of them intently in the eyes, at the same level, her hair wrapping her shoulders, arms, and upper torso like alabaster seaweed. She looks like a selkie rising from the water that runs in rivulets down her body. “Badly wounded,” she emphasizes. “He is healing but he cannot do that here.”

Suddenly Merri, who has done a better job of holding herself together these past few days so that Cherry, who feels the loss of Saira so keenly, can mourn, feels shaken and weak. The desire to weep rises in her and she can barely fight it down. Sky, wounded. They’ve seen him wounded before, many times. Once it was as if half his face had been shattered and torn, and yet he still was walking around, doing his job, giving them a smile as best he could. He rescued Merri herself once as she was being dragged away from Cherry, screaming, to certain death, and this after he’d been pounded into a pulp of broken bones by a giant. That he is so injured that he’s had to be sent to some sort of god-hospital is horrifying. And so her voice is suddenly smaller and more childish than Cherry’s when she asks, “Can’t we…see him? Can’t we visit him?”

Alma looks at her with compassion and shakes her head. “No,” she says, as if it is breaking her heart to do so. “I’m sorry, little ones. He is healing rather quicker than we first thought but…he’s just not ready yet. He’s not in any immediate danger, though, and we’re hoping for a full recovery. You understand why I can’t go around spreading this or telling Mayumi about it. There is nothing any of us can do to help.”

“Can we send him something?” Cherry asks, sounding stronger, as always stepping up whenever Merri shows weakness, just as Merri does when Cherry needs her to. “To make him feel better?”

Alma smiles, though the sorrow is still very evident in her eyes. “I’m sure he would love that. It will surely drive him to get well sooner. He misses all of you very much.”

“He’d better get well soon,” Merri says, still shaky but recovering. “We all miss him. And May won’t be happy when she finds out we deceived her, even if it is for her own good.”

Alma nods, her expression serious. “I know. And that is why I will take all the blame there. Just tell her the truth, that you don’t know where he is but I do. And I’ll tell her something to keep her from panicking too much. Can you go that far?”

After a deep breath, Cherry says, “We can… Ain’t gonna be easy. That girl asks questions – she just can’t stop bein’ a cop. But we’ll do our best.”

“We’re older,” Merri insists, though she feels dreadfully uncertain. “We know what’s best for her! She’ll accept it. Eventually.”

Alma smiles again. “Now I’m wishing I had a sister. Anyway, positive things… Well, you can mention your grandmother’s visit and all the gifts she brought for you.”

“We’re sendin’ May’s present to her – oh right, Mer already said that. We were gonna put in a nice bottle of wine too, but that made it too heavy.”

“It would also never reach her,” Alma tells Cherry. “All inbound mail is checked. Things like alcoholic beverages do not make it past inspection.”

“Oh bother,” Merri says. “An’ I was gonna send her some o’them tiny sample bottles o’ Beirão, too! Perhaps we can smuggle them in a loaf o’ bread or somethin’.” She pauses for a moment, choosing her next words carefully. “We…ken there’s things ye cannae tell us. And ye must know too that we’re dying t’learn everything about what’s happened. We’ve nae been askin’ because, well, ye gods’ve been through so much, that’s somethin’ any fool can see. And we ain’t the only ones who’ve lost dear Saira. We ken ye loved her as well. We just…we just want ye to know, we do care. We trust ye to tell us what ye can. We dinnae wanna burden you with questions…”

Cherry breaks in as Merri’s mouth seems like it’s about to charge over a cliff. “She just means we’re ready to listen any time. How are you doin’? And Dion? Y’all been through the ringer.”

“We have,” Alma says, her eyes lowering. Her elbows unlock and she slowly lowers herself back into the pool, her hair spreading out on the water’s surface. “Physically, I am fine. We’re both fine. Mentally…some days are better, some are worse. Mostly, we manage to be all right. Saira’s loss was terrible but…” She looks up at them, only her shoulders above water now, trying to smile but her eyes pleading for understanding from her two oldest children, who are only a fifth her age. “I’m a goddess of life and death, right? I should be good at handling these things.”

They both listen to her, and watch her, and smell her, and they know she’s not handling it as well as she’d like. Cherry pushes off the edge and slips into the pool, her clothes on, and sinks into the water to hug Alma tightly. A moment behind her, Merri does the same, and their mother puts her arms around the two of them and holds them as if this is the best thing that has happened to her all day. Her breath hitches and the two Bunnies tighten their grip a little, but after a moment Alma manages to say, “Thank you. Anyway, I’m feeling much better. And so is Gwydion.”

Still holding her, Merri says, “We know ye cannae just stay home an’ stay safe. We know life ain’t like that for ye. But we need ye, Mum. Be careful as ye can…please?” Cherry just nods against Alma’s bare shoulder in agreement with Merri’s heartfelt plea.

“Whatever it takes to come home to you.” Alma kisses Rosemary’s head, then Cherry’s. “I love you, you know?”

Cherry whispers, “We know. We feel it all the time.” She loosens her grip and looks down at her soaking clothes. “Well, that was silly…” She reaches down and undoes the buttons of her shorts and slips them off underwater. She sniffles and looks back at Alma. “We’re gonna have our family back together again, ain’t we?”

“I am doing all I can to make it happen,” Alma says, sounding as if she is mustering all her reserves of confidence. “And I truly think that we’ll soon be together again, all of us. Getting on each other’s nerves.”

As Cherry lifts her wet t-shirt and gets stuck pulling it over her head, Alma grins and tickles the Bunny’s bare sides, causing Cherry to shriek and fall backwards, splashing. “NO! I’M TOO TICKLISH!”

Laughing loudly, the first real laugh she’s had in oh ever so long, Merri joins in with tickling Cherry, and the resulting splashes arc over their heads and reach all the way to the bed.

Ch7.01 Revelations

The stars twinkled
And the teacups jingled
In Tulip’s garden dream
And the bees went buzz
In the candyfloss fuzz
Under clouds of firefly gleam

All her friends gathered there
The flamingo to the bear
And a little, little mouse named Lou.
“Here’s the tea, Mister Hare,
And a cookie – take a pair,
I baked these special for you.”

