The well wishes from the Bunnies go on for some time, but finally Sky and Mayumi can close the door to the bar, leaving them alone in blessed silence in the breezeway. Sky looks at Mayumi, leaning against the door as if holding it closed against prisoners trying to escape, and they both start laughing.
Mayumi says, “They really did need to see you before you disappear for a week.”
Sky takes her hand. “Thank you. I probably would have forgotten… Intellectually I know I’ll be gone for several days, but to me it’ll seem brief. Just overnight, really. I have to remind myself that it won’t be that way for others.”
Mayumi steps away from the door and walks with him slowly down the breezeway. “So…we should say goodbye, hm?” She looks up at him, and he stops, drawing her close, bending down to her as she pulls herself up to meet his lips with her own. He straightens, easily lifting her off her feet. She wraps her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck. He moves one hand to her thigh, the other remaining on her back. She is the tallest of the Bunnies, but still quite far from tall by human standards, whereas he must duck through doorways, and though she is compactly muscular he barely notices her weight.
They are very different indeed, he thinks, and height is the least of it. Does this make sense? Does it ever? He is frightened by the intensity of his feelings for her, an intensity he has felt only once before. He had been certain he would never feel it again. Will it last? Is it nothing but a side effect of this strange eruption of emotion through which I’ve been thrashing ever since arriving in Three Rats?
If it is more than that, then he will have to do as he did before, over a century ago on Earth. He will have to tell her his most closely held secret. Just as the Oracle told him he must, regarding Alma and Dion, but surely he must tell Mayumi if they are to find true intimacy. The thought of revealing his true nature to someone terrifies him. Mayumi will reject him, he is sure. She will be horrified, disgusted.
But then, Laura accepted him. Perhaps Mayumi will too.
Mayumi pulls back, wearing a sardonic expression, her arms still around his neck. “You seem like your mind is on something else. Falling asleep in the middle of a kiss?”
He looks apologetic toward her. “I had better get home.”
She searches his eyes for a long moment, her face becoming serious. “Sleep like a stone, and wake with a clear mind. Shall I walk with you?”
He shakes his head. “Stay with your family. I don’t want you walking back alone, especially not through my neighborhood.”
“Everyone there knows you,” she points out. “And they know I am under your protection.”
“That doesn’t guarantee your safety,” Sky admonishes. “To some, it makes you more of a target. Stick close to the station.” He shifts his hand from her leg to let her straighten and to slide down to stand on the pavement once again. She releases him, still studying his face, then sighs and hugs him around the waist, pressing her cheek against his chest. He holds her gently.
“It’s good not to rush,” she murmurs. “I love this slow unfolding. But…”
“I know,” he almost whispers. The desire to bring her home with him, to reveal his hidden pocket-universe home, to tell her that he is no god at all, but very much the opposite, almost overwhelms him, and he holds her tighter, knowing he is in no state of mind to make such a decision.
She squeezes him back. “We’ll be all right.”
He nods and releases her, resting his hands on her shoulder. “Go on. Back inside.”
She nods. “Oyasuminasai,” she whispers. Have a good rest.
“Ki wo tsukete,” he whispers back. Be careful.
She smiles. “You can’t say that to the person staying behind. Only to the person who is leaving.”
“I don’t care,” he says softly. “Tell me you’ll be careful. So that I can sleep.”
Her cheeks flush and she blinks, touched at his concern. She has to take a breath before she can say, “I promise. Now go sleep. I would stand here watching you go but I think you’d never leave, so…” She steps back, gives him one last look, then turns and walks to the door to the station, opening it and stepping through. She pauses, as if trying to resist turning around, but she gives in and looks over her shoulder at him.
She smiles, and then she closes the door.
Sky suddenly feels a century older, as if an enormous weight were settling on his shoulders. The need to sleep increases rapidly, and he almost trips over his own feet as he turns to exit the breezeway. When he rounds the corner he freezes as he hears a small “Ahem” and sees Alma, her back against the station wall, looking at him with some amusement.
For a moment he can think of nothing to say. Alma rescues him by speaking first. “I thought you could do with an escort home. Despite what you told Mayumi.”
He sags further. “Did you hear all of that?”
She looks faintly guilty. “I had not intended to overhear. And I know it is none of my business.”
“I…” He shakes his head. “I meant to talk with you about it before. Mayumi told me she had told you, but I should have–”
Alma takes his arm with both hands. “Come on. You are half dead on your feet. And you don’t need to feel bad. We’ve been very busy.”
“I just couldn’t find the right moment.”
“And it is your business…”
“Sky!” Alma shakes him a little. “It is all right!” She chuckles ruefully. “If she has to fall for a god, at least I can console myself that it’s you.”
He looks down at her in surprise. “That…that’s the nicest thing… Thank you.”
Alma shakes her head. “And you find my words touching. What a strange person you are, Tuma-Sukai.”
