“Hey! Check it out! I know her! Yeah you! The one with the ears! I know you!”
Mayumi feels her ears dip at the overly loud, husky female voice as her mind flashes back to a group of classmates who used to bully her when she was a schoolgirl in her dream life. She knows it is simply the brash, assertive local street culture, but really – a little circumspection would be a welcome change. She looks across the street at the massive demigoddess, her complexion white as chalk, accentuated by black lipstick and heavy eyeliner, grinning and pointing at Mayumi, lounging with a group of young toughs in gang colors, on the stone steps of a building that looks barely able to stand but seems to be serving as a crashpad for the gang.
“We know you know her, Mira,” a young man responds, his voice quieter but somehow more powerful. “She was with the Inspector that night at Kyri’s. You know, when you made yourself look like an idiot?”
A flash of fury crosses the face of Mira, the immortal, and she turns on him, half-standing, about to shout, her muscular arms flexing, one fist drawing back. But the gang leader just looks at her as if bored, relaxed, only his eyes hard. Mira holds herself back, visibly struggling, then relaxes, a look of shame coming and going so quickly Mayumi wonders if she imagined it. Mira sits back down and looks away, scowling, pretending none of this is happening.
The mortal – just a youth, really, no more than sixteen, but hardened by life nonetheless – nods to himself and stands, strolling across the street. Two of his boys rise, but without looking, without even having sensed that they had risen, he spreads the fingers on his left hand to signal them, and they stay back.
“Yo, Paolo,” says Aliyah as the young man approaches. Her normally affable manner is masked behind her “patrol face,” as she calls it, and her usually friendly voice is flat and guarded. “New addition to the family?”
“Mira joined up with us a little while back,” he says, voice bored and cool, eyes heavy-lidded. He nods at Mayumi. “Looks like you got some fresh meat yourself.”
Mayumi says to him, politely, “The woman you helped recently, with Constable Longshot – she pulled through, and I believe she is fully healed by now.” She bows to him, as if to an equal, to demonstrate her appreciation for Paolo’s good citizenship, though she knows he will not understand the significance of someone like her showing such respect to a criminal.
He shrugs, sketchily nods his head back to her. “Shouldn’t’a been wanderin’ around where she don’t belong. You know who she was?”
Aliyah barks a short laugh. “She was–”
“Her identity is hers to share.” Mayumi regrets cutting Aliyah off, but tries to gloss over it by changing the subject. She nods across the street at the young demigoddess. “Did Mira not claim to be working with the Dukaines the last time I saw her?”
Paolo looks at her with a hint of amusement. “You already soundin’ like a blueshirt, coelhinha. Askin’ questions but not givin’ any answers.”
Voice low, Aliyah says to him, “I hear Mira’s the only one of her gang still walkin’.”
Paolo shrugs. “It happens. Happens a lot lately. Life’s cheap and the price ain’t goin’ up, né? Anyway, yeah, she’s with us now.”
Aliyah and Paolo talk a little longer, Mayumi staying back and listening. From their tone, they are adversaries, but also they have known each other for years.
The Guardia and the gangster share information about other gangs, allies and enemies. It is a strange thing to Mayumi, whose former life as Guardia in her dreamworld had not featured anything near this degree of crime, organized or disorganized. But Paolo’s gang is in a very shaky alliance-of-convenience with the Guardia, against the invading former-Dukaine gangs, and information could easily be a matter of survival. Inspector Tuma-Sukai’s policy is to work with the local gangs against the more dangerous, even psychotic Shards, as people were beginning to refer to them. The local gangs are part of the community, with family and neighborhood ties. As bad as they can be, they are the less-destructive horn of the dilemma that Three Rats faces. And there are simply not enough Guardia.
After proper farewells, Aliyah and Mayumi continue their patrol. To Mayumi’s relief, Aliyah doesn’t even seem to remember that the Bunny stopped her from blurting out Ewá Nanã’s identity.
Mayumi, her voice soft, asks, “Mira and Sundar…?” The last – and first – time that Mayumi saw Mira and Paolo, the demigoddess had been attempting to force Paolo’s boyfriend to go with her.