The button-eyed doll
Made a shrill, sudden call
And leapt right out of his seat.
For the great shock of all
A horse black and tall
Sat among them, ready to eat.

“Hello, little one,
What a sweet nice and fun
Little party you’ve thrown here today.
I was out for a run,”
The great horse, he begun,
“I came over. Will you let me stay?”

Dear Tulip was gasping
And the dolls were all asking
Who this talking horse might yet be.
So the Bunny, nearly blasting,
Her voice high and rasping,
“Wait! Are you my dad??”

The horse chuckled or, better said, the sound of a chuckle came from somewhere in his general direction. His whiskery lips did not move when he replied, “Yes, but I am afraid that does not rhyme.”

“Oh, forget about that!” Tulip waved it off. “You’re my dad! And you’re here!” She jumped to her feet and ran over to throw her arms around the horse’s powerful neck.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, curving his neck slightly toward her.

“Yeah, I was wondering when you’d visit because you’re still missing Kori and Chime and it’s been ages since you talked to Cherry and Merri,” Tulip replied, straightening and putting her balled hands on her hips in a scolding stand.

Arion’s ears turned back, his head tilting as if in confused surprised. “So long? A mere day.”

“A day?!” Tulip nearly shrieked. “It’s been…over a week! Anyway, it feels like a long time.”

“I am sorry,” Arion said and he sounded sincere in saying it. “It is difficult to tell, where I live, how much time has passed.”

“Well, for us, it’s long,” Tulip told him, hugging him again. “Kori really wants to meet you. He thought you were gonna visit him next.”

“Oh…I had no idea,” Arion replied, nuzzling her side. “I just saw your lovely dream and I could not resist joining it.”

“I’m glad you did,” Tulip kissed his wide, smooth cheek just under the bone ridge running along it. “Oh! I know! Let’s go visit him in his dream, together!” Her ears perked up with excitement as her eyes squinted a little with mischief. “I bet his dreams are full of smelly gym socks and crickets in white pants that run around after him.”

Arion’s eyes – well, at least the one on the side Tulip could see – opened a little wider. “Crickets in white pants?”

Tulip shrugged. “He does this thing called capoeira with Machado. He says Machado’s teaching him to fight but it looks like dancing to me. They even got music and stuff. Anyway, they kinda look like crickets hopping around really, really slow.”

“Ah…in white trousers,” Arion added, nodding in understanding.

“Yeah,” Tulip sniggered. “And Kori’s got these really skinny legs…Come on, let’s go find his dream!”

She jumped and set off running in whatever direction, not really knowing what way Kori’s dream was, but she expected her horse-dad to come along and guide her, so she wasn’t particularly worried. But instead, he just got up on all fours and suddenly appeared in front of her. If she hadn’t dug her toes in the ground and stopped in time, she would have hit him straight in the face!

“It is a bit beyond rude to just invade people’s dreams for one’s amusement,” Arion said to her, mildly scolding. “You would not like him to come here and punch your rodent friend, would you, Tulip?”

“Punch Lou??” The tiny mouse appeared in her cupped hands, his pink little paws grasping a green felt hat with a red felt flower sewn onto it. Tulip squeezed him against her chest, making poor Lou’s eyes bug out in a cartoonish way. “He wouldn’t do that! He’d probably make it rain nose boogers or something, though.” She shivered in disgust. “Gross!”

“And what makes you think he dreams of such things?” Arion asked, breathing hot air against her face from his large nostrils. They were so dark, but there were teeny tiny dots of light in them like stars really far away.

She rolled her eyes. “Du-uh! He’s Kori…” She leaned to settle Lou down to scurry in the grass, away from horse and Bunny. “So how come you and Mommy aren’t together anymore?”

He lowered his head as if in a show of shyness. “She has not told you?”

“Sure, she did,” Tulip said immediately. It wasn’t exactly true because she hadn’t exactly been awake to hear that story but her mom hadn’t exactly said she couldn’t hear it either and Tulip could have woken up at any time so Mom wouldn’t have told the story then and there if she hadn’t wanted Tulip to hear it. And Cher and Mer had talked about it at breakfast the next day but that was when Tulip found that perfect heart-shape in the grain of a wood plank of the bar floor and so she had not completely been paying attention to what her big sisters were saying. “I just wanted to know from you.”

He playfully poked her with his muzzle, the whiskers around his mouth and nose tickling her and making her giggle. “You are lying to me…”

“I’m not lying exactly!” she argued. “Mom told us but I was asleep. Then Merri and Cherry were talking about it but I missed half of it and – I’m always missing out on the cool stuff!”

It was really frustrating. And not always her fault, no sir!

“I see…” her dad said. And then suddenly, he wasn’t a horse anymore. It was like bam! – he was a man, no transition. Like he had always been a man and she had been dreaming he was a horse. Sure, though, he was a really tall man. Taller than Dion! And muscled, like Dion. And dressed in a really sharp, midnight-blue suit with silver trim that somehow went great with his near-black skin and black hair with the white locks running through it. He had it plaited over one shoulder, not free and flowy like when he was a horse. And it was long, much longer than Dion’s, but it didn’t make him look girly. His face was a bit longer than most people’s and his eyes were slanted but all in all, he looked really handsome. She could see why Mom liked him.

He smiled at her, pleased at her reaction to this shape of his. “I had to return to where I belong. And she could not join me there.”

It was strange when he talked, because his lips didn’t move. Of course, his lips didn’t move when he was a horse either, but Tulip was pretty sure that a horse opening and closing his mouth while talking would have been a lot weirder than this.

“Wow…” Tulip breathed, looking him up and down, taking him in. This was her dad! And he was hot! “You look just like before, only completely different.” She took one of his big hands in her small one, though it was mostly his hand surrounding hers, and the contrast was so sharp… Tulip was really pale, like Mom – maybe a bit less pale, because she was a Bunny, not a goddess – and it was pretty much a human hand in smaller scale. But her dad’s hand was soft, like it was covered in really fine, short fur, and it was so tanned that it looked nearly black. Mom’s hand would really have stood out against it if they had ever held hands. They had held hands, right? Like, who dated without holding hands at least once?

