Cherry clears her throat and asks, “Hey, uh…Mom? I got a question… Wait a second… Mama? Mommy? Hey whaddya wanna be called, huh? We ain’t never had anyone to call that before.” At first she sounds as if she is trying to make a joke, but as she trails off, Cherry’s voice becomes small and wistful.
Alma is now barely able to move with Tulip on her right shoulder, Mayumi on her left, and Cherry trapping her left arm against Mayumi’s back. All the Bunnies have their own rooms now, upstairs, but sometimes they just seem to need these moments of closeness, of reconnection, when they come together and dogpile on her. Or Bunny-pile.
“Whatever you feel comfortable calling me is what you should call me,” she replies. “I will not hold it against you if all you can call me is Alma.”
Sage gently scoops up Tulip and carries her to the foot of the bed. “To me, ‘Mother’ sounds right, but sometimes ‘Mama’ feels right too.”
Ugh, that’s it. I’m going to be sick. Nekh fades away and Alma feels relief as his oppressive presence lifts from her mind for the moment.
Mayumi snuggles in closer. “I was raised to say that sort of thing quite formally.” She chuckles almost silently. “And in front of the Guardia officers, I couldn’t possibly call you even ‘Alma’. It would seem so…disrespectful to call you anything other than ‘Sergeant’ or ‘Ma’am’.”
Alma shakes her head. “I see no disrespect in it. But I do understand. You were going to ask a question, Cherry?”
Cherry looks up in surprise, as if she had completely forgotten this. Then, she seems to remember, “Oh yeah! Before I so rudely interrupted myself! I was gonna ask if you, uh, ever had a relationship gone wrong. Cause it kinda sounded like you were talkin’ from experience before.”
“Oh…” Alma’s voice trails off for a moment. “I… It did not exactly go wrong.” She grimaces. “And then again, I suppose it did. It started like a bedtime fairytale but then…circumstances pulled us apart.”
Cherry releases Mayumi’s hand and strokes Alma’s cheek. “You don’t gotta tell us if you ain’t ready. But now or later, we’re always ready to listen.”
“That’s right,” Rosemary chirps. “We’re bartenders, after all!”
Alma chuckles, and focuses on Mayumi’s brown eyes. “It was a bit like it is with you, dear. I had a strict, protected childhood. He was, and is, much older than I. Everything felt like the answer to a much-repeated prayer. The things I saw and learned from him were so different from what I had been allowed to see before. I often wondered if I didn’t look like a child in his eyes, if my words rang childish in his ears.” She smiles. “But one by one, he dispelled those fears and we were happy.”
Oh, what a happy-ever-after princess you are!
Alma mentally groans at Nekh’s return.
“So how come you guys ain’t together anymore?” Cherry asks.
Oh yes, do tell!
Alma breathes deeply, knowing what direction the conversation is taking and bracing herself for what comes next. Sooner or later, the truth would have had to come out. “Gods have their callings. And he was called away to look after his family. He is a Void Rider, a god of the vast nothingness beyond the Insula. And I… Like many other gods, I cannot survive there.”
Mayumi raises herself up on her elbows, her ears alert, her expression puzzled.
Cherry, her view of Alma blocked, shifts to sit cross-legged, and tilts her head to the side. “Void Rider…what’s that? Sounds kinda cool!”
Alma takes the opportunity to sit up as well, stretching her freed arms above her head. She says to Cherry, “They are gods of creation, of reality. Most of the time, they look like great, majestic horses. There are dozens of them.” She sighs. “He is their leader, so he must stay with them. As I must stay with you.”
Rosemary grins. “A horse, is he?”
Cherry looks Alma up and down with a lazy smile. “My oh my…” she says, while Mayumi simply blinks and blushes. Sage, on the other hand, does not seem surprised at all.
Ignoring Nekh’s derisive laughter, Alma smiles and says, “Some gods can change their shape, Rosemary… When I met him, he looked more…human. Albeit with some unusual characteristics.”
There is a heartbeat of silence before Cherry and Rosemary burst into laughter, Rosemary almost rolling off the edge of the bed, clutching her belly and curling into a fetal position, while Cherry flops onto her back again, head hanging off the upper end of the bed. Sage shakes his head and puts his palm to his face, while Mayumi just giggles quietly. The cat, Lexie, gives Rosemary an annoyed look and moves down to the end of the bed to sit next to Tulip, where she starts cleaning herself.
And you say I have a filthy mind, Nekh mutters. I don’t hold a candle to those two.
Alma blinks before realization dawns, then she chuckles, and the chuckle grows into a laugh. “I suppose I should have phrased that better. I meant his face…”
Rosemary finally stops laughing, and gasping for breath, rolls back to face Alma. “Och, we’re sorry! Our minds’re naturally right dirty.”
Alma shakes her head. “I wonder who you two take after…”
Mayumi sighs. “They’re really not quite as bad as they pretend to be.”
Alma shakes her head. “Moving on… He visited the Insula a few more times after that. But he can never stay long. Our love story has been on hold for a little over a decade, now.
Oh please, Nekh whines. Can’t you see he’s just not that into you? If he gave a damn, he wouldn’t stay away.
You sound like you are giving relationship advice now, Alma replies, amused, causing Nekh to groan and make sounds in her head of stomping away and slamming a door. As she feels that oppressive presence disappear again, she thinks to herself, I need to cuddle with my Bunnies more often.
Rosemary sits up. “A little over a decade? As in…thirteen years plus a bit?” She looks at Sage sitting at the end of the bed, blanket-wrapped Tulip curled up next to him. Sage nods at her, a slight smile on his lips.