They fall into companionable silence, and Sky puts his free hand on one of hers where it rests on his bicep, patting it, smiling as they walk. After a minute, he asks, “Are the prisoners processed then?”
“We are just waiting for them to be ready for questioning. The humans we captured had been enslaving the elementals, it seems, but we’ll learn more once we interrogate them. Gwydion is handling the paperwork and will begin the questioning.”
“Fortunately destroying an elemental’s body does not kill the elemental, merely sending it back to its world of origin. Otherwise…” His voice takes on a hint of regret. “Well, I’m very glad to hear that we freed slaves. I can go off to bed with a lighter heart.”
“Are you ready?” Alma asks.
“Honestly? Now that I’ve accepted it, my body is demanding that I collapse right here and now.”
Alma smiles. “Good thing you have me to walk you there. Or we’d find your snoring body stripped and dumped in the river.”
“You don’t have to do that.” But despite his protestation, he smiles.
She squeezes his arm in return. “No, I don’t. But I am doing it, anyway. And don’t try to argue. It was all I could do to stop Gwydion from tagging along as well. I will never hear the end of it if I just let you go all by yourself.”
Sky laughs softly. “I just talked three Bunnies out of following me home and tucking me into bed. But the place is a real mess.”
“I will see you to your bachelor pad and then you can collapse on your living room floor among the discarded food wrappers and odorous socks if you like.” Her voice is drily amused at picturing the interior of Sky’s home. “But my mind won’t be settled unless I can see you safely there.”
“Alma, I can’t tell you how sorry I still am that you were injured.”
“Oh, stop. I have been through worse. And accidents happen.”
Sky mutters, half to himself, “That oven must have been magical to heat up that much that fast…” He shakes his head. “Anyway, I have another thing to apologize to you for.”
Alma looks up at him, suspicion on her face. “And that is…”
Sky smiles. “Somebody has to be in charge of the station. That somebody is you.”
Alma’s brow furrows. “And why?”
“The simple answer is you have the most seniority.”
Alma purses her mouth. “You do realize I have never been in charge of a station…”
“Neither has Dion. Neither had I until that time that seems both so long ago and only yesterday. Honestly, Edison has by far the most experience running a station of the four of us. But protocol just won’t allow a Popula to be in charge of Dei officers.” He stops and turns to face her, and she releases his arm. “You’ll make a fine commanding officer, Alma. I know it.”
She looks at him and straightens her always-straight posture almost subliminally. “I will do my best. Will you need anything during your hibernation?”
Sky smiles and starts walking again, and she matches his pace. “Merri and Cherry are going to do some shopping for me and have the groceries delivered to my landlady. She’ll leave them inside the door.” He stops for a moment. “Oh! I almost forgot…I’ve sent for someone to come help out for a week. I’m not sure he can make it, though. But you might have some assistance.”
“You certainly are nearly unconscious if you forgot that little detail! Anyone I know?”
Sky smiles. “Well, yes. But I don’t want to embarrass him if he can’t make it.”
Alma shakes her head and they resume walking. “I will keep my eyes open for any stray Guardia Dei wandering around.”
The neighborhood becomes even more dodgy than that surrounding Three Rats Station. Chowringhee Road is not the worst part of Three Rats Ward, but it is not far from it. Even in the daylight, the toughs on the corners watch them, though more with curiosity than aggression. They are both known around here, and not entirely as Guardia: Sky as a resident, Alma as Lady Death, gatherer of souls.
As they near his ramshackle building, stopping at the bottom of the dubious stairs, Alma speaks up softly. “I hope you understand…we are not trying to keep you away. But you have been so tired lately… I feel like I have just been looking the other way while you burn yourself out, pretending not to see it.”
Sky turns to her and takes both her hands in his. “There is absolutely no reason for you to feel guilty. I’ve been ignoring advice from all corners. I know I need to rest. And, well, I am glad we took out these slavers. Just…be careful. Please. I couldn’t bear it to wake up and find…” He closes his eyes, pained by the visions his overactive imagination insists on inflicting him with.
Alma squeezes his hands gently. “You will wake up to normal station life. And to friends waiting to see you again. I will see to that.” She looks at his building. “Really, Sky, why do you live here instead of the station?”
“I know, I know. Seems like it’ll fall down any moment.”
Alma snorts. “Which sounds fitting, when I think of it.” She releases his hands, reaches up, tilts his face downward and, rising on her tiptoes and stretching, she kisses his forehead. “Sleep well and long. And sweet dreams.”
Sky smiles, immensely pleased at her affection. “Obrigado. I’ll be back on duty soon.” He gives her a swift kiss on the cheek, in the local custom, then stands to attention. “You have the station, Sergeant.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” she replies, sardonically, smiling and watching him ascend the stairs to his apartment, wincing as she sees them flex under his weight, until he fumbles for his keys, opens the door, turns to wave. She holds up a hand, and he disappears inside.