“What’s it like, where you live?” she asked him. “How come we can’t visit and Mom can’t be there?”

“I come from the vast space between the stars,” he explained, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. “Very little can survive long where I come from,” Arion explains. “Most gods cannot live there. Certainly not mortals. Your mother visited briefly, in her dreams, but to risk staying would be deadly to her. So she stayed on the Insula and I visited from time to time. Until I could not visit anymore, not for awhile.”

What a sad story. Poor Mom.”Do you still love her?”

He nodded and squatted to be closer to her eye-level “I do. And I will, forever more, love her. Even if we cannot be together.”

“Do you miss her?” Tulip asked, releasing his hand to hug him around the neck. “Do you miss us?”

She wasn’t sure of what he’d say. How could he miss them if he had never met his Bunnies until these dream visits? Wouldn’t he have visited before if he did miss them?

“I do miss her,” Arion replied, hugging her back. “But she is also within reach. As are you and your siblings. I am content in knowing that. And I hear…that she is doing well in new company.”

“She’s got us!” Tulip piped up, grinning, pulling away a little to look at her dad’s face. “And Sky and Sergeant Machado and Geryon and…” She couldn’t help but sigh and smile a bit dreamy. “Dion…”

Arion laughed softly at the way she said Dion’s name. “Oh my… not my daughter too…”

She frowned a little at his laugh. “Hey, he saved my life! Like a prince in a story! I mean, I kinda saved his life too but he was the first person I ever talked to! And he carried me on his back all the way to Little Falls when that gang was after us! And he’s really nice and really handsome and one of these days, when I’m old enough, well…”

She trailed off right before the end of that sentence because she wasn’t quite sure exactly what was supposed to happen. Sure, she had seen Mom and Dion kissing before – more often than they probably realized – and in all the stories she’d read there was usually a wedding and babies after that but exactly what went on between points A, B and C was still a bit fuzzy. And Mom and Dion sure weren’t helping there, always keeping her from joining them when they were trying to be alone.

Arion smiled gently at her and stroked her blushed cheek. “One of these days, when you are old enough, he will still be much, much older than you. As I was much, much older than your mother when I met her.”

“I knoooww!” Tulip crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ve already been told that a million times by everyone. But it’s like, everyone’s older than me, so what am I gonna do? I’m always going to be the youngest.”

“Indeed,” he nodded, his fingers running down her face to gently hold her chin. “But one day, you will no longer be too young. Or young, at all. And soon enough, you will meet someone your own age, whom you will not have to share with your mother.”

“I don’t mind sharing!” Tulip cried. Still, it was dad’s advice. She couldn’t not take that. “I guess you’re right but…I can’t imagine falling for anybody my age around here… They’re all right but there’s nobody like Dion.” She shook her head to focus back on him. “So how old are you, anyway? I wish I knew more about you? Like, do you like pastries? What do you do for fun? Stuff like that!”

He laughed again and looked at her with a sort of tenderness that she couldn’t really help liking. “You are so much like your mother… Amazing. Well, I am very, very old. Who is the oldest person you know?”

That was a toughy. Gods didn’t really like to look their own age, Tulip had learned. And then again, who wants to look a gazillion years old? They’re kinda cagey about their ages. “Hmm. It has to be grandma. Only she doesn’t seem old at all! Except when she gets serious and them…” Tulip shuddered. “Maybe Uncle Melinor?”

“Oh, Melinor is much younger than Lyria,” Arion said. “And she is younger than I.” He tilted his head, waiting for her reaction.

But she was still thinking. “Oh, I forgot Uncle Math! But maybe you’re older than him too?”

He nodded. “Though not by much.”

Tulip whistled, impressed. She didn’t imagine anyone could be older than Uncle Math and still be alive. Other than mountains, maybe, but those didn’t count. “It must…be hard to even think of how I can have fun playing with dolls and tea-sets when you’re that old.”

He considered this. “I think that of all the things I struggle with regarding you and your siblings, dolls and tea-sets are the easiest part.” He smiled. “Shall I bring those back? And you can show me how to play.”

“Yeah!” she cried happily. She hadn’t really noticed that they were gone but playing tea party with Dad sounded a lot more fun than plushies. “And don’t forget to bring cake! I want a cake so amazing, I’ll be sure to remember it when I wake up. Then I’ll be sure to remember this dream, and you – every bit!”

He chuckled and stood up again. Boy, he was tall! “I think that is a very tall order for a poor, little cake. But I will see what I can do.”

Interchapter 6-7 4: Offblue Upbraiding

Ah, Guardia Headquarters. Normally Somrak portals directly into the offblues’ offices, deep within the palatial building, the unofficial division hidden away from prying eyes with rooms labelled ‘Office 21’ and ‘Closed for Repairs’ and ‘[random gibberish symbols from forgotten language]’. But even though he still has the key for the portal – difficult to take away a magical passphrase – and he doubts it’s been changed, he knows he isn’t welcome. Most of the surviving offblues blame him for the enormous mess under the glacier, in which three of their Dei members died. That one of the dead was a traitor who killed the other two does not seem to be changing the ‘Somrak has lost it’ theme that has taken hold. But then, Somrak doesn’t really disagree.

So coming in from the nearest public portal is a nice change of pace. HQ is among other governmental buildings, all huge and impressive and practically shouting ‘obey’ to the lesser gods and mortals below, great cliffs of stone surrounding the plaza. Guardia HQ features double doors that stretch a dozen stories in height, open at all times, flanked by enormous statues of a Dei and a Popula in formal uniform, their badges pure solid gold. Both male, Somrak notes, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.

