“Let’s get you into the bath now.” Cherry, tied with her anything-but-identical twin Rosemary as the eldest of Alma’s Bunnies, holds her hands out for Saira’s to help the assassin stand.
Alma’s home is a perfect balance of verdant garden and living space, and the fountain in the center doubles as a large, warm bath, screened from the doorway by a hanging wall of wisteria. No better place could provide peace and nurturing to a soul wounded in defense of those Bunnies, but still, Cherry thinks, Some people just don’t feel right if they ain’t complaining.
“I think I can walk to the pool,” Saira grouses. “It’s only a few steps.” She has stripped off the silky nightgown Alma had lent her, soaked with sweat after another night of the shakes as her body continues to suffer the aftereffects of demonic poison. Alma has healed her completely, breaking down and driving out the poison, but Saira’s nerves are still in the process of recovery.
“Well fine,” Cherry says, putting her hands on her hips and standing back. “I’ll be right here, y’know.” She looks at Saira doubtfully as she stands. Cherry has seen the slightly younger but far more worldly woman in the throes of seizures several times. All the Bunnies have stood watch over her, but Cherry has taken Saira on as her personal project, a way of paying her back for helping to rescue Sage, Cherry’s younger sibling. The Bunny hasn’t flinched from assisting with every necessary unpleasant function and cleaning up afterward, wiping Saira’s brow and holding her hand as she trembles, reading the news to her, even at one point spooning food into her mouth. Most of that is in the past – Saira is going hours without a problem, and has even left to sit in the bar a few times, just for a change of scenery. She can usually take care of herself now.
But she hasn’t risked leaving Alma’s home while customers were in the bar, or even most of the other Bunnies around. Though they’ve all seen her at her worst, Saira has shown a preference for Cherry as her primary nurse, limiting the exposure of her weakness to a single mortal as much as possible. And yet, because Cherry has seen her weak more than anyone but Alma, Saira has a greater tendency to snap at her than anyone else.
Saira stands, not showing any concern at being nude in front of her nurse. She does indeed walk with her usual pre-poisoning catlike grace, but just before she reaches the bath she stops, one heel off the floor, a fist clenching. “Nnnn–” she grunts.
Cherry is there in a flash, trying to steady her. “You okay?” As soon as the words are out of her mouth, the Bunny curses herself for saying such a useless platitude. Saira is obviously not okay, not in the moment nor in the long term.
“Yeah, just…ugh…” Saira’s neck muscles contract, making her tilt her head slightly back. She shuts her eyes tightly. “Be ready…inna minute.”
“Oh hon!” Though Saira is considerably taller than her and more obviously muscled, Cherry is easily strong enough to keep her upright as she wraps and arm around Saira’s waist. “You ain’t had one this bad in days. You want me to go get Alma?”
“No!” Saira yelps before she sinks to her knees, Cherry guiding her to make sure she doesn’t fall into the water. “I’m fine. Give it a minute.”
“S’okay hon. I got you.” Cherry is used to Saira’s refusals to bring Alma in. Silly – but Cherry is pretty sure she understands. Alma is a goddess, and Saira is not used to being anything less than the most capable person in the room. When Alma is present, that’s when Saira is most prone to pushing herself too hard and bringing on the very seizures she most wants to avoid in front of her healer.
Cherry might be stronger and considerably faster than most humans, she might have sharper night vision and smell and hearing, but she’s no fighter. Saira knows she’s better, far better than Cherry in the area that matters to her most: ending lives. That will always be true. Even when she was drifting in and out of a coma, Saira could probably have killed someone who tried to attack her. – whereas Cherry doubts she could kill someone even to save her own life. Maybe to save one of her siblings, but herself? Probably not.
And somehow that makes it all right for Cherry to see Saira weak.
At least, this is what Cherry has pieced together from her time as Saira’s nurse. Guesswork and assumptions based on the wisecracking assassin’s jokes that might or might not contain pearls of truth, and the rare moments when body language and scent have made Cherry think, Surely she’s being for real this time, are all she has to go on.