“Oh right.” Aliyah chuckles and shakes her head. “That chick finally got it through her thick skull that Sundar ain’t into girls. I heard Inspector Sky had a talk with her that helped set her straight. Or maybe it was with her mom. You notice Sundar ain’t around?” Mayumi nods. “Too dangerous these days. Paolo’s makin’ him stay home. Sundar can’t even go to school over in Little Falls, and that guy’s a real schoolboy. You know Mira and him grew up together? Everybody knows Mira always had a thing for Sundar. She started her own gang after Sundar fell for Paolo. Swore she’d kill Paolo. Funny seein’ her wearin’ his colors now.” She shrugs. “Women, huh? Crazy. I guess guys are crazy too, but…yeah.”
Mayumi hears a sadness in the constable’s words as she trails off. Mayumi notices Aliyah is trying not to look at her. She fights the urge to avoid intruding, and asks, “Aliyah? Is…something wrong?”
“…no.” Aliyah’s voice is small.
Mayumi hesitates, then presses further. “Aliyah?”
The Guardia looks around, and seeing no one around, takes a step, turns, and sits heavily on a low wall. She sighs.
Mayumi slowly moves to sit next to her. She waits silently until the human speaks.
“It’s Sage,” Aliyah says, her voice low. “I was jokin’ with him…kinda jokin’ anyway…about how Merri and Cherry are lovers, and maybe he was lovers with you, and he…he tried to break it to me real gentle but I could tell he was thinkin’, ‘Of course we are, stupid, how could you not have noticed?’ and I…I just couldn’t say anything and I walked away.”
Mayumi felt her ears lowering again. She takes a breath before answering. “He never would have thought such a thing about you, Aliyah. Sage adores you.”
Aliyah blushes. “May…do you two…talk about me? When you’re…together?” Her voice is thick with the effort to hold back tears.
“We talk.” Mayumi’s voice is gentle. “Not like how you’re thinking. I’m glad he has you. You make each other happy.”
“But…” Aliyah turns her face away and does not continue.
Mayumi closes her eyes. She had feared this. “Aliyah, you’ve been a true friend from the beginning. We all love you. I’m not surprised that Sage fell in love with you. But…he is not human. We Bunnies have different instincts. And a different way of viewing the world.”
Aliyah looks back. “What’re you sayin’? That it just can’t work with me and him?”
Mayumi opens her mouth to answer to give Aliyah a comforting answer, then slowly closes it, looking into Aliyah’s plain, freckled face, brown human eyes full of confusion and tears. Finally she answers, “I…don’t know. For us, monogamy is not the default. I’m not sure it is for you either, but…to us it seems…bizarre. We know most of you try to hold to it but when we see how often you fail, we don’t really understand why. I…” She stops and sighs. “I’m sorry. I don’t have very good models for this part of human behavior. In the dreams, my father had no romantic partners, and I had few friends. And I did not choose wisely when I took a lover.”
“You, uh, you had a boyfriend there?” Aliyah sniffles and swipes her nose with a finger.
Mayumi nods. “It went badly. Aliyah, I hope, I truly hope, you and Sage can make it work. But even though he grew up with humans, as I did, he will misunderstand you nearly as much as you misunderstand him. You must be ready for that, and it will happen again and again.” She laughs briefly and bitterly. “We don’t even know what we are, really. We’re learning that, what it means to be Bunny. It’s not just culture, though that is important as well, and of course Sage is not from Three Rats. But as much as we look like humans with long ears, we are not. We need…each other. And we need others as well. And we have no instinct, nor any logical reason, telling us that that is wrong.”
“You mean, he might sleep with, like, Merri too?” Aliyah looks like she already knows the answer.
“Oh crap, he already does, doesn’t he? And Cherry?”
Mayumi just nods. “And you should know…we’re not attracted only to the opposite sex by default, either. I’m really not sure about Kori or Chime or Tulip – they have not yet woken to the sexual part of their personality – but, so far, all of us have turned out to be attracted to both males and females.”
Aliyah’s look of shock is brief, then she rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “Great! So he’s gonna be lookin’ at other girls and guys.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well why the heck is he even interested in me?!” Aliyah suddenly stands and faces Mayumi, holding her hands out. “Look at me! I don’t exactly have guys swarmin’ around me. I’m too tall, I ain’t pretty, I got bigger muscles than half the guys in the station! And you…and Mer and Cher – you’re all hot! Why’s he even botherin’ with me?”
Mayumi looks up at her. “Aliyah…there are so many reasons he loves you. You are one of the kindest people we know. And so strong – not just physically, but inside. You are a warrior with a warm, loving heart.” She smiles sadly. “Though he has mentioned how much he likes your muscles, too.”