He climbs the many wide steps and enters the building, feeling the tingle of powerful security spells registering who he is and everything he is carrying with him. But the Guardia and the handful of civilians going about their business pay him little attention. Like the statue of the Dei outside, he is wearing a proper, standardized uniform, a deep indigo-blue jacket and trousers with epaulettes and rank insignia and his flame-shaped badge on display, boots and even the stupid cap. None of this but the badge is required for Dei, who are given to individualizing their uniforms, and Somrak normally doesn’t even wear his badge where anyone can see it, nor his rank. But today he is obviously Guardia Dei, his badge flashing, and his sergeant’s stripes there for all to see.

He misses the familiar creak of his crimson-and-black leathers, but he’s making a fashion statement today. And when he finally reaches the waiting room for the Commander’s office, the raised eyebrows on Mrs. Finch are a good payoff.

As Somrak removes his cap and tucks it under his arm, the aging mortal secretary stands and comes around her desk. There are seven people seated and waiting, some of them obviously gods, one of them a powerful politician’s aide that Somrak has met before, but it is as if they don’t exist to her. She walks right up to Somrak and holds her hands out.

He stops in his tracks and takes them. Her skin is soft and loose to his touch. Her face smiling, a map of wrinkles forming. He instantly warms, his sphere reacting to this woman he has admired for over four decades as she has done her job here, first as an assistant and later as the Commander’s chief clerical staff. She is not normally demonstrative in the affection he suspects she feels for all the Commander’s close-held officers, and he feels his heart speed up as she squeezes his hands. Being favored with such special regard on this of all days is more moving than he could have imagined.

“You look a very proper Guardia officer, Sergeant,” she says, letting go his hands and unnecessarily adjusting his lapels. She looks up into his eyes. Is that pity in her green eyes? Has she heard that he’s to be dismissed, stripped of his badge, arrested? Or perhaps she’s heard of the torture, of the deep unhealed wounds in his soul that make him want to scream in despair every second of the day. “They are waiting for you.” Her voice is soft, encouraging. She smiles. “Go show them who you are,” she whispers, too softly for anyone else in the room to hear.

He is so very tempted to kiss her for that.

And so he does. Invisibly to the room, not touching her at all, he projects a tiny bloom of heat onto her right cheek. It starts soft and rises slightly in temperature, then fades, more than a quick peck but less than a huge smooch. Certainly nothing that will knock her off her sensible work shoes. It takes her a moment to realize what just happened, and she blushes. Blushes! He smiles broadly, teeth flashing white against his golden-brown skin, as she looks at him, scolding but pleased.

She pats his chest and whispers, “You scoundrel. Go on now.” As Mrs. Finch turns and walks back to her desk, Somrak laughs silently at the added jaunty bounce to her step. And then he strides for the doors, pretending to ignore the jealous glares of those left behind.

The Commander is standing in the middle of the room, and turns to look at Somrak. Like many older gods, the Commander chooses to wear the form of an older human, in his case balding with ruddy, leathery skin pulled tight over his ropey muscle and bone. Somrak, however, wonders if the Commander was born looking like this. He cannot imagine his boss as a child.

“What in Hell were you thinking?” No preamble, just launching right into it, which is only to be expected from the Commander.

“You’re assuming he thinks,” the Fencer mutters from where she’s sitting in a chair by the desk. She and the Commander were apparently having a conversation when he walked in.

“And hello to the both of you,” Somrak replies, trying to be breezy and careless. “Should I do ramrod straight for this, or can I sit?”

The Commander looks him up and down. “This is the first time in about a century you’ve asked before you sat yourself down.” To Fencer. “Sure they didn’t replace him with a good shapeshifter?”

“It’s him minus the scar,” Fencer replies. “Which is just as well, because he’s gonna have a hard time healing his soul after the treatment it took.” She glares at Somrak, looking like she’s imagining shriveling the flesh from his bones. “That they all took.”

“Can I use that as an excuse to get out of this?” Somrak asks. “I would much rather be relaxing, trying to heal…” Though he makes it sound like a joke, it most certainly is not. But he does take it as an opportunity to sprawl on the most comfortable chair available.

“You’ll explain yourself,” the Commander insists. “You’ll tell us why you kept this off the books, no backup, putting all of you at risk.”

Somrak tilts his head at the Fencer. “Like I told her: the Sikari. You’ve warned me clearly what would happen if Sky got into a situation like that. You’ve all but directly told me not to contact you if I think I can get him out. Or are you going to deny that now?” His voice is casual – someone who overheard the tone but not the words would never guess he was accusing the Commander of hypocrisy.

But it is the Fencer who replies, growling as dangerously as her pet tiger, Kuhn. “You took a god who had just been poisoned and a goddess who shouldn’t even have been thinking of activating any of her spheres into a pocket universe completely out of your control. Not to mention a now-very-dead mortal.”

Somrak’s face becomes grim. “I used them to learn where Sky was. I couldn’t do that on my own. Then I was going to ditch them and go in alone.”

“But you didn’t have the resolve for that.” The Commander almost spits. “Couldn’t stand fast. I knew you were getting soft. All this rubbish lately. Going off to fight giants.” He shakes his head. “You know, most offblues don’t last twenty years before they die or break down. I guess I should just be happy you lasted five times as long.”

“We’re not getting out of this by blaming it on a washed-out agent,” Fencer notes. “This was the definition of stupid. And all because your little boy couldn’t stay away from Three Rats.” She turns her glare on Somrak again. “And when I specifically ordered you to stay away. Or was speaking in Lower Formorian at the time?”

He meets that glare, the red eye, the silver eye – not an easy thing even for a god. But Somrak just recently looked into the face of one of the Princes of Hell. His soul had been whipped by a bound death goddess, wielded by an insane necromancer wearing the body of Fencer’s niece, the woman he loves. Somrak isn’t going to quail at a mean glance. “She called me. She needed help. They told her not to call for help, and implied they had Guardia moles. Which is almost certainly true. So she called me.” He clenches his jaw for a moment before continuing. “I knew what answering that call would mean. You want my resignation?”