The shakes begin to pass, and Saira regains control over her breathing. “Demons in Hell…raios os partam…” Saira takes a deep breath and lets it out with a shudder. “It’s over.”
“How you feelin’, sweetie?”
“Like I have a full body cramp,” Saira complains. “But I’m gettin’ used to it. And it’s not as frequent as before.”
Cherry helps Saira rise back to her feet. “Well you don’t havta be gettin’ used to it, sweetie. It’s gonna go away.”
“Better go away,” Saira mutters. “Want my body back, my freedom back. Feel like a prisoner here.”
Cherry can feel the taller woman’s muscles still twitching. She speaks gently. “Yeah… you just trust Alma. She’ll get you back on your feet.”
Saira shakes her head against Cherry’s shoulder. “Why she’d want that, I’ll never understand. Right…bath.”
Cherry stands, once again helping her to her feet and then into the bath, the Bunny preceding Saira, the body-temperature water up to her warm brown thighs, almost reaching the high-cut, very tight cream-colored shorts. “Lemme just help you. All right, ease into that bath, hon.” Saira reclines into the pool, sighing with pleasure as she sinks into the water, completely submerging herself briefly and then rising to lie chin-deep.
Cherry pulls off her shirt over her head, and then unbuttons her shorts and slides them down, not minding that they get partly soaked as she steps high to get out of them before she tosses them aside to land on top of the shirt.
Saira smiles at the Bunny before closing her eyes, silent, the heat slowly finding its way through strained muscles still threatening to cramp and into her bones.
Cherry swims to the edge of the pool and hauls herself up to sit next to Saira. She uses a bowl to ladle water over Saira’s head, massaging her hair to soak it thoroughly, then pumps a couple of squirts of shampoo into her palm from a blue-glazed ceramic bottle. She swings a leg around so she’s sitting directly behind her patient, and starts to shampoo Saira’s light-brown hair, eliciting a groan as Cherry massages the assassin’s scalp with her strong fingertips. She moves to Saira’s neck and shoulders, prompting the human woman to sit up and lean forward to make it easier for Cherry to reach.
“So…what’re gonna do once you get outta here?” Cherry asks. “I’m not totally clear on what your job is.”
“Gonna go back to my old life. Killing Dukaines and getting paid for it. Oh yeah…there, that’s soooo good.”
Cherry shakes her head at the strangeness of all this. “How much you get paid for killin’ people, huh?”
“Hey don’t stop. Mmmm yeah. Depends on the target. But I don’t kill for hire unless the pay is good. And I don’t need much, really. Just enough for equipment and to feed my mouth.”
“Nice to get some cash for people you were gonna kill anyway, I guess.” Cherry can’t help but let her queasiness for violence creep into her voice, despite the multiple attempts by the Dukaines to kill her and her loved ones. But then the memory of her beloved Rosemary being dragged away by a Dukaine demigod flashes to mind. Merri, a barbed chain wrapped around her leg, her hands slipping from Cherry’s and the scream of despair…
Saira rests a hand on Cherry’s knee. “Hey, you went all quiet there, sunshine.”
Cherry shakes off the memory and pats Saira’s forearm where it lies along her own thigh. She can’t help but notice, in contrast to her darker skin, how pale Saira has become from her enforced sequestration. “Just…bad memories. Anyway, you were sayin’?”
Saira turns her head to look up at Cherry, squeezing her knee again. “I’m a pro and people know it. The right people, that is. And as soon as I’m outta here, I’ll be on my own.” She looks away from Cherry again, smiling like a puma. “Just running free out there.”
Cherry gently draws Saira back, using a bowl to lave water over the shampooed hair. “Hey now…relaaaax. Come on, sweetie, just enjoy the bath. You’re gonna get all wound up, and you know what happens then.”
“Fine…” Saira releases Cherry’s knee and splashes her hand against the water in bitter frustration, but lies back to rest her head on the Bunny’s thigh as Cherry begins to work a conditioning cream into Saira’s hair. She mutters, “It’s what I get for helpin’ people. Knew I should have stayed away from the blueshirts.”