Cherry sits up and looks at a grinning Rosemary, a smiling Sage, at Mayumi with her hand to her mouth, before looking at Alma, who watches and waits for their reactions as the truth dawns on them. “Huh?” Cherry looks at Tulip, who amazingly has slept through all this noise. “Wait, what??”
Sage asks quietly, “Do you mean this god is…our father?”
Alma takes a deep breath. It is time. “Yes. His name is Arion. When he left, Cherry and Rosemary had just been created.”
“But then,” Mayumi asks, “a little later he returned?”
“We were in love,” Alma says. “I love him still.”
Rosemary coos, “Awwww!”
Cherry raises her hand like a student. “So if we’re half horse, how come we got bunny ears instead a’ pony ears? I mean, that just makes zero sense.”
Alma says gently, “You are the result of a mystical process of creation, Cherry. You could just as well have dog tails. He is not your father in the traditional sense of the word, after all.”
Cherry grimaces. “Dog tails! Urgh! I like my Bunny tail!”
Alma shakes her head. “I miss him terribly but we just cannot seem to find a way to be together for longer than a glimpse into each other’s dreams. Loving each other and staying together are two very different things. Especially when gods are concerned.”
Mayumi nods slightly at this, her face thoughtful. Alma looks at her sadly, hoping that she and Sky will find a way.
Sage interrupts her thoughts, speaking up softly. “He came to me in a dream. When I was in the cage. He let me know you all were on your way to help.”
Alma raises her eyebrows in surprise, then smiles. “I am glad he did. And that he sent help so we could arrive quickly. Your father loves you and looks after you just as much as I do. Never doubt that.”
Mayumi hesitantly speaks, “I think…I had some sort of dream about him. But it’s very vague. Perhaps it was nothing. I can’t recall all of it.” For a moment she seems about to say more, but she closes her mouth and shakes her head slightly.
“Huh,” Cherry huffs, crossing her arms. “I don’t remember dreamin’ about him, but I sure would like to.”
Alma strokes the Bunny’s ears, the black fur amazingly soft. “If I see him in my dreams, I will let him know you want to meet him. But I have no way to control when it will happen. I have not dreamt of him since our first night here.”
Rosemary takes the cloth on Saira’s forehead and goes to the pool to wet it. “Well, we’re just happy ye’ve got someone here in the wakin’ world now.”
Cherry giggles and fans herself with her hand. “Yeah, talk about ‘my oh my!’ Hey, does this mean Dion’s off-limits to me and Mer?” She winks at Alma.
Rosemary laughs as she sits on the bed again and puts the cloth on Saira’s forehead. “Aw! Say it ain’t so!”
Alma looks at them, crossing her arms. “I would love to know just what you two are talking about.”
Mayumi looks at them disapprovingly. “They are just teasing, Mother.” Cherry sticks her tongue out at Mayumi.
“I see,” Alma says, choosing her words carefully. “So…you want to know if Gwydion and I… If we are involved romantically.”
Rosemary claps her hands, delighted. “Yes! Yes! Oh ye are, ain’t ye? The way ye look at each other!” She sighs at the romance of it.
Cherry chuckles. “The way you smell like each other.”
Alma rolls her eyes. Bunny noses… “We have been enjoying each other’s company, yes. But I am afraid neither of us is prepared to commit to any more than that.”
Mayumi says, gently, “He has…surprised us.” She smiles.
Sage nods. “Mmm. We really were not sure about him at first.”
“Ah, I always knew he was a good guy!” Cherry exclaims. “He resisted me and Mer, right?”
“Oh yes, he must’ve already had eyes for our dear Mama!” Rosemary agrees.
“Did you ever think that maybe he wasn’t attracted to the two of you?” Mayumi teases.
Cherry snorts. “As if!” and tackles Mayumi, tickling her sides. Mayumi screams quietly, laughing and struggling while Cherry tries to pin her wrists with one hand, breaking one hand free and tickling back. Tulip finally reacts, rolling over and grumbling incoherently at the noise.
Alma watches all this with a sense of amusement and wonder. To think that such a short time ago she was expecting to have her children, her own life, taken away from her. That these silly, wonderful beings could have been snuffed out by the whim of imperious gods who had never met them.
She clears her throat, causing the combatants to look at her, and glances at Tulip. They follow her glance, then look at each other and silently call a truce with a kiss, then lie in each other’s arms while Alma says, “Well, I must admit Gwydion is a scoundrel.” She smiles. “But he is a rather sweet one when he wants to be. We’ll see how it all goes.”
Rosemary asks, “Does this mean we should stop flirtin’ with ’im?”
“No way!” Cherry says, cuddling Mayumi, grinning. “It means we can flirt ten times as much, and he can’t do nothin’ about it!”
Alma chuckles. “Poor Gwydion. Flirt away all you like. But for now… If I don’t get some rest before my nightly harvests, I will be very grumpy later on during my shift.”
Cherry gives Mayumi another kiss, looking into her eyes for a long moment, then sits up. “Nobody wants a grumpy Alma.” She hugs Alma and kisses her as well. “As much as this warm comfy pile o’ Bunnies is temptin’ to stay in, we oughta be up in the bar. These cops are pretty good about servin’ themselves and leavin’ money, but that’s only for bottled beer.”
“Och yes!” Rosemary says. “This is usually a slow night, but still! Sage, would ye mind lookin’ after Saira, love?”
Sage nods, while Alma gently drags Tulip back up near her and lies down. The cat follows the young Bunny and curls up between Alma and Saira, her back pressed against Saira’s thigh.
“Could I stay as well?” Mayumi asks.
“You never need to ask,” Alma says, smiling at them both before closing her eyes. “Good night, little ones.”
“Oyasumi…Okaasan,” Mayumi whispers.
Sage echoes her, “Sleep well, Mother.”
But Alma is already asleep.