“Does it even matter what I want?” Fencer demands. She throws her hands up and leans back in her chair. “What I wanted was an operative I could trust and count on. What I wanted was to be kept informed about a necromancer I have hunted for two hundred bloody years! Who decimated over forty of my cousins and nephews!” Her voice rises to a roar. “Who nearly managed to kill my niece twice with a pain you can never even imagine! Bind her to a sword like she bound her cousin to that whip! It doesn’t matter what I want! I can’t even have the benefit of you realizing just how badly you screwed up! Or take us seriously for once in your wretched life!” She abruptly stands and walks toward the window, leaning forward to grip the sill and putting her head against the glass.

After a moment of silence that rings through the office after Fencer’s outburst, Somrak says, “I take this seriously. I know what happened, and what almost happened. If I could do it over again… But we didn’t know this was your necromancer until the last minute. And even you wouldn’t have known they were using Tragas godbinding techniques, would you? That’s not something Nua had any knowledge of before she went to Hell. If I could do it over… But we got Sky out. And Alma. And Dion.” He takes a breath. “I made the call. You decide what happens now.”

The Commander looks at Fencer’s stiff back. “You’re damned right we’ll decide. But first we have to find out if you’re going to be punished by the Council. You knew your responsibility to notify me the moment Agent Tuma-Sukai had been captured. You didn’t just violate chain of command. You didn’t just ignore orders. You broke the law. So what we decide isn’t going to matter a rat’s whisker if the Council wants to crucify you.”

“And when will they decide?” Somrak asks.

The Commander snorts. “Probably won’t be months. But it won’t be tomorrow, that’s for sure.”

Fencer straightens and turns, crossing her arms. “Meanwhile, you are on leave. No use to the offblues, that’s for sure.”

“What about Sky?” Somrak asks. “Is his head on the chopping block?”

“You better pray for a miracle,” Fencer replies, grim. “Or for your friends to have some tricks up their sleeves.”

Somrak looks at the two of them. “He served for forty years. He’s loyal. He’ll recover.”

Somrak is not given to pleading, but the imploring tone of his voice prompts the Commander to mutter, “Demons, don’t start begging. I know all that. Just keep him in line. Get him ready. If the Council sends an Eye to inspect him and he can’t shift to god-shape… If you want to be useful, go kick him into shape.”

“And Ponytail,” Fencer says, “on the off chance that you might get out of this in one piece, I would advise you to consider your own loyalties very carefully.”

Somrak nods, then stands and straightens slightly to stand at attention. He is not quite the model of stiff perfection, but for him the effect is striking. “I will. Will that be all?” There is no trace of insolence in his voice.

“Take your sorry carcass out of here,” the Commander says with a sigh. “You’re officially suspended. Don’t go anywhere we can’t easily find you. Be ready to appear before a tribunal on a moment’s notice. And get that thrice-damned devil ready for the same.”

“And while you’re at it,” Fencer adds, “tell whatever is left of the Three Rats Dei to await orders until the Council decides how all of you will be punished. They are on strict household management until then.” Somrak looks at her, feeling a sharp pang of melancholy at how tired and old she looks. He knows he is the one responsible for it.

“Understood.” He wants to repeat that Alma and Gwydion are not culpable for violating the Council law regarding actions to take in the event of Sky’s capture, that they did not even know of the law’s existence and that he takes full responsibility for violating it. But that is all in the report, and they know it was a lie. Alma has already told Fencer that they went in, eyes wide.

He turns and goes, thoughts of what the future is to bring weighing him down like stones piled high on this shoulders. But he is still bearing his badge and his stripes for now. On his way out, he grins at Mrs. Finch, pointing a finger at her with a wink and giving her just a tiny spot of warmth on her cheek again. Then he is quickly out of the offices and heading back to a public portal, for the long journey downslope to Three Rats.

Interchapter 6/7 3: Family Photos

The stack of books is like a fortress tower, looming beside Mayumi’s elbow. She keeps meaning to put them on the shelf, the shelf right in front of her, certainly a more convenient location and far easier to pull a book out for consultation. Yet she keeps them in a stack. She has no time! No time to clean up, no time to eat, no time to sleep. She forgot to brush her teeth this morning and all day she’s felt on her teeth the growing accumulation of the residue of gulped-down food snatched in passing from the Popula cafeteria as she rushed from classroom to classroom. She thinks she may have accidentally eaten a bun with bacon in it. Her herbivorous stomach has been making the most amazing rumblings. One of the instructors stopped in mid-sentence and looked toward her in shock after one particularly loud gurgling that sounded like an attempt to summon some kind of frog-demon. The entire class had had a good laugh over that.

It is the second day of the Academy. The first day of classes. Two hundred fifteen days to go.

A mere six months to prepare a Guardia for a thousand possible situations, fantastically different wards, a purposefully convoluted system of law that even Voices, the lawyers of the world, can never fully comprehend. Indeed, sixty years would not be enough, but a focus on the true basics – how to approach, how to be flexible, how to take control of a dangerous situation while still serving the public good – means a generalist approach, molding recruits into cops who must think, not merely follow rules. It’s the only way it can work.

The side of her head leaning against a hand, her fingers in her straight black hair, Mayumi studies the passages. She remembers this from her dream-life. Not the passages, not exactly, but the way the teachers seemed to delight in the students’ collective gasp when they gave out the first-day reading assignment. The big pile of books on the desk, the teacher sitting beside it, grinning like a wolf looking at a bunch of sheep trapped in a pen. “You’ll have read Mbuti, Spinnocci, Cao Fu, al Bishi, Hartono, Vasconcelos, and Butler…by tomorrow.” Gasp! “There will be a test.” Groan!

She knows it will get easier. Cadets will get used to the workload, but also the workload will ease off, at least in the amount of reading, moving more into practical training. The initial data dump is meant both the provide a theoretical basis to what they learn later, and to kick loose anyone who doesn’t truly want to be here. The Guardia doesn’t really need people who can absorb useful information from five chapters and two entire books overnight – for a single class – but it does need people who will try their hardest.