“Well that’s as may be, but hon, you saved our Sage. And all them kids. And we love you for it. We truly do.” Cherry rinses Saira’s hair again, then slides into the bath next to her and kisses her chastely on the cheek, before dunking under and wetting her own voluminous, loosely curled afro, then rising to start shampooing it herself.
Saira pulls the Bunny in front of her and starts matter-of-factly working the shampoo into Cherry’s hair, careful not to get suds into the long, black-furred ears. “Well, that’s nice and all. Just feels a bit unnatural to me. I should be doing my best to stay away from this place, not be staying here as a guest. And in the best room of the whole station. I mean look at it!” She gestures at the room, flinging water and suds in an arc across the floor. “Oops.”
Cherry laughs, one of her big brown eyes closed against suds. “Yeah, Alma’s sure got some amazin’ taste. Merri and I love our little room together, but we sleep in here at least once a week. We just try to, y’know, be quiet-like.”
Saira chuckles. “Guess that’s why she never brings anyone in here. Place is always full. Always at least one of the kids comin’ in here.”
“We are tryin’ to give her a little more privacy. What with Dion and all. But sometimes we just gotta all be together. Just…feels right, y’know?” Her ears twitch lower. “And Alma was gone for so long, too.”
Saira dumps water over Cherry’s head to head off gloomy thoughts, causing the Bunny to protest and shake her head hard, to get water out of her ears. “Yeah,” Saira says, “I guess I do. So…why a bar? Kinda crazy, a Guardia station with a bar.”
Cherry splutters, “Hey, watch the ears!” then laughs. “Well, I guess that is crazy. But see, me and Merri, we had a bar, before…in our dream life.”
Saira looks at her curiously. “Dream life? How does that work?”
“Well…” Cherry starts slowly. “I can’t say I totally understand it myself, but we lived in the land of dreams most of our lives, growin’ up. But us Bunnies don’t start thinkin’ in words and such as early as humans do. For us it happens suddenly, like flippin’ a switch on. I remember back to when Merri and me were, what, maybe Tulip’s age? And…well, some things happened, and then we got adopted sorta kinda by the woman that owned a bar, and…well some things happened and when we were about twenty we…inherited the bar.” During this description, Cherry hesitates, glossing over bad times and difficulties.
“Sounds like a pretty good dream,” Saira murmurs, standing to soap and scrub her body. “Never had those before.”
Cherry stands as well, to clean her own body and to scrub Saira’s back. “It was mostly good. We had each other. And sometimes we had friends.” Her words fade into sadness.
Saira glances at her over her shoulder and down at Cherry. “Don’t wanna talk about it?”
“It’s all gone now,” Cherry says, ears back in sorrow. “Those people, they were dreamin’ too, if they existed at all. Maybe…maybe some of ‘em remember us. But it’s behind us. We got a life here to build now, and to live.”
“And what a life.” Saira turns and puts her hands on Cherry’s shoulders. “Got a family, goddess for a mom, new clients…and you still have each other. I’d say you got the good end of the deal, there, sunshine.”
Cherry smiles, looking up at Saira. “Yeah, we did. And you know, sugar, you’re always gonna be welcome here.”
Saira tilts her head with a half-smile. “Eh… I’m not really the type to hang out much with the good guys.”
“That’s funny. Everything I seen of you, you’re one of ‘em.”
“You ain’t seen some of the bad parts. Life’s not really gone easy on me.” Saira strokes one of Cherry’s long ears, smiling sadly. “But I have to say, I like you, Fluffy Ears.”
Cherry closes her eyes in pleasure, reminding herself that Saira probably doesn’t know just how good it feels for a Bunny to have her ears stroked. She’s a patient, Cherry reminds herself. No matter how much you wanna, no makin’ a play for a patient. Opening her eyes, she says, “I like you too, sugar. Now, you wanna get outta this bath, I’ll give you the best massage you ever had.”
“Better than the last one?” Saira says skeptically. “Cause that one was damn good. Were you a pro at that in the dreams?” She starts climbing out of the bath.
“As a matter of fact, I was,” Cherry says. “Hey, now, lemme help you!”