Aliyah sighs and faintly smiles. “Yeah…I guess he has said that.”
Mayumi stands and takes the Guardia’s hands. “And Sage is the worst liar I’ve ever known. You would know five minutes before he spoke that he wasn’t telling the truth.” She falls silent, still holding Aliyah’s hands, gathering her thoughts. Reluctantly Mayumi says, “If you…don’t want me to make love to him, I won’t. If that’s what he wants as well. I don’t really understand why it hurts you, but I know it does. And I would never want to hurt you.”
Aliyah looks at her, eyes filling with tears again. “Seriously? But…I thought, like, you needed to or somethin’.”
She shakes her head. “We’re not animals. I lived apart from my family for twenty years. Besides, when I go to the Academy, I will be apart from them for six months.”
“Heh. Six months. Took me a year and I only passed in the end because half the dormitory was drillin’ the book-learnin’ into me. Cala’d already graduated…” She swallows, squeezes Mayumi’s hands and lets go of one in order to wipe her eyes. “May…thank you. I’m really gonna have to think things over, and talk with Sage. This ain’t gonna be the last tiger trap I put my foot in, is it?”
Mayumi shakes her head. “Being in love with one of us is not an easy thing. The Council…we could be executed still, you know?” Her voice shakes a little as she says it, and Aliyah immediately grabs Mayumi’s free hand with her own once again. “And…how long is a Bunny lifespan anyway? It could be much shorter than a human’s. Or perhaps even considerably longer. And in a way, that could be almost as bad. And we might be prone to health problems and…” She stops, almost doesn’t say it, but then forges ahead. “Aliyah…perhaps I should tell you this now, to get it out of the way.”
“Oh great. What now?”
She takes a deep, shaky breath before continuing. “We cannot have children. Which I suppose is a good thing for the moment, but…”
“Wait, why not?” Aliyah’s voice is heavy with sorrow.
“Cherry asked about it once, when we were all still living in Alma’s room, with her. Alma said that the Council had forced her to render us infertile, before sealing us away in our dreams.”
“Well…she can fix that, right?”
“Probably.” Mayumi sniffles and blinks rapidly to chase away tears, then clears her throat. “I hope so. Assuming she is ever allowed to. It’s just…I also know how much you love children. And you come from a big family. I want you and Sage to be happy together. I truly truly do. But…if you’re going to be thinking things over, well…”
“Yeah,” Aliyah mumbles. “That’s a big thing to think over. Not like I was really thinkin’ that far ahead, but… All right, fine, I admit it, I thought about what the kids might look like! Like, short fuzzy ears an’ stuff. You don’t think they’d come out with three eyes or nothin’ do you? Not that I was thinkin’ seriously about it or anything!” She bites her lip, holding Mayumi’s hands. “May? Do you want kids?”
The Bunny looks down. “I…I really don’t know. I don’t think I would be good at it.”
Aliyah lets go of her hands and gives Mayumi a little punch on the shoulder. “Ah, come on! You’d be a great mom! Now let’s quit all this boo-hoo crap an’ get back on patrol, trainee. Heh. You know Merri thought she might get preggers from Cherry?”
“Seriously! You shoulda heard Cherry laugh!”
Mayumi shakes her head. “Rosemary often pretends to know less than she really does. She is quite silly,” she adds dryly, “but she is also sharper than she lets on.”
“Well I dunno. Cherry seemed convinced.” She puts an arm around Mayumi’s shoulders as they walk back toward the main thoroughfare. “Hey May, how come I don’t hate you?”
“Why would you hate me?”
“Well, you’re like, y’know, boinkin’ my boyfriend.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps because you know that I love you?”
“Aww!” The tall human pulls Mayumi into a brief one-armed squeeze that makes the Bunny stumble and laugh. “Well…I love all o’ you guys. Even you. Don’t get any ideas though! Mer and Cher already tried gettin’ me into bed.” She shakes her head, looking up at the sky. “Can’t even say I wasn’t tempted for a half a second there.”
“Oh, you should have taken them up on it,” Mayumi says, trying to sound serious. “They are…creative.” She bursts into laughter.
“OKAYYY! Let’s get our minds back on business, trainee!”
“… You think they’d agree to stop boinkin’ Sage too?”
“I do. They care for you very much.”
“Hmm… Anyway, back to work.”