Unfortunately, hard-working doesn’t necessarily translate to kind-hearted. Most of the courses have Assistant-Instructors, and Mayumi felt her heart sink this morning when the syllabus for “Basics of Criminal Psychology” landed on her desk and an oily voice puffed against the fur of her ear. “Hello there, Bunny.”

She couldn’t stop her ear from flinching back, but she kept herself composed otherwise. She’d been half expecting this. Standing up to bullies always comes with a cost. “It’s pronounced Ishijima, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.”

“Guess who’ll be grading the test, Bunny.” Pringle grinned cruelly at her.

Mayumi looked around at the enormous classroom. Some students were standing because there weren’t enough desks. The Guardia had lost a lot of officers in the Shard War, and the cap on the number of recruits must have been raised. She would have to remember to get to classes early to be sure of a seat. But to Pringle, she said, “That looks like a lot of work, Assistant-Instructor. I’ll write my answers extra clearly, for your tired eyes.”

Remembering the confused look on his face, brought forth by her sympathetic smile, makes her chuckle now, in her room. Then her stomach rumbles again, not in hunger at all, sounding like eighteen unoiled doors creaking in the wind at once. She clutches it in discomfort.

“Hey! If you explode and spray your organs all over the walls, you are gonna have to clean it up yourself!” Pari is on her bed, the smaller, upper bunk, large enough for a pair of very friendly humans and nearly big enough to be an apartment in itself for the pixie. She is sitting in front of a thick hardcover book, heavier than herself, propped open against a pillow. As Mayumi glances over at her, Pari falls backwards to lie on the bed, staring at the ceiling, arms open. “Ugh. Booooooring! Why do I need to know all this junk? Half of this stuff will never apply to me, anyway!”

Mayumi asks, “Why is that?” She is trying to read and talk at the same time.

Pari flips over onto her stomach and props her chin on her hands. Her tiny body and ability to levitate allow her to move in unexpected ways. “You haven’t been payin’ attention, have you? I’m a pixie? Pixies don’t fight. They barely get in trouble with the law.”

“But what if you’re posted to another ward?” Mayumi points out.

Tapping the side of her disproportionately large skull, the pixie says, “Then I’ll make sure I use my head and break theirs!” She chuckles at her own joke, but Mayumi has already become absorbed in her class notes again. Moments later, Pari’s high-pitched voice startles her at its nearness as the pixie lands on Mayumi’s desk. “So what’s gotten you so interes– Hey, those are Dei books! Are those your mom’s?” She pulls one out from near the bottom of the stack, forcing Mayumi to catch and rebalance the rest. Pari starts flipping through it.

“That one is on use of force,” Mayumi says. “About two-thirds of it is not really applicable to Popula, but it’s an interesting read anyway.”

“Think there’s cheat sheets in these?” With her tiny hands, turning the pages takes effort, and Pari creases a page. Mayumi’s hand grasps the top edge of the book, and she looks over it at Pari.

“There are plenty of notes slipped in between pages,” she says. “Though never written in the margins. Mother respects books deeply, and I hope to return these to her in the same condition as when she gave them into my care.” Mayumi pauses, looking at Pari seriously. “Her notes will be at least as helpful to you as they are to me. Probably more. Would you like to study them?”

“I don’t know,” Pari growls, crossing her arms. “Might get some legendary Death goddess sicced on me if I make a crease in a page or something…”

“The books are my responsibility, and any damage will be mine alone to admit to. But just…” Mayumi pauses. “As a friend? Be careful with them.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Pari dismisses it, flipping through another page or two to look at the little pieces of paper written in Alma’s small, careful handwriting. “Ooooh – hey, what’s that?” She picks up a slightly thicker piece of paper that has fallen from between two pages and turns it. “Oh, that ain’t notes. It’s just an old picture.” She tosses it aside, apparently casually, but in Mayumi’s general direction.

Mayumi picks it up. The Insula, with its varying levels of magical and technological potential in different regions, has numerous methods for making visual reproductions. This picture seems to have been taken via a camera of some sort, developed on a chemically treated film. It is strangely thick. She studies it, having to hold it away slightly. I’m not as farsighted as Cherry, but I really should get reading glasses, she thinks. Then she recognizes one of the two figures. “Oh…that’s Mother. And…someone?”

Suddenly Pari is at her shoulder, hovering, that inaudible hum in the air tickling Mayumi’s cheek. “Oh… Well, they’re both in Academy uniforms so…classmate? Which one’s your mom?”

A smile dawns on Mayumi’s face, attended by a feeling of real joy. “On the left, with the white hair. She styled it differently then.”

Alma looks at the camera, as ethereal in beauty as ever despite the simple Dei cadet uniform. Her eyes are blue, the same eyes she had until just three nights ago when she returned, strangely changed, from her Death Clan meeting. Mayumi wonders if she will ever see those blue eyes again, or if her mother has been forever altered. She touches the surface of the picture, tracing her finger along Alma’s hair, remembering how silky it felt when she was held by her mother.

“Huh…she looks kinda sad a bit, don’t ya think?” Pari asks.

Mayumi nods. “She…often does.” In fact there is an air of melancholy around Alma at most times, a beautiful sadness that makes all all her progeny want to be near her, to elicit a smile like the sun breaking through a calm grey sky. Such smiles feel like victories.

Pari looks at the picture, then at Mayumi. “Well, pretty sure the wolf-chick next her ain’t your dad. You take after him, then? ‘Cuz…you look nothing like her. And I ain’t just talkin’ about the ears and all.”

Mayumi laughs. “Well, none of us looks like her, except for the youngest, who looks almost exactly like her. As for our father…I’m afraid I don’t look anything like him, either.”

Pari raises an eyebrow. “You sure he’s your dad? Gods are weird sometimes.”

“Gods are indeed quite unusual,” Mayumi agrees. “And we aren’t exactly related to either of them in the usual way. From what I understand…we simply appeared after they, well, made love.”

“Oh…Sheesh, makes you think twice before gettin’ into bed with a guy.” Pari looks at the picture. “Or a girl. That one’s looking at your mom like she’d go for it.”

Mayumi looks again. “Oh…yes… I see what you mean. She’s not just a classmate, is she?” The woman has wolf ears in the same way Mayumi has bunny ears, and there is a luxuriantly furred tail behind her legs. She is looking at Alma with a cajoling grin, as if saying, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun!’ But her eyes look almost desperate, questioning, with canine devotion. ‘Do you love me? Do you love me?’ “Perhaps she is the Pavia who lived here with Mother.”

Pari looks back at the bunk beds. “Think they uh… Saved on detergent for the sheets?

That makes Mayumi smile again. “I hope they made each other happy. But now they’re apart.” Her smile fades. “The Academy…six months is a long time, and yet no time at all.”

“Yeah, but don’t you go looking at me funny. I’m not playin’ on that field.” She looks at the beds again. “Ugh…Hope they did it on your bed.”

Mayumi snorts, looking at the beds, too. “Probably – mine has more space. Anyway, it was over twenty years ago. I have a feeling both of those beds have played host to numerous couples in the years since. Roommates or otherwise.”

The look of disgust on Pari’s face makes Mayumi laugh. “Ugh! Way to keep me awake tonight! Anyway, if they’re not together anymore, who’s workin’ with your mom these days?”

Mayumi goes to her closet, where she’s deposited her dufflebag. She has only hung up about half her clothes, which is not many, and out of it she pulls a case from which she retrieves a small album of pictures. She brings it back to the desk and opens it to show Pari. The image looks different, almost painted, achieved as it is via a simple sort of magic rather than chemistry. “This is Mother now. And this is her with Gwydion and Tuma-Sukai. Sky. He’s the Inspector, while they are Sergeants.”

“So, she has two guys now instead of a girl? And check out how happy she looks, huh? Huh?

Mayumi laughs again, shaking her head. “She and Sky are not lovers. Though they care for each other a great deal.”

“They sure look like lovers to me. And hey, if you’re sayin’ she’s not lovers with the tall dark guy, she must be with Mister Hot Pants over there.” Pari points at Dion. “He looks like a real piece of work.”

Mayumi nods. “I did not know what to make of him at first. But he has saved my life, and the lives of my siblings, more than once. And, well, he has changed.”

“What, like turned into a cactus or somethin’?”

“He… He seemed to think only of himself at first. I don’t think he feels that way anymore.” She smiles at all three of them, seeming to belong together, like some trio out of legend.

“You have the hots for him, is that it?” Pari nudges her. “Come on, admit it! Or do you like the big guy instead? Hey are you blushing?! Oh you do!”

Mayumi feels the warmth in her face. “Sky and I have been…trying to decide what to do about our feelings for each other. I don’t know how that will go.” She turns the page to a picture of Sky on the left, and all the Bunnies on the right.

“Whoa! Major mishmash!” Pari counts the Bunnies. “Your mom and the guy in the picture make all of those?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I don’t have a picture of our father. But yes, all seven of us came from the same two parents. As you can see, there is little in the way of shared heredity. We don’t really think of each other as brothers and sisters so much as…family. But we are very close.”

Though it is not something she is at all ashamed of, Mayumi doesn’t mention that the four older Bunnies, herself included, are also lovers. It is not something that seems unnatural to her, though she knows it is different for humans. She cannot guess what it might be like for pixies, but considering some of the things Pari has said, Mayumi wouldn’t want to risk disturbing her.

“Yeah, your folks are kinda colorblind, aren’t they? Pretty much like us pixies, only we’re even more colorful. So your dad’s not around?”

“He is far, far away. But I have met him once. I don’t really think of him as my ‘dad’.” She pauses, realizing that her description of her life is just getting more and more complicated. “He’s my father, and I want to get to know him, but I was raised by another man, a mortal. And I think of him as Father. Truly, in my heart he is my father.”

“So… another boyfriend of your mom’s?” Pari puts her fists on her skinny hips. “Really, how many people is she juggling here?!”

Mayumi laughs softly at the idea of Alma and Sueyoshi being in any way sexually intimate with each other. “My father and Mother only met for the first time…two days ago?” Can it have been such a short time? “They have never been lovers.”

Pari’s voice changes, becoming almost angry. “So she just uhm…left you with this guy so he’d raise you? That’s cold. I wouldn’t want anything to do with a mom like that.”

“Alma had to do what she did in order to keep us alive. It’s a very complicated story, and…I don’t think I’m allowed to tell some of it, as it might get her into trouble. But she had two choices. She could have allowed us to be put to death. She chose for us to live apart from her so that we could live. It took me some time to realize how painful that was for her.” She looks at Pari, her eyes pleading for understanding. “I love her dearly.”

A bit embarrassed, Pari mumbles, “Oh…well, then. If you put it that way…”

“I know it seems very strange, but there is so much more to her, and all of us, than even we know. That is why I hesitate to judge. I’ve been judged quite severely. Called an abomination. Judged and sentenced – to death.”

“Sheesh!” Pari exclaims, buzzing back away. “You could do with a makeover but you’re not that ugly!”

Mayumi props her elbow on the desk and looks at Pari, resting her head on her fist. “Enough about me. I’m tired of talking about me. I’ve been wanting to get to know you more but…you seem rather private, so I didn’t want to push. I don’t know anything about your people except from stories, and I’m sure they’re full of inaccuracies.”

Pari tilts her head. “Do you pay extra for each big word you drop into a conversation?”

Mayumi feels disappointed at what she is beginning to perceive as evasion behavior. The insults don’t sting as much now that Mayumi sees them for what they are: a way of avoiding revealing anything of herself. “If you don’t want to talk about yourself, Pari, that’s all right. I’ll be ready to listen if you ever do feel ready. I’m all ears.” She looks back at her books, with a small grin at her joke.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mayumi sees the pixie looking at her, then away, as if she’s trying to make up her mind. Then Pari takes flight and goes to her leafy satchel, which is hanging from one of the bedposts. She rummages in there, then comes back and shows Mayumi a small piece of photo paper, about a quarter the size of the pictures they’ve been looking at. It features herself and another pixie, this one with dantier features, with pastel-blue skin and long dark-blue hair with a white streak, hugging Pari lovingly from behind. They’re both laughing happily.

“That’s the only one I brought with me,” Pari explains.

The Bunny beams at the sight, squinting to focus better. “Who is she?”

“My baby sister. Been takin’ care of her since the day she popped out of her flower.”

Her tone makes Mayumi look at her with concern. I’ll ask how the flowers work later. “But now…?”

“We got Mams. Just Dad ain’t around and Mams works long hours. Anyway, she’s all grown up now. Already started a job.” Pari sounds proud of her younger sibling.

“What sort of job?” Mayumi suddenly realizes that, aside from the burst of joy at seeing the picture of her mother’s Academy days, she feels happier than she has since leaving home, and that part of the reason is that Pari herself has not been feeling happy at all, until now, and a huge tension between the two of them seems to be dissipating. “From the stories, I’m imagining things like…watching over princesses.” She chuckles to show how she realizes how foolish that is.

The pixie snorts. “An’ where do you find a princess on this here island? Naah… We’re poor folk. Sis is just putting the colors on flower petals and paintin’ butterfly wings. She’s all artsy like that.” Pari leans against a book. “Definition of a proper pixie.”

“But you chose the Guardia.” Mayumi is just going to assume for now that Pari is telling the truth about the butterfly wings. More to ask about later.

“Yep. I’m no good at customer service. Besides, I stink at arts an’ crafts.” Pari shrugs.

Looking back at the picture, Mayumi says, “You both look very happy. Do you miss home?” She realizes how sad that came out, how her own homesickness tinted the words.

As if totally clueless to Mayumi’s tone, Pari replies, “Nope. Not even a bit.”

This surprises Mayumi. “Is there something wrong there?”

A shrug from the pixie. “Not really. Just no me-shaped hole for me to fit in. They’re probably celebratin’ that I’m gone right now. No one likes a pixie that can knock you out without using fairy dust.”

“Well…you’re planning to go back, though?”

“These guys rarely send people far away from home on their first assignments. Besides, not that many Dei there so… Maybe that’s the hole I’m meant to fill. You planning on going back to your place?”

“Yes. I hope I can. And…to tell the truth, my family and I have been ordered to stay there. I’m only here under special permission. So I think it’s a sure thing. If not…” Mayumi shakes her head to banish the unthinkable. Being sent away from her siblings… But she remembers the strange little fortune that the Oracle told her only a few days ago. According to her, Mayumi will indeed be away for some time.

She picks up the photo of her mother and the wolf-girl again. Turning it over, she sees writing on the back. It is nothing but a date, twenty-five years ago. Mayumi does some quick calculation – it is not the same year that her mother would have been in the Academy, but rather a few months before that term began. Strange… Mayumi runs her thumbnail along the thick edge, and it starts to peel apart. She feels excited. What she had thought was a product of the technology used to produce the photo is instead two photos stuck together. She very, very carefully teases them apart.

Fortunately she manages without causing any damage. The top photo does indeed have writing on the back: ‘Alma & Pavia’, followed by a date around the middle of the term, twenty-five years ago. The other picture, curled slightly from being peeled back from the top one…

Mayumi gasps. It is her mother, looking considerably younger, with a tall, dark man. And in her mother’s arms are two small bundles.

Two babies, with blankets around them.

Mayumi can see the Bunny ears. And she can see the hair, not nearly as full as it would be later, but curly, and clearly reddish on one babe’s head, and black on the other’s. It is her older siblings, perhaps just appeared, and the tall man looks upon them dotingly, a little dazed, while her mother looks both happy and frightened.

“What’s that?” Pari asks, leaning to look. “Ooo, who’s the hottie?”

“I think…he’s my father,” Mayumi says, wonderingly.

“I thought you said you met him before!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was in a dream and…he didn’t look like this.” She doesn’t want to explain that her father is a Void Rider, and often appears in the form of a black stallion full of stars. “Look at how young Mother seems. This is only a few months before the other picture. She looks ten years older.”

“And a lot sadder,” Pari points out. “Those two the redhead and the dark chick?”

“Rosemary and Cherry. I’ve never seen a picture from this time. Of any of us as babies.”

“Oh, hey, stop with the waterworks!” Pari sounds embarrassed, and Mayumi reaches up with surprise to touch her wet cheek. She hadn’t realized she was crying.

“Sorry, I…” She can hear Cherry’s voice scolding her: Why’re you always apologizin’, May? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a few tears, baby. At the thought, she almost sobs.

“Oh man, it’s gettin’ worse…”

“I just…I miss them so much!” She shuts her eyes tight, as if that could end the weeping.

“Great…” Pari sounds annoyed. “What’re you gonna do? Cry yourself to sleep every night? Give up and go home?”

“No!” Mayumi opens her eyes, defiant at the annoyance. “I’m not giving up! I just miss them, is all!”

“Yeah, well… Quit with the tears, will you?”

“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Mayumi asks, sniffling and wishing they had some tissues.

“Pfft!” Pari seems to try to make a show of nonchalance. “Got a little sister, remember? Boy, that girl will cry up a lake if a puppy looks at her the wrong way. You…you gonna be all right? Maybe you ought to go to bed.”

Mayumi nods, feeling comforted at the hint of concern in Pari’s voice. “It’s funny. All my life I slept alone, except sometimes with my father, like when I was sick, until I woke to this world, and suddenly I was sleeping with the others almost every night. Big pile of Bunnies… Or just one or two of them, or Mother, or Sky. Now, back to just me. I guess I’ll get used to it soon.”

Pari looks awkward. “I can uh… I can stay with you if you want. Nothing I’m not used to either. And it’s a really big bed.”

Mayumi looks at her in surprise, speechless for a moment at the kindness, mouth open, and then she smiles. “That would be so kind.” She sniffles again.

Pari narrows her eyes. “But you better keep your hands to yourself, Missy! Not your mom’s dog-girl, here.”

With soft laughter, Mayumi says, “I think I can manage to resist.”